Thinking Aira and Gretchen are safe with the dryads, Boroden and his companions journey on
|‘Will you give me leave to take some of your fresh young leaves to add to my salad?’ Aira spoke under her breath to a carpet of daisies. More concerned about intuitively choosing which leaves to pluck, Hëkitarka and Harfan were at the back of Aira’s mind though she had followed the tracks that the brothers had left in the muddy path. Already she had gathered plenty of sorrel leaves, with their tang of lemon and vinegar, to chew when walking to quench her thirst.
‘I’m sure I saw that tree move. Out the corner of my eye,’ Klaufi exclaimed in alarm.
‘Where?’ Aira gasped.
He pointed to a slender maple burdened with the task of cradling a fungus spangled tree felled in last winter’s gale.
‘Are you sure it wasn’t a squirrel that you saw?’ Aira asked, seeing one frisk up the trunk. It had been gnawing off strips of bark and this gave Klaufi an idea.
‘Hey up, that would be great for sewing into a cover for those two books of mine that have lost theirs. A bit rustic perhaps but it would do the job and keep the rain off.’ He stepped forwards with his knife but stopped and bent down. ‘The princes’ footprints have changed.’
‘They were running,’ Aira diagnosed. ‘I think we’d better find them. They might be in trouble.’
‘Or just fooling around.’
Barely had they gone twenty paces when they heard sounds of struggling. Parting their way through branches, Aira and Klaufi spotted the brothers high above them writhing in the binds of a creeper.
Instead of looking pleased to see friends and rescuers, the sight of Aira and Klaufi made Harfan and Hëkitarka more distraught.
‘You should go. Get away from here quick. They’ll spot you,’ Harfan warned.
‘Who will?’ Aira demanded.
‘It’s too late!’ Hëkitarka fretted.
‘Look out!’ Harfan hissed, nodding in the direction of a guelder rose bush.
Klaufi grabbed Aira’s arm, fumbling for his dagger with a stricken look.
‘What is it?’ Aira anxiously asked the brothers.
The leaves began to flicker as if stirred by the wind but there was no breeze.
‘Who are you? Show yourselves. We mean you no harm,’ Aira demanded, an impulse telling her to lay her knife peaceably on the ground at her feet. She made Klaufi do likewise.
Aira was struck with wonder at as the bark at the base of the trees began to erupt and transmute into lithe feys who leapt out onto the forest floor. All wore flowing gowns and cloaks of leaves which also twined in their hair and about the staffs that they carried. Dryads.
The tallest, the spirit of the oak that dominated the grove, fixed Aira with eyes at once as wise, wild and wary as a doe.
‘We do not mean to disturb or injure you or your sisters, lady of the woods. It is a great honour to travel in your beautiful forest and even greater still to behold you. They say dryads are in every tree, but it’s rare to glimpse one and I shall always treasure the memory.’ Aira’s gentle eagerness pleased the dryad.
The dryad’s voice was clear and musical as bird song. ‘We return the honour, Lady Frenudin. I am Thunor, the highest power in this forest. Always you have treated our kind with respect, asking before you took so much as a twig, and you are welcome wherever we make our home. These two companions of yours, however, pillage from us without asking leave and would snare our friends.’
‘I’m sure they don’t know what they do. They’d never mean to do wrong.’
‘They should be careful. Just as trees are known to sometimes reassemble and return to persecute those who cut them down, so trying to trap the creatures of the forest might not go without punishment.’
‘They are only young, please don’t make their lesson too harsh.’ Aira was distracted in her pleas by the sight of a squadron of squirrels lashing up the trunk of every tree in the grove, running like water to a confluence at the ivy binding the princes. The squirrels began to gnaw at its fibrous tendrils, in Hëkitarka’s case none too carefully for they nipped his nose. Hëkitarka yelped as one of the tendrils binding him gave way.
‘They’ll fall and get hurt,’ Aira pleaded to the dryad.
Raising her staff Thunor commanded fallen leaves to skitter into a pile beneath the brothers, cushioning their fall. They scrambled out flicking themselves down and spitting out leaves.
‘Ugh, I never thought my feet would feel the ground again,’ Harfan groaned.
‘Aira!’ Boroden called in a hoarse, fearful voice. The forest seemed a place of unfriendly ears. Each tree might be watchful and malevolent.
He had followed the footprints of his friends far, though they had often become lost. There were odd marks on the ground; spidery, scraping marks. Try as he might he could make out no sign of his companions thereafter. Bewildered, he circled the grove several times, growing more frantic. In his desperation he paid scant heed to the cracks appearing in the ground about him. The earth shook. Boroden started up, his whiskers taut. There came a prolonged groaning, shuddering sound like a fierce gale. One of the trees clawed its way towards him, its bark contorted like a hideous grimacing face.
