Aira, a brownie servant girl, rallies against an evil kraken's attempt to break her spirit
|Aira crouched in the corner nearest the door of her cell, waiting for it to open. Straining her pointed ears, she hoped and feared to catch the distant sound of footsteps, or perhaps the slither of a tentacle…
Something stirred in the heavy darkness. High-pitched clicks and squeaks suggested it was only one of the roosting bats. Nothing to fear from them. Aira breathed out an edgy sigh.
Whilst time trickled by with the plinking of water drops, she rehearsed how she would dart behind the stalwart oak door and hide the next time someone came in. With any luck, she might be able to slip out unnoticed while her captors searched the cave for her.
Vile yellow threads of cavern sludge oozed down the walls like venom from a giant spider, congealing into stalagmite fangs. Her throat tightened at the foul odour. She leaned back against the door, her fingers tracing its multitude of scratches, doubtless left by past prisoners.
She focused on the chink of light filtering beneath the door. Though she wanted to ignore her dismal surroundings, the dank air of the cave crushed in on her. In her mind, the clamour from when she and her fellow brownies were captured still rang, threatening to engulf her in a wave of sadness.
She slid her gaze towards the narrowed eye of the door lock, clenching her fists as she plotted her escape plan. The kraken had seized the brownies’ home and then led monsters to capture her and her companions to prevent them from retaking it. How she missed Velmoran, the picturesque brownie citadel where ocean waves projected dancing rainbows onto the roofs of the sea caves into which elven traders sailed their boats. Somehow, she would get it back.
Something slithered along the tunnel outside, heading towards her cell. Aira’s breathing grew ragged as she pushed herself to her feet. The ghastly glow of the lantern light illuminated Krysila’s tentacle wrenching the door back. Propelling herself along using the moisture slicking the cave floor, the kraken slipped inside the cell with the speed of a squid lunging at its prey.
Aria shuddered — no time to enact her escape plan. She knotted her fingers together and faced Krysila. There would be another time to break free.
Krysila selected one of the skins that hung from her tentacles, using magic to make it cloak her sea monster form. Those skins Krysila carried with her… her victims’ hideous fate as the kraken sucked the innards from them… Aira pushed the memories away.
In the kraken’s place stood a quaintly dressed brownie lady, her lips pursed as if she sipped sour milk. Aira’s stomach clenched in loathing of her detestable mockery. Krysila was no House Elf but an evil sorceress of the sea. She used brownie form simply to trick the brownie clan into falling into her clutches. Like the others, Aira had placed her trust in a woman of her own kind, especially since Betaine was beloved by the brownie king, Gruagach.
‘What do you want? Aira demanded.
In the space of a clap, Krysila’s face pressed towards hers. ‘Everything,’ she hissed.
Aira met her captor’s gaze with a steadfast stare.
‘Ah, defiant I see,’ Krysila said. ‘What do you think you can do against me? I was born to be the most powerful sorceress of the sea. Now, with the elixir of immortality found in Velmoran in my grasp, what can I not accomplish?’
‘So, you’ve done all this just for power?’
‘It is my right. What would you puny House Elves do with immortality?’
Aira bit back the retort that any of her brownie friends would make far better use of an immortal life that Krysila did. ‘What are you here for? I’ll never side with you.’
‘You don’t need to. I already have King Gruagach’s support.’
‘Your dupe?’ Aira asked, her tone crisp. ‘He’s not of royal blood, only married into the brownie royal family.’ She steadied her breath, her courage returning as she pictured her beloved, Prince Boroden. She would stand by his cause to the end. ‘Boroden is the true King of the House Elves — I’ll serve no other. And you know that none of my fellow brownies will either, for our kind swore an oath to only obey the true descendants of Velmoran’s first king and queen.’
Krysila bared her teeth. ‘The coastal land of Velmoran is mine now.’ Her jaw twitched in annoyance. ‘Don’t forget that.’
Aira’s heart skipped a beat. Had her words made Krysila hesitant to kill Boroden? They would certainly reinforce what King Gruagach said earlier when he begged the kraken to stay her wrath, arguing that the brownie clan would be outraged by his son’s death.
