Hëkitarka is captured by a stranger and the two must join forces to fight ogres
|Dodging around another stand of trees, strands of ivy lashing him, Hëkitarka found himself amid the company of redcaps. Hëkitarka answered their snarls of delight at sighting their prey with blithe cries of encouragement to his pony. He charged the ranks of redcaps so fearlessly that they parted, though they made swiftly after him, bows in their hands.
An arrow whisked past his ear. Looking round to pay the archer back with a shot of his own, Hëkitarka found the brownie captain on his heels. Her cloak soared about her like the wings of a crow and her face was thickly swathed in a black mask.
He smiled adventurously then veered his pony off to his left down a steep bank, knocking a redcap out of his way as he went.
She was upon him, close now. He could not shake her off so easily. She was an accomplished rider.
The trees grew thick, dark, entangling. Yet ahead lay open ground. The water of a great lake glistened silver. It was upon this that he fixed his gaze, soaring and dipping in rhythm with the pony.
Beneath him the ground was a blur. He was climbing now. As reckless as its rider, the pony’s pace was untiring. His pursuer would not give in. Each move of his she matched, his attempts to throw her off only making her more ardent in her chase. At last he gave up and galloped on straight.
They broke cover, the shores of the lake stretching before them. Both ponies relished the freedom of the open.
Aira and Klaufi had fled from the forest only to be confronted by an expanse of icy water and two charging ponies. Aira gripped Klaufi’s arm urgently, hearing Hëkitarka’s voice in her mind calling to her.
Drawing the sword from her apron she urged Klaufi, ‘try and conjure another like Silvelenon. Throw the copy to him.’
Klaufi looked fumblingly at the blade but somehow found the words just as Hëkitarka was upon them. An instant Klaufi held the false sword up, then Hëkitarka was flourishing it.
‘Want my sword?’ Hëkitarka called back to the captain.
The redcaps broke from the forest on their heels. Aira and Klaufi looked lost and alone, the brownie captain bearing down upon them.
Hëkitarka turned in the saddle with an outstretched hand, making it look like it was he and not Klaufi that cast the spell to protect his friend from an accusation of magic should he be caught. Around her and Klaufi, Aira found a shimmering cloud. It made them invisible to those outside of it for it was the form and colour of the boulder behind them.
Hëkitarka sped onwards. He was close now.
Finally he reached the causeway leading to the island in the heart of the sea loch. That was, it should lead there by the low tide of morning. Now it was half submerged, a broken ribbon of land. The water spread silver on either side, dancing in the moonlight.
Hëkitarka felt no danger, only the thrill of his daring. Water shot flowering in white droplets about the pony’s hoofs. He halted his steed, sliding from the saddle and wading back to the glistening slither of land where earth met sea.
This was it. The end of the road.
The captain charged at him at full pelt, then reined her mount in sharply.
‘All right. I say you’ve trapped me. Think you’ve won, don’t you? I suppose I should give in graciously. This what you want?’ He drew out the sword, its blade rippling like the breath of a breeze over water.
She slid down and strode towards him.
‘First I should remind you that you’re trapped too. Second… well, second, you’re not having this.’ Whirling, the sword sweeping before him, he sent it spinning through the air, plunging into the depths of the lake. ‘Now, kill me!’ he exclaimed, daring her with a defiant look.
‘I think that would be a sad waste, bright-eyed one,’ she laughed.
That voice! Hëkitarka stiffened then exclaimed wonderingly, ‘My Lady!’
She put up her hand, unwinding the scarf from her head. He had expected the beautiful face of Leanan Sídhe. Instead he was confronted by a stranger; a brownie in her prime with a firm look about her like that of a hunting lioness. Her dark hair was curled until her shoulders, from thence it was tightly bound in long plaits. Her wide, pale lips were chapped, and the right side of her face was covered by another mask. But the grey eye on the left side of her face was not displeasing, for it sparkled playfully.
Blushing at his enthusiasm, Hëkitarka said, ‘Sorry. I thought you were someone I know.’
‘She must be a very lucky someone to be greeted so warmly by you.’
‘She’s probably dead.’
‘Does that make you sad?’ she asked with more curiosity than sympathy.
‘It could never have been, but…’ he trailed off, his eyes full of some nameless emotion.
This pleased his inquisitor for she stepped forward, her palms held before her in greeting. ‘Lady Hulgaf Clarick.’
‘Hëkitarka, son of Isadora of Peladach’s house, Lord and Prince of Lutraudros.’ He rolled quickly on the sand before her as a mark of respect.
‘Prince? I have not heard of Lutraudros, but I know Isadora. We were good friends. We grew up together in Velmoran.’
‘You came from Velmoran?’
‘I don’t know why you travel here for sure, and in such a small band too, but if you seek Velmoran it will bring only misery and danger. You need help. Perhaps I could give you it?’
