"There, just up ahead. His workshop is to the back of the house. I think I remember seeing a door at the end of the central hallway." Nathan pointed out the imposing, two-story stone structure to Chris and Josiah as they came within sight of it.
"The inside, was there a lot of wooden decorations? Furniture?" Josiah slowed his steps as he questioned the healer forcing his two companions to match his steps.
Nathan frowned as he considered the question. "Well, of course there was furniture. I suppose it was a little fancier than most but what... ?"
"Hurough's magic is centered around wood. Any object in his home made of wood can hold a spell."
As he listened, Chris suddenly realized the kind of trouble they could be facing. "What are some of the more dangerous ones he might have?"
"Fire would be the easiest and the most dangerous. He can set a spell in an object that will cause it to suddenly ignite. Once I saw a man that had been killed when he sat in a chair with that kind of spell on it. I've also seen items explode with enough force to make the splinters deadly."
"Damn. If he is inside, he could have the whole place turned into one huge trap." Chris eyed the building warily.
From what Josiah was describing, it would be too dangerous to try attacking the man inside his own home. Chris was beginning to wish he had taken the town watch up on their offer to assist them. When two of the men had arrived at the tavern, Inez had been quick to reassure the guards that Hurough was the guilty party. They had been obviously disturbed by the thought of facing a wizard but had offered to help capture the man. After a quick consultation with Buck and Josiah, Chris had decided that the fewer outsiders involved the safer the mission.
"Alright. We don't know for sure he's in there but just going up to the door and knocking could get us slaughtered. Our best chance would be to get him to come to us."
"What should we do? Stand out here and throw rocks as his windows? Dare him to come out and face us?" Nathan frowned in annoyance at the delay even though he knew the logic behind it. What good would it do anyone if they simply rushed in and got themselves killed or captured?
"Now, that's not a bad idea. The inside may have wood but the outside is made of stone. Josiah...?"
"Of course! If we can't attack him inside, we'll force him outside. I'll need to actually touch the stones and each spell will take a few moments."
"Wait." Nathan stepped in front of his two friends and held his hands up in protest. "What if Vin and Trian are inside? You can't risk hurting them."
"I don't plan on bringing the whole house down. I'm merely going to make Hurough think I am." Josiah grinned his reassurances and patted the healer on the shoulder. "Don't worry. I promise you, it will be more noise than anything else."
Chris urged both men to resume walking. "We need to get started while there's still enough light to see by. Nathan, you and I will keep watch while Josiah works. When and if, Hurough does make an appearance, we have to do our best to take him alive just in case Vin and Trian aren't inside."
Having made their plans, the three men hurried to carry them out. While Nathan and Chris stood guard, Josiah carefully selected certain stones in each of the four walls. Taking extra care with the ones at the back of the house, it took just a little over one mark for the wizard to complete his spells.
"There, that should do it. I've set the spells so that each one will act as a trigger for the next. The stones should explode with just enough force to shake the walls but not make them collapse."
Chris nodded his understanding. "Good enough. It looks like the watch got the word spread around town as well. Nathan and I didn't see anyone on this street the whole time you were working." Turning to the healer, Chris gestured for him to take his position at the back of the house. "You and Josiah wait back there. I'll cover the front. Whoever spots him first, call out loud and clear."
The men quickly took up their positions in the growing darkness and then Josiah triggered the first stone. The quiet of the evening was suddenly shattered by the loud report of the rock exploding into thousands of tiny fragments. It was quickly followed by another and then another. True to his word, the walls of the house remained standing although several large cracks did appear.
As rocks along the third side began detonating, Nathan and Josiah waited tensely in the small, weed-choked courtyard behind the wizard's house. Josiah was just about to warn Nathan that some stones in front of them would soon be exploding when he noticed a slight change in the door directly in front of them. Reacting by instinct, Josiah threw himself against Nathan driving them both to the ground. The moment their bodies hit the ground, between the sharp retorts of bursting stone there came the crackling shriek of splintering wood. What had once been a solid door was suddenly a storm of wooden daggers that flew through the air right where the two men had been standing.
"Chris!" Josiah yelled for the mercenary even as he jumped to his feet and prepared to meet the enraged wizard.
