"Well, there it is, Briar Cliff." On the second day after the orc battle, the seven men gathered at the top of a rise that gave them a clear view of the town nestled beneath a small range of mountains. Vin gestured down to the road below that would take them to their goal. "Once we hit the road we should make good time. Maybe get there just after sunset."
"Finally. I was beginning to despair of ever seeing civilization again." Ezra straightened the cape on his shoulders and shifted his grip on his walking staff. "Gentleman, the first round is on me."
"Ezra, those are the best words I have ever heard come out of your mouth." Buck slapped the minstrel's shoulder as he started down the hill. He set a pace that the limping man could easily maintain and the rest of the group fell in line for the final leg of their journey.
Vin's prediction proved accurate and they reached the outer most buildings just as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. What little they could still see of the town looked very much like their own Four Winds. The main differences lay in the building materials used for the homes and shops. While Four Winds was constructed mostly of wood, the residents of Briar Cliff had taken advantage of the large abundance of stones. Even the streets were paved with rocks carefully fitted together.
Their footsteps echoing against the stone walls, the weary travelers drew curious stares from the few local town folk still walking the darkened streets. It was a bad season for travel, especially on foot. For seven men to all arrive at once and one of them obviously a wizard, it was definitely something out of the ordinary.
Buck continued to lead the group as they made their way down the main street. Their goal was a small tavern called The Lucky Wench. When discussing plans for finding rooms, it had quickly been discovered that Buck, Chris and Ezra each knew the owner and were sure of a pleasant welcome. Buck alluded to being more than 'friends' but the rest of the men saw Chris' amused smile and decided that the fighter was probably exaggerating. Again.
The brightly lit windows of the combination bar and inn came into view and Buck eagerly lengthened his stride leaving the others to catch up. Pushing the door open wide, the fighter was momentarily illuminated by the bright oil lamps hanging from the low ceiling. His teeth shone in a broad grin and his eyes sparkled as he threw back his arms and bellowed out a greeting.
"Inez, darlin! Guess who?"
Eager to see the mysterious Inez and her reaction to Buck's arrival, Jaydee and Vin pressed against the nearest window with Josiah and Nathan looking over their shoulders. Their curiosity was rewarded when a beautiful, raven-haired woman stepped out from behind the bar. She appeared to be happy to see the fighter as she was smiling warmly and had her arms out stretched in greeting. Buck stepped into view and the two were instantly locked in a deep and passionate kiss. Jaydee whistled softly and Nathan mumbled something about owing the man an apology.
Just as the spectators were about to look away, the woman broke free of the embrace and the open handed slap she delivered could be clearly heard out in the street.
"Almost two turns and you don't come back! You owe me six silvers for ale and four more for food! You promised to return after one season! One! Where are my coins?"
Buck gingerly rubbed his stinging cheek with one hand while he tried to calm Inez down with the other. "Now, Inez darlin', I can explain..."
"Don't 'Inez darling' me! I want my silver! And don't expect any more food or drink until you pay." Tossing back her thick, wavy locks of hair, Inez brushed past the flustered fighter to warmly greet the other two men she recognized.
"Chris! Ezra! Welcome back." She gave each man a quick kiss and a hug, and then gestured for them to be seated. "I've got fat chickens roasting in the kitchen and I'll have Stin tap a fresh keg. Would you like some cheese or bread to eat in the meantime?"
Ezra quickly took a seat at the long table nearest the door and relaxed into it with an audible sigh. Chris took the time to remove his cape and nodded his head toward the door where Vin and the others had gathered.
"I can wait for the diner but you might want to ask my friends." Chris made the introductions and while the others were not greeted with a kiss, they still received a warm and welcoming smile.
"Friends of Chris are always welcome." Spotting Buck near the bar, Inez raised her voice. "I mean friends that 'pay' are welcome. Stin, don't give him one drop until he clears his tab."
Buck grudgingly rejoined the others empty-handed as they arranged themselves around the table. Jaydee got a close look at the injured cheek and was impressed by the perfect handprint.
"You know, Buck, maybe it would be a good idea to go ahead and pay what you owe. Maybe she would be so happy she'd kiss your cheek and make it better."
