Kerfinror, king of the sugar plum fairies, entertains the visiting brownies at a banquet
|A dozen blackbirds sang to call King Kerfinror’s entourage and their guests to the feast that had been laid on in celebration of the coming of the brownies. The gentle light and warmth made Boroden drowsy and he worried that he would not last out the meal without a yawn or a drooping head. He had put on his velvet dinner tunic with a chanterelle mushroom effect to its cape collar and arranged his hair neatly, although a few curls refused to be tamed. He seemed to all who saw him inspiring and noble, although he felt awkward.
Serena was to be Boroden’s dinner partner and preened before him. Boroden tried to keep up with her pleasantries, wondering that one so stylish should show such an interest in him. He was uncomfortably aware that he was putting himself across as something he was not. Serena seemed oblivious and laughed and talked more freely, seeming to warm to him.
Boroden was not too dazed to forget to look after his own company. He was disconcerted to find that some of the brownies had still not entered. He turned to King Kerfinror, who sat upon a covered dais to his right, to ask that they be sent for. He was interrupted as the minstrels struck up a fanfare.
The guests turned expectantly to the gilded doors at the end of the room. The servers entered in pairs, resplendently dressed in King Kerfinror’s colours with embroidered towels draped crosswise over their chests like sashes. Barely had the first pair bowed when Boroden jumped up, for a moment forgetting himself. The first young servant was a dark-haired fay but the second, wearing two crossed towels to mark him out as the carver, was Harfan. Behind him came Fennec and Caillie who, after a hasty bow, crossed eagerly to the drinks set on tables at the side of the room and surreptitiously sampled some of the primrose mead that they were meant to be serving.
Hëkitarka came next carrying a basin for the diners to wash their hands. This was insufferable. Casting aside the manners in which he had so carefully draped himself, Boroden glared at Bresil. ‘What do you mean by this? These are my cousins and sons of chieftains amongst our people. How dare you make them serve you! They are not slaves. Times have changed here, King Kerfinror, and not for the better. Once you welcomed brownies as equals.’
‘Sit, King Boroden. I mean no insult to your young companions. It is a privilege and a mark of nobility to serve at the table of a king. It has long been the custom for our highborn sons.’
‘We asked if we might help, Boroden. With King Kerfinror at war many of his knights have fallen in the fight and it’s hard for him to find enough assistance for entertaining,’ Harfan explained.
‘I hear that brownies like nothing better than to be servants. It’s a good, active pursuit,’ Serena commented tritely.
Such shallow thinking rankled with Boroden though he was too polite to say so.
‘I hope I didn’t speak out of term, King Kerfinror. I didn’t fully understand the situation,’ Boroden apologised gruffly. He hated to be in the wrong and felt sure that most of the company secretly sneered at his ignorance and quick temper.
He was surprised to find that Serena was as eager as ever to talk to him. Whilst Harfan laid the finest main courses of a raven’s head and ferret joint upon the table for King Kerfinror to approve, Serena began to question Boroden about the new homeland that he was making for the brownies. It dawned on him with disgust that as they talked she tried to steer the course of conversation to Novgorad’s riches.
Feeling at odds with everyone in the room he became taciturn, sweeping his gaze around the elegant, laughing guests. Hëkitarka was half way around the table trying to attract the attention of two pretty maidens whilst their mother splashed her hands into his water basin. Fennec stood bored behind the chair of a vociferous lord waiting for him to take the drink that he held ready. Harfan sharpened the carving knives, Caillie was pouring rose petal wine. Where were Aira and Gretchen?
The main course of starling pie topped by a chestnut stuffed starling was left steaming on the high table whilst the most acrobatic young fairies in costumes of mermaid scales danced and cartwheeled. Klaufi Spadefoot entered with the second most decorative aspect of the meal; the desert. He was bewildered by the shimmering, whirling acrobats that appeared as from nowhere in front, behind and from every side. Bravely he tightened his grip on the serving dish on top of which rested the pride of King Kerfinror’s confectioner. It was a pastry castle with a moat of hot, viscous brandy sauce replete with almond blossom water lilies. Each turret was filled with a different kind of fruit with the windows, door, creepers and battlements formed from sweetmeats.
