Kiss of the Dragonfly

59. War

By the time the jugger troops arrived, godshade had fallen. Jugger lamps and fires ringed the knoll. They beat drums that made the walls vibrate and Petra’s innards tremble. Their war horns wailed like dying beasts.

“Strange,” commented Bes. “Their horns imitate the prison’s riot alarms.”

When the juggers advanced upon the knoll, they were bunched up and held shields before them. The bolts of those in the rear fell into the broken tower like iron rain. But Jorn’s men had fashioned roofs from drak baffles around the inside of the wall, and the defenders huddled under them or with the mules in the tower’s core. As they marched, the juggers beat weapons on shields and roared insults that Petra could understand.

      Humans cower, humans hide
We’ll roast them humans either side.
Chains of iron, weights of lead
On roasted humans we’ll be fed.

The Drakhorn defenders bore their raucous chant with stony silence, and loosed no bolt.

As the first rank advanced up the knoll’s slope, a line of blue flames raced from the gate and made a ring around the tower. The juggers in the vanguard hesitated to try the fiery wall, while those in the back pushed forward. That compressed the ranks on the lower slope.

Then Jorn’s buried blasting powder exploded with a terrific bang. It made Petra jump, and blew a dozen juggers into the air. The rest fled, trampling the fallen into the smoking dirt. A volley of Drakhorn bolts downed many more.

“Take them a while to get over that,” said Jorn.

“Far too many left, and more may join them,” said Karl, grimly. “What of that bug of yours, Petra? Can it kill them?”

“Um … it could kill some, but I’ve sent it for the airship.” She hadn’t told her father about Nula, nor would she. She didn’t know how he’d react.

Karl’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Bes, what’s happening—is it there yet?” she asked, silently.

“What d’you think? What d’you expect? Look at this piece of junk—it’s hard to control and slow.”

In Petra’s inward vision an array of polished wood and brass levers loomed disconcertingly. There were pale, grayish hands on the controls—the pilot’s hands. The dragonfly had raised him from the dead to fly the airship. Petra teetered, disoriented. Her stomach heaved.

Her father gripped her arm to steady her. “What’s wrong? Answer me.”

“Bes, Stop it. D’you mean you can’t—” She spoke aloud.

“The host is fresh enough that the spygaster can use his memories and skills.”

Petra swallowed, fighting nausea. “So can you—”

“Of course I can!”

“Petra, you are not making sense,” her father grated.

“Father, Bes is bringing the airship.”

“For what purpose, damn it?”

“It has bombs in it,” said Otger, helpfully.

Petra and Otger would have had more explaining to do had not Jorn called for help with the weapons. From outside came the sound of hammering. By the time the sky lightened enough to see beyond the encircling lights, the juggers had built a high wooden platform out of bowshot, and assembled a catapult from metal spars.

A jugger dropped a rock into the catapult’s sling. With a clack, the arm snapped up and hurled the rock into the side of the broken tower. The rock fell in a shower of obsidian splinters.

The juggers made an adjustment to their catapult.

The next rock sailed neatly through a gap in the outer wall, struck the iron core, then dropped into the mud between the walls. The core rang like a cracked bell and the mules inside brayed in terror.

Juggers turned a crank to ratchet down the arm. Their captain dropped a canister into the sling.

“Jorn!” bellowed Karl.

Jorn Drakhorn was already there. “No time to swap bolts,” he said. He calmly took aim with his big windlass bow, then squeezed the trigger.

His bolt struck the jugger bending over the catapult. The jugger fell against the machine’s arm just as it snapped up.

“Take cover!” yelled Karl.

Petra and Otger ducked together under one of the baffle roofs.

A flash, a terrific bang, and obsidian rubble clattered onto the baffle, denting it. With the catapult knocked out of true, the canister had struck the outer wall. Had it followed the path of the last rock, the damage would have been far worse.

