Martin’s work kept his mind on the present most of the time, but his thoughts ran deep during the slower parts of the day. The afternoon blended into evening as he left the new shop. His family settled into the beautiful Phyllis Cove a week ago. It was a beautiful place. Being halfway home, he stood at the top of a rise to watch the sunset over the sea. He had hoped to see a herd of wild horses passing through at dusk, as it was said that there were many in that area. Even as the mists rose high above the river in the growing darkness, the elusive horses did not come out to drink at the river. They hadn’t come out since Engulf’s last night there.
Disappointed, he placed his hands in his pockets and made his way back down the hill. As he escaped inside of his mind again, a shrill whinny echoed over the moors. He imagined a lone stallion roaming the highlands and spying on the herds through the fog, plotting to steal a few mares from another herd.
A loud animalistic snort jerked Martin back to the present. He jumped back at the sight of a black horse standing atop the rocks ahead on the trail. He held his breath. Rogue stallions were known to be aggressive, but this one was a fine-boned mare. It was rare for a female horse to break away from a herd to go fend for herself, but there she was staring at him from a distance that was not far enough away. She walked down the hill, snorting loudly. It was then that he noticed that she wasn’t a horse at all. A long, sharp horn protruded from the white star on her forehead.
He fought the urge to run. Running from any wild animal is proof to them that you are something worth chasing. She stopped mere feet away from him, nostrils flaring. Her eerie, coal gaze bore into him. She was like a beautiful demon arising from the abyss. He struggled to breathe as his heart pounded against his rib cage. If she began to shriek, his ears would bleed. He would become deaf within moments if the rumours were true. She pawed at the ground, snorting, moving her head from side to side. All he could do was hope that she would not scream or take a run at him. Holding his breath, he slowly backed away from her, careful not to make any sudden movements. Then she broke into a run toward him. The sound of her loud hoof beats heightened his fear. He leaped onto the closest cluster of rocks he could find and climbed up clumsily. She stopped abruptly by the mound of boulders, looking up at him.
“Lovely mare, I mean you no harm,” he said softly. “Please be kind to me.”
She appeared to be around four years old – a few years beyond the curious yearling phase. He had no idea what possessed her to stalk him only to toy with him. Appearing agitated, she reared on her hind legs and whinnied in the familiar unicorn way.
He hummed a gentle tune that his mother often sang to him while she baked bread in the kitchen before the war. Its soothing quality seemed to settle the great creature. She lowered her head and inhaled the clover patch close to her hooves. Her graceful neck lifted as she looked up at him again before turning around and breaking into a run for the dark hills. Her long tail waved behind her like a spirit as she retreated. He watched after her, breathless, grateful to be alive, confused.
Alone again in the darkness, he started back on his way home. His legs felt like jelly from the near-death encounter. Even though she was far away, he imagined her watching him from the shadows.
Viggo slowed his horse to a walk as they passed through a maze of stumpy trees. He admired the gnarled forest, seeing the beauty in their unconventional design. He had never seen anything like them.
“Ugly trees,” said the girl, rolling her eyes.
Those were the first words she uttered since they left Commander Ulen’s camp hours ago.
“I think they look interesting,” said Viggo, annoyed at her stuck-up tone.
She had nothing to be snobbish about. By the looks of her attire, she wasn’t much better off than he was before he joined the army. Except she’d have parents who missed her. That was the only difference.
“You have no idea how lucky you are,” muttered the girl again.
“How am I lucky?” he asked in agitation.
He peered back at her as she guided her horse a short distance behind him. She was a surprisingly good rider, but her deflated posture made her look like some sort of prisoner of war. Other commanders might have kicked her out of camp without any escort. He wondered if all girls were so ungrateful for the sacrifices that men made for them.
“I wanted to help the cause,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave Frenz.”
He cleared his throat. She was even smaller than he was. What a laugh that sight must have been to see her stepping up to enlist for the army. He choked back a chuckle.
“You would rather risk your life and limbs than wait in safety for the war to end?” he asked.
Her posture straightened and she looked down her nose at him. “Well, we are the same age. I don’t see you hiding behind your mother’s skirts. Why should I?”
“I’m not a girl.”
“You don’t think a girl can fire an arrow?” she shot.
They left the forest of eerie trees behind and entered open grassland. Viggo wanted to urge his horse into a run, but he hesitated because he was not going to let her have the last word.
“Battles are not for girls and women. You’d faint at the mere sight of what happens in war.”
Her large blue eyes narrowed as she scowled at him. “What a predictable response.”
