04 February, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XVI

Back on track!

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


“I’ll be damned,” Djalgand muttered. “Tiny loops that hold the other threads together?”

Erik breathed steadily, but he was excited. “I can do more of them,” he said, and began singing more golden threads into place. One by one they encircled the emerald and violet strands, squeezing them together. But he noticed that after a few moments they would unfold and slip away if he didn’t keep singing at them. “Is there a way to tie a… a sort of knot in them?” he asked Djalgand. “So they hold fast?”

Djalgand began to sing a series of erratic notes, seemingly at random. One thread, that Erik held in place with his own melody, began squirming. Its ends writhed until they touched, and then they slithered around one another, intertwining and tightening into a complex knot so tiny that Erik could barely make it out.

When Djalgand stopped singing, Erik did too. The other threads slowly uncurled and flitted away, but the knotted one did not move. “How long will it stay like that?” Erik asked.

“How do you think I kept all those wards in place outside?” Djalgand said. “Sung knots never slip unless they’re unsung, which only an ironspeaker can do. Or if, say, they’re part of a trap that triggers. Like the tripwires.”

Aiar tapped thoughtfully on his chin. “So our shield, tied with these knots of yours, would hold itself indefinitely?”

“I suppose. Are you working to maintain your magic now?”

Aiar shook his head. “Not in the slightest. Fae magic can be made to persist, but it is very difficult. A small weaving like this will unweave itself in minutes if not maintained.”

“If your magic and ours can be held together by these threads,” Ollemar said, “we could weave permanent shields. They would be very effective defenses.”

They tried. Aiar and Ollemar brought together their webs, and Erik started bending golden threads around them. At first, Djalgand sang the knots, but Erik quickly picked up the melody and helped, doubling their speed. His knots weren’t as firm or precise, but they held.

The first shield was as tall as Erik, and about as wide as his armspan. They’d built it in only a few minutes. Ollemar could move it around by poking the emerald threads with the tip of his quarterstaff, and Aiar could drag it by grabbing onto the violet threads. Djalgand could make it move by singing at it. The whole thing stayed intact, no matter how much they shook it about or how long they waited.

They tested it by having Erik bind together spears of energy woven by Aiar and Ollemar, much like the ones they’d used to attack Remy back in the forest. Those spears, powerful as they’d been against the Shadow, shattered into nothing when they struck the new shield. The shield did not so much as quiver under the attack.

“I bet we could weave shields for all of us,” Erik said.

“What about your father? And, uh, her too, I suppose,” Aiar said, when Kari glared at him. “They can’t manipulate any of the magical parts of the shield.”

“I can solve that problem,” Djalgand said. He sang a long, slow dirge, and Erik saw something new: dozens of the golden threads spliced themselves into one long, helical mass. Djalgand repeated this a few times, then brought the mass around Kari’s midsection. He sang the helix into place on her other side, and then tied the long threads around its edges.

Aiar, Ollemar, and Erik all stared at her, fascinated. “What?” she asked, looking nervous.

“Walk around the room,” Djalgand said. Kari did, pacing along the perimeter. The shield stayed with her, pivoting as she turned, always at her back.

“Brilliant,” Aiar said.

Erik exulted. “The Shadow won’t stand a chance!”

Everyone seemed thrilled with the idea. Everyone except Finnar, who just looked worried. “What’s wrong, Da?” Erik asked.

“It’s… it sounds amazing, what you’re doing. But it’s still a long way to Bjarheim.”

“I know, but don’t worry. With our power, we’ll win, I’m sure of it.” Erik, all on his own, traced out violet and emerald threads into a small, arm-length shield, and sang golden threads to bind it tight. He mimicked Djalgand’s dirge in order to create the longer threads, and wove them around his arm. It was as if he’d created a buckler of pure light, that he could move with his arm.

It wasn’t a patch on the full-sized shields the others had helped create, but Erik could work up to those in time. In less than a week he’d thoroughly learned basic ironspeaking. By the time they got home, he was sure he’d be powerful enough to stop the Shadow on his own.

“We should leave,” Erik said the next morning. “I can’t stand thinking of what the Shadow is doing to Bjarheim.”

“You’ve still got too much to learn,” Djalgand said. “There’s hundreds of patterns I haven’t taught you yet.”

“I know enough. Besides, you should come with us! The more strength we have, the better we can fight the Shadow.”

Djalgand’s face fell. “I… I can’t go back. I can’t face Bjarheim.” His earlier anger and bitterness had faded. Now there was melancholy, and… fear, Erik supposed. What was he afraid of? If Djalgand helped them free Bjarheim, wouldn’t they revere him as a savior?

“Then come with us some of the way. At least until we get back to the Brandrinn’s forest.”

Djalgand shook his head. “No. You go. You’ll figure out the rest on your own. If you… if you save the city, send for me.”

Erik was pained by this, and wanted to insist, but Finnar laid a hand on Erik’s shoulder. “He’s got his reasons, lad. Let’s be off.”

