Mermaids rescue Hekitarka
|When the sídhe left they seemed more like a startled flock of birds than angry pursuers. The peace that descended made Aira’s ears ring. The air was still rife with the projections of enchantment made by their adversaries. Even Vortimus was quiet, though he glared defiantly at them from where he lay trapped beneath the dresser.
‘We must get Hëki back,’ Harfan said through gritted teeth. Fostolf shoved a duster into his mouth to muffle his yell as he set his broken arm, securing it with a splint formed from a wooden spoon and rag bandages.
Dizzy with pain, Harfan looked sorrowfully to where the other brownies gathered around Fennec. Klaufi was tearful and Aira’s heart was heavy as they shut Fennec’s unseeing eyes and bound his wounds. They joined Carnelian in prayer for him, even Boroden who struggled to have faith.
Torden reappeared, shouldering a shovel. ‘I’ve found a good spot beneath that old ash tree.’
Klaufi snipped off a lock of his hair. It would be placed in Fennec’s grave as a token of remembrance. ‘It feels odd just sticking him in the ground and leaving him.’
‘We leave him for now, but this place will be forever hallowed because of his name,’ Boroden declared.
‘Aye, we’ll soon see him again in heaven,’ Carnelian comforted.
‘He’d want us to be happy about that. I don’t see why we’re all moping. Fennec was a jolly soul, always looking on the bright side. We should be celebrating the blessing of his life, not regretting he’s gone. We can’t do much about that,’ Gefi said.
They tried to keep positive and had some success. It felt as if Fennec’s soul watched over them, cheering them on.
However, they all fretted about Hëkitarka. Boroden hastened away to search for him. Quentillian followed, believing Hëkitarka needed a good talking to for his dallying with Leanan Sídhe - and that he was the one to do it.
Klaufi looked worried and kept glancing back to the croft. At the appearance of the shepherd and his wife, he voiced his concern. ‘We can’t leave the croft in that wreck. Those poor humans would have been better treated by boggarts.’
‘What can we do? It’ll take ages to get it anywhere near tidy again,’ Torden shrugged.
‘I’ll do it easily using magic. Thank goodness Boroden and Quentillian aren’t about to complain about my powers,’ Klaufi told Aira before heading back to the croft.
‘That’s good of you, Klaufi,’ Aira told him, walking on beside Harfan. In his distress he was grateful for her quiet support.
The shepherd’s wife ran to the open door of the croft and peered inside. Her hand flew to her mouth in horror. ‘Thieves! Outlaws! Rebels!’ she yelled to her husband, beckoning him over.
‘Calm yourself. What do you mean thieves?’ the shepherd asked with an indifference that annoyed her.
‘In our house,’ she spelled out pointedly.
‘Well, we have little enough to steal and the pantry was nearly bare,’ he retorted gruffly, unloading provisions newly purchased from the market.
‘It’s not that. They’ve wrecked the house. We’ll never get it straight again. Just look at our fine dresser passed down from your grandfather. Oh!’ Her clucking was drawn in abruptly as she spied Vortimus. ‘There’s one of them still here.’
The shepherd shouldered his stout crook that was topped by a curling ram horn, but his wife grabbed it off him and rushed at Vortimus with a vengeful yell. Before she could reach him, the dresser sprang back upright. Smashed jars and crockery reassembled and flew to their places, buckets righted themselves and the fire rekindled. Within a twinkling the croft was back to a homely state.
Looking quickly round the shepherd’s wife blinked and spotted Klaufi. His fear turned to pride as he saw she recognised him for a brownie with gratitude.
‘I can’t let good, honest folk have their house turned topsy-turvy by them that ain’t worth naught. I hope it goes some way towards making amends but I’ve just put a spell on your cauldron. You’ll find it never goes empty of food.’ Klaufi pulled his forelock respectfully at her before fleeting away.
The shepherd’s wife made to restrain Vortimus as he limped to the door. ‘Unhand me, peasant!’ Vortimus spat, drawing his sword menacingly. He dodged past her mincingly nonetheless, and made for the valley, calling ‘My Lady!’
The clan headed towards a vast pine forest girded by marshy land. It was arranged that they should wait for Boroden’s return in a clearing just within the forest, towards which Carnelian led them. It was with relief that they reached the tottered, bleached pines that showed they neared the dry ground and safety of the forest.
