Aira and Gretchen think they are safe with the dryads until woodcutters fell the forest
|Aira inhaled the scent of apples and began to sing snatches of one of the songs the dryads taught her. Toiling as a brownie servant to humans had never been easy, but caring for the trees lifted her spirits. The dryads, at least, were grateful. They admired her care for their trees and how she helped woodland creatures find the bounty they provided.|
She examined the overburdened crab apple tree, poor thing. It certainly needed her help. Its verdant branches bent like strung longbows from the weight of the apples. Reaching up, she grabbed apple after apple and dropped them into her collecting basket.
The dryad slipped out of the silvery bark and sighed with a sound like the whisper of breeze through dry grass. The leaves forming her gown were tinged with autumnal red. ‘That’s much better. I felt so weighed down by my fruit this year.’
‘You’re welcome.’ Humming, Aira scrambled up the tree branches in order to collect apples further up.
‘You sound quite content,’ the dryad remarked in her musical voice.
‘Indeed I am. I like the peace of the forest,’ Aira said, tossing back her golden hair and reaching for her basket, which hung suspended on a branch.
‘Hmm, it’s a quiet place. Time passes in the changing weather and yet gentler rhythm of the seasons. I’ve enjoyed nearly sixty years growing in this spot,’ the dryad said, rubbing the thick crust of lichen over her fissured forehead. ‘But you brownies are made for lives with more bustle and adventure. Don’t you wish you’d gone with King Boroden on his journey to defeat the kraken?’
‘Of course I do. He’s been my best friend since we were children.’ She tucked her hair behind her ear and, after a second, stood taller, facing the dryad. ‘I knew that he had to lead his brownie warriors to reclaim the kingdom of Velmoran from Krysila the kraken, but that didn’t make it any easier. He told me he loved me the day he left.’
Warmth fluttered in her heart as she recalled how he left his knapsack behind on purpose so that he might return to find her alone and admit his feelings without the moment being interrupted by his travelling companions. For years, she longed to hear him say he shared her feelings, only now the happy memory was entwined with pain. Perhaps she might never see him again…
Glancing at the dryad’s face furrowed in sympathy, Aira shook her head. ‘There’s no point wishing things were otherwise. Boroden thought only of our safety when he insisted that Gretchen and I remain here. He travels a dangerous route… Sometimes, I worry my prayers might not be enough to protect him.’
‘Boroden has courage and right on his side. He’ll win Velmoran back, then you’ll live many happy years with him there.’
‘I hope so,’ Aira said, placing the last of the nearby apples in her basket. She stretched, finding many of the apples out of her reach. Honestly, being just under three feet high made doing tasks so inconvenient at times!
The dryad watched her, helpfully pulling some of the branches back out of Aira’s way to allow her to grasp the apples without getting tangled in the leaves.
Smiling, Aira climbed higher, enjoying the sense of freedom in the forest. Unlike her time working in human homes, here she could command her destiny.
The sun dipped below the horizon, and Aira shivered. She found a good foothold and began to climb down the tree. Dropping to the ground, she lifted her hand in farewell to the dryad. Shouldering her basket, she headed towards the cottage that she shared with her stepmother, Gretchen. The shadows were lengthening. Aira picked up her pace. Although she was now a young woman, she knew that Gretchen would fret if she were late for dinner.
As she neared the cottage, the moon rose over the forest. The moon had been full like this soon after Boroden’s departure. Aira scanned the undergrowth, hoping to detect movement, or the glint of piercing blue eyes. Would the wolf come again this full moon? Her thoughts drifted back to the first time she saw him…
On that May night, she had crept outside to admire the beauty of the full moon, careful not to wake Gretchen. Watching the stillness of the moon amid the scurrying clouds brought peace to her heavy heart.
Brushing past the bluebells filling the forest with sweet perfume, she stiffened as a twig snapped. Who was there? Gretchen would have carried a lantern and hailed her, not come by stealth. Torn between flight and the need to know who followed her, she turned and half crouched, ready to spring into a run, or to defend herself.
An animal limped from amongst a cluster of bluebells, his black fur blending into the shadows. A set of deep blue eyes locked on hers. The wolf froze, paw in the air like the hunting dogs she knew in the humans’ castle where she once served.
He whined, showing his fangs. She should be afraid. Instead, her body remained stiffened while her mind whirred, trying to understand what the wolf might want.
Instead of attacking, the wolf lay down on his belly, lifting his paw and whining softly.
‘Are you hurt? Is that why you’re following me?’
The wolf lifted his paw higher and whined again.
‘You are hurt, aren’t you?’
Aira stole towards him, holding out her hand to show she meant no harm. Something tangled around his paw. One of the traps that the young brownie prince Hëkitarka had set for squirrels when the brownies first came to the dryad forest.
