Brownie prince Hëkitarka attempts to flee the dark faerie queen Leanan Sidhé
|The hobyahs quietened respectfully at the approach of a woman so pale and slender she seemed to be made of moonshine. Hëkitarka felt a twinge of irony that even the hobyahs knew better than to get on the wrong side of Serena, the chief handmaiden to Krysila’s daughter, Leanan Sídhe.|
‘Come to gloat, have you?’ Boroden challenged her, his deep blue eyes glittering venomously as she peered down into the crevasse where the brownies were imprisoned.
‘I have a message from My Lady. She’s waiting to receive Prince Hëkitarka,’ Serena said.
Harfan tightened his grip on Hëkitarka. Terror and revulsion etched across Hëkitarka’s heart, but he cleared his throat bravely. ‘I’ll go. It’s our only chance. I might be able to reason with her.’
Boroden looked aghast. ‘What? Are you mad? Leanan Sídhe means only to kill you. Such is the hatred she and her mother hold for our clan.’
‘Please.’ Harfan hushed his cousin as Hëkitarka lowered his head in anguish.
A hobyah peered down into the crevasse where the brownies hid, his orange eyes glinting with malice. ‘Shall I get some rope and go down to fetch them up for you? I’m well armed.’
‘No. My Lady hopes Prince Hëkitarka will come willingly. She doesn’t want him harmed. She sent me here to win him over.’
Torden scoffed. ‘A mighty good job you’re doing of that.’
Boroden regarded his cousins bleakly. ‘No. I’ll not have him go alone. We’ll stay down here together, even is we must die together. Don’t get your hopes up about finding a way out for us if you go to Leanan, Hëki. I doubt we’ll ever escape the dungeons of the Unseelie Court.’
‘I have no desire to keep My Lady waiting. I don’t like your kind, make no mistake, but My Lady has conceived a liking for the young brownie and I won’t have her disobeyed,’ Serena said, peering down at Hëkitarka and his companions in their cell. ‘As it’s only you she wants, I have no compunction about asking these hobyahs to do their worst to your friends.’
Hëkitarka quailed at this, searching the familiar faces of his companions for reassurance of what he should do. Harfan cast him a deep look.
Hëkitarka grimaced. ‘Sorry, Harfan, but I must go.’
Harfan tore a button from his jacket and pressed it into Hëkitarka’s hand like he never wanted to let go. ‘Only use it if you have to. Remember you can’t kill her, for you’ll be cursed to die too.’
Bumping painfully against the rock, Hëkitarka got hoisted up the cliff face by the iron collar that had been fastened onto him by the redcap guards. The goblins with their caps dyed in blood were fiercely loyal to Krysila.
Once Hëkitarka’s eyes stopped smarting as the torch light stuck him, he looked down at Harfan’s button in his hand. Wedged in its hollow reverse, concealed by a simple shrinking spell, hid one of Harfan’s hunting daggers. He’d obviously hidden it there when the redcaps searched the brownies to take away their weapons.
Serena hauled Hëkitarka roughly to his feet, wrinkling her nose. She cut some rope to bind his hands. ‘Mind you do all My Lady asks, or you’ll have me to answer to.’
Hëkitarka cast a frightened glance down at his kin now looking no bigger than ants at the base of the pit.
Serena led him away.
Hëkitarka sniffed as unobtrusively as he could trying to recall the way back to his friends by smell in case he needed to make a hasty escape. Gratefully, he recalled that the heightened sense of smell that brownie were endowed with was not shared by all the faerie kind. Serena probably had no idea that he was plotting on escaping to free his imprisoned friends at the earliest opportunity.
Always he and Serena climbed upwards, happily leaving behind the oozing damp and stench of the dungeons with their woeful cries of torture. The surface still lay far off and the only light came from torches. Drawing within Leanan Sídhe’s domain, Hëkitarka admired how the torches were replaced by lights fashioned from ebony carved into the form of mermaids uplifting lamps scented with jasmine oil.
