The Amber Arrow – Snippet 16
Chapter Fourteen: The Postscript
Ursel paused a moment to force herself completely back to the present.
The scroll. The postscript from Ulla.
Wannas Kittamaquand standing against the sun, giving her shade to read in. Unaware of the reason she was tearing up.
Ursel sniffed, wipe away another tear, and made herself look back down at the unopened scroll.
She could do something about that, at least.
She took her knife from its sheath on her belt, and cut the seal. She rolled this scroll out on top of the first. Ursel recognized Ulla’s personal, flowing script. She’d written this bit herself. She began to read.
I don’t know if I can forgive Wulf for his selfishness. All right, I know I will, but really he’s gone too far. I understand how he feels. I love Saeunn, too. The thought that she might be fading before our eyes twists my stomach into knots.
But we all have our duty. And the mark seems to be in its greatest peril in a generation. He’s needed here. He needs to talk to the dragon under our feet. He needs to make a decision on war.
My heart warns me that a terrible trial may await my brother before he is done traveling this road he has chosen. Of course I may be giving in to my own fears. But if my worries prove to be true, I want to have done something. I want to have set some plan in motion that has a chance of keeping the disaster into which I suspect my brother is headed from leading to his death and the end of our freedom.
My, I sound melodramatic, even to myself. I’m sure that my fears are mostly phantasms because I’m worried about Wulf.
Nevertheless, what I would like most is to have you there to look out for him. I say this, first of all, because I know how you feel about Wulf.
Second of all, speaking as your regent, I have a job for you. Think of it as an unpaid government appointment.
Ursel, I know you are extremely competent in ways both physical and mental. It’s a rare combination, and frankly, you’re the only person I know in the mark who has a chance at succeeding at this assignment.
Stop him from doing something idiotic.
Well, more idiotic.
If you can’t stop him, then I want you to help him out of whatever bog he throws himself into.
I think you understand duty better than most. I also know that you are someone I can depend on. You saved my brother’s life once–and did it in style, with an arrow shot worthy of mention in a saga, from what I’ve heard.
From what I’ve been told, you are not merely your father’s recording secretary, you are at this point running both the household and the county.
Your brothers are fine folk–I went to university with Hans and Frederic, you know–but it’s also clear they trust you with the big decisions. Your father talks openly about having settled an incredible dowry upon you. He made this very clear to Wulf.
Some may doubt he’ll follow through when it comes down to it. Bear folk with bear folk, some people say. Humans with humans.
I know he will.
And since I understand how you feel about my brother, I have had a few trusted advisers do some poking around in the Shwartzwald concerning just who you are.
The story goes that you were found in the woods by the earl while he was out hunting one day. It is a very striking tale.
Deep in the forest, there is a thick grove of beech saplings that has been carefully cultivated by the woodsmen of the western valley. Iron nails are driven into the trunks of each beech sapling. The tree is then left to grow around the metal. When it’s done properly, the nail heads are fixed in place. You have the makings of a war club as deadly as any mace or morning star.
When the beeches are big enough, dangerous enough with their embedded nails, they are harvested. Cut to lengths. And made into deadly striking weapons for peasants who can’t afford swords.
So picture that. A grove of war-club beeches, nails driven into every tree, impassable even for most forest animals, especially the dangerous ones. And in the middle of this impregnable thicket? A little baby girl.
The story goes that a poor family who could not afford another mouth to feed put you there, a babe in the woods. But they couldn’t leave you to be eaten by wolves, bears, or any other terrible creature. So they put you in the safest place for a baby in the forest.
The middle of this specially cultivated war-club beech grove.
For all practical purpose, nothing can get into a beech war-club grove. It is like a little nest of nails. There you were safe from the bear and the wolf.
But, of course, left to starve to death.
So the story goes the bear man earl heard your hungry cries from the middle of this little grove. And, not caring a bit about himself, waded into that thicket. He was willing to cut and tear his own hide on the war-club beech trees to get you out.
And still Earl Keiler couldn’t reach you. The nails were too sharp, the thicket too dense.
I can see it now.
Still you cry.
The soft heart of the earl melts.
He orders axes brought up by his servants. He directs them to chop down those beeches so he can rescue the baby from within.
The war clubs must be sacrificed!
The question never answered in all the reports I have heard: how did you get in there in the first place?
If no one could get to you, how did your poor parents put you there?
Well, let us set that question aside for the moment.
Back to Earl Keiler.
So the earl has the beeches chopped down. He steps over the stumps to find the little babe. He plucks you up, babe, blanket, and basket–yes, I hear that you were found in a basket of woven oak strips, according to this legend, wrapped in a woolen red riding cape.
The great bear man is entranced with your sweetness. He loves your little cries, which sound very much like a cub’s cries for its mother. So he takes you back to Bear Hall. Lady Hilda, his wife, doesn’t like you at first. After all, you are a mewling human girl.
But you smile at her, and soon she warms to you. She raises you as the daughter she never had.
You grow up the enchanted foundling, the good luck charm of House Keiler.
It’s a wonderful story your family tells.
But that isn’t how it went at all, is it?
What I am saying to you is that, even knowing what I know about who you really are, what you really are, if there was ever a chance you might join my family, I, for one, would welcome you with open arms.
Wulf cannot marry Saeunn. Someday, after he realizes this in his heart of hearts, he may learn to love another.
I would not mind in the slightest if that other were you, Ursel Keiler. Daughter to bears.
Your sincere friend,
Ursel found herself blushing. She was thankful that Wannas had finally ceased staring at her. He had gone to confer with his men and was not watching her.
Ulla was asking her, Ursel, to guide Wannas Kittamaquand to find Wulf.
Ursel didn’t for a moment think she would be able to win Wulf from Saeunn.
Ulla was dreaming when it came to that.
But there was no reason to avoid him.
It wasn’t like being away got her heart to grow less fond of him.
After all, whether Wulf wanted to or not, he was going to be duke of the mark one day, probably soon. His father, Duke Otto, with his mental wasting disease, was fading. Everyone knew it. And whether Ursel wanted it or not, she was a true child of House Keiler, the most powerful Tier family in the land.
She and Wulf would be seeing a lot of each other over the coming years.
That is if the Romans and Sandhaveners don’t overrun us all first, Ursel thought. And in that case, I’ll be dead.
She knew she would defend her family and her land until her last breath–and go down fighting.
But right now she needed to do all she could to make sure it didn’t come to that.
She carefully rolled up the correspondence from Ulla and tucked both under her bedroll. This was in a satchel she always carried on hunts.
Inside the satchel also was her small looking glass.
On a whim, she took it out. For a moment, she gave in and allowed herself to gaze into it.
What is wrong with him?
I’m not so bad. Not so bad at all.
What is wrong with me?
For a moment, a red-brown glow came into her eyes.
A “dasein ring,” some called this. It was a telltale marker for her kind.
My kind, Ursel thought. What I am.
She raised a finger and touched a sharp tooth.
So Ulla knew.
One day her deepest secret may be out to all, Ursel thought. She was now old enough to deal with the bigotry this would arouse. It was prejudice the Keiler family had been shielding her from for years.
For now, though, she would keep it to herself.
She would remain just Ursel. Commoner. Foundling.
Instead of what she really was.
Sister to bears.