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It was a beautiful morning. Gossamer webs sparkled with crystal gems of dew and the very air appeared golden with the first rays of the sun. Songbirds eager to begin their forage for breakfast heralded the coming of the light with loud and cheerful trills. A soft, gray mist floated gently from the small stream that followed a rocky course, the water making its own kind of music as it danced over the glistening, well-worn stones. A gentle wind rustled the top-most limbs of the trees, shaking loose a few brightly turned leaves, sending them cascading down to the forest floor or into the stream for a much longer journey.

Chris sat and watched a particularly bright red leaf as it floated along the silvery path. He followed it with his eyes until it vanished into the mist. Shifting his gaze, he picked out another fallen leaf, this one a dark gold, and followed it as well. But the small golden ship didn't make it very far. A twig lodged between two rocks snagged the frail vessel and held it fast against the current. Frowning, Chris rose slowly to his feet and took the few steps necessary to reach the wooden barrier. Reaching down he plucked the leaf free and gently sent it on its way, watching closely to make sure it met no further obstacles. Satisfied when it at last disappeared like its predecessor, he stooped once more to remove the stick that might endanger future stream riders.

Tossing the dark, dripping piece of wood to the side, he turned and began making his way back to the silent camp where his friends still slept. All but two slumbered in the light, restless sleep of exhausted men unable to remain awake despite the discomfort of their surroundings. The remaining two lay motionless, the rise and fall of their chests the only indication that hearts still beat in the unnaturally still bodies.

When the mercenary returned to the small circle of friends, his green eyes immediately sought out the form of his partner. Wrapped tightly in his cloak to ward off the chill of the ground, the young tracker lay in exactly the same position that his friends had placed him in the day before. Only Vin's face was visible and the folds of dark, heavy material made it appear that much paler in the morning light. Silently, Chris willed the eyes to open but the long, brown lashes remained fanned across the pale flesh.

Sighing deeply, Chris turned his gaze to the second unnatural sleeper expecting to see a darker version of the same repose. When he encountered a pair of brown and confused blinking eyes, it was all he could do to keep from shouting out in relief. As it was, his hoarsely whispered cry of the man's name was enough to rouse three of the light sleepers.

"Nathan!" Chris hurried to the man's side and began helping him struggle free of his cape. Josiah quickly joined them and lent his support, easing the healer into a sitting position. Buck knelt down in front of the three men and offered a flask of water. Ezra contented himself with propping himself up against a tree so that he could see better while Jaydee continued to doze fitfully.

"Chris...Jaydee?" Nathan ignored Buck's offering and tried to peer around the fighter's shoulders, looking for the young man in question.

"He's just fine, Nathan. You did a real good job of healing him."

"I did?" Nathan finally accepted the water but his brow was lined with doubt and worry. "I... I ...don't remember..."

Josiah gestured for Buck to move aside so that he could sit facing Nathan. Catching the healer's wandering gaze, Josiah gave his shoulder a firm squeeze and tried to help him focus his thoughts.

"Think, Nathan. It's very important. You had your hands on Jaydee's chest. You were trying to heal the wound and you were running out of energy. What happened next?"

Nathan closed his eyes and chewed on his bottom lip as he concentrated. When first learning to use his healing power, he had been taught to visualize the energy inside himself as a familiar object. Some healers chose liquid in vessels, others containers of flame. Nathan had always pictured his energy as seawater filling a hole dug in the sand. When he used the power to heal an injury, he could see the water level falling as the wound healed. Sometimes he would drain the hole completely and the sea would be slow in refilling it. Such had been the case with Jaydee. Nathan remembered the despair he had felt when he had driven mental fingers into the dry sand looking for more of the healing waters. And then... and then...

"Bysha!" Nathan's eyes flew open and he stared hard at Josiah. "There was energy. Pouring into me. I couldn't hold on to it. It... it was like a wave crashing over me." The dark eyes were wide with the memory and awe of the experience. "I couldn't hold it. All I could do was... direct it. Channel it. Into Jaydee."

