Ties That Bind: Part Four
Layla slammed her bedroom door as hard as she possibly could, too blind with rage to care if she'd damaged anything. The noise was heard faintly throughout the manor, making her point clear. The Gnorbu couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so much hatred towards someone.
“Of all the good-for-nothing, insolent little...” She was too upset to finish her cursing, settling with plopping face-first onto her four poster bed. The soft sheets pressed against her weight, and though it was a mattress that a queen would envy, it did little to soothe her temper.
A small ukali, green in color, cautiously sniffed at the girl. The tiny silver bell on its collar jingled, alerting her of its presence.
Layla raised her head, blearily gazing back at the creature. “Hello, Fio.” She'd always liked to think of the petpet as being female, as it did look quite feminine. Fio chirped at her, sitting on the bed expectantly, as if waiting to be stroked.
The Gnorbu buried her head back in the bed sheets. “I've never met a more impossible man in my life. Not one ounce of decency...”
The ukali chirped louder this time, insisting that it be given some attention. Layla gave in, propping herself up on her elbows and running her hand over the miniature dragon's velvety scales. “I'm almost keen on not going at all, Fio. But I guess there's nothing to do about it now.”
The petpet only flapped its stubbly wings in enjoyment, not caring about much else. The Gnorbu smirked at the spoiled thing and continued her one-sided conversation. “At least it's only for a few days. And I'm sure he can't be all bad. He is one of the best of his kind.”
Layla thought to herself for a minute, then groaned and rolled over. “I can't believe I was actually excited about meeting such a brute. They never said he'd have an attitude. Why didn't uncle just let me go by myself?”
Although she wasn't fond of her situation, her plush bed and Fio's purring helped ease the tension. She found that she was starting to accept it, however unpleasant it was turning out to be.
After a while, the Gnorbu sat up with an aggravated sigh. “I'd best get packing. Can't keep the sorceress waiting, can we?”
The thought of becoming an apprentice lifted her spirits considerably. Scrambling around her cluttered room, Layla took care to pack lightly, knowing that the rest of her belongings could be shipped to the Lost Desert after she'd arrived. Once she was finished, she had no more than a small leather bag, mostly filled with clothes and spell books and other useful things.
Gripping her doorknob to leave, she gave Fio a remorseful smile.” Be good while I'm gone, will you? No sneaking sweets.”
The ukali whined, but seemed to understand when faced with Layla's stern stare. The Gnorbu patted its head one last time, then left her bedroom, not knowing when she'd see it again.
“Wish me luck, Fio,” she said to herself as she walked down the hall. “I'll need it...”
Feeling uncharacteristically generous, the Earl took the initiative to prepare a decent wagon for the journey, ordering his servants to equip it with everything they might need. The luggage fit nicely in the back, and his most reliable whinny stood at the front, well-rested and ready for travel. It wasn't a glamorous wagon in the least, but it was a stable, well-made piece of work. Harwood was vaguely surprised that the Earl owned something so plain. The Eyrie had the sneaking suspicion that he didn't own it at all, guessing that he probably just bought a new one so that he wouldn't have to give away one of his finer carriages.
Soon it was time for Layla to say her goodbyes, speaking to the Earl and a few servants before she was ready to leave. It was nearly a tearful parting, as she had grown close to some of them, but excitement overthrew any sadness she might have felt. Exhilaration swelling in her chest, she hopped onto the wagon and waved back at the manor.
With time, the Earl's abode passed out of view, and the scenery was replaced with the gentle hills of the countryside. Layla gazed at the land around her in silence, trying her best to get on Harwood's good side. Predictably, this didn't seem likely to last.
Bored of staring at grass, she glanced at the grey Eyrie, who drove the cart with a dull expression. If his attitude was ugly, he had looks to match for it. His face was a mess of scars and wrinkles, with heavy, dark circles resting under his eyes. Layla was glad she didn't know how many more scars he had under that navy coat, and shuddered to think of it. In all, he consistently managed to look disheveled and cranky.
“Enjoying the view?” he said, frowning as he caught her gaze.
Layla scoffed. “Of course not. You look like something the devilpuss dragged in.”
“I try,” he mocked nonchalantly. “Don't you have parents to take you to this sorceress?”
