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The viper glided down the riverbank and placed its sleek head on the water, and Torak stopped a few paces away to let it drink.
His arms ached from carrying the red deer antlers, so he set them aside and crouched in the bracken to watch. Snakes are wise, and know many secrets. Maybe this one would help him deal with his.
The viper drank with unhurried sips. Raising its head, it regarded Torak, flicking out its tongue to taste his scent. Then it coiled neatly back on itself and vanished into the ferns.
It had given him no sign.
But you don't need a sign, he told himself wearily. You know what to do. Just tell them. Soon as you get back to camp. Just say, "Renn. Fin-Kedinn. Two moons ago, something happened. They held me down, they put a mark on my chest. And now . . ."
No. That wasn't any good. He could picture Renn's face. "I'm your best friend—and you've been lying to me for two whole moons!"
He put his head in his hands.
After a while he heard rustling, and glanced up to see a reindeer on the opposite bank. It was standing on three legs, furiously scratching its budding antlers with one hind hoof. Sensing that Torak wasn't hunting, it went on scratching. The antlers were bleeding: The itch must be so bad that the only relief was to make them hurt.
That's what I should do, thought Torak. Cut it out. Make it hurt. In secret. Then no one need ever know.
The trouble was, even if he could bring himself to do it, it wouldn't work. To get rid of the tattoo, he'd have to perform the proper rite. He'd learned that from Renn, whom he'd approached in a roundabout way, using the zigzag tattoos on her wrists as an excuse.
"If you don't do the rite," she'd told him, "the marks just come back."
"They come back?" Torak had been horrified.
"Of course. You can't see them; they're deep in the marrow. But they're still there."
So that was the end of that, unless he could get her to tell him about the rite without revealing why he needed to know.
The reindeer gave an irritable shake and trotted off into the Forest, and Torak picked up the antlers and started back for camp. They were a lucky find, big enough for everyone in the clan to get a piece, and perfect for making fish-hooks and hammers for knapping flint. Fin-Kedinn would be pleased. Torak tried to fix his mind on that.
It didn't work. Until now, he hadn't understood how much a secret can set you apart. He thought about it all the time, even when he was hunting with Renn and Wolf.
It was early in the Moon of the Salmon Run, and a sharp east wind carried a strong smell of fish. As Torak made his way beneath the pines, his boots crunched on flakes of bark scattered by woodpeckers. To his left, the Green River chattered after its long imprisonment under the ice, while to his right, a rock face rose toward Broken Ridge. In places it was scarred, where the clans had hacked out the red slate which brings hunting luck. He heard the clink of stone on stone. Someone was quarrying.
That should be me, Torak told himself. I should be making a new axe. I should be doing things. "This can't go on," he said out loud.
"You're right," said a voice. "It can't."
They were crouching on a ledge ten paces above him: four boys and two girls, glaring down. The Boar Clan wore their brown hair cut to shoulder length, with bangs; tusks at their necks; stiff hide mantles across their shoulders. The Willows had wovenbark strips sewn in spirals on their jerkins, and three black leaves tattooed on their brows in a permanent frown. All were older than Torak. The boys had wispy beards, and beneath the girls' clan-tattoos, a short red bar showed that they'd had their first moon bleed.
They'd been quarrying: Torak saw stone dust on their buckskins. Just ahead of him, he spotted a tree-trunk ladder, notched with footholds, which they'd propped against the rock face, to climb up to the ledge. But they were no longer interested in slate.
Torak stared back, hoping he didn't look scared. "What do you want?"
Aki, the Boar Clan Leader's son, jerked his head at the antlers. "Those are mine. Put them down."
"No they're not," said Torak. "I found them." To remind them he had weapons, he hoisted his bow on his shoulder and touched the blue slate knife at his hip.
Aki wasn't impressed. "They're mine."
"Which means you stole them," said a Willow girl.
"If that was true," Torak told Aki, "you'd have put your mark on them and I'd have left them alone."
"I did. On the base. You rubbed it off."
"Of course I didn't," said Torak in disgust.
Then he saw what he should have seen before: a smudge of earthblood at the base of one antler, where a boar tusk had been drawn on. His ears burned. "I didn't see it. And I didn't rub it off."
"Then put them down and get out of here," said a boy called Raut, who'd always struck Torak as fairer than most. Unlike Aki, who was spoiling for a fight.
Torak didn't feel like giving him one. "All right," he said briskly. "I made a mistake. Didn't see the mark. They're yours."
"What makes you think it's that easy?" said Aki.
Torak sighed. He'd come across Aki before. A bully: unsure if he was a leader, and desperate to prove it with his fists.
"You think you're special," sneered Aki. "Because Fin-Kedinn took you in, and you can talk to wolves and you're a spirit walker." He raked his fingernails over the scant hairs on his chin, as if checking they were still there. "Truth is, you only live with the Ravens because your own clan's never come near you. And Fin-Kedinn doesn't trust you enough to make you his foster son."Chronicles of Ancient Darkness #4: Outcast. Copyright © by Michelle Paver. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Outcast by Michelle Paver
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