Bored. Bored-bored-bored-bored-bored. That's what Ezra was.
The gold embroidery on his green satin tunic was making his neck itch, but if he scratched, his mother would look at him disapprovingly so he just had to let it itch. He swung his feet back and forth to take his mind off of it, but that had gotten him a pinch and another admonishing look.
He sighed, loudly, and Maude frowned at him again.
At first the adult conversation had been interesting. The men were talking about Blackcliffe, the village on the Hidden Plain where it was said that the villagers appeared poor and hungry only so that no one would know of the treasure they had hidden in their midst.
The Hidden Plain was not far from the city. One could walk there in less than three candlemarks, if one knew the way. But the passage through the forest and up the steep sides of Tabletop Mountain was so well hidden that no one Ezra knew had ever been there.
No one was exactly sure of the nature of the treasure secreted at Blackcliffe, but the men agreed that it had to be something of great value for them to hide their village on the desolate plain that was accessible only by one road, and one that was impassable for half of every turn at that.
Ezra's hand moved to the hilt of his sword. It had been a birthday present from Preston Wingo, who had once wanted to marry Ezra's mother. Maybe he still did, but Maude didn't like Uncle Preston. She liked Ezra having a real blade even less, but, Ezra loved the sword so she had let him keep it. Preston had arranged for one of his guards to teach Ezra how to use the weapon. He'd studied for almost four years now, and had learned to move quickly with it and could halve an apple tossed at him before it hit him. Ezra was ready for battle, so he listened with interest to the adults around him.
The stage was being set to overtake the village and secure the treasure once and for all. It had been five moon cycles since Lord Anderson and his hired army had first massed against Blackcliffe, and though the treasure had not been found, the raids had almost succeeded in ridding it of its population, said to consist of the lowliest of men. Some, they said, were not even true men, but crossbred with elves! Winter would be coming soon, and snow would cut the village off from the rest of the world, so the time to act was now.
Maude had put a stop to the conversation after hearing that, turning the topic to subjects more pleasantly suited for her dinner guests.
That's when Ezra got bored.
He reached out to one of the many candles lighting the great hall. Passing his hand over it, he watched the flame flicker and die, only to rekindle at another pass of his hand. He did this three times before Maude's hand gripped his wrist so tightly he almost cried out. His mother's skin was soft, but her grip was like iron.
She motioned to one of the servants in waiting and when he approached, she pulled Ezra off his chair.
"Take him to the kitchen," she told the servant, "until he learns to comport himself as a gentleman."
The servant took Ezra's hand. His grip was much more gentle than Maude's. The kitchen servants all looked at Ezra when they entered the kitchen, which was uncomfortably hot and littered with carrot stalks, onion skins, animal bones and other disgusting things. The dessert course had not yet been served, though, and small silver platters of honeyed cakes topped with fruit and nuts awaited the sweet, heavy cream that would be the finishing touch before they were taken to the main hall.
"Misbehavin' again, was ya?" the head cook, Virginia, laughed and waved a wooden spoon at him. She handed him a plate of cake, and her eyes twinkled as she was generous with the cream.
Ezra sat down with his dessert, pulling off his green velvet cloak and unbuttoning his tunic. Even if the kitchen was disgusting, he liked it better in here than he did in the great hall. Nobody pinched him or pushed him out of the way in here. Of course, that was because they were servants and he was the master of the house, so they didn't dare.
As he ate, he watched Virginia gather uneaten food from plates that had already been cleared from the dining table. Ezra knew the choicest untouched morsels would be taken home to her children and those of the other servants. The rest she wrapped in a cloth and headed outside with it. Curious, Ezra grabbed his cloak and followed her.
Instead of taking it to the compost, she left the wrapped food near the servant's gate and returned to the kitchen. She had not yet reached the door when two small figures emerged from the shadows, the taller of the two holding the smaller by the hand. The older boy quickly snatched up the parcel and the pair were off.
Ezra decided to follow them.
After being led down a series of twisting alleyways, Ezra lost his sense of direction. He had no idea where he was and now was following the two boys less out of curiosity than the fact that one of them, at least, knew the way back to the manor. He fingered the gold piece in his pocket, knowing he might have to part with it in return for the information.
