daniomalley: (Default)
Title: In The Cards
Pairings: None
Rating: PG13
Word Count: 29095
Summary: The small and peaceful town of Four Corners harbours a sinister secret. Everything depends on seven very different men learning to work together to defend their home and prevent tragedy from striking again.
Author's Notes: Written for Magnificen Seven Big Bang 2012. My thanks go out to Valiha for creating the most beautiful art to accompany this fic.
Also available on Livejournal

'In The Cards' JD led Nan back into his stall. The big gelding turned his head around and rubbed his nose against JD's shoulder. JD scratched him behind the ears, and the horse blew a gust of warm air into his face.

"Don't mess up my hair," JD chuckled. His grin slowly faded. "I've got to make sure I look my best when I ask old man Creshaw for a half day." JD quickly looked around, making sure no-one had overheard him. He was alone in the stable, so he turned back to Nan and stroked his neck. "Wish me luck, boy," he whispered. "Casey's gonna be at the fair, and I reckon I've got a chance of winning the horse race. The prize is a new saddle! Vin the tanner made it. I saw it yesterday, and it looks real fine." JD stopped patting Nan, and said quietly, "Do you think Casey will be pleased if I win? I've been practicing so hard."

Nan didn't offer any answer to JD's question, but sniffed at his pockets looking for food. JD gently pushed him away and left the stall, still imagining his success, and Casey watching him in awe and admiration.

*******

JD stood in Baron Creshaw's dimly lit study, shuffling his feet.

"Do you know why I keep you on here, boy?"

"No, my Lord." JD focused on the Baron's feet and tried not to show his nervousness.

"It's because you need me, boy, and I am not a man to neglect my obligations."

"Yes, my Lord."

"Out in the real world you will find that a young man such as yourself, uneducated and illegitimate, has few prospects. I have no wish to see you endure privation or destitution, so I have continued to make a place for you in my household. I think you will agree I have been more than generous in the past, have I not? And the terms of our agreement are more than fair, are they not?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"And yet, you seem disatisfied with the situation. The bulk of your debt remains outstanding, but you come seeking... a holiday. Young man, you are, as always, free to resign your position at any time. Of course, should you wish to do so, I would have to demand the balance of your debt. Is that what you want?"

"No! Er, no, my Lord. I'm... I'm very happy."

"Good. Well, if there is nothing else you wanted..."

"No, my Lord, nothing else."

"Well then, perhaps you should head back to the stables. I'm sure there is much that needs to be done."

JD was making a hasty but respectful retreat when he collided with someone in the doorway. The other person gasped and dropped several heavy looking books to the ground. JD groaned, but tried to do it quietly. It was Baron Creshaw's stepson. As though things hadn't been bad already. He crouched down and stacked the books together as quickly as he could, lifting them up and holding them out to the man he had surprised. The young lord glared back at him, not taking the books. JD tried to stammer out an apology, but was interrupted.

"One wonders if it is safe for such a clumsy person to toil in the stables. I do hope Chaser has suffered no ill effects from being under your care."

JD felt his face turn bright red at the insult, but was saved having to answer by the Baron.

"Leave off fretting over your damn horse for a bit, Ezra. You're worse than a girl with a baby doll. Boy! Bring those over here."

JD scuttled across and set the books on the desk.

"If there is nothing else you require of me," said Lord Standish, "I had planned to spend the day in Four Corners." He paused a beat, and, when Baron Creshaw did not say anything, said, "John. Saddle my horse, and prepare to accompany me."

JD was glad for an excuse to leave, and headed quickly back to the stables. Going to Four Corners with Lord Standish, however, was the last thing he wanted to do. Well, he supposed that wasn't really true. There were probably lots of more unpleasant things he could be doing. But it was hard, right now, to think of more than a few.

It wasn't that Lord Standish was particularly unpleasant. He was the Baron's stepson; that didn't help. He never really talked to anyone, and when he did, hardly anyone could understand him. He made JD feel dimwitted and clumsy, just by being near. And, of course, there was the fact that JD had rather hoped to be heading to Four Corners by himself, about now. Instead he would be stuck with Lord Standish, tending his horse and running whatever errands he could think of.

JD fetched Chaser's tack, and let himself into the chestnut gelding's stall. He watched Chaser warily. Most of the stable hands disliked the horse. He wasn't really mean or ill tempered, he was just... playful. And he could certainly be a nuisance if he felt he wasn't getting enough attention. Chaser had taken a liking to JD for some reason, or perhaps simply tolerated him better than others, and JD found himself entrusted with the horse's care most of the time. He got Chaser saddled and bridled with a little coaxing, and left to see to his own horse, Milagro.

JD had had Milagro since he was fourteen and had wanted his own horse more than anything else in the world. He had run errands for the farrier, Tiny, and saved money however he could. His mother had made up the amount he couldn't save and bought him the young horse. That was before... before everything had changed. Before his mother had gotten sick, before he had had to leave childhood behind and take care of her. Before the future had disappeared under the weight of a debt he could probably never repay.

He kept Milagro in the Baron's stables, and the Baron deducted the cost of his keep from JD's wages, as well as board and meals. Most of what was left over made up JD's repayments, for the Baron continuing to house his mother when she was too sick to work, and providing medicine, such as it was. Perhaps he should sell Milagro, but JD found himself unable to part with the horse.

Four Corners was an hour's ride away, and each minute passed in thick and cloying silence. Lord Standish seemed perfectly content gazing at the scenery and occasionally talking to his horse. JD was so relieved when he saw Four Corners not far ahead, he nearly dropped the reins and shouted out loud. Fortunately, he found he had some self restraint when it was needed.

Lord Standish led them to the inn. He dismounted, and JD followed suit, taking Chaser's reins as they were handed to him. "Take Chaser to the livery, and have him taken care of," Lord Standish ordered. "I shall be returning to the estate at five o'clock. Meet me here, and do not be late."

"My Lord?" JD questioned, certain he had missed something.

Lord Standish huffed, sounding annoyed. "I intend to spend the next few hours relaxing in ambient surroundings. I do not require your presence to do this. You are excused; go find something to amuse yourself and come back in time for our return." Without waiting for an answer, Lord Standish turned and walked into the inn. JD stood outside, confused. Lord Standish didn't require him? Why had he asked JD to come, then? So that he could walk Chaser to the livery ten yards away, and ask Tiny's son to put him in a stall? Didn't make sense.

It didn't matter to JD, however, once he realised that he was in Four Corners with nothing to do until five o'clock. He would be able to go to the fair after all.

*********

"You can't go in the race!"

"And why not?"

"'Cos you're a girl!"

"So?"

JD glanced about the open field just out of Four Corners where the fair was being held, trying to think of a reason why Casey couldn't be in the race. This really wasn't meeting his expectations.

"It's too dangerous," he said finally.

"Oh, too dangerous for me, but not for you?" Casey challenged.

"It's too dangerous, isn't it, Mr Watson?" JD appealed to the man who was in charge of signing people up for the race to take place in two hours time. "Casey can't enter."

"Ain't any rules against it, JD," Virgil Watson replied. True, girls generally didn't enter the contests at the fair, not once they reached a certain age, but there were no rules about it written down. And Casey wasn't really an average girl.

"Fine!" JD snapped. He wasn't really sure why he was so angry, so upset about this. He just knew that the day wasn't going the way he'd imagined. He wanted to win, but he didn't want to compete against Casey. She might be angry with him if he beat her. And, if he came second to her... how would it look?

"Just don't expect the rest of us to hold back!"

"JD! You... you can do what you like! I can't imagine why I'd care! And I hope you don't expect me to hold back for you!" Casey turned on her heel and stormed off, her cheeks a bright and angry red.

JD turned the other way, brushing past people without seeing them. "Fine," he muttered to himself. "Fine. She'll see. She'll... and it won't be my fault. No. Tried to tell her... wouldn't listen."

When JD stopped he was by the archery butts. There was a sizeable crowd watching, waiting to see who would come second to Vin the tanner. It was Buck Wilmington's turn. He was holding a longbow nearly as big as he was, and Buck was a tall man. He nocked an arrow and drew the bow, holding it for a few seconds before he released the string. "Ahhh," said the crowd, as the arrow stuck just out of the target's bullseye. Buck drew the bow again, releasing a little quicker this time. "Oooh," murmured the crowd as, this time, the arrow stuck to the other side of the bullseye. Buck nocked his final arrow, studying the target for a moment before lifting the bow. He held his pose for a good ten seconds this time, and JD was sure he didn't breathe at all. When he released the string, the arrow flew as straight as... well, as an arrow, landing directly in the centre of the target. The crowd broke into applause. It was a good result.

Vin the tanner was next. He carried a bow two inches taller than he was, and JD knew for a fact that there was no one else in town who could draw it. Even Josiah, and he was built like an ox.

Vin had three arrows with him. He never used an arrow he hadn't made. He set the arrows on the ground a good ten paces back from the line which marked fifty paces. Had anyone else done that, it would have looked like arrogance, but not Vin.

The crowd was a little larger now, and they watched just as intently, although not with the same air of suspense as they had watched Buck.

Vin drew his first arrow, pausing for a narrow moment before releasing it. It landed in the dead centre of the target. He drew his second immediately, releasing it to have it land to the left of the first arrow. The third arrow joined the other two, landing to the right. There was less than an inch of space separating the three arrows.

The crowd broke into loud applause. Vin ducked his head slightly, and JD was sure he blushed. He tipped his hat, gathered up his bow and his arrows, and left quietly. JD stayed to watch the end of the archery contest. It wasn't as exciting. No-one could match Vin's score, or Buck's. Chris Larabee would have taken third place, but JD thought from the way he squinted in the sunlight and kept fiddling with the fletching on his arrows, that he had already been sampling Inez's famous rum. His third shot missed badly, and he wound up coming sixth. Harry Johnson came third, and Virgil Watson came fourth, amidst enthusiastic applause.

The prizes were awarded, and the crowd dispersed. JD moved on to the ring where the swordplay was to be held. This event drew a different crowd; fewer women and children, more men about JD's age. JD hung back from the group, watching the jostling and joking from a short distance. He had been friends with some of these men once, when they were all boys together and he still had time for the games boys played. When his mother was still alive. After she died and JD had begun working sixteen hours a day to pay off his overwhelming debt, he had lost contact with them, and felt awkward around them.

There were fourteen competitors, and in this contest too, the result was a foregone conclusion, but it was always fun to watch. The contestants were paired up, and it didn't take long to eliminate ten and leave the four who would spar for the highest placings. Buck was one of them; he wasn't as good with a sword as he was with a bow, but not many people in the village had swords, so the competition wasn't usually as fierce. There were two other men, neither of whom JD could name, but the focus now was all on the fourth man.

Nathan had come to the village several years before. He worked in the town as a healer, fixing minor injuries and selling medicines for just about anything. Some of the better off folks in Four Corners wouldn't have anything to do with him, insisted on travelling to visit a doctor two days ride away, but Nathan had a reputation for being very good at what he did. And that didn't just apply to his medicines.

Buck went first, against a lanky man of about twenty five with shoulder length blond hair. JD watched curiously; Buck’s opponent was not someone he recognised, and whenever new people turned up in Four Corners it was always worth taking notice. Buck was defeated fairly quickly, and then it was Nathan's round, against a slightly older man, in his thirties, solidly built with a thick beard. In four swift moves Nathan had disarmed his opponent and had pressed his blade against the man's throat. The crowd clapped appreciatively.

Buck and the bearded man duelled for third and fourth place, with Buck being defeated once more. He didn't appear at all disheartened by the loss, and swept into the crowd to accept consolations from two young women who had been cheering him on. Then it was time for Nathan's bout with the tall man. Lanky surprised everyone by stretching the round out for several minutes. He moved swiftly and easily, and handled his blade well, but eventually he began to tire, Nathan seizing on his slowing pace and knocking the sword from his hand. The crowd applauded wildly, JD joining in. Nathan shook hands with his defeated opponent, and prizes were awarded once more.

Looking around, JD realised he really ought to be getting ready for his own event. He checked on Milagro, who was tethered in a shady spot across the field. JD checked over his tack and polished the leather briefly. He mounted up and rode to the starting line for the race.

The track was not a terribly long one, only around a quarter of a mile. They would circuit it twice. There were hurdles interspersed throughout the track; a fallen tree, a row of barrels, a stack of hay bales and wall of wooden blocks. None of the hurdles were very high, but navigating the course safely and quickly was still a challenge. JD knew that the track would have been painstakingly checked over to ensure that there were no uneven spots or holes. Still, accidents sometimes happened. Feeling suddenly nervous, JD stroked Milagro’s neck, and the horse whickered.

There were over a dozen competitors lining up, all trying to get the better starting positions on the left side where the ground was firmer. JD wound up sort of in the middle, and Milagro showed his displeasure at being crowded with a flick of his tail. Casey got stuck over on the far right, but she wouldn’t return JD’s anxious gaze, keeping her eyes firmly trained on the track ahead of her.

Tiny announced the start of the race with a loud whistle, and the field of horses leaped forward. JD crouched over Milagro’s neck, and the horse surged forward on powerful legs. Milagro’s mane whipped back into JD’s face and he guided the horse with the slightest touch on the reins, waiting for the first fence to come into the view.

It was the wall. It wasn’t high, but it big enough, and once Milagro had cleared it the field had spread out more. There were three horses ahead of them, and JD was neck and neck with two others. He couldn’t see Casey, but he only let himself think about that for a second. They came up to a bend and he had to position Milagro to get around quickly.

By the end of the first lap, JD was in third place and a quick glance behind him showed that Casey was right there, just half a length back. He’d been holding Milagro back just slightly, making him save something for the second lap, but he let the reins out just a little now and Milagro lengthened his stride.

They came to the downhill stretch which led up to the hay bales. JD tried to collect Milagro enough so that he could make the jump rather than crashing into it. Milagro tossed his head in displeasure at being pulled up, and his strides became short and choppy. He made it over the hay bales and JD gave the horse his head again. Milagro thundered along the track, passing one of the other riders and getting closer to the person in front. A flash of movement from the other side cause JD to look over and realise that Casey was level with him. He urged Milagro to run faster.

They came around the last bend and approached the final fence, the fallen log. The first time, Milagro had gone right over the middle of it with ease. Now, though, as they got close, JD could feel Milagro’s strides become short and choppy as he tried to slow down. He urged the horse to keep running, but Milagro took only a few more strides before he pivoted sharply on his hindquarters and sprang to the left. JD, not ready for the abrupt change in direction, sailed out of the saddle and crashed hard into the log. He curled up as he crumpled to the ground, pain coursing through his entire body.

**********

It was one of the potter’s kids who ran to get Nathan. He wasn’t far away, listening to a band play on the other side of the field and eating an early dinner.

The boy led him over to the racetrack, where JD was lying on the ground, clutching one arm to his side. His face was white and covered with a sheen of sweat; his teeth bit into his bottom lip almost to the point of drawing blood.

“What happened?” Nathan asked briskly, not caring who answered. He crouched down at JD’s side and put one hand over his, wondering how he could get JD to let him see the injury.

“Milagro shied and he fell off,” Casey answered. She was standing next to Nathan wringing her hands. “He was going so fast, and he landed on the log.”

Nathan could see that; JD was lying right next to it, with fragments of bark and leaves all over him. JD was conscious but maybe he was in too much pain to say anything; he let Casey explain what had happened without interrupting.

“What hurts, JD?” Nathan asked. JD didn’t answer, only whimpered softly. Then he stiffened, and coughed, and a trickle of saliva tinged red dripped from the corner of his mouth. Nathan hoped that he’d simply bitten the inside of his cheek, and that the blood wasn’t evidence of a more serious internal injury.

Nathan looked around at the small crowd that had gathered around them. “Can some of you help me move him?” he asked. Moving would be painful for JD, but Nathan couldn’t do anything to help him in the middle of a field.

Josiah and Buck came forward and helped to lift JD up, while Nathan held him steady and Casey clutched his hand. JD gripped so tight it must have hurt her, but she didn’t make a sound. It took a long time to carry him from the field to Nathan’s home, and JD bravely held back sounds of pain as they went.

Once they arrived, Nathan thanked Buck and Josiah and tried to subtly usher them out the door. Casey had followed along as well, and didn’t pick up on Nathan’s hints at all. She sat next to JD where he lay on the bed and held his good hand. After a moment’s hesitation, Nathan decided to let her stay. She could help distract JD, and she was so focused on him that Nathan would probably be able to keep her from noticing anything he didn’t want her to see.

Nathan unbuttoned JD’s shirt and examined his chest, where bruising was already coming through in a number of places. Nathan looked on in concern, running his fingertips over the injuries and asking JD to tell him where it hurt. He gathered from JD’s responses that the answer was ‘everywhere’.

Nathan glanced at Casey, who sat with her eyes focused intently on JD, stroking the knuckles of his hand with her thumb. He decided he could risk the next step, and placed a hand on JD’s forehead, pretending to check for head injuries. In reality, he reached for the magic inside him and pulled it forward, directing it at JD. The diagnosis spell was one of the simplest he knew. It told him that JD had a number of broken ribs and two had pierced the lung, that his internal organs were bruised, and that his right shoulder was dislocated.

