Elven Jewel

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Chapter 9: The chase through Twisted Woods

“Ambush!”

Asher, Daeron and the Princess were alone on the far side of the fallen tree. They spurred their horses on to gallop, only to be hindered by another tree felled some distance ahead, a massive twisted pine impossible to jump over.

The enemy pounced. Ten Vergai hidden within the tree raced out, and surrounded the three riders.

Shari-Rose was dragged screaming from her horse, bound and gagged. Her horse was slain without mercy. Survival instinct flowed through her body as she fought like a wild cat, but despite her mighty struggle, she was subdued. Four Vergai carried her off, leaving Asher howling with anger and frustration as he and Daeron fought for their lives against the remaining six Vergai.

The horses reared and squealed in terror as their senses were assaulted by the horrendous odour of the enemy. Asher realised the only way to save these brave steeds was to dismount and defend from the ground.

The horses bolted to safety near the trees.

The Vergai were swift to surround Daeron and Asher who were driven apart by fierce fighting. The mountain man drew two sharp blades. The close fighting prevented him from throwing his knives, yet Asher fought skilfully, with one in each hand, stabbing at the attackers. Even with his super speed and power it was difficult to thrust the blades deep enough to wound the creatures. He found the constant ducking and weaving frustrating but necessary to prevent having his arms severed by a lethal morning star. Nor was there room for the dragon to fight in this tight tunnel of twisted trees.

Daeron was faring little better with his long sword. The two-handed sword was good for thrusts and slices, but near impossible to penetrate the thick hides of the enemy. Even with his rapid elven reflexes it was difficult to defend against so many. The Vergai attacked him from all angles and he knew that it was only a matter of time before he received a fatal blow from their evil weapons.

In a concerted attack, two Vergai suddenly lunged towards him. Inevitably one of their morning stars connected with Daeron’s shoulder and he was struck down. Three Vergai stepped towards him, their faces gleaming with malice, as he lay on the ground, cradling his arm. Without warning a Vergai head went spinning past Daeron to land across the road as a two-bladed axe whipped through the air, wielded by a whooping Raja.

The dwarves and halflings galloped to the rescue. Baja followed with a roar, his sturdy club crashing heavily on the head of another Vergai and it crumpled to the ground. Randir shot an arrow into its throat to be sure it was dead, while Sienna downed another enemy with two arrows fired at once into the creature’s face. She finished him with her dagger.

Now that Daeron had more room, he swung his sword to partially decapitate one Vergai. Fendi swung his father’s broad sword at another, but didn’t quite have the strength to finish him, so Asher aided him with two well-thrown knives to the creature’s head. They spun towards the last Vergai who had turned as if to flee.

“Oh no you don’t, Ugly.” Baja threw his axe and watched as it rotated through the air to land with precision into the back of the neck with its curved blade.

“Good work everyone,” Asher sat down exhausted. “Another few seconds and they would have had us for sure.” Old Fandri finished the fallen Vergai with one of Asher’s knives.

“We’ll need to hurry if we’re to find the Princess.” Daeron’s eyes narrowed with urgency. “I saw them carrying her away around the end of the far tree’s roots. Let’s go.” The elf had not noticed that Raja and Sienna were still bandaging his bleeding shoulder.

Gathering their weapons and steeds they remounted and gave chase. The wide-eyed horses balked as they passed the body of the Princess’ white mare, but the fairies helped to calm down the frightened animals.

It was a tight space between the massive tree roots and the thick entwined trees along the road. When at last they had all squeezed through, they set off at a galloping pace down the road.

Randir’s heart pounded in his ears from the exertions of his first battle. “Fendi, did you see me shoot that arrow? I got him right in the throat.”

“Yes, that was amazing! I don’t know how Father and Raja managed to scare them off back at the Stonefield Inn. They are fierce fighters.”

“We did have some help from Ash.” Old Fandri gave a knowing look to the mountain man. “It’s a shame we didn’t have suitable space to properly engage them.”

