The rain had finally stopped by the time morning arrived. They left the hut as soon as it was light enough to see. Marin led the way, winding through the trails animals had worn through the forest, with Katarina at her side. He still wasn’t certain why she chose to live alone in the middle of the forest, but he doubted he was the only one grateful for her presence.
They’d left a great deal of the sodden travel rations behind in favour of the jerked meat Marin had hunted. She’d added other things to their packs, such as the mug and bowl wrapped up in his blanket. They issued the occasional clank whenever he misstepped. All of it crammed into a pack that was somewhat more robust, and heavier, than the previous sack he’d been lugging through the rain.
They’d stopped before the night had truly settled in to lay out the tents and, after a little fumbling with lengths of wood taken from branches, the women began what looked to be the fiddly task of getting those pieces to stand together. There were only two tents—Marin’s newer piece and a slightly worn spare—and both were of similar size. Although he’d insisted that he didn’t mind sharing the space with another, all three seemed intent on sleeping crammed into one tent.
He was willing to bet a large chunk of their reluctance was due to his ineffectiveness in the task of actually getting even half of his tent to stay upright for longer than a few seconds. No matter how he attempted to keep them from falling, the length of wood at the top end always seemed to tip off the fork at the other end before he’d a chance to finish righting the other.
Although the shape was similar to the triangular tents that’d been numerous in the army camps, these were made from several pieces of a leather and had rawhide ties in places he didn’t recall seeing on the other wedge-shaped tents. Of course, he’d not seen any of them dismantled.
“You know,” Authril said, jolting him from his hushed mantra of senseless muttering. “You’re not meant to stake the corners quite as far apart as that.”
Dylan glanced over his shoulder at the warrior, then back at the uncooperative mass of leather and wood. He’d stretched out the ground section as far as the leather would allow and it did seem to be fighting him. “That actually explains a lot.” He bent down and hauled the closest of the stakes from the earth.
“And having the top pole inside the tent might also help you.”
He nodded absently as he removed a second stake. That made a lot of sense, too. “Do you think you could lend me a hand?”
Shaking her head, Authril picked up the palm-sized rock he’d been using as a hammer. “Move over, then.”
Dylan stood back as she re-secured the corners, taking pains to watch what she did for the next time. It wasn’t an easy task. His gaze kept wandering, travelling up the woman’s arms to her face. With her skin not quite so dirt-smeared and her hair dry as well as being rather less explosive than when they first met, he was able to clearly define her features. The sharp angle of her jaw gave her a certain heart-shaped quality that rather complemented her large eyes and the numerous freckles.
It was her lips that distracted him the most. They were already the perfect amount of plumpness somewhere between full and thin. But the way she bit the bottom one whilst lining up the tent side and the firm press of them against each other as she hammered each stake in… it was almost enough to make a man want to never stop kissing them.
“There,” she said, breaking him from his reverie. Authril stood back, brushing the grass and dirt from her hands. “That should do it, help me with the rest of it.”
With the sides not pulled out quite as tightly as in his solo attempt, they were able to right the poles with little effort. The supports wobbled as they lashed the top pole to the others, but mercifully, the structure didn’t collapse. It actually looked like a tent now. Convinced he could now get away with staking down the sides, he grabbed his makeshift hammer and set to work.
“I wonder if you could help me figure something out,” Authril said whilst lashing the last of the poles together.
He sat back on his heels, glancing up from the stake he’d half hammered in. “That depends on what it is.”
Finished with her task, she leant back on the tree he’d chosen to pitch under. “Well, you’re human.”
He grinned up at her. “I am indeed and I’m fully prepared to prove that should you ever wish to check.”
She rolled her eyes. “And Marin is also human.”
“Obviously.” Dylan crouched at the next staking point and rammed the short length of wood into the ground. “Is this going somewhere?”
“How can Katarina not be human?”
“Ah.” He ducked down the other side of the tent before the woman could catch him grinning for an entirely different reason. He’d heard of elves being confused by the close resemblance between dwarves and humans. There were no obvious differences between the races like there were with elves, but then, their pointy-eared brethren had come from somewhere else. “Katarina is from Dvärghem. They believe they’re all, technically, dwarves.” Although there were supposedly non-dwarven hedgewitches, they’d be in the minority and unlikely to be wandering the forest without a dwarven company.