‘Perhaps,’ he replied warily.
She was looking at him with an interest that made him uncomfortable, his boyish exuberance faltering. ‘You have spirit. You make a good chase. I dare say you didn’t expect I could dance at your skittish heels so well?’
‘No, indeed. Now since you don’t mean to kill me I suppose I should be on my way back to my clan.’
‘Wait. I am curious. You still haven’t told me why you are here.’
‘My Lady!’ A male voice hailed them. A pony was charging towards them, two riders upon its back. One was Hulgaf’s handmaiden, the other a stout brownie with drooping grey whiskers who was dressed in the silver robe of a court astronomer. He looked annoyed as the maid before him was not urging the pony fast enough.
‘It is all right,’ Lady Clarick called, gesturing them to halt. ‘They are friends. We will be giving them full hospitality should they have no objection. Now go back and tell Mother to release that unfortunate prisoner and find the other brownies of Prince Hëkitarka’s company.’
The astronomer had dismounted and glared suspiciously at Hëkitarka.
Hulgaf glanced at the prince too, noticing his cape lined with rainbow chiffon. Unfastening it, she gathered it together and threw it to the maid. ‘Show the others of the clan this and tell them that their friend sends it as a token that we mean them no harm.’
The maid nodded and encouraged the astronomer to remount but he hunched his shoulders in annoyance, refusing to budge. She cantered away, leaving him.
‘I’ll tell them myself.’ Hëkitarka tried to reach his pony. Lady Clarick made no move to let him pass. ‘I really should go.’
‘If you must.’
Hëkitarka prickled with annoyance as she mounted her pony, riding in unison with him. He did not look forward to meeting the astronomer either.
‘Tell me of this place, Lutraudros, of which you speak. Are there many more of us there? I thought we were the only ones that had survived when Velmoran was destroyed,’ Hulgaf said.
He began to tell her of his homeland, of how some of the brownies had made their homes there whilst others, seeking a better place, had thought they had found a haven only to be scattered by Midhir’s callousness. He saw it touched her to hear of such hardships, almost as if she felt pity for the first time. He had been too hasty to distrust her he decided, for it was wrong to judge. She had a sentient heart clearly, though she had not shown it at first.
By now they had almost reached the mainland.
‘That is where I live, in the stronghold of a human farmer laird.’ She gestured over her shoulder to the peel tower on the island.
Both brownies noticed it in that instant, their breath freezing. The trees on the opposite shore shook. Something sizeable moved amongst them. Ogres. More made their way along the shore at the head of the lake, even nearer at hand.
For all her repute as a hard-hearted warrioress, Lady Clarick felt a wave of panic at the sight of this unfamiliar and terrible foe. The astronomer felt afraid too for he was waving his arms, urging them to make haste into the forest and rejoin their band.
‘Idiot!’ she growled under her breath, narrowing her eyes at the ogres who hurried towards them now having spotted the astronomer. Their great strides carried them surprisingly fast for such ungainly creatures and they did not fear wading into the lake shallows to reach their quarry faster.
The three brownies were not the only prey. The ogres had noticed the peel tower, their greedy hearts filling with thoughts of plunder. The humans were there and the old and weak of Hulgaf’s clan left behind whilst the others made their foray.
Hulgaf looked at Hëkitarka. He was calm and poised as a hawk. ‘I killed Brobdingnab, the great ogre who wounded my cousin. Many of his followers too in fact,’ he said by way of explanation, not taking his gaze from the approaching foe. ‘I must be bonkers,’ he chuckled to himself, urging his pony to a headlong gallop towards the ogres.
His bold spirit inspired Hulgaf, making her also desire glory. ‘I think I must be too.’
Each met the other with a smile of camaraderie before turning their faces to the approaching enemy, speeding side by side into the gloom of the night lit threateningly by a blood moon. Now, united by a common purpose, the way their ponies kept pace perfectly was a happy thing.
The astronomer bawled at them to turn back before he gave in and charged after them.
Hulgaf nodded to the moon. ‘He’s probably just superstitious.’
Unfaltering the riders went on, the orange glint of moonlight upon them. Lady Clarick felt small against this amphitheatre of majestic hills, the towering bulks of the ogres crashing towards her. Yet, her courage took her out of herself and gave a rightness to her existence that was heady.
The riders snaked around fallen trees and glinting rivulets, as attuned to each other’s moves as two swans in flight. They reached a knoll, the ogres closing in before them.
Hëkitarka swung himself from the saddle. Patting his pony goodbye, he urged it to head into the forest. ‘You should let yours go too. We’ll have no need of them. Ogres eat ponies and should snatch them up in an instant.’
Lady Clarick nodded and breathed a word in the ear of Hëkitarka’s pony. She obviously had the gift of animal speech and was closer in understanding to her pony. It trotted back towards the causeway, Mazgrim’s pony with it. The pony did not get far for the astronomer ordered the pony to halt. Mounting, he turned the pony’s head about, kicking him in the side to get him to hurry after the two brownies.
