"Now, about this boot." Chris turned to Nathan for an explanation.
"It has to come off. Nettie provided herbs that will help reduce the swelling but I have to apply the compress directly to his ankle for it to work." Nathan pointed to the boot with the knife still clutched in his hand. "The best way to get the boot off is to cut it."
"And I told you, over my dead body." Ezra made the dice disappear only to be replaced by his own dagger. "I will not walk one step in a boot tied on by ineptly woven leather thongs. Nor will I suffer the painful blisters of breaking in a pair of new boots right at the start of this little escapade."
"Escapade? I thought it was a quest?" Vin smiled, pleased with his small joke and the startled looks of his three friends.
Ezra moaned and covered his eyes with one hand. "When did I become the whetstone upon which all must sharpen their wits?"
Chris smiled and patted the minstrel's good leg. "Everyone has a niche to fill." Chris looked over at Nathan and gestured toward the swollen ankle. "Will pulling the boot off do any more damage?"
The healer frowned as he seriously considered the question. "Well, it's going to be very painful and it certainly won't help it any. It may increase the swelling, make it take longer to heal."
Chris nodded his understanding and looked down thoughtfully. "Alright, Ezra, put the knife away and grab the rails above your head. Nathan, you can put your knife away too and help him hold steady."
Both men sheathed their weapons but while Ezra was quick to follow the rest of the mercenary's instructions, Nathan shook his head doubtfully.
"Chris, I'm not sure..."
"The man doesn't want his boot cut. This is the only way." Chris motioned Nathan to take his position. "Now, which would be best, fast or slow?"
Nathan sighed as he positioned himself on the bed where he could hold both Ezra and the frame. "Fast probably won't hurt as much but slow will do less damage. I'll let Ezra decide."
"Fast, if you please. I have no desire to prolong the agony anymore than necessary and I have the utmost faith in Mistress Nettie's herbs."
"Right. Vin, I want you to get on the left side and grab hold of his leg just above his knee. That's it, wrap your arms around it good and solid. Now, everybody ready?"
The nods were unanimous and Chris leaned forward to grasp the boot at the toe and heel. He glanced up when he heard Ezra's stifled moan. The man's knuckles were white and his jaws obviously clinched tight. Fast or slow, pulling the boot off was going to hurt like the Pits. The mercenary adjusted his grip and took a deep breath.
"Here Jaydee, take a little snort of this. It'll warm you up from the inside out."
Jaydee warily accepted the small metal flask and took a cautious sniff of the opening. "Pits, Buck! What is this stuff?"
Buck shook his head as he retrieved his drink from his obviously disgusted and unappreciative, friend. "This is, without a doubt, the best cure-all known to man. It will take the infection out of any wound, deaden the worst toothache, clear your nose and keep you regular."
"Regular for what?" Jaydee frowned in confusion as Buck took a healthy swig of the foul smelling brew.
The innocent question caught the fighter just as he was swallowing and he had to struggle to get the fiery liquid down his throat. He gasped and choked for a moment and waved off Jaydee's attempts to slap his back.
"Pits...boy...ease off." Buck wiped his nose and watery eyes on his sleeve as he regained his breath.
"Sorry, Buck. I didn't mean..."
Buck shook his head at the apology and quickly re-stoppered his flask. "S'alright boy, just caught me showing my age." He slipped the flask back into his pack and resumed pulling out his damp clothes. "Here, hang these on that other chair near the fire. Hopefully, they'll be dry by morning."
Jaydee took the clothes and began draping them across the wooden chair. He was forced to work with just one hand since his left one was holding his blanket closed. Buck had insisted that he strip out of his wet clothes and lay them out to dry with his and Vin's boots.
"Do you think that tomorrow, Josiah could go back to Four Corners and get us some more clothes? Maybe replace our packs?"
"Don't see why not. Provided he gets some rest tonight." Buck stood and began peeling out of his own soggy shirt. "Course, with them strangers downstairs, don't know how much rest any of us will be getting."
"Strangers?" Jaydee thought back to their arrival and vaguely remembered seeing the ferryman near the fire and two others seated at a table. "You mean the men sitting off to the side? What's dangerous about them?"
"Pits boy, you've got to learn to be more observant. When they saw that Vin was an elf they looked like a couple of kids caught stealing cookies from the jar. And when Ezra made him out to be a royal scout, the red-haired one was ready to run him through right there and then."
