The Red Dragon Girl
(Firethorn Chronicles 3)
A cursed land. A tenacious sorcerer. A dagger-throwing princess out to prove her worth.
Princess Melantha is done with court life. After suffering humiliation at her sister's wedding, she's determined to find her place outside palace walls and far away from fickle princes. Hearing rumors of a curse breakable only by a red-haired girl, she says goodbye to her eleven sisters and sets out on her own.
But events don't unfold as planned, and she is caught up in a grueling journey through a distant kingdom with friends both old and new in a race for survival. When the one person she distrusts the most shows up unexpectedly and offers to help, Melantha must decide if she's willing to pay his price.
Fantasy, romance, and adventure combine in the fairy tale-inspired Firethorn Chronicles, an interconnected series of stand-alone novels drawn from The Twelve Dancing Princesses and other tales. Follow the sisters on their journeys in a land where sorcery is feared and dragons fly.
The Red Dragon Girl
Princess Melantha, Fourth Daughter of Ituria, took aim at the tree stump ten feet away and released her dagger, sending it end over end until it landed with a smooth thwack a hair's breadth from the previous throw.
She turned to her horse where he grazed in the lush summer grass. “Did you see that?”
Not even an ear flick.
Completely and blissfully alone for the first time in her life, she'd already begun talking to her horse after only a few weeks on her own.
She'd buried the remains of her burnt lunch under one of the few oaks in the meadow, hoping a layer of dirt would be enough to hide the odor of blackened pheasant from anyone passing by on the road. Her twin sister Mara was the expert with food. If Melantha could catch it and skin it, Mara could cook it. But she'd left Mara behind, along with her ten other sisters and their parents. After the humiliation she'd suffered at the wedding of their second oldest sister and the prince of a neighboring kingdom, Mel had slipped away with Mara's help.
Goodbye, palaces and accusing glances and fickle princes.
She drew another sleek throwing dagger from her belt and aimed again. Thwack. She grinned, satisfied when it landed two inches from the other. Of all the weapons she'd trained with over the years, daggers had become her favorite. Mother pretended not to know about the target board Mel had set up behind a tapestry in the sitting room. While Mel's sisters practiced embroidery or painted or conducted themselves in ways more befitting princesses—indoors, at least—she practiced dagger throwing. She'd become quite good over the years and could hit her target, still or moving, nine times out of ten using a variety of blades. She couldn't say the same of her archery skills, and putting a sword in her hand was the same as handing her a cooking spoon.
An elderly couple passed on the nearby dirt road. She retrieved her daggers, although she had six more in her belt, and took a stance fifteen feet away from the stump. She waved. “Good afternoon!”
The woman's eyes rounded, and the man waved in response, his shirt sleeve flapping enthusiastically. “Afternoon, miss!” he called. They continued walking, with frequent glances back, until they finally disappeared around a bend.
The last few villages she'd passed through had been unexpectedly welcoming. People had stopped her on more than one occasion to ooh and aah over her hair, which she wore in a braid down to her waist. Although she wasn't a true redhead like her sister Coral, her locks having a more coppery hue, any color other than black or dark brown seemed a novelty in the region. No doubt her pale skin and abundant freckles added to the spectacle.
And then there were the rumors.
She'd chosen to travel northeast to the kingdom of Mazereon because of the rumors of a curse that could only be broken by a red-haired girl. She rarely paid attention to palace gossip, especially since it had begun to include her and Mara and a certain prince who couldn't tell the two of them apart, despite the fact that they were not identical like their youngest sisters, Ruby and Wren. But having escaped a curse with her sisters earlier in the summer, Mel felt qualified to tackle the challenge and decided to follow the rumors to their source. If she could win herself a place outside of court life, perhaps she might show her face there again someday. If nothing else, the journey would get her out of Mara's way so that her sister could shine on her own.
She threw both daggers at once and sunk them an inch apart in the stump. She didn't bother telling her horse.
