Ezra surveyed the carnage below him. He'd seen Vin and Jaydee captured and then seen Vin's body hurled down the steep canyon wall. Jaydee had stopped screaming, which meant he was probably dead, too.
They were coming for him next, and Ezra was numb with fear, but he vowed that before they got him, he'd make as many of them pay for what they had done as he could.
He looked up at the sky and felt the energy there. Just as he could "feel" the fire that lay waiting in a piece of wood, so could he sense the fire in a storm. It wasn't the same as that contained in wood, but it was heat and light and power scattered through the clouds until some nameless thing brought it into focus and lightning happened.
Ezra had never tried to summon the fire in the clouds. Some base instinct told him that to do so required someone with far more knowledge of how to use the ability to make fire than he had, and that if not done properly, it could kill him to even try.
But he was trapped, and his friends were already gone. No mortal thing would now alter either course of events.
He had nothing to lose.
Closing his eyes, he lifted his sword skyward, focusing his mind on the blade and pushing out all other thoughts.
He felt the heat building around him, his skin tingling with a thousand prickles as a spiral of sparks began to encircle him in a glowing whirlwind.
Knowing that victory was theirs, Anderson's men had all but laid down their arms by this time, casually picking through the battlefield for anyone who would dare continue the fight. Josiah and Nathan had yielded, seeing that to continue was futile and a waste of strength that might still be used to escape.
As was his way, Nathan had immediately begun tending the wounded, while Josiah sought to comfort those who would soon pass to the next world.
Chris and Buck had pursued Anderson's men up the canyon wall, hoping to save the children, but in their pain-weary hearts, both Nathan and Josiah knew they would be too late.
Or so Josiah had first thought
"What in the pits " Josiah gasped, a sudden sensation of warmth flooding through him in a most unnatural way. As a wizard, he was especially sensitive to the willful manipulation of the elements, and he quickly understood that someone was literally playing with fire. Looking for the source of this disturbance, he saw who it was and instantly, his confusion became alarm.
Little Ezra Standish stood on the canyon rim, his sword pointed toward the thunderheads above. Josiah didn't know the boy, beyond the fact that his mother saw to it that he had very little contact with anyone outside her circle of acquaintances. He had private tutors and was never allowed outside the manor without an escort who kept a tight rein on him. It was no way to raise a little boy, and Josiah had never seen the reason for it until now.
He sensed a tremendous power manifesting itself in this small child, made more frightening by the fact that it was untrained and unharnessed. He suspected that even Ezra did not comprehend the extent of it, and he was certain Maude feared it more than she understood it. What mother wouldn't?
Ezra was a wizard! - quite possibly the most potentially powerful one Josiah had ever encountered - yet Josiah suspected that Ezra was only vaguely aware of his talents. He certainly didn't realize the monumental danger he was in .
The little fool was trying to summon lightning!
"NO!!! Stop!!" Josiah waved his arms in the air trying to get the boy's attention. "Stop NOW!"
The boy appeared to have slipped into a trance and stood perfectly still while the very air around him moved in a swirl of sparks and darkness. He didn't hear Josiah calling to him, of that Josiah was certain.
"PITS!" Josiah spat and then made a desperate attempt to cast a spell that would block the boy's power, even though he knew it was much too late for that. The best he could hope for was to minimize the force with which that power would burst free.
Josiah hastily collected himself and managed to focus an instant before a brilliant flash enveloped the Standish boy. He cast outward with his mind and managed to snag the torrent of energy and pull it away from Ezra. He aimed it towards Anderson's rear echelon and was alarmed to discover that even he had difficulty controlling the dangerous forces that were channeling through one small boy.
Suddenly, lightning flashed near Ezra's head. Josiah caught the bolt and threw it against the canyon wall where it blasted chunks of rock down onto Anderson's men.
Another bolt followed that one, and then another. Three in a row until Josiah was near collapse from the effort of redirecting them.
Anderson's men were in a panic. They didn't know what magic this was, or how to fight it. Josiah was dimly aware that they were retreating in terror as a final surge of lightning left Ezra's sword before Josiah could redirect it. It dissipated through the canyon in a blinding flash that stunned man and beast alike.
Then all was still.
Josiah saw Nathan rising shakily to his feet. He didn't know what had become of Chris and Buck, and the other two children, but Ezra was no longer standing. Josiah wasn't even sure he was even there any more, and wondered if the boy's own power had destroyed him.
Buck and Chris picked themselves up off the ground.
"What the pits was that?" Buck referred to the invisible shock wave that had knocked both men off their feet.
