Dolor And Shadow
Aaric, the king’s high marshal, towered over the refugees in Lorlenalin’s keep as he made his way through the moonlit halls. Sleeping families had done their best to nestle up for the night on the stone floor. Every passage and stairwell overflowed with Alfar. No one had room to stretch out. His men performed well considering the circumstances, but still.
He glanced into one of the countless rooms filled with more than two dozen people. Only this morning he had used most of the rooms for storage. Now, children slept sitting upright against their mothers.
He couldn’t believe the report when he heard it two weeks ago. He and his men did well to prepare, but seeing this many refugees arriving at the steps of his keep without home or food had been enough to shock him into the reality of the numbers. His keep simply could not house them all. Outside, his men erected tents, thousands of tents, along the outer battlement. Alongside the river and even the waterfall, they had pitched rows upon rows of tents that would serve as permanent housing for the Svartálfar until his men could build proper establishments.
He still wasn’t sure where he was going to put them all until then. The spring nights could get cold.
Aaric stopped at a closed door in the hall where orange light seeped through the crack at the floor and spilled onto the stone. The quiet whimper on the other side pulled at his broad chest. He uneasily shifted the sword on his hip and pushed the door open.
The room was laden with simple fixings fine enough to belong to a field marshal: a desk, a table, no ornamentation. On the wall beside a door that led to a balcony hung a tapestry embroidered with the Svartálfar seal: a hammer intertwined with a tri-corner knot. The same seal the smiths had engraved into the armbands worn by all of the king’s men. On the bed, Kallan sat sobbing softly on King Eyolf’s lap. From the red of his dry eyes, Eyolf had found more tears to shed for his wife.
Kallan stared wide-eyed, her lapis eyes swollen and red like her father’s. The child lay with her fist pressed into her mouth, uninterested with anything he had to say.
“Daggon’s ready,” Aaric said.
Eyolf dug at his eyes and nodded. Despite having reached his elding ages ago, gray now streaked the black of his shoulder length hair and his full beard. The eternal youth of the king had waned since last they met. Exhaustion pulled on his face and made him appear much more like a middle-aged human instead of an Alfar king blessed with the eternal life of his people.
Eyolf returned his hand to his daughter’s back. “How is everyone?” he asked. “Have the Dokkalfar settled?”
Aaric furrowed his brow. “Dokkalfar?”
“That’s what the Svartálfar who followed started calling themselves,” Eyolf said. “I’m not sure when, really. Along the way, they started, I think. The name just stayed with them.”
“We found everyone a bed. My men are still working on the latrines. I have another group working on food supply.”
Eyolf nodded wearily.
“What of the others?” Aaric asked. “Have you heard anything?”
“No. The Svartálfar who stayed behind were not happy with my decision.” Aaric watched Eyolf tighten his mouth. His lip had started to shake. “I urged them to come with us, but they wouldn’t abandon the fight.”
“How many?” Aaric asked.
Eyolf rubbed his face. “More than half. One hundred and twenty maybe.”
Nausea flipped Aaric’s stomach. “One hundred and twenty thousand left in Svartálfaheim?” He tried to imagine the number of Alfar who had chosen to stay behind as the city went up in Seidr flame. He and Gudrun alone knew it was Seidr flame. He was certain to keep it that way. Aaric shook his head. “They won’t make it.”
“They wouldn’t listen.” Aaric heard the grief swell in Eyolf’s voice. “And if I stayed to fight that battle…”
Kallan sniffed and Aaric watched a tear spill down her nose. “I had no choice, but to protect those who I could,” Eyolf said.
“How is she?” Aaric asked, nodding to the child.
Eyolf made a conscious effort to rub her back again. “About as tired and scared and grief-stricken as the rest of us.”
“I have time,” Aaric said. “I can take her if you wish.”
Eyolf nodded and placed a hand on her head. “Kallan.” Aaric watched her eyes wander then focus. “I have to go.”
