01 May, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part X

If you missed it, check out the earlier chapters of Bjarheim's Shadow:


Erik wept into his father’s shirt as Finnar’s strong arms held him close. Erik hadn’t realized it before, but he’d assumed Finnar was dead.

The Brandrinn were all muttering and nodding, their eyes locked on Finnar Rain. He stepped back from Erik, regarded his son with a tight smile, and faced the woodsmen. “Brothers. Is your stewardship ending at last?”

“It is,” Ollemar said. “This boy is the prophesied one.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Finnar said. “Erik, you must have all sorts of questions.”

Erik wiped away his tears and tried to look calm, as if half the group—Kari—wasn’t watching him. “Are you a Brandrinn?” Erik said, realizing that Finnar had spoken to the Brandrinn with great familiarity.

“I was. Once. Brandrinn do not have families. I left when I met your mother. It was difficult. Some have not forgiven me for it.” He was looking at someone; Erik followed his gaze to the dark-skinned Brandrinn, who had shifted his glower from Erik to Finnar. “But I did what I had to do.”

“How did you find us?” Kari said, stepping forward. Somehow she’d never been intimidated by Finnar. Erik took her hand, and she squeezed back without taking her eyes off his Da.

“I was on the far side of Bjarheim. Made it through the wall. Not many escaped.” He shook his head sadly, and sighed. “Went west to the gathering place, and saw your tracks. When I saw you’d entered the forest… I knew you’d end up here.”

“You did not tell your son the prophecy?” the dark-skinned Brandrinn said, skeptical.

“Why would I? You know I never believed it.”

“You should have,” the Brandrinn said.

Finnar grunted. He put a hand on Erik’s shoulder and looked into his son’s eyes. “The Brandrinn are servants of the forest. The forest is the lifeblood of this land. It’s our job to protect it. But the prophecy says that the Mother’s need for us would come to an end, some day. It makes sense, I suppose. Nothing lasts forever.” Like Bjarheim, Erik thought.

Finnar went on. “The prophecy speaks of a child of two magics, who would bring the Brandrinn together in the hour of greatest need. He would use us to defeat a great evil. We would be consumed in doing so. The prophecy never made sense to me. You can’t have two magics.”

“Well, I do.” Erik held out his hand and made a purple glow, and then a green one. Harmless, tiny lights, but somehow they still made all the Brandrinn—even Finnar—draw back a little.

“You do.” There was something tight in Finnar’s voice. Pride? Could Finnar actually be proud of Erik?

And if so, for what? For stumbling around and not getting killed? Some accomplishment.

“What about this Odinson thing?”

“That part I still think absurd,” Finnar said, glaring at the other Brandrinn. “You remember the story of Odin’s three sons, yes?”

“Remember? Those were my favorite, when—when I was little.” It was the only time Erik had ever felt close to Finnar. His Da would come in at bedtime and tell Erik tales of Thor, Baldur, and Váli, the mighty sons of Odin.

Finnar shook his head. “Not the individual stories. The story about all three brothers.”

Erik gulped. He remembered.

“What story?” Kari said. “Father never told me that one.”

“They’re no stories for girls,” Sannfred Fray said abruptly.

“Your girl’s tougher than most o’ the boys I’ve ever seen,” Finnar snapped at him. “Now hush.” He turned back to Erik. “Do you want to tell it?”

Erik looked at Kari, and nodded. “I’ll try. Um… Odin had three sons. One day, they came into Valhalla to find Odin weeping. Thor asked, ‘Why do you weep, father?’

“Odin said, ‘I weep for all the warriors who were not brave enough, and suffer after death in Niflheim. Will you go and save them?’

“Baldur said, ‘We will, father.’ Thor and Baldur and Váli left Valhalla, and left Asgard, and traveled to Niflheim. They reached the great gate of Niflheim, with its door of coldest ice. They pounded on the door, Thor with his hammer, and Baldur with his staff, and Váli with his bow, and demanded entrance.

“The great dragon Nithogg loomed over the gate. He said, ‘Why do you strike my door?’

“Thor shouted, ‘Odin Allfather has sent us to retrieve the worthy souls of warriors gone astray.’

“Nithogg said, ‘Odin Allfather has no dominion here. Begone.’

“Thor scowled at Nithogg, and struck at the frozen door with all his might. But even his great hammer could not shatter it.

“Baldur scoffed at Nithogg, and attempted to pick the lock on the gate. But even with his great wisdom and knowledge, he could not open it.

“Váli glowered at Nithogg, and attempted to vault the gate. But even with his great agility, the gate was too high, and he could not hurdle it.

“Nithogg laughed. He said, ‘You are weak,’ and retreated into his domain, to torture the souls of warriors trapped there.

“The sons of Odin were dismayed. They could not enter Niflheim. They returned to Asgard, defeated, and presented themselves before their father. ‘We could not succeed,’ said Thor. ‘Not with all our strength, and our wisdom, and our cunning.’

“Odin asked, ‘Who is the greatest among you?’

“Thor said, ‘I am, for I am the mightiest. Leaders must have strength above all.’

