The brownies search for Hekitarka and Leanan Sidhe escapes from her imprisonment.
|Harfan had checked the state guest apartments three times and searched almost the entire palace and gardens. Still there was no sign of Hëkitarka.
Climbing to the battlements he hunted along their length, peering over at the changeable vista of garden flowers, glimmering water and woods. The trees could not match his vantage in height. Beyond the woods the dark cliffs and scree slopes resembled cupped hands closing in to crush the palace. Harfan quickly shut out the thought but he could not be as carefree as the laughing gaggles of faerie folk he saw partying in the grounds. It was not like his brother to go missing.
He was relieved to see a trapdoor clatter back and Myfanwy’s curly head appear. ‘Are you all right? I didn’t see you at the picnic.’
Harfan was touched that she had come to find him. He had thought she would be pirouetting in the glades with her mother. He could hear the liquid warble of the elder wood flute and the laughter of the dancing fairies from here.
‘It’s Hëki. I can’t find him. I’ve never known him to vanish like this, especially when there’s a party to be had,’ he confided.
‘Can I help? Where have you looked?’
‘I’d be glad of your help. I’m sure you’ll find places I don’t know of where he might be.’
Myfanwy scanned the battlements apprehensively. ‘Let’s go down. He’s not here and I don’t like it up here. It reminds me of Bresil’s son. It’s where he jumped from the battlements.’
‘I didn’t know that he had a son.’
‘He doesn’t often talk about Vortimus. The day after Vortimus was born he was snatched away. A changeling was left in his place; an old, wizened fairy. Bresil was heartbroken to discover it, especially as his wife died shortly after the birth. Bresil even threatened to burn the thorns on The Dagda’s hill to get his son back. That wouldn’t have done any good because The Dagda had nothing to do with it, but you know humans. They’d make a brew of empty eggshells to lay a changeling and get their child back.
‘Anyway, Bresil happened upon one of our feasts and Grandfather took pity on him. I was just a baby at the time, but Grandfather would have no other heir, my father being dead. He agreed to help Bresil provided that Vortimus took his throne in my stead, for as a girl I’m not good enough to rule. According to the laws of Grandfather’s people that is.’
‘That’s cruel. Queens may often be mightier than kings. If I was half as good a ruler as my mother, I’d be proud. True, some deride her, but she is noble of judgment and strong in defence of our realm; a fierce fighter. Though don’t worry. When she meets you she’ll be kind. She is to all those her sons love. One day, Myfanwy, you’ll make a wonderful queen.’
Myfanwy blushed at his warm words, hastily stumbling on with her tale. ‘We saw Vortimus riding in a great hunt one night. Many bands of the sídhe had joined. He had grown into a young man and I suppose he was handsome enough to attract the sídhe queen, but there was such a callous, arrogant look to him I couldn’t say that I liked him. Bresil tried to snatch him away but was beaten back.
‘Grandfather managed to secure Bresil an audience with The Dagda and he petitioned him to release his son. The Dagda refused, for as the life strength of the sídhe dwindles so they have need of human children to continue the race. We thought that the sídhe hunt had vanished, but a tall, golden-haired king stepped out from the trees. He was Midhir.’
‘Midhir is an enemy to brownies. What bargain did he offer?’
‘Midhir said he’d do what he could to return Vortimus provided that Bresil fetched him one of the fallen fruits of the Tree of Life. It seemed a hopeless search, but fate brought Bresil to a dragon hoard in which there was a golden flask which The Dagda had filled with drops of juice from the Tree of Life. Using his magic, Bresil eluded the dragon and presented the flask to Midhir.’
‘His life force is strengthened?’
‘Yes. Worse, hers is.’
‘Yes. The evil sídhe queen who had taken Vortimus to be her knight. He didn’t want to leave her. Midhir’s wife gave Bresil some of the juice to drink. It was all very silly really, especially as Bresil has ended up living immortally as a doddery old man. Then Bresil got Vortimus to drink some saying that it was to make him return to the human world. Seeing that he had little alternative, Vortimus shared the drink with the queen thinking that it would make her return too. Vortimus put up with life here for a time, mostly because Bresil pampered him and promised he’d become a king. As time drew on he realised that it was odd that his father and he didn’t grow any older. When he found out that he was immortal he was furious. You see, the queen had promised that when he came to her in Tír na n’ Óg she’d make him her consort.’
