Petra woke to darkness and shouts and the braying of mules.
She sat up abruptly, her heart racing. Whipped off the covers, lit the lamp, then rummaged through her clothes trunk. In place of her bedgown she pulled on leggings, two pairs of woolen socks, and wool-lined sheepskin trail pants. A silk top. Two woolen shirts and a sweater. Trail coat. Woolly hat. Gloves.
Airgun and sword she laid beside her backpack, which she’d prepared before sleep. It wouldn’t do to take them out of the tent yet.
She chose trail boots from the rack by the door.
The night had the heavy blackness that meant godshade and cloud. Oil lamps in the gate yard wore haloes from a chill mist rolling down the valley. Petra strode into the mill of clansmen and mules. Most of the adults were there, and some younger kin too. Elders in cloaks and camp shoes. Legless Cob in his chair.
No sign of her mother or Tash Gronnor—that was a mercy. Best if neither saw her yet, though it couldn’t be avoided for long.
There was Grapple by the gate. In Ward’s absence, he would command the relief party. Petra pushed between men, defying their glances.
Grapple was berating a kinsman for the state of his mule’s tack.
Petra laid a hand on the animal’s neck. “Grapple, I’d like—”
Grapple grinned at her, gold teeth glinting. “Petra, you’re a sight to warm a trailsman’s heart. We need you. There’s ten mules still want tacking up. Food ‘n gear’s in the council tent, weapons in Jorn’s. Tack’s near the mules. Pick a mule and dress him. Heavy stuff last. Show ‘Thumbs’ here how it’s done.”
“Sure, Grapple, and after, can we talk—”
“I’ll see you before Service.” Then he was talking to someone about ropes, and had his back to her.
Petra stood still. We need you, he’d said. But it wasn’t enough. Of course it wasn’t. What was she even thinking.
‘Thumbs’ was giving her a sour look. Ignoring him, she stalked toward the mules.
She was strapping a packsaddle onto a mule when she heard a mirthless chuckle behind her. It was Fallon. With him was Ked, her former raid commander, whom Fallon had pulled from her team. Ked had two long knives at his belt. His trail boots gleamed in the lamplight.
He was just sixteen, and he was going. He’d never captained a team, and he was going.
“Congratulations on the win, cousin,” said Fallon. That flat voice.
Petra shrugged and turned back to the mule.
Behind her, Fallon said, “Told Gronnor his boy was useless. And look—outfoxed in two bells by a girl. Proved me right.”
Petra clenched her jaw and concentrated on threading a strap.
But Ked slung an arm over the mule’s neck, crossed his ankles, and managed to lean casually against the beast. His gaze slid down Petra to her boots. “Nice camp togs, Princess. Is that for dairy shift? Just the getup for stirring curd.”
Petra jerked the strap tight, her face burning.
“She’s always imagined herself a trailsman,” said Fallon.
“So it’s make-believe, Petra?” mused Ked. “Dress-up with Tegan. Teg’s the campwife, and you’re—”
Petra bared her teeth. Ked’s words cut deep, and too close. “Oh, go lick some boots, since you’ve no other talent.”
Ked laughed. “Trail pants suit those skinny hips. With a couple of shirts on, no one can tell you’re a girl.” He snapped his fingers. “That’s it! You think Cort fancies that sort of thing, right?” He winked.
Petra gave the mule a slap on the rump. It jerked forward, tumbling Ked onto his rear. He had to scramble through mud and manure to escape the hooves. “Lick that off,” said Petra, as she strode away.
Cort! Why would that moron imagine she cared what Cort fancied? It took minutes for the heat in her face to cool.
Two mules later, she stopped by the table where pots of stew and tea steamed.
Tegan was there, wearing a coat and camp trousers. She handed Petra a mug of tea. If her eyes flicked down to Petra’s boots, it was only for an instant. “One narrow path,” she murmured, and didn’t even smile.
They watched Otger and Danna lugging weapon packs in tandem. Danna—the one who thought Otger’s nose was cute. Near the mules, the girls freed from Otger’s nest were huddled with Ked. They looked back at Petra and laughed, heads bent together.
Gronnor was visible now, head and shoulders over the other men. He was talking to Grapple. When he glanced in her direction, Petra turned away.
A holler at the gate—Sten’s voice. The bustle quieted. Then Petra heard it. Five short blasts of a horn—a Drakhorn salute. “It’s Uncle Ward,” she said, her eyes wide.
