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Rated: 18+ · Novel · Fantasy · #2234207
Ogres attack the village where Aira lives. Fortunately a friend arrives to help her.
The hands of the green painted clock told Aira that it was half an hour to go until their usual dinnertime. Since dinner was to be an affair of leftover barley, nettle and leek pottage and required no preparation, Aira decided to spend the intervening time in the vegetable plot at the front of the cottage. The ground she had dug over the day before waited to be planted.

Fetching a three-legged stool, Aira balanced on it so that she could reach the shelf where the seed box was stowed. Gretchen was in the crog loft sorting the washing whilst Isla dozed in her chair by the fire. Half crippled by arthritis, recently Isla had grown thinner, shrunken like a wizened damson forgotten on the tree after harvest. Aira wondered at this change in Isla. When she and her stepmother had first encountered her she had been so young and little taller than they. It did not seem long ago to Aira, yet it was a lifetime to Isla. Aira stepped down and replaced the stool, careful not to disturb the dozing woman.

Crouching at the corner of the vegetable bed, trowel in hand, Aira set to work. Isla’s black cat joined her and sat licking her paws, regarding Aira quizzically with her pea pod green eyes. The air had begun to whisper of spring, something which Aira longed for. She was sick of winter and the bad weather. A brisk breeze blew away the cloud that had shrouded the sky since dawn. The western sky already promised a beautiful sunset with its tints of mauve and rich pink like a male chaffinch’s breast.

Aira was peacefully absorbed in her task; making rills and filling them with seeds, choosing carefully which was to be planted where. Seeds of beetroot, turnips and parsnips formed the new inhabitants of the patch of soil. Working like this, Aira felt at one with the earth. Would that they might stay here until the end of their days Aira thought ruefully, recalling that their time here was numbered. She quickly pushed this thought away, as she did with all inescapable worries.

The cat startled her by skittering indoors. Aira wondered at the cause, for it was not time for the cat to be fed, but she soon became intent on her task again.

Vaguely she was aware of distant shrieks and growls. At first, she thought it was the wind. An instant later she threw down her bag of bean seeds. Shrill with terror, the cries of the villagers in the lower cottages rent the air. Frozen in horror, Aira stared. Villagers fled their cottages, abandoning everything in a desperate bid for life. Behind them a tide of figures advanced. Ugly, misshaped creatures brandishing clubs and axes. Ogres.

The ogres grew closer. A family fled for the hills. The young son fell, an ogre javelin in his back. Aira felt so powerless. Their only option was to flee. Terrified, Aira sprang into action.

‘Mother!’ Aira called frantically to Gretchen.

Gretchen was near the door, frozen in the act of untying a bunch of herbs. Aira flung herself into her arms.

‘The village is under attack from ogres. We have to go,’ Gretchen urged, tugging at Isla’s arm.

‘You go. Leave me. I’ll never make it.’

‘No!’ Aira exclaimed.

Wood splintered as the garden gate was thrown down.

‘Run Aira!’ Gretchen yelled, making for the door near the pantry that led out the side of the cottage.

Aira lingered, unwilling to leave Isla.

With a snarl, an ogre leapt into the cottage. Thickset as a bull, its head hitting the rafters, the ogre blocked out the light from the door. Aira was confronted by the ogre’s stinking hide boots and skin as fissured as sun baked clay, except that instead of earthy brown the ogre was a putrid greenish hue. The monster pinned Isla with a bloodthirsty gaze.

‘Go!’ Isla hissed urgently to Aira, flattening herself back in her rocking chair.

Aira refused to abandon Isla.

At Isla’s warning the ogre turned and spotted Aira. There was such loathing in his eyes that it was no longer Isla that Aira was most worried about; it was herself. She shrank and fled towards the door that Gretchen had taken.

‘Brownie!’ The ogre’s dreaded shout made the ground quake beneath Aira’s feet. It was odd that the ogre knew so quickly what she was, for brownies were rarely seen.

Leaping to her full height Aira swung back the door. Not twenty paces away an ogre was pursuing a fleeing villager. Catching the movement of the door the monster lurched towards Aira, beckoning two more ogres to join his attack.

