Aira makes new friends amongst the clan of brownies that Boroden travels with
|A bright-eyed boy, with leaves and twigs in his dishevelled hair, froze upon beholding them. He gave a cry of glee and was about to charge over when his companion, an older lad with golden hair, held him back.
‘Cousin, forgive me. I know you said to remain at Branghad no matter what, but you’ve been gone so long we worried, especially when we saw that mighty flash of light and the fire on the evening that you left us.’
‘It was my idea. Harfan always takes the blame but it was me,’ Hëkitarka interjected. He squeezed by his brother and ran to Boroden with open arms. He stopped himself, his whiskers quivering curiously.
Harfan joined him, struck still as he too noticed Aira. ‘It’s a girl.’
Hëkitarka chuckled at his brother. ‘It’s Aira. Cousin B’s found her. Honestly, you don’t know much about introducing yourself to girls.’ Suavely, hoping to impress his cousin as much as Aira, he said, ‘I’m so delighted to see you, lovely lady. Captain Carnelian was sure Boroden would find you. I’m Hëkitarka, Prince of Lutraudros, and this is my brother Harfan. Lutraudros is a fine place but it’s nicer here. For one thing there are more squirrels. Do you like roast squirrels? If so I have caught some particularly fine ones for supper.’
‘Hëkitarka, won’t you stop rabbiting on about squirrels and do something!’ Boroden snapped frantically.
‘Like what?’ Hëkitarka drew back, for the first time noticing Aira’s paleness and the blood-flecked bandage about her leg. ‘I’ll run back for Fostolf. I won’t be two ticks; I’m the fastest runner. You just hold on there, Aira, sweetie.’ Hëkitarka saw that Harfan had already spotted the necessity of fetching Fostolf and was sprinting back up the slope to the cairn. ‘Ah.’ He ruefully scarpered after his brother.
Boroden gulped, bottling away his anxiety. He could have done with Hëkitarka staying to help him.
‘It won’t be long now,’ Boroden said, adjusting his aching arms and hurrying on with Aira. She squeezed his hand, wondering whether Boroden would find time for her once he was back with his friends.
They arrived at the camp to find that Gretchen had already prepared an infirmary nest. Hëkitarka dashed over and belatedly helped Boroden to support Aira. He was joined by Misty who fawned about her master wagging her plaited tail. She growled upon noticing Aira’s unfamiliar scent.
Gretchen gave a glad cry and rushed to meet her stepdaughter. Boroden set Aira down and she embraced Gretchen, leaning against her for support.
‘I’ve found her for you, but she’s hurt I’m afraid,’ Boroden explained to Gretchen.
‘Oh, bless you laddie. A thousand blessings on you and yours forever for this,’ Gretchen said, squeezing Boroden’s hand. Boroden looked relieved at her words.
‘Aira, this is Captain Carnelian. He’s been making sure I’m taken care of. Well, stopping me from fretting myself sick mostly,’ Gretchen said, introducing a short brownie with his hair greying about his ears. Aira and Boroden both rejoiced to see him.
‘I remember Carnelian. I spent my first years with Boroden and his brothers you see, Mother.’ Aira was telling her more when Fostolf shuffled over. He was a crabbed, stooping brownie with hair as white as cotton grass.
‘You need to rest, lass. I’ll look at that leg of yours,’ Fostolf said.
Aira found several brownies crowding eagerly to meet her. She was caught between Hëkitarka introducing the new faces and trying to speak to the physician about her wound. From the news that Quentillian imparted to Boroden she gathered that others of the party had headed back to Lord Cameron’s castle looking for Boroden a day before.
The other brownies dispersed to prepare the evening meal whilst Fostolf bathed Aira’s wound. Gretchen, Carnelian, Harfan and Hëkitarka came often to her side. Boroden brushed away Quentillian’s attempts to engage him in his duties as leader, more concerned about Aira.
‘It’s a nasty wound. Ogres often keep their nails jagged on purpose to maim their opponents,’ Fostolf said. Every movement as he worked to help her was done with such urgency that he reminded her of a clockwork doll that had been overwound. ‘It will be a while before she is healed and can walk again.’
