Vin woke up around noon, feeling decidedly better than he had that morning. He stretched his arms out from underneath the covers and arched his back in pleasure. He winced slightly at the pull of sore muscles and that made the bruise on his face ache just a little. Still, all in all, it wasn't too bad. Sitting up, he wiped the sleep from his eyes and took stock of his new surroundings. The room he had been placed in was small and very sparsely furnished. Besides the bed, there were only three other pieces of furniture; a small table, a chest for clothes, and a straight-backed chair. It reminded him a lot of Chris' home.

Thinking of Chris, Vin checked the light coming in through the closed windows and realized that his two friends should either be back from their scouting mission or due very soon. Pushing the blankets away, Vin shivered slightly as he emerged from the warmth of the bed. He moved quickly to the clothes chest in the hope that one of his friends had thought to fix and clean his shredded garments. Chris had mentioned fetching them that morning but of course he had not really meant it. He did have one spare set of clothes but they were in his home which was a small cave in the foothills near the town and completely out of his reach.

Lifting the lid, Vin was at first relieved to see neatly folded stacks of clothing. But as he began pulling items out, he was dismayed to realize they were all light, finely woven town-style clothing. Very nice, very fancy, and very unpractical for going outside in, without a good heavy cloak. And considering the thinness of some of the shirts, two cloaks would be better. Even the breeches were made out of a thin fabric. Frowning in annoyance, Vin shook out a pair that he thought might come close to fitting. The waist looked to be a little big and he would have a lot of extra fabric to tuck into his boots but...

Boots. Vin threw the pants to one side and began desperately searching the chest for boots. Nothing. No footwear of any kind. He stood up quickly and regretted it as his head suddenly forgot it was attached to his body. Leaning on the table, he closed his eyes until things steadied out. Once he was sure of his balance he did a quick but thorough search of the room. With its lack of furnishings, it did not take long.

Standing in the middle of the room with clothes strewn everywhere, he felt very much like screaming in frustration. Their plan was obvious to him now. They claimed to be so worried about him getting sick but they made sure he didn't have clothes heavy enough to keep out the chill in the air. They were going to see to it that he did get sick just so they could keep him locked up 'for his own good.' And 'they' being his so-called friends, would be sure and take very good care of him while he recovered. Care that included all kinds of nasty drinks and smelly salves.

Snatching up the nearest pair of discarded pants, he yanked them on heedless of how well they did or didn't fit. Stooping down, he grabbed a shirt and drew it over his head while shoving his arms through the loose and billowy sleeves. They were both too large, of course. The pants hung low on his narrow hips and the cuffs covered his bare feet. The blowsy shirt threatened to slip from one shoulder and the hem of it hung down to the tops of his thighs. He was just about to pull both items off and try again when the door opened and he was staring into a pair of very wide, very startled green eyes.

When the wizard and the mercenary had first appeared at Nathan's, Chris was surprised to see what looked like the makings of a small party. Besides Nathan and Mistress Nettie there were also gathered Nettie's niece, Casey, Buck's young friend, Jaydee, and strangely enough, the minstrel, Ezra. They were all clustered in the main room on the bottom floor of Nathan's home and, judging by the amount of food being laid out, everyone was staying for lunch. Nathan quickly explained the plan while Josiah left to retrieve Buck.

"I'm thinking two, three candle marks at most and he'll sleep for the rest of the day. A heavy meal when he wakes up again and he should be out for the night."

Chris had to smile at the deviousness of it. Vin probably thought he wouldn't be allowed to get out of his bed, let alone his room. In fact, he was probably awake and fuming already. "Nathan, I think you may have actually won this skirmish."

"Well, we'll soon find out. Here's Buck and Josiah, so I might as well go up and fetch our guest of honor."

"If you'll tell me which room he's in, I'll do it."

At first, Nathan was going to insist that Chris join the others but something in his friend's expression made him change his mind and accept the offer. "Thanks, Chris. It's the middle door on the right, top of the stairs. Both Jaydee and Ezra donated some clothes and I put them in the chest at the foot of the bed. As slender as he is, they're probably all too big but they'll do until Nettie finishes mending his other ones."

