Aira saves Boroden when he gets into trouble in the tavern
|Boroden strolled into the tavern. Thickly swathed in a hooded cloak and on tiptoes, he hoped that no one would heed him. However, it was a close-knit community and many of the regulars cast him suspicious looks upon recognising him for a stranger.
Busy rubbing tankards dry, the innkeeper gave Boroden a cursory glance. ‘Small beer, laddie?’
Boroden stretched as tall as he could. ‘A glass of red wine if you please, good sir.’
The innkeeper stared, mumbling, ‘I’m not sure we have any.’
‘Course we do.’ The innkeeper’s wife swooped up to the bar having overheard the exchange. ‘We’ve a bottle of very fine vintage hidden away somewhere. The best as can be bought. It’ll cost you though.’
Boroden dipped into his pocket, drawing out a purse of human coins kept for such occasions. He began counting some out, keeping his palm cupped jealously, but the woman seemed to see through his fingers.
‘That’ll do.’ She snatched a gold piece and bit it, her eyes gleaming approvingly.
Boroden would not be taken for a fool. ‘Even were it the finest wine in the land that would be enough for a whole barrel.’
‘Very well, a barrel it is.’ She disappeared.
Boroden sighed. He supposed he could shrink the barrel if he waited for a safe moment when he was not being watched. He could carry it back to his clan to last them many months. He took a table resolving to let things be. Whilst he waited he heard murmurs passing around the drinkers that he was some rich dwarf. Bristling, Boroden was about to correct them but decided against it. If they discovered that he was a brownie then they would doubtless try and entrap him into cleaning for them. Though the place was filthy he had no mind to correct it; his dignity was already insulted enough.
A tiny firkin barrel was plonked before him along with a stained teacup. ‘Just your size,’ sniggered the barmaid.
The liquid was an unappealing brown colour and Boroden wrinkled his nose after taking a sip. He marched over to the bar. ‘I ordered wine, not vinegar.’
The innkeeper’s wife had the audacity to appear offended. ‘As I told you, sir, ‘tis of the best quality.’
‘Well, I’ll not drink it. Some mead instead.’
‘It’ll cost you.’
‘Now, now,’ the innkeeper cautioned his wife. ‘I’ll take back the wine. Pour him a little mead.’
A small cup of watery mead was a poor bargain for gold but Boroden was so thirsty he decided not to argue. Once his thirst was dulled he would gather his clan together and leave.
He returned to his table, uncomfortably aware of eyes staring and tongues wagging. It was rare to see a newcomer amongst the sturdy northern folk and the stranger kept his hood close about his face as if he had something to hide which, if you count whiskers and pointed ears, he had. Perhaps he and the evil sprite that had abused the folk in the tavern were one and the same? The men looked greedily at Boroden’s fine sword and jewelled belt. It was clear that the newcomer was wealthy and surely it was their right to compensation for their damages…
Boroden caught the words, ‘shake the rabbit upside down. Watch the gold come tumbling out his pockets.’ Livid, his hand fastened on his sword hilt. If they menaced him these bumpkins would soon see what kind of warrior they dealt with. Then he caught the glint of a knife and looked up to see nine burly men encircling him like jackals. His sip of mead stuck in his throat.
All heads turned as Aira burst in.
‘Why, if there isn’t another one of them blighters!’
‘Make a fine price sold to the circus.’
Bewildered at finding herself the centre of attention amongst a pack of rough looking humans and already distressed, Aira’s first reaction was to shrink. Gasps of amazement echoed. Before the humans had time to return their attention to Boroden, he too was gone.
Boroden took Aira’s arm as she ran from the threshold. The two brownies paused and peered back into the inn parlour at the astonished men snatching up chairs and ducking under tables in search for the brownies.
Aira looked rueful. ‘Forgive me, I didn’t mean to spoil everything. I know you didn’t want us to arouse suspicion.’