"Yeah, and maybe you should mind your own business." Buck hunched his shoulders and glanced quickly around to make sure the lady in question wasn't close enough to overhear. "Truth is, Inez and I have this kind of understanding."
"They sure do." Chris leaned back in his chair and smiled knowingly at Jaydee. "Inez will only let him run up a tab so far and then Buck knows he has to either pay or leave town. Which is how we wound up in Four Winds two turns ago."
Everyone got a good laugh out of the joke at Buck's expense, who merely glared and rested his elbows on the table.
"Well, that's real amusing but just wait. Ol' Buck is going to have company in his bed tonight and it certainly ain't going to be the kid here."
"Oh, really?" Inez spoke softly from where she stood just behind the startled fighter. "Planning on asking Stin to join you?"
There was more laughter as she handed out mugs of frothy ale and held one just out of Buck's reach. "Well?"
Sighing in resignation, the man finally dug into his pouch and pulled out a handful of coins, which he tossed rudely on the table. "There! Happy?"
"Ecstatic. Now payment in advance for your ale and dinner."
"You aren't asking the others for silver!"
"I trust the others not to run out without paying."
Another coin was flipped onto the table and Inez quickly placed the mug down and raked the coins into a pocket on her skirt. "Thank you, sir. Always a pleasure doing business." Sharing a victorious smile with the others, she told them to just whistle when they needed a refill.
"Yeah, Buck. I've got to hand it to you, that's some understanding you two have got." Jaydee toasted his friend with his mug and the other men grinned and followed suit.
Buck glared around the table and his annoyance at last found a target in the smugly beaming minstrel.
"Say, weren't you going to buy the first round?"
"Why, so I was. My apologies, Buck. Rest assured that upon the fair Inez's return I shall inform her of the error and she can apply your coin to your next drink."
Slightly mollified, the fighter nodded his head and finally took a gulp of his own ale. Soon all the men were feeling warm and relaxed as they waited for their dinner to arrive.
They shared the main room of the tavern with several other customers but unlike the two assassins at the riverside inn, the patrons of the Lucky Wench were all obviously locals and well known by the proprietress. The few glances cast toward the seven men were ones of curiosity and nothing more; with the possible exception of the few women who seemed particularly interested in the fine build and rugged good looks of the new arrivals. Vin had let his hair cover his ears once more so even he received a fair share of the wistfully appraising stares.
Diner arrived with a flourish of heavily laden wooden platters and Inez personally served Chris and his friends while Stin saw to the other customers. The food was simple but hot and delicious. The bowels of vegetables were quickly emptied and soon all that was left were the bones of the hens picked clean and gleaming white.
After the plates were cleared away and more ale distributed, Inez produced a surprise from a back room. A battered but obviously well cared for guitar was presented to Ezra who only held out for a few moments of coaxing and cajoling before graciously acquiescing to play a few songs. The night became quite lively as word spread that the Lucky Wench was playing host to a genuine minstrel and soon the tavern was filled to capacity. For the locals, it was a chance to forget about the oncoming winter and the long days of hard work that lay ahead preparing for it. For the seven travelers, it was moment stolen from the past. A time before orcs and magic scrolls when they would gather in Four Winds and simply take pleasure in being alive.
"Well, these two are definitely out for the night." Chris spoke softly as he pulled the covers across the unconscious bodies of Jaydee and Vin. Soft snores were the only responses he received as the mercenary turned to follow Josiah quietly from the room.
The two youngest members of their group had been the first to succumb to the combination of exhaustion and ale. Buck had wandered off with a fair damsel leaving the others to deal with the two men slumbering with their heads pillowed on the table. After several shakes and some gentle prodding, Chris had finally gotten Vin somewhat on his feet while Josiah had merely slung Jaydee across his shoulders. Inez had guided them with a lamp and a smile to a room upstairs and then left them to get settled for the night.
Vin had never truly woken up and stripping the two sleepers of their clothes had been quite an achievement. Chris had to force himself to take no notice of the lean, tautly muscled body his hands uncovered though it was a hard won battle. Luckily, Jaydee's sudden fit of giggling as Josiah removed his pants came as a timely distraction.
Outside the room, with the door tightly closed, Chris turned to the wizard and asked, "Did he call you Casey?"
