Petra and Otger walked Tegan to her tent. The liberated camp was dark and grimly quiet. Even the wounded had stopped groaning. The ground was strewn with corpses.
Those old stories don’t tell it right, thought Petra. There was no jubilation. Women who’d come out of their tents stood in huddles, shivering. Children peered fearfully from doorways. A Drakhorn man and women stood in silent embrace, weeping. Perhaps a glad reunion, perhaps a cousin’s news that her husband was dead. In the moonlight, Petra couldn’t tell.
Most of the men had no time for reunions. They watched the periphery, guarded prisoners, or hunted escaped Flays in the dark. Crossing the avenue, Petra glimpsed the prisoners in the gate yard, bound hand and foot, hunched and dejected.
The silence and the tears—it was as though both sides had lost.
While Tegan changed in her tent and Otger searched for Elder Jess, Petra stood outside her own tent, unmoving, numb. She was home, but she didn’t know what to do. Her tent was dark, as if abandoned. Her mother … she should find her mother. If her mother was still alive.
She stood silent in the dark, looking at the dark and silent tent.
A touch on her shoulder. She started, but didn’t turn.
A voice whispered, “Petra?” It was her mother’s voice.
Petra didn’t turn.
Her mother circled her, peered into her face, then embraced her as if embracing a ghost, something unreal.
For a long time they stood like that: Petra stiff, silent, and still; her mother, with her arms looped, hardly touching. Then the tears came, and the sobs, and there was nothing Petra could do to stop them.
While the night lasted, Petra worked with her mother, Jess, Tegan, and Tegan’s mum to tend the wounded and prepare the dead for burial. Most of them were Flays. These were the beast-men, the monsters of childhood tales. To Petra, many of the living ones looked like frightened boys. They reminded her of Ked.
The dead and injured Flays had been dragged to the gate yard to keep company with the whole. Those who could move were chained to iron pegs hammered into the ground. Some Broks were chained there, too.
Just outside the camp, Gronnor had been lashed upright to the Brok clan’s totem. His eyes, deep in their caves, watched the gate yard.
Petra didn’t meet his gaze. She pretended he wasn’t there.
At dawn, Otger led a mule with Genna Stray on top past Gronnor and into camp. Genna was slumped over, her face in the animal’s mane. Clansmen helped her down. They laid her on a blanket and the Stray women crowded around. Genna’s eyes roved the faces of those around her. She didn’t say a word. And there in the yard, surrounded by her kin, she died.
Not long after, Petra’s father strode up the avenue from his tent. Karl Drakhorn’s face was a grim mask.
Petra stood as he approached.
He stopped before her. “Is it true, what I have heard?” he rasped.
Petra was silent. He meant the The Silk. Of course someone had told him.
“Is it true?” he asked again, his voice like broken glass. When Petra didn’t answer, he turned to Jess.
The Elder nodded once.
Then Karl strode through the gate to where Gronnor stood. He drew his sword.
Petra turned away.
But what she heard was not the whip of a sword, the thud of the blade into flesh. It was her father’s voice, harsh and loud. She turned back to see.
Her father was facing Gronnor. His back was oddly arched, almost like a cat’s. One arm was back, the hand a fist. The other he held high and to the fore, and with it pointed his sword at Gronnor’s head. His shouted words beat like a drum.
He was cursing Gronnor.
Karl Drakhorn’s curse was long and terrible. Petra couldn’t understand the words, but they hurt her head. Elder Jess clutched her ears and turned away.
“Well damned,” said Bes, when it was over. He sounded impressed. “But there’s a price.”
“The reburials won’t be till tomorrow morning,” said Tegan, pressing closer to Petra. “Do you really want to know?” She meant the kin whom the Flays had killed when they seized the camp. The Drakhorns didn’t trust the burials, so the dead would be buried again with proper rites.
“No. But yes,” said Petra. She leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes while Tegan arranged dirty blankets around their knees. They were sitting against the southern wall of the same shelter from which Petra, Otger, Karlin, and Lem had freed the ‘resisters’. Below, the liberated camp lay still and silent in the late morning sun.
“Sten’s dead, isn’t he,” prompted Petra. Sten had been gatekeeper since before her birth.
“Yes, he was the first. He must have guessed what was coming, but he fought them anyway. And old Matche.”
“Matche! Why? He can’t fight.”
“He brained a Flay with a dung spade.”
“Oh.” Petra winced. She’d helped Matche with goats and sheep since she was six.
“Klara Brok. She tried to poison them. And Dara Highland.”
“Gods’ piss,” whispered Petra. The teacher had married into the clan just that spring.