Passing through the working rooms populated by redcap servants, Serena led him up into grander chambers where guests were received, and finally into the more intimate quarters. In one, a long, elegantly furnished chamber with a scallop shell plastered ceiling, many knights languished. They looked towards a harp in the centre of the room as if some invisible player haunted it. How pale they looked. Despite their handsome features, many a prisoner tortured in the dungeons had looked fuller of life. Hëkitarka framed a mental picture of them, for they acted as a reminder of what he should become if he let himself fall into Leanan’s power.
The knights fixed their gaze on him as Serena led him across the carpet, which felt so soft that he imagined sinking into it up to his knees. Some of the knights looked pityingly, but suspicion and jealousy crossed the faces of many, so deeply had Leanan enthralled them.
In the next room, Leanan’s handmaidens sat sewing. The stateliest of them approached. Her whitish blonde hair, arranged in tight spirals, reminded Hëkitarka of icicles. ‘I see you’ve brought My Lady a fresh prize.’
Serena sniffed. ‘Indeed. I’m glad that I had a bath prepared for it, Lilith, for it hardly smells fresh after wallowing in the dungeons.’
The handmaidens appeared as inquisitive as the knights, though many of them smiled at him. The youngest, a faerie with dark almond-shaped eyes and chestnut curls, looked at him most eagerly of all and skipped to Leanan Sídhe’s door as they reached it.
‘My Lady gave me the keys,’ she said smugly. ‘Vortimus she has sent from her to hunt in the forest. She asks that you delay him should he return soon, Serena.’
For an instant, Hëkitarka wanted to tear the rope from Serena’s hand and run, for soon his chance for freedom might be lost. As if guessing his thoughts, Serena thrust him, stumbling, into the next room. She locked him in.
He found himself in a sumptuous dining room. The table was draped with black silk and adorned with gilt candelabras and stands of fruit and sweetmeats cast in a spiky, insect-like fashion. The plethora of food appeared disgustingly extravagant given that his only dining companion appeared to be Leanan Sídhe. He hardly expected the two statue still goblin guards flanking her chair would be invited to eat. Nor did he expect Leanan to eat, since she got her sustenance from drinking blood.
Leanan glanced up with a smile. Hëkitarka’s hackles rose. He would resist her at all costs.
‘Remember, you’re one of Peladach’s heirs,’ he muttered to himself, as he did so often when trying to give himself strength. Immediately he cringed in shame. He felt unworthy of such ancestry as Peladach, the renowned first brownie king of Velmoran. Boroden’s angry words played over and over in his mind. In the dungeon he had looked to Boroden for support, though his cousin kept his back towards him. Then the sickening recollections of his time under the influence of Leanan Sídhe’s love charm returned to him.
Always Harfan had been at his side, even saving his life from Leanan. Yet, even in the dungeon, he had not known the worth of his brother’s love as he should. Now perhaps he would not see him again. Hëkitarka tried to communicate telepathically with Harfan, but he found that he could not for the kraken had sapped his magic when she took him prisoner. Hëkitarka felt utterly alone and with nothing to give him the strength that he so desperately needed.
‘Your poor dear face.’ Leanan caught his chin and peered in concern at his cuts and bruises.
‘‘Tis nothing much, My Lady,’ he replied respectfully, though he moved his head from her soft white hand.
She gave a gasp as she glanced down at the ink and blood encrusting his legs.
‘What were they? Those biting worms,’ Hëkitarka could not resist asking.
‘Horrid parasites. They live in the ink that my mother spews when she’s in her kraken form. They’re her spies, always hungry.’
In a keen movement, she ripped a remaining worm from Hëkitarka’s leg and crushed it venomously beneath the toe of her scarlet high-heeled shoe. ‘Tatty, please! My mother, she made me.’
