The Binding (Chronicles of Azaria #1) (7 page)

BOOK: The Binding (Chronicles of Azaria #1)
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I tucked the scarf into the crook of my elbow and headed back to the corridor. The Guardsman stood by the stairs, looking impatient. As I approached, he hopped down the steps. I took my time, mostly because of my ankle, but partly to ease things in my mind. I wasn’t ready to let go of the past yet, but at least I’d taken a step towards doing so.

Back at the main gate, the Major was waiting.

“Ah, was that it?” he asked, inspecting my scarf. “Indeed, with winter coming, he was a fool to have left it behind.” He snapped his fingers, and the soldiers opened the smaller gate. “May the Goddess bless your journey, Eliza.”

I simply nodded. I didn
’t dare speak. My voice was strained, and the last thing I wanted was another breakdown in front of the Guardsmen leader. I muttered a farewell, then quickly left the garrison.

By the time I returned to the main street, my sorrow turned t
o regret. How stupid could I be—I’d let the Major
see
me. Heck, the whole garrison had caught at least one glance. Once my village search party came to town, they’d know I stopped here, rather than escape to the farms. If they chased us down the South Road, they’d catch up within days.

I cursed. Why didn
’t I learn from my mistakes? Leaving the clearing had thrown me into an unwanted Binding; now leaving the inn had started a trail a blind beggar could follow. All I could bank on was the Major confusing my fellow villagers with my story about running into Adam and returning home with his missing item. By the time my best friend would be free of his escort and admitted he had no idea what that was all about, I would be far enough away.

Right, enough wallowing in self-pity. I needed to see how my Bound partner was doing.

I hobbled towards the square, the cobbles trying to snag my crutch. Along the way I spotted the postal cart, and I slipped my little note inside the bag marked for Velwall. When I returned to
The Swan and Gate
, the long queues had dissipated, but the tavern was still bursting at the seams. I glanced around. No sign of Ryan. Phew. All I had to do was slip back inside, and he’d be none the wiser about my…

“Where
’ve you been, Elle?”

I cringed, retreating into my hood. I looked over my shoulder. Ryan was leaning against the fountain, an empty glass in his hand. Uh oh. He
’d been waiting.

He walked towards me, his boots clicking on the stones, and took my arm.

A whirlwind of emotion flooded my body, and I almost fell to my knees. I’d gotten used to being myself again since he’d left me to my own devices. Now I couldn’t even see straight. My heart thundered against my ribs, and it took every ounce of self-control not to throw myself into his arms.

The Binding was back, and it wasn
’t afraid to remind me who was boss.

“You said you wanted to lie low,” Ryan hissed. “Your ankle
’s not in good shape, either. You can barely walk on it.”

Well, at least he
’d given me an excuse as to why he had to half-carry me.

“Sorry,” I muttered. “
I wanted some fresh air.”

“You could
’ve waited til I came back.” Ryan’s voice had hardened again. He caught sight of the scarf, and his eyes widened. “What’s that?”

My mind froze. Damn, why hadn
’t I had the sense to hide it? Frantically I grappled for an excuse.

“This? Well…I…I saw it…” One of the merchants across the way started hollering about fine shawls, and it got my brain in gear. “I, um, saw it in the bazaar, and with winter coming and everything I thought…I thought it would be a good idea.”

I prayed he wouldn’t see the wine stain. Or remember that I didn’t have any money.

“Fine. Just get inside,” Ryan said, pushing me into the tavern. “We
’ll eat, then collect the stuff from the market I ordered. Unless there’s anything else you want to do before we go?”

His tone was so fierce, I kept quiet. How anyone with such a soft
-spoken voice could manage to strike such terror was impressive. It must’ve been a secret skill of his.

“I said I was sorry,” I grumbled. “
I won’t do it again.”

“You
’d better not.”

Ouch, he
’d unsheathed the claws now. Something had him wound up tight, and I was beginning to wonder if my impromptu stroll was the only reason. Still, whatever bothered him drew his attention away from my scarf, so I could be grateful for that small mercy.

