The Four Kingdoms

 

Chapter Twenty: Preparations

 

They exited the thicket slowly, Nathan, Josiah and JD looking back with wonder as the fog quickly enveloped the area again. The brambles were as thick and impassable as ever, the trees dark and plain under the looming sky, and nothing looked even the slightest bit disturbed. Again, it was just another part of the woods.

 

"Until the next wanderers come," Josiah whispered reverently. Nathan nodded. In moments, the two men were in a deep discussion as to the intellectual and scientific aspects of what they had just experienced.

 

Heading back to the horses, Ezra no longer led the way, happy to walk in second place next to Vin while Chris and Buck walked in front. JD moved up to wander alongside Vin, the kid staring up curiously at the heavily clouded sky, while Josiah and Nathan brought up the rear.

 

"Odd," JD said, turning to look at the others, "it's morning."

 

"What?" Nathan looked up at the sky, but frowned at the overwhelming gray. How anyone could tell the time up here was beyond him.

 

"Sun just crested the horizon, see?" JD pointed towards the west, and sure enough, there was a slightly lighter patch of gray visible between two cloud-hidden mountains. Nathan raised an eyebrow, impressed, as the kid continued, "Can't be later than six or seven."

 

"We entered in the morning, how is that possible?" Chris shook his head and looked at the thief. "How long were we out?"

 

Ezra's expression was as puzzled as his, "A few minutes only."

 

"We lost a day and a night in there," Josiah said, his voice matter-of-fact. "Hopefully that was all we lost." Chris looked at him sharply, but JD shook his head.

 

"The town isn't burning," JD said, looking south down the mountainside, "or we would see the smoke. We have time." Nevertheless, by unspoken accord, they began to move more quickly.

 

As Chris finished checking Solon's cinch, the large black warhorse eyeing him speculatively as if he knew that soon they would be in battle again, Ezra sidled up and tapped the paladin on the shoulder. Vin followed, taking his promise to Buck seriously already.

 

"Before we head down to the cairn, we should stop at the Widow Nettie's house to see your Prince."

 

Chris stopped moving, turning to face Ezra curiously. "Why?"

 

Ezra pursed his lips and reached up to scratch at the warhorse's withers, "Because, if Prince William is willing, I know how to take the Key of Truth from him without harming the boy...well, not harming him much."

 

Chris frowned, "Explain."

 

"I learned many things in that circle, Sir Larabee, including how Queen Rhea must have split up the Mandate. Now, I can't say for certain this is what she did, but I understand the way the blood magic works now, and I'm fairly sure that I have discerned the method for fooling it into moving on without killing the boy. I will need Nathan's help and, of course, yours and the boy's permissions."

 

Chris raised an eyebrow, "Tell me first how you intend to do this."

 

"Of course, but, uh, promise you'll hear me through before making any decisions," Ezra licked his lips and waited, his eyebrows raised in anticipation. Chris merely glared at him, and the thief grimaced. Sighing, Ezra continued, "Well, can't say I'm surprised at your lack of response, but it was worth a try. See, thing is, I, uh, I'll need to slit his wrists...." He opened his mouth to say more, but Chris waved him quiet and turned back to Solon.

 

"Not a chance."

 

Ezra frowned, irritation flashing across his features, "Chris, with Nathan's help, I promise you nothing...."

 

"I won't have you slitting that boy's wrists!"

 

"Would it make you feel better if I told you I would slit mine as well?"

 

The question was so absurd that Chris couldn't speak for a moment. Ezra tried smiling, but it had no effect whatsoever. If anything, it only made Chris's face turn a darker shade of purple.

 

"We'll talk about this after the battle," the paladin said eventually, turning away. Ezra shook his head.

 

"Sir Larabee, please understand, I have to do it now. I will not get the chance after the battle, not if I am to take the Mandate from Farron and release all the power back to the earth. After I do that, I will no longer have my gift to absorb magic."

 

"If you slit your wrists, you will not see battle, and, as you so casually told us in that damned grotto, if you're dead, we all lose."

 

"Nathan will stop the bleeding before any chance of death occurs. Please, let me explain further before you dismiss me again."

 

Chris watched him a moment, then looked up to see that the others had gathered around. They had all come to stand nearby, to listen, with Josiah and Nathan paying the most attention. Vin nodded at the paladin, perhaps in encouragement, and Chris sighed. Turning back to Ezra, he gave the thief a curt nod. Ezra smiled.