"Not just Jaydee." Nathan glanced over at Chris in confusion until he saw the man gesture to his arm. "You healed me, Buck and Vin all at the same time."

"Bysha. That's not possible. I never..."

"Nathan." Josiah caught the man's attention once more. "Could you tell where the energy came from?"

Nathan slowly shook his head. "It... it was just there. And then it wasn't."

"Was it healing energy?" The wizard persisted in his questioning even though he could tell that his friend was becoming slightly agitated. "Did it 'feel' like the same kind of energy that's inside you now?"

Nathan closed his eyes once more and called up the hole in the sand with its sun-warmed water. He dipped imaginary hands into the pool and sank his fingers into the sand at the bottom. He took a moment to notice that his reservoir of energy was only half full. It would be another day at least before it was completely restored. Pushing his thoughts back, he tried to compare the 'feel' of his energy with what he could remember of the 'wave'.

"It was different." He spoke out loud and tried to put into words exactly what he remembered. "It felt... raw. Pure. It... I had to change it. I don't know how I did but I had to... distill it? Refine it?" Nathan's eyes opened and he frowned in annoyance at a lack of better terms. "That's the closest I can come, Josiah. Now, do you mind telling me what the Pits is going on?"

Nathan's sudden use of the curse caught all the men off guard and Buck actually barked out a sharp laugh. Josiah merely shook his head and rubbed a thoughtful hand across his forehead. Chris gave the healer a pat on the shoulder and a tired smile as he tried to explain.

"After you healed all of us, you passed out."

Nathan nodded his head in understanding and encouraged Chris to continue.

"Vin also passed out, right after the healing. He's been asleep just like you ever since." Chris shifted back so that Nathan could see the unconscious tracker.

Before Nathan could respond, Josiah was suddenly on his feet and moving toward the young man in question. Seeing the look of concern on the wizard's face, Chris quickly stood and followed him.

Josiah knelt by Vin's side and gave his shoulder a firm shake. "Vin. C'mon Vin, time to wake up." When the shaking failed to get a response, he tried lightly patting the pale cheeks with his fingers. When the pats became a little firmer, Chris reached out a hand and grabbed the wizard's wrist.

"What's going on, Josiah. I thought you said he needed to sleep?"

"I did, but that was before I knew what was wrong with him."

"And now you know?" Chris' flashing green eyes held the wizard's and demanded an answer.

Josiah pulled his wrist free and used the hand to gesture first to himself and then to Nathan. "We have an energy inside of us. That energy is a part of us but we can use it, take it out of our bodies and put it into objects or in the case of healers, other people. Not everyone has that power and not everyone that has it, learns how to use it." Josiah ran the fingers of one hand through his short, graying-hair and tried to find the right words to make Chris and the others understand. "Using the energy is like using your muscles. Do too much and you become tired. Completely drain your supply and you pass out. Nathan used 'all' of his energy trying to save Jaydee. He didn't have anything left to give."

"So, your saying the energy came from Vin?" Chris looked down at his partner and shook his head doubtfully. "I didn't know healers and wizards could share their powers."

"We can't. That's why I didn't really believe it at first. You remember the crystal that Vin carries? I created that stone over a turn ago. I put the spell on it that held a small bit of my energy inside it. That energy should have been used up a long time ago but you saw how bright the crystal was. That was my spell and I should have been the only one that could have renewed the power."

Stunned gazes shifted between Josiah and Vin. Even Jaydee, who had awakened in time to hear Josiah's explanation, sat with a shocked look on his face. Vin? A wizard? A healer? Both?

"All right. So if he has this energy and he can somehow pass it on to others, why do you need to wake him? Shouldn't he sleep it out just like Nathan?"

"No! I understand now." Nathan struggled to his feet and stumbled over to crouch beside Josiah. He began pulling back the cloak that protected Vin's body as he quickly explained. "A lot of wizards and some healers die by using up all their energy too suddenly. I came very close to it myself once. It's like being hit by one of Garret's knives; it takes too much effort to keep living." Once he had Vin unwrapped, he grabbed a pale hand and began rubbing it between his palms. "We've got to get him to wake up now. If we don't, if it's too late..."