Authril shook her head and creaked an abrupt denial. “See I know that. You can tell me that until you pass out, but I see no dwarves here.”
He peeked over the top of the tent. “Well, I wouldn’t recommend calling Katarina human.” Whilst it could be little more than rumour turned folklore, there was a very popular tale about a prince who made such an accusation of a hedgewitch. Dvärghem as a whole might now lean towards more diplomatic resolutions, but the individual had challenged the young prince to a fight and won, proving that the hedgewitch wasn’t a mere human.
“She can’t be anything but human, though,” Authril insisted. “Everyone knows real dwarves have been extinct for thousands of years.”
Did everyone know? “I think the Dvärghem coven might disagree with you.”
The warrior wrinkled her nose. “They were short people. They found burial sites on the border of Heimat. I know that much.”
He resisted the urge to ask where she’d heard that. He’d no knowledge of any such sites being discovered. Perhaps it was a new discovery. “Katarina is short.” Shorter than Marin and himself, at least. The top of her head perhaps reached the base of his ears if he was being generous.
Authril huffed in pure exasperation. “That doesn’t count. Everyone’s shorter than you. You’re like some weird giant. Scrawny, too. Even for a spellster.”
Dylan thrust out his bottom lip. He could let the weird remark slide, but… “Scrawny?” In the last year, he’d managed to put on at least a stone and he’d eaten a great deal before that happened.
Again, the woman rolled her eyes, but failed to stifle the little smile that tugged at the corners of her mouth. “All right, will you stop pouting if I said lanky?”
Standing, he brushed the skirt of his robe clean. “What were you expecting?”
“I’m… not sure. The other spellsters, the ones Udynea took, they weren’t like you. They’d more meat on their bones.”
He chuckled. He’d never been the most physically strongest amongst his peers. “You should’ve seen me in my teenage years.” Scrawny would’ve been an apt description back then, with Henrie often comparing him to a walking skeleton. “I haven’t exactly been away from the tower long and the only heavy things we have lying around there are each other or some of the heavier tomes and we don’t really do much lifting of either.” Even then, he would rarely attempt to carry a tome without aid.
She smiled. “My point is that dwarves are meant to be shorter than elves. Shorter than me, than the humans that this hedgewitch is actually taller than.”
He shrugged and tossed his makeshift hammer into the undergrowth. “If you breed an elf to someone of human descent enough times, you would never guess they’d an elven ancestor unless they told you.”
The woman raised a brow at him. Something cold flashed in those sea-green eyes.
Dylan held up his hands. “Not that I’m suggesting anything. I meant it purely as an example. Dwarves used to be everywhere, but there hasn’t been any new dwarven stock and they aren’t adverse to unions with either human or elf. It’s not my place to question if they have the ancestry they claim.”
That there was some sort of difference was well documented. The ancient dwarves never used magic and a spellster who had child with a native of Dvärghem ended up with one who was irrefutably non-magical. Something else had to be there.
Authril opened her mouth, closing it swiftly as something caught her attention.
Her hand clamped over his mouth, stifling the rest of his question. She pressed a finger to her lips. He nodded and she let her hand drop.
Dylan tilted his head, straining to hear what she could. Trees creaked in a breeze that didn’t reach them quite as strongly. Birds called in low chirps and whistles. There was the hushed drone of bees drifting from flower to flower in a nearby bush. Something small scurried through fallen leaves.
Authril’s hand grasped his arm, wordlessly pushing him towards where the others stood by the unlit fire. It wasn’t until he stood still again that he caught what she’d heard. Or rather not.
The birds had stopped singing.
In its place, the faint rustle of something large moving through the undergrowth, punctuated every so often by a deep grunting growl. The longer he listened, the louder the grunts got. It raised the hair on his neck and sent a shudder down his back. What sort of animal made such a noise?
Marin abandoned the camp fire she was attempting to light. She jumped to her feet, her bow at the ready. “Get behind me!” The hunter jerked her head, frowning when Authril merely drew her weapon. “Your sword won’t be any good with this, leave it to me.”
