The Longest Night by Nancy W.

Based on the Dungeons and Dragons / Little Britches AU established in the story Small Treasures. (The original D&D AU was created by Nettie Roe in her story The Magnificent Quest.) Ezra is also a child in this AU.

Just a little bit of fluffiness to celebrate the Winter Solstice holiday.

Thanks as always to Marnie!

The village of Four Winds had been preparing for weeks, as had the seven inhabitants of the old fortress at the entrance to the town. The three youngest among them were hardly able to contain their excitement now that the day had finally arrived.

"We get to stay up all night?" Jaydee asked, still awed by that possibility.

"If you're able to keep your eyes open," Buck laughed.

Ezra shrugged. "It's not so hard. I've stayed up all night lots of times."

Vin and Jaydee didn't notice the hint of sadness in the boy's tone the way the older men did. No doubt the little wizard had spent many sleepless nights awaiting the return of a mother who placed her priorities elsewhere, or equally likely, because no one cared enough to send him off to bed at a decent hour.

"I can stay awake," Vin insisted boldly, even though his was usually the first head to nod in the evenings. "And I am going to eat only sweets," he declared triumphantly.

Nathan frowned. The tradition was that children were indulged on this one special day, but he didn't want the little elf ending up with a belly ache. "We'll see about that," he cautioned.

"Well," Buck said enthusiastically, "there is going to be all kinds of food and games and a market, and maybe... if you are good... the Night Spirit will leave a special gift for each of you."

"A bow!" Jaydee exclaimed. "I want a bow, like Vin's."

"You'll shoot your eye out!" Nathan scolded. He considered it bad enough that the mercenaries' three young charges customarily walked around the village fully armed. This, of course, made them the envy of virtually every boy - and some of the girls - in Four Winds, but that didn't mean it was a good idea.

Buck tousled Jaydee's hair. "You need to get good with that sword." He indicated the tiny - but very real - hand-me-down blade that hung on the wall with the rest of the soldiers' armor and weapons. "We already have our archer." He winked at Vin.

The little half-blood elf looked away shyly, but was smiling. The boy was proud of his skill with a bow, and rightfully so. Vin really could shoot an eye out - and from several feet away. His ability to do so had saved Chris's life at the Battle of Beggar's Pass.

It was the Festival of the Night, the longest night of the year. A night of fun, celebration and camaraderie that would repel the Dark Spirits of cold, gloom, boredom and pestilence that held dominion over winter. Virtually everyone in town would make their way to the Great Hall, or to private gatherings, at some point during the night, and the celebration would end with the greeting of the dawn, to be followed by a day of rest, reflection and gifts bestowed upon loved ones.

Josiah had prepared a big pot of his special Solstice stew, as he did every year, except this year his meticulously diced bits of potato, carrot and rutabaga were replaced by chunks of those same vegetables in a random assortment of sizes and shapes. The boys had wanted to help, so he'd assigned the softer potatoes to Jaydee, the trickier carrots to Vin and the difficult rutabaga to Ezra, who had finally discarded his knife in favor of hacking the stubborn vegetable apart with his broadsword. Chunks of meat, and bits of onions, garlic and savory spices completed the mix.

Now, shortly before sundown, they were ready to make their trek though the snow to the Great Hall. Ezra had boots to keep his feet warm and dry. Chris had fashioned wrappings for Jaydee and Vin. Lined with soft lamb's wool, the oiled leather was wrapped around little feet and securely laced. Warm cloaks and mittens followed, but not before the seven soldiers had strapped on their swords and sheathed their knives. After donning his cloak, Vin slung his tiny bow and quiver across his back. It never hurt to be prepared - and besides, there would be an archery contest that night. Chris had cautioned him that it was usually an adult activity, but Vin would not be deterred.

An abundance of fresh snow had fallen earlier in the day, and it made the uphill path to the village treacherous at times. Chris noticed that Vin was having difficulty. The boy's back had been injured at Beggar's Pass when he had been cruelly mistreated by an enemy soldier. It had improved a bit in the weeks since the battle, but it still caused the little elf pain and Chris could see that he was dragging one foot - a sign that he was hurting. Jaydee was having a problem, too. The snow was almost as deep as the length of his tiny legs.

Chris didn't ask Vin if he wanted to be carried. He simply reached down and hoisted the little boy onto his shoulders. As anticipated, Jaydee immediately noticed and tugged at Buck's tunic. "Me too!" He pointed to Vin. "I wanna ride, too!"

Buck good-naturedly tossed the energetic little bundle up onto his shoulders.

