AN INCONVENIENCE OF HOBGOBLINS
I’d never seen an angry hobgoblin before.
If this one wasn’t my friend, it might’ve been funny. Tobble was red in the face before I noticed him in the grass by the garden wall, and since hobgoblins have green skin, that in itself was quite a feat.
“Tobble, what’s wrong?” I asked in Low Gnomic, or what could’ve passed as Gnomic if I hadn’t butchered it with my Arlean accent. The earthy words used by hobgoblins and other garden creatures sounded heavy and awkward on my human tongue, and Tobble had often despaired of my pronunciation. Today, however, he was too distraught to notice.
“Lord Merybourne has hired Riders, Aliza. Five of them! Do you know what that means?” he said. His head, which was round and homely as a potato, came halfway up my shin, and he clutched handfuls of his mossy hair as I knelt next to him.“We’re doomed! Doomed, I say!”
I set my basket on the ground.“Slow down. Who’s doomed?”
“Everyone! Gnomes, hobgoblins, half-goblins, all of us garden-folk.”
“Why are you all doomed?”
Tobble clambered up onto my lap, leaving muddy footprints on the front of my dress. Eyes the color of wilted dandelions stared into mine.“There will be wyverns flying around the place!”
“Well, yes. The Riders ride the wyverns. Isn’t that the point?”
“Aliza, wyverns eat hobgoblins!”
“Come on, Tobble. Nobody’s going to get eaten. When’s the last time you heard of a hired wyvern snacking on the locals?”
“I guess . . . never.”
“Exactly. These Riders signed a contract. They’re not about to let their mounts gobble up the garden-folk while there’s work to be done. Besides, it’s bad manners. Wyverns are civilized creatures.”
“But what if one of them gets hungry? What if he can’t help it?”
I squeezed his hand between my thumb and forefinger.“Tell you what. Just in case, gods forbid, Lord Merybourne happened to hire the rudest Riders in Arle, I’ll ask him to set aside a few extra head of cattle for their wyverns.”
Tobble grinned, showing a row of flat, brown teeth. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, a shadow fell over the garden. Wings beat the air behind us. Large wings.
My heart broke into a gallop as Tobble disappeared into the underbrush. Instinct told me to follow him, to run, to hide, but terror dug nails deep into my legs, rooting me to the ground. Is this what Rina felt? Is this why she didn’t run when the gryphons came for her? The wingbeats grew louder and I picked up my basket. Not much defense against a gryphon’s talons, but I wasn’t about to go without a fight.
I turned to face the thing that blocked the sun.
Relief washed over me, warm and sweet, and I almost laughed. In the field beyond the garden wall, a dragon was descending.
The dragon’s wings stretched the length of the field, and talons the size of plowshares scoured the earth where it landed. Pewter scales shone with a bluish-gold luster where the sun hit its sides, and I longed for a canvas and some paints to capture the sight, my fear forgotten.
A broad-shouldered figure leapt from the dragon’s back.
The Rider’s voice tore me away from the strokes of my mental paintbrush. I reddened as he approached and tried to wipe some of the mud from my dress, succeeding only in smudging it farther down the front. The contrast between us grew clearer—and more painful—with each step. Tooled in gold across the Rider’s breastplate was the rampant figure of a dragon, the symbol of House Daired, and on the hilt of the sword slung over his shoulder I caught the bloodred glimmer of a lamia’s heartstone. As my younger sister Mari once told me, the serpentine, scythe-wielding monsters called lamias were one of the Tekari, sworn foes of humankind. A lamia’s heartstone would be a worthy pommel gem for a Daired’s blade.
My gaze trailed from his heartstone to his face, and a new chill ran through me, though this one wasn’t so much fear as a healthy dose of embarrassment.
Blast. He would be handsome.
Of course, he could’ve looked like the wrong side of a troll and his appearance would’ve still made me blush. By rights this Daired shouldn’t have been here at all. Merybourne Manor sat at the heart of a poor county, the smallest in the island kingdom of Arle. Lord Merybourne ruled over farmers, craftspeople, and the occasional merchant, but no one rich or distinguished, and it’d taken us months to scrounge enough to meet the bond-price for a band of Riders.
