Chapter One: A Magical Birthday
Far away in the humble village of Ironwell, a small girl lived happily. She was the daughter of a baker, and her name was Anna. Her father's bakery was small but well loved by the villagers; most of whom stopped in for an hour or two, sipping tea and eating donuts. The village was a simple one, the villagers in it were even simpler. Most of the boys were named Jack, and several were miller's sons. (For some reason the tiny village of Ironwell had three mills, four beanstalks, eight golden geese, and twelve castles. Yet somehow it still managed to be a little town in the middle of nowhere.) All of this was very familiar to Anna, and she loved it.
Anna was thoroughly excited about the upcoming week. It was her birthday in six days, and it was said that special things could happen on your birthday if you were a good child. Anna, soon to be ten, had been as good as she could ever have been, at least that is what she had hoped. She couldn't think of anything wrong that she had done, or might have tried to do. There really wasn't much room for her to get into trouble, what with all the Jacks and miller's sons running around stealing, giant slaying, princess saving, horse riding, and brother duping. Anna figured that sooner or later an adventure would find her. She just had to try to be as good as she could. She wondered if this meant she would have to put back the second donut she was thinking about eating.
Only two days before Anna's birthday, her father, said, with great excitement, "Anna, since it is going to be your birthday, your tenth one at that, I have requested a special guest be present!"
"Really?" Anna's eyes light up as did her smile. "Is it an elf? Or maybe a fairy? Ooh! Is it my Fairy Godmother?!" She had heard quite a lot about Fairy Godmothers, and she had hoped that hers would come along sooner or later. But the only response she could get out of her father was, "It's a surprise." That and, "Have another muffin dear, your mother made those especially for you." Anna liked muffins and needed no encouraging. Actually, she like almost everything that her mother baked, except for kidney pies. Those tasted terrible.
The day of her birthday arrived, and Anna was ready. She had been keeping a semi-secret diary (she read it out loud to the cat every night) that kept track of everything good and bad she had done for the past week and a half. She figured that cat didn't mind being read to, especially since she bribed it with belly rubs. But now was the day: her birthday. The tally stood at seventy three good things to three bad things, she was set to go.
After patting the cat on its fluffy head, she ran down the stairs, only to find the bakery quiet and empty. Her heart fell to the tips of her toes. Everybody must have forgotten about her birthday. In fact, everybody must have forgotten everything because she couldn't even smell the typical morning pastries. She sniffled, and tried very hard not to cry. Just as she was about to turn around to wander back upstairs, bed seemed like the best option, a loud cheer rang through the bakery. Her father and mother piled out through the kitchen door, and there, her friend Cinder, was smiling through dirt smudges. Half the town was there, Anna's heart swelled as she realized that they hadn't forgotten.
Then, in through the door stepped a very old, and very odd man. His face was wrinkled with many years of age, and his eyes spoke of centuries of knowledge. His beard was a pearly white and it extended past his knees. His cloths were silky blue and had strange patterns that Anna could not understand. In his right hand he held a long gnarled staff, and in his left, a small neatly wrapped package.
The wizard, (what else could he have been?) stepped into the middle of the room and bent down to hand Anna her present. "Hello dear. I have been told that it is your tenth birthday today." Anna nodded, speechless. The old man continued, "Since ten is a precious number, I have decided to give you a very precious gift."
"What is it?" Anna's eyes were as big as tea saucers.
"Open it." Chorused everybody in the room, except for the cat. He looked indignant because he didn't have a saucer of milk.
Anna peeled off the blue and gold wrapping paper, and as she did so it curled into a tiny paper crane that flew gently around the room. Everybody Oohed and Aahed accordingly. After the paper had completely left the box, Anna could see that what was left was a small red-ish brown box engraved with her name on the top.
"Oh it's lovely!" She cried with great delight.
The wizard smiled, sighed slightly, and said, "Why don't you open the box?"
"Oh..." Anna lifted the tiny latch on the front of the box and cracked the lid open. Inside, laying on a tiny pile of gold, was an itty bitty green dragon. It measured only three inches long and its wingspan was about six. It woke up with a start and let out a magnificent, if tiny, yawn. It gazed at Anna intently, yawned again and then promptly curled back up around the miniature gold coins and closed its eyes.
