Raven s Shadow - By Patricia Briggs

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

"It's not far now, my lad," said Tier. "That's smoke ahead, not just mist - we'll find a nice village inn where we can warm up."

His horse snorted at him in reply, or more likely at a bothersome drop of rain, and continued its steady progress down the trail.

The horse, like the sword Tier carried, was of far better quality than his clothing. He'd scavenged both the horse and sword from men he'd killed: the sword in his first year of war, the horse earlier this year when his own mount had been killed beneath him. A warhorse bred and trained to carry a nobleman, Skew had carried Tier, a baker's son, through two battles, six skirmishes, and, by rough reckoning, almost a thousand miles of trail.

He was a valuable horse, though in the first few weeks of Tier's journey the avarice in the eyes of the ragged men in the areas torn by years of war had as much to do with hunger as gold. Tier had waited eagerly for one of them to attack him, to ambush him if they could. But something, maybe the battle-readiness that still lurked under his calm facade, kept them away from him.

But in the more prosperous areas away from the Empire's borders, the chances of an attack were greatly lessened, damn the luck. A fight would have given him momentary respite from the dread he felt toward his current task - going home.

So many were dead. The two young men from his village who'd signed on with him to fight in a war half a continent away from their home had died, as had many other young men hoping for gold, glory, or escape. Tier had survived. He still wasn't quite certain how that had happened - he certainly hadn't planned on it. He had never sought death, but any soldier knows his demise could come at any time.

If the war had lasted forever, Tier would have fought until he died. But the war was over, and the post the Sept he'd served offered him was nothing he wanted. He had no desire to train up more young men for battle.

So now he rode back home. It would have never occurred to the boy who'd crept out of the family home almost a decade ago that returning would be so much harder than leaving.

Tier's massive gelding shook his black and white mane, splattering Tier with water. He patted the horse's neck.

"There, what did I tell you, Skew?" Tier said. "There's a roof down there, you can see it between the trees."

He looked forward to the warm common room of an inn, flooded with noise and ale - things to fill his emptiness. Maybe a bit of cheer would stay with him until he was home.

He was getting closer. Even without a map, the bitter taste of old magic that filled these mountains would have told him so. Though the battle had been over long ago, wizard's magic had a way of outlasting even memories, and the Shadowed had been a great wizard. Closer to the battlefield of Shadow's Fall, riding the forest paths could be dangerous. Near his home village, Redern, everyone knew to avoid certain places still held in fell magic's grip.

Unconcerned about magic of any kind, the bay and white patchwork-colored gelding picked his way down the narrow mountain pathway, and, as the slope turned gentle, onto a dirt track that in turn widened into a cobbled road. Shortly thereafter the small village Tier'd glimpsed from the hills above emerged from beneath the trees.

The wet stone houses, so different from the wooden villages he'd ridden through these past nine years, reminded him of home, though there was a softness to the architecture that his village did not have. It wasn't home, but it was a proper village. It would have a market square, and that's where the inn would be.

He envisioned a small, warm room, bathed in golden light from the fireplace and torches - someplace where a soldier could get a good, hot meal and stay warm and dry.

As he drew closer to the town market, the smell of smoke and roasting meat filled the air. It was reflex only that had him loosen his sword and made the gelding flex and snort: too much war, too many villages burned. Tier murmured to Skew, reminding him they were done with that part of their lives, though he could not make himself resecure his sword.

As they turned