Aira and her fellow brownies help a shepherd's family. Boroden reveals some tragic news.
|Roused to the border between sleeping and waking, for a moment Aira could not place where she was or what had disturbed her. Then it came again. A pattering scrabble at her nest. Alarmed, she remembered Torden’s tale of the massive mice he had disturbed in a hayrick.
The face that appeared in the nest entrance was far from a mouse, although it was whiskery and sun-browned enough to be mistaken for one by a short-sighted human.
‘Tarka,’ she gasped, even more taken aback as she saw he was carrying a tray replete with a plate of toast, a poached egg, jam, cream and steaming rosehip tea. Around the edges of the plate dandelions lay prettily arranged in a ring.
Hëkitarka chuckled shyly as she tucked in. ‘I thought I would take the best cream for you afore Torden gets up to guzzle it. You deserve it more.’
‘You’re very kind.’
‘I’ve missed you.’
She was so hungry that the foyson, the essence from food that faeries live off, from her breakfast vanished all too soon. She tidied the tray and put the dandelions in a teacup to decorate her nest before reaching for Gretchen’s tattered shawl that she had lent her. She self-consciously threw it about her shoulders. It hurt her that she looked a mess with her gown hemmed with mud that had spattered onto it during her journey.
‘Is that all you have to wear?’ Hëkitarka asked.
‘Aye. I had no time to get anything else. It was run or die.’
‘Would you like some things of mine? I’ve got plenty I’ve outgrown.’
Aira was touched by his kindness. ‘Oh, that would be lovely.’
Hëkitarka bounded away and returned with a jumble containing an embroidered navy cloak, trousers, a russet shirt and a teal knitted waistcoat with elaborate designs in knotwork used on the clothing of the royal house of Peladach.
‘I wondered where you were going with those. That’s very nice of you.’ Harfan smiled as Hëkitarka proudly deposited his load at Aira’s feet. He beckoned Hëkitarka away whilst Aira put them on.
Always having been used to skirts, the trousers felt strange, yet they gave Aira a sense of freedom. She welcomed being different, finding a new self and strength after her shattered dreams.
Hëkitarka reappeared. ‘I like that. Now I can see what I looked like when I fitted them. You smell of me too.’
‘I’m not sure that’s an advantage,’ Harfan joked, holding his nose. Then, keen to bolster Hëkitarka’s pride again he added, ‘he’s taller than Boroden now.’
‘Don’t tell Cousin B though, it might upset him,’ Hëkitarka said. ‘By the way, Fennec gave me these; his spare boots. Leprechaun made. They should keep your feet nice and cosy, Aira.’
‘Breakfast in bed?’ Harfan asked, eyeing the tray.
‘Aye. You said I needed to be as nice and considerate to Aira as possible because she’s a lady and sure to like me for it,’ Hëkitarka reminded him. Then, recalling that Aira was listening, he bit his lip.
‘Where’s mine?’ Harfan asked in mock disappointment.
Hëkitarka shook his head and took up the tray, running his hand above the plate and reciting a spell. At once the plate was full again. Harfan tucked in. Hëkitarka settled beside him and reached for a piece of toast, sticking his finger into the jam pot and licking up the sweet foyson. He washed this down with a taste of cream from a squat jug like a lime kiln with a thick handle.
‘Do you mind. I said mine.’ Harfan playfully dug him in the ribs.
‘There’s plenty more,’ Hëkitarka mumbled with his mouth full, waving his hand again and piling the plate twice as high.
‘That looks good. I’m starving,’ Fennec said, yawning widely.
‘There’s another boiled egg on the go,’ Hëkitarka told him, taking the foyson from the dandelions. Superstition had it that dandelions gave prowess in battle and he wanted Boroden to recognise him as a good warrior more than anything.
Ruefully, Aira heard Carnelian stir in the nest that he shared with Gretchen. She had wanted to surprise them by making them breakfast but she feared now that there would be no time. However, a quick explanation to Carnelian and he was only too delighted to wait.
