The morning air held the crisp taste of frost and a certain tense feeling of anticipation as the old season slowly relinquished its hold to make way for the new. It was a moment of in-betweens with the sun just barely peeking over the mountains as the brightest stars faded slowly from sight above the dark tree line. Neither night nor full day, neither summer nor fall, for one brief moment in time the world seemed to pause...catch its breath.... and then resume the ancient cycle of life.
They weren't grackles but they also weren't quite so troubling as the day before. Vin watched the people passing to either side of the fair wagon and was surprised at how little they bothered him. For the first time he was able to just 'look' at the people and actually find some enjoyment in their diversity. The tracker let his gaze slide across the many faces, lingering for a moment on the bright smile of a child, pausing to appreciate the details of a whore's makeup and noting with respect the wisdom in a pair of sparkling, ancient eyes.
There was still a great deal of noise and the odors were just as cloying but Vin realized he no longer felt threatened or closed in. He would always prefer the quiet of the forest and the openness of a green meadow to crowded towns but at least now he knew he could move about freely and not become overwhelmed. In fact, upon leaving Ezra's house that morning he had felt a strange, exhilarating kind of energy that made him step a little quicker and stand a little straighter.
Still, as the wagon cleared the city gates, Vin couldnt help voicing a small sigh of relief. The field they were heading to might be just as crowded but at least he would be able to look up and see the clear blue sky without buildings looming in at him from every side. The largest obstructions would be banners and brightly colored flags waving in the cool breeze and he figured those shouldnt be any worse than tree limbs in a forest.
Jaydee heard his friends exhalation but thoughtfully ignored it. He found the streets of Fransco exciting and was actually looking forward to spending a day at the fair. Perhaps while they were looking for hidden enemy soldiers he would find a gift to take back to Casey. His lips curved into a smile as he thought about his distant love and he gave his own wistful sigh. It seemed like a day didnt go by when he didnt think about her and dream about their reunion.
Vin couldnt help grinning as he heard Jaydees sigh and saw the far away look in his eyes. He knew exactly what the young man was thinking about, or rather who and decided to leave him alone with his pleasant thoughts. Reaching up to lightly grasp the small wooden dragon resting against his chest, he let his own thoughts drift for just a moment. Shifting about in the straw, he tried to find a more comfortable position as the wagon bounced its way along the road. It was a pretty good set up actually, for both the wagon owners and the fair patrons. For one copper, instead of walking all the way from the city, one could save their energy and enjoy a ride in a bed of hay. And judging by the number of wagons and their full loads, it was a very popular arrangement.
Letting his own gaze wander about the countryside as he conjured images of Casey, Jaydee suddenly sat up straight and gasped in surprise. "Vin! Look!"
The half elf jerked up right as well and began searching for the danger. "What is it? Where "
"Over there. Dont you see them?"
Vin quickly realized that the tone of Jaydees voice was one of excited pleasure, not alarm. Looking in the direction the young man was pointing, he tried to figure out what had caught his friends attention.
"Jaydee, all I see is a patrol of Swans."
"Yes! Arent they marvelous?" Jaydee looked over at the tracker and was dismayed to see an amused smile on his friends face. "I mean Ive never actually seen that is Buck told me about "
An old man sitting slightly behind Jaydee gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Heh. Thats alright lad, those ladies deserve a little honest admiration."
Jaydee still blushed. He hated the times when his ignorance showed so plainly. But damn it! It wasn't his fault he had led such a sheltered life while taking care of his mother. Before the young fighter's spirit could sink any lower, a light touch on his other arm caught his attention and he looked to see that Vin was still smiling at him but with real understanding.
"Hes right, Jaydee. Although Id say they deserve more than a little. It's rare for them to patrol south of here but I guess I just got used to seeing them during the war. Wouldnt be here today if a squad of them hadnt pulled me out of a bad situation."
"Come now boy, you couldnt possibly have been old enough to do any fighting." The old man scoffed good-naturedly at Vin who chose to simply ignore him.
Jaydee followed Vins example and nodded back towards the mounted patrol of Swans, the sunlight reflecting from their snow-white capes as they disappeared into the city. "Is it true that the first Swan died saving the kings life at Sunlit Lake?"
Vin shook his head. "Not exactly. There werent any Swans then." Settling back into the hay, the tracker got a far away look in his eyes as he began telling Jaydee how the Swan Patrols were formed.
Nearing the end of the war, King Orrin was desperate for fighting men. Bandits were devastating the outlying villages and towns since most of the able-bodied men were in the army. Some of the women left behind decided to take matters into their own hands. They put down their needles and rolling pins and picked up swords and bows. Towns were still destroyed but the women went down fighting. And the ones that survived had nothing left, so they cut their hair, bound their breasts to make themselves look like men and joined the army. When the king found out there were women dying on the battlefield, he ordered all the captains to do an inspection. Any woman found was to be packed off to the nearest temple.
