Two house elves search for a magical sword to slay a kraken
|Aira led the brownies. Every step she took, the land became more familiar and her movements surer. Though she took paths she remembered, this wavered between being haunting and a chore. At last, only a final couple of hills lay between the brownies and the village Aira once called home.|
Hovering on the edge of the camp whilst her friends lit a fire and prepared supper, Aira knew the time had come for her to slip away towards the village where she grew up. For long years she sought to find the sword forged by her father. Perhaps his vision of it being used to slay the kraken might not be unfounded after all…
Stepping down the worn rocks peeping from the grassy hillside, Aira wondered if she should have let the others know where she went. Going alone would be more inconspicuous to Krysila’s spies and keep her friends safe, even if she would have welcomed company.
Quentillian hailed her from behind and she paused. ‘Aira, wait!’
Glancing back, Aira noticed Boroden shift from his seat on a tree stump far from the camp fire as Quentillian approached. Aira hated to see Boroden’s grief so dense about him. He hung back from the clan, as if hoping against hope to see Carnelian alive and returning to him. Carnelian’s loss appeared to Aira like the finest tree in a copse had fallen, a gap that would always be obvious. Painfully, she sensed that Boroden stood behind this gap, without his kind adviser to support him in a storm. If Carnelian were gone, then she must take his place and be there for Boroden. Carnelian would want that.
Concern for Boroden cooled Aira’s keenness for the mission to lead the clan towards the village, then reclaim the sword.
Quentillian heaved in a breath as he came to Aira’s side, his jowly face flushed after his exertion scrambling down the hillside after her. ‘Where are you going?’
‘To fetch the sword.’
Quentillian huffed. ‘Wait. You can’t go to that village alone. It isn’t safe.’
‘She’s not going alone.’ Aira found Boroden behind her. The comforting strength in his steady gaze gladdened her, indicating that he moved on from his grief over losing Carnelian.
Gratefully she took his offered hand, needing him with her at this moment more than at any other time.
Aira glanced back at Quentillian. ‘Let the others know where we’ve gone, Quentillian. Wait here safe until we return.’
She and Boroden went on together, the only sound their companionable footfalls.
Boroden gazed at the rolling, moss-green hills. ‘These braes must be quite familiar to you.’
‘Yes. They seem so now, although that’s strange. When I was young I only came here a few times. They appeared on the edge of my world then.’
Boroden nodded and kept at her side.
Aira rummaged through her mind for something to say to him, finding this hard for the occasion before her was so close to her heart. Then she realised that there was no need to talk. In that familiarity forged of long years shared, she sensed he knew how she felt.
Aira relaxed, letting the rhythm of her footsteps and the song of the wind absorb her. It was enough that Boroden accompanied her.
‘Is that the dell where I saw you when I fled from Midhir?’ he asked, pointing into the distance. ‘It’s such a lovely, peaceful place, like stepping into heaven.’
Aira smiled. ‘It’s its wild self as ever. It’s strange… I wanted more than anything to see my home again, but now I’m wary. I’m afraid it’s changed, and I don’t want it to be.’
Voicing her fears somehow made them easier to come to terms with. She ploughed resolutely towards the summit of the hill, preparing to shrink once she came in view of the village in case unfriendly eyes spotted her.
She went on more boldly than she felt. ‘A few more steps and I’ll see it.’
The ground where the village once stood now appeared like a hideous scar, gouged and charred. Every tree lay shattered and uprooted, every inch of turf overturned.
An upwelling of horror made Aira give a choked cry. ‘It looks horribly like someone’s been searching for something.’
Boroden’s lips tightened after he surveyed the destruction. ‘The sword?’
‘That was our cottage,’ Aira whispered, gesturing limply. Her former home stood broken, eaten by moss and ivy.
Boroden took her hand. She hugged him, craving his comforting presence.
‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered, drawing back when he made no responding movement, acutely aware that he was the king and she the humble swordsmith’s daughter.
To her relief, she realised that such a consideration had not struck Boroden. He had been gazing too intently on the desolation before them to respond to her. Her words brought him away and he pressed her hands sympathetically. ‘I know how you must feel. I don’t want to look on Velmoran desecrated like this.’
‘It’s not just that. It’s Father. He must be there, down in the cottage. Gretchen and I couldn’t bury him…’ Aira feared she was becoming treacherously emotional, but Boroden’s expression kindled with compassion.
‘I forgot,’ he said, stumbling for words. Then he set himself resolutely down the slope. Aira had led, now she gratefully let him to go first.
The very ground reeked of danger, an affront to what had been her beloved childhood home. Chill gusts shivered up. Strange shadows fell from overhead that seemed to have no source until Aira noticed the crow circling, circling. She nodded to Boroden. He spotted it too and frowned. Aira shivered, knowing there was nothing they might do to prevent it taking back some ill-omened report to Krysila if it spied for her.
