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The Amber Arrow: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Sunday, September 3, 2017 09:41 EDT



The Spring

    Come to the springhouse.

    The dragon-call had hit him while he was walking toward Saeunn’s sick room.


    Wulf had a room and bed ready to fall into. In fact, he had thought about it for days while sleeping on a blanket roll in the Greensmoke forest. He should go there, if not to Saeunn.

    But now here he was in the middle of the night trembling and feeling feverish, with flashes of alternating hot and cold.

    Come to the springhouse.

    Many times before he’d tried to resist the call and gotten sick. Nauseous. Light headed. Completely out of it.

    That was the thing about the dragon-call he’d felt recently back at Raukenrose. It hadn’t been urgent. Nauseating and disorienting.

    He’d tried to explain this to Ulla, but she hadn’t really understood. After all, a dragon-call was a dragon-call. If you were a von Dunstig, you dropped everything. You answered.

    But it hadn’t seemed like the dragon had wanted to communicate. Not then. It seemed more like it was having a trouble sleep, and this was spilling over.

    So he had decided to ignore it and take Saeunn to Eounnbard.

    But tonight was like old times. The dragon-call was intense. It surged through him. It would not, could not, be ignored.

    Before, the call had grown stronger and stronger and at times he had found himself crawling through castle corpse doors and coal chutes to answer it. Of course he’d been trying to hide that he heard it back then.

    With the dragon-call came the ability to commune with the huge beast curled below the Shenandoah Valley–the beast whose backbone made up one mountain chain, and its front leg another.

    It had been an ability passed down in the von Dunstig family for six hundred years, since old Duke Tjark had joined with the good Tier to fight and defeat the dark coalition of were-creatures and marauding Wutenluty Skraelings and bring peace to the valley.

    As third in line, Wulf was not supposed to have it, or to only have a touch of it. But even before his brothers had been killed, Wulf had felt the call.

    Back then, there was no way to fight it, and in the end no way to deny it. It had prepared him to use the Dragon Hammer, an artifact from the depths of time that had finally unmade a terrible enemy that no other weapon could touch.

    What was he supposed to do about the dragon-call now? He was going to get Saeunn to Eounnbard. He was going to find a way to save her. He was very near the border of his own land, and so near the edge of the dragon’s influence. Or at least that was the belief.

    He’d taken a few trips partly down the Potomak River, and had seen the sea–or at least the Chesapeake Bay–on a visit to see Adelbert when his brother was studying sailing at Krehennest. So he had been out of the mark before. But that had been before the dragon-call had gotten so strong inside him. It had nearly taken over his life and blasted his sanity in Raukenrose last year.

    He didn’t need to hide it now. He was the heir to the mark, whether he wanted to be or not. His sister Ulla was older, but she didn’t hear the dragon. He had tried his best to get her to take the role from him, but she’d refused.

    He stood up, half thinking he might continue down the hall, go check on Saeunn before answering the call. That was foolish, of course.

    Come to the spring.

    The call was not really words so much as an image, and an overriding urge. But even if that hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out which spring he was supposed to go to.

    The Therme of the Apfelwein. It was why the inn was originally built here.

    The spring was a pool about three paces across. It was covered by an open-air shelter with living wood for posts. These were planted and tended by the family of tree people who lived in the nearby woods. A huge muscadine vine grew up one post and its leaves, now browning in autumn, covered the upper timbers and roof of the shed.



    The spring rose from an underground heat source. It steamed and smelled faintly of sulfur. The odor wasn’t strong enough to smell like rotten eggs or farts. In fact, it wasn’t too unpleasant an aroma at all when mixed with the scents of a nearby grassy field and the huge tended garden behind the Apfelwein.

    As Wulf walked along, the time-smearing of the dragon-vision began. At first it was smells. The sulfur odor of the spring became the blossom-filled fresh air of a meadow, then a heated-steaming sulfurous smoke surrounded him. He saw the formation of the spring, centuries ago, as a bubble of hot rock-melt from a league below rose to the surface and flowed over the ground.

    At the same time, he saw groundwater below the earth collect. It was pushed upward by the heart from below. The spring level rose. At the same moment, he saw the centaurs carving out the natural hot spring further, lining it with smooth stones. The gazebo went up.

    Smeared over that, a fire.

    The gazebo burning. A dead soldier next to the water, his blood trickling in to mix with the water and flow away.

    Then the spring only a dry hole. It had become a gaping maw in a landscape of burned tree trunks and ruin.

    Was he seeing the future?

    Was this the way it was destined to end?

    Wulf didn’t know how to interpret the future parts of his visions. Could he change what would be? Were they set?

    Then the spring was just a spring again.

    There were stone steps leading down into the pool the spring formed. A stream flowed away. The Apfelwein tapped this water for their hot baths, and for heating the rooms. The centaur hospitality might have made the inn famous, but it was the hot spring that gave it a reason for being there in the first place.

    Wulf did not feel any urge to get into the water. That wasn’t what the dragon wanted.

    No. Just a connection.

    He knew what to do.

    He drew his dagger and lay on his stomach by the edge on a stone patio. He dangled his head just over the edge. His arm with the dagger in it extended over the water.

    The night air was very chilly, but the stone was warm from the spring, and comfortable. If he hadn’t been buzzing from the dragon-vision, he might easily have fallen asleep here considering the day he’d had.

