The venison lasted five days. For the last two of them the sun shone, and a little of the snow melted. From his tower, Nick was happy to see people going out and bringing back the wood he'd left them, as well as carrying the occasional rabbit from the traps near the forest. Most of the people of Sothalia seemed to be industrious, which pleased him a great deal.
But they still needed more food, so on the fifth day when Elizabeth gave out the last of the extra deer meat he went out again. This time the weather was better and there were others out gathering wood and hunting and trapping near the edge of the forest. They greeted him with respectful bows although one or two people just waved before they realized who he was and then gave him a deep, embarrassed bow. Nick greeted his people with grins and nods, and stopped and chatted with a few just to see how they were doing and if they needed anything desperately.
He found out there was some illness in town, but nothing life threatening, just sniffles and coughs. The prince reminded those who mentioned ailments that they could go to their duchess for remedies for anything serious if there was no physician available. Then he tromped into the woods, passing groups near the edge and keeping to trodden areas.
When he reached deep snow he formed his shield and rode to where he could see a large standing dead tree. The lower branches had been pulled or cut off for firewood already. He called to a nearby wood-gathering group to slog their way to him, and between their axes and his magic they managed to topple the whole tree. Satisfied that would provide wood for a night or two Nick got back on his shield and rode off deeper into the trees.
He moved quickly, knowing there would be no game nearby with all the activity, and slowed down once he could no longer hear the axes thunking into the wood behind him. He heard the scratching of claws on bark, and swerved to a group of trees. Five or six squirrels ran up into the branches, but then foolishly sat on limbs and scolded him. Nick used his trip line to break the necks of three of them before the others disappeared. He cleaned out the entrails and put the little creatures into a sack; it might be the only meat he got today, and at least it would be something that wasn't fish for the castle.
He moved on silently and saw a fox with its nose in the snow under a fallen log. It lifted its head with a mouse in its jaws, spotted him, and vanished with only a flash of its long, bushy tail. Nick moved on, cautiously approaching the hill where he'd gotten the deer, but it was empty. He saw large canine paw prints as he passed over it and went on over the rise into denser forest.
The prince went slowly, listening intently. That was another advantage of riding on his shield--it was complete silent so he was more likely to hear or see an animal before it noticed him. There was a little breeze from his left so he turned in that direction; his scent was what would give him away if anything, so he wanted to be downwind of any game.
The gurgle of running water attracted him to a shallow ravine. The stream at the bottom was mostly frozen, but water moving quickly around stones in the middle remained open. There were tracks of all sorts along the edge of the water, so he settled his shield down into the snow behind a large log and then let the energy disperse into the ground. He crouched there to wait with his bow in hand; maybe something would come to drink.
Time passed slowly. He shifted position once in a while, and stood up now and then to help the circulation in his legs. Nick warmed the ground a little beneath him so his feet were on earth instead of snow, but left the surrounding snow to help hide him.
He snacked on a couple of strips of dried fish he'd brought along and wished something would come to drink, like more deer. Then he heard a sound; it wasn't from the stream in front of him, but from behind him.
Nick turned slowly. One very large, gray wolf was staring straight at him and advancing slowly, lips curled up off its fangs. Behind him was the rest of the pack trotting around excitedly and spreading out to encircle him. The prince's heart sped up and he stood slowly to make himself look bigger. Wolves didn't usually attack humans, did they?
But it had been a hard winter, so maybe they would. He wasn't overly worried; he could defend himself if he had to, or at least lift himself out of range. Nick realized there wouldn't be any game in the area, at least none that the pack wouldn't fight him for. Was wolf edible? They looked pretty skinny; the hides would be worth something, but he decided to wait and see what they would do. He needed food, not furs.
The leader raised its nose and sniffed at him. It looked worried and whined a little. Nick took his fingers off his bowstring and shot just a little fire at its nose. The big wolf yelped and jumped back, and in a moment there were no wolves in sight, just a flash of furry rumps plunging into the brush.
So much for waiting at the stream. Any game in the area that caught the scent of wolf would have moved off in a different direction. Maybe he would come back at dawn or dusk one day to hunt again. The open water was a temptation to try for some fish, but Nick decided to look for more squirrels and maybe rabbits. Even with the days of venison, fish would still not be overly welcome, fresh or not.
