Path of Thorns

By: Beth ©

Fantasy/Medieval AU (Seven)

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Chapter 7

Josiah floated on his back in water that mirrored the sky. For reasons unknown to anyone, the land looked majestic and the sound of the waterfalls echoed throughout the canyon. Josiah laughed when he heard JD’s scream and the sound of water splashing. Nathan shook his head as he finished bathing himself. This was going to be their last opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasures of bathing and swimming. After they planned to leave Thousand Springs, their mission would be in full force.

Chris jumped up out of the water and seated himself on a rock that overlooked the land. His skin glistened in the sunlight as his wet hair continued to drip onto his shoulders. He watched as Buck and Vin both dove into the spring, enjoying the crispness of the water. Even the pebbles seemed to shimmer with the colors of the rainbow. Fish swam without fear near the edge, not bothered by the men in the pool. Chris watched as Ezra, the only one still clothed, sat on the bank helping Tristan get dry.

“There’s something special about this place,” Josiah said, stepping out of the water by Chris.

“It is unusual,” the general noted, lifting his chin toward the sky.

“Are you thinking about the path ahead?”

“I have some concerns,” Chris admitted. “I’ve heard things that may cause…problems,” he said reluctantly.

“How long would it take for your men to reach us, should you call on them?” Josiah asked, slipping into his clothing.

“Too long.”

“There is a reason for everything, Brother, and everything has a reason.”

“For what purpose would we march to our deaths?” Chris asked, looking for answers to questions that he didn’t want to ask.

“For the lives of thousands of people,” Josiah answered, looking out toward the water.

“We may die…”

“Not without a fight, dear Brother…not without a fight.”


Maude grasped her grandson’s hand and gently squeezed, giving him the encouragement he was in need of. She watched her son prepare his mount for the long ride ahead. She only knew a little of the trouble the seven men would face, but she knew in her heart that they had to complete the task that had been placed before them.

“Come,” Ezra ordered, motioning for Tristan to join him.

The boy gently hugged his grandmother and kissed her on the cheek before rushing toward his uncle. He was excited about the chance to ride with Ezra and his friends. Maude crossed her arms over her chest, feeling a deep loss within her soul. Trepidation, fear, and uncertainty lined her features and she fought the urge to cry.

Ezra lifted Tristan up onto Asam’s back and the boy squealed in delight. He was going on his first big adventure with his favorite person in the world. Ezra smiled and stepped closer to his mother. He could sense her fear…because he chose not to utilize his gift, didn’t mean that he chose to be void of it. The gift was there, however, it wasn’t as tuned as his mother’s.

“Be careful,” Maude warned. There was a harshness in her words, but a softness in her eyes.

“Always.” Ezra smiled. He leaned forward and kissed her on her cheek.

Maude grabbed his arm and held him close for a moment. “Be wary of the red floor,” she whispered in his ear, before letting him go.  

Ezra met his mother’s eyes and nodded before slipping into his saddle. He tilted his head and nudged Asam forward. Tristan wrapped his arms around Ezra’s middle as the big chestnut took a long step onward. Maude waved from the gate in her yard and watched the eight men ride out. The early afternoon sun peered out through the clouds glimmering off the crystal clear water. The narrow trail that led out of the canyon was lined by the edge of the river.

Ezra could tell that Tristan was scared. His lack of communication and tight grip told him so. His excitement earlier had blinded him to the reality of the adventure. Ezra reached around and gently grasped the boy’s knee in reassurance. Tristan nodded his head and pressed his cheek onto his uncle’s back.

“We should arrive at the peak by dusk,” Ezra said, turning slightly to look at the others.

Chris nodded, but didn’t say anything as Vin rode up beside him.

“You going to talk with him?” the Lombardian asked, keeping his sharp blue eyes on Tristan’s back.

“How much did you hear?” Chris asked, regarding the conversation between Ezra and his mother.

“Enough,” Vin replied. “Who do you think the boy is?”

“I don’t know…but they’re hiding him for some reason,” Chris replied while trying to think things over in his mind.

“If Russia and Prussia have aligned, why are we going to risk being in the presence of King Bohart?”

“If we don’t, we may lose any possibility of gaining the support of neighboring countries, and…with Russia’s army divided…” Chris paused, looking ahead. “When we reach the next stop, I’m going to send a messenger to my men in Enthusia and have them move forward. We may be able to stop this before it starts.”

“There are 10,000 Lombardian warriors ready to aid you at my signal…should I send for them as well?” Vin asked, letting Chris know that he would be willing to support his orders at any cost.

The general thought a moment. He wasn’t surprised by Vin’s willingness to help in anyway he could. For reason’s nobody understood they were bound by more than just their loyalties to their kingdoms…they were bound by the need to protect the territories. “Yes,” the general whispered, “send for them. We may need them.”


Ezra pulled Asam to a stop and looked out over the peak. The entire world could be seen from this view…or so it seemed. The distant sound of water gushing over the falls filled the air and the trees seemed to embrace the warmth the sun had to offer.

“I’m hungry,” Tristan said, releasing Ezra’s waist as he dismounted.

The Russian reached into his saddle pouch and grabbed a small bag of dried fruit and handed it to the boy who took it happily. “Stay close,” he ordered, pulling the child from Asam’s back.

Tristan reached into the small pouch and stuffed a fig into his mouth before walking near the edge of the peak to look out over the view. Ezra and the others prepared the camp for the night.

The crisp sound of fire cracking the wood it burned echoed throughout the small camp. Its yellow and orange flames took on a life of its own. The wood moved slightly, causing sparks to fly upwards toward the dark sky. The eyes of owls glowed as the flames reflected in their dark pools. The dim light of the moon did little to light the ground and the black of night hung heavily in the air.

Tristan now lay on his side with his head resting on Ezra’s thigh. The day had been long and the boy was quickly asleep after eating a small meal. Ezra ran his fingers through Tristan’s soft hair, wondering about his future.

“What happened to the boy’s parents?” Nathan asked, watching the Russian’s tender touch with the child.

“Dead,” Ezra whispered. He refused to look up and meet their eyes, but there was a longing in his voice that nobody had ever heard before.

Chris watched Ezra’s movements, seeing more than just the affection he obviously held for his nephew. But he couldn’t put his finger on what it was exactly. “Who is he?” he asked, looking up to meet Ezra’s eyes.


“The child,” Chris said.

Ezra looked hard at the general: “Nobody you should be concerned about.”

“Are you still planning to take us to Bohart…or are you going to baby sit?” Chris’ words were bitter, and he couldn’t hide the betrayal he was feeling.

“I said I’d get you there, Sir Larabee…and I will,” Ezra snapped, turning his gaze toward the others.

“What about Tristan? What are you going to do with him?” Buck asked. “I doubt you’d be willing to take him to Prussia with us?” His words held a hint of challenge to them.

“That is my concern.”

Chris shook his head. “Remember who you’re traveling with, Standish,” his voice was laced with warning. “If you’re in danger of being found…then there’s only the six of us to protect you…and that boy.”

Ezra turned away, knowing what Chris had said was true.

Vin watched the actions between the two men. He could see in Chris the frustration and impatience he had when it came to the uncertain road ahead. If a war were to happen, the English General would lead them bravely into battle. He would fight until the end for what he believed was right. Ezra, however, wasn’t as easy to understand. He didn’t appear to have any loyalties, other than the boy at his side. What would he fight for…would he even fight? And why was he willingly lead them into Prussia, knowing his life would be at stake? And what of the child?

“There is more here than what is evident,” Josiah muttered, causing Vin to turn and look at him inquisitively.

“You want to clear up that statement, Sanchez?” Buck asked, lying back on his blanket.

“Didn’t think I’d have to.” Josiah looked up toward the stars in the sky and wondered what his God had planned for them.


“You have to do it like this,” Tristan explained, showing Josiah exactly how tie his laces.

The big man chuckled as the boy worked his small fingers around the thin leather ties. “Who taught you to tie?” he asked softly.

“Nana,” Tristan responded happily, speaking fondly of Maude. “See,” he pointed to his leather shoes and the laces that had been perfectly tied.

“I must admit,” Josiah said, “you have tied your laces better than I ever could have.”

Tristan grinned and seated himself next to the gentle giant. “Uncle Ezra says I’m goin’ to stay with Miz Nettie for a few days, then we’re goin’ to the territories to stay,” he spoke happily while touching the silver cross that hung from Josiah’s neck.

“Looks like you got yourself a protégé,” Buck said, rolling up his bedroll.

Josiah laughed and gently patted Tristan’s shoulder. “I couldn’t think of a better one.”

The boy looked up and smiled, feeling as though he’d done something right. When he saw his uncle walk up from the trail, he rushed toward him. Ezra picked the child up and slipped him onto Asam’s back and the horse tossed his head, indicating to everyone that he was ready to continue.

Chris passed the Russian leading Viceroy. The sure-footed animal pinned his ears at Asam, letting the smaller horse know who was boss. “Let’s go,” Chris ordered, not wanting to take any longer than necessary.

With the horses saddled and the camp cleared everyone mounted up. The next couple of days would be long and tedious. Their next stop would be at Nettie Wells, a farmer’s widow who’d lived on the land longer than most. Her farm was two days ride from the Prussian border…and only a day’s ride from the outskirts of the town of Brun.


Chris watched as Tristan played with the lacings under Ezra’s arms. The occasional flap of material would get tossed over the Russian’s shoulder only to disappear before the boy could locate it. He laughed and bounced behind his uncle and Asam never minded or took notice of the boy’s antics.

