The young brownie king, Boroden, confronts the arrogant elf king, Midhir
|Boroden’s mind boiled with a torrent of grief as he knelt beside the body of his brother. There was still too much of the bairn in Ulfmolt’s ashen face. Boroden wished he had relented to Ulfmolt’s plea before the battle and run away with him. Then Ulfmolt would have lived. Boroden put his head in his hands and tried to shut out the pain and emptiness, but it clutched him.
Over and again he relived the hideous war shrieks of the hobyahs as they advanced. Always he kept in front of Ulfmolt to protect him from the onslaught of thorny whips and splinter spears as the lithe, bloodthirsty monsters attacked the brownies. Through the trees, he caught the glint of hobyah eyes in the moonlight. A second company of hobyahs waited to ambush the brownies from the side. His father promised to take care of Ulfmolt whilst he investigated.
The hobyahs lit torches to set light to the brownie camp. If he wasn’t quick, they would incinerate the homes along with the bairns, elders and womenfolk cowering inside. Boroden gave a grim smile as he realised that, for the first time in his life, he was proud of the abilities that his curse brought him. He was able to reach the hobyahs long before the warriors led by Leon who came to his aid. His friends suspected nothing as he pulled up his hood to shield his face from the moonlight, advancing to meet them with a drawn sword as if he had used the weapon to slay the monsters.
When he returned, heady from leading Leon’s detachment of brownie warriors to victory, he found Ulfmolt crumped in agony as the poison tipping the hobyah spear that pieced him kicked in. King Gruagach had vanished. Ulfmolt said in a broken whisper that he fled but Lord Asuril, Gruagach’s right hand man, hushed him sternly. Boroden was inclined to believe his brother - Gruagach’s company had been beset by the hobyahs and it wouldn’t be unknown for his father to save his own skin rather than fight to the death. What surprised him was the eagerness of the chieftains to pronounce him king in Gruagach’s absence, saying they needed a leader to hold talks with the sídhe king whose knights arrived to break up the fight when the hobyahs were nearly defeated.
Numbed by the changes the battle had brought, talking to King Midhir was the last thing Boroden wanted to do. A voice in the back of his mind told him he must stir to prepare grave goods to commemorate Ulfmolt, but his stiff body refused to let him move. After the exertion of battle, every muscle ached.
Leon’s shadow loomed across the screen of cloaks that the brownies had hastily created to protect their injured comrades. ‘Boroden, we’ve got to leave soon to meet King Midhir. He doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’
Boroden scoffed. What pointless care he had taken fastening the cloaks together an hour ago over his grievously wounded brother. It no longer mattered to Ulfmolt if he was sheltered from the elements. Boroden doubted his tightened throat could form words of reply to Leon. ‘Surely Midhir will give us a little more time? So many were lost fighting the hobyahs. He must know we’re grieving.’
Leon pushed his way through the makeshift shelter. ‘Midhir wants the entire clan to go to the palace to beg his forgiveness for settling in his lands without permission and inadvertently bringing the hobyahs to fight his people and ours. Otherwise, he may speak against us at the Seelie Court if we do find a homeland.’
Boroden shut his eyes, recalling that maintaining the approval of the Seelie Court was paramount. His clan were proud to be part of the court of the faerie clans united into what humans called the People of Peace; good magical races that are generally benevolent to humans and returned kindness with favours of their own. If his father was here, he would have reminded Boroden that remaining in good standing with the Seelie Court was paramount. But King Gruagach wasn’t there. Boroden wished he had some closure and knew either way whether his father was living or dead. When he thought of his missing father, Boroden’s mind churned with a torment of conflicted emotions.
Casting his beloved brother one final look that he knew would never be enough, Boroden rose unwillingly from Ulfmolt’s side. ‘I’m coming.’
Leon laid his hand on Boroden’s shoulder. ‘Midhir has been kind allowing us to bury our dead so near the burial mound of the sídhe outside the palace. You should take heart from that. We need to maintain his good will.’