“No.” She sat up, her lip trembling as she looked to her father. “No—I don’t—”
“Aaric is here,” Eyolf said. “He’ll watch you.”
“No, please…What if—”
“I’ll be right back.” For his daughter, Eyolf forced his best smile. “You must be strong.”
“I’m not strong.” Kallan shook her head. “I’m not.”
Eyolf planted a kiss on the top of her head and stood from the bed. “I’ll be right back,” he whispered and nodded to Aaric before heading out the door, down the hall.
Aaric watched the princess pull her legs into her chest as she gathered the furs around her and dropped her face to her knees. Her long brown hair fell to the bed, shielding her face from the light.
“Kallan.” Aaric walked to the bed.
“I miss Ori.” The furs muffled her voice.
Aaric sat on the bed in front of her.
“I know, Kallan.” He tried to smile. “But he’ll be alright.”
“And Grandmamma,” Kallan continued.
Aaric nodded. “Gudrun will be here soon.”
“I miss Mommy.”
Tremors tightened his body. Kallan looked up from her knees.
“I want Mommy.”
Aaric clenched his teeth until he was certain they would break and held his breath until the pain eased enough for him to speak.
“I know.” He swallowed the knot in his throat. “We all do.”
“I couldn’t save her.”
“No one could,” he said.
“But I really couldn’t.” Kallan tipped her head, insisting. A beam of light caught her eyes, illuminating the rings of gold encompassing her iridescent irises. Aaric caught himself from exclaiming.
“I wasn’t strong,” Kallan said. “Father says I am, but I’m not.” Another tear. “Mommy wasn’t strong either.”
Kallan buried her face back to her knees and cried.
She mustn’t know.
Aaric leaned closer. They were no longer alone.
“Kira was strong, Kallan.” Kira was. His eyes burned. “Very strong.”
“Not like Daddy,” Kallan said, raising her face to Aaric’s. “Not like you or Daggon…”
Aaric gently cupped Kallan’s chin, which appeared dwarfed by his fingers.
There was no mistaking the prominent ring of gold. If she hadn’t been crying, if Eyolf hadn’t been grieving, they all would have seen it too.
“Kira had strength, Kallan.”
“Then why is she dead?” Her eyes searched his face as if she would find the answers there. “If she were strong, then why?”
A tear escaped him and Aaric closed his eyes, cursing Eyolf. He never should have left her. Not when he knew Danann was hunting them. He was a fool for obeying his king.
Kallan pulled her chin away and dropped her face back to her knees.
“I want to go home.”
She needs to forget.
“And what would you do there? Hm?” Aaric asked.
She must forget.
“I could find her.” Kallan sniffed. “Ori and I would find her.”
Aaric watched her silent thoughts fly and Kallan descended into another bout of crying.
If she forgets, her grief will end. “Come here, Princess.” Aaric beckoned and, picking up the child from his bed, he pulled her into his lap where she curled up into a ball.
“It hurts so much,” she said. “I just want it to stop…to cut it out of me. If I were stronger…”
“And what if you were stronger?”
“Then I could go back and get her. I could have saved her.”
Not all her memories, Aaric decided. Only some. And her Sight. Surely her Sight must go. If she Sees, then she’ll know. And if she’s anything like her mother…Aaric continued to rock her back and forth.
There are things she can not know. She already knows enough to figure things out when she gets older. If she remembers. She can not remember.
“Princesses aren’t strong,” she said. “Do you think I will be strong?”
“Yes, Princess,” Aaric said. “You will be strong.”
“Like you and Daggon and Father?” He felt her hair brush his chin.
“Yes, Princess. Just like Daggon and Eyolf.”
“And you?” she asked.
Aaric placed a hand to her forehead.
“And I,” Aaric whispered. Threads of gold, like sand, flowed from his hand and encompassed Kallan’s head. Through her body, he reached with his Seidr until he located and linked the golden strands within that harbored her power. One by one, he tugged on the strands, and pushed his own Seidr inside them until his Seidr bound hers and pulled and changed its direction.
