Helen of Agralee is a fierce warrior who wants nothing to do with her family’s legacy of being the Guardian, protector of the people of Davosad. Trained since childhood in the fighting arts and the only woman in the country of Cruinn allowed to fight, Helen has grown arrogant and selfish. To remedy this her father, Kurel, the current Guardian, sends her to Tieton Abbey to learn humility. She rebels, but her desires matter little. Vulcan of Norlad quickly becomes her enemy while Galen, High Prince of Cruinn, and Brother Patrick, an ex-mercenary posing as a monk, become her allies. When Kurel is murdered by Demion, insect, bat, and wolf-like creatures led by Mallus, who seeks the Guardian’s sword, the power seeks out Helen. It burns its way through her body, forever changing her—and the world. Faced with her new responsibilities and new power, is there any room left for love?
Chapter 1: Responsibilities
Helen of Agralee looked up from the blob of dough destined to become a loaf of bread to her father, Kurel, the Guardian of Davosad. “What do mean you’re sending me to Tieton Abbey?”
Kurel leaned against the kitchen’s far wall, his hands in his pockets. He was a tall man, broad in the chest and shoulders, arms corded with muscle from years of fighting with swords and other weapons. His curly dark brown hair was cut short over his ears and around the back so it wouldn’t get in his way. He fixed her with a firm look and said, “You have more to learn.”
She punched the dough with enough force to break someone’s nose. “I know women aren’t allowed there, Father; not even to work as servants. What’s changed things?”
“Hadrin’s death.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter that you’re a woman. You’ll be the next Guardian and you need what Tieton has to teach you.”
She didn’t want to think of her brother being gone; instead, it was far easier to focus on her father’s last words. Since she was little, both she and Hadrin had been schooled in the art of fighting. Unfortunately, she lived in Cruinn, where being a woman and handling a weapon was a crime unless it was in self-defense. Helen, being the daughter of the Guardian, was the only woman allowed to openly bear arms and publicly use them. One day she would inherit the Guardian’s sword, Ravios, as well as its incredible power. She folded the dough in half and punched it again. “I’m not going.”
Flour dusted her cheeks, her hands, and her shirt. She was beautiful with her creamy skin, dark hair, and dark eyes shot through with green and gold. That beauty made so many men think she was soft. They quickly found out otherwise.
“You are going and you will learn!”
“What’s left for me to learn?” She threw the words at him. “I’ve been learning to defend myself since I was three. I’m nineteen now! I know all I need.”
The words were bitter. Life had changed since Hadrin’s death. She used to travel and bring home purses of silver and gold she’d won at tournaments. Now, she spent hours listening to her father lecture about the power she would someday possess, and how to control the memories that would accompany that power—the cost of being the Guardian.
Kurel’s words were forced through tight lips. “The teachers at Tieton teach the true meaning of being a warrior, something you,” he jabbed a finger at her, “desperately need to learn.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re going whether you want to or not. You don’t have a choice.”
Helen shook her head. “It’s not fair.”
Kurel clenched his fists. “Life isn’t fair!”
Her eyes widened as she stared at him. “Father, your hands are on fire.” He looked down; flames danced over his fingers.
Once, when she was little, she’d seen him covered in fire, wreathed in it. She’d been so afraid she would have to watch him burn to death. That was when she’d begun to fear the fire. He plopped down at the table. He held up his hands, free of burns, and gave a soft, sad laugh. “There’s no choice. The power will find you. You can’t run from what’s in your veins.” He picked up a knife and made a swift cut across his palm. Fire dripped from the wound, sizzling as it hit the wooden tabletop. The cut sealed itself shut, but flames still burned in his eyes.
She stared at him in quiet horror. Was this what she would become? A person filled with liquid fire, no longer human?
Kurel’s voice was soft and gentle, like one would use with young children and small animals. “It is both a weapon and salvation.” He shifted his weight, and the wooden chair creaked in protest. “Tomorrow we leave.”
She stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind her.
* * *
She ran into the nearby wood, slowing only when she reached a small, quiet clearing. It was her place; to practice, think, and plot. The trees swooshed their branches and leaves. She once would have found it soothing, but not now. Everything she’d ever wanted from life had been ripped away from her. The loss of her dreams for the future was a wound that refused to heal. “If only Hadrin were still alive,” she whispered. Her eyes closed and the memory of that day, three months ago, filled her.
