“One of these days they will be forced to let me go!” Claire mumbled as she stared at the small photo on her night stand. She understood they wanted to protect her and that they were so overbearingly protective because their parents had died when she was a baby, but that was beside the point.
No, that was exactly the point.
She had asked her brothers what had happened the day their parents died many times, but both would immediately become somber and refuse to tell her, stating she was too young to know the heartbreaking details. Instead they had made up childish fairy tales. In them her father was always a great hero fighting against a villain worse than any book could describe. Her mother, innocent and pure, a princess of such grace and beauty the villain would have taken her as his own, had her husband not protected her so fervently.
In every tale they painted a marvelous picture of her parents fighting against ‘The Shadow Lord’ and saving the lives of many people. The stories were remarkably romantic and energetic. At the conclusion of each story her brothers would call to her and encourage her join the fight against the traitorous villain. The games that followed always filled the day with epic battles, adventure, and laughter; her brothers effectively distracting her from the painful questions about their parents.
They had protected her from the sad truth for years. It was only four months ago-after she graduated high school early- that her brothers sat down with her and told her what had really happened to her parents. Her mother had died in childbirth and their father joined her in the heavens that same day; only his life had been tragically stolen by a murderer that had never faced judgement for the horrid deed.
After years of hearing stories of her parents dying in a heroic war, the truth left her feeling empty and vulnerable. After divulging the tale her brothers expressed a desire to move once more; this time to a small town deep in the forest. She argued against the move because she wanted to take a few college courses. In the end she had won and they enrolled her in summer classes that same afternoon and took her camping the next day. The trip allowed her to process the truth of her parent’s death surrounded by the calmness of the forest. It had been a perfect weekend to grieve and prepare for her first semester at the university. She smiled.
Her brothers had provided strength and support every second of the day. They even developed a series of games and tests to challenge her survival instincts. Nothing gave her greater pleasure than showing off her skills and spending time in the forest. Though knowing she had caused her mother’s death and her father’s murderer was still on the loose unnerved her, the twins had soothed the pain away with their presence.
Keith and Mark could turn even the saddest moments into wonderful memories.
Claire looked at another large photo hanging on the wall. Half of Keith’s face- his smile bright and eyes laughing- almost covered the scene behind him. Almost. In the background an eight year old Claire stood straight and proud on Mark’s back as he pretended to be dead. She held a toy sword high above her head in triumph. It was that picture. The picture of her brother’s devotion to a small child forced her to reach for the phone. She punched in the numbers with a heavy heart.
“Mike, I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it tonight. I told you they were pig brained, stubborn, idiots!” She sighed, “They won’t let me go.”
“C, you are almost eighteen years old, you know you don’t have to do everything your brothers tell you, right?”
“I know, I just…I can’t disobey them. They have given up so much to make sure we stayed together after my parents died. I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t taken me from foster care and raised me. I am their daughter even more than I am their sister. They raised me. As much as I‘d like to, I can‘t defy them. It would crush them.” The silence on both ends of the line dragged on for several seconds.
“It’s okay C. I wouldn’t want you to do anything that would make you uncomfortable. Besides, we can still hang together. How about I rent a movie, grab something to eat and come to your place?” She hoped he knew what he was asking. “Your brothers can supervise us and get to know me. Who knows, they might even like me, a little… maybe. What do you think?”
“Really? It won’t, like, freak you out to be around them? You do know you will be entering enemy territory which promises extreme hostility, the likes of which you have never seen.”
“I’m not worried. I had to fight against you once, remember?” He chuckled. Claire snorted in response. “They don’t scare me half as bad as you do. I’ll be over in about thirty minutes, anything you want?”
“Yeah, bring some gem gums. Keith loves them.” Why she didn’t know, the tiny fruity suckers had never excited her much. “It might soften him up some. Oh and Mark likes the hamburgers from Burger West, no onions. I’ll go prepare them. See you soon. Oh, and Mike?
“Good luck. Oh, and another thing, wear a cup!” Her seriousness caused him to laugh. She smiled.
“Bye, C. I’ll see you soon.” Claire hung up the phone with a delighted giggle and rubbed her hands together in excitement. “Take that boys!” For the first time since coming up stairs she felt she had the upper hand on her brothers. She rushed from her room, but slowly descended the stairs, a smug smile on her face.
“Well, look at that Keith, Claire-Bear has come to apologize. She comes to tell us we are her favoritest brothers ever.” Mark’s baby talk made her chuckle, if only he knew what she had really come down to tell them, her smile grew. He was going to flip. “She’s filled with such sorrow because of that awful fit she threw. She will now confess there’s no place she’d rather be than hanging with us old farts.” Mark laughed at his own wit, earning a punch from Keith.
