Chapter 7 of my epic fantasy novel.
|Airen worked on the sword all night. He was eager to have the task done and to allay the painful emotions that it evoked.
By the time that Aira and Gretchen returned from the castle the weapon was left glinting eerily on a bench before the forge fire. The ore had lost none of its brilliance, though now it was tamed and smooth as polished glass. Aira loitered a while, unable to take her gaze from the sword which had an inexplicable pull to her.
Airen too had been unsettled ever since he began the forging. There was a whisper in his head that he was doing something wrong although he could not place what exactly. When the brownie family retired to their nest hung from the apex of the roof, Airen found it hard to sleep.
Aira was an excellent nest builder and had constructed most of this month’s nest unaided using combed wool, cobwebs and moss. Airen would often refer to her fondly as Pogsie-wurzel after the resemblance of her nests to those crafted by the little birds with long tails and pink stripes on their black heads that inhabited the faerie world.
At last, lulled by the gentle swinging of the nest and the croon of the wind in the trees, Airen slept. He was met with a vision so real that it was as though he had fallen into another time and place.
About him raged a battle. He could see no end to it; the clash and chaos of armed bodies, the dead and dying, the screaming. It seemed that many armies took part, amongst them a mass of brownies. In the centre of the battlefield was a monster, massive and eel-like. The kraken! Behind her rose the distant towers of Velmoran. It was not a dream that Airen experienced but a vision.
Facing Krysila was a small, solitary figure dressed in armour as gold as her flowing hair. Her face was familiar to Airen but for a moment he could not quite place it. Freya? With a jolt he knew that it was Aira, though grown up. Her face displayed a strength that it was not tempered with now. Her ardent blue eyes had such purpose, knowing that this moment was the fruition of long years of toil.
Before her Aira held a sword of Talibereth ore. It was fashioned more delicately than the design which King Mazgrim had instructed Airen to make. Resembling a long sliver of ice, it was perfect for piercing Krysila in one of the gaps beneath her scales.
Airen awoke with a jolt knowing what he must do.
He looked at Aira curled snugly in her corner. He did not like to believe that his daughter had such a future, but he knew without a shadow of a doubt that it would come.
Aira’s hand had strayed to her wrist in her sleep as if seeking her bracelet. Following the interest that King Mazgrim had shown, Aira had asked Airen to lock the bracelet in the casket where it had stayed hidden in the lining of the nest since Freya’s death. Airen knew some simple magic and had placed a binding spell upon the box so that it was unlikely that King Mazgrim would be able to open it even if it was found.
It was nearly dawn. The moon hung low and full, casting a silvery aura about the forge. Airen raked the embers, painfully aware of each rattle and clank in the stillness. Partly he did not want to disturb anyone from their rest, partly he did not want one of the villagers to come and for him to feel compelled to explain what he had seen. He had never been a convincing liar.
Once he set to forging he forgot everything else. He worked with fluent vigour, feeling that he was not only melting and hammering the sword to a different shape but also beating out King Mazgrim’s oppressive rule and opening the way for a better world. It was what he had always dreamed of and he was proud that his daughter should help to achieve it, despite his sense of aching emptiness as he thought of her facing Krysila.
‘Father?’ Aira’s bemused voice came from behind him.
‘I’m sorry if I disturbed you my dearie, but there’s something I must do.’
He finished his work and put the sword to cool. Bubbles fled up thickly as the sword entered the water trough. Steam hissed. For an instant the blade was obscured from Aira. When Airen drew the blade out she gasped in amazement. It was pattern welded in a design of creeping foliage and had ornate fullers to enhance the strength of blade. The pommel was engraved with a family crest. This was not, as Aira had expected, the crest of King Mazgrim, but that of the House of Frenudin.
‘You’ve made it differently. I like it far batter the way you’ve decorated it now. It’s like a pretty summer plant and it doesn’t seem so bad losing the nice crystal of ore to make it.’
‘I’m glad that you think so, for it is to be yours.’
‘Mine?’ Aira asked incredulously.
‘Yes. I was uneasy about King Mazgrim using it to restore his tyrannous rule. Perhaps you’ll think me mad for saying it, but I’ve had a dream, one so real I’m sure it must come to pass. They do say Talibereth ore has a magic of its own. Perhaps it was calling to me, telling me its true purpose. I saw you wielding this sword, Aira.’ He said nothing of Krysila, though Aira still became pale and serious.
‘Won’t King Mazgrim be angry with you? He’ll find some way of getting the sword, surely.’
‘It’s a risk I have to take. I mean to hide it somewhere he will not find it. He’s just one brownie on his own, not even a king now really. Despite all his bluster there’s little that he can do. I doubt the wizard would stick by him. I think he’d had his fill of Mazgrim already.’
They wrapped the sword in layers of leather, although this precaution was hardly needed for Talibereth ore does not stain or rust. Airen suggested that they bury it under the stand of holly trees behind their cottage. Airen began to tell Aira more about his dream whilst he helped her to dig the crumbly soil. Not long ago it had rained. Aira drew in the fresh, leafy smell. It was more real and wholesome than any dreamed of future for her. Though she did not doubt her father’s words she was more inclined to think them symbolically prophetic than literally true. She did not feel like a warrior in the slightest.
Airen had not dug down far when his spade jarred, unable to cut deeper into the earth. Carefully he scraped away a loose veil of soil.
‘We’ve come down to the tree roots.’ Airen tested the ground with his spade ruefully. ‘We could cut them, but these trees have watched over our cottage so long that it would be a cruel thing to harm them.’
