Will Aira win her fight against the evil kraken who has stolen her elven clan's homeland?
|There was no point in returning to the desecrated palace vaults. Instead, Aira chose a route that led upwards. The climb up the stairs seemed to go on forever, as if she walked inside an immense nautilus seashell, spiraling round and round. |
A welcome ray of light beckoned her from an arrow slit, so she paused her ascent. Resting on the sword that her father forged and which she took from Boroden for protection whilst he lay injured, she peered out and tried to still her dizzy head. It was seven storeys to the top of the tower where she had her room as a bairn. Already the treetops looked far below. The sight reminded her of those dear times when she rode Boroden’s flying pony, Blackthorn. Rather than being lush woods like those she had enjoyed with Blackthorn, these blackened trees clung listlessly to life.
Some way in the distance rose mountains, their bald snow-capped heads softened by rounded hills at their feet. One of these hills appeared so perfectly smooth that it must be a barrow. Yes, the brownie burial mound of Dunvaygan, for she spied the tower at its crest. There Hëkitarka would be laid to rest, amongst the heroes of his kind. For her there had been too many goodbyes. Now she felt only a dull pain, not the raging grief that seized her those first few days after Hëkitarka’s death.
Silence pressed in, filling her. It gave her strength.
‘Please don’t let all this be in vain,’ she whispered, the slight movement of her lips sounding loud.
Finally, she left the stairs as she came to the main floor of the largest tower in the palace. She continued along a corridor, her feet leaving imprints in the dust of centuries. The loftier chambers and high turrets of the brownie court appeared not to be to the taste of Unseelie creatures. Having plundered these rooms soon after Krysila attacked, the monsters retreated to their dark lairs in the caverns beneath the fortress and left these spaces deserted. Despite this, she found herself straining her ears for sounds of movement or voices that might indicate the presence of evil beings. Nothing.
The marks of the siege lay all about as she looked into the rooms set either side of the corridor, still handsome despite their desecration. Birds and beasts carved into the furnishings and painted on the walls gave life to the eerie spaces. There remained tatters of fine tapestries, paintings and hearths of gleaming, mottled stone. Dust motes winked like jewels in the sunlight.
Aira went on, peering into the rooms on either side. Something ghostly about them made her both fond and melancholy. Although abused and battered, it seemed like seeing old friends. A frozen quality filled the place as if it had simply been left for an instant. Needlework lay half-finished, platters of food stood fossilising, a window hung ajar for the wind to ripple the shreds of curtains and admit swallows to build mud nests in the corners.
Each room grew grander until she came to the king’s chambers. The room was vaulted by trees carved from stone, painted deer and birds peeping amongst them. This room had been ransacked more viciously than the rest and the animals appeared to be hiding from the Unseelie monsters who had done the damage. Shuddering, Aira moved on through the king’s chamber, finding herself emerging onto the landing of the great stairs. Above it a dome of stained glass reigned. It reflected a dew of rainbow drops like dappled light through the boughs of a tree onto the surfaces below.
A soft touch brushed her hand as if she spilled a splash of water upon it. When she looked down, a spider rested there.
Cautiously, Aira approached the silver balustrade to find the spider a safer abode. The stairs led downwards to the state chambers where she expected Gruagach to lurk. It felt like peering into the shaft of a great well about which steps circled down to the depths of the palace. She drank in the heady sense of being at the heart of Velmoran.
A sudden recollection struck her, like a voice calling. Upon these stairs, she almost died surrounded by hobyahs as a small child over 400 years ago.
The nursery chambers where she and so many whom she loved: her mother, Boroden, Leon and Isadora, had grown up, must be close by. One more floor waited to be seen, the highest of all. She tried to continue her mission to find Krysila, but her heart urged her to see the place in which she spent her earliest years.
Stealing up the narrow flight of stairs, Aira lifted the latch of the first door that she came to and opened it an inch. From the window seat tumbled a pile of books, toys and clothes. The items for a bairn and a young lady and were fine enough to have been owned by princesses. Boroden once hidden these things belonging to Freya and herself from his father’s search after Freya was accused of committing treason. Aira rued that her father had been unable to wash these clothes of her mother’s after her death. In faerie lore, this had cursed Freya to become a banshee until her natural time of death arrived.
Would she hear her mother singing for her today, as she had crooned her banshee’s song over Hëkitarka when he died? Surely, death awaited her if she killed Krysila.
