From the shelter at the top of Antrim Valley, Lucan’s eyes looked north. They worked better now than they had when Lucan was alive to use them. The same was true of his other senses.
The dragonfly lodged in Lucan’s brainstem filled Gronnor’s mind with impressions. They were not like the impressions of his own senses—not as he imagined it would be to wear Lucan’s body. But the impressions were more useful.
Petra had been there, with a dog. The dragonfly could smell her blood, a smell it had learned from bloody bandages Gronnor had put in a pouch around Lucan’s neck. The jackalute’s droppings glowed clear and important, as did the remains of a beetle crushed against a rock, and the recent stain of a man’s urine. The dragonfly did not recognize the urine, but Gronnor had no doubt it was Canuut’s.
It irritated him that the old man had gone with her, but did not surprise him. Canuut was one of those who grumbled. No matter. Two would be as easy to deal with as one. Had they descended into Cranny Vale, or gone North? The dragonfly and its horse would learn the answer soon enough. They did not need Gronnor’s help to track their prey, and unlike Gronnor, they did not need to sleep.
Petra stroked the copper root. Her finger traced the metal’s convolutions as it spread over and into the twisting, knotted wood of the trunk. The tree, which looked as old as time, grew directly out of the rock wall of the Rull of Staffs.
“A biometalloid false-breed, like Mistake,” said Otger. “It leeches copper from the rock.”
“There goes my pratteloid cousin,” chortled Cort. “He needs only catch his breath, and book-lore gushes forth.” He winked conspiratorially at Petra.
Petra looked away. She had no quarrel with book-lore. She could see the resemblance between the tree and the jackalute, too. But the living metal that veined Mistake’s flanks was supple and warm.
“Used to be silvertrees here, way back,” said Canuut. “All cut and sold to downlanders, melted to make their gewgaws.”
The stories that mentioned the Rull did not convey its strangeness. A sheer-sided slot cut into the rubble-choked bottom of the valley, the Rull was here seventy feet deep and only fifty across. The ‘staffs’ made up the walls: great six-sided columns of stone that rubbed shoulders, looming in frozen silence. Many had broken off at different heights to make tables and steps a yard from edge to edge. It was by a procession of these steps that the travelers had descended to the dry bed of the brook at the Rull’s bottom. There, water-worn stumps tiled a silt-covered floor.
“They’re Karlward trees,” continued Canuut. “Like our forefathers, they escaped the penitential abyss when by Herm’s grace the karlmen broke the iron doors asunder.”
“Hmm,” said Otger. “We’re not so close to Karlward.”
“Close enough,” growled Canuut. “Hell’s bigger’n Karlward; that’s just the bit you see. According to lore, it was Herm’s sword that cut open the topmost corridor in Hell’s labyrinth, just where we’re standing now.”
“Oh. I thought Staffs Brook did the cutting, when it floods.”
“A brook! You say a brook cleaved Hell’s roof? Just look around you, boy. Hewn by demons from the belly of the earth to crush the spirits of our forebears. Even abandoned these two thousand years, do you not feel the brooding dread?” Canuut’s voice was sharp with righteous offense, but Petra, who knew him well, didn’t think it was sincere.
Otger was undaunted. “Two thousand three hundred years. But I think it’s natural. I read that when hot rock cools—”
“Okay, okay,” interrupted Petra. “It’s getting dark. Let’s push on.”
Canuut strode ahead, angry now.
At dusk, bugs jumped from the silt and took flight, and little bats chased them. Cort brooded in the rear, swishing his sword at the bats. In that subtle light, the copper trees clinging to the staffs looked disconcertingly like spiders. The silt deadened the travelers’ footfalls. It was nice to walk on the flat, but Petra found the silence oppressive. That’s how it was with her companions: caustic argument or nothing.
She said into the silence, “Canuut, would you tell a story?” When she spoke, the staffs reflected her words back as eerie whispers.
“About what to expect near Karlward. Like juggers. I only know stories from books. I want to know true ones—to be prepared.”
“Didn’t you pay attention to the lore at Service? You hear truth there. Or to the tales in the Social?”
“Yes, but I had to serve and couldn’t always hear,” said Petra. And at Service, she’d often dreamed instead of listening.
“Huh. Maybe when the going’s easy, like it is now. Get ahead of me, so I don’t have to shout back.”
Petra and Otger walked with Bane in front, while behind, Cort kept company with Jakko and Mistake.
Canuut cleared his throat, then began. “To understand juggers, you must understand Karlward. And to understand Karlward, you must know how we karlmen came to be.”
Petra glanced back at him. Surely he wasn’t going to begin with The Trailhead Book and Original Sin—she remembered something from school. But there was no rushing Canuut. Legend and trail lore—that was the truth he knew.
“To put an end to their squabbling, the old gods—the varters—cut out the evil in themselves, like cuttin’ out cancer. Being god-stuff, those wicked thoughts couldn’a be destroyed. They had to be kept where they’d never get out.
“So the varters sealed their evil dreams in the wards of Hell, under miles of rock, with demons to guard them. And the most devious of those ideas—the dreams of artful theft, of cunning murder and smiling betrayal and outlawed craft—those were consigned to Karlward. A maze of tunnels miles deep, ringed with walls of iron, it was a prison no evil could escape. The top of it, where the gate to the outer world opened, is what you see to this day.”