Anna's eyes, previously the size of saucers, grew to the size of pie plates. A few people gave her nervous glances, they wondered if her eyes would ever go back to normal.
"Thank you, ever so much!" Anna chirped. "This is going to be the best birthday ever, I'm sure of it."
"He is as good a pet you could want," replied the wizard with an indulgant smile. "He can find his own food and, although he won't grow to be much more then he already is, he will guard you with his life." Everybody in the room stared at the wizard.
"Excuse me?" Anna's father stepped forward, "Isn't this supposed to be a cheery visit?"
"Why yes it is," The wizard responded. "Unfortunately, times have been changing, and although your daughter is safe in this village, I fear that sooner or later fate will call her away." The atmosphere in the room felt heavy. Everybody felt somehow somber and sad.
Anna asked meekly, "Have you looked at my future?"
The wizard paused for a long moment, "Yes. Well part of it anyhow. You will do great things Anna. Just remember that you are called to do what is right." And with that the wizard disappeared. No flash, no smoke, no loud noises. He simply walked out through the front door and away up the road.
The party guests were stunned, "What just happened?" Asked one of the boys named Jack.
"I think Anna got a new pet," Anna's mother piped in, "and what ever that old man was talking about won't happen." Then she added quietly to herself, "any time soon."
Chapter Two: Dwarf and Dragon
Anna found herself sitting in her room that evening after all the guests had left. On her lap she held the itty bitty little dragon. Anna sat and watched him for a long time. She stroked his neck and scratched between his wings, he seemed to like that.
"You'll need a name won't you." Anna lifted the dragon up to eye level and stared at him intently. "What should it be? Perhaps Flame?" The dragon stared at Anna indignantly, and snapped it's jaw lightly at her thumb.
"Okay, I guess you don't like that. How about Nibbles." The dragon looked so offended that Anna immediately said, "No! Let's pick another. How about... how about... oh let me see. I got to think of a good name. Um... How about Cornelius? I got it! Cornelio!" The dragon let out a tiny roar and flapped its wings in approval.
"Cornelio it is." Anna smiled. "Now we need to figure out what you're going to eat for supper. The wizard said you can find your own food. So, can you?" The dragon let out a puff of smoke and took off flying around the room. Cornelio ducked and swooped, twirled and somersaulted through the air. He looked almost like a large metallic butterfly. After a little while, he finally landed on the window sill with his nose pressed firmly against the glass.
Anna trotted over and cracked the window open just enough for the dragon to slip through. Out he went into the cool evening air. Cornelio let out a minute roar and released an impressive spear of flame into the gathering darkness, and with that, he fluttered out into the garden. Anna watched as he flew from one plant to the next, snapping at mosquitoes all the while. He swooped here and there and finally snagged a small vole from between the plant stalks. Anna let out a squeak of excitement, horror, and interest rolled into one sound. Thankfully the dragon settled down in the tall grass, so Anna didn't have to watch the demise of the vole.
After about ten minutes or so, the dragon flew back to the window and slipped through the opening. Anna held out her hand and the dragon, now plump, settled down in her palm. She carried him over to the small chest and gently set him in, and then watched in fascination as the tiny dragon burrowed under the gold. He wriggled for a little bit, trying to find the perfect spot, and then he settled in for the night.
Anna headed to bed shortly after. It had been a long and exciting day for her and she was very tired. As she curled under the bed covers, she whispered, "Good night, Cornelio." A tiny sniffle and slight glow, was the response she got. She smiled.
Anna woke with a start. It was dark and late, no sounds could be heard. Anna lay in bed listening, trying to figure out why she was awake. Then she heard a slight tch sound coming from outside her window. She sat up in bed and stared in that direction, hoping to see what it was that had made the sound. There on the window sill she could see the outline of Cornelio, posed with wings wide spread and neck outstretched, staring out into the darkness.