Mark rubbed his sore shoulder, but smiled up at Claire giving her a wink. He sat, sprawled out on the small living room floor dressed in his usual attire, loose blue jeans, no shirt and bare feet. If only he’d wear a cowboy hat he could be a billboard model for lifted pickup trucks. She laughed at that thought. Mark wouldn’t be caught dead in a cowboy hat!
“See, you dope, she thought it was funny.” Mark swung around, but Keith was fast. He jumped on Mark before he could follow through. This was a daily ritual between the two, sometimes hourly. They were constantly wrestling around and fighting over some foolishness. Mark used his legs to push Keith across the room. Keith landed on the one end table they had left, it crumbled under his weight.
“Wonderful, boys. When will you two grow up?” Claire moved to the couch Keith had just vacated, sat with her arms crossed, and glared at the two sheepish looking twins. They studied the room to avoid eye contact.
The living room was small but cozy. The walls were painted in muted orange tones. A cream colored couch combo enhanced the color. At one time there had been two beautiful matching end tables and a coffee table, but with her brothers wrestling antics the coffee table met its doom the first week they moved in and one of the end tables joined it in the junkyard a week later. Claire had guarded the remaining table like a mother hen.
“The room was cramped with it anyway.” Keith attempted to excuse their behavior. Her eyes narrowed further in response.
From the outside their house looked huge, but Claire had been disappointed when she entered and the rooms were much smaller than expected. Even so she turned the simple house into a comfortable home. It was true that the living room would be roomier and give her brothers more working space, but even still it did not make her feel better about the loss.
Both her brothers worked from home running a business in trade goods. It had become very successful over the years. They also spent time giving back to the community by spending a lot free time at local orphanages teaching children valuable skills to help them have successful futures. She tried to remember that when she broke the news about Mike.
“I just wanted to let you know that Mike will be over in a little while. Since we can’t go out… we’re staying in!” She knew she sounded smug, but at least she was calmer than she would have been had she not remembered the orphans.
“What the…he…no freaking way, Bear. I don’t want some half-wit piece of crap hounding around my little sister. Not happening. Call it off, he’s not welcome here,” Mark bellowed. Claire almost smiled.
“Mark, take it easy. It’s just a guy coming over to hang out. Besides I want to spend some time with the low life son of…uh……..” Claire’s warning look had Keith biting off the cuss word. “The guy.” Claire grinned.
Keith looked at his sister and sighed. She felt sorry for him. She was growing up and neither of her brothers were fans of the idea. She was tiny and petite, barely five foot three and a quarter, although she argued she was five foot five on the dot. She could almost be mistaken for a child, if not for her face.
Over the last few years it had lost its childishness. Her brothers hated her older appearance. Mark had told her numerous times she had the charming look of her father, but her mother’s large round eyes. Had they been green and not soft violet, they would have matched Arianna’s perfectly. Claire also had light hair like her mother, but where Arianna’s had been the lightest shade of blonde, Claire’s was pure white. Mark claimed the combination of shining hair and unique eyes would make her dangerous to some poor sap someday.
The twins wanted her to stay young and innocent forever, but she was growing up and they would have to deal with it sooner or later. She crossed her fingers now and gave Keith her best smile, hoping it would convince him to let Mike come over. “He can come, Bear, we’ll be nice.”
Claire felt ecstatic; she could always count on Keith to take her side. He wasn’t as hot tempered as his twin. He thought things through and looked at how they could benefit the family. She stuck out her tongue at Mark, jumped to her feet, kissed Keith on the cheek, and ran up the stairs to get cleaned up, unaware of the conversation between her brothers the moment the bathroom door closed.
“What the crap? Why are you always taking her side? You know she cannot have any attachments here. Besides that, we don’t know who’s safe to be around her and who’s not. What if this guy is trouble? Are you stupid?” Mark briskly rubbed his smooth head in frustration. “Bloody Hell, she’s almost eighteen and we are too close for mistakes now.”
“Relax, it’ll be fine. Personally, I would much rather have her here where I can watch her than have her out on the town. If she’s here, she’s safe! If he’s here, she won’t try to rebel and sneak out to meet him,” Keith replied with a hint of irritation. “Look, she’s been very restless lately. If we don’t start giving in to her…” He raised a hand to stall Marks argument. “Within reason… she’ll do something reckless and I don’t want to think of where that could lead. Giving in for one night won’t change anything, not in the long run anyway. We’ll be gone soon enough and they won’t have time to make a love match.”