“Predictable for a reason,” he shot back.
That was one snobby wench. He brought his horse to a gallop and they both rode across fields and moors for another hour. He did not like the idea of spending a night alone with her and worried that she might run away when he fell asleep. Voniz might have his head if he failed to complete the supposedly simple mission. He would have to stay awake all night to make sure she didn’t try to escape. It added to his misery of not being able to ride south and rescue Otto. He signalled for Agnita to slow her horse as they neared a patch of woods.
“We will sleep here for the night,” he announced.
She jumped down from her mare and led her to the small brook ahead of them. Despite her pride, she was a quiet one for a female. It could have been worse if he was forced to travel with an overtalkative hen.
He unsaddled his stallion before joining the girl at the water. She spoke softly to her animal and it took a break from drinking to nuzzle her.
“I think that horse likes you,” he said.
She shrugged. “I miss my own horse, but this one is nice enough.”
It was like the girl was incapable of seeing how lucky she was. “I heard my commander speak about Lady Jaquelline. She is a cultured philanthropist. You could receive a good education by staying with her until this war ends. Many girls would give anything to be in your position right now. I’d take the opportunity if I were you.”
Agnita burst into a cynical sort of laughter. “You have no idea how much that makes me want to ride away.”
“Fool!” he snarled.
She gasped as her face reddened. “Why the hell are you so rude to me?”
He took a step closer to her, warning her with his angry stare. “You can attempt to ride away, but you wouldn’t survive a week on your own out here. Why consider doing something so stupid when people are placing a great life right into your lap?”
She glared at him. He glared back at her.
“Don’t look at me like that, girl. You speak of grandiose adventures without any idea of what it would take to survive them.”
She scoffed. “Says a boy no older than I who has no idea of what I have experienced!”
“I have been on two rescue missions and I already fought in one battle!”
“Were either of those missions successful?” she pressed.
He nearly cursed at her, but clamped his mouth shut just in time. He walked away before he did something he regretted. He led his horse back to the bushes and tied him there before gathering branches and sticks to start a fire. After she secured her mare for the night, her light footsteps sounded above the babbling rapids. She stood close to him, hovering over him like an annoying swarm of flies. Couldn’t she just go away for a moment?
“Viggo, please forgive me. I’m tired.”
He rolled his eyes. “That is to be expected from a girl.”
She sat next to him and watched him rub two sticks together. It always took him much longer to start a fire than everyone else for some reason, but he knew that it would happen if he kept trying.
“I am sorry for what you must have seen in your experiences,” she said.
“It’s a part of war. We can’t do anything to change that.”
“I wish we could.”
“Just be grateful you haven’t seen what innocent victims look like after …”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Please, Viggo. I wasn’t granted the dignity of serving my country in any way. Could you tell me what you saw?”
He looked at her. “You’re a persistent little thing, aren’t you?”
She crossed her arms in girlish defiance and he tried unsuccessfully not to smile.
“You find me humorous?” she asked.
“No. I find you pretty.”
Her eyes widened for a moment and she looked away. He slapped his forehead, amazed at his own stupidity.
“Forgive me. I’m tired.”
She shrugged and looked away. “It’s all right.”
“You’re Frenz’s girl.”
“Well, yes. He’s my best friend … and I love him.”
He could see from the look in her eyes, how she smiled, that she did.
“That is good. It gives him something special to fight for.”
Her eyes misted over and she looked away again. “If he dies, I will kill him. He has to stay alive.”
“He’s smart. He will be fine.”
“Easy for you to say,” she fired. “You’re escorting me far away from the battles.”
Viggo cleared his throat. “Whose fault is that?”
He created a spark with the two sticks at last. Flames ate away at the tinder. They both watched as a fire formed in front of them. He took jerky out of his pack and gave some to Agnita. As they ate, Viggo watched the comforting flames and thought of everything that happened over the last month. He wasn’t sure if telling her about the prisoners was a wise idea, but he was tired of keeping that experience bottled up inside of him.
“The prisoners who my unit failed to save were burned alive and thrown into a pit. Women, children, and men. One of the men I served with – my commander – had a sister who was among the charred dead.”
“Oh my God,” breathed Agnita.
He rubbed his eyes; the images were just as fresh in his memory as they had been when he stood there on the balcony of that prison. He stretched his hands out to the fire to warm them, to bring himself back to the present.
“Be grateful that your discomfort involves being sent to live with a fine lady.”
“I want to help my country just as you do. I ran away from home to get away from a boring life.”
