Aira hears about the origins of the elixir of immortality.
|Aira was happy in the company of her new friends and the mood was as sunny as the weather. The respite was welcome after their previous frightening adventures. They only worried for Torden and his companions who had not returned.
On the fifth morning Gefi scurried back from his lookout and went to Boroden who was finishing his breakfast. Boroden grinned as Gefi told him his news.
‘What is is?’ Aira asked.
‘Torden and his company return heavily laden. It looks as if we have fresh supplies and our travelling goods returned. Torden is a good fighter, strong as a cave bear and loyal to the core, but he can be rough mannered,’ Boroden cautioned her.
Hastening to collect Harfan and Hëkitarka’s empty breakfast bowls which they had left in their nest whilst they washed in the stream, Aira curiously scanned the eastern slope below the camp. A company approached riding ponies, some with wicker panniers of provisions on each side. At the head of the group rode a tall, strongly built brownie with a torque about his neck. She supposed him to be Torden.
Heeding Boroden’s words, Aira decided to remain cautious of Torden until she made her own judgment of his character. Snatching up the bowls, Aira bounded back. She set out her washing things near Boroden who was sharpening his sword whilst he waited for Hëkitarka. The lad dashed up, bearing his box of hair accessories.
‘Good news, Hëki. Torden is returning with our things.’
‘Hurray!’ Hëkitarka grinned.
Boroden seated himself with a regal air upon a boulder and Hëkitarka set to work, skillfully forming braids in Boroden’s hair. Harfan stood at his cousin’s side, waiting.
‘Torden,’ Boroden greeted the chieftain. Boroden appeared every inch the king hailing his subject, although his throne was a lichened granite slab and his hall a wild mountain plateau. With his slim build Boroden looked lissom next to Torden, although Aira knew he was as strong in his own more tenacious way.
Not wishing to attract attention to herself, Aira kept her back to the group whilst she scrubbed the pots, listening intently. They had eaten corn muffins and honey for breakfast and the sticky crockery took a long time to clean.
‘I expected a less warm welcome from you after we acted on our own devices. Looking for you was just an excuse, you know, to satisfy them worriers,’ Torden said. Harfan looked displeased, guessing that Torden referred to how he had fretted over Boroden’s absence.
‘As if we didn’t have every right to be worried. The very evening you left, Sire, there was an evil blaze of light from the direction of one of the villages. Almost half an hour it lasted and dreadfully afraid we were. Only a sorcerer could conjuror such a trick and it bodes no good to have a sorcerer so close by,’ Lord Asuril said. Boroden inclined his head with a stony look.
Mistaking the cause of Boroden’s vexation, Torden continued, ‘I knew you’d look after yourself. We’ve had a successful mission. More than successful. The ogres made it easy for us, wiping out most of Lord Cameron’s men. Our ponies are retrieved, along with all the provisions we could find and a quantity of Lord Cameron’s treasure and weapons.’
Hëkitarka joyfully patted his pony. ‘Cousin B has been busy too. He rescued two of our kind from the ogre attack on one of the villages. Gretchen Grundle and Aira Aleena they’re called. I’m glad that he did because they’re very nice, especially Aira who is so pretty. I couldn’t believe it when they came. I’d never expected to find other brownies here. Cousin B was very heroic. He fought the ogres single-handed. Then he spent two days carrying Aira back here because she’s hurt her leg.’
‘Did he now?’ Torden asked with a wry look at Boroden.
Boroden lowered his eyes. Aira wondered if Boroden recalled Mazgrim having them engaged to each other as children and if he put any stead by it as she did. That and sharing Boroden’s secret bound her closely to him, a bond strengthened by his kindness to her.
Torden guffawed. ‘I’ve never seen you look at a lass before. Where is she? She must be something special.’
Torden’s gaze soon alighted on Aira’s trim back and honeyed hair. ‘Let’s have a look at you then?’ Torden demanded.
It hurt Aira’s dignity to be treated like a pig at a fair but, not wishing to be truculent and so incite further gibes, she cast a steely glance at the chieftain.
Torden looked as astonished as if he beheld a ghost. ‘It is her that you’ve found then?’
‘How did you escape Velmoran, maid?’
