The Traitor's Heir

Chapter Three

After a moment Quara realized that she’d let the buckets drop and land next to her feet, and with a start she bent and picked them up and began to hurry down towards the Silver Gate, before pausing again to admire a dragon that always caught her eye when she walked this hall by herself. It was neither the largest or the smallest of the dragons in the piece of art, but its eyes peered out keen and bright and it always took her a few moments to tear her eyes away from the little figure.

Before her loomed the Silver Gate. It was the second most massive of the Beautiful Gates, that is to say it was the second of the aptly named gates within the Dome itself that one came to when approaching from the outside world. The outer gates were larger, of course, but they were made to fit into place, flush with the rock wall, completely hidden from sight even when the onlooker was very close to discovering the way in, so they didn’t really count. They were the most ordinary things in the world and the Beautiful Gates were some of the most extraordinary.

The Beautiful Gates, like the corridor that Quara had just come down, had been made with a very specific purpose in mind. These grand hallways had been built to impress visiting dignitaries and royalty and the fabulously wealthy who had once come to buy their jewels and see the marvelous cities within the rocks from which the gems were pulled.

The Silver Gate depicted as fantastic a scene as the hallway beyond it. The door showed a griffin, like the one in the hallway, but on a much larger scale. Unlike the griffin in the painting, which was sitting peacefully on a nest, this griffin looked as though it were about to launch itself into the sky. Something about the look in its eye made Quara think that it was about to go to war. Ignoring the guards she reached out and ran her hand over the raised carvings of the griffin, feeling oddly drawn to the fierce looking creature.

Drawing back her hand she turned her thoughts to the odd fact that the Caverns had remained hidden all these centuries, which had always seemed somewhat unlikely to Quara when she paged through the histories, since she knew that there had once been a time when the gates stood open day and night and foreigners and the people of the nearby countryside, along with the citizens who lived within the Caverns, came and went as they wished.

Sometimes Quara couldn’t believe that the world outside had really forgotten that they existed. Oh there were certainly rumors and stories that the sky scrapping granite outcropping, deep in the heart of the mountains was more than just a collection of gigantic spires scraping against the sky. Some very likely remembered stories, handed down through families, and some had read histories from books that had managed to survive the great wars that claimed that the mountain was hollow and that people came the world over to bring back great treasures that had been wrested from deep down within the planet’s secret places.

She reasoned that so many generations had passed since any contact had been made that no one could really tell if any of the stories were anything more than a fantastic legend from a time that had been idealized in the hearts and minds of a shackled people, or if they were something more.

The children in the Walemont Caverns were taught from the time that they were very small that they were the only people in the entire world that were still truly free. They may not seem free, locked away in their mountain home, but the life that people led above ground was not to be preferred and hadn’t been for many, many long years, if it ever had been at all. The True King was gone and on his throne a usurper had sat for hundreds of years.

Quara held both buckets in one hand while she ran her finger lightly over the raised gold line that made up a delicate dancing golden dragon, before tearing herself away from her thoughts to finish her descent into the Hall of the Masters.

Before stepping out of the doorway she paused and set the buckets to one side, casting a glance up the hallway to make sure she was alone, before smoothing her skirts and running a hand over her unruly blonde tresses, which she had carefully plaited and bound as she’d sat before the mirror after rising that morning.

At least a dozen wispy golden waves had worked themselves free already, and she pushed them back behind her ears and sighed, wishing for a moment that she had her sister’s sleek, straight hair. It always stayed in place, even when she was moving about the Caverns at a frantic pace on her way to her next adventure. Lina had shorn her hair herself years earlier, so that it barely fell past her chin.

Quara had gasped when she’d seen it, and her hands trembled as she’d touched the uneven ends. What would their mother say? The women in the caverns wore their hair long, plaited and down their backs when they were young and then bound up on top of their heads, at least in public, after they married. She was certain that her mother would be upset, but when she’d seen it, she had merely plucked her sewing shears from her apron and carefully trimmed the ends until they were neat and fell in layers that turned out at the bottoms, all while perfectly framing Lina’s face. Then she’d sighed and touched Lina’s cheek with a soft smile playing at the corner of her mouth before going back to making dinner.

