The Traitor's Heir

Chapter Twenty-One

Since they had first met Ausfela they had spent most of their time away from direct sunlight, first when they were underground and then later when they were in the forest.  Even when they were in the clearing she had lingered in the shadows, not taking flight until the sun was down below the horizon.  But now, looking down at the dragon beneath her legs, Quara realized that when they’d ridden out of the volcano and into the blinding light of their very first day above ground, she had never once looked at the dragon that she was riding on.

She had blinked back tears and shaded her eyes and tried to look up at the outside of the mountains that had been her home her entire life, but overcome by her curiosity about the outside world, she’d ignored their unusual mount.  She knew this now, with absolute certainty, and for a moment it distracted her from the very real struggle that she was experiencing to fill her lungs with air, for if she had looked at Ausfela as she gleamed directly in the light of day, even once, she knew that she would have never forgotten it.

The sun danced on the dragon’s metallic scales, reflecting the sun brightly back at the azure world that surrounded them, the bright blue world that she now realized they would never be able to disappear into.  They would never be mistaken for a small dark bird soaring on the currents high above the tree tops.  Ausfela would never appear to anyone who could see her as anything less than an extraordinary creature.  Quara’s eyes watered as they had when she first emerged from the volcano as she stared at the brightness of the sun gleaming on Ausfela’s scales.  Light danced across the dragon’s shining form.  She tore her gaze away and looked back again at the dragon that was swooping down towards the ridge that they had stood on only a few moments earlier.

Quara would later say that she knew the exact moment that he spotted their little group, for he had been racing downwards through the sky and she’d had the distinct impression that he was about to rain down fire onto the forest below, which she rather felt was overkill, since it seemed quite clear that the entire forest would now burn, even without his continued help as an overgrown flame thrower.  Quite suddenly he came to a complete stop.

Turning, her face back towards the direction that they were heading Quara screamed that they’d been seen.  She didn’t have to turn back to know that the dragon was flying after them now and that their flight north had just become far more dangerous.  Their existence was no longer unknown to the enemy.

“If the Emperor knows who we are and where we’re fleeing from he will turn the entire force of his army away towards the Caverns, to find the rest of your family, and towards us as we flee north.  But we may have one small hope that we be spared that trial.  He is a secretive man, distrustful of any and all, even of his servants who appear to be the most loyal. If he has heard of the prophecy he may still be unlikely to have shared it, even with his generals.  He will likely fear that they may turn on him, a fear which any man who rules by terror is right to have.  So the sight of us, while unusual, and while certain to cause the chase that will now commence, may not mean as much to those on the other side who learn of it, as it should.”  Ausfela spoke the words and then fell silent, putting every thought towards speed and out flying the dragon that was pursuing them.

Instinctively Lina leaned forward, pressing herself close to the dragon’s back, and Quara was pulled forward by her sister by her arms, which were still wrapped tightly about the younger girl’s waist.  She leaned forward as she realized what Lina was doing, pressing her face to the side so that she could look back over her shoulder, hoping with all her might that she would not catch a glimpse of the other dragon.

While her sister stared back, watching for the dragon, Lina looked over the dragon’s shoulders and stared hard at the world spread out before them.  They were high now, slightly above even the top of the volcano and the air was cold, despite the heat of the summer day.  Below them lay mostly green mountains, rolling away as far as the eye could see, disappearing into the smoke that now blanketed everything within a full day’s flight.  Ahead, and off to their right was a larger mountain and Lina squinted through the haze, trying to see if her eyes were in fact giving her a reason to hope.

“How can he be so close so quickly?”  Lina heard her sister’s words and pressed her eyes tightly closed for a moment.  It seemed quite likely that they would never reach Za’Reek, but she pushed the thought from her mind and forced her eyes to open so that she could continue scanning.  Was there a place where they might disappear and take refuge from the dragon that was now closing in on them?  Was that mountain what it appeared to be?  “He’s closed nearly half the distance.”  Quara shouted the information out and then buried her face against her sister’s back, working hard at keeping her breathing steady.

Ausfela changed course rapidly, moving to the right she folded her wings tightly against her body as she went into a dive.  She plummeted towards the earth.  Lina gripped the saddle until her fingers ached, and realized that Quara’s body was entirely relaxed.  There was no way that she was still conscious.