Aira nodded, Airen’s tales of dryads and tree spirits flashing to her mind. Tentatively she said, ‘you know magic. Might you ask them to move their roots, so we could bury the sword?’
‘I dare say that would be a hard task.’
Aira had already laid her hand upon the smooth, silvery-green bark of one of the trees. She looked to Airen but to her astonishment the tree moved beneath her fingers, the earth skittering up about its exposed roots. She had no magic.
‘I didn’t do anything,’ she gasped.
Airen looked as surprised as she did. He nodded to her and she realised that the tree was reaching its clawed roots towards her. She knew what it wanted, but she was sorry to relinquish the sword to its cradling roots.
‘Look after it, please, until my lass calls it back,’ Airen told the tree.
The holly tree bowed closer to the earth, its roots curling around the sword like a dog grasping a bone. It became so still that Aira thought that she had imagined that it ever moved.
Airen crumbled earth back into the hole, reciting a spell of concealment. Once he was done they worked faster, pushing and tumbling the soil back into place. Aira fetched armfuls of beech leaves to scatter over the spot to hide traces of their activity.
They returned to the cottage already weary, although Gretchen had only just risen. She was combing her auburn hair, forming it into a loose topknot and concealing it under her neat white cap.
All that day Aira dreaded Mazgrim returning and reacting with fury to the discovery that his sword was gone. Both she and Airen were surprised and relieved that he did not come. Even more so when he had still failed to appear by dinnertime the following day.
Several times they thought he had come when they heard the tramp of unfamiliar feet and strange voices outside, but it was only King Midhir’s guards. He was suspicious of the brownies following the battle. All were interrogated. Airen replied nobly, keeping an even temper despite the guards questioning him longest and most closely of all.
Aira shut the door after the guards, relieved that they had gone. She went to resume frying oak moss for their meal. Uneasiness returned as she heard the guards meet Shrike outside. He cast smug sneers in the direction of Airen’s cottage, evidently talking about the swordsmith’s family. Luckily the guards soon left, Shrike sauntering off in their wake.
Airen remained unconcerned, sure that no one would doubt his innocence. Over their meal Airen joked and chattered. By the time that they had finished eating the idea that anything might be amiss was far from Aira’s mind. Summer though it was the air was chill and they settled themselves near to the inglenook fireplace. Gretchen busied herself with her knitting and Aira fetched down her book, the tales of Frenudin and Peladach. The book itself was almost as beautiful to Aira as its story. She revelled in the rich colours; gold, lapis lazuli, and green as lush as spring grass glowing in the glory of the sun. The illustrated landscapes of Velmoran looked so real that she could see every hair on the necks of the winged horses and the glint in their eyes. Painted jewels and viola flowers spread over the borders of the pages and she wanted to reach out and pick them up.
Aira had little time to read. She stowed the book safely in the front of her pinafore whilst Airen cheered her and Gretchen with poems and riddles.
A thunderous pounding at the door made Aira choke in surprise. Gretchen’s knitting clattered to the ground. Airen went to answer it, still carrying a merry twinkle in his eyes.
He had not even reached the door when it caved in under a heavy blow. Aira rose with a shriek, knowing something was desperately wrong but unable to understand.
Three of King Midhir’s guards burst in. They asked no questions but strode forward with brutal purpose. One carried an axe. It happened so fast that Airen had no time to step back. The axe glinted as the soldier swung it. Airen fell. His arm jerked feebly. Then he was still, a puddle of blood spreading across the floor.
Aira’s world stopped. She screamed but it sounded muffled, a long way off. All she wanted was to run to her father, thoughtless of the guards who had now spotted her and Gretchen.
‘Grab the damsel. Kill the other baggage; she’s no use. You heard what Midhir said, he doesn’t want the maiden harmed,’ a guard barked.
Aira fought against Gretchen’s clutches but her stepmother would not give in. She dragged Aira to the window, pushing her through. Tumbling into a heap on the damp grass sobered Aira. She and Gretchen ran, cramming out their grief with the need to flee and survive. The guards made to follow but they did not know the area and could not move so lightly.
They did not need to hear the guards turn back and make for the other cottages to know that they were not the only prey. The awful yells shivered to the depths of Aira’s mind and lurked there as nightmares all her life. Aira prayed that her neighbours had been taken as slaves rather than slain. Then there came the red glow of fire, the smoke a choking black beast spreading over the land.
Aira cared only about reaching the hills beyond the village where they would be lost and safe. They tore up the first hill and climbed the second before they allowed their throbbing legs respite.
Aira threw herself onto the dewy grass. She buried her face in the folds of her grey cobweb shawl, willing herself to dissolve and know no more. She could not face going on and letting the cold reality of her father’s death ooze into her consciousness.
Gretchen knelt beside her and hugged her with shaking hands. Aira swallowed her silent scream and turned her head to her stepmother. Tears leaked from her eyes. Aira was struck by how small and fragile Gretchen looked. She had never thought so before, for Gretchen was always buoyant and resolute in her tasks. She was a slight and bony brownie and a head shorter than Aira, although Aira had not really registered that either until now. Struck by a wave of love for Gretchen, Aira clung to her, swearing to protect her whatever happened. Their embrace brought Aira’s tears flowing and she was soon wracked by bitter sobs.
They stayed huddled on the hillside for hours watching the redness from the burning cottages fade and listening to the sounds of wild animals, which suddenly seemed threatening.
The morning brought feeble, enduring rain and a tang of smoke in the air. Aira did not want to make a step into this horrible new world, empty of everything she knew and loved and devoid of any means of survival other than through using their own wits. But she forced herself to make the effort, if only for Gretchen’s sake.