In which we meet Longbourn, the resident estate dragon who jealously guards Miss Elizabeth’s honor.
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Jane Austen’s Dragons, Book 1
Pemberley: Mr. Darcy’s Dragon
Bingley’s party returned from the ball in mixed spirits. Bingley declared he had never met with pleasanter people or prettier girls in his life. Everybody had been most kind and attentive to him. There had been no formality, no stiffness. With the most gracious help of Sir William, he had soon felt acquainted with all the room. And as to Miss Bennet—at this point in the conversation, it required all of Darcy’s self-control not to stuff his fingers in his ears and begin reciting Pemberley’s crop rotation schedule—Bingley could not conceive of an angel more beautiful.
Mrs. Hurst and Caroline Bingley allowed it to be so, claiming to admire and like her. More maddening, they also pronounced her to be a sweet girl, and one whom they should not object to know more of. No doubt that meant, Miss Bennet—probably the entire tribe of Bennets—would be invited to spend a great deal of time at Netherfield.
No, probably not the younger sisters whom all agreed were silly flitterbits. But impudent Miss Elizabeth Bennet would probably appear at Netherfield and remain a thorn in his side.
The social exertions of the assembly kept Darcy confined away from company for two days full. Though he shared a very steady friendship with Bingley, there was a great contrast in their characters. Bingley had an easy, open ductility to his temper that made him a favorite in company. Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared.
Darcy was continually giving offence—or so he had been told often. He was considered—according to Uncle and Aunt Matlock—haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well-bred, were not inviting. Gah! If only those same ones who judged him knew what he had to endure!
Company and crowds were an oppression to his spirit, weighing upon him, draining him like a wyvern drained its prey before consuming it. A few hours in company left him spent as a laborer in from an entire day’s work. Every nerve was left raw and throbbing; his ears ached from the noise assaulting preternatural hearing; his skin prickled and burned from the unintended contact inevitable when too many people tried to share the same space.
He might as well drink an entire magnum of Madeira himself instead of attending a party. The hangover would be far less miserable.
On the third morning after the assembly, Darcy rose early, took to his horse, and invited Walker to join him. A morning ride—a long one—would do a great deal toward setting his soul to rights once again.
It had to. He had to focus on the task at hand. He had six, maybe seven weeks before the egg hatched.
If it did so without human presence, he would have no choice. He would have to turn from Dragon Keeper to Dragon Slayer. The sword he secreted in his horse’s stall in the barn would taste dragon blood. It was the only way to preserve the fragile peace between the species. But it would cost him everything.
The Blue Order would expel him. That he could live with. But no dragon would tolerate his presence after he killed one of their own.
Even if it was necessary.
Walker would leave him, and he would have destroyed the greatest legacy of the Darcy family. The Darcy line would end with him. The dragons would ensure that, one way or another.
Fitzwilliam Darcy, the last of the Pendragon D’Arcys.
His horse broke into an easy trot along the bridle path. Stray branches slapped against Darcy’s shoulders, spraying him with still fresh morning dew. Morning smelt the same everywhere; fresh, new and hopeful.
He needed hope.
Walker flew lazy circles overhead. Wings outstretched, silhouetted in the morning sun, he was a magnificent creature.
“You should not have insulted Elizabeth.”
And an impertinent one.
“How would you know anything of that?”
Walker swooped low overhead. “You cannot imagine I would allow you into the public forum without keeping some watch over you. One can hear a great deal from the attic rafters. You were insupportably rude.”
“I never asked you for your opinion.” Not that it mattered. Walker never held his tongue.
“You should. I know a great deal.”
“If you know so much, then tell me where our egg is, so we can be done with this affair and return to Derbyshire.” Darcy gritted his teeth.
He had best watch his tone. Walker was as tense as he. If the cockatrice got offended—
“She would be of great help, if you had not offended her.”
“How would she help? She knows nothing of eggs and hatchings and firedrakes. What would she do? Is she a sleuth capable of ferreting out—”
Walker squawked a sharp admonition. “She knows more about hatching than you do. The eggs on their hearth hatched a se’nnight ago. The house is a flutter with new chicks.”
