Chapter 2: Wild Woods
novelty of riding had definitely worn off by the second day of travel. The boys were terribly saddle sore and missed
their own beds. Old Fandri seemed
oblivious to their complaints and urged them to saddle up again just after
dawn. “Come now,” he chided, “Surely you
haven’t grown tired of our adventure already.
We are heading through the Wild Woods today and tomorrow we will
approach the Great Lakes. The town of
Lakehaven is on the far side of the biggest lake, also called Lakehaven. It is said to be impossibly deep and have
fish the size of houses. We should have
time to do a spot of fishing there before we head back for home again.”
“I’d be happier exploring, if it didn’t involve travelling by pony,” Randir grumbled. “I do admit though, that it is a nice change from working the fields at home.”
“I love to travel,” said Randir-La with a dimpled grin. “If you weren’t as tall as a beanpole, I’m sure Fendi-La and I could make you some wings.”
“As soon as pigs learn to fly,” scoffed Fendi, with a grin. He was leaning back in the saddle and swinging his father’s sword around, practising all the arm moves Old Fandri had taught them last night. “Pa, where did you get this sword?”
“Well, it’s a bit of a tale, but I guess we have plenty of time.” Old Fandri was making a small wooden carving with the hunting knife he carried at his belt. He looked appraisingly at the boys.
“It began when I was roughly your age now, actually. I think I mentioned yesterday that I had seen some elves as a boy. They were tall and elegant and had white skin, such as I had never seen before. Their hair was so striking and silky soft, in all manner of shades from black to blond, not all brown like us halflings. I was spell-bound by their beauty and their magnificent horses.
“Well, my curiosity won that night. I slipped away from home and followed them, to see where they went. I trailed them down to the southernmost tip of Reloria. There’s a fishing port there, called Journey’s End, with many houses and big fishing boats on long jetties leading far out into the sea. Fandri-La and I had never seen the sea before and were amazed at the water stretching away as far as the eye could see.
“The elves stopped there and did some sort of testing with their magic. I think it was to gauge the strength of their elven shield. I don’t understand their magic, but sometimes you feel a tingle or see a rainbow aura when they are speaking in the elvish tongue. In my grandfather’s time, there were no magical defences and Reloria was attacked on many occasions by travellers from across the seas. But about seventy years ago, the elves collaborated with the wizards and developed this mighty shield which protects us to this day.
“After I followed them for a while, I became drawn to a young human boy who accompanied them. He was about my age and his name was Varl. He had longish blond hair hanging about his shoulders, wore clothes made of metal called ‘armour’ and carried a sword and shield. He told me he came from the Diagro Plains far off to the north. His people were called ‘Knights’ and he said they lived in large fortresses and fought dragons from the mountains and large scaly creatures from across the sea.
“Young Varl believed the scaly creatures had first invaded one hundred years ago and had only been completely vanquished a few years before I met him. The knights had spent almost a century hunting them and removing them from the West Lands.
“I do believe they are what you saw coming through the portal. I remember now that they are called the Vergai and come from a land called Vergash across the Sea of Orianth. It appears that they’ve now found another way to come to Reloria.” For a moment, Old Fandri seemed lost in his own thoughts, and then he continued.
“Now, where was I? Oh yes, Varl. Well, Varl and I were an unlikely pairing of a halfling and a knight, but we quickly became firm friends. He taught me to fight with a sword and shield and gave me a broad sword. I taught him about our people and our gentle life here in the south. I grew to understand that it was thanks to these elves and knights whom I’d never met, that we were a free people.
“Varl was quite enamoured of my pretty fairy. Fandri-La was a beautiful young fairy then, all rosy cheeks and tinkling bell .... Ouch, what was that for?” Fandri-La had flown quickly in and given him a tiny box on the nose.
“Was beautiful? Was?” she screeched in a high pitched voice, going quite red in the face.
“I meant is and still is, of course my dear,” consoled Fandri. “You know I love you, little fairy.” He patted her generously round bottom and with a contented smile, she settled down to sit on his shoulder. Her iridescent wings gently closing like a butterfly.
“As I was saying, before the biff on the nose, Varl liked nothing more than to watch Fandri-La dance and sing. It amazed him that fairies have healing powers for the halflings and how our fates are married to each other. Varl had a big hunting dog called Wolfer, which followed him almost everywhere and I think he soon thought of Fandri-La like a pet too. He would bring her flowers to taste and watch her playing with the birds and butterflies.
