Chapter 7: New companions
Sienna bent down close to keep her voice low. “Wake up Fendi. It’s almost dawn and we need to continue our journey.”
“Sienna,” muttered Fendi in a low voice, rolling over in his sleep. He stirred as he dreamt of the huntress embracing him in Farmer Lendl’s vegetable patch, instead of Randir. “Sienna!” His eyes sprang open and he jumped out of bed, his pimpled cheeks felt hot and flushed. He almost tripped over his fairy who was curled up on her toadstool beside him. Looking around he noticed Sienna standing fully dressed next to him and Cassie-Belle still unconscious across the room. “What’s going on? Why am I asleep in your room?”
“It’s alright Fendi. Do you remember we were attacked by the Vergai last night? You were whacked hard on the head and missed the end of the battle.”
“Oh no. Randir will be laughing at me for sure. A real battle and I got knocked out at the start.” Fendi pouted with distress, which caused Sienna to laugh at his sad face. She gave him a pat on the shoulder in sympathy.
“Cheer up Fendi. Randir missed the whole thing. He was drunk and didn’t even see what happened. Actually, neither did Baja or I, for we were unconscious too. Daeron woke up after Raja healed him and then he, Raja and your father chased all the Vergai away. The Princess is safe and sound and I think your dad is a hero.”
Fendi beamed with pride. “I knew it. My father is a hero! That’s fantastic. He must be a wonderful fighter to have scared all those fearsome Vergai away. … Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get on the road. We don’t want those Vergai coming back to find us.” He leapt out the cabin door in excitement, then turned around, as a thought crossed his mind. “What are we going to do about Cassie-Belle? She really needs to be somewhere safe, not bouncing around in that carriage.”
As they stepped out the door together, Sienna slung her longbow and quiver onto her back. “I agree. We have to find a place where she will be properly cared for.”
They found the dwarven brothers hitching up two well-built draught horses to a sturdy canvas-covered wagon. Sienna looked inside to see the dwarves had placed soft bedding for the injured elf.
Baja was grumbling to Raja, “I could almost cry. Selling our load for half its price to that skinflint innkeeper. We’ve been had.”
“What’s happened, Baja?” Sienna’s brow furrowed in confusion.
“We can’t outrun the Vergai with our huge wagon full of ale, so we’ve had to sell it to the innkeeper here for a pittance. We’ve been robbed!” Tears welled in Baja’s eyes and his lips quivered.
“The finest jewels are found in the hardest rock, friend Baja,” quoted a lilting voice from around the corner and Asher popped into view. “Just think how you’ll be rewarded for delivering the Princess to safety. It be ten times the profit you would have made in Lakehaven.” Asher gave Fendi and Sienna a conspiratorial wink and disappeared into the cabin to carry Cassie-Belle to the wagon.
“Raja, did you hear that? Ten times! We’re going to be rich after all.” Baja gave his brother a hearty slap on the back. “Now, time’s a wastin’ halflings; we’d better get a move on. The sun’s coming up and those Vergai won’t be sleeping in. By the way, have you seen Randir? He looked as white as a sheet a while ago. That boy surely can’t hold his drink. I’ll have to give him more practice.”
As Sienna and the dwarves rounded the corner towards the stables, she gestured with a pointed finger. They saw Randir crouched, with his back to the wall and shading his eyes from the sunrise. Randir-La was slumped over his shoulder with her pretty bell hanging down his back.
“I don’t think he’ll be in want of any more lessons for a while.”
Old Fandri saw them and gave a wave. He passed out bread rolls and apples to all for breakfast. No one was surprised when Randir declined the food, for he looked pretty green.
The woodcutter shook his head, disappointed at the youngster. “Good morning everyone. I hope you slept well. Here’s the plan for today: Randir is going to ride in the wagon with Cassie-Belle, as he’s feeling under the weather after last night. The Princess is insisting on riding, so everyone else will be in the saddle. We’ll leave the Lakehaven carriage here and I’ll steer the dwarves’ faster wagon. I do feel safer thanks to our new companions, Asher, Baja and Raja. As luck would have it, we have enough horses and ponies for everyone, so let’s saddle up and be on our way.”
Asher was mounted on a large black stallion with a handsome arch to his neck. “This is Charger. He’s the fastest horse in the land and can run all day if I need it.” He gave the horse an affectionate pat on the neck. “Best horse I’ve ever had.” His voice sounded tender and the horse gave a low whinny. “Now where be our guest of honour?”
“Here I am.” The Princess rode up on a fine white mare. She wore riding clothes and sat astride her horse with ease. Her long golden-red tresses were braided up, to keep the tangles at bay. Asher gave her an intriguing look which was a mixture of curiosity and something deeper. Feeling uneasy, she manoeuvred her mare close to Daeron, as far away from the Mountain man as possible. “Let us depart. This is no proper place for a Princess to be seen.”
