Hekitarka goes in search of the mysterious faerie muse, Leanan Sidhe.
|Hearing Caillie approaching, Hëkitarka scurried back into his guest room. He still regretted missing his first battle and was in no mood for Caillie’s teasing. If Boroden would allow him to be neither a warrior nor a sorcerer, what was his purpose to be?
Retreating underneath the bed, where he had made a nest with an assortment of blankets, he unearthed a remaining slice of Carnelian and Gretchen’s wedding cake and munched it whilst pouring over a book of verses by Thomas the Rhymer.
He was absently licking his fingers clean when the sound of rustling silk caused him to fall still. From the way that the rustling silk sounded like an animal fighting through a frosty forest, he guessed that whoever approached was both anxious and purposeful.
Poking from beneath the hem of her cobweb grey gown, Serena’s delicately boned, pale foot appeared so close that he could have touched it. She stopped by the locked chest. To fit a key to the lock she had to lay down a silver platter that she carried. On this was a bunch of grapes still warm from the sun and with the bloom on them. Hëkitarka wanted to reach out and steal some. He smiled, imagining the silkie’s surprise should he do so. Becoming more serious, he decided that he should try to see what this mysterious chest contained. Since Serena was a wraith and in no need of foyson from mortal food, only supping on the dew of ivy, the grapes could not be for her.
To his surprise Serena drew nothing forth from the chest. Instead she stepped into it and disappeared. She reached up and snapped down the lid, locking it from the inside.
Hëkitarka hauled himself out from beneath the bed and found that the chest was as firmly shut as ever with no trace that it had ever been disturbed apart from a stray ladybird on the floorboards that had made a timely escape from the bunch of grapes. He pressed an eye against the keyhole, but all was black. Even a candle held so close that it charred the wood showed nothing, only that there was no key in the lock. Hëkitarka was sure there must be a way in.
Hanging out the window he yanked at the wire up which a honeysuckle was being trained. The plant flopped like a discarded frock. Shaping the wire into a hook he wriggled it into the lock. A few times it almost caught but it was not a strong enough substitute for the key. He longed to have enough teaching in magic to know some spell of opening. Klaufi was right to study magical arts for they could be incredibly useful.
As if summoned Klaufi looked in. A pile of books was stowed carefully under his arm. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked, spotting Hëkitarka crouched on his elbows in front of the chest.
‘Klaufi, are you going to the library? I need a spell of opening.’
‘Are you sure it’s worth it? You might get into trouble with Queen Alwilda and it’s probably only a pile of musty blankets inside there.’
‘Queen Alwilda can’t possibly object to me finding them then.’
Klaufi rolled his eyes and turned away.
Hëkitarka rose, disheartened. Then he looked back at the chest and in a remarkably calm and confident frame of mind he tugged up the lid. It came smoothly, revealing a deep drop into blackness. A steep, narrow staircase descended into the tunnel. Hëkitarka listened. All was silent, yet the air moved, twitching his whiskers and adding a freshness that made the beyond less crypt-like.
He gathered the tails of his new coat, brown as a winter leaf and lined with rainbow chiffon, about him and swung himself onto the stairs. Worst of all was the moment that he reached up and drew down the lid to conceal himself. After that darkness enveloped him and he concentrated too hard on finding his way down to fear. The tips of his whiskers brushed the walls of the staircase, as useful to him as his hands and feet at helping him sense his surroundings.
The stairs went down further than he had expected. At last the ground was flat beneath his toes and he could see a little. Openings winked in the roof of the labyrinth and through them came the green light of the forest and the waft of ferns. In the undisturbed wilds of the castle grounds the holes could easily be mistaken for animal burrows. The stream by which Boroden had hung his swing must be close for Hëkitarka heard water gushing. The warren of tunnels, grottoes and hollows seemed to have been carved by water. Hëkitarka made for the sound of a waterfall which blended with birdsong faintly heard above ground.
The place hummed with enchantment. It was not the restless, ghostly presence of Serena that he sensed. Rather it was a deeper, heady magic that was at once familiar and frightening. At every opening and shadowy alcove, he stopped to listen, searching for hints of the presence of Serena or any other being. Yet, except for the bats, there was nothing.
Hëkitarka came upon the waterfall. It fell like living sunbeams through a chasm in the roof, spilling down deafeningly to ride away in a foamy stream. Many droplets of water had frozen upon the rock to form stalactites and stalagmites that reminded him of the horns of unicorns. Removing his wondering gaze, he took in the whole cavern only to find that it resembled being trapped in the jaws of a serpent.
So thunderous was the falling water that he did not hear the footsteps behind him. He squeaked in fright upon catching the scent of a human stranger approaching. The man was alerted at once.
