The men reluctantly decided that it would be best to take the boys away from the gaming area, but that was before they passed a booth where prizes were offered for demonstrating skill with a bow. One look at the delight in Vin's eyes when he saw it, and Chris knew he'd have to let him have a chance to prove himself.
Nathan worried about Vin's shoulder, which was healing well. He didn't want him to reinjure it. The wound was on Vin's left side, and he pointed out to Nathan that he would be using his right arm to draw the bow, so Nathan finally acquiesced.
Chris set the little boy down, and Buck lifted Jaydee off his shoulders. Josiah still had Ezra tucked under his arm. Ezra had made no move to extricate himself, and actually seemed to be enjoying the ride.
Before releasing him, the older wizard whispered to the younger one, "No funny business, understand?"
Ezra nodded. Of course, he didn't know what Josiah meant by 'funny business' so he couldn't be responsible if he didn't honor the request.
The four men found a spot where they could watch without hovering as the three little boys approached the booth.
Vin carefully examined the bows, and discovered to his dismay that most of them were too big for him. Jaydee suggested he try the women's bows.
"No way," Vin scoffed.
"But they are easier to pull," Jaydee said. "See?"
He pointed to where bow met string, but Vin had no idea how Jaydee could tell the bow would be easier to pull just from looking at that. Still, he trusted his cousin, and picked up one of the smaller bows. It was perfect.
"Mind you don't shoot yourself in the foot, elf," the game master laughed derisively, saying the word 'elf' in a mocking tone of voice.
Vin looked down at the bow self-consciously, his confidence momentarily shaken.
"Excuse me, kind sir," Ezra approached the gamemaster. "Would you care to wager on my friend's skill?"
"Wager?" the gamemaster laughed. "What could you have that would be worth my time?"
Ezra snatched the pouch of coins from Jaydee, and plopped it down before the man.
"Hey!" Jaydee whined.
The gamemaster weighed the purse thoughtfully. There were twenty coins in it. The prize was 1 coins for each bullseye, and he saw a chance to make a profit off of the youngsters. "I tell you what He gets ten shots. If he makes them all, he gets fifty coins and you get this back . Or, I can give him one coin for the first shot, and then double it for each shot after that, but if he misses any, I keep this."
Jaydee grinned. "Yeah!" He pulled Ezra over so they could confer with Vin without anyone overhearing them. Vin frowned, but even though he didn't always understand what Jaydee was thinking, he trusted him.
Ezra wasn't sure why Jaydee had told Vin what he had, but he didn't trust the game master, so he went along with it.
A target was set up and Vin astonished a gathering crowd of onlookers by easily making 9 bullseyes in a row, even when the game master changed the rules and moved the target back after the third and then the sixth shot. He was moving it back again as Vin prepared to shoot the tenth arrow, even though the crowd was mumbling in protest. Vin looked imploringly at Jaydee. He knew he could make the shot. Vin sighed as Jaydee covered his mouth to stifle a giggle. He drew the bow and, as Jaydee had instructed, he deliberately missed.
The game master's eyes lit up. "Well, son, looks like I made out on this deal." He handed Vin all but two of the 20 coins in the pouch. "Nine shots doubled is 18."
Ezra frowned. He was sure that wasn't right. "But you said you'd double the amount for each shot "
"Yeah, you owe him four hun'ert and nidy-four more!" Jaydee protested.
Ezra frowned. He would have had to sit down with pen and paper to know if that was right or not, but he didn't doubt Jaydee's calculation.
"Be gone," the game master said. "I don't have time to argue with you."
"You're cheating us!" Ezra protested.
"Did you hear me? I said go away!" the man bellowed.
Vin cringed. He was happy with his 18 coins. It was 18 more than he'd ever had. Fifty would have been better, though.
"One doubled nine times is five hun'ert and twelve, you dumb turdball!" Jaydee shouted.
Ezra wasn't sure of that figure, either, but drew his sword and threatened, "Pay up or be skewered!"
Chris, Buck, Josiah and Nathan suddenly realized their intervention was in order.
"What seems to be the problem?" Josiah said calmly, once again grabbing Ezra and disarming him.
"He took my coins!" Jaydee began to cry.
Josiah knew a some of the gamesters were con artists. He looked at the man and though his voice was gentle, the threat in his gaze was not. "Give the boy his coins back."
The gamester didn't dare challenge the big wizard. He replaced the 18 coins he'd taken from the pouch and handed it over.
Josiah gave it to Jaydee, who sniffed and looked at the gamemaster indignantly. "Cheater!" he said. "I hope your eyeballs fall out!"
