Chris shielded his eyes from the flare of light as Josiah reappeared with his first passenger. The wizard kept the crystal sphere glowing as he raised it above his head.
"Nathan, I think Ezra could use your help."
Ezra dropped the pack he was carrying in his arms as he tried to wave aside the suggestion. "I assure you, it is nothing more than a pulled muscle or slight twist."
"If that's all it is, then I won't be able to help you." Nathan stood up and made his way to the protesting minstrel who had yet to take a single step. "But it won't hurt for me to check. Now, which leg is it?"
When it became obvious that he wasn't going to get an answer, Nathan looked at Josiah expectantly. The tall wizard reached out his right hand and gave the minstrel a slight shove. Ezra swore as he stumbled forward favoring his left ankle.
"I am no healer, but I believe that it is his left leg that is injured." Josiah's deep voice held more than a hint of laughter as he reached out to steady his friend once more.
"I promise you sir, I shall remember this rough handling and "
"Shut up, Ezra, and come sit down before you fall down." Nathan stepped forward and took the smaller man by the arm to help support and guide him to the circle of light made by Josiah's staff.
Chris and the other men watched the scene play out with amused smiles. From his place on the ground, Buck squinted up at the bedraggled looking minstrel and shook his head in mock despair. "Pits, Ezra. If my pack is half as soaked as you, there wasn't much point in saving it." Jaydee was curled up asleep next to Buck and missed the quiet exchange.
Ezra grimaced as Nathan eased him to the ground and then found the breath to respond to Buck's taunt. "Hopefully, your belongings will dry out as quickly as I do and be none the worse for wear." Ezra shrugged out of his own pack and used it as a support while Nathan began his examination.
"Oh, I'm sure they will." Buck looked over at Chris and gave him a broad wink. "I would tell you 'thanks' but that word's not in my vocabulary."
Ezra covered his eyes with one hand and moaned softy. "In Bysha's name, what terrible deed did I perform that I should be subjected to such torments and "
"Well, the bones aren't broken or cracked but the ankle is swollen." Nathan finished his exam and sat back on his heels. "The boot will give it support until we reach the inn and then we can try to get the swelling down."
In a way, Chris was almost sorry to hear that. A broken bone could have been mended by the healer, and Ezra would have been able to walk just fine. With a sprain, Ezra would be limping for the next couple of days.
"Well, I think I have just enough energy to fetch the last member of our party." As he spoke, Josiah placed the crystal sphere on the ground and readied himself for another transfer.
Chris stood and watched for the tell-tale sign of the magic glow on the far shore. It was hard to see through the rain and the trees but he thought he saw the bright flash that meant Josiah had arrived safely.
"Ezra," Nathan's voice broke the sudden silence left by the wizard's departure. "Was Vin hurt in anyway?"
Chris turned his head slightly so that he would be sure and hear the minstrel's answer.
"I believe he suffered nothing more than a few bruises and the loss of his cape and arrows. We were sharing my cape, soaked as it is, until Josiah arrived. I tried to leave it with him but he refused my more than generous offer."
"Even a wet cape is better than none." Nathan cast a sidelong glance in Chris' direction and spoke a little louder. "He'll need to walk next to someone and share their cloak until we reach the inn."
As Nathan finished speaking, a bright glow announced the return of the wizard. All eyes focused on the light even knowing that it would be too bright to look at. Chris blinked his vision clear and unconsciously took a step forward the moment he saw Vin.
The young half-elf stood close to Josiah with the man's right arm and cloak draped across his shoulders. Two packs hit the ground at his feet followed by his bow and an empty quiver. Buck thought he could hear Vin's teeth chattering from across the small clearing and felt a sympathetic shiver course through his body.
Chris practically pushed Josiah out of his way as he reached for the cold tracker. He pulled the soaking young man into the warmth and protection of his cloak and led him over to Nathan.
Vin gratefully accepted Chris' help but balked when he saw where they were going. "P P Pits Ch Ch Chris. I'm j just a lit..t t..le c c old. Ezzzzra was the one "
"Nathan's already tended to Ezra. Now, it's your turn." Chris kept his arms wrapped tightly around Vin's shoulders and held him in place as Nathan did a quick but thorough examination.
Nathan stepped back and gave Chris a reassuring smile. "Nothing that needs my attention. Just keep him close until we reach the inn." Looking down at the half-elf Nathan's smile turned into a mischievous grin. "Nettie gave me plenty of things to brew with tea that will keep you from getting sick, so I guess it is a good thing you saved my pack."
Buck laughed at the tracker's grimace and Jaydee woke from his exhausted sleep. Lifting his head, he blinked his surroundings into focus and smiled when he saw Vin and Ezra had been returned to the group. Vin noticed that Jaydee was awake and shrugged out of Chris' grip. "Got to g..g..give Jaydee something."
