In chapter seventeen, Dylan and his new companions were able to catch a break after being attacked by some people unfortunate enough to mistake him for a priest. But they cannot stay in one place forever, so it’s onwards…
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The sun hadn’t quite broken the canopy as Dylan made his way through the trees to the pond they’d found yesterday. They’d abandoned the road after the attack, opting to follow the stream until it led here. It was a short distance from camp. Marin’s insistence that they didn’t sleep right next to the body of water puzzled him, but he supposed the hunter knew how to deal with these matters.
Try as he might, he couldn’t sleep. A few days of trekking through the forest and that moment when the bandits chose to attack just kept running through his head. Whenever he closed his eyes, those broken, bleeding bodies sprawled across the clearing haunted him. He needed calm, peace.
With the early-morning sun free from treetops and leaves, it was lighter where the pond lay. Stalks of lavender speckled the grass near the shallow end of the pond. He strolled through them, smiling as the scent from the bruised flowers drifted on the breeze. It was like coming home.
There’d always been lavender around the tower. Patches of the stuff used to spring up in the herb gardens no matter what they did and, in his youth, Tricia would sprinkle the underside of his pillow with dried petals. He’d long since associated the woodsy, floral smell with the wild.
Giving no thought to the motions, he plucked a handful of the sprigs and twined the stalks into a small circle. Weaving flowers was an old elven tradition with courting couples making elaborate garlands for their prospective partner. Nestria had showed him the technique several years ago. She’d then spent the rest of their thirteenth summer sulking when he surpassed her crude attempts.
Donning the crown, his gaze slid between the pond and the way back to camp. Unlike the women, who carried spare garments—courtesy of Marin—his clothes consisted of what he currently wore and, although no one said anything, he rather thought it was past time for them to be a little more on the cleaner side.
It’d been years since he’d last had to do his own laundry—such activity was reserved for the tower servants and any unruly teenaged spellsters—but he remembered how well enough. And whilst he hadn’t access to one of the massive copper basins or lye to deal with any stains, he was more than capable of heating a section of the pond for his use.
Dylan chucked his leather belt to one side and quickly stripped off his robe. If he was to do this, then it was best done before anyone else wandered this way. He studied the fabric. The patch was holding up so far and the stitching on the hem showed no sign of fraying. All things considered, the robe didn’t look too dirty. But how long would it be before he found another opportunity like this?
He picked an area where the incline wasn’t too shallow and knelt at the pond’s edge. Frigid water met his fingers as he dipped his robe. Shuddering, Dylan poured heat through his hands until steam rose from this small section of the pond.
The water lapped at his knees whilst he scrubbed at the robe the best he could, soaking his undertunic. Might as well get it all over with. He shrugged out of the second layer of clothing. He’d see to his smallclothes once they reached Oldmarsh, when he could be certain that no one would happen upon him.
He continued with his task, the water clouding around his hands. Dylan hummed as he worked, a little tune his guardian used to sing him to sleep with. He used to know all the words. Now they were a haze of knights and—had it been stars?—something else he couldn’t quite recall. He’d barely listened to much beyond the melody.
Eventually, both his undertunic and robe were clean. Or at least, as much as they could hope to get outside of a proper laundering. Standing, he squeezed the excess water from the robe before shaking it out and setting his magic to work on drying it. In the hot air surrounding him, the scent of lavender thickened.
He breathed deep, growing giddy on the fumes, and stretched. How he’d missed the scent. He would have to remember to pick a few of the sprigs later to carry with him. It might even help ease the bad dreams.
His ears had grown tired of the old lullaby and, as he spun about with the drying robe twirling along with him, he switched to the drone of a chant taught in the temple, one that the priests would often call upon him to lead during prayer.
The tale woven by the lyrics spoke of a departed lover drifting on the river, denying the Seven Sisters’ judgement as they lingered for their heart. The words started off as a mumble, but soon rose to his limits as he belted out the crescendo. Picking up the sleeves of his robe as if it were a partner, he danced in the middle of the lavender patch with the scent of crushed flowers invading his nostrils. His singing drifted on the air, all alone for once in a very long time.
