Four days. That’s the last time he’d seen any sign of a building, of civilisation, which had been in the form of a little village the hound called Toptower. They left the village behind almost as soon as they’d arrived. The cart, too, much to his chagrin.
Dylan wriggled atop the saddle, his backside in danger of going numb, and silently cursed whoever first thought travelling aboard these hairy creatures was a good idea.
The leashed woman, who he had since learnt was actually Ava, plodded at his side seemingly without thought. Now he’d spent time outside the duelling arena with her, he recalled her, vaguely. It’d been five years since she won the brawl and she had the sort of doe-eyed features that would be lost in a crowd of elves, even if she did lack the ears. Although the face he recalled wasn’t as dark or heavily freckled.
Ahead rode the hound and both seemed at ease atop their mounts. How he wished the same could be said of him, but try as he might, comfort was not a goal easily maintained perched as he was upon the beast’s swaying back. Whilst the women were able to sit astride their mounts, his lack of proper attire forced him to ride side-saddle. He rather longed for the chance to walk with his own legs.
He contented himself with the knowledge that, very soon, all this trekking through the rough roads that lead to the army camp would be over. The hound insisted the main camp was almost upon them and he fancied that his ears picked up distance sounds of people, growing stronger with each passing hour.
Without warning, the hound came to a halt in the middle of the road, throwing up her hand to indicate they do the same. Dylan hauled on the reins, but the nag refused to obey until it stood flush with the hound’s heavy mount. The woman frowned, but kept her eyes trained on the bushes to their left.
He strained both sight and hearing to sense what she’d picked up to no avail. He spied little through the bushes and the only sounds greater than the breeze was that of their breathing. “What is it?”
She pressed a finger to her lips.
They remained silent for a while longer. Then, as his horse grew restless, Dylan caught the subtle crunch of something walking through the undergrowth.
A scout? He certainly expected people to roam nearby if they were as close to the camp as the hound believed. But did that mean they were on the same side? He gnawed on his bottom lip, trying to pinpoint the sound’s origins.
An elven man dressed in mottled shades of green and brown appeared through the bushes, his bow trained on them. “Who goes?”
Dylan straightened. Behind him, he caught fleeting glimpses of other people at his flank. If his magic was needed, then the hound would give him sanction to use it, providing she didn’t die from an arrow to the throat beforehand.
“Fetcher of the King’s Hounds,” the woman replied. “Returning from the tower with the borrowed spellster and a fresh one.” She leant in her saddle, pressing close enough to whisper, “Show them your collar.”
Out the corner of his eye, Dylan spied Ava already displaying her collar to the man. He followed suit, pulling down the edge of his robe and tipping his head back to display the chainmail encircling his neck. A strange knot tangled his gut and flushed his cheeks. Without his magic, he was weak at best and defenceless at worse, and although he would never consider himself prudish, revealing the infitialis collar to this stranger felt strangely intrusive.
Nevertheless, the display seemed to satisfy the man. He lowered his bow and indicated for them to pass with the silent twitch of his head.
Dylan’s horse plodded behind the hound’s. He felt along the collar, absently trying to find a hole in the links that would be big enough to fit his nail. Sadly, like fine, tightly-woven linen, there wasn’t any give in the array.
On his left, Ava rolled her eyes. In their weeks of travel, he’d also learnt she was his junior by two years, but that didn’t stop her from acting as if she were far older. He recalled her sharp manner far more readily than her face, which led him to the possibility that she’d been one of the generous many who’d rejected his advances. “Do stop that. The camp will think you have fleas or worse.”
“It itches.” Everywhere itched, now that he’d turned his attention to it. His skin had gone red after the first day’s travel. He didn’t remember much near the beginning of their journey, just pain and nauseation. Until the fifth day, when the hound had granted him sanction to use his magic.
The innate healing began restoring his skin to its original ivory shade as soon as the woman finished speaking the order. But it’d hurt. He still wasn’t sure how, even using magic with permission, that the collar burned. Originally, he thought the sparks that seared his skin upon first trying to use unsanctioned magic was a warning measure, but now… It rather reminded him of the unstable shield.
