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Name: Anthony Tardiff Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy Title: Damsels Dragon
Berric peered around the corner and groaned. There had to be half a dozen guards between him and this side door leading out of the palace. And every other door would be guarded at least as well.
A revelrous racket came from the Great Hall behind him. It sounded as if half the royal city were there, which was probably true, since this was the day the palace was open to everyone. The prince was supposed to choose one request from the people to grant on his upcoming coronation day. Groups of citizens competed with each other to have their petitions heard. Mini-alliances were made and dropped, as servants circulated through the hopeful throng with food and drink, and the lords and ladies mingling with the crowd were courted to join their influence to this group or that. The hubbub would have worked in Berric’s favor, except that anyone leaving the castle would stick out like a sore thumb.
There was else nothing for it. Berric stepped around the corner and walked towards the door. The nearest guard saw him and gave a little start. “Your Highness,” he said, clasping his fist to his breastplate and bowing as Berric passed.
“Yes, yes,” Berric said absently as the other guards saluted and bowed as well. These guards were professionals. Even with the throng, Berric had probably less than three minutes before Lord Pottsworth learned of his departure. And Lord Pottsworth could take a more direct route to the stables, so . . . Berric broke into a run.
It was three long flights of steps down from the side door to the courtyard. Berric took them as fast as he could, and still had breath at the bottom to sprint the length of the courtyard to the stables. He went straight to the stall of his coal-black charger and lifted its saddle pad from its hook on the wall. It was when he turned and hoisted the pad over the charger’s back that he saw the man standing in the shadows in the back of the stall.
“Yagh!” Berric said, dropping the saddle pad with a plop on the charger’s back and earning a scornful look from the horse. “Don’t scare me like that, Kerrill!”
Kerrill shuffled into the light at the front of the stall, wringing his hands under the long sleeves of his plain brown tutor’s robe. “Lord Pottsworth said I was to wait here and stop you if you tried to go riding.”
“Lord Pottsworth says this, Lord Pottsworth says that,” Berric said, putting the saddle on top of the pad and cinching it tight. “Too bad.”
“But Highness, this is important. Even more important than the Council sessions you skipped, or the meetings with the ambassadors. The people expect a coronation gift. It’s tradition.”
“The people can expect anything they want,” Berric said. “But the king does whatever he chooses.”
Kerrill sighed and leaned against the horse, then jumped back hurriedly when it danced away and snorted in his face. “But you’re not king yet.”
“So Lord Pottsworth keeps reminding me,” Berric said. “He’s made sure I haven’t had a bit of fun since we got here.”
“I’d say you’ve been having a lot of fun,” Kerrill said, “judging by the apologies I have to keep making. Do you know how hard it was to convince the ambassador from Shrewsia that you didn’t put jam on his seat on purpose?”
“But I did,” Berric said, fitting the bit into the charger’s mouth. “He took himself too seriously. It was good for him to have people laugh at him.”
“And that whole joke of making me a nobleman and your Lord High Chancellor.”
“That wasn’t a joke,” Berric said. “It was duly witnessed and official. You’re the best man for the job. Anyway, who better than my teacher to take over the country if something happens to me?” Kerrill didn’t look convinced, and Berric didn’t blame him. But he didn’t tell him that the real reason he’d appointed him chancellor was to keep Lord Pottsworth or anyone else from getting funny ideas about Berric’s suitability to the throne. As the old king’s chancellor, Lord Pottsworth would have been next in line for the throne of Eldary if Berric had died without leaving an heir or appointing a chancellor of his own. But now Kerrill had that privilege. A nervous former commoner who rarely set foot outside his library was not a king anyone would want — nor was he someone who would plot against Berric.
Kerrill took off his floppy tutor’s hat and squeezed it in his hands. “Please, Highness. This tradition is important to the people. Didn’t you learn anything from all my history lessons?”
Berric swung himself into the saddle. “Yes,” he said, looking down at Kerrill. “I learned that the king makes the history.”
This was the life. Berric rose and fell with the smooth, easy gait of the horse beneath him as it thundered through the streets of the royal city. Peasants scrambled to get out of his way, and then stared as he passed. The fresh morning air rushed into his lungs with each breath, sharp and cool. The city wall rose ahead, encircled the city in ten feet of stone, heavily manned by the Royal Guard. Its gate was thrown wide to the farmers and tradesmen from the surrounding countryside. The guardsmen saluted smartly as Berric flashed through the gate. Then the road opened onto rolling countryside, and Berric let the charger have free reign.
“Your Highness!” a voice gasped from somewhere behind him. “Slow down, I beg you! I can’t keep up!”
Berric looked back. Kerrill was following, clinging to the back of his horse, a fine stallion, as if it were a pack mule — and he the pack. Well, let him try to keep up if he could. Berric spurred his horse onward. He laughed aloud as the wind whipped around his face with such force that he had to squint against it, and the charger steadied into a joyful, rolling gait. He thought of the old cart horse he’d had back in Everwold province and laughed again. It was a good thing Berric had snuck rides on Lord Pottsworth’s horse in Everwold, or he might be in as bad a situation as Kerrill right now. This charger was a real horse, quick, spirited, and sure-footed. Riding it was like flying!
A stretch of trees loomed ahead. The road narrowed as it passed under the first of them. The trees thickened, flashing past, making Berric feel that he was going even faster. There was a curve approaching. He knew the charger could make the turn. He tightened his legs and crouched in the saddle in anticipation.
The horse leaned into the turn, as smoothly as Berric had known it would. But then it seemed to change its mind. Its legs scrabbled at the dirt of the road as it tried to swerve. It stumbled, skidded, and then came to a sudden stop.
Berric did notstop. For a brief moment he really was flying. Then he hit the earth on his back and slid and scraped to an abrupt halt in the ditch at the side of the road. His legs flew up over his head. From this position he saw what had caused the accident: an old woman stood in the middle of the road, her walking stick poised, an astonished expression on her wrinkled face.