Nathan pulled out the strongest whiskey he had, and helped JD to drink a few mouthfuls. He grabbed a few twigs from the pile of kindling stacked by the fireplace, and held them in his left hand as he prodded at JD’s ribs again, feeling guilty as he heard JD’s gasp of pain. “I need to make sure the broken ribs haven’t punctured your lungs,” he lied. More blood was lining JD’s lips with every breath. He hadn’t needed the diagnosis spell to confirm the punctured lung. He spread one hand over the broken ribs, and turned his magic that way. The twigs in his hand broke apart and disintegrated, and he brushed the dust off against his pants. Healing the holes in JD’s lung was harder, and took more effort. Nathan felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over him, but steeled himself to continue.

“Now,” he said apologetically, “I need to pop your shoulder back in. It was going to hurt like hell, but it had to be done. He could see that JD already looked a little fuzzy from the alcohol; Nathan had added some of his own ingredients.

Nathan warned JD to keep still and Casey to stay back in case he didn’t. He got JD’s arm positioned and didn’t hesitate, pulling it sharply into place before JD could tense up. JD yelped, pulling away from Nathan’s grip, but he settled quickly as the pain eased and Nathan helped him lie back down.

“That’s it, JD,” Nathan said reassuringly. “You’re done.”

JD sighed with relief and Nathan went to collect the appropriate herbs from the pots growing on his windowsill. He bundled them into a handkerchief and returned to the bedside, pressing the bundle to the centre of JD’s chest. “It’ll be a few days before you’re completely healed,” he added. “You won’t be able to work tomorrow.”

“I have to work tomorrow!” JD protested. “The baron’s not going to let me take a day off.”

Nathan pushed JD back onto the bed gently. “He’s going to have to,” he explained, putting his hand to the bundled up herbs and pushing at them with his mind. “You’re not going to be up to it.” He waited for the bruising on JD’s internal organs to be absorbed into the herbs. “I’ll speak to him, if you think I’ll need to.” He kind of hoped JD wouldn’t take him up on that offer. Nathan had never really had much to do with the baron, and he liked it that way.

“Are you sure?” JD asked. “I don’t really hurt at all anymore.” He turned his head on the pillow. “Although, I do feel pretty tired suddenly.”

“That’s your body’s way of telling you to take some time off,” Nathan said helpfully. It was also JD’s body’s reaction to having all his available energy directed into healing extensive injuries, but JD didn’t need to know that. “You can sleep here tonight.”

JD shook his head again, but more slowly this time. His eyes were already drifting closed.

“I came out here with Lord Standish, I’m supposed to ride back with him.”

“I’ll take care of it JD, you just sleep.”

JD’s eyes closed and his breath deepened. Nathan looked from his sleeping patient to Casey sitting next to him, and after a moment she looked away from JD and met his gaze.

“Is he really going to be alright?” she asked.

“Yeah, Casey, he really is,” Nathan promised. “It was just a dislocated shoulder. He’ll be fine in a couple of days,” he lied.

Casey nodded but her expression didn’t lighten. Nathan guessed that something else was bothering her and waited patiently.

“It was the race,” she said suddenly.

“I saw.”

“I didn’t even see him fall. He was right behind me, and then suddenly he wasn’t any more, and I thought, good! That’ll show him if I win. I was angry with him.” She looked miserable and her eyes appeared threateningly damp.

“It’s not your fault,” Nathan said. “Accidents happen. It probably happened so fast you didn’t even have time to realise anything was wrong. There’s nothing you could have done to stop it.”

Casey nodded and seemed a little more at ease, so Nathan added quickly, “Do you think you could stay with him while I go find Standish?”

**************

The Four Corners inn was not exactly the sort of environment where Ezra would normally spend time by choice. It was small and dark, draughty and smoky. The food and drink it served were passable but far from what Ezra was accustomed to. All in all, it had few advantages, but the most significant of those was that it was far from Baron Creshaw's eyes. He would never come into a place like this for the sake of spying on Ezra. That was why it was the perfect location for Ezra to do the research he didn't dare do back on the estate.

The townsfolk left him alone for the most part and didn't show much curiosity about what he was reading. Ezra figured most of them didn't know how to read, and wasn't too careful about concealing his books for fear that seeming too protective of them might arouse more suspicions than he could deflect. He looked down at the pages of Davendithas the Scholar’s On the Ethics of Blood Magics which he’d been combing through for several hours. He sighed and forced himself to read another paragraph.

‘The potency of a spell can be increased through the use of blood or flesh in the place of other components, because of the concentration of life force,’ Ezra read. ‘A responsible mage uses their own or an animal’s blood, in small quantities, and this alone is sufficient to give a significant increase to a spell’s power, if such cannot be achieved by other means. Some mages, regrettably, have been known to reject this method and take, by trickery or force, the required components of their spellmaking from the people around them, even, in some cases, mortally wounding their victim in the pursuit. A few such mages have stated a belief that such moral compromises did, in themselves, grant greater strength to the resulting magic, but no compelling evidence exists that these claims are true.’

Ezra slammed the cover of the book closed in disgust. Four hours, he’d been sitting here reading, and learned nothing he didn’t already know. He’d suspected for months now that his stepfather was hiding something. It had taken weeks of careful observation to lead him to the conclusion that Creshaw was a mage; a fact which, for some reason, the man kept secret. It hadn’t taken long after that for him to surmise that whatever magic his stepfather was crafting in the locked rooms of his manor, where he allowed only himself and his most trusted servants, it was nothing that Davendithas would approve of.

Ezra had undergone a few years of mage training himself. He’d never managed to finish it, thanks to one of Maude's ill timed schemes, but he was still the most qualified person within hundreds of miles to do anything about Creshaw. If only he could figure out what that should be.

He hadn't suspected anything at first. He'd come to the baron's estate disgruntled, resigned to months of living in a provincial setting far removed from anything resembling civilisation. He'd been moderately pleasant to the man, because it paid to cultivate cordial relationships with people in power, but he'd really just been marking time until Maude tired of the marriage and he had an excuse to leave. Instead, he'd started to notice odd things about the house and grounds. The manor was decorated with items which, individually were insignificant but in combination made Ezra suspicious. There were places in the grounds where herbs could be found growing – not herbs which could be used for cooking, but ones which had other uses. And although he could tell that someone was cultivating those herb gardens, he’d never seen anyone tend them. They grew in pockets, behind trees and between bushes, as though someone was trying to conceal them.

And then there were the stories. One mysterious death could be explained away. Even two. But Ezra had heard about at least four, all of which had some explanation behind them which he found lacking in some detail or other.

Ezra might not have connected these observations to Creshaw, except for the subtle oddities that existed in his house. The wing that was forbidden to nearly everyone – that on its own Ezra might have overlooked. The odd stains that he sometimes noticed on Creshaw’s fingers and clothes, that he never really managed to explain away – that too didn’t seem like much by itself. It wasn’t until Ezra spied his stepfather one day, taking scraps of raw meat from the kitchen, that he really started to think something was going on. It didn’t make sense. What use could a Baron have for raw meat? And if he did need it for something, why not just order a servant to bring him some, rather than fetching it himself? Ezra had not failed to notice that Creshaw had entered the kitchen at one of the rare moments when it was empty, save for Ezra himself who had been well concealed in the hope of overhearing useful gossip.

When Maude had grown tired of being married, Ezra had made some excuse to remain behind, glad that the work he'd done ingratiating himself had led Creshaw to allow it. Ever since then, he'd tried to figure out what the Baron was up to, and when he had the privacy he went through every book on magic he had, looking for a way to stop him. He was getting closer, but it was a slow process.

Ezra was ready to give up on his pursuit for the day. His head was swimming after hours of reading and it was getting close to five o’clock. He didn’t want to chance JD seeing what he’d been reading. He stuffed his book into his bag, where it was out of sight, and was doubly glad that he had done so when he saw who had entered the inn. It wasn’t JD, who he was expecting to arrive at any minute. It was Baron Creshaw.

“My Lord,” said Ezra, trying to conceal his surprise. “What brings you here?”

The Baron smiled at him. It wasn’t a nice smile exactly; Creshaw didn’t really do nice. “Why, I thought your idea to venture out into the township to be quite a good one, so I came out to meet you.”

“Oh,” said Ezra. “Well. That’s wonderful.” He didn’t believe it for a second. Creshaw didn’t come to Four Corners. He didn’t leave his home just to take in the scenery or socialise. He was up to something. “I was just about to start on my way back, actually,” he said, hoping that JD would appear and give him an excuse to leave.

“Well then,” said Creshaw, “The stableboy must be only a minute away, hmm? Let us wait for him outside.” He led the way outside with an odd eagerness, and Ezra followed as a bad feeling began to grow within him.

They stood outside the inn for several minutes with no sign of JD, and Ezra started to become annoyed. It had been an impulsive kindness of his to have JD come with him into town and leave him unoccupied for the afternoon. He had thought that JD would repay the favour by returning promptly as he had instructed. Clearly that had been a mistake. It was a shame that the Baron was here as well to witness his dereliction, but Ezra knew that was really JD’s fault, not his.

“Oh dear,” Creshaw murmured when ten minutes had passed. “The boy is quite late, isn’t he? I don’t suppose he imagines you will tolerate tardiness, Ezra, that’s no way to command respect from the servants.”

Ezra grit his teeth and bit back a scathing reply, relieved when he was saved from having to think of an answer when they were approached by one of the townspeople.

Ezra recognised him, and after a second put a name to the face. Nathan. He was a healer, supposedly a good one. And seeing him actually came as a relief to Ezra, because he was likely seeking them out because of JD, and if something had happened to JD which involved Nathan it probably meant he was hurt, which mean neither JD nor Ezra could be considered at fault for his lateness.

“My Lord. Uh, Lords. I was hoping to find you.”

“And why is that, uh...” Creshaw trailed off.

“Nathan. It’s about JD. He had a nasty fall from his horse this afternoon. He’s not too badly hurt, luckily, but he’s not fit to ride home tonight or work tomorrow. I thought you’d want to know.”

“Oh dear,” said Creshaw. “Where is the poor boy? And are you sure he’s not badly injured?”

“He’s at my house,” said Nathan. “I tend a lot of sick folk there.”

“Of course you do. Would you show me the way? I won’t be able to set my mind at ease until I’ve laid eyes on the boy myself.”

“Well, of course. It’s this way.” Nathan led the Baron towards his home, and Ezra trailed after them, not entirely believing what he was seeing. There was no way Creshaw’s concern could be real. He’d never shown such concern for anyone, not that Ezra had seen. He didn’t sound sincere, and Ezra noticed he still wasn’t referring to JD by name. And it certainly was a coincidence that he’d just happened to show up in Four Corners, only minutes before Nathan had come seeking them out.

Nathan lived in a small house just off the main street. He opened the door and held it as the Baron peered inside, and then stepped through, taking exaggerated care not to let his clothing touch the doorframe or floor.

Ezra stepped into the house with some trepidation. It was cramped inside, with a bench along one wall and a kitchen table taking up the middle of the room. Dried herbs were strewn everywhere, and a variety of bottles and jars were scattered around, some full, some empty, some labelled and others not. There was no order to it that Ezra could see. A large fireplace sat by the back wall, the fire in it reduced to coals. In the corner next to it a small bed rested, and upon it lay JD. A young girl who Ezra recognised but couldn't name sat by his side, holding his hand. She came to her feet and curtsied when she noticed Ezra and Baron Creshaw, and the movement woke JD from his doze.

"Huh?" he said groggily, and then, “M’Lord!” He blinked and yawned hugely, seeming to come slightly more awake after that and struggling to sit up. "Oh shit. I mean... sorry. I'm late. I've gotta go, Nathan." He tried to push the blankets back, but one hand was bound to his chest in a sling, and the other flopped against the covers uselessly, as though JD had forgotten what his fingers were for.

"You stay in bed," Nathan ordered, but JD didn't listen and Ezra guessed that the Baron’s sudden appearance had caused JD some great consternation.

"Stay there, JD, and take your rest," he said firmly. "Nathan has explained to us about your accident, and we realise you're not fit for duty right now." He gazed firmly at Creshaw as he spoke, hoping that the other man would not contradict him, but the Baron was gazing down at JD with a slight frown on his face and didn’t seem to be listening at all.

"Baron Creshaw," JD mumbled, showing real fear even as exhaustion dragged his eyelids down.

That seemed to startle Creshaw into paying attention, and he said soothingly, “Don’t be troubled JD. Of course you may have a day to recover. It’s the least I can do for such a loyal servant.”

JD was reassured and lay back on the bed, his eyes already drifting shut. Creshaw didn’t move from his side, examining JD with narrowed eyes.

“The lad seems quite worn out,” he said abruptly. “What exactly are his injuries?” His manner was suddenly much more businesslike and abrupt, and Nathan straightened as he replied.

“He’s got some cracked ribs, and he dislocated his shoulder,” Nathan said. “That’s why the arm is in a sling. He’ll need to keep it on for a few days. Apart from that, just a few bumps and bruises.”

“I see,” said the Baron. “How very fortunate that you were available to offer such competent care.” He looked back to JD.

“What happened, exactly?” Ezra asked, when it became clear that Creshaw wasn’t going to. Nathan shrugged, and then the girl spoke up.

“His horse shied,” she said. “I don’t know what at. Milagro never spooks like that! JD went flying into the fallen log on the racetrack.”

“My word,” said Creshaw. “He was very lucky not to be much more badly hurt.”

“I was so afraid,” the girl added. “At first, I thought he must be dead. He seemed so badly hurt.”

“Oh, now, Casey, you know it wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked,” Nathan said quickly, and Casey nodded.

“You are owed some of the credit for that, I’m sure, young man,” Creshaw insisted.

The words were a compliment, but the tone wasn’t right, too sharp, too demanding to be simple praise. Nathan nevertheless gave a nod and said, “Thank you,” but the tension in his frame betrayed that he knew there was more to the Baron’s words. For a moment, the two of them froze as Ezra and Casey watched on, both aware that the other had some secret agenda and not able to uncover it without revealing their own. At last, Creshaw turned away and Ezra sighed with relief.

Creshaw bid them a good night and left the house. Ezra paused for a moment before following, wanting to talk to Nathan. He wanted to ask what JD’s injuries had actually been, and what he’d done about them, because clearly there was more happening there than he had let on. But he couldn’t keep the Baron waiting, and Nathan had no reason to share his secrets with Ezra in any case. Ezra reluctantly gave his own farewells and followed Creshaw outside.

**************

The next morning, Ezra invented another excuse and rode back into Four Corners, meaning to talk to the townspeople and see if they could tell him anything useful, since his reading was proving fruitless. He reached the outskirts of town and met Josiah, riding down the path which led from his own home to the main road.

Ezra had spoken with Josiah a few times before. He was someone, Ezra believed, who had seen and done a lot and had many stories to tell, although he usually didn’t. He hadn’t always lived in Four Corners, had only been there for a few years. He didn’t really talk about where he’d come from; hardly ever talked about himself at all. Ezra still thought it would be worthwhile asking him what he knew about Baron Creshaw’s activities. He was an educated man and from some of their conversations, Ezra guessed that he knew a little more about magic than the average person.

“Josiah,” he said, pulling Chaser alongside him. “A pleasant morning to you.”

“And to you as well, Lord Standish,” Josiah replied. “I heard about JD’s accident. I hope he’s not badly hurt?”

“Oh, no. He’ll be fine in a day or two, thanks to Nathan.” Because Ezra was watching for it, he saw the twitch in Josiah’s expression. So he knew something about Nathan. Ezra wondered if he could get Josiah to shed some light on the little scene yesterday between the healer and Baron Creshaw, if he dared to bring it up. “It was most unfortunate for the poor boy, though.”

Josiah nodded his head. “That JD’s been through some trials,” he said sadly. “I hope his Lordship won’t hold this against him.” He looked sideways at Ezra.

“I’ll make sure he doesn’t,” Ezra said quickly. “I’ve heard that he’s worked for Baron Creshaw for a long time, and his mother as well?” He let the sentence trail off leadingly, encouraging Josiah to add what he knew.

“She did,” he confirmed. “Ever since JD was just a wee thing, up until she got sick.”

“Such a shame,” Ezra agreed, ducking low on Chaser’s neck to avoid a low hanging branch. “Was she a sickly woman?”

“Oh, not at all. The doctors didn’t know what to make of it.”

“Doctors? It wasn’t Nathan who tended her?”

“Oh, no, this was before he came to Four Corners. And not long after I did, truth be told.” Josiah turned his own horse to avoid a boggy part of the track, and Ezra followed his lead. “The Baron sent for a doctor from Ridge City. He came and visited her a few times, did what he could.”

“Hmm.” Ezra thought that over. He’d known about JD’s mother’s illness, but nothing about the medical attention she’d received. “And they had no idea what was wrong with her?”

“None at all.”

“Did no one else in Four Corners have any similar illness?” he asked, trying not to push too hard. It wouldn’t do for Josiah to become suspicious now.

“Not that I can recall,” Josiah said thoughtfully.

“Because I’ve heard that Vin the tanners’ mother took sick as well...”

“That was years ago,” Josiah interrupted, frowning. “I don’t follow... you think there’s some connection between the two?”

“Oh, no, definitely not!” Ezra backtracked hastily. “I was just, uh, following a train of thought. But of course, there’s no reason to think... well...” He really had messed this up. Josiah was openly staring at him now, his gaze intense. They had come to the first houses in Four Corners, and Josiah drew his horse to a halt

“I’m headed this way,” Josiah said, nodding to the left. “Take care, my Lord.”