"I think it was lightning. Must have been damn close," Chris offered.
"That wasn't like any lightning I ever seen." Buck shook it off. There was no time to worry about it now. Anderson's men had at least two of the little boys he'd seen earlier. He and Chris went in different directions hoping to find them.
It was Chris who came upon one of the Anderson's soldiers using his booted foot to overturn the young archer's small body. The boy was lifeless and Chris feared the worst, but that dread sense of foreboding quickly escalated to panic when the man drew his bow, an arrow aimed at the child's chest.
"NO!" Chris screamed, startling the man at the same moment he released his arrow. It missed the boy's heart, but pinned his left shoulder to the ground. Even unconscious, the little boy squirmed, trying to escape this new source of agony.
As Chris ran up, the soldier turned around. He was half-mad, Chris could see that. Whether the battle had made him so, or whether Anderson had conscripted him because of it was for anyone to guess. But, he looked at Chris, then at his arrow protruding from the tiny body. Incredibly, he notched another arrow while staring at Chris the entire time, grinning as if daring him to do something.
"Don't " Chris gasped. He would beg for the boy's life if he had to.
The soldier shrugged and laughed coldly. "It's only an elf," he said, as though that justified the atrocity he was about to perpetrate.
Enraged beyond reason, Chris drew his sword and with a single swipe of the blade, the soldier's bow dropped to the ground as his fingers flew into the air, neatly separated from his hand. The man stood there for long moments, his mouth working but no sound coming out as he stared at the bleeding stumps.
Chris stared at him without pity. "They're only fingers," he said, pushing the man aside. "Now get away from him before I cut off something you really need."
The man stood staring for a moment, rage and fear intermixed on his face. His bow was now useless to him and he had no other weapon Chris could see. Chris would have no regrets about killing him.
Clutching his bleeding hand, the soldier turned and ran.
Chris knelt in the mud beside the child, whose chest continued to rise and fall. At least there was still life in him.
He pushed the boy's dirty hair back in a comforting gesture and discovered that what Anderson's man had said was true; he was an elf.
He was dirty and extremely thin. His clothing was nothing more than a tattered leather shirt that was too big for him, hanging down to his bony knees and tied at the waist. Despite the grime, he was a beautiful child, but.even if he had been half-ogre, Chris would not have been able to leave him there to die alone in the mud.
He would have to be very careful lifting the boy, since the shaft of the arrow was partly buried in the earth beneath him. Chris gripped it tightly near the entry wound and very slowly lifted the child and pulled the arrow from the ground at the same time. He'd leave removing it for Nathan, and prayed the boy would stay unconscious.
The boy whimpered in pain as Chris took him into his arms. "Shhhh," Chris soothed him, "I've got you, little soldier."
+ + + + + + +
Buck almost tripped over Jaydee. The boy was sitting in the middle of the path, not crying or moving. His lower legs were pinned under one of Anderson's men, who had bashed his skull against a rock when the shock wave had knocked him down. He was quite obviously dead, his brain partially spilled from his skull.
Jaydee cocked his head when Buck approached, but didn't turn his face to him. When he bent down to look at him, he saw why. The boys eyes were swollen shut - or at least that's how it appeared. There was an awful lot of blood on him and Buck shuddered at the thought of worse possibilities. It was obvious the little boy couldn't see.
"Hi there, Little Bit," Buck said softly, gently touching the boy's hand.
The little boy sniffed, but he didn't cry or speak.
"Would you like to come with me?" he asked. The little one had to be terrified - alone and hurt like he was - but he was so calm that it frightened Buck. He had seen the peace that came over wounded men in those final moments before their life left them, and he worried that Jaydee was grievously injured.
Jaydee curled his arms tightly around his chest. "I got hurted," he said calmly. "My eyes don't work an' my feets are stuck."
Buck lifted the dead soldier off of Jaydee's legs.
"Do you think you can stand up?" Buck asked, curious to see if the boy had any other injuries.
Jaydee blindly reached out to him and Buck took his hand. The boy stood, but he was unsteady. "Can I pick you up?" Buck asked him.
"'kay," the little boy sniffed. "Are all the bad soldiers gone?"
"Yep, all gone, thanks to you and your friends."
Jaydee's head whipped around as though he were looking for something, even though he couldn't see. "Where is Vin?" he asked, alarmed.
"My friend is looking for him. We'll find him, don't you worry."
"They were going to eat us," Jaydee began to cry. "Where's Vin?"
Buck pulled him close. "You're a very brave soldier, you know that, don't you?"
