20 June, 2013

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XIV

Sorry this one's late too—the usual excuses, plus alien abduction, thwarting supervillains, etc.

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


It was only in retrospect that Erik appreciated the uneventfulness of their journey north. The trip itself was mostly dull tedium.

He should have been distracted by Aiar and Ollemar teaching him to wield magic. But as the days wore on, two things became evident:

Aiar did not really know how to teach someone who learned as fast as Erik did.

Ollemar did not know how to teach at all.

The fae struggled to compress a decade’s worth of lessons into a few short days. He was constantly worried that Erik would overreach and burn himself out, or cause some sort of arcane explosion. Erik would get the hang of something and then want to begin experimenting with it at once. “No!” Aiar would insist. “You must practice the forms more. To rush headlong into advanced magical knowledge is pure folly, as I have repeatedly told you.”

Yet Erik didn’t blow himself up. He had teased out the threads Aiar had told him about. They were the basic unit of fae energy, tiny little lines of violet light writhing in the air. He spent most of a day, as they walked along the decreasingly distinct road, manipulating individual threads and trying to make them do interesting things. By evening he was frustrated with their apparent uselessness. “They’re too small to do anything with, by themselves,” he complained as they sat around the campfire.

Aiar snorted. “Nonsense. It’s only a matter of scale. Sometimes small, subtle magic is just as important as big, flashy effects.”

“How so?”

Aiar stared at him for several seconds. Erik began to feel uncomfortable, then realized that it wasn’t just Aiar’s gaze—something was tickling his neck. He slapped at it, thinking it was a bug, then yelped when a line of fire erupted on his shoulder. He tried to twist away from it, and then it was gone. “What in the hells did you do?”

“That was a single thread, tied upon itself, like so.” Aiar demonstrated, more visibly, in the air above the fire. Erik watched as Aiar formed a thread of violet light in the air and wove it into a knot. Then the fae picked up a pebble and flung it at the knot. When it struck, the knot erupted in a flare of eye-searing light, and was gone.

Erik tried for an hour to duplicate Aiar’s knot. He couldn’t manage it; the thread always unravelled itself. But by the time he lay down to sleep, he could get it to hold for a few seconds.

When he told Aiar, the fae grunted. “The average fae spends a good month on that knot to make that kind of progress.”

“You sound like you’re accusing him of something,” Kari interjected from her bedroll.

“Accusing? No, no. He would have to have actual wits in order to be capable of premeditated malice.” Aiar rolled over and began loudly snoring.

Ollemar, by contrast, seemed to want Erik to learn quickly—but he couldn’t explain Brandrinn magic in any way that made sense to Erik at all. At first, back in the forest, his words had been ominous and mystical. Erik eventually realized that everything the—relatively—young Brandrinn said about magic was so vague as to be useless. “You must feel the flow of life,” Ollemar said, without being able to explain what the flow of life was supposed to feel like.

Eventually, Erik would just try something, and Ollemar would watch. “Yes, like that,” Ollemar would say, or, “No, not like that.” More precision he simply could not give.

“How on earth did you learn magic?” Erik grunted one afternoon as they walked.

“By practicing.”

“But who taught you?”

“The forest taught me,” Ollemar said, as if it should be obvious. “Brandrinn do not spend much time together, even with the newer woodsmen. The forest teaches all that needs be known.”

“Ain’t enough,” Finnar said.

Now there was a curious relationship. Finnar was older than Ollemar, had been a Brandrinn for longer, and had left the forest even before Ollemar had entered it. But he was no longer a Brandrinn, and couldn’t wield a lick of magic. Still, Ollemar usually deferred to him.

“There have never been enough Brandrinn to organize any sort of academy,” Ollemar said.

“There ought t’be. We were too isolated, too aloof. The forest’s important,” he said, holding up a hand as Ollemar was about to protest. “But we got set in our ways, and it ain’t done us any good.”

Aiar, who had been striding ahead, fell back and joined the conversation. “You know, if I’d known there was a former Brandrinn in Bjarheim, I would have sought you out.”

“I thought you disdained us,” Ollemar said.

“I once spent four decades studying beetles. It does not follow that I wish to be one.”

“So they’re like bugs to you, huh?” Kari said.

“Perhaps in intellectual capacity,” Aiar said, a twinkle in his eye. Whatever disdain he did have toward the Brandrinn, there was no cruelty behind it. It was more like a competitive streak.

Erik didn’t say anything. He was half listening, and half trying to spin strands of green forest magic together. Waving his hands around seemed to help him concentrate, but he had learned that he didn’t actually need to do so. If he could master magic without even moving, well, that would really be something.

Summer though it might be, the air grew chillier the further north they went, until one morning Erik spied specks of white hanging on the branches of a pine. By the end of that day the ground was fairly covered in crackling snow. Erik and Kari spent a while tromping around in it, laughing and throwing clods of dirty snow at one another. Sure, they might be on some grand, dangerous adventure; but there was no reason they couldn’t have fun, was there? Even if the grown-ups all muttered disapprovingly. Well, that just made it more fun.

