Path of Thorns

By: Beth

Fantasy/Medieval AU (Seven)

Notes: When I first started reading M7 fanfic I swore that I wouldn’t read fantasy type fics. Well, here I am trying my hand at one. There are some awesome writers out there who really got the bug going in me. So here it is. First thing to remember, this is a fantasy/medieval fic so there isn’t a specific time setting.

Special thanks: Julie, Antoinette…

Please send comments and suggestions to

Chapter 1

The Neutral Territories were just that, neutral. While stronger countries wanted to claim the land as their own, they found themselves meeting resistance by other outside interests. The Kingdom of England, though stronger in manpower, lacked any staying power due to the distance their armies had to travel. Kingdoms Spain and France, having had claimed the land as their own, now refuted all claim to it. It wasn’t worth their time and energy trying to defend a land of almost 300,000 square miles. Lombardy, like its distant neighbors, didn’t desire to lay claim to the land because they were compelled to fight for land more to the south, wanting instead, Rome. Russia, however, wanted the land, because with it came the northern country of Mongolia.

The Czar of Russia wanted land, because with the territory came power. He’d already conquered a good number of foreign lands, with the exception of the regions Mongolia and Prussia. It was rumored that the King of Prussia had been working with the Czar trying to claim the Mongolian empire as well as the Neutral Territory. However, that rumor had yet to be proven.


The town of Four Corners wasn’t what most would call a ‘respectable place’, but rather, it was where murders, rapists, thieves, and society’s cast-offs congregated. People from all regions known to man seemed to pass through the little town. Prostitutes dressed in corsets, loose fitting chemises, and rags stood like tokens ready to be won on the balconies of local taverns and in any dark alcove they could find. Many laughed and called out to potential buyers, while others waited patiently for their ‘regulars’ to arrive. Men walked the streets looking for trouble, their clothing riddled with dust and age.

Heads turned as the doors to the House of Fame Tavern blew open and three men tumbled out. Metal struck metal as their swords sliced through the air and struck each other, and angry yells surged across the grounds like water across the falls. Their clothing ranged from loosely fitted robes and tunics to the more extravagant tailor-made doublets. Dirt seemed to be the only thing anyone in this town had in common. No matter how hard anyone tried, staying clean was out of the question.

The weather in the Territories could change without a moment’s notice. Rains would suddenly pour from the sky flooding the rocky ground, and the winds would blow so hard that all animals would search for shelter. At night, the temperatures would drop drastically and yet, during the day, the heat was sometimes so oppressive that few would attempt it.   A sudden clash of thunder broke up the fight between the three men and it only took moments before everyone rushed inside. Rain poured out of the sky in buckets rather than droplets. Though the storms rarely lasted very long, they were violent while they lasted.


Christian Larabee shook his head as he watched his lifelong friend try to build a fire.   The small cave they’d happened to discover had enabled them to keep their supplies dry but the torrential rain had effectively quenched any hope of quickly getting warm. He smiled as his friend triumphed and got the damp wood to light. Now it was just a matter of waiting for the rain to cease.

“I do hope the gentlewomen in this town are as tender as their name implies,” Bucklin Wilmington said, throwing a stick onto the pile he’d collected for the fire.

“That all you think about?” Chris asked, taking a long drink from the water bag that his wife had made him from the tanned stomach of a cow.

“What else is there?” Buck retorted, trying to get comfortable on the rocky cave floor.

“Family,” Chris answered softly. He looked out past the entrance, remembering the family he’d lost.

His wife and son had perished when the French Army stormed Dover and the King of England refused to send aid to the families of his officers. As a result General Larabee, of the King’s Army, and 33,000 of his men left England to push France back and gain the Neutral Territories for England’s people, not the monarch. Chris’ men decided to wait in Enthusia until they heard back from their general with orders.

Chris had asked Buck to join him on his travels to the territory to meet with the King’s Advisor Orin Travis. More than anything they wanted to gain information on the potential actions of surrounding Kingdoms. A war was coming, and the less countries involved the better.

Neither Buck nor Chris had fought on the ground that the Neutral Territories claimed. However, after stepping foot onto the land, something inside both men changed. They didn’t recognize the change at first, and it was Chris who first understood why every country had the desire to obtain a foothold in the Territories. Without directions or a map they knew instinctively where they were going. It was as if someone or something was pulling them to their new destination…to their destiny.    


When the rain let up, Chris and Buck both collected their belongings and started preparing their horses. Chris’ big bay, Viceroy, stood patiently while his master diligently saddled him. Buck did the same, saddling his Hanoverian that he’d affectionately named ‘Pogo’. The animals were warhorses, well over sixteen hands, strength, stamina, and their docile temperaments made them perfect for the battlefield.

A good horse meant survival, and most men could identify their opponent in battle simply by identifying the breed they rode. However, in the Neutral Territories, anything was possible. Most people who lived here didn’t care about the horses or armor they chose to don.   As long as they had food on the table and a bed to sleep in they were content. More often than not…horse was dinner.

Chris pulled his cloak closed as soon as he was mounted. The long black garment concealed his uniquely designed chain mail and double-breasted leather armor. With his dagger tucked neatly in his belt and his sword attached to his back, he was ready to move onward. He looked toward Buck, who only smiled back, letting his friend know that he too was ready.

Pogo tossed his head, ready for his master’s command. The big gray took a long step forward after the lieutenant mounted up. Buck pulled his sword away from his leg, adjusting his braided sword belt, he seated himself securely in his saddle. His simple suede jerkin did little to warm him, but unlike Chris, he didn’t feel the need to adorn his heavy cloak. Buck nudged Pogo and the horse eagerly followed the large bay. 

The horses knew the heaviness in the air was due in part to their riders’ uncertainty. They were headed toward a war, the likes of which no one had ever fought. This would be the first time, and like so many beginnings…the book had yet to be written.


Vincent Tanner looked around the town with the practiced eye of a hunter…and prey. He knew the signs of danger, and he knew the feelings of being stalked, but here things were different. Unlike the place he’d grown up…here there were no rules. This was a place where no one answered for their mistakes, or their crimes. Here, everyone was hunted.

For reasons he didn’t understand, he knew that he’d find help in Four Corners. It had started out as a hunch, a gut feeling that became stronger as he got closer. The feeling was almost physical, a pull like that of a fish at the end of a line. Now that he was here, that line had been cut and replaced with a sense of contentment. However, he knew that it wouldn’t last.

Lombardy had been Vin’s home, until the Russian Empire saw fit to push his people back from their borders. No longer was Rome and the Papal States the King of Lombardy’s current desire; now it was simply freedom from their northern aggressor. Vin had been sent by his king to search for help. Men were needed to defend the borders, and not just for Lombardy, but its surrounding neighbors as well.

The big Lombardian bred gelding, Sulu, shook his head, trying to free himself of the water that had soaked him. Vin pulled on the thin leather reins and led his horse toward the stables. His own leather jacket and leggings did little to protect him from the heavy downpour. The longbow he had strapped to his back and the knife he had stashed in his soft leather boot were the only source of protection he could afford at the moment. His rapier and short sword were stored, hidden from view in his saddle pack. He didn’t want to appear overly armed.

Vin scratched the stubble on his chin and sighed. It had been weeks since he’d been near any kind of civilization. He intended to have a drink, a bath, and a shave. And, if he were fortunate, he’d find a nice woman to pass the night with.


Foreigners were not uncommon in this land, and everyone was accepted…usually. After all, they’ve had everything from Mongolian outlaws, the most feared of any men, to common traders, walking the streets of Four Corners. However, when Nathaniel Jackson rode into town, everyone stopped to take notice. It wasn’t the color of his skin that had everyone looking. No. It was his majestic steed, and his unusual attire.