When Father had come home late in the evening, he’d let out a great laugh and asked her if she was afraid her long tresses would interfere with her climbing, at which point her sister’s cheeks had turned slightly pink and Quara had known with sudden certainty that their father had caught Lina pushing some new boundary that she’d thought she’d managed to keep secret from her worrying family.

The truth was though, that they worried less than they once had. After living in a perpetual state of stress for her first seven or eight years of Lina’s life, they’d begun to realize that somehow the young girl always came through even the most dangerous of adventures, without a single mark on her. They’d almost come to take for granted the fact that Lina had never been hurt while setting tasks for herself that would have felled nearly anyone else, had they tried even one of her odds defying stunts.

Pushing the thoughts aside, Quara stepped into the Guild Masters’ Hall and glanced around quickly. Was her Father working in the mines today, searching for gems to set in gold, or was he with the other Metal Smiths at his workstation, or out in the open area, working on a community project? When her gaze didn’t find him she strode across the room, headed for a narrow doorway that lay between the entrance to the Weaver’s Hall and the Metal Worker’s Hall.

The Hall of the Master’s, or Hall of Crafts as it was sometimes called, was said to be the second level of the mountain kingdom, but in truth it was actually the first, unless you counted the mines that lay deep within the bowels of the earth, which nobody really did. Directly below the Guild Hall lay a labyrinth of passage ways, most of which were thick with traps and dead ends.

There were three true entrances to the Caverns, and of those three one led directly to the mine shaft and, while it was workable as an escape route in case a need for one ever arose, it was seldom used for anything else. It was on the East Side of the Dome and if a man did wander down its lengthy corridor he would find himself emerging in the middle of a remote, mountainous region, where the Walemont Dome was only a faint silhouette that could hardly be seen against the horizon. Of the two remaining entrances, one came out on the river side of the mountain, which lay to West, next to an area frequented by the false king’s troops. The residents of the mountain were forbidden to step foot in even the start of the tunnel, which was always guarded by at least two soldiers. The last entrance lay directly to the south of the Dome. And then there were the many, many false entrances that led to almost certain death or an entrapment that would ultimately result in that same fate.

As Quara picked her way carefully through the bustling room, she hardly heard the busy chatter around her. There were weavers holding up brightly colored bolts of fabric for a small group of seamstresses, who appeared to be debating the perfect color for a new gown. A sculptor was coaxing a form from a giant slab of granite and a painter, with his easel set at an angle that made the canvas impossible to see from the center of the room, was staring off into space, lost in thought.

Each of the major Guilds had their own Craft Hall, off of the main hall. On the far west side of the giant room, which Quara was moving steadily away from, lay the Wood Workers’ Guild. Quara always thought that it was rather odd that their craft had been carried on, but certain families had rather stubbornly clung to their belief that they shouldn’t live in a world entirely surrounded by stone and so the Guild had continued, although the materials they needed for every bit of work were dangerous to obtain.

Their nearest neighbors were the Light Bringers, who were constantly coming up with new ways to make their underground world feel brighter and more like the world above. On the west side of their cavern stood the Hall of Fine Arts. The members of that particular Guild, more than any of the others, tended to hold themselves apart from their Guild peers and could often be heard referring to themselves as the “true artists” of the Dome.

On the east side of the Fine Arts Hall was the Stone Masons’ Cavern, a massive area where they often joked that they made everything the Wood Workers made only stronger and less likely to splinter apart with time. The Clothing Makers’ and the Weavers’ halls came next and lastly there stood the Metal Workers’ Guild, where her father spent half of his days, when he wasn’t down in the mines.

It was more than just his lineage and golden hair that made Quart Kalena stand out among the men of the Caverns. He was the only man in the entire complex who split his time between two worlds. For while some in the Caverns liked very much to pretend that the people who lived within the Walemont Dome were practically family, the social sphere was very clearly divided by class, with a small aristocracy, a slightly larger middle class made up of the Guild Masters and those that worked closely with those who ruled the little Kingdom, and a large lower class, who at the very least always had enough to survive, but seldom had much more than that.