‘Prince Boroden is unfit to rule as king. His health shall soon be broken after a spell of torture in my dungeons.’ Krysila gave a ghastly smile. ‘If you want to survive, you brownies have no choice but to obey Gruagach. I’m sure that, with my prompting, father and son will come to agree. Perhaps Boroden will reveal where he hid the sword of Talibereth metal forged to kill me? That is, if you don’t know already and want to tell me so I’ll spare him?’
One of the first things Krysila’s servants did was to search Aira and her companions and take their weapons. Krysila must not have been given the Talibereth sword despite the fact that it had been taken from her. What had happened to it?
Coming around behind Aira, Krysila grabbed her arms. Aira forced herself to remain stiff and resisting.
Several of the knights who served Krysila’s daughter, Leanan Sídhe, were poised in the tunnel outside. Aira flinched. Presumably Krysila had ordered them to wait there to grab her should she try and flee. At the front of the knights stood Vortimus, a hot-headed changeling man whom Aira loathed, for he would think nothing of hurting a brownie to stay in Krysila’s good books. Twice the height of a brownie, the human man made an intimidating sight.
Vortimus stepped forward. ‘Shall we take her?’
Krysila raised her hand and thwacked the air, making the men start back. ‘No, I’ll deal with this puny House Elf. I want to feel her fear.’
As Krysila herded her forward, Aira struggled against her superior strength. Her feet slipping on the damp rock, Aira involuntarily clutched at Krysila to steady herself. Beneath her fingers, the arm of the brownie woman twisted into the muscular bulk of a tentacle, cold as dead flesh. Squeezed in the clutch of Krysila’s tentacle, Aira found herself dragged along. The red glow from the lanterns fixed to the walls slashed the interior of the tunnel into a disorienting ribcage of gloom and light.
‘Where are you taking me?’ Aira asked.
‘I said I’d break your mind — I mean to begin.’
Aira fought to control the shiver running through her at Krysila’s response. She would stand her ground and not give the kraken the satisfaction of knowing how terror boiled inside her.
Krysila threw her into a cell in the loneliest corner of the Unseelie dungeons.
‘Don’t let her out until tomorrow at the soonest,’ Krysila commanded the knights, locking the door.
Aira exhaled a long breath. Was solitary confinement all Krysila could throw at her?
Her eyes adjusting to the dark of the cave, she discovered its walls were covered with sharp white crystals. Foreboding of something living, breathing and brooding somewhere within the cavern seeped into her, and she shivered with revulsion. Was there some ancient, evil magic at work here?
With her mouse-like whiskers twitching, Aira explored her new surroundings. Stepping forward, she shrieked. She teetered, hovering on the precipice — nothing stopping her hurtling down.
The plunge over the brink came both lightning fast and sickeningly slow. Unfriendly thorns and rocks rushed closer, but ever a long way off. The fall went on forever — surely an entire day must have passed? Her body thrummed with pain and her mind whirled feverishly. About to hit the rock, she shrieked. Thrusting out her hands to try to stop herself from getting crushed, she found only nothingness.
Something groped at her hand in the shadows. Fingers. Clammy, dead fingers. It was her mother, Freya, her face white with agony. Aira wanted to save Freya, to take away her pain, but she could do nothing. A croon of screams filled her mind. Were they hers or her mother’s? She could not bear that Freya was cursed to be a banshee because of her untimely death in childbirth.
Cowering down on the dank stone floor of the cell as the nightmares ended, Aira gulped back sobs as she caught the sound of footsteps outside. She prayed Krysila would not come and see her like this.
Serena shoved back the door. ‘Lady Leanan bade me bring you victuals. She didn’t want you starving in this torture chamber.’
The lady-in-waiting led her to an adjoining room where a platter of food and a pitcher of water stood on a low table. The room was so sparsely furnished that Aira had no seat, but her legs buckled beneath her, and she gratefully sank onto the floor to take her meal. At least it felt drier than the dank cavern where she had previously been, even if contact with the floor did leave a dusting of grey on her woad blue dress.
‘Get some rest. You won’t be allowed out forever,’ Serena said, turning on her heel with a disdainful swish of silk and locking Aira in.
