Clearly, seeing them quietly talking meant something to everyone else, too. Especially Iskra, who sauntered over to Manon’s other side. “Plotting already?”
The Blueblood heir lifted her chin. “I think Titus would make a good mount for Manon.”
A line in the sand, Manon thought. What had the Blueblood Matron told Petrah about her? What schemes was she hatching?
Iskra’s mouth twisted into a half grin. “We’ll see what the Three-Faced Mother has to say.”
Manon might have said something back, but then Titus thundered out.
As it had every other time, the breath went out of her at his sheer size and viciousness. The men had barely scrambled back through the gate before Titus whirled, snapping for them. They’d made only a few successful runs with him, she’d been told. Yet under the right rider, he’d fully break.
Titus didn’t wait for the whistle before he wheeled on the bait beast, striking with his barbed tail. The chained beast ducked with surprising swiftness, as if he’d sensed the bull’s attack, and Titus’s tail imbedded itself in the stone.
Debris rained on the bait beast, and as he cringed back, Titus struck again. And again.
Chained to the wall, the bait beast could do nothing. The man whistled, but Titus kept at it. He moved with the fluid grace of untamed savagery.
The bait beast yelped, and Manon could have sworn the Blueblood heir flinched. She’d never heard a cry of pain from any of the wyverns, yet as Titus sank back on his haunches, she saw where he’d struck—right atop the earlier wound in the bait beast’s flank.
As if Titus knew where to hit to inflict the most agony. She knew they were intelligent, but how intelligent? The man whistled again, and a whip sounded. Titus just kept pacing in front of the bait beast, contemplating how he would strike. Not out of strategy. No, he wanted to savor it. To taunt.
A shiver of delight went down Manon’s spine. Riding a beast like Titus, ripping apart her enemies with him . . .
“If you want him so badly,” Iskra whispered, and Manon realized she was still standing beside her, now only a step away, “why don’t you go get him?”
And before Manon could move—before anyone could, because they were all enthralled by that glorious beast—iron claws shoved into her back.
Asterin’s shout echoed, but Manon was falling, plunging the forty feet right into the stone pit. She twisted, colliding with a small, crumbling ledge jutting from the wall. It slowed her fall and saved her life, but she kept going until—
She slammed into the ground, her ankle wrenching. Cries came from above, but Manon didn’t look up. If she had, she might have seen Asterin tackle Iskra, claws and teeth out. She might have seen her grandmother give the order that no one was to jump into the pit.
But Manon wasn’t looking at them.
Titus turned toward her.
The wyvern stood between her and the gate, where the men were rushing to and fro, as if trying to decide whether they should risk saving her or wait until she was carrion.
Titus’s tail lashed back and forth, his dark eyes pinned on her. Manon drew Wind-Cleaver. It was a dagger compared to the mass of him. She had to get to that gate.
She stared him down. Titus settled onto his haunches, preparing to attack. He knew where the gate was, too, and what it meant for her. His prey.
Not rider or mistress, but prey.
The witches had gone silent. The men at the gate and upper platforms had gone silent.
Manon rotated her sword. Titus lunged.
She had to roll to avoid his mouth, and was up in a second, sprinting like hell for that gate. Her ankle throbbed, and she limped, swallowing her scream of pain. Titus turned, fast as a spring stream down a mountainside, and as she hurtled for the gate, he struck with his tail.
Manon had enough sense to whirl to avoid the venomous barbs, but she caught an upper edge of the tail in the side and went flying, Wind-Cleaver wrenching from her grip. She hit the dirt near the opposite wall and slid, face scraping on the rocks. Her ribs bleated in agony as she scrambled into a sitting position and gauged the distance between herself and the sword and Titus.
But Titus was hesitating, his eyes lifted behind her, above her, to—
Darkness embrace her. She’d forgotten about the bait beast. The creature chained behind her, so close she could smell the carrion on his breath.
Titus’s stare was a command for the bait beast to stand down. To let him eat Manon.
Manon dared a glance over her shoulder, to the sword in the shadows, so close to the chained anchor of the bait beast. She might have risked it if the beast wasn’t there, if he wasn’t looking dead at her, looking at her like she was—
Titus growled a territorial warning at the bait beast again, so loud she could feel it in every bone. Instead, the bait beast, small as he was, was gazing at her with something like rage and determination. Emotion, she might have called it. Hunger, but not for her.
No, she realized as the beast lifted its black gaze to Titus, letting out a low snarl in response. Not submissive in the least, that sound. A threat—a promise. The bait beast wanted a shot at Titus.
Allies. If only for this moment.
Again, Manon felt that ebb and flow in the world, that invisible current that some called Fate and some called the loom of the Three-Faced Goddess. Titus roared his final threat.
Manon twisted to her feet and ran.
Every step made stars flash, and the ground shook as Titus barreled after her, willing to tear through the bait beast to kill her if necessary.
Manon scooped up her sword and whirled, bringing it down upon the thick, rusted chain with every bit of strength left in her.
Wind-Cleaver, they called her blade. Now they would call it Iron-Cleaver. The chain snapped free as Titus leapt for her.
Titus didn’t see it coming, and there was something like shock in his eyes as the bait beast tackled him and they rolled.
Titus was twice its size and uninjured, and Manon didn’t wait to see the outcome before she took off for the tunnel, where the men were frantically lifting the grate.
