Ties That Bind: Part Five
“Harwood, get up!” Layla knocked once again on his door, the noise finally managing to jostle him awake.
The Eyrie grunted. The last thing he wanted was to have to get up and face another wearying day. It felt as if he hadn't slept at all, feeling just as groggy as when he lay down. For some reason he couldn't place, Harwood was extremely stiff, every joint and muscle as sore as if he'd labored hard the day before. But no amount of traveling could make him feel this awful.
Soon enough, he remembered. Blurry recollections ran through his head, but there was no telling for sure what happened. Had it all been a really bad dream? Had he been attacked? Or was it something more?
The Eyrie staggered out of bed, too tired to care. Whatever it was, he couldn't remember it clearly enough for it to matter. Harwood pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind and just faced the pain. “No more coffee before bed...”
After trudging about his room and gathering his luggage, he left his room to find Layla in the hall. The Gnorbu was fresh and awake, clean as could be and ready to leave. He envied her.
Layla was also horribly impatient. That he did not envy. “What took you so long? I've been waiting for nearly twenty minutes! Whose idea was it that we leave at dawn?”
“Live with it,” he growled, his mood turning all the more sour.
The Gnorbu heeded his warning, despite how irritated she was. Indignant and silent, she follow him downstairs, bag in hand. Not many people were up at this hour, just a few mingling around the dining area before leaving for a day of work. Harwood scanned the room and, to his relief, saw no trace of Barton. Figuring he'd forgotten, the Eyrie left the tavern without hesitation.
The morning was frigid and damp, the first few rays of sun just beginning to peek over the horizon. Mist clung to the townspeople's legs as they hurried off to their daily jobs. Judging by the fair weather, it looked to be a pleasant day for travel. Harwood sighed, his chest aching. At least today showed promise. All of that changed, however, when he turned the corner.
The wagon was gone.
The cart, the whinny, and the rest of the baggage were all missing, leaving nothing but a vacant lot behind. There were no tracks, and not a single way of knowing where it had all gone.
“Barton!” Harwood hissed.
Layla didn't recognize even half of the string of curses he let loose, standing back as she watched him vent. She hoped he wouldn't turn savage, waiting till he cooled down a bit before attempting to speak to him. “Thieves did this, then?”
“Of course ruddy thieves did this!” he roared, his fur bristling. Harwood tried to slow his breathing, the pain in his chest flaring with his anger. Taking a controlling breath, the Eyrie clenched his fists. “Get your bags. We're going on foot.”
“On foot? We're walking?” the Gnorbu said. “Don't we have money to-”
“The money,” he said heatedly, “was stolen.”
“But it could take weeks to...” Layla trailed off, seeing as complaining only made the defender worse. She left the statement unfinished, knowing it was the wiser choice. “We'd better head off, then. I still have a map in my bag.”
The Gnorbu took a piece of parchment from her side, smoothing out its wrinkles and studying it carefully. After a moment, she pointed to her right. “We should be going in that direction.”
Harwood grunted, a nasty headache beginning to throb in his skull. Today wasn't as promising as it seemed.
Layla had the right to feel aggravated. Trekking through a nameless forest was in no way easier than riding in the back of a wagon. Her feet ached, leg muscles burning from the steady exercise. Time and time again she found the longing to complain about the situation, but the Gnorbu knew it would be useless. It would be hours until they reached another town, and whining wouldn't help.
She looked to the scenery about her for entertainment. The path had wound into a small, dense woodland, where trees grew tall and wild. The plants all seemed to have an air of majesty in their healthy state, flourishing their leaves and fronds with pride.
Layla's eyes soon fell on Harwood, who walked ahead of her. All morning he'd been crosser than usual, and not all of it seemed to come from the stolen wagon. The Eyrie nearly looked ill, tired and brooding as he was. Then again, there were very few times when Harwood appeared happy with anything. The Gnorbu decided to keep her distance.
Ignoring the pain in her heels, Layla's thoughts strayed to her parents. She wondered what they were doing on a day like today. They'd probably gotten off to a much better start this morning, going about their daily jobs without any disasters. But she supposed they'd also gone along just fine without their daughter.
When I'm better with magic, she thought, they won't have a reason to be afraid. We can be together again.
The Gnorbu sighed. Even if she did accomplish her goal, things wouldn't be the same. Still, she had to try. Layla wished she were more advanced in her skills so she could simply transport herself to the Lost Desert. But, she thought, even if she could, Harwood wouldn't go along with it.
When her thoughts trailed to the Eyrie, she noticed him stiffen, freezing in his tracks. Layla paused, wondering his reasons. Seeing his solemn stance, she immediately feared the worst. His gesture told her to be silent.
