'...but though he begged her to leave, she would not give in and continued to stay by his side...'
--Tale of the Binding
We rode in silence down the South Road. A bitter wind chased us from Bane, sneaking under my hood to gnaw at my ears, but Ryan remained unfazed. Even when darkness encroached, he kept a firm grip on the reins. He was not 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 only 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 up, 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 more than odd Ryan would want to take cover now, after we’d been travelling in the open for several hours already. 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. 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 if 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 been expecting an abandoned 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 was a painting of 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 there were several asylums 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 Bound couples, 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. However, before I could question why we’d stopped, a movement caught my eye.
A boy and a woman were standing at the corner of the 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 further, so we were almost upon them.
“Hello there,” he 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 wide and 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 snatched 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.”
“But 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 whether it stirred anything. 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 the hell 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 to the asylum, 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 were quivering.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Are the bandits still after us?”
Ryan twisted round to look over his shoulder. He stared for a long while, before he faced the front again.
“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. “But it’s alright. 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, and made dizzy when he grazed my shoulders. Goddess, the Binding was going to love this.
At last Cielo’s ears flopped back, and he resumed walking. Soon the dark outline of the 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 was going to be a tight fit.
Ryan rested his chin on my shoulder, breathing softly against my ear. I choked back a gasp. My knuckles must have been white, the way I was clinging 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 it had been in the Galgiza. But this familiar bite to the air could only mean one thing. Snow was coming. And 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, tugging back on a rein. Cielo neighed, misreading the command, and tore off into a gallop. My knee scraped the last stone column and I cried out, falling back. 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 only response was to hold on even tighter, so tight I could barely catch my breath. Whether that was because of the Binding or because we were going so fast I couldn’t tell.
The freezing water vanished, and we were back on solid ground. The terrain turned from impacted earth to uneven rock; we were at the border of the Earthfire Mountains. Argh, this was insane! Why was Ryan trying to get so far from the road again?
I managed to get my head up to check our position. We’d broken into a maze of rocky hills, and were surrounded by sheer canyon walls. Here at last Cielo slowed, winding his way around the boulders, before he stopped at a cave mouth. His breaths were chugging out in steamy whispers, and he was sweating like mad. Somehow I seemed to be puffing more than he was; partly because of the adrenaline rush, but mostly because Ryan was holding me as if I would evaporate into the clouds.
The moment I gave that thought prominence, my arms trembled. A deep hunger gnawed inside, and it was all I could do not to turn around and lock Ryan into an eternal embrace. By the Goddess, I didn’t want to deal with this, not now!
Ryan, however, wasn’t moving. His face was buried in my cloak hood, and he was breathing in short, ragged gasps. I frowned.
“Ryan?” I nudged him with my elbow. All I got in answer was a pained croak. “Ryan, say something!”
With difficulty I twisted round, not caring for the heat in my cheeks as my hair mixed with his. Ryan was slumped on my shoulder, unable to keep himself upright. His strength had left him. What the heck? He’d been fine a minute ago…
“E…Eliza…” he rasped. Weakly he jabbed his thumb towards himself. “Shot.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Shot…did he say shot?
Freeing my bad foot from the stirrup, I flipped myself around, ignoring the twinge in my ankle. Ryan was trying to stay sitting, bracing his arms against the saddle, but the moment I touched him he fell forward, almost pushing us both off. Groaning, I grappled to keep us upright. Still the Binding tried to interfere, begging me to draw him close and give in to the taste of his lips…
I shook my head vigorously. No way I’d let that curse have its way when I needed to focus. Ryan was hurt, and I had to get us off Cielo so I could do something about it.
A cold blast of air whistled through the canyon, and I hissed. My nose and ears were turning raw. It wouldn’t be long before my teeth started chattering, too. I had to protect myself, else we’d both turn to icicles.
I fumbled on the saddle. Somehow my scarf remained entangled in my lap, so I pulled it free and with one hand wrapped it around my face. Just as well, for in that moment something chilly and wet danced onto my forehead. I looked up. Another snowflake spiralled into my eye, and I blinked it away, but soon the air was full of shimmering speckles.
The first snow of winter had arrived.
Cursing, I dug my fingers into Ryan’s arms. Tingles raced towards my neck, and I snarled, crushing the sensation before it took hold. I didn’t have time to play with the spell.
“Ryan, stay awake,” I said. Ryan’s eyelids flickered, before he wearily looked at me. He seemed confused. “Listen to me. We’ve got to get off Cielo and back to the ground. I can’t do it unless you co-operate.” His eyes began to close again. “Ryan…RYAN!”
I pinched his eyebrow, and he flinched. Good, he wasn’t totally gone yet. Grateful for the hours I’d spent with Father taking care of his semi-conscious patients, I put one hand on Ryan’s shoulder and the other on his thigh.
