The brownies get drawn into trouble by a boggart who ransacks a village tavern
|The next morning, the brownies came across a rutted road made by humans.
‘This must be the track to the village where the shepherd goes to market,’ Harfan concluded.
Although Boroden relented to the pressure of his companions and followed the road, he had reservations. The forest was an eerie prospect, but was there not more danger in the village? Surely Midhir would expect the brownies to seek shelter in human homes?
Shorter in stature than the shepherd and without the convenience of a donkey cart, it took the brownies until evening to travel the remaining distance to the village. The land here was too poor to support many by farming alone, so the villagers turned to quarrying. They were rough folk, and this was reflected in the thick hewn walls of the cottages that crouched with a menacing sturdiness. From the narrow windows orange rush light glowered at the rising fog and the brownies that came with it.
Before they had gone ten paces along the street, they were almost drenched by a tossed pail of grimy water and savaged by a dog. Aira shivered as she restrained Misty from growling at the dog. Gretchen’s idea that they find some warm cottage and be rewarded with good food for their help looked far from being realised.
‘Shall we split up and look for a likely cottage?’ Gefi suggested, having acknowledged that this would be no easy task.
‘No. Best stick together. We may have glamour upon us but that won’t protect us from danger,’ Carnelian said, tucking away his pot of the glamour ointment made of magical herbs. The brownies used the potion to make themselves invisible to humans.
They approached a building larger but no less dilapidated than the cottages. Light blazed out into the yard, along with trickles of penny whistle music, foot stamping and guffaws. A sign creaked like a gibbeted man above the door of the inn; The Boar’s Breath.
‘Sounds like a good party in there.’ Torden glanced longingly at the tavern.
Boroden kicked him as a warning to keep his voice down and urged the brownies on, keeping low. With so many humans close by there was a chance they might be spotted by someone with second sight against whom the glamour would have no effect. A ripple of angry shouts clamouring in the inn made Boroden no less anxious.
The door was flung back and out burst a small figure enveloped in a filthy hessian cloak. At first, they thought it was another brownie, but his face was too twisted and his bloodshot eyes too evil for that. With a shiver of trepidation Aira and Gretchen recognised Shrike, the boggart who had often maligned them in the brownie village where they had once lived. He clutched half a dozen bottles in his long, hairy arms and smirked over the havoc that he had caused within the tavern.
The curtains blazed due to a toppled rushlight, full tankards had been hurled at the ceiling to soak the customers and a flood of ale by the door waited to slip anyone who dared to give chase. This did not stop the innkeeper from appearing in the doorway and bellowing angrily in the direction of the troublesome boggart. Despite the boggart’s glamour the man could still see the bottles and hurled an empty sack, hoping to catch him.
Klaufi had not noticed how the other brownies clung tighter to the shadows. He stood gawping, not for a moment doubting that his glamour would protect him. He had not counted on the boggart thrusting the bottles at him before disappearing with a malevolent laugh.
Klaufi promptly dropped the bottles, avoiding being grabbed by the furious innkeeper by inches. He fled and might have escaped had he not slipped in a pile of refuse. Though he could not see him, the innkeeper saw the impact of Klaufi’s fall and lost no time in throwing the sack over him. He gripped the struggling, invisible creature tightly.
‘Now I don’t know about magic or the little folk, but what I do know is that whoever you are, you’ve done me a wrong. Just look at the wreckage you’ve caused.’ The innkeeper’s jowls wagged in fury as he gestured behind him to the pile of barrels upset by the boggart and the groom who was chasing after a couple of nags that had been cut loose.
‘I’m very sorry for what’s happened to you, sir. It ain’t right but…’
The innkeeper grabbed Klaufi’s scrawny but invisible shoulder and shook him. ‘No, most certainly not. But you’re going to make it right.’
‘Course I will,’ Klaufi gulped, looking back pleadingly as the innkeeper dragged him inside.
‘We’d better follow him and help,’ Carnelian said.
Boroden tried to think up some other plan of rescue that avoided the humiliation of working for humans. However, he eventually relented, especially as Aira, Harfan and Hëkitarka had already gone to Klaufi’s aid.
It was no wonder that the inn made an attractive haunt for a boggart. It had been filthy to begin with. The front room with its smoky inglenook fireplace was dusty, and the horse brasses tarnished. In the back kitchen, used by the innkeeper’s family to prepare victuals for unfortunate customers, the stale stench of ale was joined by an odour of damp and rotting onions.