The lean bay walked down the street with a confidence not seen in many horses. The animal’s frame wasn’t large like most warhorses, but rather, just the opposite. Its small head and oversized eyes captured the attention of children, giving them a real life view of the unicorns they’d read about in storybooks. The horse’s tail was carried elegantly, matching his high step and arch of his neck. The simple star was his only white marking on his dished face, and it appeared magical against his rich bay color.

Hadib stopped when his master pulled on his reins. White foam dripped from his mouth as he looked wildly around the new town. The strong feel of a hand brushed his neck and the magnificent animal relaxed.

“What’s his name?” a young man asked, stepping off the boardwalk toward the Bedouin nomad.

“ Hadib,” came the deep heavy accented voice. Nathan smiled when the younger man reached up to give the animal a pat on the neck. His horse always captured attention. In many ways, the animal helped him ease into new towns.

“He’s a beautiful steed…name’s John Hagan Dunne, but friends call me JD.” The young man eagerly shook the stranger’s hand.

“Are you an admirer of good horse flesh?” Nathan asked, after introducing himself.

JD smiled: “Indeed.” He continued to stroke the animal’s velvety nose. “What’s with…?” He pointed to his head and looked at Nathan in wonder.

“It’s a turban, protects me from,” he pointed to the sky, “the elements.”

Nathan’s attire didn’t look like anything JD had ever seen before. The loose fitting light brown coat hung elegantly from the Bedouin’s frame, though it did little to hide the finely crafted Omani curved sword that hung carefully from his side. Even his boots looked to have been constructed from layers of narrow cloth, stopping just below the knee.

“Tell me young friend, is there a place to eat here?” Nathan gently touched JD’s shoulder.

“I’ll take you,” the young Irishman replied.


The tavern bustled with activity and the smell of food and beer hung heavy in the air. Outlaws of every type, from every town, sat enjoying their meals. Some licked their plates clean, and some gambled with dice and bones, while others argued over the future of their town and the territory.

“Might we sit?” Nathan asked, looking at the three men sitting at the only table that wasn’t completely full.

“New in town?” the lean blonde asked. Although there wasn’t a threat behind his words, there was an authority.

“Nathaniel Jackson,” came the introduction.

“JD,” the kid spoke up, earning a round of smiles from the seasoned men. 

The others introduced themselves as the two newcomers got seated and ordered themselves some food. Chris looked at the three men who had joined him and Buck. The young Lombardian had joined them first, asking only for a chair to sit in while he ate. There had been an instant liking to the younger man, almost a feeling of unfamiliar relation. Like Buck and himself, Vin Tanner was looking for men; men who could help defend his homeland.

“I haven’t seen many nomads this far north before. What brings you up here?” Vin asked, taking a drink of his ale.

“My mother was Bedouin. My father, an English slave,” Nathan said.

“That would explain your name,” Chris’ remark caused everyone to turn and look at him. It was obvious to the strangers at the table that the man didn’t like things that were…unnatural, and a Bedouin with an English name was unnatural.

“I came north to collect medicinal herbs.”

“What about you, kid?” Vin asked.

JD shrugged his shoulders: “After my family died…I decided to come here. I heard that this was where heroes and legends were made.”

Buck almost choked on his drink as he slammed his beer onto the table, then wiped his chin free of the fluid. “Damn, boy! Or, should we call you, laddie?”

“JD’s fine,” the kid responded bitterly.

Vin chuckled, then looked toward the door after noticing Chris’ attention being pulled there. An older man of average height entered the tavern with a man of significant stature and simple clothing walking slowly behind him. Chris nudged Buck’s shoulder and motioned for him to look toward the door. Both men recognized the King’s Advisor. However, it was the Spaniard with him who the men weren’t familiar with that captured their attention.

“General Larabee,” Orin said, moving up towards the table. His tunic was trimmed with the king’s colors and the sword at his side informed everyone of his position. “Lieutenant.” He nodded toward Buck.

Chris looked at the large man wearing the simple Monk’s robe. It was the Spanish medallion hanging around his neck that informed each person of his native soil. Monks weren’t uncommon, but in this territory they weren’t needed or…accepted. Many believed they were a bad omen, others…others just despised them for their beliefs and devoted ways.

“This is Josiah Sanchez. He’s here at my request,” Orin went on to say. “Can I speak with you,” He looked toward Chris: it wasn’t a question…it was a carefully disguised order.

Chris stood and motioned for the king’s advisor to join him away from the table. Josiah followed them, more involved than anyone anticipated. They left the others in stunned silence. England wasn’t the most popular country, but they were respected and because of that nobody would attempt to approach a servant of the king’s.


“What’s this about?” Chris asked, with a hint of distrust in his voice.

“Representatives from six countries have come together in support of reinforcing the Eastern borders.” He looked hard at the general, feeling as though Chris was the only man who could do what needed to be done.

“So do it,” Chris said.

“Unless we can get support from Prussia, there isn’t a chance we’ll be able to cross into their borders…we need their support, otherwise we’re looking at a very long war with Russia,” the stress in Orin’s voice was evident. The simple fact that he’d traveled to the territories was in itself a sign of the desperation England was going through. “We must succeed in keeping the Neutral Territories nonaligned. If the Czar of Russia and the Huns from Mongolia gain control of this land it will only be a matter of time before they seize control of…everything, and everyone.”

“And you want me to do…?”

“I want you to be a diplomat for England and her King.” Orin looked hard at Chris. “You’re a respected General and England’s people admire you. The King also feels it is in his best interest if he sends someone with the support of his country.”

“Our country,” Chris corrected.

“Josiah is the diplomat representing France and Spain…”

“A monk?” Chris said in disbelief. He shook his head, not quite believing what he was hearing.

“Seven men, that is all the King of Prussia has agreed to see and none of them can be from the courts. He desires honest workingmen to sway him. It is imperative that we obey all his demands if we wish to gather his support, it is futile otherwise.”

“Why is it so important to collect his support?”

“His wife is Capua, the daughter of Batu Hun,” Josiah spoke up for the first time. “If the Mongolians side with the Russians all will be lost.” He tried to stress the importance of keeping the Neutral Territories from falling into the hands of the enemy.

“You know this how?” Chris asked angrily.

“I have studied their ways,” was all Josiah said, before turning his attention back to Orin.

“You must find a representative from Lombardy, as they too seek for support from Prussia,” Orin Travis said, never taking his eyes off England’s last hope. “I trust you to find five men General, and I trust you will succeed.” He turned and left, leaving Josiah and Chris standing together.

“Why you?” Chris asked, turning his attention to the large man standing next to him.

“Why not?” Josiah responded with a soft smile.

Chapter 2

Vin looked at Chris and thought hard for a moment. There was something about this land and the men sitting around him. It was as though he and the others had been pulled here by an unknown force, and that force was undeniable. This might be the opportunity he was looking for. It had been months since he’d been home to Lombardy and he hadn’t heard about his homeland’s borders being compromised. But if they had… He didn’t want to think about it

“I could represent England with the rest of you?” JD asked, with a smile. He was eager to join something such as this.

“This isn’t some fancy gathering we are heading to…more than likely we’ll get to Prussia and the king will execute us, making us his examples of his plans for the future.” Buck took a long drink of his beer and looked suspiciously at the monk.

“No,” Chris said, in disagreement. “There’s a reason Prussia hasn’t aligned with Russia already…if you all decide to join us,” he looked at Buck and Josiah as part of his company, “we’ll only have to find one more man to persuade the King of Prussia to join with us.”

