Kiss of the Dragonfly

37. Kastra's Stair

The divided halves of the Cloven Tower looked like the horns of a titanic beast. The ridge upon which the companions walked rose to meet them the cleft. From close up, Petra could see that the tower’s ice-rimed walls were formed from the same hexagonal columns that made the Rull, and were too sheer to traverse without climbing gear.

Near the cleft, the ridge-top path was paved. Powdery snow snaked over flagstones and lay drifted in the angles of stone ruins. The road ended abruptly at the edge of a chasm into which the middle third of the tower must have fallen ages before. There, two massive concrete posts were embedded in the road. Across the chasm, the silhouettes of their twins stood against the sky. Thick ropes must once have looped between the posts to bear the bridge that Kastra had destroyed.

Petra drew her fingers over the pitted concrete of a post, awed to find history given substance by cold stone. She stepped to the edge and peered down. There was nothing to see but the columned walls descending into darkness. Anyone who fell to their death in that pit was doomed to rise when the gods willed it, and blindly stumble among the rocks and bones. She listened for groans, but heard nothing.

Making two sides of the chasm, the sheer walls of the divided Tower faced each other. And there, hard against the left-hand face, was Kastra’s Stair. It wasn’t a stair at all.

It wasn’t a stair at all.

Forgotten masons had fitted narrow granite slabs into the cliff-face. The jutting slabs did not climb or descend, but marched in line—a path of stepping stones across the void. The builders must have had very long legs, because between each step was a gap of several feet.

“What, is that it?” said Cort, incredulous.

“It’s a cliff path,” exclaimed Otger. “See, those step things must have supported planks, only now the planks are gone.”

Petra stared at the cliff path in dismay. It looked like certain death, and such a death as made every hair on her skin rise. She’d chosen the ridge-top way for this: an old tale in which Kastra ‘lightly trod the narrow stair / that armored juggers would not dare.‘ She stood at the verge and the blood roared in her ears. She couldn’t do what Kastra had done. She couldn’t do it. And if she couldn’t, none of them could.

Canuut growled, “Don’t say I didn’a tell ya—the valley trail’s the better one.”

“It’s a long way back,” said Cort, doubtfully.

“Sundown soon,” said Canuut. “We’ll make camp in that guardhouse ruin there, figure it out come dawn.”

“No, we won’t,” said Otger, quietly.

Something in his tone made them turn to him. He had his spyglass to his eye and was peering back along the trail.

“Lucan,” breathed Petra. She didn’t need to see the risen man to know. A sick knot of dread twisted in her gut.

“Three miles back, coming at a jog,” said Otger. “Not really hurrying, like he knows we’re here.”

“How could he see us at that distance?” asked Cort.

“Who knows. I think he’s timing it to get here after sundown.”

“God’s blood,” spat Canuut. “Now we’ll have some work to do. We’ll get set up either side, try to pin him between—”

“It’s no good,” said Petra. Her throat was tight.

Otger lowered his glass and nodded. “He doesn’t need to sleep. We do.”

Canuut growled, “We’ll sleep fine once we’ve dropped him in that pit.” He turned to Cort. “We’ve a bow and eleven bolts, your sword, Petra’s gun.”

“And rope,” said Cort.

“Aye, the rope. If we can …”

While her companions strategized, Petra pulled out her own glass and studied the cliff path. It wasn’t very long—just twelve stone steps of different widths, with gaps of different lengths between. It ended at the far ledge maybe seventy-five feet away.

The sun would soon be down. In the gloom between the tower walls, it was already hard to make out the middle steps. And godshade was coming. They’d have neither light nor time to cross.

Cort and Canuut were arguing, gesticulating.

Petra slipped off her pack. From the hook’s spinner on her belt, she unspooled a length of wormcord into a coil at her feet. She glanced at Canuut’s crossbow, then at Mistake’s pannier, where her airgun was. Ideas writhed like smoke, nothing to hold onto.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Otger, beside her. “You’re thinking we could shoot it over. But that won’t work.”

Petra nodded. She looked at the hook in her hand. “I don’t even know how long the cord is,” she muttered. Stupid. How do I not know that?

Canuut’s head jerked toward her. “‘Two hundred foot spool. Like the climbing rope. Standard.”

Petra looked at him, round-eyed, then glanced back at the cliff path.

“‘Bout seventy feet, my guess,” grunted Canuut.

