King Mazgrim tries to arrange a marriage between his son Boroden and brownie girl Aira
|Aira greeted the sight of the dulcichord in the corner of the quiet room with relief, like an old friend that she longed to see. It spoke to her of a delicate homeliness at odds with the brutality of battle and life on the road.
She settled herself before it an opened the lid, stroking her fingers over the polished wood. A smile rippled her lips and she began to play, throwing her heart into the music. It spoke of feelings that she kept pent in her meek exterior. To play felt like healing to her.
Many of the other brownies heard and enjoyed the beauty of the tune. It sounded loudest to Boroden who stood, defensive yet oppressed, before his father in the adjoining room.
‘Beyond reclaiming Velmoran we must think of our kingdom’s future,’ Mazgrim said.
‘I don’t see why. It’s a waste of time for it is a hard and uncertain fight to Velmoran.’
‘Yet you would attempt it. You cannot think it that hopeless. Neither do I. Come, child, don’t be so disheartened. You must make more of an effort. I know that once we have that sword then Velmoran shall be ours again. I doubt that Krysila will put up as much resistance as we think.’
Boroden stiffened suspiciously. ‘I suppose when you speak of our clan’s future you mean the future of the mines and sea trade at Velmoran, Father?’ he asked, folding his arms before him. His mind filled with visions of brownies slaving to death in the gloomy caverns below the citadel so that his father’s coffers might be filled.
Mazgrim’s next words came as a surprise. ‘I mean that you are of an age to be married. You recall that it was agreed for Aira, Lady Frenudin, to become your bride?’
Boroden started. Aira’s music, which before had sounded a beguiling distraction that he would much rather listen to, now sounded mockingly assured. No wonder she sounded so pleased with herself; she had probably hinted to Mazgrim that now was the time to have them wed. The subject had hurt him like an old wound for many years. He loved Aira deeply but each failure of his only made him feel more unworthy of her. Now to hear his father, whom he loathed, speak of something so private to him made him desperate to refute the idea.
Boroden toyed with his dagger, squirming inwardly. ‘I don’t see why I need to marry her. Aira has always been like a sister to me, and that is the way that I prefer her. Aira’s counsel has proved invaluable and she is loyal. I don’t want her for a wife to be forever having to drift around in pretty gowns and jewels fawning on me, agreeing with everything I say even if it’s wrong. I can’t see her as that. I need someone who can give me good counsel.’
‘You have me. Aira lacks my knowledge of strategy. I have years of experience and good sense to direct you. You need a wife if the line of Ulfharen is to continue.’
‘Father, Freya died in childbearing. Aira is still so young and not strong.’
‘All womenfolk are weak. You won’t find a match with anyone of a better family. If she dies, then you just grin and bear it. You need to toughen up.’
‘You don’t understand, I… I’ve grown used to her. She is rather amusing in her own way.’
Mazgrim cast his son a withering scowl. ‘I’m sorry to see that you are still so unstable and sensitive. It will not do for the future king. Others will not respect you.’
Mazgrim waved at Boroden for silence and pushed on, ‘I suggest that you ward away potential enemies. They might see you for what you are and try and influence you, so it might help to say that you need to spend time quietly alone as you are on medication and mention that you have a tough fiancée, someone like Hulgaf Clarick.’
Boroden could barely contain his rage, although he knew that letting it boil over now would be futile. After a few moments battling to swallow his venom whilst Mazgrim waited for him to make further comment he attempted to disappoint Mazgrim. ‘May I go now, Father?’
‘Yes, though I summon you, Quentillian and Torden to join me this evening to discuss our plans, Leon’s sons too. And Boroden, think over what I have said about Lady Frenudin. In truth you do not deserve the treasure I offer you for you are a poor ruler and obstinate, though I have tried to correct it. Lady Frenudin is like the golden-haired sídhe queens of old; good and obedient and talented. I am proud of her.’
Mazgrim’s praise made Boroden curl his lip. He turned and left, trembling with rage and humiliation.
Aira was still in full flood with her music. Tearing back the door, Boroden strode up to her. She stopped playing with a start. Boroden flung the dulcichord lid closed, almost trapping her fingers. He grabbed her shoulder.
‘You’ve given Father this idea?’ he hissed, his voice pent with fury.
Aira was as astonished as if he had stabbed her in the back. ‘No. What?’
‘He wants us to be married.’
‘I’d never tell him that. Why would I?’
Somehow her refusal cut him more than Mazgrim’s pressing or his own suspicions. Yes, why would she love him now?
He released her arm, noticing for the first time how wide and nervous her eyes were. ‘Aira, I hope you know that I would never hurt you?’ His father was right. He was weak and worse - a monster.
He turned away, spotting a painting showing the snow-capped peaks descending to the vale of Velmoran, the trees freshly arrayed in green and deer grazing by the bank of the estuary. How beautiful the palace towers shone in that false dream light. He hoped that Aira would go, thinking he wished to admire the painting in peace, for he wanted to hide his sorrow. Yet Aira noticed his shoulders shake.