“What is it?” Dylan asked as Katarina scurried to his side. Was it a bear? Were there bears in this kingdom? He rather wished he knew the answer to that because, whatever it was, it sounded angry. And enormous. He threw up a shield to encompass Katarina and himself.
“With luck,” Marin muttered. “It’s dinner.”
A heavy black beast, roaring like a demon, erupted from the undergrowth and ploughed through the middle of their camp. Before he’d time to think on how to deal with it, there was the muffled whoosh of an arrow leaving the hunter’s bow and the thing veered off into the bush.
“Oh no you don’t!” Marin growled as she rushed after it, her massive hunting knife bared.
Authril followed quick on the woman’s heels. He watched their passage in silence, still unsure what he’d seen.
“You can drop the barrier, now,” Katarina said. “It’s not coming back.”
Not quite certain whether he should believe her, Dylan opted to leave the shield in place. “What was it?”
She raised a brow at him. “You’ve never heard of a boar before?”
“A boar?” Dylan echoed. That crazed beast had been a boar? “I’ve heard of them. Seen one?” He recalled one particular book he used to pour over in his childhood, filled with animals from all over the continent. Porcine of all kinds had featured on one the pages. The images he remembered looked nothing like that monstrous creature. “Not in the flesh. There aren’t more of them, are there?”
“Well, Marin might be a better person to enquire about that, but in my experience, they don’t tend to travel alone.” She smiled up at him and patted his shoulder. “But I’m sure this one was. I don’t hear any others nearby.”
He tilted his head, straining to distinguish the grunt and crashes of the other two women and the boar they’d gone after from the rest of the wildlife. The occasional birdsong might pipe up for a few notes, but the forest seemed to be holding its breath. Even the creak of the trees sounded muffled.
Further grunts and rustling precluded Marin and Authril’s return. The woman entered backwards into the clearing, each one with a hind leg in hand. The boar slithered on the ground in front of them. They didn’t stop until the beast was once again in the middle of their camp.
“Well now,” Marin huffed, brushing the hair from her face with the back of her hand. “That should feed us for a few days.” She looked over the prone animal with a sort of grim satisfaction. “We can roast him up, stuff ourselves and prepare what’s left for travelling.”
“Look at the size of it,” Katarina said. “It’ll take hours to cook and we don’t yet have a fire going.”
Marin frowned. “Bugger,” she muttered, nudging the boar with her foot. “I’d hate to just leave him here to rot. I suppose we could cook a leg or two for the morning and carve up a few pieces to cook tomorrow night.” The hunter looked up at them, suddenly hopeful. “Or we could stay here and let it roast overnight. Dry some for the journey? It’s a bit of a pity we’re nowhere near my smoking hut, could’ve chucked half of him in there.”
“Except all that would take time,” the dwarf pointed out. “I was of the opinion that having spellster unleashed outside of the tower was illegal in Demarn.”
“It is,” Authril replied, plonking herself near the unlit campfire and taking up the flint. “He needs to be returned to the tower. They’ve people who hunt down unleashed spellsters. If they find us in Dylan’s presence and think we’re trying to help him escape…”
“But no one’s going to be looking out here for him, are they?” Marin pressed. “And a day or two won’t hurt. We can afford to stop if it means more food, can’t we?”
The elf glared at the logs, viciously striking the steel across the flint. She muttered under her breath, but made no sign of disagreeing with the hunter. Katarina was just as silent.
“Then it’s settled,” Marin said, tying a length of rope around the boar’s hind legs. Once the legs were trussed, the hunter dragged the carcass to the base of a tree. “We’re going to need lots of dry wood.”
“That shouldn’t be too difficult, should it?” Authril waved her hand about to indicate everything around them. “We’re surrounded by wood.”
“Wood, yes. Dry wood?” The hunter shook her head. “Let’s just say I really don’t fancy our chances there. Everything’s soaked. Even the logs we’ve gathered will take a fair bit of drying to be useable and I don’t see that happening quickly in this weather.”
Dylan eyed the pile of wood set out for the fire. Anything burns if it’s hot enough. That’d been his first lesson before his instructors would even allow him to learn how to craft his magic into a flame.
