Unlike the city of Oldmarsh, he remembered passing through Toptower, although he’d not seen much of either place. Back then, the troop Fetcher had meant for them to join up with had gone on without them and the hound had halted their journey only long enough to procure his horse before trying to catch up with them.
This time, he was determined to see more than the outskirts.
The town sat on a hill, sprawled around the very structure that was responsible for its name. His history lessons told him it was once considered the most heavily fortified village in the kingdom, able to withstand an attack from even the most powerful of spellsters. Dylan eyed the walls. From afar, he rather doubted they would hold up against common siege weapons much less magic.
Their little group had joined the road some hours back, travelling alongside people and carts with the same goal of entering the southern gates. The noise hit him first. The creak and rattle of carts bumping along the road, the murmur of people, the steady clop of hooves and the patter of booted feet. After a week of travelling through the forest, the sounds were all but deafening.
Unlike the others, his passage didn’t go unnoticed. Being so close to the army camp, he supposed his attire was a little more conspicuous. He could perhaps pass himself off as a priest to the unknowing, the cut of his robe wasn’t that different from their garb, although he knew of no ranking that had them in such a colour. And he couldn’t be sure how many of those who watched him could identify an infitialis collar much less the lack of one.
They neared the gates and Authril dropped back from where she led them to march at his side. “Keep close to me,” she whispered. “If anyone asks, I’m your warden.”
Dylan tucked up the collar of his robe, ensuring it covered his neck. “Understood.” The last thing he wanted was to draw even more attention. He wouldn’t have come near this place if they hadn’t needed to replenish their supplies.
They passed through the gates with only a cursory glance from the guards who seemed to have more on their minds than one group of people amongst the throng trying to enter.
If he thought the din of the road was loud, the village roared with life. He didn’t recall it being this harsh the last time he was here. His gaze ran over the heads of those crowding the streets. Night would come in a few hours. They had to gather what they could before then to be able to leave at first light.
Within the village walls, the prickling sensation of being watched lingered in the back of his mind. He shrugged his shoulders, hoping to shake the feeling. Either someone was intent on keeping him in their sights or he was getting paranoid. It’s just for tonight. All he had to do was play the part of still being leashed, limit his magic to nothing and, hopefully, they’d be on their way to Oldmarsh before anyone could alert a hound.
Authril took the lead again once they were clear of the bottleneck the gate made of the crowd, veering off in the distinct stride of someone with a destination in mind. She marched them past stall owners hawking their wares, down streets where the only sounds were the flap of clothes drying on lines high above, and into a dead-end where grubby children in tattered clothes squealed and tumbled about. Here, she stopped before one of the many single storey buildings. A sign reading The Drunken Pilgrim hung over the door.
They entered the inn to be shrouded in the watery light of sputtering candles. He blinked hurriedly, trying to adjust his eyesight. There wasn’t much to the inside. Even full of tables and a handful of drinking patrons, the place had a distinct hollowed out look. There was the faint hint of coal smoke in the air, overlaying the more familiar woodsy smell of fire.
“Huh,” Marin muttered. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in here. It’s a cosy-looking place, isn’t it? If you don’t mind the whole entombed feeling anyway.”
Dylan was inclined to agree with the hunter, although the room likely wouldn’t have looked so bad if it were lighter. But the high windows running along one side of the room were blackened by years of smoke and the candles set in the big iron wrought wheels hanging from the ceiling threw off more wax than light. Much of the room’s illumination came from an open fire near the far wall. It burned with a low, sooty glow.
His eye was drawn to the walls above where carvings adorned the vaulted stonework. Primitive runes and swirls that ran from wall to ceiling and back again. Wards against evil. Or, more likely, against the all-too-possible threat of the encroaching Udynean spellsters. That he stood in the room was proof the markings weren’t worth the time taken.
“Hush,” Authril said to the hunter. “If you’ve been to Toptower before, then you know there’s only two inns and, believe me, you don’t want me stepping into the other one.” She marched up to the bar and banged a fist on the surface.
