Chapter 5: Stonefield Inn
The companions’ flight from Lakehaven developed into a nerve-wracking experience. They expected an ambush at any moment and felt relieved the further they distanced themselves from the castle. The road to the north of Lakehaven was smooth, wide, and well maintained with crushed stone, compared to the uneven cart track to the south. Old Fandri was grateful for the improved conditions, and he drove the carriage on with steel determination and cautious speed. He tried to minimise additional damage to the injured elves bouncing on the cushioned seats.
Fandri-La had set the fairies to work inside the luxuriant Royal carriage. They washed the faces of the injured elves and applied their magic to Cassie-Belle’s deep wounds. They worked hard to stem the flow of bleeding that ebbed away her life force. Fandri-La enquired if Sienna would concoct a poultice to promote the wounds healing. The fairies then gathered all the required leaves and roots from alongside the road as they sped along and combined them within large leaves to spread over Cassie-Belle’s and Daeron’s wounds. As they were covering the gash on Daeron’s forehead, he stirred and opened his eyes.
“He’s awake! He’s awake!” Old Fandri driving the carriage, turned around and smiled at his fairy.
“That’s good. He’s going to have a terrible headache, so don’t let him sit up just yet.” Fandri-La turned back to the big elf and saw that he was trying to roll over.
“Where … am I? What’s going on?” Daeron placed a hand to his aching head as he struggled to make sense of his unexpected surroundings. The fairies all sat on his shoulders to try and prevent him from rising.
Fandri-La spoke in a soothing voice, “It’s alright now. You are safe with us here in the Royal carriage. We’re headed north, away from Lakehaven.”
“The Princess ... the Princess has been taken!” Daeron moaned and once again tried to sit up. He clutched his head, cried out, then darkness overtook him.
“There, there, all will be well.” The fairy patted him and spoke in a soothing tone.
“Your Princess is safe right here.” She said it mainly to herself, for Daeron was out cold.
In the front of the carriage, Princess Shari-Rose stirred when she heard Daeron’s voice. “Daeron, is that you?” Opening her eyes, she immediately shrank back into her seat when she saw the road whizzing by. She looked at the old halfling next to her with furrowed brows and struggled to remember what had occurred. Then she noticed the woodcutter’s peasant clothes, axe and calloused hands. “Remove your hand from me. I am a Princess!”
Old Fandri grinned at her haughty attitude. “Well it looks like you are back to your normal self again Highness. You fainted back at the castle and I had no choice but to hold onto your Royalness; to prevent you from falling onto the road. He slowly removed his arm from her waist, making sure that she was strong enough to sit upright unaided. “Your guard woke up in the carriage for a brief time, but I think he may be sleeping again.”
Shari-Rose nimbly bounded around the side of the carriage before Old Fandri could stop her. She ducked in the open window and wailed when she saw the two injured elves lying there. “Daeron, Cassie-Belle!”
Fandri-La nodded to reassure her, which made her bell tinkle. “They’re alright at the moment. Daeron has a bad gash to his forehead, but should be awake again in a while. Cassie-Belle is the more serious at the moment. She appears to have been tortured and has lost a lot of blood. We have stopped the bleeding and applied poultices to the wounds, but she will take a long time to heal and regain her strength. She needs a good bed and someone to look after her.”
The Princess fought back tears, “They were both hurt protecting me. I feel so guilty for they are loyal friends. I will ensure they get the best care available. Daeron is my guardian and has been protecting me for my entire life. I’d be lost without him. Cassie-Belle is my handmaiden, my friend and confidant. She is a High Elf and has been with me here for five years and we were together at the Western Outpost before that. I offer my thanks to you, kind fairies, for caring for them. You will be well rewarded.”
The fairies all bowed and curtsied before the beautiful Princess, feeling honoured to be of service to such an important elf. She shook their tiny hands ever so carefully. As they bowed their heads in respect; their belled caps tinkled with excitement.
Outside the carriage, the three young halflings were following on their horses. They looked around periodically, but saw no sign of the scaly pursuers.
Sienna looked over at Randir. “I’ll have to teach you how to use that bow, you’re a terrible shot.”
“I’m sorry Sienna; I’ve never used a bow and arrow before today. It didn’t seem an appropriate time to tell you when we were about to attack the Vergai. I would like to learn, if you are willing to teach me. Fendi’s father is teaching us to use the sword and axe; though Fendi is much better at close combat than I am.”
