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.