Marin paced the compacted dirt road before the entrance to The Drunken Pilgrim. Dawn had come and, with it, a remarked lack of the hound’s presence. Still, they lingered. “This is bullshit,” she muttered for perhaps the fifth time since he had insisted they wait. “What do we need a hound for, anyway?”
Authril sleepily lifted her head from where she leant against the doorframe. Although the mattresses the innkeeper offered were softer than the ground, none of them had gotten much sleep thanks to the ruckus from the wealthier customers upstairs. “Hounds are meant to keep spellster’s under control,” the warrior mumbled. “And kill them if they become a danger. I thought everyone knew that. Didn’t your parents ever tell you spellster-hunting stories?”
Marin grunted and waved a hand in Dylan’s direction. “But according to your own word, he hasn’t attacked anyone who wasn’t trying to harm him. By the gods, he barely uses magic unless we ask. You think someone that full of power would piss it.”
Dylan winced at the image the woman’s words conjured in his mind.
The hunter whirled on him, curious. “You haven’t actually done that, have you?”
“Not to my knowledge.” There were a few babies who were capable of more than rudimentary protection magic, but for the most part, their abilities didn’t start to manifest themselves until they were toddlers. He couldn’t imagine how his guardian used to discipline him.
“My dear woman,” someone said in a familiar rich, rolling tone. “It hardly matters whether or not he chooses to use his magic, it is that he can use it whenever he so desires, even if it were only to ‘piss it’ as you so eloquently said.”
Dylan spun at the voice to find the hound standing in the open doorway of The Drunken Pilgrim. How had the man managed to get there without any of them seeing him?
He watched Tracker trot down the steps, the end of the man’s waist-length, russet braid bouncing from side to side in a fashion that brought to mind the cup-and-ball toys the children of the tower servants played with. He’d never seen the attraction in the game—spellster children tended to have other activities to occupy their minds—but it was hypnotic to watch.
“The gates are open,” the hound said, clapping his hands together. “We are all ready to be on our way, yes?”
“It would’ve been better to leave before the crowds gathered and the roads became choked,” Authril said.
Tracker shrugged as he strode passed the woman. “Naturally, but I had business to finish up before we left.” The man halted in front of Dylan, giving a considering hum as those honey-coloured eyes looked him over. A dozen little silver and gold rings and cuffs adorned the elf’s ears. They glittered in the early light as the man tipped his head up.
Dylan straightened his back, resisting the urge to shuffle on the spot.
Something familiar lingered in the way the man’s lips twisted. “You seemed not quite as tall in the dark. No matter. What is it that they say in the army when handing over charge of you to another?” Tracker snapped his fingers. “Ah, yes. I believe it is… your arse is mine.”
Dylan jerked back a step, his brows lifting. “I… They— That’s not what they said.” The mischievous glint in Tracker’s eyes told him the man already knew that, but his tongue persisted in its task of correcting the elf. “And in any case, I’m not leashed.”
Tracker tipped his head, his mouth crooking just that little bit more as he visibly fought to suppress a smirk. “And that is the very reason we are here today, yes? But as long as you cause no trouble, we will be fine. Come.” He clapped his hand on Dylan’s back. At least, Dylan was certain the man had been aiming for his back. What those long fingers had connected with was a little lower. “It is a long journey to the tower, but not as long as if we continue to stand here.”
The hound led them through the streets. It was a different way from the one they’d taken yesterday and, unlike the previous afternoon, their course was jammed with people and carts. Stalls lined most of the streets they travelled, turning already narrow ways even more so.
Tracker seemed to have little issue with the crowd. People tended to move out of his way, almost without even knowing they did, and closed behind the man as he pressed on. The rest of them weren’t as fortunate.
Dylan squeezed past a few such clumps of people, desperate to keep the hound in sight lest he be accused of attempting to escape. A dog bounded across his path, forcing him to halt or fall on the poor creature. He stumbled a few steps sideways, his shoulder bumping into a pole. His hand lunged for something to keep him upright.
