Petra stepped back with a cry and gaped at Otger.
He squinted at her as the last rays of sunlight bathed his face.
“What the demon are you doing here?” gasped Petra.
His lip twitched. “Waiting for you.”
The sun’s rim dropped behind the ridge and the shelter’s interior fell into shadow.
Petra’s heart was hammering. She pulled her sword an inch from its scabbard. “Come out where I can see you,” she shouted.
Otger came meekly out. He wore trail clothes—neater and newer than hers—and had a knife on his hip.
Petra kept a safe distance between them. “What d’you mean waiting for me?”
“Just what I said. I got here an hour ago, and knew you were following.”
Petra glanced back, half expecting Broks to come storming up the trail, though she’d seen no signs of pursuit.
“They don’t know,” said Otger. “At least, they didn’t when I left.”
“But I didn’t see …”
“You always looked back, not ahead.” There was that infuriating almost-smirk again.
“So … what … explain, you spawn!” yelled Petra.
Otger held up a hand in a gesture of peace. The smirk was gone. “Look, I’m coming with you, that’s all.”
“Yes. To warn Tash Ward and your father. I guessed that’s what you were planning. It was kind of obvious—”
Petra jerked her sword half out of the scabbard.
Otger took a hasty step back. “I mean, I figured you’d try something after what Gronnor did, and then Tegan was … well, it was easier to see what she was up to. She’s not as cunning as you.”
Petra bared her teeth. She didn’t want compliments from Otger Brok, especially not at Tegan’s expense.
Otger held up the other hand. He plowed on with the air of one who knows he’s digging his own grave. “I saw Tegan stashing your supplies near an up-valley shelter, so I guessed you’d head north. When I heard Mistake bellow, I tricked that moron Gench away from the gate and snuck out.”
Petra said through her teeth, “Okay, that’s what and how … but why?”
“Because of what Gronnor’s doing. You wouldn’t believe how false he is.”
“Try me!” spat Petra. “He’s betraying the covenant. I think he’s in league with the Flays.”
Otger’s eyes went wide. “How’d you—”
“And he’s Tash of Broks, and you’re not coming with me, Brok!”
“Yes I am.”
“No, you’re not! Run back to your uncle and tell him, for all I care.”
Otger’s face hardened with determination. “I’m going to help you reach the raid, or die trying. How will you stop me—run me through? Go on, do it if you’re going to.”
Petra stood there, breathing hard. She couldn’t just run him through. And she couldn’t get into another fistfight with him; she was still sore from the pasting he’d given her. Order the dogs to see him off? Bane and Jakko were chasing each other around the shelter like puppies. They liked Otger.
She said, bitterly, “So I’m supposed to drag along a Brok who’ll eat my supplies and brain me when my back’s turned and leave me for the spiders, like you already did—and that’s helping?”
Otger winced. “Listen, Petra, I have my own food and I’ll stay out of your way, and I never deliberately left you for … no, I don’t expect you to believe me, but I swear I never …”
Petra didn’t hear the rest. She’d walked away in disgust.
Petra pressed on around the flank of Slemnor Mountain at a level with the ridge-top, where the scree was too barren for spiders and could be walked by starlight. Her course zigzagged to make it less likely that a follower would find Mistake’s droppings. She ate cheese as she walked, drank as little as was safe, and tried to put the fullness of her bladder out of mind. There was nowhere to go that would be out of sight of the infuriating boy trailing behind.
The two dogs fell into trail guard, Bane ahead of her, Jakko behind Otger.
Anger gave way to finer shades of resentment. It was impossibly unfair. This insolent boy who’d poured scorn on her, then humbled her with his fists, was forcing his presence on her again. This nosy Brok who’d seen her humiliated before the kin, had also seen through her plans and called them ‘obvious’. He’d left her for dead in a spider hole. Soon she’d have to sleep and would be at his mercy again. What had she done to deserve it?
She tugged at Mistake’s halter. “Shake a leg, you sad donkey. Can’t you go any faster?”
Otger kept up for hours, though his pack was heavier than Petra’s. His face became blotchier and his expression more dogged.
At the tip of Cranny Vale, Petra led them down the slope to the stream at the bottom, where the jackalute and dogs could drink. The gentle climb out proved too much for Otger. By the time Petra reached the eastern ridge-top, he was sitting on a rock behind them, his head almost on his knees. Bane looked back and whined. Down where Otger was, Jakko barked.
Pleased at the sight, Petra took the opportunity to relieve an urgent need with only the disconcertingly intelligent eyes of Bane and the jackalute on her.
When a skyland eclipsed the moon, she picked her way by starlight down the slope into Scrabble Valley. As she went, satisfaction became irritation and finally disgust. Bane looked often back and kept his tail down. He knew what Petra knew: that two humans on the trail should stay together. Petra knew more. She knew the old tales in which even enemies made uneasy truce in the wilderness. It was more than stories; it was unwritten law. The greatest crime was to leave a kinsman—or any karlman—to die unsung. For such a one would rise again, dreadful and now undying, a thing of hate and ceaseless appetite, the bane and shame of all.
Petra sat on a rock to wait.
Above her, the vast rectangle of darkness slid silently across the stars.
Eventually, Otger appeared on the ridge-top, sat for a while to catch his breath, then came slowly down.