He pulled the coin out and admired the way its brilliantly polished surface reflected the light of the moon. He began to pass the coin over and under his fingers - a trick he had learned from one of his many stepfathers. He'd mastered it quickly, for his fingers were more nimble than most, and he could use either hand equally well.
He quickly realized that the brief distraction had been a mistake. He'd lost sight of the other two boys.
Panicked, forsaking all attempts to keep his presence hidden, he ran in the direction he had last seen them.
And soon thereafter, he found himself face-first in a mud puddle, having been deliberately tripped.
The taller of the two urchins looked down at him as the smaller one stood behind him giggling. All Ezra could make out in the dim light was a cascade of curls surrounding the small face and he was appalled at the thought that maybe this wasn't a boy, but a girl.
"Who are you, and why are you following us?" the older child asked.
Ezra picked himself up and swiped the mud off his face with the sleeve of his tunic, then attempted to wipe some of the mud off of the tunic itself. "Who is asking?" he replied in his most imperious voice.
"I am Vindarin. I am a soldier."
Ezra laughed. "No you aren't."
There was a flurry of movement and a whooshing sound and Ezra felt something poking him in the chest. He could see well enough to know that somehow, the other boy had drawn a bow on him, and there was an arrow pointed at his heart.
He slapped it away. "I have a sword, and it's better than your bow."
"Where is it? I wanna see it!" the smaller boy chimed in.
Ezra drew the weapon from its scabbard and jabbed it playfully at the smallest boy.
In an instant, the arrow was aimed right between his eyes. "Don't do that again," the older boy warned, "or else."
"Or else what?" Ezra scoffed. "I don't believe you're a soldier. You're just a little boy."
"Vin?" the smaller boy whispered. "He could join our army!"
Ezra was intrigued by this suggestion, even though he still didn't believe that little boys could be real soldiers.
Vin appeared to think about this for a moment, but said, "No he can't. He's from the city. He might be a spy. We should probably kill him."
Ezra whipped his sword around in a circular motion and knocked the bow from Vin's hands. "You can try," he laughed.
The smaller boy clapped his hands in delight. Vin shoved him roughly and picked up his bow again.
"You can join our army!" the younger boy said eagerly. "We're going to fight the soldiers from the city!"
"Shut up, Jaydee!" the older boy nudged the little one sharply again. "That's secret."
"Oh " Jaydee said. "I forgot."
"Do you live on the Tabletop Mountain?" Ezra asked.
Jaydee nodded and Vin rolled his eyes at the younger boy.
"I heard there is a treasure there," Ezra tried to sound casual.
Vin glanced at Jaydee out of the corner of his eye, but neither boy answered.
However, their silence told Ezra everything he needed to know. So there really was a treasure .
"I want to join your army," he said. "That's why I was following you."
Vin looked at Jaydee, and then Ezra, uncertainly. Even though he didn't say it, he was impressed with the tiny sword, and how well this city boy had used it to disarm him.
"What's your name?"
"You have to swear an oath of 'leginz," Vin said.
"I will," Ezra agreed.
Vin nodded and beckoned him to follow. They were heading for the forest, and the passage to Tabletop Mountain. It occurred to Ezra that Maude was going to be extremely angry with him, but maybe if he brought home some of that treasure
The place that the two urchin boys called home was nothing more than hole in the dirt, cleverly camoflaged by a "door" that was really a patch of loose sod. Ezra followed them into it reluctantly, expecting to see bugs and worms hanging from the walls.
Surprisingly, it was nice inside. The walls were clay that had been hardened like pottery, maybe by lighting a very hot fire inside the hole, and it was cozy and dry. Ezra knew the two boys hadn't made it themselves and yet the dimensions of it would not easily accommodate an adult - the ceiling was too low, and the four small cots inside were too narrow.
There was a tiny fireplace in the center that Vin told him vented into a cave, where the smoke went unseen. A hallowed tree trunk hid the clay pipe that allowed fresh air and sun or moonlight to enter the dwelling.
Ezra wanted a place like this of his own. He wondered if one could be made for him for a price.
Vin fumbled in the dark trying to strike a flint to light a fire. Ezra laughed at his efforts and then cupped his hands around the small pile of kindling in the fireplace and closed his eyes. A short time later, there was a spark, then a tiny flame, and then the kindling caught and began to burn.
