Chapter 1: Invaders in Southdale
up, you lazy scum! Or the last one of you through the portal will be fish bait.”
demanded the cold-blooded invasion leader.
Kiprop was a seasoned Vergai warrior, with a missing ear, the only scar from his many conquests. He had led and captured many countries in their world of Zumar. However, this was his first invasion via portal and he was impatient to commence.
The portal was a gaping black hole, surrounded by a crackling force of mystical energy, growing and constricting as magic coursed from eighteen exhausted wizards. With trembling hands from each chain-bound wizard, they pointed towards the portal, as they chanted the incantation. There was no chance of defiance from these prisoners, the Vergai guards held their deadly weapons at the ready in case of mutiny, and each knew that their families were imprisoned and would be tortured to assure their compliance.
The Vergai was a deadly force by nature. Each soldier carried an imposing morning star weapon. This was either a straight mace with a large barbed sphere or short shaft with two spiked metal balls on swinging chains. They were known as a strong race of warriors. The Vergai could run quickly for up to eight hours at a time. Their thick and scaly body armour seemed impenetrable, especially on the undersides of their feet and their long muscular tails. Only the skin around the eyes, under the ears, muzzle and neck was vulnerable, where the scales gave way to leathery hide. The wizards however were human and had been captured by Kiprop from the continent of Nnanell, lying far to the west.
Now there was only one continent on Zumar that still held against the Vergai. It was Reloria. Fables were told and the land still carried scars from the first invasion of Reloria long ago. It was by all accounts a peaceful land, protected by a massive elven force field. The Vergais’ sea-faring battleships had been unable to penetrate the shield, so they had resorted to the use of magic to send a stealth party in to take down the shields via the portal.
Troop-Leader-Warrior Kiprop, who had recently returned from Nnanell with the wizard prisoners, had been deemed the best leader for this mission. He looked skyward towards the orange planet of Zanarah, which was large in the sky and shared a moon with this blue sister planet of Zumar. Then his gaze returned to their barren home-continent of Vergash, with its jagged peaks, dull brown earth and miles of rotting tree stumps; a land where all the minerals, flora and fauna had been exhausted by the battle-hungry creatures, when they had expanded the empire for cruel Emperor Chi’garu.
Too well he knew he must succeed in this mission to rid Reloria of the shielding forcefield, so that his people could live in a bountiful place once more. There was no choice, it was either that or starve in this desolate wasteland. Kiprop was sure that starvation wouldn’t be his price for failure; more like a beheading!
He tried to hide a shudder, as he followed his troops past the wizards and through the sizzling portal. Magic made the fearsome warrior apprehensive, but he could not show weakness to his troops. Rather would he battle a thousand enemies than enter the black hole.
I won’t miss this ruined place though, Kiprop mused as he gathered his courage and stepped through the portal behind his scaly troop of twenty infiltrators.
Chapter 1: Invaders in Southdale
“Caught you Fendi,”
“Did not, you were way off Randir.”
“He did too,” cried a small voice.
Fendi turned around to see his friend’s bond-fairy Randir-La as she flitted through the trees, and rang the bell incessantly on her cap. She turned and flicked her mop of unruly brown hair over her shoulder. With a nose pointed high in the air, she flew over to the nearby trees, having made her point to the two young southern halflings. Fendi-La decided to play a trick on her fellow bond fairy while she assisted the flower buds to open. She poked her head out from the other side of the tree. Randir-La was so surprised she jumped and flew right into Fendi's weather worn hands. For a moment Randir-La felt trapped, but was soon lowered to the ground gently; being so tiny, it would be easy to accidently squish her.
“Caught you,” cried Randir, a handsome halfling with smooth brown skin and gangly legs.
“Did not,” said Fendi, “You were way off.” Fendi had the same brown hair and chocolate skin as all the southern halflings, but was shorter and broader than his best friend and he had a teenage explosion of pimples on his grinning face.
“He did too,” cried a small voice. Fendi turned around to see his friend’s bond-fairy Randir-La flitting through the trees, ringing the bell on her cap. She was about a hand tall and had an attitude at least twice as big. Flicking her mop of brown hair over her shoulder, she flew over to the nearest trees to help the flower buds open.
Fendi’s fairy, Fendi-La glanced around the side of the tree, catching the other fairy by surprise. Randir-La was now trapped in Fendi’s firm hands, as he lowered her to the ground. He said with a laugh, “Don’t you go shaking that bell at me, you cheeky fairy.” Randir was unable to run away, as halflings and fairies were inextricably linked and could only travel a short distance from each other. Then Randir-La tickled Fendi behind the knee, who let her go, so she and Randir leapt up and dashed away through the trees.
