Aira joins her fellow brownies in a cottage in the mountains
|Ahead of them Aira thought that she caught voices. She strained to listen but heard nothing more. She must be deceiving herself, as she had many times before. Hëkitarka had told her yesterday that she and Gretchen were drawing close to the clan. Yet the others moved ahead swiftly, sure of their food and well shod, unlike Aira and Gretchen. By nightfall the gap had widened, as always.
The forest was languid with the approach of autumn in that period between the last cherries and the emergence of the apples, nuts and berries that would help to see the brownies through winter. Now, however, they found little to eat. Aira was lightheaded and her stomach empty. If they found it hard searching out food now, she wondered what would become of them in winter if they still had not caught up with the clan?
As they picked their way up a scree scattered slope a volley of rocks came bouncing towards them, dislodged from above. Looking up sharply, Aira could not believe what she saw.
From amongst the rowan trees emerged a brownie, laughing with joy. Aira immediately recognised Hëkitarka’s shaggy dappled hair and bright, brown eyes that shone in the friendliest way. Yet in many respects he was changed; grown tall and handsome with a forest of long whiskers and a deeper tone of voice.
Aira barely registered the alteration so delighted was she to see him. She flung herself into his open arms and was quickly joined by Gretchen. He exclaimed in delight and his brother Harfan sped to join them. Soon other members of the clan arrived to greet them.
‘Well, much a to do. We had better be heading back to base,’ Torden decided after arriving last to greet Aira and Gretchen. He frowned at the sky where a crow hung aloft before winging away.
‘Base?’ Aira asked.
‘Aye,’ Hëkitarka replied. ‘A shepherd’s cottage. We’re hard pressed to find anywhere on these lonely mountains to bide for a while. I’m glad Boroden put aside his pride and agreed to stop with the humans. I was afraid he’d urge us on and you’d never catch us up.’
‘Urge you on? Why?’
A troubled look shadowed the faces of the brothers. ‘We have known many trials since you were with us last, Aira. Cousin Boroden has decided it’s best to wait for as many of the clan as can be mustered to join us, for we are too few to take Velmoran alone,’ Harfan explained.
‘Boroden is plotting a battle on the estuary plain to distract Krysila’s army whilst he slays her in Velmoran. It’s good that we remember the place so well and know how we may take the advantage.’ Quentillian puffed out his chest proudly.
‘You have not seen Barabas on your journey?’ Harfan asked.
‘No. I’ve had no sight nor scent of him. Why?’
‘We sent him to deliver tidings to the brownies scattered from Novgorad that we are waiting for them here. He intended to return the way we came; the route you took,’ Quentillian said. It had been Boroden’s choice to send Barabas for he was well liked by the brownies. This was largely because Barabas was an excellent cook and always had a second helping and cheery words to offer at feasts. Boroden hoped Barabas’s popularity would convince the other brownies to join him in his plans to retake Velmoran.
‘Well then, we must pray for him and prepare for the worst. He may be lost or dead.’ In Carnelian’s voice was a weight of inevitability that surprised Aira. Carnelian was Gretchen’s second husband and usually spoke optimistically in the sound advice that he gave.
They set off, Carnelian and Gretchen bumping shoulders companionably as they talked in hushed tones. Hëkitarka slipped his arm through Aira’s. She leaned against him gratefully, for she was weak and stumbling. All the heavy cares of the past years suddenly flooded her.
‘Boroden hoped that Barabas would lead more of the clan to join us so we stopped on our journey. We’re safe staying a while in the human dwelling now,’ Harfan said.
‘I’m surprised that Boroden allows you to help humans.’
‘He doesn’t do chores about the place himself, though he had to admit that it was our duty to the humans, and the only chance of getting food, to work,’ Hëkitarka explained.
‘I’ll be glad to help you,’ Aira offered.
‘You shall be very welcome, but not now. Now I intend to look after you.’ Hëkitarka swept Aira off her feet and carried her uphill.
‘I can walk you know,’ Aira smiled.
‘Maybe, but how else am I going to get you to notice my strong arms?’ Hëkitarka asked suavely.
‘He’s very proud of them. Lots of archery practice,’ Harfan put in.
‘I’m getting good. When we came to a ruined fortress a while back I practiced shooting through the arrow slits. It takes great skill to do that in the thick of battle.’
‘You’ve grown much since I last saw you, Cousin,’ Aira told Hëkitarka.
‘Do you think I’m handsome?’ Hëkitarka asked, tightening his grip anxiously and giving her a hopeful smile.