It wasn’t an entirely happy tale. Years passed in the mortal realm whilst the lover sat in silence. Boats bearing the lovers of other hearts would come and go, but never the dreaded one. And yet, there was a sort of wistful delight in waiting, for as long as they stayed, as long as they needn’t move on, their heart still lived.
But even the longest life must come to an end and in the mortal lands, people battled. There, the lover’s heart faltered and—
Dylan suddenly became aware that his voice wasn’t the only one shaping the song. He spun, finding the hound leaning against a tree.
Tracker smiled. “Oh, do not stop on my account.”
“I…” he squeaked. His gaze dropped to the now-clean robe he clutched to his chest, his face burning furiously. “I didn’t even hear you approach.” He’d been so caught up in just being free to do as he pleased with the morning that he hadn’t considered anyone hearing him.
“That is the point of sneaking, yes? I hope you will forgive me for the intrusion, but I heard you singing from the camp and… Well, you have quite a high pitch. I thought it one of the women at first, which would have been quite strange as they were all still abed.” The man grinned. “Then I considered we had, perchance, happened upon a young maiden.”
And that makes me feel so much better. Dylan eyed his undertunic. It sat in a wet lump near the water.
“So, dear man, you do your own laundry and sing? The women must be lining up to have a piece of you.” The elf stood right next to him, one russet brow raised. “However, I wonder…” He slowly reached up and removed the crown of lavender sprigs from Dylan’s head. “Do you often dance about in your smallclothes?”
The revelation that he was all but naked in the man’s presence hit him. Dylan hastened to don his robe. The rest could wait until later.
Tracker hummed as he examined the woven circlet, his generous mouth flattening. “And you have gone so very silent. I have offended you in some way, yes?” Those honey-coloured eyes flicked up, seemingly examining him. “If so, then it was unintentional. I was not even aware a man could sing so high. It was pleasant to listen to, if a little wobbly and off-key in places. A rather strange choice, though. I had no idea you were so familiar with such a chant.”
Why wouldn’t he be? It wasn’t often sung, granted, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be familiar with it. “As are you.” He’d not been mistaken in the confidence behind the elf’s silken voice.
“Of course.” Tracker shrugged. “I remember the bi-monthly outings to the temple as child quite fondly. Our mistress demanded nothing less of us and it was one of the few times our carers were unable to beat us.”
Dylan froze in the act of retrieving his belt. “They… beat you?”
“Not for some years now. My training was completed quite a while back.”
“And beating you was part of your training?” He peered at the man, trying to determine the truth.
“Naturally. There a number of physical strains placed on pups. Not everyone makes it, of course.” His russet brows gained a perplexed twist. “They did not do this to you back in the tower?”
“No.” There might have been guardians who were harsh on their charges, but Tricia had never even threatened to hit him and he didn’t know of anyone who’d been treated in such a fashion.
“Truly? How bizarre.” He offered back the crown. “It is wonderful weaving you have done, by the way.”
“Thank you.” He fiddled with the circlet, picking at the buds as his face slowly warmed. He’d learnt via Sulin that not every elf was aware of their traditions. Was Tracker one of them? “We should probably return to camp. The others must be awake by now.”
“They were stirring as I came here. Marin is likely preparing breakfast and the others will be packing up the tents.” He circled Dylan, his strides fluid like a cat sizing up his prey. “However, I think… Well, we have been walking for quite some time and there was the fighting. Have you considered bathing?”
He’d given himself a brief wash down in a basin just last night and did so most mornings, but actual full bathing? “No. There’s no bath.”
Tracker laughed. “There is indeed such a convenience.” He indicated the pond with a jerk of his thumb. “And I think I shall indulge fully whilst the women are occupied.” He waved a little pouch, which had a familiar, soap bar bulge in one corner. “You are welcome to join me.”
He eyed the pond. The water was relatively clear and revealed nothing sinister lurking under the surface. “It’ll be cold.” Not that it’d stay that way for long if he wanted, but if the hound thought Dylan was about to heat an entire pond for his use, then the man was very much mistaken.
Tracker shrugged. “It is an incentive to be quick. Consider it my gift to your sleeping companion that you return to her smelling sweeter.” He sniffed the air. “Not that you would notice any change with the rather thick perfume you have made of these poor flowers.” He tipped his head, a playful grin skewing his lips. “Or are you afraid of a little cold water?”
