Maude Standish was jolted from a light sleep by her son's terrified screams. She was at his side in an instant but he didn't know she was there.
In his fevered delirium, he was reliving some horror that she could only imagine. All she could do was hold him close and whisper soothing words to him until the sound of her voice quieted him. His little body trembled and he stared blankly, pupils so large that his eyes looked almost black instead of the remarkable crystal green that was their natural color.
Ezra was an uncommonly beautiful child, and that was not just an opinion that stemmed from a mother's pride. He looked much like his father, whom she had loved dearly in the way of the young, naïve and stupid young girl she had once been.
"Oh Ezra, darlin', what have they done to you?" She drew the boy as close as she could and kissed his forehead. It was damp with sweat and he was so hot. She knew he was in pain, and all that had been done for him had been to no avail. Three healers had seen him, and all had repeated the advice that the wizard mercenary had given her.
She was angry, but didn't know at whom. Ezra's father had cursed the little boy with powers no child should have, but had they not been Ezra's to command, the boy would surely have perished at Beggar's Pass. That he was there at all was something for which she blamed herself. In her effort to protect him from what he was, she had denied him the company of other children, and as a result he'd been drawn to those filthy urchins and the danger they had placed him in.
She scoffed at her own assumptions. The 'filthy urchins' were only children themselves, and as blameless as Ezra. "My foolish child," she whispered. "What will become of you now?"
She was aware that her instincts as a mother were often lacking, but she could not love Ezra any more than she did, no matter what he was, and she could not bear to see him suffer another moment. She called for a servant.
"Go to the wizard Josiah, and tell him to come at once. Offer him any amount necessary."
+ + + + + + +
In less than a candlemark, Josiah was there. He had taken no money for his services.
Maude showed him to a room where Ezra lay on bed that would have accommodated ten children his size, covered in elegantly embroidered quilts and wearing a nightshirt of the finest linen. Josiah knew how desperate his mother must have been to have called for him when certainly she could afford almost anything the boy could possibly want or need.
The child looked very bad. Part of it was the spell flashback, but Maude explained they had not been able to feed the boy or get him to take more than an occasional sip of water, so his strength was rapidly failing.
Josiah removed his cloak, and then pulled Ezra's covers down to his waist. The sudden chill caused the tremors to intensify and Maude moved to replace the blankets.
"No." Josiah held up a hand to motion her back. "His head and chest must be bare." He sat the little boy up and removed the nightshirt, then positioned him on the bed so that he could stand directly behind Ezra's head.
Mindful of the bandages covering the burns, he gently took each of Ezra's little hands in his own and crossed them directly over the boy's heart. There was no incantation for removing a flashback, but it required Josiah's intense concentration. He focused on the boy's heartbeat on the blood rushing through his veins, and matched his own lifesigns to Ezra's.
He could feel the energy of the spell emanating from the child's very skin, like tiny unseen sparks.
Ezra whimpered softly. Josiah didn't wonder that the boy suffered, for the tiny pinpricks he felt on his own skin were likely amplified a thousandfold within Ezra's body, searing his vital organs and bones, and making his very blood seem to boil in his veins.
He grasped either side of Ezra's head, and could almost visualize the nightmarish thoughts that filled it. Like Vin and Jaydee, Ezra had seen unimaginable horrors at Beggar's Pass, and the memory was still with him, to be seen over and over again in his fevered dreams.
Blocking out everything but the one small life he held in his hands, Josiah uttered the simple command, "Give ."
Josiah shuddered as the energy from Ezra's body rushed into his own with a force that would have brought him to his knees had he not been expecting it. For Ezra to have survived the incident at Beggar's Pass at all was indication that the young wizard possessed abilities far beyond what Josiah's had been at that age. Proper tutelage was essential not only if he was going to learn to control them, but if he was going to survive them.
Gradually, Ezra began to relax until finally, his body was still and his breathing even and unlabored. Josiah finished by removing from Ezra's mind the memories of blood and carnage that no child need carry.
Ezra blinked and then rubbed his eyes. Josiah backed away so that the first thing the child saw would be Maude.
"Mother?" Ezra frowned and then looked about the room as she took his hand. "How did I get here? Why are we at the summer house?"
Maude smiled. "You don't remember?"
Ezra sat up and rubbed his eyes again, and then seemed to recall at least some of the events of the past few days. "Vin and Jaydee I was supposed to watch Jaydee " He looked up in alarm.
