Aira uncovers evidence that the brownie king Mazgrim may be plotting with the evil kraken
|Aira guessed that Leanan Sídhe had visitors. She had heard an entourage arrive in the courtyard where the knights stabled their horses and caught the voice of Krysila.
Whilst she relished the lack of disturbance since Leanan would be engaged in entertaining, she could not be entirely easy. Krysila and Leanan might be making all kinds of frightful plans that concerned Velmoran. Velmoran was the only place that offered any kind of future for the brownies. Aira convinced herself that it was her duty to spy and discover as much as she could in case she needed it. Doing this was a way of hiding from herself the awful truth that she might never see another brownie to share her information with, let alone formulate a plan of escape and fight for a future in Velmoran. It had been over a hundred years since she had last seen her friends.
Every footstep she imagined to be one of her fellow brownies coming to rescue her and her longing for them grew keener over the years. Soon after Leanan took her to be her servant, Aira had heard one of Leanan’s handmaidens saying that it was a shame that the other brownie that Leanan was fond of remained unfound. Aira guessed that they referred to Hëkitarka and held higher hopes of coming across him, although so far her searches had been unsuccessful.
Aira had continued to wait and pray for her friends as she cut and stitched clothes for Leanan and her handmaidens, occasionally fetching and carrying when masquerade balls or gatherings occurred. Her only companion was the whirr of her sewing machine, a sound that soon went beyond plaguing and by its constancy became such a part of her existence that she felt anxious without it. She made a touching sight entombed in such a place moving about like a spirit, her slight frame enclosing such a force of strong life that nothing could freeze or extinguish.
Today, Aira had made Leanan a new gown to wear to impress the guests she entertained in her vast, black marble hall. Around the room ran a gallery railed with gleaming silver lilies with leaves as sharp as fangs. The hall was linked from floor to vaulted roof by pillars carved as maidens in diaphanous robes.
Aira hated Leanan’s tastes in décor but now the architecture afforded her an ideal vantage point to seclude herself. Creeping on her belly across the gallery, she hid herself behind one of the pillars and peered down.
Leanan lounged on a chaise longue shaped as a black swan. She delved into a book from the pile beside her. At first Aira thought she was alone. Then someone uttered a greeting. King Mazgrim. His voice came like a dousing of icy water to Aira. She had never quite trusted him for all his professed desire to regain Velmoran and lead the brownies to prosperity once more. He was weak indeed to still be under Krysila’s thrall now he knew her true nature. Or perhaps he had always sought her evil power to achieve his goals? Clearly, he had no intention of letting his son rule Velmoran as he should now that Boroden was of age.
Hung from Mazgrim’s belt was Narsarus, Boroden’s sword. It had been forged by Aira’s father, Airen, in resemblance of the sword of King Peladach. How had Mazgrim come by the sword? Was Boroden dead? Aira told herself that it meant nothing. Boroden and his followers would have been stripped of their weapons before being taken to Krysila’s dungeons. Mazgrim would have eagerly taken a fine blade like Narsarus.
‘What are you doing stood there, woman? I need sustenance. Get me some meat,’ Mazgrim ordered Serena.
‘Now I have allowed you to see your son I would know what he said to my offer.’ Krysila’s voice came from so close below Aira that she started. Her fright could not quench her strong delight that Boroden was alive, and perhaps her other friends too.
‘My son may be weak, but he has a staunch heart. A century in your dungeons has been cruel to Boroden but not cruel enough to bring him round. He has refused the offer.’
‘As if it is any right of his to refuse. He is your son. He should do your bidding in all things.’ Krysila looked at Mazgrim sharply. ‘You did ask him, didn’t you?’
‘Boroden is obstinate and headstrong. I can see Carnelian’s influence in him.’
‘Your people look to him as leader. They would follow him and reject you whilst he yet lives,’ Krysila said.
‘I don’t think it’s reasonable to execute him,’ Mazgrim replied.