Aira slammed the door shut, her body seeming to dissolve in her terror. The ogre inside the cottage swung at her with his fist. Aira fell to her knees to avoid him. Scrambling up, ignoring her bruises, she tore towards the window, not daring to look back as she heard the ogres pile through the door near the pantry.

Isla’s yell made Aira freeze, torn between going to her and escaping out the window. Shattered by an ogre’s heavy club, there was little hope for Isla. Yet leaving her felt wrong.

In the moment that she hesitated an ogre came to the window, sealing off Aira’s last escape route. Finding a solitary brownie in one of the cottages was welcome to the ogres. They would make her pay for the woes inflicted upon them by Boroden and his clan.

Aira dodged one of the ogres as he swung his club. The weapon hurtled into the dresser sending shattered pots and splinters across the room. Another ogre almost crushed her with his foot. Aira scurried fruitlessly this way and that desperate to shake off the ogres and hide.

Alighting on the heavy oak cradle that Isla used as a log basket, Aira summoned a lifting spell and hurled it at the closest ogre. He doubled up with a snarl and the other ogres struggled to keep their feet as logs rolled across the floor. Snatching this chance, Aira threw herself into the dark gap behind the table in the pantry.

Only when she had some respite from the chase did the fullness of her fear come upon her. She could not stop shaking. If she stayed in the cottage then it was only a matter of time before the ogres found her and took her life. The door was not far. Aira decided to risk it.

Her hand hovered inches from the door. There was a sound outside close by. Sniffing. She had been discovered.

Aira threw herself back into the shadows, though not before an ogre spotted her. She stiffened, cradling her head in her shawl so she would not see her end coming.

The door by the pantry was thrown back, sending broken crockery skimming. An ogre bellowed, charging in the direction of the pantry. His companions echoed his roar, angry now, not simply predatory.


She heard the voice as in a dream. It was a familiar voice, yet it seemed so unreal to hear it that Aira doubted herself. She opened her eyes with painful hope.

In the doorway stood Boroden. Older and taller, yet still Boroden. Delight engulfed her. She had often longed to see him and at no time was his appearance more welcome than at that moment.

She made to call out to him, for he was not looking in her direction but ahead into the main room of the cottage. Before she had chance to gain his attention an ogre launched itself towards him. Boroden sped low, aiming at the ogre’s feet. Caught off balance, the ogre crashed to the ground.

Whirling his sword, Boroden charged at the ogre bending over Isla. The ogre caught his toe upon a log, sending it spinning. Instead of being fazed Boroden leapt onto the log, dancing upon it to keep his footing as it rolled across the room.

A second ogre made to block Boroden off. The log bounded between his feet. The ogre snatched it up but the plucky brownie was gone. Enjoying his surprise, Boroden hooked his arms around the ogre’s leg and heaved. The monster toppled backwards into the fireplace. He staggered up with a scream, his tunic ablaze. The other ogres went into a frenzy of panic, pushing their howling companion outside before he had chance to engulf any more of the cottage in flame. Boroden smiled in satisfaction.

‘Aira!’ he called, not forgetting his mission. His gaze swept frantically about the cottage. Uncomfortably, he noticed the dying human looking at him.

Infuriated that Boroden was not easily thwarted, an ogre swung back his club with such force that the planks partitioning the pantry flew clattering about Aira. She cringed beneath the table.

Boroden slashed the ogre’s arm, only riling him more. Boroden played a deadly dance about his heels. The cottage was so cramped that none of the other ogres dared get close enough to help their comrade as he lashed frenziedly with his club, hoping that he might sweep Boroden to his death.

‘Look out.’ Aira shrieked as the ogre plunged the club towards the steps to the crog loft up which Boroden had clambered. He launched himself from the top rung, toppling the ogre.

Even as the creature fell another ogre lunged forward. Headed for Aira. The ogre curled his claws. Agony flamed through Aira as his claws speared her leg. In desperation Aira snatched a frying pan from the wall. She smashed it at the ogre’s head with a scream of fury. The ogre keeled. Righting himself, he shook his head to regain his senses. Aira swung the frying pan again, catching him over the ear.

