Notes: I wrote this for a contest in a deviantART group, and had to include a basic set of characters and plot; I mangled it horribly. Also I am apparently incapable of writing happy stories. You have been warned.
It should have been dark, but the dancing flames turned the forest a terrible orange, and the trees threw twisted shadows that moved across their path as they ran. He didn't want to think about what was burning behind them... Their village, their homes... their families...
"Seth!" the small hand in his slipped free as Tessa stumbled, then started to scramble back up the path toward the burning buildings. The waves of heat that threatened to bake them still didn't deter her. "I changed my mind, I wanna go back! I wanna find mama!"
Not even bothering to waste the time it would take to swear, he turned around and caught her again, scooping her into his arms despite her struggles. Like any small child, she flailed, kicking him in the hip and hitting his arms with her small fists as she worked herself into a tantrum.
"Let me go!" she yelled, wriggling to try to escape his grip. "I... want... mama!"
"We'll find your mother," he promised, trying not to think about the lie. He was facing the village again, but he could see nothing but flames, licking at the dark sky and consuming their homes. The chances that either his or Tessa's parents and siblings weren't dead already were infinitesimal. He hadn't seen anyone else running from the attack... but he wouldn't kill her hope. "We'll find her, but now we have to run."
She took a deep breath, then let out a piercing scream. He winced but turned away from the burning village, holding her tightly and letting her voice her frustrations. He prayed that the sound was lost in the night and wouldn't call any of the enemies, but there was no way to stop her. It was her way to scream until she was worn out, and any struggling would only encourage her.
Holding her tight in his arms, he ran through the twisting shadows of the forest, away from the fire and the men who had set it. She continued to scream and hit his shoulder with her small hands, but the fit tapered off as she grew tired and realized she was being ignored.
By the time she completely wound down into sniffles he could no longer hear the fire, or see its light as more than an ambient glow making the night lighter than it should have been. The trees were all vaguely orange, and he could faintly make out their shapes for some distance, even if there were no details.
Looking around, he slowed to a walk, and then stopped, panting, and shifted her in his arms. She was a lead weight, holding onto him limply and sniffling into his shoulder; he wondered if it was going to be safe to set her down anytime soon. "Tessa?" he asked quietly as he searched for something he recognized in their surroundings. He had the sinking feeling he didn't know where they were.
"What?" she asked sullenly, wiping her nose on his tunic.
"It's going to be okay," he said, and hoped he wasn't lying.
She sniffled again and moved finally, lifting her head to look at him. He met her eyes. "Promise?" she asked solemnly.
"Promise." He tried to give her a reassuring smile, but it didn't feel like his face would move that way. It was hard to think of smiling when they might be the only survivors of their whole village... Giving it up, he let the false smile fall and hefted her again, making toward a large tree that might give them some shelter for now. "Can I put you d-"
He never got to finish the question, because his voice turned into a strangled cry of alarm as his foot stepped into the shadow of the tree and found empty space instead of solid ground. He struggled for his balance for a long second, but lost the fight against gravity and pitched forward; his arms locked tight around Tessa, and she clung to him with a shriek as they fell.
He hit the ground awkwardly, and with a sick sound his leg exploded in pain, spilling him to the ground on his side. Tessa made another quiet noise of shock and clung to him, shaking, but nothing happened.
Slowly, he sat up, rubbing her back. His leg screamed with pain when he tried to move it, and so he didn't. Holding her in his lap aggravated it, but that he ignored. "Shh, it's all right... Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
"No..." She clung to his tunic and shook. He nudged her back to look her over in the darkness anyway, but she didn't seem to be injured... just very scared.
"It's okay." He wrapped his arms around her and held her close, rubbing her back and looking up. It was too dark to see any of the details of the hole; for all he knew, there was a gentle slope leading up to the ground on the other side, but that wouldn't help them any, if he couldn't walk... Dark silhouettes of trees, highlighted in the faint orange glow, and hazy stars shining through a film of smoke showed him the edges of the hole he'd unwittingly dropped them into, perhaps ten feet long and five wide, curving around the massive tree. Aside from his pounding heart, it was silent; maybe, just maybe, they would be safe here...
"Seth, I'm scared." Tessa's voice was small, and she clung to him tightly. "I wanna go home... I want mama." She shifted in his lap, and her foot brushed his leg; he hissed in pain, biting his cheek to keep from crying out.
He forced his breath out and rubbed her back with one hand, the other sliding down to gingerly feel his leg. "It's okay," he said with false confidence, wincing as he found a swollen and misshapen lump just below his knee. It had to be broken. Gods. "We'll just stay here for a little while..."