He focused on the wood, encasing the pile in heat. At first, little happened. A gentle hiss came from the logs and steam began to unfurl from under the bark. Then, in one mighty fwoomph, the wood caught and began to merrily burn.
Authril jumped back, her sea-green eyes bulging.
Laughter, deep and rolling, came from Marin. “By the gods,” she wheezed, pointing a forefinger in the warrior’s direction. “Look at your face! It’s all pale.” The woman tilted her head. “Well,” she amended, ”paler. Could you get more wood?” This question was directed to him. “Or are you able to help with cleaning the boar?”
Dylan eyed the hairy carcass of the woman’s kill. He wasn’t entirely sure what this cleaning entailed, but he’d a feeling it wasn’t going to be pretty. “I can gather wood.” He didn’t exactly think the forest put out the precisely cut chunks of wood he remembered from the tower, but he’d a fair idea of what to collect.
“We’ll need as much as you can carry and then some.” She’d picked up a length of wood sometime during their talk and tied it around the other end of the rope. This was chucked over the thick branch above and, with a bit of help from the other women, the boar was lifted into the tree. “As for the rest of us… Well, I don’t want to attract any predators, so we should set to digging a hole about here.” She stomped on the spot just below the boar’s snout. “I’ve a trowel in my pack, but it’ll still take us a while, so—”
“I can do that,” he said. His first attempt at manipulating the ground via magic had begun with scooping out small holes of dirt. It wasn’t as finicky as influencing an object and he was certain he could shift earth on a slightly larger scale. Worse case, he’d reduce the time it took the women to enlarge the hole. “How big do you need it?”
“As big as this fellow should do it.” Marina patted the boar’s shoulder. “Just make sure it’s deep. Last thing we need is more of them snuffling about in the middle of the night looking to root up their friend’s entrails.”
Dylan focused on the indicated ground. Sliding his influence beneath the surface, he wrapped his magic around a small section and tugged. Nothing happened. He tried harder to a similar outcome.
Maybe the trick only worked on tilled soil. The earth was harder, more compacted and full of roots, than the soil of the tower gardens where he’d last practiced this technique. He might as well be back in his nightmare, fighting the influx of mud, for all the influence he was having.
Switching tactics, he slowly formed an ovoid barrier just beneath the ground. He hardened the shield and tried to lift. Sweat beaded his brow as it resisted, but there was the tiniest bit of give that let him spin the shield in place. The muffled creak of breaking roots emanated from somewhere beneath his feet. Tiny cracks formed in the earth, growing as he heaved the section upwards.
Like a giant’s hand, the shield rose out of the ground with the earth still nestled within. Dylan waited only until the barrier was free of the hole before letting it dissipate, dumping the earth in one conical clump.
“Well now,” Marin murmured as she unsheathed her hunting knife. “Aren’t you full of surprises.”
Panting, he grinned her way. “It was wood you wanted, right?” Before she could answer beyond a nod, Dylan headed out into the forest. Authril was right, they were surrounded by the stuff. It shouldn’t take him long to find enough to serve their purpose.
He should’ve predicted the forest was waiting to prove him wrong. Much of the wood he found lying amongst the leaves was rotten and the rest required he possess an axe or slice at it with precise swipes of thin constructs, a skill he’d never had the knack for.
By the time he returned, the boar a little hung higher in the tree above where the hole had been and was being steadily carved at by Authril and Katarina. It was already absent of its forelegs, they were secured on a pole above the campfire and was busily being turned by Marin. What seemed stranger still was the peculiar structure standing where the smoke curled.
Dylan dumped the armful of wood near the fire and frowned at the array of wood. The framework looked to be made of saplings, the long horizontal poles at the top forming a grill-like pattern. Strips of meat dangled from this. “What—?”
“Jerky,” Marin replied before he could finish asking. “Or it would be if I’d a proper drying stand. Haven’t done it this way for some time.”
He eyed the stick she was rotating before realising it was actually metal. “And what are you doing?”
“Roasting dinner. Hopefully. It’d be a lot faster if I could get the fire to stay hot, but it’ll do the trick eventually. We’ll cook the rest of the boar tomorrow.” She tilted her head. “Haven’t you ever seen something roasting?”
“No.” The tower servants would occasionally serve them cuts of roasted animals, but most meat was typically found in a stew similar to the fare the camp cooks dished out.