“Indeed.” Asher nodded

The young halflings exchanged a puzzled look.

“Well let’s make speed through this accursed old forest and hunt them down. They only have a small head start.”

But, little did the companions know, the remaining Vergai with their gagged prisoner were hidden just out of sight inside the old forest. They waited until their would-be pursuers had galloped off down the road before heading east. They ran through the narrow gaps between the strange knobbly trees, hacking down obstructive branches with their weapons. Then they proceeded to half drag, half carry the trussed up Princess as she trembled in fright.

* * *

After about twenty minute’s hard gallop, Sienna reined in her horse. “There’s been no sign of them on the road at all. They must have turned off somewhere into the forest.”

“Sienna’s a tracker,” Old Fandri informed Asher and the dwarves. “If they’ve been here, she would know.”

“We’ll have to slow down and retrace our steps so we don’t miss their trail. Huntress, you take the east side of the road and I’ll scout the west.” Asher and Sienna slowed their horses to a walk and scouted along the dark edges of the road. The fairies went with them to help provide some light in the gloom.

Randir took the slower pace as an opportunity to rustle up food and drink for all. Rummaging around in the saddle bags, the first thing he came across was the beautiful dress Shari-Rose had bought for Sienna the day before. “Hey Sienna; why did the Princess buy you this fancy dress? You won’t be able to wear it on our travels.”

“Hmm?” Sienna had not been listening, whilst she concentrated on her task of finding the Vergai tracks.

Randir came over and handed her some

bread and cheese that he had discovered in another bag. He repeated his question.

“Oh, I think she was trying to make a little lady out of me, so I could be her maid. She wanted me to look fit to visit the dwarven King and seemed very pleased with herself for not only that, but also for my hair and nails too. She insisted that I scrub myself in the bath with scented soap, and that did make me feel like a different person. She is alright, when she wants to be.”

Randir gave an exasperated sigh and shook his head. “… When she’s not being an absolute troll!” I will never understand that irksome elf.

Daeron strode over to the young halfling and twitched his ear. “You should be more respectful. Yes she can be difficult at times, but she loves Cassie-Belle and it broke her heart to leave her behind. She was taken from her family at a young age and sent away from her people to protect you ungrateful halflings. Everyone defers to her because of her amazing abilities, but she doesn’t have parents around to teach her humility. Shari-Rose is the most powerful elf in Reloria however, and if she is killed by the Vergai, then we are all as good as dead!” The elf’s harsh tone drew the gazes of the companions.

Randir found it confronting as the guardian lost his temper. He shuffled his feet and avoided the elf’s harsh stare. “I’m sorry Daeron; I truly am. If there’s anything we can do to save her and protect her, I swear we would do it.”

The other halflings all agreed.

Asher’s lilting voice joined their declarations. “If we have to ride to the ends of Reloria to save her, we will.”

“Us too,” mumbled the dwarves, between mouthfuls of lunch.

Daeron’s features softened. “I understand, Randir, I really do.”

He looked around at his companions. “Thank you all. We will have a hunt ahead of us, but we will not rest until she is found. We are the Hunters of Reloria. The Vergai will pay with their lives for kidnapping her.”

The feisty dwarves started up a roar of agreement and everyone else joined in.

* * *

It took time to return to the fallen tree. Sienna had almost given up hope, when she spotted some scuff marks close by where they had started their supposed pursuit. She crawled in through the trees to follow the trail. “I can’t believe it! They were right here hiding in the trees watching us and we unknowingly raced past them. These woods are so dense. We’ll need your axes Fandri and Raja, to clear a path wide enough for the horses. We must hurry for now they have a good head start.”

They were fortunate the trees were very old and gave way under their powerful axe strokes. Thus they travelled until the last hint of daylight, when Sienna collapsed against a knobbly tree branch.

