“I’ll ride in the front. That way you can sit behind me and hold on to my waist and close your eyes if you’re afraid.” Lina scrambled up onto the dragon’s back for a second time and then, holding tightly to the pommel of the saddle, she reached down and extended her hand to her sister to help pull her up. With one foot pushing off Ausfela’s elbow, Quara managed to clumsily make her way into the seat behind her. Immediately she realized that the dragon wasn’t the only one with a harness and that there were narrow, sturdy straps that could secure her to the saddle as well.
“There’s a harness!” She exclaimed as she carefully fastened each buckle and then began to make sure each of Lina’s buckles were secure.
“I had a feeling you’d be happy about that.” Ausfela made a noise in her throat that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. “Nearly all of the saddles have harnesses. Dragons are built for long journeys but humans tend to need sleep and a harness ensures that you can continue to fly and we don’t have to worry about chasing you down if you fall off. Which is especially important with a double saddle. Because while I know I could catch one of you if you were to take a tumble, two might be something more of a challenge.” Quara looked both harnesses over a second time and gave one of the straps a tug.
“I think we’re good to go.” Despite the harness her voice sounded strained and she wrapped her arms around Lina’s waist and closed her eyes. “Should we go? Before I change my mind?”
Ausfela settled down on all four legs and moved rapidly through the room, dipping down as they moved through the door, although Lina was quite certain that even if she’d walked through it at her full height they all could easily have fit. The hallways began to flash by, a blur of bright crystals and dancing lights. Quara buried her face into her sister’s back, and thought she might be ill, while Lina watched the caves flicker by, her eyes wide and a smile playing across her features.
They came to the center of a great room, but before Lina had a chance to glance at their surroundings Ausfela’s enormous wings were unfurled and they began to climb rapidly, higher and higher. At first Lina couldn’t see a ceiling at all. The cavern that made up the room was massive and the dancing lights of the wall simply disappeared into the darkness. But as they went higher and higher the cavern walls began to narrow, coming closer together until they were no longer really in a room at all, but a vertical tunnel. When the walls were only a length on either side of Ausfela’s wings, and she was clearly concentrating hard on flying, the walls ceased their glowing and a few moments later Lina realized that they were surrounded by granite, the natural stone of the mountain.
“We should have brought the egg,” Lina whispered into her sister’s shoulder as the light from the crystals below began to fade and darkness descended around them.
“The egg is back where it belongs.” Ausfela’s voice in their minds left no room for argument. “It’s where it always should have been. I loaned it to…” the dragon’s voice trailed off as she searched for the right word and finally, with a sort of sigh, she choose one, “a friend many, many years ago, but I think now that that was a mistake. It should never have left the Hall of Lights to make its way up the spiral staircase. It was not meant for the world above.”
The tunnel did not stay dark for long, but it was obvious to even Quara, who had finally opened her eyes now that there was no danger of seeing the ground looming far below, that Ausfela could see quite perfectly in the dark. If the tunnel below was any indication, they were now in a rather narrow space, yet the dragon didn’t hesitate as she flew steadily upward.
Lina’s eyes caught the slight lightening of the complete darkness ahead of them, just as the tunnel came to an abrupt bend, turning horizontally so that Ausfela stretched her body out and perched on the edge and ran a short distance before a second bend came into sight and she launched herself upwards as they came through into the light. The dragon flew roughly a hundred feet before reaching the end of the tunnel and perching on it, folding her enormous wing against her body for a moment, so that the girls could peer down into the darkness of the crater before them.
“There’s no lava!” Lina’s words nearly sounded like a complaint, as she peered down, obviously hoping to see bubbling liquid down below. Quara, whose eyes were closed again, squeezed her sister’s waist.
“Thank goodness for that,” she whispered while Lina rolled her eyes.
“The volcano is slumbering for the moment and has been for several hundred years. But she won’t be forever. Even now when we were down below I could feel the pressure within the earth growing. But I think Quara is right and you two aren’t missing out on all that much.”
Gathering all her courage Quara forced herself to open her eyes as Ausfela launched herself forward, out of the tunnel and into the air above the crater. Throwing her head back Quara looked up and gasped while Lina, who was staring straight ahead found herself laughing with delight as she saw the same sight stretching on and on towards the horizon, over the edge of the volcanos great crater.
It was the first time either girl had ever seen the sky.
The day did not disappoint. A dazzling, unblemished blue stretched in every direction as far as the girls’ eyes could see. As they stared in wonder, Ausfela’s wings raised them up, just barely above the top of the crater’s edge, before she began to fly down the volcano’s side, rapidly accelerating as she raced close to the ground, headed straight for the tree line.
