The brownies discover some startling truths about their new friends
|On their way to the human dwelling, Harfan and Hëkitarka found themselves gathering a gaggle of their travelling companions, all keen to help. Having ensured that their hosts slept soundly, they set to work. Aira cleaned and blacked the grate whilst Torden laid a fresh fire. Gefi wielded a broom sending dust scuttling out the open door and billowing over Klaufi who was returning with a pail from the well. The unfortunate brownie sneezed like a braying donkey and slopped the water down his front.
‘There’s no need to have brought all that. The humans have left water out for any faerie folk who care to wash their bairns, although I doubt it’ll be used,’ Gefi said.
‘When I was a barin there was no clean water left out and my Ma washed me in the water the humans had left at night soaking their beans in,’ Klaufi said.
Hëkitarka gave Harfan a wry look at Klaufi’s revelation as he helped him to move a sideboard before dusting behind it. Gefi started as a spider scuttled towards him. Aira, knowing Gefi feared spiders, gently scooped it up and put it outside in the vegetable garden out of harm’s way.
Torden was the only one idle. After saying that he would gladly help his comrades to lug any furniture required, he settled to enjoying a midnight snack of a hot whiskey toddy and a wedge of tangy cheese on top of parkin.
By the darkest hour of night much had been done and the brownies had either gone to tend the animals or spread across the house putting the final touches to their cleaning.
Hëkitarka carried the last batch of freshly made mulberry jam to the pantry; a dark, claustrophobic hole of a room furnished with cold slabs of slate. He covered the jars carefully with crochet lace tops to protect them as they cooled, considering leaving a note asking for a payment of honeycomb and cream and perhaps a freshly baked bannock or two, for his mind revolved with happy thoughts of his birthday. He reached up to fish down a cobweb with a twirl of his feather duster.
Hëkitarka started at the glint of cold steel as a blade pressed against his throat. ‘Lady Clarick?’
‘Forgive me. You could have been a redcap lurking here in the night.’
They stepped from the gloom of the pantry and Hulgaf noticed the duster in Hëkitarka’s hand.
‘Not only are you a deadly ogre slayer and friend of the glastyn but you are blessed with a bounty of phoenix feathers.’
‘I don’t like to take without having worked for it.’
‘That is very upstanding of you. We’re not robbers though. We may not drudge in the humans’ house, but we keep them safe. I think the freedom of their pantry is just reward for that. Though I don’t blame you for not eating tonight. The vegetables King Mazgrim found in the midden pile. He’s always speaking of the wonders to be gathered from there.’
‘All the same I like to do something for the humans that they will know of.’
‘You’re a kindly lad. King Mazgrim may have outlawed doing chores for humans but I see no ill in it if you’ve a heart for it. I hope they’ll leave a goodly helping of cream and honey out for you. You deserve something special for your birthday. Which reminds me; I still have not given you your reward. Except now I’ll add another to it in honour of your birthday, a joyful occasion after a glorious victory.’
Reaching into her quiver she drew forth a set of beautifully wrought bracers worked in silver and sparkling with gems set into a pattern of dragons coiled about a tree.
‘They’re for me, are they? Awh, they’re lovely. I might even put them on tonight. I’m going squirrel hunting with Harfan later.’
Hulgaf looked pleased with herself. ‘I’m glad that you like them.’
Hëkitarka hesitated, realising that he was letting the costly gift carry him beyond the level of coolness that he had meant to show to her.
‘I was your age when Krysila came. I was so full of hope. I thought I had all my life ahead of me and time aplenty too. I left so many things undone that I shall never again have the chance to do. I don’t think I knew how blessed I was then. I want these days to be bright for you now for who knows when the dark shall come?’ There was almost a fatality in her words that turned him cold. She noticed and endeavoured to dispel it. ‘Rochuck,’ she called, making a rattling coring sound. There was a flapping in the chimney and a jay flew out, landing on her arm that looked too slight to hold it. ‘I told you that I know the tongue of birds? I found this beauty caught in a snare whilst he was yet a chick. I made him promise to do my bidding in return for freedom. Well, now I give him to you.’
‘Hello Rochuck. I wish I could speak bird speech, but I can’t.’