She tried to make herself sound like his friend, giving him the nickname she used when he had cared for her. Yet, they were no friends. ‘You had a choice whether to listen or no. It’s honourable to obey one’s parents, aye, but you must remember there’s a higher power who we have a duty to first. You tried to drown God’s presence out, Leanan, and they tried to do it for you with witchcraft and poisoned words. I’m glad to see they didn’t entirely succeed.’
‘Don’t!’ she snapped, suddenly fierce as a wounded panther.
‘Then why am I here?’
‘You know why you’re here.’
‘I’d rather go back to my clan.’
‘What? To the dungeons? Don’t, Tatty. Here at least I can protect you. Besides, is it so bad here? These are my rooms, my pretty things.’
She opened a door and showed him with a desperate fondness. He glanced at her painted vases of cut flowers, her wind chimes that never knew the fresh breeze, her books and caged birds.
‘These are my love birds,’ she told him with a girlish smile, whistling to two bullfinches. ‘Her I found nearly dead in a puddle, her wing broken. I kept her two years. Ever I’d see bullfinches together. Coming back and seeing her lonesome made me sad. So, I stole him as a mate for her. He’s so attentive.’
Hëkitarka held onto his wistful silence.
‘Perhaps I did wrong to want her to be happy?’ Leanan ventured.
‘I hadn’t thought on it, only that this is a sorry existence of yours on the brink of hell with only the frail things of this world for comforters.’
‘You’re determined to make me sad, brownie.’
‘No. Only to help you, My Lady.’
‘I should be the one helping you. What will it be first? Bath or food?’
Neither of these prospects appealed to Hëkitarka. He bowed his head silently.
‘Very well. I say food.’ She led the way to the table. ‘Come here. Sit down. You must be hungry.’
He did as she bid. She filled his plate and wine glass.
‘Why are you doing this?’ Hëkitarka asked.
‘Come, do you not expect me to treat my guests well? I enjoy entertaining. It pleases me to see a handsome new face at my table.’ She leaned against the table before him with an easy grace, like a sure black cat in her diabolical headdress of crow feathers. Despite his stomach feeling hollow with hunger he would not touch her food, for he expected treachery.
‘I’m not your guest here, My Lady. I’m your prisoner. Tell me, why have you truly brought me here?’
‘Because I want you to help me as I mean to help you. Your cousin is foolish in resisting his father, and only harms your clan through his stubbornness. My mother means you no harm. We want you brownies to join her, accepting her rule of Velmoran. I’m sure, with all your clear sight, you’ll want to cooperate. There would no longer be any strife between your clan and the Unseelie Court. You could be the first of my knights, rich beyond all measure.’
She leaned close to him, pouring him a goblet of wine. Something in the scent of the drink, a sweet tang, arrested him. He recalled just such a scent to his liquor that night she enchanted him. She intended to give him a love potion again.
Instead of flaring up in fury, he recalled Carnelian and the things he had spoken of so often. Before Hëkitarka had only half heard, yet now he believed and cried out with all his soul, knowing he did have someone to turn to. Strength and courage returned to him.
‘You’ll get nothing from me. You don’t love me, Leanan. You don’t know what love is. Real, true love. Inside you’re so empty. You don’t know how to fill that space and be truly happy.’
Leanan Sídhe sneered, though uneasiness ghosted her features as he touched her weakness. ‘Don’t try and be clever. You can’t escape me.’
‘Yes, I can. I’ll always be free of you. Free in my soul. I trust God. He’ll protect me. Though you have all the help you may from the Prince of Darkness, you’ll not touch me. And you can keep your fancy food and poisoned wine. I’d sooner starve than be your puppet. You’re wasting your time trying to make me side with you. I’d rather be tortured alongside my clan.’
Leanan’s eyes sparkled with fury. ‘I could call my knights here and they’d do as I bid. I could keep you here by force.’
He met her glare calmly. ‘But you won’t. At least, if you do you’d feel bad. You wish you had no conscience? Well, you do and I’ll tell you why. It’s because you can be saved. It would guide you if you’d only listen to it.’
