Brandt

Brandt found himself next to his bed, sword in hand, with his mind catching up more slowly. His heart was racing from the nightmare that had shocked him awake and out of bed, groping for a sword he wasn’t carrying. A nightmare he could not remember.

At the other side of the bed Oboru was coming to a crouch, a pained expression and a faint light surrounding his hands, flickering a few times and then vanishing. The man groaned in pain and sagged to the ground.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” he muttered.

A whimper from the next room drew his attention.

Keri.

In one step he reached the door and tore it open. The last door to the exit to the garden was opened at the same time. A wild eyed Talya came out, wearing nothing but her long knife. She saw Brandt and her eyes narrowed briefly, before she caught herself. “Keri is … hurt,” she said.

“Oboru!” Brandt shouted as he pushed past Talya.

There was the sound of something being knocked over before the other man came through the door with a pained expression, hopping on one foot. He was also pulling down his shirt to protect his dignity, though neither Brandt nor Talya paid any attention.

“What?” he asked.

Brandt nodded at Talya.

“Smoke,” the pale woman said. “Mel is doing something but she needs help.”

She pulled Oboru past Brandt and into the crowded room the three women were sharing. With room and bed the same size as the men’s Brandt had been really glad there were only him and Oboru sharing theirs. Getting a third man in there would have been quite a bit more intimate than he would have been comfortable with. The women hadn’t seemed to mind though, or if they did they managed to keep it to themselves.

All those petty thoughts fled out of his mind though as he caught his first glimpse of Keri after following the other two in the now extremely crowded room.

She was lying on top of the bed, completely rigid. Her back was arched and her arms were bent. It was as if she was frozen in the middle of a convulsion.

Brandt surged forward but grunted in surprise as Talya grabbed him around the neck to keep him back.

“Don’t,” she hissed.

“What?”

“Look at her. It is not safe.”

Shocked by her action, Brandt looked at what was really going on.

Like, he was chagrined with himself for realising, he should have done first thing.

Melissa was kneeling on the bed, next to Keri. She wasn’t wearing anything either but somehow on her it did look natural. Shaking himself mentally he looked closer yet, trying to see what Talya wanted him to notice.

There was something subtly wrong with the picture the two women presented. Keri was frozen in mid motion, and Melissa, she looked scared.

She also glowed. Faintly, but there was a golden glow to her skin that was unmistakable once he noticed. In fact seeing it seemed to strengthen the effect.

“What magic is this?” Brandt exclaimed.

“Look!” Talya hissed.

As he looked Brandt noticed another effect, so subtle it was only revealed by Melissa’s glow. But like the glow, once he noticed it seemed to strengthen until he didn’t understand how he could have not seen it all the time.

“What. How. How did you know?”

Talya held up her dagger as if that was answer enough.

After a moment the same smoke came into focus for him around the dagger that was also wavering over Keri like a heat mirage.

“Is that?”

She nodded, “It … infested my dagger when I used it to draw the blankets away from Keri.”

Brandt eyed the blade warily.

“How did you know? About the … shadow?”

“Melissa did,” Talya answered after a brief hesitation. “When she started praying I could see the … smoke as you call it.”

“Praying? Wait, it is no smoke?”

Talya sighed. “It is not smoke. It is not fire either. The blanket is gone though. It blew away like ashes, sort of, when I pulled it off her. That’s not the important thing though.”

“Magic” Brandt spat.

“Not magic. Praying. Try to pay attention.”

Brandt scoffed at the notion.

“Oh, for Darkness sake. Is this going to be like you and magic again?”

“Are you serious? Old men muttering silly old words and waving images around is supposed to do something?”

She cast him a look of pure disgust.

“What is wrong with you people here? You don’t believe in magic. You don’t understand priests. Real priests. Do you even believe in people living outside the borders of your little Kingdom?”

