A bleak drizzle kept on the whole afternoon. It would clear for a half an hour at a time, long enough for me to feel hopeful that I might dry off, and then it would rain again. I had brought my broad-brimmed hat which kept the rain from my eyes, but eventually I had to forsake my usual place by the tree to perch on a boulder, or else face sinking into the mud.
Two hours before dusk the hunting party rode through Glenn’s land. They were noisy enough that the sounds of raised, angry voices, the jingling of tack, and the stamping of hooves punctuated the white noise of the rain. A few yells of agreement and disagreement were all I could catch as they faded off again. I gathered up the sheep as quickly as I could, hoping to catch them on the road home, but I didn’t. Frustrated as I was, I dared not push the sheep to go any faster, thinking of Michael’s warning.
By the time I got to the house, Father and Mother were saying their goodbyes to Willy and Laura, who had declined an invitation to stay for supper. I hurried the sheep past them. “How did the hunt go?” I twisted in my saddle to ask.
Willy shook his head, his expression gloomy. “Your father will tell you.”
“Put the sheep in the barn,” was all Father said.
When I returned from the barn Willy and Laura had gone; Mother and Father both had withdrawn to the house. They were in the
kitchen, finishing the supper preparations; Michael was presumably in his room. The smell of baking bread hit me like a warm hug as I stepped inside and shed my moist outer wear.
“I heard them as they were coming back from the hunt,” I said hesitantly. “It did not sound good.”
Father had his pipe out and he nodded as he puffed, getting the tobacco to light properly. He inhaled the thick smoke deeply into his lungs and then let it out in a soft, fragrant trail. Mother coughed delicately and waved her hand in front of her nose. He shifted to face me so the smoke blew away from her, and I came to sit next to him.
“Well, did they find anything?”
He went to take another drag, and I made a disgruntled noise in protest. He sighed and lowered the pipe. “They found a sheep. Our lost sheep, I’d say, since no one else reported one missing. It was killed in a similar manner as the cows.”
“That’s terrible.” I slumped. “Michael said that this gryphon didn’t even eat sensibly when it came to the cows. Is it the same for the sheep?”
When Father hesitated to speak again, Mother came behind him and rested a hand on his shoulder. “There were deer in the same clearing as the sheep. Two of them, killed in the same way. Nothing finished, everything torn to shreds. Laura looked so pale… Willy could barely speak about it. I don’t think they had ever seen anything like it.”
I furrowed my brows in confusion, gazing down at my palms. “I doubt anyone around here has. That doesn’t make sense. Gryphons don’t kill without eating. They don’t waste.”
“There were tracks.” Father spoke through smoke. His own expression was perplexed, as though he, too, was trying to figure this out. “Deep scores in the earth as well as markings on the tree around the clearing. Will has admitted he may be out of his depth. He told the hunting party as much. When Glenn heard that, he told us he had sent his eldest off with a letter yesterday. He’s tracking down a pack of mercenaries Glenn knows of. Didn’t even consult the guards first. They’ll be here within the week if they’re on their regularly scheduled route.”
“Was Willy angry?” I asked.
Father tilted his head. “No. He seemed relieved, to be honest.”
I was surprised that Glenn hadn’t gotten into trouble. There was a chain of command for a reason. It was sometimes loose with Willy, but in situations like this it seemed like he belonged in charge. Nophgrin was part of Lord Peyter de Nophgrin’s barony—though he had not been to his lands since the estates had passed to him. Even so, he should have been the one to call in for extra help. I asked my father why this had not been the case.
He rolled his shoulders. “The baron hasn’t been this far north in over a decade. When we’ve had troubles in the past—that hard winter a few years back, you remember?” I nodded, “We sent him a letter at his estate in Winterstag, asking for medicines and the like. Took a month for a response to come from one of his clerks that his lordship was wintering in the warmth of the capital. We were told a letter could be written to be sent that way if we thought it was ‘really’ worth troubling him.”
That winter we had lost two of my grandparents. Lords, I thought with disgust. They cared for no one but themselves. So, perhaps that was it. If I were Willy, I’d have been relieved to have the decision of whether to deal through them out of my hands.
“Do we know these mercenaries?” I asked out loud.
He shook his head. “Glenn knew of them through Thomas—Claire’s grandfather, not the young Thomas. Their barracks are a little more south than us, but I don’t recall them ever coming through town. Glenn says they usually come through Goatstrack, or Winterstag depending on the year.”
“Supposedly they specialize in this sort of thing,” mother put in. “Monster hunters is how Willy described them. He had heard of them before in his circles. He says they’re experts.”
I thought about this for a moment. “Well, who’s to pay these extremely good mercenaries?”
That startled a chuckle out of Father. “My shrewd girl! More than likely it will be paid for by those who think it’s necessary, and divvied up between us equally.”
I glanced up at him. “You think it’s necessary?”
Another smoke cloud proceeded his answer. “Normally I’d say no. If this were a gryphon and its mate that had dragged off a beast or even two and eaten them to the bones, I think we would have had no trouble in putting an end to the issue. A normal gryphon knows when to leave well enough alone.” He licked his lips. “However, what we’ve seen in two days speaks of viciousness. Maybe even madness. If there are professionals close by, I think it’d be just as well to have them come in and be done with it.”
“But in the meantime, there is some sort of rabid gryphon—or worse several rabid gryphons tramping through the woods?” I was hard pressed to keep a whine out of my voice.
“We’ll keep the herds inside at night and if any more attacks happen in the next few days we won’t take them to pasture at all. Still, I don’t think we’ll see any more attacks. Now that everyone knows there is a threat they’ll be keeping a much keener eye on their livestock, and it will move on to easier prey.”
“You don’t think the gryphon will come to the pasture in the day?” Mother’s voice carried a stern quality. She was pulling the bread out of the oven, her back to us.
Father looked back at her. “From what I can tell this beast still has some care for humans. Enough that, for all it marked up its latest kill, the hunting party couldn’t find a trace of it in the surrounding area. That sounds like it fled from them. Besides that, it has not even come to our field yet.” Mother made an mmm noise deep in her throat. “If it will make you feel better I’ll take watch with the children.”
“I’m not a child and I don’t need minded like one.” Michael was in the doorway. He had come so quietly that he startled me. “A gryphon would have to come from the trees and cross a fair bit of distance in the open to take one of our sheep in the field. In the time needed to make that span, I’d shoot it down. Taryn could do the same.”