“I see your point.” Mark sighed. “Guess I’ll play nice too, but I won’t like it,” Mark replied with a wicked gleam in his eye that would have made Claire a little uneasy.
“Yep. Now go put a shirt on. If pretty boy shows up and you’re half naked he’ll wet himself.” Keith chuckled, “Then again you’d have to deal with her if you do anything to upset her friend. That could be entertaining. Little sprout that she is; however, I am positive you don’t want travel down that road of temper.”
Mark laughed. Claire could be quite the little spitfire when she wanted to be. He reached up to rub the small scar above his eye. When she was seven he had told her she couldn’t have a puppy. She screamed at him then, before he could stop her, picked up a rock and threw it. Nine stitches! “Yeah!” He smiled fondly at the memory. They gave her a puppy for her birthday a week later. Mark still missed the little brute. He died last summer after being hit by a car.
“You know, she should throw that vase. It might knock the gun out of his hands; he’s not holding it very well. Look, she has the opportunity; he’s not even looking at her. Then the other guy could jump him and bam bad guy captured, murdering done!”
“Claire, if she did that the movie would be over.” Mark stated, not at all interested in the scene. He’d been watching Mike closely all evening. Mike was obviously uncomfortable with the attention as well as the violent movie the brothers had picked to watch instead of the comedy he had brought over. He kept looking at Claire nervously and fidgeting.
At first Claire caught herself wondering what was wrong with him- he never acted nervous- but it seemed the more he squirmed at the bloody scenes, the more Mark seemed to relax. She decided Mike must be acting to put her brothers at ease.
“It’s what I would have done.” She responded.
Keith rolled his eyes and stood. Claire noticed his slight glare when Mike’s draped his arm over the back of the couch behind her. Claire got a sneaky suspicion Keith wanted to rip the offending limb from Mike’s body. When Keith caught the challenging look in Claire’s eyes he turned his back on the couple. “Anyone want a drink? We have Kalo or Krisn.”
“Kalo” Mike and Claire called in unison then smiled at each other.
“Krisn.” Mark called. Claire heard Keith chuckle. He always teased his brother for favoring the fruity drink over the bubbling fizz of the dark soda.
“Cups or straight from the….what the…?” Claire flinched and glanced at Mark with a guilty look on her face.
“Oh Mark, I forgot to do the dishes tonight.” She confessed quietly.
“Mark!” Mark winked at Claire, silently reassuring her he’d calm the ‘mother hen’. Keith hated a dirty house. She mouthed a thank you as Mark passed her to join Keith in the kitchen.
“What’s the matter, can’t handle a few…..” Claire tried to disappear into the couch. She hadn’t thought there were that many dirty dishes, but it if there were enough to shock Mark, it had to be bad. She felt Mike’s arm move to drape over her shoulder. She looked up at him her guilt shining in her eyes. He chuckled and ran a finger softly down the worry line between her eyes. The look in his eye made her catch her breath. He was only inches away and suddenly the dishes no longer mattered.
She swallowed in anticipation and leaned closer, wondering if her first kiss would be as wonderful as she imagined. Her eyes fluttered and began to close, but as suddenly as Mike had pulled her near, he lightly pushed her away. A deep disappointment filled her. Mike gestured with his eyes and Claire turned her head. Keith emerged from the kitchen. That was close.
“Where’d Mark go?” Claire before Keith interpreted the atmosphere of the room.
“Can’t hold his Krisin.” He flashed a broad cheesy grin. Claire gave him an exasperated look and rolled her eyes; looking back to the TV she attempted to calm her racing heart. The masked murderer raised his axe, and brought it down on a young man. A woman screamed just as Mark burst into the room, startling Claire and causing Mike to jump defensively in front of her. Claire momentarily wondered if the movie truly did bother Mike?
“DOWN, NOW!” Mark called while knocking the younger man aside and diving at Claire. The force caused the couch to tip and Mark cradled her as they flipped. Before she had time to reprimand him for breaking her couch, explosive sounds filled the air and all around her things shattered off the walls. Mark’s body felt very heavy and his weight crushed her as he protected her from the debris flying through the air. An eerie silence fell.
Cautiously Mark rolled off his sister and looked around. Claire lay flat on her stomach, stunned and unable to move. What just happened? Unexpectedly she was yanked from the ground. Mark swept her up and crushed her to him-protecting her as if she were a small child- he darted from behind the couch and headed for the stairs.