Jaydee's mouth dropped open in surprise. "But...why didn't you do something?"
"Didn't have to then. The brown-haired fellow with the goatee stopped him. I figure he's the one in charge." Buck tossed his shirt over a small table and began unlacing his pants.
"In charge of what?"
Before Buck could answer his question, both men heard the unmistakable sound of a muffled scream.
"Pits!" Buck grabbed his axe and threw open the door. Jaydee started to follow but was motioned back. "You can't fight with one hand holding a blanket closed! Wait here!"
Jaydee still trailed Buck to the door and watched as the fighter hurried down the hall. Josiah was just ahead of him and together they crashed through the third door. The sight that greeted their eyes was enough to freeze both men in their tracks.
Ezra was lying on the bed with a horrible, twisted look of either pain or anger on his face. Nathan and Vin were both holding him down and trying to calm him while obviously fighting back grins and laughter. Chris, meanwhile, stood calmly at the foot of the bed with the remains of a boot in one hand and his knife in the other.
"You...you...liar! You...heathen! You...uncouth barbarian! How dare you?!" Ezra cried out as he shook an accusing finger at the mercenary. "You cut it! You lied to me!"
"I didn't lie Ezra. I never said exactly what I was going to do. You just assumed I was going to pull it off because that was what you wanted." Chris dropped the ruined boot on the floor and sheathed his knife. "Don't you remember our earlier conversation?"
"But I did trust you!"
"And I did what was best for you and the success of this mission." Chris turned and nodded to Buck and Josiah. "Thanks for coming so quick but I think the danger is past."
Buck lowered his axe and grinned as he finally understood what had happened. Josiah's deep laughter filled the room and soon everyone was joining in. Even Ezra calmed down considerably and though he didn't laugh, he did manage a weak smile.
"Well, I'd best get back to Jaydee and let him know we're not under attack. I was just telling him about those two strangers downstairs." Buck turned to leave but Josiah caught him by the arm.
"Two strangers? The ones at the side table? Was there something important about them?"
Buck started to reply but Chris stepped forward and motioned both men to follow him. "C'mon Buck, we'll go back to your room and you can fill Jaydee in at the same time. Then I can tell all of you what Ezra has planned for the night."
"You mean other than getting his revenge?" Buck gave the glaring minstrel a broad wink then managed to dodge a feather filled projectile. "Must have been taking lessons from Vin. You two need to work on your aim."
There was a hollow 'thunk' and suddenly a blade projected from the doorframe next to Buck's head.
"I assure you sir, my aim has never been better. Now, unless you would like me to shave that monstrosity of a mustache for you, I suggest you remove it and your face from my presence."
Buck's grin was unrepentant as he pulled the door closed behind him.
Ezra fell back against the remaining pillow and covered his eyes with one arm. As Nathan went to work applying the medicinal compress, he and Vin could hear the minstrel mumbling one word over and over again.
"Why? Why? Why?...."
Mistress Kerin was an excellent cook and beside the soup and bread, she also produced spiced cheeses and an assortment of fresh fruits. For dessert, she brought out two apple pies which the men quickly made short work of.
Despite the damp clothes, Ezra's swollen ankle, and the presence of the two strangers, the dinner went very well, much to Vin's relief. Ezra made it a point of sitting beside the half-elf and did an excellent job of keeping the conversation flowing smoothly. As the last of the pie vanished from the plates, Ezra concluded the rather ribald story he had started with the serving of the dessert.
"Needless to say, the bull was much more docile as was the merchant's wife."
"Oh, Ezra! Shame on you for telling such a story!" Kerin's grin made her scolding tone a lie and the minstrel merely winked at her in response.
"Well, on that note, think I'll be heading off to bed." Buck pushed his chair away from the table and gave his back a good stretch as he stood. Chris followed suit as did Josiah and Nathan. Jaydee had to be given a nudge to get him moving. The young man had been struggling to stay awake all through the dessert and was obviously on the verge of losing the battle.
Vin rose to follow the others but paused to give Mistress Kerin a final bow. At Ezra's insistence, he had changed from his normal leathers to the finer clothes loaned to him at Nathan's. Besides the change in attire, he also used a leather thong to hold his hair back, completely exposing his ears. In the few turns that Chris and the other's had known him, Vin had never looked more elven.