Hurough was not a big man and though not old, was certainly past the prime of his life. His black hair was a greasy mess that hung to his shoulders and his thick, black brows met above his huge, beak of a nose. His mouth was partially open in a viscous snarl revealing a set of crooked, yellow teeth. A dark and ragged robe of coarse linen flapped about his skeletal frame as he brandished an ornately carved staff of darkly stained wood.
The wood wizard did not waste a moment in launching his next attack. Pointing his staff at the ground in front of him, he shrieked out a command. The dirt beneath Josiah and Nathan erupted, as sharp, wooden spikes seemed to sprout like blades of grass. The healer cried out as he dodged one sharpened stake only to have another carve a groove in his left calf.
Josiah responded quickly even as he also danced around the crippling wooden shafts. Casting a handful of stones to the ground in a circle, he triggered small explosions that cleared the surrounding ground of spikes.
Seeing that he was facing a true wizard, Hurough turned to retreat back to the safety of his home but found the door blocked by a very angry swordsman. Uttering a quick spell, the end of his staff burst into a sickly green flame that he thrust at the face of his opponent.
Chris blocked the flaming staff with his sword and was surprised to hear an almost metallic sound as the two weapons met. Whatever wood the staff was made of, he knew he would not be able to cut it with his blade. And knowing the wizard wanted to gain entry into the house, Chris could not retreat or step to the side of his attacks. Standing his ground firmly, he continued to block the vicious swings and jabs while holding back on his own strikes.
After first making sure that Nathan was alright, Josiah approached the two combatants and did not hesitate striking at Hurough from behind. But even as he swung his stone-encrusted staff, the wood wizard sensed the attack and quickly turned to block it. As the two staffs met, Josiah released a burst of energy that out-shone the green flames and sent Hurough staggering back.
Chris tried to step forward and take advantage of Josiah's attack only to have the burning end of the staff make contact with his shoulder. The green flames seemed to leap from the staff and wrap themselves greedily around his arm. Crying out at the searing pain, the mercenary dropped to the ground in an attempt to smother the fire. Nathan appeared at his side and between the two of them they were able to rip the shirt away from his body. The healer tried to tend to the blackened flesh but was pushed roughly away with a snarled, "After the fight."
Meanwhile, Josiah had continued his assault driving the other wizard away from the safety of his home. The two men circled the small courtyard, their staffs a blur of motion and light as they fought with skill and magic. Finally seeing an opening, Josiah swept his staff low and managed to catch Hurough just below his knees. The man screamed in outrage as he stumbled back unable to keep his balance. Suddenly, his cry of anger turned into a gurgling shout of pain that ended in a horrible gasp for air.
Fearing the worst, Josiah stepped forward while activating the crystal at the end of his staff. As the light increased, it revealed a gruesome sight. Hurough lay on the ground, his mouth gaping open as he struggled to breathe around the wooden shaft that pierced his chest.
"Nathan! Hurry! I think he's dying." Josiah called out to the healer while kicking the still flaming staff clear of Hurough's groping fingers. "Lie still if you want to live."
"Why...do you...care...?" Blood bubbled from the man's lips as he questioned Josiah.
"What have you've done with Trian and Vin?" Nathan kneeled at the wizard's side and placed his hands on the man's chest. "Tell us and I'll save you."
Hurough grinned, his yellow teeth stained pink. "You'll find them... in the...Pits... " As he spoke, the dying man lifted his hand and before Nathan could stop him, placed it on his chest over a wooden medallion hidden beneath his linen robe. Josiah pulled the healer clear just before the body burst into a fountain of green fire.
"No!" Nathan screamed and tried to reach for Hurough but Josiah held him back.
"Nathan! Stop! There's nothing you can do." The wizard shoved the man back and then stepped forward with his staff pointed at the burning body. Lines of energy leaped from the stones and traced their way across the flaming cloth, shredding it and sending the pieces flying away. Hurough's impaled form lurched with the impact but it was obvious the man was already dead.
"Bysha's Tears." Nathan fell to his knees and covered his face with his hands.
Chris stumbled up to stand beside the two men and stared down at the charred remains of the wood wizard. He had heard the dying man's words and grief warred with rage in his heart. The pain of his injury was forgotten as the sorrow of his loss filled his soul. His teeth gritted against the scream of anger he could feel building, Chris turned to retreat back into the darkness. As his eyes left the body, he noticed the light from Josiah's staff gleaming on something metallic. The mercenary caught his breath in a soundless cry and bending down, his fingers wrapped around the elven cloak pin that he had last seen in Vin's hand.
