A rush of air and a thud, then Petra was rolling on the ground, jolted by the fall, but unharmed. A moment later, she understood. It wasn’t Bane who’d collided with the spider just feet from her; it was a hundred and eighty pounds of angry goat. Big Basta—that stupid, wonderful goat—had followed his chosen queen.
Snorting, Basta brought his front hooves down on the thrashing spider. Again and again he leaped and stamped. Bane snapped at the spider’s legs, unwilling to get closer to the big buck’s trampling hooves.
Petra had the airgun to her shoulder. She turned slowly, crouched low, scanning the boulders. It was getting darker—Herm’s Shade was only half over, and the next god’s skyland was now eclipsing the moon. Petra’s eyes made bushes into spiders and bonemen out of weathered stones. Her heart thudded in her chest.
There, to the north—a gray shadow skittering across gray stone. She squeezed the trigger. The airgun went ‘thup’ and her dart plinked against rock. The shadow had already gone. Now a movement upslope, between her and the shelter she’d left behind.
Gods—this was stupid, stupid. She’d run straight into a pack of spiders that could see as well by starlight as she could see by day. And why? To ‘rescue’ trail-hardened raiders who’d eat rock spider for breakfast if need be. What was she thinking?
Time for a tactical retreat.
“Get back, Bane! Come to me,” she shouted, snatching up her staff. Between her and the brook was the boulder field, where the rocks rubbed shoulders and she’d see nothing. Spiders to the north and east. She ran southward toward camp, praying that Basta would follow, praying the spiders wouldn’t. Her best hope was that the stink of the dead one would make the others hesitate.
The ground was treacherous by starlight, with loose rocks to turn an ankle and weed-covered clefts to vanish into. Every stride was testing fate. When Basta bounded up behind them, a raven exploded into the air ahead of them, croaking raucously. Petra stumbled in surprise. Even Bane yelped.
They ran on.
At last, faint through the arching, starless void of Herm’s skyland, the sun’s disk blushed a dusky red. As it did, the sky paled and the stars winked out. Mountain peaks to the east blazed with sudden fire. Then sunlight flared from the skyland’s trailing edge, transforming brooding troll-hulks into mere scattered rocks lapped by dung-strewn greensward.
Petra slowed to a trot, panting fit to choke. Only twenty-five minutes had passed since she’d set out from her shelter, but it felt like hours.
The sunlight brought an extra flush of relief to her cheeks, and the heat of embarrassment, too. She’d got nowhere near the men she’d set out to help. Instead, she was a short jog from camp—and much too far from her goats. How in hell would she explain this?
The first thing Sten, the camp’s gatekeeper, said was: “Eh, Miss Stray, where’s them goats at?”
“Oh, they’re nearby and full to bursting,” said Petra brightly, deciding to find someone less interested in goats.
She strode down the avenue between the tents of the Drakhorns and the tents of the Broks, with Basta and Bane trotting behind. The shivery exhilaration of her close escape made the camp seem to stand still around her. Well, I’m here, so at least I can rally some kin to meet them, she thought.
She spied Elder Tane with an armload of clothes. “Missus Tane, do you know where Uncle Ward’s at?”
The old woman kept walking. “No, young Stray, I do not. He left with four men this morning and is not expected back soon.”
Petra’s shoulders slumped. “I meant to tell him I saw three men up-valley, and one might be Grapple. Some spiders—”
“Oh, aye. Surely they can look out for themselves.” Elder Tane went on her way, calling over her shoulder, “If you’re at a loose end, Danna could use help with the washing.”
Petra found Legless Cob smoking in his usual spot. He’d lost his legs on a raid before she was born. All he said to her news was, “Bad omen it is. Likely they’re all dead.” He puffed his disgusting smoke at her.
Outside the camp fence, sheep bleated.
She had no better luck with the next two clan elders; they hardly seemed interested. Spotting Cort Brok, a young man she liked well enough to forgive him his Brok clan birth, she ran to him. “Cort, listen, I saw three men coming down the brook path. I think one is—”
Cort smiled. “Maybe you didn’t hear—”
“You mean Grapple, Fallon, and Swin?” It was a boy’s voice.
Petra whirled. There stood Otger Brok, as neat as though he’d come from school, not from shepherding. She gaped at him.
“Lucan spotted them from the ridge,” said Otger. “He signaled the camp they were coming. Also about spiders. My shelter was between him and camp, so I saw the signal.”
Petra opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Lucan was one of the valley watchmen. He had a better ‘scope than hers. And a signaling lamp.
Otger continued. “I thought you might be here already, because of your shelter light.”
