Aerin is an outcast in her own father’s court, the daughter of the foreign woman who, it was rumored, was a witch, and enchanted the king to marry her.
She makes friends with her father’s lame, retired warhorse, Talat, and discovers an old, overlooked, and dangerously imprecise recipe for dragon-fire-proof ointment in a dusty corner of her father’s library. Two years and many burnt twigs (and a few fingers) later, Aerin is present when someone comes from an outlying village to report a marauding dragon to the king. Aerin slips off alone to fetch her horse, her sword, and her fireproof ointment…
But modern dragons, while formidable opponents fully capable of killing a human being, are small and accounted vermin. There is no honor in killing dragons. The great dragons are a tale out of ancient history. That is, until the day that the king is riding out at the head of an army. A weary man on an exhausted horse staggers into the courtyard where the king’s troop is assembled to announce that Maur, the Black Dragon, has awakened.
On November 18th, Robin McKinley’s Newbery Medal-winning novel The Hero and the Crown will be available for the first time as an ebook from Open Road Media.
She could not remember a time when she had not known the story; she had grown up knowing it. She supposed someone must have told her it, sometime, but she could not remember the telling. She was beyond having to blink back tears when she thought of those things the story explained, but when she was feeling smaller and shabbier than usual in the large vivid City high in the Damarian Hills she still found herself brooding about them; and brooding sometimes brought on a tight headachy feeling around her temples, a feeling like suppressed tears.
She brooded, looking out over the wide low sill of the stone windowframe; she looked up, into the Hills, because the glassy surface of the courtyard was too bright at midday to stare at long. Her mind ran down an old familiar track: Who might have told her the story? It wouldn’t have been her father who told her, for he had rarely spoken more than a few words together to her when she was younger; his slow kind smiles and slightly preoccupied air had been the most she knew of him. She had always known that he was fond of her, which was something; but she had only recently begun to come into focus for him, and that, as he had told her himself, in an unexpected fashion. He had the best—the only—right to have told her the story of her birth, but he would not have done so.
Nor would it have been the hafor, the folk of the household; they were polite to her always, in their wary way, and reserved, and spoke to her only about household details. It surprised her that they still remembered to be wary, for she had long since proven that she possessed nothing to be wary about. Royal children were usually somewhat alarming to be in daily contact with, for their Gifts often erupted in abrupt and unexpected ways. It was a little surprising, even, that the hafor still bothered to treat her with respect, for the fact that she was her father’s daughter was supported by nothing but the fact that her father’s wife had borne her. But then, for all that was said about her mother, no one ever suggested that she was not an honest wife.
And she would not have run and told tales on any of the hafor who slighted her, as Galanna would—and regularly did, even though everyone treated her with the greatest deference humanly possible. Galanna’s Gift, it was dryly said, was to be impossible to please. But perhaps from the hafor’s viewpoint it was not worth the risk to discover any points of similarity or dissimilarity between herself and Galanna; and a life of service in a household that included Galanna doubtless rendered anyone who withstood it automatically wary and respectful of anything that moved. She smiled. She could see the wind stir the treetops, for the surface of the Hills seemed to ripple beneath the blue sky; the breeze, when it slid through her window, smelled of leaves.
It might very well have been Galanna who told her the story, come to that. It would be like her; and Galanna had always hated her—still did, for all that she was grown now, and married besides, to Perlith, who was a second sola of Damar. The only higher ranks were first sola and king; but Galanna had hoped to marry Tor, who was first sola and would someday be king. It was no matter that Tor would not have had Galanna if she had been the only royal maiden available—“I’d run off into the Hills and be a bandit first,” a much younger Tor had told his very young cousin, who had gone off in fits of giggles at the idea of Tor wearing rags and a blue headband and dancing for luck under each quarter of the moon. Tor, who at the time had been stiff with terror at Galanna’s very determined attempts to ensnare him, had relaxed enough to grin and tell her she had no proper respect and was a shameless hoyden. “Yes,” she said unrepentantly.
