Petra kept herself still while Tegan whispered the Rite of Safe Passage, reading by the glow of a spider light held up to Petra’s book. They were in the cheese cellar, a natural grotto just inside the camp fence. Bane was with them.
When she’d finished, Tegan handed Petra a cheese. “One for the trail,” she said. Over the round’s black skin she’d painted red wax figures of the dragon, the cradle, and the horn—and a fourth: a little warrior with staff and sword.
“Is that me?”
Blinking, Petra stuffed the cheese into her pack. “I wish you’d put yourself there too,” she said, gruffly.
Of course Tegan had wanted to go with Petra to warn Tash Ward and their fathers of Gronnor’s treachery. They’d talked about it, imagined how it would be. But it had been hard enough to get supplies out for one, and the Broks would be sure to come after Gronnor’s bride-to-be. So Tegan would stay to delay the discovery of Petra’s escape.
The girls embraced, then Petra climbed into the night with Bane at her heel.
At the brook’s edge, near the usual spot for washing bed pots, she faced the camp fence. Its staves were strung with wires that carried a small current. If any was cut, or if two were touched at once, a bell by the gate would ring. The fence could slow down a spider and keep out a wolf, but it couldn’t keep Petra Drakhorn in.
Her trail boots were in her pack. Her coat she’d tied in a bundle. These she lobbed over the fence, wincing at the thump each made on the turf beyond. Then she crawled under the fence, where the dwindling of the brook had left its lowest wire high enough above the water’s surface.
Bane splashed behind, keeping his tail down.
On the far side, having hidden her sodden camp shoes under a rock and donned her boots and coat, Petra glanced back into the camp—and froze. An elder wearing a bedgown was watching her.
The woman’s moonsilver hair hung loose, so that at first Petra didn’t recognize her. Then she did; it was Elder Jess. Woman and girl stood still as statues for a long moment. Then Petra raised her hand a little in salute. Jess did the same. Petra turned and walked away.
The valley was silent but for the brook. And in that silence she had little time to accomplish the most difficult part of her escape: she had to steal a mule. Mistake was the only mule left, and there was a reason for that.
Petra slipped the wire gate and crossed the paddock, shadow-like and soundless. As she did, there came from the pen a frightful bellow, half bray, half howl. She froze mid-step. Bane whined and ducked his head. The sheep bleated.
From beyond the paddock floated the Brok guard’s voice. “Ah shaddup, ya stupid tinpot beast, ya.”
Petra was sure Mistake could hear her heart pounding, and would make a racket the instant she moved. She tried another way.
“Mistake, I’m here,” she said, low and calm.
From the pen came a shuffle and scrape.
“I’ve come to let you out.”
The mule was silent.
Bane looked up at Petra, his ears pricked.
She stepped to the pen, raised the latch and slowly opened the door. Stood in the moonlight so that Mistake could study her, then entered. She found his stall by touch and unbarred it. Mistake followed her out, as sweet as could be.
The slanting moonlight silvered the mule’s flanks and made his appearance more starkly bizarre than it was in daylight. He was mule-sized and mule-shaped in profile—except that his forelegs bent the wrong way at the knee. The person he turned his gaze on was in for a shock, because his eyes faced forward, and except for the jack’s ears, his head was more dog’s than mule’s. Mistake was a jackalute, his sire a donkey and his dam a biometalloid malute—a sled dog and false breeder. In the downlands, Mistake’s existence was a crime. In the downlands, he’d be shot on sight, and his owner hung.
The ragged magician who’d sold him to Ward, a gaunt man fleeing retribution, had been persuasive. “He’s strong,” he’d said, and that was true. “He’ll run on snow.” And he could, if he wished to do so. “He’s smart,” he’d claimed. It was debatable. “He’ll follow you to Hell and breed more like himself.” In these last claims, the truant wizard had proved false. Ward had named the beast ‘Hazard’. But Hazard was recalcitrant and wicked, and spurned mares and jennies. The clansmen shook their heads and called him Ward’s Mistake, until that became his name.
Perhaps Mistake was tired of being cooped up alone. Perhaps he remembered that Petra sometimes gave him meat when she visited the pens. Whatever the reason, he allowed her to lead him by a halter down the field path. Soon they’d gained the cover of the Clash ground.
The little company descended to the brook path and walked south. Petra made sure that Mistake trod once in mud. She dropped a sliver of wax. That was enough of a false trail; she’d not forgotten her error with the shelter light. Now she had three hours before the morning bell woke the camp, and in that time, she’d circle north around it by way of the pastures on the eastern slope. She picked a route across hard-pack and stone to hide their traces, always careful of the sight lines. They mustn’t be seen either by the camp guard or the watchmen on the ridge-tops.
Petra favored her sore leg more from habit than need. Though she felt the rib, she could breathe deeply again. Were they healed already, or was it the pain medicine she’d nicked? Tegan had slathered her back and arm with ointment. They itched.
When the moon shone, she found a hidden pasture for Mistake to graze in. It was necessary because of his coloring, which even the magician had not praised. The living metal, his dam’s corruption, spread in branching veins across his flanks and belly, and bronzed the sinews of his legs. His thick, lustrous hair gleamed like silver through smoke. His teeth flashed like Grapple’s hook.
By starlight, they walked as quickly as the path allowed. Petra’s backpack grew heavier and she looked forward to sharing the burden with Mistake. Besides supplies, her pack held treasures stolen from her parents’ tent. One was a map so precious, the thought of it prickled her skin with guilty sweat. Sadly, Gronnor had beaten her to one of her father’s best: a ‘talic knife that cut steel as though it were butter.
When the morning bell rang clear and faint, the travelers had reached a shelter far enough north of camp to be hard to spot by accident.
In the weed-covered hollow of a boulder, Petra found the hidden cache, the result of her cousin’s labors of two days past. Tegan had taken up bags on the pretext of re-supplying the shelters. She’d done things that were very unlike her: skipping chores and leaving sheep untended while she ran between pastures in godshade. She’d even stolen blasting powder.
“You’re the best, Tegs,” whispered Petra. “You’re Herm’s staff.”
There were the essentials for a trek to Karlward: a half-barrel tent, a bedroll, a spider fence, food, and rope. Petra’s airgun, too. Gronnor’s men had not searched her clothes chest when they’d raided the tent for weapons. There were panniers and a dark robe for Mistake.
It took an hour to persuade him to accept the robe, panniers, and supplies. He snapped his silver teeth and threatened to kick. Petra was drenched with sweat and nearly frantic by the time she discovered that he’d permit any indignity for a slice of salt goat. The sweat made the silk cuts burn.
Then they walked north. Petra glanced often behind, half expecting to see men in pursuit.
That evening, tired but happy for the first time in days, Petra reached the tip of Antrim Valley and the barren shoulder of Slemnor Mountain. There stood the northernmost shelter that the Drakhorns had built in their many returns to the valley. From a perch on the lonely drystone cone, she could see the whole length of the valley to the south. To the east lay the upper reach of Cranny Vale, and beyond that, marching to the horizon and edged with sunset gold, the razorbacks that she would have to cross.
As she braced a boot to steady her glass, something crunched under it: a beetle, now dead, its small life crushed out against the cold rock. “Sorry,” she murmured. Most likely she’d end up the same way. She didn’t feel brave like Kastra just then, but neither did she have doubts. There was nothing behind, no hope or comfort. Eastward and north were her father and the raid, and her last duty.
Bane snuffled at the shelter door.
As the sun died on the blade of the westward ridge, Petra pulled the door open.
Blood-red light filled the interior, and fell full on the face of Otger Brok.