A revised version of Chapter 4 of my epic fantasy novel
|Boroden was too numb to weep. His mind fizzed 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 death pale 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 yawned before him.
‘Boroden, we’ve got to leave soon to meet Midhir,’ Leon called through the canopy where Boroden sheltered.
Once Ulfmolt and the rest of the dead had been buried, Boroden led the surviving brownies towards Midhir’s palace. The courtyard was 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, even more disgruntled at the futility of their journey than the others.
The signs of normality and happiness interrupted jarred at the hearts of the brownies already cowed by the grandeur of the palace. They formed a huddle, glancing apprehensively at the imposing gilded door of the palace towards which their boy king and a handful of chieftains headed.
Boroden felt small and vulnerable as the great doors sealed him and his companions inside a vast hall. This irritated him. He wanted desperately to do well for his people and live up to the reputation that he had made for himself 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 brownies warriors approached to join his fight he let his power fade. No one suspected him.
‘That’s the king your people want to see. I know you have it in you,’ Captain Carnelian, Boroden’s tutor, had told him. The fact that he was now king seemed unreal.
He looked to his Carnelian for advice, for the room before them was deserted. Carnelian knew no more about how they should proceed than Boroden did.
The hall formed its own exquisite world lit by globes like floating suns, with a cascade replete with water lilies running down its centre. The water was unpredictable; now rising high, now babbling. The air was filled with the song of birds that flitted amongst the gilded columns and swags of green drapery.
Boroden stepped forward.
‘You should call him,’ Leon suggested.
‘Midhir!’ Boroden shouted more boldly than he felt.
A beauteous company materialised about the head of the stream. Midhir, dressed in green silk embroidered in a leaf pattern with shimmering gold threads, headed a bevy of ladies and courtiers. They made a stunning sight with their perfect faces and flowing blonde hair, yet their expressions were too imperious for the brownies to be moved with wonder or love.
‘What took you so long? I’ve been watching you these last ten minutes loitering on my doorstep and gawping like imbeciles.’ Midhir’s greeting was far from encouraging.
‘Forgive us, Lord Midhir. We did not know the ways of the sídhe,’ Carnelian apologised. Carnelian was a short brownie with unruly mousy hair that flicked out in all directions from beneath his broad-brimmed hat.
‘Evidently, for you seem to think nothing of squatting, stealing and bringing death upon my subjects.’ Midhir’s hunting hounds, white with crimson ears, snarled at his raised voice. They sensed in his tone a license to kill the strangers if bidden.
‘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 that 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.’ Boroden held himself boldly and looked Midhir in the eye. Boroden’s words were carefully studied and devoid of an accent in a way that spoke of his cultivated upbringing. To Midhir this, in one whom he thought should be humble, made Boroden suspect. Boroden needed to be put in his place.
‘You are responsible for your kind henceforth, wheedling child. You should have had the strength to be more persuasive. Besides, I don’t believe that you are so different. You cannot escape your blood. Twice now your family have 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 glare at Midhir’s lies. The tales of Peladach in which he was a hero good and just could not be wrong.
‘What do you want of us?’ Quentillian, one of Boroden’s chieftains, asked. Quentillian was a stout brownie with immense ears and grey sideburns emerging from beneath his cap of maroon velvet.
‘Since Frenudin was taken from me then I shall take one of her descendants for a wife.’
‘That’s impossible. Though my family line is descended from Frenudin my sister is dead and I have no daughter,’ Leon pointed out. Uneasily he recalled that Freya’s daughter had survived. Midhir must never discover Aira’s identity.
‘Then I’ll ask for something else, some treasure of equal value.’
‘We have little to give you,’ Boroden retorted.
‘It is said that the fruit of the Tree of Life is found in Velmoran. Its power of granting immortality would be useful to me. Perhaps you have some at your disposal?’
‘I’m afraid not. Its location had just been discovered the day Krysila took Velmoran.’
‘Perhaps you might help me find more since you know Velmoran so well?’
‘It’s impossible to get by the kraken and her followers. Make some other bargain.’
‘Very well. Be seated and let us begin our contest.’ 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 an elegant little table. Midhir settled himself to play, smoothing his robes with poise.
Awkwardly, Boroden approached the table. Leon and Carnelian protectively accompanied him. Carnelian was particularly anxious having instructed Boroden in chess to teach him strategy and the art of hiding his thoughts when in conflict. Carnelian knew that, although similar, the sídhe game of Fidchell was more complicated and could easily trip Boroden.
