He was certain that the rain fell in one continuous drop. After two unforgiving, drenched days trudging through the forest, stumbling and squelching amongst the dripping undergrowth, he’d had about enough of the weather.
In the fairytales his guardian used to read to him, the trees would shelter the weary travellers who would build their little fires out of miraculously dry logs and sleep tucked against the trunks all wrapped up in warm blankets. He was rather peeved to find that, in reality, nothing seemed to completely halt such a downpour and the ground was sodden even at the foot of the heartiest tree.
Never had he been this soaked outside of bathing. His legs cried out to stop. His eyelids begged for him to let them close. He couldn’t risk doing either. Not until they’d found somewhere sheltered for the night. A goal that was looking to be less certain with each passing hour.
He’d shielded them as best as he could during the first day, but the strain of maintaining a barrier that dense had long since sapped him of the energy. Now, the best he could manage was a little heat and he clung to that ability, waiting for a dry place that would allow him to get warm again.
They walked in single file with Authril at the head. She’d sought shelter beneath her shield, although it did little to keep the water off anything beyond her head. The rain bounced off the metal’s curved surface as if the droplets were a hundred raucous fleas.
She halted and twisted to face him. Her mouth moved. The hissing of the rain atop her shield rather reminded him of a turning drum of seeds and drowned out her voice.
“What?” he yelled back. Water trickled down his side, further chilling his already saturated skin. That particular part of his body had stopped aching sometime last night.
Pursing her lips, she pointed off to his right. There was… something large just beyond the trees, difficult to make out in the gloom and screen of a thousand raindrops. A cave? Perhaps it was a fallen tree or some sort of rock formation. All of those sounded promising. Nodding, he tugged at the hedgewitches sleeve and pointed towards their new destination.
The closer they got, the easier it became to make their way through the undergrowth. In some places, there seemed to be a path travelling in the precise direction they needed to head and a flickering light coming from within the shadowy hulk of their destination. Perhaps it was shelter. The slog of his passage picked up, the thought of being dry again reinvigorating him.
The foliage thinned out to a clearing. He halted, stumbling a few steps more only when Katarina collided into his back.
The shape they’d veered towards was a hut. An inhabited one, if he was to judge by the smoke coming out of the chimney. The flickering light he’d seen must belong to the fireplace. Warmth. The simple thought pushed his feet across the clearing to the door where Authril was already pounding on the weathered planks.
“I know you’re in there!” she bellowed. “Open up!”
Dylan winced. “Is it wise to antagonise them?” His teeth chattered as he spoke and he barely missed biting his tongue. From the outside, there was no indication of how many people lived here. Although, surely the occupants wouldn’t be alone. They could easily opt to leave a sodden trio of strangers to the elements. He’d rather not spend another night trying to sleep in the rain.
There was the faintest slide of a bolt being pulled back. The door creaked open a little ways.
Dylan stepped back, unsure what to make of this silent invitation.
Authril pushed the door open further, hesitantly at first, then with more vigour as she found no resistance. She crossed the threshold in a few wary steps, her shield held at her side, only to halt just inside the room. He crowded her, the desire to be out of the rain superseding his caution.
A human woman, clad in a simple linen shirt and trousers, stood in the middle of the room was. The warm yellow glow of a fire pit burned merrily at her back, obscuring much of the woman’s features. The scent of food cooking nearby tickled his nose. He’d taken a single involuntary step towards the warmth when Authril dropped her shield with a mighty clang and threw up her hands.
Dylan’s gaze returned to the hut’s owner and settled on the bow she had aimed at them. He didn’t know much about archery, had only fleetingly seen a few of the army’s archers honing their skills in the main camp before being sent to the front line, but the woman looked very sure of her ability to hurt them. He mimicked Authril in holding his hands where they could be seen.