Anna slipped from her bed and tiptoed over, "What is it Cornelio?" The dragon barely glanced at her before regaining his pose. Then he tapped a claw against the window. When Anna did nothing in response, the dragon tapped the window again. This time Anna moved over and cracked the window open a tiny bit. With a speed Anna didn't know Cornelio had, he dashed through the window and out into the night. She could see him belch fire into the night air once, twice, and then all was still.
A shiver ran down Anna's back. She opened the window all the way and called out into the garden, "Cornelio? Cornelio, where are you?" She could hear no response. Then suddenly a pair of strong and very hairy hands grabbed her and pulled her from her window sill. Anna let out a yelp of surprise before one of the hands muffled her cries.
A low gravelly voice whispered in Anna's ear, "Please don't make another sound, princess. I don't think Dordil will need much of an excuse to finish off your dragon. He doesn't like being bit by dragons, even little ones." Anna refrained from squeaking a reply, all she did instead was nod. Then the voice whispered in her ear again, "Sorry we have to meet this way, but things are getting urgent, and we need-" a sharp hiss from someone else cut of the voice's whisper. Anna saw, or rather felt, a heavy sack being placed over her head, and with that she was bundled up and carried off.
The next thing Anna knew, she felt the bump bump of a pony's trot. At least she figured it was a pony. It felt like a pony. She was slumped over the saddle like a sack of potatoes, and she was starting to get a little dizzy from the rocking motion of the animal. Then suddenly, the pony stopped. Anna heard the gravelly voice again, "We'll camp here for the night. We are far enough from Ironwell, and I think we ought to let her know what's happening."
Anna felt herself being removed from the horse, and then suddenly the hood was removed. She blinked in the bright sunlight as she looked around the forest glade the ponies had stopped in. And then Anna looked at the riders of the ponies. They were short little men, not much taller then Anna herself, and they all had long course beards. Anna giggled a little despite not knowing where she was. All the little men looked so funny.
"Eh?" said one dwarf. He had yet to dismount from his pony, "Is she laughing at us?"
"I think she is laughing at your face." Replied another dwarf, whose beard was a bright red color. "Anyone would laugh at your nose."
"'Ay, that's not nice." Said the first dwarf as he attempted to jump from his pony's saddle. Except his foot got caught in the stirrup. Half way through his descent, his foot stopped moving, even though the rest of his body continued straight down. The final product was that his nose and right foot where at the level of the other dwarf's knees, and his left foot stuck straight into the air. Everybody laughed, including Anna, at the sight of the upside down dwarf.
"You silly little man," Anna giggled, "Why are you jumping off the pony? You should slid down gently."
The dwarf struggled for several seconds until finally his foot slipped free and he slumped to the ground in a pile. He grumbled to himself, "I know how to get off an horse. This 'ere nag just moved funny as I tried to dismount."
The other dwarfs had started to gather around Anna, and she started to feel slightly frightened as she realized she didn't know who they were. Then one of the dwarfs, the one with the gravely voice, took pity on Anna and said, "Back up boys, give her some space. We've got a lot of explaining to do, what now that we've captured a princess."
Chapter Three: Prophecy
After much organizing and bumping into one another, the dwarfs settled into a neat little half ring of spectators with the one dwarf, who's gravely voice was quite distinctive, in the middle with Anna. He took off his funny little hat, one that looked very similar to a night cap, and bowed.
"My name is Bondril. I am the leader of our humble crew. My fellow dwarfs are, Nondril, Fidril, Lidril, Dordil, Gorgil, and Diddil." He gestured to each dwarf as he introduced them. As each name was called the owner bowed deeply and mumbled, muttered, or murmured some common dwarfish greeting – most of which had to do with good shovels and rich soil to dig in.
"Dordil," Bondril addressed a dwarf in the middle of the line, "I do believe you can release the young lady's dragon now."
Anna clapped both hands over her mouth and squeaked, "I forgot all about Cornelio!" Before she could get too much more upset, the dwarf named Dordil removed a small brown bag from his belt and handed it to Anna.
"Here miss," he said, "He's already tried to bite me through that bag twelve times already. I don't much want to give him the chance to actually clamp his jaws on me!"
