Though running late, Holt spared a moment when he heard the dragons roar. Breathing hard, he halted upon the carved servants’ stairs and craned his neck to look at the beasts.
The Order Hall of the Crag dominated the skyline. A spire as sharp as the jagged rocks surrounding it. And swirling around the tower, as though a flock of birds, were the dragons themselves. A flight of pleasure in anticipation for the esteemed visitor expected that afternoon from rider high command.
Holt grinned. There was a bounce in his step as he continued his journey down the steps and into the town. His coin-laden pouches jingled merrily as he made his way through the streets. Inside those pouches was more money than he had ever possessed.
Sadly, it was not for his own spending. He had duties to help prepare for the visiting dragon rider. First on his list was to make payments for the food orders. Tonight, there would be a feast, and what a feast it would be. His mouth salivated imagining it.
Whole hogs of sizzling pork, and haunches of beef caramelized brown and dripping with fat. Best of all, there would be a welcoming ceremony for the visitor. All the Order would be out for it, and Holt hoped to glimpse the legendary rider for himself. If he got through all his chores in time, that was. His father had promised as much.
These happy thoughts brought Holt to the butcher’s shop door in high spirits, so much so that he almost ran into a customer. Holt stopped himself at the last moment, stumbling sideways.
He fought to steady himself and fell against the shop window. Inside, the butcher was nowhere to be seen, perhaps in the backroom.
“Watch yerself,” the customer said, barging past.
“S-sorry,” Holt stammered, breathless.
He saw now that his near collision had been with the town’s blacksmith; a bald, thickset man with arms of corded muscle.
“Good morning, Mr. Smith,” Holt said.
“A good morning?” Mr. Smith blustered. “I think not.” He snorted in irritation and threw a glance back inside the butcher’s shop. Thinking Mr. Smith must have suffered some wrong, Holt looked to basket the smith held. Inside lay loosely wrapped cuts of rump beef. The portion seemed terribly small for such a large man.
Mr. Smith noticed his lingering stare. “Not much, is it?” he said. “Mr. Grocer said he might spare some cabbages but made no promises. What would you do with 'em?” he added, thrusting the basket under Holt’s nose.
Holt inspected the meager cuts. “They would go further in a stew…” but he trailed off. He doubted the man had time for slow cooking. And if the grocer was running thin on supplies as well then it would be a poor stew at that.
“Hardly living up to your namesake, Master Cook,” the blacksmith remarked, biting on Holt’s surname, and designated profession.
Holt backed away and the coin pouches clinked at his waist.
The blacksmith narrowed his eyes at the money bags and shook his head. “It’s not enough that I have to sell my wares to riders at cost, but that they take a chunk of our taxes and then buy up all the food too.”
“It’s a special day,” Holt protested.
He was looking forward to the occasion and the last thing he wanted was some anti-rider animosity bringing him down.
“For one man,” scoffed the smith.
“One man? Lord Silverstrike is a legend!”
“And will he sort out the current scourge threat singlehandedly?” The blacksmith’s face reddened as though kissed by his forge. “The king and his men have been doing a fine job. Sometimes I wonder if we even need riders anymore—”
Seized by the moment Holt puffed up his chest. “We need the riders and you know it.”
The smith’s face darkened. Holt’s heart hammered. He rarely spoke to someone above his station unless asked a direct question, never mind shout at them. It just wasn’t the done thing.
Now he’d really put his foot in it.
To Holt’s great relief and confusion, the blacksmith started laughing. It was a cruel, cutting sort of laugh.
“I remember feeling that way when I was your age. The years ahead ought to knock that naivety out of you. What do you know of war and the scourge? You haven’t even held one of my swords, let alone know how to swing one, pot boy.”
Before any more could be said, there came a loud thunk of metal on wood. Holt turned to find the butcher had emerged from his backroom, still gripping the cleaver he’d sunk into his workbench.
“Come here, Holt,” the butcher said. “Mr. Smith has much work to attend to, like the rest of us. Don’t you, Edgar?”
Half-fuming, Holt backed away to the butcher’s side. The blacksmith narrowed his eyes further, almost to slits, and then seemed to think better of it. He left the shop, closing the door with unnecessary force.
“Never mind him,” said the butcher. “A scourge rising puts everyone on edge.”
“He’s a fool,” Holt said, though he couldn’t quite meet Mr. Butcher’s eyes.
“He’s vital to the kingdom’s army and far above your station,” the butcher said, though not unkindly. “Now, I won’t hear another word on the matter. You’ll be here to settle your father’s purchases and best you do before my coffers run dry. The huntsmen and farmers have charged higher for this.”
