"But, Vin, I had to tell her." Jaydee tried to keep his voice as low as possible and still make the stubborn half-elf understand. "Nothing I could do would distract both Nathan and Mistress Nettie long enough for you to get away. And we can't just hide the crystal Josiah left without letting someone know where it is. What if orcs do show up?"
Vin frowned in annoyance as he leaned against the edge of the window in his room. Of course, to him it was more like a cell. Sure, he was allowed to go anywhere inside Nathan's home, but outside? Not with those two watchdog healers guarding the doors. Maybe Jaydee was right and they would need Casey's help.
Staring out at the people moving freely about in the street below, the young tracker sighed and finally gave in. "So, how's she going to distract them?"
Jaydee rose from his perch on the bed and moved closer so that there would be no chance of his words being overheard. "She's going to put a sleeping potion in their tea."
Vin just looked at Jaydee as if the boy had lost his mind. "She's going to drug a healer and an herbalist." The tracker shook his head and turned back to the window. "Jaydee, it won't work. She may be able to slip it past Nathan but there's no way her own aunt won't discover it."
Crossing his arms, Jaydee defended his love's skills. "Of course she can do it. Nettie's been training her for two whole turns now. She knows exactly what to mix, and how much. You'll see."
Vin gave a small snort of disbelief and continued to stare out the window.
"She's got your clothes, too. And your boots. Once Nathan and Nettie are asleep she'll bring them up to you and then you can meet me at the edge of town. I've got everything packed and ready to go. We can be on the trail as soon as the moon rises." Jaydee's enthusiasm was contagious. Vin found himself smiling in spite of his misgivings.
"Alright. But tell her to do it as early as possible. I can see well enough that we don't need to wait for the moon. The first part of the path is level and easy so with me as a guide you could even go blindfolded."
The two conspirators grinned at each other and clasped hands in agreement. Neither was sure who had first come up with the plan to join the other four men on the quest and it didn't really matter. Talking together after the others had left, they had quickly reached the conclusion that they weren't happy about remaining behind. In fact, they were down right annoyed.
Vin was particularly upset with Chris because he felt the man was treating him like a helpless child. And helpless he definitely was not. Sure he was still a little weak and sore from his fight but that would pass in just a couple of days. Besides, he was the one that had killed the orcs and retrieved the medallion in the first place. If anyone had a right to go on the quest, it was him. Who did Chris think he was to 'order' Vin to stay at Nathan's and 'behave'?
Jaydee was in almost the same situation with Buck. Unable to use the excuse of injuries, the man had tried to con him by using the 'guard and protect' approach. Well, that had worked for a few candle marks, until he had gotten time to think it through and realize that with the Scroll gone there wouldn't be any reason for the orcs to attack the town. If Buck thought he was going to act the part of a big brother and make the 'kid' stay somewhere safe he was in for a surprise. After all, how was he going to learn to be a fighter and join the king's guard if he didn't get a chance to actually do any fighting?
At some point late that first day, a pair of angry blue eyes had encountered a set of equally troubled brown eyes and things just seemed to fall into place. Jaydee had the freedom to come and go as he pleased, so Vin told him what to gather and where they would meet. The crystal that Josiah left with Nathan in case of an emergency had them stumped until Casey caught Jaydee packing for the journey.
She had been merciless in her pursuit of the truth and poor Jaydee never stood a chance. Once she had all the facts she proved to be as good, if not better, conspirator than the young men. She had come up with the idea of drugging her aunt's and the healer's nightly cup of tea and then hiding the crystal in a place that only she would know about. When they woke up and discovered the boys gone, they would naturally assume that they had taken the crystal with them. If they didn't question Casey, she wouldn't have to try lying to her aunt.
Casey was in the small kitchen of Nathan's home as Jaydee left Vin's room for the last time. She followed him out to the street where they could discuss the plans without the risk of eavesdroppers.
"Vin says give it to them right after dinner. The sooner we get started the better."
Casey nodded her head slowly and thoughtfully. "I suppose it will still work. It would have been better on an empty stomach but maybe I can just make it a little stronger."
Jaydee felt the first twinges of doubt as he heard the hesitation in her voice. "Now, Casey, you do know what you're doing, right? I mean, you aren't going to accidentally poison them or anything, are you?"