"I don't wanna stay here!" She shook her head in his chest, but she seemed past the screaming stage, at least. "I wanna go home!"
"Hey, it's okay..." He hugged her. "It's just for a little while. Can you stay with me for a while?"
"Want to go home!"
She must have been so stressed; he tried to calm her, but she didn't really want to be, he knew. She was going to panic soon... He couldn't have her running off again, because there was no way for him to catch her now. His mind scrambled for something to distract her, even as he held her tight so she couldn't bolt.
"What if I tell you a story?" he offered, a little desperately.
"Don't want a story."
"Are you sure? What if I tell you about a trip I took?"
"I already heard about your trip. Don't wanna hear about the mountains again."
"No, a different trip," he assured her, and started trying to figure out what imaginary vacation he could tell her about. He really didn't get out much.
She lifted her head, and he could dimly see her looking at him. "What trip?" she asked suspiciously, interested despite herself. He relaxed a little.
"I bet you didn't know I took a trip to another country."
"Nuh-uh," she accused, and poked his chest. "I tell your mama you're lyin'."
"No, really," he said earnestly. "It was a secret. Do you want to hear about it?"
She paused, considering, then nodded firmly.
"Okay." He shifted her weight unobtrusively off of his broken leg and looked up at the stars, thinking. The pain in his leg was distracting, and he couldn't think of anything very original. "It was last summer, right after the big festival, remember?"
"Yeah, the festival was fun... The big fire and dancing. Mama let me stay up almost all night!" She bounced in remembered excitement, obviously distracted from their current situation.
He smiled a little, though her bouncing jarred his leg, but it felt bitter. Now the big fire was their entire village, and there would probably never be another midsummer festival there again. "Yes, that was it. After that, I went on a trip, to another country."
"What was it called?" she pressed, looking at him already with wide-eyed interest.
"That's a stupid name."
He felt himself blush a little bit. She was right about that. "Oh, I don't know... It was named after their princess. Her name was Tessa."
"Hey, that's mine name too!"
He smiled a little. "Wow, now that you mention it, you're right... I met her, and she was really nice. Do you want to hear about it?"
She nodded quickly, leaning against him and looking up at his face, watching him tell his story avidly.
"Okay. So I walked into the main town in Tessalania..."
The capitol city of Tessalania was rather small; a few dusty roads crossed each other at almost random angles, and between them sat the wooden houses of its people, thatched roofs yellowing in the sunlight. Beyond the sleepy homes stood an ostentatious castle of gleaming white stone, out of place but magnificent. In the center of the town a cleared circle of beaten dust, as bare as any of the paths through the houses, stood empty except for a wide, covered well and a half dozen women with their children who had gathered around it to socialize.
The hum of their voices stopped and turned into whispers as a stranger stepped out into the town square. He was a tall teenager, with messy brown hair and blue eyes in a pleasant face. He wore a long traveler's coat that was covered in road dust, but was probably originally red.
While he was looking around the town, which was basically all visible from his spot standing in the circle, the group of women approached him. "Oy, stranger."
"Seth," he supplied with a charming smile.
The one who'd spoke shifted her toddler on her hip and nodded. "You here on business, stranger Seth?"
"Oh no, I'm just passing through," he assured her.
"Well, then you'll want to go to the castle," she said, and the other women nodded. "And meet our darling princess."
"I wouldn't want to be any bother," he declined gracefully.
"It wouldn't be any bother, our Princess Tessa loves to meet new people." The others all nodded in agreement. "She'll want to hear all about your home and travels. She'll absolutely adore you."
"Ah, well, if you're sure..." He gracefully bent to their pressure and...
"I think you're fibbing."
Seth blinked, startled that the flow of his tall tale had been interrupted, and looked down at Tessa. "Er, why?" He heard creaks in the dark forest above them, normal sounds of the night that managed to sound eerie. A shiver ran down his spine.
"You're not that nice at home. You're kinda rude. You always talk back to your mama, and my mama says that's rude. And you're not very charming or graceful. Deers are graceful, you're kinda clumsy." She looked up at him frankly in the darkness, calling him out on his lies.
"Well, I can be..." he tried to argue.
"You need to tell it right."
He sighed and patted her hair; it was getting messy from all their running through the forest. "Okay. I fibbed on that part. But then I went to the palace..."