Aira gave a soothing shush. ‘I’m glad you came to me. Here, this won’t take a moment.’
She freed his paw by cutting through the snare with the scissors she kept in her pocket in case she spotted any herbs to gather to make into potions as her friend, the brownie physician Fostolf, had taught her. The wolf licked her hand, and a strange feeling overcame her as if the wolf was familiar.
‘I feel like I know you,’ she said, stroking the dark fur on his neck.
Jumping up, he placed a paw on each of her shoulders, licking her cheek with his raspy tongue. She stared into his eyes. They reminded her of Boroden. She gasped, but before she could say anything, the wolf loped off into the growing shadows.
She called out to him again and again, scouring the glade nearby, but he was gone, and her heart ached like it did each time she thought of Boroden.
When the Midsummer moon came, Aira awaited the wolf with doubtful hope. To her surprise, he came bursting through the bushes, his chest heaving as though he had run a long way.
Aira crept towards the wolf as softly as a moonbeam. As she drew close, she noticed he looked like no wolf she had encountered before. He appeared smaller, and his limbs were almost human in shape.
She must have snapped a twig. He turned to look at her, wary and watchful. Aira locked gazes with him, her heart pounding. His muscles tensed. Speaking softly, she held her hand towards him. At that movement, he fled.
Aira shook her head to clear the memory and quickened her pace as the brownies’ cottage constructed of earth and fallen branches came into view. Enjoying a hearty meal whilst sitting by the crackling fire made a welcome prospect. Besides, the apples weighed more heavily in her basket with each step she took as her muscles grew tired.
Tonight the moon would be full, and the forest offered a bountiful food supply for wild beasts at this time of year. Hopeful that the wolf would appear again tonight, she planned to slip out of the cottage to look for him after dark.
She entered the cottage, but found the central hall deserted. In the gloam, it looked even more desolate than usual. Every time she saw the spacious hall, she recalled how it had been full of friendly faces before Boroden and his companions departed on their quest. It was way too big for her and Gretchen to live in alone.
‘Gretchen, I’m back.’
No answer. Aira darted into the other rooms set around the central space. All were empty. Perhaps Gretchen was outside? It wasn’t like her to be out this late. She would normally be bustling about preparing a meal at this time of evening. Aira hastened outside into the raw dusk air, calling her stepmother’s name.
Luan, the unicorn given to Aira by the Light Elf King Glimfyndor, looked up from cropping the grass. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Have you seen Gretchen? I can’t find her in the cottage.’
Luan tossed her head thoughtfully. ‘She left a few hours ago, but she didn’t say where she was going.’
Aira wrung her hands. ‘What could have kept her out so long? Which way did she go?’
The creak of the door made Aira start round. Her stepmother entered the cottage. ‘Gretchen!’
Gretchen bustled back outdoors, waving to Aira. A moonbeam lit her freckled face framed by its nest of auburn hair.
Aira ran towards her. ‘Where have you been? I was worried about you.’
Gretchen nibbled her lip, her forehead furrowed with guilt. ‘Sorry, love, I should’ve let you know. One of the dryads told me that she saw humans building cottages at the edge of the forest. I decided to help a family with their chores whilst they were out ploughing their field. I’m sick of the woodland food provided by the dryads. The humans will surely reward us with a gift of milk and a bannock, as most good folk do their brownie helpers.’
Aira cast Gretchen a concerned glance as she followed her into the cottage and began arranging her freshly gathered apples ready to be stored. ‘You might’ve got into danger traipsing all that way to the human dwellings.’
Gretchen helped her stepdaughter, forming a sack with her apron in which to carry the apples to the storeroom. ‘I know, and I’ve heard often enough of Boroden’s lofty ideal of us House Elves being free from doing chores for others, but I hoped things might be as they were with Isla.’
Recalling Isla, the kind human girl who once befriended the brownies, Aira’s heart gave a wistful tug.
Aira squeezed her stepmother’s hand. ‘I understand. I feel lonely at times too. I miss the others of our clan. Though the dryads are as kind as spring sunshine, they’re not of our kind. It feels odd staying with them. I’ll go with you next time you visit the humans to help about their house.’
‘Let’s fix some food and head out again after that,’ Gretchen said.
Gretchen slipped out of the door first. ‘It’s a good thing the moon is bright tonight. We’ll easily find our way by its light and by sensing the air with our whiskers.’
Aira nodded, feeling her own mouse-like whiskers twitching as she walked behind Gretchen on the way to the village. The notion of working for humans made her nervous. ‘Have you got any glamour potion to make us invisible just in case a human happens to be about?’
