aif led his borrowed horse out onto clay court, strung his borrowed horn and sinew bow and strapped it to his back. A pale moon rode low in the sky. The wind was brisk and from the north; it tasted of the badlands. Iced-over puddles crunched beneath his boots. As he mounted the gelding, he noticed a second horse's tracks freshly stamped on the court. Shor Gormalin
, he thought, kicking the gelding into a trot.
The land directly surrounding the roundhouse was set aside for grazing sheep and cattle, and was kept free of all game by Longhead and his crew. If a man wanted to hunt he had to ride northwest to the Wedge or south to the hemlock woods beyond the ridge. The Oldwood was closer, but that was set aside for trapping, not hunting. And trapping was for women, not men.
Raif rode south. Moose was not a swift horse, but he gave a steady ride. Moonlight reflecting off the snow made it easy to find a path, and horse and rider made good time. As soon as he was free of the valley and onto the wooded slopes, ridges and grassy draws of the southern taiga, Raif began to search for game. Frozen ponds with surface ice broken, tufts of hair snagged on ground birch, hemlock girdled by wild boars and goats, and fresh tracks stamped in the snow were signs he looked for. He didn't much care what he brought down. He just needed to turn his mind from the roundhouse and the people in it.
A hawk owl soared overhead, a mouse or vole twitching in its claws. Raif watched as the bird flew down into the cavity of a broken top snag. At the base of the lightening-blasted tree, two eyes glowed golden for a instant and then winked out leaving darkness. Fox. One hand reining Moose, another reaching for the bow at his back, Raif held his gaze on the fox space. The bowstring was cold and stiff, but he didn't have time to run a finger over it and warm the wax. He could no longer see the fox, but he knew it was there, withdrawing slowly into the tangle of gorse and dogwood beyond. Like most clansmen, Raif kept his arrows in a buckskin case at his side to cut down on the sort of motion that sent game running, and he slid an arrow from his pack and knocked it against the plate all within a single movement. The bow ticked as he drew it.
the fox to him. The space separating them condensed and almost immediately, he felt the heat of the creature's blood against his cheek. He tasted its fear. Everything sloughed away, leaving only he, the fox and the still line that lay between them. The raven lore itched against his skin. This
was what he wanted. Here at least he had some control.
Releasing the string was little more than an afterthought. Although he could no longer see the fox, he had its heart in his sights and when his fingers lifted and the arrow streaked forward, Raif knew without a shadow of a doubt that the shot would find its mark.
The fox fell with barely a sound. A few leaves rustled, fox-weight thudded onto hard snow. Raif peered into the killing ground beyond the base of the old snag. He wanted more.
Heart racing, he jumped down from Moose, bow in hand. Even as he took his first step upon the ice-crusted snow, his breath crystallizing in the freezing air, he became aware of another creature hiding far on the other side of the bluff, fast against a year old hemlock. As he raised his bow and sighted it, Raif couldn't say if he had seen the animal's eyes, caught a glimpse of its cowering form, or simply heard it move. It didn't matter. He sensed it, that was all he knew.
The flight feathers on the arrow kissed his cheek as he called
the creature to him. It was a weasel, tick infested and thick-jointed with age. Its heart beat too fast in its chest. Raif's hand was steady on the belly of his bow as he released the string. By the time the twine came back Raif was already looking for something new to kill. His lore hummed against his chest and his bow sung in his hand. The night was alive, his senses were sharp, and every pair of eyes shining in the darkness had Mace Blackhail's name upon them.