“I can’t see the trail by fairy light. We’ll have to stop and rest here until dawn. They must be miles away from us by now.” Sienna-Li gave her a comforting pat on the shoulder and whispered encouragements in her ear.

Asher found a small thicket not far from where she had stopped and he tied one of Shari-Rose’s shawls around the tree to mark the trail. “Come Huntress, I will make a fire and you can rest awhile. You be a remarkable tracker and we have made great progress today.” He sat her down on an old log covered in orange fungi and looked up into the sky. From the clearing he could see the twinkling stars, the first clear view of the sky all day.

They all realised the Vergai were getting farther away with each passing hour. Tired and frustrated, no-one wanted to be the first to admit that their hope of rescuing the Princess was slipping from slim to none. After catching their breath, they all set about performing their tasks before retiring.

Randir and Fendi cleared a patch of mossy earth and laid a circle of stones for the fire pit.

Old Fandri and Baja chopped enough dead wood to last the entire night.

A weary-eyed Sienna re-bandaged Daeron’s shoulder. He endured the pain in the elven stoic manner as she poured cool water over the deep gashes. Raja played a soothing tune on the pan pipes to settle all the companions after their long day.

The companions ate the last few morsels of dry bread.

“I wish we had more food.” Randir’s stomach rumbled in unison with the others. “That didn’t even touch the sides.”

“I’ve not seen much game in these woods.” Asher stood and stretched out his long legs, which almost spanned the clearing. “I’ll try hunting then I’ll take second watch. Perhaps the dwarves will take first?”

The brothers nodded in agreement.

Raja then took out a throwing axe to clean and Baja passed him a whetstone. The other companions followed suit in attending to their weapons.

Sienna sat stripping back some pine branches and showed Randir how to make arrow shafts. One of her saddlebags proved to be full of arrowheads and feathers for fletching.

“I need a better weapon.” Baja frowned at his club. “This is fine for beating off vagabonds from a wagon, but no good for combat against morning stars. I’ll have to collect my war hammer from Diamond City when we get there. I’d also like a dragon’s tooth dagger. That would prove worthy in a good fight.”

Raja nodded in agreement.

Old Fandri removed a wooden carving from his pocket and handed it to Fendi. “Happy sixteenth birthday, my lad. I’d have liked to see you eating a decent meal and celebrating at home with the family, but this is all I can give you today.” Old Fandri’s eyes glazed over in memory. “I remember well the day you were born and your fairy sparkled into life. It only seems like yesterday.” He shook his head and smiled at Fendi. “I’m proud of you son. You’re growing into a fine young man.”

Fendi was a little embarrassed at the old halfling’s praise. He turned the carving over in his hands and saw that it was a dragon, with out-stretched wings. The workmanship was intricate, with tiny horns on its head and clawed feet. “This is a marvellous carving Father. It’s as if you had seen a real dragon with your own eyes. Have you ever seen one?”

The old halfling gave a knowing smile and his fairy giggled. With a twinkle in his eye he teased, “Perhaps I have Fendi. Perhaps I have.”

The fairies then congratulated Fendi-La on her sixteenth birthday too and the sweet fairy glowed bright with happiness. Sienna-Li gave her a pretty flower necklace to wear which made her blush, and the fairies all held hands and spun in the air above the clearing. A fairy ring of toadstools grew directly underneath. Raja played a jig on his pan pipes and the hunters felt the day’s woes and aches melt away into memory. They laid out their bedrolls for the night then the dwarves sat discussing card game tactics in low voices.

The tranquillity was broken by the sounds of eerie whispering music and an unnatural glow appeared in the forest. The hunters sat up in alarm and stared at the strange ball of blue light advancing along the axe-hewn path. The glow brightened until it coalesced into the form of three small floating forms. The strange phosphorescent glow seemed to emanate from them.

Perplexed by the strange sight, the companions stood and drew their weapons. Though the creatures appeared unarmed, they possessed magical abilities and looked as gnarled as the forest itself. They were half the size, though shaped similar to a halfling and were stooped and wrinkled with old age.

