Midhir offers the brownies a difficult choice. Aira stands up to him to protect her clan.
|Boroden and Aira flattened themselves on the floor respectfully and rose, Boroden saying with courtly grace, ‘King Midhir, it is an honour to attend such great proceedings today and to lay my cause before your mercy.’
‘Indeed, we do not often see brownies amongst us. I suppose you must have something very important to say for you’re not late this time. I remember waiting a full hour for your appearance when I last summoned you before me. What kept you? Extra ironing, pigs to feed?’ Midhir gave a snort of laughter and looked for approval from his friends amongst the sídhe.
Aira thought indignantly that he sounded like a pig himself. This was greatly at odds with his appearance. Midhir was graceful, with a face too regular and eyes too mocking and empty to be handsome, despite his finery. Aira could see right through him and recoiled, although she noticed that many of the ladies looked on him doe-eyed.
‘Ah, but I forget that isn’t your style, Ulfharen. You fancy yourself a warrior. You suppose that by brute strength you can set yourself against me and call me - what was it? A vile, villainous viper,’ Midhir reminded Boroden cuttingly, relishing making him squirm.
‘Forgive me. I was no more than a bairn at the time. I think differently now.’
‘Do you indeed? We shall see. And who is this? Your daughter? I hope she is better mannered.’
Boroden prickled with indigantion at these taunts and Aira pitied him. ‘I am no child of his, Lord Midhir. My name is Aira, Lady Frenudin.’
‘I’ve heard your name already rumoured of.’
‘She is like a sister to me,’ Boroden added, appalled that Midhir had learned Aira’s identity and wishing to indicate that he would lay down his life for her rather than let Midhir take her.
‘Poor creature. I do pity anyone who Boroden Ulfharen calls sister. I see you’ve become so attached to her, Boroden, that you’ve manacled yourself to her so that you can’t be parted.’
Aira realised that Midhir referred to her bracelet, which Boroden pressed tightly, for he felt some good magic in it giving him strength.
‘Won’t you all take chairs? I will not have my guests stand when they are weary,’ Glimfyndor offered. He hoped by his courtesy to make Midhir think better of his mocking attitude. The attendants of the Seelie Court being numerous, many Light Elves had lent the chairs from their hearth sides so that everyone might be seated. This led to a mismatch that Aira found appealing in its informality.
Myfanwy plumped herself into an ornate armchair with pink cushions embroidered with white tendrils. The dark, curved back was carved with grapevines and topped with a coronet of gold. ‘This would look lovely in my bedroom,’ she declared to Aira.
‘Princessy,’ Midhir laughed, referring to the chair. ‘I can tell what the rest of your bedroom is like. Was like, I should say, for I forgot that your palace was turned into a bonfire by some redcaps.’
Myfanwy’s face clouded with hurt, though she was too polite to remind Midhir of the part he had played in placing her kindred in danger by helping to capture Leanan Sídhe. Aira showed her camaraderie by settling next to Myfanwy on an identical chair. To distract Myfanwy from her sorowful thoughts, Aira asked her about the pink and lilac gown that she was wearing. She had made it, like a rag rug, from strips of spare cotton.
Boroden took a stick chair and obstinately placed himself before Midhir. He sat perched on the edge of the chair as if about to spring up at any moment.
‘How rustic.’ Midhir guffawed. ‘Most suitable for the son of slaves.’
‘Perhaps, King Boroden, you would tell the Court your business,’ Glimfyndor suggested tactfully.
‘When Velmoran was lost to us The Dagda decreed that he would grant us a new homeland if we won one for ourselves. I have come to ask you to honour his words for we have found a place to settle in Novgorad.’
‘Is a place to settle, a place of safety, truly all that you seek? You want Novgorad not for love of your clan. With you it is all selfishness, Ulfharen.’
‘I love my clan dearer than anything. Their sorrows have been mine, as has the hard winning of a new place to call home. It is our right to Novgorad that I ask you to acknowledge today.’
‘Right? What right? Always you are too hasty, Ulfharen. Besides this I believe that my father stipulated that you should colonise some unoccupied place. Novgorad was the stronghold of ogres.’
‘Aye, it was lived in by ogres. We did a good deed by eradicating them.’
‘Is that how you see it? You might easily have put us all in danger blundering in and slaughtering members of the Unseelie Court. They have powerful allies and you might have caused war between the two faerie courts by your recklessness. You broke all the rules of chivalry in the process by ambushing them unawares like a coward.’