‘Yes, but we’re running low,’ Gretchen said, handing her the vial of vivid green potion.
Aira took a sip of the potion with its dizzying verdant flavour, making a mental note to collect some of the four-leaf clovers, marigold flowers and buds of young hazel that were its main ingredients on the morrow. She would add these to more precious ingredients — wild thyme from a fairy knoll and grass from under a fairy throne.
At the edge of the woodland, an owl hooted as it winged overhead. Aira paused and glanced up at the harvest moon. She had waited all month for the mysterious wolf to arrive, and if he came tonight, she would miss him. What a pity that brownies must work by night to avoid humans noticing them.
Entering the human homestead, Aira could not even see a crust left out in thanks for Gretchen’s labours, despite the fact the pantry was stuffed with provisions bought from the market.
Gretchen tutted. ‘Well, how ungrateful.’
A pyramid of logs lay beside the fire, dripping tears of sap. Aira stiffened, grabbing Gretchen’s arm. ‘These aren’t trees without spirits — they’re dryad trees from this sacred forest. The humans shouldn’t have done this. This woodcutter’s family isn’t worthy of our help. Let’s leave.’
Gretchen nodded, backing against a fire iron and sending it clattering. Footsteps in the room above made dust shake down from the floor timbers.
‘Ah, so you came back, did you? Show yourselves!’ The woodsman’s voice boomed.
Gretchen dropped her cloth and scurried out of the door. Aira sprinted after her, looking back over her shoulder.
The woodsman kicked his dog awake, and the poor thing yelped.
‘Get after them thieves, you useless old cur!’
He kicked again, but the dog shifted out of reach. Its cowering posture changed as it caught the scent of the brownies. Fear scampered across Aira’s skin as the dog let out gruff barks, its greying hackles bristling. Even if the glamour potion that the brownies had taken made them invisible to humans, it did not work on animals.
Urging Gretchen to keep up with her, Aira tore back to the cottage. Her heart lurched as she caught her toe on a root. No time to nurse her bruises, she pushed herself up and ran on. Though the dog was elderly, it soon gained on her and Gretchen.
Pulling Gretchen into the cottage, Aira slammed the door, bolting it tight. The dog pounded at the thatch. Gretchen opened a window and tossed a pail of water over it. Shaking itself, the dog prowled irritably in the woodland. Thankfully the mysterious wolf did not appear tonight, for the dog might have attacked him.
When morning broke, Aira caught the sound of a human crashing through the undergrowth. She crept over to the window to peer out. The woodcutter’s shadow loomed across the little cottage as he passed by, searching for his dog. He rubbed his chin greedily as he eyed the broad, strong trees that had basked in mossiness for years undisturbed. Aira’s heart sank as she guessed what he must be thinking.
After waiting half an hour after he left to make sure all was safe, Aira stepped outside to check on Luan and the brownies’ ponies. The tramp of human feet and crashing through the undergrowth made her dart back inside.
‘Gretchen, the woodsman has returned with several fellow woodcutters. I think they mean to butcher the dryad trees!’
Gretchen pressed her hand to her lips in horror. ‘How I wish we’d not been followed by that dog, then the men might never have found this part of the forest.’
‘There must be something we can do — some spell of protection.’ Aira pulled out the books of magic that Boroden left for her. Her magic was instinctive, and she found following the instructions hard, but she would not give up trying. If only she knew how to better command the powers held within the magical bracelet given to her by her mother…
None of the spells worked. Trying them again and again, Aira pressed her hands over her ears in anguish as another tree screamed, toppling in its leafy finery. To Aira, the wails of the dryads as their trees fell were heart-breaking, but the humans heard nothing and cared nothing for the pain of the trees. In a mist that rippled like cobwebs, the spirits of dryads left their trees and dissolved in the air.
She could not bear seeing the dryad matriarch, Thunor, next in line to be felled. But it wasn’t safe to go out — there were humans everywhere. Thunor stood helpless as the woodsmen closed in on her tree. Blow by ringing blow the men shattered her oak, once the monarch of the forest.
The woodsmen left for their beds complaining about blistered palms. Only a quarter of Thunor’s great oak lay cut for ship timbers, and the lengthy work of processing Thunor’s tree meant that the humans had no time to reach the brownies’ homestead hidden by the thicket behind the oak tree. Aira quivered, knowing she must act fast. Tomorrow, after dealing with the remaining oak timbers, the humans would likely turn to attacking the trees around the brownies’ cottage.
Slipping outside, Aira went in search of Luan. ‘Keep hidden deep in the forest until I’ve worked out a way to protect the trees with magic. A unicorn would be a grand prize for greedy humans.’
Luan snorted warm breath over Aira’s outstretched hand and galloped away.
