Dylan became aware of being elsewhere with a jerking start. Darkness surrounded him. He was still beneath the earth, yet— No. His eyelids might feel a little too heavy to open right now, but he could distinguish the flickering of light beyond them. Was he dead? Truly dead?
He lay on his back. His heart hammered unmercifully. That didn’t seem like the act of a dead man. And his breath came swiftly and shuddered through his chest, yet the act was unobstructed. There appeared to be the warmth of a body cradling his head rather than the clammy coldness of mud.
Thighs. He was lying down with his head pillowed on someone’s thighs.
A hand slid over his scalp, stroking his hair. That didn’t seem like the act of an enemy. Or rather more importantly, not like someone intent on his death just now.
There was the dull clang of metal.
Dylan groaned and rolled his head to one side. His eyes fluttered open. He stared blankly at the scene before him, trying to make sense of the world. Katarina stood near a campfire, stirring a little pot suspended over the embers. His nose caught the scent of heavily overcooked grain. It smelt divine.
That voice. So close. The elven warrior, Authril. Her lap beneath his head. They’d all survived. Or were they now prisoners?
He sat up and the world spun.
“Careful,” Katarina cautioned.
When his head stopped messing with his eyesight, he took in their surroundings. It was dark beyond the light of the fire, but he could see enough to know they were alone and that this wasn’t the army camp. Trees hemmed them on all sides, their outlines against the sky dark and imposing.
He licked his lips. His tongue had a distinctly papery-tasting film on it. How long had he been unconscious? A few hours? A day? No, they couldn’t have gone far after the attack. “Where are we?” he croaked.
“Just a little ways into the forest,” Authril replied. “It’s good to see you’re awake, I was beginning to think I’d have to carry your arse all the way to Toptower after all.” Her gaze kept flicking to the top of his head as she talked. Was there something wrong with it? “Are you all right?”
Dylan gingerly felt his hair. A section at the back was clumped together by a tepid congealed substance. He didn’t want to dwell on what it could be. His gaze dropped to the thickly-woven fabric draped over his lap. He didn’t recall either woman packing a blanket. “What happened?”
“You took the pommel of a sword to the skull,” Katarina said. She laid out the three mismatched and battered bowls he didn’t recall anyone adding to their packs and filled them with some sort of brown gloop.
He eyed the steaming bowls, his stomach growling as if he’d swallowed some sort of beast. When was the last time he’d eaten? Had it really been several days?
“And you bled everywhere,” Authril helpfully added, drawing him back to what the women were saying. “Head wounds do that, of course, but I thought we’d lost you for sure. Yet you seemed to knit yourself back together quick enough.”
Dylan frowned. He recalled fighting the soldiers before everything went red. He’d vague memories of being struck on the back of the head and then…
He felt along his side. His skin was unmarked, not even a hint of a scar. The same couldn’t be said for his clothing. Both his robe and undertunic were scorched and torn where the bolt had struck. He’d have to find a way to patch the fabric before the holes got any bigger. “And what became of the Udyneans?”
“Gone,” the elf replied. “For the most part.”
So they hadn’t all died. Did that mean he’d failed in his attempt to take the enemy spellster’s life? He licked his parched lips and braced himself for the answer as he asked, “Did their spellster make it?”
Authril shook her head. “He’s dead.”
“Are you sure?” He thought the man had been beyond any sort of retaliation when the shield fell, yet he’d been struck.
Her lips flattened into a grim smile. “Unless the sod can grow a new head, then yes. I wasn’t about to leave the possibility of him reviving to chance. Here.” She handed him a water skin. It didn’t look like the same soot-stained one they’d pulled from the tent remains. “You sound terrible.”
He took a swig from the water skin. The coolness soothed his throat and washed away the sourness in his mouth. It tasted strangely familiar. Cleaner than what he’d grown accustomed to on his journey down here and reminiscent of home. He took several more long swallows before handing it back to the elf. “What happened to the rest of the men who’d attacked?”
“Well,” Katarina said, offering one of the full bowls to the other woman. “After you killed their spellster and Authril dispatched the woman responsible for your head wound, the remaining two fled.”
