Three crystal spheres flared than faded as six figures appeared in the deserted room at the rear of the castle. Three of the men stepped clear while another flash of light signaled the departure of the stone wizards. Chris turned to Ezra and Kyle and repeated his earlier commands. "Do whatever it takes to keep Orrin and the ambassador out of the castle."
Ezra drew his sword as Kyle readied the bow he had borrowed from Vin. "And if they are already here? I was not successful at my first attempt at interception."
"Then get them out and find somewhere safe for them to stay until you hear from Josiah; either your place or with Buck's mom."
"The ambassador in a human brothel?" Ezra arched an amused eyebrow. "Orrin I could actually imagine but . . ."
The light in the small room increased signaling the arrival of the rest of their party and an end to the conversation. Chris waved the two men out the door and received a jaunty salute in return. Turning to the wizards he barely waited for the glow to fade before motioning for Buck to join him at the door.
"C'mon. Buck and I will go ahead and make sure the way is clear. Keep your eyes open and remember, don't trust anyone. We don't know how many are on Cardimal's side and some of the staff could be involved as well as the guards."
"Lead on Chris, we'll watch your back." Josiah tightened his arm around Vin's waist while he palmed a handful of diamonds. The other wizards prepared their arsenal as well while Nathan pulled on a pair of gloves and drew two his poisoned blades.
The party set out on a zigzag rout through the castle corridors and quickly encountered the first sign of trouble. The body of a dead soldier lay at the entrance to a side corridor and two more were draped across the first set of stairs leading down. A quick examination revealed that each victim had been struck a killing blow from behind. Chris swore under his breath and hoped that Ezra had better luck this time than he'd had the first.
"It appears to be deserted."
"Yes and that alone tells us that all is not as it should be." Ezra peered around the stone column and surveyed the suspiciously quiet courtyard. "There should be servants here waiting for the king's return; groomsmen, cup bearers, the chamberlain at least."
"But this does mean that they have not returned, correct?"
"Yes and if we can get to the portcullis wench in that tower up there we can make sure they don't get inside." Ezra pointed out their target with the tip of his sword.
"Then why are we standing here?" Kyle frowned with impatience and began to stride forward but a firm hand on his arm drew him back.
"We are standing here because there are guards with bows standing there," Again Ezra used his sword as a pointer and indicated positions to either side of the courtyard. "And there. And though I have not personally suffered the experience myself, judging from what I saw of both Chris and Orrin's ordeal as living archery targets I think I would like to remain uninitiated to that particular realm of pain."
Green eyes blinked at him in confused amazement and Ezra gave a small sigh before simply stating, "I dont want to get shot with an arrow trying to cross the courtyard."
"Ah, of course." Kyle grinned and nodded his head. "I agree completely." And with those words he shook himself free of Ezra's grip and darted across the gray cobblestones that paved the main entrance to the castle. Wooden quarrels shattered as their barbed, metal heads struck the bricks at the Elf's heels. Ezra took an involuntary step forward but caught himself just in time. As he watched, Kyle suddenly tucked his body and rolled into a kneeling position with his bow raised and ready to fire even as the next round of bolts arched over his head. One arrow flew threw the air closely followed by two more. Muffled cries and the clatter of a following crossbow signaled the end of the enemy archers.
Kyle stood and called back to his human companion, "You miscounted; there were three archers in hiding."
Ezra swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat and forced a look of nonchalance on his face. "My apologies. Old age must be creeping up on me. They say that the eyes are the first to go." Joining the elf in the courtyard, Ezra was rewarded with another of those knowing smiles that he was actually starting to enjoy.
"I shall strive to keep your infirmary in mind as we become better acquainted." Kyle nodded his head toward the steps leading to the tower. "Will you need help navigating or should I remain here to guard against reinforcements."
"Thank you but I think I can manage the climb on my own. If nothing else I can feel my way along. I am quite skilled with my hands." And finally it was Ezra's turn to give the young elf a look that held a promise of more to come.
"Drop your weapons in the name of the King!" Buck's voice echoed through the corridor and caused the men locked in combat to freeze in place. As the four combatants took in the sudden appearance of the new arrivals, two of the men blanched and threw down their blades before raising their hands in surrender.
One of the remaining soldiers wiped blood from his eyes that ran down his face from a nasty head wound and regarded Chris and his band warily. "Who are you to issue orders in Orrin's name?"
