In all his life, Dylan never dared to venture into the wing were the alchemists worked. Those who hadn’t been trained to bend the infitialis metal to their will were forbidden and just listening to Sulin made the very act seem like certain death. Now he stood in one of their many chambers, waiting for someone to come and leash him.
His stomach churned at the thought. He closed his eyes, trying to calm his mind. It didn’t work. I chose this. He could’ve fallen at any time during the brawl. To never use your own magic unless someone lets you. He balled his hands, surprised to find they were shaking. Other people lived perfectly normal lives without such power. He could, too. Especially, when the price was being free of these walls, to walk the land.
The room was as small as one of the isolation cells he’d spent a few days in several years back, wide enough to pace a few strides either way. He had expected something bigger, filled with all manner of interesting objects and tubes. The hound had escorted him past a few such rooms containing massive frames supporting an assortment of glass pipes. Other places seemed bare beyond a solid wooden table and a sooty metal screen. The latter was no doubt where they tested their infitialis creations.
So why was this room empty?
His gaze slid to the walls. They weren’t sheathed in the purple metal like the isolation cells. Nor did they bear a single sign of magic having been wrought upon them at any stage. No tell-tale melting or scouring of the stone. Not a testing room, then. And, despite its resemblance, it was entirely the wrong place for a cell.
The door opened to admit a human woman. She looked him over, her eyes—so big and as dark as a shadow—seemed to swell with pity. “So you’re the winner, then.”
He straightened. “Did you not watch the brawl?”
A faint sneer touched her lips. “I’ve no interest in such things. It’s disgusting how they keep us locked in here, trotting us out only when it serves their purpose.”
He stepped back. Her bitterness suggested that she was perhaps one of those born beyond the tower walls. After so many centuries of segregation, spellsters born amongst the common folk were unlikely to have more than a limited amount of magical talent. And they often became alchemists.
“Are you here to leash me?”
It was a curious thing, how infitialis worked. Somehow, back in the days when the old empire of Domian was more than ruins and bits of lore, someone had figured out that encircling a spellster’s body with a ring of the metal would effectively nullify their magic. He was about to become one of them, and he still wasn’t sure if such knowledge was a blessing or a curse.
She sighed. “Unfortunately, yes.” As if to prove her word, the alchemist withdrew a short length of strangely fluid metal from her belt pouch. It jingled in her hand, the purple sheen reflecting the torchlight and staining her pale hands.
Dylan swallowed the sudden uneasy lump in his throat. That piece of metal was his collar. From afar, it looked to be a solid piece. Sulin had once told him the collars were wrought into a series of small links, similar to the guardians’ chainmail. Although it would only encompass his neck, it was enough. “This won’t hurt, will it?” He’d never spoken long to a leashed one, never mind given any thought to asking what it was like to be leashed.
Now, he rather wished he had.
“Hurt?” the woman mused as she stepped closer. “Perhaps, but not in the way you believe.”
He flinched as she wrapped the collar around his neck. It wasn’t cold. If anything, the metal exuded a slight warmth. But he felt cold somewhere deep in his being. The world seemed dimmer. Sounds were no longer as sharp. Oddly enough, his throat hurt. As did his knees. And there was this awful noise in his ears, a distortion of screams.
It took him a moment to realise that sound was him. He’d fallen to the floor, screaming. The world was dim and muffled. Cold. A part of him was locked away.
His fingers curled behind the collar. He wrenched and twisted and clawed at the links to no avail. There was no seam to be had. No simple weakness to exploit. He was trapped.
Why had he been so eager to win?
Dylan stretched a hand across the dusty stones. Even knowing he couldn’t, he still tried to bring the smallest fork of lightning to life between his fingers. The collar crackled, sparks singed his skin. He flinched, a thin squeak slipping through his lips.
What was this? Everyone knew the collar was meant to make him incapable of accessing his magic without sanction. Nobody said anything about it punishing him for trying.
He tried again. Maybe if he pushed past the pain, he could…
Tears rolled down his face, blurring the world further. “I can’t,” he whimpered. He’d always been able to, from the first time he could conjure at will rather than on instinct, he’d always been capable of this one little trick. Never again. Not without sanction.
“Yes,” someone answered. A woman, but with a softer voice than the alchemist’s. “That’s right.”
He sat up, rubbing his head. It felt like his skull was trapped in a vice despite all evidence to the contrary. Was that due to the collar or some lingering after-effect of the brawl? Slowly, Dylan scrubbed at his face and searched for the source of the sound to find the leashed one standing in the doorway.
Only now, with her so close, did he note a distinct lack of spark to her eyes. Why hadn’t he noticed sooner? He would’ve wondered, would’ve heeded his guardian’s warning.