“Varl told me that he was son of a knight King and had been given the honour of escorting these elves to check on all the sections of the shield. There are three more outposts like Lakehaven, one in the north, south, east and west. Varl and the elves had come down from the western one, near where the Diagro knights dwelt. It made me yearn to travel and to see these distant lands he described to me. When we returned to Southdale, a few days later, I visited my parents and told them I was leaving. My mother cried, but I would not relent. She thought I would be killed in some remote place and never be heard of again. My father, though, could see my determination and he grudgingly gave permission.
“I was so happy to be free and travelling the lands with these strange and wonderful people. They were unfailingly polite and taught me much of weaponry and about the lands we passed through. The elves stayed with us through the desert and all the way to the frozen lands of the north, before heading back to their home. I enjoyed travelling with them, though they were somewhat aloof, treating me as they would a much younger child. Perhaps it’s their magic which makes them seem so mysterious.
“We parted company then and I continued travelling with Varl to his homeland in the Diagro Plains. I enjoyed being with his people very much. They were a people of tradition and honour and allowed me to work among them as a woodcutter. I felt a part of their extended family and had my place as Varl’s friend. We had lots of adventures together and I fought by his side against the dangerous mountain men.
“After two years away from home however, I grew terribly homesick. The tall humans were kind and generous, but they were always fighting. I missed my own family and the easy life of the halflings. I don’t think we are meant for the constant warfare and battles of the humans. Following years of squire training, trustworthy Prince Varl had come into his birth-right and was being trained to lead the Diagro knights as their next King. He understood my need to leave and arranged for a ship to bring me home again.
“So young ones, that concludes the tale of my adventures with the elves and humans. I think that you’ll enjoy seeing them and the castle of Lakehaven. I only pray that we get there before the Vergai. Varl said that they were fierce fighters and would not stop until they had conquered all of our lands. They would kill and eat every man, woman and child in Reloria. We must stop them!” As Old Fandri finished his tale, the halflings thought about this new menace in their lands and their urgent mission to warn the elves at Lakehaven.
* * *
The day passed very slowly as the wagon trail encased by the thick woodlands seemed to meander endlessly. Old Fandri called these the Wild Woods and said they stretched for miles in each direction. He felt a sense of urgency that the Vergai had overtaken them and he pushed the boys to ride from dawn until dusk. Fandri worried that the jewel could be stolen before they arrived in Lakehaven, or even worse for them, that they may encounter the creatures and be killed en route. Their only hope of success was to arrive at the castle before the Vergai and alert the elven guards. He tried to keep cheerful for the boys’ sake, but a sense of foreboding grew in them all.
Around lunch time that day, the halflings and their fairies witnessed a beautiful sight. A herd of sixteen winged horses grazed in the long green grass alongside the cart track. Their colours ranged from white to grey, brown and red, and their feathered wings were folded up against their flanks. The adults were at least twice as tall as the halflings’ small woodland ponies, while small foals stayed close to the mares.
A large black and roan winged stallion was standing guard and gave a warning snort to his herd when he spotted the travellers. The animals looked up at the travellers with friendly curiosity, their knowing eyes told Fendi they were intelligent. Due to the nearness of the Wild Woods, there wasn’t a lot of room for the herd to move aside and let the ponies pass. The big stallion bowed his head towards the companions and Old Fandri doffed his leather hat in return.
At a snort from the stallion, the entire herd reared up on their hind legs. In twos and threes they extended their strong wings and took off into the sky. The halflings and their fairies watched the mighty beasts manoeuvre into a V-formation behind their leaders. They circled the area once and then flew off towards the east.
“Well, that is a rare sight!” declared Old Fandri-La. The old fairy gave a sigh and fluttered above the halflings in a circle. The two younger fairies joined her with a giggle. “I love the way that water springs from where they have stepped.” The three fairies flew down and drank of the crystal-clear water that welled up on both sides of the track. “To have the stallion bow before us must surely be a good omen for our journey.”
“Hmm,” wondered Old Fandri. “Perhaps you are correct, yet it may be merely a coincidence. There are many magical creatures in Reloria, as you well know my fairy.”
“Humph,” murmured the determined fairy and flew ahead of Old Fandri as far as their bond would allow. She was not one to back down from any disagreement. The little party spurred on their ponies and continued their hurried journey towards Lakehaven.