"Shhhh Don't trouble yourself with it, darlin'," Maude soothed, but looked to Josiah for help.
"Vin and Jaydee are with my friends," Josiah said.
"Who are you?" Ezra blinked again.
"My name is Josiah I'm "
"You've been very, very ill, Ezra." Maude gave Josiah a cautionary look. "Josiah is here to help you get well."
"Oh thank you," Ezra said. Then he looked around and spotted a servant. "I'm hungry. Bring me food," he ordered, sounding to Josiah much like the spoiled rich brat he quite probably was.
Josiah smiled and shook his head. The little wizard had much to learn. He hoped that Maude could see that now.
Two days passed, and Vin and Jaydee were healing in spirit as well as in body. At first, they had been plagued with nightmares which Vin refused to talk about. Jaydee had been more forthcoming, though, and it became evident that as much courage and resourcefulness that the two little boys possessed, nothing had prepared them for the blatant terror that was actual combat. The fact that they had been captured and would have met a horrible fate had circumstances not intervened was also a heavy weight for them to bear.
On the second day, Josiah had attempted to do as he had done with Ezra, and draw the worst of the memories from their minds. He had found Vin surprisingly unwilling to give them up, as if even those bad memories were a part of who he was now. Jaydee, who had been protected from the more gruesome visual aspects of the battle by Ezra, was more pliant, but he also had an astonishing memory, so he, too was a challenge. Josiah didn't want the fear of battle to leave them completely, for that would leave them foolhardy and therefore vulnerable, but he hoped he had taken just enough of the fear away that they would be able to sleep as children should, with only an occasional nightmare creeping in to disrupt their dreams.
Other changes included a new wardrobe for both boys, paid for by Maude Standish's reward money. Jaydee wasn't the least bit interested in his new clothes - in fact, when Buck had helped him out of his old things, he'd been perfectly happy to prance about the room in his birthday suit. Vin, on the other hand, had seemed uncertain as to whether or not he should accept the gifts, even though he obviously had no real choice. Among the clothing Nettie had selected for him was a scarlet shirt with a hood, and Chris could tell immediately that the boy liked it. Without waiting for him to say so, Chris had slipped it on over his head, and for the first time, he'd seen a child-like delight in the little boy's eyes, if only for a brief moment.
Jaydee had been good about not bothering the bandages on his eyes, and Buck had taken him out walking and made a game out of having him listen to the sounds around him and try to guess what they were. Jaydee was having fun, but it weighed heavily on Buck's heart that the little boy might be learning a skill he'd need later if his sight never returned.
Vin still couldn't walk well, and that worried Chris. It worried Vin, too.
Chris sat in a newly-constructed chair, courtesy of Buck, tending an old piece of body armor. It was a leather jerkin covered with brass rings. Not as heavy or confining as chainmail, it still provided ample protection. It was worn past its usefulness, the seams frayed and weak. Parts of it were still quite serviceable, though, and that had given Nathan an idea. The healer thought it might be possible to ease some of the discomfort in Vin's back if his spine could somehow be stabilized. He had suggested to Chris the idea of cutting the body armor down to fit the boy, knowing Vin would probably accept the idea more readily if it was presented that way.
Vin sat at his feet on a blanket Nathan had spread out before the hearth. "What's going to happen?" he asked Chris.
Vin looked down at his legs, now covered by warm knitted leggings and small leather boots. "If can't take care of Jaydee. If there ain't nobody who wants us."
"You don't have to worry about that anymore, Vin," Chris assured him.
Vin pondered this a moment and without lifting his head asked, "What if I can't be a soldier? It's what I am supposed to do."
Chris wanted to smile and tell Vin he was just a little boy, but then he realized that wasn't true. Vin was a soldier, a good a brave one. He tucked a finger under his chin and lifted his head back up. "There are other things you can do, Vin." Although, quite honestly, Chris couldn't think of any of them.
Vin cast his eyes downward again. "I don't even have my bow anymore."
Chris hadn't even thought of that when he'd carried the boy off the battlefield. It occurred to him only now that the bow was not a toy - it was a real, serviceable weapon made for this one very small archer. Vin must have treasured it, and now, like everything else the little boy had known, it was gone.
Chris wanted to tell him if he couldn't find it, he'd get him another one, but he didn't know how he'd be able to do that, so he made no promises. "Where did you get that bow, Vin?"
