"Vin, are you in here?" Chris eased the barn door open a little further and lifted the lantern above his head. Stepping in out of the rain, he dropped his cape to one side and softly closed the door behind him. Moving forward, he heard the nervous shuffling of the horses as he walked slowly between the empty stalls. Kerel and Garrit's horses were the only ones currently stabled and Chris found them in the last two enclosures. The mercenary took a moment to look over the horses and was pleased with what he saw. They were both mares and very sturdy looking. Chris was planning on making good use of the two animals, figuring that their previous owners wouldn't need them again.
But those plans were for tomorrow and even though sunrise was only a few marks away, Chris was more concerned with the whereabouts of his young friend. Or not so young friend. The mercenary swore softly and ran the fingers of his left hand through his hair. "Where the Pits are you, Vin?"
Chris jumped and whirled around while at the same time reaching instinctively for his belt knife. He froze when he saw Vin just standing in front of him with a very sad, almost resigned look on his face.
"Scared you too, hunh?" The tracker had taken off the leather strip allowing his hair to once more cover his ears. But feeling the need for even more concealment, he had grabbed Jaydee's cloak on his way out of the inn and had it wrapped tightly around his body with the hood pulled up over his head. The only part of him that wasn't covered was his face and Chris could see the torment in Vin's blue eyes.
"You surprised me. What'd you expect, sneaking up on a person like that?"
"I didn't sneak. I just walked. Same as I always do." Vin ducked his head and turned to leave. "Didn't mean to 'surprise' you."
"Vin, wait, we've got to talk." Chris stepped forward and rested his hand on Vin's shoulder. He was relieved when it wasn't shrugged off but his relief was short lived as his friend spoke again.
"Don't have anything to talk about. I guess you and Buck got the answers you needed and it's all over. You and the others can go on to Briar Cliff, and from there, to the capitol to warn the king."
"What do you mean, me and the others? You're still coming with us." Chris hung the lantern from an overhead beam and turned Vin until they were standing face to face. Or rather, face to cowl. Chris pushed the hood back then tried to get Vin to lift his head so he could see his eyes. The half-elf finally responded with an irritated jerk of his shoulders.
"Leave off. I meant what I said, I ain't going with you."
"So, where do you plan on going then?"
Vin shrugged and looked anywhere but at Chris' face. "Doesn't matter. Might head south again. Never did make it to the ocean."
"Vin, what Kerel said..."
"It wasn't just what he said, Chris!" Finally, Vin's eyes locked with Chris' and the mercenary saw the depth of the young tracker's pain. "He was terrified of me! And it wasn't really me he was scared of. He was scared of what I am." Vin pushed his hair back from his ears and glared at Chris. "Because of these, he thought I would really take a knife and carve him up like a side of beef. How many others have thought that and never said anything? How many times have people smiled at me to my face then made warding signs behind my back?"
"Thinks I'm a royal scout. Kerel and Garrit think I'm a demon from the Pits. You, you think I'm just a kid." Vin began pacing the length of the barn and the dark cape swirled about his ankles. "I've been alive for more than twenty turns and I've been a tinker, a trapper and a scout for the king's army. I guarded pack trains through the Sungold Mountains. I even hunted bandits that were plaguing the Dreaming Forest near Tusk Ridge. But I've never," Vin stopped pacing and stood glaring at the silent mercenary. "Never, tortured another living creature before. And it doesn't matter if I did it with a knife or just my looks, the results are still the same."
Chris waited patiently, knowing there was more that Vin had to say. He crossed his arms in front of his chest when what he really wanted to do was wrap them around the tracker's thin shoulders and pull him close. But, he knew Vin wasn't ready for that kind of comforting, yet. If ever.
"Ezra calls it 'acting'. He says I'm real good at it. A 'natural'. Well, what if ain't all acting? What if I am some kind of monster? I ain't never met another elf. What if they are demon worshipers?"
"Then I guess you'll just have to stop praying to Bysha and start worshiping demons."
Vin's next words died on his lips as he stared in shock at the man he had considered his friend.
"Of course, if you wanted to we could always take a knife and bob those ears. Take the points off and most people would never know you were only half a man. And that way, you wouldn't have to worry about avoiding people and hiding out in the woods. You know how good I am at whittling. Buck could hold you down while I do the carving."
