Chapter 8: Hare's Hollow
Late that afternoon the travellers came upon the sizeable township of Hare’s Hollow. Randir had recovered enough to be able to sit in the front of the wagon with Old Fandri and practice sparing with their weapons. Randir-La was also looking much better and she flitted around watching the duelling with Fandri-La. Randir lost his concentration for a moment when the town came into sight and Fandri in the midst of a thrust, stuck him on the shoulder with the shaft of his axe.
Randir reached up to rub the sudden pain in his arm. “Ow!”
Randir-La cried out too. She landed with an unexpected thump on the wagon seat next to him.
“That hurt!” they protested in unison.
Old Fandri lowered his axe, shook his head and tsked. “Imagine if I’d been a Vergai. You would have lost your head if you’d drawn your sword against one of them.” Fandri-La nodded in agreement.
The companions reined in their mounts around the wagon and gazed at the sight of sprawling Hare’s Hollow. They could see the mountain it was named after, rising up to the east. It looked for all the world like a crouching hare, with its saddle top ridge and long horizontal ear-shaped gully.
Randir’s eyes widened at the sight. “I’m amazed! It looks twice as large as Greendale and that was the largest town I’ve ever seen. I swear the markets down there are as big as the whole of Southdale town.”
Seizing the moment, the Princess galloped ahead down the hill. “Well, I think it’s high time we inspected the markets.”
“Wait, your Highness!” Daeron and Asher spurred on their mounts in pursuit.
“She really is impossible, isn’t she?” Sienna gave a laugh, as she flicked the braid over her shoulder and joined the dwarves in pursuit.
Fendi remained behind with the wagon. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to protect that one. She does whatever she pleases. Come on Pa, we’d best catch up and find out where to take Cassie-Belle.”
They ambled down into the town of Hare’s Hallow and were soon surrounded by the hustle and bustle of vendors selling their wares from many and varied colourful stalls. They ranged from farmers with fresh fruit and vegetables, to herds of animals being mustered into pens ready for sale. The sights and sounds were an assault on their senses. The aroma of crackling pork on a spit, turning next to mouth-watering biscuits straight out of a stone oven, set their stomachs to groan in protest; loud and fierce.
When the halflings caught up to the Princess, she was haggling with a vendor over the price of some halfling clothes. Daeron had a slight annoyed, but resigned look to his pale features, one cultivated from many years’ experience. Nearby the dwarves were buying food, while Asher leaned against a tent pole, though Fendi had no doubt the mountain man was ready to spring into action at the first sign of danger.
“Oh, all right then, if you’re going to rob me, you can include some riding clothes as well, merchant.”
“Done, you have excellent taste, Miss, a truly splendid silk gown.” The lanky halfling bowed with feigned reverence. He folded up a beautiful gown and brown riding clothes and placed them into a woven bag.
With a sweet smile she paid him a generous tip.
“Come now, Mistress.” A rare look of affection crossed Asher’s face, as he led the companions towards a collection of impressive houses set on a hill.
Randir and Fendi exchanged puzzled glances.
“Randir, why would she need an expensive dress while we’re on the run from the Vergai?”
He chuckled, “Fendi, you just have to understand that sometimes you can’t figure out why girls do anything. Though on this occasion, I think she’s being nice to Sienna, who likely has never worn a dress in her life. It seems to me … women never need an excuse to go shopping. Remember how they all flocked to the peddler’s wagon back in Southdale?”
Their companions all turned to look at Fendi, and laughed. Shari-Rose and Sienna glanced at him, then returned to their quiet conversation. Fendi was glad they missed seeing his face warm up and turn bright red with embarrassment.
The houses on the hill were white, with dark timber framing the walls and windows. Diagonal wood work also crossed the walls, which set them off in wondrous splendour illuminating their red-brown tile roofs. Fendi gave a low whistle at the impressive sight of glass windows and became excited to see them up close. Not only did they let in light, but the almost transparent yellowish panes allowed him to see into the buildings.
They passed various traders: a glazier, a silversmith and a blacksmith, but Asher did not stop until they came to a sign, ‘House of healing’ above a sturdy door. There he bade them wait, while he carried Cassie-Belle inside. The two elves, Shari-Rose and Daeron concerned at her condition, insisted on entering with him; for the unconscious elf-maiden remained ashen.
While the elves and Asher were speaking with the healers, Old Fandri asked Baja about lodgings in Hare’s Hollow, only to discover they were spoilt for choice, with twelve taverns containing accommodation in town. He also enquired if there were any inns without ale, but Baja seemed quite puzzled that anyone would want to stay in such a place. Raja was quite amused by the conversation and chuckled into his long red beard.
