In the depths of Petra’s dream, light and shadow moved. It was warm in her dream pool, and would have been peaceful but for the pulse of ice-cold water pouring in. The water thumped into the pool with a sound like a giant heart beating, and its coldness eddied through the warmth. She resented it.
Something else down there resented it too, and opened its eyes.
She saw the eyes blink open, there in the darkness. They were huge and slitted like a cat’s—or a draken’s. The formless shadows around them resolved into a face. Lucan’s face. An icicle of fear stabbed through her.
The mouth beneath the eyes gaped blackly. Petra struggled to rise away from it, and came nearer to the tumble and judder of the waterfall. Gouts of icewater coiled around her, the cold cutting deep, splintering her bones.
Lucan’s face rose, frozen eyes holding her eyes, slack mouth hungry to join her mouth, dead lips straining to press against hers. Near the surface, his eyes gleamed green-gold in the light, and the gaping mouth was filled with icicle teeth.
Petra broke the surface and sat up with a yell.
She was wrapped in her sleeping bag, in a huddle of bodies. Cort’s sleep-bleared eyes blinked at her, and freezing rain dripped down her neck.
By midday, the rain had turned to hail that rattled on the ground and drummed on Mistake’s silvery flanks. As the hailstones grew pebble-sized, Cort pulled Petra into the lee of a rock thrusting up from the ridge-top.
Otger appeared out of the hissing gray, arms over his head.
“Go find your own rock,” shouted Cort. “No space here!” He chuckled as Otger fled after the vague forms of Canuut and the jackalute.
“There is enough space,” said Petra, scowling. To make the point, she slid away from Cort so that Bane could lie between.
Cort shrugged. “And there are plenty of rocks. He’d just bend our ears about Gronnor sending monsters after you.”
“Maybe I prefer that to you telling me what a sweet, misunderstood man he is.”
Cort gave her a lopsided grin. “Okay, point. He’s a sour man and a tyrant. If I sound like I’m defending him, it’s only because when things are dire, a clan needs a tyrant to survive. But I don’t want to talk about him. I just like to talk to you sometimes. Can’t get a word in edgewise when Otta’s nearby.”
Petra had to smile at that. There was no love lost between the cousins, and the impression had grown that each resented seeing the other talking to her. Cort was usually quicker. At rest stops, he’d appear beside her while Otger was still working out a cautious approach. Otger would watch them in his thoughtful way. To be free of both, she had to sit with Canuut. She couldn’t believe the confident Cort, or her owlish, erstwhile enemy were jealous—yet they behaved as though they were. The attention might have been irritating but that the stages of the trek were long and silent.
Restraining the urge to needle Cort, she took a breath. “Thanks for pulling me out back there—I’d have been sausage for sure.”
Cort grinned. “You’d have done the same. Canuut had to cut a tentacle off his own leg, or he’d have come after you. Otta too, only Canuut shoved him over a boulder.”
Petra blinked, surprised by the generosity. This wasn’t the sullen, hectoring Cort of recent days. This was more like the old Cort, the Cort who’d vanished with that slap. She probed further. “And thanks for not telling me I’d be safer from rock worms in camp.”
“Ah … well. I know you resent that. You think I’m mothering you, or in league with Gron.” Cort stared into the roaring, bouncing hail.
“It’s exactly what I said before: your safety means a lot to me.”
“Why?” asked Petra. It was selfish to ask, but she couldn’t help it. Her pulse quickened in anticipation.
Cort looked at her then, his eyes the gray of the cloud. “Because you mean a lot to me. Because I like you.”
Petra kept very still, her thoughts whirling. Perhaps she’d doubted him unfairly. Suddenly she wanted very much to believe so.
“And because of Tarran.”
Tarran! Her brother’s name was not what she’d expected.
“He was a good friend,” mused Cort. “A brother in spirit. You wouldn’t remember; you were nine or ten, and had your own gang. I first met Tarran at Winter Camp, and later I visited your summer camp with a scouting party.”
It came back with a shock. Any visit to the lonely summer camp was memorable. The gangling boy who’d come up the valley with three scouts—that was Cort? She remembered the hijinks at the welcome supper. But four years later, she’d not recognized that boy in the poised, handsome youth he’d become.
Cort continued. “Tarran practiced sword with me and we’d go hunting. He was a superb trailsman. And I remember his fierce little sister—all plans and action. You’d stand up to kids twice your size. I thought you were terrific.”
Petra felt a sudden prickling of her eyes. “Tarran never said …”
“I didn’t mention it because I knew it would hurt to be reminded—for me, too.”
They both stared in silence into the bleakness.
As her thoughts settled, a disconcerting niggle of doubt intruded. Did she mean a lot to Cort for her own sake, or for Tarran’s? She shook her head to banish the thought. It had no place near her brother’s memory.
“On the way back,” said Cort, “we were ambushed by Flay scouts. I managed to kill one, but Gron’s half-brother Garth died in the fight. Afterwards, Gron gave me this sword as a token for the one I shot. And he swore an oath to Herm that he’d kill any Flay he met. That’s why I don’t believe your theory that he’s in league with them.”
That took a moment to sink in. Of course Gronnor was in league with them. He had to be. But why was she so sure? Lucan dead in a pool and the Broks turning east, that’s why. But did that really mean what she thought it did? Gronnor’s sister was Tashara of the Flays—according to Otger. But did that really make him a traitor? Doubts began to whirl in her head, then anger.
The way Cort spoke, the things he said—like honey and vinegar mixed.
The hail had become as fine as the brook sand used for scouring pots. Petra rose and plunged into it.