Kiss of the Dragonfly

10. Witch

By morning, snow was falling out of the freezing fog. It brushed the storm roofs like moth wings and muddied ground too warm to hold it.

Having returned the goats from nearby pasture, Petra joined the class in school. The kin were supposed to be discussing Dara Highland’s lesson on clan law, but their hearts weren’t in it. Beneath the buzz of pretended debate flowed an undercurrent of petulant grousing, in whispers meant for Petra to hear.

“I swear she was grinning when she dumped the wasps on me,” whispered one of the girls Otger had captured.

The girl’s neighbor was Ked Drakhorn, the resentful one. “Anything to win,” he murmured, his eyes on Petra.

Petra scowled. Jerk. Why was he still giving her a hard time? He was going with the relief party—wasn’t that enough?

The same girl whispered, “Ked, you wouldn’t have abandoned a kin girl being tortured by the enemy, would you?”

“A leader puts his kin first,” said Ked, solemnly and aloud. “That’s clan law.”

Petra glared at him. “Listen, you—”

“Keep it polite, Petra,” said Dara, glancing up from her book.

Petra swallowed and calmed her expression.

“Did you notice she was the only one not hurt?” Ked’s whisper.

The Brok kin shunted their cushions to one side and the carping Drakhorns eased theirs to the other. The rest kept a neutral distance. Soon Petra sat in terrible isolation. She disdained to glance at the traitors across the gulf of inches and disloyalty, and imitated her father’s aloof calm. Inside, the knot of wretched frustration cinched tighter.

Babies. They’ve no idea how close we came to losing. Drakhorns don’t lose. Karl Drakhorn’s daughter doesn’t lose—especially not to Otger Brok.

Righteous indignation was a comfort, but she couldn’t hold it. The memory of her own blunders, of Gronnor’s lashing words and Otger’s wretchedness haunted her. Otger had tried to defend her, hadn’t he? She should be gracious. The kin’s fickleness made it urgent. But Otger wasn’t there.

But Otger wasn’t there.

“Princess Petra puts on airs while her pa snatches only draken wind,” Ked whispered, to giggles.

“Flaunts her clanmarks and says the rest of us are false-bred,” a girl whispered back, to shocked gasps.

It was too much. Petra glared murder at them, her fists balled. “That’s a lie!”

Ked said, sweetly, “A leader is chosen for merit, not birthright or birthmark—that’s clan law.”

Petra opened her mouth.

“Petra Stray,” barked Dara, “Be civil or be dismissed.”

Petra turned, clenched her jaw, and sat as still as stone, hardly breathing while her scalp prickled and fury dampened her undershirt. Behind her, the sniggers resumed.

She rose abruptly, mumbled something about urgent chores, then backed out of the school tent.

In the dairy tent, she grumbled to Tegan, “Bunch of backstabbing drag-alongs. I wouldn’t need half of them to win.”

Tegan poured cream into the butter churn. “Maybe that’s the point. It’s not the first time you’ve done something that leaves the rest of us feeling unneeded.”

Petra grimaced. “You know I’d no choice. Ward wanted us to win.”

Tegan slammed the churn’s door. “He wanted you to win. The kin know that. And you wanted to win for yourself. You know that.”

Petra could think of nothing to say. She left, feeling ill.

Every time she passed Ward’s tent, clansmen were waiting their turns on the bench outside. She stalked by with fists in pockets, as though she had something important to do.

She went to visit Genna Stray.

The three-faced Herm at her grandaunt’s door wore a cap of snow. Herm the friend, Herm the foe, Herm the laughing, sly betrayer. Petra knocked for politeness’ sake, though the outer door flap was open. She liked the merry wooden chuckle that Genna’s totem gave when she stroked the knocking stick down its knobby flank.

“Get into the warmth, Petra; don’t be formal,” called Genna. She always knew. It’s the way you knock, pet, she’d once said. It’s the way you breathe, dear, she’d said another time, when Petra had stood silent by the door.

Genna, wrapped in a blanket, sat near the heater, her gray hair loose about her shoulders. “Can’t stand this damp. If I’m to freeze all the way to raid camp, I want to soak up a bit of warmth first.”

“Will it be so cold?”

“In truth, no. The fog will lift tomorrow.”

Petra took a cushion facing her grandaunt. Genna was the sort of person who tolerated silence, so Petra didn’t feel the need to state her business immediately, or even to have business to state. Snow whispered on the tent roof. Godshade draped the camp in darkness heavy as night. Genna had re-hung her lamps, and there was one Petra hadn’t seen before: a brass skull that leaked light from its eyes. But the ship and the carriage, her favorites, weren’t there.

“Oh, did you …”

“All the silver ones,” sighed Genna. “Had to be done; only fair.”

“Is it so bad?”

“I only pay attention to our spiritual balance sheet.  That’s wobbly enough. The temporal accounts are your mother’s concern.”

Spiritual: appeasing gods and trading with demons. Genna traded mostly for information useful for the hunt—Petra knew that much. “Have you had to ask many questions?”

“It’s not the number so much as the sort of place I’ve had to ask about.”

“Karlward,” said Petra, immediately.

Genna’s lips twisted a little. “Indeed. The demons are reluctant to answer. It costs to overcome that reluctance, and sometimes they just don’t know.”