“Remind you of someone?” Buck asked in a low tone.

Chris turned cold eyes toward his friend before glancing back to the path ahead. “Don’t patronize me.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Buck replied, “but he is enchanting.” The lieutenant smiled, watching as the boy toyed with Ezra’s sleeves. Tristan didn’t have the blonde, almost white, hair that Chris’ son Adam had, but they did share the same eyes. It was almost eerie how the two boys would have acted alike, and Buck knew that having Tristan along on this trail was wearing his friend down. The general tried to keep his distance, but the occasional glance of longing and pain wasn’t lost on his oldest friend.

“Yes,” Chris admitted, remembering the blonde hair, green-eyed boy from his past.

Chapter 8

The cottage was small but inviting. An old rocking chair rested on the front porch gently swaying back and forth under the tender guidance of the breeze. The garden next to the house was full of tomatoes, carrots, and beets. The small fence did little to keep out rabbits as evidenced by the little creatures fleeing the scene when the horses neared the yard.

“Water’s out back,” Nettie said, stepping out onto the front porch. Her gray hair had been pulled back away from her face. Age had taken its toll on her skin as wrinkles lined her mouth and eyes. Her clothing was old but well cared for. “Casey,” she yelled back into the house, “put the stew on and get it warmed up.” She’d done this many times before.

Ezra dismounted and pulled Tristan off behind him. “Mistress Wells,” he said, walking up to the home.

“Haven’t seen you around these parts in a while,” Nettie said, watching as the other men dismounted and walked up behind the Russian. She knew what warriors looked like, and these men were just that. “You’re going to Prussia,” it wasn’t a question, but an observation. She smiled and looked down at the young boy.

“I have a favor to ask…” Ezra started, but wasn’t sure how to continue.

“I’ll take the child for a few days,” she said, holding her hand out for the boy to grasp. “Come in,” she looked at the men, “have something to eat before you continue your journey.”  


“You’re a Lombardian,” Nettie said, resting a bowl full of veal stew in front of Vin.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Nettie smiled and gently squeezed his shoulder. “My husband fought the Huns for 16 years before we moved here to get away from the bloodshed.” She sat down next to the Lombardian. “It’s good to see brethren.” 

Vin smiled: “Do you get many visitors here?”

“Just those from the mountains…and, on occasion, someone from the courts.” She got back to her feet when her niece entered the room with a plate of hard bread.

“Is there anyway to send a message from here?” Vin questioned, his blue eyes danced in hope of an answer.

Nettie paused a moment: “Yes,” she said confidently. “Casey can ride to Socque and a messenger will ride from there. But only for a fee…”

“We can pay,” Chris said.

“I’ll get what you need then,” Nettie replied, moving toward her desk.

JD smiled when he looked up into the young girl’s eyes that had just entered the room and then turned his attention from her. Buck slapped him on the shoulder after noticing the kid’s face get red. Casey grinned and placed the bread in front of the young man.

“Would anyone like oil and vinegar?” the girl asked, brushing the front of her skirt.

“That’d be delightful,” Josiah responded with a grin of his own. He wasn’t blind to the young people’s frolics.

“How long before you boys intend to get to Prussia?” Nettie asked, refilling Vin’s mug with some brew and placing some woven paper, pen, ink, and a wax stick before him.

“Tomorrow at the latest,” Ezra responded, picking at his stew.

“The food not to your liking?”

“The food is good,” Ezra responded softly, looking to where Tristan sat eating away at his bread.

“The boy will be safe here,” Nettie said confidently, knowing exactly what was happening around her.

Chris looked hard at Ezra, feeling as though he was missing something. More than anything, the general wanted to hang the Russian from his thumbs and find out what he knew…but he wouldn’t. Chris didn’t work like that.

“Don’t think on running out on me,” Chris said in a deep threatening voice so only Ezra could hear.

“Eat,” Nettie ordered, refilling Chris’ mug. “You’ll need your strength for the journey ahead.”

Ezra turned his dark green eyes from Chris back to Tristan who laughed when Josiah tickled his side.

Buck looked up and watched everyone for a moment. Casey and JD sent each other inquisitive glances, while Nettie took a liking to Vin, and the two Lombardians sat together talking about their homeland. Nathan made sure Tristan ate all his food while Josiah became more attached to the boy than even he, himself, realized. Ezra and Chris continued to sit across from each other, each lost in their own thoughts while the Russian’s eyes continued to watch the child. There was more there than anyone realized, and the looks he sent Tristan were eerily similar to the ones Chris had sent Adam on so many different occasions.


Nettie handed Vin a small white muslin bag filled with dried venison. She reached down and grasped Tristan’s hand and stood back while the warriors prepared themselves for the path ahead. Ezra turned and winked at the boy, letting him know things were going to be fine, and then he mounted up.

“Thank you for your hospitality, ma’am,” Chris said, slipping his foot into the iron stirrup.

“Nettie,” she corrected. “All of you come back. I’ll have some rhubarb cobbler and meat pie for you.” She squeezed Tristan’s hand in comfort as the riders pulled away.

Ezra turned and waved. Tristan waved goodbye, feeling as though things would never be the same.


Josiah rode next to the Russian and noticed the dice being rolled around in his hand. “You gamble,” he asked, looking for a reaction.

Ezra smiled and nodded: “I used to.”

“But not anymore?”

“Only when the need arises.” A subtle, yet, mischievous grin appeared on his face.

Nathan laughed and reined his horse beside the big man. “Something tells me the winds are going to change.”

“Did Allah tell you that?” Josiah asked, lifting his chin toward the blue sky.

“No,” Nathan admitted, “but the leaves on the trees did.”

“Cunning…and philosophical,” the former monk said with a smile.


“How long until we arrive?” JD asked , looking at the soft white cloth he’d taken from Casey.

Buck reached out and collected the lace garment and grinned. “You’re smitten,” he teased, placing the handkerchief up to his nose to smell.

“Give that back!” JD snapped, reaching out to retrieve the item.

Buck pulled away and laughed: “Let it be known that the boy from England has a girl!! She your first?” His eyebrows bobbled up and down in curiosity.

JD blushed and turned his face forward, refusing to answer.

“Don’t get obstinate,” Buck teased, “we got Ezra for that.” He handed the lace cloth back to JD who immediately placed it in a pocket of his open coat.

“When will we arrive?” the kid asked again, hoping to get some kind of an answer.

“We’ll camp at nightfall,” Ezra said, not wanting to ride during the darkest hours of the day while being so close to the border. “If we leave at dawn, we’ll be within the palace yards within two hours the day after next.”

“Will you arrive with us?” Buck asked, looking toward the Russian.

“I cannot,” Ezra replied stiffly.

“We need seven men,” Josiah’s voice took a low tone. “If we do not arrive with seven, our passage will have been for nothing.”

Chris turned in his saddle and looked toward his men. “This has not been for nothing!” He reached over and grasped Ezra’s arm. “What will it take for you to join us?” For reasons he didn’t understand, he wanted…needed, the Russian to ride with them into Prussia and meet with Bohart.

Ezra paused: “If I join you, your cause will surely be lost…”

“Not by the actions of one man…no matter what you’ve done,” the accusation in Chris’ voice took a strong hold of Ezra’s chest.

“We could disguise you,” Buck said, riding up next to the general.

“The people in these parts are too afraid of what might happen,” Vin spoke up from the back of the group. “We’ll never find another.”

“We never looked,” Chris said, angry with himself. “To fall apart now is…unacceptable.” He didn’t realized that this path had been planned for them.

“Why seven?” Ezra asked, looking toward Josiah.

“I do not know,” the big man replied, “but I believe it has to do with Bohart’s ‘faith’.”

“If he’s as mad as my mother says…” Ezra paused, “he has no religion, and it is witchcraft that we are dealing with…?”

“Didn’t think you believed in such…foolishness,” Buck replied with a grin.

“I don’t…but others do…and because of such things we must tread warily.”

“So you’ll ride with us?” JD asked, a smile tugging at his lips.

Ezra sighed and stared straight ahead.


Vin looked up at the bloody moon and ran a hand through his hair. Death. Even the clouds seemed to keep their distance from her, moving around her as though she contained the plague. He watched the others settle in for the night as the flames from the fire danced around the wood it enveloped. Sparks flew upwards only to disappear as a subtle wind caught them. Vin watched as Asam stood by his master while Ezra sat leaning against his horse’s front legs, also watching the group of men. Their eyes met momentarily, before Vin pulled away resting his eyes on Chris.

The trees seemed content to gently wave through the breeze, and an occasional leaf would fall to the ground as Death claimed another living thing. The sound of water passing over rocks filled the air and only the distant singing of wolves and owls filled the gaps between noises. Everyone was lost in their own thoughts, thinking about the path ahead, the one they’d traveled, and the one they would walk when Death came to greet them. Will he arrive swiftly? Vin hoped so.

Josiah reached into his cloak and pulled out a small toy that Tristan had given him to hold. The former monk played with the woven toy, remembering a better time in his own life. “What was the boy’s father like?” he asked, looking at Ezra.

“He was a fool,” the Russian replied bitterly, unwilling to discuss the situation further.

“It’s not right to speak of the dead in such a manner,” Nathan interjected.

“Death walks among us…and most times we don’t see it,” Ezra responded flatly, sending a look of warning in the Bedouin’s direction.

