In chapter eighteen, Dylan seemed to have found himself with a new admirer. But there’s more to think about than how his rapid exit was taken and the group has yet to reach another town…
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Their journey through the forest came without further incident. They were a mere two days from Oldmarsh now. He expected to come across signs of bandits, even if they wouldn’t rejoin the road until tomorrow. Hopefully, that meant their pace would improve for, as much as he’d enjoyed it at the start, travelling through the forest had lost quite a bit of its romance.
Ever since the attack, Tracker took the lead with Authril and Marin at their rear. Sometimes the hunter would pop into the surrounding undergrowth only to return ahead of them. They often stayed silent during those times, listening for any sign of trouble. Marin had just returned from one such trip, the brightly feathered carcass of a pheasant hanging from her belt.
Dylan eyed the bird, silently sighing. He couldn’t recall ever dining on much in the way of game quite as frequently in the tower as he did out here.
Back home, stews thick with vegetables rather than meat had been the typical evening repast. The midday meal was generally light, if at all, and would consist of soups in the winter or sometimes a pie would be brought to those training in the outside arenas. All this meat was starting to do weird things to his stomach.
Walking at Dylan’s side, Katarina cleared her throat. “Sir Tracker—”
The hound glanced back at her and flashed a grin. “Dear woman, please. We travel together, there is no need to be so formal.”
“Oh, of course. I just assumed that you…” She lengthened her stride, easily catching up to the elf. Although she wasn’t as tall as Marin, her head still looked to top the man by a few inches. “If I may, I was wondering if you’d be able to help me piece together a few things regarding the history of your people.”
Tracker twitched a russet brow at her. “My people? Is it elves or hounds that you wish to speak of?”
“Elves.” She twisted to smile over her shoulder. “I’ve already asked all I can of Authril and I thought that, with the difference in your backgrounds, you might have additional sources.”
The hound tilted his head and gave a considering hum. “I do not see how I can aid you there. Just what is it that you wish to know, my dear hedgewitch?”
“Well…” Katarina cleared her throat. “Legend says the elves reached the continent via massive ships. Based on old reports, the vessels were bigger than even those of the Independent Isles.”
Dylan slowly nodded to himself. He recalled the tower’s history lessons quite well. Being that those ships had landed on the opposite side of the continent, the truth of it had always been contested. That the ships had carried vast quantities of elves was the only accepted fact.
“Indeed? I have heard the same tale.”
“Is there truth to it?”
The hound laughed. “How would I know, dear woman? I grew up in Wintervale, listening to the same stories as every other child there. I have always thought that the idea of single ship transporting a thousand people sounds rather implausible.”
“Clearly, you’ve not seen some of the major ships from the Independent Isles. They can carry close to half a thousand and make regular voyages far from land.”
“Do they? I have indeed seen such a ship—they dock in Wintervale all the time—but I had no idea their crews could be so large.” Tracker tilted his head. “I wonder though… If you seek truth, why not ask those of Heimat if they are willing to impart such history?”
“The Heimatian leaders don’t trust the coven, they think we’re humans.”
The man gasped. Open-mouthed, he laid a hand upon his cheek. “No. What could possibly lead them to think you are not dwarves?”
Katarina sniffed. “Yes, that’s the same cheek the coven gets from them.”
“Hedgewitch or not,” Authril piped up from her place at the rear. “You look human to me.”
The hedgewitch glared over her shoulder, her lips pursued. She swiftly turned her attention to their surroundings before pointing towards the canopy. “You see that bird, the fan-tailed one on the high branch?”
Dylan peered up into the trees. All he saw were more leaves.
Tracker glanced up. “Of course, it is an easy enough target to spot and I know a human could not possibly see such a small creature at this distance. What of it?”
“Obviously, if I can,” Katarina said, “then I cannot be human.”
The hound chuckled. “It is not as simple as that, dear woman. Half-elves are common enough, after all. Although, I will admit that you lack the ears and are perhaps a little on the tall side.”
