"I think now may be as good a time as any to sneak in." Jaydee's excited whisper directed Vin's attention to the large stable to the left of their hiding place behind the castle smithy. So far they had been very lucky in avoiding their pursuers but their good fortune was bound to run out. Making their way from the gallery to the outer courtyard, they had breathlessly considered surrendering in the hopes that Chris and the others would eventually see them freed. A close encounter with a pair of trigger-happy soldiers armed with crossbows had quickly changed their minds.
While they crouched in the shadows of the smithy, waiting for the right moment to move, Vin tore a strip from the bottom of his tunic and used it to bind the freely bleeding wound on Jaydee's arm.
"OWWW! Not so tight!"
"You want to leave a trail for them to follow? Might as well stand up and wave a white flag." Vin used the harsh words to mask his concern. The bolt had taken a fair size chunk from the fleshy part of Jaydee's right, upper arm and blood was starting to drip from the saturated sleeve.
"Sorry." Jaydee apologized with a hiss as Vin tied off the rough bandage.
"You got nothing to apologize for. It's me that's gotten us into this mess." The half-elf sat back on his heels and wiped his bloody hands on his thighs. His palms still burned from the bits of thorns embedded under his skin during the climb up the pillar while making his escape from the archery field. "Should never have agreed to that contest. Pits. Should never have agreed to come here in the first place. Chris would have gotten his meeting with the king and everybody would be back at Ezra's by now if it weren't for me."
Jaydee scowled at his friend and gingerly cradled his injured arm against his chest. "Maybe. No way now of knowing for sure how things would have turned out. But like Ezra always says, 'You've got to play the dice the way they land.' We might be losing this round but the game's not over yet."
"Some game." Vin gave a small snort of disgust. "Likely to see us both up on the gallows as traitors." And it would be entirely his fault. If only he hadn't agreed to the contest with the ambassador. Or agreed to the archery demonstration. Or played that game at the fair that started the whole mess. How far back could he go? When was the turning point? Was it the moment he let Chris talk him into going to the fair? Or maybe it was when he and Jaydee had left Four Winds to follow their friends. But if he really had it all to do over again, would he change any of his decisions, not knowing if the new results would be any better?
Jaydee could see the doubt and worry in his friend's eyes and tried to reassure him. "We won't die at the end of a rope if we can hide out long enough for Chris and Buck to fix things, and that barn is just the place to do it. With the guards stationed at the main entrance, they wont bother searching it again. All we have to do is stick to the shadows and use those hay bales as cover to reach the loose board. If the kitchen maids can use it to meet their lovers we can use it to escape the guards. Now come on!"
No doubt about it, someday Jaydee was going to make a fine captain. Vin smiled grimly as he helped the young fighter to his feet. "You lead and I'll follow. I just hope we don't run into any of those maids."
"It's not the women we have to worry about; it's whoever would be waiting for them."
The two young men crouched low as they made their way quickly but quietly to the back side of the stable. Vin stayed behind the last stack of hay while Jaydee made a dash for the board that would hopefully gain them entrance to the horse barn. Holding his breath, the half-elf divided his attention between keeping an eye out for soldiers and watching his friend's progress. When Vin saw Jaydee slip through the dark gap between the planks, he drew a welcome breath of air. Now it was his turn to make the same run.
Giving the area one last inspection, Vin darted across the open space and fell to his knees beside the barn. His heart pounded as he fumbled for the correct board. He kept expecting to hear a shout of alarm from the posted sentries but the courtyard remained silent as he finally discovered the right way to push the wooden plank to make it move. Once through the opening, Vin found himself temporarily blinded as his eyes adjusted to the dim, unlit interior of an empty stall.
"Jaydee?" Vin whispered his friend's name and expected to hear a whispered response. What he heard instead made the hairs on the back of his neck literally stand on end.
"Don't worry, he's right here waiting for you." Captain Parel's words were accompanied by a sudden burst of light as the shutters were dropped from a pair of lanterns. Vin squinted against the sudden glare and pressed himself tightly against the wall as Parel continued speaking. "You're late again. If you two aren't careful you'll miss your own Passing Rites; which may not be that far off."
The glow of the lanterns revealed six guards backing Parel. Two of them held Jaydee pinned with his arms behind his back and a dirty rag covering his mouth. The tip of a dagger pressed firmly against the underside of Jaydees chin had insured his silence after his capture. His dark eyes were filled with guilt as he watched Vin roughly pulled to his feet and hauled out into the aisle between the stalls. One guard grabbed the half-elfs hands and held them in front of his body while another began wrapping a thick cotton rope around his wrists.
"You've caused me quite a bit of trouble Archer. Youre lucky I need you alive and whole for a little while longer." Parel directed his next words to the men tying Vin's wrists. "Search him. Make sure his friends didn't slip him a weapon when they helped him escape."
The thought of those unexpected allies caused Parel to frown with annoyance as he watched his men secure the prisoner. He didn't like surprises, especially when his very life was on the line. He'd argued against the idea of using an outsider but Listrel had been insistent. If he'd had his way, one of his archers would have done the job just as well without so much trouble. Bringing these two young men into the operation seemed to have caused more complications than they were worth. Parel's hand rested on the hilt of his sword as he actually toyed with the idea of killing them where they stood and telling Listrel they had escaped for real.
Squinting against the glare of the lanterns, Vin studied Captain Parels expression and his stomach knotted as he correctly read the mans desire. He ignored the two guards patting down his clothes and spoke directly to their leader. "We didn't attack the ambassador and you know it. You arranged this whole thing."
