The next morning, Gronnor retrieved the earring from the dust in the corner of his tent. Calmer now, he slipped it on. An icy cold pervaded him. Blurred shapes surrounded him. The number that counted the span of the dragonfly’s life had diminished by fully a quarter since the hunt began. Disgusted, he returned the ring to the casket in his desk. There was nothing to be done until the dragonfly had repaired Lucan’s corpse, or decided it was beyond salvaging.
A knock on his Herm post. It was time.
He seated himself behind his desk, closed his eyes, took three deep breaths. Banish the frustration, the anger.
Three more breaths.
Why did he hesitate? There was nothing at stake, yet he felt he was about to fight a duel. He had the power in this miserable chicken run, yet he felt like a kid under censure.
He reached for an apricot pit, then dropped the pit, drew back his hand.
“Come in,” he said, making his voice flat, his face a mask, his heart, granite.
Jess Stray entered first. The elder moved with calm assurance, but did not acknowledge him. Her shift was blood-red and threaded with gold, a silver and greenstone larch spray at the shoulder—the colors of her clans. She knelt on a cushion to one side of the door.
Elka Brok shuffled in next. That ancient’s eyes glittered like black marbles in the withered potato of her face. She wore a drab sack tunic, without a speck of Brok blue. The corner of Gronnor’s mouth twitched, but he remained impassive. Old potato-face would surely die soon, anyway. She creaked onto a cushion at the other side of the door.
Then came Tegan. His betrothed. His bride-to-be.
She had asked for the meeting. He had insisted on the chaperones.
Tegan ducked her head in recognition of his age and rank, then knelt on the cushion before his desk, her hands resting on her knees.
Gronnor recognized the shift she wore: a simple tunic over a shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows, and loose camp trousers; some boy’s outgrown jerkin on top. Her unbraided hair was tied back with a green band. The only jewelry he could see, and the only clan emblem, was a silver larch cone on a chain about her neck. These were the clothes she wore for dairy chores.
She had not changed for the meeting, yet it was as though a bit of the sun had come in with her.
She’d got some sleep, it looked like. Her cheeks had color again, and her eyes, warm brown with hints of green, were brighter. They were truly beautiful, those eyes. They looked at him with calm frankness, and without obvious fear—or disdain. That was not how children looked at Gronnor Brok. That was not how anyone looked at him. Her gaze unsettled him.
But he said nothing.
Tegan said nothing.
She kept straight-backed and still. Petra had faced him and his silken lash that way too, he remembered. Yet there was a difference. In Petra, every fiber had been tensed for flight or battle. He’d seen her terror, and her courage. Tegan was as still as a pool on a calm summer day. As still as a draken before she killed all within reach. Tegan must be afraid, but her fear was hidden in that stillness. As her knife would be, if she had one.
Perhaps it was the thought of the knife that brought his gaze down. Strong, slender arms. Skin a creamy, honey brown, and flawless. Perfectly shaped hands. A pretty figure. She had good hips for a girl of fourteen.
Gods. By conquest and by law, this girl was his.
His heart banged harder than it should. He felt heat rise to his face. He beat the thought down, but anger woke instead—anger at himself, anger despite himself. Gods damn him, and damn the gods who’d made him. She was a worthy prize by any measure, but just a means to an end, and he must not forget that.
Stone face. Granite heart.
A quick knock, and a Brok girl ducked in, balancing a tea service on a tray. The girl arranged the service on his desk, then backed quickly and gracelessly out.
Seconds later, he saw his error. Of course the serving girl had assumed that Tegan would pour the tea.
Tegan knelt on her cushion as still as before, her eyes on Gronnor’s. She hadn’t glanced at the tea service.
The seconds ticked by. Old Elka’s eyes glittered with amusement.
He could yell for the stupid girl to come back. He could order Tegan to serve. But he wouldn’t. It almost made him smile. This was better than sniveling and tears.
Tegan spoke. “Tash Gronnor, Elder Genna should reach raid camp soon. Please let Elder Jess send a message to her for the men to return before the Flays reach our summer camp.”
That drew a gasp from Jess. The woman stared at Tegan with astonished eyes.
Gronnor’s own eyes narrowed. Evidently Tegan had worked out why he had Jess watched night and day. There was no point prevaricating. “Why would I allow that?”
“To save your soul and the honor of your kin,” said Tegan.
