The Traitor's Heir


Quara had sat beside her sister’s bedside for nearly as long as the great golden dragon lurked in the room, clinging to her hand, and watching as they waited for her to stir.  Once Quara had drifted off to sleep sitting up and had jerked awake, thinking for a moment that perhaps Lina had squeezed her hand, only to find that her sister was still lying completely still in the bed.

Ausfela never rested, but stayed all the while by Lina’s side, her enormous eyes unblinking as they waited, listening to the slow, steady sound of Lina’s breathing.  News from the outside world flitted into the dimly lit room.  The great red dragon had been captured and was now being held prisoner somewhere in the labyrinth of tunnels that extended down below the city itself.  There was hope that with time he might come to realize that he had been fighting for the wrong side for over three thousand years and that his loyalties were misplaced.

Quara still couldn’t walk on her own, but as long as her feet were wrapped it was no longer excruciating to let them touch the floor or couch, even when the blessed numbness of the salve that was slathered on the bottoms of her feet three times a day began to wear off before the next application.  Her feet still looked terrible when she caught sight of them when the bandages were being changed, but she was repeatedly reassured that after a month or two they would be as good as new.

On the eighth day Quara sat by her sister’s side, sewing a new tunic for Lina to wear when she woke.  Quara appeared to be the only person in the entire city who would not entertain the idea that any other outcome was possible.  The old shirt that Lina had been wearing since they began their journey was a complete loss, stained with black dragon’s blood to the shoulders from the moment when she’d plunged the knife into the dragon’s eye.  Ausfela had told Quara the story of her sister’s bravery every single day as they waited for her to wake, so that Quara could nearly see the moment in her mind’s eye.  More often though, she sat and thought of the moment when she had woken to the searing pain of fire climbing up her legs and had seen her sister plummeting towards the lake.

As she sat and sewed she turned over in her mind the things that she had learned from the story of the early history of the struggle against the Emperor.  The story had not unfolded the way she had expected once she had realized that it was the same story, or a version of it, as the one that she had read back in the Caverns in her sister’s little hiding place.  The reading of that first story had felt as though it had taken place ages ago, and not a mere week and a half.  She pushed away thoughts of her family and how her parents and siblings must be worried sick by now, searching for them within the enormous Caverns, likely believing that they had fallen into some chasm and disappeared forever.

Sometimes she felt like maybe they had.  They had slid down into the bowels of the earth and while they had risen back up into the sky on the back of a dragon could anyone really say if they would ever return.  Maybe they had, in a way, fallen to their deaths.  The task before them loomed large and the dangers were abundant.  Although the army outside the doors of their little home meant that staying put hardly meant that they would have been safe, she reminded herself at least twice a day.

She didn’t really know how she should feel about being descended from the man who she had thought was the villain in that first story, the man who had held the cup that poisoned the princess.  She had to admit that when Ausfela first began speaking of royalty back in the dragon caves she had hoped that they might be descended from the King in the story, that they would learn that he had gone on with his life and married, and that the evil Emperor who had haunted their land was descended from the traitor who had held the cup.

Quara felt that she knew what her sister would think if she woke to hear the story.  She would be convinced that it was their duty to end the years of strife that had resulted from that horrible evening.  Perhaps it was their duty, Quara thought, leaning back in her chair.  But sometimes she found herself asking herself why she’d agreed to explore the City in the first place, and would nearly convince herself that the entire story of their royal lineage was simply a horrible mistake.  They had simply stumbled into the right place at the wrong time.  Maybe two other girls, the real royals, had followed the same path and were supposed to be down there in that horrible darkness about to meet Ausfela, but now the way had been blocked by the falling stairs.

Deep down, in the depths of her soul, she knew that that wasn’t true.  Their story was fantastic enough as it was.  That sort of thing didn’t happen twice.  And no other girl within those caves had explored them the way Lina had.  Quara was convinced that unless the miner’s had broken through into the City, they were the only ones who knew about it.

Did that automatically mean that the story was true though?  It seemed impossibly fantastic.  Had the Emperor really been hunting her family for three thousand years?  Was his need for vengeance, for blotting their line from existence, really the reason for the death and destruction that had plagued their world for far too long?

She had asked the last question to the story teller on Lina’s third day of sleep and the elderly woman had sat at her side and sighed and said that the King’s violence may have begun that night, but it would not have ended, even if Hobnar had surrendered himself immediately.  The King feared that every person near him, and those far away as well, were a threat to his throne.  He would always imagine threats where none existed.  And the darkness that he had invited into his soul, or traded it away for, would not simply be still if he finally met his goal.  It would go on seeking, chasing after death and destruction as it had century after century.  There was only one happy ending to this story now, and it would only come if he was toppled off his throne.

