Ezra paused just inside the doorway to Vin's temporary room. He raised one eyebrow in amusement at the chaos that lay before him. Looking down at the sleeping form in his arms, he smiled slightly. "Just grabbed what was handy?"
Stepping carefully across the strewn clothing, Ezra made it safely to the bed then hesitated when faced with a new dilemma. Vin had left the blankets and pillows piled in the middle leaving no room for Ezra to lay him down. "I believe that I am the brunt of someone's poor sense of humor. Nevertheless, we shall prevail."
Moving slowly, the musician eased Vin down onto the bed very near the headboard. He propped him there in a semi-upright position and kept one steadying hand on his shoulder while using his other hand to drag the blankets to the floor. He grabbed a pillow before it fell and placed it at the head of the bed. Having successfully cleared the mattress, he was finally able to ease the young tracker into a supine position. Ezra was arranging the covers and mentally patting himself on the back for a job well done when Vin stirred and opened his eyes.
"Wha...where...?"Vin blinked in confusion and struggled to sit up while Ezra placed a firm hand against his chest to push him back down.
"Be at ease, Vin. You lacked the stamina to remain awake and have merely been returned to your quarters for some additional rest." Ezra saw the puzzlement in the blue eyes and sighed wearily. "You fell asleep so I put you to bed."
"You did?" If anything, Vin was even more confused then ever. Bad enough to fall asleep while Mary was crying but to wake up back in his room with Ezra tucking him in, that was too much.
"I see my attempt at being helpful and considerate does not entirely meet with your approval. Rest assured, I will not allow such a lapse to occur again." The minstrel put on his haughtiest expression and turned to leave. He stopped when chill fingers curled tightly around his wrist and refused to let go.
"Ezra. I'm sorry." Vin ducked his head and slowly released his hold on the man's wrist. "I didn't mean it to sound like that." Looking up, he gave the minstrel a sad little smile as he tried to explain. "Just too many surprises these last couple of days. Waking up in places I didn't go to sleep in and seeing more of people in a day than I usually do in a turn of the moon...I guess it's just getting to me."
Ezra saw the sincerity in Vin's face and allowed his tense muscles to relax. He had become used to having his attempts at friendship rebuffed but it seemed that this time, he had misread the situation, which was unusual for the minstrel. He was really an excellent reader of people, something of a requirement in his chosen profession. Of course, there was still occasional misunderstandings with angry husbands or boyfriends but besides being a talented guitar player, Ezra was also an accomplished fencer. And it didn't hurt any that he kept a wickedly sharp little blade hidden in his right sleeve. Vin knew about the knife and a few other secrets that Ezra had let slip when they worked together to drive off the raiders. Of all those gathered in the healer's home, the entire town even, the tracker was perhaps the closest he had to a true friend, which had made his apparent rejection so disturbing.
Allowing a small smile to curve his lips, Ezra settled down at the foot of the bed and leaned against the wooden frame. "That's quite alright, Vin. Given the circumstances, I can sympathize with your emotional distress and forgive this small lapse in your manners."
Vin closed his eyes and relaxed against his pillow with a sigh. "Thanks, Ezra. For everything." A large yawn stretched his jaws to their maximum and he rubbed sleepily at his eyes. "Pits. I think Nathan put something in that wine he gave me."
Ezra patted one blanket-covered foot and his smile turned into an open grin. "After your close call, I don't think there was a need. Sleep is just your body's way of making sure you give it time to heal before doing something else dangerous."
Rolling over to his side, Vin managed to crack one blue eye at the minstrel and raise a slender eyebrow. "I must be asleep and dreaming already." The eye closed as he mumbled, "Sounded like...a normal person ...understood...every...word..."
Ezra watched as Vin sank deeper and deeper into an exhausted slumber. Only when the tracker's breathing had evened out into a steady rhythm did he stand and exit the room. Glancing back one more time before closing the door, Ezra was amazed at how young the half-elf appeared while asleep. It was no wonder that Chris was having a hard time admitting what everyone else already knew or at least suspected. Ezra frowned as he paused just outside the door. He had worked out an approximation of Vin's real age from clues within the vague comments the tracker had made regarding his past. Chris was definitely older but not by so much that it would be considered cradle robbing. But the question was, did he know that?