Inside the inn, the mixed scent of steaming food, stale sweat and bitter ale hit me, and I scowled. I
’d forgotten how stifling it could get in the rush hour. Ryan didn’t seem fazed, and guided me to a table close to the entrance. He was holding harder than necessary. The Binding didn’t care. It hummed in my muscles, urging me to wrap him in an embrace. I gripped my scarf tighter as a countermeasure, which seemed to work as well as counting my breaths.

Ryan released me, and I all but collapsed into the chair as the Binding
’s ‘off’ switch was thrown. Really, this couldn’t be good for my heart.

Ryan
’s gaze softened.

“You don
’t look well,” he said.

“My ankle,” I answered feebly. “Hurts.” That wasn
’t a lie. It was hammering away despite the new bandage I’d put on earlier, and I needed to prop it upright before it swelled up again.

Ryan must have read my mind, as without a prompt he scooted over and twisted his chair round, so I could rest my heel against the edge.

“You need to be more careful,” he said, resting his elbows on the table. “If you keep pushing yourself, you’ll sprain it again. I’m sure you don’t want me carrying you all the way to Viens.”

He smiled, obviously wanting to apologise for his outburst. I smiled back, though inside I remained wary. Though I
’d only been with him a short while, Ryan didn’t seem a moody kind of person. That meant he was trying to cover up whatever had made him so upset.

I was almost disappointed I hadn
’t tried to follow him earlier.

“So, any preferences to what you want?” Ryan asked. “I went ahead and ordered the special before you came.”

“Eh, I’m not picky,” I shrugged. After such a draining visit to the garrison, not to mention a very sorry breakfast, I craved something hot and filling.

We didn
’t have to wait long for the food. As I’d guessed, Rose was pre-occupied in the kitchens, so I was able to lower my hood, too. I launched into the steak and potatoes as if I’d not been fed for a week. Well, at least it would give the right impression to Ryan as to the so-called ‘home conditions’ I’d left behind.

“Ah, that
’s so much better,” I sighed, dropping my fork to my empty plate. Ryan chuckled, eating at a much more refined pace. “Thanks.”

“I did promise you a good lunch,” he said. “Once I
’m done we’ll go to the market. I asked them to leave everything by the tanner’s stall, so we can just…”

I didn
’t catch the rest of his words, as the tavern door flew open and a rowdy group of Guardsmen trooped inside. Their uniforms were sky blue and white—Terent’s colours, so they weren’t part of the local regiment. Without delay they made their way towards the bar, whistling for the maid to start dishing out the pints.

I looked back to Ryan, about to comment on how the soldiers
’ drinking times were getting earlier and earlier these days, but whatever I was going to say dried on my lips. Ryan was staring as if an executioner had walked inside.

“Ryan?” I waved my hand in front of his face. He blinked. Those green eyes of his, usually so gentle and full of warmth, were brimming with panic.

Oh dear.

“We have to leave,” he said, standing up. He rooted for my crutch and offered it to me.

“What? Why?” I tilted my head at the soldiers. “You’re not scared of a few boisterous Guardsmen, are you?”

“I can
’t explain right now.” Ryan was already helping me to my feet. I clenched my fists, trying not to focus on his closeness. “Please, you have to trust me. We can’t stay.”

I looked to his plate of half-eaten food, then sighed. It wasn
’t like he was giving me much choice. I dropped my foot to the floor and took up my crutch. As we shifted past the chatting patrons, I noticed Ryan’s eyes never left the Guardsmen until we were out the door.

The fresh air tasted sweet after the stuffy atmosphere in the tavern, but I didn
’t get to savour it. Ryan let go of me and strode to the stable yard. I limped behind him as fast as I could, casting a glance behind. Everything seemed so normal. Children played by the fountain, the markets started to close up for the mid-afternoon break, and people walked around doing their own thing. I couldn’t trace a hint of threat or danger anywhere.

Just what was Ryan playing at?

I crossed into the stable yard. Cielo was saddled up, the leather polished to a fine shine, and both Ryan’s pack and another had been loaded onto him.

“Come on.” Ryan rapped his knuckles on a boarding box, which had been set out to help me climb up. I hopped onto it, but before I swung my leg over to mount, I paused.

