“I thought you’d never ask,” said Jarrod, “Hang on.”
He ran toward the back of a stable and dug around for a bit, and returned with a sleek but sharp looking knife.
“I’m going to teach you to use this. Keep it on you, hidden, at all times from now on.”
“…Okay,” I said, “That’s the plan? Jarrod, I think –”
“That’s the back-up plan. The plan is way cooler. Well, plans really. I came up with a few, and I guess you can pick your favorite. Plan one: we build some kind of trap in a cave somewhere. When you get captured, tell the dragon that if he lets you go you’ll take him to a cave where there’s twice what he’s asking of your parents. Since money is their whole goal in this sort of thing he’ll have to go for it. Anyway you get there, he goes in, he springs the trap, BAM! Dragon slain.” He looked at me with a dumb smile on his face. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s risky. Have you figured out how to build the trap yet?”
“What do I do if the dragon doesn’t go for it?”
“Use your knife I guess. Hey, listen to plan two.”
“I’m all ears,” I said, smiling in spite of myself.
“Okay. Plan two: I get some armor and a horse – it’s alright, I know a guy – and I ride off, presumably to rescue you. Only when I get there, I ditch the armor and sneak in real stealthy-like, and give you a sword – or a bow. Can you use a bow?”
“I sincerely doubt it.”
“Ok, well a sword then. Anyway,”
“Um, I’m not so good with a sword either, Jarrod.”
He paused for a minute, thinking.
“Okay, I’m obviously going to have to train you a bit first, but it won’t be a big deal. Anyway, then I sneak out and then challenge the dragon. I’ll wear super light armor so I can dodge a lot, and I’ll try not to engage the dragon but just get his attention, but then you see, you attack from behind and kill him.”
I was kind of speechless. I was definitely expecting Jarrod’s plans to, well, not suck.
“You know,” I said, “Never mind.”
“Maddy,” He said, pleading in his eyes, “Let me teach you to shoot. As much as we can in the next few days. And I’ll build the trap and tell you where it is. That way you can try plan one, but if it happens too soon or the dragon won’t buy it we can use plan two.”
I smiled and, to my own surprise, started to cry. “Why are you doing this for me?”
“Because you’re my friend. And this is wrong, so we have to make it right.”
So the next day we started my knife and bow training. It was tricky, because mother wold never approve, and she was starting to get very annoyed with all the time I was spending with Jarrod. So Jarrod got me some of his old clothes and I spent several days “sick in bed.” I was old enough to handpick my servants, and I managed to bribe the servants paid to look in on me so I could actually go out with Jarrod, in boys’ clothes with my hair stuffed into a sort of pointy archer’s cap and no one would recognize me. I met some of his friends and they taught me how to fight. It was an exciting time for me because everyone of Jarrod’s friends flirted with me, and he was constantly getting protective (or jealous) and warning them off.
I remember one time when his friend Arty was showing me how to shoot. He stood right behind me, with next to no space between us, and put my hands where they needed to go on the bow, then drew back with me. When I released, he stayed there, wrapping his arms around me.
“Nice shot, kid” he said, although it had barely hit the target.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling.
Jarrod appeared out nowhere and pulled the boy off of me.
“Arty, you rat! You know who this is, and that kind of thing could get you in big trouble. Anyway we’ve only got a few days.”
I guess the days I spent with all those boys proved one thing to me: I was not against courtship and marriage; I was against parent-approved courtship and marriage. And if the princes were good picks compared to Jarrod, Jarrod was a king compared to his friends. I’m ashamed to say I was flirting with them a lot for just that reason. Well, and because I liked to see Jarrod “protect” me.
Anyway, in the four days that I could realistically be sick without being overly worried about I got to be a decent bow shot. One time out of four I could hit within a one-foot box of the target. As far as the knife goes, I could beat two or three of the weaker members of Jarrod’s little gang and could occasionally best Artie, though I couldn’t touch Jarrod himself. He said he was pretty sure I had a fighting chance, and, on the last day, took me back to the stables. The hay wagon was there, filled with odd bits of lumber. Jarrod disappeared to the same shelf from whence my knife had come and appeared this time with a small but complex wooden mechanism.