‘Aira.’ It was Boroden. He plunged his sword into the ogre, casting Aira an urgent glance.

She drew herself into a bundle, gasping at the pain surging through her leg.

Rage consumed Boroden upon seeing the defenseless maiden that the ogres had made their target. He charged at the remaining ogre. He barely had to slash at its tunic hem to have it ducking out of the cottage in dread of him.

The ogres outside were less fainthearted. There were dozens of them.

‘It’s Boroden,’ the fleeing ogre called, trying to make up for his cowardice by leading his comrades to the greater prize.

Boroden glanced back desperately at Aira. As he did so he caught the light of the approaching sunset glinting on the single pewter platter remaining on the tottering dresser. Sunlight was just what he needed.

Wiping Narsarus clean on Isla’s curtains he held the blade upright and approached the door with deadly, ceremonious concentration. The ogres roared a challenge, clashing their weapons as they beheld him. Their mockery soon died as he raised Narsarus, leveling its point to the sun with the look of one intent on threading a needle.

‘Close your eyes,’ he called over his shoulder to Aira. Then he began to whisper words of enchantment in an insistent purr. Doubling over, he plunged the sword into the earth and stumbled back shielding his eyes.

The flare of light was so bright that it changed even the dark under Aira’s closed eyelids to whiteness. The air hummed as though a swarm of bees had passed over her, although more musically.

When she opened her eyes, the cottage was illuminated as if by cloudless midday sun, except that in reality evening was drawing in. There was a muffled ringing in her ears and she could no longer hear any sound of the ogres. The air shimmered and flared outside like a heavy cobweb fluttering in a breeze. Curious to see what caused the illumination Aira pushed herself up on her hands, then tried to put weight on her feet.

Her yelp of pain was cut short as she looked down. Blood wept from her left ankle, pooling on the flagstones. She cast a stricken glance at Boroden.

He fell to her side as she slid back into the corner. ‘Aira?’ His voice was full of concern as he noticed how pale she looked.

‘Boroden.’ She managed a smile.

His face lighted joyfully.

‘I never imagined I would see you again. When I saw you facing off those ogres I thought I must be dreaming,’ Aira said with relief.

‘I’m here now and I shan’t let you come to harm. Your stepmother told me that you were here.’

Aira searched his face anxiously. He took her hand reassuringly. ‘She’s safe. I met her running from the village. I told her I would find you and that she must go to the cairn of Branghad where I have asked my travelling companions to wait for me. She’ll be safe there.’

‘That’s jolly nice of you,’ she said, squeezing his hand.

‘I’m only glad not to have failed the promise I made to her. I’d never have forgiven myself if I had found you killed by those brutes. Come, we must get out of here. The light orb will give us time, but only a little. We must be gone before the sun sinks.’

‘You’re very clever to conjuror a light like that.’

Boroden looked grave. ‘Aira, will you give me your word not to tell anyone what I did, not even my own clan? I was born with magic and only use it for good but some others, some of the older chieftains, would despise me for using a power that they see as dangerous.’

‘I’ll definitely not tell anyone about your magic, or your other secret. I think you’re even more brave for using magic to help me when you know it is dangerous for you.’

‘You’re very kind. I’ll help you pack.’ He offered her his arm to help her up.

Aira bit her lip to hold back the pain, although she could not suppress a whimper as she shifted her foot. Boroden gasped in sympathy. He knelt to inspect the wound. She caught at his shoulders to steady herself and he helped her sit down.

‘The ogre caught me with his claws.’ Aira’s teeth chattered with pain. ‘I hit him with a frying pan.’

‘Yes, I saw that. The most fearsome frying pan wielding skills I’ve seen. You’re a plucky lass. They’ll be holding contests at the Hallahaft Championships with frying pans as the weapons of choice in your honour.’

‘They’re surprisingly deadly,’ Aira chuckled. She pointed to one of the shelves that had miraculously escaped destruction. ‘There’s water in the jug.’

He mopped the blood away, but it was a deep, ragged wound. ‘It needs bandaging.’