She glanced at him wearily. ‘Aye. You’ve got very nice eyes.’
‘‘Ere we are,’ Klaufi called from up ahead, beckoning from on top of a mossy drystone wall. Aira asked to be set down and went to join Klaufi, trying to piece together some shreds of interest in their new home though her mind was clouded by troublesome thoughts.
Harfan nudged his brother. ‘Very subtle.’
‘What?’ Hëkitarka asked innocently.
‘I can read your heart easy as a cloudless day.’ Harfan slapped Hëkitarka on the shoulder and they both grinned.
‘I wish she could. I’m so glad she’s come; I’ve been hoping and hoping.’
‘She’ll realise soon enough. Be gentle with her, give her time. Soon she’ll look about herself and there will you be. Now her struggles have left her weak.’
‘Aye. And seeing Boroden like this will be a great blow to her,’ Hëkitarka mused, ruefully watching Aira.
The path that they took was stony and sun-baked, but not warm. It wended steeply past gorse, gaunt thorns, stands of rushes and sheep. At last, having crossed a reed whipped stream, Aira glimpsed a stone wall on a rise ahead of them and beyond it a blueish slate roof half concealed behind an imposing ash tree set in the wall. To one side was a steep scree slope, as if the mountain would tumble down and engulf the sagging roof of the house that reflected the shape of the crags behind it.
‘Is that base?’ she asked Gefi who had woven a kilt for himself from green rushes, his own being now too tatty to wear.
‘Boroden’s there?’ Aira asked, posing the question that had been consuming her.
Harfan and Hëkitarka exchanged glances. ‘Aye.’
‘What is it?’ Aira asked, detecting their hint of uneasiness.
‘Nothing. Come along, I’ll race you,’ Hëkitarka declared.
Tall and bounding with energy, he soon beat her. She fell back content to smile and watch. From the direction in which they approached the house it would take them longer to reach the gate, the posts of which curved inwards like the ears of a donkey trying to listen to things on either side of it. Grabbing a rail on an old bedstead that the shepherd had used to mend a breach in the drystone wall, Hëkitarka somersaulted over it and landed with a triumphant grin.
‘Our humble abode.’ He gestured to a squat, long cottage. The sturdy granite walls looked almost warm in the last of the evening light.
Fennec, the red-haired brownie scout, was balancing with a mug of ale on top of the wall forming a pocket of garden in front of the house. Aira could not imagine vegetables growing well in the stony soil.
‘Gretchen, Aira.’ Fennec almost toppled off the wall in disbelief. Dropping down he ran to hug them. ‘Boroden was about to send out a search party for you lads. So, this is where you’ve been fetching Aira to cheer Boroden. Well, I wish you the luck of it.’
The mention of Boroden and knowing that he was so close sent the blood fizzing through Aira. She shoved back the door with its thick wood that looked as if it had been gnawed by centuries of squirrels. As if by instinct she made towards the inglenook fireplace. She stopped in the shadow of a battered dresser, staring.
The shepherd’s best armchair was drawn near the fire. Boroden was sat on its footstool, the embers illuminating him. He had long, dark lashes and eyes as deep blue as the sky on a snowy night. His nose was rather sharp, and pride and pain had their place in his features. He was swathed in his heavy, embroidered robe that was now somewhat tarnished. Something about him reminded Aira of a caged bear; regal yet beaten and in its woe fierce. That checked her with a tinge of trepidation. She heard Hëkitarka and Harfan arrive behind her.
Boroden made a move to set down a cup and turned his head in her direction. Aira could contain herself no more. ‘Boroden!’ she exclaimed, bounding enthusiastically towards him. She wanted nothing more than to dispel his sorrow, to see him smile again.
He rose with almost a look of horror. This made Aira falter.
‘Boroden, what’s wrong? What’s happened?’
‘What’s she doing here? She should not have come,’ Boroden snapped at his cousins, averting his gaze from Aira.
Aira stared aghast. Harfan took her arm to lead her away.
Hëkitarka’s despair made him reckless. ‘I told you I had a surprise. I thought you’d be pleased to see her.’
‘Pleased? So, this is your plan bringing her here thinking it will amuse me to know that she is now in such peril?’
Boroden was evidently in a bad mood and did not understand the situation, so Gretchen put in, ‘Sire, humans felled the forest and we should have been taken by redcaps had we not fled. Hëki has been leading us to you for a long time and I dare say we’ll be better off with you than anywhere else. Though you think not?’
