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Torak didn't want it to be an omen.
He didn't want it to be anything more than an owl feather lying in the snow. So he ignored it. That was his first mistake.
Quietly, he went back to the tracks they'd been following since dawn. They looked fresh. He slipped off his mitten and felt them. No ice in the bottom. Yes, fresh.
Turning to Renn, farther uphill, he tapped his sleeve and raised his forefinger, then pointed down into the beech wood. One reindeer, heading south.
Renn gave a nod, whipped an arrow from her quiver, and nocked it to her bow. Like Torak, she was hard to see in a pale reindeer-hide parka and leggings, with wood ash smeared on her face to mask her scent. Like him, she was hungry, having eaten nothing since a slip of dried boar meat for daymeal.
Unlike him, she hadn't seen the owl feather.
So don't tell her, he thought.
That was his second mistake.
A few paces below him, Wolf was sniffing at a patch where the reindeer had scraped away the snow to get at the lichen. His ears were pricked, his silver fur fluffed up with excitement. If he sensed Torak's unease, he didn't show it. Another sniff, then he raised his muzzle to catch the scent-laden breeze, and his amber gaze grazed Torak's. Smells bad.
Torak tilted his head. What do you mean? he asked in wolf talk.
Wolf twitched his whiskers. Bad muzzle.
Torak went to examine what he'd found, and spotted a tiny bead of yellow pus on the bare earth. Wolf was telling him that the reindeer was old, its teeth rotten after many winters of munching gritty lichen.
Torak wrinkled his nose in a brief wolf smile. Thank you, pack-brother. Then he glanced at Renn, and headed downhill as silently as his beaver-hide boots would allow.
Not silently enough for Wolf, who flicked a reproachful ear as he moved over the snow as soundlessly as smoke.
Together they crept between the sleeping trees. Black oaks and silvery beeches glittered with frost. Here and there Torak saw the crimson blaze of holly berries; the deep green of a wakeful spruce standing guard over its slumbering sisters. The Forest was hushed. The rivers were frozen. Most of the birds had flown south.
Except for that owl, thought Torak.
He'd known it was an owl's feather as soon as he'd seen its furry upper side, which muffled the sound of flight when the owl was hunting. If it had been the dusky gray of a Forest owl, he wouldn't have worried; he'd simply have given it to Renn, who used them to fletch her arrows. But this feather was barred with black and tawny; shadow and flame. That told Torak it belonged to the greatest, the fiercest of owls: the eagle owl. And to find one of those—that was bad.
Wolf's black nose twitched.
Torak was instantly alert.
Through the trees, he glimpsed the reindeer, nibbling beard-moss. He heard the crunch of its hooves, saw its misting breath. Good, they were still downwind. He forgot the feather, and thought of juicy meat and rich marrowfat.
Behind him, the faint creak of Renn's bow. He fitted an arrow to his own, then realized he was blocking her view, and dropped to one knee, since she was the better shot.
The reindeer moved behind a beech tree. They'd have to wait.
As Torak waited, he noticed a spruce, five paces below him. The way it spread its snow-laden arms . . . warning him back.
Gripping his bow, he fixed his gaze on the prey.
A gust of wind stirred the beeches around him, and last summer's leaves rustled like dry, dead hands.
He swallowed. It felt as if the Forest were trying to tell him something.
Overhead a branch shifted, and a flurry of snow hissed down. He glanced up. His heart jerked. An eagle owl. Tufted ears as sharp as spearpoints. Huge orange eyes like twin suns. With a cry he leaped to his feet.
The reindeer fled.
Wolf raced off in pursuit.
Renn's arrow sped past Torak's hood.
The eagle owl spread its enormous wings and silently flew away.
"What were you doing?" shouted Renn furiously. "Standing up like that? I might have killed you!"
Torak didn't reply. He was watching the eagle owl soar into the fierce blue of the noonday sky. But eagle owls, he thought, hunt by night.
Wolf came bounding through the trees and skittered to a halt beside him, shaking off snow and lashing his tail. He hadn't expected to catch the reindeer, but he'd enjoyed the chase.
Sensing Torak's unease, he rubbed against him. Torak knelt, burying his face in the deep, coarse scruff; breathing in Wolf's familiar sweet-grass scent.
"What's wrong?" said Renn.
Torak raised his head. "That owl, of course."
He blinked. "But you must have seen it. The eagle owl—it was so close I could have touched it!"
When she still looked blank, he ran back up the hill and found the feather. "Here," he panted, holding it out.
Wolf flattened his ears and growled.
Renn put her hand to her clan-creature feathers.
"What does it mean?" said Torak.
"I don't know, but it's bad. We should get back. Fin-Kedinn will know what to do. And Torak"—she eyed the feather—"leave it here."
As he threw it into the snow, he wished he hadn't picked it up with his bare hand. A fine gray powder dusted his palm. He wiped it off on his parka, but his skin carried a whiff of rottenness that reminded him of the Raven bone-grounds.
Suddenly Wolf gave a grunt, and pricked his ears.
"What's he smelled?" said Renn. She didn't speak wolf talk, but she knew Wolf.
Torak frowned. "I don't know." Wolf's tail was high, but he wasn't giving any of the prey signals Torak recognized.
Strange prey, Wolf told him, and he realized that Wolf was puzzled too.Chronicles of Ancient Darkness #3: Soul Eater. Copyright © by Michelle Paver. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Soul Eater by Michelle Paver
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