Chris met the challenge with more patience than Buck would have thought possible. "I'm Christopher Arronal of Larabee. I was . . ."
"Captain Larabee! We've all heard of you." The young guard grinned in obvious relief. "Thank Bysha you're here. At least a third of the men have turned on us and we can't find Commander Haris anywhere."
"If you do find Haris you're to take him prisoner if at all possible. He and the others are working for Cardimal."
"Cardimal?! Then they are trying to overthrow . . ." The soldier stopped as a horrible thought suddenly struck him. "The king! He . . ."
"I have some other men that are seeing to his safety. In the meantime we have to stop the invasion that is about to happen right inside this castle. Get every available man, both soldiers and servants and get them to the bathing chambers."
"Wha . . ?"
"Cardimal is using tunnels through the mountain to bring in an army of orcs. We'll need every man we can get."
"And woman. You wouldn't be forgetting the fairer sex now would you, Captain sir?" Lara smiled as she greeted the man chiefly responsible for the forming of the Swan patrols. Leading her squad forward, she snapped off a quick salute. "Lara Castain, sir. The city's Swans are yours to command."
Chris returned the salute with a grateful nod. "You know your way around the castle? Good. There are three entrances to the bathing room. I want the Swans to take the one on the east side. Did you encounter any trouble getting this far?"
"A little but nothing we couldn't handle." Lara's smile took on a feral edge. "We'll meet again down below sir." As she turned to lead her female warriors away, Lara spotted Jaydee standing next to another familiar face. "Yo, Bucklin! You still owe me dinner and a drink. I plan to collect after this is over."
"I thought we settled that before I left?"
"Hah, you're good but you ain't that good."
Jaydee grinned as he watched the Swans make their way down the corridor. He and the patrol had reached the castle just moments behind the king and had added much to the confusion outside the closed portcullis. Luckily Commander Sorrel had quickly gotten matters straightened out and convinced Ezra to raise the gate by reassuring him that Orrin and the elvin Ambassador would retreat to a place of safety. Sorrel had then divided up the guards sending some of them with the king and leading the others into the courtyard where they were quickly put to the task of searching through the castle for enemies to the throne. Sorrel had tried to give orders to Lara and her squads but she had insisted on following Jaydee to meet with Chris.
The memory brought back the last words of Commander Sorrel and Jaydee quickly sobered as he confronted Chris. "Sorrel says that he is going to leave the cavern to you and secure the castle first. He said he didn't want to get flanked on his own territory."
Chris nodded his head in agreement and turned to the two loyal soldiers and their prisoners. A sudden thought made him pause to rest a hand on Jaydee's shoulder and say, "Good job."
It was just two simple words but the young fighter felt his chest swell with pride. "Thanks Chris."
"It's me that should be thanking you. I should have thought of the Swans but I didn't. Lucky for us Cardimal ignored them as well. They could very well be the deciding force in this battle." Looking to the still waiting guardsmen, Chris gestured with his free hand. "Escort your prisoners to the courtyard and report directly to Sorrel. Tell him that the Swans are taking the East door and my squad is taking the main passage. That will leave the small, west side corridor as well as the rest of the castle for him. Got that?"
"Yes sir!" The future lieutenant gave a quick salute and hurried to obey his commands as Chris led his group to the next set of stairs.
Ezra placed a bracing hand against the stone wall of the narrow corridor as the floor literally shook beneath his feet. "Bysha! They must have blasted their way through one of the blocked tunnels."
"Then our luck has definitely changed. Once again we have arrived just in time."
"If you can call joining a battle with orcs at the very start good timing then yes, I suppose you're right." Ezra's bantering tone did nothing to conceal the dread he was actually feeling. The door to the caverns lay just before them and on the other side would be not a dozen or two dozen orcs but an entire army of them. His only consolation was that this time his side would number more than seven. "Well, no sense in waiting out here when we've come this far."
"Agreed. May Norel hold us safely in his hands both in this life and the next."
"Which I hope is many, many turns from now."
One of the highpoints of a visit to the castle was a chance to view its enormous, underground cavern with its many large, heated pools. The ceilings and walls were lined with beautiful stone formations that had been strategically lit using magically charged crystals. Pathways of crushed marble in various shades of pink and alabaster wound their way around the various pools and ledges used by the lucky few invited to sample the steaming waters. Dark recesses and a couple of unlit tunnel mouths marked the far side of the cavern adding a slightly sinister feel to the chamber. A feeling which up until this day had been the result of nothing more than over active imaginations.
