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       Princess Mirror-Belle and Prince Precious Paws, p.1

           Julia Donaldson
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Princess Mirror-Belle and Prince Precious Paws

  For Millie and Olly


  Chapter One

  Prince Precious Paws

  Chapter Two

  Which Witch?

  Chapter Three

  The Princess Test

  Chapter One

  Prince Precious Paws

  “Good, Splodge. Good dog.”

  For the twentieth time that morning, Ellen picked up the boring-looking stick which lay at her feet. Splodge was gazing up at her with what she called his “Again” look.

  “All right, then.” Ellen strolled a little way along the lakeside path and then hurled the stick as hard as she could. It landed with a splash in the lake.

  In a brown-and-white flash, Splodge was at the water’s edge. But there he stopped.

  “Go on, Splodge – get it!”

  Ellen felt like jumping in herself, the lake looked so cool and inviting under the hot blue sky. But Splodge seemed to have forgotten all about the stick. He was staring into the rippled water and barking. What had he seen? Ellen looked down too. The ripples were clearing now, but all she could see was Splodge’s reflection – and her own.

  Suddenly the water at their feet started to churn, whirling and splashing as if some huge fish were writhing about in it.

  The next second another brown-and-white dog was shaking itself all over Ellen. Splodge barked, and in reply the new dog trotted up and sniffed his bottom. Ellen laughed, then turned to watch as the two dogs chased each other about on the grass.

  She was startled by a voice from behind her.

  “Didn’t you bring a towel? I’m soaking.”

  Ellen spun round and there, standing up to her knees in water, was Mirror-Belle. She had a dog lead in her hand and wore a stripy dress just like Ellen’s, except that it was dripping wet.

  “Mirror-Belle! What are you doing here? I thought you only came out of mirrors!” said Ellen. “Though I suppose the lake is a kind of mirror.”

  “We’ve been diving for treasure,” replied Mirror-Belle.

  Ellen was puzzled at first. Why had Mirror-Belle said “we” instead of “I”? But then the new dog bounded up to Mirror-Belle, nearly knocking her over. With his paws on her chest, he started to lick her face.

  “I didn’t know you had a dog too,” said Ellen.

  “Yes,” said Mirror-Belle, in between licks. “His name is Prince Precious Paws.”

  Ellen thought this was rather a silly name but she was too polite to say so. “He looks just like my dog, Splodge,” she said. “Does he like fetching sticks too?”

  “Certainly not,” said Mirror-Belle, as if she had never heard of such a thing. “Why would he want to fetch sticks when he can find rubies and emeralds?”

  “Can he really?”

  “Of course. How else do you suppose he helped the little tailor to seek his fortune?”

  “What are you talking about? What little tailor? I thought you said he was your dog,” said Ellen.

  Before Mirror-Belle could launch into an explanation, Splodge – keen for more action and less talk – dropped a new stick at Ellen’s feet. She was about to pick it up when Prince Precious Paws seized it and growled.

  “You told me he didn’t like sticks,” said Ellen. She looked accusingly at Mirror-Belle, and Splodge looked accusingly at Prince Precious Paws.

  Just then a woman with a pushchair came up to Mirror-Belle.

  “You poor thing, did you fall in?” she asked. “I hope your twin sister didn’t push you!”

  “Ellen’s not my twin,” said Mirror-Belle indignantly. “I’m a princess and she’s just an ordinary girl.”

  “There’s a towel in here somewhere,” said the woman, rummaging in a bag. “William was going to go paddling but now he’s fallen asleep in the pushchair.”

  As she took out the towel, a ball fell from the bag and rolled towards the water. Both dogs went after it, but Ellen called Splodge back.

  “Come, Splodge! Sit!” she said, and Splodge came back obediently and sat at her feet.

  Mirror-Belle’s dog, however, seized the ball and started chewing it savagely, as if it was a rat he was trying to kill.

  “Can you make him bring it back, please?” said the woman. “That’s William’s new ball and he’d be upset if your dog punctured it.”