‘There’s plenty of bandages made ready in my medicine chest in the crog loft,’ she said, stopping him as he rummaged though his pack for a fresh shirt to shred.

‘The ladder’s smashed.’

‘I know. I’ll need a leg up. You’re welcome to get together any food you think we can carry. I’ll fetch what Mother and I need from our nest.’ Aira stumbled up leaning on Boroden for a crutch and keeping the weight off her foot.

A feeble cough from Isla sent a painful rush of pity through Aira. She had hoped that death had already released Isla from her pain. Forgetting her injury, she staggered towards her dying friend. Boroden hung back in wary surprise.

‘It’s all right, Isla. Hold on. I’ll get you something for the pain.’

‘Save your potions, my bonny Memyself. They’re not much use to me.’

‘No. Don’t say that. You mustn’t give up hope.’

‘You’re a fine lass. Didn’t I say you’d do well for yourself, and you deserve it,’ she said, nodding to Boroden.

‘What?’ he asked suspiciously, wondering why the human was referring to him.

Aira blushed fiercely. ‘Honestly, Isla, I don’t think…’

‘He’s very brave saving us all. And handsome too. What’s your name, laddie? Come, I must know who is to carry Memyself off.’

‘I am who I am,’ Boroden replied loftily.

Aira was struck at how foolish this whole pretence between brownies and humans was. She had known Isla for years yet had never had the courage to tell her who she really was. Aira crept to Isla’s side, not allowing herself to look at Boroden and see any displeasure cross his face as she confided, ‘my name’s not Memyself. It’s Aira. Aira Aleena, daughter of Lady Freya and Airen the swordsmith of Velmoran. I never told you before because brownies aren’t supposed to give their true names, but I think it’s a silly rule and it doesn’t matter now.’

Tears sprang Isla’s eyes. ‘Aira. That’s a pretty name.’

Aira wept too. Isla edged her hand out to comfort her but before her fingers touched Aira’s they fell limp. Aira gasped back her sobs. There was a gentle touch on her shoulder. Boroden looked at her questioningly.

‘I’m sorry. I just… couldn’t let her go without…’

‘No. You did right. That human meant a lot to you. That’s a rare thing. Rules and codes cannot control everything. I would have to say they do anywhere else, but here, just me and you, know that they don’t matter so much to me. What’s right and what are our laws are not always the same thing.’

Aira nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She glanced mutely to the crog loft. Boroden understood and hoisted her onto his shoulders.

Tall as Boroden was he needed to clamber onto a chair so that she could reach the opening into the loft, but she made it, clawing her way in along the floorboards.

‘I’ll be nearby; in the pantry. You just call me when you’re ready.’

Aira grabbed a handful of Gretchen’s clothes, stuffing them into a bag. Aira decided to leave her shabbier gowns. It did not seem right to keep one of royal lineage company dressed in the dull rags that she wore for going about farming tasks.

‘Have you any spare bags or a sack? I’ve filled my pack to bursting already,’ Boroden called up.

‘There are cheese cloths in the middle drawer of the dresser. Use those to tie into packs.’ A thought struck her. ‘Are you hungry?’

‘Ravenous. I’m beginning to forget when I last ate.’

‘Then eat what you want. We can’t carry it all.’

Listening to Boroden bumping and clattering in the pantry, Aira smiled fondly. She realised that he had been too polite to ask for food even though he was famished. It would help keep his strength up and they needed that. Even if it had not been for her injured leg she was hardly a warrior.

‘Ready,’ she called, pulling her bags to the top of the crog loft ladder.

Boroden appeared, politely trying to gulp down the foyson from a sticky apple dumpling. It was hours since he had eaten and never had anything tasted so good. He brushed the dusting of crumbs from his tunic self-consciously and reached up to take the bags.

Aira jolted her ankle as she landed and mewled in pain.

‘I wish there was more I could do to stop your pain,’ Boroden said.

‘I’ll manage.’


‘I don’t like to leave her here.’ Aira nodded towards Isla.

‘There’s no chance to bury her. Human warriors will soon come and fight the ogres back. They’ll give Isla a decent burial.’

