Vin hummed softly to himself as he fed another stick into their small campfire while Jaydee sat across from him digging cheese and sausage from his pack. It was their second night in the hills and both young men were exhausted but well pleased with their accomplishment. Vin had assured Jaydee that by taking the more dangerous path through the rocky hills they would catch up to their friends just before they reached the Rindel River. Judging from the view just before the sun had set, the tracker had been telling the truth.
Jaydee was in good spirits as he settled down with his back against a large rock that was still slightly warm from the day's unusually bright sun. Vin had warned him to enjoy the dry spell while it lasted because he could tell there was a storm coming. Shaking his head as he once more silently marveled at his friend's talents, he gave a low whistle to catch the tracker's attention. His smile faded slightly when he handed Vin his share of the food and noticed that the half-elf's hand shook slightly as it reached out.
"Vin, you feeling alright?"
"Sure, Jaydee, why do you ask?" Vin settled down against his own rock and took a large bite of cheese.
Well, Jaydee thought, maybe it had just been the light of the fire playing tricks on his eyes. "Ah, no reason. Just checking, I guess. We've covered a good distance between last night and today."
"And you're afraid I'm going to pass out or something." Vin didn't make it a question and he sighed as he slipped down lower against his rock. "I'll be honest with you, Jaydee, I don't think I can stay awake much longer."
"That's alright. I can take the first watch while you get some rest." Jaydee was somewhat relieved. If Vin was feeling tired that was perfectly understandable. He just didn't want his friend to get sick while they were stuck up in the hills. He hated to admit it but half of the time he couldn't even see the so-called path they were following and wasn't sure he could have traced his way back.
"Thanks, Jaydee." Vin settled himself even more comfortably and slowly chewed on a piece of sausage. Truth was he wasn't so much sleepy as just plain exhausted. Pits. It was hard just finding the energy to eat.
"Say, Vin? Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"Besides that one?" Vin smiled as Jaydee tossed a small pebble at him for making the wisecrack. "No harm in the asking. Just got to watch out for the answers."
"Yeah, guess your right there. I was just wondering," Jaydee picked up another stone and juggled it from one hand to the other as he spoke. "Did you ever get to meet your father?"
Vin stretched out on his back and pillowed his head on one arm. He looked up at the stars overhead and cast his mind back through the turns.
"My father was gone before my mother even knew I was coming, but she told me about him. What he looked like, how they met...how they parted." Vin's left hand grasped the small pouch with its precious contents as he continued talking. He had never spoken to anyone about his past but now it seemed like he couldn't stop. His mother's face filled his thoughts and he repeated her story as he remembered it.
"She lived in a small village off the main road between Oak Town and Riverside. The village was so small it didn't even have a name. What it did have, were sheep, goats, a pretty good blacksmith, and a nearby forest that was great for fur trapping. My mom was a weaver. She could take the coarsest wool and turn it into the softest blanket. She was young and pretty and every man in the village wanted her. Even the married ones would pant after her when their wives weren't looking."
Vin shifted onto his side and the firelight glinted from the ring in his ear. Seeing the ring, Jaydee imagined what his friend's mother must have looked like back then. He guessed that Vin got his hair and his eyes from his mom. Maybe his nose, too. She really must have been a beautiful woman.
"Because she lived alone, my mother knew how to provide for herself. Some things she got by trading her blankets for but she was also good at foraging in the woods and trapping rabbits. There was a really nice meadow near the village. Once a week she would go out and set snares then wait under some trees. She would sing to herself while she waited. Maybe card some wool or do a little embroidery. One day she went out and set her snares but when she got to the small stand of trees she found her spot already taken. You see, he was waiting for her."
Vin's eyes were staring into the flames but they were focused on a much different vision. "No telling how many weeks he had been watching her. Listening to her sing. Following her through the woods. She knew as soon as she saw him that he was an elf. Long, pale blond hair. Pointed ears. Eyes that were gray like snow clouds."
"Did she fall in love with him right then?"
Vin smiled and shook his head. "I remember asking her the same question. She told me that she was too surprised to fall in love. She tried to talk to him but it turned out they couldn't speak each other's language. Didn't stop them from communicating though. His name was Virdell Amerlan."
"So she combined the two names and shortened it to Vin for you. What was your mom's name? If you don't mind me asking?" Jaydee was fascinated by everything he was learning and was afraid that if he asked too many questions Vin might stop talking. Unfortunately, his ever present, ever active curiosity would not let him keep his mouth shut. Luckily, Vin didn't seem to mind.