Vin and Jaydee looked at each other, amazed.
"How did you do that?" Vin said suspiciously.
Ezra shrugged. When he was little he had thought everyone could summon fire. He could not remember a time when he could not do it. Maude discouraged his talent - even punished him for it. He didn't know why.
Jaydee was somewhat less impressed than Vin was. "Can we eat now, Vin?"
Vin unwrapped the bundle that the woman at the manor had left for them. They often found food that way. The rich people didn't leave it for them, but the poor people who worked for the rich people did.
Vin pulled out three small pieces of meat. He offered one to Ezra.
"That's garbage," the older boy scoffed, noticing how unappetizingly dirty the other boy's hands were. His face and hair were dirty, too. So were Jaydee's. Mother would have never let him into the house looking like that, he thought, and then remembered the mud on his tunic. Mother wouldn't be happy about that.
Vin shrugged and took a bite. "Suit yourself."
He pushed his long hair back so it didn't fall onto his food and Ezra's eyes widened in surprise at when he saw the little points on the tips of the other boy's ears. "You're an elf!" he exclaimed.
Vin quickly tugged his hair down over his ears, but it was too late.
Jaydee's lower lip quivered. "Are you gonna tell?"
"There's a bounty on elves in Greycastle. I could take you to the sheriff and be rich," Ezra threatened.
Vin looked him right in the eye. He didn't say anything, but Ezra could tell he was scared.
"NO!" Jaydee cried. "Please don't! They'll hurt him. I know they will."
The cleric Mosely had once taken Ezra and his mother to the outskirts of the city and shown him a pit filled with dried up bones. He had said they were the skeletons of elves, but Ezra didn't know how they had died. Vin was just a little elf, but, Ezra remembered with a chill, some of the bones he had seen had been little, too.
"I don't need the sheriff's money, anyway" Ezra said casually. "My mother is richer than he is."
Vin snorted at that comment. "You brag too much."
"I'm not bragging. My mother is rich. She has more money than your treasure is worth, I bet."
Vin looked at him, eyes narrowed. "What do you know about the treasure?"
Ezra leaned back against one of the cots and crossed his feet casually. "I know you have one that you are hiding. Everyone knows. That's why the City is going to make war on you."
Vin continued to eat as if he were untroubled, but Ezra could tell that talking about the treasure made the younger boy uneasy, and it was then that he realized Vin knew where or what the treasure was.
But to his surprise, Vin said calmly, "They can come if they want. They'll be sorry."
Chris stared morosely into his ale. How did he get talked into these things? Earlier that day, two elders from the village on Tabletop Mountain had come to him with a desperate plea to help them defend themselves from the final attack that they knew was imminent. They had enough money to hire seven mercenaries like himself, but he'd only been able to round up three others; his old friend Buck Wilmington, who stood at his side as always; the healer, Nathan, who had himself been born in a village enslaved by an invading army; and the wizard Josiah, who had nothing better to do. He probably could have found others, but these three, he trusted.
Tomorrow they would make their way through the forest to the Hidden Plain. There, they would act as decoys to divert Anderson's invading forces into Beggar's Pass, where the villagers - what was left of them - had assured him they could finish the job. Chris doubted that, but since he had been paid, he'd do the job asked of him. He was curious to see how the barely armed, poorly trained villagers planned to take care of Anderson's men.
The door to the tavern burst open, letting in a rush of cold air from the outside. The regal woman who appeared in the doorway looked decidedly out of place in the humble establishment.
Buck recognized her immediately. "M'lady Standish," he bowed before her. "What brings you here at this hour when the candles burn low?"
Chris studied the woman's features. She tried to maintain an aura of superiority, but he read the unconcealed concern in her eyes.
"My son is missing. I need men to look for him. I will pay well."
"That would be the little feller with them big green eyes?" Buck smiled. The Standish boy was hard to forget. He was as beautiful a child as his mother was a woman, bright as a silver coin, but there was something odd about him that Buck couldn't quite put a name to.
Lady Standish didn't return his good humor. "I am afraid for him with all this talk of war He's not yet ten. Please I must find him."
