Midhir fights the brownies and Leanan Sidhe appears, drawing Hekitarka into danger
|The door flew back with a roar of silvery rain arrows. From their midst sprang Hëkitarka, streaming with rain, his eyes blazing. He was glad to reach his friends in time to stand against their enemies and felt fully ready for a fight. In one slash of his sword he had sent Midhir’s blade somersaulting from his hand and clattering useless to the floor.
‘So, you would challenge me, imp!’ Midhir snarled.
‘I would. I hold no fear of you. Though I will not fight an unarmed opponent. Pick your sword up.’
Midhir’s lips curled as he cast a cursory glance at his sword. ‘Ah, but I am far from unarmed.’
Stretching out his hand, he sent a searing ray of power at Hëkitarka. He escaped it by a fraction, leaping impossibly high to snatch at the rafters and dropping down undaunted the instant that Midhir gave in, panting with the effort.
‘That was clever,’ Gefi commented wryly, seeing the gaping hole that Midhir had cut in the cottage wall with his conjured power bolt.
‘You’re the reason we’re here I dare say. You know where she is?’ Midhir demanded of Hëkitarka.
‘So, this is about a lady?’ Torden sniggered.
‘You know it is,’ Midhir said.
‘No. This is about freedom and respect and all that is right and good in this world. That is what I fight for.’ Hëkitarka circled Midhir with keen eyes and a keener sword.
Snatching up his sword before Fennec secured it, Midhir was so put out to keep Hëkitarka off that he had not a second to muster his magic. The air between them was electrified by silvery sword strokes. Hëkitarka fought tirelessly, the quickness of his leaps, dives and somersaults taking the breath of the onlookers. The sídhe knights drew back, murmuring, for they suspected the brownie prince had uncanny help and dare not approach him.
‘Won’t you give in and come to terms, Midhir?’ Hëkitarka asked.
Midhir was fast wearying and put his hand to his wrist in alarm as Hëkitarka’s sword, Rascal, brushed too close, but it was only his cuff slashed. ‘Come to terms? You have a nerve. It is you that is the one that should be held to account. I wonder if your dear cousin knows about your continued regard for Leanan Sídhe?’
‘I told you that it was something more important that I fight for.’
Vortimus stepped forward with his sword raised. ‘You insult My Lady with that remark. You are unworthy of the love she holds for you. Still, I care not. I would be dead before I see you hers.’
‘Not back for more are you?’ Hëkitarka huffed, though he smiled at the memory of Vortimus hopping on one leg when he had been hit on the knee by Myfanwy, Harfan’s sweetheart. Deftly he dodged beneath Vortimus’s charge, kicking his shin as he passed. Now faced by two opponents he had met his match, though Fennec and Torden did their best to divert Midhir’s attention with a dance of sword blows.
Whilst Hëkitarka faced Vortimus, Midhir suddenly turned from Fennec and lunged at Hëkitarka’s back. Before the blade even touched his cloak, Hëkitarka sprang into the air backwards over Midhir’s head, landing on Fennec’s shoulders. Klaufi cheered in awe but Midhir glared.
‘You have more than mortal help I see. Come out My Lady and meet us. I know you’re there.’ Midhir’s tone of blandishment had a sinister edge to it. ‘Stop skulking like a coward!’ he snapped.
A musical voice replied haughtily from somewhere in the crog loft, ‘I’ll come not because you command it but because you’re right that I shouldn’t hide. I’m not ashamed.’ She stepped forth with her head held high. All Hëkitarka could do was look and wonder at Leanan Sídhe’s loveliness, her face crowned by a fan of crow feathers. In her hand she held his writing book.
‘I thought her dead. All the while you’ve been hiding her in your worthless papers. You brought this upon us!’ Boroden cried scathingly at his cousin.
Hëkitarka thought not of his words or Harfan’s worried looks, nor even that Midhir should kill him. He tossed these distractions eagerly aside for something higher.
‘My Queen,’ he murmured in rapture, not caring how his words stuck jarringly in the ears of his listeners. It was enough that they delighted Leanan.
‘Come fair prince, say you’ll be mine. You shall have a great name like my other boys, Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. For you have it in you to jump and be caught when you fall,’ Leanan purred.
Hëkitarka could form no words, though his eyes spoke his ardour and an inescapable clutch at him that he must obey. He rolled before her in a brownie gesture of respect. He was on his feet again in an instant, but his appearance was altered. The clan gasped in dismay as they beheld him transformed into a sídhe, his face pale and entrancing with his eyes twinkling red; a fit consort for Leanan Sídhe.
She laughed proudly. ‘You’ve met your match, Midhir.’
Midhir was livid. ‘You cannot do this. It is treason. Perverse! He is not one of us.’
‘What is one of us? We are each of us only ourselves. Aren’t all types only an illusion?’ Leanan asked before transforming herself into a brownie and returning Hëkitarka likewise to brownie form.
