Aira and Boroden search for the enchanted sword in the village where Aira grew up
|Boroden barely spoke and hung back as the clan journeyed on, his pain dense about him. Carnelian’s loss seemed to Aira as if the finest tree in a copse had fallen, a gap that would always be obvious. She was painfully aware that Boroden was behind this gap, exposed and without a kind adviser to support him in a storm.
Aira led them. Though they journeyed paths she remembered this wavered between being haunting and a chore. Only when the final couple of hills lay between them and the village and Boroden had shaken himself to resume some semblance of his former self did Aira become keen for her mission.
‘Where are you going?’ Quentillian called after Aira who was stepping down the worn rocks peeping amongst the hillside.
‘To fetch the sword.’
‘Wait. You can’t go to that village alone. It isn’t safe,’ Quentillian huffed.
‘She’s not going alone.’ Aira found Boroden behind her. There was a strength in his steady gaze that comforted her. She realised gratefully that she needed him with her at this moment more than at any other time. The surprise was in that he had come, for she had not dared to expect it.
They went on together, the only sound their companionable footfalls.
Boroden spoke first. ‘These hills must be quite familiar to you.’
‘Yes. They seem so now, although that’s strange. When I was young I only came here a few times. They were far and then they seemed the edge of my world.’
Boroden nodded and kept at her side.
Aira fumbled through her mind for something to say to him, finding this hard for the occasion before her was so close to her heart. Then she realised that there was no need to talk. In that familiarity forged of long years shared he knew how she felt.
Aira relaxed, letting the rhythm of her footsteps and the song of the wind absorb her. It was enough that Boroden was here.
‘Is that the wood where I saw you?’ he asked, pointing into the distance. ‘It was such a lovely, peaceful place, like stepping into heaven.’
Aira smiled. ‘It is its wild self as ever. It’s strange; I wanted more than anything to see my home again but now I’m wary. I’m afraid it’s changed, and I don’t want it to be.’
Voicing her fears somehow made them easier to come to terms with. She ploughed resolutely towards the summit of the hill, prepared to shrink once she came in view of the village in case unfriendly eyes might spot her.
‘A few more steps and I’ll see it.’
She went on more boldly than she felt. An upwelling of horror strangled her. The ground where the village had once stood was a hideous scar gouged and charred. Every tree had been uprooted, every inch of turf overturned. It looked horribly like someone had been searching for something. The sword?
‘That was our cottage,’ Aira whispered, gesturing limply. It stood broken, eaten by moss and ivy.
Boroden took her hand. She hugged him, craving his comforting presence.
‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered, drawing back as he made no responding movement. She felt acutely aware that he was the King and she the humble swordsmith’s daughter.
Yet, such a consideration had not struck Boroden. He had been gazing too intently on the desolation before them. Her words brought him away. ‘I know how you must feel. I don’t want to look on Velmoran like this. Desecrated.’
‘It’s not just that. It’s Father. He must be there, down in the cottage. We couldn’t bury him. He was just left there.’ Aira was aware that she was becoming treacherously emotional, but Boroden kindled with compassion.
‘I forgot,’ he said, stumbling for words. Then he set himself resolutely down the slope. Aira had led, now she was grateful for him to go first.
The very ground reeked of danger. This was even more of an affront because this was her beloved childhood home. Chill gusts shivered up. Strange shadows fell from overhead that seemed to have no source until Aira noticed the crow circling, circling. She nodded to Boroden. He had seen it too. There was nothing that they could do.
The ground was even more cratered than they had imagined from on top of the hill; a jumble of tree limbs, shattered gates and toppled walls. The soil was ridged up so high that in places the cottage was lost from view.
‘You said the sword was buried beneath a tree. Where is it?’ Boroden asked.
‘I’m not sure. That is, two holly trees stood together in the field behind our cottage, but I’m not sure they have survived,’ Aira replied, her voice hasty with distress.