In his mind, Chris had an image of what he expected to see when he opened the second door. He thought he would see a very annoyed and impatient young tracker sitting in the bed with the covers drawn up to his chin and his blue eyes flashing in defiance. So clearly did he see that image, it was no wonder he froze in shock just inside the doorway.

Brightly colored items of clothing lay scattered about the room like they had been tossed there by a stray whirlwind. The blankets were heaped into the middle of the bed in a great mound with the pillows perched precariously on top. The chair was tipped over and draped with clothing and the table, while still standing, was hidden by the rug that had once covered the wooden floor. And standing square in the middle of this maelstrom of disorder was the most breathtaking sight Chris had ever seen.

It was a fey creature, transfixed by the opening of the door, trapped as it poised for flight. Wild locks of brown hair surrounded the pale face, twined about the slender neck and brushed lightly across the top of one bared shoulder. Exotically pointed ears peeked out from the tumbled waves and a small gold loop winked brightly in the spill of sunlight. A rich, blue shirt accented the pale flesh exposed at the gaping neckline while the full sleeves hid all but the elegant fingers of the slightly up-lifted hands. The hem on the front of the shirt hung down to the slender thighs, while the back rested lightly on rounded buttocks. The pants were black with traceries of gold embroidery running down the outside of either leg and around each cuff. The pale white toes sticking out from under the gilded edges seemed oddly appropriate; almost as if they completed the image of a wild, magical thing playing dress up in a mortal man's clothes.

Forcing his eyes back up to the face above the ill-fitting clothes, Chris traced the outline of the smooth, pointed chin, the curve of the lips slightly parted in a moment of exhalation, and the high cheekbones on either side of the trim nose. And finally the wide blue eyes made impossibly bluer by the rich dye of the shirt and sparkling like jewels in the sunlight. A fey, wild creature of forest magic from the land of faery trapped for a moment in the mundane of Nathan's home.

The pink tip of a tongue darted out to nervously moisten dry lips. "Chris?"

And with his name spoken out loud, the strange spell should have been broken. But while the room went from magic to messy, with clothes lying tossed about and the furniture disarranged; the figure that stood in the middle of the chaos did not vanish or suddenly change its appearance.

Chris licked his own lips and in a dry, husky voice he had to ask, "Vin?"


" don't look...different."

"Yeah, well, the clothes don't fit. And they're not made of wool or hide. And they're all bright colors that wouldn't blend in with a field of summer flowers. And they..."

"Look fine." Chris took first one step and then another into the room, heedless of the fabrics underfoot. "They look just fine, Vin." Reaching out he straightened the shirt then pulled the lacings tighter before tying the ends into a loose knot.

Vin watched in confusion as the strong hands fastened his shirt closed. Looking up, he once more met the green eyes of his friend and felt the beat of his heart quicken in response. There was something new in Chris' expression, something the young tracker didn't quite understand. Whatever it was, it kept him from moving as those same hands gently pulled his hair out from under the collar of his shirt and tucked stray locks behind his suddenly warm ears.

"Chris?" Vin drew in a shuddery breath of air that smelled lightly of the forest, tobacco, and a scent he couldn't identify other than its being uniquely Chris.

Hearing his name, Chris became aware of how close he stood to the half-elf. He became aware of the soft strands of hair sliding through his fingers. Aware of the beat of Vin's heart through the pulse in his slender neck. The heat of his body. The warmth of his breath. The confusion in his eyes.

Confusion? Chris blinked and jerked back, silently cursing himself for a fool. If anything the blue eyes that followed him grew even more desperate in their silent plea for an explanation. But he didn't have one for himself, let alone for his young friend. So he did his best to ignore the look and pretend that the past few moments had never happened.

"I, ah, came up to take you, fetch you, downstairs. For lunch. With the others." Chris stumbled over his words, as well as his feet, as he made his way back to the door.

Vin watched his friend's retreating back, feeling strangely abandoned. For just a moment he had felt like he was on the brink of discovering something really wonderful but now all he felt was a sense of loss. He felt cheated and he couldn't understand why. That on top of everything else thrown at him in the last two days, was just one bad feeling too many. Folding his arms across his chest and letting the muscles in his stomach tighten with anger, he fought back the only way he could.

"Ain't going."

"What? What do you mean you 'ain't' going? Nathan's got lunch ready."