The good news was that the tunnel Cardimal had chosen for his invasion force was only wide by human standards; for orcs it was barely large enough for two abreast and three was near impossible. The banished duke had also failed to consider the fact that once inside the bathing chamber, the number and size of the water filled pools prevented his fearful allies from maintaining any kind of effective battle formation.
"Archers! Take your places on the upper levels! Those with spears, guard the stairs! The rest, to the main floor!"
Those were the last words to be clearly heard in the cavern for the duration of the battle. The sounds of metal striking metal and screams of agony and rage echoed and reverberated from the crystal-lined walls and vaulted ceiling. The noise was deafening to the point of being painful. Human and orc alike suffered and died, their blood flowing into the dark pools of water to mingle and blacken before being carried away through underground streams. Bodies soon littered the pathways, the ledges and floated three and four deep in the larger basins.
Jaydee found himself back to back with a veteran soldier and was pleased to discover that he could match the man orc for orc. During a small respite he rested his sword against his thigh and carefully wiped his hands dry on his tunic, not wishing a repeat of his first disastrous battle. Looking up he caught the eye of the older man and saw a respectful nod of approval before the next wave was upon them.
Nathan worked his way through the battle, darting in to slice an enemy when the opportunity arose but mainly focusing on retrieving those too wounded to fight. As he despairingly pulled yet another fallen soldier to the safety of the back lines he felt a strange warmth around his left wrist. Looking down he spotted the bracelet given to him by Trian just before they had separated. The woman he had chosen as his Partner was an apprentice wood wizard and had told him that the bracelet held a spell but had refused to tell him what it was; saying that he would find out eventually. As he studied the wooden beads, he noticed that the carvings on each one had changed from abstract patterns to letters. Nathan smiled and felt a renewal of hope as he read the simple message. 'Be safe my love and know that I am with you.'
Buck snarled as he spotted another soldier spitted on an orcs blade. When that same orc took the time to rip the man's head from his body and kick it across the room Buck felt his blood start to boil. Momentarily distracted he failed to block a vicious swipe by his opponent and a bloody set of claws tore into his side. As he staggered back from the pain, Buck looked into the orcs eyes and grinned as he let the rage take him.
Even over the noise of the battle Chris heard his old friend's primal scream and knew what it meant. Spotting the flashing blade of the ax, he made his way in that direction as quickly as he could. His plan was not to try and stop Buck, but to make sure that those fighting closest to him kept their distance while still guarding his back. The fight was going just as he had expected it to, and that wasn't good. The king's forces were keeping the orcs bottled up in the caverns but their numbers seemed endless while Chris knew the number of human soldiers was dwindling rapidly. They had to somehow cut off the flow of orcs but at the moment he was at a loss of how to do it. Perhaps if he hadn't been feeling on the point of collapse from complete exhaustion he might have come up with a plan but all he could do was focus on the immediate task of keeping himself and Buck and those around the enraged fighter alive long enough for what he considered a 'Pits be damned miracle.'
Ezra stumbled as his heel connected with the body of a dead orc. He looked up at the live one looming over him and fought the urge to close his eyes to avoid seeing the sword that was about to split him in two. By keeping his eyes on his opponent he was able to see the arrow when it struck the creatures eye, piercing its brain and killing it almost instantly. Once again his life had been saved by the quick reflexes of the elvin archer perched on the ledge above him. Giving his self appointed guardian spirit a quick salute with his blade; Lord Standish took a deep breath and sought out his next opponent with a quick mental note to himself to take up archery at soon as things quieted down.
Josiah and Tyler peered at the tunnel entrance from around the fan of rock they had managed to sneak behind without any of the orcs spotting them. The older wizard pointed carefully to the ledge above the tunnel mouth. "See those crystals? They aren't as stable as diamonds or rubies but I'll bet they're big enough to hold a good size charge of energy."
"But there's dozens of them. It will take too much time to place a spell on each and every one. And out there we'll be in plain sight."
Josiah shook his head. "Look closer. All those crystals are joined together at the base; see? And it looks like the vein may extend back into the tunnel. All it needs is one spell and enough energy." Both wizards turned to glance over their shoulders at the third member of their party. Vin sat with his back to the cavern wall, a look of bewildered alarm on his face as he listened to the sounds of the battle taking place beyond his sight.
