Aira is delighted to be reunited with her fellow brownies, but a shock awaits her...
|Was that the voices of other brownies ahead of Aira? She strained to listen but heard nothing more, except for the rustle of leaves and warble of birds. She must be deceiving herself, as she had many times before.|
Helping Gretchen to pick her way up a scree scattered slope, Aira startled as a volley of rocks bounced down towards them. Looking up sharply, Aira gasped.
From amongst the rowan trees emerged a brownie, laughing joyfully. Aira recognised Hëkitarka’s shaggy dappled hair and bright, brown eyes that shone in the friendliest way. Yet, in many respects, he appeared changed, grown tall and handsome with a deeper tone of voice and a forest of long whiskers that made him look like an otter.
Aira flung herself into his open arms, and Gretchen quickly joined her. Soon Hëkitarka’s brother, Harfan, and many of the other brownies appeared.
Torden arrived last to greet Aira and Gretchen, tossing his dark deadlocks back over his shoulders while he waved to them. A shadow loomed overhead. Torden looked up. Aira followed the direction of his gaze and found a crow hovering above her before winging away. This was not the first time she found herself being watched by crows, birds known to be allied to the Unseelie Court.
Torden frowned. ‘Well, much a to do. We’d better be heading back to base.’
His eagerness to dismiss comments about the crow made Aira uneasy. Had the bird been spying on him too? Yet, the mention of the brownies’ sanctuary intrigued her. ‘Where’s base?’
Hëkitarka took her arm. ‘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 feared he’d urge us on and you’d never catch up.’
His words perplexed Aira. ‘Urge you on? Why?’
Harfan’s usually genial features became grave. ‘We’ve known many trials since you were with us last, Aira. Cousin Boroden decided it’s best to wait for more of the clan to join us, for we’re too few to take Velmoran alone.’
One of Boroden’s chieftains, Quentillian, stepped forward. ‘The king is plotting a battle on the estuary plain near Velmoran.’ Quentillian puffed out his chest proudly. ‘It’s good that I remember the place so well and can help Boroden to take the advantage when it comes to a fight for Velmoran.’
Harfan looked from Quentillian to Aira. ‘Have you seen Fennec on your journey?’
‘No, I’ve had no sight nor scent of him. Why?’ Aira asked.
Quentillian rubbed his chin. ‘Boroden sent him to the brownies scattered from Novgorad with tidings that he’s waiting for them. Fennec returned along the route you took.’
A shiver of foreboding crawled down Aira’s spine. ‘Was Fennec alone?’
Quentillian nodded, continuing in his typical orotund style, ‘His esteemed majesty, King Boroden cleverly hoped Fennec’s popularity would persuade the other brownies to join him in his plans to retake Velmoran. It’s such a pity that his well-conceived notion appears to have come to nothing.’
Carnelian’s greying locks fell over his eyes as he bowed his head mournfully. ‘Well, we must pray for Fennec. If you’ve not encountered him, he may be lost or dead We expected him to have returned by now.’ In Carnelian’s voice hung a weight of inevitability that surprised Aira. Gretchen’s second husband usually spoke optimistically.
Gretchen squeezed Carnelian’s hand, shaking her head ruefully. ‘I hope Fennec’s not dead.’
‘Me too,’ Aira said, trying to block out the cold feeling stealing over her heart at the idea of Fennec in danger. ‘Fennec’s such a merry soul and always gives second helpings and cheery words at feasts. It would be awful for anything to have befallen him alone in the wilds.’
Aira followed the others towards the shepherd’s croft. Carnelian and Gretchen bumped shoulders in a companionable way, Carnelian trying to comfort Gretchen who worried about Fennec. Aira wondered how Boroden took his friend’s disappearance and hoped to cheer him by her arrival.
Lost in thoughts about her coming reunion with Boroden, Aira stumbled. Hëkitarka slipped his arm through Aira’s and she leaned against him gratefully, rubbing her free hand over her weary eyes. How she longed for a roof over her head and a cosy nest to curl up in…
‘I’m pleased you’re going to stay with us in the human dwelling,’ Harfan said.
Aira turned to him, puzzled. ‘I’m surprised Boroden allows you to help humans. He hates the curse that condemns brownies to serve others.’
‘He doesn’t often do chores about the place himself, though he had to admit that it’s our duty to the humans under the terms placed on brownies by the Seelie Court,’ Hëkitarka said.
‘I’ll help you,’ Aira said.
‘That’ll be welcome, but not now. Now I intend to look after you, sweetling.’ Hëkitarka swept Aira off her feet and carried her uphill.
Aira chuckled. ‘I can walk, you know.’
‘Maybe, but how else am I going to get you to notice my strong arms?’ Hëkitarka asked suavely.