Passing Maggie Moloch’s cottage, the roof slates falling off in scales, they stumbled upon the remains of the bridge over the beck where Airen and Aira would go to race sticks. Now the stream was an ugly morass of mud that clawed at their boots.
Aira was horrified by the desolation. ‘Who would do such a thing? Midhir? He had my bracelet Bresil said.’
‘I doubt he would go to such lengths. He’s too lazy,’ Boroden replied bitterly.
‘The kraken has many servants; ogres, giants and burrowing goblins. The sword is as sought-after by her as it is by us and it looks like she’s got here first.’
‘But how would she know that King Mazgrim had it forged?’
‘She knows,’ Boroden said curtly. The silence that followed seemed a reprimand as though she had unknowingly said what should remain unsaid.
As they reached the threshold of the swordsmith’s cottage, Boroden recalled his gentle manner to her. ‘You want to go in? The sword can wait.’
The wind clattered and shrieked in the frail, exposed rafters. The crow started away.
Boroden drew Narsarus and took Aira’s arm, peering into the cottage. The door lay collapsed from the blows of Midhir’s guards.
‘There’s nothing to hurt us,’ Boroden reported.
Aira knew from his solemn look that he had seen already. A mere pace from the doorway Airen’s remains lay. Now he was nothing more than a rain bleached pile of bones shoved to the side by whatever vile creatures had ransacked the cottage of its valuables.
Aira noticed a gleam. A single brass button amongst the leaves blown though the door. It was all that remained of Airen’s attire, the other buttons, his ring and locket, having been plundered. Aira doubled over as if stabbed, tears scalding her eyes. Airen’s degradation sharpened the pain of mourning.
Boroden knelt beside her. ‘I know it sounds strange, but you should take comfort that you’re here now and that you know the worst. We can bury him with the honour he deserves. But Carnelian… we’ll never know.’
‘He’s not dead. I would feel it if he were, I’m sure,’ Aira said vehemently.
‘I’m glad you’re not the only one who hasn’t given up hope. I want to go back and look for him. He was like a father to us. I didn’t want to leave behind your back, as I know I’ll have to with the others. They’ll try and stop me. I know you won’t.’
Aira nodded forlornly and stumbled to her feet. Her world was becoming as shattered as this cottage. The cupboard had been thrown to the ground and each drawer and door of the dresser yawned. Splashed about the walls and pooled upon the beaten earth floor was a dark stain like blackberry juice.
‘Kraken ink.’ Boroden cast a woeful look about the interior with its ragged thatch and rotting ribs of roof beams.
The skeletal remains of kraken parasites crunched beneath Aira’s feet as she stepped over the ink. She held herself stiffly. She and Boroden had feared that Krysila had a hand in the desecration about the swordsmith’s dwelling but to know it for sure made things look bleak. Did Krysila already have the sword? Was she gloating in triumph this moment and planning to ambush the hapless brownies? Judging by the gouges and chunks of earth thrown up, as big as the cottage itself, there was nothing that Krysila’s minions would not accomplish.
Wrecked upon the ink mark was the little chest in which Airen had kept his precious possessions. The magic laid upon it was nothing to Krysila. It was empty and corroded, the lock of Freya’s hair tangled and mired with ink.
Quaking in a corner of the chest was a torn and scrunched ball of parchment. Aira carefully flattened it out. It was the cover protecting Frenudin’s book. Freya had written upon it in her clear, neat handwriting; ‘My daughter. Be gentle to all, hold love in your heart, persevere and remember that there is no such rose as virtue.’
These last words brought to Aira’s mind the words of the meek, hopeful song that Airen had played on his pear wood recorder whilst she, busy dusting the room, had hummed along.
‘What is it?’ Boroden asked softly, coming to her side. She showed him.
‘You have done your mother proud. Except that instead of a rose I think snowdrop suits you better. You’re a strong, slender little thing in a bleak world where you shouldn’t be. I’m surprised at you for getting this far. We should think it a great achievement, whether we find the sword or not.’