‘When has the Seelie Court been so concerned about ogres? Ogres wouldn’t hesitate to kill us given half the chance. They might have grown in number and spread into Seelie lands doing damage.’
‘Yet these particular ogres meant no harm and simply lived in the forest minding their own business.’
‘No, there were many reports of the ogres attacking human villages near the forest and they’d been snatching traveller away for years,’ Aira pointed out.
‘That may be so but it doesn’t justify the cowardly way in which they were killed. I’ve heard the most dreadful rumours of Boroden and his warriors sneaking up to kill them whilst they slept.’
‘Sometimes we did, I don’t deny that. It was the safest way. At first, we fought them openly, but they are so vast and fierce that they killed many of our kin.’
‘You sound quite desperate to get Novgorad. I guess that it was not for the land itself that you were so keen on setting up home there. It is a dark, dismal place and your clan might easily have found a more pleasant spot. No, I see your reasoning all right. It is the gold that appeals to you.’
‘Is it selfish to want your subjects to live comfortably? Having gold would free my clan of the brownies’ curse of having to beg for our bread by working for humans. It is not only for our kind that we want a place of peace and safety in Novgorad. It is also for our sorrowing allies displaced from Lianderin. They will join us in Novgorad.’
‘I’m afraid they won’t.’
‘Why? What makes you think to break this arrangement between our people?’
‘The simple fact that there is no Novgorad to go back to. At least, not as you know it. I’m sure the fairies of Lianderin will find some charitable sídhe to offer them assistance. As for you it seems that you are perfectly capable of earning your keep by hard work.’
Boroden stared at Midhir in horror, suddenly drained. Midhir regarded him with relish. Seeing that Boroden was too numb to retaliate he continued, ‘Brobdingnab has powerful friends amongst the Unseelie Court. We would not want to make enemies of them. When they came to us demanding recompense, asking the brownie squatters to leave seemed natural. Especially as they had let none of the sídhe know they intended to take Novgorad beforehand.’
‘Our people!’ Carnelian gasped.
‘Oh, don’t worry. I was most lenient. I asked them to be on their way and scrape an existence for themselves amongst the human cottages. It’s what brownies are born to, after all.’
Carnelian faced Midhir resolutely. ‘We are not servants of humans, nor yet of you, Midhir. The only one we are to serve is God, who is Lord over all creatures. You would do well to remember that.’
‘Aye, and I think you do forget that. For all that you cloak what you say in righteousness I think it’s you, Midhir, that are the selfish one. You want the wealth of Novgorad. Which amongst the faerie kind do not love gold more than the sídhe? And you, most especially, have reason to love the power it would bring you. Angus Og is not the only one The Dagda must watch his back for!’ Boroden snarled.
‘Enough. Stand down before I throw you down!’
‘Calm, my lords,’ Glimfyndor intercepted.
Midhir’s features set decisively. ‘What other resolution should I suggest? My father was way too soft on these brownies and it has made them presumptuous. They are greedy wanting a new kingdom when already they might have one empty when Krysila is killed. If they truly seek to do good for the Seelie Court and to eradicate our enemies then let them take back Velmoran. That is my decree. That is the only homeland the Seelie Court shall ever let them have.’
‘No! How can you be so cruel? That would be to condemn us all to death. That is not right, that is not Seelie. I had no idea that you heed dealings with the Unseelie Court, yet it is their words you are listening to in this. You turn a blind eye to evil, worse, try to curry favour with it, whilst those that fight it are punished. That is not right,’ Boroden said, staring wildly about the faces gathered around him.
‘Oh dear, oh dear. Getting emotional, are we?’ Midhir motioned one of his attendants to hand Boroden a handkerchief. ‘I think you need this.’
Boroden tore the handkerchief into pieces and hurled them at Midhir. Turning in fury back to his clan he found the way blocked by a wall of ice.
Midhir lowered his hand, proud of his freezing spell. ‘Now, Ulfharen, please don’t leave yet. We have unfinished business. I have a proposition for you, since you seem to find the idea of fighting the kraken so terrifying.’
‘I suppose I must hear you out.’
‘Good. I want you to reverse the wrong that Peladach did me.’
‘How? What task would you have me accomplish?’ Boroden asked.
‘I will set you no test. I’ve been tricked that way before. I ask you to give me the hand of Lady Frenudin in marriage and I will have you fight in my army to regain Velmoran. Once it is won you may gladly call it your home, provided that your clan all spend some proportion of your time serving me. With my powers the kraken will either easily be defeated, or I will come to terms with her.’
