09 April, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part VII

If you missed it, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:
Part I, II, III, IV, V, VI


When the sun rose high, they broke for lunch and finished off the hares. Sannfred led them to one of the caches he’d mentioned: a barrel coated in pitch, nailed shut, and sunk waist-deep in the ground. Concealed as it was amidst shrubs and rocks, Erik realized he would’ve strolled right past it if Sannfred hadn’t pointed it out.

It was crammed full of salt beef, nuts, and dried fruit. Everyone wanted to gorge themselves, but Sannfred—and, surprisingly, Aiar—sternly told them all that they were on rationing until they reached the forest. “You will die here if you waste your resources,” Aiar said.

“You’re bigger than us all,” Thora retorted. “You just want more for yourself!”

Aiar glowered, picked up a single black walnut, and popped it into his mouth. “That is the sum total of my sustenance for today, nitwit. Fae have other resources.”

In the end it was Thora who ended up trying to hoard more than she should. Erik noticed that she’d stuffed a pouch of salt beef under her shirt; when he pointed it out to Sannfred, Thora glared daggers at him. Erik wanted to keep an eye on her, but the looks she gave him were so vicious that he was afraid to stay close.

The Frays weren’t about to abandon a fellow Bjarnheimer out in the wilderness, but they made her walk in the front of the group so they could watch her. Of course she started dragging her feet, slowing the whole party. Finally Aiar came back and shouted at her until she got up to a reasonable pace.

By midafternoon, they’d all begun to fall prey to fatigue. Even Aiar drooped in the heat. Erik looked back when they stopped in a meadow, but Bjarheim was lost behind the hills. He fretted about Da again. Da had been out in the city when the Shadow came. He’d have seen it and escaped. Erik gritted his teeth and wiped away incipient tears. He couldn’t start thinking about it, or he’d never be able to keep going.

As they prepared to get moving again, Erik noticed a spot of ground near him that seemed to have gone sickly and dead, as if the grass had simply decided to give up the ghost. In fact the longer he watched it, the faster it withered. It had started out no larger than his fist, hadn’t it? Now it was half a pace across, and growing.

“Hey!” he shouted, backing away from it. An uneasy instinct made him turn around. Another dead spot, perfectly round, expanded toward his feet. The grass turned brown and then black with horrifying speed. “Look out!”

All over the meadow the circles appeared, withering the once-vibrant grass in seconds. One of the two other men who’d gone hunting with Sannfred, a tall bony fellow named Florr, yelped and tried to stomp one of the spots with his foot, as if he could somehow stop its spread. But then he couldn’t pick his foot up off the ground. “Help! It’s got me!”

Sannfred rushed over and grabbed Florr’s arm, but no matter how hard he pulled, Florr’s foot wouldn’t come loose. The deadness began to creep up Florr’s leg. The color drained from it, the threads of his trousers disintegrated and flaked off, and within seconds the man’s flesh had begun to turn black. He screamed.

Sannfred, cursing, let him go and backed away. The dead spots were everywhere; a dozen or more, no, at least twenty—Erik ran between them, aiming for the edge of the meadow, hoping for safety in the trees. He jerked to a halt as blackened deadness sprouted anew before him. He teetered forward, losing his balance—

Something yanked him upright. He twirled around to find himself face to face with Kari. There was terror in her face that Erik was sure mirrored his; but determination, too, and that gave him heart. Hand in hand, they ran another way.

Erik saw Aiar gesture violently. A streak of violet light appeared, spearing one of the expanding dead spots right in its center. The decay halted at once, but did not reverse. Other spots continued to appear and grow. The fae shouted, “There are too many! Run!”

Kari and Erik made it to a copse at the edge of the meadow. There were no dead spots there, to Erik’s immense relief. “It’s safe in the trees!” he shouted back. The others had avoided stepping in any of the decay, except poor Florr, whose screams had already stopped. He was now no more than a pile of rotting flesh amidst a field of black. The circles of decay had joined together, forming one large corroded morass. At last they stopped growing.

“We should go,” Sannfred said, refusing to look back, and herding the rest along through the trees.

Erik stared out over the meadow, and just as he turned, he saw something moving. Shapes, beyond the meadow. Men. Then Sannfred was in his way. When Erik dodged around the bulky Fray patriarch and looked again, he saw nothing.

The way became steeper the farther they went. These hills, which had always looked small compared to the great Skarstands to the east, now seemed to be pushing up against the very sky.

Erik told Aiar about the men he thought he’d seen. He expected dismissiveness from the fae, but Aiar merely nodded and grumbled. “We are followed. I suspected it yesterday. Whoever they are, they are too few to assault us directly. Hence that awful magic that ambushed us.”

“What was it?” Erik said.

Aiar pressed his lips together. “I have not encountered it before. It is magic of darkness, to be sure. My counterattack was barely able to stop it. There were too many.” He glared down at Erik. “You should be practicing sensing the methar.”

“While we’re bein’ attacked? How’m I supposed to do that?”

“A fool ignores the tools he has available,” Aiar snapped, and loped on ahead, leaving Erik feeling very sure that he was the fool in question.