The prince re-formed his shield and floated across the stream, checking out the tracks as he went. There were plenty of deer, but also prints with rounded toes and prominent dew claw marks- boar! Everyone would be pleased if he could bring in some pork, although boar could be dangerous to hunt, especially alone. On a hunt with Richard he'd seen a boar with a spear in its body push itself forward to reach and savage with its tusks the man holding the weapon, even while the animal was dying.
But the boar tracks went into a patch of evergreens where the snow was mostly on the trees with very little on the ground and he lost the trail. Tired and disappointed, Nick turned back, making a long arc around the path he'd taken coming out and picked off two more squirrels and a rabbit. That would give everyone in the castle a hearty meal, but there wouldn't be any meat to give away.
It was near dusk when he returned to the castle and found it almost empty. Reggie was there to clean the meat and Gwen was pleased to have something better to add to the night's repast. But Elizabeth, Sylvie, Harry, and Vernon had all gone into the town.
Someone had brought word of a fight of some sort and had come to fetch help for the injured; that was all Gwen knew. Nick was glad the guards had gone too, but he didn't like such a small escort for Elizabeth and her maid. The duchess was entirely capable of defending herself if she had thought to take a weapon, which in concern for the injured she may not have. He was very tired from his hunting excursion, and tried to sit down and rest.
But he found himself getting up and pacing, so he decided to go look for them. His magic tended to frighten people; instead he tried to use ordinary ways of doing things in public when he could. The prince grabbed his cloak and strapped on a sword; in a sheath the weapon wasn't overly bothersome and if someone actually needed to use it he would hand it to Elizabeth. She was much better with a sword than he was, and between his magic and her swordsmanship they would be well defended.
The light was fading and in the shadowed streets it was almost dark. Nick made a small magical light for himself and just headed down the main avenues, looking and listening. Most people went home at or before dark, so the streets were mostly empty and unlit. He spotted the glow of an unusual amount of light and when he reached it found a crowd, some with lanterns or torches, standing around outside a doorway. He extinguished his own light and hurried toward them.
They parted to let him through and he found Harry guarding the door keeping the crowd out. Inside was a large, well lit room with several people lying on tables or on the floor, others slumped in chairs, a few standing. He spotted Elizabeth working on a man on a table and Sylvie settled on the floor cleaning a wound. Two standing men bowed to him, but he went mostly unnoticed as he made his way to Elizabeth's side.
He said, "Hi. Do you know what happened?"
The man on the table seemed unconscious. She replied, "Hello. Take his heel and pull on it when I tell you. We need to get the bones aligned so I can splint his leg."
Nick obeyed without argument; when it came to healing, Elizabeth was in charge. As she worked she explained, "There was an argument. One man spent the day bringing in armloads of firewood, but his pile wasn't growing as fast as he thought it should. He hid instead of going back for more and caught his neighbor stealing it. There was a confrontation, both families got involved and there was a fight with clubs, rocks, and knives."
"Not yet, but there are several serious injuries. I'm particularly worried about that young man on the other table. Someone stabbed him in the abdomen and there's very little I can do for him other than clean and stitch the wound and hope."
When they had finished with the leg, Nick asked, "Where's Vernon?"
"He is holding the two principals in the other room."
The prince sighed and went to dispense justice of some sort, although he was disgusted enough to want to just kick the lot out into the snow. But that wouldn't be fair; some of them were innocent of anything but trying to protect their relatives.
Both the men seated on the floor against opposite walls were battered, sporting black eyes, split lips, and torn clothing. Vernon stood with his arms crossed between them, and bowed when Nick came in. Looking at the crude sparsely furnished room, the prince wished for a formal, impressive room in which to pronounce judgment, but he didn't have one so this would have to do.
"Vernon, did you get anything out of them?"
His tall, well-built guard replied, "Plenty, Your Highness, and none of it good. This one is the wood thief, but he claims he only did it because that one stole a couple of potatoes through the window of his house."