Parel smirked as one of his men handed him the contents of Vin's pouch. The smiled disappeared from his face as he examined the cloak pin and noticed its elven design. "Where did you get this?" he hissed between clenched teeth. Vin remained silent and Parel tightened his fist around the broach in frustration. Given a free reign and enough time he could make the archer talk but thanks to Listrel's plans he had neither.
Controlling his anger, Parel placed the piece of jewelry in his tunic pocket as he hazarded his own guess. "Thieves no doubt as well as assassins. Poor Commander Haris will have a rough time of it, explaining your escape to the kings successor." Seeing the confusion on his prisoner's face, Parel gave a small laugh. "Oh, that's right, you still don't know the real reason you were invited to this little party."
Moving close enough to the tracker that he could feel the warmth of his breath, Parel ran the tips of his fingers idly along Vin's jaw as he spoke. "You see your job was to entertain the king, which you have done very well; and then to kill him, which you can't do if you're locked up in one of the castle's cells."
"Kill the king?!" Vin jerked his head back to escape Parels loathsome touch even as his mind struggled to make sense of the captains words. "I wont do it!"
"Oh, but you will. In fact, if you had arrived early like you were supposed to, the task would already have been accomplished." Reaching forward again, Parel's hand curled around the back of Vin's neck, pulling the half-elf closer.
Parel ignored Vins protest as he gloated over his control of the young man's fate. "But better late than never I suppose. In a short time you're going to be much more agreeable. Dare I say, even cooperative?"
Vin resisted the pull of Parel's hand on his neck and felt the man's fingers press against the cord holding his wooden dragon. It caught the captain's attention as well and provided a momentary distraction.
"Hmmm? Ah yes, the pendant you offered to the ambassador. This might come in handy later, especially since so many witnesses saw you try to hand it to that demon elf." He grasped the leather string and began to lift it over his prisoner's head. When Vin realized that Parel was taking his Pairing gift, he reacted without thinking.
Reaching up with his bound hands, Vin snatched the wooden dragon from Parel's grasp and immediately threw his body backward into the empty stall with the secret entrance. He twisted as he fell so that he landed on his stomach with his arms stretched out in front of him. The landing knocked the wind from his lungs but rather than try to regain his breath, he set his teeth to the leather cord in his fists and bit down with all his might while pulling it sharply away at the same time. His effort was rewarded by the snap of the tie just as Parel entered the stall and bent to grasp his shoulder.
Rolling to his back, Vin lashed out with his feet and managed to strike Parel's knees sending the man crashing back against the planks at the front of the stall. The maneuver bought him the precious moment of time he needed to slip the cord from the hole in the dragon's wing and cry out, "Arital!" Struggling to his knees, the half-elf threw the small dragon as hard as he could out into the darkness of the stable. Barely had the carving left his fingertips when he was tackled by two of the soldiers and driven back to the ground.
Jaydee could only watch helplessly as he saw his friend disappear beneath the bodies of the two soldiers. His own guards were well trained and never once slackened their grip on his arms. If anything, the knife at his throat pressed a little tighter and he felt the sharp, stinging pain as the point drew blood. A low moan escaped the cloth gag in his mouth as he heard the muffled thumps of hard fists striking tender flesh. He recognized the cry that followed as Vins and his body jerked in response.
"Dont move. The captain said you were expendable so you give us one breath of trouble and it will be your last."
Just as the guard finished his threat, the struggling figures rose to their feet and staggered into the aisle where Captain Parel stood waiting. Vin sagged in the iron hold of his captors, a trickle of blood running from one corner of his mouth and a bruise forming beneath his right eye. The soldiers on either side didnt look much better; one had a bloody nose while the other stood slightly hunched over as if bothered by a pain somewhere below his belt. They both looked angry and more than ready to vent their ire on their dazed and helpless prisoner. Only the earlier order given by their captain held them in check; the archer had to be captured not only alive but still able to draw his bow. That meant their payback would have to wait until after the kings assassination.
"What did you do?" Parel grabbed Vin by the collar of his tunic and gave him a hard shake. "Answer me!"
Vin responded by spitting in the captains eye. Parel backhanded the half-elf hard enough to stun him and then wiped the bloody saliva from his face. The effort it took to keep himself from inflicting more harm on the prisoner was evident by the way his hand shook with rage. "Put a gag in his mouth then take him to Listrel. Put his friend in the pit cell with the old man." Parel turned to his last two guards who stood holding the lanterns. "Search this barn. Find that pendant."
"But . . . sir . . ."
"Do it! I dont care if you have to turn over every last piece of straw, I want it found!" The plan was too close to completion for there to be mistakes now. He didnt know what the archer had hoped to accomplish but he damn well wasnt going to wait and be surprised later, he'd already had too many surprises in one day. 'Damn Listrel! If we had done it my way Orrin would be lying in a pool of his own blood by now.'
Snarling with rage, Parel stormed from the barn in search of Haris, trusting his men to carry out his orders. He had gotten word that the puppet commander was looking for him and now that the archer was secured, it would be best to find out what the fool wanted before joining Listrel for the next stage in their plan.
Vin tried to pull his head away as a foul smelling rag was forced into his mouth but thick fingers knotted painfully in his hair while another hand pried at his jaw with bruising force. He couldnt put up much of a struggle as his ears still rang from Parels strike and his legs refused to support his weight.
The soldier tying the gag made sure it was tight by giving it an extra hard jerk and then laughed at his prisoners muffled sound of protest. "Thatll hold ya. Course once Lord Listrel gets though with ya there wont be a need for gags. Youll be as talkative as our other special guest and he puts the very rocks to shame."
