The door creaked loudly, and Jeremy winced. "Who's there?" a gruff female voice said. He tried not to look in its direction; the light cast from the lantern was nearly blinding him.
"It's me, Carmen," he said, and his sister relaxed visibly. She smiled, giving him a brief but energetic hug.
"Back already?" She lifted an eyebrow inquisitively. "From your last letter we assumed you'd be gone for a few more months yet."
"Nah," he said, clearly uncomfortable. "Have you grown taller?"
He cocked his head and looked her up and down. Lustrous black locks tumbled down onto her shoulders. Her face was pale, with perfect features and eyes a darker grey than his own. Her sing song voice was sweet when she wanted it to be, and she somehow managed to make even a rumpled brown farm dress look presentable, though she never wore it when she went to town. There were dark circles beneath her eyes; she looked tired, worn out. She hadn't grown any taller, but he was certain something about her had changed.
She swatted him with a towel for changing the subject and went back to the kitchen. "Want me to make you a cuppa tea?" She asked when his head appeared in the doorway.
"Oh, no thanks, I stopped by an inn on the way here." She scowled at him. "I didn't know I was going to make it here tonight. In fact, I'm not sure you can call this night." He glanced out at the window, where dawn was nearing swiftly.
Carmen sighed. He hadn't changed a bit. Oh, sure his face might be a bit suntanned, and his brown-blonde hair may have gotten a bit darker, but he was still the same old Jeremy, whose eyes, the lightest of greys, always seemed to be laughing, as if at some private joke. He was still the same old Jeremy who weaseled his way out of trouble, with an excuse always at the tip of his tongue. He was also, she thought, the same old Jeremy who cried himself to sleep at night as a child, when he thought no one would hear. Even now he was hiding his troubles from her; she knew there was something he wasn't telling her. But honestly, why should he have changed? She thought to herself, he's been off on his travels, the rest of us are the ones who have changed.
"Alright, give me a cuppa tea then, if you insist."
Carmen put the kettle on the stove. "Emily will be happy to see you."
"Practice with us?"
"Not to mention who else," Jeremy muttered as the black-haired identical triplets, William, Daniel, and Fredrick tumbled one after the other down the stairs.
"And just what do you think you are doing up at this hour?"
"We decided," William began.
"To get up extra early," Daniel continued.
"For our practice," Fredrick finished.
"We are knights,"
"Well, in training,"
"But we're still,"
They glanced around the room quickly. "I see," Jeremy said.
"Sorry, but Jeremy is not going anywhere until he drinks his tea," Carmen said firmly.
Jeremy looked at her reproachfully. "Since when have you become so maternal?" He asked sourly.
It was Carmen's turn to be uneasy. "Well," She began slowly, "A lot's changed since you left..." She threw the twins a look and they scrambled out the door to the front of the house (the courtyard was strictly off limits), where they began sparring with shouts of "Ha!" and "Take that!"
When Carmen's eyes returned to Jeremy's face, his, for the first time she could remember, were not smiling.
Carmen hated breaking bad news. She sighed. "Mother-" she stopped to clear her throat, her voice had come out as a squeak. "Mother and father are sick."
Jeremy's eyes were void of emotion. "What with?" he said. He had been holding his breath, she could tell, and he held it again as she took a deep breath.
"I S," Jeremy breathed softly. "Ten years, but beginning when?"
"Ah yes," Carmen heard, followed by indiscernible muttering. "When do the doctors think it began?" he asked.
Carmen inhaled sharply. "About a year ago."
"Eight more years," Jeremy sighed. "I'm sorry," he said.
"I'm sorry I wasn't there. I'm just... sorry," he said, "For more than you know."
Carmen was puzzled. It wasn't like Jeremy to take the blame for anything, especially something that wasn't his fault. Perhaps he had changed.
Jeremy was saved from her questioning by a small figure in red tumbling down the stairs. The five-year-old girl got up from her fall, grinning insanely.
"Jeremy! You're home!" She ran to hug him. "You won't believe it! I fell down the stairs! All the way! From the very top!"
"Are you alright?"
Emily stood up straight and put on an offended expression, crossing her arms over her chest. "Quite! Never been better."
This brought the smile back to Jeremy's face. He laughed.
"Wait till Will and Daniel and Fred hear!"
"I fell down the stairs!"
"The second?" They teased.
"Nope! All the way from the tippety-top!"
"Nice job, sis,"
Emily grinned broadly under the approving looks from her brothers. "Can I practice with you guys?"
Carmen chose this moment to try to run a brush through Emily's matted blonde hair. "No!" Emily turned around and stomped her foot angrily. Jeremy could barely keep from laughing.
"Well," Will looked at Daniel.
"I guess," Daniel turned to Fred.
"Under the circumstances,"
"You may," Fred decided.
"For today," The other two added quickly.
"Hooray!" Emily shouted. She disappeared from the room, and when she came back, there was a sword.