 

"It's quite simple, if messy," the thief said, staring into the distance, "The boy and I slit our wrists simultaneously, then press our wrists to the other. Nathan will then fix the skin, arteries and veins so that our wrists are joined." He glanced at the healer, who had instantly frowned at the barbaric seeming notion. Ezra looked away to see Josiah smiling slightly, as if he were already several steps ahead. The thief continued with a wry smile to the old mage, "As a consequence, our bloods will mingle, and the Key will be confused. It'll have sensed the suicidal nature of the act, and seek to move on, but it won't go unless it is sure of the boy's death, or, and here is the trick, if it can move on into another blood holder easily. In other words, it will happily flow out of the boy's veins into mine. My power to absorb magic will draw it to me. Then, you simply separate us and Nathan will heal the wrists."

 

"This was why Rhea employed all those healers," Josiah muttered. "The tales talked of an enormous amount the blood letting as the last emperor died, but I had always assumed it was all his. If Rhea did something similar to what you just described with her siblings, with all four joining together in a circle of shared blood, then it is no wonder the Mandate was confused enough to settle among them equally. For a moment, they were one. Then the healers just had to cut them loose and heal their wrists. Four equal pieces. The shock must have driven the Mandate into a sort of unconsciousness."

 

"Until Farron figured out how to awaken his own Key," Ezra nodded, "The Key of Reason."

 

"Mingling blood," Nathan shook his head. "Half the time, when people try to do that, the body rejects the blood and the patient dies."

 

"We are of the same blood line, healer," Ezra told him, his face shining with confidence. "That's the way the Mandate works. Trust me on this." Nathan snorted briefly, then shrugged. After all they had been through, his face told them, how could he not?

 

"I hate this idea," Chris muttered, glaring at Solon's hide for lack of a better target.

 

"Have we had any ideas we haven't hated?" Josiah replied cheekily, before moving off to check on his own horse. Chris instantly sent his glare to hit the mage's unprotected back.

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A small sigh of relief escaped everyone's lips as they crested the hill to see the Widow's small cabin still intact, and Nettie herself feeding the chickens in front. But the happiness was short lived once Chris explained why they had come.

 

Understandably, Mary was not happy. It took close to an hour to convince her of the idea, and even then, she refused unless Nathan could prove to her how quickly he could repair an artery. Josiah happily gave her the proof when, before anyone else could react, he picked up one of Widow Nettie's carving knives and slashed his forearm open. Mary screamed, and, in the background, Wellssandra whimpered and leaned on the stoic princess Eloise, who merely rolled her eyes. Nathan never even blinked, grabbing Josiah's wrist and instantly enveloping it in the golden glow of healing magic. In moments, the cut was gone, and Nathan was chastising Josiah for using a potentially dirty knife.

 

For all the drama, after that, Mary finally had to agree. Billy, on the other hand, had needed no persuading. He was more than happy to be rid of the "Key," which he had come to think of as some sort of horrible disease. Plus, he was ecstatic to learn the Ezra was his cousin, even if somewhat remote, which meant he had more family. Anything the thief asked him to do, the young king happily agreed to. Then there was his absolute belief in Chris. If the paladin said they had to do it, the young prince felt secure that they really did have to do it.

 

Didn't mean he didn't cry almost the entire time as soon as Nathan drew his knife. He almost passed out, but Chris kept the little boy conscious by talking to him and distracting him. Ezra almost passed out himself, especially as he felt the Key's tendrils soak into him like a sickness, its black depths reacting violently against some of the other magics he held inside him. And then it was over. With a nod to Nathan, the healer severed their wrists and quickly healed them both.

 

"It's done?" Chris asked, cradling a now sleeping Billy. Ezra and Nathan both said yes, but it was to the thief that the question had been directed. The thief's expression was tense, and in the background, Wells was still worrying her lip as she watched him. But this time, it was because the young Oracle could see that the move had woken the Key of Truth. She could see it's evil winding around inside the thief, despite all his protections, and could see that he was working to suppress it. After a moment, he had it well buried, and Wells sighed in relief. No one else had been aware of the inner battle the young man had just waged.

 

Ezra, however, found himself suddenly far more scared than he had been since leaving that grove. If one Key could cause him this much trouble, he could only hope that he had enough strength to defeat the Mandate three Keys at once. Swallowing, he could only hope that whatever good he had inside him was stronger than the evil he knew lurked inside of him as well.

 

Why the hell had this gift been given to him? None of the others had evil in them....