Straightening up, the mercenary clenched the pin so tightly he could feel it cutting into the palm of his hand. But even that pain was nothing compared to the agony in his heart. Staring off into the darkness, he felt a feather light touch on his uninjured shoulder and shrugged away what he thought to be either Josiah's or Nathan's attempt at comfort. When he felt the same touch again on his hair, he turned to warn the men back but the angry words died on his lips. Nathan was still kneeling on the ground and it was on his shoulder that Josiah had place a comforting hand.
Chris frowned in confusion and then jerked again as he felt something brush his cheek. Stepping back toward the light of the wizard's staff, he turned his head looking for the source of the feather light touches. Something blue and sparkling caught his eyes and he called out softly to Josiah.
Hearing his name spoken in a strange, hushed whisper, the wizard looked up and spotted Chris staring at something in the air. Following his bewildered gaze, Josiah also caught sight of a small, flying shape that seemed to have two, sparkling blue points of light for eyes.
"What... ?" The creature dove in and out of the light but seemed intent on approaching the mercenary. Josiah moved to stand next to his friend, grounding his staff just in case he needed his hands free.
Chris moved the cloak pin to his right hand then cautiously stretched out his left, palm up at about shoulder height. From his place on the ground, Nathan watched the two men in confusion, not having seen the animal flying about their heads.
Keeping his hand steady, Chris' patience was rewarded when the small creature dove from the darkness and landed in his palm. He could feel tiny pricks like miniature thorns digging into his flesh while something cool and serpentine wrapped around his thumb. His mind tried to deny what his eyes were telling him but a glance at Josiah and Nathan's stunned expressions confirmed his vision.
"It's Vin's dragon. The one I carved for him." Two, crystal blue eyes winked at him and pale yellow wings slowly beat the air as the empowered sculpture seemed to be waiting for some kind of signal or command. "But... how... ?"
"Trian! It must be her." Nathan moved to stand next to his friends and slowly stretched a finger out to touch the dragon. The tiny creature raised a clawed foot and gave a silent hiss of anger that almost made Chris smile.
"You think she and Vin are somewhere together and she put a spell on his dragon?" Josiah frowned as he considered the possibility. He knew that wood wizards could animate sculptures and often did for puppet shows. But he had never seen a magical creature that seemed so alive or operated so far from its creator.
"If that's the case, then it may be able to lead us to them." No sooner had the words left his mouth than the dragon launched itself from Chris' hand and disappeared into the darkness. "No! Come back!"
Chris kept his hand outstretched and waited breathlessly. He gave a small sigh of relief that was echoed by the others when the magical carving returned. The tiny head turned to the side and it stared at the mercenary as if it was confused by the call for it to return. Not knowing if it really could understand him, Chris still spoke out loud to let Nathan and Josiah know what needed to be done.
"First we contact Buck and the others and let them know what's happened. Then we'll need more light and horses so that we can travel faster."
"Josiah can call the others using his crystal while I take care of your arm." Feeling hopeful once more, Nathan stepped forward but this time he stayed clear of the dragon and moved to rest his hands lightly on Chris' right shoulder. "Buck or Ezra can meet us wherever the horses are and bring us lanterns and you another shirt."
Nodding his head in agreement, Chris surrendered to the healer's ministrations while his eyes remained fixed on the restlessly stirring dragon. "We also need to search Hurough's remains. He had Vin's cloak pin, there may be something else here that might help us locate him and Trian."
Vin watched, as the flame grew dimmer and dimmer. Twice it had flickered and almost completely died only to resume its feeble glow. It wouldn't be much longer before the last of the oil was consumed and the darkness would be complete. The tracker slumped back against the wall and tried not to think of what it would be like, starving to death in the silent darkness of the cave. His stomach rumbled hollowly as he thought of food and his mind returned to the last time he had spoken with his partner. 'No worries,' he had said. Now, he didn't even know if Chris was still alive or waiting for him on the other side. Well, a few days and he would know, one way or the other.
A curl of smoke trailed up from the tiny flame and silently faded from sight. A soft cry from his left let Vin know that Trian had also witnessed the passing of the light. But neither prisoner spoke, the silence far too heavy to break.