Old Fandri then spoke at length to some local men as they waited outside the house of healing. Arrangements were made for the disposal of the covered wagon, in return for a large bag of coins.
A short time later, Asher and the two elves reappeared from the house without Cassie-Belle. Shari-Rose’s body shook with sobs while a gentle Daeron held her arm, and helped her mount the horse. He was also distressed, though he did his best to hide it.
“Cassie-Belle will be alright.” Asher reassured his companions. “This house of healing be famed all over the South Lands. They will look after her till she is well enough to travel. Then they’ll provide an escort for her journey back to the elven kingdom. Elves be quick healers and I’m sure she will fully recover soon.”
“Come your Highness, we’ll find you some supper and a good night’s sleep. We still have a long way to go till we find safety in the dwarven city.” The weeping Princess allowed her horse to be led away by Asher and they rode on to an inn, with signage depicting its name, The Leaping Hare. Efficient Asher arranged their dinner and lodging and it was not long before, with full bellies, they headed to their rooms. Baja made a small protest about not staying to play cards, but in truth, his objection was meagre at best. He rub tired eyes and left with the Princess, Daeron and Old Fandri.
Asher found a quiet spot behind the stable where he set about teaching Fendi the skilled art of knife throwing, while Sienna and Randir practised with the longbows. Raja, playing a jaunty tune on his pipes, came to watch them. This helped to mellow their sombre mood.
Finding a chalk stone on the ground, Asher drew the outline of a person on the stable wall, even adding a broad tail to represent a Vergai. He stepped back twenty paces, spun around and threw his six knives in rapid succession. His quick hands appeared a blur. Randir gasped in surprise, for all six knives struck in a straight line across the silhouette’s neck.
Raja gave a low whistle, admiration written all over his face. “That’s a mighty aim you have there, mountain man.”
“That’s impossible! No one could draw and throw that fast and accurate.” Randir looked at the mountain man, who calmly met his brown eyes with his own strange, yellow-green ones.
“Not everything in this life be easily explained, Randir.”
Raja nodded in silent agreement.
The mountain man retrieved his knives, then handed them to Fendi. He showed him how to grip the knife’s blade to avoid slicing his fingers; how to position his feet in the correct stance; the throwing motion; and the correct position for the hand, elbow and shoulder. Fendi nodded in acknowledgement of the lesson and threw with all his might. All six knives clattered to the dirt, one after another, as he gave an exasperated grunt.
Asher ambled over and retrieved them. “Keep trying little man. The spin takes a while to learn, but you will master it. I’ve seen you practise with the sword and you are very good.” With a gleam to his eyes, he turned to Randir. “I’d best go and check on our Princess. She’s probably found something not up to her standards.” With a half-smile, he disappeared in silence to their lodgings.
The three halflings practised until the silhouette Vergai was peppered with knife and arrow holes. They were then worn out and ready for bed.
“Well Fendi, I know it’s your sixteenth birthday tomorrow. What do you wish for? … Oh! Let me guess … a day without riding your pony?”
Fendi laughed at this and gave Randir an amiable push on the shoulder. “I’ll bet my bottom is not half as sore as yours. The way you slip and slide around in the saddle makes me think that you will soon have no skin left on your backside. You know I don’t expect any birthday presents. Have a good sleep anyway and we’ll see what tomorrow brings.”
They walked Sienna over to the Princess’ room and on impulsive she reached out and gave Fendi a hug. “Sleep well Fendi, sweet dreams.” Then turned and disappeared into her room before he could think to reply.
Fendi grinned from ear to ear and hugged his arms around himself, imagining he could still feel her quick embrace. He felt euphoric and wanted to burst into song. Following Randir to their room, his feet never seemed to touch the ground. Fendi-La mirrored his bliss. She glowed a bright, cheerful gold and tinkled her bell as she flew in circles around him.
* * *
The day dawned grey with drizzle. Fendi was woken by a small shake on his arm and a finger placed over his lips as Sienna pulled him up and led him to the door. Stopping in the hallway outside his room, she twirled around for him.
Fendi gasped in surprise. By the light of their fairies, he saw Sienna was wearing the delicate silken gown the Princess had bought her at the market the previous day. She had brushed her long brown hair, now hanging in soft waves down her back and her skin was clean for the first time since he had met her. The dress was royal blue, with delicate lace at her neck and wrists. It emphasised her figure and he felt his face warm at the sight of her, and it seemed as though uncertain butterflies fluttered in his stomach.
“Happy birthday Fendi, I hope you have a lovely day.” She gave him a soft, quick kiss on the lips and then ran off before he could respond in kind.
