Aira and Gretchen find refuge with a human family.
|Aira walked boldly through the sombre grey twilight ahead of Gretchen who was bowed by sorrow. The wind bit with the approach of harsh weather. Gretchen noticed it too and her thoughts turned to Cailleach Bheur, the legendary bringer of winter, who had always shown favour to her and Aira because they left gifts for her during the colder months. Now they barely had anything to give, although their need of her protection was greater than ever.
Gretchen called Aira to stop at a knoll more exposed than the places they had previously traversed, where Cailleach Bheur’s powers were strongest. Here they hoped that they might call up the winter deity to meet them in person and guide them on thier journey. Cailleach Bheur had retreated to the high ground and turned to stone once the appearance of the first flower drove her back up the mountains. Gretchen laid out the dried wild strawberries, now broken and battered, that had nestled in a twist of paper in her apron pocket the night when Airen died. Neither she nor Aira wanted to take the foyson from the fruit, its woeful connection making it more a relic than sustenance.
Aira started as a bird struggled free of a thorn bush and eagerly pecked at the strawberries. It had a blue head, orange eyes and a breast like snow; a strange migrant from colder climates. Looking closer, Aira noticed that the tree from whence it came was spangled with the roosting forms of many such birds. The bird’s cry was harsh as it greeted its mistress. Cailleach Bheur strode towards them leading deer and wild goats to their winter pastures. She stopped to smite and wither the grass behind her with her staff. The tip of her nose and chin, which met like a nutcracker, twinkled with snow crystals. Once beautiful, her wrinkled face was now drained of colour and her hair resembled dry grass with the frost on it.
Aira was not afraid of this fairy of winter, for there was kindness in her eyes. Aira and Gretchen let Cailleach Bheur guide them. Their only other companions were the lost souls of unbaptised children that the fairy kept in her retinue. The brownies managed, with Cailleach Bheur’s help, to seek out enough food to see them through the bleakest winter of their lives.
When spring came and Cailleach Bheur retreated to hibernate, the two brownies were high in the mountains. Aira’s independent, adventurous spirit revived with the coming of spring. The air was fresh, and golden celandines bloomed prettily. Soon they found herbs and grouse eggs.
Aira grew confident, grateful for the skills and strength she had been forced to develop to survive. She noticed with both a pang and pleasure that Gretchen had come to rely on her and seek her help. Aira led her through the mountains and led her well.
When they began to see cottages again, Gretchen told Aira that they must seek service with a human family. Aira was reluctant, having come to relish her independence and being fearful of unfamiliar humans. Her father was right to detest a life of servitude. If her father had not been obliged to work to pay tithes to King Midhir perhaps he might have yet lived. However, she did not wish to trouble Gretchen by voicing her objections. She was comforted by the fact that Gretchen said it should only be for the summer whilst they lacked Cailleach Bheur’s guidance and that they would move on if they disliked their situation.
Move on they did, helping at many farms and crofts over the summers of the next fifty years. Sometimes their services were unwanted and they were shooed away, leaving Aira cross and downtrodden. Yet most humans rose in delight to find their chores completed and their homes spotless. The brownies found nowhere to settle. Sometimes they got taken for granted, or the humans thanked them, left them clothes or tried to trap or spy on them, which brownies do not like at all.
Gretchen spoke of their troubles to Cailleach Bheur. ‘Perhaps Airen was right and that us brownies would be better off free, not serving humans. I was inspired when he fired up about how we might be beholden to no one. I always expected he’d be there to protect us. We’re too weak to fend for ourselves.’
‘Only if we believe it, Mother. I’m sure we could get by,’ Aira said adamantly.
Gretchen gave her a look of gentle dismissal. ‘You’ve got a brave heart, Aira, but the wilds are no place for us.’
Cailleach Bheur grew thoughtful. ‘I know a place where you might be welcome. Not two leagues from here is a cottage where the family leave generous offerings to me each winter, even though they have little to give. This summer the husband died, leaving his widow and bairns to fend for themselves. The widow, Mrs McCrone, is a neat, industrious body but things are hard for her, for there is much to do.’
‘We should be glad to help. Would you lead us to her?’ Gretchen asked.
They crossed fields where the grass was bleached and struck whip-like at Aira’s legs. In the distance twinkled the low light of fires in a village. Aira caught the sounds of dogs barking, hens flapping and villagers bidding their neighbours goodnight. Between them and the village was a copse. Gretchen scrambled under a gate leading into the dark tunnel of trees. Aira was about to follow when Gretchen gave a cry. She was on her knees sniffing the ground when Aira reached her.
‘What is it?’ Aira asked fearfully, though she too had caught the unmistakable scent.