‘It is not dangerous?’ Boroden asked, uneasy at having to voice his concern so loudly to ensure the nearly deaf physician heard.
‘It’ll not close properly for a good time yet and infection might set in if we’re not careful. It is as well you got her here in time, Sire, so I can keep an eye on it.’
‘Can anything be done to close the wound sooner?’
‘Only magic might achieve that,’ Fostolf said scornfully.
Hëkitarka darted away. ‘Where’s Klaufi?’ he asked Barabas.
Hëkitarka huffed, spotting his friend huddled on top of the cairn. It might be some time before he came down. Hëkitarka almost collided with Caillie as he ran to reach Klaufi. ‘Have you been to see Aira? How is she?’
Knowing Hëkitarka’s sensitive nature Caille saw an opportunity for teasing. ‘Fostolf is going to amputate her leg. You want to help?’
Hëkitarka squeaked in horror and tore off in the direction of Boroden’s nest. Boroden turned around irritably as his cousin burst in. He had been frantically leafing through a book which he tossed into his pack, keeping it concealed behind him.
‘They’re going to amputate Aira’s leg!’ Hëkitarka sobbed.
‘No!’ Boroden sprang away, leaving Hëkitarka cowering in the nest.
‘What’s all this? You don’t know anything. Aira’s leg doesn’t need taking off. The wound is nowhere near as bad as that,’ Boroden thundered at the surprised physician.
‘No one’s taking her leg off. Fostolf is just applying a fresh dressing,’ Carnelian explained.
Boroden sat down heavily. Carnelian cast a disapproving glance in Caillie’s direction, guessing what had happened.
‘Dinner’s ready. You should have something to sup, Sire. You’ve had nothing since you got back,’ Gretchen said, handing Aira some nettle tea.
‘I’m all right don’t trouble yourself over me,’ Boroden said, remaining quietly by Aira’s side whilst the other brownies ate their meal.
‘Oh no!’ Hëkitarka groaned as he and Klaufi returned to the camp. ‘How are we going to do anything for Aira with him there?’
‘Maybe I could stun him so he goes stiff as a statue? Then I could sneak up to Aira and cast the spell?’ Klaufi suggested, reaching for his book of magic to find the relevant spell. The book was cleverly concealed as a guide to antique brooms and mops.
‘Don’t bother. I have a better plan,’ Hëkitarka said. He feared that Boroden might not come around from Klaufi’s spell.
‘Your dinner is ready,’ Hëkitarka sang out to Boroden.
Boroden put his finger anxiously to his lips. ‘Hush, Aira’s asleep. What do you mean? I told Gretchen I wasn’t hungry.’
‘Well Barabas has made it now and it would be a shame to let it go cold. Gretchen says you must go over to the fire to eat or she’ll be cross with you.’
Boroden huffed and gave in. Once his back was turned to them as he sat beside the camp fire talking to Harfan, Hëkitarka waved Klaufi over.
‘Let’s do it quick,’ Hëkitarka urged Klaufi.
‘I’m doing it,’ Klaufi said, crouching beside Aira and thumbing through his book of medicinal magic.
‘Righto. What do you need?’ Hëkitarka asked, poised over Fostolf’s medicine bag in case any of its contents might help.
‘Wait on. I haven’t found it yet. Ah, here it is.’
‘That was quick!’ Hëkitarka exclaimed delightedly, seeing Aira’s flesh knit together and the soreness fade even as Klaufi read the first sentence of the spell. Klaufi looked as surprised as Hëkitarka and did a double take at the page.
Aira started up with a yelp.
‘Whoa! It’s all right. I’ve just come to introduce Klaufi Spadefoot to you,’ Hëkitarka calmed her.
‘Hello there, Miss Aira. I hope you’re soon feeling better.’
‘Yes, I am a bit I’m glad to say.’
Boroden came tearing over upon hearing Aira cry out. ‘What’s going on?’ he demanded, looking suspiciously at Klaufi who was chewing loudly on an oatcake.
‘Nothing. Just Klaufi wanted to meet Aira,’ Hëkitarka said, backing away.
