On the descent into the Vale of Staffs, they slowed enough to talk. Canuut, annoyed at having overslept, had led them at a relentless pace, and all but the Jackalute were exhausted. Now Petra walked with Mistake’s halter in hand, trying to stay upwind of the dead pig on his back. Otger trudged some way behind, grim and red-faced. Cort came last, looking better for the sleep, but in a foul mood.
Canuut fell in beside Petra. “How’s your back?” he asked.
They walked on a while.
The trail descended in switchbacks. Gauzy mist hid the tree line far below. There was nothing around but sliding rocks.
“I have somethin’ for you,” said Canuut abruptly. “A gift from Ward.”
“He gave it to me to give to you, after that spider blacked your eye.”
Petra looked at Canuut quizzically.
He glared straight ahead, his brown face reddened. “Well, I did not give it to you, as you know. His gift is one that your dear mother would disapprove of, and I feared she would confiscate it while you were indisposed. Then worse things happened and it went out of my mind. I’m embarrassed, but it’s the truth.”
“That’s all right, Canuut. What is it?”
Canuut probed one of his many pockets and pulled out a smooth, elongated pebble. “When Jess told me you’d gone—well, it was the remembrance of this that pushed me like a kick in the pants to catch you up.”
“But what is it?”
“Hold it so. Now squeeze it a bit with your thumb.”
Petra pressed and immediately lifted her thumb again, her eyes round with astonishment. The hairs at the back of her neck prickled.
“It won’t bite,” said Canuut.
Her senses had not deceived her. When she squeezed the stone, she felt ridges, and red symbols appeared on her thumbnail.
They didn’t shine through. They were just there, as if part of her. When she relaxed her thumb, the symbols faded. They meant nothing to her, but had the look of writing. She heard the crunch of Otger’s boots behind, and walked on, her mind spinning.
“It’s a ‘tarlic,” she whispered. “A working one.”
“Ward told me it’s one of five that Claid Drakhorn found in the Karlward bone field two hundred years ago. Dunno how many are left, but Ward wanted you to have this one. I suspect he thought you headstrong enough to come after him.”
“But what …”
“It’s a weapon. Ward says it’ll kill every creature within bowshot that’s not human or natural beast.”
Petra thought about that, frowning. “Like a demon?”
Canuut’s eyebrows shot up. “I wouldn’a thought of a demon! Dunno. But it’ll kill a magnavore or a malant or a jugger, and most likely a jackalute too.”
Petra saw no point to killing jackalutes; she was becoming fond of Mistake. “It kills false-breeds, then. What about a riser?”
“Already dead, so can’t be killed.”
Canuut showed her what Ward had shown him. If she squeezed and pulled back with her thumb, the invisible ridges moved too, and new symbols appeared:
JUGGERNOT ARMED 60 SECONDS
The old-script number lay like welling blood on the long part of her thumb, and changed according to how far she pulled the ridges.
Canuut said the number counted the seconds, and when it counted down to zero, the weapon would act. “It’ll work only once. I suppose Ward hopes you’ll pass it on unused to your grandchildren.”
Petra reflected that her uncle would not have given her such a treasure unless he thought she might have need of it. The gifts that Grapple and Genna Stray had left for her took on new significance. It was as if the three had guessed her path better than she could have.
The wayfarers slid and clattered down the scree until they came among trees. The corkscrewed pines looked dead, but Petra knew that in the spring their gnarled tips would sprout sudden green. Otger sat abruptly on a rock and gripped trembling knees, his face twisted with pain. Making the most of the full moon during godshade, they’d walked twelve hours, with only the briefest pause for lunch.
Canuut wrinkled his nose at the exhausted boy, then at the pig on Mistake’s back. “Best cook it while it’s worth eating.”
While he and Cort prepared the pig, Petra collected sun-bleached wood among the rocks with Bane for company. Here she could find a corner to squat out of sight of her human companions. It had been difficult before. It meant, too, that she could examine the map unobserved.
The map—the waymap of all her fathers.
In it was recorded the trail lore of countless generations of Drakhorns. By tradition, the huntmaster kept the waymap, and there were only two copies. Her father had one with him. Petra had stolen the other.
On the pages that showed the valleys to the east of Antrim, she traced the trail across the Scrabble and down into Staffs. So short a distance it seemed on the map, so much farther still to go. Until now there’d been no choice of path, but from Staffs, there were two. She traced each with her finger, flipping the pages to places that bore hallowed names, storied names, dark names: Mischance, Forsaken, Vale of Screams, The Drood, The Gront. Karlward. And northward up the Blood Gorge to … the hide, the raid, and her father.
Canuut’s voice floated to her. “Petra!”
She looked up, startled. Godshade was falling. She was supposed to bring firewood.
When she got back, her trailmates had a fire going already. “Is wood so scarce?” grumbled Canuut.
“There was nature to observe,” replied Petra, primly.
They laid slates on the fire’s coals, and the meat on them. Canuut hung strips to cure in the smoke.
