The evil sidhe king Midhir visits the brownies on his search for Leanan Sidhe
|Hëkitarka, with his strong arms, was given many tasks by Gretchen as she directed the cleaning operations in the croft. He was to fetch things down and haul and sweep and carry, working ceaselessly so all might be done before the rest of the clan returned from their weapons training in one of the barns. The road to Lutraudros was dangerous and Boroden wanted to ensure that each brownie warrior was fit to face it. Everyone, Hëkitarka thought, except for him since he was still considered too young to fight alongside the others.
The clouds blew across in front of the hills like smoke, turning the whole valley white. Daring sparks of gold remained on the brooding crags. A tempest was brewing, the likes of which they had not known before.
Aira tucked herself away in the window seat shelling broad beans. She looked out wistfully as the first drops of rain fell so hard that it seemed they must leave craters in the wall. Whilst Aira pressed herself to work diligently, Hëkitarka found himself chaffing at the bit. Hastily heaving the dresser back over a pile of unswept dust, he dashed up to his nest and drew out his notebook. He inked his quill vehemently. His hand fled across the page with words straight from his soul. In his poem was beauty and pain and longing that he had not fully realised existed.
Thunder broke. The rain danced louder. The torrent was overhead. In its beat he heard a song, the words of which seemed both a comforting promise and a wild, rallying call. Leanan Sídhe, his muse of inspiration, was not dead. No more would he weep for her, only follow.
Hëkitarka pushed his book from him, leaving a pool of ink in his wake.
Klaufi cried out in disbelief as Hëkitarka pelted into the roaring rain. He was drenched in an instant, the cool touch inflaming his feverish face. He leaped over the farmyard wall and pounded up onto the open fellside. The trees cowered, their palsied thorns feeble against the onslaught. The rain laughed in glorious triumph, making a river of the strewn rocks and close-cropped grass.
Hëkitarka’s waterlogged hair whipped against his neck. Never had he run so fast. Though he went far, and the mountainside was steep, he thought it was strange that his legs did not throb.
He stopped suddenly and whirled around with sheer joy, his arms thrown wide and rain filling his laughing mouth. He was free now beyond any official recognition of freedom from serving that Boroden aimed to gain from the Seelie Court. Duty and rules could go hang.
He understood the storm completely and let it guide him up to the mountain top. He could barely stand and gripped a boulder to support himself, greeted by lightening blinding all about him. When it was gone he could see for miles. He was on top of the world and what a beautiful world it was! He wanted to soar like an eagle over the forest of rocky peaks, each unique and resplendent.
In the distance the mountains dissolved into blue. The sea! He had so longed to see the sea. He thought to chase towards it, but it was not where he felt pulled. Instead below him was a tarn, secluded and savage. The air that blew from it was cold, forbidden, tantalising. It set his whiskers quivering and he could almost taste the memory of the elfin queen and her handmaidens playing in the waters. It was so fresh it could only have happened moments ago.
‘The mice have been at this too,’ Gretchen tutted, inspecting a small sack of oatmeal. Scooping up a handful spilled from the tattered corner, she threw it out for the birds. The oats soon joined the other sacks and bags hung from hooks on the rafters as Gretchen attempted to finally halt the depredations of the ‘wee beasties.’
‘Where’s Hëkitarka?’ I need him to help lift this crate of apples,’ she fretted.
‘We could take them out and put them in these,’ Klaufi suggested, fishing out two baskets.
Aira piled the last of the dirty dishes in the washing pail.
‘It is a sorry sight to see you drudging so, Lady Frenudin.’ The unexpected voice immediately above her head made her jump round, almost whacking a wooden spoon that she was washing against a wall of glistening green velvet. Not noticing that his tunic was spattered with soap suds and the remnants of porridge, Midhir rolled his hand with ingratiating courtesy. Aira reached behind her for a stout pestle. Well remembering Midhir’s dislike of the brownies, Aira’s mind flared, imagining the awful things he might do.
Klaufi ran up with his fists clenched.
‘I’m a brownie. I’m not ashamed of honest work or good deeds. What brings you to this humble croft, Lord Midhir?’ Aira asked, her voice polite but cold.
‘I wish I could say it was for your sweet sake, but unfortunately it is not. I am looking for a friend of yours,’ Midhir said.
‘Boroden?’ Aira asked, beginning to hope that Midhir might offer them more lenient terms or help to reclaim Velmoran following some prompt from his father. However, she noticed a hint of annoyance in Midhir’s manner and that his hunting tunic and finely decorated thigh boots paired with a sword and a shirt of silver mail, light as fish skin.
‘Hardly likely. No, she’s a lady that I seek. A sídhe queen.’
‘Queen?’ Aira puzzled.
‘Yes. She talks to you every day though you do not recognise her. One of your few solaces is your inspiration, is it not?’
‘Inspiration? Leanan Sídhe is dead.’
‘Ah, but I cannot kill her. Her handmaiden Serena gathered up her essence. I let her for I only meant to punish the witch. Unfortunately, it seems I did nothing to tame her. She scorned my offer to her and fled. That after her mother promised her to me.’
Aira furrowed her brow in confusion. ‘Well, she’s not here.’
‘Isn’t she? Isn’t this just the place she would come? A spot of desolate beauty and packed with her beloved brownies. Haven’t you felt her presence in your ideas more keenly of late? She likes to seize your mind whilst you work alone and to make you burn your night oil.’
‘No,’ Aira replied, though the memory of Hëkitarka’s distracted mood and nightly poetry scribblings prickled at her conscience.