Boroden had lowered his head and was quivering with rage.
‘Come now, Boroden. Surely you see that it’s the easiest choice? The only option?’
Boroden gave an unearthly snarl and sprang. As his feet left the ground Midhir shot a bolt of power at him, hurling him high into the air. He fell to the ground at Carnelian’s feet, lifeless. A trickle of blood ran from his ear.
There was wailing and angry voices. Never had such a deed been committed at a counsel of peace. Glimfyndor turned indignantly to Midhir.
‘Don’t you dare. Lift a finger against me and I’ll drink your immortality and leave you a hollow corpse.’ Making an example of his power to intimidate the others, Midhir forced Glimfyndor down with his hazel wand. At its touch the handsome young elf became wizened. Glimfyndor pulled himself away, faint. The enchantment fell from him.
This gave Aira hope, if such a glimmer might be called hope in her shattered heart. All Midhir had to use against them was trickery. If she could incite the Seelie Court to rebellion against the tyrant, then justice might be done for Boroden. Leaving Boroden’s side she ran into the circle before Midhir. Turning back to the assembly, she cried, ‘who will help me?’
Hëkitarka came, and Harfan and Klaufi. Then, answering Aira was a voice that had not been heard amongst the Seelie Court until now.
Leanan Sídhe dropped her arms, her chest heaving at the effort spent conjuring a passage through the magic concealing the Seelie Court. Midhir smiled to himself thinking her exertion only made her look more beautiful. Quickly his feelings turned to disgust as she pressed Hëkitarka dearly to her.
‘You’ve come to help us?’ Hëkitarka asked in wonderment.
‘Of course.’ Leanan Sídhe tossed Aira a pouch of herbs. ‘Make haste to King Boroden with this.’
‘She is of the Unseelie Court, throw her out!’ Quentillian fumed.
‘She is a sídhe, the same as me,’ Midhir explained dismissively, holding out a hand in welcome to his unexpected opponent. ‘It has been long since we last met, Lady Leanan.’
‘That is your name then? Leanan?’ Hëkitarka asked, seizing on Midhir’s words and looking up at her with bright eyes.
‘Call me that. I’d rather you did than him; the very sight of him makes my blood creep.’ She cast a derisory glance at Midhir.
Harfan broke between them. ‘Get away from him.’ Pent with fury, Harfan charged at Leanan Sídhe with his war hammer raised ready to defend his brother.
Amulas laid a cool, restraining hand upon him. ‘If you try to kill her you will surely die. You cannot slay her. She is immortal, one of the ancient powers amongst the sídhe, and wields a dark magic ever renewed by the blood of the living. Many have given their lives to her; she is the Dark Muse.’
Harfan glared at Leanan accusingly. ‘She tried to kill my brother.’
‘You mistake me. Those I am said to kill do not die. Only their bodies. Indeed, I give them a kind of immortality as their words live on through the works that I inspired them to pen. I did not intend to kill your brother that first time you met me. Indeed, most of the harm was done by you ousting me before I had wiped the wound closed with the tip of my quill. I merely wanted to fill my pen with a little of Tatty’s blood.’
‘What kind of depraved monster makes ink of blood?’
‘Every pen put to paper saps time and thought and energy. Is not therefore all writing a shedding of lifeblood? I drink that up. Some of my mortals go before their time, others I am kind too, others yet touch my heart and I take them for my knights. It is that I want Tatty for. Yet we did not quite conclude our bargain. Tell me, Tatty, will you come away with me? I will make your life blaze brightly my rainbow boy?’
‘What she means is that you’ll be happy until your time comes to be the teind to hell she pays every seven years,’ Killmouli interrupted.
‘You pay a teind to hell every seven years? That’s just what the evil fairy queen does in Tam Lin. Are you Tam Lin’s queen? Och, and you want to take me for a knight too, just the same!’ Hëkitarka gazed at her eagerly, his whiskers quivering.
‘I might be,’ she smiled mysteriously.
‘Seriously! You met Tam Lin? What was he like?’
‘That’s enough of that, brownie. Now step away. I will have words with My Lady,’ Midhir said, giving Hëkitarka a dismissive glare.
Reluctantly she relinquished Hëkitarka to the protective arms of his brother and stood petulantly examining the tips of her curls as Midhir said, ‘I’m delighted as always to see you, Leanan, but I do not fully understand the reason for your visit. Surely you cannot wish to concern yourself in the affairs of these brownies?’
‘I will oppose you when you try to harm my Tatty brownie.’