As he straightened from his bow, Vin was pleased to see a very happy smile on Kerin's face.
"Thank you for such a wonderful dinner. I would travel this way again, just to taste more of your cooking."
Kerin blushed and ducked her head, both proud and embarrassed at the same time. "Oh. Thank you. I'm very glad you liked it."
"I assure you, mistress," Ezra spoke up from his seat, "The word 'like' does not begin to describe my feelings for your cooking."
Barty stopped gathering the plates to glare at the minstrel but his wife ignored both men as she walked with Vin towards the stairs. "Now, you let me know if you need anymore blankets for the bed or wood for the fire."
"Thank you, but I'm sure I have all I need for the night. I will probably be asleep before my head touches the pillow." Vin ignored his friends as he escorted Kerin past them. "I wish you gentle dreams, my lady."
"Oh. And gentle dreams to you as well, Vin." Kerin sighed longingly as she watched Vin climb the stairs.
"Ahem." Ezra cleared his throat and caught everyone's attention. "I don't suppose I could interest any of you in a small game of chance?" He opened his right hand and allowed a pair of dice to spill out onto the cleared table.
Barty looked about ready to go for his knife and even Mistress Kerin frowned slightly in displeasure.
"Now, Ezra, that was how the brawl started last time."
"Ah, but these gentlemen are of a much higher class than my last associates. I assure you mistress, there will be no disturbance tonight. And besides..." Ezra gestured helplessly to his left foot where it rested on a pillow-cushioned stool.
"He's right there," Buck steered Jaydee to the stairs and tipped his head to Kerin as he spoke. "There won't be a disturbance 'cause we ain't playing. G'night mistress."
The other men bade the keeper and his wife good-night as well and disappeared up the stairs leaving Ezra seated alone at the table. Giving a loud, disappointed sigh, Ezra scooped up his dice and made as if to rise from his chair to follow the others. The hesitant sound of a clearing throat halted his movements. Looking over his shoulder, Ezra spotted Drom standing next to the fireplace.
"Were you attempting to catch my attention, or are you simply in need of liquid refreshment?"
Drom's brow furrowed in confusion and Ezra repeated his sigh.
"I don't suppose I could interest you in a game of dice?"
The burly ferryman grinned and moved quickly to the table. Dropping into the chair across from the minstrel, Drom pulled out his money pouch and poured a few copper tokens onto the table. Rubbing his hands together in eager anticipation, Drom looked at Ezra expectantly.
Ezra raised one eyebrow in wry amusement at the pitiful stack of coins then gave a small shrug of resignation before reaching into his own pouch. "I have a feeling this will be a very short game."
"Perhaps if we join you, it will last a little longer."
Ezra fought back a smirk as the two travelers also found seats at his table. "Gentleman, please, the more the merrier. My name is Ezra, minstrel by trade."
The man with the goatee nodded his head in greeting and introduced himself as Kerel and his companion as Garrit. "We were making our way to Four Winds when the weather stranded us here."
"Yes, a dismal time of year to be traveling. I, myself, would not have ventured so far from my home had not family obligations demanded my presence in Briar Cliff." Ezra paused, to see if Kerel or Garrit would give a reason for their journey but the men offered no additional information.
As the first round of dice was played, Ezra poured out liberal amounts of the 'good wine' that he and his friends had avoided drinking during dinner. Drom emptied his first mug between one roll of dice and the next. Garrit was not far behind him but Kerel merely sipped at his drink.
For two long candle marks, the only sounds in the room were the sharp, clicking and rattling of the ivory cubes often followed by the metallic chime of coins changing hands. Drom did surprisingly well with the dice. When he finally collapsed face down on the table in a puddle of spilt wine, his small pile of coppers had doubled in size.
Ezra gave in to a mental sigh of relief. Perhaps Kerel and Garrit would be a little more talkative now that Drom was unconscious. The evening was going pretty much as he had planned but the hour was growing late and Kerel did not appear nearly drunk enough. Ezra had a couple of backup plans that he could use if necessary but pride kept him hoping for success on the first attempt. Not to mention the fact that his ankle was once again throbbing like the very Pits.
"Well, gentlemen, it seems we are down a player." Ezra had to raise his voice slightly to make himself heard over the ferryman's strident snores. "Shall we continue the game? Perhaps at higher stakes?"