The hound glanced over her shoulder at them before drawing her horse level with his. She reached out and slapped his hand away. “Itching or not, scratching it won’t do you any good. What use are you to the army if you die of infection, hmm?”
Glaring, Dylan shook his hand before entangling his fingers in the horse’s mane.
“And that don’t give me that look.” She huffed. “Honestly, some of you spellsters are worse than children.”
He sucked at his teeth, resisting the altogether juvenile urge to poke his tongue out at the woman. Instead, he turned his attention to the road. Unlike the last three days, where the road had meandered something fierce, this piece ran arrow-straight and, from the feel of it, was starting to climb.
Dylan leant forward, trying to maintain his balance on the nag’s wide back. They rode in silence for a while. There was a strange haze in the distance, like dust being kicked up, and the steadily growing sounds of life he once fancied hearing were definite. “Fetcher?” he finally enquired of the hound. “Is it a family name or a title?”
“Never you mind what it is,” she replied. “Just remember to stay at my side once we enter the camp.”
He gave a noncommittal grunt. Even leashed and about as useful as a paper shield without having sanction, he wasn’t to be given an ounce of trust. Not even to walk unescorted amongst the very people he was to fight alongside. Do they really fear us so much? He frowned down at the horse’s mane, recalling the wariness the people in the villages treated both Ava and himself, as if they expected them to become some terrible demons.
It was all Udynea’s doing. If the empire hadn’t come blasting at their borders all those centuries ago, the ordinary people of Demarn wouldn’t be so ready to oust every spellster. Then everyone in the tower could be leading normal lives, love without fear of losing those they held dear and the women wouldn’t live with the knowledge that their babes would be taken from them at birth.
“We’re here,” Fetcher said, breaking him out of his musing.
Dylan lifted his head. He hadn’t noticed how their upward climb had lessened, or that the sounds of people were now near deafening after days of hushed wilderness; the shouts of men and women, the clash of soldiers training. The camp seethed like a busy anthill. People always seemed to be going somewhere or doing something.
His nag carried on following the hound’s horse as he stared. Some of the people halted in their duties as their little trio passed, jostling and jeering at each other. A few—amongst the men and the women both—whistled and called out lewd invitations. At first he thought the calls were directed at the two women, but as he became accustomed to the cacophony and the cries grew clearer, it was painfully obvious they were meant for him.
He tipped his nose to the sky, trying to block out the suggestions that threatened to set his ears ablaze. They were testing him, he was certain of it. He’d seen those sorts of expressions before, when young men and women first starting training against their more seasoned peers. Fresh meat. If they thought he could be intimidated by mere words, they were sorely mistaken.
They reached a group of unsaddled horses confined by a pen of rope. Fetcher whistled as they halted and a woman, flanked by two men, appeared from a nearby tent. The woman took up the reins of the dark brown horse as the hound dismounted. One of the men, a gangly fellow who couldn’t have been much older than eighteen, grabbed the reins of Dylan’s nag whilst the other man saw to the remaining horse.
Dylan slithered to the ground. His legs wobbled as they took his weight, but mercifully held. He straightened and slowly followed the hound to where she waited by the tent the trio had emerged from. His thighs ached terribly and his neck…
He balled his hands, refusing to heed the call to touch the collar.
“Thank you for your assistance, spellster,” Fetcher said to Ava as the woman scurried to their side. “I hereby absolve you of my command, effective immediately. You may return to your superiors.”
“Yes, Master Fetcher.” Giving a brief bow, she shuffled off with her head down and her hands clasped before her.
The hound turned her attention back to him. “Come.”
He trotted after the woman as fast as his still aching legs would allow. His thighs grew better with each stride, eventually letting him walk alongside her. They strode past tents arranged in neat lines. Although the wedge-shaped structures were uniform in size, quite a number had the stained and ragged look of age. Was that where he’d up, sleeping beneath one of those battered canvas roofs?