Ezra looked at the two younger boys with envious eyes, but didn't say anything. He had lived almost ten turns, and was too old for such nonsense. Still, when Josiah glanced back at him, he saw the hopeful glimmer in the boy's big, green eyes. Laughing, the big man handed his heavy stew pot to Nathan and picked Ezra up, too.

"Now, mind you don't run into any branches," Nathan admonished.

"We're BIG!" Jaydee clapped his hands excitedly. "Oh, I can see Miss Nettie's house!"

Buck grunted as Jaydee bounced up and down on his shoulders.

The plan was to stop by the herbalist's cabin so that she and her young niece could accompany them into town. They didn't need to knock on the door. Casey came running out to meet them, all ready to go. Nettie followed, awkwardly closing the door behind her as she held onto a cloth bag of cookies. They were sweetened with honey, flavored with mint and vanilla, and chock full of nuts and dried fruit. Vin's mouth watered when he caught a whiff of the aroma emanating from the bundle.

Miss Nettie saw the expectant look in his blue eyes and handed one of the treats up to him. She did the same for Jaydee and Ezra. Casey looked on with her hands on her tiny hips.

As if sensing her annoyance, Jaydee proclaimed, "Look where we are, Casey! We're BIG!"

Casey tried to look like she wasn't impressed. "Well, we have a sled." She pointed to the small contrivance next to the doorway.

"This is better," Jaydee insisted, and got no argument from the little girl, whose mouth turned down in a pout.

Nathan sighed good-naturedly and handed the already-burdened Nettie the stew pot, then lifted the little girl onto his broad shoulders. Nettie placed the stew and bag of cookies on the sled. Casey and Jaydee promptly got into a heated discussion over which of them was higher off the ground, which Ezra mediated by pointing out that Josiah was the tallest of the four men, and he was the tallest of the four children, and therefore, no one was higher up than he was, a fact which no one could dispute.

The mercenaries didn't expect any trouble - town folk were too full of good spirit on this night of the year. But still, they were aware of the stares and hushed whispers when they entered the Great Hall with the three small boys they had taken under their collective wing, for everyone was aware that the three were not common children. Most of the townsfolk knew enough about the boys to make them wary of keeping company with them, and what they didn't know, they often made up. Little Jaydee, with his charming smile and big dark eyes, was rumored to be Everborn - a child with a perfect mind, born only once in a hundred turns. Whether that was true or not, there was no way to determine - although Josiah and Nathan both believed it to be so. Jaydee was a sweet, affectionate little boy, but his intelligence bordered on supernatural, and, as such, frightened some people. Vin was a half-blood, the result of a union between human and elf that was too often frowned upon by both races. Ezra's mother had finally admitted the boy's magical powers, after they had almost killed him. She had charged Josiah with training him to control them, something at which he was not always successful.

The Great Hall was decorated for the festivities with lanterns of colored glass and small painted figures of different night creatures made from pine cones and bits of twig and bark. The children were divided into groups, with the "Possums" being the youngest, followed by the "Raccoons," then the "Bats" and finally the "Owls" who were the oldest children. As luck had it, the three boys ended up in different groups. Jaydee was fine with that because he and Casey were both Possums. Ezra was a Bat, and having grown up in the town, he at least knew some of the other children. Vin, though, was a Raccoon, and he stood self-consciously in a group of children who were complete strangers to him, some of whom were curious about his appearance. Vin looked pretty much human, but his pointed ears belied his elfin heritage. Just as Chris and Buck were concluding that maybe bringing the boys was a bad idea, an elf child by the name of Chanu approached Vin and admired his bow. Vin was very proud of the little weapon, for even though it was small, it was real, and exquisitely crafted, with inlays of gold and silver. The elf child had a bow of his own, and even though he appreciated how fine Vin's was, he did not seem envious of it. After admiring it, he invited Vin to one of the activities set up for the children, a memory game that involved turning over wooden pieces with pictures on the underside, and matching as many possible in the time allowed.

Most of the games for the Possums involved physical skills rather than mental ones. Jaydee had a brilliant mind, but his body was still but five turns old, and he was no more coordinated than any other child his age. Even so, one of the games involved rolling a "ball" at a set of pins with the object of knocking over as many as possible, except the ball wasn't a sphere - it was shaped more like an egg, so the path was unpredictable, at least to a normal child. Buck could see that Jaydee was watching carefully and that something in that magnificent brain of his was figuring out exactly how to get the ball to do what he wanted. Luckily, Casey distracted him by suggesting they bob for apples, and Jaydee diverted his attention to that feat, which was near impossible since the apples were huge, and most of the Possums still had milk teeth.

