Masen walked through the whispering grass back towards camp from the river, carrying two buckets of water. He always liked early mornings, especially here in the north where the mighty peaks of the an-Archen bestriding the horizon made him feel as if he was standing at the edge of the world. He wasn't, of course. Beyond the mountains were the Nimrothi lands, tough, tussocky country jewelled with lakes and trimmed with a steep and jagged coastline. The Broken Land, they called it, after their broken people. A thousand years of exile later, there was still more to unite them with their Arennorian cousins than to divide them, but the mountains that stood between their lands remained a symbol of their differences, like a high fence that separated feuding neighbours.
Now the Veil was failing and a Hound was loose in the Broken Land. He couldn't help but see a connection there. The clan Speakers were no fools; they would have felt the weakness, too, and it didn't take much imagination to see them exploiting it. First a Hound, then the rest of the Hunt would surely follow.
Masen frowned. He hoped he was wrong, prayed that after the events of last year he was simply jumping at shadows, but there was a cold certainty hardening in his gut that said he was not. The same certainty had helped him convince Alderan to send such skilled gaeden as Barin and his brother Eavin to the mountain forts just in case – though the Guardian had been reluctant to weaken Chapterhouse's defences so soon after Savin's assault on them.
The two dozen or so Eldannar rangers with whom the four of them had shared camp had ridden on with the dawn, leaving only smoking embers in the ring of firestones and a few piles of dung from their horses. Beside the fire was a heap of blankets, approximately human-shaped, still snoring like a band-saw.
He set down one of the buckets and prodded the heap with the toe of his boot. 'Up you get, slugabed.'
The pile snorted something unintelligible, so he prodded it again. It groaned. 'Go away.'
'Come on. It's a beautiful day, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping.'
'Tell the birds to shut up. They're too damn loud.'
'If you have a headache, it serves you right for staying up drinking with the clansmen,' said Masen unsympathetically.
'But I was having so much fun!' Sleep-tousled dark hair emerged from one end of the blankets and a green eye regarded him blearily. 'You need to have more fun, Masen. Being sober all the time isn't good for a man.'
'Neither is being drunk, according to Saaron. Poisons the liver.' Another prod. 'Up you get, Sorchal. I've a bucket of water here – don't make me use it.'
Grumbling and squinting at the brightness of the pale plains sky, the young Elethrainian crawled out of his blankets. Wordlessly, Masen pointed to the bucket of cold river water and Sorchal winced.
'Do I have to?'
'I'm afraid so. I need you clear-headed today.' There was no time to be coddling the lad's tender skull.
With a sigh, Sorchal stripped off his shirt and knelt down by the bucket. 'You're sure?'
'You're a cruel, cruel man.'
He dunked his head in the cold water and held it there for a count of ten, then sat up and shook himself like a dog, spraying water in all directions. Masen brushed a few stray drops off his jerkin.
'Yes. And no. Ow.' Scooping wet hair off his face, Sorchal peered around at the crushed grass of the campsite. 'Where'd everyone go?'
'The rangers rode out before first light, and Barin and Eavin went with them. I said we'd catch them up at the fort. You slept through it all.'
'I did? Oh. I was hoping to say goodbye.' Crestfallen, the lad looked around again, as if the Eldannar girl he'd been matching drinks with after supper might be hiding somewhere nearby. Masen guessed that Sorchal was more used to doing the leaving than being the one who was left.
'Ranger women never sit still for long, Sorchal,' he said, 'and they don't look back. Best you don't look back either.'
The young man rubbed his neck. 'Mmm. Pity – I would have liked to find out if those thighs were as strong as they looked.' He gave a rueful shrug. 'Another time, perhaps.'
Masen snorted. 'In your dreams, maybe!' Sorchal gave him a look but he laughed. 'I was your age once, lad – with twice the reputation, so I know what I'm talking about – and I never managed to woo the same one twice. Now get that fire stoked up and the kettle on whilst I see to the horses. We've still a ways to go to find that rent in the Veil.'
He took the animals their water and a bit of grain from the packs to fortify them for the hard miles ahead. His mare, Brea, greeted him by pushing her head into his chest so hard she almost knocked him over.
'Steady, girl, steady!' He chuckled and scratched her chin. 'Nice to know I haven't been forgotten.'
She snorted and shook her head as if to say she hadn't forgotten him but he wasn't yet forgiven for leaving her at livery in Fleet for half a year. He'd hardly forgiven himself, but there'd been no place for her on a barge down the Great River, so he'd had no other choice. At least the stablemen had kept her in good condition, exercised as well as fed, which in part explained the eye-watering bill he'd had to pay when they reached Fleet two days ago.
'I would have paid twice as much,' he said, patting her neck as she ate. 'And you know it.'
When he returned to the fire, Sorchal had set the kettle to boil and they broke their fast with home-cured sausage and the last of the fresh bread they'd brought from Fleet. As soon as they were done, Masen dug in his pocket for the horseshoe nail on a thread that he used as a compass to find Gates to the Hidden Kingdom.
'So,' he said, 'can you still feel it?'