‘I’m surprised at you for taking an interest in such a wretch. If you want a servant, you could find many better.’
‘I won’t give him up, Midhir.’
‘You are meddling in proceedings where you are out of your depth.’
‘Nay, I am the only one in my depth. I am a sídhe; your equal.’ She turned to the brownies. ‘I will help you. All I ask in return is that the young prince comes with me. Tatty?’
‘Um, I’ll just go and ask my brother,’ Hëkitarka said, although he already knew Harfan’s answer.
‘I urge you to consider again, Leanan. Your intervention is unwelcome here,’ Midhir growled.
‘I tell you why you hate me. It’s because I’m an independent lady of means and magic. I’ll not be fettered but do as I will. I bet you’d much prefer me docile. Men love me for my beauty but loath me for my fickleness. I’m not fickle, truly, it’s just I want to live life to the full and that’s not understood. That’s why you brand me as Unseelie but in truth I’m as much a spirit of light and dazzling genius as of darkness. I like Hëkitarka because he doesn’t judge me.’ She cast a scornful look about the Seelie Court, then stepped closer to Hëkitarka. ‘Yes, Tatty, I mean to help you.’
Midhir scoffed and sent a bolt of power at Hëkitarka. Leanan Sídhe intercepted it, her blow sending Midhir’s bolt back doubled in strength to crash into his throne. Midhir flung himself down to avoid it. The hematite stone split in two.
He rose, dusting himself down and locking Leanan Sídhe in a gaze that might kill. She conjured a burst of scarlet flames to snap about his feet but Midhir leapt clear of them. Leanan fended off his spears of magical energy and attacked him with blows of her own. They fought a deadly game, using their magic like swords in a duel.
Leanan Sídhe yelped as Midhir almost caught her ear. Ducking, she used the broken boulder to launch herself into the air. Her flight was not birdlike like the fairies but rather like the floating of smoke reluctant to leave its fire. She twisted and darted at Midhir. Their fight reached a crescendo, the bursts of power crackling as they rippled in the air.
‘At least Leanan Sídhe’s giving us time,’ Aira commented to Carnelian as she sprinkled the herbs over Boroden and recited the spell that Leanan had written. ‘It’s not working.’
‘Of course not. Let it be a lesson not to trust a witch,’ Quentillian scolded.
‘Get my cousin and yourselves away before Midhir does more harm. I’ll fetch Hëkitarka,’ Harfan decided.
Hëkitarka hurled a chunk of the boulder at Midhir, making him lose his balance. Leanan snatched the advantage to pin him back against a snowy quartz boulder. Her power wrapped about him, a furious rope. Such was its force that, strong though the rock was, it began to crumble.
‘I have him now. Kill him, Tatty.’
Hëkitarka strung his bow without a second thought. Midhir threw his head back against the rock, a grimace of concentration searing his face. Then he was gone.
The crowd murmured as he vanished leaving Leanan staring stricken. She did not have time to search. Reappearing amongst the pillywiggins, Midhir hurled his dagger into her back.
‘No!’ Hëkitarka cried, falling to her side.
‘I know. Stay strong. Someone will help. Someone will come soon,’ Hëkitarka reassured her, stroking her hair. He looked about him only to find that it was as if Leanan Sídhe had become invisible. The attention of everyone was fixed upon Midhir who took his seat upon the broken boulder with a tyrannous relish. No one would dare to challenge him now. Leanan had been an example. He smiled upon her, alone except for the little brownie, as the light left her eyes. The assembled faerie folk shrunk back from him. Good, that was how he liked them. Frightened sheep.
Aira alone had taken her fill of cowering and approached his throne as if compelled on legs not her own.
‘Lady Frenudin, you have something more to say before we close this meeting of the Seelie Court?’ Midhir inclined his head graciously, inviting her to talk.
Aira was too numb with shock to be afraid. ‘I will uphold right,’ she told herself with a sensation like rising above her body.
‘Three hundred and more innocent folk living peacefully and troubling no one have been robbed and forced to flee their homes, perhaps to starve. I don’t think we can leave it there and be blind to it. Nor should so serious a matter…’ Aira paused, nervousness prickling her at the audacity of what she would say. Yet the sureness, the power that had led her to speak buoyed her on. ‘Nor should you treat this matter so childishly. You give little thought to the consequences for those three hundred brownies.’
‘Very well, Aira. I shall be serious with you.’ Midhir stepped down from his throne and came to meet her. ‘Boroden will not be granted what he seeks because of his ill motives. Pride and selfishness are in him.’
