Little over twenty thousand. Hardly the Queen’s Host, but they do have their wolves and their hawks. “Have they seen any sign of the Volarians?”

“Scouts were sent south with the first thaw,” Astorek related. “As they are every year. They will return when the Volarians cross from the hill country into the plains. They usually come when the sun rises higher, some two months from now.”


Vaelin recalled No Eyes’s words on the ice; I am patient and I suspect you still have far to go. “They will come sooner this year, and we cannot afford to wait. Your people must gather their warriors, and all their wolves and hawks, and come south with me.”

The unease of the elders deepened visibly as Astorek translated, though no words were spoken as they exchanged wary glances. Even after a lifetime’s belief, Vaelin surmised, still hard to trust your fate to paint daubed on a wall centuries before.

Finally, one of the elders spoke, a stooped old man leaning heavily on a staff, his voice thin and strained, but still capable of commanding deep respect from the way Astorek related his words with precise solemnity. “Far Walker, oldest and wisest of the Wolf People, asks what promise the Raven’s Shadow can offer. Are the words of the Great Boat People made true?”

“I can offer no words regarding your beliefs,” Vaelin replied. “And any man who leads others to war on a certain promise of victory is either a fool or a liar. I offer a chance to defeat your enemy and prevent their coming again. Nothing more.”

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The old man spoke again when Astorek finished his translation, moving closer to stare up at Vaelin, his ancient features alternating between confusion and wonder. “As a child I would ask the elders, ‘When will the Raven’s Shadow come?’ Over and over I would ask them, for I knew he had not come in the time of my parents, or grandparents, or throughout the many Long Nights before then. ‘Not as long as you live, little one,’ they would tell me, and so I would sleep well, knowing your time would bring great torment and trial for the Wolf People, but I would be spared the sight of it.”

He continued to stare at Vaelin for some time, finally speaking a short question in a soft rasp. “How will you defeat our enemy?”

“With your warriors, your shaman, your wolves and your hawks. With the steel of the soldiers I command, and the fierce skill of the allies who followed us here.” He paused to glance at Dahrena and the Gifted who lingered at the edge of the hollow. “And the courage of bright and powerful souls.”

Far Walker lowered his gaze and turned away, stalking back into the depths of the tree with a weary stride. He spoke again before the shadows swallowed him, the words causing an instant gasp of shock from the other Wolf People. Some called after him, urgent questions cast into the dark, but there was no answer.

“What did he say?” Vaelin asked Astorek, who stood gaping in the old man’s wake.

“His will,” the Volarian replied in a tone that discouraged further questioning. He turned his gaze to the other elders, asking a question to which they all responded with a series of nods, some more reluctant than others. “We will come with you,” Astorek said.

• • •

Dahrena sat amidst a circle of fires, eyes closed and face growing paler by the minute as Marken, Lorkan and Cara worked to keep the flames high. Vaelin remained at her side, keeping a seal fur wrapped tight around her slender form until she gave the shudder that signified a return. She sagged against him, groaning as he rubbed her shoulders. “You might think this would get easier with practice.”

Cara handed Dahrena a cup of warmed pine ale, which made her cough a little but also restored a pinkness to her cheeks. “They’ve yet to reach the hills,” she told Vaelin. “But they’re coming, a great host led by seven generals. I could see them riding out ahead, their souls so dark it seemed as if they swallowed the light, and they were all the same. I’ve only seen one like it before. On the ice.”

“No Eyes,” Vaelin said and she nodded. Seven souls, all the same, he thought. The Ally sends the Witch’s Bastard with an army. How much does he fear what we seek?

• • •

The Wolf People insisted on a full week of hunting before setting out. Despite the thaw, life on the northern tundra remained precarious throughout the year and stores were needed for the people who would be left behind when the warriors started south. Astorek invited Vaelin and Kiral on his expedition, each shaman being required to lead a hunting party, though he forbade him from bringing Scar. “We hunt on foot, the elk will feel his hooves through the earth.”