Krysila huffed. ‘Without his support I have little influence over the brownies, scattered though they may be. They will not join with me and work in the mines of Velmoran. Worse, I fear they will not give up trying to reclaim Velmoran for themselves and I shall never have rest from war or assassination attempts.’
‘The brownies are spilled across the land few and far between. They can do little against you, Lady Krysila.’ Ruari made no attempt to disguise his tone of boredom as he lolled by the fire absently pulling the legs from a spider.
‘Not so. I hear rumours that one of Boroden’s company has been gathering them together and that they are heading for Velmoran. If they join forces with any leaders of the Seelie Court, the Light Elf Glimfyndor for example, they could be a serious menace,’ Krysila said darkly.
‘That’s what I don’t understand, Krysila. Boroden loathes Midhir as I do and is so reclusive and mentally unstable that he would never fit in with the leaders of the Seelie Court. Yet he refuses to ally himself to you and accept the goodwill and power you offer him. Even the promise of a quiet life in Velmoran will not sway him,’ Mazgrim mused. ‘I don’t see what he’s holding out for. He’s a worthless leader for our clan, doomed to fail.’
‘But not every brownie recognises that. We need Boroden on our side. What exactly did Boroden say? Did you put the question to him exactly as I told you?’ Krysila demanded.
‘I can make my own mind up what to say,’ Mazgrim corrected. ‘If you must know, Boroden said that he regards the demand that he returns to Velmoran and call our clan back there to pull their weight as nothing but slavery. Nor will he give up his plan to take Velmoran, or promise that neither he nor another brownie under him will disturb you. He says that it would likely mean our kind staying as vassals to humans.’
‘He spoke to you like that?’
‘He has no respect. Discipline is what he needs.’
‘I told you that we are allowing him too much room to be truculent giving him a choice. We should have taken him to Velmoran and forced him to comply. It is his duty to you after all; you are his father and king. Instead you indulge his fussy nature. We could have been rich beyond compare had you listened to me. We should have scores of brownies panning gold, mining Talibereth ore and seeking any remaining juice of the fruit of the Tree of Life spilled in Velmoran by The Dagda when he fell from Heaven.’
‘You have the hobyahs.’
‘Who are always fighting and eating each other and leaving their work undone.’
The argument escalated and Leanan and Ruari rolled their eyes.
‘I doubt that Boroden Ulfharen will give in. Your mother will soon be using the brownies as fighting opponents for her monsters. Watching them die will be the height of entertainment for her,’ Serena said.
‘Not Tatty. He is mine. Did I not tell you that he has agreed to be my cook? There is more resilience in him than I thought. I admire his fortitude surviving so long and working every day though his only food is scraps brought by his jay. Vortimus took it into his head last week to kill my cook, so Tatty has taken on that duty now. This morning I was surprised by succulent grapes with the bloom on them, the finest of the bunch. Doilies and a flower on the tray, even two bowls for sugar so I had the choice of white or brown to sweeten my jasmine tea.’ Leanan smiled.
Ruari pulled a face. ‘I don’t know why you’re so touched. It only shows the little rat is entirely lacking in etiquette. He should have known that a fine lady would only take refined white sugar.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I must admit that I have never tried the brown. They say it is more wholesome, as I find Tatty’s blood to be. Now I’m beginning to find that appealing. I’m tired of elegant, useless things, including myself. I even preferred being Lady Hulgaf Clarick.’
‘Well I suppose it would not do to admit that the only one ever to spurn you is a brownie,’ Serena diagnosed.
‘You’ve been spurned by one, Serena. Your spell failed within seconds of casting it at Boroden,’ Leanan retorted.
‘Yes, but as you showed us all Aira has already taken his heart. The young prince on the other hand is still green to the depths of love,’ Serena said.
Aira drew back fearful for Hëkitarka. She knew that one kiss from Leanan would put him in her spell and lead to his death, for she would drain him of life as she had drained her other knights.
‘Is that you, brownie?’ Leanan demanded sharply.
Aira’s heart pounded as she imagined that she had been caught listening and dreaded the consequences.
King Mazgrim looked agitated and swiftly left.