More people congregated around the tents, eyeing their passage in silence. A few ignored them completely. After the previous calling, he thought the quiet would ease his bubbling stomach. Yet, the knot forming there only grew tighter.
“Where do I go from here?” he asked the hound. No one had been at all specific in what happened once the winner of the brawl was leashed and at the camp, only that they served as counters to the enemy spellsters at the beck and call of the Udynea Empire.
Fetcher slowed. “I was instructed to find the lieutenant upon our arrival. He’ll assign you to a troop. But we should be swift.” Those last words seemed to be for herself and she picked up the pace. “And try to keep your mouth shut except when he speaks to you, he has quite the temper.”
The woman had barely taken another step before someone called her name. She halted, her head swinging in the call’s direction.
A man clothed in naught but an undershirt and trousers appeared through the crowd and hastened to their side. “Good to see you’re back.”
Fetcher jerked her chin at the man’s waist. “You’re undone.”
Grinning sheepishly, the man fumbled with the belt holding his trousers. “Damn thing. Trust you to spot that.” His gaze swung towards Dylan, eyeing him in the same manner the guardians did when a young spellster was brought in from the outside. Hopeful, but wary. “Did they send a strong one this time?”
The hound peered at Dylan for some time before shrugging. “Who can say? If he keeps his wits about him in the thick of it, then he’ll be good enough in a fight. He’s a bit high maintenance, though.”
The man grunted. “They usually are to begin with. Bloody tower coddles them like babes. A few days at the front usually sorts that out.”
“Where is your lieutenant? The one charged with the spellsters?”
“Infirmary.” The man jerked a thumb in the general direction. “Overseeing the wounded.”
“That’s—” She frowned, clearly troubled. “That’s not standard procedure. What happened?”
The man shrugged. “All I know—all anybody knows, really—is that they took out a scouting party. Brought the live ones here to fix them up. Fat chance it’ll do them. Those bastards don’t hold back for no reason. I’d put a year’s pay on them hiding something.”
“That’s a sucker’s bet.” Fetcher lightly slapped his stomach with the back of her hand. “Go finish getting dressed. You know how finicky he gets over his men being out of uniform. I’ll catch up with you later.”
The hound changed direction just as swiftly as the man raced back to his tent. She marched off to a group of large tents to their right. Dylan silently trailed her, well aware of how intently their they were being watched.
The infirmary was little more than another tent. He had thought that, after centuries of being camped in the same place, someone would’ve made permanent structures for places like this. But he supposed wood burnt just as easily as canvas and hauling that much stone out here was impractical.
Men and women lay groaning on the ground just outside the tent. People busied themselves about them, not seeming to do much but make the injured comfortable. He glanced at the tent and back. Were these people waiting for someone to take care of them?
Dylan gnawed on his bottom lip. Perhaps Fetcher would grant him sanction to heal them.
A man stood nearby, watching the commotion. He turned at their approach.
“Ah, Master Fetcher. Right on time. It’s in the usual place.” He nodded at another tent. Like the infirmary, the flap remained lowered. Unlike the other tent, no one ventured from it.
Fetcher frowned. Those pale eyes darted from the man to the tent and back. “Lieutenant, sir?” she briskly replied and tipped her head in his direction. “The new spellster?”
The man’s cheerful features hardened. “Of course.” Those dark eyes, harder than the flint they mimicked, ran over him. “I’ll take over your charge from here.”
His collar tingled at the lieutenant’s words. Dylan fingered the metal links. Had the man’s words activated some latent magic embedded in its making? Whilst he wasn’t certain how it worked—Sulin once tried to explain, giving up when he dozed off for the fourth time—he knew the collars would only let him use magic if the given sanction was made by those who had authority over a leashed spellster.
“Very good, sir,” the hound said. Giving the man the briefest of bows, she set off for the tent he had previously indicated.