‘You’re right,’ Boroden answered, though he felt far from ready to address the distinguished elven king and his court. He doubted he could remember the court etiquette of the sídhe with his energy sapped by the battle. Sorrow snagged his thoughts, and the loss of his brother and the uncertainty following his father’s disappearance plagued his heart.
A moment later, Boroden’s tutor Carnelian, and Torden, a burly brownie chieftain, stepped into the tent.
‘We’ve come to help carry Ulfmolt’s byre,’ Torden said.
Carnelian folded Ulfmolt’s still warm hands, making them repose as if the young prince slept. He bowed his head, muttering words of prayer. ‘He’ll be going to a better place. Are you ready?’
Boroden locked his jaw. No, he wasn’t ready. How could anyone ever be ready for his younger brother to die?
‘Yes,’ Boroden said.
He followed them, his feet heavy. The bright summer meadow was at odds with his bleak emotions, even if it did offer ample flowers for the brownies to gather to lay in the graves. As he passed the other brownies, they offered him words of comfort. He forced a nod and smile to each one, although his body felt too wooden to make these brief efforts.
The procession halted in front of an ancient elm. Carnelian and Torden lowered Ulfmolt’s body into the ground and took a step away. As Carnelian led the brownies in prayers for Ulfmolt and the other dead, Boroden approached the gaping hole. He lowered his chin and let his arms hang by his sides. It seemed unreal to see Ulfmolt, who was always so full of life, laid to rest in the cold earth. It wasn’t right.
Once Ulfmolt and the rest of the dead had been buried, Boroden led the surviving brownies the short distance to Midhir’s palace. Boroden glanced back at his motley crew of followers, some riding ponies, some of foot, many injured following the battle. They were as reluctant to go as he was. Yet, as he met their eyes, their expressions lightened. It fortified his resolve to see that his clan held high hopes for him. He would not let them down when he met with Midhir.
Passing through the oaken gates, which were elaborately carved with hunting scenes, Boroden found the courtyard still prepared for the market, brightened by stall canopies and flags of colourful cobweb silk. Some traders had come from afar bringing ponies from the mountains, gold and precious stones from the dwarven mines and comfits and spices from across the seas. These travellers remained surrounded by their packs, looking even more disgruntled at the futility of their journey than the others.
The signs of interrupted normality sent a cold shudder through Boroden. He was already cowed by the grandeur of the palace.
Boroden motioned his chieftains to wait for him at the bottom of the stairs leading to the imposing gilded doors of the palace. Ascending the stairs so all his clan might see him, he stared down at the huddle of brownies who glanced apprehensively about the spacious courtyard.
Moistening his parched lips, for he knew it was important for a king to speak clearly, he addressed his clan. ‘There is no need for us all to go in to apologise to Midhir. I will represent you in addressing myself to him. Stay and rest here in the courtyard whilst I go inside. Torden, I appoint you to take care of the clan in my absence. The sooner Midhir accepts our apology, the sooner we can be on our way and find a safer land to settle.’
Boroden’s heart melted at the grateful cheers that followed his words. Taking a deep breath, he turned to open the gilded palace doors that towered over him. He had expected there to be servants to admit him but, other than the brownies and the traders, the palace appeared deserted. Don’t worry about that, Boroden told himself, his hand slipping on the gleaming door handle.
Boroden’s breathing relaxed as Leon came to his side. ‘Here, let me.’ Leon twisted the handle and the doors slid noiselessly open.
Boroden’s pounding heart quietened as he noticed Carnelian and Quentillian, another of the brownie chieftains, accompanying Leon.
Carnelian glanced at his two companions. ‘We’re coming with you, Boroden.’
