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The Amber Arrow: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Monday, July 24, 2017 19:39 EDT



    Wulf’s company had spent a morning burying the Romans and their horses in the gully as best they could. It was enough to keep the ravens away for a day or so, which was the real purpose. Romans did not like pyres. And Wulf didn’t want to attract the attention a giant fire for bodies might draw, anyway.

    Captain Max Jager had overseen the grisly task until midmorning. Then he’d called it done. They’d moved out.

    Wulf would never forget the tangle of dead Roman cavalry and their horses. It wasn’t that he felt guilty. The Romans had invaded. They were spies. They had tried to kill him.

    But he was beginning to realize that the more he fought, the bigger the toll it took on his memories. Those dead Romans were something you couldn’t forget

    He was afraid that images like that might one day push a lot of the good memories that were more fragile from his mind.

    By the late afternoon, Wulf’s band arrived in the village of Tjark. It was the southernmost outpost of the Mark of Shenandoah. Tjark was a crossroads for travelers, but Wulf wondered if the town were prepared for his company of one hundred soldiers to march in and want food and lodging.

    And not just any one hundred, but one hundred soldiers wearing the insignia of the Mark of Shenandoah.

    This badge was a red buffalo passant on a green field with a silver moon behind it.

    The men-at-arms carried small shields–bucklers–that marked them as sworn to Wulf’s family. They were painted with a black-and-gold hammer on a red field. The hammer was the Dragon Hammer of Tjark, the symbol of the von Dunstigs, the rulers of the Mark of Shenandoah.

    The soldiers rode the intelligent valley horse breed called kalters. There was also a small herd of cattle along with them. These were handled by buffalo people as cattle drovers, both male and female. Behind that was a train of mules carrying tents, food, and supplies. Of course, this was the mark, so many of the “men-at-arms” of the company weren’t humans, but a wide range of Tier. There were buffalo men, bear men, raccoon men, and centaurs. The mule drivers were mostly goat men, the fauns.

    Near the middle of this band was Saeunn Amberstone. She rode bareback on a graceful white kalter mare named Kreide. Much of the time Saeunn was slumped over the neck of the horse, clinging to her mane. Even half-unconscious, Saeunn could stay on a horse. She had grown up riding on a huge ranch in the Amberstone Valley out in the Great West. Ravenelle kept a watch, but nobody was worried Saeunn would fall off.

    Wulf knew this didn’t mean Saeunn was well. She wasn’t.

    That was one reason he’d diverted southeast to the inn at Tjark, instead of crossing into the Wild Kingdoms many leagues to the west as he’d planned.

    For the past week of traveling, Saeunn had been getting weaker each day. She was fading. Sleeping in tents and riding a horse were wearing her down even faster. She had to rest for a little while. In a real bed.

    Wulf rode beside her. On his other side was Captain Jager. Jager was the leader of the armed company. Jager was a bobcat man. At first glance, he looked like a child on the horse he rode. Wulf knew from firsthand experience Jager’s courage, his grittiness, and his intelligence.

    If an enemy underestimated Jager, they would wind up dead fast.

    Wulf had seen it happen.

    Ravenelle Archambeault rode on the other side of Saeunn. They were off the woodland path they’d been following for days and were on a wagon road called the Duke’s Highway.

    Rainer rode to the side and a little behind Ravenelle. To the rear of this lead group were Ravenelle’s three servants. Then, on one of the massive draft horses the buffalo people rode–horses that dwarfed the kalters–rode the wise woman, Puidenlehdet.

    Several other buffalo women were with her. Buffalo women traveled with their men on long journeys–and to war. There were experts at pitching tents and setting up camp quickly in any kind of weather. And, like Puidenlehdet, at treating wounds.

    We won’t need tents tonight, Wulf thought, breathing a sigh of relief. We’re staying at the best inn in the land. Or so they say.

    It was called the Apfelwein auf der Therme in Kaltish.

    The Applewine at the Hot Spring.

    They’d been on the trail for three and a half weeks. They’d made their way west from Raukenrose, the capital of the mark. The seat of Wulf’s family was at Raukenrose Castle. Then they’d turned south and wound through the ridges and valleys of the Greensmoke Mountains. Tjark was the largest settlement they’d seen in many days.



    It was a town of about one thousand. There were men and other Tier, but the original settlers, who still made up more than half of the population, were centaurs. And because it was a town run by centaurs, the Apfelwein wasn’t just any wayside inn, with a rough tavern and rickety stables attached.

    The Apfelwein was special.

    “Real beds for the ladies tonight, m’lord,” the centaur Ahorn told Wulf. “New hay in a clean stable for my Puidenlehdet.”

    Ahorn was in love with the buffalo wise woman who was looking after Saeunn. Wulf didn’t understand all the ins and outs of the relationship, but he did know that the kinfolks on both sides were uneasy about it.

    “Sounds good,” Wulf said. The day had started rough, but improved the closer they got to Tjark. Riding on a road, even if it was rustic and barely wider than a cart track, was much easier than tramping through the woods. Near sunset, the tired people and livestock plodded into Tjark.

    Ahorn, in his excitement to see some of his own people, rode ahead. He’d made sure there was a corral for the cattle and that everyone had a place to stay. The Tier soldiers were put up each according to his kind in the outbuildings of the inn. By doubling and tripling up on rooms, making use of the stables, servant quarters, and barns, all of Jager’s company could have either a bed or at least a warm and clean place under a roof to sleep. Officers, gentry, and their servants had rooms in the main inn.

