Setting out on their journey to Velmoran, the brownie clan enter an enchanted forest
|Glimfyndor’s kind hospitality settled Aira’s nerves after the sickening encounter with Midhir. It was decided that the fairies and Bresil should remain in the Golden Woods. If the brownies regained Velmoran, Boroden promised that they might happily live amongst his people. Glimfyndor swore the help of the Light Elves should it come to a battle against the kraken. Boroden gladly accepted although he could not forget Midhir’s words that all who fought Krysila would be doomed.
When the time came for them to leave, the fairies accompanied the brownies to the edge of the Golden Woods. There, in the shadow of the stone circle, they said their farewells. Caillie too was leaving them. He and Killmouli had agreed to locate as many of the scattered brownies as possible to bring them the news that Boroden was setting out for Velmoran.
Hëkitarka, unwilling to forgo a last glimpse of his friends, scampered away to keep them in view. Harfan followed and stood silently with his gaze fixed on Myfanwy’s receding pony as Hëkitarka jumped and flapped like a nestling trying to take off as he waved goodbye.
‘You do love Myfanwy then?’ Boroden inquired.
‘Yes,’ Harfan replied resolutely.
‘I’m sorry. You may go with her if you like. I told you that none of you need to continue with me.’
‘But it feels right to. For the moment I’ve got to put aside my feelings and think of the good of our clan. I think you of all of us understand that best.’
Boroden lowered his gaze and clapped Harfan on the shoulder. ‘She’s a lovely lass and the house of Lianderin shall make a good alliance.’
‘As will the house of Frenudin,’ Harfan replied gently.
Hëkitarka grinned, glad that his brother had recognised Boroden’s feelings for Aira, although he decided not to tease Boroden who looked morose.
Boroden turned away abruptly as though he, not Harfan, were the more bereft by the parting. Every day drew him closer to a time when he and Aira must part and the departure of Myfanwy was a foretaste of this.
‘I bet Princess Myfanwy and her friends are glad that they aren’t here now. Three drawn out weeks of clumping through a forest with everything looking the same and no meat, just low rations of potatoes and barley and greens picked wild,’ Torden moaned as they settled down after the day’s march one evening in early spring.
‘I think she’d be most concerned about the lack of sweets,’ Hëkitarka decided.
Aira did not share Torden’s gloominess. To her the wood, full of verdant freshness, delicate flowers and birdsong, was perfect. Nor was she impressed by his disparaging her ramson soup, hawthorn leaf salad and elderflower fritters. Forest food tasted good to Aira and in her opinion nothing could beat a snack of raw sun-warmed primroses.
Harfan developed a faraway look at the mention of Myfanwy but Hëkitarka piped up, ‘I agree about the meat. I say I try and catch something. Would you make a snare for me, Barabas? I think I might find a hazelnut or two somewhere.’
‘Rabbits don’t like hazelnuts,’ Klaufi interjected as he passed, dangling Quentillian’s boots at arms length to dry by the fire. He had been busy polishing them to a shine with moss.
Hëkitarka rolled his eyes. ‘They’re to catch squirrels, of course. I tried shooting a couple yesterday but they’re more secretive and harder to catch here.’
‘Roast squirrel, great. Not exactly the kind of substantial meal I meant,’ Torden groaned.
‘You don’t need to have any then - more for me. Why not try looking for some dairymaid or woodsman’s daughter to give you some cream and a leg of ham in return for one of your silver sixpences?’ Hëkitarka asked, alluding to the time that Torden had spent working at a farm. The farmer’s wife, annoyed with him for screwing the lids on preserves too tightly, left only dry bread for him but the dairymaids gave him jugs of cream in return for the silver sixpences that he left in their slippers.
By the time the clan had finished their chickweed stew Barabas had made several snares for Hëkitarka to use. He and Harfan set off into the raw freshness of the spring twilight to conceal them in likely places. Klaufi made much of the needless cruelty in snaring and eating animals. Aira and Boroden too were uneasy about it.