She must have fainted when Ausfela began to dive.  Her arms were pinned between her sister’s body and the saddle, keeping her from flopping backwards in the wind.  The harness would keep her sister on the dragon, even if she wasn’t conscious, but Lina was still fairly certain that a person could be injured by striking a dragon if they weren’t in control of their movements.  She couldn’t give the worry much energy though, because a bone rattling sound overtook Ausfela as the dragon behind them let out a great roar, and every other thought that wasn’t entirely devoted to finding a way to escape the crimson dragon who was closing in on them, was driven from her mind.

Lifting her eyes, she gazed ahead again, trying to find the mountain that she thought she’d seen a few moments earlier.  Now that they were hurtling down through the sky, the peculiar mountain was far easier to spot.

The peak rose up, above the monotony of the evergreen mountains that surrounded it.  Its sides shimmered, grey flecked with flashes of silver.  An enormous glacier, surrounded much of the side that they could see as they approached from the west, but it was what was inside the crater that Lina found she simply could not tear her eyes away from.  Down inside the volcano’s crater was a great lake, with three islands, one of which seemed to be fairly large in size, although it was still rather difficult to judge size while traveling at a high speed from such a great distance.

“I’m going to drop you into the water, just near the island, if we get that far.”  Ausfela’s voice sounded much older than it had that morning, and Lina sensed an almost indescribable exhaustion that she innately knew had almost nothing to do with the great distance that they had flown in the previous quarter of an hour and everything to do with the millennia that she had spent working to undermine the greatest evil their world had ever known.  “Take your sister and do whatever you need to do to hide.  I will do whatever I can to buy you as much time as I possibly can.  I am not certain that I will be of much help though.  The dragon behind us is larger and faster than I am and has likely been fighting other dragons in the Emperor’s service for longer than I have been alive.”

“You can beat him.” Lina thought the words back at Ausfela, knowing that if she said them aloud they would sound hollow and fall flat and that she would likely burst into tears the moment that they left her mouth. In her mind she hoped that the dragon wouldn’t be able to hear the tears that she was trying to keep from falling.

“I will try.”  Despite the words, Ausfela sounded entirely devoid of hope.  “But you can’t worry about me. The task that I have waited millennia to fulfill is now at hand and while it is not going quite the way that I had hoped it might, it is still my duty to do all that I can to push on and ensure your safety.  So I need you to listen.  By Quara’s silence am I right to guess that she has fainted?”

“I think so.”

“Let’s hope that it is that and not that she can’t breathe. We can’t stop now. I can’t imagine that the stress of this has helped.  Anyways, here is my plan for you.  I will try to drop you into the shallows, for I don’t think that I will be able to land and I don’t want to drop you onto the hard forest floor.  But from here it looks as though there’s an underwater shelf on that island that goes out quite a ways into the water, where the lava bubbled up to form the island itself, and so I will get you as close as I can and hope that with the soft landing and the time that I can buy you, you might escape.  Then you will need to find a way to hide.  If you can, stay near the water, for he may well burn the forest down here as well, looking for you.”

Lina tried to keep the thoughts that flew through her mind to herself, but she wasn’t sure how successful she was.  The truth was that it didn’t seem like much of a plan at all.  Even if Ausfela was able to buy them an hour of time, which seemed very unlikely, what would it gain them?  The forest outside the volcano was burning rapidly, and it was unlikely that they would make it to Za’Reek on foot without being overtaken, so inside the volcano, in the middle of the lake, did seem to be the safest possible place for them to hide for the time being.  But there was the dragon, who had surely noticed the two small humans clinging to Ausfela’s back and Lina knew that he wasn’t going to leave the crater without them.  How could they hide from him and even if they somehow managed to hide, how would they get away without Ausfela, even if he gave up and left?

The volcano was closer now.  In a matter of minutes they would reach it.  Lina searched the stories of old that her mother had told them every night before they drifted off to dreams when she was small, for a solution.  How did a small, puny human, defeat an enormous dragon?  Turning her head to the side she felt as though her heart had risen up into her throat.  An enormous amber eye, easily as wide as the length of her arm, was only a few lengths away.  She swallowed hard. The dragon was flying alongside them, keeping pace with Ausfela.  His enormous mouth, filled with teeth larger than daggers, was curved into a sort of horrifying smile.  Each of his blood red scales was the size of Lina’s hand.  He was at least ten times larger than the dragon she was riding upon and any hope that she’d had that Ausfela could somehow defeat him on her own suddenly seemed outlandish.