Marin hummed. She frowned up at the canopy, likely having as much luck in spotting the bird as Dylan. “Why not do the bird spotting trick in front of a few Heimat locals?”
“Because they wouldn’t believe us,” the hedgewitch replied. “They don’t believe anything that comes from human mouths.”
“What of the nomads?” Authril asked as she jogged past Dylan to catch up with the pair at the front. “They enter Heimat all the time, don’t they?”
Dylan nodded. From the first time his tutors mentioned them, he had longed for such a lifestyle. They were travellers, wandering across the continent from Heimat to where the elven ships landed on Obuzan’s shore. Unfortunately, that land had been Udynean territory, back before the little country became an empire.
“Yes,” Katarina agreed. “And we do get some reports, but they’re inconsistent from one clan to the next. As a people, they carry very few written accounts and their legends are verbally passed on by the elders. Without solid records, it’s all hearsay.”
“Do you not have elves amongst your hedgewitches?” Tracker asked.
“A few,” the dwarf admitted. “They’re allowed across the border, but very little comes from sending them. I just don’t think Heimatian elves want to commune with anyone outside their land. They don’t even seem to share much with their nomadic kin beyond trading goods.”
“Or perhaps they vastly prefer to forget what others are so intent on remembering,” the man suggested. “Are the Heimatian people not there only because they escaped the original elven enslavement? I would not wish to be reminded of that every time I spoke to a foreigner.”
“Which was why the coven sent elves in their first attempts to contact them. The nomads have the same background, yet they willingly speak of that time. There are even records of humans being assimilated into their clans.”
Tracker shrugged. “I am unsure what is you think I can tell you on this matter, dear woman. You seem to know far more than I.”
Their chatter continued for some time. Dylan plodded behind them, content to listen. It was almost like being home, where he would walk the halls in the evening with his friends. Sulin would natter away at some theological task whilst enduring Henrie’s good-natured bickering. Tracker’s accent was close enough to Sulin’s and, whilst she didn’t sound quite the same, Authril’s voice carried a similar heat to Nestria’s whenever the pair debated. The comparison curved his lips.
At his side, Marin smiled and shook her head. Catching his gaze, she mimicked their chatter with the opening and closing of her fingers.
Eventually, their talk turned to other matters, including finding a place to camp. Such a task was completed easily enough. At least, once a few saplings had been cleared from the chosen site. Dylan gathered wood for a fire as the others pitched the tents and had the flames burning merrily by the time Marin finished with preparing the pheasant—a far more gruesome task than mere words made it seem.
They dined on dried fruit and strips of jerky whilst the bird cooked. The pheasant would become part of tomorrow’s breakfast.
Still full from the food they’d snacked on at midday, Dylan picked at his meal. His gaze swung to where Authril, having already devoured her portion of food, had turned to the usual evening routine with her sword. First she’d check the blade, a task that could take anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour depending on what she’d used it for. Then she would adjust her armour, hoist her shield and finally go through an array of moves.
Marin stood, wiping her hands on her trousers. “I think I spied a trail a little ways from here. I’m going to set a few traps whilst it’s still light. See if we can’t add rabbit to our supplies.”
This declaration was greeted by an array of nods and grunts. The hunter often spent large portions of her time away from the camp, always returning with a small animal.
Tracker seemed intent on the other elf’s motions. Finally, he chucked the remains of his meal into the fire and stood. “Dear woman, it has been of my experience that training works better if there is an opponent. I do not suppose you would be game for a little sparring?”
She halted and eyed him. One corner of her mouth lifted in a sneer. “You? Against me? That’s a bit unfair, isn’t it?”
The man spread his hands wide. “Quite right. I will even the playing field and go easy on you.” He drew his sword and a needle-like dagger, the latter of which he twirled in a flamboyant fashion.
Authril nodded at the other elf’s left hand. “Put that away.”
Tracker gasped, pressing his hand to his chest. “What is this? You with your shield would put me at a disadvantage by denying me my own defence? If you fear injury, allow me to ease your concerns by saying I have no plans to see you skewered again. But a little sparring with an actual partner would help you prevent such an unfortunate outcome in the future, yes?”