It was at the battle of Sunlit Lake that Orrin was wounded and surrounded by three of the enemy. He managed to dispatch one of them and was engaging the second when the third got behind him and was going to put a dagger in his back. Orrin knew of the danger but was too hard pressed defending himself from the cowardly attack. As he fought the man in front of him, he expected to feel the cold bite of steel between his ribs at any moment. But it never came. He managed to kill his second opponent and when he turned, he found the third man dead on the ground with a knife sticking out of his throat. That mans dagger was lodged in the chest of one of Orrins soldiers.
Ignoring his own wound, the king dropped to his knees beside the man to see if he could be saved. When he opened the tunic, he discovered that the soldier was a woman. Orrin was so upset he yelled at her demanding to know why she had done it. Through the tears of pain she smiled and told him, "My husband and my two sons died fighting for their king. Raiders came and burned my house while I hid in the forest. I couldnt fight as well as my husband or my sons, but I can die just the same. Fighting for my king."
She passed away just moments later while Orrin held her in his arms and cried. His own captains found him there beside the lake at the end of the battle, simply sitting there watching a family of swans swimming along the waters edge. He told them exactly what had happened. He was very upset that he had never even learned her name before she died. He turned his anger on the captains, demanding to know how it was that women were still in the army. One of the captains, a man from the town of Larabee, explained that it was impossible to check every soldier every day for breasts. Orrin threatened to have the man flogged for making light of what he considered a tragic situation. But it seemed that this captain had a temper of his own and didnt let a simple thing like a crown get in the way of him speaking his mind.
It was the captains opinion that if women wanted to fight for their king they should be allowed to but not as a common ground soldiers. They lacked the training and the muscle to fight with swords and their lives were often wasted. He suggested that instead of locking the women up in temples, they should be trained to fight in ways that would actually give them a chance of surviving. And if they did die, to make their deaths count for something. At first Orrin was against the idea but he listened as the captain made his suggestions.
Give the women battle-trained horses and lightweight, leather armor to make up for what they lacked in muscle. Teach them to use long-range weapons like bows and spears. And if they did have to get in close, make sure they knew how to use two blades; one for attacking and one for defense. And finally, form them into squads and use them for special patrols to defend the towns and harass the bandits. That would keep them out of the real war but still give them a chance to serve their king.
It was that last detail that won Orrins approval. He wrote up a declaration that very day; had the word spread by crystal throughout the kingdom and put the captain from Larabee and his lieutenant in charge of setting up a training camp for the women. They set up the base right there next to the lake and it was Orrin that decided they would be called the Kings Swans, beautiful but fierce in the defense of their own. A monument was erected for the unnamed women that gave her life for her king and she was given the honorary title of being the first Swan.
"And the patrols were so successful, the king decided to keep them going even after the war. They still guard the outlying towns north and west of here and he keeps a few squads in the city."
Vin finished his tale and looking past Jaydee, he suddenly became aware that he had the whole wagonload of people as an audience. It was his turn to blush and he was glad that the strip of blue cloth was covering the points of his ears since he was sure they were just as red as his face.
The old man that had butted in earlier shook his head in admiration. "You tell a fine story lad but I still say you was too young to be in the war. Best save that tale for when you have whiskers to make it more believable."
Several people laughed and Jaydee was ready to jump to Vins defense but the tracker caught his eye and conveyed with a look that he should just let the matter slide. Vin didnt care if strangers believed him or not and he certainly did not want to draw any more attention to himself. His friends knew the truth and they were the only ones that really mattered. Besides which, the wagon was pulling up to the main entrance of the fair and it was time for them to begin their search.
A candle mark before noon found Jaydee and Vin working their way down the last row of tents at the northern edge of the field. They had been very thorough in their inspection but had not turned up one trace of enemy soldiers or anything even remotely suspicious or vaguely threatening. The few men and women they did see with weapons had the red cords of peace-bonding laced about their hilts that all armed fair goers acquired at the entrance. In fact, the two adventurers might have finished their inspection sooner had they not indulged in a little honest sightseeing. The fair was a new experience for both young men and many of the attractions had proven to be too interesting to walk on by.
Judging the time of day by the position of the sun, Jaydee was about to suggest they find a food tent and have an early lunch when he noticed that Vin was no longer beside him. Looking back, he spotted the half elf standing in front of one of the many gaming booths that were scattered about the fair. Like the other games, this one was a challenge of skill but where the others had been simple things involving balls or rings, this one actually used arrows.
