Disguised as Ola Brok, Petra dogged the Brok scout’s heels. Between pants for air she just caught the footfalls of her own raiders in pursuit. They were near the camp now. Its lights glowed beyond the potato field. Strange—there were no good nest sites in this corner of the Clash ground. Then, to her consternation, she saw their goal.
Nestled under a twisted, leaning pine that she knew well, was a scrub-covered boulder she didn’t know at all. But it wasn’t a boulder; Otger’s nest was a tent, and not a small one. How utterly stupid. And yet … she’d sent no scouts this way.
Petra scooped up a rock and spun it over the Brok scout’s head. “Spider!” she squealed.
The boy stumbled to all fours. The rock thumped onto the sod beyond. “Shit,” he gasped.
“Run—this way!” shouted Petra.
The scout tore after her, right into the arms and ropes of her raiders.
Godshade swallowed the moon. The sun’s eclipse was almost done and the match would be decided in three minutes of starlit dark.
Petra’s raiders charged at the tent, an assault they knew was hopeless. They’d nearly reached it before a Brok horn wailed and Brok defenders poured out. The raiders screamed “Drakhorns!”, and plowed into them.
By then, Petra was behind the tent. Thorny brush caught at her legs and raked her skin. “Ow! Demon, damn,” she swore, under her breath. It took a minute to reach the back wall, and that was half the darkness gone.
Screams, barks, and horn-blasts rent the air. On the other side of the tent, the battle was in full swing.
The tent’s wall glowed faintly under its moss and brush camouflage. Petra slit the canvas, then peeked in. There was the egg! Its gut loop poked from a tarp and the stink of it filled the tent. Otger was inside, with two fledglings. They crowded the door to peer out at the battle. Two Drakhorn scouts, trussed and gagged, lay against the rear wall, directly under her.
The egg was too far from the back to reach, and she couldn’t enlarge the slit because the spider-proof canvas was reinforced with wire. She’d have to clear out the nest. She pulled her tin box from her pocket, shook it to rile the wasps inside.
Herm’s bloody tooth—her scouts were in there. Petra hesitated. Only seconds of darkness remained. Then she pushed the box through the slit and shook the wasps into the nest. Sorry, girls, Clash is war.
As the sky began to brighten, she scrambled up the stunted pine that leaned over the tent. The fledglings inside began to scream and the tent shook. The branch under Petra bowed from her weight until she lay along the tent’s ridgepole, with one leg over it. Moss and brush cascaded down. She cut a footlong gash in the roof and peered through.
The tent was empty of Broks, and below her sat their egg.
From inside Ola’s coat Petra slipped a coil of wormcord and Grapple’s four-pronged hook. She turned the prongs to lock at right angles. Down went the hook until it hung near the egg’s gut loop. She inched it closer, yanked it up—but missed.
The tent jerked and swayed as Railan tumbled through the door flap with Otger on his back. Otger heaved the smaller boy back out and followed him.
Sunlight struck the snowcaps to the East.
Petra had to pull up the swinging hook to steady it. Spots swam before her eyes; small shadows danced and dived. The prisoners thrashed and squealed through their gags. She gently swung the hook. It touched the loop. Then a dagger of pain in her thumb made it twitch—and the hook swung away.
A wash of sunlight warmed her back.
Petra bared her teeth, kept her eyes on the hook, ignoring the wasp crawling on her thumb.
The battle-clamor faded. A girl was sobbing. Then shouts—they’d seen her.
The hook caught. Hand over hand, Petra raised the egg, as the tarp fell away to reveal the blue and silver of clan Brok.
Just as she yanked the egg through the slit, the door flap whipped back, and Otger Brok glared up at her. It was an Otger she’d never seen before: disheveled, bloodied, his teeth bared. Terrifying. He struck upward, punched her hip through the roof’s canvas.
Petra yelped, and didn’t wait for him to hit her again. She unhooked her knee from the ridgepole, then slid down the bowing roof. She managed to land on her feet, and the brambles that tore at Ola’s clothes missed the fragile egg.
Holding it high, she ran.
At the camp gate, Petra skipped from one to another of her clashers, examining wounds and lavishing praise. Dale had lost a tooth to Borak’s fist. There were bruises and bloody noses and a broken finger. The girls freed from Otger’s nest tearfully displayed their wasp stings.
“A hero’s sacrifice,” said Petra. She’d make it up to them later.