‘This isn’t a duel you know, there’s no need for seconds.’ Midhir glared dismissively at Boroden’s retainers.
They did not budge. Ruffled by their staunch behaviour, Midhir turned his attention to the game. His hand hovered over the neat 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.’
Midhir scoffed, noticing the difficulty that the young brownie, half the height of a sídhe, had viewing the Fidchell board. He beckoned one of his courtiers to fetch a hefty book and tossed this at Boroden’s feet. Retaining his composure, Boroden stepped up upon it.
‘Before I make my move and seal our bargain, 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 sarcastically. ‘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 think too highly of yourselves, that has always been the problem of your clan. My father The Dagda cursed brownies to serve mortals and, though some of you were privileged enough to be taken as servants to the higher ranks of faerie folk, you rebelled against it.’
‘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 discontent. Discontent 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. He moved his king piece towards the opposite edge of the board that was his goal to reach before Midhir’s pieces surrounded his king.
‘I hope we’ve not been disobedient. We’ve always tried to work within the terms of the Seelie Court,’ Boroden said, referring to 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. Boroden went on to support his point. ‘The Dagda granted us permission to seek a new homeland for ourselves when Velmoran was lost.’
‘I doubt that he meant you to steal lands from his son. Besides, you needed to ask to have your rights to the land recognised by the Seelie Court. I doubt that my father would be impressed if what you’ve done had come out. Especially if he heard it from one…’ Midhir smirked at Boroden like a cat toying with a bird, ‘with such dubious right to call oneself Seelie. You know of what I speak, creature. I know your secret.’
‘I told you that we didn’t know we trespassed,’ Boroden growled, finding it hard to keep his temper at Midhir’s cruel words uttered in a mellifluous tone. How had Midhir uncovered his secret?
‘Yet still it was done. You and your kin have done me much wrong, Boroden Ulfharen, and may do the same to others if left to roam. Think of your people too. If you were wise you’d let them be content with the situation of servitude fated to them. All troubles happen when one goes against what one has been called to, including yours. I can see only one way to remedy it. You’re to remain here as my slaves. I might even let you go free one day should you manage to find me the fruit of the Tree of Life. If you resist, well, let us say that I can make things very unpleasant for you.’
Boroden was appalled and Carnelian nearly berated Midhir, an unusual thing for the naturally placid brownie to do. Quentillian’s jaws worked like those of an angry bear. A look from Leon urged them to keep calm.
Boroden contemplatively lowered his gaze to the Fidchell set.
Midhir played with the rings of silver knotwork decking his fingers. He had expected anger, desperation or even tearful acceptance but Boroden’s silence unnerved him.
‘So, if that is the answer to my question then when you win the last round you will take us for your slaves?’ Boroden asked.
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.’ Midhir became uneasy, though he tried not to show it.
‘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 wishes 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.’
This alliteration made Midhir start. He had always been treated with respect, even by his enemies. Never had anyone spoken back to him thus.
‘I’m not prepared to bargain with a truculent knave like you. Slavery is too good for you. I see I should never be easy with you as my slave.’
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.
‘What news?’ asked Torden, the chieftain charged with minding the brownie clan as they waited in the courtyard. He had heavy features offset by wiry black dreadlocks and a tightly plaited moustache that made him look as if he had tusks.
‘Boroden called Midhir a vile, villainous viper,’ Carnelian responded.
Overhearing this Carnelian’s father Lord Asuril, a sour-faced old favourite of King Mazgrim, glared.
‘Which means we must get out of here, quick!’ Leon energetically urged the clan. They were delayed by horse traders leading their beasts across to the royal stables to see if any met Midhir’s standards.
Behind them came the yell that they 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 Mazgrim had outlawed its practice. In any case no brownie ever had the strength or the skill to defend against the magic of a sídhe.
‘King Midhir, there are wives and little ones amongst our company. Spare them at least,’ Leon protested desperately, seeing Midhir’s guards massing about the edges of the courtyard.
‘Why should I do that? Why not wipe out your obnoxious spawn before they grow to trouble me?’ Midhir snarled callously.
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 walls, seeking a way out.
A horse dealer ran by, almost knocking Boroden to the ground. He 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. Remember she’s for the King.’
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 he saw the wings under the long locks on its back.
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. Not knowing him from her captors she tried to shake him off.
‘Please lady, 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,’ Boroden begged.
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 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.
‘A pleasure. My name’s Blackthorn.’
