Aira, a brownie servant girl, rallies against an evil kraken's attempt to break her spirit
|Aira crouched in the corner nearest the door of her cell, waiting for it to open. Ears pricked to catch any approaching tread, she rehearsed how she would dart behind the door and hide. With any luck she might be able to slip out unnoticed as her captors searched the room for her.
Aira’s heart thumped as something slithered towards the door. Krysila wrenched the door back with a tentacle and slipped into the cell with the speed of a squid lunging at its prey. Aira had no time to move to enact her plan. The shock left her no less dauntless. There would be another time.
Aira’s stomach clenched as the kraken selected one of the skins of her victims that hung from her tentacles, using her magic to use the skin to cloak her sea monster form. In the kraken’s place stood the brownie lady Betaine Clarick. Aira loathed her detestable mockery. Krysila was no House Elf but an evil sorceress of the sea. The memory of how Krysila used brownie form to trick the brownie clan into falling into her clutches made Aira’s hands clench into fists.
Aira met her captor’s gaze with a steadfast stare. ‘What are you here for? I’ll never side with you.’
‘You don’t need to. I already have King Gruagach’s support.’
‘Your dupe?’ Aira asked crisply. ‘He’s not of royal blood, only married into the brownie royal family.’ She steadied her breath, her courage returning as she thought of her beloved, Boroden. She would stand true to his cause to the end. ‘Boroden is the true King of the House Elves - I’ll serve no other. None of my fellow brownies will either, for our kind swore an oath to listen only to the true descendants of Velmoran’s first king and queen: Peladach and Lady Frenudin.’
A flicker of hope lit Aira’s heart as Krysila’s jaw twitched in annoyance. Perhaps her words had made Krysila reluctant to kill Boroden? They would certainly reinforce what King Gruagach had said earlier when he begged the kraken to stay her wrath, arguing that the brownie clan would be outraged by his son’s death.
‘But Prince Boroden is unfit to become king. His health shall soon be broken by a spell of torture in my dungeons. You brownies must obey Gruagach as regent in Boroden’s stead. Besides, I’m sure father and son will soon come to agree.’ Krysila gave a sickening smile. Coming around behind Aira, Krysila grabbed her arms, though she remained stiff and resisting. Aira flinched as she spotted several of the knights who served Krysila’s daughter, Leanan Sídhe, poised to grab her should she try and flee. At the front of the knights stood Vortimus, a hot-headed changeling man who Aira loathed, well knowing his hatred for brownies.
Aira struggled against Krysila’s superior strength as she herded her forward. ‘Where are you taking me?’
‘I said I’d break your mind - I mean to begin.’
Aira shivered at Krysila’s chilling response.
Krysila threw her into an utterly black cell in the loneliest corner. Behind her, Aira heard the door locked and Krysila commanding the knights. ‘Don’t let her out until tomorrow at the soonest.’
Aira’s surprise turned to relief. Was solitary confinement all Krysila could throw at her? Her whiskers twitching as she sensed the air, Aira began to explore her new surroundings. She stepped forward and shrieked in horror. She teetered, about to fall. The dreadful moment when she hovered on the precipice with nothing to stop her hurtling down span through her mind.
The plunge over the brink came both lightning fast and sickeningly slow. Dark, unfriendly thorns and rocks rushed closer, but ever a long way off. The fall went on forever. Her body thrummed with pain and her head span feverishly. About to hit the rock, something kicked inside her, and she stepped back.
She found herself again in the cell. Before her the gloom rippled. Relentless circles of lurid colours rolled before her, closing in and pressing her back against the door. She squealed, thrusting out her hands to try to stop herself from getting crushed, but she found only nothingness.
A jarring pain tore through her knees as she fell, impacting on rough stone. Gritting her teeth, she pushed herself up. She must flee. They were coming. The bloodthirsty shrieks of the hobyahs filled her ears as they tore after screaming brownies fleeing the destruction of Velmoran.
A cackle echoed close by. The sound of her bursting open the locked nursery door must have alerted the monster. She ran for the stairs, darting a look back at her pursuer. The hobyah closed in, waving in a host of other monsters. Her legs insubstantial as water in her fear, Aira plunged down the first few steps.
A squadron of the gaunt, toad-skinned monsters tore up the stairs towards her, their beaks bloodstained. She was trapped. Distantly she heard Boroden yelling her name. He would not be able to save her.
Instead of the relief of her mother’s magical light enveloping her, protecting her from the hobyahs as it had when she saved her daughter from the destruction of Velmoran, Aira dived into darkness as black as a sky where all the stars are extinguished.
Something groped at her hand in the darkness. Fingers. Clammy, dead fingers. It was her mother, Freya, her face white with agony. Helplessness filled Aira. She wanted to save Freya, to take away her pain, but she could do nothing. A croon of screams filled her mind. Aira wasn’t sure if they were her own or her mother’s. She could not bear knowing that Freya was cursed to be a banshee because of her untimely death in childbirth.
Crouched on the dank stone floor of the cell, Aira gulped back her sobs as Serena shoved back the door. The lady-in-waiting led her to an adjoining room where a platter of food and a pitcher of water stood on a low table. ‘Lady Leanan bade me bring you victuals.’
Aira shook so much that it made eating and drinking difficult. She gulped mouthfuls of foyson, the essence of food that faeries survive upon, without tasting a morsel. Wrapped in her cloak for comfort, sleep claimed her, heavy and dreamless. All too soon Serena jolted her awake.