"That's a black lie! I never stole nothin'," one man said. "I worked like a dog all day to find him takin' the wood we need to keep from freezin'."
The other said vehemently, "You took our food! I'm too weak now to go out and get wood, and we don't want to freeze either."
Nick held up his hands and stopped them. "You're not too weak to fight so you're not too weak to gather wood, and you can get more food at the castle tomorrow morning. Tonight you can burn what you took, but tomorrow you'll go gather enough to replace it plus enough for your own family, and he gets his choice of the wood you bring in so if any of it is rotten or green you get to keep it. There's no proof about the potatoes I gather?"
Vernon shook his head and the prince continued, "There are a lot of hurt people out there. The duchess is a wise woman and she's done what she can, but some of the injuries could still end in death or permanent disability. And you have only yourselves to blame, both of you. If you had come to the castle instead of stealing and fighting we could have helped you and no one would have had to suffer, but you didn't so now live with it. If there's any more fighting between your families, everyone involved will be banished from the town. Got it?"
Both men nodded sullenly. They knew being sent out into the winter weather would result in terrible hardship and perhaps even death. Nick expected they would behave themselves, at least until spring, if only for the sake of their families.
He escorted Elizabeth back to the castle with Sylvie and the two young guards following. The kitchen was warm with an enticing aroma, and there was plenty for dinner. Nick ate steadily, but without his usual enthusiasm. Elizabeth noticed and sent him a questioning look, but he just said, "Later." She understood--the main hall was too public.
After dinner when they were alone in their tower she could see her husband was troubled and she could guess why. Elizabeth said, "You can't change people with or without magic, Nick. Some are good, some are not, and most are somewhere in between."
He flopped down on a couch. "I know. But I'm their lord now. I have to sit in judgment of them. You know in some places the lord would have had that man's hand struck off for stealing a stick of firewood. I don't think I could order something like that."
"You don't have to, you know that. You make the local laws and determine punishments within your domain."
"Yes, but the time is coming that I will have to create a legal code including severe punishments or there will be no peace or safety at all. And I have to enforce the Anglian laws, too. I mean, what do I do if someone deliberately kills someone else? I'm not sure I could order a beheading or a hanging, and I certainly don't want to watch one. Or what if I find someone with magical ability? Do I have them burned at the stake when I'm just as guilty?"
Elizabeth tried to reassure him. "It won't come to that. The law against witchcraft will be changed, I know it will."
"Maybe. It's one thing to kill an enemy in the middle of a battle but it's quite another to look someone in the eyes and tell them that what they did was so bad that I'm going to have them whipped, or imprisoned, or maimed, or executed. I'm not sure I'm up to this job."
She sat down next to him and put her arms around him. "I know it's hard sometimes, but I have faith in you. You'll do the right thing, Nick. You can always turn to me for advice if you need it too."
He cuddled her close. "You know I'll try, but believe me, tossing around fireballs is way easier than some of the decisions I'll have to make."
"Well, being a prince and a duke has its ups and downs I suppose. The man in charge has to do the difficult things, you know that."
"I do, but lately it just seems like everything is piling up on me."
"Soon it will be spring and things will seem brighter."
"Hmm, and tastier too when the spring onions and carrots are harvested. Although I may not get any if Arthur shows up with the army to arrest me."
"You know he won't want to do that; he'll send someone ahead so you have some warning."
Nick just nodded. After a moment he said, "I would hate to run away. We've worked hard to get Sothalia through the winter and I'd like to be around to rebuild."
Elizabeth smiled. "I know, I like the challenge too, and it's nice to have our own home even if most of it is in ruins."
They just held each other for a while. It seemed like she could feel every bone in her husband's still-growing body, but he was as energetic as always so she thought he was still healthy. But she hoped spring would come soon for all of them.
The next few days were bitterly cold, and as soon as it warmed a bit the snow fell again. Elizabeth visited the injured every day with her escorts, and was relieved when it appeared everyone would live. But one woman whose foot had been damaged by a large thrown rock appeared to have a permanent limp, and the man with the knife wound would be an invalid for some time.
