Darkness slowly drained away.
His head ached. His throat did, too. Dylan rubbed his neck. Skin greeted his seeking fingers. The patch at his throat seemed different. Smooth like the marks the lightning left on Nestria’s shoulder. No sign of—
The collar! He jerked upright to the sound of another’s scream.
A woman crouched just outside the archway of the dwarven ruin, her eyes wide and her hand gripping the dagger sheathed at her hip. She looked so… vibrant. Everything had a sort of vivid halo. From the woman’s light brown skin and hair to the way the sky seemed to shine against the stone walls and blackened trees in such an intensely blue shade.
The woman shuffled closer and he wordlessly took in her attire. The buckskin leather apron-like dress atop another dress of ashen brown—with runic symbols embroidered along the cuffs and neckline of both. She was from the neighbouring country of Dvärghem. And, if he was to judge by the intricate tree sigils stamped into her brooches—gorgeous discs of brass that glittered in the sunlight—she was a hedgewitch. Their land’s scholars, sent abroad to learn all they could of the ancient dwarves.
She frowned and pressed the inside of her wrist to his forehead. “Are you all right?” Although she spoke his language easily enough—each word leaving her lips precise and whole—there was a melodious hint to her accent, a sort of slight breathiness that he’d long associated with the dwarves.
Dylan slowly raised his hand, cupping her jaw. She was so very bright and beautiful, like a spirit from beyond. Was he dead, then? Had the Seven Sisters sent this angel to show him the way?
The woman’s frown deepened. “Do you understand me?”
He did, although she now chose to speak Udynean rather than his native tongue, he understood every word. His gaze slid from the mussed hair to her face. A neat slice, caked in blood and dirt, ran from her forehead to her cheek, bisecting the freckled skin between her large, hazel eyes. Not an angel, then. She was just as mortal as he and…
Alive. He lived. All that heat, the burning at his throat, the screaming fates of the unfortunate… He’d survived it all.
The woman took hold of his chin. Concern altered the crease in her brow as she tilted his head this way and that. “Can you hear me?” She was gorgeous, alive and breathtakingly gentle.
He grabbed her head, drawing her mouth down onto his. Her lips tasted of soot with a faint hint of sweat and the heavenly addictive glow of life.
She stiffened in his grasp and reality flopped onto his head like a dying bird.
Dylan jerked away, releasing her and scurrying back across the ground in one hurried movement. “I’m sorry!” Shock and shame mingled in his gut. What in the world was wrong with him? No one just kissed a hedgewitch. They weren’t even meant to engage in intimacy. And I just forced myself on her. “That was wrong of me, I know. I am so very sorry. I’ve no excuse as to…”
Giving him a wavering smile, she brushed back a wayward lock of her hair. Wisps remained, dancing on the breeze. “I am admittedly unfamiliar with a great number of Demarn customs.” The language the dwarf spoke changed again, abandoning the harsher foreign words of the enemy and returning to his native tongue. “Does everyone here kiss before knowing the other’s name?” She extended her arm. “I’m Katarina, by the way.”
The heat flooding his face grew hotter. He grasped the offered hand and shook it. “Dylan,” he mumbled. “And I am completely mortified.” A barbarian. That’s what he was. Some savage too vile to even be considered as an animal much less a civilised being. “I cannot apologise enough. I know hedgewitches are sacred, that they’re not to be touched. I—”
Katarina clasped his hand in both of hers. “Be still.” Her gaze drifted to their surroundings, settling on the archway. “You survived all that? I think a kiss is well-earned.”
He clambered to his feet and, managing a few wobbling steps, leant in the archway to take in the full view of what lay around them, of what had become of the clearing. The fire. Blackness dominated the land. Some trees standing just on the edge of the aftermath of the attack still smoked. The grass was gone and strange charred clumps dotted the—
His stomach came to the realisation far faster than he. Dylan collapsed to all fours, heaving even though nothing came. The twisted charred lumps surrounding them were bodies. His mind rang with the memory of their cries. A sword the lieutenant had called him. He was less useful than that. A sword could still be wielded by another without permission.
“I thought everyone was…” She grimaced. “Where do we go now?”
“You’re asking me?” This had been his first time beyond the camp grounds. No one had told him much of anything, certainly not the direction they were heading. “I don’t—” Hadn’t the sergeant mentioned a rendezvous point? That could be anywhere.
