The brownies go to stay with another brownie clan who are not what they seem...
|‘That was a near one.’ Klaufi dropped his hand to his side and abandoned the enchantment.
Aira gazed in concern at the riders. The strange chieftain was so close to Hëkitarka now that she could have touched the flowing tail of his pony.
Klaufi looked anxious as another pony appeared. ‘Come on, we’d better make for cover.’
‘We can’t just leave Hëki.’
‘We’ve got other things to think about. Boroden would never forgive us if that sword fell into enemy hands. Hëkitarka can look after himself.’
Aira prayed that Klaufi was right as they darted back beneath the trees. The denseness of the forest and clouds riding across the moon frequently abandoned them to darkness.
At last they found the road and crouched behind the rattling heads of foxgloves.
‘When it gets light we try and find the way back to the deserted village. I doubt the other clan will be about then,’ Klaufi suggested.
Both brownies stiffened upon hearing a horse ridden hard along the road. For an instant, Aira hoped that it was Hëkitarka. Then she saw that it was a brownie handmaiden. Over her shoulder was a bundle. Hëkitarka’s cloak.
Aira choked back a cry, believing it to be a spoil taken from the captured prince. It was all that Klaufi could do to prevent her plunging back into the forest to look for Hëkitarka.
By the time both became calm and agreed that the best thing to do was to wait until morning they again caught the sound of hoof beats. Many hoofs. A cavalcade of brownies approached. At their head was the captain’s mother. Beside her rode Boroden.
Aira knew not whether to be filled with relief or fear lest he had been taken prisoner. As he drew nearer she saw that he was not bound and instead was conversing politely with the stranger. Amongst the following assortment of brownies, Aira noticed the familiar faces of other members of her clan. All of them looking pleased and eager.
‘I’ll go and make sure it’s safe. You stay here,’ Klaufi told Aira.
‘Majesty!’ Klaufi called to Boroden.
Boroden turned to him with a look of annoyance partly fuelled by having to talk to Lady Betaine who was not to his liking.
‘Good. Now we’re all back together again. Take a spare pony, laddie,’ Gefi said.
Boroden looked accusingly at Klaufi. ‘Not quite. Where’s Aira?’
‘Here,’ she announced.
Boroden cast her a stern glance that meant did she still have the sword? Aira nodded quickly.
‘Welcome my dear. You must be Lady Frenudin?’ Betaine smiled, fixing her attention on Aira for she was tired of talking to Boroden.
Soon Aira was riding beside Betaine and telling her how they had fled from the redcaps.
‘What were you doing in that village? It has such a mournful air to it.’
‘Our path to Velmoran ran closely by it so I begged to bury my father who was killed by Midhir’s soldiers when they destroyed the village. My stepmother and I fled, so he had lain long unburied.’
Betaine shook her head. ‘A sad task.’
Aira nodded and turned back to Harfan who had slung Hëkitarka’s cape over one shoulder. ‘Is Hëki all right? Last time I saw him he was being chased by one of Betaine’s clan. He’s not here.’
‘That would be my daughter, Hulgaf. Have no fear. It was Hulgaf that sent word that she had discovered who you really were. I suspect she has taken your friend to our home in the peel tower.’ Betaine laid a mittened hand upon Aira’s to reassure her. Aira tried to smile back but something about Betaine made her uneasy.
In an instant Betaine’s touch turned to a clutch of fear. There came a crashing of branches behind them as though a gale approached, tearing and toppling trees. Every head turned as it came on behind them. Soon they could see the trees quaking.
‘It’s an ogre. Go, quickly!’ Boroden cried, spurring on his pony and urging Betaine, bewildered, before him.
They turned and charged by the next stand of trees. Boroden’s pony reared. An ogre pounced before them.
‘This way!’ Boroden yelled, taking off to the side.
Aira shot an imploring look at Betaine who was screaming. Then she followed Boroden, twigs and foliage broken by the ogre raining about her. Aira looked back, hearing no follower. Betaine was frozen in horror as the ogre swung his club. Even as it crashed towards her the ogre stopped it. Aira was bemused but Betaine hurried her pony away, glad to have escaped with her life.
Another ogre charged, blocking off their escape in the direction they had taken. Besides themselves with terror the ponies plunged through the undergrowth, heedless of their riders.
The brownies broke from the gathering group of ogres and made for the island. A path opened before them and they charged along it at full pelt.
Betaine gave another shriek and reined her pony in abruptly. The rest of the clan also stopped, almost tumbling over each other.
A brownie, his silver astronomer’s robe torn and covered in clinging burrs, had appeared, gesticulating wildly. ‘Ogres. They’re coming for us.’
‘We are aware of that,’ Boroden growled.
‘But Lady Hulgaf means to fight them,’ Bricius Stormcloak pleaded.
‘What can we do? If so let it be her concern, although I don’t believe she’s that stupid. Now follow us and save your own skin,’ Betaine told him.
‘Redcaps and now ogres. I don’t like this place and it’s nearly All Hallows Eve. All evil will be unleashed at its most powerful soon,’ Klaufi fretted.
