Their quiet afternoon was broken several hours later by a piercing scream. Josiah jumped up from his place by the fire, dagger in hand. His eyes darted back and forth, trying to figure out what was wrong.
"Please don't hurt me! Please don't hurt me!"
Josiah's eyes fell on Ezra. Buck sat by the gambler's side where he'd been taking a turn watching over him. To the relief of everyone, in all Ezra's tossing and turning he'd turned himself back into a human. He was much easier to move around and care for that way.
Josiah rushed over. "What happened?" The others had also gathered around, wondering the same thing.
Buck shook his head. "I don't know. I was just wiping this cool cloth across his forehead and he started yelling."
Ezra tried to scoot away from them, but he was too weak to get far. What did they want? Why were they so angry? "Don't touch me! Get away from me!"
"Ez? Hey there. Calm down. It's just us--Josiah and Buck. We ain't gonna hurt you." Buck put a calming hand on Ezra's shoulder.
Ezra jerked away as if in pain. "It burns! It burns! Stop! Please!" He started to shake as sobs he couldn't control wracked him. "Please...please don't..." He was so weak. He couldn't stop them. Why did they want to hurt him?
Buck got down low near Ezra's face without touching him. He didn't want to spook him again. His voice was calming, soft. "Listen to me, Ez. That's the fever making you see and feel things that aren't real. Just relax. Everything's okay."
Chris could see that Buck was using the "charm". Ezra was now looking at Buck, his eyes slightly glazed. It wasn't something real obvious that the average person would notice. The only reason Chris recognized it is because he'd seen Buck use it countless times over the years. He wasn't even sure if the other Hunters could tell when Buck was using it.
Ezra uncurled himself slightly. That voice sounded so nice, so safe. Was it it a trick? His eyes seemed to focus on the face in front of him. "Buck?"
The jovial man smiled broadly at him. "Yeah, Ez. It's Buck. Just relax. Stay calm. You were just having some bad dreams there."
"But they weren't dreams. They were memories. Those people... They hurt me. Why did they do that?" Ezra was looking around frantically as if he expected attack to come from all sides.
"Whoa, there. It's okay."
Ezra stared at Buck with a frown. Something wasn't right. Something... "YOU! You're trying to trick me like you did before! Don't think I don't know you were trying to take over my mind that first day in the woods. I felt you, prying into my thoughts!"
"I was just trying to get some straight answers. I wasn't trying to take over your mind."
"I felt you!" Ezra looked at the others with fear. He was surrounded. They knew who he was...what he was. What did they have planned for him?
"I can't take over someone's mind, Ez. I can only nudge them in a certain direction. If they really don't want to go that way, my power won't work on them."
"You were doing it again just now."
"I was trying to calm you down. You were so upset and all. I didn't want you hurting yourself or tiring yourself out."
Ezra couldn't be sure. The man looked sincere. But humans were tricky and dangerous. It could just be a ruse to make him let his guard down. A sudden pain burned through his body. He couldn't contain the moan that tore from him.
Josiah bent down on the other side of him. He soaked the cloth in cool water and wiped Ezra's brow. "Is there anything you can give him for the pain, Nathan?"
The healer went to his bag. He came back with a small bottle of brown liquid. "This should help." When he approached Ezra with the bottle, the still-feverish dragon pushed him away. "Now look here, Ezra. This is going to help you. You like being in pain?"
Ezra just stared at the bottle, wondering what was in it. Poison? Acid?
Josiah saw the look in Ezra's eyes. He was afraid they were trying to hurt him. He took the bottle from Nathan. "I know you don't trust us, Son, but we really do want to help you. This is a medicine that will ease your pain and help you sleep." The older man took a small spoonful of the dark liquid and swallowed it himself. "Would I do that if it were a poison of some kind? It really is alright, Ezra." Josiah gave the bottle back to Nathan who measured out a dose for Ezra. The wary dragon took the medicine, all the while watching Josiah. Within a few minutes, Ezra's eyes started to droop. Josiah himself was getting sleepy.
Chris led the older man back to his bedroll. As Josiah drifted off to sleep, he heard his leader's voice. "Fool thing you did, Josiah, not knowing what was in that bottle." He patted him on the shoulder. "You did good."
the next morning
Ezra awoke to the sun blinding him. His head felt a little fuzzy and he ached all over. What was wrong with him? He was snugly ensconced by the fire. The others were in various places, eating breakfast. He looked up to find JD standing over him.
"Oh, hey! You're awake! That's great! You still look real pasty, but that's a lot better than yesterday."
Yesterday? Nightmares. Pain. Fear.
"Ezra? You okay?"
"I... I am fine. I just..." He remembered the nightmare. It was the same one he'd had every night since the attack. But there had never been anyone there to wake him before. He also remembered the concern on their faces. Why? They were probably going to kill him anyway. Why were they taking care of him?
"I am as well as can be expected under the circumstances."
"That's good to hear. Maybe now we can get some answers." Chris stood behind JD, a hot drink in his hand.
