Petra woke mid-morning to find herself squeezed together with Otger and other sleepers in the tower’s core. The place stank of drying blood.
The pre-dawn hours were as hazy in her memory as the air was now with mist and the smoke of smoldering junipers. She’d worked with Genna and Otger to bind the wounds of injured men and ease the pain of those who would die. Around her and on the knoll, the Drakhorn men had finished wounded juggers and salvaged what bolts they could. They’d butchered dead mules for trail meat.
That day, the exhausted raiders piled rocks for grave-cairns in daylight and in godshade. They pooled their coins. It was gold for dead Drakhorns, silver for Broks, and brass for the Flays. Petra’s father marked his fallen kinsmens’ names on his waymap.
Fallon Drakhorn and Cort Brok were not among the dead they found. Petra wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.
They buried Ward Drakhorn with his sword in his hands and the broken swords of the Flays at his feet. Karl spoke the first wayrite himself. Petra, standing beside Otger with a hand on Bane’s head, found she could not weep, though she’d loved Ward better than her parents. There were too many dead for weeping.
She and Genna read The Commander’s Passage and The Hero’s Way—fitting words for men who were half gods themselves. Yet as she spoke them, Petra remembered only how Ward had squatted with her to watch ants order their camps and their campaigns, and how he’d carried her on his shoulders.
Next morning, the raiders marched south toward their home camp, leaving behind a fortune in nest-raiding equipment that would have weighed them down. Their families were a week’s hard march away, and by then they all knew that their camp must be in the hands of the Flays.
Petra wanted to send the dragonfly back to camp ahead of them. Bes told her it would be only a day’s flight for the bug. But it had not flown five miles before it encountered juggers. Hunting packs, Bes called them.
And worse, the juggers had bugs of their own, though they looked more like small hawks. Now and then, when the mist thinned, their shadows flickered overhead. The Blood Gorge was too narrow for the Drakhorns to safely evade the juggers without the dragonfly to guide them. So the dragonfly stayed with the raiders, spying ahead for jugger scouts and killing or confusing hawks that flew too close.
“Pitiful, false-bred things,” said Bes, dismissively.
Petra kicked at the carcass of one. Its black feathers were metallic, like the thinnest of knives. Its beak was serrated and its tongue a poisonous whip. It made her shudder.
Fortunately, as the raiders descended southward along the gorge, the mist thickened, hiding them. The sheer wall of Karlward towered a mile high beside them, but they saw only the talus at its base. At first, Petra could outpace the men. She and Bane hunted rabbits for them. But when they turned west into the bone field beneath the brutal, ruined grandeur of Karlward Gate, the strange fire of the cintabrax in her blood died, and she had to ride spells on a mule. The skinny mule stumbling under her weight brought Mistake to mind. Had he died, or was he still wandering in the wasteland?
The march was grueling, and afterward Petra remembered little of it. Her father and Jorn set a furious pace. The raiders were allowed three hours sleep each night, and after breakfast Karl made them chant the Warrior’s Way. He admitted he was grateful for the presence of Bes, whose tarp-wrapped body was part of the baggage. With the tireless dragonfly circling the waycamp, there was no need for fences or a watch.
Any mule that died of exhaustion was butchered for trail meat, and baggage left behind. Two wounded men died, and were buried. Of Ward’s and her father’s fifty raiders, twenty-seven were marching now, plus herself, Otger, and Genna. Six dogs only had survived the fight, Bane among them.
Still they did not slacken the pace. The exhaustion was unbearable, and Petra had to remind herself often that Tegan’s fifteenth birthday—and her wedding to Gronnor—were only days away. She didn’t know how Genna managed. The elder bumped along, hunched and cloaked on a mule, and could not dismount without help. Petra and Otger took turns to sit behind with their arms around the old woman to keep her from falling off.
As Petra rode, dread cinched tighter in her gut. However fast they went, it seemed too slow. She tried to talk to Genna, but her grandaunt was weak, and said little.
“Is there any chance the demons would answer you?” Petra asked, persistent. “Could you try after the next rest?”
“Rest!” croaked Genna. She coughed, her thin shoulders jerking. Perhaps it was a laugh. “I’d need peace. Stillness. Fire. I’d just keel over.”
“I could ask father to—”
“It would do no good. At raid camp, I tried to reach Jess, but she didn’t answer. The numina of the place were silent. They wouldn’t answer.”
Petra understood. The Flays had paid for their silence. And Elder Jess must be a prisoner—or dead. “What about … stronger ones? Demons that could stop the Flays?“
“A Motive or a Punisher. I’ve never traded with one, dear, and I don’t know how I would. We can’t afford their kind.” Genna coughed again, a racking cough that doubled her over. She would say nothing after that.
Fighting tiredness, Petra brought the lost waymap into her mind. It floated there, as clear as if it were open in front of her. She saw every trail between the Cradle—the nearest Flay stronghold—and the Drakhorn camp, though she’d hardly glanced at those pages. She saw every margin note she hadn’t read. For a second she thought Bes was doing it, then remembered that he’d never seen the waymap. She’d always had a good eye for maps, but this was strange.
She closed her eyes and considered the distances. The Flays would need many mules to take the Drakhorn women, children, and enough supplies back to their stronghold. How soon after their raiders had taken the camp would their pack train arrive? Likely a week later, ten days at most.
