After the burials of the two Drakhorn elders, the mood in camp was fearful and grim. Even the Brok men stopped laughing. Women yelled at Gronnor in his tent, and Petra heard him call them ‘damnfool squabbling hens’.
“What’s going on, Canuut?” she asked.
“Without Brael and Tane, we Drakhorns haven’a quorum in council, so Gronnor rules the roost by law as much as by that pack of dogs of his, gods piss on the lot of ’em.”
“Until Ward and Pa come back,” said Petra, firmly.
Canuut knuckled his forehead. “Herm give ’em wings.”
Petra was glad to escape it. She took goats to pasture accompanied by three dogs instead of two, though the sky was clear. She could stand straight again, and her leg hurt less.
Cort appeared on the camp path.
With the spyglass to her eye, she recognized his easy gait before she made out his face. The sword at his side was a giveaway, too. Few men carried one near camp. She watched him pass the halfway shelter as godshade began. He’d arrive when it ended.
She climbed a rock near her shelter, seated herself in the relaxed yet vigilant pose in which the history book’s illustrator had depicted The Watchful Kastra, and waited.
Big Basta joined her on the rock and chewed moss.
In the hush of godshade, thoughts rose and jostled. The same anxious, aching thoughts that at night had found company with the aches in her muscles and bones.
Bugs that bit.
Things neglected that shouldn’t be. A neglect that was dangerous because of her mother. Other girls prepared themselves to keep camp. Tegan did. Other girls paid attention to boys, and Tegan had hinted that Petra should, too. Tegan was sensible about such things.
Well, there was one boy, wasn’t there? Cort. The darkness hid the blush that rose when she remembered that he was no longer a boy.
Was he coming with a message—or to visit?
Why hadn’t she worn trail boots instead of old shepherd boots?
Her sword! How stupid. She’d look bolder with a sword.
What if someone else had died?
She should have worn a better coat; this one was spattered with mud and blood.
Petra counted the goats huddled in the moonlight, listened for spiders, and waited.
Overhead, the skyland’s vast rectangle of emptiness swept across the starry heavens. When the trailing edge neared the sun’s tenuous disk, she remembered Basta. And his smell. “Go to your girls, big boy,” she said.
Basta looked at her with one eye.
“Get lost. There’s only room for two.” She gave him a slap on the flank.
Basta huffed, spat moss, then bounded away.
Room for two. As if. He’d just say hello, ask about her leg, then go.
Sunlight flared as Cort drew close. He called out, “Herm’s eyes on you, artful Petra, portia’s bane.”
“Herm’s cloak about you, brave Cort who fears no shade,” said Petra. Her ears burned at his compliment, and her own daring to return it.
Cort squinted at her. “You know, in this light, your hair has hints of red and gold—the Drakhorn colors.”
That pleased Petra a lot, unlikely though it was. The hair she saw in mirrors was just brown.
“I bet that’s how Kastra’s hair was too,” continued Cort.
“Now you’re being silly.”
Cort grinned. “How d’you feel—the leg and all?”
“Fine. I’ve forgotten it,” lied Petra. “Has something happened?”
“Gron sent Gench and me to check on you shepherds. A compromise with Jess.”
Petra frowned. She didn’t want to be checked on. At least it was Cort and not Gench.
Cort swung himself up to sit beside her on the rock. With a knee up, his blue eyes scanning the valley, and his sword raked back, he looked as dashing as she wanted to look. He was even wearing high-top trail boots. He’d let a light scrub of beard grow, and had the beginning of a mustache. They made him look … raffish. That was the word. Beside him she was just a kid with a black eye.
The breeze smelled of snowmelt and flowers.
Petra broke the silence. “What is it, the biting thing?”
Cort shrugged. “Something small. Maybe fenris ants.”
Petra grimaced. “But would they make a bite without blood? And why didn’t they take anything?”
“Ask Otger. He knows all about them.”
“You don’t like Otta, do you? I gather it’s mutual. What did he call you—a bearded draken?”
Only Cort’s presence prevented Petra from hissing like one. He sat companionably beside her and showed no sign of having anything else to do. They were close enough to touch elbows. She fancied she felt the warmth of him.
Upslope, two does were following a rill.
Petra pointed and shouted, “Bane, look up!”
The dog tore after the goats.
“You don’t miss a thing, do you,” said Cort, in an admiring tone.