Vin's mouth opened and closed as he tried desperately to voice his outrage. Chris didn't give him a chance as he strode forward and grabbed the half-elf by his upper arms. The mercenary finally gave in to his annoyance and his fingers dug in hard as he shook the smaller man.
"Now you listen to me and you listen good. You. Are not. A monster. Kerel and anyone else that thinks like him, are idiots and fools. You didn't take pleasure in torturing him but you did it because we had to have those answers for the king's sake. You did only what was necessary, no more and no less. It was Kerel's own twisted mind that sent him over the edge, not you." Chris searched Vin's face for understanding but still saw doubt in the wide, blue eyes. He relaxed his hold and drew in a deep, steadying breath.
"When I wasn't out fighting for money or chasing after Buck, I lived in the capitol most of my life. I've met a few elves and I've heard about their god. There's nothing evil in their beliefs." Chris gave Vin one more little shake before releasing his arms. "And even if the whole race was bad that wouldn't make you evil by just having some of the same blood."
"Vin! Listen to me. I don't care how good an actor you are, or how 'natural' it comes to you. Now, you think about those five men waiting for us in the inn and you tell me, you tell me, that you're a good enough actor to make them want to be your friends if you really are a monster."
Vin opened his mouth to respond but Chris wasn't finished. He shoved a finger against Vin's chest hard enough to force the slighter man back a step.
"I said think about them! And when you're finished thinking about them, you think about me. You think about what kind of man I am, and then you tell me what kind of monster you are."
Chris' green eyes flashed as he held Vin trapped in his angry glare. Both men were breathing heavily as emotion caused their hearts to race. The young tracker finally looked to one side and Chris felt the muscles in his shoulders relax as he sensed the tracker's acceptance.
"You're right, Chris. What Kerel says or thinks doesn't change who I am. And no matter what I did in the past, I know it wasn't because I was evil." When he looked back at the mercenary his breathing had calmed and there was a slight smile on his lips. "And I've managed to make a few enemies that didn't know I was half elf so I guess the pointed ears don't make that much difference. Doesn't mean I want you to round'em down for me though."
Chris smiled and reached out his hand, which Vin gladly accepted. "That's fine. Just let me know if you ever change your mind."
The two men shared a quiet laugh and then Vin motioned toward the door. "I guess we should get back inside before the others start to worry."
"Yeah, you're probably right." Chris started to reach for the lantern but hesitated as he suddenly remembered something he had meant to do earlier. Leaving the light hanging, he reached for the pouch at his waist instead. "Wait a moment, Vin. There's something I want to give you."
Vin's eyes widened in surprise as Chris handed him the small, wooden figurine he had been working on for the last several days. The flame of the lantern shown on the pale, yellow wood that had been carefully smoothed and polished until it gleamed in the light.
"It's...it's a dragon!" Vin held the statue in the palm of his hand and studied the fine details that Chris had painstakingly carved into the soft wood. The serpentine body was crouched on four clawed feet with the neck proudly arched in defiance. The tail tip looked as if it was ready to whip the air and the wings were partly unfurled along the back. The eyes were tiny chips of blue stone and they sparkled with an almost mischievous twinkle. Coiled there in the center of Vin's palm, the little beast looked like it could come to life at any moment, spread its wings and leap into the air.
"You made this for me?" Vin's pleasure at receiving the small gift was unmistakable and Chris grinned as he nodded.
"I thought you might like it. I meant to finish it earlier but..." The mercenary shrugged his shoulders at the obvious reason it had taken him so long to complete the carving.
Vin held the dragon in his hand and felt a surge of emotion that left him slightly dizzy and breathless. Once, long ago, when he had truly been a boy on the threshold of becoming a man, there had been a girl. A raven-haired beauty with lips of berry red and eyes so wide and dark a man could get lost in them. She had known many wonderful secrets about boys and girls and things they could do together on warm summer nights. During one glorious summer, Vin learned many of those secrets and it was a magical time. He fell in love with the girl and would have gladly spent the rest of his life as a tinker just to stay with her. But young hearts are sometimes easily swayed and just as easily broken. The night Vin found his beauty in the arms of another youth, was his last night with his adopted family.