‘Tír na n’ Óg? That is the land of the dead to humans.’
‘Exactly. That’s why Vortimus leapt off the battlements to kill himself. I was here too, flying my kite, and saw him jump. I couldn’t face looking down, but Grandmother did, and her gasp of surprise decided me to look too. There was no body. He’d vanished, taken by her both body and soul.’
Myfanwy’s fearful tone made Harfan uneasy. He went to her side so that she could speak more confidentially. Myfanwy glanced around all the while as if expecting to be overheard. ‘What’s worse, I think the evil queen is here.’
‘Where is she hidden?’
‘No one knows for sure. I think Serena may for I’ve seen her taking wine and fruit that aren’t for her. The lady is a beautiful sídhe, light of step, with red eyes and a voice like music. I was frightened of the effect she had on Vortimus. When she came he changed. He got snappish, then downright cruel. He said he hated being here, abhorred his father, and that the mysterious lady was all he cared for. I was frightened of him for he was an expert fighter, even though she weakened his strength by drinking his blood.’
‘Drinking his blood?’ Harfan repeated, shuddering as though icy water had been doused over him.
‘Yes. There were odd circle marks over his wrists where she sucked it. What is it?’ Myfanwy asked as Harfan bid her a hasty pardon and dived towards the stairs.
‘I think I know the lady. She came to take Hëki when he was a bairn. She almost killed him. I’ve got to find him before she does. She might already have him. I doubt she’ll give up easily.’
‘Then there’s no time to lose.’
They threaded through the palace stopping everyone they met asking after Hëkitarka. Always the news was disappointing.
Queen Alwilda was about to return to the garden having affirmed that she had not seen Hëkitarka since breakfast when Harfan asked her, ‘and Serena?’
‘I presume she would have found you. She went to the guest quarters some time ago.’
Harfan and Myfanwy exchanged concerned glances.
‘If she found him there she might have taken him,’ Harfan said.
Without a word of explanation to Queen Alwilda they pelted away. Unfortunately, they pounded down the stairs just as Klaufi opened the door at the bottom, heavily laden with a tower of books. The books showered into the air as Myfanwy hit him but stopped there, pages half open like a flight of birds. Keeping his staff levelled at the books, Bresil recounted the words of a spell. At once they jumped neatly into a stack, almost toppling the surprised Klaufi.
‘That was great. I wish I could do that. It would be really useful,’ Klaufi enthused.
‘As you will my young warlock. First, we must study. If you’ve a moment to spare, we could practice in the library.’
‘Hang on. Have you seen Hëki?’ Myfanwy called.
‘Last I saw of him he was in his room trying to open that chest. Pointless if you ask me.’
‘Perhaps Serena found him and locked him in whilst she waited for the sídhe lady to come and polish him off.’ Myfanwy shuddered.
Soon they had flown through half the palace and fell on their knees by the chest. Both called Hëkitarka’s name, rattling and pummelling the chest.
‘I can smell him. He was here not long ago,’ Harfan said.
‘Perhaps she shrunk him to fit him in?’ Myfanwy suggested.
Despite Myfanwy and Harfan aiming blows that would split a boulder at the chest with their war hammers, it did not even dent.
‘There’s something odd. Some magic upon it,’ Myfanwy panted, throwing her war hammer down.
‘If there is magic then there must be something to hide,’ Harfan said, squinting into the keyhole.
Myfanwy clutched his shoulder. Silent as a moonbeam, Serena materialised in the doorway.
‘Is there something wrong? You’ll not find anything interesting there.’
‘You’ve taken my brother. He’s in there.’ Harfan gestured hotly to the chest.
Serena looked genuinely surprised. ‘Of course not. Why would I want to take that nauseating scrag? Now do step away.’
‘Why? What are you doing here?’ Myfanwy asked suspiciously.
‘Changing the flowers.’ She nodded to a vase of withered white roses on the windowsill. ‘Now if you excuse me I don’t like to work with an audience. Flower arranging takes thought and patience.’
