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Middle Grade Fantasy by Antje Hergt

Prince Darinel is traveling–for what feels like forever. Expelled from his father’s kingdom, he just wants to find a new home. When a shadow lures him to a wealthy kingdom, he stays to discover more about the darkness, but the citizens are tight-lipped.

Their king welcomes the foreign Prince hoping that he will solve his two problems: the dragon and his strong-willed daughter. Coming from a warrior kingdom, Darinel despises violence, but charmed by Princess Tuskja’s dare, he sets out to confront the beast. Instead of finding a fierce dragon, he finds a friend.

The dragon’s malicious humor and his love of fairy tales entangle Darinel in a summer of adventures, while danger stirs in the East, the Dark Prince. Being refused by the Princess and humiliated by the dragon, this proud prince seeks revenge.

In compliance with the king’s decree, Darinel is torn between his friendship with the dragon and his love for Princess Tuskja, whom he can only marry if he kills his friend. Before he can make a decision, the kingdom is under attack. Now it is up to the dragon to either help his friend or respect his wish to not interfere.

Darinel Dragonhunter © 2013 by Antje Hergt

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or events, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

MuseItUp Publishing

14878 James, Pierrefonds, Quebec, Canada, H9H 1P5

Cover Art © 2013 by Karen Phillips

Edited by Nancy Bell

Copyedited by Greta Gunselman

Layout and Book Production by Lea Schizas

eBook ISBN: 978-1-77127-354-1

First eBook Edition *June 2013

Production by MuseItUp Publishing

To Pedi, who never stopped believing and encouraging me.

To my family for their love and understanding.

To all my friends who waited patiently for my dream to come true.

Thank you for your suggestions and support along the way.

Darinel Dragonhunter

The Reluctant Dragonfighter Series

Antje Hergt

MuseItYoung, division of

MuseItUp Publishing

www.museituppublishing.com

Chapter One

The Prince

The wind picked up to a roar. Darinel ducked closer to his horse’s neck and everything went dark. A buzzing swooshed over him. Around him, trunks bent like straws as leaf-covered tree crowns crashed down.

Tibor, his horse, neighed in terror when a large branch hit the ground just inches from his muzzle. With bulging eyes, he reared and then galloped blindly down the path.

Whoa! His rider held onto the mane, having lost his grip on the reins. Pine needles and leaves stung his face as the horse raced into a clearing. He shifted his weight as he recovered the reins and slowly Tibor obeyed. The horse fell into a trot before coming to a full halt.

Good boy. He bent down to pat Tibor’s neck reassuringly.

Did you see it? His heart pounded, excitedly. Where did it come from? He scanned the sky, but not even a cloud drifted by. Jumping down, his stomach did somersaults as he wrestled with the sword shaft knotted to his saddle. It was huge and we never encountered anything like that before.

Tibor nuzzled his shoulder. Pulling out his sword, he rubbed the animal’s neck and tightened his grip as he led the horse back into the forest. The wooden smell of crushed trees intermingled with the musty wetness of mashed leaves. Tibor snorted. His ears back, he refused to go on, but Darinel tugged firmly at the reins.

Silence engulfed them. The mossy ground swallowed even the thud of Tibor’s hooves. Straining his ears, Darinel listened for the wind gusts to return but not a leaf stirred. Instead, he caught a whiff of rock and gravel.

Odd. He tiptoed forward. The wind rose to a high-pitched howl as a huge shadow swept over the treetops. With one jump, he was back in the saddle and rushing through the trees. Bellowed laughter, deep as cathedral bells, vibrated the crowns of the trees.

Darinel peeked through the foliage before avoiding a low branch. Again, a rumbled laughter rang over the wind’s commotion. Blood pulsated through his veins as he spurred Tibor on. Man and steed plunged through a pile of broken trees and out of the forest onto a sandy ridge. He sucked in a deep breath. A sharp sandstone cliff dropped just a couple of feet in front of them.