It was obvious that the tracker was determined, so Chris let him go but stayed one step behind him. Reaching Jaydee's side, Vin knelt and tugged on a leather cord around his neck. "K kept it safe for you, Jaydee. Just like I p promised."
The ring caught and reflected the light from Josiah's staff as Vin drew the cord over his head and handed it to Jaydee. No one spoke during the solemn exchange. Jaydee accepted his mother's ring from Vin and gripped his hand for a moment in silent thanks.
Vin finally allowed himself to be pulled back to his feet and was grateful for the warmth of Chris' arms around his shoulders. "Well, thanks to Vin and Ezra, we're only down two packs. Jaydee, Josiah, I hope you didn't lose anything that can't be replaced." Chris looked at each man in turn and waited while they did quick, mental inventories.
Jaydee shook his head 'no' but Josiah frowned as he responded. "I did have the two crystals taken from the orcs packed in my bag. I never did get a chance to really study them."
Chris shrugged off the loss. "We have a fairly good idea of what they were for, so I'm not too concerned. Anything else?"
"Unfortunately, yes. I also had a supply of light and fire crystals plus a few other 'special' stones." Josiah sighed wistfully and rubbed his eyes. "Of course, I can reproduce all of them but that will take energy." Something which the wizard was obviously running low on.
Looking at the men around him, Chris quickly took stock of their situation and began issuing orders. "Buck, you can carry a pack while you help Jaydee walk. Nathan, can you manage a pack and help Ezra?" Nathan nodded his head and Chris continued dividing the loads. "Good. I'll take a pack and help Vin. Josiah, I know your tired but can you manage the last two packs and still give us some light to see by?"
"Certainly, Chris, although it will need to be from my staff. The crystals I use for teleporting take too much power."
"What about the crystal you gave me?" Vin struggled for a moment with the wet knots on his pouch and finally drew out the rough stone he had used in his cave. It flared to life in his hand as he held it up for Josiah to see.
For a moment Josiah stared at the stone in what appeared to be shock. Recovering from his apparent surprise he smiled and nodded his head. "Excellent, Vin. I had forgotten about that one. Between that and my staff we should have plenty of light." Josiah turned his back to the others under the pretense of arranging the two packs across his shoulders. His face safely concealed, the wizard frowned as he tried to come to grips with Vin's startling revelation.
Josiah had not lied. He really had forgotten about the light stone that Vin now used to help the others get organized. Seeing the stone, the wizard was reminded of the night that Vin had offered to walk Mistress Nettie to her home after she had finished tending to a very sick Jaydee. In place of the lantern that Nathan had offered, Josiah had given Vin the empowered crystal. When the tracker had earnestly promised to return the stone, Josiah had waved the promise away telling him to keep it. Such stones took very little energy and were easy to create.
But such stones were also very short lived, two or three uses at the most and their light gradually dimmed as the energy waned. The stone that Vin held aloft was still as bright as the first moment that Josiah had spelled it. And that had been over a turn ago. Even if Vin hadn't used the stone except that one time, it should still have been noticeably dimmer.
"Josiah, you ready?" Chris' call interrupted the wizard's thoughts. Promising himself to investigate the mystery further at the first opportunity, he pulled his staff from the ground and joined the others where they stood patiently waiting in the rain.
When everyone was ready, Vin and Chris took the lead with the mercenary holding the light stone above his head. Buck and Jaydee followed behind them with Josiah leading Ezra and Nathan. They walked in silence, each man lost in their private thoughts and the roar of the Rindel gradually faded to be replaced by the steady patter of rain against the leaves. It was a great relief when they finally reached the road and their pace quickened despite the treacherous mud and Ezra's limp.
"I'm tellin' ya, the last time it rained this much, there were dragon eggs washin' up all along the banks of the Rindel." Drom slapped the wooden table with the palm of his hand as he tried to convince his listeners that he knew what he was talking about. The bear of a man was fearsome in his conviction and spittle dotted his thick, black beard. His dark eyes gleamed beneath shaggy eyebrows and dared his listeners to call him a liar.
"You wouldn't know a dragon's egg if a dragon hatched out an bit you on the ass." Barty's retort had everyone gathered at the table laughing at the ferryman's expense despite his fearsome appearance. Barty had known old Drom for more turns than he had fingers and knew the man was all bluff. Besides which, Barty was his equal in size and though his dark beard held a hint of gray, he knew who the better fighter was.
"Laugh if ya want but you just wait till the river backs down. Gonna be all kinds of things left behind that started out up in those mountains." Drom grumbled into his empty mug and did his best to ignore the ridicule of his fellows. Barty, the owner of the River Inn, thumped him on the shoulder and poured him some more ale.