Dylan watched her leave, his gaze slowly sliding to linger on the injured men and women. One of them was clearly bleeding from his gut. Another had an arrow shaft sticking out of her chest. Had they been in the tower, they’d be mended by now.
“The bastards hit harder by the day,” the lieutenant muttered, seemingly to himself. “Always in secret. What are you hiding?” The man faced Dylan. “I hope you’re worth it, spellster. We lost a lot of good people to those unleashed bastards when Fetch went to collect you.”
His focus remained unwavering on the group. Whilst the people tending to them gave blankets and drink, no one saw to the man’s bleeding bandage or the woman’s arrow wound. “Shouldn’t a physician be looking after them?” That’s what non-spellster healers were called, wasn’t it? Were they in such short supply that people risked dying? Why didn’t the crown demand healers serve as well?
“It’s already been done.” The man spat onto the ground. “Can’t do much about a gut full of steel except wait for the Seven Sisters to claim you.”
There was one other thing, although the man was probably unaware of the alternative. How many of the spellsters here had learnt to use their ability for more than taking lives? Dylan was willing to bet that the number was very low. “I can help them.”
The lieutenant gave a sceptical grunt. “Leave them be, spellster. They’re in enough pain now. The Sisters are merciful to those who die through battle.”
He knew that. Did the man think those in the tower didn’t attend the same ceremonies? That they weren’t brought up with the same scripture as everyone else? But his way of healing didn’t hurt. It shouldn’t, providing you knew what you were doing. Perhaps one of the others had tried in the past without having the proper knowledge. Nevertheless…
Dylan tried to push out. Healing required touch to be accurate, but if he could just slip a tendril of power towards them and give those dying soldiers a greater chance at life—
Sparks fired from the collar, biting into his skin. He gritted his teeth, trying that little bit more, giving up only when the smell of burnt flesh invaded his nostrils. He felt around the collar, trying to wriggle a finger beneath the metal. His skin stung at the faintest brush of cool air. If he could just find the seam…
“What do you think you’re doing, spellster?” the lieutenant demanded, pushing his face close enough that Dylan could make out individual pores. “Trying to remove our collar are we? Not on my watch.”
Dylan quickly lowered his hand. “Please. I can save them.” He indicated the soldiers with a jerk of his chin. “Just give me sanction and I—”
"You?” the man snarled. The weather-beaten face grew darker with every heartbeat. “I don’t know what they taught you in that tower of yours, but let me put you straight. You are a weapon, a tool, a thing.” He spat the word with more venom than a snake. “Nothing but a sword with a big mouth.”
“Your men are dying.” They didn’t have to. If he could just make the lieutenant see that.
“Yes, and when they pass, they’ll face the Seven Sisters without your magic tainting their honour. I won’t risk their afterlife just because you fancy yourself as being better than our physicians.”
He matched the man glare for glare. “I am better.” And healing a man from near death didn’t taint anything. Nowhere in the Divine Scripture did it say that the Seven Sisters guarding the passage of the Eternal River vilified the use of magic, at least no more than they did of any other tool. “I could have those people up and fighting by this time tomorrow.”
The man spat off a few curses before waggling his finger under Dylan’s nose. “You are here for one purpose, and that is to blow a hole in the enemy ranks when you are told. You do not use a sword to heal dying men.”
The back of a hand connected with his face. Dylan collapsed, his face smacking into the ground.
Shock dulled his senses. Half-aware of his movements, he wobbled onto his elbows. His shaking fingers, almost moving of their own accord, tentatively worked along his jaw. Half his face was numb, but it seemed to be in one piece. Liquid pooled in his mouth. He spat it out. Red stained the dirt. He stared at the glob. It’d been a long time since he’d seen his own blood.
Out the corner of his eye, he spied Fetcher reappearing from the tent. She gave him a cursory glance, before marching off on whatever errand the crown demanded of her.
The lieutenant stood over him, rubbing his knuckles. “You just don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, do you? This isn’t your tower. We don’t coddle your kind here.”