Then the weather cleared, the sun came out, and the temperature rose above freezing. The duke decided to go hunting and bring home a load of something, even if it turned out to be fish. As before, he did what he could to make wood available to those who couldn't penetrate into the forest very far, and then rode his shield back to the stream where he had found so many tracks.
What he really wanted was a boar. A yearling would be perfect to roast whole in the big kitchen fireplace, but he would be glad for whatever he could get. He didn't wait by the stream as he had the last time, but circled above it until he found boar tracks and followed them.
In the densest forest the snow wasn't so deep under the trees and he found places where wild pigs had rooted underneath searching for fall acorns. But the animal he finally found wasn't what he had hoped for.
It was a very large old boar with long yellow tusks. It was still meat, but how could he kill it? He didn't want to get close but using fire or lightning would be too destructive. He could knock it down with his trip line, but its neck was far too thick to take it as he did the squirrels. He wasn't even sure if an arrow would penetrate far enough to be fatal unless fired from very close range.
There was only one way to find out. Nick nocked an arrow. He knew he wasn't a good enough bowman to hit the tiny eye, and a body shot . . . well maybe if he was near enough.
He eased himself to the ground, dispersed his shield energy, and transported himself to an area that looked safe and gave him a good angle on the boar. He fired immediately before the dangerous animal could react, his arrow hitting mid-body and the head buried in deep.
The boar leapt and squealed, went down and thrashed, and then lay still. The prince hurried forward, hoping the hunt was over and he wouldn't have to chase a wounded animal. It seemed dead, but he wasn't sure.
Nick slung his bow out of the way and approached cautiously with his knife drawn. He created his magic shield over the animal and pushed down firmly to hold the boar if it was still alive.
The boar's glazed eye suddenly cleared and it heaved its way up against the shield, catching Nick by surprise and scrambling to its feet. With his free hand, the prince tossed fire into its face, expecting it to work as it had with the wolf. If he could turn the boar away he could use magic to push the arrow in further and really kill it.
But the boar charged through the fire. Nick started backing up and tried his trip line to drop the boar, but in his hurry got it too low under the snow and the enraged animal went right over it. It was nearly on him, too late for a shield.
The prince transported a few feet to the side. That was the only place he could see that looked clear in that instant. But a dead limb under the shallow snow there threw off his balance when he landed, and the boar swerved and hooked him in the thigh as he staggered off the branch. Nick stabbed wildly at the animal's head with the knife in his hand, but the blade just deflected off its skull.
He fell with the heavy old boar on top of him, and knew he had only seconds before the boar gored him again. He pulled in all the magical energy he could through his aperture and used his free hand to just toss pure force at the boar without making any attempt to shape it.
The furious animal was thrown back and landed on its side, skidding across the snowy ground and snapping off the arrow. It climbed groggily to its feet while Nick formed his flat shield, got on top of it, and lifted himself straight up out of reach. It took a huge effort after so much magic use but it gave him time to think.
His leg was bleeding, but at least the blood wasn't spurting out so the nasty creature had missed the major blood vessels. The boar was looking disoriented and confused by its flight through the air and the apparent disappearance of its enemy. Nick dropped his knife on the shield, unslung his bow and closed in, keeping above his wounded game. At close range he put another arrow into its upper side and used a second small shield to push the arrow in as far as it would go.
The boar stood still for a moment, then dropped to its knees and toppled over. Nick watched for a little while to make sure it wasn't getting up again, and then turned to his leg. He tore a strip off of the bottom of his shirt and wrapped it tightly around the deep wound, watching the blood slowly soak the bandage. He realized he might have a limited amount of time to get back to the castle if he kept bleeding. But he wasn't going to leave the boar for the wolves, not after the fight he'd had to get it.
He lowered himself to the ground, got off his shield next to the boar and slit its throat. Now it was definitely dead. He cleaned out the entrails as quickly as he could, but had to use magic to push the animal on to his shield. By the time he climbed on himself, he was cold, exhausted, and feeling dizzy.
The carcass was still warm, if smelly, and Nick laid down next to it and put his cloak over both of them. He lifted his magical conveyance and headed toward home, going as quickly and as directly as he could. He fervently hoped he was going in the right direction; in his condition there was no way he could raise his own weight plus the boar over the trees to look for Sothalia.