“You’ve exactly one minute to explain yourselves before I skewer the lot of you,” she snarled. “But if you’re looking to rob me, you’re shit out of luck there. I’ve nothing that’s worth risking your lives for.” Her accent was almost undetectable to his ears, not quite as undulating as Authril’s, and Dylan found himself exhaling in relief, despite the arrow she aimed at them. The woman was as Demarner as he and that meant they’d a chance to reason with her.
“I assure you that we’re not here to rob you,” Katarina said, pushing past Dylan to stand by the warrior’s side. “Please, we’ve been walking through the rain for two days. All we seek is a chance to be dry and warm for the night.”
The woman eyes narrowed. She didn’t lower the bow, but she seemed less inclined to shoot them.
“We don’t have anything to pay you,” the hedgewitch continued, “but I swear, if you just let us spend the night here, we’ll be on our way come dawn.”
“To where? My house doesn’t exactly sit in the middle of a main thoroughfare. You can’t tell me you were just having a stroll through the woods and got lost.”
“We’re on our way to—”
“Toptower,” Dylan blurted before the hedgewitch could mention anything else. He didn’t know why this woman was here, seemingly alone, but he also didn’t know how she’d react to the presence of a spellster. “At least, that’s our first stop. We came from the army camp.”
“The army?” She snorted. “Look, I told you buggers that I’m a born Demarner, if you keep knocking on my door, I’m going to start putting holes in people. And you can take that back to your commander.”
“We can’t,” Authril said, her voice the smallest it’d been since they met. “The camp was overrun. Everyone’s dead.”
Frowning, the woman lowered her bow. “What? No.” The bow came up, bending as she drew the arrow back. “You’re lying. There’s thousands of people there.”
Dylan caught the elf’s head bob.
“You really expect me to believe there’s no army between here and the border?”
“Believe what you want,” Authril replied. “It’s still the truth. The Udynea Empire tore through our defences like a blade through canvas.”
“Where are they now? I’d notice something like those arrogant pricks marching by my home.”
“They’re gone,” Katarina answered before the warrior could open her mouth. “It appears they’ve orders to retreat. I don’t know why—we didn’t exactly stop to ask them—but they could return at any time, they may very well be headed this way right now, and there’ll be no resistance.”
“Right,” the woman snapped. “Because it’s completely logical for them to destroy the entire army and just wander back home. Job done, boys. Let’s leave them to set up for another shot.”
The same thought had gnawed at him ever since stumbling upon the scouting party he let walk away. Perhaps the spellster he’d fought was right, that they were after slaves. Perhaps spellster slaves in particular. He wasn’t certain as to the magical nature of the slaves born in the empire, but he was willing to bet that of their number, those trained in magic were rather thin on the ground.
The woman’s gaze darted from face to face. She stepped back, once more lowering her bow. Uncertainty twisted her mouth. “Say I believe you. Toptower’s not very far to go. An army could be there in under a week.”
“Our goal is much further,” Dylan replied.
“The spellster tower, right?” She smiled when he attempted to feign ignorance and jerked her chin at him, freeing a lock of dark, ruddy auburn hair. “The robes. I’ve seen them before, standard army issue.” The twitch of her head indicated the other women. “You two are taking him back to get more of them?”
“Something like that,” he muttered.
The woman leant her bow against the wall. “Well then, I recommend we leave first thing in the morning.”
"W-we?" Authril spluttered, those sea-green eyes all but bursting from their sockets.
With hands on her hips, the woman looked the elf over. “Well, yes. I know this forest. I know the way to Toptower. Or would you rather spend a few more days bumbling about?”
“We weren’t bumbling.”
“No?” the woman sweetly replied. She bared her teeth in what he supposed was meant to be a smile. “Then how did you wind up at my little hut, hmm? I’m Marin, by the way.”
That was all the invitation he needed. Dylan shuffled past the fuming form of Authril and made for the fire pit. He rubbed his arms, trying to get some heat back into them. The weight of the pack tugged at his shoulders, he let it slip to the floor, sighing as he spied water oozing from the canvas. That meant his blanket would be well and truly saturated and who knew what state the travel rations were in?