“I do not know how you intend to find another soul here…in this town,” Nathan replied, looking around the tavern.

“I found you,” Chris said with a smile, but feeling as though it hadn’t been his doing.

“Indeed,” Nathan responded knowingly.

“By gods, I’m in,” Vin spoke up.

Chris nodded his head and looked at JD. “I can’t guarantee you’ll come back alive,” he told the young Englishman.

JD smiled: “Does not matter, I’m willing if you are?”

 “And you, Nathan?” Chris asked. He knew the Arab countries didn’t have any concerns when it came to the Neutral Territories.

“Though my presence may not be necessary, I feel that it will be received,” Nathan said, looking around the table.

“So,” Chris sighed, “we need one more man.”


When Chris and his men exited the tavern as though they were of one mind, they looked around the town with suspicion and familiarity. Nathan’s horse nickered softly, seeing his master. The big animal had managed to attract a crowd and children looked at him in wonder.

“Impressive,” Buck said, looking at the steed.

“Yes,” Nathan agreed, stepping up to his horse.

Vin slapped Chris on the shoulder then headed for the stables. JD followed, intending to retrieve his own mount.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Buck asked, stepping up to his friend.

“Only time will tell,” the tall blonde responded coldly, before following the others.

Josiah stepped down and looked around the street, wondering about the direction his life had taken. He’d heard about the power of this land, and the seductiveness of its air. And for the first time he was feeling its power flowing through veins in his body. For reasons he didn’t understand, he thought more clearly, and could sense things about the men he was with. They were all supposed to move onward to Prussia…to stop something…. but he didn’t know what.

Josiah stepped up to his magnificent beast. The animal had been a gift from the Carthusian Monks of Andalusia. Men of God he’d spent the last few years of his life studying with. The horse was of Spanish breeding, which was undeniable. The horse’s appearance was truly exceptional. His strong head, arched neck, and thick mane accentuated his size. Large black eyes blended magically with his gray color, and his size and beauty captured imaginations and dreams, much like the horse being led by Nathan.

Nathan stepped up to Josiah and waited for the big man to collect his things. 

“Does the god you pray to accept your decision to accompany these men?” Josiah asked, walking with Nathan toward the stables.      

“Allah is not so…discriminatory, towards the Christians.” Nathan smiled: “And your god?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Josiah replied softly. “We haven’t been on speaking terms for quite some time.”

“But your attire?”

“Is warm,” the big man answered with a chuckle.


Chris entered the stable and took a long look around. His horse raised his head and nickered softly after recognizing his master. Most of the animals looked content munching on their feed. There was only one other horse out and the tall lean gelding was hitched to an empty stall. Like most of the horses in the area, its breeding was very distinct. Though chestnut in color, its coat shined gold. The animal’s short back, long belly, and lean bone structure told any horseman that he could truly run. A single white stocking and long wide blaze highlighted the animal’s color and large black eyes.

“That’s a Budyonny,” Vin answered the question everyone silently asked. He moved past Chris and walked to his own horse’s stall. “Might be the fastest horse in these parts but they’re by far the most temperamental, and they devote themselves to only one rider.”

“I’ve never seen its like before,” Nathan said, with his own steed at his side.

“He’s Russian,” Vin responded distastefully.

“ Rusetovic…to be exact,” came the soft heavily accented drawl from the hayloft.

The others looked up and spotted the form with his legs hanging over the edge of the loft. The hairs on the back of Chris’ neck stood on end. Russians in the Neutral Territories meant one of two things: he was a spy, or a traitor. Buck stood next to his friend, ready to fight.

JD walked up closer to the gelding and tentatively touched the animal’s neck. “What’s his name?” The young man asked, breaking some of the tension in the air.

“ Asam,” the stranger replied.

“What’s your name?” Chris barked, not liking the situation.

“Standish,” he smiled, “Ezra Standish.”

“You’re from Norfolk?” JD asked, slightly surprised. He recognized the name as English.

Buck rolled his eyes. “He might have a familiar name but he’s definitely Russian.” 

“My father was an English Colonel from Norfolk,” Ezra replied.

“Seems to be a lot of Islanders here,” Vin spoke up. He knew the stranger was born in Russia…his accent gave that away.

“They do tend to ‘poke’ themselves into everyone else’s business,” the subtle tone, yet fierce words, weren’t lost on Chris or the others.

JD spoke joyfully, not realizing what he was saying. “We’re going to see the King of Prussia to get his support for…”

“JD!” Buck yelled, stopping the kid from saying anymore.

Ezra chuckled: “I take it the multitude of cultures is representative of the countries that need assistance?”

“You know something about that?” Buck asked defensively.

“King Bohart will only use you as pawns in his game,” Ezra replied knowingly. He then slid down the support beam landing on his feet. His horse nickered softly and he walked up to the beast and stroked his muscular neck. “Prussia will not only open its arms for you, it will most efficiently execute you,” he looked at JD, “all of you.”

Vin and Chris both hung back, watching. The man, though of average height and build, seemed to be overly confident in a land that wanted to see his kind dead. Obviously, he was of a wealthy family, and possibly of noble blood, but that didn’t make him worthy of his station in life. To a general from England and a Lombardian warrior, it only meant that he was easily bought. Respect wasn’t purchased…it was earned. The man’s clothing was of the finest leather and only the most skilled of hands would have crafted it. The black and red cortège was laced from the wrist to the underarms, allowing the white shirt underneath to show through. The front had been stitched with gold thread and again long leather strips were used to lace the front closed. His pants and boots looked similar to Chris’ own, only not as worn. An elegant rapier hung from a finely crafted leather belt and frog. The twin sword strapped to his back was well guarded in a customized casing. Whoever this man was, he wasn’t familiar with hard labor.

Ezra grabbed his equipment and started saddling his horse. He ignored the men standing around, not concerned with their problems…he had enough of his own.

“Where does your loyalty lie?” Chris asked, unwilling to give up so easily. For reasons he didn’t understand, he knew that they needed him.

The Russian stopped and smiled to himself before turning his attention to the others. “With myself,” he answered simply.

“If I promised you sanctuary in England, would you be willing to ride with us?” Chris knew they needed someone who could speak the language, someone who was familiar with their ways. Though Josiah knew about them…he wasn’t one of them.

“No,” Ezra answered, returning to his duties.

“If you stay here you’ll die.”

“If I go with you, I’ll also die…but at least here, I have some say as to when,” Ezra bit back, and then finished cinching up his saddle.

Buck pulled his long time friend and general off to the side. “What in the hell do you think you are doing…asking the enemy to ride with us?!”

“We might need him!” Chris snapped. He knew they had to pass through regions of land that were controlled primarily by the Russians.

Buck backed away raising his hands in surrender. He didn’t want to argue. He knew better than that. Once Chris had made up his mind about something, he stuck with it.

“How much will it cost to get you to come along?”

“More than what you’ve got. I assure you,” Ezra replied, paying little heed to what these men needed.

“What will it take?” Chris asked, refusing to give up. 

Ezra turned and looked at the men standing around. He wasn’t about to be conned…not now…not ever. “How am I to believe men from England…Spain,” he looked at Vin, “or Lombardy?”

“Are we to believe you?” Buck asked bitterly.

“I didn’t ask you to!” Ezra snapped, and then untied his horse from the rail.

Chris pulled Ezra to a stop as he started to walk his horse by. He handed the elegantly clad stranger a medallion. “There’ll be more if you assist us,” the general looked hard at the man.

The Russian looked at the gold in his hand and then back at the tall blonde. The medallion was hard to come by and only earned by men who’d showed bravery during battle, and only the king awarded it.