“We all try to rid ourselves of it at first,” the woman continued, her words devoid of passion. She spoke as if reciting text or, perhaps, to also remind herself. “We all scream when we can’t. We all cry. But we endure. Our king demands that we do.”
Because they need us. That’s why he was to be subjected to this nightmare. To keep Udynea at bay. All the vibrancy of life gone in a heartbeat. He was never going to get that back. To shield those we hold dear to us. His thoughts drifted to Tricia, to Sulin and Nestria. Of Henrie and Harriet. Even Launtil. Friends and more. Family. People he would never see again. None of them would’ve been capable of surviving the brawl. As for a true fight…
Dylan clambered to his feet, starkly refusing to heed the wobbling in his legs. They need me. He understood that now. He’d first pushed entering the brawl in the hope of seeing a world that’d mostly been words on a page, but it wasn’t about that. Not anymore.
He would leave for the army camp come morning. There, he would help push the enemy back across the border. All for those he held dear. For them, he would suffer living this dim and muffled world.
Morning came and, with it, the order to move out. Dylan’s stomach fluttered as he followed the hound and the other leashed spellster through the lower corridors. He’d never set foot outside the tower in his whole life and now… I’m never coming back. The thought skittered through his mind, tangling with the knots of pain like a waterbird caught in a fishing net.
His head hadn’t stopped hurting since the leashing. The unseen band squeezed his temples and burrowed deep between his eyes in an unrelenting cycle. He’d spent much of the night with his forehead pressed to the rough stone wall beside his cot, trying to alleviate the pain to no avail.
Perhaps the headaches would’ve subsided if he’d been allowed one last night in a familiar room. But no, for the first time in decades, he hadn’t slept in a bed he could call his but rather one slated for the tower’s rare visitors. If he needed any more proof that he was no longer a part of this place, that’d been it.
He clung a little tighter to the small pouch hanging from his belt. It held all the precious few personal effects he was allowed to take with him. The dark green, army-issued robes like those the woman wore would come once he reached the main camp, which sat several weeks away—the better part of three if on foot. He really should’ve spent more of his time outside, instead of studying dwarven texts and chasing women.
Well, I’ll be getting that time now. All he had ever dared to dream and likely more. The very thought of leaving everything frightened him more than he’d ever considered. Never had he believed a part of him would long to stay in the tower with its dreary, repetitive life.
His hand strayed to the collar. He wriggled a finger beneath the links, idly searching for a join that didn’t seem to be there. He’d spent hours doing the same thing last night, foolish and arrogant enough to believe that, after centuries of spellsters being leashed this way, he would be the one to find a loophole. But whatever the alchemists did to the infitialis, its effects were absolute.
All his magic, every last scrap of power he could ever bring to bear, was hidden behind a meshwork of metal.
They left the last of the corridors, stepping out into the still-shadowed area that was the main courtyard. From here, a spellster had a choice of going left to the gardens or, rarely, venture towards the small self-contained building that housed the tower’s servants. Others could pass through the massive gates leading to a smaller courtyard that separated the outside world from the tower complex.
There were more people lingering in the main courtyard than usual. Oh no. He’d heard of the crowds that congregated in the wake of past leashed ones, but he’d never been part of one. It seemed rather morbid, watching as a friend was lead out of the tower to never return. Like a funeral procession giving the dead their final farewells.
Dylan hunched his shoulders. He didn’t want to be remembered like this. Still, his gaze slid over the crowd, heeding the perverse desire to know if his friends stood amongst them, fearing it wasn’t true and dreading that it was.
His gaze settled on a familiar face. Not of his friends, but of Sophie. She glared at him, her lips flattened into a thin line. All along the front row on his right were those he’d competed against. Fredrick, Trinsuti, the man with green eyes that had tried to skewer him… Even the woman he’d risked losing the brawl to heal. They bowed as he passed.
He inclined his head in acknowledgement before returning his search to the crowd closer to the gateway. Maybe his friends had opted to stay away from the courtyard, to pretend he wasn’t leaving forever. That’s what he would have done.
But no, there was Nestria, standing at the edge of the crowd on his left with his roommate at her side. He raised his hand and wriggled his fingers slightly to let her know he’d noticed her presence.
She turned from him to cling to Sulin and bury her face into his robes. The man absently patted her back, his gaze unwavering from Dylan’s procession.
His vision blurred. Dylan dried his eyes under the pretence of adjusting his hair. He couldn’t remember a time when the elven woman hadn’t been in his life. Yes, he had known that winning the brawl would mean leaving everyone he knew behind, but with his guardian ever blocking his chances, it’d been years since it had felt like a feasible goal. Not until yesterday. And now…
After years of trying to leave, he found he wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye. There was so much he needed to do, so many things he’d left unsaid.