Hëkitarka clapped his scarf over his nose. Aira did not allow herself pause even for this. She knew that if she did not start working then nothing should be done by the time the innkeeper returned from the bar.
Hëkitarka dusted whilst the other brownies scrubbed and arranged baskets, pots and pans neatly. Boroden glowered at being forced to such degrading work as cleaning a tavern. Now and again he cast Klaufi an annoyed glance, sure that Klaufi would have avoided being caught had he been less stupid. Boroden was even more embarrassed by Klaufi as he sputtered after inhaling a disturbed cloud of dust and took long, noisy swigs on his waterskin, draining it without taking his lips from the neck.
Torden made himself scarce as soon as he had heaved back a dresser that the boggart had left askew. The prospect of a warming dram was enticing. The innkeeper had not yet seen any of the brownies and being the tallest, Torden might have entered the bar disguised as a man of short stature by standing up on his toes, as he sometimes had before. However, having little money and feeling it his due to have a drink as a reward, sneaking to the cellar seemed the better idea. Unfortunately, the door was securely fastened. Torden prowled, searching for a way in.
‘Want some?’ asked a voice from the stable roof. Shrike evidently often caused trouble here, for the innkeeper had superstitiously fixed stones with holes in above the stalls to deter the boggart from stealing the ponies at night and riding them until they were exhausted.
Shrike smashed the top off a bottle of sloe gin and handed it to Torden.
Torden smacked his lips. ‘Good of you, crony.’
Shrike had not noticed Aira and Gretchen and his brief glance at the ragged brownies had left him thinking them a rough bunch who it might be amusing to join. He imagined they would be easy to convert to boggarts. Then, with him as leader, they would travel from village to village pillaging and wreaking havoc. What fun that would be!
‘I don’t see many of our kind about here. Travelling somewhere?’ Shrike asked.
‘Aye. Velmoran is the homeland we’re trying to reclaim. That is, it’s a hopeless task with plenty of danger and difficulty on the way.’
‘Well, well, that sounds exactly the kind of thing I like. Did you know I’ve been to Velmoran since the kraken took it? Slumbering in her sea cave she was. It would be as easy as anything to kill her. I did tell the brownie prince about it but at the time taking Velmoran wasn’t on the cards.’
‘Seriously? That’s the best news I’ve heard in ages. Now how can he say no? Plus, if you can keep us going with a dram as good as this then you’re most welcome to join us,’ Torden said.
‘I can’t promise that, but I can promise my advice and my spear should you need an extra warrior.’ Shrike waved a formidable looking spear, jagged as a thorn and yet more sinister for its nicks and rust.
‘Consider it done,’ Torden said, imagining how useful this fresh fighter would be.
The pair drank to it until Torden collapsed onto a pile of freshly mucked out straw. Whilst he snored, the boggart picked his pocket of a chunk of cheese and a silver sixpence before scrambling back onto the roof.
Inside, work in the kitchen and living quarters was almost done. Luckily the innkeeper stayed away setting the tavern parlour to rights and serving customers. He did not trust Klaufi and could not risk a repetition of the wreckage before his customers. He already had to deal with disgruntled drinkers and refill slopped tankards.
Aira was so achingly tired that she worked in a daze, her slight form nimbly lifting pails and furniture thrice her weight. Carnelian and Gretchen had gone up to the guest rooms to see if any might be free to make their nests in and Aira longed to crawl into hers. She was grateful for Hëkitarka’s gentle smile as he helped her carry a bucket of dirty water out to be drained in the yard. However, she suspected he did not lay his hand on hers by accident as they tipped the heavy bucket over.
The cold night air revived her. Pulling her shawl closer, she resolved to throw herself into her work even harder now the end was in sight. There was only the fireplace and the pantry to attend to. Boroden had gone. She guessed from the way that he had placed padding under his heels to make himself appear taller that he had headed for the tavern parlour in search of wine.
‘You look thirsty. How about I buy you a drink?’ Hëkitarka asked Aira, mistaking the way she kept looking towards the door leading into the taproom whilst she was scrubbing the table.
‘No need. Make way,’ Klaufi announced, plonking a pot of tea and two huge jacketed potatoes on the table before Aira. A baked weevil was revealed as he cut into one of the potatoes.
‘Oh, well, that’s lovely. You sure know how to treat a lady,’ Hëkitarka chuckled.