Momentarily distracted, Jaydee nodded.
"I have a friend who is real good at fixin' up hurt soldiers. His name is Nathan. Shall we go see him?"
Jaydee nodded and as soon as he was securely in Buck's arms, he nestled his head against Buck's shoulder. A lump caught in Buck's throat at the thought of how trusting the little boy was. He had no way of knowing that Buck was not one of the men who had hurt him.
Jaydee was trembling, even though it was not cold. Buck knew that was not a good sign. He loosened his cloak and tucked it around the little boy to keep him warm.
The child weighed practically nothing, and it was obvious from how dirty he was that it had been awhile since he'd had someone to care for him. The raids on the village had left many orphans. The luckier ones found a place with relatives or other families, but often, the villagers had all they could do to provide for their own children and it was easier to think that someone else would take care of the few who remained.
"Buck's got ya now, Little Bit," he soothed. "Ain't nothin' to be scared of."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was gasping for breath by the time he made the climb up the canyon wall to where he had last seen Ezra.
The boy lay on the ground, unconscious, but not still. Every few moments, his limbs would twitch or his spine would arc slightly. It was not pronounced enough to be a fit, but still more than the normal movement of simple sleep. It was a spell flashback - the young wizard had been too inexperienced to control what his abilities were capable of, and the spell had backfired on him.
Josiah sensed that the little boy was in great pain, as though fire was consuming him from within. Carefully, he placed his big hands on either side of the boy's head and used his waning powers to cast a spell that would send the pain where Ezra would not be aware of it.
His little sword lay beside him, curiously undamaged even though it was smoking. Josiah attempted to pick it up and discovered it was too hot to touch. He examined Ezra's hands, both of which were slightly burned. Other than that, though, the boy didn't seem to have any other external injuries.
What was going on inside him was another story. Energy from the lightning he had summoned still coursed through the boy's body, unfocused and without direction. It would take a special spell from another wizard to rid the boy of the potent forces that seized him. Josiah would have been able to do it had not his powers been drained by redirecting the lightning. It would have to wait. The priority now was to get the boy safely home.
Josiah removed the green velvet cloak the boy wore and wrapped the sword in it. He couldn't leave it there, for although it was small, it was still a wizard's sword, and therefore most likely enchanted. It could not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.
He carefully placed the weapon across Ezra's chest and then lifted both the sword and the boy. As soon as Ezra was in his arms, Josiah felt an odd jolting sensation, as they he was being shaken from within, that with unspoken words signaled Go away! So intense was it that a common mortal may have been moved to distance himself from the child, but Josiah recognized it for what it was. Some part of Ezra was still alert to danger and even in his unconscious state, he was trying to defend himself. "Do not be afraid," he reassured the boy. "All is well, and soon you will be home."
The rain that had threatened all day finally began to fall, and rather than take a chance they could outrun the water that would wash down the canyon floor, Buck and Chris followed Josiah to the canyon rim. Nathan joined them, having seen to it that the wounded still alive had been taken to relative safety. The bodies still in the canyon would be washed away by the flood waters, and in a final irony, friend and foe would end up in a common grave of silt and pebbles.
There was no shelter on the barren Tabletop save for an occasional overhanging rock. Buck was lucky enough to spot such a place and they were able to get the children out of the rain. There was no dry wood for a fire, but Josiah unwrapped Ezra's sword and used his last remaining strength to coax enough heat out of it to keep the little ones warm until the rain stopped.
Nathan had already tapped deeply into his healing energies on the battlefield. There had not been time to effect a full recovery for any of the wounded, but he'd managed to staunch the flow of blood from many wounds, and restore damaged bone and tissue enough so that it would not fester. His powers were ebbing, and he would have to call heavily upon his knowledge of conventional healing to help the injured children.
He tended to Jaydee first. The little boy calmly allowed the healer to examine him, but cried out in pain when Nathan tried to open his eyes. Buck held him close and rocked him until he calmed, as Nathan explained that he would look quickly and it would only hurt for a few seconds.
Jaydee wanted no part of it. "Lemme alone!" he wailed.
"I tell you what ." Buck took the boy's hand and placed it on his forearm. "Pinch me."
Jaydee abruptly quieted. "Huh?"
"Pinch me, right here on my arm."
Jaydee gave him a little pinch.
"Aww you can do better than that," Buck teased, and then almost regretted it when the child gripped his flesh between his small, sharp fingernails and twisted. "Ow!" he yelped, and Jaydee giggled.
"Okay here's what we're gonna do . You let Nathan look at your eyes, and however bad it hurts, that's how hard you can pinch me, okay?"
