The Mystery of Caer Myrrthin
There were five of us on the north road that morning in late May, following its winding course through green hills, sprouting fields, and patches of forest. Most of the people we passed in our journey had paused for at least a moment to stare; we made a strange-looking party. As far as I can tell, the only thing we have in common is being under twenty years of age.
A man of Conner's weight would be thin even if his height were normal. At nearly seven feet tall, he looks something like a stork, albeit one in perfectly fitted clothing. His parents are tailors, and he learned the family trade before he turned to magic. Besides his height, golden eyes proclaim a measure of Fae blood; they are those of an eagle, matching fiercely prominent features. Those might be impressive in thirty years or so, but at eighteen he just looks awkward. He carries a bow and quiver.
Beside him Meara of Rose looks even shorter than her five feet and a bit, but is unlikely to be overlooked. Never mind the fiery red hair, freckles, and green eyes; the left one has nine straight scars radiating out from it, and marks on her hands and feet proclaim her a priestess of Brigid. She's younger than Conner, but more graceful, her manner by turns confident and cautious. She dresses well, generally in something that echoes the green in the Rose hunting tartan, and has a donkey named Buttercup tagging along behind her.
Llweder of Rhys is a druid, seldom interested in anything outside their concerns. He's a man of average height and greater than average breadth, and carries a massive oaken staff. A solitary sort, he tends to get on better with animals than with humans.
Gannon Llywarch is an Imperial accountant. He doesn't stand out much, which might make him stand out in this group. He carries a short sword and more knives than you would think. He and Conner have become friends since we set out.
The others variously refer to me as "milady," "Ariana," or "that damned Rhys," depending on their mood. Since there's no real need for standing on ceremony out here, the first two are perfectly acceptable, the third kind of amusing. My family enjoys (and I believe enjoys is the right word) a colorful and not altogether undeserved reputation, one I only hope I can live up to. I'm fifteen years old, a little on the tall side for a woman, not particularly heavy, black-haired, blue-eyed. On this journey I lugged the usual complement of weaponry and armor. I was riding Griffon, of course. He's a huge, slate-colored horse, smart and well-trained, and somewhat magic besides, though unlike some he can't speak any human languages. I think he was a little bored by the quiet traveling. Maybe he and Buttercup chatted.
Though we had been on the road three weeks, I was still excited about the journey. It was my first real trip out on my own, it was on an actual mission for the kingdom, and it was giving me a chance to get away from my family for a while.
I should be careful about that. I love my parents dearly, as both family and sovereigns. It's wonderful that they're still completely in love after thirty years and five children. Really. That doesn't make it easy to live with on a daily basis, though; by winter's end I was more than ready to be somewhere else, and lucky enough to be needed elsewhere.
A tax collector had disappeared over the winter in a place far up the western coast, somewhere around Caer Myrrthin. The castle is in a spot that might charitably be described as the back end of nowhere, but it's not one where tax collectors are expected to disappear. Upon looking into the matter, someone had realized that we hadn't heard anything at all from the castle in about fifty years. One of those cases where as long as the taxes got paid and they hadn't screamed for help, no one much cared.
Those taxes were an interesting thing, though. Always in the past they had been paid in fish, but last year it was gold; the exchequer's office had sent someone a bit more senior this time around, and now he'd disappeared.
There had at some point been a community of druids attached to the castle, which had also not been heard from for quite a while. Given the isolated area and the insular nature of the clans inhabiting it, this was not unusual, but....
In short my father wanted to know what was going on up there, as did the high druids, Meara's abbot, and the Exchequer's Office, and so we had set out from the capital to investigate. Before we could get on with it, however, on this particular beautiful morning we found our progress halted by a primitive roadblock, just a tree trunk balanced on some large rocks. Light forest covered the land to either side.
"Four copper each!" squeaked one of the dozen or so goblins manning the thing.
"You have to admire their balls," Gannon murmured, shaking his head.
"On whose authority did you put this here?" Llweder snapped, stalking up to the barrier.
"Ours!" He poked the druid smartly in the shin with a spear.
Conner faded back a bit and set an arrow to his bowstring.
"I just want to get this straight," Meara said earnestly. "You are setting up a tollbooth on a road owned by a Rhys, and you're attempting to collect a toll from one of the Rhys, who own the road?"
I was, needless to say, watching this with great interest and greater amusement.
"Yeah!" the goblin replied.
"Damn, you're stupid. You haven't bred, have you?" Meara inquired.
"Milady, what do you think we should do?" Llweder wanted to know.
"If they stand aside, they can get out of this unharmed..." I offered. Contrary to popular opinion, I'm really not bloodthirsty. It didn't look as if they were bright enough to grasp their situation, though. Off to one side I spotted the flag on top of their hut. Just a rag, really, with a crudely drawn picture of a red eye. Now where had the little guys gotten that idea, I wondered. I've never heard of goblins being much for organization.
"Are there any more goblins about?" Llweder asked in the language of squirrels.
"More than what?" came the chittering response.
"More than the ones right here, out in the woods."
"Then let's get this party started," he started, swinging his staff at the goblin's head; the critter ducked with remarkable speed.
"Do leave one or two alive for questioning." I drew my sword; Griffon snorted and pawed at the road.
Conner loosed his arrow, skewering a goblin, then cast Blurred Image on himself in case of counterattack. Meara gestured at a goblin and set the tree trunk on fire instead as her target ducked out of the way. Gannon threw a knife, which missed. Meara repeated her gesture; this time the goblin leader burst into flame.
Do not annoy a priestess of Brigid.
The rest of the goblins began throwing javelins from behind their barricade, mildly inconveniencing Llweder and myself. I gave Griffon a nudge; he took a few strides, leaped the barrier, and landed in the midst of the goblin mass, squashing one or two.
Gannon drew his gladius and put on a dramatic display of swordsmanship, perhaps intending to strike fear into those that remained. Meara repeated her Fire Dart, the quickest spell in her personal arsenal, setting another of the vermin aflame. Llweder reached into a pouch at his belt and withdrew a thorn in preparation for a spell. He promptly dropped it, but at least it didn't misfire and make pincushions of any of us.
The goblins were already running away, lighting small patches of woodland on fire as they scatstered. Gannon cut another down as it ran, Meara singed another, and I missed completely. The little things can move when they want to. Llweder tried again with his thorn spell, with better success this time. Conner put a second arrow into the one he had first shot; he wanted to be sure to kill it so he could recover his arrows.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al