“A girl who thinks she’s a boy,” he scoffed, shaking his head.
The shadows created by the flames danced along her pretty face as she nodded. “I prefer to work and to be outdoors. There’s no crime in that.”
“I guess not.”
“Well, why did you sign up for the army?”
“The army saved my life, you know. As much as I hate this war, I think I may have starved to death had there been no need to recruit boys too young to fight.”
She sighed. “Let’s hope you can still say that after the war is over.”
“Have you known Frenz long?”
“Yes. We have been friends since we were babies.”
“I could tell that you both shared a special bond. You are lucky. I have no idea what that would be like.”
“Maybe one day you’ll know.”
He had no clue what people felt when they spoke of love. He had never been close enough with anyone to have an inkling of what it could mean. It made him grateful that he was alone after seeing how Agnita caused Frenz so much worry with her senseless gallivanting around the countryside alone.
“I just don’t know what I will do without him. We were inseparable back home. It could be over a year before I see him again. It’s so hard being far away from him.”
“At least you can write.”
“It’s not the same.”
“He may pass through your town in a few months.”
“How will I know when I’m cooped up inside doing needlework?”
“You won’t be a prisoner in your new home. I am sure that Lady Jaquelline will grant you exploring time if you are polite to her.”
“I hope so. I left my parents’ farm to get away from an arranged marriage and all the drudgery that would go along with it.”
“They marry girls off at fourteen where you come from?”
“If they’re poor, yes.”
He found himself feeling sorry for her, but there was nothing he could do about it, so he ate his last bite of jerky and took the blankets out of the saddle bag. He threw one at her and she gave him a dirty look.
“We should sleep soon to get an early start in the morning.”
“I’m exhausted,” she admitted.
He hoped that was true. She curled up in the blanket while he ensured that the horses were securely tied to the bush. In the thickening darkness, he leaned against the tree and watched Agnita’s still, shadowy form beneath her cover. Soft murmurings escaped from her lips and he wondered if she was praying or dreaming.
He stared up at the sky and thought of Otto wasting away in that filthy prison. The likelihood of his life ending increased with each passing day, but it was all a part of the system. All Viggo could do was wait and hope that God would keep Otto alive until he got there.
“Mother, Helena! Come quickly!” called Gladyssa from the kitchen.
Helena set her book down on the table and rushed out of her room to the kitchen where her sister stood with a tall young man. Mother placed a pot of tea on the table with a soft smile.
“This is Hinre,” said Gladyssa, beaming. “I’m not sure if you recall, Helena, but he’s an old school mate of mine.”
She couldn’t remember him.
“Nice to meet you,” said Helena politely.
“I am pleased to meet you both,” he said, glancing at Helena and then Mother.
She couldn’t say the same about him. It seemed strange the way he held her sister’s hand possessively.
“We have some good news to tell you,” said Gladyssa.
“First we wanted to tell you that they broke all the people out of the cave,” said Hinre.
“Thank God,” Helena and her mother breathed in unison.
“The second piece of news is that we eloped,” said Gladyssa, blinking back tears. “It was today in the chapel.”
Helena’s jaw dropped. “Gladyssa, you didn’t!”
“This is a wonderful surprise,” said Mother quickly. “Were you granted a leave from the army, Hinre?”
He nodded quickly. Gladyssa looked up at him as he slid an arm around her slender waist. She looked so pretty in her light blue afternoon gown and her hair tied back in a soft chignon. Her face was softer after being away from the stifling mine for a few days. Her hard exterior was replaced with the joy of being a new wife in love.
The shock of their elopement jarred Helena. Unsure if she should laugh or cry, she glanced at her equally surprised mother.
“My goodness, this is a wonderful surprise,” smiled their mother, acting diplomatic as always.
“I apologize for taking your daughter away earlier than expected,” began Hinre.
“Nonsense,” said their mother gently. “I am very happy for both of you. We needed some good news in this family.”
It was hardly good news for Helena. She could only stare at the scene in stunned silence as they all exchanged hugs. Gladyssa’s happiness was subdued the moment that she looked at her younger sister.
She walked over to Helena and brought her close.
“Are you all right, Helena?”
“I am happy for you and you seem so in love, but I thought you’d be with us for longer.”
How could she keep such a secret?
“It is not so easy to grow up and move ahead in life, as happy as I am. I will miss you very much.”
“You seem happier than you have been in months and for that I am happy,” said Helena.
“Where will you be living?” asked Mother.