A sound just barely graced the forest, no louder than the beat of a Moquot's wings. It was a small whir, a buzzing that grew steadily more audible. The Gnorbu saw something in the corner of her eye, and she whipped around to face it. A blur was approaching at breakneck speed, almost too fast to see. Layla had a split second to realize its target.
“Harwood, look out!”
The Eyrie whirled around, but it was too late. A Buzz zoomed by, slamming the hilt of his dagger on Harwood's head with brute force. Flying too fast for the eye to trace, it them swooped back up into the treetops.
The defender fell to the forest floor, unconscious. Layla's heart raced, her gaze skirting from the wounded Eyrie and back up to the sky. Panic filled her throat as the droning whir sounded from above. It was an ambush.
A group of Buzz filtered through the trees, landing hard on the ground with their weapons drawn. Many of them wore smirks, as if the battle was already won. The Gnorbu was frozen in place, knowing there was no way she could defend herself against so many. The frightening thing was that they knew it, too.
The Buzz that began the assault stepped forward, a vicious grin on his face. The other members followed his lead, forming a makeshift ring that surrounded the prisoners.
“So,” the leader said, his voice raspy and malevolent, “this must be the Earl's beloved niece. My apologies, but you'll be coming with us.”
Layla felt rough, clawed hands yank her arms back. She gritted her teeth in pain, her mind still trying to process what was going on. This is really happening.
“Let me go!” The Gnorbu tried to wriggle free, but it was of no use. Panicked, she turned the one who was hired to protect her. “Harwood! Get up!”
Her strangled cries were silenced as she was gagged, a rancid strip of cloth filling her mouth. It tasted sickly sweet, the mixture of chemicals making her head spin. She felt her limbs grow numb, her mind clouding over as she fought to stay awake. Layla didn't have the strength to struggle, an overwhelming sense of dread sitting in the pit of her stomach.
And everything went black.
Layla was abruptly brought back to consciousness when her head cracked against a slab of wood. She groaned inwardly, the gag preventing her from crying out. The Gnorbu couldn't focus, dazed and confused at why her vision was blocked by a blindfold. When she was capable of clearer thought, the first thing she comprehended was how horrible she felt. It wasn't just her throbbing head, but an overall feeling of illness, like a particularly queasy case of the flu. At first Layla thought it was the revolting gag that had caused it, but it soon came to her that it was more than that.
Her eyes widened in horror. The Bind.
She had to be miles away from Harwood by now. For all she knew, he could still be unconscious on the forest floor where they'd left him. According to the Bind, he was still alive, which was some small comfort. But that wouldn't matter if something wasn't done soon. The Gnorbu could feel herself growing farther away from him, nausea festering in her stomach.
Perhaps there was a way to escape. Though blindfolded, it was simple for Layla to tell that she was in some sort of wagon, moving along a bumpy path. Along with the muttering of the bandits that had taken her captive, she could hear a heavy wheezing of some other creature. The noise, she realized, was coming from the same old whinny that had been stolen this morning.
The Gnorbu wished she could give the thieves a piece of her mind, but the feeling was outweighed by worry. If Harwood didn't find her soon, it could mean the end of them both.
Pain struck Harwood so hard that he wished he was still knocked out. Slowly coming to, the Eyrie staggered to his feet, only to fail to keep his balance and slump against a tree. Standing wasn't the brightest idea, but his skull throbbed so violently at it was hard to piece together thoughts. Groaning, Harwood felt the back of his head, discovering the stinging wound the assailant had left. The gash hadn't been fatal, at least.
After a minute or so, the Eyrie attempted once again to stand, wobbling to his feet. A wave of nausea crashed into him and the defender swallowed the ill feeling, sensing traces of magic. It was the Bind, he recalled. Harwood wanted to strangle the Earl for forcing him into such risky sorcery, but it wouldn't do him any good now.
The main problem was Layla's absence. The path in the forest was empty, all but for the lone Eyrie. Harwood wondered where the girl could've been taken to, and in an instant, something told him to keep following the path. Trying to make sense of the feeling, he remembered what Bastion had said about the Bind's effects.
“It connects on a mental level,” the Eyrie muttered. His mind must be showing him which direction Layla was taken.
Giving it a bit more thought, Harwood chose to follow the feeling, knowing it was the only thing he had to go on. It was slow going at first as he tried to cope with his injuries. As soon as he grew accustomed to them, however, the defender was making steady progress, straining himself to hurry. If he didn't reach Layla in time, she could end up doing something stupid and getting herself killed. Harwood hoped she would be sensible if she was put in a dire situation.
Chances of that happening seemed close to none.
To be continued...