"Ah, step right up lads! Try your hand at a little target practice. Impress your ladies with one of these fine prizes guaranteed to win you a night of gratitude." The hawker waved to a collection of scarves and pottery pieces arranged on shelves behind him while with the other hand he gestured to a wooden rail set further back in the field. "Simply break three of the clay pots with three arrows and pick your prize. Only three coppers a chance."
"Cmon, Vin." Jaydee pulled on the trackers sleeve to urge him away. "You have to use his arrows and theyre probably all bent."
"I assure you they are not! Feel free to inspect them all and pick the ones you want to use. Ill even give you a warm up shot as a show of honesty."
That sounded a little too good to be true and Jaydee looked closely at the scruffy gamester but the man appeared to be sincere. He stood about as tall as Buck although much thinner and a few years older. His mustache and beard held as much gray as Josiahs but were in dire need of trimming. If not for his eyes, the man would have been totally forgettable; it was those piercing black eyes that caught and held Jaydees attention. Set close to either side of the mans long nose, they seemed completely at odds with the wide, smiling mouth and the cajoling voice. It was like looking into the eyes of a completely different person.
Jaydee felt a small shiver race up his spine and tugged again on Vins sleeve but the tracker was already holding up an arrow and peering down its length to check for flaws.
"Just a moment, Jaydee. If the first shot is free it cant hurt to try. Besides, dont you think Mistress Nettie would like one of those scarves?"
"I suppose she would." Jaydee stepped back to give Vin some room but kept a careful eye on the booths owner. There was something about the man that was making his skin crawl.
Vin examined four of the arrows before making his selection. He then gave the bows the same careful scrutiny and after several moments finally took his stance directly in front of the fence. By the time he was ready, a small crowd of spectators had gathered to watch him shoot.
The actual draw and release went much quicker than the preparation. The center pot was shattered and Vin was turning to hand the hawker three coins before many knew what was happening. A quite murmur started as Vin selected three more arrows for his attempt to win a prize. Jaydee even heard a couple of the watchers making bets as to whether or not he would succeed.
One after another, three more pots broke into showers of fragments as Vin easily passed the test. There was a small round of applause as he returned the bow to the table and pointed to a particularly bright red scarf.
Rather than reach for the prize, the gamester rubbed his hands together and pitched another offer. "Well, that was quite a show of marksmanship. I dont suppose you would care to try another challenge? Double or nothing?"
Jaydee groaned silently. He knew there had to be a catch. Now the man would talk Vin into something impossible and not only would he lose the three coppers, he would be out a prize as well.
"Cmon, Vin. Mistress Nettie doesnt need more than one scarf."
"But you could give the second one to Casey. You said you wanted to take her something from the fair, didnt you?" Vin turned back to the booth owner. "Whats the other challenge?"
The man grinned and reaching under the table, pulled out three small clay pots with cork stoppers sealing their openings. "There is colored powder in each of these containers. Ill throw them up into the air one after another and all you have to do is shoot them. The powder will verify that your arrows hit their marks and the pots dont simply break when they hit the ground. Break all three and the second prize is yours."
Vin gave it a moment of thought and then nodded his head in agreement. Once more a murmur arose from the crowd that had doubled in size while the man explained the new game.
Chewing his bottom lip in frustration, Jaydee again stepped back to give his friend room. Vin looked over his shoulder long enough to give the fighter a wink of reassurance then once more selected three arrows.
The gamester moved several feet away and waited for Vin to signal his readiness. When the half elf gave him a small nod, the man hurled the first pot into the air. As it reached its zenith, a soft crack and a shower of blue dust signaled its destruction. But the man had not waited and the second pot was already beginning its descent when a small cloud of yellow dust burst into the air.
Jaydee searched the sky frantically for the third target and was as surprised as everyone else when the gamester let out a loud squawk as the final pot was shattered in his hand and red dust covered his arm and chest.
"I think you forgot to turn the last one loose." Vin ignored the hoots and hollers of the gathered onlookers and calmly replaced the bow on the table. Not waiting for the owner to regain his composure, the tracker helped himself to two of the scarves then turned to leave. He had to endure several good-natured slaps on the back for congratulations before he and Jaydee finally made their way clear of the crowd.
"That was great! I can't believe you shot that one right out of his hand! Did you see the look on his face? Wait till I tell Buck. He probably won't believe me. Maybe I can make a bet with him and you "
Vin barely heard the rush of excited babble as he picked his way through the crowd. He was much more aware of the rapid beat of his heart and the muscles he could feel tensing in his neck and shoulders. Something was wrong and he needed to find a quiet place to explain his concerns to Jaydee. Spotting a deserted area behind a tent full of rugs, he quickened his pace knowing that Jaydee would follow.
Stepping clear of the festive crowd, Vin turned to tell Jaydee about his discovery when he suddenly realized they had been followed. Just behind the young fighter, three men wearing the uniform of the king's private guard also crowded into the small space. The insignia on the center mans shoulders was that of captain and unlike the common citizens, his and the swords of the other two guards were not secured by red cords. While they did not appear to be hostile, their hands did rest conspicuously on the hilts of their blades.