“Fairy dragons that you deem useless bits of fluff and nonsense. I am surprised you consider their hatching worthy of notice.”
New dragons at Longbourn? Perhaps he should call. He had never actually seen a baby dragon of any kind. Walker had hatched into Father’s hands well before Darcy had been born.
But no, Bennet was not likely to welcome him, particularly if he knew how he had spoken about Miss Elizabeth.
Damn cockatrice was right again. But Darcy did not have to admit it aloud.
“Their heads are full of gibberish and noise, I grant you, but they are observant little pests and can be useful for garnering information. Information which you clearly need.” Walker swooped a little closer.
“Mind the horse. He will bolt if you scare him.”
“You need a better horse. Get that Bingley fellow to help you find a colt. He has a good eye for horseflesh. I will help you train it properly.”
“And what shall I do with this one?”
Darcy shivered at the bloodlust in Walker’s tone. “I need this beast, thank you. Go and dine on a muntjac. They are roaming the woods.”
“I need Longbourn’s permission. They are his.”
“Then go and ask. You have never been shy about such things before.”
“He likes Elizabeth, and I do too. You offended her.”
He liked her? Surely Darcy misheard.
“I doubt she has told Longbourn such petty concerns. But I dare say, if you are so fond of his favorite, he will grant you hunting privileges simply for appreciating her.”
“You should apologize.” Walker circled low, over Darcy’s head.
“I have nothing to apologize for. You however are not helping me at all in our quest and that should be your bigger concern.”
“There is something else you should know. I hear a voice. At least I think I do.”
Prickles scoured Darcy’s face and he swallowed hard. “What kind of voices? There are fairy dragons all about. They chitter constantly.”
Walker snorted and shook his head, glaring dangerously. “I would not bother about those. No, this voice is something different, something I have not heard before.”
“You have spoken with every kind of dragon in England, even a few foreign visitors.”
“That is what troubles me. I have not heard this kind of voice before. And it is very, very old.”
Very old meant very powerful. And very smart. And very persuasive.
Old, powerful and persuasive usually equaled cranky, cold, and difficult. Very difficult.
“Are you certain?”
“No.” Walker hopped from one foot to the other, his serpentine tail lashing around the branch so fast it whistled through the air. “I can barely hear the voice, so I am not certain.”
“And that is not good?”
“No, it is worse. My uncertainty makes me more certain.”
Unknowns amongst the dragons were almost certainly dangerous, if not deadly for human and dragonkind alike.
“Can you tell anything about it?” Darcy drew the back of his hand across his mouth.
“It is not hungry, it is bored.”
Darcy squeezed his eyes shut. A bored dragon was many times more dangerous than a hungry one. “Have you any idea what kind of dragon you are hearing?”
Walker peered into the woods. “A wyrm of some kind, I think. Perhaps a lindwyrm, but I am not certain.”
Darcy cursed under his breath. Horses were the lindwyrm’s favorite prey. Did his mount smell a lindwyrm? That would explain his horse’s general unease.
“You know the militia will encamp in Meryton soon. Yesterday I saw troops arrive to build the barracks, they came with wagons of wood, already cut, barrels for nails, and enough men to make quick work of the process,” Walker said.
“You believe that party might conceal Pemberley’s egg?”
“It would not be difficult among all the paraphernalia they carried. But there is a fair chance that he will think the situation very safe and that the egg will not be as well guarded.”
“So much the better for us then. We can be done with this business and be home.”
“You know, wyrms of all sorts prey upon dragon eggs, too.”
Darcy clutched his forehead. “Go to Longbourn, and tell him I request an audience.”
“He would be more likely to see you if Elizabeth made the request.”
“Just do as I ask.”
Walker screeched and flapped away. At least he was being cooperative.
Of course that was a bad sign, too. Only the deepest of anxiety over the egg would keep him from his favorite sport—taunting Darcy.
Walker’s entreaties to Longbourn fell on deaf ears. For a se’nnight he paid daily visits to the wyvern, pleading with him to accept a visit from Darcy, but he was as intractable as his Keeper, Bennet.