“What?” said Petra, screwing up her face.
“I mean, you only ever use a candle in shelters, so when you lit the lamp, I figured you were either going to meet Grapple, or coming straight here. Brave of you.”
Otger looked serious, but Petra was sure there was a smirk at the corner of his lips. Before she could collect her thoughts, they were interrupted by a shout.
“Petra Stray, what are you doing here? Where’s the rest of the herd?” Petra’s mother ducked out of her tent’s door and strode up to them, hard-faced and suspicious. Basta frolicked around her, bleating happily.
“Ma, I left them with Bane at the shelter—”
Her mother’s voice rose. “Left them! What do you mean left them? You are responsible for those goats. You are responsible for the wellbeing of every single—”
“But I saw Grapple and—”
“What has Grapple to do with it? We know about Grapple.”
“But I thought—”
“What business have you thinking about anything but goats?”
“Don’t bleat at me like you’re no smarter than a goat yourself. What’s the meaning of that blood on your clothes?”
Petra inspected herself. Her coat was speckled with blood. She’d scraped her wrist and not noticed.
Her mother’s scolding continued, strident, right in the middle of the avenue with a growing circle of onlookers, and with Cort and Otger Brok there to hear it all, expressionless, but laughing inside—Petra was sure—laughing at her.
“You get right back to those goats,” her mother was shouting.
“I’ll meet Grapple on the way,” said Petra, sullenly.
“You’ll do no such thing. You’ll go the shelter route. And if you can’t manage that simple task yourself, Otger can go with you. He’s obviously more responsible.”
Petra’s face burned as though she’d been slapped.
Otger walked away, hands in pockets.
Cort said, mildly, “I’m sure that’s not needed, Missus Stray. Anyway, Otta has to go with me and his uncle to meet Grapple.”
Petra muttered, “I wish I was with my uncle. Anywhere but here.”
“You wish you were scouting with Ward?” shouted her mother. “By the judgement you show, you’re good for nothing but milking and washing.”
The darkness of godshade fell over the camp.
“Come on, Bane,” growled Petra. To the chuckles of onlookers, she stalked off with her fists jammed into her pockets, finding it hard to keep her back straight.
Petra retreated to the dairy tent to wait out the twenty minutes of godshade before returning to her goats. She left Bane curled up at the door. Her cousin Tegan was inside, working a shift. She and Tegan had been close companions since Tegan’s birth, a few months after hers. That didn’t mean they agreed on much.
“My mother’s tongue would poison a rock spider,” spat Petra. She paced a circle around Tegan and the milk vat, then punched a hanging cheese, setting it swinging and leaving a fist-shaped dent.
“And you look mean enough to eat one,” said Tegan. Her sleeves were rolled up and her hair tied back to keep it out of the milk. She held out the paddle. “Here, if you want to work it off, stir for me.”
Petra dragged the paddle through the curds. The lamp overhead flickered in time to the rhythmic clunking of the butter churn in the corner. As the valley brook had dwindled with the summer, so had the electric current produced by the camp’s waterwheel.
“Not so hard—you’ll ruin it,” said Tegan. She crossed her arms. “So, tell.”
Petra blew out a breath. She stirred slowly while she gave Tegan the gist of it. “Goats and sheep—they’re all Ma cares about. But we’re not a bunch of nomadic goatherds; we’re here for a purpose.”
“People with purposes have to eat. Are you surprised your mum’s angry? She’d’ve guessed you came back during godshade, and off the warded path.”
“There aren’t shelters when you’re on a raid,” said Petra.
“Well, you weren’t … I mean—”
“Don’t say it,” warned Petra. She watched the curd cubes jostling in the whey. Of course a watchman had spotted Grapple. Of course she’d had no good excuse to leave the herd. She’d damn well known it, too. “It’s practice,” she muttered. “We all have to be ready.”
“Bet your mum doesn’t see it that way. You’re still fifteen.”
Petra thumped the paddle on the bottom of the vat, making Tegan wince. “God’s piss, you sound like an old woman sometimes. I’m old enough to help.”
Tegan frowned and got that hurt, sad-eyed look. “Goats help. Cheese helps.”
Petra churned harder and took some breaths before answering. She hated the sad-eyed look—it got to her. “I’m sorry. It’s just … you’re good at those things, Teg. I’m not. I’m good at tracking. That’s how I can help.”
“And tactics. That’s why you’re Clash Leader.” Tegan’s tone was conciliatory.
“Yet I get bawled out if I step an inch off the path, forget about leaving the valley. It’s embarrassing.”