Garrit looked agreeable enough but Kerel frowned as he idly tumbled the pair of dice from one hand to another. "That...wizard, your traveling with. Did he get you across the river?"
Ezra quickly hid his smile behind a cup of wine. 'Finally!' Composing himself, he lowered his drink and answered the question. "With some minor difficulties. I consider myself lucky that he is also journeying to Briar Cliff."
"Why didn't he just jump there? He's got the power, right?"
"My understanding is that he has to have a personally keyed stone at the location he wishes to journey to. For reasons of his own, he seems to have a very short supply of those." Ezra toyed with the small stack of coins in front of him while watching the two men in his peripheral vision.
"But he does have one in Four Winds." Kerel made it a statement and followed it up with a question. "Do you think he would be willing to take us to there tomorrow?"
"Hmmm. I don't see why not. I've seen him accept payments for working his magic. If you offer him enough, I am sure he would agree. I take it the possible success of your errand would be greatly increased by a timely arrival at the town?"
Kerel's eyes narrowed in suspicion but Garrit spoke up with a nasty smirk curling his lips. "The sooner we get there and collect that old scroll, the sooner we can get back to Fransco."
Ezra allowed one eyebrow to arch in polite interest as he took another small sip of his wine. Kerel was obviously upset by his associate's comment and rightfully so. Garrit had just revealed that their origin was none other than the capitol. And the minstrel would have bet his weight in gold that the 'old scroll' was the Scroll of Eventy.
Kerel frowned and clenched his fist around the dice. He eyed Ezra warily and then seemed to reach a decision.
"That...elf scout, your traveling with...he a friend of yours?"
"Vindarian? Hardly!" Ezra flicked his hand as if brushing away an irritating fly. "We encountered him at the river. He was also stranded by the flood and looking for a possible way to cross." Looking quickly over his shoulder as if searching for eavesdroppers, Ezra lowered his voice and leaned toward the two men. "I have taken it upon myself to find out why the king of Morrand would send a scout this far south. Very suspicious, don't you agree?"
His answer seemed to please the two men and Garrit went so far as to even grin his approval. "Don't worry about it. We'll make sure he doesn't..."
"Fool!" Kerel silenced his partner with a firm slap to his cheek.
Garrit jerked to his feet and looked like he was ready to draw his sword in retaliation. Kerel stood as well and grabbed the man's sword arm. Pulling him to the stairs, Kerel whispered something in his ear then gave him a shove up the first step. The red-head still looked angry as he stumbled on the tread but he nodded in agreement and continued on up.
Drom continued to snore in peaceful oblivion as Kerel returned to the table and smiled his apology. "A small misunderstanding. Garrit has had a little too much to drink, and even sober, he has a very short temper."
Ezra nodded his head in understanding and commiseration. "It is so hard to find good help these days."
Kerel took another drink of his wine and Ezra was pleased to see a slightly glazed look in the man's eyes. Deciding to take a chance, the minstrel picked up the discarded dice and juggled them between his hands. "I'm sure your employer had his reasons for choosing him?"
Ezra was rewarded by Kerel's snort of derision. "Other than he fights with poisoned daggers and enjoys killing? Listrel has a dozen more like..." The man stopped speaking as he realized what he was saying. He slowly sat his cup down on the table and glared at the minstrel. He looked like he was about to speak again when both men heard a sudden commotion from the second floor. The sounds were muffled and ended as quickly as they began. In the silence that followed, each man sat staring at the stairs.
'Oh, Bysha.' Ezra prayed silently. 'I never considered poison.'
Kerel's thoughts were obvious by the expression on his face. His grim smile and look of expectancy were almost enough to send Ezra reaching for his own sword. He did allow his right hand to rest on the hilt as he heard the heavy tread of footsteps at the top of the stair.
"That offer of a game of dice still open?" Buck's soft, slow drawl preceded him into the room. Chris followed close behind him, and Ezra felt his tense muscles relax in relief. If the mercenary was present and looking so smugly pleased with himself, then everything had gone as planned.
Kerel frowned in confusion but said nothing as the two fighters sat down. He continued to watch the stairs and took another swallow of wine but this time it was more of a nervous gulp instead of a careful sip.
Ezra quickly met the eyes of his friends and was reassured by their slight smiles. Relaxing back into his chair, he flipped the dice back out onto the table. "Always room for more players. Kerel? Are you in?"