That seemed to satisfy him, but Ezra was a different story. The boy was furious. "He cheated us!" He squirmed in Josiah's arms. "I want my money!"
Josiah needed both arms to hold him and passed Ezra's sword to Nathan. "Calm down, son. Just consider this a lesson "
"I WANT MY MONEY!" Ezra shouted. And suddenly, the gamemaster's money purse burst into flames.
"Time to go," Josiah said, and the other four men agreed. Chris picked Vin up carefully, as both of the little elf's hands were full of coins, and they made their way through the crowd as the game master stomped out his flaming till.
Jaydee laughed. "That was fun!"
They found a quiet, shady spot and bought some drinks from a vendor. The boys needed to calm down and Ezra needed to cool off, literally. The boy was flushed and sweating as though he had a fever. Josiah dismissed Nathan's concern, knowing it was only because Ezra did not have full control of his considerable powers. The little wizard clearly did not take kindly to not getting his own way, although he gave no hint that he wanted to be elsewhere as he sat among them sulking silently.
Eventually, some other children - young Billy Travis and Nettie's little niece Casey among them, noticed Jaydee had a ball and invited the boys to play a kickball game.
Jaydee was eager to burn off some more of his seemingly boundless energy. Vin looked doubtful, but managed to get to his feet and follow the other children. Jaydee, though he was bouncing with enthusiasm, walked slowly so that Vin could keep up with him. They'd gone a few feet when Vin realized Ezra wasn't following them. He was still sulking. Vin took the ball from Jaydee, aimed carefully, and then lobbed it right at Ezra's head.
The young wizard glared at him with angry eyes. Vin wasn't impressed. "Are you gonna play or stay there and pout like a baby?" he asked Ezra.
Ezra seemed surprised, although it didn't seem to be so much at Vin's teasing as at the fact the others actually wanted him in their game. He picked up the ball and joined the other two boys.
All three boys played eagerly, but Vin wasn't able to run, and he didn't have the strength in his legs to really kick the ball, so he had difficulty keeping up with the other children. Then, he failed to move out of the way fast enough, and another boy ran into him and knocked him down.
Chris called to him, and Vin came reluctantly.
"I need to go check on some horses I have stabled here. Would you like to come along?"
Vin smiled and nodded, knowing that Chris was only sparing him the indignity of having to quit the game, but anxious to see the horses, too.
Chris took the little elf in his arms and they headed off for Yosemite's stable where Chris boarded four warhorses. He had no concern for their well-being - Yosemite was never one to neglect a horse, but it was a convenient distraction, and he would pay what he owed the hostler while he was there.
An unexpected surprise awaited them at Yosemite's stables. The black horse with the white blaze they had seen earlier occupied one of the stalls. Vin recognized the animal immediately, and asked to be put down so he could pet him.
"Don't know if that's wise," Yosemite said. "I just bought him off of Blagros who wanted to get rid of 'im 'cause he's mean."
"He's not mean," Vin said. "He just doesn't like Blagros because he smells bad."
Yosemite laughed. "He's not the only one who's noticed that." He handed Vin a carrot to feed to the horse and Chris set him down.
Yosemite watched as Vin limped towards the big animal, who nuzzled him in greeting. "You find homes for them little ones?" he asked Chris softly.
Chris shook his head. "Not yet."
"I could use a good stable hand," Yosemite said. "I know it ain't the best situation, but I'd see he got fed and had a warm place to sleep."
Chris knew the offer was not made lightly. Yosemite lived in the stable with the animals he cared for, so he was offering to share with Vin all the home he had. "He's good with animals," Chris commented.
Yosemite nodded. "That's the elf in him."
Chris smiled, pleased that Yosemite seemed to view Vin being a halfblood as an asset.
Vin turned to Yosemite. "How much to buy this horse?" he asked.
"Buyin' 'im is just the first of it," Yosemite cautioned. "You'd need to feed him and build him a stable or find someone to board him."
"Oh," Vin hung his head. But he reached into his pockets and pulled out the eighteen coins he'd won in the archery game. "Is he more than this?"
Yosemite knelt down so he was eye level with Vin and stroked his beard while studying the coins. "Well... I'm afraid he is... but maybe you could save your money while I get him saddle broke, and who knows?"
Chris smiled. Yosemite was trying to tell Vin "no" as gently as possible, but, it didn't work.
Vin poured his coins into Yosemite's hand. "You can take these now. I'll bring you more when I get some."
"Vin, it doesn't work that way...." Chris began.