‘I am not a frightened mouse,’ she told herself, desperately regretting the pitiful situation.
‘Boroden,’ she asked gently, reaching towards him. He shrugged her off. By now Aira had developed the strength to swallow this.
Klaufi met her. ‘That was beautiful,’ he enthused of her playing.
She smiled gratefully. ‘Where are the others?’
‘At the victory do. It’s no fun watching others scoffing fancy foyson when I can only stomach porridge, so I left. You know all that wailing them humans was making earlier? Well, the farmer’s eldest son is dead. Harfan and Quentillian have gone to investigate. I reckon it’s some foul cause for I saw him looking right hale and hearty this morning. Maybe he’s eaten some of King Mazgrim’s mouldy lamb chops or choked on a slice of woody marrow from the midden pile,’ he joked.
Pitying the human family, Aira thought it no laughing matter.
She soon found the Great Hall and entered at the same time as Lady Clarick. Hulgaf was attired in a square cut blouse of shot silk the colour of which was impossible to tell as it looked blue, purple or green depending on how she turned. Over this she wore a close-fitting laurel green velvet coat in a style new to her and of which she was evidently unsure. The assembled brownies rose at her entrance.
Hëkitarka had been placed at the high table without Harfan and in the absence of Boroden he stood conspicuously forlorn. Mazgrim and Betaine paid him scant attention, being absorbed in conversation. Hëkitarka smiled shyly at Hulgaf as she came to his side. The look she returned was like an August day trying to be mild.
‘I trust you’re feeling better, My Lady?’ Hëkitarka asked.
‘Yes, much. I could fight another ogre, with perhaps a hoard of redcaps and a kraken thrown in.’
Hëkitarka laughed, though he was surprised to see her so well this quickly. She was strong and lively indeed.
‘I hope you are rested and have eaten well?’
He nodded at her considerate words.
‘I’m not hungry but I could do with a little wine,’ she said.
This proved to be an understatement for she fetched a human sized wine glass, filling it to the brim from a vat that had been brought up from the cellar. As she took a swig Hëkitarka decided that drink must be the root of her giddiness.
Boroden entered just as Hulgaf returned to the table and seated herself, swinging her legs over one of the arms of her chair in a blasé manner. For all that she repulsed Hëkitarka she was amusing. He thought that his cousin’s look of disapproval was priceless.
Hulgaf noticed Boroden. ‘You must wonder how we few came here and managed to survive Krysila’s attack, Boroden?’
‘I shall tell you, only I would hear more of your adventures too. You will have noticed that most of my companions are tradesfolk? We were in the sea caverns the day that the kraken came and saw her first. I think perhaps in her evil designs on a better prize she overlooked destroying our hiding place thoroughly. The caves had been flooded, yes, and quickly filled, but their opening lay within swimming distance and not far from the surface of the tempestuous waves. I have but a dim recollection of breaking the water surface and coming ashore myself.’
‘I carried My Lady up from the depths where she lay trapped,’ Bricius Stormcloak piped up proudly, casting a sniffy look at Hëkitarka whose prowess and favour with Hulgaf he resented.
‘Liar!’ Hulgaf laughed provokingly.
Betaine hushed her. ‘Don’t correct him. Go on.’
‘What I do remember, however, is the days following. We were alone and helpless, none of us with the strength to fight though we had more than enough anger burning us on to it. We searched desperately for survivors and found but a handful, my mother Lady Betaine amongst them. We had no idea of the existence of more until you came. Thinking ourselves utterly alone we left to start a new life for ourselves, never dreaming that we should have a chance to return to Velmoran. I led my companions through many hardships and dangers, my strong hand and fearless wits being often their saviours. Such is my boast. I ruled here in this home I founded unto myself until, wonder of wonders! King Mazgrim appeared. And now you.’
Boroden began to tell her of their life since the capture of Velmoran, although he passed quickly over the woes and defeats they endured on their road. Boroden was taciturn in his narration and Hulgaf was glad when his tale reached a point where Hëkitarka took over with a lively account. She had no ears for other talk and laughed and smiled so freely that Hëkitarka had to admit that he rather liked her.
‘So much for what has gone before,’ Mazgrim growled, growing irritated by Hëkitarka. ‘Now let us look to the future. Naturally I will be leading the clan to retake Velmoran from this point onwards. I trust that you, Lady Hulgaf, share my aim and shall lend your assistance?’
Boroden had been trying hard to conceal the strain of his father’s reappearance but at this public announcement of his being usurped he rose and attempted to leave the room unseen. Mazgrim’s impression that Boroden was an imbecile and that he must be there to support him was nauseating. Boroden was made even crosser as he accidentally tripped over Betaine’s Cat Sìth curled beneath his chair. The green haired feline mewled and retaliated by scratching him.
Despite her acquiescence, Hulgaf showed little interest in Mazgrim’s plans most of which, Aira was troubled to hear, involved a route passing near the caves of the Unseelie Court. Betaine was soon deep in the plot, her relish of strategic planning at odds with her earlier wheedling behaviour.