‘How can you speak of God and redemption? God won’t want a little brownie like you. Don’t you know that faerie folk are outcasts of Heaven?’
‘He’ll let any in who ask for salvation. You just don’t want to let yourself acknowledge that because you’re afraid. You too can choose the right path, Leanan. It’s never too late.’
‘Hah. I’ve not called for you to be preached at. Go back to the cells. We’ll see what a few weeks of solitary confinement makes of you. You’ll be begging at my knees next time I see you.’
Hëkitarka whisked away and ran to the door.
‘Tatty! Don’t be rash. I can protect you. No one else can.’
‘He’s already forsaken you, or else you should not be here.’
‘No. He’s always watching. If I’m imprisoned here it’s only for some purpose that He knows for me.’
Hëkitarka knew even as he reached the door that it should be locked, Leanan’s maids waiting beyond it willing to help her. Yet even as he tried the door handle, the door thrust violently open.
‘My Lady, what is that doing here?’ Vortimus demanded, glowering at Hëkitarka. Vortimus was handsome, with strong, straight features, and black hair that fell to his shoulders, but his good looks were marred by his haughty expression.
‘My mother would like me to interrogate the brownie prisoners. I don’t see why it concerns you.’
Vortimus crossed his arms truculently. ‘Very well. Although I doubt interrogating him is all that you’ll be doing. What’s with this wining and dining?’
‘Jealous? If you must know, Tatty is eager to return to the delights of the dungeons.’
‘Perhaps we should escort him there?’ another of Leanan’s knights asked.
The two knights exchanged an ugly smile and left Leanan, motioning the rest of her knights to follow them. This did not bode well.
Hëkitarka had a head start but, smaller than the men and unable to sniff out his way properly whilst running, they soon gained on him. At first, they marched in a respectful silence. As soon as they left Leanan’s quarters and got to the labyrinth leading to the dungeons, Vortimus gave a rallying, bloodthirsty cry. The knights sprinted forward like stampeding cattle.
Hëkitarka fled. Despite his wounded, stiff legs, he kept ahead easily. He thought he would make it to the dungeons, but something heavy thumped into his back. Going downhill, he lost his footing. He pushed himself up to be confronted by Vortimus.
‘I thought brownies liked to clean boots.’ Vortimus waved a boot, which had hit Hëkitarka, in front of his nose.
The knight Vortimus had taken the boot from rammed it back on and crushed his foot onto Hëkitarka’s back, pinning him to the ground.
‘But I forget you’re much too low and filthy to wipe Ruari’s boots. What can you be thinking of pawing after My Lady?’ Vortimus yanked Hëkitarka’s head back by his hair. ‘I’m going to make you pay for that, brownie.’
Ruari and another knight hauled Hëkitarka into the air. The knights howled with laughter and jeered. Hëkitarka seized his chance to wriggle free, crushed and throbbing painfully.
The knights leapt after him in an instant. A new will to fight for survival filled Hëkitarka. As he ran, his legs flowed beneath him as if the ground were no longer solid. He broke into the dungeons, dodging redcaps the feet of ogres. Less nimble, the knights became delayed, especially as Ruari disturbed a nest of hungry vampire bats.
Hëkitarka reached the pit into which Boroden, Harfan and Torden had been cast. His heart raced too fast to be dismayed by the dark distance of the fall. Two of the highest oaks could have stood root to canopy in that fissure. His friends stared up at him on the brink, their eyes wide in horror. The shouts of the knights closed in.
‘Boroden, if I jump you’ll catch me?’ Hëkitarka asked in fond hopelessness. Boroden had caught him once before, all those years ago when the brownies climbed trees to escape the snapping jaws of hyena-like skrikers. Now there was no chance of catching him safely. It was too far. He saw Boroden realise this with a shudder of horror.
Seized by despair, Hëkitarka stepped to the edge. The blackness beneath him jolted his feverish mind. He looked round to see the knights close at hand, and redcap guards swarming towards him.