“ A bit sensitive aren’t you?” Buck asked, “But then again we all should be…considering we may not live past…”

“Shut up, Buck,” JD snapped, not in the mood to hear about the possibility of dying.

“Think about your gentlewoman, kid,” Buck responded, kicking his right foot over his left as he leaned back against a rock.

“If Russia and Prussia have aligned…” Vin spoke up, knowing that Ezra knew they’d heard his conversation with his mother, “why don’t we align our armies and fight before they can organize?”

“The Russian army alone could destroy us,” Chris said, shaking his head. “Couple them with Prussia…”

“But they’re divided,” Buck responded, “all of them.”

“We don’t know the reasons for the division, and I won’t risk the lives of 45,000 men to prove a point,” Chris answered, looking toward Ezra.

“So what then,” Buck griped, “we march into Bohart’s palace and let him kill us.”

“Brother,” Josiah chuckled, “your faith in your fellow man is weak.”

“Damn straight!”

“Why is the Russian Army divided?” JD asked, changing the subject.

“Only a Russian can answer that,” Vin replied, keeping his voice low and unthreatening.

Ezra chuckled, causing everyone to turn in his direction. “ Du-ra`hks,” he replied, continuing to chuckle while laying back on his bedroll.

JD and Buck turned inquisitive eyes toward Ezra. Vin laughed and tossed a stick into the fire.

“What did he say?” Nathan asked, not understanding the Russian’s words.

“He said we’re fools,” Vin answered.

Chris shook his head and laughed. “Couldn’t agree with him more.”

Chapter 9

The mountain overhang gave the seven riders a perfect view of the palace down below. People, looking more like ants, moved with purpose around the gardens and town, surrounding the king’s home. Horses, carts, and small booths cluttered the area giving it the appearance of confusion and uncertainty.

Vin pulled his spyglass from his saddle pouch and took a closer look at the land below. He could see palace guards standing erect at the large entry gates. Soldiers from Prussia and Russia moved throughout the town, some causing trouble while others looked like hunters searching for prey.

“Will you join us?” Chris asked, looking toward the Russian.

Ezra looked out over the land below, seeing what he’d been looking for…for so long. “The Russian Army is there,” he pointed to a large group of men keeping to themselves on the far side of the palace walls. He couldn’t tell if they were friend or foe. Slowly, he removed his black and red cortège, exposing his full white shirt. He replaced the jacket with a brown and black leather coat that seemed to mold to his form.

“Take this,” Josiah said, handing him a heavy cloak.

“Thank you, but if they are searching for me…that’s what they’ll look for.” He reached into his saddle pack and pulled out a small gold chain that he hooked to his left ear through a hole that nobody had ever noticed before. Without much thought, he attached the other end of the six-inch chain to his nose, allowing it to hang just above his upper lip.

“I don’t think a gold chain and coat are going to hide you,” Nathan said, trying to keep his eyes off the small hole in Ezra’s ear and nose.

Ezra smiled: “They’re looking for a man with longer hair than Tanner’s, and more facial hair than Wilmington.” He ran his fingers through his hair feeling the shortness of it, making sure it hadn’t gotten too long. “Might I suggest, Master Larabee, that you hide your coat of arms. Lieutenant Wilmington, you as well? If the countries have aligned, they’ll not wish to see the colors of the men they intend to battle.”

“What about the rest of us?” JD asked, wanting to blend into the scenery.

“Keep your weapon covered and make no movement to reach for it,” Ezra warned and not just the kid.

“Travis said we’d be met at the gates by one of King Bohart’s counselors,” Josiah said, “so they’ll want to know who is arriving.”

“We have to get to the gate first,” Chris interjected, realizing how complicated things could get.

Vin pulled his long hair back and greased it with oil from lamb’s wool. He then tied it with leather strings into a tight braid. He loosened his open coat and made sure the handle of his dagger was well hid inside his boot. He’d been to places like this and he understood how they worked. He knew he would be seen as the enemy…just like the others. However, the likelihood of being attacked was slim. More than anything else, they’d be looked at as traders and merchants…hence the reason for Ezra’s gold adornment.

“Who’s looking for you, Brother?” Josiah asked, after a cold feeling of uncertainty came upon him.

“Who isn’t,” Ezra muttered, never taking his eyes off of the town down below.

“I’ve got this feeling that we’re being watched,” Vin said, looking toward the men he’d become friends with…despite where they had come from.

Chris turned knowing eyes toward the Lombardian…he’d had the same feelings for days. “Watch your backs,” he said sternly, “If you think you’re in trouble, call out and we’ll get to you. It will be better if we stay together as a group, keep your eyes on everyone…not just those who are armed.” The general knew what he was talking about; he was a warrior and knew what to look for. “Do like Ezra said and keep your weapons well hid, but keep them close,” he continued to order sternly. He looked down at the town below, not at the people, but the fastest way of escape. “Should you get into trouble, find a horse and head west…run until the animal drops and then hide.”

“May Allah protect us,” Nathan said, sitting taller in his saddle and feeling Hadib react with the proud blood he descended from.

JD’s red Friesian snorted and arched his neck, the warhorse was evolving before everyone’s eyes. “I’m ready to fight,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.

Buck grinned: “Good…because we may have to.”

“Lead the way…Sir Larabee,” Ezra said, adjusting the twin sword strapped to his back.


People moved out of the way as the seven men rode down the main street. Food venders, merchants, and hunters sold their products out of lean-twos and huts. Chickens, dogs, and cats strayed throughout the street while small children rushed after them. The smell of blood filled the air as the group passed a hut lined with animal carcasses. A butcher continued to pluck feathers out of a duck’s hide while a group of kittens played with the remains.

Ezra looked up and met a set of familiar hazel eyes. The man was large and dressed in the standard Russian uniform. A leather breastplate, tall leather boots, and a broadsword highlighted his appearance. His face was hidden beneath a heavy beard and mustache, but his eyes were soft…despite his appearance. He turned abruptly and left, taking with him the four men that had been standing beside him. Ezra never acknowledged him, and if the others noticed the recognition the two men shared, they didn’t show it.

The gates were large and had been made with the skilled hands of ironworkers. Guards stood erect in front with their weapons poised and ready to use. Slaves who wore little more than loincloths and sandals were digging a moat.

Josiah dismounted his horse and faced one of the guards. “We’re here by request of the Western Alliance to meet with King Bohart,” he said with conviction.

The guard looked him over and motioned with his hand for a man to alert the king that his ‘guests’ had arrived. “Leave your horses inside the gate,” he said sharply, moving his sword to his other hand and opening the gate. “Councilor Jordan will escort you inside.” He moved aside as the seven dismounted and led their horses through the barricade.

Ezra walked in the center, trying to hide while getting a better view of the castle design. Josiah and Chris walked side by side, watching and learning. The general’s eyes memorized every armed man, doorway, and path. He wasn’t going to die without a fight…if that’s what it came to.

“I’ve got a really bad feeling about this,” Vin said softly, keeping in step behind the English General.

“Keep your heads,” Chris ordered loud enough for his men to hear. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end. He could feel people watching him, and in the back of his mind the sound of a blade being sharpened haunted his dreams.

“Leave your weapons,” came a sharp order as they arrived at the palace doors. The man motioned to the table at his left, his long robe moved elegantly with him. His brown hair had been braided and pulled back away from his face and his mustache accentuated the length of his nose.

Josiah removed his heavy sword, leaving the finely crafted piece of weaponry inside its leather sheath. He paused momentarily before laying his prized possession next to the long blade. The Moroccan short sword couldn’t compare in length or size, but it could do twice the damage of his other weapon. The wooden hand-painted handle formed to his hands and nobody else’s. Josiah took a deep breath and waited for his friends to follow suit. He understood their hesitancy, but this ‘meeting’ had to take place.

Chris clenched his jaw and released his weapon. The dagger he had hid in his boot wouldn’t get him out of a battle, not like the long blade now resting on the table, but it would do some damage. He stood beside Josiah, feeling naked and…watched. He noticed Vin didn’t bother to remove the dagger from his boot either, and like two souls from the same mind, they thought the same thing…they wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Ezra stepped up to the table and removed his rapier, and the twin sword that was always strapped to his back. He was about to move away but the robed gentleman who had ordered the removal of weapons stopped him.

“The dagger as well…boy,” his words were bitter, almost sour, as he said them. He looked at Ezra with distaste and a hatred that even he didn’t understand.

Ezra’s jaw clenched…they knew he was here. He looked back toward the iron gates and toward his horse. If he made a run for it, he and the others would certainly be killed. Slowly, he reached down into his boot and removed the sculpted dagger and placed it on the table.

The stranger turned and moved toward the doors. “You may follow me,” he said, as though it was a pleasure to be in his presence.

“What was that about?” Chris asked the Russian.

Ezra smiled sadly as he removed the gold from his nose and ear. “I’ll tell you tomorrow…if we survive the night.”      

Chapter 10

The room was large and lined with warriors from Russia and Prussia. The seven men had been expected. King Bohart sat on his throne. His burgundy velvet cape draped over the armrests and his crown glistened under the burning lights that surrounded him. He was a handsome man. Blue eyes pierced the air like a sharpened blade and his golden hair shined. His features would make the Greek Gods envious of his sculpted bones. His age was undefined, but the hints of maturity peaked through the lines adorning his face. His Mongolian wife, just as beautiful, sat silently beside him.

“Welcome,” the king said seductively, moving his hand up to touch his brow. “We’ve been expecting you.” He smiled, leaning back in his seat and motioned for several of his armed guards to move behind the seven men.

