(I’ve collected the weapons of the seven on a special page. Just follow the link)
By the time they reached the cairn indicating the end of the pass, it was mid-afternoon. A hazy white sun pushed weakly through the clouds, occasionally bursting through to light up a patch of earth for a second before being enveloped again. Chris and Vin rode in front in a companionable silence, followed fairly closely by Buck and JD, the young squire peppering the older Captain with questions. Ezra rode next, his eyes staring absently into the distance of the hills, content to be alone. Josiah and Nathan marked the tail, the healer speaking in low, soothing tones to his still mourning friend as the rode together.
The bandits had not bothered them, which was not surprising. As a group, they were pretty daunting. Chris and Buck’s bodies and saddles were both covered with weapons, and their straight backed postures marked them as warriors. The paladin wore his ring-hilted broadsword at his waist, along with a long black rope dagger. Strapped to his saddle, meanwhile, was a long, two-handed broadsword with an iridescent hilt, a second short sword, a small throwing axe, small dagger, and a mace. Everything had a dark tone, much like their owner. In contrast, Buck’s weapons, while equally numerous, seemed lighter.
Like his paladin, the former captain wore a ring-hilted short sword at his waist, along with a pretty, engraved, wood-hilt dagger. The dagger had been a gift from his king upon gaining his post as captain of the guard, and carried the Bryshnian coat of arms. It never left Buck’s side. Meanwhile, his saddle bore a second short sword, a war hammer and impressive war axe, and a long, two-handed sword with a reddish-brown hilt. Like Chris’s, the long sword was an infantry weapon, so was rarely used except in battle.
The others were no less well equipped, though in different ways. Vin’s large crossbow was once more loose on his back, and a longbow was attached to his saddle along with two quivers of arrows, the leather shooting glove on his left hand showing he knew how to use it. He also wore a short sword at his waist. It was the typical archer’s sword – light and used only when necessary.
Ezra carried a spear pointed short sword at his waist along with a matching dagger, the thief no longer pretending to be a foppish nobleman. A talon dagger – almost triangular in shape -- lined the back of his belt, and a long main gauche was attached to one boot. He wore a dark green cloak over a heather green aketon -- a quilted linen garment worn instead of mail -- and black breeches. While still of good quality, they were a traveler’s clothes and showed a few worn patches – even a knife slit or two that hadn’t been stitched up all that well. The rapier that matched the main gauche and the gold hilted dagger from the night before were wrapped and hidden on the saddle.
Behind him, Josiah’s white robes and the long oak staff across his back betrayed him as a mage, and the two headed axe on his saddle was dark with use, as was the golden sickle on his belt. Even if one were foolish enough to think they could defeat a magic-wielder, the mage’s large size and heavily muscled arms were proof that, even without magic, he would not fall easily.
Nathan and JD, meanwhile, although the least visibly intimidating of the group, also carried themselves with competence. Nathan’s black rapier and accompanying main gauche were at his waist, and the bulge under his silken cloak indicated the throwing knives were again on his back. Another knife was hidden inside one boot, this one with a red hilt reminiscent of a poisonous viper in color. JD carried only a knife and a dagger, but a rapier was hidden on his saddle along with a main gauche. The others knew it was there, as would any spying bandit, even though none had seen it unwrapped yet.
They rested at the cairn, allowing the horses some water from the stream, and had a late lunch. They retained their pairings as they ate, with Ezra still slightly off to one side, leaning on his horse. Josiah would look across at the young man occasionally, but then Nathan would distract him. The thief didn’t seem to notice.
Vin pulled out a piece of vellum with Tilluria painted on it and laid it out on a rock. Chris and Buck joined him, each having some experience in navigating Tallus while avoiding the bulk of the armies.
Vin sighed as he looked at the old map, his eyes trailing over the faded names of towns and forts, knowing that many had been destroyed or badly damaged by the war.
“It is easy to understand why my people want to give up, Chris,” the scout muttered, his eyes drawn to the small town of Tascosa – a border town that had been one of the first to fall. It had been his home, but was mostly ashes now. A brief pang thudded in his chest, then faded, as it had often done in the last four years.
“If we can stop Farron, the war will be over,” Chris replied. “I’m betting his army won’t stay together without a leader.”
“I don’t know,” Buck frowned. “What if someone tries to take his place?”
“Like who?” Vin asked, curious. “Farron’s wizard’s will not follow an army general. Only royalty can rule, we all know that.”
“There is this mysterious heir,” Buck replied, glancing at Ezra before turning to them both with heavy lidded eyes. “Look, Chris, I’ve been thinking. If what Hannah told us was true, the mandate will simply shift to Ezra’s exiled prince, and we know nothing about the man.”
Chris nodded, “I know.”
“And when that happens, we’ll have to find him and…. Chris, we’ll have to kill the prince too, regardless of who’s friend he is, if we hope to end the mandate’s threat.”
Chris didn’t flinch, “I said, I know.”
“Ezra would become our enemy then, Chris.”
“Buck…” Chris fixed him with a dark stare. “We were not brought together by chance. I for one, am willing to assume there is reason behind this, for why we are all here. If it comes to the point where we will have to kill Ezra to get to his prince, we will. Until then, I plan to let this destiny of ours unfold on its own. As much as I hate walking blind, we have to trust in Hannah’s vision of us, or we are all doomed.”
Buck shrugged, “I know, and I agree with you. I just wanted….” He paused, and took a breath. “So you would kill him, if you had to, to get to Farron’s son.” His normally bright eyes were dark as they regarded the paladin, not challenging, merely awaiting a soldier’s confirmation.
Chris’s eyes narrowed. “With no other choice, yes.” Buck nodded and smoothed down his moustache, his eyes no longer able to meet his leader’s. Vin, however, had no such compunction.
“Doesn’t seem right,” he stated quietly.
“No,” Chris sighed, and pulled his black leather gloves back on his hands. “Right now, though, I’m not going to think about it.” He looked at the map, and trailed the path out of the pass. At the bottom, he followed a right fork with his finger until it reached a thin light blue line. “Here, look, if we follow the Assabet stream, we avoid most of the towns….” he continued to outline his plan, and Vin allowed himself to be drawn back to his map. Buck watched them for a moment, not really paying attention, then slipped away to where he had left JD. As he got closer, his normally gregarious attitude returned, and he smiled.
The kid was holding one of Buck’s short swords in each hand, their points parallel to the ground, trying to keep them even. Buck had mentioned that they weren't either more than three pounds, but holding them steady for as long as the kid had had made them seem much heavier, and his arms had begun to shake slightly. Still, the look on his face showed a determination that the hardened Guard Captain had to admire. Buck walked around him, an amused smile on his face. JD simply followed him with his eyes, never once losing the slightly crouched position Buck had made him take. Finally, Buck nodded.
“Not bad, kid. That’s enough for now.”
JD grinned, letting both points fall into rapidly the dirt, scattering bits of grass and mud. Buck’s eyes narrowed.
“That did not mean drop them in the dirt. Clean them before you sheathe them, Squire,” he ordered. JD blushed deeply, lifting to rest on sword point on his foot, while he picked the other up to brush the dirt from it with his cloak.
“So, which do you like better?” Buck asked, still watching.
JD frowned, and hefted the sword he was cleaning. He tossed it from hand to hand for a moment, then sheathed it. Placing the sword on a nearby rock, he lifted the other and repeated the motion. Still frowning, he started to clean it as he had done with the other.
“I don’t know. They both feel about the same.”
Buck tilted his head, “Well, they should feel similar. They are both weighted and balanced for me. Shall we have a look at yours? I think you’ve kept it secret long enough.”
JD grinned, nodded fiercely, and rushed off to put the two short swords back on Buck’s saddle before running to his own mount and pulling out the hidden rapier. The captain crossed his arms, watching, interested in the light on the boy’s face.
Moments later, the boy returned with his sword. It was medium in length, perhaps thirty or so inches, and seemed to fit well in the boy’s hand. He held it up proudly, letting the hazy sunshine glint of the rounded edge. Buck just stared a moment, unable to hide his astonishment.
It was beautiful. Silver, ivory and leather ran together to make up the hilt, and the steel of the blade was tempered to a fine sheen. He’d only seen its like in a few places, usually on the waist of a high lord or royal. For a moment, Buck wondered if the rapier had been stolen, but the boy looked too comfortable with it. In fact, he looked like he had been born with it in his hand.
The captain held his hand out, and JD promptly handed it over. It wasn’t heavy, in fact, it felt lighter than either of Buck’s short swords, despite being longer. He tried a few slashes, impressed at the evenness of the balance and the flexibility of the metal. It was a good weapon – not an infantryman’s weapon, like his or Chris’s, but well designed for individual combat. It was the weapon of a Ronin, a good Ronin. The only nicks looked purposefully added, except for a few on the flat of the blade.
“Where did you get this?” Buck asked reverentially, handing it back.