But the relative novelty of snow wore off in a day or so, when they found themselves tromping through it for hours on end. Since the farms where they’d left the rest of the Bjarheimers, they’d seen only one small settlement, a trading outpost that hadn’t been any use to them. This far north, there was virtually no habitation by anything recognizably human. Erik remembered hearing stories of forest trolls as a child, but Finnar and Ollemar and Aiar didn’t mention it, so he kept quiet about it.

The land was quiet here, too. There were a few animals about: snow hares and foxes, snowy owls with their vast wings. Even, once, a family of bears, frolicking in the snow down in a rocky glen. Finnar and Ollemar were able to trap game now and then, to supplement what they had in their packs.

Eventually even the animals stopped appearing, and the trees began to grow sparse. The snowdrifts got deeper, and Erik spent as much time wading through the snow as he did stopping to rest afterward. He began to dread the sight of the tough elk jerky he pulled from his pack for every meal.

Around midday, ten days into their trek, they came to the crest of a ridge, a black and rocky outcrop that stretched out of sight to either side of them. “The Styggen,” Finnar murmured.

Beyond the outcrop, at the bottom of a long, steep slope, lay a landscape even more desolate. Jagged spikes of dark rock leaned drunkenly upon one another. The ice between them was an unearthly blue, smooth and clear, and completely free of snow. There were straight square pillars of stone, lighter than the rock spikes and… thicker, somehow, soaring upward. They looked like something wrought by the hands of men. Not like the spikes, which somehow seemed wrong and evil.

But the whole of it was suffused with a golden glow that Erik had never seen before. It looked like warmth to him, even though the air was as biting as he’d ever felt it. The golden light flowed and banded around the rocky spikes, seeming to move.

“I think I see… some magic,” Erik said, completely uncertain, but tingling with excitement. Here, right here, there was a third kind of magic for him to learn. Somehow, the prospect didn’t feel like a weight on his shoulders, as it did with the fae and Brandrinn magic. He itched to dive into the golden veil and see what it felt like.

“What sort?” Aiar said.

“Not fae or Brandrinn. It’s the wrong color. It’s like… a thin gold curtain’s been hung over the whole place.”

“Ironspeaker magic,” Finnar said. “I’ve heard them speak of gold light before.”

“What does it mean?” Kari said. “What does it look like?”

Erik shrugged. “It’s got no shape, just a big golden flow. Like a river, almost. But if that’s ironspeaker magic, then Djalgand Skaldi must be here! Let’s go!”

He excitedly began to clamber over the last few feet of the ridge, but powerful hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back. “Not yet,” Finnar said. “We need to be careful. A man doesn’t live in a place like this ’less he’s tryin’ to stay away from folk.”

“Well we can’t just leave him there,” Erik whined. He had to go in there. He pulled against his Da’s hands, but Finnar did not yield.

“What’s gotten into you?” Aiar said, suddenly worried. “You’re an excitable youth of an excitable race, but I’ve never seen you this agitated.” He turned to Ollemar. “A trap? Some kind of ward, perhaps.”

“I am forced to agree,” Ollemar said. “To rush in would be foolish.”

But couldn’t they see how important this was? Erik had to find Djalgand Skaldi! To come all this way, only to stop now…

Aiar began waving his hands. Erik dragged his gaze away from the golden ruins below and saw Aiar make some sort of large flat plate of fae energy, as tall as a tall man and half again as wide. He pushed it in front of Erik, partly blocking his view of the valley.

The shield Aiar had woven was vaguely interesting, and the more Erik looked at it, the more intrigued he became. In a few moments, although he was still aware of the valley beyond, he did not feel quite so compelled to visit it. He did still want to find Djalgand Skaldi, of course. And wasn’t it important that they found him quickly? “We should still go down there,” Erik said. “Er… shouldn’t we?” He glanced up at his father, and then at Aiar and Ollemar and Kari.

They all had their eyes wide open, staring at him. “Did you all notice that?” Aiar said.

“Notice what—” Erik began, but then Ollemar swung his staff up and began weaving his own shield. In a few moments he completed it and placed it before Erik, overlapping Aiar’s. All of a sudden, the valley beyond looked like a cold and forbidding place. He could still see the golden light, but it had gone paler now, more like desiccated straw than the gold of fresh flax. “What’s going on?”

Finnar grunted. “There’s some sort of glamor on you, making you want to rush down into the valley. Unless I miss my guess, Aiar and Ollemar put shields between you an’ the gold light. Right?”

Ollemar nodded. Aiar said, “Djalgand Skaldi clearly does not want visitors. I do not doubt that there are multiple wards of ironspeaker magic in place. One, large and powerful, that seems to only affect those who can see ironspeaker magic. Perhaps Djalgand feared that other ironspeakers might come after him. The other wards… Well, we can only speculate what they might do to someone who stupidly blundered into them.” He eyed Erik.

