The Amber Arrow – Snippet 20
Chapter Seventeen: The Changelings
Several of the half-breed children were sharing blankets that the Skraelings had rolled out from their bedrolls.
“They done run us out of the West,” said the little boy who had been Bandage-leg. His leg looked even more hurt than before. Changing form definitely did not mean that wounds were healed.
There was a gash down his calf that split the muscle in two. The gash was at least a half-finger-length deep. Nootaw, one of the Skraelings, had taken a look at it. Without asking, he’d sat down next to Bandage-leg and taken out an iron needle and thread.
The boy looked warily at the man, but continued talking with Ursel.
“Who ran you out? How long have you been traveling?” Ursel asked.
“Days and days,” said the boy. “Our folks set us to running when the bad ones came in to burn the camp.”
“You’re from the Cantuck?”
“I reckon you call it that over here. We just call it the Happy Hunting Ground. It’s supposed to be ruled by old King Gil Yarmo, but he’s more of a bandit. Least that’s what folks say.” He glanced at Nootaw, who had finished threading his needle. “What’s he going to do with that?” he asked nervously.
“He’s going to help you. He’s going to sew up that wound,” Ursel replied.
“I don’t like that.”
“If you don’t let him, you’re going to bleed to death,” Ursel said. “So is this king the one who attacked your camp?”
“Naw, it wasn’t him. There’s been a bunch of bad ones pushin’ in from the south and out west toward the Mississipp. Men. Trolls. A few Tier with ’em. The Romans put a bounty out on us, they said, and they aimed to collect. Bring in a were skin and get a hogshead of tobacky. Float it down the river to Orleans and make your stake for a year.”
“Why would the Romans do that? They’ve left the Wild Kingdoms in peace for a hundred years.”
“Don’t rightly know. Paw and Maw didn’t say. So we ran a long way and I been showing them others how to cross the mountains on account of I’ve been over to Shenandoah before once or twice. We got into the valley okay and we were living off a sick heifer now and then. Then you was following us, I think.”
“Didn’t know that for sure. You’re crafty.”
“And you didn’t seem to mean us no harm.”
“Anyhow, then these here men rustled and bustled up, and we took off. But that pack of wolves picked up our trail and they been running us since yesterday. We was about to just lay down and die when we come across your sign again. I figured you might help. Don’t know why. But I did. We’d just about give up.”
“I was looking for you before. I knew you couldn’t be wolves, because you weren’t being a danger to any people, or dragging down healthy cattle.”
“We was hungry,” the boy said. “And we have to eat to get enough strength to change back, you know. So we needed to do that so we could talk about where we was going and whether or not to go back now and see if we can find our folks, or if they’re all dead. Last we saw them they was fighting the bounty hunters so’s we could get away.”
“You’ve had a really hard trip,” Ursel said. “I wish I could take you back to my father’s hall and feed you. But we have to be pressing on. Do you want to go with us?”
The boy seemed to think about it. He started to speak then hesitated. He looked to the others. The bedraggled children gazed at him. None of them spoke. They all seemed very tired and scared. “I reckon we’ll stay here,” the boy said. “There’s a lot of food now.” He nodded toward the dead wolves.
He means to eat them, Ursel thought. Well, turnabout is fair play, I suppose.
“We’ll get that meat up, and then I reckon we’ll head on back to see what become of our folks.”
“I want to give you something,” Ursel said. “I can write you out a note of passage through the mark. You could maybe wear it on a little bottle around your neck or something to keep it safe. If anybody tries to stop you, you pull that out and show them my signature. Everyone in these parts knows who I am. I’ll even tell them to feed you if they have any extra food.”
The boy gazed at Ursel for a moment. Tears came to his eyes. “Thank you, Mistress,” he said. “We didn’t know there was any kin in these parts no more.”
“Now you have to let this man sew up your wound,” Ursel said. “You’ve got to be brave and let him do it, okay?”
“Does he have to?”
“He has too.”
The boy clenched his hands and scrunched up his face. “Then let’s get it over with.”
Ursel walked a few paces away while Nootaw put several stitches in the whimpering, but obedient, boy.
“What’s he talking about?” Wannas asked. “These are not coyote people. These are were-creatures. Human-Tier changelings. They would just as soon rip your throat out as look at you, I’ve always heard.”
“These kids aren’t going to rip anyone’s throats out,” Ursel said.
She went back to the children. The wound was pulled shut on Bandage-leg. It was seeping blood, but the major flow had stopped.
“If you go back and find that your parents are not there, I want you to come back to me,” Ursel told the whole group. “Come to Bear Hall. You can bring anyone you pick up along the way, too. There shouldn’t be any children wandering around in the wild. That’s the way changelings got the bad reputation they have in the first place. You go see about your parents, then come to me if you need to.”
“What do we call you? You have the bear look, and there’s no mistaking it.”
“My name is Ursel. Ursel Keiler. Everybody in this forest knows who I am, and they will be able to show you how to get to me.”
“Okay,” the boy said. “But I guess we’d better be eatin’ if we want to keep our strength up.”
“Are you sure you want to go back?”
“Wouldn’t you want to go back if it was your folks?”
Ursel nodded. “I understand. My offer stays open. Come to me if you need to. You won’t be harmed in my forest.”
“Thank you, Mistress.”
The boy raised a hand to signal the others and soon the writhing and growling came back. This time they were transforming from human into coyotes. The only thing that marked them as different from regular coyotes was the purple glowing ring in their eyes around the iris.
They picked themselves up and went over to the wolves. Soon they were yapping and playfully fighting each other for a chance to feed on the carcasses.
“We’ll rest here tonight,” Ursel said to Wannas. “I want to make sure that those wolves don’t come back to bother the children. They ought to get at least one night of safety.”
“I don’t get it, Ursel,” Wannas said. “I understand that they are just children, but they are interlopers on your father’s land. You don’t really know whether you can take them at their word or not. We’ll have to set a guard to make sure they don’t rip our throats out in the night.”
“I’ll take the first watch,” she said. “I’m not worried about getting my throat ripped out. I’m worried about what is happening in the Wild Kingdoms to send kids as refugees here. Anyway, I have a special interest in weres.”
“Because nobody else does,” Ursel replied. “Everybody thinks they are evil. I’ve always thought they are just ignorant. And they never get a chance to learn any different, because they are always being chased like animals.”
“Maybe there’s a reason they get chased,” said Wannas. “Maybe there’s a reason that people think Tier hybrids and human changelings should be stamped out.”
Ursel smiled slyly. “These puppies?” she said. She shook her head. “These cute little puppies? Come on, Wannas. Really?”
“They could grow up to be killers and cutthroats. They likely will.”
Ursel pointed over toward the coyotes tearing into the wolves.
“They get a bad reputation.” She stood up and cinched up her belt holding a quiver of arrows. She unstrung her bow. Then she wiped the blood from the wolf off its end. Finally, she looked around and found a place to set up her guard over the changelings.