Warmth rushed to Aira’s cheeks. She fell silent, unsure what she should reply she should give. All she could think of was Boroden.
Harfan prodded Hëkitarka’s muscular arm. ‘He’s very proud of his strength. Lots of archery practice.’
‘I’m getting good. When we came to a ruined fortress a while back, I practiced shooting from the ground up into the arrow slits. It takes great skill to do that in the thick of battle.’
‘You’ve grown since I last saw you,’ Aira said, proudly taking in how her friend had developed from the boy she had taken under her wing when she joined Boroden’s company.
‘Do you think I’m handsome?’ Hëkitarka asked, tightening his grip and giving her a hopeful smile.
She glanced at him, wearied by what she saw as jesting. Didn’t he know she only cared for Boroden? Yet, it would be wrong to deflate Hëkitarka after he had been so helpful. ‘Aye. You’ve got nicely shaped eyes.’
Harfan nudged his brother. ‘Very subtle.’
‘What?’ Hëkitarka asked innocently.
‘I can read your heart as easily as a cloudless day.’ Harfan slapped Hëkitarka on the shoulder, and they both grinned. Aira feigned a smile for the sake of politeness.
‘‘Ere we are,’ Klaufi called from up ahead, beckoning from on top of a mossy drystone wall.
‘Set me down, Hëki,’ Aira asked. She nodded thank you at Hëkitarka and then hastened towards Klaufi. It had been too long since she had seen him. She smiled and waved. Klaufi returned the greeting by swishing the air with his gangly hands.
The path to the croft was stony and sun baked but not warm. Aira rubbed her arms to stave off the chill as she followed Klaufi along the track that wended among gorse, gaunt thorns and stands of rushes that scratched at her if she did not move with care. At last, having crossed a reed-whipped stream, Aira glimpsed a stone wall on a rise. Beyond it rose a slate roof, half-concealed behind an imposing ash tree. To one side lay a steep scree slope, making it look like the mountain would tumble down and engulf the sagging roof of the croft.
‘Is that base?’ Aira asked Gefi.
The bushy-haired brownie had woven a kilt for himself from green rushes, presumably because his own had become too tatty to wear.
‘Boroden’s there?’ Aira said, glancing at the roof. The thought of seeing him again made her heart flutter faster than the wings of a pillywiggin fairy eagerly supping nectar from flowers.
Gefi gave a wary nod. ‘Aye.’
Aira sensed his uneasiness. ‘What is it?’
‘Come along, I’ll race you,’ Hëkitarka said before Gefi could reply.
Tall and bounding with energy, Hëkitarka soon beat her. She fell back content to smile and watch. Carnelian opened the gate, the posts of which curved inwards like the ears of a donkey cocked to listen for surrounding sounds.
Hëkitarka didn’t bother to go through the gate. Grabbing the top rail of an old metal bedstead that the shepherd used to mend a breach in the drystone wall, he somersaulted over the bedstead and landed with a triumphant grin.
‘Our humble abode.’ He gestured to the squat, long cottage. The last of the evening light glowed on the granite walls. ‘The humans should be turning in for the night now, so we’ll have the house to ourselves. Even if they did happen to wake up, we’ve got plenty of glamour ointment with us to make ourselves invisible to humans if the need arises.’
Knowing Boroden was so close sent anticipation fizzing through Aira. She shoved back the oaken door that looked like it had been gnawed by centuries of squirrels. Slipping inside, she smoothed her tangled hair and brushed mud flecks from her skirt in an attempt to make herself look more presentable. Instinctively, she stole towards the inglenook fireplace. She stopped in the shadow of a battered dresser, staring.
The shepherd’s armchair huddled near the fire. Boroden sat on its footstool, the embers illuminating him. Aira drank in his familiar 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. A heavy, embroidered robe that now appeared travel-worn swathed him. Something about him reminded her of a caged beast; regal yet beaten and in its woe, fierce. Her eagerness tinged with an upwelling of trepidation. Anger kindled against whatever saddened Boroden. The beloved sunshine of Boroden’s smiles did not deserve to be so eclipsed. Surely she would make him happy again, though she must be careful how she told the tale of the attack on the dryads and her wanderings. He cared too much for her well-being, and to see her arriving half-starved and weary would pain him.
Before she could finish savouring Boroden’s aura and compose herself to approach him, Hëkitarka and Harfan clomped their way next to her. Boroden spotted them, and the silent magic dissipated before she had time to drink her fill.
‘Surprise!’ Hëkitarka exclaimed, pushing Aira towards Boroden like an extravagant gift.
Aira took his hand, smiling up at him as he rose to his feet. ‘Boroden!’