"You can bring it to me up here." Vin turned his face toward the window and quickly came up with an excuse for staying. "These clothes are too light for this time of year."

"Nathan's got a place set up for you near the fire." Unconsciously, Chris was grateful for Vin's sudden stubbornness. It allowed him to hide behind his own screen of irritation and exasperation. "I'll get an extra blanket for you if the fire's not enough."

"What about my boots? I don't have anything to put on my feet." Vin kept his back to the mercenary as he too found relief in their more familiar roles.

"You're not going outside so you don't need boots. Now come on."

"The floor's cold!"

Swearing under his breath, Chris kicked the clothes and overturned chair out of his way as he strode back over to where Vin stood with his bare feet firmly planted on the supposedly cold wood floor. "Fine! You don't have to walk on it." With that, he grabbed one bony wrist and before the tracker knew what was happening, he was draped across Chris' broad shoulders like a sack of grain.

"What are you...?! Hey!" He struggled briefly but then they were out the door and headed down the stairs and he didn't want to risk upsetting the mercenary's balance. At the bottom of the stairs, the sound of voices and music became clear and he felt his cheeks and ear-tips burn with shame. "Chris, please?" Had he survived the orc venom only to die of embarrassment?

Something in his soft plea must have gotten through to the man because he paused just outside the entrance to the room where everyone was gathered and waiting.

"Do you promise to behave and not pout like a spoiled brat?"

Vin thought seriously on the matter as he tried to shift to a slightly more comfortable position on the well-muscled back. A promise was a serious thing and not to be given lightly.

"Do I have to smile?"

"Only to Mistress Nettie and her niece, Casey."

"What about Buck?"

"I'll take care of Buck."

"Do you promise?"

"I promise."

Vin sighed in resignation. "Then so do I." The words had barely left his mouth when the soles of his feet landed on the wooden floor. He couldn't help sucking in his breath sharply as the planks really were cold. Once more he found himself swept off his feet but this time there was a strong arm supporting his back and another behind his legs. "Chris!"

"Remember your promise." Green eyes looked sternly down into blue ones until both held a hint of laughter. Just then the door in front of them opened and Nathan appeared, the look of concern on his face quickly vanishing as he saw the two men standing in front of him. Well, one man standing anyway. He grinned and stepped back, gesturing with a broad wave of his arm for Chris to enter with his burden.

"Well it's about time. And don't you look fancy in those nice clothes?" Buck, with his loud, taunting drawl, was the first one to greet the new arrivals. He grinned at Vin's obvious annoyance but was surprised when the tracker merely looked at Chris expectantly.

"Buck, shut up."

The fighter's jaw dropped in shock at Vin's gloating smile as he was defended by the mercenary carrying him. "Chris! I thought you were on my side?"

"Sorry, Buck, the battle lines got redrawn and you wound up the enemy." As he spoke, Chris carried Vin over to the waiting chair but rather than lowering him into it he stood the young half-elf on his feet. He did so partly because he knew Vin would appreciate not being made to look like a total invalid in front of his friends and partly because he wanted those same friends to see Vin in something besides his usual buckskins.

"You know, Vin, as much as I hate to admit it, Buck's right, that blue shirt does suit you." Josiah spoke up from his seat on the other side of the fire. Next to him Mistress Nettie smiled and nodded her head in agreement.

"It really does bring out the blue in your eyes."

Vin ducked his head shyly but not before everyone saw the pleased smile on his face.

Ezra stopped playing his guitar to seriously consider the tracker's appearance. "I, too, find myself in the unfortunate position of sharing a similar sentiment with our mutual acquaintance."

"Thanks, Ezra, I think." Vin dropped into the well-padded chair, folded his legs beneath him, and quickly pulled the waiting blanket across his lap. He didn't mind the nice compliments but he wasn't used to quite so much attention, especially from Ezra who had never made any real attempt at becoming friends. The two spoke to each other when they met and during the worst of the raids they had even worked together but that was as far as their two worlds crossed.

Ezra tipped his head in response to the doubtful gratitude and started softly playing his guitar once more. His pale green eyes sparkled mischievously in his handsome, clean-shaven face. "Actually I must confess that when I agreed to loan Nathan the clothing, I had no idea you would actually choose to wear it." The rich tone of the minstrel's voice and his slightly foreign accent made even his spoken words a pleasure to listen to, even if most of the time he did use words that only aristocrats would understand.

