Heir of Scars I: Parts 1-8 (9 page)

BOOK: Heir of Scars I: Parts 1-8
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She began to run again, but now her mind raced as well, fired with a little anger. The intimation of an unending injustice.… The cycle of human fear and destruction. Walls, flames, famine, plague....

They steal much of what they think they need from their enemy, then blame them for their own misuse.

The forest broke to fields with only a little snow. They lay fallow, and there was no wall — only the stubble of slashed and burned trees for many yards where they had not yet pulled all the stumps. At her feet, just at the ragged edge of the tree line that she skirted for some distance, a darker kind of snow, left from the great fires of the autumn before, curved alongside the tree line.

Whenever the Aesidhe made the first fire at a new camp, the ashes of the first burned wood were spread in a circle around the camp, and words of thanks were sung, the
Song of Ashes
. It was a simple ceremonial, similar to those at the beginning of a meal. But elders sometimes spoke of how Aeman outsiders, called
, had often thought this to be some kind of sorcery.

Shísha once spoke of missionaries of the Sisterhood who assumed such rituals to be the warding off of savage spirits, and Adria herself knew that such things were commonly written in the books that the Sisterhood had written or collected regarding primitive religious practices.

Of course, should a Tiniya outsider trouble to ask, even an Aesidhe child knew these particular savage spirits to be nothing more than the ants which might plague any camp where food was served. Just as fire and noise kept wolves and bears at a distance, any ants who wandered across a ring of ash might eat well, but they would lose the freedom of the world beyond, and their sister ants would lose all sense of them.

Much like the Aeman,
Adria thought.
Once huddled behind their walls, they may eat for a time, but they lose their wisdom of each other, and the world which gives them life.

Strangely, it was also the Aeman who had turned the practice of the
Song of Ashes
into a superstition, long before the Sisterhood had gained its hold on the faith of Aeman Heiland. When the first hearth of a new home had cooled, Aeman villagers traced symbols of forgotten meaning upon their doors in ash, poured a line of them before the frame or the shutters of their windows. Quietly, they asked the Wilding Ghosts or demons of the forests to spare them — from plague, from famine, from fire and the death which came too often along with birth.

Sometime long before, even the symbols themselves had been borrowed from the Aesidhe, though they had fallen to disuse among the Aesidhe themselves. The eldest among them knew the symbols, nonetheless, to be old hand signs of thanks, and not of warding. One Mechushegi had even made a joke.

Some can’t tell a blessing from a curse.
Adria remembered.
Every prayer of hope or thanks
speak can be turned into fear and hate.

And such superstitions persisted, despite the dead or dying remnants of old religions, despite the growing traditions of the Sisterhood. It even grew in its persistence, just as the edges of Aeman dominion grew.

On the borderlands, Aeman settlers of new villages cut what trees they knew they would need for lumber, but burned just as many away to make room swiftly for their fields and pastures. When this was done, they shoveled the ash into a wide line at the edge of the tree line.

Villages were clustered here and there among the expanses. There the sky hung low and thick with smoke from the hearths of dwellings — wattle-and-daub thatched-roof hovels squatting at the edges of fields for the poorest of laborers. In some places they lived better, with wooden walls and planked pitched roofs, and even a very few single-story stone homes for the odd craftsman or smith.

Most families still lay huddled inside preparing their morning meal, only a few figures milling about out of doors, fetching water from communal wells or tending to livestock. It was mostly pigs and chickens in these lowlands, though the wealthiest villages might have some cattle to milk or plow oxen to feed.

The fields held only root vegetables so early, or low rows of winter wheat. And just beyond, always, the line of ash young Aeman children were warned not to cross. It might well have been a wall, even before any hedgerow or palisade arose. It might well have been a fear or anger that kept the wolves, the ants, and the Wilding away.

For some hours, Adria skirted the ash, and it was easy for her to avoid any contact. Any who took note of her paid little heed, or else waved in general acknowledgment, and from a distance which allowed none to mark her face or distinguish her dress. Even from such a distance her pace must have seemed strained.

Perhaps they think me a messenger,
she considered.
Someone to notice, but never to interrupt.

Every so often a manor house rose a story or two above other dwellings, the repose of some lesser lord, and once or twice, upon a rise, a motte and bailey fort or half-finished castle keep interrupted the cold morning light. She did not draw near enough to tell if these were the mark of some noble’s eventual presence, or intended to house contingents of her father’s Knights.

By high sun, the world had fully awakened. In the mild warmth, peasant men began turning the fallow fields for early planting. Younger children who had finished chores ran about in play, older boys not made to work practiced sport. Women old and young went about domestic chores.

Reflexively, Adria kept to the edges of the hedgerows and fence lines, nearest to the ash and forest edge, without compromising her pace. Against the trees, she was mostly invisible, and none took further notice of her for some time.

Adria could not dismiss the feelings of being watched, nevertheless, and imagined faceless figures half-shadowed in the wood. And still, whenever she looked… nothing.

After the sun had half declined, Adria found a breach in the Aeman custom. Where the demesne of one manor ended and the next began, superstition seemed to have ended. For some distance ahead, there lay only the edges of the fields, neither ashes nor hedges nor walls.

