The Amber Arrow – Snippet 21

Chapter Eighteen: The Mistake

Wannas found Ursel at the end of the first watch. “I will spell you,” he said. “Are you sure this is the right thing to do? We have such pressing business but there are children wandering around in the woods here.”

“I know more about them than I let on,” Ursel said. “I was out here looking for them when I came upon you. They aren’t the first changelings to come over the mountains. Something is happening in the Wild Kingdoms and it’s bad. Whole families of were-creatures and changelings are being slaughtered. I didn’t want them to know that their parents are probably dead.”

“Then you will send them to a place where these refugees are being kept?”

“If and when they come back.”

“Why let them go at all?”

Ursel shook her head. “You know why. They need to know there’s nothing they can do to save their parents and kinfolk. Then they can live in some kind of peace with us.”

“You’ll take them in?”

“Yes, we have a spot on the western side of Massanutten Mountain where we are keeping them until we can sort them out. There’s a lot of bad feelings against changelings in Shenandoah. It comes from the early days when werewolves had teamed up with some death-cult Skraelings. We called them the Wutenluty. It was six hundred years ago, but people still remember. Old Duke Tjark led the first settlers to take them on and defeat them. He had a magical weapon called the Dragon Hammer. All of this is part of the founding story of the Mark of Shenandoah.”

“Does your father know about this camp?”

“Yes, he’s the one that suggested it. He’s always had a soft spot in his heart for changelings.”

She considered saying more to him, but they already had so much on their minds trying to find Wulf and deliver a message that Potomak needed help. There was no reason to bring up details that didn’t have anything to do with the mission she’d taken on to help them.

Ursel stood up from the rock she’d been leaning against and stretched. Then she crouched back down. She counted her arrows. Wannas leaned over and gently touched her arm. She turned to face him.

“Mistress Keiler. Ursel,” Wannas said in a low voice. “I’ve been watching you the past few days and I’ve never met a woman who was so sure of herself. You’re the best shot I’ve ever seen with a bow. Your form is beautiful.”

“Even with muddy boots and a face covered with scratches?” Ursel said, trying to lighten up where she feared this conversation was going.

“I meant your archery,” Wannas replied

“Oh,” Ursel answered, embarrassed.

Wannas smiled. “Your face looks fine, too,” he said. “Lovely.”

So much for keeping things lighthearted, Ursel thought.

“I wonder if . . . are you supposed to remain a spinster so you can take care of your foster-father into his old age? Is that why they adopted you?”

Ursel could feel the flush coming to her face and she was glad it was night so that Wannas couldn’t see her. Both of them were squatting. Ursel reached over and quickly pushed him back over his haunches. He fell splaying into the leaves.

“You shouldn’t talk about things that you don’t know anything about,” Ursel said.

“I didn’t mean to offend you,” Wannas said. He sounded shocked that she had taken his words the wrong way.

But how could I not, Ursel thought. He practically called me a spinster-in-the-making!

I’ll bet he’s used to everyone making allowances for him being disrespectfully candid. He’s definitely a rich kid who thinks that people admire his always being truthful no matter what. But actually they are probably just afraid of losing trader status with his big, rich family.

Ursel knew the type.

Raukenrose, the capital, was crawling with men like that.

That was one of the reasons she felt relieved when she’d left.

“To answer your nosey question,” Ursel said. “No. I am not expected to stay unmarried. The opposite is true. My father is going to give me a dowry. At first, it was in silver thalers. But I told him I didn’t want that. So it’s going to be land instead. And it isn’t a dowry, despite what people call it. I get the land either way, whether I get married or not.”

“That must be nice,” Wannas said. “I’m supposed to become a factor at Kitty Yards. That’s my father’s tobacco market in Potomak. He hopes I’ll take over the business one day. I don’t know if that’s what I want. I wanted to go to Raukenrose University. Well, before the Romans decided to take over my city and box me in.”

“Well, you got to Raukenrose, at least,” Ursel said with a laugh.

“Yes, I guess I did. I even met the head of the university. He is a very little man.”

“He’s a gnome.”

Wannas nodded. “Yes. I told him I wanted to study the history of my people, the Powhatan. He was excited about that. He said he was looking forward to meeting me again in more peaceful times.”

“I’ll probably go. Women study at Raukenrose University, too, not like in Sandhaven,” Ursel said. “University colleges are for male and Tier. The sections called ‘houses’ are reserved for women. But everybody mixes when they are taking classes.” Ursel smiled. She reached out a hand and helped Wannas to sit back up. “Maybe you’ll meet a girl at the university. Somebody right for you.”

Wannas touched her arm gently again. “Maybe I already have,” he said softly. He leaned over toward Ursel, moving in for a kiss.

But she couldn’t have this. Not here and not now. She moved her head away and said gently, “No.”

Wannas took a moment and withdrew. “I’m sorry. That was stupid.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ursel replied.

“Is there already somebody?”

Ursel considered for a moment then smiled mischievously. “What makes you think I have to be in a relationship with someone else to reject you?”

“I guess . . . you don’t.”

“Listen, I know what it’s like to make a fool of yourself in front of somebody else because you feel something that they don’t.”

“Is that what just happened?” Wannas replied, bitterness in his voice.

“I’m just saying that there’s no reason to be embarrassed. You and I are from completely different worlds. We’re on the same path for a while, but soon the path will fork and we’ll probably never see each other again. I don’t take you for a one-night sort of man. Are you?”

Wannas puffed out his shoulders. “No,” he said. “I am not.”

“I know I’m not a one-night sort of woman. So this just can’t work.”

Wannas hunched silently for a moment. In the darkness she couldn’t tell whether he was angry or not. Finally he spoke. “You’re probably right,” he said. “But I do think there’s somebody else. Got to be. I won’t ask you any more about it, though.”

“Please don’t.” Ursel put the arrow quiver around her shoulder and stood up.

“Probably some noble guy, right? I never have understood you monarchists, with your rules about firstborn and second-born inheritance. In a democracy like I come from, the father can decide to give his children whatever he wants, or nothing. What would the adopted daughter of a bear person get set up with? Some fields near the ancestral hall? Maybe the yearly lord’s share from a village or two? That land around Bear Hall is prosperous. Some prime tobacco land would make a pretty good lure for a man.” He chuckled at his own wit.

Just when I thought you might be not a donkey’s ass, Ursel thought, something like that comes out of your mouth.

“No villages,” Ursel replied. “Not even any farmland. Just some woods.”

Wannas nodded. “I’m sure that’s very generous. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings again. So where are those woods of yours going to be?”

“You’ve been traveling through my land for the past five days,” Ursel replied dryly. She reached down and patted him on the shoulder.

All of this forest?”

“Just the western Shwartzwald,” she said. “My brothers will have the farmlands and the eastern woodlands. But it’s all a family kind of arrangement. Bears are like that.”

“That’s . . . a lot,” Wannas said.

She took several steps away, then turned back to Wannas. She spoke with a more serious tone in her voice. “Please keep a watch over these children tonight. Who knows what kind of mischief they could get into out here. I feel kind of responsible.”

“We saved them from wolves.”

“They’re just children. Orphans, probably.”

“I will. Nootaw says he will take third watch.”

“All right,” Ursel said. She lay down within the saplings. She’d given her bedroll to some of the children, so she just rested on her back in leaves. Overhead, the stars were burning brightly. The temperature was pleasant enough, and it wasn’t going to rain. With her bow and arrows tucked under a shoulder, Ursel was asleep within moments.

When the morning dawned, Nootaw had fallen asleep at his watch.

The coyote pups were gone.