Brownie servant girl Aira is reunited briefly with her friend Boroden
|Aira sighed, heartened by the news that Killmouli and Bean Tighe brought. The market had been delayed, but Midhir’s folk still accepted the wares brought by brownies for sale. Killmouli and Bean Tighe had glimpsed Airen following behind them as he left the market. Aira imagined she would see him emerging from the faerie portal soon, arriving late but with full bags of coins to pay the tithe of the brownie village. She hoped Midhir might allow the brownies who worked in Tullochgorm Castle to continue living in their village without trouble.
Until Airen returned to take the glamour that she carried for him, Aira left the gateway into the faerie world and made the most of the opportunity of exploring the meadow near the human castle, safe in the knowledge that humans could not see her after she took a sip of the precious liquid. Having to work in the human lands by night was such a pity when the countryside looked so entrancing lit by summer sunlight.
Aira dashed along the hedge bank not minding that the hem of her patchwork dress became drenched with diamonds of dew or that petals fell from her bouquet in her haste.
At last, breathless with running so far, she stopped by a wild rose to gather more blossoms. She nestled her upturned nose amongst the petals, delighting in the heady scent and smiling at the pollen dusting her skin.
From the corner of her eyes, she thought she spotted something. Looking up, she spotted a dark shape in the sky near the gateway to Midhir’s kingdom. At first, she feared it was an eagle or a buzzard. Her heart pounding, she scanned the bushes for a good place to shelter. Glamour would only disguise her against humans and did not hide her from animals. Curiosity stayed her. The creature moved too fast, its wings beating strong and flurried. Besides, it was not bird shaped.
Aira gasped in delight. It was one of the winged faerie ponies that her father spoke of in his stories. On its back clung a rider. The rider was too far off to make out their facial features, but she discerned the small silhouette glancing back frantically, checking its surroundings.
With a rush of apprehension, Aira realised that the pony was flying in her direction and getting lower. She pressed herself down amongst the roots of a tree, peering through the tangles of wildflowers as the pony landed in the shaded gully below.
Wonderment rushing in her chest, Aira drew from her hiding place and skipped to the edge of the ravine. The pony folded her wings and pawed the ground. She was a gorgeous sight with her long, shaggy black coat and wings as glossy as those of a blackbird. Aira loved her immediately.
A young brownie stood beside the pony loosening the cruel rope halter that had been fastened onto her. He had his back to Aira, his hair spilling over his shoulders as black and wavy as that of the pony. His armour was of silver coated pine cone mail and he carried a good sword. A brownie warrior like him made a rare sight in the quiet meadows about Tullochgorm Castle.
‘This looks a good spot to land, Blackthorn. It’s nice and quiet - we should be safe here. We’ll wait until the others in the clan catch up. I don’t want to go too far ahead in case we get separated. With your wings, you can travel way faster than the ponies they’re riding.’ He glanced back in the direction from whence he came. ‘I hope nothing’s happened to them.’
He turned and met Aira’s gaze. For a young warrior he gave her an unexpectedly shy smile. He seemed all the nicer, she thought, for his shyness. It took away her own awkwardness, for she should have run had he appeared too bold or unfriendly.
Wafting away the rose petals blowing down about her, she stepped forward to greet him. ‘Hello.’
Relief settling his features, he bowed his head in a courteous gesture. ‘I’m pleased to see a fellow brownie.’
‘Greetings,’ the pony said.
Aira clasped her hands. ‘I’ve always wanted to see one of the faerie ponies,’ she said, her gaze flitting from brownie to pony.
‘As did I, fair lady.’ The brownie’s words were carefully studied and devoid of an accent in a way that suggested a cultured upbringing.
‘Oh, I’m not a lady. I’ve only got my smartest dress on because it’s my birthday today.’
‘Then I hope you are having a nice day, fair maiden. It wasn’t your dress I meant, though it is very pretty. It’s your hair. It’s rare for a brownie to have golden hair - it shows they have fairshee blood.’
‘You mean from Lady Frenudin?’ Aira warmed to him at the compliment, proud to be descended from the sídhe lady who gave the brownie clan Velmoran. ‘And yes, I am having a jolly day.’
He paused, a slight motion of his lips showing Aira that he was considering his next words carefully. ‘I think we’ve met before. Forgive me if it sounds strange, but…’
‘Yes. I think so too. It must have been a long time ago.’