“It was my father’s,” JD replied, happy to note that Buck seemed impressed. “I never met him, but my mother used to tell me stories about him, about his travels and how he gave up his warrior life for her. The sword is Drawvish. They made it for my father after he helped defend them against an Elvin attack in the Northern Reaches, as a gift. My mother said he was a real hero to them, and that they enchanted the sword to always be weighted perfectly for him and all of his descendants. If he hadn’t died, I might have followed in his footsteps instead of staying to take care of her….” The boy trailed off, lost in his dreams, and made a few slashing moves of his own. They weren’t as smooth as Buck’s, but they showed promise.
“Somebody showed you how to use it?” the Captain asked, seeing some elements of training. JD nodded, his eyes on the sword point as it shivered in the wind with each stab.
“The Colonel, one of the mine owners, he gave me a few lessons when I was younger, before he got too old to teach. He was a Colonel in the Tillurian army before he retired.”
“What was his name?” Vin asked, sidling up to join them, adjusting the bracer on his drawing arm absently as he too became mesmerized by the beauty of the weapon.
Vin whistled, looking back to JD, “Damn, kid. Colonel Jasper Matheson?”
“Yeah, you heard of him?” JD stopped his slashing, his eyes open.
“Sure. He’s a legend kid. A real hero. The Queen’s mother, Erinna, gave Matheson enough money when he retired to buy up a whole castle. Always wondered what happened to him.” Vin tilted his head, and JD grinned. The boy started in on his practice again.
Buck pursed his lips. “Well, you need work, kid, but, from the looks of it, you’ve got some talent.”
“That’s what the Colonel said. Said I had a natural affinity.”
“Hmmm,” Buck leaned against a nearby boulder. “You know how to use any other weapons, kid?”
JD stopped slashing. “No, not really. The Colonel once said he wanted to teach me how to wield the main gauche that goes with it, but never did. He also thought I should learn hand to hand combat, with a dagger, ‘cause I’m quick.”
“Yeah. ‘Course that might be because he was sort of old,” the kid frowned. “Said I used to tire him out.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Buck had crossed his arms by now, and looked at Vin. “If he’s half as famous as our scout here says he is, then he probably meant you were quick on your feet. Means you could probably wield a rapier and the main gauche at the same time with some effectiveness.”
“How fast do you think he is?” Vin asked of Buck, while JD watched them.
Buck shrugged, “Can you run, kid?”
JD grinned, “Faster than anyone I know.”
Buck nodded. “Looks like we got ourselves a rabbit, Vin. When we make camp tonight, JD, I’ll clean up your sword act and we’ll start on the dagger.”
“What do you know of dagger fighting, Buck?” Chris laughed, walking up with Solon. “You know perfectly well you’re more muscle than speed. Buck here is an excellent swordsman, JD, and good with an axe in a pinch, but I’ve never seen him comfortable with a dagger.”
“You making fun of me, Larabee?” Buck retorted, hands on his hips.
“Nah, just thought maybe you should ask someone more adept at daggers,” he looked over at Ezra. The thief was still leaning on his chestnut stallion, seemingly oblivious to the others around him.
“Standish?” Buck hissed. “You’re joking right?”
“Nope. Got a feeling he’s got a knack for them. That, and the fact that he has three of them attached to his body along with that nasty spear-pointed short sword of his. You ask me, it’s just another really long dagger.” The sword in question was about twenty five inches long, with a sharp end that was clearly designed more for stabbing than cutting.
“Nathan’s also pretty good with them knives of his,” Vin noted, before Buck could argue again. “He’s got a main gauche to go with that pretty rapier of his too.”
“Maybe you should ask one of them to teach you, JD,” Chris finished.
“Now look here,” Buck grunted, “I’m the boy’s mentor.”
“Yeah, but with a different weapon. You can teach him to wield a broadsword, Buck, but he’d probably get better training in the use of his rapier by one of the other two.”
Buck grimaced, but didn’t immediately reply. JD, meanwhile, was looking speculatively at both Nathan and Ezra.
“Which do you think is better?” he asked.
“Honestly?” Vin asked. “I’m betting Ezra’s quicker and sneakier, but he looks more like a hand to hand man to me. Hence all the daggers. I’m guessing he cheats when he fights. Nathan’s probably more traditional, better with a rapier and good with those knives, but not as adept at close quarters.” He grinned and looked at Chris. “Think we could get them to spar tonight?”
Chris frowned. Nathan was still angry with the thief, despite having found all his things neatly arranged and packed in his room when he woke up this morning. Ezra, on the other hand, still seemed too distant to be trusted not to harm them. “I’d rather not, Vin.”
“So, who do I ask?” JD asked.
“Nathan,” Buck stated firmly.
“Ezra,” Vin said at almost the same time. When Buck challenged him with a glare, Vin shrugged. “The boy’s quick. I’m betting Ezra can teach him to work that aspect better.”
“Yeah, but Nathan looks like he’d be a better teacher,” Buck answered. Vin shrugged. JD, meanwhile, was watching Chris, waiting for the final word.
“Ask Ezra,” Chris said finally. When Buck raised an eyebrow, Chris just mocked the expression. The captain repressed a growl, and allowed himself to be overridden. JD grinned and wandered across the camp, calling Ezra’s name.
“Are you crazy? We have no idea how good that cheat is,” Buck spat angrily.
“It’s a tactical move, Buck. I want Ezra to form a bond with someone, or else he’ll leave, just as Nathan predicts.” He looked at Buck with cold eyes, forcing Buck to shift his gaze. “Ezra tried to ingratiate himself with us through JD. Why not work his little con the other way around?” he suggested quietly.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Buck replied, equally as quiet. “It feels like you’re using the boy.”
Chris could only shrug.
“Chris, have a look,” Vin whispered. The paladin turned to watch Ezra and JD, and allowed himself a slightly smug smirk. The thief was smiling at the kid, the first genuine smile he’d seen on the man’s face since he met him, and was listening openly as JD showed off his rapier. The younger man took the rapier and looked down its length, then nodded and handed it back. Then he did something Chris didn’t expect.
He pointed JD to Nathan.
The kid frowned, said something, and looked over at Chris. Ezra followed the gaze and caught Chris’s eye. He shook his head, and replied to whatever JD said, not looking away from Chris. The kid frowned up at the thief, then nodded and walked away, heading towards Nathan. Ezra turned back to his horse, ostensibly to check the girth.
“Well, well,” Vin smiled. “Guess the con artist didn’t feel like being conned.” He chuckled as he walked away towards Winchester, feeling his new friend’s glare boring deeply into his back. For some reason, this only made him laugh harder.
They made camp that night about half way down the pass, in a small clearing scouted by Vin. A fresh spring bubbled up nearby, creating a shallow pool. Both Nathan and Ezra had taken the opportunity to bathe, much to the amusement of the others. After dinner, Josiah had wandered off on his own, ostensibly to practice communing with the elements upon which he could draw magic, while Nathan, Buck and JD had found a nearby clearing in which to do some training.
Under Buck’s watchful eye, the healer put the kid through the motions, testing his basic skills with the rapier. Like the captain, he noticed immediately the training, but the boy’s balance was off, worsened by an enthusiasm for rushing his lunges. The Moor almost laughed when JD stopped and unconsciously massaged the muscles on his right leg, not surprised that they were aching. Stepping over, he slapped the squire on the back and saw him stagger.
“First of all,” Nathan told him, “we’re going to have to get rid of that stagger.”
Not long after, the healer was leading JD through a series of balance exercises, having him hold both the rapier and the main gauche as he stretched. Then he had Buck spar with the kid, showing him the effectiveness of some of the exercises. Through it all, the young man remained a rapt student.
In all, the lesson took almost two hours, after which JD was sent to wash in the frigid pond, much to Buck’s delight. He considered following to tease him some more when he noted that Ezra had joined them. The thief was standing to one side, leaning on a tree, his rapier on his shoulder and main gauche tapping lightly against his thigh. Nathan hadn’t noticed where he stood leaning on his rapier, his mind drifting to the lessons’ of his youth. It was not a pleasant remembrance.
“Your skill is indeed impressive, Master Jackson, as I surmised,” Ezra drawled. “May I ask, sir, how you acquired your expertise? I always assumed healers were brought up to avoid such pursuits.” Nathan’s head had snapped up initially, startled by the intrusion, but now he simply watched Ezra with a wolf’s wariness.
“Still here I see,” the healer replied, ignoring Ezra’s query. He lifted his sword and mimicked Ezra’s position.
“Bandit country,” Ezra sighed, looking around at the black forest beyond the torch lit clearing. “I did not lie when I said that my companion was killed on the way to Four Corners. However proficient I may imagine myself to be, I also know my limitations.”
“Ah,” Nathan nodded, his voice cold. “Then I assume you plan to leave us as soon as we get down.”
