The Amber Arrow – Snippet 04
Wulf had always figured that he and Rainer would die together. Probably doing something like this, fighting a bunch of bullies in a ditch. That was the way it went the whole time they were growing up.
They had been the low boys in the castle kid pecking order. The commoner, Rainer. And Wulf–third son, not even spare to the heir.
People who didn’t matter.
Both the perfect ones for the castle kids to take out frustrations and resentment on.
Except they had survived the bullies at Raukenrose Castle. The unfair fights. The ambushes.
So he and Rainer swore together, they made a pact.
Never give in.
Go down swinging.
They had gone down. A lot. At first.
That was ten years ago. Now he was seventeen and Rainer was eighteen.
Rainer had gotten better, until he was, simply, the best fighter around. Wulf had become, if not a great warrior, at least more durable.
The gulley was formed by what looked like an on-again-off-again stream flowing down the hill. Today it was dry. Its bottom was filled with creek rock. Rainer rattled his way over the stones. Wulf followed close behind, pleading to Sturmer and all the divine beings that he wouldn’t twist an ankle.
Sturmer evidently wasn’t in a giving mood. Wulf’s boots, slicked by the damp leaves he’d been running on, slipped on a smooth creek stone. The pain in his turned ankle was momentarily excruciating. But the ankle wasn’t sprained, and after a couple of steps the agony tapered off. He kept going, gritting his teeth against the little sparks of shooting pain that remained.
A javelin flew past him, almost taking him in the side of the head. It clattered on the stones ahead of him.
“They’re close!” he called out to Rainer.
There was a slight twist in the gulley. Another javelin embedded itself in the dirt bank where the twist began. They rounded behind the bank. Wulf glanced back. They were out of sight of the Romans for a moment.
Still he heard the sound of nearby horse hooves. Rainer pointed to the side of the gulley.
Blood and bones! No, they hadn’t escaped the pursuit at all.
There were four Roman cavaliers on either side of the gulley. Two of the riders had their sabers out. Cavalry sabers were wicked long. These could easily reach down into the gulley and slice into a skull.
The two others were lining up for a spear throw, even as their horses trotted along. The horse was watching, in fact, and matched Wulf and Rainer pace for pace.
Cold hell, Wulf thought, Roman horses sure are well-drilled.
One of the men drew his arm back to throw his javelin. Wulf couldn’t help flinching. He had to fight to keep from raising his arms trying to block the spike–and dying embarrassed.
The man never cast his spear.
Four arrows popped into him, almost at the same moment. One glanced off his plate armor. Another punched its way through the steel and sank deep into the man’s chest. The third and fourth caught him below the neck and in his throwing arm.
With a cry, he dropped the javelin. He clutched at the arrow in his chest. Two more arrows struck and sank in as he did so. The man went slack and fell from the horse. He rolled into the gulley, but Wulf and Rainer had already moved past him, and he came to rest somewhere behind them.
Wulf looked up again. The other Roman cavaliers on the gulley sides seemed to run into a wall made of arrows. Two of the horses went down. Another kept running after its rider fell off. The man was filled with arrows like a human pin cushion.
Wulf and Rainer still charged down the center of the gulley. Ahead it widened as it neared the stream it emptied into.
Rainer stopped, and Wulf slowed and stopped beside him. Rainer bent over gasping. Wulf put a hand on his back, steadying himself while he too sucked in air.
After a moment, Rainer straightened up. “Listen,” he said. He pointed to a spot behind them up the gulley.
Hooves clopping on stone. The clatter of armor.
Shouts of anger and shock.
The clopping ceased.
Terrible horse screams.
Men bellowing in agony.
Crashing and clanking of metal striking stones.
Then a single white horse in Roman livery dress came galloping down the gulley. Wulf and Rainer dove to the side as it thundered past them. The horse leaped out the end of the gulley and disappeared as it plunged down to the stream. They heard splashing, a great whinny, then more hoofbeats as it charged away into the forest on the other side of the water.
“Let’s get out of here,” Wulf said. They scrambled up one side of the gulley, then made their way back along its edge.
About a field-march back through the woods, they saw human warriors and Tier lining either side of the gulley. Bear men, buffalo men, a few other types of animal people. A single very short bobcat man was in charge. Just then, he was ordering a contingent of buffalo men to get down in the gulley and make sure those thrice-cursed, trespassing Romans were finished off with spear thrusts. He ordered the rest of his force to spread out and find any remaining Imperials.
There was a centaur nearby, Ahorn, who carried a sword and buckler. Beside him was a very tall male figure with a bow. His name was Abendar Anderolan. He was an elf. The two exchanged a glance and both charged off into the woods together.
Moments later, there was the sound of crashing through the brush like a running man would make.
Then there was a long, drawn-out scream.
The centaur and elven man returned from the woods, the centaur wiping the blood from his sword on a cloth the tall figure had given him.
I would not like to be a man being hunted by a centaur and an elf warrior, Wulf thought with a shudder.
Wulf gazed down into the gulley at a gruesome sight.
There lay a pile of Roman cavalry and their horses. It was hard to pick out individual soldiers and horses. They were all so twisted together. It looked more like a mound with arrows and pikes sprouting all over it.
A few horses still twitched. One kicked out a leg feebly. None of the soldiers moved.
Blood flowed from wounds and pooled in low places among the rocks.
“May Tretz receive their souls,” Rainer murmured. Tretz was the dragon-man god that he and his family worshipped. Some of the others would have thought this was blasphemy. But Wulf had been around Rainer most of his life. He had long ago decided to put up with his foster-brother’s odd religion.
“You guessed that Jager was setting an ambush?” Wulf asked Rainer.
Rainer shrugged. “Nagel looked like she was signaling us.”
The owl flew from a nearby branch and landed on Wulf’s shoulder again.
“Blood,” she said, sounding satisfied. “I was right.”
Nagel was never exactly happy–her emotions seemed to be more those of a bird of prey than a human–but the smell of fresh blood did seem to move her to something like fierce joy. She launched herself back into the air before Wulf could reply.
From the woods they heard the whisper of arrows, the curse of a man struck.
“I guess they found one last Roman,” Rainer said grimly.
Wulf’s eyes adjusted to the candlelight inside the tent.
Near the center of the tent, a female elf lay on a bed. Sitting on a chair beside the bed and holding the elf’s hand, was Ravenelle Archambeault, a dark-skinned woman in a black dress trimmed with red silk. Her mass of curly black hair, as usual, seemed about to explode from its hairpins. Ravenelle was a Roman colonial princess. She was also apprentice to a healer.
Nearby was the healer herself, a buffalo wise woman. She was grinding a pungent mix of dried herbs in a wooden bowl. The smell of sage and something else Wulf couldn’t name filled the room.