As she stooped to pull the daggers from the wood, a grey rock dragon rushed by on the road, the rider's dark cloak billowing and snapping with the speed of their passing. Native only to Mazereon, the wingless riding dragons were far faster than any horse and twice as expensive. She'd love to get a closer look at one someday. Maybe even go for a ride with … well, her sisters were out of the question, and some of them wouldn't go near one, anyway. Her friend Orin would have loved to join her, though.
She sighed. Of all the people she'd left behind, Orin was the one person she missed most. One of the few people, besides her sisters, who listened to her and took her seriously and didn't laugh behind his hand when she appeared with dirt on her face or stains on her gown.
Prince Orin of Gritton had wandered into the palace less than a year ago and presented himself as a goose boy, complete with pet goose, staff, and ragged clothes. Father had arranged for him to fill in for the royal goose girl while she spent time with her new baby, and Orin had his wages sent to her, having no need of the money himself. Mel had visited him in the field regularly, and he'd gladly shared stories of his adventures, unaware of how envious she'd been of his freedom to travel. He'd seemed thankful for her company. More than thankful. After learning Mel would leave soon for her sister's wedding, he swore he'd follow her wherever she went, and he had indeed followed her to the neighboring kingdom. She hadn't been able to tell him goodbye before she sneaked away barely over a month before. Probably for the best. A rough-and-tumble princess might make a good friend, but he would want a proper lady by his side when he returned home someday. Not that she was looking to be anyone's lady. And certainly not Orin's, of course.
She threw the daggers again, but this time the hilts bounced off the stump, knocking them both into the grass. “Thorns and thistles!”
She retrieved them and then threw them rapidly over and over at close range until a finger-sized chunk of wood chipped off and flew too close to her horse. He startled and snorted. Sighing, she sheathed the daggers in their belt and then dug out an apple from her travel pack. She sat against the tree, swung her long braid to the side to avoid pinning it underneath her, and took a big bite of fruit to ward off the desire to sigh again.
Other than pointing her in a general direction, the last few villages hadn't shared any more information about the curse. Most likely they had no information to share—by their very nature, curses could be messy, secretive things. All accounts, however, indicated the next village would have the answers she sought. Located at the edge of the Deep Green, a vast forest stretching up into the Burnt River Mountains that circled almost the entire kingdom of Mazereon, Greenway was the only village not situated within the protective mountains of the caldera kingdom. The border lay less than a day away.
She finished the apple and tossed the core to her horse, who ate it without a glance in her direction. Ungrateful animal. She leaned her head against the tree, closed her eyes, and tried not to picture her sisters' faces. Instead, she listened
Blue jays, chickadees, bobwhites. Butterwings. Smaller than chickadees, the brown dragons rustled through the grass, nosing around in search of bugs. Without opening her eyes, she imagined their yellow wings flashing among the green blades as they loosened dirt with their tiny horns. The horse ripped up great mouthfuls of grass, and a small breeze tickled her cheek. A goose honked
Her eyes flew open, and she glanced down the road in the direction she'd come from. She recognized that honk
She shook her head. Had her recent thoughts simply made her imagine it.
She hadn't imagined it. That was Orin's goose, True. Before Orin's blond head could appear on the horizon, she jumped to her feet and raced through the tall grass towards the edge of the meadow. Panting, she threw herself under a clump of honeyberry bushes and stretched out on her stomach facing the road. Orin didn't need her in his life any more than her sisters did. Besides that, she wanted to complete her mission without relying on her status as a princess. Orin's presence might give that away.
Something rustled behind her in the woods, and a dark-cloaked form disappeared among the trees. She'd disturbed a hunter's resting spot, or else someone had decided to shirk their duties for the day. As long as they didn't give her away, she wouldn't tell.
Stomach churning, she propped her chin on her hands and peered through the grass. Her horse grazed in the shade, unconcerned with being left behind. Orin wouldn't recognize it, as she'd changed a few times since leaving him behind, and her saddle and gear had no royal colors to identify them. She sighed with impatience, eager to see her friend after such a long absence, even if he wouldn't see her.