“Mine was eighty,” said Otger.

And Petra’s own guess had been in that range. The wormcord and the rope were both just long enough to cross the gap twice.

“Hey, Canuut—” said Cort.

“Shut up, you—we’re thinking,” growled Canuut. “They’re right; we stand a better chance on the far side.” He looked from one to the other of them. “I’ve crossed gaps like this before, raiding. Need the cord to pull the rope over. The cord has to be a running loop so’s to pull the gear across. To salvage the rope, it has to loop around, too.” He snatched Otger’s spyglass, jammed it to his own eye, then scanned the steps and far verge, his lips twisted in grim concentration.

In Petra, a glow of courage rose from nowhere. The glow was what she felt when she took advice from Tegan during Clash. She wasn’t on her own. The team would carry her.

Canuut lowered the glass. “If we’d two crossbows, we might hook the cord ’round the far post from here. We don’t, so someone has to go first. But first or last, it won’t be me. Don’t have the balance for it. I’ll stay to slow him down.”

“No, you won’t,” said Petra, fiercely. “We all go, or none.” The words were out of her mouth before it dawned on her that they’d have to leave Mistake behind.

Canuut just shook his head.

Otger had been peering at the steps. “The cliff face bulges outward,” he said. “If we can loop the rope between the left-hand bridge posts, it will almost touch the cliff face at the middle steps.”

“Use the rope as a hand-hold, you mean?” asked Cort.


Canuut pursed his lips and scowled.

“I’m willing to try first,” said Otger, determinedly.

“My legs are longer,” protested Cort, in a weaker voice.

The men and boy set to arguing again.

Petra looped the wormcord around the post nearest the cliff and slipped the hook through her belt. The others were wasting breath and time. She was the nimblest, so she’d have to go first. And she’d better go before that glow of courage—and the light—vanished. She thought of goats.

She’d leaped wider gaps than these so often in the pastures.

But never over an abyss where corpses wrestle in the dark.

No! She breathed deeply to clear her head. She’d learned the ways of goats since she could walk—for her, this was nothing.

One misstep, and I’ll fall, screaming …

Stop! One thought like that and it would happen. Her stomach clenched. If fear tightened her muscles, disaster was certain. She filled her mind with the bleating of goats, the rush of wind in her ears, the familiar whip of her braid.

Godshade would begin in seconds. Her companions’ voices drummed in her ears.

“… my legs are a lot better now …”

“… twice your strength, idiot …”

“… buy us time …”

She thought of Big Basta. She’d run with him and learned from him. And he’d died defending his herd—abandoned by her. She owed him.

She gripped her staff, looked straight ahead, took three paces, and jumped.

The first step was easy—a four foot gap. The second, five feet. To reach the third, a six foot bound. Three strides in one motion. The third step, like the sixth and ninth, was broader; there she landed in a crouch, one foot forward, as she’d planned.

Behind her, silence. She glanced back, then wished she hadn’t. Her companions stood frozen, their jaws hanging open. She had to go on before one of them said something and broke her concentration. Her skin was clammy. Below, the darkness breathed—silent, expectant. She fixed her eyes on the far side, and didn’t look down.

She had to push off hard from the stair edge, then from the next. The spinner at her belt whirred as the hook’s cord unwound. The fifth step was like a broken tooth, half gone. She planted her left foot on the stump, twisting so as not to butt the wall with her shoulder and be knocked into the void.

She landed on the sixth in a deep crouch, a toe on one edge, a heel over the other. There she wobbled. From her inspection with the glass, she knew the broad ninth step might be deadly. Eroded by freezing damp, it had crumbled and separated from the wall.

Twilight deepened abruptly to dusk as Oma’s brown shade began. Now, she could barely see the posts on the far side of the chasm. She couldn’t see the cliff path steps at all.

But she remembered the steps, and the gaps between. The seventh, eighth, and rotten ninth—she’d mapped them in her head. The widest gap was six feet. She leapt into darkness.

Three bounds, and Petra landed heavily on the ninth step. Beneath her boot, rock crumbled. Shards rained into the deep. But the step held. In the crack where it met the wall, she felt the iron pins, pocked with age. They couldn’t be of ordinary iron, though. That would have flaked to dust ages before. True iron of the ancients, then.

Between the next three steps, the gaps were narrower, and easier. But it was on the very last—the road’s far verge—that she put her foot on emptiness.

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