‘A company of brownies passed this way not long ago. A large clan, for I can make out many different scents. They had ponies with them,’ Gretchen said, spanning her hand over a tiny hoof print left in the mud.
‘Who do you think they are? Were they headed for the village?’ Cailleach Bheur asked.
‘No. The opposite way.’
‘Perhaps we should follow them?’ Aira suggested, yearning to meet new faces of her own kind.
‘No, Aira. How can we know if they’re friendly or where they’re heading? Like as not they’ll not welcome us. Your father feared to mix with strangers. You saw how he was with King Mazgrim. Airen was shunned from his clan because of his love of your mother. You might be in danger too if your parentage became known. I don’t think we should risk it. We’ll be safer with the human family in the village. Besides,’ Gretchen added as a parting shot, ‘these tracks are two days old. We’d never catch up with them.’
Aira followed Gretchen along the shadowy path, sorry to leave all trace of the other brownies. She knew that Gretchen spoke wisely but there had been scents of brownies of Aira’s age amongst the company and she yearned to have a friend. Her loneliness prickled her, making her discontented and disgruntled at herself. She brushed these feelings away and concentrated on the dark bulk of the cottage towards which Cailleach Bheur led them. By now the cottages were dark and silent. Only this cottage was illuminated by the weary glow of a tallow candle. Aira could make out the whirr of a spinning wheel.
The brownies bade farewell to Cailleach Bheur and crossed the yard towards the cottage. Several scrawny chickens and a donkey eyed them suspiciously.
The chink under the door was small enough for Aira and Gretchen to slip through in their shrunken states. They stayed in the shadows, looking across the room to where a woman sat spinning by the fire which burned clear, showing the welcome sight of a swept hearth. Mrs McCrone obviously appreciated a tidy house.
The brownies grew stiff with waiting and watching. There came a scuffling in the crog loft and a little girl dropped down the ladder. ‘You’ve got to come to bed, Mammy. It’s late.’
‘What about you, Isla? I told you that you should be resting with that bad chest of yours.’
‘I can’t. Not when you’re still down here. Anyway, the clattering of your spinning stops my ears going to sleep.’
‘Oh dear.’ Mrs McCrone looked at her daughter’s bare toes scrunched up at the touch of the cold flagstones. She was loathed to rest when she had set herself to finish the other half of her spinning and to make a start with making cheese, but she could also see that if she worked herself into an early grave then her two girls would be left orphans. Since her husband died life was tough. She threw herself into her chores partly out of fear of poverty and partly in a vain attempt to block out the hole that he had left in her life. Gretchen and Aira understood this well.
After Mrs McCrone relented to Isla’s pleas and left for bed, Aira readied the carded wool. Gretchen checked the spinning wheel over, oiling it with a feather and goose fat to make it move silently. Nevertheless, upon starting it gave such a treacherous squeak that they feared might have woken Mrs McCrone or her daughters.
It was a while before the brownies dared to try it again. It took Aira and Gretchen some hours working together at their full size to spin the wool. They worked faster than any human could. By dawn they had finished the spinning, hung the cheese curds in a muslin bag from the rafters, scrubbed the flagstones and prepared the vegetables that made the family’s staple meal of pottage. As the sky grew lighter, Aira was glad to hear the loud pounding sound of the cream that she was churning turn to the noise of footsteps crunching damp snow, indicating that it was solidifying into butter.
‘You’ve been busy, Ma,’ remarked Ainslie, Mrs McCrone’s eldest daughter, as she descended from the loft. Her nose twitched at the smell of the gruel that Aira and Gretchen had set to heat.
Mrs McCrone appeared rubbing her eyes, still unsure whether she was dreaming or not. ‘I haven’t done a thing. I’ve only just woken. How then…’
‘I thought I heard someone at your spinning wheel last night, Mammy,’ Isla said. ‘Do you think we’ve got a brownie?’
‘I pray we have. They’d be very welcome here.’ Mrs McCrone stirred the gruel, still dazed by what had happened. She had been told stories of ‘the Good Folk,’ as faeries were called, at her mother’s knee and recited them to her own children, but she found it hard to believe in their existence, let alone that they would help her. She knew that she must treat faeries with respect and helped Isla prepare food to leave in reach of the brownies that evening. Isla had talked of nothing but brownies all day and it gladdened her mother’s heart to see her so merry.