Boroden motioned Aira to wait by the door leading outside from the pantry whilst he reclaimed his sword. ‘We must be quick. Once I’ve moved the sword there’ll be nothing stopping the monsters from coming upon us.’

He snatched Narasrus up as though it was a burning coal. The long shadows of evening fell with a suddenness that made Aira’s eyes smart. Boroden sprinted to her side. Already the ogres reassembled outside.

As they crossed the threshold Boroden gave an odd, piercing howl that cut through Aira, vibrating in her ears long after he stopped.

‘You do a very good wolf impersonation.’

‘I’m calling my friend, Blackthorn. Blackthorn has taken your stepmother from the village and set her on the route to the cairn. I asked Blackthorn to come back for me. She’ll not be long coming. We should move away from the cottage,’ Boroden whispered.

The ogres had already broken into the barn and could be heard cracking and shaking the fruit trees around it. Directly in front of the brownies was the only possible escape route; a steep, rocky climb that the ogres had not yet reached.

‘Can you make it?’ Boroden asked in concern. Aira was white with fear and the pain in her leg.

‘Aye,’ she breathed, hearing the ogres burst into the cottage behind her. She did not want to stay and hear anymore.

In her haste to be away, she did not notice the ogre peer around the corner of the thatch, watching her hurry to the rock. Boroden let out a yell of anguish as the ogre thudded down, blocking Aira’s way. She quailed, having almost been crushed. The monster towered grotesquely above her, freezing her to the spot.

Boroden brandished his sword, howling again more desperately. He set upon the ogre that confronted Aira, leaping and biting at it with his sword like a plucky terrier fighting off a bull. Aira stumbled towards him to help but she was not sure what to do. She had no weapon and the shadows thrown by the bulky figures of the ogres disoriented her.

Boroden sent another howl shivering to the sky and launched himself at the ogre with such agility that he was sure he would not miss. Ponderous as the ogre was he managed to anticipate Boroden’s sword thrust with a swing of his club. Aira screamed as it caught Boroden with a glancing blow, tossing him to the ground.

With a sneer of triumph, the monster turned his attention to Aira, thumping his club towards her. She dodged out of the way but tripped, pain roaring through her injured leg. The ogre raised his club again. It crashed down limply feet away from her, gouging the earth. Boroden had thrown the ogre off his aim by hacking at his leg.

Aira touched Boroden’s arm tremulously. Ogres surrounded them.

‘Shrink. When Blackthorn comes show yourself. She’ll take you from here,’ Boroden whispered urgently.

‘I’m not leaving you.’

‘Go.’ Boroden readied himself to confront the ogres, crouching with his sword primed like a sting.

Aira did not want to leave him and head into the unknown by herself. She scurried back to Boroden who shielded her behind his back.

‘What’s that?’ Aira asked. There came thuds, yelling. One of the ogres encircling the brownies left to scout with a disgruntled look.

‘Humans. Lord Cameron’s men were on my tail. At least they’ll make themselves useful finishing off these ogres.’

A sharp, crackling glare illuminated the thatch of Isla’s cottage. ‘Fire.’ Aira pointed anxiously.

Boroden attempted to back away from the sparks whilst keeping out of lunging distance of the ogres. ‘Lord Cameron’s men care little for the dwellings of the poor. They know that light will make the ogres vulnerable. Ogres prefer not to move by light, be it daylight or firelight if strong enough.’

Tears made Aira’s sight quiver. She did not want to look at the cottage that she had so carefully tended being gobbled away by flames.

An ogre crashed to his knees with a force that almost sent Aira toppling. Boroden seized her waist, dragging her towards the cottage.

‘What are you doing?’ she gasped in frantic disbelief. The right side of her face, facing the inferno, was as hot as if molten lead had been poured over it.

Then she saw. The ogre had been hit by a human pike. It keeled to the ground, crushing the spot where Aira and Boroden had been. They were cut off from the cliff and forced towards the blazing cottage. The fire spiralled enthusiastically, lapping up each new piece of timber with relish.