‘You’ve aroused a great deal.’ Boroden chuckled. ‘And afforded me an ideal opportunity to escape. Besides fighting them off I could see no other way out, so I’m grateful to you.’
‘I wouldn’t have come only Hëkitarka’s being silly in his cups and I don’t want to stay with the others.’
‘Carnelian managed to find a couple of empty rooms for the night, although they’re hardly of the best sort. Follow me; we’ll lie low there until the humans give up the search. This will have them talking for years.’
Boroden asked her what she meant about Hëkitarka. She confided more about Hëkitarka’s behaviour as they scuttled along the edge of the passageway, heading for their rooms. It pleased her that he listened with such caring attentiveness after his previous brusqueness towards her.
Boroden turned to face Aira, pale with fury. She regretted unburdening her heart to him seeing how deeply he was affected by her news.
‘I’m sorry to hear that Hëkitarka’s been troublesome. The lad’s too headstrong for his own good and I worry about him. That was no way to treat a lass. I assure you he’ll not be repeating his behaviour once I’ve had words with him,’ Boroden said.
‘I’m sure he didn’t mean it. It just wanted to tell you so you understood,’ Aira said, conflicted over whether she had been right to speak so freely about what had happened.
Boroden opened the door to the guest room and they saw that Carnelian and Gretchen had already fallen into an exhausted slumber. Gretchen had attempted to construct a nest from horsehair pulled from the bed mattress, although there would not be enough to build nests for them all.
‘I’ll sleep on the floor,’ Boroden sighed wearily.
Aira was touched by his consideration. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. Have you actually smelled those sheets? You should think twice before taking a rest on the bed.’
Aira flicked up the coverlet. She had no need to smell the bed linen after uncovering the browned sheet blotched with stains and a cockroach scuttling to safety beneath the pillow.
‘Now you know why the floor seems a better prospect. I have standards.’ Boroden made Aira laugh by bettering her look of disgust.
‘I’ll camp on the floor too,’ she decided. However, this appeared an equally unpleasant option. Having dusted the floorboards, she spied a decomposing half-eaten pie underneath the bed. Even Misty turned her nose up at this morsel.
Boroden groaned. ‘Whose idea was it to come to this place anyway?’
‘This has got to rank as the worst accommodation I’ve known. Still, even if we don’t get any sleep at least we have a roof over our heads and are…’ Aira’s optimistic words faltered as water drops tapped down from a gap in the ceiling where a roof tile had worked loose.
‘About to get soaked,’ Boroden said, pulling her out of range of the shower. ‘Did you just say this place had a roof?’ They both chuckled. ‘Here, you look cold,’ Boroden said, offering her his cloak.
They nestled side by side under Boroden’s cloak with its silver fabric lining. Aira relaxed, enjoying Boroden’s comforting presence beside her. Despite their dismal surroundings, at that moment there was nowhere else she would rather be.
‘Hungry?’ Boroden asked, offering Aira some of the shortbread that he had taken from the shepherd’s croft.
‘Starving,’ Aira smiled gratefully, taking the foyson from her slice. It felt good to be in Boroden’s presence again, sharing a truly happy moment. It reminded her of the carefree time she had spent with him before their reunion when Boroden’s affections had been muffled in darkness.
Misty burrowed under the cloak and sniffed eagerly at the shortbread. ‘It’ll do you no good,’ Aira said, scratching the dog between her ears.
Boroden fell into silence. His usual eloquence failed him as he sought for how to phrase the words he had wanted to tell Aira for days. ‘You know, I’m sorry for… Since you reappeared I know that I’ve not been…’
Aira put her hand reassuringly on his. ‘It’s all right. I understand. You don’t need to explain yourself to me if you’d rather not. I have faith in you - to me there is no better king for our folk.’
Boroden turned to her gratefully, looking her in the eye for the first time since she returned. He made to speak but even as he parted his lips there was a knock at the door.
