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Author's Notes: I've been REALLY excited about this story for some time. Now that almost all of my other fics are finished, I am proud to finally post this!

Everything you recognize is owned by J.K. Rowling and everything you don't recognize is mine.

No attempt has been made at historical accuracy. I have borrowed elements of Arthurian legend and fairy tales which may not appear in their accuracy or entirety.

written by:

Chapter One
The Dragon Hunt

Once upon a time, in the faraway kingdom of Damaria, there lived a kind and beautiful princess. But before you brace yourself for a tale of how she sat in an ivory tower awaiting her true love, let me tell you first and foremost that Helena was not your average princess. She did indeed live in a splendid castle and sleep in a tower bedroom, but what made her different was the fact that she longed for the world below.

There were four windows in her tower, each facing a different direction and each more tantalizing than the last. Through the eastern window, she could see the sun rise each morning over the hazy mountains. From the northern window, she could hear birds singing in the woods that bordered her father's kingdom. The window facing west showed her the village below with its thatched-roof houses and chimneys, but the view to the south was Helena's favorite. She could spend hours staring out to sea, daydreaming of what lay beyond those glittering turquoise waters. Oh, how she wished she could find out for herself!

You see, princesses in those days were not free to do as they liked. Helena and her sisters had been born and raised within the castle gates, and there they would stay until they were married. "It's not safe for us to go out," Catherine would say whenever Helena brought up the subject. Geraldine would add, "There are monsters and dragons who will lock you up in towers." And Helena would secretly think, How is that different from where I am right now?

It was a different case for her three brothers, who could go wherever and do whatever they wanted. Each week brought them some fresh new adventure. They would gallop out of the gates with their knights, ready to defeat the latest ogre or rescue another fair damsel. Helena used to cry when she watched them go but as the years passed, she learned to keep her wishes to herself. She grew into a tall, serious-eyed young woman, but deep inside, she still longed for adventure and had never quite forgotten the old dreams of mountain, sky, and sea.

No one in her family understood her (except perhaps her eldest brother, but he could only sympathize and do little to help). Her father was a very busy man who had neither time nor patience for his girls, while her sisters were pretty, flighty things who cared for little beyond their looking-glasses. And as for friends, Helena had none; everyone was too terrified of the strange things that would sometimes happen when she was around.

In short, I'm afraid it was a sad and lonely existence for our poor heroine. Had fate not stepped in, it would have been a boring one as well. But as you know, in such stories and legends as these, fate always has a part to play.

Our story begins on a mild midsummer's day, when a messenger arrived at court with an interesting piece of news...

*   *   *

"Urgent message for the king!" the man screamed, tearing across the cobblestones on his horse.

The guard crossed his arms lazily. "Don't wet yourself. What on Earth is it?"

"A dragon is terrorizing our village!" shrieked the messenger, giving him a baleful glare. "I want to speak to King Richard immediately."

"You hear that, Thomas?" The guard smirked and elbowed his friend. "There's a dragon in this man's village."

Thomas chuckled. "Mummy's still telling him bedtime stories, eh?"

"Please!" the messenger whined.

"Dragons don't exist, you barmy fool," exclaimed the first guard. "Ogres, yes. Witches, yes. Trolls ... perhaps."

The man swung himself from the saddle and reached into his tunic. "Here!" he said triumphantly, whipping out something wrapped in a piece of muslin. "A genuine talon found in the wreckage of the church."

The two guards scrutinized it skeptically. "Looks like a chicken bone to me," said Thomas. He snatched it from the man's hand and tossed it in the air. "Here, Peter, catch it."

Peter caught it and threw it back to him, grinning as the messenger dashed between them in desperation. "If you want your little toy back, you'll have to work for it."

A girlish voice sounded from within the gates. "What's the matter?"

The demeanor of the two guards changed immediately as they bowed to the girl standing behind them. The talon fell to the ground and the relieved messenger snatched it up.

"Nothing, Your Highness," Peter said respectfully. "This man has a message for your father." He glared at the messenger. "This is Princess Helena, you ingrate. Bow!"

The messenger quickly bent at the waist, his eyes on the princess. She was a tall girl of about twenty with an open, sweet face and large brown eyes. Her long, dark blond braid hung over one shoulder of her simple wool dress. Had it not been for the guard's command, he wouldn't have guessed that she was the king's daughter at all. "Please, my lady," he begged, "I have important news for your father that cannot wait."

Helena frowned at the guards. "Why didn't you let him through?" she asked before turning to the messenger. "Come along, I'll show you to him myself." As they walked through the archway, the princess studied the balding, perspiring man beside her. He was clutching a piece of fabric to his chest as though it contained a treasure. "What do you have there?" she inquired. "I'm afraid it will have to be confiscated before you see my father. The guards inspect everything, you see."

He looked aghast. "No, my lady, it is absolutely vital that I show this to him," he declared. "This cloth contains the talon of Firetongue." He thrust it under her nose.

"Who is Firetongue?" Helena asked politely, staring at the strange object.