“I warned you. But maybe the worst is …” Tegan hesitated.
“It was Bruno Brok who killed her.”
Petra looked at her, incredulous. Bruno and Borak were the twins who’d led Otger’s scouts in Clash. “But Borak …”
“Fought them like fury.”
Petra closed her eyes again. It was hard to understand. Since liberating the camp, they’d buried two Drakhorns, a Brok, and thirteen Flays. The toll would have been higher, but half the Flay raiders had been surprised in the council tent, sleeping off jambis and mutton stew.
For Petra, the hardest had been the service for Genna Stray. The other Stray kin—Petra and her mother, Tegan and her mum, and Elder Jess—had together said the rites for her.
Bane came to lick Petra’s hand, then dashed away. He was minding two dozen sheep and goats, all that remained of the Drakhorn herds. The Flays had eaten or smoked the rest.
What Petra wanted most was to sleep. But she couldn’t yet, because it wasn’t over.
Tegan touched her arm and Petra opened her eyes. A line of people snaked out of camp toward the Clash ground. Still wearing the skully, she didn’t need a spyglass to see the gangling figure of Gronnor, surrounded by Drakhorns. It was just Commander Gronnor now that he’d been stripped of the rank of Tash. That was so that his duel with her father would be fought by men of equal rank, as the law required. At the head of the column were her father, Jorn, and Otger.
“You sure we shouldn’t go up-pasture? Or back down?” asked Tegan, gently.
Petra shook her head. Right or wrong, this is where she’d decided to wait out the duel. She didn’t want to watch. But more, she didn’t want the kin, or Otger, to see her.
“Okay. You’d got to where Canuut and Cort caught up with you. Tell on,” said Tegan.
Petra told on, or tried to.
The dueling ground was like a Clash ground sized for two. Petra and Tegan heard nothing for a while as the boundary guards—grim-faced Drakhorns with loaded crossbows—arranged themselves. At most one combatant would be allowed to leave the ground alive. That was the law.
Petra’s voice faltered as steel rang on steel in the still air. She could no longer see the combatants, but knew that piece of ground. It included the flat rock where she and Otger had fought their own impromptu duel.
“Father can be as stupidly pig-headed as me,” she said. No law required a duel, and Gronnor was two heads taller than her father and half again his weight. All would have cheered if he’d had Gronnor whipped to death. It made no difference. Jess had explained: the curse would not hold unless her father staked his own blood and took the curse upon himself if he lost. That was the price.
There was more, as Petra had worked out herself. If he was to lead the Drakhorns, her father had to expunge the insult to his family and clan. He must kill his enemy with his own blade, and stand upon the corpse. Only then would the kin accept his authority without question.
Petra put her head back and closed her eyes again. She brought the lost waymap to mind and tried to count the valleys and the ways. The distant ringing of steel stopped and a roar of shouts swelled, then faded to silence. The map in Petra’s head blew away; her muscles tensed. Weak, she told herself. Aren’t you a Drakhorn? She didn’t love her father. Why should she care? But the more the silence stretched, the more tense she became.
Steel rang out again—stroke and counter-stroke.
Petra let out a long, shaky breath.
Tegan’s eyes were on her, Tegan’s warm hand holding hers.
Petra resumed the story. “And so, after that we walked down to the Rull, seeing signs of the Broks on the trail …” Her voice trailed off. She couldn’t keep it up.
A distant roar, then silence.
Petra tried to breathe quietly. She wanted to be strong for Tegan’s sake. She tried, but for all her effort, her breath shook and shuddered. Tegan squeezed her hand.
Her father’s eyes had blazed with vengeful fury that was hardly human. He’d ordered Bes to keep the dragonfly away. He’d not wanted to speak to her. She’d had to chase him, grab his arm, force him to meet her eyes.
“I came through Hell to find you—won’t you listen?” she’d yelled at him.
Karl’s eyes had focused at last. “I’m listening, Petra.”
“You should know: he isn’t lame; I’ve seen him run. And by the path just inside the ground, there’s one flat rock that can be climbed. A split along its length is hidden by scrub—eighteen inches over a six foot drop.”
For many heartbeats Karl had fixed her with that burning gaze, then turned away.
Steel rang on steel, and men roared.
It went on—the clash of steel, the roars, the dreadful, stretching silences. Godshade came, and still it went on.
Petra was trembling. Every part of her was trembling. Tegan held her close.
The men roared long, like the groaning of wind. Then sunlight blazed from the skyland’s edge.
“It’s … they’re leaving,” whispered Tegan.