‘Open up. These are our quarters right? Hëki needs a lay down,’ Gefi called through the door. Behind him Aira caught the gurgle of Hëkitarka being sick. She grimaced.
‘What’s going on?’ Carnelian muttered, woken from his slumber. Beside him, Gretchen groaned sleepily.
‘Honestly,’ Boroden huffed to Aira. He turned to the door to call to the brownies outside. ‘No, you are not coming in here. You can sleep in the empty chamber at the end of the corridor.’
The other brownies piled onto the bed in the empty room and lay side by side across it, this being the best way to fit in several brownies with their short stature. None of them got much sleep with Hëkitarka throwing up frequently and Shrike having an animated conversation with Torden about his escapades in a string of human taverns. Harfan looked darkly on Shrike, wishing that he would be silent. He had grave reservations about what Boroden would think of the boggart. Eventually Harfan fell asleep with his toes off the end of the bed and Hëkitarka’s knee in back, ignoring Quentillian repeatedly reprimanding Torden and Shrike to pipe down.
Boroden rose stiffly at daybreak, gently laying down Aira who had fallen asleep drooped against his shoulder. He tried to believe that he had put his arms about her simply to steady her, but it reality he knew that he still loved her as much as he always had, despite telling himself to supress his feelings.
Eager to leave before the humans woke, Boroden, Aira and Gretchen slipped outside after leaving a note for their companions. However, the brownie warriors had finally found slumber and kept them waiting for nearly two hours enduring the damp fingering of the fog.
At last the rest of the brownies appeared. Torden ushered Shrike before him, keen to introduce him to the king. ‘Boroden, this is Shrike. He can fight well and is wanting to join our clan.’
‘We’ll be glad of his help.’ Boroden paid scant heed to Shrike, his attention being fixed on Hëkitarka who was at the rear of the clan.
‘Hëkitarka, a word with you,’ Boroden beckoned. He waved the rest of the clan away out of earshot, keeping only Aira with him.
Hëkitarka stumbled over accompanied by Harfan. ‘Hëki’s not well,’ Harfan said by way of excusing his presence.
Boroden arched his eyebrows disparagingly at his hungover cousin. ‘Aira told me about you making a nuisance of yourself last night.’
‘What!’ Harfan rounded on Aira. ‘That’s none of Boroden’s concern.’
‘It is entirely my concern. She’s under my protection.’
‘My brother did no wrong. Aira insults him greatly with her reaction. It is she that should apologise for it,’ Harfan said.
‘Are you drunk as well? For that’s the only thing that should make your irresponsible actions excusable. I’ll not have Hëkitarka treat Aira in that disrespectful way again. You’re to help me ensure that there is no repetition. Understood?’
Aira cringed as Harfan lunged at Boroden with his uninjured arm. Hëkitarka caught at Boroden’s shoulder but keeled over.
‘Oh dear, is he concussed?’ Boroden snarled sarcastically as Hëkitarka rolled on the ground, clutching his aching head.
‘Don’t you dare mock my brother so. And if you cared for Aira you’d not treat her so cruelly. You can barely bring yourself to look at her since she returned. Have you no heart at all?’ Harfan snapped. It was rare to see such rage in one usually so gentle and it hurt Aira that she should play a part in it. Harfan clashed with Boroden. Boroden wrestled with him, trying to restrain him from hurting his recently broken arm.
Hëkitarka ruefully met Aira’s horrified look. Lurching over on all fours, he knelt at her feet. ‘I’m sorry for what I did. It won’t happen again. It was that awful ale. I won’t touch a drop again, promise. Forgive me?’
‘All right.’ Aira squeezed his hand.
‘Eh, hum, you two, stop,’ Hëkitarka asked Boroden and Harfan, waving his arms between them. ‘Aira has forgiven me and there’s nothing to quarrel about.’
Boroden and Harfan broke apart, though neither thought it right that their dispute should be so fleeting.