Vin shrugged. "I found it. In the woods."
Chris found that hard to believe, but he took the boy at his word. "Who taught you to shoot?"
His answer surprised him. "Jaydee."
"He's younger than you, Vin," Chris said. He doubted little Jaydee had mastered enough coordination to draw a bow with any degree of accuracy.
Vin shrugged. "Jaydee knows things."
"I dunno . Everything. He knows how to make stuff work. Nobody has to teach him, he just knows ."
Vin averted his gaze again, as if he'd said more than he meant to. Chris decided to change the subject for now. "I'll go back to Beggar's Pass tomorrow and see if I can find your bow."
Vin looked back up at him. He didn't smile - that was something they had yet to see - but he looked pleased.
"I don't know if I can be a good soldier anymore," he sighed.
"I tell you what you let us worry about that for you, okay?"
Their gazes met and Chris was captivated by the boy's deep blue eyes. They seemed much too old this little one had shouldered too heavy a burden for too long. Impulsively, Chris lifted the boy into his lap, mindful of his sore back.
Vin didn't resist. He seemed to welcome the affection. Chris felt a lump in his throat as he wondered how long it had been since anyone had held the little boy close. He squirmed slightly, trying to get comfortable.
"Back hurt?" Chris asked him.
Vin hesitated a moment, but then nodded. Chris slipped his hand under the boy's shirt and began to gently massage the knotted muscles. Vin sighed gratefully and soon dozed off in Chris's arms.
Chris looked down at him as he slept, his heart aching with the memory of another time and another little boy now lost to him forever. He imagined his own son having being left alone like this one, with no one to look after even his basic needs for food, clothing and shelter.
In Adam's short life, he had never known a day where he was not loved and cherished. As he noted how Vin's ears gently tapered to perfect points that would always give evidence to his mixed heritage, he wondered what life had been like for him even before he was orphaned. The Cleric Mosely had killed his own daughter upon learning that she carried an elf's child. Vin would need protection from the consequences of such prejudice until he reached manhood - longer if he never regained the use of his legs.
He had to be practical, though. The life he led - a soldier's life - was not one meant to include a child, a fact to which Buck was increasingly oblivious as Chris watched him grow closer to Jaydee with each passing day.
They would have to find homes for the boys soon.
As he promised, Chris rode out to Beggar's Pass the next morning. Because rumor had spread of the frightening and mysterious "magic" that had ended the battle, looters hadn't picked the battlefield clean yet.
He rode to the spot where he had first spotted Vin, deciding to retrace the path to where he had picked him up out of the mud. With luck, Vin had dropped the bow somewhere and it hadn't been taken from him.
Chris found the bow in a most unexpected place, in the hands of a warrior elf sitting astride a splendid black horse. He looked out of place on the worn battlefield, not only because the battle was long over, but because he seemed not to be one who would give his loyalties to either the greedy minions of Colonel Anderson or a peasant village. He was clearly of noble birth, as evidenced by his clothing and armor, all of which bore a crest of a silver wolf. He wore a sword in a scabbard on his left side, but Chris sensed that the magnificent elven bow swung across his back was his true weapon of choice.
The elf studied Vin's small bow with his fingers, tracing the curves and ornate in-lays that decorated it. It was now missing the bowstring, but in the heat of battle, Chris hadn't noticed what a truly beautiful thing it was, and wondered how it had happened that Vin had simply found it. He saw its similarity to the bow carried by the elf soldier and realized that Vin's bow was also likely made by an elven craftsman.
He noted a marked sadness about the elf, although it was more in the gentle way he handled the bow than on his face, which betrayed no emotion at all.
Startled, the elf looked up at him, and Chris realized he hadn't seen him ride up when he reached for his sword to defend himself. Chris held up his hands to show he meant no harm.
The elf relaxed and Chris saw that he appeared to be not much more than seventeen or eighteen, but he knew that with elves, appearances could be deceiving. He could easily have been twice that age, although by elf standards, he was very young.
His long, pale hair seemed to float on the slight breeze that passed through the canyon. His eyes were blue, and he was tall and slender, but not gangly. There was a powerful grace about him that told Chris he'd be a worthy ally or adversary in a fight.
Chris nodded at the bow. "The soldier who owns that would like it back."