  “I’m surprised you let your child play with such a flimsy toy,” said Mirror-Belle. “Personally, I only ever play with a golden ball.”

  “Just call him back, will you?” said the woman impatiently.

  “Very well.” Mirror-Belle raised her voice. “Come, Prince Precious Paws, come!” she cried.

  But Prince Precious Paws only growled and rested a paw on the ball.

  “He’s not very obedient, is he?” said the woman.

  “Yes, he is – he’s just a bit deaf,” said Mirror-Belle. “You see, the tailor who owned him had two other dogs as well. These other two had such terribly loud barks that poor Prince Precious Paws’s hearing was affected. So when I said ‘Come’, he probably thought I was saying ‘Hum’, and that’s why he’s making that noise.”

  As if in agreement, Prince Precious Paws began to growl even louder. It was a fierce sound, not like a hum at all, Ellen thought.

  “I’ve never heard such nonsense,” said the woman. “Look! Now he’s ripping poor William’s ball apart. I really think you should take him to dog-training classes. Your other dog seems to be very well trained. Are they from the same litter?”

  “Of course not,” said Mirror-Belle. “Prince Precious Paws is a royal dog. He lives in a kennel lined with diamonds and pearls. Shall I tell you how he came to be mine?”

  “No, thank you,” said the woman. “I’m going to take William home before he wakes up and makes a fuss.” And, snatching her towel back from Mirror-Belle, she strode off angrily.

  Ellen felt embarrassed, and sorry for William, though she supposed that his mother would buy him a new ball. She thought about scolding Mirror-Belle, but perhaps it wasn’t her fault that Prince Precious Paws was so badly behaved. Probably his previous owner hadn’t brought him up properly.

  “You can tell me if you like,” she said, sitting down on a log by the lake. “How you got your dog, I mean.”

  Mirror-Belle sat down beside Ellen. Her dress and hair were already much drier, thanks to the hot sun and the woman’s towel.

  “Prince Precious Paws used to belong to a poor old woman,” she began.

  “I thought you said he belonged to a little tailor.”

  “That was later. The little tailor didn’t have any dogs to start off with. All he had was a bit of bread and cheese in a red spotty handkerchief. He was seeking his fortune, you see. But then he met the poor old woman and gave her some of the bread and cheese, and in return for his kindness she gave him three dogs. They all had eyes as big as saucers.”

  “Are you sure?” asked Ellen.

  She couldn’t actually see Prince Precious Paws’s eyes at that moment, as he was bounding away from them across the grass, pursued by Splodge, but as far as she remembered they were no bigger than Splodge’s eyes.

  Mirror-Belle ignored the interruption. “Luckily for the tailor,” she continued, “the three dogs were all brilliant at finding treasure. They kept finding it, in taverns and caves and all sorts of places, and in the end the tailor arrived at the palace with a great sackful of treasure and asked to marry the King’s daughter.”

  “That’s you, isn’t it?” said Ellen. “But you’re much too young to get married.”

  “Exactly,” said Mirror-Belle. “So I said I’d take one of the dogs instead.”

  “What happened to the tailor?” asked Ellen, but
she didn’t find out, because at that moment they heard some angry shouting and saw Prince Precious Paws bounding towards them with something in his mouth. Behind him ran several people, including a man with glasses and a camera who looked vaguely familiar.

  Ellen was relieved to see that her own dog was no longer with Prince Precious Paws but was scrabbling about under a nearby tree, probably looking for yet another stick.

  “I’ll just see what Splodge is up to,” she said, and – feeling rather cowardly – she left Mirror-Belle to face the angry people on her own.

  “Your dog’s stolen our roast chicken!” she heard the man with the camera complain, and suddenly Ellen recognized him. He was Mr Spalding, a science teacher at her brother Luke’s school. Mr Spalding ran a Saturday nature-study club called the Sat Nats. The club was open to adults and teenagers. A couple of the keener members of Luke’s class – the ones he called the “geeks” – were members, but Luke himself preferred lying in bed on Saturday mornings.

