The Raven's Shadow (The Wild Hunt) Online - Elspeth Cooper

1

MORNING

Masen walked through the whispering grass back towards camp from the river, carrying two buckets of water. He always liked early mornings, especially here in the north where the mighty peaks of the an-Archen bestriding the horizon made him feel as if he was standing at the edge of the world. He wasn’t, of course. Beyond the mountains were the Nimrothi lands, tough, tussocky country jewelled with lakes and trimmed with a steep and jagged coastline. The Broken Land, they called it, after their broken people. A thousand years of exile later, there was still more to unite them with their Arennorian cousins than to divide them, but the mountains that stood between their lands remained a symbol of their differences, like a high fence that separated feuding neighbours.

Now the Veil was failing and a Hound was loose in the Broken Land. He couldn’t help but see a connection there. The clan Speakers were no fools; they would have felt the weakness, too, and it didn’t take much imagination to see them exploiting it. First a Hound, then the rest of the Hunt would surely follow.

Masen frowned. He hoped he was wrong, prayed that after the events of last year he was simply jumping at shadows, but there was a cold certainty hardening in his gut that said he was not. The same certainty had helped him convince Alderan to send such skilled gaeden as Barin and his brother Eavin to the mountain forts just in case – though the Guardian had been reluctant to weaken Chapterhouse’s defences so soon after Savin’s assault on them.

The two dozen or so Eldannar rangers with whom the four of them had shared camp had ridden on with the dawn, leaving only smoking embers in the ring of firestones and a few piles of dung from their horses. Beside the fire was a heap of blankets, approximately human-shaped, still snoring like a band-saw.

He set down one of the buckets and prodded the heap with the toe of his boot. ‘Up you get, slugabed.’

The pile snorted something unintelligible, so he prodded it again. It groaned. ‘Go away.’

‘Come on. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping.’

‘Tell the birds to shut up. They’re too damn loud.’

‘If you have a headache, it serves you right for staying up drinking with the clansmen,’ said Masen unsympathetically.

‘But I was having so much fun!’ Sleep-tousled dark hair emerged from one end of the blankets and a green eye regarded him blearily. ‘You need to have more fun, Masen. Being sober all the time isn’t good for a man.’

‘Neither is being drunk, according to Saaron. Poisons the liver.’ Another prod. ‘Up you get, Sorchal. I’ve a bucket of water here – don’t make me use it.’

Grumbling and squinting at the brightness of the pale plains sky, the young Elethrainian crawled out of his blankets. Wordlessly, Masen pointed to the bucket of cold river water and Sorchal winced.

‘Do I have to?’

‘I’m afraid so. I need you clear-headed today.’ There was no time to be coddling the lad’s tender skull.

With a sigh, Sorchal stripped off his shirt and knelt down by the bucket. ‘You’re sure?’

‘I’m sure.’

‘You’re a cruel, cruel man.’

He dunked his head in the cold water and held it there for a count of ten, then sat up and shook himself like a dog, spraying water in all directions. Masen brushed a few stray drops off his jerkin.

‘Feel better?’

‘Yes. And no. Ow.’ Scooping wet hair off his face, Sorchal peered around at the crushed grass of the campsite. ‘Where’d everyone go?’

‘The rangers rode out before first light, and Barin and Eavin went with them. I said we’d catch them up at the fort. You slept through it all.’

‘I did? Oh. I was hoping to say goodbye.’ Crestfallen, the lad looked around again, as if the Eldannar girl he’d been matching drinks with after supper might be hiding somewhere nearby. Masen guessed that Sorchal was more used to doing the leaving than being the one who was left.

‘Ranger women never sit still for long, Sorchal,’ he said, ‘and they don’t look back. Best you don’t look back either.’

The young man rubbed his neck. ‘Mmm. Pity – I would have liked to find out if those thighs were as strong as they looked.’ He gave a rueful shrug. ‘Another time, perhaps.’

Masen snorted. ‘In your dreams, maybe!’ Sorchal gave him a look but he laughed. ‘I was your age once, lad – with twice the reputation, so I know what I’m