‘Who’s there?’ The man rounded the narrow pillar of rock separating them and glimpsed the brownie turned towards him. Yet it was only a glimpse. In a twinkling Hëkitarka had shrunk and scurried away.
He reached safety behind a rock only moments before the human’s foot crushed the space where he had stood. Tall and strong, the young man took on the dimensions of a giant to the curious brownie. His expression did not help. Framed by a mane of hair as black as his raiment, his face was handsome but arrogant. He looked as sharp and tenacious as a sparrowhawk hunting its prey.
The man stepped to the edge of the waterfall. At first, he waited in silent ambush. Then he prowled, his sword poised.
‘I know you’re there. Show yourself,’ he hollered.
Hëkitarka pressed himself further into the shadows, smiling as he wondered how the man expected this fierce invitation would induce him to come out. Its coarse echo upon the sequestered walls brought out another voice. The water danced more whitely as Serena parted a way through the waterfall.
‘I believe we have an incursion,’ the man informed her grandly. ‘Tell My Lady not to fear. I shall deal with it.’
‘What kind of trespasser?’
‘I didn’t see it clearly. It was brown and hairy with long whiskers.’
Serena flitted away. Soon she reappeared and called, ‘My Lady says it was likely just a rat or otter lost its way in the stream and that you’ve spent time enough upon it. She bids you make haste back to the entrance where King Kerfinror may appear following the battle.’
‘I do not wish to meet him.’
‘You are too ashamed to face him, Vortimus?’ Serena asked in a mocking tone calculated to alter his mind.
‘Never. What My Lady bids I will accomplish.’
Hëkitarka relaxed as the man retreated and Serena melted away. He turned to return to his room, unsettled. Then he realised that not only was this unwise, for Vortimus might discover him, but that he did not want to. Serena had mentioned ‘My Lady’ and Hëkitarka wanted to discover who else was here.
Every drop of water thrown from the waterfall was like a molten boulder that would drench him to the skin. He dodged them but, seeing that it would be foolhardy to cross the foaming pool behind the waterfall in his shrunken state, he returned to full size. Even so the water came almost to the top of his boots, threatening to overturn him as he edged along the slippery wall.
Once he was within the cavern he shook the water from his hair and clothes. Echoing in the shallow cave, the falling water was deafening with its wild, throbbing rhythm. About him danced glinting reflections. Looking up, he caught his breath to see that the last length of the watercourse ran in a channel of diamonds the like of which only the most powerful of faerie folk could afford to construct. This altered the course of the water, causing it to cascade further from the rock face and ensuring the cavern that it once filled was now dry, although with a lingering dank.
He peered into the flickering shadows. Some paces away was a pit carved out by the waterfall. Beside this patch of darkness, reaching her hand through the bars which covered it, was Serena.
‘Vortimus is gone to guard against King Kerfinror’s coming,’ she said, dropping down some grapes.
‘He seems very keen to protect me. Would that he might be so ready to set me free.’
That voice! Hëkitarka sought at all costs to see the speaker, though stepping behind Serena was risky. He knew before he saw her that the prisoner was the sídhe lady who had taken his blood, and nearly his life too. With her gentle words, yet actions that seemed evil, he wondered at her purpose. Lurking in the shadowy back of the cave, he stood on tiptoes to peer over Serena’s shoulder into the chasm. It was deeper than he had expected. The sight of the sídhe lady chained to the wall swelled his pity. Her youthful face was more exquisite than he remembered, though it was now bone pale. Her curls had grown long and wild and her clothes clung about her like tattered spider webs.
‘Shall I go to your mother, My Lady? She’s the only one who might help us now.’
‘Why do you speak of her? You think her so great and powerful, but you know she’s never cared for me unless to use me in some scheme. It would put me in her debt to call on her, and that would be as much a prison as that which I’m in now.’
‘Not so. Do you forget that Midhir is coming this way to the Seelie Court? Now the redcaps are gone what is to stop him claiming you? I tried to prevent the brownies from slaying the goblins, but they would take no heed and overwhelmed our rescuers. From what I’ve seen brownies are hairy, coarse mannered beings. To be thwarted by them brings me no joy.’
‘Nor was I keen on being indebted to redcaps for my rescue. By the by, not all brownies are brutish.’ She smiled to herself and looked down at her long white hands, the nails uncut like polished daisy petals. She looked up, smiling mockingly to herself. ‘I should prefer to be rescued by some handsome gallant but, alas, it appears my knights are cowards. Despite his constant promises, Vortimus has been unable to fetch the key to this,’ she nodded at the heavy metal grate above her. ‘I think perhaps he’s reluctant to give me my freedom for he guesses I shan’t come back. Oh, why do men think they have the right to be so domineering and possessive? Not one of them will allow me what should be a common right; freedom.’