  The other Sat Nats were joining in with Mr Spalding now.

  “He knocked over the lemonade.”

  “He’s ruined our picnic.”

  “I don’t call that much of a picnic,” replied Mirror-Belle. “One measly roast chicken and a bottle of lemonade! I can assure you, Prince Precious Paws is used to far grander picnics than that. He was probably expecting roast swan and champagne.”

  A couple of the Sat Nats laughed at this, but not Mr Spalding. “Make him drop the chicken,” he ordered.

  To Ellen’s surprise, Mirror-Belle did say, “Drop it, Prince Precious Paws,” in a commanding voice, but Prince Precious Paws took no notice and just started swinging the chicken from side to side.

  “He’s rather deaf, poor creature,” Mirror-Belle explained. “He probably thought I said ‘rock it’.”

  This just made Mr Spalding even angrier. He took a photograph of Prince Precious Paws with the chicken and said he would show it to Mirror-Belle’s parents. “Where do you live?” he asked her.

  “In the palace, of course,” she replied, “and I very much doubt if the guards would let you in. You don’t exactly look like royalty. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t try picnicking in the palace grounds. That’s strictly forbidden.”

  “I know where she lives, sir,” chipped in a teenage Sat Nat. “She’s Luke Page’s little sister.”

  Ellen’s heart sank.

  “I am no one of the sort,” Mirror-Belle objected, but Mr Spalding seemed satisfied.

  He led the Sat Nats back to the remains of their picnic.

  “What an impertinent little man,” remarked Princess Mirror-Belle, joining Ellen under the tree.

  Ellen knew it would be useless to point out who had actually been the impertinent one. Instead, she fastened Splodge’s lead to his collar. “I think I’d better take him home now,” she said.

  “But we haven’t found any treasure yet,” protested Mirror-Belle. “I’m convinced that Prince Precious Paws is on the brink of a major discovery.”

  “Where is he?” asked Ellen.

  They both looked around, but Mirror-Belle’s dog was nowhere in sight.

  “He’s lost!” cried Mirror-Belle. “What a catastrophe! I shall have to offer a reward to whoever finds him. Do you think a chest of gold would be enough, or should I offer half my father’s kingdom?”

  “Why don’t we just look for him ourselves?” said Ellen. “He can’t have gone far. Let’s walk round the lake and call him.”

  So that is what they did, although Ellen half wished she hadn’t suggested it, because she felt so stupid calling out “Prince Precious Paws!” time after time.

  “Can’t we just call ‘Prince’?” she suggested to Mirror-Belle.

  “Absolutely not. Prince Precious Paws would never answer to such a common name. In fact, he’d probably run a mile in the other direction.”

  In the end it was Splodge who picked up the scent. He led the two girls away from the lake along a path which took them over a stile and into a field.

  “Oh, no,” said Ellen. “We’re out of the park now. This is a farm. I hope your dog doesn’t chase sheep.”

  “Only if they’re wolves in disguise,” said Mirror-Belle, which didn’t make Ellen feel much better.

  In fact, there were no farm animals in the field, but as they crossed it Ellen heard a loud bleating chorus coming from over the hedge. They climbed another stile and there, huddled in a corner of the next field, was a flock of terrified-looking sheep. Barking as loudly as the sheep were bleating, and making little runs at them, was Prince Precious Paws.

  Splodge pulled on the lead and barked. Prince Precious Paws turned and – almost as if to say, “Your turn now”– bounded away into yet another field.

  “I hope we don’t meet the farmer,” said Ellen, keeping Splodge tightly on the lead as they followed Prince Precious Paws. When they caught up with him, he was barking down a hole in a bank of earth.

  “It’s probably the entrance to an underground cave full of priceless jewels,” said Mirror-Belle.

  Ellen thought it looked more like the entrance to a rabbit warren, but you never knew. Prince Precious Paws seemed very excited. His tail was wagging and his precious paws were scrabbling away in the earth. Now his head was half inside the hole and he seemed to be tugging at something.