The palace was set back a good walk from the small town itself, surrounded by deep gardens with lush flowers that spilled into the walkway, majestic trees that soared upward as though touching the sky, and fountains that bubbled like natural springs in their ornate stone basins carved with the same flowers that surrounded them. It was like stepping into a whole new world the moment he passed the gleaming gates.
Seth smiled as he wandered through them and made his way up to the palace. He saw a few smiling servants, all dressed in frilly uniforms; the color theme of the palace seemed to be very bright pink and an eye-searing leafy green (which were, as a jubilant washer-woman told him, "Princess Tessa's most favorite colors").
When he was introduced to the princess, he saw that she was an adorable girl of no more than five, with fine brown hair that curled delicately around her round face, and truly large brown eyes that probably made people melt to do her bidding before she even gave any princessly orders. She had perfect fair skin and rosy cheeks that matched her fluffy pink gown almost perfectly.
She greeted him happily, just as pleased to meet him as the women in the town said she would be. In fact, she took his hand and gave him a tour of her home, which was even more magnificent inside than out. Wide staircases swept up to many upper floors, and in the top of the tallest tower they could look out over the lush forests and fields of Tessalania, with the sky blue above them and clouds almost close enough to touch.
"Will you tell me about your home?" Princess Tessa asked him sweetly as they left the tower and wandered back down all those staircases to the great dining hall on the ground floor.
So he smiled and did. She gasped in all of the right places as he told her, over the enormous feast laid out for not only them, but the servants in the castle and every man and woman and child in the village, of his harrowing travels to reach her kingdom, and she sighed wistfully as he told her about daily life in his home town, and she even giggled in perfect delight as he told her about the adorable little girl named Tessa back home...
"She wanted to hear about me?" Tessa clapped her hands and bounced excitedly in his lap. He groaned and grabbed her, pulling her tight to him just to stop the bouncing; fast, angry waves of pain shot up his leg, making it hard to hear anything but the rush of blood in hear ears. He managed not to cry out, but it was close.
"Seth?" He heard Tessa's openly worried voice as the pain reluctantly began to subside. "Seth, what's wrong? ...Seth?"
"It's all right..." He took a deep breath and slowly let her go, breathing slowly to try to help the pain leave. It was supremely difficult to summon a smile for her, but he managed it. "Sorry about that. Don't worry."
Of course she pressed it. "Are you okay?" He could see her staring hard at him in the darkness.
"I'm okay," he lied through his teeth, and tried a smile again, finger-combing her hair down. "Believe me. Okay?"
She hesitated, then finally relented and nodded.
"Princess Tessa was very happy to hear about you," he told her. "Even more than you like to hear about her. She asked me to tell her all about you."
"Did you?" She curled up in his lap with her head nestled on his shoulder, thankfully missing his broken leg with her little feet this time.
"I did," he told her. "All about you. She really liked my stories about your dolls, and the games you played with your sisters..." He abandoned that trail quickly, but hoped in the back of his mind that Tessa's sisters were in fact still alive so she could play with them again. He didn't like speaking about them in the past tense. "She laughed when I told her how your scream and throw tantrums, but one of the maids leaned over and told me that she does the same thing. Isn't that funny, a princess having a screaming fit?"
"Yeah." Tessa giggled and gave him a smile; he wasn't sure if he was being patronized or not. "So what happened then?"
"Er..." He patted her hair and tried to recover the flow of his story. "Well, then we all went to bed for the night..."
"That's it?" she asked, looking disappointed. "Nothing else happened?"
Seth was awoken by the smell of smoke. He looked out the window and saw that it was dark, still, with the moon hanging low over the trees, but a thick haze of smoke was partially obscuring it. He couldn't see where the fire was coming from.
He ran out of the room, looking around and calling for anyone who was around. There was thick smoke in the hallway too, so he knew that there was a fire in the palace. He hoped that everyone had gotten out of the palace and was safe already.
He started running downstairs when he heard a noise and looked back. Princess Tessa was looking wide-eyed out of a doorway, clinging to it and looking afraid.
"Tessa!" He ran back up and took her hand. "Princess, we need to get out of here."
"I'm scared," she said softly, and gave a delicate cough from the smoke.
"It's all right, I'll protect you." He squeezed her hand reassuringly. "Do you trust me?"
She looked up at him and nodded.
He led her down the winding stairs to the ground floor. The smoke cleared out a little bit as they got lower, and they were finally able to make it outside without seeing the fire. They didn't see anyone else, either, though, and he hoped again that they had all escaped.