An elven woman not much taller than Authril, tottered through the door on the other side of the bar. Her dark, leathery hands gripped her apron, clearly hiding something within its folds. She eyed their group with a distinct lack of trust. “Can I help you?”
Authril leant closer to the woman, lowering her voice as she said, “I was told you’re acquainted with the leader of Danny’s Cutthroats?”
“Danny?” The woman’s face grew even more suspicious at the name. “Jilted you has he? Well, I’m afraid you won’t find him here.” She patted the warrior’s cheek. “Don’t take it the wrong way though, love. He’s always been a sucker for a pretty face, but you can’t tame a rogue like him on looks alone. He got the wanderlust in his soul. Much like his father, bless him.”
Authril shook his head. “I’m not after him, madam. He died last month. The Udyneans got him.”
“Oh.” Her hands came free of the apron to clutch at her chest. “Danny…”
“I’m part of his company. Well, all that’s left of it, really. He always used to say that, if we ever needed a place to sleep in Toptower, you would be the one to give us a fair deal.” Authril rifled through her belt pouch, withdrawing a small bag. She tipped the contents onto the bar top to the gentle clink of metal. “I don’t have much, but my friends and I need a place to spend the night.”
The woman eyed them over the warrior’s shoulder, her gaze lingering a little longer on him than Dylan would’ve liked. Did she recognise his robes as being army issue? More importantly, did she know of any hounds in the area? “I can’t give you a room for that, love,” she replied to Authril, her attention still on him. “There’s a fair deal and there’s beggaring an old woman. If Danny’s gone, then this business is all I’ve got, and it’s bad enough around here what with those girls going missing and—”
“It’s a big place,” Marin said. “People must go missing all the time.”
“That they do,” said one of the nearby patrons. A human, rotund and balding, his pasty, pockmarked face reddened from drink. “We get all kinds coming through here. Deserters are the worst sort, stealing anything that’s tied down. They don’t usually take off with young women, though. That’s new. I hear the guards are—”
“Shut your trap, you old sot.” Barely batting an eye, the innkeeper withdrew a cork from her apron pockets and threw it at the man, hitting him square on the head. “These good folk don’t want to hear your gossip.” The woman turned back to them to pat Authril on the shoulder. “Never you mind him, he’s had so much to drink that he’ll fall asleep soon enough. But to the matter at hand… If you’re desperate for a roof over your head, I’ve a few straw mats near the hearth that aren’t seeing any use. In memory of my Danny.”
“We’ll take them.”
“Wonderful.” The coin was swiped off the bar and into the innkeeper’s apron before the old woman had finished speaking. “Just be sure to be in before midnight. That’s when I lock up.” Giving another glare to the man who’d spoken earlier, she shuffled back through the door.
“Well then,” Marin said. “If we’re going to have any hope of boosting our supplies, I better see if my usual traders are in town.” She patted her pack, a slightly bigger and fuller version of what they all carried. The hunter had crammed it full of pelts, horns and other assorted bits before leaving her hut to the elements.
Authril nodded. “I think I’ll visit a blacksmith, see if I can’t get a few of the dents hammered out of this.” She banged on her somewhat tarnished breastplate. “We should meet back here at sundown. That should give us a few hours.”
“If it’s all the same, I’ll linger here,” the hedgewitch said, eyeing the drunk man the innkeeper had hit. “I want to hear more about these disappearances. We hardly ever have such things happening in Dvärghem.”
Marin wrinkled her nose. “Suit yourself.” Smiling up at Dylan, she hooked her hand into the crook of his arm. “Come on. I’m saving you before she sucks all of us into listening to some drunken man’s rousing rambles. Besides, I want to see if I can find a cloak that fits that beanpole of a frame.”
He allowed the woman to lead him out of the inn and spent a few hours tailing her whilst she flitted from one trader to another, waiting as she haggled down to the last copper, then using them to restock their supplies. Sadly, none of them involved a cloak.