"Oh, Jaydee, you worry too much." Casey tossed her head and smiled impishly. "Maybe I should go with you and Vin. I could bring some of Nettie's herbs in case Vin starts getting sick."
"Now who's worrying too much? Vin's not going to get sick and a journey like this is no place..."
"Don't you dare say it, Jaydee! Not if you want my help tonight. I was just thinking about something my aunt said earlier today." Casey ducked her head and began twisting the ties on her cape around her fingers. Jaydee knew that was a sign she was worried about something. He gently put his arms around her shoulders and pulled her close.
"Did she say something about the quest?"
Casey wrapped her arms around Jaydee's waist and rested her head on his shoulder. "She said that four wasn't a good number for a journey. She said it was unlucky."
Jaydee began to smile in relief until he remembered that Mistress Nettie was more than just a simple herb woman. "Did she say anything else?"
"Only that seven is a better number. Luckier." Casey looked up into what she considered the most beautiful brown eyes in the world. Thick lashes added to their richness and at times made Jaydee look incredibly sweet and innocent. How could she possibly send him off to fight orcs or Bysha knew what evil creatures? Reaching up, Casey sadly brushed the thick black locks of hair from her love's forehead and traced one dark eyebrow. Jaydee smiled encouragingly and gave her a quick, chaste kiss on the lips.
"She didn't happen to say anything about the number six, did she?"
Casey grinned and broke free of the embrace with a twirling dance step. "No, but I'll be happy to ask her for you."
"Jaydee!" Casey stepped back again and landed a quick kiss on his cheek. "Don't worry, everything will be fine. Now go and get some rest. You and Vin have a long night ahead of you."
The two young people waved to each other in parting, each with mixed feelings. Jaydee's were of excitement for the adventure he was about to embark on and concern that he might be making a bad decision. Casey was proud of Jaydee for deciding to go but she couldn't help worrying about his safety. The one feeling they both shared was the hope that everything would turn out all right in the end and they would soon be reunited.
"Here you go." Casey sat the two steaming mugs of tea on the table, being careful not to spill a drop.
"Thank you, Casey." Nettie looked up from the embroidery she was working on and smiled at her niece. For some reason, that made the girl blush as she backed away. "Aren't you going to join us?"
"I...uh...thought I'd drink mine with Vin."
Nathan frowned slightly as he glanced up from the volume of lore he was reading. "Considering the mood he was in during dinner, you might want to leave him alone for a while."
"Oh, I think maybe he's just starting to feel a little cooped up. I'm sure he didn't mean anything by that comment he made about your cooking. You know, he really appreciates everything you and aunt Nettie have done for him."
"Hmph. Somehow, I don't think he was saying 'thank you' when he compared my rabbit stew to something he once found in a bear's stomach."
Mistress Nettie gave a small laugh and Casey quickly ducked her head to hide her grin. Nathan scowled at both ladies but was soon fighting a smile of his own. "Have to admit, even I found it a little hard to look at after he said that."
All three laughed and Casey decided it was a good time to make her escape. She had already slipped Vin his clothes so they merely had to wait until the doctored tea took effect. But now that she had mentioned taking a cup to Vin, she decided she had best go through with it.
"Well, I'll go fix a tray for Vin and me and go on upstairs. If you need anything, just give me a call."
Casey hurried into the kitchen and began placing cups and plates on a tray. She was about to pour the water over the tea leaves when she spotted her aunt standing in the doorway with two cups in her hands. From the way she was holding them, Casey could tell they were both still full. Setting the hot kettle down before she dropped it, the young woman tried to stammer out an explanation. Mistress Nettie stopped her before she could utter more than two words.
"Just tell me one thing child. Were you trying to put us to sleep or give us the trots?"
Casey's mouth dropped open as her aunt's words sunk in. "Powdered maylum, not maytrum! I put in the wrong root."
Shaking her head and sighing wearily, Nettie carried the cups over to the hearth and poured their contents into the fire, which appeared to hiss and sizzle with annoyance. "Two turns and you still make a mistake like that. Lucky for Nathan I can smell the difference even with the extra spices you added. Poor man would have had a very uncomfortable night had he drunk that." Nettie arched an eyebrow at her niece. "A very 'wakeful' and unpleasant night."