Ezra knew that only because his father had received one.

“I’ll get you there, but don’t get in my way.” Ezra handed the medallion back before heading out of the stables.

“Cocky little shit,” Buck said, watching the Russian leave.

“Maybe,” Chris agreed. “But we’ll need him to get through the regions.”

“Or to set us up,” Vin commented quietly, but it earned him looks of agreement from the men surrounding him.

Chris ignored them and headed for his horse. He wanted to head out quickly. If his men continued to wait in Enthusia it would take them some time to travel east and meet them at the borders. As the general of those men he intended to prepare them…for anything.

Chapter 3

The horses moved over the rocky land at a slow even pace. Chris had decided to keep them at a steady gate, not wanting one to fall lame and cause a delay. Buck and Vin rode beside him, speaking only on occasion. Josiah and Nathan rode side by side, speaking of things from both their lands. Nathan’s healing ability captured the monk’s attention and likewise Josiah’s past captured the nomad’s. JD followed closely behind Buck, and Nathan, wanting more than anything to be accepted into this group. He was younger and therefore didn’t feel adequate being in their presence. The older members of the group appreciated his youthful enthusiasm, while the younger ones found it annoying. Ezra rode in back, watching and learning. He knew these men considered him to be either a spy or a traitor to his people. It didn’t matter which one they measured him to be…they were both the same. In all reality, he didn’t know why he decided to ride along. He’d been running from Prussia, and now he was heading back. Not the wisest choice he’d ever made.

“We’ll stop here for the night,” Chris announced, pulling Viceroy to a stop. The big horse obeyed and waited patiently for his master to dismount.

“I’ll fetch some wood for a fire,” JD offered, dismounting his red Friesian, Bandit.

Buck shook his head and chuckled as the kid rushed off into the woods to collect some firewood. Hopefully, he wouldn’t run into some thieves that might steal his ‘youthful enthusiasm’. The mustached man dismounted his own horse and tenderly cared for the animal. He’d lost his last mount at Vermeer while fighting the French for water rights.

“How long do you think this trek north is going to take?” Buck asked Chris, while seeing to his own mount.

“If we push hard through the mountains…maybe ten, twelve days.”

“If we fail?” The words left Vin’s mouth with the intention of causing the possibility to cross the general’s mind.

Chris rested his arms on the back of Viceroy’s rump. “It’s not an option.”

“What if Ezra leads us into a trap?”

“We’ll kill him,” Chris responded bluntly, and then finished caring for his horse.


Josiah pushed the hood of his robe down away from his face and ran his fingers over his head. His once dark brown hair was fading gray, and his appearance was showing the hardships of the life he’d led. Lines of wisdom adorned the corners of his eyes and forehead. His crystal clear blue eyes hid the pain he’d seen in his life, but his occasional sad smile would offer glimpses into his past. No one could tell that under his robe was a body of great strength, and a heart of boundless passion. Perhaps it was that passion that got the older man into trouble. He felt as though everything was his responsibility.

Nubada nudged his master’s arm wanting a treat of some kind. Josiah quickly obliged by handing the beast the peel of the fruit he’d just eaten. The animal ate it eagerly and then nipped at his master’s hand wanting more. The big man chuckled in response, and then quickly prepared his horse for the night.

“Why a monk?” Nathan asked, following the Spaniard toward the campsite.

“It was the simplicity of it that drew me in.” Josiah smiled, remembering back. “But I wasn’t always a man of the cloth.” He removed his robe, exposing a simple brown double wrap belt with a long Spanish sword attached. His suede pants and loose fitting shirt gave him the ability to move quickly and without hindrance.   

“So I see,” Nathan chuckled, looking at the long blade.

“I too have a need to protect myself,” Josiah commented, and then squatted down next to Vin.

JD returned with his arms full of wood. His face had been marred with dirt and the others laughed at his expense. “At least we won’t freeze,” he snapped.    

“No, Brother, we won’t,” Josiah replied in a soothing tone.

Chris leaned back against the rock he was sitting against and watched the Russian with a practiced eye. He listened to the men sitting around him while at the same time tried to plan his approach to the king.


Asam released his bit and immediately lowered his head to the ground so he could eat the lush vegetation. His master didn’t tie him or restrain him in any way simply because the horse would never leave his side. He loved the attention and the brushings after a long ride, but even more so he loved his freedom.

Ezra grabbed his bedroll and few belongings then headed towards the fire. He could smell the bark tea brewing and it hit his senses like a welcomed guest. He knew the others were nervous with his presence, and he couldn’t blame them. He was nervous with theirs as well. However, the physical pull he had to return to Prussia outweighed his common sense. So, he intended to use these men just as they were using him.

JD looked at the Russian with distrust and mystery. He’d heard stories of their armies and the things they’d done to their enemies. Perhaps it was the elegantly sculpted rapier that hung from his hip, or the dagger he’d removed from his boot, and then there was the long twin sword strapped to his back.  

“If there is something you wish to ask, Master Dunne, perhaps you should come out with it?” Ezra asked, sitting himself down on his bedroll.   

“I heard your kind eats the bodies of their dead enemies.” There was trepidation in his voice as he looked for a response.

“Then might I suggest you not die in front of me,” Ezra replied with a smile. He pulled the sleeves to his cortège down past his wrists and then rested his arms on his knees.

Vin and the others chuckled at JD’s expense, and the kid sank down into his seated position. Sometimes rumors were just that… rumors, and the young man needed to learn that.

“You said earlier that the King of Prussia would welcome us and then destroy us…why?” Nathan asked, unsure of the Russian’s earlier statement.

“ Bohart murdered his brother and his nephews so that he could take the throne when the former king perished. He then married into the family of the Huns so that his son could control Mongolia when the time came, ensuring Prussia’s control over the land. His interest is only in power…not surrender.”

“So why didn’t he gain control?” Chris asked, not sure of the answer.

“His wife had a daughter,” Ezra smiled, “She was Bohart’s only child, and since a female child cannot inherit…he lost his chance of easily controlling the far eastern countries.”

“If he had a daughter, why didn’t he marry her off to a man of power?” JD asked. He understood how royal succession worked.

“He had planned to, but she disappeared for a time and when she returned home she was considered…tainted,” the Russian responded flatly.

“That why Prussia and Russia haven’t allied yet? So Bohart’s daughter can marry into the Czar’s family?” Buck asked, turning the direction of the conversation.

Ezra shook his head: “The Czar of Russia has three daughters and only one son, and the boy is hardly old enough to marry.”

“So, who was Bohart’s daughter supposed to marry?” JD asked, more interested in the story.

“I am not privileged to that information.”

“So why haven’t the countries aligned?” Buck asked again.

“I couldn’t tell you, Master Wilmington,” Ezra answered honestly, though he doubted anyone believed him.

Buck slumped back against his rock. He was convinced the man sitting across from him knew more than he was saying. But how could he prove it…he couldn’t, and that was the problem. He and the others watched as Ezra’s horse trotted up from the stream nearby and stopped when he reached his master’s side. Everyone watched in amusement and wonder.

“You’re not going to secure that horse?” Nathan asked, slightly surprised the animal was already free.

“ Asam,” Ezra reminded everyone of the animal’s name, “and no, he’s fine as he is.” The confidence in the Russian’s voice told everyone to abandon the subject.

Chris shrugged his shoulders and he looked at the men that surrounded him. Never in his life had he seen a more different combination of individuals, everything from mortal enemies to unfamiliar neighbors. Chris intended to make the most of the mission. He was simply here to help keep the territories neutral…for England.