The hours seemed to drag on. Eventually, boredom got the best of him and, as she met up with Authril outside the blacksmith’s shop, he parted ways to stroll through the village whilst the last of the day waned. In the twilight, the tower that gave the village its name was just a dark shape against the sky much like the building back home, only in miniature.
His stomach knotted at the thought of home. He halted, leaning against the corner of a building. People scurried by, involved in their own tasks. A pair of men clad in armour marched out one street and on past him, paying his presence as little mind as their sights seemed set on a man hurrying through the stalls at his back.
Dylan released his breath in one go. If the guards had turned their attention his way, they might’ve noticed his robe, paid heed to the dark green colour, and realised he was a spellster from the king’s army. Then they might’ve wondered why he wandered about without his warden.
He moved further around the corner, his gaze lingering on the tower in the hopes that if he stared long enough he could convince himself that this place housed everyone he’d ever considered as family. That he was only in the gardens. That these past few weeks were just nightmares.
It didn’t work.
The tower wasn’t his home. Not anymore. Dylan scrubbed at his face. What am I going to tell them? What were the overseers going to think of his return? Would they make an example of him or merely send him on his way? And where would he go if they leashed him again? There was no army camp.
Wintervale. His only hope was in following Authril to the capital and rejoining whatever defence the crown could muster.
Sighing, Dylan let the tower slip out of view and carried on down the streets. The light began to wane and with it, the people. He glanced about, panic tightening his chest. He’d meandered so much, both in Marin’s company and on his own, that he wasn’t quite sure which way lead to The Drunken Pilgrim. It didn’t help that, in the lantern-lit gloom, the streets all rather looked alike. He could wander for hours before finding the inn.
But sunset meant the others were all back at the inn. They’d come looking for him, wouldn’t they?
“Who am I fooling?” he muttered under his breath. If he was stuck with an unleashed spellster who barely knew a thing about surviving in the real world, a bastard who then got himself lost in a stupid city… Well, he probably wouldn’t have the heart to leave them behind, but he’d give it some heavy consideration.
And everything would be far easier for the others if he wasn’t there. They could all head straight for Wintervale, Katarina to the dwarven embassy, Authril to whatever was left of their defences, whilst Marin could find herself another place to build her home.
If he couldn’t find his way back on his own, then it was for the best.
Dylan breathed deep, trying to calm his mind. Beating himself up over it wasn’t going to solve anything. He just had to think. He’d been climbing for the past hour, so that meant the inn was downhill and… Hadn’t he passed a cart on the last corner? One with a lot of barrels?
It took a little wandering and backtracking before he found an empty cart over by what looked to be a cooper’s workshop. He turned the nearby corner. The street was empty save for the odd cat prowling across the rooftops, but familiar in a vague fashion. A dog barked somewhere far away. Another answered. It was a strange sound, one he’d only read about before leaving.
His travels took him by an alley entrance that he didn’t remember passing earlier. There was the faintest of movements within, dancing on the edge of his vision and swiftly accompanied by a dull thud. He slowed, steadying himself, focusing on letting a small, invisible shield wrap around him. Should he just defend? Whoever they were, they were either confident or stupid. If he misjudged which one it was, things could turn sour very quickly.
A blast of air should do the trick, just strong enough to knock them off their feet. It’d be relatively harmless and give him time for a more lethal attack should the need arise.
He took a few shuffling steps into the alley, searching for the source of the noise. There! Two little glittering specks in the gloom. They had to be eyes and their owner had to be aware they’d been spotted. Yet they didn’t attack.
Curious, he let a small ball of light drift on the air to illuminate the figure.
A large, black cat blinked back at him. It sat on a barrel, the remains of a rat between its front paws. The creature hissed, its back arching. Before Dylan could think to move, the cat grabbed its meal, vaulted off the barrel and vanished back into the alley shadows.