Sorchal put down his cup. 'I think so.'
He scrubbed his palms on his trousers, then held one hand up in front of him and closed his eyes. At the same time, Masen felt the distinctive tug as the lad opened himself to the Song. Slowly Sorchal pushed his hand forwards as if pressing against a pane of glass. 'Yes. It's still there.'
Not for the first time, Masen wished he'd had an opportunity to find and close the rent last year, when the clansmen he'd met at Brindling Fall had first told him about it. If he had, though, he'd not have made it to Chapterhouse in time to help defend it against Savin's creatures. He sighed. Life was all about choices, and roads not taken. No matter how you might wish to, once the choice was made you couldn't go back and do differently.
Holding the nail up by the thread, he let it spin freely. 'Tell me what you feel.'
A frown of concentration creased Sorchal's brow. 'It's hard to describe.'
The nail slowed, wobbling back and forth, then began to spin in the opposite direction, untwisting the thread.
'Try.' It'll feel like a wound, like a bruise on the world's skin. Something painful, and wrong, and your heart will ache to heal it.
The Elethrainian shifted uncomfortably. 'I don't know, it's ... something that should be whole but isn't whole any more.'
Masen touched the Song, letting himself sink into the sensation, feel the wrongness crawl over his skin. No wonder Sorchal was squirming; his entire reality would feel like it was stuffed with sow-thistles.
'Like a book with some of the pages ripped out,' the lad said at last. 'And I'm a librarian, or a bookbinder, and it's my job to fix it.'
That was a good way to describe it. Not every gaeden felt the same thing, or with the same intensity; a Gatekeeper's gift manifested in much the same way as the ability to Heal, leaving some, like Alderan, barely able to draw a splinter, whilst Tanith could mend broken minds. Sorchal appeared to be one of those rare few who had not just the ability to tend the Veil, but also the compulsion.
The thread had finally stopped twisting around Masen's finger. The horseshoe nail's peculiar weight dragged at his hand; even without looking he could feel which way it was pointing. A little north of east, at the very edge of the Southmarch.
'Which way do we need to go?' he asked.
Sorchal's other hand came up and without hesitation pointed north of east. That removed the last of Masen's doubts. The lad had the makings of a good Gatekeeper – if he could keep his mind out of his underlinens.
'You can open your eyes now,' he said.
Sorchal did so and blinked at the shining nail pointing in the same direction as his hand. 'I got it right?'
'So it would appear.' Masen coiled up the thread and dropped the nail back into his coat pocket, where it pressed subtly but insistently against his hip. 'Not only can you sense Gates, you can feel rips in the Veil, too.'
'Huh.' Sorchal dropped his hands into his lap. 'Just when I was getting used to having no gift to speak of.'
'Now you've got the makings of a first-rate Gatekeeper.'
He pulled a face. 'I would have been happy just to be a first-rate fencer and seducer of women,' he said gloomily.
Masen showed his teeth. 'You can't always have what you want,' he said, and threw the dregs of his tea onto the fire as he stood. 'The trick is to learn to want what you have.'
'What I have is a hangover – I don't want that.'
'Serves you right for trying to outdrink a ranger.'
'I wasn't trying to outdrink her,' Sorchal protested. 'Just ... you know. Lower her defences a little.'
This time Masen guffawed. 'Not quite the first-rate seducer you thought you were, eh? Face it, you were lucky she left you with only blue balls and a bad head.' Hefting his saddle onto his shoulder, he started towards the horses. 'Get your gear packed up. That hole in the Veil isn't going to mend itself.'
* * *
'Fetch the Speaker!'
Drwyn's bellow carried clear across the camp despite the braying chatter of the fair. In her tent Ytha paused, soapy washcloth in one hand and water trickling down her thighs, wondering whether she had time to finish washing away the night's sweat before the messenger scratched at the tent flap.
'Aedon blast you, now!'
Sighing regretfully, she dropped the cloth back into the steaming water and reached for her towel. Her bath with her rich lavender soap would have to wait.
By the time Drwyn's man arrived she was dried and dressed, and swept out of her tent in her snow-fox mantle without waiting for him to announce himself.
'I heard,' she said. The whole Scattering likely heard, she added to herself, and set off in the direction of the chief's roar.
She found Drwyn outside his tent, fists on his hips and glaring at a travel-worn clansman standing next to a mud-spattered horse still laden with packs for a long journey. Through the open tent flap, half a dozen of the other chiefs could be seen lounging on cushions, all pointedly not watching the exchange between the man and his chief whilst no doubt straining to catch every word.
'My chief?' she said.
'Grave news, Ytha.' Drwyn shook his head. 'This could change everything. Our plans —'
Ytha held up her hand before he said too much – would the man neverlearn? – and glanced meaningfully towards the men in the tent, who all abruptly found their ale cups quite fascinating.
'Perhaps we should discuss this in private?'
She thumped her whitewood staff on the turf between her feet to get his attention. 'In. Private. There is no need to trouble the other chiefs with this.'
He looked confused, then caught on. 'Oh. Yes, of course. Very wise.'