Brandt suppressed an unexpected surge of anger. Feeling this strongly about his homeland came as a bit of a surprise. He had thought himself past caring. Early military training had attempted to instil a sense of patriotism in him, and for a few years he had felt proud, but over the years it had faded away into nothingness. Or so he had thought until Talya’s scolding had fanned the embers.

“This isn’t the time to talk about childish superstitions,” he bit back angrily.

“Oh for Dark … Mercies sake,” Talya exclaimed. “Grow up will you.”

She lowered her voice at the frosty glance she received from Oboru.

“You know magic is real. I know you do. You knew it ever since we fought the Darkwalker. Why suddenly being so pigheaded about it again?”

Brandt took several deep breaths to get his anger under control.

Slowly his heart stopped racing and the buzzing in his head receded, until he could think clearly again. Or at least clear enough to think for himself. Mostly.

“The forest,” he explained tersely. “It can reach us even here.”

Talya muttered a string of curses in a guttural language that Brandt was entirely unfamiliar with. He had the vague impression of the room rippling, though only out of the corner of his eye. He blinked, and it was over. The room was normal again.

Or, looking at it from the corner of his eyes, he realised that the same smoke that curled up from Talya’s dagger, and that was wafting around Keri, had spread to the corners and ceiling of the little bedroom.

“Crap, it’s spreading,” he exclaimed.

Talya and Oboru looked at him sharply. Then both nodded. Oboru turned his attention back to Melissa, who in turn had remained oblivious to the angry shouting around her.

“Magic,” Brandt muttered. Too softly for Talya to pick up.

Louder, though only barely, he asked of nobody in particular, “what is going on? What can we do?”

Talya remained silent. Oboru was too, for a long time. But unlike Talya he was observing intently, his hands moving slowly over Melissa’s trembling body in what seemed to be a deliberate but extremely complicated pattern.

At length Oboru spoke, not taking his eyes off his hands or Melissa’s body. Under any other circumstances it would have been obscene, but it was obvious that the short bronze skinned man was not even seeing a body. Brandt could not begin to imagine what he was seeing instead. More of the magic probably that he still did not really want to believe in, despite all evidence to the contrary.

“It is not magic, exactly” Oboru said. He was speaking softly. “It is … light.”

Talya swore.

“You seem unusually well educated to understand the difficulty.”

“Can either of you explain what in the name of Mercy you two are talking about?” Brandt said, his anger surging again.

“Temper,” Oboru cautioned him.

Brandt bit back on an angry retort, realising that his anger was caused by something outside him. It was still hard to resist because it was still his anger that was amplified. Or dragged out of his unconsciousness. He also stared impassively at Oboru, demanding an answer.

Talya looked on, pretending to not have heard the question, or the anger.

“The giant woman is using light. To try to burn the darkness away,” Oboru explained.

Brandt didn’t think it explained nearly enough so he just kept staring at the strange short man who had fallen into their laps out of, nothing really.

Oboru clearly felt he had explained all he needed to.

“So, why don’t we get a lot of lanterns in here?”

Talya snorted.

“Light of fires is … useless,” Oboru said with a deep sigh.

“Not useless,” Talya amended. “Ineffective,”

Oboru turned to look at her sharply, “and how do you know?”

The short woman look at him impassively.

“Very well. You are right though. Ineffective. Firelight is born of destruction. It purifies, but, at a cost. It always destroys more than it cleanses.” He sighed.

Talya could not help but show off, “Melissa’s light you could not even see. But it keeps the clouds of Darkness from expanding. A simple lantern would not even affect it.”

Oboru looked at her, eyes brimming with suspicion, “Sunlight might though.”

“That’s a big fire,” Talya conceded.

Brandt growled a little, “more focus please? What can we do to help Keri?”

“Melissa’s light just is. You could call it divine if you please. It is not tainted, and so it works against this cloud of darkness. But, she is not strong and she can not drive it off. A priest, a real one, could. Maybe. But from your reaction I understand there is not any hope to find such a one.”

The small man faltered.