“Come back, you scamps, we need to begin harvesting the wheat before your father catches us.” Fendi crash-tackled Randir to the floor as the taller boy ran past and they both ended up in a playful wrestle on the ground, with their little fairies cheering them on. Their scythes and wagons remained unused nearby.
It was mid-morning in the sleepy farming town of Southdale. Randir and his ten brothers and sisters lived with their parents in the mill by the Bonglo River. Randir was the eldest at seventeen, and was expected to set a good example for his siblings, though sadly he was easily distracted and more often than not spent half the day playing with his best friend, Fendi. After his latest growth-spurt, clumsy Randir was frequently tripping over his own two feet.
Fendi was the youngest son of a woodcutter and helped Randir on the farm during the spring harvest. He also helped his father chop logs and deliver them to the villagers. His older brothers and sister had all married and left home, though they were keeping his mother busy minding the grandchildren. Fendi was fifteen and had probably finished his growing at Randir’s shoulder height. He was often left to his own devices and enjoyed doing chores with Randir and woodcutting with his father. Fendi was an easy-going young boy and a good friend to Randir. He was often a calming influence on his playful comrade and mischievous fairy.
Fendi’s fairy had black hair and was very sweet and eager to aid others. She helped care for injured woodland creatures and birds, and was well-known and loved among all the animals around Southdale. Fendi-La wore the traditional green clothes and belled-hat of all South Land fairies.
As the youngsters cut away at the ripe wheat, which was a little taller than Randir, they were suddenly startled by a disturbance in the middle of the field. A large circle of air shimmered as though reflecting water and a black hole appeared with a crackling energy around the edges. Randir-La squealed in alarm and hid behind Randir. He gently laid his hand on her tiny arm, to quieten and reassure her, while they remained hidden and watched through the tall grasses.
Their eyes widened in alarm as a troop of about twenty reptilian creatures emerged from the blackness. They walked upright like a man, and they stood about twice as tall as Fendi; each were covered in thick grey-green scales. Beady black eyes peered out of a muzzled, sharp-toothed face. The creatures’ hands and feet were little more than clawed talons and their heavily-scaled tails almost reached the ground.
“What are they?” whispered Fendi-La. As she hid behind Fendi’s shoulder. He felt her tremble with fear. She held on to her bell to stop it from shaking.
“I don’t know,” murmured Fendi. “Walking upright like that, I’d guess that they must be intelligent, but I have never seen anything like them.”
They all noticed the creatures carried heavily-spiked mace-like weapons and looked very threatening. The anxious halflings crouched down further in to the wheat.
Randir barely breathed. “Whatever they are, they’re trouble, Fendi. We’ll run back through the woods and tell your father.” As they backed away through the long wheat towards the Southdale Woods, the portal abruptly closed with a deafening crack and the creatures quietly marched just to the right of them. It was too late for the friends to escape and they crouched down even lower under bushes.
“Oduya, Wanjiku, set up sentries around this field. We don’t want anyone to raise an alarm in a nearby village,” rasped the largest creature, who bore many scars on his scaly hide.
“Yes Kiprop,” saluted two of the creatures. One took up a position near the halflings, while the other moved a few paces to the far side of the invaders. The frightened watchers held their breath when they saw the scaly legs so close to where they were hiding. Each creature held fierce weapons that hung from chains or rods attached to spiked spheres covered in dried blood. Fendi’s petrified heart raced; thumping so hard, he felt his chest may explode.
Kiprop turned to the other troops, who were lounging against rocks and trees. “It looks good here; lots of food and water. Our information is that this is a halfling community, so our mission is to quickly leave this area and head north towards the elven outpost city of Lakehaven. There is a jewel there, called the Shari-Rose which is a key part of the shield protecting this land. We are to steal the jewel and to make our way to the second portal, which will open in a place called Bamber’s Brook in the Zanzi Grasslands. It will open every day at high noon, but it can only stay open for a few minutes due to the huge amount of magic needed to penetrate the elven shield.”
Kiprop stared commandingly at his army and whispered, “Remember, stealth is imperative. We have to travel across these lands and leave from a different region to reduce the risk of detection, so we will keep to the woods and fields and avoid their towns and roads. There will be plenty of time to enjoy the spoils of our victory when this land is ours.”
