Within ten minutes, Manon and the Thirteen surrounded the Blueblood nest—and the home guard yielded their treasure.
There were whoops and hoots—not from the Thirteen, who were stone-faced, eyes glittering, but from the other Blackbeaks, the back third of whom peeled off, circled around, and joined Manon and her returning force to smash the Bluebloods and Yellowlegs between them.
The witches and their wyverns dove high and low, but this was as much for show as it was to win, and Manon did not yield them one inch as they pushed from the front and behind, an aerial vise that had wyverns nearly bucking off their riders in panic.
This—this was what she had been built for. Even battles she’d waged on a broom hadn’t been this fast, brilliant, and deadly. And once they faced their enemies, once they added in an arsenal of weapons . . . Manon was grinning as she placed the Blueblood egg in the Blackbeak nest on the flat mountaintop.
Moments later, Manon and Abraxos were gliding over the fray, the Thirteen coming up from behind to regroup. Asterin, the only one who’d kept close the entire time, was grinning like mad—and as her cousin and her wyvern swept past the Northern Fang and its gathered observers, the golden-haired witch sprang up from her saddle and took a running leap right off the wing.
The Yellowlegs witch on the wyvern below didn’t see Asterin until she’d landed on her, a hand on her throat where a dagger would have been. Even Manon gasped in delight as the Yellowlegs witch lifted her hands in surrender.
Asterin let go, lifting her arms to be gathered up into the claws of her own wyvern. After a toss and a harrowing fall, Asterin returned to her own saddle, swooping until she was again beside Manon and Abraxos. He swung toward Asterin’s blue wyvern, swiping with his wing—a playful, almost flirtatious gesture that made the female mount shriek in delight.
Manon raised her brows at her Second. “You’ve been practicing, it seems,” she called.
Asterin grinned. “I didn’t claw my way to Second by sitting on my ass.”
Then Asterin was swooping low again, but still within formation, a wing-beat away. Abraxos roared, and the Thirteen fell into formation around Manon, four covens flanking them behind. They just had to capture the Yellowlegs egg and bring it back to the Blackbeak nest, and it would be done.
They dodged and soared over fighting covens, and when they reached the Yellowlegs line, the Thirteen pulled up—and back, sending the other four covens behind them shooting in like an arrow, punching a line through the barrier that the Thirteen then swept through.
Closest to the Northern Fang, the Yellowlegs nest was circled by not three but four covens, a good chunk of the host to keep behind the lines. They rose up from the nest—not individual units, but as one—and Manon smiled to herself.
They raced for them, and the Yellowlegs held, held . . .
Manon whistled. She and Sorrel went up and down respectively, and her coven split in three, exactly as they’d practiced. Like the limbs of one creature, they struck the Yellowlegs lines—lines where every coven had mixed, now next to strangers and wyverns with whom they had never ridden closely before. The confusion got worse as the Thirteen scattered them and pushed them about. Orders were shouted, names were screamed, but the chaos was complete.
They were closing in on the nest when four Blueblood covens swept in out of nowhere, led by Petrah herself on her mount, Keelie. She was nearly free-falling for the nest, which had been left wide open while the Blackbeaks and the Yellowlegs fought. She’d been waiting for this, like a fox in its hole.
She swept in, and Manon dove after her, swearing viciously. A flash of yellow and a shriek of fury, and Manon and Abraxos were back-flapping, veering away as Iskra flashed past the nest—and slammed right into Petrah.
The two heirs and their wyverns locked talons and went sprawling, crashing through the air, clawing and biting. Shouts rose from the mountain and from the airborne witches.
Manon panted, righting her spinning head as Abraxos leveled out above the nest, swooping back in to seal their victory. She was about to nudge him to dive when Petrah screamed. Not in fury, but pain.
Agonizing, soul-shredding pain, the likes of which Manon had never heard, as Iskra’s wyvern clamped its jaws on Keelie’s neck.
Iskra let out a howl of triumph, and her bull shook Keelie—Petrah clinging to the saddle.
Now. Now was the time to grab the egg. She nudged Abraxos. “Go,” she hissed, leaning in, bracing for the dive.
Abraxos did not move, but hovered, watching Keelie fight to no avail, wings barely flapping as Petrah screamed again. Begging—begging Iskra to stop.
“Now, Abraxos!” She kicked him with her spurs. He again refused to dive.
Then Iskra barked a command to her wyvern . . . and the beast let go of Keelie.
There was a second scream then, from the mountain. From the Blueblood Matron, screaming for her daughter as she plummeted down to the rocks below. The other Bluebloods whirled, but they were too far away, their wyverns too slow to stop that fatal plunge.
But Abraxos was not.
And Manon didn’t know if she gave the command or thought it, but that scream, that mother’s scream she’d never heard before, made her lean in. Abraxos dove, a shooting star with his glistening wings.
They dove and dove, for the broken wyvern and the still-living witch upon it.
Keelie was still breathing, Manon realized as they neared, the wind tearing at her face and clothes. Keelie was still breathing, and fighting like hell to keep steady. Not to survive. Keelie knew she would be dead any moment. She was fighting for the witch on her back.
Petrah had passed out, twisted in her saddle, from the plunge or the loss of air. She dangled precariously, even as Keelie fought with her last heartbeats to keep the fall smooth and slow. The wyvern’s wings buckled and she yelped in pain.
Abraxos hurtled in, wings spread as he made one pass and then a second, the canyon appearing too fast below. By the time he finished the second glide, almost close enough to touch that bloodstained leathery hide, Manon understood.
He couldn’t stop Keelie—she was too heavy and he too small. Yet they could save Petrah. He’d seen Asterin make that jump, too. She had to get the unconscious witch out of the saddle.
Abraxos roared at Keelie, and Manon could have sworn that he was speaking some alien language, bellowing some command, as Keelie made one final stand for her rider and leveled out flat. A landing platform.
My Keelie, Petrah had said. Had smiled as she said it.
Manon told herself it was for an alliance. Told herself it was for show.
But all she could see was the unconditional love in that dying wyvern’s eyes as she unbuckled her harness, stood from the saddle, and leapt off Abraxos.
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.