Sparse white hair covered their furrowed ovoid heads and round ears. Kind eyes smiled at the travellers as they gave a nod of acknowledgement.

Their tired-sounding aged voices spoke in unison, “Well met, hunters of Reloria. Your arrival at this time hath been long foretold.”

Raja bowed deeply. “The Ancient Oracle. The legends are true, Baja.”

Baja was rendered speechless by the sight of these ancient prophets of Relorian legend.

The three members of the oracle turned as one to address the Mountain man and intoned.

“Hail Asher Grey of Flame Mountain and leader of the Hunters of Reloria. Thine arrival at this juncture was wrought in the stars of yore. The fate of thy Jewel Princess lies in the far-off enemy homeland, but thy quest is clear; thee and thine companions needs make haste henceforth to the Dwarven Kingdom to raise an army that will defeat the portal invaders. First must ye conquer adversaries numbering over fifty score at Bamber’s Brook. A mage and a knight of Diagro will aid thee in thy perilous quest. A gateway shall appear hither come dawn. Tarry not, for the fate of all Reloria rest in thy hands.”

One of the ancient creatures laid a mirror on the mossy forest earth and the hunters stared into it expectantly. Soon the mirror grew cloudy and an image appeared showing Shari-Rose bound and gagged in a dark cavern. A Vergai loosened her gag and was attempting to feed her raw meat. There was no sound from the mirror, but she appeared to yell and lunged for the creature, trying to bite him. A scaly fist thumped the back of her head, and she fell forward. Then the mirror cleared.

Daeron gasped.

The mirror reactivated and revealed an image of grasslands in daytime with enormous trees, strange animals and hundreds of Vergai waiting around a dark, crackling portal. Even as they watched, another squad of twenty creatures came through the gateway before the scene faded and vanished.

A final image showed a fleet of a thousand or more battleships being tossed about in the dark ocean. Though difficult to see, they appeared well-made and large enough to carry great numbers of Vergai to Reloria. A black flag with green stars flew from the tallest mast of each ship. Then the image faded and the wizened being picked up the mirror and replaced it into his long, flowing robes.

Another member of the Ancient Oracle handed Randir a large steaming metal cauldron and metal bowls. Then all three chanted together, “Make haste as thine enemy force increases by the hour. Fare thee well on thy quest, O Hunters of Reloria.” Then as one, they turned and glided back down the path, glowing with the phosphorescent blue light that turned into the shrinking orb once more and floated away into the forest. The sound of eerie music whispered around the hunters then died away into silence.

The hunters didn’t speak for a few moments, until Randir broke the mood.

“Well, I didn’t understand half of what they said, but they sure did make a nice big pot of stew for us.” He set the cauldron on the ground by the handle and looked bewildered. “Who were those strange creatures? Did they say we have to fight fifty Vergai and then chase the Princess through the portal to Vergash?”

Randir dished out the steaming meal and handed bowls around, receiving appreciative noises.

“Fifty score is one thousand Vergai.” Daeron bowed his head with a look of defeat on his pale face.

“I believe you are correct, young Randir, in saying that we must make for Vergash.” Asher looked thoughtful as he stoked the fire. “They are the Ancient Oracle and legends say that they have been here since time began, although I know of no-one who has ever seen them. They indicated the Princess will be taken to Vergash and we must follow her there. But first we travel to the dwarven stronghold to raise an army, then search for a mage and a Diagro knight to aid in our quest. This last part is unsettling because mountain men and knights be sworn enemies and have fought for hundreds of years. I know of no knights who would speak with me, let alone accompany me on a perilous journey.”

Rather than eating, Raja was busily writing down the exact wording of the Ancient Oracles’ prophecy. He blocked one ear in order to concentrate on his work with charcoal on a sheet of Vellum. When he had finished, he scanned his neat geometric writing and gave himself a nod of approval and showed Baja.