Boroden snatched out his sword and ran. He tripped, his heart lurching as a root tore itself from the ground, reaching for his face. He beat his way back, yelling for help. He cursed the tree for devouring his friends, for he imagined that this had been their fate. The tree moved swiftly, pulling its roots from the earth and stabbing them into fresh ground. Several times Boroden was almost hit by branches dislodged from collisions with the surrounding trees.
With one swift motion a web of black, sinewy roots encircled him, jabbing into the ground around him for support. The earth crumbled and Boroden fell into gaping blackness.
He thudded to a stop quicker than he expected, landing on a dry earth floor scattered with wisps of yellowed grass. He had little time to wonder at the tunnel in which he found himself. In an instant its walls shattered and crumbled about him. Thick, crushing roots reached down mercilessly. He kicked one off as it tightened about his ankle.
‘Out the way. I’ll sort this out,’ Klaufi declared boldly.
Boroden groaned as the young wizard charged towards the fearsome tree, a grin splitting his monkeyish face. He looked less confident as the tree thrust down another root, sending clods raining from the tunnel roof, but still had enough presence of mind to point at the heartwood, reciting an incantation.
The tree trembled in its death throes, emitting a high-pitched screeching as its wood split and tore. Its impact on the forest floor was so monstrous that it threw Boroden and Klaufi to their knees. They gazed at the gaping window of light that the tree left above them.
‘How did you know what to say to kill that thing? And what are you doing down a badger sett? Where are the others?’ Boroden demanded, brushing wiry grey and black hairs from his tunic.
‘Long story. The dryads have got Hëki and Harfan down here doing penance so Aira and I followed. They told us about them wicked trees sent from the Unseelie forests to spy on us, so I reckoned it was a good idea to read up and get some spells handy to combat them.’
If Klaufi had expected praise, he got none. Boroden stood up rubbing his bruises. ‘How do we get out of here?’
Before Klaufi could answer there was a patter of feet. Boroden started forward in delight at the sound he had longed to hear. Aira had been hiding with the dryads listening to the fearful approach of the evil tree until she caught Boroden’s welcome voice.
‘Boroden, come and look at my rabbit,’ she gleefully invited him. In her arms she cradled a leveret, its hind paw bandaged with spider silk.
‘Aye. Hello, you’re a sweet wee fellow,’ Boroden crooned, stroking its warm, downy head whilst the leveret twitched his nose in wonder and the stranger.
‘The dryads found him. His burrow had been destroyed by one of those Unseelie trees and he’d been left injured. I’ve bound a poultice to his leg. I hope he’ll get better and be able to go free. If not, I’ll look after him. He shan’t be much trouble provided I can find lots of dandelions.’
‘He’s lovely. Luckily there’s no shortage of dandelions hereabouts.’
In an instant Boroden’s gentleness became suspicion as he turned to Thunor who entered along with several other dryads. Recollecting Aira’s manner and all that he had been told of them, however, Boroden was politer than he would be to other strangers. ‘Greetings, ladies of the forest. I’m grateful to you for granting us passage through your domain, though I would know why you take some of my kindred beneath the earth without my leave and why you permit such fell things to mingle with you as those evil trees?’
Thunor looked warily at Narsarus which Boroden forgetfully held drawn. ‘First put down your sword. We are a peaceful people and do not have dealings with those who come upon us armed. Nor do we befriend the evil mutants the Unseelie Court has sent into our borders. They came, we think, because of you. They are spies. We do not know what you have done to bring danger upon us. We do not hold it against you, for we too are enemies of evil. Yet, it would be best if you leave our forest.’
‘We cannot do so soon. We need to follow the forest paths some way yet. We have no choice if we are to avoid ogres to the north and the more populated southern woods where we would only bring trouble upon your sister dryads.’
‘Yet if you go on you will find danger and death for sure. Many evil things watch the road beyond our borders, waiting. They are too fearful on the most part to enter our woods but once you leave…’ Thunor paused as Hëkitarka came into view walking backwards, guiding a bale of dry grass and bracken pushed by Harfan. Straw speckled the brothers and they carried makeshift bedding rakes upon their backs. Reaching the level floor, the brothers dropped their load and took a breather, the bale eagerly being pulled away by a badger.
‘Why ever did I want to kill a squirrel? I mean, I love them. Can I go now? Haven’t I done enough?’ Hëkitarka implored Thunor.
‘Not yet. The badgers need a bucket load of slugs collecting.’
Boroden gagged at Thunor’s words and tried to barge through the gathering of dryads to reach his cousins. ‘What are you forcing my cousins to slave for? Do you not know that they are princes of our kind?’
‘And brownies are renowned for helpfulness and efficiency. Surely you would rather we asked them to perform a good deed than punish them?’ Thunor said.