Myfanwy watched it eagerly as Klaufi processed unsteadily towards the high table. Serena made a snide remark about Myfanwy’s propensity towards plumpness which Boroden barely heard. He was looking sternly at Klaufi, willing him not to be an embarrassment. Hëkitarka caught Serena’s words, as did Myfanwy who was crestfallen. Hëkitarka went between comforting her and remonstrating with Serena, forgetting that he was not meant to confront his hosts and that he was slopping a pool of water onto the chair behind Myfanwy’s dour nurse.
‘'Ere’s your pudding, Majesties,’ Klaufi announced.
He moved to set it down but Quentillian gave him a sharp look. ‘You’re meant to bow.’
‘Oh, right.’ Klaufi gave with a worried gape. Turning to King Kerfinror with an apish grin and gripping the platter to his chest, Klaufi made a move like a laying duck, his foot almost slipping from under him over the marble floor.
‘You’re supposed to make it in one move,’ Caillie said, showing him.
‘I’ll do it again,’ Klaufi announced, simultaneous to the collapse of one of the turrets.
‘No. Just put it on the table,’ Quentillian ordered, glaring at the raspberries splattered down Klaufi’s front.
Klaufi cleared his throat, sniffed over the castle and tried to deposit it on the table with a gracious move. Unfortunately, the table was already groaning with fine food. As Klaufi elbowed some dishes out of the way the castle collapsed as if had been hit by a dragon’s tail, narrowly missing Mifrillan who dived for cover behind Boroden’s chair.
Klaufi’s screeches overruled all other calamities. He skipped around clutching his scalded arm in agony. Myfanwy deprived Fennec of the wine decanter and poured its contents over Klaufi’s arm. Harfan sprinted over with a water basin and Klaufi gratefully plunged his arm into it, thanking the prince and princess profusely.
His concern for Klaufi over, Boroden felt humiliated.
Harfan left his recuperating friend and deftly cleared the table of remnants of the disaster, although the tablecloth was ruined.
Queen Alwilda watched approvingly. ‘It’s a rare privilege to meet a young faerie as quick thinking and well-mannered as you, Prince Harfan.’
‘Harfan is my eldest cousin and heir. I made it a point that he should have the finest tutelage after his father’s death,’ Boroden spoke up for him.
‘All the better. I’m glad to see that not every brownie is an imbecile.’ Alwilda gave Klaufi a pointed look.
‘Cousin B often says Klaufi ought to be the court jester,’ Hëkitarka piped up.
‘Is that so? He seems too great a liability even for that,’ Queen Alwilda said.
‘I think he’d make a better Dobbie. That’s what we call dim-witted, clumsy brownies who have no practical use in homes but are good to befriend old people whose minds are wandering.’
‘You’ve almost finished your duties I see. Why don’t you take Klaufi’s place and bring in our next course? Freshly caught fish, if I am not mistaken,’ Queen Alwilda suggested to Hëkitarka.
‘Fish?’ Hëkitarka’s eyes sparkled.
Harfan helped Klaufi to balance the bowl and towel. Klaufi shuffled from place to place at the high table. He grimaced every time one of the diners wiped their hands on the cloth, dismayed at being treated like a walking towel rail. Boroden vented his annoyance with him for his accident by dragging at both ends of the towel as he dried his hands. Klaufi started away choking and tipping water down his shoes. Harfan knitted his brow in concern. Boroden sipped his wine nonchalantly.
‘Would you mind checking on your brother, Prince Harfan? He should be here by now,’ Queen Alwilda said.
Harfan drew back the door to reveal Hëkitarka tucking into a platter of young roast salmon and almonds. He looked up from gulping the foyson from the fish head and smiled innocently at the horrified looks that he was given by many in the dining room. ‘I was just testing it for poison, King Kerfinror. It’s an essential part of any page’s duty. You see I’m of lesser importance and therefore dispensable when it comes to plots upon your life. Now is an especially dangerous time with goblins camped at your gate. To me this fish looks highly suspect and tasting it has only confirmed it.’
‘Hëki, no. You shouldn’t have. You might die,’ Klaufi wailed, being the only one fool enough to fall for Hëkitarka’s ploy.
‘These sweets have a definite air of being poisoned. You should sample them, Hëki,’ Myfanwy invited, giggling. Hëkitarka dashed up to the high table and joined Myfanwy who delighted in piling him with rainbow drops.