"Are you sure you don't want the rest of us to ride with you?" Buck watched closely as Chris carefully shifted the wooden dragon from one hand to the other as he pulled on a new shirt. If he weren't seeing it with his own eyes, he never would have believed such a thing possible.
"I'm sure. The scroll is still in danger as well as the king. We don't know where this dragon is going to lead us or what we may find. If you don't hear from us and we're not back by morning, you take the remaining horses and get to Winderwood then the capitol."
Buck finally nodded his agreement and held the bridle of the horse while his friend mounted using just one hand. "How are you going to follow that thing in the dark?"
Chris had considered that problem already and thought he had a solution. Leaning forward, he coaxed the dragon off his hand and onto the headpiece of the bridal between the horse's ears. The mare gave her head a small shake and flipped her ears at the strange feeling but the tiny creature held on to the leather and refused to be dislodged.
"Now, stay right there and point in the direction we should go in."
Chris and the others waited to see if the magical carving understood and would obey his command. There was more than one sigh of relief when the dragon turned its head and stretched its neck out as far is it would go.
Josiah turned his own head in the same direction. "That way, lies the mountain. I seem to recall that there are several small caves along the side, facing town. Do you think Hurough might have hidden Vin and Trian there?"
Taking the lantern from Buck's hand, Chris gave his horse a firm nudge with his heels to get her started. "Only one way to find out. Buck, get back to Jaydee and Ezra and the three of you stay alert."
Buck started to call out, 'no worries' but thought better of it and simply answered, "Sure thing, Chris. Good luck." As he watched the three men ride off, he couldn't help but think of how silent Nathan had been. It appeared that Chris might not be the only one to have found himself a partner on this journey. "Bysha let them be safe."
Vin shifted restlessly in the stillness of his prison. The darkness was complete and the half-elf was getting the feeling that the cave was a lot smaller than it had been when the lamp was burning. In fact, it felt like the walls were getting closer. Just to reassure himself that such was not the case, he stretched his arms out as far as they would go to either side. But pulling against his restraints only made the enclosed feeling worse. And the air... was it getting harder to breath?
There had been occasions in the past when he had experienced the same feelings and been forced to leave whatever building or structure he happened to be in at the time. Now there was no escaping the pressure and that thought drove Vin to begin tugging helplessly against the chains that bound him.
Trian heard the desperate movements and called out in confusion. "Vin? What are you doing?"
"Out... I have to... can't breath..." The rattling of the chains became more frantic as the tracker struggled to pull free heedless of the blood running down his arms. "Too... close..."
The young apprentice wizard did not understand what Vin was talking about. He had appeared fine before the flame died, why was the darkness causing him to panic? What did he mean he couldn't breath?
"Vin? Talk to me. Tell me what's happening."
"The walls... too small... have to get out... need air..."
"Vin, listen to me. The cave is still the same size it was before the light went out. Nothing has changed. The air is fine, just take deep breaths and sit still." Trian listened as the sounds of struggling slowed and finally stilled. "Vin? Vin, are you alright?" She could hear the half-elf's ragged breathing so she knew he was still alive but beyond that...
"Can't take the horses any further. Which way is the dragon pointing now?" Josiah slowly dismounted from his mare, aware of the rocky, uneven ground and the sudden drop off to his left.
"Looks like he wants us to go down. You must have been right about those caves." Chris held the carving once more in his right hand and a lantern in his left. Holding the light up, he spotted a rough trail that disappeared over the edge of the mountain. "One of us should probably remain up here, just in case."
"I'm going down." Nathan's firm voice left no room for argument.
Knowing well the feelings of his two friends, Josiah volunteered to stay behind. "Watch out for anything made of wood. And here, I think these two rods may be keys. I found them on Hurough and they are definitely empowered." He handed the short pieces of dull black metal to Nathan and explained further. "If he has them locked up behind bars or in chains, just press one of these along the surface. It should trigger the release."
Nathan nodded his understanding and tucked the magic keys safely away in his belt. Grabbing his own lamp, he turned and began following Chris down the steep path.
"Vin? Talk to me. Are you alright?" Trian listened closely and could hear the ragged breathing that at least told her the half-elf was still alive. But what good was that? Her eyes filled with tears as she thought again of Nathan and the fact that he was probably dead. Unless Hurough returned for them, she and Vin would be joining the healer in a few days. How long did it take to die of starvation? Would it hurt?