  “It could be the handle of a treasure chest,” said Mirror-Belle.

  “Or maybe some Roman remains,” suggested Ellen, growing quite excited herself. “Luke went on a dig near here once and found part of an ancient vase with pictures of dancers on it.”

  Just then, Prince Precious Paws growled and his head emerged from the hole. He shook the earth from the object in his jaws. It wasn’t a treasure chest or a Roman vase.

  “It’s a dirty old sheep’s skull,” said Ellen.

  “Oh, good,” said Mirror-Belle.

  “What’s so good about it?”

  Mirror-Belle thought for a moment and then said, “Haven’t you heard of the legendary sheep with the golden fleece? Its bones are obviously buried here. That means that the golden fleece itself must be nearby – probably hanging from a tree and guarded by a fierce dragon. Prince Precious Paws will find it soon – just wait and see.”

  “I’m afraid I can’t,” said Ellen. “I’ve got to go home for lunch.” She had spotted a gate leading to the road that would take her back home.

  “I’ll catch up with you as soon as we’ve found the golden fleece,” said Mirror-Belle, though Ellen rather hoped she wouldn’t.

  Ellen was just setting off down the road with Splodge when a voice stopped her in her tracks.

  “It’s that dog again!”

  She peeped over the hedge and saw Mr Spalding climbing over the stile into the field, followed by his troop of poor hungry Sat Nats.

  “He’s still not on the lead!”

  “What’s that he’s got?”

  “It’s a sheep’s skull, isn’t it, Mr Spalding? He must have killed one of the sheep and eaten it!”

  Ellen didn’t stop to hear more, but hurried on with Splodge. It was quite a long walk and she was going to be late for lunch. They were just coming to the place where the road bent sharply and led towards the village when she heard footsteps. She turned and saw Mirror-Belle running towards her. Prince Precious Paws was on the lead at last, and was tugging her along at an amazing speed.

  “Can’t stop, must fly,” Mirror-Belle greeted Ellen as they overtook her and went careering round the bend.

  “Watch out, that’s a dangerous corner!” Ellen called after them.

  When she and Splodge rounded the same bend a minute later, there was no sign of Mirror-Belle or her dog. Although they’d been going so fast, Ellen hadn’t expected them to be out of sight already. But then she noticed the mirror by the roadside. It was there so that drivers could see what was coming round the corner. Mirror-Belle and Prince Precious Paws must have disappeared into it.

  The next day, Luke was practising his electric guitar in
his bedroom when the doorbell rang. No one else seemed to be in, so reluctantly he went to the door and was surprised to see his science teacher standing outside.

  “Good afternoon, Luke. Are either of your parents in?”

  “No, they’re not,” said Luke, feeling suddenly guilty, as if his teacher somehow knew he hadn’t started on his science homework yet.

  “Don’t worry, this isn’t about school,” said Mr Spalding, and Luke relaxed a little. He guessed that his teacher must be trying to recruit new members for the Sat Nats.

  “I’d really like to join your club, Mr Spalding, but I’m usually rather busy on Saturday mornings, doing my homework, and . . . er . . . taking the dog for a walk.”

  Hearing his favourite word, Splodge appeared in the hallway, his lead in his mouth.

  “Here’s the culprit himself,” said Mr Spalding. “That dog is badly in need of training.”

  Luke started to protest, but Mr Spalding reached into his pocket and handed him two photographs.

  “Stealing food and running about off the lead on a sheep farm. Would you call that the behaviour of a well-trained dog?”

  Luke studied the photographs. One showed a brown-and-white dog with what looked like a roast chicken in his jaws. In the other picture, the same dog was proudly resting his paw on a sheep skull.

  Luke frowned, but then his face cleared. “You’ve made a mistake, Mr Spalding. You see, we call our dog Splodge because of the brown splodges on his side and over his eye.”

  “Exactly. And there they are in the pictures – there’s no denying it.”

  “But Splodge’s marks are on his right side and over his right eye – look, you can see. This dog’s marks are on his left side and over his left eye.”

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