They did not see any sign of the sídhe and this made them uneasy. With the passing hours, Hëkitarka’s disappearance sunk in, like the pain of a battle wound sharpening once the fight was done. They prayed he was safe, but even that was not enough to dispel their fears.
Once they stopped, Harfan tried to contact him in thought. He sensed Hëkitarka still lived, but there was something blocking him from hearing or replying. This made the brownies anxious.
Hëkitarka opened his eyes and groaned, tasting a salty tang in his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut again, for the sun was too bright for his throbbing head. He felt arms about him, large and strong as those of humans, yet cold as the depths of the sea. The ringing in his head subsiding, he heard the most beautiful crooning rippling sweetly all around.
Opening his eyes, he saw he had been dragged to dry rocks beneath the cliff. About him crowded six mermaids, their tails coiled upon the sand like silvery sheep horns.
‘It still lives,’ one declared, stroking the hair from his face.
‘He’s very handsome,’ another giggled.
The other mermaids pawed at his legs in wonderment.
‘It has two tails.’
‘Legs, silly. Humans have them too. Have you never seen a sailor?’ said the eldest, who had been first to speak.
Hëkitarka pushed himself up, bedraggled and covered with sand.
‘That is not a human though. What is it?’
Hëkitarka was chilled to the bone and ached all over but he managed to chatter, ‘I’se a brrrownie.’
‘A brrrownie?’ the mermaid repeated, awestruck.
Hëkitarka nodded, rubbing himself to try and get back some warmth and stop his teeth chattering. ‘You saved my life. You all deserve the best reward and I shall wish you well always.’
‘Don’t leave us!’ one of the mermaids cried as he stumbled to his feet.
‘You must stay and hear us sing again.’
‘Your singing is the most beautiful thing I ever heard,’ he admitted.
Their laughter was as gentle as lapping waves. ‘Which of us is the prettiest?’
Hëkitarka’s heart fluttered at their attentiveness. ‘I really couldn’t say. I think you’re all lovely and I wouldn’t like to make any of you jealous. Hang on, wait a minute…. I think she’s rather nice.’ He smiled at a maiden hauling herself out of a rock pool. She was a selkie and nearer in size to a brownie, her whiskery face and dappled grey hair akin to Hëkitarka’s own. Her coal black eyes glistened. Over her shoulder she carried her seal skin. She was born to ride the waves, the sparkle of the sea visible in eyes.
‘Do you put the skin on to transform yourself into a seal? That’s awesome, I’d love to see it,’ he grinned.
‘If you took it and locked it where I could not find it then I wouldn’t be able to return to the sea. Then I’d be forever the best wife you could have,’ the selkie said, her eyes glittering as she gazed longingly at the handsome brownie.
Hëkitarka’s whiskers twitched. ‘Hmm, I might be tempted.’
The selkie held out a fish that she had caught. Hëkitarka brightened at the sight of food. ‘If you’d bring me fish like this every day then I’d say you’re irresistible. Though, I think it’s mean to stop you being a seal. I’d let you keep your seal skin and go to the sea whenever you want. I drank some magic potion at King Kerfinror’s court and I turned into an otter. I might do that again, then I can join you.’
‘You would let me be free?’ the selkie asked delightedly.
‘Hëkitarka! What do you think you’re doing?’ It was Quentillian. He and Boroden galloped across the beach astride a couple of wild ponies that Boroden had convinced to help them in their search. He was glad that Blackthorn, the flying pony he had saved from Midhir’s palace, had taught him horse speech.
‘More brrrownies,’ a mermaid declared.
‘They look better when they’re wet,’ the selkie concluded, offering Hëkitarka another sardine. He stuffed it into his sporran to keep for supper.
‘Sorry ladies. I think I’d better go. We’re heading to a place called Velmoran and one day I’ll be prince there. It’s by the sea and you’d be most welcome to come and see me for dinner any time. There’d be lots of fish.’
Quentillian shooed the mermaids away. ‘No, they would not be welcome. Don’t you know how dangerous mermaids are? They’re known to drown folk.’
‘They’re nice,’ Hëkitarka protested. ‘They saved me from a kraken, Krysila. She was about to eat me,’ Hëkitarka said pointedly.