“Like roaches,” Authril muttered before shovelling in a spoonful of food. “Cowards wouldn’t even offer themselves up for a decent death. But at least we saw to it that one less blasted spellster isn’t going home.”
An uneasiness bubbled in his stomach. He tried to convince himself it was only because he hadn’t eaten in several days, but the way she spoke that word. Spellster. An echo of the derision of the other soldiers. One less of them. It wouldn’t bring anyone back, but it was a start in keeping more Demarn soldiers from joining the dead.
The dwarf cleared her throat. “The Udyneans have a rather different outlook on what constitutes as a good death.” She crouched before him and offered up the remaining bowl. “Sorry.” Her wide mouth twisted into a grimace. “I’m not much of a cook. If it’s any consolation, it tastes better than it looks.”
Dylan barely gave a glance to what he’d been given before shovelling great spoonfuls into his mouth. His tongue said it was porridge, if a little on the burnt side, his stomach didn’t care enough to comment.
He was a third of the way into the bowl when another question surfaced through the mindless slog of his movements. “Where did we get oats?” There’d been nothing in the way of salvageable food when they’d scoured the camp remains.
“The scouts,” Katarina replied as she turned to her own meal. “They’d other travel rations as well, perhaps enough to get us to Toptower.”
“It’s a bugger the horse ran off,” Authril muttered into her bowl.
The hedgewitch nodded. “We certainly could’ve carried a great deal more of their gear if it’d stayed, the saddlebags might’ve even held a tent, but we should be able to make do just curling up in blankets providing the fine weather holds. And if we supplement the travel rations with a little foraging, we won’t have to buy quite as much food for the journey to this tower.”
Dylan absently returned to the porridge. The concept of money was a murky one. He wasn’t a stranger to exchanging one thing for another—bartering ran rife through the tower’s spellsters—but he failed to see how a disc of metal carried any worth beyond the alchemical, especially when it came to provisions.
Food had always been something that was just there. A part of him knew that wasn’t how it worked beyond the tower walls, but knowing a meal came only through work or money had long been another man’s concern. Now? He wasn’t sure how to hunt, but he knew a little about foraging from his old forays into the garden with Henrie. Perhaps the forest held a few of the non-toxic plants he remembered from his childhood teachings.
Authril watched him eat. She’d scraped her own bowl clean swiftly enough, but didn’t seem to be looking to procure a portion of his food like his elven friends back in the tower. “Have you ever been in a fight before today?”
“Of course,” he replied around his spoon. “I’ve been training for most of my whole life to be in the army.” Against wooden men who stood there whilst he blasted them, and people who could shield themselves from his attack. Not like this. Not even the brawl could’ve prepared him for this. “It’s what I’m out here for.”
She stretched out her hand, offering the empty bowl to the hedgewitch who managed to find a few more spoonfuls to refill it. “But you’ve never actually fought to the death.”
Had it been that obvious? Dylan shrugged, trying to maintain a nonchalant demeanour. “I never got the chance. I arrived six days ago. The day we were ambush was my first time with the scouts.”
The elf grunted. “You were fortunate,” she mumbled.
He recalled the screams of those dying. Of the heat, the scent of burning flesh coming from beneath his collar as he desperately sought for a way to defend the scouting party. Dylan lowered the bowl. The food was starting to sit less easily in his stomach. “No, I wasn’t.”
The warrior had resumed picking at the small pieces left in her bowl. He couldn’t see how she could do so and still talk about the death of her comrades. “I meant for you to be away when they attacked the main camp,” she said between chews.
Dylan shook his head, the Udynean spellster’s words sticking sharp in his mind. “They took them.” Was that why he had survived when his company hadn’t? But why not capture him when he was unconscious? The ambush should’ve left him slain or enslaved.
He ran his finger along his throat. The too-smooth patch of skin hadn’t changed over the last few days. He hadn’t scarred since gaining adept status amongst the tower healers. The wound on his side had healed perfectly, why not this?
The collar must’ve been the cause. How? Recalling what had happened when he removed the metal band rather eluded him. Not much came to mind beyond heat and pain. And light. Great arcs of it stinging his skin. That had to be what caused this scarring, forever branding him as once being leashed.
Perhaps the only reason he wasn’t with the other spellsters on his way to the Udynean slave market was because his attackers thought he’d died.