My father, the Manor clerk and an old friend of Lord Merybourne, had spent weeks running the sums to see how we could afford it. Five Riders, five mounts, and food and lodging for a fortnight, in return for which they’d hunt down and slay the gryphon horde that plagued us. At twenty silver dragonbacks per Rider, the commission cost the Manor a total of one hundred dragonbacks.
Or, by my more practical calculation, the entire income of Merybourne Manor in a year.
Still, it had to be done. Lord Merybourne had sent the letters to the capital, Edonarle, and prayed some of the Riders would answer. And they had. It was only when my father received their signed contracts that we realized one of the Riders was a Daired.
Lord Merybourne had just about choked on his soup when Papa handed him the contracts, Master Daired’s on top. Other Riders could win over the bear-like beoryns, and some of the older bloodlines could bond with smaller winged wyverns, but the Daireds alone, descended from legendary warrior Edan the Fireborn, were dragonmasters. Naturally, that entitled them to charge just about any bond-price they liked. Which, as we’d heard, was upward of fifteen gold dragonbacks per day.
Yet this Daired had signed Lord Merybourne’s contract, accepting twenty silver dragonbacks for a whole fortnight’s work. Knowing that, I expected I wasn’t the only one who’d look on him with suspicion. Admiration and gratitude, of course, but suspicion too. No Daired in their right mind would stoop to visit Hart’s Run on so slight a temptation as twenty dragonbacks . . . but here he was, striding toward me along the overgrown garden path, that striking, battle-scarred face set in a look that confirmed my fears: Merybourne Manor was the last place in Arle he wanted to be.
And here I was, the first of the Manor-folk to greet Master Daired, sweaty, dirt-stained, hair all amuss, and staring like a half-witted schoolgirl. Perfect.
I dropped into the curtsy I used for strangers of uncertain rank, unsavory solicitors, and the man at the market who sells cut-rate mutton. As I straightened, I touched the four fingers of my right hand to my forehead in greeting.“Morning, sir.”
With a flick of his wrist he returned the gesture. Dark eyes under brows sharp as knives raked across my face and dress, and, apparently not finding anything there to his liking, he fixed his gaze somewhere just over my head. “What’s the quickest way to Lord Merybourne?”
“If you follow the path, it’ll take you to the front of the Manor House. There’ll be someone at the door to show you in.”
Daired pushed past me, muttering something that might’ve been thank you, though it just as easily might’ve been a rude word in the dragon-tongue, Eth.
He didn’t get far.
Unheard by either of us, Tobble and a dozen other hobgoblins had crept from the undergrowth as we spoke, crowding onto the path to watch our exchange. Their mossy green skin blended into the flagstones so well, Daired didn’t see them at first. I did.
“Watch out!” I cried.
Tobble shrieked as Daired’s iron-shod boot came down on his toes. Daired yelled in surprise and aimed a kick at Tobble’s mid-section, and Tobble’s shriek turned into a keening wail as he sailed toward the hedgerow. I threw myself into the shrubbery after him. Leaves and branches tore at my side and I landed hard, Tobble cradled in the crook of my arm.
“Aliza! Are y-you all right?”
By sheer good luck we’d missed the thorniest part of the shrub. I spat out a leaf and set Tobble on the ground, relieved to find him unhurt. Despite their small stature, hobgoblins were hardy creatures.“I’m fine. Are—oh no. What are they doing now?”
We emerged from the hawthorn onto a battlefield. Shouting all manner of Gnomic curses, the rest of the hobgoblins had declared war on Daired, scooping up handfuls of mud and flinging them at his head, or, if they couldn’t lay hands on enough mud, simply flinging themselves. Most only reached his knees. He battled off the inconvenience with kicks and, for those hobgoblins who managed to leap higher than his waist, with his fists as well, matching their curses with a few of his own, both in Arlean and Eth.
“We should probably help him,” I said.
Tobble crossed his arms.“You do what you want. I’m going to watch.”
Hobgoblins. Dodging the nearest projectile, I stepped over Tobble’s screaming cousin and placed myself between Daired and his attackers. “Gpheth!” I cried. “Stop!”
The hobgoblins froze, mud dripping from their fingers. Daired froze too, his hand near the buckle that would release his scabbard from its harness on his back.
“Tobble’s fine,” I told the hobgoblins in Gnomic. “This man is Lord Merybourne’s guest. Please, let him through. And no more mud!”
