They reached the stream without a hint of being followed. It seemed the bandit had been telling the truth, that had been all of them. Not that it stopped anyone from being twitchy. Even the hound would occasionally halt, demanding silence as he listened to the forest, before moving on.
The stream was a small thing, barely a few feet wide, but more than enough for Dylan to wash his hands. He scrubbed them beneath the frigid water until his skin was pink and raw. The others settled around him, doing the same thing. The water turned murky and pink with their efforts. Dylan moved further upstream before rinsing out his mouth, shuddering as the chill water hit his teeth.
Authril carefully unbuckled her breastplate and examined the side. The damage hadn’t looked bad to him, but she wrinkled her nose at the blood-smeared metal. Mumbling, she removed the padding. That had also been soaked through.
Dylan’s gaze swung to Marin. He could’ve sworn the woman had been limping, although she didn’t seem to be in a great deal of pain.
The hound, having finished sluicing the blood off his face, bounced to his feet. “Come, my dear man. We should allow our dear companions to bathe in private.”
Dylan frowned at the man before returning to scrutinise Marin. Surely if the hunter was seriously injured, she would’ve told him. Like Katarina, the other woman showed little fear of his abilities. The hunter seemed more curious than anything.
Silently waved off by the women, Dylan shouldered his pack and followed the hound into the brush. They walked through the forest in silence, looking for a suitable spot big enough for three tents. He stumbled along the uneven ground, reduced to lifting the skirts of his robe in order to keep up with the man. Some of the leaves in the undergrowth had a certain chill dampness to them that they seemed willing to share with his bare legs.
They didn’t have to search for long before coming across a clearing surrounded by trees that his time studying dwarven architecture told him were conifers. A pair of such thick-trunked trees stood in the middle of the clearing, bits of branches and small bushes dotting the grass around them.
Dylan wasted no time in clearing a spot nearby to set up the tent he shared with Authril. Finding the right branches wasn’t quite as a difficult task as it had first been, now that he knew what to look for. His struggles to assemble the required framework had also dwindled to little more than the fumbling of still shaking fingers.
Out the corner of his eye, he spied the hound busy with a similar task. Tracker had brought the tent the other two women slept in and, having already set up his own tent, was currently pitching theirs. They worked in silence, with Dylan pausing every so often to keep an eye on the man.
Dylan’s gaze dropped to the man’s attire. Whilst the leather born signs of scrapes and cuts not quite deep enough to part the armour, its dark colour could also easily hide an injury. That Tracker showed no sign of being hurt was hardly reassuring.
Finally, the man straightened from his task of hammering in the last of the pegs and brushed the dirt off his trousers. “Is there a reason you stare at me so intently?”
A faint bloom of heat brushed his cheeks. He didn’t think he’d been staring that hard. “Are you hurt?”
The man grinned, a brief chuckle slipping through his teeth. “No. Those bandits were amateurs who have little understanding of how to keep a sword sharp. Not that being hit with a steel club is much better, but your concern is unwarranted. I am uninjured.” The man slung his pack into his tent. “You probably want a little time alone to gather your strength or whatever it is you need to do, yes? I am going to collect some wood. I have a feeling our dear companions will need to dry off a few items of clothing when they return.”
Dylan shuffled from one foot to the other. Being alone was perhaps the last thing he wanted, but he wasn’t about to tell the hound that. He drew the man’s cloak around himself before the realisation that he still wore it came to mind. “I suppose you’ll want this back, then?” he mumbled, unfastening the clasp.
“No.” Tracker held up his hand. “It is looking to be a cool night, best if you keep it for now. Just do not wander off.”
“I’m not stupid,” Dylan mumbled to himself. He wasn’t quite sure where they were in relation to the road and, if he left their camp, there was the likelihood of never finding a way out of the forest.
“That is good to hear,” the man replied, causing a fresh rush of heat to hit Dylan’s face. He could’ve sworn he’d been too quiet for the man to hear him.
He settled near his tent and waited in silence as the man disappeared into the undergrowth. The forest had seemed altogether hushed as they walked through it, but now that he was still and alone, small sounds reached him. Birds for the most part, alongside the hum of insects. Low and peaceful.
Gentle rustling through the brush preceded something a little bigger than a bird nearing the camp. The wild boar attack swiftly came to mind, quietly pulling Dylan to his feet. He let a barrier form, tucking its focus in the back of his mind, as he prepared to defend himself. Hopefully, it was merely the hound or one of the women. If not, then one quick blast of lightning should be enough to stun whatever was out there and give him time to escape.
