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To the Dragon's Maw

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Alesia's heartbeat throbbed in her chest, seeming as if it must surely echo through the trees.

But would it truly matter if it did? They were so close to their destination, and they seemed to have kept ahead of their pursuers so far.

Princess Ulara had used one of her blessings—one out of the three the castle-spirits had given her at her birth—on the both of them, after all.

Her three blessings had been these:

That your people go forth to plunder, and return triumphant.

That your people ride out swiftly to execute your will.

That the dragon shall wake at your call.

Ulara had used the first two already; the second was what had kept them ahead of Refen's hunters for so long, and the first...

They had needed a change in horses. There had truly been no helping it; their mounts had been exhausted. And so Ulara had spent one of her blessings on Alesia's quest to acquire two more who could take them on the last leg of their journey into the Ghostwood.

Alesia had hated the thought of stooping to theft—but she'd hated the thought of losing her princess far more. She had no idea who here she could trust, and who might sympathize with Refen; to reveal themselves would put them at risk enough that it might even overcome the blessing's protection—and, even if the one they sought aid from was on their side, that person might find themselves in danger for helping them. And so Alesia crept into a stable one night and snuck out a pair of horses, leaving the weary ones behind, as payment of a sort, promising herself that the new horses' owner would be better compensated once Ulara was back on the throne.

She'd returned as triumphant as the blessing had promised—but she hated the waste of it all. The princess had been given three blessings, and no more. By the end of this venture, all three would have been used, all thanks to the usurper Refen.

Refen was Ulara's half-brother; his mother had been King Belur's consort, but he had divorced her shortly after she became pregnant, cutting him out of the line of inheritance and denying him the birth-blessings that he would have received, had he been accepted as the heir. The official explanation for the divorce was that he'd consulted a soothsayer about the child to be and been told that the baby was not his, but Refen very much resembled King Belur, and there were those who claimed the true reason was that Belur had been much taken with Ulara's mother, and had wanted to set aside a spouse he no longer felt much affection for.

There had always been whispers—seemingly never more than faint mutterings of discontent that Refen had been robbed, his crown stolen from him and placed on the head of a half-foreign princess.

But King Belur and Princess Ulara had known nothing of the plotting behind those whispers until it was too late.

The spirits of the castle had no particular sense of loyalty to one ruler or another; they'd accept any heir the current ruler chose, and would accept an usurper without any qualms, offering the same set of blessings to the usurper and their own heirs, provided the usurper could hold the Redhill Castle, home to the royals of the kingdom of Milari, for three sets of seasons.

King Belur had earned his own blessings that way, deposing his cousin as a young man.

After Ulara reached the Dragon's Maw, the cave deep within the Ghostwood where a dragon—one of those great spirits of earth and flame, who could, at times, take corporeal form, and who sometimes deigned to help mortals—slept, Refen would, if all went according to plan, find himself with nowhere near enough time to gain the castle-spirits' blessings. The last time the dragon had been awakened had been over two hundred years ago, when the Northern Emperor's army had been sweeping across the continent, conquering every nation in its path. The dragon of the Ghostwood had ended that, routing the great army, then devouring a vast herd of cattle and sheep—which had been her promised payment—and returning once more to her hibernation.

Others had tried to wake the dragon since, and had failed. Not all had returned alive, though whether that was due to the dragon or the spirits of the Ghostwood was anyone's guess.

A spirit-blessed royal and a small escort—in this case, an escort of one—could pass through the Ghostwood in relative safety; whatever the reason, the spirits of the Ghostwood didn't seem inclined to interfere too much with someone who held the blessings of their castle-spirit cousins.

But most others, unless they had some spirit protections of their own, would find themselves faced by various perils—they might be drawn off their path by illusions, lured over a precipice or into the deeper portions of the river or simply too deep into the woods to ever find their way out; they might be put to sleep by a mist-spirit's touch, dreaming quietly until they died of thirst; and if they were so foolish as to enter the forest at night, they might be set upon by shade-hounds, which were mere shadows in the day, but corporeal enough at night to tear down the living.