The man's gaze shifted quickly from the dice to the men sitting around him. Shaking his head slightly, he stood up carefully and began making his way to the stairs. "I think I've had enough for one night." Kerel turned and placed one foot on the first step.
"If your tired of the game, perhaps you would be interested in staying and discussing the Scroll of Eventy?" Ezra's words appeared to have a magical effect on Kerel. His body seemed to change to stone as he froze in place. Turning slowly, he kept both hands slightly raised and away from his weapons as he warily eyed the three men watching him.
"How did you know? Did Orrin send you?" Kerel's voice was harsh with emotion and his eyes flashed with pent-up anger. "Is Garrit dead?"
"Your accomplice is still alive...for now." Ezra eased his left foot to the floor, not bothering to hide his wince of pain. Using the table for support, he levered himself out of his chair and faced his accuser. "And Vindarian, the elf you were so concerned about, will soon have all the details of your mission and Listrel's exact plans. We will, of course, hand you over to him as well, just in case you have additional information." Ezra adopted an almost pitying expression as he scooped his coins up into one hand. "I am told that the process is quite painful and it does leave a person...well, somewhat less than a man."
"Damn you! Damn you to the Seventh Pit!"
Buck and Chris were moving even as Kerel drew his sword but they were on the opposite side of the table. Ezra was closest to the man and obviously his intended victim. The minstrel was prepared for the assault and did not hesitate to launch his own attack. The handful of coins became expertly thrown projectiles that sent Kerel's left arm up to defend his face. With his vision partially blocked, the swordsman failed to see Ezra's next move.
While growing up, Ezra had always considered his lack of height to be a disadvantage during fights, both with and without a sword. Never one to settle for second best, the minstrel had spent a great deal of time and effort learning ways to not just even the odds, but stack them in his favor. One of his favorite methods was to actually use his attacker's own height and weight against him.
Seeing his opening, Ezra stepped in close and ducking beneath Kerel's sword, he grabbed the man by the collar of his tunic and pulled him forward while bending his own body down and to the side. Kerel sailed across Ezra's shoulder and landed heavily on the table directly in front of Buck and Chris. The wooden table collapsed with a crash beneath the man's body.
The sound of cracking, splintering wood echoed through the room. Drom woke from his drunken sleep with a howl as he landed heavily on the floor. Kerel let out a yell of his own as he tried to retain a hold on his sword and still get back on his feet.
"I knew it! By all the Pits, I knew you would bring more trouble!" Barty's angry shouting added to the din and confusion. The innkeeper brandished his dagger as he charged at the minstrel.
Seeing that Buck and Chris were dealing with Kerel, Ezra finally drew his sword in self-defense. There was a ringing clash of steel followed by the clatter of metal against wood. Barty stood dumbfounded as the point of Ezra's sword rested lightly against his throat.
"Wha...what did you...how...?"
Ezra shook his head at the innkeeper and turned his attention back to the real threat. He was relieved to see Kerel disarmed and pinned to the remains of the table by Buck's knee planted firmly on his back.
"Gentleman. I assume that I did not lie and this man's accomplice has been dealt with?"
Chris' feral smile was answer enough. Ezra breathed a sigh of relief and turned back to the innkeeper.
"I suggest you gather up Drom and seclude yourselves in your rooms for the remainder of the night. I assure you, except for a few bloodstains, there should be no further damage to your establishment."
Ezra lowered his sword and motioned with it towards the ferryman who was still trying to get himself off the floor. Barty scowled threateningly but moved to obey. As he began leading Drom from the room, he paused and looked back over his shoulder at the men still gathered around the broken table.
"I expect full payment for all damages. And breakfast is gonna cost extra."
Chris made an obvious gesture of resting his hand on his sword hilt. Barty paled but stood his ground. Ezra waved toward the coins lying scattered on the floor.
"That will be more than enough to cover any charges you can possibly think of."
Barty squinted at the coins then nodded his head in agreement. Turning he half carried, half dragged his friend quickly from the room.
"Well, now for some real amusement." Ezra sheathed his sword and began limping painfully toward the stairs. "If you gentleman will wait here for a few moments, I will see how Vindarian is progressing with our other prisoner."
Buck and Chris exchanged puzzled glances while Kerel struggled uselessly to free himself as he screamed insults and threats. "You bastard! You son of an ass! You Pit Viper! You'll pay for this! All of you!"