"You have a deal, son," Yosemite shook Vin's hand. "But, should you change your mind, you can always get your money back."
"I won't change my mind!" Vin grinned happily, the first time Chris had seen him do so. He had an enchanting smile, and it warmed Chris's heart to see him happy, especially not knowing what the future held in store for the little boy.
After Chris had settled his bill with Yosemite, he and Vin returned to the other men, who were still watching the children play. Jaydee was undaunted at being the smallest child in the game, and although he was somewhat lacking in coordination, he made up for it in speed and an uncanny ability to tell where the ball was going to be an instant after it was kicked. Ezra was a natural athlete, but he had obviously not had too much experience in the exercise of good sportsmanship. Nathan and Josiah had to intervene more than once to settle a dispute with one of the other children.
Vin settled comfortably in Chris's arms and fell asleep, and that's where he was when Nettie approached with another couple who were being considered as potential parents. It was the silversmith, Lilliana and her husband, Gillas. They were elves, and had two daughters about Vin's age.
Chris had thought Vin's appearance was decidedly elfin, but he appeared much less so compared to Lilliana's children. Their features were small and delicate, except for their ears, which were almost comically large, and they had hair as wispy as spider's silk. Both of them were considerably taller than Vin, too.
"He's so ugly!" one of the little girls said.
Her mother hushed her, embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "We were told he was a half-blood, but I fear we didn't expect him to look so "
"Human?" Buck finished, a bad taste forming in his mouth.
Lilliana nodded. "And Nettie says he does not walk well?" She eyed the little walking stick.
"No, he doesn't," Chris said, in a tone that was more challenging than he intended. He had already made his decision.
"I saw him shoot," Gillas remarked, a hint of admiration in his voice. "He's quite an archer."
Lilliana scowled at him. "I will have no weapons in my home!" She pulled her girls to her protectively.
Chris could see that if it were up to Gillas, they would probably take Vin in, but, it was obvious he didn't make the choices for the family. And, neither Gillas nor Lilliana had even bothered to look at Jaydee, so it was clear they weren't even considering him.
Nettie sensed the negative feelings all around and graciously said, "Perhaps you would like some more time to think it over?"
Lilliana nodded, although both Nettie and Chris knew she had already decided.
As the elf family walked away, Nettie sat down beside Chris and gently pushed Vin's hair back from his face. He was a beautiful child, no matter what Lilliana might think. It broke her heart that no one wanted him. She had already made up her mind that if no home could be found for the boys, she would take them herself. She hoped it that for Vin and Jaydee's sake, it didn't come to that. Her little niece Casey was enough of a handful, and she wasn't sure she was up to the challenge raising two active boys at her age. But that was only part of the reason. As she looked at Chris and how tenderly he held the frail little elf, and then at Buck, who cheered Jaydee on with pride even after he stepped on the ball and fell flat on his face, she wondered if either of them realized that Vin and Jaydee had already found the place they truly belonged.
When it became obvious that they were not going to find a home to take both boys, Josiah decided to take a trip to Blackcliffe to see if he could learn anything about who they were. His visit solved a few mysteries, but opened the door on others.
Many people in the village clearly remembered Vin and Jaydee but no one save for Mrs. Potter would talk to the wizard. Mrs. Potter had lost her husband not long ago, and it had been the four mercenaries who had brought his killer to justice. They had not asked the widow to pay for their services, and Josiah had assured her that she didn't need to feel obliged to speak to him. But, she was concerned for the two little orphan boys, and she trusted him.
She had confirmed that the boys' mothers were indeed sisters. Local gossip credited the Baron of Greycastle, Sir John Dunne, as having sired Jaydee, but she could not swear that was fact. No human in the village knew who Vin's father was, although Mr. Potter suspected some of the Elf population knew and for reasons they kept to themselves, they guarded that knowledge even from Vin.
Not long after Vin turned five, his mother had taken ill suddenly and within days she was gone. Her sister took Vin in without question, even though times were hard for her, raising her own child alone like she was. Jaydee's mother did not share in the usual camaraderie of the village's other young mothers, although that was not entirely her choice. Almost from birth, Jaydee had demonstrated an unnatural ability to learn and understand things that were well beyond his years. That he was a sweet, affectionate child was not as important as the fact that some believed his birth was linked to supernatural forces. There were an unenlightened few who believed that his father was not John Dunne at all, but that the source of his intellectual powers was a demon. The more tolerant and intelligent members of the community, recognized that Jaydee was an extraordinary human being - what their folklore referred to as one of the "Everborn" - possessing from birth the accumulated knowledge of generations. Regardless of their point of view, the end result was that most common folk had as little to do with Jaydee and his mother as possible, either because they were afraid, or because they failed to understand that despite his gifts, Jaydee was not much different from their own children.