Acrid smoke filled the space between the walls. Curses and groans mingled with the smoke. Looking around, Petra saw a man holding a bleeding arm. Another lay on his side, clutching his head. The mud he lay in was strewn with chunks of glass-sharp obsidian.

In the haze of smoke, Jorn furiously cranked his crossbow’s windlass. This time, he slotted in a yellow-tipped bolt. He stepped to the split in the wall.

The juggers again cranked down the arm of their machine. Their captain dropped in a canister.

Jorn’s bolt struck the canister dead center. The catapult and nearby juggers vanished in a ball of flame and smoke. The rest fell back in confusion, while a big one on the platform bellowed and waved angrily.

“That’s sector warden Guntorg,” Bes told Petra. “He must be mighty pissed to have come so far from his fief himself.”

Far above the milling juggers, the shadow of the airship slipped through the mist.

“Last chance,” said Bes.

Petra glanced up, but could see nothing through the pall of smoke. He meant last sure chance to use the airship against the juggers. Bes could stop it, and its undead pilot could drop the remaining bombs.

They’d weighed the odds. The bombs would do some damage, but not destroy the jugger force. Then jugger hawks would attack the airship and bring it down. It would help, but wouldn’t change the balance. Against that, only the wild hope that Nula would keep her promise and would come in time.

Petra looked down again. The airship muttered on. Its passing tightened her throat like a noose.

Guntorg was too impatient or lacked material to build another catapult. When godshade doused the evening light, juggers again turned their lamp beams on the tower, then advanced in columns and with ladders.

The clansmen did what they could, shooting into dazzling light. Petra and Otger had one bow between them. Petra used her better sight to aim and Otger’s shoulder endured the stock’s bruising kick. In that way they brought down two enemy captains.

Karl sent men up ropes to fend off the ladders. But that exposed his raiders to bolts, and it was not long before Muran fell dead to a baffle roof. When the first ladder thumped against the tower’s jagged edge, it was Grapple’s flying hook that pulled it down. But however many juggers fell, more came up behind. It looked as though the battle would be lost before the howling dark was done.

Another clansman fell from the wall with a cry.

“If that damned fly of yours can help, it’s now or never,” Karl bellowed.

Petra opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Bes, where’s the airship?

“Two miles off. Losing altitude, batteries nearly run down, motor failing,” grumbled Bes.

Whatever that meant, it sounded bad.

An enormous jugger dropped feet-first onto the next roof over. The supporting staves snapped and it collapsed on the men beneath. The jugger stepped from the roof into the muddy passage. He looked too and fro, swinging a sword and mace. Then his eyes locked on Petra’s.

With a bellow, he thudded toward her.

Drakhorn crossbows snapped in unison, Otger’s included. The shafts of the bolts sprouted from monster’s chest and neck. Blood spurted and the jugger’s bellows became gurgling squawks, but he did not slow.

His sword swept away the outer supports of Petra’s roof, and it fell like a lid across her, stopped at an angle when the edge of it struck the ground. With a bang, the metal bent inward, nearly crushing her.

She tumbled backwards from under the crushed roof into the mud.

The jugger towered over her. His armor was studded with the shafts of bolts. Dogs leaped at him, but their teeth found no purchase. He raised a sword as long as her leg.

With a yell, Karl Drakhorn leaped at him from the side, a slight, dark figure beside the jugger. His blade found the sliver of cloth between the jugger’s arm braces, cut deep through bone and gristle.

The wounded jugger gurgled a howl. His sword slipped from his hand and fell pommel first next to Petra, the heavy blade missing her by inches, its tip stopped by the tower wall. The jugger staggered back, swinging his mace. Petra’s father ducked beneath its iron spikes.

Karl’s younger brother was a big man, yet looked small against the giant. Jorn Drakhorn leaped, swung, and buried a tree axe in the jugger’s head.

The jugger crashed backwards into the mud.

Petra struggled to her feet. All around was bloody horror. She couldn’t comprehend it, and had no time to.

