The brownies meet some dryads on their journey through an enchanted forest
|‘Will you give me leave to take some of your fresh young leaves to add to my salad?’ Aira whispered to a carpet of daisies. More concerned about intuitively choosing which leaves to pluck, Aira pushed thoughts of Hëkitarka and Harfan to the back of her mind. She had followed the tracks that the brothers had left in the muddy path and found herself deep in the forest. Already she had gathered plenty of sorrel leaves, with their tang of lemon and vinegar, to chew when walking to quench her thirst.
Klaufi yelped. ‘I’m sure I saw that tree move. Out the corner of my eye.’
Aira scrambled to her feet, her knuckles white as she clutched her collecting basket. ‘Where?’
He pointed to a slender maple burdened with the task of cradling a fungus spangled tree felled in last winter’s gale. A squirrel frisked up the trunk. It had been gnawing off strips of bark.
‘Are you sure it wasn’t a squirrel that you saw?’ Aira asked.
‘Maybe, there are lots about. I wonder if the lads found any?’ Klaufi stopped and bent low. ‘Their footprints have changed.’
‘They were running,’ Aira diagnosed. ‘I think we’d better find them. They might be in trouble.’
‘Or just fooling around.’
Barely had they gone twenty paces when Aira caught sounds of struggling. Parting a way through the branches, she spotted the brothers high above her writhing in the binds of a creeper.
Instead of looking pleased to see friends and rescuers, the sight of Aira and Klaufi made Harfan and Hëkitarka turn pale.
Harfan waved them back. ‘You should go. Get away from here, quick! They’ll spot you.’
‘Who will?’ Aira asked.
Hëkitarka shuddered. ‘It’s too late!’
Harfan nodded in the direction of an elder tree. ‘Look out!’
Klaufi grabbed Aira’s arm, fumbling for his dagger with a stricken look.
‘What is it?’ Aira asked the brothers, her voice raised in anxiety.
The leaves began to flicker as if stirred by the wind, but there was no breeze.
‘Who are you? Show yourselves. We mean you no harm,’ Aira said, an impulse telling her to lay her knife peaceably on the ground at her feet. She motioned Klaufi to do likewise.
She was struck with wonder as the bark at the base of the trees began to erupt and transmute into lithe feys who leapt out onto the forest floor. All wore flowing gowns and cloaks of leaves, which also twined in their hair and about the staffs that they carried. Dryads.
The tallest fixed Aira with eyes at once as wise, wild and wary as a doe. From the oak leaves threading down her dress, Aira guessed that she was the spirit of the oak that dominated the grove.
Aira greeted her with gentle eagerness. ‘We do not mean to disturb or injure you or your sisters, lady of the woods. It is a great honour to travel in your beautiful forest and even greater still to behold you. They say dryads are in every tree, but it’s rare to glimpse one and I’ll always treasure the memory.’
The dryad’s voice was clear and musical as bird song. ‘We return the honour, Lady Frenudin. I am Thunor, the highest power in this forest. Always you have treated our kind with respect, asking before you took so much as a leaf, and you are welcome wherever we make our home. These two companions of yours, however, pillage from us without asking leave and would snare our friends.’
‘I’m sure they don’t know what they do. They’d never mean to do wrong,’ Aira said.
Thunor’s green eyes glittered with warning. ‘They should be careful. Just as trees are known to sometimes reassemble and return to persecute those who cut them down, so trying to trap the creatures of the forest might not go without punishment.’
‘They’re only young. Please, don’t make their lesson too harsh.’ Aira was distracted in her pleas by the sight of a squadron of squirrels scurrying up the trunk of every tree in the grove, running like water to a confluence at the ivy binding the princes. The squirrels began to gnaw at its fibrous tendrils, in Hëkitarka’s case none too carefully for they nipped his nose. Hëkitarka yelped as one of the tendrils binding him gave way.
Aira cast the dryads a pleading look. ‘They’ll fall and get hurt.’
Raising her staff, Thunor commanded fallen leaves to skitter into a pile beneath the brothers, cushioning their fall. They scrambled out flicking themselves down and spitting out leaves.
Harfan groaned. ‘Ugh, I never thought my feet would feel the ground again.’
‘Aira!’ Boroden called, his voice hoarse with fear. The forest whispered and he fancied it was a place of unfriendly ears. Each tree might be watchful and malevolent.
He had followed the footprints of his friends far, though they had often become lost. There were odd marks on the ground; spidery, scraping marks. Try as he might he could make out no sign of his companions thereafter. Bewildered, he circled the grove several times, growing frantic.