Blinking back the tears, Trian found herself glancing all around the cave. She almost felt that if she tried hard enough, she might find some difference, some point where the darkness was not as complete.
"Look, Nathan. You can see marks in the dust where something was drug along the trail." Chris held his lantern low so that the healer could see the marks as well. "And I think that's a cave just up ahead."
Both men paused to examine their surroundings as best they could in the combined light of their lanterns. Suddenly, as if it had finally lost its patience, the tiny dragon beat its wings and took off into the night. Chris made a grab for it but had to regain his balance to keep from going over the edge of the trail.
"Damn! Did you see which way it went?"
"I think it flew into that cave. Come on." Nathan was also at the end of his patience and determined to learn the fate of the young woman he had fallen hopelessly in love with.
Chris continued to lead the way and the two men slowly entered the forbidding darkness.
Something touched his cheek. Vin shuddered and pressed his face against his arm. He kept his eyes tightly closed. If he didn't look, he could imagine himself somewhere else. He could pretend it was simply the black stillness of night and he was outside. He couldn't completely ignore the metal cuffs digging into his wrists but he tried. He forced his mind further and further away from the pain. It wasn't a new darkness he was slipping into. He vaguely remembered it from a time before. Then he had struggled against it until exhaustion had shown him just how peaceful it was. Now, he purposefully sought it as his only means of escape. Once again, a feathery light touch, this time on his neck, broke his concentration.
Trian heard Vin moan and the rattle of his chains as he shifted about. She instinctively looked in his direction and blinked in surprise. Turning her head back toward what she believed to be the entrance, she was shocked to see a difference in the color of the darkness. Was it a trick of her imagination? Or worse, was Hurough coming for them at last?
In the silence of the cave, she listened closely and could just make out the sounds of quiet, careful footsteps slowly approaching. "Vin!" She half whispered, half hissed the tracker's name and tried to draw his attention to the entrance. "I think someone is coming. Vin! Look, you can just see some light at the entrance. Vin?"
Hearing Trian's words, Vin reluctantly lifted his head and forced his eyes open. At first he could not see the difference that she was talking about but then realized he was facing in the wrong direction. Turning, his better light sensitive vision quickly picked up the increased brightness. At the same moment, he also heard the distinctive sound of booted footsteps.
Fearing Hurough's return as well, Vin struggled to his feet determined to meet the evil wizard like a man and not some chained animal. As he stood, he felt a something small and light suddenly land on his shoulder. Unable to pull his hands up far enough to brush it away, he tried to shrug it off but could feel light pricks as if the unknown creature were digging tiny nails through the material of his shirt. Four points of pressure against the ridge of his shoulder with a fifth moving worm like across his neck. Could it be...?
"Dragon?" The smooth, cool caress of what might have been the edge of a wing against his ear was answer enough. And if the magical carving had returned, then the steps approaching might belong to...
"Damn. This cave goes way back under the mountain." Chris kept his voice to a whisper as he paced down the narrow tunnel. "Keep your eyes open for any side openings. It would be just our luck to have this thing turn into a maze."
Nathan didn't speak but did as Chris suggested. His grip tightened on the knife he held in his right hand as he followed the mercenary deeper and deeper into the darkness. He was caught by surprise as Chris suddenly came to an abrupt halt and held his hand up for silence.
The two men stood frozen and strained their ears to pick up the slightest sound. Finally, Nathan heard what sounded like the dull ring of metal against rock.
"Do you think...?"
Chris answered by drawing his sword and holding it ready in front of him. Motioning with a nod, he once more led the way.
Trian and Vin both stood staring at the growing brightness. It was still too dark for the apprentice to see the dragon perched on the tracker's shoulder and he didn't dare call out to her. They still didn't know for sure who was approaching and until they did, neither one wanted to break the silence.
The footsteps grew louder and more distinct. It had become obvious that there were at least two people approaching, not just one. Vin clenched his hands into fists as his body tensed in anticipation. If it was Hurough, he planned on putting up as much of fight as the chains would allow. After all, what did he have left to lose?
The light became bright enough to illuminate the entrance and show that the tunnel leading into the cavern had a sharp bend. The two prisoners could see the tunnel wall and the rocky shadows cast by the moving lights. Between one straining breath and the next, they were suddenly caught in the glow of twin lanterns as Chris and Nathan stepped around the corner with weapons drawn.
