“You were telling about false-breeds,” prompted Petra.
Canuut didn’t respond. He was fiddling with his porta-kettle.
They’d stopped to wait out godshade midway along the abandoned jugger road that led from the Cloven Tower to Karlward.
Petra sat with her arms around Bane, one knee up, her sore leg straight in front of her. The temperature was below freezing, and if it weren’t for the pain, she’d be eager to move on. The cause of the pain was the whack she’d got to her knee crossing Kastra’s Stair.
Otger sat on a rock nearby, watching her.
Petra met his eyes, then looked away.
She’d slept well that night, her dreams untroubled by Lucan. Only the green-gold eyes of the darken had waited in her dream pool. But in the morning, hunger and pain had replaced the euphoria that came of their victory.
Canuut poured jambis for himself and Cort. “I was tellin’ ’bout juggers, who fear and loathe us.” His words came with puffs just visible in the umbral gloom.
Cort chuckled. “Really, Canuut, you speak as if there were juggers around the next outcrop. They’ve not been seen for generations.”
“They survive, and many a karlman’s gone missing to prove it.”
“Lot of reasons to go missing.”
“Missing with fences and tents left up. Missing and mules returned without ’em.”
“Bandits,” said Cort.
“We’re the bandits.”
“Well, draks then.”
“Shows how much you know. They hunt in the deep valleys north of Attica.”
“Ah, so it’s hungry juggers—”
“Go on, Canuut,” interrupted Petra. She didn’t want him to lapse into silent umbrage.
Canuut glared at Cort across his jambis cup. “Juggers don’t eat karlmen—leastwise not right off. They’re jailers by instinct. When they catch a karlman, they drag him back to Karlward, then torture him for their pleasure.”
“Sounds like a tale to frighten children,” scoffed Cort.
“Listen you, I’ve seen the signs. Twenty years ago, Rufus and I went after two scouts who were past due. We found their gear scattered. Their captors kept to the rocks to hide their prints, but I found ’em anyway: iron-shod boots bigger’n any man’s.”
“Could just be—”
Petra broke in. “Cort, would you stop; I want to hear. What about the draks, Canuut? In the old songs they and the juggers are in league, and now we take their eggs the way they took our children.”
“Now that’s a child’s tale,” said Canuut.
“A lullaby, actually,” said Otger. “It goes like—”
“Okay, okay,” said Petra, blushing.
“The draks were slaves to the juggers, not allies,” said Canuut. “There’s enough light—let’s move.”
Petra struggled to her feet, ignoring Otger’s offered hand.
Once they were walking, Canuut continued, shouting over gusts of wind. “The conspirators—the Five-oh-nines, the Sixers, and others—built a secret warren inside the walls of Karlward. In the thinnest parts, they could hear the screams of torture. For generations our ancestors burrowed and planned, making weapons and schools and teaching forbidden …”
“Teaching what?” shouted Petra, looking back.
“Forbidden arts of war!”
“Won’t re-tell The Breakout; you know it …”
Petra did know it. It was the story in the Trailhead Book that she liked best. How the first Tarran—her brother’s namesake—and Tira, and Melanor the wizard, and Stan4, and the Ageless Witch, had utterly surprised the juggers, and slain them by the thousands. How they’d freed those unjustly cast into Hell, and those who followed the new gods, and the children washed clean by Herm’s grace. How they’d unleashed a war engine that blew down the mile-high doors and let the karlmen loose among the mountains and streams and forests of Herm’s promised land.
Canuut was shouting, “… the toll was terrible; thousands of heroes fell. The Five-oh-nines, who were best at artful concealment, led the Seventh Flight—the last. The juggers followed, a million strong, wielding the weapons of demons and dead gods. Against such power we karlmen could not stand.
“But the Five-oh-nines had stolen the thing that held the draks in thrall: the Drak Horn. When Tarran blew a mighty blast upon it, the draks rose from their eyries in Karlward Crown, stooped upon the juggers, and burned them till the rock boiled and the heavens rang with shrieks.
“And so a million juggers died, and we were freed. Since that day, the juggers bear a mile-high grudge against the Drakhorns, and terrible would be the fate of any who fell into their grasp.”
Petra shivered, not from cold alone. The story of The Breakout always gave her a thrill. But she wondered how much was true and how much an accretion of time. The Drak Horn had given her clan its name and ancient glory, but that was all history recalled of it. If existed at all, it was buried deep in the stolen Cradle, in the treasure vaults of their blood enemies, Clan Flay.