The ground lay cratered treacherously beneath Aira’s feet, a jumble of tree limbs, shattered gates and toppled walls obstructing her way. Piles of soil ridged up so high that in places the cottage became lost from view.
Heart lurching as a tree root tripped her, Aira steadied herself against Boroden who reached out to her.
Boroden set her straight on her feet and looked about. ‘You said you buried the sword beneath a tree. Which one is it?’
‘I’m not sure. That is, two holly trees stood together in the field behind our cottage, but it looks like they haven’t survived,’ Aira said, her voice hasty with distress.
Passing the cottage that had once belonged to Maggie Moloch, the brownie matron, with its roof slates falling off in scales, Aira stumbled upon the remains of the bridge over the beck where she and her father used to race sticks. Now the stream gurgled in an ugly morass of mud that clawed at her boots.
Aira stared, horrified by the desolation. ‘Who would do such a thing? Midhir? He had my bracelet Bresil said.’
‘I doubt he’d go to such lengths. He’s too idle,’ Boroden replied bitterly.
‘The kraken has many servants — ogres, giants and burrowing goblins. The sword is sought both by her and us. It looks like she’s got here first.’
‘But how would she know that King Gruagach had it forged?’
‘She knows,’ Boroden said, turning towards the next cottage.
The silence that followed seemed a reprimand. Aira worried she had unknowingly said what should remain unsaid.
As she reached the threshold of the swordsmith’s cottage, Boroden recalled his gentle manner to her. ‘You want to go in? The sword can wait.’
The wind clattered and shrieked in the frail, exposed rafters. The crow started away.
Boroden drew his sword and took Aira’s arm, peering into the cottage. The door lay collapsed from the blows of Midhir’s guards.
‘There’s nothing to hurt us,’ Boroden said.
Aira knew from his solemn look that he had seen already. A mere pace from the doorway lay Airen’s remains, now nothing more than a rain bleached pile of bones shoved to the side by whatever vile creatures had ransacked the cottage of its valuables.
A gleam caught Aira’s attention. A single brass button hid amongst the leaves blown though the door. It was all that remained of Airen’s attire, the other buttons, his ring and locket, doubtless having been plundered. Aira doubled over with a stab of grief, tears scalding her eyes. Airen’s degradation sharpened the pain of mourning.
Boroden knelt beside her. ‘I know it sounds strange, but you should take comfort that you’re here now and know the worst. We can bury him with the honour he deserves. But Carnelian… we’ll never know.’
Aira wiped her eyes, sniffing back tears. ‘He’s not dead. I’d feel it if he were, I’m sure.’
‘I’m glad you’re not the only one who hasn’t given up hope. I want to go back and look for him. He was like a father to us. How can I ever face Gretchen again not having tried my upmost to find him? I didn’t want to leave behind your back, though I know I’ll have to with the others. They’ll try and stop me. I know you won’t.’
Aira nodded forlornly and stumbled to her feet. Her world appeared to shatter like this cottage.
The cupboard lay thrown to the ground, and each drawer and door of the dresser yawned. A dark stain like blackberry juice splashed about the walls and pooled upon the beaten earth floor.
‘Kraken ink.’ Boroden cast a woeful look about the interior with its ragged thatch and rotting ribs of roof beams.
Stepping over the dry ink, the skeletal remains of kraken parasites crunched beneath Aira’s feet. She held herself stiffly. She feared that Krysila had a hand in the desecration about the swordsmith’s dwelling, but to know it for sure made things look bleak. Did Krysila already have the sword? Did she gloat in triumph this moment, planning to ambush the hapless brownies? Judging by the gouges and chunks of earth thrown up, the size of the cottage itself, Krysila’s minions might accomplish anything.
Wrecked upon the ink mark lay the little chest in which Airen kept his precious possessions. It lay empty and corroded, the lock of Freya’s hair tangled and mired with ink.
A torn and scrunched ball of parchment quaked in a corner of the chest. Aira carefully flattened it out. It was the cover protecting Frenudin’s book. Freya had written upon it in her clear, neat handwriting:
‘My daughter. Be gentle to all, hold love in your heart, persevere and remember that there is no such rose as virtue.’
These last words brought back to Aira the words of the meek, hopeful song that Airen played on his pear wood recorder whilst she, busy dusting the room, hummed along.
‘What is it?’ Boroden asked softly, coming to her side. She showed him.
‘You have done your mother proud. Except that instead of a rose I think snowdrop suits you better. You’re a strong, slender little thing in a bleak world where you shouldn’t be. I’m surprised at you for getting this far. You should think it a great achievement, whether we find the sword or not.’
Heartened by Boroden’s praise, Aira turned to him with her eyes wide in appeal. ‘Help me bury him.’
Boroden nodded and accompanied her back to where Airen’s remains lay.
Airen’s bones had been tumbled amongst fractured wood, rusting pots and autumn leaves, making it no easy task for Aira and Boroden to find them. Aira combed over the area again and again, fearing to leave any part of him unfound.
