Hëkitarka dreams of Leanan Sidhé. Goblins pursue the brownies.
|They made camp uneasily that night. A storm brewed, lifting the leaves of the trees. Boroden suggested patrolling within sight of the camp in case anything evil stirred. He told Aira to get some rest and then followed the other warriors who had already hastened away.
‘I’ll collect breakfast ready for tomorrow first,’ Aira decided, her mind too unsettled by sorrow over Carnelian to allow her to sleep.
Aira was surprised to find Hëkitarka sitting solitary under a tree at the far edge of the camp. Propping his head in his hands, he gazed wistfully up at the moon through the dark web of branches.
Depositing her armful of kindling and basket of foraged food by the circle of stones marking the fire pit, she went over to him. He tried to smile but his eyes looked sad and hurt.
‘Hëki, what are you doing here?’
‘I got left behind. Quentillian did say I might go and cut fresh arrow shafts but when I came back Boroden and the other warriors had gone without me. Harfan had to go too and I was left to guard in Klaufi’s stead. I know I’m a silly thing who feels things too much, especially when I haven’t got dear, sensible Harfan by, but…’ he bent his head, considering his snail shell buttons. ‘I do try. My intentions are good. I want to help, and it hurts me when things go wrong. They have a habit of doing that when I don’t expect and it’s a shock.’
Aira settled beside him, taking his hands. ‘I know, and you do so well. Boroden has something else troubling him, so it’s not your fault. I think he worries that we’ll be ambushed.’
‘He should let me help.’
‘Boroden feels he must shoulder the responsibilities of our quest alone. You must understand that he’s not content himself and is under much pressure at present.’
‘You still love him don’t you.’
Startled, Aira found her mind horribly blank of what was best to reply.
This was as good as an affirmation to Hëkitarka. ‘That is why you’ll not love me though I love you so - every minute.’
His bare, vulnerable look stung Aira. ‘Please Tarka I don’t want to hurt you. I know you’ll make a good, caring husband to a lass someday. In fact, you’re too good for me. You deserve a better wife nearer your own age.’
‘Aira, I know what I want.’
‘Even if I relented and let you think that I love you I know my heart could never be yours as it should. I love you as a friend, not the kind of love you want. I wish you’d get over it. I’m sure you’ll find some more fitting lass than me. Forget about loving me. I do love Boroden, aye. I can’t help it. Don’t pity me. I know nothing can come of it and I don’t want it to for I’m happy as I am.’
‘It’s wrong of Cousin Boroden to be like he is to you. But then I suppose he is changeable with me too. You and Harfan never are. That’s why I like you.’
They jumped as a vixen gave a shrill scream in the bushes. The wind tugged fiercely at the branches above their heads. The storm had set in, chasing shreds of cloud across the moon.
Moonlight glinted in Hëkitarka’s eyes, making them glassy. He had fine, long-lashed eyes formed so alike Boroden’s. Admitting her feelings for Boroden had lifted a veil for Aira. Hëkitarka had many of the better things of Boroden about him and it was these that Aira admired.
‘Shall I tell you a story?’ Aira asked impulsively, recalling how Harfan used to comfort Hëkitarka thus when they were bairns. He nodded gratefully.
‘Well, it’s not a story really. More a memory that’s come to me. It’s a happy one and it cheers me. It was when I was a little thing. One spring morning we set out for the mountains. Gretchen was making camp and Father and I ran ahead gaming at stick fights. The spring sunshine was so warm and fresh and the sky so blue. It was the first time I’d seen mountains. I loved them; their great, noble heads and the grey crouching trees and shaggy moss. There were curious birds and rabbits and handsome red deer. Some of the does let us ride them and milk them in return for some of our apples to eat. They took us to a lake in a scoop in the mountainside. I spent hours lying on my belly beside the lake on a warm rock whilst father told me the legends of our clan.’ Aira caught her breath raggedly. ‘I’m sorry Hëki, it’s just…’
‘I know.’ He gave her an encouraging smile. ‘Please go on. You’re making me happy.’
She did and soon he fell asleep, his shaggy hair tumbling over his eyes. Aira tugged his fur lined cloak around them and after a while she slept too.
It was there on that cold hillside that Hëkitarka dreamed the strangest dream he had ever dreamed. Indeed, it was not quite a dream for his soul was fully conscious, though oddly unable to influence his body as it did in waking life. He walked on briskly down a labyrinth of unfamiliar passages. It was an elegant place, one of the finest he had beheld, with floors of black marble and tendrils of gold twisting about the walls where they supported ornaments of precious gems and candles. These were vital for no natural light was admitted, though often he would pass chambers from which exuded such sweet birdsong that he might have thought it was a bright spring dawn.