When he was close enough to satisfy the dogs, Petra walked on, grim and resentful. He’d worked it all out, had clever Otger Brok. She could neither chase him off nor leave him behind.
Petra was on hands and knees in pine needles. The stunted pines leaned at unreasonable angles, and their branches, loosely woven against the sky, turned around her.
“You okay?” Otger’s voice.
Something warm and wet slapped her cheek—Bane’s tongue.
She struggled to her feet, batting Otger’s hand away. “Get away from me,” she said, thickly. She took deep breaths. The trees steadied.
Otger crossed his arms. “You need sleep—I know I do. We should make camp.”
Petra had known for hours that she couldn’t go on, but she’d made herself go on anyway. She’d not slept for—how long? More than two days. Jess had warned that she’d need to sleep off the after-effects of the venom. She couldn’t outlast Otger, and by then, no longer cared. She licked dry lips, blinked gritty eyes. Her skin itched. Everything itched.
The trees crowded dangerously close. This was crazy—there’d be spiders. She searched her memory. “What about the last bare patch?” she ventured.
“What do you mean, ‘ages’? How long exactly?” She hated having to ask. Hated it.
“Um … two shades.”
Gods. It was a blank. Petra tried to bring the map into focus in her head. A low spur crossed Scrabble Valley. She’d meant to follow the top of it, but had let herself drift. Now, they must be in the lee of a rise that sheltered the trees. The ground sloped up to northward, so she went that way.
The scare kept her alert until they broke clear of the pines, then sleep roared again in her head and she stumbled. Her skin was clammy in spite of the sun.
“Here,” she croaked.
They had to put up the spider fence, and it was the devil. There was no purchase in the stony ground for the guy pins, and when Otger let his stave go, the whole structure fell over. Once it was up, it leaned drunkenly. By the time Petra had caught Mistake, who’d wandered off with her bedroll, she was nearly weeping.
The last thing she remembered was Otger putting a spider light in a corner of their fenced-in square of dirt while she struggled with her boot laces.
Hours later, Petra heard about the spider.
“It flew into the wires and jiggled so much I thought the fence would collapse,” said Otger. “I borrowed your sword to stab it—sorry. Then Bane and Jakko savaged it. They made a horrible noise. That’s all that’s left, over there.”
Petra stared blearily at the dismembered carcass. She might have slept through being eaten alive. Hadn’t she kept her sword in the sleeping bag with her? No, she hadn’t closed the bag. One of her boots was still laced up; the other foot was bare, and her ankle, like her wrists, was covered with mosquito bites. Where was her airgun? It took a while to remember that she’d left it in one of Mistake’s panniers, along with her tent and half the supplies. She’d somehow forgotten to remove his tack. In the stories she loved to retell, people that sloppy on the trail always died. She was too embarrassed to say anything about the sword.
Otger held out a boiled egg. “Like one? I’ve plenty.”
Petra’s mouth watered and her stomach clenched at the sight of the egg. But of all the stupid things to bring. “They won’t last, you know.”
“I know. I gave some to the dogs already. I guess I’ll have to give them the rest.”
“They can hunt.”
Otger’s lip twitched. “True—it’d be a waste.”
Petra glared at the egg in Otger’s hand. Then she dug waybread out of her pack, and offered him two slices. Egg and bread changed hands like diplomatic favors.
As she ate a second egg, Petra found that the resentful anger had faded. She didn’t have the energy for it. Otger’s behavior was diffident and apologetic; he seemed to want nothing but to tag along.
“We have to go,” she said. “Mistake can carry your roll and tent. Maybe you’ll walk faster.”
Otger groaned when he stood, and winced at every step. Petra’s own leg was hurting a lot more than it had when she’d set out, but she did her best to hide it.
While Otger tackled the fence, Petra set off to find Mistake. He’d pulled his halter loose from the stone she’d tied it around, likely spooked by the spider. A normal pack mule would have stayed nearby, but not Mistake. Petra circled the waycamp, then climbed to the top of the treeless spur, which afforded a view all around. No sign of him. With growing panic, she made a wider circle. To westward, she found hours-old droppings and the scattered bones of something he’d rooted up and eaten.
By then, panic had turned to dismay. She counted and re-counted the lost supplies. Her tent and airgun—those were the most important.
“Petra, you’re a jackass,” she muttered, and worse things. She wouldn’t qualify to be Kastra’s dog.
An eclipse started as she returned to where Otger waited by the neatly piled gear. He regarded her with his usual expression of mild surprise. “No Mistake?”
“He wandered back toward camp. I’ll go back a bit—an hour at most—in case he’s moving slowly. You stay here. I’ll be faster.” Her voice was croaky. It was like the final kick, having to admit to Otger how stupid she’d been.
The surprise in Otger’s eyes turned to panic. “Um … I wouldn’t … I mean I don’t think that’s a good idea. My legs are okay. And you know, in a pinch my tent …”
Petra scowled at him. She wasn’t going to argue, she was just going to go.
Then Bane and Jakko began to bark. Two men appeared over the spur, and a mule. They were walking fast, and the moonlight gleamed on the sword that one drew from his scabbard.
Petra’s hand went to her own sword hilt. No way was she going be taken back to Gronnor Brok alive.