Petra kept her eyes closed.
“Someone’s coming. Running.”
It would be Otger. She breathed the shakes out, got her eyes working well enough to look at him. She didn’t want him to see her so ragged.
Soon Otger stood panting before them. As Tegan said later, it was hard to recognize the wiry, sun-browned, tangle-haired boy racing up the slope as the Otger of a month before. He had a long dagger at his belt. His eyes flashed.
“Your father’s okay,” he panted. “A cut to the arm, but it’ll heal.” He said no more; it was enough.
Petra closed her eyes again, and despite her efforts, her face crumpled for a moment.
Otger sat beside her and took her other hand in his. That took a new daring, too.
If Tegan was surprised, she didn’t show it. She grinned at him across Petra. “Thanks, Tash,” she said, for both of them.
Otger had been elected Tash of clan Brok just that morning. For the moment, that made him Tash of Drakhorns too.
“Oh, I’ve nothing better to do,” said Otger, off-handedly.
Petra laughed. Now at last, she could sleep.
My dearest Jalla,
Karl will see that this reaches you. For all his arrogance, he is a man of his word.
By now, you will know that I have failed. My passing is not worth the distraction of regret. Better to die this way than a twisted ruin in bed.
Nor should you regret the path we have essayed, though it is a harder one than even I expected, for it cuts against the grain of the karlman’s stubborn nature. Walk warily, and do not disdain to try a subtler way.
Of those who will oppose you, Karl will be implacable, and is to be feared. And know that it was his daughter against whom my force broke as wood against steel, and the craft of my fathers was as a blade cutting smoke.
Your affectionate brother,
Petra sat on a boulder under the stars, listening for spiders, breathing the crisp air. Nearby was the same shelter in which she had—long ago it seemed—lit the lamp that failed to deceive Otger. In the distance, the camp glowed. She should be there, helping to prepare for the long trek south. But she’d wanted some time to herself. Not even Bes could disturb her peace. As he’d promised, the skully had come out through her skin while she slept.
Bane barked low as he kept the little herd bunched.
She thought back on her meeting with her father after the reburials, and after he’d been elected Tash and Otger had dissolved his own clan. Her meeting had been the new Tash’s first; other clansmen had to wait. Perhaps that was because Gronnor had lost his head when he lost his footing on the split rock by the path. Petra didn’t know. What mattered was that she’d had her father’s full attention.
On his desk she’d placed the two crystals of cintabrax and the dragonfly.
Wealth and power beyond dreams.
“You could be king,” she’d said, after enough silence.
“I am not Gronnor.”
“Everything has changed.”
She’d told him about Karlward, about the engines she had seen, about the multiplying of the juggers. She’d told him about Canuut and his sacrifice, about Otger and his bravery. And she’d told him about Sadrak Nula and their bargain.
“Of course, I’m just a kid. The Tash of Drakhorns isn’t bound by an oath of mine.”
That earned a flicker of a smile, not a warm one. But her father had thought about it, then said: “My blood is yours; I accept your oath as mine. Is there anything else?”
“I wish Otger could study at a good downland school—that was his dream.” It had been hard to say.
The Tash had nodded.
“And I’m tired of burials.”
Her father had said nothing to that, but the executions everyone expected had not happened. It was painful enough when Brok families were divided, most of the children and some women to be adopted Drakhorns, the rest expelled.
He’d shown her Gronnor’s letter, pointing out that it would put her in the crosshairs of every Flay bow.
“I would be anyway,” she’d said, not having the flint to deny her fallen enemy his last words to his sister. She figured it was a Flay snare, not a crossbow, that she had to fear, because Jalla would know about her clanmarks. But she didn’t say that to her father, nor did she tell him Cort’s story about the Drak Horn. That one thing she held back. A slippery niggle of doubt, a sense of peril she couldn’t pin down, sealed her lips.
She’d left his tent a scout captain—the youngest in clan history. Even Kastra had been sixteen.
Her father had Gronnor’s head packed in salt, locked in his strongbox along with the letter, and chained to Mollos Brok’s back. Gench was likewise burdened with the exhumed and salted head of Kraddik. The expelled Broks and captured Flays were given enough food to reach the Flay stronghold, then sent off.
When godshade ended, Petra walked toward camp. There would be a remembrance supper, the last in the valley. She knew it would start sad, but become merrier when the jambis flowed and the kids had enough of sadness. She would sit between Otger and Tegan, hold their hands, and hear the stories.
Petra’s heart felt lighter, and it lightened her step. As she walked, then ran, the herd trailed obediently behind.