But then a boom and a shocked murmur sounded, and Manon dared one look in time to see the wyverns leap apart and the bait beast strike again.
The blow from that scarred, useless tail was so strong Titus’s head slammed into the dirt.
As Titus surged to his legs, the bait beast feinted with its tail and made a swipe with jagged claws that had Titus roaring in pain.
Manon froze, barely fifteen feet from the gate.
The wyverns circled each other, wings scraping against the ground. It should have been a joke. And yet the bait beast wouldn’t stand down, despite the limp, despite the scars and the blood.
Titus went right for the throat with no warning growl.
The bait beast’s tail connected with Titus’s head. Titus reeled back but then lunged, jaws and tail snapping. Once those barbs got into the flesh of the bait beast, it would be done. The bait beast dodged the tail by slamming its own down atop it, but couldn’t escape the jaws that latched on to its neck.
Over. It should be over.
The bait beast thrashed, but couldn’t get free. Manon knew she should run. Others were shouting. She had been born without sympathy or mercy or kindness. She didn’t care which one of them lived or died, so long as she escaped. But that current was still flowing, flowing toward the fight, not away from it. And she owed the bait beast a life debt.
So Manon did the most foolish thing she’d ever done in her long, wicked life.
She ran for Titus and brought Wind-Cleaver down upon his tail. She severed clean through flesh and bone, and Titus roared, releasing his prey. The stump of his tail lashed at her, and Manon took it right in the stomach, the air knocked out of her before she even hit the ground. When she raised herself, she saw the final lunge that ended it.
Throat exposed by his bellow of pain, Titus didn’t stand a chance as the bait beast pounced and closed its jaws around that mighty neck.
Titus had one last thrash, one final attempt to pry himself free. The bait beast held firm, as though he’d been waiting for weeks or months or years. He clamped down and wrenched his head away, taking Titus’s throat with him.
Silence fell. As if the world itself stopped when Titus’s body crashed to the ground, black blood spilling everywhere.
Manon stood absolutely still. Slowly, the bait beast lifted its head from the carcass, Titus’s blood dripping from his maw. Their eyes met.
People were shouting at her to run, and the gate groaned open, but Manon stared into those black eyes, one of them horribly scarred but intact. He took a step, then another toward her.
Manon held her ground. It was impossible. Impossible. Titus was twice his size, twice his weight, and had years of training.
The bait beast had trounced him—not because he was bigger or stronger, but because he wanted it more. Titus had been a brute and a killer, yet this wyvern before her . . . he was a warrior.
Men were rushing in with spears and swords and whips, and the bait beast growled.
Manon held up a hand. And again, the world stopped.
Manon, eyes still upon the beast, said, “He’s mine.”
He had saved her life. Not by coincidence, but by choice. He’d felt the current running between them, too. “What?” her grandmother barked from above.
Manon found herself walking toward the wyvern, and stopped with not five feet between them. “He’s mine,” Manon said, taking in the scars, the limp, the burning life in those eyes.
The witch and the wyvern looked at each other for a moment that lasted for a heartbeat, that lasted for eternity. “You’re mine,” Manon said to him.
The wyvern blinked at her, Titus’s blood still dripping from his cracked and broken teeth, and Manon had the feeling that he had come to the same decision. Perhaps he had known long before tonight, and his fight with Titus hadn’t been so much about survival as it had been a challenge to claim her.
As his rider. As his mistress. As his.
Manon named her wyvern Abraxos, after the ancient serpent who held the world between his coils at the behest of the Three-Faced Goddess. And that was about the only pleasant thing that happened that night.
When she’d returned to the others, Abraxos taken away for cleaning and mending and Titus’s carcass hauled off by thirty men, Manon had stared down each and every witch who dared meet her eyes.
The Yellowlegs heir was being held by Asterin in front of the Matrons. Manon gazed at Iskra for a long moment before she simply said, “Looks like I lost my footing.”
Iskra steamed at the ears, but Manon shrugged, wiping the dirt and blood from her face before limping back to the Omega. She wouldn’t give Iskra the satisfaction of claiming she’d almost killed her. And Manon was in no shape to settle this in a proper fight.
Attack or clumsiness, Asterin was punished by Mother Blackbeak that night for letting the heir fall into the pit. Manon had asked to be the one to dispense the whipping, but her grandmother ignored her. Instead, she had the Yellowlegs heir do it. As Asterin’s failure had occurred in plain sight of the other Matrons and their heirs, so would her punishment.
Standing in the mess hall, Manon watched each brutal lash, all ten of them at full strength, as Iskra sported a bruise on her jaw courtesy of Asterin.
To her everlasting credit, Asterin didn’t scream. Not once. It still took all of Manon’s self-restraint to keep from grabbing the whip and using it to strangle Iskra.
Then came the conversation with her grandmother. It wasn’t so much a conversation as it was a slap in the face, then a verbal beating that—a day later—still made Manon’s ears ring.
She’d humiliated her grandmother and every Blackbeak in history by picking that “runty scrap of meat,” regardless of his victory. It was a fluke that he’d killed Titus, her grandmother ranted. Abraxos was the smallest of any of the mounts, and on top of that, because of his size, he had never flown a day in his life. They had never let him out of the warrens.