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Rated: 13+ · Novel · Folklore · #2240031
The brownies encounter dragons on their journey
As the clan journeyed on, the forest grew stranger. There came low, musical sounds that mesmerised anyone who listened for too long. At first, they supposed it was the wind fingering the tree canopy. However, it was still, and the noise seemed to emanate from the rock itself.

This puzzling sound was the topic of the clan’s conversation one February evening. Unnerved, they decided to journey on by moonlight rather than camp by the sandy cliffs that formed a vast mosaic in the forest.

‘It must be the wind in the tree canopies and we just can’t feel it on the forest floor. Look, that tree trunk’s moving.’ Harfan nodded to a clump of dancing white birch trees ahead of them.

As Gefi looked at the trees his mouth gaped in horror. ‘That’s not the wind. It’s a dragon.’

There was a momentary glow as the dragon huffed out sparks. They glimpsed fiery red scales coil about the upper branches as the beast concealed itself in the canopy.

‘It means to ambush us!’ Boroden gasped.

The clan huddled into the shade of the cliff not a moment too soon.

Thuds shook the ground, making the leaves quiver like a flock of fearful birds. A fierce blaze of fire and a growl was followed by a puffing sound as the dragon scented the air. Fear choked Aira.

The dragon on the ground was black as night and harder to see, larger than the first. It brought down the trees as it passed, carelessly snapping them.

It stopped. They knew it was listening. Waiting. For them?

Hours seemed to pass in murderous suspense. The brownies kept their hands on their weapons, attention riveted by the dragon.

Too long compressed by the weight of the dragon in the tree, a branch suddenly snapped. The black dragon’s head shot up, its golden eyes flaring. The red dragon took to the wing as its hunter charged, propelling itself into the air with sickening speed.

For an instant, relief filled the clan. It was not them being hunted but the red dragon. The dark dragon had caught its quarry’s tail with its forelegs and the red dragon thrashed out, spouting flame. The two dragons locked in a tumbling fight, writhing in a ball of flame, tearing at one another, setting the forest blazing and rock shattering as they hit the cliff.

The brownies scuttled away in panic. Boroden and Klaufi narrowly missed being crushed by a toppling tree.

‘Quick, the fire’s taking hold!’ Aira screamed at Boroden, horrified by the flames bounding across the undergrowth at their heels.

Boroden paused, snatching a bundle from the ground in front of one of the shaggy trees that the dragons used as a scratching post. Briefly he examined it. It was a green tunic and a scarlet pixie cap.

‘It belonged to one of the dragon’s victims I should say. Poor maid.’

The black dragon blazed above their heads like a meteor, its roar making the sky seem to fall.

Quentillian’s face was ashen. ‘Can’t someone do something? You?’ he barked at Hëkitarka, ‘bring them down.’

Hëkitarka sprang away brandishing his bow. His arrow caught the red dragon in the shoulder. It was little more than a wasp sting to the beast, although it surprised it. The black dragon glared piercingly into the wood for the archer, smoke shooting from its nostrils.

This gave the red dragon time to flee, more still since Hëkitarka’s second arrow struck its mark more painfully between the hematite scales of the black dragon’s breast. It circled an instant, torching the treetops all around in the hope of catching its assailant, before returning to its pursuit of the red dragon.

Hëkitarka bounded after them, scrambling amongst the rocks with great agility. Though the dragons flew out of sight of the rest of the clan, he feared their returning and spotting his friends in the bare and devastated patch of forest.

Again, he struck the black dragon in the leg and tail, but the beast was too preoccupied with its pursuit of the other to notice. The dragon was closing in on his target. For an instant Hëkitarka saw the dragon’s fangs bared like tusks against its volcanic breath. Then it clamped onto the red dragon’s shoulder, sending a blaze of white flame down its arm. The red dragon screamed, a rending sound that shivered the forest for leagues.

Too intent to be perturbed, Hëkitarka let loose another arrow. This tore the membranous skin of the black dragon’s wing. It released its grip on the red dragon, startled. Its wing beats became ungainly. It could barely keep itself in the air.

