The Amber Arrow – Snippet 22
Chapter Nineteen: The Competition
The mead hall of the Apfelwein Inn was filled with Jager’s men and with many locals, too. It was now the third night of staying in one place.
In the inn were centaurs, Tier, and humans. By the fire, Wulf saw Abendar sitting in a rocking chair. He was smoking a long-stemmed clay pipe provided by the inn. Beside him stood Ahorn, who was smoking his own personal pipe, a hollowed briarwood root that looked extremely well used.
Wulf did not smoke, but he was overcome with the desire to take in the odor of good pipe tobacco. Pipe smoke reminded him of his old tutor Albrec Tolas.
Tolas was a gnome less than six hands in height, but he would always loom as a giant in Wulf’s regard.
When he’d left, Tolas was mad at him.
His old tutor had told Wulf that his expedition to Eounnbard was reckless. He’d said Wulf could send Lady Saeunn there with others if he had to, but that the heir needed to stay in Shenandoah.
Besides, Tolas knew that the dragon was calling again. He said he could see it in Wulf’s worried expression. Wulf was the heir. It was his duty to answer.
To cold hell with the dragon and with Tolas’s attitude, Wulf thought.
He was tired of feeling bitter about it. He just wished he could talk to Tolas now when he had so many doubts about the way forward. Saeunn had gotten so sick on the way.
Now she seemed to be getting stronger, but could he trust it?
Tolas would have given good advice. He always did, even if it was often something you didn’t necessarily want to hear, at least at first.
The least Wulf could do to bring Tolas to mind was to take in a little pipe smoke.
Wulf told Rainer he’d eat later, and went to join Abendar and Ahorn where they seemed to have set up shop near the fire.
The elf bowed his head toward Wulf, but did not get up. Ahorn bent a knee, and said, “My lord.”
I’m never going to get used to being treated like I already have Father’s position, he thought.
They shouldn’t do this bowing. The duke was still alive. But he didn’t have the energy to scold them. Instead, he sank into the deerskin-covered rocker next to Abendar and sighed.
“Maybe tomorrow we take to the woods again,” he said.
Ahorn nodded. “It may also be the day the princess leaves us. Ahorn here tells me that the road south leads to a border crossing less than a league from here. After that, the way goes onward into the Vall l’Obac piedmont.”
Ravenelle was going home after sixteen years as a hostage fosterling in Raukenrose.
And when Ravenelle turned south, that meant that Rainer would leave, too. He had promised to take her to Montserrat.
What Rainer would do when he got there, Wulf did not know. Probably turn around and head back. Rainer did not talk about his feelings much, even to Wulf. But Wulf knew how conflicted he was. Rainer was all about loyalty.
Even though he is walking straight toward a broken heart. Ravenelle wanted him to take her to Montserrat, so Rainer was going to take her.
It seemed to Wulf as if all the safety and certainty of his childhood had come apart in the past year and a half. His two older brothers were dead. Now his foster-siblings were intentionally splitting apart. All of them seemed to be moving on a path Wulf could not follow even if he wanted to.
“Your face is clouded with worry, m’lord,” said Abendar. He took a puff on his pipe and looked a Wulf quizzically.
“Almost stormy,” Ahorn agreed with a wink and a nod.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Abendar continued.
Turn back time and bring Saeunn back to health and happiness, Wulf thought.
“No,” Wulf replied. He sighed. “It was another long day.”
“It was,” Abendar said. “I spent it tending to the horses. I am skilled at it. That wonderful mare Kreide does not like to show it, but I could tell that even she was tired from the ride. On the way here, she was careful to step lightly with Lady Saeunn on her back.”
“Kreide is a good horse,” Wulf said. “That’s why I picked her out for Saeunn.”
“I would be very happy to have her among my brood mares one day,” Abendar put in. “I suppose I’ll go back to raising and selling horses once I settle in Eounnbard.”
“I didn’t realize you had a job.”
“It is my main occupation. It’s an Amberstone and Anderolan specialty. Saeunn’s family owns Amberstone Ranch, where she grew up. They have always been horse breeders. They turn out the best travelling horses for the Elf Road.”
“I never heard about breeding horses,” Wulf said. “I knew she grew up on a ranch of some kind.”
“I remember Lady Saeunn when she was a toddler,” Abendar said. “Very happy. But she had her own mind even when she was very young.”
“Like in what way?” Wulf asked.
“She loved animals, especially the big ones. She loved buffalo, even the ones that might have trampled her. I saw her once running beside a big heifer buffalo when I was visiting her father. Saeunn must’ve been about three or four years old. She was running along a meadow lane holding a handful of daisies, trying to get the heifer to follow her. Which it did. I was scared for her. I was about to go and get her, but the buffalo seemed to know it was a game, too, and was being very careful.”
“Finally her mother thought she’d teased the heifer long enough. She went and scooped Saeunn up.”
Wulf smiled. “I’d liked to have seen that,” he said. “Seen Saeunn when she was little, I mean.”
Abendar nodded. “I suppose that was about, oh, sixty years ago,” he said, and took another draw on his pipe. He puffed out a smoke ring. “Elves do not have many children. Even for us, she was special. That’s why her family sent her to the Old Countries after she was star-melded. They wanted the best education for her.”
“She learned to be a healer there,” Wulf said.
“And many other things,” said Abendar.
“I wish we could take her home to Amberstone Valley,” Wulf said. “That was the original plan.”
Abendar took his pipe from his mouth, looked at the stem. It was getting blackened. When the taste got bitter, it was time to break a small piece of the clay stem off. The elf carefully snapped off a section and dropped the broken bit onto the wooden floor beside his rocking chair. This was the custom at the Apfelwein. It would be swept away in the morning.
Taking time with the stem caused the elf’s pipe bowl to go out, however. Beside him, Ahorn took out a wax-coated punk stick from a pouch he wore about his flank. He dipped it in his own pipe bowl. The centaur took a couple of deep draws, and the tobacco in his pipe crackled with building heat. This ignited the punk stick. Ahorn then handed this to Abendar to relight his own pipe with.
The elf did this, then blew out another cloud of smoke. From the odor, Wulf guessed it was Valley Orinoco, which was the more popular tobacco brand. Ahorn’s brand was Perique, which had a stronger odor with more bite. This was also the type of tobacco Albrec Tolas smoked, so Wulf knew the odor well.
Finally Abendar spoke.
“I would gladly have taken her home,” he said.
“We were going to,” Wulf put in. “We.”
Abendar smiled playfully. “Yes, I understand, Lord Wulf,” he said. “You’re not the only one to have ever felt Saeunn’s allure, though.”
Sounds like you’re one of those, Abendar Anderolan, Wulf thought, a twinge of jealousy passing through him. Everyone seemed to want to kid him about his feelings for Saeunn. Well, let them.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one,” Wulf replied curtly.
“I meant no offense, m’lord” Abendar said.
“I know, Friend Abendar. I’m just . . . worried.”
“Neither one of us can take her back to her homeland. The Elf Road is impassable. My traveling band was attacked over and over on the way here. Brothers and friends were killed. When our sulfur wagons burned, all the profits went up in smoke. The ones like me who fought through to the east are lucky to be alive.”
“I get that the way west is closed,” Wulf said, irritated by having to hear yet again why his first plan had been a bad one. “That’s why we’re going to Eounnbard. To the Mist Elves. To find help there.”
“If there is help.”
Wulf stared at the fire. He rocked back and forth. Finally he spoke.
“This can’t be for nothing,” he said. “There has to be.”