“We’re here to discuss…” Chris started.

“I know what you’re here to…discuss, and you won’t get it from me.”

Chris struggled when he felt strong hands grasp his shoulders and he stilled suddenly when he felt the knife at his throat. “You’ll start a war if you continue with this.”

The king laughed and stood. He made his way down the red-carpeted floor and looked hard at the seven men who were now being restrained in shackles and ropes. “The war has already begun…it is just a matter of…winning.” He moved in front of Chris and looked him in the eye. “Are you ready to die for your country, Knight?”

“We’ll not give up without a fight,” Chris snapped through clenched teeth, as his arms were pulled tighter behind his back.

“And just who is going to rescue you?” The king laughed and moved to face Josiah. He grasped the silver cross around the big man’s neck and yanked it from him. “Will your God save you now?”

The Spaniard smiled confidently and looked the king in the eye: “If it is his will.” Josiah’s strength was intimidating…even to someone in ‘control’.

“A boy and a nomad,” the king continued, moving down the line, “Who would have thought?” he asked nobody in particular. He ran his finger over JD’s chin and smiled. “You would have been fun.”

JD flinched away, knowing what the man had implied. He felt his shoulders scream in pain as his arms were wrenched tighter behind his back.

Vin’s blue eyes matched those of the king’s. However, the Lombardian’s hardness was real and without the need of support. Bohart looked Vin over as though he were a rug to be purchased. With shoulders taught and jaw clenched, Vin kept his mouth shut, unwilling to speak.

Ezra looked into familiar blue eyes and swallowed the bile that gathered in his throat.

Bohart laughed as he moved in front of the Russian. “Did you honestly think a shave and hair cut would disguise you in my kingdom?” He turned cold eyes toward his captive. “Where are your men now?” he hissed.

“You won’t win this,” Ezra said sharply.

“I already have,” Bohart smiled and raised his arm snapping his fingers.

“UNCLE!” Tristan screamed, being dragged into the palace room by two men.

Ezra shut his eyes tight and took a deep breath. He couldn’t believe what was happening.

Chris’ jaw clenched and his stomach tightened.

“Dear God,” Josiah gasped, rediscovering his faith.

“You don’t need to kill everyone to win a war,” the king said with humor in his voice, “just a selected few.”

A guard forced Ezra onto his knees while another guard pulled his sword. Ezra’s chest tightened and he pulled forcefully on the restraints that held his wrists together behind his back, tearing his skin. He could hear Tristan’s screams and he could see the boy trying to claw his way out of the confinement he was in.

“Not in front of the boy!” Ezra yelled, looking up to meet the king’s gaze. Hoping for some kind of compassion.

“What?” Bohart asked in delight.

“NOT IN FRONT OF THE BOY!” the Russian yelled again, this time more clearly, causing everyone to stop and look at him.

“Fine,” the king agreed. Raising his hand again, he tipped his finger toward the guard holding the child.

Ezra watched in slow motion as the blade cut through the air…

…Striking Tristan’s chest…

…Silencing him forever…

The Russian gasped, blinking his eyes in disbelief. An inaudible moan buried itself in the back of his throat. The only sound in his ears was that of his own heart racing. Tristan was dead, his blood pooling around his body, as he lay motionless at the feet of his murderer. Gone were his simple stories, his innocent outlook on life, and his contagious smile. Ezra couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out, and he couldn’t pull his eyes from the boy.

“Oh, gods,” JD gasped, turning his once innocent eyes from the sight.

“You son-of-a-bitch!” Chris yelled, fighting the bonds that held him.

A man rushed from the back of the room and struck Ezra on the head with the handle of his sword, causing him to fall forward in a heap. “Should I take them to the dungeon?” he asked, shielding his weapon. He looked to the six captives that were still standing and then back to the king. “The people are looking forward to the executions in the morning, Highness.”

Bohart looked at the Russian warrior and sighed. He then looked at his men and then smiled. “A public execution does bring a community together.” He motioned for the seven captives to be taken to the dungeons.

Chris watched as the large Russian warrior picked Ezra up and maneuvered him over his shoulders. The sudden poke in the general’s back meant for him to walk forward, and he complied. He watched his men. Despite the grave situation, none of them appeared defeated. Buck stepped forward with more purpose in his stride than he’d ever had. JD followed, trying to keep a brave face and knowing in his heart that things had taken a drastic turn. He yearned for his grandfather’s sword…if he had it…he’d kill the king himself. Josiah watched his friends. His heart ached for the loss of Tristan. The boy had been so young, innocent, and such a jewel in these hard times. And now he was gone.   Nathan kept in pace behind the larger man, his thoughts lying with his friends. He looked up and watched Ezra’s head move limply as he lay wilted over the shoulders of the giant. Vin watched the movements of the palace guards; who they spoke to, where they went, and how many seemed to gather. He would not go down without a fight.


The dungeon smelled of mildew, old straw, and waste. The steps downward had been lined with oil lamps and the flames flickered violently off the stone walls. Iron cells lined each side of a five-foot path that ran the length of the tunnel. Each chamber contained a bucket of water, an empty bucket for personal needs, and straw for bedding.

Chris, Buck, and JD were forced into one cell and the heavy sound of the lock clicking shut filled the suddenly quiet moment. Nathan, Josiah, and Vin were forced into the cell next to their friends, and all were thankful that they hadn’t been chained to the walls.

“Don’t kill ‘ im…yet,” a guard joked, nodding in Ezra’s direction as the big Russian carried him into a separate cell.

“I shall not…for fear of the king’s wrath,” the big man replied with a laugh. He stood there a moment until the guards left the dungeon. He then carefully laid Ezra down on some straw and looked around before removing his cape and laying it over the prone form. “You stupid fool!” he snapped, gently slapping Ezra’s face.

“Do you know him?” Chris asked, resting his arms through the cell bars.

The stranger looked up but didn’t reply. He turned his attention back to Ezra.


A stale stench is what came to his senses first. Even the air seemed thicker with mildew and unclean moisture. He knew he was lying on straw as stick ends pierced the skin on the back of his neck. His head throbbed and someone’s hand continually slapped his cheek. Ezra opened his eyes and then quickly squeezed his lids shut, as the dim light in the cells seemed too bright at the moment. The familiar voice leaning over him was becoming highly annoying as it continued to ring in his ears.

“Stop,” Ezra muttered, pushing the intrusive hand away from his face.

“You’re a damned fool!” the voice snapped.

“Marco?” Ezra questioned, furrowing his brow.

“So…you do recognize me?” He laughed, helping his friend sit up. “What are you doing back in Przemysl?” his voice got harsh and impatient.

“Remember who you are?” Ezra warned, his voice just as heated.

Marco sat back on his heels and rested his elbows on his knees. “We knew you’d come,” he admitted softly, before reaching up to scratch his beard.


The big man stood up and looked at the men in the cells across from them. “They your friends?”

Ezra stood, using the stone wall for support as his head swam. “Who knew I’d come?” he demanded with more strength. Concern lined his features.

“ Myself, Tyne, and Ladimir…we all knew.” He looked hard at Chris, feeling as though the English General was worthy of his attention. Marco sighed, feeling suddenly defeated. “I will try and get you out of here by morning…” he paused.

“The legion?”

“I’ve sent word that you’re alive,” he turned toward Ezra and smiled, “They should be in Brun in three days time.”

“What is the reason for the division of the army?” Ezra asked, carefully calculating his options.

“Once it was learned that Bohart made a pact with the Czar in terms of your…execution, the armies divided…that is why we have lost to the Mongolians. Those that followed you will serve you again,” he said with conviction, and a fire was ignited in his spirit.

“How many men are willing to fight?” Anger, revenge, and the instincts of a warrior started to take over the Russian’s thought process.

“30,000 at last count…but men are arriving everyday to join us.”

“The Czar?”

“Is running scared. He knows his empire is under threat, and his people are turning away from him after his…quick…decision to unite with Bohart… Bohart’s lunacy is growing still, and will continue to do so, even his own people fear him.” Marco paused looking at his leader for guidance, to his friend for reassurance, and comrade for support. “At your word, Commander…” he smiled, “the men will fight until death.”

Ezra nodded: “We’ll not win this alone.” He looked at Marco. “Our armies are still outnumbered…”

“But with the help of some English,” Chris spoke up with a twinkle of hope in his eyes.

“And some Lombardians,” Vin added.

“The armies could combine for strength and size,” Josiah said with a smile.

“We could reinforce the borders and end Bohart’s reign,” Ezra said, sliding to the floor. He reached into his pocket and retrieved the dice he always carried and gently rolled them in the palm of his hand.

“I will send messengers,” Marco said, shutting the cell door behind him. “You will be free come morning!” He smiled, softening his features and causing everyone in the room to build confidence.

“Tristan?” Ezra asked, turning sad eyes upward.

“Dead,” Marco answered honestly, “but never forgotten.” He paused, watching Ezra nod and turn his eyes downward. “His death will not have been in vain,” he said harshly, his voice full of vengeance. He turned quickly and jogged out of the holding area, shutting the heavy iron door behind him as he left.

Ezra rested his head back against the stone wall and shut his eyes. Freedom was the last thing on his mind at the moment. Was he such a fool, he thought to himself…mourning his loss.

“Why would Bohart want the Czar to order your death?” Chris asked, watching the Russian’s movements. Surprised that the man he was looking at held such clout.  

