Uldolf wasn’t having a good morning.
He had already checked five of his snares, and he hadn’t caught anything. One would think that, if he was going to risk his freedom trapping game on the Order’s land, he might, just once, capture something. However, it had been a hard winter, and it seemed that the game had been picked thin even on the land directly under the German’s keep.
So when, in the early dawn hours, he approached his sixth snare, hidden in the underbrush by a lightning-uprooted hemlock, and saw a hint of fur, he almost cried out in triumph, despite the risk of being caught.
Instead, he just allowed himself a smile.
His breath came out in a puff of fog as he knelt down next to the snare. He had a hare— a thin beast with patchy fur, but still a hare. His sister was recovering from a fever. She needed the meat and Uldolf wasn’t about to be choosy.
He glanced around the woods on the off chance someone else might be around. This was the most dangerous part of his crime. Even if he was found on this land with a hare in his bag, he could probably protest effectively that it came from elsewhere. Unlike elk or bear or any other large animal, there wouldn’t be the automatic assumption that he was stealing from the Order. At least, as long as no one saw him setting these snares in the woods below the Johnsburg castle wall.
Uldolf didn’t see anyone, but that was unlikely in the sliver of time before sunrise and Prime. The maze of thickets, steep hills, and ravines that rolled out from the eastern edge of Johnsburg was not inviting to casual foot traffic. It was thick and treacherous enough to be part of the town defenses from the time before the town had a Christian name or a stone keep lording over it. If he wished, he could have easily come within a hundred paces of the castle itself without being observed— all the way to the narrow frontier where the woods were cleared before the lower wall.
Because the steep character of the land there, there was no village between the east side of the castle and the lower wall, just the mound of earth shrugging up from the hillside to support the smooth gray walls of the castle. The town itself unfolded west of the castle, where the slope of the land was more gentle and even.
Few people came down here, and fewer still now that the old modes of worship were suppressed and the groves sacred to Perkûnas were destroyed, ignored, or forgotten. Uldolf remembered, though. Not because he honored the old gods— he was a baptized Christian like every free man in the Order’s domain— but because it was one of the few parts of his childhood he could remember without feeling pain or loss. He had known these woods since before the injury that had claimed his right arm. He knew it better than the German, Dutch, or Polish tradesmen, clergy and farmers the Order had brought in to swell the ranks of Christian Johnsburg.
Once he was certain he was unobserved by any immigrant Christians, he bent to retrieve his bony prize.
Long practice allowed him to quickly retrieve the hare and reset the snare faster than many people with two arms might have been able to do. The dead rodent found a home in a leather pouch that Uldolf wore around his shoulder.
The pouch had enjoyed a prior life as a set of plain saddlebags that had once belonged to one of the knights of the Teutonic Order, until they’d seen ruin in battle. The man who had taken possession of them had known better than to try and sell his looted prize openly in the Johnsburg market, and Uldolf had been able to buy the remnants in one of the secret Prûsan-only markets for a pittance, back when he had pittances to spare.
He had used it to help perfect his leatherworking skills. He had disassembled the original, re-trimmed the pieces, and created a satchel that he could probably trade in Johnsburg’s open market for a few month’s worth of venison— if his mother would let him.
Uldolf, she had told him, what then would you have to show people your skills?
Even with it, Uldolf had not found many people who believed that a one-armed peasant could be a competent leatherworker. Certainly not the foreign tradesmen in Johnsburg, who saw everyone of Prûsan blood— baptized or not— as little more than heathen savages. At times, Uldolf thought they were surprised he could speak.
Instead, Uldolf bartered his services to the Prûsan farmers around the area— people who’d known his adoptive parents since before Johnsburg was a province of Christendom. Uldolf suspected it all had started as a sympathetic gesture to his parents, who had the ill luck to have half a son and a sickly daughter. Or, maybe, it was out of respect for Uldolf’s heritage. His first father had been the last chieftain of Mejdân, before the village fell to the Christians.
He felt a small measure of pride in the fact that, what might have started as sympathy had, over the past two years, evolved into an appreciation of his skill. There wasn’t a farm within a day’s walk that didn’t now have a saddle, or a bridle, or a harness that bore his mark somewhere on it.
But his skills couldn’t make the winters easier. Those who traded happily for his workmanship fell upon the same hardships his own family did when the cold fell and what was in the larder had to last through the first fruit of spring.