For the briefest moment, Chris thought he saw relief in the elf's eyes, but the emotion was quickly controlled. "So he is well, then?" the elf asked simply.
"He is mending."
The elf looked down at the weapon. "Such a small bow," he said sadly.
"Such a small soldier," Chris nodded.
The elf straightened in his saddle and surveyed the area, now littered with the debris of armed conflict. "I heard there would be a battle here. I came as quickly as I could, but the distance was too great."
Chris nodded. "Many died bravely."
The elf raised the bow slightly. "But not him?"
"No. Not him."
"He fought, this little soldier?"
Chris nodded. "He fought well."
The elf handed over the bow and then slipped off a silver circlet he wore on his wrist. The metal was pure and the workmanship that of a master silversmith. It was clearly valuable. "Take this, for his care."
For some reason, Chris didn't even consider refusing the gift. He nodded and placed the bracelet on his own wrist.
The young elf took up the reins of his horse, wheeling the animal around as he prepared to ride off. Chris didn't expect to hear any more from this strange soldier, but after he'd ridden a short distance he turned again to face Chris.
"Tell me, is he a good archer?"
Chris answered him with the truth. "He's the best I've ever seen."
The corners of the elf's mouth turned up in the slightest hint of a smile, before he turned again and was gone.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was delighted to have his bow back and Chris assured him they'd have it restrung as soon as possible. Chris wondered if he should tell him about the strange encounter with the blond elf, but decided against it. He and Jaydee seemed to be slowly putting their experience at Beggar's Pass behind them, and he didn't want to do anything to upset them.
Vin was walking better, now able to move about the room holding onto the furniture. The next day, they would take the boys to the market place where, unknown to them, three families Nettie had found who might be willing to take them in would be able to get a look at them.
Nathan was opposed to the idea, saying it was too much as though they were "selling" the boys, but Vin was a shy, private child who likely would not do well if such an encounter were held openly, and Jaydee stuck to Buck like a burr so it wasn't likely that he would take well the idea that he might be leaving them soon.
This wasn't going to be easy for any of them.
After they had supper that night, Nathan decided to remove the bandages from Jaydee's eyes. The little boy had been very good about keeping them on, but he was excited about seeing his surroundings for the first time. Buck had tried to tell him it was possible everything would still be dark "for awhile" but Jaydee would hear none of it.
The light in the room was reduced to three candles, so that Jaydee's eyes would not be overwhelmed. The little boy bounced up and down with excitement as Nathan sat him on the table, chattering away as he gently peeled off the layers of bandages.
Vin watched with apprehension. He had seen Jaydee's face after the boomer had exploded, and he was afraid that his eyes would both look like an old soldier he was once who only had a big black hole where one eye should have been, and that would be scary.
Nathan cautioned Jaydee to keep his eyes closed while he used warm water to gently wash the area around them. Nathan had healed the deeper cuts on his face and then applied a healing salve to the others and was relieved to see that there would likely be no deep scars. Much of the bruising had faded, too, and Jaydee looked like he'd had little more than a common childhood accident rather than disabling injury. The final evidence, though, would soon be revealed.
"Okay, Jaydee," Nathan said finally, "open your eyes slowly..."
Jaydee's eyes shot open, wide with impatience. Nathan held one of the candles up close and was pleased to see Jaydee''s pupils react. The little boy squinted against the light and blinked several times.
Everyone was awaiting the verdict when Vin got directly to the point. "Can you see, Jaydee?"
Jaydee gazed around the room and shrugged. "It's dark in here," he said finally.
Nathan's heart sank, but then Jaydee added, "We need more candles." He looked directly at Buck. "Hi, Buck!"
Buck's laugh came from deep inside as he picked Jaydee up and gave him a big hug.
Oddly, everyone seemed relieved except for Vin. Chris didn't think it was that he wasn't happy for Jaydee, so he couldn't imagine what was troubling the boy.
"I tell you what," Buck said. "Tomorrow, we'll go to the marketplace to celebrate!"
"What's a mark'place?" Jaydee asked.
Buck found it hard to believe that no one had ever taken Jaydee from the Blackcliffe to a market in any of the nearby towns.
"We never left the mountain, before" Vin explained.
Chris frowned. "Never?"
Vin shook his head.
"Oh you'll love it, Little Bit!" Buck said. "There's games and all kinds of fun things to see and good things to eat and lots of people."