“Watch where you’re going,” a woman’s shrill voice pierced the crowds as the awning the pole held up shuddered. “And get your paws off my melons!”
He swiftly removed his hand from where he’d grasped a crate of… yes, they were certainly watermelons. The pole at his back wobbled under his full weight. Please, no. He didn’t need some merchant mad at him for destroying her stall on top of everything else.
Strong, long fingers grabbed him, pulling him away from the awning framework, which remarkably stayed in place. “Come on,” Authril said, chuckling. “Let’s get you out of here before you bring the whole village down.”
He followed the warrior around a corner where the street widened and the crowd, although still quite numerous, didn’t press so heavily around them. He exhaled in relief upon discovering Tracker had slowed, clearly waiting for them to catch up.
The rest of their journey to the gates was mercifully uneventful with much of the crowd at their backs. He ducked his head as they reached the gate, though the guards paid them no more attention than the merchants and common folk around them. They trailed behind a cart until they were able to spread out along the road.
It wasn’t until they were through the gate that he realised this wasn’t the same entrance they’d used yesterday. The other road had been relatively straight. This one seemed to slither down the hill and past fields where it disappeared into a forest sitting in the distance. Beyond there, the town of Oldmarsh.
Dylan glanced over his shoulder, scowling at the silhouette of Toptower’s namesake peeking over the village walls. If he never entered another crowded street, it would’ve been too soon. Except, he’d have to suffer the town ahead if he was ever going to make it back to the tower.
Home. He lifted his gaze, a part of him hoping to spy the massive building that he’d spent the last twenty-nine years of his life in. Nothing. Foolish to think there would be when it would take them a little over two weeks to reach on foot. Just a fortnight before he was leashed again. At least he’d be prepared for it this time.
The day grew colder as they pressed on, the clouds obscuring the sun in the possible threat of rain. Dylan hunched his shoulders against the wind nipping at his face. He could practically feel the moisture building in the air. At least this time, he’d have a tent to shelter under come nightfall should the sky make good on her threat.
Entering the forest proved no shelter from the chill. Dylan rubbed at his arms, seeking to work up enough friction to keep warm. He tried to take some solace in that he wouldn’t be quite so cold once they settled for the night. That just made him more anxious for the day to wind down.
Feeling watched, he glanced to his left to find the hound staring at him. “What?”
“Do you not have other means of warming yourself? A cloak, perhaps?”
“Not any means I can use.” If they were to linger in one spot, he could attempt the air-heating trick Henrie taught him several years back. He already used it to dry his hair, so applying it to his entire body shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. But on the move, it was a pointless waste of his energy. “And as we barely managed enough money to pay for the tavern last night, what makes you think we could afford clothing?”
Tracker silently undid the clasp at his neck, removing his cloak. “Here. It should help keep the chill off.”
Dylan pushed aside the offered length of thickly-spun wool and leather. “I wouldn’t dare ask you to suffer for my sake.”
The man’s brows drew up in the middle. “It is clearly not as cold for me as it is to you. I insist you wear it.” Before Dylan could respond, the hound had draped the cloak over his shoulders. “We hounds are not all unfeeling terrors out to get you. I promise, I will not bite.”
“I know.” He drew the cloak further around him. The fabric still clung to the elf’s warmth. And, as he drew the collar up around his neck, he discovered the man’s scent had permeated the lining. A strangely pleasant aroma that warmed his cheeks. “The woman who brought me to the army camp wasn’t as gruff as I expected.”
The hound smiled. “Fetch rather leaves people with that impression, yes.”
Fetch. Dylan frowned at the road ahead, his thoughts lost to the first time someone had spoken the other hound’s name. Fetcher and Tracker. Odd enough for one to be called such, but both? The more he thought on it, the less the words sounded like names.
“Shouldn’t we look about for a place to set up camp?” Marin asked, breaking Dylan from his musing. The woman had joined Tracker at the front of the group. “It’ll get dark soon.”
With her frame being only slightly shorter than Dylan’s, the hound’s height didn’t quite reach her eyes, forcing Tracker to look up to speak with her. “We can easily walk for a few more hours before the light fades.”