Jaydee looked uncertain, but the challenge proved too tempting. "'kay."
Buck would have a nasty bruise to show for it, but Nathan was able to do what needed to be done. Afterwards, he looked at Buck and shook his head. Buck swallowed a lump in his throat, remembering how big and bright Jaydee's eyes had looked when he'd first seen him. "Can't you do something?" he asked the healer.
"You know I'll try, Buck, but the eye is like a polished mirror, easily scratched, and the blast blew a lot of dirt into his face. He'll need a sleeping draught if I am to wash it out properly, and even then the damage done may not be undone.
"Are you gonna fix my eyes?" Jaydee asked Nathan.
The healer placed a hand on the little boy's head, unable to tell the child he may never see again. He dug into his bag for a piece of bandage and a charred twig used for marking down ingredients to prescribed potions. He inscribed a series of markings on it. "Take him to Four Winds, to the herbalist Nettie, and give her this. She will know what to do."
The urgency in Nathan's voice told Buck that this could not wait until the rain stopped. He carefully bundled Jaydee up as best he could and set off for the little town of Four Winds. It was in a direction opposite that of the city of Greycastle, but it was actually closer. They would be there in a candlemark.
Nathan could find nothing to explain Ezra's condition, but Josiah seemed to understand it perfectly, and assured the healer that although he would need to be cared for, the boy was in no immediate danger.
Nathan turned his attention to Vin, who was the most seriously injured of the three children, and who would need to have the arrow removed from his body before he was moved any further.
Chris held the young elf as Nathan carefully and slowly cut through the shaft of the arrow near the exit wound on the boy's back. It was the only way the arrow could be safely removed.
Vin moaned softly and whimpered a few times, his small fingers clutching Chris's tunic tightly and then relaxing as the boy drifted in and out, never fully conscious.
When Nathan was done, he studied the wound carefully. The boy's breathing was shallow, but not labored, so the arrow had not caused blood to fill his chest. Still, Nathan dared not be optimistic as he examined the thick shaft of wood still impaling the little elf's flesh, possibly having shattered the small, delicate bones within. It was a very big arrow, and he was a very, very small boy.
Still, as much as he hated the idea, the arrow had to come out, and there was no healing spell for that even if Nathan's powers hadn't been drained. It would have to be pulled or cut out, and the sooner the better. The longer it remained, the greater the chance the surrounding tissues would putrefy and poison the child.
He had Chris sit crosslegged on the ground with Vin leaning back against him. He instructed him to criss-cross his arms across Vin's chest and grab his hands, securing him so he could not thrash about. Josiah was told to hold the boy's legs.
When the two men signaled they were ready, Nathan didn't hesitate. In one quick motion, he twisted and pulled and the arrow was out.
Vin's eyes opened wide and he gasped, and then followed it by a shriek of pain that tore at the men's hearts. He began to cry, but it was a weak and worrisome sound. Nathan worked quickly to pack the wound and bandage it so that the boy could be at peace once more.
Chris held him the entire time, speaking to him in a gentle, soothing voice that Josiah and Nathan had never heard him use. Clearly, their intrepid leader had formed a bond with the little boy, much to Nathan's dismay. He knew how Chris had lost his wife and son, a boy near the same age as the one now in his arms. He could not assure him that this child would survive and his heart ached at the thought of Chris experiencing the pain of loss a second time..
Josiah had noticed that the boy did not try to kick his way free as he was being held, as would normally be expected, and upon further examination, Nathan discovered a dark, ugly bruise that covered much of his back. He did what he could to heal the bleeding vessels, but if there was a serious injury to the spine, it would be beyond any type of healing Nathan could offer.
Still there was cause for hope. Elves, despite their often delicate appearance, were a hearty race and Nathan had known them to demonstrate a remarkable ability to recover from devastating illness and injury.
He felt the boy's brow. Fever had already set in, but luckily by this time, the cursed rain was beginning to abate.
It was decided that they would all head for Four Winds, even though Vin and Jaydee were probably from Blackcliffe and Ezra's home was in Greycastle. Chris owned land in Four Winds, upon which sat a large stone structure. Not big enough to qualify as a castle, it had nonetheless served the same purpose as one in the days when there was still gold and silver to be found in Four Winds and the King cared about protecting it. It was near the river, and although rarely used and far from luxurious, it was sturdy and had ample room for the three men and two boys - Buck and Jaydee, too.
