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Name: Anthony Tardiff Genre: MG Fantasy Title: Damsel’s Dragon
His Royal Highness Prince Berric was only a day from being crowned the youngest ever king of all Eldary. And he had just been kidnapped.
It was embarrassing, really. He had let his guard down for only a moment, riding out of sight of his four Royal Guardsmen escorts and into a thick group of trees. In a trice he’d been knocked off his horse, bound, and whisked away. And now here he was, kneeling in the back of an enclosed cart that smelled of rotting hay, bouncing along a rough road to who-knew-where.
And Lord Pottsworth had sworn up-and-down that there was no plot to keep Berric off the throne! If Berric got out of here, he was going to deliver the loudest “I told you so” ever heard in Eldary.
Of course, he’d have to get free first. He took a deep breath, set his knees wide, bit his lip, and pulled with all his might on the ropes that bound his wrists behind his back. He’d felt the knot slip a few moments ago, but now it was being stubborn.
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 not want 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 was running out of time. He took another deep breath. Last chance. He bent forward and pulled, muscles straining, grunting as his face turned red with the effort. He was close; he could feel it! Just a little more . . .
Berric bent over too far and fell on his face. His rear shot into the air, and his nose bounced in the musty straw on the floor of the cart. His body jerked as he sneezed.
There were footsteps coming toward the cart. Berric rolled over — and stared in astonishment at his unbound wrists. Ha! The ropes had parted when he sneezed!
A shadow fell into the cart from its tiny, barred window, and Berric quickly rolled under it and stood up, keeping his arms out of sight. He looked out the window and jumped a little when he found himself looking into the eyes of the bandit driver, already staring in. “Oh, hi there!” Berric said. Had the man seen his loose wrists? “Listen, I’ve been thinking. We can cut a deal. Let me go, and I’ll make sure you spend the rest of your life in riches.”
“Hmm,” said the driver. 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 bandit driver smiled in return, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile. “Will I get to live in a palace of my very own, like Mr. Princeling?”
Berric’s eyes drifted to what was behind the man. The cart had stopped under on a broad road under thick trees. In the sun-dappled light a second bandit was untying a horse from the back of the cart. It was Berric’s horse, the beautiful, coal-black charger he’d been riding when the kidnappers had ambushed him. Berric’s hands itched to close around its reins. “How much is Mr. Gruff Voice paying you?” he said. “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.
This was his chance! Berric stooped and grabbed a handful of dirty straw from the floor, and as the door swing open he flung it in the driver’s face. The man shouted a curse and threw his arms up, leaving him open for a swift and, Berric thought, well-deserved kick to the chest.
If only he hadn’t been wearing mail under that robe. Berric yelped in pain. But there was no time to stop and see if he’d broken his toes. The bandit was still wiping dirt from his eyes. Berric jumped out of the cart and ran past the man and toward his horse.
“Get him!” shouted Gruff Voice, and out of the corner of Berric eye he could see a heavyset figure coming toward him in a rolling run, and other figures converging from every side.
The man holding Berric’s horse dropped the reins and rushed at him, arms out, but Berric ducked under his arms and then under his horse’s stomach and emerged on the far side to clamber in an instant up into the saddle. “Up!” Berric shouted, and his charger reared on cue, making the surrounding bandits leap back. The charger tossed its head and Berric snatched the reins out of the air as they flew back. He dug his heels into the horse’s side and they were off like an arrow, scattering bandits as they flew.
Trees whipped past on either side, and Berric leaned forward in the saddle. He’d done it! What a story this would make when he got back to the palace. He’d have the criers proclaim it throughout the kingdom. Did you hear? The young prince, ambushed, captured, probably destined for some barbaric slave market or to be abandoned for the monsters in the Towerwood Forest, and he escaped!
What, all alone, with no help?
Yes! And he rode all the way back to the palace and called the Guard to arrest the kidnappers.
Berric smiled. Those bandits would spend the rest of their lives in a palace, all right — in the lowest dungeon.
There were hoofbeats behind him. Berric flashed a look over his shoulder. Four riders were close behind, gaining fast. 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. They’d found him! Berric pulled the reins to slow his horse.
“About time you caught up,” he said as the Guardsmen took up protective stations on either side of his horse. But something was wrong. The men didn’t look at him. And they were riding much too close. Then the closest reached out and grabbed Berric’s bridle, and the whole group came to a dusty, scrabbling stop.
“What are you doing?” Berric said.
Without a word, the Guardsmen turned Berric’s horse around, and they all began trotting back the way they had come.
“Hey! Berric said. "We need to get back to the palace."