"Sure there will. And maybe you'll get really lucky and there'll be a new ferry waitin' for you too."
The inn keeper cringed when he heard his wife's scolding call from the kitchen and it was Drom's turn to laugh. The other two men, stranded travelers on their way south, chuckled as well but did their best to hide their smiles behind their mugs. There was no telling how long they would be trapped at the inn and thought it would be best if they didn't upset the owner.
"Now, now Mistress Kerin, I know my friend 'Bartog' don't mean nothin' by his jokes," Drom grinned at his scowling tormentor as he spoke, "And I know that just as soon as the rain lets up, he's gonna be right there beside me buildin' a new ferry." Drom leaned in close and threw his arm around his 'friend's' shoulders. "Cause he knows it's my ferry that keeps him in business. Ain't that right 'Bartog'?
Barty growled and lurched to his feet. "Someday their gonna build a bridge 'cross that river and then "
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Someday, somebody, somehow. You been singing that tune fer years. When are ya gonna learn a new song?"
One of the travelers, the dark-haired one with the goatee, cleared his throat, interrupting the two men before they could start a new argument. Even though his clothes showed signs of hard travel, they were still fine enough to earn the man the respectful attention of the two locals.
"Ah, speaking of the ferry, any idea as to when I and my companion will be able to cross the Rindel?"
Barty turned and regarded his only two guests. It was a bad time of year for traveling, so the lack of customers was normal. The arrival of the two, well-dressed men just before sunset had been a pleasant surprise.
"Depends on how long it keeps raining." Barty frowned thoughtfully and looked towards the window that faced the road, as if he could judge how much water remained in the sky. "And then of course the river has to go down ?"
Drom looked up when he heard Barty's words trail off in confusion. Following his puzzled stare he also looked to the window and his own jaw dropped in amazement. Through the thick glass, where there should have been only darkness and rain, there was a small light that glowed far brighter and steadier than any lantern or torch. The two travelers also looked to the window and stood when they saw the strange light.
Alerted by the sudden silence, Barty's wife Kerin left the kitchen to find out what was wrong. She was surprised to see the four men standing and just staring out the window. From her position she could not see what had them so transfixed.
"Bartog! What in Bysha's name are you looking at?"
Barty wasn't the only one to jump when his wife's shrill voice broke the silence. And since he and Drom both turned in her direction they didn't notice the red-headed traveler reach instinctively for his sword. His companion, the one that had asked about the river crossing, quickly blocked his movements and gave him a stern glare. The silent reprimand also went unnoticed as the innkeeper answered his wife.
"Dunno what it is. Some kind of light coming up the road from the direction of the river." Barty stepped back as his wife moved towards the window. Not as tall as her husband, Kerin was more than equal in width and after years of working the inn, was used to using her wide hips to move obstacles from her path. She tossed her long, mousy-brown braid over her shoulder and tucked loose strands of hair behind her ears as she bent her face to the window.
Drom cowered back towards the fireplace and asked in a shaky voice, "Do yeh do yeh think it's a drowned spirit? Comin' to take us all to the Pits?"
"Hush your fool talk, man!" Kerin was far too practical to believe in such things as walking dead or vengeful ghosts. Of course, it helped her courage a great deal that by peering closely through the window she could just make out the shapes of men beneath the steady light. She didn't think spirits would slog through mud and certainly the dead wouldn't need cloaks to stay warm. "Why, it's only more travelers, no doubt looking for a place to get in out of the rain."
"But but the light. And their coming from the river." Drom was not about to let his apprehensions slide away so easily.
"That's just wizard light and if there's a wizard with'em then it ain't surprising they got across the river." Kerin wiped her flour-covered hands on her apron and turned to her husband. "Bartog, you go up and light fires in three of the rooms. Those men are probably soaked to the bone. Bring some blankets back down with you. They can stay by the fire down here until their rooms warm up." Kerin gave her husband a not so gentle shove towards the stairs and then turned to the ferryman. "Drom, you put some more wood on the fire and drag some chairs closer. Hop to it man, unless you want to pay in coin for all that ale you been guzzling."
Parting with his hard earned and well-hoarded money was the last thing that Drom wanted to do. He spun towards the fire and almost ran over one of the travelers in his haste to obey.
"Drom! You great oaf, be careful where you put your feet. These men are 'paying' customers." Mistress Kerin scolded the ferryman then turned an apologetic smile to the two men. "Will you sirs be needing anything else? I've got to go add more water to the stew and get my bread in the oven."