Ezra sighed and wearily ran a hand through his hair, careful of the bump on the back of his head. “I am the bastard who soiled his daughter.”

“Shit!” Buck gasped, “All this for a woman?”

Six sets of disbelieving eyes landed on the lieutenant.

“Where is she now?” Josiah asked in a soft, un-accusing voice.  

“Her name was Anora,” Vin said, remembering some of the stories.

Ezra nodded, but refused to say anything further.

“Tristan was your son,” Chris said, putting two and two together.

Again, Ezra nodded and he turned his head slightly to the right to hide the tear that escaped from his eye.

“I’m sorry, Ezra,” Buck said softly.

Chris watched and empathized with a grieving father. He knew the pain and anguish Ezra was feeling. Chris knew it because he’d lived it…and it had been a time in his life that he would never forget. He looked at his men. When did they become his men? He wondered. It didn’t matter. He watched as Josiah clenched his hands together and prayed to his god. JD tried to wipe the tears from his face without being seen. He’d lost his innocence, and for the first time in his life, he saw what evil was capable of achieving. Buck met Chris’ eyes with determination, worry, and knowledge. He too, would follow and defend his general. He would do what was asked of him without question. Nathan watched Ezra…looking at a man that was once considered the enemy…but was now a friend. And Vin…Vin knew the pain of loss as well as anyone…but more so, he knew the importance of survival.

They would survive.

“Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of the righteous be delivered?” Josiah’s deep baritone voice filled the empty depth of the dungeon. “But thus says the Lord: ‘Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible be delivered: for I will contend with him who contends with you…” he sighed, trying to steady his voice, “…and I will save your children’.” He looked toward the Russian. “I will feed those who oppress you with their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with sweet wine. All flesh shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”

Ezra looked up with watery eyes and met Josiah’s. His grief was written for all to read. He covered his face with shaky hands and rested his elbows on raised knees. His shoulders quivered and his sudden intake of breath caused the others to cast their eyes downward. Tristan’s death was felt by everyone…and more so by the father who loved him.  


Marco entered the dungeon carrying a large bundle in his arms. Two men followed him, both dressed in a similar fashion to their leader. Their purpose-filled strides echoed as their heels stuck the stone floor. Marco stopped in front of Ezra’s cell and opened the large iron door.

“Your weapons,” the large man said, laying the bundle on the floor. “Keep them hid until the time is right. Bohart sleeps late, and your executions are scheduled for ten.” He leaned over and opened the blanket revealing swords, daggers, and leather belts.

“How are you able to help us without being discovered?” Vin asked suspiciously.

“It’s my duty,” Marco replied with a smile.

Ezra stood and retrieved his weapons. “Open the cells,” he ordered, passing Josiah, Nathan, and Vin their gear.

“When should we move out?” the kid asked, strapping his sword to his hip.

“Dusk,” Marco replied, “there are few men standing guard and your escape will be more successful.”

“Our horses?” Chris asked, strapping on his belt and sword.

“Will be saddled and ready for you.” He ordered the two men that had followed him out of the dungeon. Marco turned to Ezra and sighed. “ Anora knows you’re here,” he said softly.

Ezra nodded, unable to do more.

Marco grabbed his friend’s shoulder. “She’s not in her right mind,” he warned, trying to prepare him.

“I know,” Ezra replied softly, watching as the rest of the seven returned to their cells to wait until it was time to make their escape.

“The dungeon guards will make their rounds within the hour, after that…move out. I’ll have your horses at the entry gates.” Marco said , shutting the cell door behind him, leaving it unlocked.

“Be careful,” Ezra said, looking from his friend to Chris.

Marco smiled: “We’ll be ready…and we’ll fight.” He turned quickly and trotted from the dungeon.

Chris looked hard at Ezra while resting his arms between the iron slats. “Will your men fight willingly with mine?” he asked.

“They’ll do what I tell them,” Ezra replied sternly.

Chris nodded and smiled. “My men will arrive in Brun as well…if they received my message.”

“It would be best if they didn’t kill each other before our first battle,” Buck sighed, resting his elbows on his knees.

“What about your men, Vin,” Chris asked, turning toward the Lombardian.

“It will take them longer than three days to arrive…but I also sent them to Brun, in hopes of neutrality among the locals,” he sighed, pulling his hair free from its confinement.

“How many men will there be in total?” JD asked, hoping for an early victory, despite not being free at the moment.

“Just over 70 ,000,” Nathan answered. “I should like to find herbs, bandages, and plenty of bedding…if there is to be a war, the injured will need me.”

“The people of Brun will help you,” Vin spoke. “They’re a tolerant community.”

“Where will the battle take place?” JD asked, wiping his sword with a cloth.

“Here,” Chris answered confidently. “If it is true about Bohart’s people fearing him, he may not receive enough support to protect him. If we conquer the Prussian border, Russia may not be willing to pull her men from the battle they fight with the Mongols.”

“How large of an army are we facing?” JD questioned, a slight trepidation was etched in his voice.

“We’ll be outnumbered three to one on the battlefield…despite the indifference between countries. Not all of Russia’s military is fighting the Mongolian Empire, and many will arrive to support Prussia.” Ezra moved toward the back of his cell and seated himself on the straw next to the stone wall.

Buck smiled mischievously and then chuckled. “We’ll fight and then we’ll win for no man can conquer what is right.”

“Brother Buck!” Josiah gasped, “The spirit is within you.”

“Hell yes, Vicar,” he gasped. “There is nothing like the smell of battle to get a man’s blood flowing…except the scent of a beautiful woman.” He leaned back and sighed.

Chris laughed: “You never change, Lieutenant.”

“Takes too much energy,” Buck replied with a grin, “and I have to save mine for…more important things.”


Chris looked up when he heard the footsteps of the dungeon guard entering the holding area. He knew it was almost time to make a run for it. They’d escape together and do the unthinkable…protect the Neutral Territories.

The guard walked down the wide path running the tip of his dagger across the iron bars, creating an eerie sound. He made no apologies, even as the seven men looked at him with disgust and annoyance. He wasn’t there to be compliant…only to make sure they hadn’t escaped. The form dressed in a loose fitting white gown had been the surprise. Her long auburn hair hung past her thin shoulders, bouncing freely with her every step. She held the dress up with her hands so she wouldn’t trip on the hem. Her small bare feet gave no sound as she moved across the floor. Her eyes were large, looking more like those of a deer on the run from a hunter.

The guard stopped suddenly and turned to face her, his face now lined with annoyance. “You stupid woman!” he snapped, causing her to take a step back.

She laughed suddenly and took a step closer to him and he backed away.

“Stay clear of me,” he warned, “I’ll not touch the spawn of Satan!” his words hissed out past lips that spit and snarled.

“You have in the past,” she said seductively, raising her dress skirt higher, exposing her thighs. “Do you not want me now?” she said with a laugh, and then she brushed her hair back as though her beauty would capture his desires. She moved forward, trapping him against the iron cell bars.

The guard pushed himself back against the cold iron, trying to escape her witchcraft as he succumbed to her beauty. He felt her hand move below his belt and he sighed in pleasure, closing his eyes momentarily. She nuzzled his neck and gently bit his earlobe. He never felt his dagger being lifted from his belt.

Ezra turned his eyes from the scene, his stomach rolling in disgust. This wasn’t the woman he’d fallen in love with, had a child with, and even tried to sacrifice his life for. Anora’s love for life was gone, quenched by her father’s insanity. Though her attractiveness was still intact, her inner beauty had disappeared.

The guard quickly pushed Anora away from him and then sped from the room. She watched him run from her, not understanding why. She quickly turned her attention to the dagger in her hand and studied the fine craftsmanship, the length of the blade, the sharpness of the steel, and the way it felt in her hand. She turned and looked at the three men sitting in the first cell.

Anora looked at JD and smiled. “You look like Anton,” she said softly.

“Who’s Anton?” JD asked, not understanding this woman’s behavior.

“My…” she paused and turned her eyes toward a spot on the iron door, “I don’t remember.” She laughed, but there wasn’t any happiness in her words. “I don’t remember,” she said again, before moving to the next cell. She pulled the sleeve of her dress up, exposing long wounds on her arm. Some were old and others fairly new.

“I can help you, Mistress,” Nathan said, getting to his feet and walking closer to the cell so he could better see her injuries.

She looked at him sadly and shook her head. “No,” she said softly, running her finger over the wounds, “you can’t.” She looked at Chris and took a step back away from the iron door. She knew where Ezra was, but she didn’t have the courage to face him. She lowered her head and ran the sharp blade over her arm, drawing blood. “I loved you once,” she said humbly, watching as her blood flowed steadily down her arm and dropped methodically to the floor. The soft splatter sounded like hammers in her ears.

Ezra watched her back, wishing with all his might that she’d turn and face him with the eyes she used to look at him with. But she wouldn’t.

“Do you feel pain, Ezra?” she asked, never moving from her spot. She cut her arm again, never hearing Nathan calling for her to stop.

Ezra didn’t answer her question, knowing she wouldn’t hear him.

Anora turned and looked at him, a sad smile adorning her face. “I envy your pain,” she said angrily, reluctantly allowing tears to stream down her cheeks. “I envy your pain…” she looked up at him and smiled sadly. “They killed him,” she cried, cutting her arm again.

“Stop,” Ezra said firmly.

“I can’t,” Anora cried. “It’s all I have!” she yelled, looking at him with tears streaming down her cheeks. Her chin quivered as her life force continued to drip to the floor. A subtle breeze caused her hair to sway gently, moving away from her face. “I sent for you…for all of you,” she said, watching her blood pool on the floor. “You must kill him…for all our sakes.”