“Only because your legs are so long that you keep tripping over them,” laughed Fendi. “You know we will both improve the more we practice. We need to learn to defend ourselves in case those Vergai catch up to us again. They are really scary with their spiky clubs and chains.”
Sienna explained, “The weapons are called morning stars. They are also used by various knights during the summer tournaments at Lakehaven. All the best fighters from the South Lands attend to compete for a prize from the Princess. I have seen many weapons used when my father and I ventured ….” Sienna bowed her head, she did not want the boys to see her vulnerability. As her lips quivered, she kicked her horse into action and rode ahead of the carriage.
Fendi moved to ride after her, but Randir grabbed his reins and quietly told Fendi about Sienna’s recent loss of her father and how her uncle had tried to coerce her into marrying him. Saddened to hear of her loss, Fendi was pleased she’d been able to escape the uncle, and agreed with Randir she would be welcome back in Southdale, when they finally returned home.
“You like her, don’t you Randir? I saw her kiss you last night.” His pimpled face flushed red at the memory.
Randir could see that this thought was bothering Fendi and replied honestly, “I do like her, but just as a friend. I can see that you like her. You really should try and talk to her, you know.”
Fendi was embarrassed that Randir had read him so easily. He mustered some courage and moved his white horse alongside Sienna’s grey one. She looked a little flushed too and stared straight ahead at the road, not acknowledging his presence. They rode on in silence for a few miles and Fendi watched her admiringly. He thought she was very brave choosing to live in the Wild Woods all alone and that her youth and gentle features were deceptive. Her weathered green hood hid pretty brown eyes, but her fingers looked hard and calloused from using her bow.
“You are very skilled with the bow and arrow Sienna,” although inwardly he chided himself for being so obvious. “Can you teach me how to shoot one?”
“Sure Fendi,” her gaze however, remained focussed on the road ahead. Fendi sighed and went back to ride with Randir again. Why will she speak with Randir and not me? Will I ever understand her?
As the sun descended lower into the western horizon, Randir moved up to the wagon to speak with Old Fandri. “Are we going to stop for the night soon Sir? Is it not dangerous here on the road after dark?”
“That may be true Randir, but I’m worried that it would be just as dangerous anywhere we stop. However, I do seem to recall there were plenty of inns along this road when I was younger, so it might be best if we keep going. There’s no way we can defend ourselves against the Vergai in the dark. I just hope the inns are still open, for it’s a good many years since I’ve travelled these parts.” They stopped for a quick bite to eat and to water their horses, then the riders changed mounts and were off again, down the long, lonely road.
The land they travelled past was mostly wild with sparse vegetation. Large boulders were scattered throughout the landscape interrupted by the occasional rocky ridges here and there. Watching the sun set in the west the halflings couldn’t help but admire the beautiful pink colours of the sky, which slowly turned dark blue and the stars winked at them in the cloudless night. Then the moon rose over a rocky hill bathing the night in its pale light.
To the relief of the companions, about an hour after dark, they saw several lights up ahead. It had been an arduous ride and their food had long since been depleted. Randir’s stomach grumbled just looking at the lights. As they drew nearer, they observed several buildings clustered together along one side of the road. A general store, which was closed; a series of small cabins for travellers; and a large tavern, with sign posts for food and drink hanging above the door.
The tavern was bustling with activity and music, as the weary group dismounted and tied their horses and ponies to a hitching post out the front. The Princess opened the side of her carriage and jumped down to the ground. She seemed a little put out that no-one had been there to catch her, demanding haughtily, “Where are we?”
A middle-aged halfling, with a rather round belly, peeked at them from the tavern door. The light spilled across the grass to illuminate the dust covered travelling group. They looked with yearning to the door; they could smell food and hear music and laughter coming from inside. “Welcome to Stonefield Inn.”
The Princess stepped forward to draw his attention, “Innkeeper, we have two injured elves in the wagon who need assistance and we require food, hot baths and rooms for the night.”
“Yes Ma’am,” he bowed to her imperious tone. “I can give you food, baths and lodgings, but we do not have a healer here. Can you pay for what you seek, in gold?”
“Of course,” Shari-Rose flushed with indignation. “Now get some men and help these elves to their beds.”
She presented a handful of gold coins to the surprised innkeeper, whose greedy eyes delighted in the generous amount. “Right this way, milady. All will be as you command.” He gave a very low bow, opened the door to yell for some men to help and fetched a lantern to show them to their rooms. He led them past the first few cabins and then paused at three darkened rooms. “I have three empty cabins for you here, milady. We already have several guests tonight.”