Jaydee listened in horror to the guards threat. What were they going to do to Vin? Were they going to cut out his tongue? Was that how they were going to get him to kill Orrin, torturing him into submission? His heart beat faster and faster as he began imagining the worst. And they dont need me, how long are they going to keep me alive? Buck, where are you?
"Cmon then, well takeem round the back way through the east door. The fewer that seeem, the fewer the questions." The soldier that had taken charge in Parels absence supported Vin from one side while his partner took the other. "And you two, get busy finding that necklace. Dont know why the captain wants it so bad but I wouldnt want to be in your boots if you turn up empty handed."
As he was lead from the barn, Vin squinted and turned his face away from the glaring sunlight, which for some reason seemed a hundred times brighter than before. Leaning heavily on the two guards flanking him, the half-elf found himself assaulted by a stabbing pain in his head and a very uncomfortable feeling in his stomach. Despite the pain and the nausea, Vin kept his thoughts focused on the small wooden dragon lost somewhere in the darkness of the stable. He didnt understand magic, he didnt really believe he possessed such wonderful powers but he had seen for himself how the small carving could come to life. He remembered the feel of it as it had first stirred in the palm of his hand. He saw once more the way the gemstone eyes had sparkled in the light. The wings spreading out to catch the air . . .
"Damn! What the Pits was that?!" The guard to Vins left suddenly ducked his head and threw up an arm as if to ward off a blow.
"What was what?"
"Some bird or something just flew past my ear. You didnt see it?"
"No, now straighten up and keep moving. We dont get this boy delivered youll have a lot more to worry about than birds trying to use your head as a perch."
Josiah paused on a balcony overlooking one of the many ornate gardens that surrounded the castle. From his vantage point he could see Ezra and Kyle making their way through a maze of sculpted shrubbery. The stone wizard shook his head at the sheer hopelessness of their task. Chances were the two young fugitives they sought would remain hidden for the rest of the day and then attempt to make their way out of the castle using the cover of darkness. That wasn't a bad plan, provided the castle guards didnt find them. Josiah feared the worst despite Haris' assurances that he was going to stop the official search.
Turning to reenter the castle proper, Josiah was startled to feel something brush past his shoulder. He spotted a flicker of movement and a flash of blue that disappeared around the edge of the door leaving the wizard with a strange feeling of reoccurrence. Then it hit him . . .
"Bysha's Luck! That was Vin's dragon! It must be going to find Chris and once it does, it will lead him straight to Vin's hiding place." Josiahs relieved grin stretched from ear to ear as he hurried after the magical beast.
"Ah, Parel there you are!" Haris spotted his missing captain just as the man entered the main castle door. Panting as much from panic as the unusual amount of physical activity, the commander hurried up to Parel and latched on to his sleeve like a drowning man trying to keep himself from sinking. "King's orders, call off the search for the two fugitives. Have all the soldiers stand down immediately."
With a sneer of disgust, Parel freed his arm from Haris' sweaty grasp. "The king doesn't want them captured? Why not?"
"He didn't say." Haris pulled a rag from his belt and began wiping the moisture from his brow. "He just said to let them go. Even had me turn loose the two from the gallery that helped them escape."
Parel did not like the sound of that; not one bit. "And he didn't say why? You're positive?"
Haris actually flinched back from the anger he saw on the captain's face. "P..positive. The ambassador was with him and . . ."
"Damn it!" Parel spun on his heel and strode off toward the prison cells. Something was terribly wrong and he had to warn Listrel before they both wound up wearing their intestines for garters.
"W. . wait! Where are you going?"
"To call off the damn search!" The guard captain did not stop or even hesitate as he shouted out the lie and left Haris gasping for breath in the empty hall.
"You have them? Excellent. Bring the archer forward. And let his friend watch, after all it will probably be the last time they ever see each other."
Jaydee stared in shocked disbelief as he caught sight of the man the soldiers called Lord Listrel. His clothes were much nicer than the set he had worn at the fair but there was no mistaking the man's dark eyes. Listrel was none other than the owner of the archery booth where Vin had demonstrated his exceptional skill.
"Ah, I see you recognize me from the game." Listrel grinned and gave a mocking bow. "Surprised, no?" He continued to taunt his two prisoners as guards pushed Jaydee against a side wall while Vin was forced to sit on a low stool in the center of the room. "It is often said that the world grows smaller the further you travel; a shame that for you two the journey ends here." It was obvious by the man's broad gestures and loud voice that he enjoyed having an audience; captive though it was.
"I was about to settle for a merely adequate marksman when you two appeared. Of course you had me worried when you failed to arrive on time this morning and that little altercation in the courtyard was most inconvenient. You have forced me to alter my plans and my timetable somewhat but I think perhaps this will work out much better."
Lifting a glowing crystal from a brass stand on the table, Listrel began a careful inspection of his seated prisoner. His smile turned into an angry scowl as he noted the slightly unfocused stare of the young archer and the way he squinted against the glare of the crystal. Using his free hand to grasp the man's chin and tilt his head back, Listrel also spotted the darkening bruise and bloody lip. "What is this? Where is Parel? I said he had to be taken alive and unharmed!"
"Uh, we did our best sir but . . ."
"Silence! Don't give me your excuses! Just fetch a healer and be quick about it."
"Yes sir!" The soldier closest to the door turned to leave but found his path blocked by his captain.