Chris wasn't about to accept that possibility. Shifting his position, he grabbed Vin's shoulders and pulled him up into a sitting position. Propping the still unresponsive body against his chest, he wrapped his arms tight around his partner's shoulders and called loudly in his ear. "Vin! Wake up, Vin! Vin!"

All their attempts failed to get a response. Josiah even risked the mercenary's wrath and applied two quick slaps to the tracker's face.

"Pits! There's got to be a way to wake him up." Chris' gaze swept across his friends and finally came to rest on Buck. "Your flask!"

Buck raised a confused eyebrow and looked down at the water he still held in one hand.

"No, your 'medicinal' one. Get it. Now!"

A grin lit the fighter's face, as he understood what Chris wanted. Diving for his pack, he threw his clothes to the side as he dug for the container of his special brew. "Got it!"

Hurrying to Vin's side, he crouched down while pulling the stopper free with his teeth. Spitting the cork out, he grabbed the half-elf by the chin and tried to pry his mouth open. "Tilt his head back just a little. That's it."

Josiah braced Vin's head while Buck placed the opening of the flask against his lips and poured a small amount into his mouth. The liquid immediately ran back out and down the tracker's chin.

Chris felt the drops hit his wrist and swore. "Pits. Try again but this time hold his mouth closed."

Buck followed the instructions and as soon as he had some of the potent mix in Vin's mouth, he pushed up on his chin while Josiah tilted his head back a little further. All the men focused on Vin's throat and breathlessly waited.

"There! He swallowed it!" Buck crowed his excitement but Chris knew it was too early to celebrate.

"Good. Dose him again."

The same steps were followed again and once more they could see the muscles in the slender throat work to swallow the liquid.

"C'mon, Vin. You can do it."


He was sinking. At first he tried to fight the sensation, struggling like a drowning man to reach the surface and the light. He had never known a darkness so complete. He thought of Josiah's crystal and tried to find it in the inky blackness. He knew that it would be bright enough to show him the way to the surface. But he couldn't find it. Couldn't find his pouch. Couldn't even find his hands to look for his pouch. And he was so tired. Maybe the darkness wasn't so bad after all. It was peaceful and he didn't mind the sinking feeling as much, any more. So quiet.

Fire coursed down a throat he had forgotten he had and his lungs burned with the smoke of its passage. Suddenly the darkness was suffocating him. He couldn't breath. The fire was hitting his stomach, flowing through his veins. His heart pounded. He could feel it. He could hear it. He could hear...

"Vin! That's it. Wake up. You can do it."

"Chris?" Oh, Bysha. Not again. The burning in his chest. Another orc bite? But coughing seemed to help. And the fire seemed mainly in his throat and stomach, not flowing through his veins like poison.

Chris kept his arms wrapped tightly around Vin's chest as the tracker drew in one gasping breath after another. He heard his name spoken between the raspy coughs and grinned with relief. Looking over his partner's head, he saw five matching smiles. Buck raised his flask in a laughing salute before taking his own healthy swig.

Vin's eyes were watering and it took him a moment to blink them clear. When he could finally see, it seemed like everywhere he looked, there was a grinning face looking back at him.


"Just glad to have you back." Buck gave the half-elf's head a quick rub before moving away.

Vin frowned in annoyance and confusion as he watched the fighter's retreat. "Back? What do you mean? Chris?" Vin craned his neck until he could see the mercenary's face. "What happened?"

"Well, I think maybe Nathan and Josiah will need to explain that. But first, how do you feel?"

The tracker relaxed back into Chris for support and considered the question for a moment before answering. His throat felt raw and there was a very unpleasant taste in his mouth but other than that ... "Fine, I suppose. A little tired." Vin turned his head back to find Jaydee. "Are you alright?"

Jaydee placed a hand against his chest as he answered. "Good as new, thanks to you and Nathan."

Vin opened his mouth to deny the credit only to have Buck cut him off.