He had chosen evil again and again, until it had so twisted his soul that he was unable to come back from the path that he had chosen.  If he could choose mercy, even once, she thought aloud, everything might be different, but he never did.  Death and destruction were the hallmark of his rule.  They could not expect that an end to the violence would come from his side.

They were called to greatness, the woman had said with complete confidence.  It was proven now, by the path that they had taken.  They had defeated one of the Emperor’s most powerful dragons, a beast that had killed millions, with a small knife and a full measure of courage.  Who knew what they could do with an army behind them, she whispered, and her eyes danced as she imagined a future different from the only past that any of them had ever known.  The time of the prophecy had finally come.  They who had been utterly without hope now saw an end to their struggles.  And they rested entirely on the shoulders of two young girls who two weeks earlier, had only dreamed of seeing the light of day.

When the body of the shirt was finished Quara had begun to embroider tiny golden dragons along the bottom edge of the cream colored top.  She had just finished the fifth dragon when she heard her sister take a long, slow breath that stood apart from the steady breaths she’d been listening to, hour after hour, day after day.  Quara bolted to her feet and then sat down heavily as pain shot through the blisters that had only just begun to heal.  It must have been nearly time for the salve, a small part of her mind noted, but most of her attention was fixed on her sister.

That breath meant something.  Ausfela immediately drew nearer, having noticed the change too.  “Is she alright?  Should we call someone?” The dragon’s voice was frantic within her mind.  Before Quara could answer Lina’s toes moved ever so slightly and then she stretched her arms out, before finally managing to open her heavy eyelids, her gaze sweeping from side to side once, then twice, then three times, before she could finally focus on her sister.

“Lina!”  Quara found that words failed her as she gripped her sister’s hand and waited for her to speak.  Would she still be the same?  She had over heard stories of people who’d been transformed by blows to the head while she’d sat at her sister’s side.

Over the course of the previous week she had inadvertently listened to conversations in the hallway outside where people all too often volunteered stories that left the older girl even more terrified than she had been when they began talking.  At least no one told her the stories directly, she had thought.  She wasn’t sure that she would be able to contain her tears if they did.

“Are we dead?”  Lina moved her head and looked around the room, spotted Ausfela, and then raised a trembling hand to her temple.  The movement had obviously cost her.  “Did the red dragon kill all three of us and I’m waking up in the next world?”  Her voice, as she pressed her head back into the pillow and squeezed her eyes tightly shut, was weak and distant.

“You have too much left to do in this world to go sprinting off into the next so soon.” Ausfela had moved her head over so that she was so near that Lina could reach out and touch the side of her enormous golden head.

“You won the fight with the dragon though Lina.  You saved all of us.  We wouldn’t have survived without what you did.  Would we have Ausfela?”

The dragon moved her head from side to side and sighed.  “We most certainly would not have.  In all my years I can say without a single doubt that it’s the single bravest thing that I ever witnessed.”

“And then I fell?”  Lina pressed the palms of her hands against her eyes as she spoke.  “And did no one catch me?  Did I hit the ground headfirst to cause this terrible pain?”

“I’ll call for the healers.  We should have the moment you opened your eyes.”  Quara’s voice was filled with excitement and Lina winced at the increase in volume.  Standing a second time, she quickly realized her mistake and sank back into the chair, her eyes watering with pain.  “Or maybe Ausfela can call someone.  Yes, that seems like a far better idea.”

“You’re hurt?”  Lina pushed herself up on her elbow and stared down at her sister’s bandaged feet.  “What happened?  I thought that the dragon was done for by the time that I began to fall.”

“I’m fine really, it’s just a blast of dragon fire that’s taking it’s time healing.”  Quara gritted her teeth and tried to force her lips into a smile, but it came out looking more like a grimace.  “And you were caught, by a great silver serpent that lives in the lake.  But on your way down the dragon’s tail gave you quite the blow to the head and so you’ve been asleep for a while.  The healers said that your brain needed time to heal.”

“Healers?  Does this mean that you’ve somehow gotten us to Za’Reek?”  Lina had begun to close her eyes against the light after making sure that her sister was going to survive whatever injuries she had incurred during the battle, but now she opened them and looked around.

“No, we’re still at the lake.  Under it really.”  Quara raised her hands to point upwards at the lake somewhere above them as she gave the explanation while Lina stared up at the ceiling.

“So we’re in caves again?”  Lina’s voice was beginning to sound stronger, the longer she stayed awake.

“Not exactly.”  Quara thought of the dome over their heads and the great silver dragon that guarded it.  “We’re inside of a great glass dome that has a city all of its own tucked within it.  There are other people Lina, that have survived in hiding just like us.  And there’s more, so much more of the story that you’ll find out-”

“After you’ve been looked over and rested and had something to eat.”  One of the naiad healers, dressed in blue, arrived at the door and smiled.