* * *
They saw no sign of the Vergai that day and at dusk they rested in an empty log cabin along the roadside. There was a small, weed-filled area around the house, which gave way to the thick woodlands.
“Fendi and Randir, you two rest for a while and then find some water for the ponies. I will gather firewood and try to catch some food. Our bread is nearly gone, thanks to your hearty appetites.” The old halfling gave a sympathetic smile, gathered his axe and a shoulder bag and soon disappeared into the woods.
Randir stretched his long legs and groaned, “I have blisters on my blisters. I never want to sit down again and no offence to my pony, Star, but I’d rather walk all day than have to ride her again.”
“You don’t smell too pretty either,” quipped Fendi, which made their fairies giggle. “Pooh, a bit of a wash would do wonders for you. Come on smelly, here take my hand and I’ll help you up. We’d best go before it gets dark or we won’t be able to find our way back here.” Fendi pulled up the tall youngster, who nearly tripped over him and sent them both sprawling. They exchanged a friendly punch and then set off to look for water as the sunset faded.
“We can help light your way,” offered sweet Fendi-La. The fairies both started glowing and flitted out amongst the trees like fireflies. “I think I can hear a stream this way.”
The sound of running water grew louder as they approached a rocky stream sloping down a gentle hill. The fairies glowed brightly, like two shooting stars, as they flew low between the trees, looking for a good place for the halflings to collect water. The Wild Woods seemed unnaturally quiet, with hardly a cricket or a bird singing nearby.
“Here’s a good spot,” said Randir-La. She flew towards a natural stone step jutting out over the stream. The two fairies hovered together over the stone with their wings beating in unison. They shone as brightly as they could to light the way for the boys. Randir bent over and filled their skin canteens, handing them one by one to Fendi.
They were startled by a crackling of twigs, followed by a strange whizzing sound and an unnatural pained yelp rang out behind them. The boys jumped in alarm and spilt some of the water. They heard several more whizzing sounds and felt the air move overhead. There was a large splash into the stream, followed by absolute silence. Something grabbed Fendi’s arm and he yelped in alarm.
“Be quiet, you fool,” hissed a nearby voice. Another fairy light appeared low over the stream and the boys saw an amazing sight. One of the scaly Vergai was half submerged in the stream, with arrows protruding from his neck. A second creature was crawling slowly towards them along the bank moaning, with an arrow through his shoulder.
As they watched in stunned fascination, a hooded halfling with a longbow over one shoulder took a dagger from his belt and cut the wounded creature’s throat. The Vergai slid into the water and the halfling cleaned the dagger on some reeds, retrieved an arrow and turned to face them. His face was hidden in the deep shadows of his cloak. He said in a low voice, “It is not safe here, for the woods are crawling with these strange creatures tonight. Most of them are camped about a mile off, but there may be other hunting parties. These two almost had you for dinner.” The halfling made an agile leap across the stream and started to jog off into the trees. The glowing fairy followed him closely.
“Wait!” pleaded Randir. “Which way should we go? Our ponies are at the cabin and our companion is hunting nearby.”
“I’ll find your friend and we should leave quickly,” said the stranger quietly. Setting a fast pace, he guided them back to the cabin, where the old woodcutter was preparing a small feral pig and had stacked some firewood beside the hearth.
Old Fandri looked up from his task. “Hello. What’s the ruckus?”
The stranger gave him a quick appraisal and gestured, “Douse the light and come with your things. We’ll talk on the way. We must leave now, before those dead creatures are discovered.”
Trembling Fendi tugged his father’s sleeve. “This stranger killed two of the Vergai creatures, who had sneaked up to attack us at the stream, Pa. We owe him our lives. What is your name sir?”
The stranger’s fairy gave a peculiar chuckle as they turned and headed back outside again. The halflings were a bit puzzled by their visitors abruptness, but rapidly collected their belongings and silently led their ponies back to the road. Old Fandri hung the pig over his pony as the mysterious stranger disappeared into the dark night and the boys scrambled to follow. The fairies held hands and followed the stranger without their usual glow. It was dark and rather threatening as they were led through the gloomy woods.
After about an hour’s brisk walk, they reached another small wooden cabin, that was well concealed from the road by a hidden meandering path and cleverly planted bushes. There were some vegetables growing in a patch off to one side of the door and a dead fox and some rabbits strung up on hooks.