Ironically, Vin had been a salvation for Jaydee and his mother. The young elf was largely unimpressed by his cousin's intellect, and the boys had an honest affection for one another. As for Vin, most of the village accepted what he was. Before Mosely began to rally his followers against the elves, there had been several half-bloods in the village. Most of them were gone now, though, either killed or taken into hiding by their parents.
Anderson's raids on the village had begun after loose tongues in the taverns of Greycastle had spread the rumor that the village harbored a treasure. They were a poor village of farms and a few craftsmen - they had nothing of value to the rich and powerful of the city, but they did have one thing that those who were greedy for wealth and power might covet were they to discover its existence - the Everborn, Jaydee.
After the first of the attacks, a mysterious messenger had come to Mrs. Potter's husband, renowned for his work with clay and brick, and had him build a hidden shelter near the rim of the canyon. Only he and Jaydee's mother knew the location. Someone had obviously anticipated that the day would come when it would be necessary to hide the boys.
After one of the raids, Jaydee's mother was found dead, and the boys were gone. That had been almost half a turn past, and most people had assumed the children had been captured or killed. No one had looked for the half-blood elf and his odd cousin.
It went without saying that no one there now claimed them. Mrs. Potter had told Josiah she would take them in if no one else would, but it was plain that she was hard-pressed to care for her own children now that her husband was gone.
Josiah passed on what he'd learned as the men sat on the bank of the small stream that ran just north of the fort, watching Vin and Jaydee play. Perhaps they had family somewhere, but they had been on their own for some time before the battle of Beggar's Pass, and apparently no one had missed them.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. Chris harbored suspicions about the Elf warrior he had found with Vin's bow, but he kept them to himself for now. He'd put the bracelet the elf had given him away. He was not a rich man, but he could afford to provide for one very small boy, and perhaps one day, the ornament would be of importance to Vin.
The boys were making miniature rafts out of leaves and twigs and "sailing" them in the stream. Jaydee clearly understood the principles of ballast and trim, even though he had difficulty explaining them in words. The little vessels worked perfectly, and there was no doubt that had he the resources to build a real raft with a true sail, it would work equally as well.
Buck shook his head in awe. "I ain't never seen a kid that smart," he said.
Chris snorted. "I ain't never seen anyone that smart."
"Kinda scary, ain't it?" Buck asked no one in particular.
"Vin says he just knows things, that no one has to teach him," Chris commented.
Nathan agreed. "A pure heart and a perfect mind "
Chris looked at him. "What?"
"The legend of the Everborn says that once in a thousand turns, a child will be born with the ability to move the entire race of man forward or back. I don't know if it's true, but if it is, we would be duty bound to protect such a child."
"Protect it from what?" Chris asked.
Nathan shrugged. "From superstitious fools like that woman in the marketplace, for one. Buck just said it himself, a child that intelligent can be frightening to ignorant people, and it's easy to forget he's just a little boy."
As if to verify Nathan's remark, Jaydee came running up to them. "Look! Look what I found in the dirt!" he squealed with delight. He held his chubby hands up to display a fat toad that promptly let loose a stream of urine that just missed his feet. The boy watched it, perplexed and then said, "I guess I squished it too hard."
Trying not to laugh at the expression on the child's face, Nathan explained, "It's time for him to sleep for the winter. You best go put him back where you got him and cover him back up."
"But I wanna keep it!"
"If you keep it, it'll die," Buck said. "We'll come back here in the Spring and see if we can find him again."
The words were out of his mouth before he considered what they implied - that Jaydee would still be with him on a distant day yet to come. They were not lost on Jaydee, who wanted more than anything to stay with Buck, although Buck couldn't figure out why.
"Okay," he grinned, and left to return the toad to its hiding place.
Vin was happily digging in the dirt, being a child instead of a soldier. He sang as he dug, and Chris couldn't help but smile. It was an elf song, and elves were known for their beautiful music and voices, but Vin seemed to have absolutely no concept of pitch and sang the song using the same note over and over. Innocent though his play seemed however, Chris noticed he never let his guard down, and never took his eyes off of Jaydee. The men had no doubt that Vin would lay down his life to protect the younger boy. It was for that very reason that they had rejected the idea of finding separate families to take them.
"So, you're keeping them?" Nathan asked.
"Never said that," Chris shook his head.
