They walked through the night with Katarina at the lead and Dylan entrusting their direction to the dwarf’s far more superior night vision as the leaves obscured the scant moonlight. Dawn had them skulking amongst the undergrowth whilst keeping the track in their sights. No matter how fast they went, however much his body screamed for rest and food, their destination wasn’t arriving fast enough. It’d taken a day or so to travel from the main camp to the front line. The way back seemed to stretch on for weeks.
That they didn’t come across so much as a hint of Demarner or Udynean troops did nothing to soothe the dreadful twinge in his gut. Was there something he could’ve done? Some way he could’ve warned them that he hadn’t been aware of? Would it have made a difference? What if he’d fled into the forest instead of the ruin? He could’ve reached the camp then, alerted everyone, been able to fight back.
Everyone was dead because of him, because he’d fled for safety like a coward. His guardian had been right. He should’ve thrown the brawl.
“It’s not your fault.”
He jerked his head towards Katarina, staring at her incredulously. The hedgewitch had been quiet for much of the night, speaking only to warn him of an obstacle his human eyes couldn’t make out in the utter blackness of the forest. She’d chosen to adopt full silence with the encroaching light of dawn.
“I know that look,” she continued. “You’re blaming yourself for what happened, but you’re not responsible.”
Dylan grunted. How could he be alive and not be part of the problem? “So the fact I’m alive and they’re all dead is just a happy coincidence? I ran when they attacked.”
He stumbled as the memory flashed before his eyes. Fire and confusion everywhere. The screams of the dying. Heat and death choking him.
Dylan shook his head, but the vision remained, dancing in the back of his mind. “I ran in the wrong direction and doomed the entire front line.” Only the gods knew what’d happened at the main camp. Clearly they weren’t aware of the attack at the front or there’d be soldiers on the track seeking answers.
Her gaze dropped to the tattered, singed ends of his robe. “If there were archers, you would’ve been struck down well before you could reach your people. That you’re alive now is likely more due to your healing abilities than their negligence.”
He grunted, his thoughts swiftly turning to a far greater immediate concern. “We should’ve come across someone by now. A scout. Some hint of soldiers heading for the front line…” Anyone.
Katarina delicately sniffed the air. “I don’t smell any smoke.”
She was right. The breeze blew from the east and yet carried no hint of smoke. His thoughts wandered to the fires he recalled dotting the lines of tents and there’d been a lingering smoky scent over both camps. “Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“Strategy isn’t my strongest point, but perhaps someone managed to escape from the front line before…” She trailed off, shook herself and continued. “They could’ve gotten word about the attack and those at the main camp might’ve fallen back without realising the Udyneans have withdrawn.”
“Maybe.” He might have believed her more if she sounded surer of her own words. It seemed far more likely that everyone was dead, which gave Udynea a higher ground to bargain. Anyone who’d spent enough time learning the land’s history would know that the Udynean Empire hadn’t technically fought anyone for centuries. The armies his country fought against were not imperial.
Their emperor—Mhanek as they called him—probably didn’t even see Demarn as being worthy of invasion. They were a pathetic creature huddled at the foot of a giant. What they struggled to hold back was just some noble’s personal army against their attempts to expand their estate. A nudge of the giant’s foot. But they had to bite back or suffer being trodden on.
The hedgewitch gasped. She clutched his sleeve, towing him towards the road. “Quick!”
He ran behind her, uncertain what she’d spotted. Survivors? His feet fell a little faster. Perhaps her dwarven hearing had caught the pained cry of someone left for dead. Or her sharper eyes had spied the movement of a soldier.
They exploded from the undergrowth bordering the path. A deer stood amongst the ferns on the other side, it froze as they stopped, staring at them with those massive brown eyes before scampering deeper into the brush.
Katarina’s shoulder’s sagged. Shaking her head, she resumed their march towards the main camp, forsaking the cover of bush for the path. “You’d think I would be able to tell the difference between a person and a—” She halted, her hands flying to her mouth.
Dylan caught her whispered “Oh, no.” before spying what the dwarf had found.
