It was a dark and chilly autumn night, and golden light from the bay windows of the Hairy Pony promised a welcome haven from the weather.
Within, an odd company was assembled in the small front parlour. Around the low table in the window was a group of elves, speaking in low voices as they leaned in toward one another, their wild and fair faces lit by the glow of lamplight.
Alongside the opposite wall, up which climbed a glossy-leaved ivy, its tendrils reaching out across the ceiling, sat a group of dwarves on stools, laughing as they threw their heads back and drained their tankards, spilling foam on their brightly coloured tunics (when it wasn’t caught by their jutting beards).
At the bar sat a hobbit, hair falling like waves from a middle parting, shapely bare feet curling around the foot-bar of the stool. His grey eyes were thoughtful as he gazed into his ale.
The landlord lifted his shaggy head and glanced up as a face appeared in the top pane of the glass door. At least, the eyes appeared, and a pair of glinting blue eyes they were, under bushy white eyebrows. The rest of the face was obscured by distorted bottle glass, but through it could be discerned a white beard to go with the eyebrows. The body could not be seen for condensation clinging to the lower panes, but the appearance of a head at the top pane could only mean a visitor the height of a human.
The door opened, and raindrops blew in behind the old man, who wore a long grey cloak and a battered, pointed hat with a brim. His white beard and moustaches gave the impression of flowing waterfalls. As he came down the three steps into the parlour, his eyes flashed around the company before coming to rest on the hobbit. He nodded, and the hobbit nodded back. The landlord was astute enough to notice that some understanding passed between them.
“An Americano with hot milk, please,” said the newcomer.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do you an Americano,” the landlord told him.
The tall man’s eyes glinted dangerously under the brim of his hat. “I had word from those I have met in other parts – good men and true – that this place was famed for its brews – and its hospitality. Would you withhold refreshment from me on such a night?”
The landlord, however, remained calm and cheerful. “We only sell ales here; that’s what those folk meant by brews. Or perhaps they were speaking of our sister tavern, The Prancing Barista, which is a day’s journey west along the Road. That is indeed a top quality coffee establishment, and if you are travelling that way, I would recommend that you call in.”
“My direction is my own business. It seems that the information I received was incorrect,” said the old man, adding darkly, “maybe mistakenly, maybe not.”
The hobbit beside him set down his tankard upon the bar, and turned to the stranger. “Let me buy you a pint of their finest. Do you prefer a stout, a citrusy ale or a malty bitter?”
“Thank you, I will have a stout. And I would gladly pass time in your company; it is long since I heard news of the little folk.” He looked around the crowded parlour and asked the landlord, “Is there somewhere we may sit and talk quietly?”
The landlord nodded, his long curls swinging. “Yes, there’s a room just down there, in the back. You will have it to yourselves, if that is what you desire.” He asked the hobbit, “More ale?”
“I believe I will,” replied the hobbit, “and bring some cakes as well.”
As the pair walked down the narrow ramp to the back , the dwarves exchanged meaningful looks, and the elves’ low talk intensified.
From either side of the bottom of the ramp, a bench adorned with colourful cushions ran all the way around the little room. The old man gestured toward a table in the corner. “We will be private enough here,” he said. “There is only one entrance, and we will see anyone coming down the ramp in that mirror.”
They removed some of their heavy outer garments, hanging them on convenient hooks beside the fireplace.
As they sat to the table, a fair maid in a green velvet dress came bearing a tray laden with two glasses, chocolate beetroot cake, halva croissants, and raspberry mud cakes. “Ah, supper,” said the hobbit contentedly, and the maid smiled sweetly as she placed his pint of stout in front of him before bustling away up the ramp.
“I have it!” announced the hobbit, patting the pocket of his gaily coloured waistcoat. “I have got the ri-”
“Be quiet!” hissed the other. “Walls have ears.”
“I have got the riddle my cousin set me last week,” hastily amended the hobbit in a loud voice.
“And you would do well to keep it to yourself,” whispered the old man with a stern look. “Now, we must make our ways separately; it will arouse suspicion if we travel together. Tomorrow, you will travel along the Road to the Prancing Barista, and I will take the back paths and meet you there at dawn the following morning. From there I will guide you across the moor to the mineshaft, where you must fulfil your fate. Now let us eat these excellent cakes, and then I will depart, and you must go to your rooms.”
Some time later, when the last drop of ale had been drained and the last crumb of cake consumed, and the two guests had gone their separate ways, the maid came for the tray. Then the landlord entered the back room, looked swiftly around, lifted a section of the wooden bench, and pressed a secret catch under a stone in the wall. A portion of the wall swung back, revealing a doorway into a chamber beyond.
There in the candlelight sat a small, slight lady, with fearless blue eyes, and hair as white as snow. She wore a fine and flowing gown the colour of new beech leaves, with intricate white embroidery that looked like the work of elves. A chain of gold girdled her slim waist. Behind her chair stood a tall, handsome man with fine eyes and a sharp nose, hands behind his back. The lady leaned forward eagerly, her small hands clasped in her lap.
The landlord pulled the door closed behind him, and the bench could be heard dropping back into place. “That was them, wasn’t it?”
“It was them alright,” she confirmed. “I heard every word, and they’ve definitely got the ring.”
“I asked the dwarves to spread themselves out, so there would be no room in the parlour, making it necessary for the hobbit and his friend to come to the back. They agreed, but I think they, and the elves, suspect something.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she assured him. “They’ll know soon enough anyway. Now I’ve got to go; I’m supposed to be at a meeting of Elders in the Hall. Thank you for that.” Her consort pulled back her chair as she rose to her feet.
Two days later, as first light dawned over the rugged moor, the hobbit and his cloaked companion, carrying their packs on their backs, made their way down a grassy path towards dense woods, leaving the Prancing Barista behind them.
“It was true about the coffee,” remarked the hobbit. “And those cakes! I believe that I can die happy, if die I must on this fearsome quest, having tasted those cakes.”
Suddenly there was a rustling in the tall bracken beside the path, and out stepped a woman with snowy hair, with a tall, finely dressed gentleman close behind her. The hobbit stopped in his tracks, and looked around frantically for a path in the bracken down which he might escape and hide. But his cloaked companion caught his arm. “Wait; I know who these two are, and I believe that they are friends. Though quite what they are doing here, I do not know.” His steely eyes flashed.
“I’m here to make sure you don’t go the wrong way, you old fool,” said the Lady.
The bearded man started, and his mouth fell open.
“I heard about you getting mixed up when the Park Ranger gave you directions to the Hairy Pony, and I was worried about the quest,” she said. “I would have joined you earlier, once I’d ascertained that you were who I thought you were, but I had back-to-back meetings all day yesterday. My companion and I plan to come with you, and make sure that ring goes down the mineshaft before the Dark Powers can get hold of it. I know everyone round here, and that may be useful. But it’s up to you.”
The two companions glanced at one another, and nodded almost imperceptibly.
“You may come,” said the old man.
“Well, thank you very much,” she replied.
“It is we who should thank you,” said the hobbit formally, bowing. For he felt that this Lady was wise, kind, and true, and that she and her noble companion would be valuable allies on the Road. Then his face became rueful as he patted his bulging pack. “Though I suppose it means I shall have to share these cakes between four instead of two!”
As the companions set off along the path through the bracken, the sun rose fully above the moor, and the skylarks began to sing.