29 January, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XV

A wild hiatus appears!

So, life intervened, but I'm back now, and plan to finish Bjarheim's Shadow over the next few weeks. Odds are against maintaining the one-a-week schedule from before, but then when have I ever been told the odds?

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


Aiar, for one, was undeterred. “You are Djalgand Skaldi?”

The bearded man glared up at the fae. “Who’s askin’?”

“I am Aiar,” the fae said, as if his name should be enough for anyone.

“We’re from Bjarheim,” Finnar said. “The Shadow has come, and we need your help.”

“Pfeh.” Djalgand spat into the snow. “One ironspeaker more or less ain’t gonna make any difference.”

“It is not your power we seek, but your teaching,” Ollemar piped up. “This boy is the prophesied one, who will free these lands from the Shadow.”

Djalgand gazed down at Erik, dubious, but then his eyes widened and he broke into a grin. “Hah! Clever idea, lashing him to you like that. Keep him from running off into the wards.” The grin vanished almost as quickly as it had come. “Still don’t see what that has to do with me.”

Erik could feel his father’s chest move as he drew in a great breath. “Master Halgrin never said you were a nitwit!” his Da shouted.

“Excuse me?” Djalgand said, all traces of humor vanishing.

Finnar pointed at Ollemar. “You know damned well he’s a woodsman. And there’s a fae here, and a boy who can see your magic. Yet you pretend that there’s nothing to it all?”

“Bjarheim never wanted my help before,” Djalgand said, his voice as icy as the tundra around them. “Good old Halgrin was the one who pushed me out of Bjarheim, did he ever tell you that?”

“He wouldn’t speak of it,” Finnar said, uneasiness in his voice. “He only said you had your reasons for leaving.”

“Aye, that I did. I warned them all that the Shadow was nigh. Day in, day out! They said I was mad. They isolated me and took away all I had bit by bit until I had no choice but to leave.” He stalked forward a few steps and waved a thick finger nearly in Erik’s face. “And you have the gall to come here and demand that I help the city that threw me out?”

All the yelling was making Erik anxious. And the wind had begun to kick up, chilling Erik through his furs. He wished Aiar or Ollemar would weave some magic to warm them all. Erik wanted to do it himself, but didn’t trust his abilities, especially not with that blasted ironspeaker’s ward surrounding him.

“To the hells with you,” Djalgand went on, turning his back and stomping away. “And get off my land!”

“Hey!” Kari shouted. Djalgand jerked to a halt and looked back, apparently noticing the girl for the first time. “Who are you to be so rude to my friend? He wasn’t even born when you left Bjarheim. How can you blame him for what happened? He just wants to learn your magic, so he can save his home!”

“Who in the blazes are you people?” Djalgand glanced around, bemused, at the adults. “What are you up to, dragging children through these icy wastes?”

“She’s a stowaway, or the landlocked equivalent,” Aiar said. “Try telling her she can’t follow you somewhere, and see how much success you have.”

“I’m here because he’s my friend,” Kari said, taking Erik’s hand even as he hung limply from the ropes holding him against his father. “And he’s the only way we’re going to save Bjarheim.”

Ollemar knelt down, laid his staff on the snow, and then held his hands wide. “Master Skaldi, I beg of you, do not turn us away. The Shadow has come to Bjarheim. The lives of thousands are in danger. If Bjarheim falls, what next? The fields? The forests? Will the Shadow at last come for you?”

Djalgand’s gaze was still fixed on Kari. He shook his head, as if clearing cobwebs. “You’ll all catch your death of cold out here. Follow me. We can talk somewhere warm.”

No one wanted to risk his wrath again, so the whole group followed in silence as Djalgand Skaldi tromped through the ice and snow. Erik noticed that his compulsion to run into the golden ward had nearly vanished, now that they were inside it. He was sore from being held up by ropes for hours, but he didn’t want to complain now that their goal was in sight.

Djalgand glanced back every so often. He seemed to be muttering something to himself, almost like soft humming. Erik tried not to meet his eyes, but it was difficult to look away. Djalgand radiated power.

They followed him for several minutes, through thickets of stone pillars and spiky black outcroppings. Those grew denser and denser until at last they came to what looked like an impenetrable wall of black rock. Erik was reminded of the Vângr’s tightly packed wall of trees. Instead of going through a tunnel under the wall, however, Djalgand stopped and began to sing.

It was just as Erik remembered from all those times he’d sat outside an ironspeaker’s forge, ear pressed to the wall, listening to the haunting melodies. Only now there was nothing between him and the singer, and Djalgand’s voice filled the air around him, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once.

For a few moments nothing happened, and then a jagged line of golden light appeared in the rock face, stretching from down on the ground to higher than Aiar’s head. The line began to thicken, and there was a colossal grinding noise as the two halves of the rock wall swung aside. In moments they’d left a gap, wide enough for two men abreast. Djalgand led the way inside.

Within the rock was a hewn chamber, circular and twenty paces across, domed at the top. Six golden lamps burned around the perimeter. Their light did not flicker the way a candle’s would, but rather stayed perfectly even. There was a bed, a table, two chairs, and several large chests stacked around the edge.

