Petra mucked out pens and scrubbed bed pots. She fed the chickens. She brushed down mules and cleaned their hooves. She did these chores with a desperate intensity, as though the effort would propel her into the relief party and onward to the raid. Her thoughts spun with what she’d heard in camp that day. Ward had decided to send men south to fetch mules from the downland farm where they were pastured. When the mule train arrived, they’d break camp. Anyone not heading north in the relief party would be hustled south with the sheep, like they were sheep themselves.
Each time she passed Ward’s tent, the outer door flap was drawn shut. The Tash was holding council.
At supper, she agreed with everything her mother said, then dared to ask permission to help Canuut at the men’s Social.
Her mother grumbled, as she always did, that serving liquor was unsuitable work for a girl her age.
Petra thought that it suited her fine, because the best gossip was to be heard at the Social. “They’re family,” she argued.
“Some are not close, and when they drink, they go too far with their talk.”
“Oh mother, I’m not a kid anymore.”
“No, you’re old enough that they’ll be throwing you glances.”
“First it’s their talk, now it’s their glances. They’ll be sniffing me next.”
“None of your lip, Petra.”
“Sorry. I just want to help. You know Canuut will look out for me.”
Her mother sighed. “Don’t stay late and don’t wake me.”
Petra’s appearance at the Social drew a chorus of friendly bugles from the Drakhorn men in recognition of her Clash victory. Even the Broks tapped their cups. Petra grinned happily. But the men’s conversation soon returned to ‘god-cursed Flays’ and ‘devil-sent snow’. Their nervous frustration was evident in the loudness of the jokes and bluster.
“We’ll bring back some Flay stomachs for the next Clash,” said one.
“You’ll find none to remove, for they’re a gutless lot,” said another.
The Social was in the school tent, because the relief party’s supplies were piled in the council tent. Petra hung back at the teacher’s bench with the food and jambis kettle, approaching the circle of cross-legged men only when a cup was raised high to be filled. One-armed Canuut, who usually served, took advantage of her presence to join the circle.
“Bring over the sausage, Petra dear,” shouted Sten, the gatekeeper. He was sitting with his brother, Legless Cob.
Petra cut a slice onto a wafer of waybread, then brought that over.
“I’m thinking a Flay witch sent the blizzard,” Cob was saying. “Ain’t natural.”
Sten snorted. “You talk a load of tripe, Cob. There’s no witch among the karlmen with the yolk to do that.”
Petra looked from one to the other. They might both be wrong. An early snowstorm wasn’t so unusual, and surely a demon could make one too, if a witch paid it enough. “Haven’t we paid demons to protect the valley?” she asked Cob.
“That’s why it’s only fog here, not snow,” he said, with a satisfied smirk.
Cort Brok entered, to approving chuckles. He’d only recently come of age to join the circle.
Petra was pleased, then found herself blushing when she poured jambis for him. Of course, he was a man now, and she was obliged to serve him as she would any adult. Only months before, he’d been a boy. He hadn’t really changed—but something had. He was sitting and she was standing, yet it seemed he’d added to his six inch advantage.
She was seized by an urge to pull him back to her level. She whispered, conspiratorially, “Don’t you wish you were going? With the expedition, I mean.”
Cort grinned up at her. “Sure.” He stabbed the air with an imaginary sword. “Flays on a skewer, three at a time. But I do what’s asked of me.”
Petra made a face. “Like fetching back the mule train?”
“I trust Ward and Gron to get the priorities right. That’s their job.”
Petra opened her mouth, then closed it. What he said, she might have said herself. But it wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
Two arms were up. As she filled the cups, she overheard Lucan Drakhorn speaking to his neighbor. Lucan was a quiet young man who had the lonely duty of watchman on the ridge tops. “With Flays in our patch, I’m worried about the camp,” he said.
The neighbor snorted. “They’re after draken eggs that aren’t theirs, not sheep.”
Lucan’s other neighbor, a grizzled Brok elder, said, “You’re a fool. Few clans will give their daughters to the Flays. Their wealth buys downland women, but that hurts their pride. And we—since that bloody cock-up of Otger’s pa, gods chew his bones—we have far more women than men to protect them. Mayhap the Flays are thinking to finish the job they started when they seized that Cradle you Drakhorns still moan about, and get some jillies for their beds into the bargain.”
