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 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 bounty they provided.
She examined the overburdened crab apple, poor thing. It certainly needed her help. Its verdant branches bent like strung longbows from the weight of the rosy apples. Reaching up, she grabbed apple after apple from its branches 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 feels much better. I felt so burdened by all those apples.’
‘You’re welcome.’ Aira scrambled up the tree branches, so she could collect apples further up.
Aira stretched, finding many of the apples out of her reach. Honestly, being just under three feet high made doing her tasks so inconvenient at times!
The dryad watched her, helpfully sweeping aside some of the branches to allow Aira to reach 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 climbed down the tree, beginning to hum again as she swung down from the branches.
‘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 accompanied King Boroden?’
‘Of couse I do, but he wouldn’t let me go because he feared for my safety on the dangerous quest. I wanted to stay with him because 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 the evil 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 pack 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 silvery bark of 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, waving 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 Aira 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. On that spring night, she crept outside 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.
That night, an animal crouched amongst a cluster of bluebells, its black fur blending into the shadows. A wolf. Aira blew out her candle as the wolf turned, fearful he 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.
Over the following few nights, the wolf continued to come back. Why? What did it want? It didn’t appear to be hunting, nor did it attack. 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 resolved to show a cheerful, strong face to her stepmother who was already burdened with her own worries.
At the next full moon, 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 was like no wolf she 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 the wolf, her heart pounding. His muscles tensed. Speaking softly, she held her hand towards him. At that movement he fled.
Aira quickened her pace as the brownies’ cottage constructed of earth and fallen branches came into view. Having a meal in the warm was a welcome prospect. Besides, the apples weighed more heavily in her basket with each step she took as her muscles grew tired.
Months passed since Aira encountered the wolf, but she hoped he would appear again tonight. The moon would be full, and the forest offered a bountiful food supply for wild beasts at this time of year. Sure he would come, she planned to slip out of the cottage to look for him after dark tonight.
She entered the cottage, but she 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 day. 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.’
‘She left a few hours ago, but she didn’t say where she was going.’
Aira wrung her hands. ‘What can have kept her out so long? Which way did she go?’
The creak of the door made Aira start round. She sighed to behold her stepmother entering the cottage. ‘Gretchen!’
Gretchen darted 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 yesterday. They’re building cottages at the edge of the forest. I decided to help a 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 followed her into the cottage and began arranging her freshly gathered apples ready to be stored. ‘You might have 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. Perhaps some of the humans might be kind and become our friends, as Isla did.’
Gretchen slipped out the door first. Aira walked behind her on the way to the village.
At the edge of the woodland, an owl called 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 was going to miss him. What a pity it was that brownies must do their 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.
Gretchen tutted. ‘Well, how ungrateful.’
Searching the cottage for any sign of a meal left for the brownies, Aira went to the fireplace. A pyramid of logs lay beside it, weeping sap. Aira stiffened.
Aira darted to Gretchen’s side and grabbed her arm. ‘These are dryad trees. They’re sacred. The humans shouldn’t have done this. This woodcutter’s family isn’t worthy of our help. Come, let’s leave.’
Gretchen nodded, backing against a fire iron and sending it clattering. Footsteps in the bedroom 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 scurrried out of the door. Aira sprinted after her, looking over her shoulders.
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 it let out a volley of barks, its greying hackles bristling.
Urging Gretchen to keep up with her, Aira tore back to the cottage with her heart pounding so fast she expected it to burst, the dog snarling on her heels. Aira’s 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 was gaining on her and Gretchen.
Pulling Gretchen into the cottage, Aira slammed the door, bolting it tight. Above her shuddering breaths came fierce barking as 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 surrounding the cottage. Aira was glad the mysterious wolf did not to appear tonight.
When morning broke, Aira caught the sound of a human crashing through the undergrowth. She crept over to the window to peer out. It was the woodcutter searching for his dog. The woodsman 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. The woodsman had returned with several fellow woodcutters. All that day trees screamed, toppling in their leafy finery.
Aira pressed her hands over her ears in anguish, doing her best to comfort Gretchen who was as distressed as she was. 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 to nothing in the air.
If only she might bid her friend, the dryad matriarch, Thunor, farewell. She could not bear seeing Thunor next in line to be felled. But it wasn’t safe - there were humans everywhere. Thunor was helpless as the woodsmen closed in on her tree. Blow by ringing blow the men shattered her oak, once the monarch of the forest.
Through her tears, gratitude filled Aira. She would miss the oak tree dryad dearly, but Thunor’s death had given the brownies time. The woodsmen left for their beds complaining about blistered palms. Only a quarter of Thunor’s great oak was 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 and Gretchen must act fast. Tomorrow, the remaining oak timbers were dealt with, the humans would likely turn to butchering the trees around the brownies’ cottage. By tomorrow, she, Gretchen, the ponies and the unicorn must have left the forest. Their lives depended on it.
Slipping out of the cottage, Aira went in search of Luan. ‘Keep hidden deep in the forest. A unicorn would be a grand prize for mercenary humans. Gretchen and I will come and find you once we’ve finished our packing and we can search for Boroden together.’
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.
‘Thunor is dying. We can’t just leave her to die alone after all she’s done for us.’
‘But the humans are coming. We can’t stay.’
‘I know, 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 drayds. If Boroden was here, he’d tell us to leave.’
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, but it appeared impossible.
‘There must be some spell of protection.’ Aira pulled out the books of magic that Boroden had 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 magical powers held within the magical bracelet given to her by her mother.
Rubbing her bleary eyes, Aira 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, sought only one thing. To kill.
‘Redcaps are here! We’ve got to go now,’ Aira cried.
Gretchen fled towards the door and tore it open, but the redcaps waited nearby.
Peering from the window, Aira saw redcaps surrounding the cottage. Each redcap carried a flaming torch. The fires sparked an idea in her.
‘Up the chimney!’ Aira doused 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 reached as high as she could up into the chimney, curling her fingers around the stones in the narrow space. Aira glanced down to where Gretchen was following her, motioning her to shrink down to the of a mouse as she had done already. It was a useful trick often used by brownies to avoid being spotted when working in human homes.
In the sooty blackness, Aira scrabbled for handholds. Each slip she feared would be into nothingness. Thank goodness brownies possessed long, sensitive whiskers like mice that she used to feel her way as she climbed. The oppressive tang of soot made her cough. Behind her, she heard redcaps breaking into the cottage and upturning their belongings, snarling in their ugly language.
Aira reached the chimney pot and gasped for breath. She crawled out, helping Gretchen up behind her. Gretchen was heaving in deep breaths. Aira pressed a hand to her aching chest, still struggling for clean air, and looked around. The breeze blew thick with smoke. She coughed and wiped the tears from her eyes. Flames soared from the nearby cottages. The redcaps carried torches, not to see by, but to burn the cottages. Roof after thatched roof danced red, flying away in cinders.
Luan gave a whinnying call. Several redcaps grabbed her and dragged her towards two masked ladies. 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!’ 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 towards her. Her luminous red eyes appeared like ill-boding moons.
‘She’s a sídhe.’ Aira shuddered. 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 violently towards Aira and Gretchen. ‘Look - there the brownies are, on the roof. Bring them to me!’