The Four Kingdoms: Part Six
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.
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 ." At the remark, they all looked up, noting that the sun was already high in the sky. 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.
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
"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. The gold handled 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."
"They have meaning, but it'd only bore you."
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, his favorite, 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 other 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?"
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
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.
The first line of Farron's army halted at the edge of the central meadow, thirty infantry men lining up to stand firmly. Another line of twenty, all carrying longbows, slipped in between them to kneel on the ground in front, bow ends balanced on the ground and arrows drawn and ready. Behind this group, layers upon layers of men moved into position, including two sets of cavalry flanking to the left and right into side fields under the orders of their captains. The green and silver of the soldier's outfits were marked by flashes of blue, red, gold and purple, to demonstrate their now complete hegemony. Some might even have been members of the former armies of the defunct kingdoms, but, as soldiers, that didn't matter anymore. They were soldiers, they followed the orders of their leader.
After a few moments, the central line parted and three men rode through on the old Pass road as it cut muddily down the center of the meadow, to stand as a triumvirate before their army. The man in the middle sat tall and heroic on the back of his almost pure white charger, his appearance reminiscent of the gods in old pagan myths. He was dressed in gleaming silver and gold plated armor that covered his chest, shoulders and thighs – suggesting that someone must have spent the night before polishing it for hours. Beneath the armor he wore a snow white doublet, green-blue flecks marking the billowing sleeves. On his head, the amalgam of three crowns melted together formed a tall crown, with points that held rubies, blue sapphires, amethysts and, of course, emeralds. And on his back, Chris's sword shimmered in the light, the only dark thing on the man.
Farron settled the warhorse quietly and smiled at the sight before him.
About fifty yards away, the seven sat atop their mounts in a straight line. Chris was in the center, with Ezra on his left and Vin on his right. JD was next to Ezra, his horse pawing the ground nervously, while Buck sat on the other side of the archer. Josiah and Nathan made up the ends.
"Sir Larabee!" Farron called, "Well met. And I see that you have my son with you. Somehow I knew he wasn't dead. How unfortunate."
Chris smiled thinly, "Farron, welcome to
The emperor smiled more deeply, ignoring the failure of the paladin to recognize even his kingly title. Then he noticed Ezra's crown, and his smile dropped somewhat.
"Ezra...that does not belong to you."
The black prince smiled at the remark, but didn't say anything.
"I see," Farron leaned forward slightly over his horse's neck. "You know, I think this may have been a bit absurd, bringing all these men up here. For some reason, I imagined you might have built up a small army, or at least a larger group than just the seven of you. But, looking at you now, I realize I was wrong. I do hate being wrong." He shrugged and looked at the two generals he had brought forth with him. "Sorry to waste your time, men. I believe I can have this little threat dealt with in a matter of moments. Except my son. If you would be so kind as to kill him after I've dealt with the others, I would be most obliged. And bring me that crown."
The two generals smiled thinly in return. Then the smiles fell as Farron turned forward again and raised up his hands together. In moments, a spectacular golden fireball surrounded them, growing larger and hotter with each moment. The two general's horses shied a little at the presence of so much power.
Chris sighed and looked at Ezra, "I assume this is mine?"
The thief shook his head, "Oh no. I've got this one. See," he said, his eyes laughing, "there was another reason for me to be here."
Just then, Farron unleashed the fireball, sending it sizzling towards the seven men, its target Vin, Buck and Nathan.
Yelling a loud "Ha!" to his mount, Ezra galloped forward to intercept it, much to his horse's dismay. Nevertheless, as he always had, the chestnut gelding did as it was told and lowered his head as the blood magic hit them head on. Farron gritted his teeth as the fireball enveloped the thief and his mount without harming them. He had been building up another fireball to throw at Josiah and JD, but the power at his fingers faded as he watched his son's actions. It was then his suspicions were answered. He knew for certain that something was terribly wrong.
The soldiers on the line all shifted nervously as the thief seemed to glow with the power, drawing it into himself. Then it was gone. Ezra grinned, bowed slightly as Vin and JD both clapped, and backed his mount into line with the others again.
Farron tried to smile flippantly, but failed. "Hell," he whispered, not sure what else to say. Then, remembering what he had at his command, he pointed to the men behind him.
"My turn," Buck smiled. "I've been looking forward to this."
The front line of archers lifted their bows and drew back their aim. The sergeant commanding them shouted orders, then, with a single sharp shout, ordered them to fire.
The arrows lifted into the sky, and Buck lazily pointed to them.
Fire and ash fell down harmlessly in the center of the meadow.
Farron's eyes widened, as did his men's. Some of the soldiers twitched nervously, and whispers could be heard, the word "wizards" being passed along. The seven, meanwhile, took the opportunity the distraction afforded to spread out into better positions. The emperor snarled, amplifying his voice with magic so that he would be heard throughout the ranks.
"General Castor!" Farron shouted, "General Pike, do you have a battle plan?"
The two generals looked at each other. Yes they did, but it had been based on the supposition that they might be facing a small army of townsfolk, or perhaps a group of armed guerillas...not a mere seven men, though several of them seemed to be wizards puissant enough to defend against the Mandate.
"Uh," said General Castor.
"Yes?" responded General Pike, the answer more question than fact.
Farron gave them both dark looks, "Then EXECUTE it, damn it!"
"Yes sir!" the chorused, wheeling their mounts around to face the accumulated soldiers. Orders were barked, repeated, and men moved. More archers came forward, and spear carriers came to the front. Long shields of infantry men marched up from behind to spread out among the walled fields and meadows, using the bushes and trees separating them to hide their actual numbers.
"They're trying to get around us," JD noted, he moved to stand near Josiah.
"Not for long," Buck called from where he was positioned with Nathan, "Chris?"
