Chapter 4: Trouble at Lakehaven
In the grey half-light before dawn, Sienna tripped over Fendi’s floor bedroll where she by chance woke him up. His eyes darted open, caught a glimpse of her undressing and he shut them tight. He tried hard not to gasp. He felt his cheeks redden and struggled to keep his breathing deep and even, pretending to be asleep. Sienna is dressing right next to me! Fendi didn’t understand this mysterious girl, as he tended to be shy and awkward around girls his own age. Even having six older brothers and sisters hadn’t seemed to help him. He wished he was like Randir, so full of confidence, he found it easy to talk and flirt with the girls in their village.
Sienna didn’t notice him peering out from under his eyelashes as she pulled a tunic over her head to cover her thin undershirt, and changed into brown woollen leggings. She ran her fingers through long brown hair that spilled around her shoulders, but soon gave up on the mess of tangles. She wiped a damp cloth over her dirty face which removed one layer of grime. There was still a lot more dirt there, but the young huntress didn’t appear concerned, she realised more would add to it during the day. She finished dressing and pulled her green hood up over her hair.
Her fairy, Sienna-Li stretched as he lay on a toadstool next to her bed, his little brown body glowed under his green fairy clothes.
Fendi-La stirred in her sleep and rolled over nearby. Her fairy light had dimmed to a dull glow as she slept. Now she slowly opened her shimmering wings and her eyes to smile at the male fairy. Sienna-Li gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and they flew upwards together content.
Sighing a little wistful at the thought of the attractive, but solitary huntress next to him, Fendi wished that halfling relationships were as simple as fairy ones. He gave a yawn, stretched and at a measured pace stood up. He stepped over the sleeping form of Randir and filled a kettle with water to heat on the fire.
“Did you hear that?” Sienna whispered. She looked towards the window, as though she had heard a sound outside. Fendi immediately tensed, thinking of the attack last night. He followed Sienna in silence to the door and peered outside. The sky was becoming lighter in the east, although deep shadows still clung around the cabin in the woods. “It’s that way,” she pointed towards some nearby trees.
The shadows were dense and they could not see anything amongst the trees. Fendi jumped at the sound of a fox some distance away while Sienna grabbed her bow and arrows from beside the door. She notched an arrow and pointed it towards the sound of dried leaves crunching.
Fendi grabbed his father’s axe and bravely followed Sienna towards the trees, while their fairies trailed with wide eyes. Fendi’s heart felt thunderous in his chest and he tensed in anticipation as they approached.
A low whimper and then some whinnies broke the tension. The two halflings sighed with relief when the ponies emerged from the shadows. Fendi-La flitted towards them and patted each on the head to ensure they were alright. When she reached the chestnut with a white star on its forehead, she laid her hands upon his head and concentrated as she glowed bright with magic. The fairy then flew down to one of the pony’s hind legs and with gentle hands touched from the fetlock down. The animal shivered and lifted it off the ground in obvious distress.
“Hush Star, we’ll take care of you.” Fendi-La turned to Fendi, “He is in a lot of pain from under his hoof around the soft frog and surrounding sole. He’s too sore to walk.” Fendi-La flew back to the horse’s ear and whispered reassurances. Star whinnied and whimpered slightly.
Sienna’s fairy shook his head miserably and patted the pony’s mane, “I think it is a stone bruise, it can make horses go lame. You won’t be able to ride him today. I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave him behind.”
Fendi grimaced with frustration. “He’s Randir’s mount, for he’s the only one big enough to carry him. I’ll wake Randir and my father and see what we’re going to do.”
Sienna nodded. “Well, I’ll be heading off soon to Greendale to collect my horse and will try to borrow another mount for Randir. I will use some of Father’s gold to ....” The young huntress abruptly turned from Fendi with a small choking sound; he instinctively touched her arm, but she pulled away.
“Leave me!” Her voice was tight with emotion. “Tell Randir to gather his things and we’ll run into town to collect fresh mounts. You and your father can load the food onto your ponies and meet us at the town bridge, about two hour’s run north of here.” She turned away to hide her face from Fendi. Sienna-Li sat on her shoulder, offering whispered words of comfort.