“Baldur said, ‘I am, for I am the wisest. Leaders must be wise above all.’

“Váli said, ‘I am, for I am the most cunning. Leaders must be tricky above all.’

“Odin said, ‘I sent you to Niflheim, knowing you would fail. Why?’ The three brothers did not know the answer. Odin said, ‘To teach you that you must act as one. When I set you on a task, you are not three, but one. You must strike with one arm, think with one mind, run as one body. The ruling of Asgard demands no less.’”

Erik fell silent. What was it supposed to mean? Erik had always taken it as some kind of moral fable, to not value strength or wisdom or cunning above all else. He’d never felt that he had a surplus of any of the three, though.

“The true son of Odin unites all those qualities,” Finnar said. “He is the one, so the prophecy says, who will unite the Brandrinn. He’s not really Odin’s son. It’s just a figure of speech.”

“Have care for your words,” the dark-skinned Brandrinn said. “You may believe that, but the rest of us do not.”

“Watch your own tongue, Emuar,” Finnar said. “Literal or not, I won’t let you burden my son. Now, we have to be practical. Bjarheim has fallen to the Shadow. What are you going to do about it?”

“Our magic is that of life. It is anathema to the Shadow.” Emuar walked in a circle, arms outstretched, somehow encompassing the whole forest. He seemed to be a leader among the Brandrinn; Ollemar, who had always been so quick to criticize anything the Bjarheimers did, was completely silent. “But if we leave the forest to go to Bjarheim, how will our magic succeed? The forest is our Mother, the source of our power, and the master of our fates. At Bjarheim, we will be weak.”

“You have to do something!” Erik blurted. “We can’t just let Bjarheim die!”

“If you believe the prophecy,” Finnar said, “then you must come together. The forest will survive without you. This is the purpose the prophecy speaks of!”

The Brandrinn grumbled, but none objected, not even Emuar. “Let us ask the forest,” Emuar said finally. “We will all rest here tonight. Tomorrow, we will decide what to do.”

“There is one other thing. The Shadow has sent its servants into the forest,” Ollemar said. “They are coming.”

The other Brandrinn, startled, all looked up toward the tops of the trees that ringed the Vângr. “They are close,” Emuar said. “But… I cannot tell where. Why were we not alerted?”

“Because they are cloaking themselves from you,” rang a voice from the tunnel. Aiar lurched up out of the hole, sweating and looking… frightened.

“I told you not to enter!” Ollemar shouted, alarmed.

“What is a fae doing here?” Emuar said, whipping his staff around and adopting a fighting stance.

Erik ran between them. “Wait, no! He’s helping us!” He looked at Aiar. The fae was clutching his arm, and some sort of black smoke rose off it. “What happened?”

“They attacked without warning. I… I barely had time to raise wards and flee. You said they cannot enter here, Brandrinn,” Aiar said to Ollemar. “How certain are you of that?”

Ollemar gazed out at the ring of pines that encircled the Vângr. Erik saw the green energy still flowing between the trees, but as he watched, something seemed to strike against that barrier, sending crackling waves of light flowing into the Vângr. Erik perceived a distant ringing, as if a colossal gong had been struck.

“That… should not be happening,” Finnar said. He took a step back, unconsciously shielding Erik.

Erik darted around his father and looked again. There was something wrong with the trees. The green energy was still there, but it had changed, somehow. “Are they going to break through?”

“It isn’t possible!” Emuar wailed. The distant gonging sound came again, and another wave of crackling green light sputtered from the trees. Erik looked up. The very uppermost branches were withering.

“What do we do?” Erik shouted. Emuar had fallen to his knees and was clutching at his chest; several of the other Brandrinn had followed suit. Something was hurting them, just as it was hurting the wall of trees encircling the Vângr. Ollemar, alone among them, kept his feet. And Finnar, of course.

“We must restore the shield,” Ollemar said. “Brothers! Come, you must!” He tried to lift Emuar to his feet, but the dark-skinned Brandrinn tore his arm away and fell back, shrieking.

“Why can’t they help?” Erik shouted.

Finnar came over, staring down at them. “They are too attuned to the trees. All of them have been in the forest a long, long time.” He shifted his gaze to Ollemar. “You. How long?”

“Twelve years,” Ollemar said. “I am the youngest.”

“And so the least tied to the forest’s heart.” He took Erik by the shoulder. “You two will have to bolster the wall.”

“How?” Erik said. “I don’t have any idea how it works! All I can do is make little plants grow, or—”

“Ollemar will guide you. He will use your strength.”

“Can’t you do it?” Erik said, near tears. How could his Da expect him to handle something like this?

Finnar shook his head. “My magic is long gone. When I left the forest, the magic left me. It was… Now is not the time. Come on!” He took Erik’s arm with one enormous fist, and Ollemar’s with the other. The young Brandrinn, so arrogant in the past, quailed and let himself be dragged along toward the wall of trees.

Nobody else followed, except Kari, of course. “No, go back,” Erik said when he noticed her.

“Like the hells I will,” she snapped. “Even if I can’t help, I ain’t leaving you alone to that.” She was pointing up at the wall of trees. Erik looked. The branches, high up, had turned to ash, fluttering away in the wind. Dark tendrils probed between the trunks. Something was going to come through before long.