As she blocked a raider’s thrust spear, a second’s crudely made sword plunged through Hadrin’s chest. She screamed his name as a thick stream of bright red blood poured from the side of his mouth and ran down his chin.
She closed her eyes, trying to block the memory, but it would not be stopped. She’d never killed anyone before, but that day she’d killed seven men. One after another until she stood alone, covered in the blood of her enemies. She’d savored their slaughter. A vicious smile spread across her face: She’d avenged her brother. What kind of Guardian felt such joy in killing others?
Hadrin had died in her arms, her suddenly clumsy hands trying to keep his blood from pouring out between her fingers. She’d never felt so helpless in her life. She glanced down. It sometimes felt like his blood, sticky and wet, was still there. If Hadrin had been the Guardian, he could have healed himself. Instead, his eyes wide, his breath burbling in his throat, he’d died.
* * *
Chapter 9: Power
Almost a month had passed since Helen’s first morning in the abbey. Three evenings after she had woken and cut her hair, a note was slid under her door saying only “What is done is done” and signed with a Paijanese character. I’ll have to be content with that, shethought as her midnight attackers reappeared the next morning; Fathi Patanjali would have a scar down one cheek and across his chest for the rest of his life. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, which made her feel a little satisfied. Vulcan and Crispin glared at her, hatred coming off them in waves. Helen glared back. It was going to be impossible to avoid them in a community as small as Tieton. When their paths crossed, they smiled, she smiled, and they all wished each other dead. Jeff had been furious; he wasn’t very good at hiding his emotions. “Why are they still here?” he thundered.
Helen was lounging in a window seat, trying to think of more pleasant things than Vulcan and his accomplices. “Sending them home wouldn’t accomplish anything,” she told him over her shoulder.
“What do you mean?” Galen asked.
“By making them stay here, they’re reminded of their punishment every time they see me and because I refuse to cower, they know they didn’t break me.” She shrugged. “Let them stay.”
“How can you stand it?” Kurt asked, shaking his head. “I would be so frightened.”
Helen said nothing. Last night, when her friends had walked her to her room, Kurt had tripped over a metal pot left sitting near the wall. The sudden noise sent waves of panic and fear cascading through her and she’d collapsed to the floor, breathing in great gasps. Kurt had brought Patrick, who had carried her into her room and held her against him, rocking her gently and helping her to calm down. He told her that such attacks were caused by triggers, simple things that brought back memories of traumatic events. Unable to deal with the trauma, the body went into shock to protect itself. He told her it would pass, given time. How could she do anything if clanking pots reduced her to tears and utter panic?
What she did was find joy in the small triumphs of each day. She got out of bed. She ate. She cleaned out the stables, scrubbed floors, brushed the horses down and oiled their leather tack. She worked in the library, cleaning shelves and dusting bindings. She had hated it in the beginning; all that work and nothing to show for it except bruises and sore muscles. Now it was just part of her day and she liked knowing her hard work kept the horses happy. She’d found a sense of fulfillment within the stone walls she never thought possible. Much of that fulfillment had been found through meditation.
Before coming to Tieton, it had been a very long time since she had taken the time to simply relax, to clear her mind and just be; to hear nothing but her own heart beating, to feel nothing but the steady rise and fall of her chest. Meditation had once been very easy for her; she and Hadrin would often meditate before practicing. It had become a routine, when feeling distressed or bored: steady yourself and find the center of your being. She’d lost that center after being attacked, but her friends’ concern and Patrick’s constant and steady support had helped her find it again.
Sitting in Patrick’s class that afternoon, she fell into the quiet within her, hovering in that place of infinite calm. There were no worries; no thoughts of duty, of her attackers, nothing.
Then something—a wave of warmth that made her shift uneasily as sweat rolled down her spine, cold and wet.
Kurt heard it first; a swarm of angry bees. He tried to ignore it, but he couldn’t. When others began to take notice, he asked, “What the hell is that?”
With a crash of breaking glass, a blazing streak of light and heat—like a fiery tar-covered boulder shot from a catapult—burst through a window and hit Helen full in the chest, knocking her back into Jeff. The fire vanished into her skin. Patrick rushed over, “Helen, are you all right?”
“What happened?” Galen asked.
Helen’s attention was focused on the double-edged sword vibrating in her lap. She knew what it meant that it was here. The two-toned blade was beautiful, the sun-gold and moon-silver of the steel weaving in and out of each other. No, it couldn’t be. Not now. She curled her hands into fists, refusing to take what the sword offered her. She heard Vlandear in her mind, voicing her fears of responsibility and fire. It had come to her as she’d always known it would. She could feel power moving within her and knew there was no choice.