Hëkitarka came from the lamp room where he had been checking the candles for the dinner table. He passed down the gallery so close to Aira that she could have touched him.
Though she had often thought that she had caught his scent she could never bring herself to believe it was real. Now the sight of him filled her with warmth. Though he was familiar, she could not help noticing that he had changed. He had a self-reliant surety about him forged from long years of solitude and suffering. He wore a torn and battered serving tunic with short sleeves and the scars of Leanan’s bloodsucking plainly showed upon his strong arms. He went down into the Great Hall and took up the empty plates and glasses oblivious to his mistress’s burning heart or that her gaze followed him from the room.
Since King Mazgrim returned to have the final say, Leanan rose to leave in search of more congenial company.
Aira was emboldened by the agitation that the thought of meeting Hëkitarka had caused Mazgrim. She must try and understand his motives. She resolved to surprise him in a seemingly unsuspecting way. She was curious to see how he would react.
Aira tripped gaily into the Great Hall carrying with her a workbasket cumbersome with a half-finished shawl requested by Leanan’s handmaiden, Delilah. ‘King Mazgrim. You are come to rescue us? This lady,’ she indicated Krysila, ‘has captured us. I do not know where Boroden and the others are for the last I saw of them they were being dragged off to a dungeon.’
‘Yes, I have heard what has happened to them and I am come to make terms with Krysila. However, I have the common good to think about so unfortunately there may be some delay before I can free you. In the meantime, I’m sure that you are in safe hands with Lady Leanan. I hope you are comfortable here? She does not work you too hard? Remember you are delicate.’ There was an awkwardness in Mazgrim’s look only increased by Aira staring at him in reproachful silence. ‘I had better be going. Good day,’ he said, aiming to beat a hasty retreat.
‘You had better,’ Krysila called after him.
Blood boiling, Mazgrim missed his stirrup as he mounted his pony and could be heard cursing as he crackled his way out of a thorn bush.
Thoroughly annoyed at this invasion of her peace, Leanan hoped that her knights should be eager to entertain her. Instead she found them fighting. Vortimus was taking on Ruari in a wrestling match and the others egged them on or sparred amongst themselves.
Leanan normally put herself forward amongst them but now that she did not she noticed that, though many of them had looked in her direction, she was far from the focus of attention. They valued things beside her. They were far from hers though she had done everything in her power to make them so. Perhaps after all magic counted for nothing. She was not truly happy, not truly loved. The knights lusted after her in a selfish way. She was sick of them all.
As Vortimus’s cry of victory filled the room she descended the narrow uncarpeted stairs leading to the kitchen. The kitchen was dimly lit. The flames of the candles in their wine bottle holders and the fire in the range winked in the copper pans hung from the teal blue walls. She ventured here so rarely that she could barely remember the room, only she was sure that it was far more spotless than last time she had been there. Chutneys, jams and jelly moulds were arranged meticulously on the shelves of the dresser and every glass and crock sparkled. The air was refreshingly scented with lemon and spices and the wholesome aroma of the dinner cooking upon the range.
Hëkitarka stood with his back to her peeling quinces and humming some wild, cheerful melody that was new to Leanan. She leaned against the flour butt watching him until a loud and renewed fracas between Krysila and Mazgrim made him look round.
‘I’ve come to see how you are faring in your little mouse hole underground, my prince of rainbows. I’m not sure I can stand it upstairs with Mother and King Mazgrim for a moment longer.’
‘More rancid insults?’ he asked.
‘What?’ Leanan asked, perplexed. Hëkitarka was never short of novelty or amusing talk. He was handsome too she thought, caught by the liquid lustre of the firelight reflected in his dark eyes. Why had she never seen it so overwhelmingly before?
‘I found a half-finished letter in Mazgrim’s chamber. It was an apology to Krysila for all the rancid insults he’d given her, although of course he was still trying to justify his rightness to her. They’ll make up before long and fall out again just as soon I shouldn’t wonder. Their alliance is of too much benefit to both to be easily broken,’ Hëkitarka explained.
‘You are very astute, Tatty.’