Jag dogs dropped from the walls, their snarls filling the tower, their eyes and claws glinting in the light scattered by obsidian.

“Stay on your targets,” Karl and Jorn bellowed at the men. They’d known the jags would come, and planned for them. They were for the dogs and youngest defenders to deal with.

But the jags didn’t fight by Drakhorn rules. They attacked anything that moved or smelled like prey. Two vanished through the iron door into the tower’s core. The mules inside screamed with terror.

Thirty Drakhorn dogs brawled with the jags. Petra, Otger, and boys like Ked took up spare crossbows, airguns, swords, and knives.

Petra was in the mud, spinning, leaping through a hell of wrestling, snarling false dogs and true, hard even for her eyes to tell apart in the reeking, smoke-filled darkness. Darts flew by like angry wasps.

“Blades only,” she screamed—but no one heard.

Fangs and gleaming eyes. She thrust her sword into a gaping mouth, then spun to slash the neck of a jag that had a dog by the throat. Ahead, a human-shaped shadow stood near the tower’s core. An inhuman one landed on its back. A boy’s scream cut the air.

Petra leaped struggling bodies to reach them.

The jag-dog hunkered, splay-legged, with the boy writhing beneath it.

She swung her sword two-handed and severed the jag’s spine. Her breath coming in piping gasps, she hauled the monster off.

The boy underneath was Ked. He was trembling, struggling to breathe.

Petra didn’t need the skully to see that nothing could save him. She held his hand in both of hers until he fell still. It was a minute that felt like hours. Her vision blurred with tears while round her the blaring, savage noise of battle dulled, became like clanking and squeals under water.

A high, pure tone cut through it. Petra surfaced as though from the dream pool.

It was a sound none had expected—a yelping bugle call. Along the spur, where it met the tower, ran ten Brok clansmen, unseen until too late by juggers who’s eyes were fixed on the gleaming tower. With a roar, the Brok men fell on a ladder column from behind, and hacked down their startled foes.

No Broks made it alive through the gate. Though Petra couldn’t know which of the men had been traitors and which dupes, she felt a grateful relief that Otger’s kinsmen had won glory to answer for their shame.

But their arrival created only a momentary respite. Once the juggers understood that it did not presage a bigger attack, they were again climbing their ladders.

“Low on bolts,” shouted Jorn. “Use venom, close targets only.”

When the shrouded moon slipped behind Karlward and the shade was at its darkest, the airship broke through the mist into the glow of the lamps and fires. It swooped steeply down, straight for Guntorg’s platform. Flaming arrows rose and struck it, and in the last seconds of its descent, the ship’s insectile body became a roaring mass of flames. But strangest of all—so strange that neither men nor juggers understood at first—was the dark thing that had that insect by the neck, talons sunk into silken flesh, wings outspread for balance.

The airship had a draken on its back.

The burning airship’s cabin struck Guntorg’s platform as he turned to see what his men were shooting at. The warden crashed through the cabin window to join the pilot among rolling canisters. With a splintering crash, the platform fell, and the cabin thumped into the trampled snow amidst fleeing juggers.

Nula, wreathed in flame, still clinging to the airship’s back, hocked a little blood from the back of her porous tongue, arched her long neck, and spat. A white-hot ball of fire shot through the cabin roof and detonated the last canister bombs of the Flays.

From the fountain of smoke and wreckage stepped Nula. Before the juggers found the wits to train their crossbows on her, she let loose a screech. All the stories had not prepared Petra for the fearful sight and sound. Like the cry of a million hawks, the screech tore her ears, and the spear of shimmering flame blinded like sudden sunlight. In its path snow became vapor, tree trunks and juggers burst like acorns, then blew away in clouds of dancing sparks.

The leaderless juggers dropped their ladders and fled.

Nula ran after them with wings outstretched, scorching the earth with her breath, and in that way, made good her bargain with Petra.

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