Well. Whatever he’d expected, it wasn’t bloody religion. He grunted. “To foes and sycophants alike, my soul is forfeit, whatever I do. As for the Broks—all that I have done in their name falls within the letter of the Law of War, save perhaps my leading your gull of a Tash by the nose.”
“You’ve broken with the League,” said Jess, from her corner.
“Silence,” barked Gronnor. It was not her place to speak.
Tegan spoke softly. “It isn’t too late. Don’t you already have what you want?”
Gronnor’s lips curled in a sneer. “Not enough. Would I do this for mere chattels—trinkets and girls?”
“Tash Ward and Uncle Karl might beat the Flays in the Blood Gorge.”
“Irrelevant. They’ll return to an empty valley.” He didn’t say to a burnt camp and the graves of its Drakhorn men and older boys. But Tegan was smart enough to know.
She blinked and swallowed.
Gronnor saw the tremor in her stillness. He had learned to enjoy the fear in the eyes of others. But in the eyes of this girl, there was still no fear of him, no hatred, but something nearer to pity. It was worse than the looks of the kin who had shunned him as a child, before he had learned to discipline his mind and his ungainly body. He had beaten the sneers off their faces, but he couldn’t beat pity out of Tegan.
That look made him want to justify himself. “War between the Flays and Drakhorns was inevitable. I am simply hastening its conclusion, with less risk to the children and women.”
“But you’ve sided with the most vicious—”
“The only side is mine,” barked Gronnor. He tapped his desk for emphasis. “I chose the better of two weapons, that is all. We karlmen have bred like maggots, and like maggots, have consumed all that sustains us. We’ve hunted the draks to extinction, and now must choose a different way of life. Fools like Ward don’t see it. I do. To survive, the clans must unite, and under stronger leadership, stake a greater claim.”
“It can’t be that easy,” said Tegan. “You’ll be opposed by the League and by the Strays. You wouldn’t bother with sham council decisions or chaperones unless you care what other clans hear and think.”
Gronnor heard the tremor in her voice, now. Nothing could prepare her to be barked at by a man who had arranged the death of her father, the rape and slaughter of her cousins, and who would make her his unwilling bride. He relaxed his face and lowered his voice.
“Tegan, from Clash you know that every advantage must be played. Only a fool would count on force alone. I will give the League’s council of old women reasons to waste time in empty clabber. As for the Strays—they’ll know that I hold several of their daughters and granddaughters hostage, and they’ll keep their demons leashed.”
“Then why not let the Drakhorn men and boys go, before—”
“Some would harass us. Some would reach Winter Camp and petition the League. I would be seen as irresolute. No.”
“The Flays won’t honor their covenant.”
Tegan’s voice shook. Gronnor’s words were smacking the sunlight and stillness out of her. With anyone else, he would have enjoyed that. But this was making a sourness in his gut, like apricot pits.
Elka was staring at her withered hands.
Jess Stray’s glare might give a man nightmares. But it was unlikely that she had any demons on a leash. Over-generous with friends in other clans, Ward had allowed his own clan to slip dangerously into debt with the demonkind. Optimistic fool.
Godshade was coming. Best to finish this before Tegan declined to light his goddamn lamp.
He said, as gently as he could, “The Flays are a shallow people, easily manipulated. For them, it is important that a man display the trappings of his status. They are impressed by treasure, horses, a young and pretty wife taken from an ancient clan. You, Tegan, will be the jewel in my crown. You will dazzle them. Their awe will help you to protect the other Drakhorn girls and women.”
Tegan rubbed her palms on her tunic. “Why would you trust me to show off to the Flays—to do anything but kill you if I can?”
Gronnor smiled at her frankness. He liked it. “Because I have your mother and your kin, and their deaths will be hideous if you disobey, or if aught befall me.”
Tegan swallowed and drew a shaky breath; squared her shoulders. “Tash, you know that I’m unwilling. If … if you’d let the men have a chance, then I’d more willingly give myself—”
“Tegan!” exclaimed Jess and Elka, in one voice.
The chaperones had cause. He thought Tegan might have gone on anyway, but he gave a slight shake of his head, stopping her. Her stillness was gone. She held his eyes, which must have been hard for her, but she had begun to tremble and blink back tears.
Time to end this.
“Tegan, you have an acting role to perform, no more. Understand, I will not require you to share my bed. You have my promise on that. When I die, you will inherit what I have and be at liberty. I do not expect you to enjoy your role. I do not expect you to do other than despise me. I expect you only to do your duty under the law—to your Tash, your husband, and your marriage clan. And to your remaining kin.”