The red dragon had already fallen. The other feared that it too should plummet if hit again by this unseen assassin and wheeled away into the starlit sky.

Hëkitarka listened, quivering with adrenalin. The red dragon was still alive. He could hear the trees groan as it hauled itself across the forest floor. There was a hiss and fog rose from the stream into which the dragon flung itself to cool its burns.

It was foolhardy to pursue the injured dragon, but something drew Hëkitarka on. He fitted an arrow at the ready, moving stealthily through the bushes. They hid the stream from view and he came upon the dragon suddenly. With a start of horror, he saw the creature’s glistening emerald eyes fixed upon him.

For an instant he thought to flee but the dragon made no move. It lay with its breath rustling the water, looking at him. He poised his bow and stepped forward. Something about the defenceless monster held him back from shooting. There was an empty acceptance of its fate that quivered the young prince’s resolve. For a moment he stood beside the jewelled head, looking down into those eyes which reflected the stars and moon in their glassy depths.

‘I’m sorry. I’m not going to hurt you,’ he reassured the dragon, taking a step back. Then he turned and fled into the forest.

‘You’ve killed it?’ Boroden demanded as Hëkitarka joined them. Getting no answer, he repeated, ‘I saw one fall. Is it dead?’

Noticing his brother’s preoccupied look, Harfan offered, ‘I’m sure he has. Hëki would never let an enemy go.’

The clan hailed Hëkitarka as a hero, since for a brownie to bring down a dragon was no small feat. Even Boroden looked proudly on Hëkitarka, forgetting his anger at him for his supposed flirtation with Leanan Sídhe and friendliness towards Lord Gormor.

Hëkitarka was glad to have spared the dragon and would have freely admitted it had he not known that the other warriors would then hunt her out and either kill her themselves or be killed. The way that his companions found cause for celebration at the death of such a beautiful creature disgusted him.

Harfan noticed his mournful look. ‘You’d rather forget about the dragons, hey?’

‘I didn’t kill her, Harfan. I couldn’t. She was injured. Beautiful.’

‘I understand. A dragon is a splendid sight. But she would have burned us to death. Dragons ate that nice pixie lass most likely and would eat us too given half a chance.’

Klaufi sauntered up, catching Harfan’s last words. ‘No, they didn’t. That red dragon was the squirrel eating pixie. Keahborah I think they call her, though she was never very friendly to me. Feisty lass.’

Hëkitarka came to a standstill. He could go no further when every instinct told him not to. ‘I can’t leave her.’

‘Then I’m with you,’ Harfan said. ‘Cousin B, we’re going back to where the dragon fell.’

‘Are you mad? A dead dragon is no use to us. The woods are swarming with hobyahs. Gefi spotted them when he was on look out,’ Boroden protested.

‘I spared her, all right? She needs help.’ Leaving his cousin aghast, Hëkitarka vaulted onto one of the horses and urged it into a flying gallop with one command. Harfan and Klaufi took a horse each and followed in Hëkitarka’s wake, the hoofs of the horses punching into the peat pillowing the ground.

All that mattered to Hëkitarka was that he was doing the right thing. For that he would risk laying down his life, though perhaps neither Keahborah nor Boroden would thank him for it. Speed felt as heady fuelled by heroic thoughts as it felt as sickening when fuelled by fear.

Soon he reached the stream where he had left Keahborah and combed the forest for signs of her. There was an emptiness where she should be.

A scream, harsh and reptilian. From the way that Keahborah flapped up then fell back, Hëkitarka saw that something was wrong. She was like a bird caught in a net. Already injured, the dragon would soon lose strength.

The brownies urged their horses to gallop. Hëkitarka’s horse vaulted daringly over any fallen branch in his path. He was in the lead by the time they burst through the bushes and saw Keahborah fully. Two dozen redcaps turned to the brownies in surprise. Some hung grimly onto a rope that they had thrown about the dragon’s muzzle to stop her snorting flame whilst others attempted to restrain her as if she were an exuberant kite.

‘Halt!’ Hëkitarka ordered.

Either seizing the opportunity as the redcaps were distracted or beside herself with a fresh fear, Keahborah buffeted her wings ferociously. The redcaps holding her ropes tumbled to their knees. One got swung into a bush. The horses reared in fright.