The Broks had their share of injuries. Tims wore a black eye and boots too large for him. Ola, wearing Petra’s trousers, glared daggers. Her wrists were raw from chafing against her bonds. Borak glanced from one girl to the other with embarrassed outrage. Otger stood mute on the path, his face and hands bumpy with stings.
The clashers of both teams were subdued. It was as though both teams had lost.
Railan had been counting. “I think more of them were blooded than us,” he whispered.
“Let’s hope so,” said Petra. Unlike the rest, she was buzzing with an energy that made her talk too fast.
Sentinels strolled back with airguns and crossbows resting on their shoulders. Enthusiastic former players gathered. One-armed Canuut was there, and Legless Cob wheeled himself out to sit by his brother, Sten. Grapple Drakhorn, a champion in his youth, leaned insolently against the Brok clan’s totem. He winked at Petra as she returned his hook, eye-whites and gold teeth flashing in merry contrast to the deep bronze of his skin and inky cascade of hair.
Cort’s presence made her feel more important than even Grapple’s did. He grinned at her and she grinned shyly back.
At last Tash Gronnor Brok came out, and made Sten give up his seat by the gate. Grandma Brael stood near him to represent Tash Ward in his absence. Her grandson Fallon stood beside her. It was time to render the eggs.
Jess Stray, who had authority over herds and cheese, would adjudicate the rendering. She wore the crimson, gold, and gray of her rank and office. That touch of tradition warmed Petra’s heart.
“Petra Stray-Drakhorn, what have you brought me?” shouted Jess.
“Draken Brok’s egg, fresh taken, full vigorous, worth the downland queen’s honor and the king’s crown,” answered Petra, reciting an old formula. She raised the egg for all to see. The silver and blue glittered gaily in the sun.
Otger stood stiffly with hands in pockets. Gronnor Brok looked on, the outsized bones of his face like knobs of weathered stone.
In the silence, Jess held the egg over a pail and slit the knotted base. Chunky green glop gushed out and the stench of it spread like choking mist. She dropped the flaccid stomach into the pail. “I warrant it the Broks’ true egg,” she said.
There was a general sigh. Because of Gronnor’s presence, the Drakhorns did not dare to cheer.
Behind Jess, Fallon gave Gronnor an ‘I told you so’ sort of look. He flicked his fingers in Otger’s direction, a rude, dismissive gesture.
What’s his problem, wondered Petra, knitting her brow.
Gronnor ignored him, his face a stony mask.
“Otger Brok, what have you brought me?” shouted Jess.
Otger took the red-gold egg from Borak, then handed it over. “The Drakhorns’ egg it seems, fresh taken,” he said.
“Do you affirm it full vigorous?”
“I affirm it taken in full vigorous contest of wits and courage,” Otger said, quietly.
“Hey—what?” protested Borak. “It’s bloody vigorous—there’s a stink off of it!”
Jess sniffed and pursed her lips. “Not much. Perhaps the draken is old. What’s it worth to me?”
Petra could have sworn Otger said, “My honor and my uncle’s crown.” Jess looked sharply at him, and Gronnor glared thunder.
“My honor and my Clash leadership,” said Otger, louder.
Jess made a noise of exasperation, then slit the egg. Chunky glop gushed out, but it was yellow, not green, and the smell made no impression over the fetor of the Brok egg.
“A false egg,” she pronounced.
This time the Drakhorns could not suppress a buzz of amazement and delight.
Jess raised her voice. “Where then is the Drakhorns’ true egg?”
“I have it,” said Tegan. She slipped off her backpack, then lifted from it a bundle. The tarp fell away to reveal a glittering egg, painted not just in crimson and gold, but gorgeously figured with the drak, the cradle, and the horn—ancient emblems of the Drakhorn clan.
Forgetting Gronnor Brok, forgetting their wounds, the young Drakhorns leaped and screamed.
Otger stood with eyes closed and hands in pockets, then turned and walked away.
The elation of the Drakhorn kin was quickly spent. The plight of their fathers, in peril from the Flays, again lay heavy in their hearts. The thought of Jorn Drakhorn dying of a bone splinter in his lung, again tightened the knot of dread in their stomachs. Those with injuries followed Elder Genna to her tent. Those with hunger and in need of baths drifted to their own.
Petra and Tegan walked alone down the avenue, sharing the weight of the pail of ‘egg yolk’.