They turned to look at the paladin, who was still watching Farron. Chris nodded. "Go!" he ordered, sending the seven into position. Josiah headed to the right with JD, and Nathan and Buck went left. Vin jumped off his mount atop a hillock and ducked down behind a low stone wall, pulling off the big crossbow and resting the longbow on the wall. Ezra stayed with Chris.
The paladin eyed him, "You're supposed to go with Vin."
Chris gritted his jaw, but said nothing else, as, at that moment, the first wave hit. Vin started raining arrows from above in rapid succession from the crossbow, the magic of having a constantly resetting weapon showing its usefulness immediately, while Ezra and Chris both pulled their swords and started cutting through the infantry.
Over on the left, Buck set up a firewall, trapping some of the flanking soldiers, while Nathan flooded the earth under another group, sending them slipping into the mud. Then they too began fighting in earnest, overcome by the sheer numbers of infantry men. Occasionally, flashes of fire and explosions of water was heard to rip through the soldiers' ranks, sending them back and giving both healer and Captain more room.
Buck fought like a man possessed, which, in some respects, was what he was. The same powerful rage that Hannah had sensed in the tavern all those months ago fueled him now, and he blistered his way through soldiers with a single minded purpose. Someone, somehow, managed to take down his beautiful mount, and he jumped feet first into the melee, fully prepared to avenge the horse, his friends, his home, and his kingdom. Fire crackled at his fingers, and he used his power as effectively as he used his sword arm. For every lucky cut that someone inflicted on him, he took down five men in a flare of red.
Nathan was different, slipping in and out of the soldiers ranks with a lithe grace. His rapier held most of the men a safe distance away as he tried to get in behind them. Pushing his mare past Buck, he found himself facing a long line of cavalry, the horsemen's gold helmets glinting in the sun. Someone yelled charge just as Nathan blasted them all with a steady stream of water, as powerful in force as the roaring Rhean river not far away from them to the east. The horses collapsed to their knees, while riders were blown from their mounts. Some, however, managed to stay on, and were on Nathan quickly. His long black rapier out, the healer sliced and jabbed as effectively as if he'd had a proper cavalry sword. The thin sword he favored was not the best parrying weapon against the horsemen's shorter slashing swords, but it was longer...and Nathan was very good with it. Soon he was the only one still mounted, and he turned his tired mount around to head towards the second wave of infantry he knew was waiting its turn to fight.
Over on the other side, Josiah blew back the first rank of soldiers with a wave of his staff, then started blasting archers with tiny fireballs, burning their longbows to ashes. They were no where near as impressive as Buck's, but they got the job done. He nodded to JD, who grinned in return.
Jumping off of Lucky's back, JD bent down and touched the ground, splitting the earth beneath the feet of about twenty soldiers who were flanking them on the far right. He didn't make it that deep, but the crevice he created was wide enough so that it was not jumpable. The cavalry that had been coming around from behind shied at the shifting ground, and several mounts threw their riders. Infantry, however, tumbled into the broken ground and quickly bounded up the other side, heading straight for JD.
The kid threw up his hood and ducked in between them. And was gone. Vanished.
Somewhere in the middle, yells could be heard as men got attacked from behind, the sound of a rapier whizzing past heads as JD flitted in and out of sight among them. Then he was through to the other side, into a second meadow where the second line of soldiers stood waiting. Jumping onto one of the cavalry's lost mounts, he spurred the horse in their direction, yelling loudly to get the second wave's attention. Confused, and not prepared, they drew up their spears and shields to meet him. A few of the more foolish ones didn't bother – after all, what possible threat could a boy be?
They changed their minds as JD charged into them, leapt off of the horse's back and started really fighting.
Josiah, meanwhile, was getting tired of throwing men back with great gusts of air. He could feel his magical strength waning in the face of a seemingly endless supply of soldiers and occasional cavalry. Finally, his anger at a boiling point, he started whipping his staff around like a weapon, knocking men out with single blows to the skull and chest.
Some lucky soldier somehow got hold of the staff and pulled it out of his hands, causing Josiah to bellow angrily and throw back about twenty men with one mighty heave of air magic.
Then he pulled his axe, and grinned. Soldiers surrounded him on all sides, hesitant, but determined. Their captain bellowed an order, and they all charged. Josiah became a white blur inside a ring of blood and brute strength.
And in the center, Chris and Ezra fought smoothly side by side meeting the rest of Farron's first wave with a solid front. Vin was like a guardian angel behind them, taking down any soldiers lucky enough to get around their backs. Most of the time, the scout had to cover Ezra, as the prince was nowhere near as quick as Chris. The paladin's borrowed blood magic made him appear like a miniature tornado as he blocked, parried and thrust in the same time that most of the infantry were still trying to unsheathe their swords. Shields were the only defense, and several soldiers had backed up, trying to create a wall to stop Chris from advancing too far.
It was a fairly useless effort. Chris just cut right through them.
Just then, one soldier got a lucky strike, his sword going deep into Chris's right side. Solon reared up and knocked the man down, but the damage, so thought the other surrounding soldiers, was done. Dropping their swords a little, they watched as the paladin backed the warhorse up slightly, looked down at the sword sticking out of him, then looked up and smiled at them. In one swift move, he pulled the weapon out and threw it to the ground, hilt up. The handful of soldiers knotted around Chris instantly backed away when they realized no blood seeped from the wound.
Then they all turned and ran, leaving Chris virtually alone. Shaking his head, Chris patted Solon on the neck, then sent him charging after them, and towards the second line of soldiers with the shining helmets of Farron and his generals standing among them in a back meadow. He could see the chaos JD and Nathan's magics were already having on these reserve soldiers, and he grinned in anticipation.