“We were attempting a more direct route,” Katarina confessed.
Marin shook her head. “If you’ve come straight from the army camp, then you’re veering too far north to hit the village.”
“Not according to this.” The hedgewitch fished out their map from her belt pouch. Unlike the contents of Dylan’s makeshift bag, the map was completely dry.
The woman took the map over to the fire pit and read it. Every so often, she’d make a small disapproving sound. “Cheap workmanship,” she muttered. “Fine for the study wall, terrible if you want to use it. See here?” She pointed to the little spot marked as Toptower. “It should be here.” Her finger moved down about half a finger width. “A small margin on paper, but follow it and you’d wind up at Oldmarsh.”
“We’d have to go through there anyway,” he said. “What difference does it make if we take the road to the town or the forests?”
“Without food?” She eyed him, especially the tear in the right side of his clothes. No longer backlit by the fire pit, he could see her eyes were a light brown hue only a shade or two darker than her tawny skin. “Or shelter?” Returning the map to the dwarf, Marin left the fireside to rummage in a nearby chest. “Of course, you won’t be going anywhere if you’re all dead from the cold.”
Dylan huddled over the fire, rubbing his hands. He’d a faster way to get warm and dry, but he wasn’t about the test their host’s sudden hospitality by blatantly using magic in front of her. The trick would also work best on his clothes if he wasn’t wearing them and, whilst he wasn’t ashamed of his body, that didn’t mean he was prepared to display it to all in sundry.
Eventually, Marin returned with an armful of thick-looking cloths and passed them around. She stopped before him, looking at his right side before pointing at a section of the room that had pelts draped across it. “There’s an alcove just on the other side of those pelts if you want to strip and get dry. I also think I might have something to patch that.” She spun about and rifled through another chest tucked beneath the shuttered window. “They won’t match, of course, but it’s better than catching your death.”
After a few moments of muffled mutters and grumbles, the woman produced several scraps of cloth and leather along with a small container that he hoped were sewing supplies. “Let me know when you’ve disrobed and I’ll get them all patched up once they’re dry.”
Smiling his thanks, he took the pieces and container from her unresisting grasp. “I think I can manage. Through there, you said?” Barely waiting her affirmative nod, Dylan shuffled off behind the curtain of pelts, surprised to find a bed on the other side.
An unlit candle sat on a little shelf near the headboard. He lit it with the click of his fingers and set to work undressing, taking pains not to get too much of the area wet whilst peeling off his clothes. Rubbing himself dry took a little longer than he’d have liked. It would’ve been far better was the fabric more absorbent sort, but it worked well enough once he applied a little warmth.
A prickling in his side drew his attention. Examining his skin under the flickering light, he discovered the exposed patch had turned red from the constant cold.
Wrapping the length of cloth around his waist, he turned his attention to his sodden clothes. Drying them was a relatively easy task, allowing him to swiftly don his dry, and still quite warm, smallclothes before turning to the scraps of cloth. A few were instantly discarded as being too small.
The mattress rustled and shifted under his weight as he settled on the bed. Dylan bounced a few times. It wasn’t the giving comfort of his bed back in the tower, but nor was it as hard as the ground he’d been forced to sleep on since arriving at the main army camp. Strange, how much of a luxury a simple bed felt.
Sighing, he flipped open the box to find the required needle and thread along with a few crude pins. It’d likely take him an hour or so to repair both robe and undertunic, but that was no reason to leave off starting now and it would give the women time to either redress in their clothes or for Marin to find something for them to wear whilst they dried off.
Stitching the patch onto his undertunic was a fiddly task. Much of his skill with a needle had come during his tutorage under the healers, yet even the flesh of an unlucky patient cooperated far more easily than linen. He would need to trim the patch later and do a proper job of the edges so it wouldn’t fray, and the only thing that could be done with the hems was fold the shredded fabric and sew, but they were tasks he would deal to once his robe wasn’t quite so exposed on one side.