‘I’ll ask Vortimus again. But I really think that your mother is our only hope.’
The sídhe sighed in exasperation, hiding her face in her sleeve. Serena turned on her heel.
The sídhe’s head remained bent until long after Serena had melted through the waterfall, so she did not notice Hëkitarka stealing to the brink of the pit.
He smiled gently. ‘I mean to show you that not everyone is so cruel, My Lady.’
Her words had moved him to release her. The thick bars seemed no obstacle. Instead, he was filled with the same surety that had come to him when opening the chest as he curled his fingers about the biting weight of the bars, muttering the words of a lifting spell. Vaguely he noticed her eyes widen in delighted recognition, then fill with savage joy as he hauled back the grate.
‘How!’ Tears to wonderment started to her eyes and she rose, though still fettered.
‘It’s merely some simple magic that we brownies use. Though mostly it was just belief that I could do it. It’s amazing the wonders being fearless and believing can bring. I’m pleased to be of service to you, fair lady.’ Hëkitarka spoke more boldly than he felt. He gave her a full roll of courtesy and then edged on his knees to the brink of the pit.
She lifted her hands to him like a meek child, her red eyes not leaving his face. The ropes of strongest silk had been made by the great spiders of the south, but Hëkitarka ably unbound her. He sucked in his breath as he noticed the welts on her slender wrists.
‘Can you step out?’
‘I think so.’
Long untried, her legs gave way beneath her and she tumbled on top of him as he drew her out of the pit with his arms under hers. He was pained to find that, although a couple of feet taller than him, she was so light that a lifting spell was unnecessary. He helped her to her feet. She giggled and transformed into a brownie as she had in Lutraudros, only now she had grown in years as he had. She patted him playfully on the shoulder, her eyes sparkling. Skipping to the waterfall she scattered its drops with her hand. Hëkitarka joined her and they tossed handfuls of water at each other and scampered about the cave. Soon Hëkitarka forgot to be wary. Forgot who she was. Often, he had longed for such a pretty, playful friend.
‘Do you want some sweets?’ Hëkitarka asked, recollecting that he still had a paper twist of bonbons that Myfanwy had given him. Unfortunately, he fished it from his pocket rather damp from its adventure through the waterfall, but he managed to find a reasonably dry sweet to offer.
She sucked it slowly whilst he crunched away.
‘Another?’ he asked, realising that he would soon polish off the entire packet.
‘No. I’m still going on the first.’ She froze abruptly. ‘I must go. They’ll be back soon. You’ll come with me?’
‘I must ask my brother first. Though I’d like to, truly.’
‘You are very good. I confess I long to feel sunshine again and to see it light up your handsome face.’ She chuckled fondly as he lowered his head, his shaggy fringe hiding his eyes.
‘Most lassies don’t like me. Kloti Clodhead said it’s because of my grey hair. It’s not grey though. I’m a dapple.’
‘Deliciously dappled; best of all I say. I’m dappled too.’ She held out a handful of her curls which varied from conker hue to fiery red.
Hëkitarka's smile froze as he heard Serena’s shrill cry.
‘My Lady, you’re free. How? What is this doing here?’
‘He saved me. I’m going to take him away with me. Vortimus is not nigh?’
Serena looked appalled. ‘But My Lady that brownie is so… tatty.’
‘Tatty? I like that. If you’ve no objection I shall call you Tatty.’
Seeing that her mistress did not take the situation seriously, Serena reminded her, ‘but he’s a brownie.’
‘Of faerie blood. It beats a human surely? Keep Vortimus in one of the side caves. You found a way in, Tatty. Show me the way out.’
The pair fleeted through the waterfall, leaving Serena speechless.
‘You’ll like my home, Tatty. I’ll give you a white elfin pony and we’ll hunt together every day.’
‘Hush. Vortimus might hear and we’ve a long way to go yet.’
They hurried on as soundlessly as bats. Hëkitarka’s mind was beset with concerns, foremost amongst them why the sídhe lady had drained his blood and why she was imprisoned here. Despite her loveliness he was uneasy about releasing her. He looked forward to beholding his brother’s familiar face and to his guidance. They had not far to go.
‘Wait!’ a knight appeared from one of the passages, not Vortimus but similarly attired.
Hëkitarka faltered, panic kicking in. His companion raised her hand and the young man’s eyes glazed. He fell, stiff as a plank of wood.
The lady’s eyes blazed yet brighter scarlet as she turned back to Hëkitarka. ‘That sorted him. I hope he shall have a bad headache when he wakes. Serves him right, the coward.’
‘Come.’ Hëkitarka took her hand, foreboding calling him to urge her on. Darkness engulfed them but the sídhe’s luminous eyes gleamed.
A dark shape sprang in front of them. Vortimus.