‘Don’t press her to that. She’s still weak and doubtless wants to remember it no more than I wish to hear about what happened that day,’ Boroden growled.
Aira did not like to hear the distress in Boroden’s voice. Thinking to help, she decided to elaborate on her recent past. ‘My stepmother and I lived with the village wise woman, helping her about her house and caring for her animals. Things were often tough. Lord Cameron taxed the villagers hard.’
‘You must be well used to a life of servitude. No wonder you’re so scrawny,’ Lord Asuril commented with a barely veiled sneer. Aira bristled, wondering why he took an instant dislike to her.
‘I’m sure you’ll be keen to rest and eat after your journey back from Lord Cameron’s castle. Come over to the fire and I’ll plot the next stage of our journey,’ Boroden told the weary group who had accompanied Torden. He motioned Aira to walk at his side to where the clan gathered. Carnelian nodded to Boroden, guessing what his king was going to say.
‘This afternoon,’ Boroden declared resolutely, ‘we break camp.’
At his words a thrill passed though Aira like a sudden breath of breeze on a monotonous hot day. Hëkitarka grinned at her. He had been looking forward to this announcement.
Boroden cast a questioning glance at Gretchen and Aira. ‘That is if you have no objection to accompanying us?’
‘Why should we object?’ Aira beamed.
‘We’d be glad to,’ Gretchen added.
‘Well then, that’s settled. You’re welcome as part of our clan and we’ll try our utmost to make you at ease whilst you journey with us.’
‘That’s very good of you,’ Aira said.
Lord Asuril started, disgusted by the grateful look that Boroden gave Aira as the others rose to set about preparing to decamp. Asuril imposed himself between the pair. ‘Chop chop! Carnelian could do with a hand packing. I need to speak to His Majesty.’
Guileless of his motives, Aira trotted away.
Breaking camp was a ceremonial occasion. From now on the brownies would travel the remotest part of their journey. Their hearts set on success at the Seelie Court, they imagined that their quest would go down in the history of their clan as a proud moment.
Aira lugged the last of their luggage over to Gretchen who was seated behind Carnelian on his sturdy mountain pony. Each of the ponies now had full paniers.
‘Aira!’ Quentillian shouted.
Breaking through the gathered chieftains to answer his call she found Boroden about to mount Blackthorn. Boroden’s face was decorated in elaborate designs painted in woad and emerald war paint by Hëkitarka. He looked regal, upon his head the circlet marking his kingship. Boroden swung her up onto Blackthorn’s back and settled behind her. The other brownies mounted, and they rode away, Blackthorn leading the cavalcade.
The younger members of the clan; Harfan, Hëkitarka, Fennec and Caillie, lined to meet them armed and decorated with war paint emblems. They held staffs adorned with greenery in an arch above the travellers. As the last pony passed them they dropped the arch formation and ran ahead, jumping out in front of Blackthorn. Aira smiled as they stamped their feet, hitting the base of their staffs on the ground and making a dancing fight with each other. She had heard of such protection ceremonies from her father and it was a delight to witness one.
Hëkitarka and Harfan used their staffs to vault onto the backs of their ponies. Caillie and Fennec followed suit, Fennec less successfully for he ended up draped over the back of his pony and was given a shove into his saddle by Klaufi.
They journeyed on amongst lonely peaks and valleys where the only sounds were purling streams and birdsong. The journey would be long and Boroden did not want to tire the ponies, especially Blackthorn whose wing was still sore. When they could Boroden encouraged the clan to go on foot to rest the ponies.
Aira loved to accompany Boroden when Blackthorn took to the air so that they might scout ahead. Aira never tired of seeing the treetops spread beneath them in folds as soft and jumbled as a basket of washing. She spoke most freely to Boroden then for, though they often rode together, when the clan was with them she felt constrained. This was especially so when Asuril spotted them and frowned to see her and Boroden talking.
The further the brownies travelled the more their lives began to settle into a pattern. They rose at first light and set off once the dew rose. The time before that they devoted to training. Boroden wanted to make sure that he and his warriors were fit to contend with any danger they might face on their way. At first this disquieted Gretchen and Aira, although it soon became so routine that they forgot their worries about ogres and goblins.
