"Well, my Hunters. I hope you've enjoyed your little rest."
Buck grinned. "No complaints, Your Highness, but I think we're ready to get back to work. That's why we're here, right?"
"Yes. I've received a request from Baron Royale for assistance."
Chris frowned. He'd heard that name somewhere.
Michael didn't miss the look. "He's a minor lord of the Pellear province. He came to power about a year ago under somewhat...suspicious circumstances."
Now Chris remembered. "Rumor has it he murdered his uncle and cousin to get the title."
"You know I don't like rumors. However, it does seem a bit too convenient that they both died in the same tragic accident."
"Why are we helping this weasel then?"
"You won't be helping him so much as you'll be helping the people there. He sent a messenger with a shocking piece of news. The village of Four Corners brought a petition before him for protection against a dragon."
Nathan's eyes went wide. Everyone knew they existed, but few people ever saw them in Itreya. The few that were rumored to live there kept to themselves. A dragon.
Michael saw the concern on all their faces. "This dragon attacked a young boy in the forest and tried to eat him. The villagers went to kill it or at least drive it away. The dragon killed two men before it got away--burned them alive with its fiery breath. They don't believe it's left the area, however. The Baron employed several scouts to track it down and they've been finding fresh signs that it's still nearby, but they can't find its warren. This dragon is very clever."
Vin shook his head. A dragon. "Your Highness. None of us have ever seen a dragon, let alone fought one. I suppose I could learn the tracks once I know what I'm looking for. But how are we going to kill it? I've heard stories of it being done. The trolls used to hunt them in the old days for sport. But we ain't trolls and we don't know the first thing about killing dragons."
A sly smile graced the king's face. Vin had led him right to the other bit of news he'd been reluctant to share. "Then it's lucky for us that I've found an expert on dragons."
Josiah was confused. "An expert on dragons? So he'll be joining us as a guide then?"
"He'll be more than a guide. He'll be one of you. The young man showed up at the castle less than a week ago, glowing bright blue."
The others knew what that meant. He'd been Called to the castle to join the Hunters.
Michael continued. "He's young, a little green, but he's a fast learner and a good fighter."
Chris's eyes narrowed. "A kid? This is going to be a dangerous mission. We won't be able to nursemaid a boy."
Michael returned Chris's glare with equal force. "He may be young, but he's no boy. And it wasn't a request. You'll need him."
Josiah tried to divert some of the tension his way. "What makes this young man such an expert?"
"He's from Belen. Dragons are so thick there that their king has his own unit of dragon-riding knights. Their dragons are reputed to be smaller than the breed we have in Itreya, but they must surely have enough in common for his knowledge to be of use to us."
Vin let out a low whistle. "Belen, huh? He's a long way from home." Belen was clear across the Copra Sea.
"Indeed. And a good thing for us he is. He worked for the Belen dragonriders. He's seen these creatures, touched them, cared for them. Someone who's worked so closely with them must know something of their weaknesses and habits. We need to know where to find this dragon and how to stop it. The people of Four Corners cannot be left at its mercy. And I think it would also be a good idea to find out a little bit more about Baron Royale. Rumors though they may be, I don't like the things I've been hearing about him. Keep your eyes and ears open for information regarding him. I want you ready to leave in the morning. John will meet you at the stables." The king nodded slightly in dismissal. The five men bowed and left the throne room.
Michael could see the tension that his addition to the group had created. They were not happy men. Wait until they actually met John, or JD as he preferred to be called! He was a decent young man, but he could try the patience of a saint with his cheerful, non-stop chatter. The Hunters would either want to take him under their wings or toss him into the Kander River. Too bad Michael couldn't go on these kinds of missions anymore, being the king and all. His counselors would go insane if he endangered himself in such a way. Michael sighed. He'd love to see JD drive the steely Chris insane.