Hëkitarka remained dauntless. ‘Free the dragon. I bring this command to you with all the authority of the Dark Mistress. I am first amongst her knights, remember that and I may spare you.’

‘Yes, Sir,’ a redcap grovelled.

Despite this no move was made to loosen Keahborah. The dragon’s back heaved in exhaustion and Hëkitarka looked sternly at the redcaps. ‘She’ll fry us all alive the moment we let her go,’ one goblin explained apologetically.

‘I don’t expect you to stay and wait for that. The moment she is free return to Lady Leanan and bear her glad news that you have seen me here and that I am well.’

‘As you wish.’

‘I wouldn’t have said that,’ Klaufi remarked. He squealed as the dragon spread and folded her wings in violent succession, shaking off the redcaps before they could properly untie her. They fled for their lives. Keahborah launched herself into the air, sending a puff of flame above the heads of the brownies.

‘Well, she seemed very grateful,’ Klaufi commented ironically. ‘She just tried to roast us.’

Harfan laughed and slapped his brother on the shoulder. He did not notice that as Keahborah soared towards the moon her flight had a tumbling tremor to it from the arrow in her shoulder.

‘Who would imagine it? A battalion of redcaps at your command and freeing a mighty dragon, even if she did nearly roast us. Is there anything that is too much for you to face, Tarka?’

‘Some things.’ Hëkitarka’s gaze anxiously searched the trees behind them. ‘For instance, a swarm of hobyahs…’

Harfan’s smile sank and he gripped his war hammer, horrified to see that the shadows not half a mile from them up the mountain slope heaved with hobyahs. Hobyahs heading their way.

Realising that their stealth was now futile, the hobyahs gave bloodthirsty whoops and charged, brandishing their ugly makeshift weapons. Several began to shoot, their arrows tipped with the stings of Wingulwurzel beetles.

‘Go now. Go!’ Hëkitarka yelled to his brother.

The horses, wild with terror, charged the brothers back to the clan even faster than they had left.

‘Hobyahs!’ was all the warning that Harfan needed to give before the clan fled headlong through the forest, all sense of direction lost. They only knew that the hobyahs followed close behind them.

Gefi groaned. ‘What’s the point? There’s no end to this forest.’

Boroden urged him on sternly. ‘We’re not giving in.’

‘It’s useless climbing trees. There’s nowhere they won’t find us, and we have no idea where we’re going,’ Gefi retorted.

Boroden looked determined. ‘Then we fight.’

‘What? Have you seen how many there are?’

‘Only a hundred or so.’

Gefi gaped, not sure whether Boroden was serious.

‘I know somewhere to hide but you won’t like it,’ Klaufi ventured.

‘Anywhere, please!’ Gefi gasped.

‘Where?’ Boroden demanded impatiently.

Klaufi shrugged. ‘Well, Lord Gormor’s lands aren’t far from us. We could take refuge there’

Boroden let out a huff of annoyance but said, ‘lead on.’

For many days the air in that mossy, ancient forest had been close. An unstirred, pregnant silence reigned. Yet now there came a freshness in the air. In the distance Aira was sure that she caught a glimmer through the trees.

‘Wait here. I’ll go on ahead,’ Klaufi told them.

Aira knew that magic must be used to take them to Lord Gormor. Quentillian guessed this too and looked disgruntled as his nephew made away.

Aira peered at the shimmering in the distance, trying to see whether it was water. Suddenly it disappeared.

Klaufi returned looking anxious, yet keen to appear encouraging. ‘We must make haste. The way won’t be open long.’

Hëkitarka and Harfan bounded through the trees to where Klaufi was waiting.

Aira was amazed at the scene before them. The woodland fell away into a wide valley edged by snow capped mountain peaks. Yet their awesomeness was nothing compared to the high ice waterfall that hung from a cliff to the right of the brownies. Its surface shimmered like a starry sky. Its massive walls looked as if they could never thaw, although there was a thin trickle of water sliding down the middle of the frozen waterfall to form a clear stream.

