Aira must help her friends when they're transformed into animals at the feast
|Not until that moment had Aira realised how much she cared about Boroden. It was not jealousy that hurt her so much as Boroden being naïve to Serena’s callous, calculating nature that she had sensed immediately. Could Serena be an enchantress? Was not the mirror itself governed by some cruel magic? The fact that Serena wore the same gown as now lay inside the box suggested this.
Keen to verify her conjecture, Aira took out the gown and held it before her. Looking up at the mirror as if drawn by a magnet, she saw herself reflected wearing the dress. Yet her face was not quite hers. It was far lovelier and shone with a pale luminance like starlight. Her eyes glinted red. It was as if she had become a sídhe like Lady Frenudin. Aira watched herself step into the dining scene. Her clan froze and looked at her fondly as she entered. Yet it was only Boroden that she cared to see. He turned from Serena and looked at her and Aira knew he truly loved her.
Only at that moment did she force herself to pull away, though she had felt uncomfortable from the moment that she gazed into the mirror. A voice in her head taunted her to look back.
‘No. Never. That’s not real, it’s all lies. God, give me strength to resist this,’ she cried out mentally, throwing the dress back in the chest and slamming it shut.
‘Are you all right, love?’ Gretchen asked, startled.
‘Yes. I’m probably just tired.’
‘I don’t blame you. I’ll find where to take the princess’s things whilst you get some rest and food,’ Gretchen insisted.
Aira nodded meekly. Now she knew why Boroden was uneasy about magic.
Gretchen shouldered the box and left.
Settling on a high-legged stool, Aira quenched her thirst with the water in her travelling flask. Barely had she taken it from her lips when Boroden entered. She sensed that he was frightened though he took pains to hide it from her.
‘Aira, why did you stay down here? I wanted you at the feast. I don’t know how you can bear to go straight into working after our trials. You’re made of strong stuff. Why are you not upstairs? You must be starving.’
She smiled at him, warmed by his kindness.
‘Don’t worry about me. I’ve been fine. I’m just off now to find a bite to eat in the pantry.’
‘And not at the dining table? Aira, you’re a free brownie. You have as much right to be there as the next faerie. Don’t let anyone belittle you or hold you back from being yourself.’
Aira gave him a grateful smile. ‘That’s just what I needed. I was too serious and sad before and needed cheering up. Some of the folk here seem so stern and lofty.’
Boroden shook his arm. ‘Argh! I’m awfully itchy. Anyway, yes. You haven’t come to see me much lately.’
‘I thought you were mad at me for saving you.’
He laughed. ‘What? Do you suppose I’d rather be gobbled up by a skriker? No. I was like I was because I was afraid of you being killed. The way you attacked that skriker was driven by fear. You didn’t know how to fight. It was only luck that kept you alive. I’ll have to teach you to defend yourself properly.’
‘Yes, that would be useful,’ she replied, reaching for her shawl.
Quizzically eyeing its frayed moth hole, he added, ‘and I’ll get you some new clothes. A doll’s dress would suit you, and little boots. There might be a seamstress in the palace.’
‘That sounds lovely.’ Aira shouldered Myfanwy’s dressing case. ‘I’ve been asked to be a lady’s maid.’
‘Don’t worry. I’m helping Princess Myfanwy. I’m looking forward to it for she seems a nice lass.’
‘That’s all right then, so long as you want to do it. I thought that sneaky silkie had tricked you into it.’ He shuddered.
‘You don’t like Serena then?’ Aira asked, surprised and glad.
‘No. Not one bit. Oh, Aira, you didn’t think… I don’t want anyone else but you,’ he said simply. There was a tremulousness in Boroden’s voice that touched Aira. For all that he was a king and a few years older than her he seemed at that moment even younger than she. With an impulse she made to reassure him. Aira was about to skip into his open arms when he winced and glanced at his hand, horrified.
Aira paused awkwardly. ‘Was the feast good?’
‘Actually, you didn’t miss much. The feast was awful,’ Boroden confided.
‘I’ve heard that Klaufi made a mess of things.’
‘Aye.’ Boroden rubbed at his hand before hiding it behind his back in alarm. ‘I’ve got to go, find somewhere… Where’s Carnelian?’ Boroden stammered before giving up the pretence and looking at Aira forlornly.
