The corpse of Lucan Drakhorn stepped onto the ledge. His feet were bare now. The bones of his face and chest were misshapen, like they’d broken and healed wrong. Two fingers of one hand were blackened stumps. Raw wounds in his thigh and midriff marked where where Canuut’s bolts had struck. But he’d held onto his weapons; a sword was in one hand, a knife in the other.
“Spread out,” cried Petra, drawing her sword. Of course it was Lucan. It was his shadow she’d seen in the tunnel, his running feet she’d heard. He had killed the juggers at the last guardhouse.
There was little space on the ledge to spread out in, and a fall could be fatal.
Bane and Jakko lunged, bodies low, snarling deep—but hesitating to spring. Otger darted toward the rocks on one side. Canuut stepped sideways to the other. He leveled his crossbow, loaded with his last bolt.
Lucan’s eyes followed the bow, but he did not flinch from it.
“What do you want?” shouted Petra. “Why are you following us?”
Lucan’s slack jaw lifted, his lips drew back from broken teeth, and words came out. “Petra,” he rasped. His mouth worked. “Petra Drakhorn, I have come for you.”
Petra’s voice shook. “Why? What do I mean to you?”
“You … mean much to Gronnor,” said Lucan’s voice. “I … am Gronnor. I … admire you, Petra. I … need you, Petra.”
“Uncle—hold on now,” stammered Cort, beside her.
Lucan stepped forward. “I … will take you ho—”
At that instant, Canuut let fly his bolt, the dogs sprang, and Otger leaped for Lucan’s back, his knife swinging for the neck. Only later did Petra remember clearly what happened.
Lucan’s head jerked sideways with inhuman speed; the bolt only ripped through his cheek. As the dogs flew at his throat, his knife lashed out, and Jakko’s snarl became a yelp of pain. With the same arm, he knocked Bane’s head to the side.
Otger’s attack from behind failed. Lucan’s sword arm rose and its elbow whacked Otger in the midriff. With an explosive grunt, Otger tumbled, to lie writhing at the brink, arms wrapped around himself. His knife vanished over the edge.
Bane landed behind Lucan, twisting to attack again.
Canuut lunged, swinging his crossbow.
“Canuut—stop!” screamed Petra.
But Canuut didn’t stop. As Bane buried his teeth in Lucan’s knife arm, Canuut’s bow struck Lucan’s head. Lucan staggered back. With a roar, Canuut tackled him.
The image was afterward seared in Petra’s memory: Lucan’s bloody sword blade sticking through the back of Canuut’s coat as the men and dog tumbled over the cliff edge.
From between pine boughs, Gronnor watched the fugitives through Lucan’s eyes. Lucan had made it this far by way of a split in the rock concealed from the ledge. Only a short climb remained, but just here Lucan was vulnerable. The dog’s teeth had badly torn one arm, he favored one leg, and his face was a mask of blood from gashes in his head and cheek.
So Lucan and his riders watched and listened.
They heard Otger suck in a breath and groan. They saw Petra slip clothes from her pack under his head. Otger would not be a problem for a while, but he would recover. That was good. Gronnor had lingering hopes for the boy, as he did for that idiot Cort. But both were expendable. Petra was the prize.
Gronnor considered his options. He could make the dragonfly dismount from Lucan’s damaged corpse and take control of her. But as the dragonfly dismounted, it would be temporarily blind. And Gronnor found the thought of the dragonfly sinking into Petra’s neck distasteful. What if it did permanent damage to that clever brain, and the secret power it held?
He could remind her that he had Tegan in his power. But Petra was not easily persuaded to behave—she’d shown that well enough. And she would reason that he wouldn’t harm his bride-to-be. No, there was better leverage to be had from Otger. He could show her Otger’s blood.
Cort might help him to manage Petra without recourse to the drastic step of seizing another body. Gronnor had seen the fear in his eyes. Yes, Cort would follow orders if they were clear enough.
Now Cort and Petra were arguing.
“I said I’m going down to Canuut,” shouted Petra.
“You mustn’t—what if Uncle’s … what if Lucan’s still down there?”
“Do you see him? He and Bane must have fallen farther.”
“There’s nothing you can do for Canuut now. It’s easier to climb directly down to the gorge.”
“What are you saying? He’s a Drakhorn … he’s my friend—I have to go!” Petra’s voice was high with anguish, her cheeks wet with tears. She shoved Cort away, strode to a tree, unclipped the hook from her belt.
Cort followed, arms wide in mute protest.
This was Lucan’s chance.
The last maneuver took only seconds. When Lucan’s vision settled, Petra and Cort were staring at him in wide-eyed horror.
In the privacy of his tent, Gronnor grinned. The expressions on the youngsters’ faces were comical. Just as he enjoyed the effect that his own grotesque appearance had on others, it amused him to perform in the mask of Lucan. He made Lucan copy the grin, imagining the effect on the horse’s ruined face. Petra’s eyes grew rounder still.
Gronnor made Lucan step to where Otger lay curled. He drew his sword, swung it theatrically over his head, and stopped the blade’s arc with the tip an inch from the boy’s neck.
“Petra Drakhorn,” he said, through Lucan’s broken mouth. “Swear obedience to me—Gronnor, Tash of Drakhorns—or the smart-ass dies.”