“I am not specialised in the magics of light. There is no need for it … where I come from.”

He paused in thought for a long moment.

“Are mirrors readily available? Reflective surfaces?”

Brandt was startled. “I don’t know. I will have to ask.”

“Please do.”

“You have a plan,” Brandt stated flatly.

Oboru nodded. “Light between two mirrors does not escape.”

From the upper floors of the inn could not be clearly heard the cries of panic.

Brandt cursed. “Talya, go round up all victims and have them moved to the main room. I am more likely to convince the innkeeper to give up on his precious mirrors.”

Oboru turned his attention back to Keri and Melissa. “Remind everybody to not touch the affected. Sheets and blankets will carry them as long as they keep touching the body.”

“Yes,” Talya replied as she slid her dress over her head. “I remember.”

“I will help you as soon as I have enough mirrors collected,” Brandt called after her.

Turning to Oboru he asked, “Can you really help?”

“I hope so,” was the unpromising reply. “Magic is slowly returning to me, but touching it still burns me. In my head. I will do what I can for both these women. It is not much and I fear it will not be enough.”

There didn’t seem anything to say after that, so Brandt hurried off to find the innkeeper, fully prepared to take the mirror behind the bar without asking if the innkeeper was not forthcoming.

The innkeeper was in the main room, as panicked as the handful of guests he was trying to calm. It didn’t help that Talya was yelling at him trying to get heard over the bedlam.

“Quiet!” Brandt thundered, with a voice trained to cut through the noise of battle.

Startled everybody turned to look at him.

“There’s some kind of a shadow of fear,” he said before the screaming and wailing could start again. “To destroy it we need light. Lots of light. Talya?”

“Yes … sir?” Talya ground out through clenched teeth.

“You’ve moved a victim without falling under the shadow. Help everybody to move other victims here to this room.”

Talya scowled at him, but did as she was told.

“Follow me,” she said angrily and left the room for the big stairs without waiting to see if anybody followed her. After a moment of stunned silence most of the crowd stampeded after her. Predictably they got stuck in the doorway and the shouting resumed.

“Innkeeper,” Brandt turned his attention to the obsequious man who stood shivering in his nightgown, a stunned expression on his face. “I need all the mirrors in this inn of yours. Anything that reflects light.”

The man paled, “my mirror? You want my mirror?”

Brandt nodded impatiently.

“I will do no such thing.” The outrageous demand made the man forget his unctuous manners.

“It was not a request,” Brandt bit back. “I will be careful with your precious mirror, but that shadow spreads unless we stop it. Here and now.”

The innkeeper glared at him. “You are a common mercenary. You have no business even being in my inn.”

Brandt reached for the sword he was not carrying.

“It was not a request,” he repeated through clenched teeth. “I’m telling you. And if you get in my way I will knock you out.”

Involuntarily the innkeeper took a step back, fear back in his eyes.

“Keep out of the corners,” Brandt told him. “I can see shadows gathering here already.” He hesitated a moment. Unless you want to help carry that mirror? I could use the help and I can’t exactly afford to replace it.”

The angry indignation returned in a flash.

“Guess that’s a no,” Brandt said and walked around the bar. When the innkeeper threatened to move, he raised his fist in warning. “You really don’t want to get too close to me. I might drop the mirror.”

He didn’t add what he thought, that if he dropped this mirror the people trapped in those near invisible shadows might well die, or worse. Instead he experimentally tried to lift the mirror of its hooks.

With a grunt he lowered it back. “It’s too heavy for me alone,” he admitted.

“I told you, you lunatic,” the innkeeper shouted angrily.

Brandt’s temper — still frayed by the influence of the nightmare, and the darkness that had sent it — snapped and came boiling up, threatening to sweep away the last remnants of his common sense. He drew himself up to his considerable height, looked down his nose at the innkeeper in true regal fashion and said menacingly. “That is quite enough of that. Shut up or you will regret it.”

There was a slow clapping from the door.