Marin scrunched her nose. “For you, maybe. Not all of us can see as well in the dark as an elf. Besides, I want enough light to lay out some traps. See if I can’t snag us a rabbit for breakfast.”
The hound sighed. “If it pleases you, dear woman, we shall find somewhere to stop. We will…” There a subtle change to the way the man walked. Where before each footfall fell in a casual, confident stride, there was now an odd fluidity to the movements. “…look off the road momentarily.”
At Dylan’s side, Authril’s pace slowed. She grasped her sword hilt, her head swinging towards the dense bushes to their left. “Bandits,” she whispered, the word softly hissing through her barely moving lips. “Stay behind me.”
“Well, well,” said a voice from somewhere amongst the underbrush. “Look what we have here.”
Marin skittered back from the fore to stand beside the hedgewitch.
There was a rustle amongst the bushes to his left. “That’s right, lovely,” another voice said, this one most certainly belong to a man. “Get nice and close with your friends.”
Glaring at where the sound came from, the hunter fumbled with her bow. “Come here and call me that again, you bastard,” she muttered as she nocked an arrow. “I’ll put two in your eye before you could blink.”
A woman stepped onto the road, followed swiftly by half a dozen men and women. The woman spread her arms wide as if she greeted old friends. “Welcome to my part of the forest, weary travellers.”
Out the corner of Dylan’s eye, he caught Marin aiming her bow.
“Tell your red-haired friend to lower her weapon,” said a man from the bushes on their right. “We have you surrounded.”
Tracker turned his head enough to look over his shoulder. “Do as he says, my dear woman. There are rather more of them than it looks.”
Sneering, Marin lowered her bow.
The bandit leader nodded. “Now, I’m certain you can surmise the sort of situation you’ve gone and got yourself in. Since you seem so very keen to cooperate, we’ll make this quick. Hand over everything you own.”
“My dear woman, just because I am not eager for bloodshed does not mean I am willing to offer up what is rightfully mine.” Tracker planted himself before them, his arms spread. “And it would be unwise to continue that line of thought.”
“Just listen to master elf, here,” one of the women chuckled. “Thinks he can get off paying the toll with a little chatter.”
As one, the bandits laughed.
“It doesn’t work that way, you pointy-eared bastard,” the woman snarled. She bounced a dagger in her hand, the edge glinting with each fall. “You either cough up your valuables or we slit your throat.”
A smile stretched the hound’s lips. Dylan was certain that, had the man directed such an expression at him, he’d be quickly evaluating his options. “Allow me to make a counter offer,” Tracker replied, drawing his sword. “I will give you this one chance to leave with your lives.”
“What?” one of the men laughed. “The five of you against all of us? I don’t fancy your chances of leaving here alive, elf.”
“Priests always have coin,” said another.
A third jerked his chin towards Dylan. “Never seen one in green robes before, but I’m willing to bet that just means he has more than the others.”
Tracker opened his mouth in silent comprehension. “I see where you and your friends are mistaken. My dear man, he is no priest. Perhaps you should show these good people what you really are?” the hound said to Dylan over his shoulder.
Frowning at the elf, Dylan let a ball of fire flare to life in his hand.
As one the bandits jerked back. If Tracker had hoped to scare them off, then it wasn’t working. They seemed uncertain, wary like the tower mousers against a large rat, but their faces spoke of desperation, of hunger.
He snuffed the fireball and quietly tried to count the number of men and women. Not an easy feat when they kept shifting about in the undergrowth. Thirteen, maybe? It rather depended on whether the shadows in the foliage held more than just a man or two.
Movement in the bushes preceded an arrow. Dylan threw his hands up in front of him, lowering them only at the bandit’s collective gasp. The arrowhead protruded through his shield, the fletching jutting beyond. His palm stung. He glanced at it to find a bead of blood welling there. That was too close.
The hound twitched and the archer went down, a blade glittering in his throat.
“Filthy elf,” the leader spat. “Kill them! All of them.”
The bandits charged.