‘I don’t know why I’m toiling away like this when there’s ale to be had. I’m done.’ Harfan tossed a freshly cut log by the fire with his uninjured arm. Wiping his hot brow, he motioned Gefi over to the ale barrel. Hëkitarka joined them, excitedly waving a cream jug that served as a brownie sized tankard.
‘I’m not sure,’ Harfan said as Hëkitarka looked to him to fill it.
‘Why?’ Hëkitarka moaned.
‘You know what happened to you last time you tried some.’
‘You think I’m proper growed now, Harfan, you told me. So, I’ll show everyone I am by swigging some ale.’
‘All right then.’
Harfan filled the tankard and Hëkitarka took a gulp, spluttering, ‘it’s made my throat go all fiery.’ He drank it nonetheless and declared, ‘there, I’m, proper growed now, despite what Cousin B…’ his words cut short in a high-pitched ‘hic!’ Hëkitarka clutched his throat in alarm. ‘It’s made me, hic! Make funny sounds.’
‘Hiccups, my brother. They’ll be over before you know it.’ Harfan slapped him on the back before refilling his cup.
‘I want, hic, seconds too,’ Hëkitarka slurred, pushing Gefi aside to fill his cream jug. Unfortunately, he had no idea how to stop the tap once the jug was full. Ale began spilling over the freshly scrubbed flagstones. Klaufi gaped, dismayed.
‘Help! It won’t stop,’ Hëkitarka waved at Harfan, downing his ale and replacing the jug to refill and catch the escaping liquor as fast as he could. By the time Harfan stopped the deluge, Hëkitarka had drunk two more drams and lapped a good deal straight from the barrel. He was unsure whether it was himself or the floor that swayed as he stepped away, clutching another full jug.
‘Le’s ‘av a race to see which of us is, hic, the fastest drinker,’ he challenged Harfan who took him up.
‘No. I think you’ve had enough, both of you,’ Quentillian tutted, mopping the sticky floor.
‘Too much is never enough, heh?’ Hëkitarka winked at Harfan.
Aira rose from blacking the range to give Hëkitarka a warning glance but he merely waved cheerily. Harfan, Hëkitarka and Gefi proceeded to demolish part of the newly tidied room in games of catch the trencher and hot cockles, which involved Klaufi kneeling with his head in Gefi’s lap trying to guess who was coming up behind him and hitting him on the head. Harfan worried that Klaufi would end up concussed by the time he guessed correctly, so he bravely offered to take his place. They then began a game of snapdragon; snatching raisins from flaming brandy.
‘Hey lads, look at this,’ Gefi called, flourishing a cup with four spouts. To win the game one of them had to drink out of it without spilling any ale. It was a human sized cup, which Aira was not glad to see for Hëkitarka was tipsy already. Clearing up after their riotous party was going to be even more work for her than clearing up after the boggart.
Hëkitarka conceded Harfan’s victory. Laying the cup aside and wiping his sticky fingers down his even stickier tunic, he gazed at Aira. ‘I’m, hic, um, feelin’ much bolder and brisker now.’
‘Good. As you should.’ Bending closer somewhat unsteadily, Harfan whispered, ‘I’ve told you afore now that Aira likes you. Why worry your head about it? I say go to and tell her what you feel.’
Hëkitarka’s gaze had not left Aira as she trotted back and forth with fresh kindling and the ale made his trepidation easily overcome. Seeing Hëkitarka staggering over puffing out his whiskers, Aira retreated into the pantry, leaving Klaufi to finish blacking the range. She drew up a stool and balanced on it so she could reach to stand jars on the high shelves. She stretched down for the last jar of pickled beetroot but found it already being passed up to her, although Hëkitarka’s arm was wavering so unsteadily that she was almost knocked from the stool.
‘It’s good of you to help. But you must promise me, Tarka, not to have any more ale,’ she said, stepping down.
He seemed barely to hear and was gazing at her with a dreamy look. Before she could dodge he was groping for her waist to kiss her, not heeding her protests. Aira pushed him away and he tottered back, gagging. He doubled over and made yet more mayhem by throwing up on the floor.
‘What have you done to him?’ Harfan asked in alarm, casting a furious look at Aira.
‘What has he done to himself more like?’ Aira retorted crossly.
Though they were only upstairs, Gretchen and Carnelian seemed a long way off and to reach them Aira would have to find a way by Harfan who was keen to reprimand her. Escaping to the familiar presence of Boroden was by far the best option.