Notes: For all those sticklers, I did create this world, but I also had inspiration -- namely, lots of fantasy books read over the years and Nettie Roe’s D&D world (Josiah as mage, for eg). The map is, quite obviously, my own pathetic creation (macpaint anyone?), but the location of the kingdoms is supposed to be vaguely European in perspective. Brishnia – the British Isles; Danaeria – Scandinavia; Tilluria – Spain, France and Italy; Cathacus (cradle of civilization) – Greece, Turkey, with bits of Eastern Europe and Russia. At least, that’s what I was imagining. The weather here, though, is really messed.
The Four Kingdoms
An alternate Mag 7 universe with shades of all the episodes. You should see lots of familiar faces, slightly altered....
There are Four Kingdoms on the Dajan Peninsula: Brishnia, Tilluria, Cathacus and Danaeria. For centuries the Kingdoms existed in harmony, balanced by magic, but when King Farron of Danaeria decided he wanted to bring back the old Empire, a darkness returned to blanket the world….
I’ve collected the weapons of the Seven into a small armory. To see them, click HERE
Dense as soft clay, the thick, wet mist enshrouded the solitary rider, seeping through the heavy black wool cloak and layers of chain mail to chill him to the bone. Deep within the recesses of the dark hood, his head was bowed almost to his chest, eyes staring blankly at the dark leather pommel of the saddle, his heart trusting his horse to find the way. In imitation of his rider, the large black quarter horse had his head lowered towards the ground, barely aware of his surroundings. The gelding was as thick as an old oak, and nearly as steadfast, but the thinning air as they climbed up the Mid Reaches towards Four Corners Pass was taking its toll. The beast’s heaving breaths seemed the only thing the rider could hear outside of the soft clanging of the metal hooves on the scree slope.
All around the pair hummed the constant roar of the Rhean, the White River, churning the rock of the mountains into dust, millimeter by millimeter. It had millennia ago carved its way through the mountains, pouring westward into the Brishnian Wash, and eastward into Lake Rhea. A high canyon rose vertically upwards from the rushing water, as deep as a thousand feet in some places down in the lower hills. Up here, the canyon was less deep, but the mercurial liquid itself ran deeper and faster with each rising tier. No one knew where in the mountains it began, only that, by the time it lurched down next to the Pass, it was a force as powerful as a thunderclap. But, if you are next to it for long enough, as will happen to anyone who travels through the Pass, it becomes as white noise, as soundless as silence.
Finally, the ground seemed to level out, and the rider braved a glimpse out at the endlessly green, gray and black landscape. Squinting into the fog, he realized he could just make out the stone cairn that marked the beginning of the Pass, and he exhaled loudly. At that same moment, the faint trickle of the spring became audible, and the rider led his beast towards the sound.
The horse gratefully bent his head to the ground to take a sip as his rider dismounted to do the same. Ironic, the man thought, pushing his hood back to reveal a mane of thick scraggly blond hair, to be enveloped by water and yet still be thirsty. Slowly, he pulled off a damp black leather glove and cupped some water into his hand, his fingers tingling in reaction to the icy cold liquid. Before he was able to bring it to his lips, however, his horse abruptly raised its head, staring back down the trail.
The man looked at his companion briefly, then turned steel blue eyes in the same direction, the fog screening off all but five feet in front of him. Shaking the water from his fingers, he moved to rest the still stinging hand on the hilt of the broad sword at his waist and cautiously stood up. Before long he too could hear the sound of a slow moving horse making its way up the trail, accompanied by the creak of a leather saddle. He stepped in front his war horse to meet the traveler, a casual authority marking his stance.
Emerging from the mist, a black steed similar to his own became visible, the only difference being in the bright white star that split its forehead. The creature regarded him with baleful eyes, blinking slowly as its rider brought him to a halt, then turned its head towards the same trickling stream without another thought.
On his back, a rider wearing a short dun colored cloak pushed back his hood, revealing a youthful face perhaps ten years younger than blond man’s. He had long shoulder length brown hair, which he had loosely tied back by a leather strap, and grayish colored eyes that widened slightly as he gazed upon the other man.
“Mercenary?” The newcomer asked, noting the completely black ensemble, colored only by the silvery dint of the chain mail visible beneath the cloak and doublet. The arsenal of weapons bristling on the war horse’s saddle only added to the effect – the newcomer counted two swords, an axe and a mace.
The blond man stared back, not answering, and the dun rider shrugged. Dismounting, he led his tired horse to the stream then knelt down to drink some water for himself after removing the large crossbow he had strapped to his back. He placed the crossbow on the muddy ground, in easy reach.
“Name’s Vin,” he remarked after gulping a couple of handfuls, “I ain’t looking for a fight. Just on my way to Four Corners.” He looked up into those same cold eyes and frowned, noting that neither the man in black nor his horse had moved since his arrival.
“Well trained horse,” Vin noted. “Mine only ever wants to eat, drink, shit and sleep. I’ve tried to train him, but the minute he smells food….” He trailed off, the smile forming on his face fading as quickly as it appeared under the other’s glare. “Well, I aim on having my lunch here, so, unless you want to watch, I suggest you get back to whatever it was you were doing before I came.” He stood then, flexed an eyebrow at the older man, and turned to the saddlebags strapped to the back of his saddle. He hung the large crossbow off his shoulder casually as he dug for the small leather pouch inside which he’d hidden his food.
The man in black watched him for another minute, then looked down at the stream, his hand releasing itself from the pommel. Recognizing the move, his war horse returned to its watering.
“Chris. Name’s Chris,” the older man said, his voice scratchy from the long ride. He wiped the free hand across his face, noting the thick layer of whiskers that had formed during his travels. He’d have to shave before reaching Mary’s.
Vin turned and smiled again, the expression appearing easily on his face. For some reason, the man in black found himself smiling back, unable to stop himself. The muscles on his cheeks ached slightly at the rarely used expression, and the smile fell away quickly. To hide his discomfort, he knelt down to drink some water for himself.
Vin continued to smile lightly as he pulled the food from out a leather pouch, and spilled three small apples along with a thick hunk of pumpernickel into his hand. Without a word, he offered one of the apples to Chris while he put another in his mouth. The blond man looked at the offering from where he still knelt on the ground, then looked up with a nod.
“Thanks,” he said, taking the apple. Vin nodded back, then tapped his horse on his neck. Leaning over, he fed the third apple to the beast, who nibbled at it greedily.
“See what I mean?” Vin chuckled, as the horse practically inhaled the fruit. Chris stood and leant against his horse, watching the way the younger man unconsciously smoothed down his own horse’s flank with a gloved hand as he fed him. Finished, the horse allowed Vin to throw the core away as it put its nose back down into the stream.
“He got a name?” Chris asked, moving to retrieve some provisions from his own saddlebags.
“Yeah. Winchester.” The black horse looked up at the familiar name for a moment, then turned back to its first love. It had finished drinking and was now feasting on the lush green grass that marked the sides of the rocky trail. Vin patted it one more time, and turned around. Chris held out a piece of jerky, and the younger man accepted it with a smirk.
“What’s your beast’s name?”
“Killer,” the man in black deadpanned, and Vin stepped back slightly. Then he saw the smile twitching at the corner of the older man’s lips and started to laugh. Chris smiled again, more fully this time, and noted that it came more easily.
“No, his name is Solon.” The black beast snorted as Chris patted its thick hide, but it didn’t raise its head. “He’s a cavalry charger.”
“You named him after the law-giver?”
Vin nodded, and bit off a hunk of jerky. The two men fell into a companionable silence, each man’s thoughts turning to what was waiting for them in Four Corners.
Where they stood was at the western end of the high pass that ran through the Mid Reaches, part of the Mid Reaches Mountain Range that divided east from west. Of the three main passes that ran through the range, this was the least used, being the most perilous to travel, riddled with bandits, and at an altitude that gave most people a terrible headache. The other two passes, Eagle Pass to the south and the Tham Pass to the north, were more akin to highways, providing the main means of access between the Four Kingdoms. But if you needed to cross diagonally between the Kingdoms, Four Corners Pass was the only direct route.
Halfway through the pass lay the constantly changing town of Four Corners. It serves not only as a way station for weary travelers, but also boasts the most vibrant mining community in the kingdoms. Up here in the Mid Reaches was where most of world’s metal and other ores could be found, along with some of the more rare stones used in elemental magic. The people who live there are a mix of fortune hunters (seeking those rare stones to sell to the handful of magic wielders still existing down below), miners, hermits, fugitives, the displaced, and a handful of permanent residents who call it home. Neither of the two men taking a repast on the outskirts of the Pass were permanent residents, but neither were they strangers to the community. At least, no more than anyone else.
They say that everyone passes through Four Corners at least once in their life, if for no other reason than to visit the only site where all the Four Kingdoms meet in one place. They also say that, if you stand dead center, you can feel the power that pulses through every living thing, and for a moment, you know what it must be like to be a god.
But no one ever does it.
Because, they say, everyone who has, has vanished. In an eye blink. Gone.
But, not dead. Worse.
In a moment. In the moment.
But for the two men before us, such old superstitions have no meaning. They have never seen this place, nor do they care to. Their business in Four Corners has nothing to do with magic, or power, or rumor. At least, not yet.
By common consent, the two travelers decided to ride the rest of the way to Four Corners together, though the decision was not out loud. There was, they knew, safety in numbers now that they were entering bandit country, and, besides, it was less lonely.
Chris mulled over this second sentiment in his mind as he considered the younger man next to him. He himself was not an old man, not by any means. He sat somewhere between his mid to late thirties, but for much of that time, he had been a solitary individual. Well, until he’d met Lady Sarah.
He shook his head of the morose thought, reminding himself that he no longer had the luxury to grieve over her loss. Truth be told, he’d never had the time to grieve, except on the rare night when he was alone with the one person whom he trusted enough to cover his back so that he could get drunk. But Captain Bucklin was becoming more and more elusive to track down, and times being what they were….
These thoughts meandered through his brain as he wondered at the immediate trust he’d offered this man, Vin. They rode along silently, as if they’d known each other for years, and Chris knew instinctively that, somehow, this man would there to back him up if anything happened. And he’d do the same.
Vin sat up straighter in his saddle suddenly and pulled Winchester to a halt. Chris pulled Solon alongside and offered a puzzled stare.
“Hear that?” the young man asked, peering into the fog. The cloud cover had lifted some with the heightening day but it was still impenetrable past about fifteen feet.
Chris shut his eyes and opened his ears, listening. Shutting out the other noises, he suddenly caught the sound of a plaintive whinny and haphazardly cantering hooves. Opening his eyes again, he squinted in the same direction as Vin just as the dark sorrel mare entered into their field of vision, saddled but riderless. The horse reared at the two sudden obstacles on the roadway, and danced about a bit, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. Quickly, Vin leapt off his horse and approached the mare, speaking softly to calm her down, his hand reaching out to grab the reins.
Moving around them, Chris glanced at the full saddlebags, then trotted Solon a few feet forward, still listening. An angry shout cut through the wet air from in front of them, and Chris looked quickly back at Vin, his steel eyes asking a silent question. The younger man grimaced, and inclined his head in a short nod. With steady movements, Vin moved to ground tie the now calm mare. Remounting Winchester, he pulled the heavy crossbow from off his back and cocked it with an arrow from the open quiver attached to his saddlebags. Chris, meanwhile, unsheathed his broadsword and rested it across his thighs. Together they moved forward slowly into the fog.
Nathan Jackson held his rapier tight in his right hand as he drew another knife from the collection he had strapped to his back with his left. He held the sharp blade in a throwing position and watched his captors with coal black eyes.
The bandits had all stepped back a bit when the Moor’s first knife had embedded itself into the neck of their archer, ending that man’s threat with the bow and arrow. It had been a desperate move on the part of their mark, but not a dumb one. With the archer gone, it would come down to hand to hand combat.
A large swarthy man stepped forward and leered at the richly clad Moor, wanting to get this over with quickly so that they could go after the man’s damn horse…and those filled to brimming saddlebags. The bandit leader drew his heavy two handed broadsword and held it in front of him, pointing the tip down toward the ground. Around him, the remaining five outlaws also drew their various weaponry, including another broadsword -- though much smaller and lighter enabling the wielder to use one hand -- two short swords, an axe and a rapier much like Nathan’s. They circled around Nathan, and he was forced to swing himself around in a vain attempt to keep them all in his line of sight.
“Now, see ‘ere mate,” the leader snarled, “killing our friend there weren't too smart. See, before, we was just going to kill you quick. Now, well…it may get drawn out some, eh boys?” He laughed a bit, and the others chimed in quick agreements, sounding a bit like hecklers at a boxing match.
“Don’t come one step closer,” the Moor threatened, raising his knife higher, his eyes never blinking.
The leader shook his head, and raised his sword point up, his thickly corded arms rippling in response. “Don’t matter who you take out next with that pig sticker of yours, Moorish man. There’ll still be five of us left to take you down.”
“Hardly sounds fair,” a voice drawled from behind them. Abruptly, all six outlaws turned to see a pair of men on horses standing behind them. One had a crossbow trained on the leader.
“Nope,” Chris agreed, lifting his sword up to allow the gray light to glint off of the worn surface before letting it hang lightly by his side.
The leader frowned at the two interlopers. “This don’t concern you, soldier boy,” he said to Chris. The man in black’s eyebrow’s raised, and his lips curled into a sneer.
“Did he just call me ‘soldier boy,’ Vin?”
“I think he did, Chris,” Vin nodded, never dropping his bead with the crossbow. He grinned as the leader’s eyes flicked in his direction, and the man swallowed nervously at the sight of the barbed tip on the arrow. “At least once.”
“I get the feeling he doesn’t like that,” Nathan whispered to the bandit leader.
“Did you just call me soldier?” Chris repeated, the sneer fading into a thin lipped glare.
“Um, no, no, I uh…” the leader looked back at his friends, but they seemed even more at a loss than he did. “I was just saying that this weren’t your fight,” he stuttered.
The leader grimaced and tried to draw himself up more regally. “There’s still more of us than there are of you,” he said, with more courage than he felt.
“Well, let’s see,” Chris nodded, his words slow, “looks to me that the Moor there has a pretty deadly accuracy with that knife of his, and he’ll probably take another one of you down before that person has time to blink. Probably the guy with the small broadsword.” He nodded at the man, who visibly paled in response. “Then there’s my friend Vin here, who’ll take down the guy with the axe.” In the background, Vin grinned as he switched his aim to cover the man with the axe, who shuffled back a couple of steps. Chris pursed his lips, “That leaves, oh, four of you to fight the three of us. Now, Solon here,” he petted the war horse, who bared his teeth at the bandit leader, “will probably run another one of you over with his steel shod hooves, leaving just three….By my estimation, I expect to be cleaning the blood off my sword with your clothes in less than thirty seconds.” He smiled wickedly and lifted his sword up.
Instantly, both the bandit with the axe and the one with the one handed broadsword dropped their weapons and ran, disappearing into the fog without looking back. The leader stood, his thick lips spluttering as he tried to call them back. When he looked again at Chris, he noted that the crossbow was now aimed directly at his own throat.
Chris smiled. “Looks like Solon here won’t have to get his hooves bloody after all,” he noted coldly.
That was it, the remaining bandits dropped their weapons and took off running. The leader dropped his own weapon, waving his hands in front of him in a warding off gesture towards the crossbow, then he too turned and ran.
With a deep sigh, Nathan fell to his knees and raised his eyes heavenward. When he looked back again at his two saviors, he nodded.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Sure,” Vin smiled back, still holding the crossbow close, just in case. Chris dismounted and started collecting weapons. The Moor stood up and followed him a bit, then went to the one dead man, the archer, and pulled his knife out of his throat.
“That was a good throw,” Chris said, his eyes glancing at the quality of the weapon. The handle was black and lined with a filigree pattern he’d not seen before. But then, the Moor himself was not a type of man he came across very often in his travels. His clothes were rich in material, silks and velvets the color of lichen and bark, making the Moor blend in some with his surroundings. The black man smiled healthy white teeth in response.
“I have been told that I have some proficiency with them,” he agreed, but then his smile faded. “Though it’s not something I particularly enjoy doing. I prefer to use them for healing.” He shrugged as he wiped the blade off on the grass. He looked down at the dead man and exhaled loudly.
“You’re a healer?” Vin asked as he accepted the dead archer’s quiver of arrows from Chris to add to his collection. Nathan nodded.
“Of sorts. I don’t have the power of some of the older healers, nor all the training, but I can do some. Most of my healing is not magic though – I work primarily with herbs, poultices and the like. Healing just takes too much out of both me and the patient.”
