17 April, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part VIII

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


Aiar rolled his eyes. “Oh, a prophecy! How quaint. And what precisely is it supposed to mean?”

The Brandrinn jerked his head up. “Do not presume to question our prophecies, scum.”

“I question all forms of nonsense. Prophecies especially. This—”

“What prophecy?” Erik interrupted. Aiar might not think much of the Brandrinn, but Erik had finally met one, and he wasn’t about to allow Aiar to run roughshod over him.

“Yes, do tell,” the fae said anyway.

The woodsman picked up his staff and slowly rose to his feet. “I will tell the boy in detail. Not you.” He gestured away from the group, meaning for Erik to follow.

“Now hang on there,” Sannfred Fray said, coming up. “I ain’t about to let you take Erik off into the woods all on his own.”

In a flash, the Brandrinn’s staff came to rest against Sannfred’s throat. He froze, eyes wide.

“You could not stop me,” the Brandrinn said. “Trespassers, the lot of you. I ought to crush your windpipe and make a lesson of you.”

“No!” Erik said, leaping up and batting the staff away.

The Brandrinn made no move to replace it. “I will not harm the boy. I swear upon my bark and branches. Come.” He strode off, his footfalls making no sound.

Erik started to follow, but a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. He turned and met Sannfred’s eyes. “I’ll be all right, I swear.”

“Don’t go far. Your… your Da won’t forgive me if I lose you.”

Erik nodded, pushing back sudden tears at the mention of his father… but there was a Brandrinn here, and he knew something. Erik followed the woodsman away through the trees.

The Brandrinn had already gone a hundred yards. Somehow Erik could pick him out easily among the trunks, even though his woodsy clothes and his very skin seemed to blend in among them. “How can I see you so well?” he called out as he drew close.

“The prophecy,” the woodsman said, meeting Erik’s eyes and thoroughly ignoring his question, “has been passed down for generations. What do you know of the Brandrinn?”

“Just, you know… rumors, the kind kids spread. You protect the forest, I guess?”

“More than that, but yes. And we work alone. The prophecy says that you will bring us together to save us, and then destroy us.”

“I don’t want to destroy you! And how d’you know I’m the… the one it means?”

“A child of two magics,” the woodsman said, crouching down against a tree. He dug in the soil with the tip of his staff, drawing a ragged star shape on the one hand, and a leaf on the other. “No one learns two magics. But you are learning fae magic, and you could see right through my cloak.”

“You haven’t got a cloak,” Erik pointed out.

“A cloak of shade, of leaves and pollen and dust. It is our magic. It conceals us from all but one another. But you can already pierce it, because you have the Seed within you.”

“The seed of what?”

“The Seed of true-seeing. Brandrinn cannot hide from one another, because we—you—are as one.”

“I suppose next you’ll tell me I’m Odinson walking the earth.”

The woodsman was stone-faced. “That is the second part of the prophecy.”

Erik laughed. When the Brandrinn did not join in, the laughter died in Erik’s throat. “Are you serious?”

“You have our magic, but not our history. Come. I already feel a pull toward the Vângr.” He gazed off into the woods.

“‘Vângr’? You damn well better explain that! I’m damn tired of gettin’ pompous mumbo-jumbo thrown at me left and right. I get enough of that from Aiar! And I ain’t leaving my friends here. And what in the hells is your name, anyway?”

The Brandrinn was quiet for a stretch, as if struggling to decide whether he owed Erik his name. “Ollemar of Three Dawns.” He bowed at the waist. “And you are Erik.”

“How did you—oh, right, Sannfred said my name. Erik Rain.” He held out a hand to shake.

Ollemar stared at the hand for a moment, then gently pushed it away with the tip of his staff. “Your friends are of no use. The Shadow has come, and we must make for the Vângr—it is a gathering of the Brandrinn, in times of dire need. We must leave at once. The others know what I know. They will be waiting.”

“I’m not going bloody anywhere without the others. Especially Aiar. And Kari,” he added, embarrassed that she had been an afterthought to the fae.

Ollemar’s face scrunched up. It was a hard face to describe; plain, almost bland in its featurelessness. Sure, there was a nose, two eyes, all the usual parts, but he was so unremarkable that he might as well have been a crude drawing in a children’s book. His hair was a nondescript brown, the exact same shade as the bark beside him. Even as ordinary as he was, he still looked quite unsettled when he frowned like this. “A fae at the Vângr would be a grave insult to the forest. They are seekers of the arcane, not of nature’s order. I will not have it.”

Erik crossed his arms. “Then I’m not going. And to the hells with your prophecy.” He made himself turn around and walk away.

He couldn’t believe it; he’d come all the way out here to find a Brandrinn, and here he was, telling the first one he met to go stuff himself. But how could he leave Kari and the Frays, and Ludwin and Cesja and… and even Thora behind? They were all he had left of Bjarheim. He couldn’t sever that connection.

