To Run Away is a YA fantasy novel, set within England, Scotland and Wales. Dealing with a harsh world where using magic gets you killed – if you are a man. If you are a woman, it gets you tortured. Gwyn has her age, gender – and her familiar’s form against her. Gwyllgi are considered demon-creatures, yet Alwyn helps her as no one else does.
I didn’t want to do it. I just had no choice. No alternative. There was something that warned me, some innate sense of self-preservation. Of course, I had just lifted my hands to form the well-known shapes to call my cynefin, my familiar to life – or at least, to my side when a blow knocked me off my feet. The scary thing was – I knew it was a casual blow. The sort of push you’d give to a cat getting up into your space. The rusty taste of blood filled my mouth, and I gagged. The inside of my lip had torn on my teeth, and even as I shot a baleful glare, learned from my familiar, at my attacker – I prodded the damaged flesh with my tongue.
“Now that’s not how you look at me, is it? An apprentice should be humble before their master.” His voice was cold, and as I spat blood out, narrowly missing his foot, I felt the hatred in his eyes intensifying. We weren’t master and apprentice. We were two warring creatures, locked together in an endless battle of wills. Three years under his tutelage, and four more remained. All I’d learned to do was to summon my familiar – and never that when he was around. He’d kill me, just for the creature that came to my call. I yelped when a fist curled in my hair, cut too short still. He pulled me upwards, lifted me onto my feet before shaking me. This was our routine, every time he found me. Every time I tried to run, he found me.
I was bizarrely expecting this. The way my head snapped back and forth, neck giving short sparks of pain before he wrapped his arms around me. That was the only reason I knew we weren’t alone. I refused to follow his leadership. I stood wooden in his grasp even as he turned to look at whoever approached, flame-lit torch flickering brightly. So much for my escape.
“Thank you for helping me to find my daughter. She’d fallen or fainted. Probably saw something she found scary. A wolf or even a stray dog. You know how girls are.” A smile I knew to be false hovered on his lips, and his grasp grew to be painful enough bring tears, prickling, into my eyes. I dropped my head, finally playing my part. The stupid girl, always in the wrong.
Alwyn was going to kill me when I called him. I dreaded his reaction. It had been his plan – I’d been the one to fail. Again. I sighed, muffling the words of the simple man in front of me. What he would do if he found out that we both held the reins of a powerful, forbidden magic. That for me to hold it, as a young woman, was worse than a death sentence. I shuddered at the thought, before the words thrown about over my head caught my attention.
“She’s a pretty one, isn’t she? I’ve a boy that’d suit her. Steady her down, you know.” There was a hint of that man-comradery in his voice. Simple, poorly educated – yet he managed to send a tremble down my spine.
I threw my gaze up at him. At my master. I hated to reveal my vulnerability. My fears were too easily recognised, and I saw the moment he realised. For four more years bound our paths, but after that – he was free. I only had two choices; learn the craft, or be married off. I was determined that my fate was not to be a broodmare for some stupid farmer, with dirt under his nails and no skills whatsoever. Pressed this close to him, I could feel the trembling of his hudoliaeth, his enchantment. It covered the tell-tale signs of magic. Something no one knew about. The power we used inked itself on our skin. The darker the mark, the more the person had used that power. I’d learned more than that, however. More than he knew. More than anyone could guess, looking at me.
I hid my flesh beneath a tighter hudoliaeth. There was no way he could see the shape my familiar took. The dark ink in the shape of a hell-beast, a Gwyllgi. A spectre like dog-creature, black fur and red eyes. A demonic being – and yet, Alwyn couldn’t be further from a demon. He hadn’t tried to steal my soul, instead he’d come to me the first time with a gift. He’d unlocked abilities in me, and there was no way Master Ilwyfen could bind them. I was the stronger, but he was quicker, and in this world where men ruled – he had power over me. I drew in a slow breath, looking around carefully before he pulled me along. His fingers pinched tighter, and I knew soon I’d have a bracelet of bruises around my arm soon enough.
Not for the first time, or the last. I knew that much. He wasn’t the kindest of masters, but I wasn’t the easiest of apprentices.
“Come along, Gwyn. You need to eat, and we need to find a healer to check on your lip. I can’t have my daughter injured, can I?” The threat was implicit. If I didn’t behave, he’d leave me in pain. I sighed softly, and nodded.
“Yes, father.” The obedient daughter and loving father act was ridiculous. I had long, pale hair and eyes that some called blue, but others called grey. He had dark hair and dark eyes – black eyes, with no discernible lighter colour around the pupil. Maybe his hudoliaeth hid our differences. I didn’t want to ask him. Didn’t want to betray Alwyn’s teachings to someone entirely undeserving.
I hated that he controlled me. That everything I was belonged to him until I’d shown my proficiency with the power I was born with. A sigh edged from me, but I turned it into a muffled yawn against the back of my hand – though not without a wince. The pain that trailed through me when I mashed the torn flesh of my inner mouth against my teeth again woke me further. I should have been tired, but instead – I had a feeling Alwyn would be seeing me this night – when Ilwyfen slept and we could inscribe my skin with more unholy enchantments of power. I knew I should have fought or argued, but I followed along instead. I wanted water, and the reassuring comfort of my cynefin where he should always be – at my side. We were meant to roam together, exploring hud, magic.