Ezra merely waved aside the barrage of filth as he struggled wearily up the stairs. The pain in his ankle seemed to be moving steadily up his leg. Which was not altogether a bad thing, since the little bit of wine he had drunk plus the incredibly long and torturous day were finally taking their tolls. The throbbing in his ankle was about the only thing keeping him from falling asleep on his feet; that and the unfinished business with Kerel and his cutthroat partner.
"Well, looks like your plan is working so far." The softly spoken words gave Ezra a terrible start and he jerked his head up in surprise. Waiting for him at the top of the stairs was Nathan, arms crossed and trying hard to frown disapprovingly but failing miserably.
"Ankle hurting you a bit?"
"Like some help getting up the rest of the way?"
"What will it cost me?"
"You go to sleep with a compress wrapped around your ankle and you don't complain about wearing a strapped on boot. And the next time I tell you I'm going to do something, no arguing."
"My good sir..." Ezra's voice trailed off and his righteous indignation died with his words. "Yes, alright. Whatever you want. Just get me off these Pits be damned stairs and you can do whatever you want to my ankle or any other part of my body that amuses you."
Nathan's deep chuckle was his only answer as he moved down beside Ezra and slipped a supporting arm under his shoulders. Together, the two men made it the rest of the way up and to Vin's room where the others waited with their prisoner.
"So, you want me to just scream?" Jaydee frowned in confusion as he watched Nathan tending to Ezra's injured leg.
Ezra would have sighed in frustration but he was too busy gritting his teeth against the pain. When Nathan finally had the ankle wrapped to his satisfaction, he placed it gently on a pillow and stepped back with a nod of satisfaction. Ezra did sigh then as the soothing heat and Mistress Nettie's wondrous herbs worked their own type of magic.
"No, Jaydee. I don't want you to 'just' scream, I want you to scream as if your very soul was being ripped from your living body and cast into the Seventh Pit while you stand watching. It would also help if you could throw in a few pleas for mercy." Ezra settled back against the pillows propping him up and motioned towards the man Garrit, where he sat bound and gagged in one of the room's chairs. "The sounds you make will be the sounds he would make were Vin torturing him for information. We will leave the door ajar and his companion waiting below will hear your cries and assume the worst."
"And tell us what we want to know without having to lay a finger on either one of them." Josiah nodded his understanding. "It's a good plan, provided the one downstairs falls for it."
"Don't worry, I have just the finishing touch that will push him over the edge." Ezra grinned as he motioned for Jaydee to begin.
When the first blood-chilling scream broke the silence, all three men jumped in surprise. Kerel stared wide-eyed at the darkened stairway while Chris and Buck exchanged another puzzled glance. Not knowing what else to do after Ezra's departure, they had tied the would-be assassin to a chair and then amused themselves with the dice left behind. The minstrel's plan had gone well so far and they trusted the man to let them know if he needed anything else from them. As the screams continued, they shrugged their shoulders and went back to rolling the dice.
Kerel grew more panicked as he listened to what he believed was his partner being hideously tortured. He began straining against the ropes holding him to the chair and swearing at his captors.
"Damn you bastards! What the Pits is that demon doing to him?"
Chris' smile was anything but friendly as he answered. "Don't be so eager. You'll find out soon enough."
As if on cue, the screaming came to an abrupt end. If anything, the silence was even more terrifying for the bound man. He knew, that if the screams didn't start up again, the elf would be coming for him next.
All three men were caught off guard as Vin suddenly appeared on the stairs. He moved as silently as a shadow and the light from the fire reflected from his eyes and the ring in his ear. It also shown dully on the bloody dagger he held tightly in his right hand. In his left hand was a leather pouch that glistened with moisture. Kerel whimpered in terror as the elf glided up to him.
Buck and Chris watched their young friend as if mesmerized. Earlier that night they had seen the shy, almost reclusive tracker magically transform into the noble, royal scout. Now, they were witnessing another transformation. The eloquent scout was gone and in his place was a cold, sinister creature that exuded evil. That was how he appeared to his two friends who knew his real personality. They could only imagine what Kerel was seeing.
Chris swallowed thickly as he watched Vin move across the room. His thoughts were in chaos as he tried to fit this new piece into the puzzle that his young friend had become.