The captain was an average sized man with dark hair and a clean-shaven face. He had a pale, white scar on his right cheek but it did nothing to detract from his handsome looks. His dark green eyes were narrowed in appraisal as he blatantly studied the two young men. Vin and Jaydee returned his stare as they stood shoulder to shoulder. The captain was the first to break the tense silence.
"That was quite a show back there. I dont think Ive ever seen such skill before. Not from a human, that is."
While Jaydee sucked in an almost panicked breath of air, Vin drew himself up straight and pushed his chin out defiantly. "Whats that supposed to mean?"
"Now, now, no insult intended. Im one of the kings personal guards, the name is Parel." He did not bother to introduce his two men. "The last few days the elven ambassador and his entourage have been showing off their own archery skills to his highness. Seems those elves prefer their bows to any other weapon and have big tournaments each turn to determine the best." The captain spared one quick glance in Jaydees direction but it was obvious that he was mainly interested in Vin. Parel's eyes raked across the lean form of the tracker with obvious approval.
"Whats that got to do with me?" Vin lost none of his belligerence and Jaydee began to wonder just what had come over his friend while at the same time trying to discretely find the best escape route. He wasn't sure where the conversation was going to lead and he thought it best to be prepared for the worst.
Parel didn't seem to mind Vin's attitude and continued in the same, slow drawl he had started with. "Well, I was thinking that it might be nice to show the ambassador that there are some humans that can handle a bow as well as his people. If youre willing to give a demonstration, I could arrange a pass for you into the castle tomorrow and you could put on the same kind of show with the clay pots and colored dust." The grin that spread across the captain's face was in no way friendly or encouraging though it was obvious he meant it to be. "What do you say? A chance to prove that those elves arent quite so superior?"
Vin did not answer right away and misinterpreting his hesitation, Parel offered an additional incentive. "Besides getting a chance to put those uppity elves in their place, youd also get a free lunch at the castle. Same food the king eats."
Jaydee couldnt believe his ears. A kings captain talking like that about the elven ambassador? And his fellow guards were obviously in agreement with him. Something was definitely wrong and he couldnt wait to let Chris and Buck know.
"Sounds good but make it two passes. Id feel better having my friend doing the throwing." Vin jerked his head in Jaydees direction without taking his eyes off the captain.
"Fine. Be at the west gate this time tomorrow. The king likes to have his lunch in the courtyard and you can be the entertainment. You bring your own bow and arrows; Ill have the targets ready." He held out his hand and Vin slowly accepted the firm handshake. With the arrangements made, the three guards wasted no more time and left as quickly as they had appeared.
"Vin! What in Byshas name are you doing? Have you lost your wits?" Jaydee couldnt contain himself any longer and demanded an explanation from his friend.
"Not yet but the days only half over." Vin frowned in annoyance and guided the young fighter further away from any possible eavesdroppers.
At least, he didnt think he had gone crazy. He had been on the verge of suggesting they stop for a meal when he had spotted the archery game. He hadnt thought much of it at first but something about the bows had caught his attention. He had decided to get a closer look and that was when Jaydee had joined him and the owner had gone into his pitch.
As he listened to the explanation, Jaydee shook his head in confusion. "They looked like ordinary bows to me. Pretty good ones I guess, if you were able to hit all those pots."
"Thats just it, Jaydee. Those were the same bows used by the army. What caught my attention was the makers stamp on the wood. I recognized it from the time I spent with Andercushs unit. I used one of those exact same bows and those arrows were top quality as well."
Of course, during the war he had aimed at men, not clay pots. And there certainly hadnt been an audience behind him making bets and applauding when he'd hit his target. Vins frown deepened as he also recalled the gamesters face. There had been something about the mans eyes that had seemed at odds with the rest of his appearance. A shiver raced down his spine and he reached up to tightly grasp his dragon pendant. "I dont know what it means, but that game plus our sudden invitation to the castle makes me think we may have something to tell the others."
Jaydee nodded his head. "Yeah, I think youre right. Lets get back to Ezras and wait for them. Suddenly this fair doesnt seem like such a fun place to be."
In total agreement, the two young men quickly made their way back to the entrance and were just in time to catch a wagon leaving immediately for the city. They found a place on the flat hay-covered bed just behind the drivers bench.
"Well, look here Jerie, heres the lad I was telling you about. Seems he was in the war and actually needed the help of some Swans."
"Oh, yeah? Needed his nappy changed, did he?"
Jaydee groaned as he recognized the old man from their earlier ride. And it seemed he had met up with a friend and now both of them were having a go at Vin. He looked over at the tracker and was puzzled to see a very strange look on his friend's face.