Tibor! Ho! In the last second he jerked the reins back, shifted his weight, and they skidded along the edge. Dirt and stones rained down the overhang as they came to a halt. Panting, with sweat trickling down his face, he leaped off his horse, the reins clutched in his hand. He searched the sky and saw a large shape disappear behind the mountain range.

We lost it. Disappointment rang in his voice as he turned to his mount and patted him.

Tibor snorted into his shoulder, sending little dust clouds from his leather travel coat into the air. Darinel laughed as he brushed the dust out of his short brown hair.

You think it was a bird of prey? He pulled a rag from his pack and rubbed the sweat off the steed’s flank. Tibor pranced around him in agitation. I can’t believe it was just a bird. Did you see its wingspan? He leaned around and scratched his mount behind his ears. The horse pawed the ground, splattering dust all over his master’s leather pants.

Careful, my friend. He leaned back. This is my only travelling pair.

He massaged Tibor’s neck. I know it was scary, but now it’s gone. And look where it took us. Maybe my daydreaming of a warm fluffy bed in a country inn is about to come true.

Darinel led the horse closer to the edge. I feel I’ve spent too many nights on hard forest ground.

Far below, a valley broadened over the plains between towering mountains and an L-shaped lake. His gaze was drawn to a gray stonewalled castle. Colourful banners snapped in the breeze. Its three towers looked wind-worn, and ivy clung to its north side. Still, it looked sturdy and well looked after. Below the castle, beside the icy blue lake, lay a city protected from the open plains by a solid wall. But it didn’t appear as if the wall was needed, for the valley below him stretched out peacefully. Freshly ploughed fields bordered blossoming orchards and pastures where shepherds grazed their sheep. The small dwellings surrounding the city were delicately sprinkled toward the mountains.

With a sigh, Darinel sat down. The kingdom reminded him of the home he left behind so many months ago. Tibor nudged him gently in the shoulder and he reached up to touch the horse’s nose.

You can see the resemblance, too, can’t you?

It had been so long since he abandoned his father’s kingdom. Staring at the flags bristling in the wind, his thoughts travelled back to his home.

* * * *

How dare you be so selfish? King Odomere thundered.

The prince shoved out his chin. It is my life, Father.

You are my heir! The king slammed his fist down on the table. Cutlery and plates danced in the air and glasses tumbled precariously close to the edge. You cannot abandon your family, kingdom, and duties to seek out frivolous adventures. His wife laid her hand on the king’s arm to soothe his temper, but he pulled it away roughly.

Not adventures, Father, but to study different countries and their forms of ruling. Darinel took a big gulp from his goblet to keep calm.

I taught you all you need to know about ruling. Odomere flung his hand dismissively. Your duty is to this kingdom, to enhance its glory and wealth.

To take what is not given freely, Darinel mumbled under his breath before replying. You still have Ismael. He will fulfill all your plans for the kingdom. He pushed his plate away, not feeling hungry anymore. Knowing his father would be enraged when he found out about his plan to leave, Darinel had hoped to spare his mother the tantrums.

His father’s eyes narrowed into slits. He is not my firstborn.

But you will find he is an excellent statesman. The prince paused before adding, with an icy undertone, Once you give him a chance.

With one swift move, his father sent the plates flying off the table. I am King and I will decide who stays and who leaves. Ismael is too inexperienced. Let him go out and prove himself.

Didn’t I earn your respect in the battle of Iridian? Ismael said, getting a shoulder squeeze from his older brother.

You earned mine. Darinel smiled. I’d never have thought of such a clever strategy. The way you led half the men through the forest hidden by the undergrowth.

And you guided your half over the cliffs as I suggested. Ismael grinned back. We are a good team.

No, little brother, you came up with it. You don’t need me to think for you anymore. He slapped his brother playfully on the head. Quickly, Ismael retaliated with a quick succession of fist strikes and Darinel pulled back, laughing.

Enough. King Odomere shoved his chair back. Both my sons are a disgrace, acting like children instead of men.

Don’t judge them too harshly, Queen Iridiana implored, waving for the maid to clean up the table. They are still so young.