‘I’ll teach you.’ Hulgaf drew Hëkitarka’s arm up to the one on which Rochuck perched and made the jay swap. He was surprisingly light and regarded Hëkitarka keenly with his bright eyes. His plumage glowed peach and summer sky blue in the candlelight.
Aira looked up from the opposite end of the room, smiling upon noticing Rochuck. Klaufi came over, curious.
Hulgaf took a bunch of grapes from her satchel and dangled them before Rochuck to peck at. She ate the foyson from some too, which relieved Hëkitarka for he had been worried by the lack of appetite of the peel tower dwelling brownies, although grapes seemed an oddly exotic delicacy to find in this lonely spot. Noticing him staring she said, ‘you must be hungry. Would you like some?’
Hëkitarka divided the grapes with Rochuck before walking over to the door. Rochuck had a plaited collar about his neck. Hëkitarka removed this before opening the door and letting him fly free.
‘I don’t want to keep a slave,’ he said.
Hulgaf looked touched rather than angry. ‘You’ve done a favour for him. Now you have a right to ask one of him in turn. Don’t be hasty to forget that or underestimate a bird for they are bright things. I speak to many birds large and small. I myself have two crows.’
Hulgaf cawed, a harsher sound this time. The birds appeared, squabbling in an unruly fashion as they perched one on each of Hulgaf’s shoulders. Klaufi backed away.
‘I don’t like crows. They’re menacing, Unseelie creatures.’
‘They are clever, quite playful, beautiful.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Klaufi said.
‘Once you know them. They are like all ugly, fearful things; if you look at them so long and hard that you become accustomed to their fearfulness you find you do not mind it. That is how I got used to my face.’ She pointed to her scars.
‘I think it’s sad to become accustomed to ugliness. You can always do something to make it more beautiful,’ Hëkitarka said.
‘My face? What?’
‘You might smile more.’
She did so in response to his words, although it was involuntary, in surprise at them.
‘Ah well, squirrel hunting to do.’ He dodged past her.
She pursued him to the door, becoming the object of attention of most of the brownies in the room as she did so. ‘I shall come with you.’
‘Haven’t you got business to attend to? I mean checking the defences? And I’m sure you’re needed to listen to King Mazgrim’s discussion with Cousin B.’
‘You told me that I should smile more. How do you expect me to do that without you?’
‘Ah. Forgive me, Lady Clarick, if I speak out of term but I think you rather fancy me and suppose that I am the only thing that can make you content?’
She fixed him with an amused look. ‘I’m glad my efforts haven’t fallen of deaf ears.’
‘The thing is, Lady Clarick, you should ask yourself whether you would suddenly be content if I loved you. I think that you know that wouldn’t be.’
She drew back, making to protest.
‘I don’t want to hurt you. I want to help. I can see that you’ve got much good in you and courage but you’re also restless, discontent, afraid and deeply hurt. It’s eating you up, driving you to bad things.’
Hulgaf fixed him with a look that it was hard to define, as if she had thrown off a mask that she realised was futile. She felt angry and insulted, yet relieved too, surprised at the young brownie for seeing through her so easily to a core that she kept hidden even from herself.
‘There is only one thing that can bring you true peace; a surety in the future not only in this world but in the next.’
‘What do you mean? We faeries have no souls,’ she said cagily.
‘But we may acquire them. Have you heard how all faerie folk were angels once? After they stole the Fruit of the Tree of Life they were cast down to earth, for they were forgetting God’s ways and becoming entranced by the earth. When the earth dies so will the faerie folk, even the ones we call immortal like The Dagda. Hulgaf, if we turn to God and gain back our souls, try and be a little nearer to angels, then we will have fulfilment. It’s that hollow you’re trying to fill with me and I just won’t fit. It’s hard. I admit that I’m always making mistakes, but God will forgive if you repent. He wants to welcome us back to the fold, just as he does the humans. Here, you read this.’ He hauled himself up on top of a small table set against the wall and opened the cupboard above it.
‘Harfan found it and was overjoyed for the copy that Carnelian was given by the monks in the abbey near Velmoran was lost with him.’ Hëkitarka had to use a spell of weightlessness on the Bible to lift down its worn, leather bound heftiness.