"Well, I for one am ready for some breakfast." He gestured to Jaydee with the hand still holding his flask. "Since you're 'good as new', you can gather some wood for a fire. And Ezra," Buck squinted his eyes thoughtfully at the minstrel who did his best to appear the helpless invalid. "I figure if I hand you the packs, you can divvy up the food."

Giving a resigned sigh, Ezra waved his hand in acceptance of the task. "If you insist, though a sip of your 'cure all' would probably do wonders for my enthusiasm."

Buck passed him the flask and watched as Ezra took a cautious sniff then tossed back a healthy swig. His sudden, explosive cough set off a round of laughter.

"That, gasp would take the barnacles off of a ship."

"Yep, and the rust off the anchor."

Nathan shook his head at the men's antics. "If that's the case, I'd hate to see what it's doing to your insides."

Vin listened in confusion to the light banter being exchanged. Sitting forward, he shrugged free of Chris' arms and began struggling to his feet. "We don't have time for all this. Briar Cliff is still two days away and..." The tracker's words trailed off as he swayed unsteadily on his feet.

Josiah stood as well but only long enough to help Vin sit down before he fell. "That's why we're making time for breakfast. I think Ezra and I are the only ones that didn't spill our blood all over that clearing."

"Spilt blood or no, I for one do not intend to resume our journey without a decent meal. Last night's meager selection of dried meat and water was most unsatisfying." Ezra accepted the supplies Buck handed him and set about trying to arrange a more palatable meal. "Besides, this way we will use up the last of the 'not so fresh' foods that Mistress Kerin gave us."

"But..." Vin frowned in annoyance and refused to relax.

"Vin." Chris tapped his partner on the shoulder to catch his attention and then nodded his head to Josiah and Nathan. "Settle and listen to what they have to tell you. I think it's important enough to delay our start by a mark or so."

The half-elf finally gave in but he chose a tree to lean against, effectively putting as much distance as possible between himself and the three men watching him so closely. He didn't know what they were about to tell him but he had a feeling it wasn't something he really wanted to hear.


"So, you're saying I've got the same powers as you and Nathan?" Vin shook his head doubtfully but stole a quick glance over to where Jaydee sat tending the fire.

"Not exactly like ours. Actually, not exactly like any other wizard or healer I know." Josiah rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he seriously considered Vin's question.

"What about Wartolin?"

Chris regretted the question the instant he finished speaking. He watched as Vin's face paled even further and knew what he was thinking. The crisis brought on by Keril's accusations was only a few days past and now he was being compared to the vilest wizard ever to practice the art.

"No, not even close." Josiah came to his rescue with a firm shake of his head. "Wartolin takes control of objects spelled and empowered by other wizards." Josiah reached into his pouch and drew out a small light crystal to hold up as an example. "The spell that holds the energy in the stone is created to be triggered a certain way. I can make it react to a hard impact; key it to a certain word or simply the touch of a finger. For Wartolin, none of that matters. Somehow, he can activate or deactivate any spell on any empowered object. But once the energy is gone he can't replace it with his own and he can't cast over the spell already in place."

The wizard cocked his head to one side and squinted his eyes at Vin. "And I've never heard of him giving power to a healer. I'd like to do some tests, see what exactly you can do. How much power you've got, find out how you were able to share..."

That was the last straw. Vin lurched to his feet and ignoring the concerned calls, he turned his back to everyone and quickly made his way to the edge of the stream. Dropping down beside the water, he drew his legs up until he could rest his head on his knees.

What the Pits was going on? One day he's hiking through the woods on his way to see Chris and the next he's fighting orcs, swimming through a flood, impersonating a royal scout, torturing a killer, fighting more orcs and now... now he was supposed to be some kind of energy source for healers and wizards? What was happening to him?

Vin wasn't surprised to hear someone approach and the rustle of fabric as that person took a seat on the ground next to him. He waited expectantly for Chris to begin his speech, telling him he was still the same person he had always been.

"A lot has happened since the night you fought those two orc scouts."

The half-elf was surprised to hear Buck's deep voice but he kept his head bowed and merely gave a muffled grunt to acknowledge that he was listening.