At these words Boroden went pale.
‘A kraken? Are you sure?’ Quentillian asked.
‘We must get far from the sea,’ Boroden ordered, hastening away.
‘Look at the state you’re in,’ Quentillian grumbled, looking Hëkitarka over disapprovingly as he rose.
Hëkitarka rolled his eyes and staggered after them, his boots sloshing with sea water and his squirrel tail scarf bedraggled. Despite this, the beauty of the glistening waves and the sands speckled with treasures of all kinds; shells, seaweed and sea glass, entranced him.
‘I’ve always wanted to journey by the sea. It’s far better than even you told me,’ he exclaimed to Boroden.
‘This is nothing compared to Velmoran,’ Boroden said with a wistful look.
‘It’ll be great to reach it, but that kraken is one formidable beastie. Her head is as big as, like, twenty beefy ogres and as for her tentacles…’ Hëkitarka shuddered.
‘I know!’ Boroden groaned.
‘Look, it wasn’t my fault about Leanan Sídhe. I swear I didn’t know she was in the cottage.’ Since Boroden made no response, not sure whether to believe the boy’s innocence, Hëkitarka turned to Quentillian. ‘Why are we heading inland?’
‘Your cousin has found a path for us through the pine forest. Bleak and rough it may be, but it looks safe,’ Quentillian explained.
‘Why not follow the coast to Velmoran? It would be much quicker and nicer.’
‘What, with that kraken in the deeps trying to kill us at any chance?’ Boroden asked sarcastically.
‘The mermaids would keep us safe. They would warn us if the kraken comes,’ Hëkitarka assured him.
‘Would they? I’ve got a good mind to tell Aira about your new friends. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you making eyes at her,’ Boroden snapped.
‘Go ahead, tell her. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of,’ Hëkitarka shrugged.
When they joined the clan after a couple of hours hard marching, the anxious faces of their comrades filled with relief.
‘Hëki, I was worried sick,’ Harfan declared, loping up as fast as he could since he was still in agony from his broken arm.
‘I’ve seen the sea. It’s great!’ Hëkitarka laughed to his brother.
Hëkitarka hugged Aira for longer than necessary after she and Harfan welcomed him safely back. Despite having told himself that it would be best for Aira if he let her go, jealousy flared in Boroden. Uneasy with Hëkitarka’s flirtatious ways, he sought out Aira hoping to warn her against being won over. His previous hesitance to speak to her as he sought in vain for the right words of apology after reacting so harshly to her reappearance, vanished beneath his desire to warn her against Hëkitarka. ‘We spend hours tracking him down, frantic and worried, only to find him on the beach stuffing himself on foyson from raw fish and lolling about, blissfully attended by scantily clad ladies.’
‘They were mermaids!’ Hëkitarka put in excitedly.
Aira’s reaction confounded Boroden’s expectations. ‘Mermaids?’ she gasped, awestruck.
‘What were they like?’ Harfan asked, equally curious.
Torden rubbed his hands together. ‘You’re a lucky one, Hëki. I spent hours looking for mermaids at Velmoran.’
‘They were very nice, though not half as pretty as Aira.’ Hëkitarka winked at her before continuing to tell them about his adventures.
Aira was glad of his interesting tale and youthful exuberance, for the way ahead was far from pleasant and they needed something to distract them from their worrying thoughts. As they approached the dark army of pines that sprouted from the dry, sparse ground, Klaufi admitted he had misgivings. This was not at all encouraging, reminding Aira of the time when Klaufi had sensed the evil tree that had attacked Boroden in the dryad’s forest.
Boroden urged them on amongst the rocks and jagged whips of brambles to the eaves of the forest. Once inside the forest, they found the branches had become grim skeletons, long starved of light. There was moisture aplenty, albeit in oozing, stagnant pools full of biting flies. They plagued the brownies relentlessly as they struggled through, up to their knees in mud.
Klaufi waved his arms from side to side like a windmill to keep the flies from landing on him and he encouraged Aira to do the same. Quentillian rolled his eyes and moved further away from them to avoid getting inadvertently hit. Hëkitarka nibbled at the sardine for comfort and heartily wished he had stayed with the selkie.