“Hey, what about the rest of the stuff you ordered? We can’t just…”

“There
’s no time,” Ryan said. He was using his ‘don’t argue’ voice, the same one I’d heard at his camp in the Galgiza. “We can get whatever’s left in Lanaran.”

“Lanaran?!” What the hell was he thinking? The town was three days
’ ride away. With the weather about to turn as well, we wouldn’t survive a single night in the open with what little we had, let alone three. “Ryan, you’re mad! If it snows out there then what’ll we…AIEE!”

I squealed as Ryan stepped up and scooped me in his arms. My cheeks burned as we jumped onto Cielo
’s back, except this time I was in front. I tried to sit forward to break contact, but Ryan pulled me into his chest and reached over to take the reins. Our cheeks touched, and I could feel his breath against my skin. The Binding stirred, and my scarf almost dropped from my arm. No, I wasn’t going to lose it!

Before it would fly away, I managed to grab the blue wool. Ryan waved a hand to the stable boy, then skilfully weaved through the afternoon crowds towards the south gate. Something must have really spooked him if he was prepared to leave all the stuff he
’d paid for.

Ryan anchored an arm around my waist, and I took a shaky breath.

This was going to be an interesting ride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN


...but though he begged her to leave, she refused and continued to stay by his side...’


Tale of the Binding

 

We rode in silence down the South Road. A bitter wind chased us, gnawing at my ears, but Ryan remained unfazed. Even when darkness encroached, he kept a firm grip on the reins. He wasn’t planning on stopping anytime soon. I was tempted to ask why, but between his focused stare and the Binding’s urges, I didn’t know if that was wise. It took most of my concentration to subdue the curse—not helped by the fact Ryan was holding me against him—and it would only take a misplaced word or touch to set either of them off.

The thought of another moonlit outing made my heart sink. If I had to stay awake until the sun rose again, I
’d turn into a night owl. Back home, I had the safety of my bed to reset my internal clock. Here, I had Ryan’s embrace on horseback, and I’d be lucky if the Binding let me close my eyes, let alone fall asleep.

I sighed, running a thumb over my scarf. I couldn
’t believe how readily Ryan had abandoned everything in Bane. He’d salvaged a food pack and some extra clothes, but he hadn’t picked up a new tent or second sleeping bag, nor had he thought about fur blankets or snow guards for Cielo. Heck, I’d at least wanted a decent hairbrush. The twigs-in-your-hair look was really not my thing, and this blasted hood kept tangling my curls, too.

Ryan shifted in the saddle, lifting his arm for a moment, then replaced it against my hip. I caught my breath, feeling like a child who
’d had their favourite toy taken away and then given back. All I could focus on was the warmth, and how I never wanted him to let go.

“Sorry,” Ryan said. I tensed my fingers around the scarf, fighting the urge to hold his cheek against mine. Well, it hadn
’t taken long for the curse to fall back into old habits. It had given up on the memory thing as this was the first time I’d sat in front, so I could differentiate between past and present. However, this would be the last time I’d experience that luxury, as I was sure it would store this trip for future reference. Therefore I
had
to stay in control. If nothing happened, it wouldn’t matter if the Binding disorientated me later, as it wouldn’t have anything to use.

Or so I hoped.

Suddenly Ryan stiffened. He pulled me closer, casting a glance over his shoulder.

“What is it?” I asked, turning my head slightly so I wouldn
’t drown in his scent.

Ryan didn
’t answer right away. Instead he tightened his hold on the reins. Cielo’s ears twitched, and he turned towards the woodland that flanked the road.

“Just have to take a little detour,” Ryan said. “Don
’t worry.”

I frowned.
It seemed our ‘pursuers’ were still on our tail.

Twisting in the saddle, I glimpsed the road behind. A couple of carriages hovered in the distance, but I couldn
’t see anything suspicious, and certainly nothing that hinted anyone was following us. Further, I found it odd Ryan would want to take cover
now
, after we’d been travelling in the open for several hours. Was he just being over-cautious?

Cielo jumped across the roadside ditch, entering the crooked trees. The jolt forced me into Ryan
’s chest, and my heart shivered. Before the curse made me too comfortable, I leant forward and studied the trail ahead. It led towards a shadow in the near distance. At first I thought it was a deeper part of the forest; however, it was too straight to be natural. It must have been a building of some kind.

