Petra chased the last of the butter around with a dumpling. Her portion was the same as usual: three mutton cubes, three dumplings, three potatoes, one carrot. It wasn’t enough. She’d been ravenous, having run twelve miles since breakfast. Once she’d eaten the dumpling, she made a show of using her potatoes to wipe the plate.
Her mother knelt on her cushion as straight as a pine in a wind shadow, sipping tea. She never sat cross-legged, never slouched. At least when it was just the two of them, she didn’t demand the same etiquette of her daughter.
When her mother’s cup was empty, Petra refilled it with studied formality. Then she conspicuously ate the herb cheese she disliked.
Laughter filtered in from nearby tents. The silence in their own tent was heavy with wounded pride. Petra still smarted from that afternoon’s public scolding. She smarted from the justice of it, too. Returning to her goats, she’d looked back to see Grapple, Fallon, and Swin enter the camp accompanied by Cort and Otger. Grapple and Fallon each had a dead spider slung over his shoulder.
A breeze rose as the sun set. The tent ropes moaned. Petra didn’t need to switch on the lamp, because theirs held one of the clan’s few lamp ‘tarlics, little milky globes that each threw out three candles’ worth of light. An ancestor had found them among bones. They might be as old as the gods.
The minutes slipped by. Her mother sipped tea. Petra refilled the cup. Like the rest of the dishes on the table, it was of tin, not the silver they’d always used for evening meals. There were other changes—things that yesterday had hung or stood against the red-gold quilted silk of the inner walls, noticeable now in their absence. A silver lynx, an enameled tray. She fought the urge to ask.
Any second, her mother would have to speak. Petra always won these battles of silence and could time the moment of victory. But silence was her only weapon; her mother had a bigger arsenal. Petra steeled herself for the return salvo.
Her mother spoke, voice sharp with resentment. “I shall attend the council meeting to discuss Grapple’s news. Since you have not asked, you can wait until tomorrow to hear it.”
Petra kept silent, furious at the high-handedness. But she knew the news was not the worst possible. If it had been, Grapple would have come to their tent.
“Try not to dent the dishes when you wash them. Ward asked for donations to trade to the Traver clan. I’ve contributed our silver service. Those silver bands you never wore and that trophy too.”
So that was it! At Winter Camp they’d sold the gold dinner service and most of her mother’s jewelry. Now the silver—even her little trophy from the winter Clash. That hurt. The summer camp was self-sufficient, so it had to be for payments to the downlanders.
“While I’m out, sweep the floor and do your studies.”
“I’ll visit Tegan to prepare for the Clash,” said Petra.
Her mother barked, “You’ll do no such thing. It should be cancelled in light of Grapple’s news.”
Petra opened her mouth, then closed it. Clash was never cancelled. The news must be very bad for her mother to even pretend it might be. Still, she wasn’t going to react.
“And I promised Matche I’d water the goats and muck out their pen,” she lied.
“Do that, then. Mind I don’t smell you, after.”
“Yes, Ma,” said Petra, in a dead voice. But she was a coiled spring inside. Not for anything would she wait till morning to hear Grapple’s news.
Petra passed along the lane between the tents of the senior Drakhorn families and the backs of the tents in the second row. The ribbed canvas roofs, silver-gray in the moonlight, looked like sea billows in illustrations. But Petra wasn’t a pirate now. She was the legendary Kastra, steeling herself to crawl under the enemy’s noses to listen to their warlord’s plans. A hubbub of voices told her that the meeting of the warlord and his commanders was underway.
At the council tent, she rolled under the edge of the storm roof, which almost reached the ground. The shadows of seated adults dappled the wall. She lay on her stomach and pressed an ear to the canvas.
Grapple was speaking, his words quick and clear. “… smell of burn, sharp like spawn ash. Thirty feet up, the split widens to a crevasse.”
When Grapple told a story, there was no past or future, only now. His stories made Petra’s heart race.
“Isn’t that low for a nest?” That was the dark, grating voice of Gronnor, Tash of the Brok clan, and Otger’s uncle.
“Usually—but Commander Karl likes the look of it.” Karl was Petra’s father.
“Were there leavings?” asked Canuut Drakhorn, whose raiding days had ended when he’d lost an arm.
