As the brownies celebrate Christmas, Boroden wonders if he should continue the quest alone
|Frosty Moon came from her basket wagging her tail and pawing Boroden eagerly. The sight of the green coated faerie dog so oblivious to his anguish and the dangers that faced him tugged at his heart. He would not be utterly alone. He needed her with him. She required no persuasion in accompanying him to the pantry.
Boroden caught the sounds of merriment; the playing of a fiddle and Isadora’s raucous laughter. He cringed. How could they change and forget so fast? The very walls seemed to utter a reproach to Boroden and he avoided looking at Leon’s portrait and shield hung proudly facing the entrance door. Boroden felt that he was not welcome here.
He did not want to leave by the main door and be spotted by the guards. The pantry had a door opening into the yard that offered a way to escape, plus the opportunity to load himself with provisions.
The pantry was well stocked, groaning with gaudy dishes and sweetmeats in preparation for the Christmas revels. Boroden had nothing to leave in payment for the food except a note asking his cousins to forgive him. He shrunk as much food as he could, stowing it into his pack until it was so heavy that he used a lifting spell to comfortably carry it. He needed all the supplies that he could get. The road to Velmoran was long and before that he had to pass a seemingly endless expanse of snow, forge a way across mountains and follow a desolate coastline. He did not want to think about the dangers that might befall him; marauding ice giants being the least of his worries. He feared that when Krysila discovered he was alone she would think he made easy prey.
The night was still and cloudless. Boroden set his sights on the star he was using to guide him to Velmoran. Fresh snow had fallen, and it made progress up the hill behind the fortress painful. For some time, all Boroden could think about was stopping himself from slipping and finding the next foot hold in what seemed like a puzzle of rock.
The path became smoother and he could look up at the majesty of the sky. Little strips of cloud lay above the horizon, softly illuminated in pastel rays by the aurora. The stars danced in all their remote beauty. Boroden was glad to be amongst surroundings so stately and forbidding. It gave him time for quiet, to reflect.
As he went on fear grew upon him. He could not help but strain to listen for sounds of ice giants. He knew they must be out there somewhere.
Near the top of the hill he saw something glinting through the bushes. Its magical beauty transfixed him, and he yearned for another glimpse, pressing on eagerly. At first, he imagined he must be seeing a cluster of stars behind the scrub. Then he realised that whatever it was lay amongst the thorns. They looked like silver flowers burst into bloom, but they winked and darted with life. Boroden exclaimed in wonderment and started towards them through the snow. His delight grew as he stopped amongst the snow fairies. Close to they glowed with a light of their own. Delicate silver tracery sparkled over their wings and bodies. Long, shimmering antennae and tails waved as they hovered, as curious of Boroden as he was of them.
Forgetting his previous pain, Boroden gave Aira a warm smile as he turned and noticed her holding out her hand to him with sparkling eyes. Upon her palm rested a snow fairy.
Boroden hastily dropped his gaze. His cousins had come too and Harfan took his arm.
‘You must not think to go alone. You have no knowledge of this place and need help if you are to reach Velmoran. How can you set off when you are so weak still? Gladly will I help you when the time is right,’ Harfan offered.
‘I bring only woe upon you,’ Boroden said by way of explanation, though his resolve was wavering at the welcome familiarity of his friends.
‘Hey, Cousin, you need us, and we need you. We love you and want to go with you to Velmoran. Things will be just like in all the stories you used to tell us about it, eh?’ Hëkitarka threw his arm over Boroden’s shoulder.
‘All the same I must go on alone. I agree it may have been ill-advised to set off at present but …’
‘Very ill-advised,’ Harfan sighed at Boroden. ‘Now, I don’t want to hear another word more of it. It’s Christmas. As to planning the next stage of the journey, we leave that to spring. Winter is upon us and who knows what hardship. It’s foolhardy to travel now.’
Boroden gave in and trailed them back. A snow flurry came and, chasing after it, snow fairies. Aira chuckled as one landed on Boroden’s nose, making him grin. ‘They have such cold feet,’ he said as it flew away.
Hëkitarka shivered. ‘Aye. As have I. I’ve got an avalanche down my skates.’
‘You climbed up here in skates? No wonder you keep tumbling over,’ Harfan laughed.