The stranger went inside and after ensuring all the shutters were tightly closed, proceeded to light an oil lamp that filled the gloom with cheery yellow warmth. Old Fandri started a fire with his flint and set to work preparing the feral piglet for cooking. The boys looked around and noticed the inside of the cabin looked quite homely with two beds, a wooden table and rough log benches.
The stranger gestured to the boys to sit at a bench and then removed his long cloak. To the boys’ amazement, the halfling was a young woman who only looked about fifteen years old. She wore an overly large cotton shirt and trousers, certainly not meant for a young lady They reeked of stale sweat and were stained with many days of dirt, grime and old blood. Her long brown hair was tied back in a tangled ponytail and her big brown eyes framed by long lashes, glittered in the firelight. “I am Sienna. I hunt and live alone,” she said with a challenging gaze. The two boys were dumbstruck that a beautiful young halfling woman had saved their lives.
It was Old Fandri who responded, “Please forgive our intrusion Miss. Thank-you very much for saving the boys. I am Fandri, a woodcutter from Southdale village. This is my youngest son, Fendi, and the beanpole over there is his friend, Randir. We are travelling urgently to Lakehaven to warn them of these creatures. They are called the Vergai and have come to steal from the castle.” He filled Sienna in on what little they knew of the Vergai and their mission. “They are very strong and can run all day. I don’t know if we can beat them to the castle and raise the alarm.”
Sienna listened intently to their tale. “I will come with you,” she said bluntly. “You will need me if you meet them again and I have a horse in the next village. We may be able to overtake them to the castle yet.” She fiddled with the pig on the spit and checked on her meagre provisions in the cupboard. Potatoes and carrots were soon bubbling in a pot over the fire for the hungry travellers.
The girl didn’t seem inclined to talk and the men didn’t press her, though they thought it strange that such a young halfling would be all alone here in the Wild Woods. Randir noticed there were two beds made up with rough sheets, but left the thought of her companion unsaid.
After they had dined well on pork and vegetables, Old Fandri urged them all to bed. “We had best get a good night’s sleep and leave at dawn,” he cautioned. The weary travellers spread their cloaks and bedrolls on the beds and floor. Fendi ended up the closest to the young woman and he blushed in embarrassment at getting caught staring.
As they were lying in their bedrolls, Sienna broke her silence and spoke of tracking the Vergai. “I followed the creatures’ trail through the woods to their camp and heard them complaining about wanting to eat some halflings, but were told that they must not alert anyone to their presence here. Their leader’s name is Kiprop and they speak the common tongue, but it is hard to understand, as their accents are so strange and raspy. They said that they would have preferred to hunt large game, but didn’t have a chance for they were in a hurry to complete their mission. They were eating a raw animal, pulling it apart with their claws and crunching skin, bones and all.
“Kiprop was saying that this mission was different to their usual ones, where they overwhelm their prey with large numbers and attack weapons. This time they can only get a small number of soldiers through the portal at a time before the wizards collapse. Their first scout was a wizard who shape-shifted to disguise his true form. They held this wizard’s daughter prisoner while he found the information about how they can invade the South Lands.
“The Vergai have almost used up all the food on the other continents on our world, so time is imperative. They covet the rich food and resources here and are anxious to invade. I also get the impression that they are fearful of Emperor Chi’garu and are under pressure to succeed.
“Kiprop continued by saying that their mission is to destroy a jewel which is kept at Lakehaven Castle and is a critical part of the elven shield. He said that if they were unable to destroy the jewel, then they must take it back through the portal, which will open every day at a place called Bamber’s Brook. Then he sent those other two to get some water. I followed them to the stream, where they were about to attack you. I think they would have eaten you and hidden your belongings.”
The three halflings shuddered in fear at that sombre thought. “Thank-you again for coming to our aid,” said Old Fandri. “We are in your debt.” The conversation waned, as the four halflings mused over their serious mission.
The sombre mood in the cabin was broken by the sound of giggling near the fireplace. Fendi-La and Randir-La were dancing with a male fairy. “Yes, that is Sienna-Li,” said the girl with a small smile. The female fairies giggled again, held hands and twirled around and around with him. Their bells all tinkled and even Old Fandri-La joined in the merriment. The dancing soon changed to a slow lullaby, as the fairies grew their toadstools and settled down to sleep.
The halflings fell asleep quickly, after their exhausting ride and the excitement of the evening. Fendi slept with a smile on his face, dreaming of a young huntress with long brown hair and beautiful big eyes.