Hearing a strange rustling sound pulled him from his musing. The hedgewitch had retrieved the map and was tilting the face towards the firelight in an attempt to read it.
Dylan focused on his hand, coaxing a small ball of pure white light. It sputtered and wobbled in the air, flickering even more uncertainly until it hovered just over the dwarf’s shoulder. On the edge of his vision, he spied Authril inching away from him and the light. He frowned. She didn’t seem all that bothered by his abilities when they were fighting. Perhaps she’d not witnessed magic beyond the weaponized variety.
Smiling up at him, the hedgewitch laid the map flat on the ground and removed a slender case from one of her pouches. The burnished bronze of a compass gleamed in the combined light as she measured off the distances across the map, mumbling numbers under her breath.
Finally, she sat back. “I originally intended to travel via the roads, but now I’m not certain how safe that idea would be. However, if this map is accurate, we could reach Toptower faster anyway if we avoid the roads and travel through the forest in a more direct line. It should also reduce our chances of encountering further hostile forces.”
Authril grunted. She eyed him as he allowed the ball of light to dissipate, but said nothing further.
Katarina also swung her attention to him, but where the elf was wary, the hedgewitch’s face showed only concern. “Will you be able to keep up?”
He nodded. It’d been a trying few days stumbling through the pathless forest between camps, but he felt confident that he’d do better with rest and food.
Those hazel eyes drifted over his body, forcing him to resist the urge to squirm. The way she examined him was reminiscent of his guardian. “Perhaps we could find a replacement for your attire once we arrive at the village.”
His gaze dropped to his robe. Even without the hole in the side, the ambush and their trekking had left the hem ragged, scorched and stained. His undertunic was in no better state. “I really don’t think we can wait that long.” He’d been measured for his robe the afternoon of his arrival and had donned it the following morning.
The main camp must’ve had a dozen or so tailors under their employ. It couldn’t have taken them more than a few hours, especially if several hands joined in. For a single man and, possibly, an assistant? Perhaps two days from the time of measurements to the very last stitch.
The hedgewitch frowned. “You can’t travel for weeks as you are. Healer or not, you’ll get sick.”
He smiled. The last time any sickness had befallen him outside of his journey to the main camp, he’d been in his late teens. “If we’ve the money, I’ll buy some cloth to patch them.” If they couldn’t afford to do that, then he would have to sacrifice a section of his blanket.
“If you’re sure,” she said as she retrieved both of the bowls from him and the elf.
The small slip of cloth wrapped about her forearm caught his eye. The off-white linen was dark with dried blood. He stared at the bandage, recalling her pained cry during the fight. “You’re injured.” Dylan extended his hand, inviting her to lay her arm in his grasp. “Let me—”
“No.” Katarina clasped her hands over his. “You said you’d little magic left to give before the Udyneans attacked.”
“And I’ve slept since then.” He wasn’t certain how long, but if the sun had set, then several hours must’ve passed.
By the way the dwarf’s lips pursed and her brows knitted together, his answer wasn’t good enough. “Admittedly, I’m a little rusty with how much of a toll fighting can take on a spellster’s body. It’s been some time since the coven has given me any cause to study your people’s abilities. However, you didn’t appear to sleep all that soundly. It’s not quite as bad as it could’ve been, but if my injury still bothers you in the morning, I’ll let you see to it then. After proper rest.”
Dylan’s throat tightened at the idea of sleep, his thoughts swiftly dredging up the nightmare. His skin pebbled. He casually drew his blanket around his shoulders. It’d been the wind. Some chill breeze had slipped under his clothes via the hole and chilled him. Nothing more.
“If we’re sleeping here,” Authril said. “Then we’ll have to sort out who’s taking the first watch. I don’t fancy the idea of being asleep without one of us on guard, not when those bastards are still out there. They could be tracking us, waiting for the time we let our guard down and they can slit our throats.”
“I’ll do it,” he replied, his face steadily growing hot at the hasty way the words had fled his mouth. Trying in vain to shrug off the sensation, he continued. “Neither of you could’ve slept since I’ve been unconscious. You both should. I’ll keep an eye out for anything suspicious.” What that would be, he didn’t know. His training hadn’t exactly touched on surviving in the forest. Best bet would be to wake either of them at the slightest sound of movement.