Ezra, meanwhile, continued to slash and cut through men, his chestnut gelding using its sharp hooves like knives. They were fast, dodging in and out of each soldier's reach with relative ease, using the height advantage to its full effect. Occasionally, Ezra would let loose the reins in his left hand and throw a couple of smoke pellets down to give himself more room, but it usually only afforded him a few moments of time. Suddenly, a lucky parry made Ezra lose his grip on his sword, the weapon flying uselessly off to the side. The thief instantly dropped a handful of fire pellets into his empty sword hand and threw them out at the attacking infantry, sending half a dozen men screaming back with their hair and clothes in flames. Digging his heels into his chestnut's flanks, he galloped through the soldiers to the spot that Chris had just left, then, leaning low off the saddle, he pulled up the soldier's sword Chris had thrown down. Pulling the gelding to a stop, he wheeled around, bloody and muddy sword in hand, and galloped back into the fight.
Over by the wall, a handful of soldiers had finally got close enough to force Vin out of his position. Dropping the large crossbow, its weight making it a hindrance in a close fight, the scout grabbed for his longbow and started wielding it like a staff. Expertly, the scout forced the men back, but he grimaced with the knowledge that he could no longer watching Ezra's back, and more men seemed to appear behind the one's he'd felled. He knew he was wearing a sword, but it was not his strength, so he balanced his small crossbow on one arm and shot soldiers while he tried to get through to where he thought Ezra was using just the longbow. It still amazed him that the crossbow kept resetting itself after each shot, the magic also making the weapon deadly accurate. The sickening crack of wood breaking caught his ears, and he almost cried out as his precious longbow folded in on itself. Some lucky bastard had cut through the hard wood with his sword. Vin hoped the sword had snapped too. Dropping the bow, he finally pulled his sword and started slashing.
Looking around, the sick feeling he got from losing his bow deepened.
He realized he could no longer see Ezra.
And he was still losing ground.
Upon the first charge by his men, Farron had drawn back with his generals to the second line. Then, we he felt the magic unleashed by the seven – saw the colors of the elements flashing like fireworks at the edge of his vision – he backed up further, until he was behind the last set of men – a small reserve of about a hundred infantry guarding the supply wagons and watching the rear flank. The supposed third line. Uneasy, they watched as their emperor rode through and around them, the small group frowning nervously at the screams and yelling they could hear not far from their position. They tried to ignore the flames rising in the eastern side, catching the scant trees that existed in the rocky meadows, and to ignore the shaking of the ground to the western side, well aware that earthquakes did not occur here. But none could ignore seeing the emperor ride around them.
Farron glanced at them, then with an odd smile, disappeared in a flash of yellow light.
Chris was fighting on foot now, letting Solon fight on his own. The big black's hooves rained down on anyone who managed to get close to him, which meant that not many soldiers tried to get to close to him. An arrow stuck out from his flank, but it did not seem to slow down the animal at all.
Chris also had had a couple of broken bolts in his side, and even a knife, but they hadn't bother him in the slightest. At one point, he'd managed to get Buck to create a massive wall of fire to trap the soldiers while he got Nathan to heal his wounds. The healer worked efficiently, though his repairs had been slowed down by the fact that Chris's body refused to heal itself at all. It was if the Paladin were dead: his blood didn't flow, his heart wasn't beating. He didn't even seem to be breathing, except by habit. Gamely ignoring this fact, Nathan had used his own endless supply of healing magic to seal the blood vessels and the skin, then sent Chris out again, never telling the man a thing. His blood magic had brushed up against the black power supporting Chris briefly, though, and it had chilled him considerably. He was almost loathe to douse Buck's firewall because of the cold he still felt, but he also knew he could not let the fire run unchecked. They'd done enough damage to the land already.
Afterwards, Nathan returned to help Buck finish off what remained of the left flank, of which only a couple score of Farron's most loyal fighters remained.
Sooner than he expected, Chris found himself facing the more seasoned fighters at the back of the second line, though it mattered little in the face of his speed and skill. Only moving slightly more slowly than he had with the first wave, he still cut an effective swath through the men, his goal the gold plumed helmets of the officers in the back. Suddenly, without warning, he found himself face to face with the hooves of a dark gray warhorse, and had to rapidly backpedal to where he had left Solon.
General Pike grinned wickedly as he calmed his beast down and drew his sword. Chris shook his head at the over-confident man, and chose to stay his ground.
With a loud yell, the general spurred the horse into a charge, sword raised high. Chris jumped swiftly to the side just as the mount sped past and, drawing a knife from the sheath in his boot, threw it with pinpoint accuracy at the man. The horse bucked when it felt its rider list suddenly to the side, trying to keep the man balanced on his back, but it was a useless effort. Pike crashed to the ground, the knife embedded deep in his hip. Screaming for his men to help him, he was soon lost amidst a mess of bodies as his loyal soldiers covered for him and attacked the paladin with renewed vigor.
Chris was forced back, surprised by the forcefulness of the attack, until he was pressed up against Solon's hide. Just then, the ground heaved and rolled beneath him, and he had to hold tight to Solon's saddle to stop himself from falling over. Before him, however, the soldiers had no such brace, and most fell backwards. Some tried to run, only to find themselves falling into a thin but deep crevice in the ground that hadn't been there minutes before. Looking up, Chris spotted JD not far away, his elemental magic dripping from his hands like brown gold as he all but sealed the crevice up again, leaving only a space of about a foot wide so that the trapped men could breathe.
The kid, Chris could see, had lost his cloak, and held his left arm pressed tightly against his side, but he still held his father's shining rapier proudly in his right. Holding it up, JD saluted the paladin and gave him a cocky grin before disappearing back into the ranks of soldiers sent to stop him and into the fields beyond.
Shaking his head, Chris grinned as he pulled himself up onto Solon's back and calmed the slightly nervous beast with a few solid pats to his hide. Pike had been spirited away, but he could see Castor standing with a few score of still unused soldiers not far away. Following JD's lead, Chris raised his sword up to salute the general, but the irate man did not return it.
It was then that Chris saw that Farron was not also there with his general, and the realization sent a spear of dread through his soul. But before he could do anything about it, or find a way to warn the others, Castor had sent his men to attack the Paladin and he was lost again in the battle.
