Kiss of the Dragonfly

32. Rising Dead

Petra and her companions hiked the ridgetop trail until the moon rode high, then descended into the upper reach of Staffs Valley, where gravely, hillocky earth lay thick over the buried Rull. In the valley, instead of bitter wind, mist wreathed the boulders and hummocks. Petra shot their supper—a shaggy mountain hare. Though she put on a casual air, Cort’s praise and Canuut’s grunt of approval kindled a glow of pride.

Now they sat shivering on mossy turf protected by a ring of boulders, waiting for the meat to cook. Their faces, lit by the fire’s glow, were spectral in the mist. Petra was so tired that only gnawing hunger kept her awake.

“Maybe we don’t need the fence,” said Cort, hopefully. The fence roll lay on the turf beside him, along with the waterproof bag of provisions.

Canuut grunted. “If the ground’s not frozen, we should use it. Waymap shows a battleground nearby, from the Jugger War.”

“Then let’s get it over with.”

Nobody stirred.

Petra slid her hands up her coat sleeves and hugged herself. A battleground—she knew what that meant: men buried without the wayrite. Men who could rise again, as Lucan had. A fence would be no use against them. Hardly anything was. Deaf, speechless, insatiable, a riser could be hacked to pieces, yet its pieces would crawl after you. The death rite was useless once a god had commanded the dead to rise. Sunlight would burn them to spawn ash, but even that was temporary. Only strong magic could give a riser peace, and the companions had none of that.

In the silence, in the mist and smoke, she couldn’t help but listen for the shifting of the earth, for the dead man’s groan, for the trudge of rotted feet. If not a dead warrior’s feet, then Lucan’s. The silence of her companions told that they were listening, too.

“I was thinking about Lucan,” announced Otger.

“You think too much,” grumbled Cort.

Otger ignored him. “Petra, d’you know why he followed us?”

Petra didn’t want to think about that, but once Otger started on something, he wouldn’t let up. She swallowed and drew breath. Her voice was rough when she spoke. “When I saw him in the pool, his eyes were open. I didn’t realize until too late.”

For superstitious karlmen, that would be explanation enough. Superstitious karlman would have knuckled their foreheads and shot her ill-concealed glances of sympathy and horror. Thereafter, they’d have found excuses to keep away, especially at night.

“There’s none will marry her now,” one would have muttered to another.

“Not safe, her being in camp—someone should say so.”

“Aye, someone should.”

Petra had looked into the eyes of Lucan’s unsung corpse, so he would rise to stalk her until she became his death-bride. Then they would walk arm in arm and prey upon the living. That’s what superstitious karlmen believed.

She’d listened to such stories in the Social, and re-told them to terrify the younger kids. She and Tegan had studied the engravings in a forbidden book, sharing a thrill of dread at the one in which the riser pulled the terrified girl to him, his fingers clawing her clothes to tatters like his own skin, his teeth sunk into her neck. The risen man takes a bride, the caption read.

Petra was not superstitious, but her ears burned anyway. An irrational shame tugged her gaze down. There followed a silence of many heartbeats.

“That’s not why, and you’re too smart to believe it is,” said Otger.

Petra glanced up.

Otger regarded her with owl-like seriousness.

“Why else, then?” she asked, half annoyed, half relieved.

“I think Gronnor sent him.”

Cort gave a snort that woke the dogs. “You’d say he sent the cold.”

Otger forged on. “I think he wouldn’t be the first to do it. Before Gronnor sold father’s history books, I read what I could about the Broks. There was a story about a Brok commander speared to death. When the rival warlord came to gloat over the corpse, it jumped to its feet and beheaded the warlord with his own sword.

“In another, the Broks chose a sickly boy to run a trail race to settle a dispute. He ran for three days and nights without rest, and died right after winning. The rival Tash called it witchcraft—then cut his own throat.”

While Otger sketched the stories he’d found in his father’s books, the companions skewered pieces of meat with their knives.

“Stories like that go back to the first days of the clan,” Otger was saying. “I think the Broks have always had some power to make a person—living or dead—obey their will. Something passed on from Tash to Tash. I think Gronnor has the power now, and he’s using it on Lucan.”

“How is that fantastical stuff better that Petra’s idea, pray?” said Cort.

Otger continued without looking at his cousin. “Last summer, we were hard up, and people were grumbling. It was tense between father and Uncle Gronnor. Once, Gronnor shouted: It is our birthright; you betray us by not using it! I didn’t know what he meant, but it scared me that he’d yell at father that way.

“I guessed the raid would be our last chance. Father did the scouting himself, and found where Sadrak Gera was holed up with her egg. There was more grumbling when Gronnor announced his leg had got too bad for him to command the raid. As soon as father and the men left, Gronnor began holding council in father’s tent.

“Then one survivor returned. He was half burned—nobody knew how he made it back—and he died right after he told what happened.”

Otger was silent for a moment. Nobody spoke.

“Gronnor went with some men to bury the dead. People were too upset to wonder how he managed if he was too lame for raiding. On the way back, he captured a Clan Staver scout. Gossips said the Stavers were hunting Sadrak Karssa near our patch. They said the scout looked dazed when Gronnor let him go. I saw him myself two weeks later, when he—”

“Otger,” said Cort, quietly. There was ice in his voice.

