aif Sevrance returned from the deerhunt to find the lamb brothers breaking up camp. A sharp wind cutting from the east pushed the men’s dark robes against their longbones. The rising sun shone along the same path as the wind, creating shadows that blew from the brothers like sand off dunes.
Four of the five tents had already been reduced to skeletons. Hides and guideropes had been stowed. The corral was still standing, but the mules and the ewe had been strung on nooselines and led to graze. Frost had grown overnight on the tough winter rye, yet the lamb brothers’ animals knew enough about hardship to take their meals where they found them. Warmer temperatures during the day had melted most of the surrounding ground snow, but lenses of ice were still fixed between the rocks.
Raif approached camp from the forested headland to the east. He’d opened and drained the deer carcass, but he could still smell its blood. It was a yearling. In a moonless hour past midnight he’d found her stealing milk from her dam. Her mother had just given birth and by rights the milk was for the newborn. The yearling had other ideas, and kept butting aside her younger brother to get to the udder and the rich green milk leaking from the teats. It had been a difficult kill. Three hearts beating in close proximity. Raif had known straight away which animal he wanted--the newborn and the dam were not for him--and he had been forced to wait under cover of a stand of hemlock until his target moved clear of the group. He had thought about taking the shot when the yearling stood directly in front of the dam. Part of him had wanted to test himself. See if he could skewer two hearts with one arrow. Yet if he killed the dam he’d have to kill the newborn--it wouldn’t survive a day without milk or protection--and one man without horse or cart could not bring back three kills.
You kill it, you butcher it.
Da’s words concerning hunting were law.
What would Tem Sevrance make of his son now? What advice would he give to a man who could heart-kill any target he set in his sights? What laws governed Raif Twelve Kill, Watcher of the Dead?
Resettling the butterflied carcass on his shoulders, Raif entered the camp. Tents had been raised twenty days earlier on new-cleared softwood. The stumps were still oozing pitch. Circles of matted yellow pine needles marked the former positions of the tents, and potholes of blackened earth told of longfires, cookfires and smoke pits. One of the lamb brothers was filling in the latrine. Another was using a long pole to unhook a slab of bear fat from the safe tree.
Raif shivered. Waiting in the pines had chilled him. The air had been still in the early hours before dawn and the frost smoke had risen: white mist that switched between ice and vapor and then back again. Five hours later and he could still feel it cooling his burned skin. The damaged muscle in his chest had shrunk and stiffened, pulling on the sutures and creating tension between his ribs. The wound on his left shoulder, where the lamb brothers had drawn out the splinter of unmade horn, was healing in unexpected ways. The skin above the exit wound had knitted closed, but the wormhole underneath remained open. Raif doubted it would ever heal. He was not and would never be whole.
All of us are missing something
, Yustaffa had said that four months ago in the Rift. He had been talking about the Maimed Men and their practice of taking a pound of flesh from anyone seeking to join them--Raif himself had lost half a finger in one of their initiation ceremonies. Yet he now understood Yustaffa’s words went beyond physical damage. Maimed Men were outcasts, orphans, fugitives, runaways: they had a world of things to miss beyond flesh.
Raif named his brother and sister in his head and then pushed all thoughts of them away. He had developed a sense about when it was safe to think of the people he loved, when it was possible to picture them in his mind without the pain of losing them. Today was not such a day.
“Got yourself a pretty doe,” Addie Gunn called in greeting. The Maimed Man had led the ewe to the sole hardwood stump in the camp, and the creature was lipping the reservoir of hardened sap that had pooled on the flat surface. “Sheep like their sweeties,” Addie said, scratching the back of the ewe’s neck. “Milk’ll be like honey tonight.”
Raif made no reply. Bending at the waist, he shucked off the yearling and let it fall to the ground. Her fawn spots were nearly gone and the white mating blaze on her rump was beginning to come in. She’d fallen with her eyes open--a steel arrowhead piercing the right ventricle of the heart rarely gave a creature time to do anything save die--and her gaze rested on a fixed point in the distance. Raif wondered if the point marked his position as he lifted his finger from the bowstring. Had she heard the soft twang of the recoil as the arrow shot toward her heart?
Reaching down, he closed her eyelids. “We leave at noon.”
Addie’s hand stilled on the ewe’s neck. He looked carefully at Raif before nodding.