Buck threw down the calfskin map and looked intently at the land markings. Primitive by all means, however, it was practical. The lieutenant traced the line over the mountains with his finger, trying to calculate the distance to Prussia.

“We should reach Eagle Bend by nightfall tomorrow,” Buck said, tossing the map towards Chris.

“A- ry`ol,” Ezra corrected, saying the town’s name in his native tongue.

“No offence, ‘Ezra’, but the translation is correct,” Buck replied with a smile.

“True,” the green-eyed Russian agreed. “But if you enter A- ry`ol with the anticipation that everyone will speak your native tongue…you’ll be drawn and quartered.”

Josiah shook his head. That was not an alluring way to die: he’d seen it performed and it changed him…in many ways. He looked toward Christian and the lieutenant. This was going to be a problem, only having one of them speaking the Russian language fluently.

“I can understand it, but I can’t speak it,” Vin said, tossing a small stick into the fire.

Chris nodded and sighed: “Ezra and Vin can go into Eagle Bend to learn what we need to in order to continue through the northeastern regions.” He didn’t want to send the Russian alone, and he didn’t want anyone who didn’t know the language to try and mix with the community. They needed to get to Prussia together and in one piece. However, there were outlaws, criminals, and secret societies that would try and stop them. If they failed, the west would suffer, and not just Spain and France, but everyone.

“We’ll need supplies,” Buck said, laying out his bedroll. “Jerked beef, nip, and mill.”

“Food and women, Bucklin. Is that all you think about?” Chris asked, covering his own legs with a blanket.

“Until the smell of battles nears, dear brother…yes, that is all I think about,” he responded with a chuckle.

Josiah laughed, causing the others to turn in his direction. The boisterous sound filled the air like the heavy roll of thunder. “The life most men dream about…food and the fairer sex.”

“You’re a monk,” JD gasped, “you’re not supposed to think of such things.”

“I am a former monk, and I do think of such things,” Josiah responded honestly, earning a laugh from everyone.

Chris shook his head: “Get some rest, we’ll leave early in the morning,” he ordered, looking out past the camp.

Chapter 4

From a distance, Eagle Bend looked like any other town. However, it wasn’t. Because its borders were closer to the enemy lines, soldiers and criminals frequented the town. Smoke billowed out of chimneys while fires burned in the street. Even from a distance, Chris could see movements of the town’s citizens.  

“Vin,” Chris motioned for the sharpshooter. “Keep an eye on Ezra,” he said quietly, “you think he’s leading us into a trap,” he looked toward the Russian, who seemed content watching the town, “move out of there.”

Ezra watched them, knowing he wasn’t trusted. He wasn’t after trust, or friendship, he was only after the chance of getting close to the man who’d tried to have him killed, and these men could do that. Carefully, he reached into his pocket and retrieved a narrow white cloth. Without much thought, he cut his hand, just above the wrist exposing enough blood for the cloth to absorb.

“What are you doing?” Nathan snapped, with concern in his voice. He reached out and grabbed Ezra’s wrist. “Even the smallest cuts can go bad,” he snapped, before the wrist was pulled from his grasp.

“ It’s fine,” Ezra responded, carefully folding the white cloth so his blood could be exposed. “I suggest, Master Tanner, that you place this around your neck. It will be easier to explain your inability to communicate if we give a more obvious conclusion as to why you don’t speak.”

Reluctantly, Vin reached out and took the bandage… Ezra was right.

Nathan reached into his bag and pulled out a small container that had been carefully constructed of leather and hard wood. He reached out and grasped the Russian’s hand again, making sure to hold it tighter, and placed a small amount of salve on the wound. “It will stop it from turning,” he said, carefully putting the container back into his bag.

Ezra looked at the cut, slightly surprised that the pain had subsided. The odor wasn’t something he was familiar with, perhaps honey, bee pollen, and something else. “My thanks,” he said softly, before kicking his mount toward town.

Vin nodded in Chris’ direction and then urged his horse forward. His people were counting on him…he had to do this.


“ Ty mahl-chic smat-ryet` naza-bah-va?” a woman asked, stepping outside the inn. Her bodice was opened, exposing her abundant cleavage. Her long red hair hung over her shoulders and she twirled the ends between her fingers.

Ezra pulled his mount to a stop and looked her over, almost as though he were tempted to purchase a night of ‘entertainment’. However, when he spoke, his words told a different story. In contrast to his easygoing appearance, he spoke firmly, knowledgeably, and clearly.

Vin listened and watched. He heard Ezra ask if there were any games in town and the woman responded with a nod. Disappointment etched on her features when she pointed to the tavern down the way. The Russian said his thanks and nudged Asam in the direction she’d pointed.

“Don’t think gaming was what Chris had in mind,” Vin said, looking carefully around the hamlet.

“People like to talk when they’re relaxed, Master Tanner,” Ezra replied, pulling his horse to a stop in front of the hall, “and a game is the perfect place to listen to people converse.”

Vin dismounted and pulled the Russian to a stop before they entered the tavern. “Why are you riding with us?”

“I could ask you the same question,” Ezra responded, pushing the doors open.


Chris looked at the town from a distance. He could smell the fire burning behind him and instinctively knew Buck was cooking. He could hear JD asking Josiah and Nathan questions about everything he could think of. At least the kid was persistent.

“Everything look alright?” Buck asked, tossing a rabbit pelt onto the log that rested next to him.

“I don’t like it,” Chris said under his breath.

Buck stood up abruptly and walked up beside his long time friend. If Chris said there was something wrong, then usually something was. “What do you think?”

Chris kept his eyes focused ahead. “What do you think of the Lombardian…Vin?”

“Seems willing enough,” Buck answered.

The general nodded in agreement. He liked the younger man; although their countries had never been allies, they were never enemies. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Chris said softly. “What about the Russian?”

“You’re the one that said we needed him,” Buck’s remark was answered with a scowl.

“We do,” he answered flatly. “I just hope he doesn’t know how bad.”

The lieutenant nodded his head in understanding. “Vin’s with him,” he said sternly. “He’ll pull through for us.”

Chris turned his eyes toward his friend and then toward the others sitting around the fire. He hoped Buck was right, because their lives depend on it.


Vin sat at the table alone, watching the Russian do his work. Ezra spoke with the gamblers around him as though they’d been friends for years. They laughed, joked, and talked without any trepidation. Hopefully, he was learning something useful. Prostitutes leaned against tables, customers, and stair railings trying to look as appealing as possible.

Feeling fingers run through his long brown hair, Vin turned his attention to the table in the back of the room as the woman who’d stepped by him headed in that direction. Four women hung off the arms of a single man whose appearance wasn’t like anything Vin had ever seen before. Though young in appearance, the man’s hair was as white as clouds and his features had been powdered giving him a ghostly façade. Jewelry hung from his wrists and fingers, and his clothing was more expensive than Ezra’s. The women around his table laughed and giggled, seeming completely comfortable with his company.

“Are you ready to retire for this evening, Master Tanner?” Ezra asked, stepping up to the table, surprising Vin in the process.

Vin nodded, not wanting to answer for fear of being discovered. When the two men exited the darkened building, their horses still stood. “Did you learn anything?” he asked, once they were out of range from anyone else.

“Enough,” came the quick reply.

Vin paused and looked at the doors to the gaming hall they’d just exited. “Who was the man with the white hair?” his question was asked with confusion and disbelief.

Ezra laughed outright: “That, kind sir, was a castrati.”

“A what?” Vin asked again, not understanding.

“Come,” Ezra motioned to the back of his horse. “I’ll explain on the way.”

