“In those days people thought that the way they lived was all that would ever be. Oh surely, they thought, we will continue forward, but they never imagined that they could be plunged backwards into the darkness that came before. For the stories tell that there had been darkness before, just as there is darkness now.”
“I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have been born in those days. To wake up as a child and eat breakfast at a sturdy kitchen table, to put on my shoes and run outside to play. The war took all of that away, of course, for every last person on this planet, if the stories are to be believed and if we dare imagine that a world where men and women and children peacefully lived out their days was ever anything more than just a fairy story.”
Elder Deaconberry pushed his spectacles higher up from the place where they’d come to rest after sliding slowly down his nose during his impassioned speech. His grey hair stood almost on end, and Quara imagined that it was alive with energy as he paced back and forth across the front of the room.
“But if that was how life once was, why can’t it be that way again? Has the world changed so much that it can’t change back?” The small voice that broke through the pause in the midst of the Elder’s monologue came from the space just beside Quara’s shoulder and internally she groaned, while externally she was careful not to let any emotions play out across her fair features.
“Be that way again?” The Elder’s voice rose dramatically as he half shouted the question. “Be that way again?” He tossed his head back and looked up into the darkness above his head, as if he were searching for a glimpse of the ceiling. His voice echoed in the emptiness. “Why child you can’t very well unring a bell that has been rung! You can’t unsing a song once it’s been sung. And once so much blood has been spilled, so many lives unmade, you can’t simply remake them. The world is fractured child, and it is being pushed further apart every moment. If there were a man who could undertake the task of taking us back to the old days, why, surely he would be named king of all the world. Sadly, I don’t think that we should count on such a man existing.”
The Elder’s attention turned to the roughly made podium for a moment as he recollected his thoughts and Quara gave her sister a sharp look. The small girl next to her rested her chin on the palm of her hand and twirled her quill between her finger tips while pointedly ignoring her sister’s gaze. She didn’t have to turn to know that her sister’s expression was one of disapproval.
That morning they’d walked down to the water hole to collect their family’s water ration for the day and Quara had carefully explained the rules for the coming morning. School time was not to be taken lightly. They could not be late. They did not speak or ask questions during lectures. If Lina had a question she could direct it to her older sister on their walk home. And they especially did not speak to Elder Deaconberry, unless he asked them a question directly, in which case the answer was a quick and crisp “yes sir” or “no sir” depending on what he had asked.
Lina had walked slowly as she carried her bucket home, scuffing the bottoms of her shoes loudly on the ground until her older sister sighed and asked her if she’d been paying attention to the rules for the upcoming day. “They’re important Lina. You’ll be expected to know them. You need to know them, really. Doing lessons at school isn’t like doing lessons with Mom. You can’t just shout out every question that comes into your head and expect an answer.”
The younger girl’s brow had furrowed at these words, and the corners of her plump, perfect mouth had turned down ever so slightly, but she’d continued to walk without making any effort to break the silence that had fallen between them after Quara had stopped speaking.
“Now where was I?” Quara relaxed slightly at these words.
It seemed that the Elder was going to overlook the interruption and go on with his lecture. “Ah yes. A fairy story. Some find it hard to believe that a world where a large number of people lived in relative peace has ever been anything other than a fairy story. After all, how could anyone have ever thrown those peaceful, abundant times away for what we have now?”
“If the histories are correct, which we know that they are, than we, that is to say, I, am a member of the one hundred forty ninth generation since the fall of the Whipperwill Stronghold. You are mostly members of the one hundred fifty first generation. The Whipperwill Stronghold was the last of the great fortresses to fall in the Battles of Twilight that marked the end of the Age of Knowledge.”
“When the Whipperwill was razed to the ground we lost troves of treasures which I do not believe we will ever recover. At least not in our lifetime. The savages who to this day hold the ground that the Whipperwill stood on, have rebuilt upon the very foundation of that respected place their own lair. And since it was rebuilt no member of our society who has dared enter has ever escaped from it, for they are still too strong and their numbers swell with every generation.”
“In the meantime we grow weaker, living underground, scrapping to survive, never knowing if this is the day or month or year when they will root us out and stamp out even this meager existence in their quest for complete and utter control of every aspect of every life here on the planet.”