‘We’ll camp here for the night,’ Boroden declared once the shadows had merged and bats began to wheel through the trees. ‘With Fennec gone you’ll be our main scout, Hëkitarka. You go with him, Gefi. I don’t want you taking any risks, mind. You’re a scout, Hëki, not a warrior. You’ll be better off accompanied for the time being.’
‘Course I won’t take risks. You can rely on me,’ Hëkitarka beamed, glad of his cousin at last giving him some small responsibility. It was a step up and soon, despite Boroden’s words, he vowed to prove himself a worthy warrior.
Though the day had many hours left, shadows rose and stole the light. Branches swayed nervously. Soon the rain began, the slippery ground making their journey arduous.
The brownies scanned the trees, sensing evil eyes upon them. They wished they might leave the forest, but it went on for miles with only bleak, barren hillsides beyond. Carnelian remembered this part of the journey well when the clan had travelled from Velmoran to Lutraudros, although his description of it as the most dangerous section of their journey was hardly encouraging.
When they stopped for the night, Aira, Hëkitarka and Gefi remained to guard the fire from the drizzle whilst the others collected more wood and moss to fashion into nests. Aira was glad of the fire, though it might make them conspicuous to evil eyes.
Harfan returned and tossed a papery stump on the fire. It was all he could manage to carry with one arm. He settled beside his pensive brother. ‘At least the wood further into the forest is mostly dry.’ He looked off into the forest, then shifted closer to his brother. ‘You’ve been quiet today, Tarka.’
‘That makes a change. You’ll have to practice it more,’ Torden joked before rising to ask Gretchen to put a meal together, for he was famished.
‘I miss Fennec,’ Hëkitarka replied, playing with the rainbow feathered birch arrows in his quiver. He had tucked his archery equipment under his cloak to protect it against damage from the rain. It had only just dried out after his soaking in the sea. He had rubbed the flaxen string of his bow with beeswax to keep moisture out, but the downpour was so heavy he doubted this would do much good.
‘Are you sure that’s the only reason?’ Harfan went on. ‘I remember how you wept over Leanan last time. This time she lived so short a life. I doubt her handmaidens rescued her essence from the kraken.’
‘Aye, she’s dead I daresay. Though it’s harder to weep over her now. I know that she would have killed me, but the next moment she was calling a mermaid to save me. It’s so confusing.’
‘What you want, Tarka, is a nice, gentle, true lass who knows you as well as you do her and loves you as much.’
‘I’d like that.’
Aira hoped to reassure him. ‘I’m sure you’ll marry a lass like that, Hëki.’
However, Harfan’s pointed look made her uneasy. ‘I should hope he will.’
Although fallen wood was abundant, it gave off sickly green, pungent flames. Worse, they crept and spread over a tinder of fallen needles. Gefi and Quentillian busily stamped the fire out. The downpour helped them, though it meant no chance of cooking a meal. They hardened themselves to spending the night in thick dark and penetrating rain, kept on high alert by the sinister cracking of twigs in the distance.
‘Hobyahs would love this,’ Torden commented to Gefi as he went to relieve Harfan at his watch.
Hëkitarka sprang from his sulk as Harfan returned with carrots that Gretchen was handing round to eat the foyson from raw.
‘Even a dead squirrel would be more appetising. Can’t you catch one?’ Torden asked Hëkitarka, eying the carrots with a grimace.
‘How can I when I’m not allowed to take a step on my own? Catching squirrels takes stealth.’
‘Hëkitarka, when will you learn patience? It’s for your cousin to decide when you are ready,’ Quentillian huffed.
‘I’m sick of being treated like a bairn. I’m taller than Boroden and as strong as any of you. I’d make a good warrior.’
‘Boroden can see that. He’s just trying to protect you because he cares about you,’ Carnelian reassured him, hoping to keep Hëkitarka’s voice from rising and waking Boroden who had fallen into an exhausted slumber.
‘If he cares then he’d let me fight beside my brother, not smother me like an overprotective hen.’
‘You must first prove yourself worthy. At present you’re too reckless.’ Quentillian regarded him sternly.
Hëkitarka opened his mouth to retort but gave in and flopped against Harfan’s uninjured shoulder.
‘They’ll see your bravery and worth as a fighter plain enough when the time comes,’ Harfan reassured him.