The wintry weather made it look a barren and windswept place but, in a few weeks, it should be pleasant enough. Harfan blinked and Hëkitarka broke into a broad grin as the crisp sunshine of dawning spring washed over them.

Lord Gormor’s house emerged into view through a grove of trees. It was perched upon a solitary crag of harder rock left in the bottom of the valley. It was a beautiful, rambling place more air than structure. It had a fretwork of slender pillars, none of which seemed straight, but which had been left to take their natural forms like living trees. The wooden framework reminded Aira of the perfect harmony in the bones of a great animal. Yet in its thatch and carved wood it looked homely. As the sun caught the building the stained-glass windows twinkled like rainbows.

‘We’ve got to stay out of sight,’ Boroden commanded, his chest heaving as he regained his composure after their chase.

There was a clap of wings above them and they glimpsed a dark shadow fly over the trees.

‘Is that an eagle?’ Gefi asked.

Hëkitarka and Klaufi exchanged glances.

‘The dragon will have gone to tell Lord Gormor of our approach,’ Boroden said.

He led them on and they forded a stream, scanning the glade for somewhere that they might conceal themselves. They would not shrink and relinquish the horses, making it hard to spot anywhere where the whole party might hide when at their full heights.

Boroden gave a sudden scream. A hobyah threw him to the ground and the two tumbled madly down a leafy slope. Boroden frantically sought for his sword whilst the hobyah tried to throttle him. Aira flew to Boroden’s rescue. Another hobyah grabbed her arms, yanking her round.

Boroden was now beset by three monsters. ‘Spadefoot!’ he shouted, forgetting his earlier displeasure with Klaufi in his need.

Klaufi sent a blast of power at the hobyah holding Aira, catapulting the monster into a tree. Aira motioned urgently towards Boroden. ‘Help him, please.’

‘Freeing Boroden’s riskier,’ Klaufi told her, grimacing as he readied himself to use his magic to help Boroden. It was hard to tell what of the writhing, kicking mass was brownie and what hobyah. Having first accidentally slammed Boroden in the stomach, Klaufi then sent the hobyahs flying into the branches.

‘You idiot, Spadefoot!’ Boroden groaned, clutching at his belly and looking green in the face.

Klaufi was about to retort that this was no way to thank him when he realised that Boroden had seen what he had forgotten. The barrier between the forest and the enchanted land of the vouivres was still open and hobyahs poured through, too many for Klaufi’s magic to combat. All that Klaufi could do was to seal the divide against the coming of more.

Hëkitarka jumped from his horse and gave Boroden a heave up to take his place. Harfan dealt with the nearest hobyahs but more came. The brownies fled. This was an ordeal for Klaufi who had no horse and ran with a lopsided sprint.

Boroden pulled Klaufi safely up onto his horse. ‘Klaufi, you’re still wearing shoes several sizes to big for you.’

‘What you’d call properly fitting footwear crushes me toes, Majesty,’ Klaufi retorted.

Hëkitarka sprinted ahead, his feet feeling out of the control of the rest of his body. He kept his eyes fixed on the sturdy gates of Lord Gormor’s homestead that were carved with two dragons, their bodies coiling about the posts and their heads on top so that they seemed to regard the travellers with watchful eyes. Along the wall were displayed many skulls of evil creatures; a grim warning.

Hëkitarka flung himself at the gate but it would not budge. Urgently he searched for a catch.

An arrow was pressed to his ribs. Freezing, he cast his wide, frantic gaze down to meet Keahborah’s glare. She had limpid green eyes like deep, clear springs.

‘You think we’ll let you in? You are not welcome here.’

‘But we’ll be killed. They are my kin, please. If I can but speak to Lord Gormor I know he will be kind.’

‘What, when you bring trouble here?’ She fixed her gaze upon the hobyahs, planning her attack.

Hëkitarka took this opportunity to turn down her strung bow so that she could do the brownies no harm. ‘Forgive me what I did to you. I’m heartily sorry for it. If I can do anything to make amends…’

‘You think I want anything from you?’

He stepped back as fire flickered from her lips. He was astonished that she could breathe flames in her pixie form.