Vin shrank away at the mention of crowds. Jaydee noticed.
"Vin doesn't like lots of people," he said. "They scare him."
"DO NOT!" Vin shouted angrily. "I ain't afraid of nothin'!"
"It's okay, Vin," Chris put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm not too fond of crowds, myself, but I think you'll have fun."
Vin shrugged his hand off, and walked away on unsteady legs. He eased himself down in front of the fire, and sat staring at the flames.
Jaydee, quieted by Vin's outburst, nestled his head against Buck's shoulder, tears in his big, dark eyes.
None of the men knew what troubled the two little boys. They could only hope that their new family - if they found one - would show them kindness and patience.
The market place hummed with people and livestock - everything from bees guaranteed to produce copious volumes of honey to sheep who reportedly sprouted the softest wool to be found anywhere.
Both boys were apprehensive at first. Vin had insisted on walking, holding onto Chris and Nathan for support, but it was slow and painful and there was the constant threat of being roughly jostled by the crowd. Jaydee was so small he couldn't see anything but other people's legs. He was wearing Ezra's sword in a scabbard Buck had fashioned for him. It was attached to a harness instead of a belt, because the weapon was longer than Jaydee's legs, and that was the only way to keep it from dragging on the ground. Buck had to be careful he didn't trip on it and get stepped on.
There were sights that the men realized the boys had never expected to encounter in a non-threatening setting, and they were frightened by them rather than amused. A magician entertained a group of children by appearing to pull his thumb from his hand. It was trick as old as time, and after an initial shock, Jaydee caught on that it was a hoax, but Vin ducked behind Chris and hid his face against Chris's leg so he didn't have to look. Chris reached down and gently stroked the boy's soft curls.
"It's a trick, Vin. Don't be afraid."
Vin trusted him and dared to look up, a little smile appearing when the magician put his thumb back into place.
Jaydee laughed and and clapped his hands together, then, he tried the trick himself. "Look, Buck! I pulled-ed my fumb off!"
Buck pretended to be shocked. "OH NO!" he wailed.
Jaydee laughed and "replaced" his thumb.
Buck patted his chest and pretended to be relieved. "Bysha be thanked," he gasped.
Jaydee was still laughing over his new-found skill when a performer walked by guiding two large trained bears that looked like they could eat a tiny boy in one bite. One of them turned in the boy's direction and sniffed. Jaydee's laughter abruptly ceased and was replaced with an expression that could only be described as pure terror. Buck bent down to pick the little boy up, and Jaydee literally climbed him to get away from the animal.
The keeper tried to pull the animals way, but the one that had sniffed Jaydee stubbornly refused to budge. Vin reached out to touch it and the bear bellowed loudly.
Jaydee covered his ears and screamed.
Chris tried to be gentle as he pulled Vin away from the animal.
The bears' keeper apologized. "They don't usually act this way," he said.
Chris was about to tell him what he could do with his bears when Vin broke free of his grasp and approached the irritated animal. "Vin!" he gasped.
Chris dared not make any sudden moves and was forced to watch as Vin grabbed the fur on either side of the angry bear's head. Amazingly, the animal became suddenly docile and allowed Vin to pet it as though it were a cat or dog.
"He's not mean," Vin spoke to no one in particular. "He's just tired and wants his supper."
"Aye, that be the truth," the bear's keeper said, laughing. "They know we're heading home."
As Vin continued to pet the bear, the beast closed its eyes and savored the attention.
The bearkeeper smiled at Vin. "The wee elf has the magic," he told Chris.
Chris frowned. "How did you know he was an elf?" Vin's long hair covered his ears.
"I didn't," the man laughed, "but the bear did."
Chris and the others had seen the how the bear had instantly gentled under Vin's touch. He looked to Nathan and Josiah, who were more knowledgeable about such matters than he was.
Josiah nodded. "Elves have a connection to the creatures of the forest. I suspect the animals sense that in Vin."
Jaydee was another story. He still had his ears covered and now his eyes were clamped tightly shut. He wanted to get away from the big scary bears.
Chris let Vin say good-bye to the bears and then picked him up. He had already seen that walking was difficult for the boy, and elf or not, he didn't want any more encounters with dangerous animals. Buck put Jaydee up on his shoulders where he could see everything.
