15 May, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XII

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


“Odin’s beard!” Kari said. Erik started, not realizing she’d come to his side. “Is that…?”

“Yeah. With friends. What happened to him?”

“This shield won’t hold forever!” Emuar shouted at them.

“Maybe we can weave something else?” Ollemar said. He’d taken up station on Erik’s other side, holding out his staff nervously, as if he might somehow ward off the attack.

“I don’t know how to weave anything,” Erik protested. “But I can give you my strength.”

“Don’t overdo it,” said Finnar, coming up behind Erik. “If you drain your reserves—either of you—someone might have to carry you, and that’ll make things harder.”

Ollemar nodded tightly. Erik gulped and held out his hand again, creating the green orb. He so badly wanted to learn how to wield magic himself, rather than just being a passive vessel for those with more experience—but when would he ever have time, with this constant assault? Aiar and Ollemar had barely been able to teach him anything. He’d stumbled across one thing or another, but none of it made any sense.

Ollemar wove something different this time, something sharp and pointed. He worked frantically, Erik could tell, racing against the Shadow’s assault. The shield over their heads rang time and again as the great dark tendrils slammed into it. Erik thought he heard a crack, and looked up.

Part of the shield had begun to unravel.

“Hurry!” Emuar said, needlessly, as if Erik and Ollemar weren’t doing all they could.

Ollemar had fashioned something in the shape of a cone, but tapered at the broad end. It was crude, with none of the beauty and grace of the shields they’d woven. Ollemar flung it down at the ground, and it slipped into the earth, not even disturbing the soil.

“What was that?” Erik asked. Before Ollemar could reply, the arrow—or whatever it was—erupted from the earth, halfway between the shield and Remy. It arced through the air, spitting off green sparks, and dove toward Remy and the other ghostly forms around him.

One of the shadowy tendrils whipped at the arrow. The arrow cracked and split into a shower of whirling emerald fragments, which dissipated and vanished in an eyeblink. The shadowy tendril had vanished as well, but another replaced it a moment later.

But Remy’s assault had slowed. Slightly. After only a few seconds’ pause, the tendrils came again, attacking once more.

“I don’t think that did much,” Erik said. “We need to combine the magics. Aiar, help him!”

The fae grimaced. “I’ve never made such a thing. Magic of the arcane does not—”

“Shut up and do it!” Erik shouted. “We don’t have time!”

Aiar looked about ready to split bark with his teeth. Nonetheless, he turned away from Erik and began to draw violet lines in the air. Erik pushed his own power to supply Aiar, and Ollemar, who looked frazzled, began to build another arrow.

Aiar strengthened it with his own magic, until it was a solid amber mass; the green and violet energies had become so intertwined that Erik almost couldn’t tell them apart.

Erik glanced back nervously. The other Brandrinn had, perhaps instinctively, surrounded the Bjarheimers. What protection they could give if the Shadow broke through, Erik had no idea. Sannfred Frey clutched his children while Gaelle looked like she would pound Remy with her fists if she got the chance. They all seemed terrified.

Erik glanced at the arrow again. It was completely solid now. Ollemar prodded it with his staff, and it glided effortlessly along. With a flick of the wrist the Brandrinn sent it hurtling toward Remy.

Another dark tendril slashed at it, but this time the arrow continued on, unimpeded, while the tendril vanished. Erik saw Remy’s dark form scrambling to do something, and then—

Everything went green and purple. Erik felt thumps all along his body, and then one final crash as he hit the ground, dizzy. He was lying on someone. Emuar. The light had changed all around them.

The shield was gone.

“We’ve—” Erik wobbled as he tried to stand up. His ears were ringing, and he could barely hear his own voice. Everyone had been knocked askew; he saw blood here and there. The Brandrinn sprang to their feet almost at once, followed shortly by the Bjarheimers. “We’ve got to… got to get the shield back,” he said to the air.

No one replied. He looked at the forest. The shadowy tendrils were gone; a number of trees near where Remy had stood had been blasted to shards, leaving only jagged stumps behind. There was a great blue gap in the canopy overhead. It was the most sky Erik had seen in days.

There was something moving over there. Slowly, wretchedly, a pale hand reached up over a shattered pine trunk. The arm it was attached to came into view, followed by Remy Thurain’s face, streaked with blood and fury.

The other shapes, the ghoulish red eyes that had been beside him, were gone. The shadowy fog had vanished. Remy said something, his mouth moving, but Erik couldn’t hear anything. Maybe he was too far away; maybe he was muttering to himself.

Erik’s companions all watched Remy, unsure if he would try to attack again. Erik thought about making another shield, but Ollemar was leaning heavily on his staff, and Aiar blinked at the sky, looking confused and distracted.

“We should get out of here,” someone said through the haze in Erik’s ears. Erik recognized Kari’s voice. She was unharmed, blessedly, miraculously.

Remy then emitted a great wail, and all the shadows in the forest began to move. Slowly they slithered away from their rightful places and crawled along toward the cleft where Remy stood. Erik’s own shadow detached itself like a dried scab peeling away, and crept toward Remy.