“Not a scrap to see,” said Grapple. “Karl sets five men as lookouts and six to cover the cave mouth with harpoon bows. I go up, take precautions. Wire net over the wide part of the opening. Then I’m inside with Karl, Fallon, and Swin. Nor sound nor sight, but a grotto sure enough, twenty feet wide, cozy as a tent, with a floor of dirt and sticks, tamped down. It stinks of the sulfur in the rock.”
Someone spoke too quietly for Petra to hear.
“Speak up, you,” shouted Elka Brok, an ancient whose ears weren’t the best.
“If a big ‘un came out, no place we could a’ hid.” Swin’s voice shook with excitement.
Petra grimaced. No kidding. A draken with a sixty foot wing-span in a cave that small …
Grapple continued. “Some way back, the grotto narrows, and the space is filled with dry branches, like they’ve fallen down the chimney from above.”
Muttering filled the tent and Petra’s heart began to thud. Dry branches piled at the back of the cave. That’s what the raiders had seen but not understood three years before, the day her brother had died.
“Karl gives the sign, and we get baffles and net up fast as blazes, thinking how a draken might explode out of those branches any second. That’s when I see the first sign of the others.”
“What? What was it?” asked Canuut. Petra could imagine his head thrust forward, eyes gleaming, long gray hair swishing past his shoulders. Nothing stirred Canuut like a tale of the hunt.
“A steel piton, and not mine,” said Grapple. “Someone’s put up a net in just that spot not long before.”
The mutters grew louder.
Swin said, “Then Fallon and I found the egg pod!”
“What, a whole one?” shouted Canuut.
“No, Canuut, scraps only,” said Grapple. “She’d made it of clay. Left impressions of two eggs. But they’re gone now. Then we find the second sign. Some fool has dropped his knife in a crack. The fool doesn’t have a hook like mine.” There was a sardonic grin in Grapple’s voice.
“Get on, Grapple,” said Gronnor, “You hooked out the knife, and?”
“And it bears the mark of the Flay clan.”
There followed a second of stunned silence, then a storm of hisses and curses and the sound of men spitting into their palms.
Canuut shouted, “By the devil’s ass, what’s them spawn-suckers doin’ in our patch?”
“And how did they know where to look?” said Grapple. “That’s what vexes Karl and me; how the hell did they know?”
Petra raised her body to rest on her forearms. Her mouth was open, her eyes wide. She wanted to spit and swear in sympathy with the men, but dared not make a sound. The Flays! Blood enemies since the days of kings; rich, greedy, and far stronger than the Drakhorns; reviled as the traitors who sixty years before had seized Cradle Rock—the ancient seat of Petra’s clan—leaving them homeless.
A cough in the shadows. Someone inside must be sitting against the tent wall there. A breeze with the damp of snow in it chilled Petra to the bone.
Gronnor was calling for silence.
“Did they get the eggs?” shouted Canuut.
“That’s not how it looks,” said Grapple. “We think the eggs are gone when the Flays arrive.”
“Two flights,” breathed Petra, her mind racing.
“Saw the buggers coming, clever bird,” hooted Canuut, in delight.
“That’s right, Canuut. The hen spies them and flies with her eggs. Two eggs, two flights.”
“You said you smelled spawn ash,” rumbled Gronnor. “What was that?”
“They shot her.”
Voices rose and jabbered. Shadows jostled on the tent wall.
“Shut up and let the man talk,” roared Gronnor.
Grapple continued. “The Flays must have been quick to reach the cave. As she flew with the second egg, they got her with a heavy bolt.”
“The burns—tell them about the burns,” piped Swin.
“From the grotto you can see the trees are burnt over in patches. In the nearest, the soil is burnt down to bare rock.”
“The hen fought?” said Gronnor, sounding worried.
“How could she?” whispered Petra.
“No,” said Grapple. “She bled as she flew. If she’d fought, there’d be no trees left. She couldn’t fight with an egg in her mouth.”
There was silence in the tent. Then Canuut spoke. “Trees burnt from blood, but she flew on. She’s fit.”
“Right, Cannut. She’s fit, and smart, too. That trick with the branches. Commander Karl is certain she’s Sadrak Nula.”