These dangers were probably why Refen hadn't sent hunters into the Ghostwood ahead of them, to guard the Dragon's Maw—that, or he'd had entirely too much faith in his initial plan to slay the king and his heir in one fell swoop. Once he'd realized that Ulara had escaped him—spirits bless that impromptu trip out into the countryside she and Ulara had made that day!—he would have known there was only one place she would be thinking of going.

Her blessings were fairly common knowledge, after all—the third, especially, for its promise that the dragon would be woken again in her lifetime.

But surely, Alesia thought, that blessing would have been better used to protect the kingdom from an outside threat—not one from within.

Three blessings, all used up by the time Ulara took her rightful crown—such a shameful waste.

Not that Ulara wouldn't make a splendid queen without those in reserve; she was, in Alesia's mind, precisely what a proper princess ought to be—strong, intelligent, beautiful, an excellent horsewoman, skillful with a bow, calm in a crisis.

Even now, with both of them weary, travel-worn, unwashed, and mussed, Alesia couldn't help but feel love swell in her heart when she looked over at Ulara.

Ulara, who she'd known from when they'd both been children, as Alesia's mother, Lesara, had been close to Ulara's mother, Queen-Consort Sephal, and so Ulara and Alesia had become friends, often exploring the castle together and competing against each other at archery.

They'd both lost their mothers at the same time of the violet fever that had swept through the castle seven years ago, and perhaps that too had helped forge their bond.

There had been no question of what Alesia was going to choose to do with her life. She had taken up a knight's armor, studied swordcraft alongside archery, and when she'd come of age, had sworn a solemn oath to serve her monarch unto death.

And though King Belur had been the one on the throne... in her heart, Alesia's monarch was, and would always be, Ulara.

For Ulara, Alesia was willing lay down her life. Was that not what the epics said—that to die for another was the deepest expression of love there was?

For the time being, however, she was very much alive, and so she currently devoted herself to helping keep Ulara so, as well.

Together, they hurried through the woods—Alesia had forgone her usual light riding-armor along with their horses at the outskirts of the Ghostwood; the horses would hopefully find their way home, and if not, there was plentiful grazing about. The woods were too tangled and thick to ride through with any real speed, and speed was what they needed now.

Ulara just had to reach the Dragon's Maw. Once she did, all would be well.

Or... all would be more well than it was right now. King Belur would still be dead, of course. The kingdom would be in some disarray. But at least Ulara would have her rightful place on the throne, as queen.

A spirit flickered in the corner of Alesia's vision; Alesia turned to look at it, and had the faint impression of a tattered, faded figure that had once been human—perhaps one of those who'd died in these woods, tempted from their path by a mischievous will o' wisp, or devoured by a pack of shade-hounds.

But Ulara was spirit-blessed, though she'd spent two-thirds of her blessings, and Alesia supposed she ought to be grateful for the dangers of the Ghostwood insofar as they could help hold their pursuers at bay.

Although... once the third blessing was spent, would the spirits still let them pass unhindered? Certainly, King Belur, who had spent his own blessings in the past, never came this way. Perhaps the dragon could carry them past the dangers? In any case, that was a problem that could wait; Alesia turned her attentions back to the matter at hand. She placed her hand on the hilt of her sword, looking around, listening for any sign of danger.

At last, the two of them reached the Dragon's Maw—a dark fissure in the side of a rocky hill. They'd both been here twice before, though they'd gone no deeper than the entrance—deep enough to hear the whisper of wind through the cave, which had seemed as if it might be the dragon's breathing. Ulara had wanted to be certain that she knew the way—and she'd been curious to at least see the place where she expected, one day, to come in order to entreat the dragon within.

Though surely she'd imagined raising the dragon to defeat a foe from beyond Milari's borders, not from within.