“I think I’ve had enough rest to last me the rest of my life.”  Lina mumbled the words and glanced over at Ausfela, who was beaming happily now that her younger charge was awake.

“Healing takes time and rest.  And both of you still have plenty of healing to do.  From what I’ve heard, in the not too distant future, you’ll both have plenty of time to go out and save the world, and that will give you ample opportunity for sleepless days and nights.  But right now we need to make sure you’re healed enough to go off on those adventures and I can say without even examining either of you, that you’ve both got a ways to go.”  Quara glanced down at her feet and knew that he was right, but Lina was now trying to sit up.  The healer shook his head.

After a moment’s effort Lina’s face turned an unhealthy shade of white that bordered on green, and she fell back against her pillow.  “You took quite the blow to the head.  You’ll feel like that for a while if you do too much.  And sometimes even if you don’t.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be back with the entire team who’s been taking care of you so that we can take a look at you and see how you’re doing.”  He disappeared through the doorway, closing it quietly behind him as Lina leaned back heavily against the pillow, pressing the palms of her hands against her eyes to block out the light and keep the room from spinning.

“Lina, they’re asking a lot of us.  They think that we’re supposed to save the entire world and they have this crazy idea about who we are that goes so far beyond anything that Ausfela told us.”  Quara turned for a moment and looked at the dragon, who was suddenly interested in a bookshelf on the opposite side of the room.  Ausfela had steadily evaded all of Quara’s attempts to engage her in any sort of conversation in which she might confirm what the story teller had said.

“So when can we get started?”  Lina sounded as if she might try to get up again and Ausfela’s head whipped around fast, fixing the small girl with a fierce gaze.

“I guess that’s what the doctors will come in and tell us.  But the question will remain, even after they give us a timeframe, whether we’re going to accept this mantle that’s being thrust at us.  Do we really believe that we’re long lost royalty who are supposed to come out of that volcano to help save the world?”

Lina was quiet for several minutes.  Her hands had dropped to her sides while Quara was speaking, and for a moment the older girl was nearly certain that she had drifted off to sleep.  Finally Lina found the words she had been searching for and began to speak:

“Someone has to do it.  Someone has to save the world.  And why shouldn’t it be us?  We’ve begun the most fantastic of adventures.  We’ve befriended a dragon.  And now our home is being attacked.  What other choice do we have?  We can’t go slinking home.  Our home is surrounded by an army that we both know has been hunting our family for thousands of years.  But even if they weren’t there, even if going home to hide in a hole for the rest of our lives was a choice, how could it ever be the choice that either of us would actually accept?  Can you live with letting innocent people continue to die, because we were afraid to embrace the path that has been set before us?

“But how can we really know that it was set before us?  How can we know that it’s real?”  The questions summed up the concerns that Quara had spent the previous week silently battling.

“Does it really matter whether the prophecy is real or not, and I believe that it is, if we take up the task set before us and pursue it wholeheartedly?  Is there anything in all the world more worthy of our lives?  If we fail we may lose everything, but if we don’t try we’re going to lose everything anyways.  If I’m going to lose my life I would much rather lose it doing what’s right, than lose it hiding in a cave, shivering with fear while I wonder if the enemy is coming around the corner to find me.  There’s no going back, not really.”

Now it was Quara’s turn to sit silently, absorbing her sister’s words.  She knew that she was right and wished that she wasn’t.  She would give anything to go back to the days when they had never set eyes on the sun or the sky, but could be certain that they would hear their brother’s jokes and laughter around the dinner table each night.

“So, are you going to come with me too?  Are we in this together?  Or are you going to try to find a way home?”  Lina watched her sister, intently, waiting for an answer.

“I can’t very well let you go rushing off to war alone, can I?  Who knows what kind of trouble you two would get into if I wasn’t around to act as the voice of common sense and keep you both out of trouble.”  Quara smiled weakly as she said the words, and Lina knew that she was trying to convince herself that they were making the right decision.

“That settles it.  We leave as soon as we’re well enough to travel.”

“In the meantime,” Ausfela said with what Quara thought looked very much like a smile, “let me tell the story again, in a little more detail, of how we came to be here.  It looks rather different from a dragon’s perspective, but you’ll still get the idea. I’m sure the naiads and humans will insist on having their version told as well, but dragons really are the best of history keepers, since we can take such a long view of the goings on in the world.  Let’s see, where shall I begin?  I guess in the generation in which your family history becomes the most contentious and sets off the spark that will ultimately set the entire world on fire?  It’s as good a place as any.  You see, as it so often does, our story begins with a girl, and it just so happened that she was the most beautiful girl that the king had ever seen.  The moment that he saw her, he loved her.  And that was the beginning of the end of the world as we dragons knew it.”

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