‘He’s a growing laddie,’ Harfan explained to Queen Alwilda who was unable to believe that Hëkitarka could have devoured the foyson from a whole salmon and trimmings and still be hungry.
Now that all the best food had been assembled and approved by King Kerfinror, who made generous allowance for the ruin of some dishes, it was time for the meal to commence. King Kerfinror was to decide on who merited to be served the choicest morsels and called each diner to bring their platter in turn, starting with the pages. Harfan was rewarded richly whilst Hëkitarka was given nothing, Queen Alwilda reasoning that the fish and sweets would have spoiled his appetite. Hëkitarka did not remonstrate but began stealthily to help himself to the foyson from whatever food took his fancy.
‘You have a great deal to learn but I can see that your shortcomings are mistakes arising from a clumsy nature for which you can hardly be blamed,’ King Kerfinror told Klaufi, handing him a plate of fine wheat bread and Stilton.
Klaufi made no move to take it. ‘I don’t eat foyson from that. It gives me a rotten stomach ache. Stodgy porridge and mash are what I like.’
The courtiers murmured in revulsion and Boroden turned livid. To hide his embarrassment, he busied himself with taking the foyson from a tomato omelette. The essence of the tomato scalded his mouth like a hot coal but in front of a sea of unfamiliar faces he forced himself to swallow it.
Luckily Caillie was serving a cooling fizzy gingerbread soup and Boroden took as big a gulp of its foyson as he could politely manage. He found the unfamiliar delicacy delicious, not appreciating how the bubbles stuck in his throat until, in the middle of conversing with Serena, he burped. He faltered in shame. No one said anything, probably saving their scorn until they could titter over it behind his back. He made a token effort to talk to Serena again and take some of the thick green liquid that he was offered to round up the meal. This drink caused great excitement and merry chatter amongst the courtiers though Boroden could hardly see why for it looked and tasted like spider blood.
‘Do you think I ought to take a tray of something to Aira? She must be famished scrubbing away in the wash house,’ Klaufi asked Harfan.
Boroden was stricken. ‘In the wash house! I will not allow her to be slaved like this after all she’s been through. How came she there?’
‘Don’t blame other folk for it, Majesty,’ Klaufi said, noticing that Boroden was glaring at Bresil as if the wizard had forced Aira to work and miss the feast. Boroden’s attitude to the wizard annoyed Klaufi who saw in it what might be Boroden’s stance to him if he discovered he was a sorcerer.
‘Aira and Gretchen chose to do the washing themselves. They’re no more used to being guests in a palace than I am and probably had no idea there was to be a feast tonight. As it’s been weeks since we came across a stream they wanted to do some laundering to make sure that we’ve got proper clobber to wear if we’re to present ourselves to fine folk. Aira was put in mind of it particularly by you saying you’d rather not have us appear before King Kerfinror looking tatty.’ Klaufi’s words sparked shame and fury in the heart of the young brownie king.
‘Did you have to bring that up! Aira and Gretchen should have got some of the palace maids to do our washing. I’m going to fetch them and make them have a proper rest and a meal.’
The tables were being cleared and the guests milled around glad to be released from the formal hierarchy and etiquette governing the meal. Though this meant that it was unlikely that Klaufi’s remarks were heeded Boroden still ran a paranoid glance over the diners. He gladly escaped the room and the possibility of further humiliation.
Aira finished adding the last layer of clothes to a wicker basket before pouring in lye water to remove stains. Aira disliked laundry work, remembering how her mother was cursed to remain a banshee because her father had been unable to find and wash all her clothes as some remained in Velmoran. The grandeur of the working rooms in the palace intimidated her. The laundry was a cavernous place with a stream running in a canal between pillars in its centre. Gretchen’s pounding at the second batch of almost done clothes echoed loud and crude against the musical babble of the stream.
King Kerfinror obviously had many servants. Now and again one of them would look in unexpectedly before turning away. All were trim fays in sparkling white uniforms and their inscrutable faces and lack of a greeting made Aira uncomfortable.