Petra was holding her breath, her eyes round and mouth open in horror.
Canuut hissed sharply at the speaker and jerked his head in her direction.
Petra returned the jambis kettle to its warmer on the bench, red-faced and annoyed. How old did Canuut think she was? But the men’s words added to the stew in her head. Why had the Flays bothered to go after Sadrak Nula at all? It wasn’t as though the Drakhorns’ hunting patch was easy pickings. The Flays were rich enough without having to brave the desolation around Karlward. The Drakhorn summer camp would be an easier target.
She watched for the chance to ask Cort, but now Fallon was sitting with him, and that put her off. Cort and Fallon had been tight since the two clans had joined that spring. Cort had only noticed her after Fallon left camp with her father’s raiders. Then, to her surprise, he’d offered sword lessons. He was a good teacher—and pleasant company.
Legless Cob began to play his pipes—a lilting, hopeful tune at odds with his gloomy manner. The men’s voices rose over it.
“More cheese this way!”
“A spud over here, thank you kindly.”
“Turn on the heat will you, lass. My arse is froze to the floor.”
“Camp’s low on fuel,” said Petra.
“Hear her words and sit your backside on a cushion,” said Canuut.
“Ain’t got one.”
“So share with Cob. He don’t need but half a pillow.”
Legless Cob stopped playing to throw a potato at Canuut, who caught it with his one hand and ate it. He grinned at Petra and raised his cup.
Near Canuut were the four scouts who’d returned with Ward. One was slumped over his cup, fast asleep where he sat.
“… reeking shitpot—he’ll not take us through, surely?” said one.
“With Ward, you never know. And after the Drood—”
Petra nearly slopped jambis on a Brok’s head at the name. The speaker was Rufus Drakhorn, oldest of the four. The Drood he spoke of was a bog of fell repute just west of Karlward. She looked for nearby cups to replenish.
“—it gets worse. There’s Karlward Gate and the Blood Gorge.”
“Full ‘o murd’rin’ Flays, an’ one pissed draken.”
“That’s the good part,” said Rufus. “As for Karlward Gate—”
Petra wanted to know about raid camp. She interrupted. “Doesn’t the lower gorge have ghost smoke? If men sleep in it …”
Rufus gave her a twisted grin. “Don’t fret, girl. ‘Course your pa’s camp is not down in the smoke. Grapple says it’s a ways up the gorge, near the head.”
Men nearby had quaffed their drinks and raised their cups. Petra filled them slowly.
“Karlward Gate …” prompted Rufus’ neighbor.
“Hell’s front door itself,” said Rufus, knocking a knuckle to his forehead in respect.
“Load of superstition,” said Mollos, a Brok with a black beard and thick hairy arms.
“You’re wrong,” said Canuut, sharply. “If you’d seen Karlward, you’d believe in superstition. The old tales don’t lie, and Karlward’s black walls neither. Festerin’ with evil and littered with ‘tarlics—things that’ll strike you dead to look at them. When the juggers poured out—”
Mollos chuckled. “Old tales for old men. Been no juggers since the wars, and near as few of their pet draks, more’s the pity.”
Rufus jumped in. “It’s bonemen you have to mind up there. Them and trolls.”
Canuut’s voice rose with anger. “The juggers were driven deep, but they’re not gone. As for their draks—no drak would waste spit on a jugger save to pop it for sport.”
“Hear the Drakhorn elders,” said Mollos. “Could be kids arguing who’s mother’s tits are bigger. It’s dumb beasts, a few live karlmen, and a lot of dead fools. The rest is for bedtime stories.”
“And how many snatches have you under your hat, Mollos, that you can call the dead fools and say what we ain’t up against?”
“I’ve no sheep’s wool under my hat, if that’s—”
“Petra!” chorused several voices.
Petra’s head snapped up. Four arms were waving cups. She nipped around the circle to fill them. By the time she was called back to the side where Canuut was sitting, Rufus and the other scouts had gone to their tents.
Petra worked in the noisy warmth until the men’s jokes grew coarse and Canuut sent her home.
That night, it was Lucan’s and his neighbor’s words that haunted her. Because of Nula and the Flays in the Blood Gorge, the camp would be emptied of men. It would be an undefended nest. What if it was the Drakhorn nest the Flays were after, not the draken’s?