Syts, a robe thrown hastily over whatever night wear he had been in, stood in the doorway. “Laying it on a bit thick, your highness?” he asked. Then without waiting for an answer he walked up to the bar. “I will try to help you with this mirror.”

Brandt looked ashamed at himself, and refused to look at the expression on the innkeeper’s face, which he suspected had to be a painful mixture of awe and terror.

“I’m no highness, Master Lonwellyn, and I do not believe I could ever lay claim to the title, but if I did, it stopped long ago.”

“Nevertheless,” the elderly bard said. Then, abruptly switching the subject, “I woke up out of a nightmare. Then I heard you shouting about shadows, and I thought I’d come and have a look. Maybe have a bit of a talk about it since I don’t think this quite came up last night.”

Brandt grunted non-committed. “I can lift this mirror by myself if I have to, but it is too unwieldy to carry safely.”

“It looks too heavy for me.”

“Just help me guide this thing around the bar without bumping into anything. I need it whole.”

“Care to enlighten me why you want to steal this mirror while I aid you? I am afraid there was a bit too much shouting on the stairs for me to hear all the details.”

As they carefully guided the mirror, Brandt explained again what Oboru and Talya had told about the shadows and how light might, just might, be used. Moving the mirror with as much caution as was necessary allowed for ample time to get the story told, and to answer the preliminary questions. Mindful of the innkeeper who was hovering nearby, anxious over his precious mirror, Brandt left the more sensitive information unsaid, like the fact that three of his companions were from out kingdom and that there was magic involved.

By the time they had the mirror positioned safely on the floor, leaning against the bar, Syts had time to digest what Brandt had told him.

“We’ll need many more mirrors,” he concluded. “And lanterns I guess?”

Brandt nodded. He was distracted by Talya finally ushering in the first group of people carrying between them a sheet on which an unconscious and greyish looking victim was stretched out. The carriers dropped the victim in front of the mirror, a bit too hurriedly and with clearly visible fear.

Nothing happened.

Everybody turned to look at Talya, who looked defiantly at Brandt.

“Care to get those lights up Brandt? We’re going to get the other five victims down quickly now that I have these fine folk assisting instead of cowering under their beds.”

Brandt and Syts both poorly suppressed a grin. “I think I have the innkeeper ready to cooperate too,” Brand said, casting a frosty glance over his shoulder at the innkeeper.

Syts sighed and turned to the innkeeper, “The idea to use lots of light to drive out shadows makes sense. So let us get as many of the candles from store as we can find.”

After that things moved much more quickly, finally.

Brandt rushed up and down the stairs carrying mirrors he ransacked from the bigger suites. None of them were as big as the one behind the bar, but then few of the local nobility could afford a mirror that big. Unlike the innkeeper Brandt also knew that mirrors came for out-kingdom and not from the King’s palace. One of his first, and few, deployments with the army had been as part of the considerable force that escorted the actual mirror traders as they made their infrequent journey to Kingstown, sometimes not showing up for as much as a decade. Mirrors this big were unusual, even for these mythological mirror makers, and commanded high prices. Most people made do with polished bronze. Which turned out the majority of the mirrors Brandt found and brought down with him.

The end result was not much like what he had envisioned. Instead of the blindingly lit room he wanted, Brandt found himself with seven victims, including Keri, stacked pretty much on top of each other. The big mirror did what it was meant to, but it was not nearly the length of a human, so half the legs stuck out. And the bronze mirrors, and the few tiny actual ones he had been able to commandeer were combined not even as big as the single one, and for the most part not nearly as reflective.

The victims where place as close to the mirrors as possible, and lanterns and candles where placed between the rows of mirrors everywhere they could be given a somewhat stable surface. Still, light was reflected back and forth between the mirrors, amplifying the brightness beyond what could be achieved with lanterns alone.