Ezra's chestnut gelding screamed in anger as it fought the men boiling around him and his downed rider. Bred for battle, the horse knew his purpose now was to keep the soldiers at bay until his rider regained his feet, then his job would be done. He screamed again as someone stuck a spear through its belly, and he reared again.
Bruised, dazed, and not entirely sure how he had been felled, Ezra rolled back and got to his feet, a dagger now in each hand. He had to jump a few inches as his horse nearly backed into him, but at least he was up. With a rebel yell, he attacked the soldiers coming up at him from behind, the metal in his hands flashing. Looking around, he just caught sight of his horse falling to the ground, two spears stuck in its flanks, blood running down its neck from a sword cut. Some of the soldiers stepped back at the sight, something akin to regret on their faces. But the others surged on, and Ezra was given no chance to grieve for the beast that had been his only real friend for over fifteen years.
Then, as if by silent command, the soldiers fell away from him. Panting, and slightly bemused by the action, Ezra turned around in a tight circle, watching them, the daggers spinning in his hands. Eventually, he turned to face the same direction as they, and he lowered the bloody daggers to rest at his sides.
Farron, still gleaming white and now glowing from the use of the Mandate, rode slowly towards him on his white charger. How he had gotten passed the others without a scratch, Ezra didn't know, but there was no question as to his destination.
Farron's lips twitched as he took in the bloody battlefield, riding forward until he was barely a foot from his son.
"How is it possible," the emperor said slowly, his eyes scrutinizing him, "that you now carry the final Key? The Mandate brought me to you, and I can indeed sense the power in you. Did you actually kill the boy yourself?"
Ezra's eyes narrowed, but, as before, he didn't answer. He simply shoved the talon dagger into his belt and bent down to retrieve one of the swords on the ground. Raising it up, he saluted his father and crouched back into a fighting position.
Farron snorted, "You're not good enough, Ezra. You know I'm the better swordsman. I'd be wasting my time. The paladin, he might be able to challenge me, and, from what I have seen, the Moor, but not you."
"You want the Key, do you not?" Ezra said in reply, still standing in fighting position.
Farron lowered his turquoise eyes for a moment and pursed his lips. When he looked up again, he was smiling.
"More than you can ever imagine, boy." With a fluid motion, Farron dismounted, drew Chris's sword off his back, the dull metal of the Sword of Adenn glinting in the sunlight, and faced his son.
"Josiah!" Vin was backing up quickly now, trying desperately to see any of the others. Part of him could sense he was getting close to the mage, but the soldiers following him were giving him no space to look. Several had gotten in lucky strikes, but the wounds healed so quickly, the soldiers had never even known that they had drawn blood. Still slashing, Vin had lost his crossbow at some point, the action almost taking his arm with it. Some twisted part of his mind had wondered briefly if the arm would have grown back, or if he would have had to reattach the old one. Swallowing roughly, he jumped back a few steps over a stone wall, one of a seemingly endless number of walls he climbed over, and made one more desperate look around. He had both hands on the sword, though the hilt was really only big enough for one. Five soldiers advanced slowly, and the scout's tired body did its best to keep up with their movements.
Abruptly, they attacked, two men slashing and cutting, trying to get past Vin's defenses, while the other three waited their turn. The scout parried, his arm vibrating from the force of some of the blows, the sound of metal ringing dully in his ears. Then he felt it.
The sword pierced straight through his back. Someone had gotten in from behind.
Vin staggered forward and fell to the ground on his knees. The swordsman that had gotten him put a booted foot against his side and withdrew the weapon. Vin fell again, this time to his side as he turned to look up at the soldier.
The silver plumed helmet of a captain flashed in the sunlight, and the soldier's yellow teeth grinned evilly down at him.
"Finally got one of them, didn't we boys," he said, his accent tinged with the same Danaerian drawl that marked Ezra. A couple of the soldiers laughed tiredly as they formed a ring around him. Vin just shut his eyes and took in a deep breath.
"You sure he's dead?" one of the soldiers asked after a moment. He was waiting for the color to drain from Vin's face, to go with the blood that had to be seeping from the body. But, then again, now that he looked closer.... "There isn't much blood, captain."
"Man had a sword through his chest, soldier. If he's not dead yet, he soon will be."
"He's glowing, sir."
Sure enough, green light rippled across Vin and, though his eyes were still closed, he started to smile.
"That's it!" one of the soldiers yelled, throwing down his sword and pulling off the leather cap he wore. "I'm not fighting men that won't die!" He took off running, aimlessly moving towards the forest on the side of the forest. One of the other soldiers made a vague noise of agreement and took off after him, though he kept his sword.
The other three soldiers and their captain watched them leave without comment. Then they turned around again to look at Vin, but the "body" was gone.
"Looking for me?" the scout had simply gotten up, his wound already healed, and walked to where he had dropped his small crossbow. He had it pointed in the general direction of the men's captain.
"You...you only have one arrow on that crossbow," the captain stuttered, frowning.
Vin just smiled, "I wouldn't be so sure of that."
The three other soldiers started backing up, leaving the captain watching Vin warily. Then they too took off running. The captain lowered his head, and sheathed his sword.
"I'm on the wrong side, is that it?" he asked quietly.
"Yep," Vin's smile deepened. The captain nodded.
"Are you going to shoot me in the back?"
Vin shook his head, but didn't lower the weapon. The Captain nodded and turned around, walking morosely in the same direction that his men had fled.
Lowering the crossbow, the scout sighed, and looked around him. He felt a bit like he had found the eye of the storm, as a strange sense of calm shrouded the area around him. Bodies of men steamed on the cold, damp earth, while blood mixed with crushed grass assaulted his nostrils. Looking around, he searched vaguely for Ezra, but only succeeded in spotting Josiah. The mage looked huge, a towering powerhouse inside a group of about ten men not far from his position. The area around him was thick with the wounded and unconscious, while the spears and swords of those who had run lay littered among them.
Vaguely, Vin wondered how many had run. Probably a lot.