The other brownies joined them. Four vouivre guards hemmed them in. It was hard to tell whether their stares were inquisitive or vengeful. Boroden was filled with foreboding.

Pulling out the green pixie garments that he had taken with him, Hëkitarka offered them to Keahborah. She snatched them, wincing as she jerked her injured arm. ‘I think these are yours.’ She made no reply.

Seeing the hobyahs pelting towards them like angry bees, Keahborah nodded commandingly to the other vouivres, then shouted, ‘strawberries.’

The brownies were flummoxed. Even more so when the other vouivres shouted equally incongruous words and dived into the creepers nestling thickly about the walls of the stronghold.

Aira was pushed back against the gate beside Klaufi and Carnelian whilst the other brownies formed a defensive line before them. Boroden whirled round, a sword in each hand, slaying three hobyahs.

An agonised scream came from the bushes where Keahborah hid. Filled with guilt at shooting her, Hëkitarka left Harfan’s side to go to her. ‘You’re hurt. Let me help.’

‘I don’t need your help, boy!’ she snarled, her voice already changing to a strong and eerie tone.

‘The cheek. And her no more than a sprog herself,’ Quentillian tutted. His jaw hung open as the vouivre guards charged forth in dragon form. One burst of flame from a dragon and the hobyahs on their left flank became charred bones.

Keahborah soared proudly aloft. She curled her claws about a hobyah, tossing it against the wall behind her, then sent a rush of fire at the hobyahs before her. Snatching Keahborah’s bow from its hiding place in the leaves, a hobyah took aim at her. He keeled down, Hëkitarka’s arrow in his neck.

‘You sure you don’t need his help now?’ Gefi laughed at Keahborah. He was rewarded for his audacity by singed whiskers as she sent a burst of flame at a hobyah beside him. ‘I don’t get it. You saved her life three times. Talk about lack of gratitude.’

The sight of the five dragons skimming and diving, sending plumes of fire across the ground, was dazzling. The terrified hobyahs screamed and ran for their lives. Aira doubted that they should get far with the dragons in pursuit.

Klaufi managed to cast an opening spell over the gate. Gefi shot by him into the stronghold.

‘Wait. Are you sure? There are probably about three dozen ferocious dragons in there.’ Boroden restrained them. He gathered the clan about him, deciding that it would be best that they hide until the hobyahs were dispatched and, with the help of Klaufi’s magic, escape unseen by the vouivres.

Not even trying to waste his breath by arguing against this, Hëkitarka took matters into his own hands. Hurrying to the door he hammered with the bejewelled dragon head knocker. The brownies stiffened. The sound reverberated loud and hollow in the vast halls. Without waiting for an answer, Hëkitarka pushed back the door.

Several of the clan huddled together warily. Quentillian broke away and strode forward with a disapproving, commanding air, urging the rest of the brownies on. Boroden was at his side. Harfan and Hëkitarka hastened ahead, laughing and talking as if there was no danger. Aira followed, readying herself to meet the vouivres. She had an open mind to them and was quite prepared to be friendly if she judged it wise.

Two slender vouivre guards drew back a door and the brownies found themselves in a dimly lit hall with trees and briar roses painted over the walls. They froze in a semicircle.

There was a swishing sound, oddly reminiscent of kindling taking flame. Lord Gormor approached, his brown scaled robe sweeping the floor. Fearsome in his knotwork warpaint, he carried two flaming torches. Lord Gormor showed his teeth and whirled the torches as deftly as swords before him. Aira noticed that scales covered his fingers and his sharp nails were elaborately painted.

He continued some minutes in his odd dance, now whisking the flames towards the brownies, now swinging the torches in the air. None of the brownies knew what to do or say. At last Lord Gormor dropped one of his torches at their feet and looked at them expectantly.

Boroden stepped back in alarm as flames licked at his cloak.

Despite knowing only too well the danger of fire, Hëkitarka dauntlessly picked up the flaming brand.

Lord Gormor’s face burst into a welcoming smile. ‘It’s good to see you and your clan come to our house, master brownie.’

Seeing that Lord Gormor spoke to Hëkitarka, Boroden sought to put him right. ‘I am their leader.’