Boroden cast them a grateful nod and led them into the palace. He felt small and vulnerable as the great doors sealed him and his companions inside. This irritated him. He wanted to do well for his people, as he had in battle leading a bold and victorious attack upon the hobyahs that waited to ambush his clan. His quickened senses had alerted him to the concealed band of hobyahs, and he had used his ability to run with preternatural speed to intercept them. By the time that brownie warriors approached to join his fight, he let his power fade. No one suspected how he used his power to bring them victory over the hobyahs in the battle.
He looked to Carnelian for advice, pleased to be accompanied by the short brownie with unruly mousy hair that flicked out in all directions from beneath his broad-brimmed hat. ‘The room is deserted. Where’s Midhir?’
‘We’ll soon find him,’ Carnelian said. Coming alongside Boroden, he spoke in a low, reassuring tone. ‘You can do this, Boroden. You led our clan to victory in the battle, remember. That’s the king your people want to see. I know you have it in you, and I’ll pray that God grants you courage to face the trials ahead.’
Boroden nodded, although the fact that he was now king seemed unreal to him. ‘Let’s go on until we find someone to take us to Midhir.’
Boroden led his companions into a vast hall. His breath froze in astonishment at the grandeur of the room. It formed its own exquisite world lit by globes like floating suns. A cascade replete with waterlilies ran down its centre. The water surprised him by now rising high, now falling away to a babble as if it had a fickle will of its own. Pure white birds flitted amongst the gilded columns and swags of green drapery. Boroden followed their movements, hoping they might lead him to Midhir.
Leon tapped on Boroden’s shoulder. ‘You should call him.’
‘King Midhir!’ Boroden’s shout sounded bolder than he felt.
Boroden jumped as a beauteous company materialised out of thin air about the head of the stream. He guessed that the majestic sídhe dressed in green silk embroidered in a leaf pattern with shimmering gold threads was Midhir. He headed a bevy of ladies and courtiers. Boroden drank in the stunning sight of their perfect faces and flowing blonde hair, yet their expressions were too imperious for him to be moved with wonder or love. The sídhe were the height of humans and Boroden felt as dwarfed by them in stature as he was humbled by the opulence of his surroundings.
Midhir’s red eyes bored into Boroden, and Boroden winced.
‘What took you so long? I’ve been watching you these last ten minutes loitering on my doorstep and gawping like imbeciles,’ Midhir said, arching his neat eyebrows. The expression on his ageless face with its sharp cheekbones made Boroden feel like an insect.
Boroden tried to speak his well-rehearsed words of apology but found them stuck in his throat. The silence stretched, awkward.
Carnelian lowered his head apologetically. ‘Forgive us, Lord Midhir. We don’t know the ways of the sídhe.’
Boroden was grateful for his tutor coming to his aid, although he cringed to recollect that, as king, he should have been the first to speak.
Midhir trained his gaze upon Boroden. ‘Evidently, for you seem to think nothing of squatting, stealing and bringing death upon my subjects.’
Boroden shivered but stood his ground. His courage returned with his anger. He held himself straight and looked Midhir in the eye. ‘We did not mean to be a burden to you, Midhir. As my father already told your messenger, we had no idea that you owned these lands. I thought inquiry should be made to find their owner before settling down, but my father thought it foolish. I’m not my father. I shouldn’t be punished for his wrongdoings.’
Midhir sneered. ‘You are responsible for your kind henceforth, wheedling child. You should have had the strength to be more persuasive. Besides, I don’t believe you are so different. You cannot escape your blood. Twice now your family has wronged me.’
‘Twice, King Midhir?’
‘Do not forget that your forefather Peladach stole away Lady Frenudin who was to be my bride. A mere brownie slave, he forced her secretly to wed him leaving her a shameful outcast in the eyes of her sídhe kin. He wanted her land in Velmoran for his own beggarly kind. I still have no recompense for that, and I must ask it from you.’
Boroden lowered his head, unable to contain his disgust at Midhir’s lies. The tales of Peladach in which he was a hero good and just could not be wrong.
Quentillian stepped forward. The stout brownie with oversized ears and grey sideburns emerging from beneath his cap of maroon velvet looked out of place amongst the lithe figures of the sídhe courtiers. ‘What do you want of us?’
