Authors: Sam Dogra
That was partly true. I was a well-known face in the town, as I often went with Father on his healing rounds. The moment they got word I was missing, I
’d be escorted back to the village. Not an option. If my parents found out I’d become Bound to a stranger, it would destroy them. My sister’s accident had been bad enough; I couldn’t put them through that torture twice. Then again, just leaving them without any word wasn’t much better. Yet what choice did I have? Considering what I’d just told Ryan, it wasn’t like I could ask him to take me back so I could say my farewells.
Why had I come up with such a stupid lie?
Ryan sighed, his brow creased. He looked very uncomfortable. I felt awful putting him in such a position, and based on such a weak excuse, too. Whatever his reason for being in the Galgiza, I could tell he wasn’t keen on taking a second passenger. But this was the only way I could keep close to him.
’t you just explain everything to the Guardsmen?” Ryan asked. “They’d keep you safe, I’m sure.”
Damn, he wouldn
’t be convinced so easily.
’t know,” I said, my nervousness not entirely false. “My father’s the healer, and he’s…he’s…often treated the soldiers.” Well, it wasn’t a lie. “They respect him too much. They won’t believe me.”
’t you got any proof?”
I shook my head.
“What about those scars on your arm? Did your parents do that to you as well?”
Startled, I looked to my sleeve. It had hitched up, revealing my old fox cub injury. Whoops. I was more than impressed he
’d noticed, but I was also annoyed he was finding more reasons to ditch me. Stop making this so difficult!
Oh, that was an accident a while ago,” I said. “Please, you can’t leave me in Bane. You have to take me further.” I lowered my head, adopting a more submissive tactic. “Don’t leave me all alone.”
I was pretty certain my acting skills le
ft a lot to be desired, yet my words seemed to strike a chord in Ryan. He suddenly looked straight at me.
“I guess…” He hesitated, as if to change his mind, but then sighed. “Well, since you
’ve no place else to go, you could…you could come with me?”
He still didn
’t sound enthusiastic, but he’d held out the lifeline I needed. I let out a slow breath. That had been tough. Before my relief became too apparent, I sat up, feigning surprise.
It was a silly response, since he’d given what I wanted, but I couldn’t come across too eager. I couldn’t give any hint the only reason I needed to be close to him was because of a Binding. Of course, he’d find out eventually as the magic worked its way to him, but for now, this was the safest option.
For me, anyway.
“Yes,” Ryan said, though it was probably more to convince himself. “Look, you don’t need to be so nervous. I don’t bite.” He leant forward, and at long last I had to look into his eyes. They were dark green, and filled with warmth. “Trust me, Eliza. I said I wouldn’t hurt you, and I meant it.”
wasn’t the word I’d been looking for earlier. It was
. The Binding’s false bias aside, Ryan seemed a sincere kind of guy. At least I’d been lucky in that regard. I could’ve been Bound to a total lunatic. Nonetheless, for all his politeness, I didn’t want to be stuck with him. I wasn’t an adventurer, and the thought of starting a nomadic lifestyle made my heart sink. I was content with my simple life here. Which I’d stupidly thrown out the window tonight…
Oh, give up, Eliza.
No matter how much I regretted setting foot outside the meadow, I couldn’t change my poor judgement.
Time. That was what I needed. Time to figure something out.
I looked back to Ryan and cleared my throat. My stomach churned at the thought of lying again, but this wouldn’t be nearly as bad as the first one.
’d like to go to Viens,” I said. The capital of Azaria was a good three weeks’ journey away. That should give me plenty of opportunity to sort this mess.
Ryan stroked his chin.
“You want to go all the way to the capital?”
“I want to start afresh,” I continued, though inside I was shaking. Was I about to push too far and undo all my hard work? “Put the past behind me, where nobody knows my name or face.”
Ryan said nothing for a long while. He was figuring something out in his head. I tapped the seconds out, my feelings on a knife edge. Please, he had to take me.
Finally Ryan nodded, and it was all I could do not to sigh in relief. They say the best lies have fragments of truth hidden in them—
it seemed I’d played it just right.
“Well, I was going to head there eventually,” he said, “but I suppose I could take a short-cut for your sake.”