“Just be careful how you interpret this prophecy. Not everything the Oracle foretold is clear or easy to decipher. Our journey may yet take us to places unforseen.”

Asher dug through his saddle bags and brought out a map of Reloria. He showed them the way to Bamber’s Brook in the Zanzi grasslands and explained that the Twisted Woods stretched on for hundreds of miles. Hacking out a path wide enough to fit the horses would slow their progress so he held little hope of catching up to the Vergai. In the Oracle’s prediction, hordes of Vergai were emerging through the Bamber’s Brook portal each hour. They would then have no choice but to go to Diamond City and enlist the dwarven army to defeat the invaders.

“The Oracle have given us much to ponder friends, and we must get some sleep before this gate appears at dawn. Good night.” Asher excused himself and walked off into the pitch-black forest.

Fendi moved, as if to follow him, but his father grabbed his arm. “Let him be, son. He needs some time alone with his thoughts.”

The companions were subdued at the loss of the Princess. Daeron especially felt intense pain, for he had been her guardian since her birth. He sat sharpening his sword for a long time, as the halflings tried in vain to fall asleep.

At length, they heard a noise; the pounding of giant wings. It came from the sky directly overhead and produced a fierce burst of wind that unsettled fallen leaves and branches in the clearing. They scanned the sky, but all they saw was blackness. The flapping then headed towards the east and soon disappeared from their hearing.

* * *

Fendi awoke before dawn, with a crick in his neck from lying on the uneven ground. “At least my belly is still full from that delicious food.”

Baja had declared the stew to be a dwarven delicacy called lagoush; all hot, peppery and thick with beef and vegetables.

He saw Randir still snoring gently by his side and rolled over to find Sienna curled in a ball facing him. The huntress looked back to her usual unkempt appearance after the journey through the twisted pine trees. Seeing the twigs in her hair warmed Fendi’s spirits and he remembered his birthday morning. So much had happened since yesterday morning, but as he gazed at her beautiful faced relaxed with sleep, he could still feel her kiss lingering on his lips. As he lay quiet, he heard low voices murmuring nearby. His fairy looked at him and he put his finger to his lips for silence.

“...Can’t find her anywhere. They truly must be hiding from me in a cave. I went almost to the brook and saw hordes of them camped out all over the grasslands. They must have been coming through ever since the first group arrived in the Southdale. If that portal is not shut down, they will soon be strong enough to take the entire South Lands. The Ancient Oracle is correct. We have no chance of intercepting the Princess. We’d best hurry and seek aid from the dwarves.” Fendi recognised the low whisper as Asher’s distinctive voice.

the elven jewel stops working, the entire South Lands could be invaded by their fleet of ships. We’ll have to send word to the elves and alert the rest of Reloria in case the shield fails.”

“Aye, that be a good plan. Methinks the others are waking, let us speak more later.”

Fendi didn’t understand all that Ash and his father had discussed and he mulled over it for a few minutes before stirring. He pretended to wake, yawned and stretched. Fendi-La flew up to him, brushing his mop of brown hair out of his eyes, and he slowly stood up and went to tend to their mounts. The bay pony he had ridden most of the time since leaving home was tied to a tree near the track.

“Good morning, my Jilly. I think we will have an interesting day again today, though I kind of miss the long, slow days at home in Southdale. I’ll bet you miss pulling the wheat wagon and taking the children for rides. I wonder if we’ll ever see home again.” The pony gave a low neigh as if in agreement with the halfling.

He used the curry comb to remove the prickles from her coat and legs, checked her hooves and dislodged a wedged pebble with the metal hoof pick. Once satisfied with her care, he moved on to grooming the other steeds. Some had cuts and grazes from the rough pine trees they had to squeeze through. Fendi cleaned and swathed the injuries with a herb poultice from Sienna’s saddlebag. As he was finished, the others were ready to leave, and the first hint of sunrise was shone tiny rays through the forest.

