The next thing I remember is Jarrod’s beautiful face.
“Maddy? Maddy, stay with me!” He was lightly shaking me. My side hurt like hell. Why hadn’t it hurt so much before? I moaned pathetically. Then I realized how much of my dress was missing. The whole skirt had been torn off. I tried to move my hands to cover myself, but my arms were so weak.
“Don’t try to move,” Jarrod said, “I had to tear your dress so I could get at that gash in your side to try to clean it out and change the bandage, but I think you’re okay. Did the trap work okay?”
“No,” I said weakly.
“You shouldn’t try to talk. We’ve got a wagon here, we’ll take you back home. I saw that some of Jarrod’s friends were with him. They were respectfully standing a ways away.
“I made them look away when I tore your dress,” Jarrod said, “But here’s a blanket from the wagon. We’re going to carry you over there.”
“I can walk,” I said, sitting up. The landscape began to spin as soon as I did it.
“You alright?” asked Jarrod, helping me the rest of the way up. I nodded. He tied the blanket around my stomach and supported me to the wagon. As we approached, Jarrod’s boys applauded us, cheering and whistling.
“Three cheers for Madison, warrior princess!” yelled Art, “Three cheers for the dragonslayer! Hip Hip!”
“Hooray!” They all cheered.
“Alright guys, calm down – she’s still weak,” said Jarrod, setting me down in the back of the wagon, “We finished the trap in two days, but the next day we got the news of your capture. We waited here for nearly a week, but I figured if you could have gotten him here by then you would have, so we set off for home to find out where you’d been taken. We were half way back when Lyle spotted you up in the sky flying back toward the cave. We turned around right away, but by the time we got here it was all over.”
“Her,” I corrected but they didn’t hear me.
“I saw the way that knife was stuck in the beast’s neck. You must have been pumped full of adrenaline to drive that in. Probably also explains why you didn’t feel the pain in your side until after it was all over. The gash is pretty deep. So tell me everything!”
“Later,” I said, “My knife?”
“We can’t even get it out of the dragon’s head,” said Art.
“Then bring the dragon’s head,” I said. They did as I asked, out of fear as likely as anything else. It smelled the whole way, but I had a plan and I wanted to enter my home my way.
We went to the nearest town, a small village called Laplin. There was a healer there who insisted I recover there and then move on. He wanted to send a courier to the palace with the news, but I insisted against it. I wanted to make my own entrance. While I was healing, I employed the local taxidermist to stuff the dragon’s head. A true artist, he was all too happy to do such interesting work and said he’d do it free of charge. Jarrod bought me a lovely new dress at the town shop.
About a week later, I was feeling strong and the head was stuffed. Most of the guys had left earlier in the wagon, so Jarrod and I shared a horse on the way back, the dragon’s head dragging behind us. When we reached the city gates, I held my gleaming knife aloft as we rode in.
A trumpet sounded and people began to fill the streets, marveling at what they saw, clearing a path for us. When we reached the palace steps, my mother and father and their whole court was waiting for us. Ariadne was beaming with pride and Joy that I lived.
Still holding my knife triumphantly, I dismounted, picked up the dragon’s head, and threw it at my father’s feet.
“I have slain my own dragon,” I said, “And won my own hand. I will marry whom I choose, when I choose.”
A collective gasp went up from the people. This is what I’d dreamed of.
“You’ve what?” my mother asked in a voice made of icicles.
“Surely what the girl means,” said my father jovially, “Is that this young man, commoner though he is, has slain her dragon and rescued her, thus winning her hand. Is that so?”
“No,” I said, “I slew the dragon. Jarrod helped me and trained me, but I killed the beast myself with this very knife.”
The king looked at Jarrod, still atop the horse.
“Does my daughter speak the truth.”
“Madison, you fool!” my mother screamed, unable to contain herself, “A rich suitor on the way, princes willing to pay for you, knights willing to die for you, why would you do this? The princess doesn’t slay the dragon! Now you shall never find a husband! You have brought ruin upon yourself, your family, and your kingdom and you think this makes you brave! You think it makes you strong! It makes you foolish. Go inside right now, I’ll deal with you later.”
“I’ll do no such thing!” I said, filled with noble fire, “I should be hailed as a hero, and I should have my wishes respected. I offer you proof of my deed.”
“Madison,” said Jarrod, “Let’s not take this too far.”
“What?” I asked.
“I rescued the lady,” he proclaimed, “Valiantly, it was I who slew the dragon. The lady thought, to strike a blow against a system she opposes, we should pretend she did it and I was willing to be a good sport and play along, but I see the kingdom isn’t ready for that, so I shall tell you all the truth. I have slain the dragon, and won Princess Madison’s hand in marriage!”
The people applauded. Jarrod dismounted and whispered to me over the thunderous cheering.
“I’m sorry, Maddy, but I had to. I couldn’t watch you-”
“Shut up!” I said, loudly enough for the whole assembly to hear me “Shut the hell up! I expected this crap from my family, but you, I thought you of all people would understand what this was all about. I thought you knew that I don’t want to be anyone’s prize, even yours.” I slapped him. “But no. You’re just like all the other knights and princes, out to win the princess’s hand and just happen to become a king someday. How much of it was a lie, Jarrod? Were you ever my friend, or were you in it for the kingdom from the beginning? Well you’ll not play me any longer. None of you will!”
I hopped on the horse, turned around, and rode as hard as I could out of the city. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, go home again.
I wanted to see Ariadne. That was the one thing I knew marching out of that place, never to return again. I was still trying to work out where I would go or what I would do, but I needed to see my sister. Now that I had made my big public exit, it would hardly do to ride right back in, but I had no provisions for a journey. What exactly was I to do? I decided to sleep a night outside the gates, and then return for some of my possessions and some provisions before setting out. I staked out a place on the cold ground and went to sleep.
I was awakened in the middle of the night, however, by an insistent young feminine voice.
“Madz! Madz, wake up!”
It was Ariadne herself in a warm cloak, carrying a bundle of things and leading Precious.
“Jarrod fed and watered him and gave him new shoes,” she said, indicating the horse.
“Don’t even say his name, Ria,” I said.
“Madison, it’s not too late. Say you’re sorry, and say you’ll marry Jarrod.” She looked up at me with pleading eyes.
“I can’t, Ria. Not after all this. If you can live this life, if it suits you, I admire you for it. You’re now the heir to the throne, after all. Tell our parents that I’m officially abdicating, and if there’s any paperwork for that they should send it my way.”
She rolled her eyes as if to say something smart, but instead she just dropped her bundle and embraced me as only a little sister can. We cried. Finally she picked up the bundle and handed it to me.
“Mom and Dad didn’t want me giving you any money – They said if you want to make it on your own, you’ll have to make it on your own. But there’s food in here, and a traveling cloak, some blankets. And I put a little gold in there anyway. It isn’t much but maybe it’ll get you started. Where will you go?”
“I don’t know, Ria. I think I’ll visit some of my friends and see if they’ll help… I want to change things somehow I guess.”
“Will I see you again?” she asked rather pathetically.
“You will, Ria, of course you will,” I said with tears in my eyes. We embraced once more. I loaded my things on Precious and gave Ria the reigns of the other horse.
“Give him back to that boy,” I said.
“He loves you, Madz,” she said suddenly. “He wanted me to tell you that. He wanted you to know.”
“No he doesn’t,” I said. “He wants to own me. It’s not the same thing. Goodbye, Ariadne.”
“I love you, Madz.”And I rode off while she waved goodbye, both of us fighting the tears, and losing.