Tegan quirked her lips and gave Petra an up-from-under look. “Well, you are the one with the clanmarks.”
Petra was the one with the flawless inherited birthmarks, that’s what Tegan meant. The clanmarks of the other girls were muddled blots or wispy, web-like things. But the blue-black numbers low on the back of Petra’s neck were as clear and crisp as book printing. They grew with her. They itched when she thought of them.
Her clanmarks were the best in generations, her mother said. Those marks of untainted breeding were her mother’s pride and Petra’s curse. Because of them, she was an asset to be traded in marriage to an allied clan, like breeding stock. Because of them, the young kin whispered ‘Princess’ behind her back. They didn’t mean it kindly. And a princess shouldn’t get herself killed by a spider. Or on a raid.
She leaned on the paddle. “We Drakhorns haven’t made a snatch in six years and my clanmarks won’t change that. Nor will herding goats or glomming onto losers like the Broks.”
Petra resumed stirring. Tegan was right. She could earn herself a beating for talk like that.
Tegan toed the igniter button to light the heater under the vat. The flame’s rumble masked the sound of their voices. She said, “You don’t have to convince me you could help in the hunt. You’re smart and a lot tougher than me. But you know it can’t be just up to you, any more than what I do is just up to me. Maybe your mum figures it should be up to the clan you join. Maybe she just wants you to live long enough to join one.”
“Who’s going to make me join another?” said Petra, defiantly. She was getting hot from the churning and from the way Tegan’s quiet words made her feel. She glanced at her cousin, but didn’t meet her eyes. Tegan was comfortable with the rule that she’d have to marry into another clan. She’d have her pick of them, too. Though not quite fifteen, Tegan had the kind of beauty that made people forget to breathe. The kind that made boys stupid as sheep when they were near her.
Tegan grinned. “Then you’d better learn to like Brok boys. Elder Brael said that to seal the bond, a few marriages between Drakhorns and Broks will be allowed. They’re not all bad.”
Petra grimaced. This was Tegan’s revenge for the ‘old woman’ jibe. After some cheese-murdering churns, she said, “No, not all.” She was thinking of Cort Brok. “Just most of them. Like that sharp-nosed, smug little smart-ass Otger. You should have heard him.”
“You don’t like him because he’s as clever … almost as clever as you are. At least he’s polite. Danna thinks his nose is cute.”
“Cute like a rat’s. He’s been spying on me; knows what kind of light I use in shelters. It’s creepy.”
“Maybe he likes you.”
Petra pretended to vomit into the vat. She handed the paddle to Tegan and picked up her coat. “We’ll see how clever he is in the Clash. You’re still in, right?
Tegan dipped the paddle. She didn’t look at Petra. She didn’t answer, either.
Petra stopped with her coat half on. Piss. Not cold feet, not now. “I need you, Tegs. Say you’re in.”
“It’s just that it’s got sort of … grim, since it’s Drakhorns against Broks.”
“It’s healthy bonding, that’s what Ward and Gronnor say.”
“It’s Ward and Gronnor using us for their sport,” murmured Tegan.
Petra bit her lip. The monthly Clash was more to her than a respite from goats. It was her chance. Only a clansman who’d excelled at Clash would be trusted to one day lead scouts or command a raid. Her uncle Ward believed in that tradition, and he was Tash of clan Drakhorn, so his opinion mattered. He’d encouraged her, coached her. He’d given her an airgun when she’d become Clash Leader that spring. He’d promised that if she won the final match, he’d let her join a scout group. Tomorrow’s match would be the last of the summer, and for the first time, Otger would captain the Broks. She had to win.
She took a breath. “Please, Tegan. You know what Ward promised.”
Tegan glanced up. She wasn’t smiling. “Are you really counting on that?”
This time Petra was silent. Ward would keep his promise. She trusted his word the way she trusted Tegan’s good sense. And there was no point arguing with good sense.
Tegan continued. “Meanwhile, you get worse grief from the kin every match. It’s getting nasty.”
Petra looked steadily at her friend. If the Broks resented losing, that was their problem. If the older Drakhorn boys resented her for shutting them out of the captaincy, there was nothing she could do about it. A Clash Leader was replaced when the team lost, and her team hadn’t lost.
Tegan sighed. “One last time for friendship—but only defense.”
The tent walls glowed with sudden sunlight. Godshade had ended.
“Only defense. Perfect.” Petra padded to the entrance, reached for her boots, then grinned back at Tegan. “I’m going to go scouting. And raiding. And I’ll go as a Drakhorn.”
Tegan nodded. “Path of destiny, girl. Herm be your guide.”