‘You should not have come here,’ Boroden repeated curtly, hunching his shoulders and half shrugging the other brownies away.
‘We had nowhere else to go. I wanted to see you again. I thought that you’d be glad.’
‘I thought perhaps I might do something to help you.’ Aira smiled at him falteringly.
‘I don’t need your help. I’m king. I must make my decisions alone,’ Boroden replied. He turned from her and gazed into the fire, not seeing the flames. Life was as transitory as a sunbeam, so easily lost. There had been too much pain.
He had forged a skin around himself like armour worn by one too beaten to fight; it could not protect him and would not stop the blows though he tried to make believe it would. He focused on the permanent things, the things remote from mortal life that could know no love, for love would only lead to pain. The brownie clan’s way marked out in the high and distant stars, the directions told by tree and stream and mountain, the legends of his clan, the broken stones of Velmoran. He tried to make these things hold his thoughts. Yet it was hard when Hëkitarka looked at him so penetratingly, trying to draw him in, trying to make him feel. And now Aira was here.
How he wished to be someone other than Boroden Ulfharen, the brownie made king whilst still a child, who had witnessed so many loved ones slain, his home destroyed by brutal greed. He had been defenceless and small and afraid. Others - when they had looked at him they had thought him an outcast; a penniless, homeless nothing. He had held on. He had thought he had won. Then he had lost everything. Why? What had he done to merit it?
Now, could he win again? He hated seeing his friends vulnerable on their journey. Part of him felt as if it was drowning and he was desperate to find a way out. He had to force himself on like a puppet playing the good king. It was his duty.
‘I’ll leave you then. It’s good to see you again,’ Aira said, breaking his train of thought. Boroden realised uncomfortably that she had been watching him for some moments, waiting for him to retract his gruffness.
The strength that Aira had carefully gathered about herself over the past trying months ebbed away. Boroden had built an icy, impenetrable wall about himself and shut the door on her. She had longed for this moment; to see Boroden again. She had expected a far different welcome. She would not let the tears that came to her eyes fall, for she was ashamed.
She sought for words to bring Boroden round, to soothe him, but it was hopeless. She knew him enough to know when he wished to be left alone. Perhaps he would be kinder to her soon. She knew he could be defensive and abrupt if hurt. She allowed Harfan to lead her to the door.
Seeing Aira and Gretchen looking paler and wearier at Boroden’s rebuff than they had before, Hëkitarka stood a moment irresolute. Then, unable to contain himself, he said in a half pleading, half admonishing tone, ‘you use them ill, Cousin. They had been looking forward to seeing you. Could you not find a word of welcome? You were fond of them once.’
Boroden turned his back, looking into the fire.
Hëkitarka stepped forward. ‘Cousin!’
‘Hëki,’ Harfan cautioned, gestured his brother away.
‘What ails Boroden?’ Aira asked Hëkitarka. ‘It’s as if I don’t really know him anymore.’
‘I’m so sorry I brought you to this. I thought it would make him happy. Make you both happy.’
‘It was worth a try,’ Harfan comforted.
Carnelian’s lips tightened. He knew Boroden better. ‘I’m sure Boroden will be glad that you’re here. Give him time,’ he said.
‘Now you must try and forget your sorrows. You need food and rest.’ Harfan led them to the kitchen.
The rest of the clan rejoiced to see Aira and Gretchen. Aira had forgotten how good it was to be with them. Though the hardships they had endured told plainly in every face, it was not these they talked of but amusing things, led in this by the two princes. Gefi set about boiling tea which Aira drank greedily as her throat felt parched.
‘The humans have a loft above the barn at one end of the house. They keep their old tools and spare bits and pieces there and use the room but seldom. We’ve made nests there to sleep in using bracken and wool gathered from the moor,’ Fennec explained.
‘You get some rest when you can. We’ll work by night to avoid the humans but don’t mind us,’ Harfan said.
‘Should work at night any other time that is.’ Klaufi clomped duck footed down the stairs in his over large shoes. He nodded at the ceiling. In the room above footsteps sounded.
‘You’ve woken them?’ Gretchen asked Klaufi.
‘Nay. It’s lambing season and the shepherd will be going to check on the ewes. One started birthing late in the evening and looked in a spot of difficulty. He’ll be going to look her over,’ Klaufi explained.
Carnelian yawned. ‘I say we should all get some shut eye.’
‘What about Boroden?’ Aira asked, worried that the humans might spot him.
Fennec shrugged. ‘Ah, he can fend for himself.’