"Hey, Vin, didn't you like any of the things I left for you?" Jaydee was perhaps the closest in age and height to the half-elf, but while Vin was lean and compactly muscled, Jaydee showed every sign of filling out to more robust proportions.

Jaydee had hopes of following in Chris and Buck's footsteps and joining the King's Guard in another couple of turns. The two fighters were in the process of teaching him all they knew in regard to fighting and battle tactics and Chris would be the first to admit the boy was a quick learner. But he would also be the first to admit that overeagerness often made the lad leap before he looked. If it hadn't been for Buck's watchful eye and handy axe, Jaydee might not have made it far as he had in his training.

Vin smiled at his dark-haired friend and answered truthfully. "All the clothes looked alike to me. I just grabbed what was handy."

A discordant noise arose from Ezra's instrument and there were several quick coughs of suppressed laughter. The minstrel was well-known for his excellent, if somewhat extravagant, taste in clothes. In Buck's opinion, which he shared openly, Ezra spent more time on his appearance than most women did. From his perfectly styled brown hair to his manicured nails, he was a handsome and well-built man. A trifle on the short side, he was about the same height as Jaydee. But as he so often pointed out, what he lacked in stature he made up for in refinement. And there was no way he was going to let Vin's insult go unchallenged, unintentional though it might be.

"Nathan, I think perhaps while you have the boy under your care you should examine his eyes closely. They have obviously been damaged in some grievous manner that has resulted in an acute loss of vision."

Everyone laughed openly at that and even Casey couldn't resist joining in on the jokes as she took a place next to Jaydee. "Why, I think Ezra's jealous. I bet that shirt looks much better on Vin than it ever did on him."

"Young lady, considering the company you choose to keep, I find I must question your ability to discern the finer things in life."

Casey blinked her dark eyes at the minstrel, then turned to Jaydee. "What did he just say?"

"He said you couldn't tell the difference between a good looking man and Jaydee." Since Vin seemed to be off limits for the day, Buck decided he would have to find someone else to pick on. But he hadn't considered the fact that his young friend also had a defender no less fierce than Vin's.

"Of course I could. And if I ever see a better looking man than Jaydee I'll be sure and tell you what that difference is."

More laughter filled the room as everyone ate and socialized by the warmth of the fire. Vin was unofficially the guest of honor and at first felt very uneasy at being the focus of so much attention, as well meant as it was. But soon he relaxed into the camaraderie of the gathering and found himself really enjoying it, so much so that he almost forgot the real reason behind it. He was reminded when he overheard Jaydee asking Buck to take him out to see the dead orcs. He probably wasn't supposed to have heard the whispered request, especially over Ezra's singing, but his sharp hearing was another inheritance from his father.

As soon as he heard the word 'orc' Vin's head jerked up and he quickly scanned the room looking for Chris. Nathan had been keeping a close eye on the tracker and even though he didn't know what triggered it, the look on Vin's face and his sudden movements allowed the healer to correctly guess what was about to happen.

"Chris?" The mercenary looked up from his plate of food at the sound of his name. Just from the tone of the voice, he also knew the reason before he looked into the troubled blue eyes. Setting his dish aside, he stood up and slowly crossed the room. Vin also set his plate down and made as if to stand as well. Chris waved to him to remain seated and picked up a small footrest on his way over. By that time everyone in the room had taken note of the proceedings and all the side conversations ground to a halt. Even Ezra stopped his playing to focus his full attention on the report that Chris was about to give.

Placing the stool slightly to one side of Vin's chair, Chris eased himself down and tried to think of where to begin. Vin helped him by asking the question that had been plaguing him ever since he first regained consciousness.

"They were both dead, weren't they Chris?"

"Oh, yes, they were definitely that. I pulled your knife out of one of them and the other had a slit throat just like you described." Chris rested one hand on the tracker's knee as he saw the young man visibly relax. "I'll clean the knife up and put a new edge on it before I give it back to you. Buck found your bow, too. You'll probably need to replace the string but other than that it should be alright."

Vin smiled his thanks as he looked over to the big fighter who gave him a nod and a wink in return.