‘What’s wrong?’ Aira asked.
‘I’ve been enchanted by that vile wizard, I’m sure of it. He doesn’t like me and there’s no knowing what terrible things he plans to do to us. Keep away from him Aira, promise?’
Aira gently reached for Boroden’s hand. It was thickly covered with black fur, the nails growing into claws. He no longer had fingers but instead round pads like little cheeses.
‘I think I’m turning into a werewolf,’ he panted guiltily.
‘Oh,’ Aira responded in a small voice.
Boroden bent double, his body changing to the muscular, four-legged form of a wolf, his nose elongating to a muzzle. All was a confusion of fur and claws and writhing.
Cautiously Aira freed him from his cloak and tunic which he had wound around himself. She found herself confronted by the timid blue eyes of a wolf. Aira found the sight endearing. It was hard to restrain the urge to laugh.
‘Oh, you’re adorable. Hello wolfie,’ she exclaimed before she could reflect. ‘Sorry Boroden but I’ve always rather liked wolves, especially when they look nice and cute with amazing fur like you’ve got.’
The wolf looked relieved and stepped a pace from the shadows, wagging his tail. He whined, trying to tell her something.
‘I’ll go and fetch Captain Carnelian. He might know what to do,’ Aira suggested.
She coaxed the reluctant wolf along the corridors back to the main part of the castle. Misty discovered them and bounded around Boroden excitedly, her tail wagging so fast that Aira could barely see it. However, once they drew near the brightly lit thoroughfares where they might be spotted Boroden hung back.
‘What is it?’
The wolf lowered his head in shame.
‘You don’t want to be seen? I understand. I’ll find you somewhere safe to hide.’
Aira opened the next door which led into King Kerfinror’s library. Luckily there was a key in the door so Aira could lock it against intrusion.
‘This looks a good place,’ she said, indicating an oaken desk. She pushed the wolf underneath it. ‘Sit, stay,’ she commanded. Boroden looked none too pleased but, seeing himself outdone by Misty who was already sat and looking expectantly at Aira for a treat, he did as he was bid. ‘I know you’re not a Cù Sìth, but you look near enough,’ Aira smiled, locking him in.
The corridor was eerily quiet and several of the lamps had blown out. She had gone some paces along the corridor towards the dining room, where she expected to find Carnelian, when suddenly odd sounds made her pause. There was a low bellowing and a clank, then several high-pitched squeaks followed by the snort of a wild boar.
Aira gathered her courage and inched back the dining hall door. At the high table sat not King Kerfinror but an ancient bear. The room was in chaos and filled with all manner of creatures. A ptarmigan strutted about the table chased by a lithe fox. A walrus lugged himself across the floor, sending shrews and a goose scattering. A beaver gnawed at the table leg and a frog took a flying leap onto a plate of oatcakes.
In a corner a jolly golden puppy was playing at herding a placid young highland bull of a shaggy, wheaten appearance. On the bull’s back, squeaking and wriggling excitedly, was an otter kit. The otter’s joyous, chocolatey eyes were unmistakably those of Hëkitarka.
Spotting Aira, Hëkitarka wriggled down and scampered over. He stood on his hind legs with a gleeful look, showing off his transformed appearance. Pouncing on one of her clogs, he invited her to play with him.
‘I’ve got to find Carnelian,’ she apologised.
Hëkitarka looked so crestfallen that she could not resist unwinding her shawl and using it as a makeshift fish, wriggling it across the floor for him to catch. She knelt to prise his sharp teeth from the wool. The sound of footsteps coming along the passage made her freeze. She was foolish to let herself be distracted from her errand. Bresil likely wanted to turn them all into animals for some ulterior motive. She was the only one untransformed and thus able to help. She could not allow herself to get caught.
With relief she saw that it was not Bresil but Gretchen who approached. ‘Aira, you’ve not changed? I’m so glad. Perhaps you know what’s going on? I’ve been all over the palace and it’s full of beasties.’
‘Boroden thinks it’s some plan of Bresil’s and that he’s enchanted everyone to become beasts.’
‘In that case why aren’t we changed too?’
