Authors: Sam Dogra
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” I said, pulling up a stool beside him. Ryan blinked, startled from his thoughts, but once he saw me he smiled. “
I thought I’d take a quick look around.”
“You certainly love exploring new cities,” he said, taking a sip from his mug. “Find anything interesting?”
“Well, you could say that,” I said. “You know, they weren
’t lying when they said you can find everything under the sun in Dhjerba.”
Adam cleared his throat in the background, telling me to get to the point.
“Yeah. I mean, I managed to run into an old friend. Amazing what you can pick up around here, isn
Ryan raised an eyebrow. Before he could respond, Adam took his cue and strode forward. I
’d told him to behave himself, but from the way he smiled, he looked as if someone had dropped an axe on his foot.
“Ryan, meet Adam,” I said. “Adam, this is Ryan.”
“Pleasure,” Adam said, sticking out his hand. After a brief hesitation Ryan took it. There seemed little friendliness in the gesture.
’s told me a lot about you,” Adam went on, grabbing a chair and sitting on it backwards so he could rest his arms on its back. “It’s an honour to meet you.”
“Right.” Ryan looked at me strangely. I tried my best to look casual, though inside I was on edge, knowing a single word could make this end very badly. “May I ask how you know Adam?”
“Oh, we go way back,” Adam said, before I could answer. At once the alarm bells started ringing, and I gasped. Oh no! I’d forgotten to warn him about what I’d said to Ryan about my home. “I’ve known Eliza since she was three. We grew up together.”
I held a hand to my forehead. This was going to be a disaster.
“Really.” Ryan shuffled in his seat, so he faced me. “Eliza, do you want to tell me what’s going on?”
“Ryan,” I said, as Adam opened his mouth. “Look, there
’s something I’ve been meaning to confess.” I hesitated, scrounging up the words. So much for preparing myself. “What I said about my parents, my home, well…it wasn’t…wasn’t strictly the truth.”
Ryan gave a slow nod. His green eyes narrowed.
“I…my parents never locked me away,” I said feebly. “I made it up.”
Ryan continued to stare at me. I focused on his ale mug, licking my lips.
“And why did you do that?” His voice remained level, but a slight hardness had developed that wasn’t there before.
“Because…” My breaths started to quicken, so I held a hand to my chest. “Because I needed an excuse to stay with you. Because…”
“She’s Bound to you,” Adam finished for me.
An awkward silence descended. My hands trembled, so I bundled them in my lap. Ryan stared, more in puzzlement than anger, but that didn
’t make it any less intense.
’m sorry,” I whispered, unable to bear the quiet any longer. “I wanted to tell you right away, but…I was scared. I didn’t want to believe it. But it’s the truth. I swear.”
Eventually Ryan sighed. He stroked the edge of his mug with a fingertip.
“That’s impossible,” he said at last. “You can’t be Bound to me.”
“Ryan, I understand this is a bit of a shock,” I said, “but you have to believe me. The night you found me in the Galgiza forest, I was in my Binding time. And you saved my life. So…”
’s not that,” Ryan said. He looked up, his green eyes sincere. “You can’t be Bound to me, because I’m already Bound to someone else.”
...his words stung her deep, but his sorrowful eyes reminded her of his pledge of loyalty.’
Tale of the Binding
The chatter of the tavern patrons faded into the background as Ryan’s words repeated in my head. I stared at him, dumbstruck, while my brain attempted to process the information. Yet no matter which angle it took, it always reached the same conclusion; one it couldn’t accept.
Because it wasn
I glanced to the bar, trying to figure out what Ryan meant. It was too outlandish an excuse, even for someone in denial, but nothing else could explain it. And despite myself, I couldn
’t stop a new hope flourishing. If Ryan was being truthful, could there be a chance I wasn’t as stuck as I’d thought? That I might yet walk away?
I shook my head. I was deluding myself. The feelings that had taken over since we
’d left the Galgiza…they weren’t
. I knew they weren’t. My heart was trapped to his, whether he liked it or not.
’t be Bound to someone else.
’m sorry, what?” Adam cut through my musings. Ryan looked back to his mug, and sighed. He pushed his drink aside, then turned to face me properly. He reached out for my hand, but a dark glare from Adam made him reconsider, so he rested his elbow on the bar.
“You heard me,” he said. “I
’m Bound to someone already.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he held up his hand. “Before you say anything, yes, I know, you’re wondering why I’ve not turned into an Unbound.” He fingered his collar, and I caught a glimpse of his necklace. “It’s linked to why I’ve been travelling. I was going to explain that along with everything else.”
“If this is some kind of sick joke…” Adam snarled, but I held his shoulder.
“Let him talk,” I said. I dropped my voice to a whisper. “I know you’re itching to punch his face in, but this might change everything.”