Ausfela, who was entirely focused on her flight to the lake, did not seem to have noticed his proximity.  A story that one of her brothers had told her once, not long after her attempted adventure lowering herself over the edge of that staircase, moved to the forefront of her thoughts.  She had told him with absolute certainty, that one day she would be a dragon rider, and he had laughed and told her the only story of a dragon rider that he knew.  At the time neither of them knew whether or not dragons were really real, although they both wished that they were real at least as much as Quara, who had asked why anyone would want to ride an overgrown lizard with wings, wished that they weren’t.

In the story, the brave dragon rider had stood on the back of his dragon and unsheathed his sword and loped off the head of the dragon that was attacking his beloved mount.  Lina knew that she couldn’t cut the enormous dragon’s head off, but perhaps she could do something to help give Ausfela some sort of an advantage.

The dragon appeared to be overconfident in his position.  Or perhaps it wasn’t over confidence, Lina thought dryly.  Maybe it was well deserved confidence.  What were their chances, really, even if she could get to the dagger that had been brought along at the bottom of the saddle bag, the blade that she had used the night before when she’d skinned the rabbits?  Her left arm was on the side away from the dragon, which was perhaps the one bit of luck that they’d had all day. She was almost entirely certain that she’d returned the knife to the left saddle bag after cleaning it carefully in the stream.

Still bent over Ausfela’s neck she worked with her left hand to open the saddle bag that hung from the cantle.  She slipped her hand past the wrapped meat, and tore her eyes from the dragon, looking ahead.  They were close to the lip of the crater now, in moments they would be past it.  In order to have any chance at surviving the insane act that she was about to undertake, she would have to time her attack with perfect precision.  Even then she knew that it was unlikely that any of them would survive the encounter with the battle tested dragon.  And yet she found room for hope in her heart.

Hadn’t she done things that others had said were dangerous for as long as she could remember and it had always come out alright?  Her brain had a knack for calculating angles and distances, without the use of numbers of quills, so that her well timed jumps always ended exactly as they should.  Up until now those calculated risks had seemed pointless to everyone around her, but a small part of Lina had begun to believe in the previous sixty seconds, that perhaps they weren’t pointless at all.  Perhaps every moment in her life had been leading up to this one, where she had one chance to save her sister and a dragon who they had only just met, who for some reason believed a rather far-fetched prophecy and who had sworn to protect them.

Did she believe the prophecy?  Lina wasn’t entirely sure.  She would have said no, that it was impossible that two girls who’d lived their entire lives in a little protected pocket of a mountain made of stone would somehow be destined to climb up out of that mountain and defeat the evil Emperor who ruled most of the world.  Yet at the same time, as she looked back over the past days, the idea didn’t seem quite so absurd.  What were the chances that she would have stumbled upon the City and then, in that entire city that she would have found the very room that might lead to the place where the dragon had been waiting for them for millennia?  What were the chances that they would be in that room when the staircase they had walked down minutes earlier collapsed, locking them inside and forcing them to look for a different way out?  And what were the chances that they would meet a dragon, waiting to meet two girls, far under the earth, if they weren’t actually the ones the dragon had been expecting for all those years?

Suddenly the fantastic seemed possible.  And wasn’t it possible then, that she might be both the dragon rider that her five year old self had believed that she was born to be, and also one of the two girls spoken of in the prophecy?  And if that was true than wasn’t it likely, despite the odds, that they might actually survive this?  The prophet had been right about their arrival, against incredible odds.  Was this anymore unlikely?

The thought stilled the trembling that had made it almost impossible for her right hand to undo the buckle at her waist.  She gripped the handle of the dagger with her left hand and pulled it from the saddle bag, careful to keep it out of sight as she sat up, and turned to face the dragon.  He was still hovering next to them, as though he were strolling along by their sides, using only a fraction of the speed he possessed, while Ausfela was pushing herself to the limit in her attempt to get them to what she imagined might be safety.  Lina was now absolutely certain that the only chance that they had was to remove the threat that this dragon posed.

Giving Quara’s hand a squeeze she sat forward, and released her sister’s hands from her waist.  She felt a wave of relief as Quara sat back, held in place by the harness, which offered more support than she had imagined it was capable of.  She was sitting up straight now, the wind pushing her short chocolate brown hair back from her face, and for a moment the dragon’s frightening grin dimmed.  Perhaps he realized that she was not as entirely defenseless as he had imagined.

The girl closest to the dragon’s head had looked at him with a wild fierceness in her eyes, and for a fleeting moment he recognized the expression as one that he had only seen in the eyes of a few of the greatest of the warriors that he had faced over the centuries.  It was odd, seeing the same fierce determination reflected in the small girl’s icy blue eyes.

