Ezra watched in horror as Orrin rocked back in his saddle and then slowly toppled to the ground; the pale shaft and white fletching of a spent arrow standing out in stark contrast to the dark blue of his tunic. How could they have come so close, suffered so much and yet still fail?
"No! Goddess damn it! It can't end like this!" Forgetting all about his injured leg, Ezra lunged from the back of his own borrowed mount. Vaulting the king's empty saddle, he landed on the ground next to his fallen monarch before the startled horse could do more than throw it's head up in protest. Making sure his body was between that of Orrin and the Spire, Ezra frantically searched for a sign of life. His efforts were reward with a surly growl.
"Quite pawing at me and help me to my feet."
"But . . . the arrow . . ." Ezra gasped in surprise as Orrin batted away his hands and began pushing himself upright.
"Hurts like the Seventh Pit . . . but doesn't seem to have done much damage."
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?" Nathan arrived just as Ezra was about to assist the king to his feet and forced Orrin back with a firm hand to his shoulder. "You could be right but there's no sense in taking chances."
"In case you haven't noticed there's a battle taking place around us."
"Yes sir but in case you haven't noticed Buck and your loyal guards seem to have it under control."
It was true. The fighting had dwindled down to two small pockets of resistance and even as Orrin watched, the last of the turncoats lowered their swords and surrendered. "Hmmph. I guess they weren't expecting to meet quite so much resistance."
"More likely they weren't expecting to fight at all. You were supposed to have simply been assassinated, leaving an empty and heirless throne." As he spoke, Ezra finally gave in to his own wound and sat down on the cobbled street with a weary sigh. "And since no additional arrows have rained down upon us I can only assume that Josiah and Chris were more successful in their endeavor than I."
Nathan quickly completed his initial exam and lifted his hands from Orrin's chest. "The leather vest under your tunic deflected and slowed the arrow just enough that it didn't pierce your heart. That plus the steep angle of the shot are probably what saved your life. It shouldn't take me long to remove it and then you can ride back to the castle in a carriage."
"And if I insist on riding my horse?"
"When you hit the street again half way there I'll have no choice but to repair whatever else gets damaged and then put you in a carriage. Of course by then you won't care since you won't be conscious. You're the king, you decide."
Orrin raised an eyebrow at the bluntness of the healer's words. Nathan was nothing like his personal physician Hartford and Travis found he actually preferred the 'no nonsense' attitude. Still, he couldn't resist trying the man's limits. "And if, as your king I insist on riding my horse?"
"Then I would countermand that order as soon as your royal butt hit the ground."
All three men looked up in surprise at the hoarsely spoken words. While Ezra and Nathan frowned in confusion at the emaciated old man, Orrin gave a small shout of surprise.
"Sorrel! What the Pits happened to you? Where have you been?"
"That son of a bitch Parel and his wizard master happened to me." Leaning heavily on a plain quarterstaff, the former commander slowly eased his body down till he was resting on one knee before his king. "As for where, I was so close below your nose I could have picked it clean had I control of my own body."
"They offered me your weight in gold to retire and leave that pot bellied fool Haris in my place. That much gold made me wonder who was financing them. I hoped that if I went along with the plan you'd have enough sense to watch your own back for a while."
Orrin nodded thoughtfully. "What went wrong?"
Raking the fingers of one hand through his lanky, gray hair the veteran soldier shook his head in regret. "Just not good at that subterfuge stuff. Not like Standish was. Asked one too many questions. They figured out pretty quick I wasn't really interested in the gold. Next thing I know I'm waking up in that damn pit of your great grandfather's with that hotheaded son of Larabee yelling in my face."
'Subterfuge . . . Standish . . . Larabee . . .' As he listened to the gravel voiced stranger's tale, Ezra found himself struggling to make sense of the words but not all of his confusion was from a lack of information. His leg had started throbbing in tempo with the beat of his heart and it felt like the temperature had suddenly dropped. 'Well, it is getting darker. Maybe the sun is setting.'