The warrior watched the man as one would a snake. She fingered her side, where the padding beneath her armour had been sewn shut. Then her gaze flicked Dylan’s way and, whatever thoughts that ran through her mind, it seemed enough to have her nodding. “Very well,” she muttered, snapping her attention back to the hound. “But if that blade goes anywhere near my side, I’ll feed you that fancy sword of yours.”
A smile stretched Tracker’s lips. He tipped back his head and laughed. “Such hostility is unwarranted, my dear. I swear, you will not feel the bite of my blades.”
Her eyes narrowing, she charged the man.
Dylan watched as they fought. Where Authril used her shield as a sort of personal battering ram, she could never quite manage to reach the hound. Tracker practically danced around the woman, harrying her from all sides. She didn’t seem willing to close and, with the way the man held his dagger—low and angled up in some ready stance to stab her kidneys—Dylan didn’t blame her.
Eventually, Tracker stumbled back, his arms raised in surrender. “One moment, my dear. All this sparring has made me quite hot. If you will allow me some time to rectify this…?”
With her lips twisting in a poorly concealed smirk, Authril inclined her head.
“You are most gracious.” The hound dropped his weapons and slowly peeled off the top layers of his clothes, tossing them at Dylan’s side.
The warrior backed away, clearly uncertain what make of this strange turn in their sparring. Dylan was inclined to agree with her. He’d never witnessed any of the army soldiers train in anything less than their armour.
Authril waved her sword, indicating Tracker and his discarded armour. “What’s this?”
“What better way to cool down than to shed a few clothes?” the man replied, peeling off his undershirt so that he stood naked from the waist up. “Much better.” Tracker gathered up his weapons and fell into a ready stance. “You can begin again, my dear.”
Authril tipped her head to one side. “And if I hit you? Granted your leather armour was unlikely to stop a sword as well as this—” She tapped her breastplate with the hilt of her sword. “—but it’s better than nothing.”
Dylan’s thoughts slipped back to when they’d fought with those bandits. The hound had come away covered in blood, but unscathed. Seeing how the man fought now, he was certain that a large part of Tracker’s defence came from being too fast to hit.
Tracker rolled his shoulders as he circled Authril. He grinned as if the idea of her actually managing to even graze him with her sword was an implausible one. “There is a little more to my garments than mere leather, my dear. But consider this as merely an extra incentive for me not to get hit.”
She shrugged. “It’s your funeral.” Authril bunched her shoulders and cautiously shuffled closer, ensuring her shield remained between them. Using her shield as cover for her strikes, she attempted to lever his weapons aside and bash the hound with the upper curve of her shield.
This tactic failed and their swords fast became weaving blurs of steel. Tracker’s moves were rather snake-like. He’d strike like a viper, coiling both weapons and arms around his opponent’s body as if they were pythons of metal and flesh, then dart out of reach before she could react.
After enduring the fifth such move, Authril staggered back. Swearing just loud enough for Dylan to make out the words pouring from her clenched teeth, she shook herself and lunged at the hound.
Dylan tracked them as the pair danced about the cleared patch. There were hints of more designs on the hound’s back—something very central on his upper spine that the others were situated around—but the way the man kept twisting out of Authril’s reach made it difficult to make out what exactly.
“He’s very inked, isn’t he?” Katarina said, causing Dylan to jump. He’d forgotten the hedgewitch sat next to him and also watched the pair.
“I wasn’t looking,” he said, the words rushing out before he could stop them. Heat blazed across his face as she arched a brow at him, and he mumbled, “I mean… I hadn’t noticed.” His attempt to gloss over outburst only raised the woman’s brows further.
“They appear to come from a mix of cultures. The elven and Demarn designs are obvious choices and I’ve seen similar combinations in other countries. However, there are a few curious additions. Like the firebird on his side. Such creatures stem from Stamekian myths.”
