19.) The winds swirled around us. In the distance I saw a hawk approach, flying rapidly toward me as if it was about to smash into the cliff. At the last second, the raptor glided. It shot straight upward, levitating in the updraft. The same upward flow made the footing even less steady for those of us without wings.
Ironically, the laden mules handled the task better than the humans. They plodded step by step, as if the cliffs did not exist. As I reached the curve in the mountain that would take me past a view of the tunnel above, I saw Toug emerge and I wondered if the big man would even fit on the path. But Toug stepped out without hesitation, looking sure-footed, guiding his five mules. I spied the square outline of Seed’s crate against the hornizon, then stepped around the last curve and out of sight.
The sky cleared, but instead of reassuring, it made things worse. Now, instead of clouds swirling not far below, we could see all the way into the bottom of the valley. It seemed to grow colder, as well, despite the bright sun. The white snows reflected the light back into our faces, and dazzled our eyes, until everything took on a bright halo. I turned my face away from the sun, stared at the path, and my vision slowly cleared.
I heard a yell from above, a shout of defiance, and heard rather than saw someone tumble down the cliffs, striking an outcropping with a loud thud, silencing that last utterance of disbelief. This time the caravan didn’t stop to reflect, but kept moving, as if to deny the danger.
I estimated we were halfway down before I heard another scream. I glanced back, saw two figures this time descending into the clear cold air, their arms waving as if trying to fly. They became dots, still descending, disappearing.
I couldn’t help myself—I calculated how much money I wouldn’t have to pay, and then despised myself for thinking it. I’d yet to complete a caravan without losing someone, and I’d hardened my heart to the thought, and yet when it happened, it always shook me. I retreated into math, into the logistics, as if people I knew hadn’t just died.
I didn’t know who had fallen, their descent was too swift and chaotic to make out features, but I would know them, for I knew everyone I’d hired, and was friendly with most.
The snow and ice on the path was starting to melt, but this only made the footing even more treacherous. Stay vigilant, I thought. Then I said it aloud: “Stay vigilant.” The woman behind me was named Jona, one of the first muleteers I’d hired. She muttered, “Stay vigilant,” her eyes on the path.
Moments later, I saw her foot slip, her hands scrabble against the rocks. I reached out for her, but she was already past. She let go the reins of her mule, which froze in place and let out a strange sound. Jona didn’t scream, she dropped away and was gone.
Had I distracted her? I wondered.
As if in answer, Delane, the next muleteer in line said aloud, “Stay vigilant,” and then the next person repeated it, and the words kept being repeated down the line until I couldn’t hear them anymore.
I took the reins of Jona’s mule and kept going.
I believe that would have been the worst of it if we’d been left alone.
“What’s that?” Delane said, behind me.
I looked out, saw six large birds flying rapidly toward us.
Then I realized they weren’t birds.
There were six griffins in the drift, probably a family. Each adult the weight and bulk of two men. In the Fourth Principality, they actually rode the creatures, though the captive version, raised in safety and well fed, were larger. The griffin’s wings and head, when viewed from the front looked like an eagle, but as they drew closer, the body and tail of a lion became more apparent.
Griffins didn’t usually attack men, who could fight back, but we must have seemed like easy prey stretched out across the mountain, unable to move freely. I reached across my shoulder for the sword strapped to my back, but had difficulty drawing the blade. I almost tipped over. Instead, I reached for the knife on my belt.
By the time I looked up again, the drift was almost upon me, the talons on their front legs extended. They were coming straight at me, ignoring the rest of the caravan. I didn’t have time to think about the implications of this, but spread my feet and leaned against the cliff to make myself as sturdy as possible.
I tried to ignore the fierce look in the lead griffin’s eyes, the strange whooping sound it emitted, and focused on the talons.
The creature suddenly went upward, caught by the draft, and for a moment I was confused. Then I saw the arrow sticking out of its neck. I glance down to the front of the line, saw Marston precariously leaning over the path, held in place by Tomber’s long arms. He was reaching to the quiver on his back, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to loose another arrow before the other griffins were upon me.
The griffin aimed for my eyes, its long, sharp talons extended. I slashed blindly with my knife, felt the blade connect. Something dropped away as I heard the screech of the griffin, which flew one side, blood dripping from its amputated leg. But the next griffin was upon me in a flash, before I could even raise my knife.
The talons dug into my chest and I felt myself lifted, my feet dragging against the stone path. Then there was nothing under my feet. The three remaining griffins surrounded me, reaching out with their sharp beaks.
I cut at the talons gripping my chest, and suddenly I was free.
I flew into the sky for a moment, as if defying gravity, and then I dropped.
One truth I have learned in my long life: No one believes they will die. They know they will die, but they don’t believe they will die. And I believed less than most mortal men, for I’d lived a dangerous and seemingly eternal life and I saw no reason that wouldn’t continue forever.
It seemed like I dropped for long hours, though it couldn’t have been for more than a few seconds. I supposed I’d always thought I’d be calm in my last moments, reflective. Or alternatively, I’d be terrified, gibbering.
Instead my mind was a confusion, as if I couldn’t settle on a thought, as if all the unresolved things of my life besieged me, nagging me for leaving them unfinished. Floating through the air, incomplete.
The ground rose up to greet me and I had the strange sensation that I was rising to greet the ground. I saw wings out of the corner of my eyes. My confusion was replaced by anger that the griffin wouldn’t leave me in peace in my last moments.
I still had my knife in hand. Better yet, I was free to draw my sword. I reached back…
Talons grabbed me by shoulders, digging in but not quite penetrating my skin. I hung from my clothing. At first we rose, and I wondered if I was to be carried to their nest, to be consumed by their young.
I managed to free my sword and began to swing the blade, but at the last second the creature above me screeched, and it was so different a cry from what I heard before that I took a closer look.
Instead of the tawny fur of a lion, the body of my captor consisted of scales. A huff of smoke reached my nostrils, as the dragon breathed short bursts of fire with each flap of its batlike wings, as though carrying a full-grown man was barely within its capabilities.
It was a dragon, not full grown, but twice as large as the griffins and far larger than any wyvern I’d ever seen. As far as I knew, there was only one dragon in all the Thirteen Principalities.
Shatterspawn had apparently quadrupled in size in the few days he’d been gone. His wings seemed to have tripled in length. The dragon caught the updraft and we swooped upward, until we floated over the path. Below was the unmistakable rotund body of Toug, who was holding out his hands.
He grabbed my arm as Shatterspawn dropped me. I landed on the path, was dragged the rest of the way from the edge. I clutched the earth, drained of all my strength and a wave of gratitude and joy so strong that I felt as though I was still floating washed through my body.
Shatterspawn flew away, his flight now elegant without his human cargo. The griffins were in flight, five specks against the morning sun. Shatterspawn pursued them.
I turned on my back and looked up into Toug’s concerned eyes.
“Couldn’t you at least have had your pet land me on the ground?”
He laughed. “My pet? To be honest with you, Evard, I wasn’t sure Shatterspawn didn’t consider you an easy meal!”
I got to my knees. For some reason the path now looked as broad as the Prince’s Road. I knew that I wouldn’t stumble, I wouldn’t slip, that soon I’d be on the ground and my charmed life would continue.
At least until the next time I was thrown into confusion.