Vin's unease with the crowd was slowly overcome by his natural curiosity as they passed the various merchants and their wares. There was an area set up for gaming and the men headed in that general direction. They stopped first at the arrowsmith's, leaving Vin's bow to be restrung and ordering arrows to replace the ones he'd lost. Vin asked how those services would be paid for, and again, Chris thought about telling him about the strange elf he'd met. Instead, he'd given him a vague reply about an anonymous benefactor who had heard how brave Vin was.
They passed a stand that sold fruit pies, and Chris noticed Vin eyeing them. "You hungry, Vin?" he asked.
Vin shrugged noncommittally. Chris knew he'd never ask for anything.
There were two sizes, and the merchant explained that the smaller ones, which were half as wide as the larger ones, were, therefore, half the price. Chris had set Jaydee down to pay for the pies and the little boy stood on tiptoe eyeing the pastries. He reached up and pulled on Buck's shirt.
"What is it, little bit?"
"The little pies are too much," Jaydee said.
Chris laughed. "That's okay if you can't finish it, Buck will."
Jaydee shook his head. "No a big pie is the same as four little ones, not two."
The merchant laughed at him. "Anyone can see that this pie," he pointed to a small one, "is half as wide as this one."
"Yeah, Jaydee, don't be dumb," Vin said.
Jaydee was the picture of irritation. "It has to be almost this wide ." He poked a grubby finger at one of the larger pies, trying to indicate the measure he was talking about.
The merchant stopped him. "If you're going to paw them, you have to buy them."
Jaydee folded his arms across his chest.
"Give us two of the little ones," Buck said, winking at the merchant.
Jaydee sighed, disappointed. He knew he was right, but supposed it didn't matter because a big pie was the same as four little ones, so if he ate half a big one, that was the same as eating two little ones and that would give him a tummy ache.
They found a spot under a tree to eat. Chris noticed Nettie in the crowd with one of the three families she hoped to convince to take the boys. He excused himself and went to meet them.
Nettie formally introduced them, although Chris recognized the husband from having seen him at the tavern more often than a family man should have been there. He was a farmer, and Chris's suspicion that he had his eyes on the boys as potential farm hands was confirmed when he heard him talking to Nettie.
"You didn't mention that the half-blood child was lame," he said accusingly.
"His name's Vin," Chris interrupted. "And he was wounded at Beggar's Pass. I am sure you heard about it over a tankard of ale."
The farmer noted the rebuke, but continued. "The other one is very small ." The clear implication was that he wouldn't be able to get much work out of Jaydee, either.
"Children shouldn't have to earn their keep," Chris said sourly.
"They could do worse than my home. I would not beat or starve them."
Chris had to concede that was probably true. He had never known the man to be in any way violent, and judging from his girth, food was plentiful in his household.
He conferred with his wife, and then turned back to Nettie. "We will be happy to take the little one, but I fear we can't provide for both, especially if they aren't able to work."
Chris looked at Vin, who was staring straight at him. He smiled and lifted his hand to acknowledge him. Vin knew what was going on, he was sure of it.
He glanced at Nettie, hoping she saw the disapproval in his eyes. These people would not get Jaydee or Vin if he could avoid it.
Chris returned to where the boys were sitting.
"Who is that?" Vin asked casually.
"Oh, just an old friend of mine," Chris lied. "He was just wondering if Jaydee needed a home." He waited to see Vin's reaction to that, and immediately regretted it when he saw the child's shoulders slump and he hung his head. That was when he knew that he would not give up one boy without the other.
Jaydee looked up, his face smeared with purple juice from the berries in his pie. "I wanna stay with Buck," he said.
Buck pulled him close, not minding how sticky he was. "Hey, little bit Ol' Buck is a soldier You need a mama and a papa who can look after you proper."
"I already got a mama. She's just a star. And I don't need a papa, if I got you."
"Oh, how touching. My heart breaks!" a little voice said from behind them. An instant later, Ezra plopped down on his back on the ground in front of them, dramatically clutching his chest.
"Ezra!" Vin and Jaydee said at the same time.
Josiah glanced around and spotted one of Lady Standish's servants hovering nearby, but Maude was nowhere to be seen.
Ezra sat up cross-legged in the dirt. "You have to stay with these soldiers. Nobody wants you."
Looking quickly at Vin, Chris could see Ezra's remark stung.
"You don't know that," Chris told him.