After one of the training sessions, Aira passed round the breakfast. Harfan spooned molasses onto his porridge.
‘Isla loved sweetening her porridge with molasses too. I miss her,’ Aira commented to him.
‘I don’t see how you can be so fond of humans after all that you’ve heard about our ordeals in Lord Cameron’s dungeons,’ Quentillian grumbled.
‘Because Aira has the understanding to see sin from the sinner. We are no more perfect than any human. Humans were not born to be bad and have much good in them still, though they are disobedient. The first humans, Adam and Eve, lived in Eden, a place of paradise where there grew two trees; the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Tempted by the serpent Satan they did what was forbidden and ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and thus knew good and evil. For that they were expelled, the temptation to do evil following humans like a shadow,’ Carnelian said.
‘How awful.’ Aira shuddered.
‘Do you know how faeries came into being?’ Carnelian asked.
Aira shook her head.
‘Once God saw how easily Adam and Eve had been led to take the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge he saw that he must protect the Tree of Life. If any being ate its fruit they could live forever. It was guarded by angels with flaming swords. They weren’t so easily tempted as humans but at last Satan spurred one of them to take some fruit for himself. God cast him out to live amongst humans and he became The Dagda. It is said faeries have no souls but can acquire souls. Whilst some of us are between salvation and damnation, others are already damned and compelled to pay a teind to Hell to stop them being taken there whilst earth exists.’
Aira was surprised to see Hëkitarka listening more intently. This was exactly what the evil queen did in his favourite tale Tam Lin. Then there was the beautiful sídhe who he had met in Lutraudros who danced between good and evil.
‘So those of the Seelie Court might get back their souls and become angels again by doing good deeds?’ Hëkitarka asked.
‘That is what The Dagda hopes,’ Carnelian replied.
‘But what about folk like Midhir? He calls himself Seelie and claim to be only for good, yet his actions are rife with greed, spite, violence and lust. He sent his soldiers to murder my father. He’s so sure of his power and thinks he’s different from those branded Unseelie, but to me he’s no different,’ Aira’s hands clenched into fists as she thought of the evil that Midhir had brought to her friends at Tullochgorm Castle.
‘Oh, I know the duplicity of the likes of Midhir well.’ Carnelian gave a tight smile. ‘I think God is punishing them for it, as the sídhe race is failing. The Dagda and his sons claim that finding the juice of the fruit of the Tree of Life, spilled on the earth as The Dagda fell, will restore them. But it won’t.’
‘What will?’ Aira asked.
‘When Velmoran was destroyed I managed to flee the Unseelie monsters hired by Krysila. I thought I was the last brownie left and was a poor, cowering thing then,’ Carnelian recalled.
‘Where did you go?’ Aira asked.
‘I grew bitter and careless of what happened to me. I wandered to the one place faerie folk shun: a monastery. It was by the sea not far from Velmoran. That place was suffused with the peace of God’s presence. I couldn’t doubt His existence when the monks spoke of Him. Working away small as a mouse dusting corners and trimming candle wicks, I heard how God loves humans and wants them to come to Him though they disobey. He must surely want the faerie folk to return to Him as angels. When I heard of His love and compassion, I wanted to pledge myself to Him, to let Him use me to do His work. If we love Him and let Him be our guide, we will achieve true immortality in heaven.’
‘So, if we ask God into our lives then the sídhe will have no power over us?’ Hëkitarka asked.
‘No. We’re all equals in God’s eyes, though some faeries use their knowledge or wealth or power to subjugate others. They’ll find it harder to get to heaven,’ Carnelian said.
‘Cousin Boroden is right to want us to be free of serving humans then?’ Hëkitarka asked.
‘We are to serve God first and not be in awe of the sídhe or humans, though if we find ourselves fated to work in a human house we must do it well and dutifully.’
Carnelian looked to Boroden, who paced back and forth along a clifftop in the distance, and the side of his lip curled anxiously. ‘To be honest, I’m not sure if everything that Boroden wants is right. He’s had knocks in his life that make it hard for him to believe. His pride means he’s set on replacing the rule that the sídhe and humans have over House Elves with brownie lairds headed by himself.’