The more talkative of the two graciously tipped his head and smiled in return. "No, thank you Mistress. We'll simply take a table to the side and let you tend to business." Suiting action to words, the two men collected their mugs and moved to a table in the far corner of the room. No sooner were they seated then the sounds of splashing footsteps heralded the arrival of the new guests.
Mistress Kerin was at the door a moment after it opened. "Come in! Come in! Give me your wet cloaks and get over by the fire. Bartog is getting your rooms ready and then he's going to bring down some blankets." Kerin greeted the men with a wide smile and hurried them in out of the rain. The strange lights winked out just as she closed the door behind the last pair. Turning, she stood and watched as the wet capes and cloaks were removed and her new customers were at last revealed.
Water and mud soon covered the wooden floor of the inn as the travelers sorted themselves out, dropping wet packs and coverings on the nearest table. Kerin's eyes widened in surprise as she began taking stock of the odd assortment of men. The tallest of the group was a handsome, dark skinned man who seemed to be keeping a careful, almost protective watch on his companions. The next tallest had a long wooden staff, embedded with sparkling stones and topped with a crystal. Unmistakably a wizard, and no doubt the power behind the strange lights. The next two tallest men were a strange contrast of opposites and alikes. While one was dark-haired and sported a full mustache, the other was blond-headed and relatively clean-shaven. The mustached one grinned and his eyes fairly sparkled with laughter. The blond wore a more serious look and his eyes held a cold, calculating gleam. Both men moved with the easy grace of fighters and kept hands within casual reach of their weapons.
Mistress Kerin turned her attention to the last three members of the party and gave a cry of delight. "Ezra!" Kerin pushed her way past the dark skinned man and threw her arms around the startled and somewhat soggy minstrel. "Oh, how I've missed you!" Her enthusiastic greeting threatened to send the precariously balanced man to the floor and only Nathan's quick bracing kept him on his feet.
"Mistress Kerin!" Ezra gasped as the thick arms squeezed his ribcage until he felt the bones creak. "Always a pleasure." He gasped as her grip finally relaxed enough for him to take a deep breath. Smiling indulgently, the minstrel made a sweeping gesture with his hand that encompassed his six friends. "My friends and I are grateful for your warm welcome and generous hospitality. Not to mention, your own warm and welcoming presence." Ezra captured one of Kerin's rough and callused hand and drew it to his lips with a wickedly charming gleam in his eyes. "Had the weather not prevented me from bringing my guitar, I would have gladly spent the evening singing your praises."
Laughing in delight at the pretty words, Kerin blushed and snatched her hand free. "Now, Ezra, you know how jealous Bartog got the last time your were here."
"A danger I would bravely face for a mere moment of your enchanting company, my lady." Ezra's smile brought a dimple to his cheek and Kerin's blush went all the way to her hairline.
"Oh, Ezra." Kerin felt the burn in her cheeks and turned her head in embarrassment. Her gaze came to rest on the last two members of the group and all her mothering instincts flared to life. "Oh! You poor dears!"
Jaydee and Vin looked around in confusion, trying to find the 'poor deers' that the woman was referring to. They realized the truth when they suddenly found themselves herded gently but firmly toward the fire and away from their friends. Looking over Kerin's shoulders, they silently beseeched the others for help but received only amused grins and Buck's little wave in return.
Just as Mistress Kerin was getting them seated, Barty arrived with an armload of blankets which he placed on the table nearest his wife. Turning, he rubbed his hands briskly and sought out the leader of the new arrivals. Focusing on Chris, the innkeeper ignored the others and spoke directly to him.
"Now then, I've got three rooms ready for yeh but this time of year there's plenty more available. I normally charge three bits a room plus a half-bit extra for a fire. Meals are one bit each and the ale comes free. Wine is available but I charges by the cup for it."
Chris nodded his head and started to reach for his pouch, "I think three rooms will be fine provided the beds are "
"Ahem," Ezra deliberately interrupted and Barty frowned in annoyance as he turned to see who was interfering with his business transaction.
"You!" Recognition caused Barty to reach for his belt knife and the mood in the room became noticeably tense.
"Now, now, Barty. Surely you are not going to let events of more than a turn ago interfere with business, are you?" Ezra donned his most winning smile and propped one hip against a nearby table. Crossing his arms in front of his chest, he nodded his head at the men gathered around him and began making introductions. When he finished he turned once more to the innkeeper who was still gripping the hilt of his knife but looking a little less inclined to attack. "You see, a much more honorable and trustworthy group than that last band of heathens I was forced to associate with. Really, Barty, that little brawl was in no way my "
"Little!?" Barty's hand left his knife and formed a fist which he waved in the air. "Little?! They broke every table in the room! You," The innkeeper grew red in the face as he shook an accusing finger at the still calmly sitting minstrel. "You threw a man out each window! Couldn't use the door. Couldn't at least use the same window! Oh, no. Both windows! And then you took it into the kitchen!"
