The Amber Arrow – Snippet 15
Chapter Twelve: The Situation
Even though she was surrounded by possibly dangerous Skraelings, Ursel Keiler continued reading the letter from Duchess Regent Ulla Smead.
And Wannas Kittamaquand kept looking intently at her as she read.
Have I got a bug in my hair or something? Why does he keep doing that?
She needed to get to the bottom of this, and decide what to do.
The letter was addressed to her father, Earl Keiler, but Ursel knew Duchess Regent Ulla well. Just as Ulla knew that, aside from matters of war, Ursel ran Shwartzwald County for her father. The letter from Ulla was really meant for her.
The thing is, Lady Saeunn agrees with me about Wulf’s so-called quest. I’m sure of it. Wulf should answer the dragon-call, not set out into the wilderness on a wild hope. But Saeunn had been so ill, only awake a half-watch or less each day for weeks now, that she had not been able to put up any resistance to Wulf’s determination.
After Wulf heard Abendar’s suggestion to go to Eounnbard, he grabbed at it. Abendar had offered it very cautiously. But off Wulf went three weeks ago–it will likely be a month when you receive this.
He took with him a company of the Bear Valley levee commanded by that young bobcat man, Captain Jager, who Wulf met. He came to admire Captain Jager during the battle to retake Raukenrose.
Also along are Abendar Anderolan, the elf, and–at my request–Ahorn the centaur, a lore master and star gazer, who I ordered to act as my private agent and surrogate.
And there is yet another complication. Princess Ravenelle was determined to go to Vall l’Obac and find out the fate of her mother’s kingdom. She has also been studying healing under a renowned buffalo wise woman. Both of them have been nursing Lady Saeunn.
So the princess decided to travel with this company to the mark’s border with Vall l’Obac. Once there, she plans to separate from the group, and head southeast to Montserrat. My foster-brother–Rainer Stope–and Princess Ravenelle’s bloodservant bodyguards will accompany her the rest of the way.
That is the state of things at present. And so we–you and I–are left in a quandary. I will not send thousands of men and Tier to battle and grave danger until Wulf answers the dragon-call.
What if there is another way?
What if the dragon has been trying to reveal this to Wulf?
I know the dragon trance doesn’t necessarily work in such a way, but I am haunted by the prospect of ordering those men to their deaths–and then its turning out to all be a mistake that could have been avoided.
So I have sent Wannas Kittamaquand, this young Skraeling envoy, to you for two reasons. First, I think that if anybody can get through to my stubborn brother, Wannas, with his eyewitness account of the siege of Potomak, can. But Wannas will need help finding Wulf.
I know Wulf intended to cross the west valley and travel south through the Greensmokes. From the southern border, he planned to make his way through the wilderness trading paths to Eounnbard.
Without a native guide, there is little chance that Wannas will be able to catch up to Wulf. Your daughter, Ursel Keiler, would make an excellent guide.
The second is to deliver a personal postscript, appended to this letter, to my dear friend Ursel.
Your servant, etc.,
Ulla Smead, Duchess Regent of the Mark of Shenandoah
Ursel closed her eyes for a moment, trying to imagine Ulla sitting at her small desk in the Great Hall side room she used as an office. She’d converted her father’s old map room into her work space, although the maps still remained.
Ulla had dictated this letter. The script was too professional, even for Ulla, who had an artist’s hand for calligraphy.
And there it was. The postscript. It was a private letter, rolled up and sealed inside the outer scroll.
Imagining Ulla at Raukenrose brought back a flood of other memories. Memories she’d spent the past few weeks trying to get away from. They had dulled for the most part. All except one. The final one.
The last time she’d seen Wulf von Dunstig.
Chapter Thirteen: The Garden
They were walking in the Castle Garden. The name was a misnomer, because the garden wasn’t actually inside the castle keep. It was at the bottom of the hill Raukenrose Castle perched on. The garden also wasn’t just a garden, either. It was as much a place for trees as flowers. The Sandhaveners had cut most of the older trees down for firewood when they’d invaded. Wulf had ordered it replanted, but the new trees were only saplings now.
Wulf wore a light-blue tabard, with only a dagger stuck in his belt. Ursel had on her favorite green dress, trimmed in red. It was the start of summer, a hot, sunny day, so there was no need for cloaks or hoods.
“I’m wondering about your trip to the west, Lord Wulf,” Ursel said. “Considering the state of things over in Sandhaven. The problems with the Romans in the south. I mean, it’s a dangerous time to be going.”
“You’ve been talking to Ulla.”
