Kiss of the Dragonfly

41. Iron Halls

Petra got shakily to her knees. The only sound was the grinding of the ice, and the ice was strewn with bodies.

The troll stood as still as the stone it was born from, one huge fist upraised. Stones and sand rained down from its towering body. As Petra stared, the lower arm that bore the fist broke off, then crashed through the ice, sending up a plume of water.

“Oh, crap—run,” shouted Otger, already on his feet.

They’d not gone three strides when a crack and grind told that the troll was falling. Its forward leg had broken. The trunk toppled like a felled tree.

The mass struck, blasting slabs of ice and a fountain of water into the air. A rubble of ice and stone pelted the surface around the fleeing pair. Then the ice heaved high and threw them off their feet.

Petra hit with a bruising thump and slid against the edge of a rising slab. The slab scissored down, inches from shearing off her leg. Her own slab lifted and flung her to the next. It was a small one, alone in seething water, and it canted steeply from her weight. She just managed to clutch the edge as she was dunked to the hips. Her tiny island rolled the other way, dunking her arms, head, and torso. She rose with a yell of surprise at the cold.

All around, slabs banged and ground. Her island butted one, rolling her to her side. She had three fingers over the edge and her legs were in the water. The bigger slabs came crushing in.

Two hands grabbed Petra’s upraised arm and hauled. It was enough to get her to her knees. As her little slab bobbed up, she used its rise to propel herself to its larger neighbor, from whence the helping hands were stretched. She found herself in Otger’s arms as the rubble of her island vanished.

A dozen yards away, Canuut and Cort struggled toward them. The dogs were tugging at a dead jag. And far across the lake, moonlight glinted from Mistake’s flank as he galloped away.


Petra sat shivering under the coats of her three companions. She was in a tunnel, a hole in Karlward’s vast obsidian wall. They’d found it at the top of the talus slope, concealed by camouflage nets. By luck, the body of a dead jugger marked the entrance, or they might not have found it before she froze. She remembered the dangerous dance across broken ice and the panting climb up the slope, her clothes stiffening, her skin burning from the cold. She didn’t remember the end of it. Maybe they’d had to carry her.

Now, as pain and prickles replaced the numbness in her limbs, she became more aware of her surroundings.

Bane lay under her knees and nearby burned a heap of wood-handled tools. Her coat hung from an outsized shovel propped close to the fire, next to her upturned boots. The smoke drifted toward the tunnel entrance on a gentle breeze that tasted of metal. Before her, dim in the torchlight not swallowed by obsidian walls, was a contraption on wheels, with Otger on top. It emitted a steady hiss.

Petra shivered and stared for a while before she understood what it was: a train!

Not one of the big ones she’d seen in a book, the ones that could carry a whole camp-full of downlanders at once. This one had only two open carts with metal sides. Otger crouched on a third, shorter part. The shadows of gears and levers swept by as he moved his torch among them. That must be the engine.

“Hey!” croaked Petra. “Hey, Otger!”

Otger looked up. Those surprised eyes. “Oh, are you alive again?”

“What’re you doing?”

“Figuring out how it works.”

Footsteps from the tunnel entrance—Canuut and Cort, coatless, bearing armloads. Jakko was with them.

“Thawed out some?” asked Canuut, huffing from exertion.

“Pretty much,” croaked Petra. “Find anything?”

Canuut dropped his pack. “A quarter cheese, a packet of torches, a water flask—I filled it. Mistake took the tents and big flasks with him. The rope and my bolts are gone—I’ve two left.”

And no sign of Mistake, thought Petra, sadly.

“I found these,” said Cort, holding up Petra’s pack and staff.

Petra stared for a second in shock, then gave a huff of relief.  Her relief was for a loss that hadn’t registered. The cold had pushed even the precious waymap from her mind.

“Must be a dozen carcasses,” said Canuut. He sounded almost merry.

Groaning, Petra stood.

Cort and Canuut clutched at her arms.

“Oh, leave off,” she said. “And turn around so I can change.” Her sodden clothes felt awful, clinging to her cold-reddened skin. As she peeled them off, she realized the mistrustful embarrassment she’d felt before was hardly there now. She’d trust each of her squabbling friends with her life and dignity any day.

Bane licked her knee and shin, which were bruised black.

The spare underclothes in her pack were damp, and she’d no spare woolens. Her coat was steaming in the fire’s heat, so she donned it and hung her woolens in its place. Cort hadn’t found her gloves.

