Stars danced in the inky blackness of the pool at Gronnor’s feet, their agitation the only sign of the water’s motion. The only sound was the rush and gurgle in the cave. He peered into it, seeing nothing. Perhaps a carrion bat had escaped after all. He took from a pouch the dragonfly, touched its back to wake it. The dragonfly unfolded in the dark, took flight, and made its lazy circle. For Gronnor, the darkness bloomed.
A spider was peering at him from the scrub, its muscles tensed for flight. It smelled of fear. Small creatures darted—tiny sparks of awareness, but not threats.
No bats remained alive.
Damn the girl, his fool men, and his weakened leg. He’d been too slow to save them. He could see three carcasses in the pool now, shredded wing membranes moving like transparent weeds in the current. A carrion bat would have suited his present need perfectly. But he had another mount.
The moon shone into the end of the pool that extended from the cave mouth. There in the crystal depths, like sculpted stone, was the weighted tarp. Gronnor dipped in his claw-tipped staff, hooked out the tarp. He lowered the staff again, snagged the loop of belt, then hauled out the corpse of Lucan Drakhorn.
He stepped back to admire it.
The stiffened body rested on its knees and elbows, forehead on the ground, as though in abject submission. Its skin was gray and wrinkled, but showed no puffiness. The icy, sulfur-laced water had preserved Lucan from corruption.
Gronnor placed the dragonfly on Lucan’s neck, where it turned to face backwards. Its legs sank in, three on each side of the spine, and it thrust its long abdomen into the dent at the base of the skull. Soon, the dragonfly’s body lay flat against the neck. The gray skin parted to admit the body, then flowed back and knitted above the hump of its thorax. When the bulbous eyes submerged, the second, brighter world in Gronnor’s mind went dark. He straightened up to wait.
Once, the dragonfly had been faster. Gronnor knew that from the journals of his ancestors. In minutes it could work its magic on a maggot-ridden battlefield corpse. But the dead taxed the strength of the dragonfly more than the living. That was why he had taken care to ensure that Lucan was within its waning powers.
Lucan’s body jerked and shuddered. It lifted its head and vomited water, dragged in a rasping breath, then groaned. The eyes swiveled in their sockets.
In Gronnor’s head, light and shadow swam, and symbols pulsed. Nausea rose; he tasted foulness at the back of his mouth.
The dragonfly was riding its horse.
Petra woke in her sleeping bag. She sat up. Three other bags lay nearby, angled to avoid the worst stones. From where the moon hung in the west, it was still some hours before dawn. She stepped over a sleeper and slipped through the fence’s hook-wire gate. Sucking her tooth gap, she contemplated the orderly waycamp. Canuut had set up the fence right around the spot where she’d fallen asleep as he bandaged her back.
They’d slept seven hours or more—far too long. Gronnor would have sent someone in pursuit by now. Mollos, most likely. Yet Petra hesitated to wake her companions. Canuut and Cort needed the sleep.
The thought of Mollos in pursuit should have terrified her, and she knew it. He’d be faster than any of them and maybe a match for all of them. She imagined him floating ghost-like over the ground the way he had when he’d left camp to kill her kinsmen in the valley. She tried to find the fear of him, but felt only a floating, muzzy-headedness that came of her crash following long nights of planning and sleepless nights and days on the trail with Otger.
Bane and Jakko fawned on her. With beseeching backward looks, they brought her to the prize they’d been guarding from ravens: a small wild pig. The dogs had loyally refrained from eating it. They beat their tails with pride.
Petra gave them each a scratch and let them lick her face.
Mistake was tethered to a pine where he was screened from sight of the spur. Ravens tugged at the broken carcass of a huntsman spider nearby. The disgusting smell on Mistake’s muzzle told that he’d eaten some, too.
Stones clicked on the slope, and a dark figure hobbled down toward her. Otger.
They sat together on a moonlit rock near the dead pig and shared his eggs with the dogs. For Petra, the thaw was a practical necessity. She needed information. But she waited for Otger to break the silence.
The air was cold and still. Somewhere in the blackness of the pine wood below, a raven cawed angrily. Overhead, a rectangle of blackness moved slowly across an ocean of stars.
Otger contemplated it, his head tilted back. He said, quietly, “I read a book that claimed people made the skylands.”