‘Aira, what’s…’ he took in the way her tattered dress hung loose against her gaunt form, his lips parted in horror as if he beheld a ghost.
‘I’m so pleased to be here. How are things with you?’ Aira faltered as he tightened his lips. ‘Boroden?’
Casting her an apologetic glance, Boroden rounded on his cousins, averting his gaze from Aira. ‘What’s she doing here? She shouldn’t have come.’
Aira stared aghast. Harfan took her arm to lead her away.
Hëkitarka confronted Boroden, his arms folded defensively. ‘You should be happy. I told you I had a surprise.’
‘What a wonderful surprise it is! Do you think it amuses me to know that Aira is now in peril?’
Hëkitarka said in a half-pleading, half-admonishing tone, ‘Boroden, can’t you find a word of welcome? You were fond of Aira, once.’
Aira bit her lip, irritated at how Hëkitarka fanned the flames of Boroden’s anguish in a misguided attempt to help her. Boroden’s throat muscles contracted as if he fought to hold back strong emotion.
Hëkitarka stepped forward. ‘We need Aira with us. She’s the only one who knows where her swordsmith father hid the sword that can slay Krysila.’
Boroden growled in exasperation. ‘She gave me directions before we left. Why else do you think I’m charting a course towards the village where she used to live?’
Hëkitarka scowled. ‘How am I supposed to know that? You never involve me in important plans. Apparently, I’m still to young…’
Aira went to Boroden’s side. He would surely understand if he knew what she and Gretchen had been through. ‘Redcaps, under Krysila’s orders, attacked our cottage and the poor dryads were destroyed in their forest home. We had to run. Luckily, Hëki led us to you. I thought you’d be glad of us coming here where you and the other warriors can keep us safe.’ She pursed her lips and swallowed the tears that clambered up her throat. ‘Though you don’t want me here?’ She laced her fingers together, hugging her chest in an effort to hide her disappointment.
Boroden hunched his shoulders. ‘You’re in danger here. You should have gone to the Light Elves for safety, not come to me.’
‘I’m sorry. I wanted to see you… I thought that you’d be glad. Perhaps I might do something to help you?’ Aira smiled at him falteringly.
‘I’m king. I must make my decisions alone,’ Boroden replied, striding to the door. ‘Forgive me, I need some air.’
Boroden was ashamed at how Aira’s unexpected appearance shook him. And her news… if he had not chosen to take on the Unseelie Court, then the dryads might yet be alive and Aira and Gretchen spared from danger. Too many lives had been lost because of him.
He flung back the garden gate and strode towards the wall overlooking the mountains. At times, he hated the responsibilities that came with being king. He wished he was someone other than Boroden Ulfharen, the brownie made king whilst still a child, who witnessed loved ones slain and his home destroyed by brutal greed. When Midhir looked at him, he felt like an outcast—a penniless, homeless nothing. Yet, he had held strong, and for a moment, he thought he had won. Then everything began to unravel. Why? What had he done to merit it?
Perhaps his curse brought such ill-luck upon him? Even worse, the cloth-of-silver lined cloak which he used to control it had been stolen, taken in the night by a creature whose footprints resembled those of a brownie. But why would one of his clan steal from him? Unless Aira was right and his father had survived and turned to the Unseelie Court? He wouldn’t put it past King Gruagach to expose his curse…
Boroden stared, unfocused, at the mountains across the valley, seeing not the landscape before him, but his inescapable grief. He shook himself, trying to make the scene hold his thoughts. His woes felt manageable when he concentrated on the permanent things: the brownie clan’s way marked out in the high and distant stars, and the directions told by tree and stream and mountain. These things remote from mortal life knew no love, for love only led to pain…
He once dreamed of living long, happy years with Aira as his queen. Now, after months of hardship, the bleak reality of what lay ahead sank in. The help he hoped for from the brownies left behind in Novgorad had not come. He saw no option other than to find the sword of Talibereth ore to slay the immortal kraken. The responsibility of protecting his people had been instilled in him since he was a bairn. He must slay Krysila and face the curse that he would lose his life in the process.
Part of him felt like it was drowning, and he longed to find a way out. He had been wrong to reveal his feelings to Aira and make her too suffer that they must be parted when he died fighting Krysila. He had hoped that time and distance might help her forget him, but now she was here…
Aira’s gentle touch broke his train of thought. He froze. He hadn’t realised that she followed him.
‘I’m going to get settled in. It’s good to see you again.’ Aira waved farewell and turned back.
As she slipped away, Boroden fought the urge to catch her, to take her in his arms and apologise for his gruffness. It was better if he let her go, even if it hurt worse than vinegar poured over a thousand sword gashes.