Petra Stray-Drakhorn was sitting on a boulder, surrounded by goats, when she saw the flash.
It was mid-afternoon and twelve minutes to godshade, and her head was filled with plans for the next day’s Clash. The first flash—just a wink, really—hardly registered. The second got her attention. She squinted in that direction. No movement in the treeless, sun-glaring, gray-green distance. She pulled out her spyglass.
“Could be metal,” she said to the goat sharing the boulder with her.
Big Basta regarded her with one eye while chewing a wad of moss.
There. Two ravens rose from among the boulders a couple of miles up-valley, near where she’d seen the flash. Someone must be approaching along the valley brook. Coming from the north, it might be her father’s raiders. But the raiding party wasn’t due back for weeks.
Tactics and what-ifs vanished from Petra’s mind. The Clash was tomorrow; battle plans could wait. Just then, she was the legendary scout Kastra, watchful and still. The hum of bees among wildflowers was in her ears. The shrill of an eagle, the racket of goats. She tasted far off rain on the breeze.
A few of the nimbler goats had climbed the stunted pine nearby. They were the ones making the racket. Soon it would be too late to get them back to the pasture shelter before godshade. Still, Petra waited with her spyglass trained on the place where the travelers must reappear.
There was one, dark-skinned, long-haired, leading a pack mule. Then came another man, and he was riding one. He must be injured, or sick. A hooded man walked behind. Petra held her breath. The image jumped with her heartbeat.
Reflected sunlight winked at the leader’s hip.
Who would make such a spectacle of himself, letting metal flash that way? Was it a knife? No, something that swung. Of course, Grapple’s hook! Grapple was like that: a devil-may-care, a show-off. He was also the best at climbing, the best with ropes and nets. Without Grapple, a raid might not be possible. Yet here was Grapple, leading a cripple.
Petra’s father had set out weeks before with nineteen men. Now, just three were returning.
Three raiding seasons without accidents—they were overdue for one. The last had been her brother’s death, and the men said her father took the biggest risks himself. Petra took a deep breath, steadied her spyglass. The rider was … almost downlander-pale. Not her father, then. She didn’t recognize the third man. But Grapple’s early return meant news, probably bad.
Upslope of her, a dog barked. Goats bleated.
Stupid goats—they’d hardly eaten. Too soon to take them back to camp, and they’d never follow her into the boulder field to intercept Grapple. If she left them, there’d be trouble. If she stayed with them, the men would reach camp ages before her. She’d be the last to hear the news.
Not knowing became a tightness in Petra’s chest, like a shortness of breath.
Two years ago, she’d have gone, trouble be damned. Since she’d turned fifteen, trouble had grown teeth. There’d be no indulgent smiles from the elders now. She sighed. “Basta, can’t you lot eat faster?”
Basta smacked his lips. The men vanished among boulders.
Petra was about to lower the spyglass when another movement caught her eye—a bit of mottled gray skittering along the side of a boulder. Then another.
The hairs at the back of her neck prickled. Rock spiders rarely hunted this close to camp, especially in daylight. These spiders—three of them, now—were jumping from boulder to boulder, pacing the men, keeping out of their sight. The spiders were stalking them.
Petra snapped shut the spyglass. Five minutes till godshade. Time to move.
Seconds later, she was bounding from rock to rock, staff high, braid swinging, calling “Follow me!” for all she was worth. Jakko and Bane, her duty dogs, zig-zagged down the slope, barking to drive the herd. The pasture shelter was between her and the men. She’d take the goats there, then decide what to do.
Just past the pine tree, she pulled a spray of juniper leaves from her coat pocket. “Come get it,” she cried, and ran on. A chorus of eager bleats followed. She made a course at dangerous speed down the valley’s shoulder.
Halfway to the shelter, the herd’s queen doe sailed past and plucked the leaves from her hand.
“Greedy pig,” shouted Petra, as goat tails flashed by. She gave the rest of her leaves to Basta, who was thereafter content to bounce along behind her. That’s me, thought Petra. The queen of one goat.