Outside of the shade of the crater both girls found themselves nearly blinded by their first taste of direct sunlight. It was hot against their skin and eyelids as they squinted, eyes watering against the newly met brightness of the world above the caves. Squinting they peered out at the enormous world of the lands above the ground, wiping tears from their eyes over and over again.
Far below in the distance, Quara could make out the dark line of the forest, marching away as far as the eye could see in either direction. Feeling bold as her eyes began to adjust to the bright new sky, Quara raised her head and stared off to their right, still clinging tightly to her sister as they hurtled down the mountain. After a few seconds her eyes found exactly what she was searching for and she said her sister’s name to draw her attention to the sight, although she wasn’t certain if Lina heard her at all, as the wind that was all around them seemed to snatch sounds and carry them off.
The mountain that held the Caverns wasn’t attached to the volcano itself, although they were closely related in some ways. Both had risen up ages earlier, when the land that was now a dense forest had been entirely underwater. The great granite spires of the mountains that made up the shell that surrounded the Walemont Caverns, were now known as the Castle Spires, to those who had long since forgotten that the legends of a city deep within the ground was anything more than a story that had been told to their great, great grandparents.
The volcano was splendidly spectacular, there was no denying it, but Quara felt her heart swell within her chest at the sight of her home. She realized that in all their sliding and walking down under the ground on the previous day that they must have crossed a considerable distance, because there were several smaller mountains between the volcano from which they had just emerged and the Spires. Inside the mountain she would never have guessed that they had traveled so far.
The ridges between the volcano and the Spires were not very tall, so that even their peaks were below the tree line, and apparently they weren’t made of solid rock like the mountain to the west, so they were almost entirely covered in a dense forest that mostly consisted of towering evergreens. The volcano itself was much larger on the outside than Quara had ever imagined a mountain could be.
It took longer than she expected for the small group to reach the tree line, but as they slipped past glaciers and enormous boulders many times larger than Ausfela, she began to realize that it was unlikely that anyone in the forest below would spot them, for they wouldn’t have looked like much more than a tiny speck flitting down the side of the mountain, unless someone was watching from close by, on the volcano itself.
“The problem is, you never really know who is watching in this portion of the forest.” Ausfela had slowed a bit, as she maneuvered between enormous rocks at the edge of a great slab of ice. “Sorry, you were thinking at me again, although I’m not sure that you meant to. Maybe because you were thinking about me, or us really, flying down the mountain. Anyways, I thought I’d answer your question while we make our way down to the forest.”
Quara realized that sometimes when she heard Ausfela’s voice she forgot altogether that it wasn’t out loud. Yet the clarity as they sped at a reduced yet still quite brisk pace down the mountain let her know that even if the words sounded as though they had been spoken out loud, they weren’t.
“There’s a fort that used to be a castle near the Spires, and it’s from that fort that the Emperor’s patrols go out into these woods and search for any rebels that still might draw breath in these parts. I’m quite certain that someone has leaked the prophecy to him as well, and that that’s a big part of why he hasn’t abandoned this region altogether. Hardly any humans live above ground here. But the prophecy says that two girls, will come forth and begin the avalanche that will consume his reign, and ever since those words were spoken it has seemed to me that there have been more patrols in this area and a greater military force gathered than these basically desolate mountainsides deserve.”
They were nearing the tree line now and Ausfela slowed rapidly, causing Quara, who had begun to relax, to move her hands from the pommel to her sister’s waist again as she squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
“How likely do you think it is that we’ve been seen?” It was Lina who asked the words as they came to a complete stop at the base of a great maple tree. Opening her eyes and looking around Quara realized that while the majority of the trees around them were evergreens, a fair number of oaks and maples and other broad leaf trees were thrown in, and she tried to imagine the hills afire with color in the autumn.
She had never seen an actual tree decked out in red or yellow, and she smiled broadly as she realized that before this moment, she’d never actually seen a real tree at all, but one day, a few years earlier, Xav had given her a small branch covered with bright red leaves that had been brought in from an expedition into the outside world, and after that she’d spent an entire week in the library reading every book she could find that even mentioned trees and how they changed through the seasons.
“It’s not all that likely,” Ausfela replied after pausing and thinking over the question. “My guess would be that most of their attention is turned in the opposite direction, towards the Spires right now. Your guards have been bolder of late, and the suspicions that there is in fact a great number of people hidden somewhere in that mountain beneath the ground has become more and more solid for the men who stand to gain a great deal by hunting down every person who lives beneath that mountain, most especially you and your family. And as you noticed we would have looked impossibly small from the fort. As long as there weren’t scouting parties out right here, along this tree line, or non-human scouts with better than human eyesight watching for us, we should be alright.”