Aira was heartened by his praise. ‘Help me bury him,’ she appealed.
Boroden nodded and they returned to the door.
Collecting together Airen’s bones was no easy task. They had been tumbled amongst fractured wood, rusting pots and winter leaves.
‘I’m going to bury him on the hill where the others are waiting. It’s still and peaceful up there, looking down on the village. I don’t like to bury him too close by in case Krysila comes again.’
Boroden added Airen’s femur to the sack that Aira had formed from a water stained curtain. ‘We must search for the sword first.’
‘Hmm,’ Aira mumbled, tucking her father’s skull on top of the pile of bones. It was not hard to imagine his likeness from it and Aira did not know whether this was unnerving or reassuring.
A squall of wind buffeted the cottage as from nowhere.
‘I’ve an awful feeling that we’re being watched,’ Boroden shuddered. ‘We’ll leave out of the crack where the wall has crumbled, not the door. It’ll help to make our movements unpredictable.’
Aira followed Boroden outside. They hastened hunched as against a storm, although it was wariness that made them move so, not the callous gusts. Aira held the makeshift winding sheet tightly over her shoulder, scanning the wounded countryside. With a sinking feeling she realised that every clue in the terrain, every tree, was gone.
‘Whereabouts is the spot?’ Boroden asked inevitably.
Cringing, Aira stopped and delved back through her memories.
‘You don’t know?’ Boroden asked with fatalism in his voice. He looked as though he was about to trudge away, more woebegone at this seemingly inevitable capping of his misfortunes than exasperated at her.
‘Wait. Let me think.’ Aira stopped often, her whiskers quivering. ‘We hid the sword, Silvelenon, under two holly trees.’
‘Well, there’s no trees here. Krysila already has the sword. She must do.’
Boroden paused hesitantly, his toe coming against a stump poking from the battered earth. It was hacked and burned until it was as jagged and blackened as a rotten tooth. Yet its taller half revealed smooth silvery-grey bark. Aira caught her breath. It was a holly tree. Close beside it was another stump, the top of its roots protruding from the earth like spider legs.
‘Thunor taught me some tree speech whilst we stayed with the dryads,’ Aira said.
‘What good is it? They’re dead.’
‘No,’ Aira replied, gazing hopefully at a shoot not much higher than her hand that rose from the base of one of the stumps. ‘You’re hiding low my dear tree, but you know evil cannot win. You’ve kept alive, waiting. I’m so grateful for that. Now I ask you to give up what was entrusted to you.’ Aira spoke gently, keeping her hand upon the tree stump.
Boroden waited, growing sceptical. Suddenly he stepped back in alarm. The ground cracked and bucked beneath his feet. A hedge of fine roots like hair burst up. Then larger roots, like branches, groped in their midst. They paused a moment, the tension in the wood building. Rearing like a snake was a broad claw of roots. Something gleamed at their heart.
Boroden gave a cry and made to snatch the sword but the holly roots twisted away from him, proffering the sword to Aira. She tore off its frail shroud of leather and brandished it over her head. She allowed herself only an instant of reverie. Then she must pass it to Boroden. As she turned towards him the sword flashed a keen gold like freshly sprung flame. She thrust it downwards in alarm, quenching the light too late. It should be visible for miles. The crow flustered away, cawing.
‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ Boroden snapped reflexively. Then his expression changed to anxious thoughtfulness. He turned to look behind him. Amongst the high black range of forest a few flecks of harvest moonlight penetrated through. ‘The moon. Of course. It draws its power from the moon,’ he muttered.
Everything around them was still, the twilight empty. Yet amongst the ruined village anything might lurk. Fear consumed Boroden. ‘We must be gone. Once we reach the wood around the bottom of the hill we’ll be hidden. The clan will be close by.’
He sprinted away keeping the sword wrapped beneath his cloak.