‘I know, it’s because we weren’t at the feast. Bresil must have put some potion in the food or drink. We’ve got to find a way to break the enchantment.’
‘But neither of us knows magic.’
‘Then we’ll have to try and learn it, enough to recite a remedy. If we can find what potion was used, it will be easier looking for an antidote in one of Bresil’s books. He’s got a massive library crammed with books of magic. I’ve left Boroden in there. He’s a wolf.’
Gretchen admired the optimism of her stepdaughter and was glad to have her surety after fearing that she was alone in some unfamiliar place of enchantment.
Preceded by Hëkitarka, the two brownies made their way back to the dining hall door. Aira peered around it to see if it was safe to enter. The room was vast but from what she could see the animals were the sole occupants. She took a cautious step inside. Amongst the warbling, bellowing, bleating and croaking came a sound that made Aira start. A human laugh.
Bresil was reclining in a chair by the fire whilst two red squirrels stuffed his slippers with hazelnuts. Aira darted back behind the door but it was too late. He had spotted her.
‘Aira, is that you my child? Don’t be frightened.’
‘I have reason to be, for I think you’ll enchant me as you have my friends,’ she answered boldly, motioning Gretchen to remain hidden.
‘You misjudge me, Aira. The fact that your friends are turned into animals is not some wild plot. It is merely part of the entertainment after the feast and quite customary in King Kerfinror’s court. Indeed, it was he that asked me to serve the potion tonight that would turn the company into animal form. I know Mazgrim outlawed magic, but this is harmless fun. See, those who drunk but little of the potion are already returning to their true form.’ Bresil gestured to the walrus which was shaking agitatedly as it began to change to Torden’s usual self.
Swayed by this realisation and Hëkitarka’s delight in his transformation Aira said, ‘I’m sorry I mistook what was going on.’
‘I hope that Boroden too will come to see that magic is not always a threat. In any case it ought to cheer him and it looks as though he would benefit from that.’
Aira felt offended for Boroden’s sake. ‘I don’t think so. He was horrified when he found himself turning into a wolf. He asked me to fetch Captain Carnelian who he always turns to for advice when he’s troubled.’
‘Then you had better not keep your king waiting. Captain Carnelian was sampling the shrubs in the courtyard when I last saw him.’
Aira returned to the library quarter of an hour later. ‘Boroden, I’ve found the rest of the clan… but there’s a problem.’
She was interrupted by the appearance of a sturdy ram. The wolf stepped back in surprise. This was overcome with curiosity and he crept towards his woolly visitor, sniffing.
‘This is Captain Carnelian,’ Aira explained, patting the ram of the back. ‘Apparently it’s a common game to enchant folk to take animal form in King Kerfinror’s court.’
Hëkitarka bounded in and made towards Boroden, frisking about his legs and trying to bite his tail, which did little to help Carnelian’s attempts to reassure Boroden through his bleats.
Harfan appeared more concerned for his cousin but soon found himself in difficulties of his own as his horns, too wide to fit through the door, became impaled in the frame. Myfanwy set about a rescue mission, trying to get him to back away from the door. No sooner had he freed himself than he lowed in discomfort and trotted back to the dining hall, beginning to return to brownie form.
‘Is your king here?’ Bresil asked Aira.
The wizard was barely over the threshold when Boroden sprang, snarling. This changed to a yelp of horror as the wizard froze him midway in the air before he could reach his throat.
‘Please, let him down. He won’t hurt you, I promise,’ Aira begged Bresil. ‘You won’t hurt him, will you Wolfie? It’s only a game.’
Boroden flopped to the ground, more shaken than Bresil.
‘I’m sure you shall be yourself again soon and with no ill effects,’ Bresil told Boroden.
‘Why don’t mother and I drink a drop of the potion to prove it,’ Aira suggested, secretly curious to see what she might transform into.
For some moments after taking a teaspoonful from the bottle that Bresil handed to her, Aira thought that nothing had happened. Then an odd fizzing sensation spread through her body as everything caved in upon her. She was shrinking, being buried by her clothes.
In a bid to escape some instinct told her to launch herself from the ground, beating her arms. Only now they had become the delicate wings of a small bird. She flew into the light wonderfully buoyant and free and darted about the room like a comet. She sang with a brisk, high sound like the rusty winding gear of a well.
