Petra moved like smoke in the moonlight. Her mind worked out the angles, what could be seen from where. The Clash ground was both familiar and strange, like a place in a dream she’d come back to. But she was more awake than she’d been in days. Her father had allowed two extra hours of sleep before the raid on the camp.
After rising, the Drakhorns had sharpened blades until the eye watered to see them. With muscles tensing and tendons standing out, they’d quietly chanted the Rite of War.
“Will you kill them all?” Petra had asked her father.
He’d looked at her appraisingly. “We will kill no more than necessary, but neither will we hesitate. Men will die tonight.”
“I could kill them for you,” drummed Bes. “Bite them in their beds, no?”
Karl answered sternly: “We are not Broks or Flays. We stake our blood.”
“Same as ever,” said Bes, not grumbling.
“We’re coming, too,” said Petra, determinedly. “We’ve not come this far to hang back now.”
Otger had stood with her.
Then she’d learned how little she knew her father. He’d looked from one to the other. His lip had twitched. “It would waste rope and a man to leave you tied up here. But you must follow orders without question.”
He’d put her and Otger together with two scouts, Karlin and Lem. Karlin was in charge. Their job was to secure the eastern shelters. The first had been unguarded. Now they were drawing near the second. Petra concentrated on making no sound on the frosty ground, and winced at the scuffs and crunches of her companions.
Soon she was watching two Flays smoking with their backs to the mid-east shelter wall. Why two? The spot had a better view of the camp than of the eastern slope. It only made sense if they were guarding something—or someone.
Out of sight of the Flay guards, Karlin’s hands spoke the precise, silent language of nest raiders. He repeated his gestured orders twice, waiting until Petra and Otger each signaled understanding. Then he and Lem vanished into the dark, to circle around to the back of the shelter. Otger moved to station himself where he could see the southeast corner.
When they’d had enough time, Petra flicked a pebble across the shelter roof.
The response was fast. One Flay did as they’d anticipated and stepped around to the northern wall, toward the click of the stone’s landing. Karlin and Lem would be waiting for him. But the other turned south, then east, hugging the shelter wall.
Petra was moving in a heartbeat, whirling her hook. Like a ghost she dogged the man, and as he rounded the next corner, the hook turned around his ankles. She planted her feet and hauled. The man went down with a thump. In one swift motion, he rolled and sat up with a knife in his hand. But before he could do anything with it, Otger’s knife was at his throat.
Inside the shelter, huddled together for warmth, was a scruffy, smelly collection of prisoners. Tegan’s mum was there, and Elka Brok, and legless Cob without his chair. Dale and Danna, Senna, and Railan blinked sleepily at their liberators. Borak Brok was bruised and battered, and missing two teeth.
“We’re the resisters,” said Railan, proudly. “They just haven’t flayed us yet.”
“Ola would be here,” added Senna. “But Mollos keeps her chained in his tent. And Tegan’s in camp, too. Gronnor wanted her to look respectable for her wedding this morning.”
Tegan’s mum found her voice. “They have her chained, like Ola,” she croaked. Even in the dim light of a candle, her face looked bruised and gaunt. But in her eyes was a wild new hope.
“Where—in your tent?” asked Otger, quickly.
“No, in Gench and Ursil’s tent. That sow Ursil guards her. Gench stays with Mollos.”
Petra glanced at Otger with wide eyes. “And Gench’s tent is—”
“Right between Gronnor’s and the north fence,” said Otger.
“Wrong side,” muttered Karlin.
Karl and Jorn has guessed the Flays would use the council and school tents on the central avenue. When they struck, the Drakhorn men would go through the south fence, then surge between the Drakhorn tents to the avenue, hoping to put themselves between the Flays and the families.
“A hostage,” said Otger, voicing Petra’s fear.
Tegan’s mum was trying to stand. “And the chain … that chain runs into Gronnor’s tent.”
Petra looked at Otger, then at Karlin. “We have to get Tegan out before the attack.”
“Karl gave orders,” protested Karlin.