No longer able to contain his curiosity, Jaydee interrupted the silent exchange with a string of questions. "Did you find anything else? Do you know why they were headed this way? Will there be any more? Should we warn...?"

"Jaydee. Maybe you should let Chris answer the first couple of questions before you ask any more." Buck gave the boy a playful swat on the head as he put a halt to the rapid interrogation.

"Sorry." The boy ducked his head in embarrassment but a gentle nudge and a grin from Casey had him quickly smiling again.

"We still don't know why they were coming here and so we don't know if there will be any more. As to what else we found," Chris looked over to the wizard. "Well, maybe Josiah should tell you."

Clearing his throat, Josiah stood and held out one of his crystal balls that he used for communicating and teleporting. "I think you have all seen me use these to work some of my more difficult spells. Basically, the way any wizard performs magic is to take an object in his vocation, either stone, metal, or wood, and empower it with a spell using some of the energy from his own body. The energy is much like a healer's except that through the use of spells and objects we can store bits of our power in objects that are receptive to it."

Josiah rolled the ball through his fingers as he spoke and everyone in the room became slightly mesmerized by the play of light through the crystal sphere and the wizard's deep voice. "The finer the object, the more powerful a spell it can hold. Pure, polished crystal is a very good stone for holding power. Gemstones can be used but they are only better in that they can hold more energy. Any type of spell that requires more energy than a crystal can hold usually destroys its vessel when invoked."

"Fire Rubies." Chris' angry growl broke the light trance and everyone started slightly. Casey turned a puzzled frown to the mercenary but Josiah answered her question before she could ask it.

"Yes, exactly so. Cardimal's wizards took small rubies and filled them with energy keyed to a fire spell. The rubies were then hidden in fields where the king's armies were due to march. When enough troops were in place the wizards would invoke the spells and the rubies would explode into fountains of flame. Hundreds of men were killed by those tiny, beautiful gems."

Casey shuddered at the images her mind created and Jaydee draped a comforting arm across her shoulders. "That's terrible. How could they do something like that?"

"For power, there are some men that will do even worse." Chris and Buck exchanged knowing glances, having seen worse during the wars. And, not all the atrocities had been committed by wizards.

"Which brings me to what we found on the orcs. Or, I should say, in the orcs." Kneeling down, Josiah sat his crystal to one side and opening the stone studded leather pouch he poured out two more crystals half the size of his own. "Buck and Chris found these embedded in the backs of their necks. I have not had time to do a careful study but I think that they were empowered with some kind of control spell. I am keeping them sealed in this pouch to make sure whatever spell is on them is kept neutralized for the time being."

"Am I to understand that these crystalline spheres were located inside those two fearsome creatures and that quite possibly a wizard was directing their actions from afar?" Ezra's expression was as skeptical as his voice.

Josiah frowned in annoyance as he rolled the stones back into his pouch. "I can't think of any other reason for them to be there, Ezra. Can you?"

"Without further evidence or proof..."

"The second one stopped when he could have finished me."

Everyone turned to look at Vin who shrank back a little at the suddenness of the attention. Chris patted him on the knee and encouraged him to continue. "What do you mean it stopped?"

"It had its sword raised again while I was still on the ground. If it had just gone ahead and swung, there's no way I could have blocked it or rolled clear." Vin closed his eyes as he relived the terrifying moment when he thought he was about to die. "But instead it just froze and kind of lifted its head, like it was testing the wind or listening to something." Vin's breathing quickened as he started to become lost in the memory. He jerked sharply as he felt a hand on his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he saw Nathan standing over him with a cup of mulled wine.

"Here, Vin, drink as much of this as you can. It'll calm you down a bit."

Vin smiled his thanks and took a cautious sip of the fragrant brew. He would almost swear he could feel the delicious warmth go all the way down to his toes. Sighing, he took a bigger swallow and relaxed back into the cushions. Nathan exchanged a knowing look with Chris, who did a wonderful job of hiding his grin.

"So if those things were being controlled by a wizard," Seeing that the young tracker was being well taken care of, Buck decided to try and figure out the clues they had so far. "And were sent here for a reason..."