Although the rooms and their equipment were human sized, remnants of a time when Bresil had been part of a bustling human household, there were numerous indications of fairy occupation. Lines of twisted spider thread held tiny stockings, shirts and pillow cases. Beautiful jewelled clothes boxes adorned a table at the far end of the room, ready to be filled with clothes to be carried up to the royal family. Aira was particularly entranced by an elaborate silver casket and her gaze kept going to it as she worked.
She was glad that their task was now nearly done for the sound of merriment had been drifting from the feast for an hour or more. Gretchen had repeatedly implored her to join the others but Aira refused, not wanting Gretchen to labour alone or for a task to be left half done.
Aira was pegging the clothes that Gretchen had finished wringing out to dry near the fire when the head laundry maid and Queen Alwilda’s lady’s maid entered. They unlocked one of the caskets containing fresh gowns wrapped between lavender paper and began debating over which to take to the queen.
‘I’m frightfully worried about the gold damask gown that Her Majesty wore tonight. It was soaked with wine when that careless page boy, some nephew of one of King Boroden’s chieftains I heard, tripped and slopped a decanter down her neck. King Kerfinror made a grave error inviting that brownie to serve at supper for it was evident that he had never done so in his life.’
Aira bit her lip, imagining the trouble that Klaufi would be in.
‘I had best ask Bresil if he has a spell to remove the stain for I doubt that mortal means can remedy it,’ the head laundry maid said.
‘Even worse, Princess Myfanwy’s nurse has sprained her ankle slipping on some water spilled by the said uncouth brownie, so it seems there’s only me to take on her role. As if I’m not run off my feet already.’
‘Excuse me, but I couldn’t help overhearing and wondered if you wanted some help? I’ll see to Princess Myfanwy if you like,’ Aira said, her helpful nature prompting her to remedy any wrong ascribed to Klaufi.
The lady’s maid smiled gratefully, the first time that a fairy in the palace had paid Aira any attention. ‘Why, that’s very good of you. I’m sure the princess would be delighted for she seems very fond of brownies already. Why don’t you collect some fresh gowns for her to wear tomorrow?’ She pointed vaguely to the caskets before sweeping out of the room.
Gretchen cast Aira a proud smile but Aira felt less confident as she crossed over to the caskets. Not only did she not know which gowns should be got out for Myfanwy, but she was ignorant of the duties of a lady’s maid. She opened several of the boxes before finding four gowns that looked Myfanwy’s size. She decided to take them all so that Myfanwy might make the choice and spare Aira the trouble of showing her ignorance.
The silver casket still exerted a mysterious pull upon Aira. Casting a hesitant glance about her, she put her hand to the catch. Inside lay a sumptuous dress delicate as thistledown and sparkling with gems like the morning dew. It was not Myfanwy’s. Aira guessed that it belonged to Serena. She was unable to remove her gaze from the beautiful lacework which formed a labyrinth of stardust reflected in the mirrored underside of the lid.
As Aira looked the pattern changed and moved, colliding in on itself to form a picture. No, not a picture for it moved. It was as if Aira watched the scene unfolding from a great distance through a veil of spider webs. Before her was the high table at King Kerfinror’s feast. Serena was there, stunningly beautiful, wearing the dress that lay before Aira in the casket. She bent close to Boroden, smiling and laughing. He was entranced, his eyes fixed on her dotingly.
Boroden was glad to reach the cool, quiet passage outside the dining hall and be away from prying eyes and wagging tongues. Although the courtiers, Serena especially, seemed to see him as the life and soul of the party, this was draining his energy and he needed to withdraw. He only now acknowledged how itchy he was; as if something moved under his skin. This surprised him for he had not long ago bathed. He decided that it must be due to his best dinner tunic being left too long wrapped in his pack. Any manner of woodland insects might have crawled inside it.
Behind him came exclamations and shrieking. Boroden paused, on edge. Yet the screams mixed with guffaws and wondering tones from some of the fairy folk.
Concluding that the commotion had been caused by some after dinner entertainment, Boroden headed on. He went briskly for he was eager to get away from the noise and hustle to the familiar, friendly company of Aira. It also kept his mind from his unbearable itchiness.
Pausing before he entered the servants’ quarters, he glanced out the window at the claw-like slither of moon, puzzled. There was no denying how his skin crawled. Unfastening his cuff, he pushed up his sleeve and gave a cry of horror.