Otger whispered, harshly, “Karl didn’t know about Tegan.”
While Otger and Karlin argued in hushed voices, Petra spoke to Bes. “Where are the men? How close to camp?”
“Approaching from the south and west. They’ll wait for the moon’s eclipse. Forty minutes.”
Forty minutes—she and Otger would barely have time to reach Tegan before the attack woke Gronnor. “And the bug?”
“A few miles north, scouting. Why?”
“We’re going to camp now. Gronnor’s got a hostage. And don’t remind me about orders.”
There was a second’s silence. “What d’you need?”
“Turn off the fence alarm, like you were going to. Then meet us at the north side. Can the dragonfly carry weight?”
“A few ounces. Why?”
“I’ll need it to steal a knife from Gronnor’s tent.”
Petra, Otger, and Karlin peered from the scrub-lined ditch that ran along the north fence, a ditch meant to guide storm-wash to the brook. In the light of the new moon, Gench and Ursil’s tent hunched dark and silent just across the fence. Beyond it was Gronnor’s tent, and to one side, the one that Gench now shared with Mollos.
Petra relayed Otger’s information to Bes. “Otger’s partition’s at the northeast corner. He says the smaller relics are near the door flap. The one we want is a small knife that—”
“I can guess,” said Bes. “Prison shank with a forcefield blade. The spygaster will sense it.”
“Just be quick.” The knife-edge of godshade was sliding toward the moon. In minutes, Drakhorn raiders approaching from the South would storm the camp.
While Bes and the dragonfly worked, the three waited for the fence patrol—an agonizing wait, though not a long one. The two men who sauntered past had black wooly hats and loaded crossbows.
When the patrol turned south along the brook and was hidden from view, Petra shrugged off her coat, scrambled out of the ditch, then squeezed between the taut wires of the fence. The bell at the gate stayed silent. In a trice, she’d slipped into the passage between Gench’s tent and its neighbor, then rolled under the overhang of the storm roof. For anyone else, the darkness there would have been inky. Still wearing the skully, Petra’s vision was grainy but clear. The tent wall glowed with the body heat of the sleepers inside.
She was struck by the memory of another storm roof, in another life, it seemed. And the memory of her clumsy antics at Otger’s nest in Clash, when she’d hooked out the egg. Of the fury in his eyes. There could be no clumsiness now. One mistake and someone would shoot her. Worse, it would rouse the Flays, and many more of her kin would die.
Bes’ voice was in her head, the hiss of the dragonfly’s wings loud in her ears. “Hold out your right hand.”
She rested on one elbow and held out her hand. The dragonfly, a shimmering blue to her eyes, hovered there—then the ‘tarlic knife’s handle lay in her palm.
“Take care,” said Bes. “You wouldn’t feel its cut—at first. But it’s almost out of juice.”
Petra nodded in the dark. The knife was kin to the weapons in Karlward. “Where is she?”
“Look. You’ll see.”
And she could. As she adjusted the focus of her eyes, things inside the tent resolved themselves. A hulk of glowing flesh in the main partition, near the door. Ursil. A smaller, brighter body in the sleeping partition. Tegan.
Petra stuck the knife into the tent wall until the hilt met canvass, then drew it sideways. She felt nothing; the fabric parted with a sigh. She rolled inside and knelt, peered into Tegan’s sleeping face.
Her cousin’s eyes were closed, her lips parted. She must have the tranquility of a baby to sleep like that, with marriage to a monster only hours away. She looked … how did she look? To Petra’s demon eyes, Tegan’s body pulsed with heat. There was a thumping, urgent and quick—not her own heart, but Tegan’s.
“Watch out,” said Bes.
Tegan’s eyes flew open. She jerked upright with a cry. The chain around her ankle slid and snickered.
She hadn’t been asleep at all.
Petra clamped her free hand over Tegan’s mouth and whispered in her ear. “Shh! It’s Petra. Petra. Please be quiet.” She heard Tegan gulp. Tegan’s breath came hot and ragged against her palm. To Petra’s amplified hearing, her cousin’s heart banged like a hammer.
