by Julia Neal
NOTES: This is set in my personal fantasy AU. All original characters are of my own creation. Any relation between characters and anyone living or dead is purely coincidental and no harm is intended. Etc., etc., etc.
He had no idea just where he was but he knew that he was moving-- a curiously disorienting feeling considering he was lying down. Several sensations, none of them pleasant, transmitted themselves to his waking brain in a split second of overload. JD moaned and tried to roll onto his back to relieve the pains in his right side, but it was no use. He stared at his wrists, chained together at the side of the wagon; he could feel the pull from the manacles around his ankles as he tried to move his legs. Ignoring the shooting pains throughout his body, he started struggling against his bonds.
"Give up. They're not going to break," a soft voice said from behind him. Vin. JD craned his neck and looked over at the other man, who half-smiled back and shook his chains. "Nice to see your eyes again, kid."
"Quiet back there!"
JD looked toward the front of the wagon. A thick, sun-reddened man sat there, a large whip by his side and a long dagger at his belt. The keys to the manacles were beside his boot. JD considered them.
"Don't. You tried it before and look what you got," Vin warned him.
"What do you mean?"
"You don't remember." It wasn't a question, but JD shook his head anyway.
"I SAID SHUT YOUR TRAPS!" The burly man up front roared, yanking the horses to a halt. Hoofbeats rang on the rocks along the road as another man rode up.
"Trouble, Teren?" he asked. "Should we put Alker here instead and leave you in the grass?"
"They won't keep their mouths shut," Teren muttered. "Sir."
The rider tossed his dark head back and laughed. "Is that all?" He turned the bay gelding around and yelled: "Proa! Get up here!"
"Sir!" the slight man said when he reported.
A smile crept across the leader's face. "These two won't be quiet and leave Teren alone. You can fix that, can't you?"
"I can, sir. I sure can." He reached into his box and pulled out a syringe and a bottle. "Shall I dose the kid or long-hair?"
"Dose me," Vin volunteered. "You'll kill him if you dose him again."
"Give it to the kid," the leader countered, raising an eyebrow in mock-apology. "It keeps them both silent for much longer."
Proa snickered as he grabbed JD's arm and jabbed it with the needle. Vin clenched his jaw, watching helplessly as JD turned pleading eyes toward him and fell unconscious.
"Can't I dose him, too?"
"Leave him be, Proa." He turned to the wagon driver. "Now can you move on?"
"Move on, then."
When JD next awoke it was dark and he was no longer moving, but his body ached. He was still chained in the wagon, but someone had thrown a blanket over him. The chains confused him. What was he doing chained to a wagon? He struggled with his bonds until fire shot through his arms. He yelped in pain and curled around his forearms as best as he could. Gods, that hurt!
Wincing in sympathy, Vin threw a pebble at him. Gagged as he was, he could do little else. JD's eyes sought his and he blurted out questions.
"Where are we? What are we doing here? Where are the others?"
"Keep your mouth shut, will you? I'd rather not see Proa dose you again," a voice said from the ground beside of the wagon. He stood up and rubbed his eyes, then flicked a glance toward the fire, where his leader was supposed to be asleep. Where was he?
"Let us go," JD said, not seeing Vin wince at his foolishness.
"Aw, just keep quiet," another voice snarled from the darkness. "I wanted to sleep."
"Gag him," an imperious voice said. The man by the wagon jumped as his leader approached.
"Do it. Or I'll let Proa deal with you. And maybe I'll let Big Dorv help out."
"No, sir!" His eyes widened when he saw the other man's frown. "I mean I'll do it, sir!"
As the other man fumbled to put the gag in place, Kastas looked the two prisoners over. The long-haired one hadn't said a word since the last time they put the kid under, so the gag was purely for show. It was unusual to find a person with that sort of control; he'd have admired the man if not for his profession. He cocked his head and studied the kid, then strode back to the warmth of the fire.
Vin watched him go, then checked over his shoulder to see how JD was. The younger man looked bewildered and in pain, but Vin couldn't do anything to help him. He cursed the gods at their ill luck and settled down to watch the men around him. They'd figure out a way to escape somehow.
He just hoped it wouldn't be too late. From the scent of the pines around them, he could tell that they'd be nearing the border soon. The patrols in Ghenntia greatly discouraged foreign lawkeepers from crossing into the nation to abduct criminals. They preferred to do it themselves; for a higher profit, of course. Too bad Ezra wasn't there-- the thieving nation was his home, after all. Vin frowned at the thought. No. Ezra didn't deserve to be shackled and beaten. It was good that he'd gotten away.
He could get help.