 

"Everyone has evil inside of them," Wells whispered in his ear, startling him. He hadn't even seen her cross over to him, but she was sitting next to him all of a sudden, plucking at the fabric on his arm. "But you are aware of yours. It is what makes you special, in that you know what is evil in you and how to temper it. It is part of why you were chosen. Others may not know their evil natures until too late." She smiled at him.

 

He shook his head, "How did you know what I...?"

 

"Ready, Ezra?" Nathan asked, reaching down to take the thief's arm. Wells backed away and headed to where JD was standing talking to Buck. Seeing this, Ezra nodded up at the healer, smiled, and took the offered arm. In minutes, with Nathan's help, he felt as healthy as he had before they'd arrived at the widow's home and walked out into the gray world with more confident steps. Wells kissed JD on the cheek, while Mary and Eloise said one final goodbye to Chris and Buck.

 

Chris was the last to emerge from the low wooden house, walking slowly with his head down towards the horses. When he looked up, he saw Colonel Matheson sitting astride an old dappled gray mare, talking to Buck. He also noticed, with an odd smile, that the sun had come out. It shone brightly out of an almost cloudless sky. A rare thing indeed up here.

 

"Colonel Matheson," the paladin greeted, raising a hand. The old man nodded, looking more like the soldier he once was now than in the saloon.

 

"Sir Larabee, well met. I was just coming here to inform the widow and her guests about Farron's progress. I was hoping to also find you here, to learn if you succeeded. We became worried when you did not return last evening."

 

Chris nodded, reaching Solon and smoothing down the warhorse's hide with a gloved hand. "We had to spend the night elsewhere," he replied enigmatically, looking up at the old man. "What about Farron?"

 

"He and his army reached the halfway point on the eastern side of the pass sometime after dark last night. They're moving slowly, but, according to my scouts, were already moving again when dawn hit them. On the Tillurian side, the soldiers are moving at about the same clip. By my reckoning, they'll crest the ridge sometime around noon." At the remark, they all looked up, noting that the sun was already high in the sky. Noon was almost upon them.

 

"So they'll reach the fields outside of town in less than two hours," Chris said, looking back at the Colonel. The old man nodded.

 

"Less than two hours," Ezra echoed behind him, his voice quiet. "Not much time."

 

"No," the Colonel agreed. "As I was telling your Captain here, the town has gone to ground. Some considered fleeing, but, with the fey out there....well, they'd rather take their chances with the soldiers than risk that. Whole families have crowded into tiny cellars, although Inez is still moving around." He looked at the prince, and smiled at the slight frown on the young man's face. "Don't worry, your highness, she promised me she would be well hidden before the fighting happens."

 

Ezra nodded, and looked in the direction of the town.

 

Coughing, the Colonel looked back at Chris. The paladin had mounted and was leading Solon to the head of the pack. When he reached the Colonel, the old man held out his hand to him. Chris took it.

 

"Did you find the Center Rock?" the old man asked quietly, his eyes betraying his nervousness. Chris gripped the hand firmly...and nodded. The Colonel relaxed slightly, "Well, that's something."

 

"Thank you for the information, Colonel," Chris said then, releasing the man's hand. The Colonel nodded, then he looked at them all, as if for the first time.

 

"Is that how you are going to meet Farron's army?" he asked, frowning slightly. Chris's brow knitted as he looked down at his outfit, then at the others. Only Josiah, in his still almost perfectly white magical robe, did not look ragged.

 

"We are going into battle, Colonel," Chris replied slowly, as if that should answer the question. The old man frowned.

 

"With those battered weapons and looking like a bunch of scavengers? Without armor or other protection?"

 

"I have some things back at the tavern I plan to change into," Ezra said quietly. Chris looked over at him, curious. Ezra shrugged back. He had certainly not planned to meet his father again looking like this.

 

"I also plan to pick up some things of mine and Buck's from Mary's home," Chris said, wondering what the Colonel was getting at. The old man was shaking his head.

 

"After you boys work out your strategy, you come to my house the big one at the end of the road. I have a few things you may be able to use," he said, his lips twitching into a smile.

 

Chris turned and looked at the others, who shrugged. He turned back to the Colonel and thanked him, telling him they would see him soon. Happy, the old man nodded and turned his horse around, heading away down the hill towards town.

 

"You know, when we were kids, we used to talk about how, one day, we'd all sneak in and see what the Colonel had in his armory," JD said, looking pleased. "Ever since he moved here, he's been collecting pieces of armor and weapons, sometimes from passers-by, sometimes stuff he sent away for. It's probably a very neat thing to see."

 

"Something for all of us, huh kid?"

 

"I would imagine so," JD nodded.