Anna untied the string. As soon as the opening was big enough, Cornelio flew out in a flash of bright green scales and claws. He realized Anna was the one who had freed him and he slowed down just enough so that he wouldn't smack into her face. Anna jerked back in surprise. Cornelio veered to the left and up; that's when he spied the dwarfs. He flew full speed at them, mouth agape, flame flickering in his throat.
Anna shouted, "Cornelio, no!" The dragon, confused by the sudden command, swerved sharply upward and arced in a big loop back to Anna's shoulder. He perched and glared at the dwarfs with an expression that meant he would bite them all if he could.
Bondril watched the unbagging of the dragon with some interest. "Quite a magnificent creature. If I am not much mistaken, he will do you good in the near future. And that brings me to why you are here."
Anna glanced around at the well lit forest clearing, "Where is here?"
"'Here' is the middle of the Land of None. It is a stretch of land between the Kingdoms of the North, where you are from, and the Kingdoms of the South, where we are headed. I guess I should do a little explaining as to why we are headed to the South. It will take some time, so we might as well make ourselves comfortable." All the dwarfs scrambled to set up small collapsible chairs that where attached to their horses' saddles. All the dwarfs had one, and Bondril gave his to Anna. He was careful not to make any sudden moves around Cornelio though. The dragon had stayed vigilant on Anna's shoulder and had not moved an inch, save for his eyes and ears, which seemed to be constantly assessing the dwarfs' actions.
After everyone but Bondril was seated, he began, "First and foremost, I humbly beg your pardon for kidnapping you. I'm afraid I don't even know your name."
"My name is Anna," said Anna.
"A good name it is too," said Bondril, and he began again, "I humbly beg your pardon, Anna. You see, things are starting to get urgent in Westerpond and the good people there are suffering more then ever before. There was a prophecy told long ago, that stated, among other things, that 'at the first full moon of the sixteenth year of the Hero's death, the queen's heir will return to Westerpond.' We are very close to that time, and you are the princess in the prophecy – the queen's heir."
Anna interjected, "Me? A princess? That can't be right. I am only a poor baker's daughter."
Bondril chuckled, "Well no, you aren't just a baker's daughter. Your father indeed is a baker, but your mother is, or rather is supposed to be, the queen of Westerpond."
"But wouldn't we be living in a castle in Westerpond, then?" Anna asked.
"Indeed you should be!" shouted one of the other dwarfs, whose name Anna was unsure of, "Your mother is the rightful queen of Westerpond although she knows it not."
"Don't shout, Fidril." Bondril gently scolded. Then he resumed, "Anna, your grandmother, was married to the king of Westerpond long ago. They lived very happily and had a baby girl. But tragedy struck in the form of an evil man, by the name of Humphrey Lytton. He challenged your grandfather to a bet. He wagered that he could knock the king's crown off his head with a single piece of straw. If Humphrey won, he would become king; if he lost, he would grant the king anything he liked – one true wish. The king wore a very heavy gold crown, so he accepted the wager.
"Well, Humphrey was a crafty man. He used his magic to grown a piece of straw as big and heavy as a small tree. He swung this at the your grandfather's crown and off it flew. Humphrey claimed victory and banished the the king and his family from the kingdom. However, before Humphrey Lytton could drive all the good family, the local wizard intervened as best he could. He called Humphrey Lytton a fraud. The wizard stated that you could not win a wager by using magic. The wizard's argument was this, 'While you used only a single piece of straw, the straw was cursed. Therefore your reign over Westerpond shall also be cursed.' The wizard then went into a trance and said the following prophecy." Bondril cleared his throat and began to sing in a slow lamenting tone:
The King of Westerpond may have been cast out,
The Queen and her Child may also have gone,
But the spirit of the noble reside in the kinsfolk,
And shall be carried on.
It will return in the form of a Knight,
Broad of shoulder and full of might.
He will conquer the Shadow and make him dead,
And the Knight will carry a banner so bright,
But not until the Throne is seated with rightful heir,
Will the darkness be replaced with the Light.
Only then can we begin a hopeful new dawn,
And start to be rid of the Humphrey Lytton.