He knew her name. At once she remembered his too. ‘Boroden?’
‘I’m so glad it’s you my dearie, so glad!’ He reached out and clasped her hands, spinning her round exuberantly as he used to do when they were children.
Aira laughed. ‘I’m so happy to see you, and your new friend,’ she said, nodding to the pony.
‘My name’s Blackthorn. Boroden rescued me from Midhir.’
‘We got into a spot of trouble with him, I’m afraid,’ Boroden said, casting an anxious glance back in the direction of the portal to Midhir’s kingdom.
‘Easily done. I’m just pleased you made it thus far - things can’t have been easy for you since the kraken took Velmoran.’
‘Nor for you either, I daresay. All these years I thought you dead and somehow yours was the worst death of all because you so little deserved it. How did you get out when Velmoran was attacked?’
‘Father came with Mother and she held up her hand and there was this bright light from her bracelet. Don’t tell anyone but I think it was magic. She snatched me up and we ran from Velmoran. The journey here took years… Mother died soon after we arrived.’ Aira fought back upwelling tears as the recollection of her mother laid pallid in her grave clothes came to her mind.
Blackthorn inclined her head mournfully towards Aira. ‘That is a sore loss for a wee lass like you. I should know - I lost my own mother when I was a foal.’
Sorrow etched upon his face, Boroden opened his arms to her and said softly, ‘I’m so sorry. Come here Aira.’ He hugged her, and she sensed that he needed the comfort of their rekindled friendship as much as she did. It was a beacon of hope amid the hardships she had faced in the dark times since Velmoran was lost.
Aira stepped back and wiped her tearful face. ‘I’ve missed you. If you’re travelling this way then Father and I would gladly welcome you to stay with us. There’s a cosy stable beside the forge for your pony.’
‘I’d like that more than anything, but I cannot. I must leave as swiftly as I may. I’m glad to see you safe, but my clan and I have far from escaped danger. I would not bring it upon you.’
Aira nodded ruefully, lost for words of farewell that she did not want to utter. Boroden turned hesitantly to the pony and teased out a briar twig caught in her mane. Tiredness ghosted about his face.
Aira pulled a handful of cherries from her bag. ‘Before you journey on, would you like these that I’ve collected? They’re the first cherries this year. I know they’re your favourite fruit.’
‘I’ll gladly take them. I haven’t eaten all day, and after yesterday…’ Aira’s keen eyes noticed pain and sorrow flicker across Boroden’s face as if he attempted to hide something from her. ‘I seem to have forgotten about day-to-day things like eating. Ulfmolt died fighting the hobyahs.’
Aira gasped. ‘No!’
‘All I can think about is him and if I might have stopped him dying.’ Boroden’s words were heavy with pent-up emotion.
Aira nodded considerately, her eyes asking him to go on. He clearly wanted to tell her more, yet he suddenly froze, listening.
Aira caught the thunder of hoofbeats foretelling the rapid approach of riders. Many riders.
Boroden backed against the pony. His hand moved to his sword hilt. He nodded to Aira with an intense look, indicating that she should flee. She scrambled up the slope, casting a glance back at him as he swung himself onto the pony’s back.
Aira found she could not leave him. She darted behind an ash tree, peering about its deeply scored trunk at the approaching cavalcade. They were brownies. Some rode, many went on foot, but all were armed and bore the marks of battle. Surprised and curious, she clung tighter to the tree to watch them go by.
Boroden looked relieved to see his kin hastening towards him.
One of the lead riders raised a hand. ‘What have you stopped for, Boroden? Midhir will be on our tail at any moment.’
‘I was waiting for you all to catch up, Torden.’ Boroden urged Blackthorn on and soon all sight of him was lost behind the ranks of brownies.
‘Boroden,’ Aira breathed. She missed having a friend near her own age and glimpsing the other brownie with his gentle, noble bearing made her feel yet more lonely.
The tramping and urgent words of the army filled the tranquil dell, making the atmosphere uneasy. It surprised Aira how swiftly they passed by. Soon she looked back on the stragglers. Birds resumed their songs. Slowly, she shifted her stiff legs. She needed to get back to the portal in time to meet her father returning.
A hand closed on her shoulder. Heart lurching, she whipped round to face her captor.