In the turns that followed, Vin had had his share of pleasurable encounters. In fact, during his short time in the king's army, he had been greatly envied by the other soldiers. The whores that worked the camps had practically fought each other for his business and he had never been asked to pay full price.
But those moments had been brief and his partners easily forgotten. In all those turns, Vin had never met a man or woman that made him feel ... special. That made him feel like he was wanted for more than just his looks or his money. Until now.
Vin swallowed hard as he continued to study the small dragon. He was afraid to look up. He was afraid to see the expression on Chris' face. Maybe he was overreacting. Chris made wooden toys and sculptures for all his friends. Vin thought there was more detail in his gift but that might just be his imagination. But, what if it wasn't his imagination? He remembered the way Chris had looked at him in Nathan's house. And dimly, he could remember the mercenary holding him while Nettie's potion cleared the poison from his body. Taking a deep breath, Vin finally raised his head.
Chris didn't know what his friend was thinking while he appeared to scrutinize the dragon. And, truth be known, Chris wasn't too sure about his own thoughts. It seemed like he had learned more about Vin in one day than he had in the last two turns. Had he really believed the half-elf was only a boy? Had he convinced himself of that fact as a way of keeping his distance? What a fool he had been.
It was a relief when Vin looked up and Chris was able to see his expression. He was finally allowing himself to see the tracker as the man he was and it made his heart beat faster. Green eyes met blue and suddenly all doubts were gone.
They stood in silence and studied each other, as if meeting for the very first time. Which, in a sense, they were. And during that silent appraisal, a wordless communication took place and an agreement was reached. Now was not the time or place to start a pairing. The quest to warn the king had to come first. It was a shame that they had wasted two whole turns but they would make up for them after the mission. Desire? Oh, yes. Patience? Difficult, but not impossible. But, what about...
"The others?" Vin had to ask that question out-loud.
"Can get Pitted, for all I care."
Vin laughed at Chris' outrageous reply. Bysha! It felt like a heavy burden had been lifted from his shoulders. Taking a deep breath and closing one hand tightly around the dragon, Vin reached for his small pouch with the other. "Chris, I want you to have this."
Chris held out his hand and was surprised to receive a small, gold earring. He recognized it immediately as the mate to the one in Vin's ear.
"But, didn't this belong to your mother?"
"Yeah, and I can't think of anyone else I'd rather give it to." Suddenly embarrassed, Vin ducked his head again and shrugged his shoulders as if it was no big deal. "You don't have to wear it ..."
Chris closed his hand tightly around the small ring, feeling slightly overwhelmed. He knew how much Vin loved and missed his mother. That he would entrust such a treasure into his keeping... "Thank you, Vin. I promise, I will take good care of it."
Vin was obviously pleased but tried to downplay his relief with another small shrug. "No worries."
Studying the dragon again, Vin got a thoughtful look on his face. It was a little bigger than the cloak pin left by his father but it would still fit in the pouch. Only... he didn't want to tuck it away out of sight. Holding up the small carving, he pointed to a place on its back and asked Chris, "If you don't mind, could you put a small hole in one of the dragon's wings? That way I could put it on a cord and wear it around my neck."
"Sure, but what say we do it back at the inn. Horses may like spending the night in a barn when it's raining but I think I would prefer a fire and a bed."
"Speaking of beds, which rooms do you think they left for us?" Vin tucked the dragon safely in his pouch and pulled his hood back up. This time, he was only hiding from the rain.
Chris grabbed the lantern and moved over to pick up his own cape. "Knowing Buck, we're sharing Barty's 'best'."
Vin sighed. So close, and yet so far. "Could be worse, I suppose. Could be sharing it with Buck." Vin held the lantern while Chris pulled his cloak across his shoulders. The mercenary laughed as he agreed.
"Man can snore. It's why he's never settled on one female. No woman can spend an entire night with him."
Both men laughed as Chris pushed open the barn door.
"Oh, wait." Vin ducked into a stall and returned with the dripping leather pouch that had so upset Kerel. "Got to get rid of this thing."
Chris stared at the pouch in puzzlement. "What did Ezra put in there?"