Ezra was surprised to suddenly find himself lying on his back staring up at the afternoon sky. He felt an odd tingling sensation in his right leg and could hear Nathan muttering something about 'fools' and 'common sense' or a lack there of. Turning his head to see what was happening, Ezra received a second surprise when he discovered that Kyle E'tharin's lap was his pillow. He attempted to sit up but four strong hands held him firmly in place.
The ambassador's aid smiled down at Ezra and patted his shoulder reassuringly. "Lie still. The wound has left your spirit weak but the healer says you will recover."
"Despite your best efforts to bleed to death." Nathan leaned into Ezra's view as he spoke. "Why didn't you say something?"
"The king . . . "
"Is fine and learned from your bad example. He and Commander Sorrel are going to ride back to the castle in a carriage and I'm tempted to stick you in there with them."
"Bysha forbid. I think I would much rather find a ride back to my own home." Ezra felt his cheeks warming with embarrassment and tried to look anywhere but into the pair of forest green eyes sparkling with mirth. "Must I really remain lying on this filthy street?"
"No, I'm finished. Just take it nice and slow. If you move too fast you'll knock yourself out again." Nathan sat back and motioned for Kyle to let his friend sit up. "And forget about going back to your place; as soon as we collect Chris and the others Orrin wants us all up at the castle. He's concerned that this assassination attempt may not be the end of things."
Ezra was about to voice his own opinion when Buck joined their small group. "Nathan, if youre finished with the hero of the mark," the mustached fighter shot Ezra a quick grin, "a couple of our soldiers need you. One's lost his hand and the other's taken a bad cut to his side."
"Show me." Nathan quickly followed Buck disappearing into the crowd.
Looking around, Ezra spotted Orrin and Sorrel speaking with a small group of people while those guards not injured held back the curious spectators. Someone had gathered up all the horses and was holding them out of the way while still others worked at collecting the dead bodies. There was a sense of calm, organized-urgency to the whole scene that made it seem a touch unreal. It was hard to imagine that just a few moments earlier he and Kyle had been rushing to warn the king about . . .
"Vin." Ezra turned his face to gaze up at the spire. "I wonder what happened up there?"
"We could go up and see, if you can manage the stairs." Kyle held out his hand and waited patiently for Ezra to accept. "We were given a tour of your goddess' Spire when we first arrived. I'm not sure I understand its purpose but it is quite . . . impressive."
"Its purpose is to help supplicants communicate with Bysha." Ezra kept his gaze averted as he allowed Kyle to help him to his feet. He didn't understand why he suddenly felt so uncomfortable around the elf and he was glad to have a topic to focus on if for just a moment. "As the petitioners make their way slowly up the stairs, they are to concentrate on their problem or need. The interior of the Spire was intentionally left plain so as not to distract. Once they reach the top, their thoughts should be entirely focused and their minds ready to receive whatever guidance Bysha has to offer."
As he spoke, Ezra took a few careful steps and was relieved to discover that although he felt decidedly weak and lightheaded; the pain in his leg had been reduced to a small, barely felt twinge. "Likewise the descent is also taken slowly as to contemplate whatever message may have been delivered. It is all supposed to be a very quiet, contemplative affair, which is why the entrance is around the back, away from the main street. I'm sure you recall the narrow alley there which leads to . . ."
"Ezra! Where's Nathan? Is Buck alright? Did you save the king? I've gotta find a healer! Listrel wasn't Listrel he was really Wartolin! Vin shot Chris with an arrow! Are you sick? You don't look so good. Oh, there's Nathan. Nathan! Come quick, Chris has an arrow in his chest! Hey Buck! Is that Sorrell with the king? How did he get here so fast? I guess Ezra's mom helped him. He looks a lot better than "
"Jaydee! Breath." Buck grabbed his young friend by the shoulders and gave him a quick shake. He was relieved to see the boy alive and apparently not in too bad a shape. There was a bandage tied around one arm but it didn't seem to be slowing him down much. "Now let's keep it simple. Where is Chris?"