Casey moaned and covered her face with her hands as she sank down onto a chair. Peeking through her fingers, she tried to judge exactly how mad her aunt was with her. "What did he say when you told him?"
"What I told him, was that I thought you had used too much spice and that I would make us a couple of fresh cups." Nettie was busy doing just that while she talked. "Now, I suggest you pay close attention to how I do this, so that next time, you get it right. There is a trick to masking the flavor in the tea that does not require so much seasoning."
Casey blinked in shock and could only sit and stare as Nettie began mixing the herbs that would put a person into a deep sleep. "But...but...why are you....?"
Nettie smiled and poured the hot water over the dried leaves and powders. "It's like I said earlier, four is a very unlucky number."
"And six is better?"
"Better, but not the best. Seven, now that is a lucky number." Nettie lifted the cups and made her way back to the door.
"But with Vin and Jaydee..."
Nettie looked over her shoulder and smiled knowingly. "You see to it that the boys get safely away. The rest will fall into place. You'll see."
Casey sat a moment longer staring at the empty doorway. A part of her wanted to break out into hysterical giggles while another felt like it wanted to cry. Either one would have shown how relieved she was that her aunt not only knew what they had planned but also approved. The pent-up energy finally demanded release and with a clap of her hands she bounced to her feet and snatched up the tray with her and Vin's tea. Humming softly, she hurried up the stairs to share the good news.
Jaydee swore softly as he tripped over yet another rock hidden in the darkness. As he stumbled forward he felt a hand grab his arm and stop his forward momentum.
"Sorry, Jaydee. I promise, we're almost there."
"That's what you said a candle ago."
Quiet laughter and a small tug to get him moving again was the only response to his grumbled complaints.
"It wouldn't be so bad if I could see like you do. The moon only makes it worse by throwing shadows over this so-called trail of yours. And how did you manage to build a home up here in all these rocks, anyway?"
"Never said I built my place. I found it when I first came here and since no one else was using it, I just made it my own."
"Oh. But is it made of wood or rocks? How big is it? I mean, where is there a place level enough...?"
"Jaydee," Vin's laughter floated back down the trail along with his words. "It's not a house like Chris or Nathan's. It's a cave in the side of this hill we're climbing."
"A cave?! You live in a cave?" Jaydee froze in his tracks and squinted into the darkness trying to see his friend. "But, why?"
"Why not? It's dry when it rains and I've got a hide hanging across the front to block the wind. There's even a vent hole in the ceiling for smoke to escape. C'mon up a little further and you can see for yourself."
Jaydee followed the voice and worked his way around a large outcropping of stone. As he emerged into the moonlight he was able to spot the pale animal hide against the darker hillside. Vin stood just to the left and motioned his friend forward as he lifted the skin.
Past the makeshift doorway was inky blackness and Jaydee hesitated at the entrance. He gave a small gasp and squinted in surprise as a bright glow suddenly filled the interior of the cave.
"Sorry. I should have warned you about how bright Josiah's light stone is." Vin held a small, rough-cut crystal above his head and then moved to wedge it into a crack in the low roof. "But see, nice and cozy." The young tracker made a sweeping gesture with one arm that was a clear invitation for Jaydee to inspect his small home.
Letting the hide down behind him, Jaydee stepped slowly into the cave and quickly took in its sparse furnishings, or rather, its lack of furnishings, since there was no real furniture at all. Towards the back was a blanket lying on what looked to be a very old, very thin mattress. Next to the 'bed' was an old wooden box with a broken clasp that Jaydee guessed was Vin's clothes chest. The only other things in the cave were a couple of pots, a few clay dishes and a pile of firewood.
"You mean, this is where you've been living for the last two turns?" Jaydee was city bred and raised and couldn't help his shocked disbelief. "When you said you had a place in the hills I thought maybe you had a little cottage or at least a shack. I know you don't like the town but I'm sure that if you asked Chris he'd let you stay with him."
Vin blinked in hurt surprise at Jaydee's words. Sure it wasn't a fine house with wood floors and glass windows but it was still his home. And it was better than sleeping in a tree or, worse yet, head to toe with a dozen others in the back of a wagon. He should know. The cave was a lot better than most of the places he had been forced to sleep in while growing up. Jaydee just didn't understand and Vin suddenly didn't feel like trying to explain.