Why wasn’t he dead alongside them? He ran his fingers around his bare neck. The collar. Where had it gone? His gaze darted frantically about them. He recollected struggling to remove the collar, clearly he’d been successful. Only now, there was nothing to distinguish him from a Udynean spellster beyond his rather tatty robes.
He didn’t have to search far to find the collar. Two twisted lumps of purple metal lay where he’d woken. Unthinking, Dylan grabbed the pieces. Much like the shield back at the tower, they smouldered and sparked. Hissing, he dropped them before they could burn his hands.
“Careful now,” Katarina said. “Just leave them.”
“I can’t,” he croaked, gently coaxing a funnel of cold air over the pieces. “I need them.” His superiors would kill him if he returned to the army camp unleashed. As it was, he’d require some sort of proof that he wasn’t a spy. The collar wouldn’t be enough on its own and explaining how he managed to free himself was going to be difficult when he wasn’t entirely sure, but it was all he had. Then, if they believed him, he’d be sent back to the tower. To be leashed again.
Frowning, the dwarf gently placed the pieces into one of the many pouches she carried.
He dared another look over his shoulder and out the archway, trying to make out anything familiar that would lead him back to the front line. He rubbed at his neck. How strange that, even after a few weeks of wearing the collar, he almost missed the tepid touch of the metal. “Where did you come from?” There’d been no dwarves amongst their scouts.
“I came with an escort to survey these ruins.” She gestured to the surrounding soot-caked stone. “But… I think they either got caught up in this mess or abandoned their posts at the first attack.” Her lips twisted. “Whoever ordered this did so knowing these ruins were here.” The woman thumped her fist into her other hand. ”And in direct violation of our alliance. I must report the transgression to the coven, but I can’t go back and I won’t reach my homeland unaided.” Those hazel eyes—earthy brown in the centres fading into a thick ring of pine green—settled on him. ”You have people down here. Scouts, guides. I need you to take me to your camp.”
Dylan shook his head. “And exactly which way would that camp be?”
The hedgewitch jerked back. “You mean you don’t know? Did you not take note of markers, any abnormalities that’d help you get back if you were separated from your troop?”
Blinking, he scanned the tree line. “No.” What sort of markers could he possibly use in a forest? One clump of trees looked pretty much the same from another clump.
Sighing, Katarina stood. She dug into the large pouch hanging in the front of her belt, rummaging about until her search produced a small wooden hemisphere. Dylan got to his feet as the hedgewitch unscrewed the top. Inside sat a metal disc and a little arrow, which wobbled and swung the same way no matter how the woman turned it.
“Is that a compass?” He’d seen drawings of them, cruder designs than this. It was some sort of old dwarven technology, always sought to be improved upon by Dvärghem’s greatest. Never did he dare to believe he’d actually see one in action.
The woman laughed, clear and musical. “It is. Not many are able to recognise one at a glance.” She swung about and pointed in a seemingly arbitrary direction. “North is that way and your camp is…?”
“To the east.” Somewhere. Their path had meandered so much that anything beyond them travelling in a vague westerly direction could be a fair bet. “A few hours away, maybe?”
“Then we go east.” She strode out of the ruin and across the clearing in what he assumed was the correct way.
Dylan gingerly followed. His boots crunched across the ash-covered space between here and the trees. He focused on the line of charred trunks and branches ahead, uncertain his stomach wouldn’t try to leap from his mouth if he dared to look anywhere else.
Katarina waited at the tree line. “We’ve several hours before nightfall, it’d be best to get as far from this place as possible.” She absently rubbed at her face, hissing as her finger slid over the wound over the bridge of her nose.
“Wait.” He slipped his hand into the crook of her elbow, halting and turning her in one gentle movement. “Let me see to that.” Cupping her jaw, he focused his magic on the injury. Warmth flowed through him. The bliss of life poured out his fingertips and into her skin. Beneath the encrusted blood and dirt, the slice down her cheek slowly knitted itself back together. “How did you manage this, anyway?”
A fresh bloom of red adorned her cheeks. “Certainly not through some daring deed. I was on my way to survey the area when one of my escorts caught sign of smoke through a break in the canopy. We rushed this way and—” She gave a wavering smile. “Well, I was so focused on trying to see the smoke and worried over what effect it might have on the ruins that I… didn’t see the hole. I must’ve been knocked out, because the next thing I remember, it was morning.”