The two elves met the front of the group. The hound was a whirlwind of death, those who dared to come within reach fell back screaming or dead. Authril followed close on the man’s heels. She drove her sword into one of the bandits, bashing in the face of another with her shield as the woman attempted to close.
Dylan bounced on the balls of his feet, uncertain what he could do to aid them. A barrier would work only for as long as it took for the bandits to change tactics. A direct attack could scatter them, but it could also run the risk of hindering the others. He couldn’t be responsible for a hound’s death, not even indirectly.
The flash of movement on his flank drew his attention. He spun around, not willing to be caught out the same as last time. A man was closing in on him, his sword already swinging.
Dylan jerked back from the first swipe, his barrier shimmering as the sword tip grazed the outer curve. A pulse rippled through the air.
The man hit a tree with a sickening crunch and fell.
Dylan didn’t have time to check and see if the bandit was dead. Now he’d turned, he saw that, whilst the two elves fought the bulk at the fore, Marin and Katarina were dealing with those sent to surround them. The way those bandits were spread out left him with far more opportunities to assist. Still couldn’t risk fire so close to the trees, but a spray of ice would—
An arrow smashed into his barrier, shattering.
He lifted his arm, sparks of lightning flowed from his fingers to arc between them. Dylan scanned the bushes for the archer.
Marin found them first and another of the bandits collapsed on the edge of the clearing.
A second man lunged at the hunter before Dylan could cry out a warning, managing to knock the bow from Marin’s hands. Snarling, she turned on him, her knife bared. They fell to the ground, tumbling through the undergrowth. There was a scream, then Marin stood, wiping the blood from her face.
Katarina was having a harder time, harried by several men at once. He ran towards her, slowing as he caught something move in the trees above her. A woman. The glint of a blade in her hand.
“Duck!” Dylan roared, throwing out a bolt of lightning when the hedgewitch dove to one side. The woman jerked, her back arching and arms spread as the bolt ripped through her. Forks of lightning shot off her body, seeking ground. He fought them, forcing them to spread until they lanced through the stunned men, before letting it stop.
He stood there, staring at the four bodies lying charred and bleeding. Not a one moved. The scent of cooked flesh, not unlike that of the roasting boar, filled his nose.
Cold seeped through to his bones. His stomach twisted. Bitterness hit the back of his throat. Dylan forced the bile back down. This wasn’t the time for weakness. There could still be others. He needed to—
Slowly, he became aware of the silence at his back. The lack of screams, of steel hitting flesh, of fighting.
He turned to find the two elves standing amidst what had become of the other bandits. Or at least, Authril stood, if only barely. The hound flitted from one corpse to the other, examining them. Occasionally, he would pluck something from their bodies. Small pouches, rings and the like.
“Utter bastards.” Authril spat on the headless corpse at her feet. “I didn’t survive the massacre of my company to be taken down by the likes of you.” Her shield lay several feet away and she took a wobbling step towards it, using her sword as a cane. Her other hand was tucked across her stomach, discretely trying to clutch her side.
Dylan picked his way through the carnage, trying not to focus on the broken, twitching bodies or the blood splattered everywhere like a painter’s nightmare. His stomach twisted. He gritted his teeth.
His foot fell on a slippery patch. A quick glance down revealed it to be the loop of a woman’s intestines, the rest of it snaking out of her gut just like a coiled mass of greasy sausage. His stomach rebelled. Before he could stop himself, he was doubled over and heaving up his midday meal all over the corpse.
The hound eyed him from where he was crouched by one of the bandits, his russet brows lifting even as he cut a pouch from the dead man’s belt. “And they sent you into the army?”
“He’s new to the whole killing and mutilated corpses business,” Authril answered before Dylan could find the breath to.
With his stomach still cramping but empty, Dylan halted before the warrior. “Let me see your side,” he rasped.
She grunted and moved her hand. “Damn needle daggers. Slipped right through.” Blood stained her side. A smile quivered its way across her lips. “Guess it’s a good thing that the hound found you when he did. You would’ve been pretty much screwed for protection otherwise.”