Vin mounted Sulu and moved his horse up beside Ezra’s as they made their way out of town. They weren’t noticed, nor had anyone become suspicious of them, or if they had it wasn’t known. Vin removed the fake bandage from around his neck and waited patiently for the Russian to begin.

“Are you going to tell me or not?” Vin quipped.

Ezra laughed and looked at the man beside him. “To be honest, Master Tanner, I’m rather surprised that you’ve never seen a castrati.”

“Hell, Ezra…I’ve never heard of them.”

“Considering they’re primarily from your country.” Ezra raised his eyebrows. “ Castratis are singers, artists who’ve been castrated at an early age to keep their voices from maturing.”

Vin looked at Ezra with his mouth open. “No,” he said in disbelief.

“Unfortunately it’s true,” Ezra responded. “Though practice has been done away with…from what I understand.”

“But he wasn’t…you know,” Vin said, squinting his eyes so Ezra would get the hint.

“No, they do enjoy the opposite sex.” Ezra laughed and shook his head.

Vin nodded: “Just thought it odd…those ladies hanging around him and all.”

“Yes,” Ezra agreed. “I don’t understand that myself.”


Chris looked up when he heard the riders enter camp. They’d been gone for hours, and he hoped they had learned something of value. The positioning of the Russian armies would be ideal, but Chris wasn’t sure if anyone in Eagle Bend would know that.

“What’d you learn?” Chris asked, getting to his feet.

Ezra dismounted with Vin and paused, looking at the men surrounding the fire. Their faces glowed beneath the light, and shadows danced across the ground as each flame took on new life. A gentle breeze passed through the trees causing their leaves to rustle. The horses stomped their feet and swished their tails.

“It would appear, General Larabee, that the Russian lines are well guarded, and most of the towns through the mountains are flooded with soldiers. Many are there with Prussian warriors.”

“Have the countries aligned?” Chris asked.

“I do not know,” Ezra answered honestly.

Chris sighed in disappointment. He’d been hoping for better news. With the lines well guarded it meant that their trip to Prussia would be longer, unless they could cut through the Vandalic region, but with the towns being full of the enemy…that option was out as well.

“What do you want to do, General?” Buck asked , his voice laced with concern.

“If we cut around the Vandalic territory it’ll take…weeks longer,” Chris ran his fingers through his hair. “God have mercy,” he said to himself. They’d never make it in time.

“Can’t we risk moving through the Vandalic Mountains… those further north?” Nathan asked, not fully understanding the consequences.

Chris shook his head: “They’re too treacherous to traverse without stopping.”

Vin nodded in agreement: “Could we at least reach Aldimar? And then cut through the west.”

“ Aldimar was destroyed years ago,” Ezra said, lifting his leg up and resting it on a downed log. 

“Then might I suggest going around,” Josiah spoke up, “We could cut our time in half if we purchase new horses and ride longer days.”

“It’ll still put us behind,” Chris sighed.

“Head through the mountains,” Ezra said. “There are places available to stay to those who know them.”

Everyone looked at Ezra, wanting to know more, and questioning themselves on whether or not they could trust him.

“What kind of places?” Buck asked, with trepidation in his voice.

“Places,” Ezra responded coldly.

“Will it take us long to pass through without having the availability of the towns?” Chris asked, more determined than ever to get these men to Prussia to save their countries from war.

“It’ll get us there sooner,” Ezra replied. “We should arrive expeditiously.” 

“What are these places like?” Chris asked , wanting only to make sure the men he was responsible for weren’t being led into a trap.

“Quiet, and filled only with families who wish to be left alone,” Ezra answered honestly. He knew these places because he’d been there before, and upon his departure he was asked to come back…and…his mother was there.

“We’ll go then,” Chris said confidently.

“Chris?” Buck questioned, not feeling confident with Ezra’s answer.

“We’ll go,” Chris ordered, unwilling to hear anything else about it.

Buck glared at Ezra, swearing on his life that he’d kill the man outright if he led them all into some kind of a trap. The lieutenant looked at the men that sat around him, wondering what was going through their minds. Did they share the same worries?

Chapter 5

Ezra led the way through the mountain trail. He’d ridden it many times before. Some of the inclines were steep but the horses took them with ease. Trees, brush, and boulders lined the path, and the distant sound of water running filled the air. The air was crisp, not dry like it had been on the flat lands. The imagery looked more like that of a fresco painting than reality.

“How long till we camp?” JD asked, shifting uncomfortably in his saddle.

“Ezra?” Chris questioned, pulling up beside the Russian. “We’ve been riding for thirteen hours.”

“Up the bluff there’s a place we can stay. It’s close to the water, and there’s plenty of grass for the horses,” Ezra answered, never taking his eyes off the path ahead.

Chris looked up the way a bit and sighed. This area was beautiful, a place where legends were made. Even the rocks seemed to have a life of their own, taking on new shapes as the sun descended, causing shadows to elongate. “Never been through anything like this before,” he said, trying to strike up a conversation…hoping to get some answers.

“Most don’t know of it,” Ezra answered, “especially anyone from England.” He turned and faced Chris with a smile.

“No, I suppose not.” Chris ran his hand through his hair, listening to his horse’s hooves strike the hard ground. “What is this place that you’re taking us to?”

“Thousand Springs,” Ezra answered softly.

Buck pulled his horse to a stop after hearing the Russian’s response. “You’re taking us through the haunted mountains?” he asked in disbelief.

Ezra pulled his horse to a stop and turned abruptly in his saddle. “No place here is haunted.”

“Even I’ve heard the stories, Ezra,” JD gasped, not wanting to ride through a patch of ground that would swallow him whole.

“Rumors and stories to keep the likes of you away…that’s all they are,” Ezra snapped, kicking his horse forward.

“It’s said that men have disappeared, never having returned after venturing into the woods surrounding the springs,” Vin replied, following the Russian and the general.

“Stories for fools and children,” Ezra remarked. “If you knew the stories well, you’d have recognized the very woods we travel through.”

Everyone but the Russian pulled their horses to a stop. JD looked around, as if trying to locate a spirit that was going to kill him. His horse became spooked after noticing his rider jump in the saddle.

“Calm your horse, boy,” Buck ordered, noticing the Friesian had started to move impatiently.

Chris shook his head and kicked Viceroy into a trot to catch up with Ezra. “If we’re almost there as it is, why can we not arrive there tonight?”

“It is not polite to arrive after dark.”

“Because they’ll think we’re spirits,” JD responded nervously.

Ezra shook his head and pulled his horse to a stop when they reached the small area that was majestically peaceful. Surrounded by trees, close to the road and fresh water, even the horses would be content for the night.

“Why is it so impolite to arrive after dark?” Vin asked, dismounting his horse.

“Most of the people here are farmers, hunters, and miners, and it’s not uncommon for thieves to try and escape the king’s army by coming through here,” Ezra said, loosening the cinch of his saddle. “Hence the purpose of the stories,” he muttered under his breath.

“What’s that sound?” Buck asked, looking out toward the darkened forest.

Everyone but Ezra paused in their activities, trying to listen to the sound of spirits weeping. Josiah and Nathan pulled their swords, fearing the worst. Horses jumped back flicking their ears back and forth, snorting, and stomping their feet impatiently.

“Thought you said we’d be safe here,” Chris snapped, ready to grasp his dagger if need be.

Ezra chuckled, pulling his saddle from Asam’s back. “Your imaginations are worse than your attire,” he said, removing the bridle.

Asam shook his head and trotted toward the creek, not caring about the others. Ezra stacked his equipment and looked toward his fellow travelers who were looking as though they were ready to face an army. “There is nothing out there!” 

“We can hear it!” JD snapped, wanting more than anything to jump on his horse and run.

