The Amber Arrow – Snippet 03
“Humans? We’re the shadows, Rainer,” Wulf von Dunstig said to his best friend and foster-brother, Rainer Stope. “The Divine Beings are what’s real.” Wulf and Rainer had spent the early morning out gathering firewood and were headed back to camp, each with an armload of wood. For half that time, they’d also been arguing religion. “Sturmer, Regen, the Allfather, and the others. It’s a sacred way of looking at the world. Stuff like the Sun. Storms. Ice. Water. Good luck. Bad luck.”
“Tretz isn’t just another god, or divine being, or whatever. He’s not a swap for your gods of the cathedral,” Rainer replied. He adjusted a stick on the top of his bundle that was falling off.
“Not gods. They’re principles,” said Wulf. “Spiritual principles.”
“Tretz is a person. A dragon. The firstborn dragon.”
“I know, I know–a man-drake,” Wulf replied. “Killed and risen from the dead. Son of the Never and Forever. Firstborn of the land-dragons.” Wulf was so intent on making his point, he almost tripped over a root. He managed to step over at the last moment, then continued walking through the layer of newly fallen leaves on the forest floor. There was a chill in the air. Early autumn was settling in. “I was paying attention to you all this time.”
Rainer smiled crookedly. “You either get it or you don’t.”
“I want to get it.”
“It isn’t something to prove,” Rainer said. He pointed to the star-shaped tattoo on his left forearm. The Aster. The sign of Tretzians. “It just is. He just is. Tretz.”
“Like Ravenelle and her Dark Angel and Talaia and the rest?” Wulf replied. He slipped a glance over at Rainer. This was bound to irritate his friend.
“No,” Rainer replied curtly. “Not like that at all.”
“Same roots in history.”
“We don’t dip our bread in human blood,” Rainer continued. “And ours is actual bread. Not whatever mold those Talaia wafers are made from. Makes me nauseous thinking about it.”
“Yeah, but somebody might believe that’s why you and Ravenelle are so . . . compatible . . .” Wulf let his voice trail off. There was only so far he would push his friend. Kidding him about his frustrated feelings for Ravenelle would be going too far.
Rainer stopped short and turned to Wulf. “Me and Ravenelle are what?”
“Forget it. You’re both like oil and water,” Wulf replied. “Let’s get this back to camp so I can check on Saeunn and–”
“–shush!” Rainer said, nodding to his right. “You hear that?”
“Yeah,” Wulf replied in a low voice.
“Sounds like metal,” Rainer said, also speaking quietly now.
Rainer knelt and carefully set the armful of firewood he’d been carrying in the leaves. Then he reached under his cloak and drew his sword.
Wulf set down his firewood bundle and did the same.
Definitely metallic, like Rainer said. Then Wulf heard a horse’s snort.
The voices of a men.
“Qui crepitus fecit?”
“Blood and bones!” Wulf whispered to Rainer.
There were Roman soldiers in the woods of the mark.
They hunkered down behind one of the granite outcrops that poked out along the ridge they’d been walking along. Wulf carefully look around the edge of the largest of the granite boulders.
Down the slope of the forested hill a creek glinted as it flowed through a pine-straw-covered glen. From the woods on the left soldiers emerged. Some were riding horses. Some walking.
Scale armor. Red shields. Glinting movement of horses. Horses with armor.
It was Romans, all right. Imperials.
We’re lucky they didn’t ride down on top of us, Wulf thought.
Wulf and Rainer had been in the glen below only moments before. Rainer had stopped wood gathering long enough to pull out his knife and shave off his morning’s scruff. He’d wet his whiskers with creek water, and used the flowing creek to wash away the stubble.
Wulf didn’t need to shave. He was blonde, fair, and seventeen. Well, he didn’t need to shave often.
Now they had to survive if they wanted to ever shave again.
There was a flutter and what looked like a small snow owl shot down from a tree and settled onto Wulf’s right shoulder. Her name was Nagel. She was a talking owl person.
Most Tier–animal people–looked as much like humans as animals. Not Nagel. She seemed like a normal owl in every way but one.
“Fifteen horses. Eighteen men,” she said in her screeching whisper rasp. “Swords and pikes. Soldiers.”
Wulf nodded. “Get back to the others and tell them,” he said.
“I want to stay. Blood in the air. I can smell it.”
Wulf knew ordering Nagel around wouldn’t do any good. He tried to make his whispered reply sound reasonable. “Go get Jager. There’ll be blood enough for you later.”
“Stupid bobcat. Might swat me,” Nagel said.
“Captain Jager knows you’re a person.”