‘I’ve had plenty of time to think things over.’
The sauce cooking on the hob was beginning to bubble and Hëkitarka moved deftly to stir it. Uneasily he realised that Leanan had followed him. She lifted the lid of an aubergine casserole, relishing the salty tang.
‘You are preparing quite a feast. I’m looking forward to seeing dinner. I don’t understand it, Tatty. Why do you work for me so well? Even though there have been opportunities to escape you have never taken them.’
If Leanan had been dreaming of him admitting a secret adoration for her then she was mistaken.
‘Because I’m a brownie. I know when it is my duty to serve. I’d do so well no matter if I have no liking for my owner, for I know that one day I shall be rewarded with rest and joy.’
‘So, you look to Heaven?’
‘Aye. And I live on another hope, My Lady. The hope that I shall be free of this prison. What would be the point of freedom if I leave all I love behind? I won’t leave this place whilst they yet live as prisoners. You lied to me, Leanan. My clan members are alive, I know it. I smelled Aira in the gallery just moments ago. You told me she was dead. If you have kept her alive then the others are here too. Never will I abandon the hope of seeing them again. And another thing is that feeding you and your knights well means that I’m more likely to survive. With plenty of good food to keep your knights fit and nutritious of blood, plus grape juice for your elevenses, then you’re not likely to be wanting to drink my blood again.’
‘I wouldn’t say that, Tatty. Blood is what keeps me young; you forget that I am not mortal. All I take a fancy to will succumb to death eventually.’
‘Hopefully I’ll last longer than most now I’ve got a cushy number working in your kitchens. Cooking has to be one of the easiest chores that I’ve done.’
‘Though you still seem set to waste away. You eat next to nothing other than what that jay brings you.’
Hëkitarka cast a troubled glance over the confectionery moulds set out in a corner of the table, surprised that Leanan knew of Rochuck’s visits and worried what she might do to the bird.
‘Though you are surrounded by all the food in my pantries are you not tempted?’
‘I dare not take any, My Lady.’
‘Do. I give you my word that I will not tamper with it. Love potions never were my style for I prefer the challenge of a true conquest. However, in your case it was necessary for I had to follow my mother’s orders quickly.’
Still Hëkitarka hesitated.
‘Can you not trust me, Tatty, even a little? I trust you. I drink everything that you prepare for me with relish, for it is much better than anything the redcaps ever made, and never do I worry that you may have poisoned it though you have both means and reason.’ Leanan smiled, seeing that she was swaying him. ‘I must tell you how glad I am for you bringing me breakfast in bed. No one has ever done that for me before.’
‘Really? What sort of folk have you known?’
Having sieved through the last of the icing sugar he scoured the dresser for a bottle of orange flower water. It was on the third shelf and he leapt unsuccessfully before grabbing hold of the dresser counter top to haul himself up. That instant hands closed around his waist. He swallowed back a yelp, his old fear of Leanan Sídhe revived. His every nerve was on edge, but she simply lifted him up so that he might take down the bottle. As soon as his toes touched the floor again he was fleeing out of her reach and back to the table.
He was confused by her sudden interest in him. Yet he soon recalled the emptiness in her and that she was likely to be bored and saw him, as she had said, as a novelty. He refused her advances on him, yet he wondered whether it would be wise to put her down entirely. Better to keep his distance and play her along cautiously. Already she was kinder to him and who knew what opportunities of rescuing his fellow brownies might come his way now that Leanan was distracted?
A swish of silk behind him foretold the coming of Serena. ‘Is my lady’s bath water ready?’
‘Aye. I’ll carry it up in a moment,’ Hëkitarka replied, fetching down the cauldron of hot water scented with damask roses.
Serena looked surprised to see her mistress in the kitchen and curled her lip suspiciously. She swept back up the stairs and could be heard murmuring along with Vortimus as she met him in the corridor.
‘You had better go, My Lady. It won’t be long before it’s time to sup with your guests,’ Hëkitarka prompted Leanan who seemed to have lost track of time.