“Stop talking as if you’re going to die.” He carefully unbuckled the side of her armour. There was a small puncture hole in the padding beneath. “I can heal this.”
“It’s a bit more complicated than a broken bone.”
“Not for me.” Dylan placed a hand on her side and let his magic get to work. The outer wound would be easy to mend, even for a simple physician, but inside… He was pretty sure the blade had angled up to hit her kidney. In any other circumstance, he could see why Authril thought the stab wound was a death sentence. “Hold still, this won’t take long.” He concentrated his focus into convincing the quickening of the elf’s natural healing to not let the organ die and, when it responded, loosened his grasp to allow the flesh to seal itself.
Finished, he stumbled back a few steps to lean against a nearby tree and catch his breath. He really needed to get this queasiness under control if he was going to be of any use to the army or they might decide to leave him in the tower. He couldn’t go back to that sort of life, not knowing the Udyneans faced little in the way of opposition.
A groan came from amongst the bushes.
Dylan glanced at the other two women of their little group. Both calmly enough all things considered. They seemed intact, or at least didn’t clutch at any obvious wounds, which meant the sound came from another. Pushing himself upright, he staggered towards the noise. It was the man he’d thrown against a tree. The bandit had come to and was trying to get to his feet.
Tracker straightened from his distasteful task of looting the corpses. “What is this? We have a survivor?” He strode over to the groaning man. With one shove of his boot, he rolled the bandit onto the man’s back. “Well now,” he said, crouching at the bandit’s side. “That was quite the misjudgement your group made, yes?”
The man laughed. It was a watery, breathless sound that spoke of a punctured lung. “Anna said you’d be easy pickings. Told her you can’t sneak up on an elf.”
A small smile tweaked the hound’s lips. He gently helped the man to sit up against the tree. “Tell me,” he all but purred. “Are there any more of you?”
Dylan frowned. He could’ve sworn Tracker had sheathed his dagger along with his sword, yet there it was dangling between those long fingers, hidden from the man’s sight.
The bandit shook his head. “This is all of us, I swear.”
“Good.” With one deft flick of his wrist, the dagger came up to plunge hilt-deep into the man’s side. The hound waited until the bandit stopped twitching before withdrawing the blade to silently clean it on the man’s tunic.
Dylan’s gaze slid to the bandit, vainly searching for some sign of life. “You didn’t have to kill him.” These people weren’t some slavers from Udynea. The man was defenceless, injured. What threat could he have possibly been to them?
“They’re bandits,” Authril said. “They likely already had a price on their heads. Even then, their lives were forfeit from the moment they attacked us.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the death they’d brought, forcing himself to take in every severed limb and lonesome head. A handful more than the original six he’d first seen had engaged the two elves. Nine in all without including those that’d attacked their flank. And each one lost their life. These people had been why the overseers sent spellsters, sent him, to fight Udynea.
Tracker cleared his throat. “Consider it this way… If we had not been here to take their lives now, then they would’ve only preyed upon others, perhaps even killed them as they sought to kill us. Think of it as doing those honest people a favour.”
Dylan frowned. It made sense. It didn’t mean he had to like it. It didn’t help that the man was covered in the blood of those he’d slain or that his pocket were full of their valuables.
“Such a scowl. My dear spellster, if you had glared at them like that before all this, they might have run away.” The hound bounced to his feet. “We should wash off this blood, yes? I believe we passed a stream a little ways back, it could lead to something larger.”
Dylan stared down at his hand where Authril’s blood still stained his skin. Such a small mark required nothing more than a basin and a little time. “I don’t have much blood on me,” he murmured to himself. He should’ve been dripping in it, should’ve killed that bandit outright rather than let the man suffer a worse death.
A hand clapped onto his shoulder, the strength behind it dragging his side down. “That may be,” Tracker said, “but some of us are not so fortunate. Come, if luck is merciful, we will find a place to camp before nightfall.”
He trailed after the man as Tracker strode back the way they’d come. Luck be merciful? He didn’t see any of the gods granting him mercy anytime soon.