Tracker emerged from the bushes carrying a great armful of twigs and logs. He paused on the edge of the clearing, one russet brow cocked, before striding into the middle of the triangle the formation of their tents made. “Take it easy, dear man,” he said, dumping his burden on the ground near the other bits of wood they’d piled up from the clearing’s bounty. “The worse you are likely to find out here is a stag and, seeing that it is not rutting season, they are harmless. Mostly.”
He didn’t quite like the way the man tacked on that last word as if it was nothing to be concerned about. But if stags were anything like boar, then they weren’t harmless at all. “Tracker,” he said as the hound knelt by the pile of wood. “Do—”
Chuckling, the elf glanced up from his task of building a fire. “Please, we are travelling together. Track is sufficient.”
“Do you think your fellow hound left the camp before the Udyneans attacked?” Bad enough he’d return to the tower with news of the others being taken, but to know a hound died amongst them would likely place the suspicion on him, even if Authril and Katarina gave their words that he hadn’t been near the attack.
“I cannot say for certain, but Fetch is a resourceful woman. If she was there when they attacked, I have no doubts that you would have known about her presence. It is far more likely that she was gone after your first night there, she is not at all fond of lingering within the army.”
Sighing, he ran his fingers through his hair and sank back to the ground to wait for the women to appear. Such a small thing, knowing one life had been spared the fate of so many. Odd how the knowledge made his chest seem less tight.
His brows scrunched together in thought. Perhaps if the hound knew where to find her, then she could vouch for him if the overseers doubted his identity. They’d have plenty of questions as it was. Questions he’d no answers to. He didn’t need more to complicate matters.
“Come now, a pretty face like yours should not be frowning so much.”
So certain that the man had been too preoccupied to notice anything else, Dylan jerked his head up at the sound of Tracker’s voice to find the hound still busily building the base for a fire. The elf seemed wholly intent on his task.
Nevertheless, he was certain of what he’d heard. “Don’t do that.” He’d watched the elf kill a person in cold blood, he was not about to allow the man to make any attempts at flirting.
The man looked up in a perfect picture of wide-eyed innocence. “And what is so objectionable about lighting a fire?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.” It wasn’t the first time he’d heard such words from another man. Whilst he would put a stop to any pushier advances by carefully explaining that he wasn’t interested, mere words were usually ignored. “I’m in no mood to hear your empty sweet-talk.”
“Ah.” Tracker stood, brushing the dirt from his hands. “I did not seek to flatter you, but if that is how you feel, then I will desist. However, if would you permit me to speak on a more serious note?” The man waited until Dylan nodded before he continued. “I feel I have not given you the best impression of myself. That we began on the wrong foot as it were. I would like to start again. Providing you are agreeable to the notion. Perhaps then you would not seem so nervous around me.”
“That’s…” He shook his head. “I’m not nervous.”
“Careful, then? I understand completely that you would seek to curb certain parts of your nature in my presence. I cannot imagine how they must speak of hounds in your tower.” He smiled warmly, although the slight sympathetic waver at the edges suggested he knew exactly what spellsters were told about them. “But you need not be so concerned with reining in your talents.”
“Spellsters aren’t supposed to be unleashed beyond the tower much less do magic without sanction.” They tolerated it back home, but only because the logistics of giving every spellster permission for any given task would be a nightmare. That was supposedly why they didn’t leash everyone.
The elf nodded. “That is true, but your situation is somewhat… unique, yes? You are no runaway nor an untrained youth. As such, I see no reason to hold you under the strict edict placed on them. If it makes you feel any better, I give you permission to use your magic as you see fit.”
“Providing I don’t use it to harm you or the others.”
Tracker tilted his head. The sharpness behind those honey-coloured eyes all but bored their way into Dylan’s skull. “I did not think that needed to be said. You do not strike me as the type to indulge in random acts of violence.”
“Really? You barely know me.”
The man gave a short, gasping laugh. “You are right, of course.” A few swift strides was all it took before the elf settled himself next to Dylan. “Why, I do not believe you have even told me your name.”
“Why would you need to know it?” Fetcher hadn’t asked. He supposed she saw him as just another weapon being transported to the army. Probably helped her keep detached from the abuse they suffered at their warden’s hands.
“Such suspicion. I would like to know for no reason other than we will be travelling together.” A small smile lifted one side of the man’s mouth. “But if you wish to keep an air of mystery around you, my dear spellster, I welcome a challenge.”
“Wouldn’t be much of one for long.” Any of the women could speak it in the man’s presence and then whatever mystery the hound thought surrounded his name would be gone. “It’s Dylan.”
“And if I may pry, Dylan?” His name escaped the elf’s lips in a purr that tingled along his skin and pooled in his gut. “Were you not trained to fight?”