Dread knotted his stomach. He hadn’t realised it was a different day. That meant whoever had attacked them would have a considerable lead on them should they be part of the Udynea Empire’s vanguard. Taking a deep breath, he withdrew his magic and his hand from the hedgewitch. “That should do it.” Never had he noticed how much his blood sung when he used his birthright. He wet his lips. How tempting it was to let the song continue.
She felt along her face, running a finger down the scar. “I wouldn’t have thought they’d put a healer on scouting duty.”
“There aren’t any healers in the army. I’m a weapon.” But, very soon, the army would be in need of both talents. “We should leave. East is this way, yes?” He jerked his chin in the direction the woman had originally set out for.
“It is.” She fumbled with her compass, holding it before her. “Depending on how much your company veered from straight west, we should be able to hear your people even if our direction is a little off. Come on.” Beckoning him to follow, she resumed her eastward trudge. “I’d prefer to reach your camp before nightfall.”
He tramped through the forest, trying to keep up with the hedgewitch. They travelled in silence, vocally at least. The lack of other sounds made it that much easier for him to hear the twigs snapping beneath his boots. His feet managed to find every raised tree root in the path. How Katarina was able to walk the same trail without a single misstep was beyond him.
The brief patches where he was able to set foot without a sound were more bothersome. When he first walked through here, his every move had been dogged by birds. Their chirps, the whistling songs and the barely audible scurry of small animals. Without those sounds, the forest seemed empty. That couldn’t be a good sign.
He lost track of the time of day. The canopy screened out much of the sunlight, throwing odd shadows, but his aching legs suggested they’d been walking for hours. His stomach grumbled in seemingly endless complaint and he caught the dwarf pressing her hand to her belly once or twice.
How long ago had there been food? This morning? No. If what the hedgewitch had said was correct, he hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning. Small wonder he felt so wretched. Dylan rubbed his stomach, trying in vain to shut it up. There’d be food once they were back at camp. Nothing else he could do about it before then except walk.
All at once, Katarina came to a halt and, gasping, threw herself to the ground.
Dylan swiftly followed suit, landing next to her. “What is it?” he whispered. He doubted she would act this way for wildlife. That meant people. Scouts. Us or them?
Pressing a finger to her lips, she indicated the bush before them with the twitch of her brows.
His stomach knotted. He crawled through the undergrowth, flinching at every rustle and creak of the foliage beneath him. When he at last reached the bush, he slowly peered between the leaves. There were indeed people. They’d also the small quantity of weapons and light armour of scouts. However…
The hedgewitch settled at his side. “Udyneans,” she breathed.
Dylan nodded, although there’d been no question. He may not have seen those who’d ambushed his company, but no one in the camps wore such armour.
The fabric was in similar mottled shades of green and grey to the Demarn soldiers, yet the similarity ended there. The main body of their attire looked like a tailored, knee-length, button-up tunic with very little metal to protect them and no sign of leather beyond a few belts. Puzzling when they’d short swords at their hips and quivers on their backs.
“Where are they going?” he whispered.
She shrugged. “Scouting ahead?”
Dylan shook his head. “They’re travelling in the wrong direction.” Although their movements didn’t exactly take them in a straight line, they were certainly heading westward.
“Maybe they’re returning with information.”
He frowned. If that was the case, then it was all the more reason to stop them.
The longer he watched them, the more his gaze was drawn to one of the shorter elves as the woman flit from one side of the group to the other. There was something about her that was familiar. He tried to ignore it, there had to be hundreds of elven women with her combination of height and black hair. But the more he stared, the more recognisable she became.
Jasilla. She’d worn the uniform of a Demarner scout the last time he’d seen her, but he was certain. Katarina was right in the Udyneans using the dwarven ruin as bait, which meant someone had led them to it. If not Jasilla, then one of the other two scouts.
He slowly rose from behind the foliage. Power and anger sung in his veins, begging to be used, to bring them down like her people had done to the scouting party.
A hand gripped his shoulder, bearing him back to the ground. “Stay down!” Katarina hissed. She slowly pulled aside a wispy branch blocking their line of sight. The scouting party didn’t appear to have noticed.