But, the hero cannot live forever, the dark will try to return,
The Knight will weather the storm for as long as he can,
But a time will come when even he must pass,
After all, he is only a man.
Only one thing can cast the Evil into a permanent cell,
The answer is: The baker's daughter from Ironwell.
Without pausing, Bondril stopped singing, and with a low whisper that harkened back to a wizard cursing a fraud, said: "'At the first full moon of the sixteenth year of the Hero's death, the queen's heir will return to Westerpond.'"
Chapter Four: The Frog’s Arm Inn
Anna shivered. She felt heavy and the light in the glade seemed to have dimmed. “What does it all mean?” she asked in a small voice.
“Haven’t you been listening?” said the red-bearded dwarf named Fidril. “The man Lytton has cursed Westerpond and we are returning you, the rightful heir, to the throne because a prophecy told us that it could happen this way.”
“But I’m not special, I’m just a little girl.”
“No,” said Bondril, “you are not just a little girl. You are the princess meant to fulfill the prophecy. With the help of your little firebreather there, and us, your dutiful servants, you’ll save the kingdom; your kingdom.”
“But what about my family?” Anna’s eyes welled up with sudden tears as she remembered her mother and father, and her friend Cinder. And what of their cat, and the bakery, and all those villagers who enjoyed her parent’s pasteries? ‘They must be so worried right now’, she thought. They are always telling me to stay in town and out of danger.
Bondril took Anna by the hand, ignoring Cornelio’s snarl. “Anna, your parents will come and join you in the castle in Westerpond. But in the meantime, I do believe our good friend Aletar, has told them what has become of you, and why you were so quickly taken, and about when they might see you again. He is a comforting fellow, and I think he shall calm all their fears.”
“Eltar? Who is that?” asked Anna.
Bondril smiled, ”Aletar is the wizard who gave you your dragon. He is a wonderfully good and wise wizard, and I think he will be joining us later on our journey.”
“Oh,” said Anna. She had liked the wizard even though he was so very old and equally odd. She was comforted in knowning that she might see him again, although she did not know quite why she felt so kindly towards him.
As they talked, the sun sank low in the sky and the shadows of the glade deepened and stretched. Bondril gestured to the other dwarfs to start setting up camp. After Dordil and Fidril built a fire and put on water to boil for tea and stew, they all settled around it and began to sing some strange song that Anna could not understand. It was a slow magical song, but it did not seem sad; just very slow and dreamy and peaceful. The dwarfs’ deep voices carried the tune on late into the night after supper was finished and the tents were set and Anna lay warmly tucked into one by herself with Cornelio stationed at her feet watching the entry. The song went up with the smoke from the campfire and drifted into the trees and out away over the forest. Small soft animals perked up their ears to listen, and dark crawling things burrowed deeper into their holes to hide from the song. Nothing dared to attack the camp that night, and for a long time after the dwarfs and Anna had moved on—and indeed, long after their tale ended—the glade stayed peaceful and warm to all who stayed the night in that place.
Over the next several days, the party of eight made their way south through green forests and over small streams. Anna rode more comfortably now on the pack pony. At first, Bondril was going to have Anna share a pony with Lidril, who was the smallest of the dwarfs. But Anna—having been one of those very lucky girls who recieved a pony for her eighth birthday and as such had become quite an accomplished rider—insisted that she could ride by herself. (Indeed Anna could do many things quite well for a ten year old, as you will see. For you must remember she was a princess.) Fidril split the packpony’s load up between his own and Lidril’s pony, and that gave Anna just enough room to settle in comfortably between potatoes and dried garlic. Cornelio perched on the pony’s head, right between its ears. The pony did not seem to mind. After all, this was a dwarf’s pony, one that was used to moving through underground caverns. A tiny green dragon sitting between its ears was not the worst thing it had ever experienced.
The group saw few people, although they did come across a few wild woodsmen everynow and then, but these men liked their privacy and usually shooed them away at first sight. They also saw many wild animals, but these, even more than the woodsmen, liked their privacy and they shooed themselves away before the group ever got near. Anna saw many weird creatures flit and fleet before her eyes. She even fancied she saw a gold tiger, bright as the sun, before it ran away quicker than thought.
