Trouble brews as brownie swordsmith Airen heads to the faerie market
|Stepping through the portal to the faerie realm ruled over by Midhir, Airen paused. His muscles relaxed as he rested his pack of wares for a blissful moment. Surely the lifting spell he had used to decrease their weight must be wearing thin? Carrying such a cumbersome load was worth it though. In satisfaction, he traced his hand over the products of his forge where they lay swaddled in coarse hessian. Part of him felt sorry to let the beautifully crafted knives and swords, brooches and the bells with which faeries love to adorn their ponies, out of his sight. Yet, a warm glow filled him as he imagined the joy of his neighbours as he returned laden with gold to pay their tithe, and with a surprise for Aira’s birthday of course.
Taking a deep breath, he sucked in the vanilla fragrance of gorse. The scent took him back to Velmoran and the happy hours he spent courting his wife on the clifftops, which were gilded with gorse. Airen wished he could linger and refresh his spirit with the wonder of the meadows spread around Midhir’s palace. Entranced, he left the path and brushed amongst flowers from all seasons blooming together in a light as brilliant as summer sunshine, yet as mild as moonlight. Birds sang full and sweet, their trilling sound echoing in his ears like heady mead.
Airen’s contentment evaporated as he continued towards Midhir’s palace. Something wasn’t right. King Midhir and his gentlefolk were usually out hunting. The road should be bustling with folk journeying to the market. Instead, all was strangely hushed. Apprehension trickled down Airen’s spine.
He let out a relieved gust of breath as he spotted his neighbour, Killmouli tramping towards him. Airen’s smile faltered as his neighbour drew nearer. There was no mistaking the fear written over Killmouli’s chubby face.
‘Greetings Killmouli. Why have you come away from the market so soon?’
‘You should go, Airen. There’s danger here.’
‘What danger? Tell me.’
Airen bent closer, straining to catch his words. Killmouli had been born with no mouth. Instead, he mumbled through his massive nose.
‘They’ll probably be closing the market. I was lucky to be given something for my flour.’ Killmouli jingled a few pieces of gold in his apron pocket. ‘King Midhir’s household still need their fine bread, war or no. I was told to leave the sacks by the gate for the kitchen folk to collect.’
‘Well, a battle at least. The cook told me that some of Midhir’s knights rode out looking for good hunting ground over which to lead the Midsummer hunt. They came across a clan of brownies settled by the river. The brownies pleaded to be allowed to stay for a while longer, but Midhir would have none of it and ordered them to leave. Things might have been all right, but then hobyahs came at night looking for the brownies. Midhir sent some warriors out… hopefully against the hobyahs.’
‘I hope so too. But Killmouli, our village needs me to sell my wares to pay the tithe. I’m sure that the sídhe will be glad to buy new weapons if there’s a fight.’
‘If you must, then go to the palace and try. There are plenty of folks there waiting to see if the market will go ahead. I’m going to tarry by the portal to warn others from our village who’ll be heading to the market.’
Airen joined the grumbling throng outside the gateway. Hours passed, and Airen’s misgivings deepened.
Dawn approached, painting colour onto the gleaming white statues of graceful maidens carved in niches around the gate. Airen scowled at their imperious marble faces. He should be spending his time with Aira, not hemmed amongst the sculptures of the sídhe. It was Aira’s birthday after all. He had planned to buy her a gift at the market, but now if his wares were not sold all his savings would go on the tithe and there would be little left for buying extras. How would they manage if Midhir took a dislike to brownies and stopped them trading at the market?
Airen turned, catching figures threading towards the palace from the corner of his eye. A bitter taste filled his throat. Bodies were being carried to the burial ground outside the palace, each bearing the marks of battle. They were not of Midhir’s company but strangers to this land. Brownies. Airen barely needed to glance at the warpaint - interlocking spirals of cobalt blue painted with woad - to know that they had come from Velmoran.
There was a scuffle of stones on the track behind him. Fearful of meeting an unfriendly face, his heart leapt joyfully as he beheld a warrior noble and strong. A mass of shaggy golden locks tumbled from beneath his richly ornamented helmet.
‘Airen, I can’t believe it’s you.’ Leon gave Airen a friendly thump on the shoulder. ‘These are dark days. I’m glad that you’ve kept safely away from it, Freya too.’
‘Freya’s dead, Leon.’ Airen swallowed, getting a grip on his grief. Breaking the news to Freya’s brother felt like opening a scabbed wound. ‘I lost my beloved soon after we arrived at Tullochgorm. She died birthing our stillborn son.’
Leon’s jaw shook, and he looked away. ‘My sweet sister,’ he murmured. Shaking his head, he reached out to Leon. ‘Don’t lament. You gave her a happiness that she’d not have had if she’d stayed in Velmoran. I’m glad for that. What of Aira? Boroden said that the hobyahs tried to catch her when they attacked Velmoran.’
