Aira and Gretchen think they are safe with the dryads until woodcutters fell the forest
|Aira inhaled the mellow scent of apples and began to hum one of the songs the dryads had taught her. Toiling as a brownie servant to humans had never been easy, but caring for the trees lifted her spirit. The dryads, at least, were grateful. They admired her care for their trees and how she helped woodland creatures find the autumn bounty they provided.
She examined the overburdened crab apple dryad, poor thing. It certainly needed her help. She reached up, grabbed some apples from its branches and dropped them into her collecting basket.
The crab apple tree dryad sighed with a sound like the whisper of breeze through dry grass. ‘Thank you, my dear. That feels so much better.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Aira beamed, scrambling up the tree branches so she could collect apples further up. Being just under three feet high made doing her tasks inconvenient at times.
Aira smiled as she climbed higher, enjoying the sense of freedom in the forest. Unlike her time working in human homes, here she might command her destiny. She admired the setting sun gilding the peaks of the mountains. Whenever she looked towards the mountains, she thought of the brownie king, Boroden. He had taken his fellow brownie warriors that way when they left in spring. Even though she knew that Boroden thought only of her safety when he insisted she remain with the dryads, she wished she had gone with him. It was her greatest wish to help him on his quest to reclaim their coastal kingdom of Velmoran stolen by an evil kraken. Aira wished Boroden well with all her heart but worried her prayers might not be enough to protect him. He travelled a dangerous route.
The sun dipped below the horizon and Aira shivered. She found a good foothold and climbed down the tree.
‘You look quite content,’ the dryad remarked as Aira began humming again as she swung down from the branches of the crab apple tree.
‘Indeed I am. I like the peace of the forest,’ Aira said, tossing back her golden hair and reaching for her full basket, which she had left 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 fifty years growing in this spot. But you brownies are made for lives with more bustle and adventure.’
‘This forest has quite enough adventure for me,’ Aira said, waving her hand in farewell to the dryad. She turned and headed towards the cottage that she shared with her stepmother, Gretchen. The shadows were lengthening and Aira picked up her pace. She knew that, although she was now a young woman, Gretchen would fret if she was late for dinner.
She had almost reached the cottage when the moon rose over the forest. Despite the cold, she stopped and let the beautiful sight ease the mournfulness that stole over her. She missed Boroden. He had been her best friend since they were children. She sighed sorrowfully. As they had parted, he confessed that he loved her. For years she had longed to hear him say he returned her love, only now the happy memory was entwined with pain. Perhaps she might never see him again?
The moon had been full as it was now soon after Boroden’s departure. The sight conjured up memories of how she had crept outside that night in spring to admire its beauty, careful not to wake Gretchen. Watching the stillness of the moon amongst the scurrying clouds brought peace to her heavy heart.
An animal had been crouched amongst a cluster of bluebells, its black fur blending into the shadows. A wolf. Aira had blown out her candle as it turned, fearful that it might see her and startle away. Midnight blue eyes stared at her sending a shiver down her spine, tightening her heart and shortening her breath. The wolf had slunk away upon noticing her.
It had come back the next few nights, but why? What did it want? It didn’t appear to be hunting and it didn’t attack. On the fourth night, it didn’t come. Should she tell Gretchen? She grimaced. The lone wolf mirrored her mournfulness at being separated from her friends. Aira did not want to discuss the shared secret binding her to the wolf with Gretchen. She had resolved to show a cheerful, strong face to her stepmother who was already burdened with her own worries.
At the next full moon, Aira looked with doubtful hope for the wolf. To her surprise it came bursting from the bushes and lay beside the boulders as before, though this time its chest heaved as though it had run a long way.
Eager to see the wolf, Aira had thrown her shawl over her shoulders, though she was in such haste that she forgot her shoes. The chill of the night air cooled her hurry. She had crept towards the wolf as softly as a moonbeam. As she drew close she noticed he was like no wolf she had seen before. He appeared smaller, and his limbs were almost human in shape.
She must have snapped a twig. He had turned to look at her, wary and watchful. They kept their gazes locked, Aira’s heart pounding. His muscles tensed. Speaking softly, she had held her hand towards him. At that movement he fled.
Months had passed since Aira encountered the wolf but she hoped he would appear tonight. The moon would be full and the forest offered a bountiful food supply for wild beasts at this time of year.
Entering their cottage, Aira found Gretchen wringing her hands. ‘What’s up?’
‘I’ve just got back from walking along the route we took to get here when we were with Boroden. Things have changed, but not for the better,’ Gretchen said, a worried look contracting her normally cheerful freckled face framed by its nest of auburn hair.
‘What do you mean?’ Aira asked.
‘Humans have come from the south. The dryads lamented the deaths of their sisters as woodcutters felled their trees.’
‘But why would humans choose to come to this out-of-the-way nook?’
‘Apparently it’s happening all over the human lands. A war rages and they need wood to build battle galleons.’
‘How did you find all this out from the dryads?’ Aira mused, puzzled.
Gretchen looked guilty. ‘Sorry, love, I should’ve let you know. I thought I’d help a woodsman’s family with their chores. I’m sick of the woodland food provided by the dryads. I hoped the humans might reward me with a gift of milk and a bannock, as most good folk do their brownie helpers.’
