Based on the Dungeons and Dragons / Little Britches AU established in the story Small Treasures. Ezra is also a child in this AU.
Follow-up story to The Longest Night, but it can stand alone.
Warning: Scary stuff happens to little kids.
As always, thanks to Magnificent Marnie!
The village of Four Winds was an active place in the early fall. It was time to prepare for the long winter ahead, and everyone was busy trading, bartering or buying what they would need to see them through the long winter. These were the days of the Festival of Bounty, and farmers, ranchers, hunters and craftsmen were everywhere, selling warm boots and cloaks, preserved fruits, root vegetables, salted meats, cheeses, nuts, and dried beans and peas.
The hunting had been good during the summer, and Chris and Buck had several haunches of dried elk and venison to trade. They had borrowed a cart to haul it in, and with Josiah and Nathan's help were pulling it along the bumpy cobblestone road as their three young charges scampered on ahead, eager to get to the square in front of the Great Hall where they could maybe get treated to a pie or some honeyed cakes.
The boys had brought along treasures to trade, also. Jaydee had an impressively heavy bag of mushrooms - he had an uncanny knack for finding the tasty morsels, even though he didn't actually eat them. They had been dried into unsightly looking leathery blobs, but Buck had assured him they tasted fine that way - to someone who liked them, anyway - and he would surely find a buyer for them.
Vin had brought home several rabbits for the stew pot and now had a nice pile of pelts. Nettie had shown him how to preserve them, and he hoped one of the village leatherworkers would trade him for some boots. The laced, oiled leathers lined with lamb's wool had kept his feet warm and dry during the winter, but he wanted real boots, like a soldier should have.
Ezra had no desire to shoot game or gather anything that involved dirt, but he had experimented with making candles. Most nine-year-olds would have made a mess of the job, but not Ezra. He was neat and careful and his candles were colorful and well-formed. He had made marked them with hour lines, so if they were lit when the clerics rang the bell for evening meditation, one could tell the passage of time throughout the night. They were also probably enchanted, because he was, after all, a fire wizard. He had almost 200 of them to sell.
Most of the children from the village and the surrounding area were wandering happily through the market place, some with their parents, and some on their own. A group of them had gathered near the creek at the Old Wagon. It was a massive war machine - a combination catapult and ram - from some conflict so long ago that only the oldest people in Four Winds had vague childhood memories of it. The parents of most of the children now playing on it had played there also. Fate had frowned on whoever had built it, because it had lost a wheel in a small, cramped ravine, and was too massive to move, yet could not be repaired where it was. It had been abandoned and had sat there ever since, now mostly a plaything for the village's children who loved to climb its battlements and explore its huge siege tower. It had three floors, now skewed at odd angles, as well as ladders and windows and all manner of things to climb on, under and through.
When the boys saw it, the men knew they wanted to join the other children there, and they gladly handed their wares over when the men offered to sell for them. Ezra kept two of the candles, though. He had experimentally mixed pigments and those two had come out a deep red-purple color. He liked them and had decided he didn't want to part with them.
The three boys encountered Miss Nettie and Casey on the path to the creek.
"Where are you going?" Casey wanted to know.
"To the Old Wagon," Jaydee said excitedly.
Vin and Ezra glanced at each other. JD was probably a little to young to play on the Old Wagon, and Casey was even smaller than he was.
"Want to come?" JD asked her.
Miss Nettie looked at the broken structure and Vin and Ezra could see she was thinking about saying 'no,' but the Old Wagon had been there for years and the wood wasn't rotten - no one really knew why. Occasionally, a child would fall and break a bone, but serious injuries were rare. "Just be very careful," she cautioned.
Jaydee took Casey's hand and they headed off together.
Vin and Ezra sighed, but both decided it would be mean to tell the little ones they weren't welcome. Besides, as they got closer, they saw there were other younger children there - a from the next town over named Olivia, and the Magistrate's grandson, Billy Travis.
Vin's friend Chanu was there with two other elf children, Bria and Rede who were the daughters of Lilliana the silversmith. Rede stuck her tongue out at Vin when she saw him. He'd won her bow in a bet at the Solstice Night gathering, but Chris made him give it back.
Chanu also carried a bow, as did Vin. Both Ezra and Jaydee had swords that they kept ready. The weapons were small, but the boys all knew how to use them. It was obvious that they'd be in the way while they played on the massive structure, but they didn't take a chance by leaving them behind.
"What's that?" Casey asked, pointing to an object perched precariously on the highest point of the wreck.
Vin had excellent eyesight. He could plainly see it was an eagle's nest, so he was surprised when Chanu answered, "It's a quiver of arrows!"
Before Vin could dispute that, Jaydee also disagreed, "No it's not, it's a ball. A big ball."
Ezra only squinted... he couldn't see anything.
"I bet I can climb up there," Chanu challenged good-naturedly.
"I bet I can, too," Vin said, although he wasn't really sure. Sometimes, his back still hurt from when a soldier had thrown him during the battle at Beggar's Pass. He'd try it, though!
Jaydee and Ezra looked up. The pinnacle of the structure was about 40 feet off the ground, but because the Old Wagon had toppled over after partially collapsing, there was a gentle slope up the side. There was a section missing, which usually thwarted any attempt to reach the top, but now, the branches of a large oak tree had stretched out and hung over the opening, and it might be possible to leap onto one of them and cross the gap.
The four of them began to make their way up, and quickly had company as Billy Travis, Jon Potter and a boy they'd met at Solstice Night named Eugene followed. Billy insisted the object was a sleeping cat. Jon thought it was a shield. Eugene said nothing, because to him, it looked like a big, delicious pie, and if he got it first, he wasn't going to share.
Not to be outdone, Casey and Olivia started up the slope, too. Jaydee, Billy, Casey and Olivia were all just 5 or 6 turns, and probably too small to clear the gap, but Jon would make it easily. He was 14 and almost a man. Eugene was portly and not used to physical activity. It would be a challenge for him.
Jon's sister Ellen called after them, "That's too many of you!" she warned. "It's dangerous! Come back down!"
When she was ignored, she started climbing, too. Bria and Rede quickly followed. The three girls argued among themselves as to what the object was that sat atop the peak of the Old Wagon. Ellen thought it looked like a small treasure chest - the kind used to store coins. Bria said it was a puppy, and Rede insisted it was a loaf of fruit-and-nut bread. Casey and Olivia both agreed it was a big jewel - although Olivia said it was blue and Casey insisted it was green.