My only peace came from knowing that someday, I would be free. I mulled on that thought as we walked, only to hesitate as his rough stop almost tugged my arm from the socket. I bit back another yelp, and cast my eyes to the ground. I sniffled, instead, playing my part with weary, detached amusement. I wasn’t going to risk another blow. I had to just behave. Just for a few more hours, until he slept and I could summon Alwyn. I could almost smell the huge beast now, the shagginess of his coat when he curved his lion-size body against my back protectively.
And of course, that was when the mark that connected us, Ansuz began to burn. I closed my eyes and bit my lip. I rejected everything that could come of him showing up. Especially here. Especially now, within the sights of a villager who would know me as a girl able to do magic. I would end up worse than dead. I’d be shackled. My hands broken over and over again. They would cut out my tongue and blind me – leave me vulnerable. Unable to even beg, they’d leave me to starve to death. I would be ridiculed, and worse, abused. Alwyn wouldn’t be able to help me. It all relied on keeping my head down. I kept breathing, and forced the rune to ease up, to stop the burning. To release the heat that inked it darker into my flesh. A breath of relief, followed by a bite of pain as my wrist was tugged roughly, adding another ring of bruises to the abused flesh.
“You need to thank him, Gwyn. Don’t be shy now, daughter mine. You need to remember your manners.” There was a kindness in his words. A lie. Just like all his kindness. Still, I knew my part by now. I curtseyed low, wrist still in that uncompromising grasp. Soon, soon I’d be free of him. Just a few years. A whisper of a growl filled the air and I rose, flinching against him. I don’t know if it was Alwyn’s scent on my flesh or what, but no canines seemed to like being near me. They all reacted like this. That low, guttural snarl that sent fear eating through my stomach. Crippling me. Marking me as afraid with something even more indelible than the magic hidden on my skin, like a parchment blotted with thick, black ink.
“Don’t fret, child. He won’t hurt you.” His words went over my head as I stared at the behemoth. I wasn’t short, a little taller than an average woman, in fact. But this dog – his head came to my ribs – nearer my throat than made me comfortable. A thick, dark grey coat covered him, with eyes that were more amber than brown. I only knew as he was so close to me. A longer muzzle than most dogs I’d ever encountered, ears that were thick and pricked and a tail that when lifted was thick and thicker furred. Swallowing uncertainly, I pressed myself into Master Ilwyfen.
“W-what is it?” A whisper of a comment. A thread of fear, coiled and knotted within the words. I dared not take my eyes off of the monstrous dog.
“Wolf got to ‘is mother, so he’s a mastiff-wolf. We’ve got a bit of a breeding test going on here. Got a litter of ‘em. Your girl should have one. Keep ‘er safer.” I shivered at his words. No dogs ever took to me. But – my thoughts weren’t to be heard. My master made the choice, and I felt more than saw his chin move.
“True, a dog might keep her from wandering off, and if she does – might keep her safe at least. They ready to be picked?” He’d never got me anything before. Why a dog? Why now, of all times? Taking advantage of a free creature to help on our wandering, probably. A dog this big would stop us having to worry about bandits, or using our magic, I guess.
They talked over me, my lip stinging more as I followed the tugging on my wrist. I could feel the heated breath of the male dog walking just behind me. A menace, a fearful creature. He seemed to have no fear, and I cringed from him. Something stopped him from walking just as we reached a row of pig pens. The man, with torch still in hand, nodded towards the third one.
“Just walk in. She’ll smell you, but stand still. The pups will come to you. Let the pup choose you.” Master Ilwyfen was who spoke. I was glad for him in that moment. If he hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have had the courage to unlock my knees and walk forward.
Fear knotted my stomach still, especially when I opened the gate and stepped through, immediately resting my back against it. There was silence. Stillness. There was nothing. Not even a stirring in the flame-flitting shadows that made up the pen. I bit my lip, and stepped forward – only to stop. This was a smaller, leaner version of the male. But she had long legs, and that made her just as tall as he had been. Her head was large, but better in proportion. She had a thick mane on the back of her neck, but her eyes were kinder. She sniffed at my legs, my hands before her tongue swept out across the sweat-stained flesh. She was tasting me. She was checking to see if I were tasty enough to eat. It was a shudder. A cringe. A fear that rose again before she lifted her head and stared into my eyes.
I didn’t blink. I couldn’t even think. Her gaze wiped my mind. I would have sworn on my magic that she was judging me then. And that I was failing. Ansuz began to heat again, and the low ripple of a building growl faded. I hadn’t realised that it had been filling the air. I watched as she startled. As she pulled away from me. I wasn’t pleased, but I felt the rune cool again, and exhaled. A step forward, and I was rushed. I was engulfed. Dogs that came almost to the knee knocked me over. I drowned in thick fur and the stench of damp, unwashed dog. My scream was cut off, suddenly and without mercy.