Presently, on the fifth day of their southward journey, they found themselves arriving in the town of Greensmead. Calling it a town was rather generous though as it had at most a dozen buildings and only three times as many people. However, the village did have inn (as all villages did in those days) called the Frog’s Arm Inn. It was here that the dwarves decided to stay for the night.
“It will be good to sleep in a real bed for a change,” said Bondril. All the dwarfs agreed. It is a misconception that dwarfs do not like comfort. For all their cavern dwelling and dungeon delving, they really do enjoy a soft feather pillow beneath their heads now and then.
“Nondril, Didil, and Dordil, have the stable boy take care of our ponies. Gorgil, Fidril, and Lidril, see if you can’t track down a smithy in this humble village. We need some repair work for the shields and hammers. Be swift about your tasks and don’t loiter. Greensmead has seen some hard days recently, and I think they might not take too kindly to strangers. Anna, you come with me. I’ll secure supper and rooms for us all.” Off the dwarves went, each in their group of three. Greensmead was a small place, but as Bondril rightly guessed, it was not entirely a friendly place. Two men split from the shadows, one following the smithy errand, while the other went around back to watch the stables. A third man remained in the shadows and watched the front door of the inn.
The Frog’s Arm was small and simple and the main room was empty, save the owner behind the counter cleaning mugs. He was a big man with a round face heavily creased from smiling often. But recently, it had become a more somber face. Still, he was cheerful enough; and what he thought of the stout dwarf, young girl, and little dragon standing suddenly in his foyer, he did not let on about. “What can I do for ye?”
Bondril replied, “Enough rooms for seven dwarfs and the young miss here. We only plan to stay a single night, we’ll be off in the morning. Also stew or soup or some such equally filling food for the lot of us.”
“I’ve got two big rooms that are open, but I can’t promise they’ll be comfortable. Let’s see. That’ll be twelve coins, and supper makes it twenty.”
Bondril looked at the man sharply, “Twenty coins seems a steep price. But no matter. Here, have the coins and set a table.” Anna and Bondril moved to the corner table the inn keeper set up for them; it had a good view of the room and the door to the street.
“It looks like there has been a fight here.” Anna looked around at the mended chairs and scrapped tables and bits of glass in the floor and walls.
“I imagine that poor man has had to deal with many fights in this place,” Bondril said. “Not so very long ago, Greensmead was a very friendly place, but it looks as though the darkness from the South has crept farther than expected. It will only get worse the farther we go. But don’t let me burden you with dark thoughts, enough of that will come in days too soon. Tell me, how was it that you learned to ride so well?”
Anna and Bondril talked for sometime about ponies and days well spent riding through green hills for pleasure and not necessity. Presently, Gorgil, Fidril, and Lidril came back. They had found the smithy’s forge, but apparently the smithy himself had up and left just a few days before. The dwarfs had gotten some hard looks from the locals they asked. It seemed as though many people had been leaving. As they were telling Bondril all of this, the inn keeper came over with a large tray of bowls filled with steaming stew. He placed a bowl for each and in the center of the table a plate stacked with bread.
”’Scuse me master dwarf, but did you still want enough for eight?” The inn keeper gestured to the three empty places at the table.
“Yes, please,” Bondril replied. As soon as the inn keeper moved away, Bondril turned to the three who had just come in. “Did you see the others? It shouldn’t have taken them this long to settle the ponies.”
Neither Fidril, nor Gorgil, nor Lidril had seen them. Bondril look pensively at the stew for a moment. “Alright,” he said, “Fidril, you’re with me, everyone else stay here. Keep your noses out of trouble.” Bondril asked the inn keeper for the exit through the back of the inn. Out he and Fidril went.
Anna heard a sudden yelp and then the clanging of metal on metal. At this sound the other dwarfs lept to their feet, hammers and daggers in their hands. Out they ran through the back door. Anna stood alone for a moment, staring at the inn keeper who looked back at her with a similar expression. Then, without know why she did it or what she hoped to do, she ran after the dwarfs, Cornelio clinging to her shoulder.