So he was happy for hare he had managed to catch. With it, and some barley, his mother would be able to make a stew that would last a week. Harsh as the winter had been, the last snows were mostly melted except for the deepest parts of the forest, and by midday the ground would stop crunching with frost under his feet. They would be able to start planting soon, and afterwards he would be able to peddle his services again— and maybe this year he could find a merchant to apprentice with and be able to work year-round.
“And maybe this year my arm will grow back,” he muttered to scold himself. He reached over to his shoulder and rubbed it, even though he couldn’t touch the ache he felt in the long-absent limb.
Even if he had two arms, he was too old for an apprenticeship now. The years he could have spent learning a trade he had stayed with his parents, working hard to keep the farm going.
In the distance, he heard the church bell in Johnsburg sounding for Prime. He stood and looked up. The dawn glow had lightened to full daylight, and above him the sky was sharp cloudless blue. He shouldered his pack and tried not to think of what he felt in the arm he didn’t have.
He had some meat, and it was time to return home.
His route through the woods was an extended loop that avoided obvious game-trails and the few established paths. He followed the bottoms of ravines that gave him cover from anyone who had more legitimate business traveling through the Order’s land. He had now reached the point where he was as close as he ever wished to come to the castle and the Johnsburg city wall.
Uldolf was glad to be out of sight of the keep as he followed the creek-bed at the bottom of this ravine. Not just because it helped him remain unobserved, but because he always found the sight disturbing. Something about the outline of the man-made hill it rested on, the way the fortifications squatted on top like an evil stone toad on a pile of refuse. Just thinking about it made his absent arm ache worse.
Something in him was thankful for the fever that had stolen the memory of the injury and most of the year preceding it. As painful as it was when he thought of his childhood with his parents now eight years dead, it would be intolerably worse if he remembered their deaths.
He stood quietly for a moment, uncomfortable with where his thoughts were going. He forced himself to think of his present family; Gedim, the man who was father to him now; Burthe, his mother; and his baby sister, Hilde. Thinking of Hilde finally brought a smile to his lips. How could he be morose when his sister’s fever had finally broken during the night?
Past is past, he thought to himself as he resumed walking.
Soon, ahead of him, he saw the moss-covered trunk of the great oak he used to mark his turning point— as close as he would come to Johnsburg. It grew where the ravine ended, the sides gently falling away into mere hills. At the point where the oak grew, the creek he followed forked into two streams— one turning deeper into the forest, the other filling a deep pool ahead of him.
Between a steep shale cliff and the massive crown of the oak tree hovering over it, the pool was invisible from the village. Even naked, the oak’s black limbs seemed to reach out and claim the pool for itself. In high summer, this area would take on the character of a verdant cave.
Uldolf smiled every time he saw this place, especially at the boulder next to the roots of the oak. The white rock was about a head shorter than he was now, but had seemed gigantic when he was young. Even so, there were rewards for the child who climbed its smooth surface all the way to the top. It placed the lowest limbs of the oak just within reach.
In the years before. . . before he lived with Gedim, he had spent endless spring and summer afternoons here, jumping from the limbs of the oak into the pool. It had always been his secret place. He had never shown it to anyone.
If it wasn’t so late in the morning, he might have climbed that rock again. Not to climb the oak, but just to sit and look at this place. It calmed him, especially when he was troubled by thoughts and dreams of the past, and for some reason, the past felt very close to him right now.
He reached the fork, and was about to follow the stream away from the pool, deeper into the forest, when something about his oak tree made him stop.
Some animal had mercilessly clawed at the trunk. Fresh white scars glistened in the dawn light, dangling shreds of bark and moss. Some of the claw marks reached higher than his head. The sight filled him with a sick unease, as if something had attacked the one good childhood memory he had managed to hang on to.
What kind of animal?
Something moved at the foot of the boulder by the creek-bed. He froze for a moment, not quite comprehending what he saw. It was several seconds before the flashes of hair and skin resolved into something concrete.
In the water, curled against the white side of the boulder, her back to him, was a naked woman.
Her skin was so pale that, at first, Uldolf thought her a corpse. But, after a moment, he could see her breathing. He ran to the boulder, boots splashing, abandoning all pretense of stealth.
“Hello? Are you all right?” He placed a hand on her shoulder.