‘Don’t mind Cousin B. He’s just mad because he’s lost our way, Klaufi Spadefoot rescued him and Aira, who’s his heart’s delight, got snatched.’
Boroden looked even more annoyed at Hëkitarka’s mischievous words but he pushed this aside. ‘I don’t wish that any in my clan should serve, Thunor, but if justice demands it then so be it. I hope that, whatever my failings, I have a respect for justice though others may not deal it to us.’
‘Harfan has told us of your troubles. We may not like unbidden strangers, but we like the Unseelie Court even less. In any other circumstances I would ask you to leave and find your scattered clan a true home in Velmoran as quickly as you may. Yet, I can see that would be unwise. There are too many Unseelie creatures waiting to ambush you beyond our boughs. I ask you whether you will not stay with us until the land grows safe again? The Unseelie Court will soon leave the chase and give you up for dead.’
Boroden was surprised at the offer but Harfan took his elbow. After a few minutes of discussion Boroden turned to Thunor with a grateful countenance. ‘I promise your hospitality shan’t be misplaced. May there be goodwill between my people and sprites of the trees for centuries to come. You’re right, I would save my suffering clan tomorrow if I could, but now I see that safety must come first. I’ll go and fetch the rest of my companions and tell them the good news.’
‘I warn you though, Boroden, if you accept my offer there are conditions.’
Thunor took Boroden’s arm and debated with him in whispers. This did not seem to alter his resolve, for he strode away nonetheless.
The other brownies were entranced by the strange and lovely world of the dryads and relieved at the thought of sanctuary and food.
‘It’s good of the dryads to offer us shelter, for they are a quiet and elusive people,’ Carnelian told Gretchen and Aira.
‘Yes, but there’s a condition for our staying here. We entered this sacred wood of theirs without leave and took its wood and plants and creatures. For that we must remain for seven years serving the dryads,’ Boroden pointed out.
Gretchen looked alarmed, but Carnelian restrained her, stroking his whiskers thoughtfully. ‘You must go to Velmoran, Boroden. The longer you leave it the more chance news of your journey has of reaching Krysila.’
Boroden stomped his foot in frustration. ‘I know that. I think that the kraken already knows, for who else would send Unseelie minions into this forest after us? Thunor thinks that it was no coincidence that evil tree followed our camp.’
‘Then we are in peril every step from now on. You speak of protecting Gretchen and Aira from harm. The further they journey with us the more likely that harm may come to them. You wanted them leaving somewhere safe to wait for us. Why not leave them here? They could serve all our sentences for us and seven score years will give us time to reclaim Velmoran. The dryads are gentle folk.’
‘I’m not sure I trust them,’ Boroden said, clutching at this as an excuse to hide how the thought of leaving Aira hurt him.
‘You know I don’t like to split you and Aira but it’s a nice place here and Carnelian will look after us,’ Gretchen said.
Her words sunk Boroden’s spirits further. Carnelian took his elbow. ‘I’m going with you to the end. You’re like a son to me and I swear I’ll not leave you, Boroden.’
Boroden looked to Aira and she saw that he was giving her the power to decide. She knew that she had to put her feelings aside. ‘You must get to Velmoran as quickly as you may. The future of our clan depends upon that. I would not hold you back.’
Life seemed at that moment to Boroden cold and hard and he said wilfully, ‘we shall each of us stay here at least until autumn when the dryads might grant us supplies. Then, if the winter is harsh, we’ll shelter here until spring.’
Carnelian saw through this excuse but nodded nonetheless. He would not be cruel to Boroden. Yet Boroden knew that as the days passed his dread of parting from Aira and facing almost certain death should only increase. Still, he seized this time like the last gasp of one who was drowning.
Burrows and branches were no place for brownies to live. At the invitation of Thunor, they built a home about the spreading roots of her tree. It was a round house like a brown capped mushroom with a broad base. They wove the walls from fallen branches and stitched the roof from layers of leaves. Inside, a central round hall had wedge shaped rooms leading off on all sides. The knotted roots made seats and tables and steps to help the brownies when they hung their nests from the spiralling rafters.
The care of the animals, shaking away fallen leaves from flowers and mushrooms and moving inconveniently fallen branches, was happy work for the brownies. Most of all they loved the parties where they joined the throng of dryads and fauns playing music, dancing and serving plenteous feasts of berries, nuts and flower nectar that they drank from teasel leaf pitchers. The dryads loved nothing better to eat than damp earth.
Spring came, transforming the hair of the dryads, which changed colour with the seasons, to verdant green. The brownies drank the peace of the woods like mead and became comfortable and settled. Even those like Quentillian who would rather start for Velmoran grew to relish the peace. It seemed there must be some alternative to striving for Velmoran. Far better would it be to gather the clan in these woods.
