Chapter 5 of my epic fantasy novel.
Aira felt heartened by the news that Killmouli and Bean Tighe had brought. The market had been delayed but Midhir's folk were still accepting the wares brought by brownies for sale. They had seen her father following behind them as he left the market. Aira imagined that she would see him soon arriving late but with full bags of coins to pay the tithe of the brownie village. Midhir might allow the brownies of Tullochgorm Castle to go on living in their village without trouble.
Until Airen returned to take the glamour that she carried for him, Aira made the most of the opportunity of exploring the meadow that taking a sip of the precious liquid had given her. Having to work in the human lands by night was such a pity when the countryside looked so entrancing when lit by summer sunlight.
Aira dashed along the hedge bank not minding that the hem of her patchwork dress was becoming drenched with diamonds of dew or that many of the petals fell from her bouquet in her haste. At last, breathless, she stopped by a wild rose to gather more blossoms. She nestled her upturned nose amongst the petals delighting in the heady scent and smiling at the pollen dusting her skin.
Some instinct made her look up. A dark shape appeared in the sky near the gateway to Midhir's kingdom. At first, she feared that it was an eagle or a buzzard and looked for shelter. Glamour would only disguise her against humans. Curiosity stayed her. It moved too fast, its wings beating strong and flurried. Besides, it was not bird shaped.
Aira gasped in delight, recognising the creature to be one of the winged faerie ponies that her father spoke of in his stories. On its back clung a rider, too far off yet to see clearly. He kept looking over his shoulder as if something followed him.
With a rush of apprehension and delight Aira realised that the pony was flying in her direction and getting lower. She pressed herself down amongst the roots of a tree, peering through the tangles of wildflowers as the pony came to land in the shaded gully below.
Forgetting herself in wonderment Aira drew from her hiding place and skipped to the edge of the ravine. The pony folded her wings and pawed the ground. She was a gorgeous sight with her long, shaggy black coat and wings glossy as those of a blackbird. Aira loved her immediately.
A young brownie stood beside the pony loosening the cruel rope halter that had been fastened on her. He had his back to Aira, his hair spilling down to his waist as black and wavy as that of the pony. He wore fine armour of silver coated pine cone mail and carried a good sword. He made a rare sight in the quiet meadows about Tullochgorm Castle.
He turned and met Aira's gaze. For a young warrior he gave her an unexpectedly shy smile. He seemed all the nicer, she thought, for his shyness. It took away her own awkwardness, for she should have run had he appeared too bold or unfriendly.
Wafting away the rose petals blowing down about her she stepped forward and greeted him. 'I have always wanted to see one of the faerie ponies,' she said, her gaze flitting from brownie to pony.
'As did I, fair lady.'
'Oh, I'm not a lady. I've only got my smartest dress on because it is my birthday today.'
'Oh, I hope you are having a nice day, fair maiden. It wasn't your dress I meant, though it is very pretty. It is your hair. It is rare for a brownie to have golden hair; it shows they have fairshee blood.'
'You mean from Lady Frenudin?' Aira warmed to him at the compliment. 'And yes, I am having a jolly day.'
Boroden reached the decision to ask the question that had been troubling him. He had been afraid to speak before, for the answer meant much to him, but she was so friendly he could take a refute if it was due. 'I think we've met before. Forgive me if it sounds strange, but...'
'Yes. I think so too. It must have been a long time ago.'
He knew her name. At once she remembered his too. 'Boroden?'
'I'm so glad it's you my dearie, so glad! All these years I thought you dead and somehow yours was the worst death of all because you so little deserved it. How did you get out?'
'Father came with Mother and she held up her hand and there was this bright light from her bracelet. Don't tell anyone but I think it was magic. She snatched me up and we ran from Velmoran. The journey here took years. Mother died soon after we arrived.'
Boroden hugged her, sympathy suffusing his face. 'I'm so sorry.'
'If you're travelling this way then Father and I would gladly welcome you to stay with us.'
'I would like that more than anything, but I cannot. I must leave as swiftly as I may. I'm glad to see you safe but my clan and I have far from escaped danger. I would not bring it upon you.'
Aira looked crestfallen. Lost for words of farewell that he did not want to utter, Boroden turned hesitantly to Blackthorn and teased out a briar twig that had caught in her mane. Tiredness ghosted about his face.
Aira pulled a handful of cherries from her bag. 'Then before you journey on would you like these that I've collected? They're the first cherries this year. I know cherries are your favourite fruit.'
Self-conscious of his wan looks, he said, 'I'll gladly take them. I haven't eaten all day. My brothers died yesterday. I seem to have forgotten about the day to day things; eating, sleeping and all that.'
He wanted to tell her more, yet he suddenly froze, listening. Aira too heard the fast approach of riders. Many riders.
Boroden backed against Blackthorn. His hand moved to his sword hilt. He nodded to Aira with an intense look, indicating that she should flee. She scrambled up the slope, casting a glance back at him as he swung himself onto the pony's back.
Aira found that she could not leave him. She darted behind an ash tree, peering about its deeply scored trunk at the approaching cavalcade. They were brownies. Some rode, many were on foot, but all were armed and bore the marks of battle. Aira clung tighter to the tree, surprised and curious.
Boroden looked relieved to see his kin hastening towards him. One of the lead riders called, 'what have you stopped for, Boroden? Midhir will be on our tail at any moment.'
Boroden urged his pony on and soon all sight of him was lost behind the ranks of brownies.
'Boroden,' Aira found herself breathing. She missed having a friend near her own age and glimpsing the other brownie with his gentle, noble bearing made her feel yet more lonely.
The tramping and urgent words of the army filled the tranquil dell, making the atmosphere uneasy. Aira was surprised at how swiftly they passed by. Soon she was looking back on the stragglers. Birds resumed their songs. She slowly shifted her stiff legs. She needed to get back to the portal in time to meet her father returning.
A hand was clapped to her shoulder. Her heart lurching, she whipped round to face her captor.