Aira and Boroden journey in search of the other brownies in their clan
|Aira opened her eyes, still comfortable with sleep. She shook her drowsiness from her with a jolt upon realising that instead of the roughly sawn beam over their nest in the crog loft, above her was the sky. Clouds piled the horizon white as the cotton tails of rabbits and grey ones scudded across them, promising rain. It was freshly cold.
Recollecting where she was and the painful memories of the day before, Aira sat up stiffly. There was a dull ache in her leg and the thought of a day of trudging dismayed her.
Boroden and Blackthorn settled beneath the pine tree. Boroden had lit a flicker of a fire to warm some bramble leaf tea. Noticing that she was awake, Boroden brightened and carried a flask over to her. She began to smile back but her expression turned to a grimace as pain flamed through her as she shifted her leg.
‘How is it today? Will you let me apply another dressing?’ Removing the dressing, Boroden looked worried. The edges of the wound were sore and swollen and the bleeding had not entirely stopped. He feared infection might set in though he did not share this with Aira. Alarming her would only make her feel worse. He was filled with anguish nonetheless. She was so young and sweet. She did not deserve to suffer. He had lost too many others.
‘I’ll give it a better wash. There are salt and herbs in my pack. Would you find me some fresh water?’ Aira asked.
He nodded and fleeted away to where an oak cupped a small pool between two of its branches. He scooped up a handful of the water, having first asked the tree’s permission.
Whilst Boroden was gone Aira gritted her teeth and tottered up. Things would be better once the wound was freshly dressed and she had grown accustomed to walking again she told herself.
This was partly true and Aira was able to maintain a steady pace. The wound would not let her forget it, however, despite her determination to enjoy the mild sunshine and chatter to Boroden and Blackthorn. After the sun climbed past midday they travelled in silence, putting their energies into forcing their aching legs on faster.
Aira had piled most of what she carried into Isla’s peg bag. It had seemed an ideal pack back at the cottage; roomy with a strong cord that might be pulled out at both ends to fasten over her back or shoulder. Now she had grown sick of the clattering of its contents and its heavy bumps against her that caused the cords to dig into her.
Boroden noticed the raw line that the bag had rubbed on her neck. ‘I’ll find you some better straps to put under it if you must continue with that bag. For the moment, this will do.’ Boroden took the bag and recited a lifting spell. He blew over it as if trying to coax a timorous fire to take light. When he gave it back to Aira it felt as if the bag had vanished to nothing.
‘What did you do?’ Aira asked, enthralled.
‘An enchantment that can make a lifting spell permanent. I’ve been campaigning for years against the fuddy-duddies of court to have it added to the list of spells that brownies are permitted to use. When we’re travelling like this I can’t see how anyone would manage without it. I’ve been able to take all I need from Novgorad because of it. Hëkitarka did much to champion its use when escaping Lord Cameron. He’s a fine lad and shall be a great credit to the royal bloodline.’
‘I’m looking forward to meeting him, and your other friends. You’re right about not being able to carry much without a lifting spell. I’ve been planning what to make us for dinner and I realised what I want would use up half of what’s in my pack.’
‘What I’ll make you, you mean. Aira, you’ve done enough. You mustn’t tire yourself. I want to help. You know I love cooking. It’s almost the best part of an adventure for me doing things by myself after being waited on at court. I feel so burdened by my status sometimes.’
‘It must be hard to always be the chosen one. But you shoulder it admirably. All your clan love and respect you from what you’ve told me about Novgorad and your adventures. I can easily see why.’
Boroden’s face lit with pleasure at her praise. ‘You’re very sweet. I just like to help my friends in whatever way I can. I’d carry you if you’d let me. I don’t like to see you walk when you’re hurting.’
‘It’s not so bad now the pack is lighter. I can manage.’
‘I knew you’d say that.’