But there was nothing this side of Bane other than open farmland…

“Hold on,” Ryan said. “I’m going to circle the woods and cut across the farms to the Bane aqueduct. That should save us some time.”

I nodded, gripping the saddle tighter. An uneasy feeling had settled in my stomach, and I was suddenly not so sure we were alone. Perhaps I
’d been too hasty to judge Ryan, after all.

The trail became a path, which led towards an iron gate. As we approached, I could pick out moonlit windows. I
’d expected the building to be abandoned or derelict, but the place was in good shape. Nothing was broken or damaged, and the front hedges were in neat trim, too. Whoever owned the farmhouse was obviously very house proud, though I had to question why they’d site themselves here. Without a proper link to the South Road, it would be more than awkward to manage deliveries.

As Cielo veered off the path, we passed a sign bolted to the gate. Even in the sparse light, I could make out the crest of a winged horse and two swords, and below it a butterfly and a rose.

I almost choked. It couldn’t be. Those two symbols together…

This was no farmhouse. It was an Unbound Asylum.

A shiver ran through me, and I huddled into my cloak. I knew several asylums were dotted around the kingdom, but I’d never dreamt of coming this close to one. And definitely not so soon after I’d been Bound.

I sank into Ryan
’s arms, my mind racing with stories about the Unbound. It wasn’t a common thing to happen to couples under the spell, but everybody knew the consequences. It only took half a mile’s separation to trigger the process. First would come the Parting, sending the victims mad with hallucinations and convulsions. If the Bound partners were reunited in time, this could be reversed. If not, they’d lose their memories, and their state of awareness would disappear. Eventually they’d be left in an empty void, unable to acknowledge anything beyond pain, hunger or other basic body functions.

And through not telling Ryan the real reason I had to travel with him, I was putting us both at huge risk…

Cielo halted, shoving me into Ryan’s chest. The scent from his collar flooded my nostrils, and warmth spread about my cheeks. Quickly I righted myself on the saddle, and blew out a short breath. I’d never prided myself on my sense of smell, but this was getting silly. Before I could question why we’d stopped, a movement caught my eye.

A boy and a woman were standing by the front gate. The boy was tugging at the woman
’s arm, urging her to walk.

“Come on, Ma,” he said. “It
’s time to go home.”

The woman didn
’t move, and continued to stare into space. The boy pulled harder, and she stumbled.

“Ma!” His brows knotted together. “You know the way
. Let’s go home!”

Ryan frowned. He checked behind us again, then sighed heavily. It was obvious he didn
’t want to delay, but now we’d been seen, there was a risk our pursuer could find our trail. He made Cielo walk closer, so we were almost upon them.

“Hello there,” Ryan said, meaning to be friendly. “Are you lost?”

“We’re fine. Go away!” the boy snapped. “Ma’s coming home with me.” He wrapped his arm around his mother’s and dragged her forwards. “Let’s go already!”

I turned to the woman, wondering why she was so quiet, and my hand flew to my mouth. Her eyes were empty, as grey and washed out as the winter sky. Her gaunt cheeks were tight, and the edge of her tongue protruded through her lips. She stood motionless, her hair flopped over her shoulders, totally oblivious to the protests of her son. She never once looked at him, or us, or the trees, or anything at all.

She was Unbound.

Ryan tensed. He
’d come to the same conclusion.

“Um…” He didn
’t know what to say. “I’m really sorry, but…I think…your mother…”

“She
’s fine,” the boy repeated. “She’ll be better when she’s home again.” He yanked at her hand. “Come
on
!”

Ryan took a breath, about to protest further, but I pinched his arm.

“Ryan, don’t bother,” I said quietly. “He won’t listen.”

“But we can
’t just leave them here,” Ryan whispered back. “We have to…”

A sharp crackle of twigs echoed behind, and Ryan swore under his breath. He
tugged at the reins and sent us further into the trees. Just in time, as moments later, two men carrying lanterns exited the gates. When they saw the boy and his mother, they came running.

“There you are!” one said. “Liam, we
’ve told you, you can’t take your mother out by yourself.”

“I
’m taking her home!” wailed the boy.