"Nathan!" Trian was the first to break the stunned silence and stretched her arms out as far as her chains would allow; her relief at seeing the healer alive and well making her forget about her own ordeal. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she felt the warm, strong arms gather her up in a tight and loving embrace.
Chris felt Nathan brush against him as he rushed to the young woman. Years of training held the mercenary back as his eyes quickly scanned the cave prison before walking slowly and carefully forward. Once he was sure there were no traps or hidden dangers, his gaze settled on his partner and gave him the same careful scrutiny.
The sharp features of the half-elf looked drawn and even paler than usual. His blue eyes were opened wide and staring fixedly at Chris as if not entirely sure that what he was seeing was real. Perched on the young man's shoulder and partially hidden by his hair was the small wooden dragon. Following the line of his arm, Chris felt his jaws clench in anger as he spotted the metal shackles and the dark stains of blood on Vin's slender hands.
Sheathing his sword and placing his lantern on the ground as he drew closer, he called out to Nathan. "Get those metal rods and see if they work on their cuffs."
Hearing Chris speak, Vin blinked his blue eyes and drew in a deep and steadying breath. It was real then. His friend and partner was alive and had come to free him. He reached up a hand and winced as the weight of the chains aggravated the torn flesh of his wrist. But his hand was caught in the strong and gentle grip of Chris' and the pull of the heavy chain was eased as the mercenary took that weight as well.
Never taking his green eyes from Vin's face, Chris listened as Nathan found the right empowered rod and Trian's chains dropped from her wrists. He looked down as the healer approached and watched as the dark hands touched first one rod and then another against the metal cuff imprisoning their friend. Finally, the metal band snapped open but Nathan had to actually pull it free of the swollen flesh.
Vin hissed at the pain and instinctively tried to jerk his hand back but Chris held on tightly. "Be still, Vin. Nathan?"
Nodding his head, the healer quickly wrapped his hands around the injured wrist and concentrated for just a moment. "It's not that bad, considering. This won't take long."
True to his word, it was only a few moments later that Vin relaxed his visibly tensed muscles as the pain disappeared.
"There, that's one down." Stepping around Chris, Nathan moved to the other side of the half-elf and proceeded to open that shackle as well. The wrist beneath it was even more swollen than the other and the healer was dismayed to see that Vin's hand was actually dark from constricted blood flow. "Damn. Were you hurt before that Viper chained you up?"
Vin looked down at his right hand and saw that it looked just as bad as it felt. "Yeah. Hit my wrist with that staff of his. I don't think he broke it. At least not all the way." Reminded of the wizard, the young man quickly looked back to Chris.
"Dead. Fell on one of his own wooden traps." Chris heard the startled gasp from Trian and turned to see her staring at them in shock. "Did you know he had the back courtyard lined with spikes?"
"Chris..." Nathan's warning growl of the mercenary's name did not stop him.
Trian gathered her composure and drew herself up to her full height. Meeting Chris' hard gaze, she unflinchingly spoke the truth. "Yes, I knew about them. I knew about the spikes and the dozens of other trap spells that Hurough had all through the house." She shrugged her shoulders and gave her head a small shake. "He was my teacher. I thought him merely eccentric. I never saw him actually use one of those spells or do anything else to purposefully hurt someone. Had I known he was working with orcs I would have gone to the town watch immediately."
Chris slowly nodded his head in acceptance. Turning back to Vin, he motioned for Nathan to remove the second metal cuff while he held the arm still. Vin couldn't help the cry of pain as the metal was tugged away from his wrist. The room seemed to spin and his knees felt like they would buckle at any moment. Seeing the tracker break out into a light sweat as the shackle was removed, Trian stepped forward and offered her own support for which the half-elf was very grateful.
"Easy, Vin. This is going to take a little longer. The bones were cracked and pulling against the chains made it worse."
Chris frowned as he watched Nathan heal his partner. Why had Vin kept struggling when it should have been obvious there was no escape? Hadn't he realized the damage he was doing to himself?
The worst was soon over and everyone let out sighs of relief as Nathan quickly finished. "There, it may ache for a couple of days but you can still use it."
Vin thanked his friend as he slowly rotated the newly healed joint. It did hurt a little but nothing like before. Drawing a deep breath, he forced himself to straighten and smiled reassuringly at Chris. "Well, I'm ready to leave if you are."