Fendi was a little puzzled at her actions, but wise enough to not press her with questions. The empty, made-up bed and sorrowful mention of her father had him speculating about her secrets, but it was her story to tell and he thought it best to wait for her to broach the topic.
However, Sienna was quick to regain her composure and set to work, packing for the journey. She dispatched the fairies into the nearby woods to gather Healer’s Ivy, a small, dark green leaf common in this part of the Wild Woods that possessed a numbing property. She mixed a poultice and applied it to the underside of Star’s damaged hoof and wrapped a secure cloth around it. She wanted to avoid leaving the injured pony alone in the woods, for no doubt it would be attacked by the wolves or black bears that frequented this area.
As the sun rose from beyond the wooded hills, Randir and Sienna ran down the roadway followed closely by the injured pony. The fairies had whispered a spell to ease Star’s pain on the brisk journey into town. The pony was trotting along well and did not seem to favour his leg. Randir was grateful to realise that if not for the herbal poultice and the fairies’ magic, the pony would have fallen behind.
Sienna carried her longbow and quiver of arrows across her back, whilst Randir carried the spare.
The dark, leafy trees of the Wild Woods gradually gave way to rolling fields of crops, livestock and the occasional farmhouse or barn. The road followed alongside a stream, then as they crested a hill a sprawling town was revealed to them, nestled gently within a valley. Signs of life could be seen in almost one hundred houses, more than twice the size of Southdale. Randir gasped in surprise at the sight. Beside a large green in the middle of the town sat an impressive-looking town hall with a formidable tiled roof. Most of the other buildings were thatched with reeds similar to the cottages in Randir’s small village. Cobblestones on the main road, clicked and clacked under Star’s hooves.
Sienna noticed Randir’s appraising look, “Greendale is the home of my uncle. I often travel here for supplies. It has many wonderful shops including a skilled blacksmith.” She led the way down the hill towards the town centre, their senses were assaulted by the pleasant smells of baked bread and sizzling bacon. Randir’s stomach gave a growl and made Sienna chuckle. He caught her gaze and grinned back. It was good to see the girl smile, for she had been solemn and withdrawn since they had met last night.
Sienna stopped on the outskirts of the town, at a farmhouse with an overgrown flower garden out the front and several large pig sties out back. Bidding Randir wait at the front with his pony, she disappeared into the house to look for her uncle.
Randir dropped Star’s reins over a fence post and shimmied up a large cherry tree in the garden. He and Randir-La were soon throwing ripe fruit down to his shoulder bag on the ground, laughing as they lobbed cherries at each other. They had amassed a fine collection of cherries by the time Sienna returned with her uncle in tow.
Uncle Olaf was a middle aged halfling whose large girth showed an obvious fondness for food. Being as wide as he was tall gave him an odd sort of waddle as he wheezed and shuffled along the path with Sienna. He looked and smelled rather like one of his pigs if truth be told and the youngsters exchanged glances as they tried to avoid his foul aroma.
Olaf’s pudgy fingers dug into Sienna’s slim waist and his greedy eyes stared unremitting at her pretty face. Sienna grimaced with distaste and leaned as far away as she could. She looked over his balding head and pleaded with her eyes for Randir to rescue her.
“Where’s the boy gone?” Olaf panted grumpily.
“Why, hello there.” Randir grinned cheekily as he climbed down the tree and swung from a low branch. “Our thanks for the cherries, kind sir.”
“You cheeky young upstart!” chided Olaf’s fairy, shaking her finger at Randir. “Get down from that tree and show some proper manners.”
The youngster jumped, but unfortunately his long legs tangled and he landed in their pile of cherries, which did little to improve the tempers of the farmer and his fairy.
Randir realised he had overstepped the boundaries and they would get no help without a sincere apology. “I’m very sorry, sir. I was so excited to see your juicy ripe fruit. We’ve been riding hard and barely eaten in days.” He conveniently omitted the part about eating his fill of the piglet last night. “Please may we take a few cherries with us?” He hung his head and looked at the ground, hoping to get out of trouble.