Jaydee took two deep breaths before he answered, "Top of the Spire."
"Top of the Spire."
"Vin and Josiah?"
"Top of the Spire."
"Right then, looks like we're going up." Buck looked around at his friends. "Nathan, do you have enough energy left to help Chris?"
Nathan looked more than a little worried. He'd just taken care of three very serious injuries and his power was running low. Whether or not he could help Chris would depend on where the arrow was lodged. He explained that to Buck even as he began leading the way to the alley entrance that would take them straight to the tower doors.
As they followed the healer Buck kept one hand on Jaydee's shoulder in an attempt to calm his young friend and ease the tension he could feel in his muscles. Spotting a free soldier nearby he gave a loud whistle and caught the man's attention. "See about fetching another healer and sending him up to the top of the Spire. Might want to station a few guards at the doors as well."
Ezra fell in behind the others and soon found himself grateful for the supporting arm around his shoulders but he was forced to pause when Kyle suddenly stopped to answer a summons from the elvin Ambassador. Lytan E'tharin approached the two men and asked Kyle a question in their native tongue. As Kyle answered, Ezra felt the arm around his shoulder's tighten ever so slightly. He didn't know what Kyle was saying to the ambassador but whatever it was caused the older Elf to regard him with a lifted eyebrow and a small, knowing smile before nodding his head and stepping away to join the king.
"Wha . . ?"
"Come. We should rejoin your friends. I'm anxious to see for myself that the Ferrilis Child is safe and well."
Ezra silently acquiesced but made a mental note to himself to question the elf as soon as they returned to the castle.
Nathan paused at the top of the stairs. During the long climb he'd been thinking of Chris and wondering how bad his wound might be. The last thing he'd been expecting to find was Josiah holding Vin in his lap and laughing so hard tears were running down his face. He was about to question the wizard when his gaze fell on Chris' still form. From his angle he could only see his friend's back and it was hard to tell if he was still breathing. Hurrying forward he was relieved to find Chris not only still alive but also awake and alert enough to acknowledge his arrival.
"Chris. You're not by any chance wearing a leather vest or chain mail beneath that fancy tunic are you?"
"Nope. Spoiled . . . the fit."
"Fraid of that. Give me a moment to see how bad it is and then we'll see about making you a little more comfortable."
While Nathan worked on Chris, Buck and the others gathered around Josiah and Vin. Buck looked around the roof and spotted Parel's body but no one else.
"He's gone Buck. I let him escape." Josiah sobered quickly and confessed his lapse of attention. "I had knocked him out but I didn't take the time to secure him. It's my fault."
"Was he really Wartolin?"
"Yes. He was able to weld all three magics." A gentle tug on his sleeve made Josiah look down at the man he still held in his arms.
"Tell'em the rest of it. Tell'em how you saved me 'n Chris. Ain't yer fault ol' Warty skipped out."
Buck crouched down next to Josiah and frowned at the young archer. "Vin, are you alright?"
"Fine Buck. Shot Chris though. Didnt' mean to. Think he's mad. Called me a child."
"That right?" Buck looked at Josiah hoping for an explanation.
"It's a little hard to explain but I think he's drunk from absorbing magical energies."
A sharp gasp caused both men to look up. Kyle stood over them with a stunned look on his face. "He has used his Gift? He can control the magics of your wizards?"
"So it would seem. Are you familiar with this? Have you seen it before?"
Kyle shook his head and gave up his hold on Ezra's shoulders to kneel next to the wizard. "I have not seen it but I have heard of it. Elisha K'tarin once pulled the energy from a wizard's stone and woke to find herself naked in a tree. She remembered naught of how she got there or where she left her clothes."
"But she was fine afterwards? There were no lasting effects?"