If Vin had really stopped to think about it he probably would have just sat quietly and let the old fellows have their fun but all morning a nervous kind of energy had been building inside him. It was that same edgy, excited feeling that had carried him through the archery game and subsequent confrontation with the guard captain. In fact, it felt almost exactly the same as when he was scouting out an enemy camp but without the dampening effect of fear.
"Jaydee, how many times have I drawn attention to myself today?"
The strange question caught the fighter off guard. Jaydee had been watching Vin closely and had been on the verge of asking him if he felt all right. It took him a moment to re-gather his thoughts and answer.
"Well, twice I suppose. Three if you count the talk with that captain."
"And nothing really bad happened any of those times, did it?"
"No, Vin. You did all right. But what ?"
"Thats what I thought. So once more shouldnt make that much of a difference. Right?"
With an almost giddy feeling in his stomach and thinking to himself that it was a good thing Chris wasnt around, the tracker used the back of the drivers seat to pull himself up to a standing position on the wagon. He was grateful for Jaydees steadying hand on his calf as a couple of the wooden wheels hit a particularly rough spot in the road just as he made it to his feet.
The old man called out a cheerful warning. "Hey, careful there lad. Got no Swans here now to pick you up if you fall."
"Oh, yes there are." Vin pointed back towards the fair where a troop of six uniformed women was riding alongside the road heading toward the city. Putting two fingers in his mouth, he let out a long, piercing whistle followed by two shorter bursts. Seeing that he had the patrols attention, Vin pumped his right fist into the air twice then gave another whistle.
Everyone watched in amazement as the patrol suddenly kicked their horses into a gallop and began racing for the wagon. Jaydee looked over his shoulder to see the old man and his friend staring with their mouths hanging open in disbelief. Grinning happily, he was about to congratulate Vin when he felt a hand under his arm pulling him up to stand on the edge of the bouncing platform as well.
"Get ready, Jaydee! The second horse will be yours!"
"Second horse? What do you mean?"
"I mean get ready to jump!"
Jaydee gulped and stared at the quickly approaching riders. The two in the lead had released the clasps on their white cloaks trusting those behind them to retrieve the discarded garments. Wild, warbling cries filled the air as the women bent low over their horses stretched necks, the flowing manes all but obscuring their faces. And suddenly the first horse was beside the wagon and Vin was leaping for its back. There was no time to think about it. The second rider was close behind the first and Jaydee leaped as if his life depended on it.
He couldnt match Vins agility but he made up for it in sheer stubbornness. The landing was not only awkward, it was somewhat painful, and he had to scrabble at the back of the saddle to keep from sliding off the opposite side. His ears were filled with the sounds of pounding hooves, the cheering cries of the riders and fading rapidly, the appreciative hand clapping from those still in the wagon.
"So, there we were, tracking this band of raiders and getting pretty close when all of a sudden we hear what sounds like a tree cat with its tail on fire."
Jaydee laughed with the rest of the patrol gathered around the table in the Red Fox tavern as their captain, Lara, reached the part in the story where they first met the half-elf scout.
Vin even joined in the laughter though he shook his head in denial. "I didnt yell that loudly."
"Son, Im sure the dragons heard you clear up at River Bend." Lara was a large women and made Jaydee think of a female version of Buck. Thick brown hair cut shoulder length framed a square, sun browned face with dancing, hazel eyes. While not unpleasant to look at, there was a certain squareness to her chin that kept most men from describing her as pretty. But fair looks were not considered an important asset for a kings Swan and it was obvious that Lara and her patrol had seen their share of fighting. Taking a healthy swig of her ale, the captain continued the story.
"Anyhow, were not sure what those raiders have gotten a hold of but we figure any kind of distraction would be in our favor. We form up for a charge and sure enough, when we break through the trees we catch most of them with their backs turned and their swords still in their sheaths."
"You should have seen them, Jaydee." Vin interrupted and gestured at the ladies that made up Laras patrol. "Suddenly appearing out of the forest, their battle cries filling the air while their blades caught the sunlight it was beautiful."
"Heh, and what did we see? About a double handful of beefy cutthroats standing around this one scrawny kid armed with only a dagger and a broken bow. Lying on the ground were four "
"Scuse me, five of the bandits with arrows sticking out of vital parts of their bodies. So we close in to polish of the remainder of them and I call to the boy to get the Pits out of the way."
"Ill bet he didnt do it." Jaydee grinned at his friend who merely shrugged his shoulders in reply.
"Thats a fools bet. He stays right in the middle of the fight and Im sure at one point that if the raiders dont kill him then one of our horses will. But damned if he didnt make it out alive."
"Barely. Thanks to you." Vin lifted his tankard in salute and everyone drank to the toast.
