Petra counted the kin horsing around in the school tent. There were seventeen left in the Drakhorn team, including the two stationed outside, herself, and Tegan. Petra was the oldest. Fallon had pulled her most experienced players.
She closed her eyes and blew out a breath. She had to face facts; her team would likely be crushed. But this was her best chance to convince Ward and Gronnor that she was ready for the field. Winning would at least quash one argument against it. She and her team still had to give it all they had.
And use any advantage they had.
She glanced around again. Nothing but kin, cushions, and the teacher’s storage bench—the one piece of solid furniture. What odds there’s someone inside?
Tegan ducked into the tent and put her backpack with the others. “It still shows,” she said, inspecting Petra’s ears.
Petra pulled her wooly hat over them. “Better?”
Tegan nodded. “My spies say Otger’s being the draken, like me, and having Borak and Bruno be raid commanders.”
That was interesting. It was unusual for a Clash Leader to play the draken. What was he up to? Last match, when Otger had been raid commander, he’d almost cost her the win. He’d left her trussed and suspended from a cave roof by her feet, like a carrion bat. The Broks had lost anyway, but not because of Otger.
Tegan continued. “He just kicked Bull off the team, and guess who he’s pulled back to the nest?”
When Tegan told her, Petra narrowed her eyes in disbelief. They were two of his best. “But why?”
Tegan shrugged. “Maybe to equalize—since you lost three.”
Petra shook her head. “No way would that weasel put an easy win at risk. He’s having discipline problems, or … yes—making his nest a fortress because our offense is weak.”
Her clashers were beating each other with the school’s cushions. It was time.
When the kin had gathered, she unwound an oilcloth from a bundle on the floor. Inside was a goat’s stomach filled with putrid curd. Tegan had painted the blob with the crimson and gold of the clan. A nauseating stink diffused from it. The youngest kin held their noses.
Petra lifted the stomach by a gut loop at one end. “Victory means to snatch Otger’s draken egg and hang onto ours. The worst defeat would be for the Bugs to snatch our egg before it even reaches the nest.” ‘Bugs’ was Petra’s war name for the Broks, because of the blue dragonfly on their clan crest.
She reviewed the rules for the benefit of the youngest players—the nestlings and fledglings. There were few rules in Clash. Mostly, she tried to stoke determination. Grapple’s news and the loss of the older boys made that hard.
“I’ll form a raid team when our scouts find Otger’s nest. There’s a lot of ground to search, so scouting efficiency is vital. Keep to the search areas I’ll assign. Railan, how big’s the Clash ground?”
“A square mile—brook bordering the west, camp field to the north,” barked Railan. He was twelve and a flight leader.
“If you leave it?”
“Disqualified!” shouted Railan.
“And if you return?”
She glanced at the teacher’s bench and raised her voice. “There’ll be three flights this time—two with decoy eggs. Only the real one stinks, and dogs can smell it through tarp.” She lowered her voice again. “That’s why we’ll wrap the decoys in the smelly tarps we took off the real egg, and wrap the real one in fresh tarp. Tegan will do the wrapping. Flight teams won’t know whether their egg’s real or a decoy, so you’d better each believe you’ve got the real one and defend it to the death.”
Petra shifted her gaze to each clasher in turn. “You may use only your wits and the weapons you’re given. Border sentinels won’t interfere except for serious injury or a predator.”
“What about the twins?” asked Senna. “Their fists are serious weapons.” Senna was thirteen, calm, and sensible. She meant Borak and Bruno, Otger’s raid commanders.
“The bigger they are, the easier to hit. You have blood flails and blood bombs.”
“They’ll fight after they’re blooded,” protested Railan.
Petra shrugged. “So will we. If you’re attacked, destroy your egg rather than allow it to be captured. If you see a spider, let your dog deal with it and run. Use your horns so I know what’s happening. Clear?”
The older kin nodded gravely. The fledglings and the only nestling watched with big eyes.
“Liam, you’re with me,” said Tegan to the nestling, a boy of six.
Petra spread her map of the Clash ground on the floor. Then she winked at Liam—his cue.
Liam sidled to the teacher’s storage bench, peeked inside, then let out a yell.
Petra strode to the bench, then shoved it with her foot. The bench fell over and out spilled a boy. She’d guessed right.
“Get up, spy,” she shouted.
“I can’t,” groaned the boy. “I’m all cramped.”