So, Darcy was reduced to skulking about the countryside like some highwayman stalking the militia’s building crew. With Walker’s help, he investigated every wagon, every barrel, every crate—anything that might conceal a dragon egg. They even investigated the stables and outbuildings of the public houses and taverns the troops inhabited. Walker detected traces of egg-scent in several places, but none held the egg.
Either the men or their equipment had been in contact with the egg. But it did not travel with the advanced party.
Damn and bloody hell!
If only he could go straight to the regiment itself. But Matlock insisted any direct approach would draw too much attention and risk exposure. He was probably right. There was little to do but wait for them to arrive. Then he could contrive to get an invitation to visit and search without drawing notice—or at least not so much that Walker could not create a persuasion against it.
At least listening to the building crews’ conversations turned up the news that the regiment would be split between Meryton and Ware, so the efforts were not wholly misspent.
Perhaps that information would have some value to Longbourn. Darcy dispatched Walker to make one more attempt with the wyvern.
Darcy finished his morning ablutions and dismissed his valet. How much longer would Walker take? He stalked from one side of the spacious room to the other. The deep burgundy paper hanging was entirely free from dust and cobweb. The mahogany furnishings, masculine and heavy were polished to gleaming. Housekeeper Nicholls certainly did manage an excellent staff. Miss Bingley had not been resident here long enough to take credit.
He sat at the writing table, near the window and stared into the horizon.
At last! A dark figure, winging his way toward the house.
Walker landed on the window sill and shook his head. He hopped from Darcy’s window to the mirror on his dressing table and flapped his wings. “I have never seen a creature so stubborn!”
The mirror bobbed forward and back. Apparently Walker had forgotten it was not fixed like the one at home. He squawked and fluttered his wings, but the mirror would not come to rest.
“That means a great deal coming from you.” Darcy steadied the mirror and swallowed back a laugh. Walker hated to be laughed at.
Walker regained his balance and lifted his chin. “I am not so easily daunted, though. I have a plan.”
Darcy winced. Walker’s plans were not always mindful of local law. He did not seem to understand one must not offend the local constabulary. Hopefully he did not intend for Darcy to steal a sheep or other delicacy to bribe the recalcitrant dragon.
“Miss Elizabeth intends to pay a visit to Longbourn today. You should ask her to introduce you to him.”
“I would rather steal a sheep.”
“Pardon me?” Walker leaned far over the mirror to peer almost nose to nose into Darcy’s eyes. The mirror tipped forward.
“I will not ask that woman for any favors, especially concerning the estate dragon.”
“You are as stubborn as Longbourn. But I expected as much. I have an alternative. You may follow her to Longbourn’s lair and wait until she leaves him. I will then present you to Longbourn and, assuming you do not immediately offend him in some way, we might be able to speak to him.”
“I do not relish the idea of stalking Miss Elizabeth like a fox out of season, but with less than a month—”
“You do not need to recount to me the urgency of our mission. You need to hurry and get out as she has probably left the house by now.”
Darcy grabbed his hat and hurried downstairs without excusing himself to his host. “How exactly then are we to follow her?”
Walker chirruped something that sounded insulting. “I will follow and come back to lead you to her. I know the lair is on the sunset side of the estate, head in that direction. I shall find you directly.”
Walker flew off.
The plan was sound, if degrading. Sneaking about like some poacher. The very thought was galling. But then, what about the current situation was not?
Darcy stalked down the westward footpath.
It seemed as though everything in Hertfordshire was designed to reinforce the humility of his position. He was subjected to Caroline Bingley’s constant attentions and attempts at flirtations. She was well mannered and proper, to be sure, but she was also obvious and nigh on intolerable. She had not an original thought in her head nor had read anything since leaving the insipid girl’s seminary she had attended. Her twenty thousand pounds would be a welcome way to replace Georgiana’s dowry, but at what cost? Far better to mortgage some part of the estate and not live with the constant prattle and mindless chatter.
All that paled in comparison to the weight of the lost egg, though. Would he ever live down the ignominy?