The dejection that had fallen over the clan since the Seelie Court had all but disappeared. However, Boroden could not leave the quest rest. Though he had not mentioned it he had been mulling it over and gathering strength. The autumn had left their pantry abundantly stocked and the spring promised to be fine. Everything seemed to conspire so well to make going to Velmoran sensible.
A pigeon arrived bringing news to the brownies. Gretchen took the paper that it carried. ‘It’s been trained by humans to carry messages.’
‘Messages?’ Boroden repeated, taking the folded note from her. ‘What would humans want with us?’
‘Not humans. Caillie,’ Fennec said, recognising the handwriting.
Caillie’s news was grim. As Midhir had said the stronghold at Novgorad had been destroyed and the ogres had returned with doubled strength. The brownies were so scattered it had been hard to find them and many were yet unseen. Those he came across scraped a living in the homes of humans, including the human pigeon keepers he had borrowed this bird from.
Boroden suggested starting out for Velmoran and Aira told herself to weather the parting as best she could. Hëkitarka was especially distressed and protested that he could not see why Aira and Gretchen should not accompany them. ‘It’s too dangerous and they’ve given their word that they’ll serve all our sentences for us by staying here safely with the dryads,’ Boroden reiterated to him.
At last the day of departure came. Knowing the road ahead to be treacherous, the clan travelled on foot and left their remaining steads; Tam Lin, Janet and Luan, with Aira and Gretchen. Aira would miss Misty who accompanied Boroden. Aira found herself roped into the bustle of bringing luggage to the door, though she had no heart for it. As Hëkitarka hugged Aira and Gretchen farewell they found his sobs contagious.
At last all was ready, and goodbyes said. Boroden managed to keep his words of parting steady but Aira knew from the way that he avoided their eyes that he was in turmoil.
They left. Aira could not believe it was over so soon. Would she ever see them again?
Bravely she had held back her tears. Now they flooded her, making her choke so badly that she thought that her breath had stopped. Gretchen had gone back to her nest to fold the dried washing. She was humming a mirthless tune that Aira knew was to distract her from sorrow.
Aira’s eye was caught by Boroden’s pack left in a corner by the door. In it was his map. He should not go without it. She snatched it up, flinging back the door. If she ran she might catch them up.
She was not the only one to have noticed that the pack had been left. Boroden met her, taking the bag from her. Their hands touched and Boroden did not draw his away.
‘I don’t want to be without you,’ Aira gasped painfully, trying to wipe her tears away with her shawl. ‘What if Bresil was right? Father forged the Talibereth ore sword for me. What if I do have some role to play in helping you reclaim Velmoran? If you leave me then what happens when I’m not there when you need me?’
‘Perhaps you already have played your part in saving Velmoran,’ Boroden ventured.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Aira, after the Seelie Court my hope was flagging. I feared I had not the strength to reclaim my homeland. Seeing the faith that you have in me - it rekindled my strength. More than that; it’s given me something to fight for. I don’t want to leave you, but I know that one day things will be different.’
‘Here, take this. May it keep you safe on your travels,’ she said, unclasping her bracelet and holding it out to him. He reached up and cupped her chin, brushing away her tears.
‘I left my bag behind on purpose, you know. Because I couldn’t say goodbye to you as I wished with the others looking on. I want you to know that I love you.’
‘Follow me,’ Gribble said.
Midhir ducked under a toppled pillar and squinted after the nodding light of Gribble’s seal oil lamp. So, this was the quays; the once mighty heart of Velmoran where ships had come from across the faerie lands to trade. How it had fallen.
Splashing into a pool of briny ink, Midhir cringed and tightened his grip on the flask under his arm. The kraken was welcome to her lair for all that he cared. Only the thought of the elixir of immortality drew him on.
‘Here, Sire,’ Gribble beckoned.
Midhir came to the water’s edge. Light filtered in from the entrance to the sea cavern showing the waves rippling like snakes. In front of him their smooth rhythm began churning. The waves fled away as the water sucked down. In their place rose a vast head, black and oily. The kraken’s eyes opened; bright as luminous pools of flame.
‘Lady Krysila,’ Midhir bowed.
The kraken snorted, jetting plumes of water over the tangled wreck of a galleon that had been tossed onto the quayside. Midhir stepped back as she drew herself out of the water, bending her muscular tentacles into flippers.
She held one of her tentacles out before her. Her suckers clutched an odd wardrobe of dangling skins that reminded Midhir of roosting bats. The remains of her victims, all that was once flesh sucked out of them. Yet the skins showed no sign of having shrivelled. Their freshness fascinated Midhir. He could only put it down to one cause. To him it proved that Krysila had found the elixir of immortality.
Krysila found the skin that she was after and tossed it over her head. In a writhing of tentacles, she changed almost too fast for Midhir to see. Stood before him in her place was a sídhe queen. ‘Well, King Midhir?’
‘I bring you good news. The brownies journey to retake Velmoran.’