Hulgaf had been looking on with her arms folded defensively upon her chest but at the sight of the Bible she started. Her gaze flew to the nearest of the brownies, a wizened little female. Upon beholding the volume in Hëkitarka’s hands she gave an odd cry that echoed as from a long way off and crumpled to the floor as a pile of dust.
Hëkitarka squeaked in horror and remorse. Unfortunately, it was at that moment that the clan leaders entered, searching for Hulgaf and Hëkitarka.
‘It’s all right. I think she was long dead anyway,’ Harfan whispered with a chill in his voice, helping his shaken brother down.
‘Fool!’ Betaine screeched. She dared not touch the Bible but knocked it from Hëkitarka’s hand using a rolling pin. Hëkitarka bit his lip as it crashed to the floor, breaking its spine.
‘The old bat was obviously enchanted.’ Betaine hastily kicked the pile of dust under a rug.
Boroden and Quentillian looked horrified.
‘You will find who has cast this offensive spell won’t you Hulgaf? There shall be no danger to you, Lord Boroden. Your father shall assure it,’ Betaine said hurriedly, adjusting her moth wing headdress.
‘Under some spell? Well I think the witch has enchanted us all,’ Lalie cried.
‘Seize her!’ Betaine ordered, forgetting her usual simpering meekness.
The cook dodged the astronomer’s grasp, grabbing a handful of bread from the freshly baked loaf as she did so. ‘I’m not playing this game any more. I’m loyal to Peladach’s true heir and I won’t draw him into danger.’
The instant she swallowed a mouthful of foyson from the bread she began to fade as if she were made of shadow. The astronomer tried to stop her, thumping her back thinking to make her cough up the foyson. Yet his fist went through nothingness as Lalie crumpled to dust.
Boroden’s horror turned to rage. He glared at his father. ‘What have you done?’
‘I can do as I please and I’d counsel you to go along with it and stop being so obstinate. You know you can’t stop me. Any of you.’
‘Some of us are dead, yes. But we are few and they could fight as well as the living. Would you not bring back those you love from the grave if you could?’ Betaine wheedled.
‘No. It’s unnatural and depraved,’ Harfan said.
‘All dead except you, your sister and you cronies,’ Boroden growled. ‘What are you? You are not Betaine Clarick really are you? Were you ever? Did such a brownie even exist?’
‘For shame. Hulgaf, do something,’ Betaine flustered.
‘Will you just listen!’ Mazgrim ordered in frustration. ‘You always let division come between you and our true purpose. You must let me take the lead if you want to see Velmoran ours again. It is no wonder your quest has so far come to nothing with all these petty suspicions of yours, Boroden. Betaine and Hulgaf have ever been loyal to me and with their help we can achieve much.’
‘Boroden got us this far,’ Torden reminded them.
Mazgrim ignored him. ‘Tomorrow we will make our first move. If we set off for Velmoran now it shall be winter when we reach it and the kraken will be more sluggish and easier to deal with.’
‘Now, stop wasting time namby-pambying around cleaning and get your packing done ready for the morrow. You’ll need an early night and rest too. Why don’t you all go to your rooms whilst King Mazgrim makes his plans?’ Betaine told the visitors.
Boroden had plans of his own and called his travelling companions to counsel once Mazgrim was out of sight. From Boroden’s room the murmur of Mazgrim plotting with Betaine and Hulgaf could be heard.
‘I’m not going with him tomorrow,’ Boroden insisted.
Klaufi had his ear to the door. ‘I’d love to hear what they’re saying.’
‘That would be very useful but unfortunately I don’t think it’s possible. The wall is of thick stone,’ Harfan reminded him.
Boroden suddenly brightened with an idea. ‘Ah, but there are ways. The entrance to my father’s lair abuts the human yard. Eavesdropping should be easier there.’
‘How do we get there though, that’s the point? I mean, the area outside is strewn with gravel and King Mazgrim’s window is near the path so using torches to guide the way would be out of the question,’ Gefi said.
‘So, you’re saying there is a fair chance of getting caught?’ Boroden glanced over his followers. ‘Then I suggest we send Aira and Klaufi.’
‘What!’ Klaufi started, thinking Boroden uncaring.
