I Can Fake A Smile

Slowly, winter released its grip on Calder. The weather warmed to a balmy five degrees Celsius. The rain eased up over Calder, and with the coming of nóttleysa came a change of pace for school. Aa was customary across the archipelago, school sessions became a revolving schedule of full school days, half days, and days off of classes. Bregðask wasn’t sure when they instituted the different sessions, but he was pretty sure it was around the time they realized that it would be easier to get kids and heirs well trained if they utilized all the daylight and warmer days they could in the year to cultivate their winter stocks so no one starved through the winter.

Aslog had grown so much stronger over the months since he’d given her the kista, as had Gura. The last time he’d visited them, she was sitting up in bed on her own, working through homework, and eating a full meal. If it continued at this pace, there was a chance that she would be back to school before the year was out.

It had taken three weeks for Gura to find the satchel of money, and the next time he’d seen them, Gura had sobbed into his shoulder before he left, grateful and trying to return the satchel of money he left for them. He took her thanks and told her to use the money to eat, repair their house, and live.

He had no idea what she did with the money, but since then, there were better blankets, more food for both of them, and they both seemed to be getting through the end of winter in one piece. He just hoped that her husband would find himself washed onto the shores of Calder sooner rather than later.

More than anything, for Bregðask at least, the coming of summer and nóttleysa meant that his birthday was nearing. As it was his sixteenth birthday, there was a ritual he had to undergo not just as a young man of Calder, but as the þjóðann. Typically, there was an announcement in the Great Hall that he would be erfingi around that time, though it was legal to wait until he was twenty.

Hilda had explained it once as a “pre-manhood” ritual started back when young men were left to run the house while their fathers went to war at the age of twelve. Over the years, they’d moved it up to sixteen as it seemed more reasonable. He’d jokingly said that Svein would have rather put her in charge if that ever happened and was rewarded with a hug for his effort at humor.

True to Svein’s word, he’d been more or less followed around the island without much time to himself to do much of anything for as long as Svein could find someone to be bothered, and true to Bregðask’s words that hadn’t stopped him in the slightest.

He had all night in his room to practice whatever magic he wanted and his time at the forge to tinker as much as he pleased. There was, of course, the time he spent at school with his head in his magic books and any other magical texts that he could get a hold of at the school’s library. Svein seemed pleased with himself every time Bregðask came home covered in dirt from running drills, but it was nothing compared to the way he went pale whenever Bregðask sat down to eat with him and seemed truly no worse for wear.

“How has training been going?” Svein asked over dinner and even Hilda looked up, shocked that Svein felt the need to ask that question.

Bregðask looked at the man and searched his face. There was something there that Bregðask would have almost called interest. Maybe some skewed sense of bonding because Svein’s father had more or less put Svein through the physical training of a lifetime when he was younger, but Bregðask doubted it.

Calculating.

He smirked and wondered how much of a fool his father thought he was. He’d evaluate this strange surge of vindictiveness another time, but for now, he’d simply indulge it.

“If you’re asking if I’m too tired to read, the answer is no,” Svein set his jaw as Bregðask’s smirk turned into a demon’s smile, “And no, I’m not seeing what’s so great about endless hours of physical activity. I am, however, hungry.”

He pulled another cut of meat onto his plate and continued eating before spooning another large dollop of mashed potatoes onto his plate. He was pretty sure that it was the most he’d ever eaten at one time, and there was something growling in satisfaction in him and grinning as Svein’s face lost all color watching him eat.

It had been like that since the end of March. He thought it was because he was going through so much physical training between Alek and Sordlak and his weekly sessions with Eira, but that didn’t seem to account for it.

He was sleeping more as well and waking up ready to eat everything in the kitchen. It sent him outside at the oddest hours hoping to catch something and, more often than not, to the beach to fish. When he returned with a full basket of fish in the early hours and woke Svein up with the smell of fish, he didn’t feel any way about it.

Svein seemed to be at once horrified and awed at the speed at which he devoured his midnight catches.

Today, Hilda smiled as he tore into another cut of meat, “Seems like you’ll be growing at least a few inches pretty soon.”

“Is that what being hungrier means?” Bregðask asked, “I wonder if I’ll get at least as tall as Mom.”

Svein’s eyes bulged before he stood up and left the table.

Hilda shook her head, “Bregðask.

He shrugged, “He deserved it.”

She chuckled at that, “He did.”

Someone knocked on the front door, and Bregðask’s stomach flipped.

“The goðar are here,” Svein announced as he opened the door.

Bregðask felt his muscles tensing in his back and his entire body grew still.

“Are you alright?” Hilda asked.

He closed his eyes and tried to breathe through the strange reaction. He couldn’t remember why he felt this way, but the goðar always put him on high alert.

“If you would leave,” Ulfarr said primly, his eyes falling on Bregðask with something like a sick fascination, “This isn’t a ritual to be observed by a woman.”

Hilda rolled her eyes and pat Bregðask’s shoulder. He swallowed the protest and narrowed his eyes at the goðar.