I was already ruling this country when I was my heir’s age, the king said before he stormed out of the hall.

His wife sighed. We know, dear.

The brothers exchanged a glance and Ismael hid a grin behind his hand.

Father knows we have both proven our worth in many battles, Darinel said, taking his mother’s hand. But I believe in a different form of ruling, and I’d like to learn about it from other monarchs.

Think of all the dangers out there. His mother fiddled with her handkerchief. You’ll be all alone.

He squeezed her hand gently. I have my Tibor. He’ll take me anywhere.

Queen Iridiana tried to smile. But there are robbers combing the forests, monsters hiding in deep ponds, and kingdoms ruled by ruthless leaders. Think of all the perils you could encounter.

No more than in the wars I fought for Father, the Prince said darkly.

That is a risk a ruler has to assume, King Odomere said proudly as he marched back to the table. A true ruler never runs away.

The queen hid behind her handkerchief to mask her tears. Darinel put his arm around her shoulders as he looked at his father.

I’ll leave tomorrow at dawn.

* * * *

The prince rolled his shoulders to shake off the memories. How long had he stood at the cliff? Tibor still grazed contently as far from the edge as he could get.

Good idea. Time for a bite. He went over to his horse and pulled a pack of dried fruit out of the saddlebag. Popping a couple of berries into his mouth, he sat down and enjoyed their sweetness. The city looked like a good place to trade for more provisions. A constant stream of people entered through the big gate. Must be market day, Darinel thought, just as the day I left home.

* * * *

King Odomere had not come to the courtyard to say goodbye, for that could have been interpreted as approval. No, he kept his position and showed his authority as a strong ruler. After their last dinner, the king ordered his family to appear before the court and he announced his firstborn’s disgrace and resulting exile.

The prince busied himself checking Tibor over. He hoped his mother would some day understand his real motives for leaving. At the sound of soft footsteps, he turned around and saw her approaching. Her eyes were red, but without tears. How he hated to break her heart.

I’ll be fine, Mother. Darinel gave her a hug and she clung to him.

I know, Son. She stifled a sob leaning into his shoulder. I just wish there was another way.

Releasing her, he laid his hand on her cheek. You know Father’s rules.

She nodded feebly. A ruler needs to expand and conquer what is not given freely.

But outside of our borders is a different world. He searched her eyes. I will learn ways to rule a kingdom other than my father’s bloody ones.

You will lose your inheritance and right to rule when Ismael becomes king. Queen Iridiana dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief. So why leave?

With a sigh, he avoided her gaze.

This is about your brother, isn’t it? she whispered softly. About Order being maintained at all cost.

At his alarmed look, a mischievous smile flitted across her face. A mother always knows.

Darinel stared over her head.

Ismael can’t marry unless I marry first, he said softly. He is ready, I am not.

His mother’s eyes filled with tears. If you leave now, you’ll be banned forever.

His hands caressed her cheeks.

Where will you go without a home to return to?

The prince swallowed hard, trying to smile. I’ll find a place where you can come and visit me.

You be careful. Queen Iridiana kissed him.

Love you. He turned, and without looking back, jumped on his horse.

Wait for me, Ismael called out. I’ll come with you to the border.

* * * *

Why are you really leaving? Ismael broke the silence. You are not the selfish person you acted in front of Father.

Stopping Tibor, Darinel shrugged his shoulders indifferently. Maybe I’ve just had enough of this place.

Oh, come on. Ismael balled his hands around the reins. You are no better than Father, his younger brother hissed, You still treat me like a child.

Well, if you act like one. He winked, but his brother sent him a furious look. Darinel didn’t want to part from him in anger, too. He pulled his horse closer and laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. You will always be my baby brother and I—

You love this place—the wide and open grasslands with the never ending horizon reaching almost to the plains.

The prince tilted his head. You’ve become a poet. Is that Adale’s doing?

Ismael blushed. How do you know?

Big brother knows all. Darinel grinned wide.

Ismael shook his head with a smirk. You don’t care for adventure and travelling.

