Gronnor Brok sat cross-legged behind his desk, as still as weathered granite. He was questioning Gench and not enjoying the result. He let silence convey his displeasure.
Before him, Gench stood with legs apart, hands clenching nervously, bald head retreating between his shoulders like a tortoise’s. Sweat gleamed on his brow, ran down his neck, collected in the creases under his chin. The tent roof above glowed in the sunlight like iron from the forge.
Nearby, Mollos slouched against a chest, arms folded, eyes half closed, as if bored.
Gronnor plucked a dried apricot stone from a bowl, then ground it to mash between his teeth. Gench’s bones might crunch just that way. He let the thought play on his face, knowing his expression terrified the man. His appearance had an effect on people he’d learned to use to advantage. But from Gench, there was little advantage to be gained. The man was a blunt tool.
“I’m sure she went south,” muttered Gench, sullenly.
“Why are you sure?” asked Gronnor, for the second time.
“The beast’s paw print and the wax. Stands to reason she’d carry on to Winter Camp, hook up with her ma’s people.”
“And how far down-valley did you search for these clues, that it took you so long?” asked Gronnor, quietly.
“To where Poison Stream joins the brook. I checked a ways up the ravine path, in case she followed it.”
“Er, I didn’t see—”
“The brook spreads to mud for a hundred yards past the stream. How many prints did you see there?”
Gronnor lifted his stick and poked Gench in the ribs with it. He paced his words slowly, punctuating them with pokes of the stick. “You saw none, because she left the brook to circle back around the camp after dropping the wax for you to find, imbecile.”
Gench’s muscles twitched, but he kept his arms at his sides.
“She’d need provisions, help to get them out,” continued Gronnor. “But since you goddamn morons killed my bats, the shepherds use only the up-valley pastures, so that’s where her provisions must have been. And that means she went north.”
Gench avoided Gronnor’s eyes. “As you say, Tash.”
“Now go find that good-for-nothing nephew of mine, instead.”
“Otger, you mean?”
A shock of foreboding stilled the stick in Gronnor’s hand. His eyes narrowed. “I meant Cort. What about Otger?”
“I heard he missed his shifts. He told Ursil you took him back in, but …” Gench’s eyes flicked to the small partition where Otger slept whenever Gronnor hadn’t foisted him on another family. The space was filled with ‘tarlics and weapons taken from the Drakhorn tents.
For three heartbeats, Gronnor sat motionless, his stick pressed against Gench’s ribs, his mind working. First Petra, now Otger. No friendship there, so likely no collusion. But Otger was … sensitive. Erratic. “Get out,” he spat. “Check every goddamn shelter. Where you find one nephew, you may find the other.”
When Gench had blundered out, Gronnor turned to glare at Mollos, who was toying with a knife.
“Your bats,” said Mollos, his voice flat.
Gronnor wouldn’t deign to explain. “Why didn’t you keep the shepherds away from the cave, like I said?”
Mollos spun the knife so fast, the blade seemed to vanish and reappear. “You might have said what for. I guess Petra didn’t get the message.” His face was impassive.
Gronnor chewed and swallowed another stone to hide his fury. He had left it to his idiot nephew Cort to deliver the message. “The brat has run to her father. How has she the strength so soon after a whipping?”
“Likely Jess Stray fixed her up.”
“It was a whole goddam day before anyone noticed she’d gone.”
Mollos spun his knife. “Seems Jess wrote Petra’s name in the shepherds’ roster and Tegan said she’d seen her. The guards said the same, but I figure it was Ola they saw, wearing clothes of Petra’s.”
Gronnor grunted. “Ola—your daughter.”
Mollos chuckled. “Tegan—your betrothed.”
Gronnor glared at him. Jess. Ola. Tegan. He’d have to test his meals on Gench and worry for his throat at night. “No sign of the waymap?”
“We searched Karl’s, Ward’s, and Jorn’s tents, and the Stray elders’ tents. We’re still looking.”
They wouldn’t find it. She’d stolen it, damn her.
“I could still catch her,” said Mollos.