"And then come to find out hes not some lost boy but a scout for one of the kings hit and run squads. Seems he was heading back to his unit after checking out a chain of supply wagons heading south."
"But Vin, how did you wind up fighting the bandits?" That was the one point of the story that had Jaydee puzzled.
"Got in too big of a hurry." Vin shrugged his shoulders again as he admitted the truth. "Thought the enemy was all behind me and didnt pay enough attention to what was in front. They hit the clearing from one side just as I reached its center. I knew what they were the moment I saw them but they hesitated. That was how I managed to shoot five of them before they got me surrounded. The only reason I was still alive when Laras patrol showed up was they decided to have some fun before killing me."
Lara gave a derisive snort. "Some fun. If I remember correctly one of those Pit Vipers was pretty handy with a whip."
"Yeah, looked real good with it tied around his neck, too." Vin saw the shocked expression on Jaydees face but he had no regrets for his actions that day. Lucky for him there had been a healer in the nearest town otherwise he would have worn the scars from that encounter for the rest of his life.
"Enough of the past," Tamasy was second in command, a thin, waspish girl that kept her blond hair pulled back in a tight braid. It had been her horse that Jaydee had ridden into town. "I want to hear about the present. Never thought Id see the day when Vin would call for a pick-up at a fair. What brings you to Fransco in the middle of the biggest celebration ever?"
Vin looked about the table at the women that had saved his life and considered his answer carefully. "Im here with Jaydee and some others to deliver something to the king. I really cant tell you more than that just now but Id like to ask you some questions and for you to trust me enough to keep our talk private."
Lara stared hard at the tracker and his friend while the rest of her patrol shifted uneasily in their chairs. The lighthearted mood was gone, replaced with tension and not a little wariness.
"Promise me one thing first; that this 'something' and your friends will in no way bring harm to the king."
"My word, I hope we do exactly the opposite."
The tension eased considerably when Lara nodded her head in acceptance. "Ask your questions then and well see what kind of answers we can come up with."
Jaydee and Vin were the first to arrive back at Standish Hall but did not have long to wait for the others. Josiah and Nathan arrived barely a mark later with Chris and Buck close on their heels. All of them were in need of lunch and by mutual agreement, the exchange of information would be postponed until after their meal.
Rather than bother the cook, the six men decided to raid the kitchen and help themselves to whatever was available. The cook, however, did not approve of their plan and quickly routed the trespassers with a very loud tirade and a few vigorous waves of her meat cleaver. During the retreat Jaydee managed to snatch an apple from the table but at the serious risk of losing some fingers.
Giles was waiting in the dining room for the group of men and with an obvious glint of amusement in his eyes, informed them that the kitchen was one room that not even Lord Standish dared set foot in.
"If you will wait just a few moments, I am sure that a meal can be prepared and brought to you here."
"Pits." Buck growled as he dropped into a chair. "All we wanted was some meat and bread. Maybe a little cheese. Whered they find a little harridan like that anyway? Way she was swinging that cleaver the olbiddy could have taken a leg off."
Jaydee grinned as he polished the stolen apple on his shirtsleeve. "I dont think she was aiming at your leg, Buck. Hey!"
Vin danced back a step with the purloined fruit held just out of the young fighters reach.
"Give it back, Vin! I almost paid in blood for that apple."
Chris closely watched the playful interaction between the two men. There was something different about his partner but he couldnt quite figure out what that difference was. The last time he had seen Vin had been that morning just before he and Jaydee had boarded the wagon headed for the fair. While waiting on the busy street Vin had seemed nervous and edgy, shifting from one foot to the other while his eyes constantly scanned the crowd.
Now now there was an air of confidence about the young man. The only other time Chris had seen that same relaxed sense of belonging was when Vin was in his element, hunting in the forests that surrounded Four Winds. He had witnessed pale imitations of it when Vin had portrayed characters at the River Inn but this was no act. Just as the mercenary was about to give into his curiosity and ask Vin about his day, a new player brought the game of keep-away to an abrupt halt.
Vin and Jaydees mock fight over the apple had taken them close to the entrance and would probably have continued out into the rest of the house if their way had not suddenly been blocked by the returning lord of the manor.
"Oh, hey Ezra." Vin smiled a welcome over his shoulder as he barely managed to avoid stepping on his friends feet.
Jaydee took advantage of the half elfs distraction and snatched the apple back but he barely held it for a heartbeat when it was once more removed from his grasp.
"Gentlemen, please tell me that you purchased this from a street vendor and it was not removed from this establishments kitchen."
The young fighter frowned and brushed the bangs from his dark eyes. "Its just an apple. If youre worried about the cost "
Ezra rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and strode across the room to the doorway leading to the kitchen. "Giles!"
"Would you please return this to the cook with my most sincere and heartfelt apologies?"