"Tannerae. He called her Rae and she called him Dell. They spent the entire summer together. He never entered the village so no one knew about their love. They met in the meadow or the woods and would spend whole days with each other. Sometimes my mom wouldn't get back home until just before sunrise the next day. She said that those were some of the happiest days of her life, even though she knew they wouldn't last."
"She knew he was going to leave? And she still...?"
Vin shrugged and tossed another stick into the fire. He watched the flurry of tiny sparks rise and fade in the darkness. He was silent for so long that Jaydee was sure the story was over and was surprised when Vin began speaking again.
"My mom didn't know why he was there but she knew he wasn't staying. And where he was going she couldn't follow, but she loved him enough that it didn't matter. The first hint of fall was in the air the last day she saw him. They met in the woods and she knew the moment she looked into his eyes that he was leaving. That was when he gave her the pin from his cloak. She tried to refuse it at first because she didn't have anything to give him in return but he took out his knife and cut a small lock of her hair in trade."
Vin closed his eyes and in his mind he could see his mother, her blues eyes glistening with unshed tears as she held the pin up for her son to see. Her words came back to him so clearly it was like he was hearing them again. "This belonged to your father and even though he gave it to me, I think he would want his son to have it."
"But, it's all you have of him." The boy he had been, had stared in awe at the beautiful, shining pin. How could his mother bare to part with it?
"That's not true, Vin. I have my memories and, more importantly, I have you."
A twig snapped in the fire and suddenly Vin was back in the present. He blinked away the excess moisture in his eyes and leaned back into the shadows. If Jaydee noticed, he was careful not to say anything. Instead, he asked another question.
"How did the men of the village take to your mom suddenly having a son? I bet they were surprised."
Vin chuckled once but there was no mirth in the sound. "Yeah, you could say that. Of course, there was no question that my father wasn't one of them. My ears kind of gave it away. In fact, I kind of had to grow into them. I don't know how it is with elf babies but when I was a kid they really stuck out."
Jaydee couldn't help laughing and he was relieved when Vin joined him.
"The people were pretty shocked at first but elves are considered special so nothing was ever really said to her. The other kids picked on me a little but nothing too bad. Not while my mom was alive anyway. I think it was my ninth winter when she got sick. We didn't have an herbalist like Mistress Nettie and a really bad storm made traveling impossible. She tried to fight it but the fever took all her strength. The night she died she gave me her earrings and told me how much she loved me. She said she was sorry that she had to leave me alone but that Bysha would watch over me and keep me safe. She took a deep breath like she was going to say something else but she never did. Her eyes closed and... she was gone."
Now it was Jaydee's turn to duck his head and give his eyes a quick wipe with the back of one hand. He knew exactly what Vin had felt because it hadn't been that many seasons ago that he had experienced the same thing. His own mother had died after a long ailment shortly before his journey to Four Winds. The loss of a mother would have hit a small child a lot harder but being older didn't make it that much easier. More understandable, maybe, but it was still just as painful.
"So, anyway, after she died the village smith volunteered to take me in." Vin avoided looking at Jaydee to give him a chance to recover while he brought his story to an end. "He was a big man named Kyl. Turned out he didn't want another son, the two he had were lazy good-for-nothings. All he wanted was someone he could boss around and make do the dirty work in exchange for a dry corner to sleep in and just a little bit of food. I stayed for one turn of the seasons and the next spring I left."
"But, you would have only been about ten!" Jaydee had lived at home until his mother died. He tried to imagine what it would have been like to grow up without a parent and honestly couldn't. "What did you do? Where did you go? How did you live?"
"My mom taught me a lot while she was alive. Enough that I got along alright until that first winter. I probably wouldn't have made it then but I was lucky enough to find a band of tinkers. I stayed with them for a few turns and then I found a trapper that was looking for a partner. He taught me most of what I know about tracking and surviving in the wild. When he was killed by a giant boar I tried my hand at other things for a while. Got into a little trouble in Tusk Ridge and wound up in Four Winds on my way south. Saw Chris and Buck fighting what I thought were bandits and decided to give'em a hand. You kind of know the rest."
"Yeah, guess I do." Of course now, Jaydee was filled with even more questions about the tinkers, and the dead trapper, and just what kind of trouble had Vin gotten into; but he could tell that the time for talking was over. Vin had finally settled on his back using his pack as a pillow. His eyes remained closed as Jaydee stood and stretched to begin his first watch. "Sleep well, Vin."
"Thanks, Jaydee, for listening."
A pale hand raised and waved him wearily into silence. Jaydee smiled in understanding.