At least Uncle Matlock had contacted only Bennet about the situation, not all the Keepers between Meryton and Derbyshire. And Bennet seemed too lazy to gossip. Perhaps the Darcy and Matlock reputations might be spared once it was recovered.
If Miss Elizabeth kept her peace.
And if the egg was recovered.
If only Father had been more cautious. But Wickham had deceived them all. He was so convincing, so easy to like. Much like Bingley.
Oh, that was a thought to give one pause.
But no, Bingley was not at all like Wickham, not in essentials. Bingley was honest and cheerful to a fault. Those traits were not affectations.
They had all thought Wickham heard dragons, but he was only an accomplished charlatan. And for that, Darcy was reduced to scampering about the countryside in hopes of demanding an audience with a lesser dragon who wanted nothing to do with him.
Oh, Father, such a legacy!
Walker screeched and circled overhead. “I have found them. Follow.”
Darcy squinted into the bright sky and jogged after him.
Half a mile into the woods of Longbourn estate, Walker slowed and landed high in a tree. He pointed with his wing to an overgrown hillside. Brambles and thorny vines—probably berries of some kind—grew wild from the top of the hill, reaching over the hillsides. At the base, equally thorny undergrowth sprung up, thick and leafy. A ray of sunlight penetrated the heavy tree canopy, enough to light the hill enough for the bushes to grow … and to warm the stony ground sufficiently for dragon basking.
Darcy inched nearer, peering through a break in the underbrush. The scrapes and divots in front of the hillside suggested a dragon used that spot frequently. He hunkered down to watch and wait.
Miss Elizabeth, with an entourage of companions, ambled up to the hill. As usual, the little blue fairy dragon flitted circles around her. On her shoulders were puffs of red and pink fluff—the dragon chicks? Three fairy dragons in her company at once?
That much prattle-chatter could make him go distracted in a matter of minutes.
An exceptionally large tatzelwurm wove around her ankles and between her feet, purring loud enough for Darcy to hear quite clearly. The tabby-stripe fur on its feline front was brushed to glistening and its tail scales showed signs of recent oiling. The creature seemed to worship the very ground she walked on.
What was it about her that dragons found so very endearing?
She stood on a patch of ground worn clear of undergrowth.
Scratches and rumbles boomed from inside the hill. Dragon-sized sounds.
The fairy dragons chittered and hid in the particularly generous hood of her green cloak, almost as if it had been designed for the purpose. The tatzelwurm ducked between the cloak and her skirt.
“Good day, Longbourn,” she called, hands cupped around her mouth.
A loud snort and the vines parted ahead of a great scaly head and a body to match.
An estate dragon, no matter what kind, was a fearsome sight, even if it were only a wyvern.
The creature stood ten, perhaps twelve feet tall, if it stretched fully upright on its two clawed feet. But it did not; it crouched to put its face on her level, like an adult bending down to address a child.
Stiff, angular ridges extended from the top of his head to the end of his tail. The thick, lashing appendage added at least six feet to its length, all covered in grey-green-brown scales. The thick, horny scales were dusty, but patches gleamed, vaguely metallic, in the sunlight. Someone must brush and oil his hide regularly.
The body was sleek, not fat and lazy as he would have expected. Well-nourished, but not overfed. Streamlined leathery wings folded neatly over its back, resting against the spine ridges. What kind of a wingspan did it have? Enough for flight, or just for show?
Its face was largely square—sharply masculine, with large, glittering gold eyes and whiskers that gave the impression of a long mustache and eyebrows. Somehow, he brought Bennet to mind.
That was a bit unsettling.
Fangs and talons resembled polished ivory, gleaming and sharp, ready to be put to use. Was that a drop of ochre venom on one fang? Venomous wyverns were rather uncommon. Did this one only bite, or had it learned to cast its poison in a breathy cloud as well?
Best assume the latter.
Longbourn shook his head and roared.
Walker flapped his wings to regain his balance against the dragon-thunder. The crashing tones penetrated Darcy’s chest, rattling his ribs. It was easy to forget just how loud a dragon could be.
Miss Elizabeth covered her ears with her hands and waited.