Whilst Gretchen washed the dishes Aira fetched ferns, lichen and moss to repair their nest pouches. They would soon need new nests constructing and Aira was glad of being in the woods, where materials were abundant, rather than travelling in open ground that was swept bare by winter storms.
Klaufi sidled up. ‘Don’t you think there’s a funny feeling about this place? Not exactly eerie, nor yet friendly neither. It’s as if the trees are watching us.’
‘Yes, I suppose so, though after the Woods of Glorlinderin its magic is faint. It probably doesn’t mean us harm, though it would be well to keep a respectful distance,’ Aira decided.
‘Yes.’ Klaufi cringed as Torden tossed a branch on the fire. Klaufi imagined that this was exactly the kind of disturbance to arouse wrath.
Aira soon forgot Klaufi’s words, for in the evening glow the forest seemed a pleasant place.
Carnelian cast a concerned look about the woods after an hour had gone by. ‘I don’t want to sound like Asuril, but don’t you think that it’s getting on a while since Hëki and Harfan left?’
‘Likely just fooling around,’ Torden said.
‘I’ll look for them in a moment. I’ve got to plan our route for tomorrow first,’ Boroden said, moving his king chess piece. ‘I wish you’d stop chasing me with that pesky queen of yours, Aira. Still, at least you don’t take eight hours to make a move like Klaufi only for it to be a senseless one.’
‘You can tell I’ve won. I’ve got two pieces left and you’ve only got one; a doddery old king who only moves a square at a time.’
‘Mostly back and forward to escape your queen. You’re making him seasick. Anyway, you can’t talk. Your king hasn’t moved in the entire game.’
‘He’s stuffed on carrot cake,’ Aira said, indicating the morsel at Boroden’s elbow. The cake had been the last that Aira could make with the provisions that Glimfyndor had given them.
‘Hmm. Let’s just say that we’re both winners. Anyhow, I’d better finish off and go and plan our route ahead.’
‘A truce. Yes.’ Aira grinned and skipped away. She took her collecting basket with her in case she encountered any edible items in the forest, which she thought more likely than coming across the brothers who probably hid in a den or climbed trees.
‘Wait, Aira. Be careful. I don’t think that it’s safe to go on your own. I’ll find someone to go with you.’ Boroden looked around but most of the clan sat some way off around the campfire.
‘I’ll go,’ Klaufi declared, making a detour from filling his waterskin so he might follow Aira.
Boroden appeared far from pleased with this suggestion and sought somebody whom he considered more competent. Gefi scurried away to collect wood for the fire.
Sighing, Boroden unrolled his battered parchment map and began to ponder it. The country that they travelled was wild and barely charted. Still, if the clan could stay amongst untrodden country and follow bearings from the stars to guide them to Velmoran so much the better. A more predictable route might easily draw attention to them, especially from Midhir. Boroden could never trust him. There was no knowing what manner of evil creatures he might be able to persuade to set upon the brownies, for Boroden suspected that he had dealings with the Unseelie Court.
Having finished with his map Boroden went to stow it away amongst his bundle that he had left beneath a tree with roots that splayed across the ground like gnarled fingers. Seating himself upon the widest of these he tucked the map into the top of his pack beneath the long cloth wrapped form of his sword. He set to work polishing the sword, a task he took pride in since maintaining it in battle readiness seemed vital. Narsarus was fashioned with a wyvern’s head for a hilt, a glistening jewelled eye in its pommel. He had been delighted when Freya had given him the blade. It was just like the sword carried by Peladach.
Though the tree was by now bursting into bud in many places the previous year’s leaves still roosted, crimson as poppies. It was an odd and beautiful tree like none that Boroden had ever seen. He guessed that it may be some relation to the trees forming the Woods of Fire where Glimfyndor had grown up and where the trees kept their autumn colours perpetually. Its striking appearance had been one of the reasons why Boroden chose to make camp beneath it.
Unfortunately, the tree did not share this attraction. Scarlet leaves shook down about him, slowly at first then falling thick, clinging in his hair and heaping about his boots, some hitting him hard.