Drawing a deep breath, Ezra strengthened his resolve not to get involved. Heading towards the stairs, he mentally chastised himself for even thinking about dropping a hint or two. Maybe three.
"And I don't see that we have a choice." Chris' voice was raised in anger and his words carried quite clearly through the closed door. Ezra paused just outside to learn more about the situation before entering. He didn't think of it as eavesdropping, more like strategic scouting.
"Chris, it's a good thirty days on foot. And if we used horses we'd have to go by the main roads and pass through every town between here and the capitol. Either way, we'd be traveling during one of the worst times of the year." Buck's voice was also raised but had an almost pleading note to it. He was obviously trying to get his friend to see the logic in his words but not having much luck.
"Orrin has to be warned!"
"You're right but we don't have to go all the way to his home to do it. The city of Briar Cliff has at least two high-and-mighty wizards there who probably have contacts in the capitol or at least the Center. All we have to do is get word to them and let them pass on the warning."
Ezra frowned and decided that it was time for him to make an entrance. Pushing the door open, he marched through and made sure he had everyone's attention before speaking.
"And while one or more of you set off on this little journey to Briar Cliff, what will the rest of us do?"
Everyone stared at the minstrel in puzzlement. His question had them confused enough that they didn't think to challenge him about listening at the door.
"As strange as it is for some of you, I encourage you to think this situation through. Wartolin had some sort of connection with the two orcs that our young friend managed to dispatch. My guess would be that, by now, he knows that they were close to their goal and have been eliminated. Do you think they will be the only ones he sends? Do you really believe that he is just going to say, 'Oh well' and give up?"
Ezra paced to the middle of the room and turned until he had met everyone's troubled stare. He stopped with Chris and held his gaze as he continued speaking. He knew, as everyone else did, that the mercenary was the unofficial leader and that his decision would be final.
"Where there were two there will be more and they will be merciless in the pursuit of their goal."
"Which is the Scroll." Chris calmed down quickly once he figured out where Ezra was headed with his speech.
"Just so. And if Josiah is correct and the orcs have a way of detecting its location through magic..."
"Then, there is no safe hiding place. It's possible even Josiah's magic wouldn't be strong enough to conceal it." Mary's eyes still held a hint of red from her crying but they also gleamed with determination. "The Scroll must not fall into Wartolin's hands."
"So, if we can't hide it and we don't have enough men to protect it...what do we do with it?" Jaydee looked from Ezra to Chris, unable to decide which man to focus on, but by that time both were in complete agreement even though the plan had not yet been spoken out loud.
Chris nodded once to Ezra, who gave a small tilt of his head and stepped back from the focus of the room. All eyes turned to the mercenary who was once more in command.
"We don't try to hide the scroll. We take it where there are enough guards and wizards to protect it from Wartolin and Cardimal."
"The capitol?" Casey's voice broke as she squeaked out the startled question. "You're going to take the Scroll all the way to the capitol? With orcs chasing you?"
Chris nodded, a grim smile on his face. "All the way to King Orrin's castle."
Buck grinned openly and slapped his thighs as he stood. "Bysha! We'll dump this problem right back in his lap where it should have stayed."
Josiah regarded the pouch containing the two evil spheres and also nodded his head gravely. "It is probably the wisest solution. Moving about may even make it harder for the orcs to track the Scroll."
"You'll want to avoid the main road." Mistress Nettie spoke up from her place next to Mary. "They're bound to figure out you're headed for the capitol. Best if you stick to the trails. Less chance of an ambush that way."
Jaydee jumped to his feet, his dark eyes fairly glowing with excitement. "This is great! When do we leave?"
Buck rolled his eyes and Chris's smile turned into a frown. "You're not going."
"What? What do you mean...?"
"Just what he said boy. You. Are. Not. Going." Buck emphasized each word with a finger poke at Jaydee's chest.
Jaydee's mouth dropped open in shocked outrage. His jaw worked a couple of times but before he could find his voice Chris spoke up with a logical explanation.