“We will be living in the small dwelling next to the market. You see? You need only travel a short distance to visit me whenever you wish and I will visit here often.”
Helena had never seen her so happy. She forced a smile, which encouraged Gladyssa to do the same.
“Oh sister, is it not wonderful to speak with one another now that our mining days are behind us?”
Helena could not help but laugh with Gladyssa. She felt much lighter with that hell behind them. “Very much. The mouth of the mine always reminded me of a monster about to devour us. Now we’ll never be in its horrible fat belly ever again.”
The sisters burst out into a round of laughter.
Hinre approached them, wrapping his arms around Gladyssa from behind.
“Make her happy. She’s been through a lot,” said Helena.
He nodded seriously. “I promise you that she will be the happiest girl in the world. I will love her until the day that I die.”
The war could easily take that promise away, but he meant it. She could see it in his eyes. It made her wonder how many other soldiers hastily bound themselves to marriage just so they could experience a few good days before returning to battle.
Their mother put together a small basket of fruit for the newlyweds.
“It isn’t much. I wish I could give you more,” she sighed.
“It’s perfect,” said Hinre with a smile. “Thank you.”
“I can hardly wait to set up our new home,” said Gladyssa as she took the gift from her mother.
“Enjoy every moment of your new life,” said Mother, kissing Gladyssa on the forehead.
Helena hugged her sister and then the new married couple walked out the door. She stood with her mother in the quiet kitchen.
“So sudden,” mused Mother.
“Too sudden. I hope he doesn’t die.”
Helena covered her mouth as tears seeped down her face. “I’m sorry. I just need to go for a walk.”
“I know how you’ll miss her, but things move faster in war, my dear,” said Mother. “At least she is happy now.”
That was more than apparent. Opening the door, Helena lifted her skirts and broke into a run. With the fiery horizon in front of her, she lost track of her thoughts as she ran toward the sunset. She did not slow down until she reached the old tree in front of the mine, which would be deserted for several weeks until it was repaired and deemed safe. She was happy that no one was around to hear her pitiful sobs.
She reached into the little opening of the tree trunk to touch the stone. It was still there, undisturbed by animals who may have considered making a home in the small space. She took it out and re-examined it carefully. What a silly little girl she had been to think that it was glowing. The stress from being trapped probably caused her to see things.
She collapsed next to the tree and hugged her knees, wishing for things to be the way that they were a year ago. It was all she wanted. Life was changing too quickly; people left without warning.
“I might as well throw this ridiculous rock into the water,” she grumbled.
She started in the direction of the river when the rock began to vibrate in her hand.
“It’s … it’s moving?” she cried.
She dropped it and took a step backward. The stone cracked. She watched it in confusion. Something was moving inside. A tiny claw poked through and scratched the outer shell. She sat next to it, watching as the most beautiful little black-scaled creature broke out of the egg. Yellow eyes stared up at her and she wondered for a moment if she was dreaming. It was a tiny winged lizard. Her mind spun as she took a step back.
“No!” she shrieked. “You don’t exist. How am I seeing this right now?”
She couldn’t stop staring at it. Life really had been so hard on her that she was seeing baby dragons come out of rocks. Grief did strange things to people’s minds.
She looked up at the blue sky and took in a deep breath. When she looked back down at the cracked stone-like egg, the tiny reptilian creature stirred.
It bleeped at her once. She covered her mouth to suppress a scream. It was real. Very real. She was sitting next to a mythical being.
She crouched next to it and began to cry. “What on earth am I going to do with you? Why did you come to me? I’m just a stupid girl who doesn’t know anything and you aren’t supposed to exist!”
It titled its head at the sound of her voice. Its amber eyes were so pretty, striking against its ebony skin. She worked up the courage to touch its scaly little body. It allowed her before nibbling on her finger. Its tiny teeth couldn’t pierce her skin even if it tried. It was no more harmful than a common lizard. For the time being.
“Let us go to the stream,” she said softly. “Where you can eat something.”
She picked it up and it willingly stayed in the palm of her hand as she walked carefully to a nearby brook. When they reached the babbling waters, she set it down. It leaped into the small rapids and darted after the minnows. Her heart raced as she watched it feed, driven by primal design. It would be able to breathe fire one day, but armies led by cruel men could conquer even the most ferocious dragons. That was how they all met their demise nearly a century ago. Supposedly.
“How did you end up in a mine, of all places?” she asked, looking at it in awe.