Dylan shrugged. “Maybe he read about them and liked the idea.” The literate requirements of a hound’s training could very well have them studying other cultures lest they mistake an emissary for an escaped spellster. There were several countries that didn’t keep those with magic separate from the common folk. Stamekia was one such place.
“Perhaps,” the hedgewitch murmured, her frown warping the upper section of the diagonal scar on her face. “It is curious that he would also have a sword more suited to the region. Did you not notice the curved design? That’s Stamekian, or possibly from the Independent Isles in the south.” She shuffled around to face him. “Do you think the king allows his hounds to leave the kingdom?”
“Honestly, I have no idea what the crown does with them.” At least, beyond the obvious fighting and tracking techniques needed of a hound. And the occasional beating. A handful of the spellsters born outside the tower had stories of receiving such treatment. Some grew up spiteful, others timid. He wasn’t yet sure what to think of Tracker. He rather doubted the crown would set a timid man on rogue spellsters, nor did the hound seem cruel. Single-minded perhaps.
His gaze swung to the sparring duo. Tracker seemed to be leading Authril on a merry little trip around the clearing. The man would twist their way every so often, as if checking that their sparring still had an attentive audience. It allowed the warrior to get close, but Tracker was always well beyond her reach whenever she swung her sword.
Katarina also returned to watching the pair. She remained silent for quite some time before a fit of coughing took her. It sounded suspiciously like she was attempting to conceal her laughter. Poorly. “I do believe he’s strutting,” she wheezed.
She waved her hand, signalling him to wait as she swallowed a few mouthfuls from her water skin. “There’s a type of bird in southern Udynea where the males are immensely colourful. The nobles like to keep two males in a cage because the birds then engage in mock fights. It displays these marvellous wings and tail feathers, which is how they attract a mate.” She ducked her head and murmured, “It probably helps that he’s toying with her.”
He’d rather come to same consensus regarding Tracker’s taunting of the warrior, however… Mock fights? Dylan picked at his meal as his mind wandered. He knew elves had several courtship rituals that weren’t generally mimicked in human circles, even within the tower, but this? “You think he’s trying to attract Authril’s attention by proving he’s a better fighter than her?” He’d never heard of that one.
Grinning, she nudged him. “I didn’t say he was doing it specifically for her.”
“So, it’s for you? Or…” He looked around the camp, taking in the distinct lack of Marin’s presence. It seemed the woman hadn’t yet returned from setting her traps. “Me?” The word squeaked through his throat. “I don’t…”
His thoughts turned to the pond he’d shared with the man several days back. Tracker hadn’t attempted anything further, perhaps knowing he’d get nowhere with Dylan. That hadn’t helped him shake the memory from his dreams. Of the hot press of the hound against his shoulder, or the way the elf’s voice stirred something strange within him and the lust that’d burned in those rich, honey-coloured eyes.
He shook himself. “You’re mistaken.” The man hadn’t tried anything, flirting or otherwise, after Dylan fled the pond. Tracker must’ve realised persisting was pointless.
Authril had abandoned her shield sometime during their circuit of the tents, opting to grasp her sword with both hands. Whilst the swings appeared harder and came at an increased speed, it didn’t seem to pose much of a hindrance to the hound. Tracker merely took this new tactic in stride, dodging her swings before doing the exact same moves.
Eventually, the pair’s meandering led them back to before the campfire and Authril conceded. With the hound giving her a bow, they separated.
“Thank you for indulging me, my dear warrior,” Tracker puffed. “That was most invigorating.”
“You’ve a strange way of fighting,” Authril replied between gasps. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Ah, but you trained with common soldiers, fought against those who have learnt only to counter the same moves they have been taught. A hound’s training is a little more advanced. However, at the heart of it, we are taught to be very… flexible.” His gaze flicked Dylan’s way and his lips twitched. The man’s focus returned to the warrior so quickly that Dylan wasn’t certain if he’d even seen right. “Our trainers take great pride in making us adaptable to whatever position we find ourselves in.”
By the way she pursed her lips, Authril was on the fence when it came to believing the man. “And the advantage in being half naked is?”