Once the whole party was within, Djalgand sang again, and the rock portal slid shut with a grinding thump. “Make yourselves comfortable, I suppose,” he said. “I haven’t enough food to spare for you, so you’ll have to survive on what you brought.”

“Eat little,” Ollemar reminded them all. “It’s days south to any resupply.”

Erik was released from his bindings, and spent a while massaging the feeling back into his legs. He glanced at the black stone walls again, and marvelled at how easily Djalgand had split them open—with nothing more than singing, no less! “How does that work?” he asked the ironspeaker.

Djalgand stared at Erik for a moment, making him deeply uncomfortable. “The stone’s shot through with metallics. Ironspeaking can do more than just make hammers and stoves for you ungrateful lot.”

“Are you gong to teach him, or not?” Aiar asked. “We’ve come a long way, and if you’re no use to us, then we’d better get started finding someone who will be.”

“I liked her pitch better,” Djalgand said dryly, jerking a thumb at Kari.

“You didn’t answer him,” she said.

Djalgand chuckled mirthlessly. “What good would it do? Even if this boy is some sort of savior… Well, just look at him. Scrawny lad. Using any magic would just as like burn him to ash.” He peered down at Erik. “You say he can use both fae and woodsman magic?”

“Yes.” Finnar stood tall, for once looking proud of his son. Erik would have blushed, if his cheeks hadn’t already been reddened by the cold. “He’s used it to fight and defeat one of the Shadow’s minions. It followed us through the forest, and—”

“It followed you?” Djalgand Skaldi shouted. “You’d best not have led it here!”

“No, no!” Ollemar said. “It destroyed itself trying to kill us, but it failed. That was back in the forest north of Bjarheim, and we’ve come a long way since then with no sign of it.”

Djalgand settled down a bit and said no more for a while. He put on a fire in a round pit at one edge of the room, and hung a kettle on a hook over it. The fire was nearly smokeless; what few fumes it did emit roiled up through a fist-sized hole in the ceiling. Erik thought he saw glimmers of gold light among the flames, and even amidst the smoke, but it was hard to tell.

“It takes years to learn ironspeaking properly,” Djalgand said. “And by what you’ve said, Bjarheim hasn’t the time to waste. Seven hells, it might have already fallen to dust and ash. What would be the point?”

“Because we have to try,” Erik said. He stood up from where he’d sat near the fire and faced Djalgand directly. “Maybe you’ve given up. But I won’t.”

Djalgand met Erik’s eyes. For the first time, the old bearded ironspeaker didn’t glare, or scoff, or laugh bitterly. “You’ll die trying,” he said.

“No I won’t,” Erik said reflexively. He took a breath. “I learned to use the methar in a couple of days, and I could draw power from the Seed of the Brandrinn in the same time. I’ll bet you anything I can learn ironspeaking just as quick.” He stared defiantly, but anxiety made his innards quiver.

Djalgand sighed. “Fine. We’ll begin in the morning.”

Fae and Brandrinn magics involved poking and prodding at sensations inside Erik’s mind. Ironspeaking, by contrast, involved seeing the currents of magic flowing through the air around him, and singing at them in order to manipulate them. “There are hundreds of distinct patterns an ironspeaker learns,” Djalgand said. He was sitting on a narrow wooden stool, looming over Erik who sat on the floor before him. “Each one twists and turns the strings in different ways, to make different effects. You can create heat or light. You can lock energy into a string, so that it is released slowly—or explosively—when someone touches it. Those hundreds of patterns can be combined in millions of ways.”

Erik looked around. It had been only a day, and already he was starting to be able to see the shimmering golden strings of light that Djalgand spoke of. They were everywhere, it seemed, ebbing and flowing like currents in a river. Sometimes they seemed to cluster together, like a flock of starlings in flight, spinning and curving about.

Djalgand had started by teaching Erik a few melodic patterns. Erik’s voice wasn’t much to listen to, but he could repeat the patterns well enough. One refrain was called the Song of Seeing. “You repeat that song every morning when you wake, and every night before sleep, and any time you’re not otherwise occupied, or you’ll lose the touch,” Djalgand warned him. “It strengthens your power to see the strings. That’s the first step toward being able to manipulate them.”

And so it was. When Erik woke up the second day, before he even sang a note, he could see skeins of golden light swirling in the air above him. He realized that they were pulsing in time with Djalgand Skaldi’s voice. The web was far more complex than anything he’d ever seen, even beyond the green-and-violet tapestries that had been woven by Aiar and Ollemar back in the forest. Djalgand was holding a long piece of iron, easily twice Erik’s height and as thick around as his wrist. As Erik watched, the golden strings spun tight around the top of the iron, and when they dispersed, Erik saw that the tip had been bent into a point. Djalgand lowered the iron and inspected his work closely. A few more swarms of strings fluttered in and scraped against the spike as Djalgand continued singing, minutely adjusting its shape. Soon the point of the iron pole gleamed perfectly smooth.