Smiling with just a hint of the wickedness from his earlier performance, Vin pulled open the bag and held it up for the mercenary. Chris peered inside and his first reaction was of surprise and disgust. But then he took a closer look and shook his head in wonder. "A goose neck and the gizzards with a bit of hair thrown in. That minstrel is one sneaky bastard."
"Yeah, glad he's on our side."
"Make sure those packs are tied on tight. And keep that wood covered. Having those dry pieces is the only way we'll get a fire tonight. Jaydee, when you're finished there, go see what's keeping Buck. Josiah, I thought I told you to sit and rest? Nathan, have you got Ezra ready to go?"
Chris frowned as he tightened the girth strap on the horse that Ezra would be riding. They were getting a late start, and while not surprising it was annoying. Plus, they had to gather in the barn as the rain continued to fall in varying degrees of soaking and drenching.
Nathan grinned as he pushed back the hood on his cape. "Man's still upset about his boot, even with Vin's fancy lacing. But knowing he's going to be riding while the rest of us walk, I think he'll forgive you. He's going to stay inside the inn until we're ready to leave."
"That's fine." Chris gave the horse a pat on the neck and led her out of the stall. "Josiah, are you sure you're up to this? If you want to rest here and teleport to us later..."
"Thank you Chris, but I assure you the trip I made this morning was not difficult. Transporting just myself and the two packs was not as draining as carrying another person."
"Good. And you were able to replace all the stones you lost?" Chris gave the mare another slap on the shoulder and moved over to double check the bundles tied to the second horse.
"Almost all of them. I also picked up a few blank stones and gems that I can empower later." Josiah made himself comfortable on a bale of hay and watched Chris work. He glanced over to Nathan and the two men exchanged a knowing smile. They didn't know for sure what had happened during the night between Chris and Vin but there definitely had been a change for the better.
The first noticeable difference had been Vin's appearance. When he had joined the others for breakfast he had been dressed once more in his tan leathers. But he also had his hair tied back with the leather band from the night before and around his neck was a cord from which hung a small, wooden dragon. The carving was unmistakably one of Chris' and perhaps his finest creation yet.
The difference in Chris had been far more subtle. Physically, the man was the same but his body language had changed. There was a spring to his step and a new look in his eyes that was most noticeable when Vin was somewhere nearby. Overall, the man just seemed happier. He wasn't nearly as upset about the late start as he should have been. Those changes in Vin, and the mercenary's improved spirits were sure signs that something had occurred in the night.
"Buck! Chris says to hurry up, we're ready to go."
Jaydee hurried into the kitchen where a door led down to the cellar. Peering inside, he saw Buck standing over their two prisoners with his axe hovering menacingly above their heads.
"Now, me personally, I'd just as soon lop off your feet to make sure you don't cause any more trouble but I've been out voted." Buck leered at the terrified men as he ran one thumb down a sharpened edge. "So, here's the plan. You two are going to stay here for a couple of days while my friends and I put a stop to Cardimal's plans. Now, those two stones Josiah put around your necks are going to make sure you don't hurt anyone else." The fighter motioned toward the two ugly, black rocks tide just under the men's chins. "Any pain you deliver, you'll feel twice as much. And try to remove those rocks and you'll wish I had just cut off your feet. Now, any questions?"
The two men's eyes were wide with terror as they quickly shook their heads 'no'.
"Didn't think there would be." Buck hooked the axe back to his belt and turned to his waiting friend. "Now, we can go."
As the two men left the kitchen, Jaydee laughed and slapped Buck on the shoulder. "That was a great idea, tying those rocks to their necks and telling them that they had spells on them. I wouldn't be surprised if they went off and joined a temple just to be on the safe side."
"Mistress Kerin, I cannot apologize enough for the..."
"Ezra." Kerin wearily held up her hand and stopped the minstrel's flow of words. "Enough. I'm too tired and I heard it all the last time you were here." The woman went back to her sweeping, working around the stool that once again supported Ezra's foot.
The minstrel frowned, his feelings actually hurt by Kerin's dismissal. He was about to try again when Vin quietly entered the room. Ezra watched through narrowed eyes as the tracker approached the innkeeper's wife and gently took the broom from her hands. Setting it aside, Vin guided the woman to a chair and urged her to sit. Once she was settled, he dropped to one knee while still holding her hands in his.