Ezra was not a well-liked child, in part because his mother, Maude, had provided little chance for him to be with other children. She could not be entirely faulted for that. Ezra was a wizard - something which Josiah had immediately recognized even if Maude had spent years denying it. Ezra could be dangerous if provoked, so Josiah took care to keep a close watch on him. Fortunately, every one was in good spirits that evening and while Ezra was not exactly welcomed with open arms, he wasn't shunned, either. He was soon having a good time at a dice game where each number rolled between 1 and 20 earned a specific piece of a puzzle. The first to complete their puzzle would win a small bag of oranges. The fruit was much coveted, even in the warm months when it was more easily obtained. It was a relief that Josiah could not see a way for Ezra to cheat at the game, because alas, he knew the youngster was not above such behavior. He still had much to learn.

There was plenty of food - each family having brought an ample offering from home, while several food merchants took the opportunity to show off their products and skills. A local butcher had brought an array of his finest sausages, flavored with everything from cinnamon to hot peppers. A baker had brought small bread loaves in the shapes of animals that were very popular with the children. There were cupcakes and small pies, tiny roasted hens that were the perfect size for one person, smoked fish, meaty ribs, and small trenchers filled with meat and vegetables. Most fruit was long out of season, but there were plenty of apples dipped in cinnamon candy and winter pears in honey. From their own hearths, townsfolk had brought stews and soups, hams and roasts, and potatoes cooked every way imaginable. There was plenty of wine and cider and ale, although a town constable stood by ready to send anyone who overindulged out the door.  In one corner, soft hay had been spread out because it was a certainty that many children would not be able to stay awake until sunrise.

The boys seemed to be enjoying the games. Ezra won the coveted bag of oranges and Jaydee had somehow figured out how to grab the large bobbing apples because he brought Buck three in a row, all with an unappetizing little circle of teeth marks. Vin seemed to have found a friend in the elf boy, Chanu, and the two of them entered the three-legged race together. Unfortunately, because of his injured back, Vin didn't have the balance needed and they both fell repeatedly, but Chanu was laughing and clearly having fun and Vin quickly got over being embarrassed by their failure.

When the archery contest was announced, both boys immediately ran to the area that had been set up for the competition, only to be disappointed when they were told that children not only could not enter, they had to keep a safe distance. They were not able to see anything, so quickly lost interest. The men had their attention diverted watching the competitors, and so failed to notice that the boys had apparently decided to hold their own archery contest. Chanu and Vin were the youngest children with bows, but they were not the only ones. Some of the children in the "Bat" group also had them as did several of the "Owls" who were 12-14 turns and almost adults. They only realized what was going on when Jaydee came running over, a spicy red sausage in one hand and a loaf of bread shaped like a squirrel in the other, and told Chris that Gillas, the husband of the town silversmith, wanted to talk to him.

Gillas was an elf, and a likeable sort, but Chris couldn't imagine what they would have to talk about. The last time they had spoken had been when Gillas and his wife Lilliana had briefly considered adopting Vin. It was Lilliana who had made the final decision in that matter. Chris had gotten the feeling that Gillas would have liked Vin as a son, but Lilliana found fault with his human appearance and questionable heritage. The couple had two beautiful girls, and one of them was standing with her arms crossed and a pout on her face when Chris walked up.

"Good evening," Gillas bowed slightly. Chris nodded in return, but let his expression convey that he wanted to know what this was about. Gillas sighed, and pointed to a bow slung around Vin's shoulder. It was a second bow, and not his. "Your elfling has my daughter's bow," Gillas said, which was really no explanation at all.

"He won it fairly," Ezra interjected. Chris looked at the boy for further explanation, and Ezra's cocky demeanor withered somewhat. "We had a bet," he said timidly.

"A bet on what?" Chris asked.

The girl spoke up. "He bet me that HE..." she pointed accusingly at Vin, "... could shoot an acorn off of that rafter." She pointed to a beam a good 25 feet above their heads. Chris was horrified to see little Casey Wells up there, her feet dangling on either side. She waved to him cheerfully.

"What in the pits is she doing up there?" he asked the children on the ground.

"She went to put the acorn up there," Jaydee explained helpfully.

Chris looked up again. "Casey, you need to come down now," he said in a voice that was calm but left no room for argument.

He looked at Gillas's daughter. "Did he shoot it?"

"Yes." She cast her eyes downward, but only momentarily. "No one can make a shot like that, unless he's bewitched or using sorcery!"

Chris knew the child was just angry at having lost the bet, but her words were dangerous ones. Most people suspected that Ezra had magical powers, and they mistrusted Jaydee's intelligence as well as the fact that he and Vin were strangers. It wasn't the first time the boys had been thusly accused.