Despite Ellen's misgivings, the Old Wagon was sturdy and didn't budge. The problem was going to be fitting everyone onto the platform at the top, which was nothing more than a stout beam barely wide enough to stand on, assuming everyone got that far.
Most of the children who had been hurt at the Old Wagon had fallen, though, causing Ezra to reconsider. "Maybe we shouldn't all go up at once," he said.
Vin and Chanu were not swayed - it had been their idea. They thought of it first.
Ezra looked around to see if any adults were watching. It wasn't that he didn't want to climb to the top, but he just wondered if anyone but him and Ellen thought it might be a bad idea - and Ellen seemed to have suddenly changed her mind. He still didn't see anything up there.
All of the adults were busy at the market place, though, trading, visiting, sharing stories and discussing plans for the winter over tankards of ale. No one was even looking their way, which struck Ezra as odd. Even Maude would have likely at least yelled at him to be careful by now, had she been there. Ezra shrugged, and decided to continue, especially since JD and Casey had already passed him.
By the time Vin and Chanu reached the gaping hole in the ruined structure, several other children had joined the climb. Most of the leaves had fallen from the branches that overhung the gap, and the two boys made their way across carefully. The branches were sturdy and would hold a much larger child, as Jon proved as he followed the pair.
One by one, the children crossed effortlessly, even the small ones and the puffing Eugene.
Ezra hesitated. He wasn't afraid, but he just had an uncomfortable feeling that those branches had been deliberately placed there just for that purpose. It was a foolish thought, since no one could tell trees how to grow. Well, almost no one. A wood wizard maybe could. He decided to continue, but once he was across, he chanced to look below at the adults, none of whom had as yet made any objection to what the children were doing.
What he saw unnerved him. Even though the sounds coming up from the village included voices and music and the typical sounds of a market place, it didn't seem as though any of the adults were actually moving. There was no gesturing of hands, and everyone seemed to be staying in the same spot. A cold, frightening thought suddenly occurred to him, because he'd seen that before - when Ella Gaines had bewitched the adults at the Solstice Night gathering. He scurried ahead to catch up with Jon, Vin and Chanu.
"Wait!" he called to them.
The trio looked back at him.
"I think we should go back," he said.
Vin didn't think he was serious, at first. But something about the tone of Ezra's voice almost made him stop. He and Jon and Chanu were almost to the top, though, so he kept going.
Everyone was concentrating on where to best put their feet and hands as they climbed upward, so when Vin reached the large beam at the top, he was surprised to find Jon and Chanu, who had been a little bit faster than he was, staring at the spot where whatever it was they had seen had been.
It wasn't an eagle's nest, or a quiver of arrows, or shield.
It was a door. Just a door, standing there in its frame.
"What's that doing here?" Jon asked.
Chanu looked at Vin. "I think it's magic..." he said uncertainly.
Jon agreed. "I think you're right.. We should go back down."
They glanced behind them. Most of the children had almost reached the summit by that time. But the gaping hole in the structure was now clearly visible. The oak tree and its accommodating branches had disappeared!
Ezra reached the three boys and immediately recognized that they were in trouble. It was hard for him to keep from saying, "I told you so."
One by one, the other children joined them on the narrow beam, and as they did, those already there saw with horror that the hole in the Old Wagon was getting larger, as if it were chasing those still climbing. They had nowhere to go but up, and they were running out of room on the beam. They were trapped.
Jon took Jaydee and Casey by the hand.
Vin and Chanu grabbed Billy Travis as he teetered on the edge and almost fell.
Ezra shouted to the adults below for help.
None of them looked up. In fact, all of the sounds and music coming from the town square had gone silent. Everyone appeared to be frozen in place.
The door was just standing there, upright, and even though it was obvious there was nothing on the other side, Eugene reached for the handle.
"No! Don't touch it!" Ezra gasped as Eugene pulled it open.
Suddenly, the large span of timber began to sag under the children's weight, as if it had abruptly become softened.
Then, there was a blinding flash of light and a thunderous booming sound of splintering wood that caused all of them to cringe in terror.
And in an instant the children of Four Corners were alone, in a place that was dark and cold and damp.
"Welcome, little ones," a disembodied voice spoke in the blackness. The tone of the voice was cheerful, but it was only for show. All of the children seemed to know that instinctively, and some began to cry.
Vin recognized the voice. Ella Gaines.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra immediately scanned their surroundings. Unlike the other children, he was not left stunned and confused by what had just happened. He had sensed the magic at work, and had known it was evil. He had known something bad was about to happen and it had.
They appeared to be in a bare, dark room. There were windows, but they were too high up for any of the children to reach, although maybe the older ones could if one of them boosted the other up. Ezra looked around for Jon Potter, but he wasn't there. Neither was his sister Ellen or the elfling Bria who were both 12. The older children had disappeared.
And mysteriously, it was dark outside. A cold, dead moon was visible through the openings. It had been mid-morning at the Old Wagon. How had night come so quickly? Sharp, cold air - far colder than it had been in the market place - poured in through the openings. The windows had no glass - they were open to the elements.
"Where are we?" Vin asked.
"I don't like it here, I wanna go home!" Jaydee cried.
Ezra touched the wall, which was made of stone. The only light in the room came from the moon, and it took a moment for his eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness.
There were twenty-two children by his count. Eugene was bigger than he was, but with the older children gone, Ezra realized he was the oldest one there, with the possible exception of Rede and Chanu - it was always hard to tell how old elves really were. They both looked about Vin's age, though.
He realized that Vin, Rede and Chanu still had their bows.
"Hide the weapons," he whispered.
Vin looked around. "Where?"
Olivia was sitting on the floor, dazed and bewildered. She wore a long, heavy red velvet cape that billowed out around her. Ezra approached her cautiously.
"Olivia?" he spoke softly.
She looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. "I want my mama," she sniffed.
"I know, I know," Ezra soothed. "But we need your help. Can you help us?" She looked at him, not understanding. "We need to hide our swords and bows. Can we put them under your cape?"
"Why are we hiding them?" Jaydee said as Ezra took his sword. "I want to fight!"