The Gnorbu's sneering grin faded. “They wouldn't take me if the Earl paid them to.”
“You're not actually interested, are you?” she said with some suspicion.
“Hardly. But I'd like to know why I have to do this when you have parents around.” The Eyrie flicked the reigns, urging the wheezing petpet to keep a steady pace. “Reliable whinny, Jhudora's cloud...”
Layla crossed her arms and leaned against the side of the wagon. “My parents are afraid of me. They think I'm a witch and all that dung since I'm good with magic. Especially because we lived close to the Haunted Woods. Weird things happened all the time and they didn't want to risk anything, so they sent me to my uncle. That was a long time ago, though. Uncle Norbury only promised to look after me till I could find a magic teacher somewhere else. Maybe, if I can become a certified mage, I can go back home. But who knows.”
Silence passed between the two, and the Gnorbu wondered if he had been listening at all. She doubted he cared. Layla didn't like dwelling on her relationship with her parents, but she missed them terribly. Too many times she'd wished things would be like they used to be. But that wasn't happening any time soon.
“You're parents were right to find you help,” Harwood finally said. “Uncontrolled magic can be lethal.”
Layla made a face and nearly laughed. “What is it with you and sorcery? Was it some traumatic childhood accident, or what? Don't tell me you're... you're afraid of it, aren't you? If you are, that's the most ridiculous thing I've ev-”
The rest of her mocking was cut off as the wagon jerked to a halt. Harwood turned to her, murder in his eyes. “Countless people have died to that practice. If you had any idea, you'd steer away from it too,” he hissed. “Treat it like a joke and you're as good as dead. Got it?”
Layla went rigid at the harsh scolding, praying Harwood wouldn't turn violent. “G-Got it. Never mind, then...”
The golden hues of the sun sank below the horizon as night began to fall, stars beginning to light up in the black-and-blue sky. Thoughts of a hot meal and a comfy bed filled Layla's mind when she saw a town in the distance, its lamps just being lit. A long day in a bumpy wagon hadn't appealed to the Gnorbu in the least.
Harwood seemed to stiffen the closer they got to civilization, more on his guard than usual. “Put on your cloak.”
“And why should I?”
The Eyrie flinched at her remark. “Because,” he snapped, “your uncle wants you to get there safely. We can't have the wrong crowd recognizing you. Keep quiet.”
Layla was silenced, wondering why she hadn't realized this. Word had gotten out a while back about the Earl having a niece visiting, and she didn't like the thought of being held for ransom, if things came to that. She quickly put on her cloak, slipping the hood over her head.
By the time she was sure she was unidentifiable, the cart had rolled into town. Not many people roamed the streets this time of night, it seemed. It was a humble settlement, nearly worthy of being poor at first glance. The houses were small and battered by years of weather damage, and the cobbled road was in bad condition, causing the wagon to shake and stir as it lumbered down the way.
Despite its stance, the town's taverns still gave off a warm light, reaching out a welcoming hand to the weary travelers. Harwood stopped at the nearest inn, tying up the whinny and removing a portion of the luggage from the back of the cart. Layla fetched her single bag and hopped off the wagon, eager for a rest.
“Lie low,” Harwood said solemnly, and the Gnorbu nodded without a word.
The tavern was bustling with people, most seeming to be of the wrong crowd, sharing a few drinks and talking loudly. Layla stayed near Harwood, heeding his warning. The smell of food nearly made her drool; she hadn't eaten anything but a light breakfast much earlier in the day. The strong aroma of meat and bread was enticing, despite the many unfriendly faces.
Harwood went over to the counter, reserving two rooms that were not yet occupied. With such a gathering, it was surprising that there was a room left, much less two. The spotted Tuskaninny who'd reserved the rooms for them gave him a strange look upon hearing the Eyrie's voice.
After a moment, the caretaker's eyes widened. “Syrus Harwood?”
The Eyrie's brow rose slightly. “Barton.”
“So it is you!” the Tuskaninny said merrily, his wrinkled face cracking into a grin. “What's it been—ten, fifteen years? Long enough, I'm sure. Come, have a drink. It's on me.”
The three sat at a small, round table as Barton called over a waiter. A gangly Bori assisted them, a grimy apron covering his front. “What'll it be?”