The astronomer loitered by the roadside, unsure. A crashing as the ogres blundered after them set the ponies stampeding again.
‘What about Hëki?’ Harfan cried to Bricius as he galloped by.
The astronomer made no reply but instead made to grab one of the ponies. He was lucky to catch one of the last ponies, a white mare that he had to share with Quentillian.
Despite their thundering pace, the ogres showed no sign of relenting as they neared the loch. The last half mile flew by as the ponies slipped and snorted in terror across the shore.
It was with relief that Boroden heard his pony’s hoofs clattering hard as hail on the bridge to the stronghold. Betaine, Aira and the others followed. At the foot of the bridge Bricius reined in his pony, much to Quentillian’s annoyance.
‘Come on my friend. The ogres will be upon us soon,’ Torden urged, casting an anxious glance at the unkempt heads of the monsters as they beat their way through the trees.
‘That’s just it. At present there is no other way to the island but this bridge. The ogres will reach it and be after us so easily.’ Bricius jumped to the ground, taking a round corked jar full of a green powder from his satchel. ‘Quickly, over the bridge. Leave these nags - they’re useless!’ he urged Quentillian and Torden.
Quentillian looked in surprise at the astronomer as he flung a handful of the powder into the water beneath the bridge. It began to fizz, rapidly erupting with bursts of flame.
‘Is that magic?’ Quentillian asked sternly.
‘The bridge will be blown to pieces in five minutes!’ Bricius snapped as he tore towards the homestead.
The surprised brownies stopped at the gates watching the heaving, hissing cloud growing beneath the water about the bridge.
‘Ground dragon tongue. It will make the water explode and the bridge too,’ Klaufi mused.
Harfan spurred on his pony, clattering at a reckless pace towards the bridge. Aira was after him.
‘Fools! What are you doing?’ Boroden shouted, losing no time in following.
Urging his pony before Harfan’s steed, Boroden blocked his way. By now the water was churning, convulsed by small explosions of flame.
‘I’m not leaving Hëki!’ Harfan yelled at his cousin.
‘Your duty is to stay alive or else you cannot help any of us,’ Boroden reasoned.
Harfan protested and Boroden had to haul him forcibly back to the island where he was restrained by Torden. Irate, Boroden turned to Klaufi who was shrieking and waving.
Unnoticed by Boroden, Aira had reached the other side of the bridge. She had caught the abandoned ponies and hurried back with them. Boroden tore towards her yelling at her to make haste.
Barely had he snatched a pony’s reins when the water gave a shout. The sound of the head of the bridge toppling behind them was like being caught in a clap of thunder. With one section gone the rest of the bridge groaned, eating in at itself as chunks collapsed into the ferment. An ogre, charging triumphantly towards the bridge, writhed on the shore, scalded by green flame.
There was another explosion, so close that it seemed to come from beneath them, knocking their feet from under them. Aira and Boroden threw themselves to the ground before the gates. The ponies screamed, dragging the brownies into a broom bush as the final section of the bridge was thrown into the air.
‘Stupid girl!’ Boroden cried, pulling himself up and shaking chippings of stone from his wild locks.
‘I couldn’t leave Lady Janet to be eaten by ogres. You wouldn’t if it had been Blackthorn,’ Aira explained crossly.
For the first time Boroden looked closely at the mare, recognition dawning.
Harfan called out to her joyfully and she came over, nuzzling her head against him. Harfan glimpsed a familiar face in the crowd. ‘Galman.’
‘I brought the ponies, Prince Harfan, hoping to meet you on your way. I should also say that the bridge isn’t the only way to this island. There is a causeway revealed at low tide. Perhaps Prince Hëkitarka shall get across that?’ Galman suggested hopefully.
‘If he can then so can the ogres. Get into the stronghold. We must barricade ourselves in and protect the king,’ Betaine implored.
Boroden looked anxious.
‘What’s happened to them ogres over there?’ Gefi puzzled, pointing to the western shore. An ogre toppled to the ground whilst others swung their clubs.
‘Someone is bringing them down.’ Betaine shivered uneasily.
‘There are few brownies that can do that,’ Harfan said, pained to be helpless knowing that across the loch his brother was fighting for his life.
Quentillian led Harfan into the tower as several brownies closed the gates set into the palisade. ‘It shan’t be long before the ogres come,’ one of them fretted.
‘Before that you need rest and food. You must protect us for we are few and you’re all tried and tested warriors,’ Betaine crooned. ‘I’ll take you to our king. He’ll make plans to save us.’ She hastened away, many of the brownies shadowing her.
Boroden laid a hand on Harfan’s shoulder as he made to follow. ‘I’ll wait here in case something happens.’
Harfan nodded. ‘I shall implore this king to let me have a boat. I can’t bear for Hëki to be facing the ogres alone.’
Boroden grimaced as Harfan hastened away, better knowing what he should face.
As befitted his aloof temperament, Mazgrim had made his home in an abandoned shed in a scrubby corner behind the peel tower. Its appearance was not promising. A single remaining gatepost staggered at an angle, its paint hanging in mangy patches. Beyond was a wilderness of gangly grass and dead gorse. Aira wrinkled her nose as they came across a nest of drowned baby rats.