"Think about it, Jaydee. Buck and I know the territory and we both served in the king's guard. We've also fought our share of orcs. If he agrees to come, we'll take Josiah with us in hopes that he can provide some protection for the Scroll." Jaydee looked like he wanted to interrupt but Chris wasn't about to let him get a word in until he was finished. "As far as trained fighters go, that just leaves you and a couple of others to protect Mary and her son in case more orcs come here."
That made the boy's jaw close with a snap. Jaydee blinked in surprise then turned to look at Miss Travis. She smiled trustingly up at him and he unconsciously straightened his back. "Yeah. That makes sense. I'll stay and help guard Mary and the others." Jaydee turned a very serious look to his friend and mentor. "Don't worry Chris, I'll make sure nothing happens to them while you're gone."
Buck stroked his mustache in an attempt to hide his grin. He knew as well as the others that with the Scroll gone there probably wouldn't be any attacks on the town but it was a good enough excuse to keep Jaydee from feeling deprived of an adventure. Traveling over rough territory in the cold and rain with the danger of orcs and Bysha knew what else waiting for them? Some adventure.
"Gentlemen, I find myself in the awkward position of insisting that I be allowed to accompany you on this ill-timed escapade." Ezra spoke up from his place to the side, where he had once again resumed softly strumming his guitar.
"No offense, Ezra," Buck's tone and expression implied exactly the opposite, "But why the pits should you come along?"
The minstrel smiled condescendingly. "I assure you, there are several reasons for my volunteering but my prime motivation is obviously one of personal glory."
The blank stares he received made him sigh in exasperation. "An opportunity of this nature does not occur multiple times in a minstrel's life. And it is much easier to put brave deeds to song if they are witnessed first-hand."
"So, you want to come with us so you can write a ballad and become famous?" Buck gave Ezra the same look he had given Jaydee. "What makes you think we want to be nursemaiding your pampered ass..."
"Need I remind you that minstrels spend much of their time on the open road? That I have chosen to rest here the last couple of turns does not mean that I am completely unfamiliar with the hardships of cross-country travel."
"Walking is one thing," Buck stood right in front of Ezra and leaned down until they were almost nose-to-nose. "But what about fighting? We run into a pack of orcs and what are you going to do? Sing'em to sleep?"
The hard glint in Ezra's green eyes should have warned the big fighter but all he saw was a dandy of a minstrel sitting in front of him holding onto a fancy little instrument. Oh, he knew that Ezra was pretty handy with the slender blade he carried. Fast and agile, he could beat almost any man in a fair fight. But that was 'man' not orc and an emphasis on the word fair. Somehow, he just couldn't picture the man in a free-for-all battle. But then, he also couldn't have pictured the delicate-looking hand suddenly holding a very sharp blade against the large vein in his throat.
Buck swallowed nervously as he felt the cold metal against his skin. Slowly, he straightened up but Ezra rose as well and kept the blade pressed lightly against the man's throat.
"I assure you sir, I am a man of many hidden talents." Ezra's words hissed between his gritted teeth. "You have my word that if, at any time, it becomes apparent that I cannot pull my own weight, or begin to hinder you in any manner, I will make my way to the nearest town on my own and leave you to complete the journey unencumbered by my 'pampered ass' presence."
Buck held his hands up in surrender and Ezra at last dropped the blade. Buck looked down at the smaller man with a newfound respect. Nodding his head, he lowered his hands and turned to Chris. "Guess that makes four of us for this little trip."
Ezra slipped the blade back into its sheath under his sleeve and resumed his playing, as if nothing special had just occurred. "Really Buck, 'little trip' is hardly epic inspiring."
"What would you call it then?"
After a moment of careful consideration the minstrel strummed a very forceful chord and stated firmly, "We are about to embark on a quest to save the entire kingdom from the greatest threat it has ever known."
Nathan, who had quietly listened to all of the arguing and planning, was the first to stand and raise his cup in a toast. "To the Quest. May we all be gathered here again after its successful completion."
Additional cups were raised as voices, both male and female, echoed his sentiment.