Parel pushed the startled guard aside as he confronted his partner. "Forget that Listrel, there isn't time. Somehow the King's gotten wind of our plan. I don't know what his game is but . . ."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about these two having friends in the gallery. I'm talking about the ambassador meeting with Orrin and having the search for these two called off." The captain reached into his pocket and pulled out the cloak pin, tossing it to Listrel as he spoke. "I'm talking about our heads on a platter and our nuts on a skewer if we don't get out of here now."
Listrel's eyes widened as he noted the origin of the pin. "Where did you get this?"
"The archer had it in his pouch. I'm telling you they're on to us!"
"Impossible." But still . . . Listrel frowned and stepped closer to his prisoner. Tossing the pin to land on the wooden table, he used the same hand to grasp the strip of blue cloth that held the young man's hair back from his face.
Just sitting still was doing wonders for Vin's headache but he was still too dazed to completely follow the argument taking place above him and was unprepared for Listrel's next move. The sudden jerk nearly unseated him from the stool and only a hand roughly fisted in his hair kept him upright. Vin moaned through his gag as his head was forced back, his neck bending to a painful degree.
"He's one of them! He's a damn elf!" Parel shouted as he reached for his sword.
"Wait you fool! Look closer." Listrel used his hold on Vin's hair to turn his face to the light. "He's only a half-breed."
"What difference does it make if only one of his parents was a demon? They know of the plan! We should kill him and get out while we can."
"No! No, I've come too far to give up now." Listrel released his hold on the archer's hair and stalked back to the table. "Orrin can't know. He would have tried to stop us before now. And how does that explain the scene on the archery field?"
"I don't care what you say. I'm out of here."
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
Parel froze just inside the door and one hand moved to cover the back of his neck.
"That's right. I only have to speak one word and your head will explode like an overripe melon. Now stop acting like a fool and think. Orrin may be suspicious but he obviously doesn't know all the details. And besides, the plan has changed."
Reluctantly Captain Parel returned to the center of the room. "So now we put the kid in a place where he can kill the king when he returns from the tour?"
"Oh, I have an even better idea than that. And you are correct, there is no time to fetch a healer." Reaching down, Listrel lifted the lid on a plain wooden box sitting on the table. Nestled inside the velvet-lined container was a narrow band of tiny metal links joined together to form a fine mesh. Set along its length at regular intervals was a series of brightly sparkling gemstones. It was actually quite beautiful and looked like nothing more than a rich woman's choker, until one noticed the very thin needle attached to the inner band right where the two ends joined.
Lifting the collar from the box, Listrel held it gently between his two hands as he turned back to the seated prisoner who stared up at him with an expression of both confusion and defiance.
"Our young friend here is such an excellent shot, he should have no problem killing the king during his ride through the city. Say, from atop Bysha's Spire? And when the people gathered see that it was an elf that killed their king, why I wouldn't be surprised if they ripped the elven ambassador apart with their bare hands. Much better than trying to convince them that a human had been trained and paid by the elves to assassinate their beloved monarch. This way a war between the elves and humans is guaranteed to happen. Oh yes, I think this will work out better than we could ever have hoped."
Jaydee couldn't believe what he was seeing or hearing. For a moment his heart had actually stopped beating as he thought his friend was about to be murdered right in front of him. Now he didn't know whether to be relieved or more alarmed that Listrel still intended on using Vin to kill Orrin. Sweat ran down his face, stinging his eyes as he focused on the metal collar Listrel held. As his vision cleared, he spotted the needle glinting in the light. He recalled the wooden splinter that had been used to control Nathan and suddenly it all made terrible sense.
"You two bring him to the table and hold him face down. Parel, you help. This will only take a moment but our young archer will find it extremely painful. You must hold him still until I close the band; once I remove my hands you may release him."
As Vin was pulled to his feet, he heard a muffled shout that sounded like Jaydee. Fighting against the pull of the guards, he turned to catch a brief look at his friend. 'What's going on? Why does Jaydee look so pale and frightened? Is it his arm? What are they do . . .?'
Vin's concerns for his companion were brought to an abrupt halt as he was pushed forward until his chest and forehead were pressed tight against the top of the cleared table by several pairs of hands that applied enough force and weight to hold him in place.
"Perfect." Listrel began murmuring arcane words as he carefully positioned the collar around his prisoner's throat.
Vin shuddered as he felt the cold metal press against his skin followed by a strange, sickening roil in his stomach. He struggled against his captors but it was useless.
"Rackadiam!" Raising his voice on the final word of the spell, Listrel began slowly pushing the silver needle into the back of his victim's neck.
'BYYYYSSSHHHAAAA NNNNNOOOOO!!!!' It was beyond any pain he'd ever known. He tried to scream but his jaws locked tight around the gag. His heart faltered and his sight dimmed. If he had been capable of coherent thought he would have prayed to Bysha for death. The cure for the poisonous venom of the Orcs had been a mere fever compared to the agony that coursed down his spine.
"Done. You can release him now."
"Are you sure? It feels like he's still fighting."
Listrel stepped back and waved to the guards to do likewise. "Only for a moment longer. Watch."
He had no idea that the hands holding him down were gone. He didn't know when his body hit the floor, thrashing so hard that he broke the stool with his feet. He felt nothing except the pain from within his own flesh. It was burning fire, sharpened blades, ripping fangs, slashing claws and . . . and . . . it was gone. And he was drifting free in a darkness that wrapped around him like a thick blanket. He could hear the voices of those around him but he could not see them. What was happening? Vin thought about blinking his eyes or moving his head but the darkness went from blanket to barrier.
"There, see? Now get him on his feet. We're running out of time."