“And Gudrun,” Aaric said. “Just like Gudrun.”
He withdrew his Seidr, leaving hers alone to flow in the new direction. Already, the child slept. Carefully, he laid her back on his bed, pulled his furs up around her neck, and kissed her brow.
“Goodnight, Princess,” he muttered.
Several times, he rubbed his hand over his face and made his way to the balcony.
He needed air.
The sea crashed upon the jagged rocks that made up the base of the keep carved into the mountainside. The black waters greeted him as coldly as a late winter chill. Aaric breathed deep the sea air, expanding his chest as far as it would go. Before he released that breath, he knew she was there.
“What did you do to her?” Fand said.
Slowly, Aaric turned his head to the woman leaning too lax against his balcony. Her golden irises gleamed with that same nonchalance that urged him to attack her.
“I sealed off her memories,” he answered with a tone of disgust and pulled his attention from the goddess.
Fand tucked a strand of black hair behind her white, tapered ear.
“It won’t work,” she chimed, too happily for the dreary mood of the keep.
Aaric stared at the generous curves of her body.
“What are you doing here, Fand?”
“You didn’t kill her.”
Aaric looked back. The nonchalance was gone. In its place, fury peered from her golden eyes. “Our agreement was that you kill her.”
“I didn’t agree, you proposed,” Aaric said. “I’m not going to kill a child.”
“She won’t always be.”
Aaric took a step toward the railing, adding several feet of space between them.
“She’s hidden,” he said. “Danann won’t find her. She doesn’t even know Kallan exists.”
“You think Danann won’t find out?” Fand pushed off the railing. “Granddaughter to the Great Drui and you think Danann can’t find her.”
Fand stepped in, closing the space Aaric had reserved between them.
“Kira is dead,” Fand said, shoving her face uncomfortably close to Aaric. “Danann is hunting you and Gudrun.”
Aaric’s throat tightened at the sound of Kira’s name.
“Kira didn’t make it,” he said and formed a fist when Fand cocked her hand and feigned pity.
“Oh, so sorry.”
“We’ve blocked Danann’s vision,” Aaric said. “We blocked her sight. Danann can not find us.”
Fand shrugged with a grin that encouraged Aaric to leap off the balcony.
“There is still Volundr,” Fand said.
Aaric’s back stiffened as he held his breath. “Volundr is—”
“Unpredictable.” Fand smiled. The moon did well to illuminate her face. Aaric had to force himself to look away.
“He doesn’t know where Kallan is,” he said, knowing how little that mattered.
“It’s Volundr,” Fand said. “He will find out.”
“Gudrun and I are both with her.”
“Gudrun isn’t.” Fand tipped her head ever so slightly. The black strand of hair fell back to her face. “Where is Gudrun, Aaric?”
“I don’t know.”
He felt her eyes scrape over him.
“You’re telling the truth,” she said. He could hear her smile fall. “You really don’t know.”
The space between them eased as he felt Fand back away.
“That child is better off dead than alive to me,” Fand said over her shoulder. “If Danann even suspects there was a child—”
“You will not kill Kira’s daughter,” Aaric said, meeting Fand’s narrow eyes.
“She would never have you.”
Fand turned and walked to the edge of the balcony. The wind whipped her black hair about.
“Where are you going?” Aaric called.
“If the mood suits her, Danann can track me,” Fand answered, staring out over the sea. “If I stay too long, it will raise questions. Once Danann withdraws her troops from Svartálfaheim, she will begin looking for you. And Gudrun. Once that happens, if I go near that child, Danann will find her.”
“You will not kill Kira’s daughter.”
“You can have your precious princess,” Fand said and released a chuckle. “But the moment Danann finds her, the moment that child knows…I’m coming for her.”
Aaric paid no mind as Fand took the shape of a raven. With feathers as black as her hair, she flew into the night, leaving Aaric alone with his princess.