Tor, for whatever reasons, was rather over-formal with everyone but her; but being first sola to a solemn, twice-widowed king of a land with a shadow over it might have had that effect on a far more frivolous young man than Tor. She suspected that he was as grateful for her existence as she was for his; one of her earliest memories was riding in a baby-sack over Tor’s shoulders while he galloped his horse over a series of hurdles; she had screamed with delight and wound her tiny hands in his thick black hair. Teka, later, had been furious; but Tor, who usually took any accusation of the slightest dereliction of duty with white lips and a set face, had only laughed.
But whenever she decided that it must have been Galanna who first told her the story, she found she couldn’t believe it of her after all. Having told it for spite and malice, yes; but the story itself had too much sad grandeur. But perhaps she only felt that way because it was about her mother; perhaps she had changed it in her own mind, made a tragedy of nothing but sour gossip. But that Galanna would deliberately spend enough time in her company to tell her the story was out of character; Galanna preferred whenever possible to look vaguely over the head of the least of her cousins, with an expression on her face indicating that there was a dead fly on the windowsill and why hadn’t the hafor swept it away? When Galanna was startled into speaking to her at all, it was usually from a motive of immediate vengeance. The tale of Arlbeth’s second wife would be too roundabout for her purposes. Still, that it had been one of the cousins was the best guess. Not Tor, of course. One of the others.
She leaned out of the window and looked down. It was hard to recognize people from the tops of their heads, several stories up. Except Tor; she always knew him, even if all she had to go on was an elbow extending an inch or two beyond a doorframe. This below her now was probably Perlith: that self-satisfied walk was distinctive even from above, and the way three of the hafor, dressed in fine livery, trailed behind him for no purpose but to lend to their master’s importance by their presence pretty well assured it. Tor went about alone, when he could; he told her, grimly, that he had enough of company during the course of his duties as first sola, and the last thing he wanted was an unofficial entourage for any gaps in the official ones. And she’d like to see her father pulling velvet-covered flunkeys in his wake, like a child with a toy on a string.
Perlith’s head spoke to another dark head, the hafor waiting respectfully several arms’ length distant; then someone on a horse—she could not distinguish voices but she heard the click of hoofs—emerged from around a corner. The rider wore the livery of a messenger, and the cut of his saddle said he came from the west. Both heads turned toward him and tipped up, so she could see the pale blur of their faces as they spoke to him. Then the horseman cantered off, the horse placing its feet very delicately, for it was dangerous to go too quickly across the courtyard; and Perlith and the other man, and Perlith’s entourage, disappeared from her view.
She didn’t have to hear what they said to each other to know what was going on; but the knowledge gave her no pleasure, for it had already brought her both shame and bitter disappointment. It was either the shame or the disappointment that kept her mewed up in her rooms, alone, now.
She had hardly seen her father or Tor for the week past as they wrestled with messages and messengers, as they tried to slow down whatever it was that would happen anyway, while they tried to decide what to do when it had happened. The western barons—the fourth solas—were making trouble. The rumor was that someone from the North, either human or human enough to look it, had carried a bit of demon-mischief south across the Border and let it loose at the barons’ council in the spring. Nyrlol was the chief of the council for no better reason than that his father had been chief; but his father had been a better and a wiser man. Nyrlol was not known for intelligence, and he was known for a short and violent temper: the perfect target for demon-mischief.
Nyrlol’s father would have recognized it for what it was. But Nyrlol had not recognized anything; it had simply seemed like a wonderful idea to secede from Damar and the rule of Damar’s King Arlbeth and Tor-sola, and set himself up as King Nyrlol; and to slap a new tax on his farmers to support the raising of an army, eventually to take the rest of Damar away from Arlbeth and Tor, who didn’t run it as well as he could. He managed to convince several of his fellow barons (demon-mischief, once it has infected one human being, will usually then spread like a plague) of the brilliance of his plan, while the mischief muddled their wits. There had been a further rumor, much fainter, that Nyrlol had, with his wonderful idea, suddenly developed a mesmerizing ability to sway those who heard him speak; and this rumor was a much more worrying one, for, if true, the demon-mischief was very strong indeed.