“And you as well,” Ezra answered quickly. He nudged Chaucer on through the town

The other person he particularly wanted to see was Mary Travis, whose father in law was the mayor. She’d married his son, Stephen, when they were both young, and they’d had a son together. Stephen’s death had happened less than a year ago, not too long after Ezra had come to Four Corners, and so he’d heard some of the gossip about it.

Mary lived with her in-laws in a nice house in the middle of town. Ezra paused outside and wondered how to open a conversation with the young widow. They’d had little to do with one another previously, and Ezra didn’t want to alarm her by asking too many questions that brought up her husband’s death.

The front door of the house opened a crack as Ezra sat there, and a young blond boy stepped out, holding a jug of water. He walked across the porch but stopped when he saw Ezra and stood there, blinking at him, his knuckles tightening to white on the handle of the jug.

“Good day to you, Master Travis,” Ezra said, keeping his voice soft and trying not to alarm the clearly startled boy. Billy blinked at him, and after a moment’s hesitation, finally climbed down the porch steps, still not taking his eyes off Ezra.

Ezra dismounted and stroked Chaser’s neck as he gathered the reins. “Are you planning to water the garden?” he asked, nodding to the jug of water. Billy nodded and began watering the roses in the flowerbeds. He went about the task with a deep concentration, and Ezra looked over the garden with a critical eye.

The front door opened again, and Mary Travis stepped onto the porch. “Are you finished yet, Billy?” she asked, and then she caught sight of Ezra. She looked at him and Ezra returned her gaze with his friendliest smile.

“Good morning, Mrs Travis,” he said. Mary didn’t smile back.

“What brings you here, my Lord?” she asked. Her manner was guarded and Ezra spread his hands.

“It happens that I have a need to speak with you, Mrs Travis,” he said politely, but Mary was unmoved.

“What about?” she asked, frowning.

It didn’t suit Ezra to be too blunt, but he thought that being honest might ease some of her suspicions. “If it would suit you, I’d like to ask you some questions about your husband.”

Mary didn’t respond for a second or two. Then she said, “Billy, go inside now, please,” and Billy went back to the house, passing his mother as she descended the steps. As he was behind her, Mary didn’t notice that Billy didn’t go inside but stopped at the door, looking back at the two of them. “Is that what you were talking to Billy about?” she asked, her tone becoming much cooler, and it had been quite chilly to begin with.

“I promise you, I didn’t mention it until you emerged,” Ezra said sincerely. “Why would I ask Billy?” Mary’s expression flickered, and Ezra knew there was something she was trying to hide. “Was he there when it happened?” he asked, realising that he was correct when Mary stiffened.

“If you will excuse me, my Lord, we have a great deal to do and little time for idle chatter.” She started to turn away and Ezra frantically called after her.

“I want only to help, you have my word,” he said. “If you would allow me to talk to Billy – you would be present, of course, and I wouldn’t...”

“He doesn’t talk about it!” Mary interrupted.

“I would do all I could to avoid upsetting him...”

“You don’t understand, my Lord.” Mary spoke firmly and Ezra’s protests died on his lips. “Ever since it happened, Billy doesn’t talk at all.” Without sparing him a second glance, she turned back to the house and ushered Billy inside. Ezra watched thoughtfully, but didn’t try to say anything else.

************

The conversation with Lord Standish had left Josiah in a thoughtful mood. He’d mused over it all day, trying to figure out what he’d been getting at.

He’d long suspected that the illness suffered by JD’s mother had not been entirely natural. It was interesting that Standish had come to the same conclusion. It had never occurred to Josiah to connect her illness to Vin’s mother, though. He’d never met her; she’d died years before he set foot in Four Corners. But if Standish thought there was some sort of link... maybe there was. Knowing that someone else had reached the same conclusion made Josiah give his own suspicions far more weight.

The problem was he still wasn’t sure he could trust Standish. He was too close to the Baron, too close for Josiah to be certain they weren’t cooking up some plot between them. So he’d brushed Standish’s questions off and played dumb, but he knew exactly what the younger man had been talking about.

When morning came around, Josiah decided to engage in a little questioning himself. He knew what he was looking for as well as Standish seemed to, and he wouldn’t mess it up by playing things too close to the chest. He knew the people in Four Corners who could be trusted with a secret.

He left his house as soon as there was light to ride by. He rode straight through the village to the other side, leaving his horse at a hitching post at the side of the street and going to the house which was his destination. He rapped on the door and heard curses from inside, something along the lines of it being too early for decent people. He waited patiently. At last, the door opened a crack.

“Morning, Buck,” he said. “Can I have a few minutes of your time?”

Once Josiah was settled comfortable inside and a few subtle hints had secured him a cup of coffee, he said, “Buck, there are some things I want to ask you about. But I need to know you’re going to keep this between us, understand? It’s not something the rest of the town needs to be hearing about.”

“Josiah, you know I would take a secret to my grave if you asked it of me,” said Buck, leaning forward over his own mug.

“Right,” said Josiah. Buck wasn’t exactly known for his discretion, but Josiah believed him. He wouldn’t betray a confidence, not for anything. “Because what I want to ask you about, it’s pretty serious. And it’s got to do with Baron Creshaw.”

Buck’s face became much more serious at that. If the subject of this discussion got spread around and word got back to the Baron, it could be bad news for both of them.

“I hear you, Josiah, and you know I’m not one for gossip.”

That was a blatant lie, but Josiah was satisfied that Buck could keep this one thing to himself.

“I know your friend Chris used to have dealings with him, and Sarah worked for him for a little while,” he said. Buck nodded. “I’d just ask Chris, but, well...” Buck nodded again, and Josiah didn’t bother to finish that sentence. “So I wanted to ask you if you knew of anything, anything about the Baron that was... odd.”

“Odd like how?”

“Well, for example... did he have any rules in his household that seemed... strange?”

“Hm. Couldn’t really say,” Buck answered. “Oh, except he never lets his servants wear brass. Not that most of them can afford it, but still. And the same for his horses... none of the tack uses brass, even the fancy stuff.”

Josiah nodded. That was an interesting detail. It didn’t confirm his suspicions, but it was a clue.

“Do you know of anything strange happening on the Baron’s estate?”

“Strange?” said Buck.

“Yeah, something like... well...” Josiah hesitated, and then took the plunge. “People going missing mysteriously. Or dying unexpectedly.”

Buck gave him a hard look, and Josiah was annoyed with himself for pushing too hard, too soon. “Now, you look here, Josiah. I don’t know what your game is, but if you’re going to come poking around here, getting all nosy about the past, I’m not going to stand for it.”

Josiah hadn’t wanted to reveal quite so much, but he’d upset Buck and he felt obliged to explain why.

“I’ve got a suspicion that the Baron is using magic,” he explained. “Using magic, and not for anything good.” Buck didn’t move, but Josiah could see he was listening. “If he’s trying to gather power enough for some huge spell, and wants to cast it without risking his own health, he might do so by... by taking other people. Taking their lives, using their life energy to power his spells. And in the past few years, I know there have been a few people go missing, and a few more that died when there didn’t seem any real reason for them to, but the first that come to mind are...”

“Sarah and Adam,” Buck breathed, and Josiah nodded confirmation.

It took a minute for Buck to collect himself, but eventually he shook his head. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, Josiah,” he said. “I’m not saying you’re wrong about the Baron, but Sarah and Adam were just an accident. An accident, okay?”

He said that last quite forcefully, and Josiah replied, “Okay, Buck. That’s fine, it was an accident,” as consolingly as he could.

“The Baron didn’t have nothing to do with them. We don’t know what happened, but it wasn’t that.”

Josiah was torn between backing down and pushing on. He could tell Buck was upset, but he needed to get to the bottom of this. “If you don’t know what happened, Buck, then how can you rule it out?”

“I just can!” Buck snapped. Josiah sensed that he was close to an answer, and he waited. Finally, Buck relented. “I’ll tell you what I know, Josiah, but you need to keep it between us. I shouldn’t even be telling you... it’s not my story to share, it’s Chris’s. He’d be furious if he knew I was even thinking of telling you this.”

“It’s okay, Buck, I know you want to look out for Chris. I won’t go sharing his business with everyone. You know I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

“Yeah, I got that.” Buck took a deep breath. “You know he was home that night?”

“I wasn’t sure,” Josiah answered. He’d heard a few different versions of the story, but they were all vague, and all managed to be completely different even so.

“He’d got up to check on a sick horse,” Buck explained. “He was out in the barn, and he must have sat down to watch the horses for a while, because he fell asleep. Not sure for how long, but when he came out, the house was on fire.”

Josiah nodded. The fire, that part he knew. The house had never been rebuilt; the burned ruins of it still stood on Chris’s land.

“It was all ablaze, and he tried to get in, to get Sarah and Adam, but it was too far gone. He tried to put it out, but one person can’t douse a fire that big. It was hopeless.” Buck looked down at his hands, and Josiah felt guilty for unearthing the bad memories.

“It went up so fast, we knew it had to have been deliberately lit. We looked all over, but we couldn’t find any tracks, any sign of someone having been there that shouldn’t have.”

Josiah frowned. “I’m sorry, Buck,” he said. “I’m sure that was a terrible thing to go through.” Buck nodded confirmation, but he didn’t seem too overcome so Josiah decided to ask another question. “I’m a bit confused, though. If you think someone lit the fire on purpose, and you couldn’t find any sign that that person was physically there, then why are you so sure it wasn’t someone using magic? Like Baron Creshaw?”

Buck gave Josiah a look that could have melted glass. “You leave it, Josiah. There’s no need for you to go poking around into this.”

“I don’t understand!” Josiah protested. “It’s the logical answer. There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“And I’m not going to, so back off!”

“Buck.” Josiah raised his hands, palms out. “I don’t know what it is you don’t want to tell me, but I can promise you, whatever it is... I won’t judge you for it, and I won’t tell anyone. I need to understand what’s going on, because we could be in danger, if I’m right. And I can’t do that without your help.”

Buck glared at him, but Josiah didn’t back down. At last, he sighed and looked down. “Hell,” he said. “Chris’ll murder me if he finds out I told you this. You let it on to anyone, Josiah, and you’re digging my grave, get it?” Josiah nodded, and he went on. “Reason we know it weren’t the Baron killed Sarah and Adam is... well. We think it was Chris.”

“You think...” It took a minute for Josiah to work that through in his mind.

“He never meant it!” Buck added quickly. “Chris, he’d have killed himself before he let anything happen to them. It’s why he’s... well, how he is. But we found out, afterwards, that... Chris has an ability.”

“An ability?”

“Yeah.” Buck glanced up at Josiah, checking his reaction. “I don’t get the right term for it, that’s mage stuff. I stay out of it. But Chris, he can start fires. Not with flint or nothing. He can just... start them, with his mind.”

“He can start fires?”

“First time it happened was just after the funeral. We went looking again, for any sign that would help us figure out what happened. Chris got real frustrated, and then... this tree just caught fire. He was looking at it, and he was pissed as hell, and then it just... went up in flames. Damn lucky the whole forest didn’t go up.”

Josiah gaped a little, but quickly got himself under control. “You’re sure it was Chris?”

“Yeah,” Buck answered quickly. “We’re sure. It’s happened again, since then. Whenever he gets real mad, or if he drinks too much, which is sort of a problem...”

Josiah nodded. He could imagine it would be.

“Sometimes, when he dreams about them, too. He don’t sleep too deep these days.”

Josiah thought about what Buck had said. It was unusual, but not impossible for Chris to have the abilities Buck claimed. But he thought they might have come to the wrong conclusion about what it meant.

“When a magic ability shows up like this, late in life when the person didn’t have it before,” he explained, “It’s usually because a latent magic talent has been awakened somehow.”

“Yeah?” Buck said.

“But usually, the ability comes about in response to a terrible trauma or loss.”

“What do you mean?”

“Buck, I think it’s likely that this fire ability Chris has came about as a result of Sarah and Adam’s deaths. I don’t think he caused that fire. I think the fire-starting is a result of his grief,” Josiah explained patiently.

Buck took a minute to digest that. “You’re saying that you don’t think Chris killed Sarah and Adam at all?”

“No, I don’t think he did.”

“Then how come we couldn’t find the person who did do it?”

“Probably because they used magic to cover their tracks. Put Chris under a spell to send him to sleep, did whatever they came to do or got what they were looking for, and lit the fire to hide the evidence.” Josiah looked around, even though they were safely hidden in the privacy of Buck’s house, and lowered his voice. “I think it is Baron Creshaw who killed them. It would have been simple enough for him to do, if he were a powerful enough mage.”

Buck mused over that, and said, “How do you know so much about magic, Josiah? You ain’t a mage.”

Josiah hesitated, but Buck’s honesty deserved the same in return. “I used to be.”

*************

Once Josiah had gone, Buck shut himself in his house while he tried to sort through everything Josiah had said. He thought maybe it wasn’t Chris who had killed Sarah and Adam, not even by accident. Buck had spent years trying to convince Chris that it had been an accident, that it wasn’t his fault, that he hadn’t meant to do it. He’d never managed to get Chris to listen, but Josiah seemed to think that Chris had had nothing to do with it at all.

If that was true, he had to tell Chris. He had to tell him right away.

Buck rode out to Chris’s land, only caution keeping him from nudging his horse into a gallop. The trail really wasn’t clear enough for that sort of riding. It had been a long time since anyone bothered to maintain it.

Since the main house had burned down, Chris had slept in the barn for a while and had eventually built a shack to sleep in. Unfortunately, he’d never really managed good control over his fire-starting abilities, and he’d burned down and had to rebuild the shack three times since then. Pretty sloppily, too; since Sarah and Adam he’d turned to drink in a big way. Buck doubted Chris would still have the farm without his help.

Buck went warily to the door of Chris’s shack, calling ahead of himself because Chris didn’t react so well to being surprised these days. There was no answer, but Buck was used to that and didn’t let it deter him. He nudged the door open and stepped inside, squinting into the gloom.

“Hey, Chris?” he said. “Chris?” There was a grunt from the corner, where Chris kept a small table, and Buck was finally able to make out Chris’s form, sitting behind it.

“Hey,” he said, walking over and sitting opposite his friend.

“What’re you doing here, Buck?”

“There’s something I need to talk to you about. Something important.”

Chris sipped from the open bottle on the table. As Buck’s vision adjusted to the darkness, he could see the scowl on Chris’s face. “What’s that?”

Buck hesitated, because it was a tricky matter to bring up Chris’s wife and son at the best of times, and if Chris were sitting in the dark by himself drinking, it definitely wasn’t the best of times. Still, he needed to know. “It’s about Sarah and Adam.”

Chris’s expression turned thunderous, and he pushed himself away from the table, preparing to stand up. “What about them?” he snarled.

“I learned something today.”

Chris turned on his chair, clutching the bottle so hard Buck worried it might shatter. “Get to the point, Buck.”

“The thing I learned was... there are people, some rare people who have magic in them, dormant. It stays hidden, so they don’t get picked up for mage training when they’re kids. They can go their whole lives without learning what they can do, but if something happens to unlock that power... something like a, a terrible tragedy, something bad, that magic can appear later in life...”

“What’re you talking about?” Chris snapped, thumping the bottle back onto the table. Buck tried not to flinch away. He’d always made himself stand up to Chris when he got like this, although it wasn’t easy.

“Chris, I’m saying that... maybe it wasn’t you. We’ve never really considered it, but...what if the – the things you can do came about because of what happened. Maybe you weren’t the cause of it at all. Maybe it’s the other way around, and their deaths...”

“Shut up, Buck!” Chris yelled, finally standing up and throwing the nearly empty bottle across the room. “Stop saying this stuff. Sarah and Adam died because of me. It was my fault. Stop trying to confuse me.”

“Chris...” Buck moved around the table towards his friend, but Chris grabbed Buck by the shoulders, shook him and then pushed him back.

“Get out! Get out. I don’t want you here, making stuff up. Telling me stuff that’s not true. Don’t. Go away.”

Buck hesitated for another moment, but Chris took a threatening step towards him and screamed, “Go!”

“Fine,” said Buck, turning and leaving the shack. “I’ll leave you for today, Chris, but I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Whatever Chris’s response was to that, it wasn’t loud enough for Buck to hear.

************

Being a tanner was the worst, most boring, smelliest job in the world.

That was why Vin did as little of it as possible. It wasn’t good for business, but as soon as he’d done whatever minimum amount of work he needed to do for the day, he’d take his bow and head out into the woods to hunt, or even just sit and watch the wildlife. It beat scrubbing the hair off a cow’s hide which had been soaking for a month in sheep’s piss. Pretty much anything was better than that.

If he’d had his own way, Vin would have left the tannery. Maybe left Four Corners all together. Sought his fortunes elsewhere. But those sorts of dreams were for them that could afford them. Vin had been lucky enough to have someone take him in after his mother died. Virgil and his wife were getting older now, and had no children of their own to leave the tannery to. Virgil had trained Vin as his apprentice, and Vin supposed the tannery would become his once he was gone. Not that he wanted it. But until that happened, they needed him to keep things running.

Vin was tracking a deer. It was a big one, from the size of the tracks, and he had been following it for a while. He hadn’t decided whether he was going to try to bring it down or not, but he wanted to see if he could find it.