“Haven’t you ever seen anything cooking? Or even cooked anything?”
“I… No,” he confessed. He’d done a few stints in the massive kitchen the tower servants used to prepare their meals, but it’d been manual labour, punishment from his guardian for… Well, he could no longer remember why she’d sent him there, only that he spent hours peeling and dicing so many things. He never did find out how the cooks turned the things he had a hand in preparing into edible food. “I wouldn’t know where to start with cooking something.” He rubbed the side of his neck. “Beyond fire, obviously.”
“You don’t know how to cook?” The hunter threw her free hand up in exasperation. “Did no one think to teach you how to survive out here? Sure, they couldn’t have predicted what happened, but they take you on scouting missions, don’t they? What if you got lost? What did they expect you to do then?”
“Die,” Authril replied as she placed more strips of pork on the drying frame. “If he was foolish enough to get separated from his warden, then he’s more likely to die before being found.”
Marin snorted. “Well, that’s stupid.” Her gaze ran over him, those light brown eyes molten in the firelight. She patted the ground next to her. “Sit down,” she ordered him. “I’m teaching you how to spit roast boar legs.”
The elf frowned at the other woman, her eyes hardening. “He’s not meant to be taught anything other than how to kill the enemy. It’s supposedly so they’re less of a threat to the general populous if they do ever become unleashed.”
The hunter stuck out her tongue and made a long flatulent sound at the elf’s back as Authril returned to carve more strips off the boar carcass. “Tough,” Marin yelled. “I’m not part of the army and, except for you, they’re not here to stop me.” She swung her attention back to him. “Sit, already.”
He slowly sank to the ground next to the woman. “I don’t—”
“Just listen. It’s not really the fire that’s cooking it, you see?” She nodded at the rotating chunks of pork. “Sure the flames touch, but it’s the heat they put out that’s doing most of the work here. Now…”
Dylan remained silent as she continued to explain. It all sounded very familiar to his old teachings of thermal conductivity. Most of the principles didn’t seem much different than what he’d done to the spellster, just over a longer time and on a smaller scale.
“I think I have a rough idea of it,” he eventually said, finally cutting her off. Focusing on the fire, he cupped a shield over both it and the meat. It was a fine balance leaving enough space near the ground for fresh air to enter as well as keeping the barrier porous enough for smoke to escape.
The hunter jerked back, eyeing the barrier between her and the food. “How is that supposed to help?”
He took up the handle and resumed turning. “Like you said, it’s heat that cooks it. My shield can hold most of that heat in.”
“You mean it’ll work like an oven? Yes!” Flinging her arms around his shoulders, she planted a kiss on his cheek. “You’re such a quick learner.”
“Wow,” Dylan breathed, rubbing his cheek. “What do I get if I actually cook it?”
Laughing, she ruffled his hair and sat back. “Why, dinner, of course.” She motioned him to lift the barrier and threw another bit of wood on the fire. “It’s a shame there aren’t more spellsters I could teach.” Gasping, she grabbed his arm. “Do you think—? I mean, I’m not likely to go back home, not if there’s nothing between me and Udynea, but do you think your tower would let me teach spellsters how to survive in the forest?”
“Honestly? I don’t think so.” It was possible the orders not to teach leashed spellsters how to survive on their own came from the overseers. Or even the king. “We’re rather discouraged from thinking about beyond the tower walls.”
They sat and waited for the boar legs to cook, taking turns at rotating them. Small tendrils of steam escaped the barrier, tweaking his nose. Even when the tower cooks served them meat, pork wasn’t usually a staple. It smelt good.
Soon, they were joined by Authril and Katarina. The hedgewitch gave a single appreciative sigh and settled down to watch the leg cook. On the other hand, Authril looked ready to devour the meat half raw.
Night had settled and his stomach was growling by the time Marin declared the meat ready. They didn’t stand on formality, or utensils, opting to eat straight from the bone. It was a little gamier than he remembered and a little charred near the feet, but not terribly bad.
Authril didn’t appear to mind the flavour at all. With much abandon, she tore off great the chunks of pork with her teeth. He wasn’t even sure she chewed all that long before swallowing and moving on to the next bite.
