08 May, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XI

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


They ate and slept and rose. The sun still shone, the trees still stood. The Shadow had not yet penetrated the Vângr. Erik, Finnar, Aiar, and the Brandrinn gathered together in council. Kari came and sat next to Erik, ignoring the uneasy stares of the menfolk.

“Whoever’s out there is mighty powerful,” Finnar said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get past them, or stop them.”

“I do not know if we Brandrinn are up to the task,” Emuar said. His hostility from the previous day had faded. Now, Erik thought, he just looked worried.

Emuar looked to Erik. “Your power, combined with ours, may be the only way.”

“Could you teach us how to do what you did?” Ollemar asked.

Erik shrugged at him. “I haven’t the slightest idea what I did. I just stood there while you did the work.”

Ollemar frowned. “I wove the shield, but I did not draw the fae magic into it. That came from you.”

“But I don’t know how!” Erik protested, frustrated at their insistence that he was somehow responsible for it.

“Calm, my boy,” Finnar said. “It may be that your magic does what’s needed, without you taking a hand in it.”

“That’s hardly reassuring,” Aiar said. “I should not like to rely on ‘what’s needed’ happening of its own accord.”

“Have you got a better idea?” Finnar asked.

“In fact I have.” He narrowed his eyes at Erik, considering. “That shield you wove yesterday—”

“That Ollemar wove,” Erik insisted.

“Yes, yes. Such a shield could be woven smaller, I presume, to protect people rather than trees.” He quirked an eyebrow at Ollemar.

“I… Yes, it could, I suppose.”

“And it could move with those people?”

Ollemar blinked. “Uh…”

“Such a thing has not been done,” Emuar interjected. “It is im—” He cut himself off. “Here I am, speaking of the impossible, when it sits before me.” His eyes bore into Erik.

“It’s worth a shot,” Kari said.

Finnar grunted and stood up. “I don’t see why not.”

“Now?” Erik asked. This was all moving very quickly. But he stood up anyway.

“Ollemar, begin,” Emuar said.

“Do you not wish to do this yourself?” Ollemar asked. “You are the eldest—”

“I will observe.” Emuar crossed his arms firmly. “Begin.”

Ollemar gulped and turned to Erik. Erik girded himself, and held out his hand, producing two tiny balls of green and violet light. They floated calmly before him.

Ollemar began to wave his staff again, but in smaller, more contained patterns. The shield took form, emitting light so intense that it competed with the sun. Then it subdued, evolving into the crystalline tapestry they’d seen the day before. Ollemar went slower this time, concentrating, sweat beading on his forehead. Erik had time to examine the shield, tracing its intricate patterns in and around and through one another.

“I can’t…” Ollemar grunted and dropped to one knee, supporting himself with his runestaff. The shield floated there, unfinished; its edges began slowly unravelling. Erik tried to will it to hold place, but it was too complex. He could sense the methar in his mind, and the Seed the Brandrinn spoke of, but neither seemed to want to help him. The shield slowly dissipated until it was nothing.

“I can’t make it small enough,” Ollemar said. “It needs to be small enough to contain us, so that the Shadow can’t enter. All I can do is make it slightly curved.”

Aiar strode forward suddenly. “I will assist.”

Some of the Brandrinn snorted. “How?” Emuar said. “You cannot wield both magics, the way this boy can.”

“I have been studying magic longer than the lot of you have been alive, combined,” Aiar said. He turned to Ollemar. “Begin again, when you are ready.”

Ollemar squinted at Aiar, then nodded. He stood and began to weave again. Erik felt the immense power of the fae and Brandrinn magics drawing forth from him, and watched the flows coalesce once more.

But this time Aiar reached his hands out and began to tug here and there at the violet tendrils. “I cannot see the Brandrinn’s magic, directly, but I can tell where it is,” he said.

“How?” Emuar asked, disbelieving.

“By seeing where the fae magic is not. Erik, do you see any gaps in the weaving?”

“Uh… no,” Erik said, realizing what Aiar was getting at. “It’s one solid piece.”

“And thus if I pull like this…” Aiar twisted one violet tendril around his finger and tugged sharply. Several other tendrils jerked toward it; Erik saw the shield buckle slightly, and alarm rose in his throat.

“Wait, no!” he shouted, and reached a hand out.

Where it touched the shield, the violet tendrils and green shoots both slid aside to make room. Ollemar gasped, and Aiar blinked in surprise. “What’s it doing?” Erik said.

“Responding to you. It seems you could do the weaving yourself, if you so chose.”

“But I don’t—”

“—know how, yes, we’ve heard that more than enough times. Still, it is something to remember. Now please, let me work.” Aiar gently pushed Erik away from the shield. He began to tug again, causing the violet tendrils to curve. This made the shield buckle slightly as before, but now Erik watched and waited. The shield began to repair itself, the lines of green light moving to fill in the gaps the violet left behind. With agonizing slowness, the shield started to curve in on itself.

“It needs to be bigger,” Ollemar said, “or it’ll only fit one or two people. Erik, can you give more strength to it?”