Since the moment he'd touched the stones of Bysha's Spire, Vin had felt as if hed drunk a whole vat of Barty's 'best wine'. Thinking was an exhausting effort and it was much easier to just let his thoughts wander down whichever path took their fancy. Even serious matters such as giving Nathan energy to save Chris and discussions of an orc battle couldn't hold his attention long.
When they'd first entered the cavern its only occupants had been a few traitorous guards and a couple of servants, nothing to be alarmed or overly concerned about. Vin had found his attention drawn to the beauty of the chamber and completely ignored the short skirmish that took place. When the explosion had rocked the underground room and sent many tumbling to their knees, he'd merely ogled the patterns formed on the surface of the pool he sat closest to.
It wasn't until the first orcs came pouring through the tunnel entrance that a hint of panic penetrated Vin's magic-drugged thoughts. He knew about orcs. He knew them to very fiber of his being and seeing them hurtle in mass from the dark recess was almost enough to counteract the effects of the excess energy. Almost. While he became aware enough to be afraid, he was still unable to form a coherent thought as to what course of action to take in response to that fear. Luckily Josiah was watching out for him and taking the responsibility of guarding his life very seriously.
Vin didn't know it, but as the battle began in earnest, Josiah had actually considered removing himself and his charge from the fight. The combatants were so packed together and intermingled it was virtually impossible for any of the stone wizards to use their more deadly gems. It was unfortunate that Dunly was one of the early causalities but it did waken Josiah to the real problem and a possible solution. As he pointed out to Tyler, the only hope they had of winning was to seal the entrance to the tunnel in such a way as to make it too difficult if not impossible for the enemy to blast it clear. With no more reinforcements, the remaining orcs would be eliminated if not actually in the cavern collapse, then at least on the castle grounds afterwards.
Making their way to the tunnel entrance had been nerve wracking for the two wizards and even a little upsetting for Vin. It seemed like everywhere the half-elf looked there was an orc looming over him. At one point he'd actually reached for his knife only to discover that he was weaponless. That had really confused him. What was he doing in a fight with orcs without a blade or his bow? He tried to ask Josiah but found himself hushed and hustled from one outcropping of rock to another. It was all too confusing. And noisy. And now they were finally sitting still but Josiah and the other wizard were looking at him in a way that probably would have bothered him just as much as the orcs if he actually stopped to think about it.
"All right. Say you do get up there without the orcs seeing you and get the spell set; how do you get him to focus enough to actually put the energy into it? And that's assuming that it's even possible." Tyler's fear and the loss of his friend made him short tempered and impatient, both of which Josiah could understand.
"It's possible. As for the how, we'll just take this one step at a time." Josiah studied the surrounding area and mentally mapped out the path he would take. It would be risky, no doubt about that, but at this point he didn't see where they really had a choice.
"C'mon Vin, time to put all that stored energy to some good use." Pulling his young friend to his feet, Josiah gave Tyler a final nod of reassurance before leading the way from their temporary shelter.
Luck was on their side as a commotion began in the center of the cavern that seemed to immediately draw the attention of the new orcs pushing their way into the chamber. They were only forced to stop and fight twice and both times a quick thrust of a staff and a burst of energy dropped their adversaries without attracting other opponents.
Breathless but unscathed, the three men reached base of the wall just to the left of the tunnel mouth. A column of stone gave them barely enough shelter to crouch behind but with the single mindedness of the orc race it was enough.
"They are focused on the fighting ahead of them and not concerned with a rear attack. They shouldn't notice Vin and I at all."
"For both your sakes I hope you're right. Bysha protect you."
This time Josiah urged Vin to go ahead of him, making the archer understand that it was necessary for them to climb. Several times Vin flinched and balked at the nearness of the orcs but Josiah was a relentless taskmaster, pushing and prodding him onwards and upwards. Finally they reached the ledge above the tunnel and after first making sure that Vin was securely positioned, Josiah began setting his spell into the milky white crystal.
As Vin crouched among the sharp edged stones, a part of his mind screamed at him that something was horribly wrong. Sure the view was great from this high up but those were 'orcs' down there. Great big, ugly, smelly, mean, nasty orcs. And Josiah didn't seem overly concerned with their nearness. He was just sitting there resting his hands on one particularly large stone and murmuring something under his breath. As Vin once more looked about the cavern, a flash of particularly bright colors caught his attention and a very familiar form had him struggling once more to focus his thoughts.