Marin watched the elf, her expression one of sick fascination. “You put away a lot of food for someone so small.”
Authril glared at her over the boar leg. One side had already been stripped to the bone.
“Elves usually do,” Dylan said, earning him a portion of the woman’s glare. “Especially meat.” He recalled quite fondly the way his elven friends would fall upon their evening meals like ravenous wolves, devouring all on their plates and scrounging that of nearby human companions for more.
Katarina, having eaten her fill, stood and disappeared into their tent with a farewell nod in their direction. Marin made a few more adjustments to the drying rack before joining the hedgewitch, leaving him on watch with strict instructions to keep the fire burning.
The warrior watched him over the leg she still munched, those sea-green eyes narrowing as the other woman left the fireside. “You’re staring again.”
His gaze swiftly dropped to his own half-eaten meal, almost forgotten in his hands. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to.” He risked a glance up to check that she was still looking in his direction. “You just rather remind me of the women back in the tower.”
Those luminous eyes narrowed, turning sharper than any blade. “If the word beautiful passes your lips, I’ll punch you.”
He grinned. “Would you settle for gorgeous, then?”
She stiffened, the leg of pork almost slipping from her hands. A flush of pink darkened the fair skin between her freckles. She turned her face, just as he caught her eyes turning glassy with tears. “Stop that right now.”
Frowning, Dylan ran their conversation through his head. Admittedly, he hadn’t known the woman long, but he couldn’t see anything inherently wrong in anything he’d said. Of course, the words didn’t always matter. There were far too many variables to try guessing which line he’d inadvertently crossed. “I meant no offence. I just—” There hadn’t been any heat behind her voice, the words more a plea than a command. “I won’t pry any further unless you want to tell me, but I take it there’s a personal reason behind it?”
She nodded. “I’d a… partner in Danny’s Cutters and he used to call me that all the time.”
Used to. Dylan stared into the fire, mentally kicking himself. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t lose anyone close to me when they attacked.” He’d been so caught up in what he hadn’t been able to do to stop the enemy that he hadn’t even begun to consider what Authril had gone through. “Do you know what happened to him? Did he suffer?”
Authril shook her head. “Clashed against one of their brutes. Bastard took his head clean off.”
“That—” He couldn’t imagine how he’d have coped if one of his friends had been there. “It couldn’t have been easy to watch that.”
“Well, I certainly wasn’t ecstatic. But Danny always used to say that in our line of work, death’s an occupational hazard.”
“If it upsets you, I won’t mention… that word again.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“It’s still true, though. If you don’t want me to call you… that, would you be offended if I used handsome? Or perhaps imposing? Terrifyingly commanding, even?”
She eyed him as if trying to solve a particularly difficult blacksmith’s puzzle. “Exactly what are you expecting to happen with your poor attempts at flattery? I’m not the type of woman to swoon into a man’s arms because he flashes his stupidly charming smile at me.”
He shuffled across the ground until their legs touched. “I’ve a charming smile?” He’d not heard that line for some years. Although the last person to say it had been a man.
“I believe there was a ‘stupidly’ in there somewhere.”
He grinned. “So there was. My mistake. As to what I expected… Nothing really. A smile, perhaps?” It’d been a rough few days. For the both of them. He bumped her shoulder with his own and whispered, “But you know you want this.”
A great peal of laughter escaped her lips before she could stop it. “That was terrible.” She shoved him, tipping him onto his side. “If you think I would sleep with the likes of you after that, then you’re dead wrong.”
The likes of him? Was she like Marin, then? Just less inclined to let him down easily. No, she’d mentioned a male lover. Well, being uninterested in men hadn’t been the only reason an elven woman would turn him down. He’d weathered several lashings from sharp tongues purely because he was human. And Authril was clearly a little uneasy around his magic, so there was also his spellster status to consider. Maybe it was all three?
Sitting up, Dylan brushed off his sleeve. Well, it was nice to know where he stood on that, even if it wasn’t in his favour. “That may be so, but still…” He picked a wayward leaf from his hair. “I made you laugh.”
“That you did.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and grinned up at him. “And I needed that. Thank you.”
He flashed her another ‘charming smile’. “Anytime.”