“She and I have gotten to be good friends, I think.”
Ursel and Wulf walked through last year’s leaves. Over the winter they had turned to a soft meal. It looked and felt almost like ground coffee.
She planned to return to Bear Hall within the week. Her father needed her. She’d heard in a letter from her youngest brother that the house was in complete disorder without her around to keep it up. Also that the earl was holding off making major Shwartzwald County decisions until she got back. This included permission to marry for a dozen villagers up and down Bear Valley.
She wasn’t one to give up easily. After all, she’d stayed on the archery competition circuit until she’d won the Mayfield Championships against the best bowmen of the Shwartzwald when she was fifteen.
But she had to admit defeat when faced with a problem like Saeunn Amberstone. And of course she had come to really like Saeunn during the months she’d spent in Raukenrose. Who wouldn’t?
Wulf von Dunstig wasn’t going to fall in love with Ursel Keiler.
But, curse it to cold hell, Ursel Keiler hadn’t fallen the slightest bit out of love with him during all that time.
She was leaving Raukenrose. And so, apparently, was Wulf.
“I’m being stubborn. I don’t care,” Wulf said. “I believe in loyalty. You stick with your friends. You stick with family. You don’t do anything for the principle of the thing if it interferes with loyalty. Because it won’t be a real principle if it does.”
“Doesn’t being, well, the heir get in the way of that attitude?” Ursel asked. “I kind of thought that you’d put the mark above anything.”
“I have to put the land-dragon above everything else. It makes me sick–I mean, sick in my body and my mind–if I don’t. I guess the sickness might even kill me if I didn’t pay attention to the call long enough.”
“What if the dragon tells you to do something different?”
“It’s not like that. The dragon doesn’t tell me what to do. It doesn’t think like you and I do. It dreams about things. It’s old, but still a sort of baby. I feel the dragon-call and see the dragon-visions, but I still have to make the choice, whatever it is, myself.
“And you choose Saeunn?”
Wulf’s eyes clouded over. He turned from her, picked a beech leaf from one of the saplings in the garden.
“I really feel bad about hurting you, Ursel,” Wulf finally said. He stripped a side from the veined leaf. He let it go and watched it slowly drift to the path. It spun as it fell. Then he turned back to her. “You’ve told me more than once how you feel.”
Ursel smiled. “Forget about that. I wouldn’t ask now if I didn’t want to understand.”
“All right,” Wulf said. “Then yes. I choose Saeunn.”
“Out of loyalty?” Ursel knew she sounded pitiful. She got mad at herself immediately. “Partly, I mean?”
Wulf nodded. “That’s some of it. I’m all about loyalty with Rainer. He’s my best friend. We have each other’s backs. I even feel that way about Ravenelle. And that’s how it is with Saeunn.
“And she sacrificed her star to kill the draugar,” Ursel said.
“To an elf, her star is her life. There would’ve been no way for me and Rainer to take that thing on if Saeunn hadn’t done what she did. We owe her. Everybody in this realm owes her.”
“But that’s not all,” Ursel said. She sighed. “Is it?”
“She was always there for me when I was growing up.” Wulf paused. He glanced ruefully at Ursel. “You sure you want to hear this?”
“All right, then,” Wulf said. He rubbed his forehead, glanced back at her again. “I’ve been in love with her since I can remember, Ursel. So saving her is an easy choice.”
“I get it,” Ursel replied. “Even if I don’t want to, I do. It’s just–”
“If there wasn’t any Saeunn. I mean not that she died or anything horrible like that. But if she’d never come to the castle–”
“Would I have fallen in love with you when we met?”
Wulf didn’t hesitate. “Instantly,” he said. “How could I not?”
How could you not? Ursel thought. Pretty easily, it turns out. When the other woman is elf royalty.
“So I hope you understand,” Ursel said. “That’s what happened to me. I fell in love.”
Wulf faced Ursel and looked her in the eye.
We’re both even the same height, Ursel thought. Perfect fit. Saeunn is a half-hand taller than Wulf. Not fair.
“You have the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen,” Wulf said. “You’re smart. The best pure archer I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some good ones.” He glanced down. “You’re also beautiful,” he said bashfully. “And you saved my life.”
“But she’s the one.”
Wulf looked back up. He leaned over, pulled her to himself. Kissed her on the cheek. She put her arms around him. A final squeeze. She was just wicked enough to make sure he could feel her breasts pressing up against him as she did.
“Take care of her, Wulf,” Ursel whispered.
“You’ll be all right?”
More of a wish than a question.
“Sure,” Ursel replied. “I’m going home.”