Returning to the cottage, Aira found her stepmother piling provisions into bags.
‘We’ve got to leave,’ Gretchen said.
Aira wrung her hands in anguish. ‘But we can’t abandon our dryad friends!’
‘Aira, we can do nothing. The lives of the dryads are bound to their trees. Luan and the ponies depend on us. We can save them, even if we can’t save the dryads. Boroden would want us to leave rather than risk our lives.’
‘Boroden would be able to help them. He’s learned how to channel his magic to work the spells in his book. I haven’t. I didn’t even know I had magic until recently. I need to learn. I’m sure I could help if I just knew how…’
‘Aira, every second that passes brings us closer to the humans discovering us. I’ve never heard of a spell of protection so strong it can cover a whole forest. Even if there was such a thing it would take a powerful sorcerer, one of the sídhe perhaps, to accomplish it.’ Gretchen laid her hand on Aira’s shoulder. ‘I know you don’t want to give in, lass. I can’t bear to see the dryads killed either. But face facts — we’re just humble House Elves, not great sorceresses.’
Aira nodded, swallowing back tears. Gretchen was right. ‘We should head to the mountains following Boroden’s path. It’s a slim chance, but maybe we’ll catch up with him.’
Aira stumbled through her packing with shaking fingers. If only she might do something to save the remaining dryads…
Rubbing her bleary eyes, she caught the murmur of Gretchen talking to the faerie ponies, Tam Lin and Janet, in the stable.
A red flicker darted over the darkening ceiling of the cottage. Crashes came through the undergrowth, drawing closer. Aira jumped to her feet, running to the window. Redcaps! Choking back a whimper, Aira knew that the goblins, with their caps dyed in the blood of their victims as was the custom of their kind, were coming for her and Gretchen.
‘Redcaps are here!’ Aira cried.
Gretchen clapped a hand to her chest as if she had been shot. ‘What? How?’
‘Boroden thought we’d be safe here from being hunted by redcaps under the kraken’s orders. Now Thunor’s dead her magic no longer protects this forest. I guess they’ve been waiting for such a chance to break through and get us.’
‘We’ve got to go now!’ Gretchen fled towards the door and tore it open, but redcaps surrounded the cottage. Each redcap carried a flaming torch.
The fires sparked an idea in Aira. ‘Up the chimney!’
Fortunately, the brownies had not lit the fire for fear of alerting the humans to their presence, so the chimney felt cool. Aira reached as high as she could up into the chimney, curling her fingers around the stones in the narrow space. She glanced down to where Gretchen followed her, motioning her to shrink down to the size of a mouse as she had done already. This useful trick, often used by brownies to avoid being spotted when working in human homes, might now save their lives.
In the sooty blackness, Aira scrabbled for handholds. Each slip she feared would be into nothingness. Using her long, sensitive whiskers, she felt her way as she climbed. The oppressive tang of soot made her cough. Behind her, she heard redcaps breaking into the cottage and upturning the brownies’ belongings, snarling in their ugly language.
Aira reached the chimney pot and gasped for breath. She crawled out, helping Gretchen up behind her. Heaving in deep breaths, Gretchen rubbed her face, leaving sooty trails down her cheeks. The breeze blew thick with smoke. Aira coughed and wiped tears from her eyes. Flames soared. The redcaps carried torches, not to see by, but to burn the cottage. The thatched roof began to dance red, flying away in cinders.
Luan gave a whinnying call. Several redcaps grabbed her and dragged her towards two masked ladies of human size. Aira clutched back the scream rising in her throat. Luan tossed her head, sweeping her horn at the redcaps. The monsters fell back. Luan galloped to the stables which kindled fast, Tam Lin and Janet trapped inside. With one kick the unicorn sent the door crashing down. The ponies galloped free.
‘Go to Glimfyndor, Luan! He’ll help us,’ Aira yelled, forgetting that her call would reveal her whereabouts.
At the sound of Aira’s voice, one of the ladies looked up from examining the pack of the brownies’ possessions that a redcap held towards her. Her luminous red eyes appeared like ill-boding moons.
‘She’s a sídhe,’ Aira said. Only the sídhe, the most powerful elven race in the faerie kingdom, possessed red eyes.
Gretchen’s face crumpled in despair. ‘I know the sídhe scorn the idea of Boroden and us humble House Elves seeking a homeland for ourselves, but I’d never imagine they’d work with goblins from the evil Unseelie Court.’
Aira shuddered. ‘Nor I.’
‘Get your followers together. Surround the cottage,’ the sídhe witch yelled to the redcap captain. She stabbed her arm towards Aira and Gretchen. ‘There the brownies are, on the roof. Bring them to me!’