‘Indeed. Well, your uncle wants you Master Spadeface,’ Boroden said, Klaufi’s true surname having escaped his notice.
Klaufi smiled at Aira and pulled his forelock before leaving.
Boroden hesitantly held out an ornately worked pewter bowl to Aira. ‘Fostolf said that you didn’t feel like having anything to eat but I thought you should take some broth. It’ll make you stronger I hope.’
Aira did not feel hungry but his compassion made her eager to please him. ‘That’s good of you,’ she whispered gratefully, struggling into as much of a sitting position as she dared for her numb leg throbbed as movement caused blood to rush back into it.
Boroden knelt by her, rolling up his cloak and tucking it behind her to make a higher pillow to help her sit up. He passed her broth and a wedge of bread and butter, then sat back watching her slowly set to work on the food as if she were some small injured bird whose life it had befallen him to tend.
‘I’d asked Mother not to bother making broth for me. Did you get her to leave some?’
‘No. I thought you might like mine. You need it more than me.’
‘That’s very kind of you. I wish you’d eaten it though, or that we’d shared. You deserve a good dinner after everything you did rescuing me. It was such a long, difficult way to go. You must be worn and famished,’ she said, ruefully looking at the crumbs on her plate.
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter about me,’ Boroden said. He bent to withdraw his cloak so that Aira could lie down and rest.
Carnelian appeared, calling Boroden away.
‘We need to talk over what’s to be done about Torden and his companions,’ Boroden told Aira. ‘Hëki!’ he shouted, seeing his cousin staring in his direction as he sat by the fire, ‘come and keep Aira company whilst I’m gone.’
By the time that Carnelian and Boroden returned Hëkitarka had brought out the music box that Glaistig had let him borrow whilst he was away with Torden’s company. It was one of the spoils that Glaistig had acquired on his adventures. It had been made by trolls and played an incessant, spiky tune. Hëkitarka wound it and proceeded to jig energetically, hoping to impress Aira. She caught Carnelian’s eye with a forlorn look.
Boroden shut the lid of the music box sternly. ‘You have no idea what sort of music sensible lasses like Aira enjoy. That racket will give her a headache.’
‘I know a song that Aira is fond of,’ Carnelian said, hoping to calm the situation. He began the seafaring song of the brownies that he had sung to Aira and King Mazgrim’s sons as bairns. A smile lit Aira’s face as the tune turned fondly in her memory. Boroden and Hëkitarka forgot their dawning strife, pleased to see Aira happy.
‘I’ll fetch my fiddle.’ Hëkitarka scampered away.
Boroden joined in with Carnelian. When the gentle first verses ended, Carnelian stopped and Boroden carried on with the next blithely. It was a jolly tune and Aira was soon clapping along and grinning. Boroden began to dance. He skipped and twirled so lightly that his feet barely seemed to touch the ground.
‘This is too much. I’m just going to have to dance one legged,’ Aira declared, staggering up. Boroden caught her and bounced her along until they collapsed, laughing breathlessly. Carnelian and Gretchen smiled at them.
‘I thought you said at Novgorad that you never danced, Cousin B,’ Hëkitarka reminded him cheekily.
Aira was delighted to find that she could now bear to put some weight on her leg and Fostolf was amazed by her progress. All the brownies had high spirits as they turned to sleep or, in Boroden’s case, keep watch.
The morning was bright and fresh with spring, a morning on which it was a joy to be awake. Hëkitarka batted Harfan’s arm playfully to invite him to play tag as the elder brother collected the waterskins to take to the stream. Harfan swiped at him and they tore off.
‘Oy!’ Aira reprimanded laughingly as Hëkitarka sprang over her nest. He cast a look of daring over his shoulder as he skipped across the dewy grass. Weary at being kept to her nest, Aira called, ‘wait for me.’
Harfan and Hëkitarka were well ahead by the time they came upon Boroden returning from his watch. The brothers darted past on either side of him. Snatching Aira up and seating her on his shoulders Boroden declared, ‘we’ll show them.’
The brownies raced down the slope, reaching the stream laughing and breathless. Hëkitarka grinned proudly. ‘I won. No one can tig this squirrel.’