Opening the door fully, Aira dodged a falling bowl of pepper poised to tumble down when the door opened. She sneezed profusely and then stepped upon a rake concealed under the rug. The handle slapped her in the face and she put her hand to her a smarting nose. She should have known that Boroden would have booby-trapped the room.
She took another step, crunching mussel shells left under the rug. Suddenly she stopped and turned back to fix her gaze on the rake, struck by an idea. If Krysila could be lured to her death by accidental means, perhaps she might escape the curse that anyone who slew an immortal would die themselves? After all, Boroden had not been afflicted when the immortal dragon he fought missed his footing and died falling into the raging river.
Holding the sword in position on the rake handle, she bound it there with the spider thread cords which Boroden used for trip wires, strong as iron yet nigh on invisible. Letting her handiwork alone, she fell on her knees beside the window seat. She folded and tidied the scattered pile of possessions with all the care and concentration of one laying out grave goods. At once she felt close to her mother, and yet so far.
She admired the trinkets of delicate beauty, fingering necklaces of forget-me-nots and dragonflies. Her heart tugged in recognition as she beheld the little box decorated with shells collected on the shore and the book filled with sketches of birds and flowers that she and her mother had spotted on their walks. Beneath it rested her mother’s moss green velvet gown.
With an aching heart, Aira held her mother’s gown against herself, closing her eyes and searching for her mother’s precious scent. After a moment, she opened her eyes and stood before the mirror, imagining that she saw her mother reflected. She moved to lay the dress down, and as she did so, her foot caught against an object hidden under a shawl. It gave a harping tinkle. Brushing the shawl away, she discovered a music box. Drawing it out into the light, she twisted the key. Its notes sounded pure and steadfast as they played a song like a far forgotten dream. Gingerly, she opened the lid. In its glistening lining reflections shifted. A newborn brownie peeped out of the mirror. Herself. They locked eyes, Aira’s head buzzing with the odd illusion created by Freya to remember her by. She had been a beloved child.
It seemed a crime for Gruagach to think of searching and destroying this innocuous collection of objects. An evil canker consumed him, polluting everything good and pure and happy.
Aira vowed not to let her mother continue as a banshee. Gathering up Freya’s clothes, she slipped out of the room and went to see if the laundries remained usable. If not, then any clean water might do to wash the garments and free her mother’s spirit from the banshee curse.
It took a long time for Aira to descend the stairs to the great chambers of the palace set on the ground floor, though she moved swift and light. She passed along a vestibule flanked by carved brownie kings of old, now mutilated and defaced by hobyahs who used the passage as a thoroughfare. She found herself unable to resist a glance into the nearby throne room in the loftiest, yet most maimed, part of the palace.
Aira caught her breath, taking a step back. At the heart of the room, Krysila crouched in a pool of inky brine. Still in brownie form, she was having a fiery red welt mark left by the impact of Keahborah’s tail on her face tended to by one of the remaining hags. The hag appeared too much in terror of Krysila to think of seeing to her own injuries, though much worse.
‘You have a lot to account for, kraken.’ Aira strode out from the shadows. ‘You can’t get rid of me so easily.’
Krysila scrambled to her feet, a murderous glint in her eyes. Her sodden skirts slapped with a sound like a freshly landed fish as she paced towards Aira. ‘Have you not had enough, child? I’ve shattered your paltry clan, and I’ll shatter you.’
‘I hardly think so. You see, I doubt that you’ll even catch me.’ Aira scampered away with an impish grin.
In a move that Aira had not foreseen but which filled her with dismay, Krysila’s slippery body writhed in the pool of ink. She did not transform like the dragon shapeshifters in which the change was tangible and painful. Her kraken form came on deadly quick.
In an instant the kraken reared her black, muscular bulk, lifting herself up on her tentacles like a rising tarantula. Aira dodged the tentacle which Krysila shot towards her, rolling under a table to safety. Oily ink spattered Aira’s gown, making her hands slippery with the black ooze.
Krysila reached out two of her wide, powerful tentacles. Horror burst in her as she anticipated Krysila attempting to bring the walls down to crush her.
Aira made it out of the door the moment Krysila coiled her tentacles about the columns supporting the ceiling. The kraken yanked. With a high-pitched shriek, the wood gave way. An avalanche of stones and rafters hurtled in all directions. Aira winced to find the destruction no obstacle to the kraken. Krysila slithered over the havoc of tumbling rocks and splintering beams. Debris showered Aira, slicing at her skin and clothes and making her cough.