Boroden turned his face upwards to where sparks danced towards the first star. So intense was the rain of scorching debris that Aira quickly turned the direction of her gaze from following his, her eyes smarting with smoke.

‘Jump!’ Boroden urged.

‘What? Where?’ Even as she questioned him he shoved her. Beneath her was the sturdy back of Blackthorn. Boroden seized the pony’s shoulder, then swung himself over her back.

Aira was relieved to rise above the smoke and gulp in a long breath of pure air. The effortless rhythm of Blackthorn’s wings filled Aira with delight. Reaching out she caressed the silken skeletons of the pony’s wing feathers. From up here the blazing cottage looked remote, like a pattern traced in the hearth.

The party of humans spotted the flying pony. Blackthorn snorted in pain and arched her head around like a dog trying to lick a wound.

‘No!’ Boroden cried in concern, seeing the arrow piercing her right wing. More arrows whistled by. Blackthorn found an updraft and rose high, leaving the arrows to sink before they touched her. It was as well that the air currents helped her for there was a judder to her flight now.

‘It’ll wait until we’re safe,’ Blackthorn panted. Aira hugged her, full of sympathy.

Blackthorn fixed her sight on the mountains rising in jagged ranks. The upper slope of the highest, still far distant, was lit by the last streaks of daylight. Soon they soared above woods and chasms revealing the glitter of waterfalls. It seemed an age since Aira had travelled such terrain with Cailleach Bheur and it gave her a sense of adventure. All the better; it was now the verge of spring when she might enjoy the mountains rather than battling to survive against the winter chill as their previous travels with Cailleach Bheur.

Only the faintest streaks of orange in the west still lit the earth when they allowed themselves to rest for the night on a dry, sandy ledge beneath the wooded cliffs.

Boroden trickled fresh water from his waterskin to wash Blackthorn’s wound clean. ‘We should be a safe distance from the village now.’

‘I went in an arc so that the ogres could not guess our true direction if any survived,’ Blackthorn said.

‘You’re almost as cunning as I am,’ Boroden winked at her, fetching out one of the carrots that he had collected from Isla’s pantry as a treat for her.

Aira could still see the flames of the burning village, their glow an ominous reflection of the brooding sunset. She shuddered and kept her gaze firmly averted from that direction.

‘You’re cold?’ Boroden asked, seeing her shiver.

‘Just a bit shaken up. Oh, please, no,’ she protested as he draped his cloak over her. ‘You’ll be cold.’

‘No. Keep it. It suits you. I have another.’ He tugged from his pack a silvery cloak. The fabric was so fine that Aira doubted it would keep him warm. Aira could not see the point of making a cloak so thin that it was of little practical use against the cold. Boroden threw it about his shoulders as a matter of course and perhaps it was a normal fashion; she knew so little of brownie culture from her isolated existence.

‘How’s your leg?’ She was glad to see him fetch out fresh bandages for she had not thought to bring them in her flurry.

‘It hurts a bit more now,’ she replied ruefully.

‘Wounds always do as they’re healing. In the heat of the attack you don’t really notice the pain. It’s a nasty wound and I’m sorry I haven’t more of a physician’s skill.’

‘But you know Blackthorn. She’s an ideal means of travel for someone who can only hobble.’ Aira patted Blackthorn’s neck affectionately. The pony settled down to sleep beneath the splayed toes of a tree.

Boroden looked grave as he helped Aira change the bandage. ‘Blackthorn is wounded too and getting on in years. She’s not strong. It would be best if we walked when we may. I can carry you.’

‘Aye. I doubt the ogres will follow us. We’ll be over the worst now.’

‘You’ll feel better after some sleep, I’m sure. I’ll make a nest for the night.’

Aira poured milk and prepared a supper of rye bread and cheese as Boroden gathered bracken and moss. He made her laugh by doing a handstand to take off his shirt of pine cone mail, this being his way of separating it from his thick gambeson when he had no page boy to help him.

Boroden made an untidy nest; mixing together bracken and moss and then scooping out a hollow in the middle for Aira to lie in. She sunk into it gratefully. He was of royal birth and so was not used to tasks like nest building. The fact that he tried with instinctive generosity made her not have the heart to tell him how it should have been done, even though she had to shift a few bracken stems that prodded her.