Chris returned to his ale. "He'll probably come home when he gets hungry." He didn't want to alarm the woman, but even as he spoke he was considering the possibility that the child had been kidnapped. Maude Standish was a woman of influence and if the Blackcliffe villagers were desperate enough, taking her child as hostage would likely prove an effective tactic to prevent an attack on the village.
Chris knew little of the villagers, other than they were a rare community in which humans and elves lived together, even selecting one another as mates, something which was generally frowned upon. The dealings he'd had there had been few, and while they seemed agreeable, he was in no position to guarantee that they would not harm the boy. Several of their number, including children, had been slain at the hands of the city dwellers. There were those in the city, like the Cleric Mosely, who advocated systematically eradicating the entire population on the pretense that they harbored some sort of dangerous and evil powers.
From what Chris had seen, the villagers had nothing more than their humble homes and their small flocks and fields, but talk like Mosely's often had some basis in fact, and appearances, he knew, could be deceiving. He leaned over to Buck. "What do you think?"
"We're headed up there anyway come daybreak. Reckon a head start won't hurt us none."
Chris nodded at Lady Standish. "We'll search the trail to the Hidden Plain and the woods around it."
Lady Standish reached for her purse, but Chris stayed her hand. "Pay us if we find him."
Jaydee yawned and then took a moment to remember who the small stranger sharing their shelter was. Ezra, the rich kid from the city. He was still asleep, but Vin was already up and gone. Vin always got up as soon as the sun came over the hill and Jaydee knew he'd be back before long.
He crawled out from beneath the warm deerskin robe his mama had made for him before she went away to be a star in the sky. He sighed. He missed his mama. He wished she'd come back, and he didn't know why everyone had left him and Vin. He had tried to be good, he really had.
A tear started to fall from his eye and he sniffed and wiped it away. He was a soldier now, and soldiers weren't supposed to cry.
He pulled on his leggings and his boots, and then his leather jerkin. The boy from the city had slept with all his clothes on and now they were wrinkled and he didn't look so fancy any more. Jaydee poked him.
"Go 'way," Ezra mumbled, and covered his head with his cloak. Jaydee couldn't resist touching the smooth green velvet. Maybe Ezra would give it to him, but, he didn't think so.
Jaydee shrugged and began to look for something to eat. He found the bundle that had been left for them the night before and inside there was some bread and cheese and an apple. There was only one apple, so Jaydee took small bites all the way around it so no one else would want it and it would be all his. Then he set it aside and was trying to cut into the small wheel of cheese with his knife when Ezra sat up, rubbing his eyes.
He saw what Jaydee trying to do. The smaller boy's knife was too small to cut through the thick cheese, and he was probably going to cut himself instead.
Ezra stretched and yawned and then held out his hand. "Give it to me."
Jaydee snatched up the cheese and clutched it to his chest. "I got it first."
Ezra frowned with distaste. Surely the little urchin didn't think he wanted to eat if after it had been mauled by those grubby little paws and was now resting against a garment that looked as though it hadn't been laundered, ever.
"I'm just going to cut it for you," Ezra said. Jaydee handed his meal over uncertainly.
"Watch this," Ezra said, and motioned for Jaydee to follow him outside. It had rained that morning, and the air still smelled of it. The grass was wet, and Ezra lost his footing on the slope of the hill and fell on his bottom. The cheese fell from his hand and rolled away.
"Hey!" Jaydee exclaimed and scampered after it. But he was no more sure-footed than Ezra and it wasn't long before he was tumbling down the hill after the cheese, his small knife still clutched in his hand.
Ezra got up quickly and followed him, fearing Jaydee might have hurt himself with the knife. When he reached him, though, Jaydee was rubbing the dirt and dried leaves off of the cheese, apparently unharmed.
Ezra took it from him and pulled his sword from its scabbard. He stood back from Jaydee so he'd have room to swing the weapon, then he tossed the cheese into the air. There was a swoosh and a blur of steel and the cheese fell to the ground neatly halved.
Jaydee clapped his hands together in delight. "Do it again!"
Ezra wasn't sure he could halve a half, but encouraged by the little boy's appreciation for his skill, he decided to try. He tossed the cheese higher this time, to give himself enough time to aim for the smaller target.
To both boys' astonishment, the cheese never fell - it hovered in the air for the briefest moment and then went flying sideways into a nearby tree. It stuck there, and it was then they noticed the small arrow, fletched in red, that had pinned it to the trunk.