"Nonsense," Gillas said calmly. "He's just a better shot than you are. You should not have wagered your bow."

Chris looked at Ezra. "Did you do anything to help Vin make that shot?"

"I didn't have to," Ezra boasted. "He's as good as I told HER he is."

Chris was not going to let this situation get out of hand. "You're too young to be gambling," he told Ezra. Then he looked at Vin. "Give back the bow."

Vin looked shocked at what he was being asked, so Chris explained, "It's not right to take advantage of people, Vin."

"But she..." Vin began, but Chris raised his hand to silence him.

"You knew you were a better shot, and you don't need another bow. Give it back."

Vin sighed heavily. Chris wasn't sure the little boy understood that he was being corrected rather than punished, so after he relinquished the bow, he placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder and smiled. "Too bad you can't enter the adult contest. I know you'd win."

Gillas also smiled gently at the boy, and then said to Chris, "I'm sorry for this, but the bow was made long ago and has been in our family for several generations. We could not lose it."

"I understand," Chris nodded.

Gillas changed the subject. "Would you like to try my raisin spice cake?" he asked Vin, and then winked. "I've heard it's quite good."

Vin smiled shyly. "Yes, thank you." Vin was very hungry. Unlike Jaydee, he hadn't been to the food table yet.

"You, too," Gillas motioned to Ezra, who still wore a sour expression, but followed reluctantly.

The cake was delicious - seasoned with nutmeg, clove and cinnamon and full of plump raisins and crunchy nuts. Ezra had three pieces. On Solstice Night, no one stopped children from eating whatever they wanted, so it was part of the tradition that a few of them ended up sick before the night was done. Chris didn't think he'd have to worry about their boys, though. None of them were prone to sensitive stomachs. At least, he hoped not.

Vin was on his second piece of spice cake when he realized he'd lost track of his new friend, Chanu. He scanned the large hall and spotted him in a corner with some other boys. They appeared to be playing some sort of game that wasn't part of the organized activities. Ezra spotted them, too, and they both decided to go have a look.

They were playing a game called "Odds and Evens" which involved shaking 7 dice in a cup and then adding the numbers on them. The first round, it was required to get an odd number to stay proceed to the second round. The next round, one of the dice was removed and an even number was required to get to the third round. The game continued until only one player was left. It was a good game for a large group, because it went quickly. A small wager was required to enter the game, so of course, Ezra was immediately drawn to it. He had a pair of dice that would roll sevens most of the time, but he couldn't see any way to make use of them in this game. Besides, Josiah would probably take them away if he knew he had them. He would just have to trust his luck. When the game started again, he tossed a small coin in to show he was playing.

Chanu bet a blue glass marble, and other boys offered similar little treasures. Vin didn't really have anything he thought anyone else would want, except his bow, and there was no way he was going to bet that. He had decided to go try one of the other organized games to see if he could win something when he spotted Jaydee with Casey and Billy Travis. They were all just little but they were eating like baby pigs. Jaydee had another sausage - at least his third one, by Vin's count - and a berry pie. Casey had a piece of Gillas's spice cake and two of Mrs. Potter's pickled cucumbers, which she could barely hold on to. Billy had both hands full of Miss Nettie's cookies. They were all wearing "possum" hats made of felt, which Vin had to admit were sort of cute. There were masks for the Raccoon kids, but Vin hadn't gotten one yet. Some of the Bats had hats with black wings sticking out on either side. Vin liked those, too, but Ezra said he'd eat a bat before he'd wear one. Vin also noticed that Jaydee had something around his neck. As he got closer, he saw it was a little lens that made things look bigger. In the summer, you could burn stuff with one of those. He stood in front of the younger boy.

"How did you get that?" he asked.

"I knocked-ed over the pins with the egg ball," Jaydee explained, which probably made perfect sense to him. Sometimes, even Vin didn't understand Jaydee, though.

"Will you trade me for it?" Vin asked hopefully.

"Trade you what?" Jaydee asked around a mouthful of sausage.

Vin had a few little treasures at home, and he had to think which one Jaydee would like best. "You can have my toad," Vin said.

Jaydee's eyes brightened. "Really?"

The toad wasn't even alive. It had died and dried up and was flat and hard, its face twisted and scary, but Jaydee loved to look at it. "Yes," Vin said, somewhat regretfully. He liked that toad, too.

"Okay," Jaydee agreed and then tried to take the lens off with both hands full and poked himself in the eye with his sausage. "Ow."

"Here, let me do it," Vin said, and slipped the cord with the lens over Jaydee's head.

