24 November, 2014

Bjarheim's Shadow, Part XXII - Conclusion

Here it is, the final chapter of BJARHEIM'S SHADOW! It was a long road getting here (I wrote another novel along the way, which is in the editing phase at the moment), but it's finally here.

BJARHEIM'S SHADOW will be collected into a single ebook and released online in the next few weeks, but I'm going to leave all the chapters here just because.

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


If there was a place where light and shadow could coexist, neither trying to destroy the other, this was it.

Erik could not feel, not hear, only see. He had no body, no skin, no hands, no breath. There was only the bright and the dark, filling his vision. He could not blink to shut it out, or look away.

With maddening lethargy, motes in the gray glow became visible. Erik willed them to move faster, eager to see them coalesce and resolve, but they would not obey. Only with time did they swell and merge, and finally the motes became blobs, then shapes, angles and curves giving form and meaning to the world again.

Erik almost didn’t notice when sensation returned to his skin. Something felt cold, and in a few more moments he realized that it was him that was cold. Part of him. His back, yes, that was it. Was it exposed to the wind? No, it lay on the cold ground beneath him. In front of him—above him, yes, that was it—the grayness dissolved into pale blue, and one bright blob became a cloud, slowly metamorphosing overhead. Thick lines became the edge of the Cathedral’s roof.

Another blob turned dark, hazel—no, light brown, reddish-brown. Auburn. That was the name for it. The auburn swayed slightly. It called to him. “Erik,” it said, and Erik had never been happier to hear a color speak.

Then part of the auburn became reddish-pink, and the pink became skin and a nose and lips and Kari was looking down at him, calling his name again and again.

Erik smiled.

The Shadow’s detonation had caved in the Cathedral’s front wall and knocked over several of the stone pillars that it had summoned up to try and trap Erik. The explosion had, for whatever reason, been significantly less powerful than the blast that the Remy-Shadow creature had mustered upon its demise.

Kari and Ollemar had been the only others close to it, and they’d been knocked “ass over teakettle,” in Kari’s words, but managed to acquire only a few bruises. The crater was empty; the Shadow had left no remnant behind that anyone could see.

Over the next several minutes, Erik’s senses and reason returned to him, and he was able to stand and hobble about a bit. He showed no bruises, but felt sore all over. The golden orbs, the sun-fragments, were gone. Erik whispered the Song of Seeing and gazed out over the square. The globes of idle golden ironsong had dissipated. Aside from the crater, the damaged cathedral, the strange stone pillars, and a few piles of ash—Erik’s stomach turned as he remembered those who had died fighting the Shadow—Bjarheim did not look as if it had spent weeks suffering under the Shadow’s thrall.

Some folk had crept back into the square, now that things had quieted down. They began to gather around Erik, and he heard mutters about magic and power and prophecies.

“To the hells with prophecies,” Erik shouted suddenly. He saw Ollemar raise an eyebrow at him, and look slightly offended. Well, it was the Brandrinn’s prophecy that had put him on this road. So what? He wasn’t Odinson, no matter what Ollemar said. “I just did what needed to be done.”

“You lot had better have more sense than to start worshipping him,” Kari said, and punched Erik in the shoulder. Look, he’s just a kid.

It smarted, but he smiled at her anyway. A few Bjarheimers laughed and exchanged sheepish glances.

Then another memory hit him. “Da!” he shouted, and started pushing his way through the crowd—before realizing that he had no idea where Finnar had been taken. “Where’s my da? Finnar Rain, where’d they take him?”

Someone in the crowd had seen Finnar carried off, and led Erik and Kari and Ollemar to the other end of the square. A public house had been turned into a makeshift infirmary for those that had suffered non-fatal injuries during Erik’s fight with the Shadow. Finnar was there, propped up on a chair. His right leg was missing its lower half, and the stump had been wrapped in several layers of red-stained bandages.

Erik’s da waved weakly as Erik came over. “They got it all,” he said. The bandages made it hard to tell, but it looked as if it had been cut off at the knee. “Dunno how I’ll manage, but there’s carpenters what can make me a false leg,” he said.

“You’ll still be twice the man as any other Bjarheimer, even with half the legs,” Erik joked. Finnar laughed weakly, then coughed some and closed his eyes, muttering something to himself.

The old woman who had directed Finnar to be carried off saw Erik and came over. “He’ll be weak for a while, but he’ll heal. We’ll keep him here until he’s well enough to move.”