Arlbeth had chosen to pay no attention to the second rumor; or rather to pay only enough attention to it to discount it, that none of his folk might think he shunned it from fear. But he did declare that the trouble was enough that he must attend to it personally; and with him would go Tor, and a substantial portion of the army, and almost as substantial a portion of the court, with all its velvets and jewels brought along for a fine grand show of courtesy, to pretend to disguise the army at its back. But both sides would know that the army was an army, and the show only a show. What Arlbeth planned to do was both difficult and dangerous, for he wished to prevent a civil war, not provoke one. He would choose those to go with him with the greatest care and caution.
“But you’re taking Perlith?” she’d asked Tor disbelievingly, when she met him by chance one day, out behind the barns, where she could let her disbelief show.
Tor grimaced. “I know Perlith isn’t a very worthwhile human being, but he’s actually pretty effective at this sort of thing—because he’s such a good liar, you know, and because he can say the most appalling things in the most gracious manner.”
No women rode in Arlbeth’s army. A few of the bolder wives might be permitted to go with their husbands, those who could ride and had been trained in cavalry drill; and those who could be trusted to smile even at Nyrlol (depending on how the negotiations went), and curtsy to him as befitted his rank as fourth sola, and even dance with him if he should ask. But it was expected that no wife would go unless her husband asked her, and no husband would ask unless he had asked the king first.
Galanna would certainly not go, even if Perlith had been willing to go to the trouble of obtaining leave from Arlbeth (which would probably not have been granted). Fortunately for the peace of all concerned, Galanna had no interest in going; anything resembling hardship did not appeal to her in the least, and she was sure that nothing in the barbaric west could possibly be worth her time and beauty.
A king’s daughter might go too; a king’s daughter who had, perhaps, proved herself in some small ways; who had learned to keep her mouth shut, and to smile on cue; a king’s daughter who happened to be the king’s only child. She had known they would not let her; she had known that Arlbeth would not dare give his permission even had he wanted to, and she did not know if he had wanted to. But he could not dare take the witchwoman’s daughter to confront the workings of demon-mischief; his people would never let him, and he too sorely needed his people’s good will.
But she could not help asking—any more, she supposed, than poor stupid Nyrlol could help going mad when the demon-mischief bit him. She had tried to choose her time, but her father and Tor had been so busy lately that she had had to wait, and wait again, till her time was almost gone. After dinner last night she had finally asked; and she had come up here to her rooms afterward and had not come out again.
“Father.” Her voice had gone high on her, as it would do when she was afraid. The other women, and the lesser court members, had already left the long hall; Arlbeth and Tor and a few of the cousins, Perlith among them, were preparing for another weary evening of discussion on Nyrlol’s folly. They paused and all of them turned and looked at her, and she wished there were not so many of them. She swallowed. She had decided against asking her father late, in his own rooms, where she could be sure to find him alone, because she was afraid he would only be kind to her and not take her seriously. If she was to be shamed—and she knew, or she told herself she knew, that she would be refused—at least let him see how much it meant to her, that she should ask and be refused with others looking on.
Arlbeth turned to her with his slow smile, but it was slower and less of it reached his eyes than usual. He did not say, “Be quick, I am busy,” as he might have done—and small blame to him if he had, she thought forlornly.
“You ride west—soon? To treat with Nyrlol?” She could feel Tor’s eyes on her, but she kept her own eyes fixed on her father.
“Treat?” said her father. “If we go, we go with an army to witness the treaty.” A little of the smile crept into his eyes after all. “You are picking up courtly language, my dear. Yes, we go to ‘treat’ with Nyrlol.”