He looked around him again, then wandered back to where he spotted someone else's longbow lying in the mud. Pulling arrows from the magically full quiver attached to his side, he aimed towards Josiah's position and took down about five men with perfectly aimed shots to the shoulders and legs. He didn't want to kill anyone anymore. The other five soldiers, seeing their numbers suddenly depleted, threw down their weapons and kneeled in submission before Josiah.
The mage nodded, sent a quick salute towards Vin, then suggested to the soldiers that they take their wounded and get the hell away from there. Silently, with tense expressions, they did as they were told.
Longbow in hand, Vin jogged across to where Josiah had picked up his staff and was leaning heavily on it.
"Where are Chris and the others?"
Josiah shook his head. He was panting, and his eyes were closed. Blood marked his forehead, and mud crusted around his eyes. His robe hung, much of it in tatters. Just then, the ground shook beneath their feet, and Josiah's bright blue eyes flew open as he grinned.
"JD is probably that way," he said, pointing in the direction of what seemed to be the tremor's origin. Sure enough, in a nearby meadow, slightly hidden by brush and scraggly bushes, a knot of men seemed to be fighting with someone who clearly had them tripping over themselves in confusion. Josiah looked back at Vin.
"Where is Ezra?"
"I'm not sure. He was with me, then he wasn't."
"Central meadow is through there," Josiah said, pointing off to the east. "See if he's through there. I'm going to go help extricate JD."
Vin nodded slowly, his movements a bit reluctant. He wasn't all that tired, not as tired as the mage was, but he hated to leave this false calm.
"We're winning, scout. Let that be your torch." Josiah sighed and raised his staff up. In a moment, his robe, which had turned black and red from the fight, shimmered perfectly white and was perfectly intact again. "There that's better. By the way, that cut looks like it was pretty nasty," he pointed to the jagged hole where the point of the captain's sword had pierced Vin's doublet. The scout gave a short laugh.
"It was. Didn't lose my head though."
Josiah smiled, sighed, and started striding confidently away. "Go help Ezra, Vin. I have a feeling he needs you," he called over his shoulder.
"I know," the scout whispered. Moments later, he started jogging back to the central meadow, his gray eyes looking for his small crossbow on the way.
Farron had stripped off most of his armor, facing his son wearing merely his cuirass. His crown still reflected the waning sunlight brightly where it sat on his head, gaudily outstripping the thin circlet on his son's head. But, to some of the soldiers that had backed up to form a circle around the fighters, the simple crown of Danaeria seemed somehow more true.
It was immediately obvious that Farron's reach was far greater than his son's, the long two-handed broadsword forcing Ezra back two steps for every jab the thief managed to get in with his borrowed shortsword. Not for the first time, Ezra wished he had seen his own stolen sword among the weapons discarded on the ground, or perhaps at Farron's own belt, but the emperor had clearly decided Chris's sword was the better weapon. Perhaps it was.
But Farron did have something of his son's in his belt, and the emperor had made a point to show it off.
"I recognized the dagger, son, when I pulled it out after your craven attack at Tallus. The golden hilt and the way it splits into three blades – a most effective and cruel weapon – it belonged to the blademaster I brought in to teach you to fight, did it not? And, if I remember correctly, it had a matching rapier, both of which I took after the blademaster failed to complete his task with you. I assume you stole it when you took the crown?" At Ezra's curt nod, Farron had grinned. "I look forward to having that weapon for myself after this is over. I assume it is nearby?"
"You're so certain that you are going to win," Ezra had replied angrily. Farron nodded.
"When I have the final Key, son, yes. I also get the feeling that, when you are dead, all the magic in the others will be gone as well...." Farron had narrowed his eyes then, watching Ezra's expression carefully, but, if he expected a reaction, he did not get one. The emperor's smug countenance faltered a bit then, and he nodded again.
"Well done, Ezra. I admit, I can't read you at all anymore. I am...impressed."
The genuine sounding praise had surprised Ezra briefly, and he had straightened up a little out of his fighter's crouch. That was when Farron had attacked.
The battle between father and son raged for almost ten minutes without a break, the sound of Chris's broadsword clashing against the smaller weapon echoing loudly across the almost silent meadow. Beyond, in the outer and back meadows, the rest of the seven continued to battle brilliantly, but here in the central meadow it was eerily quiet except for the very personal war being waged between the two Danaerian royals.
But Ezra was tired, far more tired than his father, and there was no question as to who had the superior weapon. He was also acutely aware of the fact that Farron was probably better with the sword than he was, though he had spent most of his life trying to overcome that belief.
And, suddenly, he got his chance.
Ezra's quick mind watched as Farron threw the broadsword back in a sweeping arc. It was the mistake of the lazy and over-confident, and Ezra almost had to stop himself from smiling. Gritting his teeth, the prince threw up both sword and dagger to prevent the downward slash of Farron's sword before it split his skull, both his arms buzzing with the impact. Ignoring the pain, he turned his blades so that they caught at the edges of the broadsword, and twisted. Too late, Farron saw his mistake, and he tried to pull back on the weapon, but Ezra had already captured it. In a single fluid move, he twisted the weapon out of Farron's grasp and threw it to the side. For a moment, the prince considered going after it to use it, but, instead, he just backed up.
Panting, he grinned at his father. Farron scowled.
Farron turned at the yell, and deftly caught the sword throw to him by one of his men. Raising the shortsword in front of him, his scowl turned into a grin.
"I won't make the same mistake twice, son."
Chris sighed and lowered his sword, watching tiredly as the "third line" of Farron's army retreated with the supply wagons out of the Pass. To his left and right, he caught sight of other retreating men – some walking, some running, some carrying wounded, moving through the scant woods and meadows back to the road that would lead them out of here.
Looking up, he saw Buck moving towards him, a still healthy spring in the man's step, his gift of endurance still with him. The Captain's helmet was in his hand, the once handsome blue and white plume nearly destroyed. As he reached him, Chris saw the large dent on the helmet's side, and he raised worried eyebrows at his oldest friend.