By sundown, they were all exhausted. Aiar announced that he would place wards around their camp, to notify them if anyone approached.

Erik watched intently as Aiar worked, but he could not tell what the fae was doing. “I can… I can see you doing something. It’s like weaving. But it… it don’t make sense to me.”

“Nor will it, until you have mastered sensing the methar. Now sit down and focus!” He shooed Erik away and went back to his magic.

“I told you we should have gone south!” Thora said, tugging her shawl tight around her. “Whoever it was that attacked us—”

“Shut your damn face,” said a voice Erik hadn’t heard before. How’m I supposed to focus, when everyone’s yelling all the damn time? He realized it was the young mother, who had trouped along with them without a word’s complaint. Her baby barely made any sound either, though Erik supposed that might be because it was constantly suckling at her breast. She hadn’t any spare cloths with her, but the baby seemed content to tinkle into the grass now and again.

And he certainly never would’ve guessed her for fierce. She looked like she’d fall over if a kitten said boo. But Thora, startled by the unexpected verbal assault, irritably clamped her mouth shut and strode away from the campfire that Sanfred and Gaelle were working at building.

It wasn’t going well. The wood here was all damp, thanks to a rainstorm earlier that had just missed them. Erik thought about offering to help, but the elder Frays would probably just yell at him. Instead he looked at the piece of wood that Sannfred was furiously rolling between his hands, trying to encourage some heat.

Oddly, the point of contact between the two pieces of wood seemed… somehow interesting. He’d seen fires made like this before, but now he noticed a tiny orange nodule sitting right at the junction, like a firefly. He crept closer, taking care not to raise the Frays’ ire. The little orange spot ebbed and flowed with Sannfred’s exertions. It was going to take him hours to bring up a fire at this rate.

Instinctively, Erik reached out to the orange nub and pulled.

A bright flash dazzled him, and a flare of intense heat on his face made him cry out and fall back. Sannfred shouted and stumbled back. The elder Fray’s entire arm had caught fire.

Maintaining a presence of mind that Erik envied, Sannfred dove to the ground and rolled his arm under himself. The flames went out quickly, as Gaelle stood over her husband, gobsmacked. “Dear! Are you all right?”

“I don’t get it,” Sannfred said a minute later, once he’d calmed. He gingerly rolled up the charred remnants of his sleeve, wincing at every motion. The skin underneath was red and blistered already. Not an awful burn; he’d gotten the fire out quick. But his arm would be tender for days. “Th’ fire just blew up, like somethin’ spooked it.”

Gaelle straightened up and glanced around, startled. “Is it… the ones who attacked us? Are they back?”

“No,” Aiar said. He’d just come back over from the edge of their camp. “The wards were already in place before that happened, and—” He glanced at the fire, and froze. His jaw dropped open, and after a moment he stared in awe at Erik. “How did you do that?” For once, there was no hostility in his voice. Just… amazement.

“I—I don’t know. I saw somethin’, and I pulled it.” What the hell had he done? He still hadn’t even caught a glimpse of the methar. Had he done magic somehow without realizing it?

Aiar’s skepticism returned at once. “Do not do anything like that again, you imbecile! You could have killed him!”

“But I don’t even know what I did!” Erik protested. “I just—”

“It—it shouldn’t be possible. To manipulate—without the methar—” He glared at Erik as if this was all his fault. As if Erik had been the one to decide he was capable of learning fae magic!

The fae sighed and rubbed his nose. “Be cautious. You must learn to sense the methar, before you kill someone.”

Erik couldn’t help but look back over his shoulder as they walked. Whoever was after them wasn’t going to give up. Erik could feel it.

He tried asking Aiar about the fire, and what Erik had done, but Aiar would not speak of it. “Sense the methar. You must do nothing else until you sense the methar.” There was more than the usual disdain in his voice. He was… worried. And that worried Erik.

So he tried to sense the methar, whatever it was. He tried to look inward as he walked, to see what lay within his mind; but inevitably his thoughts drifted, and he would realize with a jerk that he was thinking about Da, or Bjarheim, or Kari, or just watching over his shoulder, trying to decide if the shadow beside that pine was innocent or not…

Only when they stopped could he focus, because only then could he close his eyes. He rummaged around in his mind, trying to find the methar. He saw shapes and colors; odd geometric patterns flared in his vision when he rubbed his eyes. But it was all ordinary. Frustrated, he punched his palm and decided to give it a rest.

He went to find Sannfred. Mister Fray was talking to Kari in low tones, while the twins raced around in circles, ignoring their mother’s admonishments to sit still. Kari nodded and slunk away, as if in contemplation. She’d been more conciliatory since the night Aiar had shown up, but Erik really hadn’t had a chance to talk to her. At least she wasn’t glaring at him any more.

Erik stopped before Sannfred. “So, erm… do we know where we’ll find a woodsman?”

“The fae says there’s one near, off that way.” He gestured halfheartedly to the north. The hills had begun to descend and flatten a little, and there were more and more trees. Not quite forest yet, but almost.