Another moment of hesitation, then the owl answered. “All right, man. I’ll go.”
“Thank you. Now hurry!”
Nagel shot away, winging through the trees down the slope of the ridge.
Rainer risked a glance. He quickly ducked back down. “What the cold hell are they doing in the mark?”
Wulf frowned. “I don’t know,” he said, “but we haven’t got time for this kind of distraction.”
A voice shouted in surprise about twenty paces to the right side of them. “Hey!”
Wulf turned to see two armed Roman soldiers coming toward them from the right side along the top of the little ridge they’d climbed. They carried armloads of firewood. Both dropped the wood and drew swords.
Iberian blades. Roman short swords.
“Seems like we’re about to make time for it,” Rainer said.
“Blood and bones,” Wulf replied, shaking his head.
He glanced at Rainer. His foster-brother smiled wickedly.
“In inferno quis est?” one of the soldiers yelled. He spoke in Latin, which Wulf could understand and speak, but Rainer could not. It meant “who in Hades are you?”
“I’ll take the one on the left,” Rainer said.
“Your left or his?”
“Yep,” Rainer replied distractedly.
Rainer charged toward them. Wulf’s sword was originally forged to be a bear person’s short sword. Now it served as a long sword for Wulf.
He followed right behind Rainer.
Rainer feinted toward the Roman soldier on his right. The Imperial instinctively stumbled back. Rainer then took an overhead swing at the other. That Roman managed to get his sword up in time to block the full force of Rainer’s blow. But he gripped his sword in one hand only. So the strength of Rainer’s strike pushed the tip of the Roman’s sword down. It swung like a hinge in his hand, and sliced a gouge across his cheek.
The Roman screamed in pain and fury.
The other Imperial got back his balance. He raised his sword to strike at Rainer from behind.
Uh-oh. Rainer didn’t see this.
Wulf put on a burst of speed and levelled his sword at this man.
The soldier Rainer had wounded was facing Wulf. He took a surprised glance at Wulf charging in. He stopped his arm in midswing. Before Rainer could come back with another blow, the Roman turned and ran.
He’s going for backup, Wulf thought.
Wulf’s focus narrowed to the remaining soldier. The forest was a blur of green and brown as Wulf rushed forward.
Wulf’s sword tip rammed into the breast plate of the remaining Roman . . . and deflected to the side. The blow pushed the soldier back, though.
He turned his attention from Rainer to Wulf then. The soldier brought his sword down in a vicious swipe. The blade connected just in front of Wulf’s sword guard.
Wulf blocked it.
Wulf’s hard-won fighting habits took over. He let the blow of the other’s sword push his sword arm into a deadly arch. His run had already carried him inside the Roman’s swing. He brought the bear man’s sword down from above.
The Roman jerked his own sword up to shield himself.
Wulf’s blade sank into his left shoulder.
The leather shoulder harness that connected to the Roman’s plate armor split and the armor sagged to one side. The blow sank into flesh and bone, too. The soldier cried out. He raised his sword again.
Cold hell, he’s tough, thought Wulf. Which isn’t a surprise–if this guy really is a Roman Legionnaire.
But then the pointed end of a sword pommel slammed into the back of the man’s head. The Roman collapsed, unconscious.
Rainer stood behind the fallen Roman.
Wulf heard branches crackle and looked around for more attackers. But this was the soldier running through the forest in the direction from which he’d come from.
“Let’s get out of here.”
They sheathed their swords–Wulf put his away unwiped and bloody.
Had the Romans been tracking them, or was their meeting just a coincidence?
Doesn’t matter, Wulf thought. They’ve found us.
“The mounted soldiers won’t fight with those Iberian swords.” Rainer breathed hard as he jogged beside Wulf. “They’ll use sabers.”
They heard the whinnying of horses behind them.
The clanking of armor.
Wulf risked a glance over his shoulder.
The first of the Roman cavalry was cresting the hill.
“Here they come,” he gasped to Rainer. They ran. They leaped over a downed tree. They tore around rocky outcrops.
Now he heard the pounding of horse hooves on the leaf meal of the forest floor. He didn’t bother to look back.
“Time to take a stand,” he shouted to Rainer.
“No. I see Nagel,” Rainer said.
He pointed ahead of them through the trees. “That gulley.”
Wulf didn’t see the owl, but he trusted Rainer’s sharp vision better than his own.
“Head for it,” Wulf said. “Down the middle!”
He hoped he was guessing right. If not, he and Rainer were about to die at the end of a Roman sword. In a gulley. In the middle of nowhere.
He would fail. The girl he loved would die.
And the whole trip to Eounnbard would be for nothing.