“Wind flutes,” Ezra replied, cocking an eyebrow.

Vin squinted his eyes and looked at the Russian. “What?” he asked, slightly surprised.

“Yes,” Ezra said, grabbing some sticks that lay at his feet. “Your ‘spirits’ are wind flutes that have been tied to trees.”

Josiah put his sword away and chuckled. “We fear what we don’t know,” he said, watching as the others relaxed.

Ezra chuckled as he piled a bunch of sticks together, and then with his flint stick quickly got the fire started. He could hear the others preparing for the night, and he chose to ignore their comments.

“How are the fish here, Ezra?” Vin asked, stepping up beside the Russian.

“Unnaturally delightful,” he replied with a grin.

“Good.” Vin smiled, tying a bug to the hook he’d crafted out of pin wire.

Josiah tossed his bedroll and belongings on the ground away from the fire. He sat down and leaned back against a downed tree log. He looked across at Ezra and smiled. “This is your home,” he said, coming to the conclusion.  

Ezra looked up, had he been so transparent? “I was born here, if that is what you’re implying?”

“No,” Josiah said, shaking his head. “I mean that this is your home. The place where you feel most comfortable.” The feelings inside his gut were perfectly clear, and he knew what he was saying was true.

“Do you always analyze fellow travelers?” Ezra asked with a soft chuckle, changing the subject.

“No,” Josiah responded, “I don’t.”

Ezra looked up when Chris and Nathan joined Josiah and himself in front of the fire.

“Buck and Vin are trying to catch some fish,” Chris said.

“Is that a bad thing, Brother?” Josiah asked.

“No, at least until they fall in,” he responded with a chuckle.

The echo of JD’s laugh filled the air when a loud splash sounded in the distance. Asam trotted up from the river wearing what could only be called as a grin. The big horse stopped suddenly and began eating the lush grass that rested at the base of the trees.

“Looks like your horse has made some enemies,” Nathan chuckled, shaking his head.

“Won’t be the first time,” Ezra responded, with a laugh of his own.

“Standish!” Buck snapped, holding his arms away from his body as water dripped from his clothing.

Chris and Nathan laughed at the sight, causing Buck to get even angrier.

“That’s quite a fish you got there, Brother Vin,” Josiah said, looking at the lieutenant.

“Yeah,” the Lombardian agreed, “but he’s too big to gut out.”

Asam raised his head and snorted and then he lifted his upper lip and laughed along with everyone else. Buck sent the horse an evil glare and then started stripping out of his wet clothing.

“Next time…” Buck stewed, “your horse is dinner.”

Nathan laughed: “I’ve seen more color on the tusk of an elephant,” he said, looking at Buck’s pasty white legs.

Buck’s lips thinned as he stared at the Bedouin. “Women find this body,” he spread his arms allowing the glow from the fire to glisten off of his naked form, “irresistible.”

“Cover that thing up, Buck,” Chris said behind a chuckle, “before JD’s mare finds you irresistible.”

The others laughed at the lieutenant’s expense and watched as he grabbed his blanket and wrapped himself in it.

Chapter 6

The land was beautiful. Trees lined the trail heading to Thousand Springs and the sun crept through the branches lighting the path. Even the rocks seemed unnaturally brilliant as they glistened under the bright rays. A slight wind caught leaves causing them to rustle and whisper against each other.

The trees opened up like the heavy doors of a castle, and the sun gently covered the ground. The house was surrounded with roses and a fence that was made from branches and woven rope. The cliffs surrounding the home wept with waterfalls from every height and angle. There seemed to be more than just a thousand springs here.

Ezra pulled Asam to a stop and dismounted, motioning for the others to do the same. Carefully he opened the front gate and knelt down on one knee when a small boy rushed out of the house.

“Uncle!” the boy called, wrapping his arms around the Russian’s neck.

Ezra laughed and kissed the child’s head. He stood up with the boy straddling his waist. “Tristan,” he said softly, looking into identical green eyes.


“Strange,” Vin muttered, watching the scene unfold.

“What?” Chris asked, dismounting.

“That our enemies are just as human as we are,” Vin replied in a soft whisper.

Josiah chuckled: “Makes them harder to kill.” He sighed, watching as a woman with graying blonde hair exited the home. “And then came the heavens and the earth.”


“Ezra,” Maude said softly, walking to where her son stood with Tristan. “You’re new look becomes you.” She sighed. “You’re fortunate to have come now, Bohart was here not ten days ago.” She looked up at the men who stood together on the other side of the fence. “And your friends…?”

Ezra looked hard at his mother, letting her know that he would explain later. “We’ll depart tomorrow,” he replied, grinning as Tristan tried to show him the ring on his finger.

“Come,” Maude called, “There’s food on my table.” She turned and paused for a moment. “We need to speak,” she said to her son before heading back to the house. Her simple yet elegant gown flowed out behind her as her hair cascaded down her back.

“Yosemite made it for me,” Tristan said, showing Ezra the horseshoe ring.

Ezra chuckled and put the young boy on the ground. “There’s something for you in the saddle pouch,” he whispered, gently slapping Tristan’s fanny.

The boy dodged between the six men who entered the yard and rushed to where Asam was standing. The big horse nudged the boy’s shoulder, seeking a treat of some kind. Chris chuckled while watching as the youngster worked at getting his hands into the saddle pouch. Asam just stood patiently, not bothered by the child’s antics.

“You could have said that this was your home, Ezra,” Chris said, stepping up beside the Russian.

“Would it have made a difference?” he responded.

“No,” Chris responded honestly, “it wouldn’t have.”

“My mother is a very…eccentric type of individual, but you’ll find her cooking tolerable,” Ezra said, motioning for the others to enter the house.

Josiah nodded and slapped Ezra on the shoulder before walking towards the home. The Russian watched and waited for Tristan to grab his gift. Once the wooden toy was retrieved the boy squealed in delight and rushed back for Ezra, who laughed in earnest.


“I’m a reader,” Maude said, dishing out a bowl full of stew for JD.

“That’s how you make your living?” Vin asked, unsure of her response to the kid’s question.

“You’d be surprised at how many ask me to read for them,” she responded, placing a plate of hard bread on the table.

“Can you read for me?” JD asked, a hint of excitement in his voice.

“It’s not polite to ask such favors,” Buck scolded.

“I read,” Maude smiled, “but for a fee.” She cocked an eyebrow and motioned for her son to take a seat at the table after he entered the room.

After all the introductions were made, Tristan crawled up into Josiah’s lap, causing the big man to smile and listen to the story the small boy told. Chris looked around the simple yet elegant home. A painting of a woman and a dog hung on the far side of the house and oil lamps lit the unnaturally dark space causing shadows to dance off the walls. The furniture had been carved from oak and the silk draperies were that of expense, and Chris wondered just how a woman living with a small boy could afford such luxuries.

“You may sleep in the side room. There is plenty of space for all of you,” Maude said, taking a now sleeping Tristan from Josiah’s lap.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Vin said, keeping his seat at the long table.

Maude nodded and then disappeared into a different room.

Chris rested his elbows on the table and looked around at the men. “How long before we reach the border?” he asked, looking at Ezra.

“Three days at most,” the Russian responded, “…if you keep to the mountains.”

“Are you not going with us?” Buck asked, slightly concerned.

“I said I’d get you there,” Ezra replied, looking up when his mother reentered the room.

Maude grabbed her dress skirts and then sat at the head of the table. She looked up at JD and smiled. “You want me to read for you?” she asked, her voice soft and serene.

“Yes, ma’am,” JD responded happily.

“Mother,” Ezra scolded, briskly getting to his feet.