Authril rubbed behind her ear. Those sea-green eyes narrowed at him. “I’d have to go with the dwarf on this one. You were thrashing around an awful lot. I don’t know how much rest you got. Probably best if you slept.”
“If it’s all the same, I’d rather not.” He really wasn’t certain if he’d ever be able to close his eyes without envisioning those bony hands and their creaking voices. Swallowing, he tightened his grip on the blanket. He didn’t want to find out so soon.
“Very well,” Katarina said, pinning him with a stern look. “But you wake me as soon as the moon reaches its height. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Madam Hedgewitch.” Dylan snapped off a mock salute, trying to alleviate the severity in her face. It didn’t work. “I’ll go check our perimeter whilst you two settle down.” He stood, shaking back the feeling in his legs as he wobbled his way towards the trees.
Ducking behind a particularly sturdy trunk, he made quick work of relieving himself whilst being certain his companions wouldn’t follow. He hadn’t been able to do something so simple without company since leaving the tower. Strange how gratifying it was to do so alone.
He circled the rest of their little clearing, weaving through the undergrowth as he kept the light of their fire in view. The flames put out more light than he would’ve expected. An easy target for someone to track.
By the time he returned to the fireside, the women had curled up on the ground, making the most of their packs and pilfered blankets. Soon, the soft rumble of a snore came from one of the women.
Dylan settled near the fire, carefully banking the coals before once more wrapping himself in the blanket. Darkness enveloped them. His heart fluttered and he rolled his gaze upwards, but the moon, when it eventually rose above the trees, was a mere sliver of light in the sky.
Stars peeked through the canopy of branches. Normally, those specks of light would invoke wanderlust. Not tonight. Everywhere he looked, the branches jutted across his viewpoint like bony hands.
“Stop it,” he muttered under his breath. “It’s all right. It was just a bad dream. You’re not trapped underground.” Just in the middle of a forest, with who knew how many predators? Whilst his haphazard sleeping couldn’t have restored the full extent of his magical ability, he felt capable of shielding them from something as banal as an animal attack.
What if his magic wasn’t enough? Authril seemed to think it a possibly of there still being Udynean soldiers out here. How likely was that? Surely, there could be but a few lost out here. A few wouldn’t be any trouble at all.
Thoughts of the attack tumbled through his mind. The first two had fallen so swiftly and yet… Well, they either were slavers or worked for them and, by his actions, they would never harm another person. They deserved the death he’d given.
A part of him had enjoyed taking their lives. Enemy or not, they were still people. Still had lives and loved ones. But it’d been so easy. Even tired and all but drained of the ability to work his magic, they’d fallen as swiftly as it was to crush a bug. Maybe his tutors back in the tower were right, they didn’t deserve to be amongst normal folk. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be anywhere.
Join us. How simple would it be to throw himself at the next threat? To fall rather than go on knowing he’d not been able to stop the attack? What if it made things worse? The Seven Sisters wouldn’t look favourably upon him then. The unworthy spent eternity trapped on their boat, drifting through the darkness.
His gaze swung to where the women lay, just dark lumps on the ground. There was nothing to suggest either woman was actually asleep. He shuffled to where the dwarf slept, intent on waking her as he’d agreed, before deciding against it.
Instead, he stood and, feeling his way through the darkness, halted at the side of a tree to press his forehead to the bark. He wasn’t usually the type to ask forgiveness from the gods, but it couldn’t hurt.
Dylan closed his eyes and clasped his hands over his chest. His lips moved in the silent prayer he’d spoken at every bimonthly sermon since he could talk. “I don’t know if you can hear me,” he whispered. “The priests say you don’t answer people’s prayers and you’re all probably busy judging and guiding everyone who died here, but just… Why me? Why am I still here?” He should’ve been at the main camp to help. All those lives might never have been wasted if he had just been there. “What did I do to merit saving that they didn’t?” He’d done nothing. He hadn’t been able to.
He waited, both hoping and dreading that, for once, the gods would answer. How long he stood leaning against the tree, he didn’t know. The passage of time came only through his aching limbs. His legs shook, tired from being rooted to the spot. Still, he waited. Just one sign. All he needed was one little sign.