After far too long, the bellowing and rumbling ceased and the wyvern stared at Miss Elizabeth, ochre foam bubbling on his lips.
“Are you quite finished with your temper tantrum now?” She planted her hands on her hips and tapped her foot.
She stepped back in a half-bow and extended her hand. “Pray continue then, I should hardly suspend any pleasure of yours.”
Longbourn stomped, flapped and snorted for several more minutes, sending a rain of leaves cascading from the hillside vines, and a cloud of dust rising from the ground.
It really was an impressive show. Had Darcy encountered it without Miss Elizabeth, he would probably have left. Longbourn did not seem to want visitors.
“Are you finished now?” She crossed her arms over her chest and glowered at him with a decidedly maternal stare.
Longbourn huffed a breath through his lips, sending foam spraying.
Miss Elizabeth jumped back. “That was uncalled for.”
“You have stayed away for a full se’nnight. That was uncalled for.” Was it possible for a dragon to pout?
Darcy blinked and shook his head. The wyvern had transformed from towering dragon to petulant child.
“Oh, you silly, silly creature.” She opened her arms and crossed the distance to the wyvern.
It stretched its neck toward her. She embraced the huge scaly head and scratched behind his right ear with both hands.
Dear god, the creature wagged his foot just like a dog. How undignified.
“Oh, there yes. Exactly there.” A shiver rippled down the spine ridges until Longbourn’s tail thumped the ground.
The unsettling display continued as she ministered to his other ear and under his chin.
“There now, am I forgiven?” She asked, planting a kiss—a kiss!—on the rugged snout.
Longbourn snuffed and sniffed. “I suppose.” A long forked tongue snaked out and lapped her face.
No. That was entirely too much! How had she reduced a dignified dragon to something more akin to a slavering lap dog?
“Thank you, dear one.”
“I missed you. I hope you had a good reason.” Longbourn stretched out full length on the ground, spreading his wings.
She inspected them. “You need a thorough oiling—”
“And brushing. I want my wings brushed, they itch.” His wingtips fluttered.
The ensuing breeze rustled the nearest branches.
“Indeed they do. And you shall have it, I promise. I shall return this afternoon and bring Mary with me.”
“She scratches good.”
“I know she does.” She scratched the back of his wing.
“Why does she not come more?”
“Because you frighten her, you great oaf! If you did not relish your show of being a dragon so much, she might come more often.”
Another snort raised a cloud of dust. “You are not frightened.”
“I used to be.” She picked her way around the wing to stand beside his head and scratch the base of the first head ridge. “Until I discovered it is all puff and nonsense. You are really just a soft, itchy bundle of scales and snuff.”
Longbourn cuddled into her waist, nearly knocking her off her feet as he pulled her into his shoulder.
Dragons did not cuddle.
This was just so wrong. Entirely, completely wrong.
“Are you jealous?” Walker whispered in his ear.
When had he left his high perch?
“It is undignified. Rosings would never behave that way,” Darcy hissed.
“She would if she met Elizabeth. She knows how to scratch.” Walker’s shoulders twitched.
He was always itchy there. But he was very particular about who touched him.
“Dare I ask how you would know?”
“No. It is not your business. You do not like her.” Walker turned his face aside.
Darcy pressed thumb and forefinger to his eyes.
“I have important news for you, a great deal of it.” Her voice was sweet and cajoling, the way one talked to a petulant child.
Darcy’s stomach churned. Someone needed to teach her about draconic dignity.
“I do not like news. News is always inconvenient.”
That sounded exactly like what Bennet might say.
“Now you are just being difficult in the hopes of getting a treat. I will bring you one, but you must listen and behave properly first.”
“Is that what you want?”
“I like mutton. A great deal.” Longbourn flicked his tongue across his lips.
“Then you shall have a sheep tonight.”
“I like mutton.”
“Now, if you want mutton, you must listen carefully to me and not act the big scary estate dragon.”
Longbourn pouted again.
Dragons should not pout.
Miss Elizabeth placed a kiss along one of his brow ridges.
No, no! The tip of his tail wagged.