    He dipped the tip of the dagger into the water. It did not go in easily. Instead, the water felt like a thick syrup, almost solid. He had to use both hands and apply pressure to get it further in. Suddenly the water gave way and the dagger went in to the hilt.

    And stuck there. Wulf didn’t let go, but he felt that, if he did, the dagger would stand upright in the steaming water.

    Then the vision kicked in and he spread through his land.

    It wasn’t that he went here and there, even instantly. No, he was everywhere at once. He experienced all things about the land in one grand vision.

    But it was a dream. Because the dragon was an unborn baby. An embryo waiting to hatch in an egg that was the world. The dragon was sleeping, becoming what it would be, gathering its thoughts over thousands and thousands of years.

    There was only one tiny point of consciousness in all the dragon’s vast mind. This was Wulf himself. He wouldn’t be able to remember even a small portion of what he experienced, be aware of it all, of the people, all the people. The rivers and streams. Every fallen leaf. Every flitting sparrow.

    But he would remember the dream of the land. He would remember how the story of the world told itself day and night, never stopping. In the eastern marches, where Sandhaven and the mark met, villagers in their houses, their cottages, their barns, their shepherd camps, sleeping, getting ready for the day of labor ahead of them tomorrow.

    Some up already.

    Here a goatherd looking for a lost kid, following its bleating into a thicket, cutting through thorns to get it free before wolves or something worse came to take it.

    There a sentry in a border post watching the dark plains of Sandhaven, ready to light a signal fire if soldiers came, if the mark was going to be invaded again.

    And in the west, Barangath, the centaur village that Ahorn came from. The astronomers working till dawn, observing stars. Trying to look through the starlight and gain knowledge of the Never and Forever beyond the veil of night.

    And down in the valley, buffalo people tending their herds.

    Farther south, to fields of tobacco and cotton stubble. It was past harvest, and he could feel the earth itself sighing, resting, the cover crops of clover and barley holding the soil as the chopped remains of summer decayed to compost and a new life in the spring.

    And he was at the Apfelwein also, feeling the tired muscles of his soldiers. The nervousness of the horses in the barns and corrals, the quiet resolve of the donkeys staked out in a pasture to do absolutely nothing more–or less–than they had to.

    Further south, he neared the edges of the dragon’s dream. The deep and ancient forest of the Greensmoke Mountains. Secret caves beneath them that no man or Tier had ever seen, or probably ever would.

    Up through the capillaries of water, though the roots of trees.

    Surfacing to find–

    Something running through those woods.

    Moving north. Moving desperately.


    Someone who didn’t belong.

    Someone being chased from the land beyond the dragon’s awareness.

    Headed toward Tjark.

    This person had a dark cloud behind him. Roiling, boiling, behind him.

    It’s the cloud that’s chasing that . . . whoever it is, Wulf thought. His contemplation of this fact was only a tiny moment, a small piece of a melody, in the vibrating, resonating sleeping mind of the Dragon of Shenandoah. But it was that small piece of consciousness, that one awake mind, that the dragon built on to make sense of its dream.

    This was why the dragon called. This was the reason for the dragon vision.

    The dragon needed him. As a fire needs a spark.

    The running person was getting closer. Toward Shenandoah. Toward Wulf.

    Then Wulf was a young man sticking a dagger into sulfurous hot water. He pulled his hands, and the dagger, out. He rolled over on his back, catching his breath. He gazed up into the muscadine vine covering the edges of the roof. A few clumps of wild grapes still clung to the vegetation.

    There wasn’t any doubt that the vision was true. Something, or someone, was seeking him.

    “Blood and bones,” Wulf said in rough whisper to himself. “How am I going to get Saeunn to Eounnbard now?”

    “You’re not,” answered a faint, familiar voice from nearby.

    Wulf sat up quickly, gazed around.

    Saeunn Amberstone was a half pace from him. She stood in the light of the half-moon. She wore only her white linen sleeping shift. A faint breeze lifted it slightly and wafted the fabric about her legs. Her feet were bare. The dark stone on the chain around her neck caught the wan light from above and shone with a faint purple glow.

    She sat down beside him. “I’ve missed the moonlight.”

    “You should be inside,” Wulf said.

    “I’ve been inside long enough,” Saeunn replied. “I don’t have much time, and I want to spend it under the stars.”

    “We’re going to get you to help.” Wulf caught himself fiddling with his dagger. He carefully slid it back under his belt.

    “I’m beyond help now, my love.”

    “Don’t say that,” Wulf replied. There was anguish in his voice. “We can save you. We will.

    Saeunn shook her head. She leaned toward him and gently kissed him.

    “Saeunn, I will not give up, I will not–”

    She put a finger over his lips. “This might be our last night together, my love. Let’s make it count.”

    Wulf sat silent and gazed at her for a long time. Enough moonlight made it under the shelter to illuminate her hair, and the glowing stone put sparkle in her blue-gray eyes.

    She was beguiling. Everything he wanted. Everything he had ever wanted for as long as he could remember.

    Wulf brushed a wisp of hair from her cheek. He ran his hand under her blonde locks and touched her neck. Saeunn smiled. He pulled her gently toward him.

    “All right,” he said.

    He kissed her, hard and for a long time. She returned the kiss hungrily. Finally Saeunn turned her head and whispered in Wulf’s ear.

    “I did love being a star,” she said. “But I love being a woman, too.”

    They kissed again, lying down together on the warm stone beside the spring.

    “And you,” she said. “And you.”

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