One by one, the hobgoblins dropped their missiles and slunk back into the garden, chirping their disappointment. I snuck a peek at Daired. Covered in mud and blisteringly angry, the man was a sight to make gargoyles tremble. He wiped the remains of one lucky shot from the corner of his mouth and spat on the ground.“What did you tell them?”
“I asked them to leave you alone,” I said. “Really though, you didn’t have to kick him. Hobgoblins are harmless.”
“Tell that to my armor.” Bending his head in the barest of bows, he turned on his heel and stormed down the path toward the Manor.
“Well, I never!” Tobble said.“What an awful man.”
With a sigh I stooped to collect my fallen basket. The herbs I’d set out to gather lay trampled in the mud.“Tobble, I think I’ll see about those extra cattle now.”
Inside, the kitchens were all abuzz with news of the Riders’ arrival. I set my refilled basket on the sideboard and scanned the room for Cook. He stood by the fireplace, sweating and muttering as he supervised the seasoning of the stag rotating on a spit.
“Bloody Riders can’t hunt their own meat now, can they? Make us cough up enough for a banquet when we’ve already—Aliza! Oh, thank the Fourfold God. Where’s my rosemary?”
“I left it by the pantry.”
“What good’s it going to do my venison over there?” he bellowed. “Jenny! Jenny, get the rosemary! And where’s my carving knife?”
Several maids looked up, eyeing first the knife in Cook’s hand, then each other.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Find it! And who’s keeping an eye on the bread? Blast it all, people, this banquet is happening tonight, not next week!” He remembered me with a frown.“Miss Aliza, what are you doing here? The kitchen’s no place for Manor-folk.”
“You asked me to go collect some . . . never mind. Listen, I wanted to ask—”
“No, no, none of that! Unless you’re here to tell me those Riders have brought their own feast, I can’t have you in here.”
“All right, all right. I’m going. And, Cook, the knife’s in your hand.”
A chorus of giggles erupted from the kitchen maids as Cook flushed and held up the errant utensil.
Unfortunately, he had a point. It’d taken a year’s taxes and two loans from neighboring estates to cover the Riders’ bond-price, and with the welcome banquet Lord Merybourne ordered on top of all that, it pushed us nearly to the breaking point. But I’d promised Tobble I’d look into the extra cattle, and the least I could do was ask. I’d have to talk to my father.
Long before I reached Papa’s door, I heard Mama’s voice echoing all the way down the spiral staircase, shrill and angry enough to frighten away even Lord Merybourne, should he have been unwise enough to wander this way. My younger sister Mari once speculated that Mama had some banshee blood on her side of the family. I trusted her judgment. Mama’s half-brother, my uncle Gregory, had inherited a talent for gardening from his great-grandmother’s dalliance with a wood-wight, so it wouldn’t surprise me if one of Mama’s ancestors had passed a little something down as well, though that relationship would take a good deal more explaining. Banshees, like lamias and so many other creatures of the Oldkind, counted themselves among the Tekari, and hated all humans.
My parents’ conversation grew clearer as I climbed the last few steps. “Surely you see what an opportunity this is!” Mama said.
“Yes, I do.” Papa’s voice was stern.“It’s a chance to get rid of these accursed gryphons once and for all. Of all people, I’d think you’d appreciate that most.”
“Of course, of course, but I’m talking about our daughters.”
“Oh? Were they planning to slay some of the beasts themselves?”
“If these Riders are apprenticing, I’ll give my hearty consent to whichever girl wishes to take up the blade. You and I will both sleep easier if they know how to defend themselves.”
“I’d sleep easier knowing they’re looked after now, not ten years from now when they’ve finished their training.”
“I was joking, my dear.”
“Well, I’m not! And anyway, a husband lasts longer than an apprenticeship.”
“Only if he’s unlucky.”
Imagining Mama’s response to that, I took pity on Papa and knocked.
“Enter!” he called.
Mama paced in front of Papa’s desk.“Aliza! What are you doing up here?”
“I had a question for Papa about Manor expenses.”
Usually bored at the first hint of business, I expected her to make a quick exit. Instead, she stood and stared at me, toe tapping. “Well? Out with it.”
“Papa, after the banquet tonight, how many head of cattle will His Lordship have left?”
He donned his spectacles and consulted the ledger at his elbow. “Cook agreed to make do with only one side of beef tonight, so that leaves two dozen dairy cows, six bulls, and ten steers. Why do you want to know?”