“Oh? How’s that?”
Nathan raised an eyebrow at the young man. “Ain’t you never seen a healer before boy?”
Vin grimaced at the tone. This new man wasn’t much older than him, if at all. “Healers only ever work for the rich, Moor.” There was a darkness underlining the statement, and Nathan frowned. Chris glanced over at Vin, then looked away. It was not his concern. The man in black finished collecting the weapons and walked in the direction of the Rhean, planning on throwing them into the canyon.
Nathan berated himself for his arrogance, a ugly trait he kept hoping he’d overcome. “Sorry. Where I come from, healers are still common enough that everyone can use them.” He sighed, thinking about the home he would likely never see again. “But, since you’re curious, all you have to know is that, when a healer works magic, he gets the energy to perform it from both inside himself and from the man he’s working on. When I heal someone, I can feel the strength in him, and can direct it to making his skin and bones knit a bit faster. But it saps his energy, as well as mine. If the man who’s hurt has lost too much blood or, if the wound is too big, then if I try to help him, I’ll more likely just kill him faster.” He shrugged again as he reached down to pick up his discarded cloak. He dropped the long green wool cape to the ground when he’d been accosted and pulled off his horse, in order to get to his knives. Now, he covered them again, drawing the cloak tight around his shoulders and pinning it in place with a pewter clasp.
“Oh,” Vin peered watchfully into the fog, his mind only half hearing what Nathan had just told him.
Brushing off any remaining bits of grass and dirt from the cloak, Nathan looked up as Chris returned, his arms now empty of weapons. The healer leaned slightly on one leg.
“Thanks again,” he repeated, looking at the ground. “I, uh, don’t suppose you happened to see my horse pass you by on your way here?”
Chris smiled at Vin, who smirked back. “We might’ve.”
“Ah,” Nathan nodded, biting his lip. His eyes widened slightly as he waited, “Is he, uh, is he far?”
Chris laughed, “C’mon, we’ll take you to him.”
“You heading to Four Corners?” Vin interjected, as Nathan followed Chris to his horse. The healer said yes as Chris pulled him up behind him on Solon’s back. The war horse shifted a bit to get his balance under the increased weight, then turned under Chris’s hands to send them back in the direction that they came from.
“Then perhaps you’d best ride the rest of the way with us,” Vin finished. Nathan grinned.
“That would be most appreciated, sirs,” he said, thanking them again. “I suppose it was a bit foolish of me to think I could ride the pass by myself.”
Chris raised an eyebrow at that, and looked over at Vin, who was still gripping his crossbow in his hands. He was guiding Winchester with his legs, trusting the horse to follow Solon without any trouble.
After a few minutes, they came across the dark sorrel, who was happily nibbling away at a nearby tuft of grass. She looked up as they approached and nickered softly in welcome.
“She’s rented,” Nathan said, dropping off from behind Chris and heading across to her. “Guess I should have realized just how skittish she was. She reared immediately upon being fired upon by that archer, dropping me unceremoniously to the hard earth….You feeling better now, darling?” This last question was aimed at the horse, who blinked at the Moor and almost seemed to nod in response. “Good,” Nathan replied, and moved to mount her.
Once up, he smiled at his two companions. “By the way, the name’s Nathan, Nathan Jackson. I hail from the south of Cathacus.”
“Chris Larabee,” Chris stated. “Brishnia.”
“Vin Tanner,” the young man hesitated slightly, then his jaw set as he appeared to come to a decision. “I’m a scout in the Tillurian army.”
This got both men’s attention, and they looked at the young man with open mouths.
Chris was the first to regain his composure. “How goes it down there?” he asked softly.
Vin looked down at the ground. “Not good. Its only a matter of time now.” His eyes were narrowed when he looked up again. “That’s why I’m here. The Oracle told our Queen that the answer lies in Four Corners….and that I’m the one who will find it.”
The gray-haired mage sat in his room, looking out over the small mining town with a despondent air. Nathan was late. Josiah should have known that the trip would not be easy for the healer, but he also knew that, most of the time, the Moor could take care of himself. But then, these were anxious times. Trying times. Interesting times. The old curse rang through his ears like a clarion call.
Sighing, he stretched his old muscles, feeling the strain of the workout he’d given himself earlier. It seemed to take more and more of his energy every year just to stay in shape, and sometimes he wondered why he even bothered. Most mages when they reached the age of fifty were either dead, or had given into the call of the magic, vanishing into the light like a stone thrown into a pool. You rippled for a while, then you were gone. But Josiah knew he had a destiny, and he also knew what it meant if he denied it. He had to keep going.
These depressing thoughts prompted him to look over to the slight figure on the bed, his hooded blue eyes searching her chest to ensure it was still rising and falling with relative ease. She constantly told him that her life would end soon, and the thought frightened him. Outside of Nathan, who was really more of an acquaintance than a friend, she was all he had left.
Hannah breathed easily where she slept, her long, scraggly gray hair loose across her face. Despite being several years younger than he, his sister always appeared to him much older. It was as if she wore all the pains of the world on her face, in every line, in every frown. She had told him that the rooks were coming for them both, but, though she was sure it meant her death, she didn’t know that they meant the same for him. Rooks are symbols of death, yes, but they were also survivors. Like the coyote, or the cockroach. She told him this with that odd smile of hers, her top lip curling like a drying rose petal away from her yellowing teeth, her bottom lip stretching to compensate. It always made him want to look away. Thank the gods her blindness prevented her from seeing his reaction.
Sighing again, he turned blood shot eyes back to the dirt and rock street below, hoping to see the sight of a richly clad Moor arrive on the back of a handsome horse. They would need a healer for the quest, and Nathan was the only one whom Josiah trusted. Beyond him, Josiah had no idea who Hannah would choose, though she had agreed to the Moor easily enough. As if she had expected Josiah to recommend him all along. Probably, the mage thought, she had. After all, it was what she did.
Hannah had had the sight.
Josiah leaned forward to rest an elbow on the sill, and tipped his arm up to catch his wide jaw in his hand. Closing his eyes, he thought back on what had brought he and his sister to this dreary, gray place. Four Corners. It felt like the edge of the world, as opposed to its center. It was here, she had promised him, that they would find the seven men, the ones who would lead the Four Kingdoms into the next age, whether for good or ill.
When he opened his eyes again, he was no longer looking out at the wooden clapboard sign on the clerk’s office opposite, but upon the world they had long ago left behind. A long green meadow stretched away from him, filled with wildflowers and a handful of sheep. A spring lamb bounded around, looking vaguely for his mother, then mewing when it realized it had lost her. A low mew in response turned him round and running back to her. To his left, he heard Hannah laughing at the sight.
They were still children in this place, and his memory reminded him of the green eyes his sister used to boast, as green as the meadow. Just like their mother’s, before she died giving birth to her daughter. Hannah’s black hair cascaded down her back, having fallen out of the tight bun their father always made her wear. But father was away this day, presiding over a marriage in town, so, for a few hours, they could be free.
Freedom. A word with a meaning as illusory as innocence, or purity, or perfection.
Father had died sometime after Josiah had run away from home, the young man refusing to deny his proficiency with magic just to please the puritanical preacher. He should never have left Hannah there. For a time, he used to write her, hoping she got the letters in which he explained why he had to run away and leave her, but he never heard back.
Then, one day, after he had finished his studies at the wizard’s school in Rhea and was doing some work down in south Cathacus, he learned that his father had died. A letter, anonymous, from someone at home found him, and he had reacted tightly to the news. Part of him mourned, part rejoiced, but mostly all he could think about was her. He thought, maybe, he could go home now, find his sister, and make up for all those years of deserting her to the old preacher’s care.
He remembered that fall, traveling slowly through the lowland hills of northern Cathacus to the old farm. Every mile had seemed to strengthen the foreboding he felt, wondering how his sister had fared without him. Enhanced vision, allowing him to see the magical energy pulsing just that much more brightly in the world about him, tricked him into thinking he saw only darkness ahead.
Upon reaching the outskirts of the little town, he was greeted with hostility by the townsfolk, his distinctively long face and broad shoulders making him instantly recognizable. Without preamble, they had asked him what it was he hoped to find here. When he said his sister, they had turned away in disgust. Only one woman, one who had been a friend to them when small, stepped forward. Hannah, she said, stayed with her now. Wordlessly, Josiah had followed the woman, Natasha, to her home, and into the small walled garden in back.
Inside the garden, Natasha had pointed out an old woman to him, silently painting figures on the back wall. He hadn’t been able to see her face, but he remembered looking at the woman confused. Who was she? Where was his sister? She would only be about thirty five by now….This old woman with the silver straggly hair and hunched over posture could not be her.
Upon hearing his deep voice, the old woman turned around, and Josiah fell to his knees. He knew that face, knew every contour, so similar was it to that of their mother. Hannah gazed upon him with colorless eyes, rimmed with black and red, their green long since hidden behind cataracts as thick as the nails on his hand. Blind.
And mad, Natasha whispered.
She doesn’t know who she is anymore, Josiah. Your father beat her viciously after you left, saying that he would not two of his children turn against him. Hannah became more and more wild, desperately trying to break free from the preacher, but your desertion had ruined him. Everything she tried to do to get away just made him angrier, and I wonder now if there weren't some madness in him as well. It might explain how she fell into this state so easily. When she became pregnant by a traveling salesman, your father burnt her eyes out and beat the baby out of her. The Hannah you knew died that day. I took her in, did what I could but….
I can’t take care of her anymore, Josiah. I was the one who wrote you the letter. While your father was still alive, I knew I couldn’t ask you to return, but now, well, please. I can’t take care of her anymore.
Josiah had listened to all this with the air of a dead man. He recalled nodding to Natasha, thanking her for her kindness. I’ll take care of her now, he had said. Then he walked over to Hannah and knelt down next to her. Despite her blindness, she had followed his movements with her head, hearing every step. He looked at the paintings on the wall, wondering how she could paint. The colors were all mixed up, but he thought he could make out seven figures, all painted with a different color against a black background. Hannah had smiled, and pointed to the one she had painted in white.
Josiah, she said.
I’m here, he replied softly, and I’ll never leave you again.
He took her back to southern Cathacus with him, and took her to the only man he thought might be able to help her, a healer who had the instincts of a wizard. Most healers could only repair the flesh, but Nathan Jackson was unusual. He could do things most couldn’t, including having the talent to see what ailed the mind. The Moor had immediately agreed to help, and took them both into his wealthy home without a second thought. After a couple of years, Hannah had regained most of her faculties and was cognizant. She was still blind, Nathan had said he could never do anything about that, the damage too old and deep to fix, but she at least knew herself. She had her mind back.
That was when he learnt she had the sight. It was something he had always sensed that she had, just as he had skills with magic, but, somehow, her blindness had augmented it. Unable to see the outside world, she could dwell on the pictures in her head. At first, they, he and Nathan, had continued to believe it was part of her madness, until her foretellings started to unfold with keen accuracy. The worst was when she foretold the invasion. This was five years ago.
Back in ancient times, a series of Emperors ruled the Four Kingdoms as one Empire, their tyrannical rule a time of desolation. Much of the population existed in a state of ignorance and depravity, plagued by disease and unhappiness. Fear kept them docile under the Empire, for none was willing to challenge what the ancients termed the Emperor’s “Divine Mandate.” According to legend, the emperor commanded a power greater than any wielded by any magic user, a power handed down in the bloodlines, which promised certain annihilation to anyone who threatened him. Though he rarely used it, the threat of its use was more than enough to keep all rebellions small and limited to guerilla tactics. But the Mandate also had the effect of driving its user to madness. If he never used it, it would only poison his mind slowly, almost imperceptibly, but once used, the madness grew exponentially. More often than not, the emperors’ each died young, often killing themselves before all their sensibilities were gone, or murdered by their firstborn. The Mandate would then transfer from him upon his death to his firstborn or, if none existed, to his killer.
The last Emperor was Magnimus, a petty ruler whose reign was one of the darkest in the centuries long history of the empire. His firstborn was the princess Rhea, heralded as a violet-eyed beauty with a wisdom far beyond her years. No one knows why she did not heed the call of her blood -- the same temptation to wield the Mandate for herself that had driven all her ancestors -- but somehow she fought the madness. However, she also knew she had to end her father’s reign.
Rhea was barely twenty when she rebelled against her father. With the help of her two brothers, Barish and Tallus, and her younger sister, Danae, they murdered their father at the height of his power. The story, now read to children like a myth, went that the Emperor was standing on his throne, his children gathered around him like sentinels. He wanted them to witness the death of the man the Emperor deemed the scourge of his rule – Cathacus the wolf. This young man, a noble by birth, had spent his entire life rebelling against the Emperor’s rule, instigating minor revolts across the Dajan peninsula, until he was finally captured in the high mountain pass town of the Mid Reaches.
As their father had stepped off the throne to raise his sword and take the head of Cathacus, Rhea stepped forward. She asked him not to take the wolf’s head, to show mercy. The Emperor had turned to her with coal black eyes, his dark skin glistening with the heat of the summer day. With a raised eyebrow, he smiled at her, and moved the blade so that it touched her neck just below the chin, forcing her to raise her head slightly to get away.
Why should I do that? He asked her.
Because I ask you to, she replied, trying not to swallow with the blade at her throat.
That is not enough, daughter. This man must die, for me to live.
Rhea had smiled then, her full lips stretching into a leer.
No father. If you don’t allow this man to live, then you will die.
The Emperor had frowned, and pressed the blade deeper into her throat, cutting a thread of blood. You would kill me, daughter? For the life of one man?
Show me, she replied, that you still have mercy in your soul. Show me that the Mandate does not control you.
Her father had laughed, and pulled the sword away. Mercy? He asked. For a killer? A thief? A wolf? A traitor? No, daughter, the only mercy I will show today is that I will not kill you for your impertinence. At least, not today.
Rhea had closed her eyes at that statement, and backed away, back up to the throne. Still laughing, her father raised the sword once more, two handed, turning his back on his children.
As if in a dream, Rhea drew the plain knife out from her sleeve and hurled it at her father’s unprotected back. The emperor staggered, dropping his sword. Next to Rhea, Tallus pulled the knife from his belt, and threw it to embed itself next to his sister’s. It landed in the Emperor’s side as he turned around, his shocked eyes wide. Barish stepped forward next, and drove his rapier into their father’s other side, causing the man to fall, his bloodied hands gripping the metal of the rapier as if he could somehow will it away. Danae, the youngest, barely thirteen years old, walked right up to him, her eyes filled with tears.
My baby, the Emperor whispered on his knees, don’t do this.
Crying, Danae shook her head. I’m sorry, she whispered. And drove the stiletto into his heart.
With his death, so the story goes, Rhea absorbed the Mandate but immediately turned around and handed most of it away. In the end, all four children received a piece of their father’s power, four distinct facets than became known as the four keys. Rhea, the oldest and strongest, took the power of Conviction. Tallus took the power of Compassion. Barish took the power of Truth. And Danae took the power of Reason. Then, the four separated the Dajan peninsula into four equal kingdoms, named for each, except for Rhea. She named her kingdom after the hero who had led to its creation – Cathacus. But her people wanted her honored, and the capital city, which had once been the Emperor’s throne, took her name, as did the lake upon which it rests, and the mighty river that created it.
Over time, this story had faded from history, turned into a fable. Though magic still exists in the Four Kingdoms, no one has ever seen any King or Queen wield any of the four keys, though their thrones are marked with the symbols of each. Magic has been relegated to the mages and healers, not the rulers.
With the death of the Emperor, a balance was reached among the Four Kingdoms, and enlightenment came with the end of the dark. Kings and Queens began to rule with their lords, not merely over them, and institutions based on the rule of law flourished. Education was encouraged in all arts, and, though it took many years, the peace brought an economic prosperity never before known. In the last eight hundred years, very little had occurred to mar the Four Kingdoms, and the civilization was growing steadily into something amazing.
Just because a people are enlightened, though, does not mean that the passions of greed and anger fade. Every soul knows how to breathe both love and hate, say the Danaerians, it just depends on the mix. And sometimes, indeed, often times, the evil wins out. It is only when it invades and wins over the soul of a king that people must truly worry.
And Hannah had seen the King of Danaeria turn.
Josiah had held her in her arms as she cried out, swearing that she could see the darkness filling the Danaerian king like a disease, infesting his bones and flesh and energy. The power of Reason had been twisted into something cold, she told her brother, and it would be used again to break down the balance of the Kingdoms.
