Manon hit Keelie and the beast screamed, but held on as Manon hauled herself against the wind and into the saddle where Petrah dangled. Her hands were stiff, her gloves making her even clumsier as she sliced with a blade through the leathers, one after another. Abraxos roared his warning. The canyon mouth loomed closer.
Darkness have mercy on her.
Then Manon had Petrah free, the Blueblood heir a dead weight in her arms, her hair whipping Manon’s face like a thousand small knives. She lashed a length of leather around herself and Petrah. Once. Twice. She tied it, lacing her arms through Petrah’s. Keelie kept steady. The canyon lips closed around them, shadow everywhere. Manon bellowed at the weight as she hauled the witch up out of the stirrups and the saddle.
Rock rushed past, but a shadow blotted out the sun, and there was Abraxos, diving for her, plummeting, small and sleek. He was the only wyvern she’d seen bank at that speed in this canyon.
“Thank you,” she said to Keelie as she flung herself and Petrah into the air.
They fell for a heartbeat, twisting and dropping too fast, but then Abraxos was there, his claws outstretched. He swept them up, banking along the side of the canyon and over the lip, rising into the safety of the air.
Keelie hit the floor of the canyon with a crash that could be heard across the mountains.
She did not rise again.
The Blackbeaks won the War Games, and Manon was crowned Wing Leader in front of all those frilly, sweating men from Adarlan. They called her a hero, and a true warrior, and more nonsense like that. But Manon had seen her grandmother’s face when she had set Petrah down on the viewing platform. Seen the disgust.
Manon ignored the Blueblood Matron, who had gotten on her knees to thank her. She did not even see Petrah as she was carried off.
The next day, rumor had it, Petrah would not rise from bed. They said she had been broken in her soul when Keelie died.
An unfortunate accident brought on by uncontrollable wyverns, the Yellowlegs Matron had claimed, and Iskra had echoed. But Manon had heard Iskra’s command to kill.
She might have called Iskra out, might have challenged her, if Petrah hadn’t heard that command, too. The vengeance was Petrah’s to claim.
She should have let the witch die, her grandmother screamed at her that night as she struck Manon again and again for her lack of obedience. Lack of brutality. Lack of discipline.
Manon did not apologize. She could not stop hearing the sound made as Keelie hit the earth. And some part of her, perhaps a weak and undisciplined part, did not regret ensuring the animal’s sacrifice had not been in vain.
From everyone else, Manon endured the praise heaped on her and accepted the bows from every gods-damned coven no matter their bloodline.
Wing Leader. She said it to herself, silently, as she and Asterin, half of the Thirteen trailing behind them, approached the mess hall where the celebration was to be held.
The other half were already there, scouting ahead for any possible threat or trap. Now that she was Wing Leader, now that she had humiliated Iskra, others would be even more vicious—to put her down and claim her position.
The crowd was merry, iron teeth glinting all around and ale—real, fresh ale brought in by those awful men from Adarlan—sloshing in mugs. Manon had one shoved into her hand, and Asterin yanked it away, drank a mouthful, and waited a moment before she gave it back.
“They’re not above poisoning you,” her Second said, winking as they made their way to the front of the room where the three Matrons were waiting. Those men at the Games had held a small ceremony, but this was for the witches—this was for Manon.
She hid her smile as the crowd parted, letting her through.
The three High Witches were seated in makeshift thrones, little more than ornate chairs they’d found. The Blueblood Matron smiled as Manon pressed two fingers to her brow. The Yellowlegs Matron, on the other end, did nothing. But her grandmother, seated in the center, smiled faintly.
A snake’s smile.
“Welcome, Wing Leader,” her grandmother said, and a cry went up from the witches, save for the Thirteen—who stayed cool and quiet. They did not need to cheer, for they were immortal and infinite and gloriously, wonderfully deadly.
“What gift can we give you, what crown can we bestow, to honor what you shall do for us?” her grandmother mused. “You have a fine blade, a fearsome coven”—the Thirteen all allowed a hint of a smirk—“what else could we give you that you do not possess?”
Manon bowed her head. “There is nothing I wish for, save the honor which you have already given me.”
Her grandmother laughed. “What about a new cloak?”
Manon straightened. She could not refuse, but . . . this was her cloak, it had always been.
“That one is looking rather shabby,” her grandmother went on, waving her hand to someone in the crowd. “So here is our gift to you, Wing Leader: a replacement.”
There were grunts and curses, but the crowd gasped—in hunger, in anticipation—as a brown-haired, shackled witch was hauled forward by three Yellowlegs cronies and forced to her knees before Manon.
If her broken face, shattered fingers, lacerations, and burns did not give away what she was, then the bloodred cloak she wore did.
The Crochan witch, her eyes the solid color of freshly tilled earth, looked up at Manon. How those eyes were so bright despite the horrors written on her body, how she didn’t collapse right there or start begging, Manon didn’t know.
“A gift,” said her grandmother, extending an iron-tipped hand toward the Crochan. “Worthy of my granddaughter. End her life and take your new cloak.”
Manon recognized the challenge. Yet she drew her dagger, and Asterin stepped in close, eyes on the Crochan.
For a moment, Manon stared down at the witch, her mortal enemy. The Crochans had cursed them, made them eternal exiles. They deserved to die, each and every one of them.
But it was not her voice that said those things in her head. No, for some reason, it was her grandmother’s.