Forty animals. That was less than half the herd Lord Merybourne had owned before the gryphons descended. With winter coming and a hundred mouths to feed on the Manor, we couldn’t spare many more.“It’s nothing.”
“And good thing too. Your father’s in one of his moods,” Mama said, glaring at Papa.“If you won’t take an interest in your daughters’ futures, Robart, then gods help me, I’ll do it myself.”
“I’ve no doubt you’ll do a splendid job, Moira.”
“I mean it! Where are these Riders now?”
“Lord Merybourne is welcoming them in the Great Hall.”
“Excellent. Come along, Aliza.”
“If you ladies are headed that way, perhaps you’d do me a favor?” Papa offered me a sheet of paper.“Take this to one of the Riders down there, name of Brysney. His Lordship wanted it signed as soon as possible.”
Mama snatched the sheet from my hand.“Signed? What more would a Rider have to sign? He couldn’t . . .” Her face brightened as she read it over.“Oh! Oh my goodness!”
“What, Mama? Papa? What is it?”
Mama circled the desk to keep the paper out of my grasp. “Robart, is he serious?”
“Quite. Master Brysney wrote to Lord Merybourne shortly after their contracts were sealed, asking if he knew of a suitable house in the neighborhood,” he said.“His Lordship offered the North Fields lodge and, well, we now have a Rider paying rent.”
“That’s wonderful!” I said.
Mama waved a hand.“Yes, yes, wonderful. But how many other people know about this, Robart?”
“Besides us? His Lordship, Lady Merybourne, and Warren Carlyle,” Papa said, naming Lord Merybourne’s steward and the father of my closest friend, Gwyndolyn Carlyle. “Lord Merybourne will tell the rest of the Manor at banquet tonight.”
“Well then, that doesn’t give me very much time.”
“Time? For what?”
“We have a long game to plan, and I’ll not waste a moment,” Mama said, eyes sparkling in a way that didn’t bode well for me or any of my sisters. “I have to put the pieces in motion. Angelina needs a dress!” she cried, and before Papa could stop her, she was out the door.
“Aliza, my dear, for whatever happens tonight, please accept my sincerest apologies,” he said as the door swung shut.
“Oh, don’t worry. Anjey can hold Mama off.” I could see now why Lord Merybourne wanted to throw the Riders a banquet. With one of them renting the North Fields lodge, we’d be able to repay our debt to the nearby estates in months, not years.“Is it just the one Rider?”
“Just Master Brysney and his sister, Lady Charis. The others will stay with them while they’re hunting the gryphons.”
“Brysney. Why do I know that name?”
“The last contract they undertook was in Harborough Hatch.”
“I . . . oh.” Of course.
We’d all heard what the Brysneys had done in Harborough Hatch. Between rockslides, mudslides, and floods, news coming out of that county had always been bad, but nothing compared to the day the Lesser Lindworm broke ground outside of the city of Hatch Ford. Spawned from earth and the legends of nightmares, the venomous, worm-like Tekari terrorized the countryside for weeks, until twin Riders from the north, a brother and sister, flew in on the first winds of winter and succeeded where dozens of Riders before them had failed. Bards all around Arle sang about the battle, and though there were a dozen versions of how they’d done it, a few facts stayed the same: Master Brysney and Lady Charis slew the Worm, and paid the price for it. Lady Charis’s wyvern died after the battle, poisoned by the Worm’s incurable sting.
The bards didn’t talk much about that part.
“I hope the gryphons won’t be so difficult,” I said.
“With five Riders and a dragon in the fight, I doubt it’ll even come close to difficult,” Papa said, shutting the ledger with a thud. Dust floated up from the faded pages. He fought back a sneeze. “If you’re—ah—heading downstairs, would you take this to Master Carlyle? With my apologies. Next time I won’t keep it so long.”
“Do you want me to bring the lease too?”
“No, I’ll take it down. I just wanted to see your mother’s reaction,” he said with a smile, which dimmed the more he thought about it. “And, er, on that note, keep an eye on your sister for me, will you? I’ve never seen Moira so determined. All joking aside, I wouldn’t want her doing anything foolish to attract Master Brysney’s attention.”
“She wouldn’t stoop that low, would she?”
“Who knows? All we can do is remind her that this Brysney, rich and single as he may be, is most definitely not here looking for a wife.”