They carried on along a stream. Boroden showed Aira on his map that it had its spring near the cairn of Branghad. With a glad smile Boroden pointed out a charred patch of earth where Gretchen had stopped to make a fire to cook some of the provisions that he had given her. Her tracks smelled a day old, which meant she had been making good progress.
‘She should be with the clan soon. I told her to look out for the stream and follow it. It should be an easy route for her,’ Boroden reassured Aira.
Aira was pleased. Now she had only to worry about herself and making it as quickly as they might to the cairn of Branghad.
Aira stumbled and almost fell. Boroden decided that it was high time they stopped for a bite to eat. They settled on a fallen tree trunk and shared a meal of crusty cob rolls and hedgerow salad, followed by a chunk of the fruit cake that Isla had put by for Christmas. Aira tucked stray wisps of her fair hair under her cap to stop herself inadvertently chewing it as the wind blew it across her face. Food tasted so much better eaten outdoors and in good company after a long walk.
Behind them a row of oak people stretched out their strong toes. It was a strange life for them, Aira mused, being sentinels of the same spot. Their only movement was to shift their limbs stiffly when the wind ruffled them. Aira was glad to see them. Like the rabbits that gambolled over the grass they would not show themselves so boldly if humans were nearby and that was a good sign.
A hole in the clouds made golden patches on the distant hills. The sunbeams moved until they had thrown a long sliver of gold on the grass, touching the tops of the trees and making their young leaves glow. Birds sung louder, mistaking the increase of light for the coming of morning. Over their heads a trio of black poplars held their boughs. Brownies called them whispering trees and they whispered gladly now. Aira tilted her head up to watch the leaves nodding to each other. Boroden put his arm about her shoulders to stop her toppling backwards off the tree trunk.
‘I wonder what they’re talking about? Look, those ones are keeping silent,’ she said, pointing to a patch of leaves that the wind did not ruffle.
Aira contentedly listened to the trees murmuring in words known only to themselves. Her feet dangled off the ground, the weight and the pain taken from her injured leg. Boroden told her about Novgorad and his plans for his new kingdom.
Stopping had been a mistake and Aira followed Boroden limping, for the first time properly distressed about her leg. He heaved her onto his shoulders and jogged along with her. Slight though she was, she must have been a weight for Boroden who was slender. If he was tired, he was too polite to show it. Blackthorn carried their packs, the irritated twitches of her wing showing that she too was feeling her wound.
‘Stop!’ Aira cried abruptly.
‘What?’ Boroden was suddenly alert, looking about them defensively as if expecting to be attacked.
Aira slid from his back and stumbled to pick something blue nestling amongst the grass. ‘I’ve not seen a flower like this before. Normally I find only daisies and celandines at Isla’s cottage.’
‘A gentian,’ Boroden commented as they wandered on, Aira clutching the flower preciously. ‘My mother was named a gentian, because of her eyes of deepest blue,’ Boroden went on thoughtfully.
‘Like yours. What happened to her?’ Aira ventured.
‘She was killed. For treason,’ Boroden replied curtly.
‘No! They couldn’t do that. She was the queen.’ Aira’s voice raised squeakily with revulsion.
‘I know.’ Boroden shrugged bitterly, seeming to forget that she was there. He never used to be like this. In fact, he had been the most cheerful and friendly bairn in the palace, always ready for jokes and laughter. Seeing how his experiences had changed him made Aira sorry for him. He did not want to discuss the painful parts of his past and Aira wanted to forget them too.
The pain in her leg increased and she lagged. An overgrown hedgerow of hawthorns offered their arms for her to sit on like servants waiting to take a coat. Aira wished that she could settle comfortably upon one and sleep. If she did then her repose would be long and deep. Perhaps she would not wake up? That thought and the desire not to lose sight of Boroden kept her going.
Blackthorn fell back beside Aira, dipping her muzzle and blowing over the grass to attract Boroden’s attention. He looked over his shoulder and hastened back to them in an instant. He heaved Aira onto his back and set off, talking as freely as if nothing had happened. Blackthorn was glad. The brownie king did not often forget so easily when a cloud passed over his mind.