Josiah lay on a straw mattress in the corner of the room, snoring softly with little Ezra snuggled safely in his arms. The elder wizard was exhausted, his powers taken to their limits by the day's events, and rest was mandatory if he was to replenish them. The younger wizard was comforted by Josiah's presence and Nathan had managed to get him to sip a few swallows of a potion that relieved his pain and even caused the twitching spasms that wracked his small body to abate temporarily.
Buck sat in a rocking chair in front of the fire with Jaydee asleep on his lap. The boy had not awakened since Nettie had given him the sleeping draught Nathan had prescribed. The herbalist had managed to clear most of the debris from the boy's eyes and Nathan had been able to examine them more closely. The damage appeared minimal, but the healer had removed a glass shard from the right eye. It was embedded in the white portion rather than in an area needed for sight, but he knew that if infection set in, it could quickly spread to both eyes and the result would be catastrophic. As a precaution, he had bandaged both eyes, and it would not be known until the bandages were removed if the little boy was indeed blind.
The large injury on Vin's back was Nathan's main cause for concern. He had prepared a tub of hot water into which he had mixed healing salts that he hoped would reduce the swelling and ease the pressure on the boy's spine.
Chris had carefully removed the tattered leather shirt Vin wore. His legs and feet were bare, and he wore nothing under the shabby garment. He had virtually no protection from the crisp autumn air, and as thin as he was, he certainly must have felt the cold. Chris covered him carefully with a blanket that had been warmed near the fire.
Nathan had managed to get Vin to swallow some of the same potion he'd given Ezra, which had helped ease the boy's fever as well as his pain. The former was essential, since the bath needed to be just short of scalding for the salts to be effective.
Nathan carefully removed the battlefield dressing from the wound on the boy's shoulder. It looked clean, but would also benefit from the salt bath. There was a great deal of bruising around the edges, but the healer had carefully manipulated the boys left arm and the bones appeared to have been spared injury. Still, it would be best if he did not tax the limb until Nathan could recover enough healing energy to mend it properly, and it would be bound to his chest to immobilize it.
Nathan tested the water in the tub, and then had Chris test it, also so that both of them were satisfied that although hot, it would not injure the child. Vin wasn't exactly awake, but neither was he unconscious. He peered questioningly at Nathan from beneath half-closed lids as Chris slowly eased him into the water.
+ + + + + + +
Vin's shoulder hurt. It hurt a lot, but he was a soldier and he wasn't going to cry, even though he wanted to. The rest of his body hurt, too, and he couldn't remember what had happened to him, no matter how hard he tried. He couldn't think clearly Where was he? And who was this dark man smiling at him? Was the battle over?
He gasped as a sudden heat enveloped his body, and his right arm tried to push himself away from it. NO! Something wasn't right about this His heart began to thump wildly in his chest as mortal fear washed over him along with the hot water. TOO HOT! his mind screamed. And then he remembered .
'Get them all, and we'll boil them for supper!'
+ + + + + + +
Chris lost his grip on the little elf when the boy suddenly let out a blood-curdling scream and twisted out of his grasp. He and Nathan frantically grabbed for the thrashing child who was too weak to raise his upper body out of the water and slipped beneath the surface. He was submerged only for an instant, but to Chris it seemed much longer before he had the boy out of the tub and held his wet, trembling body as tightly as he could despite the boy's continued effort to get away. Although distracted by the little fists pummeling him, Chris noted with some relief that Vin was also trying to kick him. The kicks were feeble but he could definitely move his legs.
His outburst had awakened Buck and Josiah, but Nathan held up a hand motioning them to stay back. Strangers crowding the young elf would only make things worse.
"VIN! STOP IT!" Chris commanded. The sound of his own name got the little boy's attention and he looked at Chris with glazed eyes and seemed to recognize him. He stopped fighting but his eyes, now wide open, darted about apprehensively. His bottom lip quivered and Chris knew he was fighting back tears. "What's wrong, Vin? Is it too hot?"
"Please don't eat me!" Vin pleaded, and began to cry.
"Eat you?" Chris frowned. Where the hell had that come from? "Vin, listen to me " He gently grabbed the child's face. "That's your name, right? Vin?"
The boy sniffed and nodded. "You hurt your back Do you remember?" Jaydee had volunteered the information that Vin had been thrown, and had likely been rendered unconscious by the impact, so he probably didn't.
Vin shook his head.
"Right here." Chris gently brushed his fingers over the large, swollen bruise near the delicate little spine. "The bath is hot, but it will help, you understand?"