When class let out for the day the girls walked home together. “I was serious about what I said earlier, you know.” Quara held the words inside until they were barely twenty steps from the entrance to the lecture hall. “It’s not like at home where you can get away with just about anything because you’re the littlest. You can’t just speak out in class like that. Everybody is afraid of Elder Deaconberry and not without reason. You’re lucky you didn’t get sent out for a chore Up Above.”
Lina didn’t respond but out of the corner of her eye Quara thought she saw a small smile playing at the edges of her sister’s mouth.
“This isn’t something to play around about Lina. You aren’t a baby anymore. And you wouldn’t like getting sent Up Above. It isn’t the same as being in the Meadow where you’re still safely underground, in a world made to look like the world above. You’re out there with one or two guards, collecting firewood for the cooking fires or checking the smaller trap lines. It’s dangerous work. When Iggy was small, he came home from being sent out for talking during a lesson and he was shaking for the rest of the night. He couldn’t eat a bite even though we were having his favorite meal of rabbit stew.”
Quara turned her head and saw that her smallest sister had squared her shoulders and turned her face away to study the tunnel wall. She could imagine the expression that was surely playing across Lina’s pretty features at that very moment. She’d seen the spark of defiance that flared many times over the years, the churning emotion turning her sister’s ice blue eyes as dark as bottom of the Big Lake, which sunlight hadn’t touched in a hundred thousand years. “Maybe you’ll just have to learn on your own then.”
Quara Kalena was the second oldest daughter, and fourth surviving child, born to the Kalena family in the heart of the Walemont Caverns. The family had lived in the Caverns for seven generations, which the careful genealogical records kept within the caverns showed made them the newest arrivals to the enormous underground complex. A note next to the start of their family tree said “Plains” which meant that their family had been some of the few that escaped into the mountains following the Lower Battles of Annihilation, a time of great chaos that few of those loyal to the True King, survived.
They had been lucky to stumble upon the Caverns, Quara knew, unless they had had some sort of map or guide to bring them there. The family lore stopped short of giving away the secret to their ancestors’ arrival in the hidden city. The location of the Walemont Caverns was zealously guarded by the secretive people who lived within its thick stone walls. Few people who had not been born there could really say whether the hidden city tucked neatly within the enormous dome was anything more than a legend. The stories the outside world sometimes recalled told of a remaining settlement inside the region that had somehow managed to stay hidden from the Enemy’s forces, but few believed that the city really still existed.
Over the course of her entire life Quara had been considered a foreigner of sorts, because of her family’s relatively recent arrival in the Caverns. Anyone who hadn’t been born within the vast labyrinth of caves might have thought that odd. After all, the sons and daughters of that first family had intermarried with the people of the caves. Their children had married the sons and daughters of men and women whose lineage stretched back to the founding of the caves, and the intermingling had continued, generation after generation. Certainly, Quara thought with a small smile, their blood was far more on the side of the Cavernians than of the Plains’ Folk. And for some parts of the family this appeared to be true.
The girls of the family grew into women who were quickly assimilated into their husbands’ families, and their children were accepted into the little city state without question. But Quara’s father had descended through the male line, directly from those first Kalena’s that had set foot at the base of the Caverns and sought safe haven there. He bore the foreign name still and along with several of the children stood out with his shockingly fair hair, rosy cheeks and tall lanky figure. Quara, with her impossibly long limbs, was just leaving the stage where she was all elbows and knees, a clumsy jumble of angles that was only ever careful when she was making her way from place to place around the sometimes dangerous Cavern paths.
The native Cavernians for the most part had distinct features that came from years tucked away from outside influences. They were not short by any means, but they were smaller than the lanky Plains Folk who strode from place to place on their long slender legs. The men had broad shoulders and were strong enough to work in the lower mines, while being agile enough to climb quickly to the heights of the mountains outside to watch for trespassers when their lot came up for guard duty.
The women, in the days before the Cavernians had taken to their self imposed seclusion, had been known throughout the kingdom for their great beauty. Most were dark haired and dark eyed, with snowy white skin made all the more dramatic by their years underground, and plump merry mouths. Of course not all fit the description, either of great beauty or of the typical Cavernian coloring, but for the most part it had held true, and the introduction of one golden haired family had done little to change that.
So Quara went through her early years knowing that she was technically a member of the community and that her cousins and uncles and aunts were all around her, and yet she was unable to shake the feeling that she was very different, both in appearance and in manners, having grown up in a home that remembered only too well the traditions they had left behind as they fled the enemies armies that had swept down on the Plains.