‘I’m going to bury him on the hill where the other brownies are waiting. It’s still and peaceful up there, looking down on the village. I don’t like to bury him too close by in case Krysila comes again.’
Boroden added Airen’s femur to the sack that Aira formed from a water stained curtain. ‘We must search for the sword first.’
‘Hmm,’ Aira mumbled, tucking her father’s skull on top of the pile of bones. It was not hard to imagine his likeness from it. Aira did not know whether this unnerved or reassured her.
Appearing from nowhere, a squall of wind buffeted the cottage.
Boroden shuddered. ‘I’ve an awful feeling that we’re being watched. We’ll leave out of the crack where the wall has crumbled, not the door. It’ll make our movements unpredictable.’
Aira followed Boroden outside. They hastened hunched, like they walked against an oncoming storm, although wariness made them move so, not the callous gusts. The crow still hovered overhead.
Aira held the makeshift winding sheet tightly over her shoulder, scanning the wounded countryside. Every clue in the terrain, every tree, was gone. Her heart sank.
Boroden turned to her, his expression appealing for guidance. ‘Whereabouts is the spot?’
Cringing, Aira stopped and delved back through her memories.
‘You don’t know?’ Boroden asked with a catch in his voice.
‘Wait. Let me think.’ Aira stopped often, her whiskers quivering. ‘We hid the sword under two holly trees.’
‘Well, there’s no trees here. Krysila already has the sword. She must do.’
Boroden paused hesitantly, his toe coming against a stump poking from the battered earth. Hacked and burned, it appeared jagged and blackened, like a rotten tooth. Yet its taller half revealed smooth silvery-grey bark.
Aira caught her breath. ‘It’s a holly tree.’
Close beside it crouched another stump, the top of its roots protruding from the earth like spider legs.
‘Thunor taught me some tree speech whilst we stayed with the dryads,’ Aira said.
‘What good is it? They’re dead.’
‘No,’ Aira replied, gazing hopefully at a shoot not much higher than her hand that rose from the base of one of the stumps. ‘You’re hiding low my dear tree, but you know evil cannot win. You’ve kept alive, waiting. I’m so grateful for that. Now I ask you to give up what Father and I entrusted to you.’ Aira spoke gently, keeping her hand upon the tree stump.
Boroden stepped back in alarm. The ground cracked and bucked beneath his feet. A hedge of fine roots like hair burst up. Then larger roots, like branches, groped in their midst. They paused a moment, the tension in the wood building. A broad claw of roots reared like a snake. Something gleamed at their heart.
Boroden gave a cry and made to snatch the sword, but the holly roots twisted away from him, proffering it to Aira. She tore off its frail shroud of leather and brandished it over her head. She allowed herself only an instant of reverie. Then she must pass the weapon to Boroden. As she turned towards him the sword flashed a keen gold like freshly sprung flame. She thrust it downwards in alarm, quenching the light too late. It would be visible for miles. The crow flustered away, cawing.
Boroden gasped. ‘What happened then?’ His expression changed to anxious thoughtfulness. He turned to look behind him. Amongst the high black range of forest a few flecks of harvest moonlight penetrated through. ‘The moon. Of course. It draws its power from the moon,’ he muttered.
Everything around Aira was still, the twilight empty, like a held breath before an attack. Amongst the ruined village anything might lurk.
Boroden cast her an urgent look. ‘We must be gone. Once we reach the wood around the bottom of the hill we’ll be hidden. The clan will be close by.’
He sprinted away, keeping the sword wrapped beneath his cloak and looking back to check she followed him.
Aira pushed herself to exhaustion to keep up with his taller, more athletic figure. She gave a startled cry when another crow beat into the darkening sky. Had it too been watching them?
Boroden glanced back at her anxiously. ‘Are you all right? Am I going too swiftly for you?’
‘I’ll manage, but I have little legs.’
She ran on, jolting across the pitted earth. Boroden kept glancing back, both at Aira and the moon which rose higher, soon to come into sight above the trees.
‘It’s good of you to keep looking after me. It must be a nuisance to keep looking round,’ Aira panted.
‘It would be more of a nuisance if I lost you,’ he replied, making her smile.
Suddenly he stopped. Fear rushed though her. But he only wished to hand her the sword. ‘It would be safer with you for the moment. You’ve already worked out how to use its magic and they won’t expect you to have it.’
Aira hugged the sword close and started away, the intervening space to the woods seeming more gruelling for the stop. Relief surged through her as the ferns closed in and she allowed herself to snatch some respite. Looking back under the eaves of the wood, she drank in a last view of the ruins of her childhood home outlined in moonlight.
As her gaze drew back, something jarred her nerves. A movement in the shadows? Again. Something moved there, keeping low in the pitted ground. No, not merely one. Many.
The earth appeared to erupt as redcaps pulled themselves to their feet.