The little boy studied his face with large blue eyes, the tips of his elfin ears poking through his wet hair. He nodded, but then reached up and tried to cover his ears. Nathan stopped him, his voice catching in his throat as he said, "It's okay, Vin. We're friends. Nobody here wants to hurt you."
Vin accepted this, but he clung to Chris as long as he could as he was lowered back into the steaming water.
His struggles had opened the wound on his shoulder again, so Nathan wrapped a compress around it to minimize contact with the water.
The boy badly needed a bath. Both he and Jaydee had looked as though they likely could not remember the last time they'd had one, although thanks to Nettie, Jaydee was now reasonably clean. Chris held Vin as Nathan gently washed the grime from the boy's skin and hair. Vin was tense at first, but as the soothing water began to ease the discomfort in his back, he began to relax.
Chris wanted to question him, to find out where he and Jaydee belonged, but since it was apparent that he had been caring for himself for some time, he decided perhaps it was better not to approach the subject until he was stronger.
After he was dried and wrapped in warm blankets, and his bandages were replaced, Vin was placed on the only cot in the sparsely furnished building. Chris asked him if he was hungry and much to their relief, he said he was. Nettie had sent a pot of rich stew, but Nathan decided a simple meal would be best. He ad given Vin more of the pain-relieving brew and didn't want to upset his stomach. He scooped out some of the thick broth and brought it to Vin with a chunk of bread to dip in it. The boy ate reasonably well, finishing with a small cup of warm milk about the same time the medicine kicked in. He was soon fast asleep.
"I don't think that boy has any kin," Chris said aloud what they both suspected.
"Technically, he's not a boy " Nathan pointed out, and then realized that to constantly refer to Vin as 'male elf child' probably wasn't practical. "What are we going to do with them?" He changed the subject, indicating Jaydee with a nod of his head.
Chris shrugged. "Guess we'll have to let them recover before we have to decide that. In the meantime, we can ask around and see if anyone can take them in."
Nathan shook his head. "That's not going to be easy, Chris. They seem pretty close, and I don't expect anyone will want them both."
"Vin's an elf, and I don't think it would be easy to find even an elf family to take him because he's not full-blooded."
"How can you tell?" Chris frowned.
"His hair it's too thick, and too coarse."
Chris raised an eyebrow at that. Vin's hair fell in satiny ringlets around his pale face, and it was far from coarse by human standards, but Nathan was right. All of the elf children Chris had seen had hair that was as fine as silk.
"And his face has almost caught up with his ears," Nathan added with a smile. He had observed that two of Vin's milk teeth were missing, the lower middle ones, which were usually the first to go. An elf child of comparable age would have had a proportionally smaller face than Vin did.
"A half-blood," Chris said, knowing that may have sealed the boy's fate. Both elves and humans were openly frowned on by their own kind when they paired, and their innocent offspring were often held equally accountable.
"Yes and if Jaydee can't see " Nathan shook his head. Safe, nurturing places for a blind orphan were few indeed.
Maude Standish owned a 'cottage' in Four Winds that was larger than some palaces. Her servants had rushed on ahead to prepare for her arrival as soon as word had arrived that her son was there, and in the care of common mercenaries! The boy had somehow been led astray by questionable companionship and had found himself in the thick of what was quickly becoming known as the Battle of Beggar's Pass.
For reasons best kept to herself, Maude knew a measure of relief at the fact that Anderson and the army from Greycastle had failed to take the village, but of utmost importance to her was the fact that Ezra, though injured, was safe. She would deal severely with whoever had put him in harm's way.
+ + + + + + +
Warm, dry and fed, the four men and three boys had finally managed to settle in comfortably for the night. Buck, Chris and Nathan would take turns sleeping so that someone would be awake at all times in case there was trouble. Nathan had the first watch and was studying a scroll on the proper alignment of the bones when there was knock at the door that could only be described as thunderous.
He stood up quickly, cursing as the scroll fell to the floor and unrolled down the length of the room. Chris, who was dozing beside Vin's bed, was on his feet in an instant, sword in hand.
Buck and Josiah had awakened to, and little Jaydee, startled out of a sound sleep and finding himself in total darkness, screamed in terror and then began to cry.
Chris angrily marched to the door and threw it open, ready to engage whoever it was and teach them a little respect for the peace and quiet of a man's home.
He was surprised to be confronted by the elegant Maude Standish. She was surrounded by a quartet of armed servants, all four of which Chris could have dispatched single-handedly in less time than it would take to draw a breath.
She stared directly at him, not at all deterred by the scowl on his face.
"I have come for my son. I was told he is here," she said, and then spotting Ezra in the cabin, she pushed Chris aside and went to him.
