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A Measure of Solace

Chapter Two

“There.”

After a final stroke of the cloth, Zeera sat back on her haunches and admired her work.

 

“Now you shine more like polished stone than wood,” she told the bow.

 

Solace lay on a dark gray wolf pelt spread out on the tanning-shed floor, his surface glistening with the oil she’d worked into him.

 

Thank you, his strange voice said, a deep vibration like a bee inside her skull.

 

She traced a gentle finger over the dark swirls and figures carved into his pale surface. “Is this writing?”

 

Of a sort, Solace told her. They are the magical markings that give me power and protection.

 

Zeera ran her finger along his string, the springy tautness not the least bit diminished for having sat out in a damp forest for nearly half a year.

 

“Amazing,” she breathed, yet again wondering at her good fortune for having found such a treasure. “How much do you think I’ll get?”

 

Get?

 

“Yeah. For selling you.”

 

Despite his stillness, despite the fact that he seemed an inanimate object made of nothing more than wood and hemp fiber, the bow reacted. Zeera felt his anger, the emotion like a palpable wave emanating from atop the wolf pelt. It hit her chest like a hammer blow, and she sucked in a breath as she rocked back.

 

For selling me?!

 

The voice boomed inside her head, loud enough to make her shut her eyes and clap her hands to her ears.

 

You would dare trade one such as I for mere coin?

 

“I can’t keep you!” she argued, pulling her ineffectual hands away and sitting forward. “I’m no archer! And my father uses traps, not weapons!” After a deep breath, she calmed, lowering her voice. “We have nothing … The winters are hard for us.” She stared daggers at the bow, even though he likely couldn’t see her expression. “But if I sell you, I can get at least a few coins. Things will be easier for us with money.”

 

Even now, her stomach grumbled with the deep hunger of late spring, when the salted meat had long run out. For dinner that night, if the valley traps remained empty, her small family would dine on potato soup and rough brown bread.

 

“I’d love to keep you,” she said. “Really, I would. I’d like having someone to talk to besides papa and Vint, besides the crows. But—”

 

I cannot be sold, Solace affirmed, his tone more controlled now. I cannot. Nor can I stay here. I must find a new master. I am nothing without a master.

 

“Well,” Zeera said, considering, “maybe whoever buys you can become your master.”

The bow seemed to twitch on his wolf-pelt bed, though the girl knew it was likely a trick of her eyes.

 

No. That will simply not do. I will not find a master here, among your people.

 

“Why not?”

 

There was no buzzing reply in Zeera’s head for a long moment.

 

I have encountered a few individuals from this region. I do not believe they are of sufficient skill to wield such as I.

 

“I thought you couldn’t remember anything?”

 

I recall only vague impressions of my time before the cliff. It is the last several months that seem entirely lost to me.

 

“Well, I’m sure someone here is worthy of your … greatness.”

 

It is unlikely.

 

“I’m afraid it’s your only chance.” What a sullen piece of wood!

 

Zeera picked up the bow and stood, then tossed him up into the air as though he were nothing more than a walking stick.

 

Girl! he shouted in her head.

 

She tossed him up again, higher.

 

Zeera!

 

She caught him and held him steady in both hands, her palms vibrating with the fury he emanated.

 

Stop that!

 

“Can you grow legs?” she demanded, her own anger bubbling up and mixing with his. “Does your magic allow you to float through the air or grow wings?”

 

No, the bow replied, his voice lowered to a growl.

 

“Then you can’t do anything without me, can you? I’ll have to be your legs. If you must find a master, then I must help you do it.”

 

She felt the emotion in the length of wood simmer down from anger to annoyance.

 

Yes.

 

A pause.

 

Please.

 

She smiled, stroking his smooth body. “And in return? What will I get for such trouble?”

What could this talking piece of curved wood possibly give her? Not coin, unless she sold him, and not food, unless he could magically turn her into a great hunter. What else?

 

Solace, said the bow.

 

“Your name?”

 

Yes, and more. I will give you comfort, and peace of mind. As long as you carry me, and as far as you must go, I will make sure you don’t suffer or despair, or feel the normal weariness of travel.

 

Zeera pondered this for a time. “Can you make it so I don’t get hungry?”

 

Temporarily, yes. You must still eat, but I can make the times between eating much more tolerable.

 

It wasn’t the best offer she could imagine, but what else could he possibly give her? He needed her, and what was the harm in a little journey?

“All right, but I’ll take you where I choose.” She slung Solace over her narrow shoulders again and bent down to pick up her skinning knife and a satchel. “And if we can’t find anyone suitable by the Longest Day, I’ll see about selling you.”

A tremble of fury coursed through the bow—she felt it where his wooden body crossed her back—but he remained quiet.

“That’s about four weeks. Plenty of time to find your perfect match, I’d say.”

Outside, the air was decidedly cooler, with scudding clouds obscuring the sun. Zeera checked to make sure her father and brother, Vint, weren’t yet home. It would likely be past dusk when they returned, with faces as empty as their sacks.

“I’d rather not leave,” she lied as she went in to gather up the things she would need for the journey. “My father and brother will be worried if they think I haven’t returned from my trap route. They may even come looking for me.”

Leave them something, then. A letter.

“No. That would be worse. Then they’d definitely come.”

Zeera wrapped a loaf of bread in cloth and tucked it into her satchel, a pair of knives going in after it. When she had everything she needed to survive for several days, as well as a few other odds and ends, Zeera went to the door and grabbed her walking stick, then turned around to survey her home. An image flashed into her mind, of her father sitting on his bench near the fire, whittling, his eyes narrowed in concentration. At the small table, an image of Vint sat, studying his book of maps.

She would miss them, at least for a time. And they would miss her too. Or at least they would feel the lack of her when they had to pick up the slack and do her chores themselves.

It was fate that Solace had dropped out of the sky and landed at the base of the cliff, she decided. She checked that he was secure and comfortable across her back. Helping him was a good reason to leave—as good as any.

With slow determination, Zeera shut the door and stepped from the porch. She twisted to wave at the ever-present line of crows sitting on the tanning-shed roof before she turned toward the eastern trail. With one hand gripping the bowstring across her chest, and the other holding her walking stick, the girl left home and willed herself not to look back.

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