Still, it isn’t really any wonder that the dragon’s smile returned and that he didn’t falter, even for a moment in his flight.  Perhaps, he thought to himself, if he let the dragon drop the girls on the ground, as she seemed intent on doing, he could deal with the Starseeker and then return the girls to the army alive to see if they had any information that could be of value.  After all, anyone riding a dragon was very likely of interest to the Emperor, even if they did look like simple peasants.  He’d heard stories that a dragon still lived in these mountains, but he hadn’t really believed until this moment that those rumors were anything more than the product of exhausted watchmen’s overactive imaginations.  Up until he’d seen the little golden dragon streaking across the sky he had firmly believed that all the dragons in this part of the world had fled north millennia earlier, or had fallen during the great dragon purge that had rid the Charcha of dragons who were unwilling to pledge their allegiance to the Emperor.

The appearance of the small golden dragon was truly the most interesting thing that had happened to Grislingham in a very long time.  He couldn’t remember the last time something truly surprising had happened to him.  He guessed it was back when he’d been on the leading edge of the burning of the plains and had been told upon returning to the camp that the very specific family of humans that he had been seeking had somehow slipped through the ever tightening trap they’d carefully formed around the edges of the last remaining enemy stronghold within Charcha that had been out in the open.

That had been a surprise, a terrible, terrible surprise.  The Emperor had been in a rage.  If he hadn’t known the Emperor for his entire life he knew that he, like the other’s in charge of the operation, would not have lived a moment longer.  But he had known the Emperor for the man’s entire lifespan and he was spared the worst of his rage, although his punishment meant being sent around the kingdom, to the most boring places that existed, searching for the small group of humans that his master felt the need to punish.

Once, thousands of years earlier, Grislingham had agreed with the Emperor, and had even felt that same thirst for vengeance, but of late he felt that he truly had been avenged many times over and wondered how long the fighting would go on.  In a way he was tired of it all.  The dragon focused his eyes forward for a moment as they came up over the ridge of the volcano.

The crater was filled with sparkling blue water.  Three islands, two small and one quite large, peeked their heads above the water near the crater’s center.  They would reach the water in less than a minute at their present speed.  An enormous dark shape, and a flash of silver rippling at the surface moved below them, near one of the islands, capturing his attention, so that he didn’t see Lina unbuckle her harness and never realized that she was holding her left hand in a rather unnatural manner as she stared at a creature that she should rightly have been terrified of.  It wasn’t until he felt the blow hit the left side of his head that he realized that he really had underestimated the girl.  And by then it was entirely too late.

If Ausfela had known what Lina was planning she would have tried to stop her.  She hadn’t yet known Lina for long enough to discover that when the girl made up her mind to do something that she thought was necessary it was virtually impossible to stop her.  Luckily for their entire group, she didn’t suspect a thing.  She was so focused on getting the girls to safety, even if it was only imagined safety, that she was almost entirely oblivious to everything that was going on behind her head.  When Lina had stood she was shocked, but by that point there was nothing that she could do that wouldn’t make the situation worse.  If she flew on, without changing directions or speed, it was likely that Lina would fall, but if she made any sudden moves that fall would become almost certain.

Nothing could have prepared Ausfela for what Lina did next.  The dragon whipped her long head around, wheeling in the air, the moment that she felt the small dark haired girl launch herself from her back, headed straight for the massive red dragon’s enormous head.  There was a flash of silver as her right hand shot out, swinging forward in an arc even as she soared the two lengths that had separated the two dragons when she’d jumped.

With all of her strength she plunged the dagger into the dragon’s eye.  She had not thought far beyond that moment, assuming that she would likely be thrown from the dragon and would fall down into the water, while simultaneously hoping with all her might that she had injured the red dragon to such an extent that Ausfela would be able to overpower him.  Instead of plunging downwards into the lake her left hand instinctively shot out and she caught herself on one of the dragon’s long crimson whiskers.  The dragon roared in pain, and tossed his head and she found herself flung through the air.  Out of sheer desperation she managed to keep her left hand tightly clasped around the whisker, momentarily giving thanks that he was a type of dragon that had whiskers that almost made him look as though he had a mustache of sorts, although the rope like thing in her hand didn’t really feel like hair at all.  She had also somehow managed to keep hold of the dagger, which was now slimy and wet, as was her entire arm to the shoulder.  She landed hard, against the bridge of the dragon’s nose, and began to cough from the force of the blow to her back.