"You're welcome, Vin."
"How many do you think there are?" Chris kept his voice low as he sought Buck's opinion. They stood near the campfire but kept their eyes averted to save their night vision.
"Not sure. Either two fairly quiet ones, or just one that's kind of clumsy. Don't think its orcs though, can't smell'em." Buck growled softly in return. He stroked his mustache and rested his right hand on his axe handle. "Figure we can split up and take'm by surprise."
"Alright. You head out to the left. I'll give you the signal when I'm in place."
Buck nodded his head and walked into the woods at a casual pace. Chris caught Ezra's attention and gave him a small nod, which the man understood immediately. The four travelers had shared the feeling of being watched for most of the day and the minstrel realized that action was finally being taken. He, in turn, gave Josiah a small nudge to put him on the alert as well. Soon they would know who, or what, was spying on them and take the necessary actions.
Chris counted in his head until he was sure he had given Buck enough time to circle around their mysterious watcher. He was about to make his own way out into the darkness when he heard a startled yell from Buck's direction. Drawing his sword, and grabbing a torch from the fire, he moved quickly but carefully into the trees.
"Damn it, Buck! You nearly scared me into the pits!"
"Scared you?! Boy, I nearly killed you! What the pits are you doing out here?!"
Chris gritted his teeth in a silent snarl as he neared the loud commotion.
"Nothin'! I mean, none of your business."
Emerging into a small clearing, Chris finally spotted Buck and their would-be prey. The big fighter had his fist twisted into the collar of Jaydee's cape and looked like he was seriously considering using his axe. Jaydee spotted Chris and his eyes widened in dismay. Buck followed his gaze and at last relaxed his hold.
"None of my business, he says. I almost take his fool head off and he stands there telling me it's 'none of my business." Buck turned back to the now furiously blushing young man and leered in his face. "Well then, would you like to tell Chris, or is it 'none of his business' as well?"
"Buck." Chris returned his sword to its sheath as he glared at Jaydee. "We know why he's here. I'm waiting to find out how he caught up to us. Well?"
"Uhm, deep subject?" Jaydee hopped back to avoid a sudden grab by Buck. "Alright! Alright! I took the shorter trail over the hills."
"Trail? Pits, boy, only goats would call that a trail."
"Not just goats, Buck. Where is he, Jaydee?" Chris spoke softly but it was obvious that he was as angry as his friend.
Buck looked puzzled for a moment but when he saw Jaydee duck his head, unable to meet Chris' stare, he finally understood. "You got Vin to bring you out here? In his condition?"
That accusation finally got Jaydee irritated enough that he raised his head in stubborn defiance. "He hasn't got a condition, Buck. You make it sound like he's expecting, or something. He's just fine and we've done alright the last two nights. We were going to meet you at the river tomorrow just before you crossed."
Bucked snorted in disgust. "Then what are you doing here tonight?"
"Vin thought it would be a good idea if I scouted around. Make sure everything was alright."
"Vin suggested it?" Chris suddenly got a bad feeling in his gut. "Tell me where you left him, Jaydee."
"Look, why don't I just go back and get him and..."
"Where. Is. He."
Jaydee opened his mouth to protest again but the hard, green stare took the argument right out of him. "There's an outcropping of rocks, you would have passed it just before sunset. We set up camp there."
"Buck, you take Jaydee back to our camp." Chris handed him the flickering torch as he spoke. "Find out from Josiah if there is anyway for him to contact Nathan or get them back to town. I'll go fetch Vin and their packs." Chris didn't wait for a reply or an argument. He knew exactly which spot Jaydee was referring to and was afraid of what he would find waiting for him.
Jaydee watched the mercenary disappear into the darkness and his shoulders slumped in defeat. He had tried to tell Vin that he was no good at sneaking through the woods but the half-elf had insisted that he go. Now, instead of making a grand entrance at the river, they were going to be hauled in like criminals. Even as that thought entered his mind, Buck's heavy hand fell on his shoulder and he was shoved roughly forward in the direction of the camp.
"I swear, you two ain't got the sense that Bysha gave a slug. You boys need a keeper, or a mother to..."
That last part was just too much. Jaydee spun about and half drew his sword. Buck actually fell back a step in surprise. The look of anger added years to the young man's face and his stance was perfect for a quick take-down. Buck knew, because he had seen Chris use it hundreds of times.
"We had mothers." Jaydee's voice was level and dreadfully calm. His emotions added a new deepness to it that demanded attention. "What we need now are friends that will treat us as equals. I may not have your experiences, or your training but that doesn't make me any less a man."