“At your leisure, Manon,” her grandmother cooed.
Choking, her lips cracked and bleeding, the Crochan witch looked up at Manon and chuckled. “Manon Blackbeak,” she whispered in what might have been a drawl had her teeth not been broken, her throat ringed with bruises. “I know you.”
“Kill the bitch!” a witch shouted from the back of the room.
Manon looked into her enemy’s face and raised her brows.
“You know what we call you?” Blood welled as the Crochan’s lips peeled into a smile. She closed her eyes as if savoring it. “We call you the White Demon. You’re on our list—the list of all you monsters to kill on sight if we ever run into you. And you . . .” She opened her eyes and grinned, defiant, furious. “You are at the top of that list. For all that you have done.”
“It’s an honor,” Manon said to the Crochan, smiling enough to show her teeth.
“Cut out her tongue!” someone else called.
“End her,” Asterin hissed.
Manon flipped the dagger, angling it to sink into the Crochan’s heart.
The witch laughed, but it turned into a cough that had her heaving until blue blood splattered on the floor, until tears were leaking from her eyes and Manon caught a glimpse of the deep, infected wounds on her chest. When she lifted her head, blood staining the corners of her mouth, she smiled again. “Look all you want. Look at what they did to me, your sisters. How it must pain them to know they couldn’t break me in the end.”
Manon stared down at her, at her ruined body.
“Do you know what this is, Manon Blackbeak?” the Crochan said. “Because I do. I heard them say what you did during your Games.”
Manon wasn’t sure why she was letting the witch talk, but she couldn’t have moved if she wanted to.
“This,” the Crochan said for all to hear, “is a reminder. My death—my murder at your hands, is a reminder. Not to them,” she breathed, pinning Manon with that soil-brown stare. “But to you. A reminder of what they made you to be. They made you this way.
“You want to know the grand Crochan secret?” she went on. “Our great truth that we keep from you, that we guard with our lives? It is not where we hide, or how to break your curse. You have known all this time how to break it—you have known for five hundred years that your salvation lies in your hands alone. No, our great secret is that we pity you.”
No one was speaking now.
But the Crochan did not break Manon’s stare, and Manon did not lower her dagger.
“We pity you, each and every one of you. For what you do to your children. They are not born evil. But you force them to kill and hurt and hate until there is nothing left inside of them—of you. That is why you are here tonight, Manon. Because of the threat you pose to that monster you call grandmother. The threat you posed when you chose mercy and saved your rival’s life.” She gasped for breath, tears flowing unabashedly as she bared her teeth. “They have made you into monsters. Made, Manon. And we feel sorry for you.”
“Enough,” the Matron said from behind. But the whole room was silent, and Manon slowly raised her eyes to her grandmother’s.
In them, Manon beheld a promise of the violence and pain that would come if she disobeyed. Beyond that, there gleamed nothing but satisfaction. As if the Crochan had spoken true, but only the Blackbeak Matron knew she had done so.
The Crochan’s eyes were still bright with a courage Manon could not comprehend.
“Do it,” the Crochan whispered. Manon wondered if anyone else understood that it was not a challenge, but a plea.
Manon angled her dagger again, flipping it in her palm. She did not look at the Crochan, or her grandmother, or anyone as she gripped the witch by the hair and yanked back her head.
And then spilled her throat on the floor.
Legs dangling off a cliff edge, Manon sat on a plateau atop a peak in the Ruhnns, Abraxos sprawled at her side, smelling the night-blooming flowers on the spring meadow.
She’d had no choice but to take the Crochan’s cloak, to dump her old one atop the body once it fell, once the witches gathered around to rip her apart.
They have made you into monsters.
Manon looked at her wyvern, the tip of his tail waving like a cat’s. No one had noticed when she left the celebration. Even Asterin was drunk on the Crochan’s blood, and had lost sight of Manon slipping through the crowd. She told Sorrel, though, that she was going to see Abraxos. And her Third, somehow, had let her go alone.
They’d flown until the moon was high and she could no longer hear the shrieks and cackles of the witches in the Omega. Together they sat on the last of the Ruhnns, and she gazed across the endless flat expanse between the peaks and the western sea. Somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, was a home that she had never known.
Crochans were liars and insufferably preachy. The witch had probably enjoyed giving her little speech—making some grand last stand. We feel sorry for you.
Manon rubbed at her eyes and braced her elbows on her knees, peering into the drop below.
She would have dismissed her, wouldn’t have thought twice about it, if it hadn’t been for that look in Keelie’s eyes as she fell, fighting with every last scrap of strength to save her Petrah. Or for Abraxos’s wing, sheltering Manon against icy rain.
The wyverns were meant to kill and maim and strike terror into the hearts of their enemies. And yet . . .
And yet. Manon looked toward the star-flecked horizon, leaning her face into a warm spring breeze, grateful for the steady, solid companion lounging behind her. A strange feeling, that gratitude for his existence.
Then there was that other strange feeling that pushed and pulled at her, making her replay the scene in the mess hall again and again.
She had never known regret—not true regret, anyway.
But she regretted not knowing the Crochan’s name. She regretted not knowing who the new cloak on her shoulders had belonged to—where she had come from, how she had lived.
Somehow, even though her long life had been gone for ten years . . .
Somehow, that regret made her feel incredibly, heavily mortal.
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