‘That’s not true. I know Boroden.’
‘Perhaps he is good to you now. But for how much longer? The brownies have spent too long with humans and have absorbed their ways. Boroden’s love is selfish. Tell me in a hundred years hence if what I say is not true, I defy you. I have the gift of foresight, Aira, and of reading hearts. Boroden has a black heart, can any of you say otherwise?’ Midhir raised his hands, looking around the court in appeal.
Aira looked to Glimfyndor but his mouth was set. No one spoke. ‘I don’t believe it!’ Aira wanted to scream at them, but a sense of defeat held her.
‘See, you have your answer.’
‘I don’t think it fair, even if you think Boroden unworthy, to condemn others and make them suffer simply because you have a quarrel with him. Midhir, you cannot claim that your treatment in the past warrants you to act so callously to my clan. Even if Peladach was thrice the monster that you make him out to have been, is that any reason to take your anger out on those related to him? They are not Peladach.’
‘Ulfharen still cites his name as a proud badge. He acts just like him too,’ Midhir said, curling his lip in contempt as Torden peeled Boroden off the floor and tossed him over his shoulder.
‘If you had any conscience at all you’d see that your attitude, and your actions, are wrong. You tell a lie to cover yourself. Well, let me tell you, all of you, the truth. You were glad of a perilous battle to send Frenudin’s father to in the hope that he would be killed, as he was. As you were his commander his lands fell to you. It was an important strategic place and wealthy.’
Midhir flexed his elegant fingers belittlingly. ‘All kings must plan strategically.’
‘You think just because you choose to say this earth, this tree, these deer, are yours that you can use them as pawns; withhold fallen wood from the hungry and sell a whole forest to the rich? Those things were made free and remain so, no matter your decrees. Frenudin was free. You as good as made her a prisoner in her own home, watching in fear as you killed any who might usurp your claim to her riches, even her cousins; bairns younger than she. At last she realised she would not be next on the chopping block for a worse fate awaited her. She would be forced to become your wife the day she came of age.’
‘And is that so terrible?’ Midhir looked cockily at his concubines who simpered in response. Then he scoffed. ‘Far worse to be stolen away and forced into a union with a hairy little brownie with a look as dark as his temper.’
‘Frenudin loved Peladach because she saw that he was good and kind and brave. That’s why she ran away with him. Because she wanted to. After that you concocted the horrible lie that Peladach had forced her into marriage so that he could take Velmoran. You thought it would excuse you trying to get Velmoran for yourself.’
Aira was about to mention the elixir of immortality but stopped herself. She did not know who in the court besides Midhir might be corrupt and the last thing the brownies needed was a score of ruthless faeries squabbling over their ancestral home.
Midhir seized at her pause. ‘And how do you know all this? Were you there, young maid? How do you know what you were told is true? Or…’ a gleam came into Midhir’s eyes. ‘It is said that Lady Frenudin made magical seeing books to capture her life story. You have one, do you?’
Midhir stared at her hard, though he looked perplexed. He did not know for sure that she had Frenudin’s book and Aira knew that she must not let him. It was the only thing which proved his guilt and he would destroy it if he could. He would hunt her down and any who accompanied her if she gave him even the slightest suspicion of its existence.
Not lying, yet withholding the truth, Aira said, ‘I know it because Lady Frenudin wanted it passing down the generations of her line.’
‘Ah, then the story is a fabrication of Peladach to deceive them. I assure you poor Frenudin would have felt quite differently.’ Midhir appealed to the court. ‘But you know me. I’m a kind and benevolent regent. My actions here only show how desirous I am of stamping out injustice. I’ve killed the Unseelie Queen and the insane little brownie who would attack me and upturn the laws of the Seelie Court.’
‘Kind and benevolent?’ Hëkitarka cried out, his voice thick with emotion. ‘How can you say that when you killed my cousin.’
Aira’s blood ran cold. She had hoped that Boroden was merely stunned and bruised. Carnelian had assured them that he still breathed.
As the argument grew heated, Mifrillan had taken Hëkitarka and Myfanwy aside. As Boroden was carried by, Hëkitarka noticed blood trickling from his cousin’s ear. He had seen this before in a snowy owl driven to its death by hitting a window in a storm at Lutraudros. To him it seemed inevitable. Boroden would die. And he could not stand by like a coward.