People lay amongst the ferns. Demarner and Udynean both. Scouts for the most part, judging by the attire, although there were a few more heavily armed Udynean warriors amongst them, their bloated bodies bristling with arrows. Shock troops caught off guard?
It was the bodies of those wearing the armour of Demarn that drew his eye. Scorch marks marked the ground around them in the spidery vein-like pattern of lightning. Such a stark contrast seeing the fallen Udyneans, their bloated corpses having succumbed to blade and arrow, surrounded by the dried pool of blood whilst his people bore no such injury.
The dreadful drone of flies filled the air as they crept closer.
Then the stench hit them. A rancid mixture of used chamber pots and spoiled meat. The hold he’d been keeping on his stomach failed. Dylan doubled over, every muscle in his gut cramping, and heaved. Mucus and bile poured out his mouth and clogged his nose. He continued to retch until there was nothing left to give.
The hedgewitch crouched at his side. She grasped his arm. Concern raised her brows. “Dylan? Are you—?”
He waved her back. “I’m all right,” he croaked. His gaze slid to the corpses, morbid fascination overcoming the initial kick to his senses. Already, the animals had picked at the bodies, birds for the most part and probably a few smaller creatures. Flies dominated the air, but there were no signs of maggots. They couldn’t be more than a day or two old. “We should keep going.”
Katarina gave a curt nod and, with her fingers firmly pinching her nose shut, led the way along the path. Once past the corpses, Dylan picked up the pace, forcing the hedgewitch to jog every couple of steps to keep up.
If the scouts were dead, slain by magic, that meant the main camp was gone or destroyed. Either way, they’d not come across any other live Udyneans beyond the withdrawing scouting party. Perhaps the main bulk of the attack force was still ahead. He might not be strong enough to take them all out, but he was willing to try.
It was a while before she spoke again. “I meant what I said earlier. You’re not to blame and, no matter what we find, that opinion still stands. But hurrying won’t bring them back.”
He halted, heard her gasp and the grunt of her trying not to stumble into him. “I could’ve saved them,” he whispered. Tears pricked his eyes, hot as the flames that had scorched his company, the front line. Everywhere he trod, he found death wrought by magic. “If I’d been there, they wouldn’t be dead.” He was a coward, hiding instead of fighting until his last breath.
Not anymore. Dashing his tears, he marched onwards, the hurried footsteps of the hedgewitch following close behind.
They remained in silence, but his thoughts refused to slow down. Like his feet, they continued endlessly. Scraps of strategy learnt in his youth, suppositions of force strength and placement. He’d not gotten a decent look at the main camp before they sent him to the front line. It’d been big, not perhaps as large as it could be.
The war with the Udynea Empire had gone on for too long. Where the tower history books spoke of massive armies in the tens of thousands, there’d been quite a bit less at the main camp. Perhaps a generous two thousand. Still, it was impossible to presume no one had survived. And…
His pace increased until he was running. The path before him started to climb. Dylan pushed harder, ignoring the wobble and burn in his legs. The only sound to be heard was the rasp of his breath. He’d forgotten there were more spellsters in the main camp than at the front line. They could be holding back the invading force, waiting for that one moment when they would have the upper hand.
He could be that moment.
The Udyneans wouldn’t expect a Demarner spellster to be running loose in the forest, much less at their flank. Dylan gathered his magic, letting it charge the air around him. He could attack before anyone realised he was there, vanish into the undergrowth and do it again. That would give the others time to formulate some sort of strategy.
In a time that seemed far too long to reach, his feet brought him to the top of the incline.
Dylan froze. As his gaze slid over the carnage, he slowly came to the late realisation that he hadn’t heard any fighting.
There was nothing. No enemy army to attack. No kingsmen to alert. Not even much of a camp left. A few tents remained, but the majority were reduced to charred frames and less. They’d seen no sign of smoke only because the flames had already consumed all there was to burn.
He fell to his knees, his body drained of strength. Although he couldn’t see the corpses, the bitter stench of charred flesh permeated the air. His stomach cramped and Dylan clamped his hand over his mouth, but it seemed his stomach had nothing left in it to offer up.