"Don't worry," Buck smiled, rubbing a hand through his thick black hair, "Nathan fixed it. I was very lucky. That's all you need to know."
Chris's mouth tensed into a thin line, and he nodded. "Where is Nathan?"
"Would you believe, he is helping some of the wounded? He's not curing them completely, but he has worked a few miracles on what would be mortal wounds, so that most of Farron's men can still walk out of here. I'm not sure how many were thankful," he shrugged, and looked at the carnage in front of Chris. He took in the helmets of the two generals, both men now dead, and at the other dead. Many had looked like grizzled soldiers – Farron's most loyal.
"What a waste," Buck said quietly.
Chris shook his head, "They were soldiers, Buck."
"Yes, but these soldiers didn't know what hit them."
"They had time to turn around, Buck. They followed a killer, a man who burned down our home without mercy, took Rhea without warning, and came here looking to raze a town and kill a child. Plus, while they may have been mere soldiers, they must have had an idea that there would be something waiting for them up here. And if not, then they knew from the minute Ezra took that fireball from Farron."
Buck grimaced, but the memory of what had happened at Adenn had turned him back into the professional that he was. Then the grimace turned into a frown.
"Where is Farron?"
Chris took a deep breath, and straightened up. "He got around us." Buck's swear was drowned out by Chris's sharp whistle as he called Solon. Meeting the horse halfway, he looked back at Buck as he mounted. "Get the others. I'll meet you back at the central meadow." Without waiting to hear the Captain's answer, Chris spurred the tired horse into a gallop and headed back to where he last left Ezra.
Behind him, Buck started running back to where he left Nathan.
Swords rang out as Vin found himself attacked on all sides. He just caught a glimpse of Ezra in the middle of it all fighting with Farron before being deluged by Farron's remaining soldiers. He'd only gotten off a couple of shots with the borrowed longbow before he was fighting for his life again. Rage boiled inside him as he took men down with a ragged ferocity, his only purpose now to get to Ezra. He barely noticed when half the men took off in another direction to face another threat as it came galloping into the meadow.
Farron was faster, quicker, the Mandate fueling his strength. His son tired more and more, sweat dripping down the sides of his face in an almost maddening fashion. Farron had managed to get in a deep cut on the thief's left forearm, causing Ezra to lose his dagger, but the thief still had his sword. Their blades rang out loudly, but Ezra was forced to retreat further and further, until he was at the very edge of the meadow, his back to a small stand of trees.
Farron grinned, and decided the game was over.
Ezra gasped, his green eyes widening in shock as the blade slipped past his defenses. It happened too quickly, his mind slow to comprehend the meaning behind the feel of unforgiving metal being pushed through his abdomen.
He was dead.
Blood rushed to his ears, roaring louder than the Rhean in his senses. His lungs continued to pull in air, unaware of the life pouring out of his stomach.
Farron put both hands on the handle of the plain soldier's sword he had borrowed, and pushed deeper, the madness on his face alive. He laughed at the increased pain he saw on Ezra's face.
"I warned you, Ezra," he whispered, leaning forward on the sword so that his breath brushed his son's face, "I am the better swordsman."
The roaring in his ears diminished slightly at the words, and Ezra focused his eyes on his father standing barely a foot from him. A strange smile lit upon his lips.
"Yes, father," he half-whispered, half-gasped, green eyes fixed on his father's face, "but I am the better cheater."
His right hand dropped his sword and flew up to slam across Farron's confused face, the fire pellet exploding directly against the emperor's cheek. Farron screamed and fell back, his hands letting go of the sword to lift towards his burning face, but Ezra was still moving. In a single motion, Ezra pulled the gold hilted dagger from his father's belt with his left hand and raked it across his father's exposed neck. Farron's scream was cut off as his vocal cords were cut, and turquoise eyes stared at his son in shock.
Staggering backwards, the Mandate flared up brightly in Farron's hands, the power moving to staunch the flow of blood from his neck. But before he could use the magic to escape, to get to the healers he had sitting back with the supply wagons, he was shoved forward again.
A long arrow from a longbow stuck out of his back, the shaft still quivering from the force of the impact.
Leaning against a tree, Ezra caught sight of Vin lowering his bow, his expression tense. No soldiers stood around the scout, and, upon seeing Ezra looking at him, he started running in his direction.
Farron, meanwhile, had somehow expanded the circle of the Mandate's power to include the arrow, but strands of the golden aura were slipping away to lick at Ezra. The thief himself could feel his own hold on reality slipping, and his fingers, devoid of weapons now, gripped painfully at the rough bark of the tree he leaned against. He just had to hold on longer, he told himself. Just hold on.
Farron still looked at his son, the gold magic pulsing around his body. Then, almost in slow motion, the emperor turned to look around him, to find his men.
But all he saw was death.
He saw the bodies of his men on the ground. He saw the mage and the boy striding towards him from the right, and the Captain and the Moorish healer moving swiftly towards him from the left. He saw the Tillurian scout run right past him, to get to his son.
And he saw Chris Larabee.
The Paladin had found his sword. The black iridescent hilt was clasped firmly in the hands of its true owner, standing not more than two feet away from him, his black warhorse standing proudly in the background.
The edges of Chris's lips twitched slightly, whether in a sneer or a smile, Farron wasn't sure. But the words he spoke were clear enough.
Raising the sword, Chris watched as Farron closed his eyes...just before the Paladin took off the emperor's head.
The Mandate screamed.
At Tallus, the blood magic had risen out of Selene gently, forming a golden ball around Farron as he absorbed it. But here it burst out of Farron's body in jagged bolts of gold lightning, sizzling and roiling in the air to form a small swirling gold cyclone above their heads.