Lord Gormor looked him over. ‘It was not you that picked up the torch. Fate chose him. I see both strength and gentleness marked on his brow. He has been forged by suffering and dragon fire.’

‘You like an out of the way abode I see, Lord Gormor. It took us an age to reach you in these forsaken woods,’ Boroden said gruffly.

Quentillian too had a stony face, disliking pixies, especially these pixies because of their ability to transform into dragons.

Lord Gormor, however, had thrown aside ancestral quarrels and regarded the brownies with a smile. This was increasingly cast over Harfan and Hëkitarka who returned his affability, for he was put out by Borden’s morose stare.

‘We seldom get visitors, it is true, but I think that makes us appreciated them even more. Allow me to introduce my folk. We are thirty-seven strong in all. This is Vortimus, my Captain of Guards.’ Lord Gormor stepped aside, indicating an all too familiar figure. How he had got here, welcomed as a fellow skin-changer, perplexed the brownies.

Before Hëkitarka and Harfan could throw aside politeness, Vortimus bowed as if he met them for the first time. ‘I hope you shall not find your stay dull. It can be lonely here but there is some excellent sport to be had. Are you fond of the hunt?’

‘Yes. There is no finer way to spend an afternoon,’ Harfan said graciously, shooting Hëkitarka a nonplussed glance.

‘Then I hope to soon have the pleasure of hunting with you. You must excuse me for a day or two, though. I have sustained a few light wounds and must wait for them to heal. So Nyd tells me.’ Vortimus nodded to an ancient pixie covered in blue tattoos. He was so wrinkled and shrivelled that he seemed like an odd, stooped child. His twinkling eyes peeped from a mass of snowy beard.

Nyd skipped up to the brownies like a sparrow. ‘I should know how to heal an arrow bite. I’ve been tending Lord Gormor since he was small fry, and many before him.’

‘Now do be careful with that, bairns. Where are your parents?’ Quentillian asked in a tone of reprimand as two small vouivres rummaged through his pack, full of curiosity.

‘We have no parents, they cast us out,’ Keelia, a vouivre girl, replied.

‘What manner of monster is it that their own parents cast them out?’ Quentillian said under his breath with a shudder.

‘Tell them how old you are, Grandpa Nyd,’ giggled one of the four pixie children. The smallest child had wriggled himself into Hëkitarka’s arms and was admiring his quiver and arrows.

‘Ah, well, I have seen much. Many a year, it sometimes feels near a million, but actually I am nearer three thousand years old. It seems long since I was young. Then I was nearly as strong as you, Vortimus, but not quite so tall. Here, these I pulled from the young Captain. You’d not guess I dare say, for he has recovered well.’ Nyd held out some flint arrowheads.

Vortimus snarled and pushed Nyd roughly back, but not before Harfan had recognised the arrowheads. Hëkitarka had made them not ten days ago. They were the ones he had loosed at the black dragon. He cast his brother a meaningful look.

Hëkitarka did not look surprised. His glance told Harfan to remain silent, for he saw that Vortimus sought to hide his earlier connection to him, and that Hëkitarka had shot him. Hëkitarka was curious to know why. It was plain that Vortimus was up to no good and perhaps an opportune time might come to expose this.

‘I’m surprised how you manage out here, Lord Gormor. Might I ask why you chose this abode?’ Quentillian asked. He had no qualms about letting his antipathy taint his tone to make their host uncomfortable.

‘I like to live quietly. There are no wars here, no trouble, no persecution. All is safe.’

‘Safe?’ Klaufi scoffed. ‘We almost got roasted by some of your dragon friends not five miles from here. If it hadn’t been for Hëkitarka showing them what was what with his arrows we’d be sizzled by now.’

Lord Gormor was at a loss for words but regarded Klaufi fixedly, furrowing his brows. His breath rattled oddly in his throat, sounding almost like a hiss.

Seeing Lord Gormor turn aside to introduce another of his friends to the brownies, Hëkitarka leaned close to Klaufi. ‘I did wrong then. These are good folk and I doubt that they meant us harm when in dragon form. I should have seen that.’