Midhir let his attention rest on the reflections cast upon the ceiling by the purling water. ‘Since Frenudin was taken from me, I shall take one of her descendants for a wife.’
Boroden noticed that Leon looked uneasy as if he was hiding something from Midhir.
‘That’s impossible. Though my family line is descended from Frenudin, my sister is dead and I have no daughter,’ Leon said.
‘Then I’ll ask for something else, some treasure of equal value.’
Boroden struggled to keep his retort civil. ‘We have little to give you.’
‘When he fell from heaven, my father, The Dagda, lost some vials containing the juice of the fruit of the Tree of Life somewhere in caves beneath Velmoran. Long have my family sought it out for its power of granting immortality. Perhaps you have some at your disposal?’
‘I’m afraid not. Its location was only discovered the day Krysila took Velmoran. Besides, ousting the kraken and her followers is nigh on impossible. Make some other bargain.’
‘Very well. Be seated and let us begin our contest. As you may know, it is a sídhe custom to let a game of Fidchell settle any disputes. We must each have our prizes ready to name should we win.’ At Midhir’s words two courtiers appeared carrying a Fidchell set with a silver board and a gold army of pieces. With graceful movements, they set the game out upon a table inlaid with battle scenes. Midhir settled himself to play, smoothing his robes with poise.
Boroden approached the table, his heart recoiling at the awkwardness of the situation. In a protective move, Leon and Carnelian accompanied him. Boroden noticed Carnelian fidgeting anxiously. Carnelian had instructed him in chess to teach him strategy and the art of hiding his thoughts when in conflict, but they both knew that, although similar, the sídhe game of Fidchell was more complicated and could easily trip Boroden.
Midhir waved his hand in dismissal at Boroden’s retainers. ‘This isn’t a duel you know, there’s no need for seconds.’
They did not budge. Midhir turned his attention to the game, appearing ruffled by their staunch behaviour. His hand hovered over the gilded ranks before he moved a piece.
‘Now it’s your turn, Boroden. Come, I may easily wait a thousand years - I’m born of one of the noblest and longest lived of all the faerie races - but not you. Make your first move.’
Boroden’s cheeks became hot in mortification as Midhir scoffed at the difficulty that he had viewing the Fidchell board due to his short stature.
Midhir beckoned to one of his courtiers. ‘The little king needs some help. He’s half the size of a sídhe.’
The courtier fetched a hefty book and tossed it at Boroden’s feet. Retaining his composure, Boroden stepped up upon it.
‘Before I agree to play Fidchell against you, I would like to know what price you’ll name when I lose,’ Boroden said.
‘I’m glad to see you truly appraising your lack of skill.’
‘I don’t think this game is a matter of skill,’ Boroden replied with sardonic poise. ‘I’ve heard that you fix it so that I win the first two games and you the third and thus claim mastery. I want to know what you’ll ask me to give you then?’
‘You’ve already told me that you have little to give and, given your vagabond appearance, I can well believe it. I cannot believe, unfortunately, that you will cease to cause trouble. You brownies think too highly of yourselves. In his role as overlord of the faerie races, my father The Dagda cursed brownies to serve mortals and, though some were privileged enough to be taken as servants to the higher ranks of faerie folk, your clan rebelled against his decrees.’
Boroden focused on the Fidchell board, trying to hide his disapproval from Midhir. ‘Would you not if you had to live your life a slave?’
‘Tut, tut. You are too hot-headed and show no reasoning. It is a fact of life that work must be done - crops grown, food prepared, clothes spun. This freedom from servitude that you desire is nothing but a dream, and dreams make one discontented. Discontentment leads to disobedience. Brownies have got fussy. They expect titbits and leave if their work is complained about. And now this…’
Almost without realising Boroden had joined the game whilst Midhir talked, moving his king piece towards the opposite edge of the board that was his goal to reach. ‘I hope we’ve not been disobedient. We’ve always tried to work within the terms of the Seelie Court. The Dagda granted us permission to seek a new homeland for ourselves when Velmoran was lost.’