They had enough provisions left to reach more settled lands, if they were careful. Even Finnar, big as he was, had shed some pounds on the journey. His cheeks had sunk in a little. It made Finnar look old. Erik didn’t like it.

Erik, Aiar, Ollemar, and Djalgand wove and re-wove shields for every member of their party: one large shield, affixed to each person’s back, to prevent attacks from the rear; and a smaller one tied to the right arm, that could be—Erik hoped—used to block the Shadow’s attacks. Erik wanted to encase everyone in shields, head to toe on all sides, but the bright threads were too hard to see through. Only Kari and Finnar got shields protecting their faces, while everyone else settled for shields around their torsos and legs.

Djalgand took Erik’s hand and clapped him on the arm. “You be careful. Practice the Song of Seeing every day, like I said. And try new melodies. Slowly, softly, so you don’t hurt yourself. You may be strong, but take it from me. It’ll be years before you really understand how little you know.”

Erik thought Djalgand was exaggerating, but he nodded agreeably anyway. Erik hadn’t learned the melodies that would let him open and close the stone walls, so Djalgand sang them open for Erik and his friends.

The enormous golden ward still arced up into the sky overhead, but Erik could now see the whorling threads that constituted it. He sang quietly, pushing them away, so that they could no longer entice him. They made it out of the base of the Styggen without incident, and began the long trek back south.

Kari walked beside Erik, holding his hand much of the time. He could see, between her shields, her loose auburn curls poking out from under her hood. “Do y’think the Shadow is expecting us?” she asked as they trudged through the snow.

“I hope not, but I’m not that daft,” Erik said. “We’re going to have to fight.”

“I’ll do whatever I can. Protect you,” she said. “The Shadow won’t get close, I promise.”

No one said anything about the fact that, each night when they settled down to sleep, Erik and Kari lay piled together under their furs. Erik knew about the things that grown men and women did at night, but that still seemed far away. And, somehow, scarier than the prospect of fighting the Shadow, which might kill them all.

Still, Kari let him kiss her a few times before they closed their eyes and fell asleep. If they lost the battle, he’d miss Bjarheim, he’d sorely miss his Da, and he’d even miss Aiar and Ollemar—but he realized, startlingly, that he’d miss Kari most of all.

The snowy tundra gave way to grasses and woods again. Erik practiced his magic incessantly, weaving and re-weaving his shields over and over as they walked. He alternated this with spinning the threads into tiny, radiant projectiles, of the sort Aiar and Ollemar had made, but bound with ironsong as he’d done with the new shields. Come the battle, he was going to need to be able to wield his magic as fast as possible.

He remembered how in the forest he’d merely been an energy source for Aiar and the Brandrinn to use. Now he could touch the methar and the Seed in his mind with ease. And whenever he so much as murmured the Song of Seeing, the golden threads appeared, pervading everything. It still took longer to weave a shield by himself than if Aiar and Ollemar helped, but he gained speed by the day.

How was it possible that he had so much power? A lad of barely fourteen, that’s all he was. All he felt like. Weren’t heroes supposed to be grand and bold and sure of themselves? The closer they drew to Bjarheim, the less certain he felt.

So he practiced, and sang, and wove. He created a shield and left it standing against a tree, then wove a missile from all three magics. When it slammed into the shield, Erik heard an ear-piercing shriek, and saw that the threads of the shield had been jarred loose. So, a shield of three magics was vulnerable to an attack by all three magics.

But the Shadow didn’t have these magics, did it? The Shadow had some corrupted mimicry of magic. Powerful, to be sure. Would his shields hold, when the time came?

Erik tried not to worry about this, with little success. They passed within a day’s walk of the village where they’d left the rest of the Bjarheimers. Erik wanted to visit them and make sure they were all still well, but there was no time to lose. He thought he could sense something off to the south. Or maybe those were just his fears. They were only a couple of days from Bjarheim now. The Shadow would be upon them all too soon.

They’d refilled their packs with dried fruits and nuts and salted venison purchased from farms and trading posts along the way. Erik longed for fresh bread and nice hot meal. And apple tarts. Tons of apple tarts.

They broke for dinner as the sun set. “Bjarheim will be on the horizon some time tomorrow,” Finnar said. “Then we’ll see what we’re up against.”

Aiar sat with them, but ate nothing. He was staring off into the gathering dusk. “Are you okay?” Erik asked.

“Don’t bother me,” the fae said, and continued staring silently. Erik sighed and ignored him. Aiar had been growing more and more irritable the closer they got to Bjarheim.

Ollemar spoke next. “I hesitate to ask, but… what plan of attack have we against the Shadow? If it’s enveloping the whole city, as you say, then I don’t know how our magic will defeat it. As well hurl a pebble against an oak.”

“I don’t know,” Erik said. “Maybe we can just make the biggest magical arrow we can, and that’ll do… something.”

“Bjarheim’s got open fields on all sides,” Kari pointed out. “There’s no cover. If you attack, and it fails, then what? Stand around figuring what to do while the Shadow strikes at us?”