Josiah smiled and simply shrugged his shoulders. "They're young and in love. No need to be paired to have pleasures of the flesh."
"I think Mistress Nettie might have something to say to that. Especially if Casey were to come up expecting."
"And you don't think that one of the first potions she taught the fair, young Casey was one to prevent such unwanted problems?" Josiah raised a knowing eyebrow as he turned and led the way back to the main room.
Things had quieted considerably while the two men had been upstairs. There were only a few locals left sitting in the room, enjoying a slow and haunting tune being picked out carefully on the strings of Ezra's borrowed guitar. The minstrel himself sat with his head bowed and seemed to be lost in the simple pleasure of his art.
Looking around, Chris spotted Nathan in a far corner still talking to a young lady that he had met earlier in the night. She was a thin, finely boned woman with sharp, yet elegant features. Her high, prominent cheekbones merely accented her full lips and sparkling, dark eyes. She smiled at some comment made by the healer and her teeth flashed white against her reddish tanned skin. Her long, blue-black hair was pulled back in a thick braid that was studded with beads and fell almost to her waist.
"Well, it looks like Buck isn't the only one that will be sharing a bed with someone else tonight." Chris continued to follow Josiah as the wizard made his way to the large fireplace at the center of the room. There were a few vacant chairs drawn up to the dying fire and a small table perfect for holding two mugs of drink.
Chris sank wearily down into the closest chair while Josiah reached for the poker and moved to prod a little more flame from the glowing logs.
"Chris!" The wizard's sudden and urgent hiss of the mercenary's name banished all traces of fatigue and the man instantly tensed and was on the alert once more.
Standing up, Chris' hand fell to the hilt of his sword and he quickly scanned the room for whatever danger Josiah had spotted.
"Here. In the fire. Curse me for a drunken fool for not sensing it earlier." Josiah was furiously digging at the red and white embers beneath the logs and Chris squatted down to see what he had found.
Keeping his voice low and checking to make sure no one was watching, he questioned the wizard. "What is it?"
"The stone that I put in that orc transport box. This is it."
Emerging from the ashes was indeed the small, ugly rock that Josiah had secreted in the lining of the wooden box. Chris felt a thrill of alarm as he realized what the stone's presence meant.
"Whoever was working with the orcs was here. Could still be. But he must have burned the box to get rid of the evidence. Wonder what he did with the hand?" Chris stood up and searched the room again, this time looking for anyone that appeared suspicious. He spotted Inez and catching her eye motioned for her to approach.
Seeing the serious looks on the two men's faces Inez handed her tray of empty mugs to Stin and hurried over to the fireplace. "What is it, Chris? Something is wrong, I can tell by that look in your eyes."
The mercenary hesitated for a moment than guiding her to a seat, he quickly told Inez just enough for her to understand the importance and the danger of the situation.
"Tell me about any strangers that have passed through here in the last few days. How many, what they looked like and do you know where they were headed from here?"
Inez frowned and shook her head. "None. You are the first travelers in two hands of days. All of my customers have been regulars. You don't think one of them... ?"
Chris glanced up at Josiah. "Would the owner of the box have to be a wizard? Old Malen is the only wood wizard here and he... "
"No, Chris. Malen died last winter." Inez quickly spoke up and corrected the mercenary. "Tyler still lives here but he left days ago to attend the festival at the capitol." Also looking to Josiah, Inez quickly explained. "Malen was very old and he was our only wood wizard. Tyler is a young man but like you, he practices stone magic."
Biting her bottom lip thoughtfully, Inez turned back to Chris. "But early in the summer we got a new wizard. Hurough. He and his apprentice arrived together and moved into Malen's house."
"Have you gotten to know him well? Does he come here often?" Josiah was thoughtfully rubbing the ash from the cooling stone as he considered the possibilities.
"He comes in occasionally but not to socialize. He usually takes the table in the corner and eats alone."
"What about his apprentice?"
"That's her over there. The one talking to your friend. Her name is Trian." Inez motioned with her chin to the table where Nathan and the newly identified woman sat huddled together in what appeared to be a very intimate conversation.
"Pits." Chris swore and gripped the hilt of his sword tightly. "Josiah, what I asked earlier, does the box have to belong to a wizard?"