Cracks appeared in the ground about him. The earth shook. Boroden started, his whiskers taut. A prolonged groaning shudder made his skin crawl. One of the trees clawed its way towards him, its bark contorted into a hideous grimacing face.
Boroden snatched out his sword and ran. He tripped, his heart lurching as a root tore itself from the ground, reaching for his face. He beat his way back, yelling for help. He cursed the tree for devouring his friends, for surely that was their fate. The tree moved swiftly, pulling its roots from the earth and stabbing them into fresh ground. Boroden was almost hit by branches dislodged from collisions with the surrounding trees.
With one swift motion, a web of black, sinewy roots encircled him, jabbing into the ground around him for support. The earth crumbled. Boroden fell into gaping blackness.
He thudded to a stop quicker than he expected, landing on a dry earth floor scattered with wisps of yellowed grass. There was little time to wonder at the tunnel in which he found himself. In an instant its walls shattered and crumbled about him. Thick, crushing roots reached down mercilessly. He kicked one off as it tightened about his ankle.
Klaufi shoved Boroden aside. ‘Out the way. I’ll sort this out.’
Boroden groaned as the young wizard charged towards the fearsome tree, a grin splitting his monkeyish face. He looked less confident as the tree thrust down another root, sending clods raining from the tunnel roof, but still had enough presence of mind to point at the heartwood, reciting an incantation.
The tree trembled in its death throes, emitting a high-pitched screech as its wood split and tore. Its impact on the forest floor was so monstrous that Boroden fell to his knees as the earth trembled beneath him. He gazed at the gaping window of light that the tree left above him.
Boroden brushed wiry grey and black hairs from his tunic. ‘How did you know what to say to kill that thing, Klaufi? And what are you doing down a badger sett? Where are the others?’
‘Long story. The dryads have got Hëki and Harfan down here doing penance, so Aira and I followed. They told us about them wicked trees sent from Unseelie forests to spy on us, so I reckoned it was a good idea to read up an’ get some spells handy to combat them.’
Boroden stood up rubbing his bruises. ‘How do we get out of here?’
Before Klaufi could answer, there was a patter of feet. Boroden started forward in delight at the sound he longed to hear. ‘Aira!’
‘I hid with the dryads listening to the fearful approach of the evil tree. It’s so good to see you safe. Boroden, come and look at my rabbit.’ In her arms she cradled a leveret, its hind paw bandaged with spider silk.
‘Aye. Hello, you’re a sweet wee fellow,’ Boroden crooned, stroking its warm, downy head whilst the leveret twitched its nose.
‘The dryads found him. His burrow had been destroyed by one of those Unseelie trees and he’d been injured. I’ve bound a poultice to his leg. I hope he’ll get better and be able to go free. If not, I’ll look after him. He shan’t be much trouble provided I find lots of dandelions.’
‘He’s lovely. Luckily there’s no shortage of dandelions hereabouts.’
Boroden’s gentleness sank beneath his suspicions as the dryads entered. Recollecting Aira’s manner and all that he had been told of them, however, Boroden decided to be polite to them. They looked kind and harmless enough. ‘Greetings, ladies of the forest. I’m grateful to you for granting us passage through your domain, though I would know why you take some of my kindred beneath the earth without my leave and why you permit such fell things to mingle with you as those evil trees?’
The leader of the dryads looked warily at Boroden’s sword, which he forgetfully held drawn. ‘First put down your sword. We are a peaceful people and do not have dealings with those who come upon us armed. Nor do we befriend the evil mutants the Unseelie Court has sent into our borders. They came, we think, because of you. They are spies. We don’t know what you’ve done to bring danger upon us. We don’t hold it against you, for we too are enemies of evil. Yet, it would be best if you leave our forest.’
Boroden lowered his head. ‘We cannot do so soon. We need to follow the forest paths some way yet. We have no choice if we are to avoid ogres to the north and the more populated southern woods where we would only bring trouble upon your sister dryads.’
‘Yet, if you go on you will find danger and death for sure. Many evil things watch the road beyond our borders, waiting. They’re too fearful for the most part to enter our woods, but once you leave…’ the dryad paused as Hëkitarka came into view walking backwards, guiding a bale of dry grass and bracken pushed by Harfan. Straw speckled the brothers and they carried makeshift bedding rakes upon their backs. Reaching the level floor, the brothers dropped their load and took a breather, the bale eagerly being pulled away by a badger.
Hëkitarka widened his eyes imploringly at the dryad matriarch. ‘Why ever did I want to kill a squirrel? I mean, I love them. Can I go now, Thunor? Haven’t I done enough?’