“It’s not as if we have much experience fighting the Shadow,” Ollemar said. “No one had even seen it in a lifetime before this.”

“In a short human lifetime,” Aiar said abruptly. “I remember it.”

“What?” Finnar demanded. “Why didn’t you bring this up earlier?”

The fae ignored him. “Erik, do you see that?” he asked, pointing south into the darkness.

Erik looked, but there was nothing obvious. “What?”

“That violet glow. On the horizon. It’s a thin line, and it’s interrupted by those trees, but it’s there, if only you focus.” He waited, staring at Erik.

Erik squinted, wondering if maybe his eyes had to adjust. He got up and walked a little ways from the fire, trying to peer into the night. After a minute, he shrugged and turned back. Aiar had somehow silently crept up behind him, making him jump. “Cut that out! How can someone so big be so damned sneaky?”

“I used magic to muffle my footfalls, you nitwit.” Aiar said it with some affection, not the hostility he had initially presented to Erik. If nothing else, this whole adventure had given Erik a new—well, “friend” wasn’t exactly the right word. “Do you see it?”

Erik shook his head. “No. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. For once it’s not your fault. There’s a faint glow of fae magic on the horizon there. At this range I can barely sense it, but I’ve had centuries of practice. It’s Bjarheim.”

Kari joined them. “If you can sense fae magic there… that’s good, right?”

“Potentially. The feel of it is uncorrupted, so I think my kin are still below ground, holding out against the Shadow. I doubt they’ll be of much use to us, but at least they’re still alive.” He frowned. “But the glow is weak. Very weak. The few times I’ve travelled out of Bjarheim, I could see a glow as bright as the full moon from this far away.”

“I’m sure this is important, but you said you remember the Shadow,” Ollemar said. He’d walked up silently behind them, as usual. “Shouldn’t you have mentioned this before?”

“Frankly, I never thought we’d make it this far. Anyway, I didn’t fight the Shadow. Another elder was in command then, while I was deep within the earth, teaching. I wasn’t even aware the Shadow had come and been beaten back until I resurfaced, more than a year later.”

“So you don’t know anything useful?” Kari asked, disbelieving.

“I know what the elders told me. The fae elders, the ironspeaker council, and the priests of the Order came together to fight the Shadow. It was really only we fae and the ironspeakers who did the work. The Order’s magic is actually the same as the magic you woodsmen use.” Aiar eyed Ollemar. “They are surrounded by life—the people of Bjarheim—but less of it than the woodsmen in the forest. Their grasp of the magic is weak, and so the priests’ teachings encompass only observation and sensation, not manipulation. They can weakly see their magic, but they cannot really do anything with it. A true waste of potential.” He snorted. “The elders told me that the priests helped observe where the Shadow would strike, the ironspeakers sang the defenses, and the fae wove the attack. It was fundamentally a routine operation, no different than all the other times the Shadow has come.”

Erik felt cold inside. “But this time the Shadow had someone inside the city.”

“Yes, your dear friend Remy. Whatever he did, he was able to suppress all warning that the Shadow was on its way, until it was too late.” Aiar looked out at the horizon again. “The last time, there were a dozen priests, thirty ironspeakers, and seventy-three fae defending Bjarheim. Now we have one fae, one woodsman, and one half-trained boy.”

“Who can use all three kinds of magic,” Erik retorted. “That’s worth something!”

“Let us fervently hope so,” Aiar said. “Otherwise, Bjarheim is doomed.”

Erik couldn’t fall asleep. He tossed and turned under his blanket, staring up at the stars above, wondering if at any moment they might become obscured by a creeping darkness, the same as they had when the Shadow came to Bjarheim.

At some point he dozed off, because suddenly it was dawn and he felt groggy. He hadn’t dreamed. Just as well. He didn’t need the distraction.

They ate breakfast and broke camp, and were just about to depart when a cold, bitter wind rose from the south. Unexpected breezes weren’t uncommon on the plains around Bjarheim, but this one had a sour tang to it. “What’s that smell?” Erik said.

Ollemar had already noticed it, and lifted his nose to the wind, sniffing. Aiar glanced curiously to the south. There was enough light to see a thin, dark haze on the horizon. “I’m not sure,” the fae said. “Let’s be on our guard.” Erik glanced around to make sure that everyone’s shields were still intact.

Finnar gathered up the last bits of his pack. “Erik stays in the center,” he said. Finnar put himself and Aiar just ahead of Erik, on either side of him, and Kari and Ollemar behind. Erik didn’t feel like he needed that much protection, but everyone else kept insisting how important he was, and he got tired of arguing about it.

They marched south. The sour smell grew stronger as the sun climbed. The copses of spruce and pine grew less frequent, until the horizon before them stretched great and wide.

And at last, as the sun reached its zenith, the gray haze on the horizon gave way to a black line, growing thicker as they trudged along.

The Shadow sat astride Bjarheim, and all Erik’s fears sat with it.


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