He watched her dash away with a sigh. “Best birthday ever.” He stood stunned for a moment, having no idea what he would have said or done had she stayed any longer. He guessed that she was uncertain as well which may be why she had fled.
When he returned to his senses, he realised everyone was stirring from their beds and he trooped downstairs with Randir to prepare the horses and ponies. Fendi-La’s jubilant singing rang in his ear and he felt half in a daze as he wandered after his friend. They stopped at the tavern for a quick breakfast. Fendi sat at an empty table, whilst Randir gathered their food.
“Fendi, Fendi, are you deaf?” Randir repeated. “Happy birthday. Would you like some breakfast?” He gave Fendi a couple of gentle slaps on the cheek to rouse him from his daydream.
His friend looked up with a lazy smile. “No, I’m happy.”
Shaking his head, Randir helped himself to some of Fendi’s breakfast. “I hope you’re not turning ill. Your appetite seems to have disappeared lately. Well I guess we’d best saddle up the horses.” Randir wolfed down the last of Fendi’s porridge as he pushed him in the direction of the door, they both tumbled out into the new day.
The halflings gathered in the stable yard to saddle their horses. Randir noticed that Sienna was wearing new riding clothes under her dirty old hooded cloak and she looked rather cleaner than her usual half-wild appearance. “You look nice Sienna.”
She gave a nod in thanks and her big brown eyes flickered to Fendi, who seemed to have lost his tongue this morning. Randir gave a small sigh and wondered if Fendi would ever figure out how to speak to a girl.
Asher was already mounted on his stallion, Charger, while the others gathered around him. The boys mounted the fastest ponies and Old Fandri gave them a spare mount each to lead.
Asher beckoned them all to listen, “We be riding hard and fast today. There’s a huge forest up ahead called the Twisted Woods, it’s a perfect place for an ambush, so we shan’t rest till we pass through it. Our goal is to protect the Princess at all costs. If anyone falls, we’ll try to come back for you later if we’re able, but don’t count on it, and don’t leave the Princess.” The companions nodded their assent, for the danger to the Princess greatly heightened the tension.
“Ride hard!” Asher led as they galloped off through the misty rain.
* * *
Daeron and Asher rode in the lead, followed by the four halflings and the dwarves brought up the rear of the line. Shari-Rose had been placed in the middle with the halflings, and with loud protests as usual at not going first. She had been working up to one of her trademark screeches when Asher interrupted her, “To be kidnapped once may be unlucky Princess, but twice is beyond careless.”
The colour drained from the Princess’ face and she opened and closed her mouth like a goldfish, in shock at Asher’s words and could think of nothing to say against his cold, hard truths. His piercing eyes seemed to look straight into her mind. She turned her head away from his gaze and sulked.
The mountain man set a cracking pace on Charger and the companions’ eyes darted everywhere in constant vigilance. They rode as though being chased by demons. The horses were drenched in rain and sweat, but sensing the tension in their riders, kept up the pace while the fairies flew from horse to horse, urging them on and soothing their aching legs.
Presently they entered the Twisted Woods, an immense forest. It was home to countless aged trees with gnarled branches growing outwards in all directions, as though they waited to grab anyone foolish enough to enter. The name of the forest seemed appropriate, for bumpy knobs jutted out in odd angles and the woods looked impenetrable to either side of the dirt road.
“I wonder how these trees grew to be so bent and twisted.” Fendi stared in amazement.
Sienna nodded. “The gnarled ones are called Bristlecone pine trees. My father showed me a few in the Wild Woods when I was younger. He said they’re some of the oldest trees in the world and twist their branches as they grow. It’s amazing to see so many of them in one forest. The other pine trees stand up straight but the Bristlecones bend and weave around them.”
Baja gave an exaggerated shiver. “I’ve heard some very old creatures dwell deep in these woods. It seems a dark and mysterious place, untouched by time.”
They were passing through a particularly dense part of the forest, where the trees twisted together thickly, arching above the road, and creating a long dark tunnel that blocked out much of the sky. The travellers heard the echo of metal on wood. Just up ahead a large tree had been cut and began to fall.
“Hurry!” Asher spurred his stallion onwards. Daeron and Shari-Rose pressed through with him, but the enormous tree had been felled to domino into others. The trees cascaded down as one to slam onto the ground behind the first three riders. The path was blocked for the remaining group, separating them in two.
Randir and Fendi’s ponies reared up, throwing off the halflings while the dwarves spurred their horses in a frustrated attempt to jump the fallen trees, but their horses refused. They stopped with an abrupt jolt as they dug their forelegs into the ground. Baja and Raja were catapulted into the air to land in undignified positions upon the ground.