At last, his legs couldn’t hold him anymore. Dylan slid to his knees. He clung to the tree, his fingers digging into crevices within the bark. Anger bubbled through his veins, making a sour mixture in his gut. “What gives you the right to choose who dies?” he whispered into the bark. It wasn’t only those soldiers who’d lost their lives. There would be families waiting for loved ones to return, not knowing that they never would.
“Were we meant to fail? Was I…?” He took a deep, quivering breath as a far more insidious thought surfaced. “Was I supposed to die?” The gods hadn’t come to his aid in his nightmare. Perhaps that was meant to be his sign that he’d somehow missed his destined death. Warm wetness flowed down his cheeks to drip off his chin. He was nowhere near ready to die. “Please, tell me what I’m supposed to do now.”
The king would send more people to the border. Demarn would always need more people to guard against Udynea. He would be amongst them and, this time, he wouldn’t fail. He would do everything in his power to ensure this second chance at life counted. “I’ll try harder.” Every last piece of himself would become dedicated to those he travelled with. No one under his watch would succumb to the same fate as the scouting party. “I promise.”
The concern in that hushed, musical breath of his name had him rocking back to sit on his heels. Katarina. His breath shuddered through his chest. Was he not meant to wake her earlier?
Slowly, he wiped his face dry. “Sorry,” he croaked. Had he been blubbering loud enough for the woman to hear? “I didn’t mean to disturb anyone.” What of the warrior? Elves had far superior hearing than both human and dwarf. Had he woken her, too? He dared to glance over his shoulder at where Authril slept on, or so he hoped.
The hedgewitch crouched at his side. In the shadows beneath the trees, she was little more than a suggestion against the gloom. “Are you all right?”
Dylan choked back the welling urge in his chest to continue mewling like a newborn kitten. He must’ve looked quite the sight for her to ask. “I’m fine.”
Silence followed his answer. Didn’t she believe him? Probably not. He wouldn’t have either.
A hand grasped his shoulder.
He flinched, a high-pitched gasp leaving his lips, before realising it was merely Katarina. He didn’t cling to the woman’s fingers and he most certainly did not squeeze them due to any fear of her not being real.
“Come on,” she said, coaxing him to his feet. “Let’s get you back by the fire. I think I saw your blanket near Authril.” She grunted as his legs, still reluctant to bear his full weight, gave ever so slightly. “You must be exhausted. You should get some rest. Even a few hours will do some good.”
They slowly crossed the short distance from tree to where they’d made camp. She waited until he was settled by the banked fire and wrapped up in his blanket before striding off to circle the camp.
Hunched over, staring blindly at the dim suggestion of a glowing coal, he listened to her footsteps. Barely discernible from the surrounding hush of the night. Swift, too. If she hadn’t been kept back by his bumbling, she might’ve been able to reach the main camp before it was hit and raise the alarm. But she’d stayed with him. Dooming everyone.
Katarina emerged from the brush and sat next to him. “Are you truly all right?”
Dylan eyed Authril’s sleeping form. The warrior slept far heavier than any elf he’d known. But that was a good thing. He wasn’t quite ready to bare his reservations to the woman, but Katarina should be capable of keeping anything he said in confidence. “Not really,” he whispered.
“This might sound harsh, but you need sleep. Whatever thoughts you have going through your head right now won’t improve if you deprive your body of a necessary function.”
“I know,” he murmured. However, sleep came with its own problems. “I’m not sure I can.”
She shuffled closer, patting the earth between them. “Lie down and try. I’ll be right here if you need me.”
Dylan did as instructed, pillowing his head on his pack. It was far bigger and more forgiving than he’d expected, no doubt stuffed with their looted rations. Sadly, the ground wasn’t as cooperative. He wriggled, trying to find a comfortable position without sacrificing the blanket’s warmth.
A hand brushed his head, freeing his face of hair, much like his guardian had done when he’d been unwell. “Be still,” Katarina murmured.
He lay there, letting her stroke his head. Humming emanated from the woman. A low, dreamy tune he’d not heard before. He closed his eyes, letting his thoughts drift on the notes.