Jaydee giggled as Ezra looked around for the archer. He knew it was Vin from the size and fletching on the arrow, but he couldn't see the young elf anywhere.
Jaydee noted that half of the cheese was now pinned too high up the tree for any of them to reach without climbing for it, so he tucked the other half in his shirt.
Ezra was impressed by Vin's abilities with a bow, but he wasn't going to say so. "Looks like the squirrels will have your breakfast, elf," he pointed to the suspended cheese, still seeing no sign of Vin.
A shrub moved and suddenly Vin was there. Ezra marveled at how well the other boy had hidden himself from view, even though he said nothing. Vin had spread clay on his face to hide his skin and had blended invisibly into the forest.
He glanced smugly at Ezra as he aimed a second arrow at the one lodged in the tree. He released it and the first arrow was neatly severed near the tree trunk, dropping the impaled cheese to the ground.
"You're wasting arrows, Vin," little Jaydee said with an seriousness that didn't befit a child so young.
Vin picked up the fallen cheese. Jaydee was right. He was showing off for the city boy. He had a quiver full of arrows, but he'd need them later.
"Those arrows are too small to hurt any of Lord Anderson's soldiers," Ezra observed.
Vin smiled. "We have more than arrows."
Ezra's interest was piqued. "Like what?"
"Come. I'll show you."
Ezra wanted to be impressed with the little arsenal Vin had revealed to him, but he had his doubts any of it would work, especially after Vin told him it was Jaydee who had conceived the ideas for the weapons.
There were round clay pots filled with grain and obsidian pebbles to which water had been added before they were sealed. The grain had expanded and caused pressure to build inside the vessels so that when they were broken, by dropping or throwing them, there would supposedly be an explosion that would send clay shards and pebbles for several feet in every direction. Anyone in the vicinity would be injured, maybe even incapacitated.
Hollowed reeds had been sealed at one end by a pointed missile. The other end was filled with a small amount of flour and then sealed with clay leaving only a small hole though which a fuse was passed. Shaking the reed caused it to fill with flour dust that ignited when the fuse was lit, causing the missile to be blown out with tremendous force.
Another device consisted of 21 reeds split lengthwise to provide a series of flumes into each of which was set an arrow. An ingenious system of pulleys allowed the entire bank of arrows to be fired at once.
As Ezra studied the contraptions, Jaydee sat calmly on the ground with a piece of charcoal drawing something on a flat rock. Vin was looking over his shoulder.
"We could make the stream turn this wheel " Jaydee pointed to his crude drawing, "and then that wheel would turn the others," he made a circular motion with his fingers, "and the water would go up the hill instead of down."
Vin appeared to study the diagram intently, but, it was obvious to Ezra he didn't understand what Jaydee was trying to explain. He looked over Jaydee's shoulder himself. It took him a few minutes, but he finally figured out the concept behind Jaydee's drawing.
"How did you think that up?" Ezra asked, somewhat envious.
Jaydee shrugged. "I dunno."
Vin erased the drawing with his hand. "We don't have time for this now. They're coming."
Jaydee didn't seem to mind that his work had been wiped out - he didn't seem to notice it, in fact. He turned to Vin with worried eyes.
"Don't be scared, Jaydee," Vin assured him. "Soldiers aren't supposed to be scared."
Things were not going well. Chris and the others had led the Greycastle forces into the trap at Beggar's Pass as planned, and while he had assumed that the villagers from Blackcliffe would be poorly trained, he hadn't counted on them woefully misleading him with regard to their number. With Anderson's army on his tail, it was only too late that he realized they were outnumbered 20 to one, and there was no way victory would be theirs.
The weather was the only element that would possibly favor them. Thunderheads roiled in the sky above, threatening to burst at any moment. Chris knew that a torrential rainfall would cascade down the canyon walls and flood Beggar's Pass. Of course, that would only spare the village. The flood waters would sweep everyone away, not just Anderson's army.
Still, it was not in his nature to surrender. He'd go down fighting because that's what he'd been paid to do. There was no option, really. If he and the others surrendered, Anderson's men would kill them, anyway. Either way, they were worm food.
As the two armies faced off in the narrow canyon, Anderson gave the order to attack.