Hëkitarka spoke a spell of weightlessness over the cauldron of bath water. He hung it upon his levitating phoenix feathered feather duster and guided this along the corridor in the direction of Leanan Sídhe’s quarters.
Vortimus caught sight of him and shot him an ugly look. Hëkitarka’s blood ran chill as he realised that Vortimus had overheard his exchange with Leanan in the kitchen.
A metallic echoing bellow startled him into losing concentration, slopping the cauldron over the floor as it came to rest. He hung the magical feather duster from his belt. The bellow sounded like none that he had heard before and was repeated in increasing anger, cutting through the entire Unseelie Court.
Hëkitarka halted one of the young redcaps that ran by in terror with its claws pressed into its ears. ‘What’s that?’
The redcap’s long, prominent teeth made his words hard to catch. ‘The dragon, oh fierce one. The Unseelie Empress captured him wanting him to join with us as an ally. But the dragon values his freedom. Today I think he will take it, and his revenge on Krysila too.’
No sooner had the redcap shrunk away than a clang quaked the earth, throwing Hëkitarka against the wall. The dragon was loose.
Often, he had heard of this prized prisoner and once he had glimpsed the dragon’s vast coiled body with its scales like bronze shields. On that day he had stumbled across the dungeons. He had not ventured there again after almost being flayed by the hobyahs and sternly rebuked by Leanan Sídhe. He guessed that the real reason for her annoyance was that his clan hid somewhere in the dark dungeon chasms and she did not want him to find them.
An ogre appeared with surprising agility for one so cumbersome, calling for the redcap guards. Most were too afraid. Those that came soon got beaten back by the heat of the flames. Their ferocity touched Hëkitarka though he was yet some way off and out of sight. Yet more dreadful were the bellows of the dragon and the heavy crashing of stone. Hëkitarka seized his chance and ran though the opening into the dungeons. He must save his clan before it was too late.
The sight that met him almost stopped his heart with its beauty and terror. From the wall of fire rose the glinting back of the dragon, powerful and elegant. A thousand flames reflected in his scales. A single disdainful lash of his tail brought one of the vast pillars of the cavern collapsing to a pile of dust. Its fall rent the roof of the cave. The sight of sunlight was as welcome to Hëkitarka as it was to the dragon. Lowing in delight, the beast spread the thick parchment of his wings, fanning the flames crimson and high as he rose aloft. He corkscrewed out of the opening to freedom.
Hëkitarka knew that he did not have long. Perhaps his kin had died already. His throat throbbed. The heat made him giddy as he battled through the smoke, catching sounds that he thought were redcaps pursuing him.
The flames lapped mercilessly to the roof of the cavern, bringing down some of the pit props holding up its shakier sections. Prisoners screamed as flaming debris rained into their cells. Hëkitarka listened desperately for the sound of any of his clan calling for help amongst the yelling flames.
A thunderous crack above him sent him leaping back with inches to spare as a pit prop crashed down, ripples of flame devouring its surface.
Hëkitarka span round, making to find another route before his pursuers found him. Too late. Vortimus towered over him, in his eyes a look of pure evil. Normally Hëkitarka would have stood up to him but now he thought only to dodge him and lose himself in the labyrinth of flame. Vortimus blocked his way, forcing him back against the unbearable dryness about the fire.
‘I saw you in the kitchens with her. Too long have you watched My Lady’s footsteps. I know your game. You pretend you aren’t interested and yet constantly try to lure her on and turn her against me. Now as soon as her back is turned you would escape. Well, I’ve foiled your plans.’ With these words, Vortimus grabbed at Hëkitarka.
Hëkitarka could have easily eluded him had it not been for a rush of flame hemming in the escape route that he was making for.
Vortimus dug his fingers into Hëkitarka’s slight back, gloating with malice. Holding the frantically struggling brownie aloft, taunting him with the flames, he said, ‘dragon fire is too good for you, but it’s dragon fire that you’ll get.’
He tossed Hëkitarka into the thick of the flames. Crackling claws of flame leapt to meet him, then intolerable agony bit every part of his body.