Ezra stood and walked to the iron bars. He tried to reach through but couldn’t quite contact her. If he opened them, like he knew he could, he’d sacrifice all their lives…and he couldn’t do that. “Give me the dagger,” he ordered, holding the palm of his hand out. He knew her power and what she was capable of. “ Anora, please!”

“I tried to kill him but he wouldn’t die…” she looked up toward the end of the aisle, “I couldn’t stop…” she continued to mutter. “I cannot stop him but you can…you all can…and you must!” She turned suddenly, her white dress blooming around her legs and she fled the dungeon, looking like a ghost.

Ezra looked at the puddle of blood that had gathered in the place where she had stood. It shimmered in spots, reflecting the flame of the lanterns that burned while lighting the aisle.

Chris watched the Russian for a moment, and knowing what it was like to lose everything precious, he knew Ezra wouldn’t stop until Bohart was dead. The general couldn’t blame him. He knew the pain, anger, and despair because he’d lived it. Each and everyday his heart clenched and his mind wandered back to a better time with his own wife and son. Then the anger would consume him…take him to the depths of despair. But with the mind of a warrior and the passion of his countrymen, he fought his pain everyday, and went to sleep every night with victory in his soul. He did this because Sara would have wanted him to and he would not…under any circumstances…tarnish her memory.

“Vengeance will be yours,” Chris said sternly. “I know your pain and like a hunger that never stops…it will ease in time.”

Buck smiled and lowered his head. Yes, he thought, Chris has come so far.

Ezra matched the general’s gaze and nodded. He pushed the bar door open and stepped out, pulling his rapier from its frog. “Our men await,” he said softly, trotting down the aisle toward the dungeon exit.

The others pulled their weapons and held them in their hands, ready for whatever lay ahead.

Chapter 11

“You sure you know what you’re doing?” Chris asked , stepping up behind the Russian as he carefully pushed the door open. A gust of cold air entered the hall.

“Never,” Ezra replied, watching as the town came alive. “ Bohart has his men out marching…perhaps thirty or so.”

“We’re ready,” Buck said, testing the weight of his sword.

Nathan adjusted the leather harness covering his chest, making sure his throwing knives were within easy reach. Josiah slapped him on the shoulder with a confidence he was in need of. The excitement in JD’s body made his hands shake, but he was eager to fight. Vin smiled, watching as the kid moved his sword from one hand to the next, a habit that would soon be remedied.

Hunched over, Ezra exited the dungeon hall with six men behind him. The early morning sun cast long shadows across the land. Like a scene of dreaded recognition, everyone stopped and locked eyes with the enemy. A yell emerged from within the group of Prussian soldiers, and like a pride of lions on the hunt for their prey…they charged.

The sound of swords being pulled from their scabbards filled the air and metal struck metal. The seven men moved slowly toward their horses as they fought the soldiers before them. Marco, Tyne, and Ladimir joined in. Chris kicked out and then raised his weapon and brought it down in one quick slash, ending the life of the man fighting him. He turned to fight another, watching as Buck stood back to back with JD…fighting like one man with four arms. Vin moved like a cat on the prowl. His quick steps, fast arm movements, and limber body made his ability with his long bow look unreal as he released each arrow…one right after each other. Josiah, with a sword in each hand, swung his weapons with purpose and ease. Nathan threw his blades with the skills of an artist. His long curved sword moved through the air hitting its victims with deadly accuracy.

Ezra looked back toward the small building that the horses were tied in front of. He pulled his attention back to the task at hand after feeling a sudden burst of pain against his right side and chest. In one sweep, he shoved the end of his rapier into the chest of his opponent and then rushed toward the building.

“Where’s Ezra going?” Chris asked, after noticing the red dressed form rush across the grounds.

“He’s running out on us,” Buck said, trying to get closer to his horse.

“He’d better not be!” Chris snapped, killing his adversary. “Get to the horses!” he ordered, wanting to escape the area before more men arrived.     

With a bundle wrapped in white sheets, Ezra grabbed his horse’s reins and quickly mounted up before fleeing the area.

“DAMN HIM!” Chris snapped, slipping his foot into his stirrup.

“Let him go!” Marco yelled, after slipping into his own saddle.

Chris turned after mounting and looked at his men as they continued to fight the army that refused to let them go. “Let’s go!” he yelled, kicking his horse into a gallop and rushing through the now opened gates.

Buck waited until everyone followed their leader before slapping his horse’s rump and following.


Chris pulled Viceroy to a stop. The big horse breathed hard, his nostrils flaring as sweat dripped passed his eyes. White foam had gathered on his neck, flanks, and between his thighs. His big shod feet stomped the ground, creating an echo over the barren land.

“Everyone all right?” Chris turned and asked, as his men gathered around him.

JD nodded, unable to find his voice. He’d never killed a man before, and now he wore the blood of another man’s life on his clothing. He could feel the eyes of his friends on him and he tried to look away.

“When it gets easy to kill a man, JD,” Buck said in an understanding voice, “it means you’re dead.”

“Where’s Ezra?” Josiah asked, looking around.

Marco shook his head: “He went to see to his son.” He pointed to the black smoke in the distance arising from what looked like the tops of trees.

“You sure?” Buck asked.

“Yes,” Marco answered honestly, urging his horse to walk steadily forward.

“Will we be followed?” Chris asked the large man riding the big chestnut gelding.

“We’re out of Prussia… However, once it is learned of your escape the armies will build. It will not remain a secret that Ezra is alive, nor that his men are willing to align with England and Lombardia…and as such, Prussia will try and strengthen her military.”

“But we have time…right?” JD questioned, watching at the smoke continued to bloom above the trees.

“A small amount…yes.”

“Let’s go get Ezra and ride to Brun while time is on our side,” Chris said, heading toward the smoke.


Ezra never heard the riders that gathered behind him as he rested on his haunches and bowed his head. The flames of the fire he’d started had settled after they had consumed Tristan’s body. He remained motionless, as his eyelids felt heavy. There was nothing more grotesque than the smell of human flesh being burned…but he refused to leave, allowing his mind to brand the sense into memory.


Chris dismounted. “We’ll camp here for the night,” he said, unsaddling his mount.  

Asam trotted up from the creek, his reins dragging on the ground and tree branches slapping the saddle on his back. Josiah caught the troublesome creature, careful of his flighty temperament, and quickly released the animal of his tack. The beautiful chestnut shook and then dropped to the ground to roll. The other horses nickered softly in greeting as they too enjoyed their freedom.

JD and Buck gathered wood, while Nathan treated the long gash on Vin’s arm. Chris sat on his heels trying to light a fire with his flint sticks, all the while watching Ezra’s back.

“Marco and his friends went to kill some meat for dinner,” Josiah said, squatting down next to the general.

“Good,” Chris replied, watching as Ezra listed slightly to his right.

“Think I should go get him?” the former monk asked.

“If he hasn’t moved by sundown, then go get him…until then…give him his peace.”

“How long has it been for you?”

Chris sighed; on one hand it seemed like yesterday that his family had been killed, and on the other it seemed like decades ago. Their faces were fading and the only thing he had to remember them by were two locks of hair he kept in a small pouch around his neck. “Three years…it’s been three long years,” he said softly, tossing a couple pieces of wood into the fire.

JD sat down on his bedroll and watched the bright orange flame move vengefully around the dried sticks. “Why burn him?” he asked softly, “Why not bury the boy?”

“I believe Ezra cremated Tristan to keep his spirit free and his body away from vandals,” Josiah replied, sitting back on his own bedroll.

“What about Nettie and Casey?” JD questioned.

“We’ll stop by their place on the way to Brun,” Chris said, watching as Ezra slowly tried to get to his feet but failed and fell back to the ground, collapsing in a heap.

“I’ll get him,” Josiah said, stopping Chris.

As Josiah stepped closer to Ezra’s form, he felt as though he were entering a place of sanctuary. The land seemed unnaturally peaceful, as though a wall of protection had been built. He looked to the Russian’s form and sighed. Ezra lay on his side, his bloody hands resting limply before him.

“Ezra,” Josiah said softly, grasping the Russian’s shoulder while kneeling down.

Ezra didn’t move.

“Come on, son,” he encouraged, rolling him onto his back. “Dear God above,” Josiah sighed, pulling the leather jacket back and exposing the bloodied wound. “Nathan!” he yelled, pulling a bloodied hand away from Ezra’s side. The big man maneuvered his arms under the commander’s, as Nathan quickly grabbed his knees. In one motion, the two men had him picked up and moving toward the camp.

Buck laid out a blanket and Nathan and Josiah lowered their burden. Ezra’s head lolled to his left shoulder and his eyes remained closed.

“Help me get him out of these clothes,” Nathan said.

Josiah pulled Ezra up into a sitting position as Nathan and Buck removed his jacket and shirt. Nobody was expecting the intricate tattoos that covered Ezra’s right arm, that moved into the shape of a crow onto the back of his shoulder. The black tattoos were smooth and shaped like primitive drawings of animals, all blending together creating an awesome design.

“I’ve never seen the like,” Chris said, stepping closer to the scene.

Nathan ignored everyone, more disgusted that the injured man would risk his health for something so meaningless. He continued to apply pressure to the long gash on Ezra’s side. The wound had bled considerably, but it was clean. “Cut two strands of horse hair out of one of their tails and then boil it,” he ordered, reaching into his pouch for the finely crafted porcupine needle he used to stitch up wounds.

