Josiah watched the sleeping young man...dragon, angered by the sheer lunacy of it all. "A misunderstanding? All this pain and suffering for a stupid misunderstanding!"
Nathan thought about the horrible scars he'd seen on Ezra's back when he'd been tending him. They hadn't looked like they were healing properly. All the time Ezra was with them he'd been in pain and hiding it, afraid the Hunters would pounce on any weakness. Now he understood why Ezra hadn't wanted him anywhere near his back. The scars on Nathan's own body from his life as a slave were daily reminders of a time when pain and fear were his constant companions, a time when he trusted only a few special people. The Hunters were his first friends who weren't slaves. It had taken him a while before he trusted them or even felt comfortable with them. Ezra's wounds were still raw--physically and emotionally. It made Nathan feel like he was the monster for the way he'd treated Ezra. The healer was determined to fix those scars as best he could to make up for it.
The silence lingered, each lost in his own thoughts until Chris finally broke the quiet. "What was so important about his age?"
JD looked up. "He's only thirty and his mama up and left him."
Buck snorted. "At thirty he shouldn't need his mama to take care of him. I was practically on my own at half that age."
"You don't understand! He's just a kid."
"Pretty old kid if you ask me."
"Dragons live longer than people, but they mature slower. If he was human, he'd be like a...like a thirteen-year-old. He didn't even know what a shedding was! A dragon's first shedding is like a human's puberty."
"He seems pretty smart and mature for a teen."
"Dragons are real smart anyway. And quick. Boy, they can pick stuff up fast! They learn things by watching others and then they copy their behavior until they get it right. He's probably never been around other dragonets so he's mimicking his mother's manners and anything else he's picked up in the along the way. Ezra's been soaking up information and habits like a sponge."
"So you're saying everything he knows about human culture and civilization he's picked up in the last few weeks?"
JD nodded. "Plus anything his ma may have told him. He's got the knowledge but not the experience. I didn't think much about it before, but he was always watching us real careful whenever we did something new--like set up camp, or cook our food, or clean our swords. He was learning." The young Belenite crossed his arms angrily. "His mama should've been the one teaching him."
Vin remembered his own ma. She died when he was just a little boy, but he knew she never woulda left him if she had a choice. "So if he shed last spring and she wasn't around to tell him what was what, then he's been fending for himself for at least a year."
JD kept pacing back and forth. "How could she? I just don't understand how she could just leave her boy to go off and have some fun!"
Josiah grabbed hold of JD's shoulders, forcing him to stop and look up at the older man. "There are some things in this world that just don't make any sense, Son. Mothers abandoning their children for selfish reasons is one of them."
"But she's a dragon, Josiah! Dragons don't have many children so they treat them all real special. Any dragon would willingly risk its own neck to protect a dragonet--even if its not theirs. And she just up and left him! Left him in the woods without even teaching him important stuff he should know like about shedding and controlling his fire. He won't even be considered a full adult for almost ten years! If any of the dragons I ever met heard about this, they'd rip her to shreds and raise Ezra themselves."
Buck nudged Chris in the arm. "Didn't know he could get so all-fire mad, did you?"
"Outrage isn't a bad thing if it's about injustice. Kid might fit in after all."
Buck just gave him that little I-knew-it-all-along smile. "So what do we do now?"
"Go back to the village and clear this mess up. I want to talk to Billy Travis."
"You don't believe Ezra?"
"I believe him. I think maybe the kid believed in him, too, and that's why everyone says he's 'confused'. I think Billy should know he was right."
"And the pretty little Mary Travis?"
"Can just stay out of my way."
JD stopped his fuming when something strange occurred to him. "Hey, wait a minute! When Ezra woke up screaming he was speaking Zssrr, the dragon tongue. It's a real hard language for humans to learn. I've been around dragons most of my life and I barely know the basics. How did you guys know what he was saying?"
Buck rolled his eyes. "Same way you knew how to speak Itreyan fresh off the boat."
"Do I need to spell it out? I don't speak Belenite, Kid. And I bet you never studied Itreyan in your life."
"Hey, that's right! How come I can understand you guys?"
Vin, Josiah, and Nathan were laughing at the look of wonderment on JD's face...and the absolute exasperation on Buck's. Chris was unsuccessfully trying to cover his own amusement.
Buck threw up his hands. "I can't believe you didn't notice! If you want to live at least a month at this job you need to start paying attention."
"I notice things! Just not everything."
"Look, JD. It's one of the side benefits of being a Hunter--the gift of languages. The Calling wouldn't work too good if Itreya Called a bunch of folks together who couldn't understand each other."
Josiah coughed to cover another chuckle. "It's a wondrous gift, JD. The moment you were Called you were given the ability to understand and speak any language as the situation demands--without even consciously thinking about it. If you concentrate, you'll notice that I'm actually speaking in a Marfan dialect, Vin over there is speaking one of the elven hill languages, and Nathan is speaking Kandigaran. Somehow it just all makes sense."
The desert healer nodded. "When I crossed the border, all of a sudden I got this urge to head southwest to the capitol. I'd been Called. Right after that I could understand everybody. It seems to work for the written word, too."
"And here I thought Belen was special because of all the dragons. This spirit of Itreya's got that beat hands down."
Buck pushed JD's hat down over his eyes. "Itreya's something special, alright--and don't you forget it!"
Ezra opened his eyes, noticing that it was still daylight. He was a great deal more refreshed and aware than when he last awoke. His whole body felt limp and tired, though, but at least his head wasn't pounding and the pain seemed to be gone. In fact, all of his pain seemed to be gone. Ezra slowly rolled over onto his side. He gingerly touched his back, tracing over the slight scars there. What had happened? Only yesterday the burns were puckered and painful to the touch. Now he could barely feel them, even when he rubbed at the skin more vigorously.
"I healed them up for you while you were sleeping."
Ezra looked over his shoulder to see the Kandigaran watching him.
"They were infected and looked might painful. I think they'll always be noticeable, but they shouldn't look or feel too bad."
"Why?" What did the healer have to gain by such an act?
"Because you were in pain."
That's it? It couldn't be the reason. He had to want something in return. Ezra would just have to wait and see what this would cost him.
"Good. Think you're up to heading back in the morning?"
Why was Hunter Jackson asking him? He was the prisoner here. No one took the prisoner's wishes into consideration. "I'm ready to leave whenever Hunter Larabee orders."
"That's not what I meant. Are you feeling any pain?"
"Weakness in the limbs?"
"Some, but not..."
"Then I'll make sure we have a way to transport you back to the village without wearing you out." Nathan patted his shoulder in a kindly way and walked off.
Ezra found himself having similar conversations with the others. The Hunters would approach him, one at a time, to pass some few moments in idle talk and to inquire after his health. Even Larabee had initiated a conversation with him--albeit in his usual cold, gruff manner.
Ezra had yet to figure out what their angle was. There had to be some reason they kept asking about his health.