The prince was chilled but couldn't spare energy for added warmth; the carcass and his cloak would have to do. However much magical energy he could pull in, he needed his own energy to shape and control it and he was running out. Nick applied all his waning strength to moving himself through the woods.
He put one hand on the leg wound and pressed; it was wet, so still bleeding and he really couldn't afford to lose much more. Nick felt like he was freezing, although how much of that was from blood loss and how much from winter weather he couldn't tell. He'd gotten so used to using his magic to keep himself warm, he couldn't judge.
Nick reached the stream and crossed it, startling several deer. If only he'd seen them before the boar . . . He brought his attention back to his shield; it had slowed and dropped a little while he'd been distracted.
Once he reached more familiar territory he corrected course a little. But he was slowing down, and he didn't have the strength to speed up again. The prince struggled on, and came out of a stupor to find he was nearly in the snow with his shield slowly dissipating beneath him. He firmed it up, raised it a little, and went forward.
He had to be close to the edge of the forest, didn't he? Surely it was just over that rise; no, that was where he had shot the deer. He nearly gave up, realizing how far away he still was, but Nick pushed on. He knew that if he passed out he would freeze to death or the wolves would find him from the scent of the boar meat and make no distinction between him and the dead animal. Meat was meat.
His shield was gliding on the snow, pushing through the fluffy top layer. That made it harder to move, so he raised it again a little, but he wasn't sure how long he could keep it up. If he dropped the boar . . . no, he refused to give up his prize.
It slowly edged down again into the snow and Nick didn't try to raise it; at least under the fluff was a light crust that took a little bit of the weight so maybe that compensated for the increase in drag. But he had to stay on top of that, he had to.
But he dropped little by little until his shield was plowing through so much snow it stopped. Nick groggily raised it and pushed forward again; was that a place he'd dragged wood to the edge of the forest? If so, there would be people nearby and he was close to help.
The prince woke flat in the snow with the boar. He tried to form his shield under himself, but he couldn't. He was so thirsty now and the snow was wet . . . but no, it was cold and he was already so cold be could barely feel anything except the pain in his leg.
There were voices in the distance. He tried calling for help, but his voice came out in a weak croak. Nick swallowed and cleared his throat; this time his "Help!" was louder. He tried again, with all his remaining strength and got out a loud "HELP" but the following "Over here" came out at conversational level.
But he heard someone . . . or something . . . approaching. He really hoped it was a person but then he blacked out.
When Nick woke, he was on a cot in the main hall. There was a good hot fire in the fireplace and Elizabeth was next to him saying some unladylike words she had probably learned from soldiers during the war. She saw he was awake and lifted his head to give him a drink of hot tea with honey. The prince drifted off again, wondering vaguely why he wasn't in his own bed.
Elizabeth worked quickly but thoroughly on Nick's leg. When she'd seen him being carried in with all the blood on him, she'd felt as if she had a duty to faint; as a duchess she probably should have, but she didn't have time for that nonsense. First she'd ordered the cot, hot water, and the fire built up. While Parker somehow fetched her medicine bag from the tower, the duchess gave a silver piece to everyone that had helped carry in the prince, his weapons, and the boar, and two to the man who had reached him first.
When she had the wound cleaned, stitched and bandaged, she got a chair and planted herself next to her injured husband, rehearsing in her mind the things she would say to him later. But she knew she really wouldn't scold him. He'd been doing his duty as he saw it, but they would definitely discuss him going after boar by himself.
While she sat there mostly everyone left them alone. Parker approached and stood hesitantly until she noticed him. He said, "Your Highness, Vernon and Harry have put together a ladder of sorts to get into the tower in case of emergency. It's rough, just made from scraps of wood, but if there's anything you need one of us can go and get it."
She nodded to him gratefully; she expected to stay dressed and to spend the night on a cot next to Nick, but having clean nightwear for him and clean clothes for both of them in the morning would be nice. The valet said he would see to it. He returned shortly with Nick's nightshirt and warm water and together they washed the prince and got him into the shirt. Parker also produced a hot rock wrapped in a cloth to put at the prince's feet, and a cup of warm pork broth.