She reached the shelter as godshade began. Snow-capped peaks all around shone with yellowing, penumbral light. But her eyes weren’t on the peaks; they were on the white dots a mile to the south. Sheep. And where there were sheep, there would be Otger Brok—her arch-rival, her Clash opponent. According to the shepherding roster, he’d be the only other shepherd close enough to see her.
Petra trained the spyglass on the sheep. Her panting made the scene dance. Near them was Otger’s pasture shelter. Sure enough, standing on top was Otger. The boy was holding something to his eye—a spyglass, of course—and looking right at her. No, not at her … past her and downslope. She spun, then searched for the travelers in the darkening valley. They’d reached a stretch where the brook path was visible. Otger had seen them.
That pest. Always where he wasn’t wanted. Always spying. If he saw her leave the goats …
It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he wouldn’t see the spiders from so far off, and couldn’t do anything about them if he did. Nobody could—except her.
“Scut and scubble! Basta, what’ll I do?”
Basta bleated at her.
“There’s only one way, but you’ll have to stay here.”
Basta tried to jam his head into her pocket.
“Get off, Basta!”
The sun winked out and the valley plunged into the umbral dusk of godshade. Stars pricked an indigo sky. The sun was was now a tenuous disk of blue, just visible through the skyland that was casting the shade. This was Herm’s Shade, not the darkest, but beautiful and subtle. Herm’s Shade was the longest of the twelve godshades—twenty-nine minutes of near darkness. Petra tore her gaze away and ducked into the shelter.
Inside, she lit the shelter lamp. The smell of its spider oil would help keep predators away. The path wardings were strongest around the shelters, too. The clan paid the local numina—small demons of the valley—to keep the shepherd paths between shelters safe. With a dog to guard them, the oil’s scent, and the wardings, her goats would be fine. She grabbed her airgun, gave the pump lever ten pulls, good for three shots. Slotted in a dart. When she stepped back out, lamplight shone between the door planks. Otger would be sure to see it and think she was inside.
If she could reach the men, she’d accompany them to camp. Maybe her kin would be too distracted by their arrival to think of goats. If she couldn’t reach the men, she’d return to the goats with no one the wiser.
A young moon shone eastward of the starless, rectangular void of Herm’s skyland. Another emptiness above the eastern ridge marked the next in line of the wheeling skylands of the gods. Two miles south, the camp lights beckoned.
“Close guard, Jakko,” said Petra, her hand on the big dog’s head. “Round them up and don’t follow me.”
Jakko whined low and looked up at her with anxious eyes.
To the other dog, she said, “Bane, you’re with me. We’re Kastra and her loyal Maestrel when they ran through enemy lines to bring news to the king. They weren’t afraid.”
Then she set off, running with a loping stride, Bane keeping pace ahead. Shade predators would be out; she and Bane had to be alert. By the moon’s silver light, the boulders looked like hunched trolls. In their shadows, anything might lurk.
The boulders echoed footfalls that seemed to chase her. Were they even her own? She ran faster, keeping to the grass the flocks had cropped, and as far from big rocks as she could. Ahead was the brook, where she’d try to intercept the men making their way southward along it. When close enough, she’d make a ruckus to spook the spiders and warn the men. If she saw any spiders, she’d shoot them. Simple.
Halfway there, Petra’s eyes caught a flicker of movement against the stars—something airborne, coming at her. She came down hard on both feet to stop herself, her knees buckling so that she ended in a crouch. As she did, she swung her staff in an arc ahead. It struck the thing in the air and flew out of her hand. Whatever she’d struck hit the ground and rolled.
She sprang to her feet.
It was the worst it could be: a thirty pound rock spider, far from where she thought they’d be. Moonlight glinted in its forward eyes as it dipped its body to jump.
“Bane, to me,” screamed Petra. She whipped out her knife while diving to the side.
But the spider was too close. In a heartbeat, it was in the air. Its barbed legs snapped wide, like an eight-clawed hand to catch and cling, to slap and wrap around her, to stab and pump in venom.
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