Could he travel any slower?
There! A dun-colored horse moseyed down the road, carrying both Orin and True, who sat on a blanket in front of him. Mel snorted, a broad grin spreading across her face. He'd followed her. He'd actually followed her. She bit her cheek, not wanting to show how pleased she was to see him again, even though there was no one to see.
True honked a couple more times as if making conversation. Mel waited for them to pass by. She would have to camp in the woods for a few nights to be sure he'd moved on from Greenway. A minor delay.
She studied them as they passed, the grass obscuring the dun's legs so they almost appeared to float by on a green sea. They hadn't reached her tree yet. True studied the countryside, her white feathers as pristine as usual. Orin, wearing a sandy-hued shirt and trousers, blended in with the horse's coat, his blond hair windblown and dull with travel dust. On such a short horse, his lanky form seemed especially gangling.
He pulled the horse to a stop at the tree and looked over her campsite. He spoke to her horse, but she couldn't make out the words. The beast raised its head. Of course it would respond to Orin. Four-legged traitor. Orin glanced across the road and then his gaze followed the path of bent grass she'd created while running, until it rested on the woods near her hiding spot.
Keep moving. Nothing to see.
He dismounted and lifted True off the blanket. The goose disappeared among the flowers and weeds. With frequent glances at the woods, Orin walked around the campsite. He patted her horse as he passed by and then stopped, staring at something on the ground. He knelt down, disappearing from view for half a minute, and then stood and placed his hands on his hips.
“Mel?” His voice shushed over the tops of the grass blades and tickled her ears.
She gasped and clamped a hand over her mouth. How did he … ? He had to be guessing.
Something rustled in the underbrush on her right. “Shoo, bunny,” she whispered and patted her hand on the ground to warn the unseen critter away.
The critter drew closer, and she flattened herself on the ground.
True! Dratted goose. “Go away,” she whispered. True limped into view. As soon as she saw Mel, she rushed forward, honking and flapping her wings. Mel patted the goose's head and stroked her back until she calmed down. “Good to see you, too, old girl.” She rolled onto her back, and True climbed up and settled on her belly.
The sound of Orin's boots clomping and crunching through the meadow reached her ears. A few moments later, he stood over her, a small furrow between his normally-smiling blue eyes. She took in a quick breath against the sudden sensation of falling. Like when she jumped off a tree into the lake back home and got a tickle in her stomach as she dove into the water. Only now she was lying down and looking into her friend's eyes and grinning like an idiot.
She'd tried not to grin, but she couldn't help it. It was Orin.
“You're hiding from me?”
She flinched at the hurt in his voice. “I fell asleep … beside this bush.”
He snorted and one side of his mouth quirked upward. “Nice place for a nap.” Flopping onto the grass beside her, he lifted True off her stomach. The goose wandered off, and she sat up and faced him.
“It's good to see you again.” She cleared her throat. “Have you been following me this whole time?”
He shrugged. “You had a few days head start on me, and you know I'm not as good a rider, or I would have caught up sooner.”
She glanced at his horse and grinned. “You're riding a pony. No wonder it took you so long. What's her name?”
He stuck his nose in the air. “Clever is a small horse.”
“Clever? And True the goose.” She admired his ability to pick out the best, and sometimes overlooked, qualities in both animals and people.
“The blanket is a smart idea. True likes riding?”
“She tolerates it.”
“Did you bring me some of Mara's chocolates?”
He grinned. “Yes.”
So he'd talked to Mara, but how much did he know? She ran her hands over a clump of grass and began braiding strands from the roots up.
He leaned forward and picked a twig from her braid. “Are you going to tell me why you ran away?”
“I didn't run away. I …” She hesitated. His eyes pleaded for the truth. “All right. I ran away, but only because I didn't want to be chased by a bunch of princes wanting to marry me.”
Orin nodded thoughtfully and yanked a handful of grass. He twisted the blades together, eyes intent on his fingers. “So … that's all? I would have thought you could handle a few unruly princes.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What did Mara tell you?”