‘Fortunately, Freya and I broke into the palace in time to rescue her. I’ve taken a new wife to help me care for the lass. Aira adores her stepmother, Gretchen, a kindly woman of middling years. Aira blossoms like a rose with all her mother’s spirit, jollity and kindness.’
‘Then you’re blessed indeed. My boys Harfan and Hëkitarka are doing well, as is Isadora.’
‘I’m pleased to hear you’re getting on all right with her.’ Airen remembered Leon’s reluctance when King Gruagach arranged his marriage to the queen’s sister. Isadora was a hot-tempered, gawky brownie with black whiskers that grew so thickly she looked like a wildcat.
Leon chuckled. ‘I can read your mind. She’s not that bad. Life’s not been kind to her, though inside she has a heart of gold. I left her behind in my fortress at Lutraudros, but it’s a cold, barren place. Gruagach wanted to journey on looking for somewhere better. Things haven’t worked out. Airen, if you ever need to then Isadora and I would welcome you and your little one in Lutraudros. I often wish I were back there, for all its hardships.’
‘I’m happy for you to have found such a place and hope you’ll return to your family soon.’
Leon nodded towards a makeshift canopy of hastily joined cloaks hung between two trees. Beneath it solemn figures moved, setting out goods to place in the graves of the fallen brownies, as custom dictated. ‘All King Gruagach’s sons are dead now except for Boroden. Gruagach went missing in battle. We thought Boroden was lost too, but he returned having slain many hobyahs that waited to launch a surprise attack from behind our camp. If he’d not cut off the hobyahs then doubtless many more of our clan would’ve died.’
Airen shook his head sympathetically. ‘Poor boy. He always was a brave lad, but he feels things deeply.’
Leon frowned sorrowfully. ‘Boroden’s spirit is scarred by the loss of his family. I try to help him as I can.’
‘He couldn’t wish for anyone to provide him with better counsel.’
‘I must go soon. Midhir has called us to meet him. I fear the encounter won’t be a happy one. I promised I’d go with Boroden. He’s like a brother to me, as are you.’ Leon brushed his fingers briefly along Airen’s palm as a mark of their bond. ‘Be careful. Midhir suspects that some of the brownies in Tullochgorm Castle have links to King Gruagach. He’s making inquiries.’
Airen’s stomach churned as he looked over the piled bodies. So many brave young lives lost. It was like a felled forest.
Amongst the mourners moving hunched amid the bodies, Airen noticed one stood still directly behind Leon. The wind played in the grey folds of her gown and she howled to the wind a plaintive lament. No one appeared to hear her, or they mistook her song for the notes of a gale rising. Airen noticed blood upon her skirts and moved to offer help.
He caught his breath. Her face was at once sweet and strong, much like Aira’s and as familiar. She met Airen’s gaze with a yearning glance. Then she looked to Leon, her face clouding in pain. The next instant she vanished. Leon went on, oblivious.
Airen trudged back to Tullochgorm Castle with a heavy heart.
He stopped within sight of the gate leading back to the human world. Two of Midhir’s guards questioned Bean Tighe, one of Airen’s neighbours of whom Aira was particularly fond. Airen could easily see why. Bean Tighe was a friendly brownie who helped mothers to finish chores and cared for children and pets in return for strawberries and cream.
Bean Tighe flustered indignantly as the guards roughly inspected her basket of lovingly crafted knick-knacks: pincushions, little pillows of potpourri and needle-cases.
Airen bristled at this treatment of an innocent old matron and stepped forward to intervene. This discourtesy to brownies should not go on. There would never be peace for them here. He remembered Leon speaking of Lutraudros. Cold and ice giants would be better than bearing the brunt of Midhir’s wrath. He would take Aira and Gretchen to Lutraudros with him and he could count on most of the villagers coming as well.
Before he reached Bean Tighe, the guards let her go. She returned tearfully to the human world, comforted by Killmouli.
Airen turned resolutely back in search of Leon.
A slow smile twisted Shrike’s features as Airen walked by him. He took no more notice of Shrike that he had earlier when he and Leon were absorbed in conversation. Loitering behind them, Shrike had pretended to remove a stone from one of his battered clogs. He caught every word of their conversation.
‘Well, well, Airen, it seems you’re the one walking into trouble for a change.’
What a piece of luck that the chance had finally come to get his own back at saintly Airen. Frustrated that the market, where he planned to steal and make mischief, had been abandoned, Shrike welcomed the opportunity to malign Airen. Airen and his family were too popular in the brownie village. Their kindness showed up how he had turned from a brownie to a boggart through being overworked and mistreated by humans.
Shrike sneered as he recalled Airen reprimanding him for the malicious pranks he played on humans: turning milk sour, pulling the sheets off beds at night and shoving children into dark cupboards. Now the time had come to get his revenge on Airen.
‘Midhir won’t be pleased if he finds out that any of the brownies at Tullochgorm have links with the trespassers, well, well.’ Shrike chuckled to himself. Spinning on his heel, he hastened back to Midhir’s palace.