Remy didn’t move. As the various shadows drew close to him, he seemed to grow darker, as if the sun could no longer touch him. Erik sensed a terrible darkness emanating from him. Aiar and all the Brandrinn stiffened, recoiling.

“The girl is right. Go. NOW!” Emuar turned and sprinted away from Remy. No one else had to be encouraged. In seconds, the entire party was running hell for leather in the opposite direction.

A torrent of shadows slid along the ground past them, and toward Remy. Not everyone in the party could move at speed; Sannfred Fray, the biggest and heaviest among the Bjarheimers, fell behind, while the Brandrinn kept in the lead. Ilvha, perhaps driven by a mother’s fierce instincts, was right behind them.

Kari could easily have kept pace with the Brandrinn, but she slowed to keep pace with her father. Erik did too. Aiar had recovered from his trance; with his long legs and loping stride, he could easily have taken the lead, but he stuck in the middle of the pack, exhorting the slower folk to keep up.

The shadows beneath their feet moved ever faster. Erik felt a great darkness growing behind them. He chanced a look back—and tripped, banging his head on the ground. Something sharp stabbed his cheek and he screamed.

Someone lifted him in strong arms—Finnar Rain. His Da slung Erik over his shoulder and bowled onward. Despite the jarring bounces and the pain in his face, the terrifying sense that the Shadow was about to engulf them all grew ever stronger. Erik tried to look up; the Brandrinn had pulled far enough ahead that he could barely see Emuar in their lead.

“No…” he muttered. He knew what was coming. He could taste it, smell it. Where? Where do we go?… There, there it was! “To the… into the… there…” He pointed feebly. “Into… th… that creek…”

Finnar turned his head a little. “What? What are you saying, boy?”

“We… have to…” Get into the creek, don’t you see? It was the only place they’d be safe. “There. Into… the creek!

Finnar finally caught on. “Hey! Over there!” he waved frantically at the Brandrinn up ahead. Some of them slowed and turned to look. Finnar leapt over a rock and slid down the sloping earth toward a little rivulet of water that had dug something of a trench here. It wasn’t all that deep, but it would be enough… it would have to…

Finnar put Erik down as the others followed him into the trench. The banks of the creek angled up sharply, a good seven or eight feet above their heads.

“How is this supposed to protect us?” Emuar said, leaping lightly down the opposing bank and coming to land next to Erik.

Erik sat up, wiping at the pain on his face. His whole hand came away bloody. Not now. “A… shield… I need to make a shield…”

Emuar looked at Ollemar, who’d alighted next to him. “We can try, but we’re getting tired, boy—”

“No—time—” When they did it, they were so slow. Erik had to do it. “I… I have to.” He pulled the methar and the Seed out of his mind, and pushed them together before him. Together, they would be strong. Strong enough… to save them… His strength was slipping away…

“You can’t!” Aiar said. He crouched down next to Erik. “You’re wounded, and you don’t know how to use magic properly yet—”

But he could see it now. The twin globes of energy pulsing before him, the green and violet, were just tools. He started pushing them together, wrapping them around each other, drawing them out into tangled skeins, reinforcing the web. He felt like a child, finger-painting with mud on the cobbles, random patterns that somehow had meaning… A voice, calling out, lilting in the wind… His mother, entreating him to come inside, dear, it’s getting dark out there…

The shield spun upward and settled over the creek. Everyone crouched beneath it. Erik felt his last strength fall away.

The forest canopy, up above the shield, disappeared into a uniform gray mist that grew darker and darker. Erik lay back beside the creek, fighting to keep his eyes open, as he watched it. There came a colossal roar, as if Odin had breathed his great wrath onto the land. The gray mist vanished, leaving only blue sky and bright sun. Erik closed his eyes and smiled at the warmth on his face.

When his eyes blinked open, the sky was still blue above, but a darker shade, as if evening had begun to contemplate its approach. The sun was glaring at him out of the corner of his eye. There were no leaves or branches visible above; and the shield he’d woven was gone.

He sat up into a coughing fit; someone pushed a waterskin to his lips and he drank, not knowing or caring where it had come from. It tasted sweeter than anything he’d ever had.

Erik looked around. Everyone was still there; Aiar stared dubiously at him, while Ollemar and the other Brandrinn crouched a short distance away, with something in their eyes that… Fear? Why would they fear him? He didn’t see Emuar among them. Or Finnar.

The Bjarheimers sat across the creek in a circle, looking weary and frightened. The Frays were all huddled together, gnawing on some sort of jerky, while Ilvha nursed her babe. Ludwin and Cesja lay in the grass, holding one another, possibly asleep. Thurgald watched outward, nervously fingering a stick he’d sharpened to a point.

“What happened?” Erik mumbled past the cotton. He took another swig from the waterskin, then realized with a start why the sky was so blue.

All the trees were gone. All of them.

