"The Dragon's Heir"
by Rachel Heffington
"And have you produced an heir, Henry?"
I cringed in my spot near the window, wishing I had the ability of a chameleon and could vanish on command into the pink roses in the drapes. It was the yearly question, the yearly humiliation. A question without answer, a riddle without end. Smoothing my skirt and staring into my teacup, I listened to the trumpet-like voice barrage my father with the same question.
Father bristled, mother shrank back in her chair, pale and worn and embarrassed. The rest of my extended family paused--stopped their card-playing, their piano-tinkling, their light chatter. The tension was palpable and it sent the blood flooding to my cheeks.
"There is no heir, as of yet, Uncle," my father said, and a world of reasonless shame weighed his words down and anchored them, shadow-wise in the room.
"What? Who has no hair?" my Aunt Honoria trumpeted like the tremendously deaf elephant she was in her voluminous petticoats and ribbons.
My uncle, Baron Herschelheim snorted like an angry bull and stalked across the floor, flicking his coattails behind him. "No heir? Nonsense. What'd you marry her for if she isn't capable of giving you children?"
"Uncle!" I hadn't realized I had spoken, and when the small, sallow face whipped around to scrutinize me, I pulled away.
"Well? What were you saying?"
I cast a desperate, pleading glance at my cousin, Fallwell, who lounged on the settee by my side. He and I were the best of chums, and my heart-words told me he was something dearer to me. Surely Fallwell could not sit by listening to my family being insulted in such a way?
Uncle Herschel, as we called him, stormed a step nearer and his breath whizzed thunder-like through his nostrils. "That's right. She did give birth to you, didn't she, Alisandra? Not much to look at, are you?"
I stood and Fallwell touched my trembling hand, his kind blue eyes imploring me to take courage. "I am not beautiful like my other cousins, sir," I said, and somehow with Fallwell's fingers on mine the admission didn't hurt as it usually did. "I may not be accomplished, or graceful--"
"She speaks the truth, she does!" Uncle Herchel's voice grated on my ear and passion flamed up in my heart.
"I speak the truth when I say that sons are not the only cherished children--the ability to bear children is not the only thing a woman is loved for. Some men, Uncle Herschel, have nobler, deeper, stronger character than to think along those lines."
Uncle Herschel laughed, and tears of frustration filled my eyes, longing to cool the heat inside me--but I would not let them. Uncle Herschel would think himself the victor if I cried.
"I have no need to have noble, deep, or strong character, niece." And the way he licked the word as he spat it forth suggested a niece was a kind of vermin, despised as a cockroach or head-lice. "I have money, and I want to see that my money will not die with your father and be entailed away--that it will continue in the line of our Family and live unto posterity long after I am gone."
"Who speaks of Prosperity?" Aunt Honoria bellowed again, and she stamped her little fat, slippered feet like a restless, ruffled, pachyderm.
Through my tears I saw the color ebbing and flowing into mother's cheeks as this duel for her honor continued. I was nowise fit to be a soldier in this type of war--I, who seldom spoke to anyone at family events, save Fallwell who made me speak--but I could not sit by while my mother was thus assaulted. "Then I will tell you, Uncle, the truth."
Several of my women-kin gasped and fans fluttered as maiden ears were covered and dowager eyes snapped at my boldness. I turned to Mother for permission, and she bowed her head, humbled and humiliated, but giving me the assent I required to continue. I stepped away from Fallwell's hand--it fed me courage, indeed it did, and loathe was I to leave his calming presence, but this was a battle I must fight on my own. Dragons cannot be slain except by a single victor.
My silken skirt swished across Uncle Herschel's polished, hard, wealthy boots. They were so like him I almost smiled. I stood on the red cabbage-rose in the very center of the carpet as I did every year when Father asked me to recite Cobbler Keezar's Vision for the family. The familiar clammy sensation enveloped me, but my eyes sought Mother's face, and my heart keened to erase that horrid grey color on her cheeks.
"There was a son, as you know, Uncle Herschel. He was a year younger than I, and well may you have had an heir were it not for a certain message you sent to Father. You summoned us--all of us--for a banquet at your manor, that you might show us off to your famous connexions. I was only four years old, but do not think I forgot that evening."
Uncle Herschel's countenance turned purple with rage, and I ground the toes of my kid-boots into the carpet, seeking comfort from the familiar give of the floor-board below. I knew every inch of this dear old house and loved it for its quirks. The fan-fluttering and Uncle Herschel's laboured breathing continued. I raised my eyes again and looked straight at him. "The roads were icy, and no sensible person would have attempted to travel, but we all know you have your descendents pegged beneath your will like slaves. Father would not disappoint you and risk being disinherited. We clambered into the carriage, wrapped well against the cold. You know the rest of the story. The carriage slid off the road and down an embankment. Little Wilhelm died. Mother was injured badly, but no one thought of her in the calamity of the sole heir's death." I stopped and stepped forward onto the parquet floor. Uncle Herschel blanched as I neared. My spine crackled with fear and disgust for this creature before me. "It was in trying to please you, Uncle, that Mother's son died. And it was in that accident that it became impossible for her to have children. It is your fault sir, and did we not all fear you so, you would have learned the bitter truth long ago."
The room swirled around me and faint voices mingled with the vague scent of potpourri from the crystal bowl beside me. I swayed, stumbled forward, then felt Fallwell's arms around me, and his dear voice telling me I had done valiantly. I relaxed in his strong grip and laid my head heavily on his blue, woolen-clad shoulder.
The dragon had been slain and I was the victor.