Vin returned to the dice game to discover Chanu had won that round. He was looking through his winnings to see what he wanted to put in for the next round, and ended up putting back the coin Ezra had entered with. Ezra added another coin and Vin put in the lens, which gained him several approving comments from the other boys.

The first round went well for Vin - he rolled an odd number so was in the game. Then it was "Evens" and he rolled two fours, and two, a three, a one and a six. Seven of the 12 boys playing were eliminated, although Ezra was still in the game. When it was five dice and "Odds" Vin rolled all odd dice, so he was still in, but two more boys were eliminated. It was now just him and Ezra and a chubby boy named Eugene who was eating even more than Jaydee and Casey and Billy.

Vin started to feel nervous, because he realized that he didn't really want to lose the little lens. He wished he could take it back and leave the game, but it was too late for that. On the next round of "Evens" he rolled a six, a five and two ones, and his heart sank. He was out of the game. It was just Ezra and Eugene. Maybe if Ezra won, Vin could get the lens back somehow.

It was not to be, though, because Ezra lost the next round and Eugene took all of the trinkets and announced he didn't want to play any more because his tummy hurt. Ezra decided to stay in the game, but Vin, seeing no hope of getting the little lens back, decided to go find something else to do. Chanu got up with him, having run out of trinkets to wager.

The children pretty much had free run of the Great Hall, Vin noticed. Most of the adults were sitting at tables in groups drinking ale and talking, including Buck, Chris, Josiah and Nathan. Vin and Chanu went to the food table and filled small trenchers with Josiah's stew, which Vin knew would be good.

They found a hay bale and sat down to eat when musicians arrived and began tuning up their instruments for dancing. Vin didn't know how to dance, but he liked watching.

Most people were distracted by conversation or games and didn't notice the woman with the thick, dark hair and pale complexion who walked in the door alone. She wore a black dress, which seemed out of place at the festive occasion. Most of the other adults were wearing skirts and tunics in a rainbow of colors. Even the children had dressed for the occasion. Ezra had worn his favorite purple velvet tunic with the silver embroidery, and Vin had brand new dark green leggings that Miss Nettie had knitted just for him. Jaydee was all in midnight blue - his favorite color. His outfit had belonged to Ezra when he was smaller, so it was probably real expensive. This woman, though, in her plain black dress, looked out of place. In fact, Vin didn't like anything about the way she looked.

He nudged Chanu and asked, "Who is that?"

Chanu made a face. "Her name is Ella Gaines. My father says she is a witch."

Some witches were good and could use plants to heal people who were sick, but Vin didn't think Chanu meant that. He meant a dark witch, one who used her powers for evil. Vin felt a cold chill. The woman scared him.

Then, Chris noticed her, too. He got up from where he was talking to some other adults and headed right for her. Vin was too far away to hear what they were saying, but he could see the anger on Chris's face as he approached the woman. She smiled at him, but Chris only glared at her. He said something to her and she laughed, which only made Chris more angry.

Vin was confused. He didn't know what a dark witch could possibly want with Chris. He set his food down and went to Chris's side. Ella Gaines noticed him as soon as he walked up. She smiled down at him, but it was a cold smile and her eyes looked like the eyes of a dead thing. Vin reached up and took Chris's hand.

"Is that the little whelp that I hear you have taken under your wing?" she asked Chris.

"Leave him out of this," Chris said. "Get out of here."

The woman laughed, but it was a fake laugh. "Now, darlin', don't be that way. You never know what might... happen." She reached over and tousled Vin's hair. Chris grabbed her by the wrist so hard she cried out.

Chris let her go, and she looked at him angrily. "I will get what I want, and nothing you can do will stop me."

"What are you talking about?" Chris demanded.

She laughed again, and then she kissed her fingers and tried to touch Chris's face with them, but he drew back away from her touch. "Wait and see," she said. Then she turned and headed towards the musicians.

"Chris, who was that?" Vin said nervously.

"Someone I knew a long time ago," Chris answered. "Don't talk to her, Vin. Promise me. Don't let Jaydee or Ezra talk to her, either. If they do, come and tell me, right away, understand?"

Vin nodded. He looked back to see where the woman had gone, but he didn't see her anywhere in the hall. He thought that was strange because she would have had to walk past them to leave, and she hadn't.

Chris left Vin to go speak with Buck and the other men. Ezra approached Vin. "What did that woman want?" he asked.

Vin shrugged. "Dunno. Chris said for us not to talk to her."

Ezra nodded. "She's a dark witch." Vin was not surprised Ezra knew that. Ezra was just a kid like him, but he was a wizard.

Apparently, he wasn't too worried about Ella Gaines, because he added, "I'm going to go get some food before those Possums and Eugene eat everything."