Aira waited until Serena’s footsteps had died and her breathing grew more regular before picking up the plate of food. Even then she shook so much that it made eating and drinking difficult. She gulped mouthfuls of foyson, the essence of food that faeries survive upon, without tasting a morsel. Wrapped in her cloak for comfort, sleep claimed her, heavy and dreamless.
All too soon, Serena jolted her awake.
Aira brushed back her hair as it fell over her fatigue weighted eyes. What a mess — after her ordeal in the cell, her neat golden braid frayed like a shabby straw mat. Brushing a stray lock of hair from her eyes, she faced Serena. ‘I must see Krysila.’
Though she imagined it would be fruitless, Aira would demand to be imprisoned alongside Boroden and her kin, even if it cost her life.
Serena regarded Aira coolly. ‘Krysila has returned to Velmoran, leaving Lady Leanan in charge.’
‘Then I’ll speak to her.’
‘She lies sick. It’ll have to wait until tomorrow,’ Serena said, ushering her back to her cell.
Aira told herself to pull together the courage to face the ordeals ahead. Yet, as she reached the door, terror petrified her. Serena shoved her inside.
A jarring pain tore through her knees as she fell, impacting on rough stone. Gritting her teeth she struggled up, finding herself a small bairn again on the day Velmoran was destroyed by the kraken. She must run. They were coming. The bloodthirsty shrieks of the hobyahs echoed as they tore after screaming brownies fleeing the destruction of the palace.
A cackle erupted close by. The sound of her bursting open the locked nursery door must have alerted the monster. Tearing towards the stairs, she darted a look back at her pursuer. The hobyah closed in, waving in a host of other monsters. Her legs insubstantial as water in her fear, Aira plunged down the first few steps.
A squadron of the gaunt, toad-skinned monsters tore up the stairs towards her, their beaks bloodstained. She was trapped. Distantly, Boroden called her name. A silent scream burst inside her — dearest friend would see her die and be unable to save her.
Instead of the relief of her mother’s magical light enveloping her, protecting her from the hobyahs as it had when Freya saved her from the destruction of Velmoran, Aira dived into darkness as deep as a sky where all the stars are extinguished. Screaming until her throat grew raw, she scrabbled round the void that her cell had become, trying to find a way out.
There remained a steady core to her untouched by the nightmares Krysila conjured. Had Krysila not said that, whilst she would break the brownie warriors physically, she would shatter Aira’s mind? She wanted her mad. Once that had been accomplished, the torture might stop. If it ended, she might be free of the cell and have a chance to help her clan. Leanan had a softer heart than her mother. Perhaps she might implore Leanan to free her from her cell?
With this hopeful plan, Aira endured the horrors. She had appeared too sane, too defiant, when Serena let her out before. This time must be different.
At last, Aira caught the sound of footsteps drawing near. As far as she could make out in the eternal gloom, a day must have passed since she was thrown into the cell. When the door opened, the jaws of the corridor outside appeared narrower, although maybe that was because Serena came with company this time.
Careful to avoid the moisture trickling down the rocky walls, Leanan brushed past her handmaiden, meeting Aira with a smile. Darting a look about the dismal surroundings of the cell, a glinting layer of ice on its walls, Leanan unclasped her cloak of yew-green velvet and proffered it to Aira. For a moment, surprise had the better of Aira, and she stared at the devastating beauty of the sídhe witch, trying to recollect how she planned to encourage Leanan to release her.
Contracting her full lips with a pitying look, Leanan laid her hand on Aira’s arm. ‘Aira, join with us. There’s no need for you to stay here. My mother is merciless.’
Concern etched Leanan’s face as Aira threw herself at her satin-sheathed waist, sobbing. When Leanan drew her back to wipe away her tears, Aira pawed the air feebly. Aira held her gaze fixed in space as she smiled, praying Leanan would not see through her act. She had once been called a little doll, and she could easily be childlike.
‘In there, I was so afraid I’d never see my doll again,’ Aira said.