Hëkitarka showed her around the kitchen, pointing out where things were stowed. The shepherd’s wife hung as much food as possible from hooks on the rafters out of reach of mice and larder beetles.
Hëkitarka squashed a beetle with a resounding crunch as it scurried towards the range. ‘One day I shrank when the shepherd’s wife came in and one of these beasties came towards me. Up to my knees it was.’
Hëkitarka sang a jolly melody to Misty, Boroden’s Cù Sìth, as he bustled about balancing coffee mugs and slapping eggs onto toast. The green coated faerie dog followed at his heels with eager eyes. The bread that Aira was toasting was well done and she spread it with bilberry jam.
She reached for a packet of dandelion coffee. Hëkitarka said that Carnelian was fond of it but Aira had no idea how to make it. She heated milk and water as she had seen Hëkitarka do, then poured the liquid into two of the little cups decorating the mantle and added a spoonful of coffee. It would not stir in and the drink was far lighter in colour than when Hëkitarka had made dandelion coffee. She added another spoonful of coffee grounds, beating them in briskly and hoping they would dissolve. They floated on the top, remaining as a grainy mass. By the time she had finished adding and stirring she could almost stand the spoon up in the cup and the toast was nearly cold.
‘At least the coffee is a good colour now,’ she said to herself, carrying the laden tray to her stepparents.
Carnelian took a sip of coffee. ‘By, this is strong stuff.’
‘Sorry. It wouldn’t stir in.’
‘It’s not meant to. You have to steep and strain it,’ Boroden pointed out, having caught the exchange as he slipped through the open door. He still did not look himself. Aira resolved to be as careful as possible towards him. She had been thinking about him all morning.
‘I’ll get you some tea. Hëki just made it,’ she found herself saying to Boroden before retreating downstairs.
Carnelian laughed about the coffee, trying to cheer Boroden, but it was clear that something weighed on his mind. ‘What is it, laddie?’ Carnelian asked.
Boroden looked haunted. ‘Two nights ago I picked up Barabas’s trail. He was followed by a group of redcaps. Last night I followed it as far as I could.’
‘So that’s where you went last night? We thought you were moping after the coming of your lassie, poor flower.’ Torden curled his lip wryly.
Boroden refuted Torden indignantly. ‘I’m not displeased that Aira and Gretchen have come, though for their sakes I’d rather they hadn’t.’
Aira did not know what to make of this. Hopefully, she went to Boroden and laid her hand on his arm, though she was half afraid to make this reassuring gesture least it rile him.
Boroden turned to her, trying to control the way a tremble ran through him at her sympathetic touch. ‘It’s no wonder you didn’t find him, Aira. He left the path we’d taken and headed northeast.’
Carnelian frowned. ‘But why? It’s the opposite direction and leads only to high mountains and desolation.’
‘The redcaps pursued him. It appears that a hoard of them under Krysila’s orders are scouring the country for us.’ Boroden glanced at Aira and Gretchen. ‘I don’t want to see harm come to you too. Life is as fleeting as a sunbeam, so easily lost. There’s been too much pain. We are all in grave peril here. I’ve often caught signs of the redcaps searching for us.’
‘What of Barabas?’ Carnelian asked anxiously.
Boroden shuddered and took a deep breath. ‘I found his body crow-picked long since. Today we’ll set out to give him a proper burial… Barabas was a good friend. I’ve known him since he was a lad when I used to help him and his mother, the royal cook, about the kitchen.’
‘I can’t see you baking,’ Klaufi said ineptly.
‘You’re the best cook I know,’ Aira told Boroden, remembering how he used to make muffins and pies for picnics when they spent long hours playing together in the palace garden as children. She caught Boroden’s eye and knew that this happy memory had come to him too.
Boroden raised his head and looked around the assembled company of brownies. He knew he had to force himself on like a puppet playing the good king. It was his duty. ‘You are all my friends. That makes what I’m about to say even harder. One of you, nay, two for it would be safer, must take Barabas’s place. I’d go myself but I already have a mark on my head for I must face Krysila. Word must be got to the brownies scattered from Novgorad. I fear that Caillie has perished too, for he should have sent us a message by now if he had found others of our clan. Without their help we cannot hope to take Velmoran.’