Isla was a strange child. Whilst Ainslie was boisterous and popular, Isla preferred her own company and would often be found pottering about patches of wild ground with her basket collecting flowers and leaves for making concoctions as her grandmother, the village wise woman, had taught her. It did not help that Isla was lanky with a squint. Some of the village children already called her a witch. For the first time, Isla wished fervently that she did have second sight, for she longed to see the kind little folk that had come to help them. She was sure they would be friendly; far nicer than the village children. She peered into every corner and crevice hoping to discern where the brownies hid but she found nothing.
Having found little to eat during their wanderings with Cailleach Bheur, the brownies gleefully ate the foyson from the just baked oat cakes and cranachan that Isla left out for them on the foot of the ladder leading to the crog loft.
During the day they had set up home in a cavity under the thatch in the quietest part of the crog loft. Even if Isla had investigated the crevice it would have been difficult to distinguish the brownie’s nest from that of a bird. Aira had woven the warm nest pocket with moss and wool, binding it tightly with cobwebs.
Aira was dusting the shelves of the dresser, which mostly contained pots of Isla’s herbs, when there was a creak of floorboards in the crog loft. Quicker than blinking the brownies shrank and ran into a corner, leaving their chores half done.
Isla’s pale face appeared, lit with excitement. She gave a cry of delight upon beholding the abandoned goosewing duster and freshly collected eggs. Mrs McCrone was woken and warned Isla that she must not offend the brownies by trying to spy on them. Even Mrs McCrone was now convinced of the reality of their visitors.
Aira felt sorry for Isla, touched to find how much the thought of seeing them meant to this human child. Yet Aira was bound by rules set to keep the worlds of humans and faerie folk apart. These included not revealing themselves to humans or letting them know their true names.
That week the steward of the laird who owned the McCrone’s cottage called to collect the rent. He had been expecting that Mrs McCrone would not be able to afford it. He had plans to evict her, as he did most widows and their families, to make way for more profitable tenants.
To his astonishment he found not only that Mrs McCrone had the rent money ready from the sale of her spun wool but that her cottage looked spotless, and her animals thriving. Mrs McCrone was renowned in the village for her industrious nature and he put it down to this, not guessing that she had little helpers.
Gretchen now judged Aira to be old enough to fetch water by herself from the spring two fields away at the foot of the crag behind the cottage. Aira lingered in the moonlight, gazing across the glen to where distant peaks reared their loaf-shaped heads to the clouds, which looked like tufts of unspun wool pulled apart. Far off twinkled the lights of solitary crofts and, further still, the next village. Aira felt small and isolated in the vastness of the world. She and Gretchen had explored the village and found no trace of other brownies. Aira wondered if any lived in the next village and if that was where the company of brownies that they had found the tracks of had been heading.
She balanced the water pail on her head, looking a fragile support for it. She knew better than to feel sorry for herself, or to let her loneliness get to her. She reminded herself how she loved Gretchen and that it was better to live as a recluse and be content than to have all the society in the world and be despised or saddened.
Often, she thought of her father. When her grief burdened her, she would go to the nest and take out her bag. She had begun to write down the stories that he had told her using shaggy ink cap mushroom ink on books made of birch bark bound with donkey hair.
Aira’s desire for friendship made her susceptible to Isla’s continued attempts to catch a glimpse of the brownies. Isla always spoke wonderingly and respectfully of them, leaving generous gifts of their favourite foods each night. Aira was touched by the way that this lonely girl, though sickly, would make herself wake in the night to look for them.
One night Isla asked her mother if she might sleep before the fire saying that the heat eased her breathing, though Aira guessed that it was truly so that she might have a chance of seeing them. Gretchen also suspected this and she and Aira debated what was to be done.
‘Would it be so bad if she saw for sure that it was us doing the chores?’ Aira asked.
‘I don’t mind myself, but it’s not the done thing.’
‘But we could work in the shadowy areas until we’re sure she’s asleep.’
Aira prevailed and they set to work. Aira accidentally scraped the basket of logs that she and Gretchen carried against the flagstones. At the sound Isla tensed. There was no getting her back to sleep now.
Gretchen had not noticed Isla’s watchfulness and returned to the crog loft to sort out Ainslie’s untidy pile of clothes. Such laziness put Gretchen and Aira out of sorts with Ainslie, but they would never dream of the pranks played by some brownies, like knotting her hair into elflocks whilst she slept.
Whilst Gretchen busied herself, Aira moved stealthily into the light. She scrubbed the muddy footprints from the flagstones by the fire, enjoying the amazement on Isla’s face as she watched the scrubbing brush apparently move by itself.
Isla had no second sight but Aira had forgotten that humans might see faeries between two blinks. That was how Isla, her eyes smarting from the disturbed dust, first saw Aira. She gasped in delight, barely remembering to keep her voice down so as not to wake her family. ‘I can see you! I can really see you! Oh, what a pretty thing you are. Ma always said that brownies are ugly. What’s your name?’