"We don't even know where we are, Jaydee," Vin said. "Who are you going to fight?"
"Whoever brought us here!" he sniffed. "I wanna go home!"
"Hush, Jaydee," Ezra said. He was uncomfortably aware that the younger children were looking to him for leadership. He looked to Vin and Chanu. "Check the walls, see if you can find a door," he told them.
But as soon as he said it, a section of the stone wall began to glow and then seemed to just dissolve. Then, Ella Gaines was standing there, except her shape kept shifting in Ezra's eyes. One instant, she looked like the woman Chris knew, but then she shifted and became... something else - some sort of demon, with a terrifying grin of pointed teeth and clawed talons instead of hands and feet. Ezra didn't think the other children could see it, because if they could, they would have screamed or cried out. The demon appeared only briefly, but Ezra knew that was the true Ella Gaines.
She entered the room with two men who wore leather armor and carried swords. Both of them stood behind her, and they, at least, were human.
Ezra was so scared he was shaking, but he calmly asked the Ella-thing, "What do you want? Why have you brought us here?"
"A personal vendetta, among other things," she said in a cheerful voice, even though there was no mirth in her eyes. There was nothing in her eyes, in fact. They were cold and dead and black, and did not even reflect sparks of light like human eyes did.
She walked up to Vin. "So we meet again, Chris Larabee's new son," she said, grabbing Vin's face and making him look at her. Vin didn't know what 'vendetta' meant, and Ella Gaines scared him, but he didn't answer her.
"Where did you come from, whelp?" she asked.
Vin still didn't say anything, so she pinched his face really hard. "I am speaking to you, little cur. Where did you come from?"
Vin lashed out with his fists, striking her wrist hard on both sides, the way Chris had shown him to fight. Ella lost her grip on him, but she howled with fury and tried to slap him. Vin ducked and then spun out of her reach - another fighting tactic he'd learned from the men who cared for the three boys.
"Seize him!" she screeched to her guards.
The two men each grabbed one of Vin's arms, and the little half-elf was helpless.
"Bring him," Ella said, and started to leave.
Ezra panicked. He didn't know what they planned to do with Vin, but it couldn't be anything good. He blurted out the answer, "He's from Tabletop Mountain!"
Ella turned to Vin and smiled. "So, what I have heard is true. You are from the village that guards the treasure of the Mountain..."
Vin stared at her, refusing to speak.
"Vin, answer her," Ezra pleaded.
"Yes, Vin, child, answer me," Ella said sweetly, again grabbing Vin's face in her talon-fingers. "Answer me willingly, or I will see that you do so, anyway, and you.... won't.... like... it."
Ezra noticed the expression on the face of one of the guards changed subtly, his distaste for Ella's cruelty briefly evident.
But then they took Vin, and there was nothing Ezra could do about it.
Jaydee began to cry in earnest. Ezra didn't blame him.
Once Ella closed the door behind her, leaving the children in the cold and darkness, Ezra mustered his most commanding voice. "Everyone huddle close together. Littlest ones in the middle," he ordered.
The children immediately did as they were told, which boosted Ezra's confidence until he realized he didn't have any other ideas. Huddling together would at least keep them warmer than sitting apart.
"What's she gonna do to Vin?" Jaydee sniffed as Ezra sat down beside him.
Ezra put his arm around the younger boy. "I don't know, Jaydee."
+ + + + + + +
Ella Gaines looked Vin up and down, a frown on her face. "You're a hafling," she said derisively. "Which half?"
Vin didn't understand.
"Which of your parents was an elf?" she said impatiently.
"My father," Vin answered softly.
"And who was he?"
Vin looked up at her. Chris had taught him to look enemies in the eye. "I don't know."
The room they were in was just plain stone like the one where the other children were. Vin was not really sure how they'd gotten here, so he didn't know how to get back, which scared him more than he wanted to let on. The room did have a table and some chairs in it, unlike the other room.
Ella pushed him towards a chair. "Sit," she ordered.
He did as he was told. The chair was big and his feet dangled several inches from the ground. He could only sit on the edge, and not lean back.
"Tell me what you know about the treasure on Tabletop Mountain."
That again... Vin thought. There was no treasure. That was just a story someone made up to hide the one thing of real value that had been hidden there. "I don't know anything about it," Vin said.
"I think you lie," Ella said. "I think that there is an Everborn, is there not?"
Vin's heart began to race. Ella knew! She knew about the Everborn! Did she know that Vin was the one born to protect him? Did she know who it was?
He tried to stay calm. "No," he lied. But if Ella had spent any time at all in Four Winds, she already know who the Everborn was. The only reason the whole town didn't know was because most of them didn't know that an Everborn walked among them. But Ella would have been able to figure out it was Jaydee.
Ella laughed coldly. "Well, no matter. I know who it is. I want you to tell me what powers he has."
"Powers?" Vin wasn't sure what she meant. Everborns didn't have any powers. They were just really, really smart, born aware, and possessing the knowledge of centuries.
Ella continued as if she was talking to herself. "Can he do magic? Cast spells? Fly? Make himself invisible?" She poured something from a pitcher on the table into a large wooden cup.
"No," Vin answered.
She whirled around and threw the liquid she'd just poured in his face. It was cold - so cold it shocked him and for an instant, he thought it was burning him. He gasped in surprise. It only water, but the room was cold and now he was wet and he began to shiver.
"You're useless, whelp," she scoffed and then dumped the whole pitcher on him. "Take him to the cells," she told one of the men with her.
"Milady..." one of them began to protest.
"DO IT!" she screeched. "Then bring me the little one with the black hair. The one they call Jaydee."
The two guards grabbed Vin roughly and pulled him out of the room. Outside the door was a long, dark hallway with small round doors on both sides. Vin was terrified - he didn't want to be locked up alone. The two guards were talking to each other, and Vin was almost too frightened to pay attention.
"I didn't agree to this," one told the other.
"You agreed to do whatever she orders. That's what she is paying you for," the other said.
"I am a soldier. She paid me to fight, not torture children."
"Do your job," the other man said, "or it'll be you in one of these cells."
