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Name: Anthony Tardiff Genre: MG Fantasy Title: Damsel’s Dragon
His Royal Highness Prince Berric was only a week from being crowned king of all Eldary. And he had just been kidnapped.
It was embarrassing, really. Kerrill had warned him not to go riding by himself. But after being stuck a tiny castle all his life, Berric wanted to use his newfound freedom for, well, freedom. No more stuffy, tapestried rooms for him, no more droning lectures from Kerrill, no more rules and restrictions from Lord Pottsworth. Instead, a good horse, a summer morning, and all the room in the world to ride.
He hated it when Kerrill was right.
And now here he was, in the back of an enclosed cart that smelled of rotting hay, bouncing along a rough road to who-knew-where.
There was a shout from outside, and the cart slowed and came to a stop. “Did anyone see you?” said a voice. It was unnaturally gruff, as if the speaker were hiding his true voice.
“No, he was alone, as you said,” said the driver. The cart rocked as he got down. “Are you taking over, then?”
“Yes. Take this for your trouble.” There was a jingling sound.
“If it please you, sir,” said the driver, “I’d rather take this and have no trouble, if you see my meaning. Kidnapping a prince . . . some would call it a hanging offense.”
“You have nothing to fear. This isn’t even illegal.”
“Maybe. But princes aren’t princes forever,” said the driver.
“Why not?” said the gruff voice.
There was a pause. “Ah,” said the driver. “All the same, me and my men will keep our masks on until we’re clear. And I suggest you do the same. I do notwant to know who you are, though I imagine I’ll know soon enough. Now: where do you want him?”
“In this carriage.”
The driver whistled. “Fancy.”
“He’s a prince.”
Berric sighed. Fat lot of good being a prince had done him so far. Just because a prison was fancy didn’t make it less of a prison. He hoisted himself up in the back of the cart and peered out the tiny, barred window. All he could see was a broad road under thick trees, and a horse. It was his horse, the beautiful, coal-black charger he’d been riding — or trying to ride — when the kidnappers had cornered him. It stood docilely close behind the cart, secured with a single rope. It was taking its captivity calmly, which was more than Berric could say for himself.
“Hey,” Berric shouted out the window. “Let me go, and I’ll make sure you all spend the rest of your lives in riches.”
“Ah,” said the driver, coming up beneath the window. His eyes were shadowed under his hood, and his nose and mouth were hidden by a loose, wrapped mask. “You’ve gone from insults to bribes. You must be desperate.”
“And rich.” Berric gave him his most winning smile.
The man smiled back, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile. “Will I get to live in a palace of my very own, like Mr. Princeling?”
“How much is Gruff Voice paying you?” Berric said, ignoring the gibe. “I’ll triple it.”
“Can you pay enough to protect my family from bandits?”
“Huh?” Berric said. “You are a bandit.”
The man rolled his eyes and unlocked the cart door. That was what Berric had been waiting for. He jumped back, and as the door swung open he took two running steps and leapt past the driver’s face. He landed on his stomach, draped over the back of his charger. The wind rushed out of him but he held on as the horse reared and made the driver leap back. Berric’s flailing feet found a stirrup. He put his weight on it and swung himself into the saddle.
“Don’t let him get free!” shouted Gruff Voice as Berric yanked on the rope that held the charger to the cart. When it didn’t come loose, Berric hauled on the horse’s reins instead, and dug his heels into its side. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a heavyset figure coming towards him in a rolling run, and other figures converging from every side. But the charger reared again and jerked its head, and there was a satisfying snap as the rope parted. The horse wheeled and Berric hung on for dear life as it leapt forward. The kidnappers shouted in alarm and leapt aside.
Trees whipped past on either side, and Berric barely managed to keep his seat. This was very different from the placid cart horses that were all he’d been allowed to ride until a week ago, but if he could just hold on he was willing to bet this charger could outrun any of his captor’s horses. And this time he wouldn’t take a turn into a field surrounded by hedgerows. He’d take the broad, straight road all the way back to Grandvale and call the Royal Guard to arrest these kidnappers. They would spend the rest of their lives in a palace, all right — in the lowest dungeon.
There were hoofbeats behind him. Berric risked a look over his shoulder. Four riders were close behind, and they were gaining. Their horses were the equal of his own, and the riders leaned in their saddles with practiced ease. Berric spurred his charger desperately, but they kept pace. Then his eyes caught what they were wearing: the blue and gold livery of the Royal Guard. For a moment Berric’s heart rose. The Guard had found him! He was safe! Then his joy evaporated.
The Royal Guard was chasing him.
In moments their horses pressed close on either side, and one rider reached out a mailed gauntlet and caught the charger’s bridle. The whole group came to a dusty, scrabbling stop. “Let me go!” Berric said. “I order you.”
Without a word, the Guardsmen turned and began leading Berric’s charger back the way they had come.
“Did you hear what I said? Your prince commands you to let him go.”
It was no use. The riders calmly led Berric back to the cart, and now Berric saw why his commands had fallen on deaf ears. The kidnappers had left, and Mr. Gruff Voice was standing alone beside the cart, hands on hips. His hood and mask were down, revealing the stern and ruddy face of Lord Pottsworth, the Lord High Chancellor of Eldary.
Berric’s heart sank. He should have known. “This is treason,” he said when his horse stopped in front of Lord Pottsworth.
“Until you are crowned,” Lord Pottsworth said, “I’m still your guardian, and the ruler of Eldary.”
“You’re a traitor,” Berric said. “And a kidnapper.”
Lord Pottsworth shrugged. “I didn’t want you to make a scene. You’re very good at making scenes.” He reached up to help Berric off his horse, but Berric ignored his hand and slid with a breath-stealing thump to the ground. “You can ride in comfort now,” Lord Pottsworth said, indicating the carriage pulled up next to the cart. “These Guardsmen will protect you until you reach your home in Everwold.”
Everwold. Berric gritted his teeth. “The poorest province in the land is not a fit place for the prince, soon to be king, of all Eldary.” Tie a stone to his ankles and dump him in the sea. Throw him in the Towerwood Forest where monsters could have him for dinner. Anywhere but back to that tiny castle.