Moving silently, and staying downwind from the deer, Vin came over the crest of a hill and looked down the other side. He saw something that stood out, and frowned. It wasn’t his deer; animal coats had natural colourings that blended into the forest. What had caught his eye was something that didn’t belong. He crept down the hill, making an effort to keep hidden. As he got closer and his view improved, Vin realised that what he’d seen was Baron Creshaw. He was out in the forest, alone. His horse was tethered not too far away. But the really strange thing was that he’d brought down a deer. Vin’s deer, the one he’d been following.

It was a stag, with a magnificent pair of antlers, and for a moment Vin regretted losing the trophy. Then he remembered what was going on and made himself focus.

He couldn’t tell how the Baron had killed the deer. He wasn’t carrying any weapons that Vin could see. He kept still and watched. The Baron took a knife from his belt and knelt down by the stag. He positioned the knife on the stag’s chest, just behind its shoulder. And then he started to cut.

The Baron cut away at the stag with his knife, while blood stained his hands and his clothes. At last, he lifted something in his hand and Vin strained to see what it was. When he realised, he had to clap a hand over his face to smother his gasp.

It was a heart. He’d cut out the stag’s heart. Then he took a leather pouch from his belt and put the heart inside.

What on earth was he doing? Why did the Baron need a stag’s heart? And why had he gone after it himself instead of sending one of his thousands of servants? What was going on?

The Baron mounted his horse then, and rode away, going in the direction of his manor. Vin remained hidden for several minutes more, trying to control his panic.

When enough time had passed that the Baron was long gone, Vin crept from his hiding place and made his way down to where the stag lay on the ground. Blood stained the grass and dirt around it. He could see where the Baron had cut into its chest and taken out the heart. He couldn’t see the wound that had brought the stag down, though. There was no arrow; its throat wasn’t cut, and its legs weren’t marked so it hadn’t tripped in a trap or something. Maybe it had been struck by an arrow to the chest and the Baron had removed it when he took the heart, but it would have to have been an exceptional shot, and Vin hadn’t seen an arrow. Besides, he somehow doubted that the Baron would have risked damaging the organ he removed.

The other question on Vin’s mind was what the Baron wanted the stag’s heart for. He hadn’t taken anything else; the stag’s hide was intact and he’d left the head. Vin couldn’t think of many uses for a stag’s heart. They could be eaten, sure, but it was hardly the choicest part of the animal. There was only one reason Vin could think of for taking the stag’s heart only and nothing else, and he didn’t like it.

There were stories about evil mages creating terrible magics with the use of horrifying ingredients. In a lot of them, the crucial component was the heart of a slaughtered animal, or in the worst cases... a human.

Vin gulped. He had to get out of here. He had to talk to someone about what he’d seen.

************

JD had been cleared by Nathan to return to work, but before he rode back to the estate he had some errands to run in Four Corners. He’d just finished arranging a delivery of grain with the farmer who usually supplied it and was on his way back when he ran into someone walking down the street.

“Sorry,” he gasped in shock, but the other person stumbled and grabbed his shoulders.

“Oh, shit,” said the other man. “JD.”

“Vin?” JD asked uncertainly.

“JD,” Vin repeated, not letting go. JD noticed that he looked worried; his eyes were wide and his hair was a mess. He was breathing hard like he’d been running.

“What’s the matter, Vin?” he asked.

Vin looked around like he was making sure they were alone. “Come this way,” he said, leading JD off the main street.

“Seriously, Vin, what’s going on?” JD asked, but Vin wouldn’t answer until they were tucked away in a corner between buildings where they were out of sight.

“I saw... I saw something,” Vin whispered, his voice shaky.

“What? What are you talking about?” JD asked, becoming annoyed.

“I was out in the woods,” Vin explained. “I was hunting, and then... I saw Baron Creshaw.” Vin looked at him, and his expression became one of terror.

“What about him?” JD asked, because sure, the Baron could be unpleasant, JD knew that better than anyone, but he’d never done anything that JD knew of that could provoke that kind of fear.

“He’d brought down a deer,” Vin said, “And he took its heart. Cut it out with a knife and took it away in a leather bag.”

“So... he was hunting?” JD asked uneasily.

“Why would he take just the heart and nothing else?” Vin asked him. It took JD a moment to catch on to what he meant.

“The Baron’s not a mage... is he?” he asked.

“If he is, he’s kept it secret,” said Vin. “But what else would he do with a stag’s heart? Make soup?”

It only took a moment for JD to come upon the next terrifying question. “What does he want it for?”

“Hell if I know,” said Vin. “I ain’t no damn mage. I only know what the stories say about them, but none of those stories have a mage using a heart for anything nice.”

JD gulped and looked at Vin’s scared face. “What are we gonna do?”

He was startled to hear an unexpected voice behind him, saying, “Do about what?”

*************

It was highly amusing to see JD and his friend the tanner spin around like they’d heard an offer of free ale. Less amusing was the fact that Ezra was sure he’d overheard them discussing the Baron’s activities, and if he’d heard right, Vin had actually seen him cut out the heart of a stag. That wasn’t as bad as what Ezra had feared. When he’d realised that morning that Baron Creshaw had left the estate for some reason that he hadn’t revealed to anyone, Ezra had been worried that he was out collecting something a lot more sinister than an animal’s heart.

JD and the tanner were looking at him with identical expressions of terror.

“Uh... we were just...” JD looked over to the tanner, who blinked back witlessly.

“Just talkin’ about town stuff,” the tanner said. “Nothin’ as would interest m’Lord.”

“Really?” Ezra said doubtfully. “I could have sworn you mentioned something about Baron Creshaw harvesting certain animal organs.”

JD exchanged another glance with the tanner, who looked at him wide eyed and mouthed ‘run’. Ezra decided he needed to stop this nonsense before it went too far.

“Wait,” he said. “I’m not... if the Baron’s doing anything he shouldn’t be doing, I want to know about it. I’ve been looking for a way to stop him for months.”

JD and the tanner looked at him suspiciously. “Really?” JD asked. “How do we know that’s true?”

“Yeah,” the tanner drawled. “Prove it.”

Ezra rolled his eyes. “I can’t just prove it, I’ve spent most of that time trying to make sure there’s no way anyone could figure out what I’m doing.”

“That’s very convenient for you,” the tanner said.

Ezra glared at him. “Listen... you...”

“Vin.”

“Whatever. You realise that if the Baron is doing what we suspect, I may be the only person in this town who has the skills to stop him?”

“Why?” JD asked curiously. “Are you a mage, too, Lord Standish?”

“Not quite. I only completed part of the training, but that’s still more than either of you, so I’ll thank you for your cooperation.”

JD and Vin were still watching him, but Ezra’s thoughts were wandering as he thought about what he needed to do now. The conversation he’d overheard had confirmed his suspicions and suggested that he was running out of time. There was only a limited number of uses for the heart of a living animal. If the Baron was harvesting them, it meant Ezra couldn’t afford to wait around until he was completely prepared for every outcome. He needed to act now.

“Do you know where Baron Creshaw went, Vin?” Ezra asked.

“Nah,” said Vin. “I weren’t about to try to follow him, not after that.”

“A reasonable choice,” Ezra allowed. “I’m worried that he’s collecting items to cast a spell. Next time he might not stop at seeking deer hearts.” Vin and JD both nodded at the implication, looking solemn. “I’ve been readying my own magic, expecting that this might come to a fight, but what I really need is to understand better what Creshaw is planning to do.”

Again, Vin and JD nodded. Ezra said, “JD, do you think there’s any way you can get into the Baron’s private quarters, somehow?”

“Uh...” JD looked startled. “I’m not sure, my Lord. The Baron doesn’t let just anyone in there.”

“Yes, that is true.” Ezra was a little discouraged. “Well, what if... perhaps I can get in, if we wait until the Baron is elsewhere. You could keep watch for me.” He hadn’t dared to attempt such a thing on his own, but if he had a lookout, things might be different. “Would you?”

“Of course,” said JD at once. It made Ezra feel terribly guilty. JD obviously had no idea of the risks involved, if he agreed so readily. Ezra was taking advantage of him by asking his help. If he were a better man, he would send JD away.

“Okay,” he said instead. “Let’s not wait too long then.”

************

It took a couple of days before the opportunity arose. Ezra watched Creshaw’s every move, but he stayed annoyingly close to home. Ezra figured he was probably crafting something, using the stag’s heart he’d collected, and it drove him wild that he couldn’t do anything about it.

Finally, the Baron went out one morning, telling Ezra that he planned to ride to the lake, a trip which should take him at least two hours. It was the best news Ezra could have heard. As a precaution, he set off the signal he’d created to alert Vin that the Baron was leaving the estate. He’d made two identical three of diamonds cards, and given one to Vin. When he lit his own from a candle, Vin’s would burn up too, and then he would know to keep watch for the Baron in Four Corners. He hoped that Creshaw was doing as he’d said, and riding to the lake, but there was a chance he was actually planning to do someone harm. If that was the case, there might not be much Vin could do, but he’d agreed to keep watch over the town and try to get people out if it proved necessary.

Ezra summoned JD and left him lingering in the hallway just outside the Baron’s chambers with a broom, which was a flimsy excuse for his presence given that he worked in the stables, but it would have to do. Ezra nudged the door open and stepped inside, looking around nervously in case Creshaw had thought to lay a trap to protect his sanctuary.

As he moved around the room, however, nothing happened, and eventually Ezra concluded that the Baron hadn’t troubled to protect it beyond forbidding anyone to enter it. Arrogance.

Tables sat on both sides of the large room, covered with all sorts of things. One table held different herbs and plants. All mages used at least some herbs, and the Baron had collected a huge variety. Another table held different types of thread and yarn. A third held a number of small wood carvings.

All this acted as confirmation that Creshaw was a mage, and he was doing something with magic, but it didn’t prove that he was doing anything wrong. Ezra looked around the room for something more incriminating. And then, annoyed at himself for not thinking of it sooner, Ezra took out the deck of cards he’d brought with him. He’d cut and inked them himself. When he could, he even made the paper and ink himself, and the spells he could cast with those cards were the most powerful of all. He flicked through the deck and took out the seven of spades, drawing on his power to dispel any illusions in the room.

The back wall of the room wavered and disappeared, revealing an extra two feet of space in which another table sat. So this was why Creshaw hadn’t bothered to lay any traps or set a guard on the door. Ezra stepped quickly to the back wall and looked over the table. The wood was rough and stained. Several knives were arrayed on one side. On the other, a clay bowl sat which held what Ezra guessed had to be the stag’s heart, not that he was any sort of expert on animal organs. Now that he was closer, he could smell the decay. His nose wrinkled.

The other thing on the table was a staff, carved from oak with a large blue stone on the end. Ezra reached out to touch it, but paused with his fingertips inches away from the polished wood. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt a strong reluctance to touch the staff. Even holding his hand near it was difficult to bear. He withdrew his hand with a sense of relief, and took a step back.

He wasn’t sure what the staff was, but he could make an educated guess. Usually, magical items could be used once. Ezra’s cards worked like that; they disintegrated after being used, and then he had to make more. Making an item which could cast its spell again and again... that was a lot harder. Ezra was sure that he was looking at such an item. It wasn’t finished yet, he didn’t think. He wasn’t sure why he thought that; it was just a feeling, a vague hunch based on the way it felt to stand near the staff. He wasn’t sure what it was meant to do, either, but the way it made his skin prickle wasn’t promising.

Ezra wondered how he could find out more about the staff before he left the room. Was it a weapon? Was it just meant to cast the same spell again and again? And if so, what? He was still puzzling over his questions when he heard a cry from outside the room.

It sounded like JD, and Ezra’s heart leapt in his chest. He spun around, meaning to go check on JD, but the door opened as he turned, and Baron Creshaw stepped through it.

“What are you doing here?” the Baron snapped. Ezra gulped.

He’d prepared for the worst case scenario of Creshaw catching him snooping around. He’d put together protection spells, just simple ones, he hadn’t had time for better. He’d brought the deck and a half of cards that he’d finished, and carefully stacked them in preparation. He hadn’t brought his ring, wanting to save it for a confrontation he’d been hoping to put off, and right now he was regretting that. He’d been crafting it to attack Creshaw’s specific vulnerabilities, using a small diamond in a brass setting, and he’d spent a long time making it in secret. But he hadn’t wanted the Baron to know that he had it, and he hadn’t been expecting him to come back so soon.

“This is a very interesting room,” Ezra said, affecting an expression of complete innocence. It was not much use, the Baron would have to notice that the illusion along the back wall had been removed, but he could at least try to throw the other man off. Ezra quickly slipped a card out of his pocket, and used it to create an illusion.

It was his Key power. Every potential mage had one, the first magic they learned to wield without needing to be taught. He’d been able to create illusions since he was a child; only small ones, but he could cast them well and with next to no effort. He let the illusion form; a dozen heavily armed men stepped into the room behind the Baron, brandishing swords, and Creshaw spun to confront them.

Baron Creshaw directed a spell at the men who had entered the room, and it passed harmlessly through, the illusion disappearing. While he was distracted, Ezra slipped the deck of cards from his pocket and palmed the first five from the top. He knew what they were already; had stacked them so that the four fours were on top. He used a strong spell, hoping that he could end the fight before it started, before Baron Creshaw expected him to present a threat. But the Baron deflected his attack just in time, and returned the assault with a blast of his own power. Ezra’s protective spells absorbed the worst of it, but knocked him backwards. He dealt himself another five cards. A straight flush, five to nine of clubs. It took the Baron by surprise; he must not have expected Ezra to withstand his first attack. As Ezra used the cards, they crumbled into dust in his hands.

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The Baron attacked again, and this time Ezra tried to dodge out of the way. He was only partly successful, and there was a painful burning sensation on his left leg, but he ignored it as he palmed his next hand. Two pairs, aces over eights, and he needed this one to stick. He saw the Baron make some kind of protection spell using a trinket that had been sitting on a side table. It blocked part of the spell, but Ezra was satisfied when a gash opened up across his brow. Desperately, he tried to pick up the next five cards. A full house, jacks and kings, and this one should finish him if he was quick enough...

But he was only just lifting his hand when the Baron looked at him and said, “I made that rug you’re standing on.”

Ezra tried to jump clear, but it was too late. The rug had a pattern of vines on it, and they sprang to life, winding around his legs and pulling him off balance. He tried to aim his spell at the Baron, but it missed and blasted a hole through the window instead. The vines pulled him down to the ground, wrapping around his hands so that he couldn’t use the cards any more.

The Baron stepped towards him, unwinding an ornate scarf from around his neck. “I made this as well,” he said, laying it over Ezra’s face. “I hope you like it.”

***************
Chris was pretty pissed off. He had been for a few days. He blamed Buck. He often blamed Buck for things, but this time he was pretty sure it was actually his fault. It was Buck who brought up Sarah and Adam. He usually avoided the subject. It was better that way.

It wasn’t as though he didn’t think of Sarah and Adam all the time, every single day. He did. That was what drove him to the drink. Remembering that he was responsible for ending their lives was impossible to bear without the alcohol dulling the agony of it. He was almost used to it now.

It was cruel of Buck, though, to dangle the idea in front of him that he wasn’t responsible after all. He’d refused to accept the truth, back when it had happened. He’d loved his wife and son with everything in him, how could he ever do anything to hurt them? Surely it was impossible. But he’d been so angry back then, at himself and the world, and every time his control over his temper slipped, his terrible power slipped free. He started fires without meaning to. Without even thinking about it. Just like he hadn’t meant to do it that night, and hadn’t thought about it. It had happened anyway, without any intention on his part. That hadn’t mattered.

Buck had said maybe it wasn’t his fault. But Chris had already made himself accept the truth.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t looked for someone to blame. Chris thought sometimes that the grief would be so much easier to bear if he could lay blame for it at someone else’s feet. All his rage instead turned inwards, and there was nothing productive he could do with that. Nothing except ending his miserable life, and sure, he’d considered it many times, but he’d made promises to Buck, and himself, and Sarah too.

Buck had said that going through something horrible could cause people to develop abilities. Give them magic, like what Chris had. He’d suggested that losing Sarah and Adam was what had caused his fire magic. Not the other way around. But that couldn’t be the case, because that meant there had to be someone else out there who had killed his family, and Chris had looked for them. He’d looked. They didn’t exist.

Or rather, they did exist, and Chris already knew who to blame, because it was him. He shouldn’t be trying to duck out of his culpability like that. Somehow, he’d gone out of the house that night, and let a fire light up behind him, not realising what had happened until it was too late. He hadn’t been angry, or anything. He’d been worried about his horse, but that came with running a farm. You couldn’t get all mad every time something was wrong with one of the animals, or you’d have no time to do anything else. Anyway, he hadn’t been with the horse when he’d set the fire off.

Maybe time had made the memory fade. He’d never managed to start a fire without realising it, not since that night. He could always feel when it happened, and anyway, he always knew it was coming because it only happened when he was angry. Except for that first night.

Buck had seemed to know something about it. Chris suddenly felt the need to talk to him.

**************

Since talking to Buck the day before and hearing his story about Chris and what had happened to his family, Josiah had gone around the town talking to other people and trying to find out what he could. It was more difficult, though; he trusted Buck to keep his head and hold his tongue, but he couldn’t say the same for some of the other people in Four Corners. As a result, he hadn’t achieved much, but then one afternoon he happened to run into Mary Travis and her son as they came out of the milliner’s.