"Have to? No. More likely? Yes." Josiah frowned as he carefully returned the stone to his pouch. "A transport box works like my crystals. There has to be at least two objects fashioned from the same original material. This links them together and one is usually the anchor for the other. With the box, it was made entirely from the same piece of wood. A matching, probably miniature version would also have been carved from the same piece. Just like my crystals, the energy to activate the transport spell is too great to be held by the object so it has to be fed slowly and carefully through until the teleport is complete."
Chris felt he had a grasp of the wizard's explanation and checked to see if he was correct. "So, whoever had the matching copy, knew when we closed the latch on the original and knew it was time to activate the spell. If it wasn't a wizard, he would still have needed a wizard to give energy to the spell and summon the box."
"Correct. And if the box was here and burned in this fireplace, then we are looking at only two possible suspects."
"With no strangers in town, it has to be either Hurough or his apprentice." Chris completed Josiah's thought and turned once more to Inez who was also frowning in concern. "Did you happen to notice either of them bring in an object about so big?" The mercenary held his hands up to outline the dimensions of the box but the tavern owner only shook her head.
"No. But that is not to say that they couldn't have. There have been a few nights when I left early and let Stin close up. I will ask him if he saw anything odd being burned in the fireplace."
As she stood to leave, Josiah quickly caught her arm. "And they wouldn't have needed to carry the box in. They could have summoned it here and then slipped it into the fire."
Inez nodded her understanding and quickly made her way over to her assistant.
Chris ran a tired hand through his hair as he groaned of frustration. "Looks like we'll need to stand watches here as well. I don't think we can count on Buck or our two sleeping princes. We'll have to divide them up between the four of us."
"If you are including Nathan in that four, I think you had better catch him now. It looks like he may have other plans for the night that might involve one of our suspects." Josiah nodded his head toward the couple as he spoke. Even as Chris looked, Nathan was pushing his chair back and reaching out to help the women, Trian to her feet.
"Pits. All right, I'll get Nathan, you talk to Ezra. We'll meet upstairs in the second room."
Nathan angrily paced the narrow confines of the room where Chris had gathered the four remaining men together. He had listened quietly throughout their retelling of the stone's discovery but when they had suggested that Trian was a part of the evil scheme...
"No. I don't believe it."
"Nathan, you just met her. You don't know anything more about her other than what she has told you. How do you know...?"
"I just do! You didn't spend the last three marks talking with her. I have. She lost her entire family during the war. She was raised in a temple by followers of Bysha. She probably would still be there if she hadn't discovered she could magic wood. She's not evil!"
"And while she was weaving this charming tale of woe and wonder, how much of our own mission did you happen to let slip?"
Ezra almost instantly regretted his question as the healer towered over him with a thunderous expression on his dark face and his large hands clenched tightly into fists.
"I told her my own tale of 'woe and wonder'. I told her about an orphaned boy growing up alone on the docks and fighting each and every day just to stay alive. And I told her about watching the one and only friend he had bleed to death in the gutter while people just walked around his body being careful not to step in his blood." Nathan suddenly crouched down next the minstrel's chair and looked earnestly into his troubled green eyes. "Then I told her how I put my hands on his chest and prayed to Bysha for the bleeding to stop. I told her how amazed and grateful I was when my prayers were answered and the blood did stop flowing. But then I had to tell her how my friend's stomach swelled because in my ignorance I had used my newfound power to close the visible cut but not heal the wound inside. He was called Dani and he died screaming my name."
Nathan lurched to his feet and glared at the three men who stared wordlessly back at him. "I know it may be foolish. I know you don't learn everything there is to know about a person in just a few short marks. But I also know what my spirit tells me and I trust what it has to say. Trian is not working with orcs. She is not a follower of Wartolin and tomorrow, I'll prove it to you."
"Tomorrow, Chris. I'm meeting her for lunch tomorrow and I'll get the proof you need then." The healer met the worried gazes of each of his friends then headed for the door. "I don't feel like going to sleep right now, so I'll take the first watch."
Once the door was closed, Ezra turned back to the other two men and hesitantly cleared his throat. "I... ahem... that is, I did not... "
Chris shook his head. "Relax, Ezra. There's a lot we don't know about each other and toes are bound to be stepped on. Let's just hope the man's right and he knows what he's doing."
