Petra gave Ward’s Herm totem a pat on the head as she left the tent, nodded to her grandmother, then set off jauntily up the avenue. The woman’s disapproving gaze followed her, but she didn’t care. She’d persuaded Ward; she’d seen it in his eyes. She’d be on the trail, following in Kastra’s footsteps. It was the call of the Drak Horn, and her heart soared with its song.
Minutes later, Dara Highland sent her to the field to drag in bags of potatoes. Petra went with a spring in her step. No weight of wet potatoes could dampen her spirits just then. From the gate, she took the path that looped through a corner of the Clash ground to the back of the field instead of the fence path through the mud of the stables and pens. The snow-laced fog made the familiar path strange. Boulders lumbered into sight like spectral elephants.
As she walked, her thoughts turned to the relief party. She would take her sword, a fine light blade her father had given her on her twelfth—heavy for her then, just right now. And the airgun Ward had given her this year. With a mule, there’d be space for spare boots—the fur-lined ones.
Petra was alert as she passed into the Clash ground; that was automatic. It was gloomy enough for shade predators to be out, though the cold should keep the spiders in their holes. Wolves and big cats rarely approached the camp, but in fog, you never knew. So she wasn’t startled when a figure appeared out of the mist.
“Who’s that?” shouted Petra, gripping her staff with both hands.
The figure pushed back a hood that sparkled with frost. “Otger.”
Petra walked closer. “Oh. What’ya doing?”
“Just walking. You?”
Petra rested the tip of her staff in the snow, which was coming fast enough now to build up. It wasn’t weather to be ‘just walking’ in. “Fetching in potatoes,” she said.
Otger pointed to his left. “The field’s that way.”
The snow made their voices oddly flat. There was an awkward silence.
“Didn’t see you in school,” said Petra, remembering that she’d meant to say something conciliatory.
“Uncle Gronnor gave me chores. Scrubbing pisspots and stuff. As punishment, you know. For losing.”
Petra felt a surge of sympathy. It wasn’t fair, being punished for losing. It wasn’t right.
“Well, that seems—” she began.
“Well, I have to—” began Otger, at the same time.
An awkward silence. Otger’s face still showed the bumps of wasp stings, and one cheek was redder than the other. Petra wondered if Gronnor had hit him.
She said, “I think your strategy was really clever. You almost had us.”
“Not clever enough. What you did was … well, pretty sly. I only figured it out later.”
Petra grinned. “You’d have won for sure if Borak hadn’t been so dumb.”
“Borak’s okay. He and his brother did me a favor. It’s not as though they like me.”
“Huh. Clash is about brains, not thumping people,” said Petra, remembering Dale’s tooth. The twins hadn’t done anyone a favor.
Otger’s eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. “It’s about making use of what you have, not cheating.”
“What d’you mean, cheating?” said Petra, frowning.
Otger shrugged. “Like the second rotten egg. You had to do that in advance.”
“Like your rotten spy in my home camp.”
“Everyone uses spies. I just started earlier than you expected. That’s surprise.”
“Cheating was what you did to my dogs. That was low,” growled Petra. She was beginning to feel a lot less generous.
“I read it’s been done before. I really didn’t expect you to be so careless.”
Petra flushed and her hands tightened on her staff. “You started early, that’s definitely cheating.”
“Starting outside the ground before noon bell is fair game.”
“Oh, did you read that too, Otger Book? You had your scouts in the ground long before.”
“No way you could have got them in position so fast.”
“You were late in. My scouts were fast and you were overconfident. You were so damn sure you’d win.”
Petra gritted her teeth. She hadn’t been sure at all. And if her team had been a minute late, it was because of Otger’s stupid spy.
Otger crossed his arms. “Then there’s what you did to Ola.”
“Ha! Didn’t knock her tooth out or anything,” said Petra.
“I mean leaving her tied up and unguarded.”
A knot tightened in the Petra’s stomach. “I never,” she snarled, baring her teeth.
Petra’s skin prickled all over and her heart began to race. What Otger was saying was beyond offensive. No clansman with a shred of honor would ever, ever leave another clansman helpless and exposed to predators. Not a prisoner, not their worst enemy, not a dead enemy. Leaning forward, she shouted, “She never did!”
“That’s what Ola said.”
“I heard you say it. Take it back!”
“I don’t think so. After you left Ola in your nest, Tegan took her somewhere, tied up and blindfolded and with cheese in her ears—then left her. Borak and his scouts counted the same number of defenders.”