"It doesn't matter." Ezra turned away. They were human. Surely his word wouldn't be believed.
Nathan was cleaning up around the campfire, banging pots and pans angrily. Yesterday he was in "healer mode", too worried about taking care of a patient to think on much else. Now, in the light of a new day, things were different. Maybe Ezra did save JD's life, but that didn't make up for what he did to those two men. He stopped what he was doing and came over to where Ezra lay. "Why did you kill them?"
"I never meant... It was an accident."
"I'd never set anything on fire before. I was frightened, angry... I just..." The look on Nathan's face angered him. How dare he! He'd suffered, too. This wasn't his fault. "I was defending myself! Should I have just let them invade my home and murder me in the middle of the night? Oh, you don't have to answer that! I already know what your answer would be. You humans all stick together, don't you? Kill whatever frightens you even if it means you no harm."
"No harm? You tried to eat that little boy!"
"Eat a human being? That's the most disgusting thing I've ever heard of. Have you looked at yourselves? You're so...so...unappetizing. Why on earth would I want to eat something that's probably going to either be disgustingly greasy or get stuck in my craw for weeks? No, thank you! I'll take a nice tasty fish or small woodland creature any day."
The gambler was about ready to jump up from his bedroll in anger. Josiah tried to calm Ezra with a gentle hand on his chest. It wasn't good for him to get so agitated. His voice was questioning, but not accusatory. "If you weren't trying to eat Billy Travis, what were you doing?"
"It doesn't matter. You've all made up your minds about the events of that day to your own satisfaction. What difference would my paltry words make?" He turned away from them, squeezing his eyes shut as a wave of pain assaulted him. It was not as bad as the previous day, but it was still unpleasant to say the least.
Buck sat down on a log facing him. There was something about the way Ezra closed himself off that made Buck wonder more than anything what happened with Billy Travis. He was starting to come around to JD's way of thinking. Ezra just didn't seem like a crazy monster that went around eating and killing people. But he knew Chris wasn't just going to take Ezra's word--not that it looked like Ezra wanted to talk about it. "Come on, Ez. We're not like that. We've been all around this country and seen a lot of mighty strange things. I'd like to think we're pretty open-minded." He glanced over at Chris and Nathan. "Well, at least most of us. I want to hear what you have to say."
Ezra opened his eyes to stare at Wilmington. The man actually did look interested
"Tell us what really happened."
"And if I do, you'll all just take whatever I say at face value?" He took note of the hard looks Jackson and Larabee were giving him. "I didn't think so."
"I'll believe you, Ez. And I'm pretty sure Josiah, Vin, and JD will, too. But there's a guaranteed way to make these two hard-heads believe whatever you tell them."
Ezra raised an eyebrow at that. "Are you suggesting I let you..?"
"No, thank you. I'd rather not give you any more power over me than you already have."
"We don't really have a lot of other choices here, Ez. I know you don't trust me, but if you don't have anything to hide this might be the only way to clear things up. Come on, Ez. Stop fighting me."
Ezra sighed. He'd felt Wilmington pushing at him mentally for quite a while. The injured and exhausted dragon really didn't have the strength to keep up his barriers much longer. What did he really have to lose? Whether they believed him or not, the outcome probably would not be altered in the slightest. At least he'd have his say. He relaxed his guard, letting that foreign presence he'd felt slip into his thoughts. "I should have listened to mother."
"She always told me, 'No good deed goes unpunished. Remember, Ezra.' I never really understood that. Why would someone get punished for performing a good deed? Now I know what she meant."
Buck scratched his head. He had Ezra on the hook, but the dragon was meandering a bit. Leave it to Ezra to be one of the few that got a little too talky under the charm. At least he was relaxed--almost pleasant actually. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"I did something terribly stupid--I performed a good deed. There I was minding my own business, taking a bath in the warmth of a nearby river. It really is quite astonishing how that river always seems to stay warm even in the dead of winter. I suspect some kind of magical origins myself. It..."
Ezra closed his eyes, wishing he could go back to sleep. He was tired and sore and these people kept talking at him. Really, it was quite rude.
"Ezra! The boy?"
"The boy. Oh, yes. That boy. He really shouldn't have been playing in the water if he didn't know how to swim. I don't have to worry about that, being a large dragon and all. The river isn't deep enough or swift enough to cause a being like me too much concern."
"Ezra! What happened?"
Ezra looked at Buck like the Hunter was a complete idiot. "He'd fallen in, of course. I heard a loud splash and then someone yelling frantically. My curiosity got the better of me, I'm afraid. I went to investigate and there he was, clinging to some brush in the middle of the water. That part of the river is quite treacherous. It doesn't seem that deep and then suddenly the bottom drops off and the current sweeps you away. The first time I ever braved the waters there, it managed to knock me off my feet. Being such a small creature, he really didn't have a chance. If he hadn't grabbed hold of that brush jutting from the water, he might have drown. I'd never seen such a small human before. It was amazing. Quite frankly, I hadn't seen all too many humans period at that point."