Tor said: “We have some hope of catching the mischief”—one did not say demon aloud if one could help it—“and bottling it up, and sending it back where it came from. Even now we have that hope. It won’t stop the trouble, but it will stop it getting worse. If Nyrlol isn’t being pricked and pinched by it, he may subside into the subtle and charming Nyrlol we all know and revere.” Tor’s mouth twisted up into a wry smile.
She looked at him and her own mouth twitched at the corners. It was like Tor to answer her as if she were a real part of the court, even a member of the official deliberations, instead of an interruption and a disturbance. Tor might even have let her go with them; he wasn’t old enough yet to care so much for his people’s good opinion as Arlbeth did; and furthermore, Tor was stubborn. But it was not Tor’s decision. She turned back to her father.
“When you go—may I come with you?” Her voice was little more than a squeak, and she wished she were near a wall or a door she could lean on, instead of in the great empty middle of the dining-hall, with her knees trying to fold up under her like an hour-old foal’s.
The silence went suddenly tight, and the men she faced went rigid: or Arlbeth did, and those behind him, for she kept her face resolutely away from Tor. She thought that she could not bear it if her one loyal friend forsook her too; and she had never tried to discover the extent of Tor’s stubbornness. Then the silence was broken by Perlith’s high-pitched laughter.
“Well, and what did you expect from letting her go as she would these last years? It’s all very well to have her occupied and out from underfoot, but you should have thought the price you paid to be rid of her might prove a little high. What did you expect when our honored first sola gives her lessons in swordplay and she tears around on that three-legged horse like a peasant boy from the Hills, with never a gainsay but a scold from that old shrew that serves as her maid? Might you not have thought of the reckoning to come? She needed slaps, not encouragement, years ago—she needs a few slaps now, I think. Perhaps it is not too late.”
“Enough.” Tor’s voice, a growl.
Her legs were trembling now so badly that she had to move her feet, shuffle in her place, to keep the joints locked to hold her up. She felt the blood mounting to her face at Perlith’s words, but she would not let him drive her away without an answer. “Father?”
“Father,” mimicked Perlith. “It’s true a king’s daughter might be of some use in facing what the North has sent us; a king’s daughter who had true royal blood in her veins.…”
Arlbeth, in a very unkinglike manner, reached out and grabbed Tor before anyone found out what the first sola’s sudden move in Perlith’s direction might result in. “Perlith, you betray the honor of the second sola’s place in speaking thus.”
Tor said in a strangled voice, “He will apologize, or I’ll give him a lesson in swordplay he will not like at all.”
“Tor, don’t be a—” she began, outraged, but the king’s voice cut across hers. “Perlith, there is justice in the first sola’s demand.”
There was a long pause while she hated everyone impartially: Tor for behaving like a farmer’s son whose pet chicken has just been insulted; her father, for being so immovably kingly; and Perlith for being Perlith. This was even worse than she had anticipated; at this point she would be grateful just for escape, but it was too late.
Perlith said at last, “I apologize, Aerin-sol. For speaking the truth,” he added venomously, and turned on his heel and strode across the hall. At the doorway he paused and turned to shout back at them: “Go slay a dragon, lady! Lady Aerin, Dragon-Killer!”
The silence resettled itself about them, and she could no longer even raise her eyes to her father’s face.
“Aerin—” Arlbeth began.
The gentleness of his voice told her all she needed to know, and she turned away and walked toward the other end of the hall, opposite the door which Perlith had taken. She was conscious of the length of the way she had to take because Perlith had taken the shorter way, and she hated him all the more for it; she was conscious of all the eyes on her, and conscious of the fact that her legs still trembled, and that the line she walked was not a straight one. Her father did not call her back. Neither did Tor. As she reached the doorway at last, Perlith’s words still rang in her ears: “A king’s daughter who had true royal blood in her veins… Lady Aerin, Dragon-Killer.” It was as though his words were hunting dogs who tracked her and nipped at her heels.
Excerpted from The Hero and the Crown © Robin McKinley