The child was so frank and delighted that Aira felt guilty as she gave the conventional reply of brownies, concealing her true name to humans who might use it to put them in their power. ‘I’m me myself.’
‘Memyself? That’s a strange name. Where do you come from?’
‘From a great castle far away. We’ve tried living in lots of places, but this is the best.’
‘Aye. I have my stepmother with me,’ Aira said, introducing her not a moment too soon. Gretchen scampered down the ladder at the sound of voices, fearing that Aira was in danger.
It took some time before Gretchen was convinced of Isla’s harmlessness, despite the girl telling them how pleased she was that they had come and that she would never breath a word of the fact that she had seen them to anyone else. From then on before they descended to their chores they stopped to talk to Isla. Aira enjoyed chattering to the curious human girl.
Life in the cottage remained hard for the family but every day they blessed the brownies who kept them from sinking to the poverty of many of the other cottagers.
Ainslie had always been more interested in her human friends than in the brownies. However, Isla’s fascination with the little people strengthened over time. Gretchen and Aira could meet her more freely once Ainslie married and left some years later.
Whilst Isla sat by the fire, weary from nursing her sick mother and seeing no hope for her though she would deny it, Aira stirred the embers into life and told her stories that she had heard from Airen of the heroic deeds of brownies long ago when King Peladach won Velmoran.
When Mrs McCrone died Isla was left alone in the cottage. She scraped a living from her garden and few animals, supplemented by her earnings as the village wise woman. Aira enjoyed helping Isla to make herbal preparations. Isla always asked her opinion of a diagnosis with an instinctive faith that made Aira blush, for she did not feel worthy of it. She understood a human life might rest in her hands and she feared making a mistake. Perhaps her caution made her choose rightly. With Aira’s help Isla built a reputation as a skilled healer, though many visited the cottage warily for she seemed diffident and strange tales spread about her.
For some years force of habit kept Aira and Gretchen working by night. Then, realising that there was nothing to hinder them, they did their tasks in the cottage by day. Aira was glad, for the light and colour of day delighted her.
Aira was lulled into supposing that things would always be thus. However, one day she looked at Isla as with newly opened eyes as Isla dozed to the rhythm of her purring cat. She saw that her friend had grown old and haggard. Aira mourned this, unable to comprehend that human lives should waste away so quickly. It seemed so short a time ago that they had come to the cottage and the intervening years had changed Aira little. Yet Isla had grown and faded like a morning glory bloom that lasts only a few hours.
Aira resolved to make the most of her time with Isla. She worked harder than ever and continued to tell Isla all that she knew about the faerie folk, holding back little in her generous heart.
One hard winter Isla’s rheumatism grew especially bad. She spent much time indoors unable to do many tasks. She was more grateful than ever for the brownies.
Towards the approach of spring the hay began to run out. Aira had spied a forest of long yellowed grass upon the slope behind the cottage and made it her mission to gather some rather than risk losing one of their animals. Working by the light of the full moon, by dawn she had collected enough to fill the donkey cart thrice over. She resembled a scarecrow with threads of grass covering her cap and apron, some even working their way into her clogs. With numb fingers she dragged herself onto a boulder and began to suck foyson from a crust of bread and a wrinkled apple from the dregs of their store. Having finished, she gave the apple to Isla’s donkey.
Lilac clouds lay fleecy in the sky and a mist rose from the forest across the valley. It looked so peaceful. The news from one of Isla’s patients that ogres had attacked the villages at the far edge of the forest seemed hard to believe. It was one of many tales of ogre attacks that they had heard that winter. Gretchen was uneasy knowing that ogres rarely travelled into the human world unless they had to, especially in the depths of winter when there was little good eating to be had from scrawny humans and beasts. Gretchen reasoned that the ogres’ homes had been disturbed, perhaps by something yet more fearful.
Gretchen was pleased to see Aira return safely. ‘Once you’ve finished stabling the donkey I’ve made you a bowl of hot porridge to sup.’
Isla was finding it hard to grip her spoon with her arthritic fingers. ‘It won’t be long before you and Aira have to move on, Gretchen. Try one of the villages down river from here, for none of those around the forest seem safe.’
‘Now Isla, don’t you get gloomy. I’m sure we’ll stay with you for a good while yet,’ Aira said.
Isla smiled at her. ‘You’re growing quite a dainty young lady. It seems cruel for you to live so solitary a life. No doubt you’ll be wanting a husband soon. I hope you find a young man of your kind when you move on.’
Aira blushed fiercely. ‘You mistake me. I can get by well on my own.’