By the Eldest, the man hadn't the sense he was born with. Just as well she had wit enough for both of them. But instead of rolling her eyes she pasted on a polite smile and gestured that he should lead the way. 'My chief?'
Inside the tent she let Drwyn apologise to the other chiefs and arrange to reconvene their meeting later in the day after he had conferred with his Speaker on a matter that required his immediate attention. They looked from him to the woman in the snow-fox robe with barely concealed curiosity but none of them chose to press the issue, and in moments the tent was empty but for a litter of cups and a haze of pipe-smoke in the air. She seated herself on a cushion with her staff across her lap as the clansman came in, and nodded to the tent flap.
'Close it.' The clansman obliged with alacrity. When it was secure, she folded her hands in her lap and eyed the chief. 'Now, why don't you tell me what was so important you dragged me away from my bath?'
'News from the east.' Drwyn gestured impatiently at the clansman. 'Go on, tell the Speaker what you told me.'
The clansman cleared his throat. He looked exhausted, his face all sharp bones and hollows exaggerated by an unkempt beard, and not even the lingering scent of Ytha's lavender soap masked the smell of horse and long travelling.
'I've come from the eastern pass, Speaker,' he said. 'The four of us were supposed to relieve the scouts, but when we got close to the fort we found fresh tracks in the snow. Tracks from many horses.'
He stopped, looking anxiously at his chief, who was pacing back and forth.
'Go on.' Ytha kept her voice cool, but her thoughts raced. The forts were supposed to be empty!
'We moved up into the rocks, all stealthy like, and watched the fort for a day. There's men there, Speaker. Dozens of them – maybe hundreds.'
Ytha's stomach turned over. 'Iron men?' she asked, and the man shook his head.
'Didn't see none. The men are all in green.'
The Empire, then. Some consolation, but still a complication she could have done without. 'Are they scouting on this side of the mountains?'
'I reckon so. We saw small bands go in and out – looked like faithless bastards, by their gear. We drew lots for who should ride back; the others are still up there.'
'I see.' How in the Eldest's name did the Empire know to send men to the passes? The forts had been empty since before her greatmother's days, and she had been assured they would stay that way. 'And what of our scouts?'
'No sign, Speaker.'
Drwyn swung on his heel. 'This changes everything, Ytha,' he declared. 'The Empire knows we are coming.'
'Not necessarily,' she said, buying herself time to think.
'It's obvious! The men I had posted at the fort are gone – the Empire must have taken them, and now they know our plans.'
A twitch of power silenced him, then she gave the weary scout her full attention, bolstered with the merest lick of compulsion so that he wouldn't be tempted to look away from her and see his chief opening and shutting his mouth like a landed fish.
'Thank you ...' She dredged her memory for the man's name. 'Gwil, isn't it?' The man nodded. 'You've done well, but I'd be obliged if you would keep this to yourself until the chief and I have had time to discuss it. Now go and get some rest – you've had a hard journey.'
When the man had let himself out, she turned back to Drwyn, who was turning red in the face as he strained to speak past the air she had stuffed into his mouth. Tempting as it was to leave him mute, she waved the magic away.
'Macha's ears, won't you ever learn to guard your tongue? Half the chiefs were in earshot of him telling you the news, and who knows what else they heard with you shouting like your fruits were on fire. How many times have I told you? You let them hear what we want them to hear, and not a word more!'
He gave her a truculent look, rubbing at his throat, but didn't argue.
'So what are we going to do?'
'Do? We do nothing, for now. Our plans have not changed.'
'You assured me those forts were empty, Ytha.'
'When I looked, they were.' And she had believed they would stay that way. She had trusted what she'd been told, that the iron men were gone and would not be coming back, but oh, there would be a reckoning for this, if she had any say in the matter! 'Situations change, and we must adapt to them.'
'How is doing nothing adapting?' He threw up his hands, prowling again. 'The Empire knows we are coming – we have lost the advantage of surprise!'
Patience wearing thin, Ytha hardened her voice. 'Stiffen your sinews, my chief, or you will be undone before you even draw your sword.'
'Aedon's balls, woman, we may be undone already!' He aimed a kick at one of the abandoned cups and sent it spinning across the tent in a spray of ale.
She raised an eyebrow. His mouth opened to say something and she arched her brow a little higher, daring him to challenge her authority. Dark eyes flashed but he stayed silent, though his fists clenched and unclenched at his sides.
Her thoughts raced, turning over the clansman's news whilst trying to keep her face calm, her voice cool. There had to be some way to ... ah.
'Be easy, my chief – all is not lost. This news is unwelcome, true, but if we play it carefully, it may even work to our advantage.'
That pulled him up short. 'How?'
'As long as they remain unaware that we have discovered their presence in the mountains, perhaps we can manipulate them,' she said. 'I will need to scry to be sure, but if they can be induced to concentrate their defences on the low pass in the east, they may leave the others more lightly defended.'
He stared at her, and slowly his expression brightened as he realised where she was leading. 'Allowing us to strike where they least expect it.'