She spurred her horse and set off at a canter. The others exchanged glances and hurried to follow. Old Fandri came last, with the wagon pulled by the massive draught horses. Randir peeked out through the covers and shaded his swollen eyes from the sun. He took a deep breath to settle his stomach and then he disappeared back inside the wagon.
Fendi rode between Baja and Raja, curiosity getting the better of him. “Please sir dwarves, would you mind telling me what it is you do for a living?”
Baja smiled broadly. “Ah young Fendi; do you know much about dwarves?” Fendi shook his head. “Well my lad; most of us live underground and mine for precious gems and metal. My brother is very smart you see, and he figured that instead of back-breaking work in the mines, we could be out exploring the world and selling the gold and gems. So, that’s what we do. On our current expedition, we were travelling to Lakehaven with some beautiful gemstones for the Princess here. She’s a good customer, our Princess. She likes her pretty jewellery.
“Well then, we were coming south to her, by sheer coincidence we have met her coming north to us which has saved us part of the trip. A mutually beneficial event. Our only trouble was that we were also bringing a large wagon of ale to Lakehaven and we had to offload it here for a loss. Don’t worry though; we stand to make a good profit from this guard detail, so we can’t complain.”
“You really love your money then.” Fendi smiled.
“Oh yes, never met a dwarf who didn’t.”
Their conversion was interrupted by shouting behind them.
“I have no intention of doing anything for you. The thought of being a slave to a spoilt, temperamental princess is definitely not my ambition.”
Fendi turned in his saddle to see Sienna spurring her horse away from a red-faced Princess.
“I am trying to do you a favour, you smelly unkempt halfling. Most commoners would feel privileged to assist me as a hand-maiden, especially when I have offered to pay you!” Shari-Rose was flushed to the tips of her pointed ears. She looked the maddest Fendi had ever seen her, despite having already seen her lose her temper on several occasions.
The mountain man nudged his stallion towards the Princess. He spoke loud for all the companions to hear, “You’re a brave lady to take on a company of Vergai without any clothes, aren’t you Missy?” The Princess’ face turned an even deeper shade of red at the thought of these people seeing her naked, and being handled by strangers and the dragon. She was utterly speechless and opened and closed her mouth like a goldfish.
Asher’s eyes bore into her, “Now you will apologise to our sweet young huntress and ask her politely to assist you with dressing. It is not Sienna’s fault that you are spoilt and sorely in need of some manners. Calm yourself down and think of what you can say to apologise.” The Princess’s jaw dropped in shock and she looked about to protest, when something in his eyes closed her mouth tight.
She turned to Daeron for support, but saw only admiration on his face as he glanced Asher’s way. There was no choice for her, she had to apologise. This way a new concept to her, never had she apologised for anything in her entire life, or ever backed down from the argument. She sat there in the saddle for several long minutes at a total loss, then rode up to Sienna, alone at the front of the company.
“I ... am ... sorry ... Sienna. I could braid your hair for you when we water the horses, if you like. It would prevent you getting so many tangles in it.” She watched the young halfling slowly turn around, with her cute little fairy sitting on her shoulder. Sienna was quite startled at the Princess’ attempt at friendship and tried to hide her reaction.
“Um … thank-you, I’d like that.”
Asher wore a proud smile as he nodded to her for keeping the peace. The other companions pretended not to hear this exchange, but it was evident by their wide eyes and grins they were astounded. Raja decided it was best to change the subject and started to whistle a familiar tune. They all joined in singing along, as they travelled through the rocky terrain.
They had brief stops in three small towns that day to watered their horses and ponies at the streams. The boulder-strewn countryside was grassy, with a few trees, affording little opportunity for a hunting party of Vergai to travel without being seen.
Fendi approached Asher, “Excuse me sir, where do you think the Vergai are?”
“Aye, that’s a good question, young halfling.” The man was chewing a long blade of grass. “I be wondering that same thing myself. I saw them running off into the night so we can assume they see fairly well in the dark. They may have run all night and could be resting somewhere ahead, ready for an ambush. We must be vigilant, especially if there are trees or boulders close to the road. They could be lying in wait for us anywhere.”
“We’d be faster without the wagon, wouldn’t we sir?”
“Yes, Fendi. Please call me Asher. I don’t feel old enough to warrant a title. We will reach a town called Hare’s Hollow late this afternoon and have to leave the injured elf-maiden there. It will be the last town where you are likely to see any halflings, as men live to the north.”
“Will we go near your home ... Asher?”
“No, young lad. I am from Flame Mountain, west of the great elven forest. I am a long way from home.”