Vin returned to where he had left Chanu and went back to his stew. The musicians started to play as Ezra joined them with one of the animal-shaped bread loaves, this one shaped like a turtle, its shell decorated with melted cheese. Vin had figured those were for the little kids, but Ezra didn't seem to care. He also had a stick with little chunks of roasted meat on it. Vin was thinking of going back for some sweets. There were a lot of them and everything was really good, because people only brought their best stuff to Solstice Night.

He slid off the hay bale and went to the table. There was an old woman there with a tray of large caramels. She offered him one. "There is one for every child," she said in voice that sounded strange somehow - younger, and deeper than Vin expected an old lady to sound. "Take some for your friends - but mind you, be sure to share. Only one." Vin took four of the caramels, one for himself and the others for Chanu, Ezra and Jaydee.

He returned to the hay and gave Chanu and Ezra their caramel, then looked around to see if he could find his little cousin. He spotted him on the floor with Casey and Billie, dancing. They weren't very good at it, but no one seemed to mind. Eugene came over to sit by them, having gotten a caramel from the old woman, too. He noticed Vin had an extra one and he pointed to it. "Why did you get two?" he whined. "Everyone is only supposed to get one!"

"This one is for Jaydee," Vin said.

Eugene tried to snatch it out of his hand, and Vin wasn't really sure what happened, but somehow, the caramel ended up flying through the air and hitting Eugene in the eye. He reached his hand up to where he'd been hit and when it came away with a pinprick-sized drop of blood on it, he began to screech like a girl.

Vin and Ezra and Chanu just looked at each other. "What just happened?" Ezra asked no one in particular. Vin and Chanu could only shrug.

Both Eugene's mother and Josiah came over when they saw Eugene crying.

"What happened?" Josiah asked Ezra.

Ezra pointed at Eugene. "He tried to take Jaydee's caramel and it hit him in the eye."

Josiah frowned. Ezra was usually a little better at expressing himself than that. "Who hit him in the eye?"

"No one," Ezra offered.

"You mean the caramel just flew up and hit him in the face?" Josiah said impatiently.

"Yeah, pretty much," Vin interjected.

"It did," the elfling, Chanu, agreed.

"What absurd nonsense," Eugene's mother scolded. "You boys are nothing but a bunch of bullies!" She led her tearful son away, which really didn't bother anyone much.

"You boys don't fight," Josiah admonished. "With anyone, you understand? If someone is causing trouble, you come and get me"

Vin, Ezra and even Chanu nodded. No one wanted to make Josiah mad.

Jaydee came running over to see what the excitement was. Ezra gave him a quick explanation, but the one fact Jaydee keyed in on was that there was a piece of candy that was his. He took the caramel and popped it in his mouth. It was big enough to make his cheeks bulge. "Good," he mumbled.

The caramels were good... Vin was sorry the old woman had told him he could only have one. He looked around and she was still passing them out. Maybe she'd run out of kids and have some left over. Casey and Billy joined them. They had caramels, too.

Most of the adults had started dancing, including Buck and Nathan, but Chris and Josiah were keeping a keen eye on the crowd. Vin suspected they were watching for Ella Gaines, but he didn't see her anywhere.

Another game had been set up so they went to check it out. A large tapestry embroidered with fish and frogs and other water creatures had been hung from a ceiling beam and there were "fishing poles" - which were really just sticks with twine tied to the ends. The object of the game was to get the string over the tapestry so you could catch a "fish" - which was actually a small prize that was tied to the string by someone on the other side. It wasn't as easy as it looked, because there was no weight on the end of the string, so even the older kids found it challenging. The smaller children were allowed to stand closer, on an elevated platform, but that only evened the odds, rather than give them an advantage.

The prizes were random - some were useful, some interesting, some just funny. The people behind the tapestry had no idea who was getting what, they just tied the prizes to the string when one made it over.

Ezra was the first one to get his string over the tapestry. He waited for the hearty tug on the end, and then lifted his prize over. It was a common little wooden whistleflute, but he was delighted with it. He blew into it and it really did have a nice sound. He tested the notes and found it was in perfect tune. He carefully tucked it into his tunic.

Some of the prizes didn't seem as attractive at first. Billy got a big, wooden button with a loop of string through it, which made everyone laugh until Mrs. Potter's son Jon, who was older, showed him how to twirl the button around on the string and make it spin. After that, everyone wanted it, but Billy didn't want to part with it.

Casey got a little wooden horse, and Chanu got a wooden egg with a face painted on either side of it in a little crocheted pouch.