Hëkitarka faced Midhir dauntlessly, pleased to be back in his familiar form. Power filled him, his magic fully realised that moment in a bright gift.
‘You are wrong to trouble yourself so over him, My Lady. He is not worthy of you. Did you not hear him just say that he fought for the freedom of the swine he calls kin, not possession of you? He doesn’t even love you,’ Vortimus said.
‘I don’t want to be possessed. I value freedom too. What I want is to be able to do as I please but have a sweet, faithful lad there when I need one, not one who couldn’t rescue me from a dungeon.’
‘You reject me for him?’ Vortimus asked, aghast.
‘I’m giving you a warning. Fight for me if you will and may the best suitor win,’ Leanan declared.
Set ablaze by her words, Vortimus threw himself at Hëkitarka, so enraged that he attacked with his bare fists forgetful of his sword. Hëkitarka twisted his wrists behind him and flung him to Torden to deal with. Vortimus’s coat tails got shredded by the power bolt that Midhir aimed at Hëkitarka.
Midhir’s words with Leanan Sídhe had given him time to recover himself and to see that magic was the only way that he could win. He aimed another bolt at Hëkitarka, but he shrank, escaping beneath it. The third ray, stronger and wider than the last, almost hit him. Instinctively, Hëkitarka threw his hand up. An orb of shimmering rainbow hues leaped about him. He gasped in delight, looking with joyful thanks at Leanan Sídhe. An instant later he had formed a ray of his own, hitting Midhir’s and making the air scream and tear at the confluence. It was a trick only the most powerful sorcerers could muster.
‘You’re behind this!’ Midhir snarled at Leanan Sídhe. He felt vulnerable and this made him forget his veneer of sophistication to show his true evil. Yet he was as canny as he was cruel. Hëkitarka was invincible and Midhir saw that he had been letting the young brownie distract him from what should have been his main target. His eyes glittering hatefully, he turned to Boroden who was supporting Harfan as Aira tended to his arm.
Barely had Midhir flexed his fingers when, in horror, Fennec anticipated him. He flung himself at Midhir, seizing his sword. Fennec gave a yelp of surprise and pain as Vortimus’s blade pierced his back. It seemed almost unreal to him as he crumpled to the ground with his lifeblood ebbing between his fingers. Death seemed so far off, something that happened to others, not to him. Then the pain set in and the heartbroken yells of his clan.
Hëkitarka was most anguished. ‘Murderer!’ he screamed at Vortimus.
In one final angry charge, Vortimus and Midhir closed in on the brownies from either side.
Fennec caught the corner of Hëkitarka’s cloak as he stepped near. ‘Take it,’ he said, offering up his sword. As Hëkitarka accepted it, his heart breaking at his friend’s words, Fennec’s hand slid lifeless from the hilt and he fell to the floor with unseeing eyes. Leanan Sídhe added a shrill sob to those of the brownies, which further enraged Vortimus.
A sword in each hand, Hëkitarka clashed with both his opponents at once, pursuing them fiercely. Sparks flew from the swords as Hëkitarka hit his opponents. Seizing his chance, he plunged Fennec’s blade into Vortimus’s thigh. ‘That was for my friend.’
Vortimus yelled in surprise, drawing back beneath the dresser. His eyes blazed in hatred as he launched himself at Hëkitarka.
Turning from Fennec’s body, Klaufi raised his hand vengefully. The dresser toppled and crashed down on Vortimus, trapping him. The changeling bellowed and bawled but Leanan Sídhe pretended not to hear.
Instead, accompanied by worried murmurs from her handmaidens, Leanan Sídhe leaped from the crog loft to land lightly before Midhir. In her eye was a reckless defiance, yet also the dewy fear of a startled doe. This belied that she was no warrioress. Despite her inexperience, she bravely held up a sharp, crooked wand that doubled as a knife.
‘All these deaths. You’re always trying to prove your point, Midhir. You don’t care about anyone else.’ She whisked a finger along her wand but Midhir immediately counteracted the burst of power that she shot at him.
Leanan knew better than to wrestle. She darted away, always where Midhir did not expect her. Hëkitarka shadowed her and she urged him to make his attack whilst she had Midhir off guard.
Seeing how she led Hëkitarka, Harfan struggled through his pain to warn his brother to leave off and come to terms with Midhir. Even Boroden had second thoughts on the wisdom of wounding Midhir and fought back a sídhe knight to reach his cousin.
Hëkitarka was locked upon Midhir, meeting his blows with an ardent clang with his own sword and deftly twisting and leaping in the air to escape. Often, he had to dodge objects hurled by Leanan Sídhe as she seemed to be doing her best to demolish the shepherd’s kitchen. She levitated fire irons, milk pails, pans and logs to pelt at Midhir.
‘We’re going to get into frightful trouble with the humans for this,’ Klaufi bemoaned.
‘If that sídhe hussy were a brownie then she’d be a boggart by now,’ Quentillian agreed.
