The Thirteenth Princess

I am the thirteenth daughter of the King, and with twelve elder sisters famous for sneaking from our chamber to dance the night away, I am often forgotten. I may not have a passel of suitors eager to attend to my every need, but the lack of attention suits me; I can walk through the market without being recognized, spend hours in the tower with Wizard Fenrick without being missed, and most importantly, I can take care of myself.

Today, I sit in Fenrick’s laboratory, fiddling with a flask of strange blue liquid that shimmers when I swirl it around in its small glass prison. The elderly wizard mutters to himself and shuffles ingredients around on his workbench, reordering the containers of bright powders, jars of viscous liquids, and assortment of unusual objects for his latest experiment.

“Where did I leave those blasted kelpie tears?” he asks no one in particular, rummaging around a bit longer before his eyes fall on me. The wizard stays my hands with wrinkled fingers and plucks the vial from my grasp. “Careful, my dear. You know better than most that the contents of this lab are hardly as innocuous as they seem.”

I smile ruefully. “Yes, Wizard Fenrick,” I say, recalling the time I let the burp of a fire imp out of a jar and singed my eyebrows when I was nine. I clasp my fingers in front of me in an unspoken promise to behave, and curious, I ask, “What can one do with the tears of a kelpie?”

“Many things, but in this case, they are to be the final ingredient in a tonic that will allow me to breath under water. Imagine the things I could learn if I could submerge for hours on end like a water horse!”

“Fascinating,” I agree.

“Yes indeed, my dear,” Fenrick says. “Alas, the brewing process will take several days, so I am afraid there will not be much to see for a while yet.” When my shoulders slump just enough for the old wizard to notice, his face brightens, and he pulls a sealed letter from the folds of his robes. “In the meantime, I have another letter to Emberbane, and it would save my tired legs if you could deliver it for me.”

I hop from my stool and rush to embrace the wizard. “I shall have it to the fearsome old dragon in no time!” I promise, already running from the room, my feet thumping on the wooden treads as I fairly fly down the stairs.

After sneaking a fruit tart for myself and packing several of Emberbane’s favorite lamb pies in the kitchen, I delve into the dark forest without a second thought. I have walked the route to Emberbane’s cave since I was small, and even my sisters safely traversed the wood for months as they made their renowned forays to dance, and that was in the dead of night. So, unafraid, I traipse through the trees, wending my way to the dragon’s rocky abode.

Only several paces separate me from the mouth of Emberbane’s cave, but I already know the dragon is not home by the boulder placed to the left side of the entrance, a signal Fenwick and the old dragon developed long ago to indicate that the dragon is out. I am not discouraged, however, for I often leave messages and treats for Emberbane to enjoy upon his return, and I make to step into the mouth of the cave.

Before I may do so, unfamiliar hands grab me from behind and a man’s voice declares, “Fear not, fair maiden!”

“Excuse me?” I demand, trying to shake off the intruder’s hands as I am forcibly dragged from the cave.

“Fear not, fair maiden,” the man repeats. “I shall save you!”

“I do not need to be saved,” I argue, twisting in his grip. “Now get off me. You are crushing my pies.”

“These woods are dangerous, and you would do well to be more careful,” he advises.

“I know what I am doing, and I was perfectly safe until you showed up. Now it is from you I require rescuing.”

The man, oblivious to the irony of the situation he has created, is undeterred, and I struggle against his grip around my waist as he continues to wrestle me further from the cave.

The man laughs, a big throaty chuckle. “Of course you require rescuing, my lady,” he says. “You were about to be eaten by a fearsome dragon, and what kind of gentleman would I be if I allowed delicate damsels such as yourself to be defiled in such a way?”

“That is preposterous. Dragons do not eat princesses,” I huff, slightly out of breath from my struggles. “Unhand me,” I demand in my most commanding voice, the one I often hear my sisters use when they want their way.

His grip does not loosen. I kick at the man’s shins to no avail. Finally, I go limp, sagging like a dead deer in his arms. To my dismay, he does not let up, managing to drag me despite my full weight until a horse comes into view. I still cannot see the man, as he has been behind me this entire time.

“I do not need to be rescued,” I say once more, my boots dragging uselessly in the dirt.

The man merely laughs again. “You are lucky I happened upon you on my way to the palace. You will thank me later,” he says with obvious pride.

Then, without ceremony and with much less difficulty than I care to admit, he tosses me over the rear end of his horse and proceeds to bind my hands and feet. I do not make the job easy for him, kicking and wiggling the entire time, although not so forcefully that I risk falling to the ground and injuring myself.

Thus, I end up tied to the rump of a stallion like a sack of grain, my self-proclaimed rescuer wholly unaware he’s luckier than a rabbit’s foot that Emberbane isn’t home.

We ride through the trees, the silence broken only by my ill-tempered grumbles. I am slightly consoled by two facts. One, the man rides with a handkerchief stuffed up one nostril of his bloody nose as a result of a well-placed kick from my flailing foot. And two, the ropes binding me are not overly tight due to my constant struggles, and the more I work my wrists, the more my bonds slacken.

“Had I allowed you to enter, that foul beast would’ve eaten you alive.”

“For the last time,” I insist, “dragons don’t hurt princesses.”

“So you are a princess then?” the man asks, entirely ignoring my meaning. I glare at his back, working at the ropes tied around my wrists, and refuse to answer. Eventually he continues his one-side conversation, “I am headed to the palace now. Imagine the king’s delight when I return his daughter safe and sound.”

I cannot contain a barking bout of laughter. “You mean, imagine how the king will react when he finds out you kidnapped his daughter,” I revise for him.

The man waves away my words with as much concern as he has shown to all the other thoughts I have shared with him. The only reason I am not angrier at his dismissal is the thrill of triumph coursing through me as the ropes securing my wrists fall to the ground and grow smaller with every successive stride of the horse.

Thinking of how my sisters deal with such men, I temper my voice and soften my features.

“I am absolutely parched. Would you kindly get me a drink?” I ask sweetly, going so far as to bat my eyelashes.

Sure as summer flowers, the man dismounts to retrieve his waterskin. When he is within my reach and elbows deep in his saddle bag, I grab him around the neck and smash my skull into his just the way my father’s best guards taught me when they knew no one was watching.

My self-proclaimed rescuer crumples in a heap, and I untie myself, slipping from the horse and onto my own two feet.

I use the discarded ropes to tie up my kidnapper. I take a step back and observe the man lying on his face by the side of the trail. If he is lucky, my father’s men will find him, but there are plenty of other creatures roaming these forests who have a lot better chance of stumbling across him first.

I smirk down at him, hands on my hips.

“You’re right,” I tell his unconscious form. “These woods are dangerous, and you’d do well to be more careful.”

I turn on my heel, heading back to Emberbane’s cave to deliver Fenrick’s letter as usual and deciding that if I never hear the words “fair maiden” again in all my years, it will be fine by me.

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