Citizens of the Walemont, by necessity, had to leave their safe haven now and then, but they did so by following a great many precautions, with scouts and guards whose careful training helped them keep those who had business Above Ground safe. The entrances to the Cavern were always carefully disguised and numerous safeguards were put in place to prevent enemy spies from slipping in and catching the people of the settlement unaware. There were false entrances that were far more obvious than the real ones, littered with deadly traps, and there were guards placed just inside each of the real entrances. It was a common saying within the Caverns that as the last outpost of hope within the Southern Countries, they needed to be ready for anything.
Quara made sure that Lina was safely home before retrieving the smoothly worn water buckets and telling her mother that she would fetch water from the stream for washing. She ducked out of their family’s rooms before her mother had the chance to tell her that her brothers had already done the job and that she’d finished the washing while the girls were in their classes.
She sensed that perhaps her gangly, long legged girl was simply looking for an excuse to be out of the noisy caves, alone with her thoughts, and so she let her go without calling after her. After all, the child rarely asked for anything for herself, which made her mother all the more inclined to give in when she showed some sign of needing something, even if it was simply a break from her every day routine.
The Kalena Family apartments, being among the most recently occupied within the underground city, were at the top of a long, narrow staircase that looked out over a great, seemingly bottomless chasm. Past the doorway of their home, the staircase continued, disappearing into complete darkness. No one bothered to light the torches above their home, since no one lived any higher up, and no one ventured beyond their doorsteps except particularly daring children who goaded each other to climb up and up into the darkness, their terrified screams occasionally echoing into the chasm below.
She turned to the right when she left the living quarters and headed down towards the lower levels. Holding both buckets in her left hand she ran her right against the cold, smooth stone wall. It was said that a giant dragon, one of The Ancients, had carved the bulk of this mountain into enormous caves, back in the days when dragons of that size roamed the Lower Lands, but she’d always wondered why a dragon that enormous would need a lair.
Didn’t Lacy Stormgrey always say that The Ancients were as big as mountains? What would a dragon the size of a mountain need to fear? They sometimes slept for centuries and were buried under enormous snow drifts. They were mistaken for mountains on occasion, until one day they were up and gone, so it wasn’t as if they needed to fear foul weather or horrible storms, or even men.
Iggy liked to tell stories of a house that was built on what was believed to be a mountain. The mountain had been there for as long as anyone could remember. The small, sturdy cottage stood there for generations until one day the owners felt a great earth quake and looked outside their window to see the ground beneath them gone as they soared alongside an eagle on the back of a dragon.
Quara was almost completely certain that the story wasn’t true, but she still sometimes imagined how frightening it would be to wake up and find that the world had drifted away and that solid ground was far below her feet. She, who was so nervous to even go Above Ground, couldn’t begin to imagine soaring high above the clouds.
Her feet had memorized every groove in the smooth stone stairs so that she hardly needed the dim, flickering torch light to find her way. A single line of rope, strung between metal posts embedded in the rock, guarded against a fall into the darkness below. Yet even without the rope she would have been fine. She began to skip steps, her hand still tracing the line of the rock as she flew past openings that led to other corridors that would bring her to other living quarters if she paused to turn off the path that she was headed down.
The lower she went the lighter the path became. There were torches casting their flickering light every few steps now. She paused for a moment as the first of the common areas came into sight, glancing back over her shoulder. Their home had disappeared into the darkness above.
She dropped her eyes to the furthest of the visible torches, a small, faint star burning in the blackness and a shudder went through her body as the memory came back to her. She’d been coming back from class one day, years earlier when she’d seen the small shadow fall over the edge. Her stomach had turned to lead and she’d let out a scream that had torn through the usual quiet of the Upper Levels, for she had known instantly that there was only one person it could possibly be.
Lina, with her fearless nature, had spent the first five years of her life living on the edge of disaster and Quara had fought down a wave of nausea as she sprinted up those same steps, a picture of her sister’s sweet, heart shaped face in her mind. Her sister had nearly died a hundred times. She’d wandered off into parts of The Caverns never before explored. Worried search parties had been mustered and sent out, only to have Lina reappear from some crevice, her face hot and dirty, her hair a cloud of darkness framing her pale face. Their mother’s hair was streaked with grey that Quara thought surely must be from the antics of this youngest child of hers, for she had never been more vigilant and yet less able to keep a child safe from the abundant dangers of their world.