“Probably,” the thief agreed, lifting the sword from his shoulder. “Until then, I was hoping you’d be kind enough to give me a lesson?”
Nathan’s eyes widened briefly, before being brought down in a frown. He was clearly trying to decide whether he was being mocked. Ezra chuckled.
“I assure you, good healer, that was not intended as a slight. My skill with a rapier is simply not as effective as it is with my short sword. While not bad, I have always wanted to improve, and, watching you with JD, I thought maybe you could help me.” He hefted the rapier.
“Pretty,” Nathan complemented. It was gold, steel and leather, not as fancy as JD’s, but of high quality.
“A gift from my prince,” Ezra smiled. “Not as long as yours, but equally as deadly. However, it is the main gauche that makes it a truly exceptional pair of weapons.” He pulled the long dagger from his boot and presented it. Like the rapier, it was gold, steel and leather. Nathan raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Looks pretty normal…”
Nathan nearly jumped as Ezra pressed the hidden catch on the counterguard, turning the single blade into three. “Gods alive,” Nathan smiled, impressed despite himself, “That is nasty. A real trident blade -- I’ve only heard of them. Very neat.”
“Very neat,” Buck repeated, agreeing. “That is not your average nobleman’s weapon.”
“I am not your average nobleman,” Ezra grinned. He pressed the catch again, returning the dagger to its original setting. “So, Master Jackson, will you instruct me?”
Nathan watched him for a moment, then nodded. “On two conditions.” Ezra raised his eyebrows.
“One, that you promise to stay with us at least until we reach the first town in Tilluria,” Nathan said. “And second, that you promise never to use what I teach you against me.”
Ezra laughed, then ducked his head. “A simple bargain, Master Jackson. You have my word on both counts. Thank you.”
Nathan shrugged, “Alright, let’s see how good you are.” He saluted Ezra, then set up his guard. Still grinning, the thief imitated him.
Then JD screamed.
Feeling full of energy still, the young squire had quickly stripped by the moonlit pond and gotten in, slipping under the water before the goosebumps had time to form. He hated baths, all they did was make his muscles cramp with the cold. Still, Nathan had told him it was good for him, and so here he was.
Damn it was cold!
After a moment, he resurfaced, brushing black hair form his face with a shaking and pale hand. Turning around, he was about to go back to fetch the soap the healer had let him borrow when something bright off to his left caught his eye. Blinking away the water, he rubbed his eyes a few times to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
It was a woman.
“Who are you?” she asked timidly, holding a white shift about her body. Black curly hair rippled down her shoulders to frame a pale face, while dark brown eyes stared at him balefully. When he didn’t answer immediately, she titled her head to one side.
JD had opened his mouth, but nothing had come out.
“Are you a bandit?” she asked again, even more quietly. “Because…because, if you are. I don’t have any money. I live just past the hillock behind here, with my old mother. We have nothing. Please…don’t hurt us.” Her voice was soft, and, had JD been paying more attention, he might have noticed that there was no fear on her face.
The young squire swallowed, and shook his head at her statement. “No, no, uh, what are you doing out here? Don’t you know you could get hurt out here?”
“Come to take my bath. It’s safer at night, here.” Though her voice remained timid, she made no move to leave, her expression somewhat blank. It was then that JD remembered he was completely naked. Blushing furiously, he submerged his body up to his neck, and tried to smile.
“Listen, uh, miss? I’m um, I’m sorry to have invaded your little place like this, but, uh….”
“Oh, that’s okay,” she smiled then, and casually dipped her toe into the pond. “You know, we don’t often get visitors here. Most don’t come back to this pond, except to get water from the spring.”
“Oh, well, normally I wouldn’t have either but…”
“No, no, it’s fine. Really. In fact…” she stepped in then, letting the water dampen the bottom of her shift. “Would you…like some company?” Her voice had softened, losing its frightened edge, and JD’s eyes widened. He backed up slightly as she slipped all the way into the water, and slipped off the shift.
“ It’s been awfully lonely, with just my mother,” she purred, swimming across to him. JD just blinked, his eyes noticing the flawlessness of her skin, and the reddish tinge to her lips. Big brown eyes watched him, waiting, a small smile lighting them up.
“What’s your name?” JD breathed, feeling his nervousness wash away as she looked at him.
“Maddie,” she replied. She looked him up and down then, and slipped a little closer. “What’s yours?”
“J…John Dunne,” he replied. “Um….”
“Would you like to kiss me, John?” she asked, reaching a hand towards his face.
JD nodded, “Yes.”
Her smile broadened, and she moved so that she pressed up against him, causing him to inhale sharply as his body reacted. Wrapping long arms around his neck, she brushed her lips against his, tickling them with her tongue. He inhaled again, his lips parting involuntarily, and she took the opportunity to press her lips harshly against his. He closed his eyes, letting her lead him away from the pond edge as he wrapped his own arms around her.
For a brief second, he was only aware of how cold her lips were, and then they were in the middle, water rippling around them. A white light cut through the darkness, and he opened his eyes to find the girl gone, his arms around a creature as black as the moon’s shadow. The creature gripped tighter as he tried to let go, her eyes bright with need. Suddenly, water filled his mouth, and his eyes widened with fear as he began to choke. She pressed harder, stealing his breath, her stolen body losing its solidity as her true nature took over.
Terror gripped him, and he fought her grip, but she was too strong. He was going to die! Pressing his hands against her shoulders, he tried to push away, his legs flailing in the water below him.
As his mind began to fog, he searched the landscape for something, anything, that could help him – and was surprised to see that the earth seemed to be pulsing with a different sort of light. The creature’s white light fought it, but the earth was bigger, darker. He could feel it inside of him, warming him, filling him with energy. All of a sudden, he had the strength to push away, and he found himself flying backwards in the water with the force of the movement. Spitting out the water in his mouth, he screamed. As quickly as it had come, the energy was gone, and he nearly collapsed as he grabbed for the pond edge.
She screamed with him, her features twisted, her eyes invisible inside the blackness and light that made up her form. In seconds, she had hold of him again, choking him with her arms as he tried to turn his face away.
“JD!” Josiah burst onto the scene, staff in hand. “Oh Gods,” he hissed, driving the oaken rod into the ground.
“JD!” Buck repeated as he crashed onto the scene, the others close on his heels. The large captain skidded down the incline to the pond edge, only to get thrown back about ten feet as a wave of water slammed into his chest. Nathan, who had been right behind him, got thrown to the side as Buck flew past him.
“Get BACK!” the creature hissed. “He’s mine. His power, his life, is mine!”
“What is it?” Vin demanded. He had his crossbow raised, but couldn’t get a clear image of the black creature as it held onto a rapidly weakening JD. Chris gripped his sword, his eyes sparkling in the moonlight.
“A water sprite,” Josiah answered abruptly. “Hold on son!” he called just before he closed his eyes. Gripping the staff in his left hand, Josiah found the elemental energy that created the water, his mind’s eyes imagining the energy flowing into him. Next to him, the top of the staff glowed with a pale blue light as water magic filled it.
The mage imagined a rift of water forming between the sprite and the young squire, and a cage of water forming around the succubus. Angry screams hitting his ears told him that it was working, and he risked opening his eyes. Panting with exertion, he pushed the creature further away from JD with a thought, and nodded.
“Chris,” he croaked, “get the boy out of that water, now! I can’t hold her much longer…”
The paladin skidded down the incline immediately and jumped fully clothed into the water. Grabbing JD under his arms, he pulled the boy back to the edge and pushed him up into a recovered Nathan’s arms.
As soon as both were out of the water, Josiah closed his eyes and tried to summon water’s counterpoint….but he couldn’t find it. He was shaking now, and opened his eyes. He couldn’t do it! The creature would be loose, and he couldn’t find the fire to destroy it!
“Can I shoot it?” Vin shouted. “I have a clear shot!”
“No, no, it will only waste the arrow. It is made of water, Vin. The bolt would go right through it,” Josiah replied, now gripping the still glowing staff with both hands.
“Can it leave the water?”
“Yes. It can’t…” he had to take another breath, “It can’t go far from it, but it is fast enough to catch one of us before we leave the circle of its power.” He breathed again, feeling his power fading. He turned to look at the others, “Did…did anyone bring a torch?” As he asked, Josiah already knew the answer. They had all come running blind.
“I’ll get one!” Vin said, turning to run off.
“No, no, too late…” Josiah’s hold weakened, and the water cage imprisoning the creature collapsed slightly. It laughed, and started to push against it. In the background, the mage could hear the sound of the others pulling their swords…the others….Ezra. He looked over at the thief, who responded by standing up a little straighter.
“Throw a fire pellet at that thing!” Josiah boomed.
Ezra jumped slightly, then nodded and flicked his right wrist, dropping a pellet into his hand. “Where do you want it thrown?”
“Anywhere, just hit that damn thing!”
