For Amanda Ryan. Hope you enjoy 🙂
Twas a dark and not so stormy night, and Helina was thoroughly sick of the cliches that were her life.
She sat at the window, twirling a strand of fiery red hair as she stared out at the clear black sky and heaved a great sigh. Take this tower, for example. It was a perfect cliche. Tall, ominous, impenetrable and impossible to escape. All it was missing was the dragon. She looked down at the way she was sitting and quickly changed her position. Draped over the window seat and half out the window was a perfect fairy tale pose.
Crossing her legs, she arranged the layers of her satin dress over her knees and began to count the cliches. Dress. That was one. Evil stepmother makes two. Absent father would be three. Prophesy of doom and death was four. Handsome knight in shining armor…
“Hmmm,” she paused. That was one cliche that was missing.
A polite tap at the door made her jump and fling herself over the sill again. One couldn’t be too careful, you know. A moment later a wizened old woman let herself into the room at the top of the tower. Although Helina lacked a fairy godmother proper, Mrs. Tibsy filled the role. The woman must be older than god’s uncle and her saccharine mothering grated on the nerves.
“Don’t sit so,” the old maid twittered. “You’ll fall out to your death, foolish girl.”
Helina looked down at the ground so far below. Lanterns cast glowing circles of light. Perhaps I’ll grow wings and fly away, she thought wistfully. But that was only a dream and not nearly trite enough. Helina pulled herself away from the ledge and waited to see what her caretaker was doing up here so late.
“There’s been a letter from your father,” Mrs. Tibsy said as she went to the window and pulled it closed, latching it firmly. “The Holy Wars are keeping for another year, he says.”
Helina closed her eyes, fighting the burn of tears. It wouldn’t do to cry in front of the other woman. Helina took a deep breath, then looked at Mrs. Tibsy with steel in her blue eyes.
“And when shall I be let out of here?”
Drawing the curtains, Mrs. Tibsy turned to Helina and shook her finger. “Now don’t you be ungrateful, girl. Your mother is doing this for your protection.”
“Step-mother,” Helina said under her breath.
“What was that?” Mrs. Tibsy snapped.
“That’s good. Because there’s news of your brother as well.”
“Ben?” Helina said.
“Do you have another brother?” Mrs. Tibsy sniffed. “Of course. That rascal hasn’t the stuff to show his face, but there are rumors. That’s why there’s to be a double guard at the door and the window will remain closed and latched.”
Helina pouted but couldn’t argue. Nobody would listen to her, least of all old Mrs. Tibsy. The caretaker turned to leave.
“Can I have some tea?” Helina asked quickly. “I don’t think I can fall asleep with my nerves all a-jangle.”
“What do you think this is, a hotel?” came the short reply. “I am not a maid. I shall bring up breakfast at sunrise. Make certain to be presentable.”
Helina mouthed off silently to the retreating back, but put on a false smile when the old woman turned to stare at her suspiciously. When the door clicked shut, Helina sank down onto the bed. This is my life, she lamented to herself.
Abruptly, she wondered about Ben. He had disappeared about the same time as her father had left for the Holy Wars. The story was that he had killed a man and fled before the authorities could apprehend him. A lonely ache pressed a tear from Helina’s eye. Now she was the only one that was left, and she was stuck in this miserable prison for her own protection.
A tap on the window startled her from her thoughts. Remembering what Mrs. Tibsy has said, she felt a thrill of fear. What if Ben was really the dark, bloodthirsty monster they all said him to be? That was hard to reconcile with her memories of him, but a man could change. Still, he was her brother.
Helina stood and cautiously crossed the room to the window. The tap sounded again. It sounded as though someone were throwing pebbles at the window, but that was impossible because the ground was a hundred feet below. Pulling the edge of the curtain aside, Helina tried to peer out surreptitiously. All she saw was a black square.
Then a face was pressed against the glass, grotesque features twisted to reveal a flat white tongue and crossed eyes. Helina gave a scream of fright, then covered her mouth. The face withdrew slightly and relaxed into the friendly, mischievous face of a familiar person.
“Ben!” Helina said.
Ben pointed at the latch. Helina undid it without a thought, Mrs. Tibsy be damned. Throwing open the window let in a forceful gust of cold night air that almost knocked Helina from her feet. Struggling to remain upright, Helina leaned over and saw the reason for the odd hurricane. Ben was outside, floating in midair. Under him was Helina’s missing dragon, wings that were used to gliding on air currents straining to keep it in one place.
“What are you doing here?” she said. “They’re all looking for you.”
“I know,” Ben said, easily. “But Flitter here will take care of anyone stupid enough to try to stop me.”
He patted the scaly neck of the dragon, and Flitter huffed in response.