Myfanwy wanted to find some way to refute but since Serena did indeed carry a fresh nosegay of nightshade and jasmine flowers there seemed no way to stop her. Still, she and Harfan remained obstinately stood before the chest.
‘Look, there isn’t anything in there!’ Serena snapped. Whisking out a silver key she fitted it in the lock and opened the lid to reveal neatly stacked linen.
‘No, it can’t be.’
To Serena’s dismay Harfan seized armful after armful of the cloths, throwing them onto the floor, until he reached a solid wooden base. Myfanwy hung back whilst he tapped upon it.
Swallowing his disappointment, he drew himself up to face Serena. ‘I’m sorry. I’ll fold the table linen for you.’
‘No, you will not. You’ve caused enough trouble.’
Both did as Serena bid but as soon as they drew out of earshot Myfanwy whispered, ‘did you see that napkin melting to nothing? Serena knew the spell was failing. That was why she didn’t want you to help. Hëki is in there I’m sure, but it’ll need strong magic to get him out.’
Harfan was stricken.
‘I know. The library. Come on.’ Myfanwy led the way to the oldest, gloomiest part of the palace where wood panelling lined the walls as ominously as a row of portcullises. A grandfather clock chimed. It was carved to look like the trunk of an oak about which danced fauns. The time for dinner was near.
The library was a vast room, vaulted like honeycomb. Amongst the maze of bookshelves Klaufi was seated on a high chair, an untidy spillage of books on the desk before him.
The keeper of the library was skinny and sharp-faced with a hair bun almost as big as she was. Her spectacles slid from her nose in surprise as Harfan and Myfanwy charged towards Klaufi. ‘Hush. No running. This is a place of study.’
Myfanwy chewed her lip apologetically and went at a bustling tiptoe.
‘What’s going on?’ Klaufi asked, looking up with ink dribbling from his pen in a sticky blot.
‘We need a spell of opening. Quickly. We think Hëki might be in danger. You know that you last saw him by the chest? I think that Serena has locked him inside. She knows the sídhe lady that almost killed him and wants her to take him,’ Harfan whispered urgently.
Klaufi grinned confidently. ‘Don’t worry. I know both the spells for opening.’
‘I’ve tried them, and waved my wand over the chest too, but it hasn’t worked,’ Myfanwy fretted. ‘The magic felt ancient and powerful, and Unseelie too.’
‘We need to find who this lady is and what the spell is composed of. All sídhe have a weakness that can be used to dissolve their spells. Bresil told me that yesterday.’
‘Where is he? He’s the one to help us,’ Harfan decided.
‘I’ve no idea but he said he’d be back and meet me here in a twinkling.’
‘We may not have that long.’
‘Well, first things first we find who the lady is. We’re surrounded by books, many about Unseelie beings, so it’s a good place to start.’ Klaufi rubbed his hands optimistically.
Myfanwy flitted to the keeper of the library. ‘Woadlin, I’m looking for a book about Unseelie ladies.’
Woadlin’s eyebrows almost flew above her head in horror. ‘Why would you want that, Princess? What would your family think?’
‘They’d say I should have it if they knew.’
‘Very well. I have many books about Unseelie females in my keeping. What is her nature? Wraith, slayer of men, devourer of bairns?’
‘Kind of. She wants to get Hëkitarka and suck his blood. A type of vampire I guess. She’s very beautiful.’
Woadlin looked sceptical but Harfan stepped forward holding the library catalogue in which Klaufi had indicated a likely sounding volume. ‘Excuse me for troubling you Mistress Woadlin but I am Harfan, Prince of Lutraudros and Peladach’s heir and I would like to know where a certain manuscript is kept entitled Temptresses and Enchantresses of the Unseelie Court by Sir Hempleworth-Popplethwait. It is a matter of urgency.’
Woadlin hurried away unquestioningly at Harfan’s eloquent words and Myfanwy looked impressed.
‘It was Klaufi that suggested it,’ he said, turning away blushing.
‘I believe it’s in that bookcase, although it’s very high,’ Woadlin said, pointing to the opposite end of the room as she returned to fetch a ladder. Even with Harfan’s help her slight fingers had difficulty unfolding the library steps.