She gripped Ravios’ hilt.
As her fingers closed around it, knowledge tore through her. She was caught in a raging river, unable to escape the currents pulling her under and towards the falls ahead! Her father had told her the Guardian holds all the knowledge and memories of past Guardians, but she hadn’t imagined it would be anything like this!
Then she was burning alive!
Fire scorched its way through her veins, peeling her skin from her body, cooking her bones. She screamed, pouring all her agony into the sound. Her body spasmed, muscles contracting violently, and she writhed. She’d feared this since she was a little girl and now it was real and no one was helping her! Why didn’t they kill her if they weren’t going to save her? She was dying, surrounded by people who were doing nothing! For a moment the fire receded and she gasped in relief, praying with all her heart that it was over.
But it wasn’t.
In that moment they were there. Many male voices were suddenly inside her head; all of them talking, clamoring over the others to be heard. Images filled her mind: love, blood, laughter, green trees, comfort, and death. She screamed and screamed. She tossed her head from side to side, trying to shut them out, but still they shouted over her screams. She recognized two immediately; her father and grandfather.
“Relax, dearie,” her grandfather said. She couldn’t. Her spine bowed and the fingers of the hand not locked around Ravios scraped the floor. The other voice made her heart break, for she knew she would never see her father again in this world. “Helen, you must conquer this. You must.”
Fire. Her skin was peeling; it must be, turning black and peeling away in sheets. She screamed once more, her eyelids flying open. Patrick’s face was before her, filled with the agony born of helplessness. “Helen, this fire is within you. Smoke rises from your body, but water evaporates in the air around you.” He gripped her face in his strong hands. “It is inside you. You must conquer it or you will die.” What did he know about the fire which raged within her? What did he know about the power Dorl had cursed her family with? He leaned over and put his mouth close to her ear: “I cannot imagine what you must be feeling, but the world needs a Guardian.” His voice broke. “It needs you.”
She closed her eyes, shutting him out of her world. Wait, this wasn’t her world! Her world didn’t include burning to death from a fire no one could put out except her—a fire she didn’t know how to put out! Her father knew, and he had told her, but she hadn’t been listening, and now he was dead. She was the Guardian now, and there must always be a Guardian. It was hers, hers to control, and control it she must.
She actually felt her father’s smile. There was suddenly coolness on her cheek. She focused on it; the icy chill of winter to smother the flames, to chase away the heat, and to numb the voices into silence. Her body painstakingly relaxed as the heat faded, cracking as bones and joints settled back into place. “Helen?” She heard Patrick’s voice but from a great distance away. Then he wasn’t there at all, and neither was she.
Creatures with dark, hairy bodies and fierce glowing eyes burst through the door and windows of her home, howling like wolves and hissing and chittering. Her father slew the monsters and she watched in horror as one that looked like a giant praying mantis pinned him to the floor with its legs. An enormous creature approached, standing eight feet tall, with the head of a monstrous ox. Her father muttered something under his breath and then closed his eyes. She heard a voice demanding to know where his power had gone. Then the blade swung down and she was looking up into Patrick’s dark brown eyes. She felt herself falling into them. “They killed him,” she said in a hoarse whisper.
“Who?” Patrick asked.
Whisperings in her mind…
The only thoughts inside my head are my own! Helen thought fiercely. She became acutely aware of Patrick’s rough hand on her cheek; when she moved, he quickly took it away. She felt instantly warmer and reached desperately for him. He took her hand in his. Coolness. She sighed in relief and whispered, “I need to touch someone cooler than myself at the moment, if you don’t mind.” Understanding filled his eyes, softening them; he didn’t mind at all.
“What in the bloody blazes of hell was that?” Kurt asked. Her mind immediately registered that there was more fear in his voice than concern. That worried her; being more afraid than concerned meant one was more likely to run, less likely to stand and fight. She shook her head; those thoughts weren’t hers!
“I must go.” She got shakily to her feet. Ravios burned brightly in her hand and, from the looks she was getting, it was finally visible to everyone.
“Wait,” Patrick said, standing. “You can’t just leave.”
She was feeling warmer, but the heat was bearable. “Yes, I can.” She walked from the room, her classmates staring after her in confusion and fear.