Grinning, Ezra popped the pellet with his thumbnail and threw the ball of flame at the creature. Letting go with his right hand, Josiah grabbed the fire with his mind, increasing its power, his right hand lifting to build the flames higher. Letting go of the water cage, he let the fire consume the creature, the magic augmenting it preventing the pond from extinguishing it. Next to him, the light atop to the oak staff abruptly began to burn a fierce red color, as fire magic replaced the water.
The creature screamed again, this time in fear, as the flames burst around it. On the shore, the others watched with absolute fascination as the creature writhed in the flames, clouds of vapor and steam billowing up from its form.
And then, just as quickly as it came, it was gone.
No one moved for a moment, as if frozen. Then, abruptly, the light above the staff winked out, and time resumed its forward course.
Ezra ran to catch the mage as Josiah collapsed, and JD started to cough up water just as Vin returned with the torch. Buck groaned where he lay on the ground, his hand resting on his bruised chest. Chris knelt down next to JD, watching as the squire opened his eyes under Nathan’s healing hands.
“You all right, kid?” the paladin asked.
“Please, promise….no more baths,” the young squire mumbled weakly, “They don’t like me.”
JD snored to one side of the camp, wrapped in two blankets. Buck sat next to him, frowning deeply as he watched the boy sleep. Nathan sat next to Josiah, offering the older man a drink, while the other three sat around them, waiting for the mage to recover.
Bright torches ringed the camp, more than were necessary, but no one was complaining. Ezra was busy adding several more fire pellets to the sleeve lining of his shirt, just in case. For all that he changed his clothes often, he wore this shirt almost everyday because of all the hidden pockets and tiny springs in the lining. It was a conjurer’s shirt – designed for stage magic, and it had served him incredibly well over the years. As they waited for Josiah to wake up fully, he pulled out a pouch from his cloak to see how many fire pellets he had left.
“That was good throw,” Vin said nonchalantly, watching him. Ezra looked up and smiled at the compliment. He closed the pouch and returned it to a hidden pocket inside his cloak. Vin raised an eyebrow, and smiled.
“How many hidden pockets you got in there?” he asked, reaching for the cloak. Ezra knocked the hand away good-naturedly.
“More than you’ve got arrows, I wager,” the green-eyed man replied, narrowing his eyes. “How many arrows do you have?”
“More n’ you got pockets,” Vin countered. “Two crowns says so.”
Ezra’s grin widened, and he pulled out a slip of parchment from some deceptive crease in his cloak, along with two thin pieces of charcoal. He ripped the paper in half, and handed half to Vin along with a piece of charcoal.
“Write down how many arrows you got. I’ll write down the number of pockets.”
Vin pursed his lips, “how do I know you will tell the truth?” he asked.
Ezra ducked his head, scratching a figure onto his piece of parchment. “You don’t.”
Vin shook his head, then scribbled a number on his own paper. Then Ezra handed him his piece of paper. Vin’s smile fell as he compared the numbers.
“Aw hell!” he spat, digging into the pouch at his belt for two crowns.
Ezra laughed, “A word of advice, my friend. You may shoot an arrow better than me, and scout the land better than I ever will, but never, ever, bet against me. When it comes to wagering – I never lose.”
Vin grunted, and handed the coins over. “Is that ‘cause you always cheat?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Well sir,” Ezra dropped the coins inside of another pouch, again, hidden deep inside his cloak, “I abhor gambling, and, as such, leave nothing to chance….” He grinned, and Vin laughed.
“A sensible notion,” Josiah rumbled, batting away Nathan’s hands. Ezra and Vin immediately quieted, turning their attention to the mage.
“You alright, Josiah?” The healer asked. “You lost a lot of energy fighting that thing. I’ve never seen you so worn out.”
“I’m fine,” Josiah replied, sitting up straighter. He looked around at the others, than back at the Moor. “I’m just older Nathan.”
“I always figured mages got stronger with age,” Vin said. Josiah turned deep blue eyes to the scout and shook his head.
“Sadly, no. We get weaker. Most mages, when they get to my age, usually kill themselves because they can’t stand not being able to draw on the elements as easily.” He sighed, and looked at Ezra, then Chris. “I used to be able to draw on more than one element at a time, and be able to find that element anywhere. If I had been younger, I could have found fire without your help, perhaps deep in the earth, or somewhere in the sky, but, today…tonight….I needed your help.” He shook his head, his eyes clouding over. “Physically, I’m almost as strong as I was in my youth, but, age does something to a magic wielder’s powers. They…just…fade.” He leaned back against the boulder against which Nathan had propped him.
“It’s all right, mage,” Chris said. “What you have will be enough.”
Josiah grinned, despite his despondency. “Hannah really convinced you, didn’t she.”
“Yes,” the paladin responded, “she did.” Josiah nodded, his smile quieting until it was gone.
“Um, I have a question,” Ezra said, wrapping his cloak around him a little tighter. Josiah met his gaze, and raised an eyebrow. The thief grimaced. “What exactly was that thing we fought?” He looked around at the others, then back at the mage. “I consider myself a well-traveled man, mage, but that was, well, new. I always thought water sprites were a myth.”
Josiah frowned, “They are not myth, merely rare. Sprites, dryads, will-o-the-wisps, trolls, gremlins, harpies, and even elves and dwarves, the most common of the fey, have been rarely seen in the Kingdoms since the Empire died. Their existence is based entirely on blood magic, like the Mandate, but it is wild and weak without a strong source to tap into. While the Mandate reigned, it kept the fey strong, feeding them, allowing them to prey on humans with relative impunity. When Queen Rhea ended it, and the Mandate faded, they essentially died with it because they didn’t know how to survive on their own. Human elemental magic was now the stronger force, and mages were hired to rid the landscape of the more predatory fey. Those that were more independent moved to live up in the Northern Reaches, away from humans and the danger we represented. But, as the mandate returns, and they become more powerful….” He shrugged.
“Is their return part of the darkness Hannah saw?” Vin asked.
Josiah nodded. “Not all of the fey are as predatory as that water sprite, but most are. They exist by stealing life from humans and animals, needing their blood and energy to survive. Dwarves and elves are more independent – they can survive by just eating animals, like any human, and they’ve learned to draw energy from the rocks of the mountains, like we mages can. Fact is, they don’t much like their nastier kinfolk, considering them parasites, which is why we get along with them. A sort of equilibrium has been reached between them and us. But the rest of the fey…” he shook his head. “JD was not the first to be attacked. Up until now, they’ve tended to avoid Four Corners for some reason, but more and more of my fellow mages were sending me letters about attacks near villages throughout the peninsula, especially in Danaeria. Some of my oldest friends and students are dead because of fights with the fey.” He stopped and leaned back to look up at the sky. “Soon, they’ll be everywhere,” he sighed, closing his eyes.
“This just keeps getting better and better,” Vin mocked. “Now, besides Farron’s army, we gotta keep watch for wee folk with sharp teeth.”
“I might be able to create some sort of magical ward on our camps when we stop at night, but not right now. I’ll think about what I can do tomorrow,” Josiah yawned, and slinked down to get into a more comfortable position. Nathan smiled, and touched Josiah lightly with a healing touch to help him sleep better.
“We’ll put two men on watch at a time,” Chris ordered quietly. “It’s going to be a long night.”
The next few days passed relatively quietly, with JD and Josiah regaining their health rapidly under Nathan’s care. Unfortunately, while the near death incident seemed to have galvanized the former stableboy into becoming even more excited about the quest, Josiah had withdrawn more and more into himself.
The mage spent much of his time on horseback searching for sources of elemental energy in the landscape, promising himself he would never to be caught unawares again. He had been so cocky in his youth -- proud of defying his father to follow his dream, proud of the fact that he was able to control the elements better than any of his fellow mages his age, proud of his ability to find a source of elemental magic in almost anything around him.
So very Proud…
And so very long ago.
He was once able to control all four major elements with his staff as focus, usually able to manipulate two at a time with relative ease without losing his hold over the others. Now he could barely control one without collapsing from exhaustion. Pathetic.
Gritting his teeth, he closed his eyes and looked for the pulsing energy that marked each element: red for fire, blue for water, white for air, and brown for earth. If he looked deeper, he could see some the other two elements – green for life and black for death/renewal -- not that he could use them. They were too primeval and outside the grasp of anyone except the Gods. Vaguely, he was also aware of yellow and orange dots pulsing around him, indicating the presence of blood – animals, people and other creatures – though the pure yellow suggesting a source of blood magic was rare, and often hidden from his eyes. All people, except those he rode with, had yellow or orange auras, which was the energy on which Nathan drew for his healing. Josiah had never learned to tap into the energy, healing being a sort of very weak blood magic. Only healers learned that trick, and only because they, somewhere in their past, must have a Fey relative. Vaguely, he wondered if Nathan was aware of that fact. The man’s height, which was taller than everyone else in the group, suggested an Elvin ancestor – those creatures being very tall.