"I like it here. If Chris wanted me to move in with him he'd ask. And even then I might not. Just let me get a few things and we can head out." Vin kneeled down beside the box he kept his clothes in and shrugged out of his backpack. Setting it and his bow on the ground beside him, he opened the chest and began pulling out his spare set of clothing. He worked quickly and soon had the items tightly bundled and wedged into the pack. He thought about removing the set of fancy clothes he had added at the last minute but decided to keep them. Being of thin material, they weren't heavy and didn't take up all that much room. It had been Casey's idea to take them. She had wisely pointed out that he was going to the capitol and might need something nice to wear in case he got to see the king.
The last thing he took from the box was a small pouch tightly closed with a knotted drawstring. He bounced it lightly in the palm of one hand as he considered taking it along as well.
Jaydee had remained silent after Vin's angry retort to his suggestion. He realized too late that he had insulted his friend with his comments and was feeling remorseful, but he didn't know how to apologize and make it believable. 'I'm sorry, Vin, I was just surprised to find out you live in a cave like a wild animal.' Or how about, 'I just thought that since you can't afford a real home you could beg charity from your friends.' If he could have, Jaydee would have kicked himself for being so stupid. But since he couldn't do that and he couldn't think of a way to say he was sorry without sounding like he was offering pity he decided to just try and change the subject. Pretend he never said anything and maybe they could both forget it.
Seeing Vin juggling the small bag, Jaydee focused on it as a new topic. "What's that, Vin? Another one of Josiah's crystals?"
The young tracker looked up and closed his hand around the small sack. He met Jaydee's sad brown eyes and realized his friend regretted his hasty words. That didn't exactly make Vin feel better but it did lessen his anger. Reaching a decision, he stood up and beckoned Jaydee closer.
"Before my mother died, she gave me two things. Well, three really, if you count her earrings as being separate." Vin flashed a quick smile as he motioned towards the metal loop he wore high on his left ear. "She left me those and the one thing she had from my father."
Opening the pouch, he carefully tipped its contents out into his waiting palm. The match to his earring rolled out first to be quickly followed by a larger piece of silver jewelry. Vin held it up so that Jaydee could see that it was a heavy cloak pin. The shining metal was carefully worked in a pattern of leaves and flowers that pulled the eyes deeper and deeper into the intricate weave.
"Vin, it's beautiful. I've heard about elven jewelry but I've never seen a piece before. I'll bet it's worth a small fortune."
"I guess so." Vin shrugged and dropped the pin back into the pouch. "I never gave its worth much thought. Since it's all I have of my father's, I don't plan on ever selling it."
"Of course not. Are you sure it's a good idea to bring it?" Jaydee watched with concern as Vin tied the pouch to his belt so that it hung right next to his knife.
"I've kept it with me ever since my mother died." Vin hoisted his pack onto his shoulders and settled the straps as he talked. "Having it and the earrings make me feel better."
"Kind of like your parents are watching out for you?"
Vin looked at Jaydee in surprise. "Yeah, kind of."
The young man ducked his head as he sheepishly reached into his tunic to pull out a ring strung on a leather cord. "It was my mother's wedding band." Jaydee held the gold band up where Vin could see the tiny scrollwork etched into the metal. "Every night before I go to bed I give it a kiss just like I used to give her. I like to think that she's watching over me and that I'm making her proud."
Carefully, Jaydee replaced the ring and suddenly embarrassed, cleared his throat sharply before continuing. "So, we all done here?" Looking up, he was surprised to see Vin standing in front of him with his hand extended, palm down. Jaydee recognized the gesture and brought his own hand up to grasp Vin's in the way that Buck and Chris had shown them. It had several meanings but basically it was a way of saying, "I'm your sword mate. You watch my back and I'll watch yours."
"Thanks, Vin. I'm, uh, sorry about what I said earlier."
"No problem, Jaydee. But I'll bet you a ten piece that after five days travel this cave will seem awfully nice." The young tracker grinned and reached up for the light crystal wedged in the ceiling.
"You'd lose, Vin. If even half of what Buck told me is true, I'm going to be wishing I was back here after the second day."
The two laughed easily together, having finally discovered that they had something in common besides their need for adventure and a couple of overprotective friends. Even the rocky trail they followed deeper into the hills seemed a little easier for Jaydee and the two were able to carry on a lively conversation to pass the night.