At his touch, the woman whipped around and uttered a scream of such pure terror that Uldolf lost his balance and fell backwards into the creek.
The woman scrambled away from him. She panted, breaths coming in great sobs. Uldolf could see now that she was badly injured. There was a nasty wound in her right shoulder, barely clotted, trailing blood down her arm. The right half her face was covered in blood from a massive gash that cut from her temple to up under her hairline. She kept pushing with her legs, away from him, until she backed into the oak. When she hit it, her eyes widened and she shuddered, crying out and grasping the wound on her shoulder.
“Please,” Uldolf said, grabbing the boulder and pulling himself upright. “I want to help you.”
She shook her head.
Not only was she covered with blood from her wounds, she was coated in filth from her knotted red hair down. The only part of her that was remotely clean was her left foot, which was spotless. Must have trailed in the water a while, Uldolf thought.
“What happened to you?”
She drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them with her good arm. She shook, obviously cold and terrified. Uldolf took a few steps toward her, but she flinched and tried to pull herself into more of a ball, burying her face in her knees.
Uldolf stopped approaching and crouched so he wouldn’t loom over her. With their heads roughly on the same level, he said, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
After a moment, she raised her head slightly. A pair of green eyes stared at him though strings of wet, blood-clotted hair.
“My name’s Uldolf. I live on a farm near here.” He gestured toward the other fork in the creek.
She peered at him over her knees, attempting to hug herself tighter, as if that was possible.
“What’s your name?”
She sucked in a deep breath, but didn’t say anything.
“Do you understand anything I’m asking?” Uldolf wished he had made more of an effort to learn German, or Polish, or any of the other languages that the Christians had imported into Prûsa. He tried one of the few German words that he knew, pointing at himself. “Friend.”
She only stared at him. She still shook, but at least it now seemed to be more from cold than from fear.
Dozens of possibilities were flying through his head. The most likely one was that she was the victim of vicious outlaws. A blow like that to the head, and someone with murder on their mind would most likely be satisfied to leave her to die. Even uninjured, throwing someone naked into the wilderness was a death sentence. She couldn’t have been here much longer than half an hour, or the cold or some wild animal would have killed her.
Uldolf glanced up at the scarred skin of the oak tree and shuddered. What that animal could have done to human flesh did not bear thinking about.
He took a step back and looked about. Fortunately, he saw no sign of man nor beast. Listening, he heard no additional breathing, no footsteps.
He looked down at the woman. Her shivering was painful to watch.
“We have to cover you up,” he said, reaching for her.
She raised her head toward his hand and bit him. He yanked his hand away and shook it.
“You can’t do that!”
She stared at him.
“Don’t you understand? I only have the one!” He waved his hand in front of her face, the meat between thumb and forefinger bright red. He balled it up into a fist. “Do you want me to leave you here? Is that what you want?”
She cowered and started crying.
Uldolf looked at his fist and felt suddenly wretched. It wasn’t her fault, but one of his greatest fears was having some injury happen to his remaining arm. He had had eight years to adjust to his loss. It was hard, but he managed as well as anyone. But if anything happened to the arm he had left. . .
But she hadn’t even broken the skin.
He crouched again, rubbing the inflamed part of his hand against his leg. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t yell at you. But that hurt.”
Now that he was within arm’s reach of her, he could see the wound on her head better. The flesh was torn around it, and in the center he thought he could see bone glisten. “Still, you must hurt worse.”
She sniffed, and turned her face to look at him again.
“You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?”
At least she had stopped crying.
“I just startled you, didn’t I?” He sighed and took his leather satchel off his shoulder. “I’m going to do this slowly, and we’re going to have no more biting. Do you understand?”
He took off his cloak. It was dark brown and had a sheepskin lining he had tailored himself. It was very warm, and it had comforted him through the worst of three winters so far. Very cautiously, he reached around and draped it over her. Still, the motion startled her, and she actually tried to duck out from under it before it settled across her shoulders.
Uldolf backed away, stood, and let her watch him. He held up his arm. “See, I’m not trying to do anything.”
She looked at him, then at the cloak that was half-draped over her back. She grabbed at the edge of the cloak and pulled it around herself. She was a fair bit smaller than he was, and in a moment she was completely covered except for her head. She looked up at him, and for once her green eyes didn’t show fear, just confusion.