“Grab the pretty boy!” Mark called and began taking the stairs two at a time. Claire watched over his shoulder as Mike said something to Keith before jumping over the small couch and out of Keith’s reach. Keith followed suit just as another explosion rocked the house. Keith paused-looking undecided-then turned toward the stairs. Mike disappeared into the kitchen. Claire lost sight of them both as Mark reached the top of the stairway and darted around the corner.
“Mike, Keith!” She cried out to them. “What’s happening? I don’t understand!” Claire’s asked Mark. He kept his eyes straight and answered with a hushing sound. He rushed forward, pausing only long enough to kick open Claire’s bedroom door. He set her on her feet inches from her closet door. “Mark, please, tell me what is happening.” She demanded, quietly. Tears stung her eyes and she tried to push aside the panic she felt. Rule number three in her brother’s imaginary hand book. NEVER Panic!
“We’ll explain later. We have to go. NOW!” Mark threw the closet door open, making it scream in protest to the rough treatment. He was shoving clothes to the side when Keith came up behind her and began pushing her towards a small cupboard.
“Where’s Mike?” She dug her heels into the carpet and looked around her. She could hear shouting downstairs. It sounded as though an army of wild animals were stampeding through her living room. She could hear glass breaking and men swearing. That would be a beast to clean tomorrow! She struggled against Mark, “We have to get Mike!”
Keith grabbed her arm and swung her around to face him. “There’s nothing we can do for him, I’m sorry. We have to go NOW!” Keith turned her towards the closet just as Mark pulled the back panel from the wall. She gasped. There was a hidden stairway behind it. Mark quickly squeezed his body inside.
“Follow Mark,” Keith commanded while pushing Claire through the passageway. Keith followed then quickly fixed the clothes and closed the wall. Mark produced a flashlight from somewhere and handed her a heavy backpack.
Claire’s heart thundered in her chest. Her mind whirled with confused thoughts. How did they know? Why were they prepared for something like this? Were her brothers really businessmen or where they secret agents of some kind? That explained a lot. They had an unyielding and steady flow of cash, and with their master fighting skills…
Her thoughts whirled and her body trembled as she moved down the narrow corridor. Gone was the rhythmic rise of her chest in exchange for shallow gasps of thin dusky air which left her lightheaded. To add to her turmoil voices of unfamiliar, angry, men surrounded her.
She paused and a firm hand touched her shoulder causing her to yelp. Instantly a hand covered her screams. “Shh, Bear.” Keith whispered. As if to emphasize the importance a deathly silence surrounded her. The angry voices were gone and both Mark and Keith stood perfectly still. Mark grabbed her flashlight and suddenly she stood in complete blackness.
“Never panic, never panic.” She repeated to herself loud enough only she could hear. The silence seemed to drag as she stood-paralyzed-on the step. Her body began to ache. In her chest her thundering heartbeat threatened to expose their location. Finally, a muffled voice drifted through the wall.
Slowly other voices began to join and soon the angry sounds surrounded her once again. Keith’s hand slowly moved from her mouth and back to her shoulder. “Go.” He whispered.
They quickly made their way down the stairway. All around her the shouting became impatient. “Where is she?” “She couldn’t have just vanished.” “Where’d she go?” They weren’t looking for her brothers? Her eyes widened, and she felt her heart pause. They wanted her.
She stopped abruptly causing Keith to bump her. She looked up at him. The sorrow and guilt in his eyes seemed to confirm her suspicions. Her knees began to tremble with such ferocity she feared she would fall. Her hands shook so badly she could barely grasp the thin hand rail at her side. Slowly Keith began to move forward, forcing her to take the steps with him. She leaned against him for support as they moved down the stairway.
At the bottom of the stairs Mark handed her his flashlight. Her eyes widened as she looked at the large impending wall before her. If the men in her house found the secret stairway she was standing in her tomb. She flashed the lights around her, searching for some secret hidey hole. But there was nothing but solid earth and stone at the bottom of the long stairway.
“Keith?” She whispered, desperately. Both her brothers quieted her with a firm finger against her lips. She looked from one to the other, panicked by the knowledge she was standing in her grave. Mark turned and began running his hands over the thick rock wall. Within seconds Claire heard a light click and Mark smiled triumphantly, his eyebrows pumped up and down at her. Keith moved around her and assisted Mark in pushing the large boulder. Claire’s eyes widened when the rock began to move.
“Let’s go.” Mark grabbed Claire’s hand and pulled her through the newly made doorway. Her breath caught when a cold breeze chilled her. Mark dropped her hand and turned to help Keith push the boulder back in place. She took the opportunity to look closer. The small latch and several hinges on the flat surface of the stone resembled that of a door. She watched her brothers close it and heard the resounding click as the latch settled into place. Mark reached up and slid several bolts into place.