He pulled his gaze from his friends to the hound. The woman glared at him, her tan face taut with displeasure. He’d stopped somewhere along the way and there was now some distance between him and the women he followed.
Grimacing apologetically, Dylan hastened back to the hound’s side. If he was to spend the journey to the army camp in her company, he’d rather do so without antagonising her.
Hurried movement through the crowd on his right drew Dylan’s eye. He spied Henrie pushing through the throng, with Harriet trailing close behind, and slowed.
The elf reached the edge of the crowd and stopped, halting so abruptly that his lover almost collided into him. Dylan had known the man almost as long as Nestria and he still remembered the hours they used to spend at night talking through a hole in the wall. That’d been several decades ago. He couldn’t recall what they’d spoken about in those first few nights, but the terrible weeping that’d originally drawn him to the little crack joining the main boy’s quarters to the little room had fast vanished.
Henrie didn’t turn away once he realised he’d been spotted. He met Dylan’s stare, smiled and bowed his head in farewell. At his side, Harriet pressed close enough to her lover for their arms to touch without raising suspicion. Her chin shook. If he’d been closer, Dylan didn’t doubt he’d have seen the tears brimming in her big eyes. Anyone would think he was going off to die.
A wry smile twisted his lips. He wasn’t dead. Nor did he have any plans on dying anytime in the near future. He was going to prove what an asset he was to the kingdom. Make every action count. If he tried hard enough, then maybe they wouldn’t need to leash another.
He reached the hound’s side and the gates to the outer courtyard creaked open. He’d never seen them in such a state, had barely paid them any mind at all during his twenty-nine years of living.
His gut quivered as he watched the gap widen. His guardian’s words, old warnings given in his adolescence, ghosted about his mind. Leave here and the hounds will hunt you. Although some foolhardy spellsters had tried to see the outer gates, he’d not dared to venture into the small courtyard. Not after his sole botched attempt had led to several days in isolation. Back then, leaving had seemed like a death sentence. And now?
He absently felt his way along the collar, the metal unnervingly warm against his skin. It would protect him from the hounds, no doubts there. They weren’t interested in leashed spellsters destined for the army. Without his magic, he was little threat to anyone. Less than that, really. He was no threat at all. As much as he hated to admit it, his guardian was right. Without the aid of others, he wouldn’t live long beyond these walls.
Ahead of him, the two women slipped through the gates. Dylan went to follow, when something small brushed against his back. He whirled around to find Launtil standing there.
She smiled at him, her head tipped back in what had to be an uncomfortable angle. It might have been the teeth—the pronounced canines evidence of a near-pure elven bloodline—or the savage glint in her big, brown eyes, but there was something feral lurking in the expression. “You give no quarter to those enslaving bastards, you hear me?”
Dylan inclined his head. If he was to believe anyone about what those in Udynea did to elves and the poor, it was her word. The life she’d lived before the fates had carried her here was exactly why the crown sent leashed spellsters to the border, to stop Demarn becoming another slave resource of elven and human alike. “I’ll do everything I can.” What that would be, he wasn’t sure, but his answer seemed to please her.
He hurried to catch up with the hound before she could call him again. His gaze alighted on the outer gates and his legs suddenly couldn’t move. Dread and giddiness washed over him. The gates stood open. A rare sight even for those who saw the courtyard on a regular basis. They were usually barred and watched over by a dozen guardians or so he’d heard.
Those self-same men and women now stood to one side, waiting for them to depart. Standing near the entrance were four horses, two of which were harnessed to an already laden wagon.
Dylan eyed the saddled animals, his stomach sinking slightly. “You’re not expecting me to ride one of them, are you?” he asked the hound. He’d seen pictures of them in books and read tales of valiant knights riding into battle atop great warhorses, but that was the extent of his experience with them.
Laughing, the woman shook her head and grinned up at him. The top of her head barely reached his chin, which put her around the same height as his guardian, just with paler skin and more muscle. “Why, of course not. You shall travel in the wagon alongside our gear. We will be heading south, for the most part, just our little group…”
The longer she spoke, the easier it was to pick up the nuances that came with her accent. Beneath the similar smooth and rolling coastal tone of his old roommate was something else. He wanted to ask if she’d been born outside of Demarn, but he rather doubted she’d comply in answering such an intimate query.
“…until we reach Toptower, anyway. That is where we will meet up with the rather non-magical troops and go on to the main camp.” The smile she gave him had a slight malicious tilt to it. “Horseback all the way, yes?”
He took a deep breath, fighting to keep his expression neutral. Travelling on the seat of a cart didn’t sound quite so bad, but riding a horse? The very idea made his stomach do all sorts of interesting flips.