“I can’t—” He stopped. No, no more ‘I can’t,’ he told himself. “I’ll try.” But how? He wasn’t doing anything to make the energy flow forth from him. Ollemar and Aiar were drawing it out with their manipulations.

What about the methar? That little node of violet energy in his mind was the source of all this immense magic that floated in the air before him. Perhaps if he…

There was a snap and Erik was thrown backward, onto his rear. The shield evaporated in an instant, exploding in a cascade of emerald and violet light. “Um,” Erik said, his ears ringing. He looked around; everyone else seemed to have been knocked askew as well.

“I grow tired of asking this,” Aiar said, “but what did you do?”

“I tried to… open the methar.” Erik scratched his chin, wondering. “I realized that it… it felt like it was closed.”

“Then let us try again. Whatever you did, do it more slowly.”

Erik waited until Ollemar had drawn the shield in the air again. The young Brandrinn was looking fatigued, but they couldn’t stop now. The shield they’d made yesterday, that had reinforced the trees, still shone strongly when Erik looked at it. Erik could feel the Shadow testing it, probing it, trying to find weakness. It hadn’t, yet… but it was making progress, he realized. It was only a matter of time.

Erik looked at the shield, made of fae and Brandrinn magic. It hung there, waiting. Erik reached for the methar again. Last time he’d tugged sharply at it, tearing it open in some indefinable way. Ollemar and Aiar had been overwhelmed by it, and the whole weaving had collapsed. This time he’d go more slowly.

He slid a mere fragment of thought into it, and began to pry it open, as gently as he could. He could sense the power lurking behind it, and it terrified him, but he couldn’t stop now. Aiar and Ollemar were both watching him, waiting, their hands held out to corral the shield.

The methar began to glow more brightly in his mind. Erik stopped and waited. Things were much as before, but now there was more energy flowing forth. Ollemar yelped. “It’s fighting me!”

Aiar began waving his hands frantically. “Too much… wait, no, I’ve got it. By the arcane! How can you wield so much strength?” he said to Erik.

Erik didn’t answer. He kept his focus on the methar, worried that it would fly open and ruin the whole thing again. Aiar and Ollemar kept working. Ollemar grew the shield ever larger, and Aiar bent it into a curve, folding down the upper edges so that it was shaped like a large, round cake.

At one point Erik’s grip on the methar slipped and a burst of violet energy roared forth, blasting apart one edge of the shield. Aiar grunted and yanked all the threads in that part together, forming a sort of net, to catch the fraying ends and stop the whole thing from flying apart.

Soon, in mere minutes, the shield had grown tall enough and wide enough to encompass them all.

“There are… loose ends…” Aiar huffed. He’d almost doubled over, his hands weaving slower and slower. Ollemar, too, looked about to collapse.

“They need help!” Erik shouted at the other Brandrinn, who had been watching curiously but had made no move to assist.

Emuar glared at Erik. “Do not tell us how to use our own magic,” he said.

“Ollemar’s about to fall on his face! Shore him up or you’re wasting all our time!” Erik shouted. He thought he saw his Da crack a smile.

Emuar tsked and stepped forward, wary. He raised his own staff and touched it to Ollemar’s. The younger Brandrinn fell to his knees and toppled onto his side, and the shield wobbled at the transition, but it held. Emuar blinked at it. “I… I don’t know what to do.”

“Just hold it,” Aiar muttered through gritted teeth. “I’ve… almost… There!” he shouted, and fell to his knees, gasping in the warm morning air. “It should hold. No, it will hold.”

Erik pushed the methar shut, realizing that he’d suffered his own fatigue from concentrating on it. Was magic always so immense and tedious to deal with? He’d seen Aiar work quick spells with no more than a flick of the wrist, but this shield had taken a great deal out of them all. Perhaps it was for the best that various kinds of magic weren’t ordinarily used together.

Emuar dragged his staff around, slowly moving the enormous shield. All the Frays and the other Bjarheimers were standing or sitting off to one side, looking bored. None of them could see a lick of the magic, of course. “What’s going on now?” Sannfred Fray muttered.

“Now, we’re going to get out of here,” Erik said. “We’ve made a shield, one that we can all fit into, and we can use it to leave here and get away from the Shadow. They won’t be able to break it, not easily.”

“This all sounds like nonsense,” Thora said. It was the first she’d talked that day. “Whoever’s out there’s going to kill us. You all know it.”

“You’re free to stay here if you want,” Finnar said. “We’ve got to get out of here and save Bjarheim.”

“Getting all that way with the Shadow chasing us… Doesn’t seem real bright,” Kari said.

“I’d stop them if I knew how,” Erik said. “But they’re really powerful.”

“More than you? Than this?” She shook her head. “I can’t see whatever it is, but as much as you all were grunting and flailing about, it must be something amazing.” She stepped over to him and whispered. “You’re the only one who can stop the Shadow, Erik. I know it.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” he muttered to her. She smiled at him, making his cheeks flush. “Well we need to see whoever it is out there, before we can figure out how to stop them. So let’s get going.” He addressed everyone else. “Everyone, huddle in around Emuar. He’s carrying the shield now. Don’t get more than two armspans from him.”