Both girls swung their eyes from side to side, peering into the dark forest with wide eyes that half expected to see soldiers crouching in the darkness waiting for them. “My hearing is quite keen though, so you don’t need to worry about anyone in the immediate vicinity. Which means that you can get down. We’re out of the mountain, up above ground and this is the moment when your journey really, truly begins.”
“It feels like we’ve already been on it for quite a while.” Quara nearly whispered the words, more to herself than to Ausfela or Lina as she fumbled with the straps and buckles on her harness. “It’s hard to believe that two nights ago we were having dinner with our family and were sleeping in our own beds. With those we love nearby.” She left off the last thought, although it rattled around in her head and even as she pushed it aside, exploded with a dull ache in her chest. She wondered what her mother and father thought about their disappearance. Of course they must be terribly worried and it was only by remembering that what they were doing would hopefully one day allow all of their family members to walk freely above the ground, that she was able to force herself to go on, unstrapping the last buckle on the harness and then sliding unsteadily down Ausfela’s side until she felt her feet touch the soft forest floor and she let out a great sigh of relief.
“Quickly children, into the forest.” Quara found that she couldn’t help but smile every time Ausfela referred to them as children. Certainly to a dragon who had lived for millennia they must seem very young and yet Quara couldn’t help but feel as though the dragon was quite young too and that in dragon years she wasn’t really that much older than the two girls who were now in her care.
Quara and Lina both started forward quickly, following the dragon as she melted into the thicket. They stayed behind Ausfela’s large body, surprised at the way she was able to weave between the trees and fit between spaces that they’d both guessed would be much too narrow for her massive frame. Yet she was surprisingly nimble, as she moved between trees with her wings tucked tightly against her sides. Both girls had to push themselves, walking as fast as they possibly could without breaking into a run, to keep up with her.
The forest around them was far darker than the bright, flawless world outside it’s thick, vine covered confines, and yet with the midday sun burning brightly overhead it was still brighter than most of the rooms in the Caverns. Quara found herself concentrating hard on where she placed her foot, with each and every step that she took.
There were vines and roots and loose rocks that would make it all too easy to lose her footing and Quara knew that the last thing that they needed was an injury for any member of their little party. They could afford neither the time it would take to care for someone who had been injured, nor the extension of their travels that would be inevitable if a member of their party was unable to walk.
“Ausfela, I think you’re going to need to slow down if you don’t plan on carrying us in the near future. We can walk a fair distance, but your legs are several times longer than ours and if you keep this current pace going we’re going to be entirely worn out before an hour has passed.” After five minutes of trying to keep up with Ausfela it was Lina who had spoken, already breathless as she attempted to stay just behind the tip of the dragon’s long tail.
Ausfela stopped so suddenly that Lina nearly ran into her back, and after skidding to a stop she stepped backwards, tripped over the dragon’s enormous tail and landed with a thud on the leaf and pine needle covered forest floor. Rubbing her lower back she was about to comment on the dragon’s abrupt stop when Ausfela’s voice rang sharply through her mind. “Hush child. We’re not alone. I need to listen. And I need to make sure they can’t hear us.”
Quara and Lina’s eyes locked as they stood, frozen in place, not daring to move so much as an eyelash. Despite the trees all around them they suddenly felt very much exposed. The forest was not so thick that they couldn’t see a fair distance in every direction and both girls began to scan the distance before them moving only their eyes, expecting to see movement or some other sign that they weren’t alone. Instead the forest was entirely still around them. Quara realized, glancing quickly up at Ausfela, that the presence of a large gold dragon had frightened every creature, from the song birds to the squirrels, into complete silence. She hadn’t noticed it a moment before, but the entire wood seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for them to move on so that life could begin to flow again.
“We’re safe.” Ausfela’s voice rang through their minds and she sighed audibly. Quara was not so quick to relax.
“What was it that you heard?” She spoke the words aloud so that Lina could hear them too.
“A rather large army a few miles south west of where we are now. They’re just over the ridge from the Caverns.” Lina let out a low whistle and Quara pressed the back of her hand against her mouth to stifle a cry. “They aren’t moving yet. They still don’t know how to get into the Caverns, or they would already be inside and the battle would be over. I had to make sure that they weren’t just around the bend. I’ve grown unaccustomed to how sound travels up above the ground, when it isn’t bouncing off crystal or granite walls. Up here it moves in a more or less direct manner, going from here to there, and it really sounded quite clear and close to my ears.”
Quara shook her head, her eyes filling with tears as Ausfela continued on, rather oblivious to her obvious distress. “And that doesn’t even take into consideration their thoughts. They practically scream them at each other, without saying a thing out loud. Half of them are ready for battle, but the other half are terrified of what’s in these woods and just want to finish the battle so that they can go home to their wives and children.”
“What’s in these woods?” Lina managed to push down the rising worrying that she felt and tried to instead focus on the details of what the dragon was telling them.