Buck settled on the moss-covered ground next to the tracker and watched the leaves floating along the stream. Stretching out his long legs, he leaned back on his elbows and began speaking, almost musing aloud.

"Yeah, hard to imagine so much happening in so short a time. Fighting orcs for the first time, swimmin' a flooded river, trickin' those killers at the inn..."

Vin didn't want to hear Buck repeating what he was already thinking. He raised his head to tell the fighter that but the words froze on his tongue as Buck continued.

"Getting stabbed through the chest and nearly dying... Yep, Jaydee sure has been through a lot. Learned some new things too. You've done a good job teaching him the things you know. Kid could join the king's guard as a fighter or a scout. Wants you to teach him how to shoot that bow of yours when you get a chance. By the time this trip is over, Casey won't hardly recognize him."

The young tracker blinked in surprise as he considered Buck's words. He had been so wrapped up in the way the journey was affecting him, he had totally ignored the changes in Jaydee. Still, Jaydee was younger and less experienced. Of course a mission of this sort would change him. Vin opened his mouth to speak again but again found himself cut off before he could utter a sound.

"And I swear, did you ever imagine Ezra takin' on orcs? And starting a brawl?" The fighter shook his head in a combination of respect and amazement. "Man's got hidden talents I never imagined."

Buck darted a quick, sideways glance at the half-elf and let a lecherous grin curl his lips. "And I would have gone to my grave swearing that Chris would never give a scrawny, half-growed elf brat a second glance, let alone get his ear notched over one."

Vin couldn't help the light blush that colored his cheeks even as he gave in to a small smile.

"Yep, just like my mama always said, people are like onions. Peel away one layer and there's another hidden beneath it. Keep peelin' and you keep finding layers. Sometimes you'll get an onion that's sweet and mild, sometimes you get a hold of one that will bring tears to your eyes. But," The fighter wagged a finger in the air to drive home the final and most important fact. "But the thing to remember, is that no stew is complete without some onions."

The tracker couldn't stop the sudden laugh and his smile grew even wider. "Buck, I'd really like to meet your mother one day."

"She is a woman among women. If we ever make it to the capitol, I'll introduce you. She owns a pleasure house right near the castle that caters strictly to the rich."

Replacing his grin with a more serious look, Buck sat up straight and placed a hand on Vin's shoulder. "You're a special person Vin, and there's nothing wrong with being special. The real evil would be losing you. I... I almost killed you yesterday and I can't begin to tell you how heavy that weighs on me."

"Chris said something about 'battle-rage'?" Vin frowned as he searched his memory for the phrase. "I think I've heard of it before. When it hits you stop thinking and just kill anything that moves, right? You don't have any control over it. It wouldn't have been your fault if you had killed me."

Buck grimly shook his head. "Not remembering, not being aware is sometimes worse than knowing. One minute you're trading blows with a man and the next you're waking up on a battlefield with your own troops looking at you like you're the enemy." Buck's eyes took on a distant, searching stare and Vin could tell he was reliving just such a moment.

"Have you... have you ever killed a friend?"

Buck's face tightened with the pain of a memory and his eyes closed as if trying not to see it. "It was one of the last battles Chris and I fought during the war. It wasn't going good and I took a bad cut to my side. That was the last thing I remembered. When I woke up, the fight was over and the men avoided me like I was plagued. I knew something bad had happened but I couldn't get anyone to tell me. Not even Chris. I didn't find out the truth until we started sorting through the bodies. That axe of mine, there's no mistaking a blow from it with a cut from a sword."

The fighter had to swallow the growing lump in his throat before he could continue speaking. Vin waited quietly, somehow knowing that it was important for Buck to talk his way through the moment.

"Bysha. He couldn't have been any older than Jaydee. He... he must have come straight up to me. His chest... the look of surprise still on his face..." Buck took his hand from Vin's shoulder and drove his fist into the ground. "And I can't remember killing him. If a man's going to murder a boy he ought to at least be made to suffer with the memory of doing it."