"Mistress, I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me the unpleasantness that took place in your fair establishment last night. I would never have knowingly brought such disharmony upon you and your husband. Though I beg for your forgiveness, I will understand if you wish me never to return." Vin lowered his head and softly kissed the back of Kerin's hand.
"Oh, Vindarian." There were tears running down Kerin's cheeks as she pulled one hand free to lightly rest it on top of Vin's head. "Please don't. You don't have to apologize to me. I know it wasn't your fault."
Vin raised his head and smiled tentatively. Kerin brushed the backs of her fingers softly across his cheek and smiled in return. "As long as Barty and I have a roof over our heads, you will always be welcome at our table."
"Thank you, my lady." Vin rose gracefully to his feet and kissed her hand once more. "I will never be able to fully repay you for your kindness, but I hope that you will accept this small token?" Reaching into his pouch, he pulled out a small crystal ball, which he placed on her palm.
"Oh, Vin, I couldn't..."
"Please, it would ease my heart greatly."
"Oh." Kerin cupped the small crystal in her hands and held them tightly against her breast. "I'll treasure it always. Please, come back when you can."
Vin smiled and gave her a slight bow. "If you wish. I promise, I will visit here again."
Overcome with emotion, Mistress Kerin gave a quiet moan then stood and ran from the room. Vin watched her leave then turned to Ezra.
Ezra opened his mouth but suddenly found himself speechless. The young tracker grinned and nodded his head. "Just like you said, I'm a natural."
Vin walked over to his friend and knelt down to check the intricate weave of leather that he had used to fix Ezra's boot. Nathan had insisted on wrapping the ankle, which meant that there needed to be more room in the part of the boot that went over the joint. By using several thin strips of leather and tightly weaving them together, Vin was able to create a new section that would actually stretch slightly to make room for the bandage while still offering support and protection from the rain.
As Ezra watched Vin run his fingers lightly over the leather ties, his eyes were once more drawn to the wooden dragon hanging from the half-elf's neck. The significance of the ornament was not lost on the minstrel. At some point during the previous night, Chris had obviously made a decision regarding his feelings toward the young man. And it was a decision that Vin appeared to agree with. Still...
"Vin, about last night...you must know that I would never intentionally ask you to do something that would cause you physical or mental anguish."
Vin looked up from his work and smiled at the minstrel. "If you're trying to apologize Ezra, don't bother. You had a great plan and I'm glad I was able to help make it work."
"Help it work? My friend, you were the key player. Without you, there would not have been a plan." Ezra leaned forward and rested his hand on Vin's shoulder. Giving it a gentle squeeze, he looked deep into the blue eyes and spoke in his most sincere tone of voice. "To show you my gratitude, I hope that when this mission is completed, you will allow me the pleasure of introducing you to the finer things the capitol has to offer. I think you would enjoy seeing the city's theatres and finely cultivated gardens."
Ezra moved his hand until it rested lightly on the back of Vin's neck. The young tracker blinked in confusion and his smile slipped just a little. Surely Ezra wasn't...
But any doubt was eliminated as the minstrel used the position of his hand to pull Vin closer still. Ezra's voice took on a husky timber as he continued speaking. "And the view at sunrise from the top of Bysha's Spire is truly... breathtaking."
Vin searched Ezra's green eyes and saw the man's honest desire. He resisted the pressure on his neck and raised his left hand to grasp the minstrel's arm. "Ezra, that sounds real nice, but you should know..."
Neither man heard the door of the inn open or Chris' first two steps into the room. The mercenary froze as soon as he spotted the two men near the fire. His eyes took in their positions and the expressions on their faces. He watched as Vin moved closer to Ezra and rested his hand on the other man's arm. Chris' breathing quickened and his own hands curled into fists as he watched the scene play out. He was just about to step forward when Vin suddenly pulled free of Ezra's grasp and shook his head in an obvious refusal.
The mercenary practically staggered at the sudden turn-about in his emotions. Backing quickly, he left the inn as quietly as he had entered. Standing in the rain, he drew in deep lungs full of air and forced the muscles in his arms and shoulders to relax. For a brief moment, Chris had known what a jealous rage really felt like and it had not been a pleasant experience. Reaching into the pouch at his waist, Chris pulled out the small gold ring and held it clenched in his fist. Taking another deep breath, he strode back to the barn and the other men waiting there.