There was a sinister shadow about the place that made Hëkitarka panic as if he stood on shattering ice. Though he wanted to find a way out, his body would not obey. Instead he slipped within the parted door of a large, prettily decorated saloon.
He took his place before a comfortable recessed day bed. He was not alone. In a row about the room stood many humans; knights, poets, kings and princes. All wore outfits of black silk, their handsome faces pallid and their eyes riveted upon the centre of the room.
Hëkitarka knew that it was Leanan Sídhe that he should see there but beholding her again sent a shiver down his spine. She was seated on a low gilded stool, her thick tresses loose to flow over her green gown. Before her stood a harp, its ebony head ending with a carved swan. She tilted it back to her so that it rested upon her shoulder, nestled against her rich curls in a graceful embrace. Leanan’s affinity with it was deep and she ran as easily into the first song as to greet a beloved friend.
Never had Hëkitarka heard such music brimming with bittersweet joy and sublime melancholy. His eyes would not be moved from her. Leanan’s hands traced over the strings as if no longer of flesh but impelled by a higher force, at one with the instrument. As she played Hëkitarka had such visions that he found himself longing never to wake to find the dream over. The music was the essence of the inspiration that she gave her lovers. She moved from tune to tune never tiring. One moment he was awed, the next joyous. Then he found himself almost weeping as she struck an exquisite, mournful flow of notes. His heart seemed to beat only in time with the music. Then she looked up at him and smiled and he was utterly lost.
When Aira awoke daylight had come. The other clan members had returned and packed ready to continue their journey.
Noticing her stir, Torden chuckled. Aira realised that Hëkitarka has thrown an arm around her waist in his sleep. Groggy and out of sorts, Aira was in no mood for Torden’s teasing. Harfan’s glad look at his brother as he came to rouse him was no less annoying to her. Perhaps the brothers had been conspiring so that Hëkitarka was left to woo her? Hëkitarka muttered something incoherently and tried to resist being woken.
‘Come along dozy, we’re about to make a start,’ Harfan said.
‘Forgive me brother, I’m drowsed in the sleep of Lethe.’
‘You are very poetic, Hëki.’ Harfan pursed his lips, noticing that his brother was pallid and that there was a hectic flush in his cheeks.
Hëkitarka pulled himself up but winced, his hand going to his wrist.
Harfan looked concerned. ‘Hëki, you’re bleeding.’
‘Probably Aira is a vampire,’ Torden joked.
Hëkitarka quickly pulled his sleeves over his hands as Boroden appeared. He made pains to look unconcerned, as someone might do when they narrowly avoided being caught misbehaving. This made Aira worry. Was Hëkitarka as blameless as he wanted to appear? Yes, he had been hurt, but Aira sensed that he was partly pleased to have this sign that Leanan Sídhe was alive.
Aira fretted over what had happened as they trudged along on another day of their journey in the direction of Velmoran. Leanan Sídhe was Krysila’s daughter. She appeared to loath her mother, but perhaps they had come to some arrangement that involved the brownies? How long had Leanan been tracking them?
She tried to catch up with Boroden who, as always, strode ahead. ‘I think we should try and alter our course a little. Make things less obvious.’ Before she had time to explain herself, Hëkitarka joined them and she had to let the matter drop.
Boroden stopped in his tracks, shielding his eyes from the sun as he peered back in the direction that they had come. It was fortunate that his years of travelling had made him watchful in all directions. ‘The redcaps have found our trail.’ He looked ruefully at Silvelenon hung from his belt beside Narsarus. ‘They’ve even more reason not to give up now we have this sword.’
The brownies ran, keeping low and looking back at every opportunity. Klaufi’s shoes, wide as plates, thumped loudly and Boroden cast him a withering glance. Aira feared to snap any of the twigs strewn across the forest path, although fortunately the redcaps were yet too far distant to hear.
Boroden spotted a broad tree that had toppled and become caught in the branches of another tree. It offered a good vantage point and he scrambled up to spy on the redcaps, urging his companions on. Soon he jumped down, his face grave. ‘They’re gaining on us rapidly. My guess is that they’ve caught our trail.’
As if supporting his words, an arrow hit the ground by Gefi’s feet. Stepping back in alarm he rolled down the leafy slope to their left. He pulled himself up but tripped again, landing with a sharp cry.