 

"Shall we find out?" Nathan asked, kicking his mare into a trot.

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Inez stood in the doorway, watching as Ezra smoothed down the creases on the doublet he was wearing, making the dark green velvet shimmer. A simple silver pattern marked its center, but its meaning was lost on the Four Corners inhabitant, though she knew it was Danaerian. Sunlight from the window reflected dully off of the long shirt of chain mail he wore underneath, the heavy mail extending to reach halfway down his thighs and down his upper arms. He saw her standing there when he added a dark brown belt. Picking up the dark green cape he'd thrown on the bed, he pointed out the silver embroidery worked along the bottom edge of the fabric.

 

"Danaeria's colors," he said nonchalantly, putting the cape on with a silver clasp at his shoulder, "Green and silver."

 

"Really?" she asked, watching as he picked up the short sword he'd borrowed from Colonel Matheson to tie to the belt. His rapier he had tucked under the bed to hide it. He knew he was still better with the short sword than the longer rapier, despite Nathan's help. He would never be as good as either the healer or JD with the elegant weapon.

 

"Yes. Blue and silver for Brishnia, red and gold for Tilluria, and purple and gold for Cathacus."

 

"Ah."

 

"They have meaning, but it'd only bore you."

 

"Likely."

 

Ezra knelt down, tucking a knife into the sheath he had hidden in each boot, then picked up his daggers. What he lacked with the rapier he more than made up for with his skill with these smaller weapons -- shame two of his favorite ones were now lost. He'd lost the gold one when he had stuck it in Farron at Tallus, and the one that matched the spear-like short sword had been taken in Rhea along with the sword. Tucking his talon dagger in his belt, he spun the trident main gauche around his finger for a moment before inserting it into a hidden pocket inside his doublet. Finished, he smoothed down the sleeves of the light tunic he wore beneath the mail, pulling out the edges of a rather ragged looking linen shirt underneath it.

 

"You're wearing a shirt under your tunic?" Inez asked, curious. "And not a very nice looking one at that. Is it lucky?"

 

Ezra grinned, feeling the hidden pouches inside the old shirt's sleeves where he had his fire and smoke pellets stashed. They may not be magic, but they were nearly as good as magic.

 

"Yes," he said, "It is very lucky."

 

"Are you going to wear a breastplate?"

 

"No."

 

Inez tried not to look worried, and instead asked why not. Ezra glanced at her, then moved to stand at the edge of the bed.

 

"Because I hate the damn things. Too bulky. The mail is heavy, but at least you can move in it. My father will be wearing one, though, I promise you. He's probably figured out Vin's aptitude with the bow by now." He knelt down on the floorboards and looked up. Inez still watched him curiously. "By the way, I thank you for always giving me the same room when I stayed here." Grinning now, he lifted the floorboards up and showed her the small space he revealed. The grin fell somewhat when she didn't look surprised. "You knew?" he asked.

 

"Of course," she smiled, moving to sit on the bed near him, "It is my tavern after all. Sometimes, when you looked more destitute than normal, I'd see you come down in a fresh change of clothes despite only carrying in a couple of small saddlebags. There was no way you had enough room in them for so many outfits. So, after you left, I had a quick look around and found your little stash there. But," she raised a hand as he started to speak again, "I never disturbed anything. I don't know what you keep in there, besides a change of clothes."

 

"Two changes of clothing, actually," he replied, lifting out the red doublet he had worn when Chris first saw him, then tucking it away again. "And this..." reaching into the space, he pushed some things aside until he pulled out a thin piece of folded black velvet. Inez leaned over a bit as he slowly peeled back the folds, smiling as the light from the windows glinted off silver.

 

"It's Danaeria's crown," he said quietly, lifting the silver circlet up for her inspection. "I stole it a couple of years ago. Not that my father noticed too busy taking the other kingdom's crowns to care about his own." Like all the Royal crowns, it was fairly simple, ornamented with platinum mined by the dwarfs in the far Northern Reaches, the darker gray metal edging the silver in a sort of wave-like pattern along the bottom. There were also three small emeralds gathered near what was obviously meant to be the front.

 

"It's beautiful," Inez whispered, reaching to take it from Ezra's hands. He smiled as she wandered over to the mirror, unable to resist seeing how she would look, though she did not actually lower it on. She simply held it over her head for a moment before handing it back. "Are you going to wear it?"