"...you should know that Chris and I, kind of reached an understanding last night."
Ezra let his hand drop into his lap and sighed wistfully. "I see his token about your neck but are you sure you two share the same feelings? After all, it was an emotionally charged night after a very tiring day. Such decisions are really best made with a calm mind and a rested body."
Vin sat back on his heels and studied the floor between his knees. "You may be right Ezra, but when I woke up this morning I still felt the same way as I did last night. I just kind of assumed that Chris did too." The young tracker looked up and there was just the hint of doubt in his eyes. "We didn't really say anything to each other last night. We exchanged gifts and just...sort of ..." Vin frowned and gave his head a small shake. "I don't know, do you think I should ask him?"
Ezra gave Vin's shoulder a consoling pat and a comforting smile. Taking a guess as to what Vin had given Chris, the minstrel decided to cast his final roll. "Why, surely if you exchanged gifts, he would also display your gift to him. You are proud and happy to wear his token, shouldn't he feel the same way? Or did it wind up tucked away his bag for 'safe keeping'?" Ezra put just the right amount of skepticism in the words to increase Vin's doubt. "But if you just come right out and ask him about it, he's sure to defend his actions, then make a point of giving in to placate you." Ezra sighed again and gave Vin's shoulder another pat. "It is a dilemma."
Vin chewed his bottom lip as he considered Ezra's words. On the one hand, he thought it a strong possibility that the minstrel was just trying to stir up trouble for his own personal gain. But on the other hand...
The tracker shook his head again as he slowly rose to his feet. "No sense in trying to second guess. I'm just going to have to ask Chris straight out."
"Ask me what?"
Ezra felt a guilty flush warm his cheeks as he looked up to see the mercenary standing just inside the doorway. He glanced over to see Vin's reaction and was surprised to find a huge grin on the half-elf's face. Vin was looking straight at Chris and whatever he was seeing was making him extremely happy. Looking back, Ezra quickly spotted the gleam of the golden ring hanging from the mercenary's earlobe. Closing his eyes and slumping back into his chair, the conniving minstrel silently admitted defeat.
"Sorry, Ezra." This time it was Vin who got to give the consoling pat but his voice held more mirth than sympathy. "Maybe in the next life."
"Oh, to be sure, Vin. To be sure. Now, why don't you run along and leave me to suffer in solitude."
Chris smiled as he walked up to the two men. It looked like he had guessed correctly about their conversation and had made the right decision. Seeing the look on Vin's face was worth the pain of Buck's fumble-fingered piercing. And the look on Ezra's face was a special bonus. Still, he was glad that Nathan had been on hand to stop the bleeding.
"Sorry Ezra, you're going to have to do your suffering on horseback and in the rain. If you two are done in here," Chris' cold smile warned the minstrel that he had better be done, "Then it's time we got back on the road."
Vin finally pulled his gaze away from the ring in Chris' ear and quickly filled him in on his actions. "Sure, Chris. I gave Kerin the crystal so Josiah will know if they have any trouble from Kerel and Garrit. And Barty promised not to release them for at least two days."
"Good. Buck told me about his and Josiah's trick with the rocks so we shouldn't have any more worries from them. Us or anyone else for that matter." As he spoke, Chris began helping Ezra to his feet and was actually very careful. He found that he wasn't really angry with the man. He couldn't fault him for being attracted to Vin and his bit of conniving may have actually strengthened his bond with the tracker. Of course, he didn't have to let him know that. At least, not right away.
Ezra was surprised and more than a little grateful at the gentle handling. As he leaned on Chris' shoulder he felt a small trace of jealousy which puzzled him for a moment because he wasn't sure if he was jealous of Chris having Vin or Vin having Chris. 'Oh, Bysha,' He thought to himself, 'I was better off skipping from town to town. I never stayed in one place long enough to make friends or even think about a pairing.'
Vin fastened his new cape closed then began helping Ezra on with his. As he secured the pin, he leaned forward and whispered softly in the man's ear. "Thanks, Ez."
The minstrel threw a hasty side-long look at Chris but when he saw the laughter in the green eyes he smiled and gave a small, bemused sigh. "You're welcome, Vin. You are most sincerely welcome."