“A little more than not much.” He pulled up a yellow wildflower, roots and all, and plucked petals from it one by one as he spoke. “Seems you got quite a few proposals after I rode off to say goodbye to Yarrow.”
Mel had missed saying goodbye to Yarrow herself. Her sister Ivy's bodyguard, a former sorcerer, came and went at odd times, but the two seemed to have an understanding.
“Four proposals too many, if you ask me,” she said.
“Four?” He glanced up sharply, eyes wide.
“I botched the first one so badly, I don't even know why the other three asked. It was humiliating, Orin. For me and Mara.”
“And for Prince Argento, going by the rumors.”
“Ah, yes. Poor Prince Argento of Oji.” She tore the grass braid out of the ground and unraveled it. “He sent me—Princess Melantha—a message to meet him in the garden after the wedding. I thought he wanted to talk about Mara. He'd been making calves' eyes at her all week, and she seemed to enjoy the attention. He never met with either of us alone, so I saw every batted eyelash and accidental shoulder brush.”
“Neither of you are engaged, so I take it the meeting didn't go well.”
She tore the grass to bits and sprinkled them over her boots. “The garden was so dark, I almost walked past him, but he grabbed my hand and stopped me. He went on and on about his feelings and how he wished Mara would have given us time alone and not talked so much about daggers and hounds and dragons and other such unladylike things … and then he asked me to marry him. Me. He'd sent the note to me, thinking I was Mara. He'd mixed up our names.”
“Mara did mention that.”
“Who asks the wrong person to marry them?” Her voice rose higher than she'd intended, and True poked her head out from under the far side of the bush with an inquisitive honk. “I tried to laugh it off, but once he figured out his mistake, he accused me of fooling him on purpose. Why else would I agree to meet with him in the dark?”
Orin ripped the remaining petals off the flower and scattered them onto her boots as well. “Gossip had you and Mara switching identities on purpose in order to jilt him.”
“And apparently, I was the mastermind.” She sighed. “There shouldn't have been any gossip. Mara and I promised not to say anything, so it had to be him spreading the story. Mara really liked Argento, Orin, and I ruined it.”
“Sounds to me like you saved her.”
Her irritation lessened a bit at his attempt to be supportive. “Even after all that, three more men proposed—one of them a prince—just because I'm the next eligible princess in line. I'm only two minutes older than Mara, and I'm taking attention away from her. From all of them. I don't belong cooped up in a palace or a fine country manor. Can you see me trying to manage staff and order meals and entertain guests and whatever else it is Mother does?”
He glanced at her sideways. “Maybe.”
She shook her head. “Mother will expect me to marry and settle down, just like Lily and Gwen and Hazel.” Hazel wasn't actually married yet, but she would be soon. “I can't see myself in that role.”
“Is it the married part or the settling down part you're against?” Orin stretched out his legs and leaned back on his elbows. He looked like a long, lean patch of sunlight.
“Does it matter? I'm here now, and I'm guessing Mara told you 'a little more than not much' about that, too.”
He grasped the end of her braid and swished it in the air. “Just a little, red-haired girl.”
“All right, then, you know why I'm here. Now it's my turn.” She smiled. “Why did you follow me?”
He folded his hands under his head and stared up at the sky. “I didn't get to say goodbye.”
That falling feeling again. She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. “Well, you left first.”
“I only left for a few days to see Yarrow off.” His gaze locked onto hers, blue eyes reflecting the clear sky. “As far as I knew, you left forever. I couldn't bear not seeing you again without saying goodbye.”
She'd wanted to see him one last time, but she couldn't bear to wait any longer and suffer the accusing eyes of Prince Argento and the other courtiers everywhere she turned. Better to leave and let the rumors die down so Mara and the other girls could carry on as before.
“So … goodbye, then,” Orin said and stood up.
“What?” She stared up at him, squinting. “You're not leaving, are you?”