“Lift this leg,” I said, my voice echoing. Ryan murmured, then began to move. He managed to raise his right leg and bring it over the saddle. Now came the tricky part; I had to do the same, whilst keeping him upright and taking care not to knock my ankle.
Bending my good leg, I knelt on the saddle, which made it easier to keep my balance. With some clever manoeuvring, I got both my feet to the same side, and without tipping Ryan off, either. I anchored his arm over my shoulder, feeling a strange sense of déjà vu.
“Ready?” I asked. Ryan managed a brief nod. “Okay, on three. One, two…three!”
Ryan pushed off the saddle, and we descended to the ground. He couldn’t stand, though, and he sagged onto me. His sandy locks brushed my cheek, and I wanted so much to run my hand through them…
I bit my lip so hard it almost drew blood. Cut it out! He was barely conscious- if I delayed much longer, he’d pass out and there was no way I could carry him anywhere, even without a sprained ankle.
“Sorry,” Ryan whispered. “Cold…cave…” He was getting more drowsy.
“I hear you, stay with me,” I said. Grimacing, I stretched out my left foot. I was really going to feel this in the morning, but I’d wrapped my ankle tight, so even without my stick I was able to hobble along. Ryan tried his best to take his own steps, so I didn’t have to cope with his entire weight, but he dragged his feet, and I was afraid he might twist something as well. Not to mention a certain curse wasn’t giving me a moment to breathe, trying to put my hands in places not appropriate when helping someone walk.
Why did the Goddess hate me so much?
Cielo followed us into the cavern. Its edges sloped upwards, forming a dome-like roof studded with stalactites. Pillars of rock flanked the entrance, protecting us from the blizzard. I breathed a sigh of relief. Neither the snow nor the wind would penetrate through; we’d be spared the worst of it. Still, it wasn’t what I’d call toasty. Looking for firewood was out of the question, so I forced Ryan to walk as far away from the entrance as he could.
“Out…take it out…” Ryan was starting to shake. He dug his heels into the ground and gripped my shoulder. “Please…I can’t…”
“Take it easy,” I said. “We have to get out of the snow first. I promise I won’t let you go.”
My heart burned. He was so scared…as scared as I’d been when escaping the bear in the Galgiza. The Binding crept over me again, and my other arm wrapped around Ryan. Before it would tighten into an embrace, I pushed him against the wall. Ryan’s knees buckled and we both collapsed to the ground. Ryan arched his back, trying to keep his left side away from the icy stone. I leant over to take a look, but it was too dark. I needed a light.
Propping him between a stalagmite and the wall, I limped back to Cielo, holding a hand against the stone to ease the stinging in my foot. When I was near enough, the horse nuzzled my shoulder, seeking reassurance.
“Don’t worry,” I said, stroking his mane. “I’ll look after Ryan, I promise.”
I felt along his neck towards the packs. The first thing I removed was my stick; if I had to put pressure on my ankle any longer it would give way and I’d be worse than useless. Once that was sorted, I snatched the bags and dumped them by the cavern’s entrance. Fortunately my night vision was at its keenest, so as I rummaged through I could see what I was doing. I found a small medicine pack, and took out the spare shirt. As I yanked out the fabric, a wax stump rolled against my knee.
A candle! Thank the Goddess. A quick search in the other pack rewarded me with a pair of flints, and soon I had the light I wanted, too.
Picking up the water skin, I hobbled back to Ryan, my make-shift medical kit in tow. He was breathing more deeply.
“Ryan?” No response. Frowning, I pressed my knuckle against his breastbone- the way Father did when he assessed someone unconscious. Ryan groaned, but didn’t waken. Sighing, I took his shoulders- provoking yet another blush- and laid him onto his side so his back was facing me. A dark patch of blood stained his shirt and coat on the left side. I frowned. Whatever missile had hit him had fallen out. That would make identifying the toxin more difficult- no simple projectile would have turned him so stuperous so quickly.
I reached for his buttons- unable to stop my wry smile- but as my fingers neared I hesitated. I needed to see the wound…but that meant I’d have to remove his shirt. Just the thought of it made my heart rumble. A momentary glance and the Binding would drown me with its false desire. And I was exhausted. Even if Ryan was so out of it that it was unlikely he’d remember anything, I knew the curse wouldn’t be so lenient with my memory.
Maybe I could compromise…
Steeling myself, I fumbled with Ryan’s coat, pulling his arms from the sleeves. My hands trembled as I loosened his shirt from his trousers. My gaze lingered on his belt for longer than I was comfortable with, before I turned to lift the fabric to his shoulders.
A bloody pinprick at the edge of his shoulder-blade marked the entry point into the skin, and a bluish-purple substance was oozing from it. I wiped it with my finger, and the odd hot-cold sensation made my eyes widen.
He’d been hit with tranquilliser serum.
