Aira and her friends bump into another clan of brownies
|‘Sire, what shall we do?’ Quentillian asked urgently, tapping Boroden on the shoulder.
Several of King Mazgrim’s companions sniffed the forest floor like hounds, bounding forward excitedly.
Klaufi shook Aira then dug his hand into Carnelian’s pack that she had carried ever since his disappearance in the hope of his return. He drew out the last of the sticks of incense that Carnelian had bought from traders in Lutraudros. Speaking an incantation, Klaufi flung them in the direction of the approaching scouts. The sticks poured forth thick, strongly scented smoke, masking the smell of the clan’s footsteps.
‘We go back up the slope to the path we came on,’ Boroden decided.
‘It won’t take long before they realise we’ve given them the slip and that way is the one they expect us to use,’ Torden objected.
‘I have an idea. We go thorough the woods keeping by the road in the opposite direction to these rogues until they’re well away. Then we go down and follow them on the way to Velmoran. They won’t expect that,’ Hëkitarka said.
‘That might work,’ Boroden nodded.
‘Good. Let’s get going.’ Hëkitarka sprang up.
‘Wait. I’m not sure that sword is safe with Aira,’ Boroden said. ‘She’s the swordsmith’s daughter after all. It might be expected that it’s hidden with her.’
‘I’ll take it, Sire,’ Quentillian offered.
‘No. I…,’ Boroden cut himself short, not knowing what excuse to make, for it would not do to tell Quentillian that he had been too loyal to King Mazgrim and therefore he did not trust him.
‘How about Klaufi?’ Hëkitarka suggested. ‘No one would suspect him.’
Klaufi grinned hopefully.
‘Exactly. He’s an idiot. And that’s exactly why he won’t be taking the sword.’ Boroden added in an off-hand manner, ‘Aira can keep it.’
Aira felt glad of this. The sword held an attachment to her, imbued as it was with the memory of her father. Yet it did not rest easy with her that she should take it. She recalled the dream that her father had the day the sword was forged that she was destined to wield it against Krysila. Never could she imagine herself doing that, though she was in many ways a different brownie from the bairn she had been then and had already slain Unseelie monsters.
They set off, each with baited breath and a stealthy tread. Though they did not get far it seemed like an age before the brownie ranks outlined against the road below came to an end.
Not yet a safe distance from the other clan, a sheer cliff opened before them with no way round other than to make across a narrow strip of earth that remained from a landslip. This path was even more treacherous as the saplings upon it had not had time to grow tall or thick so that it was exposed to any who might look upon it from the road.
‘If we go across all at once we might bring more earth down and the enemy are likely to spot us,’ Harfan reasoned.
‘Hmm. I say that we split up. We’ll go across in small groups and aim to meet up again near the village where we camped last night. Then we’ll decide what’s best to be done. Aira had better go first as she has the sword. Torden, Quentillian and Klaufi go with her,’ Boroden decided.
‘Why me?’ Klaufi asked.
‘To act as a decoy.’ Boroden fixed him with a stern, meaningful look. Klaufi realised that he was trying to tell him that if he had to then he could use magic to protect Aira. He was glad to see Boroden showing some respect for his skills after he had ignored them for so long.
Aira found Quentillian a painfully slow leader as he made his way towards the safer, less exposed part of the path. Despite his tentative, watchful movements he did not avoid stubbing his toe and sending a shower of pebbles clattering down to the road.
Aira and Quentillian reached their goal safely but Torden was the largest of the clan and the crumbling path resented his tread. A chunk broke from its edge, half toppling Torden and making him wave his arms like a startled hen to keep his balance.
The rock went bounding across the road, crashing through the bracken and splashing into the stream. The clan froze, expecting to see the rival brownies appear to investigate.
Torden hastened over to Quentillian and Aira. Aira’s heart went out to Klaufi who was left eyeing the perilous crossing with a stricken look. Boroden pushed him forward. Klaufi could only proceed by pressing himself to the rock face and clawing his way along like a bat.
Reaching his waiting companions, Klaufi restrained a cry of relief and waved back at those waiting to cross. Preferring that he and his cousins go last, Boroden instructed the remaining brownies to go next and head for the more perilous route along the road down whence the other clan had come.
Reaching the spot where the ledge was crumbling, Gefi stepped on a section of fissured stone. It gave way. Gefi yelled, clutching desperately at the walls of rock. Pitching backwards, he rolled onto the road. Dazed, he curled into a ball, covering his head against a pelting of debris that rushed down.
Harfan made to descend the ragged rock face to Gefi’s rescue but Boroden held him back. Both froze upon hearing the pounding of hoofs closing in. Before Gefi could struggle to his knees, riders from the rival clan galloped up. Their leader, astride a sleek chestnut cob, whisked a sword to Gefi’s throat.
Gefi let out a pleading whimper. ‘Please, I wasn’t meaning no harm.’
‘Weren’t you really? Well, we’ll see. First I would have you tell me your business.’
The female voice behind the masculine dress of the brownie captain came as a surprise. She was armed to the teeth and made a formidable warrior.