‘I can get it without them,’ Myfanwy declared, charging away with Klaufi slapping after her in his oversized shoes. At the base of the bookcase Myfanwy beat her wings furiously until she was aloft. ‘I toss, you catch and look out for it,’ she shouted to Klaufi.
‘What did I tell you? Folk wish to study undisturbed,’ Woadlin reprimanded. However, most of the scholars had laid their books aside, engrossed in the spectacle.
Since it was unheard of for Klaufi to even catch a ball, he was having difficulty keeping up with the rain of volumes lobbed at him by Myfanwy. He wobbled this way and that, catching book after book to make a tottering pile. He read out the titles: ‘Book of Beginnings, Legends of Valour, Lore of Love, Magical Justice, Secret Arts, Seekers and Saviours, Spells of Binding, Tales of Terror.’ At each new acquisition his verdict was disappointingly, ‘no.’
Glancing behind him, his eye was caught by a silver bound manuscript on the opposite bookcase. ‘There it is.’
Myfanwy span round to snatch the book to which Klaufi pointed, forgetting his anxious care and precariously balancing the books with one arm. Thus, Myfanwy’s slight knock sent them crashing down in an avalanche.
‘Sorry!’ she called to the aghast Woadlin. ‘It’s it,’ she declared and tossed the richly illuminated book to Harfan.
Myfanwy and Klaufi crowded round him as he opened it. He turned the pages, murmuring the names of the beings as he did so. ‘Korrigan, Luideag, Black Annis…’ None of the images fitted his recollections. The book was drawing near to a close.
‘Perhaps she’s a shape-shifter and you didn’t see her true form,’ Klaufi suggested.
Myfanwy reached for some sweets as was her habit when she was nervous. The bag of strawberry bonbons crackled as she dived in, causing Woadlin to cast her a withering look.
‘It’s her!’ Harfan gasped, pinning down a page as if it would escape. ‘Leanan Sídhe is the goddess of inspiration. She is often found beside secluded wells and springs biding her time until a mortal comes who takes her fancy, then she will enchant them to become her lover. If they resist enchantment, she must be their slave but if they kiss her then they become hers and can only escape by finding another who they love more. In the mortal’s eyes she is faultless. Enlightened by this beautiful Dark Muse, the mortal will become famed for creative works, often of poetry. Those who accept Leanan Sídhe as a lover are destined to burn bright but fast. She drains the life of her lovers whilst she grows strong and death comes as a blessing to them. It is said that Leanan Sídhe will drink the lifeblood of her lovers to derive nourishment, longevity and youthful allure, as well as the artistic inspiration that she imparts to her victims. Despite her evil, Leanan Sídhe is a spirit of life through the immortal works that she inspires.’
‘Her life force is bound to mortal blood. Then anything that stops bleeding will repel the spell and we’ll be able to get the chest open. The herb selfheal might do,’ Klaufi said, hastening out.
‘What’s going on?’ Boroden called as the three friends ran by him, almost colliding with Aira who was at his side.
By happy chance they came across Bresil who accompanied them into the guest room. Klaufi laid a handful of selfheal freshly torn from the garden on the lid of the chest whilst Bresil recited the spell. Barely had he uttered the final word when the lid of the chest flew open.
‘There are stairs!’ Myfanwy gasped.
Harfan jumped inside, then offered his hand to her. Klaufi was warier and almost tumbled down as his scarf snagged on the banding of the chest. Bresil followed slowly, his larger size making his way difficult.
‘It’s very dark down here,’ Klaufi declared.
Harfan hushed him. The sound of his brother’s voice was balm to his worried heart and he plunged forward heedlessly.
Myfanwy grabbed his arm. Serena blocked their way to the cavern where Hëkitarka faced Vortimus.
‘My Lady, are you mad? Surely you cannot mean that you prefer over me, I who have served you so long, this… what it it? It’s hairy and has whiskers - how revolting!’ Vortimus exclaimed.
‘Excuse me, might I warn you not to address me in that way. I consider my whiskers to be my handsomest feature. I give you due warning, I am armed,’ Hëkitarka cautioned.
The human glared down at him contemptuously.