 

"Can you think of anything that would annoy him more?" Ezra asked, slipping the circlet on his head. Inez smiled, and stepped back to the open doorway. Turning around, she saw him placing the boards back over the hole in the floor. When he stood up again, he casually rested a hand on his sword and drew the cape hanging from his back over his other arm. The sun glinted off the crown, making it sparkle. Inez lowered her eyes, and bowed her head, for the first time truly realizing that it was a prince standing before her.

 

"Good luck, your highness," she whispered.

 

Walking across, he leant over to kiss her gently on the cheek before leaving to join the others down on streets below. Inez followed a moment later, heading down to her cellars to join the several bottles of Danaerian wine she'd placed down there already, along with one very large glass.

_______________________________________

 

Ezra smiled at the sight that greeted him in the street. Chris had drawn a map in the dirt of the harvest fields and meadows outside of town and was instructing the others as to strategy. But that wasn't why the prince smiled. Facing him were a line of champions, and they finally looked the part.

 

Chris was wearing a navy tunic beneath a shining breastplate with a tiny symbol of an eagle etched high up on the left side. It marked him as the paladin of Brishnia. On his back, he wore a long infantry sword, courtesy of Colonel Matheson. Though it did not have the majesty of his own iridescent handled broadsword, the one Farron had taken, it had a beauty all its own. Hanging from his hips he carried one of his short swords, and a single dagger sat sheathed on one navy clad leg. A parted skirt of chain mail hung down to his knees, and he wore a long dark blue cape over his back, pressed down beneath the infantry sword.

 

Buck was dressed similarly, though no eagle was patterned on his breastplate. Unlike Chris, who had hidden his breastplate at Mary's, Buck's breastplate had had to be borrowed, also from the retired Colonel. It's only adornment was some scarring along one side, suggesting its long ago use. However, Buck also wore a shining helmet with a nose guard, a long, thick, blue and white plume hanging from off the top to fall nearly to his shoulders. It was the helmet worn by the Captain of the Guards of Brishnia, and, like the paladin's breastplate, had been stored with Mary.

 

Vin was adjusting the heavy crossbow on his back, settling it in place over the brick red doublet he'd found in Matheson's armory. It was a padded doublet, worn by archer's in the Tillurian army, though Vin was not wearing the chain mail that was supposed to be worn under it. Considering his gift, he didn't see the need. He relished the extra flexibility it gave him. Meanwhile, hanging from one belt was a small crossbow borrowed from the Colonel, and attached to a brown clad thigh was a quiver of arrows. He carried just the one, for the same reason that he determined he did not need mail. In his hand, he held his longbow, the solid wood of the bow polished and oiled. He smiled up at Ezra as the thief joined them, moving to stand next to him in order to lean on the smaller man's shoulder. Ezra took the indignity without a word.

 

The other three wore no uniforms, per se, unless you counted the mage's outfit. Josiah still wore the white robe of his profession, and it was fairly clear that he'd patched up the magic on the white cloth to make it as pristine as the day it was made. He no longer had his sickle, but he had his axe and his staff had been polished. But neither he nor Nathan wore Cathacun colors, as neither had ever been in the army, and neither particularly associated themselves with the kingdom.

 

Nathan, meanwhile, was dressed richly in his best silks. The dominant color was a sort of shimmering pale blue. Beneath the cloths, however, it was clear he was wearing chain mail from head to toe. A mail hood hung from off his skull to gather around his neck, and both a shirt and skirt good be seen glinting beneath the light cloths. He had his knives strapped to his back, partly hidden by the cloths, but easily reachable. He also wore his rapier at his waist and his main gauche. More knives were probably tucked into sheaths in other places, but they were not obvious. He shifted his shoulders and leaned over Chris's shoulder to hear where the Paladin had placed him in the upcoming battle.

 

Last was JD, who, as a citizen of Four Corners, belonged to no kingdom. While it was true that he had initially signed on as Buck's squire, any such position had long been forgotten. He wore, instead, a breastplate borrowed from Matheson's armory over a brown tunic and darker brown breeches. A long forest green cape hung from his shoulders, held in place by a gold buckle, and it had a deep hood which hung off his shoulders. One hand rested on his rapier, while the matching main gauche rested in a sheath on the other side of his belt. He also had Buck's war hammer tucked in his belt. He would blend in quite nicely with the green and brown atmosphere of the meadows.

 

They were a strange group, but hell, they looked good.

 

Chris looked up after a time, brushing his feet across the dirt to erase the map. Nodding to the others, he led the way to where the horses waited and mounted Solon. A single nudge to the horse's flank was all that was needed to send the huge warhorse at a gallop out of town.

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Continued in Chapter Twenty-One: The Final Battle