Talya, with the help of Brandt after he ran out of rooms to search for small mirrors, herded the rest of the guests into the same room. And unfortunately ‘herded’ was the operative word for what they had to do to move the people that were near incoherent with fear.  The temperature inside the inn had continued to drop, and the terror that had shaken everybody out of sound sleep was growing slowly but steadily.

Brandt did not take the time to try to look at them in that strange kind of ‘not quite looking at them’ way to see how many had near invisible shadows clinging to them. He suspected it was all of them,Talya and he included. Knowing wouldn’t make any difference and he didn’t have time or concentration to spare to find out for certain. He had to move everybody into the brightly lit main room, and hope for the best, he guessed. Between what Talya and Oboru had been able to tell him he was out on a very long and creaky limb.

Last to arrive were Oboru and Melissa, carrying the still unconscious Keri. Of all the victims the bard looked the least affected, and Brandt was certain it was Melissa half muttering half singing in an unknown language that made the difference.

There were some gasps of indrawn breath and mutterings of outrage from the cowering guests, for neither Melissa nor Keri was wearing a thing, and Oboru’s robe had frayed and flaked away enough to show he wasn’t wearing anything underneath either, and in fact his robe was more of a reminder at this point than actual clothing preserving his dignity. Like Melissa he seemed oblivious to his state of undress.

Melissa, Brandt noticed, was flagging. Her voice was horse and she wavered on her feet. She had to be kept from collapsing by Oboru, and together they carefully put their patient on top of the pile of victims.

The tall blonde woman knelt at the heads of the victims, barely between the two rows of mirrors if she leaned forward a bit and continued her muttered singsong. At the feet of the victims Oboru did the same.

Gradually the light surrounding Melissa became more noticeable. It was wavering though, fading and strengthening with Melissa’s swaying in her struggle to stay upright and conscious.

Brandt stole a glance at Talya and she, noticing it, nodded once. He was not imagining that the light Melissa created was reflected between the mirrors some, and did slowly, so slowly, deny the shadows their existence, just like a lamp being lit in a room drove the darkness away from everywhere the light could reach.

One of the townsfolk who had taken shelter from the storm got to his feet, followed more slowly by several more.

“This is an outrage, this … mockery of the priests of Mercy. I will not stand for this blasphemy.”

Before he could grab at the oblivious Melissa, Talya stepped between them and shoved her knife in his face.

“The real outrage would be if I stick this dagger between your ribs.” she said. The gleeful menace in her voice made the man take an involuntary step back.

“Or I could stick it in your back. That would probably not kill you, but you would never walk again,” she continued. “Plus, I used this dagger to cut away blankets from these victims, so it is probably tainted by darkness as well. Want to find out what it will do if I cut you with it?”

Brandt could see clearly that Talya had truly no moral qualms about cutting the man’s throat. Or anything really. Had not had any hesitation about killing one of his old comrades either, Brandt realised.

Belatedly he thought he had to interfere before Talya felt she had to kill the man, and the mood in the room would shift from paralysing fear to the kind of violence a terrorised mob was capable of.

“Nobody is mocking anything,” he thundered out in his battlefield trained voice. “Nobody is killing anybody either. The woman is praying for Mercy’s Light, and so should we.”

Over the stunned silence he grabbed a blanket and pulled it away from the victims. Immediately it started flaking away. As Talya had described it it looked a bit like ash blown in the wind, only wool just vanished.

As soon as he put it over Melissa’s shoulders though the fabric gained in stability and remained as it was, a badly fraying blanket. Brandt felt better for seeing Melissa’s dignity protected, and from the slight lightening of the mood in the room, so did the townsfolk. If there were those regretting to see the blonde woman covered up, they were smart enough not to voice it. Brandt suspected that he looked like he felt, in urgent need to vent some of his anger and frustration and fear on somebody deserving.

“Now master Lonwellyn, I trust you know a suitable prayer we could speak? I’d say we all need a little mercy in our hearts, and maybe, some song to stave off the fear for the dark.”

 

 

Advertisements