Klaufi made himself scare but Hëkitarka waved his hand enthusiastically. ‘I’ll go. Harfan and I will find the others in no time.’
Boroden’s heart sank. He had already lost his inexperienced brother in a fight and to him his beloved but reckless cousin seemed headed for the same fate. ‘No. I need you here with me. As princes of my line you must be the ones to claim Velmoran after Krysila is dead.’
‘You said that Aira and Gretchen should have gone to the Light Elves. How about I take them there, then send messengers to the scattered brownies with Glimfyndor’s help?’ Carnelian asked.
Boroden looked reluctant. ‘There are redcaps swarming in the mountains. I fear it would not be safe. Aira and Gretchen aren’t trained as warriors and you’re, well…’
‘A bit long in the tooth?’ Carnelian finished for him with a good-humoured wink. He exchanged glances with Quentillian and Fostolf, the brownie physician, both of whom were more advanced in years than he.
‘Are you sure me and Harfan can’t go with them? We’d get them safely to the Light Elves. Harfan’s true love that gorgeous sugar plum fairy Princess Myfanwy is with the Light Elves.’ Hëkitarka looked at Boroden appealingly.
‘Hëki, you heard what Boroden said. He needs us,’ Harfan said.
Yet Hëkitarka‘s words made Boroden paused. The last thing he wanted was to part Harfan from Myfanwy as he knew he must be parted from Aira. Before he could reply, Torden, who had been mulling the situation over, rose with his hands on his hips.
‘I suppose you’re getting at Fennec and me to go?’ Torden demanded, fixing Boroden with a disgruntled frown. Fennec hushed him, being willing to face danger for Boroden’s sake himself.
Boroden passed a hand over his face. ‘I don’t want any of you to go. That’s why I’m not commanding anyone this time. I asked Barabas and now his death’s all my fault.’
‘Don’t blame yourself, laddie,’ Carnelian said gently.
‘Look, there’s no need to decide now. The most important thing is to lay Barabas decently to rest and spend more time looking into the movement of these redcaps,’ Harfan said.
‘A scouting party? I like that idea,’ Boroden brightened.
‘We’d better head into one of the barns so we can make our plans unheard. The humans are rising,’ Fennec said, having caught the bump of the shepherd’s feet on the floorboards as he rose from his bed.
The morning grew hotter and Aira and Gretchen began steadily to swelter in their nests under the roof beam whilst the others spoke in the barn than adjoined the croft. A fly hummed and thudded against the ceiling, the sound blending with the murmur of voices. Several times Aira caught the words ‘redcap’ or ‘goblin,’ which made her anxious.
Fennec, who had been keeping watch, dropped through the open window. ‘The humans are leaving for the market. I saw them readying their mule. That means quiet for us to go about the cottage, and good pickings when they return with their cart laden with food.’
Gefi yawned. ‘Perfect. I could do with some decent nosh in my belly. I’ll go and check the hens now the humans are gone. There might be some eggs.’
‘Aira and Gretchen shall do that. You’re coming with us,’ Boroden commanded Gefi, fetching his travelling pack and buckling his sword belt.
Carnelian fetched his walking staff. ‘I’ll go to say the funeral rites over Barabas.’
Gretchen nodded understandingly.
‘Keep charge of the cottage in my absence,’ Boroden instructed Quentillian.
Harfan shouldered his pack and led the company out. Hëkitarka raced downstairs stuffing an escaping spare bowstring and a pair of odd socks into his pack. He still imagined that Boroden might let him and Harfan quest to find the scattered members of the brownie clan.
Boroden put his hand up to Hëkitarka’s chest as he came to the door, blocking his way. ‘Not you.’
‘Because I’ve asked you to stay here.’
‘I’m Peladach’s heir as much as you. May I not track and fight as you do? I want to be part of this adventure.’
‘In time. For now, you must stay.’