Aira ran. She slipped in the ink that Krysila spewed towards her, Freya’s clothes flying from her grip. She scrabbled to recover them. Krysila’s stocky, knotting tentacles slithered behind her, darting on either side to catch her. Forced to relinquish her hope of washing the clothes, Aira fled, fighting back tears.
Wrapping her tentacles around the sculptures in the hall of carven kings Krysila heaved, pulling at the wall behind them and sending them pitching over. Aira stumbled away, bruised and grazed.
The wreckage blocked her escape route to the stairs. No time to think, she darted through the nearest door. Trembling, she pressed herself against the side of a tall cabinet inlaid with silver, regretting not bringing the Talibereth ore sword with her when she gathered her mother’s clothes. At least the sword would have given her something to fight with. Worse would be to have Krysila take her life to no avail.
A slithering sound scratched the gloom. She froze. One of Krysila’s tentacles reached through the door.
The kraken reared. A crack rent the air, then booming and shattering reigned.
Gasping in a breath scratchy with dust, Aira rolled into a ball, expecting to be killed. With surprise, she opened her eyes again to find that the strongly built cabinet had saved her by blocking the debris from hitting her. Dust billowed in the air and a treacherous mass of fallen masonry covered the floor.
At the far end of the chamber, she descried a door. All passages must lead to the great stairs eventually she told herself, for it lay at the heart of the palace. Worst of all would be if Krysila destroyed the stairs, for there would then be no chance of getting to the sword. If the kraken kept on, there would be no Velmoran worth fighting for. She must find a way to make Krysila transform to brownie form. Her mind boiled with searching for a plan.
Scrambling over the morass of masonry and dodging the kraken as she slithered over the rocks soon consumed Aira’s attention.
Reaching the next room having escaped Krysila’s notice, Aira shuddered to see a figure in the shadows. Gruagach turned in surprise at her entrance, hastily setting down Aira’s bracelet.
He feigned relief. ‘I thought that you were dead, Aira. It was a cruel game that Krysila played caging you. Of course, you know I’d never have let any real harm come to you or Boroden.’
Taken aback by the sight of her bracelet in his hands, she made no answer.
‘And Boroden?’ Gruagach asked.
He pretended to be concerned about the brownies, but he truly sided with Krysila and had forfeited all right to be a father and a king.
With an effort that surprised her, Aira faced Gruagach. ‘How can you still pretend you’re Krysila’s prisoner when you’re in league with her?’
Gruagach’s face reddened and he blustered, ‘You’ve no right to blame me. I was driven to it. I’m King, I have authority to rule my kingdom, my clan, my family as I see fit. But they wilfully disobey me. They could not see what’s best for the kingdom. I could. I know how to save Velmoran. An alliance with Krysila would have made us more powerful still had the clan not listened to those fools Carnelian and Boroden. We’d have had riches. What if Krysila is not of the Seelie Court? Are they so good and upstanding? Did they not mock and abuse us? Don’t make Krysila kill you, Aira. You’re fighting for nothing.’
‘No. You’re wrong. I have everything to fight for.’ She leapt forward, snatching the bracelet before he could stop her. She darted through the next door, a wide one leading to the council chamber.
Krysila attempted to haul herself after her and luckily delayed Gruagach from following as he could not get around the kraken’s bulk. Too large to fit through the door, Krysila lifted her tentacles to tear down the wall.
Aira swung round to face her, flourishing the bracelet. ‘Destroy me and you destroy this. Contained within, passed from Frenudin to her daughters, it is the power to lead the brownie clan.’
Krysila let out a bellow of rage that died to a shriek as she shrunk into her brownie form.
Revelling in this lucky turn was out of the question with so much to think on and too much danger to face. Scampering through the next room, and that beyond, Aira heard Krysila pursuing her, swifter now she had shed her bulk.
Bursting out of the room, Aira’s relieved gaze took in the great stairs spreading upwards before her.
A redcap leapt out brandishing a spiked cudgel.
In an impulse Aira darted backwards, narrowly missing Krysila’s clutches. Flinging herself through a side door, she tore down a long corridor. Panic overwhelmed her. Unable to carry herself further she hurried into the nearest room, pressing herself behind the door out of sight.
A mercy — footsteps grew fainter as her pursuers went by.