Ten years later…
Swann pushed open the heavy oak door of Rune’s chambers. The hinges whined and her silver eyes peered through the crack. The sitting room was empty.
Braver than she had been a moment ago, the girl threw open the door, slipped into her brother’s bower, and quietly closed the door behind her with her back pushed flat against the oak.
The hem of her silk chemise caressed her bare toes. Her golden locks framed her slender face before falling to her knees. A soft smile pulled her lips and, as she pushed herself off the door, she brought her hands to her front, clasping a small box filled with her newest treasure.
Skipping lightly, she crossed the Eastern rug that spanned the length of the grand sitting room. Dyed with reds and gold, the rug filled the sitting room with regal warmth and caressed the tips of her toes as she made her way to the dresser to rummage through her brother’s things.
Rich wood decorated every corner and ornamented the wardrobe, the tables, and the mantle. The desk, the chairs, even the wooden framework surrounding the doors and each of the four windows was ornamented with the craft of the Ljosalfar woodcutters. Few could claim their equal.
Humming a ditty, Swann arrived at her brother’s desk and riffled, combed, and turned over each artifact.
“Sing and skip o’er Faerie mounds,” she sang as she inspected a broken piece of thick, green glass that had come from the Desert Markets. “O’er the hill and through the dalr.”
Swann moved on to the center window and welcomed the earliest of morning light. A recurve bow and quiver resting in a chair didn’t interest her. Nor did the collection of sharpened swords splayed out on a corner table.
With a deep breath, she leaned out the window. Ignoring the courtyard below, she looked to Lake Wanern where the longboats creaked in port. Swann widened her smile at the sunlight and morning breeze as she turned her gaze to the east, beyond the city’s end and across the river to the Alfheim Wood.
A groan from the bedchamber pulled her from the window, and Swann grinned with rejuvenated excitement. Pushing off the window’s sill, she ran to the bedroom as if ready to burst from the news she was eager to tell.
* * *
Encumbered with sleep, Rune lay buried beneath a mountain of blankets, furs, and pillows.
“Rune,” Swann said in singsong.
He knew her voice, but couldn’t move to answer. A weight in the dreaming was holding him still.
“Wake up,” she said.
But Rune didn’t wake. Instead, the voice penetrated his dream and became part of it.
“Rune,” she said as she climbed his body like the steps of Jotunheim and sang, her voice as crisp as fresh fallen snow on ice:
“Sing and skip o’er Faerie mounds,
O’er the hill and through the dalr,
Where sleep’s joy spins my dreams.
There the moonlight finds its beam.”
Clutching her small box, Swann slipped on Rune’s hip and caught herself before breaking off into the second verse.
“Sing and skip o’er Faerie mounds,
O’er the hill and through the dalr,
Where the rolling brook doth play,
O’er the hill and far away.”
Without hesitation, Swann projected her voice into the morning air that blew in with the breeze through Rune’s chamber window. As Swann climbed and chanted, her locks spilled over the blankets like sunlight. Swann succeeded in perching herself atop Rune and shoved her face so close, the tip of her nose grazed his.
“Rune,” she shouted, pulling Rune from his dream.
With a howl, Rune pushed a pillow into his sister’s face, sending her falling onto her back with the pillow, her box, and her golden tresses. Undaunted, Swann jumped up and slapped the pillow back on Rune, who had pulled his blankets over his head. Before he could groan, Swann broke off into another verse.
“Sing and skip o’er Faerie mounds,
O’er the hill and through the dalr,
Where the ancient scrolls doth lay.
Think of their secrets far away.
“Ruuuuuuuuune,” Swann said, relinquishing the pillow.
“Whaaaaaaaaaaat?” The furs on Rune’s head muffled his voice.
“Great! You’re awake.”
With a hop, Swann said, “Rune, come. You must see. You must see. I’ve found one!”
Swann squealed as she bounced on her knees beside him.