Suddenly, she worried that it would venture off alone, never to be seen again. After all, dragons were known to be lone creatures for the majority of their lives, as said in folklore. It could swim off and live in the shadows feeding on insects and small rodents, never to be seen again until it grew too large to hide. The cold hearts of men would desire its death. The thought was like a knife deepening the wound on her heart. She flinched, surprised at her sudden attachment to it.
The baby dragon swam out of the water and looked up at her with inquisitive amber eyes. For a creature designed to fend for itself the moment it entered the world, it seemed oddly connected with her. She knelt on the grass and it came to her like a loyal pet. She outstretched her hand and it went up to her palm.
“I will keep you safe,” she whispered.
It made contented little noises as she cradled it in her hands and carried it home.
Splinters of wood covered Frenz’s pants as he worked to carve out the shape of a bear. It was one of his favourite animals – strong, protective, fearsome. The symbol gave him hope on the cool night alone under the stars. Most of the other men were in their tents taking advantage of some measure of comfort. He couldn’t sleep, however, as a pair of bright blue eyes interrupted the darkness every time he closed his eyes. He wondered how Agnita was faring on the trip with Viggo. Surely, she wouldn’t be foolish enough to run away and create more hardships for herself. He had faith that Viggo would keep her in line until she reached her destination.
Agnita was more like Frenz that he realised – they were both too restless to settle for regular farm life and follow in the footsteps of their parents. She was the sort of girl who liked to hike and fish instead of cooking and mending clothes. He smiled at how she adorable she looked in boy’s clothes when they would go for their wanderings. He always thought she was so pretty, but never had the courage to say so. He could march into a battle against the world’s most feared army, but the thought of telling her how much he loved her made his heart race and his palms sweat. He had to survive so he could tell her.
When the war was all over, he would find her and marry her. He imagined the two of them living in a city, a middle-sized one not far from wildflower fields and rolling hills. They’d both have jobs that would allow them to afford two horses and a stone house. She wouldn’t have to spend all her time indoors like most wives. She would be his equal in every way, he’d make certain of that. He would kiss her every time he made her cross. He’d make up for all the times he teased her for being ‘just a girl’.
He thought back on the days before he wanted to leave home for the army. Had it only been a few months since their last frolic on the hill? It felt like a lifetime ago since he was home.
“Oh, Agnita,” he sighed.
They would never be children again.
She was so far away. The more he tried not to think about her, the more she became a part of him, slowly infiltrating his soul, reminding him of the very reason why he was sitting there in an army camp shivering in the cold.
Groaning infected the fresh night air. Men complained about the lack of food and alcohol from inside their tents. Like Frenz, some soldiers were adjusting relatively well to meal rationing, but for others the unsatisfying meals were like torture. Food supplies were running very low even with all the men and horses they lost to battles, not to mention the medical supplies. The Ustrunians blockaded Norforth’s merchant ships at sea. In many ways, that was worse than a direct attack, because many innocent civilians who already suffered from the terrible economy were starving to death. Some days, it felt like he was fighting for a dying country.
Frenz stood and strode toward his tent, suddenly longing for warmth and rest. The voice of Commander Ulen and another man caught his attention. He stopped to see if he could reasonably listen to what was being said, uncaring of the protocol on eavesdropping. It was, after all, his life on the line. Their voices were sharp, rising in aggravation. He breathed shallowly.
“Our warships couldn’t break through the blockade. We lost all but one frigate,” said Ulen.
“Do you think that General Kaloun will send ships out with more guns?” asked a lieutenant.
“It could happen, but the outcome would likely be the same. Ustrunian war ships have been built with this in mind. They have been engineered for speed while maintaining a high number of guns.”
“That is the cost of not following modernization.”
“A lost cause some say.”
Silence thickened the air. Commander Ulen sounded like he wanted to give up. His form slouched behind the tent, causing him to appear weak, almost old. Frenz felt the anger rise within him. Boys and men across the country laid down their lives for those men. They listened without question because they trusted their judgement. How dare they speak of the cause in that way?
He stepped away, disgusted. There were many strategies that could be planned and orchestrated to outwit the Ustrunians, one of which would be a surprise attack, but none of the commanders seemed interested in doing that.
His growing rage made him crave another battle. The thought of fighting in a bloody battle should have rendered him petrified. He was becoming something else entirely, but not the monster he thought he might be. He survived because he had people to fight for. He would survive again, because he had to. He looked back up at the stars, feeling his heart harden except for a distinct ache in the very middle. That was where his love for Agnita would always remain, reminding him that he was still human, preventing him from fully transforming into a demon.