Randir and Fendi gave low gasps of surprise as three tall men, the first they had ever seen, sauntered out of the tavern. The halflings barely reached up to their waists, and elves known for their generous height looked no match. They wore unkempt, wild beards and looked as though their bodies have seen many years of hard physical labour.
The innkeeper opened the first door and they saw four large beds. The men came and gently lifted the two elves. Daeron stirred as he was placed on the well-worn covers. He briefly opened his eyes, saw the Princess and smiled. Then his eyes flickered and closed once more.
The innkeeper showed them the other two rooms, each of which had four big comfortable-looking beds. The Princess crinkled her nose at the lodgings in disgust and whined without thought. “Well, it will have to do, I suppose. Bring me a hairbrush and send for the bath immediately.”
Looking rather nervous, the innkeeper stammered, “We ... we just have the one bath in a room out the back, milady. B…but the water shall be heated to your satisfaction in just a moment. Your meal though, awaits you, whenever you are ready.”
“I shall have my bath first, of course and the others can wait until after their dinner.” Shari-Rose indicted the others within the party with a flick of her wrist and fingers. She felt pleased both that the over-eager innkeeper jumped to her demands, and at herself for her own generosity. To request and pay for baths for all her travelling companions was not a normal habit, but these halflings smelled of sweat and animals. “Halfling girl, you will tend to the injured while the half man and boys eat. You must take good care of these elves and have them washed and properly dressed. I will pay you well if you do a worthy job.”
“I am not going to be ordered about by a, a ....” Sienna’s shiny eyes glared in annoyance as the Princess loomed over her.
“You will do as you are told, young halfling. I am a Princess!” The elf’s voice rose about an octave and ended in a screech. Shari-Rose was used to always getting her way, she was not going to take cheek from some over-confident girl, who dressed like boy.
Sienna looked quite indignant at being ordered about and opened her mouth in protest again, but a look from Old Fandri silenced her. “Yes, your Highness,” the old halfling bowed low. “It is a good strategy. We need to keep someone with these injured elves. The boys and I will stand guard outside your bathing room and then we can eat together. It is not safe to leave anyone alone, with these Vergai creatures looking for you.”
“Of course,” the Princess responded sweetly. She gave Old Fandri a small smile, turned on her heel and left the room, with her back as straight as a rod. He gave the others a look of apology and quickly chased after her.
“Boys, go and get everyone something to eat please,” he asked as he disappeared around the corner.
* * *
“I’m so glad your dad let us go first.” As usual, Randir had a big smile on his face at the thought of a meal. The two youngsters and their fairies eagerly set off towards the tavern, they approached the large stone building with an enthusiastic spring in their step.
Fendi pulled open the large wooden door and the two halflings stepped inside. They were immediately overwhelmed by the sights and sounds in the large room. One whole end was a sizzling kitchen, tended by two red-faced halfling women. Delicious smells wafted their way from meat cooking on a spit over the fire, which Fendi thought was probably rabbit. Large pots of pottage, and dark rye bread could be seen on the bench beside the wooden plates.
On the opposite side of the hall there was much merriment, with pan pipes played by a red-bearded dwarf, and a human playing a lute was accompanied by a halfling woman on a large recorder. The music was fast and cheerful and quite a number of humans and halflings were merrily dancing. Their height differences did not seem to affect their enjoyment as they stamped their feet and clapped hands together.
There were many long trestle tables with wooden benches for seats placed around the room, most of which were deserted except for large mugs, some empty and others half-filled with ale. Randir and Fendi had never seen such a drink before and wondered what it was. As the halflings watched, they saw a red-faced man spill half his drink onto the floor as he stumbled. What surprised the halflings was the fact that the man never even noticed.
A small group was huddled around a table not far from where the boys were standing. “Hey there halflings, come and join us.” The halflings followed the voice to see a red-bearded dwarf. “The name is Baja. Pull up a bench here.” The boys acknowledged the kind gent. They approached his congested table to watch the game. Baja was the first dwarf they had ever seen, but they recognised his race straight away from the bushy plaited hair and beard, to short and stocky features. Baja held five cards in his hands and a large pile of silver coins in front of him. He and the three men were in the midst of a card game and all had coins neatly piled in various heights.