The two stared at each other for a long, silent moment and it was Buck that finally dropped his gaze. Jaydee blinked in surprise. He was even further shocked by Buck's next comment.
"Yeah, I guess your right. I guess I kind of forgot what it was like when I was your age. 'Course I still had a mother telling me what an idiot I was every time I went back home for a visit." Buck's crooked smile held the apology that he was trying to make. Jaydee relaxed his stance and felt his own lips twitch in response.
"Look, when Chris gets back with Vin, I'll have a talk with him. Pits, you've come this far on your own, be kind of silly to send you back now."
"Thanks, Buck, I really appreciate that."
Buck threw one arm over Jaydee's shoulder as they started walking back towards the camp. "Besides, no telling what kind of trouble you'd get into on your own."
It was a small campfire and hidden behind the rocks so that he didn't even see its glow until he was almost on top of it. Sitting next to it was a hunched figure completely covered by a hooded cloak. Chris felt his gut tighten in anger as he neared the still form and it showed no sign of hearing his approach. Crouching low, he drew a dagger from his boot and eased a little closer. Still no reaction. Holding his breath he lunged forward, ripping the cowl back with one hand while brandishing his knife with the other.
"Good job, Chris. That bush didn't stand a chance." The soft voice was filled with laughter as it floated from the darkness.
Chris stood up straight and released his hold on the leaf-filled cloak. Looking up, he spotted the glint of metal on top of one of the larger rocks. Squinting into the darkness, he could barely make out the dark form of the half-elf. The firelight reflected from the ring in his ear and the point of the arrow aimed straight at Chris' heart.
"Get down here."
"Put the knife up first. Unless you plan to do a little more pruning."
Gritting his teeth in annoyance, Chris shoved the blade back into its sheath then looked back to the rock. He wasn't surprised to see it vacated or to feel a sharp point suddenly poking him in the back.
"Guess you and Buck found Jaydee."
Chris whirled and knocked what he thought was going to be an arrow, to the side. Instead, a branch landed on the ground and Vin stood well outside his reach.
"Are you finished playing games?" Chris growled as he took two long strides towards the grinning tracker.
"Why? Are you tired of losing?" Vin stood his ground and only flinched when Chris grabbed him by the collar of his tunic.
"Just as soon as we get back to the others, Josiah is going to take you and Jaydee back to Four Corners."
"Why? Do you really think we'll stay?" Vin stared straight into Chris' angry green eyes and lifted his chin in defiance. "This time it took us two days to catch up to you. Next time it will be four or maybe five."
The fists tightened on his collar and Vin felt himself being pulled forward and up. With their noses almost touching, Chris demanded an answer. "Why did you send Jaydee scouting when you knew he would get caught?"
"We were pretty safe in the hills, it didn't matter so much if I fell asleep on watch." All the laughter was gone from Vin's voice and he sagged a little in the mercenary's grip. "Now that we're back in the forest, he needs someone to keep a look-out while he sleeps. I...I don't think I can do that tonight."
Chris saw the worry in Vin's blue eyes and for the first time he noticed just how tired and exhausted the young man looked. His grip quickly changed from one of capture to support. It didn't lessen his anger but at least he knew why Jaydee had been set up and he could see the logic behind it.
"You must have pressed pretty hard to catch up to us this quick, even using the hill trail. Been traveling some at night, too?"
Vin nodded wearily and sagged a little more. "Yeah. I see pretty good at night, you know?"
"Yeah. Think you can make it to our camp on your own feet?"
"Do I have to carry a pack?"
"Not tonight, but tomorrow you will."
Chris slowly released his hold but kept a steadying hand on Vin's shoulder. Vin blinked in confusion then smiled as the meaning of the words sank in. Nodding his head in agreement, he moved to retrieve his cloak and douse the fire while Chris gathered the packs. The two worked silently and were soon on their way to join the others.
"And he was a scout for Captain Andercush during the last part of the war!"
"Now, Jaydee, that ain't possible. First of all, I knew ol' Ander 'cuss' and his troops were the best at sneak attacks and supply raids. He handpicked all of them. There's no way he would rely on a kid to scout the enemy's position and number." Buck waved a piece of jerky beneath Jaydee's nose to emphasize his point.
"Buck, he wasn't a kid. Vin is older than he looks." Jaydee snatched the meat out of the fighter's hand and sank his teeth into the tough strip.
"Huh. Next I suppose you'll be telling me that he's got a pack of grandchildren hidden up in that little shack of his."