"There's more to consider than whether or they have a roof over their head, Chris," Nathan said.
"I know that," Chris nodded. "That's why we can't jump into this with both feet."
"If not us, then who?" Nathan asked. "It's the only way to keep them both from taking the wrong path."
"Wrong path?" Chris frowned.
"The path backward," Nathan nodded, without elaborating. "Have you talked to Vin and Ezra about what the boys did the day of the battle?"
"I've talked to Vin some," Chris answered. He wasn't eager to bring the subject up and cause bad memories to surface for the two little boys.
He hadn't had a chance to talk to Ezra at all. Following the afternoon at the marketplace, Maude had kept the boy confined to the house she had there in Four Winds. It was a big house, but to a ten-year-old boy, it must have seemed like a prison. Josiah had once again approached Maude about the boy's training. He'd explained to her that in a very short time, Ezra would begin the transition from boy to man, and when that time came, his powers would amplify. Unfortunately, Maude seemed determined to deny what her son was, and Josiah only hoped the end result of that would not prove catastrophic.
"Those weapons they used against Anderson's men those were all Jaydee's idea. Jaydee taught Vin to shoot, even though he's too small to pull a bow himself. If he can do these things at five, what will he be able to conceive when he's fifteen, or twenty? And what about Vin? His skill with a bow is as unnatural as Jaydee's intelligence. If the wrong person were to desire their gifts for the wrong purposes " Nathan's voice trailed off. There was no need for him to finish voicing the thought.
Vin and Jaydee were very young, and the men they would become was still to be determined. And like it or not, Ezra was a cause for their concern, also. They all knew what he was, and chances were, others had realized it, too.
It was late in the fall and the days had grown short. It would soon be dark, so they gathered the boys so they could head for home - for in fact, that was how they had begun to think of the no longer abandoned fort.
The sky was peppered with stars by the time they had the fort in sight. Jaydee and Buck fell behind the others as Jaydee stopped often to study the heavens. "Buck?" he asked in a uncharacteristically soft voice.
"What, Little Bit?"
"All those stars, are they all somebody's mama?"
Buck thought carefully before he answered. The fact that Jaydee held that belief was evidence of just how much of an innocent child he still was.
"Well...." Buck began, "I reckon some of them could be papas, and maybe grandmas and grandpas."
"Some are little boys, too," Jaydee said solemnly.
"Yes, I reckon some of them are."
"When a star falls, does that mean someone has come back?" Jaydee asked hopefully.
Again, Buck was careful with his answer. "I don't know if anyone knows for sure, Jaydee, but it would be nice if that were so, wouldn't it?"
Jaydee nodded, and sighed. "I wish my mama would come back."
Buck impulsively picked the little boy up. At that moment, he made his decision, no matter what Chris or the others thought. "Do you think she'd mind if you stayed with ol' Buck?"
Jaydee shook his head. "I think she'd like that."
Buck tousled Jaydee's black hair. "I think I will too."
A late autumn wind howled outside, but in just a few days time, the men had converted the abandoned fort into a comfortable shelter. The large stone building had been partitioned off so that the men had small but private sleeping quarters, and there was a larger room for Vin and Jaydee. Josiah had been busy building bunks and furniture, and it was beginning to look much the same as any other humble home in the village of Four Winds.
That fact hadn't set well with some of the town folk, Mayor Conklin in particular, who had no use for the mercenaries and saw their presence as a threat to his authority.
Others, though, aware that Chris Larabee had lead the successful rout of Anderson's forces, didn't think it was necessarily a bad thing to have him and his men in residence.
The biggest obstacle that remained to their acceptance in Four Winds was Vin and Jaydee. There were always going to be stupid people who would find fault with Vin's mixed blood, and Jaydee innocently intimidated people with his uncanny intelligence.
Buck and Chris worried for the two boys, Vin because he was keenly aware that he was different, and that what he could not change made him somehow unacceptable to some people. He had already asked Chris why nobody liked him. Chris assured him that there were many people who liked him, and named them, but he knew it hurt Vin that total strangers stared at him, or worse, made cruel remarks.
Jaydee was still too young to realize how staggering his abilities were, and how there would be people who would see him as a freak instead of the sweet and charming little boy that he was. It would be their job to teach him to value those who were less gifted than he, and they weren't sure they were up to the task.
All of that could be dealt with another day, though. As a storm brewed outside, the small band of soldiers, big and small, were safe and comfortable in their newly improvised home. Nathan studied a medical scroll while Josiah put the finishing touches on a rocking horse he was making for the boys. Chris would have thought the two young ones had seen and done too much to be amused by such a childish thing, but Nettie's niece Casey had one and both Vin and Jaydee had been delighted with it - a reminder to them all that they were, after everything they had been through, still children.