He stared at her for a few moments, his expression unreadable. “This quest you're on … it's dangerous. Come back with me.”
Her shoulders stiffened, and she stared off into the woods. “You know I won't do that.”
“If it's the prince you're worried about, surely you can smooth things over.” He paused. “Your sisters miss you.”
“Please spare me the guilt trip. If I married, they would miss me, anyway. I was bound to leave eventually, and I'd rather it happen on my own terms.”
He didn't respond. She waited, not expecting him to give up an argument easily. When she glanced up, he'd turned away, arms crossed.
“I miss you, too, Mel.” He shrugged without turning around. “You're the best friend I've ever had.”
“And you're mine,” she said. “I'm sorry I didn't say goodbye.”
He shifted from one foot to another. “So … now what?”
She didn't want him to leave without her, but would he stay? “Well, you still have my chocolate from Mara.”
“Ah, yes.” He turned to face her. “And she made me promise not to let you eat it all at once.”
“How long do you think it will take to finish it? You know, if you don't eat it all at once.”
She stood and stomped her feet to wake them up. “Could take a while, if it's rationed carefully.”
“A few days?”
“Maybe longer … if you don't mind tagging along while I try to break this curse.”
A tentative smile appeared and then vanished. “I can't make you change your mind, can I?”
She shook her head. “You had no intention of dragging me back to the palace, did you?”
“It was worth a try, but I have no intention of ever dragging you anywhere you don't want to go.” His expression
sobered. “I know what it's like to feel out of place in your own family. You feel people are seeing you for the wrong reasons. I felt like no one saw me at all.”
Prince Orin, Eighth Son of Gritton. As the middle child of the king's second wife, he knew a thing or two about growing up in a large family. She'd heard story after story of Orin being politely despised by his step-brothers, who knew their father favored his second wife, whom he'd married for love; of him being ordered around by his over-indulged younger sister, the only princess in the family; and of him being lorded over by his older brother, who was heir to their mother's fortune. He'd never found a place to belong, either.
“Well, I see you.” She looped her arm with his and they headed back to the horses. “And right now, I see you giving me some of that chocolate before we continue on.” True waddled behind them in the tamped-down grass.
Orin tossed his saddle and supplies into the shade and laid his weapons more carefully beside them before joining her against the tree. True climbed into her lap and curled up for a nap.
He handed over a small piece of chocolate. “I swear she's been pining for you this whole time.”
She glanced sideways at him. “I missed her, too.”
They spent the next hour catching up—while Mel ate some chocolate—spinning grand adventures out of thrown horseshoes and sudden rainstorms and spoiled food. Orin slipped farther and farther down the trunk as he talked, until he ended up lying on the ground and gesturing with his arms in the air, finally dozing off during her story about a bat-infested inn.
Mel's sides ached from laughing, and she sighed contentedly. She hadn't had a good laugh since … well, since leaving Orin behind. She folded her arms, resisting the urge to brush the dust from his hair, and let the droning bees and warm air lull her to sleep.
Orin nudged her awake sometime later, the sun only marginally closer to the treetops. She blinked and frowned up at him.
“Something's bothering True.”
Startled, she bolted upright and glanced around for the goose. True limped towards them from halfway across the meadow, flapping her wings. She stopped, stretched out her neck, and honked loudly. The horses rested unconcerned in the shade. Mel took a deep breath and released it, reassured that no razor-tail dragons had ambushed them. Although rare, thanks to the regular patrols of dragon soldiers, the aggressive wolf-sized dragons were universally feared.
Orin nodded towards the bush Mel had hidden under. “She's been back and forth twice now to that clump of bushes. I think she wants to show us something.”
Weird goose. Mel squinted, trying to catch a glimpse of what True was after. “Might as well oblige the lady.”
As soon as she saw them approach, True turned and led the way to the honeyberry bushes. Mel's mouth watered, but the blueberry-like fruit had long been out of season. The goose stopped and poked her head in among the leaves at the base of a bush.
Mel nudged her out of the way and parted the branches. “Well, look at that.”