“Did you ask about Uncle Jorn and Father?”

“Of course, dear,” said Genna, gently. “They were alive this morning. That’s all the demon would say.”

How do you talk to them?” said Petra, frowning. She had asked that before, and been rebuffed. It would be easier to believe if she heard the demons’ words.

Genna peered at her. “You’ll know as soon as you can do so yourself. And you will, because of your clanmarks.”

Petra’s breath caught. Her eyes bugged. “My clanmarks let me talk to demons?” It was the first time she’d heard they were anything but ornaments for vain clans to collect.

Genna shook her head. “No, dear, the birthmarks themselves do nothing.” She extracted one arm from her blanket and reached to touch the side of Petra’s head. “They’re markers for something inside you, something innate. A person with commingled marks or without any at all might still have the faculty. I’m an example. But a clanmark makes it certain. You have two, both perfectly conserved.”

The blue-black numbers on Petra’s neck tingled as she thought of them: the ‘509’ of the Drakhorns on one side of her spine; on the other, the ‘606’ of the Strays. The numbers were in an ancient style, but one that every child learned. Each was surrounded by a cloud of tiny freckles called the nimbus. In the nimbus around the Drakhorns’ number, some claimed to see a drak, and in that around the Strays’, a larch cone. Tradition held that a clanmark was the brand for a crime committed by their first ancestors, a crime for which they’d earned eternity in Hell.

Only the original clans had marks of their own. In the millennia since the Breakout, the clans had intermixed, blood corrupted by time and false breeding, so that the distinctive clanmarks had blurred. But across the upland tribes, in every generation a few children bred true. The clans had learned tricks to better the odds. Elders consulted genealogies and calculation tables, squandered wealth on suspect divinations.

Why was her grandaunt telling her about this connection to demons now, when her mother never had? Then it dawned on her. It was because Genna was leaving. Because she might not return.

Petra swallowed. “So, you mean, I could—”

“No. You’re almost old enough, but you haven’t yet shown the signs.”

Petra frowned and breathed out hard. Too young to go raiding, too young to hear demons. Too old to barge in on Uncle Ward the way she used to. Too young and too old to serve jambis.

Genna smiled placatingly and touched Petra’s knee. “I won’t tell you to be patient. No one likes that. But the awakening will come when it comes. With you, I’ve no doubt it will come. Certain things you’re already good at—your sense of space, your skill with maps, for example—will get even better. It won’t be subtle; you’ll know it when it happens. But it isn’t all a gift. Talking with demons is dangerous. There’s always a price.”

Petra studied her knees for a moment while she digested that. Then a thought struck. She looked up. “Will the demons tell about the Flays?”

“No,” said Genna, quietly. “Someone has paid for their silence.”


“The same way we pay for information. With cintabrax. Or promises.”

Cintabrax was refined from the eggs or blood of a drak. That was the point of the hunt—to snatch eggs to sell to downlanders, who would extract the ‘brax. And you paid demons with ‘brax, because demons didn’t tell secrets for free. Petra knew that, but it hadn’t occurred to her that you could buy a demon’s silence. She massaged her temple. “But couldn’t we pay another …”

“We’ve too little left in our reserve for that kind of fight.”

Petra’s face grew hot as the implication sank in. The Flays were rich, so they’d have more ‘brax. Things were worse than she’d thought. “Could they pay a demon to send snow?”

Genna smiled, wrinkle-shadows curling under her eyes. “That sounds like Cob. This snow was not sent. But we couldn’t afford to renew the valley wardings this year. It’s one reason Ward has decided to break camp as soon as possible.”

Promises.  “You said demons can be paid with promises. What sort of promises?”

“That’s for your elders to lose sleep over, Petra. Things that demons want but cannot get without human aid. Every promise is a debt. It’s the hard way, but sometimes the only way.”

“We have debts, don’t we,” pressed Petra.

Genna was silent, her face a mask.

Petra scowled at her ankles. It was always the same. The careful words, the half-truths, the silences. Listening at tent walls to the gossip of old men. Suffocating. What was the point of learning if she wasn’t allowed to do anything?

“You want to come,” said Genna.

“Of course,” said Petra, louder than she meant to.

“Have you asked Ward?”

“I … he’s always busy.”

“You fear he’ll say no.”

Petra said nothing. Genna was right.

“Your father was like you when he was your age,” said Genna, gently. “And he became the best hunter in generations. Ward hasn’t forgotten.”

“If he’s the best, why haven’t we …” Petra let the question hang. It seemed disloyal to ask, but Ked’s taunts rankled.

“Made a snatch in so long? It’s not for want of skill, but want of prey. The draks have left our patch. Something has driven them away from Karlward. Few remain. Perhaps only one.”

“Sadrak Nula.”

“Yes. The wiliest of them.”

The one that killed Tarran. The one the Flays had shot. Petra clenched her fists. “Then this raid is our last hope. And I’m stuck here. Protected.”

“Ward hasn’t led the clan by avoiding risk. He has risked young lives before.”

Petra knew that. Her brother’s life had been one of those risked—and lost.

She rose abruptly, wished her grandaunt warmth and good rest, then backed out of the tent.


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