Not really. Darinel looked over his brother’s head at the treetops. I could live without them.

And your feeble excuse to study with other rulers. Ismael guided his horse closer to his brother. Why learn if you never rule again?

The prince’s eyes rested on him. I don’t want to rule Father’s way. I learned everything from him that I could.

You think I like it? Ismael pursed his lips, hurt glimmering in his gaze.

With his hand on his brother’s shoulder, he leaned closer. You adapt better than me and you’re needed here.

Ismael looked defiantly to the ground. I’d still be under Father’s thumb.

Darinel squeezed his shoulder. But if you marry, you and Mother could persuade Father to retire and allow you to rule as you see fit.

Ismael lifted his head. That’s the reason, isn’t it?

Darinel held his gaze. You belong here, I don’t.

Ismael opened his mouth in protest, but the older brother held up his hand to silence him.

This will be your kingdom one day as it should have been in the first place. Being born before you doesn’t make me a better ruler. You can’t change my decision, but you can honour it by becoming a fair and just king.

Ismael held his gaze. I promise. His shoulders slumped slightly. But what if Father is right and I am too weak?

You will do better once you are out of my shadow, Darinel said and he pulled his brother into a hug. I wish you great happiness with Adale.

You take care now, Ismael said as his brother guided his horse over the stream that bordered their kingdom into the unknown.

* * * *

Well, nothing good comes from lingering in the past. He jumped up, walked over to Tibor, and patted him on the shoulder before taking the reins.

Let’s take this worn path and see where it leads us, he said and tugged the reins gently, not wanting to mount the horse near the precipice. Tibor was a great companion, the animal had amazing strength on long open spaces, and could gallop forever, but heights were not his forte. Darinel didn’t blame him. Growing up on the eastern plains made mountains really intimidating. Through his travels, he had grown to love the mountains, the hard work of climbing and the invigorating reward when you reached the peak. Only a bird could feel more freedom. Carefully, he guided his horse down the steep path, which was no wider than the horse’s body. Tibor snorted; ears back and eyes wide, but Darinel held the reins firm.

Come, old friend. We have gone down worse places. He stopped to gently rub the horse’s nose. Remember the Desert King? Fair enough, there the land was so dry and flat the sky seemed to lean on it. But still, I will take these mountains and lush growth any day over the desert. I bet the people down there will be open and welcoming, not closed and mistrustful as the desert people. He chattered on, distracting Tibor enough to get him down the path.

If it wasn’t for you, Darinel said, we wouldn’t be here now.

After leaving the plains of his home, they had crossed majestic forests, which gave way to an impassible desert. He had never seen so much sand before in his life and was amazed by the torn rock formations. During the day, hot winds scorched the bare land as he tried to find a way to cross it. Thrilled to encounter a tent settlement where he hoped to ask for guidance, he didn’t even get a chance for introductions. The king ordered his soldiers to bind Darinel’s hands and feet and throw him into the wasteland. Exposed to the biting night winds of the stone desert, he would have frozen to death if Tibor hadn’t knelt down and lay on his side. Darinel crawled between his legs and huddled against his faithful friend’s warmth.

The desert must have mummified the king’s thoughts. He chuckled, patting Tibor. Honestly, do we look like a threat? With the first heat of the sun, the horse had tugged and torn at the cords binding his master. During the day, they sought shelter in the rocks and travelled at night with the assistance of the stars until they left the desert far behind them.

* * * *

The path leveled out and led them back into a thick forest. Darinel scratched Tibor’s ears before he jumped on the horse’s back. With the gentle pressure of his knees, he directed his mount down the path. A few paces later, they reached the edge of the trees and saw a modest house tucked away in a blooming orchard a few leagues farther down. Children’s laughter rang out, followed by an indignant moo as rider and mount rounded the orchard. Two children had decorated a fat brown cow with flowers and ribbons. Now the animal was trying to pull the flowers off and eat them.

Leave it, Flora! the girl admonished, pulling the rope around the cow’s