The babble of voices erupted once more. Petra pulled freezing hands into her coat sleeves and clenched them. Sadrak Nula—the draken who killed her brother.
When the noise abated, Grapple continued. “We follow the blood burns, but they vanish after a few miles. Karl figures Nula has crossed over the step into the upper gorge. We see tracks of the Flays—maybe thirty clansmen—but not at the cliff foot, so they likely went east.
“The cliff is not a hard climb, but that’s where the accident happens. Swin is on his way up, and Jorn is last to follow, collecting tackle as he goes.”
Petra breathed shallowly and dread mingled with the cold. Her uncle Jorn was weapons-master of the raid, and Tegan’s father.
Grapple’s voice grew doleful. “While we look down at them, the climbing rope fails at the anchor. How, I cannot fathom, for I set that anchor myself. Swin falls, catches on his cam, and Jorn takes his weight on the belaying rope.”
Petra had to strain to hear how the men had struggled on the cliff face, while Grapple raced down another rope.
“Well, just before I reach them, the second cam fails, and they fall,” said Grapple. “Swin breaks his leg bad and Jorn lands on the tackle pack.”
“Spit it out man, how is he?” said Rachel Brael-Drackhorn. She was Petra’s grandmother, and the ranking Drakhorn in camp when her sons Ward and Karl were absent.
Petra held her breath. From the quiet, others were holding theirs as well.
“A splinter of rib must have gone into his lung, for he’s coughing blood. It’s for his sake we’re to fetch back Genna Stray.”
Petra slowly blew out her breath. That was why she hadn’t seen Tegan that evening. Grapple must have gone to her mum’s tent first. It had to be bad if they were going to take Elder Genna to treat him. Genna was the best at medicine, but too old for such a trek.
“Evil news. I knew it would be,” said Legless Cob, with satisfaction.
“And them Flay’s’ll have Nula’s eggs, gods curse them,” groaned Canuut.
“No!” barked Grapple. “Nula can’t have gone far, but she’s well hid. Remember, Karl has hunted her for twenty years. He knows her traces, knows her ways and wiles better’n any man alive. The Flays are well out of their patch, and don’t know her at all. Karl means to get her eggs, Flays be damned. But he’ll need every man we can spare.”
“I’ll go,” whispered Petra. She was shivering now.
It was back to shouting as men volunteered. Petra paid scant attention. One quandary loomed in her mind: how could she persuade them to take her?
She was about to retreat from her hiding place when the shouts grew heated.
“That’s too many young Drakhorns, Gronnor,” barked Rachel Brael.
“We’re deep in dung if we don’t make a snatch this year,” he answered.
“I didn’t hear you volunteer.”
“I’ll ask you women to keep your hissy clabber to yourselves,” snarled Gronnor. “You know damn well my leg’s too stiff.”
Petra scowled. Grandma Brael and Tash Gronnor had locked horns since the clans had joined. Petra wasn’t close to her austere grandmother, but it brought a flush of anger to hear Gronnor shout at her.
Rachel was undaunted. “What about your camp guards?”
“The camp needs guards,” roared Gronnor.
“Don’t shout at me! There’s Cort Brok and—”
“Picked to fetch the pack train for breaking camp.”
“Women and youngsters can go down for the mules. Petra would do it; Otger and Tegan also.”
Petra’s head shot up. No! That’s the wrong direction!
Boots crunched along the frosted path. They’d drawn level with her hiding place when the sneeze came, loud and sharp. But the sneeze was not hers. Surely it wasn’t even from inside the tent—it had come from the shadows under the storm roof. The boots stopped.
Another sneeze, stifled but unmistakable.
The edge of the storm roof lifted and a face peered under. Astonished eyes looked into Petra’s. Strong hands hauled her out. The face and hands were those of Dara Highland-Drakhorn, who taught in the school when she wasn’t tending the garden.
“A pleasant evening to you, Missus Highland,” said Petra, scrambling to her feet. “You didn’t see a braid-band on the path, did you? I was looking to see if it rolled—”
She stopped mid-lie, catching a movement behind the teacher’s back. Someone rolled out from under the storm roof and darted around the corner. Otger Brok.
“Miss Stray, I believe it is attached to your ear,” said Dara, smiling grimly. She gave Petra a clout on the ear that sent her sprawling.