As soon as they got out of the palace and into the smoky gardens, Seth froze. They could see through the haze a group of figures, basically man-shaped, but different. They were bulky, with more sharp angles on what could have been their clothes, and moonlight glinted off of metal all over them.
"Seth...?" Tessa lifted her head from his shoulder and looked up at him. He met her eyes solemnly. "Are those the same monsters that attacked our town?"
He nodded and rubbed her back. "They were," he told her. He hadn't told her about the shining metal weapons in their hands, but he could see them, and hear the loud, thundering noises they made... In his mind, they were there. "They were just the same."
"That's horrible," she said, burying her face in his coat.
"Yeah," he agreed, and rubbed her back gently. He almost asked if she were scared, but, well... it was obvious. "I can stop if you want, but it has a happy ending. You want to hear that, right?"
She looked up at him in the dark. The forest was eerily silent now; it would almost have been better to have the creaks and rustles back. "Swear it's a happy ending?"
"Yeah." With a firm nod, he squeezed her gently. "I swear. I came back, didn't I?"
"Yeah..." she slowly agreed. "Okay. You can keep going, but if it gets scary you have to stop..."
"I promise," he said, giving her a smile.
Princess Tessa gasped and drew back from the monsters, but it did them no good. They were spotted almost immediately. One of the figures pointed at them, and then all of them looked their way.
"Tessa, we need to run," Seth said, backing away without taking his eyes off of them.
"What are they?"
As he said that, the creatures started running toward them. Without waiting to see what they were going to do, Seth turned and ran, holding Tessa's hand tightly. She didn't fight with him, running gamely alongside of him.
Tessa tripped before they got very far, her short legs not able to keep up with him. He looked back to see the monsters gaining on them and scooped her into his arms without asking for permission. "Hold on tight," he said. Her only answer was to give a small whimper and cling tight to his coat. Holding her tight, he ran again, trying to get away from the monsters before they could get caught.
But he wasn't fast enough. Tessa gave a little scream and he felt his coat grabbed from behind, yanking him back. He struggled to pull away from the monster, but he couldn't get the coat off while he still held her and he couldn't get it out of their grip. A big group of the creatures surrounded them very quickly.
It looked hopeless. The monsters were closing in on them and they couldn't get away. Seth looked around quickly.
"Hold on tight," he repeated to the princess in his arms. She nodded and clung.
He crouched down, and concentrated, and then his coat rippled and turned into dark red wings, and a dark tail lashed out and knocked monsters away, and then he had turned into a dark red dragon with smooth and shining scales, roaring at the monsters...
"You did not!"
Seth smiled down at her accusing expression. "I told you it was a happy story. Didn't I tell you everything in Tessalania was magic?"
She shook her head. "I think you're lying again."
"Nope, not this time. That's just what happened. I swear." He hooked his pinky finger through hers. "See? I can't be lying now, can I?"
Somewhere off in the darkness, there was a soft noise, but he steadfastly ignored it.
She regarded their linked fingers, then looked up at him. "You turned into a dragon to save the princess?"
"I did," he solemnly swore.
The dragon that was Seth roared and took off into the air, with the princess nestled safely between his wings. She held on tight to his neck as he swooped away, leaving the monsters down on the ground.
They flew away over Tessalania. Below them the town was on fire too, but he saw everyone who lived there escaping through the forest. All of the monsters that they passed over stopped what they were doing and ran on the ground beneath them, chasing them and trying to catch them. They were safe in the air, though.
He didn't fly low enough for the monsters to even be able to try to catch them, but they didn't leave them alone, either. He was glad at least they weren't chasing the townspeople, and he started looking for a place to land where they would be safe...
It wasn't Tessa that distracted him again.
Another noise came from the forest above them, and the movement of a dark shadow caught his eye. The story trailed off as he raised his head, looking over Tessa's hair, to the edge of the hole where they were trapped.
"What happened, Seth?" Tessa prodded impatiently.
He didn't answer. A terrible shadow resolved itself from the darkness, so horribly close to man-shaped, but somehow off... alien. A thick body ended in wide shoulders; above this he could see slivers of moonlight on an angular helm, beneath which was only a black shadow.
The moonlight also shone on the unshadowed form of the small silver weapon in the creatures hand, leveled down at them.
"Seth?" Tessa asked again, her voice growing uncertain in his silence. "What happened? Did the monsters catch you?"
He wrapped his arms around her tightly, holding her small body protectively to him. "No," he said, staring defiantly up into the deep shadow beneath the helmet. "We found our own castle and lived happily ever after, and the monsters never caught us."
The last thing he heard was the thunder of the monster's weapon.