Harwood sighed. He knew where this was going, and he'd much rather be in bed than bribed into a late-night conversation. “Coffee, black.”
“I'll have the usual,” Barton ordered. He then turned to Layla, knitting his brow. “Er, is she with you?”
“I'll just have milk,” the Gnorbu said, trying not to call attention to herself. “And some minestrone soup.”
Their orders came fairly quickly, the weedy Bori dashing about from one table to another. As she ate, Layla sneaked a glance at the robust, aged Tuskaninny. No matter how she thought about it, she couldn't see this man as being a companion of Harwood's. It was hard to see him having a friend at all, and yet the two seemed to know each other from somewhere.
“What have you been up to all these years?” Barton asked, taking a swig of his drink. “Last I remember, you'd been accepted into the sailor's division of the Defenders.”
Harwood nodded. “Been at it ever since.”
The Tuskaninny couldn't help but glance at his old friend's scarred features. “I see. After you left, Stormhaven started to go downhill. It was already just a smudge of a town, quite like this one, y'know. What with people moving to nicer places, it didn't last much longer. When things got difficult, I got up and moved here. But what are you doing on land, Harwood?”
“Special request.” The Eyrie finished off his coffee, suppressing the urge to yawn. “Can't give details.”
“Ah,” Barton said, glancing warily at Layla's concealed face. “But I'm curious. Isn't there anything you could clue me in on? Anything at all?”
Reluctantly, Harwood peered over his shoulder, then spoke in a voice almost too low to make out. “It's an escort mission for the Earl of Bright-”
“The Earl?! Why, he's-”
The Eyrie shot him a threatening stare, anger boiling just below the surface. It was more than enough for the Tuskaninny to get the message. Barton smiled apologetically. “Sorry about that... but Fyora, Syrus. The Earl is a powerful man. I had no idea you were ranked so high.”
The caretaker turned to Layla, looking slightly ashamed for his suspicions. “So, you must be his niece, right? I apologize for assuming you were someone else. Can't trust anyone around these parts.”
“Oh, no, it's fine,” the Gnorbu said hastily, “I understand.”
Irritated, Harwood shifted in his seat. “We still have a long way to go, and it's getting late.”
“Oh, then by all means!” Barton said, his round face beaming. “Get some rest. Perhaps I'll see you off in the morning. It was nice to see you again, Harwood.”
The Eyrie nodded. Layla got up from her seat after finishing off her milk. “Thank you, for everything,” she added before leaving.
“Have a safe trip.”
The Gnorbu rushed after Harwood, shoving her way through the waiters and people before reaching the staircase. She hurried upwards, trying to keep up with his pace.
“It doesn't make sense,” she said. “How are you friends with Barton?”
“'Friend' is a funny way of putting it. He's an honest man, but he has a habit of prying into other's affairs,” the Eyrie answered indifferently. Stopping at his room, he took hold of the doorknob. “Be ready to leave at dawn.”
“Why so early?”
“It's best to leave as soon as possible. There's no telling who heard that conversation.”
Harwood had sunk into bed without another thought, relieved to finally be able to take a break. The day had been taxing on his nerves, but it was over. Sleep was a quiet release from the troubles he faced, and he savored it, no matter how brief the rest. It was probably a defect of old age, and the Eyrie could have cared less.
But that night, he woke up.
Eyes flashing open, Harwood was startled awake, a blistering pain running through his body. The attack struck when he was vulnerable, leaving him powerless to fight it. The Eyrie couldn't breathe, trying to force air into his burning lungs to no avail. Writhing, he panicked, knowing he should get up, get help; just do something other than lie there.
But it was useless. Pain throbbed everywhere, making even the smallest movements sting. It seemed to be branching out from his chest, and he could hear his heart beating in his ears, its rhythmic thumping turning sporadic and agonizing.
For what seemed like hours, he stayed there and withstood the torture, still too dazed to even hope it would stop. Fortunately, with time, the pain began to lessen, inch by inch. When it was over, the Eyrie was dizzy and short of breath, feeling more exhausted than he'd ever been before. There wasn't any part of him that didn't ache, his body burning from the strain.
Harwood went limp with relief, thankful that it was finally over. He didn't have the strength left to piece together what had happened, falling back into a fitful sleep.
To be continued...