They stopped and opened one of the round doors. Vin was shoved inside and the heavy door banged shut behind him. It was pitch black once the door was closed. Vin felt for the wall that should have been next to the door, but all he felt was empty space. He began to grope around in the dark, but no matter which way he went or how far he walked, he couldn't find a wall. When he tried to find the door again, he couldn't. It was as if he were locked in a vast emptiness, and that was even more scary than a small space. His heart was racing so hard it hurt, and finally, panic overwhelmed him and he began to scream.
+ + + + + + + +
Ezra sensed a minute change in the air currents and temperature of the room where the children sat huddled together. He realized he'd felt it before, just before the wall dissolved and the Ella demon had appeared. He turned to where she had entered the room. For the briefest moment, the wall glowed a yellowish green color, and Ezra plainly saw there were markings on it. It was a ward of some kind, a magical spell. He didn't know what any of the symbols meant, though.
Ella didn't appear this time, just her two soldiers. One of them had a lantern and he began to shine it in each child's face. When he came to Jaydee, he said, "This one," and tried to pull Jaydee up.
"I'm not going with you!" Jaydee shrieked uselessly. His tiny body was no match for the big soldier and he was lifted effortlessly off the ground. "I want my Buck! I wanna go home!" Jaydee cried.
Ezra was scared, but he could not just let them take Jaydee. "Leave him alone!" he ran forward and swung a kick upward between the legs of the soldier holding Jaydee. Unfortunately, the man was wearing some kind of armor, because even though he gave a surprised grunt of discomfort, he didn't collapse on the floor writing in pain as Ezra had hoped.
"Go!" the other guard spoke. "I'll take care of this one!" He produced a weapon that looked like a mallet, only the ends were pointed instead of flat. Ezra knew it could easily kill him, and he backed off, raising his hands in a defensive gesture.
The soldier grabbed him around the throat and pushed him up against the wall furthest from the door. He then spoke in a voice that was low and full of menace, so what he said surprised Ezra. "There are runes on the gateway," he hissed. "Write them upside down and backwards and it will reverse the spell." He then shoved Ezra to the floor, and said loud enough for the other guard to hear, "Heed my words or you will die here!"
Ezra watched, bewildered, as the opening appeared and then closed as Jaydee was dragged through it screaming.
+ + + + + + +
Jaydee was taken to the Mean Lady. Ella was her name. He hated her. She sat him down in a big chair and she ran her fingers through his hair. He pushed her hands away, because they made him feel like bugs were crawling on him.
"Such a sweet little thing," she said, but Jaydee knew she didn't mean it.
"Where's Vin?" he asked, looking around.
"Your little Protector is dead," she laughed. She leaned in close. "I pulled out his heart and ate it."
Jaydee began to cry softly. He wasn't sure he believed Vin was really dead, but Ella scared him, a lot.
"Tell me, little one, what powers do you have?"
"Powers?" Jaydee didn't understand the question.
"Surely you know that you are a very special child."
Jaydee shook his head. "No, I'm not.," he sniffed.
"You will show me what you can do," she ordered.
"I can't do anything. I'm just a little boy."
She picked him up, and Jaydee wanted to kick and scream but he knew no one would help him. She carried him to a far corner of the room where there was a well. At least, it looked like a well. It was a big, dark hole in the floor. She held him close to the edge.
"Scary, isn't it?" she asked. "It goes on forever and forever. If I drop you in, you will just keep falling until you rot and die."
Jaydee's eyes widened in fright and he clung desperately to the evil woman. "No! No! Please don't drop me!" he cried.
But she did. Jaydee experienced an instant of pure terror before he hit the floor with painful thud. The hole was fake. It was just a trickster painting.
Ella laughed, "Well, obviously you cannot fly. Bring me a torch!" she ordered her men.
Neither of them moved. "NOW!" One of them reluctantly brought her a flame.
She waved it in front of his face. "I can burn out your eyes out with this," she said. "Unless you can stop me with a spell."
Jaydee could only cry softly. He didn't know any spells. He wished Ezra was there. Ezra could put the torch out. Or he could make it burn Ella up. But he wasn't a wizard like Ezra.
Ella moved the torch close enough that Jaydee felt the heat of it on his face. He screamed in terror, and when he tried to push the torch away, he burned his hand.
"Milady," one of the guards spoke, "the sun appears on the horizon!"
Ella looked annoyed. "Oh bother!" She tossed the torch aside. "Back they go... Let them have the day to... reflect."
The next instant, Jaydee was back with the other children.
In his cell, Vin had stopped screaming and sat huddled on the floor, his arms wrapped around his knees. There were no walls and no door and no way out.. He tried to reach out to Chris with his mind, but he didn't even know if that was possible. He'd never felt so completely and terribly alone.
Suddenly, the floor seemed to shift as if it were moving upward. There was a sensation that he was moving at a great speed and he instinctively tried to find something to hold onto. But then there was a flash of blue light and the movement stopped and when he looked around, he was sitting beside Jaydee.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra scooted close to both boys. "Where were you?" he asked, not even trying to hide how afraid he had been for them.
Jaydee was crying, but Vin just sat there, staring off into space.
"Vin?" Ezra put a hand on the halfling's shoulder and discovered his clothes were wet and cold. He took off his cape and wrapped it around him.
Vin looked up at him then. "She has magic," he whispered, dazed.
"I know..." Ezra said. "What did she want with you?"
Ezra could barely make out Vin's features in the darkness, but he could hear the fear in his voice. "She knows about Jaydee," Vin said softly. "But she thinks he has magic, too."
"And I don't!" Jaydee wailed. "She burned-ed my hand!"
"Let me see," Ezra said, even though he couldn't really see. Josiah had taught him that if the heat was taken from a burn, sometimes, the pain disappeared, too. Ezra had never actually tried it, but he could feel the fire in Jaydee's small hand and he concentrated on pulling it into himself. Flame and heat would not hurt him, he knew.
Jaydee stopped crying and stared at his hand.
"Better?" Ezra asked.
Jaydee nodded, his black hair flopping in his face. "Put some fire in the walls, Ezra," Jaydee said. "It will keep us warm."
Ezra realized Jaydee was right. If he could heat the stones it would warm up the room, even with the open windows. He wasn't sure how strong his power to do that was, but he was certain it wasn't strong enough to turn the room into an oven and cook them all.