Still, this would at least rid Ulara of the greatest threat to her throne—Refen was the one who had the strongest competing claim to the monarchy.

After a brief pause to light their torches, with Alesia alert every moment for any sign that their pursuers were drawing near, they entered the cave.

The entrance to the Maw was narrow enough that they had to enter one at a time, with Ulara before and Alesia behind.

The cave was cool, and damp, and quiet save for the occasional drip of water and the constant whisper of the wind. The passage seemed to go on a long way, constantly sloping downward.

At last, the passage widened slightly—enough that they could stand side by side, with a bit of space to spare—and shortly thereafter, they reached what seemed to be a dead end. Before them was a great chasm in the earth, and it was here, the legends said, that the dragon slept.

Ulara knelt at the edge of the abyss, and Alesia shifted uneasily, gripped by a sudden, not-entirely-rational fear that Ulara would lose her balance and fall in.

“Dragon,” said Ulara, and her voice echoed against the chasm's walls—dragon, dragon, dragon...

Ulara took another breath. “Dragon,” she said, “Wake up, for I would speak with you.”

There was no reply, save for the echoes.

“Dragon,” said Ulara, “by the blessing given to me by the spirits of Redhill Castle, wake up, and hear my desire.”

For a few more moments, there was still no sound but the echoing of Ulara's voice—and Alesia despaired briefly at the thought that all of this had been in vain, and that she'd only escorted her princess into worse danger when they might have headed straight for the border and sought refuge—Ulara's mother had relativesa in Daivask, after all...

But then, a rumbling voice came out from the earth, a voice that seemed to shake the foundations of the earth itself: “I hear you, human. And I will hear your request.”

Alesia thought she could see something moving in the depths of the chasm—some great, coiled creature with scales that faintly reflected the torchlight, something she swore hadn't been there before...

Deep in the darkness, she thought she could see two bright, constant sparks—the dragon's eyes, perhaps.

Ulara took another long, slow, breath.

“Dragon,” she whispered. “Could you... are you able to...”

She fell silent.

“Princess?” Alesia said.

“Human,” said the dragon, unblinking, “What is it that you desire? And what are you willing to trade for it?”

“My kingdom has been stolen from me,” said Ulara. “My half-brother has killed my father and taken his throne. He has many supporters, who my father and I never knew of until it was too late..”

“You wish me to rise and slay them?” said the dragon. The temperature in the chamber seemed to rise, suddenly, and the dragon's eyes flashed, bright and red-gold. “I am no stranger to bloodshed, but you, I think, have less of a taste for it.”

Ulara was silent.

“You know what would come if I rose from the earth,” said the dragon. “I can kill your half-brother and his forces, and I can burn down the homes of those who support him. But the price for blood is blood, human. And though I once accepted a great host of livestock in payment to rout an army, that is not what I would ask of you, oh spirit-blessed princess.”

Ulara swallowed. “What, then?” she asked, her voice so low that Alesia could hardly hear her.

“Your companion,” said the dragon. “I will take her life in exchange for your kingdom.”

Alesia inhaled sharply, her mouth going suddenly dry.

But she straightened, regathered herself, and said, “You know I'm willing to give my life for you, my lady.”

For Ulara would surely never be safe as long as her half-brother lived; he would quite rightly see her as a threat to his throne. Even if she fled to Daivask, to seek refuge with her mother's relatives there, she would always be in fear that Refen would someday send an agent to assassinate her, to prevent her coming back to take the throne as Refen had done to his father.

If her life was all it took to see Ulara safely back on the throne... then surely, it was Alesia's duty to do so.

But Ulara, still looking down into the darkness, replied, “But I am not willing to give your life, my...” She trailed off.

“You have been beside me my whole life,” said Ulara. “In pain and in joy. To lose you would be to lose half of myself. You are...” Ulara looked up at her, tears welling in her eyes. “How could you think I would do such a thing to you, who I love?”