Knowing he was being goaded, he conceded and let his robe fall alongside his still sodden undertunic. Dylan’s boots swiftly joined them before the elf could finish unbuckling his belt.
Dylan slipped into the pond. The coolness bit into his skin. He waded along the gentle incline, shuffling to keep himself from kicking up too much water, until he reached what seemed to be the deepest part of the pond. Unfortunately, that meant the water only came to his knees.
The hound’s laughter, rich and light, drifted across from the shore. “You seem to have forgotten to remove a piece of your attire, my dear man. Or were you planning on bathing in your smallclothes?”
When they’d a chance of being snuck up on by the others? Definitely the latter. Not that it mattered. He could’ve chosen to bathe fully clothed and the fabric would’ve dried quick enough once he turned his magic to them. This way, at least his smallclothes did get a rinse of sorts.
Shrugging, he knelt. His breath was stolen from him in the brief moment his waist slipped beneath the waterline. Turning his magic to gently heat the water made it more bearable. He expanded his focus a little until a comfortable circle of warmth surrounded him.
There wasn’t much he could to cleanse himself without a cloth or soap, but he rubbed at his damp skin anyway, hoping to sluice off whatever might’ve stuck to him on the short walk from camp. Perhaps if he asked, the hound might share usage of the soap he guessed was in that pouch.
A small sigh parted his lips as the water sloshed against his chest. How long had it been since he’d encountered a body of water big enough to kneel in like this and still cover so much of him? Decades. If it wasn’t for the certainty that he’d all the buoyancy of a rock, he would’ve dared to lay back and stretch upon the pond’s surface.
He glanced up to find the hound had shed the top half of his armour. The man still wore a thin undershirt, but it didn’t do much to obscure the way the elf’s muscles shifted beneath the off-white cloth. Dylan found he couldn’t look away from such a view.
Something deep in his gut stirred as the rest of Tracker’s attire—everything from the leather boots and trousers to the man’s smallclothes—was swiftly discarded.
Despite trying not to, Dylan’s gaze swept over the man, his breath rasping through his throat. Like other elven men, the hair on Tracker’s chest and limbs was sparse, but he hadn’t expected the myriad of tattoos marking the hound. They accentuated his bronze skin and rather invited the eye to travel downwards. The man was surprisingly well muscled. Not the trained robustness of Authril nor the leanness of Marin, but a definition that spoke both of suppleness and strength.
He swallowed, his mouth left rather dry by the sight.
The elf strode into the pond, seemingly oblivious to the scrutiny as he sprayed water with every step. “I see you have found the deepest part of the pond.” Tracker sank into the water not that far from where Dylan knelt. His brows lowered as he settled. “It is… warmer here? I know there are hot pools in the southern lands, but—”
“It’s my doing,” Dylan blurted. Closing his eyes, he continued, “I used my magic to heat the water.”
There was the gentle slosh of water and hound’s presence suddenly seemed closer. “And that is also the reason for you sudden ill look, yes?” Tracker chuckled. “My dear man, I am not planning on reprimanding you for not wanting to bathe in cold water. I… simply had no idea that such a thing was possible.” The man’s warm hand closed around Dylan’s forearm. “How far can you make it reach?”
“Not very,” he mumbled, risking a peek.
Tracker knelt almost close enough for the hair on Dylan’s arms to brush the hound’s skin. Those honey-coloured eyes were bright with curiosity and something else Dylan rather preferred not to linger too much on. “If that is so, then would you mind terribly if I stayed close to you?”
He opened his mouth, his tongue freezing in place. Averting his eyes to the opposite side of the pond helped everything but his steadily warming face. “I…”
The man sat back, relinquishing his hold. “Am I making you uncomfortable?”
Dylan worried at the inside of his bottom lip. The place where the hound had touched him still tingled and his stomach bubbled, but the latter could easily be last night’s meal not sitting well with him. “Have you ever dealt with a spellster before?”
Tracker glanced up from where he’d been scrubbing a small piece of cloth over a bar of soap. “A number of times, yes.” One russet brow lifted. “Why do you ask? Do I not put out an air of… experience?” The final word left Tracker’s lips in a breathy tone that tingled across Dylan’s shoulders. There was a certain quirk in the twisting of the hound’s mouth that told him the reaction had been noticed.