The only other female in the company was more retiring, her curious little face peeping from a bonnet that resembled a black harebell drooping in the rain. ‘Why do you come here disturbing our people in this way?’ she asked. Her voice was high, yet strong, with a hint in it like the wail of a child.
Boroden stiffened, his cousins thought in recognition, but then he furrowed his brow in a perplexity.
‘I was visiting a friend I have in a village near here. A swordsmith,’ Gefi faltered.
‘You’re alone?’ the chieftain asked, circling him with her blade tipped towards his throat.
‘We’ve got to help him,’ Hëkitarka hissed.
‘There are so many. They’ll kill us if we charge down,’ Boroden reasoned. Although he would not admit it he feared their discovery leading to a reunion with his father. Despite his cousin’s cautioning, Hëkitarka fitted an arrow to his bow.
‘We caught a redcap on the road. He told us that there’s nearly a dozen of you. If you hoped to visit the brownie villagers, then you were sorely disappointed. Midhir’s soldiers destroyed the village long ago. But I doubt that’s all you’re here for. The redcap told me that you have something with you. Something of value.’ As the captain spoke a lanky squire had been searching Gefi’s pack.
‘My Lady.’ He wafted a slip of parchment before the chieftain.
‘A promissory note signed Boroden Ulfharen, King of the House Elves.’
‘Let’s just go and save him. She knows we’re here,’ Harfan said.
Regretting his earlier cowardice, Boroden slapped his fists against his cousin’s palms, saying, ‘three against half a hundred odd, but it’s three of the best. I’ll not see one of our kind come to harm. We’ll go down fighting.’
‘Wait!’ Hëkitarka declared, rather disappointingly to Boroden after his firing statement. ‘I’ve got a plan.’
‘Let’s get a bit closer.’
Boroden huffed. ‘This isn’t one of your reckless schemes to get us all caught, tortured and killed?’
‘Course not. Maybe just me.’ Hëkitarka winked before sizing up the trees that arched over the road above the heads of the circle of brownies.
‘That looks a good one,’ Boroden suggested. ‘See that horizontal branch projecting over the cliff. You could lie on it and look down onto a path below.’
‘I don’t intend to wait to look on, Cousin.’ Hëkitarka cast Harfan a grin, its radiance lighting up his plucky, shining eyes. ‘I’m sorry, brother. This time I go it alone.’
Harfan nodded understandingly.
Hëkitarka turned and hastened away in a silent run.
‘Wait!’ Boroden hissed as loudly as he dared. ‘What are you doing?’
‘You know me. I’m bold, reckless and utterly bonkers.’
‘Now they’re fine last words,’ Harfan told his brother by thought as he restrained Boroden from following. He trusted Hëkitarka implicitly though his fondness was now tinged with apprehension.
Hëkitarka dodged and dipped about the low boughs, his passing creating barely a breath to stir them. Yet the nearest of the guards stationed under the trees must have sensed something and became suspicious, leaving his post and scanning about. Hëkitarka reached around the tree trunk and tapped the guard on the shoulder, leaping up onto the other side of the tree as the guard searched for what had touched him.
Soon Hëkitarka had reached a long, sweeping branch that spanned the road. Swinging on top of it he swaggered silently along, the brownies beneath him oblivious. It took him but an instant to size them up and plan his next move.
His battle cry came boldly as he plunged from the branch, landing on the back of the strongest and swiftest of the ponies that had been ridden by the captain who was still prowling around Gefi. The startled page boy made no resistance as Hëkitarka snatched the reins from his hands.
‘You know, Cousin Boroden, it was a mistake giving me such an important commission. You should have known I just couldn’t resist some excitement,’ he called into the bushes in the opposite direction from where Boroden and Harfan hid. ‘Catch me if you can. I might have something you want, or maybe I mightn’t. Though I expect you’re all too slow to ever know.’ Hëkitarka taunted the rival brownies over his shoulder, urging the pony into a gallop.
His words sent the brownies up in arms like an angry nest of hornets. Many rushed to mount their ponies, mingling curses with cries to get after him.
Hëkitarka’s plan might have worked. Already he was taking a mazing path through the trees to split up his pursuers. However, mischance brought him the captain’s attention.
Resisting the other highborn lady, the captain said, ‘don’t stop me, Mother. Leave the chase to me. I tell you he’s mine.’
She cast the others a jealous glare that they dare not refute. Then she indicated to Mazgrim that he should dismount and relinquish his pony, the second best there, to her. Mazgrim looked uncomfortable following the valiant young prince’s mention of Boroden’s name.
‘I’ll return to the stronghold. I’m sure you know how to deal with this,’ Mazgrim told the captain’s peeved mother.
Boroden was of a mind to follow and ambush his father, taking him prisoner and discovering his purpose. Yet when the moment struck and Mazgrim slipped past Boroden found he had not the will to leave Harfan’s side. Besides, it was a fool’s plan. He could not trust any word of his father’s as the truth.
Aira peered back uneasily through the trees. Gefi sprawled on the road, surrounded by the opposing brownies. ‘We’ve got to help him.’