“Liam,” the other man said gently, “this is her home now. Come on, let
’s go inside.”

“NO!” Liam shrieked. “I
’m going home with Ma!”

I shut my eyes, covering my ears as Ryan urged Cielo into a trot. He kept a tight grip around me, but I was too numb to notice. All I knew was that I didn
’t want to see this; didn’t want to be shown what might happen to
me
if I wasn’t careful.

Ryan rested his hand on my trembling fingers. He didn
’t say anything, but from the way he was holding me, I could tell he was as shaken up as I was. I curled my arm around his, leaning back into his embrace. His breath ruffled my hair, and I sighed. The Binding could do whatever it wanted. We both needed a little comfort after what we’d just seen.

Cielo flicked his ears, and continued through the trees.

* * * * *

The silver moon was high by the time we returned to the South Road. My eyelids were weighed with tiredness, but I didn
’t dare close them. The Binding had been quick to take advantage of my disquiet following our detour, and I’d been attacked from all sides. Now I was nestled against Ryan’s shoulder, locked between his arms and smothered with his scent. If it wasn’t for his collar stopping our cheeks from touching, I’d have kissed him senseless ages ago.

As we cleared the top of the road, Cielo snorted. Ryan eased back on the reins, but the horse remained agitated. He started to slow down, and eventually came to a complete standstill. His ears quivered.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Are the bandits still after us?”

Ryan looked over his shoulder. He stared for a long while, before he faced front again.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s probably because we’re coming to the aqueduct.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Why should that bother Cielo?”

“At this hour only the workmen
’s bridge is open, and Cielo hates cramped spaces,” Ryan explained. He stroked the horse’s flank. “I can coax him through. We’ll just have to go slowly. Once we’re through, we’ll find a place to rest.”

He leant forward, pressing me between his arms as he encouraged Cielo to walk again. I kept stock still, sharing his every breath,
but it still made me dizzy when he grazed my shoulders. The Binding was loving this.

At last Cielo
’s ears flopped back, and he resumed walking. Soon the dark aqueduct emerged. Very quickly I saw Ryan was right. The workmen’s bridge, sheltered by stone pillars, was barely wide enough to accommodate even a single horse. It would be a tight fit.

Ryan rested his chin on my shoulder, breathing softly against my ear. I swallowed back a gasp. My knuckles must have been white, the way I clung to the scarf. I screwed my eyes shut, trying to pick another sense to distract me. An icy breeze nipped my cheeks, and I seized onto it. It was a lot colder than in the Galgiza. This familiar bite to the air could only mean
snow was coming. With only the sleeping bag and blanket between us, it was going to be a very chilly night.

Cielo hesitated when we arrived at the bridge, but Ryan began murmuring in gentle tones. Slowly, Cielo picked up his hooves, and we crossed the worn planks. It really was narrow. My knees brushed the pillars, even though I was huddled down as much as possible. I kept my left foot firmly pressed into Cielo
’s flank, worried I might catch my ankle.

As we neared the exit, a harsh wind buffeted my face. My hood flapped open, and Ryan flinched. Cielo neighed, misreading the command, and tore off into a gallop. My knee scraped the last stone column and I cried out. Ryan latched his arm around me before I slid from the saddle.

“Whoa!” He regained his grip on the reins, but didn’t slow Cielo down. Instead he steered us off the road and into the fields. We cantered over the soil, mud and grit flying everywhere, and every thud of hooves sent pain lancing across my ankle. I clung to Cielo’s neck, burying myself in his mane. What was Ryan doing? If a breath of wind had him fleeing like this, I’d hate to see what a winter storm would do.

The field ended, and I hissed as icy water lashed my calves. We were crossing one of the streams that fed the aqueduct.

“Where are we going?” I yelled, but my words were snatched in the slipstream. Ryan’s response was to hold even tighter, so tight I could barely catch my breath. Whether that was because of the Binding or because of our speed I couldn’t tell.

The freezing water vanished, and we returned to solid ground. The terrain turned from impacted earth to uneven rock; we were at the border of the Earthfire Mountains.
This was insane! Why was Ryan trying to get so far from the road again?

BOOK: The Binding (Chronicles of Azaria #1)
4.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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