"None. She complained of dizzy spells that same day but by the following night she was the same as before."
Josiah let out a loud sigh of relief. That was at least one worry off his mind. Turning his head, he watched as Nathan sat back on his heels and felt a new flare of concern at the look on the healer's face. "Nathan?"
"The arrows lodged near his heart. I don't even dare roll him onto his back right now."
"But you can take it out, right?" Jaydee had decided that Vin's behavior was just a little too unnerving and had moved to stand near Chris. Looking down at his friend, he was reminded of his own near death experience when an orc's sword had pierced his chest. "I mean, if you could heal me then this ought to be easy, right?"
"It's never 'easy' Jaydee, just some injuries take less power than others. I used most of mine up on the soldiers down below. And also, when I healed you I had help from Vin. Right now . . ."
"Right now Vin is practically overflowing with energy." Josiah shifted his hold on the half-elf and gestured for Buck to help him lift Vin to his feet. "If all you need is some extra power that shouldn't be a problem."
Nathan shook his head doubtfully. "The energy before was just Vin's. What's in him now is the magic wizards use. I'm not sure it's the same thing."
Josiah looked to Kyle but the elf could only shrug. "I do not know about such things. I have no experience with human healers. I could do a Sensing of the Ferrilis Child's spirit if you think that might help."
"It does not translate well. It is the only power that I have; the ability to read another person's inner being. I can also see the . . . health of a person's spirit. Perhaps I will see if the magical energy has affected the Child's spirit."
"First of all, you might better get used to calling him Vin because as intoxicated as he may be at the moment, looking at his expression I would say that he is more than a little annoyed at being constantly referred to as 'the Child.'" Ezra moved to join Jaydee at Chris' side as he spoke. "And second of all I would suggest that whatever you do, you do it soon since judging by the sound of Chris' breathing I don't think we have time for another healer to arrive."
"He's right, we are running out of time." Nathan looked up at Kyle. "I'm not afraid of trying this but Vin nearly overwhelmed me the first time and that was with his energy alone. I don't think I could handle too much more than that."
Josiah and Buck carefully maneuvered Vin until he was resting beside Chris but still held upright to keep any bare skin from touching the stones of the Spire. Kyle gave them time to settle before he stepped forward and took up a position kneeling directly in front of the half-elf. Resting his hands on Vin's head, he closed his eyes and began a soft, lyrical chant.
For his part, Vin seemed to realize the seriousness of the situation and allowed his friends to position him as they wanted but those closest could hear him muttering something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like a list of ways he could prove he was a man and not a child. Buck grinned and had to fight back the laughter, as the list got more and more ribald. Finally Kyle removed his hands from Vin's head and sat back, a look of awed wonder on his face.
"Never have I felt a more noble spirit." Looking up at the impatiently waiting healer, Kyle smiled reassuringly. "The power is there but it is separate. If it was his own energy he gave you before, I do not think he can pass the wizard's power to you."
"Good. Now the only question is, can he concentrate enough to give me just what I need and no more?"
Josiah firmly grasped the archer's chin and turned his face until he was staring straight into the slightly dilated eyes. "Vin? Vin, I need you to listen to me very carefully. Nathan is going to try and heal Chris but he needs your help. He needs you to give him some extra energy just like you did when he healed Jaydee. Can you do that Vin?"
Vin frowned as he forced his mind to focus on the words of his friend. He'd shot Chris, his Partner. Chris was dying. Nathan was going to try and heal him. Nathan needed energy. He had that energy. Nathan needed his help to heal Chris. "Yeah, Josiah. I kin do it."
"Jest tell me how."
"Bysha." Josiah swore in exasperation and ran one hand through his hair.
"Gentlemen, and I use the word loosely, may I suggest that Nathan begin the healing and just see what happens?" Ezra moved until he was near a wall and then eased his body down so that his back was comfortably positioned against the sun-warmed stones. "I don't see as we have much choice and perhaps this is something that will just come naturally to Vin."