Petra woke to the moan of wind, a mournful sound.
She was hunched over her knees. Parts of her were cold, parts were freezing, and all of her was wet. She blinked groggily and tried to raise her head. The back of it struck stone. A sound had woken her. To one side slumped Canuut, and that was Otger with his head on her shoulder. Across her feet lay Bane. Jakko lay across those of Otger and Cort.
Wind moaned across the cave mouth like a voice. Outside, daylight dappled and bloomed. Sunlight and clouds—the storm had passed.
It came back then: the climb out of the Rull in the howling night, in torrents of rain, seeing their way by flashes of lightning, crawling at last under an overhang of rock, like dying beetles.
Petra rested her head on her knees.
How valiant her companions had been—especially Canuut, who’d found a way to safety, but abandoned it to face Lucan. She could imagine what he thought of her now: Petra the Drakhorn ‘princess’, Petra the proud Clash Leader, Petra the would-be scout—who’d led them into such a nightmare. And she’d done it because of a glance at a map she hadn’t understood.
Petra who’d been taught the silk for leading her flock into disaster.
Now they were stranded beside a drowned trail, with few supplies, without tents, and without a mule. She felt a hot prickling at the corners of her eyes at the thought of Mistake. She’d grown fond of the bad-tempered half-metal beast, perhaps because they were alike—creatures who didn’t know what they were good for. She offered a silent prayer to Herm for him.
She thought of Tegan held prisoner in camp. She’d let Tegan down, too. Left her only real friend in the clutches of a monster.
Cloud shadow came and went, and the wind bore a mournful howl.
Petra’s head snapped up, the back of it whacking stone. “Ow! It’s Mistake! Hey everyone, wake up—Mistake is alive!”
The wind carried the smell of snow and grass.
They’d reached the eastern ridge-top after a panting climb up the ravine in which they’d found Mistake. Sun, wind, and exertion had dried their clothes, and warmth had raised their spirits. But Canuut, still angry, hadn’t spoken to Petra.
The torrent in the Rull would not abate for days, and the vale was too rocky to navigate, so they’d no choice but to try their luck on the ridge. Now Canuut squinted eastward into the mid-morning sun, looking for landmarks. The breeze whipped his gray hair.
Petra pulled the waymap from her pack. Protected by its leather wrap, it was only damp. She offered it to Canuut.
His eyebrows shot up. “Herm’s twitching fingers—I should’a figured. D’ya know the penalty for stealing a waymap?”
“Death,” said Petra, meeting his gaze. Clan wars had been fought over less.
Canuut gave her a steely-eyed look. “Herm grant it soon to Gronnor, then. And did it not occur to you to share that bit o’ cleverness? D’you think me too blind and stupid to read it?”
Heat mounted to Petra’s face, though she’d prepared for this. “I wasn’t ready to trust all of us. But I was wrong to hide it and I’m ashamed.”
“Huh,” said Canuut. Then he did grin, and gave Petra such a thump on the shoulder that she nearly dropped the book. He placed it open on a stone and the four crowded around. His finger traced the Rull. “Here we are, just past this bit o’ tunnel.”
Not far ahead, the Rull would vanish underground again and continue that way for miles. Had the flood caught them in that stretch, they would have drowned.
“And that’s the Vale of Screams,” said Petra, glancing down the eastward slope. The valley’s broad floor was painted with the yellow-green of longer grass.
“It doesn’t look as bad as its name,” murmured Cort.
“Full o’ fenris ants, big as dogs,” said Canuut.
“Well, they aren’t that big,” said Otger. “But they’re fascinating creatures. They—”
“And wasps as long as your arm.”
“They’re pretty interesting, too. They—”
“But see on the map—there’s a cliff all along and no way down. And behind …” Canuut jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
To the southwest, Staffs Valley was bisected by an outcropping, its northern side a cliff. They’d passed under it in the Rull’s tunnel. With the Rull flooded, there was no way back. And if there was no way for them to go back, there was no easy way for Lucan to follow.
“There’s an old trail northeast along the ridge,” said Petra, peering at the map. “What are the ‘i’ marks with names beside?”
“Dead Drakhorns. They’re the Herm posts that mark the graves.”
Before they set off, Canuut insisted on a Service of Thanks. They offered Herm waybread—for that were precious—while Petra read from her Rites of Passage.