“Well, you’re a girl of many talents besides herding. No surprise to me you trounced us at Clash. I’d say you’re craftier than most of Ward’s men, and all the Broks save Gron—and certainly nicer to look at.” Cort winked merrily.
Petra was taken aback and didn’t know what to say. Her heart began to thump.
Cort regarded her with his head tilted. “You’re graced with the best of Stray and Drakhorn blood. There’s no doubt you’ll be as beautiful as your storied heroine. Not that you aren’t already quite svelte, you know.”
“I’m … what?”
“Graceful. Slender and bendy—in an elegant way.”
“Skinny, you mean.” It came out croaky.
“It’s your face, too. Clear-eyed and handsome, yet pretty as a sunny day when you’re cheerful. The best of both, again. I wish you were happier now, so I could enjoy that smile.”
Petra gulped. Her lips twitched in a confused way. One was still puffy and sore.
“There!” said Cort, his eyes sparkling. “You have the nicest smile in camp, not to mention the prettiest lips.”
Petra breathed out a shaky breath and blinked. The rocks ahead were getting blurry. Well, Tegan had once said that the boys listened to her because they couldn’t take their eyes off her lips. But Tegan was always saying funny things like that.
“I suppose some of the kin might find such gifts intimidating,” mused Cort.
“There’s lots prettier than me. Tegan and Dinan and Tegan’s mum and Elsa Brok—”
“They’re not as canny. It’s both together that makes you special, like Herm’s daughter.”
Petra looked straight ahead, seeing nothing, her heart hammering. A tense tremble started deep inside her, like a memory of the trembles she’d had in the portia’s lair.
Cort shifted so that his arm pressed against hers. Even through layers of coat and woolens, it sent a warmth into her that was completely immobilizing. She hardly breathed for fear of breaking the contact.
“It’s no secret you don’t think much of us Broks. Not surprising, either. We’re an uncouth lot by Drakhorn … well, by your standards.”
“No! Cort, I never …”
“People suspect it, right or wrong. And it matters, exactly because you’re something special. Gronnor is sensitive about it.”
“You know, if any of us Broks give you a hard time, you can always tell me. I’ll help without anyone getting upset.”
Petra thought that over. “You mean I should keep my mouth shut,” she murmured.
“I didn’t say that. Be yourself with me—I like you in any mood. Just put up with the rest as cheerfully as you can. Things are delicate right now.”
Petra gulped again. I like you, he’d said. She couldn’t make her heart slow and found it hard to concentrate. But Cort’s silence gave her time to breathe and think about the other words.
In all those warm, eloquent words was a message—a warning. And that meant he wasn’t sitting there just for company. She had to admit it: she liked the compliments. She wanted to hear more. But they were a sweet coating around something unpleasant.
She blinked and looked around, as though waking from a dream. Bane had returned the wayward goats. Jakko and Kale were circling the herd—doing their jobs. But the herd’s oblivious shepherd had been feeling nothing but the warmth of a boy’s arm against hers, hearing nothing but his words, seeing nothing but the pretty girl those words painted in her head—a stranger to herself. Immobilized in a dream, like a spider’s meal swathed in silk.
“Cort, what’s the point of checking on the shepherds?”
“What d’you mean?”
“If the threat is whatever bit the elders, then the shepherds should go in twos, to keep an eye on each other.”
“Well, I suppose. Why don’t you suggest—”
“And if it’s Flays, why does Gronnor have two watchmen on the ridges and six guards in camp instead of the other way around?”
Cort said nothing.
“It’s more like he’s protecting the camp from the Drakhorns inside than from anything outside. And he’s sending Mollos secretly out of camp. I watched him—”
Cort interrupted, frowning. “Stop. That’s exactly what I meant. Best not stick your pretty nose into Gronnor’s affairs. Stay near camp, keep quiet, and concentrate on your chores. I’m not kidding—it’s dangerous to annoy him.”
Petra pointed south. “Dale has goats over at mid-east shelter, and Tegan has sheep in low pasture south of camp. If you go now, you’ll have time to check on them before rotation.” The words were out of her mouth before she realized they were a dismissal.
Cort sighed and slipped off the rock.
Watching the easy swing of his shoulders as he retraced his steps, Petra recalled the feeling of plunging over a waterfall into a freezing pool, a memory from another summer camp, in another valley, years before. A sensation of loss, of leaving her insides behind.