The hail soon turned to snow, and the snow made progress hard. Though the wind kept the ridge-top bare enough to walk in daylight, the company had to wait out godshade. Then, they shivered and bickered. Hunger made them irritable. Along with the fence, the rock worm had swallowed half their remaining food.
As evening light faded, Petra stopped to check the waymap. Powdery snow hissed across the pages.
Canuut peered over her shoulder. “See how narrow it is, and sheer? Too much risk of stepping wrong in this. We’d best make camp, hope it lets up.”
It was the first time they’d had to use tents. Petra’s was a ‘two-in-a-pinch’, the smallest Tegan had found in stores. Canuut had his old one-man scouting tent. Otger had brought a light tent made for a camper no taller than himself. And Cort had brought no tent at all, because he’d been sleeping in shelters when he met Canuut. They pitched the three tents in the lee of a rock, where drifting snow would insulate them. Mistake got a nook that was out of the wind, and his robe and bundles of brushwood tied around him. Though hunger made him surly, he didn’t seem to mind the cold.
Once the tents were up, the companions stood huddled against the sheltering rock. Canuut warmed jambis in his porta-fire kettle.
Petra tried some. The first sip made her cough and turn red. The second went like fire down her throat and gave her hiccups. The third spread heat from her toes to the tips of her ears. She had to admit there was something to it. By the time she’d drunk her cup, the ground felt unsteady underfoot, and drowsiness lay like a blanket on her thoughts.
Canuut, Cort, and Otger argued about who should sleep in which tent. Their voices thumped in Petra’s ears like sounds heard underwater, sounds without meaning. The jambis made a sourness in her gut.
Suddenly the warmth she’d felt was replaced by a prickly heat that came in waves. She took deep breaths, trying to ease the queasiness. The last thing she needed was to throw up the little she’d eaten. Panting, she unrolled her sleeping bag and stuffed her coat into the foot of it. She nearly fell while taking off her boots. After pulling the bag up around herself, she sat down in the snow, then slid into her tent.
Cort raised his voice. “I’ll make do without,” he said, with an air of noble sacrifice. “I’ll be fine between your tent and the rock, Petra.”
“Oh, get inside, Cort,” ordered Petra, peering around the tent flap. “Don’t waste time. I want to sleep.” She slid back inside.
Canuut objected. “You take mine, Petra; Cort’n I’ll—”
“You’d just burst it,” shouted Petra. “You and Otger each get a dog. That’ll be tight enough.”
She closed her eyes. Gods, please let me not throw up.
Sleep whirled her around like a flake in a snow twister.
She half-woke when Cort slid his bag and himself in, then drifted off again to the hiss of snow on canvas and the jostles relayed from tent to tent as her companions arranged themselves.
She imagined the tents joggling down a cascade of snowy foam like the three Clash stomachs in the brook, herself a bit of yolk along for the ride. They whirled through eddies and a bubbling undertow that drew them deep into the warmth of her dream pool, where formless shadows moved.
There they jostled it, and it opened green-gold eyes and looked at her, and its breath blew warm against her cheek.
Petra’s eyes blinked open. She stared straight up, rigid with fright. Where was she? The light was dim and the hiss faint. She turned her head slowly, slowly to the side. Shadows resolved into a nose, parted lips. Cort’s face!
It came back in confused relief. Of course, the tent—and Cort. She’d invited him.
Invited him. She was sharing a tent with Cort. The darkness was suddenly hotter with a damp, uncomfortable heat. It was unfitting. It was … not even possible.
At the edge of thought, a woman kneeling rod-straight on a cushion. Her mother hadn’t entered her thoughts for days. She pushed the intrusion away, breathed slowly, relaxed her muscles.
Hadn’t they all huddled close for warmth before? She hadn’t felt much warmth then. The tent was better. She could feel the warmth of Cort’s body, the warmth of his breath, the closeness of him.
There was no threat in Cort’s closeness. Hadn’t he been Tarran’s friend? Hadn’t he pulled her from the mill of teeth? He’d killed those spiders in the Rull, too. He was steadfast, loyal, and brave. He was a hero, like Kastra. He was the boy who thought her terrific; the handsome youth who’d said she was beautiful and special, like Herm’s daughter; who’d said he liked her.