Chris had been working on the old piece of body armor as Vin watched. He knew that the boy would never ask what he was doing with it, but he suspected that Vin had figured it out. Finally, he was done with it, having trimmed out two pieces that were still in excellent condition, and joined them together into a garment that looked almost new. There was no need to let Vin know that the garment's real purpose was to brace his spine and maybe help him heal. Nathan had told Chris how it would need to cinch it up tight against his back, so Chris had added new straps and bindings to accomplish this. He held it up for Vin to see. It looked much like it had when new, except now it was only about half its original size.
"That won't fit you," Vin said, with just the slightest hint of expectation in his voice.
"Nope," Chris smiled, "It sure won't. Shame, though. It's almost as good as new." He handed it to Vin. "What do you think?"
Vin reached out and ran his fingers over the freshly polished rings and the new buckles, and understood it really was for him.
"Shall we see if it fits?" Chris suggested.
He showed Vin how to adjust the fastenings so the armor fit properly. Vin smiled, but it was the boy's large blue eyes that spoke to Chris without the need for words
I will not always be small. One day I will be a true soldier and stand strong at your side, as your ally, your friend... your son.
Chris hoped he would see that day. Nathan was not certain that Vin would ever fully recover from the injury to his back. Elves had a remarkable ability to heal, but Vin was half human, and it was just as possible that it would cause him pain for the remainder of his life. He did seem to be improving, but come spring, if he was not fully recovered, they would take him to the large city of Briar Cliff, where Nathan knew of a healer who might be of help.
That day was far off, though, and for now the best remedy they could offer Vin was the knowledge that he was safe, and that his burdens now rested on stronger shoulders.
Jaydee sat in front of the fire, chattering away as he scribbled his "inventions" in a book of blank parchments that Josiah had given him. For all of his many gifts, Jaydee's artistic abilities were the same as any other five-year-old, which added a certain charm to his wonderfully detailed drawings. And because he was five, many of his inventions had no practical use beyond a flight of childhood whimsy - he was diligently working on a dragon trap, choosing to ignore Buck's advice that trapping a dragon was probably never a good idea. But the light of the fire was fading, and his eyes sometimes bothered him when he was tired, the result of the injuries he'd sustained at Beggar's Pass. He reached up to rub them but Buck pulled his hands away.
"I think somebody needs to go to bed."
"Not sleepy," Jaydee yawned.
"Well, just lie down and rest your eyes for awhile." Buck winked at Chris. As smart as he was, Jaydee assumed this meant he wasn't really going to bed and willingly allowed Buck to lead him off to his room where he removed his clothes and crawled onto the new bed Josiah had built for him. There was one just like it for Vin against the opposite wall. Both were large enough to accommodate an adult, so both boys fit easily onto one bed. Even though Josiah had managed to take away most of the more brutal memories from Beggar's Pass, the little boys sometimes relived the bloody battle again in their dreams and would find comfort in the closeness of the other one. They had found them snuggled up like a pair of pups more than once.
Vin went to bed more or less willingly. He was an early riser, often up at sunrise, so he often tired early in the evening. After undressing, he carefully folded the armored vest Chris had just given him into a neat bundle which he set atop his other clothes. He lay down on his stomach, and Chris knew he was hoping someone would rub his back. It had become a nightly ritual, and it was usually Chris who was happy to oblige.
Jaydee soon rested his eyes all the way to sleep. Vin yawned and stretched carefully.
"Chris?" There was something on his mind.
"Do you think Colonel Anderson knows where the treasure is?"
Chris sensed that Vin's concern went deep. He saw it in the boy's blue eyes.
"I think he's going to think twice before he tries to take it again," Chris said.
"But, do you think he knows where to find it?"
Chris frowned. "Vin, do you know where it is?"
Vin averted his eyes.
"Vin? You can trust me. I think you know that, don't you?"
"You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to, but if you know something that Anderson might want from you, I need to know that."
Vin sat up suddenly, wincing at the strain the movement put on his back. "Is he gonna try to get us?"
Chris thought that was definitely a possibility, but he could tell the idea frightened Vin. "Tell me what you know, Vin. It will stay with me, you have my word."
Vin sighed and looked down, then cast a sideways glance at Chris. "There ain't no treasure like everyone thinks. It's not coins or jewels or stuff."
"What is it then?"