“Hope I didn’t hit you too hard, Tegs,” said Petra, glancing at her cousin.
“It had to be realistic,” groaned Tegan, clutching her middle dramatically.
“Your third decoy egg worked like magic,” said Petra.
“Elder Jess wouldn’t show me how she makes the real one go so rotten. Otger could tell it was wrong.”
“It convinced Borak—that’s what mattered.”
Tegan looked squint-eyed at Petra. “I bet it helped that their spy heard there’d be only two decoys. You guessed Tims was in the storage bench, didn’t you.”
Petra grinned. She hadn’t been sure, but it was just the sort of thing Otger would do.
Tegan snorted a laugh. In a more serious tone, she said, “I feel bad for Otger.”
Petra said nothing to that. Her cousin always felt for the loser, even if he was a rotten cheat.
“I mean because of his uncle,” whispered Tegan.
Petra couldn’t deny the point. There were stories about Gronnor Brok. He’d killed three men in a fight at Winter Camp, people said. Her father had said there was fault on both sides. He’d beaten his wife to death, they said, and had to give most of his wealth to her clan as compensation. He’d tried to marry his niece, kids whispered. Petra had asked her mother, and been given a smack for an answer.
Whatever the truth, she wouldn’t trade places with Otger for anything. He’d been Tash Gronnor’s ward since a draken had killed his father—the previous Tash—and a third of the Brok men besides, leaving the clan near ruined. It was that disaster, and the Drakhorns’ own troubles, that had led to the joining of the clans. The elders called it a union of equals. But everyone knew it meant the end of clan Brok.
Petra and Tegan watched the three stomachs jostle down the brook in a scum of curd, to slip over the lip of the little fall where the generator’s waterwheel turned. Then Tegan returned to her mother’s tent.
Petra dawdled. She threw stones into the brook and looked for fish. She felt empty now, like the stomachs. Limp and unneeded. Discarded.
From the brook she followed the path between the backs of the Brok tents and the spider fence, putting off her return to her parents’ tent and her mother’s displeasure. To the ice-cold bath. Her thoughts turned to the relief party. That’s where she should be. That’s where she was needed.
She’d beaten six Brok captains since becoming Clash Leader. She was unrivaled among the young kin for tracking. She could deceive, she could steal, and she could lead. Ward had told her to give it everything she had, and she’d done that. Surely now he would see she was ready.
“I’ve proven it,” she said aloud. “Even Tash Gronnor can’t deny it.”
“Can’t deny what?” grated a harsh voice beside her.
Petra nearly jumped out of her skin.
Gronnor Brok stood between tents. And there was Otger, with twigs in his hair. His face was pale under stings and speckles of drak blood.
“I … I meant …” stammered Petra, her heart racing.
“Meant what?” rasped Gronnor. His eyes gleamed down at her from his great height and from the shadows under his brow-ridges. The misshapen bones made him seem crudely carved from living stone.
“Only … that it was so nearly impossible to win against Otger’s cunning strategy, against such a strong team, and … well, I was thinking I could help in the relief party.”
“You mean handing this pissant brat his ass proves some merit I can’t deny?” Gronnor guffawed, a noise like a stag’s bellow.
Petra reddened. It was no shame to lose at Clash—one team always did. She glanced sympathetically at Otger. “Tash Gronnor, Ma’s expecting me,” she said, trying to sidle past.
Gronnor’s walking stick flicked out and struck her smartly in the midriff, stopping her mid-step. The joints of the hand that held it were like pebbles and tree warts. “Petra the champion,” he rasped. “I can’t deny you are more clever than this useless boy. But what else are you? Petra the careless shepherd. Eavesdropper. Despiser.” With each word, he tapped harder with the stick.
“Tash—” croaked Petra. Her hands began to tremble.
“Petra the arrogant princess who would have us depend on her, not in a child’s game of cheats, but in a raid.”
With the last word he struck Petra a blow that made her yelp and step back. Anger flared in her. He had no right, and Clash was not that. “Tash, only this morning you said—”
Otger spoke at the same instant. “Uncle, she just did what you and Tash Ward said—”
“Silence,” roared Gronnor. Then, in a dangerous growl, “Do. Not. Presume. To tell me what I said.” He glared at Petra. “Get back to your tent and your chores. A raid is no place for an impudent girl, clever though she be.”
Petra went. It was all she could do not to run.