"Stay away from me! What did you do to Garrit?! Gaaarrrrriiitt!" Kerel threw his body against the ropes binding him but only succeeded in overbalancing his chair. His head cracked against the wooden floor as he crashed to one side and his scream ended in a moan as he lost consciousness.
Vin stopped just in front of the prisoner and stood looking at him for a moment. Raising his head, the threatening persona vanished as he frowned in confusion. "I don't think that was what Ezra had in mind."
"C'mon, Kerel, time to wake up." Buck gave the man a couple of not-so-gentle slaps then moved back to his position next to Chris.
After a quick consultation with Ezra that had necessitated Vin running back upstairs, a slightly revised plan had been decided on. The half-elf would still behave in a threatening, sinister manner but Chris and Buck would make it a point of 'holding him back.' If Kerel thought he was doomed no matter what, he might decide to take his secrets with him to the Pits. But if he had hopes of bargaining for his freedom...
Kerel groaned and his head rolled forward on his shoulders. Giving it a slight shake, he finally blinked his eyes open and slowly brought his surroundings into focus. He bit back a scream as his eyes came to rest on the elven scout standing directly in front of him. He began jerking at his bonds again but stopped when he heard Buck's low warning.
"That didn't work before, no reason to think it will work now. And I ain't pickin' ya up off the floor a second time."
Kerel twisted his neck until he spotted the two fighters. "Please! Don't let it touch me! You're men too! Stop it!"
A soft growl made the terrified man snap his head back around and he screamed when he saw how close the demon elf was standing. "No! Sweet Bysha, no!"
Chris stepped forward and placed his arm between the elf and the prisoner. "Wait, Vindarian, there are questions that we need answers to." The mercenary moved to stand between the two men and waited for Kerel to focus on him.
"If you want to live, I strongly suggest you give us those answers." Chris turned his body so that Kerel could look past him to the impatiently waiting elf. "And if you want to leave here a whole man, I suggest you answer truthfully."
Sweat ran down Kerel's face as he stared in sick fascination at the leather pouch dangling from Vindarian's fingers. Swallowing the bile rising in his throat, he nervously licked his lips and looked back up to Chris' face.
"I've got to know...what's in the bag...."
The blond fighter stared at him a moment then gave a small shrug of his shoulders. Stepping further back, he motioned with his head for the scout to approach with his small burden.
Vindarian paced forward, his teeth barred in a malicious grin. He stopped directly in front of the bound man and slowly loosened the strings holding the leather pouch closed. Kerel's body arched back against the chair as he strove to keep as much distance between himself and the elf as possible, but his eyes remained fixed on the bag.
Slowly, Vindarian opened the pouch and tilted it so that Kerel could peer inside. The dim lighting in the room and the flickering shadows thrown by the fire made it difficult to see the contents of the bag. Kerel squinted his eyes and leaned forward as his mind tried to identify the strangely shaped, glistening objects. Suddenly the blood seemed to drain from his face and his eyes widened in shock. In the next instant, Vindarian had to leap back as vomit spewed from Kerel's mouth.
"Oh, Bysha, no!" Kerel groaned as his heaves finally subsided. "You cut off his...Bysha! You...!"
Chris stepped forward once more and grabbed the man by his hair, yanking his head back so that he could look into his eyes. "Enough. I want some answers. Answer me truthfully and he won't touch you. Lie..." The mercenary pushed Kerel's head around so that he had to look at Vindarian and his bag once more.
"No! I'll tell you everything! Just, please, keep it away from me." Tears began running down the man's face as he broke down into helpless sobs.
Chris glanced over to see Vin's reaction to Kerel's breakdown. The young tracker had fallen completely out of his role. His blue eyes were wide with shock and dismay as he watched the man sob uncontrollably. Chris moved to stand in front of Vin and block his view of the prisoner. When he caught the young man's attention, Chris motioned silently for him to leave the room. The half-elf hesitated a moment then ducked his head and moved not to the stairs but out the main door and into the night.
Buck moved quickly as if to follow but Chris held him back. He wanted to go after Vin as well but they had a job to do and if they didn't interrogate Kerel while he was emotionally unbalanced, then all their efforts would have been wasted.
"Tell us what you know about the Scroll of Eventy."