Josiah stopped and said good day, of course, because he valued good manners. Mary returned his greeting, but clutched Billy’s hand and kept him close to her side.

Josiah had never really had much to do with Billy. He didn’t like being around people, since his father’s death, and Mary was very protective of him. Mary was one of the people he’d been meaning to approach, but he hadn’t known how.

“Can I carry that for you?” he asked, indicating the large bolt of cloth Mary held.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” she said. “That would be such a help.”

Josiah took the cloth and walked with Mary towards her home.

“Are you planning to do some sewing?” he asked, looking down at the cloth, which was a nice deep shade of blue.

“Yes, I’d like to make some new clothes,” she answered. “For me and Billy. I think it’s... time.” She smoothed one hand over her black skirt, and Josiah nodded.

“I’m sure you’re right,” he said gently. “What do you think, Billy?” he asked.

“My son doesn’t talk, Josiah,” said Mary, a note of warning in her voice, but Josiah kept his eyes on Billy’s face and was sure the child was trying to say something. He wanted to say something; Josiah could see it in his eyes, and as he watched, Billy opened his mouth as though to speak, but no sound came out.

“He’s trying to say something,” Josiah insisted.

Mary looked at her son. “He hasn’t spoken since the night Stephen was killed,” she said sadly. Again, Billy opened and closed his mouth, looking frustrated. “We’ve tried everything,” she added, stroking his hair down with her fingers.

“Perhaps not everything,” said Josiah, and he looked around. They had reached the front of Mary’s house, and he plucked a daisy from the garden, ignoring Mary’s slight huff of displeasure. A magic detection spell required barely any effort. He could probably cast it without any components, but it would work better with the flower, and so he crouched down next to Billy and said, “What is it you want to tell me?”

Again Billy tried to speak without success, and this time Josiah could see the spell that was stilling his voice. The flower withered in his hand, the petals dropped from it and Mary gasped. Josiah stood up again.

“Mary,” he said, “It’s magic that’s taken Billy’s speech from him. Will you let me undo the spell?”

************

Mary invited him inside to work his magic. This spell was a bit more involved than the detection spell. Josiah collected a few items from his home before starting; a small piece of carved wood and some of the herbs he grew in his garden. Since he’d left the city he’d mostly given up magic, but all mages grew herbs and the habit had been too hard to let go. His little wood puzzles, too; he didn’t really use them for spells any more, but he found them soothing to make and so he always kept a few around. Sometimes he gave them away as gifts, but he always made more.

With the herbs, he brewed a tea. “You’ll need to drink this,” he said to Billy. “All of it. As fast as you can. Wait for it to cool a bit more.”

Billy sniffed the tea and looked sceptical. “I know,” Josiah said. “It might not taste all that good, but it will help. We could add some honey, if there’s any to be had.”

Mary fetched the desired honey and Billy looked a little happier. He gulped the tea down and Josiah held his wood puzzle in his fingertips.

“Billy, hold the other side,” he said, guiding Billy’s hand towards the puzzle. “Put your fingertips here, and I want you to think about what you want to say. There’s something you’ve been needing to say for a long time, isn’t there? And you haven’t been able to? You need to say it now.”

Billy blinked up at him, his eyes watery, and opened his mouth. “It was Baron Creshaw,” he said, his voice rough. He looked startled at the sound, and a moment later began to cry. “It was him,” he sniffed. “That night. Me and Dad were here and it was just us, and he came to the door...” Billy trailed off, wiping the sleeve of his shirt across his face.

“Oh, my...” Mary whispered, sinking to sit down on the sofa. She put her arms out and Billy leaned into her, resting his head on her shoulder. Mary looked over the top of his head to Josiah, her face set.

“The Baron killed my husband,” she said, and Josiah confirmed with a nod. “And he put a spell on Billy, to take his voice away, stop him from talking about it.” Josiah nodded again, and Mary sighed shakily. “What are we going to do?” she asked. “We’ve got to stop him, somehow.”

************

Josiah was just leaving the house when he met Vin walking down the street. He grabbed Josiah’s arm as he walked through the gate, and said, “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Why is that?” Josiah asked. He looked closer at Vin, noting his pale, tense expression. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s... a long story,” Vin said, shrugging. “And you probably wouldn’t believe me.”

“I might surprise you,” Josiah said, thinking of the many bizarre things he’d learned over the past few days.

Vin gave him a measuring look. “Me and JD and Lord Standish have a theory that Baron Creshaw is messing around with some kind of dark magic, and while JD and Standish snoop around his house looking for clues, I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on the town and getting people ready to run just in case the Baron turns up. Want to help?” He lifted his chin defiantly towards Josiah, as though inviting his disbelief.

Josiah mentally sorted through a dozen different responses, and finally said, “Okay.”

**************

Buck, true to his word, had gone back out to Chris’ farm each day since their argument. He hadn’t raised the subject of Sarah and Adam again; Chris hadn’t taken it all that well the first time. He’d tried to just be there and offer a supportive presence. Chris had mostly just ignored him.

So it was a surprise to Buck when Chris turned up at the inn, with steady hands and a clear gaze. Buck had already dropped by Chris’ home that day, and he’d seemed well enough then, but Buck hadn’t stuck around for all that long. Chris dropped into a chair across the table from Buck and looked down at his hands.

“Why would someone do that?” Chris asked. “What possible reason could anyone have, for...?” He trailed off, and Buck realised that Chris had just launched into the middle of a conversation he hadn’t realised they were having.

“I’m not sure, exactly,” he answered, trying to catch up. “It was Josiah who told me about... what we talked about. He had some ideas, but this might not be the best place to talk about it.”

Chris took that in, nodding silently. “Should we-” he began, but they were interrupted when Josiah himself walked into the common room.

“Buck,” he said. “Chris. I was hoping to find you here.”

*****************

Chris had forgotten what it used to feel like, believing - knowing - that the person who killed his family was out there, somewhere, avoiding justice, punishment, revenge. When Josiah explained his theory, it came rushing back to him. And it made him angry. So angry.

It was fortunate that they had thought to leave the inn first. That Josiah had taken them somewhere away from the town so that they could all share what they knew. When the flames got free of Chris’ control, they harmlessly incinerated a tree, instead of a building where people were present. Chris was grateful for that.

But he was still angry.

“I’ll kill him,” he growled. “I’ll go right now...”

“You can’t do that,” Josiah said. Chris all but snarled at him, but the other man didn’t back down, and Buck and Vin stood with him.

“You can’t beat him by yourself,” Vin said. “If you really want to avenge Sarah and Adam, if you really want to, you’ll work with us, and wait until we’ve worked out what to do. Otherwise, you’ll just end up another of his victims.”

Chris hated Vin a little bit, for being right. Damn him.

**************

By the next morning, when there was still no sign of Lord Standish and JD, they had to accept that something had gone wrong. Feeling less than hopeful about their chances, they gathered together to prepare to travel to the estate and see what they could find out.

“The truth is, I was never a very powerful mage,” Josiah explained as he did something complicated with a small wooden box. “So I taught myself to be strong in other ways. To create spells within spells, which would do things that were unpredictable.”

“What does this one do?” Nathan asked.

“It’s a distraction spell. It will convince Creshaw that everything’s okay, and that whatever he’s currently doing is hugely important. If he starts to think that he needs to leave and do something else, the spell will divert his attention, and it will keep distracting him so that he doesn’t leave.”

“That’s pretty clever,” said Nathan. “You’ve made it so that, even if the Baron starts to think he’s been affected by magic, he won’t be able to break free of it?”

“That’s the idea,” Josiah agreed. “A more powerful spell might be able to hurt him, but not prevent him from retaliating. If this works like it should, we’ll be able to get in and out without him knowing about it until we’re gone.”

“Sounds good to me. But what about the people he’s got working for him?”

“Well, that’s where the rest of you come in,” Josiah admitted. He looked across the room to where Vin was fletching arrows, Buck was cleaning his sword, and Chris was preparing his crossbow. “This spell,” he added, holding up a different box made of wooden parts fitted together, “should keep everyone out of the Baron’s chambers. We have to make sure that he’s already in the room when we go in, and that he’s alone. That’s important, because the first spell won’t be strong enough to hold more than one mind, or to keep its hold if someone else directly tells the Baron something’s wrong. We’ve got to keep his followers away. But other than that, I don’t think I’ll be much help.”

“Okay,” said Nathan. “We can probably manage them.” He wished JD was still around. He might have an idea of who they needed to worry about.

A few minutes later Josiah announced that he was ready, and wrapped his boxes carefully before they set out from Four Corners.

“When did you begin training as a mage?” Nathan asked as they rode.

“A long time ago,” Josiah answered, his face closing off. Nathan wasn’t sure what he was thinking about, but the other man’s expression didn’t welcome questions.

“Was it hard? To learn?” Nathan wondered, watching Josiah’s face and hoping that he wasn’t stumbling onto a topic Josiah didn’t want to talk about.

To his relief, Josiah considered the question and seemed more thoughtful now, rather than cold. “Learning magic is far easier than most people realise,” he said. “Mages keep that knowledge quiet, deliberately. It suits them for people to believe that magic is near impossible to learn, and that people who don’t get the training are essentially powerless, only good for party tricks. It’s part of the reason I left that life behind.”

Nathan looked at Josiah questioningly. Josiah shook his head. “So much corruption, hidden behind this facade of superiority,” he explained sadly. “I’m glad I came here. This is a good place. Well, with the obvious exception.”

“Right,” Nathan agreed. “I’m glad I came here too.”

“Why did you come here?” Josiah asked, because apparently that was a logical continuation of the discussion they’d been having. “You’re a long way from home.”

“I am,” said Nathan. “I grew up in this little village, and I think I would have stayed there forever.” He got a little lost in the memory. It was a long time since he’d let himself think about his childhood. “The village got attacked. They killed nearly everyone. I... hid.” He didn’t look at Josiah as he said that, remembering how he’d crawled into a tiny, hidden corner and hadn’t moved for hours. “They killed my brother, but my two sisters survived. They were hurt, though. Hurt bad.” He paused for a second as the memory became overwhelming, appreciating Josiah’s attentive silence. “I tried to help them, but they were both so badly off... My eldest sister died.” He blinked hard at that and cut himself off from saying anything more.

“I’m sorry, Nathan,” said Josiah. “That’s a terrible thing to go through. It wasn’t your fault, though,” he added. “You did everything you could.”

Nathan nodded, because there was nothing else he could do. Josiah didn’t know that he’d seen Kayla and Nari, and known straight away that they both needed immediate help which he could only give to one of them. Josiah didn’t know that he hadn’t hesitated over the decision, that he’d accepted the necessity of choosing which sister to save. Josiah had never had to see the acceptance in Nari’s eyes as he let her die.

It was after that that he’d found himself able to do things that weren’t normal. People who had illnesses he shouldn’t have been able to cure, but did. He’d nearly killed himself before he learned how to control it, accepted that he needed to pace himself. He’d come to Four Corners because he was never able to see someone he could save, and let them go, no matter the cost to himself. In a city, there were so many people, so many who needed help they couldn’t find anywhere else. In Four Corners, there weren’t so many people that he had to choose who to heal. He didn’t want to ever make such a choice again.

Nathan was sombre the rest of the way to the Baron’s estate, and when they finally arrived they split up to search for Lord Standish and JD. Nathan, along with Chris and Buck, crept around the back of the house. There were people coming and going, servants with baskets of vegetables and freshly butchered meat. Nathan watched but doubted they would be able to sneak inside. There weren’t so many people that three strangers would pass unnoticed.

“What now, Buck?” Chris asked.

“Just wait, Chris, and don’t be such a worry wart.”

“I’m not, but you said you could get us inside... I don’t really see how this is going to work.”

“Would you have a little faith? I don’t know why I... there she is!”

“Huh?” Nathan asked as Buck set off quickly across the grounds, heading towards a door where a young woman had appeared.

Chris sighed heavily. “We’d better follow him,” he said, “Or there’s no knowing what he’ll do.”

They crossed the gardens to where Buck stood, talking to the young woman wearing the servant’s uniform. “It brightens my day to see you,” he was saying as they arrived. “It’s been far too long, fair maiden, and I have missed you terribly.”

The object of Buck’s attention giggled and blushed at his compliments.

“These are my friends, Nathan and Chris,” Buck said. “Darlin’, I wonder if we could come inside? We’ve come a long way, and I think my friends would like to get out of the sun.”

“I really shouldn’t,” said the girl, and Buck turned a sad expression on her. “But I’m sure it will be alright, if it’s just for a few minutes.”

“You’re a gem, Maggie,” Buck grinned, and they followed her inside.

Once within the walls, Maggie led them to the kitchen, an enormous and stifling room which smelled of roasting meat. Nathan looked around, and said from the corner of his mouth, “Now what?”

“You and Chris should slip out and see if you can find anything. I’ll stay here and distract Maggie.”

“Right,” Nathan snickered. “Sounds good to you, I’m sure.”

He went to the other side of the room, trying to duck down and be inconspicuous until he realised that the best way to go unnoticed was to act like he was meant to be there. He straightened up and walked more quickly, with Chris at his side.

They went up and down the halls a few times without seeing anything noteworthy, until they reached one corridor which had several armed men standing around. Nathan made to back out quickly, but they had already noticed him by then and did not look welcoming.

“Chris,” Nathan muttered, “Got your crossbow?”

“Of course,” Chris answered, pulling it out. Nathan drew his sword and the guards closed in.

It was a fast and dirty fight, Nathan worried that at any moment someone else would hear the scuffle and come help their attackers. He tried to defeat the guards as quickly as possible, but it took longer than he would have liked. Finally, once they were disarmed and tied up in an empty room, Nathan and Chris raced back to the room they had been guarding and opened it with the keys one of the guards had been carrying.

The door swung open, and Nathan gasped. JD was inside, slumped on the floor, his face a bruised and bloody mess.

Nathan raced to his side, calling his name. JD stirred and blinked at him. “Nathan?” he murmured, his voice slurred.

Nathan put his arms to JD’s shoulders, trying to figure out how badly he was hurt. “Can you walk?” he asked, noting with relief that there were no broken bones or internal bleeding.

“Hurts,” JD whispered.

“I know,” said Nathan. “Come on. We need to get you out of here. I’ll fix you up, but we’ve got to get away from here first.”

**************

It didn’t take too long for Josiah to talk one of the servants into letting him in and taking him to the room where Lord Standish was apparently lying in his sickbed. It had been a few days now, the maid said, and he wouldn’t wake up. To Josiah’s questions, she replied that the Baron hadn’t sent for the doctor, or done much besides command that Lord Standish be left alone.

When he asked about JD, she wouldn’t answer.

She left him alone in the room. Lord Standish was lying in the middle of a massive bed, looking peacefully asleep. Josiah looked at him and wished that he had Nathan’s medical knowledge. It didn’t look like Ezra was hurt, but this was not his area of expertise.

Josiah cast a few spells to try to find the cause of Standish’s unnatural sleep. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed that the cause was magical, which at least was something he knew something about. Josiah considered Lord Standish’s sleeping form, and put together one more spell. This one, if it worked correctly, would help him see what was going on in Ezra’s mind.

Josiah waited, eyes shut and one hand on Ezra’s forehead, to see something, anything. There was nothing, and at last he opened his eyes, disappointed.

The room was gone. Standish in the bed, the entire mansion, had all disappeared. He was standing in a beautiful garden.

He blinked and turned around. Yep, definitely a garden. And he was definitely standing in it. Josiah looked down at himself. Those were his clothes and his shoes. It seemed the spell had somehow moved him someplace else.

That was when things started to get weird. A flock of birds flew past, but when Josiah looked at them, he realised they weren’t birds. They were some kind of fish, swimming through the air. And not that Josiah was an expert on fish or anything, but he was pretty sure those colours were a bit out of the ordinary. He watched them fly out of sight, and turned the other way to see that a few yards away, there was a forest made of giant flowers, while patches of tiny trees grew in clusters between them. He started to walk that way, but as he reached the edge of the forest, he realised that it only went so deep, and after that there seemed to be an impenetrable mass of... green. Not green anything, just... green.

Josiah turned around to go back the other way, and suddenly there was someone standing there. He jumped back with a gasp.

It was a boy, maybe ten years old, with short reddish brown hair and a lightly freckled face.

“Who are you?” Josiah demanded.

“Who are you?” the child retorted. “I don’t know you. You don’t belong here.”

Josiah blinked at that. “I’m Josiah,” he said at last. “Where is here, exactly?”

The boy looked at him, confused. “It’s here,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“It’s strange,” Josiah said, as he saw from the corner of his eye a small fox wearing a crown burrowed up from the ground and scampered away.

The child reacted strongly to that. “Well, so what if it is?” he demanded. “There’s nothing wrong with it!”

“Oh, no, of course not,” Josiah answered quickly. “Sorry.”

The boy sniffed, and Josiah ventured, “What’s your name?”

“Ezra,” he answered.

“Ezra,” Josiah repeated. “Ezra, I’m not sure how I got here,” he admitted. “Do you have any ideas?”

Ezra shrugged, not seeming too concerned.

“Is there anyone else around who I can ask?”