‘I doubt he’d be impressed if he knew you’d stolen my land. Especially as you have…’ Midhir smirked at Boroden like a cat toying with a bird, ‘such a dubious right to call yourself Seelie. You know of what I speak, Boroden Ulfharen. Isn’t that what the monsters of the Unseelie Court call you - Ulfharen? It means wolf-coat. I wonder if your friends know what they mean by calling you that, creature?’
‘I told you that we didn’t know we trespassed,’ Boroden growled, finding it hard to keep his temper at Midhir’s threat uttered in a mellifluous tone. How had Midhir uncovered his secret?
‘Yet still it was done. You and your kin have wronged me, Boroden Ulfharen, and may do the same to others if left to roam. If you were wise, you’d let your people be content with the situation of servitude fated to them. I can see only one way to remedy the knavery of you brownies. You’re all to become my slaves. I aim to take Velmoran back from the kraken. If you find the fruit of the Tree of Life for me, then I might let you go free. Eventually. If you resist, well, let us say that I can make things very unpleasant for you.’
Boroden was appalled. Carnelian started forward as if he would berate Midhir, which shocked Boroden given Carnelian’s usual placidness. Quentillian’s jaws worked like those of an angry bear. A look from Leon urged them to keep calm.
Boroden fixed his attention on the Fidchell set.
Midhir played with the rings of silver knotwork decking his fingers. Boroden felt a flicker of satisfaction. Good - his silence unnerved Midhir. Midhir had clearly been expecting anger, desperation or even tearful acceptance. Boroden refused to give him this.
Boroden raised his gaze from the board to meet Midhir’s. ‘So, if that is the answer to my question then when you win the last round you will take us for your slaves?’
Midhir gave a tight smile. ‘I see that we understand one another.’
‘I’m close to winning this first round. The same rules apply to me also? That whatever I ask for I must be given?’
‘That is correct.’
Boroden was pleased to see uneasiness surface below Midhir’s carefully composed expression.
Boroden moved his king piece. He was but a short step from reaching the edge of the board now. ‘Then I would ask for the strength to resist you and to lead my people to a safe homeland where they can live freely in peace for the rest of their days.’
‘That is three demands at once and against the rules. If they were granted, then it would cancel out my request so there’d be no justice.’
‘Justice? Justice for whom? I call it a poor kind of justice if it merely benefits you, Midhir. I’d rather not make terms with you if this is all you have to offer. We’ll leave now and get as far away from here as is possible. Don’t worry that we’ll trouble you again. There’s no face in this world that I’d rather not see. You’re nothing but a vile, villainous viper.’
Midhir started as though he had been slapped. ‘It will be a true pleasure to break your spirit when you are my slave.’
‘You cannot enslave us. What would The Dagda say? I demand an audience with him.’
‘You’ll never get the chance. I’m not letting you brownies leave my palace. Give your people over to me as slaves, or they’ll pay with their lives. Your choice.’
Tipping the Fidchell board to the ground so that the pieces bounced and rolled over the floor, Boroden strode away. Carnelian, Quentillian and Leon hastened after him. Shoving back the doors, Boroden shut his eyes and took a deep breath of the country air. He was glad to escape the perfumed fragrance of Midhir’s palace to the familiar, earthy smell of the traders’ fruit and bread, and horses in the courtyard.
As Boroden fled down the steps, Torden came forward eagerly. His heavy features were offset by wiry black dreadlocks and a tightly plaited moustache that made him look as if he had tusks. ‘What news?’
Carnelian winced. ‘Boroden called Midhir a vile, villainous viper.’