‘Skates?’ Boroden’s eyes lit up
Hëkitarka had to fasten the skates on his cousin, for Boroden was too sore to bend down to his feet. Once upon the ice Boroden was delighted, exclaiming in surprise as he skimmed effortlessly and laughing as he attempted to twirl like Hëkitarka but skidded, one leg going a different way to the other. Harfan steadied him.
‘Are you still out there?’ Kerwen called, looking surprised to see Boroden.
Aira was glad to return to the warmth of the palace, for weariness filled her. As she bent to unlace her boots a horrible giddiness came upon her and the world seemed to darken and sing. She pushed this feeling away and joined her cousins.
‘You came back?’ Isadora curtly glanced at Boroden as she entered.
Carnelian appeared carrying steaming flagons of posset and a pile of gingerbread. ‘And I am very glad too.’
Since everyone had served themselves at the feast Aira had been able to get away with eating little. She had taken barely any food since their capture by the hobyahs and was growing bony and weak, but now there was food she found she had no appetite. Nonetheless she told herself she must keep strong and took her flagon and gingerbread, having a fondness for sweet things. Taking the foyson from the morsel brought on another fit of whirling darkness before her eyes but she battled against it and carried on helping Boroden and Harfan with a game of chess, not wishing them to be worried for her sake now their troubles seemed to have abated.
The wind sighed forlornly outside. Aira clambered into her nest, her shawl still wrapped about her, for the dying fire cast a meagre warmth on so chill a night. She strained to catch a distant tinkling sound. Harness bells. She smiled. She had seen St Nicholas before when he had visited Isla and her sisters. He always had a kindly word and a smile for Aira and Gretchen but, since they had been awake and going about their work, never any gifts. Aira imagined that he would not leave anything for her tonight, for slumber eluded her.
She thought she heard a clatter like something landing in the hearth. Yet, upon turning to look, she found only a puff of grey ash floating lightly.
‘Good, you’re awake.’ The voice at her side was so unexpected that Aira jumped.
‘Glimfyndor! You are one of St Nicholas’s elves?’
‘Standing in for one tonight, yes.’
‘You are so suited to the part,’ she smiled.
‘I’ve brought something for you. Not from Saint Nicholas but from Amulas. She was most particular that you should have some. She said it’s very precious and she feared that you might need it.’
‘What is it?’ Aira asked, taking from him a small stoppered bottle. The bottle was made of twilight blue glass and glittered like starlight.
‘It will restore the life of one who is to die.’
‘Harfan is getting well now though, I’m glad to say. I suppose Amulas must have heard of his injury?’ Aira asked, although dread gnawed at the back of her mind. Her sense of impeding sickness had not gone.
‘Amulas said to whom you are to give it and when is up to you. But you must remember that it can only work its magic once.’
Aira bent to tuck the potion into her purse. When she looked up Glimfyndor had vanished.
In the morning Aira was awakened by Hëkitarka hammering on her door wanting to show her his rainbow striped wrist warmers and to amuse her with a trick from the cards that he had found left in his stocking. They both fell in delight upon a small sack pinned to the mantelpiece.
‘I’ve never been left anything before,’ Aira smiled, stroking the knotwork cover of the notebook that she found inside.
Hëkitarka was plaiting her hair, weaving into it the tartan ribbon that was her other gift. ‘What are you going to write in it?’
‘I thought maybe Fostolf’s herbal remedies. He’d like to know that I remember them. Which reminds me, Glimfyndor came last night and gave me this. He says it can save someone from the brink of death, but it can only work once.’
The day passed happily, the Great Hall lit by a crackling fire that danced in every wine glass and ivy leaf. After Carnelian had led a service for the brownies who shared his Christian faith, Harfan sang carols to his own harp playing and the tune of Hëkitarka’s fiddle. Then the brothers led a furiously paced chase of ‘tig the squirrel’ than began a riot of laughter and tumbling chairs.
Boroden smiled from a corner where, too stiff for such frivolity, he was building a miniature twig castle. The task filled him with nostalgia as he recalled the fortresses, tree houses and carousels that he had loved making as a bairn. For a precious moment he could forget about Krysila.