He didn’t hear footfalls behind him, but somehow he sensed that Ollemar was there. Erik glanced back. The Brandrinn was following him, no more than five feet away. He looked pained. “Perhaps the prophecy is flexible on whether you may bring… companions… to the Vângr. But that stinking fae may not enter. He can wait beyond the trees.”

“Why do you hate the fae so much?”

“They do not glorify nature, that which sustains us. Instead they squander their magic looking inward, hiding in their caves. It is despicable.”

“Well, try to be nice. Aiar’s been protecting us. And teachin’ me magic. So lay off.”

“As you wish,” Ollemar grumbled.

They returned to the rest of the group, who were relieved that Erik had come back unharmed. “This is Ollemar. He’ll guide us to… a place in the forest, where… something will happen.” He shrugged. “We’ll be safe.”

“What if whoever attacked us comes back?” Kari said. She kept a clear, wary eye on the Brandrinn.

“What sort of attack?” Ollemar said, suddenly interested. Erik and the others described the decaying grass in the meadow, and how it had trapped and killed poor Florr.

Ollemar grew visibly agitated as the story wore on, and when it was finished, he bellowed with rage and whipped his staff down onto the dirt. “Dark magic, used to murder green life! If I meet whoever has done that, I will tear them to pieces! Their blood will feed new growth!”

Aiar cleared this throat. “If you are done with your homicidal tantrum, may we proceed? The Vângr will not wait.”

Ollemar glared at the fae. “How do you know of the Vângr?”

“We fae scum know much, not that you had bothered to ask.”

Ollemar looked at Erik instead. “Certain folk should not sully the Vângr by letting their tongues touch its name. Come.” He stalked away.

Erik quickly tried to explain that they had to follow Ollemar. “It’ll be safe, I swear. If the Brandrinn come together, they can stop the Shadow, and save Bjarheim,” he pleaded, hoping to soothe the visible doubts on his companions’ faces.

Aiar nodded. “He is right. A Vângr does not happen often. We can only hope the other Brandrinn are not quite so irretrievably rude.”

“Boy, this is madness you’re gettin’ wrapped up in,” Sannfred Fray said.

Gaelle Fray swatted him on the shoulder. “Hush. He’s got to make this decision for himself. You were the one what always said what luck it was for a man to be able to use magic! How can you try to stop him at a time like this?”

“He has already begun learning from me,” Aiar said, looming over the Frays. “Even if that leaf-blooded Brandrinn is capable of teaching him magic, it will be mere forest tricks, not proper arcana.” He set his gaze on Erik. “Be wary. The Brandrinn have no care but for themselves and their trees. If they help Bjarheim, it will be to serve their own ends.”

Erik glanced around the group. They all stared at him, some with awe, some with worry. Ludwin and his wife Cesja watched him with wide eyes. Thora seemed to appraise him, as if he might have some value after all. The young mother, Ilvha, had already stood up, clutching her baby to her chest as if ready to follow Erik wherever he might go. Thurgald, the man who Ollemar had shot, was sitting up, woozily rubbing his neck and looking disgruntled.

The Fray twins looked bored as they always did, Jarno tying Kjesten’s hair into knots while she pelted him with clods of dirt, utterly ignoring the drama around them. Sannfred wrung his hands; perhaps he really did feel responsible for Erik. Gaelle watched him evenly.

And Kari. She stood at arm’s length, hands on her hips, looking impatient. Erik sensed something and glanced over his shoulder; Ollemar stood just at the edge of sight, probably annoyed at being made to wait, but Erik could not rush this. He turned back to Kari, and walked over to her. She flinched a little. Erik swallowed, trying to moisten his dry throat, and took her hands. “What do you think I should do?”

“I—” Kari glanced around at the others, but Erik took her chin and made her look at him.

“No. Tell me.”

She closed her eyes, spilling tears down her cheeks. Erik still didn’t understand how Kari—tough, rough, tree-climbing, no-nonsense Kari—had become so distraught. You weren’t supposed to leave, she’d said.

“Tell me,” he whispered, drawing closer. The others were all staring, but to the hells with them.

“I—I had a… Mikal was—”

“Kari, no!” Sannfred shouted suddenly. “We do not speak of that!”

“Let her talk, you fool,” Aiar said. “Can you not see how important this is to her, whatever it is?” Sannfred glared daggers at the fae, then huffed and crossed his arms. Aiar gestured impatiently at Kari. “Continue, girl.”

“When I was… very little, I had an older brother. Mikal. He was… my best friend. And… there was an accident. He fell…” The tears came again, but Kari’s expression was one of anger, not sorrow. “He told me he’d never leave, but he did.” She clutched Erik’s hand tightly in hers. “You have to promise you’ll never leave.”

“I swear,” Erik said. “But I can’t see the future.”

Kari was squeezing his hands so hard it hurt. Suddenly she released him, and nodded once. “Then let’s go.” She strode away toward Ollemar.

The others began to follow. Sannfred, before he went, came over to Erik. “You had best not hurt my girl.” Then he followed the rest of them.