Hannah had begged Josiah to take her away, to take her to Four Corners. It was the only place to be safe. She didn’t want to be here when The Danaerian king came.
Five years ago. Five years hidden in this small town on top of the world, watching as Hannah’s dreams came to reality.
The Danaerian king, King Farron, had indeed invaded Cathacus that same year. Queen Kinya, on her throne in Rhea, had been completely taken unawares. There was no warning of his intentions, he simply rolled into the capital one day, ostensibly to celebrate the Rhean Harvest Festival, and had his troops take over. He murdered her and her family in her own throne room.
On the same day, a contingent of Danaerian troops crossed the Tham Pass in the High Reaches and invaded Brishnia. With Cathacus under his control, Farron, now Emperor Farron, had the combined power of two kingdoms with which to take the Brishnian capital, Adenn. The Brishnians fought well, but, even with supplies from Tilluria, Adenn fell in a matter of a few months.
And, of course, the Emperor arrived in time to murder the Brishnian royal family, including burning down Adenn castle. No one survived. The magic that founded them became his to wield.
Finally, he turned his eyes on Tilluria. The last Kingdom. While Brishnia had been attacked, the Tillurians took the opportunity to prepare for the invasion they now knew was coming. It was part of the reason they hadn’t been more supportive when Adenn called for help. They had themselves to worry about. The Queen in Tallus, Queen Selene the second, sent out the call to all the people of the Four Kingdoms to join the Tillurian fight, and many had answered the call. But it was not enough. Four long years later, Tallus and its Queen were on the brink of disaster.
Queen Selene had never put much stock in the magical arts, or legends, but desperate times forced her to do something she thought she never would. She consulted an Oracle. Only a small handful of Oracles still lived in the Dajan, most having been killed long before they could grow into adulthood because of the danger they represented. Oracles were those with the sight, the ability to see the future. Not everything they saw came true, because, of course, the future is not set, but, somehow, they can guess at what will occur, because Oracles can see into the hearts and minds of the people. The Queen knew that one lived in her city, a young boy hidden from the troops by his parents. For some reason, she hadn’t had him killed when she first learned of him. Now, she knew why.
The boy had been trembling when she brought him before her, and swore an oath of fealty that caused the Queen to frown. It had sounded like a prayer for the dead. She had sequestered him in a room and asked him if he knew what could save them. He’d blinked at her with dark brown eyes, tears rolling down his face. He didn’t know. All ahead was a blur.
But there must be something you can give me, she’d begged. There must be a way to stop Farron. The Kingdoms cannot descend back into the dark ages again. Please.
The boy covered his face, hiding his fear from her. Finally, he looked up, his white teeth worrying at his lower lip. His eyes, however, were clear.
There is a scout in your army, he told her, his name is Vin Tanner. Send him to Four Corners. If Farron is to be stopped, it will begin there, with him. Him and six others. Tell him to seek….he’d paused then, and rubbed his head. I’m not sure, he stuttered. I can see them – seven figures painted on a wall by a woman with silver hair. A leader will bind them, and Farron will fear them. But whether they will succeed…that I can not see.
He stopped then, and began to cry again. Selene drew him close and rocked him, begging the child not to worry. She would send for this Vin Tanner, tell him to seek their future in the Four Corners Pass.
Suddenly, the boy stopped crying. The woman, he said. Tell him to trust the woman with no eyes.
All this, Hannah had seen, as if she had been in the room with them. Josiah knew that the scout was coming, and that he would be one of the seven. His sister had sworn to it, had seen the scout travel the war ravaged Kingdom of Tilluria to come here, his only thought to find the woman with no eyes.
Josiah’s vision cleared, and he focused back on the present. The sky outside was still a heavy gray, but the clouds were moving swiftly enough across the rooftops to occasionally reveal the huge granite mountains that surrounded them. There was even a lightening to the atmosphere that promised the sun might come out later. It was nearly noon, and time for lunch. Nathan was supposed to be here yesterday.
Sighing heavily, Josiah favored his sister with one more look, then stood to leave the small attic room. Stretching, he meant to look once more outside to see if Potter’s Mercantile was open so he could get some provisions. Instead, his eyes caught a figure slipping across the roofs opposite, a man who just minutes before had been invisible due to the fog.
He was dressed all in black, including a black mask across his mouth and nose, and was crawling across the tiles of the hotel like a cat. Across his back was a satchel, looking fat with goods. The man stopped, as if he could sense he was being watched. Looking around, the stranger scanned the road below from a crouched position, then looked up. When he saw Josiah staring at him open-mouthed from the window opposite, the man, young, with startlingly bright green eyes, tilted his head, and saluted him.
Josiah took a step back, unsure what to do about this discovery. The man was obviously a thief, but, for some reason, Josiah found himself hesitating to call out and stop him. Then, just as he made the decision to raise the cry, the fog descended again, and the man disappeared into the mists. When it cleared again, the figure was gone. If he was ever there.
Shaking his head, Josiah scanned the rooftops for another minute, then turned to exit the room.
It was closer to mid afternoon when the threesome finally rolled into Four Corners, exhausted but thankful that no one else had seen fit to block their path. Nathan, unused to so many hours on horseback, dismounted and staggered a few feet, before catching himself on the dark sorrel’s saddle.
Vin smiled at the man’s discomfort, and leapt from Winchester with ease. The man in black, the scout noted, did the same. A couple of stable boys ran up, asking if they could take the horses. Nathan nodded gratefully, pulling his saddlebags and single fat carpetbag from off his rented mare’s back. He gave each child a silver coin, and promised more if they oiled his saddle for him as well.
Vin and Chris, on the other hand, chose to stable their own horses, so followed the boys to the livery. They bid farewell to the healer, promising to see him later in Inez’s tavern. When Nathan yelled after them that he didn’t know where that was, they just favored him with small smiles.
You will soon, they said together.
Left to his own devices, Nathan sighed, threw the saddlebags over his shoulder, and appraised the town, the carpetbag gripped by both hands in front of him. He tapped his knees against the cloth carry-all so that it bounced against his legs, a strange nervousness needling at his chest.
There wasn’t much to this town, but then, what did he expect up here? Four Corners was made mostly of wood and stone, with a single main street. A couple of extra dirt roads exited off the main, but they clearly faded into nothing after a few yards. The buildings were mostly two story, though some reached three floors and most looked to have attics. Only one hotel existed here, although there was also a hostel, a small inn and a boarding house called Victoria’s. He guessed that most of the stores also boasted room to rent, as well as, of course, the one public house. Seeing the flapping sign that proclaimed itself to be Inez’s Tavern he understood what Chris and Vin had meant by that small smile. You couldn’t get lost in a town this small.
Wiping some moisture from his forehead, he shrugged his broad shoulders, adjusting the heavy saddlebags, and headed for the hotel. After securing himself a room, he’d go to get some lunch at Inez’s and wait for Josiah to contact him. It seemed as good a place as any.
Above him, on the roof, a silent black-clad figure watched the richly clad Moor enter the hotel, a crooked grin on his face beneath the mask. Perhaps this forced layover in Four Corners wouldn’t be so fruitless after all, the thief mused, patting the bag on his back. What Josiah had perceived as full, the thief felt to be half empty.
Then he recalled the two soldier-like men the rich Moor had arrived with, wondering if they had come together, and if he might want to avoid anything that might cause him to earn their wrath. He decided a little bit of spying might be necessary. Straightening his shoulders beneath the heavy black pack, he looked across at the livery and nearby tavern and quickly plotted the most efficient means to get across the single street without being seen.
Inside Inez’s Tavern, the greasy smoke from the cheap candles and ancient oil lamps lay thickly over the room, blackening the white painted ceiling between the dark timbers holding it up. Bent low, the customers all nursed their drinks gloomily at this early hour, most bemoaning the fact that they were without commissions this week up at the mines. One man, however, a mercenary sporting only a few streaks of gray in his nearly black hair and long moustache, was one of the few travelers visiting the wet burg, awaiting his oldest friend and wondering at his late arrival.
They did not often get together anymore, what with the war against Farron keeping them both busy, but Chris had wanted a meeting to measure the progress of the underground guerilla movement that the moustached man ran. With a slow exhale, he brought the beer to his lips and followed the movements of the beautiful owner as she sashayed around the room, lazily wiping the froth from his moustache with the back of his hand as he did so. As such, he did not notice the stable boy that pushed open the outer doors, scanned the room, and then made a quick beeline for his table.
“Captain Bucklin Wilmington?” The young voice challenged. “My name is JD Dunne and I have come to offer you my services as your squire!”
The drink that Captain Bucklin “Buck” Wilmington had been halfway through downing spewed from his lips like a geyser. Turning startled blue eyes up at the speaker, all he could think to say was, “Say what?”
“I said,” the boy replied, brushing long, loose, black hair away from his face, “that my name is JD Dunne, sir, Captain, sir, and…”
“That’s what I thought you said, kid,” Buck nodded, interrupting him. “How in the name of holy hell did you find out who I am?”
“Are you kidding? You’re the talk of the town, Sir Wilmington, sir. Or is it Captain Wilmington? I had a bit of a fight with one of the stable boys about that. He seems to think that, since Brishnia fell, and since you ain’t the Captain of the Guard there anymore that you are no longer a Captain, but well, I told him he was full of crap. Don’t mean your just a knight now, right? I mean, Colonel Matheson, who used to be a Colonel in the Tillurian army before coming here to buy the Matheson Mines, well, he ain’t a colonel no more but everyone still calls him…”
“Kid, kid!” Buck waved his arms in front of him, trying to quiet the rambling boy. “By the Gods, do you always talk this much?”
“Sir, I’m sorry, sir, but….”
“No, no, no, no more,” Buck shook his head, and wiped some of the beer spittle from his thick black moustache, smoothing it down in an obviously habitual move. “Okay. In ten words or less, how does everyone know who I am?”
“Ten words? Um….” The young man scrunched up his face, pushing back his dark brown felt cap in order to scratch at his head. Large brown eyes sought the ceiling as he mentally counted his words, the innocence in them matched by the unlined face. After a few minutes of watching the lad squirm and his lips and fingers soundlessly counting, Buck rolled his eyes.
“Fine kid. Forget the word limit, just tell me what you know.”
JD smiled brightly, his youthful enthusiasm pouring out him with a fervor Buck rarely saw these days. Pulling his hat back down, the young man sat down opposite Buck at the small table and leaned forward conspiratorially.
“Well, see, couple of the miners in town used to be guards in Brishnia, you know? Said they would know your arrogant swagger anywhere. Anyway, the story kind of spread, you know? And me being a stable boy and all, well, you get to hear a lot of rumors….”
Buck nodded, and sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. “Wonderful. Chris is going to kill me.”
“Chris?” JD perked up again, causing Buck to give him the fisheye. The boy practically shone with the aura of helpfulness.
“You know something else, kid?”
JD nodded, eager to please. “Yeah, A couple of guys rolled into town an hour ago, one of ‘em was called Chris.”
Buck frowned. “Dressed all in black?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s him. Had a broadsword on his hip and the fattest black horse I’ve ever seen. That beast must be incredible to ride!” His eyes took on a slightly far away quality, and Buck sneered.
“Well, trust me kid, that horse isn’t for the likes of you. He’ll throw you off soon as look at you. Especially if you approach wearing that hat!” He pointed lazily at the brown, oddly shaped, rounded cap sitting atop the boy’s head. It seemed more like a jester’s hat than that of a stable boy. Buck grinned as JD’s hands instinctively went up to touch the contraption defensively. A look very similar to a sulk crossed the boy’s face.
“What’s that supposed to mean? First of all, I’ll have you know that this hat is the latest style out of Rhea, so the tailor says. Second of all, for your information, Captain, I am the best rider in Four Corners. No one can beat me in a race. I got skills with a horse I bet would put even you to shame. Certainly that gray quarter horse you ride ain’t no match for my new bay. ”
“You gotta a horse, son?” Buck replied, his lips curving into a cold leer as he finished off his beer and stood to leave. “Well, good for you. Perhaps you and your hat should consider getting on it and out of my sight before I decide to take that smart remark about Beavis out of your hide.”
With a nod, the Captain left the table and walked out of the tavern, leaving a slightly bemused kid in his wake. Then the young man’s face took on a determined frown and he got up to follow the tall soldier out the door.
Buck scanned the muddy street, looking for his best friend. Chris would be staying at the Virginia’s Boarding House, as was customary, but he might have decided to go visit Mary at the Clerk’s office first. He stepped a bit further out into the street, when someone’s yell caught his attention. Looking around, he suddenly found himself shoved forward with a great deal of force. He was about to turn and yell at his assailant when he saw the large chunk of roof lying in the space he had so recently occupied.
“You okay, Captain?” a young, slightly shaky voice asked. Buck turned to look upon his savior, surprised to see the kid sitting on the ground next to him, panting heavily. The kid flashed him a grin.
“Good thing I decided to follow you, huh?”
Knowing full well that the roof could have killed him sparked a seed of fear in the older man, then his anger at the stupidity of the situation made him lash out at the only person nearby to take it.
“Are you out of you mind, boy? You could have got yourself killed, then what would I tell your mother, huh?”
JD’s eyes widened, “I ain’t got no….”
“It was a damn foolish thing to do! What iffin I’d thought to pull my knife on you before I realized what had happened? And did you have to push me so hard into the ground that you nearly knocked all my teeth out? These teeth ain’t young, kid, and I prefer ‘em all in one piece! What kind of luck would I have with the ladies without them, huh?”
From somewhere behind the two sprawled figures, a deep voice rang through the street, “Wouldn’t matter much, Buck. You’re mug is already so ugly that I don’t think anyone would notice.”
Buck spun around, jumping to his feet quickly, a huge grin spreading across his handsome features.
“Afternoon, Buck,” Chris said, leaning heavily on one hip, his face clearly amused. “Did I interrupt something?”
“Chris!” Buck exclaimed huskily, reaching out to embrace the other man in a huge bear hug. “You old war dog! Gods, it’s good to see you! How’re you doing?” Chris just stood stock still, accepting the hug but refusing to return the affection.
“Easy Big fella,” Chris replied his voice a bit strained, “folks’ll talk.” Buck laughed heartily and let the man go.
“You here to see Mary and Billy?” Buck asked, stepping back to brush some of the mud from his clothes. It was something of a lost cause, but didn’t matter much since the color Buck chose to wore these days was as close to mud as one could get. Well, except for the bright red bandanna he wore around his throat.
Chris nodded, and looked over at the kid. Behind Buck, the kid had also gotten to his feet, and was now blinking curiously at the man in black as he brushed the dirt from his breeches. JD stood about five foot eight, and was maybe twenty years old, not young, but no where near old enough to be hanging about in bars yet. His clothes marked him as a native, dressed like a stable boy in mostly brown, but wearing a rather silly looking brown cap that made the kid seem younger than he was.
In return, the kid stared at Chris with an odd expression, almost akin to awe. Then the young man’s eyes darted to look at the long haired man standing behind the man in black, the one that had come in with him earlier. He looked like a tracker, or a scout. Vin was staring up at the roof, clearly curious as to why it had fallen, his face registering annoyance because he couldn’t discern the cause.
Buck noticed the new man at the same time, and raised an eyebrow. “He with you?” he asked curiously, nodding at the scout. Vin looked away from the roof to look at Buck.
“Yep,” Chris answered. “The kid with you?”
Buck wheeled around to look at JD, and his eyes smoldered. “Not in this lifetime. Git along, boy, before I start to get really angry.”
JD’s mouth opened, and he looked from Chris to Buck and back to Chris. “I want to be his squire,” he told the man in black. For some reason, JD could sense that this Chris person had some kind of authority over the Captain. Chris raised an eyebrow.
“Buck tell you no?”
“Well, yeah, but, I mean, aren’t knights supposed to have a squire? And, well, Captain Wilmington here, he looks like he really needs one,” JD pleaded. In the background, Buck’s face blanched slightly. Chris turned steely eyes to bear on his old friend.
“He knows who you are?” he asked coldly.
“There are some guardsmen here in town, apparently. They recognized me. They might recognize you too…” Buck trailed off, grimacing.
“Damn,” Chris muttered. “Guess that means a short stay.”
JD shared a puzzled look with the long haired man standing behind Chris, then looked back at the Captain.
Buck was tilting his head to the side and rubbing his neck. “Well, whatever. You going to go see ‘em now?”
“Yeah. I’ll meet you at Inez’s later. Vin,” he turned to look at the Tillurian scout, “thanks for watching my back. I’ll see you later.” With a nod, the blond mercenary walked off, making a beeline for the Clerk’s office, his eyes glancing at the clapboard sign that proclaimed M. Travis as the head clerk.