Vin got a pair of leather gloves, just his size. His eyes widened when he looked at them - he'd never had anything so fine, except for his bow. The leather was softened and the seams were on the outside, so they were very comfortable. They were a pale grey with green dragons painted on the back of the hands. They looked like something Ezra would wear, and he half expected the young wizard to offer a trade for them, but apparently, Ezra was happy with his whistleflute.

Chanu grinned when he saw how much Vin liked them. "I think my grandmother made those," he said, even though he could not be sure, since all of the prizes and trinkets for Solstice Night were hidden and well-guarded beforehand.

Vin kept the gloves on as he watched other children take a turn at the game. When Jaydee finally got his string over, it came back with a big stick of chalk. That didn't look very exciting to Vin, but Jaydee was just happy to have a prize. He was showing it to everyone when something strange happened.

The musicians never stopped playing, but suddenly, the music was different. Instead of the cheerful, lilting tune everyone had been dancing to, the sound became distorted and confused. It didn't sound like music at all, but more like the howling of the wind during a storm, heard from far away. The children looked at each other, confused, because the adults continued to dance as if they were hearing something entirely different.

"Why are they playing like that?" Jaydee asked, covering his hears. "I don't like it!"

"Me neither!" Casey echoed. "It sounds scary!"

Vin looked to Ezra, who knew more about these things than he did. Ezra was confused as well, but he said, "I think it's magic."

Vin didn't think he was serious. but something about Ezra's tone of voice made Vin think he might be right. As soon as he had that thought, the lanterns in the room began to flicker and then started throwing off sparks and streams of colored light. It should have been beautiful, but it wasn't, because it was unreal and unnatural.

Chanu looked at Ezra and asked fearfully, "Is it dark magic?"

"I don't know," Ezra said. He took Jaydee and Casey by the hand.

"Should we leave?" Vin asked. He knew he wanted to, but it was dark and cold outside - and none of the adults seemed to realize that anything was happening. Where would they go?

Chanu took Vin's arm and grabbed Billy Travis.

"This isn't right," said Jon Potter who was standing nearby, and he began to guide them towards the main entrance. But before they reached it, objects began to fly through the air - and they were not ordinary objects. Vin could see they were small barbs with six points. None of them were actually hitting the children, but they ducked down to avoid them and covered their heads. The adults continued to laugh and dance as if nothing was wrong.

Then, there was a blinding flash of light and a thunderous booming noise that caused all of them to cringe in terror. The adults seemed to freeze in place, like statues.

And then, in the doorway, they saw Ella Gaines. She tried to come in the door, but something blocked her path. She even pounded her fists against it, even though no one could see anything there. "WHAT IS THIS!?" she screamed.

The old woman who had been passing out the caramels stepped in front of her, only instead of being bent with age, she was standing straight and tall, and she pulled on her hair and it came off. The grey hair was only a wig, beneath it was long, straight golden hair, tucked behind elfin ears.

Vin realized why the voice had sounded strange. The "old lady" was actually a young man.

"You will go no further," he told Ella.

Ella looked around him at the children. She smiled sweetly and her voice was kind and patient. "Come with me, children, and I will take you to a place where we will have great fun!"

Some of the children stepped forward, but Jon held them back.

The elf spoke again. "They cannot go with you even if they want to. They are protected by Elvin magic."

"Piss on your magic!" Ella spat. "You don't know my power!"

Once again, there was a thunderous boom and the barbs came flying through the air, right at them. The children shrieked and closed their eyes, but the barbs stopped before they reached them and fell harmlessly to the floor.

"I do know your power, and it has limits," the elf spoke.

"I am stronger than you," Ella said. "I can tell you know this."

"If you mean I can't kill you," the elf said, "that's true. But my spell protects them from the inside, where you will never reach."

"The caramels...." Jon whispered.

Ella's face clouded in fury, and the children knew what the elf said was true. She screamed in rage and there was a flash of light so bright that for an instant, they were blinded.

When their vision cleared, both Ella and the elf were gone.

They heard Eugene's mother screaming, but her voice sounded far away, at first. It grew louder and louder until she was right there, along with all of the other adults, who were no longer frozen in place.

"What the hell happened?" Chris asked, his voice stern.

Vin felt his mouth move, but no answer came out. He didn't know why Chris was asking that. Hadn't he seen?

"Ella Gaines came back," Ezra said, and echoed Vin's thoughts. "Didn't you see her?"

The adults looked at each other. "Talk sense, boy," one of them said.

"He's telling the truth," Jon Potter volunteered.

Gillas picked up something from the floor. It was one of the colored glass lanterns, but its panels were gone and it was burnt black. "Looks like a lantern exploded," he said. "Happens sometimes. Good thing no one got hurt."