Shrugging back into the undertunic to keep the chill off his skin, he started on his robe. With its thicker fabric, it seemed easier to deal with, even if he had to fight the needle through the brown leather he’d chosen. That the tear had needed two of the patches to be fully covered didn’t help matters, but it was eventually done. Until he could neaten it up, at least.
He was part way through hemming his robe when there was a muffled scratch at the pelt blocking the doorway.
“Are you decent?” Marin called.
Dylan smiled at the little tremor in her voice, as if she were afraid there very well might be a naked man on the other side of the pelt. A mischievous part of him was tempted to strip back to his smallclothes and announce that she enter. He brushed the thought aside and put his half-done robe aside. “I’m never decent, but I am clothed if you wish to come in.”
There was a muffled snort and the hunter slipped into the room, a steaming bowl-like cup balanced in each hand. “Oh, I didn’t expect you to be…” Those light brown eyes swept over him, no doubt noticing the distinct lack of him looking like he’d ever been wet. Her brow creased slightly. “Here.” She held out one of the mugs. “This ought to finish warming you up.”
He accepted the cup, swirling the dark brown liquid within before taking a sip of what his tongue told him was some sort of watery mushroom-based soup.
“I’m afraid it’s not much.” She settled on the bed next to him. “I wasn’t exactly expecting company.”
Dylan smiled. Whilst the rations the women had liberated from the Udyneans were nourishing, they’d a distinct lack of anything resembling flavour. Unless sawdust counted. “Believe me, compared to what I’ve been eating for the last few days, this is a feast.”
She settled next to him on the bed. “They tell me that you’re unleashed.”
He nodded. “I am. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Not unless you plan on being problematic.”
“Damn.” He clicked his fingers. “There goes my idea of completely warping the fabric of the world to suit my whim. And I was so looking forward to bringing about the end of the world.”
Marin raised a brow at him. By her expression, she was considering whether or not to believe him. “You can’t actually do that, can you?”
He shook his head. “If I was that powerful, do you think we would’ve turned up here looking like drowned rats?”
“I suppose not. Unless you were a god trying to hide amongst mortals.”
Dylan gasped and clutched at his chest. “You’ve gone and figured out my secret. Wicked mortal.” He leant back on the bed. “You know, when I considered leaving the comfort of my crystal throne, I knew I would definitely have to come to a place where they leash spellsters rather than where they’re nobility. And I’d most certainly opt to spend twenty-nine years just existing in a tower.” He stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles. “I think I’ll choose Obuzan next time. I hear the country has a low tolerance for magic, shouldn’t take as long to die there. I could be back in the afterlife by noon.”
“Fair enough,” she said, giggling.
“In all honesty, no.”
She smiled into her cup. There was a freckle, darker than any of the others, on the right side of her face just above her lip. “You know, you’re far less serious than I expected a spellster to be.”
“I’m getting a lot of that, but no one will tell me why.”
Frowning, Marin bit her lip. “Well, they say that you spend a lot of time studying and training. I guess I sort of equated that to you all being bookish snobs.”
Dylan chuckled. “Is that all? To be fair, some of us are.” He recalled quite a number who fitted that description. “And they’d likely be overjoyed you think of them as such.”
“But you seem to be a bit of a goof. That’s quite the relief. I don’t think I could stood travelling with the other kind of spellster.” She peered up at him. “But I think we’ll do all right together.”
He sidled across the bed a little ways. None of their trio might have the money to pay the woman for their impromptu arrival, but there were other payments that could be made. “Is that so?”
“Don’t let it go to your head, either of them. I merely meant that it can grate having a travelling companion you don’t get on with. If you’re after anything else you’re not really my type.”
“Oh?” He set down his mug. “Perhaps if you told me what your type is, I could try being it for you? At least long enough to show my thanks in letting us stay the night.”
Marin grinned. A mischievous glint sparked in her eyes. “You can become a woman?”
Ah. He returned his focus to the cup, his face burning. “That I can’t do. Sorry.”
There was a long pause, in which he silently cursed himself for even thinking about flirting with the woman when they’d just met.