“Don’t listen,” wheezed Otger. He kicked at Lucan’s shin.
“Swear or watch,” rasped Lucan, touching Otger’s neck with the tip of the blade.
“You let him be—it’s me you want,” screamed Petra.
Otger twisted his neck to look up at Gronnor. “Monster! False-bred freak!”
Gronnor’s grin became a snarl, and the rictus on Lucan’s face twisted. He whacked Otger’s head with the flat of the blade, then nicked him under the ear, drawing blood. He spoke, louder now. “Cort Brok, are you a man? Have you forgotten your fealty and my gift? Your Tash commands you: compel her; deliver her. Or I will spread your unsung bowels for the crows.”
Cort gave a sob of terror. “Uncle! I … I …” he choked.
Pathetic piddlewit, though Gronnor. “Do as I say!” he bawled through Lucan.
Cort half-turned to Petra, his hands half open, his muscles rigid, his face contorted. “P-Petra …”
Then, in a trembling voice, Petra began to speak. “Lucan Drakhorn, to Herm’s mercy I commend you.”
Lucan’s heart, and Gronnor’s, missed a beat.
Petra’s voice gained strength. “Lucan who lived, and bravely passed the hard and fogbound ways of life, fare well the path Herm shows us last, a way of peace, and safe from strife …”
Gronnor’s vision flared red, then contracted to a tunnel in which he saw only Petra’s face. A cold beyond cold rose through his legs. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. What was it? What in Herm’s name was she saying? With a shock like plunging into ice water, he knew: she was speaking the Wayrite of the Dead.
Petra’s voice was firm now. “Lucan who loved, was loved, and won …”
“Gaaa!” croaked Gronnor, in his tent. The cold had risen to his chest. With a convulsion of will, his hand jerked to his ear, tore at the ring.
“You who once with kindness paid, you who once with mercy stayed, the hand …”
On the ledge, Lucan swayed, his mouth slack.
In the tent, Gronnor fell to his knees and forehead, then to his side. The ring rolled away, leaving a trail of blood.
When Petra spoke the last words of the rite, Lucan collapsed. She rolled him onto his back and closed his eyes. From her pack she took one of Genna Stray’s two gold coins and placed it under his tongue. Properly, it should have been the other way: the coin first, then the rite of passage. In the circumstances, she thought Herm would understand.
Then she climbed down to the ledge where Canuut’s fall had ended, and buried him. She did most of the work herself, with half-hearted aid from a dazed and sullen Cort. Otger couldn’t yet unbend enough to make the descent. He kept the ravens away from Lucan and Jakko.
On the ledge was a rare and beautiful thing: a small silvertree, tucked out of sight of scavengers in the gorge. Cort had his knife out the moment he saw it, but Petra fiercely forbade him to touch it. She scooped talus from a cleft between the ledge and cliff-face near the tree, working by daylight and in godshade, as heedless of spiders as of tears. Pushing Canuut’s body into the cleft was the only part she couldn’t do without help.
After placing Genna’s second coin in Canuut’s mouth, she stood with her back to the drop, and in a strong, clear voice, spoke the wayrite. Then she laid her staff across a stone and broke it. On the thicker end she carved a crude face. She set the makeshift Herm post near Canuut’s head, then covered him up as best she could.
They buried Lucan in like fashion on the upper ledge, too near the door to Hell for Petra’s comfort, but it couldn’t be helped. The other half of her staff served as the Herm post. They laid Jakko’s body at his feet. Petra would rather have put Jakko with Canuut, but there wasn’t space for him there.
She couldn’t see Bane’s body from either ledge.
It was while they were scrounging loose stones to cover Jakko that Petra saw the flash. She dropped to her knees and pulled out her glass. A light mist lay in the gorge, thinning from sunlight that had broken though heavier clouds above. In the shady parts lay drifts of snow.
Otger joined her. “What is it?”
“Look, among the trees, this side,” whispered Otger.
Petra saw a shortened shadow move between scrub pines nearly below them. She slowly raised her glass. “And near the brook,” she said.
“And someone’s crossing the rill east of it,” said Otger.
Petra lowered her glass. What she’d seen was disturbingly familiar; it was what Otger’s team had done in Clash. “They’re not ours,” she said.
“How d’you know?” asked Cort.
“A line across—they’re hunting someone on the ground, not a draken. And they’re easy to spot, like they don’t care.”
“Shh—listen,” said Otger.
Petra glanced at the split in the wall behind them, but the faint noise did not come out of Karlward; it came and went with the breeze. It was a low drone and a quick wingbeat, like nothing she’d heard before. The noise grew more insistent. Something was coming. Something big.
Could it be a drak? She’d never heard of a drak sounding like that. “Get into the trees,” she whispered.
From behind concealing bows, they saw it: a dark shadow, plump and long, like a great pavilion tent—only this tent flew. It had stubby wings, and glassy eyes like a dragonfly’s, and in the eyes were … men.
“It’s an airship,” whispered Otger. “I’ve seen them in a book.”
The airship slid by, its top just below the level of their perch. The tail was long and tapering, also like a dragonfly’s. At the tail’s tip, something spun. A blood-red symbol adorned the airship’s side: the six-tailed lash of Clan Flay.