Gronnor shook his head. “She won’t survive the trek alone. Have two men patrol the fence. Only the near pastures are to be used, and every shepherd’s movements watched. A Brok woman is to be with Jess Stray every minute of the day and night. Tegan, her mother, Jess, and the Drakhorn men are confined to camp. I don’t want any more of them wandering off.”
“Ha-hm,” said Mollos.
Gronnor glared at him.
“No one’s seen Canuut, nor has he slept in his tent.”
As Petra drew her sword, the foremost of the men called out. “Greetings, wayfarers. May Herm’s eyes see you fair, and all others be blind.” It was Canuut Drakhorn’s voice. From its peculiar gait, the dark-robed mule he was leading was Mistake. And behind came Cort with his sword drawn.
Relief nearly buckled Petra’s knees.
Otger called in reply, “May your paths be easy, honored kinsmen. We’re glad to see you.” His voice was uncertain, his eyes as round as Petra’s.
Bane and Jakko jumped fondly at Canuut. Training and feeding the dogs was one of his duties.
Canuut said, “Herm’s calloused feet, what a chase you’ve led. I’ve about worn my legs to stumps.” Yet he looked better than he had in camp.
The change in Cort was just as startling. Even by moonlight he looked haggard, his eyes cave-like and blinking. He peered at the sword in his hand, as though he didn’t know how it had got there, then sheathed it.
Petra found her voice. “Canuut … Cort … what are you doing here?”
Canuut answered. “Speaking for myself alone, meaning to pay my compliments to your father and Ward, and let ’em know that all’s not well in camp. As for him”—he jerked his thumb at Cort—”he’s just taggin’ along.”
Cort stared boggle-eyed at Canuut. “But that’s not … you said …” He turned toward Petra. “He barged into the shelter where I was sleeping—”
“Didn’t know it was in use,” said Canuut, grinning.
“—looking as though he was going to shoot me!”
“Fat chance, with my bow uncocked.”
“He said he’d seen you leave, and was going to fetch you back, and—”
“You said what?” gasped Petra.
Canuut shrugged. “I just said if he wanted to catch you up, better come quick, and so he did and here you are.”
Cort’s face contorted, “But—Herm’s piss, that was … days ago!”
“No more’n thirty hours.”
Cort swayed as though he was about to collapse.
Canuut jerked his thumb at Otger. “You’re smart to bring a trail mate.”
“He’s just tagging along,” said Petra.
Otger said firmly, “Like I told Petra, I mean to tell Tash Ward of Gronnor’s treachery, but I wouldn’t have a hope without her, so I followed.”
There was silence while that sank in. Cort broke it. “Otger, you little maggot! I’ll—” his arm snaked out, but Canuut’s was faster. “Oh!” howled Cort. “That’s my sword arm, moron!”
“Now, dear, what’s your plan?” asked Canuut, amiably.
Petra glanced at Otger. “Well … we were about to press on, but Mistake got away.”
“Bloody-minded brute. Amazed you got him to carry your gear—few have.”
“It’s salt goat—he loves it,” said Petra, pleased.
Canuut handed Mistake’s halter to her. “Well, feed him some so I can throw my gear on. Be nice to walk lighter.”
“Listen, Canuut, if you need to rest …”
“Nonsense. You did right to move quick. A head start is all we have.”
Cort’s face contorted. “Dammit, Petra, this is crazy. I’m bringing you home.”
“You go back if you like,” said Canuut. “You can have my little fence.”
Cort’s face worked, but he said nothing more. When they continued eastward, he stumbled along behind.
When they continued eastward, Cort stumbled along behind.
“It was Jess put me up to it,” Canuut told Petra, as they walked. “She got supplies out of camp. Then didn’t she tell me she’d seen you leave, and I must fly to catch you up. By the time I got away, I was half a day behind.”
“You tracked us easily enough,” said Petra, frowning.
“Didn’t have to track you at all. By any trail you’d end up on the spur—only good way across the Scrabble. I’ve been this way more’n once.”
Petra looked at Canuut with fresh eyes. His knowledge of the trail might help her chances a lot. “So the trail above Poison Spring meets this one?”
“At Scrabble Brook. Why?”
“That’s where we’ll see signs of the Broks who murdered Lucan.”
Canuut stared at her, dumbfounded.