Vin hesitated before he answered softly, "Jaydee."
Chris frowned. "Jaydee?"
Vin looked up at him. "Jaydee is the treasure. His mama told me."
Chris tried to hold back a smile. What mother would not think Jaydee was a treasure?
But Vin continued, dead serious. "His mama my mama too told me that bad people might want him because he's so smart, so they can make him do bad things. My mama told me I was his protector. She said I was Tannerae, and I was a warrior elf." He looked up at Chris, his eyes watering. "But I can't do it," he sniffed. "I'm too little and there's too many of them "
Chris drew him close. "Oh, I don't know about that, Vin. Jaydee is here, with us, alive and safe, and we can protect him now. I would say you did your job well."
Vin looked up at him and smiled shyly, revealing the gap where his two bottom teeth had been. He's just a baby, Chris thought.
"You're a good soldier, Vin," Chris told the young elf. "And you are more of a man than Colonel Anderson or any of his followers will ever be."
Vin blushed and looked away, but Chris could tell he was pleased.
He eased the boy back down onto the bed and begin to gently rub his sore back again. Vin sighed and closed his eyes and soon drifted off to sleep despite the wind howling outside.
Chris thought seriously about what Vin had told him. When he put it together with what Josiah had learned during his visit to the Blackcliffe, it made sense. If Jaydee was indeed one of the Everborn, and had been recognized as such, then it was possible that some would covet his abilities enough to kill in order to secure them. Jaydee was indeed a treasure too precious not to be kept secret and safe.
Buck was helping Josiah with the rocking horse. Chris smiled at his friend. He'd never seen the side of Buck that Jaydee had revealed. The rogue whose female conquests were legendary had actually had his heart stolen by a tiny little boy.
Of course, he wasn't one to talk - Vin, in his own way, was a treasure, too. As brave and loyal - and efficient - a soldier as any Chris had ever met. It was only in body that he was small and fragile. Already, Chris knew the man Vin would become would be a leader men followed without question. Jaydee recognized it, even though he was far more intelligent than Vin or any other child. Ezra had recognized it, too, even though he was older and certainly more worldly. Chris saw it in the way Vin looked at him as a child who knew he would one day be his equal.
Between the pounding of Josiah's mallet and the treacherous weather outside, they almost missed the sound of tapping on the heavy wooden door.
Chris walked to the door and peered through the small peephole cut into it but saw no one there. He was reluctant to raise the bolt in the event there was some trickery afoot.
The tapping sounded again, more determined this time.
Cautiously, Chris opened the door to find a pair of big green eyes looking up at him from under soaking wet hair. Ezra didn't say anything, he just stood there, shivering.
Chris threw the door open wide in invitation and Ezra stepped inside.
The boy betrayed no emotion as all eyes in the room turned on him.
Josiah knew something was wrong. He sensed it, not only in the slump of Ezra's shoulders and his now-downcast eyes, but as one wizard could sometimes pick up on the distress of another.
He left his work and walked over to the child. "Take off your cloak and come over by the fire," he told him gently.
Ezra wore a slicker of oiled leather, but the rain was so heavy that he had scarcely a dry spot on him. He carefully looked around for a peg to hang his slicker from and when he spotted one, he arranged it neatly and then removed his sword and scabbard and hung it beside the slicker. Then, he sat on the floor to remove his muddy boots. After that was done, he made an attempt to arrange his soaked hair.
Josiah had to smile. It would have seemed unnatural for any other boy Ezra's age to be so fastidious, but somehow, he knew this was who Ezra was and always would be, and he saw a certain charm in it.
Ezra walked over to the fire and gratefully accepted the blanket Nathan offered him. His teeth were chattering, and he was still shivering, so it was with shaking hands that he reached into the blue brocade tunic he wore and pulled out a piece of folded parchment. He handed it to Josiah.
Without waiting to see what it was, Nathan stepped away and grabbed his own cloak.
"Where are you going?" Chris asked softly.
Nathan's reply was whispered, but angry. "I'm going to see what that child is doing out alone on a night like this. What kind of mother would allow that?"
Chris nodded in understanding, but said, "Maybe she didn't. He might have run away."
"Then we need to know that, too," the healer replied, and quietly slipped out into the raging storm.
Josiah read the contents of the note with a deepening frown. There was no greeting. The message got right to the point.
Having reconsidered your earlier offer to afford my son the opportunity to benefit from your knowledge, skill and experience, I hereby entrust him to your care.
I realize now that your efforts to convince me of the necessity for this were in his best interest. I am sure you know the matters of which I write, so I need not embrace the risk of referring to them in detail.