Ezra dusted off his clothing - a purple velvet shirt embroidered with silver, and matched leggings - apparently unmindful of the fact that he was still sitting in the dirt. "Yes I do. Mother had dinner guests last night and everyone was talking about them." He pointed to Vin and Jaydee.
There was no malice in Ezra's words, just a child's brutal honesty.
Jaydee looked at Vin and Vin cast his eyes downward until Ezra added, "Soldiers should be with soldiers, anyway. Maybe I'll live with you, too."
Vin gave Chris a piercing look.
"Your mother might have something to say about that," Josiah reminded Ezra.
Ezra stood up and drew his sword - a brand new one, this one a bit longer and heavier that the one Jaydee was wearing. "I, sir, am my own man," he boasted, as if he were challenging the older wizard.
"Hey, a new sword!" Jaydee was on his feet in an instant, examining the weapon.
Ezra was proud of it. Preston Wingo had been saving it for his upcoming tenth birthday, but he had given it to him early, saying he had earned it for fighting at Beggar's Pass. He'd had the other one since he was six, and Preston said he needed a bigger one, and wasn't even mad that he lost the first one. Or at least, he though he had. He noticed Jaydee was wearing it, even though it almost dragged on the ground. Jaydee was really little.
"What are you going to do with your old one?" Jaydee asked hopefully.
"Oh I dunno " Ezra pondered, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe find some runty little baby to give it to ."
"Me!" Jaydee clapped his hands together. "Me! Give it to me!"
Ezra pretended to think it over awhile longer, and then, he ceremoniously laid the tip of his sword on Jaydee's shoulder. "Let it thus be so."
"Mine!" Jaydee squealed triumphantly, drawing the sword and holding it high in the air. "Let's fight!"
Nathan was quickly on his feet, grabbing a small wrist in each hand. "Let's not and pretend we did."
"Put 'em away, boys," Chris said. "It's not safe to brandish weapons when there are civilians around."
The two boys sheathed their swords without argument. Ezra looked towards the gaming area. "Want to go play some games?" he asked Vin. For all of his bravado earlier, there was just a hint of hesitation in his voice, as if he expected Vin to say no.
"Okay," Vin said, and then struggled to get to his feet. Finally, Nathan had to help him.
"What's the matter with you?" Ezra asked.
"Got hurt," Vin shrugged.
"One of the bad men frowed him down the rocks!" Jaydee said. "They were going to eat us, huh Vin?"
Vin nodded solemnly.
"I know," Ezra said. "That's why I made the lightning."
"You did not," Vin scoffed. "No one can make lightning."
The older men didn't know how to respond to Ezra being called a liar. The fact was that the boy had summoned lightning, but it was equally true that it was unwise for him to be boasting about such an ability in a public place.
Ezra was clearly not used to be challenged, and Vin's doubt irritated him, but he said, "I don't care if you believe me." Although, really, he did.
Nathan distracted them by reminding them that there were games to be played.
The gaming area wasn't far, so Chris cut a sturdy branch from the tree they sat under and used his knife to quickly fashioned a small walking stick for Vin, knowing the boy would rather get there under his own power if he could.
Josiah gave Vin and Jaydee a couple of coins each, and the three boys headed off with the adults following at a discrete distance.
Jaydee had no interest in the games for the smaller children. He followed Vin and Ezra as they went from booth to booth, carefully choosing the first place to try their luck.
They came to a table upon which had been placed small, flat six-sided wooden boxes with a hole at each corner. The player was given six round beads that would only fit a fraction into each of the holes. The object was to move the box and get a bead to lodge in each corner without touching the beads themselves. Several children and a few adults were attempting it, without result. It was easy to get beads into two corners, and with some effort, three. But as soon as the box was tipped so that a fourth bead would roll into a corner, one or more of the other three were dislodged.
Jaydee studied the puzzle just long enough to blink his eyes. He paid for a box and beads, and then got on his knees in the dirt and cleared a flat spot. He set his box down, dropped the beads in, and then, grabbing opposite sides, he gave the box a good spin. When it stopped moving, there was a bead in each corner. He carefully lifted his box to claim his prize as the four men looked on somewhat humbled. None of them would have thought to solve the puzzle that way.
None of the other players had actually seen how Jaydee had done it, and the proprietor bent down and whispered something in his ear. Jaydee grinned broadly and nodded his head eagerly. He then selected two prizes, a large leather ball stuffed with rags, and a prism.