Everything had fire inside - in living things, the fire of life burned cool or hot, dim or bright, depending on what contained it. In things that were not alive, the fire slept, and had to be awakened.
Ezra concentrated on each stone, trying to envision the fire within and calling it forth. It was very difficult to do without Josiah there to coach him, and soon his head was pounding and his heart was racing, but the stones began to give off their heat.
The children were grateful for the warmth, but most of them were tired and the smaller ones were crying for their parents. Some of them still had morsels of food from the marketplace, and little Olivia was still sitting on their weapons, but there was no water, and Ezra wondered how long they would last if they could not escape.
Ezra was tired, too, the effort to warm the walls having taxed his abilities to the limit. What he really wanted was to sleep, but he knew better than the others that they were in mortal danger.
As the first rays of sunlight began to penetrate the darkness that surrounded them, he looked at the gateway Ella had used. The magical symbols keeping it closed were barely visible. and he realized to his horror that they were rapidly fading in the sunlight.
He grabbed one of Vin's arrows from beneath Olivia's cape and frantically tried to copy the symbols by scratching them into the stone floor. But the stone was harder than the arrow point and it wasn't working.
Jaydee looked at him, puzzled. "What are you doing?"
Ezra lifted the arrow at the wall. "I need to copy that before it goes away. If we can draw it upside down and backwards, it will open the gateway."
Jaydee stared at the symbols for a few seconds, just before they faded completely.
"SHIT!" Ezra cursed and threw the arrow at the wall.
He wiped tears of frustration from his eyes.
"Why are you crying?" Jaydee asked.
"I'M NOT!" Ezra shouted, causing Vin to flinch. Ezra was worried about Vin. He'd barely spoken since they'd brought him back from wherever he had been. "Sorry," he apologized. "I just wanted to copy the glyphs before they faded away, and I couldn't."
"Oh, that doesn't matter," Jaydee said calmly. "I looked at 'em real good."
"You remember what they look like?" Ezra asked incredulously. He knew Jaydee was smarter than... well, almost anyone... but the magical glyphs had been odd and random and like nothing he'd ever seen before.
"Do you think you could draw them upside-down and backwards?" he asked hopefully.
Jaydee didn't even hesitate. "'Course I can." He fumbled through his tunic and pulled out a piece of chalk. He'd won it on Solstice night. It was much larger then, but there was still plenty of it left.
Ezra had the children clear a space so Jaydee could write. The little boy's tongue protruded from his lips and he concentrated on the design. He worked slowly and meticulously, realigning the position of the glyphs in his head as he worked.
With a flourish, he added the final component - three parallel lines.
The wall began to hum... a low, steady vibration. Then the gateway began to glow, but it was very faint, not bright like it had been when Ella Gaines had come through it.
It didn't open.
"You did it WRONG!" Ezra accused.
"No I didn't!" Jaydee replied, no trace of doubt in his voice.
"Then why didn't it work?" Chanu asked.
"I don't know!" Jaydee sniffed. "I did it right. I did!"
Eugene spoke up. "Maybe you have to write it on the gateway."
Ezra didn't like it that Eugene thought of that before he did, but he had to admit that maybe Eugene was right. He took Jaydee by the hand and lead him to the wall. Once again, Jaydee drew the pattern, faster this time, since he'd already done it once.
This time the gateway glowed a bit more brightly and the humming noise was very loud, but the gateway still did not open.
Jaydee stared at the wall baffled. "I did it right," he said softly.
The other children stared forlornly at the wall, except for Vin. He wasn't even turned in the same direction.
Casey walked up and put her arm around Jaydee's shoulder, but she didn't say anything. Billy Travis started to cry and that got some of the other little ones started, again. Ezra angrily erased the chalk marks from the wall with his hand.
But as he did so, a thought occurred to him. Jaydee was very short, even for being only five. His markings were crowded near the bottom of the wall. Maybe they had to actually cover the magical glyphs.
"Eugene, come here," Ezra commanded.
Eugene looked around like he was trying to find someone else named 'Eugene.' "What for?" he asked.
"Jaydee's going to stand on your shoulders so he can reach the top of the wall. Maybe his glyphs have to be the same size as Ella's."
Surprisingly, Eugene got up eagerly. He was too chubby for his height, but he was strong enough to hold Jaydee.
With Chanu's help, they were able to maneuver Jaydee so he was standing with his feet on Eugene's shoulders. Eugene was gasping and grunting and groaning, but Ezra was pretty sure that was because he wasn't used to doing anything that required his strength, not because he couldn't hold Jaydee.
The small boy began to draw the glyphs again, and soon they were able to lower him back to the ground. He had almost finished when the room exploded with a flash of blackness that enveloped them all. When it dissipated, Ella Gaines and her guards were in the room, and the gateway was still sealed.
JD had stopped drawing because Ella's arrival had surprised everyone. She turned and looked at the small boy, then at Ezra and the others. "Did you misbegotten little curs think that I would not know what you were doing?" she asked Ezra.
Ezra's heart was pounding, but despite his fear, he recognized what his mother would call a 'tell' in Ella Gaines' voice. Something was wrong. She was not only angry about having caught them trying to escape, she was also uncertain... maybe even afraid. He cast a brief glance at JD who, behind Ella's back, went back to drawing the glyphs.
Ezra looked at Ella defiantly. "Let us go, witch," he said, betraying none of the fear he felt in his voice.
Unfortunately, the distraction didn't work. Ella heard Jaydee's chalk dragging across the wall and turned on him. She grabbed his right wrist, but before she could get the chalk away from him, he snatched it with his left hand. All he had left to make were the three parallel lines, and he could easily do that left-handed. But before he could, she dragged him away from the wall and threw him to the floor.
"Ezra! Catch!" Chanu shouted, and in the next instant, Ezra's sword was in his hand. He moved to protect Jaydee, but one of the guards grabbed him around the chest. He was too small to resist.
Jaydee got up and made a run for the wall, but the other guard grabbed him.
Ella looked at the little boy with her cold, dead eyes. She pried the chalk from his fingers and threw it hard against the floor, shattering it. She pulled a dagger from her waistband and slashed Ezra's sword arm with it. He gasped in pain, so taken by surprise that he dropped the sword.
Ella retrieved it, a withering look of fury in her eyes. She pointed at Jaydee. "Cut off his hands!" she ordered the guard.