‘What’s this? A hairy little puffin?’ Midhir scoffed at Hëkitarka’s long whiskers and rainbow striped leg warmers as he joined Aira. ‘Ah, but I remember you. You’re the friend of the Unseelie sorceress who escaped my father’s imprisonment. A fine fellow to talk of justice. Come, let us hear you.’
Harfan came to Hëkitarka’s side, eager to stand against Midhir.
‘You sound proud of Velmoran in these brownie legends you speak of, Lady Frenudin. I suppose you bring them up to persuade the House Elves to go back there?’ Midhir inquired.
‘That’s their choice. I bring it up to refute that you have any right to marry me. Furthermore, they show that the littlest folk may have their victory if they follow the right path. And that is heartening.’
‘Fine words. Now, Midhir, I suggest we take the time to cool down and to discuss. I speak on behalf of the sugar plum fairies to whom I hold myself responsible. I do not find the idea of them throwing themselves upon the mercy of the sídhe entirely satisfactory,’ Bresil said. The three brownies sensed that the wizard was trying to shield them by distracting Midhir.
Gefi touched Aira’s arm. ‘Boroden’s awake.’
Aira gasped joyfully. The sound was barely heard above the din made by the clamouring faeries. Many protested about the way that Midhir handled the Seelie Court and demanded an audience with The Dagda.
‘Silence. My word is final. I’ve wasted enough time trying to bargain with morons.’ Midhir looked around fierce as a hawk, seeking out the brownies. ‘And if Ulfharen will not give me an answer then I will make him.’ Cries of dismay arose as Midhir vanished.
Aira sensed he would not be gone for long. Glimfyndor took her arm. The brownies went to his home situated in the most venerable tree in the forest. Aira gazed in awe as he opened the door into a lofty room with windows of stained glass. In its heart grew the trunk of the great maple tree that had grown from the sceptre of the first king of the Light Elves when he set it into the ground.
A makeshift bed had been piled beside the tree trunk. Boroden raised himself groggily at their entrance, pushing away the poultice offered by Amulas. ‘Friends, are you hurt? I trust not. Aira, it is good to see you safe. And Midhir?’
‘Aira told him what’s what,’ Hëkitarka explained proudly.
‘Don’t say that. He might rant at Aira for putting herself at such risk for he thinks he’s a worthless old turnip,’ Klaufi said.
‘I don’t think you’re a worthless old turnip,’ Aira declared, squeezing Boroden’s hand.
‘That’s obvious,’ Klaufi said, crestfallen with jealousy.
‘What happened?’ Boroden asked.
‘Midhir went off in a huff,’ Hëkitarka said.
Boroden’s relief was interrupted by Amulas running her hand over his bruised head. ‘Do you feel well enough to stand? And to fight?’
‘Fight?’ Boroden asked, bemused.
‘I’m sorry we cannot offer you the hospitality that you deserve,’ Glimfyndor said.
‘What do you mean?’ Aira asked in concern.
‘Midhir knows when he is outnumbered but it would hurt his vanity to let this quarrel rest. Calling an end to the meeting was a ruse. He’s gone to fetch his hunting pack. With them he’ll chase you down and punish you. He thinks us too weak to resist him on our own, but we shall show him how to put up a fight, Aira. He doesn’t know that the bracelet which you wear can command a power to match his.’ Glimfyndor’s rousing words filled Aira with pain. She looked at the young elven prince and princesses clustered about their father.
‘No. I cannot put you in danger.’
‘I swore an oath to stand by you for kinship and all that is right. My people and I gladly risk our lives to help,’ Glimfyndor replied earnestly.
‘I’ll not let you do that. Even if we can fend off Midhir you could do nothing against his banishing you from the Seelie Court. You’d then be prey to greater evils than him,’ Aira said.
‘What do you mean to do?’
‘I can face Midhir alone. I’ll find a home for my beloved clan, I’ll protect them as Frenudin did long ago. Until then no walls shall hold us. We’ll travel in the open and it is in the open that I shall meet Midhir.’
Glimfyndor looked surprised but was too wise to try and dispute the resolution sparking in Aira’s eyes. ‘You must make haste and get ahead of him.’
Quentillian was open mouthed as Glimfyndor’s knights brought out their mounts. The winged horses looked disgruntled at having their rest disturbed. ‘No horse can outrun Midhir’s hounds.’
‘No, but a unicorn can,’ Glimfyndor answered.
He called in a creature of glistening whiteness, her horn luminous as starlight. ‘I am Luan and I shall help you whenever you are in need, lady,’ the unicorn said, stretching down her neck for Aira to run her fingers wonderingly through her mane.