"It's not a shack, it's a cave. He took me there our first night." Jaydee grinned as he chewed the jerky. He hoped Vin wouldn't be mad at him for sharing a couple of his secrets but the temptation of one-upping his friend Buck had been too much for him to resist.
Buck snatched his dinner back and ripped off another piece. He stared thoughtfully at his young friend as he worked at the dry meat. Strangely enough, he didn't doubt a single word that Jaydee told him. He was only arguing for the fun of it. He'd never admit to it but he was only a little surprised by the Andercush revelation. That bit of news put the tracker in a whole new light. He couldn't wait to tell Chris. Speaking of which...
"Any sign of them, Josiah?"
"As a matter of fact, I believe they just passed my first watch stone." Josiah sat staring out into the darkness of the forest in the direction that he knew the others were approaching from. He made it a point of dropping empowered pebbles at various points about each of their campsites. The spells on the stones were triggered when living bodies larger than a fox passed close by. Josiah would feel a small jolt whenever one was set off, whether he was awake or sleeping.
"Good. I can't wait to see the look on Vin's face when he gets here." Buck popped the last piece of jerky into his mouth and rubbed his hands gleefully.
"Really, Buck. Your childish enthusiasm is reminiscent of someone much more immature." Ezra rolled his eyes and leaned back against the trunk of the tree he had chosen to sleep under.
Jaydee laughed and poked Buck in the ribs. "I think he just called you..."
"I know what the man said Jaydee and it doesn't matter." Buck grinned unrepentantly at their surprise guest that had been sitting silently across from him for the last candle mark. "I still can't wait to see it."
Jaydee followed Buck's glance then quickly ducked his head before he had to make eye contact. If Vin felt half as guilty as he did, then Buck was probably going to get the show he wanted.
"I think, friend Buck, that you are in for a disappointment." Josiah's quiet words had all the men turning to follow his stare.
Emerging from the darkness was Chris with two packs and a limp body draped across his shoulders.
"Chris, is he...?"
"I swear, he was fine when I left...!"
"Here, let me help..."
Chris ignored all the questions and the helpfully reaching hands. Moving over to his own blanket, he eased Vin down onto the ground and let the bags drop beside him. Standing, he stretched his back and gave a heartfelt moan. "I'm getting too old for this shit."
Reassured by his obvious good humor, the others quickly settled back down. Chris turned and regarded the newest member to their group, the only one that hadn't jumped up with a question when he had first appeared. "Nathan."
"Chris. He sleeping?" The healer nodded his head towards Vin but made no further movement.
"Yeah. He made it half-way here then it was quicker and easier just to carry him. I think he was asleep before I went ten steps." Chris settled down next to the fire and gratefully accepted the flask of water that Josiah handed him. "Coming with us the rest of the way?"
Nathan rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Are they going, too?" It was clear to everyone that he meant Jaydee and Vin.
"Yeah, looks like they are." Chris shot a stern glance at Jaydee but he couldn't possibly quell the young man's obvious excitement.
"Well, in that case, I guess I'd better." Nathan settled down against his own pack and stretched out his long legs. "You know, they got both Mistress Nettie and Casey to help them get away."
This time, Jaydee did blush and drop his head. He had been dreading this moment ever since Josiah had left to retrieve the healer. Somehow, Nettie had either known or simply guessed correctly the right time to return the hidden crystal. Nathan's summons had arrived at the camp just shortly before Buck and Jaydee.
"Sorry about that Nathan. We just didn't see any other way." To his credit, Jaydee did not try to put the blame for the drugged tea on Casey. Vin had told him about Nettie's help and he had been relieved to know that his love would not be getting into trouble. Not from her aunt anyway. On the other hand, Nathan's cold silence had kept Jaydee pretty nervous while waiting for Chris and Vin to arrive.
"Well, it's not really surprising that Casey helped, is it?" Buck nudged his young friend in the ribs and gave him a broad wink. "I mean, the girl is pretty much bee-sot-ted."
"And if I recall correctly," Ezra looked at the men gathered around the fire and smiled knowingly. "Mistress Nettie was firmly convinced that any party made up of a number less than seven was doomed to utter failure."
"I don't think she said 'doomed', friend Ezra." Josiah wagged his finger at the exaggeration. "I think her word was 'unlucky'."
"So, now we're a lucky seven." Chris raised his flask in a salute to his friends.
"Welllll....," Ezra drawled and waved an amused hand in Vin's general direction.
"Close enough, Ezra." Chris smiled down at the sleeping tracker and patted him lightly on the shoulder. "Close enough."