"There is something here that a wizard wants." Mistress Nettie had been silent during the discussion and her sudden interruption caught everyone off guard. Meeting the surprised stares with a lifted eyebrow, she continued. "Well, it stands to reason doesn't it? Why send two orcs sneaking into a town unless they were after a particular object?"

"Why 'object'? Why not a person?" Chris stood up and moved over to a clear space near the window where he could pace. "We can't assume that they were just here to take something. I mean, what could there possibly be in the town of Four Winds that a wizard like Wartolin or even Duke Cardimal could possibly want?"

"The Scroll of Eventy."

The soft-spoken words came from the doorway and the beautiful woman standing there became the immediate focus of everyone's attention. She was tall and plainly adorned in a dark blue dress with white lace. Her pale blond hair was pulled back from her face in an intricate braid and tied with another piece of lace.

"Mrs. Travison. Please, come in." Nathan strode forward and reached out a hand in welcome to the young widow who was also the town's only scribe. She and her husband and their young son, Billy, had been residing in Four Winds when the raids had started. Her husband and a few other residents had tried to fight the raiders but had been killed in the first attack. Unlike many that had fled, Mary and her son had stayed even after their tragic loss.

Buck stood and made room for the woman on the bench he was sharing with Jaydee and Casey. Mary accepted the seat gratefully and everyone could see by her gray eyes that she was deeply troubled. Josiah brought her a cup of the mulled wine, which she took but did not drink. Looking into the wizard's eyes, she felt the heat of shame rise in her cheeks but she did not look away.

"Josiah, I have to apologize to you. When you came to see me earlier I lied when I told you I could not think of a reason for the orcs' arrival."

Josiah rested a forgiving hand on her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "In truth, I suspected as much but I was hoping you would change your mind. And it would seem by your presence that you have?"

He phrased it as a question and Mary nodded and smiled timidly in response. As Josiah stepped back, she turned her head until she had met the gaze of each person gathered in the rather crowded room. Returning her gaze to Josiah, she repeated her first statement. "I believe the orcs were sent here to retrieve the Scroll of Eventy."

"And what, pray tell, is a Scroll of Eventy?"

"Not 'a' scroll Ezra, 'the' scroll." Josiah answered the minstrel's question and with a frowning look of concentration went on to explain. "When the wizards sought to block Wartolin's power they were faced with one major problem. Wartolin could use any empowered object whether it be stone, wood, or metal. In order to block his ability, they had to cut him off from each of those elements. It took the greatest wizard in each category to create a three part spell strong enough to block his power."

"But a scroll is made of parchment, isn't it?" Jaydee looked in confusion from the wizard to the scribe.

Mary looked to Josiah for permission before answering the young man's question. "You're right, Jaydee, the scroll is parchment and the words of the spell are written on it. But the spool it's wound on is wood and that's where the power is actually stored."

"And if Wartolin gets his hands on this scroll?" Chris had several questions he wanted answered but he would start with that one.

"With the spool and the words he could reverse that portion of the spell and have access to all empowered objects made of wood." Josiah looked from Chris to Mary and asked the next obvious question. "How did the scroll come to be in Four Winds? I assume you have it?"

Mary nodded and took a sip of the wine before answering. After talking to Josiah, she had been torn by doubt and indecision. The secrets that she knew would not only put herself in danger but her son as well. But if what Josiah had told her was true, and Wartolin was working with or for Cardimal and they were some how controlling orcs, then it would be even more dangerous to remain silent. Looking around the room once more at the men and women she considered her closest friends, she knew they had to be told the truth.

"My husband was not just a scribe. His father, my son's grandfather, is Orrin Travis." Mary paused to let the import of her words sink in.

"But isn't that the king's name?" Jaydee spoke out loud the conclusion everyone else was reaching at the same time.

"Of course! His son disappeared during the worst of the fighting. Everyone thought he had been killed by assassins." Nathan's eyes widened as he made the connection. "That means you're...and Billy is..."

"The heir to the throne." Mary smiled sadly at the shocked looks on everyone's faces. "When it looked like Cardimal might actually win, the king sent us into hiding. I was pregnant and there really was an assassination attempt. We settled here in Four Winds, which was about as far from the fighting as we could get and still remain in the kingdom. We thought that once the fighting was over Orrin would summon us home but Cardimal was still a threat so he asked us to remain here a little longer." Mary's eyes filled with tears and Nettie quickly went to her side and hugged her close in a comforting embrace.