They trekked east for a day with twenty hunters, Astorek’s wolves ranging ahead in a wide arc, pausing constantly to raise their snouts and sniff the air. The wolves would often spur into a run, disappearing over the horizon for an hour or more, but were always found waiting for them a short while later. Their direction changed frequently, veering north then south without warning.

“How far can they travel before you lose them?” Kiral asked the shaman, who seemed puzzled by the question.

“The bond goes deep, so deep distance means nothing. They could be on the other side of the world and I would still feel them.”

He stopped, straightening as the wolves came to a halt, all crouched low, noses pointed to the south west. The Wolf People all dropped to the ground as one, Vaelin and Kiral sinking down at Astorek’s side as he raised a hand to the air, turning it to gauge the wind. He gave a brief jerk of his head and the wolves immediately streaked off towards the south, moving in a tight bunch. “They will bring them to us.”

The hunters crawled forward until they formed a line parallel to the shaman, lying prone with spears in hand. The grass that grew on the tundra was stunted, providing little cover but also a clear view of the horizon. Each hunter carried three spears, all with barbed iron heads, Vaelin noting the scratchlike script with which they had decorated the hafts. Every spear had its own story, it seemed.

“Ever hunt the great elk?” Kiral asked, notching an arrow to her bow.

Vaelin shook his head, readying his own bow. His arrows were all suited for war rather than hunting, narrow and pointed to pierce mail or armour, so Kiral passed him three of her own, barbed like the hunters’ spear-heads but fashioned from the same unbreakable black glass used by the Seordah. “One won’t suffice,” she told him. “Ignore the flanks and aim for the neck.”

He heard them before he saw them, a thunderous tremor reverberating through the ground accompanied by the faint yelping of wolves. When the leading elk came into view it seemed at first as if a tree had suddenly sprouted on the skyline, a broad-branching silhouette bobbing as it grew in size, a small forest springing up around it. He had seen the Eorhil sporting fragments of elk antler and gained an appreciation of their size from the Wolf People’s cave painting, but the sight of a living beast was truly impressive. The first stag to appear had antlers fully ten feet across, the animal itself standing almost as high as two men, raising a thick cloud of dust as it sped towards them, head low, the tips of the antlers as long as sword blades.

When the elk were within thirty paces the hunters rose as one, their spears flying free in quick succession, the lead stag and two others tumbling to the ground in a mass of flailing hooves and shattered antlers. The rest of the herd veered away from the danger, streaking off to the north with the wolves in pursuit. One of the wounded stags managed to rise, snorting and swaying its part-broken antlers about, before charging directly at the nearest hunter. Kiral sent an arrow into its neck, Vaelin following with two more, but the animal barely slowed, antlers scraping the ground as it bore down on the hunter. However, it transpired he had little need of their help, sprinting forward at the last second to leap over the stag’s head, revolving in the air to plant both hands on its neck and vault himself over it in a somersault that would have impressed any acrobat.

The stag snorted and wheeled about, trailing blood and bellowing in frustration before Kiral finished it with a carefully aimed shaft through its eye, a feat of archery Vaelin doubted even Reva could have matched. Vaelin moved to Astorek as the hunters fell to butchering their prey, long knives flashing as they gutted and dismembered the carcasses with automatic speed. He could see the wolves a hundred paces off, clustered around another carcass, their usual placidity vanished as they squabbled and snapped at each other, white fur besmirched with gore from snout to tail.

“Their reward,” Astorek said. “Isn’t good to bind them too tight. Sometimes they need to remember what they are.”

In the distance a dust cloud told of the remaining elk continuing their flight. “You don’t take them all,” Vaelin observed.

“If we do, there’ll be none to take next year.”

“When we come to fight the Volarians it will not be a hunt, but a battle. None can be allowed to flee. We will take them all.”

“You imagine I have some scruple about killing my former people? It’s nothing I haven’t done before.”

“This will be different. This time they are led by something far worse than an overambitious general.”

Kiral approached, wiping gore from her arrows and casting a cautious glance at the shaman. “Lord Vaelin speaks true,” she told him. “I feel your compassion. But it will kill you when we face the Ally’s favoured dog.”

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