"Damn it all to the Abyss! How many were there?" Chris barked as he paced the small room. Buck and Nathan, looking exhausted and filthy from the ride, stood by the door. He'd been dragging answers from them for the past hour or so and had refused to let them get comfortable first. At least he'd let Ezra go rest.
The healer sighed. "There seem to have been a lot of them. I've never encountered a group of outlaws that big-- the king's troops generally discourage such bands from forming. And they were well-prepared. They knew who they were after and got moving quickly."
"How far could they have gotten?"
"By now?" Buck asked, looking at the darkness outside. "They're probably over the border already."
Chris cursed again, then composed himself. "Where's Josiah?"
"Still with that family, praying for their youngest," Buck answered.
"Go get him if you can. If anyone's prayers will be answered, his will."
After Buck left, he turned on his heel and headed up the stairs. "Ezra!"
For a man looking like death when Nathan and Buck had brought him in, the gambler was amazingly alert. He'd wiped the road dust and blood from him and changed. His attire was better, but he was far too pale. "Gods, Ezra. Sit down!"
"I'll have to go with you."
"It's my home, Chris. I know how things are run there."
"But you're not well. Someone needs to watch the town."
"You don't know how to handle the patrols," Ezra pointed out as he crossed his arms. "I do. You need me. I'm going."
Chris sighed and backed down, knowing that all they had to do was not wake him. He forced himself not to smile as he lied, "We'll wake you when it's time."
No, you won't. I know you better than that. "Thank you."
Ezra grimaced as he tugged on his boots, cursing himself for not listening to Nathan. The healer had tried to get him to take the poppy syrup to dull the pain, but Ezra hated the groggy feeling it gave him. And he was determined to go with them. He took a swig of the ale he'd toted up to his room and stood, working his shoulder around. The arrow was out, thanks to Nathan, and Chris had no idea he'd been so seriously hurt. He hoped. Nathan and Buck had sworn not to tell, and although they were generally true to their word, he didn't know if they would keep it this time.
He lit a candle and finished his packing. With one last look around the room, he stepped into the hall. Silence. He crept along the corridor and down the steps. More silence. Sighing with relief, he continued on his way to the stable out back.
Nathan. Not Chris. Thank the gods. "Good morning," he said.
The healer came out of the shadows. "I figured you'd be down here early. How's the shoulder?"
"Functional and healing. Thank you."
"It would be better for it if you didn't come, but I know you're going to ignore the advice. You all do." He shrugged to himself. "We've got a little time before the others will be ready to go; I'll help you saddle your horse."
"Bring that one to me," Kastas ordered before dawn. Several men looked from him to Vin and back again, but they didn't dare ignore the order. Teren unlocked the manacles and two men dragged the prisoner toward the dead fire. The outlaw leader stirred the embers of the fire, showing that they were still hot. He saw Vin's stare and smiled as he reached for a pair of tongs.
"Answer or you get a burn. One burn per refusal until you faint. And Proa will have something for you if you do."
Vin pointed to his gag and the man laughed. "Oh how silly of me. Dorv, the gag?"
Rough hands ripped the gag from his mouth and Vin worked his jaw. "Water?" He croaked. Warm, suspiciously-colored water was thrust at him. He didn't care. It was wet. He drank it down.
"Are we ever going to start?" Proa whined.
"Let us begin," Kastas said, turning his full attention to his prisoner and holding the coal near his arm. Vin felt the heat on his arm and smelled the sickening odor of burned hair. He didn't flinch. Again, the outlaw couldn't help but admire the man. But admiration was shoved aside as he began his interrogation.
Chris scowled. He'd expected Ezra to disobey his orders, but not Nathan. The healer had not only lied to him about Ezra's injury, he'd helped the man saddle his horse and get ready to ride! Buck and Josiah had just shrugged; they figured that if Ezra was that determined, they might as well let him come with them. They were waiting on him to get in the saddle. He made a face and mounted up.
"Show me where you found Ezra," he ordered Buck.
Within the hour, they'd reached the site of the skirmish. Hordes of hoofprints ringed the area, and Chris was sure he saw more than one broken bow. Buck pulled a half-buried sword from the dust.
"They were well-armed, I'll give them that," he muttered. "And well-prepared. But they haven't covered their tracks at all. Look, the wagon went that way."
"Why should they cover? The border's not too far away, and once they're across it'll be next to impossible to get JD and Vin back," Chris said.
"We'll get them back," Ezra said as he reached down to pick up a dagger. "I can take care of the border guards. We should get going if we want to make it before nightfall." He pulled himself onto his horse and looked at the others. "Well?"
"Is this road the quickest way?" Nathan asked.
"It is," Ezra affirmed.