‘You see,’ Midhir edged forward, making Aira back into the water pail, ‘I think she is here.’
‘You leave Aira be!’ Klaufi yelled, grabbing the pestle off her and giving Midhir a crack on the knee. Confident of the protection of his magic, Klaufi had not counted on Midhir’s superior powers and immediately found himself nailed to the wall, unable to move. Midhir drew his dagger.
Aira kicked the water pail, making Midhir lose his footing in the soap suds. She sprang nimbly to the other side of the room with Midhir after her. From her perch on the rafters, Gretchen aimed a barrage of apples at him.
‘Won’t you help me?’ Midhir cried towards the door after a particularly hard hit on the nose.
A dozen of Midhir’s knights appeared, at their head a sable clad man. Vortimus had been left with no affection for brownies and his streak of brutality was even stronger than Midhir’s. He lost no time in springing at Gretchen and dragging her towards the fire. Tearing himself free, Klaufi used the last of his sapped powers of sorcery to send the flames spinning up the chimney leaving Gretchen to fall onto cold cinders.
The brownies made a brave stand with a rolling pin, fire logs and a garden hoe, but they could not match the sídhe warriors who seemed to fill the whole room. Backed into a corner, the three brownies felt their strength failing.
‘You know you can do nothing. I’ll make you my prisoners, as I will her,’ Midhir gloated.
‘Not likely.’ Fennec leaped through the window, booting a surprised sídhe to the ground. ‘I’ll soon show you the meaning of courage. The old brownie respect sídhe rule has gone to pot,’ Fennec taunted, brandishing his sword before him.
‘Fool. You think you can fight me?’ Midhir demanded, whisking out his long sword that was sharp as cut glass.
In an instant the sídhe knights and Vortimus surrounded Fennec, forgetful of the three exhausted brownies. Fennec gave a fierce battle cry and rose to the challenge with a loud clash against Midhir’s blade, quickly parrying it and darting round to face off the attacks of the others.
He was nimble but outnumbered, his blows clumsy beside those of the skilful sídhe. Though he caught many of them with his blade this did not dull their smugness. They looked like cats playing with a cornered mouse.
‘Not so brave now?’ Midhir smirked, raising his sword for the deathblow.
Klaufi sprang forward with the rolling pin, his yell answered by the war cries of the other clan members. Unfortunately, Klaufi’s mighty blow was eluded by Midhir and sent the cauldron of gruel skidding into Quentillian, toppling him. Klaufi squirmed as his uncle rose dripping with stringy gruel, looking angrier at him than at Midhir.
For a moment the brownies and the intruders froze, eyeing each other hard. In Boroden’s face was a grim resolve. He had suffered too much because of Midhir.
‘You are very bold, Lord Midhir. You steal our lands and scatter my clan like useless chaff. Now, not content with sending us to our deaths, you sneak behind our backs to snatch away our kin. We are honest, hardworking folk. We have given no complaint yet, but this is too much. You cannot call your decrees just or the laws governing us brownies fair,’ Boroden declared, following the other brownie warriors who had heard the commotion from where they were training.
‘I see you still have an insolent, disrespectful tongue.’ Midhir kicked Fennec behind him, so he thought, safely out of interfering.
‘We’ve talked too much. Words are useless. Draw!’ Boroden snarled, pulling his sword, Narsarus, from its scabbard with a fierce rasp. The other brownies packed closer about him, their weapons at the ready. The strength of Midhir’s sword as he whirled it at Boroden split his shield in two.
‘So, you defy the Seelie laws entirely and fight me? Very well. The audacity of it amuses me,’ Midhir smirked, nimbly sidestepping Harfan who, though at first he thought a fight ill-advised, was spurred to join the skirmish to avenge the injury to his cousin.
With a vicious slash, Midhir hooked his sword under Carnelian’s axe and hurled him to the ground. Swiftly he made for the kill, knowing how Boroden esteemed his old tutor.
Boroden met Midhir’s blade and they fought in desperate earnest. Boroden was a great warrior but he was sick and worn. Midhir was taller, nimbler, with magic and thousands of years more skill on his side. Together Boroden, Harfan and Carnelian could barely manage to keep Midhir at bay. The other sídhe made constant sallies in protection of their king, though the brownies kept them busy.
Vortimus was about to catch Harfan off guard with a stab in the back but he had not counted on Fennec. Springing into action with lightening quickness from his sprawl on the floor, Fennec grabbed Vortimus’s legs. He hauled himself up before the surprised changeling could react.
Boroden fought for his life, jerking between Midhir and one of his knights. Seeing the knight draw close, Aira leaped at him. He whipped round and grabbed her wrists. The other brownies fought him off. Klaufi kept close to Aira, knowing that she was valuable to Midhir.
Boroden was gasping for breath and bloodied, the tension clear in his face. Midhir breezed off his barrage of blows.
‘I’m bored now. The fight is dull where the victory is assured,’ Midhir sighed.
The brownies stiffened. Each of them dreaded this moment, knowing that they could do little against Midhir’s magic.
Midhir stepped back, his sword held before him and an incantation on his lips. Seeing what he was planning, Harfan rushed at him to grab the blade. Midhir jerked back, sending Harfan slamming into the fireplace with a yell of agony.
Boroden fell to his side, tending to his injured arm. Quickly he looked back to where Midhir tightened his grip on his sword. Boroden’s eyes grew wild with terror and the brownies cowered.
Aira’s heart knelled as if she was about to be pushed off a precipice as she prayed for fortitude. How she wished she had been taught to make her magical power orb flow at her will so that she might summon it now to protect her kin.