The Amber Arrow – Snippet 02

There were quite a few Skraelings who were subjects of the mark. They lived in the extreme north of Shenandoah. There were also plenty of Skraeling traders who travelled up and down the Shenandoah and Potomac river routes dealing in tobacco, pelts, and cotton. These Skraelings were leagues away from either fork of the river, and thirty leagues from the mark’s northern border.

These were not men of the mark. She could tell by their dress, even by their walk.

This was the moment to decide whether she would kill them or not. The man was crossing in front of the old willow stump in the center of the clearing.

Ursel could make most any shot either instinctively or by taking careful aim. She wanted to cut this very fine. She eyed what looked like either a worn spot or a patch on his thrown back cloak. The cloak was flapping slighting in a breeze from the west. She was about twenty paces up the hill from the man. She was firing through a fissure in the outcrop.

Ursel drew the bow.

She used a pinch grip on the bowstring. She was good with all kinds of grips, and could adjust for conditions, but the pinch was the first grip she’d ever learned, and she often used it for accuracy and a hard strike.

Her eye came down to the bowstring. Her pupil aligned with the top of the arrow. Her face contacted the bowstring with a feather-like touch. She used a slight tightening of her cheek to align her shot left to right.

Ursel released.

The arrow sliced through the man’s cloak and sank into the old willow stump. The Skraeling man, who was taking a step forward, got yanked back by his own clothing.

He fell on his butt with a whump.

Chapter Two:

The Middle Name

Askwiwan!” the man shouted. He quickly tried to pull himself up.

Bad move.

The cloak was pinned tight to the trunk. He fell back down again.

Makwa ikwe!” he yelled to those behind him. Then he desperately tried to wriggle around the stump to take cover.

“Stop!” Ursel called out. “The rest of you. Drop your weapons or I’ll kill him!”

She spoke in Kaltish, hoping they understood. She didn’t speak a word of any Skraeling tongue. She’d hate to have to kill them for that reason.

She’d nocked another arrow without realizing it. She took aim and fired this into the ground next to the pinioned Skraeling’s leg. She must have caught a bit of his skin, because he jerked back from it with a cry of pain.

“I said ‘drop your weapons,'” she shouted.

The other men moved into the clearing. They looked to the man by the stump as if they expected to receive orders.

“We don’t have any weapons,” he shouted back in Kaltish. He sounded more irritated than frightened.

“Sure you do. Drop your bows and quivers,” she answered back. “All of you.”

“Those are for hunting.”

Ursel let fly another arrow. This one thwacked into the stump near the man’s head. She knew without looking that she had seven more arrows in her quiver. So that would have to be the last warning shot.

She hoped he’d gotten the idea that she would kill him if she felt threatened.

Because she would.

Evidently he had. The leader nodded toward his men. “Do it,” he told them.

They all slowly set down their bows on the leafy ground of the clearing.

“And tomahawks!” she called. “Don’t forget your tomahawks.”

“Why? Shooting like that, you’d kill us before we could scalp you,” the man called back.

“Shut up and throw down the tomahawks.”

Five of the men dropped theirs. A sixth, a very tall Skraeling, suddenly made a twist and launched his tomahawk with a roar of frustration right at Ursel. It clattered off the flinty rock she was behind, shooting out several sparks as it did.

That was one amazing throw, Ursel thought.

She instantly had the thrower sighted and could easily have put an arrow through him.

Maybe should.

But she let go of her draw.

“Tell your man he almost got himself killed,” she shouted.

The pinioned man yelled something at the thrower of the tomahawk. She couldn’t see his expression from where she was, but from the way he hung his head, he looked ashamed.

“Now state your business!” she called out. “Why are you tracking me?”

“We are looking for–that is, we have been sent to look for–a woman. A red-haired woman.”

“Who sent you?”

“The duchess regent of this land.”

“Oh yeah? What’s her name?”

“Duchess Ulla von Dunstig.”

“Wrong answer.”

“Ah, that’s right. The surname has changed. Not von Dunstig anymore. Ulla Smead.”

“Prove it.”

“I have a letter of introduction with Lady Ulla’s seal, and another letter addressed to the earl. Or actually to the earl’s retainer. This red-haired woman who is supposed to receive all messages for Earl Keiler. They call her Ursel. I don’t know her surname, if she even has one. She’s a commoner, I’m told.”

Ursel couldn’t help smiling a vicious smile. She so wanted to mess with this arrogant outlander.

“I may know her,” she called out. “And she has a last name. And a middle name.”

“All right,” the man said with a shrug. “What of it?”

“Her middle name is ‘Arrow-to-the-groin.'”

There was a pause as the man considered whether she might be telling the truth. His hand moved down, maybe unconsciously, to cover his privates.

“Very funny,” he replied shakily. “You’re making me nervous.”

“Her last name is Keiler,” Ursel said. “Keiler, like the earl. She’s his foster-daughter.”

“Oh.” A pause. “And you? Who are you?”

Ursel didn’t bother to reply to him. “You’re three leagues away from Bear Hall,” she said.

“We went to Bear Hall. But this secretary wasn’t there. The earl wouldn’t receive us without her. They said she handled castle business. So we decided to leave and look for her.”

“Without a guide in the Shwartzwald? Unwise.”

“We’re free men. We do what we want.”

“Right. Not in my forest.”

Ursel sighed. She had a feeling it would be a while before she would be able to get back to her original task. The wild creatures of the western forest would have to stay wild for now.

“We really need to speak to this Ursel.” The man pulled the arrow from his cloak and stood up. He turned so that she had an easy shot if she’d wanted to spear him through the chest. “My people are dying right now,” he said. “We’ve come to plead for help.”

He was brave. She’d give him that. Or arrogant enough to think she wouldn’t shoot.

I ought to put another one through his cloak for that haughty expression, she thought. Or through a shoulder. That would teach him.

But no. She did very much want to hear what Ulla Smead had to say. Ulla was the duchess regent, after all, and she was Ursel’s liege lord.

And Wulf’s sister.

Ursel felt the knife in her stomach twist yet again.

Blood and bones, I have to get that man off my mind.

“All right,” she called out. “Come here and show me the letter.”