As his troops funneled into the narrow confines of Beggar's Pass, they should have been easy to pick off. But outnumbered as they were, Chris and the handful of armed villagers were no match for them.
The battle was soon on in full force, and Chris noted with dismay that the villagers were easily being plucked from their vantage points high on the canyon walls by Anderson's archers. Soldiers with swords had engaged the village troops who were guarding the passage road, and they, too, were superior in both number and skill. In no time at all, they would be overwhelmed and there would be nothing to stop Anderson from taking the village.
He'd destroy it, of that Chris was certain. And, if he couldn't find the alleged treasure himself, Anderson would torture the survivors until one of them revealed what he wanted to know.
Chris, Buck, Nathan and Josiah stood with their backs to each other, surrounded by Anderson's men as the canyon filled with the sounds of clanking swords, and the cries of wounded and angry soldiers.
Chris was trying to fight off three soldiers at once. He was good, but not that good, and even though he successfully parried a blow from the first two, the third had raised his sword above his head and would bring it crashing into Chris's skull before he could stop him.
Chris braced himself for the blow, wondering in the brief moment left to him if he would even feel it when his skull was cloven in two.
Involuntarily, his eyes clamped shut, but the expected impact never came, so they quickly flew open again.
Chris looked with disbelief at his would-be assailant, who had dropped his sword and now clutched at a tiny arrow protruding from his left eye. The man was screaming in rage and agony, and Chris knew he was no longer a threat.
The two he had dispatched earlier had taken up their weapons again, however and Chris was preparing to deal with them when one of them shrieked and dropped his sword, his fighting hand pierced with another small arrow. And instant later, the same fate befell his companion.
The threat of bodily injury temporarily removed, Chris turned to his companions and discovered six more of Anderson's men had been rendered useless by the tiny arrows, each fletched with a bright red feather.
Chris scanned the ridge above the pass, looking for this remarkable archer. Three more arrows rained down, each finding its mark, and he was able to follow their path to the source.
His mouth fell open in disbelief. Bysha! It was a child! A tiny boy, no more than six or seven turns!
Chris wanted to scream at the boy to hide himself, but he knew he would not be heard above the din of battle. And looking at the boy, the set of his small shoulders and the determined look on his delicate features, Chris suspected they would go unheeded as well.
The boy's eyes met his, and Chris saw a strength there that belied the little archer's size and age. He nodded, and the boy nodded back, and an unspoken understanding was shared between them.
I'll watch your back.
I'll do all I can to keep you safe.
Buck had noticed the boy, too. "Who in the pits is that kid?" he shouted.
"Don't know," Chris shouted back, "but I'm glad he's on our side."
They left their former adversaries to lick their wounds. Killing them should have been their course of action, but with them temporarily out of the fight, it gave Chris and the others a chance to retreat to higher ground.
Buck went on ahead to assess the situation at the top of the pass. That was the last stronghold before Anderson's troops would be able to overrun the village.
He wound his way up a narrow deer path in the canyon wall, out of sight of both friend and foe, or so he thought.
There was a rustle of shrubbery and suddenly a blade was pointed at his gut.
"No further!" a small voice shouted.
Buck put his hands up in surrender and tried to keep a smile off his face. The "soldier" before him stood no taller than his waist, and even though his face had been darkened with clay and there were twigs and leaves in his chestnut hair, Buck knew those green eyes anywhere.
"Your mama is lookin' for you," he told Ezra.
The little boy flinched only slightly and did not lower his sword. He stared at him with a poker face. "I'm taking you prisoner," he declared.
"And I think yer on the wrong side," Buck grinned.
"You're with Larabee's troopers?" the little sentinel asked suspiciously.
If the boy had any feeling about this one way or another, his youthful face did not betray it. "Well, you're coming with me, anyway," he ordered.
Buck's first instinct was to laugh, but he'd already seen the small archer and now this little swordsman. He wondered how many other children had placed themselves in harm's way. He thought it best to humor the lad and see if he could find out. He let his sword drop to his side. "Lead the way," he invited.
A few steps back from the trail, they came to a narrow notch in the canyon wall which overlooked all of Beggar's Pass. There was a spectacular view of the carnage below, and another small boy lay on his belly, watching it all. He turned when they approached.
"Hullo," he said to Buck.