‘What is that cry?’ Carnelian exclaimed, bustling in.
They fell silent, listening intently. When the baying of Midhir’s hunt pack sounded again it struck a chill into every soul.
‘Glimfyndor and I have been talking. It’s not safe or right for us to stay here. Boroden needs time to decide what we’ll do next. I want to give him it. You go with him and the others, Carnelian. Don’t worry about me. I have the power to contend with Midhir.’
‘I still don’t like your plan, Aira.’ Carnelian looked at her and found that he could say no more. She was a leader whom he could follow and trust. Harfan and Hëkitarka loyally fell to preparing their ponies. The baying of the hounds grew nearer.
‘Where’s Aira?’ Boroden demanded, striding in with his sword drawn in readiness for fighting the approaching hunting pack.
‘She’s chosen to leave. She hopes to draw attention from you and withstand Midhir to give you more time,’ Queen Alwilda said.
Boroden was furious with Glimfyndor. ‘You made her do this?’
‘It was her choice. It’s not for me to withstand her. Boroden, Midhir is full of shadow. You must not fear him for I do not think he will win in the end.’
Boroden reacted stonily to Glimfyndor’s counsel and ordered Fennec to fetch him the swiftest of the ponies that Glimfyndor was giving them.
‘I’ll always be glad to help you and your clan whenever you are in need, Boroden Ulfharen,’ Glimfyndor said, lowering his head in courteous farewell to Boroden who was making a hasty exit.
Boroden caught his leg in the claret velvet door curtain and wound himself up in it like a fly cocooned in a web. Carnelian freed Boroden. For once he was too distracted to be embarrassed. He fled desperately, thinking only of Aira being pursued.
Boroden urged his pony on, almost toppling two knights of Glimfyndor’s household who loaded the brownies’ ponies with gifts of weapons and provisions.
‘Hey, Cousin B, are you going after Aira? We’re coming too,’ Hëkitarka yelled, dashing up.
The baying and shrieking of Midhir’s hunt dogs, drawing ever closer, terrified Aira. Perhaps she had been wrong to try and evade him. She did not know if she was able to summon her magic at will, let alone how to harness it. Out in the open was she not more vulnerable?
Anger rose in her at Midhir’s mindless cruelty. She thought of those hundreds of her kin who he callously caused to suffer homeless. Yes, she could defeat him. In his vindictiveness he was small and weak.
She fixed her gaze upon the moon, a bright pearl with its rainbow halo created by a thin veil of cloud. A little way ahead rose a clear hill, in spring a dancing place for Glimfyndor’s tribe.
‘Hurry, we need to get to that knoll,’ she told the unicorn.
The forest grew wilder. Trailing honeysuckle and ivy flicked in her face, making her wince. By now the barking of the dogs was almost as loud as the sound of the unicorn’s thumping hoofs and fluttering breath.
Other hoofbeats followed closely. Aira did not want to look, fearing to see Midhir closing in on her, yet she knew that she had to. Relieved, she saw Boroden urging his colt at full tilt to keep up with the unicorn.
‘I’m not leaving you,’ Boroden shouted to her.
She thought of reprimanding him for following and putting himself in danger, but she did not have the heart for it. She was glad that he was there.
Midhir’s chase halteded briefly at Glimfyndor’s gate but, as Aira had bid, Glimfyndor did not let his resistance of Midhir escalate to bloodshed. Aira heard the hounds closing in again and knew that it would not be long before they found them.
Something blundered through the bushes on their left, snapping the branches with sharp cracks. Aira’s heart pounded, expecting it to be Midhir’s hunting dogs. She was flying on too fast and too intent on her goal to let fear overpower her. Boroden rushed in the direction of the sound.
Emerging from the trees, Klaufi squealed as he found Boroden’s sword pointed at his throat. Boroden looked half pleased, half awkward to find that the rest of the clan had followed him.
‘You didn’t think we’d be leaving you, Sire?’ Quentillian asked.
The shouting of the hounds echoed close, seeming to come from all about them. A sleek white hound shot from the trees, its eyes and ears blood red. It fixed Aira with a look of eerie cruelty, dashing at Luan’s leg with its jaws wide. Misty cannoned into it with a snarl. She saw the hound off with a bitten ear, its tail between its legs.
‘Midhir will have even more of a grudge against you now,’ Torden told Boroden, as usual failing to take their dire circumstances seriously.
The hill was steep and the unicorn’s breathing frantic. The soft grass was soaked with dew, drenching her long fetlocks and making her slip.