“I...” Alesia stepped forward to kneel beside her princess. “I want you to be safe. I want you to have your kingdom, your throne, all the honor you're worthy of.”

“And I would give all of it up,” said Ulara, taking Alesia's hands. “I don't want it any more. I don't want to live my life in fear of hidden conspiracies—of a knife in the dark wielded by one of my own kin. My father's reign began and ended in bloodshed. I don't want any part of this, not any longer. I have already given up my inheritance of blessings; I would rather be nothing, without title or property, than live without you.”

“Princess,” Alesia whispered.

“No,” said Ulara. “Not any longer.”

She looked back into the chasm. “Dragon!” Ulara called. “Can you take us both somewhere safe—somewhere where no one knows me, where my half-brother will never find me, where we can both be free of all of this?”

“Yes,” said the dragon. “I can do this. And if that is your wish... I will take the necklace from your neck, the bracelets at your wrists, and your oath that you will never again seek a throne.”

Ulara looked back to Alesia. “Alesia, would... would you come with me?”

Alesia squeezed Ulara's hands. “Always. To the ends of the earth.”

“Then that's what I want,” said Ulara. “You will have my oath, dragon, and all that you have asked of me.”

With that, Ulara rose to her feet. She took off her necklace and bracelets, tossing them one-by-one into the chasm.

Laughter echoed up from the depths of the earth. “A simple task, and simply done. Turn around, humans. Walk back up, out of my cavern, and you will have what you desire.”

Ulara stood at the edge of the precipice for a few moments, as if waiting for something more. But then she turned back to Alesia, holding out her hand to help the knight up.

“Let's go, then,” said Ulara.

Alesia took her princess's hand—for though she had no crown, and no throne, she was, and would always remain, Alesia's princess—and rose.

“Let me lead the way,” said Alesia. “In case there's trouble ahead.”

Together, they made their way out of the cavern—and as they neared the mouth of the cave, they saw that it was no forest they approached, for the ground was covered in sand.

Alesia squinted as she stepped out into the sunlight. Blinking, she looked around—and stared, wide-eyed, at the great expanse of water before them. Was this the ocean?

If so, they were a long, long ways away from the Ghostwood, and their old kingdom.

She turned to look back, and saw Ulara standing in front of what appeared to be a solid wall of rock, with no trace of the tunnel they'd walked through.

She turned back to the ocean, and Ulara stood beside her.

“It's beautiful,” said Ulara.

Alesia nodded, not knowing quite what to say.

“Alesia...” said Ulara. “Thank you.”

Alesia shook her head. “You have been... more than my liege, more than my friend, more than... more than anyone else, to me. I couldn't bear to lose you, either. I'll follow wherever you lead me.”

Ulara took Alesia's hand. “I'm no longer a princess. There's no reason I should lead, and you follow.”

“You will always be my princess,” said Alesia. “But... I suppose everything has changed, now.”

“There were times I wished,” said Ulara, “that my father were not king and that we could have loved each other as equals, without the complications a princess faces in regards to love and marriage.” She lowered her eyes. “Though if your feelings don't run that way, I understand—you're still my dearest friend, and—”

“They do,” said Alesia. “Run that way, I mean. I've loved you for years, and never dared to tell you. I thought...” She sighed. “It doesn't matter now, does it? Here we are.”

“Yes,” said Ulara. “Here we are. So... what now?”

Alesia's first thought was that Ulara ought to be the one deciding that—but... well, things had changed, hadn't they?

Slowly, carefully, Alesia placed a hand on Ulara's cheek; slowly, carefully, she leaned in.

Their lips met, and Ulara wrapped her arms around Alesia, moaning softly into her mouth. Alesia held her princess—always her princess, now and forever, throne or no throne—tightly in her arms.

They broke apart at last, and Alesia found herself smiling so hard her cheeks hurt.

“Come on,” said Alesia. “Let's take a look around.”

Arm in arm, the two walked down the beach, the sun shining bright overhead.