Buck sighed heavily and looked at Vin. He smiled good-naturedly. “Buy you a drink, scout?”
Vin was watching Chris walk away, then looked back at Buck. “Sounds ideal,” he smiled in return. Together, they walked back into the pub, ignoring the rubble that still marked the entrance. Behind them, JD just stood there, unsure now of what to do. Sputtering a swear under his breath as he realized that he still hadn’t got anywhere with the Captain at that moment, he stomped off in the direction of the stables.
On the roof above them, the thief was lying against the tiles, panting slightly, staring up at the blanket gray sky. How could he have been so clumsy? He’d nearly killed that man by trying to get too close. He’d sorely misjudged the quality of the tavern roof. But at least he’d learned something. Captain Buck Wilmington, former Captain of the King’s Guard in Brishnia before its fall to Farron. And the man in black, the one dressed as a mercenary….no mere mercenary spoke to a Captain that way. The air of authority gave him away, as well as the black war horse he rode in on. Chris. Otherwise known as Sir Christran de Larabee – the Brishnian Paladin. He was the King’s personal champion, and if he were here, then perhaps the rumor about the missing prince was true.
Everyone had heard the hopeful tale, the one that described a hero on a black steed barreling away from the burning castle in Adenn, the three year old Prince William ensconced in his arms. Most thought it was just the imagination of some who refused to believe that their beloved King had died, but if this Chris were the Brishnian Paladin, well then.
Mary and Billy, huh? The thief’s smile broadened, dimples bright on his face. Might that be Princess Miriam, the King’s sister? And could Billy be a certain royal nephew?
Chuckling now, the roof debacle forgotten, the thief shook his head in amazement. This day was just getting better and better.
Mary looked up from the papers she was scanning as Chris walked in, the customary smudges of ink on her face making her seem even more beautiful than when he last saw her. When her clear blue eyes met his, her whole face lit up.
“Oh, thank heavens, Chris,” she breathed, coming around the desk to greet him. He offered her a slight bow, and she let him kiss her hand. Allowing herself a small laugh, she smiled, “I’ve almost forgotten what that felt like.”
“How are you, highness?” Chris asked.
“Gods, Chris, I’ve asked you before to stop calling me that,” she admonished, drawing a strand of light blond hair out of her face with a shaky hand. Then her expression quieted. “Any news?”
Chris shook his head. “Tilluria still stands, but not for long. I’ve spent the last few months helping them as best I can, but most of the mages are dead, and more are defecting. The lure of Farron’s magic draws them like flies. Fact is, the people tire of the fight, Mary. They want this over, one way or another. I don’t think they care anymore. They don’t know what Selene’s death will mean at Farron’s hands.”
Mary shut her eyes, and sighed. “I thought as much. I guess, then, I should get used to calling William by his new name. Not that he really remembers his past anymore. Speaking of which,” She smiled at him again, then turned her head to shout out the back. “Billy! Chris is here!”
A loud whoop of excitement rang through the house, and an eight year old terror exploded into the room, screaming Chris’s name over and over again. His face splitting into a grin for the third time that day, the Paladin quickly scooped up the boy into his arms and hugged him fiercely.
“How’s my boy?” Chris asked, spinning Billy around. Gods, the man thought as he listened to the boy’s rapid fire reply, how I never want to let you go.
The sun was well below the horizon when Chris finally emerged from the clerk’s office and looked up at the unusually clear sky. It wasn’t often you saw the stars in this perpetually wet place, but there they were, glistening without a care in the world. The moon was half full, and smiling down at the word. The Paladin’s heart and stomach were full from the dinner he’d had with his “family,” and now he was looking forward to a few drinks at Inez’s.
Just then, a familiar pair of voices cut through the calm, and he looked down the street to see Buck and the kid he’d been with earlier arguing again. With an amused smirk, he silently made his way over so that he could listen to them.
“I’ve saved your life twice now, Captain, TWICE!” JD stuck two fingers in the tall man’s face, and watched as Buck shoved them away.
“I hardly call smashing a perfectly good bottle of whiskey over the head of an irate drunk saving my life kid,” Buck groused. “All you did was ruin perfectly good alcohol, and, more to the point, Inez made me, ME, pay for it!”
“Oh, don’t give me that. I heard Jed there say he was going to kill you for what you did to his wife, saying you made a pass at her…”
“Kid, what I do with other men’s wives ain’t none of your business.”
“Well no one else was going to stick up for you. They say you’re a real ladies man, Captain,” the mocking tone the kid was now laying on the title was not lost on Buck, but JD wasn’t even close to finishing, “and I heard some guys say they might run you out of town soon because of all your galla…galla…”
“gallivanting?” A quiet voice drawled from the alleyway behind them. Both men turned to seek the source of the voice, but the speaker was well hidden. Buck frowned as he tried to see the invisible man, but JD was nodding brightly.
“Yeah, gallivanting. So when I saw Jed in there, threatening you, and reaching for his dagger, well, I figure I had no choice.”
Buck’s dark blue eyes were now turned back squarely on JD again, the mysterious voice forgotten. “No choice? Could you at least have used a less expensive form of whiskey?”
Laughter greeted this statement, and this time Buck easily discerned the source. Chris was leaning against a boardwalk post a little ways up the street behind JD, watching them with great amusement. Unable to stop himself, Buck found himself smiling in return. He hadn’t seen Chris looking this happy in a long time.
“I’d say you ought to thank the kid, Buck,” Chris said. Buck forced a scowl, but found it increasingly difficult to maintain his anger. He looked back at JD, who appeared very smug. Chris continued, “Maybe he’s right, maybe you should have squire.”
“I don’t need no squire, Chris,” Buck argued. “Hell, I haven’t had one in years.”
JD sighed, putting his hands on his hips like a fishwife. “Well, hell, that’s cause you used to have a whole guard at your back, Buck. But they’re all gone now, just another part of Farron’s army…” JD stopped, it suddenly occurring to him that what he’d just said may not have been the best way to keep the jocular mood intact. Indeed, both the Captain and the mercenary’s faces had clouded over at the statement.
“Oh, jeez, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Nah, kid,” Buck said, his face softening, “for once, you make sense. But I still think you’re too young for what I do.”
“I’m older than I look,” JD interrupted. It was true. Most people thought he was maybe seventeen or, at most, eighteen, not the twenty two that marked him.
Buck frowned. “Yeah, maybe, but, look, my life…it isn’t pretty, you know? Most of it is spent wallowing in mud up to my ears while snaking up on enemy positions. I exist on the losing side of an ugly battle now, kid. I’ll probably die before this is all over. Is that want you want for yourself?”
JD shut his mouth, his brown eyes watching Buck’s face with great concentration, as if he were memorizing the straight jaw, sharp blue eyes, dark hair and even darker moustache. Buck really wasn’t that much older than him, maybe thirty eight or so, but he had that air of experience that JD so badly wanted to have. Finally the kid shrugged.
“You’re not on the losing side, Buck. You’re on the right side. That can’t ever lose.”
Chris shifted to stand up straight and came to stand by Buck, his hands gripping his sword belt. He looked at Buck, then at the kid.
“You want to die young, kid?” Chris asked solemnly, no hint of a smile on his face anymore. “Then, go ahead. Buck here ain’t gonna stop you.”
JD looked at Buck for confirmation, seeing a seriousness on the ladies man’s face that he had never seen before. “That true?”
Buck didn’t respond for a moment watching Chris, then nodded. “Sure kid,” he paused and stepped back, his eyes narrowing, “You can be my squire. But first,” a wicked grin suddenly lit upon the older man’s features, “you really got to get rid of that damn, stupid hat!”
“What? What’s wrong with my hat?” JD demanded, his hands instantly moving to grab hold of the felt cap. But he wasn’t quick enough. Buck snatched it from off his head and flung it down the street towards the pub.
“Hey!” JD yelled, running after it, “What was that for?”
“And get a hair cut, kid! You got more hair covering your eyes than an old sheepdog!” Buck called after him. JD ran back almost immediately upon retrieving his hat, smashing it on his head with great aplomb. When Buck reached for it again, the kid ducked and threw the bit of mud he’d scooped up when he’d gotten the hat to smack Buck square in the chest. The Captain bellowed in anger, and JD took off, laughing and screaming “this guy’s crazy!” Buck took off after him, reaching down to scoop a good handful of mud for himself to throw.
Chris was still grinning as they disappeared around a building, then stopped as he realized he could hear someone else laughing. Looking quickly to his left at the dark alleyway, he saw a young man leaning his shoulder casually against the building. He must have been the one who had offered JD the word “gallivanting.” Head to toe in black except for a short silver dagger at his waist, the man stared guilelessly back at mercenary, his frosty green eyes distinct above the black mask across his mouth, his laughter ending upon being seen. When Chris frowned at him, the interloper blinked slowly, then backed away into the shadows, effectively disappearing.
The Paladin took a few steps forward, planning to follow him, but when he reached the head of the moonlit alleyway, he found it empty. Frowning even more now, Chris shook his head in annoyance before spinning around and heading over to the pub.
The thief watched him leave, wondering why no one ever thought to look up, and dropped from his precarious perch on the windowsill on the second floor of the building. Brushing some splinters from his clothes, he too ghosted his way across to the pub, planning on entering by the back door, and looking forward to a night of riches. Literally.
The stench of spilled beer, old tobacco and sweat assaulted Chris’s senses immediately upon entering the full room, and he had to blink to get used to the diffuse light after the clarity of the moonlight. After a moment, he started to look around, his eyes looking for…he stopped himself. An empty table, of course, that was what he always looked for. Why then did he find himself expecting to hear…
“Chris!” Vin Tanner’s voice cut through the smoke, and the paladin found himself smiling slightly as he sought out its origin. “Chris, over here,” the voice called again. This time, the Tillurian scout was obvious, standing off to the left at a fairly large rectangular table set against the wall. The man had chosen a booth, and currently shared it with a giant of a man with graying curly hair. The large man nodded at him and raised a glass.
Not knowing him, Chris hesitated, until he saw Inez weaving her way towards the table with a bottle of whiskey and shot glass in hand. She raised them in his direction to indicate that they were for him, then set them on the table.
“Never argue with a woman,” Chris muttered to himself before heading across to join the scout. Vin smirked, said something to Josiah, and sat down again just as Chris slid into the booth.
“Chris Larabee of Brishnia, this is Josiah Sanchez of Cathacus. He’s the one Nathan came here to meet,” Vin stated, nodding at the older man before looking back at the mercenary. “Nathan himself just left to go and change his clothes to something ‘more suitable.’”
Josiah offered his hand to Chris, and tilted his head slightly as if he were appraising the mercenary. Chris took the hand quietly.
“Its good to finally meet you, sir,” Josiah said in his deep voice, “I’ve often seen you in town visiting Mrs. Travis and her son. Are you her…” he paused, raising his eyebrows silently.
“Brother,” Chris lied easily, the old story having rolled off his tongue so often in the last four years that it even felt like the truth. “She moved here after marrying Stephen Travis, and I’ve taken to visiting her as often as I can now that her husband has passed on.”
Josiah nodded, accepting this, and looked to Vin. “Nathan told me that you and Mr. Tanner here saved my best friend’s life this day. For that I am eternally grateful.”
“Right place, right time, Mr. Sanchez,” Chris said dismissively, pouring himself another drink. “So Vin,” he asked, swirling the heavy liquid around in the speckled glass, “have you found the woman you were looking for?”
The scout looked a bit disconcerted for a moment, his brow furrowing in annoyance that the mercenary should bring that up in front of a stranger. “I’m afraid I have nothing as yet to report, Chris,” he frowned.
“Who are you looking for, son?” Josiah asked quietly, causing Vin to frown even more deeply. The scout’s jaw tensed, as he considered his options. He knew well that at some point he would start having to ask around for the lady with no eyes, but the idea of it hadn’t seemed so ridiculous before he’d actually arrived in town. How does one keep attention from oneself, as he was supposed to, if he had to ask as odd a question as that?
Licking his lips, he glanced askance at Chris, then back to Josiah. Well, he thought sourly, I have to start somewhere….
“Josiah, this may seem strange, but I’m here looking for someone,” Vin paused, weighing his next words.
The mage interrupted him with a raised hand, his eyes narrowing slightly as he shared the younger man’s frown. “You are looking for the woman with no eyes.”
Chris nearly dropped his drink, and Vin could only stare. “How did….Did Nathan tell you?” the scout stuttered.
Josiah shook his head. “No,” he looked at the table, then back at the scout. He opened his mouth to explain, but was rudely interrupted as the door to the pub slammed open with great ferocity, revealing the Moor standing there with fire in his eyes. Nathan scanned the room until he caught the serving wench’s eye and indicated he needed a drink. Inez nodded slowly, her face not hiding her displeasure at his treatment of the door.
“Where is the law in this town!” Nathan yelled out to the gathered room. “I was told he was here, and I demand he make himself known this instant!”
The thick assortment of people in the room quieted at the imperious tone, and looked at each other with bemusement. After a moment, a single man stood, a dirty hand scratching the scruff on his face.
“Er, uh, we don’t got no law here, sir. The constable lit out of here last week, when some bandits attacked a group of refugees on the outskirts and threatened his wife if he did anything.” The peasant smiled crookedly, then sat down again.
By the door, Nathan stood aghast, every self righteous bone in his body reacting with utter astonishment to the idea that a place could have no law. How do people exist without some kind of authority to keep them in line?
Seeing the Moor’s predicament, Josiah excused himself from Chris and Vin, promising he would explain himself soon. Both mercenary and scout nodded, and watched as the mage made his way across to his friend.
Nathan shook himself angrily, and grimaced. Somebody yelled at him to shut the door, but he merely ignored the harassment. He was about to turn around and head back to the hotel when he felt a familiar heavy hand on his shoulder.
“What’s the matter, brother Nathan?” the quiet voice asked.
The healer sighed, and wiped a tired hand across his face. “Josiah,” he muttered.
“Come join our friends at the table. Perhaps they can help you?”
Looking across, Nathan saw that Josiah was indicating the two men that had helped him with the bandits on the way here. Without any other recourse, he nodded and followed the mage back to the booth, ignoring the glares he received since he still hadn’t shut the door. He pulled the beautiful blue silk scarf he had loosely covering his coarse black hair from off his head, and wrapped it about his neck as he sat down.
Chris and Vin merely looked at each other, somewhat lost for words at this moment, though they both nodded weakly at the healer in hello. Josiah broke the silence by asking the Moor what the matter was.
Rubbing his neck, Nathan frowned, “Someone broke into my room at the hotel. Took most of my money and half my jewels. Left me only enough to pay my rooms for the week and get back to Cathacus.”
Breaking from his reverie, Vin allowed what Nathan said to sink in, and his face bunched up in puzzlement. “Did you say he actually left you something? He didn’t take it all? What…did you have stuff hidden someplace, or something?”
Nathan shook his head, not understanding the question. “No. Whoever the thief was, he just didn’t take it all.” He shrugged.
“Nice thief,” Chris remarked offhandedly.
“NICE THIEF?” Nathan retorted, his eyes wide. “That’s practically an oxymoron! There is no such thing, and, frankly, I do not plan on giving the bastard any mercy when I found out who he is.” He rubbed his hands together and gripped them into fists. “And find him I shall.”
“That’s a Cathacun for you,” Vin said, his lips curving into a smile, “one track minds. Get an idea in their heads and…”
“Damn right!” Nathan concurred. “No one violates my things and gets away with it. No one.”
“Nathan…” Josiah said calmly, reaching over to take one of the man’s fists. Nathan jerked his hand away.
“Oh, don’t you dare ‘Nathan,’ me in that ‘calm down’ voice of yours, Josiah. I came here on your bidding, without any real clue as to why, only that you said you needed me. I have endured long days in the saddle, a horrific existence I can tell you, terrible weather, bandits, bigotry, and now thievery. If you do not explain to me right now why in the name of all that is sacred you have dragged me to this god forsaken hole in the wall, I swear I…I…,” he grimaced, “well, I’ll do something! And…and you won’t like it, believe you me! No, no, you won’t like it, not at all.”
Josiah’s blue eyes had widened slightly under this onslaught, but the final few sentences threw him. He smiled, unable to control himself, then started to laugh. Nathan watched him for a second, his lips twitching uncontrollably as he attempted to avoid joining in the mirth. Across the table, Vin was grinning openly, while Chris smirked into his whiskey glass.
“This isn’t funny Josiah!” Nathan said, raising his hand to cover the smile on his face.