By now, Chris and the other three men were staring at Ezra like he had just grown another head. Ezra, for his part, merely waved aside Barty's angry accusations and in a firm voice brought the man's tirade to an end. "Yes, yes, and then the stable. But if memory serves me correctly, and I am sure that it does, you were more than adequately compensated for all the damages and even retained at least two of the miscreants as enforced laborers." Ezra made a show of glancing around the room before meeting the innkeeper's glare once more. "And judging by the appearance of this establishment, I would say that you still have quite a bit of the money left over."
Barty's teeth made an audible grinding noise as he took one menacing step towards the minstrel. Ezra obviously felt himself to be in no danger as he calmly pulled his own money pouch free of his belt and began counting out coins. "Now, as we have just proven how accurate my memory is, I believe the correct price for a room this time of year is two bits, including the fire, and one bit for both dinner and breakfast. With free ale, of course."
Barty opened his mouth as if to argue but before he could utter a word, his wife's sudden cry of surprise had everyone turning in her direction.
Resigning themselves to their fate, Vin and Jaydee had at last allowed themselves to be pushed down into chairs drawn close to the fire. The token resistance they put up at having their boots removed was quickly subdued by the overwhelming determination of Mistress Kerin. As embarrassing as it was, Jaydee found himself secretly enjoying the attention. The warmth of the fire against the soles of his feet made him sigh happily and relax back into his chair. The sudden, surprise attack by a briskly welded blanket left him gasping for air and struggling to reach the light.
"Hold still, child. Can't leave you sittin' there with wet hair dripping down your back. You'll catch your death for sure." Kerin's voice was muffled through the folds of material but Jaydee understood them well enough to cease his struggles. "There. Now for your friend."
Jaydee was at last able to pull the blanket away from his head and was just in time to see Vin disappear beneath a similar cascade of material. Kerin gave the tracker a few extra rubs because of his longer hair but soon stepped back to allow the young man to free himself. Jaydee grinned to see the tangled mop of hair that effectively hid Vin's face. He could imagine what his friend was thinking and hoped that Chris and the others weren't looking in their direction.
Vin was leaning forward as the blanket finally fell away. Straightening his back, he reached up with both hands to push his hair from his face and unconsciously tucked it behind his ears. It was at that moment that Mistress Kerin let out her cry of surprise.
Vin stiffened as he felt the attention of everyone in the room suddenly focused on him. He turned his head and looked to Chris for help but it was Ezra's voice that filled the silence.
"Oh, and of course, last but by no means least, my other two associates." Ezra stood and with a grand gesture, he introduced the two youngest members to the innkeeper and his wife. "The young man to the right of the fireplace is Jaydee, destined for greatness in the king's own guard. And beside him, I have the great pleasure to present, ah, Vindarian, a royal scout for his majesty, the king of Morrand."
Six wide pairs of eyes stared at Ezra in shock, who smiled through clenched teeth and mentally willed them all to silence. Vin was the first to look away and see the effect of the minstrel's words. Barty was looking at him like he had just changed to solid gold and Kerin was staring at him with a look that held both awe and fear. He didn't know why Ezra had made such an outrageous claim but he did know he didn't like the effect it was having on the poor woman. Quickly pulling his thoughts, as well as the edges of his blanket together, Vin stood and executed a gracefully perfect bow.
"My thanks, for the kindness and hospitality that you've shown us so far." Vin's mind raced as he tried to think of what a royal scout might say. He remembered words that Ezra had used and tried working with them. "Your generosity is even more warming than the fire, especially for a travel weary soul."
Now it was Vin's turn to have six shocked stares focused on him. He did his best to ignore them and concentrate on Kerin's reaction.
Mistress Kerin put a hand to her mouth and gave a small, heartfelt sigh. "I I'm sorry we can't offer you better. I've only soup and bread for dinner but I'll see to it that Barty gives you the good wine to go with it. And there'll be apple pie for dessert." The fear in her eyes had melted away to be replaced with respect and something else the young tracker couldn't quite identify.
Sketching another small bow, Vin reached for her hand and lifted it gently to his lips. "After such a long journey, it will be a feast to rival the king's own table. Especially, if I am to have the pleasure of your company?"
Kerin's mouth made a small 'o' of delight and this time her blush went from her hairline all the way down to her ample cleavage. "To be sure, my lord. I I would be honored."
"Call me Vin, and the honor will be all mine." Very pleased with himself, Vin smiled and released the woman's hand which she cradled to her breast like it was made of the finest glass.