Josiah, Buck and Nathan exchanged glances and all three men finally shrugged their shoulders.
"Ezra's right; at this point we really don't have any other plan." Nathan placed his palms once more on Chris' chest and began the difficult task of first clearing a path for the arrow to come back out the way it had gone in. As he settled into the task, he became worried when he realized just how low his reserves were. "Vin, you've gotta help me now. Help me save Chris."
'Save Chris?' Vin blinked his eyes and focused on the body lying next to him. Dark hands against a dark stained tunic; between them a pale wooden shaft tipped with white fletching. 'Save Chris?' Shifting his gaze he saw a face almost as white as the feathers on the arrow. 'Save Chris?' Lips stained red from blood parted and a soft cry of pain escaped. 'Save Chris!' Lifting an arm that felt like it was weighted down with chains, Vin placed his right hand firmly on Nathan's arm and forced his thoughts to focus on that one, all important task; saving Chris.
This time when the wave of energy came Nathan was ready for it. It still hammered into him with all the force of a battering ram but knowing what to expect he was able to trap it and tame it quicker and easier than before. He was also glad to discover that by concentrating he could cut off the flow, keeping himself from being overwhelmed and Vin from becoming completely drained.
"He did it! Buck, grab the arrow and pull it out! Slowly."
The fighter hurried to obey and then helped Josiah to move Vin to one side since his part in the healing was finished. With the arrow gone, Nathan was able to complete the repairs to Chris' body without any further difficulty and even had energy to spare.
"All done." Nathan grinned up at the men impatiently waiting. "Jaydee, help me roll him over to his back. He should wake up pretty quick. He'll be weak like Ezra but he should be fine with some rest."
"Thank Bysha for that." Josiah felt the last of the tension leave his muscles and drew in a deep, cleansing breath of air. All of his friends would live and make complete recoveries. Wartolin might still be a threat but not an immediate one and certainly not one he would have to face alone. "Brothers, I don't know about you but I think I could really use a bath and a good, stiff drink right now."
"I would invite you all back to my humble abode for both but according to Nathan we have a prior engagement at the castle." Ezra was glad that he had positioned himself so that he was behind the others. He was fairly certain that no one had seen the few tears of relief that had slipped past his control and was positive that his voice had been clear of any undo jubilation. Josiah had been correct that night at the tavern; he should stop feeling envious of the special bond Chris and Vin shared and wish them both the best. It was time he stopped chasing after pipe dreams and get on with his life, as lonely as that might be. Pushing himself away from the wall, Ezra was surprised to find a familiar, supportive touch once more across his shoulders.
"I hope that invitation would include myself as well."
Once again a pair of rich green eyes regarded him with amusement but this time Ezra thought he saw a little bit more. Caught up in the emotionally charged moment, he didn't stop to think before asking, "Why me?"
Kyle ducked his head and a light hint of rose colored his cheeks. "While your friend Nathan was tending your wound, I took advantage of you in your unconscious state." The blush darkened as Kyle saw the look of shocked disbelief on Ezra's face. "Forgive me please. I know it is wrong to read a spirit without permission but I had to know what kind of man would thoughtlessly risk his own life to save mine."
"Read . . . ? Oh, what you did to Vin. Thank Bysha. You had me worried for a moment."
The elf frowned in confusion at Ezra's sudden dismissal of his transgression. "What did you think I had done?"
"Well, when you mentioned 'taking advantage' I naturally assumed . . . that is. . . well in our language. . " Now it was Ezra's turn to blush as Kyle stared at him in shock. "Not that I am implying that you are in any way capable of such a thing."
"Most assuredly not." Kyle lowered his voice and leaned in close enough that Ezra could feel the warmth of his breath on his ear. "Blanket games are best played in private. Don't you agree?"
