Kiss of the Dragonfly

40. Ward's Gift

Petra stood frozen on the ice, trying to comprehend what she was seeing.

“They’re juggers,” said Canuut. “Juggers and jag-dogs!”

The juggers looked like large men. Five of them barreled down the slope toward the lake’s edge. Among them scrambled smaller creatures—those must be the jag-dogs. In seconds, the first jag-dog was on the ice.

Mistake bellowed, jerked his halter from Otger’s hand, and took off northward.

“Run, damn it,” shouted Cort.

Petra’s feet moved of their own accord. But her mind didn’t follow the logic of her feet. Even if her friends could outrun the juggers, they’d not outrun the jags. The creatures moved with a bounding gait, thrusting themselves forward on forelegs like long arms, hindlegs like a hare’s. They’d covered half the distance before the juggers even reached the shore. Glancing back at them, Petra tripped, fell, and slid. Her staff clattered away across the ice.

When she sat up, the jags were angling toward Mistake, the juggers had reached the ice, and behind the juggers came something worse. A bulbous outcropping rose on legs like gnarled tree trunks, then strode down the slope in a noisy avalanche of stones. It stood twenty yards from boulder feet to grotesque, stony face. Its fingers were as thick as Petra’s legs.

A troll.

There was no escape—no escape but one. She yelled over her shoulder to her companions, “Stop, get back! Come to me!” Those were words for dogs, but in her shock, no better words came.

Mistake was bellowing, the jag-dogs snapping at his legs. One leaped to his back. But Mistake was nobody’s free meal. The moon-gleam of his teeth vanished as he buried them in the jag’s neck. The creature screamed. Mistake shook it as a dog might shake a rabbit.

Otger slid to his knees beside her. “Need help?” he panted, eyes very wide.

“Hold this,” said Petra, handing him her airgun. “We have to attack.”

“You’re nuts, or have damn strong faith.”

“I have a ‘tarlic, that’s what.” She fumbled open her coat.

Fifty yards away, two jags lay twitching on the ice. With flying feet and gnashing metal teeth, Mistake was keeping the rest at bay. He’d attracted them like flies, and none had followed his human companions.

But the juggers weren’t distracted by the jackalute. Their boots thudded on the ice as they ran.

With a rumble, the troll fell through the ice to the depth of its knees. It struck the surface with a fist. A bang, and branching fractures spread.

Petra pulled Ward’s ‘tarlic from an inner pocket. It would act on any false-breeds within bowshot—that’s what Ward had told Canuut. But how to get it into their midst? She screamed over her shoulder, “Canuut! Your bow—I need it!”

Just then, the first ripple under the ice reached them. With groans and bangs, the ice tilted. The ‘tarlic slipped from Petra’s fingers and skittered toward a fissure. Otger pounced on it.

Somewhere behind, Canuut was cursing.

Otger, on his knees, held the ‘tarlic out to Petra, his eyes like full moons. The slab of ice under them rocked gently, grinding against its neighbors.

“Otger, think,” shouted Petra, “I have to shoot it to the shore—how?”

Though rocking on his knees against the motion of the ice, Otger seemed to freeze for a second. Then he said, “Your bandages! Do you have fresh tape?”

Of course.

Petra shrugged off her pack, scrabbled at the fasteners. She pulled off her gloves in frustration. Waterproof inner bag—more fasteners. Her breath came raggedly. She bared her teeth.

The juggers would have arrived already had they not been toppled by the heaving of the ice. One, on its knees, shook a fist at the troll. The troll waded on, ice rising like thick shards of glass around its thighs.

A thud, a curse, and Canuut was chest-down on the neighboring slab, his crossbow held out before him. Fortunately for Otger, it didn’t go off.

Otger shouted, “Back off the tension a notch—we’ll fix Petra’s ‘tarlic to the bolt.”

“The hell!” roared Canuut. “Bow doesn’t work that way.” He struggled to his knees.

Mistake was slapping a jag-dog against the ice. His robe had been torn away and his flanks were scored and bloody. Some surviving jags had turned from that unprofitable fight and were bounded toward the companions. They looked like large apes with the heads of dogs.

A snap, and the first jag tumbled with Canuut’s bolt through its head. “This is the way,” he roared. On his feet now, he slammed his crossbow’s muzzle to the ice and stomped the cocking lever. In one motion he raised the cocked bow in the crook of his arm, jerked a bolt from his quiver, and slotted it neatly in. He was faster than most men were two-handed. When he held the bow side-on to Petra, an inch of the bolt’s shaft behind the head was exposed. This time, the bow wasn’t at full draw.

“Here,” shouted Otger, proffering the ‘tarlic. The instant she’d taken it, he turned toward the jag-dogs with her airgun to his shoulder.

Petra slid the tarlic’s invisible ridges until the symbols on her thumb read ’90 SECONDS’. Feverishly, with cold and uncooperative fingers, she taped the tarlic fast to the bolt’s head.

Her airgun went ‘thup’ near her ear. A second later, a jag-dog slid backwards past them, claws scrabbling at the ice, the blood that sprayed from its neck leaving a dark streak in its wake. Snarling, Bane and Jakko met the next one in midair, and the tangle of bodies crashed to the ice. Yet another flew past; she heard Cort’s yell and the monster’s squeal behind her.

Sixty seconds left. She glanced up. The juggers were back on their feet, sliding across tilting slabs. The troll beat the ice ahead of it to rubble with its fists. But they were spread out, and more juggers were moving on the slope. She had to draw them together, get the ‘tarlic into their midst—and far away from Mistake.

Petra yanked the crossbow from Canuut’s hand. “Drakhorns,” she screamed, leaping to the next slab. Clutching the heavy bow, she ran toward the juggers and the shore.

The slabs tilted. Their glassy edges rose and sank. Spears of pain threatened to buckle her leg. It was a treacherous course, and a fall might end their hopes. She angled to cut between the juggers and the troll. They turned to close the gap.

She glanced back, and there was Otger, a few yards behind. Mistake was galloping west, scattering supplies from his bouncing pannier.

Twenty seconds left. Petra slid to her knees. Splinters of ice struck her as a jugger’s iron bolt hammered deep nearby. She put Canuut’s crossbow to her shoulder, made the angle high, then squeezed the trigger.

The crossbow’s kick was like a punch from Otger. Her missile arced over the juggers, toward the waste of shattered ice behind them and behind the troll. The juggers, seeing her shoot, roared laughter.

Otger arrived beside her, panting.

Petra counted the seconds. If the ‘tarlic sank, would it still work?

Surely it was past time … why hadn’t it worked?

Iron-soled boots sprayed ice as the first jugger skidded to a stop. Hair like worms swung under a helmet. From the gray face, eyes deep-sunk like Gronnor’s glared down at her. But the jugger was far from skeletal; he was a mountain of muscle in armor.

Petra rose to face him.

The troll, only yards away now, stepped high to break the ice without toppling its smaller comrades.

In the corner of Petra’s eye, the muzzle of her own airgun appeared. She didn’t hear it’s sound, but a spark flashed from the jugger’s helmet. The dart spun away.

The jugger grinned, baring gleaming teeth. His reaching hand, quick as a horse’s kick, seized Petra’s airgun by the muzzle, then jerked it from Otger’s grasp. Still grinning, the jugger snapped the weapon like a matchstick.

Suddenly a hornet’s buzz was in Petra’s head, a whine that climbed the scale, grew louder, deafening, became a scream that must explode her skull. She clutched her head and hardly felt her fall.

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