"Ahem, yes, well, speaking of dinner, I am sure that Vin will feel much more like eating after he has had a chance to change out of his wet clothes." Ezra resumed control of the situation and handed the money to the innkeeper. "If you could direct us to our rooms."
"Rooms?! Bartog, which rooms did you give them?" Not bothering to wait for an answer, Mistress Kerin turned to her husband. "Go up and light a fire in the room at the end of the hall." Turning back to Vin she sketched a clumsy curtsey and quickly explained. "That's the room we usually charge extra for cause it's got the biggest bed. But we wouldn't think of charging you for it."
"Kerin!" Barty's outraged cry fell on deaf ears as his wife began leading Vin gently to his friends, her eyes never leaving his face.
"You can change clothes in one of the other rooms that's had a chance to warm up." Mistress Kerin left the tracker standing in front of Chris and with one more quick curtsey she hurried back to her kitchen.
Barty watched his wife leave the room then turned back to Ezra. "Now, Kerin means well, bless her heart, but this being a bad season for travel "
"Bartog! Don't you dare try to make those men pay one bit more!"
Barty closed his eyes and grimaced as if in physical pain. Ezra smiled and patted the innkeeper on one shoulder. "Your wife does possess the most remarkable hearing. Now, if you would be so kind as to direct us to our rooms?"
Barty shrugged aside the minstrel's hand and waved towards the stairs. "Three on the left." Glancing over at Vin, he tried to turn his snarl into a smile but failed miserably. "I'll go start a fire in our best room." Ducking his head in a 'not-quite-bow', Barty edged past the men and headed up the stairs.
Jaydee gathered up his and Vin's boots and joined the others as they began collecting the packs. Buck and Josiah each took two leaving Nathan free to help Ezra up the stairs. Chris motioned for Jaydee and Vin to lead the way. As they moved toward the stairs, Chris leaned forward and mumbled something in the young tracker's ear that made him stumble slightly and turned the very tips of his ears red.
Witnessing the little scene Buck tapped Chris on the shoulder and raised an eyebrow in query. Smiling slightly, Chris gave a small, innocent shrug and answered, "I just asked him if the floor was cold."
The men found the rooms easily enough and began sorting themselves out as to who would share with who. Buck and Jaydee took the first room and Josiah moved to the second. He looked questioningly at the remaining four men and waited just inside the doorway with the remaining three packs at his feet.
Chris handed Vin his and Nathan's pack and gave him a small shove toward the third door. Turning to the healer, he directed him to follow the half-elf. "Put Ezra in there with Vin. I want to have a talk with both of them before dinner."
Ezra allowed a little more of his weight to rest on Nathan's arm and did his best to look pitiful. "Surely anything you wish to discuss can wait until after we have "
Ignoring the minstrel, Chris caught Nathan's eye and nodded his head in the direction of the door. "I'll bring Ezra's pack just as soon as I ask Josiah something."
Nathan took a firmer hold on Ezra's arm and half carried, half dragged him down the hall as he continued to protest. Vin stood watching the exchange from just inside his door until he saw Chris frown in his direction. Tilting his chin up, he gave the mercenary a fairly good impersonation of one of Ezra's haughty expressions before ducking out of sight.
A deep chuckle from his right let Chris know that Josiah had witnessed the little show. Shaking his head in exasperation, he followed the wizard into the room and stood with him beside the fire. "I thought Vin and Jaydee were going to be the only two that would need watching on this trip." Chris rubbed his hands together in front of the welcome heat as he began talking. "I never thought of Ezra getting into mischief."
"Well, if you think about their relative ages and backgrounds, Ezra is surely not that much older than Vin." Josiah kept his eyes on the dancing flames but he was very much aware of Chris' startled reaction.
"I'd say Ezra is quite few turns older than Vin."
"Really? How old do you think Vin was when he first arrived in Four Winds?" Josiah turned his back to the fireplace and crossed his arms over his chest while he waited for an answer.
"I don't know, 16, 17 turns maybe. Why?"
"So how old would that make him now?"
Chris was very much confused by Josiah's questions and his obvious refusal to meet his eyes. Curious to know what the wizard was leading up to, the mercenary decided to follow along. "I guess that would make him about 18 or 19 turns."
"Has he changed much since you've known him? Grown taller, put on more muscle, shown any sign of a beard or mustache?"
Chris opened his mouth to reply but then stopped to really think about Josiah's questions. Had Vin changed any the last two turns? Boys his age usually went through a growth spurt or showed some sign of their developing maturity. Surely there was something different about Vin, unless
"Pits. Why didn't you point this out to me earlier?"
Josiah turned in surprise at the anger he heard in Chris' voice. "What do you ?"
"You're right of course, he hasn't changed. That's because he's even younger than I thought, isn't he? How long have you known?"