“Mother’s over there,” Ezra said, pointing with one hand to where a lovely fair haired woman was sitting at a table, writing something on a sheet of paper.

Josiah looked closely at the woman. “That’s Lady Standish!” he realised with a start. He looked back at the child. “Ezra... Lord Standish?”

The boy just looked up at him, seeming puzzled, and not reacting to the title. Josiah looked around the strange landscape once more. Oh, shit.

“This is a dream,” he murmured, disbelieving. He looked back at Ezra. “This is your dream. We’re inside your head.”

Ezra looked back at him, not really reacting to his words but seeming confused. “I don’t really think you’re supposed to be here,” he said. Josiah could hear it now, the inflections of Lord Standish’s voice in this child’s words. He shook his head and turned away.

If it was a dream, and that seemed the likeliest explanation, Josiah mused as a snake rolled past in a hoop with its tail in its mouth, then the woman sitting nearby wasn’t really the Lady Standish. It was actually the idea of her that existed in Ezra’s mind. She couldn’t know anything that Ezra didn’t know.

For a lack of other ideas, Josiah set off to walk towards the woman and see if she would be more talkative. He walked quickly, but seemed to get no closer to her. He walked faster with no effect.

“You can’t reach her,” said Ezra at his side.

“What?” Josiah asked, startled and nearly tripping over because he hadn’t realised Ezra was following him.

“It won’t work,” Ezra said with a shrug. “You’ll never get there.”

Josiah looked back to where Lady Standish sat. Ezra was right. She was only a dozen or so yards away, but he’d walked at least triple that distance and she wasn’t any closer. As he watched, she filled the sheet of paper she was writing on and flipped it over to start writing on the other side.

Josiah sighed. “Where else can we go?” he asked.

Ezra perked up. “I’ll show you my house,” he said. “It’s very nice. Come on!”

Josiah followed. They walked four or five steps and the garden scene was abruptly replaced by the door of a giant house. Josiah was startled but Ezra looked like this was exactly what he’d expected. He opened the door and ushered Josiah inside.

If the house had been big on the outside, on the inside it was gargantuan. They stood in a foyer the size of the town square back in Four Corners. Hallways branched off from it in every direction. The floor was marble and the ceiling was far, far above but it seemed to glow and cast a soft light over the room.

“I keep my toys down here,” Ezra said, and led Josiah down one of the hallways. They came to a room filled with all sorts of things... porcelain dolls dressed in clothes far nicer than anything Josiah owned, or indeed, anything he’d ever seen anyone wear. A rocking horse sat in one corner, and in another was a chess set with pieces which seemed to be made of precious stones. There were all sorts of other things Josiah couldn’t even describe. He wondered at first if these were the sorts of things rich people owned, but then he realised that when he tried to focus on any one particular item, it remained indistinct and fuzzy. So the room wasn’t actually furnished with real things, it was just Ezra’s idea of what a wealthy child should own.

The unnerving thing about the whole place was how empty it was, how devoid of life.

“There’s no one else here,” Josiah said without thinking.

“Sure there is,” Ezra argued. “I’ve got loads of friends, and they all live here. Watch.”

Josiah heard footsteps, and a moment later a long line of people started pouring through the door. First was a man and a woman, wearing crowns encrusted with diamonds. There was a man wearing a sword with a diamond studded hilt, and following him were ten others, each with diamonds stitched into their clothes. Josiah gaped as they all marched into the room and lined up, facing him and Ezra. Josiah gasped as he realised that, for all the newcomers were all shapes and sizes, every one of them wore Ezra’s face.

“Let’s play a game!” Ezra said, and the thirteen of them chorused,

“Yes, let’s!”

“We’ll play tag!” said Ezra. “I’ll be it!”

The others broke ranks and fled the room, shrieking and laughing. Ezra grinned at Josiah.

“Run,” he said, “Or I’ll get you.”

“I can’t play games right now, Ezra,” Josiah argued. “I’m trying to find a way to wake you up, do you understand?”

“Oh, well, you’re it, then!” Ezra announced, tagging Josiah on the arm and dashing away.

“Stop, Ezra!” Josiah yelled, without much hope. He chased after Ezra and found himself back in the maze of corridors that made up the ridiculous house. “Damn it,” he muttered. He started to walk, fuming. He turned corner after corner, every one looking the same as the last. He passed a window, and looking through it, he saw the Lady Standish. Josiah hesitated. Ezra had said he couldn’t reach her, but that was before. Right now, she was the only person in sight.

Josiah looked around for a door, and only a little further along, he found one. He opened it with relief, but only found himself in another hallway. He looked up and down, and found a window which he looked through, seeing again the Lady Standish sitting on a sofa, drinking tea.

“Right,” Josiah muttered, striding to the nearest door and flinging it open. Once again, he was in a new hallway, and there was the window, and he could still see the Lady Standish, but when he went to the door, it only led him into another hallway. “This is stupid,” Josiah muttered. “I should be back where I started by now.”

He turned in the other direction, and opened a door on the opposite wall. He found himself outside again, but instead of being in a garden, he was standing on an open field. A short distance away, a group of people were attacking one another with clubs.

Josiah moved closer to see what was happening. There were around ten of them, and they were fighting amongst one another with no apparent allegiances or any evidence of ill will when they were hit.

“What’s going on?” he asked when the slightest of them was knocked down and landed at Josiah’s feet.

“Battle,” answered the small man, hauling himself up. Josiah was disconcerted to realise he was looking into Ezra’s face again. As he looked around at the other people there, he could see that they all bore Ezra’s features too.

“But why?”

“It’s what we do,” he answered, throwing himself back into the melee with a cry.

Josiah shook his head and turned to walk away. The mansion was gone and in its place was an imposing structure, a castle or a fort. A wide moat surrounded it, and a drawbridge was lowered across it. A guard stood in the middle of it, watching Josiah intently.

Josiah moved to step onto the drawbridge, and the guard stopped him. “You’re not permitted,” he said sternly.

Josiah paused uncertainly, trying to decide if he should try to overpower the guard or go somewhere else. He didn’t think he could be hurt in the dream, but depending on the magic Baron Creshaw was using, he couldn’t be sure what might happen. But before he had to decide, Ezra appeared at his side once more. He was older now, looked to almost be a man, but Josiah could tell it was still him. He looked more real than the rest of this place.

“Let us pass,” Ezra ordered, and the guard stepped aside. Josiah followed Ezra under the portcullis.

“What is this place?” he asked.

Ezra frowned, like he wasn’t sure himself. “There’s something here,” he said. “Something important.”

They walked through a courtyard which sat within the castle walls. Guards stood around the edges of it, standing silent and watchful. Ezra brought them to a doorway which they passed through, ending up in what seemed to be a stable. Ezra’s horse was there, or at least Josiah assumed it was his horse. Ezra went straight up to him and stroked his nose.

Someone else was in the room. Josiah didn’t realise until they walked out of the corner carrying an armful of hay.

“JD!” Josiah exclaimed. JD was probably the last person he’d expected to see. JD didn’t look at him at all, dropping the hay under the horse’s nose and grabbing a brush.

Josiah glanced over at Ezra. “The really important thing you dreamed this place up to protect is your horse?” he asked incredulously.

Ezra sniffed at him. “He’s a very fine horse,” he answered.

“Well, sure,” Josiah allowed. Far be it for Ezra to own anything that wasn’t of the highest possible standard.

Ezra and JD fussed over the horse and praised his many excellent features for a few minutes. Josiah heard a low rumble and the building trembled.

“It’s not safe,” Ezra said, but he didn’t move. The walls shuddered again and the horse tossed his head. They all tensed, and then something came out of the back wall of the room. Or maybe, it was a part of the wall itself, coming to life. It was human-shaped, but it had no texture, no detail that could be picked out. It looked like a shadow, or a hole in the air. And it went for JD.

The thing put its... hands... around JD’s neck, and he gasped and went white. Josiah yelled. Ezra seemed frozen, although Josiah thought he’d heard the other man whimper, or whisper something.

JD went limp, and the thing faded away. JD collapsed to the floor and lay there, still.

“He’s dead,” Ezra said. “It killed him.”

“He might not be,” Josiah insisted, going to JD’s side. “I might be able to help him.” But JD was disappearing before his eyes, his body becoming transparent. Josiah put his hand to JD’s shoulder, and it went straight through.

“I didn’t stop it,” Ezra said miserably. Josiah blinked, and between closing his eyes and opening them again, he was back in the garden.

The child Ezra was back again, glaring at him and insisting that he didn’t belong. Josiah didn’t pay too much attention to him this time, instead walking away and finding himself back in the enormous house. It was still full of Ezra’s friends. The diamonds. Josiah went to the room that was full of toys and looked for something that would make noise.

“You need to wake up,” he explained to Ezra again. “You’ve been asleep too long. There’s folks that need you.” Ezra ignored him, tagged him on the shoulder and called ‘it’ before running away.

Josiah went back into the hallways of the house. He didn’t bother to try to retrace his steps from last time, but he still wound up in the same place. The clubs were fighting, and then Ezra led him into the castle, and JD was there.

Josiah took action straight away, moving around the room and putting JD between himself and Ezra. Between them, they could protect him. He was sure of it. Except that he couldn’t, because the shadowy creature got past him before he even realised it was there, and JD was dead once more. And then he was back in the garden.

“It’s a loop,” Josiah explained to child-Ezra’s perplexed expression. “That’s how the spell works. You’re stuck in this endless loop, and I think the only way to stop it is to keep JD alive.”

“Okay,” said Ezra, “But can we play tag now?”

“In a second.” Josiah looked around and found a candle sitting on a table. “Can you keep this with you?” he asked. “You might need it.” He grabbed a candle for himself, and held onto it tightly as he went back through the house, out to where the clubs were fighting and into the castle. He lit it and held it up where it shed its light over the small stable, and the horse, and JD, but an icy wind blew it out, and Ezra had lost his candle somewhere along the way. And then JD was dead.

He tried everything he could think of to stop the shadowy creature. He tried to get JD and Ezra out of the room, but the thing pounced before they got out, every time. Even the time he raced ahead of Ezra, picked JD up and slung him over his shoulder, and bolted. By the time they got outside, JD was merely a fading silhouette in the sunshine.

He couldn’t count the number of times it happened, and each time, Ezra barely reacted to what was going on. He was no help, even though Josiah alternately told, demanded, pleaded and screamed for him to do something. Anything.

Eventually, Josiah had had enough. He was back by the flower forest, and this time he started walking deeper into it instead of going towards the house. As he got further along, past where the flowers were defined and into the part where the forest became just a mass of green, it became harder and harder to see what was up ahead. It made Josiah nervous, but he pressed on ahead anyway, and eventually he came out the other side.

It looked like a desert. Well, no. Josiah had seen deserts. He’d travelled in the desert for months at a time. Deserts didn’t usually look like this. They had plants, and wildlife, even in all the dry barren landscape there were usually things to see. This looked like what a child might imagine a desert to be, if they’d never seen one. There was just sand, for miles and miles. Nothing moved. Nothing grew.

Josiah wondered if he should turn back. Maybe out here, away from the part of the dream Ezra’s mind was actually creating, there was just nothing to shape the dream or populate it. There was probably nothing he could do here.

He was about to go back when something in the sand shifted. A figure. It wore clothes which were covered in the dry, brownish sand, so no wonder he hadn’t noticed it before.

“Hey,” said Josiah, walking towards the person. He finally got there and realised that once again, it was Ezra.

No. Not exactly. This was clearly Lord Standish. It was the same person he’d just seen lying unconscious in bed. And he looked at Josiah and said, “I know you,” with only a hint of uncertainty.

Josiah looked around. “What – what are you doing out here?”

Lord Standish shrugged. “I think I was... following someone?” he said. He looked off into the distance. “There she is, over there!” he exclaimed, and got up and started walking.

It was Lady Standish that he was trying to reach, dressed exactly as she had been every other time Josiah had seen her in the dream. Josiah stumbled after Lord Standish.

“You can’t reach her,” he said gently. Lord Standish didn’t even deign to look at him.

“Of course I can,” he scoffed. “I just have to walk faster.”

He sped up, and sped up some more, but they never got any closer to Lady Standish.

Ezra didn’t stop, although he slowed down to a steady pace that suggested he intended to keep walking all day.

“I’m missing something, aren’t I?” he asked. “I feel like there’s something I’m supposed to be doing.”

That gave Josiah hope, because it was the first time Ezra had so much as suggested that he realised something wasn’t right. “You’re asleep,” he explained. “And this is a dream. Do you understand?”

“A dream,” Standish said. His voice was sort of flat, but he was listening and didn’t seem confused, so Josiah pressed on.

“We think Baron Creshaw has put you under a spell. To stop you from waking up. Does that sound right? Do you remember what happened?”

“He put me under a spell,” Standish said, but Josiah couldn’t tell if he was answering Josiah’s question or just repeating what he’d said.

“Can you undo the spell?” Josiah asked. “Can you wake up?”

“Wake up,” Standish said, and now he was definitely repeating Josiah’s words. He started running, taking Josiah by surprise. Josiah chased after him and realised he wasn’t heading for Lady Standish anymore. It was JD, suddenly out in the desert.

“Get down, JD!” Standish yelled. “Get out of the way! Move!”

But JD wasn’t a person like Josiah and Standish were. In the dream, he was just a prop, or scenery, and he didn’t react. The shadow creature got to him first, and Standish sank to his knees.

“I’m going to fail,” he said. “I always fail.”

And then Josiah was back at the garden.

He ran this time, ran through the forest and went straight to Standish in the desert.

“You look familiar...” Standish said vaguely, but Josiah interrupted him.

“You’re asleep,” he said abruptly. “This is a dream. You’re under a spell Baron Creshaw put on you to stop you waking up, but we need you to wake up. You’re in some kind of loop. JD keeps turning up, and something keeps killing him. Every time that happens it resets the loop. Understand? If we’re going to break this spell, we’ve got to keep JD alive.”

Standish looked at him for a long time. Josiah started to worry that he’d given him too much information at once, assumed too much from this Ezra’s apparent ability to understand.

“Can’t save him,” Standish said at last. “I can’t. Not strong enough.”

“You can,” Josiah insisted. “We can do it together.”

Standish shook his head. “I’m going to fail.”

“I’ll help you. You won’t fail.”

Standish looked stubborn.

“This is your mind. You have to know how we can stop the shadow thing. You thought of it. How do we stop it?”

“We can’t,” Standish whispered.

“Sure we can. But I need you to tell me about it. What is it? How does it work?”

Standish shook his head. “I don’t know anything about it.”

“But it came from you!” Josiah said, frustrated.

Standish’s expression was miserable. “I can never stop it,” he moaned.

“Is this a memory?” Josiah demanded, grabbing Standish by the shoulder. He didn’t answer, his gaze remaining fixed on JD who was now visible a short distance away. “Come on!” Josiah snapped, giving Standish a slight shake. “We don’t have time for this! I don’t know what bit of your past you’re trapped in, but all I need is to know what to do!”

Standish drew in a shaky breath and reached up to grip Josiah’s wrist. “Stop it,” he gasped. “I can’t, but you have to... I need you to. Stop it. Please?”

“How?” Josiah wondered, but Standish just watched JD with his eyes wide. The shadow creature was coming for him now, and Josiah ran towards it, certain that JD was about to die once more.

He reached JD’s side and stuck out one hand. The thing didn’t stop, and Josiah swung one fist at where its face would be, if it had one. His hand went straight through it, and the shadowy thing vanished like a puff of smoke.

Josiah spun around, wondering if they were about to be attacked from another direction. That had been far too easy. But Standish was beaming at him, and when he said, “You did it!” he sounded so happy. Maybe it didn’t matter how easy it had been. Maybe the difference was that Standish believed it was over.

Standish blinked. “Is it morning yet?” he asked, and a second later, the dream world vanished.

***************

The first thing Standish did, after Josiah explained the situation, was take what looked like a playing card from a pocket and tucked it under the bed covers. Suddenly, there were two Standishes in the room, one standing over the bed and one lying in it. “It won’t stand up to a close look,” said the one who was standing up. “It can’t be touched, for one thing, and Baron Creshaw might notice the use of magic if he’s paying attention. But it will buy us a little more time.”

Next, Standish collected all the items he insisted he couldn’t possibly leave behind, (there seemed to be a lot of them) and they made their escape through the window.

Standish insisted on collecting his horse from the stables, and then they travelled the short distance to where they had arranged to meet. The other five were there already, JD looking very much the worse for wear. Standish gasped when he saw him.

“JD!” he said. “Oh, no. What did they do?”

JD smiled a little, even though his lip was split and one eye was swollen shut. “They wanted to know if we told anyone else about what we were doing,” he said. “I didn’t tell them anything, though.”

“I should never have let the rest of you get involved,” said Standish, looking miserable.

“That was very brave, JD,” Josiah said seriously. “You might have saved the whole town. We’d all end up far worse off if Creshaw was left free to carry out his plans unhindered.” He looked sternly at Standish as he spoke. “It’s going to take all of us to stop him,” he said. “Not just one or two. We can’t worry about protecting each other if it means Creshaw getting away.”

They all took that idea in with serious expressions, and Josiah watched as they examined the truth of it.