She stepped back to look into both his eyes. “We have admitted new members into our Keep. It is time for you to greet them—and promise not to eat them.”
Longbourn snorted. “I want a snack.”
She huffed and tapped her foot. “You have an entire herd of muntjacs roaming your lands. There is no reason for you to be complaining about snacks.”
“Oh, very well. Show me these creatures. I promise I shall not eat them.” He closed his eyes and rolled his head to the side.
“Now or ever?”
The dragon snuffled. “Now or ever.”
“On your honor?”
He picked up his head and stared down at her. “Upon my honor as a wyvern and ancestral estate dragon of Longbourn, I shall not eat whatever annoying little creature you present to me. Are you satisfied?”
“I am.” She looked over her shoulder into her hood. “Did you hear? You are safe, Longbourn shall never harm you.”
“I never said that, I only said I would not eat them.”
“Oh, all right, I won’t harm a scale on their pretty little bodies.”
“Or hair or feather?”
Longbourn stomped. “I want two sheep.”
“Promise me, and you shall have two.” The look in her eye suggested that had been her intention all along.
“You can come out now. You have nothing to fear.” She flicked the edge of her cloak back and stepped aside to reveal the tatzelwurm.
It stepped forward, stopping just in front of her, cowering just a little. She crouched and stroked its neck.
Longbourn slid his head along the ground to inspect the cat-like dragon. “I know you.”
“I used to live in the wood here. Now I live in the house.” The tatzelwurm extended a thumbed paw and touched the wyvern’s snout.
“He is now part of the Keep and under your protection. His name is Rumblkins.” She scratched the tatzelwurm with one hand and the wyvern with the other.
Rumblkins? What kind of a name was that?
His purr filled the woods, excessively loud for his size.
“I like rats. They are very tasty.” Longbourn blinked almost flirtatiously.
The tatzelwurm looked up at Miss Elizabeth.
“It would be very appropriate for you to bring him one, now and again. Hill would hardly notice you bringing one less to her.”
“I can do that.” Rumblkins voice was deep and almost furry. The tip of his tail flicked.
Longbourn licked his lips. “Then you shall be very welcome here.”
Rumblkins rubbed his head against Longbourn’s snout. Longbourn licked the top of Rumblkins’ head.
Real dragons did not accept one another so easily. What was going on here?
“Perhaps you might go in search of one now?” Miss Elizabeth said.
Rumblkins mrowed and scampered away.
“He is not the only new arrival. We have had a hatching of fairy dragons.”
Longbourn rolled his eyes.
At least there was something Darcy agreed with him on.
Miss Elizabeth reached into her hood and withdrew three colorful fluff-balls. “You know April. These are Heather and Phoenix.”
Longbourn sniffed at them. Small wonder he did not snuff them up his nose.
The red puff cheeped, its voice almost too high for Darcy to make out.
“As much as you.” Phoenix jumped up and hovered between Longbourn’s eyes.
“You might pick the mites off his head ridges.” She pointed.
Phoenix obeyed, soon joined by the pink and blue fairy dragons.
“Oh, yes, there, just there.” Longbourn purred and wagged his tail.
This was disgusting.
“I forgot how much I like fairy dragons. You will bring them when you come with Mary?”
“I will. Thank you, I know they appreciate your welcome.”
The pink and red fluffs lit on Longbourn’s snout, just between his eyes, squawked something, then curled up into sleeping balls. The blue one—April was it?—settled between them, a wing over each.
“Since you will be so well cared for by your Keep, you will have no need to disturb the militia that is coming to camp in Meryton.”
Longbourn’s lip curled back. “Militia? A large number of men and beasts are coming to invade my territory?”
“Not invade, dear one. They will be training here for a time, then move on. There is no reason to trouble yourself.” She edged around to scratch his ear again.
Longbourn snorted, disturbing the sleeping chicks. April pecked his snout and scolded.
The sight would have been comical had it not been likely to result in the quick demise of the fairy dragons in a single gulp.
“I do not like militias. Remember what they did to—”
Miss Elizabeth’s shoulders sagged. “Yes, I cannot forget my great aunt’s story. But eating her assailant did little to restore her honor.” She wrapped her arms tightly about her waist.