This one was even smaller than the other two.
"Hey there, little bit," Buck said, not wanting to frighten the child. He knelt beside the youngster. "What'cha doin' way up here?"
"Watching the fight and waiting," the boy replied.
"Waiting for what?"
"For Vin to say it's time for me to "
"Jaydee!" Ezra snapped.
"Oh ." Jaydee looked down. "I can't tell you, it's secret."
Buck noticed a peculiar stack of clay balls, meticulously arranged in a pyramid. It looked like there should have been a single ball at the very top, but there wasn't. Buck noticed it in the little boy's hands. "What is it you have there?" he asked the boy, honestly curious.
Jaydee looked up at him with the biggest eyes Buck had ever seen. "Boomers," he said.
Buck frowned. "Boomers?"
The boy proceeded to explain how the balls would explode on impact and shower Anderson's men with glass shards and pellets of grain. Many men would have laughed at the youngster's imagination, but Buck had seen canisters filled with soaked grain expand with such tremendous pressure that they could be used to crack castle walls. He wondered who had stupidly allowed the child to handle such potentially dangerous objects.
He carefully took the 'boomer' from the boy's hand. "I think it's best if we put this over here," he said, setting it in its rightful place at the top of the pyramid.
He looked around for some place that the two small boys would be safe, and discovered that it was unlikely that they would not be found. As he studied his surroundings, he happened to glance down into the canyon and saw Chris, Nathan, and Josiah pinned against the canyon wall by Anderson's men. He couldn't stay with the children.
"You boys stay out of trouble," he advised. "I need to go help my friends."
"I'll go with you!" Ezra announced.
Buck admired the child's courage, but to allow him into the foray would mean certain death for the boy. "No," he said, gently patting Jaydee's head. "Someone must watch out for this little one."
Ezra smiled wryly at that, as if he knew something Buck didn't. It was an unnerving expression to see on such a young face. But the boy agreed to remain behind.
Buck could see that the village forces - including the hired mercenaries - were falling like leaves and the end of the battle was near. The irony was that Anderson's entire force had passed through the bottleneck that was Beggar's Pass by this time, and now would have been trapped in the canyon had there been forces to bring up the rear and keep them from retreating. Anderson was not only greedy and cruel, he was careless.
Not that it mattered. There was no more fight left in the village troops, and Buck knew the chances were he and the others would not see another sunrise.
So be it. They would each one die a soldier's death, and go down with their swords in their hands.
Chris's arm muscles burned with the strain of wielding his sword, and with the numerous cuts and bruises he'd sustained in the fighting. But, there was nothing else to do but keep going until his last measure of strength was used up.
He managed to glance up at the ridge where he had seen the little archer before. He didn't expect to see him, but there he was, staring right at him. He was too far away to hear Chris or be heard by him, but somehow, Chris knew the boy was planning something. And he knew Chris knew. The small, shaggy head nodded at him, and a few moments later what appeared to be mud balls began to rain down on Anderson's troops.
For a brief moment, Chris was seized by the poignancy of the small boy's futile efforts, until the spheres began to strike the ground and burst with a spectacular spray of debris that soon had Anderson's men shouting in confusion and pain as the projectiles struck them with enough force to slice through even their leather clothing.
Chris glanced questioningly at Buck, who had just neatly dispatched one of Anderson's archers. The big soldier grinned at him. "Boomers!" he shouted, as if that should mean something.
Anderson's men didn't have an opportunity to recover from the shock of the 'boomer'-barrage before a phalanx of arrows rained down on them. These were not the small arrows the little archer had been using. The shafts were too long to be drawn by the child's bow.
And there were so many being fired at once! It was as if a wall of archers had unleashed their bows in unison. But when Larabee looked up the canyon wall, all he saw on the ridge above was three small boys - at least, they appeared to be boys. The little archer and a smaller child were common urchins, so it was difficult to tell. The archer stood in the center, flanked by the other two, and he nodded at Chris and raised his bow. Then the trio scurried away and a few seconds later a second phalanx of arrows rained down on Anderson's troops.
Bysha! Who was up there with those children!? It was an absent thought Chris had as he was attacked by yet another of Anderson's seemingly infinite troops. He would have known if the villagers had been able to hire any other mercenaries, and he was certain they hadn't lied about their own number. It would have been a clever ruse, but the villagers weren't soldiers and didn't think like them. It wasn't possible that they had hidden so many trained archers.