Elizabeth dosed the cup with willow bark for pain and fever and woke Nick. He was a little groggy, but aware enough for his valet to support him and Elizabeth to hold the cup until he'd downed it all. Then they eased him back down and let him go back to sleep.
The pork dinner Gwen served was eaten enthusiastically but almost in silence since the main hall was where everyone dined. No one wanted to disturb the prince or have the duchess angry at them for waking him. Everyone tiptoed out after eating, and Gwen cleaned up the kitchen as quietly as she could.
The duchess and the valet both camped out in the main hall all night, ready to respond in case of emergency, but the prince slept through without waking. Elizabeth got up several times to check on him, but besides running a slight fever he seemed fine and the wound looked healthy.
In the morning the smell of sizzling bacon woke them and Elizabeth was delighted that Nick sat up by himself, wincing a little at the movement but alert and ready for his share. Gwen sliced potatoes and fried them in the bacon grease and kept serving bacon and potatoes until everyone was well-satisfied. Nick had three helpings plus a couple of extra slices of bacon, while Elizabeth settled for a more ladylike two helpings.
After everyone finished and left the main hall to do chores, Elizabeth and Parker helped Nick dress and then she borrowed a servant's room to change her clothes while the valet assisted the prince to slide onto his matter shield. Then the two of them walked on either side while the duke floated himself to the tower, with Sylvie walking behind. Parker hastily removed the rickety ladder, and Nick raised himself and his wife up into the tower. He sat in the doorway and brought up the servants who had to step over him.
"There's got to be a better way," Nick murmured as the servants went downstairs and he reformed his shield and moved himself onto a couch. Elizabeth helped him get settled with his legs up, covered him with a blanket and a couple of scrolls to amuse him. Then she sat nearby so they could talk.
"Nick, you really frightened me when they brought you in all bloody."
"I'm sorry, I sort of frightened myself too. I almost didn't make it back."
"So you're not going after boar again alone, right?"
"I don't know. I don't think I can promise that. But I will be more careful in the future."
"You could have been killed!"
"But I wasn't. I just . . . Richard only took me on one boar hunt just as an observer; he said they were too dangerous. I knew about the danger, there were a few times someone tried to take a boar on the deer hunts. I guess I just didn't realize how fast and tough they are, but I know now. I just learned I shouldn't copy what I've seen others do and treat a boar like a deer. Other hunters don't have a choice, but I can stun it from a distance with force and put an arrow or two in it from above, out of reach."
"Nick, every time you go out you'll leave me sitting here wondering if you're coming back. You may know more about boar now, but there are other animals you've never encountered.
"Elizabeth, I'm sorry, but I'm going to do what I have to. Just trust me, okay?"
"I try, but I still worry. Even with magic you can't control everything and putting yourself in danger . . ."
"Is something we've both had to do and probably will again. I can't put my safety above keeping people from starving."
"I know, I know. It's just . . . to lose you after everything we've been through would be so hard. What would I do without you? What would happen to Sothalia?"
"You'd go on, and Sothalia would go on, just as I would have to if something happened to you."
She went over and sat next to him on the couch and put her feet up too so they were scrunched together. "Nick, I wouldn't want to, not without you, and I could never manage the duchy alone."
"You could if you had to. I wouldn't want to try to do everything alone or be without you either, but I'd do my duty whatever happened and so would you. Let's not talk about this anymore, it's depressing."
"No? Then what do you want to talk about?"
"How about if we go over all the jobs we have to do in spring and prioritize them?" he asked with an air of resignation.
"That's not very romantic and I think the length of the list might be a bit depressing too."
"Well it hurts whenever I tense my leg muscles, so romance is kind of difficult right now. But I think I would worry less if we had a definite and realistic plan."
"You're right, and so would I. We can work on the list of what we need to do in the order we need to do it over the next day or two. And by the time you're up and about we'll have it done, and there will be plenty of days and nights for romance."
"Good, I am rather fond of romance. As soon as I'm better let's do a lot of it."
Elizabeth laughed. "I'll hold you to that, Your Highness. We'll be sure to keep it near the top of the list of things to do at all times."