Aira cast Gretchen a concerned glance as she arranged the apples in their store. ‘You might have got into danger traipsing all that way to the human dwellings.’
Gretchen lifted the basket of apples onto the table and began helping her stepdaughter. ‘I know, and I’ve heard often enough of Boroden’s lofty ideal of freedom from doing chores for others. But I hoped things might be as they were with Isla.’ A wistful expression came to Gretchen as she recalled Isla, the kind human girl who had befriended the brownies.
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 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.’
Glancing up at the harvest moon as she and Gretchen left for the village that night, Aira felt sorry that she would miss the chance to await the arrival of the mysterious wolf. What a pity it was that brownies must do their work by night to avoid humans noticing them.
Entering the human homestead, they found not a crust left out in gratitude for Gretchen’s labours. Upon discovering evidence that someone had entered his house, the woodsman waited to set his dog on them.
The brownies tore back to their cottage with their hearts pounding so fast they expected them to burst, the dog snarling on their heels. The dog did not stop until they entered their cottage. Instead of giving up it prowled about for hours, barking fiercely and pounding at the thatch every time they moved or spoke.
When morning broke, the woodcutter came in search of his dog and eyed the trees in this part of the forest greedily. They grew broad and strong, having basked in mossiness for years undisturbed. Soon he returned with several fellow woodcutters. All that day trees screamed as they toppled in their verdant finery.
Aira and Gretchen pressed their hands over their ears in helpless anguish. The humans could not hear the keening of the dryads as their trees fell, yet to the brownies their wails sounded heart-breaking. In a mist that rippled like cobwebs, the spirits of dryads left their trees. Their lives bound to their trees, they could not continue without them.
The dryad matriarch, Thunor, was helpless. By the time the sun waned her oak, once the monarch of the forest, lay shattered, its heartwood exposed to the blows of axes. In her death she gave the brownies time. The woodsmen left for their beds with blistered palms with only a quarter of the great oak cut for ship timbers, having no time to reach the brownies’ homestead. Its fate waited until the morrow when the nearby trees should be butchered.
Aira was glad that her unicorn friend Luan had the sense to remain hidden deep in the forest. The unicorn, given to her by the Light Elf King Glimfyndor, should be a grand prize for mercenary humans.
‘We must leave,’ Gretchen told her stepdaughter, wringing her hands in desperation.
Shaken by what was happening, Aira stumbled through her packing. She wished she might do something to save the remaining dryads, that they could run away with her and Gretchen, but their lives were entwined to their trees.
‘There must be some spell of protection,’ Aira decided. She spent long into the night pouring over the books of magic that Boroden had left for her. The magic she had was instinctive and she found following the instructions hard, but she would not give up trying. Gretchen tended to the faerie ponies, Tam Lin and Janet, in the stable. She crammed saddle bags with provisions.
Staying up that night saved their lives. Redcaps arrived with the darkness. The goblins, with their caps dyed in the blood of their victims, sought only one thing. To kill.
Gretchen tore open the door meaning to flee, but the redcaps waited close by, expecting them.
Peering from the window, Aira saw that redcaps surrounded the cottage. Each redcap carried a flaming torch. The fires sparked an idea in her.
‘Up the chimney!’ Aira cried, dousing the smouldering windfall logs in the hearth with water. Fortunately, the fire had not gone well that evening or the chimney would feel blisteringly hot inside. She and Gretchen reached as high as they could up into the chimney, curling their fingers around the stones in the narrow space. They shrunk down to the size of mice; a useful trick often used by brownies to avoid being spotted when working in human homes.
In the sooty blackness, Aira was uncertain of finding places for her hands and feet. Each slip she feared would be into nothingness. Thank goodness brownies had long, sensitive whiskers like mice that she used to feel her way as she climbed. The soot clung to every part of her, making her cough. Behind her, Aira heard redcaps breaking into the cottage and upturning their belongings with a crash, snarling in their ugly language.
At last Aira and Gretchen reached the chimney pot, gasping in the fresh air. In an instant the bracing breath of breeze blew thick with smoke. The redcaps carried their torches not to see by but to burn the cottage. Already the thatch danced red, curling and flying away in cinders.
Luan gave a whinnying call. Several redcaps had grabbed her and brought her towards two masked ladies. Seeing Aira waving towards the forest as she motioned Luan to flee, the unicorn rallied her strength and tossed her head, sweeping her horn at the redcaps. They fell back. Luan galloped to the stables which kindled fast. Tam Lin and Janet were whinnying inside. With one kick the unicorn had the door down and the ponies galloped free.
‘Go to Glimfyndor, Luan!’ Aira yelled, forgetting that her call would reveal her whereabouts. Glimfyndor had promised that he and his fellow Light Elves would help the brownies in their hour of need.
At the sound of Aira’s voice, one of the ladies looked up, forgetting to examine the pack of the brownies’ possessions that a redcap held out towards her. She had luminous red eyes like an ill-boding moon.
‘She’s a sídhe.’ Aira shuddered. Only the sídhe, the powerful elven race in the faerie kingdom, had red eyes.
Gretchen wrung her hands. ‘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.’
‘Nor I.’ This combination of malice and power froze Aira’s courageous heart.
‘Get your followers together. Surround the cottage,’ the sídhe witch yelled to the redcap captain. She gestured furiously to Aira and Gretchen. ‘The brownies are on the roof. Bring them to me!’