Daeron curious, moved closer to join the conversation. “I’ve never before seen a mountain man in these parts. How did you come to be so far south?”
Asher wiped a hand across his weary brow. “Well, it’s not a story for young ears. Suffice it to say that a certain alleged entanglement with a married woman caused me to be banished from the mountain. I have been delivering goods with Baja and Raja here for several months now. I’m not sure if the mountain men are still looking for me, so I’d best stay away a while longer.” He looked a little embarrassed, so Fendi changed the subject.
“How long will it takes us to get to Diamond City?”
It was the ever-friendly dwarf Baja who offered a reply, “Well young Fendi remind me to show you the map sometime. It takes about a month for our wagon to travel from Lakehaven to Diamond City. If we can keep up a good pace and ride long days, we may make it in two weeks’ time. You’ll love seeing the grand dwarven city, with its sparkling caverns. I’ll introduce you to the King too.”
Fendi sighed. “It all sounds wonderful, but it is such a long way from home. Mother will be expecting us in a few days and won’t know what has happened. If they send someone up to Lakehaven looking for us, they’ll think we’re dead.” He felt his eye’s misting at the thought of his mother grieving for her husband and son.
“There, there, young laddie.” Baja patted Fendi on the arm. “You’ll reach home safe. Why this club here of mine is just itching to beat up more Vergais’ kneecaps, and my throwing axes have already developed a thirst for green blood.”
Quiet Raja spoke up. “I’m not sure that you are comforting him. Fendi, we’ll try our best to avoid any more contact with the Vergai and if we do, we’ll scare them off again. Now, would you like me to show you how to use your father’s axe?”
“Yes please Raja. I would feel safer, knowing how to defend myself.” The next couple of hours were spent on fighting techniques. Raja instructed Fendi on the axe. Asher taught him about the six throwing knives he wore on his belt, suggesting they practice with them that night.
It was a pleasant afternoon, with the companions getting to know one another. The countryside gradually grew more arable; boulders gave way to farms and orchards.
Randir was curious about the different people in Reloria, so Old Fandri explained the races to him. “It’s believed that in the beginning, there were three: the humans, who were barbaric and fought constantly amongst themselves. The wise elves possessed all the magic. Then the halflings to the south were the gentle farmers. Legends say the Ancient Oracle foretold the Vergai invasion of our lands.
“The elves feared the peaceful halflings would be annihilated, so they transferred some of their magic to strengthen us with fairies. These assist with our protection and increase our healing capacity.
“They also created a new race from the bones of halflings and humans; called the dwarves. They are much broader and tougher than us and can be trained as good warriors. It has saddened the elves that these dwarves who were made to protect Reloria have become greedy and care little for those who live above land. It is good to see the Stormhammer brothers come to the aid of the Princess.” Baja and Raja pumped the air with hairy fists and let out a whoop.
“The elves also bestowed magical gifts on the mountain men. Unfortunately, this angered the plains knights and making them mortal enemies ever since. There was a temporary ceasefire during the first Vergai invasion, however once the elven shield was established, the mountain men started raiding the knights’ land again. The knights were left to fight the remaining Vergai by themselves which took many years. I hope that this new invasion will finally see the humans put aside their differences and become allies for good.”
“There’ll be snow on Flame Mountain before that happens.” Asher muttered with vigour. “Too much blood has been spilled on both sides to ever form an alliance again. I hate those murderous knights!” The menace in his words stifled the conversation and the companions avoided eye contact with the unpredictable mountain man. They travelled on in silence.
It was Randir’s curiosity that finally broke tension, “Did the elves create the magicians and the goblins as well? I don’t know what would be the use of creating goblins.”
Old Fandri shook his head. “No Randir. Goblins actually come from the lands of Vergash and some escaped here when their homes were overrun by the Vergai. I don’t think they like the Vergai any more than we do. They’ve made themselves a home in the Baretop Mountains and defend it vigorously.
“As for the magicians, only a few of them reside in Reloria. They are rather mysterious with not much known of them or their magical abilities. A few of them helped to create the elven shield, but I heard rumours they have a hidden city somewhere in Reloria.” Old Fandri fell silent as he pondered some of the Relorian mysteries.
Fendi glanced at Sienna and saw she was deep in conversation with the rare calm Princess. He wondered what they could possibly have to talk about, for their personalities seemed poles apart. The huntress rode her small horse, Patch, while Shari-Rose towered over her on the beautiful white mare. The Princess’ golden hair and pale skin contrasted with the halfling’s hooded and rather dirty brown hair and skin. Sienna-Li winked at Fendi and flitted around them both like a butterfly. All three smiled with contentment as the horses trotted along.