I will be traveling abroad for an as yet undetermined period of time, during which I expect that your tutelage will serve to impart upon my son some semblance of self-control. I fear what the alternative may be should it fail to do so.
I do not expect your efforts to be expended without adequate reimbursement, and I have arranged for funds to be provided for both your services and for my son's basic expenses.
Additionally, while it is my hope that you will not do so, you are free to decline this responsibility. Should that be your decision, my First Servant will be available to escort my son back to Greycastle.
The note was almost brutally cold and blunt. Josiah suspected there had to be something behind Maude's sudden change of heart.
He sat down on the hearth next to Ezra, who was staring into the flames, mesmerized by them.
"Care to tell me what happened, son?" Josiah asked him.
Ezra hesitated a long time before he said anything, and then it wasn't a reply. "There is a spirit in the fire," he said. "Do you feel it?"
Josiah nodded. "Not everyone understands that, though, do they?"
Ezra looked up at him, blinking eyes that Josiah suspected were not wet solely from the rain. "She just left," he said, fighting to keep his voice under control. "Again."
The flames in the hearth flared suddenly, so intense that Josiah backed away. "Does that make you angry, Ezra?" he asked when the fire had returned to its normal state.
"No," the boys said too quickly. "I don't care if she's gone."
Josiah put his arm around the shivering boy. He knew what it was to pretend that the insensitive actions of someone you loved didn't hurt.
Eventually, Ezra looked away from the flames and turned his gaze downward. "She told me she was leaving," he whispered, "and I got mad, because she always leaves me. Then the tapestry on the wall... it just... caught fire. I didn't mean it!" he sniffed. "That's why she doesn't want me anymore"
Josiah held him a little closer. "Ezra, I don't think it's that she doesn't want you. I think she has just come to realize that what you are what you can do can be used to hurt you and others if you don't learn to control it."
"She's afraid of me," Ezra said, his voice full of more pain than a child should know.
Josiah put his hand under Ezra's chin and turned his face upward. "I think maybe you're a little scared of yourself, too."
Ezra's lower lip trembled and a tear rolled out of the corner of one eye.
"Do you want to return to Greycastle, or do you want to stay with us?" Josiah asked him casually.
Ezra looked at him in surprise, as though he had not considered the possibility that Josiah would take Maude up on her offer, and had expected to be sent away instead.
"Can you teach me?" he said finally.
Josiah nodded. "If you want to learn."
Ezra wiped at his eyes and managed a faint smile. "I'll stay, then."
Josiah stood and then pulled Ezra to his feet. "Let's get you out of those wet clothes and into bed."
"Bed?" Ezra frowned. "I never go to bed this early!"
Buck shook his head, laughing. "You need to be bright and alert to greet the sunrise," he said.
"Sunrise!?" Ezra literally gasped.
Josiah laughed, too, but he wasn't going to argue with the boy. He picked the little wizard up and slung him over his shoulder to carry him to the room Vin and Jaydee shared. Tomorrow, he'd build another bunk, but for tonight, he'd tuck Jaydee in bed with Vin. He knew neither boy would mind.
Jaydee roused as Josiah lifted him from his bed. "Where are we going?" he yawned.
"Nowhere you just get to sleep with Vin tonight, because Ezra is here."
Jaydee's eyes opened all the way. "Ezra!"
"Hello, Jaydee," Ezra said as he struggled to get his wet clothes off.
Josiah tried not to awaken Vin as he put Jaydee into his bed, but it was to no avail. Jaydee poked the young elf on the shoulder hard enough to wake him up.
"Vin! Ezra is here!" he exclaimed.
Vin smiled and waved briefly, before his eyes fell closed again.
By the time Ezra crawled into bed, Jaydee was wide awake again. Josiah reminded them to talk quietly so they didn't disturb Vin, and he left them hoping they didn't keep each other up all night.
Nathan had already returned, having found two of Maude's servants frantically looking for Ezra, who apparently had decided to make his way to the fort on his own accord rather than wait for morning as had been planned.
They had been sent on their way, and would bring Ezra's belongings the following day.
Nathan sat by the hearth to warm himself as Josiah and Buck returned to building the rocking horse.
Chris puffed on his pipe thoughtfully as he sat staring at the fire. Who would have guessed that four mercenaries would be entrusted with these three little boys who would one day possess almost unthinkable powers?
"So, now we're seven," Chris said to no one in particular.
The others nodded in agreement.
Fate had brought them together. What destiny had in store for them remained to be seen.
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