Buck stood and did as Nathan asked.

“What do they mean?” JD asked, looking at the tattoos.

“Standish wasn’t born into nobility, he is…was…a commoner,” Marco responded, tossing the deer carcass to the ground. “The tattoos are a result of his rank.”

“It’s a dangerous way to earn a position,” Nathan snapped.

“Charcoal paint, a shark’s tooth, and hammer,” Marco said, “and it’s more painful than dying…but those markings make him worthy enough to walk into any palace in the land and demand time with royalty.” He looked hard at everyone. “Those are marks of honor and as such he deserves your respect,” his words were harsh and full of warning.

“That’s why he wouldn’t swim at Thousand Springs,” Chris thought out loud. “He didn’t want anyone to see them.”

Marco removed his coat and pulled his shirtsleeve up to his elbow. Similar tattoos, though not nearly as many marked his pale skin.

Nathan shook his head and threaded the now cleaned horsehair through the eye of the needle. With careful precision, he stitched the long wound. Josiah continually wiped the blood away while keeping a hand on Ezra’s hip to make sure he remained on his side. Asam stepped up to the scene and snorted, smelling his master’s blood.

“Get that horse out of here!” Nathan snapped, tying off the last stitch.

Buck took a step forward but backed away when the animal pinned his ears. “Sorry, Nathan, you’re on your own.”

“ Asam!” Marco snapped, and motioned with his hand for the horse to move away.

The chestnut pinned his ears again and shook his head, but relented and backed away.         

Chris grabbed a couple of blankets and laid them over Ezra’s legs up to the waistband of his pants. “How long will it be before he can ride?” he asked, watching Josiah reach for another cloth.

“Not until…”

“Tomorrow,” Marco interrupted the healer. “He’ll be ready to ride tomorrow,” his words were confident.

“Where would you get a tattoo like that?” JD asked, watching as the markings on Ezra’s arm and shoulder moved with every tremor.

Nathan sighed and shook his head.

“It was a Marcesian warrior who did Ezra’s, but most artists are available in the larger cities. However, if they are caught practicing the ritual, they will be executed.”

“Who would do this to themselves willingly?” Nathan asked, pushing the Russian onto his back and then pulling the blankets up to his shoulders.

“It may not be tradition in your country to do such things, but in ours it is,” Marco snapped, motioning for his two companions to start work on the deer.

Chris cleared his throat, letting everyone know to back away and leave things alone. They didn’t need to fight now; there would be plenty of time for that in the near future. His stomach grumbled and the idea of eating fresh meat soothed his mind. His men needed a good meal to keep up their strength. The ride ahead would be long.

“We’ll stop at Nettie Wells’ on the way back, and perhaps she can help us with any supplies we might need,” Chris said, returning to his seat.

“If she’s alive,” Vin said, keeping his voice even. He adjusted his arm, trying to ease the pain.

Chapter 12

Ezra moved and clenched his jaw when he felt the pain in his side scream in protest. The cold night air made him shiver and he pulled the blankets up over his shoulders after he pushed himself into a sitting position. Buck and JD were asleep across from him. Nathan was resting across from Josiah and Vin, while Chris watched him from his perch next to the fire.

The general stood and grabbed a mug that he quickly filled with deer broth. “Here,” he said softly, not wanting to wake the others.

“Thank you,” Ezra replied, sipping tentatively.

“Marco, Tyne, and Ladimir left for Brun,” he whispered, sitting on a log next to the Russian Commander. “He said it might be better if he was there when the armies arrived…I agreed.”

Ezra nodded: “When do we leave?”

“When you feel up to it,” Chris replied.

“I’ll be ready at dawn,” he said, watching as the flames flickered and sent sparks and ash into the dark sky.

Chris nodded, knowing not to argue. “Why didn’t Tristan know you were his father?”

Ezra leaned back and brought his knees up. He pulled at the blanket edges trying to suppress his chills. “It was safer for him…or so I thought,” he answered honestly. “ Anora and I met after the battle of Tuluff. My men and I were fighting against the Mongols again, and after our brief victory, Bohart came to Russia to ask for assistance regarding the Southern boarder of Prussia. At that time, Lombardia and the Turks had moved hard and fast taking control of the lands. I was the commander of the Southern Legion at that time, and the Czar asked for my and my men’s assistance...I agreed.” He paused, making sure he was being understood. “I met Anora then…our relationship was fast and furious. She escaped her father’s control when she discovered she was with child and stayed with my mother until Tristan’s birth. I was still at war, pushing back the Southern boundaries.”

“Did you know about him?”

“Not until I arrived home after being injured. Anora had returned to her father’s control fearing for our son’s life.” Ezra ran a hand over his face. “When I saw her again, she had…changed considerably. Her lunacy, I’m sure, had been caused by her father’s hand.”

“What happened to her?” Chris asked softly.

“ Bohart’s doctors had tried everything from starvation, near drowning, to bleeding her. She told me she liked the way she felt after she’d been bled, said it was the only time when she could feel…” he sighed, “I tried to take her away but she refused to leave. When I tried to return to my men, four Prussian soldiers and two Russians intercepted me. They had been ordered to execute me and return my head to Bohart…I didn’t comply.”

“So you went to Four Corners.”

“Looking for a new home. My mother was too close to either army and I didn’t want Tristan to be discovered.”

“What will you do now?”

Ezra pulled his dice from his pocket and rolled them in the palm of his hand. “I’ll make that decision when the time comes.”

Chris nodded in acceptance. He stood up and slapped Ezra’s knee. “Get some rest…you’ll need it come morning.”


The smell of venison cooking over a hot fire brought Ezra out of his deep sleep. He could hear the horses being prepared for their long travel, and Josiah was trying desperately to get Asam ready. He was failing. The big horse teased the former monk, pulling off the saddle blanket before the saddle could be lifted. Asam would reach around and nip Josiah’s fanny, Vin finally agreed to help and took the animal’s reins, keeping him still so things could get done.

“Let me see to your wound,” Nathan said, pulling the blanket away from Ezra’s chest, noting the slight fever.

Ezra gently pushed himself into a sitting position. “I appreciate your ministrations,” he hissed, when the bandage was pulled from the injury.

“You could have bled to death,” Nathan chastised.

“Bloodletting is still a common…”

“Ezra,” the Bedouin snapped, “your western medicine lacks in the most fundamental ideas when it comes to the body.” He checked the long gash, making sure it hadn’t started bleeding again before wrapping a clean bandage around his torso. “Blood is the very spirit of life and as such should not be drained like venom from a viper.”

“Why would you take venom from a snake?” JD asked , his nose curled at the thought.

“When cooked and mixed with tree sap, it creates a sticky substance that bonds quickly,” Nathan replied nonchalantly. He helped his patient slip into a new shirt and then a jacket. “You are still cold,” he sighed, taking the heavy cloak Josiah had given him and wrapped it around Ezra’s shoulders.

Vin bit down on the juicy piece of meat he’d been cooking and handed one to Chris who took it willingly.

“How long until we reach Nettie’s?” Buck asked, sitting down to join the meal.

“It is a hard day’s ride from here,” Ezra replied, taking a stick from Nathan that had been filled with roots and meat. His stomach protested and he laid the meal next to him on the ground.

“And to Brun?”

“A day and a half at the most…if we ride hard.”

“ You going to make it?” Chris asked, looking hard at the Russian.

Ezra brought a soft smile to his lips. “I will endeavor to do so.”

Chris smiled and stood up. “Good,” he said sternly, “because we have a war to win.”



Vin kicked his mount into a fast gallop as Nettie Wells’ farm came into view. His need to insure the safety of his fellow countrymen had pressed hard on his soul, and he knew Nettie would never have let Tristan go…at least not willingly.

“Follow, Brother,” Josiah said, knowing Chris wanted to ride with him just in case they had some unexpected visitors awaiting them.

“If anything looks suspicious,” Chris said, looking toward the weakening form riding between Josiah and Nathan, “get Ezra hid and then come with swords ready.” It was an order, and one all of them would willingly follow.

“I will not be left behind!” Ezra snapped through clenched teeth. Though his stitches had not torn, his side was sending spears of pain through his chest, any yet he refused to leave his seat, knowing he’d never be able to remount.

They had ridden hard all day, stopping only once to refill their water containers. Ezra’s tight grasp on the pommel of his saddle hadn’t gone unnoticed by the others. Nathan had checked the bandage while the Russian remained mounted and found the wound swollen, red, and seeping. Ezra was still suffering from the previous day’s blood loss and exhaustion, only complicating matters.

Josiah grabbed Asam’s reins and led the animal behind some trees, waiting for Chris’ signal.  



Vin had pulled his rapier from its frog as his horse slid to a stop in front of the log house. The horses from the corral in back were gone, and most of the garden had been destroyed. Vin assumed that whoever had come looking for Tristan had come upon the house and destroyed whatever they could.

“NETTIE!” Vin yelled, bringing his weapon into a defensive position. He took a step back, ready to strike when the front door squeaked slowly open.

“Put the weapon down, boy,” Nettie scolded, stepping through the doorway. Her arm was bandaged to her chest, and her left eye was a brilliant shade of blues and purples.

“You all right?” Vin asked, stepping forward after shielding his weapon.