“Herm’s beard! Never thought I’d see it from this side,” panted Canuut.
Petra stopped beside him, her breath making clouds.
Before their eyes lay the most fearful sight known to karlmen. A gentle slope swept down to the Upper Drood, a frozen lake of startling blue, seamed with the white of ice fractures. Beyond the lake, a talus slope climbed to meet a cliff that towered half a mile high. The cliff face was of gleaming black rock, shot through with red. It thrust out of the southern flank of Attica Mountain like the toe of a massive boot. This was Karlward, whose shattered southern face rose a mile above the deeper valley of The Gront.
Petra’s gaze was drawn up to Karlward Crown. Its prongs did not look as even as they were shown in books. Some had crumbled to stumps.
Otger and Cort came up behind her, panting from the climb. Their breaths rose smoke-white in the still air.
“How’s that for a natural formation, eh, Otger?” said Canuut.
Otger’s eyes roved the cliff. “I read the black stone is obsidian, made when lava cools quickly.”
Canuut snorted. “Hear our Brok philosopher look on Hell’s portico and declare it a slop o’ lava. You’re as funny as a troll’s fart.”
For once, Otger didn’t argue.
Petra understood. Standing before that forbidding prospect, it was easy to believe it the handiwork of long-dead gods.
Cort spoke, frowning. “Petra, didn’t you say the trail goes over it?
“Well, at first I thought it must, but on the waymap it’s marked the same way as the one in the Rull. I think it goes through it.” She cringed inwardly, expecting an eruption from Canuut.
Canuut sighed. “Aye, so I’ve heard.”
Petra looked at him in surprise. Then it dawned on her that he’d known all along, but said nothing.
“It was your father’s third foray as huntmaster, and his first hunting Nula. Ward was with him, and four scouts. Three of the scouts died here. Neither your father nor Ward would speak of what happened, except to the council elders. The fourth was Cob, who had his legs then. And when Cob gets his fill of jambis, he can’t stop his jaw from wagging.
“He said they were set upon by monsters—each time he tells it, they get bigger—and in the fray, got himself a crack on the head. When he woke, Karl and Ward were taking turns to carry him through a tunnel. Cob doesn’t remember much, save what he’s made up since. But it went on a long way, and they came out the far side near the top of the Blood Gorge, just as the waymap shows.”
Petra turned back to study the grim flank of Karlward. According to the waymap, the entrance to the tunnel must be straight across the Upper Drood from where they stood. The waymap showed the cluster of Herm posts that marked the graves of the three other men. But it said nothing of monsters. The map spoke truth, but not all of it. What else was it silent about?
As the sun set, the red highlights in the cliffside glimmered like frozen fire.
Meagre portions of waybread, cheese, and melted snow were all the trailmates had to eat. The animals fared better. Mistake dug two drowsy rabbits from their burrow in the frozen turf, tossed one to the dogs, then ate the other.
When the moon rose over Karlward, they set off across the lake.
The ice was glassy in places, reflecting moonlight, in others roughened by rain and snow. Snow-clogged fissures snaked over it. On the thick ice, the travelers’ boots made little sound. But the lake was deeper than the ice, and at the center they heard slow thumps, like a giant knocking to get out. Ahead, the cliff blotted out the stars. The air was still, cold, and silent. The dogs stayed close, and kept their tails down.
Petra was the slowest now, despite Genna’s pain medicine. She gritted her teeth and limped as quickly as she could.
Canuut looked back and slowed his pace. He wanted them to go in single file and close together, so that their movement and shadows would be harder to spot.
As they neared the farther shore, he raised his hand. They stopped. All was silence but for the sound of their breathing. Bane and Jakko sniffed the air, but if it moved at all, it was southward along the cliff, not from the shore. Canuut’s head turned slowly as he surveyed the slope of tumbled rock that rose from the lake’s edge three hundred yards away. In the silvery moonlight, all was gray and shadow. He unhitched the loaded crossbow from his back.
Petra unhitched her airgun, which she’d charged and loaded on the shore behind them.
Canuut raised his bow and dipped it forward as a sign that they should move on.
They’d gone not three paces when some of the rocks stood up.
Petra gasped. Mistake snorted. Bane growled deep and snapped his teeth.
“Herm’s balls,” exclaimed Canuut.
They weren’t rocks at all; they were men, or rocks become men, or worse. They’d been crouched there all along, as still as stones, and colored like them. Now they were charging down the talus slope in a clatter of gravel, and bellowing. It was no friendly welcome.
This entrance to Karlward was guarded.