“People! You mean the gods used human slaves to build them, or something?”
“No—that humans built the skylands for themselves. But there was a calamity, and we’ve forgotten that we did it, and how.”
Petra shook her head. That was just the kind of thing Otger said in school. No wonder he was unpopular. “You read too much. Downlanders are crazy.”
Otger shrugged. “Maybe. The introduction said the king had the writer burned for heresy. But that was back when there were kings. And heretics.”
Muzzy-headed or not, Petra was in no mood for downland fantasies. “Okay, what do you know about Gronnor, and how do you know it?”
Otger drew his knees up and looked away while he spoke. “After father died in that raid, I had to move in with Uncle Gronnor. I was miserable. He’s usually not too violent—I mean he didn’t do anything as awful as he did to you. But he likes to show who’s boss.”
“I bet he did hurt you,” said Petra, quietly, when Otger paused.
“If I argued, he’d pinch my shoulder and bend me backwards until I stopped. But the worst was what he said about Father: that he was weak and a failure and that we’re better off …” Otger stopped and swallowed.
Petra kept quiet and imagined it.
“Anyway, once he became Tash, Gronnor had meetings that went late into the night, and I had to stay away. But sometimes I would hide under the roof sheet to listen. Once, I nearly died of cold.”
Petra could imagine that too. She grinned.
“He murdered a man that time.”
Petra’s grin faded.
“It was at Winter Camp. Mollos and Gench brought in a man who said he could steal the Drakhorn waymap. The man wanted a lot of gold for it. He and Gronnor argued. Then I heard a squawk and a snap, and Gench swore. Gronnor said: “get rid of him—put him in that.” I heard them toss dishes out. Later, I saw that the chest for the silver service was gone.”
“Jepps,” exclaimed Petra, her eyes wide.
Otger blinked at her.
“One of Cob’s sons. He was caught thieving last summer. Ward told him to clear out at Winter Camp. He vanished without a word even to Cob.”
Petra hugged her knees, like Otger. She sucked her tooth gap. It was strange. Before, she’d resented his spying and his hiding under storm roofs, imagining he did it for a lark. But he’d had a better reason for his furtive ways than she’d had. “Did he ever catch you?”
“Only once. After a meeting, I heard him open his desk and the strongbox inside. Then I sneezed. He slammed the desk closed and came out too fast for me to get away. I pretended I’d fallen asleep waiting under the roof flap—it was late and raining. He knocked me about that time, but I just gave him the injured rabbit look and I think he believed me. After that he made me sleep with other families, and I didn’t dare snoop. But I went through his desk that same night, after he left to visit Ward. I was angry, you see, and I’d heard the desk slam, and—”
“And you thought he might have forgotten to lock the strongbox!”
“Herm’s teeth,” breathed Petra, impressed.
“I knew a way to open the desk from underneath. The strongbox was locked after all. There were papers—just clan business, except for two on top. I bet they’d come from the strongbox and he hadn’t put them back. One was an unfinished letter. It read:
I am close to an agreement with Ward. Karl still opposes, all arrogance and contempt—but he is losing. With Alger out of the way and the covenant made, we shall have what we want, and wipe away the sneers.
I’ve given you a more convenient history. Sadly, you died at birth. Here—
“That’s where he stopped writing. Alger was Gronnor’s brother, my father. You understand how it sounds.”
“The other paper was a page from the Kinship Book, the one old Elka looks after.”
“What, torn out?” exclaimed Petra. A clan’s Kinship Book recorded the births, marriages, and deaths of the clansmen, and was considered a precious and inviolable record.
“Neatly cut from the binding. It showed something I hadn’t known: that Gronnor and my father had a younger sister. The sister’s birth name was Jalla. There were notes in the margins. One said there was something wrong with her, but part of it was blacked out. Another said she was given to clan Osan to look after, and a sum of gold paid.”
“The Osans left the League years ago,” said Petra. “And their patch is just to the east of the Flays.”
“Anyway, the most important part was that the letter …” Otger paused for dramatic effect.
Petra held her breath.
“… was addressed to Tashara Jalla Flay.”
It was worth holding her breath for. Gronnor Brok’s little sister was married to the Tash of their blood enemies, the Flays.