Twenty paces from the bole of a great pine, Finnar ground to a halt. “Here,” he said, prodding Ollemar forward. “You can weave the shield whole again, yes?”

“Y—yes,” Ollemar said. “But not by myself! I’m not that strong.”

“As I said, Erik will provide the strength.”

Erik gulped. He had no idea what was going to happen. He sought the little green light that nestled inside his mind. The violet one was there too, pulsing in quiet counterpoint, unaware of the Shadow lurking yards away, waiting to devour them all.

Erik ignored the violet light—the fae magic would do no good here, would it?—and focused on the green. As Ollemar stepped forward, Erik pushed the green ball out into the air before him. “Do… do what you have to,” he said.

Ollemar took his staff and waved it in the air before Erik’s face. The pattern made no sense to him at first, but then he began to see it: an intricate weaving in the space where the tip of the staff passed, trailing faint green light behind it. The green ball floating before Erik began to glow brighter, and elongate, like a baker stretching dough out for long loaves. The brightness grew and grew, making Erik squint and then avert his eyes completely. It was like trying to look at the sun. “By the gods,” Ollemar said as he continued his weaving.

Erik forced himself to look back. The pattern woven in the air before him was astonishingly bright, but Erik realized that it was not just green. Tendrils of violet light had woven themselves into it, creating a tapestry in the air that made the earlier weaving look like a child’s idle play. The edges of the shield unfolded, growing ever larger and more detailed, delineating runes of power that pulsed with purpose.

Finally Ollemar dipped his staff right into the center of the shield, and with a mighty grunt heaved his staff upward. The whole shield shattered into a million numinous fragments, embedding themselves in the great trees. The fading green light of the Brandrinn’s old shield was replaced by a radiant brocade of emerald and amethyst. The Shadow, just beginning to seep its way through into the Vângr, vanished with a shriek. The tops of the trees were still ash, but the corruption had stopped.

Erik realized he’d fallen onto his knees. But he wasn’t tired, not in the least. “Are we safe?”

“For now,” Finnar said, looking up in awe. “Maybe forever. Can you believe it, brother?” he said to Ollemar, who was leaning on his staff, panting. “Fae and Brandrinn magic, working together. It’s a more glorious work than I’ve ever seen.”

“It… it shouldn’t be possible…” Ollemar pushed himself upright and strode over to the trees. The Shadow’s probing tendrils had made it seem as if there were colossal gaps between each trunk, but now you couldn’t blow a breath of air between them. “The others!” he said suddenly, and ran back toward the center of the Vângr. Erik loped after him, Kari and Finnar on his heels.

Emuar and the other Brandrinn were all on their feet again, gazing about in wonder. The Frays and the other Bjarheimers, of course, hadn’t been able to see any of the magic. They looked terrified; from their perspective, the trees had started disintegrating, and then stopped. “We’re safe,” he said to Sannfred and Gaelle. “For now, anyway.”

“What did you do, boy?” Sannfred demanded. “Are we going to get eaten by the Shadow or not?”

“Not today,” Finnar said. “My boy, and Ollemar here, did an amazing thing.”

Emuar had shown open contempt before. Now there was only amazement on his face. “I… I cannot… this…”

Finnar went to him and put a calming hand on his shoulder. “And yet it has. We cannot deny that which is before our eyes.”

Erik went over to Aiar. The fae still clutched at his arm. The black smoke that had been roiling off it had stopped, but Erik spied angry red blisters beneath his fingers. “Are you all right?” Erik asked.

“I will be,” the fae said, for once too distracted to imbue his words with their usual sarcastic patina. “I saw you using fae magic over there.”

“Ollemar was the one doing it,” Erik protested. “His magic and mine… joined together, somehow.”

“Well. That’s something to consider. But we still have the problem that agents of the Shadow are lurking beyond the walls of the Vângr. We can’t stay here forever, and they may well try to break in again.”

“Not a chance,” Ollemar said. A great deal of his confidence seemed to have returned. Erik wondered if that was so wise. “The shield we wove is a thousand times greater than anything I have ever wrought.”

“That may be, but we are trapped here. And unless someone knows how to magically produce unlimited food and clean water from nothing, we are going to end up with some… logistical problems.”

“You’re all idiots,” Kari said. “We’ve bought ourselves some time, right? So let’s rest and eat what we can.” She looked up at the sky, which was beginning to purple. Erik realized that they’d been weaving that shield for many minutes; hours, perhaps. “We’ll sleep, and tomorrow we’ll figure out how to deal with… them out there.”

Erik threw his arms around her and squeezed. She yelped surprise, but did not break away. Erik was so glad that someone here was concerned with practicalities, rather than bloviating about magic. They all seemed so convinced that he’d made the shield, when all he’d done was stand there letting Ollemar do all the work!

But now everyone, save Kari, was eyeing him with some mixture of awe and fear. Erik the sorcerer; Erik the mighty, came a voice in his head. I’m no such thing! he argued at himself. The voice cackled.


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