Boroden was heartened that, when Gretchen called them for breakfast, Aira walked easily up the slope. She was recovering better than anticipated. Over the next day Aira regained her strength and made new friends. She wondered what the other brownies, who remained absent, would be like. Vaguely she remembered Torden. They would not move from the cairn until they had news of him but Boroden wanted to plot their next move.
‘Are you scouting our way?’ Aira asked as she caught up with Boroden, Misty and Blackthorn on the lower slope of the mountain.
‘More like exploring.’
‘That sound much more adventurous.’ Aira sprang down a bank formed long ago by the ground caving towards a stream. Boroden grinned at her and she followed him along a ragged hedge that marked the edge of a field. Boroden suddenly dipped and squeezed through a gap in the hedge. Aira ducked after him, snagging her hair and pulling off her cap. She stuffed it into her apron pocket.
Before them was a steep slope to the stream. It was too dangerous for humans to risk their livestock straying to, but a haven where the last reaches of ancient woodland remained.
‘We’re still in human territory, but this is a place no human lays claim to. A place for outlaws, bandits, faerie folk. A place to have a proper adventure,’ Boroden decided.
Aira rubbed her hands gleefully and raced him down to the stream, though the ground was so steep that it almost took her feet from under her. Misty was ahead of them, barking excitedly. Despite her initial distrust, she had grown fond of Aira.
Something grey frisked in front of them and spiralled up the trunk of an alder. Aira watched the squirrel scale the vertical ascent.
‘Hëkitarka eats squirrels. The grey kind. And fish too,’ Boroden said, ruefully eyeing the circles rippling the water where the stream pooled.
‘How mean. He’d better not find this place then.’
Boroden started off, suddenly alert and laughing. There was an arched bough fallen over the ravine. Boroden crossed it on tiptoes, rocking to keep his balance. Aira was sure he was about to get a dunking in the pool.
He jumped down on the opposite bank. ‘Now you try.’
Aira was already half way across.
‘No, your leg.’ Boroden was filled with concern.
She scurried the last few feet and dropped down beside him. ‘It’s healed now.’
‘Aye. I’m shocked too. Normally I take ages to heal.’
‘You need more sunshine.’
‘I’ve got plenty now,’ she said, nodding to the sunbeams darting beneath the trees.
‘If we had some rope I’d make a swing,’ Boroden said. Dragging together twines of ivy he passed his hand over them, speaking a spell to plait them into a rope. Aira chuckled as he twisted the rope guiltily.
He excused his magic. ‘Well, one should never be without some good rope.’
He left his tunic folded on top of his pack and dived off the branch, twirling wildly on the swing before plunging in. ‘That was fun,’ he yelled, emerging with water pouring from his hair.
‘No,’ Aira protested as he caught her, prodding her to have a go. He huffed.
Filled with a defiant spark, Aira snatched up the rope and launched off. However, she found herself toppling off backwards and spluttering on a mouthful of water.
‘Och, it’s cold. You dinna tell me it was cold,’ she squealed, hugging her arms about herself.
‘Nonsense. You need a good wash. You can’t go around smelling of humans and unwashed Aira.’
Fetching out a bottle of Dewdrop Shine from his pack he scrubbed her hair, dunking her under. Aira emerged and splashed a sheet of water up to drench him.
‘Mmm, this smells nice,’ she said, suddenly pausing to bury her nose in her hair.
‘I’m glad you appreciate it. It contains oils of ylang ylang and sage. It must be used in moderation though. A dollop the size of a broad bean is recommended although when Hëkitarka used it I’m sure his idea of a broad bean came from Jack’s giant beanstalk.’
‘Cold, cold,’ she moaned, floundering out with her skirts trying to trip her and pouring with water. To add insult to injury Misty leapt out shaking her green coat and spraying water over Aira.
‘It’s nice and refreshing,’ Boroden said wryly.
Aira cheered up as Boroden gave her his tunic and she buried her cold ears in the thick fur collar. Boroden was a tall brownie, so the tunic was almost a dress for her.
They crossed back over the branch and Aira noticed a glade spangled with what looked like patches of snow. ‘They’re wood anemones.’