Gretchen had become a hare, although she did little besides sit next to Bresil, disturbed at her transformation.
Boroden’s attention riveted on Aira, his head tilted to one side and his tail twitching. When she flew past him he sprang playfully. Aira darted out of his way and turned the tables by landing on his head. Surprised at the light touch of her claws and long tail, Boroden rolled his eyes upwards to see her, showing their whites. He did not dare move. She flew down and hovered before his nose, pecking one of his whiskers.
‘Is that Aira?’ Hëkitarka asked, reappearing in brownie form.
‘Yes. Oh, quick. She’s changing back,’ Myfanwy said, whisking Aira out of the room.
Regaining her true form was more painful since the swiftness of it left Aira dizzy and she ached with growing pains. Despite this she remained breathless with excitement.
She skipped back into the library laughing. ‘I always wanted to be able to fly.’
‘What are you?’ Hëkitarka asked.
‘I’m a pogsy-wurzle. Father always called me one because of the way that I make up nests. Maybe that’s because I secretly am one.’
‘How much of that potion did you drink, Boroden? He’s still not transformed back,’ Harfan fretted.
‘I like you being a wolf,’ Aira chuckled, throwing her arms around Boroden.
Spying one of Aira’s clogs that had been abandoned after Myfanwy forgot to bring it to her, Boroden snatched it up, gave a couple of chomps to fix it firmly between his jaws, and ran away. Aira and Misty followed. Boroden played hide and seek; darting into open doors, whisking behind tapestries and crawling under tables.
Aira thought that she had cornered Boroden at the end of the Long Gallery, but he took a flying leap over her head and dashed away. Suddenly he dropped the clog. Aira pounced on it.
‘That was too easy.’
She looked in concern at Boroden who was whining, the sound slowly becoming more intelligible as he transformed back.
‘We’d better find you somewhere better to change,’ Aira declared, pushing the confused half wolf into Myfanwy’s nearby room.
‘You do look like a werewolf now,’ she said, nudging him towards a folding screen in the corner whilst she went back to fetch his clothes.
She had almost returned with them when she heard footsteps coming on swiftly in her wake. Glancing back, she saw Serena. She must be mistaken that she was looking for her, for the silkie could want nothing with her. However, she was barely over the threshold of Myfanwy’s chamber when Serena followed her inside.
‘I need to speak to you,’ Serena announced curtly.
‘Oh. Well, yes. Of course.’
Aira flung the bundle of clothes onto a chair and tried to leave and find another room for the interview out of consideration to Boroden. Serena barred her way. There was an iciness in her stare that told Aira that she was not going to enjoy what this grand lady had to say.
‘I suppose you’re ignorant of the rules of a spell glass.’
‘We really should go somewhere else,’ Aira said. She knew what Serena was going to say.
‘I suppose you had no idea that I could also see you in the future that I was creating. That you pried, interrupting and altering my plans? Or perhaps you meant to do it? Perhaps you knew you could because you have magic?’ Serena was backing Aira towards the folding screen, her gaze as sharp as ice dropped suddenly down the back of Aira’s neck.
‘Please, you’re mistaken,’ Aira told her.
‘You think you can fend against me with your feeble magic? Well…’
Aira’s eyes widened in horror as Serena drew a dagger.
‘Don’t you dare speak to her like that!’ Boroden snarled at Serena, leaping out.
It was hard to know whether Serena looked surprised by Boroden’s unexpected appearance or because he had hastily squeezed into one of Myfanwy’s lace frocks. Serena concealed the blade as Boroden’s cousins appeared, sniggering. Myfanwy stood gaping in consternation to see that he had taken one of her dresses.
‘You will step away and not trouble us again or I will know of it,’ Boroden threatened.
Serena opened her mouth to sweetly protest but a glare from Boroden sent her bustling out.
‘The hairy legs really complement that look,’ Hëkitarka chortled to Boroden.
‘Many apologies, Princess,’ Boroden told Myfanwy, although there was laughter in his eyes. This turned to real remorse as, upon bending to take up his garments, the shoulder seams of Myfanwy’s dress ripped.