How? His mind screamed over and over. How could this have happened? How had everyone missed the Udynean’s return? How could the Udyneans have managed to get so close without contest?
Katarina came to a gasping halt at his side. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled.
“So am I.” He should’ve slain those bastards in the forest, should’ve taken his chance in being able to protect the hedgewitch in the attack and torn through them all.
“We need to press on. Is there a fallback position we can reach?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.” He rather doubted there’d have been anyone left to fall back. “But the closest village is Toptower.” It’d taken them several days to ride from there to the camp. However long would it take on foot?
“Do you know the way?”
Nodding, Dylan pointed to the other side of the camp where a gap in the trees suggested the beginning of a road. It would be easy enough to follow and, after that… Well, they’d just have to keep taking the northward roads and hope.
“Then we should see what can be salvaged. Food and water would be a priority.” She indicated the left of the camp where a lone tent, one of the large and official-looking ones, still half stood. “Let’s start there.”
They picked their way through the debris, Dylan taking great pains to keep the tattered ends of his robe and undertunic free of anything that might snag them. Everywhere he looked, the charred faces of the dead looked back accusingly. Why was he alive? How had he managed to come away unscathed? What did the gods deem so special about him that he was allowed to freely walk away from all this?
He really wished he knew the answer to that last one. Some would no doubt call it luck. He didn’t feel lucky.
They had almost reached the tent when a woman, covered in soot and dried blood, emerged from it. Her short hair stood like a halo around her, orange like the fires that’d consumed his troop and not quite hiding the tell-tale point of elven ears. Her armour wasn’t like most of the Demarn military-issued garb, but at least it wasn’t Udynean.
She saw them and started heading the other way. “Stay back!” The sword she carried awkwardly in her left hand came up, the point wobbling as her arm shook. “I’m warning you.”
Even with her armour not marking her as one of the army’s common soldiers, her accent certainly did. It was faint with a soft, slightly undulating, tone hinting at a childhood in middle Demarn.
Katarina grasped his sleeve as he went to move towards the elf. “Be careful,” she whispered. “She’s wounded.”
He gave the woman a second look and caught what the hedgewitch had spied. The elf favoured her right arm, holding it tight to her stomach, wincing at every movement.
Dylan stepped closer. Whatever ailed her, he could make it better. “Your arm. Let me see it.”
Viciously shaking her head, the woman continued her retreat. “I said, stay back!” Fear coloured the words.
He halted near the tent opening and glanced inside. Nothing but a table along with a few other bits and pieces strewn about. “I can help.”
“Please,” Katarina said. “Listen to him. We mean you no harm.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed at the hedgewitch. “That’s not a Demarn accent.”
“No,” he agreed. “She’s from Dvärghem.”
The woman’s sea-green eyes returned to him. “And you’re a spellster.”
He inclined his head. There was very little point in denying it when he wore the distinct military robes of one. Even then, she’d find out as soon as he was given the chance to mend her arm. And he would find a way to do so. If he could be sure of the bone being whole or set right, he would’ve already tried without touching her, but he wasn’t prepared to take that risk. “Let me see to your arm.”
She jerked the sword between them. “I’m not letting a spellster touch me.”
Dylan bit his tongue, choosing to ignore the bitter way she spat the word. He didn’t blame her being wary of him. She’d likely seen a fair bit of what a person with magic at their command could do. “It’s all right. I’ve trained in this sort of thing.” Seeing that wasn’t enough to sway her mind, he changed tactics. “You normally use that arm for fighting, right? If the bone’s not set properly, you might never be able to hold your sword again.”
The elf eyed him, then Katarina. Finally, she lowered the sword point.
Dylan wasted no time. He cradled the woman’s forearm and carefully felt along the swollen skin. Broken bones hadn’t been all that common in the tower, not for adepts like himself, but he’d come across a few just before leaving the expert training. What he felt now… Well, both bones seemed to have broken.
She had likely used her arm to ward off a blow, for whilst the thumbward bone seemed more or less where it should be, the other side of her arm bulged where it shouldn’t. “This is going to hurt for a bit, but I have to set the bones first, all right?”
