A revised third chapter from my epic fantasy novel.
|It was a fresh evening with the birds singing full and sweet. In the meadows spread before Midhir’s palace, flowers from all seasons bloomed together in a light as brilliant as summer sunshine, yet as mild as moonlight. Airen had expected to see King Midhir and his gentlefolk riding out hunting and the road bustling with folk journeying to the market. Instead he found that all was strangely hushed.
Airen paused, enjoying a rest from carrying his pack of wares. Even with the use of a lifting spell to decrease their weight, the products of his forge; knives and swords, brooches and the bells with which faeries love to adorn their ponies, made a cumbersome load.
‘Greetings Killmouli. Why have you come away from the market so soon?’ Airen called as his he spotted his neighbour tramping towards him. The sight of Killmouli would have been gladdening except for the look of fear upon his face.
‘You should go. There’s danger here. They’ll probably be closing the market. I was lucky to be given something for my flour. 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,’ Killmouli said, jingling a few pieces of gold in his apron pocket. Killmouli’s words sounded mumbled because he had no mouth and instead spoke through his massive nose.
‘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 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 castle and try. There are plenty of folks there waiting to see if the market will go ahead. I’m going to wait by the portal to warn others from our village who’ll be heading to the market.’
Airen joined the grumbling throng outside the gateway. They waited hours, Airen full of misgivings. Dawn approached, painting colour onto the gleaming white statues of beautiful maidens carved in niches around the gate. Airen thought sadly that he was missing his daughter’s birthday. 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. He wondered how they would manage if Midhir took a dislike to brownies and stopped them trading at the market.
Airen turned and saw that bodies were being carried to the burial ground outside the palace, each bearing the marks of battle. His blood ran chill. 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, it was with joy that he beheld a warrior noble and strong. A mass of shaggy golden locks tumbled from beneath his richly ornamented helmet. ‘Leon.’
‘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.’
Leon’s jaw shook, and he looked away. ‘My sweet sister,’ he murmured. Then, controlling his grief with an effort that he had to make all too often, he said, ‘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. 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 Mazgrim arranged his marriage to the queen’s sister Isadora; a hot-tempered, gawky brownie with black whiskers that grew so thickly that she looked like a wildcat.
Leon chuckled, guessing his thoughts. ‘She’s not that bad. Life’s not been kind to her but inside she has a heart of gold. I left her behind in my fortress at Lutraudros, but it’s a cold, barren place. Mazgrim 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 Mazgrim’s sons are dead now except for Boroden. Mazgrim 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.’
‘Poor boy.’ Airen shook his head sympathetically.
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.’
Leon smiled appreciatively. ‘I must go soon. Midhir has called us to meet him and 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 Mazgrim. He’s making inquiries.’
Airen looked in sorrow over the piled bodies. So many brave young lives gone. It was like a felled forest. Amongst the mourners moving hunched amongst 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. It seemed that no one heard 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.
Airen and Leon had been so absorbed in conversation that they paid scant heed to a passer-by leaving the abandoned market. He had stopped, seemingly to remove a stone from one of his clogs. He was using this as an excuse to eavesdrop. He was Shrike, a boggart; a brownie gone bad through being overworked and mistreated by humans. He delighted in playing malicious pranks on humans; turning milk sour, pulling the sheets off beds at night and shoving children into dark cupboards. He often hung around the brownie village and had a special dislike for Airen and his family due to their popularity and kindness.
Shrike had been going to the market to steal and make mischief. Frustrated that his fun had been spoiled, he delighted at the opportunity to malign 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. He turned on his heel and hastened back to Midhir’s palace.
Airen stopped within sight of the gate. Two of Midhir’s guards questioned Bean Tighe, one of Airen’s neighbours of whom Aira was particularly fond. Bean Tighe was a friendly brownie who helped mothers to finish chores and cared for children and pets in return for strawberries and cream. She 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 was about 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.
Bean Tighe returned tearfully to the human world, comforted by Killmouli.
Airen turned resolutely back in search of Leon.