Ezra darted a quick, panicked gaze about the rooftop and was relieved to see that no one else had heard their exchange. He didn't know quite what to make of the elf's amorous attentions and didn't want the others drawing the wrong conclusions. Not that he knew of any 'right' conclusions, he just needed time to work things out in his own mind. Luckily Buck was busy expounding on the decadence of the castle's enormous underground bathing chamber to Jaydee while Nathan and Josiah were dividing their attention between Vin and a slowly rousing Chris. "Ah, yes, well, that is . . . oh look! Chris is awake."
"Easy Chris, not too fast." Nathan slowly eased his friend into sitting position and kept one arm across his back to hold him steady.
As Chris blinked his world into focus, the first thing he looked for was the arrow that had been sticking out of his chest. Looking down, he was relieved to see nothing more than a torn and bloody tunic. He shuddered once as he remembered the agony of the metal head slamming into his body and then firmly put the thought aside. He was alive and that was all that mattered. Well, maybe not all; looking around he quickly spotted Vin still safely nestled in Josiah's arms. Vin smiled at him and lifted a hand in a languid greeting.
Chris frowned and tried to speak but found he had to cough several times to clear his throat. A mixture of blood and phlegm splattered on the once white stones.
"Nathan, you sure he's alright?" Buck looked on with concern as his friend drew in a deep but ragged breath.
"The arrow nicked one of his lungs. It's healed but he has to cough out the blood on his own. Give him a moment, he'll be fine."
But Chris didn't want to wait a moment. Fighting to stifle another round of coughs, he gestured in Vin's direction and managed to gasp, "Blood . . . hand . . ."
Nathan frowned and turned his attention to the silent archer. Josiah obliged him by lifting one of Vin's hands and turning it palm side up.
"Damn it, why didn't I notice that?" Nathan motioned for Buck to take his place behind Chris and then moved to Vin's side. "I knew there were some thorns left under the skin from his climb up that column but they shouldn't have done this much damage. They weren't that big." But there was no denying that the bits of wood protruding from the torn flesh of Vin's hands were indeed from the same vine. "Looks almost like they were growing but that's not possible."
"Nathan, I'm beginning to think that where our young friend is concerned, the word impossible doesn't apply."
"Not that young." Vin's disgruntled grumble cut off any return comment Nathan might have made. "Not a child. Turns older'n Jaydee. Got hair on my sack 'n everything. Jest ask Chris."
Nathan shook his head in silence and began another healing as Vin once more launched into a rambling diatribe of all the reasons why he should be considered a man. Chris had been unconscious during Vin's first set of examples and was surprised to hear himself offered up many times as proof. In fact he quickly found himself wishing he had a gag to shove into his Partner's mouth.
"Buck, help me up. And if any of you repeat any of this I swear I'll . . . I'll . . ah Pits. Just forget whatever you hear." A round of good-natured laughter was met by a surly growl.
Nathan worked quickly and by the time the last bit of wood was removed and the final tear healed, Chris had retrieved his sword and Buck was giving him the final details of the fight down below.
"Sorrell rode back with Orrin?"
"Yeah, should be reaching the castle pretty soon. The ambassador was following on horseback. They were going to take it slow, try to salvage as much of the procession as possible."
Chris nodded his head thoughtfully as he moved to look over the wall at the busy street. If not for the few loitering guards, he'd never have known men had fought and died there just a short time ago.
"Something on your mind Chris?"
The mercenary slowly shook his head. "It just doesn't feel finished. I can't believe that Wartolin was carrying out this assassination all on his own. Where's Cardimal? How was he planning to take over the throne with just a few soldiers?" Chris struck the low wall with his fist. "Damn it! This was too easy."
"Too easy?!" Buck waved an arm at the men gathered around behind them. "We damn near lost Vin right at the very beginning to orcs and we've been fighting cut-throats and wizards every step of the way. Today each and every one of us came close to dying and there ain't a one of us that doesn't have blood on him somewhere; if not his own then from one of the others. You call that easy?"