Ezra's heart leaped into his throat, and a small scream escaped.
The guard holding Jaydee looked mortified by the command he had just been given. "Milady, he is scarcely more than a babe...."
Ella slashed at her own guard with Ezra's sword, dealing him a stunning blow. "You're useless!" she spat. She then grabbed Jaydee and forced him to the floor, pinning his right hand with her foot. Jaydee was screaming in terror, and Ezra stood frozen, sick with the thought of what she was about to do.
With no mercy, Ella brought the blade down on Jaydee's small wrist.
What she did not know, and what Ezra had forgotten, was that Ezra was a wizard. A wizard's sword was enchanted - it could not harm a friend. The blade stopped a hair's breadth from Jaydee's flesh and would go no further.
Ezra stopped struggling against the arms holding him and instead concentrated on the fire that he knew slept in the sword. As well as being enchanted, it was his sword, and the blade began to glow almost instantly. Ella stood looking at it with a stupefied expression and then cried out as the handle singed her hand. She dropped the sword, which should have landed on Jaydee, but it didn't. It slid harmlessly to one side.
"Kill them all!" she shouted at her guards. "Kill them or you will both die screaming in agony!"
There was a soft whooshing sound and suddenly Ella was staring down at an arrow protruding from her chest. Ezra's head whipped around and he saw Vin, eyes fixed on the witch, another arrow notched in his bow, aimed at the guard that Ella had felled with Ezra's sword. Chanu and Rede had their bows at the ready also, aimed at the guard holding Ezra. Eugene had armed himself with Jaydee's little sword. The weapon looked ridiculously small in the large boy's hands, and even so, Eugene could barely hold it because he was trembling with fear, but Ezra saw in his eyes that he'd use it - however ineptly - if he had to.
The guard on the floor looked up at Ezra. "Go, now," he gasped. "She has no powers in the daylight."
If that were true, Ezra wondered, why was Ella still alive with an arrow in her chest? She screamed in rage at the guard's words and began to stab him repeatedly with her dagger. Ezra suddenly felt himself released and dropped to the floor as the other guard rushed to either stop Ella or help her. Ezra wasn't going to wait around to see which.
He picked up a shard of the shattered chalk and ran to the wall, completing the glyphs with the three parallel lines.
The wall thrummed with a low vibration and the gateway opened. Ezra picked Jaydee up from the floor and pushed him towards it. "Hurry!" he shouted. "Everyone go!" He had no idea how long the gateway would stay open.
One by one, the children filed through. The last one was Vin and he hesitated. "Come on, Vin!" Ezra said impatiently.
But Vin was afraid. He didn't want to end up in a place like he'd been before, so full of dark magic that his mind could not comprehend it.
Ezra tugged his arm, but Vin stood fast.
Ezra's fear was mounting. He didn't want to be stuck there. Ella had crumpled to the floor, moaning, but she was still alive. "Vin, I will leave you," he threatened, and then tugged on the boy's arm.
Ella's two guards apparently decided to abandon her. They rushed past Ezra through the gateway, one of them leaving a trail of blood from the wounds Ella had inflicted. They would not be back.
Given the choice between being left behind, alone, with Ella Gaines or going through the gateway with Ezra, Vin finally decided to move. The two of them tumbled through the gateway seconds before it closed.
Ezra stood up and looked around, dismayed by his surroundings. Even though everything looked like Four Winds, there was no color, and even though there was light, they could not see the sun anywhere. The sky was just a blank, dead white. Nothing moved, not even a breeze, and there was no sign of life. There was also no sign of Ella's guards. All of the children were accounted for, though, and that was all that mattered to Ezra.
The children looked confused. "What is this place?" Casey asked nervously.
"I see my house," Eugene said, and he started to run towards it, except he didn't go anywhere. His legs were moving, but everything stayed the same around him.
Vin was frozen with fear. While this place was not as bad as the dark room with no walls, it still reeked of evil magic.
Chanu poked at a tree bark with one of his arrows. It went right through, as if the tree were painted on air. "It's another spell," he said.
"Do you know how to break it?" Ezra asked hopefully.
Chanu shook his head. "No."
Ezra didn't know what to do. A couple of the children started walking towards the eerie replica of Four Winds, but the same thing happened to them that happened to Eugene - they didn't go anywhere, no matter how many steps they took.
Ezra sat down on the ground. Even the earth felt funny. There were fallen leaves covering the dirt, but they did not rustle or crumple when he sat on them. He poked one and it felt like... nothing. He looked at his arm where Ella had cut him. Blood pooled curiously in the wound, but did not drip. It was as if everything had just stopped, except them.
He was hungry and thirsty and tired, and he knew the other kids had to be, too.
"Everybody sit down," he said. "I need to figure this out." But he had no idea what to do.
It was Jaydee who spoke up. "When Chanu poked the tree... the arrow went through."
The children looked at each other. Many of them didn't understand what Jaydee meant, but Ezra did. So did Vin and Chanu. The both readied their bows.
"What?" Eugene asked in a small frightened voice. "What are you going to do?"
Chanu took aim, ready to shoot, but Vin gently pushed his bow down. "We have to shoot at somethin' where no one will get hit."
Eugene caught on to what they were trying to do. "The Old Wagon!" he said.
The war wagon was visible, but it had the same flat, unreal appearance that everything else did. Vin notched an arrow and let it fly. It hit the old wagon and went right on through. He couldn't even guess where it might have gone, but he hoped that if anyone saw it, they would recognize the red fletching and know it was his.
Ezra quickly realized that didn't really solve the problem of how anyone would know where to find them, though.
Vin seemed to share his thoughts. "If we tied a string to it, they could follow it back here," he said, and then added morosely, "If we had string."
"We got lots of string," Jaydee said. "Anything someone knitted is made out of string."
"That's yarn," Ezra corrected.
"But he's right," said Eugene, and he pulled off the knitted vest he was wearing and began to tear at it with his teeth. "Yarn is just string," he mumbled around a mouthful of fabric.
Ezra felt foolish, because he had no idea what Eugene was doing.
Then, Eugene tugged at the garment in triumph and the yarn began to unravel. It was all curly from being knitted, but it would work. Ezra held the vest while Eugene wrapped the yarn around his hand, then formed a ball. When they were done, they tied one end of the string to one of Vin's arrows.