He walked into his tent and pulled the blanket over his lanky body. For days the men waited at camp with little more to do than carve wood, tell stories, and complain about the lack of supplies. In some ways, boredom was worse than adversity.
“Men, gather around!” shouted one of the lieutenants.
In the blink of an eye, the camp came to life with men eager to be relieved of their idleness. Even the more squeamish ones sprung up in the unexpected excitement.
“Our spies have warned the general that the Ustrunians are headed into Phyllis Cove! We need to march now.”
An uproar thundered through the camp. Frenz’s vision swam as he choked back the bile that rose up in his throat. Phyllis Cove. Not there. Anywhere but there.
“Oh, Agnita,” he cried.
Helena kicked off her work boots and ran through the kitchen to her room. All she could think about while working at the dairy farm all day was the little dragon and what in the world was going to happen to it once it grew too big to stay inside.
“Why are you running?” called Mother.
She froze in place, cringing, her hand resting on the knob of her bedroom door. She turned and walked back to the kitchen. Steam floated up from the teapot that was set out on the table. Mother placed a freshly baked cake in the middle, smiling wider than she had in a long time.
“What is the occasion?” asked Helena, surprised at her mother’s genuine contentment.
“Your brother is on his way home.”
Helena’s breath caught in her chest. Erne.
“Why hadn’t you told me?” she asked.
Mother gave her a look. “Settle down. I wanted to surprise you, dear. I know how much you adore Erne.”
“You said he’s coming soon. How soon?”
“Tonight,” said Mother with a wide smile.
“I need to go wash up!”
She ran to her room, closed the door, and opened her wardrobe. The baby dragon stood on its hind legs and chirped at her from the small bed of leaves. The box that she put it in wobbled as it jumped about.
“I am so sorry for leaving you here so long,” she whispered as though it could understand her.
The sight of the mythical creature in front of her combined with the anticipation of seeing her brother again made her head spin. Walking over to her dresser, she pulled out the jar of small fish that she caught from the creek earlier that morning. They were dead, but she hoped they would be fresh enough for the dragon. It was the best she could do under the circumstances. Erne was really coming home. She set the jar of fish into the box and the young dragon climbed inside, dunking its entire body under the water to feed.
“Feel better now?” cooed Helena.
After it was finished eating, she reached down to pet its head, but it didn’t seem to like the gesture. It flinched, moving away. Her heart sank a little at the sight of it.
“I’ll feed you more after I see my brother,” she promised. “I’ll catch even more next time.”
She picked it up with her hands and lifted it out of its container. She set it down and let it walk around on the floor as she poured a pitcher of water into a large bowl on her dresser. By the time she washed up and put on the first dress she had worn in weeks, she heard a familiar baritone voice coming from the kitchen. Erne.
Her heart fluttered. How she missed him. So much had changed since she last saw him.
She cast a look at her reptilian companion and decided that it was too cruel to keep it cooped up for another couple of hours.
“Be good,” she whispered.
It darted under her bed. She closed the door and ran down the hall and into her big brother’s arms. He held her tightly. She felt safe for the first time in months. They held onto one another for several breaths. When they ended their embrace, he stood back to look down at her with his kind brown eyes.
“You have grown up,” he said.
Tears welled up in his eyes. She wasn’t sure what he meant, for she felt as girlish as ever standing in front of her tall brother dressed in uniform.
“I have missed you so much,” she breathed. “It is so good to have you home.”
He looked very handsome in the buckskin Norforthian military-style belted tunic and black trousers.
“Sit down now, children,” said Mother.
The three of them found their places at the table. Erne sliced three sections of the cake and put them on plates for each of them.
“I heard the good news about Gladyssa.”
“Oh yes. It was such a shock to all of us,” said Mother. “A nice surprise nonetheless.”
“She still lives close by,” said Helena. “I’ll take you to see her tomorrow.”
She could barely contain her excitement as he made small talk about how the trip home was and how well he was eating. She had so many things that she wanted to ask and tell him later on when they could be alone. He must have sensed it, because he looked over at Helena.
“You look as though you might explode,” he laughed.
“There’s so many things I want to know. Where you’ve been, what you’ve seen.”
Erne’s smile remained, but his eyes hinted of a life that Helena would never know anything about. She felt like such a child and though he was still young, something about his countenance suddenly seemed old, almost ancient.
“My life in the army is not as exciting as you’re imagining,” he said, staring down at the table. “I am not regular army.”
“What do you do?” she asked gently.