"And if he's wrong?"
Chris turned to Josiah and smiled grimly. "We watch his back and make sure he lives to learn from his mistake."
Nathan paced nervously in front of the tavern. The afternoon sun was pleasantly warm and the streets were filled with people hurrying about their daily chores, oblivious to the threat from Wartolin and Cardimal. The healer glanced through the window of the Lucky Wench and saw Chris and the others settling down to lunch. Inez was serving them from a large platter of sliced meat while Stin passed around a pitcher of watered-down wine. It would have been nice to join them, sharing in the laughter and making plans for the next part of their journey but that was not to be.
Turning to stare once more down the cobbled street, Nathan began questioning his judgement. What if he was wrong about Trian? What if his misplaced trust put the others in danger? Put the whole kingdom in danger? But he wasn't wrong. Nathan pulled his cloak a little tighter and stepped away from the tavern. From the moment their eyes had met, Nathan knew they were kindred spirits. Trian could no more be in the service of Wartolin then Josiah. And somehow, Nathan would prove that and hopefully find out the truth about the box.
"Nathan!" The cheerful shout of his name spun the healer around and the beautiful, dark eyes of the apprentice wizard once more caught him.
"Trian. Thank you for meeting me."
"Oh, you don't have to thank me, Nathan. I'm the one that is in your debt. You just don't know how wonderful it is to have someone new to talk with. Especially someone that has traveled as much as you." Smiling happily, the young woman slipped her arm around Nathan's and began leading him toward the tavern. "Now, let's have some lunch. I've been practicing all morning and I'm starving."
Nathan held her back and looked quickly around the street. "Uh, I thought maybe we could eat somewhere different." Seeing the puzzled look on Trian's face, he quickly added, "Maybe a little more private?"
Trian's eyes widened and a red blush rose to her cheeks. Before Nathan could correct the misunderstanding, she was standing on her toes and planting a quick kiss on his cheek. "That's a wonderful idea. My teacher is running errands for the day so why don't we go back to our house? I can fix us lunch and show you my workshop."
Smiling happily, she slipped her small hand into Nathan's and began leading him down the street pointing out the different shops and residences as they walked.
"Well, there they go. You sure you want me to do this?" Vin turned from the window and looked back to Chris.
"I would rather have Nathan mad at us than risk losing him. Try not to let him see you but keep him in sight as much as possible. If it looks like there's trouble, use the crystal to call us and then wait." The mercenary gripped Vin's shoulder and gave him a little shake. "I mean that, Vin. Don't rush into a bad situation alone."
The young tracker smiled and tipped his head. "No worries. Just save me some of that pie for later."
"Deal." Chris watched as his partner slipped through the door and moved quickly to catch up with the healer and the apprentice wizard. The half-elf glided nimbly among the busy townsfolk and was soon lost to sight. Trying not to let worry get the better of him, Chris turned back to the table where the rest of his group sat waiting.
"Alright, now we need to decide what we're going to do about reaching the capitol."
Buck looked up from his plate and gave a hearty belch. "Don't see where we have much choice. Either Nathan's right and we can trust this wood wizard to get us to the capitol or we buy some horses and ride as fast as we can."
"What? We're not going to go through the forests anymore?" Jaydee frowned in confusion as he looked from Buck to Chris.
"Too dangerous now. The orcs can sense the scroll and now they know it's moving toward the capitol." Chris returned to his seat and rested his elbows on the table. "Inez also mentioned a festival being held there."
Ezra pushed his empty plate aside and stared thoughtfully out the window. "Didn't our two killers mention a plan to kill king Travis? A large celebration would provide the perfect cover for an assassination."
"Pits!" Buck slapped his open palm onto the table. "Even with horses, it'll take days to reach the capitol. And that's if we don't run into anymore trouble."
Silence followed the fighter's words as each man considered their options. Josiah finally spoke up with what he considered their only choice.
"If we can't teleport from here, our next best chance is the city of Winderwood. The last time I was there they seemed to have an abundance of wizards. With horses we could be there in three days."
Chris nodded his agreement. "Winderwood is a hub for the main trade routes. Even if most of the wizards are at the festival, there should be someone left that can get us to the capitol." Looking around the table, he quickly assigned tasks to each of the men.