Parel and the other guards looked at the limp body lying on the floor. "What? Just like that?"
"I've made improvements since my last test on your old commander. Watch."
Vin was dimly aware of moving. Was he standing? Were his eyes closed? Why couldn't he feel his hands? Or his feet? Or any other part of his body? Even the terrible headache seemed to be gone.
"Perfect. His name is Vin, correct? Good. Vin, open your eyes and look at me."
Light and he could see again. At first the figures were blurry but his vision quickly cleared. In front of him was a man he instantly recognized as the owner of the archery contest. There were soldiers to either side of him but Vin found it impossible to turn his head or even glance in their direction. For some reason his eyes remained fixed on the smiling, dark haired man.
"Listen closely Vin, I am going to give you some instructions and you are going to do exactly what I say. You will follow my order and let no one stop you. If any one tries, you will kill them. Nod your head if you understand."
'What?! No I won't do . . .' But the room shifted ever so slightly and with dawning horror Vin realized his head had moved to the other's command. No sound escaped his lips though he tried with all his might to scream out his anger and fear. It was as if his very body held him prisoner and he was powerless to even cry for help.
"Excellent. Cut the ropes from his hands and remove the gag. And you fetch Cullin from his room. Tell him to bring a transport crystal that will get us as close as possible to Bysha's Spire." Turning back to his newly acquired puppet-assassin, Listrel began laying out his new plan.
Jaydee couldn't stop the tears that ran down his cheeks as he watched his friend's head slowly nod at Listrel's command. Vin's eyes were dark and dull, the pupils swollen until only a sliver of blue showed at their edges. When his bonds were removed his arms hung listlessly at his sides. He stood like a statue, his gaze fixed on his new master. Jaydee desperately wanted to look away but forced himself to watch and listen, hoping that somehow the others would find them and free Vin from the collar's control before it was too late.
"Haris! Have you given the order to stop the search?"
Commander Haris jumped a good two feet off the floor as the angry sounding voice of authority echoed around the vaulted hallway. Stumbling slightly as he did an abrupt about-face, he was annoyed to see the Standish guard from the kings private chamber striding toward him as if he actually belonged in the castle. Pulling himself up straight and adjusting his sword belt, Haris scowled as the blond stranger drew near.
"How dare yo . . .awwwk!?"
Haris suddenly found the collar of his shirt twisted tight around his flabby neck by two fists knotted just below his chin. A pair of angry green eyes bored into him and the question was repeated again past gritted teeth.
"Have. You. Called. Off. The. Search."
Any thought of striking back or calling for help fled in terror from Haris mind. In the short time he had served in the castle, his life had never before been directly threatened, partly due to Parels interventions but mainly because Haris was very good at making himself scarce. Suddenly finding himself at the mercy of an obviously deadly and no doubt ruthless swordsman left Haris gasping like a fish out of water.
"Ye . . .yes! Parel! Gave Order! Stop . . .stopped . . .!"
"Wheres Parel now?"
"Dont . . . dont know."
An angry shake had the puppet commander stammering out a more acceptable answer. "Guard station maybe!"
A hard shove sent the commander staggering backwards until he tripped over his own boots to land on his butt. He remained seated on the cold stone floor as he watched the liveried guard disappear through the nearest archway. A small part of his brain wondered at the mans knowledge of the castle and his standing with the king. An even smaller section of gray matter briefly speculated on the importance of the elusive archer and his friend. Questions like why and how tried to surface but Haris firmly pushed them aside as he finally levered himself back to his feet. Hed sent Standishs man to see Parel so let the captain handle him. In the meantime, hed just remembered an urgent errand that required his presence in the west wing of the castle.
Servants going about their daily routines glanced with idle curiosity to see what person was stomping through the stone hallways. One look at the scowling visage sent many ducking into empty doorways or hurrying to the next corridor in the hopes they were getting out of the mans path. They waited until the footsteps receded and then cautiously resumed their normal tasks. Only one unlucky guardsman made the mistake of confronting the outsider in a small inner courtyard. The young mans unconscious body was found later that evening sprawled behind a marble statue.
By the time he reached the final set of stairs leading down to the main guardroom, Chris had his temper sufficiently under control where he felt capable of having an actual conversation with Parel instead of just driving the man's head through the closest wall. Chris was about to take the first step when something flashed in front of his face causing him to jump back with a startled cry. He looked up and spotted the small, winged creature as it banked to circle back in his direction. He recognized the small dragon immediately and a grin of relief replaced his angry scowl. He held out his hand and waited for the animated carving to land.
"Chris! I see it found you." Josiah arrived as the dragon settled on the fighter's palm.
"Yes. Smart thinking on Vin's part. I was just going to see Parel to make sure the search was called off but now that we have this little fellow to guide us we shouldn't have to worry." Chris focused his attention on the tiny beast and spoke directly to it. "Just like before, point to where Vin is hiding."
The dragon bobbed its head once then turned its body so that it was facing in the direction of the stairs. Chris swore and Josiah became instantly concerned.
"What's wrong? What's down there?"
"The main guardroom and the entrance to the prison cells. If that's where Vin is then he was captured before the search was called off." Chris started towards the stairs but was stopped by Josiah's hand on his shoulder.
"Wait, look at the dragon again."
Looking down, Chris noticed that the small carving was behaving oddly. It had curled its wings in close to its body and its head was weaving from side to side. Suddenly it gave a convulsive jerk and right before their eyes it once again became a lifeless, wooden carving.
"Josiah? What . . .?"