Holt ferreted around in the inner pocket of his jerkin and pulled out a crumpled list written in his father’s hasty hand. A pot boy in the kitchens he might be, but at least he had been taught how to read. Understanding recipes would be troublesome otherwise.
“Fifty haunches of beef comes to three gold pieces,” Holt began, handing over the coins. His father and the kitchen staff would roast the beef with hot peppers and spices to please the fire dragons.
The butcher took the coins with a smile and counted this off the order by raising one finger.
Holt continued. “A dozen whole pigs comes to two gold and forty silver.”
The pork would be baked with a thick crust of herbs for the emerald dragons.
“And two dozen whole sheep is eight gold and forty silver.”
“Seems like a waste of good wool,” said the butcher, although he happily accepted the bags of money.
“We make six different lamb dishes,” Holt said. “And have enough of each dish just in case one’s more popular on the night.”
The butcher bit his lip. “Don’t those… strange dragons ever just decide which way they like their lamb best?”
“We wish. One day they like boiled, the next they like it pan fried in garlic, then they’ll demand it roasted. Sometimes they’ll change their minds on the same day. Mystic dragons are… weird.”
“Fussy is what I’d call 'em,” said the butcher. “Now, there’s one slight issue I’m afraid. I’ve come up a bit short on the order of elk. Mr. Hunter was at pains to explain that he couldn’t wander too far abroad on account of the scourge. A lot of the game has been scared away. Says he can barely find a rabbit above ground.”
“How much short? That meat is meant for Silas Silverstrike himself; he’s from the Free City of Coedhen and they have a taste for—”
The butcher waved Holt down. “I’ve got a whole carcass for you – ribs, loin, steak, organs and stewing cuts, if that will suffice.”
“One? We asked for two. That’s not a little short – it’s half!”
“And as such I’ll only need half the payment. As I say, the huntsman—”
Yet Holt’s shoulders tensed. No one, from his father to the Flight Commander herself would want to disappoint Silas if they could help it.
“I’m sure old Silverstrike won’t mind if his favorite food runs low,” said the butcher. “He’s a war hero, not some pampered ealdorman’s hound.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” Holt paid the butcher for the single elk then inspected his list again. There was plenty more to be getting on with. “I ought to get going. Father has sent one of the maids to pay Mr. Poulter but I’m to visit Mr. Monger to get fish for the ice dragons.”
The butcher nodded. “Busy day ahead. I’ve got the lads out back loading the wagons and I’ll send them on their way soon. Take care, Master Cook and give my best to your father for me.”
“Thank you, and I will,” Holt called back, already with one foot out of the door. He had to hurry if he was to make every purchase and wash every dish before Silas arrived.
Out on the streets, he heard the distant roaring of the dragons again. Holt forced himself to stay focused on the tasks at hand and kept his gaze firmly at street level. Mr. Monger’s shop was farther down the lane, closer to the southern gates in the town walls.
On his way, Holt couldn’t help but notice how quiet the streets were. Market stalls sat unmanned, the air was void of the general chatter and bustle of morning life. What few folk there were kept their heads down. In places the town seemed inhabited only by the stray cats lying languidly on the warm cobblestones.
Holt’s general air of optimism took a knock. He’d been very young the last time the scourge had threatened the kingdom and could barely remember it. If people here were worried – with all the riders of the realm close to hand – how must those in remote villages and hamlets feel?
Soon enough he came in sight of Mr. Monger’s shop and the town gates not far beyond. A sudden call came from a soldier upon the gatehouse. All the soldiers in the vicinity sprang into action.
Holt drew up level with Mr. Monger’s shop but didn’t enter. He had become fixated by events at the gate. His senses piqued. A primal understanding that something was terribly wrong washed over him. The soldiers moved in a panic; their voices were high.
A creaking groan heralded the opening of the tall gates, and through the opening hurried in men on horses. Blood streaked their breastplates, and many struggled to dismount. Behind them followed dozens of spearmen walking as though each step brought fresh pain.
Remaining at a safe distance outside were several wagons covered in dirtied white canvas. Their cargo would have remained concealed were it not for a bare arm protruding out of one of them.
Holt gulped. All the warmth seemed to leave his blood. All the warmth seemed to abandon the world. Wings beat heavily upon the air. Knowing what sort of magic this was, Holt looked to the sky. Sure enough, there he saw a rich blue dragon descending to join the soldiers at the southern gate. The ice dragon’s aura lessened as Holt’s body adjusted to its presence.
The rider got down from his dragon and looked expectantly around. His eyes locked onto Holt, who was still standing dumbstruck outside of the fishmonger’s shop. The rider pointed a long finger at him.
“You, kitchen boy. Come here.”