“Helena,” said her mother with a warning tone. “He can’t tell you that. You know this.”
“Its all right,” said Erne. “I have not fought in a battle. Yet. It may happen soon, though. You may have already heard that our supply ships cannot reach the shoreline because the Ustrunians are blocking and destroying them. I do not wish to scare you, but you should be aware.”
“Are we safe here?” asked Mother.
He nodded. “For now. I will write to you if there is any hint of a threat. You ladies are my life.”
“What will they do to stop the blockade?” asked Helena.
“That is a very good question. No one knows yet, but we hope that the general will act soon. Sadly, the poor are going to be the first ones to suffer for this, especially with army supplies being meagre to begin with. They’ve had to take food and other items from civilians, mainly farmers, just to keep the soldiers going.”
The thought of such things happening made Helena shudder.
Mother frowned, deep lines etching her forehead. “This is terrible.”
“I don’t know if I could ever kill a man,” he said quietly. “I’ve seen them. The Ustrunians, I mean. Not in a military camp or on the battlefield, but in a small town close to the border. They were walking about, buying and selling, laughing with their families. Not the savages I expected to see.”
Helena’s heart sank. Her brother was such a good man caught up in the wrong moment of life. Despite the knowledge that the Ustrunians had innocents in their cities and villages, it did not stop her from wanting their entire country to be obliterated. It was Ustrunia who started the war. It was Ustrunia who destroyed her country’s economy, killed so many boys and men in battle, and forced just as many people to die from starvation.
Erne’s stare took her away from her musings. He seemed concerned by the look on her face as though he could sense her longing for violence on Ustrunia. She purposely softened her expression.
“I hope that you never have to,” she said. “Kill a man.”
“It’s best we don’t talk about that here,” said Mother.
They sat in silence staring at their empty plates while black tea cooled in their mugs. There were places in the world that were darker than the mine. Far darker. She had never seen them and likely never would, but she could feel they existed as she looked into Erne’s eyes.
“Forgive me,” said Erne, clearing his throat. “I’ll have you know that I have travelled through the beautiful city of Phyllis Cove a month ago. When I was there, I thought of how much you two would enjoy browsing the shops. I saw so many colourful clothing clothes and jewelry. In many ways, the place is like a haven. The war hasn’t touched it in any way.”
“How wonderful,” Helena sighed, imagining a quaint market close to the ocean filled with pretty things and tasty cuisine.
“Did you manage to dine in any of their famed taverns?” asked Mother.
He nodded. “They used spices I have never even heard of before and the wine is like nothing you have ever tasted.”
“If only we could all go there,” sighed Helena. “You and me and Mother. Gladyssa and her husband, too. Then we could stay in a beautiful villa by the sea and never have to worry about the war again.”
“It would take a miracle for all of us to afford to go,” said Mother.
“I hate money,” said Helena.
“Hating inanimate things won’t do you any good,” Mother scolded.
Erne told them a little more about the iconic, fashionable cove city as Mother prepared and poured more tea. Helena told Erne a little bit about her job at the dairy farm and a lot about her old one at the mine. He leaned forward, listening to her intently despite the dull topics. The story of her discovering the dragon egg and watching it hatch before her eyes was on the tip of her tongue. She had to bite it to stop herself from spilling the secret.
Mother got up and started to clear the table and wash the dishes. With her distracted, Helena leaned over the table and whispered, “I must show you something.”
Erne tilted his head. Mother turned her back on them as she started to scrub the plates. Unable to wait a moment longer, she took him by the hand and led him to her room. The moment that she opened the door, his jaw dropped open. The little dragon emerged out from under her bed and stared at them.
“Helena, what is this?” he asked, looking from the dragon to her.
“Sh!” she hissed.
“Where the hell did you find it?”
His curse word did not phase her, for the shock of having both her brother and a dragon in the same room was more than enough.
“I found an egg during the mine cave-in,” she said, almost breathless, unsure how to read Erne’s reaction. “It was glowing, or so I thought. Maybe I was imagining things, but when I took the egg with me outside, the glow faded. I hid it inside of a tree overnight and when I returned for it, it hatched.”
He shook his head, running a hand through his dark hair. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked in all my life, which is saying a lot after the things I’ve seen.”
Helena crossed her arms. “You and me both.”
The dragon slithered over to them, studying Erne for a few moments before looking up at Helena. The sight made her heart swell. HHHHappiness flooded through her veins, which was something she didn’t think she would ever feel again.
“She isn’t the only one,” he said.
Helena looked up at him. “What do you mean?”
