28 May, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XIII

Sorry this one's late—the usual excuses, etc.

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


No one batted an eye at Aiar’s pronouncement. Erik heard no shouts of “Impossible!” Emuar’s eyes had gone wide, then narrowed, considering. Ollemar furrowed his brow and looked down at the ground. Finnar ground to a halt and set Erik down, and the rest of the party stopped for a breather.

“You cast great doubt upon our prophecy, and now you mean to expand it?” Ollemar said after a while.

“I could not possibly care less for your metaphysics,” Aiar sniffed. “I am simply extrapolating based on what we have seen. The Shadow that attacked us—”

“It was Remy,” Erik interjected. His legs still felt weak, but he could at least stand up without falling over. He sat down anyway and rubbed at his muscles, hoping that would do some good.

“Indeed. When we fought back with two magics, he did—whatever that was, that trick with the shadows. A desperate move, for it seems he destroyed himself on a gamble to annihilate us. And yet our attack against him did not destroy him, though it did seem to do great damage.”

“Tossed us ass over teakettle,” Kari said.

“Such a way with words,” Aiar said, crouching down upon a fallen log. “He batted aside the first attack, which I gather consisted solely of forest magic. Our second strike combined both Brandrinn and fae magic. It did damage, but did not destroy him. And yet he panicked and sacrificed himself. If that attack did not defeat him, does it seem likely that it would be able to defeat the Shadow that enveloped Bjarheim?”

“It might, if we had time to weave something greater. The shield we wove at the Vângr was immense compared to any other magic I’ve ever seen.”

Aiar shook his head. “I do not think it would work. I think we need an ironspeaker to complete the weaving.”

“Even if that were correct, where are we going to find an ironspeaker?” Emuar tapped his staff irritably on the ground, and Erik saw that the elder Brandrinn kept staring back through the trees toward where Remy had obliterated them. “I thought they were all in Bjarheim. Finnar, you said none escaped.”

“All of them are in Bjarheim… except one.” Finnar paused, considering his words. “Djalgand Skaldi lives in the north. Djalgand the Skysinger, they call him.” He stared around at everyone. “Other names, too.”

“Who is he? Why did he leave Bjarheim?” Erik said.

“I’m not sure. It was before I left the forest. Master Halgrin wouldn’t speak of it, and I only ever heard… rumors.”

“I have heard this name,” Emuar said. “Powerful, and dangerous. He seems to be a man out of legend.”

“He’s real,” Finnar insisted. “And we’ve got to find him.”

Aiar snorted. “Presumably you have a better lead than simply ‘north.’ The north is quite vast, you know.”

“He lives somewhere in the… the Styggen.”

Emuar jerked upright. “Are you insane?”

“That’s what Halgrin told me! I wasn’t about to call the man a liar to his face. And anyway, what choice do we have?”

Erik blinked. “What’s the Styggen?” He looked around. All the grown-ups looked sick, or angry, or frightened.

Finnar seemed to be grasping for words. No one wanted to speak. Finally Aiar came and sat next to Erik. “The Styggen is a frozen waste in the north.”

“What’s so scary about that? And why would this Djalgand want to live there?”

“What’s scary about it is that the Styggen used to be a paradise. Well, as paradisiacal as the frozen north can get. There was a war there, centuries ago, a war of magic. Even before my time, which gives you some idea. Besides its general inhospitability, the whole place is considered cursed.” He eyed Emuar. “I will not speculate on the intelligence of any man who gives such rumors credence.”

The Brandrinn ignored him. “If this ironspeaker is in the Styggen… I would wonder how he was still alive.”

“Well if he is, we’ve got to find him,” Erik demanded. “Why are we just sitting around here?”

They reached the edge of the forest two days later. There they found a small farming community nestled against the forest’s edge, spilling out into the plains beyond. These folk knew the Brandrinn, and were willing to help feed and house the Bjarheimers for a while. Kari would be remaining here along with her parents, Sannfred told Erik. Gaelle had hustled her away in the confusion of their arrival in what passed for the town’s square. Erik tried to argue but Sannfred turned and stalked away, and then Finnar was suddenly dragging Erik in the other direction.

They found the Brandrinn gathered on the road leading back toward the forest. Aiar stood near them, but distinctly apart, eyeing the men coolly. Even after all that had happened, the fae still did not seem to quite trust the woodsmen.

“We cannot leave the forest for long,” Emuar said once Erik and Finnar arrived. Erik still kept glancing back, hoping Kari had somehow escaped, but there was no sign of her.

Finnar smacked him on the shoulder. “Pay attention.” Erik grumbled and turned around.

“We’ve been tied to the forest for years. Decades, in some cases,” Emuar went on. “To leave the forest for long would drive us mad.” He looked at Ollemar. “Except you, brother. You are still young.”

Ollemar ducked his head. “I will travel with them?”

“Yes. Once you find this ironspeaker—if you find him—go to Bjarheim and… help them.”