Over by the tree, Ezra pushed himself upright, shoving away Vin's hands. In seconds, the lightning swirled around him, almost as if it were testing him, and the thief shut his eyes tightly against the onslaught. The others could see the stress on the thief's face as it passed in and out of him, writhing on the surface of the blade still sticking out of his stomach, pulsing along the massive burn it found on the right hand, dripping down with the blood seeping from his left arm. Ezra's jaw trembled with exhaustion, his soul sickening with despair as the Mandate excitedly found its lost Key, the evil of the magic becoming whole inside his mind.
Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the Mandate was gone. Taken in and buried within a soul stronger than it was.
Like statues, the others watched as Ezra slowly opened his green eyes, the color in them bright with unshed tears.
"I think," he whispered softly, smiling at them, "We've won."
Then he collapsed.
Before Vin or Nathan could get to him, the world exploded.
The Center Rock was taking its power back.
Chris was the first to wake this time, rolling onto his back to look up at the indigo sky. A few faint clouds were tinged with the pink, and a few of the brighter stars twinkled in the background. Grunting slightly, he pushed himself up on his elbows and looked west, staring for a few moments at the purple, pink and gold sunset as it glowed on the horizon. He could feel his heart beating in his chest. It was oddly comforting...almost as if he'd missed it.
The paladin shivered at the plaintive sound of Vin's voice behind him, turning his head to find the scout.
Vin had been lying on his side, and he was pushing himself up, his eyes locked on the still form of the thief. With some difficulty, the scout somehow managed to pull himself over to Ezra's body, his fingers touching the man's ice cold cheek.
"Ezra?" he asked again, trying to see the man's face more clearly. The prince's head was turned to the side, the empty green eyes staring lifelessly towards the trees. Vin let out a shaky breath, his fingers lightly lifting to close Ezra's lids.
The paladin frowned, still disoriented. "Is he dead?"
Vin's lip trembled, "I was meant to make sure nothing happened to him, Chris. I was supposed to cover him. I promised...." The hand left Ezra's cheek and moved to cover the scout's eyes.
Buck groaned then, lifting a hand to his face, and JD coughed. Nathan blinked up at the sky, then turned to look at the others. When his dark brown eyes lit upon Ezra lying face down in the mud next to Vin, his expression fell. Struggling to his feet, his silks in tatters around the still solid chain mail underneath, he stumbled across to Ezra and knelt down next to him. A faint glow touched his fingers but immediately faded. The healer looked at his hands as if they had betrayed him.
"I...I'm too weak," he mumbled apologetically.
"It doesn't matter, Nathan. It's too late anyway. He was probably dead before he even hit the ground." Vin was staring down at the thief with a bleak countenance. He wanted to see Ezra open his eyes again, to smile up at them crookedly and laugh about how he had fooled them again. Lifting the thief's head up on to his lap, Vin lowered his head to press against Ezra's chest.
Chris had struggled to a sitting position, and stared at the scout holding the thief. He didn't want to believe it, somehow. They'd seemed so invincible. All but one.
"I should not have let him come," he whispered.
Vin looked up and met Chris' gaze at his words. He understood the pain there. They'd both failed—again.
"What happened?" JD asked, blinking rapidly as sat up, cradling his left arm. He grimaced as the broken limb began to throb. "I feel...horrible. Old, or something."
"We fought an army, son. What did you expect?" Josiah shifted sideways and somehow also managed to sit up. His white robe was in worse shape than Nathan's silks, revealing the linen shirt he wore underneath riddled with dried blood and mud. "And, with our powers gone, we are now truly feeling the pain of it."
"He's not feeling anything," Vin whispered, still watching Ezra, unable to move. Josiah frowned and looked over at the thief. His eyes saw the sword sticking out of Ezra's gut, but he didn't really want to believe what that meant.
"He's really dead?" The mage's chest seemed to contract painfully at the idea, his mind already searching for some rationale to soften the loss. Blue eyes looked for someone to tell him he was wrong, but Nathan was just staring at nothing now, and Vin's jaw appeared locked shut. Next to the mage, JD had gasped slightly at Josiah's question, while on the other side Buck had lowered his pounding head onto his knees, not wanting to look. Chris returned his gaze to the sunset.
Vin gently placed Ezra back on the ground and stood, arms crossing as he stared towards the approaching night.
Josiah sighed, his mind still grasping for a reason. "Well," he said softly, "perhaps…perhaps this was the way it was supposed to be."
"What?" Vin's question was sharp. Josiah shrugged.
"I only meant that, with everything that has happened, perhaps its right that the blood line should end here…."
"Right? You think its 'right' that he's dead?" Anger boiled up in the scout, and, before he knew what he was doing, Vin was throwing himself at Josiah, hands going for his throat. "How can you say that! He didn't deserve this! Don't you care?!" he shouted, just as Josiah grabbed the scout's arms and pulled him away, throwing the exhausted scout to the ground. The mage surged to his feet, sharp blue eyes locked on the fallen scout, hands raised as if to fight.
"How dare you!" Josiah growled. "I loved him too!"
Vin's own eyes widened in surprise and embarrassment as he realized what he'd just done, and he backpedaled on his hands.
"I'm...I...I'm sorry. I don't know why I...." Scrambling to his own feet, Vin jogged away, stumbling to a halt only when he reached the crumbling rock wall about ten yards away, his back to them.
"He blames himself," Chris said quietly.
"I know," the mage whispered. "We all do. We had all that power, won the battle, and yet we still lost…." Slowly, still seeking some means to make peace with himself, he limped over to Ezra and knelt down next to him. "Vin spoke the truth. There is nothing to make this right." Gently, he placed a hand on Ezra's chest, closing his eyes. Suddenly, as if he'd been bitten by a snake, his eyes flew open and he drew the hand back.
"What?" Chris had finally gotten to his own feet.
"I don't know. Something odd...." The mage frowned, some of his usual cool returning.
"You felt a pulse?"
"No, no, not a pulse." Josiah moved around and tipped Ezra more on his side. "Help me get this damned sword out of him."