Unfortunately, the weight of the yarn was more than the velocity of the arrow could compensate for, and after a few feet, it fell hopelessly to the ground.
"What about a rock?" Jaydee asked.
They looked, but the rocks, like everything else, were not how they were supposed to be. They were soft and spongy.
Chanu had a wooden egg with a two face painted on it that he carried in a little cloth pouch. It was the size of a real hen's egg, and served no useful purpose - he just liked it. He pulled it out of his shirt. It was made of some kind of dense wood, so it was much heavier.
Ezra tied the drawstrings on the pouch to the yarn end. He knew from playing skipping stones that he could throw further than anyone else there, and with greater accuracy. He flung the egg with all his might and it disappeared into thin air. The yarn was still visible on their side of whatever barrier contained them all.
"Maybe we can follow it out," Olivia said. But when she tried, the visible end of the yarn never got any closer.
They were just going to have to sit and wait and try to think of another plan.
Jaydee sat down and rested his head on his knees. Like the others, he was tired and hungry and it was cold. He wanted Buck. He wanted to go home. He began to cry softly and Vin was at his side in an instant. Vin was his protector, it was what he had been born to do, but nothing he could do would work against the spell, Jaydee knew.
He snuggled close to the older boy. Vin was scared, too. Jaydee hated the Mean Lady. He wished he was big so he could find her and cut off her hands and then cut off her head. She should have died from Vin's arrow. Maybe she had, but she was still alive when they last saw her, and she didn't look like she was dying.
Ezra remembered the candles he was carrying. Candlelight did not travel far, but his candles had magic in them, too. Good magic... He held one of them in both hands and concentrated on finding the fire within. He didn't need a match. Suddenly, the candle's wick erupted in an intense and brilliant red-purple flame.
"What are you doing?" Vin asked him.
Ezra sighed. "I don't know... Maybe the light will be seen. Or maybe the good magic can burn away the spell." He didn't sound very sure of himself.
Vin put his arm around Jaydee. It was all the comfort he could offer. He had come to realize that the room that he'd been locked must have been like the place they were now. The reason he couldn't find the wall was because no matter how far he walked, the walls never got closer. Evil magic, that's all it was. That was bad enough, though.
He wondered if the spell would hold them until they all died. He wiped a tear from his eye and as he did, he noticed that the ball of yarn from Eugene's vest, which had rolled up against one of the trees that wasn't really a tree, was moving. It was because the yarn was being pulled - Vin's eyes followed it and saw it disappearing into the barrier.
"What's wrong, Vin?" Jaydee asked.
"The yarn... someone's pulling it!."
Jaydee gasped. "Get it before they pull it all out!"
Vin didn't understand at first, but then realized that if they wanted someone to come to them, they'd have to keep the end of the yarn there.
Ezra thought the same thing. He quickly picked up the yarn ball. "Everybody get close together!" he ordered the children, who, much to Ezra's satisfaction, did as they were told.
Ezra quickly looped the yarn around the entire group, then ducked under it himself and tied a slip knot, being careful not to let the candle's flame touch or burn anyone.
The tugging on the yarn quickly caused the loop to tighten around the entire group.
As it did, the flame from Ezra's candle began to spread out, enveloping them in a warm red glow as the surreal setting surrounding them began to dissipate. The sun became a real sun and the color returned to the woods and town buildings.
The scene was anything but peaceful, though. The adults were running about frantically, some holding pick axes or saws or pry bars. They all seemed headed in one direction, towards the Old Wagon.
Buck was among them, calling out each boy's name repeatedly. Koje, Chanu's father, hurried along with axes in both hands.
Ezra heard Josiah's voice booming above the others, calling for him.
None of the adults seemed to notice them standing there.
Jaydee was the first to notice that the Old Wagon wasn't there anymore. How was that possible? Where could it have gone?
There was a fine mist everywhere, and Vin suddenly felt it stinging his eyes so badly that he couldn't keep them open. He closed them tightly. He heard the other children crying out as the same thing happened to them.
Then, he felt someone shaking him, hard, and he thought it was Ezra, but when he opened his eyes, it was Chris!
He was bewildered to discover that he was lying under a piece of wood. It was big and heavy, but it wasn't smooshing him, just lying over him.
Chris tossed it aside and pulled Vin into his arms, and Vin blinked at the scene around him. The Old Wagon was a crumpled wreck, dust pouring out of it. The massive tree trunk that had once been its ram lay crushed beneath the splintered remains of the massive siege tower.
"What were you kids doing up there?" Chris asked, his voice stern. "You could have been killed!"
Vin felt his mouth move, but no answer came out. He didn't know what Chris was talking about.
"VIN!" he heard Ezra shout again. He turned his head towards the voice. It was coming from the rubble.
"EZRA!" he called back and tried to escape from Chris's embrace.
Chris held him back. "Not so fast, soldier," he told him. "You're not going into that mess."
Chris set him down. "You stay right here," he told him, and then ran off to join the other adults who were climbing over the rubble.
Vin saw no sign of Jaydee, and he was torn between obeying Chris and searching for his cousin. He was about to disobey when he saw Jaydee pulling Casey by the hand from beneath the fallen timbers. He called out to them and they came running over.
"Vin, what happened?" Jaydee asked. Jaydee was usually the one with all the answers, so Vin was glad he wasn't the only one who was confused.
"The Old Wagon fell down," Casey said, even though everyone could see that.
One by one, children were pulled from the debris. The last one out was Ezra. Several men, including Buck, Josiah, Nathan and Chris, had to move large timbers to get to him. It was Josiah who pulled him out. The big wizard carried the smaller one away from the rubble, and Ezra clung to him, his eyes full of fear and confusion.
"Is any other child missing?!" Koje called out as he held Chanu close.
"Jaydee!" Buck called frantically.
"My niece," Nettie cried out.
"OVER HERE!" Casey and Jaydee shouted at the same time, jumping up and down and waving their hands.
Buck ran to Jaydee and scooped him up, while Nettie fell to her knees and hugged Casey tight.
Jon Potter walked up to Chanu. The older boy was dusty and had splinters in his hair and a large bruise on the side of his face, but he seemed unaware of any of that as he looked down, confused, at an object in his hand.