Josiah pulled a dagger from a dead man. "JD's," he said.
"Here's the other one," Nathan added. "He didn't go down without a fight. That looks like Vin's bow."
"We can pick up the rest later. Ride on," Chris growled. At that, the others sprang for their horses. His tone brooked no argument.
"He going to live, Proa?" Kastas asked in a dangerously quiet voice.
Glittering black eyes met his. "Of course. It's no fun if they're not alive."
"Get him back in the wagon, then. How long will he be out, do you think?"
"What?! You could have killed him with that much!"
Proa crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. "Do you doubt my skills?"
I'm paying you too much to doubt you. "No. I just wondered." He turned to the others. "Just throw him in the wagon and let's get going. We'll chain him up later."
"Yes sir," they replied. They threw the man in the wagon, heedless of damage they could do. JD winced as he heard cracking noises. Ribs. Ouch.
The wagon jolted to a start and JD looked over at Vin. Abyss below, he looked awful. Burns all over him and bruises from the day before. His mind had cleared somewhat, so memories of the past day and night started coming to him in pieces. He remembered a thin man with black eyes sticking a needle into him every so often, but he didn't know what he'd been given.
He sighed, wishing he knew where they were being taken.
"Hide your weapons," Ezra said suddenly.
"Hide them, Chris. And let me handle this."
Ezra rolled his eyes and pointed at the border station. "The crossing, of course." The others fell back as the Ghenntian rode ahead. They saw him lean casually forward over his saddle horn and chat with the soldiers. Money and a paper changed hands.
"You're clear," the shortest of the guards barked out. Ezra motioned to the others and they rode through without trouble. When they were out of earshot, Josiah turned to Ezra.
"How did you do that?"
"I told you. It's my home, and I know how things work. A bribe and a promise to carry a message to a certain lady in the nearest town and no questions asked. It's simple enough."
"Did you ask about the wagon?" Chris asked. Ezra pretended to be hurt.
"Do you question my intelligence, sir? I asked. Feilam told me to ask in the next town. We'll find them-- nothing is too sacred or secret to sell here, for a price. As long as you let me bargain, we'll make this work."
"I just hope you know what you're doing."
"Mother taught me well."
Vin opened his eyes and bit back a scream. "Sorry, Vin," he heard JD whisper. The kid's wrists had been freed enough to allow him to wash his friend's burns with cool water. Vin wondered if it had been Proa's idea for more torment or Kastas's idea to get him back into some semblance of humanity before they reached his boss in the capital.
"Hey, kid," he croaked. His mouth felt like it was stuffed with wool. "How come we've stopped?"
JD gave him a wry grin. "Something in the wagon broke. They've sent men to appropriate a blacksmith so they can get it fixed." He leaned closer. "All of them are really mad."
"How many guards are there?"
"Most of them. But they're not watching us all that closely. I'm still chained up, and they don't expect you to wake up until morning. Kastas said the weaselly guy gave you too much."
"Well, I'm not dead yet."
Both looked up quickly when Kastas came storming through the camp, flinging things left and right. "Damn you, Retil! You were supposed to keep this thing repaired! And you, Pontin. You were supposed to keep the gods happy through this! Can't anyone do their jobs right?"
As he came closer, Vin closed his eyes and slumped back. Catching his drift, JD continued in his work. Kastas swatted him across the head. "Let me know when he wakes up," he snarled.
"Why did we have to be stopped in the middle of nowhere? The nearest town didn't even have a blacksmith!" Kastas yelled, kicking over the stew pot. The cook groaned.
Vin smiled. "We're in luck. We have a madman in charge here," he joked.
JD wasn't so sure. "Yeah. Real lucky." He went back to Vin's burns.
"I'm not stopping just because it's dark," Buck said.
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "You don't know these woods very well, do you?"
Chris slammed his hands against the tree by Ezra's face. "Damn it all, I'm sick of you spouting your knowledge and taking authority. I'm in charge here and I say press on. If anything big comes our way, we'll kill it. You got that?"
"Don't say I didn't warn--"
Chris yelled wordlessly and leaped onto his horse. He dragged the black around and spurred him down the road. Buck and Nathan were quick to follow. Josiah stared at Ezra for a moment.
"What is it that scares you about this area?"
"Animals, people, the men we're following. Things get dangerous at night. We'd be better off camping for now."
"Well, like it or not our party has pressed on. We'd be safer in a larger group, correct?"
"Then by all means--"
They galloped after the others.