Aira pushed herself to exhaustion to keep up, for he was taller and faster than her. She gave a startled cry as another crow beat into the darkening sky. Had it too been watching them?
Boroden glanced back at her anxiously. ‘Can’t you keep up?’
‘I’ll manage, but I have little legs.’
They ran on, jolting amongst the pitted earth. Boroden kept glancing back, both at Aira and the moon as it rose higher, soon to come into sight above the trees.
‘It’s good of you to keep looking after me. It must be a nuisance to keep looking round,’ Aira panted.
‘It would be more of a nuisance if I lost you,’ he replied, making Aira smile.
Suddenly he stopped. Fear rushed though her. But he only wished to hand her the sword. ‘Silvelenon would be safer with you for the moment. You’ve already worked out how to use its magic and they won’t expect you to have it.’
Aira hugged the sword close and started away, the intervening space to the woods seeming more gruelling for the stop. Relief surged through her as the ferns closed in and she allowed herself to snatch some respite. Looking back under the eaves of the wood she drank in a last view of the ruins of the cottage outlined in moonlight.
As her gaze drew back, something jolted her. A movement in the shadows? Again. Something was there keeping low in the pitted ground. No, there was not merely one. Many.
The earth seemed to erupt as redcaps pulled themselves to their feet.
‘Boroden!’ Aira cried.
With a horror like the sudden loss of a limb Aira realised that he was nowhere in sight. She had lost his scent and he did not hear her yell, though she was desperate to have cried out knowing that it would alert the redcaps.
‘No!’ She whimpered. Where might he have gone? How could she have been so foolish as to lose sight of him after he had been so careful of her?
A horrible thought came to her worse than her dread of the charging redcaps. It was just as with Carnelian. What happened if Boroden was gone?
She fled. The redcaps galloped on, rank upon rank of them, their spears glinting like carnivorous teeth. She had to throw them off, to get back to the others.
She felt terribly alone and bewildered by the crouching trees and dense ferns. The ground rose so steeply that she found herself having to grab at the undergrowth to haul herself up. Her body felt weak and disconnected from her desperately urging mind.
The redcaps crashed amongst the bushes now. Overhead the unfeeling laughter of crows sounded.
She dragged her slithering feet up the last of the slope, clawing at an ash tree to steady herself. She raised her head to be dazzled by the evil green flare of redcap torches, like some nightmarish hallucination. Another band of goblins was coming that way. She looked back frantically. Trapped.
She dodged to the side, having to trust that would be safe. She pelted onwards for all she was worth, leaping fallen branches and brambles. The sword banged painfully against her. Boroden had told her to use its magic, but that meant stopping and losing precious time. Besides, the trees hid her from the moonlight.
She screamed as a redcap darted from the thicket to her side, making to grab her. She snaked to elude the goblin, hearing the swiftest runners tearing through the bracken, closing in. With a sharp thwack a redcap spear plunged into the earth an arm breadth from her. Terror gripped her. She ran, finding some unknown reserve of strength.
She spun around a clump of wide oaks, stepped with fungi. Before her was a monster strong in a lean and chiselled way and bristling with black fur. It was almost a wolf in shape, but smaller. Yet, it was no wolf. Its eyes glowed deep as twilight; a fierce, savage gleam. It licked its lips, fangs glinting.
Aira threw herself back against a tree trunk, her heart pounding. When the creature leaped it was not at her. A redcap yelped, a futile scream cut short. The monster had not spotted her. She had to get away before it did. The redcaps did not follow now, though every second she expected them to. Her gasping breath sounded disquieting loud. Nearing the edge of the forest she found herself dazzled by the moonlight and shadows.
A hideous snarl from behind.
Aira expected it to be the wolfish creature but it was a redcap, his broken teeth making his breath hiss scathingly. Aira backed towards a tree. Charging, he meant to pin her before she could flee. Aira shrunk, as she did so seizing his leg and tripping him. He slammed against the tree trunk and keeled senseless.