The day fleeted too fast away. Soon it was time for the evening banquet. Ravenous, Aira fell to eating the meal that Kerwen laid before her. Yet she could only manage a little foyson from the puffball and acorn pancakes and small, sharp gooseberries with custard before she felt full.
The next day the pain began. It was a sharp agony in her belly, increasing until it seemed her innards had been torn out. It started as she headed back from the beck, to which she had taken a stroll to escape the gnawing tension of the atmosphere in the castle. Boroden had again brought up his plans for journeying to Velmoran and Isadora had disagreed with his suggestions.
Soon Aira gasped as though she were drowning as she tried to hold her breath, yet being unable to, sank into pain as she drew in a gulp of air. By the time that she reached the palace she felt faint.
Carnelian called for assistance, alarmed yet managing to keep his focus as always. Torden appeared and slung her over his shoulder, carrying her away. Isadora reprimanded him for being careless and tried to help Aira upstairs, but Aira managed to reach her room herself, bent double.
Over the next few days she declined rapidly. Soon even water caused her pain to drink. Mrs Spadefoot was in frequent attendance, though both diagnosis and treatment failed her.
Aira went to the window with her book, hating to be confined away from the world outside. The snowy waste and grey mass of cloud was, however, hardly a cheering sight. Too listless to read, Aira sunk into her fur wraps. Hours passed.
Isadora and Kerwen came to check on her but she made light of her illness, fearful of being fussed over and admitting how sick she felt. She saw in their eyes that they feared she was slipping away and that filled her with dread.
When her cousins arrived, she was only half aware of it. Hëkitarka cradled her onto his lap, stroking her hair as gently as if she were an injured bird.
Isadora watched sorrowfully, having guessed her son’s feelings for Aira. ‘All the love in the world won’t make her well again.’
‘It might. It worked with Harfan,’ Hëkitarka responded.
Isadora shook her head. ‘Ah, you are a sweet, simple lad.’
Her words stung Hëkitarka. Bending over Aira he said, ‘you must take that potion that Amulas sent you. Doubtless she knew what would happen and meant it for this moment.’
‘No. Not yet. Not until I must. Who knows what may lie ahead when we might need it more.’
‘But you will take it? Promise. Don’t…’ his voice faltered, ‘don’t leave me.’
She squeezed his hand, but he slid away from her, having had a dart of inspiration. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ he promised.
Hëkitarka sought out Boroden who was practicing his swordsmanship using sacks hung in the stables. Despite remaining sore from his injury, he had thrown himself with venom into his training. He told himself that it was good preparation for the journey ahead, but it also provided an outlet for his anguish at his situation.
‘Aira’s very sick,’ Hëkitarka began. Boroden made no response. ‘She’s dying.’
Boroden turned his back and gulped in a breath of icy air.
‘Go to her. Try and be like you were in the old days and make her happy. Whenever you show a spark of your old self it means so much to her, it’s obvious. She still loves you.’
‘I cannot. Leave me,’ Boroden gasped out jaggedly, hoping that Hëkitarka would attribute this to his energetic training exercises rather than guess at his anguish at the thought that his beloved Aira might soon be lost to him.
‘Gretchen would tell you to go if she was here. You said you’d look after Aira,’ Hëkitarka reminded him.
‘And I keep my promise to protect her. I’m protecting her from myself.’ Boroden tried to get past Hëkitarka but he grabbed him. Boroden shrugged him off resentfully. ‘Don’t you see? I bring Aira, bring all of you, only harm. Tell your brother that I must go on alone in spring. You can convince him. Now leave me be, for I can’t bear to have to dash your hopes like this.’
‘Running away won’t solve anything!’ Hëkitarka protested in despair before returning to Aira.
Boroden did not come until the close of evening when Hëkitarka had been reluctantly led away by his mother to take some supper. With a great effort of self-control, Boroden did not fuss over Aira as the other brownies had and instead sat by her to read to her as though nothing was wrong. Aira found that she much preferred this to the attentive concern of the others. She could forget for a time, as he wished to, how gravely sick she was.
Aira clung to life and slowly began to recover. Her strength was never restored entirely, but her appetite returned. She was pleased to be able to walk out with the female brownies each day to gather dry grass from the store of winter bedding. The two princes, like many of the brownies of Lutraudros, spent most of their winter sleeping. Boroden and Aira did not and it was a long, watchful winter.