“What?” Panic turned the previous rolling tone of her voice shrill. Her heavily freckled face, already quite pale, somehow grew whiter. “Don’t you need to gather things like wood and cord for a splint first?”
“This won’t take long, I promise.” He manipulated the bones back into place to the barely audible sound of the woman’s gasp. “Just keep still and I’ll be done soon.” With his hands holding the bones in place, he drew on his magic.
The woman was weary, hungry, likely hadn’t slept since the attack. There were other injuries, a graze on her knee, a stubbed toe, a cut on her left finger. Trying to tend to them all divided his attention and slowed the already difficult knitting together of her arm. He focused a little harder on the spot directly beneath his fingers, putting a little of his strength into the magic to quicken her healing. It tightened his chest and caused the rapid pounding of his heart to fill his ears.
Then it was done.
Dylan withdrew, staggering back a step as his breathing became easier. He’d forgotten how much harder it was to mend other people’s bones compared to flesh. If he’d ever known it’d be required of him, he would’ve continued training with the tower healers on an expert level.
All at once, the woman levelled her sword at him, both of her hands firmly clamped around the hilt.
“Hey!” He stepped further back. The elf followed, her sword still pointed at his chest. “I just fixed your arm.”
“With unsanctioned magic,” she snarled. “You’re an unleashed spellster, just like those bastards who ripped through here.”
“I’m on your side.” He tugged at his army-issued robe. “See?”
“How am I supposed to know you’re not some spy trying to sneak his way into the kingdom?”
Dylan opened his mouth, the retort already on his tongue. His thoughts turned to Jasilla and the others who’d led his scouting party straight into an ambush. The woman had a point. It must look particularly suspicious for him to appear well after the attack and seemingly unharmed, doubly so in being a spellster.
“If he is, dear,” Katarina said, “then he does a wonderful Demarner accent.”
Which one? There were three, possibly four, distinct accents across the land. Even a few that sounded uncomfortably close to the way they spoke in Udynea. The tower carried a rather wide assortment, sampled from everywhere. The majority sounding very much like the elven woman.
This observation did nothing to placate the elf. ”Our spellsters are leashed. I gave you no sanction to use your magic on me.” Those sea-green eyes narrowed at him and the sword point lifted to his neck. “If you’re one of ours, then where’s your collar? Show me!”
“It…” Ever since discovering the enemy scouts, he’d stopped thinking as to how he would explain the collar’s defective nature. He didn’t remember what had happened, only that it had. “It came off.” Even to his ears, the answer was pathetic.
“Liar!” She thrust the sword closer, forcing him to move or be decapitated. His feet caught on a fallen tent pole. He dropped to the ground and scrambled out of reach, not daring to waste time by getting back up.
“It’s true.” The hedgewitch hastily opened the pouch containing the remains of his collar to produce one of the pieces. “I saw him wake. This was near where he lay. There wasn’t anyone else.”
Seeing that piece of twisted, purple metal seemed to mollify the elf. She still eyed him, but with less ire. “Why now?” she whispered. “Why weren’t you here when those bastards tore down our defences like a windstorm?” Her head snapped back to him. “Where were you when they were slaughtering your kingsmen?”
“Quite likely discovering what had become of the front line,” Katarina replied. “It’s been a hard few days for the both of us.”
“A hard few days?” the woman laughed. A harsh, forced sound. She clapped a hand to the side of her face. “Oh deary me, look at the terrible thing that has happened whilst I wasn’t here.” The hand fell to her side as if it were a dead weight. “Well, I watched them die,” she snarled. “I’m a warrior, not some simpering maiden. I saw the very elements tear apart those standing right at my side.”
“They attacked my scouting party,” Dylan shot back. “My warden was the first to fall. They shot him in the throat before he could give me sanction. Everyone else…” The memory of the woman who’d saved his life filled his mind, her face wide-eyed and gaping with the tip of an arrowhead breaking through her forehead. The shrieking of the burning figure still echoed in his ears. “They killed everyone else.”
“You should’ve been here,” the elf grated, the words hissing between her teeth. “You may not be some Udynean spy.” The sword drew closer. “But I swear, if you had any idea as to what they’d planned, I will send you to the same grave.”
