Kiss of the Dragonfly

17. Scouting

Next day, Petra took half the goats and four dogs southward, the same way she’d seen Mollos Brok go on his mysterious errand. She told Jess she’d take them to mid-pasture. But Mollos had gone farther than that.

Petra kept ahead of the herd as she passed beyond the Clash ground, so they wouldn’t trample signs of Mollos’ passage—but she saw none. That was curious, because she knew exactly the path he’d taken to that point.

Crouching with an arm around Bane, she contemplated an unavoidable stretch of heather and dwarf sage muddied by snowmelt wash. Not a boot tread, not an overturned stone, not a broken stem could she see. It was as though the big man had floated over the snow-damp ground.

Gronnor’s ‘camp guard’ was better at leaving no tracks than she was at seeing them.

Petra ambled southeast along the valley’s shoulder with Bane, staying ahead of the herd. If she kept it slow, her leg was all right. The sun was hot on her shoulders and the breeze sweet with the scent of flowers. Countless bees hummed among brambles. Dragonflies darted after them. The warmth made her pleasantly drowsy.

Pleasantly drowsy was an improvement on the gritty-eyed tiredness at Morning Service. That was Cort’s fault. No … it was hers. Despite efforts to think of the raid, of the Flays, of nothing, Cort’s honey-sweet words had returned to keep her awake. As had the memory of her gormless stammering. What should she have said? Witty, relaxed, just-right things.

The way his arm had pressed against hers—that had come back too. What might he have said if she hadn’t sent him away? What might he have—

Petra blinked, breathed deeply, and walked on.

It was better now, out in the air and the sun. She knew what to do when she saw him. She’d say that she wouldn’t mind if he checked on her again, but just for company. She had her mother for lectures. And much as she’d liked the compliments, she’d prefer it if he’d just sit quiet and not say so much, so quickly. But she didn’t know how to tell him that.

She’d ask Tegan if that’s how boys—young men—usually were. It would be embarrassing to ask, but a minute later, they’d both be laughing. That’s how it was with Tegan. Boys buzzed around her like awkward bees. She’d know what to say and what not.

A couple of miles southeast of camp, the high pasture was mostly scrub, good browsing for goats. But the shepherds rarely used it because of Poison Spring in the base of the cliff upslope. This year they’d been told not to come here at all. The spring’s name served as a caution, but as far as Petra knew, it was just a cold sulfur spring. From the spring, a stream flowed southwest to join the valley brook, which stank for miles downstream.

Lost in thought, Petra passed the unmarked limit of the pasture. Bane whined and looked up at her. He knew they’d come too far. She walked on anyway.

There was no shelter here, so after waiting out godshade in a meadow, she left three of the dogs to guard the goats, then proceeded alone with Bane.

Reaching the stream, they clattered down the gully’s bank. The stream chuckled pleasantly among stones, but it stank like rotten eggs. Bane sniffed at the smelly water and backed away, his tail down. Petra let him drink from her own flask.

She’d seen no tracks. But to have gone farther south, Mollos would have had to cross the stream, and in its bed, there was mud and lime. It was a small hope; he’d not been sloppy so far. She walked upstream along the stony edge of the stream-bed.

In a patch of dried mud she found the print, not of a man’s boot, but of a horseshoe. The bottom of the print was firm and darker than the crisp edge, which crumbled at her touch. The print must have been made just after melting snow had turned the silt to mud three days before. The back of Petra’s neck tingled. Could it be Flays?

She walked on, her eyes roving the ground. Mule droppings came next, then the shoe prints of four different mules. A symbol in faint relief showed in one. Petra knew it for the mark of the shoemaker whom the Drakhorns had employed at Winter Camp. Her next find confirmed her suspicion: a strip of tawny wax, just the kind Jess made for coating cheese. These were the tracks of Lucan and the three Broks who’d gone south to fetch the pack animals for breaking camp. But the tracks led upstream to northeast—the wrong way!

Petra set her mouth grimly and continued up the gully.

The walk was made eerie by skeletons. Some carcasses were not a month old. Here was the chitinous carapace of a spider; there, the bones and shredded pelt of a fox. Was the water more poisonous than she’d supposed?

On stream-bed stones near the mule prints were some gray-brown spots, like splotches of lichen. But there should be no lichen on these stones. She touched one of the stains with a wetted finger.

Dried blood.

Petra and Bane followed the stream, the prints, and the blood spots until the scrub on the gully’s verge thinned near the cliff face. They’d almost reached Poison Spring. Petra hesitated to approach the spring’s cave during godshade; too many frightening stories of the karlmen involved caves. She climbed the gully’s northern bank, on the same side of the stream she’d entered it. North was a hunch. If the men had meant to continue up to the ridge top, northeast along the foot of the cliff would be the fastest way.

Downslope to the west of her, the other dogs had corralled the goats. It was unlikely that a spider or cat would try for a goat with three dogs on patrol.

The sun vanished behind Frey’s skyland, through which it continued to shine with a golden light the strength of moonlight. In that subtle illumination, Petra made a wide arc around the cave. No scrub grew near the cliff’s foot, and snow lingered in the shadows of rocks. Soon after reaching the cliff wall to the north of Poison Spring, she found prints and mule droppings in old snow. Her hunch was right.

For an hour she sweated up the valley shoulder as it rose along the base of the cliff, glancing back often at the dwindling dots of her goats. Though the slope wasn’t steep, the pain that stabbed from her chest down her leg grew worse. Every step away from the herd tightened a knot of anxiety in her stomach. That tension drove her to push on in full sunlight, knowing she might be seen from camp. She scanned the rocks as she went, but didn’t stop to search for signs, confident that the men had continued on to the ridge top.

What she didn’t know, and felt she simply must, was which way they’d gone from there. She had to be certain. To voice her suspicion and be wrong—that would damn her forever. As it was, she’d be late back to camp, and there’d be trouble. She panted onward.

Anyone but a karlman born to the mountains would have found the view from the ridge top breathtaking. To one side lay Antrim Valley, where the camp nestled in green. To the other, Cranny Vale. Beyond, more valleys and snow-edged ridges, like the imprint in rock of a giant’s many-fingered hand. But Petra had no eyes for the view, only for the signs of men.

Just over the ridgetop she found them. Cheese wax, ash, the stain of dried pee on a rock, too high to be a wolf’s. The men had made no effort to conceal their progress once hidden by the ridge. Had there been a Drakhorn lookout, they’d have been spotted. But the only lookouts were Broks.

Their path continued northeast, away from the Travers, away from the foothills farm where the pack animals were pastured. They’d gone toward Karlward and her father’s raid.


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