With grunts of assent the menacing creatures quietly filed out through the woods. Their grey-green hides blended into the trees and they set off at a steady pace. Soon the strangers were gone leaving barely a trace of their arrival. The shaken halflings waited until it appeared safe and then slowly emerged from under logs and bushes.
“What are these scaly creatures?” asked a frightened Fendi in a tight voice. “They look as though they are hunting a massive beast with those awful weapons.”
“I don’t know, but we must alert the elves,” said Randir, wide-eyed and scared. “Let’s hurry and find your father.”
The two boys and their fairies quickly made their way through the wood, no longer aware of its wildflowers and pretty toadstools. It seemed hard for them to believe that their peaceful land was under threat from invasion. They had never heard of people fighting each other, for they had always lived under the elves’ peaceful protection.
Unable to find Fendi’s father in the woods, they hurried along past several of the village’s log-wall and thatched-roof houses to Randir’s home, at the old water mill on the Bonglo River.
The halflings were going about their daily chores, farming, gardening and mending. Children ran here and there, they chased a big wooden wheel along a dirt track, or played ball games in a fallow field.
The boys found Fendi’s father, Old Fandri. He sat astride the top of the gabled mill-house cottage, mending the thatched roof. As always, his woodcutter’s axe hung on his back and his crumpled old leather hat was rested on his head. A large bale of straw was beside him as he whistled a happy tune.
Perched also on a wooden ladder with a hammer in his hand and a box of u-shaped fastenings tucked under his arm was Renny, Randir’s father. At the sight of the boys dashing madly towards him, Renny grabbed a tight hold of the wooden roof support to catch his balance in case his clumsy son bumped into his ladder.
“Pa, Pa, come quickly!” shouted Fendi. The young boy’s hands were shaking and his heart beat sounded loudly in his ears.
With a rustling sound, Old Fandri slid down a steep side of the straw roof and landed onto the ground with a somersault. The short, broad halfling had been a woodcutter for many years and his strength and agility belied his many winters and white hair. His wrinkled body was fit and muscular and his arms were the strongest in the Dale, though his face was lined from many years’ work in their warm climate. He gave the boys a smile and tousled Fendi’s short, wavy hair.
His fairy, Fandri-La was a bit plump and rather bossy for a fairy, but she flew down after him and showered Fendi and Randir with kisses. “What are you two truants up to?” she scolded and shook her little fist at them. “Shouldn’t you be working in the fields?”
“Please Pa, it’s important,” Fendi tried again.
Old Fandri looked hard at him and saw the wide eyes and heaving chest. “Go ahead son.”
Fendi quickly told him what they had seen and heard. Old Fandri’s eyes lost their twinkle when he learned of the dangers to their land and he exchanged knowing glances with Renny. His mind whirled with distant thoughts and memories. “Randir,” he ordered, “go out back and saddle all the ponies. We are going to have to ride like the wind if we are to alert the elves at Lakehaven before these warriors can get to them.”
Randir and Fendi ran around to the stable and bumped into a group of children playing tag in the yard. “Let us through please,” Randir called as they elbowed and jostled their way through his giggling siblings and their fairies.
Renny’s ponies were the only three in the village and they lived in the mill stable. The boys checked their hooves, and found the bridles and saddles stored neatly in a cupboard. They knew the ponies were mostly used to pull small carts around the village, however on a rare occasion they may be ridden.
Once they had saddled the ponies, they led them around to the front of the mill where Randir and Fendi’s parents were talking quietly. The only sound to be heard was the slosh of water as the mill wheel’s buckets tipped the water in a never-ending rhythm. The boys noticed a grim-faced Renny passing Old Fandri a long object wrapped in a leather sheath, which the woodcutter fastened onto his belt.
Randir and Fendi’s mothers were wrapping up big parcels of food for their journey. “You take good care of them, my Old Fandri,” said Fendi’s mother, giving him a quick kiss and a strong hug. “Make sure you eat properly and rest the ponies well. Don’t go doing anything dangerous.”
“We’ll be careful Mother,” said Fendi. “I’m sure Pa and the fairies will look after us.” He gave her a tight hug too and then backed away, a little embarrassed.
After more quick hugs, farewells and promises to be good, Randir, Fendi and Old Fandri were soon on their way. It would take at least three or four days’ hard ride to get to Lakehaven and they didn’t know how fast the scaly creatures ran. Randir inspected the full saddlebags and was silently thankful that his mother was a baker, for he was always hungry. As they had planned to ride through until night fall, their mothers had thoughtfully packed a bag with bread, cheese and ham lunch in the saddle.