Longbourn inched forward and wrapped his neck around her.
She leaned into the dragon. “I promise we shall be very, very careful.”
“I will eat anyone who hurts you or any of my Keep. Slowly, one tiny bite at a time.”
Darcy shuddered. That was not a threat to be taken lightly.
“I would not ask you to do otherwise. You are after all an estate dragon. You must protect your Keep. But pray, do not harass the militia.” She pressed her face to Longbourn. “It would be very bad for the Keep if the soldiers were to be meddled with.”
“As long as they do not harm what is and who are mine, I will keep the peace … but I want another sheep.”
“You shall have one for each se’nnight they are here.”
“I like that.”
“I hoped it would make your forbearance worthwhile. I must ask an important favor of you whilst they are here.”
“More? Is it not enough that I do not bother them?”
“It should be, I know, but this is very, very important to all of dragonkind.”
Longbourn craned his neck to look at her. “The missing firedrake egg?”
“You know of it?”
“All the major-dragons know.”
“Why did you not tell me?” Her eyes grew wide.
So did Darcy’s.
“It is a dragon matter. I would have consulted you if necessary.”
The whole of England knew of Pemberley’s trial? Darcy pressed his fist to his mouth.
“I have met the Keeper of the missing egg.”
Longbourn rose, slowly enough not to disturb the sleeping fairy dragons. Slowly enough to be threatening and ominous.
He looked directly at Darcy. “Is that why you have brought that man here?”
Miss Elizabeth jumped and whirled around. “What man, I brought no one here.”
Walker launched and landed lightly beside her. He bowed, beak to the ground. “Forgive us, Laird Longbourn. I know we have trespassed, but our errand is dire. We desperately need your assistance.”
“Come forth, trespasser.” Longbourn bellowed and stomped.
The fairy dragons squawked and sped into the trees.
Darcy gulped and stood. One did not ignore a major -dragon’s commands. Squaring his shoulders, he stepped through the undergrowth, approached Longbourn and bowed, knee to the ground.
Longbourn stepped closer and rose to his full height as Miss Elizabeth and Walker jumped aside. The huge head shadowed over him, breath so hot it burned on his face. His nose wrinkled against the pungent, acrid notes of venom. Perhaps that was what burned against his skin.
“You have offended me.” Longbourn breathed heavily through his words.
Darcy bit his lip. Of course he had. He expected it with people, but how had he offended a dragon he had not even met?
“Pray forgive me Laird Longbourn. It was done in ignorance. Pray tell me how I have offended. I shall make reparations to you and your Keep.”
“Apologize to her and dance with her at the next ball.”
“What?” She and Darcy exclaimed together.
“Her offense is mine. Apologize to her.” Longbourn twitched his head toward Miss Elizabeth.
“I told you.” Walker flapped and hopped close enough to her to touch his wingtip to her skirt.
“This is absurd! How would you know about that?” she asked, looking from Longbourn to Walker to Darcy.
“You did not tell them?” Darcy’s brow knit.
“Hardly. How do you know?” She planted her hands on her hips.
Longbourn twitched his brow ridges.
The fairy dragon?
“I do not need draconic interference—”
“Protection.” Longbourn snorted.
She stomped, nearly on Walker’s tail. “Interference. I do not need it in every facet of my life. Mr. Darcy might have been abominably rude to myself and the entire community, but that is no reason to suggest he should be eaten by the local Laird.”
His face burned. His neck burned. His chest burned. Humiliation seared deeper than mere dragon breath.
“I am still offended.” Longbourn stared at her. She glowered back.
Darcy cleared his throat. “I thank you that you think my error not a capital offense, but pray accept my apologies for slighting you.”
She turned her glower on him, potent as wyvern venom.
No one, save a dragon, had ever looked at him that way.
She was stunning.
And a little frightening.
Longbourn coughed. “And?”
No. Really? A dragon cared about dancing?
No, he cared about Miss Elizabeth, passionately.
“And … may I request your hand for the first two—”
Overbearing, interfering lizard!