In the main partition, the flesh mountain stirred. Its glow brightened. Ursil had woken.
“Stay calm,” whispered Petra. “I’ll cut the chain.”
She pulled the chain taut, then pressed the knife blade against a link near Tegan’s ankle. This time there was resistance, like cutting into cold butter. She glanced through the partition wall. The glow of Ursil’s bulk had risen. She was sitting up.
Ursil spoke in a sleepy croak, thankfully not her usual squawk. “What’s your problem, girl?”
Tegan’s voice shook when she answered. “It’s nothing. Nightmares.”
The knife slipped though one side of the link. It bit into the other, but now the link resisted like hard cheese. The knife was making a whine at the edge of hearing.
“Last of the juice,” said Bes.
Ursil spoke louder. “Weddin’ day nerves, is all. Like I said before, you’re a lucky girl to snag a Tash. Look what I got stuck with.”
The chain parted. The free end at Tegan’s ankle fell with a clink.
Ursil continued. “But gettin’ butterflies is natural. I’ll come in and give ya a nice cuddle.”
“Leave me alone, Ursil,” said Tegan.
Ursil shifted on her bed.
Petra glanced at the door flap. She could kill Ursil when she came through. The knife probably still had juice enough. But the thought of cutting into that mass of flesh revolted her. She tossed the knife aside, grabbed Tegan’s arm and pulled her off the bed.
A match flared—Ursil lighting a candle.
Petra guided Tegan out of the slit in the tent’s side and rolled after her. There was starlight only, now. Godshade had fallen. They scrambled into the passage, then froze.
Two men walked into view—the fence patrol had come around again. Right there they stopped, and peered into the gloom of the passage.
“You’re out of time,” Bes shouted in her head. “Move now!”
Petra pulled Tegan to her feet.
The men turned. One shouted, “Who—”
There came two metallic snaps, two coughs, and both men fell forward onto their faces. Karlin’s bolt protruded from the back of one, Otger’s from the other.
In Gench’s tent, Ursil squawked.
From somewhere in camp came a rattle of steel snaps. Darts buzzed like angry wasps. Men roared ‘Drakhorns!’ with one voice—and the darkness was loud with screams.
Hand in hand, the two girls, one in dark woolens, one in bedgown and bare feet, leaped across the fallen men and raced through a fence that was no longer there. Karlin had cut the wires. He snatched Tegan out of the air and bore her down into the relative safety of the ditch.
Petra was about to jump in after her, when something caught her eye. She turned her head. A man was standing at the corner of the tent beside Ursil’s—looking straight at her. Above each shoulder were three knife handles, a dangerous red in Petra’s vision. Mollos Brok reached behind one shoulder, his arm a blur of speed.
But Petra didn’t see what happened next. Her sight was blocked by the shadow that flew between herself and Mollos, a shadow with outstretched arms. Only an instant later did she know it was Otger—he’d thrown himself in front of her. And only an instant later did she understand that Mollos had thrown his knife.
A hiss, a thump, a grunt, and Otger collided with her. Instinctively, she wrapped her arms around him, and pulled him with her into the ditch.
“Otger—No,” screamed Petra, when she understood. She felt desperately for the knife, where with awful certainty she believed it would be standing out from his chest.
“Ouch,” said Otger.
“Wh…what?” gasped Petra.
The knife was there—but not stuck in. It slid off him and clattered to the stones. Something buzzed under Petra’s hand, and when she jerked her hand away, took flight.
“Good thing we juiced up the spygaster,” chuckled Bes. “It was just quick enough. And now, orders or no, it has some biting to do.”
“Leave Gronnor and his men alive for my father,” croaked Petra. She still had her arms around Otger.
From Ursil’s tent rose a stag-like bellow of rage louder than Ursil’s squawks, louder than the ringing of steel, louder than the screams of dying men.
Gronnor Brok had lost his dragonfly, he’d lost his key to the Drak Horn, and now he’d lost his his bride-to-be.