’s a lying snake!” Adam hissed. “Everyone knows you can’t be Bound twice. How can you trust a single thing that comes out of his mouth?”
’t know him,” I muttered back, more to convince myself than anything else. “You wouldn’t send a convict straight to prison without a fair trial, would you? Give him a chance.”
Adam pulled a face. I glared back. I wouldn
’t back down on this one, even if I’d be proven wrong. Eventually he shifted in his seat and dumped his chin in his hand, sulking. Allowing myself the briefest of smirks, I nodded at Ryan. I’d deal with Tantrum-boy later.
“Okay, Ryan, I
’m all ears.”
Shaking off his bemusement, Ryan sat forward.
“It started four months ago in Terent,” he began. “Like you, I used to be affected by the Binding, and whenever it struck, I would go riding with Cielo. But that day, I had an accident. I managed to make it back to town alone, a few moments before my time came to an end. I planned to wait before calling for help, but a woman came across me first. When she offered to tend my injuries, I ended up Bound to her.”
“All well and good,” I said, tapping my finger against my sleeve, “but that doesn
’t tell me why you’re not a drooling lunatic in an Unbound asylum. Or if the lady you left behind met the same fate.”
’t,” Ryan said. He seemed awfully confident. “And that’s because I’ve…”
The inn door burst open, drowning out the rest of his sentence. A broad-shouldered Guardsman dressed in the Dhjerban red and grey pushed his way inside. On any other occasion, this wouldn
’t have been out of the ordinary. However, four soldiers wearing Terent’s sky blue and white followed, along with a man in civilian clothing. The latter wore a grey longcoat, and walked with a slight limp. A scar trailed over his left cheek, blemishing his dark features, and without his stockhat I could see his black curls.
My jaw hit the floor.
But how? We
’d never seen him come back up at the lake…
’s gaze fell upon us, and he pointed at Ryan.
“Those are the ones, Captain,” he said. “Arrest them.”
“At once, sir.” The Terent troop dispersed, surrounding the bar. Ryan and Adam pushed me behind them, hands on their weapons. All eyes in the tavern turned towards us.
“Do not resist, Ryan,” Aronzo said. He pulled a scroll from the crook of his elbow. “The Dhjerban officials have granted me full rights to charge you. By order of your father, Lord Glenford, you and your accomplices are under arrest for theft of his personal belongings, for failing in your duties to Lord Svendmar, and for the attempted murder of the head of his household. You are to be detained at his home in Terent pending further investigation.”
“Glenford?!” I gaped at Ryan. “You’re Lord Glenford’s
Ryan only managed an apologetic shrug. I shook my head, my thoughts whirling. Lord Glenford was the most powerful noble in the North Territory, one of the oldest of the twelve noble families of Azaria. And while I guessed Ryan was from a wealthy background, discovering he was from
family made my blood run cold. Lord Glenford was a ruthless man who clung to old traditions, and he’d go ballistic if he found out his only son was Bound to a commoner. He wouldn’t think twice about executing me.
Assuming, of course, I
“Hey, watch it!” Adam grumbled, as his sword was taken and his arms pinned behind his back. “We
’ve nothing to do with…”
I stomped on his toes.
“Quiet!” I whispered. “If they arrest Ryan and leave us here, you might turn me into an Unbound!”
’t be Bound to him if he’s Bound to someone else!” Adam shot back in an undertone. “We don’t have to be dragged into this along with him.”
’t know the whole situation yet,” I said, as my hunting knife was snatched away and I was shoved in line behind him. “I can’t risk being separated when I know for sure my feelings are being controlled.”
“Don’t argue! Besides, Terent’s much closer to home, so if I’m wrong, it’ll work out better anyway.”
Adam rolled his eyes. He said nothing further as we were herded into the streets. The way had been cleared by Guardsmen, and two carriages and a horse box were waiting. Cielo
’s white head poked out of the latter—they’d already seized him from the vet. Wow. Aronzo must have had a lot of influence to make such complicated arrangements on such a busy day. At any rate, he certainly had the most incredible luck. Just how had he made it out of the lake?
Aronzo blocked our path. He gripped my arm, his brown eyes menacing.
“You ride in this one,” he growled, while Ryan was led to the front carriage. I bristled, but didn’t argue. I’d have to hope we wouldn’t drift apart further than half a mile. Aronzo didn’t let up his hold, and as he guided me to the carriage he muttered, “Thanks for the swim. But it’ll take more than that to get rid of me.”
Adam bared his teeth, but didn
’t have time to convey the rest of his anger as we were pushed into the carriage. A Terent Guardsman followed, clasping us in irons. He took a seat and closed the door. I looked at the shackle about my wrist, testing it with a tug. Despite its rusted edges, it was as sturdy as when first wrought. I wasn’t going to luck my way out of this one.