Whenever the discrepancy between the various classes within the caves came up, someone immediately said that anyone within the Caverns were a thousand times more fortunate than those living above ground. People above ground, they said slunk about, living always in the shadow of terror, which wasn’t a way to live at all.

The Kalena family had spent their generations below ground living solidly at the upper edge of the lower class. They had often found that they had a little more than others, and always enough to share with those down on their luck, but they always seemed to stop short of rising up into one of those sought after spots in the middle class, although it was said by certain gossips that they’d had more opportunities than most. To some it seemed that the Kalena men sabotaged themselves to stay exactly where they were, in a small home on the furthest edge of the Caverns housing area.

The men of the Kalena family had worked in the mines since the week they arrived at the mountain. They had brought gold and gems up out of the earth for other men to fashion and mold into beautiful things, and a number of their wives had marveled that they had never felt the pull of ambition since they were, for the most part, intelligent and charismatic, as if they were made for more than smashing away at the earth to uncover bits of stone that shone in the sunlight. But if they had expected ambition from the strong, quiet miners that they were married to, they were one after another, disappointed by their husbands’ total determination to stay exactly where they were.

Quart was the first of the Kalena’s to break away from that tradition to stay entirely in the mines during working hours. It started when Deacon Elderberry had recognized a talent in the boy back when he’d been in the Lower School and he’d convinced the ten year old to spend some of his free time assisting his younger brother, who was a Master in the Metal Workers’ Guild.

The boy’s natural talent was immediately obvious and yet he seemed reluctant to leave behind the traditions of his father and uncles and grandfathers before him. For a time, after his fourteenth birthday, he’d stopped coming to the Metal Worker’ Hall altogether and his teacher had shaken his head, telling anyone who would listen that the boy was throwing away a great talent to descend each day into a hole in the ground.

Yet Quart returned after several months absence with a beautiful ruby in his hand that he’d convinced the foreman to allow him to bring up to the Guild Master’s himself and after that he struck some sort of deal with the Hall’s Grandmaster. The deal allowed him to spend three of his days down in the ground, seeking out the finest stones for the Guild Masters, and then he was allowed to spend the remaining three work days among their tables, using his strong hands to shape and create the most beautiful weapons anyone had ever seen.

The weapons that be created looked as though they had emerged from the fairy tales of old, the Grandmaster had said, when he proudly displayed them in the main hall for all to see, and such raw talent at such a young age meant that surely great things lay ahead for the young boy who was not yet old enough to begin his years of mandatory military service.

Quara knew that a great many people within the Caverns, and especially within the Metal Worker’s Guild, believed that her father had fallen far short of his true potential. Her mother had mentioned once, years earlier in passing, how she remembered standing in the hall when the weapons he had made had been put on display and how she had watched as Quart’s face had turned a deep scarlet when he’d walked into the great room and applause had broken out from all sides.

He’d glanced around, stunned and she had said she was certain that she had seen a look that for a moment seemed to be nothing short of terror, as it stole across his face when he saw the line of weapons there and all eyes turned towards him in admiration. She really thought that he was going to be sick, as his skin turned an unhealthy shade of green, but then he regained his composure, gave a funny little wave, and hurried back to his work station.

After that day he had never repeated the awesome feat of making anything that captured everyone’s attention. He made fine blades, and he sometimes set brilliant stones in their hilts, but nothing like the first collection of swords, with leafs and figures and dragons dancing across the hilts and down brightly shining blades. Some said that he’d used up all of his brilliance in that one moment, when he made those beautiful swords, but Quara could never believe that that had been the case. Her father was never at a loss for words or ideas and he always seemed to be coming up with clever solutions to help make her mother’s life easier. No, the creativity and talent was still there. And for the life of her Quara could not understand why he didn’t apply it to build the things that everyone had expected of him when he’d first begun working alongside the Guild Masters, two decades earlier.

Quara had taken the long way to reach the lake, hoping that she would see her father before heading on to collect more water to keep next to the hearth. She peeked round the corner into the Metal Worker’s cavern to ensure that he wasn’t tucked away somewhere out of sight working on a project and when she was certain that he wasn’t she turned with a sigh, shifting the empty buckets in her hands before taking a few steps to the side and ducking her head to step into the narrow tunnel that led down to the lake.