"Yes! This was supposed to be more than an assassination; this was the first step in Cardimal taking over the throne. This was supposed to lead to an all out war with the elves. There has to be more to it than this. Wartolin failed. Is Cardimal going to throw up his hands and say, "Oh well, better luck next time?"
Ezra listened to Chris' concerns and thought back over everything he'd heard and seen since their journey had begun. His clever mind began picking out key phrases and events and fitting them together. But still there was a piece missing. Something that worried at the back of his mind. Something that should be obvious and yet he couldn't quite nail it down.
Josiah sighed and shifted his hold on Vin as he prepared to get both himself and the half-elf on their feet. "Well, I for one will think much better after a bath, a meal and good stiff drink; in that order. Any orcs or wizards looking for a fight will just have to wait."
'bath . . .orcs . . .fight . . . bath . . . castle' Ezra's heart began to beat faster as his mind began fitting words together. 'castle . . . mountains . . . orcs . . . empty camps . . . Cardimal . . . army . . . castle . . . bath . . . bathing chamber . . . caverns . . . mountains . . . no sign of orcs . . . '
"Bysha save us." Ezra's horrified gasp drew everyone's attention and his next words shocked them all into stunned silence. "The bathing chamber beneath the castle is a cavern with tunnels leading into the mountain. The tunnels were sealed and warded with spells but that was turns ago, long before Orrin's time. Long before Wartolin mastered his powers. The Swan patrols discovered signs of orcs in the foothills but never actually spotted any. What if Cardimal has planned a second assault? What if he has found a way to enter the castle from below? With many of the soldiers all ready in his pay, he could take over the castle with hardly a fight."
"And be waiting there when Orrin returned if Wartolin failed." Chris was the first to break the silence and he instantly assumed command of the small party of adventurers. "Josiah, call up Tyler. Get him and his friend over here now. We need to get to the castle as quickly as possible. Buck, you and Jaydee go downstairs. Tell the guards waiting there what we think Cardimal has planned. Order them back to the castle and have them gather up all the other soldiers they meet along the way. As soon as you're done get back up here. You," Chris pointed to the elf still standing at Ezra's side. "Stay here with Vin. It should be safe enough but . . ."
"No. My place is with you. My father is with your king and if Cardimal is using orcs his life is doubly imperiled."
"Father? The ambassador is your father?"
Kyle gave a shrug of his shoulders. "Who better to serve than a loyal son? Who better to learn from, than an honored parent?"
Chris shook his head. He didn't have time for arguments. "Your life would also be doubly at risk. The orcs will have to get through us first and . . ."
"And one more ally could make all the difference." Kyle raised his chin and met Chris' fierce glare with complete confidence. "You do not command me, human warrior. I will either go with you or I will steal a horse and be moments behind. Either way you will not keep me from this battle."
"Assuming that I have not jumped to conclusions." Ezra put himself between the two men and tried to be a voice of reason. "For all we know I am mistaken and no such invasion plan exists."
Chris kept his eyes on the elf even as he shook his head. "No, this makes too much sense. Cardimal would never have relied solely on one man even if that one man is Wartolin. He's there or soon will be and it's up to us to stop him."
"Which is why both he and Vin need to come with us." Josiah tucked away the crystal he had just been using to communicate with Tyler and gathered himself once more to stand. "Kyle is right, we will need every sword or bow we can get. And Vin needs to come with us because we don't dare let him out of our sight."
Green eyes narrowed as Chris turned his full attention on the stone wizard. "Because you think Wartolin may have heard what you said to Vin while getting him to break the hold of the collar?"
"Yes. That plus the fact that he is still drunk from all the energy he absorbed and cannot be left alone. Especially not here."
"But to take him into a battle with orcs . . ."
"He may actually come in handy Chris. I've got blank gems that I can set spells into and then have Vin feed them power. We can take a position to the rear of the fighting and still contribute. And if he charges enough stones it might sober him back up."