“Oh, all right,” begrudged the farmer. “Now show me this pony, I’ve got work to do.” Sienna and Randir showed Star to her uncle. Olaf muttered to himself when looking at the hoof and shook his head. “Well he looks like he’s been ridden far too hard and is badly bruised. Sienna says you still have far to go and has offered me money for my big pony. I don’t know that you would look after her well. You seem rather careless to me.”
“I would be most grateful to buy your pony and I would do my very best to take care of her sir,” said Randir looked at the ground remorseful and placed his hands in his pockets.
Sienna gave him a small nod and they looked at Uncle Olaf again.
“Well, all right then. Take your pony around the back to the stables. Sienna said she will show you the way out of Greendale before she comes back to me. Try and stay out of trouble, boy. Now, Sienna; don’t you be late girl. You’ve got lots of jobs piling up and have kept me waiting far too long. I’ll be getting on back to my pigs now.” He stroked Sienna’s cheek with thick sausage-like fingers and a possessive look in his eyes. He disappeared around the back of the house, with his grumpy fairy glaring back at them as she flew.
Sienna shuddered and grimaced at her uncle’s back, before she gave a cheeky smile and put her finger to her lips for silence. She left Randir at the front door while she disappeared into the rundown little house, returning with armfuls of delicious food, bread and cakes and peaches from her uncle’s garden. The stolen food was placed in a woven bag at the front door, while the fairies helped collect the cherries.
Sienna showed Randir to the stables, where they exchanged Star for a larger chestnut pony named Fetter and a piebald horse called Patch. The big horse nickered and breathed gently on Sienna’s hand in greeting. Randir gave Star a sad hug goodbye and hoped he would get better soon. They saddled their new mounts in haste, then led them around to the front of the house. In silence they placed the food in saddle bags, then they set off down the road at a canter.
The new pony, Fetter, was well-trained for riding and responded well to Randir’s instructions. She was a stocky pony and carried the halfling’s lanky frame with ease. Randir felt comfortable on her and developed further riding skills as well. He kept abreast of Sienna’s black and white horse as they hurried along. They hoped to place some distance between themselves and Uncle Olaf’s farm.
“Thank goodness we got away Randir.” Sienna let out a great sigh of relief. “I could never go back to live with him.”
“Is there something strange about your uncle?” He found Sienna quite mysterious, but certainly agreed with her about staying away from her creepy uncle. “I only hope that he’ll look after Star. He’s a good pony and I’ll try and buy him back as soon as I can.”
“Oh, he should be alright. Uncle is fine around animals and even other people, but he seems to have an unhealthy obsession with me. Now that my father isn’t here to protect me, Uncle Olaf expects me to marry him and have his children.” Sienna looked indignantly off to the horizon with hard eyes, “No, I will never go back there.”
Randir was quite amazed at this information and didn’t know what to say. He worried about her father that she had mentioned earlier. “Has your father been gone very long?”
Sienna glanced at him, but looked away. “No, not long. He was killed just two weeks ago in the Wild Woods. We were hunting a black bear deep in the forest and had injured it with three arrows. It was slowing down and Father went in for the kill with his big hunting dagger. He was attacked unawares from behind by another bear, the enraged mate of the first bear. It killed him with just one sweep of its big paws; for its long fetid claws pierced his heart and he … he died in my arms. I couldn’t save him.” Tears welled and cascaded down her cheeks. “I should have seen it, I should ...” Sienna dug her spurs into the piebald horse and took off at a gallop. Sienna-Li’s tiny wings beat frantically as he chased after her.
Randir had felt the pain in her words and saw the anguish in her face. He gently nudged Fetter in the direction she had gone. He didn’t know if she would want his comfort or silence when they caught up to the others, but decided to keep her secret and leave it to her if she wanted to tell them. He hoped she would still ride with them to Lakehaven.