‘I don’t see what you’re afraid of. We all must die. Better to die young having enjoyed life and done something heroic than to die old and decrepit and miserable,’ Hëkitarka reasoned rashly.
‘Will you not understand?’ Boroden snapped.
‘You want me to look after the ladies?’ Hëkitarka asked, fluttering his eyelashes at Aira and clutching about for something to soften the blow to his boyish hopes.
‘No. They’re clearly capable of fending for themselves. That wall needs finishing. I want you and Quentillian to set to in strengthening our defences. Klaufi shall help too. I smelled a skriker trail besides that of the redcaps, and I don’t want those hyena-like beasts attacking the sheep, or us.’
‘Me help, Majesty?’ Klaufi looked dumbfounded.
‘Aye. Unless you prefer to get eaten by midges and scramble up barren hillsides with us I suggest you stay.’
Forlornly, Hëkitarka climbed on top of the chest beneath the deep-set window to watch them go.
‘Do you think I’m stupid?’ Klaufi asked Aira.
‘Boroden seems to think I’m the village idiot.’
‘I’m beginning to think he thinks that way about me too,’ Hëkitarka put in. ‘I train so hard with my bow and sword. The other warriors tell me I’m good at it. Yet Boroden won’t let me go with them. You believe I’d be a good warrior don’t you, Aira? Harfan does.’
‘Of course. But you must abide by your cousin’s wishes. He’s afraid of anything bad happening to you. Your time to prove yourself as a warrior will come,’ Aira told him as Klaufi slipped outside.
‘Stop being so big sisterly to me. You know I don’t want you to be,’ Hëkitarka reprimanded with a winning smile.
‘Come along now lad,’ Quentillian ordered him. ‘Klaufi!’ After bellowing his nephew’s name several times, Quentillian gave up. ‘He’s probably gone with Boroden after all.’
This conclusion made Hëkitarka groan inwardly. He headed to the section of wall to be worked on. His gaze fixed at every spare moment on the receding caterpillar of brownies threading up the mountainside until they disappeared and only shadows chased there.
Hëkitarka’s doubts about Boroden only increased the painful fog in Aira’s mind. She busied herself with dusting and scrubbing, her hands working in a motion like an upturned ladybird over the flagstones. Gretchen was over her elbows in washing. She piled her wrung items into a basket for Aira to take outside and drape on the gorse bushes behind the cottage.
The day promised to be hot and the clothes should soon dry. Buzzards circled in a lordly fashion over the blazing heads of the mountains. Luckily the morning cool still clung about the cottage.
Misty sniffed Aira’s leg to get her attention. Aira scampered back into the parlour to fetch a ball that she had found lost in the wood basket. They tore about the garden, Aira bouncing the ball and Misty trying to snap it into her jaws. Catching it, she delighted in making Aira dizzy by running around a hawthorn tree. It was strange to Aira to notice buds of blossom spouting from the knobbly, lichened bones of the tree. It scarcely seemed related to its lowland cousins it was so stunted and twisted.
Aira loved meeting the friendly lambs which ran to her as she approached. She put her hand out and they sniffed it, blowing hot breath over her. They rubbed their rough heads on her, their muzzles bristly yet smooth.
Misty soon discovered fresh mischief. A neglected stone trough was set against the wall and she jumped into it, emerging with legs as black as those of the sheep. Aira rescued the discarded ball and tried to attract the Cù Sìth’s attention by bouncing it. The ground was hard, and the ball leaped and plummeted like it would never stop. It went over the wall, hitting Quentillian who gave a startled cry.
Biting her lip, Aira raced over. Hëkitarka chucked the ball back at her. He was still toiling, although Quentillian had dozed off under the shade of the ash tree where he had been rudely awakened by the ball landing on his nose. Quentillian set to work like he had never stopped, although the assistance he gave was mostly to order Hëkitarka or prevaricate over the placing of a stone.
Gretchen arrived with a welcome cooling drink. Following her was Klaufi, who she had found hiding in an outhouse. ‘Just polishing some shearing stuff,’ he mumbled lamely to Quentillian by way of an excuse.