“To the hells with you all,” Thora said, plopping herself on the ground and looking away.

Ilvha, the young mother, looked torn. “I… my boy… Will it be safe?”

“No,” Finnar Rain said. “The Shadow is trying to kill us. If you stay here, it may follow us instead. Or maybe it will keep trying to break in.”

“We can’t all keep running forever,” Sannfred said. “We’re worn out as it is.”

Gaelle looked up at her husband. “I believe in Erik. You should too.” She nodded at Erik. “We’ll be coming with you.” Sannfred threw his hands up and started muttering angrily to himself, but nodded at Erik.

Thurgald and Ludwin and Cesja agreed to come too. Thora stayed resolutely put on her rear and would not look at any of them. Emuar and the other Brandrinn had no qualms about leaving her behind. Erik, despite her incessant hostility, hoped Thora would be all right.

The Bjarheimers crowded around Emuar, making the Brandrinn look uncomfortable, but he said nothing. The other Brandrinn, and Aiar, arranged themselves in a ring near the edge of the shield, since they could see its extent. Erik and Finnar walked in the front. Finnar couldn’t see the shield, but he stayed by Erik’s side, his huge hand on Erik’s shoulder. Erik had felt that touch before, and it usually meant incipient punishment. Today, in the forest, under attack by the Shadow, it reassured him.

“Let’s go.” They wouldn’t be able to maintain their formation in the tunnel, so instead they went to the far edge of the Vângr. All the Brandrinn save for Emuar came together and raised their staves to touch one of the trees. With a great creak and cracking of wood, it began to twist out of the way, so slowly that it was a good ten minutes before Erik could see anything past it, and another ten until there was enough room for a single person to pass.

This presented a logistical difficulty. Emuar placed himself just adjacent to the gap, so that everyone else could, one by one, pass through it, without leaving the edge of the shield. Erik insisted that everyone else go first, and then followed Emuar, squeezing through the gap. On the other side, everyone was crowded back against the trees, so Emuar pushed through to the first open area he could reach, and let everyone else rearrange themselves.

Erik watched the forest around them. There was no sign of the Shadow here. It had been on the other side of the Vângr; he could still feel it. But it was moving now. It knew they were trying to escape. “It’ll be here soon unless we keep moving,” he said.

Ollemar looked back. “It… it will catch us no matter what. Pray to the Mother that this shield holds.”

“It will,” Erik insisted. “It has to.”

Finnar glanced at his son; Erik only caught a moment of the look, but what he saw of it chilled him.

The Brandrinn took turns holding the shield. It seemed strong enough to maintain its form when none of them were prodding it along with their runestaffs, but no one wanted to take the chance that it would dissipate if left alone.

The trees of the forest were, thankfully, spread far enough apart to make travel relatively easy. It was still slow going, since everyone had to shuffle along at exactly the same speed. There was no room for wandering.

“Where exactly are we going?” Kari asked as the colossal tree-wall of the Vângr disappeared behind them.

Finnar shared a look with Emuar. “Out of the forest.” He gave no more than that. Erik could tell by his clipped tone that Finnar wasn’t feeling particularly forthcoming.

They trod along for a while. Erik began to feel the back of his neck itching. He kept glancing back through the woods, but saw nothing.

After a while they stopped to rest and eat what they could—gathering food proved difficult as well, since the shield frightened away all game, and no one wanted to leave its safety behind. Ollemar and the other Brandrinn gathered what nuts and roots and berries they could find. It was better than nothing, but Erik’s stomach rumbled.

He kept glancing back as they sat, and even when they started moving again. Then he felt a sharp stabbing in his neck, as if something had pierced his skin—but when he reached his hand up, there was no wound, no blood. He looked back. The forest seemed darker, or maybe the canopy here was thicker, or perhaps the sun was just starting to descend?

But the darkness grew faster than he knew it should. He heard a cry and saw that several of the Brandrinn stared back the same way. “It’s coming,” Ollemar said.

Emuar had the shield just now. Everyone turned to look. The darkness had made the furthest trees all but invisible, and it was spreading. A black mist slithered around roots and rocks, creeping up the trunks of the great pines, seeking and probing.

“Let’s hope the shield—” Aiar cut off as the nearest tendril of the Shadow formed itself into a spear and thrust itself at them. Erik flinched as the tendril crashed into the shield, sending waves of sparkling green and violet light coruscating into the air. The tendril ricocheted away, and wavered, looking confused. Then instantly it vanished, and was replaced by another, and another, hammering at the shield.

“The shield isn’t going to hold forever!” Emuar shouted between attacks. “We’ve got to run, or fight!”

Erik peered out past the shield. Amidst the flailing tendrils of black smoke, he saw something man-shaped between the trees. It had wild black hair and wore tattered rags, but Erik could feel immense power radiating from it. Three other, lesser shapes lurked near it, like half-seen ghouls in a dream, their red eyes piercing the fog.

The black shape lifted its head and smiled, and with horror Erik realized that it was Remy Thurain.


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