Adam placed his hand on mine, squeezing my fingers. I rested my head against his shoulder, and sighed. I felt bad forcing him into this, but when I was still in the dark about so many things, I couldn
’t afford to take blind chances.
We would have to be patient.
“That’s right, make yourselves comfy,” the Guardsmen said, removing his helmet. “It’s a long ride to Terent.”
* * * * *
Eight days passed before we arrived at the Glenford manor. A morose building on the outskirts of Terent, its twin turrets and grey stone gave it an ancient, haunted look. I watched our approach from the carriage window, my reflection glazed with shadows. Adam dozed quietly, a trickle of slobber dripping onto his chest, and our guard was polishing his helmet.
I sat back in my seat, running a finger over the shackle on my wrist. We
’d spent the majority of the journey like this, always under watch, and with a few stops where we could stretch our legs and eat. Ryan was kept separate at all times, though he did steal the occasional concerned glance now and then. In all honesty, I ignored him, if only because the Binding had started to pester me again. In the last two days, it had fallen back on its memory trick—made a hundred times worse given the more intimate moments we’d shared, including our lakeside antics. Every blink returned me to that cloaked embrace, stirring up flushed feelings and robbing me of sleep.
’t the only thing; the curse also mourned the loss of physical contact. It drove every part of me to pine for Ryan’s arms, and the more I was denied, the more it deepened the cravings. I’d get bouts of terrible shaking and headache, and my skin would prickle with goose bumps. It was almost enough to be thankful for my chains. If Ryan came close now, I’d not be able to stop myself.
On the plus side—if you could call it that—these symptoms put a lot of weight in favour that I
under the spell. Especially as they struck hardest whenever my thoughts turned to Adam. It had got to the point where a mere touch from him would make me flinch. The Binding was desperate to drive a wall between us.
But I wouldn
’t let it happen.
Our carriage rolled to a standstill, and I opened my eyes. The darkness was complete, the green half-moon tucked in a blanket of cloud. The horses snorted, and the carriage creaked as the driver shuffled out of his seat.
“Stay here,” our watchman ordered, donning his helmet and opening the door. “Don’t move until I come back.”
I gave a dry smile.
“I’m hardly going to go out for a stroll,” I said, rattling my chains. The Guardsman’s expression soured.
“Oh, get a sense of humour,” Adam growled.
The soldier grunted as he jumped out and slammed the door behind him. Adam sighed, stretching his legs on the far seat, though he was too tall to extend them fully.
“Major Vance always said the Terent regiment were a cold bunch,” he said, flexing his wrists, which were probably as stiff as mine. “Not one drop of warmth between them.”
“I suppose they prefer to call it disciplined,” I commented, twisting my arms so I could scratch my nose. Goddess, these chains were so uncomfortable. “Any ideas on what we’re going to do?”
“That was your department,” Adam said. “You were the one so keen to follow Ryan.”
I sighed. I couldn’t blame his bitterness, given how the curse had made me react to him. I tried to explain as much, but no matter how I phrased it, nothing would convince him it was the spell’s doing. He was determined to prove I was mistaken and would return home. The fact he was my best friend aside, I couldn’t fault his reasoning. Even the text in Lanaran said the curse ‘did not Bind more than once’.
But they were wrong. For better or worse, my Binding was different.
And I was about to find out why.
The carriage door clicked open again, and a pair of Guardsmen I
’d not seen before poked their heads through.
“Come on out,” one said, unlocking the chain clip that trapped me and Adam to the seats. I exited first, into the deep evening mist. Once assembled, we were led towards the gates. Adam stuck close, his hand entwined with mine as we passed the crest of a winged horse and twin swords; the Glenford emblem. The muscles in my arm tightened, wanting to withdraw, but I held firm. I wouldn
’t have the Binding push away the one anchor of trust I still had.
The path was wet from recent snowfall, so we took up a careful pace. The snow masked the dead flower beds, and the hedge maze looked like a glazed cake loaf. Empty trellises hung from the manor walls, and the peaked windows shimmered with frost. The turrets brooded beneath the velvet sky, and I shivered. I might as well have been walking into a dungeon.
When we arrived at the master entrance, I spotted Ryan with his escort. He wasn’t chained, though Aronzo was at his side, keeping a tight hold on his arm. I tried to catch his eye, but Ryan took no notice. His face was set with grim determination, and nothing would break his concentration as we were taken inside.
The main hallway was bright, and I blinked to let my eyes adjust. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, and candelabras lined the dressers. My boots sank into a plush rug, which
complemented the mahogany banisters on the dual staircase. Soft furnishings filled the rest of the room, and a large mirror hung on the rear wall.
That was all I had time to admire, as we were ushered through a long corridor. One of the soldiers peeled away, leaving a single Guardsman to take us into a large drawing room. This was no less
as lavish as the hall, except the walls were painted green and a fire roared in the hearth, lacing the chamber with woodsmoke.