Darn it, he was distracting himself again. Work! Josiah, Work!
Gritting his teeth, he searched for the earth element, annoyed that, despite being surrounded by dirt, he couldn’t see the energy that moved it. He searched deeper with his mind, seeing a flash of red and a flash of blue, but unable to find a node of brown.
Nathan’s horse jumped, and the healer had to calm her by pulling her to a stop. He looked at the man riding next to him, while the five men in front also pulled their horses to a stop.
“Josiah?” Nathan had been worried about his old friend, seeing the listlessness since Hannah’s passing growing everyday in the slump of the shoulders. His weakness when helping JD had also not helped. “Josiah, you alright?”
The mage frowned, and nodded. “Just tired.”
“Well, if you got some sleep at night instead of forever meditating, you’d probably be less so,” the healer replied peevishly.
“Everything all right?” Chris called from the front of the line.
“Yes! I apologize, Sir Larabee, continue on!” the mage returned.
Nathan looked at Josiah, still frowning, but when the mage respurred his horse, the healer did also.
“You want to talk, Josiah? Tell me about this?”
“Nothing to talk about, Nathan.”
“Oh…right. You yell ‘damn it’ out loud for no reason, and you have nothing to talk about. Fabulous. Well, fine, you want to ride in misery, be my guest!” Nathan kneed his horse, making the skittish mare jump a little before cantering forward. After a moment, he was level with Ezra, who watched him with interest.
“Master Jackson, has our erstwhile master mage finally pushed you away?”
Nathan sent a smoldering look at the thief, “He is not an ‘erstwhile’ mage, Standish. He saved JD’s life, if you haven’t forgotten.”
“Oh, my apologies. I only meant erstwhile in the sense that he is no longer a master. I understand he had quite a reputation once.”
Nathan was about to start arguing again when his mind actually registered the odd statement. “How would you know he had a reputation?” he asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
“I have traveled a great deal, Master Jackson. I remember once being sent with my lord the prince to stay at the summer palace of Queen Kinya, back when I was ten or so. We were to receive instruction there on come of the southern Cathacun martial arts. While I was there, The Queen’s daughter, Princess Allisandra, managed to get herself trapped down a sinkhole in the caves on the coast….” His lips twisted into an odd smile, and Nathan frowned. Seeing the expression, Ezra dropped the smile and continued on, “In any case, because of the speed of the tide and the difficulty of reaching the cave other than by the cave entrance, the only option was to find a mage. Master Mage Josiah Sanchez was the one called.” He stopped, his thoughts drifting to imagine the scene in his mind’s eye.
Nathan’s eyes widened slightly, interested despite himself. When he met Josiah for the first time about twelve years ago, when the mage turned 40, he was no longer going by the name Master Mage. Already, his powers were weaker than the men eight years his junior and, though still formidable, could no longer honestly use the title. But Josiah seemed not to mind too much then, accepting it as part of the Gods’ plan. In fact, this quest was the first time he’d ever really seen Josiah seem honestly pained by his weakening state.
“So what happened?” the healer asked, leaning forward on the saddlehorn.
Ezra shook his head, his eyes far away. “A feat of magical prowess the like of which I’ve never seen again, Master Jackson. I saw him drive that oak staff of his into the cliff edge above the cave, then stretch his arms out before him in a parting gesture. Atop the staff, I saw lights appear and swirl, fighting each other with an amazing intensity. Blue, brown, and white all pulsing within a globe of energy. Then, with a roar, he drove the ocean back from the cave, leaving it almost dry. He yelled for the Princess to come out, to come to the front of the cave. When she did, she was shaking like a leaf. Then the brown light seemed to pulse even more vividly among the others atop the staff, and the whole earth rumbled. Allisandra shrieked as the earth rose up around her, cupping her in a bowl of sand that rose up from the beach to drop her off on the cliff edge. As soon as she was on solid ground, and back in the arms of her father, the sand fell away, and the ocean blasted back into the cave, rocking the earth one more time before it stilled. After that, I’m not sure what happened, though I know some healers had to help mage Sanchez from the scene. But I will always remember that day. I wished I’d had that kind of power, even for only a moment. Oh, what I would do with it…..” he trailed off, his eyes still focused on some distant point, though they were narrowed slightly in an expression of darkness Nathan had never seen before. The healer shivered slightly.
“Well, it sounds like an amazing story,” the Moor noted weakly.
“Yes. But, seeing him again…he is obviously not the same man, Master Jackson. This one has not the power of the other. An erstwhile mage, indeed, and not of much use otherwise, except perhaps as comic relief. Truly, a pathetic creature….” He spoke coldly, and Nathan’s face darkened to a nasty glower with each disparaging word.
“He is more than a mere mage, Lord Standish. He has had many hard times since those, I suppose you would call them, his glory days. He has suffered and persevered, and I will not let you mock him for that. The man whom Josiah Sanchez is today is stronger and purer than anyone I have ever met, a hero in every sense of the word. Besides still being a formidable magician, he easily outclasses you, thief, with far more to offer than the just the ability to pick a lock.”
“Well then, perhaps you should go back and remind him of that, as you clearly have no use for my opinion,” Ezra snapped.
Nathan grunted, “I think I’ll do just that, no thanks to you, my erstwhile Lord.” The healer nodded curtly and steered his horse around, planning to return to the side of his friend. Ezra watched him go, and saw him move to ride once more abreast of the mage, about twenty feet back.
The thief allowed himself a smile as he returned his gaze to the front. That Nathan was much too easy to manipulate. He hoped the healer would do as he said, and do the mage some good now. As far as Ezra was concerned, Josiah had been pretty damn impressive when he’d saved JD, fighting a fey creature in its own element. By the Gods, that had to take tremendous power, much more than your usual parlour tricks. You rarely saw true magic anymore these days, there being so few mages left in the world. He was telling the truth when he said he hadn’t witnessed such high magic since he was a child. Of course, the rest of his story had been completely made up. His face twisted into a crooked expression….he hoped Nathan wouldn’t repeat that little fable to the mage.
That night, the mood seemed considerably lighter as they made camp. Josiah set up his wards, manipulating air to create invisible walls around the camp that would allow any of the seven men to leave and return, but nothing else. He discovered that it was getting easier to do each time, and he wondered if he simply needed more actual practice, as opposed to merely thinking about the need to practice. Of course, he’s always been able to manipulate air magic better than any other. Air magic – white magic. Josiah’s face brightened as something rather obvious suddenly occurred to him. His color, according to Hannah, had been white. Finished with the wards, he stood facing the trees, his mind tripping over the possibilities.
Vin sat back on a rock, staring up at the sky, listening to the others around him. To one side, he could hear Nathan and Ezra sparring, with JD and Buck watching. Both JD and Ezra had improved under the healer’s surprisingly expert tutelage, although JD was the real star. He took to the lessons like a bird to the air, faltering only occasionally, but otherwise looking as if he’d be ready to fly with the eagles in no time. Nathan said he wanted Ezra and JD to spar together soon, since JD was almost getting good enough to have an actually fight with the thief. Ezra had grinned quietly at the statement, not denying it. Ezra knew full well he’d never be as good with the rapier as he was with shorter weapons. He’d been brought up to fight close quarters, and to fight dirty. The rapier was too much of a distance and gentleman’s weapon for him.
Now, the dagger on the other hand….
Chris stood off to one side, listening to the lesson with only half an ear. He was thinking about the fact that they were nearing some towns.
They’d descended out of the pass two days earlier, finally reaching the gentle rolling hills that marked northern Tilluria. As planned, they had swung to the east, following the dirt road only until they hit the Assabet river, then traveling cross country to avoid Farron’s patrols. But their supplies were running low, and Vin had mentioned knowing a little about the towns in this border country, in case they needed a break. Gritting his teeth, the paladin decided the risk was worth it. He turned to look over at the scout and smiled, pleased to see the wistful expression on the younger man’s face as he looked up at the stars. It only took a few long strides for him to reach the other man and sit down upon the rock at Vin’s head.
Vin looked up, “Hey soldier.”
Chris smiled, “Vin.”
“Something on your mind?”
“Thinking about heading for a town. Getting supplies. Maybe even chancing spending the night at a tavern. You know…whiskey, a room, a bed…more whiskey.” He grinned, arching an eyebrow at the scout.
Vin laughed, “Yeah, I can understand that. Where you thinking on heading?”
“Well, you said you knew this area…” the paladin trailed off, watching Vin expectantly. The scout pursed his lips, placing his hands behind his head in a lazy gesture.
“I do know the towns here,” Vin nodded. “I grew up about a league from here, town called Tascosa. It was pretty once, though it got pretty burnt out by the war. Literally.”