“Those are Udynean troops, you said it yourself.” And so close to the front line. Why hadn’t their own scouts spotted them? His gaze returned to Jasilla. The woman seemed jitterier than before. ”She was there, the dark-haired elf. She was part of my company. She has to be some sort of spellster spy.”
The dwarf pursed her lips. “No. Udynea leashes any elf who shows the slightest sign of magic. They wouldn’t unleash one, not even to become a spy.”
Magic or not, she was there. She’d been part of the assault. Even if she’d never loosed a single arrow, she still bore part of the blame. “I have to avenge my—”
The grip she still held on his shoulder tightened. “Not now.”
"Not now?” he echoed, his voice barely above a whisper. “Have you already forgotten what was left of my people?”
Those every-colour eyes turned on him. “I remember.”
“But you only saw the aftermath. I watched them die.” Bile burned his throat at the memory of the flame-shrouded figure battling to stay alive. And there was the woman who’d given her life to save his, the man who’d died before being able to give the order that would’ve led to him being able to fight back. All those bodies. “They left me to watch them burn. I need to make them pay.”
The hedgewitch shook her head. “You need to return to camp, to warn your people or more are going to meet the same fate.”
“I can’t just let them go.” If anyone found out he let the enemy walk away, they’d brand him a traitor.
Sighing, Katarina released the spindly branch and faced him. “Let me tell you a little something about their scouting parties. They never venture far from camp without magic to back them up.” She jerked her head at the bush. “The two marching at the rear are most likely spellsters.”
He peered through the brush, taking in the arrogant stride of the aforementioned man and woman. Unlike the others, the pair wore only a short sword at their hips.
“Could you take them on and win?” she whispered into his ear, her warm breath on his skin stirring the small hairs lying at the nape of his neck. “As well as the other scouts? Alone?”
His pride wanted to say he could. He’d taken down more than two spellsters at once without breaking a sweat. This would be no different than the brawl.
“And could you guarantee my safety whilst doing so?”
He turned his head, unable to look her in the eye. Dwarves, whilst once the sole proprietors of the continent, were no longer as numerous as even elves. And to put a hedgewitch’s life in danger… “I can’t, no.” He’d be better off throwing himself before the mercy of the Udynean Emperor than report her injury—or worse, her death—to the Dvärghem coven.
“Then you know what action you must take.” Katarina took up his hand, squeezing it tight. Pity welled in her eyes. “I’m sorry it has to be this way.” She slowly tucked herself beneath the bush where the undergrowth was the thickest, motioning for him to do the same.
Dylan burrowed his way into the surrounding ferns, gritting his teeth as twigs and branches caught on his clothes and hair. Hopefully, the dark green of his dirt and soot-stained robe would aid him in remaining unseen should a scout come too close. He prayed the same could be said of the hedgewitch’s attire.
They lay still, waiting for the scouting party to move out of sight and hearing distance. The bitter bite of betrayal gnawed at his gut as he listened to their footsteps crunching through the undergrowth. He should be sending these murdering bastards to the foot of whatever gods they believed in, not cowering under leaves.
“I still don’t understand why they told us to pull back,” one of them grumbled.
Dylan froze, scarcely daring to breathe. That voice was loud enough for the speaker to be almost on top of them. Slowly twisting his head, he spied the dirty leather of a boot naught but a few feet away. He calmly readied his magic, prepared to unleash everything he had if they were spotted.
“You weren’t brought here to understand, elf,” a woman replied. The way she all but spat the final word, as if speaking it caused her some great distress, was all Dylan needed to be sure it was one of the spellsters. “You were given an order, you obey it.”
“Yes, mistress,” the elf replied. “You are right, of course.”
The boot lifted, crunching down on some unseen part of the forest floor.
He released the breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding. To his right, he heard the hedgewitch do the same. They remained in place, waiting for the fading sounds of the scouts’ footsteps to vanish completely, then lingering in the dead silence that little bit more before, finally, he caught Katarina’s signal to move.
He untangled himself from the foliage, brushing bits of dead leaf from his clothes, his mind still churning over what he’d heard. “They’re pulling back?” He winced upon trying to free a bit of twig from his hair. All these years, decades of fighting to keep the empire at bay, and they just gave up? That couldn’t be true, could it?