Aira regained her right size. She should never reach her clan otherwise.
The trees ended. The hilltop was before her, free and open. Her feet sprang across the turf.
On the brink of the downward slope she froze. Redcaps swarmed towards her. From the forest more redcaps broke cover, caught between pursuing her and fending off the wolf that seemed to be everywhere at once in a frenzied fury.
Aira emitted a half whimper, half cry of frustration. The redcaps highest up the hill had spotted her. They angled their spears. Even as their arms moved back to throw their weapons Aira caught Silvelenon up to the moonlight. From the blade blazed forth a silver orb, dazzling the redcaps and frustrating their attempts to aim spears. Still, she felt giddy as one spear clattered down close by her feet.
The light must draw in the help of her clan, surely. Yet, they did not come. A dread struck her that they might have been discovered by the redcaps and slain.
Many redcaps still cringed, blinded by the light. Others shielded their eyes with their arms and made towards her.
Gripped around the sword hilt, her hands became sticky with apprehension. If she moved the blade even a fraction to protect herself the orb would vanish, and she would be defenceless. Either way she had little chance against so many and the wolfish monster still prowled snarling, both dazed and entranced by the light.
A redcap cannoned towards her, attempting to throw her to the ground. In desperation Aira swung Silvelenon at the goblin.
The sword rang against another blade that forced it upright towards the moon, its radiance blazing brighter. About the orb of light was an embracing rainbow. Aira smiled in delight, remembering a beautiful rainbow ringed moon she and her cousins had watched from the shepherd’s cottage. Hëkitarka was here now, supporting her. Aira glanced up at the silver light fading to an exuberant medley of colour over her head.
Harfan came up behind them. ‘See, rainbows shine even in darkness.’
Hëkitarka winked at Aira. ‘Only if they have Lady Moon to light them.’
Most of the redcaps felt as though their eyes had been seared by this explosion of brightness. Hëkitarka seized his advantage, keeping Aira close as he leaped upon the nearest redcaps. Their death cries spurred the remaining redcaps to fight off their dizziness and lurch for Hëkitarka. He fought fiercely and for a moment they were beset on all sides.
‘Where’s Boroden?’ Hëkitarka demanded as soon as they secured a break in the onslaught.
‘I lost him in the woods. I don’t know where. Then there were the redcaps, and the other monster.’
‘What monster?’ Harfan asked.
‘Like a wolf. It was there,’ she gestured to the edge of the trees where she had last seen the beast but there was nothing there except a scattering of dead redcaps littering the ground.
‘Well, it’s done us a few favours if it likes to dine on redcaps. More than can be said for Boroden, the coward,’ Klaufi declared, hurrying to their side. Appalled, Aira looked to Hëkitarka expecting him to rise to his cousin’s defence but he wore a disgruntled look that suggested he agreed with Klaufi.
‘Boroden might have been captured. If not then he doesn’t know what’s happening,’ Aira retorted.
‘Very likely, what with all this kerfuffle and searing light that can be seen for miles. Boroden doesn’t care a jot about you. Face facts.’ Klaufi’s temper was frayed because he had narrowly escaped being beheaded by a redcap and his skull still ached as he had smacked against its axe as he wriggled free.
With a resounding battle cry the rest of the clan charged in a formation like swans in flight, Torden at their head.
Harfan slashed his war hammer this way and that with his full force. Reaching Hëkitarka fiery faced with the effort he looked in dismay at the droves of redcaps pouring in. They had only secured a brief respite. ‘There are so many.’
‘Aye, and no point in defending a cold hillside. I say we run,’ Torden advised.
‘What about Boroden?’ Aira cried in distress. She was horrified to see them turn a deaf ear and pelt away before their chance vanished. Hëkitarka seized her arm.
‘No. Boroden wouldn’t leave any of us,’ Aira protested.