“Here, come and we’ll teach you to play cards, lads.” He raised his tankard and gulped the ale, which resulted in his beard covered in white froth that trickled droplets of ale down his shirt. “I’m Baja Stormhammer, from Diamond City and these here are some new acquaintances of mine.” He pointed at the burly men sitting around the table. “What are your names again lads?” The men introduced themselves and the halflings did likewise. They felt a little intimidated by the size of the men, but they appeared to be sociable so they squeezed in between them.
“Lads, go and get some of the fine chicken pottage from the kitchen over there,” suggested Baja, pointing with a big hairy fist towards the fire. “Also, can you get six tankards of ale? It’s very good and we’re getting thirsty again. I think you’ll like it.”
The halflings saw no harm in obliging the generous dwarf and taking the proffered silver coins, they queued up at the kitchen. One of the serving ladies poured the ale for them from a big wooden barrel perched on a table. The other woman gave the boys a buck-toothed smile and spooned out some pottage onto wooden plates with a chunk of dark bread each, which they accepted with thanks. As she leaned forward, they noticed that her blouse strings seemed to be coming undone in the front and when she caught them staring, gave them a friendly wink.
As they turned back to their table Fendi raised an eyebrow, “Well, what do you make of that?”
Randir’s brows furrowed in bemusement. “I’m not altogether sure, but she didn’t seem to mind us having a look, so I guess that’s how they dress around here.”
Fendi tried to imagine Sienna wearing such a revealing dress and felt himself blushing for the umpteenth time that day. He realised that his appetite had almost gone, so he sat there day-dreaming about the huntress. Randir finished all his own dinner and ale and then started on Fendi’s too.
They carried the remaining ales to the poker table.
“My thanks to you, boys. Well, now you’ve eaten your dinner, how about playing some poker with us? We’ll be kind to you for a few hands,” invited Baja, with a twinkle in his eye. He thumped down the empty tankard and wiped the froth from his beard. The boys had taken an immediate liking to the fun-loving dwarf.
“Randir, I’ll just take some food to Sienna and my father. I’ll be back very soon. Why don’t you have a game, whilst I’m away?” Fendi returned to the kitchen and the smiling serving lady. Before long he was heading out the door with a wooden platter containing steaming plates of pottage and dark bread. Fendi-La followed him out the door and lit the way through the dark.
He dropped off the first plate to his father outside the bathing room. Old Fandri was pleased to see him and grateful for the food. Fandri-La was looking quite out of sorts, but Fendi barely noticed. He vaguely registered tuneless singing coming from inside, but he gave his father a nod and went on with his delivery. All he could think about was Sienna’s luminous brown eyes.
He knocked on her cabin door. She let him in to receive the platter. “Thank-you so much Fendi,” and gave him a friendly pat on the arm, before she poked out her tongue. “I am so annoyed with that Princess. She’d better watch her back if she keeps treating people like dirt. I’m really starving, you know,” and she sat down and shovelled her dinner so quickly that Fendi thought she might choke on it. It was all gone in a blink of a eye, then she leaned back and gave a small, contented burp.
Fendi racked his brains trying to think of something to say that wouldn’t sound stupid. After a long pause, he spoke with hesitation. “Umm, how are the elves going?”
Sienna looked over toward the large male, Daeron and gave a smile. “Well, I think this one will be alright, once he gets over his headache.”
He rolled over and muttered, “Not again Shari-Rose, can’t you be patient for once.”
“I think it must be awful for him to spend a lifetime guarding that ungrateful Princess!” Sienna had changed the bandage on Daeron’s head and he now settled back to sleeping peacefully. She left the spare plate of pottage nearby in case he awoke hungry.
She nodded in Cassie-Belle’s direction, “I’m worried about her. She’s very pale and her breathing is so faint, I can barely hear it. Her pulse at the wrist also feels weak. I have bathed her and changed all her bandages, but I think the problem is lack of blood. Those vile creatures cut her up and just left her to die. I don’t think she should come with us, but we really can’t leave her here at this inn, with no healer to care for her.”
Fendi noticed that Sienna had excelled at caring for the pretty maiden. Cassie-Belle was wearing a clean gown and her long brown hair had been washed and combed out on the pillows. Her lips were a shade of purple that scared him. “Do you think she will survive the night?” he whispered to Sienna, for to him she looked so close to death.
Sienna wiped a hand across her eyes and when she removed it, there was a fierceness about her. “I won’t let her die! Surely the most magical elf in the land can do something for her. What’s the point of having a magical jewel, if it can’t save the people you love?” Sienna’s lip trembled with emotion, but her eyes were narrowed in anger.