However well he believed his thoughts hidden, they must’ve been evident in his expression, for the hound patted his back. “Don’t worry so. I’ve made sure there’ll be a nice, quiet nag waiting to take you the rest of the way.”
“Really?” Everything he’d ever heard about hounds hadn’t given him any cause to believe they were at all thoughtful. Even the guardians tended to paint them as cruel and calculating beings who couldn’t be believed. “Thank you.”
Grunting, she shrugged. “Do not mistake this for being soft. I am tasked with fetching a spellster. Getting you to the camp in one piece is my priority. It just simply wouldn’t be prudent to let one of the king’s elite weapons become damaged before they can be used.”
Weapon? He was more than that and he would prove it once they reached the army camp. His magic would be used for more than the death of an enemy. He’d heal those who should’ve died so they could return to their families, even if he couldn’t.
Dylan turned at his guardian’s cry to find Tricia racing across the courtyard. She wasn’t meant to be here, only the guards and the hound’s retinue.
“Guardian,” the hound said, placing a hand on the older woman’s shoulder. “I understand that your people often form attachments to your charges, but there are certain stipulations of your creed that require you to leave at once, yes?”
There was. Winning the brawl, being leashed, all of it meant his life was no longer her concern. He truly belonged to the king now, part of his army. Any ties he’d once had were to be severed.
“Just let me say goodbye.” Even as his guardian pleaded with the hound, her gaze remained locked on him. “I’ll never see him again. Please, give me this one thing.”
The woman hesitated. She glanced at him, then bowed her head. “Be quick.”
Tricia was moving before the hound could finish talking. She crushed him into her grasp. “My boy…”
“A-are you crying?” he managed between breaths.
Her wavering little laugh shook them. “Don’t you worry about me.” She stepped back, smiling even though two glistening trails of moisture ran down her face. “You just stay strong, you hear? Promise me you’ll stay strong.”
He frowned. Uncertainty bubbled away in his gut. What did she know about the conditions he was going into? Why hadn’t he asked her earlier? Why hadn’t she offered to prepare him for what he was to face in the world, beyond the borders she’d laid? Dylan wrapped his arms around her shoulders and squeezed. “I promise.” It was too late for regrets.
“That is enough, guardian.” The hound was at his side again, those slate-grey eyes colder now.
Tricia’s smile wavered. It was a miniscule thing, the slight tick of her cheek that set the dark scar to twitching. She opened her mouth, clearly wanting to say more, then closed it without a word.
Dylan steeled himself. One of them would have to say it before he left and if she wasn’t going to… “Goodbye, Mother.”
Her eyes closed. The wry smile that often accompanied him speaking the word twitched her lips. She nodded and although she spoke too softly for him to hear, her lips spoke two very distinct words. “My son.”
“We have a lot of ground to cover before nightfall,” the hound said, gently turning him towards the wagon. “It is past time that we left.”
His stomach quivered, clenching with an inexplicable urge to expel his breakfast. A strong desire to pull free of the hound’s grasp and fling himself at his guardian’s feet welled within. You wanted this, he sharply reminded himself. From the first time he’d shown an aptitude for combat, he’d wanted nothing more than to leave.
So why did leaving feel so… hollow?
His shuffling feet halted him beside the wagon. He placed a foot on the step, preparing to hoist himself into the seat next to the driver when a phlegm-rattling cough drew his gaze up to the man holding the reins.
The driver shook his head and, glaring down his bulbous pink nose, jerked a thumb at the tray behind him.
Dylan took in the laden array of sacks and barrels crammed in with various instruments of cookery and the like. “Surely, you don’t expect me to travel the whole way like cargo.”
The man sneered and jerked his thumb again. “Get in the back, spellster.” The gravelly voice practically growled the title.
He dropped to the flagstones and made his way to the back of the wagon. After picking through their supplies, Dylan squeezed himself between the sacks up front. It wasn’t too bad. The wagon walls were high enough to provide shelter from the wind and, if it rained, he was in easy reach of the tenting canvas.
The wagon swayed as the driver urged the horses on. A shadow fell over them. Barely moving, he rolled his eyes up to spy the arch of the tower gateway slipping by. He was outside. Just like that. No walls. No more endless days of study. His magic might have been bound, but he was free.
Dylan peered over the edge of the cart. All around him lay hills covered in grass and forests. He slid a little lower in his seat, a sliver of uncertainty sliding into his heart. The world seemed far bigger than what he’d seen from the tower windows. Not a single wall no matter where he looked, just the world stretching before him. Nothing to mark a boundary. He could walk for days without a thing to stop him.
Strange, how a thought that had once carried a promise of freedom now seemed rather final.