“No, no, just hurting. Lot of people moved out, but, now that the war has moved South and Farron pretty much taken control up here, they’re moving back. Trying to rebuild. Don’t know how much they got in terms of supplies to give us, but I’m betting they’d like to see some of the money we got.” He smiled, remembering the tavern owner, Master Stuart James. He was an old curmudgeon, tending to the greedy side, but not a bad sort. He’d been told by a friend who came to join the army recently that James had tried to convince Farron’s men not to hurt the townsfolk, promising free drink and lodging if no one was hurt. Vin’s smile fell as he remembered that Farron’s men had responded by breaking James’s leg and torching the town. Still, James was still alive…and maybe he’d help them. He looked up at Chris, and saw that the quiet man was still watching him.
“We can go there, I’m pretty sure they’ll help us. Besides, it isn’t as if Farron knows who we are. So long as we don’t draw attention to ourselves, I’m betting we can get that whiskey without too much of a fight.”
Chris nodded slowly. “So…,” he grinned wolfishly, “what are the women like in Tascosa?”
Vin returned the look, “Don’t come much livelier.”
“Sounds like a plan,” the black-clad paladin stood and straightened his shoulder. He looked over to see Nathan chastising Ezra about something. The thief was listening, but he didn’t look happy.
“You wondering why Ezra’s still with us?” Vin asked, following the gaze.
“Some. I keep expecting him to just disappear one night when we’re not looking. Considering his pastime, I doubt it would be very hard.”
“I think Nathan has something to do with it,” Vin replied, stretching back again on the rock to watch the stars.
Chris turned a puzzled stare at the scout, “How so?”
“I don’t know. ‘Cause he’s teaching him something? I get the feeling Ezra thrives on learning as much as possible from people, before he leaves them. Maybe, when Nathan has no more to teach, he’ll leave.”
Chris pondered this for a while, then shrugged. “Whatever the reason, so long as he stays…” he trailed off. “I just wish I knew what the hell we were getting into, and why it is that we are the ones to bring it to pass. I mean, even if we manage to save the Queen, we still have to deal with Farron.”
Vin didn’t answer, just kept watching the stars. A rustle behind them had both turning to see Josiah step out from the foliage, his white robes still spotless despite the fact that they trailed in the dirt. No one had said anything, but they were all sort of impressed by that fact. Somehow, the older mage must have some sort of magic keeping them clean. Josiah grinned at them.
“Ave brothers,” he said lightly. “I couldn’t help but overhear that last part, and I may have an idea. At least, I think I can give us a starting point as to why the seven of us are the key to stopping the mandate, and how we might go about learning how…”
He moved to sit on the rock that Chris had vacated, cracking the joints in his arms as he stretched them out before him. Vin shifted away so as to see him better, and Chris crossed his arm where he stood. Josiah smiled again.
“Now, we know that, somehow, Queen Rhea found a way to break up the mandate, and almost render it impotent as a force, correct? Well, what if that power were to be split up seven ways this time, among people who are not of the blood and who have no family to speak of? That would certainly break up the mandate’s hold, perhaps even more effectively than Rhea did.” He paused, registering their reactions. Neither man was forthcoming, suggesting that they had both already figured that part out. Josiah sighed.
“Well, secondly, I’ve been thinking on the colors that my sister assigned to each of us. It didn’t really occur to me until I started searching again for sources of magic that we each represent an element. Well, all except the thief, whom, as my sister put it, has no color. That I don’t understand. But, regardless, there has to be a reason for why we each blaze an elemental color. Perhaps the idea is for us to split up the mandate and return it to the elements from which it was formed. If, of course, that is where the magic was formed….” He frowned, showing that he wasn’t entirely sure of this logic. “Or, perhaps we may be able to tie the mandate to the elements to prevent it from ever being reborn again.” He shrugged.
Chris furrowed his brow. “Sounds plausible, mage. However, why that may explain the purpose of their being seven of us…”
“Well, six. There are only six elements,” Josiah interrupted. Chris’s brow furrowed even deeper. Vin opened his mouth to ask something, but Chris beat him to it, wanting to finish his statement.
“Fine, then, while that may explain the purpose of their being six of us, that does not help me to figure out how we are supposed to do what you say. You say I represent an element, but I do not feel that power, nor can I see it.”
“Are you sure there are only six elements?” Vin jumped in. Josiah looked at him, surprised.
“Yes, of course, only six.”
“So, there are only six colors of energy sources out there for magic?”
“Well, no, technically there is also yellow, but that is not an element.”
“Not an element?”
“No, it represents blood. Blood magic will burn yellow. Nathan uses blood magic when he heals. The Mandate burns yellow.” Josiah shivered slightly, remembering the yellow fireball that Farron had thrown at Hannah. Quickly, he erased the memory—he couldn’t think about that now.
“And Ezra’s not yellow.”
“Then what color is he?”
“I already told you, he doesn’t have a color.”
“Hannah called him child of light,” Vin suggested.
“Well, there you go. Light has no color. It is all colors, or none, depending on how you look at it.”
“Or none,” Josiah shook his head. “Listen, Vin, I don’t understand why he has that aura, he just does. Perhaps someday we’ll know why.”
“AHEM,” Chris glared at them, “while this discussion may be interesting for the two of you, I think it has to be tabled at the moment. Now, Josiah, you were saying about how we might learn to defeat the power Farron has?”
“Ah, yes,” Josiah nodded. “Now, we assume that Queen Rhea must have learned how to break up the mandate from somewhere, yes? Or perhaps, she figured out how on her own, but she had to get the idea from somewhere. My suggestion, then, is that we travel to her city and get ourselves into the Rhean Castle Library. I know for a fact that Farron did not, as he did with Adenn Castle, burn the Rhean Castle down, as he plans to make that his home. The library, then, should still be intact. I’m hoping that, somewhere hidden deep in the archives, there may be a book or a diary or some source of information that we can use.”
Chris nodded, “Sounds…right,” he said. “How do we get in?”
Josiah smiled, “Well, Nathan and I are both allowed in as scholars, and I’m sure Ezra can find a way to sneak the rest of you in. That is what he does, after all.”
Chris glanced once more over to the sparring group, watching as Nathan once more defended himself against Ezra, explaining as they went along both what Ezra was doing wrong offensively and what Nathan was doing defensively. The thief seemed very intent on repairing his mistakes. Chris didn’t think it would take much longer for Ezra to finish learning what he could from the healer.
“It’s a good idea, Josiah. So long as we stay together….”
Chris turned around, patting Solon’s neck as he slowed him down. Ezra rode up, a huge smile on his face. Vin leaned over his saddlehorn to better see the thief as he brought his chestnut stallion up alongside the huge black warhorse. Neither knight nor thief noticed as the chestnut nipped at Solon when the black ran into him. The black bared his teeth in response, and the chestnut shook his head as if laughing at the show of force. Vin chuckled a little at the exchange – horses did tend to reflect their masters personalities. What did Ezra call his horse? Chaucer?
Meanwhile, Chris had reined Solon in so as to better converse with the younger man. “Yes Ezra?”
“Sir Larabee, as I understand it, we plan to reach a town today – Tascosa, is it?”
“Wonderful. If you don’t mind, sir paladin, I believe I’ll ride on ahead and reconnoiter.”
Chris’s eyes narrowed. “Reconnoiter?”
“A reconnaissance mission, if you will. A look around the town to ensure there are no surprises awaiting us, that sort of thing.” He smiled brilliantly, and a gold tooth flashed on his teeth. Funny, Chris thought, I never noticed the tooth before now. Of course, this might possibly be the first time he’d seen Ezra grin quite that broadly….It made him instantly suspicious.
“I think you should stay with us, Ezra. Vin knows this town already. It is doubtful there is any trouble waiting for us there.”
The thief looked around Chris to Vin, and smiled again. This smile, though, was a bit more genuine. For some reason he couldn’t quite fathom, Ezra found that he truly liked the scout, perhaps because they were of similar age, though more likely because, over the last week, they’d discovered that they had a similar sense of humor. Vin grinned back.
“Well,” Ezra said, turning back to Chris, “I suppose I don’t really need your permission.” He smiled, and Chris narrowed his eyes. “After all, I’m not entirely sure who made you leader of this rag tag group in any case. Strange that I should even really think I needed to ask, don’t you think?” The smile broadened as he watched Chris frown more deeply. “So, I’ll see you in town then, but don’t wait up!” He offered Chris an odd two-fingered salute, then spurred his horse off in a quick canter.
“Hey! Where is he going!” Buck yelled, cantering up to join the two in front. JD sped up as well, but trailed the three horses, listening without being involved. Buck stared at Chris, “I thought we were staying together,” he growled.
Chris’s jaw tensed, “What do you expect me to do Buck? I can’t force him to stay.”
“The hell you can’t. We could have tied him up, or something,” a brief smile crossed the captain’s face as he considered the idea. “After all, the man is a thief. We could have arrested him, or something.”