"I'm not sure. But considering what the ambassador said about Vin's Gift . . ." The wizard did not want to voice his fear; that the small beast was animated by the power of Vin's spirit and to have it suddenly stop moving might mean the loss of that power which could only mean . . .
Josiah didn't have to voice his concern aloud; Chris read it in his face.
"No. By all the Pits no!" Chris' fingers wrapped themselves tightly around the small carving as he practically flew down the stairs. Josiah was close behind him and both men barely paused as they reached the bottom step. Two guards entering the hallway spotted the fast moving strangers and reached for their swords. Their unconscious bodies were left lying where they fell.
Chris ignored the wooden doors that lined the corridor. He remembered the layout of the guard area and knew that these led to sleeping quarters and armory stores. A couple of rooms would be offices and a room for interrogating prisoners but those doors stood open and it only took a quick glance to verify that they were empty; or very nearly so. Chris skidded to a stop as he spotted a shining piece of metal lying on a table. As he stepped into the room he noticed the remains of a wooden stool and what appeared to be a few spots of fresh blood.
"Chris? Have you found something?"
Turning back to face the door, Chris held up his discovery for Josiah to see. "Its Vin's cloak pin; the one that belonged to his father."
"Then they do have him."
"Not for much longer." Pocketing the broach, Chris resumed his search. His goal lay at the end of the hall, which was blocked by a heavily barred door. Through there were the cells that held the prisoners who for one reason or another were considered important enough to house beneath the castle. Common thieves or cutthroats were kept in the city prison far removed from the king.
Pausing outside the door, Chris took a moment to safely tuck the wooden dragon in his tunic along side the pin and draw his sword. The fact that door was barred and there were no guards standing out front made it unlikely there would be any soldiers inside but he decided not to take any chances. With Josiah's help he lifted the heavy board and pushed the door open.
Metal bars lined either side of the narrow corridor and each cell was lit with a series of glowing crystals hung in small cages from the ceiling. Most of the cells appeared empty and the few prisoners they did see moved to stand close to the bars when they noticed that the two men were not castle guards.
Josiah took a chance and questioned the one closest to him, a small, weasel-faced man with a beak nose and dark beard. "We're looking for two young men that might have been brought in just a short time ago. One dark haired and the other fair with a blue scarf tied around his head."
"Make it worth something to me."
Chris stuck his hand through the bars and wrapped his fingers around the back of the man's neck while pressing his sword against his stomach. "How about you get to keep your guts inside your body?"
"Only saw one brought in today. Just a short time ago. Young. Dark haired. Had him tied and gagged. They took him all the way to the end. Probably to the pit." The prisoner gasped with relief as the point of the sword left his navel.
Leading the way once more, Chris hurried past the remainder of the cells, his mind tearing at the information he'd just learned. 'He didn't see Vin brought through but the dragon definitely pointed toward the stair. No reason for him to be in one of the rooms we passed and Jaydee down here. Why did the dragon stop moving? Where is Vin?'
"What did he mean by the pit?" Josiah followed close on Chris' heels and drew a light crystal from his cloak as he noticed the darkness that lay ahead of them.
"One of the earlier kings wanted a place that he could make prisoners disappear. The pit was dug into solid rock and the sides smoothed so that there is no possible way to climb out. It's said that it used to be a lot deeper, perhaps a hundred feet but the layers of bones have reduced it to only about twenty or thirty."
"Bysha have mercy."
"Orrin's great grandfather had the pit room sealed but it sounds like Parel or someone else is making use of it again."
Sure enough, as they rounded the last bend in the corridor they discovered a relatively new looking wooden door. Chris hesitated for just a moment, as fearful of what he might find as what he might not.
Jaydee shuddered as another bone splintered beneath his heel. He knew it was a bone because the guards had taken great pleasure in showing him the contents of the pit before shoving him over the edge. He'd landed on his feet but the brittle bones had snapped and shifted causing him to fall on his side. The pain of hitting his wounded arm had left him dazed and lightheaded. By the time he'd regained his footing the guards had left taking the only source of light with them. At least they'd been merciful enough to untie his hands before dropping him in. He'd wasted no time in removing the gag and calling out to the other prisoner he'd gotten a quick glimpse of before he was lost in the darkness. Silence was his only answer so he began feeling his way along the smooth curve of the wall, hoping to find his silent companion. Perhaps if the two of them worked together they might find a way out of their prison.
Finally Jaydee's foot struck something that did not rattle or snap but gave slightly with a soft thump. Crouching low, the young fighter reached with his hands and discovered a bare arm followed by a cloth-covered shoulder. The flesh was chilled and for a fearful moment Jaydee was afraid he'd been left with a rotting corpse but moving his hand to the man's chest he was relieved to feel a steady heartbeat and the gentle movement of even breaths. Finding that there was no reaction to his touch, Jaydee moved his hand upwards toward the man's face to try and determine if he was even awake. As his fingers moved across the bared throat, he finally knew who his companion was and why he was so silent and still.
"A collar. Like the one they put on Vin. This must be . . ."
The sudden creak of a door opening sounded from overhead and Jaydee leaped to his feet. He didn't know why the guards had returned so quickly but it surely couldn't be good. He craned his neck and turned his head until he finally spotted the increasing light off to his left. Bracing his feet wide apart, Jaydee steeled himself for the worst.
"Chris! Josiah! Thank Bysha!"
"Jaydee! Are you all right? Where's Vin?" Chris felt a sense of relief to find at least one of his missing friends alive and well enough to stand on his own. He spotted the darkness of Jaydee's sleeve and the rough bandage tied around his arm but otherwise the boy appeared unharmed.