“What about you? The prophecy says that Odinson will bind all of us. If you are here—”

“I know what it says! Let the prophecy worry about itself.” Emuar tapped his staff irritably upon the dirt. “It matters not, unless you find the ironspeaker.”

“We will,” Finnar said. “Aiar, will you accompany us?”

“Indeed,” the fae said, tilting his chin up but keeping his gaze steady on Erik. “Someone has to keep the boy from blowing himself up.”

Emuar snorted. “Then it is settled. Ollemar, and Finnar, and the fae will escort the boy north to find the ironspeaker.”

“Just four of us?” Erik said, nervous. “What if the Shadow attacks again?”

“More warm bodies will do you no good,” Emuar said. “Your magic will be all that can protect you. And from what I have seen, you are quite well-prepared on that front.”

“Horses would be welcomed,” Finnar said, almost absently. “It’s a long way to the Styggen.”

Emuar snorted. “Has city life made you soft? Your feet were good enough when you were with us in the forest.”

“I am not in the forest, and my concern is not for my feet. My concern is for time.”

Emuar shrugged. “The farmers do not have beasts to spare.”

That put an end to the conversation. The Brandrinn had gathered together what amounted to a week’s worth of provisions for Erik, Finnar, and Ollemar. Aiar insisted that he did not need anything, triggering some skeptical looks from the Brandrinn, but they weren’t about to go out of their way to help a fae who didn’t want it.

It was nearing evening by this point, so Erik and Finnar were sent to sleep in a nearby barn. Ollemar returned to the forest for the night, promising to return at dawn. Aiar showed up not long after Erik and Finnar had lain down to sleep, saying that he preferred the indoors. He burrowed under some hay and went silent.

Erik could not keep his eyes closed, even though it was dark. “Da?” he asked softly, after several minutes of listening to cows snoring.

“Hm?” Finnar sounded sleepy, but Erik’s Da slept like a rock. He wouldn’t have replied if he actually was asleep.

“Emuar said that Brandrinn can’t leave the forest or they go mad. How did you leave?”

It was so long before Finnar replied that Erik thought he might have fallen asleep. But finally his Da sat up and stared at him in the darkness. There was barely enough reflected starlight to make out Finnar’s silhouette against the wall. “I left because I wasn’t any use to them any more. I… lost my magic.”

“How? I didn’t know that was possible.”

“That’s a story for when you’re older, lad.”

“How much older do I need to be? We’re being chased by the Shadow! Isn’t that enough?” Erik could tell he was glowering, not that Finnar would be able to see it. “I’m not afraid.”

“I’m not worried ’bout scaring you, boy. You just ain’t had the experience to understand it. Now sleep,” he said, and it was clearly final.

Ollemar returned at dawn, as promised, and after a quick breakfast, courtesy of the farmwife whose barn they’d slept in, they were on the north road. The air was still, and the dust they kicked up lingered long behind them. Erik looked back after a few minutes; the scattered farmhouses were barely visible.

It was still summer, but in the north, summer is a threadbare thing. Erik savored the warm sunlight on his neck and arms, until pale clouds swept in and dulled everything. The pack he carried was the smallest of the four, of course, but it felt like it was dragging him back. He resolved not to complain, or even to stop unless the others did. Sure, he could use magic; that wouldn’t stop his Da from commenting if Erik showed that he couldn’t even walk a few miles with a pack. “How far is it to the Styggen?” he asked.

“A week at least, afoot,” Finnar said. “Horses would save us some days, and a lot o’ strain on our feet.”

Aiar snorted, but said nothing. He’d been quiet all morning, perhaps mulling something over. Erik decided that, as their party numbered only four, they’d best get used to one another’s company. “Could you teach me something this morning?” he asked the fae.

Aiar turned to stare at Erik without slowing his pace. “Yes, I suppose I could. Our adventure in the forest seems to have given you some experience. I still would like to know how you made that shield so easily, just before Remy annihilated everything.”

Erik shrugged. “I dunno. It just came to me, like it was obvious. I sort of remember…” He held out a hand and waggled it, bouncing the violet ball around as he focused on the methar. A tiny, feeble simulacrum of the shield appeared above his hand, then dissipated when he tripped on a rock and stumbled. Embarrassed, he added, “And it wasn’t easy. It nearly drained the life out of me.”

“Surely you must have noticed the threads.”

“Threads?” When Aiar said nothing, Erik thought about it. Threads? The fae magic he’d woven, and seen woven… it seemed to manifest as cords of violet light writhing in the air. He could weave such a cord now, even if it would amount to nothing and dissipate when he let it go. Making the magic last, that was another trick he didn’t understand yet.

He stared at the cord. It wobbled and snapped, like a discarded snakeskin twisting in the wind. How was he supposed to examine it if it wouldn’t stop moving? His pack felt heavier by the step; that wasn’t helping his concentration any either.