Vin shook his head, “Arrested him, Captain? On whose authority?” He chuckled as Buck glared at him. Then the Captain looked back at his oldest friend.
“Chris, we are supposed to stay together.”
Chris shrugged, “He didn’t necessarily say he was leaving, Buck. He said he was going to meet us in town.”
“Ha,” Buck snorted. “If we see him again, I’ll be the first to kowtow before him.”
Vin’s eyes narrowed, a glint coming to one eye. “Want to make a bet on that, Captain?”
Buck looked around Chris to the scout, “You know something I don’t, pup?”
“Oh no,” Vin replied, ignoring the pup remark, “I just think you underestimate him.”
“That’s ‘cause you like him,” Buck snapped. “I’ll have you know, you’re the only one.”
“Josiah likes him too,” Vin replied. “Besides, you didn’t reply to my question. Want to bet on whether he returns?”
Buck looked at Vin, seeing some of the thief’s canniness reflected in those azure eyes, then he look at Chris, but the paladin was stone-faced. Finally, Buck nodded. “Yeah, I’ll take that bet. If I’m wrong, I’ll kowtow before him. And if you’re wrong?”
“I’ll kowtow before you,” Vin said easily. “Plus, I’ll bet two crowns to sweeten the pot.”
Buck grinned, and reached over Chris to shake Vin’s hand. The paladin suffered the indignity with a snarl.
“He’d better come back,” the black-clad knight said abruptly, bringing the other’s eyes to his. “Because if he doesn’t, I’ll find him and wring that scrawny neck.”
A couple of hours later, they rolled into town, Vin’s expression darkening as he took in the still blackened timbers and burnt out remains of some of the structures in town. His eyes glazed over one in particular – the home where he had grown up. The only consolation he had was that no one was living in that house when it was destroyed. It had simply been a dream of Vin’s to once return to the house of his family line – the Tanners. It had stood for generations. Now Vin was the last. He looked away, unable to think about the idea that he had failed his family somehow, that he had failed his mother.
“You’re a Tanner, boy, and don’t you forget it,” she had told him on her death bed. He was only five at the time, but he had taken those words to heart. If it hadn’t been for Farron, he might have moved home by now and found someone to spend his life with, to help carry on the name….So much for dreams. He truly did not expect to finish to see the end of this war.
The townspeople, what there were of them, all stopped to watch them as they entered, a mixture of hostility and curiosity on their faces. The other five men looked around them with a placid air, though Chris was looking in particular for a pair of green eyes. If that man had turned thief on them, Chris would kill him. He glanced over at the scout, noting the familiar downcast expression of a lost soul. He backed off a bit, allowing Vin some space to work through his thoughts. After a few yards, Vin looked up, the determined look back on his face, and started checking for familiar faces.
Vin looked to his right, and a crooked smile crossed his face. “Lucas James,” he growled, pulling Winchester to a halt. Lucas was Vin’s age, and had been a real bully as a child. Seeing the way he had about six or so toughs standing behind him, it looked like things hadn’t changed much. Lucas sneered.
“What are you doing here, Tanner? I thought you’d be put protecting that witch of a Queen.”
Vin’s eyebrows shot up, “Witch of a Queen, Lucas? How dare you speak that way of your rightful monarch!”
Lucas snorted, “Don’t make me laugh Tanner. She’s done nothing but bring us misery by prolonging this war. Everyone knows Farron’s going to win; she should have surrendered to him long ago. Maybe then we could begin to recover some of what we lost.” He waved a hand around at the town as he strode up to Vin’s horse. Winchester snorted and pawed the ground. Vin patted his neck to calm him.
“Winchester doesn’t like you much, Lucas. Doesn’t look like much has changed.”
Lucas laughed mockingly, then tried to stare down the rest of Tanner’s friends. They glared back, and Lucas actually took a step back in surprise, unable to meet the power he saw there. When he looked back, he seemed a little less sure of himself. “So, what are you doing here, Tanner?”
“Just stopping the night, Lucas. Thought we could stay at your uncle’s.”
Lucas’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t know if he’ll put you up, Tanner. He don’t like getting involved in trouble…and you boys look like trouble.”
“We just want beds and whiskey, Lucas. We have the cash.”
Lucas watched him for a moment longer, as if unsure.
“Lucas!” A gruff voice called, “Let them be.” Vin looked past Lucas, and his face lost a bit of its darkness as he watched Stuart James limp towards them. At first glance, it looked as if the old man hadn’t changed too much, well, except for the cane and the limp. The same shock of white hair capped his pale face, and sharp blue eyes stared out over a hawk like nose. As he got closer, however, the scout realized that frown lines had become embedded in the man’s face around his eyes and lips. That was new, Vin thought sourly.
“Hey Master James,” Vin said.
“Vin,” Stuart James replied. “What do you want here, boy?”
“Just a place to spend the night.”
Stuart watched him for a moment, as if considering this. His face was expressionless, almost as cool as Ezra when he was laying a bet. Vin’s brow furrowed. The Stuart James he remembered always had a ready smile….This was not the same man. He looked as burnt out as the town around him. Trying to hide the sudden sadness he felt, Vin looked away, and found himself looking into Chris’s eyes. The paladin was watching him with some concern. Stuart James looked over at his nephew, who had crossed his arms, an expression almost akin to a dare on the young man’s face.
Finally, Stuart bowed his head. “All right, Vin. You and your…friends can stay the night. But I want you gone come morning, alright? I don’t want trouble.”
“No trouble, Master James,” Chris replied. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“I think he means hostility,” Buck whispered to JD. The kid hid a grin.
“Follow me then, gentlemen,” Stuart said, limping away. Vin looked at the others, then dismounted, planning on leading Winchester on foot. Unbidden, the others imitated the move. As they walked down the half stone, half dirt road between the wood and dirt buildings, the small crowd parted before them like a sea. After a while, they were all gone, back to their various daily activities.
The tavern, when they approached it, looked pretty impressive. It was still completely intact, and quite large. Black timbers highlighted the white painted mud walls of the two story structure beneath a black, thatched roof. Smoke curled out through a hole in the top. Vin smiled again, happy to see one thing in his home that still looked the same.
Stuart stopped and pointed to a stable on the side. “You can put your beasts in there. You boys needing dinner?”
“Yes, please, Master James. And we’ll be needing to buy supplies…is Bucklin still around?”
“Yes. Watson’s still around too. They’ll get what you need. Hope you boys like mutton for dinner, that’s all we got these days.”
“Mutton sounds wonderful, Master James,” Josiah rumbled. Stuart looked over at him, the cool expression still on his face. He nodded.
“Then I’ll see you all inside,” he stated, moving to head inside.
“Friendly guy,” Buck said sarcatically, coming up alongside the scout. Vin looked at him, his eyes bright.
“Didn’t used to be like that, Buck, not at all,” he said quietly. “He used to be the most gregarious man in town. Everyone looked up to him, sort of like our unofficial Mayor.”
Buck twisted his mouth in apology and reached a hand out for Winchester’s reins. “Why don’t you let me and JD stable the horses while the rest of you go hunting for supplies. We’ll meet you inside.”
JD stepped forward, reaching out for Solon’s reins. As Chris handed them over, the kid asked the question that was on everyone’s mind but Vin’s at that moment.
Night fell quietly on the town, the moon rising to blanket the small burg with a comforting light. Fog reached down out of the hills to blanket the ground, muffling the sounds as people continued to finish their business for the night.
Ezra was nowhere to be seen.
Getting the supplies had been easy and efficient. None of them had bothered to look around the town, perhaps out of deference for the silent Vin, and had returned to the tavern as quickly as possible. Stuart James’s food had been a welcome respite after a week of cooking and cleaning on their own, and the whiskey and beer had been even nicer. Now they all sat inside the nearly empty tavern, curled near the fire, each feeling too introspective to take part in the banter that had marked them since banding together.
Chris sighed, looking into his empty glass, feeling a bit hollow inside. He’d failed, he realized, although he wasn’t sure what else he could have done to keep the Danaerian with them. Threats hadn’t worked, nor had manipulation, nor straight out honesty. For some reason, he knew that this meant the quest would never succeed.
The others were all feeling something similar, even JD. It was strange, but it really did feel as if something had gone missing in each of them. They had all only known each other a week, and yet, there was something there tying them together. Ezra deserting them had hurt them all.
The click of cane on flagstones had them looking up, and Stuart James wandered into the tavern. He gazed over them all, then his eyes found Vin’s.
“I’m sorry, Vin,” he said quietly.
Vin frowned, his mind a bit fuzzy from having consumed a little too much alcohol this night. “Sorry about what?” he replied.
James shook his head, not responding. Instead, he walked over to the door and opened it.
Thirty of Farron’s men augmented by Lucas James and his six toughs filled the room with a clatter, bringing Chris, Vin and the others to their feet instantly. But they were too slow – they didn’t even have time to draw before they found swords at their throats.
