“Oi, you’ll melt it! It needs a skin, not a bath,” protested Tegan.
Petra jerked the cheese round from the pot, spraying drips of wax. Her forearms were speckled with it.
“You’re worse than usual,” said Tegan.
Petra shrugged, then winced. Even shrugging hurt. “I thought I’d be on the trail, doing something I can do right. Instead, I’m everyone’s pissing pot.”
“The kin are nervous; they don’t mean it,” said Tegan, soothingly. “And maybe … well, you’ve grown pretty intense. It scares some people.”
“I scare people?”
“I think people who’ll be important one day are intense like that. Important—or dead.” Tegan smiled to lighten the words. “While other girls have gotten silly about bangles and boys, you stand out.”
Petra dunked another cheese, imagining it was Otger at the end of the string. “I don’t have to get silly about boys. Ma’s threatening to set me up for the dances.”
Tegan grinned lop-sidedly. “Okay, not your thing. But I guess with all the shit going on, she figures it’s safer for you to be married out of the clan. Mum said she’ll have me stay with the Strays next summer. She’s scared.”
Petra grunted. “Regardless, Ma’s not going to pawn me off to some next-in-line like in old times.”
“What about Cort?” Tegan glanced sidelong at Petra. “You kind of like him, don’t you? I think he’s next in line to Gronnor. It might calm your mother if she thought—”
“Stop. Just stop,” said Petra, annoyed and going red. She didn’t want to think about Cort; he just made it harder to despise the Broks. “She’d go berserk, that’s what. She imagines me as Tashara of the Flains or some other big clan.”
“Whose mother wouldn’t?”
Tegan frowned and dunked a cheese.
“Anyway,” continued Petra, “He’s … you know … I’m a kid to him.” She’d seen how Cort followed Tegan with his eyes.
“Don’t underestimate yourself, girl,” said Tegan. “You’re lithe as a leopard, slinky as a snow fox.” She gave her hips a shimmy for emphasis. “When I’m getting all depressingly heavy, you’ll look like Kastra in that illustration you like, and have the men at your feet.”
Petra laughed. It was impossible to be annoyed with Tegan. She slipped under it like a tickle.
As she dunked cheese rounds, she considered the boys she knew from Winter Camp. Mostly from Clash, and too many of them. They were a blur. And the three her mother had just happened to introduce her to. Stupid, vapid, vain next-in-lines.
Then there was Cort. Cort was nice. Cort was interesting. And her mother would disapprove of him.
But he was a Brok. Like Otger. That reminded her … “Um, Tegs, I was wondering about Ola.”
“Don’t tell me Ola did that to you.”
“Stop guessing—I told you I’m not ratting, and I’m not.” Like her mother, Tegan had guessed the bruises were not all from a fall. Her mother had seen them. Tegan had heard the truth in Petra’s fib.
Tegan put her hands on her hips. “Okay, trusting friend of mine, what about her?”
“When I raided your nest, where’d you leave her? And who was with her? I never figured that out.”
“Oh, that. We kept her with us in the nest all along. Briar discovered that if you push the branches out, the overhang goes farther back. I didn’t want Ola to know, so we led her out blindfolded and around and back in again.”
It made Petra flush with shame to think that she’d doubted her friend.
Later, one of the sentinels told her that Otger’s scouts had raced into the Clash ground at the stroke of the noonday bell, and not a second before.
Petra took some sheep to near pasture, which was as far as her sore leg would take her. Cort offered to accompany her. She refused the offer and limped up alone, regretting it.
One shelter north, Otger was watching her through his spyglass. She pointedly ignored him.
All around, the snow was melting, filling the air with dampness and chuckles. Curled in the shadow of a rock, where no one would see her, she occupied herself by spying on the Brok men. Luckily, Otger had not blackened her scouting eye.
Through her spyglass, she glimpsed the silhouette of a watchman on the ridgetop. Stupid Brok. He should be invisible.
A shadow moved in the Clash ground. She trained her glass on it. Mollos Brok, by the swagger.
Mollos turned his own glass on Petra’s shelter.
Petra kept perfectly still, her fingers tightening on the glass. No way could he see her. After a moment, he studied each of the other shelters he could see, or from which he might be seen. That was interesting.
Then he walked south, choosing a path that would keep him hidden from the camp and field, and avoiding ground that would hold prints. He moved lightly for his bulk, dancing around shaded snow drifts, always careful of the sight-lines. Like a good trailsman. Like a scout.
Petra followed his progress as far as the glass allowed, and wondered.
When she got back to camp, Elder Tane was dead.
“They found her in bed; I guess she died in her sleep,” said Tegan. She’d helped her mother and Jess Stray prepare the body for burial.
Tegan went with the procession to the burial field in the sheltered grove of pine and juniper and mountain ash where the herds were not allowed to graze. Petra was left behind to milk the goats and muck out their pen.
The next day, Dara found Grandma Brael-Drakhorn dead in the garden.
It happened when the camp was at supper. For hours after, there was coming and going, and urgent whispers between tents, and nobody would tell Petra anything, and her mother ordered her to stay inside. She ignored the order.
She heard what Sten told his brother. Sten and two others had gone back to the garden with Dara, so it was a first-hand account. “It was like no bite I ever saw or heard tell of. One little hole at the top of the neck, and three pricks down each side of the spine. If it were just one or two, I’d have thought nothing of it. But laid out neat like that—gave me a turn.”
“T’is a ghoul ris’ up, no doubt of it,” said Cob, with doleful satisfaction. “Mark my words, it’ll get us all in our beds.”
Petra found Tegan alone in her tent, and told her what she’d overheard.
“Petra, it’s the same! There was just that sort of bite on Elder Tane’s neck. I know it bothered Mum and Elder Jess, but they decided it was just a bug that bit as it moved along.”
Petra shivered and moved closer to her cousin. Neither had liked their grandmother, too formal and distant a woman to be likable. But she’d ruled the camp since long before they were born, since before her son was Tash. She’d been the clan’s voice in the League council almost as long. For Petra and Tegan, Grandma Brael had always been there, unchanging, like bedrock. Now the ground was shifting.
The two girls talked in whispers until Tegan’s mother returned.
They had the burial instead of Morning Service. This time Petra went with the whole camp. She shivered beside Tegan while the body was put in the ground. Mollos Brok was there, back from wherever he’d gone. Otger stood statue-still beside Gronnor across the grave from Petra, with his eyes downcast. Gronnor’s eyes gleamed at her from their caves the whole time, with what—amusement? Hunger? His gaze sucked the warmth from her body.
It was Petra’s mother who placed a gold coin in Rachel Brael’s mouth. And in the strained voice of one who knows it is vital to make no mistakes, Tegan’s mother spoke the Wayrite of the Dead.