“For the supper set at the ball Bingley is planning to host at Netherfield?” Darcy bowed.
“What ball at Netherfield?” she asked.
“The one to be held at full moon next month.” Longbourn blinked slowly.
“What would you know about that?”
Longbourn shrugged his wings. “Accept the dance.”
“I do not wish to dance.”
The dragon stomped and huffed.
She returned the gesture.
A low rumbled grew in Longbourn’s throat, rattling Darcy’s bones. “I did not ask you if you wished to dance. Reparations must be made; the codes of dragon honor must be satisfied. You will dance with him.”
Something in the dragon’s tone changed, no longer playful and affectionate. This was a dragon in charge of his Keep.
“Very well. Sir, I thank you for your offer. I shall dance that set with you.” She rolled her eyes and looked away. “Are you satisfied now?”
Longbourn licked her face.
Never had his offer to dance been accepted thus. It was offensive, degrading … and quite possibly deserved.
“Is there further reparation you require, Laird Longbourn?” Darcy asked.
“Do not offend her again.”
Walker chirruped something that sounded like agreement.
“As you say.” Darcy bowed again.
“Your business?” Longbourn settled back on his haunches.
“I came to this county in search of a dragon egg stolen from Pemberley Keep. I have reason to believe it is concealed among the militia yet to arrive. I am convinced that it is not among the troops already here.”
“You wish help in recovering it?” Longbourn cocked his head. “It is not as though I can march into the camp and demand it. Well I could. It would be satisfying. But it would be against the Accords and nearly as much of a problem as a firedrake hatching wild.”
Hot, vaguely venomous breath etched Darcy’s face.
He coughed into his handkerchief. “I do not ask your help, only your permission to be in your territory during my search.”
“I do not take kindly to trespassers, but for such an errand, I will grant permission.”
Darcy started to bow, but Walker hopped and flapped, bowing to the wyvern. “That is not all, Laird Longbourn.”
Elizabeth gasped and crouched beside Walker and offered her arm as a perch. “What is it?”
He hopped up and she lifted him toward Longbourn. The wyvern dropped his head to look him in the eye.
“Speak, small one.”
“There is something amiss in this territory.” Walker said.
Longbourn flexed his wings. “Tell me.”
“I hear a voice of a kind I do not know. I think it may be a lindwyrm.”
Elizabeth stifled a cry with her hand. “Papa has been concerned there might be an unattached dragon—”
Longbourn roared and drowned out her words. “My territory is under my control. There are no trespassing dragons about.”
“Forgive me, Laird, but a lindwyrm would present an unspeakable danger to an egg—” Darcy said.
Longbourn stomped toward Darcy. “I said my territory is secure. There is nothing unknown in my borders. Any egg here is safe. I will not have my dominance questioned.”
A drop of venom glistened on his fang.
Darcy bowed. “We meant no offense, Laird Longbourn.”
“I am offended.” Longbourn snorted and stomped back into the hillside cave.
Darcy, Walker and Elizabeth stared at one another.
“He is known to be capricious, but this is odd even for him.” She stared into the darkness.
Perhaps she expected him to reappear. But he did not.
“That was an utter waste of time.” Darcy muttered, kicking a small stone.
Miss Elizabeth rounded on him, eyes wild. “Well forgive us poor country folk for not living up to your expectations. Good luck in your endeavors. Perhaps you can manage not to destroy the entire kingdom in the process.”
She spun on her heel and stalked off. Three colorful blurs streaked from the trees to catch up. The blue one veered off toward him, streaked past his head, nipping his ear as it went past.
Darcy’s jaw dropped.
Stunning, simply stunning in her fury.
“You are a total cock up, Darcy. Bollocks for brains,” Walker squawked and flew off.
The hillside was empty and eerily quiet.
Rumblkins trotted up with a large rat, still wriggling, in his mouth. He mrowed a question, and Darcy pointed into the cave. Rumblkins rubbed against his leg, tail flicking in a gesture of thanks and he trotted inside.
At least someone was happy with him.
What do you think about Longbourn? Will he help or hinder the search for the missing egg? Tell me in the comments!