Ezra was a small boy, but weighed enough that it was work for Maude to lift him up from the floor. Josiah would have helped her, but he didn't think it wise to move the boy while the flashback of his miscast spell was still upon him.
"M'Lady," he said politely, and bowed slightly. "I think it would be best if he stayed here. Your son is very ill."
Maude looked at the boy, his hair damp with the sweat and his fair skin flushed. She put a hand to his forehead. "He's burning up!" she said accusingly. Then, leaning in close to her son, said softly, "Ezra? Darlin'? It's mother Wake up, Ezra."
Ezra muttered and tossed about fitfully, but he didn't awaken.
"What is this sickness?" she asked suspiciously.
"Your son used a spell he couldn't control. It's flashback sickness "
"Spell?" Maude scoffed, although Josiah detected the slightest hesitation in her voice. "What utter nonsense!"
"Ma'am," Josiah, began, "Surely you know that your son has certain gifts Who is his father?"
Maude glared at Josiah and the slapped him soundly. "I will hear no talk of spells and magic or any of that nonsense! I am taking my son and leaving."
Josiah rubbed his jaw where Maude had hit him. "I meant no disrespect Ma'am, but power like his doesn't just happen "
"Be silent!" Maude snapped.
Josiah persisted. "He may recover on his own, but it would be best if another wizard channeled that spell from his body."
Maude looked uncertain for a brief instant, but then her face hardened and she noticed Vin and the still-crying Jaydee for the first time. "What is this? What kind of men are you that you take babies into battle with you? I want my son out of here and away from you cowards, now!"
She nodded to a servant who picked Ezra up from the floor. She brushed passed Josiah but found her exit blocked by Chris.
"What is it?!" she snapped.
"You said you'd pay us to find him," Chris stated. "We found him." He held out his hand.
Maude produced the small purse full of coins she'd had at the tavern. She threw it in Chris's face, but his reflexes were too quick for her, and he snatched it from the air before it hit him. He moved aside and allowed her to pass.
"He's a good soldier," he called after her. "Take care that he is trained well."
Maude ignored him and disappeared into the night.
Buck whistled softly as he held Jaydee, who had finally realized he was safe and had stopped crying.
"That lady was mad," Jaydee said.
"Yep, little bit, that she was."
"Who was she?"
Buck saw an opportunity. "Jaydee, where is your mama?"
"She's a star, up in the sky."
Buck frowned. "Is she now?"
"That's what Vin said. Vin's mama is a star, too."
"What about your daddy? And Vin's daddy?"
"Stars," Jaydee sighed, then shrugged. "Maybe not Vin's daddy. He's an elf. They live a long time, so maybe he's a star, and maybe he's not."
"Do you have any aunts? Uncles?"
"Vin's mama was my aunt. And my mama was Vin's aunt. That's because we are cousins."
That was no help at all if both women were dead.
Jaydee touched the bandages on his eyes. "I can't see anything." He sounded more annoyed than afraid.
Buck pulled his hands down. "Leave them be, little bit. They will help your eyes get better."
Surprisingly, Jaydee complied. He yawned and leaned his head against Buck's chest. "I wish my mama wasn't a star," he said softly.
Buck didn't know what to say to that. He wrapped his arms around the tiny boy. "It's okay, little bit, you got ol' Buck now "
Buck could scarcely believe the words coming out of his mouth, or the reassuring warmth of the tiny boy nestled trustingly in his lap. He liked kids, but he had never really known any well, and because he liked both his work and his freedom, he had never entertained thoughts of having his own. Even so, holding Jaydee seemed right somehow. He was a cute little guy - small, but sturdy, with straight, shiny hair that was as black as any Buck had ever seen. He'd let no harm come to him.
Buck failed to notice the frown on Chris's face.
After a good night's sleep, Vin and Jaydee were surprisingly alert. Nathan's abilities had replenished themselves enough that he was able to mend most of the damage to Vin's shoulder. Vin also appeared to have at least some ability to heal quickly, so though his shoulder was still somewhat stiff and sore, he didn't appear to be in too much discomfort.
With the remarkable adaptability children had, Jaydee had turned his blindness into a game. He wandered about the large main room, fingering objects that came into reach and trying to guess what they were. Amazingly, after one complete tour, he seemed able to remember the exact location of everything. The little boy had an uncommonly quick mind, but he was still a very young child and lacked foresight - if it had even occurred to him that his blindness may be permanent, the implications of that possibility certainly had not. He had found Ezra's sword and was happily swinging it in as he battled an imaginary foe that he could see only in his head.