“What’s that door made of?” Claire asked, astounded by the appearance of a large boulder on one side and a metal door on the other.
“A flat rock we found in the woods. We melted steel around it to fashion it into a door. It’s quite heavy, but easier to push as a door than it would have been otherwise.” Mark responded.
She nodded feeling very numb from the constant demand on her emotions. She turned to flash her light down the corridor. She didn’t see much. She lifted Marks light to flash both pillars into the darkness. The effect did nothing to sooth her. The light was unable to illuminate the end of the tunnel. She felt a comforting hand on her shoulder and looked up to find Mark looking down at her.
“We’ll be okay now.” He stated. It took her a moment to register he now spoke in a normal tone. Tears filled her eyes. How she wished she could believe him, but something told her this was just the beginning. “Come on.” He took one of the flashlights and grabbed her hand. She followed silently reflecting on the nights events. She knew three facts. One: Those men were after her. Two: They could not go home. Three: her brothers were not telling her something, and whatever it was it would change her life forever!
“Carry her.” Mark ordered. Claire felt relieved when her legs were alleviated from the great burden of carrying her worn and weary body. The moment she was safely in Keith’s arms she snuggled into his shoulder, grateful to be off her feet. They had been traveling fast all night and most of the day and Claire was beyond exhausted. Several times over the last hour her legs buckled causing her to trip and forcing one of her brothers to catch her before she took a nosedive. Now her gratitude for the twins’ seemingly endless sense of endurance made her smile before a yawn escaped and her eyes began to drift closed.
Keith’s body swayed as he walked, luring her closer to sleep. She fought against it, fearing what would happen to her if she allowed herself that comfort. After an indiscernible stretch of silence, she heard Mark’s voice. “We should have told her. We should have prepared her for that.” Claire’s fatigue made it difficult to register what her brother’s words meant, but something told her they were important. Struggling to stay awake she tried harder to pay attention to what they were saying. What had they been hiding from her?
“Don’t you think I haven’t thought about that a thousand times? I know we should have told her, but how do you prepare a child for something like that?”
“I know,” she heard Mark sigh. “And I fear the worst is yet to come.”
“Mark, we can’t wait any longer. They know where we are, we can’t hide her. I only pray we can make it there with no more setbacks.” Go where? Mark and Keith’s conversation seemed to cause more questions than it answered.
“I’ve felt like something was wrong for a while now, but I chalked it up to her being in college. Well, that and her new interest in boys. I should have followed my instincts.” Mark sounded ashamed. “Our plans won’t work now. We need to find someplace to rest and plot out our next move.
Claire could feel Keith looking at her. She remained still, hoping they would continue if they thought her asleep. “Whatever we do, we need to do it quick. We need to protect Claire, and most important, get her back to Danyon.” Danyon? The land of her brother’s fairy tales? Why do fairy tales have anything to do with what’s happening now. Claire’s head spun and the effect lured her closer to unconsciousness. “I know we agreed to wait until the week of her birthday and go on a surprise camping trip, but it appears neither the trip, nor waiting to tell her is an option.”
“Yeah, I know. With Leishman’s men here,” Who’s Leishmann? “Hiding and getting her back is going to prove even more difficult to accomplish. I just hope his men know nothing about the cave. Wasn’t there other ways of leaving Danyon?” Mark asked hopefully.
“From what I understand, possibly. But there is only one way to get to Tyrell from Danyon; the other portals lead to other worlds.” Keith responded. Claire was baffled, are the twins crazy? They were talking about other worlds and portals, had they lost their minds? There was no such thing. “I hope I am wrong and the cave remains a safe passage home.” Claire heard Mark sigh in response to Keith’s words. Home? “She’s not going to be too happy when she wakes up. We have a lot of explaining to do.” That’s for sure! Claire thought.
“I know. Do me a favor,” Mark paused. “Pick a place where there’s nothing to throw!” Claire half smiled. Her brothers knew her well. For a long time there was silence and Claire began to feel the unwanted pull that beckoned her to rest.
“Mark, I have to tell you about Mike….” Exhaustion overtook Claire before she could focus on this new conversation; the one she was most interested in.
When Claire woke it was dark and the cold hard surface beneath her felt familiar. She opened her eyes long enough to scan the darkness and hear her brothers soft snoring beside her. The familiar sound made her smile. “I love camping.” She stated sleepily. Pulling her blanket up under her chin, she quickly fell into a fitful slumber.