Harfan burst in, trying hard to retain his composure.
‘So, you found what killed the human lad?’ Torden demanded.
‘He wasn’t sick. Nor was there any injury upon him. That is, apart from one small round mark at his wrist.’ He fixed his gaze on Hëkitarka. ‘It was the mark of Leanan Sídhe.’
‘But she’s dead,’ Hëkitarka mused. ‘At least, I imagine that though she could feign death before Midhir, she could not escape Krysila.’
‘The wound was very much the same,’ Harfan retorted.
‘Leanan Sídhe cannot be killed. If her essence remains, then she can rise again. Midhir was lucky for any mortal killing one of the sídhe would have lost their life,’ Quentillian said.
Gefi entered looking grave. ‘I’m sure it’s her. I just overheard how one of the dairymaids saw the lad approached by a bonny beggar wench before he was found dead. She said that as the stranger turned away she saw her eyes glint red and there was a trail of blood drops in her wake.’
‘She’s here. If she can transform herself into a human, then she could easily come amongst us in brownie form.’ Harfan looked hard at his brother.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll be careful,’ he responded, although there was a ring of recklessness in his voice. He glanced about the assembly, secretly hoping to see the comely figure of Leanan Sídhe in her brownie form.
Hulgaf had been toying with her knife whilst Harfan spoke, freckling the surface of the table as she twisted the blade into the polish. ‘So, it is the Dark Mistress that holds your heart?’ she asked Hëkitarka smoothly.
‘I don’t know what I feel for her. She’s very beautiful I don’t deny, and it hurt me when I thought her dead. But she’ll kill me I know and everyone I care for warns me against it.’
‘You need not listen to them. Surely you have your own mind?’
Hëkitarka drew up and hastened out. He was glad to find Harfan following him for he needed his brother’s sensible talk to put balm on the unsettling words of Lady Clarick.
The brothers sat together long in their lamb wool nest discussing the changes, many for the worse, that had befallen the clan. The days ahead looked dark and dangerous and neither were easy with the lead of Mazgrim or with his companions.
‘Hopefully Boroden will be behind us and we can throw King Mazgrim off if he won’t see sense and listen to the plans of others. If we have to we could depose him,’ Harfan said.
‘I don’t think Boroden’s got such revolutionary behaviour in him the way he is now. I don’t like saying it, but he’s been pushed too far down.’
‘We have strength in us to fight, brother. The way you fought today you were the best of us all. I can see you breaking into Velmoran and slaying Krysila single-handed, and a good few ogres too.’
‘Look, Hëki, I’m worried about this whole idea of reclaiming Velmoran if truth be told. It’s based on ideals of a place now long turned to wreck and ruin. Worse is the elixir of immortality found in the caves beneath it. It will only lead to strife and evil if Velmoran was restored. I’m not convinced a place like that is best for our kind. What we need is to find a new homeland; a fresh start.’
Hëkitarka was surprised by his brother’s words and his long held, never questioned ideal inherited from his elders being shook but he saw the sense in what Harfan said.
‘Remember we have our own kingdom to protect. I would rather return there than go on to Velmoran under King Mazgrim’s leadership. The ice giants grow in strength and Galman tells me that the numbers that attack and challenge our subjects increase. The road is near impassable to traders and you know how the brownies of Lutraudros rely on them. I don’t like leaving Mam dealing with it.’
‘I miss her too. I’d go back tomorrow but I don’t like to abandon our friends. I know Boroden, Aira and the rest aren’t ready to give up and I don’t like to see them get into further trouble.’
‘We might get dragged in too rather than preventing it.’
‘It’s a risk I’ll take. If I can’t convince them before we leave here then we’re going back to Lutraudros, Harfan. Better to have happiness there than all go on to Velmoran and face misery.’
By now the day had long burnt away though Hëkitarka showed no sign of wearying despite his exertions. The fight weighed heavily upon Harfan, but he was too uneasy and mournful in his thoughts about Myfanwy’s death to rest. They began to hear brownies stir and leave along the passage to the human dwelling.
‘They’ll be setting about their tasks,’ Harfan said absently.
‘No. Hunting or gaming most like, or perhaps pilfering the pantries. That’s how they get the food Hulgaf told me. It’s not right to take from the humans like that, especially as we’re responsible for the damage done by the ogres and that boy’s death. I mean I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Leanan Sídhe comes to this out-of-the-way place when I’m here, do you? I rather liked her before but now I’ve seen her true nature I see that what my instinct of fear warned me, and what you and everyone else told me, was right. I can forgive her, for killing comes as naturally to her as it does to a goshawk, but I can’t esteem her so guilelessly as before.’
Harfan nodded, relieved. Hëkitarka pulled out his duster and dragged on his boots.
‘Where are you off to?’
‘I mean to help the humans to repay them for offering shelter and food, albeit unawares. Mazgrim won’t approve if he catches me but I couldn’t care less.’
‘Neither could I.’
As the brothers left the nest they failed to notice Betaine lurking in the shadows. She had listened long and believed that the brothers threatened King Mazgrim’s plans.