Petra sat cross-legged across the low table from Ward, back straight, her eyes on his. He seemed in no hurry to start. He looked her slowly up and down with that calculating eye of his, the one with the secret laugh behind it.
She kept still, willing her heart to slow, resisting the urge to glance at the trophies and ‘tarlics. It had never been so hard to visit him before. As clearly as if it were last week, she remembered bursting through the door and climbing up on his shoulders. How his mane of curls had felt between her fingers. But she’d been six or seven, then. Now she hardly dared to breathe. Now it was not Uncle Ward across the table. It was Tash Ward of the Most Ancient, Most Honorable Clan Drakhorn, Commander Inheritor of the Seventh Flight, rightful Lord (in absentia) of the Cradle and the Horn. It was the man whose word would decide her fate.
That man looked tired.
He smiled at her. “We’ve a few minutes before mother shows up. She’s not as spry as she used to be.”
Petra’s heart skipped a beat. Coming out of turn was bad enough. She’d be keeping Grandma Brael waiting in the cold, too.
“Congratulations on the win,” said Ward. “I’d heard Otger is clever. Won my bet with Gronnor, anyway.”
“Otger is clever,” said Petra. “He nearly beat us at the start, but we rallied, and, well, the team was grand.”
Ward chuckled. “Gron was disappointed. He can be harsh.”
“He doesn’t approve of me.”
“You might be surprised. I meant he was hard on Otger.”
“You’re a formidable player, Petra. You see the narrow path that others don’t and take risks that others flinch from. The way you think, the way you move: like smoke in darkness.”
Ward’s words were sunlight to Petra’s soul, yet something in his eyes stopped the smile from forming on her lips.
“Were the lads enthusiastic—before Gron had them excused?” asked Ward.
He meant the older boys—Ked and his mates. It was hard to admit, but she’d feared even to approach them. She shook her head.
Ward sighed. “And did the others do their best?”
Petra almost nodded. She shouted ‘yes!’ inside her head. There was Railan’s ferocity, Senna’s calm, Danna attacking Borak on her own. But she remembered too how they’d played with cushions, and Dale’s hesitation. How her scouts and two flights had been picked off in an hour. Only Tegan’s care had saved the third flight.
“Mostly,” she said, at last.
After a moment, Ward said, “If you led in a re-match today, would your team win?”
It was like weights were tugging her gaze to the floor. “No, Tash.”
Ward smiled. “A close call then. But you managed.”
Petra kept still. The sunlight was gone.
“Clash teaches useful lessons with few casualties,” said Ward, quietly. “But reality doesn’t give you a month to recover before the next round. Well-tested raiders will follow a commander they trust through Hell and out the other side. Then, if asked, they’ll turn around and go back in.”
Petra swallowed and nodded once. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
“To earn trust you must offer trust. Next time, try being the hen. That would force you to depend entirely on your team. Let them be your senses and claws—your smoke in the darkness.”
“Yes, Tash.” It came out as a croak.
“I guess you aren’t here to talk about Clash.”
“I …” Petra gulped, and there was an awkward silence. She had meant to talk about Clash, to remind him of his promise. Now she understood how stupid that would be. Off balance, she had no idea where to start. “I wanted to say …”
“You want to join the relief party.”
“Yes! Yes, Tash … and I …” Petra was completely tongue-tied. Her ears burned.
“And you have prepared a persuasive speech,” said Ward, without expression. A moment later, he grinned at her.
It was like the brook bursting through an ice dam. She managed a lop-sided grin. “I’ve done everything I can to be ready. Everything. I see that I’m not good enough at leading, but I’m not asking to lead. I’m better at tracking and things like that.”
“I believe you’ll be among the best—if you live long enough. You’re still fifteen.”
“Six months from sixteen. Tarran was seventeen when he joined a raid.”
Her brother’s name caught Petra off guard. She stopped with her mouth open, then mumbled, “Father was sixteen.”
Ward sighed. “I don’t doubt your courage. But this is the most dangerous raid we’ve ever attempted. The route is physically demanding.”
“Not too demanding for a seventy year old woman,” said Petra.
The tightening of her uncle’s lips made her instantly regret her words. He said, “It may prove so, as Genna knows. It is because she has lived a full span of years that I can accept it. As for you—I must consider the opinions of your mother, your grandmother, and Tash Gronnor.”
Petra was silent for a moment. She was losing. The web of ‘what ifs’ that she and her uncle were navigating floated like a map in dim light. Her brother’s death cut across it, a deep, red gash of regret between her and her goal. She tried another path.
“Will it be safer for me here, Tash?” she said.
Ward’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
Petra chose her words carefully. “We don’t know where all the Flays are, and the camp—”
“I will not neglect the safety of the camp. Apart from Gronnor and some men he will have with him, Lucan will go to the Travers, who are close, then to the clans already at Winter Camp. Under the treaty, they must send men.”
Petra blinked. Of course, it made sense to invoke the League mutual-defense treaty. She hadn’t thought of that. But why would Ward even tell her that much? It could only be because he had doubts himself.
She closed her eyes.
Closing her eyes was asking for time. If this were combat, it would be an act of submission. But it wasn’t combat.
“The Travers must have broken camp,” she said, with her eyes still closed. “They’re moving south through our patch; that’s why they’re so close. With every passing day, it’ll take longer for Lucan to reach them. And you’re sending experienced men south for the pack train, not women and youngsters, so you must think it’s dangerous. You’re thinking Flay raiders might come west from the Cradle to cut off escape for the families.”
Ward was silent, waiting.
Petra counted the days. A week to reach the Travers, there and back. And with the Traver camp in motion, they would spare few men. Ward would know that, yet he was taking most of his men to aid his brothers in the Blood Gorge. He was doing what only a Tash could do. He was risking it all; he was staking their blood. In a gamble like that, the slightest edge could make the difference.
Confidence returning, Petra opened her eyes. “I’d be no use in a fight, but perhaps some use on the trail. There’s the trek to raid camp. I know it’s hard, but Grapple and Fallon made it back, and they were only two, so—”
“Grapple and Fallon are—”
“Please, Uncle, hear me out. Of course they’re tougher than me, but I’d be with you and the men. Once Genna has treated Jorn, he won’t be able to move for a while, will he? You’ll want to hunt Nula, so you’ll leave Jorn at raid camp. Who’s to stay and help Genna? I would, of course. That would free a man for the raid.”
Ward tilted his head. “Can’t leave raid camp undefended, so it wouldn’t free a man. Try again.”
She’d thought of only one more thing, and she hated it. “Uncle, you’re flying to aid your brothers, as a Tash must do. In the flight, you’re taking only young men—as any Tash would do.”
She didn’t say, You’re being predictable. She didn’t say, You’re leaving the daughters of your brothers behind, and they might be your enemy’s prize. She might as well have.
Ward crossed his arms and fixed Petra with a long, appraising gaze.
Petra met his gaze.
The Tash snorted. “You are Karl’s daughter and no mistake. As sly as a fox and far smarter.”
Petra kept still and silent.
“I’ll consider your proposal. I’ll discuss it with your mother, but the decision will be mine. Now, please let your grandmother in; she’ll be cold.”