“Of course.” His guardian sent him for testing alongside all the other pre-pubescent children who showed the magical strength required of those who could serve the army. “Although, it’s been some time since I’ve stepped into the training arena before they leashed me.” Several years. And much of those years had been spent in the tower’s library, translating scraps of text for the dwarves.
“Perhaps that is it, then. It is just… Well, you seem proficient enough in handling your magic.” He indicated the unlit fire with a jerk of his chin. “I am sure lighting that would serve as no great task for you.”
Dylan wordlessly waved his hand and the branches burst into flame.
“See? I cannot begin to comprehend what it is like to force kindling alight with a mere thought, but that looked effortless.” He turned his full attention back to Dylan. In the firelight, his eyes took on an orange glint. “Yet you are quite reluctant to actually cause any harm unless provoked.”
“I would’ve thought you’d see that as a good thing.”
Tracker laughed. “Do not misunderstand, I appreciate that you have the apparent restraint to not set everything alight. I was certain you would attempt such an attack when we met. However, it could become troublesome if we are ambushed again. And, seeing that is my duty to ensure you arrive at the tower in good health, I need to know whether you will assist me in such a goal.”
Dylan folded his arms. “I’ve no intentions of letting myself get killed, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“And glad I am to hear it. Travelling alongside someone with a death wish tends to complicate matters.” The way the man spoke, it sounded like experience. Not all those who’d fled the tower would’ve returned quietly.
His gaze dropped to the array of weaponry the man sported as well as his sword. Daggers, three of them, and several throwing knives peeked out from the back of his belt. His guardian had been very explicit on what happened to those who tried to escape a hound’s clutches. “Have you ever—?”
“There you two are!” Marin bellowed.
Dylan twisted where he sat in time to witness all three women entering their campsite. Relief unravelled the knot he didn’t realise he’d been harbouring in his stomach until now. A part of him had been anxious in whether the trio would be able to find them, leaving him alone with the hound.
Marin held up her arm. A rabbit swung from her hand. “Found dinner. Or breakfast, take your pick.” She threw the carcass before the fire and jerked a thumb at Katarina. “Damn near tripped over the silly thing.”
He eyed both the hunter and the hedgewitch. Unlike Authril, there didn’t seem to be any obvious injuries. He could’ve sworn Marin had been limping earlier. Hard to tell now the woman was still. She didn’t look to favour either leg. “Are either of you hurt?”
Katarina brushed back a lock of brown hair from her forehead, tucking it back into the braid at her temple. Most of the loops had loosened during the fight, making a mess of both bun and braids. “We’ve a few scrapes and bruises between us.”
“I’d be more than willing to—”
The dwarf held up her hand. “There’s no need to use your healing talents. I know it takes more out of spellsters than they care to admit.”
“Speak for yourself,” Marin said to him as she plonked herself next to him. One leg of her trousers twisted in a manner he didn’t recall it being capable of prior to entering Toptower. She pulled back the soft leather, revealing a long gash down her calf. “It’s stopped bleeding, but—”
Dylan wordlessly placed his hand on her bare shin. The cut wasn’t too deep, which had helped in the clotting process and aided him now in swiftly boosting the woman’s natural healing.
The hunter wrinkled her nose, her lips warping into a grimace as she tried to remain still. “Kind of tingles, doesn’t it? Like needles all over your leg.” She stretched her leg before the fire once he withdrew his magic, brushing off the congealed blood and examining the peachy-pink scar beneath. “Almost like it never happened, huh?”
Dylan shrugged. “I could heal it further, if you want.” Typically, once the wound had reached the point of a scar, there wasn’t much left to do. Pushing the healing process that little bit more would allow the new skin to darken, but it would be a superficial matter by then.
“It’s fine, thank you.” Crossing her legs beneath her, she crinkled her eyes at him. “It’s good to see you’re looking less green, too.”
“Sword fighting’s a little more… gruesome than I imagined,” he admitted, ducking his head to whisper the words.
“That’s why I use a bow. Less bits flying everywhere, especially in the face. Get an arrow through someone’s head or a straight shot to the heart and—” She flopped back onto the leaf-ridden ground. “They’re not getting up. Kind of like your magic.”
“I guess.” Arrows were still quite messy and, although Marin seemed to have quite a bit more skill than the other archers he’d witnessed, they were less efficient than his magic at killing cleanly.
“Hey,” the hunter sat up and nudged his knee with an elbow. “You can help me solve a little debate us women were having earlier.”
His curiosity tweaked, he raised a brow in query at her.
“You can light whatever you want on fire, right?”
Dylan laughed. It was going to be one of those sort of debates, was it? He’d been wondering how long it would take before someone started enquiring as to the extent of his abilities. “That is… somewhat true. There are limits. Using your fire example, if it’s not something that’ll burn under a normal flame, then I can’t set it alight.”