‘You’re the least likely to get into trouble if you’re caught. Father thinks Aira’s compliant and harmless and Klaufi’s an idiot. I doubt they’d suspect you’re spying for me,’ Boroden decided.
‘I’m not sure I want to if that’s how you see it,’ Klaufi muttered truculently.
Aira made for the door, seeing the sense of this plan and eager to help. ‘Come on Klaufi.’
Luck was with them and they managed to avoid meeting any of the other brownies as they made their way outside. Aira clutched fearfully at Klaufi to stop him from stepping down onto the pebbly path in his heavy boots. ‘They’ll hear that. We go over the hedge.’
Aira motioned Klaufi to lower himself onto the top of the thick row of box bushes bordering the vegetable plot and then swing himself over. The swish of branches against their clothes was nowhere near as noisy as crunching footfalls would have sounded. Nevertheless, they trembled fearfully as they trod across the freshly turned earth towards where light spilled from King Mazgrim’s window. Crouching beneath the window they tuned their hearing to what was being said in the room.
‘It is the two young princes that I’m concerned about. They are popular and formidable fighters and worse they suspect us and will throw up resistance,’ Mazgrim moaned.
‘What are you worried for? Don’t forget you have me on your side. I’m one of the finest warriors in existence. They should not survive an encounter with me,’ said a shadowy figure in the voice of Bricius Stormcloak.
‘Don’t let your temper carry you away. I will not have anything done to rouse their suspicions. Besides, we have made other plans.’ Betaine looked to Hulgaf who had been swaying herself in dejected thoughtfulness in her chair, an attitude at odds with her usual forthright character. ‘I trust I can rely on you to dispose of him. Well?’
‘I can’t. Please don’t make me. I don’t want to.’ There was fear in Hulgaf’s voice.
Betaine and Bricius closed in on her like wolves. ‘And why not?’ Betaine demanded.
Hulgaf scowled. ‘I can’t expect you to understand.’
Bricius curled his lip contemptuously. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve grown fond of the filthy rat?’
‘Don’t call him that. He’s far better than you. You have no feelings, neither of you, even though you have sentient mortal bodies now. It’s changed me being like this. Mortal. Fragile. I thought I should be afraid of it. Instead I’ve thrown myself into it, embraced this frail existence, tried to understand her life; see things the way she did. I owe it to her as a matter of basic respect. You don’t do that. It’s why you’re so hollow and they can see through you.’
‘Well, and what have you learned in this new existence?’ Betaine growled.
Hulgaf faced her defiantly. ‘The brownies are brave to face the dangers they do when they are so small and may easily lose the lives that are their most precious treasure. Those ogres you sent almost killed me. I was trapped under the water. I thought I was going to die. It brought back Hulgaf’s last memories of being trapped in Velmoran alone and terrified. Drowning. You did that to her, to so many others. You have no idea how terrible that was. You have no heart. Not like my dappled brownie. When he reached down through the water and took my hand it was the most wonderful moment of my life. He risked his own life to save me.’
‘Still he is kind and wants to save me though well he knows how hideous I am,’ Hulgaf went on.
‘You’ve spent too long in a form not your own,’ Betaine chided.
‘Isn’t it my own? Isn’t this maimed creature just what I am inside? It suits my inner character I think. Yet my brownie sees past that unconditionally.’
‘You should resume your own form when you are alone. It would do you good,’ Betaine said.
‘No. It is only then that I’m at leisure to delve into Hulgaf’s mind and see things, experience things, like I never have before. Every step I take in his mortal body I have new thoughts, new desires, new hopes and fears; to do good, to eat a hearty meal, to bask by the fire, to be a mother.’
‘Well you’re not breeding with him. I absolutely refuse.’ Bricius thumped his fists down before her.
She rose haughtily. ‘And who are you to tell me what to do? Don’t forget it was I who put you in this place and I can put you down too. I’ll give my love to who I choose and always have done. I could cast you out tonight if I wanted.’
‘Do not speak so to him. Ever has he behaved nobly, supporting our cause. He is the best knight you’ve had. Though I don’t suppose you even considered anything so political. With you it is all giddiness. Don’t look at me like that. You are overly fond of feeling and poetry. You let it seduce you into other lives, forgetting your own reality,’ Betaine said.