Kurt, Galen, Jeff, and Patrick all looked at each other, then hurried after her. “Helen, if your father is dead then there’s nothing you can do. I’m sorry, but there isn’t,” Patrick told her.
“I will not leave him!” He was taken aback by the ferocity of her words. She let out a long breath and said more calmly, “At least I can bury him before the birds get his body.”
Abbot Henry took one look at Helen’s face and dropped the papers he held. “What’s happened?”
“Father’s dead. I must leave,” she told him quickly.
“How do you know?” Abbot Henry asked.
“He is here.” She touched her forehead.
Abbot Henry closed his eyes and murmured a prayer to Dorl. “And Ravios? Is it safe?”
“It’s mine.” Her voice seemed to echo in her ears. “The sooner I get home, the sooner I can find whatever traces were left, and the sooner I can catch them.” And kill them remained unspoken, but everyone heard the words all the same.
“Then you must go, but I insist you have an escort.” All three boys immediately stepped forward, but Abbot Henry impatiently waved them away. He turned to Patrick, who was standing quietly near the door. “Will you go?” All three boys protested at once. Abbot Henry held up a hand to silence them, his eyes locked on Patrick. “I’m sorry, my friend.”
Patrick was grim. “I will need to gather a few things. Have Phillip saddle Whisper for me.”
“I will. Gather whatever you need.” Patrick left and Abbot Henry turned to Helen, “Gather what you need as well. I will see to food.”
She hastily packed her things and hurried to the stables.
After what seemed like a year, Patrick appeared, wearing worn black traveling leathers and sturdy leather boots. A sword was strapped across his back, its hilt positioned above his right shoulder within easy reach. A long knife was at his side. He carried an unstrung bow in one hand and a quiver of arrows in the other. These he tied to his saddlebags. He saw her looking at him and one corner of his mouth lifted, his eyes dancing. Here was the true Patrick; everything before had been a mask.
A shout came from the other side of the gate. It was opened and revealed a single rider wearing the bright green colors of a messenger. He was slumped over the saddle. His horse was plainly exhausted; its head drooped as it forced itself onward towards its goal, walking as if each hoof was heavier than it could possibly lift. Helen jumped off Cinnamon’s back and gripped the horse’s reins, stopping the poor beast. It swayed unsteadily on its hooves, as if by stopping its forward motion Helen had halted the only thing keeping it alive. Its legs buckled and she thought it might fall, but it managed to remain standing. White lather coated its heaving flanks as it struggled to breathe. Red flecks of blood speckled its nostrils. Helen’s heart ached for the beast; it was clearly dying.
The rider raised his head and bloodshot green eyes met hers. “Helen of Agralee?” he croaked. She nodded, speechless. He pulled an envelope from his pocket and held it out to her. “From your father.” As she reached out to take it, he fell, knocking them both to the ground.
* * *
Helen, my dearest daughter,
I love you. I don’t think I ever told you just how much. I am proud of you and your mother is as well, no doubt. I hope when you get this letter there will still be time to act. The Demion that killed me will come for you and Ravios. You must be ready. Get the prince away, take him home. This is the most important thing of all, Helen, and you must heed my words! You MUST NOT try to take the boys and run for safety. I have seen what will happen to everyone if, instead of standing and fighting, they try to escape, and the result is horrifying. As much as it will hurt for the students and teachers to fight and die, it is better that they do so with bravery and honor.
Vlandear has told me that you’re the hope of the world. Daughter, the world will never be in better hands.
I love you.
* * *
Someone, something, had stabbed her in the stomach and ripped everything out. Tears of liquid fire flowed down her face and dropped from her chin, sizzling as they hit the floor. What made it worse was the other feelings, feelings she knew weren’t hers. A phantom hand patted her shoulder and then she smelled her father’s pipe smoke. A familiar weight enclosed her and she cried harder as her father’s arms hugged her.
She took a deep breath. He’d told her to get ready for an attack. Well, she couldn’t do that crying like a baby. There would be time for tears later; now it was time for battle.
* * *
Dory Fiamingo grew up outside of Johnstown, Ohio surrounded by farm fields and a multitude of cats, dogs, ducks, and horses. She began ‘catching’ stories when she was four. When she was ten, she decided to create her own world of fantastical creatures and wrote her first novel. She became an English major at The Ohio State University because to be anything else wouldn’t give her enough time to write. She now lives in the Columbia River Gorge with her husband, Tim, and their cat, Nada.