Nettie smiled, touched that he’d been worried about her. “I will be,” she said confidently. “Casey’s out collecting mushrooms…she should be back shortly.” Her eyes said more than her words could, and it was obvious that she couldn’t bring herself to ask the question she needed to.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Vin said softly, “and Ezra doesn’t blame you.”

“He should,” she scolded herself bitterly.

“No, ma’am,” he shook his head, “It was meant to be.” His words were harsh, but spoken in truth.

Nettie smiled and wrapped her good arm around the Lombardian’s waist. It was good to have family again.

“Ezra’s hurt,” Vin said, breaking away from her, “and we need a place to hold up…if you can…”

“I’ll get a bed ready and you boys get up here,” she turned back toward her house, “I’ll start some stew and warm the day old bread…” she continued talking even as she disappeared inside.


Chris motioned for the others to come out of hiding once Nettie stepped out onto her porch. He waited until his lieutenant and JD moved up beside him before he headed to the home. Josiah walked, leading both his horse and Ezra’s, as the Russian rested forward in his saddle.

Nathan paused at the large tree he’d been hiding behind. Noticing for the first time the strength of the branches, the girth of the trunk, and the red flowers growing near the base.   Baptisia . Nathan smiled, pulling the flowers up by their roots. He knew as soon as he saw it was it was. He’d heard stories of the amazing cures that could be done with the root of this plant. And it was just what he needed to make an ointment and tincture.


Josiah reached up and pulled Ezra from his saddle. Buck grabbed the Russian’s legs while the big man took his shoulders. Nettie was out on the front porch telling them where to put their charge. She’d already stoked the fire and pulled the skins back from the straw mattress.

Chris tossed his buckskin map out onto the table and looked at the path ahead. Vin and JD stood beside him, wanting to learn what would be coming in the next few days. The general looked up when Nathan entered the home only to grab the cutting board and start working on the roots.

“You need me to do anything, son?” Nettie asked, placing her good arm on Nathan’s shoulder.

“I need a pint of water boiled, ma’am,” he responded, as he continued to chop the roots. For reasons he didn’t understand, he knew instinctively how to handle the healing plant he held…it was as though the plant’s powers were speaking to him. 

Nettie nodded and started her task right away. She knew what was happening.

Buck and Josiah removed Ezra’s boots, jacket, and shirt and were surprised to find a fever already burning throughout his body. Josiah shook his head and tucked the skins around the Russian’s shoulders. He’d passed out some time ago and had yet to awaken.

Like a skilled craftsmen or swordsmen, Nathan moved around the kitchen with grace and ease. The smell of concoctions filled the air creating a sweat smell in the older home. Nettie warmed her bread and served her homemade brew. She heard her niece stomp her feet on the porch before opening the door. Her apron was full of mushrooms and wildflowers. A long blue bruise marred her neck and cheek, but she shared a smile with JD when she spotted him at the table.

“Take those out and wash them,” Nettie said, handing Casey a large pot.

“I’ll help,” JD said, getting to his feet and taking the cooking tool from her hand.

Casey smiled again and headed back outside with JD at her heels.

Buck grinned from one ear to the other watching as the two young people left the room. “I remember my first….OUCH!”

“That’s my niece, Mr. Wilmington…and there won’t be a first without a wedding.”

Buck pressed his lips together and rubbed his shoulder where Nettie had pinched him. Vin chuckled and dipped his bread into the small dish containing olive oil and vinegar. Chris shook his head and looked to where Ezra was lying. He still hadn’t moved and the longer he remained still, the more worried Chris became. He looked toward Josiah who seemed to stand protectively over the Russian’s bedside.

Nathan finished grinding the roots into a pasty pulp and added a small amount of oil. Once the ointment was finished, he poured a small amount of the tincture into a cup. Nathan motioned for Josiah to pull back the blanket skins as he sat the cups on a stool next to the bed. He cut the now stained bandage away from Ezra’s sweat-soaked skin.

“Here,” Nettie said, handing a clean cloth and bowl of steaming water to the healer. “There’s more if you need it.”


Ezra gasped when he felt something hot touch his side unmercifully. He tried to push the object away but someone grabbed his hand and forced it onto the bed with a firm grasp. His sight was blurry as he tried to look past weakened eyelids. He shivered against the cold that touched his skin and he wished for a heavy cloak of some kind. He hissed and caught a scream in the depths of his throat when he was lifted slightly off the bed. Something tight was wrapped around his middle.


“Keep holding him, Josiah,” Nathan said, stirring the fluid in the cup. He brought a spoon up to the Russian’s lips and poured a small amount of tincture into his mouth. He waited a moment, making sure it had been swallowed and then did another.

“Is our brother going to make it?” Josiah asked, laying Ezra back down onto the bed and then covering him with the blankets.

Nathan shook his head and looked hard at his patient. “It’s up to him right now,” he answered softly, looking up at the big man.

Josiah nodded in acceptance. “I’ll sit with him…you go eat.”

Nathan gripped Ezra’s limp hand tightly before getting to his feet and turning toward the others. Josiah quickly moved into the place where the healer had sat. He grasped hold of Ezra’s hand and said a silent prayer, knowing it wasn’t just his body that needed to be healed.



“How is he?” Chris asked, pushing a stool out for the Bedouin to sit on.

“Weak,” Nathan replied, rubbing his face with his hands. “He needs rest and much of it.”

“Will he make it?” Buck asked, looking toward the bed.

“I do not know.”

“We have to leave for Brun,” the general sighed, scratching his head. “I don’t want three regiments of men from enemy forces meeting without supervision.”

“Marco can handle the Russians,” Buck said, trying to convince himself.

“No,” Chris disagreed. “He can’t…and he knows it.”

“Ezra can’t ride in the shape he’s in,” Vin said, shaking his head.

“We’ll give him until the day after tomorrow,” Chris said, not liking what he was saying. “Otherwise…”

“He’ll be ready to ride,” Nettie said confidently. “If he’s anything like his father…he’ll be ready to ride.”

“Who was his father?” Chris asked, looking toward the door as JD and Casey entered.

“Standish came here from England after the battle with the Moors in Spain. He built Thousand Springs and started the rumors about the forest being haunted.” She laughed and shook her head. “He was a tireless soul.” Nettie stood and moved to the counter to help her niece cut mushrooms. “He’d been a Knight in the King’s army until he’d been accused of a crime he didn’t commit…so he came here to escape the ridicule.”

“What was his crime?” Buck asked, trying to remember stories.

“I do not know and it does not matter,” Nettie scolded. “He was a good man who helped many.”

“And now his son fights with the enemy?” Buck rebutted.

Nettie laughed and shook her head: “When Ezra’s father was fighting for England, it was Spain who was the enemy. After that it was the Turks and Lombardians, and now it is Prussia and Russia…do not let geography confuse you, son.”

Chris chuckled and turned his attention back to his map.

“How’s that arm, Nettie?” Nathan asked, getting up from his seat.

“It will heal in time.”

“May I?” Nathan asked, stepping forward to take a look.

“Help yourself, but I doubt there’ll be much you can do.”

Nettie sat down while the Bedouin removed the bandage she’d had strapped to her arm and chest. He grabbed her arm gently and moved it slightly, recognizing the pain it caused her. In one quick movement, he pulled the arm back and heard the pop of joints being reunited. Nettie gasped and then smiled when she realized she had movement again.

“You’ve got yourself a fine doctor here, Sir Larabee,” Nettie said, getting to her feet and patting the healer’s arm. “It’d be wise of you to keep him around.”

“Plan to, ma’am,” Chris replied, “for as long as I can.”

Nettie smiled and moved to the counter to help her niece prepare dinner.


Ezra opened his eyes to the sound of the fire crackling. He breathed heavily and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to force the pain away. He felt warm and it felt good, but his muscles were tired from shaking.

“You should be sleeping,” Nettie said softly, trying not wake the others. She sat down on the bed next to the Russian’s hip and looked him in the eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, grasping onto his hand. “I thought he would be safe here.” She allowed an unfamiliar tear trail down her cheek.

“The fault lies with me…” Ezra replied past a dry throat, “I should not have done what I did.”

Nettie poured a small amount of water into a cup and mixed a spoonful of tincture into it and stirred. Carefully, she maneuvered herself behind Ezra’s head and shoulders and helped him drink. He was still too weak to hold the cup alone.

“I have not always agreed with your choices, but I know the trouble the seven of you face.” She moved out from behind him and stuffed another pillow behind his shoulders. “If you fail…all will be lost. With the borders already under threat it will only be a short time before the mainland is lost as well. My husband…your father…fought for this land because there was no sovereignty.” She wiped his face with a wet cloth, ignoring his protests to her care. “I refuse to give my land over to people who kill their own…” she looked him in the eye, and then toward Vin who slept peacefully on the floor, “…and I refuse to quit without a fight.”

“The fight is not yours.”

“I…but it is. Everyone who lives in this land and knows the power it holds will not give it up willingly.” She grabbed his hand and patted his gently. “That is why it is up to the seven of you to protect it…to keep it whole.”

“We intend to.”

Nettie nodded: “Your mother may be eccentric, but she knows things…”

Ezra turned his eyes toward the fire. “She does not know all things,” he bit, ending the conversation.

Nettie reached into her apron pocket and pulled a small wooden object from it. She grabbed Ezra’s hand and forced the toy into his palm before closing his fingers around it. She patted his arm in kindness and removed herself from his side, knowing she was no longer welcomed.

Ezra looked at the small wooden toy and clenched his jaw in pain. Tristan. He grasped the toy until it scarred his palm, refusing to let it go.