“Where is he?” someone shouted, and a big man burst into the room. Erik knew that voice; he turned and saw his brother Magnus stomping toward him. “I was—I woke up on the other side of the city, lying in the street. Send me to the hells if I know how I got there. Da—!” He gawped at his father’s truncated limb. “What in the blazes happened?”

Erik recounted the day’s events, in as much detail as he could stomach. Magnus shook his head at the madness of it all. “I can see you turning green, little brother,” he said, once he’d calmed down. “Let’s get you home and rested.”

Erik had no argument. He’d shouldered enough responsibility for one day.

The losses were tallied. Half a hundred folk never awoke from their Shadow-sleep. Mostly elders who hadn’t enough fight left in them, and, tragically, a few infants who hadn’t developed the strength for it. Miraculously, the Shadow had only killed four people during Erik’s battle with it, the four who’d been touched by its tendrils. Those who had been close when the Shadow had screamed, and had had black goo leaking out of their ears, did not die, but all of them had gone deaf.

But the priests in the Cathedral had all died when the Shadow expired, save for the two that Erik and his friends had freed from its grasp. The two men, Father Gorhath and Father Haldinar, were shaken by their ordeal but promised that they would do what they could to rebuild the ranks of the priesthood.

Father Bernhard’s body was never found. It had been destroyed, as Erik feared, when the Shadow had erupted from it. Bernhard had been a stern man, but Erik had never held any hatred for him. He mourned the priest’s loss as fiercely as all the others.

And, of course, there was Aiar. The rest of the fae had been trapped underground by the Shadow’s power, but their own magic had kept it from intruding any further into their caverns. They regretted not being able to fight the Shadow off. It had just been too strong.

Some Bjarheimers were put off by this, and muttered that the fae had cowered down below while Bjarheim suffered the brunt of the Shadow’s assault. The fae who came to the surface after the Shadow vanished simply pretended not to hear them. They were led by Thiktim, the angry fae whom Erik and Kari had encountered on their visit to the fae caverns. He seemed calmer, now, but once they had ventured into the grasses beyond Bjarheim and found Aiar’s blackened corpse, Thiktim showed no more interest in interacting with humans. Erik wept as they carried Aiar’s remains down the hole that led to their caves.

A stone monument was commissioned at once to celebrate Erik’s victory, and to mourn those who had fought and died against the Shadow. There was a movement to erect a bronze statue of Erik atop it, and Erik was grateful when Finnar hobbled up to the front of the room and loudly said that there was no way he would let the others ruin his son’s life by putting up a statue of him. Erik was grateful, and perhaps a little annoyed. It might have been nice to have a statue…

Instead, they settled on a stone obelisk, and at the base, the names of all those who had died fighting the Shadow would be inscribed upon it. Aiar, and Florr, and the poor Bjarheimers who had turned to ash, and those who had succumbed to the Shadow-sleep. Erik thought about suggesting that they add Remy Thurain, but even before he’d been possessed and corrupted by the Shadow, Remy hadn’t been particularly popular, so he discarded the idea without mentioning it.

Life slowly returned to normal. Finnar had a false wooden leg made, and he could hobble around on it, though he grumbled incessantly. Magnus went back to the mines only long enough to cash out his shares, so that he could return to Bjarheim and be with his family.

The Bjarheimers who had accompanied Erik north, and who had stayed with the farmers when Erik, Kari, Finnar, Aiar, and Ollemar had gone off to find Djalgand Skaldi, returned to Bjarheim after a party was sent to retrieve them. Kari’s family was elated to find her healthy and safe in Bjarheim, though her mother was furious that she’d run away with Erik and the others. “You could have been killed!” was all Gaelle Fray could shout, over and over, as they stood in the front yard of their house. Kari had been living alone, cooking and cleaning for herself while she waited for word of her family.

She scowled mulishly at the disapprobation, and simply left when Gaelle wouldn’t let up. Erik happened to have been visiting when Kari’s family had returned. He gave Gaelle an apologetic backward glance, and followed Kari until she stopped stomping through the streets and demanded, “You think they’re right?”

“No!” Erik protested. Truly, he didn’t. Sure, it had been a dangerous journey, but why on earth would she think he’d have wanted her gone? “Without you, we never would have made it.”

Kari snorted. “The one person on that trip who had no magic, and you think I was that valuable?”

“My da had no magic,” Erik said. “He’d lost it long ago, remember?”

“Well, he knew about it.” She kicked a pebble across the street. “I just…”

Erik waited for a minute. “Just what?”