Shaking his head, he let the shield and light dissipate. Dylan turned from the alley entrance. Getting jumpy over a cat. What was he thinking? This wasn’t the forest. There were no massive boars, no enemy spellsters looking to kill him in the most painful way possible. No enemies of any kind. He was the strongest, most dangerous, thing in this village. Nothing here could harm him as long as he kept vigilant.
“Do not think about taking another step,” someone growled from the shadows. A hand grabbed Dylan before he could turn. His back hit the stone wall. The air rushed out of him, leaving him temporarily disorientated.
The dagger was the first thing he saw. Curved and sharp. In the dim lantern-light peeking out from the street, the blade bore an insidious purple sheen.
Barely daring to breathe, he followed the blade down to the bronze hand and onwards to the elven man glaring up at him. “If you’re after money. I have none.”
The elf’s sharp eyes, in a shade that reminded Dylan of rich honey, narrowed. “Money?” The man sneered. “My dear spellster, do I look like I need your paltry coin?” He spoke with the vaguely similar smooth accent of his old roommate, Sulin. The words tumbled off his tongue much like rock down a hill, catching occasionally on a soft trill or hiss. Only those born in Wintervale spoke such a way.
“I don’t—” The man knew he was a spellster? That could become problematic if he also knew of a hound in the area. Dylan lifted his hands, careful to ensure his palms remained facing away from the elf. As well as sharing a similarity in accents as his old roommate, the man was quite tall for an elf. Not quite as so as Sulin, but the top of the man’s head easily reached the base of Dylan’s neck. “Look, I really don’t want to hurt you.”
The dagger flashed up with barely a twitch from the elf, the flat of the blade tapping Dylan on the lips. “No more talking. I have been looking all over this village for the spellster everyone says is here and now I have you.” The point returned to his throat. “Now lower your hands. I am sure it has occurred to you that attacking me will do you no good. You would be dead well before I.”
His gaze dropped to take in the man’s armour. Hard to tell in the dark, but it looked well-made and leather. Not a common thief, then. A mercenary, perhaps? Something about the style nagged at him. He’d seen it before, as far back as the tower. Not on the guardians, but— The hound. Fetcher might have been human and a woman, but she’d worn the exact same armour. “You’re a hound,” he breathed, amazed he could say a word when it felt like his heart had relocated to his throat.
The man’s full lips twisted into a humourless smile. “How very astute of you. At least you are not entirely without your wits.”
“You have to help me.” Was it not a hound’s job to bring spellsters to the tower? Just like they’d done with Sulin and Launtil and countless others who’d been born outside the walls. And this elf would know the quickest route. “I need to get back to the tower.”
“So you admit you left.”
“Well, yes, but I was—” The minute change in the blade’s pressure against his throat stilled his tongue. The hounds will hunt you. His guardian’s words echoed in his ears. Safe in the tower, safe with a neck banded in metal, but venture outside without being leashed? Practically a death sentence. Any spellster rumoured to have fled the tower weren’t heard from again.
“The crown does not exactly take kindly to runaways.”
All the stories he’d ever heard about the hounds, the tales of what they did to those who fled the tower, flooded his mind and paralysed his body. They didn’t really drink spellster blood, did they? “Wait,” he said, trying to keep the whimpering from his voice. If he could get the hound to listen to him long enough to explain why he was unleashed, but surely once he showed the man how damaged… The collar. The hedgewitch still had it in her possession. “I—”
“Hush,” the hound hissed. “You will speak only to answer my questions. If they are not what I want to hear, if I think you are lying to me, I will make you regret ever leaving the tower. Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” Marin growled.
Dylan rolled his eyes towards the alleyway entrance. The women stood across its breadth, Authril with her sword bared and Marin with her bow already nocked. Never had he been so relieved to see a person as he was to see them.
“He’s under our protection.” Marin drew her bow, the whisper-thin tap of her arrow against the wood loud in the relative silence of the alleyway. “So you better get away from him right now. I won’t warn you again.”
“Dear woman,” the man replied, barely glancing away from Dylan, “this is none of your concern. He is mine now. Please, go about your business.”