“You’re too kind,” I said, giving a small bow for added effect.
“You don’t need to be so formal, Eliza.” He glanced up at the moon. “Okay, enough chit chat. We should head back.”
He locked an arm under my shoulder, helping me up. My heart jumped again, but I focused on where to place my feet. As my leg braced, my ankle gave a twinge. The pain wasn
’t as bad now it was bandaged, though, and with him taking the weight, I could hobble along. Still, every step made me brush against him, provoking a hot blush.
“You sure I
’m not going to slow you down?” I asked, turning away so he wouldn’t see my reddened cheeks. Goddess knew what it would be like in the morning.
’m not in any rush,” Ryan said. “Don’t fret so much. I’m sure everything will work out fine.”
I smiled mirthlessly.
He didn’t know the half of it.
...and in that night they escaped to the tower, screened in darkness as the moon brooded over their secret union.’
—Tale of the Binding
’s camp was a short walk through the trees, but it might as well have been a month-long trek. Pressed between the crook of his elbow and his chest, I thought my head would burst. Right steps were better, as I could push him aside and put some distance between us. Then would come a left one, where he would pull me back to his chest and take the weight off my ankle. If my cheeks got any hotter, I could start hosting lava birds.
He guided me towards a small copse. I had no idea how far inside the Galgiza we were, and I couldn
’t see the moon, so I didn’t know the time, either. Like it mattered. I couldn’t step further than a half mile from Ryan, anyway. If I’d have known I’d be roughing it indefinitely, I’d have dressed for the occasion.
Concentrating on keeping at least some distance from Ryan,
I stumbled over a gnarled root. He snatched my arm, drawing me against his torso. His collar brushed my cheek, and I swallowed. My arms shook, but not because I’d almost fallen again. Each touch sent ripples of pleasure through my chest, and I had to keep aware of my body’s movements, in case it did something without my consent. It was exhausting. But if I relaxed, I was afraid of what I would do. What the Binding would
Damn this curse!
“We’re here,” Ryan announced. I looked up. Beneath the tangled branches, a tent loomed over a dead fire. The embers still smoked, though their glow had vanished. A horse was tethered nearby, a blanket buckled over its snowy flanks.
circled around the smouldering twigs, before Ryan eased me onto a moss-covered log. Once I sat down, he removed his arm. My heart rate settled, and I sighed. Distance was good—it would stop the Binding from feeding my desires. I dabbed at the cut on my cheek, wincing.
“Hope you didn
’t miss me, Cielo.” Ryan walked up and grabbed a handful of mane. “I’ve brought a guest.”
Cielo snorted. He twisted his neck round and nuzzled my shoulder, almost pushing me off the log.
“Whoa!” I struggled to keep my balance, trying not to put pressure on my ankle. Ryan came to my side in an instant, and helped me shuffle sideways so Cielo couldn’t reach. Again his touch left my skin tingling. I held onto the log for dear life, determined not to give in. Cielo gave his master a forlorn gaze, as if he’d been cheated of a new friend.
“Hey, he won
’t hurt you,” Ryan said, noting my stiff posture. If only he knew it wasn’t Cielo I was afraid of. He turned to the horse with a scolding look. “Calm down, Cielo. Eliza’s a little fragile right now, so behave yourself.”
Cielo shook his forelock, almost in defiance, then turned to sniff at the grass. Ryan smiled, and rubbed the horse
’t mind him, Eliza. He gets excited easily.”
’s ears twitched, as if he knew he was being talked about. Despite his rather abrupt method of introducing himself, I laughed. At least he had some personality, unlike those emotionless drones in the village stables.
The thought of home brought a lump to my throat. I
’d never walk through the simple streets of Velwall again. Never help Father in his clinics, or fetch vegetables for Mother, nor chat with our Councillor, Serena. And after so long apart, I wouldn’t even see Adam one last time.
By the Goddess, why had this happened?
“So,” Ryan said, sitting beside me. He had a long stick and was playing with the ash in the fire pit. I kept my gaze on the embers, determined to stop the curse from stirring more reactions. “You’ve got a choice. Do you want to sleep, or would you rather we head off now?”