With each breath on her cheek her heart beat harder.
The light meant she’d hardly slept. She must sleep so she could keep up, reach her father and the raid, before …
What if she’d made a terrible mistake? Cort said Gronnor hated the Flays. Maybe Flays—not Gronnor—had killed Lucan. She’d just misunderstood, like she’d misunderstood the map. How disappointed Ward and her father would be. She swallowed, her throat tightening with anguish.
The hiss of snow was like the hiss of Cort’s sword when he’d freed her from the worm—the sword he’d won for killing Flays. She’d seen him practice swordplay with the men, bronzed muscles glistening in the sun. She’d stared, reluctantly, fascinated.
It was too warm in the tent. Her heart thumped, beating like the waterfall into the pool. Her thoughts spun and blundered into each other. She brought the waymap into her mind, made it float there and counted the ways. The map turned slowly in the bubbles of her thought, like a stomach after Clash.
Her eyes flicked open, alert, confused. In the close darkness, the hiss was a whisper. Something heavy had fallen across her thigh. It took a moment to understand that it was Cort’s leg. His sleeping bag was undone; the heat in the tent was driving him out of it. In a moment Petra’s heart was pounding fit to burst. What was wrong with her? Why could she not control her own heart? Anger woke her more fully.
Cort was blowing in her ear. She teased the hood of her bag between his face and hers. She tilted her knees to slide his leg off, but the bag prevented it. It took minutes to open the bag’s clasps, then to shift his leg, which seemed to weigh as much as she did. It would not straighten out, but butted her with its knee.
She let the map float up again, the beautiful Drakhorn waymap, with its threaded stories and one-eyed Herms. The waymap she’d stolen. Gronnor would kill her for stealing that map. He’d snap her neck like a twig. Even Ward or her father would.
They’d leave her to lie unsung with it, deep in the warmth of the whispering pool.
Petra’s eyes snapped open. Something heavy had dropped on her and lay diagonally from chest to hip. It was hot, dark, and silent but for the breathing near her ear.
It was Cort’s arm that lay across her. Her bag was open now, and only a woolen jumper, two shirts, and an undershirt lay between his hand and her skin. The babble of thoughts rose unbidden, and her heart began to hammer.
He’d said her hair was like Kastra’s. He’d said she was graceful and bendy and svelt. Wouldn’t a boy want to kiss a girl who looked like that? A girl who looked like Herm’s daughter? Anyone would.
Her heart was pounding like it would leap out of her throat, like it had pounded when she was about to be whipped. What was she thinking? Stupid, pointless thoughts. She had to drown them, had to sleep. She made herself think of goats and sheep.
A sunny day drifted up from the pool, a day she’d detoured to mid-eastern pasture because one of the ewes was ill. She’d peeked through a split in the shelter door to see if the roster shepherdess was there, and she was, and a boy cousin too. They were embracing—kissing. The boy’s hand stroked the bare skin under the girl’s shirt.
Cort’s arm shifted, drawing his hand across her belly.
Petra’s heart was crashing in her chest, her breath trembling in her throat.
Would he kiss her, if she let him? He must have kissed other girls. He was seventeen, after all. Perhaps he’d even lain with one. She’d heard the boys found opportunities at Winter Camp, with the unschooled girls of poorer clans, with the bored, pale daughters of the downland traders whose tents sprouted like toadstools at the fringe.
The skin of that girl’s back, where the boy’s fingers had caressed it, was as smooth as ewes’ cream, and unblemished. Her own bore a spiderweb of scars, the indelible memory of Gronnor’s silken lash. No boy would want to caress that skin. No boy would want to kiss a girl who bore that mark of shame.
The thoughts bubbled like overcooked curd in a vat. A black fury boiled up with them. For this she was missing precious sleep. For this she might stumble off a cliff and ruin everything. She shoved Cort’s arm off and turned her back to him.
Cort began to snore.