Aira shook back her golden hair that had fallen over her weariness weighted eyes. ‘I need to see Krysila.’
Though she imagined it would be fruitless, Aira wanted to demand to be imprisoned alongside Boroden and her kin, even if it cost her her life.
‘Krysila has returned to Velmoran, leaving Lady Leanan in charge,’ Serena said.
‘Then I will speak to her.’
‘She lies sick. It’ll have to wait until tomorrow,’ Serena said, ushering her back to her cell.
Aira thought she could pull together the courage to face the ordeal in the cell, no matter how many times. Yet as she reached the door, terror petrified her. Serena threw her inside.
This time Aira saw her captured friends tortured whilst she hovered over them, unable to help. She screamed until her throat felt raw and beat the door for mercy, tears blinding her.
There remained a steady core to her untouched by the nightmares Krysila conjured before her. The illusions made her recall Krysila saying that, whilst she would break the other brownies physically, she would shatter Aira’s mind. She wanted her mad and once that had been accomplished the torture might stop. If it ended she might at least be free of the cell and have a chance to help her clan. Leanan had a softer heart than her mother.
With this hopeful plan, Aira endured the horrors. She had appeared too sane, too defiant, the last time Serena let her out. This time must be different.
When the door opened she was met not by Serena but by Leanan Sídhe.
Contracting her full lips with a pitying look, Leanan laid her hand on Aira’s arm with a light touch. ‘Aira, join with us. There’s no need for you to stay here. My mother is merciless.’
The effect of Leanan’s appearance came like a cold trickle of revelation to Aira. Yes, there was a tug of kinship there, but not the noble, loving sisterhood that she had with the kindly Light Elves Amulas and Glimfyndor. Rather, Leanan’s effect on her felt like a heavy blanket that Aira wanted to throw off but could not. Though her body shook and her brain burned, there was a sweetness in it. Vivid visions clouded Aira’s mind, and she knew she had fallen under the influence of Leanan, the beautiful Dark Muse who imparted imagination to all she touched. Aira wanted to lose herself in her dreams. They might be the only way she would ever see Boroden and her clan again. Certainly, her imaginings were happier than their future could ever be.
Concern etched Leanan’s face as Aira threw herself at her satin-sheathed waist, sobbing. When Leanan drew her back to wipe away her tears, Aira pawed the air feebly. Aira held her gaze fixed in space as she smiled. The brownie sorcerer, Klaufi had once called her a little doll and she could easily be childlike. She began to rave for her doll and describe the pretty clothes she would make for it, heedless of all else.
Leanan furrowed her brow. ‘Oh, you poor thing. Your mind was once so much brighter and better than mine. I suppose I always knew something must destroy you. After all, brownies are mortal. I forget that. My family and I sold ourselves to the devil in return for eternal life, making the bargain that we’ll torture souls after judgment.’
‘But it’s not heaven. You’ll not know true happiness. I only want to be happy.’ Noticing Leanan narrow her eyes as if wondering at her returned lucidity, Aira added, ‘That’s why I’d rather stay here and play with my doll.’
‘Perhaps, but one may get used to hellfire after a while and torturing others is not without pleasure for me. I find ample occupation in wringing the hearts of my knights. Why not join me? The way to heaven is narrow and fraught with stones, this other is easy.’
‘You delight in choosing a difficult path.’
‘If that is so, then you’ll enjoy spending more time in the cell.’ Serena moved to place Aira back for further torture with a vindictiveness that Aira guessed came from jealousy. After all, Serena had once tried to steal Boroden’s love from Aira.
Aira tugged at Leanan’s emerald skirt, peering up into the red eyes of the taller sídhe lady. ‘Please don’t put me back. Let me stay with you?’
‘Of course.’ Leanan turned to Serena. ‘I have no doubt my mother’s torture has succeeded in breaking Aira’s mind.’
Leanan laid her hand on Aira’s shoulder, leading her away. Aira curtsied to the bevy of handmaidens that met Leanan as she slipped into her stylish chambers. The red and black colour scheme was enlivened by the glint of mirrors, silver embroidered accessories, and bottles of perfumes and potions on the shelves. Heavy tapestries depicting scenes of courtly love amongst the tangles of briar roses covered the walls. Dark arches of filigree severed the room into sections like a barrier of thorn trees. This far underground, no sunlight ever entered. Incense candles glowed, their fragrance cloying the air. They did little to dispel the shadows. Anything might lurk in the inky corners of the room.
Leanan smoothed Aira’s tousled hair and nudged her in front of her so her handmaidens could see her. ‘Ladies, I intend to keep this brownie as my pet. The poor thing has lost her mind.’
Aira played along as the girls fussed over her, offering her food and a comfortable seat on one of the plush divans. Aira sank into it with gratitude, the ache subsiding from her numbed limbs.
‘You look so tiny sat there,’ Leanan said. ‘Ladies - have a room furnished with items of a brownie size. It should be simple, yet pretty. That would be to your taste, wouldn’t it, Aira?’
Aira nodded. ‘I’m most grateful.’
Leanan waved a hand as if keen to shoo away her touched expression. ‘Oh, fiddle-faddle. You’ll repay us all, I’m sure. Serena said House Elves are fond of work. Your services as a seamstress and lady’s maid would be welcome.’
‘Of course.’ Aira curled herself up as the handmaidens busied themselves, pretending to be sleeping. Truly, her mind whirled as she planned escaping and finding her clan.