"We have to hurry! Listrel's taken him to Bysha's Spire! He's going to make Vin kill Orrin! We have to stop him!"
Jaydee's words made little sense but Chris did grasp enough to know that Vin was still alive. Looking around he spotted a rolled up rope ladder anchored to the floor at the edge of the pit. Giving it a hard kick, he sent it tumbling over the side. Scarcely had the bottom rung hit the layer of bones then he was clambering down its length.
"C'mon, I'll hold it steady while you climb up."
"Wait Chris, look. I think this is Commander Sorel."
"Sorel?" Chris couldn't believe his eyes. The tattered old man that was slumped against the stone wall looked nothing like his former commander. Dropping to one knee, Chris gently reached out and lifted the man's left arm turning it so that the inner part was illuminated by Josiah's crystal. There in plain sight was an ugly scar that stretched from wrist to elbow. "It is you. What have those vipers done to you?"
"It's the collar. It controls him just like the wooden splinter that was used on Nathan. There's a silver needle at the back that goes into his neck."
"How do you know all that?"
Jaydee swallowed hard and then forced himself to meet Chris' eyes as he answered. "I watched them put one on Vin. I'm sorry. I couldn't . . ."
"Josiah! Get down here now!"
The wizard had started down the ladder as soon as he'd heard Jaydee's explanation for the condition of the former commander of the king's army. He knew exactly what Chris wanted him to do and knew how little time they had. Handing Jaydee his crystal and taking Chris' place, he did not hesitate to place his hands against the bespelled item and begin the attempt to master its energies. He'd done it for wood, Bysha willing he'd accomplish the same for metal.
The energy captured in stone was clear and cold. Sharp and well defined. When stored in wood it felt warm and flowing, like sap in a tree or blood through veins. In metal it was . . . fire . . . sparks from a forge . . . angry . . . forced into confinement like heated metal was shaped by the fall of a hammer. It burned. It smoldered. He could feel it. He could hear it. He could . . . control it.
"Anparadiam." Slowly he pulled on the back of the collar as he felt the energy grudgingly release its hold on living flesh. The needle emerged and a tiny rivulet of blood ran down the commander's back. As the metal collar came away from Sorel's throat, a violent shudder rocked the emaciated frame. He would have collapsed onto the floor of bones if Chris had not caught and held him upright.
Dark, clouded eyes blinked once than twice. The chest rose and fell a little faster and a low, ghostly moan spilled from the slack mouth.
" Sorel! Who did this? Was it Haris? Parel? Wake up! Orrin needs you! To arms commander, the king's life is in danger!"
Jaydee gasped as he saw the man's eyes literally change from black to pale green between one blink and the next. Even more astounding was the way they suddenly went from dull and lifeless to fever bright as they focused on Chris' face. The moaning stopped and Sorel's lips moved but only a dry cough emerged.
"We need to get him out of here. Josiah, use your transport crystal and take him directly to Ezra's home. Maude will be there and she can take care of him. Don't waste time on lengthy explanations. Jaydee, start with how you and Vin were captured and tell me everything that happened."
"This is ridiculous. If Vin and Jaydee were hidden anywhere on these grounds they would have seen us by now and found a way to alert us as to their presence." Ezra glanced over at his elven companion. "Unless of course they were afraid to show themselves."
If Kyle E'tharin was offended by the remark he gave no sign of it. Instead he stood silently looking out over the next section of gardens. Finally the young elf turned to his human companion and nodded his agreement. "You are right but what else can we do?"
Ezra was about to answer when he distinctly heard Josiah's voice calling his name. Oddly enough it seemed to be coming from the direction of his belt, more specifically his pouch. "The crystal. Perhaps it is good news." Kyle watched closely as Ezra cupped the polished sphere in the palm of his hand and spoke directly to it.
"I hear you Josiah. Have you found them?"
"We have Jaydee but Vin and Orrin are in danger. Get to the kitchen courtyard as quick as you can. You'll find Tyler and one other waiting for you. They are going to transport you to a tavern that lies just east of Bysha's Spire, which is where we're headed now. Tyler will give you more details there but mainly your job is to get to Orrin and the ambassador. Stop them from going past the Spire. Tell Buck and Nathan to be prepared for an attack. Hurry Ezra, we're running out of time."
"We're on our way." Dropping the crystal back into his pouch, Ezra took off across the gardens at a dead run, hurtling any low shrubs or stone benches that got in his way. He spared a fleeting thought as to what his mother would think to see him at that moment and than concentrated on clearing the next flowerbed. A friend's life was in danger, Vin's life was in danger; he'd run naked through the city if he thought it would help. Kyle kept pace silently beside him, his thoughts his own. No doubt worrying about the 'Ferrilis Child' and perhaps it was guilt that gave wings to his heels. No matter what the motivation, they reached the courtyard slightly winded but in remarkable time.
"Ezra! Over here!" The young stone wizard Tyler greeted the two men and quickly introduced the fair-haired stranger next to him. "This is my friend Dunly."
"You're taking us to the others?"
"Just to Worsel's Tavern. Chris and Josiah should be at the Spire by now or close to it. Dunly and I will remain at the tavern in case we are needed again."
"He was to wait at the tavern for you but from the look on his face when we left him I don't think he'll be there."
"That would come as no surprise. All the more reason to hasten our departure."
Ezra stepped close to Tyler and motioned for Kyle to approach the other stone wizard.
"I . . . I have never traveled in such a way before." The elf was obviously reluctant and perhaps even a little fearful but concern for the lives of his friends left Ezra short tempered and without patience.