He tried grabbing at it with his hand, and it simply slithered away, as if repelled by his touch. Stop moving, damn you, he thought at it—and it did, freezing in midair.

Then something slipped, and it started moving again. “I—did you see that? I felt like I was holding it still with… with my mind,” he finished.

“You were, but your grasp is weak. You must practice.”

“That thing, was that a thread?”

“No. A line of magic that bright is many threads, all bound together. You will have to examine them much in order to discern the threads. Working with fae magic is a matter of weaving the threads and bending them to your will.” Aiar sighed. “It normally takes years to master, but I suspect you will have it in a day or two.”

“Don’t give the boy a big head,” Finnar warned.

“As your son, I believe he is already doomed to such a fate,” Aiar said, and laughed when Finnar scowled at him.

Erik continued poking at the cords and trying to make out the individual threads as they walked. The farmland around them didn’t last long; by afternoon the land had grown bumpy, and there were hills on the horizon ahead. When the sun set, they made camp by the side of the road. Erik had not expected much traffic, but he realized that they hadn’t seen anyone since leaving the farms that morning. He didn’t care much; he was just so relieved to put his pack down.

Ollemar was pacing nervously as Finnar stoked up a campfire. “Is something wrong?” Erik asked the young Brandrinn.

As was his habit, Ollemar repeatedly tapped his staff on the ground. He looked as if he was restraining himself from smashing something. “I have not been this far from the forest in some years,” he said finally, not looking at Erik. In fact he was staring back along the road. The forest proper was far out of sight; there were scattered trees here and there, a copse of gumleaf a hundred yards down the road.

“You’ll be all right,” Erik said, not being able to think of much else. “Can you teach me something?” He’d asked Aiar earlier; it was only fair.

Ollemar demurred at first, so Erik pestered him. Eventually the Brandrinn squatted down beside Erik. “You have felt the flow of magic. But all magic stems from life. With practice, you will be able to sense life all around you. It is one of the most critical skills of a Brandrinn.”

“Is it a kind of magic?”

Ollemar shook his head. “There is no weaving involved, no pattern. It is simply something you sense, as if you can hear it, see it, even with your eyes closed.” Ollemar shut his own eyes to demonstrate. “The fae is there.” He pointed, with perfect accuracy. “Your father, there.” Again. “And…” He sprang to his feet and whirled about, staff held parallel to the ground, ready to strike. “Someone is out there.”

Erik leapt up, and in a moment both Finnar and Aiar were beside him. There was someone out on the road, looming in the darkness; he could hear their feet scuffing the dirt and pebbles. “Who is that?” he shouted.

“It’s me, you idiots,” Kari’s voice came back. Erik’s jaw dropped. Twilight silhouetted her, and Erik realized that he’d mistaken her for someone much larger due to the pack she wore. She finally came in range of the campfire, and, breathing hard, dropped her pack on the ground.

“Girl, what in the world are you doing here? Do your parents know you’ve come?” Finnar demanded.

“By now, probably. My Da wouldn’t have let me go if he’d known, would he?”

“You foolish girl, your parents are probably terrified!”

Kari stared at Finnar as if he’d said something particularly stupid. “I left them a note. They know where I am.” She came over to Erik and, with no warning, punched him in the arm. “That’s for going without me.”

“What?! I didn’t know you’d run away!”

She smirked at him.

“…but I suppose I should have guessed, huh?”

A real smile finally flitted across her lips. “Yeah. Dummy.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.

Aiar had no particular care for Kari, but the fae had watched this all with amusement. “And what if your father comes looking for you?” he wondered aloud.

“Then I’ll tell him to go stuff himself again,” she said.

“We’re not going to take her back to her Da, are we?” Erik asked.

“We’d have to waste a whole day backtracking, and another whole day returning to this very spot,” Aiar pointed out. “Hardly efficient.” He glanced at Kari’s pack. “She seems well-supplied.”

Finnar threw his hands up. “Fine. But if you cause us trouble, girl, I’ll stripe your hide from here to Ragnarok, and your father’ll likely thank me for it.”

Kari flipped her hair at him and went over to the fire. Erik exchanged glances with the other men, then went to sit next to Kari.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “But it’s going to be dangerous.”

She smirked at him again. “You think I’d rather sit in a farmhouse for a month with my family? They were gonna put us all to work around the farm. ‘No freeloaders,’ the farmwife said.”

“It’s not a prison sentence.”

She laughed. “It is, compared to going off on an adventure like you are.”

Erik scratched at the dirt with his boot. “I’m startin’ to think that adventures aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Wouldn’t you rather be home safe in Bjarheim?”

For the first time that evening, the smirk disappeared from her face. “I… Of course I would.”

Erik glanced off to the north. The sky was deep azure now, the stars revealing themselves. “We’ve got a long way to go. And a long way back before we can save Bjarheim. I hope…”

“Hope what?”

He met her eyes again. “That there’s something left to save.”


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