Randir had a little trouble getting his long clumsy legs over the saddle and into the stirrups. He was pleased that Star was a quiet pony and didn’t take off whilst he was mounting. He momentarily wondered if this was a good idea, but the importance of their journey soon allayed his trepidation. He finally settled in the unfamiliar saddle and held onto the pony’s reins.
As they left, the boys quickly glanced back at the worried adults waving by the big water wheel. The younger children danced around their parents, oblivious to the urgent departure. Randir and Fendi looked behind several times, seeing the thatched roof houses and barns of the small village, as they quickly disappeared behind the trees.
The ponies had taken off at a steady trot, but slowed to a walk as they left the dale and familiar surroundings.
“Our ponies are feeling a bit confused,” said Fendi-La with a small frown. “I guess they’re not used to hard riding while carrying full-grown halflings. I hope they won’t tire too quickly.” The three fairies whispered quietly in the ponies’ ears and they settled into a slightly faster trot.
“You’ll have to rest them regularly,” said Fandri-La, in her old motherly way. “They aren’t young anymore.” She rested on Old Fandri’s pony’s head, whilst the other fairies flew around their halflings.
“Pa, what is the Shari-Rose jewel, and why is it so important?”
“Well son, I don’t rightly know what it is, but I’m guessing it is some part of the magic shield that protects us from creatures such as the ones you boys saw. The shield is elven magic and we halflings don’t know these kinds of spells. What do you think Fandri-La?”
The plump fairy scratched her pointed cap and the bell jingled. “Well I do remember those elves we saw when we were youngsters, Fandri. They were tall and fair and rode beautiful white horses. They felt powerful and filled with magic, but we didn’t see them use it much. We fairies use our magic all the time, when we talk to the animals or help the plants. I don’t know what other magic there can be, but surely ours is the more useful.” She nodded her head until her bell jingled and the other fairies nodded in agreement.
“Yes, of course your magic is wonderful and we think you’re great,” said Fendi with appreciation. “We’ll just have to wait and see what these elves can do. By the way, these saddles are a bit uncomfortable. I don’t know how my much my bottom is going to enjoy this.”
Old Fandri and the fairies laughed as they noticed the teenage halflings slipping around in their saddles. Randir was the worst rider by far, he was totally uncoordinated with the pony’s body rhythm, he rose high and came down with a hard thump each time Star moved. Old Fandri encouraged the boys to try to ride with the ponies.
The young halflings concentrated on their riding and then a couple of hours later, Randir spied something moving through the woods far off to the side of them. He nudged the others and they all stopped and peered intently into the trees. They saw glimpses of the scaly creatures running through a clearing in the woods. “They are travelling faster than our ponies,” he said, eyes wide in shock. The thought of these fierce-looking creatures with their deadly weapons, running through the South Lands raised the hairs in alarm on the back of his neck.
The fairies whispered again in the ponies’ ears and their pace increased, after that they saw no other sign of the creatures as they rode on through peaceful farmlands. At sun set, they stopped by a farm with fields of sheep and newborn lambs. Old Fandri spoke to the farmer, who let them stay in the barn with their ponies for the night.
Randir could barely walk, when he finally slid down from Star. He had hardly ever ridden before in his life and he had been slipping and sliding around in the saddle for most of the day. Fendi felt very stiff in the back and collapsed into the hay with a groan. Their fairies patted their tiny bottoms too, as they could feel the pain through the halfling-fairy bond.
Only Old Fandri still seemed to have a spring in his step. He pulled a sword out from the leather scabbard attached to his belt and showed it to the boys. They stared at the weapon in wonder, as they had never seen one before. Old Fandri named it a broad sword and explained that the basket-like metalwork around the leather-wrapped grip protected the hand while fighting. This sword had been made especially for him in a halfling size.
He gave them some instructions on defence and footwork with the sword and also with his woodcutter’s axe, which was always kept strapped on his back. Randir’s gangly legs were clumsy, but Fendi seemed to pick up some of the lesson. It was tiring work and they collapsed into the hay as soon as it was fully dark, for they knew that they would be riding hard for the next three days. Randir and Fendi were too exhausted to ponder Fandri’s sword skills this night.
Their three fairies glowed once darkness set in and flew up to the rafters. They sang, danced and lulled the halflings to sleep. Watching the fairies dance eased a few of the weary travellers’ aches and pains and the glowing light magically increased their depleted energy. The food the halflings ate also sustained the fairies, as other than the magical bond they only sipped nectar. As the halflings fell asleep, three large toadstools grew near their pallets of straw and the fairies lay down to sleep.