Cool affront took Tracker’s face. He laid a hand on his chest as if he’d been wounded. “My dear woman, that was merely because I was hot. Besides, not every battle gives you the opportunity to gird oneself. You should try it some time. You may be surprised how responsive your body can be when it is stripped of all defence.”
Dylan shivered. The soft purr in Tracker’s voice added an admittedly pleasant note to the man’s already rolling accent.
The hound paused in bending to collect his clothes. Those honey-coloured eyes teasing. “Do you not agree, my dear spellster?”
He swallowed, his breath catching for but a moment. “I… wouldn’t know.”
Tracker paused in donning his undershirt. “No?” He tipped his head to one side, his lips twisting. “That is truly a terrible shame.” Still naked from the waist up, he settled next to Dylan, resting his head on an upturned fist. “If you ever feel the urge to try, you will find me quite the willing victim.”
A small smile tweaked Dylan’s lips as his cheeks heated. The man was still talking about fighting, wasn’t he? It was probably his mind but, ever since their stop at the pond, everything the hound said sounded like an innuendo. He cleared his throat. “I rather doubt there’d be much you could teach me. I’m not exactly built to handle typical weaponry.”
One russet brow twitched up. “So I have seen.”
Dylan’s gaze flicked up to where Authril stood behind the man. Those hard eyes of hers were trained on the back of Tracker’s skull. She couldn’t possibly know about the pond incident. Unless the man had been foolish enough to tell her and he didn’t see that as a possibility.
The hound didn’t seem to notice. “I am certain that, given the few weeks we have on the road, I could train you in the basics. Something simple. Sword fighting, perhaps.” His gaze ran over Dylan, hot and piercing. “Or unarmed combat. Your lanky frame would suit either one.”
Lanky? Yes, there wasn’t much to him in the way of excess flesh, but he was only a little over six feet tall. Hardly a giant.
“Forgive me,” Katarina said. “But I thought Demarn spellsters weren’t allowed to use alternative means of fighting.”
“They aren’t,” Authril replied.
The hound gave a noncommittal grunt. “There may be some truth in that, but I see no harm in him learning. Of course, you would have to make some adjustments to your attire. I do not recall seeing any splits in either robe or undertunic.”
Dylan drew his leg closer, just on the off chance that the man decided to attempt such alterations then and there. “That won’t be happening,” he mumbled. “I’ve only my smallclothes underneath.”
“Truly?” Tracker shuffled closer. “No trousers? Are they not part of the uniform?”
“And you refused?” A low chuckle creased the corners of the man’s eyes. “We are quite the rebel, yes?”
Authril snorted. “An idiot, more like. They have you wearing them for a reason.”
“I don’t like them.” Much to his chagrin, they’d attempted to have him don the clothing. It lasted all of a few minutes before he dumped the trousers amongst the piles of rags. But the robes originally fell to his ankles, meaning no one could tell unless he lifted the skirts of his robe and undertunic. He doubted it was evident even with the slightly higher hem. “I find them rather confining.”
A mischievous spark flickered to life in Tracker’s eyes. His gaze dropped to Dylan’s waist. “I do believe something else would be just as confining. If not more so.”
“Well, I—” He jumped as Authril slammed the shield between them.
“So sorry,” the warrior said, the sweetness dripping from her voice just as false as the overly toothy grin. “Hold this,” she demanded of the hound.
Tracker complied, grasping the shield before it could fall, his brow furrowed in confusion.
Rather than explain herself, she grabbed Dylan’s collar and, before he’d time to register what was happening, hauled him to his feet. “Tent,” Authril growled into his ear. “Now.”
“I haven’t finished eating,” he protested as she towed him towards their tent. A quick glance over his shoulder told him much of his meal was now scattered all over the ground.
“If you’re that hungry,” Authril grumbled. “I’ll fix you something later. Now, get in.” She gave him a gentle push towards the tent flap.
Dylan obeyed, his face burning hotter as their exit was followed by the hound’s rich laughter.
I’ve nothing on the playlist for this chapter.