It took her a moment, as she caught her breath, to realize that she was now quite close to the dragon’s remaining eye.   The dragon was still tossing his head from side to side, although not nearly as wildly as he had during the moment when she had stabbed him.  Lina feared that she might be thrown off at any time.  If he hadn’t been so preoccupied with the pain in his left eye, he would have thought to make sure that she was unable to do any further damage.  Yet he also knew that he had orders to capture any humans that were found in the forest for questioning, and so he would rather that she not be drowned in the waters below.  Few humans knew how to swim in this time of war.  So it was that between the pain in his eye and the desire to bring these humans back to the interrogators in one piece so that they could be questioned, he gave Lina just enough time to do the one thing that he really wished she wouldn’t do.

Swinging her right hand back she slammed the dagger into the dragon’s remaining eye with all of her might and then yanked the knife sideway.  The dragon roared again, flames shooting from his enormous mouth, as he tossed his head from side to side in the terrible darkness that now blanketed his entire world.  Lina lost her grip on the dagger and let go of the whisker before she was slammed into the dragon’s head a second time.

In the moment that followed Ausfela was blasted with the flames.  They caught her fully across the chest before she could move, which was the best possible thing that could have happened, for her chest could withstand the scorching heat of dragon fire, but Quara who was on her back, most certainly could not.  She moved as quickly as she could, hearing Quara wake, screaming as the flames burned the bottom of her feet through her melting boots, since they were not entirely protected by the bulk of the dragon’s body.

That, however, was not the worst thing that happened in the long, slow seconds that followed Lina’s brave act.  Before Lina had fallen more than three lengths the red dragon’s tail lashed through the air as he flailed wildly, unable to see anything around him, striking Lina as she plummeted towards the water.  The girl’s limp form as she fell let Ausfela know that even if she had survived the blow, she certainly was no longer conscious and was in no state to even keep her head above water, much less swim for the shore.

Ausfela dove towards Lina, knowing that there was no way that she would make it to her before she hit the surface.  Lina did not have far to fall, but she was unconscious and the dragon realized that she had never asked if either of the girls knew how to swim.  The oversight, she knew, was enormous.  How could she have expected that any child who had spent her entire life in a deep dark cave would somehow know how to swim?  They had a chance now, a real chance, to escape this dragon, and Lina might not survive it.  Quara bent forward over the dragon’s neck, willing Ausfela to fly faster as they neared her sister.  She had no idea how Lina had come out of her harness, and didn’t know why the red dragon no longer seemed to be chasing them, but although she was reeling in pain, she was also determined to help save her sister.

Her feet and legs felt as though they had been dipped in the lava that likely lay deep beneath the volcano and the lake that they were racing towards, but mustering all of her self-control she pushed those thoughts aside.  There would be time to look at her feet and see what state they were in later.  In that moment the only thing that mattered was saving her unconscious sister from drowning.

Quara did not know how to swim, and she was not entirely certain whether Lina did.  She did know that her sister did things that were not allowed and that she’d obviously spent a great deal of time exploring near the underground lake, so it seemed like a distinct possibility that Lina was not entirely without skills in the water.  Teaching herself to swim, secretly, did seem like just the sort of thing that Lina would do. None of that really mattered though.  It seemed unlikely that the icy water would revive her sister.  When she hit the surface she would begin to sink.  Ausfela was her only hope.

Lina was a length from the water when the enormous silver head appeared below the surface.  Quara screamed.  Ausfela pulled up from her dive so that they didn’t collide.  What she was seeing was impossible.  Could a water dragon have survived all this time, far from the sea and from Za’Reek, in the depths of this lake?

The serpent rose up, catching Lina in her coils a moment before she hit the water.  Lina lay still, a red mark blossoming across the side of her face and forehead.  If it hadn’t been for the mark she would have looked exactly as if she had only fallen asleep, in the oddest of places.  The serpent dipped her head in greeting, and then stared past Ausfela and Quara at the red dragon, still thrashing wildly not all that far above the surface of the lake.

“Well that certainly is surprising.  I had thought that I would be the one to save you three, but it looks like this small one did it all on her own.  Remarkable.  Still, I don’t suppose we can leave him up there like that, can we?  We’re not like the other side, and leaving him to the elements, or to starve, would make us more like them than we could stand.  What was done was necessary, but we shouldn’t go much beyond it, or the true danger will begin, don’t you agree?”

Ausfela and Quara stared at the creature, and when they didn’t speak, she continued.  “I am Marella, the keeper of this lake and the protector of the city that lies within it.  You are welcome here.  Come.  We have much to do and we will need help.”

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.