Dylan shuffled across the pond floor a little ways, trying to put some distance between them without being too obvious. He moistened his suddenly dry lips. “It’s not that. I—”
Tracker laughed. “Ah, your head is no doubt swimming with tales of the evil hounds, yes?” The fine lines around the elf’s eyes deepened. “They use our presence like a mother uses the bogeyman.” There was a matter-of-fact tone to his voice. One that suggested he’d heard directly from the source at some point.
Dylan swept his gaze over the man. “And where would you hear such tales? Not from the tower, surely.” He was certain word would’ve gotten about if Tracker had ever stepped foot inside the tower walls. Even without being a hound, the man would’ve drawn the attention of quite a number of tower inhabitants and he was pretty certain he would’ve remembered that face if they’d meet before.
“No.” The hound scrubbed at his neck. “I have been inside many times, but the guardians are… reluctant to let us linger for long.” He continued on to his arms, heedless to the suds running down his chest in thin pearlescent lines.
Dylan followed their trail to the water’s surface, his breath tight. He watched, not quite focused, as the man bathed and the air begun to smell of citrus and a pungent spice that seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He breathed deep until it filled his nose. Cinnamon. The taste of it was in the back of his throat, setting his mouth to watering. Bad enough that the man wasn’t exactly unpleasant to look at, did he have to smell so accursedly edible as well?
The man’s soft chuckle had Dylan refocusing his attention, surprised to find he’d been staring at the man the whole time. “Do we perhaps see something we like?”
Snapping his gaze back up to the man’s face, he shook his head. “Not at all.” It wasn’t the first time he’d seen a naked elf, man or woman, and the man had absolutely nothing that could interest him. And yet, there was something about the hound that made it difficult to look away. “But you’ve still got a bit of blood in your hair.”
Surprised, the hound pulled the long braid over his shoulder. He gave a disgusted grunt and released the thong keeping his hair together. The tight braiding unravelled, his hair springing into corkscrew-like curls as if it possessed a life of its own.
Dylan covertly watched the hound as Tracker washed his hair, unable to keep his gaze from travelling down the man’s body. It had to be the tattoos that kept catching his eye. The elf’s right bicep was banded by a faded interlacing weave of elven design, whereas his left bore the Demarn tribal design of a snake weaving through a splay of what looked to be a leaf-like motif, both the snake’s head and the pattern extending across the man’s shoulder to his chest.
An array of dots and lines scrolled down the man’s right side, following the musculature, tempting his gaze into trailing them to the end. Scars criss-crossed a number of the tattoos, marring some of them beyond recognition. Others reminded him of fire, like the delicate, almost sketchy, bloom of what looked to be a bird at the man’s left hip, its head pridefully arched up the man’s side framed by flaming wings. Dylan’s gaze travelled down to the bird’s long tail feathers, which were splayed wide to curl around the hound’s thigh.
“Keep looking at me like that and a man could get ideas.”
He jerked his gaze back up to find the hound was smirking at him. Warmth slowly blossomed in his cheeks. “Sorry, I—” His mind worked frantically for an excuse. “I wasn’t—” He halted his tongue before the outright lie could finish. “I just… haven’t seen hair that long before.” That was true. Not on a man, anyway. Certainly not of such a texture. “Doesn’t it get bothersome?”
“Oddly enough, I find day to day more manageable with it at this length.”
“Really? I’ve a friend back at the tower who claims otherwise.” Sulin’s hair had been of a decent length when he first arrived at the tower. Not as long as the hound’s and denser, more tightly curled. The first thing the young man had done was chop it back to an inch thick. He’d kept it that way ever since. “But then, he’s an alchemist.”
“Ah.” The elf wrung out his hair. “I suppose growing it to such lengths is impractical when things keep going boom around you.”
“What do you know about alchemists?” Few hounds came to the tower without either a leashed one or a young spellster present. Fewer still would’ve been allowed to venture into the underground rooms where the alchemists worked and trained.
“I know they work with that infi-whatever metal.”
“You mean infitialis?” he asked, drawing out the syllables.
Tracker grimaced. “Yes. That one.”