Leanan raised her delicately formed eyebrows in astonishment, and Serena pulled a disgusted face, as if she smelled something rotten. The sight made Aira laugh, a sound she transformed into a fit of helpless giggles until tears trickled down her face, chilling in the icy dungeon air.
Leanan took her shoulders, her jasmine perfume brushing Aira’s nostrils as welcome relief from the rotting stench of cavern ooze. ‘Aira, what do you mean your doll?’
‘I want to find her and make her so many pretty clothes. I’ve been planning what I’ll sew all day.’ Aira tugged at Leanan’s trailing sleeve. ‘Have you any spare fabric and a needle?’
Leanan’s moonlight pale brow furrowed. ‘Oh, you poor thing. Your mind was once so much brighter and better than mine. I suppose I always knew something must destroy you. After all, brownies are mortal. I forget that. My family and I sold ourselves to the devil in return for eternal life, making the bargain that we’ll torture souls after judgment.’
Though Leanan tried to say this in her usual breezy tone, Aira detected uneasiness in her eyes as she spoke of her family’s pact with the devil. If she played it right, perhaps Leanan might be persuaded to break her vow…
‘But it’s not heaven. You’ll not know true happiness. I only want to be happy.’ Noticing Leanan leave off idly stroking the sharp spine of a stalactite and narrow her eyes as if wondering at her returned lucidity, Aira added, ‘That’s why I’d rather play with my doll.’
Leanan sighed. ‘One may get used to hellfire after a while. Torturing others is not without pleasure for me. I find ample occupation in wringing the hearts of my knights. Why not join me? The way to heaven is narrow and fraught with stones, this other is easy and much more fun.’
Aira flinched back, nearly stepping into a puddle on the cave floor. ‘Never.’
Leanan examined the ends of her curls. ‘You delight in choosing a difficult path.’
‘If that’s so, then you’ll enjoy spending more time in the cell.’ A shaft of lantern light made Serena’s features ghostly pallid as she reached out to push Aira back for further torture with a vindictiveness that Aira guessed came from jealousy. After all, Serena had once tried to steal Boroden’s love from Aira.
Aira faced Leanan, peering up into the crimson eyes of the taller sídhe lady. ‘Please don’t put me back. Let me stay with you?’
‘Of course.’ Leanan turned to Serena. ‘It appears Mother’s mind games have succeeded in breaking Aira.’
Clasping Aira’s hand, Leanan led her away from the cell. After so long spent in musty caverns, Aira’s lungs rejoiced to fill with the crisp, cold air flowing through the passages that Leanan ushered her along en route to her dwelling.
Keen to fit in and thus become inconspicuous and freer to search for Boroden, Aira curtsied to the bevy of handmaidens that met Leanan as she slipped into her stylish chambers. The red and black colour scheme was enlivened by the glint of mirrors, silver embroidered accessories, and bottles of perfumes and potions on the shelves. Heavy tapestries depicting scenes of courtly love amongst the tangles of briar roses covered the walls. Arches of filigree severed the room into sections like a barrier of thorn trees. This far underground, no sunlight ever entered. Incense candles glowed, their fragrance cloying the air. They did little to dispel the shadows. Anything might lurk in the inky corners of the room.
Leanan smoothed Aira’s tousled hair and nudged her towards her handmaidens. ‘Ladies, I intend to keep this brownie as my pet. The poor darling has lost her mind.’
Aira played along as the girls fussed over her, offering her food and a comfortable seat on one of the plush divans. Sinking into it gratefully, the ache subsided from her numbed limbs.
‘You look so tiny sitting there,’ Leanan said. ‘Ladies — have a room furnished with items of a brownie size. It should be simple, yet pretty. That would be to your taste, wouldn’t it, Aira?’
Aira nodded. ‘I’m grateful.’
Leanan waved a hand as if shooing away her touched expression in shame. ‘Oh, fiddle-faddle. You’ll repay us all, I’m sure. Serena said House Elves are fond of housework. You spoke of how you enjoy sewing. Your services as a seamstress and lady’s maid would be welcome.’
‘Of course.’ Aira curled herself up as the handmaidens busied themselves. Though she pretended to be sleeping, her mind whirled as she planned to escape and find her clan.