“Brother Nathan, you do my heart well!” Josiah laughed, pounding a large hand on the Moor’s back.
“I’ll find the thief,” Nathan retorted, trying to remind himself of the anger that had so recently fueled him, but it was quickly waning.
Chris was still smirking as he looked around the room, allowing the jovial atmosphere wash over him serenely. Then his smirk fell as he caught a flash of red on the stairs. Leaning forward, he narrowed his gaze, trying to discern what it was. It didn’t take long.
A young man, maybe thirty years old, descended the stairs slowly, resplendent in the finery usually restricted to those of noble birth. He wore a burgundy red long-sleeved tunic marked with gold and silver filigree patterns across the chest and arms that hung almost down to his knees. A long rapier was tied to his waist, and a dagger with a gold hilt hung from one hip. Ruffled cuffs of a soft looking chemise were visible sticking out from the tunics sleeves, and its loose collar was visible above the neckline of the tunic, marked with more silver thread. Pinned to right shoulder was a gold clasp that held a long, rich looking dark red cape in place across his shoulders. His legs were clad in a pair of slim fitting wool breeches, blue almost black in color, and black boots completed the ensemble. Whoever he was, this man did not lack for clothes or style.
He was straightening his cuffs as he slowly made his way down the stairs, his dark hair hiding his face from the room as he examined his sleeves. Inez sidled over to ask him something, and Chris saw the new man nod, a large dimpled smile creasing his face. In response, she tilted her head flirtatiously, nodded and walked away. Then the man looked up, and Chris flinched. The same damn green eyes from the alleyway, looking through him as much as at him.
Vin noticed Chris’s attention had wandered, and he too looked over to the stairs, following his friend’s gaze. He frowned at the sight of the nobleman, likely dispossessed by the Emperor if he was living here, but didn’t understand what it was about him that interested the mercenary.
“You know him?” he asked, bringing the other two men’s attention to the brightly dressed gentleman as well.
“I saw him outside. At least, I think I did.” Chris shook his head, trying to reconcile the black-clad shadow in the alleyway with this brightly dressed newcomer. Maybe he was wrong. In fact, the more he looked at the young man, the less Chris thought it was the same man. “Its probably nothing.”
“Looks like a fop,” Nathan groused. Josiah just shook his head, and turned his attention back to the bottle of whiskey on the table. Vin tapped Chris’s arm, and gave him a questioning look. What’s wrong, he was asking silently. The mercenary shrugged in reply, and took another sip of his drink.
The man in red looked over once at the table, and straightened his shoulders as he casually drew the edge of the cape over one arm. The Brishnian paladin, a Tillurian scout, a Cathacun mage and a rich healer…a strange group, the thief mused. Pulling out the cards from a hidden pocket inside his red tunic, he casually shuffled them and leaned against the back wall near the bar. The thief had already decided to whom he would sell the information about the missing Prince William, but, perhaps there might be even more to glean from this night. If these men were together to from a plan of attack on the emperor, then any information he might be able to wheedle from them could be very valuable…when sold to the right bidder. Unconsciously, he sprayed the cards fluidly from his right hand to his left, his mind working the possible means by which he might ingratiate himself with them.
At that same moment, the Brishnian Captain pushed through the doors followed by the former stableboy, JD, laughing loudly about something. Looking up into their open faces, the thief smiled. This was too easy.
Up in her attic room, Hannah woke, her eyes snapping open as if she’d been shocked. One paint splattered hand went to her chest to still her rapid breathing, and for a moment, the cloudy gray cataracts that perpetually hid her irises were gone. With emerald green eyes, she searched the room until she saw her painting on the wall of the seven figures, oblivious to the fact that she was actually seeing it for the first time.
They were clumsily drawn, like stick figures, but each had its own color – black, green, red, brown, blue, white and one with no color. This last was merely an outline, as if waiting to be filled. Trembling with excitement, Hannah stretched a hand towards it and an open smile crossed her face for the first time since Josiah had left her with her father all those years ago.
“Finally,” she whispered.
“Table’s getting mighty crowded,” Vin noted uncomfortably as Buck slid in next to Nathan and Josiah. JD grabbed a chair and set it at the head of the table for himself. Chris just shook his head at Vin’s remark and looked over at the newly appointed squire.
“So how’s it feel to be Buck’s lackey, kid?”
JD grinned, adjusting the strange cap on his head nervously, “feels right fine, Master Chris.”
“Hey JD,” Vin greeted quietly. “This here’s Nathan, friend of mage Josiah’s, whom I’m guessing you already know.” He indicated the two men opposite him with a nod. Josiah grinned familiarly at the kid, and JD smirked back. “Nathan, this here’s JD Dunne.” The Moor offered the kid a sour smile, the memory of his lost goods once more weighing heavily on his mind. Then his brow furrowed.
“Wait, didn’t I entrust you with my horse earlier, young man?”
JD blushed. “Yeah…and he’s just fine, Master…Nathan. He, uh, is being taken care of by Seth now.”
“He’s only been Buck’s squire for about fifteen minutes, Nathan,” Chris explained.
“Then you must be Buck,” Nathan nodded, looking to the Captain.
“At your service, sir,” Buck grinned. “Its nice to meet you, and you, mage Josiah.”
Josiah didn’t answer, his eyes focused on the red-clad nobleman that had approached the table, trying to figure out why he looked familiar. The thief, however, was not looking at the mage. He only had eyes for the kid. JD’s eyes widened as he noticed the others follow Josiah’s gaze, and he turned around slowly. He jumped slightly at seeing the thief standing behind him, though the man did not look at all dangerous.
“Excuse me, gentleman, but may I borrow your young friend here for a moment?” The smooth Danaerian drawl was not lost on anyone, and their hands instantly went to knife and dagger handles. Ignoring the suspicious looks, the man in red tipped his head towards them and looked expectantly at JD. The kid’s face lit up with worry.
“Oh, Gods, I’m sorry, Lord Standish, but I don’t have your….”
“That’s alright son, that’s not what I wanted to ask you about,” smiling charmingly, the thief placed a hand on JD’s shoulder as if he would lead him away, but stopped when he found a short sword aimed at his throat. He looked disgustedly down at the metal blade, then up at its owner.
“What do you want with him?” Buck demanded, voice thick with menace. The Captain was standing now, his 6 foot three height giving him the advantage over the shorter thief, who only stood an average 5’10.”
“Please, sir, while admirable, your bravado is unwarranted,” the thief replied slowly, raising his right hand languidly to brush the blade away. The large green jade ring he wore clinked against the metal as Buck held the short sword steady for a moment, then the Captain allowed the blade to be pushed aside. The thief smiled disarmingly.
“Believe me, sir, I have nothing but the lad’s best interests at heart. You see, I recently sold him my bay packhorse, Lucky, a somewhat irascible beast that I decided deserved to be more than a mere beast of burden. I simply wanted to ensure that he wasn’t giving Master Dunne any trouble.”
“Uh huh,” Buck replied, not convinced. “Then why does he look so nervous?”
“Good question,” the thief replied, raising his eyebrows. “Master Dunne, is there some reason why you should be nervous in my presence? I do hope you are not thinking of backing out of our deal.”
For the second time this night, the boy blushed.
“What deal?” Chris asked, interested despite himself.
“Um…” JD’s eyes darted around the table, until they rested on Buck’s hand where it still gripped the sword. In contrast, the thief’s gaze never wavered from where it stared down at JD’s head.
“In return for my giving him Lucky, Master Dunne promised to find me an escort to Tallus for the day after tomorrow, or else said he would accompany me himself. I’m afraid my previous servant and bodyguard was killed on our journey here by some bandits, and I clearly can not venture back out into the wilds alone.” He sniffed slightly, and indicated his rich clothing. “I would be any easy target for all sorts of ruffians, and I do abhor fighting.”
Buck frowned and looked at JD. “That true?”
“Why’re you going to Tallus?” Vin asked the Danaerian, his eyes narrowing.
“Yes,” JD replied to the Captain. Buck scowled, and looked back at the nobleman. The thief, however, was looking at Vin.
“From you accent, may I guess you are Tillurian?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Then I am sorry.” The thief shook his head somberly.
The scout’s eyes narrowed menacingly, and he tried to stand, but was hampered by his position in the booth. Chris laid a hand on his shoulder, but Vin shrugged it off. The thief took a quick step back from the implied threat, and brought his hands up.
“Oh, no, no, please, good sir, do not misunderstand me. I have no love for Farron. Indeed, he is the reason I am up in this wet rag of a town. He took my family’s land when we challenged his goal of ruling the Four Kingdoms as Emperor. I come from a long line of business people, gentlemen, and the last thing we want is an autocratic state where we have no say in the way things are run. We did amazingly well playing the Kingdoms merchants off each other,” a crooked smile crossed his face, but fell quickly. “Farron threatened to take our lands for our disloyalty, but we did not believe him…until too late --a situation I am sure our Cathucan and Brishnian friends can sympathize with. Now, my family has sent me to Tallus to speak with the Queen, to tell her what I can about any weaknesses Farron’s army may have.”
Buck snorted, crossed his arms and looked down at the nobleman with disdain. “What could you possibly offer that we do not already know after four years of fighting?”
The thief frowned, eyeing the Captain with undisguised disdain. “Far more than a mere mercenary, I’m sure,” he scoffed. Buck growled, and grabbed at the red tunic, bunching it between his fingers and lifting the thief towards him. A slight gasp of fear escaped the smaller man’s lips, and he grabbed at the large hand, trying to pry it off of him.
“Buck…” Chris warned, his voice low. He never moved from his sitting position, but the single word had an effect. The Captain looked down at him, growled again, then let the tunic go. The thief smoothed down the front of his tunic with shaking hands.
“What sort of information do you have?” Chris asked quietly.
The thief looked at him, and frowned slightly. “I…uh…I am sorry, sir, but, obviously I do not know who you are and my information must be kept private. But you may be assured that it is information that may have a great impact on the outcome of this war.” He shut his mouth firmly and made a great show of looking proud of himself.
Chris watched him a moment, then looked at Buck once before returning his gaze to the table. “Suit yourself, then.”
The thief raised another eyebrow, but didn’t respond to the slight. Setting his shoulders a bit, he rubbed a thumb across his lower lip and looked back down at JD.
“Well, Master Dunne?”
JD had shrunk down into himself, and shut his eyes upon being mentioned again. Buck grimaced at the kid’s expression.
“Hell, boy, who were you planning on setting up with this overdressed popinjay? Huh? No offense sir,” Buck nodded at the thief, who just shrugged in return. “ I mean, if you were planning to be my squire, you couldn’t possibly go with him yourself unless….” He paused as JD turned wide, pleading brown eyes to look at him, and his own blue eyes narrowed in sudden comprehension. “Oh…now, wait just a minute here. Tell me you weren’t thinking that I would do this thing for you.”
“Oh man, Captain, I’m really sorry. I guess I was just kind of hoping….”
“Captain?” the thief interrupted. “Are you a captain sir? My, my, how fortunate. Are you for hire?”
“Not for the likes of you, I reckon,” Buck spat back. JD’s mouth opened and shut a few times, feeling totally out of control of the conversation.
“Ah, well, shame. I guess that means I’ll be seeing you in a couple of days then, Master Dunne.” The thief sighed and turned to leave, drawing his cape once more over one arm with a flourish.
“Wait, wait,” JD pleaded, jumping to his feet and placing a hand on the thief’s shoulder. The man in red looked down at it pointedly, and JD hurriedly pulled the hand back. “Is there some other way that I can make it up to you? Besides giving back the horse, I mean?”
The thief regarded JD a moment, then looked back up at Buck. “Well, as it appears that the good Captain here also has a claim for your services, perhaps he’d like to play me for you? I did, after all, have the boy first.” He flexed an eyebrow in Buck’s direction. “If you win, I will not only give up my claim on the horse, but the boy as well. Are you a gaming man, sirrah?”
Buck looked at JD, who was biting his bottom lip in worry, then smirked.
“Buck,” Chris said, warning his old friend for the second time this night. This time, however, the Captain ignored him.
“And if I lose?” He asked the man in red.
The thief chuckled, his green eyes sparkling in the bright candlelight. “Well, then, you and the boy will both be my escort to Tallus.”
Buck grinned and stuck out his hand. “It’s a deal, Lord…er….”
“Standish, my good sir, Lord Standish of the High Provinces of Danaeira, at your service.” He swept a short bow, his cape swirling in the small space in a handsome flourish.
Hannah arrived just as the thief lay down a full house, earning a heavy groan from the unhappy Captain opposite him. No one saw her sidle into the room and move to a corner. Meanwhile, Buck laid his forehead on the table and beat it against it a few times before looking up. The sight of this young pup of a lordling grinning at him, those green eyes lit up with a sarcastic mirth, quickly dispelled any rationality Buck was holding onto.
“Either you are one of the luckiest sons of bitches that ever graced this town, or you cheated, boy.”
“Cheated?” The thief looked properly aghast. “Sir, first of all, as a Lord of the Realm, I do not appreciate such language around my person, nor will I stand for being called such a disparaging term as ‘boy.’ Secondly, I need hardly cheat when playing such an opponent as yourself. Indeed, may I suggest, Captain, that the next time you sit down opposite someone at poker that you shave your moustache? You give yourself away every time you reach up to preen it.” He raised his own clean shaven face to look down upon the man opposite him and leaned back, his hands casually smoothing down the folds of his rich red tunic on his arms. The spectators all chuckled slightly at the overconfident nobleman, and in the background, the man in black rolled his eyes in annoyance.
Buck scowled, unable to think of a decent riposte, and bunched his large hands into fists. He stood up slowly, allowing his wooden chair to scrape angrily against the dirty floor, and placed a hand on the sword at his belt. Raising an eyebrow, the thief understood the challenge and stood as well, though he breathed a heavy sigh as he did so. An expectant hush dropped over the tavern.
People backed up slightly, not wanting to be too close to the gutting that was to come, but neither wanting to miss out on the grisly scene. In contrast, Chris stepped forward, and placed himself in Buck’s line of sight, the frown on his face dark. Buck glanced at him before looking back at Standish, but didn’t take the hand from his sword.
“I don’t want any fighting, Buck. You lost. You’ll have to deal with it.”
“He snookered me Chris.” Buck replied, not removing his gaze from the thief.
“Maybe he did. But look at him, Buck. He’s a cheat, a snake and a lowlife. I knew that the minute I laid eyes on him.”
“So, he beat you. He beat you because at this,” he indicated the cards on the table,” at this, he is better than you. A lot better.”
Buck’s scowl deepened, his eyes narrowing into slits as he watched the lordling opposite him shrug at the underhanded compliment.
“I don’t like you, Standish,” he said.
“No…” the thief agreed, pursing his lips slightly before grinning, “but you will protect me. At least until we get to Tallus, correct?”
Buck’s jaw tensed, his eyes never blinking, holding onto the other’s gaze without flinching. Finally, he inclined his head once. “Yes, Standish. Until Tallus. But you better not try any of those Lordly airs on me, got that?”
The thief smiled brightly in reply, and sat back down, greedily gathering his cards back together. The rest of the tavern sighed slightly in disappointment before returning to their former conversations. Buck wheeled around where he still stood, shot a glare at JD who hovered nearby, and strode off to get another drink. He stopped short as he nearly collided with a small, silver haired woman when she blocked his path. She grabbed his arm to balance herself.
“Why don’t you watch where you’re going, crone!” the large Captain demanded, stepping back and looking at the solid grip she seemed to have on his arm. He put his own hand over hers to pry her grip loose at the same time that he looked into her face. He stopped when he noticed her clouded eyes and vague expression.
“Oh….” He quickly looked around, but no one was paying them much attention, except for JD. The boy was watching him sadly, his large brown eyes begging for forgiveness. Buck looked back at the woman, who had tilted her head slightly as if to hear him better. If she had been offended by his “crone” remark, she showed no sign.
“Mistress,” he said slowly, trying to calm down, “I’m sorry for my rudeness, but my temper had the best of me at that moment. I imagine you are lost. Do you need someone to take you home?”
“You are angry,” the woman stated simply, staring up at his face as if she could see him.
Buck grimaced, “Yes, but not at you, old one. Now, where….”
“No,” she interrupted him sharply, gripping his arm more tightly, “I mean you are really angry. I’ve never seen it so pure.”
The Captain simply blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You are the red one. I can feel it from here. You are capable of so many emotions, all of them boundless in their intensity – rage, love, passion, pride, loyalty – and so much more. How do you survive? Unleashed, you must be a terrible force. But it could also so easily be your undoing.”