I exhaled slowly; I was expecting poison, or worse. This was simple enough- I’d dealt with it many times myself. Ryan’s own body would vanquish the toxin, and by morning he would be back to normal, save for this little inconvenience. Lucky for him I was a healer’s daughter.
First I unbuckled the iasometer and strapped it around his elbow, so the brass pin was above the major artery there. It clicked and whirred, and the dials began to flicker. Moments later they settled on their final readings. His heart rate was in the amber, but his blood pressure and temperature remained stable.
Relieved, I reached for the spare shirt and the hunting knife still sheathed in Ryan’s belt, making sure I didn’t look too closely. I sliced off the collar and a sleeve. The former I folded into a square, while the latter I ripped the seams, making a long band of fabric. Hoisting up the bloody shirt, I tipped some water onto the wound. Ryan hissed at the cold, but didn’t otherwise move. Once I’d washed out most of the serum, I took the skin balm from the medical pack, and rubbed a generous amount over the cut. Then I placed the folded collar on it, before I bound it tight with the opened sleeves.
Once done, I pulled down his shirt, and checked the iasometer again. His pulse had settled into the green, and I wiped my brow. Phew- that had taken a lot out of me. I was shivering, too, and not just because of the Binding. We might’ve been out of the snow storm, but we may as well have been in an ice cavern. It wasn’t long before Ryan started trembling, too. I had to keep him warm.
I closed my eyes for a long while, gathering my strength, before I unfastened the iasometer and tied it back to my forearm. He didn’t need to see that in the morning. Then I staggered to the packs. Cielo had retreated from the entrance as far as he would dare, sheltered between a pair of stalagmites. He was shaking, too. I groaned. I would have to clean the sweat off him, otherwise he’d freeze.
Night owl, indeed.
I unbuckled the saddle, throwing it to the ground, then emptied out the packs. I found a rough sackcloth, and quickly wiped Cielo down. His blanket was also folded amongst the clothes and other assorted items, so I opened it out and clipped it around him. Cielo brushed his head against my hand, and I stroked his nose. Another satisfied patient.
I yawned, but my work was far from done. Leaning heavily against my stick, I stuffed the items back into the packs, then dragged them back to Ryan. He was curled up into a ball, holding himself tight as possible to keep out the cold.
Sighing, I snatched out the fur-lined sleeping bag and blanket. The thought of the night ahead filled me with dread, but I had no choice. I wasn’t so self-sacrificing I’d let myself freeze so Ryan could survive the night. And I wasn’t so callous to let him frost up for my sake, either. However, that did mean we had to share what little warmth I could dredge up.
I swear the Binding had planned this.
Kneeling beside Ryan, I unfolded the blanket and spread it over the ground. That should keep the chill away from our backs. Tensing, I took Ryan’s shoulder and rolled him onto it, so he was lying flat. His chest rose and fell with his even breathing, his shirt stretched taut over his muscled frame. My hand crept towards him, and I rested my fingertips against his breastbone. Still warm…
Ryan twitched, and I snatched my hand back. Fortunately he didn’t open his eyes. Frowning, I scooped up his coat and spread that over him, then slipped off my cloak. The intensity of the cold pierced me like an arrow, and I clamped my teeth together as I spread the cloak on him, too. Finally, I unbuttoned the sleeping bag and draped that across the top. I hoped it would be enough to get us through the night.
With a final glance to Cielo and the pelting snow outside, I slipped under the layers and nestled myself against Ryan, pulling the cloak and sleeping bag around me. As I turned to blow the candle out, Ryan grumbled. I looked to him, and he turned, his nose millimetres from mine.
Goddess save me.
I couldn’t help but pick out the details of his face. The small ridge on his chin was the only imperfection on his pale skin. With a tan like that he was definitely a Northerner, like me. His fair locks were messed up, caught between his ear and the blanket, but I knew how perfectly they framed his face. His mouth was slightly parted, letting gentle breaths flow against my eyelashes. Barely realizing it, I reached out and caressed his cheek. He didn’t stir. White-blonde stubble tickled my palm, and a shiver caught me that wasn’t because of the cold.
My hand lingered at his chin, when I caught sight of the silver chain I’d glimpsed in the Galgiza. It bore a ruby pendant, shaped into a tall crystal. I’d never had a good look at it, but here I was entranced by its beauty. There wasn’t a single blemish on the stone, and it reflected every beam of the dim candlelight. I ran a finger along it, feeling it move with Ryan’s breathing, as if it was a part of him.
I lost track of where I was, and curled closer. I took his left cheek in my hand, then softly pressed my lips against his right one. Warmth filled me from the inside, and I sighed. I’d let the Binding have this one moment. Maybe then it wouldn’t bug me so much for another one.
“Good night, sweet prince,” I murmured, before I closed my eyes and let sleep take hold.