The others had all moved in to watch, all except Vin. The scout was still hiding. Josiah held Ezra's body up as Chris wrenched the ugly blade out. Then, gently, Josiah placed Ezra on his back. He looked up at Chris.
"Vin!" Chris shouted the name like an order, bringing the scout back to the present. Vin looked back, saw them all gathered around Ezra, and frowned. With a sigh, he somewhat reluctantly joined the circle around their seventh, and watched.
Behind, the sunset glowed brightly, coating the hills in all manner of colors. On the eastern horizon, the sky was almost black, and white stars twinkled inside the manse. Above their heads, a deep blue, almost purple sky flowed, with pale yellow and cream colored clouds drifting lazily across it. And on the western horizon, the sun was a mass of pure orange fire surrounded by a rainbow of colors, lighting up the mountains, trees, this meadow, and these men in a syrupy golden glow.
Still kneeling next to Ezra, Josiah placed his hand on the young man's heart. After a moment, a tiny smile touched his lips.
"Yes, it's all yours. Take it. I don't need it anymore," he whispered.
Smiling more now, he stood up and backed off, looking at Nathan. It seemed to be an instruction of sorts. Though confused, the healer shrugged, knelt down, and imitated his oldest friend's actions by placing a hand on Ezra's heart. His eyes widened, and, slowly, he too smiled.
"Without question," he nodded. Grinning, he stood up and shook his head in amazement, and looked at Buck.
One by one, they each knelt down, their actions the same each time, until the only one left was Vin. The scout looked at the expectant faces around him, swallowed harshly, and knelt down next to Ezra. Slowly, and with some trepidation, he placed his hand over the man's heart.
And felt the power of the Center Rock swirling inside. It asked him for his element back. It was such an odd sensation, that Vin hesitated.
It will make whole what has been broken, It assured him, color what has been empty.
Had Vin answered out loud, he would have stuttered. Instead, he just nodded. Yes.
He saw a green nimbus appear around his hand, aware that he was the only one of them who could see it. The power rippled across the surface of Ezra's still chest with excitement, as if it was finally going home. He saw it swirl into Ezra's heart, joining the mix of colors already there, and the scout felt curiously lighter.
As he lifted his hand away, Ezra groaned.
Vin's mouth fell open as he saw the color returning to the thief's face, and he looked down at the blood soaked shirt. As he watched, the blood faded away to reveal a shiny white scar beneath the torn mail shirt and doublet, and the scout started to laugh in disbelief that quickly turned to joy. Still kneeling net to him, Josiah and Buck soon joined in, and, within seconds, they were all cheering and laughing.
Green eyes fluttered open, and a hand raised itself to feel along the healed abdomen. Looking up, his eyes still a bit glazed over, Ezra found six men raising hell around him. Vin leaned over and grabbed Ezra's arm, pulling the thief to his feet in a mighty heave. Though he didn't understand what was so amazing, Ezra found himself being hugged and shaken and generally surrounded by chaos as he tried not to topple over again.
"What is going on?" he finally managed to stammer out, his voice a bit scratchy.
"You were right, son," Josiah said, clapping the still bemused Ezra on the shoulder, "We won."
They were only halfway back to town when they found the town had come to them. Dozens of townsfolk were walking steadily up the Pass road, some leading wagons, and Colonel Matheson, Wells, Inez and Mary walked in front. Wells ran forward and grabbed JD in a fierce hug, not even noticing that he wore his arm in a sling, and kissed him heavily on the lips.
"I knew," she said, grinning at him. "I knew the minute it was over that you won. There was this amazing flash of light, and then, like a cloud was lifted from my sight, I saw you all, bright as day. I told everyone, and we've come to meet you."
"Bright as day?" Josiah asked, as the rest of the townsfolk surrounded them, all cheering and trying to shake hands with the heroes.
"Yes, and free. Your auras, all your auras, are orange and yellow – just like everyone else's. It was a beautiful sight to see." She laughed and hugged JD again. The kid was blushing darkly as she continued to rain kisses on his cheeks every couple of seconds.
Chris held Mary and Billy tight, his head buried in her shoulder.
Everyone seemed to want to shake Vin's and Nathan's hands, until they both thought their fingers would fall off.
Eloise kissed Buck so deeply, some wondered how either one of them could breathe.
Josiah tried to take the praise solemnly, but having Colonel Matheson telling him he had a medal he wanted to give them, Mrs. Potter saying she would throw a party in their honor, and Harry Conklin promising that the miners would build a mausoleum to his sister's memory, had the mage completely overwhelmed.
And Ezra held tight to Inez, pulling the silver circlet off his head and placing it on hers before kissing her softly on the lips.
"I can't believe we did it," JD laughed. "I can't believe it's really over!"
Josiah caught his eye, and his grin softened somewhat. Chris had raised his head finally to look back at them all, but some of the joy had left his eyes as well. Seeing this, Mary frowned slightly.
"What? What's the matter?"
Chris looked back down at her and smiled.
"Just thinking," he replied quietly.
"About how we are going to rebuild the Kingdoms. About what to do about the fey. About...."
Mary smiled, "Don't," she said putting a hand to Chris's lips. "Tomorrow. We have lots of tomorrows now. Tonight, we'll have the biggest celebration the Pass has ever seen."
And, in the background, the sun set softly over the Four Kingdoms.
If anyone's curious, I don't want this to be the only story in this world. I plan to write MUCH SHORTER episode length pieces to add to what I've done. After all, what will happen to the Kingdoms now, with only two "royals" left – a young boy and a thief who doesn't want to rule? And will the fay fade away again? Or will they fight? With so few wizards left in the Kingdoms, that could be a problem. And we never did see Brishnia or Danaeria, or the famous Northern Reaches where the high elves and the dwarves live....Well, you get the idea. I also don't care whether I write them or someone else does. If someone feels like they might have an idea for a story in this little (big) AU, go ahead. :)
Thanks for reading!