Still dressed in Standish colors, Chris was unaware of the fact that he stood out very noticeably on the crowded battlefield. That coupled with the natural air of leadership he possessed made him the target of a surprisingly organized group of orcs. From his vantage point above the fight, Vin watched as the handful of orcs cleared the path in front of them and advanced on the unsuspecting mercenary with single-minded determinedness. "No. Chris. Gotta save Chris." The words dredged up a recent memory of his Partner lying injured and dying. What was it Nathan and Josiah had told him he had to do to save his Partner? Give energy? That was it. They had told him to channel his energy to save Chris' life. And hadn't Josiah been talking about the same thing just a moment ago? Looking down at his hands, Vin saw that he was braced against a pair of large crystals. Energy? Crystals? Magic? Chris? Save Chris!
Josiah gasped and jerked his hands from the stone on which he'd just finished placing his spell. He stared down at his tingling palms in confusion and then at the glowing crystal in front of him. "What . . .?"
Sudden realization made the wizard turn quickly to where he'd left Vin sitting at the furthest corner of the ledge. Sure enough the half-elf had his hands tightly wrapped around a pair of the sharply jutting stones and was single-mindedly pushing all his stored energy into the crystals. "Vin! How...?"
"Gotta save Chris." As the magical force left his body, Vin found his thoughts becoming clearer and easier to focus. Looking down at the stones growing brighter and brighter between his hands, Vin began to doubt what he was doing and sought the reassurances of his friend.
"Josiah? Is this right?"
Seeing the clarity in Vin's eyes as well as his concern, Josiah was quick to reassure him. "You're doing fine. Just remember to stop when the magic is gone. Don't tap into your own energy."
Vin shook his head. "I'm still not sure what that feels like."
"Trust your instincts and if nothing else, stop when you start to feel lightheaded again."
Vin understood that they were both still learning about his powers and spared a moment to flash the wizard a small, reassuring smile of his own. "Too much of a good thing, right?"
Nodding his head, Vin focused his full attention on his task. He remembered what had triggered his sudden actions but forced himself not to look out into the cavern. Now that his thoughts were clear he understood the need to blow up the tunnel as quickly as possible and he knew that no matter how he wished otherwise, there was nothing more he could do to help Chris.
Tyler looked on in amazement as the stones above the tunnel began to glow. His shock grew as he noticed the ceiling of the tunnel also start to emit a faint light. They were doing it! Somehow, someway, they were actually doing it!
Knowing what to expect, Josiah placed his hands once more on the crystal in front of him and began carefully monitoring the progress of his spell with Vin's energy to feed it. He was pleased to sense currents running further down the tunnel than he'd first guessed but a little dismayed to see similar traceries branching out into the cavern. While the brunt of the explosion would be felt right where they were crouched, there would be some damage to the main chamber as well. Would it endanger the lives of those fighting? Quite possibly. Did they have a choice? Unfortunately, no.
"Josiah. I think that's it." Vin sat back on his haunches and drew a shaky breath while running his hands through his hair. "I think all that's left is mine but I'm not sure. I could probably put a little more into it if you want."
"No Vin, that should do it. I'm going to try and add my own power to it now as well and that should be more than enough." Suiting action to words, the wizard began pushing through his own energy and was pleased to feel how well they meshed. "That's got it. I've set a delayed reaction trigger. As soon as I speak the command we'll have just a few moments to get clear. You and Tyler should move out now and I'll be right behind you."
Vin saw the wisdom in Josiah's words and began inching his way back along the ledge. He was over halfway down the side of the wall when a sudden lack of movement had him looking up only to find himself eye to eye with one of the orcs. What had made the creature stop and turn was anyone's guess but the outcome was blatantly obvious. Releasing his hold on the wall, Vin dropped below the swing of the monster's sword to land awkwardly on the stony ground at his opponent's feet. Pain lanced up his left leg and left him gasping for breath even as he threw his body clear of the anticipated downward strike. Razor edged chips of stone struck his face and arms as he rolled across the cavern floor. His retreat came to a sudden halt when his back struck another of those naturally formed columns. Blinking to clear his vision he then wished he hadn't bothered. As he watched the huge sword hovering over his body he couldn't help but wish that he and Chris had had a little more time together.