‘Let’s explore there. It looks good.’
The bank grew wilder, perhaps a place where humans never set foot. Osiers had fallen leaving pockets of sunlight filled with wildflowers; wood anemones, marsh-marigolds, and the leaves of bluebells and meadowsweet yet to bloom. By the stream in a protective army ramsons grew. Aira imagined they might easily get lost and go on forever. She saw that, although this bank was lush with flowers, on the other side of the stream, where there was a human farmstead on a hill, the flowers kept away.
‘It’s odd to find so many faerie flowers together. It’s like a garden,’ Boroden said, peering ahead to where the glade stretched on tangled and beautiful.
‘Perhaps it is. This looks just the place for dryads and pillywiggins, and perhaps Wood Elves.’ Aira dreamily recounted tales that her father had told her of the adventures of the elf Glimfyndor who overcame evil monsters and regained his ancestral home in the Golden Woods of Glorlinderin. Aira saw parallels with Boroden’s quest and hoped that it would hearten him.
‘That looks a good place to hide,’ Aira said, wobbling along a decaying tree to where a hollow stump crouched. Only, she realised with a start, there was someone already occupying the spot. Their hair was golden enough for an elf but when they poked their head out Aira saw that it was Harfan. He nodded a greeting, but this did not stop Boroden noticing that his cheeks bulged with quickly snatched foyson.
‘Human victuals?’ Boroden asked, sniffing.
Hëkitarka dropped from a tree behind them. ‘Easter Simnel cake. They gave it to us at the farm.’
‘Gave you it?’
‘Aye. We shined their copper pans up a treat. Surely there was no harm in asking for cake? It smelled so scrumptious. The best were those chocolate brownies I demanded in return for my cobweb removal services,’ Hëkitarka said, thinking the pun amusing.
‘I don’t like you serving humans,’ Boroden grumbled.
‘Then I presume you don’t want any, Cousin Boroden?’ Hëkitarka said, cutting a slice of cake for Aira.
Aira halved it and tossed half at Boroden. Misty leapt up and caught it with a neat snap. ‘Oops, that was meant for you,’ Aira said, sharing the remaining piece.
‘Surely you don’t think it’s wrong to do cleaning?’ Hëkitarka asked Aira.
‘It’s not nice to be beholden to humans for food and shelter. Humans are pathetic. Have you not heard the story of the woodcutter who was granted three wishes? He used the first wish for sausages, but his wife said he was a fool and wished them on his nose, so he used the last wish in wishing them off!’ Boroden rolled his eyes.
‘I like the idea of having a place to ourselves. But,’ Aira added hesitantly, ‘if we’re not to clean then surely our homes will get as messy as a troll’s lair?’
‘Good point. Harfan said the same. I expect Cousin B will leave Carnelian to tidy up after him like he usually does.’
Boroden looked daggers at Hëkitarka who was balancing on top of the stump.
‘I don’t see what’s wrong with working for humans if you demand a fair price,’ Hëkitarka went on, snatching at the cake. Harfan was quicker and bundled it into his pack.
‘That’s for Carnelian and the others,’ Harfan reminded him.
‘Just one piece?’
‘You’re stuffed enough as it is on that trout.’
‘Fish, yummy, yummy fish,’ Hëkitarka said, smacking his lips. ‘Surely one more piece of cake wouldn’t hurt? After all, Fennec has had enough. He said he’s fond of hiding human keys, so they think they’ve lost them. He only gives them back if they leave cake out for him.’
Boroden shook his head before turning in the direction of the camp. The others followed. Aira paused to pluck a nosegay of wood anemones with their pink-dusted white heads.
‘Fair maidens of the wood,’ Hëkitarka saluted gallantly. He bent to sniff the flowers in Aira’s hand, enjoying their gentle scent, like honey and cucumber.
This was a magical place and Aira let herself be guided by some sixth sense which flowers to pluck lest she rile the guardians of the wood. Aira was self-conscious of displaying her communion with wild things as it was a sídhe trait unusual in a brownie. She straightened up and found Harfan looking at her. He smiled, but there was a look in his eyes like he was piecing something together.