Giles gingerly accepted the piece of fruit but shook his head sadly. "Too late, sir. She has already threatened to quit and is demanding a raise if she is to stay."
Ezra turned and glared at both Vin and Jaydee. Vin was quick to declare his innocence and Jaydee could only shrug and grin sheepishly.
"Ezra!" Maude Standish strode into the room with a sweep of bright blue silk and sparkling jewels. "What have you done now?! Eleny just told me that "
"This time it wasnt me!" Ezra cut his mother off in mid sentence and waved a hand at the youngest of those gathered.
"Theyre your associates, therefor youre responsible." And as far as the Lady Standish was concerned, that was the final word on the matter. With another swirl of fabric she exited the room as quickly as she had entered.
"Pits. I dont see what all the fuss is about." Bucks voice broke the silence left in the wake of Maudes departure and all eyes turned to him. "I mean, so what if she quits? Just find you a new one."
Giving a small moan and covering his face with his hands, Ezra sank into the nearest chair and rested his elbows on the table. His voice muffled by his palms, he asked of the room in general, "Do you have any idea how hard it was to find a cook that will put up with my mother?"
"Haris is about as popular as a fox in a hen house. We couldnt find one guard that had anything good to say about the man." Buck poured himself another drink as he spoke. "And by all accounts, even Sorel disliked the man when he was serving as a captain."
"Then why recommend him to Orrin?" Josiah voiced the question that seemed to have everyone puzzled.
Shaking his head, Chris leaned against the mantle of the fireplace and spoke his own thoughts out loud.
"It has to be a part of the plot to murder Orrin and bring Cardimal and Wartolin to power. We know that the number of guards has been reduced." Chris held up a hand and ticked off the points with his fingers. "The best captains have either resigned or been killed, supposedly in the line of duty and the new captains seem to lack any kind of leadership ability. Thanks to Vin and Jaydee, we also know that the Swans supplies have been cut in half and the number of patrols along the mountains have been reduced to a bare handful. And supposedly all of this without the kings knowledge."
"Or the knowledge of the general populace." Nathan spoke up from his place near the windows that faced out onto a small tea garden. "From what Josiah and I heard, their main concern is the new treaty with the Elves."
"And the general feeling there seems to be a positive one thanks mainly to Orrin's arrangement of letting a wide assortment of citizen's actually meet the ambassadors." Ezra paced slowly across the room as he spoke. "The only faction opposed seems to be traders who fear a loss of income. And speaking of income, let us not forget my own dismal failure at finding this Listrel fellow who was doing a thriving business up until about three days ago at which time his shop closed and no one has seen or heard from him since. The question gentlemen, is what do we do now?"
"Well, thats the problem isnt it?" Everyone turned to look at Vin where he sat on the rug near the fire. In the past such attention might have made the tracker nervous but now he met the curious gazes with his chin raised and his blue eyes flashing. "All we have are questions. What we need are answers."
"Vins right and I think the best place to find those answers is the castle." Chris pushed away from the mantel and moved to the center of the room. "First thing we need to do is..."
"Try these uniforms on." Lady Standish swept into the room with a familiar swirl of satin followed closely by Giles bearing an armload of clothing. "It has been a few turns since we had personal guardsmen but the style shouldn't be too outdated. The colors are correct at least; red, gold and black."
Maude pulled a tunic out of the stack and held it up to Chris' chest. "Yes, that should fit." She turned and studied Buck with a critical eye. "We may have to let yours out some..."
Buck grinned and puffed out his chest.
"...in the waist. But that shouldn't take too long." Maude ignored the disgruntled look on Buck's face and the quiet chuckles from the other men. Turning to her son, she handed him two small scrolls. "Here, you left these in the carriage."
"Ah, yes, thank you mother." Ezra in turn, handed a scroll each to Nathan and Josiah. "Gentlemen, your invitations to meet the ambassadors tomorrow."
Nathan unrolled his and scowled at the elegant print. "This is made out for Master Healer Ardnath."
From the pile of clothes Maude produced the rich blue of a healer's robe. "Which you shall be for the duration of your visit."
Accepting the garment, Nathan continued to frown. "What happened to the real Ardnath?"
"He has learned the folly of playing dice with my son." Maude mistook the scowl of displeasure on the healer's face. "I assure, he is not running about town naked."
Nathan shook his head and though he spoke out loud, it was obvious he was trying to make himself understand his feelings.
"When I first entered the Center, all I dreamed about was one day being good enough to wear the blue of a Master. I didn't want money or a high position; I wanted the respect that I thought all healers rightfully received."
Dark hands clenched into fists and for a moment it looked as if the robe was about to be ripped to shreds but Nathan drew in a deep, calming breath and slowly relaxed his grip. "And then I learned the truth and was forced to leave the Center." He suddenly gave a mocking bark of laughter. "I worked so hard to earn the right to wear this robe and some fool gambles it away in a game of dice like it was an old bath-wrap."