‘This is madness. My Lady, no. Do not fight them,’ the astronomer called.
Hulgaf rolled her eyes. Both she and Hëkitarka had been intent upon watching the ogres and stealthily planning their attack.
‘I know, and I don’t care, Bricius Stormcloak. I want to feel what it’s like to fight for something good; for innocent lives. To be a hero.’ She glanced approvingly at Hëkitarka as she said this. He had drawn his sword and stood swaying a little in anticipation at the edge of the downward slope.
‘Show me - how is it that you bring down an ogre?’ Lady Clarick asked, stepping to his side with her two light swords drawn.
The ogres saw that they had closed in on their adversaries and came roaring with their clubs gripped tight.
Hëkitarka dropped down the slope, letting the momentum carry him so fast that the ogre did not see him coming as he flew beneath it. Swinging his sword, he sent the ogre toppling with a hack to its leg.
‘So that’s how? Vicious.’ Lady Clarick looked amused as she jumped out from the other side of the ogre, despite nearly having been crushed by its fall.
Hëkitarka made to fly at the next ogre to face them.
‘This one’s mine,’ Lady Clarick declared.
He nodded, picking out another to their left flank.
An ogre had already slipped by and was making along the lake shore, alerted by Bricius Stormcloak’s infuriated shouts at Lady Clarick. The astronomer hesitated. Faced by an ogre swinging his club with relish, Bricius dug his heels into the pony’s sides and fled into the forest.
Hëkitarka’s next ogre was a hulking, leathery skinned brute. Thrice the young brownie came close to being dashed to pieces by the ogre’s club. Yet always the ogre appeared wary of touching him. In the end this was the ogre’s downfall for it gave Hëkitarka the opportunity to leap up and snatch his arm, sending him off balance into the lake. Intent on finishing the ogre off as it struggled to find its feet, he noticed too late that another had come up behind. Snatched into the air, Hëkitarka wriggled and kicked like a mad thing.
The ogre squinted at him. ‘You have the sword?’
‘Heavens, so the ogres want it too!’ Hëkitarka thought to himself, guessing that they must be in league with Krysila.
Not wanting to get Hulgaf into trouble he replied, ‘that’s me.’ As he said this he finally wriggled his knife from its sheath and stung the ogre’s thick palm. It dropped him with a squeal.
Hëkitarka skidded, rolling beneath the ogre out of reach as it stabbed at him with its club faster than he had anticipated. Another ogre snatched up a boulder, making to hurl it at the brownie before he could find his feet again.
With a cry of fury Lady Clarick launched herself at the ogre, stinging his arm and making him drop the boulder on his toe with a yell. Seizing the opportunity, she plunged her sword into his back.
Elated at bringing down her first ogre, she lost no opportunity in singling out another. The next carried a quiver of crudely made arrows. Pouncing from the top of the boulder she caught the rough hide quiver, swinging up onto the ogre’s shoulders and hacking his thick throat. Before he toppled she had bounded through the air, arms stretched to grab the shoulder of her next opponent. The ogre saw her too quick. Punching his arm at her he sent her spinning with a scream into the lake.
The iciness of the water and the force with which she hit it knocked her breath from her for an instant. She floundered up, coughing.
‘That one’s not the one we want,’ she heard the ogre announce.
There was only a moment to see, no time to escape, as the ogre swung his pack from his shoulder and flung it over her. Her world became black, rushing water as she was dragged under, the hessian sacking weighed down by the ogre’s weapons and gear.
‘My Lady, no!’ Bricius Stormcloak charged forwards with his arms flailing.
With a grunt an ogre swayed towards him. Bricius Stormcloak took one terrified look at its squat, broken toothed face set in a look of deadly hate before taking to his heels. Grabbing a stone before he disappeared from sight over the brink of the hill he flung it at Hëkitarka crying, ‘it’s your fault. I’ll not forgive it.’
The thought crossed Hëkitarka’s mind that if he cared so much about Lady Clarick then he might have helped but he knew better than to waste his time trying to reason with a fool.
Hulgaf’s scream cut through and through his mind. Twisting round as he tried to dodge an angry ogre, he saw the debris scattered over the water where she had fallen. Giving the ogre a cursory slash in the shins to curtail his following him, he dashed to the lake edge, careless of all else.
The sacking was billowing up as it descended beneath the surface, a trail of bubbles in its wake. It was too far for him to reach from the shore.
Poising himself, he sprang onto an upturned cooking pot and from thence hopped across a ribbon of other debris until he reached a broad wooden bowl that had floated to the surface not far from where Hulgaf had sunk. Throwing himself down upon it he plunged his arm in only to find that the pack had sunk too deep.