‘This is a brownie of the noblest bloodline of their kind. You are privileged to see him, for brownies are rare things and seldom seen by the race of men, though they often work about their houses. Even I have never been well acquainted with one before,’ Leanan Sídhe informed Vortimus.
‘So that’s it? The appeal of novelty? You should beware, My Lady, that an untried path often leads to a stinking bog.’
Hëkitarka glared, stepping forward defensively.
‘Hëkitarka is of faerie blood; my elfin knight.’ The sídhe regarded him proudly.
‘A brownie is a lowly kind of faerie; a skivvy to the rest of you.’
‘But still higher than any mortal man.’ She turned away, sensing from a stirring of air that there was another way out of the labyrinth.
Before Hëkitarka could follow her, Vortimus tore off his gauntlet and threw it at the brownie’s feet. Hëkitarka picked it up and proffered it to him politely, confused.
‘Idiot. That means I want to duel. Now will you, or won’t you?’
‘Why’d I want to fight you? I forgive your rudeness for humans don’t know any better.’
‘I thought you would well understand the meaning of our quarrel. Over her.’
‘Why? Do you want to keep her from escaping? That’s mean.’
‘Yes, Tatty, he does, and it is.’ Leanan Sídhe had a look of nervous excitement.
For an instant Vortimus started at her angrily, then recollecting himself he turned upon Hëkitarka, his sword held ready. Having no idea how to fight someone half his size, Hëkitarka saw to his satisfaction that Vortimus set his blade as if to defeat a human opponent.
‘I’d be very careful. As she says you’re a mortal and I’m lethal. I don’t want to hurt you but…’
Vortimus brought his blade whistling towards Hëkitarka’s head. He dodged behind Vortimus’s back.
‘Coward. I dare say you’ve not fought anything in your life.’
‘I’ll have you know I’m well practiced with a sword.’
Vortimus plunged his sword at Hëkitarka but the brownie knocked it away and pounced to the sídhe’s side.
‘You should go, get out,’ he told her.
She wanted to leave but was touched by Hëkitarka’s selflessness and found that she could not pull away from the fight.
Vortimus growled and took a step back, chopping the air before him provokingly as he urged Hëkitarka to duel. Unversed in the chivalric strategies of humans, Hëkitarka sprang and cannoned his head into Vortimus’s stomach.
‘Well, are you done?’ he asked, smugly waiting with his sword drawn as Vortimus sprawled on the ground groaning.
Vortimus sputtered, hauling himself to his feet. ‘Rat.’
The pair crashed their blades together. Hëkitarka was quick and Vortimus found himself many times stung as they circled, locked like tumbling eagles. Hëkitarka broke free, springing onto a rocky ledge above Vortimus’s head with an agility that made Leanan Sídhe, already impressed by his fighting skills, gasp. Vortimus thrust his blade at the brownie but he was out of reach.
‘You really should go, My Lady,’ Hëkitarka called before jumping onto Vortimus’s shoulders.
Vortimus shrugged him off but slipped and found himself wrestling with Hëkitarka in the icy stream that oozed over the cave floor.
‘All this fighting is foolish. I’m going with him, Vortimus. Don’t forget it’s I that have the power here,’ the sídhe put in petulantly as the pair clawed and thumped one another.
Harfan stiffened upon hearing Leanan Sídhe name the human and looked to Myfanwy. He saw that she already recognised the man. Harfan tried to throw off Klaufi’s restraining hands. ‘I need to go to him.’
‘You can’t. Serena will find us,’ Klaufi whispered anxiously, eyeing the silkie’s moonbeam form blocking their way to the cave.
Heedless, Harfan burst passed Serena, charging towards Vortimus with a war cry. Before he could reach him, another brownie had shot by.
‘Wait!’ Boroden shouted, opening his arms in a gesture of peace though in his right hand he held his sword. ‘'Tis a great wrong for a brownie to hurt a human and will make a boggart of you, Hëkitarka.’
‘Well that doesn’t apply to me!’ Myfanwy cried, giving Vortimus a thump on the knee with her war hammer that sent Vortimus gyrating on one leg and cursing.
Harfan twisted the young man’s arms behind his back.
Myfanwy stamped her foot. ‘You leave my friend alone. What’s happened to you, Vortimus? You never used to be so cruel.’
