Abraxos let out a soft growl, but Manon held out a hand to silence him.
“I see now,” Manon said softly, “why my Blueblood sisters still worship you.”
“Do they, now?” The spider remained motionless, but the three behind her crept closer, silent and observing with their many dark eyes. “We can hardly recall the last time the Blueblood priestesses brought their sacrifices to our foothills. We do miss them.”
Manon smiled tightly. “I can think of a few I’d like to send your way.”
A soft, wicked laugh. “A Blackbeak, no doubt.” Those eight massive eyes took her in, swallowed her whole. “Your hair reminds me of our silk.”
“I suppose I should be flattered.”
“Tell me your name, Blackbeak.”
“My name does not matter,” Manon said. “I’ve come to bargain.”
“What would a Blackbeak witch want with our precious silk?”
She turned to reveal the vigilant Abraxos, his focus pinned on the massive spider, tense from the tip of his nose to his iron-spiked tail. “His wings need reinforcement. I heard the legends and wondered if your silk might help.”
“We have bartered our silk to merchants and thieves and kings, to be spun into dresses and veils and sails. But never for wings.”
“I’ll need ten yards of it—woven bolts, if you have them.”
The spider seemed to still further. “Men have sacrificed their lives for a yard.”
“Name your price.”
“Ten yards . . .” She turned to the three waiting behind her—offspring or minions or guards, Manon didn’t know. “Bring out the bolt. I shall inspect it before I name my price.”
Good. This was going well. Silence fell as the three scuttled into the cave, and Manon tried not to kick any of the tiny spiders crawling across her boots. Or look for the eyes she felt watching from the nearby caves across the ravine.
“Tell me, Blackbeak,” the spider said, “how did you come across your mount?”
“He was a gift from the King of Adarlan. We are to be a part of his host, and when we are done serving him, we will take them home—to the Wastes. To reclaim our kingdom.”
“Ah. And is the curse broken?”
“Not yet. But when we find the Crochan who can undo it . . .” She would enjoy that bloodletting.
“Such a delightfully nasty curse. You won the land, only for the cunning Crochans to curse it beyond use. Have you seen the Wastes these days?”
“No,” Manon said. “I have not yet been to our home.”
“A merchant came by a few years ago—he told me there was a mortal High King who had set himself up there. But I heard a whisper on the wind recently that said he’d been deposed by a young woman with wine-red hair who now calls herself their High Queen.”
Manon bristled. High Queen of the Wastes indeed. She would be the first Manon would kill when she returned to reclaim the land, when she finally saw it with her own eyes, breathed in its smells and beheld its untamable beauty.
“A strange place, the Wastes,” the spider continued. “The merchant himself was from there—a former shape-shifter. Lost his gifts, just like all of you truly mortal things. He was stuck in a man’s body, thankfully, but he did not realize that when he sold me twenty years of his life, some of his gifts passed to me. I can’t use them, of course, but I wonder . . . I do wonder what it would be like. To see the world through your pretty eyes. To touch a human man.”
The hair on Manon’s neck rose. “Here we are,” the spider said as the three approached, a bolt of silk flowing between them like a river of light and color. Manon’s breath caught. “Isn’t it magnificent? Some of the finest weaving I’ve ever done.”
“Glorious,” Manon admitted. “Your price?”
The spider stared at her for a long time. “What price could I ask of a long-lived witch? Twenty years off your lifespan is nothing to you, even with magic aging you like an ordinary woman. And your dreams . . . what dark, horrible dreams they must be, Blackbeak. I do not think I should like to eat them—not those dreams.” The spider came closer. “But what of your face? What if I took your beauty?”
“I do not think I’d walk away if you took my face.”
The spider laughed. “Oh, I don’t mean your literal face. But the color of your skin, the hue of your burnt gold eyes. The way your hair catches the light, like moonlight on snow. Those things I could take. That beauty could win you a king. Perhaps if magic returns, I’ll use it for my woman’s body. Perhaps I’ll win a king of my very own.”
Manon didn’t particularly care about her beauty, weapon though it was. But she wasn’t about to say that, or to offer it without bargaining. “I’d like to inspect the silk first.”
“Cut a swatch,” the spider ordered the three, who gently set down the yards of silk while one sliced off a perfect square. Men had killed for smaller amounts—and here they were, cutting it as if it were ordinary wool. Manon tried not to think about the size of the pincer that extended it to her. She stalked to the cliff edge, stepping over Abraxos’s tail as she held the silk to the light.
Darkness embrace her, it sparkled. She tugged it. Flexible, but strong as steel. Impossibly light. But—
“There’s an imperfection here . . . Can I expect the rest of it to be similarly marred?” The spider hissed and the ground thudded as she neared. Abraxos stopped her with a warning growl that set the other three coming up behind her—guards, then. But Manon held up the swatch to the light. “Look,” Manon said, pointing to a vein of color running through it.
“That’s no imperfection,” the spider snapped. Abraxos’s tail curled around Manon, a shield between her and the spiders, bringing her closer to the wall of his body.
Manon held it higher, angling it toward the sun. “Look in the better light. You think I’m going to give away my beauty for second-rate weaving?”