“This is a scale model,” he said, “But it should give you an idea.”
The model looked like a ballista, but with a bunch of pieces of metal foil in place of one large arrowhead. The back of the arrow was connected to a series of gears and odd pistons, which led back to a plate in front of the barrel. There was aother plate in the middle of the mechanism that was similarly connected to two large spikes pointing in from either side.
“Well, it’s not exactly to scale. But what’ll happen is, the door to the cave will be real low, so the dragon’ll have to duck to enter. As he enters he’ll step on the pressure plate that activates the whole thing. As soon as he steps on it, the trap will let fly with little metal shards that’ll blind it,” Jarrod explained.
“Blind it? I thought we wanted to kill it!” I objected.
“Well, once blinded it’ll either turn around or charge forward. If it turns around, it’s tail will hit plate two, and if it charges ahead, it’s head will. Either way the spikes will impale it.”
“They’ll puncture dragonhide?”
Jarrod looked sheepish.
“I hope so. But if not, at least we’ll only have to fight a blinded dragon.”
“Of course. I’ll come to the sight and wait at first news of your capture, so I can give you backup if you need it.”
“Ok, Jarrod, but let me do the killing blow, and you can’t tell anyone you were involved. You get that, right?” I pleaded.
“Well I don’t see why- ”
“Because if there’s any chance that my parents could sell this as you rescuing me, they will. They’d rather marry me to a commoner than not at all.”
Jarrod looked positively crushed for a moment, but then smiled.
“As you wish, your highness,” he said. “You’d better get back home now. The boys and I will leave tomorrow to set the trap. It’ll probably take us a couple of days so don’t lure the dragon there for at least three if you can.”
“No promises,” I said.
Jarrod and I walked different directions as I tried to get up the courage to do something I’d planned to do at this moment, something I wouldn’t get a chance to do later, and something I would regret doing for a long time.
“Jarrod!” I said. He turned. I ran to him, grabbed the sides of his face, and kissed him awkwardly. The adverb I’d like to use is more like passionately, but in my royal protected existence I’d never been kissed, much less initiated a kiss and this one was awkward. Luckily, when Jarrod caught on he quickly righted it. He was obviously no amateur.
“What was that for?” he asked afterward, surprisingly cool.
“For good luck, and as a thank you,” I said. “Don’t read too much into it.”
I longed to tell my friends about the exchange but did not want to risk telling them the rest and couldn’t make the story work without 90% of it, so I painfully kept my mouth shut.
When I returned home I found my mother waiting in my room with Hell itself in her eyes.
“Sit down,” she seethed. I complied.
“Madison. I’d like you to tell me where you’ve been the last couple of days, while you’ve been bribing your servants, or rather you former servants, to lie to me.”
Oddly enough, what I felt was guilt at the servants’ dismissal. Then, shortly thereafter, panic. I was glad I’d decided to change into my dress before I left. I grappled for an excuse that would make sense, but still calm my mother.
“I was with a boy,” I said truthfully. “A very rich boy,” I lied.
“He came to my room four days ago, dressed in fine silks, with a silken black mask. He was so handsome, and he said that if I’d go away with him for just a few days he might marry me, and I knew it would make you so happy, so I just went for it. I shouldn’t have, but he was so sweet. He wined and dined me so expensively for the next four days, but he was so much of a gentleman he didn’t touch me, except to kiss me once lightly before departing out my window, and saying he would call again.” I added a dreamy sigh for effect.
My mother looked at me, sighed, and gave me a big hug.
“Don’t ever worry me like that again,” she said between tears, “But thank god you’ve found yourself a rich man.”
“And nice,” I said wryly.
“And nice,” she said, concluding her hug.
“Now you still have to be punished. I’m grounding you for a week. You can’t leave this room.”
I tried one last bid.
“If I don’t leave the room, a dragon can’t come for me,” I sighed.
“Good point,” my mother replied embarrassedly, “I’m grounding you in the east tower instead. You can come out for meals and official functions. Use the time to practice your knitting and your lute. The window is to remain open!”Not exactly the response I’d hoped for, but I resolved to use the time to practice, like she said. Only instead of lute and knitting, I’d practice the bow and knifing. It wasn’t too far off.