Petra leaned against a rock with her knees drawn up. Bane curled up on the rock’s flat top. Stars pricked a cobalt sky above. Now that she wasn’t moving, she could feel the dirt and smell her own stale sweat. Her leg ached. Her cuts itched. She put her head back, closed her eyes, and listened to Canuut fuss with the fire.
How strange it was.
So often, she’d dreamed of faring alone on the trail like Kastra, or with her father’s raiders. Petra Drakhorn, huntmaster’s daughter, and one day, huntmaster herself. Her mother had snorted and Tegan had smiled. But she would be the first—it was her destiny.
Now she was on the trail, but an outcast and thief. She was broken from her kin and marked with shame. Shouldn’t she cringe from company? Skulk away like a beaten wolf? She was too tired to care. Her unexpected companions were outcasts too, and she was thankful for Canuut’s company, at least.
The waymap swam into her mind, and in her mind she traced its paths. They were marked with symbols she didn’t know, and the unknown was important. Some could mean shelter; others, certain death. A claw brought to mind a bear, and an undulating line might be water. There were ‘i’ marks along the trails with names beside them. Every inch was crowded with notes.
One sign she did recognize: the drak, and like it but with the added dot for an egg, the draken. Here and there were marked the caves where the remains of a nest had been found, and, few and far between, the places where an egg had been taken. Twice or thrice near Karlward, she’d seen the draken’s glyph, and beside it Nula’s name. Karl Drakhorn’s prey. His obsession.
What would Nula look like, close up? A green-gold broadwing in her prime, they said. She imagined her father stalking her, capturing her. Would he kill her? She thought he might, though a prime breeder was more valuable for her eggs than for her blood, which anyway was almost impossible to harvest. Petra saw her father’s sharp, disdainful face, his pointed beard, his blue eyes burning with cold fire as he approached the hen. And she, imprisoned in nets and chains, beaten and spent, her green-gold eyes filled with impotent despair, awaiting the bolt through the eye that would end her.
Petra’s head jerked up. She blinked.
Godshade had ended; afternoon sunlight bathed her. Otger was slumped with his chin on his chest. Canuut was not there—gone to see nature, she guessed—and Cort was sitting beside her. He proffered a bit of cooked meat on a stick.
“I’ll wait for Canuut,” she replied, shortly.
Petra watched as Cort chewed the morsel. The smell made her mouth water.
Bane whined, then gulped a yawn—hungry sounds.
“You’re still with us, I see,” said Petra, not too pleasantly.
Cort shrugged. “I wanted to go with the relief party. Then Gronnor said I should fetch the pack train. Then I wasn’t wanted for that, either. But now, I just want to make sure you’re safe.”
“Drag me back to him, you mean. Loyal of you.”
“And you’re being sarcastic, or worse. I think Uncle’s gone trail-mad. I told him so—that’s why he threw me out. But I still try to do my duty.”
“And I don’t.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I’m not a Flay’s scut-rag, like Gronnor,” said Petra evenly, watching Cort. She was goading him, perhaps unfairly. But the memory of his slap was sharp, as was the memory of his fingers biting into her arm as he marched her back to camp.
Cort clenched his jaw, then he made himself relax. “Of course you can’t forgive him. Nobody can. Good chance your father or Ward will kill him—”
“It’s not about what he did to me, Cort.”
He turned his head toward her. “Well, it is for me. If I was … sharp with you, it’s only because I was afraid for you.”
Petra turned her head toward the sleeping Otger so she didn’t have to look into Cort’s eyes. She shrugged.
Cort continued. “He was always harsh, but not like now. The men respected him as huntmaster. He saved them from a drak nestling once—gave it such a whack on the head it fell off the ledge. Not many can say that.”
“Bet he’s good at kicking dogs, too.”
“After the last raid, he got the camp out safely, though it was too far north.”
“So he’s tough as rocks.”
“Yeah. Because of whatever’s wrong with him, he’s had to defend himself since he was a kid. He sees threats and enemies everywhere. And he has pain all the time. I guess it’s gone to his head.”
Petra snorted. “Is it enemies or pain that’s making him marry Tegan against her will?” she said, bitterly.
“What—Tegan?” gasped Cort. He stared at Petra like she’d grown horns.
She noticed that Otger was watching them through half-closed eyes. She’d had enough talk. She got up to remove the meat from the stones.
Mistake beat her to it. He padded into the circle, then snagged the largest joint.
“Stop, you!” yelled Petra.
Cort seized the straps that held the panniers. Wheeling to make off with his prize, Mistake’s hind foot trod on the hot slates, scattering meat. He howled and bounded away, taking Cort with him. Bane and Jakko, who would wait for their masters to eat first, but wouldn’t take second place to a jackalute, fought over the pieces in the ashes, yelping at the sting of the coals.
It took two hours to catch Mistake and bandage Cort’s shin. The four trailmates made do with charred scraps and cheese.