He lay on his side with his knees drawn up. The Drakhorns crowded around, prodding him with their toes.
“It’s Tims Brok,” said Railan.
“How long have you been in there?” demanded Petra.
“Hours and hours. I lost track.”
“He’s heard everything,” said one of the scouts. “We have to kill him.”
Petra glared at the spy. “Flight leaders, remove his boots and blood him.”
The kin boys hauled the bootless Tims out of the tent and poured drak ‘blood’ over his head and clothes. Tims crawled away, leaving a bloody trail.
There was hardly time left to assign search areas to the scouts and routes to the flight teams. The midday bell sounded just as Petra finished. The Clash had begun.
Petra moved like smoke in the darkness. Dark-clothed, scarf and hood leaving only a slit for her eyes, she was the owl, the huntress. She was Kastra, lithe and deadly, tracking juggers.
Until she heard the screams.
All was silent but for a child’s screams, now mingled with dog barks and the shouts of boys. Petra climbed the shadowed face of a boulder, cat-slow when she came into moonlight. Movement eastward up the valley slope: a Drakhorn flight under attack before they reached their nest. Fortunately, that flight was carrying a false egg.
She slipped down from the boulder and ran toward the screams.
A weeping huddle proved to be Briar, youngest in the flight. Across a mess of fresh curd, chunky and pale like vomit, Railan lay groaning, with Senna crouched beside him.
“What happened?” whispered Petra.
“A Bug jumped us,” said Senna. “He had stripes on his clothes that made him look like a glow-wolf spider. Briar freaked out. When we realized he wasn’t a spider, Railan fought him. Then Bruno showed up. He beat up Railan, then came after me, so I burst the egg on him.”
“He said he’d kill Senna,” sobbed Briar.
“I blooded him,” wheezed Railan, “blooded him good.”
Petra said nothing. Blood-deaths were only tallied if both true eggs were taken, or both destroyed. She climbed a boulder. Godshade was ending; it was the best time to observe. Nestled among thistles, she surveyed the rocky slope. Was it just bad luck? It chilled her to think that her team had already come so close to disaster.
Cold sweat prickled her skin, and her heart began to thump. The light had come from Dragon’s Tooth. She leveled her spyglass. The tilted splinter of rock loomed huge in the lens, scrub that climbed its back a blur. Near the tip was the head and torso of someone lying among the bushes.
The figure, jumping with the throb of Petra’s pulse, lay on its front with elbows planted, holding a box—a dark-lantern. The Brok scout was signaling. And the scout was stationed right above the nest Petra had chosen for their draken and her true egg. No way could Tegan or the third flight team reach it without being spotted.
As the sky paled, Petra risked kneeling to look up and down the slope, training her spyglass on each high point in turn. She knew them like she knew the knuckles of her hand. There, on Giant’s Toe, a lump that didn’t belong. And on Troll Knoll, a shadow darker than the stone would be. Otger had stationed scouts on the important lookout points right across the Clash ground.
How had they reached them all without being attacked by her own scouts? Her skin prickled with embarrassed fury. The Broks hadn’t waited for the midday gong. Some must have entered the Clash ground early.
Sunlight blazed past the skyland’s edge. Petra scanned the gullies and paths to the north and south, along an imaginary line anchored by the attack on Railan’s flight. There: a flicker of movement between boulders; and there, a shaking of bush-tops; and there, pebbles rolling from a rocky cleft. The scurries made a line from the brook up to the eastern border of the ground. Otger’s raiders were walking in a line across it, each alone.
Alone. Like his spotters, they weren’t in pairs. Some must not even have dogs.
Damn Otger! He was counting on the Clash ground being clear of spiders. He was counting on the armed adults watching from the borders, the sentinels whose existence Petra determinedly ignored. He was using them.
Shouts echoed again in the valley. Petra nearly leapt to her feet, fearing the worst. But the commotion was not below Dragon’s Tooth. A striped figure raced down the slope and another hurried up it. More came into view, fighting. Then they were all together in a tangle.
The group separated. Four stood in a circle around three on the ground—the brave but beaten Drakhorns of the second decoy flight. Petra swore under her breath.
Then came a horn blast—hoarse, cut short. The horn belonged to one of her own scout pairs. The triumphant bellows that rose over it did not.
Despair rose like creeping ice, defeat like bile. Her plans were in ruins, her team being destroyed around her. The match had hardly begun and the Drakhorns were going down in utter defeat to Otger Brok.