The Amber Arrow – Snippet 06

Chapter Six:

The Letter

Ursel broke the wax seal and spread the scrolled letter onto her lap. She allowed Wannas to stand in the sunlight to cut down the glare on the parchment.

“It is from Lady Ulla,” she said. “This is the handwriting of a castle scribe.”

“I told you,” Wannas replied.

“Please be quiet and let me read.”

The Skraeling started to move away.

“No, keep standing in the sunlight there,” Ursel said. “You cast a good shadow. And I can keep an eye on you that way.”

“I’ll stand here as long as it takes,” Wannas said with a snort. Ursel couldn’t tell if she’d offended him or amused him. She turned her attention to the letter.

My dearest Earl Keiler,

I hope you have identified the respected holder of this letter and have not accidently dispatched him and his men with sword, arrow, or hangman’s noose. You bear people can be famously grumpy at times. If identification is needed and has not been provided, then see the accompanying formal letter of introduction and diplomatic passage through the mark. Also enclosed in a separate packet is personal correspondence from myself to Ursel Keiler. I would request that she receive this at your earliest convenience.

The Skraeling man before you, Wannas Kittamaquand, arrived in Raukenrose with an alarming report. He is an emissary from the Republic of Potomak. That city-state is now under siege by Sandhaven’s professional military. They have been reinforced, I am sorry to say, with Imperial Roman troops.

Roman troops on Kalte soil, my dear earl!

This has been a reason to go to war many times in the past. It is even worse when the military of an important Kalte kingdom is teamed up with Rome and attacking one of the Skraeling republics, our long-time allies and trading partners.

Potomak sits at the Great Falls of the river. All portage up and down river must pass through the city. For over two centuries, she has guaranteed the mark’s route to the sea. She has guarded all trade coming in and out of the Shenandoah Valley.

I am told that this Wannas Kittamaquand, while not of noble birth–his republic has forbidden royal titles–belongs to a clan and family of high importance in Potomak. His father is a senator in the Potomak Assembly. His uncle holds the executive position of chief of war for the republic.

You may have heard of the Kittamaquand clan in passing. His family owns and operates Kitty Yards, the largest Potomak tobacco market.

In order to get to the mark, Wannas and his men had to break through the siege. It was a dangerous undertaking. Many were killed and great sacrifice was made while carving a way through the Sandhaven encirclement. According to the young man, they fought Roman Imperials as well as Sandhaveners. I grilled two of his men separately, and their stories agree. Both also say that Wannas showed great bravery during the breakout.

I am inclined to believe that the situation is as Wannas reports it. The city is cut off. People inside are down to their last food sources.

They are eating horses, my dear earl, horses!

Knowing the respect in which the Skraeling hold their horses, the people of Potomak must be in a terrible condition, indeed.

Wannas very forcefully requested military aid from the mark. I came to see that his agitation, while sharply expressed, is justified.

I am going to send a limited levee of our people to Potomak to attempt a diversionary tactic, around five hundred men. I’ll do this so that new supplies might be brought into the city. The alternative is to let the people of Potomak starve. Our centuries-old route to the sea will be cut off.

But I will not send a full force to ally with the Skraelings until I speak with my brother.

I don’t need to tell you that most of our trade with the northern sister kingdoms goes out through the Chesapeake Bay. Overland shipment adds one hundred times the transportation cost to our goods. It raises the price of all trade goods coming into the mark, also.

You are no bean-counting scribe, my dear Earl, so if you can’t make heads or tails of this, just ask your lovely adopted daughter. Mistress Ursel is quite gifted with numbers. She can put it into a hunter and warrior’s terms, as you well know.

My brother Wulf is not in Raukenrose. He is traveling to the Mist Mountains and to Eounnbard, where the elves dwell. We have had no message from him. I can only assume he has been forging on in that direction for the past weeks.

And since he is not here, I cannot seek his advice. I cannot ask his permission to send a full levee of troops to Potomak.

We need Wulf’s approval.

Wulf is the only von Dunstig who can hear the land-dragon call. The duke, my father, continues to suffer from the morosis disease, and his reason is fading. Even before the death of our older brothers Otto and Adelbert, Wulf had begun hearing the dragon call.

The gift is said to be passed down to male heirs. I don’t know about that, but I can tell you that I myself have not the slightest ability to hear the call. Nor, as far as I can tell, does our ten-year-old sister, Anya.

Wulf is the heir to the dragon-call, and so the heir to the Mark of Shenandoah.

He refuses to take on the title of Duke Regent. Instead, he has appointed me Duchess Regent.

I can promise you that I do not want this honor. With him out gallivanting to Eounnbard, I saw little choice but to take it.

For more than a month before Wulf headed south, the dragon-call was strongly on him. Since the Olden Oak, his usual vision-site, was cut down by the Sandhaveners during the invasion, it was obvious that he should return to the spot he’d last communed with the Dragon of Shenandoah. You know the place well. It is Raven Rock, on the northern edge of Shwartzwald County.