She looked ahead and beyond the fields to the manor village at the heart of the estate. Despite its size, it was sparely but neatly built, without the waste of space, stone, and wood typical of Aeman builders. There were many trees left, both within and around the dwellings and along the lines of fields, to keep the winds at bay. To her left, the forest was sparsely and selectively harvested, still full of life.

And there she found the pale eyes of a wolf among the thicket.

And now am I to suffer my own superstition?
Adria wondered, both her eyes and those of the wolf unblinking, for this was a wolf unlike any she had ever seen, but just like one she had more than once heard described — as white as summer clouds, with a pale golden-red band down her back. She did not appear fearful or needful in any way, simply watchful.

Adria nodded at her uncertainly, and the wolf blinked at last, turned, and wandered into the wood.

“Follow the wolf,”
Adria whispered, as she did just this.

She did not have to follow very long. Only a few dozen yards in, the wolf stopped in the midst of a grassy clearing, sat on her haunches, and waited. Though doubtless still aware of her presence, for Adria had done nothing to mask it, the wolf neither considered nor ignored Adria. Even with the wind in her favor, Adria could by no means be invisible to the white wolf.

Perhaps it is she I was sensing before and not the gray figure from Dell.

Adria sensed movement in the distance, just then, and turned her attention aside. She heard the sounds of horses and the voices of children. A trail led off to the north, and Adria could just make out shapes in the distance among the bare or needle-clad trees. She might have fallen back, away from the clearing, but the wolf was not moving — though, strangely, she stood at slight attention again, as one awaiting a guest.

The White Wolf Woman?
Adria thought doubtfully, half in regret of disbelief, and half in regret of the presumption that it might be true.
Now I truly am caught between two worlds
And I know I am not dreaming, tain

To gain a better vantage and for some concealment, Adria climbed partway up a tree at the edge of the glade. Immediately, she thought of her bow, still wrapped and unstrung in her quiver. Of course, she was still not absolutely certain she
string the bow — that her strength would be enough to keep it steady in its aim, at least at full draw.

Too late, regardless,
she thought, and moved her hand to the hilt of her blade as she shifted to reduce her profile but still keep the wolf and the area where the riders would enter the clearing in sight.

Adria relaxed a little as she realized the riders were neither soldiers nor Knights. They were young, between a dozen and two dozen years of age, on palfreys or ponies, and in a loose line as they came down the trail. The elder male led at a trot, the elder female not far behind him. The two youngest, seeming of an age, malingered.

They were all fair haired and well dressed, of a similar look, and probably closely related. Obviously not of peasant stock, their dress nonetheless showed modest restraint, dyed wools and linens in typical bright colors, but with little jewelry and no mark of station or house.

Probably the children of some knight or banneret, likely no more,
Adria guessed.

“Look, Adselm, there it is….” The older girl pointed at the wolf as she broke into the clearing behind the young man to whom she spoke.

“I see her.” the eldest stilled his horse and set an arrow, a bit hesitantly.

Reflexively, Adria drew her blade, turning it so that it could be thrown, and set her aim halfway between the bowman and his quarry. Her eyes watched the fingers of the young man’s string hand.

What am I doing?
she wondered.
Do I think I could strike his arrow down in flight? I am no expert in tossing, and even an expert would have little chance

Regardless, she could not bring herself to aim for the young man. He was obviously hesitating, perhaps sensing, as she did, that this wolf was not typical — neither in its physicality nor in its manner. Perhaps he knew, at least, that wolves were generally even more frightened of people than people of wolves, and that they never roamed alone.

But Adria dared not take her eyes from his hand, should his poorer senses prevail. The two younger children broke the clearing by then, and stopped to gape at the creature, who now shone in the full light of the glade where the sun had cleared scattered clouds.

“Don’t shoot her, please, Adselm?” The younger girl pleaded sweetly, and the younger boy nodded in mute agreement.

Adselm considered, but seemed himself inclined to agree. At a quick glance down and to her left, Adria could see the white wolf rise slowly and pace a little, seemingly considering the scene. She did not show her teeth, did not growl.

“Huh,” Adselm nodded. “Tame as a sleepy pup.”

Then the wolf slowly trotted into the shadow of a tree at the edge of the clearing, vanishing. Adria sighed relief, still uncertain of her instinct of the situation. She relaxed her aim as the young man did, sheathing her blade and dropping to the ground silently.

“Where has she gone?” the younger girl whispered.

“I… do not know….” Adselm shook his head confusedly, then gained momentum formulating a theory. “The growth is thick in places. She must know all manner of disappearances.”

“Of course,” the elder girl grinned. “There’s also another possibility...”

It was just then that Adria was noticed, as she took a step or two into the clearing herself. Adselm turned, reset his arrow, and raised his bow with fairly impressive reflexes.

Adria stood still, her arms visible, raised out to her sides away from any weapon. She said nothing, still undecided in her plan of action.
Hopefully, my reintroduction to the Aeman culture does not involve being shot through by a careless young noble.

BOOK: Heir of Scars I: Parts 1-8
10.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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