"No!" Putting his own life in danger, Tyler leaped in front of the fallen archer and swung his staff in a vicious arc while at the same time triggering his most powerful gems. The blast killed the orc instantly and sent his body flying back into another pair that had been attracted by the commotion. The delay gave the stone wizard just enough time to grab Vin by one arm and pull him to his feet. Half dragging, half carrying the injured man he began making his way as quickly as possible to the far side of the cavern knowing that they werent moving fast enough and that the orcs would soon be upon them.
Josiah watched in horror as Vin narrowly missed having his head removed from his shoulders. Realizing there was no more time to waste; he spoke the word that would trigger the energy stored in the crystal vein of the tunnel. As soon as he sure that the spell was functioning correctly, Josiah stood and began a dangerously fast climb down the cavern wall. He reached the ground just in time to come up behind a pair of orcs that were in hot pursuit of his two companions. Using his staff to trip one into the other, he darted forward and quickly tucked a red gem into the belts of each monster before jumping clear. The twin explosions sent bloodied bits of orc flying several feet in every direction.
Josiah caught up to his friends and drew Vin's free arm across his shoulders. "Hurry! It's going to blow any . . ."
The sudden flare of light from the tunnel entrance was bright enough to cast shadows to the far side of the cavern. The blast that immediately followed shook the castle foundations and broke large chunks of stone from the cavern roof. The humans not bowled over by the shock wave had the sense to scramble for any available cover. Those floored by the blast wrapped their arms over their heads and prayed to Bysha for protection from the falling rocks. The surviving orcs simply braced their feet against the shaking of the ground and more than one brute died with a crushed skull. A group of five that halted in mid charge perished when a small chasm opened up directly beneath them.
Clouds of dust descended on the survivors obscuring their vision and making breathing difficult. The humans quickest to recover were the ones stationed furthest from the explosion and they happened to be the archers. With the orcs the only ones left standing, the clearing air was soon filled with dozens of arrows. The tide of battle turned so quickly that many soldiers simply remained sitting or lying on the ground where they had fallen and watched their opponents being picked off one by one.
Chris raised his head from his prone position and looked at the gaping wound in the floor where last he'd seen a party of orcs headed directly for him. Looking around at the devastation he saw that things were very much under control. With a weary sigh he rolled over to his back and simply laid there, basking in the fact that he was still alive and yet another attempt by Cardimal to take over the kingdom had been thwarted. He was still worried about the fates of his companions, one pointed-eared pain in the ass in particular, but his body was refusing to let him do a thing about it. "I am. . . definitely . . . getting . . . too old . . . for this . . ."
"Chris! Hey, there you are! Wow! Wasn't that amazing? I thought for sure the whole place was going to cave in."
". . . shit."
Only Jaydee could sound that exuberant after a battle. Well, at least that was one less friend to worry about. Chris turned his head and mentally corrected his count to two, because leaning heavily on Jaydee's shoulder was a dazed looking Buck.
"I found Buck under some rocks. I think he must have gotten hit pretty hard. I bet it knocked that battle rage right out of him. That was scary to see you know? I sure hope I'm never on the receiving end of one of those attacks. He must have killed twenty orcs by himself."
"Two things; first help me sit down before my knees give out."
"Sure. And the other?"
Two voices spoke simultaneously. "Shut up."
"Oh, uh, right."
Buck groaned as he settled on the ground beside his old friend. "When we signed on to deliver that scroll to Orrin, I some how missed the part about the free for all beneath the castle."
Levering himself upon his elbows, Chris shook his head as he reassured the fighter. "Trust me; this was not a part of the plan. Do you see any of the others?"
"Ezra's coming this way and he's got that elf with him. The last time I saw Nathan he was heading in the direction of the explosion."
'Vin?' Chris pushed himself up into a sitting position and looked out across the remains of the cavern. Much of the dust had cleared but several areas remained dark from where the lighted crystals had either fallen or been destroyed in the blast. He saw many soldiers and Swans carefully picking their way amid the wreckage of stone and flesh while cries of pain intermingled with cheerful calls as someone was found alive that had been feared dead.
"Well, I see that once again the majority of our band has survived with only a minor assortment of cuts and bruises."
"Good to see you too, Ezra." Jaydee welcomed his friend warmly but gave a cautious nod of greeting to Kyle.
Kyle picked up on the hesitation and quickly offered a shallow bow. "My apologies for my behavior on the archery field. My word that I had intended no harm to either you or the Fer. . . that is, to your companion Vin."