“There are more.”
“You’ve seen them? Or is this a rumour?”
He nodded solemnly. “I saw two.”
“Two,” echoed Helena.
“There was one close to the southern border of Norforth. She was about half grown, much older than this one here. They were known to live in those parts nearly a century ago, but how you found a dragon egg in a mine is beyond me.”
“I think someone hid it there years ago. They wanted to protect it from hatching and being slain. What I don’t understand is how it survived so long without being hatched.”
Erne looked at her. “That is the question of the century. There’s a theory, and it sounds insane, but some say that strong human emotions such as greed, hate, grief, love, can awaken a dragon.”
It didn’t sound so insane to her. “Perhaps it’s all the death in the air. It’s making them uneasy so they’ve come out of hiding.”
“You have a great mind, little sister. I suppose it’s something we’ll never know.”
“Where was the other dragon you saw?”
“I saw an older male dragon once in a forest outside of Ustrunia. He was in the woods.”
As interesting as it was to know that dragons indeed still existed after all the hunting, Helena hated the idea of her brother’s risky travels.
“The adult dragons are dangerous, then?”
“They can be.”
“How can you tell the gender?”
“The males have a thicker build, even as babies. The females are less muscular, but they have longer tails. Like yours does.”
Helena looked back at her little companion who had climbed up on the bed and nestled in the blankets. One day, she would become beautiful and strong.
“Do some dragons breathe fire?” asked Helena.
“Only in children’s tales.”
“I am glad for the fire breathing part being a myth, but she does have wings. She’ll fly one day.”
Helena picked up her pet and showed him the tiny wings that grew between her shoulder blades. He frowned.
“I don’t know what you’ve found. I’ve never seen or heard of a real dragon with wings. I’d hate to think what people will do if they ever see her flying above them. A volley of arrows would finish her. A dragon’s scales are not impenetrable.”
Helena’s heart ached at the thought. “I will protect her,” she said quietly. “That will never happen.”
He gave her a look. “You can’t stop a large animal from flying.”
“Well, does she not seem content here?” she asked, blinking back tears.
“Yes, but you cannot keep her. Mother will scream if she ever discovers her and dragons grow very fast. She may never attack you, but she will probably attack other people. Mother included. She’ll double in size every month for the next two years.”
“Bloody hell,” said Helena.
Erne looked at her in surprise. “I know you want to keep her, but you need to think of what is best for her. She’s a wild animal and she needs space to wander, hunt, live. Even if she prefers your care now, she could turn on you later. There is no telling how a captive dragon will act as it matures. If she has wings, she may also breathe fire. Like the legends say.”
A chill swept down Helena’s arms and spine at the thought.
“I feel so connected with her,” she said, grasping at the straws of reason.
“You are imagining that. Dragons can fend for themselves from birth, but since you’ve shown yourself as a food source for her, she’s learned to rely on you. She might start to see you as prey as she grows larger. You don’t want that to happen.”
His stare became cold, but she didn’t break eye contact.
“I know that my dragon would never hurt me.”
He rolled his eyes with an exasperated sigh. He was growing tired of her and her childish ideas. That reality made the ache in her chest ten times worse.
“She is not yours, Helena. She belongs outside in the deep woods. You need to let go of the idea that you need to care for her. Keeping that dragon here will hurt both of you in the long run.”
Helena leaned against the wall, defeated. “I understand what you mean.”
“A girl and a dragon can’t be friends.”
“I realize that now.”
“You’re living in a real, live fairy tale, it seems,” he said with a grin, clearly attempting to lighten the mood. “You’ve survived a mine cave in, you’ve found a rare mythical creature.”
She gave him a look of disapproval. “This is not a very happy fairy tale.”
Erne rested a hand on her shoulder. “Your dragon will be grateful to you for setting her free. I will come with you tomorrow to let her go in the forest. I don’t want to rush you, but I want to know that you are safe before I leave again.”
Helena crossed her arms as an invisible knife sliced into her chest. Though he was right in front of her, she already missed him. Everyone in her life was so temporary. Loss hovered over her like a thick mist that would never waver. She reached out to squeeze his hand, to feel his warmth.
“Erne, I am so glad that you have returned.”
He held her much smaller hand in his and gave her a smile. “Me, too. I’ve missed you.”
The small reptile creeped over to their shoes and stood in between them. They both laughed as she titled her head, seemingly interested in their conversation. It locked eyes with Helena and she had no idea how she was going to let it go into the unknown world forever.
… to be continued