Kari cradled the waterskin beside him. “We don’t know what happened. Emuar and your Da are out looking.”

Erik nodded. He wanted to go find them, but they’d come back soon. Even after sleeping, he felt so weary…

There was a scrape of dirt. Erik looked up the bank to see his father skidding down it, somehow keeping his huge bulk balanced as he slid down. Emuar followed, stepping lightly. “Good, you’re awake,” Finnar said. “You’d better come look.”

Erik tried to stand but couldn’t; his legs gave out from under him, and he landed hard on his bottom. He tried again, to no avail. He was too tired to be frustrated, but why wouldn’t his legs work? And his face hurt, too. He belatedly recalled falling, a stabbing pain… He reached up and touched it. There was a trickle of blood still. He wiped it on his shirt and resolved to ignore it for now.

Finnar grunted and picked him up. “You need rest, but… after.” He lurched back up the bank, to the forest floor above.

Well, to what had been the forest floor. There were no standing trees for a stone’s throw in any direction. Farther, in some cases. A number of charred trunks lay flat on the ground, with jagged ends where they’d been torn from their roots. The narrow, upper ends were black and blasted, and not a single leaf or needle remained intact.

Finnar carried him along some distance, and Erik started when he recognized the cleft in the land where Remy had been standing. It was a crater, deeper than Erik was tall, and wide enough that Erik probably couldn’t have thrown a pebble across it. The dead, blasted trees radiated outward from it like a sunburst.

“What did he do?” Erik asked, after he’d been staring at the crater for several minutes.

Emuar was nervously stalking around, although there was no way anything could be hiding out here. All available cover had been blown to smithereens. “The Shadow’s magic is not well-understood,” Emuar said. “We… we do not truly know what it is capable of.”

“Did you see how he drew the shadows to him?” Finnar said. “I say he was using their power, to do… this. Whatever it is.”

“But he killed himself?” Erik looked hard at the deepest part of the crater. There was nothing standing there; nothing to indicate that Remy might have survived. Good riddance. “Why would he do that?”

“Maybe he thought he could stop you. But what you did… You saved us all.” Emuar gave a cold stare at Erik. “If the Shadow thinks you’re so important that it will sacrifice such a powerful agent, then you are definitely Odinson.”

“Enough of that,” Finnar snapped. “The boy’s got enough on his mind already.” He turned and carried Erik back toward the creek.

The land all around it was scarred and blasted; but the creek itself, the part that had been under the shield he’d woven, looked untouched. The creek was drying out; whatever had fed it had been destroyed by Remy’s explosion. They wouldn’t be able to stay here long.

Emuar and Finnar got everyone up and moving again. Erik’s legs were still wobbly, so he rode on his Da’s back.

As vast as the devastation was, they reached its edge in a few minutes’ walk, and began to pass between trees that, while charred and pitted on the side facing the explosion, were still standing. “That particular threat is, for the moment, gone.” Emuar rubbed his chin as they walked. “I do not expect the Shadow to stop, though.”

“We should return to Bjarheim,” Finnar said. “We must face the Shadow there, and retake the city.”

Aiar snorted. “Despite young Erik’s power, it seems unlikely that he will be ready to face the Shadow again any time soon.” He regarded Erik sidelong. “Despite my vast knowledge, I have not studied your myths much. Odin is your chief deity, yes?”

“Yeah. Odin Allfather,” Erik said. “He rules Asgard from his great hall, Valhalla.”

“And he has three sons: Thor, Baldur, and Váli.”

“Yes. Thor is the greatest of all warriors, Baldur is the wisest of all the gods, and Váli is the stealthiest and most cunning.”

Aiar nodded. He no longer looked at Erik, but stared up at the trees. “There are only three known magics. There’s fae magic, of course, and the Brandrinn’s forest magic.” Erik heard only a slight note of disdain there. Aiar had made progress. Maybe working magic alongside Ollemar had begun to convince Aiar of the Brandrinn’s value. “And then there’s the song-magic of the ironspeakers.”

“What are you on about?” Finnar said. He was beginning to breathe heavily, carrying Erik all this way, but Erik knew his Da would never admit to fatigue.

“Perhaps it is just a coincidence—though at my age you stop dismissing things so easily. Baldur the wise, a deity who studies and thinks. Reminiscent of the fae, perhaps.”

“Do not think to compare yourself to the gods,” Emuar warned.

Aiar flicked a hand at him. “Then we have Váli, the sneaky and cunning. A hunter, as I recall. That makes me think of the Brandrinn.”

All other conversation had stopped, and everyone listened raptly. What is he getting at? Erik wondered.

“Thor, a deity of might, yes? I believe he is said to summon the very lightning to strike down his enemies. Did you know that ironspeakers use lightning in their magic? They guide it with their songs.”

Erik stared at Aiar. “Thor sings a battle hymn to guide his strikes true.”

Aiar turned to Emuar. “Brandrinn, your prophecy is wrong. Or rather, it doesn’t go far enough. Erik is not a child of two magics. He is going to unite all three.


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