"No details. I swear. Just following orders." Kerel didn't hesitate to answer the first question or all the ones that followed. It quickly became clear that he was just one of several men hired by a mysterious power that operated through a go-between named Listrel. They were based in Fransco but Kerel knew of other operatives spread throughout the kingdom. Their ultimate goal was a simple one, remove Orrin from the throne and put Duke Cardimal in control with his wizard Wartolin at his side. Yes, the orcs were working with them and yes, there were other operatives going after the remaining two magical bindings limiting Wartolin's power.
Kerel couldn't tell them about the crystals in the orcs necks. He hadn't personally worked with any of the creatures and didn't really want to. As to why he and his partner were so eager to kill the royal scout, that should have been obvious. He was an elf, not a man. An unholy creature that worshiped the demon Norel. And King Orrin wanted to form a trading alliance with the elf king of Morrand. Such an alliance would give the elves a chance to corrupt the kingdom with their evil beliefs. And that was why Orrin had to be killed and Duke Cardimal placed on the throne. Cardimal would use the orcs to wage war on the elves. The entire race of elves would be destroyed. Of course, once the elven threat was eliminated, the orcs would have to be dealt with, but Cardimal would take care of them as well.
"So, now we know that there is someone of affluence assisting Cardimal directly from the capitol." Ezra rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Looking up at Buck, who had just completed his report, he frowned in annoyance. "And you're sure he was telling the truth when he said he didn't know who this person is?"
"Positive. The man actually wet his pants he was so terrified that Vin was going to cut off his...well, you know." Buck shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he spoke. "He did tell us how to find Listrel, so if we can catch him, we should be able to find his boss."
"True. We might even be able to use this same ruse. It has worked amazingly well." Ezra gave in to a very self-satisfied grin as placed his hands behind his head. "Far better than even I had anticipated."
"Yeah, well, I think you're going to have to find a different villain if we do this again." Buck shook his head as he remembered the look on Vin's face just before he had run from the building.
Ezra frowned as he recalled Buck's explanation for why Vin and Chris were not present. "Yes, perhaps you are right. Hopefully, Chris will be able to put his mind at ease."
Silence fell in the room as each man contemplated the information gathered and the possible effects it would have on their quest. Nathan, ever the practical one, was the first to reach a decision and act upon it. Clapping his hands once, he stood up and began issuing orders.
"Enough. Kerel and Garrit are locked away for the night. We've learned all we can and now we need some rest. Buck, you take Jaydee and get some sleep. I'll take first watch and then share Josiah's room. Ezra can have this one to himself and not worry about moving that ankle too much."
Buck stroked his mustache as he considered Nathan's directions. "That's going to leave Vin and Chris sharing the room at the end of the hall." He smiled slightly and shared a knowing glance with the other men. "A shame they'll probably be too tired to do more than sleep."
Josiah shook his head as he stood and moved toward the door. "Even were they not on the point of exhaustion, I doubt they are anywhere near that moment in their relationship."
"What relationship?" Jaydee looked around in confusion as he also rose to leave. "You're talking about Vin and Chris?"
"C'mon kid," Buck threw his arm around Jaydee's shoulders and began leading him to the door as he spoke. "Ol' Buck will tell you a bedtime story as he tucks you in. You see, there was once this mercenary who got tired of fighting in wars..."
Josiah chuckled as he followed his two friends into the hallway. Nathan smiled as well as he checked Ezra's ankle one last time before leaving.
"Night, Ezra. Bysha bring you pleasant dreams."
"Thank you, Nathan and the same for you. I just hope that she grants Vin a gentle rest as well." There was honest concern in the minstrel's voice and his forehead was creased with worry. It was obvious that he was blaming himself for whatever the young tracker was suffering.
Nathan patted Ezra's leg and smiled in reassurance. It was good to see that the minstrel was finally forming bonds within the group.
"I'm sure she will, Ezra. Especially if Chris has anything to say about it."
Ezra lay, staring at the closed door for several long moments after Nathan's departure. Reaching a decision, he spoke out loud as he turned the wick down on the lamp next to his bed. "Chris, I certainly hope that you are able to ease Vin's mind tonight. Even so, I do think I owe him an apology tomorrow, at the very least." Ezra drew the quilt up to his chin and settled down with a weary sigh. A slight smile curled his lips as he mumbled softly to himself. "And I think the others are a little premature in assuming that the two of you will form a pairing. Until you formally declare your partnership, I see no harm in seeking Vin's favor for myself. So, may the best man win."