The opening to this corridor was low, but once she was inside she could straighten her back and stand without bumping her head against the ceiling. For the most part only apprentices ran up and down the winding passages that made up this staircase, snaking their way down to the giant underground lake before sprinting back to bring up water for the various projects that required it in the Guild Hall.

It was late enough in the day though that the water that had been needed had already been fetched, and she found herself alone in the dimly lit tunnel, wondering what exactly it was that she’d planned to say to her father if she’d found him at work in the hall. It wasn’t as if he could say anything to her youngest sister to suddenly convince her of a need for caution in this one area of her life.

If Lina didn’t fear deep chasms or fast water rushing through caves, or stories of haunted caverns abandoned ages ago, she wasn’t going to heed her father’s warning to take care in Deacon Elderberry’s class lest she be sent above ground. In truth, her little sister would probably be more outspoken and unruly just to meet with another adventure.

Quara winced at the thought of Lina going Above Ground and felt the same heaviness in her stomach that she’d felt that day when she’d seen her sister skip into the empty space of the chasm and plummet downward into the abyss. If Lina seemed to run towards danger at every turn below ground, than she would surely find a wealth of risks that Quara did not doubt that she would rush towards without a second thought, if she were ever given the chance to step out, up above, in the clear light of day.

Lost in her thoughts and paying little attention to the ground beneath her feet, Quara’s right foot reached forward too far into space and she took a jarring step down twice the distance she’d meant to travel, dropping one bucket, which clattered loudly down the path ahead of her for nearly a minute. She put out her hand to catch herself against the roughly hewn wall.

“You should really be more careful.” The voice was soft and familiar, but so unexpected that Quara nearly slipped a second time, and if she hadn’t been firmly planted against the wall she was certain that she would have.

“And you should not be following me.” Quara wheeled around to face her sister. The spritely girl was standing two steps above her, which meant that they were roughly the same height as they faced each other in the dim light.

“I had to make sure you wouldn’t go falling down any stairs. And it seems like it’s a good thing I did.” Lina grinned at her widely and gestured to the bucket which had disappeared into the darkness.

“You didn’t save me from falling.” Quara insisted, gripping the remaining bucket tightly in her hand.

“Right. But I could have. If you hadn’t caught yourself. And now I’m here to make sure you don’t fall again. Besides, you forgot this.” In her right hand Lina held what appeared to be a short staff and she tapped it twice on the floor. Tilting her head she smiled broadly as she listened to the echo as it worked its way steadily down the corridor. “You wouldn’t have had fun bringing those back, without this.” Quara nodded quickly and spun back around on her heel, trying to move as quickly as she could without breaking into a run, and hoping that her shorter sister would have to push herself in order to keep up.

Lina simply took long, smooth steps that easily matched her taller sister’s stride. “I got side tracked on my way down here. I ran into Deacon Elderberry. He said I remind him of Dad when he was my age.” Quara’s eyes narrowed slightly as she processed the words. They must be true, however unlikely they seemed, for she had never known her sister to say something that was false. She’d never heard their instructor say a social word, outside of a scolding, to any of his students outside of class.

“Do you really think we might get to go up to the surface? Or that I might get to go? Xav and Iggy have been talking about it so much and it sounds simply wonderful. Would you go up with me? Maybe we can get a permit and go after strawberries!” She chuckled to herself as if that were the grandest idea she’d ever come up with as she walked beside her sister and then dropped back a few steps as the pathway narrowed.

Quara kept moving because she couldn’t force a single word out from between her parted lips. Usually her sister was the one who was silent while she chatted on and on, having mastered the art of having a complete one sided conversation with Lina when they were both small and Lina had not yet found any words worth saying out loud. But in that moment she couldn’t think of a single thing that she wanted to say.

She was thankful that the corridor had narrowed and that they were no longer walking side by side. This short span of path had brought a temporary end to the conversation and Quara began to prepare an argument that might convince her sister of the danger that would surely befall her if she went up out of the Caverns.