“Stop you from what?” Helina asked, suddenly afraid the stories were true.
“From ending all this nonsense,” Ben said. “Come on, jump.”
He held out his hand. At that moment, the door to the room crashed open and the guards rushed in, weapons held at the ready. There were more than two of them. It seemed as though half an army was trying to fit into the room. It had been a trap, naturally. Cliche number six. Helina had less than half a second to decide.
She launched herself out of the window.
Ben barely caught her, pulling her onto the back of the dragon, trying not to get caught in the abundance of material of the ridiculous dress.
“A little warning, please,” he said. “And next time wear something sensible.”
“Sorry,” Helina replied with a hint of a bite in her voice. “I would’ve packed a picnic as well, but the guards were being a little pushy.”
“I’ve missed you sister,” Ben said, turning to give her a kiss and a grin.
Helina tightened her arms around his waist. “I’ve missed…”
The last of her sentence was lost in the wind as Flitter dropped suddenly. Before the dragon hit the ground, its powerful wings caught a draft that swept them up again. The night swallowed them in the cold, vast silence of a thousand specks of light. The dragon was now in the element of its element and Helina barely felt beast move under her, carrying them through the air on silent wings. After a moment, Helina’s stomach readjusted to its normal position and she could speak again.
“I’ve missed you too,” she said, speaking loudly to be heard over the rush of the wind. “What happened? Why did you leave?”
“I killed a man and fled,” Ben said, shrugging casually.
Ben was silent for a long time. “It was father.”
Helina was sure she hadn’t heard him properly. “Pardon?”
“Father planned to have mother killed,” Ben said. “That awful woman he married after mother supposedly died poisoned his mind…”
“Wait, what do you mean supposedly?” Helina said, feeling as though her entire world had began to rock and quake, everything she knew disappearing into fiery cracks.
“Mother isn’t dead. She had word that they were going to try to kill her, and she got away, to the Mur…to a safe place. Everything they’ve said is a lie, Helina. Father isn’t fighting in the Holy Wars. Mother isn’t dead. I’m not a villain. You’re not…you’re not everything they said either.”
“I don’t understand,” Helina said. “They told me I was to stay in the tower for my protection. They said dark times had come. It was not safe to stay at father’s house in the country…”
“No,” Ben shook his head. “You were to stay in the tower for their protection. You remember the legends that mother used to tell us?”
Of course she remembered the legends. Mother said they told the history of their blood, and the future of the same. They were a part of them, like her heart or her hands. Helina couldn’t forget them if she wanted to. Ben took her silence to mean that she didn’t know what he was talking about.
“The legend says that there is an ancient power that holds all the world in balance, hidden by the earth. After a time, the earth will reveal the power, a power it kept from sight and mind, for it was too great for most mortals to wield. It waited for the one that was strong enough to to use it, not for evil, but for good. It was to emerge into a world of darkness and bring it the light. There would be bloodshed and wars…”
“The Holy Wars,” Helina breathed, hardly daring to believe what she was hearing.
“Yes. They are more Holy than anyone could imagine.” Ben patted her hands that were clenched tight about him so she wouldn’t fall. “Do you remember how it ends, what it tells of what must happen when night falls?”
“There is a medium, with the ability to channel the power of the earth and the sky, and lock the darkness away again,” Helina said. “In a great battle, this person comes and turns the tide, saves mankind, and all the good things of the earth.”
“Exactly,” Ben said. “And we’re going to make sure that comes to pass.”
“What are you saying?”
“They’re all true. All the legends.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“Come sister dear, you’re smarter than that,” Ben said.
“It’s not possible.”
“All things are possible, if you look at them the right way,” Ben said.
“I don’t feel equal to such a task,” Helina protested. “You must be mistaken.”
“Mother said you would say that,” Ben said. “She said that it would take some time for the power to manifest, and that it may happen gradually or suddenly; we don’t really know.”
“Who’s we?” Helina said. “Why haven’t I heard of this before?”
“We are the Murten’gi…”
“But they are a barbaric people, living in caves and feeding off human flesh,” Helina said, horrified.
“Perhaps not all legends are true,” Ben allowed. “They are not barbaric. They are quite civilized and advanced, and they will be able to help you.”
“Mother is with them?” Helina said.
“I suppose I do not have much of a choice now,” Helina said, looking around at the black night air that rushed by them.
“You always have a choice, Helina,” Ben said, gripping her arm. “Never forget that. I will never make you do something you do not want to do, and I won’t let anyone do that either. Even mother.”
Helina hugged her brother. “You’re my knight in shining armor.”
“Nothing,” Helina said, laughing to herself. “Let’s go visit the Murten’gi.”