‘There.’ Hëkitarka spotted the redcap scout that had shot at them and was away. He brought the goblin down but there was another redcap archer who escaped.
‘Miserable swine. There will be more redcaps swarming all over here in two minutes, you mark me.’ Torden pulled Gefi up and urged him on.
Gefi tried but the effort of moving his foot made him whimper.
‘I expect it’s sprained.’ Harfan lent himself to Gefi as a support so that Gefi might hobble along faster.
‘It’s no good,’ Boroden decided, ruefully glancing back at Gefi. Outrunning the redcaps would be impossible. ‘We’ll hide.’
The leaf litter was treacherous underfoot but the bracken further down the slope offered a welcome hiding place. With relief they took shelter amongst the scrub, glad that there had been no further appearance of the redcaps.
‘Don’t rest now. We’ve got to go further to outfox them,’ Boroden urged in as loud a whisper as he dare.
‘We’ve been seen!’ Gefi hissed in alarm.
‘By the redcaps?’ Boroden asked, scrambling back up the slope to Gefi’s side and peering into the dark tangle of the forest that they were leaving behind.
‘No. Them.’ Gefi nodded to where the hill now frowned down upon them. On the road about its summit was a close rank of riders.
‘Midhir’s guards?’ Gefi asked, though quizzically for he only half believed his words.
‘No. Too small of stature,’ Boroden decided.
‘I don’t know but they mean us no good I’ll warrant.’
Boroden urged the clan to slip away but their first move was like a spark to the faerie riders, sending them swooping down the hill like hawks to the kill. The thundering of hoofs alerted the redcaps who spotted the brownies, sending out their swiftest runners to lay ambush to the clan.
‘I guess that what they both want is the sword. Krysila had spies in the palace of Velmoran and would have known that King Mazgrim possessed the Talibereth ore. She’d be worried about that and must have heard of the forging of Silvelenon. I say she sent her underlings here waiting for us to find the sword and then catch us with it,’ Quentillian puffed as he tried his best to keep up with Boroden.
Boroden allowed himself to pause briefly to survey the clan. ‘We need to hide it. It should be taken by someone they don’t expect.’
‘Me?’ Hëkitarka eagerly volunteered.
‘No. Too obvious.’ Boroden considered Klaufi but quickly dismissed him, Gefi too for he waddled so lamely that their pursuers would be bound to catch him.
Aira’s hopes leaped an instant as he thrust the weapon towards her, though his look was so grudging that she was left perplexed. She hid the sword under her apron and, past caring what Boroden thought about her looking tawdry, wrapped her shawl around her to conceal the sword hilt poking above her waist band.
‘Perfect. No one would ever guess,’ Klaufi enthused loudly.
Boroden shot him a cautioning glare. ‘We should split up and hide. They’d be less likely to find us.’
‘But first I think I can see a way to buy us some time,’ Harfan said.
Hëkitarka brought a redcap down with an arrow as the goblin pounced from the ferns in front of them. Glancing back, the prince’s sharp eyes fixed on the advancing riders, making out their poised flinthead spears and hunting paint. ‘They’re brownies,’ he exclaimed in surprise.
‘I still don’t like the look of ‘em. No one we know I’d say,’ Quentillian fretted.
‘Quickly, down here,’ Boroden urged, disappearing towards the dell that Harfan had indicated to them.
It was treacherous going, slippery and unstable with leaf litter and rolling twigs. They came across four of the redcap outrunners who closed in upon them. One blew a boar tusk horn to alert the others whilst his companions drew their swords and charged at the brownies.
Quentillian was hurtling down the hill so fast that he could not stop himself hitting a surprised redcap with a force that knocked the breath from them both. Klaufi brought another one down as he slipped and rolled squealing into the redcap’s feet.
‘Spadefoot,’ Boroden groaned, glancing back anxiously to where the pursuing brownies had been alerted to their hiding place by Klaufi’s cry.
There were still two more redcaps to tackle. Whilst Torden launched himself at one, Boroden swung his sword at the strongest. The redcap was agile and a fierce warrior. To dodge a thrust of the redcap’s sword Boroden leaped backwards, tripping and falling against a tree trunk. The redcap swung its sword to deal a death blow but at that instant it was pierced by Hëkitarka’s arrow.
Hëkitarka bent over the redcap, snatching up its tumbled cap. In its centre was a brooch, its design an arc of crow quills dipped in blood.