"It wasn't murder, Buck. And if you had chopped my head off that wouldn't have been murder either." Now it was Vin's turn to rest a comforting hand on the fighter's shoulder as he tried to find the words to ease some of the pain and guilt he could see eating away at his friend. It was just like Buck had said, peel one layer away and there was another hiding just below it. Now he understood the fighter's patience and deep affection for Jaydee. There was no doubt he cared for the young man like a brother but the relationship was also a kind of penance, a chance of redemption for the soul weary fighter.

"You can't control the power that's in you, it controls you. And you can't blame yourself for the things that happen while it does. If it only happens when a fight is going badly, think of how many lives you must have saved. I bet Chris could name each and every one for you."

Buck shook his head but gave a resigned sigh at the same time. "Yeah, he's tried on more than one occasion." Looking straight into Vin's earnest gaze, Buck managed a slight smile though his eyes still held a veil of pain. "I just want you to know, I am sorry. And whether or not Jaydee had lived or died, I would never have blamed you for his death. It was a battle and in a battle, blame only falls on the enemy and the cowards that run away."

Vin seriously considered Buck's words as he turned his gaze back to the stream. Running away. He hadn't run from the orcs, though he had been sorely tempted. In fact, now that he thought about it there were only four times in his life that he had run. The first time had been the day he ran from the blacksmith that had taken him in after his mother's death. But as a child his choices had been understandably limited. The second time, a broken heart had set his feet once more on the road. In all the turns that followed he had faced down every threat and obstacle that rose to challenge him until the night at the inn when he tried to escape Keril's accusations. The fourth time was a few moments ago when he had fled from Josiah and his 'tests'. It suddenly occurred to the young man that the two final times, the thing he had been trying to escape was knowledge about himself. If he could face down orcs, surely he could find the courage to accept who or what he really was.

The half-elf's thoughts were interrupted by Buck clapping his hands then rubbing them briskly together. "Well, I don't know about you but I could use some breakfast. Hate to agree with the man but Ezra was right; cold, dried meat don't make much of a meal." Buck slowly rose to his feet and gave his back a good long stretch as he stood. Reaching out, his attempt at a friendly head-rub was stopped by a firm grip around his wrist.

"Why don't you save that for Jaydee?"

Grinning, the big fighter's other hand shot out and got in a quick tousle before Vin could dodge clear. "Plenty to go round, kid. Plenty to go round."


Chris wiped his hands on his pants as he finished off his last bite of cheese. Looking around the small clearing, he found himself feeling strangely contented with what he saw. Jaydee had long since wolfed down his share of the food and had spent the last several moments hounding Buck for details about the fight. And while Buck was giving a fairly accurate replay of the action to Jaydee, Chris knew that the story was going to grow the more he told it.

Looking to the other side of the fire, Chris watched Nathan as he finished wrapping a new support around Ezra's ankle. Luckily it wasn't nearly as swollen or painful as the first time he had sprained it. Although to hear the minstrel tell it, he would be much better off being carried the rest of the way on a wooden pallet.

Finally, Chris' gaze fell on Vin and Josiah. He hadn't really been surprised at Vin's earlier retreat from the wizard and his 'tests'. What had caught him off guard was Buck's raised hand to keep him back while he went to talk with the young tracker. Chris knew there was more to his friend than a sharp axe and a way with women, so he had sat back and waited. His trust had been rewarded when the two men returned to the circle of friends and Vin had gone right up to Josiah and started asking questions.

At the moment, Josiah was doing his best to explain the concept of 'picturing' the source of the energy but Vin just didn't seem to grasp it.

"But I can't even feel it. How am I supposed to make it look like something?"

"Vin," Josiah rubbed one hand across the top of his head as he tried to think of a way to make the stubborn tracker understand. "You've used the power at least twice now, you have to know what it feels like. Think hard. Most of it should be gone so there should be a kind of hollow, empty feeling inside of you. Try closing your eyes and concentrating."