Erik found himself bringing up the rear, and realized that Aiar walked slowly beside him. “You humans are insane,” the fae said.

Erik nodded. “I agree completely.”

“The first thing is to take a leaf and hold it against your forehead,” Ollemar said, plucking a veined, dark-green specimen from a nearby shrub to demonstrate. “Keep it there until you can feel it. Not feel it with your skin, but with your soul.” He handed the leaf to Erik.

Aiar sighed dramatically from several yards away as Erik did as Ollemar instructed. “Like this?”

The Brandrinn nodded. “The leaf is a surrogate for the life of the forest. It is a small part, as you or I are a small part. But the forest is made of nothing but small parts, all joined together in a great linked circle. Understanding begins by learning to see oneself as part of that circle.”

“Magic exists independent of lifeforms,” Aiar declared, apparently having become fed up with Ollemar’s teaching methods. He stalked over to Erik. “We are in its flow, and we sense it. Yes, life is all well and good. Being alive myself, I can hardly criticize it. But magic is not linked to life any more than a bird is linked to the wind.”

“The wind guides the bird just as life guides magic,” Ollemar countered, coming to his feet and staring up at the fae. Ollemar was not tall, but you couldn’t tell it by the fierceness of his gaze.

Erik stepped between them. “I said I’d learn from both of you, and I will. One at a time. Please?”

The fae threw his hands up and strode off into the trees, muttering. “Never find the methar at this rate…”

Ollemar stared smugly after him. Erik shoved a finger into the Brandrinn’s face. “And you, cut that out. I just want to save Bjarheim. All this magic mumbo-jumbo means nothing to me, d’you hear?”

“It means a great deal to the world, whether or not you like it. Now come. Sense the life around you.”

Much as Erik hadn’t been able to sense the methar, he could not feel the ebb and flow of life as Ollemar insisted he would. He still sensed power radiating from Ollemar’s staff; and when the Frays made a campfire again, he could see the little orange spark of energy, floating there, waiting to be tapped by the whirling sticks. But it was all vague and incomprehensible. After an hour of trying, he finally gave up and insisted on being let alone.

Ollemar seemed just as put out as Aiar had been, and disappeared into the woods for a while. He returned with a deer slung over his shoulders. Gingerly he set it upon the ground and knelt before it, putting his hands on it and performing some sort of silent prayer ritual. Finally he drew a knife from the folds of his tunic and began rapidly dissecting the carcass. In minutes, a haunch had been spitted over the fire, and Ollemar himself stood there, turning it.

“Doesn’t it bother you to kill a deer?” Erik asked. “You got so upset about all that other stuff.”

“Killing an animal for food is not the same as mindlessly eradicating life. And the ritual I performed sanctified the deer. It is part of the cycle of life now, feeding me as it might feed a wolf or a warg or a bear.” He gazed out into the darkness. “Whoever was following you is still following you, but they are not near enough to be a concern. They have just now crossed the spot where I found you this morning, and they are on our trail. Your companions are leaving signs as they walk that a blind man could see. There is no hope of eluding them. With my presence, they will think twice about attacking again.”

“Aiar put up wards around our camp, the night after they attacked us. Can you do that too?”

Ollemar grimaced at the fae’s name. “I have no need. The forest itself warns me.”

“You can fight them all yourself?”

The Brandrinn was silent for a while, watching the deer haunch turn over the fire. “The magic you described was very powerful. I would gladly give my life to stop them, but then you would be unprotected. Go now, and rest. There will be food soon, and then you must sleep. Tomorrow we will reach the Vângr.”

Erik did as the Brandrinn told him. He found a mossy spot in a hollow, and was surprised when Kari crawled in to join him. She said nothing, but nestled her head against his shoulder. He wondered what Sannfred would think if he saw them like that. A week ago we were just kids, Erik thought. You wish that were still true, don’t you?

Erik dreamed of flying that night, soaring high over the fields beyond Bjarheim, then gliding down toward his home. The city was unsullied, its towers touching the sky, the slate roofs of its houses glowing in the sunset. But the longer he flew, the harder it became, until it took all his willpower just to stay aloft. He looked back and the Shadow had come out of nowhere; it was gaining on him. It touched his foot, an unexpectedly chill grip, and the land all around him turned to snow and ice. The north, said a voice, sounding as if it came from the glistening white that blanketed the landscape. Go.

He jerked awake. He was vaguely aware of Kari by his side, but his attention was on something floating before him in the darkness. It was a sparkle of violet light, pulsating in counterpoint with an orb of faint green energy. He tried to reach for it, but it wasn’t there; he realized, elated, that he was seeing these things inside his own mind.

“Aiar!” he shouted, heedless of the pervading quiet of the forest. Kari started, sitting up, as Erik pulled his numb arm out from under her and scrambled to his feet. “Aiar, where are you?”

The fae was sitting on a stump, waving his hands through the air, trailing some sort of frail webbing of violet light between them. He shook it away and glanced at Erik. “What?”

“I think… I think I can see the methar.”


No comments:

Post a Comment