Feeling a smile tug at his lips, Chris nodded his head in agreement and bent down to retrieve his lantern.
"And I hope you saved me some of that pie like you promised."
The reunion of the seven friends had been loud and jubilant. By that time most of the town had gotten word of Hurough's treachery and total strangers dropped by the Lucky Wench to congratulate and thank the seven men despite the lateness of the hour. Josiah was especially singled out as the hero since many people felt that it must take one wizard to kill another.
Vin and Trian were grateful just to be warm and have food in their empty stomachs. Inez fussed over the young apprentice like a long lost sister and even used a pair of scissors to fix the mess that Hurough had left of her hair. Trian enjoyed the attention, especially that of Nathan who never left her side.
For Vin, when the initial joy of seeing the rest of his friends still alive wore off, the night's continuing festivities became another kind of torture to be endured. The tavern remained packed with people and despite the open windows and door the half-elf was finding it harder and harder to breathe.
Leaving the confines of the cave and stepping out into the coolness of the night had been a wonderful feeling. He had paused on the narrow trail just to breathe in the night air. It had been very much like waking up from a nightmare. In fact, he doubted he would ever be able to return to his own cave that he had called home. Now...
The half-elf gave a small start as he felt Chris touch his arm. He hadn't realized that the mercenary was beside him, let alone that close. "Yeah?"
"Want to step outside with me for a moment?"
Vin didn't hesitate. He was on his feet and out the door without a second thought. Once more he turned his face up to the stars and drew in deep lungs' full of cool air. This time he was aware of his partner's approach and felt embarrassment warm his cheeks as Chris spoke.
"I'll take this to mean 'yes'."
"Sorry. Just... got a little warm... I guess..."
Chris wasn't fooled. He had known the young tracker for two turns and was able to fit all the clues together. The man hardly ever stayed inside and when he did he was always near a window or open door. He avoided crowds whenever possible and generally seemed to prefer being out in the open.
"Vin, ain't nothing wrong with having a dislike of being closed in. I've had soldiers that couldn't stand to sleep in tents even during rainstorms. Small places just bother some people, it's nothing to be ashamed of."
Vin sighed and felt himself relax. Of course Chris would understand, he had been a fool to fear otherwise. Reaching up, he wrapped his fingers around the wooden carving were it hung once again from its cord around his neck. After their return to the tavern, Trian had taught him the word to stop the spell. The apprentice had been surprised to see that the tiny creature was still moving. The men had decided not to voice their theory that Vin was actually the power behind the spell. Knowing that he could bring the tiny dragon back to life whenever he wanted made the gift that much more precious to him.
"So, how's the head?"
"What?" It took the young man a moment to bring his wondering thoughts back the present. "Oh, it's fine. The lump only hurts when I touch it."
"Good. What about your stomach?" Chris kept his voice casual and Vin just assumed he was asking out of curiosity.
"About the same as my head. Got a bruise that hurts when touched. Muscles pull a little bit too but it's fine."
"Glad to hear that." The mercenary suddenly focused a hard, green-eyed stare on his partner and Vin instinctively took a step back but he wasn't quite fast enough to avoid Chris' long reach. Grabbing the half-elf by the collar of his shirt, Chris pulled him in close and gave him a firm shake. "The next time I tell you to call for help and wait, I want you to remember what happened this time and what it might have cost us. Clear?"
It was actually very clear to Vin exactly what Chris was saying and what he really meant but he solemnly shook his head to the opposite. "No, not really. I think maybe you need to go over that with me a little more." Meeting Chris' flashing green eyes with his own sparkling blue ones, Vin lifted his chin and with an impish smile, he nodded his head toward the stable behind the Lucky Wench. "With the right company, I don't think I'd mind being closed up in there for the rest of the night."
Chris was just as quick to pick up on Vin's thinly veiled suggestion but pursed his lips, as he seemed to seriously ponder the idea and weigh the choices. "Let's see, alone with you in a quiet barn, in a stall filled with hay or inside a tavern packed with people and our nosey friends. Tough decision."
Vin leaned forward against his partner's hold until Chris could feel his warm breath against his neck. "I think I can make the decision a little easier."
"I think you just did."
"Well, it's about time." Buck grinned and stroked his mustache as he watched his two friends disappear into the darkness.