He came running back to Buck to show him what he'd won. "The man said I could have two prizes if I don't tell anyone how I did the trick."
"How did you know to do that, Little Bit?" Buck asked.
Jaydee shrugged. "I dunno . This makes rainbows, see?" He held the prism so that it caught the sunlight and cast a band of colors against his hand.
"That it does!" Buck laughed, amazed that such an obviously bright child could still show such childlike wonder at something so simple.
Vin had given up on the bead game and Ezra was ready to try something else.
The next game involved a flat, notched stick balanced over a fulcrum. There were metal weights of varying sizes provided and the idea was for the game master to position the stick over the fulcrum at a randomly selected notch, and for the player to guess the correct weights to get it to balance. Only one try was allowed, and Buck watched curiously as Jaydee studied the other players for a just a few moments before deciding to take a turn at it. He proceeded to play 6 times, and each time, he balanced the stick perfectly. He would have kept on going, but the game master wouldn't let him since he'd already won the grand prize, which was a small carved wooden treasure chest filled with sweets.
The next game required the player to choose his prize first, and then attempt to win it. There was a long, narrow tray into which fit small square tiles colored red, green, yellow and blue. A player was required to briefly view a stick painted with bands of those same colors and then duplicate the color sequence from memory. The most modest prize required matching a sequence of 12. Jaydee opted for the biggest prize, which required replicating a series of 50 colors. The gamesman smirked as he took Jaydee's money from him. Buck almost intervened, but, he wanted to see if Jaydee could actually do it.
Unfortunately, people had begun to notice Jaydee by this time, and the task seemed impossible even for an intelligent adult, so with an audience looking on, the gamemaster showed Jaydee the painted stick for a brief moment and then hid it from view. Jaydee's tiny fingers went to work sliding tiles into the tray. He hesitated a couple of times, and rearranged a tile or two, but when the stick was laid against his pattern, the match was perfect.
The crowd gasped in awe and one woman cried out, "Bewitched! The child is bewitched!!"
An alarming number of people seemed to agree with her.
The men moved to form a protective circle around the little boy, but before they could accomplish that, the woman had the tip of a small sword pressed against her nose.
"Mind your tongue, you decrep-ted old hag!" Ezra commanded.
Josiah sighed. The little wizard was in bad need of discipline that was not his place to mete out.
Vin stood behind Ezra, facing the crowd at Ezra's back and holding his walking stick up like a battle staff. "Leave him alone!"
The four men moved in. Nathan tried to calm the threatened woman as Buck tossed Jaydee up on his shoulders, and Chris picked Vin up in his arms. Josiah grabbed Ezra around the waist and took his sword. "Come on, boys," he said. "The fun's over."
"I want my prize!" Jaydee shouted.
Buck sighed and glared at the crowd, daring them to challenge the four-and-two-halves mercenaries guarding Jaydee. "Give him his prize," he ordered the game master.
The man reluctantly handed over a small leather purse filled with gold coins. Jaydee seemed more impressed by the jingling sound they made when he shook it than with their actual value.
"I wanna play some more!" he protested.
"You don't want to win everything in one day," Buck teased him "Then it wouldn't be any fun to come back."
Before Jaydee could argue, a hostler named Blagros walked by leading a big black horse with a blaze of white on its nose and white stockings on its hind feet. It wore no saddle and gave no indication of being saddle broke. The animal balked at following the hostler and he pummeled it with his fist.
"Stop that!" Vin ran up to him.
The hostler noted the stern expression on the face of not only Vin, but the four mercenaries with him. "He's a stubborn one. Won't be good for nothin' if he don't learn who's boss," he attempted to excuse his behavior.
Chris stepped forward. "There are other ways."
And as if to prove his point, the horse gently nuzzled Vin as he fed it one of the sweets from Jaydee's treasure box.
The hostler gave Vin a peculiar look, noticing a partially uncovered ear. He reached out and roughly pushed the boy's hair back. "A half-blood," he said with distaste. "Move away before ya soil the beast!" he laughed at his own idea of a joke.
Vin backed away from the horse, his head down.
Chris's first instinct was to call the hostler out right there in the street, but the man's remark had already drawn unwanted attention to Vin. "Take your horse and be on your way."
Luckily, the hostler saw the wisdom in Chris's advice, but the four men knew he would not be the only one whose prejudice Vin would have to overcome.
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