“Well, everything’s back to normal now, innit? I’m of age now, and they’re going to start prodding me toward a betrothal.”

“I never knew a person less able to be prodded toward anything,” Erik said.

Kari grinned. She grabbed him by the shirt and kissed him, then pushed him back and walked off, eyes twinkling.

The Shadow was easier to understand than this girl, Erik thought. Woman. Whatever. He ran after her.

Erik never really got used to the eyes.

Everywhere he went, people would see him and whisper. Despite his da’s insistence—and Erik’s agreement—that people not try to deify him, they still treated him like some kind of hero. He didn’t feel like a hero.

He practiced his magic. The fae rebuffed his attempts to contact them, so he had to practice with the methar on his own. Maybe there was someone down there who would be willing, but Thiktim had put his foot down. Unless there was some kind of leadership shake-up down below, Erik would never get guidance from the fae. They lived so long, it might be hundreds of years before that happened.

The ironspeakers were happy to accommodate him, especially once he explained how he had met and learned from Djalgand Skaldi. The hermit had a fearsome reputation among the ironspeakers of Bjarheim, and they all wanted to hear Erik’s story of how he’d journeyed to the Styggen and negotiated Skaldi’s traps. After a while, they lost interest in that, and Erik apprenticed himself to Master Halgrin. But it became evident in short order that Erik’s power and control over the golden threads already outstripped Halgrin’s, even if Erik didn’t know as many songs. He learned what he could and moved on. Halgrin encouraged him to take up ironspeaking as a profession, but Erik felt too young, too raw to commit to something so… definitive.

Ollemar stayed in the city for a few weeks, until the call of the forest grew too strong. “If I stay much longer, the Seed will abandon me, and I cannot shirk my duties so,” the Brandrinn said.

“I understand,” Erik said. “I wish you could teach me more.”

Ollemar frowned. Erik had had the same experience with the woodsmen’s magic as he had with the ironspeakers’. The Seed was an open book to him; he could trace its every pulse in his mind, and weave nets of such delicacy that Ollemar had spent hours examining them and trying to copy him. Ollemar asked only once if Erik would join the Brandrinn—he even mentioned the prophecy again, though he seemed less convinced of its truth, now—but Erik again demurred. “Bjarheim is my home,” he said. “I don’t know if the Shadow is destroyed forever. I have to stay here.”

Ollemar nodded sagely, shook Erik’s hand, and left. He hadn’t said farewell to anyone else. Old habits, it seemed, died hard.

Erik did, however, consent to join the Conclave. There was a feverish motion for him to become its leader—though not everyone supported this idea—and Erik again refused. He had experienced much since fleeing Bjarheim, but he had not learned politics. After sitting through a few meetings, he felt as if discussions about crops and street repairs far outweighed any consideration of the Shadow. He would learn those things in time. There was a lot more to governing a city than defending it from dark horrors.

He was a man now, he supposed. Finnar gave him plenty of leeway after the fighting ended, but soon enough began to grumble that Erik needed to pull his own weight in the household, magic be damned. Erik had no problem with that. He could pursue ordinary work and practice his magics in his spare time.

And he pursued Kari. As if saving Bjarheim hadn’t proved his mettle! Nonetheless, she wanted more from him. He found work in a stonemason’s shop, and earned enough to put food on the table, helping to compensate for his father’s reduced capacity.

Kari appreciated Erik’s work more than his magic. She’d spend time with him, ignoring her mother’s attempts to pair her off with other strapping young lads of Bjarheim. “D’you think we’ll get married some day?” Erik asked on impulse, one golden afternoon as they sat atop the Fray family’s roof.

Kari stared blankly at him. “We’re only sixteen.”

“I didn’t say now,” Erik retorted. Kari appreciated directness, and boldness. She seemed to like him a lot more since he’d figured that one out. “Just some day.”

“Some day,” she echoed, and took his hand. “No promises.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Erik said, and lay his head on her shoulder.

The sun still glimmered over the western hills as Erik trudged up the path. Alone, he reached the flat hilltop where he, the Frays, Florr, Aiar, Thora, and the others had taken refuge after Bjarheim had been first consumed by the Shadow. He turned around and looked back at the city. It stood red in the sunset, awaiting the creeping darkness cast by the very hills Erik stood upon. This time, it was no malignant Shadow waiting to engulf the city, just ordinary shade, as the sun went on its circuit about the world.

Hearthlights glowed, and the city of Bjarheim slipped toward the quiet dark as Erik Rain watched and breathed contentedly under the cobalt sky.


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