Josiah placed a comforting hand on his friend's shoulder. "You don't need a symbol to receive the respect of those who know you. The man you are is more than an article of clothing."
Murmurs of agreement floated across the room and with a grateful nod, Nathan relaxed once more. Sensing that the matter was settled, Maude finished doling out the clothes then retired to her room to decide on her own choice of attire for the next day's events.
Josiah watched the Lady Standish depart and gave a small, wistful sigh. Such beauty, such intelligence, such...fortitude. Momentarily lost in his thoughts, he was startled by the sound of Ezra clearing his throat. Glancing over at the smaller man, Josiah felt a slight warming of his cheeks as he saw the quizzically raised eyebrow. His discomfort grew as he realized that Ezra was not the only witness to his foolishness. Knowing smiles and quiet, laughter-concealing coughs fanned the slight warmth in his face into a full blaze.
"I'll be Pitted." Buck chortled out loud. "I thought only Jaydee could blush that shade of red."
With a small 'harrumph', Ezra finally turned away from the mightily embarrassed wizard, muttering under his breath, "Thank Bysha she only pairs for gold."
Chris gave his friends a few moments to settle down then drew their attention back to planning the next day's events.
"With Ezra as an invited guest at the king's table, he'll have the best chance of speaking with Orrin directly. Buck and I will carry the scroll so that we can pass it to him as quickly as possible."
"If that's the plan, is there really any need for the rest of us to enter the castle?" Nathan still held the blue robe in his hands and despite his friends' support; it was obvious he was reluctant to masquerade as a Master Healer.
"While Buck and I will be expected to stay close to the Lord and Lady Standish, you and Josiah will have a little more freedom to move about. I think it would be a good idea if you did the same thing there as you did in town. Talk to some of the servants and look around for anything suspicious."
"And me and Jaydee?" Vin hooked a thumb over at the young fighter as he spoke. "Do you want us to do the same?"
"As 'entertainers' you'll be more conspicuous." Chris scratched his chin as his brow furrowed in puzzlement. "I just wish I knew the real reason behind your invitation. Your very good with a bow but the king has his own archers that are at least your equal. There has to be more to your performance than topping the ambassador's marksmen."
And though he wouldn't come right out and say it, he hadn't really planned on either of the young men actually entering the castle. He and Buck had discussed it during the day and had decided that it would be a good idea to leave them outside as a kind of back up. But now shaking his head, Chris gave up on the puzzle. "Just do your tricks and keep your eyes and ears open. If things go smoothly and we have our meeting with Orrin you can simply return here and wait for us."
Vin and Jaydee exchanged quick glances and while they didn't argue, there was nothing in their expressions that promised they would leave the castle before the others. Everyone in the room knew it would be pointless to press the issue and while Chris was glad to see the new air of confidence in his partner he was more than a little worried.
Correctly reading the frown on Chris' face, Vin smiled as he tried to reassure the mercenary. "Relax, we won't go looking for trouble."
Buck was quick to point out the obvious. "You and Jaydee don't have to go 'looking' for trouble, it's usually waiting around the corner for you with open arms."
"Hey! What have I done?" Jaydee's voice was filled with righteous indignation as he stood and planted his fists on his hips.
"Kid, you don't really want to get me started on that list."
"List? I havent..."
A piercing whistle interrupted the two men and brought all eyes back to their chosen leader. As he met each gaze, Chris was filled with an undeniable sense of pride in the bond of friendship that joined them together. Here were six men as different from each other as the seasons of a turn and yet they had found a common cause on which to unite. Brothers in arms, brothers in spirit, brothers of the heart and together they would fight against the evil that threatened the land of their birth. There was no doubt in Chris' mind that they would be victorious.
"When we began this quest, we were focused on simply returning the Scroll of Eventy to the safety of the king's protection. Now that we know there is a very real threat to Orrin's life and a corruption within his very army, we may not find our task so easily finished. Come what may, I want you to know that ...."
"Ah, Pits." Buck rudely interrupted his old friend. "Look Chris, I think we all pretty much agree that we're about the finest damn group of men that ever fought for this kingdom and there ain't a one of us what wouldn't lay down his life for the other. So, let's just leave all that maudlin stuff to the ballad that Ezra's gonna write about us when this is all over."
The others expressed their agreement with grins, hoots and a couple of cheers. Throwing his hands up in surrender, Chris gave in with an exasperated sigh. "Fine. In that case we're done planning for tomorrow. As for the rest of today, don't leave the house alone and before we retire for the night we need to set up a schedule for watches. I don't want to take any chances this close to the end. And Bysha willing, tomorrow will be the end of it."