Quentillian looked at Betaine in disbelief but, being motioned on, he went to knock on the door. On the way he almost toppled on a loose paving stone. He need hardly have bothered knocking; the timbers were spongy and the lock broken so that the smallest kick would have gained him entry.
Aira caught the shuffle of feet within and someone fumbled with the key, drawing back the door slowly.
‘What’s that foetid stench? It’s worse than a decomposing troll.’ Klaufi gagged, clapping his hand to his nose, as had the rest of his companions.
In the doorway stood an aging brownie dressed in filthy, moth-eaten garb. His face was sour and set in permanent lines of hatefulness and his hair hung sparse and lank.
Quentillian forced himself to remove his hand from his nose and rolled his upper body as a gesture of deference, not daring to get onto the ground and roll. ‘King Mazgrim.’
‘That’s Boroden’s father?’ Klaufi asked in disbelief.
‘It’s been a long time. Betaine tells me you are travelling to Velmoran. I have longed to see it again too. Where is my son? I expected Boroden to be with you. Captain Carnelian too.’ Mazgrim peered suspiciously over the brownies.
‘They fell back unwell,’ Klaufi lied.
King Mazgrim feigned concern. ‘Oh dear. Boroden always was a sickly bairn.’ His gaze alighted upon Aira. ‘Aira. I little thought to see you here. Are you well?’
‘Yes.’ That was she had felt fine until she smelled the odour wafting from his home, she thought. It amazed her that anyone chose to live like this.
‘And your father Airen, is he well?’
‘He is dead.’
‘It was a long time ago.’
‘Then I am your guardian now as I was your mother’s. You shall be a daughter to me.’
‘Excuse me but that ain’t right. Carnelian married Aira’s stepma Gretchen and he’s her pa now,’ Klaufi interjected.
‘And you are?’ Mazgrim demanded.
‘Klaufi Spadefoot. From a good line of honest working House Elves. Though I don’t see that’s your business.’
‘You will address King Mazgrim as ‘Your Majesty’ and drop that truculent tone,’ Quentillian cautioned his nephew.
‘Well, Master Spadefoot, I do not see Carnelian or this female Gretchen as having any blood relationship to Lady Frenudin and thus they have no claim on her. Since all brownies are vassal to me then Aira must obey me, as must you all.’
Seven hearts sank.
‘Aira, you have grown like your mother; fair-haired and blue-eyed. I remember Freya well. When we last met I asked your father to forge me a sword. Was the deed accomplished?’
‘Yes.’ Aira was immediately horrified by her words for Harfan, well knowing this would displease Boroden, fixed her with a reprimanding look.
‘But the sword was lost,’ Harfan chimed in, hoping to save the situation.
‘This is Prince Harfan of Lutraudros,’ Quentillian explained.
King Mazgrim gaped as if he would frame words of welcome but, met with a distrustful glance from Harfan, he gave up. Aira was surprised by Harfan’s reaction. She knew that Mazgrim had faults, but she had never imagined him to have grown as odd as this. She could see why Harfan did not inquire about a boat.
‘‘Ere, you know there’s a drowned nest of rats blocking up that drainage ditch? It’ll be overflowing soon. The humans won’t be pleased,’ Klaufi complained.
‘What a shame, I am fond of rats,’ Mazgrim said, appearing not to care a jot for the welfare of the humans who played hosts to the brownies.
‘I don’t suppose there’s any chance of coming in and having a bite to eat. I’m starving,’ Torden said.
‘You must be joking,’ Klaufi gagged.
‘An excellent idea,’ Betaine smiled at King Mazgrim who appeared unsure as he worried about the newcomers making off with any of his hoard of silver trinkets. Although whether he had added to the value of the silver by strewing it in a corner of his lair was debatable, for he never cleaned away any of its deepening tarnish.
‘I need some wood for the fire,’ Mazgrim commented, heading towards a pile of wood and taking up his axe. He hit a branch, but the axe became stuck. He repeatedly beat the log against the ground to either split it or dislodge the axe in a frenzy that Aira could not help but find comical.
‘I’d rather stay outside. I’m not hungry,’ Harfan said.
‘I hope you’re not sickening of the same thing as Boroden,’ Mazgrim tutted. ‘Let me know if there is anything he needs. Some garlic perhaps? It is a great cure. I found some cloves amongst the midden pile last week. I still have them about somewhere.’
‘I will let you know if he needs them. I’m glad to say though that at present he seems to be recovering. He’s a strong lad.’ Aira secretly balked at the idea of Boroden being offered garlic from a midden pile. It would be the last thing on earth that he would eat.
‘Boroden is lucky to have the loyalty of someone like you. I’m glad to see that my son has impressed you. Many a maid would like to marry such a prince. Boroden shares his mother’s fine eyes,’ Mazgrim commented.
Aira turned away embarrassed. Mazgrim took the opportunity to sneer under his breath, ‘and her evil curse.’
‘What was that?’ Aira asked, looking back.
‘I am glad that you like Boroden. I could not wish for him to have a finer bride.’