"But villagers are always coming and going through the woods. Why didn't you ever run into each other?"
"I assure you I kept far away from the humans. Sometimes I watched them from hidden locations, but I wasn't fool enough to approach. Mother warned me that they were greedy, violent, and treacherous and should be avoided unless one knew how to deal with them as she did."
"She didn't go around, you know, frying people, did she?"
"Of course not! She merely took their gold from them. She discovered that many of them favored card games. Once she was able to pick up the game, it was child's play for her to relieve them of their riches. Mother amassed a tidy sum of gold to keep her warm. But she took that with her when..." Ezra didn't like to think of that.
JD knelt down beside Buck. "Ask him where his ma went and how old he is."
"Is that important?"
"It could be."
"Say, Ezra. You heard JD. Wanna tell us?"
"Mother left. I don't know where she went. She said she was bored with living in a cave deep in the woods. Why shouldn't she travel the world? See things and do things she'd only dreamed of? She stashed as much of our gold as she could carry into her pouch one day and flew away."
"Why didn't you go with her?"
"She...she said she couldn't possibly enjoy her freedom if she had to take care of someone else. She didn't want to be 'encumbered'. It wasn't as if I could've have actually followed her anyway. I don't know how to fly yet. It's quite alright, really. I'm old enough to take care of myself."
"How old are you?"
"Thirty or so. I think. I haven't been keeping track."
JD looked quite concerned at that. "Did you have your first shedding yet?"
"You know. When you shed your outer skin as you grow."
"Is that what that was? Last spring my skin became quite itchy and then it started to stretch and hang in an odd manner. It didn't hurt, but I was sure I had contracted some dread malady. I eventually lost the skin with no ill effects so I assumed I had recovered. It made quite a mess."
Chris was getting impatient. "Is there a point to this, JD? I think we need to get back to important information we're looking for."
"Sorry, Chris. It is important. I'll tell you later. Go ahead, Buck."
"Gee, thanks. Now look, Ez. We really need to know what happened with the boy and those two men."
"Those men?" Ezra shrunk into himself at the memory of that. "They were burning. It was so horrible... The smell..."
Buck felt Chris stiffen beside him. "Uh, what happened before that? What were you doing with the boy?"
"I pulled him out of the water, of course. You didn't think I'd just leave such a helpless creature to its doom, do you?"
Nathan frowned. "So you're saying you saved his life?"
"Yes I did. And look at the thanks I got for it. They attacked me in my own home. I'd been careless and left enough tracks for them to find my warren. I didn't make that mistake again. I have several warrens in these woods now in case of emergency--all hidden away from prying human eyes, protected by secret spells."
"Didn't you talk to the boy? The villagers? Try to explain what really happened?"
"They wouldn't listen. I tried!"
JD was starting to get the picture now. "You didn't speak human and they didn't speak dragon."
"They just kept screaming at me in some type of gibberish, assaulting me with clubs and farm implements."
"Wait a minute, JD! They didn't understand what he was saying? Sounds like he can speak pretty good Itreyan to me."
"Well, sure he does now. He's been hanging out in the village for weeks. Dragons are real fast learners. They can pick up languages just by listening for a while or figure out how to do something by watching somebody do it repeatedly. It probably took him a week or so to learn it."
Ezra was starting to drift off. Maybe he'd feel better after a nice nap.
"Ez! Come on now! We ain't done. You say you pulled the boy out of the water. Why'd that blacksmith think you were eating him?"
"Well I did have the boy by the scruff of his neck." He saw the looks on their faces. "How else was I to rescue him? I needed my claws to keep a firm hold on the bottom of the river. I don't think I held on tightly enough to hurt him, but perhaps I left a few light teeth marks."
"So they came looking for you?"
"Yes." Ezra was starting to get agitated. "They came through the woods with torches. I thought at first they'd come to thank me so I came out to greet them. What a terrible mistake! Then I saw their faces. Anger, hatred. And they had... They had..."
"What did they have, Ez?"
"Dragonbane. Mother always told me to stay far away from it. It burns like fire. And it's slow to heal. Sometimes it doesn't heal properly at all. It was woven into their nets, its juice rubbed onto their weapons. They carried it in their hands. They..." Ezra's breath was coming in quiet gasps.
"Calm down. Just relax. You're safe here."
Ezra left out a deep breath, feeling himself sinking back into his bedroll. Buck's voice was very soothing. "They hurt me. I didn't do anything wrong. They caught me in a net and started beating me. I thought I was going to die!"
"Breathe. Deep. Come on."
"I was frightened. I don't know what came over me. Something hot sparked deep inside me. It kept building and building. Then suddenly it lept from me in waves of flame. They were screaming... I didn't mean... I would never..." Ezra curled up in his blankets shaking. "I didn't mean it."
"You did good, Ez. You go on back to sleep. You deserve it." Buck patted him lightly on the shoulder and whispered to the young dragon. "I'm sorry."