It was small, made of a branch of the Mijahn tree in the courtyard, light to wield, yet heavy to attack. The craftsmanship was fine with a smooth, sanded length and polished, knobby hilt, offering a perfect grip. She displayed proudly its near perfect balance, then tossed it into the air and caught it before the eyes of the amazed eight-year-olds.
"Thom helped me make it. I've been practicing," She shrugged modestly.
"Thom," They all said together, for ten-year-old Thomas had chosen, unaware of it of course, this moment to come down the stairs, yawning. He shrugged and went to milk the cow.
"Come on then,"
"If you wanna,"
"Come back in for breakfast. There'll be no skipping meals on my watch!"
Jeremy watched through the open door as Emily beat her brothers one by one and all at once at their own game.
"Where's Geoffrey?" he asked.
"Weaverdale. He's restocking, since..." She didn't want to say it, and she didn't have to.
"She's there too, helping him." Maiya was Geoffrey's wife; they had married two years ago and were now expecting a child.
The five children came back in, Thom setting the milk bucket on the table.
"It's no fun,"
"If we let her play,"
"She always wins!" The triplets complained.
"Well, wadda ya expect, after all, I'm the one who taught her!"
Daniel seized Carmen's dish towel and threw it at him. He caught it easily and returned it to Carmen, who thanked him.
Emily just smiled smugly.
Seven years later she had a real sword of her very own and was none the happier.
Jeremy helped Carmen with breakfast as he told Emily about his journey. William, Daniel, and Fredrick had gone back to sparring outside. Emily cradled her new doll, a gift from Jeremy, in her arms.
She was made of a material Emily had never seen or heard of, which is hardly surprising seeing as she was so young, firm but fragile, opaque and transparent all at the same time. Her dress was of fine fabric, red embroidered with gold and silver. Her ear rings were made with real gems, and her necklace of gold. She had tiny little slippers and gloves, and everything was perfect to the last little detail.
"I promise I'll take good care of you," Emily whispered into the dolls soft brown hair.
"A dragon," William burst into the room.
"Outside," Daniel added, following.
"A great big red one!" Fredrick was the last in the door.
"Oh, yeah, right," Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Sarcasm was her specialty.
"Yes, and we shall all perish, fall down to our knees before him, but he shall pardon no one, he shall not forgive us for the terrible crimes we have committed! Oh no!" Augusta fainted. Her specialty was drama. Thomas grabbed the fan she always carried on her belt and fanned her with it.
She sat up sharply. "NEVER. Never. Never fan an unconscious woman with her own fan!"
"Well sorry! How was I to know that? I'm not even a gentleman!"
"Now, now, Thomas, that's no way to talk!" She scolded, getting up off the floor. "But it's alright, really, that was horrible anyway."
"Well it was totally unconvincing."
"Yup. Of course."
Augusta's downside was her self-doubt, but Elizabeth could always cheer her up.
"I guess it was alright," She agreed. "What did you think, Carmen?"
"I personally enjoyed that performance extremely," Jeremy said. He had just finished telling Emily his story, and now she was asking for repeats of past adventures.
"It was very good," Carmen said briefly. "Now if you don't mind, would you girls please help me? Augusta, you can get the boys ready for dinner, Elizabeth, you can help with the plates," she said to the girls, both eleven. "Thomas, come here boy, did you milk the cow? Ah yes. Anne? Where... she's not still in bed, is she? Oh there you are!" Sixteen-year-old Anne lumbered into view. "Make sure everyone gets porridge, milk and honey, I'll take mama and papa their breakfast."
"I wanna take it to them!" Emily wailed.
"You'll drop it!"
"She will not!" Jeremy argued.
"She will not!"
"How much do you wanna bet?"
"I'll bet you three coppers!"
"Two silvers it is then!" Carmen said, looking immensely pleased with herself. "Emily, dear, you can take the tray to your mommy and daddy."
'I'll show them! I'll make Jeremy proud of me!' Emily thought as she took the tray and made her way to the stairs.
Then, there was a loud roar just outside the front door. Carmen screamed. Anne dropped the plate she was holding. Emily dropped the tray and bit her lip. She wouldn't cry. She never cried. Jeremy ran to her and scooped her up in his arms. "It's going to be alright, it's all going to be alright, everything's going to be alright."
There was a yell. "I'll get you, you blasted dragon I'll get you yet!" There was another deafening roar, and then the smell of smoke.
Jeremy dropped Emily on the couch and she ran to Carmen. He sprinted up the stairs. "Carmen!" He called a moment later. Carmen ran up the stairs as well, which left Emily to run to Anne, who was still standing at the table, a broken plate in her hand. She put the plate down to reassure Emily. Jeremy and Carmen came down the stairs a moment later with their parents, the Lord and Lady of Green Hill. Jeremy knew it was bad for them to walk, but it was better than burning.
"I'll get him, I'll get that blasted dragon yet, I-" He shook his head. He was not an old man yet, still in his late forties. His dark brown hair was balding, and one of his teeth was missing.
