Part 10

Ezra was home, fast asleep when he heard a strange sound.  Voices.  They were coming closer.  His skin itched in dread anticipation.  Something bad was coming.  Something that happened before.  Angry voices, hateful voices.  Pain!  Burning!  His skin was on fire, burning!  He did nothing wrong!  Why?  Please, the pain...

With a strange jolt he found himself somewhere else.  It suddenly felt like he was flying above the clouds.  The horrible pain was gone for the moment.  A strange light seemed to beckon from below.  The clouds parted and he could see it--a bright blue castle, shining in the sun.  As he got closer, he could also see someone waiting for him by the castle, looking up to meet his eyes.  Her voice was like a wisp of wind.  "Take heart, Little One."

Ezra awoke with a jerk.  For a moment he wasn't sure where he was.  Back home?  The blue castle?  His uncertain eyes took in the scene around him.  When he saw the sleeping forms of the Hunters, he remembered he was in the forest.  Ezra lay his head back down, but he had no desire to go back to sleep.  He used to find refuge in his sleep.  Sometimes he would dream of his father, the only one who'd ever cared for him.  When he was asleep he didn't feel so alone, so afraid.  But lately even his dreams gave him no respite.  He either had horrible nightmares of pain or disconcerting dreams of the woman and that haunting blue castle--a castle he now knew was real.  What did it all mean?  Who was the woman who spoke so warmly to him?

He pulled his covers tight, fighting a slight chill.  It wasn't cold that made him shiver.  His eyes were still wide open.  With a sigh he flung back his covers and grabbed his pack.  If he couldn't sleep, perhaps he could at least take a decent bath.  The river was nearby and it was always warm.  That was something not even Mother had known the answer to.  No matter the weather, the river that ran through the woods stayed a relaxing, warm temperature.  Perhaps it was magical.

The minute he was out of sight two pairs of eyes popped open.  Chris glanced over at Vin who nodded at him.  The two of them got up to follow Ezra.  They signaled to Nathan who just came back to camp from a perimeter check.  They would take care of this.

Chris's voice was deadly quiet.  "Should've known."

"Don't think he's running out.  He left his bedroll back at the camp."

"Maybe he didn't think he had enough time to gather it up before Nathan came back."

"Or maybe Ezra's not planning on leaving."

Chris said nothing as they followed Ezra down a wide path.  He wanted to be wrong, but where else could the conman be going this time of night?

Ezra knelt down by the water, touching it with his fingertips.  So warm.  He was sure it would take the chill off and sooth his aching muscles.  Perhaps it would sooth his troubled thoughts, as well.  A strange tingling made him turn around with a start.  For a moment he'd thought someone was behind him.  No one.  He let out a long, slow breath.  Apparently his dreams had unsettled him more than he'd realized.

He removed his clothes slowly, careful not to crumple them or let them drag in the dirt.  He folded them neatly and placed them on top of his pack.  As he stepped down into the water, he couldn't help the contented sigh that escaped.  It felt so good.

Vin turned to Chris who could see the tracker's smug face in the moonlight.  Tanner was never going to let him forget he was right.  Ezra wasn't running out on them.  The fool just wanted to take a late night dip.  "Since you think you're so smart, Tanner, I'll leave you here to make sure he doesn't slip away after all.  I'm going back to bed."  Chris disappeared into the shadows.

Way to go, Tanner!  Now he was stuck out in the woods all night keeping an eye on Ezra when he shoulda been in his bedroll fast asleep.

For the next half hour Vin amused himself by pulling up grass a few blades at a time.  It was pretty out, with the moon shining all bright, but he was bored.  He looked up to see that Ezra was finally getting out of the water.  'Bout time!  That man had to be the cleanest person in all Itreya by now.  Vin stretched his legs, ready to hide when Ezra came back through, but he was struck by something odd.

Ezra was unfolding a shirt, his back to Vin.  The moonlight was shining full on Ezra.  Vin almost gasped out loud at what he saw.  The man's back was a mess of scars!  Angry welts criss-crossed his skin.  Vin wasn't sure what would do that kinda damage, but it looked like maybe burns of some kind.  They still looked pretty fresh, too.  Vin weren't no healer, but he knew when a wound healed up good or not from the look of it.  Ezra's wounds had that angry look that meant they could be a mite infected.  He had to be in pain.  The way he acted and all, you couldn't tell anything was wrong.  Vin's regard for the other man shot up a couple of notches.

Vin quietly slid into the dark underbrush as Ezra approached.  Once the man passed, Vin slipped onto the path to follow him back.  Maybe Nathan could do something about them scars.  All he had to do was talk to the gambler about it.  Vin snorted quietly.  Like that would be easy.

Ezra scanned the area as he came back to his bedroll.  It didn't look like his little sojourn had disturbed anyone.  But then his eyes fell on Vin's roll.  Where was the quiet tracker?  Perhaps the other man had also become restless.

Just then a silent figure emerged from the shadows.  "Ezra."

"Hunter Tanner.  Unable to sleep?"

"Heard some noises and went to check.  You hear anything unusual down by the river?"

"Not a..."  Ezra grimaced.  The tracker was more astute than he'd realized.  "Perhaps I did hear something.  The wild animals are notoriously sneaky in these woods.  One never knows just where they are."

"The people can be kinda sneaky, too."

Ezra smiled.  "Indeed."

"Water any good?"

"It was delightful.  Quite relaxing."

Vin wasn't sure how to bring up the next part.  Should he just come right out and..?  "Water help any with them burns?"

"Wh...I don't know what you're talking about."

"Saw 'em when you was changing.  Didn't mean to invade your privacy like that.  It was an accident."

Ezra schooled his face, wiping away anything that would betray the anger and fear thinking about his wounds brought to force.  "That's something I have no wish to discuss with you."

"Fair enough.  But they look pretty bad.  Maybe Nathan could take a look and..."

"No!  No thank you."  Have the Kandigaran, who'd shown him such contempt, near his raw wounds?  Not in this lifetime!  The man would probably laugh at him and accuse Ezra of bringing it on himself.

"He's a good man and a great healer.  He'd fix you up proper."

"I would not let that man anywhere near my scars."

"Sorry you don't think an ex-slave from some primitive country is fit to fix up your wounds.  Don't worry Your High-and-Mightiness.  I won't come anywhere near you."

Ezra hadn't seen Nathan standing so close.  If he had, perhaps he wouldn't have spoken so vehemently.  What was it about these men that made him lose his carefully crafted control?  He was either saying something unfortunate or feeling something uncomfortable when he was around them.

Vin felt bad about causing more trouble between Ezra and Nathan.  He didn't think Ezra's reasons for not wanting Nathan to look at his scars had much to with Nathan at all.  "Look, Ezra.  I'm real sorry I..."

"I find myself extremely tired, Hunter Tanner.  If you'll excuse me, I think I'll retire to my bedroll now."

"Sure, Ezra.  See ya in the morning."

Ezra quickly lay down and covered up.  He closed his eyes in the hopes of closing out the others around him.  It certainly wasn't for the sleep.

Part 11