The following day's walk was uncomfortably quiet, a thick tension hanging in the air. Even JD who had started the morning in a talkative mood had fallen prey to its effects, now trudging along with the rest of them in silence. Chris and Josiah could tell something had happened among Vin, Ezra, and Nathan, but none of them were talking. Josiah had happily taken perimeter patrol to get away from the tension. Chris couldn't even get Vin to tell him what was going on.
Several hours later they came to a small clearing near the base of a hill. Ezra abruptly stopped.
Chris noticed the frown of concentration on Vin's face. "What is it?"
"Something...something ain't right. The air's real heavy. Can't quite figure why, but I don't like it."
JD frowned. Vin was right. There was something weird about this place. It was too quiet. Then he noticed why. No birds. The birds had been scarce throughout the woods where they'd walked, but they'd at least seen some. JD had tried to talk to them, but they all took off in a hurry. Maybe it was just because it was normal bird behavior to light out when a bunch of humans came along. Or maybe they were scared of something else...
Ezra spread his arms wide in invitation. We have arrived."
"This is the dragon's warren."
Buck looked around in confusion. "You sure this is the place? I thought dragons slept in the ground."
"They do." Ezra begin pulling at a mass of branches, dragging them away from the base of the hill. They'd looked like ordinary bushes until Ezra moved them. Now the others could see what was hidden behind them--a dark opening in the side of the hill.
JD smirked at Buck. "You think maybe that could be a warren?"
Ezra brushed the dirt away from his sleeve. "It is indeed the dragon's warren. And now that we've arrived, I believe you owe me the rest of my gold."
Chris took one menacing step towards him. "I don't see any dragon."
"Neither do I. But then, that's not my problem."
"No dragon, no gold."
"Are you attempting to cheat me?"
"You haven't lived up to your end of the deal, Standish."
"Oh, but I have. If you remember correctly, the exact wording of our agreement was that I would lead you to the dragon's warren. I have done precisely that. My getting paid was not contingent upon there actually being a dragon in residence. I'll take my gold now, thank you."
"You're not getting anything until we get that dragon."
An angry Josiah stepped into the clearing. "I certainly hope you weren't trying to sneak up on the dragon, because I could hear you arguing from quite a ways. Perhaps we could just sound a bugle or something to let it know where we are."
Vin kept looking around, the hairs on the back of his neck tingling. "Chris. We need to get out of here. Now."
Ezra stepped back away from them, a strange smile on his face. It wasn't the sardonic smirk or the overly-friendly grin he'd shared with them on the trail. No. It was something almost feral and a bit gleeful. "Not without my gold. ZSRLTH!"
"What the..! I can't move!"
"Me, neither. What's going on?"
Ezra walked around them with ease, unimpeded by whatever had frozen them in their tracks. "It's a trap spell, my good sirs. You won't be able to move unless I break the spell or until it wears off on its own. By then I'll be long gone."
"You little..! When I get my hands on you..!"
"Temper, temper, Hunter Jackson." Ezra shook his head. "Apparently, the spell freezes the body, but not the tongue. A pity."
"You low-down lying snake! You were leading us by the nose the whole time."
"Snake? How strangely appropriate. I must reiterate one thing, however. I never lied to you. Granted, there were certain...extra facts I did not share with you, but I have faithfully fulfilled my end of our bargain--I've taken you the dragon's warren. Now you'll fulfill your end. Since you can't hand me the gold yourselves, I shall do you the courtesy of extracting the rest of my payment from Hunter Sanchez's money pouch myself. It won't make up for the gold those thieving villagers stole from me, but it will have to do until I can attain more somehow."
"So you're just going to leave us stuck here? What if that dragon comes back?"
"Oh, never fear, Hunter Dunne. You will be completely safe from the dragon after I leave."
"But they won't be safe from me."
Ezra spun at the sound of clapping behind him. Captain Pells. "I've got to hand it to you, Standish. You've got brass, conning the king's own Hunters."
Ezra straightened with an air of indignation. "I didn't 'con' them, as you say. I kept my word. It was they who tried to renege on our agreement."
"In any case, thank you for doing my work for me."
Chris interrupted. "You're working for the Baron?"
Ezra bristled. "I most certainly am not! I don't know what he'd talking about."
"For once Standish is telling the truth. He just happened to do me a good turn by accident. Boys?"
The bushes rustled as several soldiers came out of hiding, swords drawn.
"My orders were to kill you all after you got rid of that dragon, but the way Standish tricked you, I didn't figure you'd be finding it any time soon. I wasn't looking forward to a fight with the famous Hunters. But here you all are, easy pickings. I'd have to be a fool to pass this chance up. I might just kill you quick, Standish, for making my work so easy." He fingered his knife menacingly, twisting and turning it in the light. "Then again, I do owe you for that card game."
Ezra couldn't believe his bad luck. Was the whole world against him? He'd just wanted to take his money and depart. Things were never that easy. Perhaps if he were quick, he could make it to the woods before Pells's men caught him. Once into the trees, the soldiers would never catch him. He knew the forest much better than any of them and he had a few more tricks up his sleeve for eluding capture. But what of the others? "Killing these men over a quarrel with me is really bad form. Shouldn't you be working with the Hunters to track down this dragon?" Had Larabee just clenched his fist? Surely not!
"For a guy who acts so smart, you don't catch on real quick, do you? You weren't listening. The Baron wants them dead. You're just an added bonus. They were supposed to kill the dragon, then we come in and kill them and make it look like the dragon did it. Simple. But you didn't lead them to the dragon. And it didn't look like you had any intention to."
Ezra had over-estimated his own importance. The Hunters were Pells's main target. From what he'd heard of the Baron, he shouldn't be surprised. The man had quite a few dirty secrets he'd want to keep hidden from a group of meddling lawmen. Ezra risked a quick glance at the others. He had no responsibility to them. His own life would be forfeit if they ever found out his own secret. But... They were completely vulnerable because of him. His little trap was just to give him time to get away with his gold. It would've worn off in half an hour--no harm done. Ezra hadn't counted on Pells complicating things. Unfortunately, he couldn't just trap Pells and his men, too. It would take almost another half an hour to set up a second such spell.
Ezra could run, just take off. If Pells killed the Hunters then that would be one less worry for him. But they were helpless, unable to even defend themselves. It would be a slaughter. Could he allow that to happen? That would make him no better than Pells or the villagers.
Had Chris just moved his hand closer to his sword? Why wasn't he immobilized?
"No long-winded speeches, Standish? No fancy words?"
"Only one. THRLRSZ!"
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means, good captain, that if you wish to kill the Hunters, you'll have to do it the hard way."
Pells eyes widened when he looked around him. The Hunters were free.
Buck gave the soldiers a menacing show of teeth. "Come on, boys. Let's have us some fun."