I took a slow breath. Surrendering to sleep would be utter bliss, but if we hung around until dawn, we would still be close to my village. Too close, as once I was discovered missing they
’d raise the alarm and comb the Galgiza faster than I could say ‘Binding’. Rescue was the last thing I wanted, because then I’d have to tell everyone the truth. I couldn’t face that, not when I knew it would break my parents’ hearts. And not when I’d yet to come to terms with it myself. There had to be a way out. It was probably the denial speaking, but I wouldn’t give up until I knew for sure there wasn’t any way to break a Binding.
Ryan looked at me with his now-familiar expectant expression, so I cleared my throat.
“I’m not that tired,” I lied. “I’d like to be a little further away from my village, so we should get going. We can rest later.”
Ryan nodded. He stoked the embers some more, before he discarded his stick and stood up.
“If that’s what you want. I’ll pack my stuff.”
He marched to his tent. As he disappeared inside, I sighed, holding my head in my hands. A night without sleep, along with the loss of adrenaline, plus my struggle to keep tabs on my feelings, had worn me out. My eyes closed, and I didn
’t want to open them again. At least without Ryan on top of me, I had a moment to breathe. It was frightening. I’d no idea a Binding was so powerful.
’d seen one first-hand.
had affected my sister, Fiona, almost five years ago. The memory remained vivid. Back then, she’d been with a farmhand from Bane, Errol. Everyday she’d come prancing home, wearing flowers he’d picked for her, or showing off the wooden charms he’d carved for her. I had to admit, I was a little envious she’d found such a charming boyfriend. However, like Mother, she was affected by the Binding, too. Her times were more erratic, coming between four and ten weeks apart, but lasting only a few hours.
When it was her
‘time’, she kept away from Errol, as she didn’t want to force anything until they’d been together for several months. Then finally, she plucked up her courage and proposed to him. Errol accepted, and they made their vows to enter a Binding.
In all honesty, I was reluctant with her decision. I knew Mother was Bound to Father, and whilst they were happy together, part of me felt sad because neither had experienced love on their own terms before their Binding day. The spell might have guaranteed a lifelong bond, but it wasn
’t fair that in the end it would always control who you were meant to be with.
But before Errol and Fiona
’s promised day arrived, something terrible happened. A nobleman had an accident on the way to Terent, a town fifteen miles east of us. He’d broken his leg, but my uncle Allen and Adam’s father chanced upon him and brought him back to Velwall. Father and Mother were away in Bane, so Fiona and I had taken care of him. I helped splint his leg and gave him some pethirine—a potent pain-killer—before I headed out with Adam to fetch some extra clothes.
Had I stayed, I would
’ve seen the man open his eye and whisper, ‘Thank you’. Not an amazing event in itself, but in that precise moment, he entered his Binding time. And Fiona accepted his thanks, sealing herself to him forever.
Her one act of kindness threw my world upside down. I couldn
’t believe it. A Binding could have granted my sister a lifetime of happiness, yet instead it had snatched everything away from her. Even her personality. Her cheery smiles vanished, replaced by sombre stares and silent tears. She wouldn’t go out, wouldn’t speak, wouldn’t eat…
All her dreams lay in pieces before the Binding. And though the nobleman, Lord O
zier, seemed most understanding, even willing to marry her and not lock her away as most of his rank would do to an unwanted Bound partner, I hated him for taking my sister away.
Yet I hated Fiona more, because of how passively she accepted her fate. Errol was going crazy, riding around the towns and seeking any information to help free her, but Fiona, she just sat there every day, feeling sorry for herself. Errol
’s effort may have been futile, but at least he tried, fighting to the very end.
Fiona was lost to the dogs.
Once Lord Ozier’s leg healed, they went back to his estate in Estovan. Wearing her favourite lilac dress, Fiona had been escorted to his carriage, looking as if she were walking to her grave. That day, I made a vow.
would choose who I’d love, not this ancient sorcery that could destroy an entire life in the blink of an eye.