“Oh, nothing really. For some reason, over the centuries, a certain dragon has been sighted here and there, mostly near the volcano, and a sort of folk lore has arisen among those soldiers who patrol here. It’s said that a great golden dragon often swoops down out of the sky at sunset and carries off any livestock that they’ve kept nearby, before whisking it away to some unknown destination. I mean, I couldn’t always be hibernating, could I?”
“And it’s happened often enough that they’re terrified of you?” Lina raised her eyebrows.
“You’re certain that no one is near us?” Quara brushed her hands across her eyes quickly, wiping away the tears that she hadn’t managed to stop from forming, before letting her eyes sweep from one side of the forest to the other, fully expecting an army, or at least a scout or stray soldier, to come into view.
“How do we stop them?” Quara’s eyes turned towards her sister as she said the words. Lina looked ready to climb back atop Ausfela’s back and ride the dragon into battle.
“Oh no, no, no, little one. This battle is not for you. At least not yet. You must be delivered safely to Za’Reek if we’re to have any hope of victory at all. Walking into a battle where we’re so thoroughly outnumbered, in the open as we are now, would be utterly hopeless. We’d be headed to our deaths and would be no help at all to your family who’s still safe inside those caves.”
“We have to do something.” Quara objected, taking a step in the direction of the Caverns.
“We cannot.” The dragon’s voice left no room for objections.
Looking around Quara sat down heavily on a rock, tears streaming down her face.
“I wish that we had time to indulge in tears child, but we do not. The path is before us and the longer we linger here the more likely it is that we’ll be of no help to anyone at all. And that is the last thing that your family needs.” Lina shook her head, obviously not in total agreement with their enormous golden guide, but she moved the few steps to where her sister was sitting and helped her rise to her feet. Quara suddenly seemed smaller than she had before as she stood, her hair escaping from its long plait, tears still streaking her cheeks.
“Children,” the dragon shook her head from side to side, a sad look in her eyes as she searched for the words that would reassure them that not all was lost. “I want you to think of the home that you’ve grown up in. The emperor suspects that it’s there, because he knows that in centuries past there have been cities hidden within these hills. He himself has lived in one of them. He’s ruled within one even. He’s never set foot within the Walemont Cavern though, and it has been hidden for so long that no one remembers where it is. For a long while, after much of Charcha had fallen, this land stayed free, thanks in large part to the cities and to the hidden tunnels that snake through these hills. So he doesn’t absolutely know for certain that there’s a city still here. Now and then, his small group of guards that have remained here, in their fort, have found signs of life, but by and large, the precautions that the people of the Caverns have taken have done their job and the bits and pieces they’ve seen could just be from a few remaining wild mountain men, left over from the last great resistance, or could come from refugees from parts of the country with less natural cover.”
“As long as your people stay hidden away within the Caverns at this moment, they should be safe. The moment is coming when we will be able to help them. If they remain indoors and use the resources that are available, along with those that they’ve stockpiled there, no harm should come to them.”
“Should.” Quara snorted as she said the word, letting Ausfela know that she was not certain of the dragon’s claims. “I’m not convinced, from everything that Xav and Iggy were saying, that they will stay put.” Turning the older girl sought out her sister’s eyes. “Didn’t it sound like the Guard was planning something, and like Xav especially had every intention of being in the thick of things? This must have been what they had known was coming? And they must have known that this army was nearby.”
“Our own scouts have blinds and hideouts that make them invisible throughout the woods, far from the Caverns opening, so that anyone who has business above ground should have plenty of notice to take cover if the enemy is in the area. It’s the key to our invisibility and continued survival. So they know this army is here. They’ve known since it crested the mountains several ridges away. And while I hope with all my heart that they stay hidden and keep those doors closed, it is absolutely not something that we can count on. Because they have no idea that help is ever going to come. And I guess, really, neither do we.” Quara finished speaking and fixed the dragon with a steely gaze as she walked along near Ausfela’s elbow.
“Well no, we can’t know that we’ll make it north to get help, that’s true. But we’re better alive, going for help, than we would be rushing in and being slaughtered by that army down there. Because while the Cavern Guard may believe that they stand some sort of a chance against the army that they’re facing right now, you better believe that if the full force of the Emperor’s army was directed at this area, the battle would be over before sunrise. He must have a reason to suspect that something is here, a stronger reason than he’s had in the past, but he’s still not sure. If he was these mountains would be crawling with his spies and flooded with his military power. And it’s not. At least not yet. My job is to get you two to Za’Reek. Once that’s done, we can turn out sights to the goal of saving your family. Let’s just hope that the people within those walls rely on the centuries of safeguards that protect them against the outside world, rather than trying to raise a force greater than the one waiting outside on their doorstep.”