Vin and JD leaned against the sides of the wagon and watched the moon disappear behind the clouds. Neither could sleep; something told them to stay awake. JD shifted his weight to relieve the pressure of the manacles on his ankles; they clanked softly and Vin dropped down. Muffled snores continued without interruption around them. Vin glared at his companion, who shrugged sheepishly.
Three men sat awake around the camp, but they were nearing the middle of their watch and one was nodding off by the road. Kastas was sleeping soundly by the fire. It would be the perfect time to escape.
And if JD wasn't still chained up, they would. The outlaws had never gotten around to putting Vin's chains back on-- every time they looked, he was in the same position, sprawled in the wagon, fast asleep. Vin was in too much pain to fight off any of the men, much less scrabble around in the dark searching for the keys near Teren's bulk.
"You been praying, kid?"
"Yeah. But I don't know if I'm going to be answered."
"Josiah would say, 'have faith and you will be answered' or something like that. I can't trust blind luck. Even the gods play dice with our lives."
JD nodded once, then froze. "Vin."
"What?" He noticed JD's hopeful eyes and looked over his shoulder. "Looks like your prayers have been answered after all," he breathed as he saw Buck take down one of the sentries.
Save for the snores of the sleeping outlaws, the camp was silent. Ezra appeared suddenly beside the wagon. "Ready to go, gentlemen?" he asked.
"I'm still chained up."
Ezra sighed. "Where's the key?"
"Beside the big guy, over there. Hurry," Vin answered as he slid from the wagon. In moments, Ezra had JD free.
"Let's get out of here," JD said. Vin looked toward the fire. Kastas was no longer there.
"What was that?" Ezra asked.
"Kastas is gone."
"Shit," JD echoed. "Time to get out of here. Hope the other guys are ready."
"Not so fast." Kastas appeared from the trees. "There's our wayward man. The one we were after."
Chris, this would be a really good time to show up to save the day. "Kastas," he returned. "It's been a while." He motioned behind his back for the other two to go as his wrist dagger fell into his hand.
JD turned to run. "Shit-pile," he cursed. "Proa."
The man snickered. "I got more for you, since what I gave you didn't kill you like it was supposed to," he said to Vin. "Lots more. Just for you."
"Run, JD. Run. Now!" Vin snapped, flinging himself at Proa. JD took off through the grassy clearing, dodging waking bodies as he went. He heard Josiah talking to the outlaws' horses and veered in that direction.
"Cut them loose, Josiah. Make them stampede! We're about to have a whole lot of trouble."
The older man didn't argue. They freed the nervous animals and sent them galloping down the road. The whole camp was waking up.
"KASTAS!" They heard Proa cry out above the uproar.
Nathan, Buck, and Chris rode up with their horses. "Time to go," Chris said. JD hauled himself into the saddle and spurred the bay toward the wagon.
Vin and Ezra stood back-to-back, breathing heavily. With his blade against Kastas's neck, Ezra was able to keep the others from attacking as they edged away from the crowd. Proa lay on the ground, slowly dying, but none of the others paid him any attention.
Kastas was another matter. Scared of him as they were, they still didn't want him to die. He was a good leader; he brought them wealth and fame. Ezra knew he had the only bargaining chip worth having. "Get back," he ordered. "Or I'll kill him."
"Give him back!" Teren shouted. "We'll let you go. Just give him back!"
"I don't trust them," Vin hissed. "You shouldn't trust them, either."
"I'm aware of that. They *are* Ghenntians, after all."
They smiled as they heard hoofbeats coming their way. That would be the rest of their group.
Four riders barreled down on the crowd from the side; outlaws scattered. Effectively cut off from his men, Kastas knew he wouldn't see the morning. He prayed that they'd kill him quickly.
Vin and Ezra shoved the outlaw into the saddle of one of the spare horses JD held for them, then sprang into their own saddles and flanked him.
As one, the seven men whirled their horses around and galloped down the road, leaving the outlaws in their dust.
"How are we to get past the border with him?" Nathan asked.
Ezra smiled. "Oh, we don't have to."
"And why is that?"
"Chris, Chris. Have you no faith in me? The captain of the town guard in that rustic place," he said, pointing at the nearest town, "is an old friend of mine. He'll make sure Kastas gets to the royal dungeons."
"What about the others?" JD asked.
"Those are Ghenntia's problem now. Let them take care of it," Ezra said easily.
"So we drop him off and just go home?" Buck asked. "It can't be that easy. How could it possibly be that easy?"
Ezra bowed in his saddle. "I'm a Ghenntian. I never tell my secrets." He turned his attention back to the road ahead. "Now, I believe that once he is in the hands of this town guard, we can go home, correct?"
"Home. Sounds good to me," Josiah said.
"Ride on," Chris said, shaking his head. "Ride on."