“How does it all work? Like fire. How do you actually make things burn?”
He grinned. “Well, it…” Chuckling to himself, he ran his fingers through his hair. It’d been so longer since his tutors had to teach him the finer points of the skill. “It seems I’ve forgotten the nuances. But it’s not so much as conjuring fire as it involves manipulating the temperature in the air around the object you want to burn.”
“And you forgot how you’re doing that? How could you forget?”
“Do you remember how people taught you to walk? Or speak?” He’d been an early bloomer, like most of those signalled out for military training. “Spellsters—the ones born in the tower, at least—are able to use magic at a very young age. Our first attempt is often a shield when we’re just babies, it hinges on our survival defence.”
“You could do magic as a baby?”
He nodded. “Only a shield, though, and only for a short time.” Pulses generally came next, weak ones that expended more effort than a toddler could give. “I lit my first flame when I was four years old. Fire is often the first conscious use of magic.” Dylan flicked his wrist as a small fireball formed in his cupped palm. “It’s easy. Brief.” He blew on fireball, extinguishing it. “I can manipulate it like you would do your breath. Concentrating too hard on it makes things more difficult, so you learn to trust your instinct.”
“But if I asked, you could set fire to…” The woman twisted her head every which way, taking in their surroundings. “That?” She pointed to the leafless skeleton of a nearby bush hovering just on the edge of the encroaching shadows of night. “Just—” She clicked her fingers and spread her hands wide. “Whoosh!”
“I’d be more inclined to ask you why you wanted me to set the dead bush on fire, but yes, I could do it like that.” He mimicked her actions.
“Except you will not,” Tracker said. “Stop encouraging the woman.”
Marin stuck her tongue out at the hound. “Why don’t you use fire when we’re fighting? It’s always lightning or…” She waved her hands in a pushing motion.
“Safety, mostly.” The guardians were always very clear on them remaining mindful of their surroundings. Of being sure where an ally was in relation to an enemy. Basic training and he’d forgotten that in the very first fight where lives were taken. “Lightning goes to ground and stops when I want. Any pulses through the air last only as long as there’s energy to drive them.”
He plucked a twig from the pile. With the snap of his fingers, he conjured a single flame to dance on the tip of his thumb, which he then transferred to the twig. “Once magical fire meets fuel, then it’s merely fire and just as unpredictable.”
The hunter eyed the burning twig. “But you could put it out whenever you wanted.”
Dylan enclosed in the flame in a small dense shield, holding it there until smoke filled the bubble. “Yes.” He threw the twig into the fire. “But if I was to get knocked out like I did the first time I fought…” Even magically created fire couldn’t tell friend from foe. He’d just been lucky the person he attacked back at the main camp when he’d been blinded by pain had been an enemy.
Tracker settled on the opposite side of the campfire. “You allowed an enemy close enough to you to let them knock you out? Are you certain they sent you to the army to fight and not, I do not know, play physician?”
Before Dylan could open his mouth, Authril said, “There are no healers in the army, only weapons.”
Dylan rubbed at his cheek, the one the lieutenant had struck on his first day there. It had stopped stinging by the second day and the bruising had vanished once the collar broke, but he could still feel it, still taste the bitter tang of his blood.
You’re a weapon. The man’s words echoed in his mind. Nothing but a sword with a big mouth.
Tracker shook his head. “I distinctly recall seeing him mend your side, my dear woman. Clearly, the lack of healers in the army ranks cannot be true.”
“I wasn’t brought to the army to heal people,” Dylan whispered. “I’m meant to be a sword, not a scalpel.” If he’d been a little more invested in playing that role then maybe he might’ve been able to…
He sighed. It was best not to wander down that path again lest he not find his way back a second time.
Feeling watched, he lifted his gaze to find Tracker staring at him, a peculiar expression drawing the man’s face tight. Pity? It was there only for an instant. He could’ve sworn he’d seen right, although he couldn’t imagine why a hound would pity him.
All at once, the man leapt to his feet and retrieved one of the longer branches from the fire. “Since you are all here. I think I shall finish removing this blood before it permanently adheres to my skin.” He eyed Dylan, tipping his head to one side. “Normally, I am not meant to leave a spellster’s side once they are found, but I can trust you to not attempt vanishing into the undergrowth once I am out of sight, yes?”
“Unique circumstances, right?” His gaze turned to the darkness encroaching on the forest. Already, much of the area beneath the canopies was in shadow. Yet, even in the daytime, a man could get lost. “I’m not going anywhere, I promise.” The safest way to reach the tower was at the hound’s side. He’d be a fool to leave it and invite more trouble.