"You mean Chris and Vin are gonna..." Jaydee craned his neck and started to step past Buck to see for himself but a firm hand on his shoulder pulled him back.
"Yeah and they don't need spectators." Steering the young fighter back to the fire, Buck winked knowingly at Josiah who smiled and nodded his approval as well. Nathan was too involved with Trian to notice and the others didn't think it important enough to interrupt another obvious pairing in the making.
Ezra was the only one who seemed slightly put out as he stood at the window staring out into the night. Josiah approached the frowning minstrel and held out a mug of Inez's best ale as a peace offering.
"Come on, Ezra. You knew it was bound to happen sooner or later. They put it off longer than most would have been able to."
Accepting the tankard, Ezra took a healthy swig before answering. "Have you ever found something that you never missed because you never had it to begin with?"
At first, Josiah's brow wrinkled in confusion as he tried to work out the convoluted question but then he realized what Ezra was saying and gave the man a sad and knowing smile. "Be at peace, Ezra and wish them Bysha's Blessing. You're a good man and still young yet. You have plenty of time to find you a partner of your own." Giving the man a pat on the shoulder, the wizard turned to rejoin the others.
"Josiah... thank you." The words were spoken softly but carried clearly. Josiah merely lifted his hand in a small wave and left the minstrel to his thoughts. Thoughts, which seemed to circle endlessly around a certain half-elf tracker and his blond, mercenary partner.
"It's best if you stay here with Inez. The two of you know the truth about our quest and if something goes wrong, it will be up to you and the others at Four Winds to get a message to the king."
Nathan held tightly to Trian's hands, as he explained once more why she couldn't join him and the others. They had discussed this most of the day and they both realized the logic in the decision but parting was still painful.
Train bowed her head and squeezed Nathan's fingers in return. "I know, I know but I'm just afraid that I won't see you again. We've barely had any time together..."
"And I'll treasure time we did have for the rest of my days because I'll remember it as the beginning of our life together." Nathan drew his new partner close and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. His cheek brushed against her hair and the silver and gold comb that had been his gift to her. On his left wrist, a bracelet with carved, wooden beads was her gift to him. He knew it had a spell on it but she had refused to tell him what it was. With a twinkle in her dark eyes, she had merely promised that if he hadn't found out before hand, she would tell him only when they were together again.
Sighing softly, Trian hugged Nathan close and buried her face against his chest. "Promise me you'll return."
"Bysha willing, with all my heart and spirit."
"Nathan! Our ride is ready!" Jaydee's happy shout signaled the end of their embrace.
Giving Trian a quick kiss, Nathan stepped back with a lingering look of love. Turning, he quickly strode over to where the others had gathered with the young stone wizard Tyler. The wizard had been gladly summoned back by the town watch and had been eager to help the seven men. He was good friends with Trian and had never cared for the wizard Hurough.
Using his own transport crystals, Tyler had taken Josiah to a safe place at the capitol to set up his own stone. Now the two wizards were ready to teleport everyone to their final destination.
Jaydee was grinning broadly as he fairly bounced in place. "I can't believe we're finally going to reach the capitol and I'm going to meet the king and join the guard and ..."
"Steady on there, kid. Let's just get through this teleport first then you can start counting your chickens." Buck was nervous as usual and had made it quite clear that Josiah was the only one he trusted to magic him halfway across the country. He was trying to look calm but kept stroking his mustache with his thumb.
"Buck." Turning in surprise, the fighter was caught off-guard as Inez threw her arms around his neck and pulled his head down for a deep and passionate kiss. Finally letting the man up for air, she smiled coyly and whispered in his ear, "Don't wait two turns before coming back."
Chris and Vin watched the antics of their friends with amusement. To those who knew them, there was a new sense of calmness to the mercenary and an air of confidence to the tracker. The two men stood close together, not quite touching physically but still giving off an aura of 'oneness'.
"Well, I for one am ready to go and will be relieved to see this journey finally ended." Ezra shifted the borrowed guitar higher on his shoulder and stepped toward the wizard Tyler. He had done his best to hide his feelings from the rest of the men but was certain that they all knew and politely remaining silent. Something for which he was truly grateful but the sooner he could lose himself in the capitol, the better he would feel. Or so he kept telling himself.
Chris nodded his head and stepped forward as well. Thanking both Inez and Trian for their help, he turned to the patiently waiting wizards. "Right, it's time to finish this."