"The dragon that has been destroying our village, two days' journey from here. My son named it," he added proudly before remembering the gravity of the situation. "I came here hoping that King Richard would send one of his knights to help us. I wouldn't dream of asking for one of the princes, of course, although that would be wonderful -"

"A - a dragon, did you say?" Helena repeated, raising her eyebrows. "Well ... we'll see what we can do for you." Privately she was just as skeptical as the guards had been, but she pitied the poor little man. He obviously believed his story, however insane it sounded, and he would not be easy until he had seen the king.

They reached the doors of the throne room and were stopped by the two men who guarded them. "What's that?" one of them demanded, eying the small package.

"It's all right, Bernard," Helena said reassuringly. "It's a very small token he needs to show my father."

The guard bowed his head in deference to her and let them pass, though he continued to eye the messenger suspiciously.

King Richard sat on a raised platform at the front of the room, a magnificent banner of gold and black cascading down behind him. Both the banner and the tunic he wore depicted a badger surrounded by a ring of golden roses, the family symbols for courage and faith. He held his handsome head high, gazing down his regal nose at the newcomer. "Who is this, Helena?" he asked impatiently. "Can't you see I'm busy?"

Helena had just noticed the horse-faced man sitting on a lower chair beside him. "I'm so sorry, Father, but this man has urgent news for you. My apologies to you as well, King Humphrey," she added.

The horse-faced man smiled condescendingly at her, baring his yellow teeth. "That's quite all right, Princess."

"Your Majesty - Majesties." The messenger prostrated himself before the throne. "My name is Gideon and I come with a most distressing piece of information. Well, distressing for me anyway." He fiddled nervously with the muslin cloth. "Actually, perhaps not so very distressing after all, as people will be clamoring to visit our village for a look at it and we could probably make some money -"

King Richard cleared his throat.

Gideon came hastily to the point. "A dragon has been running wild through our lands."

There was silence for a very long time.

"A dragon?" King Richard finally echoed. He and King Humphrey looked at each other and burst into uproarious laughter.

The talon emerged from the cloth and was shown promptly to the two kings. "I swear to you that this is a dragon, as true as you see me standing here," Gideon said earnestly. "You must believe me. It has destroyed half our village and almost all of the forest beyond, leaving a trail of fire in its wake."

"I suppose it flies too?" King Humphrey interrupted, laughing at his own wit.

Gideon pondered this. "Well, it has wings, but I have yet to see it fly..."

"Enough," said King Richard lazily. "Well, man, what do you wish me to do? Will sending one of my knights satisfy you?"

The messenger's face brightened. "Yes, of course! What about Sir Hanslan? Or Sir Roderick?" He clasped his hands together. "Or perhaps Sir Gendron?"

"This is not a banquet table where you can decide between a goose or a leg of lamb," King Richard said sternly. Helena let loose a giggle that she quickly covered with a cough. "You will take whichever of my men I see fit to send and -"

"I'll go, Father." Prince Donovan, the king's eldest son, strode confidently into the room. Like Helena, he had their father's height and dark blond hair, but his commanding presence was all his own. "I am willing to find out whether there is truth behind this far-fetched story."

Gideon had nearly passed out from joy. Having come prepared to be satisfied with any of the king's knights, he hadn't even imagined the prospect of commissioning the king's favorite son.

"Why, Donovan, I thought you had other business to attend to." King Richard looked at this young man with more affection than he had ever shown any other human being. "That Duchess from Finbar ..."

"Rescued three weeks ago, wooed two weeks ago, got tired of her a week later," said Donovan, winking, with the charming grin that had melted many a virtuous maiden's heart.

King Richard chuckled. "Well, if you insist. What about Balloch and Cameron?"

Donovan shrugged at the mention of his brothers. "I'm sure they'll come too, just for the fun of it."

By this time, Gideon was practically convulsing with joy. "Oh thank you, thank you!" he said, looking as though he wanted to kiss the king's feet. "My village will be forever in your debt, sire. You are a kinder and better lord and master than anyone has ever known before."

The king, who was very susceptible to flattery, simply glowed. "My sons will join you on the morrow. You may stay here for the night. Helena, show him to a room."

"We have servants for that, Father," Donovan said reproachfully, putting an arm around his sister and winking at her. "Besides, Helena will be busy packing because I want her to come as well."

The princess's brown eyes widened. "Really?!"

"Stop your jesting, son," the king said, chortling.

Donovan raised his eyebrows. "I wasn't jesting, sire. My sister is quite grown now and I think she ought to ride out with us just this once."

Helena threw her arms around him gratefully. "I would love to go!"

King Richard shook his head immediately. "Out of the question. Helena stays here."

"Oh, Father!" Helena groaned at the exact same moment that her brother said, "Father, it's only for a few nights and just for some laughs. This dragon can't be real -" Gideon made an offended noise that everyone ignored.