Buck just stared at her and shook his head. “Mistress, you really shouldn’t be here. This is no place for….”
“Where is my brother?”
“Josiah. He must be told. You are here. Together. Finally.”
Buck swallowed, and JD sidled up next to them. The boy had seen Buck’s problem, and was trying to help.
“Hi Hannah. Its JD. Are you looking for Josiah?”
“Oh…of course. The brown one. Sweet JD, How did I not see it before? Brown, like the earth, like the rocks that turn round and round in their winding, diurnal course. Never ending, forever steadfast, and incorruptible. You will come up from behind, they will never see it coming, like the volcano and the earthquake.”
“Uh huh, sure Hannah,” JD looked up at Buck, pointed a finger at his head, and made small circles with it to indicate that the woman was crazy. Buck nodded his understanding.
“Let’s take you to your brother, Mistress,” the Captain said quietly, taking her thin arm. He could feel her bones through the thin cloak that covered her, and he wondered that she was not freezing in this wet town.
But Hannah wouldn’t be led, and she shook the arm off. Despite her obvious blindness, she walked unerringly across to the table where the thief sat. He looked up at her lazily, his gaze only mildly curious as he tucked the cards inside his red brocade tunic. She smiled down at him.
“I know its you, Ezra, though I can not see you. Can anyone? You have no color, child of light. What are you?” As she spoke, she touched his shoulder lightly, and a shock of energy coursed through the thief, making him jump.
Instantly, Ezra leapt out of his chair and twisted around to face her, the gold dagger at his belt in his hand. His eyes were bright with an irrational fear, and the dagger shook in his hand. His shoulder was stinging where she had touched him, though the pain was fading quickly. The sudden commotion alerted the others at the nearby booth, and they quickly clambered out of the confining space. In two quick steps, Josiah was by his sister’s side, a hand on her slight shoulder, his eyes darting back and forth between her and the nervous Standish. Chris flanked the thief, startled by his speed and by the competent way in which he held the dagger in a fighter’s crouch. Hannah was staring blindly at her own hand, totally unaware of the danger she was in, her face one of wonder as she felt the tingling in her fingers subsiding.
“Hannah,” Josiah whispered in her ear, “what are you doing here?” To his left, Vin stared open mouthed at the woman, knowing he had found the woman he sought.
She smiled up at him dreamily. “Because the seven men have arrived, Josiah. It has begun.”
“You can put the pig sticker away, Lord Standish, or should I call you Ezra?” Buck scoffed, his arms crossed over his broad chest. “I doubt you’ll get much of a fight from this one.”
Ezra hesitated, confused at his own reaction. Blinking, he slowly replaced the gold hilted dagger to its sheath and stood up straight, the pain in his shoulder now merely a ghostly memory. He blushed a bit and lowered his head with a sheepish smile, but he knew that he’d given himself away somewhat. The paladin was eyeing him speculatively, and he avoided looking into those steel blue eyes.
Vin pushed forward to stand on Hannah’s other side as the crowd turned its back. Just Josiah’s crazy sister causing a stir, the townspeople muttered to each other. But the scout was absolutely mesmerized by her calm face, and blank eyes.
“You’re the one I was sent to find,” he said quietly.
“Yes, scout,” she smiled in his general direction, “I was.” She raised a hand to her shoulder to pet Josiah’s hand with hers. “Brother…I have already spoken with Inez for a room. These are the ones, and we must talk with them now.”
Josiah looked at the six men watching them, frowning slightly, “Are you sure, Han?”
“For the first time in many years, Josiah.” She nodded in the direction of the men standing loosely around her, unable to see their expressions but well aware of their presence. Each one blazed before her, and through the clouds on her eyes, she could easily make out the color of each one – all except the one that she felt more as an absence of color. For her brother’s benefit, she decided to point them out, turning first to the scout. Vin stood a little straighter as her face turned to him.
“Vin the scout is the green one, Josiah. And that one, Buck,” She pointed in the direction of the Captain, “is red.” Still flushed with his anger at the nobleman, Buck frowned darkly.
“Captain Wilmington?” Josiah asked.
“Yes, and the boy next to him, JD, is the brown.” Next to Buck, the kid swallowed, and moved a little behind his new master.
Josiah grimaced and gripped her shoulder more tightly. Hannah did not acknowledge the squeeze, she was looking in the direction of the paladin, studying him where he stood behind the thief.
“The paladin Chris…he is all black, the counterpoint to your white, love. And the man in front of him, Ezra, he is the one without color.” She frowned, squinting her eyes as if she could actually see the thief. Ezra took a step back, and bumped into Chris. The man in black posed a formidable barrier, and the thief found himself trapped.
Hannah turned her head, her voice failing in its strength as she inhaled the dark smoke of the room, but she was determined to continue. Nathan had come to stand next to Josiah, his healer instincts sensing her weakness. She grinned as she became aware of his presence.
“And our oldest friend, Nathan,” She reached out and he took her hand. “Blue.”
Nathan looked up at Josiah, his expression confused. “What is she going on about, Josiah?”
“And how does she know who we all are?” Chris interposed.
Josiah grimaced, and lowered his voice a bit. “I think we’d better go somewhere else. Gentlemen, I realize this may seem a little strange….”
“A little strange,” JD repeated softly, the sarcasm in his tone thick. Josiah smirked in his direction.
“But if you would indulge us for a moment….I, uh, oh dear, how do I put this.” The mage faltered, worrying his bottom lip. Nathan grimaced, and shook his head.
“Josiah, you told me to come because you said that I may be able to help restore the Kingdoms. I still do not have any idea what you meant by that, but if it is something Hannah has foreseen, I will follow you. I know what she can do.” Nathan drew the blue silk wrap from off his shoulders and wrapped it round his head, to demonstrate his willingness to leave.
Vin cleared his throat, and looked at Chris, his own mind made up the minute he saw Hannah’s face. Chris watched him blankly.
“Nathan is right, Chris, this was foreseen. Will you come with us?” the scout asked.
The mercenary frowned, the dark mood that had left him since meeting this scout on the trail returning in full. He shared a look with Buck, and the Captain simply raised an eyebrow in his direction. It is up to you, Sir Knight, the Captain was telling him, and I’ll follow your lead.
Meanwhile, Ezra was shifting from one foot to another in front of him, not sure if this was what he had in mind when he thought to ingratiate himself with these people. He only meant to see if they were plotting some sort of coup – to travel with them until he had the information he needed to sell. Being called by his real name, one he had not used in many years, by a crazy old blind woman was not part of his plans. Getting involved with magic never was.
Chris became aware of the younger man’s discomfort, and a slow wicked grin crossed his face. For some reason, he liked the idea of seeing this young unknown nobleman nervous. Plus, he felt sure that if he let Standish get away now, he would sorely regret it. There was something dangerous about this young man.
With bone crushing strength, he gripped Ezra’s shoulder and looked at the four people in front of him. The thief jumped again at the pressure, and his fingers twitched nervously. He hated being cornered.
“Lead the way,” Chris said, “Lord Ezra Standish and I will be more than happy to hear you out.”
“Ah, actually,” Ezra tried, squirming under the grip, “I would rather not….” Chris gripped harder, and leaned in close to his ear.
“I saw where you hid that Ace of Spades, Ezra,” he whispered softly so that only the thief could hear, “and unless you want me to tell Buck, I suggest you come with us. I want you where I can see you.” Ezra paled slightly, and licked his lips as he looked over at Buck’s dark face. Finally, he nodded.
“After you,” the thief said to Hannah and Josiah with a sweep of his hand, forcing a smile.
Josiah nodded, and looked over at Inez. Unlike the rest of the tavern’s occupants, who had long since returned to their own discussions and problems since the arrival of the crazy sister, she had been watching them with some curiosity. Upon his nod, she beckoned them across. Turning Hannah by her shoulders, Josiah and his sister led the way.
Inez had made her way around the bar to the far side, where a short, dark stained door sat. Pulling at the rings of keys on her belt, she quickly found the one she was looking for and inserted it into the lock. After pushing at the wood a few times with her shoulder, the door swung open with a groan to reveal an unlit room. A thick mustiness blew out into the tavern.
“My old storeroom,” she said quietly as Josiah reached her. “I rarely use it, mainly because it has such terrible ventilation. But, at the same time, no one will be able to hear you in here.” She handed him a lantern from off a nearby hook.
“Thank you, Mistress,” Josiah said, a kind smile on his face. Inez simply nodded and backed away to let them enter. Everyone, even Hannah, had to stoop to enter the room, and all quickly found places to sit or lean on the scattered crates and barrels when it was discovered that the ceiling of the room was not much higher. Buck cursed as he whacked his head on a low beam, earning him a dry chuckle from Chris who followed him in, dragging the sullen Danaerian with him.
“Your head’s as hard as ever, eh Bucklin?”
As Chris spoke, the thief took the moment to try and slip out from under Chris’s grasp, hoping that the older man was distracted, but the paladin held on firmly.
“Uh uh,” Chris chastised, pushing Ezra forward. The Danaerian fell against some old crates and glared back at the black clad man mercenary.
Nathan was the last to enter, and he too held onto a lantern as he swung the door closed behind him. Their movement disturbed some of the dust that had collected in the space, and, combined with the dampness, caused more than one of them to sneeze. Unaffected, the thief looked around at them all with disgust.
“Frankly,” he drawled, trying to draw back some of his snootiness, “I do not understand why I have been included in this ridiculous scenario. I am no mere mercenary or stable boy. I am a Lord of Danaeria and I….”
“Oh, shut up, Standish.” Buck spat, propping himself up on some crates. JD, of course, sat next to him, already acting as a shadow as all good squire’s should. Nathan leaned against some nearby crates, and eyed Ezra curiously.
“He’s got a point, Josiah. Hannah, are you sure the Danaerian has to be here?”
Hannah merely nodded in the lantern light and sat wearily upon a beer barrel. Josiah stood next to her, blocking the door, and allowed her to lean against him. “Yes,” She said.
“Am I the only one who is a bit confused here?” Chris asked, leaning against some crates next to Vin, who was sitting cross legged on top of them. The scout shifted over slightly to make room for him, and patted the paladin’s back familiarly. Not for the first time, Buck found himself staring with some wonder at the way Chris was acting around the Tillurian…as if he had known him for years. Chris never opened his back to anyone until he’d known them for a good long time. The Captain frowned and looked back at Hannah and Josiah.
“I’m with Chris. What did Nathan mean about there being a chance to restore the kingdoms?” he asked gruffly.
“Yes, were you serious?” Chris added, shifting his shoulders slightly. “Not to be the voice of dissension, but I don’t believe the Tillurian army can hold him off for more than few months.” He glanced back at Vin, but the scout was busy inspecting his hands. Grimacing, he looked squarely at Josiah. “I also very much doubt that seven men and a blind woman who have just met can have much of an effect. Perhaps if we were mages, but, from what I can tell, only you, Josiah, wear those robes.”
“And not very well,” Josiah conceded. “I’ve been sorely out of practice for many years.”
“An old, useless mage, a blind woman, a boy, and five strangers in a dank, rat-infested storeroom. My, my, you can just feel the energy,” Ezra sneered, picking dust and wood shavings off of his red doublet.
“Standish…” Chris said warningly, to whom Ezra looked innocently.
“What? I’m just repeating what you said, mercenary.”
“What I said? I never….”
“You sort of did, Chris,” Vin whispered in the paladin’s ear. Chris short him a dark look, enhanced by the low light. The scout shrank back a little. “But, he’s right. It does sound a bit pathetic, doesn’t it?” the scout looked around, the darkness hiding the disappointment in his eyes. “I mean, this is not exactly what I was expecting either. I kind of hoped there would be some great sorcerer here, or an undefeatable magic sword, or something.”
“I’m afraid there is nothing of that here, Tillurian,” Hannah said. “This is it.”
“So what is the point?” Buck demanded, crossing his arms.
Hannah paused, her pale face almost translucent. When she finally did speak again, she stuttered, unsure of herself. “I, well, I…I…um….”
“Well great. Now that we have that settled, I need a drink!” Buck shouted, making her jump back slightly. With a grin at her, he made to stand, but suddenly found himself unable to move. He stared with wonder as a red nimbus suddenly appeared around his hands and spread to the rest of his body. JD slid away quickly, and fell off his crate in a heap near Hannah’s feet. Looking up, he saw that she was standing, her usually calm features twisted in concentration. When she spoke, her voice, while still soft, carried to everyone in the room.
“Captain Bucklin Wilmington of the Brishnian Guard, bastard son of a Sir Galladin and the concubine Moira Wilmington, co-leader of the Tillurian Night Fighters, sit down and let me have my say!”
As quickly as it came, the nimbus was gone, and Buck fell back on the crates. Eyes wide with shock, he just stared speechlessly at Hannah. She was still standing, but her features had slackened, and she was leaning once more on her brother, a sheen of perspiration visible on her brow. If anything, she looked more pale. Josiah glared at Buck, but the Captain barely noticed. Like him, the others were all watching the slight woman, waiting.
“Thank you,” she said to the room, as if they had become quiet because they were being polite and not because they were stunned. “I apologize Captain, but I needed you to listen to me.”
“What did you do to me?” Buck stammered, still blinking.
“I am an Oracle. And I did nothing to you except allow you and the others in this room to see what I see, albeit only for a moment. It is the only power I have beyond my ability to perceive the future. Or, at least, my ability to predict the future based on what I can see now.”
“What?” the Captain was getting angry again, and the word came out sounding almost accusatory. JD had gotten back to his feet, but he didn’t return to Buck’s side. He stayed next to Nathan. The healer had his head turned away from the boy, trying not to breath in the smell of horse sweat and manure that wafted off of the younger man.
Hannah sighed, he head drooping to her chest, and closed her blank eyes. “Josiah, could you…?” she asked weakly.
Josiah nodded, his huge arms circling around her to keep her warm. “An Oracle does not see into the future, Captain. He or she has the ability to see into people, and to guess with some accuracy what they will do. Not long before he attacked Rhea, she had guessed that Farron might try to recreate the Empire of the Ancients, and insisted I bring her here. She also saw each of you, and knew that you would come here to her before it was too late to stop him.”
JD frowned, confused. “Wait, if you knew what Farron was going to do, why didn’t you warn anyone? You could have prevented all this!”
“Because most oracle’s are frauds, kid, and, well, no one really wants to listen to them anyway.” Buck said, still frowning, but no longer angry. His fear had faded completely upon Josiah’s explanation, and he allowed himself a moment to think. “They are outlawed from using their gift in the Four Kingdoms, regardless of what they may be able to tell. Most of the time, it is a good law. But sometimes….” He stopped, and looked over at Chris. The paladin shrugged.
“An oracle tried to warn us of Farron’s invasion. A girl -- couldn’t have been more than eight. She sneaked into the castle and tried to see the King, but even after she’d stood in front of him, begging him to listen to her, he refused. He had her thrown out.” Chris was staring hard at Hannah, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what she had to say either.
“She was eight? Your King threw out an eight year old girl?” JD asked, nonplussed. Buck wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“Oracles are…dangerous,” Buck said, not elaborating. He looked up, his jaw firmly set. “Given a choice, people will avoid them, close their ears. But…I suppose, at this point, there really isn’t a choice to make any more. Farron took that away from us a long time ago.”
Silence greeted this statement, as all eyes turned to Hannah. She nodded, and smiled in Buck’s direction. He just continued to frown.
“Some ten years ago,” she began dreamily, “I saw you all for the first time. You were all over the place, in every land, your destiny singling you out from the millions of people surrounding you with colors brighter than anything visible to the naked eye. Most people are yellow, or orange, but not you. Your colors were unusual, and so beautiful. At the time, I did not know who you were, or why you were, but, with my brother’s and Nathan’s help, I started to see more clearly.” She paused to take a breath, and she seemed to straighten slightly in her brother’s arms. In the lamplight, her silver hair glowed, reminding Nathan of an angel. She smiled, “Together, you men have the power to stop Farron. Seven figures, each unique, will determine the fate of us all.”
“This is a fairytale,” the thief muttered. Chris gave him a harsh look, but the thief ignored him. “Quite honestly, I do not understand what is so terrible about Farron rebuilding the Empire. The world will still turn, money will still change hands, people will continue to be born and die. How bad can it really be?”
“You want a murderer to be your ruler? One who will take away all our rights as free people?” Chris asked, his eyes bright. “Besides, you told us Farron took your lands, and that you wanted to stop him. Are you now denying that?”