"No, no, you misunderstand Chris." Josiah held up his hands as he tried to calm his irritated friend. "I am saying exactly the opposite. You haven't overestimated his age, you've underestimated it. By several turns as a matter of fact."
"But he "
"Is half elf. I'm sure you have met one or two in your days of service to the king, could you swear to their age or youth?"
Chris began pacing the room as he tried to accept what Josiah was telling him. His initial reason for consulting with the wizard was forgotten as he dealt with the unexpected revelation. "You're saying that he's older than he looks. Older than he acts?"
"Many find it easier to respond to people in the way that they are treated. He did a very good job of handling Mistress Kerin, didn't he?"
Chris stopped pacing as he remembered the transformation that had come over the normally shy and silent tracker as he had confronted the terrified woman. The damp blanket about his shoulders had taken on the illusion of a fine cape as he performed the courtly bow. Words had come out of his mouth that Chris would swear he had never used before. And with his head tilted in just such a way he had appeared older, wiser, more elven than human. After getting over the initial shock, Chris had silently applauded the performance. Now Josiah was telling him it might not have all been an act.
"I'm sorry Chris. This was probably not the time to point this out." Josiah could see how agitated the mercenary had become and was regretting his decision to interfere. He could understand now why the others had chosen to remain silent.
"No, that's alright Josiah. I just need to think about this some more. Later." Chris turned and began making his way slowly to the door.
"Wasn't there something you wanted to ask me?" Josiah frowned at seeing his friend suddenly so indecisive. It was quite a change from his normal attitude.
Chris shook his head as he opened the door. "It wasn't important. I was just going to ask you about that crystal of Vin's. It can wait."
Josiah was grateful that Chris did not look back to see the shocked expression he knew was on his face. The mercenary must have noticed his surprise when Vin had produced the crystal. No doubt he had been planning on asking Josiah to explain it to him. The wizard sighed and sank down into the chair next to the fireplace. How could he possibly explain something he didn't understand? A new thought entered his mind and he gave a small chuckle. Interesting how Chris could be so observant of others and yet so blind where a certain young tracker was concerned.
"You really think I did alright?"
"I assure you, your portrayal of Vindarian, royal scout of Morrand, was absolutely perfect." Ezra grinned up at Vin and did his best to reassure him. "In fact, I am sure that you have replaced myself as the object of Mistress Kerin's affections."
Vin's eyes widened in dismay as he continued to drape the clothes from his pack over the back of a chair and across the small table near the fire. "I'm sorry Ezra, I didn't mean to."
The minstrel laughed as he waved aside Vin's apology. "Think nothing of it. It will actually be a relief to have her attentions focused on someone else during dinner."
A look of panic stole across the tracker's face as he realized what Ezra was saying. "You mean, I'm going to have to talk to her during dinner?" When he had asked the woman to join them at the table, he really hadn't considered they might do more then eat. "What am I supposed to say?"
"Oh, more of the same." From his reclining position on the bed, Ezra made a grand sweeping gesture as he spoke in a slightly deeper voice. "How radiant your eyes, how beautiful your lips, how luscious the softly swelling mounds of your "
"Ezra! I can't say things like that to her! She's married for Bysha's sake!"
Even Nathan joined in on the laughter as he poured heated water into a basin filled with some of Nettie's herbs and moved over to the bedside table. "Relax, Vin, I don't think he's serious."
"Ah, our dear healer is quite correct." As he spoke, Ezra pushed himself up a little higher so that he could watch Nathan work. "The best way to handle Mistress Kerin is to complement her on her cooking, which I assure you is superb, and ask her questions that keep her talking. Questions like; 'When is your busiest season? What is your most popular dish? What are you going to do with that knife?"
Vin had been in the process of pulling Nathan's clothes out to dry while he listened to the minstrel speak. He jerked his head up in confusion at the last example but quickly saw it was an actual question directed at the healer.
"I'm going to cut the boot so that I can take it off without hurting you any further." Nathan held the blade in his right hand and reached out to grab Ezra's leg as he spoke.
"Oh, no you don't! Do you have any idea how long it took me to break in this pair of boots? Turns!" His fancy words forgotten, Ezra jerked his leg back out of Nathan's reach and hissed in pain at the sudden movement. "Pits! Keep that knife away from me!"
Vin moved to stand at the foot of the bed but was at a loss as to what he should do. Nathan looked like he was about ready to tie the minstrel to the bed and for his part, Ezra looked to be on the verge of pulling out his own blade in self-defense.
"Nathan! What's going on?" Chris' sudden appearance and demand for an explanation set all three men talking at once.
"The boot has got to come off so I can "
"He is not cutting my boot off with that !"