Tendrils of mist wafted into the clearing close to Baja, who gave a deep, dwarven growl and jumped away, dragging his horse towards the other riders. The mist coalesced to form an upright wall which turned a golden yellow. A clear picture emerged in the centre and widened to the edges, like looking through a window at a town set at the foot of a large brown mountain range.

“Home!” Raja’s eyes widened in amazement. “Baretop town and mountain range. This is extraordinary magic!”

“Do we just step through the window?” Fendi’s eyes widened in fear.

Asher nodded. “I believe so, Fendi. This is marvellous. It will save us weeks of travel. Alright everyone, we'll have to lead the horses through as they will be skittish. I’ll go first with Charger, so you can all see that I make it through safe.” Taking a tight hold of the black stallion’s reins, he walked quickly through the portal. When the companions saw him on the other side, he turned and waved them on.

“Quick, hurry before the gateway closes.” Baja spurred on by that ominous thought, led the others as they dragged their reluctant animals through the portal. Randir was second last, his pony bucking in fear, while Old Fandri and his two mounts brought up the rear.

Randir turned back to the gateway and watched the last glimpse of the Twisted Woods fade from sight, the window dissolved into mist and disappeared.

Old Fandri’s dry voiced replied. “It’s so frustrating that we cannot prevent them taking her through the portal. If

the elven jewel stops working, the entire South Lands could be invaded by their fleet of ships. We’ll have to send word to the elves and alert the rest of Reloria in case the shield fails.”

“Aye, that be a good plan. Methinks the others are waking, let us speak more later.”

Fendi didn’t understand all that Ash and his father had discussed and he mulled over it for a few minutes before stirring. He pretended to wake, yawned and stretched. Fendi-La flew up to him, brushing his mop of brown hair out of his eyes, and he slowly stood up and went to tend to their mounts. The bay pony he had ridden most of the time since leaving home was tied to a tree near the track.

“Good morning, my Jilly. I think we will have an interesting day again today, though I kind of miss the long, slow days at home in Southdale. I’ll bet you miss pulling the wheat wagon and taking the children for rides. I wonder if we’ll ever see home again.” The pony gave a low neigh as if in agreement with the halfling.

He used the curry comb to remove the prickles from her coat and legs, checked her hooves and dislodged a wedged pebble with the metal hoof pick. Once satisfied with her care, he moved on to grooming the other steeds. Some had cuts and grazes from the rough pine trees they had to squeeze through. Fendi cleaned and swathed the injuries with a herb poultice from Sienna’s saddlebag. As he was finished, the others were ready to leave, and the first hint of sunrise was shone tiny rays through the forest.

Tendrils of mist wafted into the clearing close to Baja, who gave a deep, dwarven growl and jumped away, dragging his horse towards the other riders. The mist coalesced to form an upright wall which turned a golden yellow. A clear picture emerged in the centre and widened to the edges, like looking through a window at a town set at the foot of a large brown mountain range.

“Home!” Raja’s eyes widened in amazement. “Baretop town and mountain range. This is extraordinary magic!”

“Do we just step through the window?” Fendi’s eyes widened in fear.

Asher nodded. “I believe so, Fendi. This is marvellous. It will save us weeks of travel. Alright everyone, we'll have to lead the horses through as they will be skittish. I’ll go first with Charger, so you can all see that I make it through safe.” Taking a tight hold of the black stallion’s reins, he walked quickly through the portal. When the companions saw him on the other side, he turned and waved them on.

“Quick, hurry before the gateway closes.” Baja spurred on by that ominous thought, led the others as they dragged their reluctant animals through the portal. Randir was second last, his pony bucking in fear, while Old Fandri and his two mounts brought up the rear.

Randir turned back to the gateway and watched the last glimpse of the Twisted Woods fade from sight, the window dissolved into mist and disappeared.

The story continues in Elven Jewel ...


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