Ezra shrugged. “In the end, I am a realist, mercenary. I may not want him to succeed, but I am not about to risk my life or my livelihood on a bet that will fail. So he rebuilds the Empire, so what? We’ll survive. Besides, when Farron dies, his Empire is bound to fall apart. His only heir does not want anything to do with him; he does not want to be King, much less Emperor. We’ll probably just go back to the way we were.” He shrugged, the red of his cape taking on the color of blood in the low light. His green eyes were invisible in the shadows on his face as he stared at the floor. Across from him, Hannah was shaking her head vigorously.
“No, no, you do not understand. Farron must not be allowed to recreate the Empire of the Ancients. He must not be able to reunify the keys, to achieve the Divine Mandate again.” She looked around at them, her unlined face bright. “Do you know the legend of Emperor Magnimus and Rhea?” A few nodded assents greeted her question, along with a few frowns. Ezra crossed his arms and huffed slightly.
“A legend,” he muttered quickly. “If this is all about some childish mythology, then I am leaving.”
“Mythology? No, no, Ezra, this is no mere story. The keys are real, even if the rulers of the kingdoms had long since forgotten how to use them. They are all aspects of the Divine Mandate, and the Mandate will bring back the darkness that shrouded this land for hundreds of years.”
Ezra shook his head, and levered himself up off the crates. “And what? Farron has learned how to use his key, that of…what was it called…Reason? That he killed Queen Kinya and her family, and that of the Brishnian King in order to get their so-called magical powers too? No, Madame, I know Farron. He has no magic. He is simply a nasty, ambitious man whose ego refused to be contained within one Kingdom’s boundaries. He wants power, but not magical power. He wants political power. He wants control, and money, and glory. All these things define him as the greedy, sadistic bastard he is, but he is no mage.”
“You’re wrong, Ezra.” She was worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. “He has already learned how to use the powers of Reason and Conviction and…and he may have Truth, though he has yet to use it. He has become so dark that I can barely see him anymore, like a shadow. He uses them to hide himself from me.” She shook her head again. “And the madness is already strong in him.” She paused, and her brow furrowed in concentration again.
“Once the Divine Mandate is alive again, it will not let itself be rent apart again without a fight. It will hold onto Farron, and will infect his heirs as well, whether they want it to or not. It will just as equally infect his killer, should the heir die as well. No one knows how Queen Rhea controlled the Mandate when she split it up, and without that knowledge, no one will be able to defeat it.” When the thief didn’t try and contradict her again, she continued, though more softly, her tone addressing them all.
“I can see that future, and all the despair the Mandate will bring. It is a future that stretches on and on into infinity.” She licked her lips, and drew herself from Josiah’s embrace to step forward, her head bowed slightly against the low roof. Her eyes met Ezra’s, then she looked past him to Chris. “You must not allow it to happen.”
“Assuming what you say is correct, what exactly do you expect us to do?” Ezra asked, not hiding his sarcasm. “Take on an army with just the seven of us?”
Chris raised an eyebrow in his direction, but didn’t warn him off again. It was the same question he’d wanted to ask.
Hannah shook her head. “I do not know, not exactly. Obviously you can not take an army. But you can stop him from killing Queen Selene and her daughter.”
“Princess Eloise,” Buck supplied quietly.
“No,” Vin said, looking up. “The Queen will not let us take her out of harms way. She won’t disappear now, not when her Kingdom is at its most tremulous.”
“But she must,” Hannah insisted. “If Farron succeeds….”
“I tell you, she won’t leave. And, from what I’ve been told, Eloise is as stubborn as her mother.”
“Vin’s right. Eloise will no more shirk her duty than her mother,” Buck agreed, his tone a little caustic. Chris shot him a warning look, but Buck ignored him. “That woman lives and breathes Tilluria.”
“Then…don’t give them a choice,” Hannah stated. No one answered her. Vin shut his eyes and groaned. Hannah grimaced slightly, an expression that seemed out of place on her face. “Look, once you explain to her what is at stake, I am sure….”
“No, she won’t.”
“Eloise might,” Chris suggested lightly. Again, no one spoke for a while, though Vin groaned again.
Chris looked around the room, measuring the gathered group with a practiced eye. JD was watching Buck, who in turn was pretending to inspect his nails. Nathan was staring at the floor, his brow furrowed, his hands playing with the edges of the silk scarf around his shoulders. Josiah was watching his sister, ready to catch her is she faltered where she stood a few feet away from him. Vin was shaking his head, his mouth turned downwards. Ezra was…well, he was back to dusting his sleeves.
“Vin,” Chris said, “how long have you been away from Tallus?”
Vin didn’t answer for a moment, then, sullenly, he answered. “A month.”
“Same as me. It was a stalemate when I left on the battlefield, because of the winter storms. But its almost March, now. Winter will be over soon down there.”
“So…How long before Farron reaches the castle in Tallus?”
Vin stared at him, his eyes dark.
“April,” Buck answered for the scout. “He’ll be there by April. Without an army to defend her, Selene’s guards will not be able to hold the castle for much past that.”
“Is Buck right?” Chris continued to watch Vin. The paladin already knew all this, had reached these conclusions himself before he left to come and visit Mary, probably for the last time. He’d been acting as advisor to the Tillurian army for years now, while Buck led the guerilla movement, and both knew that Tilluria was lost. They planned to be back for the final battle. Visiting Four Corners was to be their last hurrah. But Chris wanted to be sure Vin knew this too. The scout had to accept that, or he would never willingly defy his Queen and her daughter.
Vin watched Chris, measuring him. Finally, he nodded.
“Yeah, he’s right,” The scout looked over at Hannah. “You are sure there is nothing else we can do?”
“Why don’t you just assassinate Farron,” Ezra suggested coolly, not looking up. Hannah turned to face his direction, once more shaking her head.
“He’s too powerful. His magic will warn him before you even come within ten feet of him. Only someone close to him, whom he trusts, or someone with the same blood, could even have a chance. That was why so many of the Ancient Emperors’ died at the hands of their children.”
Ezra shook his head. “Nonsense.”
“Why are you so determined to disbelieve me?” Hannah demanded, her voice straining from frustration.
Ezra looked at her, his mouth set in a straight line. “Because, Mistress, before Farron stripped him of his lands, my father was one of the King’s closest advisors. I grew up in his court, and I can promise you, never once did I see Farron so much as emit a spark of magic.”
“How long ago was that?” She asked.
Ezra shrugged, “I’m not sure. But surely, had he been even slightly adept, we would have known?”
“You were with him when he decided to attack and murder Kinya? And Brishnia? You were with him every moment?”
“No. You can’t see what I see, Ezra. Perhaps if you did.…” She reached out to touch him, and he jumped back.
“Don’t touch me,” he hissed, the fear in his voice almost palpable.
“Just for a moment, and you will see.”
“No. I said no.” He continued to back away from her touch, but he was hampered by the small room. She pressed on, following him by sound as he tripped over things. “Did I not make myself clear?” he demanded angrily.
“What are you afraid of, Standish?” Buck asked, smiling slightly.
“Look, I think you’re all a bit mad, and, frankly, I’d like to leave now.” He glanced about the room, and found they were all staring at him, not one of them making a move to answer. He dodged as Hannah took another step in his direction, diving under outstretched limb to find himself at the feet of her brother. Josiah watched him quietly, his eyes a mixture of sorrow and disappointment. Ezra fixated on him, mainly because the large mage was standing in front of the only exit.
“Please, good sir. Surely you can see that I don’t belong here. I’m not like the rest of you. Please, let me go.”
Josiah frowned, his eyes disappearing into the shadows. “Its not my choice,” he answered quietly.
Ezra frowned, and turned around. Hannah was facing him again, her head titled to one side. Her hands were by her side, as if she were no longer interested in impressing her power on him. Behind her, the others were still watching, more curious now. Ezra shivered slightly under the uncompromising gazes, more determined than ever now that he had made a mistake thinking to get involved with these people. Crazy did not begin to describe them, and this absurd notion about the Divine Mandate….who were they kidding? Ezra focused once again on Hannah.
“For the last time,” he said quietly, his voice taking on a more threatening quality, “let me leave.”
She stepped up to him, and, when he made to slip away again, Josiah grabbed his upper arms. With practiced ease, the thief flexed his right wrist, and a flare pellet fell into his hand from inside his sleeve.
“Fine,” he snapped, and threw the pellet to the floor in front of her. It exploded, and Hannah screamed as flames quickly caught at her skirts. Instantly, Josiah threw Ezra to the side as he dove to his sister’s aid, along with JD and Buck. His way clear, the thief grabbed for the door, his hand easily finding the catch.
“Stop him!” Hannah yelled, his movements clear in her mind. Ezra turned the handle and grinned…just as a knife embedded itself in the doorframe inches from his face.
“You open that door and the next one goes in your back,” Nathan said. Ezra stopped, and turned slowly to face the Moor. Nathan was holding a knife in each hand, and his face looked almost demonic in the flickering light. The thief considered throwing a smoke pellet, which he had hidden up his left sleeve, but hesitated as Nathan raised one of the knives a little higher. It was as if the healer could read his mind.
Buck and JD had the flames out quickly, and amazingly, Hannah escaped without a burn. She lay panting on the floor, her arms around Josiah’s neck as he held her.
“You alright?” he whispered. Hannah didn’t answer, just looked up at the thief.
“Bring him here,” she stated.
“Han…” Josiah warned.
“He is a part of this, brother. You all are. Bring him here.”
“You aren’t strong enough,” he begged.
“He must see for himself, Josiah. You all must.”
“You heard her,” Nathan said to Ezra, still holding the knives up. The thief watched him as he released the door latch. It clicked close as he moved forward to reach the group in the center of the room, never taking his eyes off of Nathan. The healer moved to guard the door, knives still in hand.
“Take my hand,” Hannah said, reaching one arm up, palm out. Ezra looked at it, but didn’t move.
“Oh, to hell with this!” Buck shouted angrily, grabbing Ezra’s wrist fiercely to pull it forward. Ezra fought him the whole way, his jaw tensed, but Buck was stronger. Finally, the thief gave in, insisting he would take her hand willingly, and Buck released him. The thief’s hand shook slightly, but, as he promised, he slowly placed his hand in hers.
Power surged through them both like a lightening bolt, hitting everyone in the tiny room at the same time, and exploding the two oil lamps. The room plunged into darkness.
In his camp, Emperor Farron sat bolt upright on his cot, his eyes wide open. Looking around at the dark space, he stared about him wildly, suddenly sure he was being watched…and by her. He gripped his hands into fists and swung himself off the cot in order to stand up.
Farron was, by all rights, an extremely handsome man, even when he was angry, or perhaps, especially when he was angry. His jet black hair was thick on his head, the few silver threads appearing at his temples in what many women considered a dashing fashion. Sparkling blue-green eyes complemented his sculptured face, which he kept clean shaven in order to show off the light, white scar than ran down one cheek. Queen Kinya had managed to scratch him with her signet ring as he strangled her in her bed chamber, and he now wore the scar like a trophy. As he belted a silk navy robe around his fit, lean, six-foot tall frame, the scar almost seemed to glow faintly in the darkness.
In moments, he was striding out of the main room in the tent where he was headquartered and into an adjacent cloth walled room. Two young women sat shivering together on one cot, fully expecting him. He towered over both of them, and they shrunk back a bit on the cot. The older one, a blond woman in her late twenties, had her chin up staring at him with as much courage as she could muster. The younger, a girl no more that fifteen with brown hair twisted into two pigtails on either side of her head, had her face buried in the shoulder of the older one.
“It’s Hannah,” the blond said, her voice shaking slightly.
“Of course its Hannah, you worthless guttersnipe,” Farron hissed. “How is it possible that she can see me again? You said my power shielded me from her.”
The blond shook her head, her brown eyes glistening with unshed tears. Farron grimaced, and placed his hands on his hips.
“I will not ask again, Ravennie. How is it she has found me?”
Ravennie opened her mouth, then shut it again. “I don’t know,” she finally muttered.
Farron laughed mirthlessly, “Don’t lie to me, Oracle. You know why. Or perhaps Wellssandra would like to tell me?”
The brown haired girl flinched at hearing her name, and she risked looking up at Farron with dark, bloodshot eyes. He sneered at her.
“Do you have something to tell me, Wells?” he asked.
Wellssandra’s chin shuddered a bit as she spoke, her voice soft. “She’s found them, Emperor. The seven paintings on the wall, she has them with her. They’re providing her power.”
Farron inhaled sharply, and he stepped back a bit. He gripped his hands into fists again, and his eyes shone in the faint blue light of the night. “So,” he whispered to the air, “they exist.” He looked back down at the two women, the two Oracles he’d enslaved back in Danaeria many years ago. They both watched him, already knowing what his next question would be, and dreading it.
“Can you see who they are?” he asked quietly.
Ravennie shook her head, “They are mere shadows, emperor. Bright colored shadows, but without shape.”
“Shadows…,” Farron sneered. “That is not good enough, Ravennie.” Reaching down he held his hand out to the woman. “Perhaps you need a little extra power yourself?”
Ravennie’s blue eyes widened, staring at the hand as if it were poison. “What?”
“Well, if those men can supply Hannah with extra power, why can’t I supply you?”
“Han…Hannah’s more powerful than us, my lord. She knows how to….”
“I don’t care. I need to know who those men are, and I need to know now. Wells, you too.” He held out his other hand, and the brown-haired girl bit her lip. She looked at Ravennie, but the blond had her eyes cast downward.
“Show me what you can see, women, or I will take it from you. You know I can.” Farron kneeled before them, his eyes cold. Lips trembling, Ravennie reached forward, her fingers hovering above Farron’s. Wells did the same, watching the other woman as if waiting for a signal. Farron snorted with impatience, his eyes narrowed, and grabbed both hands in his own.
Power crackled through the tent, and Farron had to work to repress the yell in his throat. All around him he saw nothingness, a gray void, then slowly, as he fell deeper, he could make out colors swirling about his head in an odd rainbow. Smiling, he wanted to reach out for them, but, just as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone, and everything was gray. Moments later, he found himself looking at an old woman with emerald green eyes.
“Hello Hannah,” Farron grinned.
The old Oracle stepped back slightly, her eyes wide, scared. Behind her, he could make out shapes, but, besides knowing that there were seven, he couldn’t make any of them out. The emperor tried to follow Hannah as she withdrew, but found himself held back. His hands were still being grasped by the two Oracles, and they were desperately trying to keep him in one place.
“Let me go,” he hissed to the two girls.
“We can’t,” Ravennie hissed back. “If we do, we’ll all be lost here. We are not meant to see this place, emperor, please! We must go back.”
“Farron, we can’t hold on much longer!” Wells pleaded, her eyes wide. She stared across the void at Hannah, then at something beyond. For a moment, she could see someone, then it was gone. Farron wasn’t paying attention, he too was peering into the darkness, trying to see past the light that was Hannah.
Ravennie was also watching Hannah, but then, with sudden clarity, she saw a man behind her. She knew him! She gasped, and Farron looked at her. Her mouth shut, and she nodded. She saw one of them.
Farron grinned, his blue-green eyes lighting with mirth. Then the grin fell as a realization came upon him. He could still feel his power. With amazement, he allowed the energy to build up within him, and he let go of Ravennie’s hand, ignoring her scream as she was suddenly cast adrift. Wells groped blindly at the scream, and caught a wisp of Ravennie’s fading body, bringing it back to solidity with a thought. Meanwhile, Farron had gathered a ball of energy in his hand, staring at Hannah with fevered intensity. He could end her threat now! Around them, colors suddenly swam back into the void, writhing and fighting with the nothingness, and a vacuum began to build beneath Farron’s feet. Wells’ eyes widened with horror as the vacuum drew them in.
“We must leave now, Farron! Now!” Wells’ voice rose with determination, and she gripped his hand tighter. Farron suddenly felt himself pulled back, and his hope vanished, even as he threw the ball of light in the direction he hoped the old woman Oracle still existed. Around him, the tent came back into focus.
“Damn it Wellssandra!” Farron roared, no longer caring to be quiet, wheeling around to face the panting girl. She was blinking with exhaustion, but Farron didn’t notice. Roughly, he grabbed the girl by the shoulders and began to shake her. “We could have finished them all!”
“I…I had to…We…Ravennie couldn’t…” Her attempts at speech failed as Farron shook her harder, and bits of power drained off of him to bite at her bare arms. Her eyes rolled up into her head, as the exhaustion of having to draw all three back combined with Farron’s rough treatment stole her consciousness.
Ravennie watched horrified as the color was drained from Wellssandra’s face, “Emperor, she was right. Any longer and we would have been lost in there. She saved our lives. Emperor, please!” The blond woman wanted to reach out, but she was too scared to touch the man again.