“It means negative in the ancient Domian language.” That’s where they started using collars to bind each other. Then, their land was consumed by the growing Udynea Empire, who kept the metal’s name as well as its use. He’d heard several tales from Launtil and the other escaped slaves on how the emperor reputedly had half-a-dozen highly-trained alchemists at his command just in case the nobility needed keeping in check. He wasn’t certain how much of it was true, but it certainly sounded like something their emperor would have. “Most alchemists here refer to it as dog metal.”
“Cute,” the hound murmured as he resumed bathing.
Dylan sat there, unable to think of a good reason to leave even though he was essentially done with the water. He supposed he could wash his hair, but that seemed pointless without the soap currently in the man’s possession.
“So, tell me…” Tracker said. “What is the current tower thought on hounds nowadays? Do they still believe we drink your blood to enhance our abilities?”
“Some might believe such tales. I don’t.”
“Ah, a sharp one, are we?” The man turned and Dylan discovered that the tattoos also extended there, curving over his buttocks and down his thighs. “Of course, the tales are somewhat less gory than they used to be. I remember one from when they first sent me out on the hunt. There was this young elven spellster… she was terrified I would sacrifice her under a full moon, because that is apparently what we did.”
“I…” Dylan tilted his head. There were hints of other marks up the man’s back, obscured by the sodden curls. “I’ve not heard that one.”
He just caught the glint of the man’s gaze looking his way before returning to bathing. “Oh, yes. And your entrails are supposed to make a decent diviner’s aid. Never discovered what we were meant to be divining for that would constitute such a messy business.”
Dylan hummed, his thoughts drifting elsewhere as his gaze idly tracked the lines travelling down the man’s side. His fingers rather itched to touch them. He balled his hands. “Ancient Domian used to practice haruspicy.” He didn’t recall the tower library holding any records of the Domian priests using either human or dwarf. Although, it was possible they didn’t class slaves or the leashed as people.
“But people are willing to believe anything, yes?” The elf slid closer. “Such as how much someone is unlikely to notice them staring.”
His heart all but leapt out of his mouth. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He couldn’t have been staring that much, surely. A few glances here and there.
“Do we not?” Tracker grinned. “Come now, my dear spellster. We have the same equipment. There is no need for you to hide yourself behind these.” The man’s long fingers slid down Dylan’s side, hooking into the waist of his smallclothes and tightening every muscle in his body. “Or to be so modest.”
“I’m not being modest.” He wasn’t quite sure why he’d chosen to keep his smallclothes on in the first place, especially since the appearance of either of the three women was unlikely, but he wasn’t about to remove them with the man so close. And insistent.
“Then how about you take them off?” Tracker purred, his breath skittering along Dylan’s ear. “We could help each other get clean, yes?”
He swallowed, his mouth having gone completely dry. “Actually, I…” His smallclothes suddenly felt that little bit too tight. He was certain it had nothing to do with the water and everything to do with the other slightly warm hand creeping up his thigh.
Dylan stood in a rush of water, keeping himself that little bit hunched over. “I’m fine!” he blurted, hedging towards the surrounding brush. “Done. Clean. I’ll just go and wait with the others whilst you finish up.”
Tracker raised a brow at him and he could’ve sworn the man was smirking. “If you feel you must depart so quickly.” The hound’s gaze returned to his armour. “But camp is the other way.”
He stared at the man, then their surroundings. The crop of wild lavender he’d previously walked through graced the far side of the pond. Of course it is. Skirting the pond’s edge, he gathered up his clothes and rushed for the nearest bush.
When he felt confident that the elf wasn’t following, Dylan flattened himself again a tree trunk. His heart pounded almost hard enough to make him believe he was about to pass out. He clutched his sodden undertunic to his chest. Had he really stirred at something as simple as the man’s touch? It wasn’t as if he’d never had a man show interest in him before and, yes, a part of him enjoyed the attention. But he couldn’t recall ever… reacting… quite like that.
He brushed back his hair. It’s not what you think. It couldn’t be. If the hound had been a woman, then it definitely would’ve been what he thought. But this? He didn’t get those sorts of feelings for men and he most certainly didn’t respond.
Then what, by the gods, what had just happened?
I was humming the tune to this all through the first half of this chapter. And, oddly enough, came away from it craving soft serve…