The ramifications began to dawn on Erik. He hadn’t wanted to go down into the valley; some magic had tried to compel him. “If there are other wards down there… we’ll have to get rid of them, if we want to get to Djalgand. But how?”

“You’re going to have to learn ironspeaker magic real quick,” Kari said. “Else we’ve got no choice but to turn back. And I didn’t come all this way to just give up on Bjarheim!”

“She’s right,” Aiar said, glaring at Kari anyway. “Only you can see the weavings. We must get you close enough so that you can destroy them before they harm us.”

“Wait. You want to go into the trap?” Ollemar said.

“Unless you have a better idea,” Aiar said. “And Erik is going to lead the way.”

Ultimately they ended up lashing Erik to his father with rope. Finnar was so much larger and stronger than Erik that even if the ironspeaker’s glamor took hold of Erik again, he wouldn’t be able to pull his father along. It made for awkward movement, though. Erik let himself be shuffled along by his Da, skidding down through the snow on the steep ridge. Finnar ended up leaning back so far that he was more or less scooting along on his rear, with Erik hanging from his belly.

The way down was treacherous for them all. Aiar and Ollemar couldn’t keep the shields steady, and Erik felt the pull of the valley again and again. He knew it wasn’t real, that it was the magic drawing him in, but that didn’t make it any less enticing. When the shields wavered, everything else became unimportant.

They finally made it to the bottom, to the clear blue ice that, oddly, was not slippery, but felt more like stone. Erik could feel the chill of it through his boots.

He still saw the golden dome looming overhead; they’d passed through its outer wall at some point. “Why did we stop?” he whined. “We have to keep going!”

Aiar and Ollemar pushed their shields in place again, and Erik felt the glamor fall away. This was exhausting him, this constant wavering between desire and fear. And he hadn’t even done any magic yet.

“Where’s the first ward?” Ollemar said.

“There.” Erik pointed at the base of one of the jagged spikes of dark rock. There was a golden wire strung between it and another spike a few dozen yards away, at about knee level. Almost like… “A tripwire,” he said, shuddering.

“This is going to be delicate,” Aiar said. “We can’t see it, and we have to keep the shields in place, or you’ll try to run off.”

“I ain’t undoing these ropes,” Finnar grunted at the fae. “If you slip, and he runs off into the wards—”

“I won’t slip, but it would not do to be incautious.” Aiar turned to Kari. “You. Stay right there.”

“I’m not—”

Aiar grabbed her by the arms and lifted her five feet straight up. “You will stay there.” He set her down without another word and turned away. Kari got the message, because she had frozen stock-still, glowering at Aiar but clearly unwilling to test the fae further.

Erik wanted to have her by his side. He tore his gaze away and looked back at the ward. “Let’s go. One step at a time.”

Finnar trudged forward, Erik matching his strides. He held up a hand when they were a few strides away, and his Da came to a stop. Aiar and Ollemar crept up beside them, staying back half a step just to be safe. “There,” Erik said, pointing down. This close, the golden wire glittered and shifted, tiny ripples skittering back and forth along its surface almost too fast for the eye to track.

Now what? Ironspeakers sang their magic, didn’t they? Erik didn’t have much of a voice. When everyone gathered at feasts and hearths, and sang the old songs of the north, Erik always just hummed along. He started humming now, partly just to distract himself, and partly—

The golden wire vibrated, shivering up and down as if plucked. Erik stopped his humming, and the wire came to rest. He hummed some more, experimenting, trying to discern any pattern.

“I assume something is happening,” Aiar said. Erik was annoyed by his impatience. How fast did he think something was going to happen? He ignored the fae, and hummed louder. The wire vibrated more, and Erik began to hear its sound, matching his own. He hummed high and low, and the wire vibrated faster and slower in response. He pushed the pitch up as high as he could—

The wire snapped, splitting right in its center, the two halves whipping apart as if they’d been under great tension. Erik jerked back, and clenched his right hand where one of the wires had slashed at it. There was a great red welt across the palm, and it burned like the seven hells. He jammed his hand into the snow to try and stop the pain.

“What happened?” Ollemar said. Erik looked and saw that the two halves of the wire had wrapped themselves around the base of each jagged rock spike. From the broken end of each wire floated a soft golden mist, and he realized that the broken wires were dissolving. Within a minute, both wires had hissed away, like wicks left burning too long.

“I… I don’t know. I sang at the wire, and it broke.” He pulled his hand out of the snow. The welt was still an angry scarlet. “I’m going to have to try from farther away next time.”

“Don’t bother,” a voice echoed from the pillars ahead of them. “It’d only be a matter of time before you got through, and clearly you don’t know a ‘keep out’ sign when you see one.” Erik squinted through the golden haze. A stout man wearing a beard and a leather apron under several layers of fur stood before one of the square stone pillars.

Djalgand Skaldi. And he did not look happy.


No comments:

Post a Comment