‘Not yet. The badgers need a bucket load of slugs collected.’
Boroden gagged at Thunor’s words and tried to barge through the gathering of dryads to reach his cousins. ‘What are you forcing my cousins to slave for? Do you not know that they are princes of our kind?’
‘And brownies are renowned for helpfulness and efficiency. Surely you would rather we asked them to perform a good deed than punish them?’ Thunor said.
‘Don’t mind Cousin B. He’s just mad because he’s lost our way, Klaufi Spadefoot rescued him, while Aira, who’s his heart’s delight, got snatched.’
Boroden’s annoyance flared at Hëkitarka’s mischievous words, but he pushed this aside. ‘I don’t wish that any in my clan should serve, Thunor, but if justice demands it then so be it. I hope that, whatever my failings, I have a respect for justice though others may not deal it to us.’
‘Harfan has told us of your troubles. We may not like unbidden strangers, but we like the Unseelie Court even less. In any other circumstances, I would ask you to leave and find your scattered clan a true home in Velmoran as quickly as you may. Yet, I can see that would be unwise. There are too many Unseelie creatures waiting to ambush you beyond our boughs. I ask you to stay with us until the land grows safe. The Unseelie Court will soon leave the chase and give you up for dead.’
Boroden was surprised at the offer, but Harfan took his elbow. After a few minutes of discussion with Harfan, Boroden turned to Thunor with a grateful countenance. ‘I promise your hospitality shan’t be misplaced. May there be goodwill between my people and the sprites of the trees for centuries to come. You’re right - I’d save my suffering clan tomorrow if I could, but now I see that safety must come first. I’ll fetch the rest of my companions and tell them the good news.’
‘I warn you though, Boroden, if you accept my offer there are conditions.’
Thunor took Boroden’s arm and debated with him in whispers. This did not alter his resolve, for he strode away nonetheless.
Boroden was glad to find the other brownies were entranced by the lovely world of the dryads and relieved at the thought of sanctuary and food.
Carnelian smiled as Aira ran to meet him in the glade where Thunor’s oak stood. ‘It’s good of the dryads to offer us shelter, for they’re a quiet and elusive people.’
Boroden sighed. ‘Yes, but there’s a condition for our staying here. We entered this sacred wood without leave and took its wood and plants and creatures. For that we must remain for seven years serving the dryads.’
Gretchen looked alarmed, but Carnelian restrained her, stroking his whiskers thoughtfully. ‘You must go to Velmoran, Boroden. The longer you leave it the more chance news of your journey has of reaching Krysila. I’ll serve your sentence for you.’
Boroden stomped his foot in frustration. ‘I know I must go, although I think the kraken already knows where we’re heading. Who else would send Unseelie minions into this forest after us? Thunor thinks it was no coincidence that evil tree found our camp.’
Aira shuddered. ‘Then we’ll be in peril every step from now on.’
Boroden cast her a reassuring glance. ‘We’ll all stay here together. When we do set out I need you with me. Now more than ever.’
Carnelian glanced at the anxious faces of Aira and Gretchen. ‘You speak of protecting Gretchen and Aira from harm. The further they journey with us, the more likely harm may come to them. You wanted them leaving somewhere safe to wait until we’ve reclaimed Velmoran. Why not leave them here? They could serve all our sentences for us and seven score years will give us time to reclaim Velmoran. The dryads are gentle folk.’
‘I’m not sure I trust them,’ Boroden said, clutching at this as an excuse to hide how the thought of leaving Aira hurt him.
Gretchen gave him a sympathetic look. ‘You know I don’t like to split you and Aira, but it’s a nice place here and Carnelian will look after us.’
Her words sunk Boroden’s spirits further. He pictured the darkness of his final days as he journeyed to Velmoran to slay the kraken, separated from his dearest friends.
Carnelian took his elbow. ‘I’m going with you to the end. You’re like a son to me and I swear I’ll not leave you, Boroden.’
Boroden’s smile was tremulous with gratitude as he nodded to Carnelian. Boroden looked to Aira, giving her the power to decide.
Aira took a deep breath. ‘You must get to Velmoran as quickly as you may. The future of our clan depends upon that. I would not hold you back.’
Life appeared to Boroden cold and hard. He sought to put the parting off as long as possible. ‘We’ll each of us stay here at least until autumn when the dryads might grant us supplies. Then, if the winter is harsh, we’ll shelter here until spring.’
Boroden knew that as the days passed his dread of leaving Aira and facing almost certain death should only increase. Still, he seized this time like the last gasp of one who was drowning.