Quara’s breath had caught in her chest as adrenalin shot through her body, giving her strength that she wouldn’t have otherwise possessed. Her feet slammed into the steps, as she took them two and three at a time, knowing that she would be too late, but unable to let go of the small flame of hope that flared in her chest.
By the time she got there her mother was sobbing, holding the small figure clutched to her chest, while her two older brother’s Xav and Iggy, leaned over the rope, staring down into the nothingness below. No one knew how far into the bowels of the planet the chasm descended. Time and again explorers had braided ropes of enormous length only to climb back up out of the darkness, shaking their heads, saying that the bottom had never come into sight.
“I saw her fall.” Quara had hardly been able to muster the air to say the words before she retched over the edge of the pit. She had lay still for a long moment, her hair plastered against her forehead, her breath coming in ragged gasps as relief flooded her body. “I saw her go over the edge. How is she alive? How did you save her?” Turning over Quara had pushed herself back against the wall as she gazed up at her smallest sister. Lina was still cradled in her mother’s arms, and her older sister stared at her round cheeks and plump rosy mouth, which was curved up in a smile, as if she hadn’t a care in the world.
Her brothers had helped the girls back inside while their mother explained that she’d been making lunch in the family’s cooking nook when she heard the sound of footsteps outside on the steps outside their house. She’d flown to the door. Lina had been playing with the boys before they went out to begin their morning chores, but they hadn’t noticed that her screaming laughter as she’d watched their antics had ceased for a moment too long. By the time the silence caught their attention she was gone.
She’d slipped outside with a length of rope and had looped it in a tight knot around the post right outside their entryway before holding onto a loop she’d made on the other end and jumping over the edge to explore the darkness below. Lina’s motives were imagined, because she didn’t yet have many words to explain herself during her fifth year. At the time exploring the caverns seemed to be the motivation they had most often imagined and so they had used it to explain this particularly dangerous flight of fancy.
Later she would tell them that they were wrong. She would tell them that it didn’t have anything to do with exploring. Or maybe it did a little, at on least that day, but usually it didn’t. When she was older and the words came more easily she would confide in her mother that she simply loved the feel of the wind in her hair and the hard stone under her feet as she ran and skipped and jumped from place to place and as often as not her body got a little ahead of her thoughts as she got lost in the intoxicating feeling of movement.
Sometimes that got her into trouble. Usually she could get herself out of whatever trouble she’d stumbled into. And when she couldn’t do it on her own, one of her siblings always seemed to appear just in time to pull her back.
That day had been different though. “I dreamt of a dragon the night before I jumped into the chasm and when I woke I knew that she was there in the depths at the very bottom of the pit. She was great and golden, with scales that rivaled the sun in brightness and kind, soft eyes. Her wings were as white as the brightest cloud, and they nearly blinded me when I looked at them, but when I touched them as I climbed onto her back they were as soft as the finest silk. And the scales weren’t rough at all. They were as smooth as polished metal and I couldn’t feel where one scale and ended and the next began. It was her armor. And that day I knew that if I just got down low enough and called to her, she would rise up and I would ride upon her back and bring light to the dark world below. But I called into the darkness and she never came.”
She would tell them all of that much later, soon after her tenth birthday, when the words began to flow more easily. Yet even after she began to speak, and began to share her thoughts with the world, there were still days when Lina seemed to live entirely within her own thoughts.
Quara still remembered that moment though, when Lina told them about her reason for going over the edge, because when Lina told the story, she presented the entire adventure nonchalantly, as if plunging off cliffs to wake sleeping dragons was the most natural thing in the world for an unruly five year old to do.
Quara turned back to the path and let her feet fly lightly over the stone steps, shaking her head to clear it of the memory of the gut wrenching fear she’d felt that day when she saw her sister’s silhouette plunging downward into the darkness.
Sometimes it seemed as if there hadn’t been a moment in Lina’s entire life when she hadn’t been getting into some sort of trouble. Quara was two years and two days older than her littlest sister, and while they were close, the constant near misses and rescues at times made her feel much older. Even now that they were older, with Lina turning twelve and Quara turning fourteen at the end of the month, her sister still found ways to get into trouble and while the younger girl didn’t seem to think she needed her big sister to rescue her any longer, Quara was still quite certain that she did.