Uldolf shook his head. “I’m afraid that blow to your head may have rattled your brain a bit. We should have my mother look at it. She was a midwife.”
She hugged the cloak around herself, rubbing her cheek against the sheepskin around the collar. Then she smiled— and Uldolf was struck that someone so ill-used could muster such a joyful expression.
He reached down and retrieved his satchel, shouldering it. “So, will you trust me to help now?”
He held out his hand.
She looked down at his hand and, for a brief moment, Uldolf thought she was going to snap and bite him again.
“Can you stand? It would be awkward for me to carry you home.”
It seemed a long time that he stood with his hand outstretched. Uldolf was convinced, at this point, that she understood what he wanted. He felt, somehow, that she was deciding if that was what she wanted.
After a few minutes lost in thought, she reached up with her good hand and grabbed his. Her skin was cold and clammy from the water, but her grip was much firmer than he expected. He didn’t have a chance to help her up; she pulled herself up using him as leverage. He might as well have been the tree.
Unfortunately, she had not clasped his cloak, and it slid off as she stood. Even though she was still injured and filthy, her nakedness was much more distracting now than it had been when she was helpless, huddled on the ground. She was a striking beauty, with the kind of curves and proportions that Uldolf had never seen exposed before.
She let go of his arm and reached up, frowning, realizing that the cloak had slid off. Her lack of modesty made her nakedness even more distracting.
Uldolf stepped around her and retrieved the cloak from the ground, shook out some leaves, and tried to replace it on her shoulders. However, now that she was standing, it was more difficult than it looked. He placed it on one shoulder, and as he moved his arm around to place it over her other shoulder, the cloak’s weight would make it slide off. He did it twice before he stopped, realizing that it wasn’t working.
He tried to never become frustrated over his missing arm. Like his past, it was a fact that would never go away. Cursing it, obsessing over it, led to places he didn’t want to go. But he couldn’t help the futile rage that built up inside him now. What kind of rescuer was he? He couldn’t even properly drape a cloak around a woman’s shoulders.
She looked over her naked shoulder at him, and Uldolf felt his face burn as he tried to keep his hand from shaking. He forced a smile he didn’t feel and said, “I’m sorry. I just need to think about this for a moment.”
She cocked her head at him, and he saw her hand reaching around over her wounded shoulder.
He stared at her hand a moment before realizing what she wanted. “Thank you,” he said with mixed gratitude and embarrassment. He handed her one end of the cloak. While she held one end, he draped the other around her good shoulder.
He walked around her so he could show her the clasp. Holding it up so she could see, he threaded the long carved bone through the hole in the opposite side. “See? That’s how it stays on.”
She looked up, and he felt embarrassment again.
“Forgive me if I’m treating you like a child, but you don’t seem to understand me.”
She reached up and fumbled with the bone. She frowned. It had probably looked a bit easier to do one-handed when Uldolf had done it.
“Look, if you do that—”
Before he had finished talking, she had the cloak undone and it fell off her right shoulder again, exposing her wound, the fullness of her right breast, and most of a smooth muscular thigh.
Uldolf swallowed and stepped forward to grab the edge of the cloak again, but he had to stop when she held up her right hand between them. The hand trembled slightly, and Uldolf thought of how painful that arm must be to move, even a little bit.
“You shouldn’t strain . . .”
He trailed off, because even if she did understand him, she wasn’t listening. She had taken a step back and had pulled the cloak completely off. Holding it before her, she stared at it, then changed her grip and deftly pulled it up over her own shoulders. With both hands, she closed the cloak herself, refastening it.
She looked down at the cloak with an expression of satisfaction, then looked up at Uldolf and smiled.
“I understand,” Uldolf smiled back. “You aren’t helpless.”
She took a step forward, and Uldolf saw the strength go out of her legs a moment before she realized it. Just as she swung her good arm out for some sort of support, Uldolf grabbed her. She fell into him, wrapping her arm and half the cloak around his chest. He found himself with his arm under the cloak, holding her to him. He felt his face flush for reasons completely apart from frustration at his missing arm.
She sucked in a sob, and looked up at him. He looked into her face and saw something there trying to push back the tears and the frustration.
He patted her on the back, careful to avoid her right shoulder. “I know how you feel. But I think if we are going to get anywhere, you’ll have to lean on me.”
She sniffed and nodded, as if she might be able to understand him.