‘What? They could all be Unseelie boggarts for all we know,’ Klaufi cautioned.
‘That makes it even more important to save him.’
‘No. What will happen if they get hold of the sword? Boroden will kill us if they don’t. Let Boroden deal with it. He’ll get Gefi free.’ Klaufi tugged at her sleeve, urging her through the bracken that closed in like hands poised to catch them. Spider threads caught invisibly at Aira’s face and try as she might she could not brush them off.
The ground became slippery, damp with dew. At first, she heard the others padding behind them. Then there was nothing. It was a few moments before she comprehended. When she looked back she saw a brisk flick in the bracken like something falling.
‘Tord…’ she struggled as a hand was clapped over her mouth.
Klaufi looked apologetic and motioned her to get down. Crouched against the spongy darkness of the forest floor, she realised that something was moving towards them.
A redcap threw the ferns apart, snarling triumphantly. Klaufi yelled in terror. Kicking out, Aira toppled the surprised goblin. Klaufi booted it for good measure and began to flee. They faced a wall of charging redcaps.
‘This way!’ Klaufi urged, veering off to the side thoughtless of where he was heading.
Before they could stop the cliff was below them. For a sickening instant Aira’s heart lurched as they plunged over the edge. Then they thudded to the earth, throbbing all over with bruises.
Klaufi dusted himself down and moved to help Aira but she was already up and running. She had caught the sound of more redcaps on the road to their left and wanted to reach a hiding place on the opposite side before they caught them.
Almost she had made it to the bushes that she had singled out when Klaufi faltered. ‘I’ve lost one of my boots.’
Retrieving it cost precious time. With a yell the redcaps spotted them. There was nothing for it but to run on ahead, though the road led back to the rival brownie clan.
Arrows swished by them. Klaufi thought he should die as one hit him and his jerkin soaked. Fortunately, it had simply burst his waterskin, though he was too scared to be relieved.
‘We need to get off the path. The other brownies will see us,’ Aira urged.
At a bend where the redcaps lost sight of them they plunged into the bushes. Twigs whipped and slapped them, and their breathing sounded horribly loud. There was no possibility of doubling back or stopping. Redcaps lurched through the undergrowth in pursuit.
Onwards they tore, trying to move as noiselessly as possible. At last the redcaps fell back. They had passed the rival brownies too. They threw themselves against the trunk of a stout, twisted hornbeam, their breathing ragged.
Klaufi dragged on his boot. ‘The laces snapped again.’
‘We can’t go back. The redcaps will be waiting for us. They’ve only stopped because the brownies are here.’
‘Forward then? We’re bound to find some way back to the meeting place in the village. Things will be easier in the morning; it’s not far off.’
Aira nodded and they set off, worried by the commotion in the rival clan. They had not taken three steps onto the road when they darted back in alarm.
A torrent of hoof beats sped towards them. Hëkitarka tore by astride a fine pony, gesturing them to stay hidden. He was followed by another rider; a stranger. She hunted him like a falcon.
Aira and Klaufi decided the road was too risky and carried on amongst the undergrowth. The wood grew denser and darker and strange cries echoed. Some might be other brownies giving chase to Hëkitarka. Others, Aira shuddered to realise, came from redcaps.
Branches whisked against them, threatening to throw them back. Something glittered before them. Water.
They came upon it sooner than they imagined. Klaufi thudded into Aira’s back and almost toppled her into the long finger of water sent out from the sea loch. On an island not far off the sharper contours of a dwelling stood out against the trees.
‘That must be where the other clan are from,’ Aira told Klaufi.
It looked a formidable place, thick of stone and thin of window. The narrowest distance to the island, a fast-flowing channel, was spanned by a bridge which afforded the only access to the homestead except for a sandy causeway visible at low tide. There was a tang to the air which Aira recognised as the smell of the sea. It made her heart throb in joy, for it spoke of the homeland the brownies yearned for.
The slippery weed covering the rocks rippled treacherously under Aira’s feet, toppling her.
‘Get down!’ Klaufi hissed, which Aira thought was ironic given that she was already sprawled on the pebbles. She realised that he had not noticed for his gaze was fixed on the forest.
Then Aira heard it. Redcap voices.
She and Klaufi nudged themselves under an obliging overhanging rock. As they did so, Klaufi braced his hand over some bladderwrack. One of the seaweed bladders gave way with a sharp pop.
Pebbles crunched. The redcaps closed in. Immediately above them they stopped. Aira’s breath froze, her heart thudding frightfully loud. The redcaps waited, listening for the slightest movement. The passing minutes were agony. Aira realised that they sat in a rivulet of icy water but neither dared to shift.
Klaufi began to move his lips in silent words. He half expected the spell not to work but at once a log of driftwood some distance up the beach left the ground, thudding into the bushes behind the redcaps. Thinking that their quarry had eluded them, the redcaps hastened to the pursuit.
Klaufi tugged Aira up and they tore away in the direction of the causeway. In their blind haste they did not see a rider break cover before them.