“Vin Tanner!” one of Farron’s men called, a man in a sergeant’s uniform, “You are hereby under arrest, per order of his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Farron!”
Vin’s eyes widened, “What?”
“You heard me, spy! We know all about you and your group. You are under arrest, and trial will be held at dawn. If found guilty, you will be hanged as spies!”
Vin just blinked in confusion, while Buck growled at the men holding him. Josiah had backed up slightly, trying to give himself some room and reach the oak staff he had propped up against the wall, but the guards followed him, stopping him. Vin looked at James, unable to hide the hurt in his eyes.
“What have you done?” he demanded.
Stuart James kept his head down, but his expression was still the same cold one as before. “I sorry Vin, but 500 Crowns is a lot of money. It will do the people of this town a great service.”
“500 Crowns?” Vin said. “What 500 Crowns?”
“That’s the bounty on your head, boy,” Farron’s man replied. Lucas laughed, wandering up to pat his uncle on the back. James ignored him. Vin’s mouth fell open, too surprised to speak. Bounty? What bounty?
“What say we just kill them now, sergeant Joe?” Lucas called, looking over at Farron’s man. Sergeant Eli Joe smiled wickedly.
“I have no problem with that. Sure will save us having to get up early.”
Stuart James raised his head, an emotion crossing his face for the first time that day. “I don’t want blood in my tavern,” he said angrily. “You promised me they would get a fair trial. I don’t cotton having the blood of innocent men on my hands.”
“They’re not innocent, uncle,” Lucas sneered, looking at Vin. “You can tell just by looking at ‘em. That one there,” he pointed at Chris, who returned the stare impassively, “he looks particularly evil to me.”
Sergeant Joe stepped forward to look Chris over, “Yes. Exactly what is your name, soldier?”
Chris’s eyes narrowed, and a slow smile crossed his face. Eli Joe’s own smile faltered, and he backed off slightly.
“Kill them,” the sergeant ordered.
“GENTLEMEN!” A voice yelled from the rafters. Everyone looked up.
Ezra Standish was standing on an exposed cross beam, one hand on the rope holding the large chandelier over the main room. Though the black mask covered his nose and mouth, it was obvious he was smiling.
“May I suggest you all step back a touch?” He indicated the talon dagger in his hand, pressing it against the chandelier’s thick rope. “I really think this might be a bit heavy, especially when it falls!” With a grin, he cut the rope, causing several yells as all hell broke loose. The chandelier crashed to the ground, cutting down about four of Farron’s men who hadn’t had time to dodge the massive iron circlet. Candles guttered and scattered across the floor in a shower of sparks, setting a few of the unluckier men’s uniforms on fire.
Chris and the others responded immediately, pulling swords and daggers and fighting the now completely distracted guards. Josiah fought like a bear, pulling out his sickle from his belt, still trying to get through the melee to his staff. Ezra swung down off the rafter, using the now loose chandelier rope to land him on top of the bar at the far end of the room. As four men rushed him, he flexed his left wrist and popped a smoke pellet, instantly blanketing the guards in front of him in a thick gray mist. Executing an acrobatic leap off the bar to land behind them, he dispatched the blinded men with ease.
Over by the fireplace, Chris fought back to back with Vin, short swords flashing in an eerily matching rhythm, as if they were feeding off each other. Buck fought by himself, a short sword in each hand, wielding them both with a brutal efficiency. Nothing was getting past the anger fueling him – it was as intense as a fire, and just as unstoppable.
JD and Nathan both wielded their rapiers with vigorous proficiency, student and teacher thrusting and parrying with different but equally effective styles. While Nathan moved with a fluid grace, JD blocked and cut with incredible speed, slicing through his opponents with the relentlessness of an earthquake.
Ezra, meanwhile, slid in and out of his opponent’s reaches with the dexterity of a snake, changing weapons almost as often as he changed position, occasionally favoring the sharp short sword and dagger, and sometimes wielding the trident main gauche and the talon dagger. Being ambidextrous, he could use both hands with equal savagery. His rule of fighting, it seemed, was merely to be the only one still standing without a mark on him. There was nothing predictable about his style – it simple was.
At one point, Chris found himself face to face with Lucas James, the younger man stopping short as he saw Chris leveling a sword in his direction. Without being asked, the bully dropped his weapon to the ground and raised his hands up, then he took off running out of the tavern, scared out of his wits.
In the corner, as immovable as stone, Stuart James watched his nephew flee with tired eyes, before returning a defeated gaze to the floor. Blankly, he noticed the blood stains seeping into the flagstones, the smell of death filling his nostrils, the screams of dying men searing his ears. They were things he’d seen far too much of in the last four years. He just wished it would stop.
Finally, Josiah reached the staff, and after wielding it as a weapon long enough to give him some room, he swiftly called up air magic and simply shoved. Sharp wind blew like a tornado through the tavern, picking up those of Farron’s men and Lucas’s toughs who were still standing – not many as it turned out – and driving them into the wall. As a group, they slammed against the unyielding structure, and fell into an unconscious heap.
The others stopped, caught almost mid-movement, and straightened up with bemused expressions. As one they looked at the knocked out men against the wall, then over at Josiah. The mage waved weakly in response, a foolish grin on his face. Buck started to laugh, the expression on the mage’s face simply too absurd to ignore, and the others couldn’t help but join in.
Chris’s smile fell as he saw Stuart James still standing meekly in one corner, the old man’s expression still as emotionless as the dead. The others quieted as the paladin walked over and pulled a pouch from his belt. He dropped twenty gold coins on the table next to James.
“For your trouble,” the man in black said coldly, before swiftly exiting the saloon. Vin followed quickly behind, his expression of disappointment thick as he glanced at the old man. Stuart James lowered his head to stare at his feet.
Outside, the townsfolk who had gathered to watch the massacre backed off as the paladin exited the brightly lit tavern. He seemed as a ghost in their midst, and they all shuddered to realize that he hadn’t a scratch on him despite having just fought off almost forty men. Silently, the rest of the Seven came out behind him, to stand as one behind their leader. They almost appeared to glow in the bright moonlight.
The townsfolk scattered.
“Nice town you got here, Vin,” Buck remarked sardonically, looking around him at the empty street with ice blue eyes, “but I’m thinking I’d rather spend this night under the stars if you don’t mind.”
“A most judicious decision, Captain Wilmington,” Ezra drawled. “I took the liberty of resaddling the horses for you, in case we had to make a quick exit. You’ll find all your things are there, including the weapons.”
The others turned to look at him, their expressions a mixture of wonder, anger and relief. In response, he simply stared back, as if returning was something he’d planned all along.
Actually, looking at them now, he fought to remember exactly why it was he had turned back.
He’d arrived in the town almost half an hour before the others, finding it to be small and rather worthless. He was about to go and buy himself some food and wait for the others when he saw the poster on the central board in the town’s square. He immediately ripped it down and rolled it up, his mind racing at the ramifications.
“Vin Tanner, Wanted, Dead or Alive, 500 Crowns. Rides with a gang of seven cutthroats and spies. For all seven, the reward is 1000 crowns.”
And below it was a drawing of Vin, the likeness near perfect.
The thief’s first thought had been to flee, which he promptly did. But for some reason, before he’d even made it more than a few miles out of town, he found himself turning back. Turning back to face what he knew to be almost impossible odds. His first glimpse had been to see almost forty men sneaking up on the tavern, and once again, all he had wanted to do was run. It was suicide to try and save the men inside. Yet, instead of listening to his head, he’d gone into the stable to quickly make sure the horses were ready to leave. Then, as the forty men stormed in through the doors, he’d snuck in through a high window to get onto the rafters. He grinned inwardly at the expressions of his companions as they looked at him now -- yes sir, he thought to himself, can’t imagine what came over me.
Suddenly, Chris grabbed his cape, drawing him close, and Ezra actually felt a prick of nervousness run down his spine.
“Don’t you ever run out on me again,” the paladin hissed, before letting go. He stepped back, his steel gray eyes measuring every inch of the thief, daring him to respond.
Ezra’s eyes widened slightly, understanding all to well what Chris wanted from him, and what it meant. Thoughts raced through his mind, as self-preservation warred with whatever it was that had turned him around. Several glib responses lit on his tongue…but he ignored them. For all that he wanted to, screamed at himself to, he finally realized he couldn’t fight destiny anymore than he could fight the sun rising in the east. Instead, he simply lowered his head, eyes blinking slowly in acceptance.
Yes Sir, he said silently. Chris nodded, and a slight smile touched his lips.
And so it was that the Seven were permanently joined.
Moments later, they rode out of the frightened, dying town of Tascosa, horses scattering the clinging mists in great puffs and swirls of gray smoke. The moon lit their way, a luminescent beacon in the night.
At one point, Vin tapped Buck’s shoulder. With a snarl, the Captain dug into his pouch and handed over two gold coins.
Continued in Part Three