"Can't we just pull the boot ?"
Chris held up his hand as he grasped the situation. Dropping the two packs at the door, he walked over to stand at the foot of the bed. Motioning Nathan back, he directed Vin to sit on the edge of the mattress next to Ezra. Looking at the two young men, Chris couldn't help thinking about Josiah's speculations on Vin's age. His thoughts were quickly brought back to the matter at hand when Ezra cleared his throat and opened his mouth to speak. The mercenary's cold, green-eyed stare kept him silent.
"Do either of you," Chris shifted the look between the two men as he spoke. "Know the meaning of the word 'trust'?" Puzzled frowns and then wary, hesitant nods were their only answers.
"Good. Then you'll understand why it is so important that you trust me when I tell you to do something, such as 'forget the packs and run'." Vin and Ezra both ducked their heads, unable to meet Chris' stern glare. "As long as we are on this quest, you need to trust me. Trust that when I tell you to do something, I know what I'm talking about and it's for your own good. When it's safe and there's time to talk things over, I don't mind if you question my decisions or make suggestions of your own. But in dangerous situations, you're just going to have to trust me."
"You're right Chris." Vin nodded his head and at last met the mercenary's eyes. "We should have left the packs. Ezra probably wouldn't have hurt his ankle and I wouldn't have lost my cape and arrows if we had just run for it like you told us to. Won't happen again, I promise."
Chris accepted the tracker's word and turned his gaze to Ezra who was very intently studying the pattern of the quilt beneath him.
"Ezra? Do you have a problem with this arrangement?"
"The life that I have chosen to live, has taught me to rely on no one but myself." Ezra finally lifted his head but stared at the fire as he spoke. "I admit that during these last two turns I have learned, through example, that there are a few, rare individuals that can be trusted to guard one's back. To accept a man for who he is and not what he has."
Ezra sighed and let his head fall back against the frame of the bed. A sad, tired smile curled his lips as he at last met Chris' understanding gaze. "One does not immediately or completely forget the lessons learned over the course of a lifetime, but I will try. And on that, you do have my word."
Chris nodded solemnly then leaned forward and held out his hand for the minstrel to grasp. "You know, Ezra, it's not just one way. I wouldn't ask you to trust me if I didn't already trust you."
The look of surprise on Ezra's face quickly turned to pleasure as he accepted the offered hand. "Is that why you didn't stop me downstairs?"
"You spotted the two men sitting in the corner, didn't you?" Chris answered Ezra's question with on of his own. Nathan and Vin were both confused by the sudden change in the conversation.
"Yes, and I find their presence most disturbing." Ezra turned to enlighten Vin, knowing that he would have been too distracted by Mistress Kerin to have noticed the two travelers. "They seemed most upset by your presence, Vindarian. In fact, the red-headed one actually went for his blade and had to be subdued by his companion."
Nathan had also missed that exchange and looked just as shocked as the tracker. "They looked like normal travelers to me. A little worn from being on the road, but "
Ezra shook his head as he interrupted, "Their clothes are all wrong. Too fine for traveling on the road in this season and the style is very northern. I guarantee they have come from someplace further than Briar Cliff. In fact, I would be willing to wager that there are two horses out in Barty's stable at this very moment."
"I can go check." Vin was headed for the door, in his bare feet, even as he made the suggestion. Chris caught him by the shoulder and pulled him back to the bed.
"Not necessary. I think Ezra is right and besides," Chris' eyes flashed with the first sign of anger as he pinned the minstrel to the bed with his stare. "I'm waiting to hear his plans for the rest of the night."
"Plans?" The look of innocence was purposefully overdone as Ezra placed one hand against his chest. "Why, sir, I am shocked that you would think "
"Ezra, just tell me why you set Vin up and what the rest of us should be doing besides keeping him from getting killed."
All the humor left the minstrels face as he laid out his plan in short, very precise sentences. "I need to find out what they know and what their goal is. I think that I am the best one suited for this." Ezra was rewarded by a trio of nodding heads and felt a surge of pride. "They may not join us for dinner. They will definitely be in the room listening to everything we say. After we eat, I intend to get one or both of them in a dice game over a few cups of Barty's 'best wine'."
"Potent stuff?" Nathan smiled as Ezra rolled his eyes in reply.
"You have no idea. The man bottles it himself using a recipe handed down by his grandfather. I think the berries he uses may be that old as well."
"And the rest of us? What if you can't learn anything from them?"
"Eat diner. Retire early. Keep Vin safe." Ezra waved his hand in the air and suddenly there was a pair of dice between two of his fingers. He made a fist and when he opened his hand there were four. The dimple was back in his cheek as he grinned at his friends. "Trust me."