Boroden huffed. ‘Honestly, we have more important things to worry about than an angry shepherd.’
‘I don’t see why you’re so keen on catching me, Midhir. It won’t look good to associate with a Queen of the Unseelie Court,’ Leanan Sídhe pursued.
Midhir cast her an arrogant look. ‘I consider it my duty to restrain a dangerous witch.’
‘Witch? Is that what they call me? Well, if I’m a witch then I must ride on a broomstick.’ Her eyes sparkled playfully as her hand alighted upon a besom broom. With one word it was aloft, the onlookers gazing with a mixture of awe and annoyance. Her handmaidens lost no time in grabbing other household implements; a fork, a pillow and a shepherd’s crook, and making them soar into the air. With a daring cry, Leanan Sídhe sprang onto the broom. She whisked away, hitting Midhir on the head with her heel. As she dipped out of the door she snatched up Hëkitarka. For an instant he squeaked and struggled, then went rigid, whether from surprise or because he had no desire to resist her Leanan could not tell.
The rain whistled past them, its soft clutches refreshing their faces and clothes. Leanan Sídhe called up a storm. Spectral black clouds rose to her bidding, eager to carry her and her company away from harm.
She clamped Hëkitarka to her side. He was suddenly doll-like after his daring fight, only his warmth belying that he lived. She tugged at him, trying to get him up onto the broom behind her. At her touch he sprang into life. The leaves of the ash tree brushed his toes as it fled by beneath them. Each passing moment carried him farther away from his clan, perhaps never to see them again. This frightful thought made him resist Leanan Sídhe, meaning to jump down. Too late he saw that the rocky ground was growing further below them, and he should be smashed. He clung desperately to the broom handle with one hand. Leanan Sídhe made to snatch at him. Her handmaiden, Lilith, did too but as she reached up an arrow quivered into the handle of her pitchfork with a sharp twang. She started up into the air out of reach.
Midhir’s archers pursued them, mounted on faerie steads swift as the wind. An arrow whistled past Leanan’s ear. Thickly beset, it was all she could do to dodge the arrows and attempt to rise above their reach.
Hëkitarka flailed with his legs, trying to get a hold upon the broom head. An arrow sliced through his cloak. He threw his free arm up, grabbing the broom handle. The next moment his foot had found a purchase and he twisted onto the broom head. He fell against Leanan’s back, his breath coming thick with relief.
Like a sharp spring shower, the arrow firing died away. The archers moved on, but they knew the respite was brief. Midhir’s followers would seek a new vantage point from which to assail them.
They climbed high, below them the ghosting mist and purple, changeable mantle of the mountains rearing proud in their desolation. Streams ran down the slopes like veins of silver. Hëkitarka was lost in the wonder of the lovely view and craned from the broomstick, whooping at the exhilaration of the flight. Leanan Sídhe laughed and held him fast to protect him from the worst buffets.
Almost they had crossed the mountains when a line of riders broke out on their top. Midhir had many warriors scattering the countryside waiting to hound them. These riders were quicker thinking or better magicians. Besides arrows they threw up a shivering net of power, a wall that prevented Leanan and her companions from crossing the mountain range. Their only chance was to veer sideways and go along the steadily dropping mountain feet.
‘He means to drive us to the sea,’ Delilah gasped in alarm.
Leanan did not need this reminder from her servant girl and was already doing all she could to escape inland, eagerly watching for her chance and whipping up the elements furiously.
When Midhir appeared and sent a blazing wall of light crackling in front of them they became so startled that they found themselves reeling out over the stormy sea. The waves boiled tempestuously as if scattering and bunching in terror.
‘Your mother will catch you and give you to Midhir,’ Zuleika warned her mistress.
‘Not if I go up high. She cannot reach beyond the clouds.’ Leanan reared her broomstick up sharply.
Delilah cast a heartbroken look at Hëkitarka. ‘But the little brownie is mortal. It will kill him. There is no air, and the ice.’
Hëkitarka’s head span. He felt betrayed and helpless. He would rather have been killed by Midhir than die like this so far from his clan.
The storm howled mercilessly, sending waves shattering upon the rocks. Midhir closed in, riding his hunt pack along the beach.
Leanan Sídhe bit her lip with a tragic look and gathered Hëkitarka tighter. Before them the sky was so silvery bright that it was almost worth dying to see it. Yet Hëkitarka could not forget his clan.
Amongst the boiling waves fell a sudden circle of calm. Shifting unexpectedly, Hëkitarka plummeted towards it.
A monstrous head broke from the water, black and slimy with bulbous eyes that knew only hatred. Krysila’s jaws yawned expectantly, the darkness in her throat so strong that just looking at it was like being swallowed.
Leanan was screaming, plunging after him. In an instant Krysila coiled her in the stranglehold of one of her tentacles. Leanan yelled.
Something glittering leaped from the waves. Hit by a hard blow, Hëkitarka was knocked sideways. He found himself plunging into the icy waves which stunned his senses from him.