Djalgand set it down, then noticed that Erik was awake. “How much of that did you catch?”

“Some,” Erik said. He sat up and pulled the furs around him. Even here, in this enclosed cave, the chill seeped through the walls. “It looked like you used the gold strings as, um… like a physical tool.”

Djalgand nodded. His earlier reluctance to teach had all but vanished. He was a patient and calm teacher, completely unlike Aiar and Ollemar.

The fae and the Brandrinn, in fact, both kept quiet and watched whenever Djalgand was instructing Erik. Erik wondered if the two felt ashamed over how they’d acted before. Ollemar might. Aiar… probably not.

Finnar and Kari spent most of their time sitting and watching as well, but with less interest. Kari, for one, got up and paced around every so often. She eventually asked Djalgand if he’d open the cave walls again so that she and Finnar could go out hunting. “You might find some hares or snow voles, but it won’t be much,” the ironspeaker warned them.

Kari persisted, and eventually Djalgand sang the walls open for them. They returned that evening with two small hares they’d caught. Better than nothing, Erik supposed.

“Where do you get your provisions?” Ollemar asked. “If hunting’s poor, and there’s certainly no edible plants around here…”

“I made a deal long ago with some traders from the south. They deliver me goods every couple of months, and I give them ironwork. I meet them at a cabin a day southeast of here, so they’ve no idea I live in the Styggen. I doubt they think anyone’s mad enough to try.” He grinned. Erik was starting to like Djalgand. He hoped the old ironspeaker would join them when they went south to fight the Shadow.

And when is that supposed to happen? Erik thought. There were no threats here, no Remy following them, no refugee Bjarheimers to watch over. And yet each night Erik dreamt of Bjarheim, its streets running thick with black ooze, its towers and spires crumbling to ash, the skeletons of his friends and neighbors rotting in the streets… He didn’t know if it was really that bad, but until he could actually go there, his imagination would keep filling in the gaps.

After five days, Aiar began to grow restless. “How long will it be?” he asked curtly.

“When Erik feels ready,” Djalgand said. “I cannot decide for him when he thinks he’ll be strong enough to leave. Much like fae or Brandrinn, ironspeakers spend years honing their craft before they are given even the simplest of assignments.”

“Time we do not have,” Ollemar grumbled.

“Well, boy?” Finnar said. “What can you do?”

In five days, Erik didn’t feel like he’d learned much. He could see the golden strings pretty much all the time, if he chose to. Ignoring them was easy, but as soon as he sang just a few notes of the Song of Seeing, his vision was nearly clouded with bundles of golden strings flitting to and fro. “I can bend metal a little,” he said. He picked up a little square of iron that Djalgand had given him to practice on. Erik began to sing, very softly, waiting until he saw the strings respond to his voice. In a few moments they did, swirling slowly around him, waiting for further command.

He’d learned only a few small tricks so far. If he concentrated fiercely, he could slowly bore a hole into the iron. He demonstrated, and then passed the iron fragment around to Finnar and the others.

“Fascinating,” Aiar said. “To my eyes, the hole simply grew from nothing as you sang. Yet it’s hardly a feat to strike fear into the Shadow.”

Erik couldn’t agree more. Then something occurred to him. “What if I use my song with fae and woods magic? Like how we combined those two in the forest?”

“Ironsong doesn’t affect our magic,” Aiar said dismissively.

“But there’s never been someone who could use both,” Ollemar pointed out. “You saw what we could do combining just our two magics. There must be a way for Erik to combine all three.”

Aiar grimaced. “If he doesn’t destroy us all, then yes, I suppose that could be helpful. But in the forest, it was you and I who wove our magics. We simply used Erik as a power source.” Aiar looked down at Djalgand. “Would you attempt this with us?”

Djalgand frowned. “I cannot see your magics.”

“Erik can join ours to yours, I suspect,” Aiar said. “You need only look for the gaps in your magic, in order to tell where ours lies.”

Djalgand looked skeptical at this, but nodded. “What shall we weave?”

“Something simple,” Aiar said. “Perhaps a shield, as we did in the forest.” He reached into the air before him and started tracing lines of violet light, lines that Erik knew only he and Aiar could see. Ollemar followed suit, and wove his green Brandrinn magic into the gaps of Aiar’s web.

Djalgand sang softly, and Erik watched the golden strings flutter about. They did not penetrate into the small, delicate weaving, however. “I can see where my magic is bending around yours,” Djalgand said, “but there are no gaps for it to penetrate.”

Erik stared at the little threads, wondering how they’d fit into this tapestry of light. And then it hit him. He sang a series of high notes, one of the few tricks he’d learned: a melody that would tighten the strings into coils. One by one, individual threads of golden light bent and slid across the surface of the shield. Erik focused on one of them, watching it, waiting for it to be in exactly the right place.

And then he sang the final note.

The golden thread wrapped around two adjacent lines of light—one violet, one green—and pulled fast, immobilizing them.

“Ironsong doesn’t weave between them,” Erik said, astonished. “It binds them together.