Feeling rushed back to his cheek, the flesh stinging both inside and out. Tears pricked his eyes. He rubbed the grit from them and glared up at the man. “You’d rather let those men die?”
“No, I’d prefer a hundred men like them to bastards like you. But the most I can grant is a comfortable death.” He straightened and commanded a woman clutching a small wooden board over to his side with the twitch of his head. “See that this troublemaker is sent to the front line, immediately.”
“Yes, sir!” The woman bobbed, writing furiously on the board, and scurried off.
“You like to argue with your superiors, precious? We’ll see how long that lasts after facing down some real terrors. Those monsters from Udynea won’t show you mercy like I do. Now get up and get yourself clean. You want to help people live? You can by doing what you’re bred for.”
He waited until the lieutenant had turned his attention back to the injured before daring to touch his cheek. No blood, not even a graze, just incredible heat. Dylan fumbled in his belt pouch for his shaving mirror. The surface revealed a massive red welt marking his skin.
By the time Dylan had staggered to his feet, the man Fetcher had previously spoken with appeared. He also held a board. Dylan eyed the paper clipped to it. What had the woman written? There was no question it was about him, but what?
“Well, now,” the man said. “Fetch certainly wasn’t lying about you being high maintenance, was she? Haven’t even had the chance to get you measured for your uniform and the lieutenant’s sending you into the thick of it. He must’ve really taken a disliking to you.”
Dylan bit his tongue. He hadn’t thought of it that way. His first official day in the army and, already, he’d managed to turn someone against him. Wonderful. And for what? His gaze swung back to the injured. One of them was now covered in a blanket. I could’ve saved them. He was more than a sword.
They left the infirmary, the layout of the tents thinning and growing increasingly more like sheets draped over poles as they neared the edge of the camp.
“You’ll be staying here for the next few nights,” the man said, indicating a large tent with a distracted twitch of his head. He rifled through the pages clipped to the board. “There’ll be a small group leaving for the front line then. That’ll give us time to see you adequately dressed. At least we won’t have to make room for another bed. You can have Lilly’s.”
“Won’t she object?”
“She won’t be doing anything. She was with the lot you saw outside the infirmary.”
“Yes. Very much so.” His head lifted and, for a moment, Dylan swore there was pity on his face. “Just…” He sighed. “Try to keep your head down tomorrow. Remember your place and there’ll be no trouble.”
Grunting, he slipped into the tent only to halt in the entrance. The tent-flap slapped his back, jolting him, but he moved no further.
Blankets lay across the majority of the space, save for a thin strip along the outer edges. Ten distinct spots in all, big enough to perhaps hold two people each although he doubted they’d cram twenty bodies into a single tent.
Soft mumbling drew his gaze down. One of the spots by the pole was already twice full, the all but unseen occupants huddled beneath the blankets practically sleeping on top of each other. Five other people milled near the far end of the tent. They eyed him with all the wariness of a cornered kitten as he ventured deeper into the space.
Movement on his left caught his eye. An elven woman he vaguely recalled as being of insurmountable will and power, quietly rocked in the corner near the entrance. His gaze slid back to the others. They seemed unconcerned with their companion’s actions. In fact, the more he looked at them, the more he saw the same expression as Ava. It was a sort of hollowness embedded in the eyes, like a light had been snuffed.
Dylan fingered his collar. The metal band didn’t have to be around his neck. His head, his waist… the infitialis worked the same regardless. But a coronet could slip free and a belt was ungainly. Collars didn’t fall off so easily. They need us. The kingdom feared them, that’s what his guardian had taught him. The crown put them in leashes of unstable metal was because of a need to control what they feared.
Did he look like these people, too? The blatant lack of will? Was the nagging pressure he felt behind his eyes meant to be there? Did it bore into his ability to perceive pain until all feeling vanished?
No, that was impossible. Sulin had never mentioned infitialis affecting the mind like that. The only ability it possessed was for the suppression and negation of magic. Whatever had happened to these people, the collar wasn’t to blame.
That thought didn’t make him feel any better.