Otger looked only at Petra. “—when he brought an egg to our camp.”

“Herm’s balls,” exclaimed Canuut.

“I was shepherding and saw him coming. He was more dead than alive. Though it was freezing, he’d no shirt on, and there were horrible cuts on his chest and arms. By the time I got back to camp, he’d died.”

“But … gods’ teeth,” spluttered Canuut, “at the joining council, there was no word of this. Gronnor said your raiders took Gera’s egg before she surprised them, and one of your own brought it back.”

“Gronnor ordered us not to mention the Staver scout on pain of death. I guess nobody risked angering him—or the Stavers.”

Listening to Otger’s earnest voice, Petra wondered at the awkward, surprising boy—an outsider among his own kin, her one-time rival, now her ally. To have kept such secrets bottled up … no wonder he’d gone wild when she taunted him.

She glanced at Cort. He was gazing into the fire, hunched over. You kept this hidden too, Cort. What pressure he and Otger must have felt, crushed between duty to their Tash and their sense of honor. Each had reacted in his own way, but the pain must have been the same. She could see the pain now in the hunch of Cort’s shoulders. In her imagination, she laid a comforting arm across them.

“The egg paid our debts,” continued Otger. “Gronnor was generous. New clothes and tents, new weapons, a bigger herd. But with the best trailsmen dead, I guess we couldn’t stay independent.”

Canuut growled, “Ward would never have taken you lot in if he’d known.”

“Why us?” said Petra, suddenly curious. “Why the Drakhorns? The clans weren’t so close.”

“I don’t know,” said Otger, “But Gronnor had suggested it before. It was late, in Father’s tent. Gronnor could never make his voice quiet enough. He said, ‘The Drakhorns have one key and we the other. Alone, both clans face extinction. Together, an empire could be ours.’ Whatever he meant, Father didn’t like it, and they argued.”

Cort was staring intently at Otger, like this was new to him too.

Petra felt wide awake now. “If Gronnor has some power to send Lucan after us, then … what is it?”

“More to the point,” growled Canuut, “how do we scotch it? I’ve heard ways to put a riser off the scent. We’d have to—”

“I doubt lore will help.” interrupted Otger. “There’s something else.”

They looked at Otger expectantly. Even the dogs raised their heads and pricked up their ears.

“What’s the soonest Lucan could have come after us?” asked Otger.

“Not before I was clear of Antrim. I’d a’ seen him,” said Canuut, confidently.

“And probably not before we were a good way across Scrabble, or we’d have seen him on the spur. So he must have gone pretty fast to catch us up.”

“He was running; we were walking.”

“Hardly enough, is it? We had a long lead.”

“He didn’a sleep; we did.”

“So he hid during the day and ran like blazes at night and in godshade?”

Canuut mulled that over in silence. Bane whined and licked his lips. Petra threw him a piece of meat. He ignored it.

“It doesn’t make sense, does it?”, said Otger. “They don’t behave like that.”

“And you’re an expert on the risen dead, Otger Book?” said Cort, sneering again.

“He’s right,” said Canuut. “He couldn’a come so fast, just moving at night.”

“He’d catch us if he ran in daylight,” said Otger.

“He’d burn to spawn ash!”

“Yes, if he were a ‘normal’ riser, he’d burn.”

A stone in the fire pit settled. Bane and Jakko stood up. Mistake snorted.

“Well, now that you—”

“Shhh!” hissed Petra.

In the silence, Bane whined and snapped his teeth.

Canuut bellowed, “Up! Weapons!”

As they struggled to their feet, slow from the cold, several things happened too quickly to make sense of.

The fire hissed and threw up sparks, then abruptly sank into the moss and vanished. The ground swooned under their feet, as though it were turning to water. Bane and Jakko leaped onto boulders, where they set to barking. Mistake bellowed and raced off, with the four backpacks he was tethered to bouncing behind.

Petra scrambled for an opening between boulders, but something whipped around an ankle and yanked her violently off her feet. She hit the turf with a thud. Though she couldn’t see what had grabbed her, what flashed to her mind was a hand—a dead man’s hand, pushing up through the earth.

The invisible thing dragged her back toward the place where the fire had been. That place was now a void into which the earth and stones poured with a grinding rush, and out of which black tentacles rose.

Ward’s tarlic!  But her coat was rucked up around her shoulders. She doubled over as she slid, hacking at the snake with her knife. She could see into the gaping hole ahead—a five-foot maw in which thousands of triangular teeth set in concentric rings rhythmically contracted and turned. Stones squealed and cracked in the vortex of teeth. The bag of provisions slid into it. So did the rolled-up spider fence, twisting and twanging as it did.

If Petra screamed, the sound vanished in the din.

Then Cort’s booted feet landed beside her, sinking into the shifting earth. A blade whistled in the mist and the pull on her ankle ceased. Strong hands seized her under the arms, then hauled her backwards and away.

As the companions and dogs fled up the valley’s shoulder, the rock worm’s blind head rose over boulders whose roots were now exposed like those of an old man’s molars. It closed its grinding mouth with slow disappointment, then sank back into the earth.


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