After the second salvo of arrows, many of Anderson's men tried to retreat, but Anderson ordered those still loyal to him to block the canyon so they couldn't get out. Suddenly, they were hammered with large, solid projectiles that knocked men off their horses and horses off their feet. In the ensuing confusion, many of Anderson's paid troops managed to flee. With fire in his eyes, Anderson scanned the canyon wall. "Get up there and find those archers!" he shouted.
Chris realized with dismay that they would find the children. He looked skyward and cursed the storm clouds overhead which selfishly withheld their bounty. Even with many of Anderson's men dead and wounded, they were still outnumbered, and many of the village troops were now too exhausted or injured too badly to fight them off. Their only hope now was enough rain to put an end to it, and that wasn't going to happen.
Cold fear gripped Buck as he saw Anderson's men heading up the canyon wall. With luck, they would recognize Ezra Standish and spare the boy - and even Bysha would not be able to protect them from Maude's wrath if they did not. But he knew that they would show the wide-eyed little one, Jaydee, and the small archer no quarter. It would not matter to them that they were but children.
Enraged, Buck broke free of the battle and ran after Anderson's men.
"They're coming to get us!" Ezra cried out with alarm.
The three boys could see soldiers making their way up the deer path to their hiding place, which now did not seem at all well-hidden.
Ezra was frightened. The battle had been exciting at first, but now there were men cut and bleeding and even dead all over the canyon floor. Some had arms or legs off. Ezra couldn't look at what else had happened to some of them, and he wouldn't let Jaydee look, either.
Vin appeared calm, but Ezra could see in his eyes that the elf boy was as scared as he was. Even if they weren't out of arrows, the device Jaydee had thought up to fire them could only be used once, and there had only been time to rig two. Ezra still had his sword, but he knew he was no match for an adult trained to use one.
Jaydee watched the two older boys, who seemed to have forgotten about him. He still had one boomer left. He'd kept it in case the bad men came after them, like they were doing now. He picked up the clay sphere and headed down the path with it.
Vin's head whipped around. "JAYDEE!!" he shouted. "JAYDEE COME BACK HERE!"
He ran after the little boy but wasn't even close to catching him when Jaydee hurled the clay vessel down the path. Vin stood frozen in horror. The boomers were heavy and meant to be dropped, not thrown, and the weight of it threw Jaydee off balance and caused him to trip on his own feet. His small arm only hurled the object a short distance and with a sickening thud, it hit a rock and exploded almost directly in front of him.
Anderson's men noticed the blast and stopped in their tracks just long enough to spot Vin and Ezra. Above the shouts of orders to "Get them!" Jaydee shrieked loudly in terror and pain. His face and arms were covered with blood.
"Vin!" he cried. "Vin! Owwwwww! It hurts!"
Vin wanted to run, but he couldn't leave Jaydee. His heart pounding in his chest, he headed down the path to face the soldiers, certain he was going to die.
Ezra didn't follow him. Glancing back, Vin saw Ezra climbing quickly up the canyon wall, away from the onrushing soldiers to the relative safety of the Tabletop, and he didn't know whether to curse his cowardice or envy him.
Anderson's men had almost reached Jaydee. Vin ran down the path and put himself between them and the hysterical injured child. That only stalled the inevitable, though, and he was grabbed roughly and tossed over a shoulder kicking and screaming as he watched them get Jaydee, too.
The soldier who held Jaydee pointed at Ezra. "Get that other one!" He grabbed Vin's hair and pulled his head upward to force Vin to look at him, and in so doing, pulled Vin's hair away from his ears. A dark look came over his face. "This one's an elf!" he exclaimed, and then looked at Vin. "Your evil won't save you now, you little demon!" He pushed Vin's head down hard as he released his hair, then laughed, "Get them all, and we'll boil them for supper!"
Jaydee screamed in terror and Vin knew if he tried any harder to free himself, his bones would snap. He managed to maneuver his face to the back of his captor's arm, and in a last desperate measure, he bit him as hard as he could.
In the next instant he was flying through the air, and then there was a tremendous jolt and a burst of searing pain flashed through his entire being before everything went dark.
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