“You may not believe in the gift, child,” Maude said, “but you have it…just like I have…just like Tristan does.”

Ezra rolled his eyes and moved to stand by the window. “It’s foolishness.”

Maude laughed and focused her attention on JD. “When Bohart was here, I read for him also,” she said, focusing her attention on the kid’s face.

“And what did you tell him?” Buck asked, slightly skeptical.

“I told him that his death would arrive in sevens,” she responded.

“Seven what?” Chris questioned.

“I do not know.” Maude smiled, looking at JD. “What would you like to know?”

The young Englishman shrugged his shoulders. “Am I going to become a warrior?”

“Youth can make us yearn for experiences and yet age aches for innocence,” Maude said, entwining her fingers together and resting her elbows on the table. “You will become a warrior…”

Ezra sighed disapprovingly: “I’ll see to the horses,” he said, leaving through the front door.

Maude paused and looked around the room. “My son doesn’t believe in such things,” she said, “but he knows in his heart that they are true,” she continued to explain. She looked hard at everyone, trying to read more than their facial expressions. “What I see if for all of you…not just Master Dunne.”

“What is it?” Josiah asked, unwilling to disregard her words.

“Your strength is your weakness,” she paused, looking coldly at Chris. “Your lack of trust in my son will cause your demise.”

“I don’t trust him,” Chris responded flatly.

Maude laughed: “And so you should.” She met his eyes. “You’re a man of honor and a leader of many men…but you can not bend the wind.”

“I don’t intend to.”

Maude shook her head and looked across at Josiah and JD. “A monk who does not believe, and a boy who wants to kill.” She paused, turning her attention back to the general. “Yes, Sir Larabee, you want to bend the wind.” She picked up seven rose petals. Carefully, she placed one in front of each member at the table…herself included. “Pick them up and clasp them inside the palm of your hand,” she ordered.

Buck laughed and grabbed the item. He tried to act as though Maude’s words were meaningless but something deep inside him told him that they weren’t. He grasped the red velvety petal and squeezed.

Maude smiled: “A lover of women in all shapes,” she laughed and grinned seductively as him, batting her eyelids all the while. She chuckled before turning her attention to Nathan.

The Bedouin sighed, not believing the power he was seeing but rather in Allah. “I do not believe in such things,” he said, keeping his hands folded in his lap.

“Think of it as a game,” Maude said, “ it’s only a game.” She smiled cunningly and looked toward the dark Bedouin.

Nathan looked at the others before quickly grabbing the petal. He turned it over in his palm, watching as the edges turned slightly…as though it were alive.     

“You’re a healer,” Maude smiled, “but search for the root with the red bloom under the Mulnar tree.” She didn’t explain any further before turning her attention to JD.

JD smiled and grabbed the petal then clasped both hands around the delicate object. He closed his eyes, thinking it would help Maude and her reading.

“The sword you carry is your grandfather’s…. and you will kill with it.”

Everyone looked up when Tristan entered the room rubbing his eyes. He walked over to Maude and crawled up into her lap, unwilling to go back to bed on his own. Maude kissed his head and turned her attention to Vin and waited.

The Lombardian paused before grabbing the petal in front of him. He could feel its faint power, like that of a butterfly’s wings. He looked at Maude in wonder and disbelief.

Maude didn’t say anything when she turned to Chris and had him take the petal. When he placed it between his fingers and thumb he felt the power as well. “Friendship,” Maude said, “will save you both.” She gently took Tristan’s hand before turning to Josiah. “Are you willing to play?” she asked.

“My faith doesn’t lie in such things,” Josiah replied, “and I prefer to not to even assume what may lay ahead.” His words were soft and understanding, but at the same time strong and unrelenting.

Tristan looked around the table at the petals and smiled. “I’ll take Ezra’s,” he said enthusiastically. Before Maude could stop him, he’d grabbed the last remaining petal. “Ezra’s going to die?” he questioned, turning to look at Maude. His hand shook, as fear consumed his body and mind. His vision was…surreal. 

“It’s just a game,” Maude laughed, taking the petal from him and tossing it into a bowl with the others. “It’s just a game,” she muttered again, kissing Tristan's head. She wouldn’t show her worry…she couldn’t. “You need to be in bed.” She patted the boy’s fanny as he stood. “There is plenty of space for the rest of you in the next room,” she said, getting to her feet.

Chris stood up and motioned for the others to do the same. “Thank you…for everything,” he said, before leaving the table.


Ezra entered the house to find his mother sitting at the long wooden table. Her fingers were entwined together and her elbows rested on the tabletop. She didn’t look happy. He poured himself a drink of water from the porcelain pitcher and then seated himself across from her.

“You intend to take these men to see Bohart?” Maude questioned, her voice firm and unwavering.

“I’ve agreed to get them there. That is all,” Ezra responded.

“If he discovers you are in the area…he’ll kill you.”

“He won’t find out,” Ezra snapped.

“You’ll receive no help from Russia,” Maude continued.

“I don’t expect any…”

“Once they discover you’re alive…none of us will be safe.” She knew the power of the land…and she knew its worth. Despite the fear she felt for her son, she had to stay on the land…for everyone’s sake.

Ezra sighed and leaned back in his chair. He knew she was right. “I’m only taking them to the border…”

“You want revenge,” Maude snapped, trying to keep her voice low so the others wouldn’t hear.

Ezra turned hard eyes toward his mother and met her gaze. “There is more at stake here than your assumptions of my revenge,” he snapped.

“Ah, yes…the territories,” she sighed. “Russia has already aligned with Prussia to gain that land.”

Ezra paused and shook his head, not understanding. “What do you mean?”

Maude shook her head: “They have aligned. Now, Russia waits to reclaim her army. King Bohart wants more than what he can get…the man is…insane, and the Czar will use this to his benefit.”

“Is this what your visions told you?”

“No!” Maude snapped, “He was here, Ezra.”

“How do you know this?”

“Ezra!” she snapped again, “Just who do you think you’re speaking to!” She looked at him in shock. The candlesticks behind her moved slightly as her anger increased.

Ezra turned away, knowing he’d overstepped his bounds. “What is Russia planning to do?” he asked softly.

“They’ve been fighting with the Mongols because the southern region is under threat.” She looked hard at her son. “The Russian Army is divided.”

“As they should be,” Ezra responded bitterly.

Maude sighed and looked toward the door. “I want you to take Tristan with you when you leave,” she said softly.

“I can’t…you know that.”

“You must. Bohart knows he’s here…and he knows who he is. It will only be a short time before the king sends someone for him…He’s not safe here anymore.”

“He won’t be any safer with me,” Ezra argued.

“I’ve seen things, Ezra…” she shook her head and sighed. “He’ll die if he stays here. You can take him to the border with the others and then return to the Neutral Territories…you’ll both be safe there.”

“The path is no place for a child!” Ezra whispered harshly.

“You have no choice!” She gasped. “I have seen the trouble to come.”

“You don’t believe what I’m doing is right,” he said with a forced smile. “You have more faith in your gift than you do me.” There was sadness in his voice that caught his mother off guard.

“Your fate is sealed,” Maude tried to sound confident.

“Yes,” Ezra said, getting to his feet, “so you’ve said before.” He left the room out the back door.


Chris pushed himself away from the wall and sighed. He’d heard everything. It hadn’t been his intention to eavesdrop, but with so many relying on him he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn what he could. And he had. There were a few things he wanted to question the Russian about and more importantly he wanted to know what kind of ear Maude Standish had that she was able to know so much about the tribulations of the neighboring countries.

Chris locked eyes with Vin for a moment before lying down. Things were definitely not what they appeared.