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to cry but it seems so foolish now. We came here to hide from assassins and armies and he's killed by raiders who had no idea they were fighting a prince." Mary buried her face in the older woman's shoulder as the tears she had held back for so long finally broke free.

"There, there, dear. I know it hurts and I wish I had a potion to take away the pain but sometimes crying is the best cure of all. Let the tears carry away all the bad feelings and there will be more room for the good."

Jaydee looked at Casey and was surprised to see her eyes brimming with tears as well. Pulling her close, he offered her the same comfort as her aunt gave Mary, which was a warm and understanding shoulder to cry on.

No one in the room was unaffected by Mary's loss and even though the men would not give in to tears, they did share her pain. Ezra began strumming a soft and soothing melody on his guitar as everyone waited patiently for the young woman to regain her composure. When at last she sat up, Nathan was ready with a damp cloth which Nettie accepted and used to gently wipe Mary's face.

"I'm so sorry. It's just that, with Billy...I could never..."

"Hush now, no one thinks any less of you for loving your husband. You've suffered a great loss and have endured being separated from your family for the good of the country. If anyone is deserving of a little patience and understanding, it's you." Nettie gave Mary another firm hug and left a comforting hand on one shoulder as Mary turned to finish telling her story.

"Just before the raids began, Orrin sent word about the wizard Wartolin. He was worried even then that somehow those two evil men might join forces. He decided the safest course of action would be to separate the three parts of the spell and hide them as far apart as possible. So the Scroll of Eventy he sent here. I have it hidden among the other scrolls in my workshop."

"And somehow Wartolin has either discovered its exact location or has devised a means of detecting it." Josiah rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That could be the other part of the spell in those crystals we took from the orcs."

"You mean they somehow let the orcs know when they were getting close to the scroll?" Buck was doing his best to follow the talk of magic and spells but, never having had much to do with wizardly things, he was finding it all a little hard to grasp.

"Think of them as dousing rods, Buck. The orcs may have been given some kind of signal that increased with strength the closer they got to the scroll."

"Like playing a game of hot and cold." Casey blurted out her sudden understanding then blushed at the amused chuckles she got in response.

"So it's possible that they were not actually being controlled, or not quite so directly." Chris resumed his pacing in front of the window as he tried to fit together all the new pieces to their puzzle. "And it's also possible that Wartolin and Cardimal have no idea that Orrin's grandson is here."

"I'd say that's very possible. In fact, that makes the most sense." Josiah nodded his agreement and looked apologetically at Mary as he continued. "If Cardimal did know of Billy's existence and his presence here, there's no doubt he would have sent more than just two orcs."

Mary paled at the thought and Nettie urged her to drink more of the wine. "But the important thing is he doesn't know and we're going to see to it that he doesn't find out."

"Gentlemen, ladies," Ezra stood, and laying his guitar aside, made a graceful bow that encompassed the whole room. "As fascinating as I find this to be I feel it necessary to point out that our guest of honor is no longer quite with us."

Several pairs of eyes followed his gaze and smiles of understanding lit everyone's faces. Curled up in his chair with his head resting against one side, Vin sat, deeply asleep. When exactly he had nodded off no one knew and no one was going to wake him find out. Both Nathan and Chris started toward him at the same time and both froze in shock as Ezra reached the young tracker first.

"If you will allow me? I think the current discussion requires your presence far more than mine. If I correctly heard Nathan's directions earlier I believe his room is the second door?" Showing a surprising amount of strength given his smallish stature and usual occupation, Ezra gently lifted Vin in his arms and allowed the boy's head to rest against his shoulder.

"Yeah, but don't worry, there's no mistaking which one is his." Chris smiled at Ezra's raised eyebrow but refused to explain. "Once you've put him to bed how about staying with him a few moments to make sure he doesn't wake up."

"Certainly. If he should show signs of regaining awareness I will entertain him with a few suitably soothing lullabies."

Quiet laughter and amused smiles followed the minstrel and his precious burden out the door. Though dark shadows loomed in an uncertain future, the first trial had been met and overcome without the loss of one of their own. They would savor the joy of this one success and pray in their hearts that it would not be the last.