Never one to hold a grudge long, Jaydee smiled and dismissed the whole incident with a wave of his hand. "I'm fine with it if Vin is. Say, has anyone seen him or Josiah?"
"Actually, I believe they are approaching even as we speak." Ezra could not deny the happiness he felt at seeing Josiah and Nathan carefully picking their way across the debris littered ground with a very much alive archer supported between them. However unlike days past, this time there was no pang of jealousy to mar the occasion. Glancing over at the elf that had never once left his side, he dared to hope that his days of loneliness might actually be drawing to a close.
As the trio drew closer it became clear that while Josiah and Nathan had nothing more than a few cuts, Vin was suffering from a painful injury to his right leg. He still managed a smile in greeting for each of his friends and a soft, "Hey Chris" for his Partner.
"Welcome back Vin." Chris watched closely as Nathan kept the archer's right leg extended while Josiah eased him slowly to the ground. "How bad is it?"
"The knee is twisted. I can heal some of it and herbal compresses should relieve the swelling and ease the pain."
"It's not that bad." Vin shrugged his shoulders at the knowing looks he was given. "Well, I've had worse."
Soft chuckles grew into belly shaking laughter as the seven adventures celebrated the simple fact of being alive. A passing servant assisting with the wounded dropped off a couple of blankets and a few flasks of wine that someone had thoughtfully provided. The laughter continued as old friends and comrades as well as new ones dropped by to swap stories and celebrate their well earned victory. More flasks appeared and were quickly drained so that after a couple of marks those still left in the cavern were enjoying a nice, euphoric buzz. That was the condition the king and the elven ambassador found them in when they arrived to inspect the battlefield.
Orrin frowned as he stood looking down at the men that had saved not only his daughter-in-law and grandson but also his entire kingdom. It was a long moment before Buck happened to glance up and spot the irritated monarch. Nudging Chris with his elbow, he stage-whispered a loud, "Uh oh."
Chris tilted his head back and met the king's stare without flinching. In fact he even went so far as to salute the man with the last remains of the wine sack held in his hand.
Travis was not amused. "You broke my castle."
The seven men looked around at the wreckage and back to their king. Ezra cleared his throat to gain everyone's attention. "I believe that you will find most of the damage relegated to the far end of the cavern and in no way detrimental to the usefulness of the pools. Of course the bodies will have to be removed as well as the loose stones and the light crystals replaced but on the whole I think you will find the damage to be truly minimal."
"You. Broke. My. Castle. The north wall has a crack running its entire length and the tower in the north east corner completely collapsed."
"Oh. Well, in that case you may remove the cost of repairs from our pay."
"Your pay? What pay?"
"For services rendered. Fear not, I believe you will find our rates for saving the kingdom quite reasonable." And with that Ezra crossed his ankles and leaned back against his warm and comfortable backrest. A backrest that was quietly addressing a certain elvin ambassador/father in his native tongue, which did nothing to conceal the smugness behind the words.
"I see." There was no mistaking the gleam of humor in Orrin's eyes despite his stern expression. "In that case I shall have to make sure I pay you enough to cover the cost of a new roof for the stable as well. Gentlemen, and I use the term loosely when you are ready you'll find rooms waiting for you in the undamaged portion of the castle. And I suggest you mix some food with that wine before you pass out. I don't have the men to spare to carry you to your beds."
"Thanks but no thanks." Using Buck's shoulder, Chris struggled to his feet and nodded in Ezra's direction. "We have dinner and rooms waiting for us."
"Then why are you still here?"
Chris grinned and handed Orrin the empty flask. "It was Ezra's idea. How did you put it, Ez?"
"I simply said that it would be quite rude to leave the party without giving thanks to our gracious host."
"Yeah, so now that youre here, reckon we'll call it a night."
Jaydee helped Buck to his feet and the two men laughed as they made their way past Orrin. Nathan and Josiah took their places at Vin's side while Kyle ended his conversation with his father and led a slightly staggering Lord Standish to the stairs. Chris gave the king and the ambassador a nod of his head and followed his men out the door.
Lytan turned to Orrin and gave a small shake of his head. "With heroes such as those . . ."
"I know. It's a wonder the castle is still standing."
"How's your knee?"
"Better." Vin pushed himself a little higher on the pillows that Chris had arranged behind his back. "Nathan came by this morning and said I could probably walk around on it some tomorrow."