“That’s a spellster you’re tangling with,” Katarina said. It was hard to make out without turning his head, but something gleamed in her hand. Her dagger? “You’re lucky he hasn’t tried to burn your face off.”
“He’s a hound,” Dylan replied. “Trying to burn his face off would only sign my death warrant.” If the hound died tonight and others of his pack discovered magic had been involved, even the tower wouldn’t be safe.
“Precisely,” Tracker said. “And as you say, my dear, he is indeed a spellster. Who are not supposed to be freely wandering the countryside never mind a village. For one to be doing so at night is very suspicious. Especially with all these kidnappings.”
Dylan swallowed. He had to agree with the man there.
“He came with us,” Authril said. “He’s only been in the village since this afternoon. Look at him, surely you can place the uniform.”
“Oh, I noticed. But it is such a ratty thing, yes? How simple do you think it might be to put on a dead man’s robes and look the part, dear woman? Any fool knows that a spellster who joined the army ranks is leashed.” The blade at his throat slid down, taking the neck of Dylan’s robe with it. “All I see is flesh.”
Katarina dug about in her pouches. “I have his collar.” She produced the twisted pieces of infitialis. “See?”
The elf eyed the remains and sneered, revealing a rather prominent canine. “That amount of destruction could only mean it exploded.” He gaze snapped back to Dylan. “And, if that were so, then why is he not dead?”
Dylan shrugged. They’d only the truth and, if the man wasn’t content to believe that, then there was no way to resolve this without violence. He gently opened his collar further and tipped back his head. “Because he’s a very lucky and scarred one? They’re telling the truth. I’m from the army.”
The hound peered at his neck, his russet brows knitting together in confusion. He lowered the dagger. “If that is indeed the truth, then why are you not on the front line?”
Dylan rubbed at his neck, finding no sign of injury. With additions given by Katarina and Authril, he recounted everything that had happened, from the ambush on his scouting party to the far wider assault on the main camp.
The man stood there, quietly listening, his gaze flicking between the women and Dylan even when they’d finished. Was he trying to determine if they were lying? Why not? He didn’t think he’d believe himself.
Finally, the hound sighed. “Either you are all telling the truth or you are most exceptional liars. But let us say I will believe your little story until I can confirm it.” He swung back to face Dylan, the considering glint in his gaze slowly twisting Dylan’s insides. “And you wish to return to the tower?”
Dylan nodded. Whatever the overseers planned to do with him had to be preferable to being slain here and now.
“Then duty binds me to the task of escorting you.”
“What?” Marin said. “A few minutes ago, you were planning to skewer him. If you expect me to believe that you’re not going to do him in the second we turn our backs, you’re missing arrows from your quiver.”
“You are quite welcome to stay or go on your way without him. I mistook him for someone else, but the fact of the matter is that, even if he is not who I was seeking, he is still an unleashed spellster outside of the tower, which rather supersedes chasing phantoms.”
Dylan frowned, not sure what the man was talking about.
“I must stay at his side until that is rectified in some way or the other.” He tipped his head, eyeing them all anew. “You are staying at The Drunken Pilgrim, yes?”
“Yes,” Dylan replied, earning Marin’s baleful glare. He shrugged. The elf already knew where they were spending the night—the innkeeper might’ve even been the one to tell the man—what point was there in lying about it?
“Excellent. I shall join you there at first light.”
Marin huffed and folded her arms. “Fine,” she conceded. “So you know where we’re sleeping. What makes you think we’ll still be around when you arrive?”
Dylan shook his head. She didn’t understand. There was little point in trying to evade a hound. Their entire existence revolved around hunting down spellsters such as him.
The man grinned as if the woman had made a huge joke. “Something as foolhardy as running would not keep me from my duty, dear woman. Regardless of your childish attempts you make, I would find him sooner than you believe.” He went to leave the alleyway, halting at its entrance. The long tail of his braid whipped around as he turned. “Oh, and since we will be travelling together, you may call me Tracker.”