No, it was not a relief but a misfortune. She wanted Krysila to follow her, not become lost to her as she went about searching in the labyrinth of rooms. Aira put her hand to the door, meaning to seek Krysila out. Wait, was that the best idea? Krysila moved so swift that she should probably catch Aira before she had chance to lead her to the stairs, not forgetting that the kraken might use magic. Besides, survivors of the Unseelie folk would be lurking in the palace waiting to pounce, so she might never get the chance to find Krysila.
Resolutely, Aira swept back the door and fleeted away, not in pursuit of Krysila but to the stairs. If she would not hunt Krysila, then Krysila must search her out.
In the wide corridor leading to the nursery stood a dulcichord on which Aira spent many happy hours playing as a bairn. She seated herself at the instrument, her fingers thrilling at the familiar touch of the keys. The notes of a defiantly jolly jig stirred the melancholy walls of the palace. Emboldened, Aira found herself playing louder, willing Krysila to come.
Catching the noise of hasty footsteps, Aira did not stop until Krysila appeared at the threshold.
‘Anyone would think you had a death wish, wench!’ Krysila spat.
‘The only one I wish to see dying today is you.’
Aira ran. Krysila took the bait and charged after her. The stairs disappeared beneath Aira’s pelting bounds. The nursery came into view.
Aira let out an exclamation of dismay as Gruagach appeared. He spread his arms like a net, blocking her way. ‘Foolish girl. What are you about? Give me that trinket.’
In desperation, Aira flung her bracelet through one of the shattered windows into the courtyard below. ‘You’d better get that. It’s of more value to you than anything, for in it is the power to rule Velmoran.’
Gruagach hesitated but, seeing Krysila closing in, he made for the courtyard.
Those last few seconds before she threw herself through the doorway into nursery, Aira felt sure something would go wrong. She swung herself into the room hoping Krysila would not notice her position and would charge headlong into the sword.
Krysila moved too quick and intent upon her quarry. She kept close by the wall in Aira’s footsteps, missing the rug entirely.
‘Give me the bracelet. I’m Queen of Velmoran, not you.’
‘Never!’ Aira reached for the sword.
Krysila started upon noticing the blade, its Talibereth ore shimmering in the sunlight. ‘Kill me and you die with me.’
‘I don’t care!’ Aira’s fingers curled towards the hilt.
Krysila leapt to snatch the weapon with a screech of fury. Her foot touching the rake, her cry transformed into a surprised scream as the blade flew forward and pierced her. She looked at Aira with such malice, wanting to wreak her final revenge. Yet Aira could not fear for herself. Krysila would die. The clan’s hopes of many long, agonising years would come to fruition.
Krysila began one final transformation, but fear did not taint Aira’s gladness. The screech of the kraken echoed unearthly, full of rage, yet empty and ineffectual. She swung her tentacles, half writhing in her death throes, half in malicious intent. The walls crumblde like crushed eggshells as she fastened her tentacles upon them.
Aira darted from Krysila’s snatch and made for the door. Something caught her eye as she left. Amongst the dusty papers and weapons where Gruagach had stood lay a familiar weapon — Boroden’s sword, taken from him when he was imprisoned. Aira snatched it up and ran for the stairs with all the speed that her aching body could force upon itself.
The floorboards heaved beneath her as Krysila tore them up. Her tentacles coiled tight around the great tower. Krysila gave a bellow of rage and dragged her tentacles inwards. Blocks of stone showered around her. The roof tottered. Like a closing concertina, the tower folded in on itself, sending a shudder into the ground. The debris formed a black, rolling cloud. A rumbling shattering swallowed up Aira’s world.
The collapse of the tower jolted Boroden from his pain. He used his uninjured arm to raise himself up from Keahborah’s back as she laboured through the sky, heavily burdened by the search party of brownies who she carried.
The great tower, the heart of Velmoran, crashed down on itself. The once mighty palace shattered into a hollow ruin. It seemed apt to Boroden, but it made a a bitter sight, for he loved his ancestral home. For so long he dreamed of a triumphant return.
For a moment the cause of the collapse puzzled him. Then it struck him with dread. He searched the faces of the others wildly, unable to believe it to be true.
‘Aira! Where is she?’ He looked to Harfan, desperate for reassurance that she remained safe. He saw in his cousin’s face that he knew Aira had not come with them. Boroden gasped as if stabbed, stricken with grief.