As abruptly as it began, Farron’s temper faded. He released Wells, letting her fall into an unconscious heap to the floor. He stood and looked over at Ravennie, who was watching Wells. Farron gripped her chin, his power once more under control inside his mind, and all Ravennie felt was the bruising pressure of his fingers.
“What happened?” he demanded. “I almost had them!”
Ravennie’s blue eyes were dilated, and her breath shallow. “We weren't meant to be there. We did more than see them…we actually went to them. We crossed into…I don’t know if it has a name – it’s the source of all energy, and it’s a void of lost souls. When you let me go, I nearly…disappeared, but Wells caught me. Then, when you tried to use your power there, the forces that exist in that place were going to take it from you. They would have taken you too. She pulled us all back before we got lost in there.”
Farron stared at her, his eyes dark. He let go of her chin and looked down at Wellssandra, his keen eyes checking to make sure she was still breathing. Satisfied he hadn’t killed her, he look back at Ravennie, and sighed.
“I see,” he muttered, backing up a step. “Well, I suppose I must make do with the knowledge that you saw someone. Tell me, Ravennie, who was it you saw?”
“A Tillurian, like me. I’d seen him before – he grew up not far from me before I moved to Danaeria,” her hand shook as she brushed a strand of blond hair out of her face. “His name is Tanner, Vin Tanner.”
Farron nodded, scratching his chin. “Could you draw him?”
“Then do it. I want his face on posters in every one of my camps, in every town that I own, in every place that I rule. 500 Crowns for whomever brings me his head and those of his traveling companions. Vin Tanner and his six friends will not make it through this country alive.”
He awoke slowly, his head throbbing like a drum. Every muscle in his body ached, as if he’d just awoken from some terrible sickness, and he found it difficult to move anything. He felt heat on the side of his face and down one side, but it was quickly fading.
Somewhere nearby he was aware of someone crying, and of soft voices in the background, but nothing about them made sense. He felt a hand touch his forehead, and a brief flash of light burst through his eyelids. Abruptly, the headache lessened, and he groaned.
“He’ll be alright now,” a voice said tiredly, “but he’ll be sore for a while. Probably have a bit of difficulty moving around initially, but it’ll fade.”
“Can you wake him up?” A second voice asked.
“He should be pretty much awake already,” the first voice replied. A cold finger tapped his cheek. “That’s enough napping, Danaerian. Wake up,” the voice ordered. He knew that voice, but he wasn’t sure how. All he really knew was that he didn’t want to wake up.
“Standish, wake up. I know you’re awake. Open your eyes.” The voice was persistent. It was also extremely irritating. He knew it now – it belonged to the wealthy Moorish healer, Nathan something or other.
“You sure he’s waking up?” This second voice was less deep, but had a gruff quality, like aged paper. The Brishnian Paladin.
“Yeah. Detected it in his breathing a minute ago.”
“’Bout bloody time,” another voice said angrily. Captain Wilmington. Fabulous. The man was a boor. A dangerous boor, but still a boor.
“Lord Standish, please, open your eyes,” Nathan Jackson’s voice was soothing, for all its faults. He sighed. Best not to keep the audience waiting.
With a supreme effort, he cracked his right eyelid, then his left. A few quick blinks later, he found himself looking up at the healer. Nathan was watching him curiously.
“How are you?” It was the question of a scientist who’d just conducted an experiment, not a doctor concerned about his patient. Ezra found this annoying, but not surprising. Either way, he didn’t answer. Instead, he looked around, trying to figure out where he was. He was lying on a table, and thought he recognized the beams of the main room of the public house above his head, though he couldn’t quite recall how he got there. Last thing he recalled was going into that small storage room….
The crying was louder now, and he tilted his head, his muscles a bit strained with effort. The mage, Josiah, was sitting at one of the tables staring morosely at a prone figure lying on top of it. Inez sat off to one side – she was the one who was crying. The mage, in contrast, seemed utterly blank. JD stood at the foot of the table, one hand resting on the old woman’s foot, tears silently running down his face.
“She’s dead?” the thief croaked. One bejeweled hand reached up to brush at his throat, to massage away the roughness.
“Farron – he…he hit her with something before we could pull out of that place. It hit you too, but not as directly.” Nathan frowned. Right before the energy bolt hit, Nathan thought he had seen Ezra actually try to shield the older woman, but the memory seemed irreconcilable with everything he’d seen of this man up until now. As easily as the thought came, he dismissed it as illogical. Couldn’t of happened.
“Don’t you remember?” Chris asked, leaning against the table.
Ezra blinked up at him, trying to sort through what happened. “I’m not sure,” he said finally, shutting his eyes. “Give me a moment.”
The paladin raised an eyebrow and looked at the healer. Nathan simply shrugged. He didn’t know what else to do – he’d healed the physical aftereffects of the energy burn, but had no idea what mental effects the energy charge might have had. He’d never seen a power like that of the emperor, and had certainly never had to heal someone hit by it. Ezra had gotten lucky by only receiving a glancing blow – Hannah had died immediately.
According to Inez, who had come into the storeroom to check on them when she heard Hannah scream, she found the old woman dead, and the rest of them unconscious on the floor around her. The proprietress had instantly cleared the tavern and had her bartender carry them out and placed on the tables. They’d all woken up fairly quickly, except Ezra. The thief had been holding the Oracle’s hand in the void, which is probably why he’d also been hit, albeit indirectly. Still, repairing the damage had been more difficult for Nathan than your average fire or ice burn, especially since, as with most magical attacks, the damage was internal, and so wasn’t visible. He was just happy to know that he could fix it, especially now since he was sure they would be facing Farron again.
Ezra opened his eyes again, to look at the paladin and healer still leaning over him. “What happened exactly?”
“What is the last thing you recall?” Nathan said.
“The storage room, the Captain forcing me to…touch…the Oracle, then…” he frowned again, his green eyes searching the rafters above his head for answers. Suddenly his eyes widened, “Farron! By the Gods, he was there, wasn’t he? Or at least, what he has become….” His breath quickened as the memory of Farron’s power coiled around his neck like a noose. Hannah had not only shown them Farron physically, she had shown them his soul, and the dark madness that was growing there. He tilted his head to look at Hannah again, “She was right. The Gods help us, she was right. And he killed her ….” Trailing off, he tried to calm his breathing. It didn’t take long, although the rest of his body seemed to still be resonating with whatever power Farron had thrown at them.
Chris sighed and leaned back from the table to look over at Buck. The Captain was watching him quietly from where he stood next to the scout.
“So what now?” Buck asked.
“We do what Hannah told us to. We get the Tillurian queen and Eloise to safety, and then….then we find a way to stop Farron. We’ll kill him if we have to.”
Ezra frowned, and managed to prop himself up on his shoulders. “Are you insane?”
Chris turned to him, his brown furrowed. “You have a better idea?”
“Hell yes. I say we forget everything we just learned and get the hell out of here.”
“You mean run away?” Buck said, his voice aghast. Ezra ignored him, staring at Chris.
“Paladin, the power Farron controls is impossible. We can’t fight that. Whatever she wanted us to do…we can’t. He’s too powerful.” Ice-green eyes to meet Chris’s steel ones, imploring. Not much scared the clever Danaerian, but magic certainly did. He hated anything he couldn’t control, and magic was one of them.
The paladin grimaced, but Hannah’s vision had had the opposite effect on him as it did on the thief. It only made him want to finish Farron more.
“I don’t see as we have a choice, Ezra.”
The thief set his mouth in a fine line. “Perhaps you don’t, Sir Larabee, but not me. I will not fight a battle I can’t win, no matter what the cause.” Shakily, he sat up off the table, swinging his legs over the side, brushing a hand through his hair.
“Damn, doesn’t change his tune, does he,” Buck growled. Ezra favored him with a dirty look.
“Ezra…” Josiah’s voice was quiet, but it instantly got everyone’s attention, even the recalcitrant thief. He was still sitting by his sister, but his deep blue eyes were focused on the red-clad nobleman. “You have to come with us. Hannah…,” he swallowed, “Hannah died so that you, and we, could see that. You are part of this, for good or ill.”
The thief’s jaw set, but he shook his head. “I…I am sorry for your loss, mage. But I won’t risk my life for her or you. My calling is elsewhere.”
“And what exactly is your calling?” the mage tried again, his voice taking on an edge. Narrowing his gaze, he took a gamble, “Crawling across rooftops?”
Ezra jerked slightly, then frowned. Chris’s eyes lit up, and he smiled slightly. The thief didn’t notice. Everyone else stared with confusion at the mage.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Ezra said slowly, moving to stand, “I think I’ve had enough for one night.” Suddenly, Chris was there, clamping a hand down on his shoulder, preventing him from moving.
“Unhand me, sir,” he ordered quietly.
“Who are you,” Chris demanded, pressing down a little more deeply with his hand.
“I told you….”
“No, you didn’t. That you are Danaerian is clear, but beyond that, I doubt anything you told us was true. You played Buck and the rest of us with that weak nobleman routine, but you are anything but weak. When Hannah touched you the first time, you responded with a fighter’s crouch. You’re too quick not to have been trained, and you held that dagger with a confidence gleaned only from experience. Then there are the flare pellets you keep up your right sleeve – common enough for a faire conjurer or stage actor, but not a nobleman. So who are you?”
Ezra’s jaw tensed, his eyes now watching the floor. “I am Lord Ezra Standish…Ungh!” Chris’s hand pressed down harder, pressing the pressure points in the shoulder. Ezra glared at him, and spoke through gritted teeth, “I am telling you the truth, you black-clad lunatic! I am a Danaerian lord, but I have not been a member of Farron’s court since I was fourteen, when I followed his son into exile.” He shoved Chris’s hand away. The paladin allowed it, and took a step back. Ezra sighed, and rotated his shoulder to get the feeling back in his arm.
“Go on,” Chris prompted. Ezra glared at him.
“Please,” the paladin added lightly, which caused the thief to arch an eyebrow. After a moment, the nobleman shrugged.
“I was the son of a somewhat estranged member of Farron’s court -- a woman of scant resources but strong wit -- and she managed to work it so that I became the prince’s closest confidant. We went to school together, spent all our time together, even traveled together when Farron sent the prince away to spend months at a time in outlying holdings. Of course, what my mother didn’t know was that I was not pretending to be his friend. The prince is the only man I am loyal to, the only one I trust implicitly, and while we were still in Farron’s castle in Leda, I was his strongest supporter.”
“I heard rumors about Farron’s son,” Buck inserted nonchalantly. “Farron never let him come out in public, did he? I never saw him, even though I did visit Leda once or twice. They always said he was away.”
“Farron has always been greedy for power, Captain. He was afraid that, if he let his son out, then he could be used as a means to threaten or shorten Farron’s own reign. A source of intrigue, if you will. You understand,” he waved his hand in a dismissive manner, “the usual Castle politics. So, most of the time, he was kept in seclusion.”
“So what happened when you were fourteen?” Chris asked. Brishnia had heard that Farron had exiled his son, but, since the prince had always been an unknown personality, they had no idea how to take the news. The other kingdoms had expected the prince to try and get their help in reclaiming his title, but the young man had never resurfaced.
“When we were both fourteen,” the thief said, “the prince…learned of Farron’s idea to recreate the empire. When he challenged him on it, threatening to rise against him if he tried, the King ordered him banished for treason and sent him to the Northern Reaches of the peninsula. I, and a handful of other loyal courtiers, followed him, much to my mother’s dismay.” He smiled, then it fell away again. “That was over fifteen years ago. After a while, the prince came to believe that Farron would never follow through on the idea, and we were as surprised as anyone when the king attacked Cathacus.” He shrugged.
“Why didn’t the prince try to reclaim his title earlier?” Buck asked, his brow knitted in curiosity.
Ezra smiled crookedly, “Because he never wanted to be King. Once outside the castle walls, he tasted freedom for the first time, and he didn’t want to give it up. But, with Farron’s move to create the empire, the prince decided he had to try and stop his father. So, I and my fellow courtiers now act as his spies in the kingdom. I learn what information I can about Farron, about those working against him, about anything that might affect the battles, and I sell it to those who might be able to use it against Farron. Not that it matters anymore….” he finished darkly.
“So you’re a spy,” Chris restated, ignoring Ezra’s last sentence. “Is that all you are?”
Ezra’s eyebrows shot up, “I’m sorry?”
“Oh, I was just thinking on the quality of your clothes, Standish, and the gold on the dagger at your belt. Seems that a spy for an exiled prince would be hard pressed to afford such finery.”
Ezra mouth opened slightly, before he shut it tightly again. “I am afraid I do not know what you are implying sir.”
Chris shook his head, “Oh, I think you do. You know I saw you, Ezra. In the alley. You may have been wearing a mask, but your eyes give you away. I admit, you had me fooled for a while….”
“I repeat, sir,” Ezra struggled weakly to his feet, “I do not know….”
“Nathan, this is the man who stole your things.” Chris turned his gaze to the healer, who returned the stare with a shocked expression.
“What?” both he and Ezra demanded.
“Sir I take umbrage at that heinous accusation,” the thief cried.
Nathan whirled to stare at the smaller man, then his jaw clamped shut. He grabbed the red doublet in his hands, pulling Ezra to him none to gently. “Where are my things,” he demanded.
“He is wrong, Master Jackson. I have no idea…”
“You return to me my things or I will have you hung from the tallest rafter in this tavern.”
Suddenly, the thief’s expression hardened, schooled into a poker face the others would soon get to know all too well. “I dare you to try it, Moor,” Ezra hissed.
“Nathan, let him go,” Chris ordered. “You’ll get your things.”
The healer risked a glance at the paladin, “How do you know?”
“Because he has no choice. Now let him go.”
The Moor scowled, but did as he was told. Ezra stepped away, and found himself falling rather heavily into a handy chair as his legs gave out from under him. Damn, he needed his strength back. Covering for his weakness, he turned to stare angrily at the paladin.
“Return Nathan’s things, Ezra,” Chris said quietly.
“Even if I had such things in my possession, Sir Larabee, where, pray tell, do you get the idea that I would ever be ordered by you?”
The paladin shrugged, “Because you are going to go with us to Tallus, and that means you will do as I tell you to.”
Ezra laughed, “I really do hate to repeat myself, paladin, but I’m afraid that going up against a frighteningly powerful madman with an army at his back is not on my list of things to do this month.”
Chris looked across at Vin, who had sidled up during the latter part of the conversation. The scout smiled at the paladin then down at the thief, “You know, Ezra, I reckon you should be leaving town anyhow.”
“Because if you don’t,” Chris hissed, “I’ll give you up to the townsfolk, and make sure they have you tarred, feathered, pilloried and branded.”
That wiped the smile from the thief’s face, but only for a moment. When it came back, it was only slightly less irritating for the healer. “I’ll sleep on it,” he told the group finally, getting back to his feet in order to leave.
“See you in the morning,” Chris replied, leaning back against the table as he watched the thief make his way slowly across the room to the stairs. As soon as he was out of earshot, Nathan growled.
“I don’t see why he has to come with us,” he muttered.
“Could be useful,” Chris answered, sitting down on a handy bench.
“I don’t trust him to stay with us. You’ll see, he’ll leave as soon as he has the opportunity,” the healer rejoined.
“Maybe, but if Hannah was right…” The paladin looked across to the woman lying on the table. Josiah looked up from where he was now stroking back her hair, then averted his eyes again.
“I trust him,” the mage said slowly.
“What? Why?” Nathan demanded. The others turned as well, all wearing equally incredulous expressions.
“First, because Hannah believed in him. And second….he tried to protect her when Farron threw that fireball. I saw him try to pull her back, and I think you did too, Nathan. I don’t think he himself recalls doing it, but he did. That has to mean something. Not that it did Hannah any good….” He grimaced and shut his eyes. After a moment, he buried his head in his hands and started to cry.
Nathan walked over and sat next to his friend, lightly placing an arm around his huge shoulders. The others, feeling unable to do more than offer feeble condolences for a woman none of them had known, slowly drifted off to wherever they were spending the night, hoping that this was not an inauspicious beginning to their quest.
The next morning found all seven men, Inez, Mary and a handful of other townsfolk at the graveside of Hannah Marie Sanchez. The service was quick, as per Josiah’s wishes. He stood by as the gravediggers drove the tombstone into the ground at the grave’s head, then laid a hand on the cold stone.
“I’ll see you soon, sister,” he whispered, “one way or another.”
Less than an hour later, seven men rode out of the mining town, heading west.
Continued in Part Two