The absence of blood stains drew Petra to Poison Spring. She’d seen none since leaving the gully, and not enough clear boot prints to count the men. There’d be mud and lime around the spring’s cave, and a last chance for a careless print.
Had a man been injured? Had he been riding a mule? If so, that mule would be overburdened for the ascent up the slope along the cliff’s base. They might have abandoned supplies, and where better to hide them than in the cave? But what if … It was a ‘what if’ that made her throat tighten. She knew that four men had set out: Lucan Drakhorn and three Broks. She didn’t know how many were still alive when they doubled back past Poison Spring.
An eclipse would start soon. Just a quick look, then back to the goats.
The spring’s cave was lofty, with a broad mouth. It receded into blackness, but where daylight entered, was rimed with the colored oozing of the rock. The air it exhaled stank of sulfur and something poisonously sweet. From the ceiling hung stalactites, bulbous and gray. Petra could not enter because water rushing from the spring inside had scooped out the rock to make a pool that filled the cave entirely.
Bane didn’t like it. He whined low, stayed close, and kept his tail down.
The pool’s water looked inky black at first, but lancing sunlight struck smooth rock at the bottom. In the soft lime near the pool’s rim, Petra found the impression of a trail boot’s toe. The edges of the print were still sharp. It was no older than those in the gully. She lowered her staff into the water until most of its length was submerged. It struck something pliable. Mud? She dragged at it. The water on the wetted shaft was ice cold.
She knelt at the edge and peered down, at first seeing only the rippling reflection of her own face in the circling water. But something else was there, a pale echo of that reflection. Shifting so that the refracting sunlight was blocked by her own shadow, she lowered her face almost to the crystal water, and looked deep.
Then jerked back with a cry.
Another face looked back at her from the depths: a face with open mouth and open eyes, nearby a hand with fingers hooked. It was the face of Lucan, the young Drakhorn watchman in the party that should have gone south.
Bane barked, a whining bark that ended with the snap of teeth. Petra followed his gaze up. The slanted rays picked out the nearest of the bulbous stalactites. Only it couldn’t be a stalactite, because it was bending from side to side, growing, unfurling. What she’d thought to be oozy stone was spreading wings—gray, diaphanous, and ribbed.
“God’s piss,” gasped Petra.
The carrion bat’s wings stretched across the pool. Behind the first, a second hanging blob had begun to expand.
Petra was up and running, with Bane at her heels. Between her and the goats stretched a rocky slope and a tangle of brambles and scrub. She flew over the rocks, risking broken bones and ignoring spears of pain. The sunlight dimmed; godshade had come.
All those animal bones in the stream bed. But she’d understood too late, too horribly, stupidly late. The water hadn’t killed the animals—bats had.
Just as the scrub began to thicken, the sun winked out. It was Skadi’s half-shade, night-dark at first, and there was no moon. Petra clattered to a stop and crouched among bushes. In nine minutes, the shade would lighten, and she’d be able to move again.
Carrion bats preferred to let others do their hunting for them, but they wouldn’t ignore an easy kill, and a noise would wake them. She’d cried out when she saw Lucan in the pool.
Maybe they wouldn’t see the herd half a mile downslope.
Something whiffled overhead—something big and black against the star-pricked blue. Bane sprang. Petra saw his blackness rise above her head. His jaws met with a snap. But the dog had missed, and the bat was gliding across the scrub toward the herd.
Oh, gods, no, she thought. I’ve led the bats toward them.
A chirp, and movement against the stars. Petra rose and swung her staff to strike the chirping thing a whack that made the wood hum. The bat spun past, tumbling into brambles. Another chirping bat flew unseen across the skyland’s void. Petra ducked back among the bushes.
Bane was barking now, full-throated and deep—his cry of warning and battle. Downslope, Jakko, Sipe, and Kale took up the cry. Petra added the ringing call of her shepherd’s horn to Bane’s din. It was all she could do. The horn’s cry for help would echo up the valley, and if they were listening, if the laughter of the Broks didn’t drown it, the kin would hear, and come.
But they were three miles away.
The sounding horn drew other attention as well. A bat blotted out the stars, its wings beating so that the tips rattled the bushes. Petra smelled the carrion reek. Bane leaped, snarling. He thudded into the bat, his jaws snapped on air, and he yelped with pain as he fell. Petra, half standing, thrust her sword into the middle of the blackness. The sword struck in, and claws like burning knives raked her forearm. With warbling chirps, the bat rose and flapped lopsidedly away.
Below, the dogs’ baying had changed to snarls and yelps. The goats bleated in terror. Petra listened in agony until the sun’s disk brightened and she could move. When it did, moon-bright greenish light glinted on the glassy wings of the bats that swooped and dived over the scattered herd.
When Petra reached the first goat, the eclipse had ended, the bats had retired, and the goat was dead. Strips of flesh had been torn away so that the ribs showed. It was Big Basta, the king buck and Petra’s favorite. Nearby she found Sipe, also dead, and a dying bat with shredded wings. It hissed at her, baring bloody fangs.
Petra did not have time to count dead goats, only to gather the living and make for the lower valley before godshade came again, and the bats returned to feast on their kills.
By then, she knew how many kills it was. Of her fifty-one goats, forty-five remained alive. Kale was torn along his flank, and limped. The scratches on Bane’s shoulders showed that his escape had been a close one. She’d lost six goats, a trained dog, and Kale might never work again.
She limped on with the bunched herd, sometimes shivering, sometimes flushed and nauseous at the thought of what she had seen, what she had done, what she would have to admit. How could she face the clan? But she would face them soon.
First came five men with dogs, running hard, with Cort in the fore. All carried weapons. Straggling behind were women, also armed.
Then the men were around her, panting and shouting. Cort. Mollos. Gench. Two other Broks.
“What was it?” shouted a Brok.
“Carrion bats.” That was easy.
“Where?” demanded another.
“Up there.” She had to point, and that was harder.
“Isn’t the pasture farther south?”
“That’s the bloody Poison Hole!”
“But what the hell were you doing there?”
Petra swallowed bile. The ground was heaving and her arm burned from the bat’s scratch. “There were tracks … I thought … maybe Flays …”
They were shouting questions from all sides, urgent, insistent.
Her words stumbled out. The mule tracks …
The world snapped clear with a slap. Cort had slapped her.
“Shut up, jackass,” he hissed, fiercely. Two of the Broks were arguing about bats, but Mollos’ head jerked toward her as though he’d been slapped, too.
The first of the women arrived just in time to clutch at Petra as her knees buckled. Then she was on hands and knees, vomiting. Godshade had come when she could stand again, and the men were running toward the cave with torches lit.
But beyond the mill of goats and dogs and women, Petra saw a sixth man, one she recognized even in the gloom by his great height and strange, loping gait. It was Gronnor Brok, and he was running—not toward them, but toward the Poison Spring.