The Amber Arrow – Snippet 23

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 23

Chapter Twenty: The Brush

The Skraelings could move quickly through the forest. Not as quickly as she could. They were basically townies, even if they had grown up hunting. At least Wannas had. It was pretty clear that he’d not only been raised rich, he’d always been treated as the golden boy of his family. She could also see he was constantly striving to live up to it.

There may not be any royal titles allowed in the Skraeling city-states, but Wannas behaved like he was some kind of merchant prince. He also pounded on the fact that nothing was more important than his mission to Wulf. Ursel was getting tired of the repetition. Even if they found Wulf, even if Shenandoah sent an army, could it really defend Potomak from Sandhaven? Plus, according to Wannas, there were Romans, too.

And now there had been that aborted attempt to kiss her.

Wannas was handsome enough, she had to give him that. Raven-black hair. His face bronze with high, angular cheeks. His eyes light brown, almost clear.

And he was very intense. Every day. All the time.

But whenever she found herself softening to him, he tried to order her to go faster, or asked whether she’d lost the trail. He really didn’t like it when she took time near sunset to hunt up a rabbit or squirrel for their dinner–all of their dinners. Because she was good at it, she’d found herself feeding the whole group for many nights in a row. They all now acted as if they expected her to do it, too, which was very annoying.

I’m not some paid hunting guide, Ursel thought. And I’m sure as cold hell not your mothers.

But it wasn’t courteous to eat fresh meat in front of them while they gnawed on their pitiful dried pemmican. Ursel believed in courtesy. In courtliness.

Unlike Potomak, Shenandoah had a duke. And her father was an earl, even if she herself was a commoner.

So she put up with the attitude from the Skraeling men as a lady would.

Which didn’t mean she was going along with their plans.

She’d heard at Bear Hall that Wulf had left on a quest to save Saeunn Amberstone. In fact, she’d half decided to go in search of what she suspected was a changeling band partly in order to get away from everyone at Bear Hall talking about the “foolishness” the young heir was up to.

It wasn’t foolishness.

It was love.

It just wasn’t love for her.

Not again! Blood and bones, I’m more pathetic than those men chewing and spitting tobacco by the fire.

It was late in the evening. Wannas had set a watch, and the rest of his band was settling down to sleep around the small fire Ursel had started. Every night the Powhatans went through the same ritual.

A cup of yaupon tea.

A long chew on a knot of tobacco they placed in one cheek until it bulged.

Another cup of tea, then to bed.

They each carried a woolen point blanket–white wool with blue, red, and yellow stripes. The blanket was to wrap up in, and to sleep under when it rained.

She herself liked to sleep on the outskirts of her fires, usually with her back to a tree or rock. Fire drew too many curious visitors in the night, and it ruined night vision. Besides, she was hardly ever cold, even in the dead of winter. It was a trait she’d been born with.

When traveling, she carried a satchel over her shoulder with a wax wool rain jacket in it and her own bedroll blanket. Also inside the pouch was her fire-making kit, her bow repair tools, a small looking glass, some cake soap, a tiny tin of cheek rouge–she had to admit she was vain about having rosy cheeks to match her red hair–and a brush for that red hair. Most nights, she built a one-person shelter with her bow stave and the rain jacket. She covered this with leaves.

Her ritual at night by the fire was brushing her hair. It was long and thick. It could get oily between washings, too. To keep it from becoming a tangled mess while camping, she gave it one hundred strokes every night. Then she would plait it up for sleeping and brush it out with fifty more strokes every morning.

Wannas seemed fascinated by this. He had watched her make every stroke for many nights.

Tonight his stare was starting to irritate her as much as his other behavior.

“Are you not allowed to look at women brushing their hair back home?”

Wannas seemed to start out of a daydream.

“No,” he answered. “I mean . . . yes. Men can watch women brush their hair. Put on makeup. Whatever.” He placed a hand to his chin, and kept gazing at her. Then his eyes seemed to grow troubled as a thought occurred to him. “Is it wrong here? Have I offended you?”

“No. Not at all”

“Good.”

“What I’m wondering is: Why do you keep staring at me like you’ve never seen a girl brush her hair before?”

“I’ve never seen . . . there are not many red-haired women in Potomak. I’ve hardly ever seen it. And none with hair as red as yours. Or eyes so blue.”

“So I’m a curiosity to you?”

“Just your hair,” he said. “I mean, yes, I find you interesting in other ways. But–”

“But it’s mainly the hair,” she said, cutting him off before he said something even more awkward.

“Do you . . . are you going to remain in your foster-father’s service for your whole life?”

“I don’t know the future. Do you?”

“No,” he replied. “I mean . . . I do not wish to offend you or be indelicate . . . but I was wondering if you are . . . actually going to get married?”

“Not your business really,” Ursel said sharply.

“I don’t mean to imply . . . that you are . . . forbidden . . . by some tyrant of a father. I just wondered if . . .” Wannas didn’t finish the thought.

“Mr. Kittamaquand, I’m expected to.”

“But with your dowry, where could you find a good enough match?”

Ursel hesitated with her stroke. “Oh, there might be a boy or two around,” Ursel answered.

“And I was wondering if you . . . wanted to tell me about him? About whoever it is who is constantly on your mind?”

“I do not.”

“But there is somebody?”

“You have to stop this, Wannas.”

“Yes. You’re right, of course.”

Where was I? Oh yes, sixty-three.

She resumed brushing.

Sixty-four.

“All right. Even though it’s really none of your business, the truth is that I probably won’t get married.”

Wannas looked surprise. “Why not?”

“Because, I can’t marry the one I’m expected to marry.”

Because I was raised to think of myself as a little princess by my father. I was raised with the expectation that I would one day meet one of the duke’s sons, it didn’t matter which, and that he would fall helplessly in love with me–or at least with the fact I’m inheriting a large chunk of the western Shwartzwald Forest. I would be the final, bodily union between the Keilers and the von Dunstigs, the two greatest families in the land.

Then Wulf von Dunstig came along and I fell in love with him. Not just who he was, but him.

I even saved his life.

Not enough.

She’s still immortal. And beautiful. And with hair like sunlight. And eyes the color of the sky. And cute pointy ears that stick out a little.

And she’s filled with elven magic.

And she’s kind. And thoughtful.

And loves him.

And I am apparently somehow supposed to help her.

The dreams of the star-song and dying had not stopped. They’d gotten more intense.

“Let’s just say that I’ve won a lot of competitions in my life,” Ursel said. “But I’m not going to win this one. I’m outclassed.”

“I doubt that.”

Ursel considered. Should I tell him? Share my misery? Give him a glimpse at the pathetic love-fool I really am?

Blood and bones, no!

“It doesn’t matter,” Ursel said. “Now where was I?”

“Sixty-five,” Wannas replied softly. “I count along with you.”

Why, for Regen’s sake?”

“Because it helps me to get to sleep, Mistress,” he said. He shrugged. “Nothing more.”

Wannas smiled wanly in his infuriating, arrogant way. At least she supposed it was arrogance. Maybe he was just uncomfortable with this sort of conversation.

Marriage. Dowries.

She knew very little about Skraeling manners. They were democrats. In Potomak, anybody could marry, well . . . anybody. This all must seem strange to him. Confusing.

For the first time, she actually felt the smallest bit sorry for him.

“Mr. Kittamaquand, you have my leave to count away,” Ursel said. She smiled her own pale smile. She pulled the brush through her hair.

Sixty-five.

And again.

“Sixty-six,” he whispered.

 

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