‘Come and help me knead some bread, Aira my lass?’ Gretchen asked.
Klaufi joined them in the kitchen, complaining of a sprained wrist making it impossible for him to help build the wall.
It was only when the heat of the day grew less fierce towards evening that Hëkitarka crept up to the loft where the other brownies hid from the returned humans. He had stripped down to his waist and was covered in grazes and rock dust.
‘Get yourself a good scrub down. Poor lad, you’ll give yourself sunstroke. You look exhausted,’ Gretchen fussed.
‘It’ll give me nice strong arms working so hard though.’ He winked at Aira, then gulped down a flagon of spring water without a pause.
As the moon rose, Aira went to peer outside. ‘I can hear Boroden and the others returning.’
‘The wall is done,’ Quentillian announced proudly to Boroden, as if he was personally responsible for it. The returned brownies looked travel-stained and irritable.
‘We buried Barabas on the high ground and built a cairn to mark his resting place,’ Boroden said.
Carnelian lightened the mood by appearing with squelching boots and dark patches of tarn water drying on him. He had taken a tumble in a mountain lake, Fennec told them animatedly. He floundered up only to see his hat sailing away.
‘The map!’ Boroden suddenly exclaimed.
Carnelian fished the map out of his pocket in a sodden lump. Aira unpeeled the folds and draped it to dry beneath the fender where the shepherd’s wife should not spot it.
‘Luckily we keep the place so clean that she has little to do. I think she might suspect there are brownies though; she heard Fennec chuckling when he and Hëki swung from the pothook for a lark,’ Harfan commented as they returned to where Boroden was fretting about the damaged map.
‘You’ll still be able to read it,’ Aira told him.
‘Let’s hope so. It’ll be needed. I’ll give the map to whoever takes Barabas’s place,’ Boroden said.
‘But there were redcap tracks everywhere,’ Torden grumbled.
‘I know,’ Boroden replied irritably.
‘I’ve been thinking. How about if me and Fennec go?’ Gefi offered.
‘Cousin, I believe I have an alternative plan. One that might serve us better. If others agree then might I lead our direction for a time?’ Harfan asked.
‘Of course. You shall rule Velmoran after me,’ Boroden said with resignation.
‘What of me? May I be in charge too? I’m his brother,’ Hëkitarka pointed out in a worried tone.
‘Go ahead,’ Boroden prompted Harfan.
‘Why must we conjure an army from our scattered and weary friends? We have a whole battle-ready army that would gladly follow us to Velmoran.’
Boroden looked puzzled. ‘What do you mean, Harfan?’
‘Lutraudros will come. We should start for there. At my bidding they will fight at our side to reclaim Velmoran. Then, when it’s ours, the brownies scattered from Novgorad shall join us.’
‘Hey, that sounds a great idea, Harfan,’ Hëkitarka enthused.
‘Aye. Who knows how long we’ll be waiting here if the next messenger is killed,’ Torden said.
Boroden looked darkly on the notion. ‘Isadora would not see such a plan kindly. She should try to dissuade us.’
Harfan looked at him sharply. ‘You do an injustice to my mother.’
Gretchen spoke up. ‘Sire, Harfan’s plan seems wise.’
‘I’ll think on it,’ Boroden said, disappearing into his nest.
Boroden returned when mealtime came and Harfan went over to him. ‘Cousin, forgive me. Having thought more about my plan I think I was wrong. The warriors of Lutraudros cannot come as it would leave the stronghold there open to attacks from the ice giants.’
‘Don’t treat your plan so harshly. I’ve considered it. Yes, we’ll head for Lutraudros. It will be easier to send messengers from there. I’d make sure they left well supplied. It’s a safer place to gather an army. A safe place to leave Aira and Gretchen.’
‘Yes, that sounds wise,’ Harfan agreed.
‘So you want to abandon Aira again?’ Hëkitarka huffed.
‘I want to leave her somewhere safe. What’s wrong with that?’ Boroden asked cagily.
‘Nothing, except that you still love her.’