He held up a hand before realising it could be misconstrued as a threat and hastily lowered it. “You’re right. I should’ve been.” If he hadn’t pushed the lieutenant on his first day, hadn’t given the man any cause to expedite his assignment to the front line, he might very well have still been here. “I could’ve helped.”
“Were there no other spellsters situated at this camp?” Katarina asked.
Others. His thoughts turned to the woman the hound had brought back from the tower with him. What had her name been? Ava. If he hadn’t been so quick to show the overseers what he was capable of, if there’d been more uncertainty on who to send to the front line, she could still be alive.
The woman nodded. “Half of them. About ten in all.” She waved her hand about the area. “As you can see, they’re all dead or taken. There’s no one else here. I’ve checked everywhere. Those miserable magic-wielding bastards.” She spat onto the ashen ground. “They attacked and just… up and left.”
“Well, maybe one more spellster would’ve been enough to turn the tide.” It’d been drummed into him for years by his tutors that changing one variable could have what should’ve been a simple spell turn into a catastrophe. Being here when Udynea attacked could have changed things.
Katarina crouched at his side. “Or you could’ve been one more corpse.”
“You don’t know that,” he muttered.
The hedgewitch either hadn’t heard him or chose not to. She turned her attention back to the other woman who seemed less inclined to skewer him. “Which way did they go?”
The elf shrugged. “West. It’s so strange. They didn’t try looting or checking on the fallen. Just gathered up a few of the obviously alive ones and vanished back into the forest.” Her eyes grew misty and distant with memory. “I tried to fight them but, what can an ordinary being do against such an attack?” She settled on a pile of rubble, all the anger draining from her. “It feels like cowardice to turn tail and run to the king, but the people in charge have to be warned before they send more soldiers.”
“Well, there’s no shame in a tactical retreat.” The dwarf glanced at him as she spoke before asking the woman, “Do you have a map?”
“I think I saw one in there.” With a jerk of her head, the woman indicated the tent she’d emerged from.
The hedgewitch disappeared into the tent, returning swiftly with a small square of paper. Her lips mumbled soundlessly as she trailed a fingertip along the map. Finally, she glanced up at him. “This Toptower village you mentioned, it’s not all that far from here. There might be more who have survived.”
“If they have,” the elf muttered, “they won’t want to come back.”
“We can gather supplies, maybe even find a way to get word to your king without travelling the full distance.”
Dylan slowly got to his feet, mindful that the elf could decide she’d rather have him dead. “I need to return to the tower.” Sidling to the dwarf’s side, he pointed at a dark, unnamed spot on the map. “There.” He glanced at the elf. “I’ll also require an escort.” He might be capable of making it across the kingdom on his own, but there was the added chance that doing so alone would make him a bigger target for the hounds.
Katarina nodded. “I can head that way with you if she cannot, but Toptower is still our first stop. I believe all that remains to be done here is find what we can salvage to barter with once we arrive.” She deftly folded the map and tucked it into her front pouch. “And perhaps, some introductions.” The dwarf held out her hand to the other woman. “I am Madam Katarina, hedgewitch of Dvärghem.”
The elf eyed the hedgewitch’s hand as if expecting it to burst forth with all manner of magic. Finally, she shook it. “Authril of Danny’s Cutthroats.”
Katarina tilted her head and a piece of her bun slithered free of its confines. “That sounds like a mercenary company.”
Authril nodded. “Sure is… Or was. About fifty of us signed up to push the bastards back after they took out our captain.” Those sea-green eyes slid his way. Rather than look less wary about him, her expression hardened. “I know what you are, spellster. What are you called?”
“Dylan,” he replied, not bothering to offer his hand. He rather doubted she would’ve shaken it anyway.
Her lips flattened. “Such an innocuous name for something so dangerous.”
His gaze dropped to her sword arm. Now the bones were healed, the woman grasped the hilt as if the blade was an extension of her hand. He wouldn’t be surprised to find she slept with it. “I’m not the only dangerous thing here.”
A smirk tugged at her lips. She jabbed the point of her sword in his direction. “Just you remember that, spellster.”