"I think this is yours," he said, handing Chanu his egg.
Chanu frowned. Jon hadn't been with the other children. "How did you get it?"
Jon shook his head. "I don't know. It was in my hand when I woke up... after... he looked back at the crumpled tower. I don't remember what happened..."
Before he had a chance to say anything else, his mother came running over dragging Ellen with her and pulled him into a crushing embrace. "Bisha be thanked," she wept. "My babies..."
With all of the children accounted for, the crowd headed to the Great Hall.
Some of the parents were angry, some, like Eugene's mother, were crying and others were thanking Bisha like Mrs. Potter. None of the children was seriously hurt. Nathan cleaned the cut on Ezra's hand and bandaged it with a clean strip of cloth purchased from the cottonweaver.
Chris, Buck, Josiah and Nathan stood in front of Vin, Jaydee and Ezra and tried to look stern. It didn't work, but the fact that they were trying was not lost on the boys..
"What the pits happened?" Chris wanted to know. "How did you kids get up to the top of that thing?"
The three boys looked at each other, not sure how to answer.
"It was a mean WITCH!" Jaydee spoke first. "She put-ed a spell on us and locked us in a cold room and she took Vin away and then she took me away and she was going to cut off my hand but Ezra's sword stopped her and then we drew the magic symbols upside down and backwards and it let us out but then we were here but nothing was for real and we threw out some yarn and Chanu's egg and Ezra lit his candle to burn the evil magic and someone caught-ed the yarn and Ezra tied us up and then we were in the Old Wagon." He took a big gulp of air.
The four men stared at one an other, overwhelmed by the verbal barrage that had just come from the mouth of the 5-year-old.
"I got the 'mean witch' part," Buck shrugged, winking at the others.
"There was a witch," Vin said. "She captured us but we escaped."
Vin's flare for succinctness was not any more helpful than Jaydee's excited narrative.
The men looked at Ezra who had not said anything. The irony of that did not escape the men. "Ezra?" Josiah spoke.
"A dark witch cast a spell on us," he said. "She took us to a strange place, and we tried to escape but we couldn't get back here because of the spell. But then the spell broke and we were in the Old Wagon."
"How did it fall?" Nathan asked incredulously. "Or did the witch do that, too?"
Vin and Jaydee missed the doubting tone of Nathan's words. Ezra did not. "It didn't fall on us. It was already down when we...." he couldn't think of the words. They had been in one place one moment and inside the rubble of the Old Wagon the next. He decided a change of subject might be helpful. "When did you notice we were all gone?" he asked.
The four men exchanged glances. Now that they'd been asked, it occurred to them that no one had noticed any of the children missing until they heard the loud crash of the Old Wagon as it collapsed.
Josiah stroked his chin thoughtfully. "It could have been a spell..." he suggested.
"You know the witch," Vin said. "You told me not to talk her."
Chris knelt down to eye level, the look on his face suddenly one of intense concern. He put his hands on Vin's shoulders. "Ella Gaines?"
"Why did you go with her?" Chris asked, pain and fear in his voice.
"We didn't!" Vin fought to hold back tears, knowing Chris didn't believe him. "She just took us. Honest, Chris, we don't even know how we got with her." He began to cry softly. It was not a brave thing to do, but he wasn't feeling very brave right then. Ella had scared him too bad.
"Vin shot her," Ezra said. "Right here." He pointed to a spot on his chest. "But she didn't die."
Chris pulled Vin close, gently stroking his heaving shoulders. "It's all right, soldier," he told him. "You're safe now."
He had already vowed that the next time he saw Ella Gaines, she would die. He now swore to himself to keep that vow.
The parents huddled together to discuss what their children had told them. Only the older children were aware the Old Wagon had collapsed. The younger ones insisted they had not been there when it happened, even though they had all been found under the rubble. None of the adults recalled seeing any of them climbing the wagon, and the oak tree that all of the children claimed had enabled them to climb to the top didn't exist.
The children were tired and cold and hungry - for them, hours had passed while they were with the witch, but it was not yet noon. They had only been gone from the real Four Winds for but a short while.
It was decided among the adults to post a watch in the town. No stranger would go unchallenged and if Ella returned, she would be noticed.
While they were discussing it, Koje walked up to Chris and whispered something to him, and the two men left the hall. Vin and Chanu followed them, and Chris made no move to stop them.
They returned to the wreckage of the Old Wagon, and Koje pointed to the body of a woman that had been uncovered in the debris. She was old - so old she looked as if she had been there as long as the Old Wagon itself. She had an arrow through her heart and another through her left eye socket. Both were fletched with red. Chris recognized them as Vin's arrows.
Vin stood staring, unable to move.
"Is this the witch?" Koje asked Chanu.
Chanu shook his head. "I don't know. She didn't look old when we saw her. But Vin did shoot her, there," he pointed to the arrow in her chest. He then looked at the wreckage and realized that the body lay in what had been the top section of the siege tower, where Vin had aimed his second arrow. He told Chris that. "It must have hit her. Maybe that's what broke the spell."
Koje and another man moved to lift the body, but when they did, it broke into pieces. Alarmed, they instantly dropped it.
"Burn her!" Chris ordered. No one thought to disobey. A torch was brought and the desiccated corpse was set to the flame. In seconds, it was gone.
The adults kept their children close the rest of the day. Many people even returned to their homes, their interest in the marketplace having been replaced with the uneasiness brought on by the thought of almost losing their children.
The three little boys were uncharacteristically quiet on the way home, and after a light supper of seasoned duck and carrots, they went to bed without the usual protests.
Josiah tended the livestock while Buck prepared raw oats with dried fruit that would slowly cook during the night and be ready for the morning meal. Nathan cleaned up the remains of supper, and Chris went outside to fetch wood to stoke the fire for the night. It was at the woodpile that he found a small piece of folded parchment with his name on it.
Thinking it was a note from one of the boys - most likely Ezra, who loved to leave notes - he opened it.
The smile on his face faded as he read the words printed on it in spiky red script:
'It was that easy, my love, to make your children mine. Next time.'
A chill that had nothing to do with the crisp fall air crept over him. He tried to shake it off. Ella Gaines was gone, shot in the heart and brain. They had burned her body, and seen the last of her evil.
He only hoped that was true.
Feedback to: email@example.com