As Petra flew from the last step, a violent jerk on her belt twisted her in midair. She’d run out of wormcord, or the cord had caught. Her landing foot found nothing, she whacked her knee and crashed to her side on the icy stone, then slid backwards towards the precipice as the stretchy wormcord contracted. She let go of her staff, whipped out her knife, and jammed the blade into a gap between flagstones. Her staff rolled away along the brink.
With her legs hanging over the edge and the knife hilt gripped in one hand, she felt for the hook’s line with the other. If she released the hook, it would free her—but she must not. Everything depended on having both ends of the cord. She tugged the cord, but the loop around the distant post didn’t slip. It must have snagged.
Canuut stood in silhouette, hand on head. Otger’s arms were frozen away from his sides. Petra’s eyes begged for help. Could they even see her?
Otger unfroze and jumped to the post. A few more feet unspooled from Petra’s spinner—just enough. Her arm shaking with the strain, she inched forward on her stomach until she lay panting on the last flagstone of the northern verge.
First came the climbing rope. Together they pulled it taut around the bridge posts. Next came the packs, sleeping bags, and tents, suspended from the climbing rope by their straps and pulled along by the loop of wormcord.
At shade’s end, Bane, distressed to see Petra across without him, twice retreated from the third step before taking all twelve in a bouncy run. The pit terrified Jakko. He howled as they pulled him across in one of Mistake’s panniers.
By then, Otger and the two men could see Lucan without a spyglass.
Cort came first; his injured pride insisted. His long legs made light work of the first steps, but at the broken tooth, he trod wrong, bumped the wall, and would have tumbled off had it not been for the taut climbing rope under his arm. As it was, he hung for a moment at a frightening angle over the void until the pull of the rope brought him back. He arrived ashen-faced and had to sit a while to recover.
Otger didn’t try to take the steps by threes, but relied on the rope. He stumbled to his knees on the first broad step, and Petra thought he’d never manage the broken tooth or the long jump to the rotten ninth. As she watched, her breath stopped and her throat hurt from tightness. He looked surprised at each safe landing, then stood still while a thoughtful calm returned to his face. Even over the terrible drop, and knowing his own limits, he didn’t flinch. In Petra, a glow of pride for her new friend’s courage grew.
Cannut’s progress was a series of near disasters that turned Petra’s legs to jelly. He made each jump with a snarl as though it were a hopeless attack on a stronger foe. He came short of the ninth, meeting the edge with his stomach. But he had the rope in a death grip, and with a roar swung a leg over the step, then hauled himself backwards onto it. The sun had set by the time he’d recovered his wind and joined them.
Mistake watched forlornly from the far side, head down, tail swishing. They’d relieved him of his brushwood disguise, but left the robe for warmth. As Cort and Otger pulled back the cord and rope, Petra stared dejectedly across the gulf at the jackalute. They could only hope he’d find his way to lower ground before he starved.
Canuut and Cort debated their defense. They’d shoot Lucan when he reached the sixth step, then hurl rocks to knock him off.
Petra shared a silent glance of understanding with Otger. Nothing had changed; Lucan could simply out-wait them. But there was one more thing to try. She pulled the remains of Tegan’s cheese from her pack, and the packet of blasting powder that Tegan had filched from her father’s stores.
She faced the pit again and took three deep breaths. Then she skipped four steps across the void to the rotten ninth, while Otger held onto Bane to keep him from following. There was just enough light, and she knew the trick of each step.
“Petra, get back here,” roared Canuut
Lucan appeared among the ruins on the far side. His bare chest was mottled with bruises and scars. His trousers were in tatters. His jaw hung down.
On the crumbling ninth step, Petra turned her back to them and knelt. She squashed Tegan’s cheese into the crack between the step and the cliff wall, then poured the blasting powder after it.
Canuut and Cort were bellowing.
Petra refused to hear their words and didn’t glance up. Working feverishly, she laid in the fuse, then pressed the remaining wax, with its glorious Drakhorn colors, on top. She could hear Lucan’s rasping, whistling breath. Her own breath shuddered in her chest. Matches—inner pocket. Remembering her panicked fumbling in the portia’s layer, she opened just the middle button. Though her fingers trembled, she didn’t drop the match. The thump of Lucan’s boots told her how few seconds she had left. She lit the fuse almost at the wax.
Then she was up and flying over the last steps as fast as any goat.
Her feet had just touched the paving stone when something big brushed past her, knocking her headlong. She hit the ground and rolled before she understood that it was Mistake. He’d crossed the steps the way Bane had.
A flash, thump, rattle, and roar. Stones chattered around her like hail. A sheet of cliffside abruptly slid down, taking all the steps between the seventh and eleventh with it. Long segments of hexagonal column tumbled end over end, breaking apart as they fell. They vanished into darkness. From the depths of the chasm rose a noise like thunder.
“Are you hurt?” asked Otger, bending over her.
“I don’t think so … did I get him?”
But as the smoke cleared, there was Lucan crouched on the sixth step, his chest oozing blood where shards of rock had struck him. He rose and glared at them.
Behind Petra came a steel snap—Canuut’s crossbow.
The bolt hit Lucan in the stomach. He jerked and teetered on his step, the fingers of his left hand clawing at the cliff face. As he tilted, he turned on his heel, then sprang across the gap to the step that had been behind him. He bounded away across the remaining steps to the far verge.
Otger said, calmly, “Well, he hasn’t hit bottom, but you’ve put us a few steps ahead.”
It wasn’t very funny, but Petra had to laugh—a shaky sort of laugh that she couldn’t control.
When the company made camp amid the ruins of the jugger fort, Petra refused Canuut’s offer of jambis and accepted Otger’s offer of his small tent, which she shared with Bane. Otger shared the larger one with Cort, and seemed pleased to make the sacrifice.