‘Boroden!’ Carnelian yelled.
Twisting round in horror Boroden saw a fissure in the bark becoming wider, turning into a glaring face with piercing yellow eyes. His yell caught in his throat as roots reached up, twisting about his ankles. He fended the clawing branch away with his sword. Not meant for cutting wood the blade quivered fearfully as it parried the branches. One particularly gnarled branch closed about Boroden’s back and pitched him towards the yawning jaws of the tree.
With a stroke that flashed upon Boroden like thunder Carnelian freed him, showing surprising strength in wielding his axe. Torden and Gefi joined the assault and soon the whole clan hacked at the tree. It caught Quentillian and Fennec in its roots and catapulted them through the air.
‘What was that? Is it dead?’ Fennec asked, rubbing his head as Torden felled the tree.
‘I should hope so,’ Torden replied, splitting the trunk. As the chieftain prised open the heartwood the clan gasped in horror. The wood bore knots in the outline of faces, made hideous through their frozen expressions of terror.
‘They must be folk that it already caught,’ Gefi shuddered.
‘All trees have spirits and not all have allegiance to the Seelie Court. But such a tree as this I’ve never heard tell of before, nor do I want to meet its like again. Evil may pass freely here else it would not have set root. It’s Midhir’s rule that allows such darkness back into our lands. His father always guarded well against it,’ Carnelian said, seizing a branch to tow to the fire that Fostolf said was the only way to destroy the tree.
‘If there’s one such tree then who says there won’t be more. If they’re in league with the Unseelie Court, they might alert Krysila to our passing this way. You said that Midhir was not to be trusted and might be plotting our deaths,’ Fennec reminded Boroden.
The king, however, paid him little heed other than to register Fennec’s worry about other dangers. ‘Aira, the lads!’ Boroden gasped, seizing Narsarus.
‘I don’t understand it. The nuts are gone but the traps are untouched. They’ve always worked before,’ Hëkitarka said, checking the twelfth trap that he had set.
‘Perhaps there are some very clever squirrels here,’ Harfan suggested.
‘You’re not taking this seriously. My tummy will be growling like a cave bear coming out of hibernation if I don’t find a squirrel to roast soon.’
‘It’s a good job that you set another trap then. Bound to be last one lucky. Besides, who wants to be serious?’ Harfan asked playfully. ‘Talking of cave bears…’ Harfan gave his brother’s arm a stout thwack.
Knowing this cue only too well as meaning that Harfan wanted to play at being an angry cave bear chasing him, Hëkitarka’s eyes sparkled. Squealing he scampered away with Harfan growling and stomping behind him. Hëkitarka was glad to be in the thick of the forest away from the older clan members who would call the brothers too old for such games and reprimand their reckless noise.
‘Who is there to hear? This place is hardly dangerous,’ he thought, hauling himself up into a tree with agile movements.
Momentarily foiled, Harfan the cave bear prowled around the trunk, stretching up to snatch at Hëkitarka who dangled an arm or a leg just out of reach. Harfan began to climb after him. Hëkitarka backed along a branch, his mock terrified expression not quite holding true, especially when he laughed at Harfan losing his boot.
‘Don’t get stuck like last time you climbed a tree,’ Harfan cautioned.
‘I can see my squirrel trap from here. It doesn’t look like anyone’s in it but, still, you never know,’ Hëkitarka said, somersaulting off the branch. ‘Race you.’
Though Hëkitarka had the lead Harfan steeled himself to charge to overtake him. Their haste made them blind. Barely had they reached the trap when something snatched their ankles. They were whisked into the air, the blood pounding in their heads. Their assailants were strong creepers with leaves and stalks covered in coarse hairs like tiny thorns. The creepers continued to wind around them until their cries and struggles became useless. Even Harfan’s war hammer failed to break their sinews. Hëkitarka looked at his brother helplessly.
‘You and your squirrels,’ Harfan groaned.