"Consider too that you and Ezra aren't going to last long in any kind of battle." Nathan felt obliged to put his own two coppers worth into the argument since he had just finished patching up three of his friends and didn't relish the idea of having to do it all over again. "Josiah's right, we need every blade, arrow or spell we can gather.
Chris finally turned his gaze to Vin who had been following the conversation as best he could. Sighing, he walked over to stand directly in front of his Partner and stared directly into the pair of dilated eyes. "Vin, how much of this do you understand?"
Vin tilted his head to one side and gave a lazy smile. "Gotta save the king's bath from the orcs."
Josiah laughed at the withering look Chris gave him. "That's close enough. Here, you take him and let me set out transport crystals for Tyler and Dunly. The sooner they get here the sooner we can get to the castle. With three of us doing the shifting that's only two trips a piece."
While Buck was giving the soldiers their orders, Jaydee found a spot out of the way and dropped heavily to the ground. Two times up the stairs and two times down with a third time up mere moments away. The muscles in his calves were already killing him, how was he going to make it through a battle with orcs? At least Nathan had taken care of his arm so that wouldn't be a problem. Letting his eyes roam across the busy street, a flash of white caught his attention and he quickly forgot all about his sore legs. Swans. It was a patrol of the female soldiers heading away from the castle and just about to turn down a side street. Jaydee realized several things almost simultaneously; they would need every loyal soldier they could get at the castle, Buck was too far away to get his opinion quick enough and if he waited any longer debating the Swans would be out of ear shot. Reaching a decision and taking matters into his own hands, Jaydee hurriedly climbed to the top of a fruit stand ignoring the outraged cries of its owner. Precariously balanced atop a pile of deep-red apples, the young fighter placed two fingers against his lips and imitated the whistle that Vin had given at the fair the previous day.
"Jaydee! What the Pits are you doing boy?!"
Ignoring his friend, Jaydee kept his eyes glued to the white-cloaked backs of the still retreating Swans. He was about to try whistling again when he saw the last rider turn to look over her shoulder. Lifting his fist into the air, Jaydee once again followed the example Vin had given him. Another whistle and Jaydee stood holding his breath. "Yes! Here they come!"
"Who's coming? Jaydee . . ."
"Swans! Look! You go back to Chris. Tell him I'll meet you at the castle and I'll bring the Swans with me."
Buck stared open mouthed at his young companion then looked to the street as he heard the sound of hooves pounding across the cobblestones. Sure enough, a mounted patrol of the female warriors was bearing down on them at break neck speed. "Well I'll be Pitted."
Jaydee had a brief moment to enjoy the shocked look of surprise on Buck's face and then he was leaping for the back of the lead rider who, as it turned out wore a familiar face.
"This is getting to be a habit with you." Lara called over her shoulder as she led her squad down the street. "Where's Vin? Were you two involved in the attempt on Orrin's life?"
"Yes. And I'll tell you everything as we ride to the castle."
"The castle? Is that where we're headed?"
"Right again. And every Swan is needed. Do you have a way of calling them all together?"
In answer Lara reached a gloved hand into the front of her tunic and pulled out a small crystal on a chain. Holding it up where Jaydee could see it over her shoulder, she cried out, "Secundith!" The stone flared a bright red and then dimmed but remained glowing. "There. That will call every patrol in the city and they will all be drawn to the direction of my stone. Now talk fast man, at this pace we'll reach the gates in less than half a mark."
Taking a deep breath, Jaydee launched into a quick summary of recent events and for once his ability to talk non-stop actually came in handy.
Buck's teeth clicked together as he finally remembered to close his mouth. "Well I'll be . . ." He remained frozen for a moment longer and than a bark of laughter erupted as he shook his head in proud amazement. It seemed that the days of Jaydee doubting his own abilities were finally drawing to a close. Buck grinned in anticipation as he headed back toward the tower. He couldn't wait to see the look on Chris' face when he learned about the additional reinforcements.