“Do you know how dangerous that would be?” She said the words in a low voice, struggling to sound calm. She wanted to shout that she’d spent her entire life looking out for her reckless sister, protecting her, pulling her back from the brink of disaster and now she wanted to throw all of that away and rush off, endangering not only herself but the entire Cavern population.

“You worry too much, you know.” Lina brushed the words away nonchalantly, but she too fell silent, leaving her sister to her thoughts as she walked beside her.

The route that they were taking to the Cavern Lake was less direct than the path that lay just off of the Training Field between the Upper and Lower classrooms. The other path steadily descended from the Garrison level, but this one rose and fell and twisted and turned as if the hands that had carved it had begun to strike out in one direction only to change their minds and correct their course, over and over again, every fifty to a hundred yards.

The approach to the lake from the Guild Hall path dipped down below the lake, so that when it entered the large open space it rose up from below the water’s level, and by the time they reached the top of the staircase both girls were out of breath. They had both been to the Lake many times over the course of their young lives, first as babies strapped to their mother’s back and then as toddlers, and finally when they were a bit older and strong enough to carry a heavy bucket on their own to fetch water with all the other children, and yet the Lake always invoked a feeling of awe upon those who peered into its black depths.

Quara’s mother said that it was because it was the one bit of natural softness that hadn’t been stolen from them when they were forced to live out their lives entirely undergrown, hidden from the natural beauty that they would have enjoyed if the Caverns had only been their home, whose safety they returned to at night, rather than a stronghold meant to keep out the wolves that prowled outside its thick walls and well-armed corridors. .

The Lake was enormous. Its furthest edges disappeared beyond the edges of their vision, although that was as much because this portion of the cavern was not very well lit, as it was the result of its great width. The edges of the lake were hard granite, except for one manmade beach on the far side of the Lake, where the path from the Training Field entered the Cavern. The beach was made from sand that had been brought in long ago from the river, but it wasn’t used for swimming.

No one in the Caverns swam in the Lake. It held the Cavern’s water supply and the idea of swimming in their drinking water was frowned upon. The sand had been brought in, according to the history books in the library, as part of some sort of filtration system that had been built by visitors from an island land who had come once to the Caverns, back in the days when they had visitors. Some of the sand had escaped, giving them a beach, but whatever remained seemed to be doing its job, because the water that was drawn out of the Lake was always crisp and clean.

Quara thought that the water quality likely had more to do with the fact that it came into the cavern through old lava tunnels that sank down deep in the earth, but she knew better than to suggest that, since the water filtration system was, oddly enough, a point of pride for some in the government offices on the fourth level.

Sinking down beside the lake, Quara paused for a moment as she caught sight of her reflection in the dark water, holding the single bucket on her lap. Her pale blue eyes looked dark staring back at her from the smooth surface of the water. The blonde wisps that she’d smoothed down a hundred times that morning, framed her smooth, porcelain face, curling prettily as if she’d meant for them to be exactly as they were. Her plump pink lips were twisted down in a frown as she worried about her sister, and for a moment she tried to smile, before giving up and dipping her bucket into the glacial water.

As she drew back the water a second set of hands appeared beside her own, plunging in the other bucket, which Lina had picked up from where it had finally settled after its fall. At the very least, Quara thought with a shake of her head, it seemed as though it were still in one piece.

“Listen Quara, if it really worries you that much than I won’t ask to go.” Lina said the words slowly as she picked up the staff and wrapped a length of fabric that she had produced from some hidden pocket around the stick many times to add a little padding for her shoulders, before carefully balancing both of their buckets on either side of the staff. She hoisted the carrying contraption she’d assembled up easily, and maneuvered it around so that it rested across her shoulders, pressing heavily against the back of her neck.

“I don’t want to give you nightmares thinking about the dangers that you imagine up above the ground. And I’ll even carry this for the first shift. But let’s take the shorter path home. Dad won’t be up from the mines for you to complain to for a few more hours, so there’s no point in going the other way. Besides, I don’t think he would have agreed with you quite as thoroughly as you imagined. For all that Dad says that he loves going down into the mines, I think he misses the time that he used to spend out in the world every bit as much as I miss the world that I’ve never gotten to see. And he doesn’t seem to think that it’s nearly as scary as you do.”

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