As night drew on they were still far from the place where Boroden’s travelling companions would be waiting.
‘It might be two days more going at a gentle pace before we reach the cairn. I think I should scout for a quicker route this evening,’ Boroden told Blackthorn, stopping by a sandy bank. He had cast wary glances at the earth a couple of times before but now he paused and briefly scuffed his foot over the ground. Aira noticed the imprint of an oddly shaped paw before it vanished. Boroden continued as if he had seen and done nothing but Aira sensed that he was anxious. She shuddered to think what the creature was. It was at least the size of a brownie.
Boroden quickened his pace until Blackthorn spotted a dense cave of tree roots that made an ideal haven for them to spend the night. Aira rested whilst Boroden prepared a meal. After she had eaten, Aira felt stronger. She stole out to find Boroden and Blackthorn collecting nest material. Boroden had paused as he emptied moss into Blackthorn’s saddle bag. They looked about them and whispered but Aira did not catch much of their conversation except Boroden’s words uttered as a warning, ‘there will be a clear sky tonight.’
Boroden looked uneasy when he noticed Aira listening, evidently not wanting her to know what they discussed. Aira tried to forget it, tired of worries. Far more fun was to chatter to Boroden as they huddled by the timid flicker of the fire, which Boroden had lit with Narsarus by catching a spark from the setting sun. They sang as the fire fell into embers. Boroden wished they had his cousins with them for Harfan had brought his harp and Hëkitarka his fiddle.
The earth was freezing even through Boroden’s hastily woven nest. Outside the night was blisteringly clear and at its darkest before the moon rose. The stars glimmered and prickled across the velvet mantle of the sky.
Boroden used the stars as a guide and he had taught Aira their names. He was so clever. And generous and kind and funny. His gentle breeding seemed woven into every fibre of his being; in the way he carried his shoulders or turned his head, in the glint of his eyes, in his calming tone of voice. Aira smiled. The thought of him eased for a moment the pain that gnawed in her leg. She whimpered miserably as she moved her numb body, jarring her leg though she had been as careful as possible. In the morning the bandage would be changed. She dreaded that.
She caught the gleam of Boroden’s eyes upon her, full of concern. ‘Can’t you sleep either?’
She buried herself in the thick fur of his cloak, sleep curling about her.
Yet Boroden was tense and fully awake. A fear held him.
Aira drowsed, an eddying darkness fizzing before her that she knew was the effect of her wound. Vaguely she was aware of the full moon sailing up, its light inching closer. There was a brisk wind that tugged and creaked in the trees, making unearthly sounds.
Boroden’s whiskers twitched, tickling her forehead.
‘What is it?’
He hushed her. ‘I have to go out for a while.’
‘Why? No. Don’t leave me.’
Boroden looked rueful at the anxiety in her voice. Then he glanced outside in agitation. ‘I’ll be back soon. Blackthorn will stay with you. Don’t leave the nest. Keep very quiet and still.’
Aira did not at all like this last warning. Something was out there. Something dangerous. If she had been strong enough she would have pleaded to go with Boroden and fight alongside him rather than be parted. As it was every muscle in her body clamped and she could barely raise her head.
He slipped outside, leaving her his cloak and - she realised too late to protest - his sword. He must have sacrificed it thinking that she might need to defend herself.
She thought that she caught a groan.
‘Don’t let that be Boroden hurt,’ she gasped, turning frightened eyes to Blackthorn. The pony pawed the ground apprehensively, moving to peep outside. Aira dare not join her. Her body was icy cold.
There was silence. Nothing but the wind.
Time passed. On the verge of slumber, Aira jolted awake. A howl came from high upon the mountain side. Deep and throbbing, it reverberated through her. Boroden could do a talented imitation of a wolf howl but only a monster could make such a sound.
Unable to utter the words, Aira looked questioningly at Blackthorn who was quivering, but the pony was too intent on peering outside to notice her.