“If  you would follow, Bregðask.”

Bregðask stood warily but followed the priests out of the dining room and into the living room. Hilda left the house as had Svein leaving him alone with the goðar and that did nothing to make him relax.

It’s just a ritual cleansing, he thought. It was supposed to do something for his virility as a young man or something to that effect, but he wasn’t entirely sure. It was an archaic practice that meant almost nothing any longer since everyone knew that demons of the caliber the ritual was supposed to exorcise did not actually exist.

He watched them draw the circle and while he didn’t fully understand the runes, he didn’t pick out anything malicious in the configuration, so he kneeled in the center of the drawing and closed his eyes.

Slowly, Ulfarr began to speak, but the words weren’t unfamiliar to him. They prodded something in his chest, and he frowned at the pulse of pain. He looked up at Ulfarr whose eyes betrayed that it wasn’t a simple cleansing ritual. What it was meant to do, he couldn’t know, but he wanted no part in it.

And the foes of Asgard we repel…

Bregðask grunted, and his spine cracked as the runes lit up and pulled him to the ground. He hacked a cough and resisted the pull of it as the room faded away to the scene of the main hall of the small compound on the highest peak of Calder. The chanting had been similar then, but he’d felt smaller, weaker maybe.

He heard the screaming of a baby and tension in his throat as if he’d been screaming for hours. Pain wracked his body, and the scent of burning herbs, sage and wormwort, he was sure, filled his senses. Slowly, he forced his head up to glare at Ulfarr. The man was younger in the vision, at least a decade younger, and the malice was clear on his face.

His body remembered this ritual, and he bared his teeth at the man. Perhaps it was meant to kill him, perhaps it was meant to drive him crazy, but neither would happen if he could help it.

He lifted a hand and slammed his curled fingers into the wooden floorboards until the dented and distorted the runes.

Ulfarr’s eyes widened as the entire spell short-circuited around him with a loud crack and everything turned black.

 

Ulfar stood over Bregðask’s unconscious body and glared at the five finger-sized holes he’d made in the floorboards where he’d curled his fingers into and through the drawn runes. The rest of the goðar murmured between themselves.

“It is too strong in this one, but we understood that would be the case if he is cast spells.”

They’d understood it when he was just a child. Whatever his mother’s lineage was, it was strong enough. The goðar had been controlling the ebb and flow of magic in the populace for generations, careful to keep it contained and preserve the sway of the goðar. Svala had been an exception as her family had been of healers long before the goðar became so prominent. When she died, there would be no other mages of any sort on Calder that was not under the goðar’s control.

“What do we do?”

“We advise the hilmir towards a more drastic approach.”

He headed towards the door. Svein turned from where he paced outside the house.

“It is done. Though, we will speak later, hilmir. I should warn you that it is a longer road ahead than we imagined. More drastic measures will have to be taken.”

Svein remained quiet as Ulfarr left the house.

He walked with his second hand, Villi, who seemed nervous, “It didn’t work. What do we do?”

“Go to the next phase in the plan,” he said easily, “I will send word. Do not worry so much. Everything will work out as planned.”

There was no choice. It had to and Ulfarr would make sure that Calder would remain standing, remain Calder no matter what. If the hilmir’s throne changed clans, it wouldn’t matter so long as a Ragnulf tribe noble clan occupied it.

Svein may not have agreed, but Ulfarr had seen men of power and a man such as the man he would send a message to tonight was not one to be denied what he wanted. He hadn’t asked for much of the goðar, simply intel and to control the number of mages that could potentially be on the island the way they always had.

Then, Svein had to go and marry a Ketill woman. Ulfarr thought it would throw a wrench in the plan, but the man had seemed intrigued by how far they could push Bregðask.

Ketill, especially bregðaskyldr, are highly resilient save for in isolation, the man had told him, Mages and dragons, for the most part, flock together, and without that sense of community they fall into despair, into madness and then into death. Their power does not grow when they are unstable.

Ulfarr had seen hope in that Svein had occupied the hilmir’s throne for years without contention. The entire island had feared Valka and her son, but saw the necessity of their relation to the hilmir line. Once Bregðask was dead, the pact with the Auber tribe could be more readily rendered void, the fear of having a Ketill on Calder’s throne would be gone, and Calder would be freed to return to their more traditional way of life.

All the while, Calder could breathe an easy sigh of relief and evade what was sure to be the end of the governed world as they knew it.

Push him to the edge of the community, drive him to the brink and let him fall over. If that fails, send him to where magic cannot flourish.

Ulfarr thought they had done so, yet it hadn’t been enough.

“No matter how drastic the measure we must take, this has to be done,” Ulfarr said, “The goðar have invested too much time in building a following on Calder to let it go.”

A murmur of agreement went around the group following him, and he readied himself to write to the man who would eventually hold the archipelago for ransom as easy as he controlled dragons.

He snorted. The Ketill tribe thought themselves untouchable and skyldr the lords of all dragons, but what could they do against a dragon god?

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