"Oh, Hubert," his wife said. She was still an attractive woman at just over forty, blonde, petit, with rather large eyes and a soft voice.
"Margaret, I mean it. As soon as my children let me get out of this bed, I'll-" Margaret coughed. "Pardon me."
"Come out, Jeremy, next lord of the Green Hill, come out, and thy family shall be spared," a deep, resonating voice said. There was a moment of hesitation, then Jeremy stepped towards the door.
"No! Jeremy, you can't!" Emily bit her lip; the tears threatened to leave her eyes as she ran towards him and hugged him tightly. He pushed her away and, kneeling, held her squarely by the shoulders.
"Emily, please understand. Unless I give my life away, they'll kill everyone- you, mom, dad, Carmen, Anne, Thom, William, Daniel, and Fredrick, Augusta, and Elizabeth, then come after me anyway! You can't run or hide from dragons. And you've got to survive. You've got potential, and you're going to do great deeds for the country. They all need you more than I. Please understand!"
She obeyed grudgingly. Jeremy kissed his parents, gave everyone a hug, corrected William's grip, and returned to Emily. Hugging her tight, he whispered in her ear, "I'll be back with you again someday."
With that he stepped out over the threshold. "Good," The same deep voice said. "Now give us the doll."
Emily took no notice of Carmen's objections as she stepped through the wide open door and almost ran back inside. In front of her, as the boys had noticed, was an enormous red dragon. He was about three hundred yards long, with gigantic red wings folded on his vast back, large enough to seat hundreds, if not thousands, of men. With him were others. A black one, about two hundred fifty yards, was smiling a hideous happy smile. A brown one, female most likely, was two hundred yards. The small purple one was only one hundred yards; it could only be a young dragon or one of those rare small breeds. A pearly white one, almost as large as the red, perhaps two hundred eighty yards, was standing away from the group, looking grim.
Emily looked at Jeremy, gathering up all the courage she had. "No."
Jeremy gestured and waved his hands frantically, but Emily paid him no mind. The red dragon lowered his head so his eyes looked into hers. Warm puffs of air escaped from his nostrils and blew back Emily's hair. Several long minutes passed. Jeremy lowered his head. Now she would pay for his mistakes. She didn't deserve this. Beads of sweat gathered on the back of her neck and her head, and dribbled down her face. "Very well." Jeremy looked up in surprise. The large dragon smiled at his companions. "Keep your doll."
The smallest dragon then tied Jeremy to a stake, and Emily watched as her brother was roasted alive and eaten.
Emily couldn't eat for the next two days. Carmen had to force food into her. She knew this wasn't fair, to make Carmen do more than she had to do already, with fixing the house and dealing with Jeremy's death and taking care of mama and papa, and wished she could eat, but she couldn't. Then Jon came.
Emily had gone outside into the woods, all alone, and no one had stopped her, because everyone was sad. She went to her favorite place, the place she would go whenever the boys were hunting. She would beg to go with them, then slip away into the bushes and go her place. Her secret place. Her special place. There was a small spring and a pond, crystal clear. There were rabbits and squirrels, and even little field mice. The whole place smelled clean and fresh, of damp earth and needles of pine. The water helped calm the chaos in her mind, and ease any pain. Any pain except this one.
She sat down on her favorite rock. Even Jeremy hadn't known about this place. She picked up a rabbit and stroked it, not thinking much of anything. Then she heard a pitiful squeal. She always took pity on animals, no matter who they were. She had once saved a poisonous snake that later bit Anne's boyfriend, and he became seriously ill. She never had liked that guy.
Searching it out, she found a small ball of yellow fur, about the same color as her hair, all wet and matted, in a muddy puddle. The puppy squealed, but let her pick him up. She washed him in spring water and took him home; he became her best friend after Jeremy.
Several important events happened after that. Carmen was proposed to by several men, and finally married one. She left the house, and only with Jon's help did Emily make it through. When mother and father's illness took a turn for the worse, Jon was her comfort. She guarded him with her life, for after Jeremy's death she wanted to lose no one else. If Jon hadn't been there for her, she didn't know what she would have done.
On some days Jon left the house, but he had always come back. Then one day he didn't. Emily was nearly as sad as after Jeremy's death. But she ate. Anne and Maiya tried to comfort her, Thom was sad too, he loved that dog. Geoffrey made it plain he didn't care. Will, Dan and Fredrick were purposely nice to her, letting her play with them, but she declined. They were hurt, but she couldn't care. She had lost yet another of those she held dear.
Half a month later, she began to gradually act less and less sad, until finally, about a month and a half later, all traces of her sadness disappeared. At least on the outside they did. She began going down into the village to play with the other kids. No one knew why her attitude changed so suddenly, they assumed she had just forgotten. But Emily never forgot, not Jeremy, not Jon, not even eight years later, as she rode from the burning remains of what used to be Salianthar's largest city, screams echoing in her head.