“He’s killing people,” Standish said. “Not because of a grudge, or for profit. Just so that he can get more power for himself. People are just tools to him. He’s taken the trouble to cover his tracks so he can, can harvest the population of the town when it suits him.”

“What does he want?” Vin asked. Standish twisted his mouth.

“I can’t be sure. He’s making something, though. Some item; a weapon, maybe. If he crafts it well enough, it would give him the ability to cast powerful spells over and over without him draining his own resources. If he manages to finish it, we might not be able to defeat him.”

“What does him killing folks have to do with this weapon?”

This time, Standish’s face twisted with disgust. “I’m quite sure he’s been... retrieving parts of the bodies, and making use of them. As components in his work. It’s a sort of... shortcut to power. Sure, a mage could spend years learning to make every part of an item from scratch and directing enough effort into the endeavour that the result becomes a powerful magical item in its own right, but for a mage who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to do that, the same results can be achieved with a little blood and far less effort.” He looked around the room at them, and seeing that they were all listening raptly, he gulped and looked away. “It’s an illusion, of course,” he added. “The cost is just as high when you use that method. Instead of taking your time and work, though, it takes a little of your soul. A little of your humanity. And there’s no getting it back. No one is safe here. This town hasn’t been safe for a long, long time.”

“Are we sure he’s not finished his weapon?” Nathan asked.

Standish shook his head. “I believe he tried to engineer another ‘accidental’ death just a few days ago,” he said. “He’s still working on it.”

“What?” JD asked. “He tried to kill someone else? Who?”

Standish hesitated for a moment. “You, JD,” he said at last. “I don’t believe your riding accident was really an accident at all.”

JD paled. “The Baron tried to kill me?” he asked, his voice squeaking.

“Probably not you, specifically,” Standish said. “He didn’t know you were going to be there. The spell probably just targeted the nearest horse on the racetrack at a specific moment. But he showed up in Four Corners far too conveniently for me to believe anything else.”

“What is he going to do next?” Josiah asked.

He was talking to all of them, but it was Lord Standish who answered him. “I think he’s getting closer to his ultimate goal. That means he’s going to speed up, escalate. And soon he’s going to notice that JD and I are gone and he knows that we’re onto him, so he’s sure to come looking for us. This town isn’t safe anymore. Everyone who lives here is just a source of spell components to him, and he’ll have to suspect that I might warn people. We need to prepare the town. Get people to fortify their homes. You should probably do that, Josiah. They’ll listen to you.”

Josiah nodded, and Lord Standish continued. “And then we need to, I suppose... work together. To defeat Creshaw. Josiah and I will need to prepare our magic first. And I know some of you can fight, but I worry about getting you into a situation where there’s magic flying around and you can’t defend yourselves.”

“Let us worry about that,” said Buck, and JD and Chris nodded.

“Well, then if you’re all willing...” Lord Standish said slowly, waiting for their agreement before continuing. “Then this is what I think we need to do...”

*************

JD was given the job of helping Chris and Buck to block off every way into Four Corners except for the main street. They had to make it look natural, so the task involved fencing off streets and bringing down tree stumps and making it look accidental.

Lord Standish had promised that they could do the work roughly and he would use illusions to cover the flaws, which made it easier to get everything done.

Inside the town, in the main street where they were trying to guide the Baron along with whoever he brought with him, Vin was building traps along with Virgil Watson and some of the other townspeople. Once word had got around about what had happened to Billy, everyone had rallied to pitch in. JD watched as Billy held a length of wood in place and Vin hammered it into the ground. Billy watched, wide-eyed with awe, and JD couldn’t help smiling at the sight.

“You paying attention JD?” Buck asked, and his attention snapped back to the task at hand. He was supposed to be doing a similar job, and holding up one end of the fence while Buck secured it. Chris was holding the other end of the fence, and JD noticed that he was watching Billy too, a look of pain on his face. JD worried for a moment that Chris was going to get angry and lose control of his magic again, but he didn’t seem angry. Just sad.

“What do you suppose will happen after it’s over?” JD asked tentatively.

“After what? After we kill the Baron?” Buck asked. “Things will be just the same, I figure. Just safer. What does he even do except for sit in his big house and kill innocent people? It’ll be better here once he’s dead.”

“If we manage to kill him,” Chris pointed out.

“Of course we will,” Buck said firmly. Chris looked back over to Billy, and Buck’s gaze followed his. “Of course we will.”

***********

Ezra watched Josiah put the finishing touches on one of his magic puzzles with envy. He’d thought that he had a pretty good grasp of his magic, and that what he hadn’t learned in his time at university he’d managed to teach himself from books and trial and error. A few hours of observing Josiah work had shown him how wrong he was. There was no wasted effort in his work; every single move he made served a purpose, or often, more than one.

Josiah set the finished puzzle on the table and assembled the pieces to start making another, but Ezra couldn’t keep himself from asking, “What does that one do?”

“It explodes,” said Josiah. Ezra just nodded and waited, because none of Josiah’s spells had been as simple as that so far. Josiah noticed his expectant look and chuckled. “It will only harm people who are working with Baron Creshaw, not any of us,” he explained.

“How did you do that?” Ezra wondered, and Josiah began to explain.

Ezra listened, but kept working as well. He was inking another deck of cards, trying to complete the deck before they had to go out and fight. His magic was more potent when it came from a complete deck. Josiah had been impressed when Ezra had explained how he could create different hands of cards which gave different effects.

“Have you ever learned how to make the paper yourself?” Josiah asked as Ezra cut up the paper Mary had provided.

“Oh, yes,” Ezra said. “It works well. But there’s no time and I didn’t bring my supply with me. I made the ink myself, though,” he added, indicating the red and black ink he’d been using.

Josiah nodded approvingly. “Good,” he said.

Ezra concentrated on the design. The more intricate he made it, the stronger the card would be, but there wasn’t enough time to go too overboard. Never enough time.

“How many more of those do you need to make?” Josiah asked.

“Nine,” said Ezra. “Just the smaller cards are left now, I went in descending order.”

“Are the higher numbers stronger? And the face cards?”

“Yes. Once it’s finished I’ll stack the deck so that the best cards are on top.”

Josiah frowned. “Why not just make a deck with fifty-two aces, if those are stronger?” he asked.

Ezra looked at him. “You mean, a whole deck? With just one type of card?”

“Sure,” said Josiah.

“But that... wouldn’t be right,” Ezra insisted. “You can’t have a whole deck made up of just one card. It wouldn’t work. You can’t have a hand of five aces.”

Josiah gave him a long look, and eventually nodded.

************

Nathan had spent the morning gathering the herbs he needed which he couldn’t grow himself, until Josiah and Vin had become twitchy about him being outside of the fortifications they were building around Four Corners. After that, he’d returned to his house to roll bandages and prepare the medicines he was likely to need. There wasn’t really all that much to do; he kept a good stock of supplies handy all the time, and he couldn’t do too much more without running out of space. Early in the afternoon, he went out to see if the others needed help getting the streets of Four Corners ready for battle.

Chris was in the main street, directing groups of townspeople to different areas to wait. Nathan walked towards him, but Vin stopped him before he got there and said, “Can you give me a hand?”

Nathan followed him the other way and Vin led him to the edge of Four Corners, where a massive oak tree stood, the largest for miles around.

“I’m going to climb up there, so I can see if anyone’s coming towards us,” said Vin. “But I need someone to wait down here in case I need to pass a message along.

“Okay,” said Nathan.

“And once I’m up there, can you pass up my bow?” Vin asked, handing it over along with a full quiver. “I don’t want to carry it with me while I’m climbing, in case it gets caught. I’ll drop down a rope.”

“Sure,” Nathan said. “Is there anything else you need? Water?”

“I’m set,” said Vin, and he started to climb.

Getting the bow up the tree after him was a trial. The branches were dense and to retrieve his weapon, Vin had to climb out along one of the trees limbs, much farther than Nathan thought safe. After that, it was just a matter of waiting.

It was a pretty long wait, mainly because they were all nervous and worried and that made every second stretch out unbearably. Nathan wondered how Vin coped, stuck up the top of a tree with nowhere comfortable to sit, nothing to do but watch the horizon. He was pretty quiet, except for the time he laughed at what turned out to be Buck and JD playing a prank on Chris.

“I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to do that,” Vin called down after he’d explained what happened. “I’d be afraid of getting set on fire.”

It was some time after that that Vin shouted down to Nathan, “I think I see something.”

“What?” Nathan asked, reaching for his sword, even though no enemy was in sight.

“They’ve all stopped just outside the village. Just inside the line of trees on the ridge, so they can’t be seen from the ground. And two of them are riding into town now. I think it’s the Baron – it looks like his horse. Don’t know who the other rider is. You should pass that along; I’m not sure what they’ll try to tell people once they get here, but there’s practically an army just a few hundred yards away.”

“I’ll tell them,” said Nathan, and went to do just that.

*************

They came straight up the main street, without even diverting to go looking for a more hidden entrance. Ezra felt somewhat disgruntled at the time that had been wasted, but he had more pressing issues to worry about.

After Nathan’s warning, he was expecting the Baron to attempt some sort of subterfuge. They had agreed to play along for as long as they could, and so Buck went out to talk to him while Ezra hid nearby.

“Good day to you, my Lord,” said Buck.

“A good day to you,” Creshaw replied. “Perhaps you can help me? My stepson was injured and seems to have disappeared from the estate. I’m afraid that he may have become confused and wandered off. You haven’t had sight of him here, have you?”

“I’m afraid not,” Buck answered. “I’ll be sure to keep a lookout for him, though.”

“Very good,” said Creshaw. “My servant has gone missing as well, a young man named JD. Are you familiar with him?”

“JD?” Buck said. “Sure, I know him. He’s missing too, did you say?”

“Indeed. I’m not sure why. I would very much like to find him.”

“He wasn’t injured as well?”

“Injured?”

“Yeah. You know, in the same accident that Lord Standish was hurt in.”

“Oh.” Ezra could see Creshaw thinking rapidly. “Well, yes, he was injured in that... accident. I would like to find him and ensure his recovery.”

Buck nodded. “Haven’t seen him either,” he said.

“That’s a shame,” said Creshaw. “I don’t suppose you would object if we searched the town for the two of them?”

Buck hesitated and Ezra held his breath. They couldn’t let the Baron search the town. He would see the defences they had put in place and their strategic advantage would be lost. Not to mention they didn’t want him to find Ezra or JD.

“They’re not here,” Buck said, more firmly.

“I’d like to see for myself,” Creshaw answered, leaning forward in the saddle and putting one hand to the sword buckled at his waist. Buck didn’t back away; he stood in place and folded his arms, lifting his chin up defiantly. Creshaw smiled at him, a nasty expression. “This will go a lot easier for you if you hand over both of them without a fight,” he said. “Do that, and we will leave the rest of you unharmed.”

“Sorry,” said Buck. “Can’t do that.”

“A shame,” Creshaw answered. Ezra was starting to hear the approach of a large group of mounted men. Creshaw must have sent some unseen signal to them, in case his first attempt didn’t work. Ezra took the first hand of cards from the top of the deck in his pocket. He held them in his hand with the faces down, waiting until Creshaw’s forces came into view. They rode up the street and passed Creshaw, continuing down the road and going further into the town. Buck stepped out of the way, but two of the men dismounted and took his arms. Ezra acted then, turning the cards over and causing an illusion of himself and JD to be seen by no less than a dozen henchmen. Cries of discovery rang throughout the town, and Ezra ducked more deeply into his hiding place.

One of the men holding Buck drew a knife, and an arrow struck the man through the eye. He fell, and Buck freed himself from the other man’s grasp and punched him in the face. Ezra could hear more shouts as the rest of the townspeople brought the other defences into play, loosing arrows from the top of the inn and the other taller houses in the town. Creshaw and his men quickly realised that the townspeople were better prepared than they had expected, and they withdrew a little to regroup.

Ezra stood, intending to move to a different hiding place, but as he turned he came face to face with one of Creshaw’s men, a tall man with blond hair pulled back in a warrior’s tail. He cursed and the other man grinned nastily.

“You’re real,” he said, drawing a sword. “The other ones don’t talk.”

So he was a smart henchman. That was less than ideal. Ezra stepped out of the other man’s reach and grabbed for his cards, ripping the first five off the top even though he couldn’t remember what they were. He flipped them over as the man came towards him. It was a full house, threes over fives, and Ezra grimaced as he realised that his next spell had been intended to trigger the explosions that Josiah had prepared at various points along the main street.

The thunderous explosion distracted the henchman and Ezra began to run. The other man cursed and gave chase, and Ezra grimaced as he passed the place he’d intended to hide, behind a pair of barrels. He fumbled for the next hand of cards. He hadn’t planned on being part of the fighting like this. He’d meant to stay hidden and use his magic from a distance.

The next set of cards caused a mist to rise up from the ground. Ezra ducked down into it and kept running.

***********

Nathan was standing guard outside his house, which he’d set up to receive injured people. There was fighting happening in a few points throughout the town, but Standish had warned everyone that some of his spells were going to make the main street a bad place to be, and so it was mostly Creshaw’s men milling around. Most of the townspeople were hidden further away, waiting to spring their own traps.

Nathan wasn’t alone; he had a few others standing behind him, a group that he was ostensibly in charge of. Creshaw’s men hadn’t reached their position yet, but they were getting closer. Nathan readied his sword.

A thunderous explosion shook the town, and then another from the opposite direction. Shouts rang out and the mercenaries who had been standing in the main street began running in different directions. A few of them ran into Nathan and his group, and they battled quickly but furiously. They dispatched most of Creshaw’s lackeys easily enough, but a thick mist began to rise from the ground and the last one got away. Nathan cursed, but chasing after the man would have meant leaving his position, and he didn’t want to do that.

The group huddled more closely together as the mist rose, not wanting to risk confusing one another for the enemy. Nathan knew this was more of Standish’s magic, and had been expecting it, but it was a lot more inconvenient than it had sounded when they were just talking about it.

He suddenly heard pounding footfalls, and tensed, ready for another fight. A figure came into view, and Nathan nearly attacked before realising that it was Standish himself.

“What-” Nathan began. He wasn’t supposed to be here.

“He’s behind me,” Standish answered, and that warning was just enough to give him time to react to the appearance of Standish’s pursuer. He was carrying a sword too, and seemed intent on Standish until Nathan got in his path. He adjusted quickly though, and made a thrust with his sword that might have skewered Nathan if he were a little slower. They fought for a few seconds, long enough for Nathan to realise that he’d fenced with this man before, just a few days earlier at the fair. He’d beaten him then, just barely, but he was finding the other man a much more formidable opponent now. He must have been holding back last time.

Nathan was dimly aware that Ezra and the others were watching, ready to jump in if he called for help. He didn’t dare, though; they were moving too fast and besides, he didn’t have the breath to spare. He pushed himself and executed a move that should have disarmed the other man, but he twisted aside with a grace that Nathan envied and returned with a slash at his side. Luckily Nathan’s leather armour took most of the damage, but he could feel a sting where the blade had cut, just under his ribs. He could feel the blood begin to run.

The other man’s face twisted into a snarl of fury. “Won’t you die?” he hissed. “You should have days ago. That’s why I’m here, you know. It was supposed to happen at the fair, but you managed to disarm me. That won’t work this time. Baron Creshaw made sure of it.” He grinned horribly, and Nathan was too busy trying to repel his attacks to ponder what he was talking about. He saw the answer before the words made sense, though. At the fair, the man had wielded his sword with bare hands, but now he was wearing gauntlets, and his grasp never faltered even when it seemed impossible that he should manage to keep hold of his weapon.

“Magic gloves!” Nathan gasped, and couldn’t find the breath to protest that that wasn’t playing fair. It was enough, though. Standish must have heard him, because less than a minute later the gauntlets fell apart into scraps of leather. He might still have struggled to defeat the other swordsman, but he was so startled by the sudden loss of his armour that his guard slipped, and without a moment’s hesitation Nathan ran him through.

The mist was beginning to lift as he collapsed to the ground. Nathan watched him fall, feeling a little ill. He wasn’t dead yet, Nathan could still save his life, but that might mean that later on he didn’t have the strength to heal one of the townspeople.

“He doesn’t deserve your help,” Standish said, startling Nathan. “Creshaw has murdered women and children, and this man was helping him. Don’t feel guilty for his death.”

“The soldiers?” Nathan wondered, because there was nothing in Standish’s statement that he could argue with, and he couldn’t help but wonder if Standish’s spells were still on schedule after being chased through half the town.

“Aw, hell,” Standish muttered, taking out his cards. He separated a few from the deck and they quickly crumbled in his hands. In the distance they heard a mighty crash and Standish gave a feral grin.

They’d cooked this up between them, Standish and Josiah. Josiah had carved the wooden soldiers. He’d only had time to make two, finding the wood he needed in the forest and roughly hacking it into shape with an axe. Standish had made designs on their surface using ink and a chisel, so that they would respond to his commands. The shouts from the main street increased in volume and terror, and Standish went forwards to get a better view of what was happening. Nathan followed, somewhat reluctantly.

The wooden soldiers were cornering Creshaw’s mercenaries in the northern part of the town. A few of the braver ones attacked the wooden figures, but they didn’t feel pain and were near impossible to damage. As Nathan watched, one of the wooden soldiers sent a man flying into the front of the inn. Nathan winced as he crashed through the window. Standish still held his cards, and flicked through them as he directed the wooden soldiers to go one way or another.