The dwarf glanced up from her compass. “It would seem that way.” She smiled, a wide and warm expression that he hadn’t seen since leaving the tower. “I believe congratulations is in order. I guess your people won’t need quite so many spellsters in the army now.”
Dylan frowned, trailing after her as she resumed their eastward course. “Maybe.” It would take more than his word to have anyone believe the Udynean threat was gone. Even then, it’d been foolish to leave the border undefended. “Maybe not.” A far more likely scenario was the army remaining unchanged for several years to come.
Katarina halted. Her hand flattened against his chest, urging him to do likewise. “Do you smell smoke?”
He cautiously sniffed the air. There was indeed a certain burnt aroma. Faint and not the warm scent of a wood fire, but a cloying, oily and all too familiar stench. His stomach churned. He clapped his hand over his mouth, willing himself to swallow the sickening liquid pooling in the back of his throat.
No. Just because the smell was sickeningly similar to what had happened in the clearing didn’t mean anything. The camp was still a good hour’s walk from here. The smoke could be coming from anywhere. The Udynean spellsters could’ve mistaken a deer or boar for a person and fried the poor creature before realising their folly…
Or I could be too late. With his scouting party gone, the Udyneans had a clear path to the front line. There’d be no warning beyond the first assault and, with most of the leashed spellsters on similar missions as he, the soldiers would have limited means to counter a magical attack.
“East.” He grabbed Katarina’s shoulders. “Which way is east?”
Her hazel eyes wide, the hedgewitch scrabbled anew at her compass. The little metal arrow wobbled north. “That way.” She pointed in the direction where the smoky smell was the strongest.
No. It couldn’t be… Could it?
Snatching the compass from her hands, he raced through the brush, constantly checking his heading. The cloying stench grew with every step, thickening. All too soon, he could make out low clouds of smoke clinging to the canopy. Too much to be the campfires.
Panting, he pressed on, stumbling and tripping on the uneven ground. Over his lumbering movements, he caught the far nimbler steps of the dwarf on his tail. He couldn’t stop, couldn’t slow to explain, he had to reach the front line.
The hint of a clearing beckoned ahead of him. Dylan exploded out of the undergrowth into the clearing, stopping dead on the tree line. No…
Katarina came to a halted at his side, glaring up at him as her chest heaved. “I’ll take that back, thank you.” She claimed the compass from his unresisting fingers. “Of all the foolish—” Frowning, the woman glanced over her shoulder. “Oh.”
Where there had once been neat lines of canvas and wood was now a smouldering plain. Oddly, the smell wasn’t as bad here. Charred lumps dotted the scorched mass. Unidentifiable as bits of wood or bodies.
Dylan stumbled a few steps towards the smoking remains, his legs threatening to give. I’m too late. Everything, everyone, was dead. That’s why the scouts were turning back, there was no one left to oppose them.
Thinking of the scouting party he’d let walk away fanned the banked embers of anger burning in his soul. Where were the monsters who’d done this? It would’ve taken more than a pair of spellsters and a few archers to take out the front line. They should’ve come across dozens of men.
His gaze settled on the path he’d first walked to get here. It was thin, not like the dusty road leading carts to the main camp, but difficult to lose track of. All the enemy had to do was walk it and they’d come across the last defence along the western border.
“I have to go.” If whoever attacked this camp were the same people that’d taken out his scouting party, then they had no more than a day’s head start. If he pushed himself, he might reach them before they’d the chance to attack the main camp. “I need to warn them that the enemy’s on its way.”
Katarina trotted after him.
“It’d be best if you didn’t follow. There’s going to be a battle.” And, being unleashed, he could assist in both the fighting and the healing. He’d see to it that no one else under his protection died. “You were right before. I can’t protect you and fight. This isn’t your war, coming with me just puts you in danger. You’d be safer if you headed north now.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Where my only option is to wander the forest without food or an escort? Never mind the wild animals I might stumble upon, what if the nature of creature I meet is Udynean?”
“You’re a hedgewitch.” Dvärghem had the same treaty with the empire as it did with Demarn. Once it was made known she wasn’t the enemy, no harm would come to her.
“And I’m sure they’ll be very remorseful when they pluck the arrows from my corpse, but a neutral stance works best when you aren’t in the middle of a battlefield. Until then, I’m better off sticking to a healer’s side.”