‘He wouldn’t want us dead,’ Harfan reasoned.
‘I’ll search for him as soon as I can,’ Hëkitarka reassured Aira.
They ran along the ridge of hills, making in the direction of where the land dissolved. ‘The sea!’ Boroden had cried in delight upon spying it yesterday. Now it was hidden by a snowy bloom of fog. It was thicker further away but already mist droplets brushed Aira as the cold increased. Every blade of grass and leaf seemed to have its breath made visible and frozen in the air.
Aira could not stop thinking about Boroden. Had he been captured by the goblins? Was he lying dead back amongst the trees? Had he gone searching for Carnelian as he said he should? All she wanted was to find him and Carnelian, to know the truth. She kept glancing over her shoulder. Might she slip away somehow? Yet every opportunity she missed out of fear.
Soon the fog became so thick that they lost from sight the edges of the hill. The trees near them looked such a soft grey that Aira could not believe them to be real. The solemn silence of the scene crept into the brownies. They slowed, although in any case their way was hard to tell. Whiter even than the mist loomed the bleached bones of a dead tree.
‘I recognise this. We need to go down into the valley,’ Aira said.
They quickened downhill, relieved that they had lost the sound of the pursuing redcaps. Then another fold of the hill rose above them, the fog about its summit less thick.
‘I might be able to get our bearings from there,’ Hëkitarka suggested.
‘Oh no you don’t. We’re not losing you too,’ Quentillian reprimanded, but he was hushed by Gefi.
Creeping forwards they fixed their gaze on dark clusters pockmarking the hillside. Redcaps.
For a moment Aira’s heart jumped painfully, imagining that they would be ambushed. Then she realised that the redcaps looked hesitant and confused. They could not see the brownies. Yet.
The clan shrank and moved softly. The fog did not lift. They would make it.
The veiled nature of the world made them thoughtless where they regained their height when out of sight of the goblins. Quentillian found himself bumping against the claws of a hawthorn with a cry. Gefi tightened his lips. Quentillian struggled free and the brownies ran, each moment expecting to hear sounds of pursuit. None came.
They were slackening pace when behind them came an exclamation from a redcap scout. Quentillian ruefully reached up to his balding head, now devoid of his Tam o’ Shanter that had been discovered by the redcap caught in the tree.
Torden curled his lips grimly. ‘They have our trail now.’
The brownies fled, ignoring their screaming legs. When they could run no more they made a hasty hobble, hearing the redcaps behind them. As in a nightmare, Aira had no idea where they were.
It seemed hardly real that a lighter, faintly blue patch should appear in the heavens. The hold of the fog was breaking. Morning came. A gushing sound ahead denoted a stream. They made for it, hoping to splash along following the water to hide their scent.
‘It’ll lead down to the sea,’ Torden pointed out.
A dark shape thudded into the ravine before them. In a trice Hëkitarka had his sword drawn.
Boroden did not flinch. His cousin drew back. ‘The redcaps shall be soon on us,’ Boroden told his clan. Aira noticed how tired he looked, his hair matted with twigs and his face scratched.
Hëkitarka quaked with rage. ‘Where have you been? You swore to protect Aira. You left her alone to be killed.’
Boroden turned irritably away.
Hëkitarka frowned and returned to Harfan and Aira, telling her, ‘at least I know how to look after you.’
The three kept close together although Aira’s thought only of Boroden. They climbed a hill above the stream that cut steeply down to join another watercourse.
Gefi looked back. ‘Isn’t that the village?’ he asked, pointing to ruins some miles away. With sinking hearts, they saw that it was. They had made little progress.
Boroden yanked out a thorn that had become embedded in his palm. ‘We can only go on now as quickly as we may. The redcaps won’t take long to find us.’
There was no sign of the redcaps, but a weight grew in the minds of the brownies. This felt a dangerous place, heavy with enchantment. An enchantment that had singled them out.