Wulf resisted.

He was busy preparing for an expedition to Amberstone Valley. He planned to take our foster-sister Saeunn back to her homeland. Yes, you read correctly. That’s a trip of nearly six hundred leagues.

This didn’t matter to Wulf.

After her confrontation with the Draugar Wuten, Saeunn was left wounded. During the summer, she became deathly ill. As you know, elves do not get sick often. There are very few diseases which can kill an elf. They are born immortal after all, with a strong constitution meant to last them for centuries.

But Saeunn died in that battle, then got brought back to life. She wears a star-stone–an artifact that seemed to revive her after the final fight with Draugar Wuten.

Wulf is convinced that the star-stone is failing.

He thinks Saeunn will die if he can’t get her to help. So his plan was to take the Elf Road west with her.

That didn’t work out.

Wannas is not the only strange visitor we have had to Raukenrose lately.

About a week before Wulf’s planned departure, an elf warrior stumbled into the mark. He’d been on what sounded like an impossibly hard journey from Amberstone Valley–which was where Wulf was planning to go.

The elf’s name is Abendar Anderolan. Abendar reported that the Wild Kingdoms between the mark and the Great Mississippi River were in an uproar, and that the Elf Road to Amberstone Valley was closed.

He claimed to have set out in a traveling caravan of over one hundred elves, complete with wagons full of trade goods from his valley. Only five elves survived. Once they reached relative safety, they decided to separate to warn the Kaltelands that taking the Elf Road is a march of death at the moment.

Abendar convinced Wulf that only a full battalion of warriors might punch its way through. Wulf almost ordered up the general levee to raise such a force.

At that point, our friend and Wulf’s advisor at the university, Master Albrec Tolas, stepped in. He convinced Wulf this was a terrible idea. It was. It would have left the mark defenseless. Even Wulf, in his desperation to help Saeunn, could not justify doing that.

I don’t really need to explain why Wulf is so determined to help Saeunn Amberstone, do I? They haven’t agreed to a marriage–I don’t think that will ever happen, given the nature of men and elves. But they’ve made no secret of the fact that their friendship has grown into something more for both of them.

They are a couple. In love.

At this point, Ursel’s hands began to shake as she held the scroll.

To hear it so plainly stated . . .

A couple. In love.

She knew she must be flushing, and she blinked water from her eyes. She didn’t look up at Wannas. She didn’t want to have to explain what was affecting her so much.

Then Ursel got a hold on herself and continued reading.

Now there is turmoil to the west. There is grave danger in the east if Potomak falls. And the divine ones only know what is happening in Vall l’Obac. We’ve had no word from the south in over a year. Our rangers report that trade at the border towns has slowed to a trickle.

This is worrisome to me because of our other castle fosterling, Princess Ravenelle Archambeault–yes, the one-year-old child you took as a hostage after the Little War. Princess Ravenelle is now seventeen and, per the agreement with Queen Valentine, is free to return to her native country. As you and my father may have foreseen when you made the fostering arrangement, my family has grown to love Ravenelle–I think Wulf may feel closer to her as a sister than he does to me, to tell the truth.

This is not a surprise, since they are the same age. They grew up as something like outcasts among the castle children. Wulf as third son, and Ravenelle the living symbol of what we’ve been taught to believe are Roman vampires, down to drinking the blood of her servants to gain control of their minds.

Ravenelle has always been a devoted practitioner of the Talaia faith. Her freedom to do this was also part of your arrangement with her mother.

The mark has never been so threatened in a thousand years, and all our young heir can think of is saving his girlfriend, even with the dragon-call knocking at his mind.

Something had to be done, and Abendar stepped forward with an alternate plan. He was headed to the south himself to find refuge among his relatives, the Mist Elves of Eounn Anderolan, the Mountains of Mist. He considers them as something like poor relatives to his own folk, the Smoke Elves of Amberstone Valley. But their king is extremely old. It is possible he knows some way a starless elf might be saved.

It was a long shot, but it was a chance for Wulf to do something about Saeunn.

Please understand, I love Lady Saeunn as a sister. I would gladly have gone with Saeunn to anywhere we might find hope.

I offered. But my brother wouldn’t have it.

I must confide that I am afraid that he may be running from his responsibilities as heir and regent as much as toward help for our foster-sister, Saeunn.

Again, this is not a secret opinion. Half of Raukenrose thinks the same thing. In fact, mobs who claim to be either pro– or anti–Wulf von Dunstig have taken to the streets in our beloved capital. They are practically at each other’s throats. Sometimes it seems all I can do is to keep the peace, much less prepare for war.

But I do prepare.

War is coming. And despite what my brother may think, it doesn’t give a fig about love.