"Just take his hand and hold on. Hide your eyes if you're scared but I guarantee that what waits for us at the Spire is more dangerous than this."
The ambassador's aid drew himself up proudly and stepped forward. "I am not afraid of your human magic."
Tyler shook his head as he grasped Ezra's arm. "Thats good because it's not the magic you have to fear, it's the wizards that use it."
Kyle's eyes widened as he watched Ezra and Tyler disappear in a blinding flash of light but before he could have second thoughts he felt Dunly take his arm and the world around him vanished. He experienced a horrible falling sensation and a moment of complete darkness. A scream was on the edge of his lips when he suddenly felt a solid surface beneath his feet again. Looking about he realized that he was no longer standing in the castle courtyard but in a small attic room.
He spotted Ezra and the other wizard near the door leading to the stairs and forced himself to focus on the task at hand and forget about the unsettling journey. As he watched, Tyler made a motion towards his neck and a look of horror appeared on Ezra's face just before the man dashed out the door.
Leaving the two wizards in the attic, the elf caught up to Ezra in the tavern's main room, which was otherwise completely empty. Tyler had been correct; Jaydee had not waited for them to arrive. The absence of any other patron was explained as soon as Ezra opened the door leading out to the street.
"Norel save us! Has the entire city gathered to see your king?"
"This city plus any town or village within a day's ride. Orrin is very popular and on this tour he is accompanied by an ambassador from Morrand." Ezra stood just inside the open door and glared at the wall of bodies that blocked his way. "How the Pits are we going to make it through this crowd in time? How did Chris and Josiah do it?" And another more important question, 'How are they going to save Vin?'
Peering over Ezra's shoulder, Kyle shared the human's concerns. It would take more than a candle mark to squeeze their way between the tightly packed bodies if they tried to use the main street. "Are there alleys that we can use? Back streets?"
"Yes but this particular section of the city is given to rather more 'ornate' buildings and lanes. We are going to travel twice the distance to reach the same goal. But it would appear we have no choice. I guess our run through the gardens was merely a warm up."
Kyle frowned as he studied the crowds ahead of them. He noticed a soldier riding by on a large stallion and realized the man must be part of a patrol keeping the center of the street clear for the procession. "Of course. Follow me."
"What . . .?" Ezra made a grab for Kyle's shoulder but the elf slipped away, disappearing into the crowd. "Follow him? Was that supposed to be a joke?" Seeing no other alternative, he took a deep breath and began pushing his way through the spectators in what he hoped and prayed was the right direction.
"Ezra, here. This way." An opening appeared and Ezra lunged for it apologizing breathlessly to the woman he very nearly trampled in his haste. Stumbling clear of the crowd he was surprised to find himself actually standing in the street. Kyle stood at his side with a pleased smile on his face apparently unaware of the fact that they were about to be accosted by a mounted guard.
"You there! Get back to the side. No one on the street until the king passes."
Kyle drew himself up straight and spun to face the soldier. With his chin held high and his fists resting on his hips, the young elf raised his voice to be heard clearly over the excited crowd. "In the name of Rilshar E'telar, Lord of Morrand, I Kyle E'tharin, aid to Ambassador Lytan E'tharin, command you to relinquish your horse so that we may ride to the king's aid."
There was a pause as the soldier and those gathered closest to the elf belatedly noticed the fine clothing and the even more distinctive shape of his ears. The spectators gasped and ogled while word began spreading like wildfire. Their reaction was as predictable as the guard's was unexpected. Ezra realized the danger almost too late but once again his quick reflexes saved his life as well as that of his companion.
The mounted guard drove his heels into his horses sides sending the animal plunging directly at the surprised elf. Ezra threw himself against Kyles back and they both rolled clear of the iron-shod hooves. Staggering back to his feet, Ezra was just in time to see the soldier turn and draw his sword. Palming his own small dagger, the Lord of Standish Hall made a desperate throw that caught the guard in his right shoulder. The mans arm dropped but he managed to hold on to his sword as he kicked his horse into another charge. Seeing no other choice, Ezra stood his ground and risked a desperate maneuver to unseat the guardsman.
Knowing that the soldier would try to use his sword, Ezra stepped towards the horse cutting in front of it without an inch to spare. The front shoulder of the animal actually brushed his chest as it thundered past. Using the soldiers own left leg and the back of the saddle, Ezra pulled himself up onto the back of the horse then wrapped his arms around the surprised guardsman. The horse came to a skidding halt as the two men struggled for control of its reins. Ezra grunted in pain as he took an elbow in the ribs but he retaliated by grasping the hilt of his dagger that still protruded from his opponents shoulder. The guard howled in pain and in a desperate maneuver turned his sword to slash across Ezras thigh. The sharpened steel burned as it tore through his flesh but luckily the bad angle and the loss of blood combined to reduce the force of the stroke. Ezra gritted his teeth against the pain and seized the opportunity to further overbalance the soldier and send him tumbling from the saddle.
The entire incident from start to finish occurred so quickly that those gathered on the streets were still frozen in confusion when Ezra pulled the horse around and made room for Kyle to take the soldiers place in the saddle.
"Will keep. Get us to the king and dont stop for any guards. If we needed proof that some of the soldiers are traitors we have it now."
Alarmed shouts and cries followed in their wake as they took off down the street. Ezra kept his arms around the elf's waist since the movement of the horse made it impossible to apply any pressure to the wound in his leg. He could feel the blood flowing into his boot and prayed that he would not be rendered entirely useless in the conflict that surely awaited them.