Boroden cringed at the awful timing as Carnelian’s father, Lord Asuril, pushed his way through the crowd of brownies. He was even more keen than his friend, King Gruagach, to pick fault with Boroden. Asuril pulled a face like he had swallowed vinegar. ‘I should have gone with you to speak with Midhir. This never would have happened if I’d been there to oversee. You’re still so young and have no idea how to conduct yourself in such important matters. Your father would have wished me to go with you, not be left out in the courtyard with the rabble.’
Boroden did not suppose that Leon shoved Asuril aside entirely by accident in his haste to get the brownies to safety. Leon detested Asuril as much as Boroden did. Leon urged the clan onwards. ‘We must get out of here, quick!’
Boroden and his followers skidded to a tumultuous halt to avoid running into a train of horse traders leading their beasts across to the royal stables.
Behind them came the yell that Boroden dreaded. ‘Close the gates!’
Midhir appeared at the head of the stairs leading to the courtyard, his hazel wand in his hand. It had been foolish to arouse his wrath. Though some brownies were gifted with magic, King Gruagach had outlawed its practice. In any case, Boroden knew that no brownie ever had the strength or the skill to defend against the magic of a sídhe.
‘What are you waiting for?’ Midhir roared at the guards. ‘I said close the gates.’
‘Sire, Queen Fúamnach is riding out hunting,’ a guard said.
‘And when she returns she may be let in. For now, I must deal with these offending House Elves.’
Leon cast a desperate glance at Midhir’s guards massing about the edges of the courtyard. ‘King Midhir, there are wives and little ones amongst our company. Spare them at least.’
Midhir gave a callous snarl. ‘Why should I do that? Why not wipe out your obnoxious spawn before they grow to trouble me?’
Boroden caught his breath. Perhaps he was a fool as Asuril seemed to think, but what else could he have done? Perhaps if he had Leon’s tact and way with words… but even then Midhir’s heart had been set on retribution from the first. As Leon continued to plead, Boroden’s gaze swept the courtyard. There must be a way for him to lead the brownies out to safety, some weak spot in the walls?
Boroden drew his sword, wincing as he noticed the brownie women and children cowering. Fighting the sídhe would be suicide, but to be enslaved would be a fate worse than death. As he prepared to rally his followers to fight, a horse dealer ran by, almost knocking Boroden to the ground. The horse dealer made to help his companion restrain a pony grown wilder than the rest. One of the traders reprimanded another who tried to lash the pony into obedience.
‘Careful, we don’t want this one damaged. Flying ponies are rare. Remember she’s for the King,’ the trader said.
His words made Boroden look closer. He had not noticed anything special about the pony with its shaggy black coat and mud besmirched legs. Then her wings shifted under the long locks on its back. If he could only persuade her to fly him over the walls then he might open the gates, allowing his followers to leave without bloodshed.
The trader with the whip squealed as Boroden knocked his legs from under him. The other started back from the pony’s flailing hoofs. Boroden caught at her forelock. She tried to shake him off.
Boroden spoke soothingly. ‘Please, gentle one, I mean you no harm. I’ll set you free and always be your friend if you do as I ask now, I swear it.’
She stilled her struggle, gazing at him with intelligent deep brown eyes. ‘What do you ask of me?’
Boroden had never heard a pony talk before, but this was no time to indulge his wonder at the sound of her whickering voice. Midhir’s guards closed in on the brownies who huddled, too cowed and weary to offer much resistance.
‘I need to get my friends out of here. Help me get over the wall,’ Boroden said.
The pony acquiesced, kneeling for him to mount. He laughed as her wings brushed him. The air rushed by his ears. He clung to her neck, leaning over to see his clan and Midhir’s guards diminish below him.
‘I’m so grateful,’ Boroden told the pony.
‘It’s a pleasure. My name’s Blackthorn.’
The pony flew over the wall of the fortress and settled her hoofs on the ground outside the gates of Midhir’s fortress. Boroden slid from her back, landing unceremoniously on a heap of sacks marked ‘Killmouli’s finest flour.’ He pulled himself up, a sparkle of inspiration in his eyes.