Petra blinked tears of frustration. Her father’s raiders would be too late. By the time they got there, the Flays would have taken whom they wanted and killed the rest. There’d be nothing but ashes to mourn.
That night, on a fogbound island in the middle of the frozen Drood, with the cracking of ice and the snorts of sleeping men and mules the only sounds, she sat upright to keep herself awake. Bane lay under her legs. By the spider light cupped in her hand, she could see Genna and Otger in their bags to either side.
She could send the dragonfly back to camp. She could try, but they were still close to Karlward, and Bes had refused before. Perhaps there was another way.
“Would you talk to the demons for me—the other demons?”
A silence of several heartbeats. “Why?”
“To ask them to interfere with the Flays. I bet you know how.”
“Bad idea. Very. For me to reveal myself would bring attention of the worst kind.”
Petra clenched her jaw and scowled. “If you don’t, everyone in our camp will be taken or killed. You must.”
“No.” Bes’ thought impressions were knife-sharp in Petra’s mind. “You don’t get it. I’m very old. A ‘bent weapon’, as your lizard friend said. Whatever the rules were then or are now, my existence breaks them. It won’t be some mindless Punisher that comes. It’ll be something that doesn’t care jack about Drakhorns.”
Petra said aloud, “If you won’t, I will.”
Another heartbeat’s silence. “You!” The impression of a scornful laugh. “You’re still a kid. You can’t. Leave the demonkind to me and get some sleep.”
But Petra had heard the hesitation. Bes was lying. If she could talk to him, then why not to others? Her clanmarks were flawless. Genna had said she’d be able to do it. And she had something her grandaunt had never had: two whole grains of ‘brax.
Petra sat straight, took a breath, then blew it out as fog. She fixed her gaze on the black ice at the edge of her pool of light, pushed Bes from her thoughts, then shouted inside her head. “Demons, if you’re out there, listen. I’m Petra Stray-Drakhorn. I want to talk to you.”
The noise Bes made in her head was like a kettle squealing. “Piss! Stop! Shut up!” His voice grew small and distant.
Petra made her inner voice ring clear, as she had learned to when speaking to Bes and Nula. “Demons, I want to trade.”
Bes was gone, his absence like a hole. She’d forgotten what it was like not to have him in her head.
“I heard you, Petra Stray-Drakhorn. It’s about time you woke up.”
The voice was like ice grinding, yet crystal clear. Like it was right in Petra’s ears and all around her. She swallowed, then whispered, “I’m Petra, and I—”
“Got it the first time. For what would you trade?”
“I … who are—”
“Better not ask. It’s dangerous to know.”
Petra blinked. Think, Petra. Demand, don’t ask. Never take advice. Never take something for nothing. She tried again. “Show yourself, then. I should know who I’m dealing with.”
There came a crackling noise so loud it must wake the dead, yet none of the sleepers stirred. From the black ice near her feet rose a ring of spikes like wolf’s teeth made of glass, and under that crown, a skull dressed in transparent, icy flesh. Sapphire eyes twinkled under hoary brows. The nose was rain-pocked; the ears, half-melted. The grinning mouth was filled with icicle teeth. From the mouth a liquid tongue poured out, then flicked back in.
“State your trade,” the demon said. It spoke aloud.
Petra’s heart was hammering. The hand that held the candle shook. She breathed the cold air and calmed herself. “There are Flays with a mule train approaching our summer camp.”
The demon’s grin grew wider.
“I want a fog to hold them up for a week. Can you do that? I can pay.”
The demon’s tongue flicked out and in. “The least of my servants could do that. How about lightning? I could blast them with lightning.”
“Flaming hail. A firestorm of molten rock.”
Petra made her eyes hard. It was a trick. It couldn’t be that easy, or the Flays would have done it. “Fog. That’s what I want, demon. Just fog to stop them from reaching camp before us.”
The demon shrugged its drooping ears. “Suit yourself. What do you offer?”
Petra swallowed. The ground seemed to tilt under her. She should bargain, that’s what Genna did, but she had no idea where to start. “Uh … ‘brax … a fair price for fog.”
“One one hundredth of a grain. Done.”
Petra swallowed, and held onto the ground with one hand while the candle trembled in the other. The world slowly tilted and spun. She wasn’t sure what had happened. The price seemed low enough, though she hadn’t bargained at all.
The demon regarded her with twinkling eyes. In those eyes was calculation, and … curiosity? Fog blew from between its frozen, grinning lips. Its breath was a whisper from a deep place.
“Uh … thank—” began Petra.
“You’ll learn, Petra Stray-Drakhorn. I think we’ll do business again.” With a crack, the demon’s head shattered, spraying Petra and her sleeping companions with ice shards.
Petra stared at the hole the demon had risen from, as it slowly filled with water.
Two days later, at the place where their trail joined the Rull of Staffs, they found Mistake. The jackalute’s flanks were scarred and he looked half-starved. But he was as happy as a puppy to see Petra, and gently touched noses with Bane.
Scrabble Valley was filled with mist. Only the lone spur that crossed it showed through. The cold air was absolutely still. From a cloudless sky, the sun burned down on fog that filled the broad valley as far south as the eye could see—heavy and still, like a sea of milk. The men knuckled their foreheads and muttered, and passed along the spur as quickly as they could.