While Petra groped for a retort, she was back at the attack on her nest. She counted and re-counted the defenders. How could it be? They were all there, from Tegan to the smallest nestling. So who was with Ola?
Otger caught the hesitation. “See! She left Ola alone to be dinner for—”
“No! Ola didn’t say anything about it.”
“She’s no rat.”
“She’s a rat’s ass and you’re its prick!”
The words came hot and angry. Petra might have been able to walk away if Otger had only accused her. Might have. But he was accusing Tegan. She couldn’t let that stand.
“No boneman’s pot-boy from a dead clan’s gonna smear Teg’s honor, or mine,” yelled Petra. She reveled in the wounding words while sick regret caught her throat.
Otger’s face was blotchy from wasp stings, cold, and fury. It was a dangerous face. “Remember that when you and Tegan are scrubbing the Flays’ pisspots in their Cradle,” he yelled, his eyes wide, as though in shock at his own words.
Petra’s every fiber buzzed with danger. She was tall among the girls, and an inch taller than Otger. But there was a compact density to him that was worrying. He was too close, but she wouldn’t retreat. The field and camp were to her right and behind, invisible now. To her left was a scrub-covered slab of rock. From the side of her eye she noted the stepped, snow-plastered face of it. As she yelled a retort, she moved sideways to put the rock behind her.
Otger took a step forward.
Petra feinted a punch, then sprang backwards, and continued backwards straight up the face of the slab, dancing from step to higher step on her heels. She teetered on the slippery top, but kept her balance. Otger was left gaping, with his head no higher than her knees. “Ha!” she shouted, triumphantly.
Otger bared his teeth and leaped at the rock; Petra shoved him back with her staff. He fell sprawling in the mud and snow.
“Try that again, Otger Brok!” cried Petra, delighted.
Otger rose, looked right, then left. Suddenly he jumped again at the slab. Petra thrust the staff to fend him off, but with one hand he batted it past his shoulder, then seized it with the other. Petra yanked hard to free it, but Otger’s grip was strong. With the pull of the staff to aid him, he sprang up the same stone steps. Too late, Petra let go, and the staff clattered into the bushes behind her. As quickly as she’d gained the advantage, she’d lost it.
With his mud-spotted coat and blotchy face, Otger might have been a snow leopard that had just pinned its kill. His hands were balled in fists.
The wind huffed and snow scudded by. In the gloom, the stone tabletop was all the world the two could see. They glared at each other.
Petra had been in plenty of scraps, but not a real brawl since she was twelve. The girls her age felt that brawling was undignified, and even the roughest boys pulled their punches. An honor fight with the boys left bruises to prove courage, not broken bones. Petra didn’t think this fight would be like that.
“Otger,” she said.
“Take back what you said about me,” he snarled.
“You take back what you said about Tegan,” said Petra levelly, playing for time.
“Apologize, or I’ll make you.”
“Otger, be reasonable, godshade’s coming …”
But Otger Brok was evidently in no mood to be reasonable. He advanced a step.
Petra’s eyes flicked to the side. She could jump. She was faster than he was.
Orger saw the glance. “Go on, run. That’s my proof.”
Petra tried to shove him off the rock. He punched her shoulder. Then they had at it, yelling and swearing.
The fury of it drove doubt from her mind, and determination put fear and pain to flight. But Otger’s blows came fast and hard. She ducked a blow and tried to kick, but nearly lost her balance on the slick stone. Snow was getting in her eyes. She tasted blood.
In a moment, the only sounds were pants and muffled thumps. For Petra, a fierce resolve to teach respect became a dogged resolve to see it through. A blow caught the side of her head, and she staggered back. She raised her arms to shield her face, and a fist struck her ribs, sending a knife of pain through her chest.
With icy clarity, she knew she’d lost. She heard from far off her own whistling gasps and grunts, the pathetic noises of someone getting every bit of wind knocked out of them.
When will he stop? He must know he’s won. When’s the stupid boy going to stop?
She tried to speak but couldn’t draw breath. The blood thundered in her ears.
Gods, make him stop!
She was almost doubled over, arms raised to hide her face. Otger boxed her ears and pounded her flanks.
Fall you idiot, then he’ll stop. But her legs wouldn’t obey her.
A fist found the gap between her wrists. The world flared, and the ground came up to meet her. There was a tearing, a pulling at her clothes, a whistling in her ears, and the ground hit her again—much harder.