‘Vortimus.’ Bresil stumbled down the steps from the palace, led by Klaufi.
Harfan released Vortimus as Bresil bid and went in concern to Hëkitarka. With relief he saw that, though wet and bruised, the lad was as fit and alert as ever.
Boroden glared accusingly at his youngest cousin. He instinctively distrusted the beautiful faerie looking on truculently from the shadows and thought Hëkitarka a fool to become entangled with her.
Vortimus had bowed his head, ashamed by his father’s eager approach. His eyes flashed with accusation and hatred. ‘Get away from me, old man. You mean nothing to me anymore.’
Hëkitarka kicked Vortimus’s shins, pulling him round to fight again. All was din and confusion; Hëkitarka raining blows at the ferocious human and Harfan, Boroden and Myfanwy fighting to defend the prince whilst Bresil tried to restrain his son and Aira and Klaufi yelled for peace.
Seeing Vortimus thickly beset and Hëkitarka pushed to the edge of the fight, Leanan Sídhe seized her chance. ‘Come on.’
Leanan and Hëkitarka raced down a tunnel that sloped to the left, the free air breathing up at them. Hëkitarka found his companion’s jubilation infectious. The galloping of their feet was light and joyful and the tunnel opening broke upon them like the first star. With a rush of wings, songbirds flew into the tunnel to greet them, flitting and pirouetting about their heads with a honeyed welcome song. They plunged from the cave into a ferny glade.
‘Oh, the sun, the sun.’ Leanan shielded her eyes though the light came green and dappled. She slowly parted her fingers to let in wider cracks of light, then removed her hands from her eyes altogether. Her face looked pale as milk.
Seizing Hëkitarka’s hands she spun him round, slipping into brownie form. ‘I’m so happy.’
‘Glad I could be of service.’
She skipped away, the birds trying to land upon her in joyful greeting. She looked back, surprised to see that Hëkitarka was not following her.
‘You’ll come away with me? We must be quick, or I’ll be found,’ she implored.
Hëkitarka wrestled with his emotions. It felt easy and sweet to be with her, yet it was unsettling too.
‘I need to ask my brother. Perhaps he’ll come too,’ he said, not wanting to forgo Harfan’s comfortable steadiness.
‘You should beware that few tell the truth about me and your brother may be taken in by them. They will tell you two things about me that should make you hate me, but you mustn’t believe them. The first is that I’m a spirit of death. I tell you that I’m not. I’m a creature of life; it is beloved to me. But the mortal life that most delights me entails death as well. Mortals have only so much life strength. I like to see it burn bright in great deeds, but the price is that it consumes them. All mortals must die. I see no harm in taking their life if I give them love and glory, since it is in my power to give it them. The second thing they will tell you is that I’m heartless. I’m not - oh how untrue that is. I weep at the loss of those I love, and pain is always with me. And when I give my love it is true and strong.’
The sídhe started round. With a shrill whistle that rebounded in the woods a pure white bird left its perch. Leanan’s chest heaved fearfully as it winged its way into an opening in the slate coloured clouds.
Boroden broke out of the cave between Hëkitarka and Leanan. Behind Boroden, Vortimus burst from the gaping jaws of the cave.
‘If you change your mind you have only to say my name and I’ll come to you,’ the sídhe called to Hëkitarka. She fleeted like a faun from Boroden. He gave chase though she had already melted away.
‘Wait. I don’t know your name,’ Hëkitarka breathed mournfully, knowing that he should not be answered.
‘Halt! In King Kerfinror’s name. You are his prisoner!’ Boroden yelled.
Hëkitarka expected Vortimus to round on him for a fight but instead Vortimus ran by, heedless of everything else but his desire to be with his enchantress.
Harfan started as the piling clouds flashed with a blaze of white light.
‘Grandpa will be furious. I won’t tell him, but you shouldn’t have let her go,’ Myfanwy said.
‘But I couldn’t leave her caged in a pit,’ Hëkitarka reasoned imploringly.
‘It’s all right, Hëki. She’s dangerous though. Promise you’ll keep away from her in future.’
Hëkitarka nodded ruefully and let Harfan lead him away before Boroden returned.