"Josiah, you and Ezra wait here for Vin and Nathan. Hopefully both will show up in just a few marks. Buck, you take Jaydee and start getting us some more provisions. Enough for four days, just in case." Standing, he let the others know that he would be spending the afternoon shopping for horses. "Not sure what this town has to offer but hopefully it will be more than plow mares."
"Well, what do you think?" Trian stepped to the side of the door leading into her workshop and waved her arm in a grand gesture of invitation. As Nathan walked slowly into the cluttered but brightly lit room, she moved quickly about pointing out her favorite objects or spells she was currently trying to master.
"And this little wooden bird will actually fly once I have the animation spell perfected. I'm still having trouble controlling the amount of power I put into an object. If I use too much, the wood usually splits from the stress."
Nathan accepted the brightly painted carving and studied it closely. It made him think of Chris' sculptures and that in turn reminded him of his real reason for wanting a private lunch with Trian. Returning the bird to its place on the worktable, the healer re-examined the room, this time looking for anything that resembled the scroll transport box.
"What about teleporting spells? Can you do those yet?" Nathan tried to make the question sound innocent and was a little concerned when he saw a frown suddenly wrinkle the young woman's brow.
"No. That takes perfect control of the energy and it will be seasons yet before I master it." The frown turned into a frustrated grimace. "Hurough ... my teacher, I just wish he were more patient. Sometimes when I don't get a spell right the first time he just gets so... upset. He accuses me of not trying, but I do!"
Even though he felt sympathy for her plight, Nathan couldn't help the surge of relief at her confession. She couldn't possibly have summoned the box and was obviously too much of a novice to interest a wizard like Wartolin. But that did leave her teacher.
Nathan's thoughts were pulled back to his companion's words when she suddenly asked him a question.
"What about healers? I know you went to the Healer Center but what about your apprenticeship? Did you live with a teacher as you continued to learn?"
Now it was Nathan's turn to frown as he recalled his own unpleasant experience with his first season of practice. "Yes, we do work with a teacher but it is slightly different with healing. Since we are actually channeling our power into a living body, we have to master our energy before we leave the Center, then we receive some training with teachers in the cities and then return to the Center to learn the more advanced skills. The teachers we go to live with are supposed to teach us how to work with our patients."
Trian saw the look of disgust on Nathan's face and placed a comforting hand on his arm. "But that's not how it worked out for you?"
"Oh, I learned a good deal from my teacher. I learned what prices to charge for all the different injuries and how to turn the poor people away that didn't have enough coins."
"But...but that's against the king's law. It's a healer's duty to serve the people."
Nathan snorted derisively. "Well, the king's not doing much to enforce his law. I never completed my training period with my teacher. He caught me healing the poor that he turned his back on. The next thing I know, I'm being handed a scroll from the head of the Center telling me I either start charging the people I heal or I could forget about returning."
"What did you do?"
"What could I do? I packed my bag and left." Looking earnestly into Trian's troubled eyes, Nathan tried to explain. "Bysha gave me this wonderful gift to save people's lives. I can't believe she would want me to take their hard earned coins or the food from their table in return. It cost me nothing more than a few marks of exhaustion and it gives them so much. How can I ask people to pay?"
"Oh, Nathan." Wrapping her arms tightly around the man's waist, Trian gave him a fierce hug as she pressed her cheek against his heart. "I am so proud of you. I want to be just like you. I want to give my spells away to the people that need them. If I ever master any useful ones that is."
Nathan hugged Trian in return and felt his anger and frustration melt away under the radiant glow of her praise. "You'll master all the spells and probably invent some very useful ones yourself."
"Think so?" The young apprentice stepped back and flashed an impish grin. "Maybe I'll invent a magic stick that will beat greedy healers when they try to charge money."
Laughing out loud at the image that thought produced Nathan pulled his new friend close once more in a warm embrace. Their hug quickly turned into a kiss and soon the two were lost to the world around them.
Several long moments later, the two broke apart with suddenly bashful but very pleased smiles. Nathan's smile slowly faded and he ducked his head in shame.
"Trian, I want you to know, I've never really... felt this way... about anyone before. I think... I think you have a right to know the truth."
"The truth?" Trian didn't like the sound of that and slowly sat on a stool near the table. "I'm not going to be very happy when I hear this, am I?"