There’d been no warning; in the fog, the lookouts hadn’t seen or signaled the approach. Men with crossbows dashed through the gate, just in case. But it was Ward sure enough, and soon he, his men, and their exhausted mules were in the yard. Petra pushed through the crowd surrounding them.
Ward Drakhorn stood with his arms crossed, eyes darting from face to face. Fallon joined him and stood in the same stance. Ward was taller and broader than his son. His curly hair hung loose about his shoulders. Unlike Fallon, he often smiled, and it showed in the lines of his face. But he wasn’t smiling now. His expression was blank, his eyes narrow.
In front of him, Grapple talked at twice his usual pace. Ward’s expression didn’t change when he learned of his youngest brother’s grave injury.
Gronnor Brok stood by, leaning on his cane, his head tilted down, yet still towering over the other men. Cort was with him, tight-lipped and grim.
“All well in hand, and no surprise,” said Ward, when Grapple had rattled off the names of the clansmen who were setting out. But then the Tash began to make changes.
It was Gronnor who scowled and argued. Likely the roster was more his making than Grapple’s.
“What about Cort—can you not spare him?” asked Ward.
“My nephew couldn’t track a moose through mud,” said Gronnor. He jerked his chin in Fallon’s direction. “You have your son, here—as good a shot and twice as smart.” Right in front of Cort he said it, with everyone around.
Cort’s face twisted into a scowl, but he said nothing.
Petra’s ears burned with sympathetic resentment.
“We’ve trailsmen enough,” said Ward. “But by Grapple’s account, there are more Flay bellies than swords to open them. We could use Cort. And what about your camp guards and valley pickets? Rufus and his men can stay instead; they need the rest.”
Rufus was leader of the scouts who’d returned with Ward. He jerked straighter. “What? We’re fresh as dew-drops!”
Petra hardly listened. This was her chance. She stepped forward. “Uncle Ward, if volunteers are wanted, there are some ready to go right now.”
Gronnor’s head snapped around. His eyes glared at her from their caves.
“How dare you interrupt!” barked her mother from just behind her. “What are you dressed like that for? Get back to your chores at once.”
“I’m volunteering to go,” said Petra, louder.
But her voice drowned in the voices of two dozen other clansmen volunteering, including crippled old men and kids.
Ward raised his hand for peace, then asked Gronnor, Grandma Brael, Grapple, and Fallon to accompany him to his tent. As the crowd parted for them, Petra’s mother pushed through to follow.
Petra would have followed too, but a hard grip on her shoulder held her back.
It was One-armed Canuut, and he met Petra’s glare. “You and me both, girl. But that’s not the way.”
After a moment, Petra nodded and let her shoulders slump. That was the last she saw of Ward until Morning Service.
As the cloud lightened with the coming dawn, she stood with Tegan while their grandmother led the prayer and made the offering to Herm. When they all chanted the Rite of Safe Passage for those who were setting out, misery tightened Petra’s throat, so that the Wayrite came out hoarse and off-tempo. Nothing that mattered had changed.
Afterward, clansmen milled around, re-checking the mules’ tack and talking in hushed voices. They were waiting for Elder Genna, who had not attended Service. Petra felt gawky and stupid in her trail clothes. Rain as fine as cloud mist sparkled on her woolens.
In the gray of dawn, in cloud so low it made ghosts and half-men of the valley boulders, Genna Stray appeared, like a small gray ghost herself. She went briskly to Ward and Grapple, and they conversed in low tones. The men closed around. It was by their mutters that Petra learned the news: it had begun to snow to north-eastward, and the snow would become a blizzard.
“Shouldn’a snow yet,” grumbled Canuut.
Legless Cob muttered, “Bad omen, what it is. Mark me, they’ll all be dead of it.”
“Shut yours, Cob,” said Canuut. “They’ll be hid like foxes, and just as warm. It’s the Flays that’ll freeze their nuggets off.”
The men did not doubt Genna Stray; she was a good weather witch. But she did not have the power to abate the storm, nor to guide them safe through blinding snow. They’d have to wait.
When Petra understood, she turned to Tegan with her lips parted in excitement, a spark of hope kindling. A delay would give her time to work on Ward. Before she could speak, she saw the bleakness in her cousin’s eyes, and bit her lip. Of course, a delay might cost Tegan’s father his life. It might cost them Nula’s eggs. It might put her own father and his raiders in greater peril of being murdered by the Flays. She dropped her gaze and clenched her fists, swallowed a bile that was not just hunger. It was as though the god had looked into her heart, and sneered.