Giving his own sigh of frustration, Vin closed his eyes and tried to find the so-called core of energy that Josiah kept insisting was inside him. Thinking about his insides he became aware of his heart beat, the movement of his chest as he breathed, the slight rumbling in his stomach as his food settled and a decided increase in pressure in a certain location that he was really going to have to leave to take care of very soon. But no sign of any power or healing energy.

Josiah could tell even before Vin opened his eyes that the newest attempt had failed as well. It was frustrating and the wizard was tempted to try more drastic measures but knew it would be too dangerous. He had no idea just what level of power Vin had and if his reserves were too low, making him use what little he had left could send him back into a deep sleep.

"Well, lets just let it go for now. Maybe when we reach Briar Cliff we'll have time to try you out on a few simple spells."

Vin was obviously pleased with that solution and quickly nodded his head in agreement. Looking around, he caught Chris' gaze and smiled happily at his partner. The mercenary answered with a smile of his own and motioned for Vin to join him.

Settling on the ground at Chris' side, the young tracker pointed over to Ezra and once again brought up the subject of traveling.

"I know we needed the time to eat and rest but with his ankle, we've got to get started soon if we're going to reach the town by tomorrow night."

Chris nodded his understanding and called over to Buck. "Think you and Jaydee can redistribute the supplies so that Ezra doesn't have to carry a pack?"

"Sure, Chris. Not a problem. And while I'm doing that, I can also relieve a few of you of some heavy silver." Seeing the puzzled frowns, Buck quickly reminded the men of their earlier bets on the outcome of the battle. "I'm figuring that with that last one I took the head off of, I killed more than everyone except Vin."

Josiah was quick to point out that he had also bet on the fighter and that the winnings would have to be split evenly. Buck readily agreed and stroked his mustache as he waited expectantly for his friends to pay up.

"Um, I don't think you won Buck." Vin was frowning thoughtfully and tapping the fingers of one hand on his thigh. After a few taps he would move a finger of his other hand as if marking his place.

"How do you figure it, Vin?" Chris watched his partner's hands and knew he was tallying the orcs killed by each man. Vin would have seen the entire fight from his place in the trees and probably did know exactly how many each of them had killed.

"Well, there were six and thirty of them to start with. I had twelve arrows but only killed nine orcs."

There were a few snorts of amusement at his 'only killed nine' but Vin ignored them and continued.

"Now, Jaydee didn't finish his last one so he killed three. Likewise, Nathan didn't kill his last one so he took out four. Josiah wounded a lot but he also killed four."

Everyone nodded in agreement and Ezra quickly added the totals so far coming up with twenty dead orcs.

"Chris was fighting his fifth orc when I came out of the trees and I guess you killed it." The mercenary nodded in confirmation and Vin continued. "Buck had four down and when he took the head of Jaydee's that gave him five as well."

"So Chris and I are tied for the winnings. Pits, that don't leave much to divide."

Vin shook his head and called over to the minstrel, "Ezra, did you kill the one you chased into the forest?"

"Well, he was understandably reluctant to hand over that box so I didn't have much choice."

"Then it looks like Chris and I won cause we bet on Ezra and he killed six orcs counting the one with the box."

Vin and Chris both smiled smugly while four of their friends stared in shocked amazement at the minstrel. Ezra's expression was also one of bemused disbelief and his own fingers began tapping out a silent count.

"I'll be Pitted." Buck rounded on his old friend and demanded an explanation. "How did you know he would kill more than the rest of us?"

Ezra looked up, also eager to hear the reasoning behind the successful wager.

The mercenary shrugged his shoulders in a 'no big deal' gesture. "It's his fighting style. Ezra never makes an unnecessary move while he fights. He doesn't waste time or energy, and against opponents as big as the orcs, he can get in fast and make a killing stroke before they even know he's there."

Vin nodded his agreement of the explanation and gave the minstrel a quick wink of approval. "Kind of like a gully rat snatching rock lizards."

Ezra didn't know whether to feel flattered or insulted. He settled for a small 'humph' of disdain as he reached into his pouch for his share of the wager. The other men followed suit and soon Vin and Chris were several coins richer.