Vin looked closely at the other lanterns. They all had the same metal framework, made up of little six-pointed barbs welded together. There were barbs all over the floor.

"But that's not what happened," he said softly.

Chris knelt down to eye level, the look on his face suddenly one of intense concern. He put his hands on Vin's shoulders. "Did you really see Ella Gaines?"

Vin nodded.

"What did she want?" Chris asked, pain and fear in his voice.

"I think she wanted us to go with her," Ezra answered.

"But an' ol' lady came and was really an elf an' he told-ed her to stay away and she couldn't come in and so she got mad and exploded the lantern," Jaydee explained.

"An elf?" Buck asked, having not comprehended most of Jaydee's speech.

The children described the elf they had seen, but no one seemed to know who it was. Chris, though, remembered seeing an elf matching the description when he'd returned to Beggar's Pass after the battle. He'd gone back to look for Vin's bow, and he'd found it with that same elf, who had given him the bow, and silver to see to Vin's care. He'd never said why.

Chris pulled Vin close. "It's all right, soldier," he told him. "You're safe now."

Chris vowed that the next time he saw Ella Gaines, he would kill her.

The parents huddled together to discuss what their children had told them. As incredible as it sounded, every child had told more or less the same story. None of the adults recalled an old woman passing out caramels, but apparently, they had contained the spell which had protected the children.

A few families opted to return to their homes, shaken by the event, but the woods were a dark and dangerous place at night, so most of those who did not live in town, as well as many who did, opted to stay until the sunrise ceremony. Everyone kept a watchful eye for the rest of the night. No one they did not know would get into the hall unnoticed.

Soon, calm returned and the festivities resumed.

Ezra managed to stay up until dawn, playing dice with some older boys  and winning back Vin's magnifying lens. The truth was, he was too scared to sleep. But Vin and Jaydee had both yielded to slumber and were curled together under warm cloaks on the bed of hay when sunrise finally approached.

Small bonfires were lit in the town square just before dawn to provide warmth for those attending the sunrise ceremony. It was while the wood was being gathered that Chanu's father, Koje, came running into the hall, summoning the men there, including the four soldiers. Curious, Ezra followed them. He thought he wasn't seen, but a short distance from the Great Hall, Josiah turned and held out a hand to him.

Ezra took it willingly, feeling safer at the side of the big wizard.

There, in the middle of the square, was a group of odd symbols created from white stones. A few of the stones glowed faintly, but most did not.

"Is it magic?" Ezra asked, even though he knew it was.

Josiah nodded. "From the looks of the stones, it's a failed spell. They should all be glowing, but instead, their light dies."

"Get rid of it!" Chris ordered. Koje and Gillas kicked the symbols apart. Other men gathered the stones and tossed them asunder into the darkness.

By the time they were done, Ezra sensed the evil magic was gone, and he felt safe once again.

Jaydee and Vin were awakened and bundled up warmly before going out into the crisp winter air for the sunrise ceremony. The children were given cups of hot cider to warm their hands and little bellies. Jaydee grabbed one of the few remaining sausages to have with his cider. Vin thought about taking one, too, because he was hungry, but he wanted to wear his new dragon gloves, and was afraid a sausage would leave stains, so he took a little loaf of bread shaped like a frog instead.

Once outside, there was singing and chanting and finally the Greeting of the Sun. From this day on, the days would grow longer and winter would begin the long process of fading into spring.

It was a beautiful, clear morning, and the sun's rays fanned out like a golden halo as it peeked up over the horizon.

There was cheering and toasts and singing and hugs and good wishes until the sun was fully emerged and daylight filled the town square. Families began to head home, where everyone would sleep past noon and then awaken to exchange gifts and share a hearty meal with loved ones.

Chris, Buck and Josiah picked up the exhausted boys while Nathan gathered their belongings and went on ahead to build a fire in the hearth so they would come home to its welcoming warmth.

The adults were weary, too, so it was a relief to tuck the boys into their beds. Josiah placed a large kettle filled with a slab of seasoned beef and potatoes near the hearth where it would cook slowly without burning, and be ready when they woke up.

Gifts were set out to surprise the boys when they awakened; a game of Knights and Lords, with pieces carved from colored onyx for Ezra, a small wooden wagon pulled by two carved horses for Vin, and a dragon sewn from leather scraps and filled with bits of cloth for Jaydee.

As was the custom, Josiah inscribed the front door with a spell to ward off sickness and evil until spring came.

They did not fear Ella Gaines. She'd have to be dealt with, eventually, but she'd learn she was no match for the seven of them.

The End

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