"Glad to hear it." Chris settled on the bed beside his Partner and handed him a small box. "With all the excitement, during the last couple of days, I forgot to give you this."
Vin opened the box and was relieved to find the small wooden dragon and his father's cloak pin that he'd thought were lost forever. "So, the dragon did find you?"
"Yeah, right before Wartolin . . ." Chris couldn't bring himself to complete the sentence but Vin knew what he was thinking.
"I'm fine now Chris. Nathan even removed the marks of the collar from my neck."
"But if he heard what Josiah said about your powers . . ."
"Then we'll deal with it when the time comes." Vin turned the carving over in his hands and thought about his wager with the Elven ambassador. He was still waiting for a chance to ask his questions but now they didn't seem all that important anymore. And in fact two of them had already been answered. He knew now that being a half-breed was actually considered a good thing and that his strange powers were a result of his mixed blood. As for his final question, while it would be nice to learn that he had relatives among the elves, he was no longer anxious to find them. No matter that they might be blood related, he'd discovered his true family and was in no hurry to leave.
"A silver for your thoughts."
Vin smiled and slipped the cord for the dragon over his head. "My thoughts are worth more than one silver coin."
"How do you figure that?"
"Cause I'm thinking of you."
"Ah, a king's weight in gold then; at least."
"Still, the man is your father."
"Ezra, you worry for no reason. He might be the ambassador for the elves and even our lord's brother but . . ."
"Brother?! Your uncle is . . .? Bysha save me."
"Sorry my friend, from me there is no rescue. Now where is that bottle of oil that your maids so thoughtfully provided?"
"Buck, I don't know about this." Jaydee hesitated at the bottom stair of the House of Silken Pleasures. There was no denying he was curious but he couldn't stop thinking about Cassie waiting for him back in Four Winds.
"Boy, you haven't swapped Pairing vows yet and after the last few days you deserve a chance to really relax and I don't mean soaking in a tub. Now get your butt up here and . . ."
"Ho! Jaydee! Bucklin! Good to see you again."
Both men turned at the cheerful greeting and spotted Lara and a few of her Swans approaching them on foot. The ladies had changed out of their white uniforms and were dressed in bright colored dresses.
"Still waiting on that dinner Bucklin."
"Well darlin', your wait is over." Buck gallantly held out his arm and was obviously pleased when his invitation was accepted. As he led the female warrior towards the street, he heard Jaydee desperately calling his name.
"But Buck, what about . . . I mean how do I . . .?"
"First time?" The tallest of the three women rested an arm across Jaydee's shoulders and began urging him up the steps. "Don't worry sugar, we'll take good care of you. Won't we girls?"
"Uh . . " And for once the young man found himself completely and totally at a lack for words.
"I appreciate you doing this Tyler." Nathan adjusted the fit of his new robes as he nervously waited for the stone wizard to complete his preparations.
"The pleasure is mine Nathan. I am looking forward to the peace and quiet of Briar Cliff. I used to think the place horribly dull but now I can't wait to get back."
Nathan shared his feeling of eagerness but not for the same reason. Trian would be there waiting for him and he was looking forward to seeing the expression on her face when she learned that the corrupt healers would soon be facing the king's justice and that he, Nathan was once more a full fledged apprentice. Only this time his teacher was an honorable man that had been glad to find a student so gifted and eager to learn.
"You better believe it."
"As one of those actually present when the damage was done, we were hoping that you might have some idea of exactly how this occurred or a thought as to what we should do."
Josiah shook his head as he stared in wonder at what some were already calling 'Bysha's Miracle.' The stone wizards and priest gathered around him wanted answers but he wasn't sure what to tell them. Even he was finding the sight both beautiful and frightening.
"Have you tried pulling it out?"
"And cutting it but it seems to be growing from the very stones. We even tried chipping out the central block but there are actually roots passing through to the next stones so we left it alone. We don't know what to do."
Reaching out to touch the petals of a blood red rose, Josiah once more shook his head. "I don't think you need to do anything. The bush isn't actually doing any harm is it?"
"But, it has no soil or water. And it is blooming after a frost. And then there is that hand print in blood that we cannot remove."
Josiah was fairly certain he had all the answers that they were looking for but giving those answers would betray a friend and that was something he would never do.
"You wanted my opinion and I gave it to you. Leave the rosebush. Let it live or die as Bysha wishes." Josiah turned his back on the beautiful sight. 'Or should I say, as Bysha and Norel wish it.'