‘What? You’re mad!’ Klaufi exclaimed. Hëkitarka stamped on Klaufi’s toe, warning him to silence.

Vortimus stepped up to them. ‘You are brave indeed to take on two fully grown dragons, little brownie. I have never seen one so skilled with the bow.’

There was true admiration in Vortimus’s voice that took the brothers aback. He seemed to bear no grudge for the wounds that he had received, or resentment at Leanan Sídhe favouring Hëkitarka, though envy had previously consumed him.

They were interrupted by the appearance of three conjoined sisters. Lord Gormor clearly held them in high reverence, for he clasped the first sister lightly by the hand and bowed to them. ‘Friend brownies, these are Clancy, Lacy and Delasan.’

They were dressed splendidly enough for princesses in a white gown sparkling with diamonds and silver. Their hair and skin looked as pale as their dress and their eyes were of the lightest blue. Many of the pixies possessed odd coloured hair and eyes. They all had creamy white, nearly translucent skin and eyes that pointed upwards at the temple ends.

Whilst Quentillian gaped in horror, Aira warmed to the gentle countenances of the sisters and stepped forward to greet them, feeling ashamed of the odd looks that many of the clan gave them. Only Harfan, Hëkitarka and Carnelian seemed to share her open-mindedness.

‘You must be very hungry and wanting to rest. There are guest rooms prepared and I will show you them when you like. First though I say that you eat. You will find a meal set out. Follow me,’ Gormor said, turning away.

Seeing the vouivres moving away from them, Boroden looked urgently at his clan. ‘I say we get out of here, quick.’

Before Boroden’s companions could answer, there was a chuckle behind them and a familiar voice greeted them loudly. ‘Lads! I never thought you’d come.’

It was Torden. The left side of his face was badly scarred from his combat with an ogre in the Unseelie gladiator ring, but otherwise he looked well. ‘I got left for dead out in the forest. Luckily I crawled away before the hobyahs found me and here I am.’

‘Don’t say you’re able to transform into a dragon now as well,’ Gefi groaned. Quentillian looked appalled.

‘No. I was more interested in taking the grub they offered me than in stealing their jewels.’

‘That’s a first. You must have been really hungry,’ Gefi teased.

‘Talking of food, it’s dinner time.’ Torden put an arm about Boroden and Harfan and walked them away before Boroden had time to overcome his joy at seeing Torden and resist. The brownies followed them into a vast pillared chamber. Light fell in a myriad of colours through the stained-glass windows. Depictions of dragons adorned everything from the windows to the door posts and the ornate throne that Lord Gormor took.

‘Sit. Eat. I guessed from what Klaufi Spadefoot spoke some of the things that brownies like to eat, for I do not know myself all you want. I fear I may have missed something out. Do say if there is anything else you should like, and you shall have it. You will excuse me from joining you in devouring, for I have guzzled myself on my own kind of food already.’ Lord Gormor patted his belly and eagerly surveyed the reaction of his guests as they beheld their meal.

Boroden did not even bother to touch the lumpy porridge that was set before him. He was worried by what Lord Gormor meant by having supped already on his ‘own kind of food.’ He had an uncomfortable suspicion that whatever a dragon liked to eat could not be at all pleasant. He noticed skulls of deer decorating the rafters. A brownie made a much easier catch than a stag.

Klaufi tucked in happily to a plateful of mashed potatoes. Hëkitarka pushed a bowl of walnuts towards Boroden but he took no interest.

Hëkitarka pronged up a roast squirrel, licking his lips in delight. ‘Oh, I can’t believe it! My favourite and so well cooked too.’ He mumbled his words, busily crunching into the morsel.

Lord Gormor clapped him on the back, happy to see him eating voraciously. ‘Eat, my friend! As much as you please. You must grow again strong.’

Clancy, the first of the conjoined triplets, pointed to Hëkitarka’s plate. ‘Keahborah caught the squirrels for you and roasted them.’

‘Where is Keahborah?’ Lord Gormor asked, eyeing Vortimus.

He looked surly. ‘How should I know? She did not come to her guard duty when I called her.’
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