So, as the seasons passed, I kept careful watch, in case the curse would come to me. Nobody had yet come up with a way of predicting whom it struck. It didn
’t seem to be contagious or inherited, though family clusters were common. Also, the symptoms it stirred varied between people—mine was a short bout of stomach cramps. But the ‘instigation’, or the very first sign, was the same for everyone. A crushing sensation in the chest, like being held in a vice. By all rights it shouldn’t have come to me, as statistically speaking, I should have been safe. Of course, my fifteenth birthday ruined that. Yet I was sure I could keep my promise. And for the last two years, I’d managed fine.
Except tonight, whe
n I’d thrown it all away. Fiona had been the victim of another’s curse, whereas I was only a victim of my own stupidity. A moment of madness had left me with a life debt to a stranger, trapping us together for the rest of our days.
I sighed. Eventually I
’d have to betray Ryan’s kindness and tell him we were Bound. It might be easier to confess now and get it out the way, but I couldn’t. I was too scared what I might provoke. I knew he couldn’t kill me—that would cause a backlash and we’d both end up dead. He couldn’t run from me, either, as we’d end up Unbound; empty husks stripped of mind and senses, no better than animated corpses to be locked in an asylum.
What terrified me most, though, was if Ryan would accept our Binding. To barely know another person and yet realise such a level of intimacy shook me to the core. Sure, he seemed friendly enough, but I
’d never found it easy to trust others. And there was something about him that made me wary. I still wasn’t happy with his excuse for being in the Galgiza, and his expensive crossbow and fine steed added to the mystery.
He was hiding something...
Cielo snorted. I glanced up at him. He wasn’t so boisterous now. His ears pricked up, and he stared into the trees. A chill crept over me, and I clutched my jacket closer. Something was out there, and this time, I was fairly certain it wasn’t a hungry bear.
“Ryan?” My voice echoed in the quiet. For a long while
, he didn’t answer. Rustling caught my ear, and Cielo began to shuffle on his hooves. I braced myself against the log, about to hobble over to the tent, when the flap burst open and Ryan scrambled out, hauling a heavy pack.
“We have to get out of here,” he said.
’t that what we decided? You said you’d pack and…”
“I mean we have to go, now!” Without waiting for my reply
, he crouched in front of the fire. “Climb on.”
I shrank back. Touch
ing him again would stir all that lust right back up. Plus with my increasing fatigue, I wasn’t sure I could keep it in check. Who knew what would happen if I had to cling to him on horseback as we cantered through the wilderness.
. We have to hurry,” Ryan said. “Don’t worry about your ankle. I bound it tight. Once we’re on Cielo, it won’t be a problem. Come on!”
As he finished, the crunch of a twig caught my ears. That chill feeling came again, and I swallowed. I didn
’t have the luxury to sit and complain. If whatever was out there had Ryan in such a state, it was probably not a good idea to ignore it.
Grimacing—and so glad Ryan couldn
’t see—I leant forward on my good leg, then half-fell, half-leapt onto his back. My arms wrapped round his shoulders, and he stood up, gripping my legs against his hips. For someone of such a lithe build, he was stronger than he looked. I couldn’t think on it for long, though, as the Binding flooded me, and my head began to swim. His scent, the one I couldn’t place, was so stimulating I had to hold my breath. My pulse thudded in my ears, and I swallowed. I just had to ignore it.
“Hold tight,” Ryan instructed. Adjusting his grip, he dashed to Cielo
’s side. He ripped off the blanket and unfastened the ties, revealing a slender saddle. I raised an eyebrow. It seemed he’d been prepared for a fast getaway.
Cielo trotted backwards, so he was level with the log. With a briskness that could only have come from hours of practice, Ryan slung his pack over the saddle
horn and side-stepped onto the horse.
My leg caught on Cielo
’s rump, jarring my ankle. My senses were too muddled to acknowledge the pain. All I could take in was the movement of Ryan’s ribs, the tension in his muscles as he took the reins, and the whisper of his hair rubbing against my cheek. He was wonderfully warm, too.
Cielo set off at a rapid trot, jolting my position. The Binding
’s grip lessened, and I shook my head, able to think again.
“What about the tent?”
“I can buy a new one.” Ryan’s voice hardened. “Keep your head down. They’ll be following right behind.”