Canuut had a strong voice, which the staffs echoed back. Petra kept just a few paces ahead so that he could speak softly.
“Now the smallest selfish dream of a god was as big as a lifetime of mortal thought, and had thoughts and wiles of its own. In time, the crafty thoughts condensed into the likeness of the varters. They became men—the karlmen. Though their bodies were mortal, they passed their immortal wickedness to their descendants, each according to his vice. And so began the great clans of yore.”
Otger interjected, “I read that humans were really varters stripped of their god powers and cast down.”
“Blasphemin’ drivel! Some downlander crap.”
“Well, only downlanders write books.”
“Don’t interrupt,” whispered Petra.
Canuut continued. “The demon guards were not solid enough to compel the flesh of mortal men. So they bred the juggers: half demon, half human—ruthless and brutal warders of the place. They bred other monsters too—false breeds, we call ’em now. Rock worms to bore tunnels, trolls to guard them, and wolves the size of bears. The draks they created to hunt down any karlmen who might escape.
“Well, you know the story of the Great War in Heaven. When the varters were destroyed by the new gods, Karlward demons retreated to the deepest realms, and the juggers were left to mind the varters’ crafty spawn. For ten generations of men they did, but in the Drakhorns they met their match.”
“Drakhorns? That’s one I didn’t know,” muttered Otger. It was a skeptical mutter.
Petra elbowed him.
Canuut had heard it. “Well, listen, boy, and learn. You won’t hear this lightly spoke of, for it is the source of Drakhorn strength and pride. Understand, we weren’t called Drakhorns then. The sons and daughters of wickedness were known each by the number of their Original Sin.”
There he goes, thought Petra.
“Those numbers were branded upon their necks, and passed on to their children.”
The two clanmarks on Petra’s own neck tingled.
“Now, the sin the demons hated most—more than mockery, more than blasphemy, more even than theophagy—was bishackry.”
“I thought it was sponage or infilation,” said Petra.
“Now who’s interrupting,” said Otger, under his breath.
“Bishackry was the most subtle of infilations: spyin’ on the inward thoughts of the gods themselves, and even interfering with ’em. And that, dear Petra, was your ancestors’ craft and foulest crime, on both sides.”
“Just so. The Five-oh-nines—for that was the number of their sin—were the ones who went through walls unseen, through barriers of secrecy, even into the heads of the gods. The mark of their tribe was the drak. They were the ancestors of the Drakhorns, famed for stealth to this day.
“And the Sixers were those who by trickery bent the thoughts of others—juggers, demons, and varters too—to their own will. Their mark was the seed flower, symbolizing the release of forbidden ideas, that then take root.”
“And they became the Strays?” prompted Otger.
“Aye, who are peerless for demon-whispering still. Conspirators with the Drakhorns then, close-bound through marriage since.”
Petra frowned. Canuut’s story accounted for both her clanmarks, but the elders had never told it that way at Service.
Canuut continued. “Though the Five-oh-nines and Sixers were strong, the shackles of demon magic were stronger still. There’d ‘a been no escape had not the Drakhorns, by art now lost, melded the magics of both tribes. And so was born a generation of children kept hidden from the juggers, children marked with the numbers of both crimes, with both the drak and the seed. It was them, your ancestors, Petra, who rose up to confound the juggers.”
“If all that’s so,” began Otger, then quickly, hearing the growl behind him, “—and I don’t doubt it is—you might as well say they were ancestors of the Broks, too. It would be muddled up long since because of marriages between clans, wouldn’t it?”
“The ancient heritage still comes out clear in one child each generation or so.”
Petra was glad Canuut said no more about how the heritage ‘comes out clear’. He’d know about her clanmarks. Otger and Cort likely did not. Her clanmarks, blue-black on the creamy brown skin between her shoulders, were as clear as they must have been on the skin of those ancients who’d escaped Karlward.
They were living proof of that heritage, and of her ancestral crimes.
As Canuut opened his mouth to continue, Cort gave a holler. His boots thumped on the silt. Something struck Petra’s shoulder, then spun away, spraying liquid across her coat. She whipped out her sword.
The thing that had struck her was a chunk of spider, with three legs still attached.
Cort, in front of her now, leaped and cleaved a second in twain as it flew.
Petra, her eyes darting across the palisade, could see more spiders peering at them from the tops of broken-off columns, or wedged into the ‘V’-shaped slots between them. How had they not seen them before?
The dogs were barking and Mistake was braying. As the jackalute surged forward, Canuut got his arm into a pannier on one side. Otger leaped for the straps around his other flank. Man and boy were dragged along Rull, boot heels leaving furrows in the silt. Cort and Petra raced after them.
Once they’d escaped the colony, the little company proceeded in tense silence, weapons in hand, eyes roving the staffs.
They walked the tiled floor of the Rull by starlight, by the moonlight that descended the western palisade, and by torchlight when godshade blackened the narrow sky. They made camp where a dry gully took the trail up and out of the Rull to eastward. From the signs, the relief party had camped in the same spot a week before, and the three Broks a day or so behind the relief party.