The pony settled her hoofs on the ground outside the gates of Midhir’s fortress. Boroden slid from her back, landing unceremoniously on the flour sacks left by Killmouli. He pulled himself up, a bright sparkle in his eyes.
‘You have little choice. Slavery or death. You’re no fool, Leon. You know Boroden Ulfharen is mad and you should give him up. Join my palace servants; you have Frenudin’s blood in you after all and I should be glad for one of sídhe ancestry to serve me,’ Midhir said.
‘Boroden is my king and brother in arms. Never will I disobey him. Midhir, I beg you, don’t be so hasty. We might come to some arrangement. The Seelie Court would settle this.’
‘There is only one way to settle errant brownies.’
Before Midhir could elaborate there was a brisk ringing of the bell at the gate. The guards looked at Midhir questioningly.
‘It’s probably my wife returning from her ride. You’d better open it,’ Midhir glared dismissively.
As soon as they opened the gate the guards yelled. Thuds and clangs rent the air as their armoured bodies hit the ground, pinned under a pile of flour sacks. One guard struggled up coughing, white as a phantom from the flour burst over him.
Boroden appeared in the gateway with a triumphant grin. Blackthorn alighted beside him. Boroden had heaved the sacks onto her back and she had flown up to poise them to fall as the gates opened.
‘Run, quick. Take the ponies,’ Boroden commanded, nodding in the direction of the astonished traders.
At a whinny from Blackthorn the ponies willingly let the brownies free them. They galloped after her as she and Boroden took to the air. Astounded by the surging cavalcade, the guards did nothing. Midhir glared at them.
Lifting his wand, Midhir sent a barrier of resistance to block off the entrance to the human world towards which the brownies fled. The air shimmered into a thousand rainbow coloured lightning bolts parrying back and forth. Someone had sent up a powerful aura to resist his. Someone within the fortress. Midhir was furious. He was thwarted only a few minutes, but by then the brownies were safe.
‘Who did that?’ Midhir fumed at the speckle of fearful folk remaining in the courtyard. No one answered. Midhir glared at his guards. ‘Find them.’
Midhir stalked back to his palace. Who would dare to resist him? They were clearly in sympathy with the brownie clan. The answer was simple. He had suspicions already of the brownies having supporters here.
‘Send to all the villages and have the brownies there questioned, under force if necessary. Spare not one of them,’ he ordered his chief of guards.
Airen had no idea of the intent of the troop of guards that swept into the courtyard, passing by him. Fortunately, he had the sense to shade his face with his hood. He was weak and panting, yet there was a gleam of triumph in his eyes. Lovingly he fingered Freya’s bracelet, moved that she had given him the grace to use its power. Contained within it, passed down from Frenudin to her daughters, was ancient magic. Its protective aura had shielded the fleeing brownies from Midhir.
Airen had missed Leon, and perhaps his chance of journeying with him to Lutraudros, yet this blow did not strike him as deeply as it might. They could not hide forever. Almost as if the bracelet had spoken to him he knew that the time had come to give it to Aira. She must know who she truly was.
He headed home, passing Shrike on his way. The boggart cast him an ugly sneer, but Airen thought little of it, being used to his ways. He would have been surprised, however, had he looked back and seen Shrike clomping up the steps to the palace door.
‘King Midhir, this creature wants to speak with you,’ the chief guard declared with a bow.
Already out of sorts with brownies, a boggart was the last thing that Midhir wanted to see. Shrike tugged his greasy hair in what he assumed was a gesture of respect.
‘Sire, I have information. About the brownies.’
‘If I hear one word more about them I’ll rip out the tongue of he who utters it - with my nails,’ Midhir declared, turning on his heel dismissively.
‘But you’d want to hear this I reckon. You want to know who invited them brownies to settle here? Well, I know the culprit.’
‘Go on,’ Midhir said with little faith.
‘It’s the swordsmith Airen. I overheard him talking to one of the chieftains very friendly like; Leon he was called. It seems Airen married Leon’s sister and Leon was wondering if him and his daughter might come and settle with him.’
‘Daughter? You said that Leon has a niece?’
‘Aye. Aira’s what they call her. A marred, stuck-up wench if ever I saw one.’
Midhir barely listened. His lips curled into a slow smile. ‘Fúamnach, bring me my looking glass.’
Midhir’s wife did as he bid but watched jealously over his shoulder as he breathed an incantation, misting the glass. It cleared to show a sunny meadow. Skipping across it, bright and lovely as the flowers about her, was a golden-haired brownie lass.