"I said, out of the question," the king repeated. He gestured to King Humphrey. "We have some business to discuss with Helena and I simply cannot spare her at this time. Besides," he said, looking carelessly at his daughter, "whoever heard of anything more ridiculous than a princess going on a quest?"

*   *   *

After supper, Helena threw herself onto the bed and buried her face in a pillow.

Geraldine, who was sitting at the looking-glass brushing her long red hair, raised an eyebrow at her. "What in the world is wrong with you?" she asked haughtily.

Catherine let out a loud sigh from the window-seat, where she was cleaning her fingernails with a small twig. "She's probably upset that she can't go on that stupid dragon hunt tomorrow."

"What dragon hunt?" asked Geraldine, puzzled.

Her sister let out another exaggerated sigh. "Don't you ever listen? Donovan wouldn't shut up about it all through supper."

"I was busy talking to Sir Roderick, of course," Geraldine responded with a giggle. "Did you notice how much handsomer he's been looking lately?"

"He's dumb as a bag of rocks," Catherine answered, "and besides, Father would never agree to let you marry him."

Helena let out a loud, muffled groan from where she lay on the bed.

"Will you tell us what the matter is already?" demanded Geraldine, exasperated.

"I'm upset about the dragon hunt because Donovan told me I could go," Helena responded miserably.

"See?" Catherine said triumphantly, then paused. "Wait - why are you upset if he said you could go?"

"Father won't let me go. He says I have to stay here and wait for three days."

Geraldine set down her brush and turned around curiously, her bright green eyes on her sister. "What do you mean, wait for three days? What will happen in three days?"

"I have to marry King Humphrey's eldest son. Father spent the entire morning bargaining me away." Helena let out a sob of despair and a small glass vial of rosewater on Geraldine's table suddenly exploded.

"Good lord," Geraldine muttered, choosing to ignore it as she did all of the strange things that occurred near an upset Helena.

Catherine came and sat on the bed, stroking her sister's hair sympathetically. "I'm sorry, darling, but at least he'll have hair even if he probably has yellow teeth and a horse face like his father. King Humphrey has all of his hair still."

Helena sat bolt upright, her eyes flashing. "I'm not angry because he could be ugly!"

"Then why are you angry?" Geraldine asked calmly. "I would think you'd be ecstatic. You keep talking about wanting to leave this tower..."

"Not to go and sit in another tower!" Helena cried.

"It'll be a change of scenery at the very least," Catherine said, trying to comfort her.

Helena let out a long sigh. Sometimes talking to her sisters was like trying to teach the dog how to read. "Never mind," she grumbled. "I'm going for a walk." She stalked out of the room angrily, her head held high. If only Donovan hadn't broached the subject right in front of their father! Had he come to her in private afterward, she could have had the chance to sneak out before the king even noticed.

As she walked down to the stables, Helena angrily scuffed her shoes on the cobblestones. Now that she was to marry this Prince Drustan or whatever his name was, she would lose all hope of ever seeing the world. Not that there was ever much hope to begin with, she thought bitterly. She would move from her father's castle to her husband's castle and spend her days weaving, moping, and raising a passel of babies. Helena was positive that her mother had died from sheer boredom, not from the difficult birth of Catherine.

The stables, Helena soon discovered, were the worst place to go at this moment. All of her brother's men were sitting inside with tankards of ale, joking and talking excitedly about the next day's dragon hunt.

Disgusted, she was about to return to her room when Sir Roderick's comment caught her attention. "Gendron isn't coming," he was saying in an amused voice. "He's pretending to be ill so he won't have to go."

"I can't blame him," said the lazy voice of Sir Hanslan. "We're chasing after air, I tell you. Can't imagine why Donovan wants to go."

"You can't? I can," said another knight with a smile in his voice. "That village two days hence is near Castle Kilbert."

Sir Roderick laughed knowingly. "I see."

Helena hadn't the slightest idea what was special about Castle Kilbert, but she continued eavesdropping. Sir Gendron, the knight who was pretending to be ill, was one of the few men she could tolerate. Smaller in stature than the other men, he was nevertheless one of Prince Donovan's greatest fighters and had always been genuinely kind to her.

"Well, we'll be short one of the party then," said Sir Hanslan carelessly. "Come on, let's go down the moat for some air. This place stinks of horse."

Helena heard a great clanging of metal and Sir Roderick's voice saying, "Guess he won't be needing this armor." She crept into the corner by the door just as all of the knights came walking out, talking loudly and waving their drinks in the air.

With the stables now deserted, she went inside and looked at Sir Gendron's armor that lay by the door. Gendron was a small man and Helena was a tall girl...

She lifted the chainmail with difficulty, as it was extremely heavy. She would have to improvise somehow. She caught sight of her own reflection in the shield and stared into her own eyes. Was this a crazy idea? Her father would be furious if he knew. But if she could go and return within three days...

As long as Helena disguised herself well, as long as she came back in time to marry that prince, maybe her father wouldn't even notice that she had been gone.

This is your only chance, she told herself sternly. Will you take it?

Slowly, a smile came onto her face.

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