"No, probably not but it involves your teacher and I think you deserve to know." Nathan hesitated just a moment longer then told the young lady about the fight with the trolls, the box and the empowered stone. He did not mention the scroll or their goal of reaching the capitol. "Josiah says only a wood wizard could have summoned the box here. And you and Hurough are the only two around. That we know of."
Rather than being upset, Trian merely nodded her head thoughtfully and tapped one finger against her bottom lip. "Hurough has several transport boxes. I've watched him send them away and summon them back. Can you describe the one the orcs had?"
Nathan shook his head. "I never actually saw it since I was unconscious. I know it was about this big," He held his hands up in an approximation. "And that it was carved entirely of wood, including the latch."
Sighing, Trian stood and began walking toward the door. "That's not very helpful. Most of the boxes are like that to make the teleporting easier. The only thing I can think of is to check his workshop and see if we can find a clue there."
"Trian, wait." Nathan grabbed her arm and pulled the young apprentice back into the room. "I don't want to get you into any trouble..."
"I told you, Hurough is going to be gone for the day. We'll have plenty of time to check his room. Don't worry."
Vin shifted his position slightly in the narrow alley in which he waited. Glancing up at the sun, he judged it to be the third mark since Nathan had disappeared into the two-story, stone house that was home and workshop of the two wood wizards. His imagination wanted to conjure up all kinds of dark and terrible things but he logically knew that such was not the case. Peeking into a ground-floor window at just the right moment had pretty much lay to rest his worries and brought a blush to his cheeks. But that had been at least a mark ago and still there was no sign of Nathan emerging.
The half-elf was just deciding that another peek through a window might be in order when he spotted a cloaked figure stopped in front of the main door. It was only a moment before the door opened and the figure slipped through the dark opening. Vin's worries returned with a vengeance and his first instinct was to pull out the crystal and summon Josiah. But what if he was jumping to conclusions? What if Nathan and the girl were still enjoying each other's company and the new arrival was not a threat?
"Pits." Vin swore softly to himself then quickly crossed the street. Slipping between the buildings, he made his way to the back, which faced into a small courtyard overgrown with weeds. Moving silently to the window he had looked through before, he was disappointed to see the room empty. A door sat in the middle of the wall with another pair of windows on the opposite side. The other set of windows were covered by thick curtains, which he found impossible to see past. Pressing an ear against the thick glass, he listened closely and thought he could just barely make out the sound of voices.
Shaking his head in frustration, Vin was just about to turn away when he suddenly heard a clear, horror-filled scream. Thoughts of the crystal and summoning the others were completely driven from the tracker's mind as the scream was repeated. Drawing his knife, he tried the door first and found it firmly locked. Moving back to the first pair of windows, he discovered one that had been left partially open and quickly climbed up and over the sill.
As he entered the house, the despairing sobs of a woman became much clearer and led him unerringly across the short hallway to a door that stood partially closed. Crouching low, the half-elf peered through the narrow opening and felt his blood run cold at the sight that greeted him. Lying on the floor was Nathan's still form, his head cradled in the lap of the crying female. Her tears fell on the healer's cheeks as her hands stroked his face and neck.
Vin silently shifted his position but could see very little of the rest of the room. There was no sign of Nathan's attacker, which meant he could be standing anywhere beyond the door or...
A slight rustle of fabric was the only warning the tracker had. Spinning around he tried to bring his knife to bear on his attacker but was too late. The darkness of the corridor seemed to explode with light as a heavy object struck the side his head. Reeling back under the force of the blow, Vin fell through the door and sprawled helplessly across his friend's legs. Through the dull roar filling his ears, he heard Trian's frightened cry as he struggled to his hands and knees.
"Shut up stupid girl! This is all, your fault. Blame yourself for their deaths!"
Giving up on standing, Vin rolled to his back and lashed out blindly with his knife. A dark blur dodged clear then retaliated with a sharp strike to the half-elf's wrist. He cried out as the blade flew from his hand. Before he could recover from that injury, what little breath he had left was driven from his lungs by a vicious kick to his stomach. The darkness became complete as Vin curled his body around the pain and his last clear thought was that Chris was going to be really mad at him for not using the crystal.