The Hob s Bargain - By Patricia Briggs

Chapter 1
SPRING - Rebirth


Changes are frightening, I thought, even when they're changes for the better. From the doorway my cottage I looked across the yard and garden to the barn where my husband was harnessing our chestnut workhorse. My husband. Our workhorse. I tasted the thought in my mind and smiled. Frightening, yes, but exciting and wonderful, too.

The barn wasn't far from the house, but the distance was great enough that I couldn't see the lacings on the harness or the faint, pale lines near my husband's eyes where the sun didn't reach his skin when he smiled. But I could see the horse cock an ear back, listening to Daryn's soft, slow voice. I could see the wheat-gold of Daryn's hair, newly cut in honor of our wedding.

We'd been married all of a night, and though we'd been betrothed this past harvest, I still couldn't quite believe it. I'd never expected to wed at all. The morning was still chilly this early in spring. I drew my shawl more tightly around my shoulders, hugging the warmth closer.

Daryn tied the traces to the croup strap high on the horse's rump so they wouldn't drag the ground all the way to the high field where he'd meet his brother and my father to continue the plowing they'd already begun. The muscles of his back flexed under the wool shirt he wore as he pulled himself to the chestnut's back in one smooth motion.

"Daryn..." I called tentatively.

He saw me in the doorway and grinned. I smiled back with relief. When he'd left the house, I'd been busy cleaning up after breakfast, pretending I fixed morning meals every day when it had always been my mother's task. Near to thirty years old, and I still couldn't make toasted bread without scorching it.

Cleaning had given me a reason for my red cheeks other than the embarrassment that had first caught my tongue when I awoke in bed with him this morning and worsened dismally with the advent of the blackened bread. I'd expected him to be grumpy, as my father always was. I should have known him better than that: Daryn didn't hold grudges.

He spun the horse on its haunches, a trick he'd taught it during the last year's long winter months while I'd watched from my parents' house. If I half-closed my eyes, I could almost see a warrior on his mount preparing for battle rather than a landsman off to work. With a snort, the horse galloped to the small porch where I stood, his heavy feet thundering on the ground like the great horses from Gram's tales of ancient heroes.

Daryn was handsome enough to be a hero, perhaps some lost prince or noble. A clever twinkle seldom left his eye, and good humor colored most of his expressions - attributes all proper heroes should have. The muscles he'd earned tilling the fields were no less impressive than those of a soldier, and probably better than any prince would earn seated upon a throne.

Truth was, he was prettier than I, and the better part of a decade younger. His age had worried me when Father brought him home last fall. I should have remembered how shrewd my father was. Only an idiot could have found fault with Daryn, and I hope I've never been that - or at least not very often.

"Aren, my lass?" Daryn asked after a moment. I realized he'd stopped in front of me some time ago, and I'd been staring at him without speaking.

I started to say something light and funny, something to let him know it was shyness, not moodiness, that I felt, but the words stopped in my throat. A familiar chill settled into my stomach. Not now, I thought desperately. I reached out to his normalcy and warmth, gripping the cloth of his pant leg, and hoped for the feeling to pass. When I closed my eyes against dizziness, I saw...

... a winter lily, scarlet flower drooping and edged with brown, bobbing as something dripped on it.

As an explanation of the dread feeling that choked me, it was a complete failure. Most of my visions were like that. Later, after whatever event the sight had warned of took place, I could nod my head to myself and say, "Oh, that's what it meant." Not very useful.

If I had to be stricken with magic, I would rather have had something like Gram's talent for healing, or my brother's knack for