“I think that will keep them busy,” Standish said. “Now I just need to find Creshaw.” But no sooner had he spoken than the wooden soldier nearest to them vanished, leaving no trace of itself behind.

“What on earth was that?” Standish wondered, a question Nathan had no answer for.

*************

The others had all made it clear that JD was to stay out of the fight. He hadn’t taken it that well. Maybe he didn’t have magic, like Lord Standish or Josiah, or apparently Chris, and maybe he wasn’t a great fighter, like Nathan and Vin and Buck, and also Chris, but he wasn’t useless. Nathan had healed the worst of his injuries, so he was practically as good as new, anyway. Sure, he was pretty tired as a result, and the pain wasn’t quite all gone, but he could still help. JD had agreed to stay back, behind the others, but he’d resolved that if he was needed to join the battle, that was what he’d do.

They’d all agreed that he should stay in the stables, where he would be close enough to see what was happening. If anything went wrong, he could let the horses out. He was waiting by the doors, just out of sight, watching as the Baron’s men searched the town. Some of them came into the stables, and he froze. They didn’t see him, though, just as Lord Standish had promised. He’d warned JD that even a small movement would break the spell, and JD barely dared to breathe.

A massive explosion sounded from the street, and only the fact that JD had known it was coming kept him from jumping. The men in the stable hurried out again, calling out to the others. JD looked back out onto the street.

The men were acting more and more confused. The Baron seemed to be getting angry. He still sat atop his horse just on the edge of town, but he started to lift something that had been tied to his saddle. It was wrapped in cloth, which the Baron started to untie. JD squinted, trying to see what it was, but the street started to fill with mist and he couldn’t make it out.

JD peered through the mist for several long minutes, but it became harder and harder to see what was happening. He was tempted to move out of the shadows of the stables to where he could see better, but that would be a bad idea for so many reasons.

Then there was a series of loud banging noises. The mist was still hanging in the air, but JD could see the shape of a huge soldier carved from wood march up and come to a halt right by the stable entrance. Some of the Baron’s men tried to attack it, but their weapons were useless against it, and one after another, it tossed the attackers aside like they were nothing more than rag dolls.

JD knew this part of the plan. There were two of the wooden soldiers, and they were supposed to herd the Baron and his men into one area of the town. It seemed to be working. None of the men could get past the wooden soldier outside, and the other one was pushing them forward from the other direction. Once they were all contained, it would just be a matter of Lord Standish getting the Baron where he wanted him. The mist was starting to thin, and JD began to make out the faces of the men nearby. Several of them stepped aside, making way for the Baron JD realised as he came into view. He was carrying some kind of staff, with a precious stone glowing blue on the end. He pointed the staff at the wooden soldier, which was raising one massive arm to strike. Before the carved fist began to descend, the wooden soldier vanished.

JD gaped at the empty space in the street where the wooden soldier had stood. The Baron and his men turned and advanced on the other soldier behind them. Without thinking too deeply about it, JD leaped from his hiding place and ran to where the carved soldier had disappeared. It must have left something behind. With his eyes fixed on the ground, JD found the proof he was looking for.

An acorn. Whatever magic the Baron was doing now, it had taken Lord Standish and Josiah’s spell and made it as though it had never even grown into a tree. JD glanced over his shoulder, to where the Baron was aiming his staff at the other wooden soldier, and started to run.

************

After hearing JD rapidly explain what had happened, twice, Josiah was pressed into action.

“Is that even possible?” Standish asked, his voice holding more than a hint of disbelief.

“A weapon that can unmake something completely? Not according to anything I thought I knew.”

“It just disappeared,” JD repeated, gesturing wildly. “Like... poof!”

“Is this still going to work?” Standish wondered, turning an anxious expression towards Josiah. JD followed suit. Josiah considered the question.

“I think so,” he said at last. “Our spells should have the same effect. Unless he figures out what’s happening too quickly. We’ll be in trouble if he does, but we would have been anyway, so nothing’s really changed.” He smiled weakly at Standish and JD, who didn’t seem especially reassured by this pronouncement.

“How can we get him where we want him?” Standish wondered.

“I can lead him up the hill,” said JD bravely.

“Absolutely not.” Josiah didn’t even have to think about it. “It’s far too dangerous, given what he can apparently do with that staff.”

“What’s he doing now?” Standish asked, glancing back towards Four Corners. They could see the Baron and his men gathered at the nearest end of the town, and the Baron appeared to be having an argument with one of them. As they watched, the Baron waved his staff and the other man vanished from sight. The little colour that had remained in Standish’s cheeks drained away. The Baron gestured to his remaining men and they began to move, although reluctantly.

“He’s getting angry,” said Standish. “You should go ahead, go up the hill and get ready.” He started to walk back towards the town.

“Where are you going, Standish?” Josiah demanded. “Standish! Stop!” But he didn’t listen.

***********

Ezra paused just out of view of the large group of mercenaries, looking around for a glimpse of Creshaw. He knew what he had to do, but it made him nervous. JD’s suggestion really was the only way to get the Baron where they wanted him now; someone had to lead him up the hill, but Ezra would be dammed if he’d let JD take that sort of risk again. He crouched down, trying to inch closer without being seen. He held his breath as he suddenly heard Creshaw’s voice, snapping out “Quick! Bring them up here!”

The group of mercenaries was packed together too tightly for Ezra to see what was going on, but after a minute they parted and he got a decent view.

They must have broken into the inn. That was where Mary Travis and her son had been hiding, along with the young girl who had sat at JD’s bedside and Virgil Watson who owned the tannery. There had been more than just those four hiding upstairs at the inn and tossing projectiles down at the invaders, but Ezra couldn’t see the others. Either they’d managed to hide more effectively or Creshaw had decided he only needed a few hostages. Ezra hoped it was the former.

“Ezra!” Baron Creshaw shouted, his voice ringing out far louder that it should be able to. “JD! I have overcome your defences and taken your friends prisoner. All I ask in exchange for their release is that you give yourselves up without a fight.”

Ezra clenched his teeth as the Baron grabbed Mary by the arm and raised his staff in his free hand. “Better not wait too long, my patience is quite worn out!” he shouted, and that propelled Ezra from his shelter.

“Let them go,” he ordered.

“First things first,” said the Baron. “I’m sure you have more cards on you. Hand them over.”

Two of his henchmen stepped towards Ezra, and he reluctantly pulled out a deck in his pocket and gave it to one of them. “Well?” Ezra demanded.

“Give them the rest, Ezra, I know you’ve got more.”

Scowling, Ezra pulled out his remaining cards. At least he was still wearing his ring, and Creshaw didn’t seem to realise that it was a weapon. He let Creshaw’s henchmen grab hold of him and drag him towards the Baron.

“Now let them go,” he repeated.

“Well...” Creshaw looked him over. “I’m not just looking for you. But I suppose I can let these two go, as a show of good faith.” He released Mary’s arm and shoved her away, saying, “Take your son and go. Tell the others that I’m capable of mercy, when I’m not crossed.”

Mary hesitated, sharing a long, frightened look with Ezra, her face pinched with terror and fury. Ezra could sense how hard it was for her to walk away from her husband’s murderer, but there was no other way. She had to get Billy to safety. ‘Go’, Ezra mouthed, and she did so with a brusque nod.

“Now then,” Creshaw said, grabbing JD’s friend. “I’m quite sure JD will come back to save you.”

Ezra groaned. JD was probably nearly halfway back by this point. If Creshaw was going to threaten the girl, nothing would stop him from giving himself up. Ezra had to act before that happened.

“What are you really playing at?” he asked. “You know it’s too late by now to keep JD and I from telling everyone what you’ve done. They’re going to keep trying to stop you.”

“Oh, Ezra, don’t you realise this has all been an unfortunate misunderstanding?” Creshaw asked. “I’m sure the other townspeople can be made to see reason. You realise I have no choice but to make you and JD answer for your betrayal, but that has nothing to do with anyone else here. They only made the mistake of listening to you.”

Ezra sneered at him. It would never work, and he didn’t think Creshaw believed it would. He was just stalling, trying to throw their plans into disarray.

“Please,” he said, thinking quickly, dropping to his knees in the mud and lifting his hands up in supplication. “I will vow loyalty to you if you would reconsider.”

“It’s too late for that, Ezra,” Creshaw answered.

“I’m begging you!” Ezra said, a little desperately, hoping that he could coax Creshaw into getting a little closer. The Baron scowled at him and took released the girl’s arm to take a step forward, and Ezra seized the opportunity. He struck out with the hand wearing the ring, not holding back any of his own energy. The spell shot from the ring with tremendous force. He’d taken Creshaw by surprise, but he reacted quickly, bringing the staff up in front of him.

The spell struck the staff and there was a terrible crash. The Baron was knocked backwards and landed on the ground with a shocked expression. His closest mercenaries had been rattled as well, a few of them falling or looking disorientated. JD’s friend was the first to recover, pulling Virgil Watson up and dragging him away from the group. One of the mercenaries tried to stop her and she hit him over the head with a club one of the others had dropped.

Ezra scrambled backwards, watching the Baron like a hawk to see if he’d been incapacitated by the spell. Creshaw picked himself up, lifting the staff, which, to Ezra’s delight, looked to be badly damaged. The wood was blackened and the stone had cracked.

“Looks like this ends here,” Ezra said, grinning triumphantly. His smile faded when the crack in the stone closed.

Creshaw looked smug. “Your spell wasn’t powerful enough, Ezra. My staff will unmake it, and then I will unmake you.”

Ezra gulped and turned to run. He could hear the heavy footfalls of the Baron and his men, but didn’t let himself look back. Before he’d gone far up the hill, he ran into Josiah, who was gripping JD’s arm tightly.

“Hurry,” Ezra gasped.

“Casey?” JD said.

“Who?”

“The girl!”

“I think she got away. Run faster!”

It was only by the sheerest effort that they managed to stay ahead of their pursuit.

***************

Chris had been waiting by the same clearing throughout the fight, nearly going mad with frustration. He’d wanted to be down in the town for the battle, but Buck had pointed out that there was no way he’d be able to keep his fire contained during a fight with the Baron nearby. Even being so far away, it was hard to keep it under control, not let the flames free to burn. But that had to wait.

When the plan had started to go wrong and Creshaw had dispatched Josiah’s carvings without much effort, Chris had begun to worry. But when the Baron had revealed the hostages he’d taken, Chris had nearly been driven mad by anxiety. The relief when they’d got away had been overwhelming, and now it looked as though Creshaw was on his way to where they wanted him to be.

A few minutes later, JD, Josiah and Standish came into view. They crossed the clearing and came to stand by Chris. Hot on their heels came the Baron and his men.

The Baron strode into the clearing and stood in the centre, looking at them. “The more you resist, the worse you’re making it,” he said. “I’ve won. Give up.” There was a smirk on his face, the self satisfied expression of one who imagines they have already succeeded. It made Chris’s blood boil, and that was the point where he usually tried to take himself away from people, off where he couldn’t do harm. But not this time. Now, it was exactly what he needed.

Chris stepped into the Baron’s view, his hands balled into loose fists at his sides. Creshaw noticed him and said, “Who are you?”

Chris sneered. “My name is Chris,” he said. “Larabee. My wife worked for you, for a while. Sarah.”

“Sarah,” said the Baron, his voice devoid of inflection. “Oh, yes. Now I remember. A fine woman.”

And just like that it struck Chris that he was looking at the man who had killed her, his loving wife who had never considered hurting another person. He’d killed Adam, his son, his beautiful child. He’d never really learned to control the fire, it had always worked its own will with no regard for his, but this felt different. It was different to deliberately try to bring the flames into being, encourage them from his fingertips and delight in the way the scene lit up in shades of yellow and orange. He backed off quickly as the nearby plants caught alight, stepping out of the area that had been bordered off with a few of Josiah’s puzzles.

Creshaw gasped as the area around him caught alight and turned his staff on the flames. His forehead creased with concentration, but the flames didn’t die down. Instead they seemed to blaze brighter.

The way Josiah had explained his trap, it was supposed to take whatever magic power the Baron put forth and reverse its direction, so that a spell meant to extinguish the flames instead fed them. Creshaw shouted, beginning to sound afraid as the flames grew taller and hotter. Chris watched with a detached sort of horror. This was what the Baron deserved. It was better than he deserved. There was no possible way to make him suffer enough to equal the pain he had caused. Still, it was a horrible death.

The flames burned and burned until there was nothing left, no magic remaining to fuel them. Only ashes marked the place where the Baron had stood.

Standish and Josiah came from the trees to stand by Chris’s side, looking out to where the Baron’s men faced them.

“Leave,” Standish ordered, “or meet the same end that he did.”

As a group, the mercenaries fled.

*******************

Ezra poured a jug of water into the vat, on top of the mix of bark and rags that he’d assembled. He added another jug before he was satisfied, giving the result a stir and looking across the room to where his previous efforts at papermaking were drying. Josiah had shaken his head over Ezra’s dependence on the contents of a deck of cards. Apparently it wasn’t proper for a true mage to be bound by the rules of a card game. Eventually, though, he’d settled for teaching Ezra how to make the cards work better.

The workshop he was using was the one in the Baron’s house. Thanks to Maude’s marriage, Ezra was the closest thing to a next of kin that the Baron had had. He’d meant to leave Four Corners after solving the mystery of Baron Creshaw, but afterwards there hadn’t seemed much point. The house was empty and no one really objected to him staying on. He’d taken the opportunity to teach himself more magic with Josiah’s guidance, but he suspected it was well past time that he should have moved on.

A knock at the door startled Ezra from his thoughts, and it swung open to admit JD.

“You’re still here?” he asked. “We’re going to be late.”

“For what?” Ezra asked, just to see JD pout.

“For the fair, of course! Come on, Ezra!”

It had taken most of a year to convince JD to use Ezra’s first name. No matter how many times Ezra insisted he wasn’t actually nobility at all, JD would always forget. Ezra relented as JD tugged at his arm, and followed him out of the house.

Ezra had never actually attended the fair before. He’d heard so many stories about it that he wasn’t sure the reality could compare, but seeing the excitement of his friends was pleasing anyway. He met Josiah on the little corner of the village square which had been designated theirs. They had worked together to create a maze out of Ezra’s illusions and Josiah’s puzzles, something that would keep the children entertained.

Vin had made a saddle to be awarded as a prize after the race. His work at the tannery was mostly limited to the more delicate leatherwork that he excelled at, now that the Watson’s had the money to hire more help. That was one thing that Ezra had seen to, after the battle. There had been a lot of discussion about what to do with the Baron’s money after his death, but as Ezra saw it, there was no better use for it than to use it to improve the lives of the people the Baron had hurt. The money had helped JD buy a small plot of land, enough to build a house and keep his horse on. Shares had been given to Chris and Mary Travis as well, although they had not used them for anything yet as far as Ezra knew.

Ezra kept an eye on the children navigating the maze with one eye and watched Buck and Nathan sparring in the sword ring with the other. They had attracted quite a crowd, but it was all over before too long, with Nathan winning what Ezra understood was a very unsurprising victory.

Chris came by soon afterwards, just on dusk, with Billy Travis at his side. Billy jumped into the maze with a delighted squeal and Chris smiled after him.

“Adam would have loved this,” he said, looking over the scene with a faint smile. Ezra held his breath. He’d heard the story about Adam and Sarah from other people, in bits and pieces, but he’d never heard Chris utter their names himself.

Chris took a flint and steel from his pocket and used them to light the torch stuck in the ground nearby. “Buck asked me to come around and light ‘em up,” he said.

“And you’re not using... you know,” Ezra said, making a gesture with his hands.

Chris shrugged. “Doesn’t work anymore,” he explained, with a small smile. “It’s been getting harder and harder, ever since the Baron. A few weeks ago, I realised I couldn’t start a fire without a spark.” He looked at the torch and it gave a sudden flare. “If the flame’s already there, I can feed it, but even then I’m weaker than I used to be. I think in a few more months, I won’t be able to do it at all.”

Ezra nodded, considering. If his own magic were to abruptly fail, he would not take it nearly so calmly, but he understood it was different for Chris. The magic had never really been a source of power to him, just a reminder of a painful past. Chris seemed different now, more at peace. Still sad, sometimes, but not tormented with it.

Billy came out of the maze, near quivering with excitement. “I saw a tiger!” he exclaimed, and Chris raised an eyebrow at Ezra.

Ezra just smiled mysteriously, not willing to give away any secrets.

“Are you going to make a maze for next year too?” Billy asked curiously.

“I’m sure Josiah will do something similar next year,” Ezra answered.

“Hooray!” Billy cheered, while Chris gave Ezra a sharp look. “I’m going to go through again,” Billy announced before racing off.

Once they were left alone, Chris raised an eyebrow at Ezra. “Thinking of leaving us?” he asked.

“I’ve never been the sort to stay in one place for too long.”

Chris nodded. “We’d all be sorry to see you go,” he said, apparently sincerely. “You know you saved the town, don’t you? We couldn’t have stopped the Baron without you. You’ve got a home here for as long as you want.”

The quiet words took Ezra by surprise, and he was touched. “I could stand to stay a little longer,” he said. “Josiah will probably need my help again, if he plans to make another maze like this one.”

Chris smiled. “One more year, then,” he said. “And after that, we’ll see.”
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