‘This is My Lady’s badge,’ Hëkitarka told Harfan, perplexed.
‘But Leanan Sídhe is dead.’
‘As I thought. But then Bresil did say she could never be killed.’ He dropped the cap and the brothers fled with the rest of the clan down the slope to the boggy, ferny bottom of the dell.
Aira cast a fearful look back over her shoulder. The brownies had vanished, but the redcaps had multiplied to a swarming gang, moving militantly as ants over the brink of the slope. She tore away through the bracken as Harfan urged her.
Hëkitarka could not resist sending a volley of arrows behind him at every opportunity and many a redcap toppled at his hits.
Spotting his cousin fitting another arrow, Boroden grabbed him by the elbow and hissed furiously, ‘no. They’ll know where we are. We’re meant to be hiding. Now we’ll have to go further on to find somewhere out of sight.’
Boroden had been hoping that at the base of the dell there would be a steeply banked stream strewn with boulders and thickly overgrown. Instead the brook was shallow, its banks broad and grassy. Worse; before they could reach the brook there lay a road. Along it with a tinkling of bridles and a cloud of dust came the company of brownies. They obviously knew the country well and thought that it was better to cut Borden and his companions off than to pursue them.
‘Get back into the undergrowth, quick!’ Boroden ordered, panicking as the redcaps drew near.
‘We don’t know they’re unfriendly. They might help us.’ Gefi nodded in the direction of the unfamiliar brownies.
Boroden rolled his eyes. ‘Well I’m not taking any chances.’
The clan tumbled back into the bracken, tripping over one another in their desperation to find somewhere to hide. They would have made it unseen had Klaufi not struggled getting up the slippery bank of the road and been spotted as Harfan helped him up.
‘I’ve seen something up ahead,’ they heard one of brownie scouts shout.
The clan threw themselves one after another behind the splayed toes of an oak. They crouched ranged in a row concealed by the thick moss and hart’s tongue ferns growing about its base. The crashing and crackling of the approaching gang of redcaps filled them with terror. Each moment they expected a goblin to jump out before them.
Instead the sounds of the redcaps blundering through the undergrowth grew fainter.
‘That’ll put a stop to those other brownies pursuing us at least,’ Quentillian said, expecting to hear a skirmish between the brownies and the redcaps. There was nothing.
‘Strange,’ Hëkitarka mused. ‘It’s almost as if they’re in league with them. They must have seen them if they got as far as the road. No decent brownie would let a redcap pass and I saw nowhere for the redcaps to hide.’
‘No decent brownie would befriend a redcap,’ Quentillian reprimanded, disgusted by the suggestion.
‘Not unless they’re desperate. It depends what they’re looking for.’ Boroden fixed his gaze upon Aira’s apron.
Torden nudged Boroden. ‘We should take our chance to get gone whilst it’s quiet.’
‘Move along. We’ll try and find a way to climb back up the slope unseen. The redcaps expect us to go this way to Velmoran and it will be closely watched. There is another way to Velmoran though; this isn’t the way we left it,’ Boroden said.
‘It is not a wise decision, Sire. It would take us through Midhir’s lands,’ Quentillian pointed out.
‘What are we doing then?’ Klaufi asked, shifting his feet uneasily.
‘Why do I always have to make all the decisions?’ Boroden growled.
‘Because you are king,’ Quentillian pointed out.
A pained look briefly clouded Boroden’s face and Aira could tell that he wished Carnelian were here with his understanding and sound advice.
Harfan hushed Klaufi from asking further questions. The sound of the brownie cavalcade mounted upon their sturdy, yet fleet ponies was so loud now that they must surely be upon them.
In a moment they were, cantering by in strict formation. The sight would have been impressive if the clan had not been being hunted. Now the display of the other clan’s military prowess was sinister, made more so by the fact that most of the riders wore masks. Each was dressed in rugged hunting garb the colour of dry moss. Boroden’s clan did not need Quentillian’s warning look to remind them to keep still.
Near the front of the cavalcade a brownie called, ‘halt.’ He dismounted, pouring the ground. Aira thought for an instant that he must have found evidence of the redcaps. Then she heard the dreadful words, ‘they seem to have gone back up into the woods.’
The three brownies at the head of the unfamiliar group drew together.
‘If they have the sword then we must recover it. Our lives depend on it. It should be a grave error to let it fall into misguided hands.’ Few of the clan heard the brownie’s words, yet fewer remembered him. Yet Boroden could not forget the sound of his father’s voice.