“Second rate!” the spider seethed. Abraxos’s tail curled tighter.
“No—it appears I’m mistaken.” Manon lowered her arms, smiling. “It seems I’m not in the bargaining mood today.”
The spiders, now standing along the cliff ’s edge, didn’t even have time to move as Abraxos’s tail unwound like a whip and slammed into them.
They went flying into the ravine, shrieking. Manon didn’t waste a second as she stuffed the remaining yards of silk into the empty saddlebags. She mounted Abraxos and they leapt into the air, the cliff the perfect takeoff spot, just as she’d planned.
The perfect trap for those foolish, ancient monsters.
Manon gave a foot of spidersilk to the overseer after he carefully grafted it onto Abraxos’s wings. She’d gotten extra—lots of it, in case it ever wore down—and it was now locked in the false bottom of a trunk. She told no one where she had been, or why Abraxos’s wings now shimmered in a certain light. Asterin would have murdered her for the risk, and her grandmother would have butchered Asterin for not being there. Manon was in no mood to replace her Second and find a new member for the Thirteen.
Once Abraxos had healed, Manon brought him to the mouth of the Northern Fang to try the Crossing. Before, his wings had been too weak to attempt the plunge—but with the silk reinforcements, he’d stand a far greater chance.
But the risk remained, which was why Asterin and Sorrel waited behind her, already on their mounts. If things went wrong, if Abraxos couldn’t pull up or the silk failed, she was to jump—jump away from him. Let him die, while one of them caught her in the claws of their wyverns.
Manon wasn’t too keen on that plan, but it was the only way Asterin and Sorrel would agree to let her do it. Though Manon was the Blackbeak heir, they would have locked her in a wyvern pen rather than let her make the Crossing without the proper precautions. She might have called them softhearted and given them the beatings they deserved, but it was smart. Tensions were worse than ever, and she wouldn’t put it past the Yellowlegs heir to spook Abraxos during the Crossing.
Manon nodded her readiness to her Second and Third before approaching her beast. Not many had gathered, but Iskra was on the viewing platform, smiling faintly. Manon checked the stirrups, the saddle, and the reins one more time, Abraxos tense and snarling.
“Let’s go,” she said to him, pulling the reins to lead him a bit farther ahead so she could mount him. He still had plenty of space to get a running start—and with his new wings, she knew he would be fine. They’d done steep plunges and hard upswings before. But Abraxos wouldn’t move.
“Now,” she snapped at him, tugging hard.
Abraxos turned an eye to her and growled. She lightly smacked his leathery cheek. “Now.”
Those hind legs dug in, and he tucked his wings in tight. “Abraxos.”
He was looking at the Crossing, then back at her. Wide-eyed. Petrified—utterly petrified. Useless, stupid, cowardly beast.
“Stop it,” she said, moving to climb into the saddle instead. “Your wings are fine now.” She reached for his haunch but he reared away, the ground shaking as he slammed down. Behind her, Asterin and Sorrel murmured to their mounts, who had skittered back and snapped at Abraxos, and at each other.
There was a soft laugh from the viewing platform, and Manon’s teeth popped down.
“Abraxos. Now.” She reached for the saddle again.
He bucked away, slamming into the wall and shrinking back.
One of the men brought out a whip, but she held out a hand. “Don’t take another step,” she snapped, iron nails out. Whips only made Abraxos more uncontrollable. She turned to her mount. “You rutting coward,” she hissed at the beast, pointing to the Crossing. “Get back in line.” Abraxos met her stare, refusing to back down. “Get in line, Abraxos!”
“He can’t understand you,” Asterin said quietly.
“Yes, he—” Manon shut her mouth. She hadn’t told them that theory, not yet. She turned back to the wyvern. “If you don’t let me into that saddle and make that jump, I’m going to have you confined to the darkest, smallest pit in this bloody mountain.”
He bared his teeth. She bared hers.
The staring contest lasted for a full minute. One humiliating, enraging minute.
“Fine,” she spat, turning from the beast. He was a waste of her time. “Have him locked up wherever he’ll be the most miserable,” she said to the overseer. “He’s not coming out until he’s willing to make the Crossing.”
The overseer gaped, and Manon snapped her fingers at Asterin and Sorrel to signal them to dismount. She’d never hear the end of this—not from her grandmother, or from the Yellowlegs witches, or from Iskra, who was already making her way across the floor of the pit.
“Why don’t you stay, Manon?” Iskra called. “I could show your wyvern how it’s done.”
“Keep walking,” Sorrel murmured to Manon, but she didn’t need a reminder.
“They say it’s not the beasts who are the problem, but the riders,” Iskra went on, loud enough for everyone to hear. Manon didn’t turn. She didn’t want to see them take Abraxos back to the gate, to whatever hole they’d lock him in. Stupid, useless beast.
“Though,” Iskra said thoughtfully, “perhaps your mount needs a bit of discipline.”
“Let’s go,” Sorrel coaxed, pressing in tight to Manon’s side. Asterin walked a step behind, guarding Manon’s back.
“Give that to me,” Iskra barked at someone. “He just needs the right encouragement.”