    The centaur had ridden ahead happily to make arrangements. But when he returned to the group, he seemed upset. He stamped his forelegs in the dust of the trail and frowned furiously. Wulf was about to ask Ahorn what was bothering him, but the centaur seemed to shake off whatever mood had come over him. He smiled broadly. Then he proudly reported that his kinsmen and the other people of Tjark extended their wholehearted hospitality to Lord Wulf and company.

    For a very nice price, Wulf thought.

    Ahorn had arranged a “discount” of nine hundred thalers, which would have to come straight out of Wulf’s traveling funds.

    They don’t know it, but I’d pay them triple that for a bed to sleep in tonight, even though it is blackmail.

    The Apfelwein was made of logs on the outside–huge logs brought from deep in the mountains. It was finished with beautifully carved wood on the inside. There was a large hall with a fireplace almost as large as the one in the Raukenrose Castle. In that fireplace, entire tree trunks were used as fire logs. There were dining tables and a sitting area in front of the fireplace filled with rocking chairs for humans. There were curious contraptions that a centaur could step over and be supported by. Hallways led off to guest rooms.

    Wulf wished he could appreciate the place more, but he was worried about getting Saeunn settled. Wulf called up his personal servant, a faun named Bleak. He and Bleak helped Saeunn down from the kalter when they arrived. They placed her on a pallet Ravenelle’s bloodservants brought up. Then these two servants carried her to her room in the Apfelwein. Ravenelle followed.

    Wulf stood in the entrance of the inn watching them disappear down a candlelit hall within.

    “We’re going to save her,” he murmured to himself, not for the first time that day. “They’ll know what to do in Eounnbard.”

    Rainer clapped him on the shoulder and startled him out of his thoughts.

    “You look like somebody rolled you around in the practice yard dirt,” Rainer said.

    Wulf grimaced, took off a glove, and wiped his forehead. Rainer was right. The back of his hand came away with a stripe of trail dust.

    Rainer pointed to some rocking chairs in front of the huge fireplace. “I’ll go check on the women,” he said. “You take first watch by the fire.”

    Wulf grinned. Rainer knew how to get him to do things.

    Call it a “watch.” Make it sound like a challenge, Wulf thought. Even if it is just taking a load off for a while.

    Ravenelle will deal with making Rainer rest, he thought. She had her own way of getting to him.

    Mostly by direct order, colorful and extended commentary on the state he was in, and endlessly razzing. It had been that way between them for practically seventeen years.

    Rainer was as much in love with Ravenelle as Wulf was with Saeunn.

    And his love was just as doomed.

    Ravenelle was going to be a queen.

    Rainer was going to run a coal mine and arrow factory in Kohlstad.

    Queens did not marry men who made their living in trade.



    “Get out of here, Stope,” Ravenelle said. “You are looming. Looming like a raven. A raven ready to eat the eyeballs of the battle-fallen dead once the living have passed from view.”

    “If you don’t want me to loom,” Rainer replied, “let me do something.”

    Ravenelle shook her head. Her hair bounced. It was barely contained as usual. She raised a finger to push back a curl that had escaped.

    “Go and get some food for yourself.” She gently pushed Rainer toward the door.

    Rainer allowed her to, but turned before she could get him all the way out of the room.

    “What about you, m’lady?” he asked. “Venison stew? Lord Ahorn claims it’s the best in the south.”

    “Completely barbaric,” Ravenelle said. “Do they actually cook it, or just mix the meat up in a bucket of warm blood?”

    She took a long look at Rainer. His chin was drooping and his eyes had dark circles under them.

    Oh no. He’s too tired to tease, Ravenelle thought, feeling disappointed. Trying to get a rise out of Rainer was one of her favorite ways to end a day.

    No, she thought, why deny myself? There’s never a reason not to poke Rainer for a little fun. I’ll do it anyway!

    “And you appear to be the next thing to a dirty urchin off the street, Stope,” she said. She raised a hand and patted his cheek. “So adorable.” She sniffed. “And so ripe with the perfume of the trail.”

    Rainer gave her a tired smile. “You’ve smelled better yourself, Princess.”

    Ravenelle raised an eyebrow and faked a scowl. That’s better, she thought.

    “Get some rest, Stope. I’ll have Jakka bring a meal. Harrald and Alvis will get my things delivered to a room.”

    The Torsson brothers were Ravenelle’s bloodservants and bodyguards. Jakka, her lady’s maid, was a woman of the mark. She was not bound to Ravenelle by the blood ceremony of Talaia. Ravenelle’s original lady’s maid had died a year and a half ago while defending Ravenelle from an attack by Sandhavener horsemen.

    Ravenelle hadn’t had the heart to replace her with another bloodservant.

    Ravenelle leaned toward Rainer. He was a half elb taller than she was, so she had to stand on tiptoe to brush her lips against his ear. “Will you still go with me?” she whispered. “To Montserrat? To Pierre du Corbeau?”

    Rainer looked at for a moment before answering.

    “I swore to do it, Ravenelle,” he said.

    “Yes,” she replied. “I know that.” She blinked. A red tear flowed from the corner of her eye. That was the way of Roman princesses. Their tears were blood.

    Rainer wiped it lightly away and rubbed it gently between his fingers until it dried on his fingertips.

    “And you know the other reason,” Rainer answered. “The real reason I’m going. I’m not hiding it anymore.”

    Ravenelle came down from her tiptoes, and stepped back. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr. Stope,” she said. She tried to say it lightly, but it came out callous. It always did.

    So be it.

    I can’t be with a barbarian. A commoner.

    An enemy.

    No matter how much I want him.

    Rainer stood a moment longer, then abruptly turned and went into the hall. Her eyes trailed him as he closed the oak door. The heavy latch fell into place with a clunk.

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