The next sound was so close and unexpected that Aira stiffened like a corpse, burying her head under the cloak.
Pad, pad, pad. Sniffing. It stopped outside the entrance to their den. She sensed its presence, its gaze boring into her. Moments span by. The gale grew.
The creature must have gone for she heard a crashing in the undergrowth, a thrashing that surely could not be the wind. Again, she heard a cry. This time definitely Boroden’s. Were they fighting?
No. Footsteps. Boroden was coming back, framed by the dawn light. Leaves clung in his hair and mud flecked his face. Upon beholding her he gasped and fell to her side. What was that which she smelled upon his clothes? The earthy scent of a wild beast?
‘I’m glad you’ve come. I’m so cold,’ she shivered.
He took her hand, his fear growing as he felt how her skin blazed, confirming his suspicions that infection had set in.
Boroden looked grim. ‘We need to get you to the clan as quickly as possible. There’s a physician, Fostolf, amongst them. I’m glad to have someone of such skill accompany me. If anyone can help you he can. I’ll find Blackthorn. She said she was going to breakfast on some fresh grass I saw in a clearing not far from here.’
Even as Boroden spoke Blackthorn poked her head into the den. ‘Sire, there’s a human with a stout stick and dogs heading this way. I fear his suspicions might have been aroused last night. We should go before his dogs find us.’
Boroden rolled his eyes, exasperated. The last thing he needed was to contend with a prying human. ‘Aira needs to reach the cairn of Branghad as quickly as possible. I know your wing is not yet strong, but I hope you can bear her thus far.’
‘What about you?’ Aira interjected. ‘I don’t want to leave you. I’d worry.’
‘I’m used to taking care of myself,’ he reassured her.
‘I’ll carry the both of you as far as I may,’ Blackthorn offered.
Boroden looked at the pony questioningly. There was an excited baying close by. Closer than Aira had expected.
‘Oh, please let’s just go. At least let Blackthorn get you to somewhere safe,’ Aira pleaded.
Boroden was already on his feet, stuffing their possessions into a pack which he slung over Blackthorn’s back. He carried Aira gingerly to the pony and attempted to mount without jolting her.
A crashing in the bushes above them. Soil scattered down.
Boroden heaved Aira unceremoniously up before him. Blackthorn galloped away and clapped her wings, launching into the air. She snorted in horror as a dog leapt after her, almost catching her tail. A man shouted as he hacked his way through the thicket, crushing toadstool fairy rings under his boots.
‘May the fairies curse him,’ Boroden muttered under his breath.
They flew amongst the upper boughs of the forest to hide themselves, although this was taxing for Blackthorn who had to flap her wings heartily to stay aloft. Her panting calmed as they met a thermal and soared high over the mountain top.
‘Will it be far now?’ Aira asked, shivering although Boroden’s cloak was nestled around her.
‘Another valley to cross and then we’ll be there,’ Boroden answered distractedly, watching for signs of pursuit.
They followed the track of a mountain stream, its gushing chatter and silvery winks glimpsed between the trees. Aira struggled to coax her heavy mind to think.
Blackthorn kept twitching her shoulder and Aira could tell from the wooden movement of her wing that it still ached. Should she ask to stop so that the pony might rest? She tried to frame the words but the world began to blur.
The next Aira knew they had landed. Boroden bent over her, supporting her shoulders as he called her name. He sighed in relief as her eyes flickered open, but he looked shaken.
‘They’ve seen us, Sire. They’re coming,’ Blackthorn said, bounding back to the brownies.
Aira struggled into a sitting position, glancing this way and that as if she had woken from a bad dream. ‘Who? Humans?’
‘No,’ Boroden said, taking her up in his arms. She sensed desperation in his strides. They took an animal track, the trees and brambles merging into a tunnel over their heads.
Ahead she heard rustling. Was it a dog? Then came voices; not those of humans but the banter of two brownies.