Suddenly the train’s engine emitted a squeal. The carts lurched forward, then stopped. The clangor of it echoed up the tunnel.

“It works!” cried Otger.

Canuut grimaced. “Quiet, for the love of Herm!”

“Why? This’ll be the fastest way,” said Otger.

“They’ll hear us ten miles off.”

“I read juggers have excellent dark senses. They’d hear us anyway.”

“Stuff your bloody books!”

But Petra agreed with Otger. The only way onward lay through Karlward, and the faster they moved, the better. She clambered into the first cart.

Otger showed off his discovery. The engine was a squat sandwich of iron plates strapped together, with gears and chains at the side that would turn the wheels. Long levers stuck up, with a wooden seat between them. “See, the iron plates are just for weight,” he said, excitedly. “It’s that box in the middle that makes it go.”

A smooth gray box was strapped between the plates. From it stuck a spinning shaft. Petra only knew it was spinning because of a line marked on it—a line that spiraled endlessly inward, hypnotizing to watch. The hiss came from a clamp that gripped the shaft.

Otger continued. “This lever tightens the clamp’s grip the shaft, this one releases it, and this one controls a gear. I think it’s a ‘tarlic.”

“That thing?” said Petra, wrinkling her nose at the crude machine.

“Just the box between the plates. See, the shaft turns all the time. I bet the juggers don’t know how to stop it. I bet it’s been going ever since the varters died. Imagine if we could make things like that now.”

Petra watched Otger admire the gray box. She grinned. He was a funny boy. Here in the enemy’s lair, with enemy corpses strewn around, this was what captivated him. Then she turned to Canuut and Cort, who were watching her. It was time to go.


An hour later, they were clanking along the rails into the depths of Karlward. Otger sat on the perch above the engine. Petra, Cort, and Canuut occupied the benches along the side walls of the first cart. Bane and Jakko lay on the floor, cracking bones. Jag-dog food, perhaps. The companions were ready for a fight. It had taken Cort’s and Canuut’s combined muscle to cock the jugger crossbows stacked inside. Petra couldn’t even squeeze the trigger. She held the torch.

The helmets and coats were her idea. They’d built two mannequins from crossed staves with jugger helmets on top and ratty jugger coats around. Cort and Canuut wore helmets that rattled on their heads and stinking coats that puddled at their feet. They muttered their resentment, but did as Petra asked.

The humped mannequins and her own face danced before her, reflected in the smoky planes of the tunnel’s obsidian walls. Then they didn’t.

“Otger, stop!” she called.

The train groaned to a stop. All was silent but for the ‘tarlic engine’s hiss. The tunnel had broadened so that it was hard to see the walls. And the walls were now of iron, smooth and brown.

“Slop o’ lava,” snorted Canuut.

“Huh,” said Otger.

Petra marveled in silence. They had entered the iron halls of Hell. This was The Trailhead, the forge of pain in which her people had been born, and from which they’d been led by Herm’s light. Fancy, some said; allegory, said others. But here was myth made real in cold, undeniable iron.

They drove on.

And on.

The air grew warm and bitter. The men fidgeted in doubled coats and cauldron helms. They drank sparingly, finished the cheese, and chewed damp waybread. Petra sat between Canuut and a mannequin, jostled, lulled by the rhythmical clangor. She leaned against Canuut’s one arm, her head bumping the coarse cloth of his jugger coat. On corroded rails, the train’s wheels rattled like stones in the stream bed, where it flowed into the pool of her dream. The pool with the draken’s green-gold eyes. Those eyes were there, deep down, patient.

But others rose: hard, black eyes like pebbles. Searching eyes, hungry eyes. What did they search for? A map! The map floated up, and there she was, a bead on a golden thread pulled through the twisting currents of the deep.

“Here comes another,” called Otger.

Petra jerked awake. “Huh … what?”

A vast hulk of machinery slid by, skeletal from scavenging. In the ceiling above it, a blacker hole was just visible.

“Garbage!” said Otger, suddenly. “Maybe it’s a garbage chute. I think stuff drops into whatever the machines were.”

“Rubbish,” snorted Cort.

“Exactly. I wondered why the tunnel entrance was so far above the lake. Before the obsidian talus built up, it must have been thirty yards up the cliff face. But it wasn’t an entrance. It was for throwing out the trash.”

“Why would they throw trash out of Hell?” Cort asked the wind.

The wind didn’t answer.



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