Vin watched him in silence. The little elf was clearly not as comfortable with his surroundings as Jaydee was. He'd allowed Chris to carry him to the outbuildings, and then endured having his hands and face washed, but unlike Jaydee who seemed to entertain himself with his own chatter, Vin had very little to say.
Nettie had laundered the Jaydee's threadbare clothing and had returned it early that morning. The garments were stained and worn, and close to being outgrown. The men had managed to come up with a soft old shirt for Vin, which hung to past his knees. It had been a long while since either child had new clothes, of that Nettie was certain. She had taken measurements and vowed to rectify that with a visit to the marketplace.
Josiah prepared honeycakes and fruit for the boys' breakfast. When it was ready, Chris went to Vin's cot and held out his hand to the young elf. "You want to see if you can walk to the table?" he said. Nathan suspected the boy may not be able to walk at all, but Chris somehow sensed that Vin would rather know that and face it than pretend it might not be true.
With Chris's help, he dropped his legs over the edge of the bed and holding onto Chris's hand, he tried to get to his feet.
It was soon apparent that he couldn't stand without support, and Nathan quickly moved to his side and took his other hand. Slowly, the three of them walked to the table with Vin taking small, unsteady steps, his knees and ankles threatening to buckle under his slight weight.
Nathan met Chris's questioning look and shook his head. He was at a loss with this type of injury. As a healer, he could mend tissue and bone, or force a fever from the body, if need be, but some things were beyond the scope of the type of knowledge and powers he had.
Jaydee continued to brandish the sword and his play seemed so natural that the others momentarily forgot the boy couldn't see. Buck gasped in horror as Jaydee came up behind Vin and brought the sword down on Vin's shoulder with determined slice that would surely cut Vin badly, if not take his arm off. Josiah saw it, too and made a bare-handed dive for the sword, even though he knew he'd be too late. Time seemed to slow then, as they watched the blade swoop down, but an instant before it struck Vin, it seemed to suddenly freeze in mid-air. Jaydee stood holding the sword, puzzled. He hadn't hit anything, but the sword had just stopped. He couldn't move it to lower it or lift it.
Josiah laughed with relief. "So it is enchanted," he said, gently taking the weapon from Jaydee and admiring it. "It knows friend from foe and will do a friend no harm."
"Bysha be thanked," Buck sighed, realizing he and the others were going to have to keep better watch over these little ones.
"Can I keep it?" Jaydee asked.
Buck picked him up. "Sorry, little bit, but it's Ezra's. We'll have to see if his mama will let him have it back."
Jaydee nodded. "Why is Vin walking funny?"
Buck frowned. "How do you know he's walking funny?"
Jaydee shrugged. "His feet don't sound right."
Buck had to strain his ears to listen, but Jaydee was right. You could hear the soft shuffling of Vin's feet as he dragged them laboriously across the floor. The little elf paid Jaydee no mind. He was concentrating on getting to the table, determined to do it even though the pain and effort were evident on his face. Buck could tell Chris was fighting the urge to just carry him as both he and Nathan took small, slow steps with Vin holding their hands in a death grip so he wouldn't fall.
"Vin hurt his back," Buck explained. "Sometimes, when that happens, your legs don't work the way they should."
"Forever?" The concern in the little boy's voice belied his young years.
"Sometimes." Buck was honest. "But not always." He sat Jaydee down at the table.
"If my eyes don't work and Vin's legs don't work, nobody is ever going to want us," Jaydee observed.
"Nobody wanted us before, Jaydee," Vin said matter-of-factly, and then regretted it when he realized he suddenly had the attention of the four men. He looked self-consciously at his food.
"What do you mean, Vin?" Chris asked him.
Vin just shrugged.
"Who was taking care of you?" Nathan prodded.
"No one," Vin said. "I was takin' care of Jaydee."
Josiah put an comforting hand on Vin's uninjured shoulder. "What happened to your folks, Vin?"
Vin's eyes widened and he looked first at Jaydee, then imploringly at the men around him. "They went to be stars," he said, and though they knew Vin didn't believe that, they also knew they'd get no more than that out of him in Jaydee's presence.
The uncomfortable silence that followed was interrupted by Jaydee. "Can we eat now?"
The tension broken, Buck and the others laughed. "Well, that's why we're here!" he said, and taking Jaydee's hand, he helped him find the food in front of him. The boy was barely tall enough to reach his plate. He'd have to make a higher chair for him .
Buck cut that thought short. What was he thinking? It wasn't as if the boys were staying
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