‘Perhaps I don’t care to remember it,’ Hulgaf snapped back.
‘Do you want to forget it? To be taken to hell by our master? I don’t believe that. You love your life too much, for there would be no pleasure without it and you delight in being fickle and wild.’
‘You don’t know me a bit.’
Betaine wagged a finger at her daughter. ‘I know you’re fond of this earth, and your own life too. Don’t forget it was I who brought you life in the first place, and again when I called you from the dead.’
‘I wish you had not if I knew you’d force me to such miserable payment for it. I would have died heroically defending him whom I love. Now you would make me kill him.’
‘Someone must be paid as your teind to hell and your seven years is nearly up. Our master will look favourably on our defence of Velmoran if he has the soul of the brownie prince for his.’
‘No. I can’t. Tatty doesn’t love me. I can’t make him.’
‘You can and you must, or it will be you going down to hell and I shall tear you limb from limb first.’ Beside herself with anger, Betaine swept from the room.
Mazgrim followed, grumbling about the headstrong, insolent nature of Hulgaf, of whose identity Aira was no longer in any doubt.
‘Of course, your mother doesn’t really mean it. You’re not yourself today. I dare say she was right and you’ve spent too much time in that vile form and should change back. I think I shall too for something must have put from your mind how much handsomer I am than any of your other knights. It is impossible that you could give serious consideration to that brownie.’ Bricius stroked her hair in a patronising way.
‘Shut up. Leave me alone!’ she snapped at him, before throwing herself down sobbing.
‘I’ll fetch Serena and have a word with your mother too.’
So, Serena was here as well. An almost tangible presence of evil pressed around them. They had been lured into a trap. Soon they should be as much pawns as Mazgrim’s subjects revived from the dead.
‘We should go,’ Klaufi hissed, tugging at her sleeve.
Aira hovered her foot, about to take a step. Hulgaf turned down the path that led beside the spot where Aira and Klaufi crouched. Having no time to move, Aira tugged at Klaufi’s dark cloak to hide them. They shrank, praying they would not be seen.
Hulgaf passed them, too preoccupied to consider glancing into the vegetable plot.
Aira nudged Klaufi as soon as Hulgaf’s footfalls had faded. The way back was if anything more precarious than the way going. Their legs had become stiff from crouching on the chill autumn earth. The wind was getting up so that the approach of unfriendly beings could not be heard, and every creak and bang of a barn door seemed to herald the appearance of King Mazgrim or one of his associates.
Aira found that she could manage Mazgrim but something about the mystery, evil and obvious power of the others made her shudder. She wanted to throw aside caution and run towards her friends and put into place some plan for escape tonight, unnoticed. But that was impossible.
Klaufi swaggered proudly as they returned to the others but Aira retained a tightly controlled caution.
‘Well?’ Boroden asked.
‘I knew King Mazgrim to be a traitor but somehow I couldn’t fully believe it until I heard,’ Aira said.
‘Aye, we know everything. We planted ourselves in amongst the kale and heard all about his dastardly plans real clear,’ Klaufi added.
‘King Mazgrim is going to ask us to set out with him for Velmoran tomorrow. But he doesn’t want to fight to reclaim it. He wants to rule with Krysila as consort, with us as slaves.’ Aira’s words were followed by aghast murmurs from her friends.
Boroden showed no surprise but nodded gravely. ‘Then we shall refuse to go with him. He’s always thought me disobedient. Let him fume. I won’t be setting a foot in Velmoran unless it is for the good of us all. He may have tricked us before, but I refuse to let him do so again.’
‘So, what are you planning? How are we going to make a stand?’ Gefi asked.
Boroden’s kindling hope changed to bitterness. ‘I don’t know.’
‘He knew his father was in league with that kraken?’ Klaufi hissed, not quite knowing what to make of the revelation.
Before Boroden’s pain at his words sank in Aira, who had been searching the shadowy room with increasing desperation, asked, ‘where’s Hëki?’
‘He went looking for you. You didn’t see him?’ Harfan asked.
Klaufi shrugged. ‘I’ll go and search. He’s probably forgotten with the lure of the fresh cream the humans have left out.’