The moon appeared over the arc of the hilltop in all its silvery glory. Aira realised that it was this that had drawn her here, giving her a sense of connection and strength. Slipping from the unicorn’s back, she struggled up the last length of earth, reaching the top of the mound. Bathed in moonlight, she looked down into the forest at her friends struggling up the slope.
Sleek and powerful, more of the white hounds dashed from the trees. They set up a ferocious baying upon beholding the clan. One pinned Myfanwy to the ground. Carnelian beat it off but no sooner had he drawn the shaken princess to her feet than he turned to see three hounds confronting him, growling and snapping.
Midhir thundered up on his white stallion, gloating at the predicament of the brownies and their friends. ‘Did you think to disobey me? I’m surprised at your obstinacy and blindness. Do you not know that you shall find no peace without my say so? Go against my decrees and I’ll hunt you down, for you have something of mine,’ Midhir shouted scathingly at Boroden, nodding towards Aira.
Aira tilted her face up to the moon, drinking in its silvery magic. ‘I’m a free being, Midhir, as are my friends. And yes, we mean to resist you.’
At her words Midhir raised his hand. The air rent as if the earth had ripped apart, sending the brownies tumbling to the ground. A wave of light spread fast as lightening from Midhir’s hand, curving into a bright orb.
In the space of a thought Aira raised her own hand, though Midhir’s aura was almost upon her. For a moment she thought it had hit her, such was the searing strength passing through her. Then she realised that the light around her, dazzling as snow, was a nimbus of brightness coming from her soul. It was her protection, her weapon. It met Midhir’s power in an arc of crackling, fighting air, wavering like a flag about to give way in a gale. She found that she must direct all her energy to that meeting point, fending Midhir’s aura from her and her cowering friends.
Midhir was taxed too, though he was stronger than her and more practiced in powerful conjuring. Aira looked keenly ahead, her spirit indomitable. She struggled for breath. Vaguely she was aware of Boroden pausing beside her before he ran on into the heart of the aura battle. The two forces tore mercilessly, screaming and ringing in his ears. Such was Aira’s devotion that she would lay down her life for her clan. This spurred Boroden on.
He came to the verge of Midhir’s dominion and, breaking from the struggle, saw him clearly. ‘I’ll do it. I’ll make to reclaim Velmoran. Keep your bargain, Midhir, for I mean to meet it.’
Midhir was so surprised that he dropped his hand, stillness falling instantly. Aira tottered, crumpling to the inviting stability of the earth.
‘Very well, you choose death then,’ Midhir shouted mockingly. In half a heartbeat he and his hunt pack vanished.
Dread and sorrow rose in Boroden’s heart. He turned to Aira. Already she had nearly died for him and he could not bear it, or that harm should come to the others. His consuming thought was to get away and make for Velmoran alone. Putting his hands under Aira’s shoulders he drew her up, pale and cold from the night dew.
‘Goodbye,’ he said, squeezing her shoulders before relinquishing her to Carnelian and fleeting from the clan who crowded round.
Almost he eluded them but Torden grabbed him by the collar. ‘Not so fast. You can’t seriously be thinking of going to Velmoran alone?’
Boroden sighed bitterly. ‘I would not risk your lives for it. I’ve caused enough suffering.’
‘Don’t you think you’ll need some help? I mean it’s many leagues to Velmoran and who knows what dangers lie ahead. One thing’s for sure if we do reach Velmoran you can’t fight an army of Unseelie beings on your own,’ Torden said.
‘Aye, don’t you dare think of sending me home,’ Hëkitarka said.
Boroden was uncertain. ‘I don’t want any of you to risk your lives for me.’
Harfan came forward. ‘That is for us to decide surely, Cousin?’
‘I think we all want to do whatever we can to help, for the sake of our clan,’ Aira said gently.
‘I should be the one to protect you,’ Boroden told her.
‘And I’m sure you can protect us, Sire. And lead us too, as you did before. I remember you, a new-fledged king, leading us from our last run-in with Midhir and through the battle for Lutraudros. I was proud of you then; I said to myself you are new sap to Peladach’s line. We ask nothing more than to follow you, Sire, not to be abandoned as scattered minions to other masters,’ Quentillian enthused grandly.
‘Your clan have every faith in you but that counts for nothing if you have no faith in yourself. You can be your own worst enemy,’ Carnelian reminded Boroden quietly. Boroden’s face was still full of struggle but Carnelian laid a hand on his arm and, giving him a small shake, said, ‘good, that’s settled.’