Randir caught up to them at the stone bridge over a babbling brook. Sienna was more composed, but her face was flushed and tears stained her dusty cheeks. She had drawn her hood as far over her face as she could to hide her emotions. He saw Old Fandri offer her his handkerchief which she took without a word. Fendi stared at Randir, looking for an explanation, but Randir gave a small shake of his head. He spoke a few words of greeting, before he cantered away from Greendale. The others followed his lead and they took the road towards Lakehaven and away from Sienna’s past.
* * *
The road was long and snaked around low hills and rivers, and as the day wore on the weather took a turn for the worse. Clouds that began the day light and fluffy soon turned grey with drizzle followed by rain. The companions’ mood grew more sombre as the weather deteriorated.
They stopped for lunch at a travellers’ rest, a large shelter built from four upright tree trunks with a thatched roof over the top. It was a satisfying meal of cold pork with the bread taken from Olaf’s house. Even Randir could not complain with such a large amount of food.
He found himself thinking often of Sienna, admiring her courage in resisting her uncle’s unwanted advances. Randir shuddered to think of the life she would have endured married to the fat farmer.
A couple of times he noticed Fendi looking at Sienna with a mixture of curiosity and longing on his face. This was the first time Randir had seen his friend interested in a girl and he wondered if it would lead anywhere.
Old Fandri seemed in a cheerful mood during their long ride and entertained them with songs from the Diagro knights, with his fairy harmonising, and the time passed pleasantly. He explained that their journey made him reminisce on his adventures as a youngster. Randir and Fendi listened with interest to the ballads of mighty battles with dragons and Vergai, and love songs of fair maidens. Sienna meanwhile, rode quietly, a little back from the others, in thoughtful silence.
It was hard to tell when dusk began, for the afternoon was so dark and gloomy. Old Fandri stopped the halflings at a cattle farm and sought shelter from a grizzled old farmer. Lucky for them Farmer Lendl, was pleased to meet them for he had some heavy lifting jobs that needed doing. So he offered an exchange, a bit of their time with chores for some real beds and a hot dinner of eggs and sausages. Randir was delighted with the night’s meal; especially the bonus dessert of stewed pears and custard.
They spoke a little with Farmer Lendl about their mission to warn the elves of Lakehaven about the impending attack, and discovered they were only about four hours ride away, which brightened all their spirits to a great degree. The farmer had not seen or heard any disturbances around his farm, so the halflings fervently hoped that they were now ahead of the Vergai.
After dinner Sienna slipped out into the dark for a walk. It had finally stopped raining and she was lost in her thoughts of grief for her father and hatred of her uncle. Randir quietly followed her out past the vegetable gardens and found her weeping soundless against a wooden gate. He strode up to her, gave her a big bear hug and Sienna laid her head on his chest. She wept, inconsolable for a long time and shook cradled within his big arms.
“Thank-you,” she whispered, regaining her composure. “I’ve not had a friend in a long while and my father was my only companion.” Randir helped wipe away her tears and gave her another hug before stepping back.
“You’re welcome to travel with us as long as you wish and would also be very welcome at my home back in Southdale. I have so many brothers and sisters that you never need feel alone. There are woods near us where you can hunt, if you choose.”
Sienna’s face brightened in a smile and she took his offered hand, “I would very much like to meet your parents and family. The thought of having brothers and sisters and a m...mother is ....” She had no words to describe her emotions. Randir gave her another big hug and held her soothing her heart ache for several long minutes, before he led her by the hand back to the house. He noticed their two fairies were sitting on a big pumpkin watching them and smiling to each other. Randir felt warmth in his heart from the brave young girl and knew he would do anything to protect her.
Neither of the halflings noticed the stormy look of jealousy on Fendi’s face as he glared at them through the farmhouse shutters. By the time they had come inside, Fendi had gone out to take up his frustration on Farmer Lendl’s woodpile. The axe swung strongly, and a shower of woodchips spun through the air.
* * *Unbeknown to the halflings in the farmhouse, a very large grey dragon flew just a short distance to the north of them, silhouetted against the orange glow of the nearby planet Zanarah. The dragon could sense an evil presence in the South Lands and scouted over a large territory in the warm late spring night. He banked away from Lendl’s Farm and headed northward towards Lakehaven with keen yellow eyes searching the landscape.