Then she cleared her throat and said, “Are my ears mishearing or did you just apologise for not being able to turn into a woman?”
The tension he didn’t know that’d been in his shoulders fled. He let out a small breath. “You didn’t mishear. It’s not the first time I’ve been rejected on such grounds.” It was one of the softer rejections he’d gotten in a long time, which was certainly a nice change of pace. Usually, he’d be due a stream of abuse by now, roars of how dare he think they were attracted to his gender. Apologising for his mistake was often the only way to prevent such a lashing. “Nor is it the first time I’ve rejected someone because of it.” Amazing how one glance too many could make a man think he was interested in them. “I get it. Truly. I’ll just be your goofy and utterly sexually unappealing travelling companion.”
Marin laughed. “You’re just afraid I’m going to stick you full of arrows, aren’t you?”
He remained quiet on the fact that she wouldn’t be able to reach her bow before he’d a shield up. Never mind retaliating. Instead, he affected a casual air, picked up his cup and drank deep of its contents before saying, “Whatever would I do to give you cause for that?”
A sneer curled her lip and a contemptuous little snort blew through her nose. “You’ve either no imagination or are incredibly dense.”
He pressed a hand to his chest. “It seems you don’t need arrows to wound me, madam.”
She stared at him for a while, then smiled and held up her drink. “Here’s to goofy travelling companions.”
He clinked cups with her and took another swig. “Thank you, though, for letting us stay.”
“Ah, you know me. If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a drowned rat of a spellster knocking on my door.” She fiddled with the handle of her mug. “So, being able to change your form isn’t an actual thing?”
“No.” If it had been, he knew of at least one person who would’ve jumped at the chance to learn it. “At least, not in Demarn.” Who knew what magic they were capable of in the lands where spellsters were given leave to do as they pleased? “Nor is the whole turning people into frogs story.” He wasn’t even sure where that came from, but the idea had run rife through the soldiers.
“That’s a shame. I’ve met some people who are already halfway there.”
His thoughts drifted to the men who’d been in command of him in the army. The priest said it was wrong to think ill of the dead, but he couldn’t muster much sympathy for the lieutenant or the sergeant, no matter their deaths. “As have I.”
“Still, I suppose if you could, the country would probably be overrun with them by now. They breed like crazy as it is.”
Dylan chuckled. “Causing a frog epidemic wouldn’t exactly endear us to the people, no.” Finishing the last of the soup, he handed back the cup. “You wouldn’t happen to have a pair of shears I could use?”
Her gaze swung to the half-finished sewing he’d done on his robe. Still smiling, she nodded. “Let me go get them.” With that, she disappeared beck behind the screen of pelts.
He dug around in his belt pouch for his mirror whilst he waited. It’d been a few days since he’d been able, or even willing, to attempt shaving. Sure enough, there were a few patchy hints of stubble forming.
There was a small basin and pitcher perched atop a chest near the bed end, the latter of which being empty. The lack of water wasn’t much of a problem. He focused on the inside of the basin. Convincing the water in the air to form into ice was relatively easy. With this much moisture in the air, collecting it was only a simple matter of manipulation. A child’s game.
“Neat trick,” Marin said, jolting him from his task. How long had she been standing there? “But wouldn’t ice be the last thing you’d want?”
Dylan placed his hand atop the block of ice and switched his focus. “It’s not ice that I’m after.” Heat poured down his hand, melting the ice in a matter of seconds and steadily raising the temperature of the water.
She offered up the shears, eyeing the steaming basin.
“I’ll let you have your bed back as soon as I’m done here.” It’d likely take him several hours with the leather, but he could do that by the fire pit once he’d sorted out his undertunic.
The woman waved her hand. “I tend to sleep in front of the fire on nights like this, anyway. We’re going to be sleeping outdoors a lot before we reach your tower, feel free to spend the night in it.”
He inclined his head in thanks and, as she left him, fell to the task of shaving before he returned to mending his clothes.