‘I’ll keep watch.’ Boroden selected a jutting boulder nearby that offered a good vantage point looking down into the valley.

‘Let me know when you want me to take over.’

‘You and Blackthorn sleep. I insist.’

The trees groaned at the touch of the night wind and one on the slope below them gave a fretful shriek like an animal in pain. Aira buried herself further under Boroden’s cloak.

Guessing her thoughts, he said, ‘if anything comes you and Blackthorn must go. She knows where to take you. I’ll stay and fight.’

Aira was aghast. ‘What would be the point if you got killed? I don’t want anything to happen to you.’

‘All right. We’ll both fly away on Blackthorn if anything evil comes by,’ Boroden smiled, touched.

Aira tossed and turned and tried to stop her mind from whirring with thoughts but it was impossible. Everything was new and strange; the memories of the ogre attack a living nightmare.

She stole across to Boroden, sharing the cloak with him for he looked cold. ‘I can’t sleep. I expect that Mother will be worrying too.’

‘You’ll be back together again soon.’

‘I still can’t believe it was you that found me.’

‘Me neither.’

‘We keep getting thrown together.’

‘I kept the stones of the cherries that you gave me when I fled from Midhir,’ he said, showing her his bracelet. ‘They’re to remind me of you and that there’s still hope and goodness in the world. I thought it was lost until then, what with Ulfmolt dying and having Midhir on our heels. Things have turned out well and I’m hopeful about making a fresh start in the forest of Novgorad.’

‘What’s it like there?’

‘Not so nice as Velmoran but it’s getting homelier now. It was a suffocating, dingy place full of mosquitoes when we first came there. I thought that Carnelian was mad advising us to stay and try to make something of it. I’ll take you back there once I’ve been to the Seelie Court and we’ll live comfortable and happy.’

‘That sounds jolly. I often think about the happy times when we were little. Queen Gentian got you a kit from a toymaker for your birthday and we made a tree house village with swings and secret tunnels. It was fun.’

‘Except you kept putting everything together the wrong way around, with roots where the tree canopies should be!’ Boroden chuckled.

Aira clouted him playfully.

‘It was a most correct comment,’ Boroden teased.

‘I liked it best when they let us out for walks. The land was so green; like it was glowing inside. I miss the sea and rockpools.’

‘Aye. I love the sea.’

‘I know. You went wading out in January. I couldn’t believe it when I saw you bobbing about like a seal pup. Icicles dripped from the cliffs. You must’ve been mad.’

‘I still am; I’d like to splash out into the waves now.’

‘It’s a shame we lost Velmoran.’

‘This world is a greedy and cruel place. I sometimes think peace is a dream.’

‘I hope not.’

‘Me too.’

Aira stretched and gazed at the rustling sway of the forest below them. ‘There is peace here, now.’

‘Yes,’ Boroden replied reflectively. He shook himself. ‘I want to hear about you and what you’ve been up to all these years. How did you come to be known to the human woman?’

‘I thought you’d be fed up with my chatter. I think the pain makes me talk more so I don’t have to think about it. That and the fact I’ve never had another brownie to speak to for years, other than Mother. I like to talk, you see. That’s why I was happy to show myself to Isla. I didn’t think it mattered much if I broke our laws with only me and Mother by. I never expected to meet another brownie again.’

‘Did that not make you sad? I mean the thought of living so solitary with just your stepmother and the human for company?’

‘I made myself accustomed to it I suppose. I don’t like to wish for things that cannot be. It would have only made me discontented and burdensome to Mother. I’m a wee bit lonely sometimes, yes.’

‘Me too. Even though I’m surrounded by a court of brownies I missed such a friend as you.’ He gave her a gentle thump on the back. Not quite knowing what this meant but deciding to reciprocate the gesture, she thumped him more heartily. Boroden gave a mock grimace of pain, rubbing his back. Aira laughed.

‘Will you always be my friend?’ Aira asked.

Boroden turned to her with a smile that made his eyes sparkle. ‘I’d like that.’
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