Erik realized that Sannfred was eyeing him. “Sir?”

“Whatever the fae’s doin’ with you… you be careful, boy, you hear? I know your father. He wouldn’t approve o’ this.”

“I have to,” Erik argued. “My… my mama was part fae, Da said. I have to do this.” He paused. “’Sides, no one listens to me. If I can do magic…”

Sannfred grumbled. “You best be careful with that line o’ thinkin’, boy. If’n the only reason you get respect is ’cause folk are scared of you…” He shook his head, unwilling to finish the thought.

He doesn’t know how it feels. Learning magic would mean that grown-ups would finally have to listen. Erik wasn’t going to threaten them with it, if that’s what Sannfred was thinking! He’d only ever use his magic for good reasons, he swore to himself. Wouldn’t that make others respect him just as much?

The trees got thick enough to become a constant nuisance. Erik saw no signs of pursuit, and no more evil pools of decaying grass sprang upon them. They were in true forest now; but where were the woodsmen?

“We’ll be lucky t’ find even one,” Sannfred grumbled when Erik asked, “let alone several together.”

They’d broken for lunch, not anywhere in particular; clearings were few and far between, so they spread out among the trees, leaning up against the trunks for support. Erik took a risk and went to sit by Kari. He didn’t say anything, and she didn’t either, but she did favor him with a smile. A tiny smile, lost within the obvious despair on her face. It nearly broke his heart.

Everyone ate quietly, even Thora, who had taken up her complaining again, if a bit less forcefully. Thurgald, the other man in the group, sat at the edge, staring out into the trees beyond. He said he’d been a carpenter in Bjarheim, but somehow he also knew a lot about hunting and surviving in the wilderness. He wouldn’t say how or why he acquired those skills. Rather than being evasive, he simply stared at Erik until he changed the subject.

Erik was startled when a thin black line sprouted from Thurgald’s neck, and the man toppled silently over. Ilvha, the young mother, sat near him, nursing her babe. She shrieked and tumbled backward, somehow keeping her child clasped to her breast.

Everyone else lurched to their feet, reaching for whatever primitive weapons they had at hand. Mostly they’d amassed a collection of thick branches to use as clubs, although Gaelle Fray had for some reason brought her kitchen knife, and held it out before her in steady hands.

Erik scrambled over to Thurgald, realizing belatedly that whoever had shot Thurgald would probably now have a clear line of sight to Erik. He pushed that thought away and looked at the dart. It was a narrow reed of some kind, with a heavy, bulbous tip and a tapering rear. It hadn’t gone far into Thurgald’s neck, but the tip was coated with some sort of greenish slime.

But Thurgald was still breathing. Whatever it was, it hadn’t killed him. Erik looked down at the carpenter’s hand. In it he gripped a hunting knife, the most substantial weapon their entire group carried. Except Aiar’s magic, right?

Something tickled Erik’s neck. For a terrifying moment, he thought another dart had found him, but it wasn’t that sort of sensation. He could feel something—up there. He looked up into the branches overhead; clouds of pine needles obscured all but fragments of the blue sky above. Then, inexplicably, one of those clouds resolved into the shape of a man, perched perfectly still atop a branch.

“You up there!” Erik shouted. The man, whoever it was, jerked in surprise. There was something else Erik could see, some sort of—

The man put something to his mouth, some sort of hollow tube. Suddenly Aiar was standing before Erik. The fae’s hands stretched upward. Something flew through the air, clattered, and fell softly onto the earth. Another dart, just like the one that had felled Thurgald.

But it had stopped harmlessly in midair, right before Aiar’s neck. “Come down, you dolt,” the fae shouted up at the man. “We’re not your enemies!”

The man in the branches hesitated, considering, and then leapt down from branch to branch as lightly as a feather. He somersaulted into a crouch on the forest floor.

“Yes, very impressive,” Aiar said. “You are Brandrinn, and we are in need of your assistance.”

“Must be pretty awful,” the man drawled, “if they’re sendin’ filthy fae out to look for help.” He’d put away his dart-shooter, whatever it was, and instead drew a thick quarterstaff from his back. It was inscribed end-to-end with runes of some sort. Erik could, without being able to explain how, feel power radiating from it.

Aiar snarled, the first time Erik had ever heard him make such a noise. “The Shadow has come to Bjarheim,” he said. “We need your help to defeat it.”

The Brandrinn ignored him. “You, boy.” He levelled the staff at Erik. “How did you see me up there?”

“I—I just looked, and there you were.”

The Brandrinn frowned. “Have you trained with my brethren, then? No other could detect me so easily.”

“I’ve never even seen a woodsman before,” Erik said, his heart racing. Did this man mean them harm? Why had he shot Thurgald? “I’m learning fae magic from him.”

The woodsman’s jaw dropped open. The staff slipped from his fingers, and he fell to his knees. “By all the gods… it cannot be now…”

“What are you blathering about?” Aiar demanded.

The Brandrinn’s eyes drifted between Erik and the fae. His mouth worked for a moment. “He… he is our destruction, and our salvation.”


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