Fendi was surprised at the vehemence of her emotions and he guessed with sorrow that it must be because of the recent loss of her father. “Is there anything I can do to help, Sienna?”
Her fist clenched a washcloth. “Well, you go and make sure that there isn’t a healer amongst that rabble at the tavern. Maybe someone knows of something we can do to help her.”
Fendi could see the determination shining through her unshed tears and he wanted to simply hold her and tell her it would all be alright. He didn’t think that she would welcome a hug, so he did the next best thing he could and left her to go and seek help for the elf-maiden.
* * *
When Fendi returned to the tavern, he found Randir acting in a strange manner. He looked unbalanced as he sat next to Baja with his arm around the dwarf’s shoulder. Baja had an even larger pile of silver in front of him now; the glint of the winnings showed in the dwarf’s sparkling eyes. The men who had been sitting with him earlier had left, leaving only the one stranger.
“Ahhhh Fendi, old f…friend; come here and let Baja teach you how to p…play cards. He’s really good you know,” Randir dribbled a little of the ale.
As Fendi walked closer to the table, he noticed that Randir-La sat on the side of the tankard and dipped her toes in the frothy ale. She was swaying from side-to-side with her eyes almost closed and humming to the minstrels’ music. Fendi saw her ungraceful, gradual slide into the mug. He reached out and caught her just in time. He laid her down on the table, where she gave a big burp and rolled over on her side. Fendi placed his handkerchief over the fairy’s tiny dress and tried to dry her off a bit. She smelt very strange, like rancid bread.
Fendi became quite worried about Randir’s strange behaviour. He sat down across the table and leaned towards him to whisper, “Are you alright?”
Randir looked barely more awake than his fairy, but he gave his head a shake, “Never … better,” and blinked in a futile attempt to open his eyes wide and focus. “Fendi, from Southdale, this is Baja St…Stormhammer from Diamond City and this human here is Asher Grey from Fl…Flame Mountain. They’re pretty impressive names, don’t … don’t you think?”
“Yes, I guess so,” Fendi wondered why Randir was so affable with complete strangers. “We have a problem Randir. We need to find a healer for the elf maiden or she may die before dawn. Do you know anyone who can help us good sirs?”
Baja nodded, “Well Fendi, … this is your lucky day. Over yonder playing the pan pipes is my brother Raja who is a bit of a healer himself.” He lifted the tankard once more, oblivious to the halfling’s urgent tone.
Fendi glanced anxiously over at Randir, whose head had slumped forward onto the wooden table. “Can I talk to your brother please, Baja? It’s very important.”
Asher Grey stood up, “I’ll fetch him for you, youngster.” Fendi had never heard such a lilting voice before. Asher’s head almost touched the ceiling and he wore clothes made of black leather with metal studs. His skin was brown like Fendi’s, but it looked more like a tan than a natural colour, and his hair was short and black and spiked out in different directions. He absently stroked his small dark goatee beard with rough fingers.
The mountain man walked with graceful, fluid movement that seemed incongruous with his height. Fendi couldn’t quite pick his age, but guessed from the lines around his face that he might be about thirty. His most intriguing feature was his eyes, which were a pale yellowy-green.
Asher wove his way amongst the dancing patrons to the minstrels. He yelled with urgency to Raja, so they hurried back to the group at the table. Raja looked almost identical to his brother, just a little shorter and his hair was a lighter shade of red. He too had the long braided beard and hair, and carried the pan pipes he had been playing. They seemed to be made of some kind of hollow reed with two rows of six pipes stuck together.
Asher performed the formal introductions. “Fendi and Randir from Southdale; meet Raja Stormhammer who is brother to Baja. Raja, these halflings have an elf that is very ill. Can you go with Fendi and take a look at her please?”
“Of course, Ash, my friend, just show me the way young lad.” Raja picked up a large two-headed axe from the weapons rack at the door of the tavern. It was a deadly-looking weapon with its two razor-sharp blades. He also grabbed two small throwing axes and stowed them in the casings on his back. Finally he handed a long dagger to Fendi and noted the halfling’s surprise. “You never can be too careful at night.” Fendi gave a small nod and thought that Raja could definitely be right on this particular evening.
Randir groggily raised a hand in farewell, as Raja followed Fendi and his fairy outside to the elves’ cabin.