Nathan and JD kept an eye on Ezra throughout the day while the other Hunters headed out for Baron Royale's manor. One part of Nathan hoped the others could capture him alive so he could face the King's justice, but another part of him hoped the man put up a fight. By the looks on the Hunters' face when they left, they were thinking the same thing.
The Baron's manor wasn't too far from the area where they were camped according to the directions Ezra had given them, but Nathan was still surprised when the men came back by the early evening. He hadn't expected them until at least the next morning. They didn't have the Baron and they didn't look happy. "What happened?"
Buck threw down his pack. "He wasn't there!"
"What do you mean?"
Chris was grinding his teeth. "He's gone. Looks like his personal bodyguard went with him and a lot of his possessions, but he left everything else behind. We found the servants locked up in the pantry. He must have taken off right after he sent Pells after us."
"How did he know Pells was going to lose and that we'd be coming after him?"
"I don't know. Maybe he was just hedging his bets."
"He might have been scrying on Pells. We found a small workshop with herbs and such for magical potions and spells. A lot of the herbs seemed to have been cleaned out in a hurry, but we could tell by what was left behind what kind of use someone would put them to."
"So he was a sorcerer?"
Vin shook his head. "Don't think he was all that gifted. Looked like he was maybe a small-time magician or just a potioner. Figure he lit out as soon as he knew Pells wasn't gonna win. Made sure he magically covered his tracks, too."
Chris breathed deep, trying to dispel some of his black anger. "We'll get him. We haven't seen the last of Baron Royale. And he definitely hasn't seen the last of us."
Ezra was listening with interest. Had the Baron taken everything? "My gold. Did you find my gold? It was a lot of loose coins and some small trinkets."
"We didn't see anything like that, Son. It looks like he took most everything of monetary value that was small enough to carry in a hurry."
Ezra lay back down. It had taken him two years to build up that horde, two years of work to replace what Mother had taken with her when she left. Then the villagers pillaged it from his warren and turned it over to the Baron. Ezra had been sneaking into the manor for several weeks now, slowly stealing it back. He hadn't even managed to regain half of it. Now it was gone for good. That little bit, plus what he'd won gambling in town and the two texts of magical spells he'd "borrowed" from the Baron's library, was all that he had in the world. He supposed it didn't matter anyway. What use would a dead dragon have for gold?
The men debated on how to best transport Ezra back to Four Corners. The rough terrain made most of their ideas unworkable. They just wouldn't be able to move him using a palate or a travois. Josiah didn't understand what the problem was. He could just pick him up and carry him. With his strength, it shouldn't tire him at all.
A slow smile dawned on Vin's face. He could just picture the fancy-talking gambler being hoisted around in the big man's arms. "Ezra ain't gonna like that."
Chris smirked at that. "Don't think he will. Do it, Josiah."
All of their rolls and belongings were packed up and ready to go. That just left Ezra. Josiah walked over to him and picked him up without a word.
"Hunter Sanchez?! What are you doing?"
"We've got a ways to go, Son. We need to get moving."
"This...this is completely humiliating! Put me down!"
"It's either this or drag you across upraised roots, sharp rocks, and prickly bushes all the way back."
Ezra didn't have to contemplate that choice long. "Um, yes. Well, perhaps this is acceptable. Carry on."
Josiah chuckled at the look of outrage on Ezra's face. It was good to see. The young dragon had been so somber since their battle with Captain Pells. Josiah missed his prickly friend. And he did think of Ezra as a friend. He'd only known him a few days, but it was enough for Josiah to feel a connection to him. He hoped he'd get the chance to get to know Ezra better.
Ezra thought about transforming into his dragon form. Let the famous Hunters try and carry him then! He almost laughed at the thought. Maybe he should... No. They were taking him back to be tried and executed. If he changed to dragon, they'd probably just kill him on the trail and save themselves the trouble. A day or two wasn't much more to live, but Ezra would take it. So it wouldn't be wise to press his luck with their sudden conciliatory behavior towards him. He couldn't risk angering them at this point because they no longer had any reason to cater to him as they had before. He no longer had anything to offer them.
After a time, it became obvious to everyone that Ezra had sunken into a dark mood. He barely spoke to anyone. Josiah tried to draw him out with humorous stories, but it wasn't working. JD couldn't even get a rise out of him with his really bad jokes.
Buck was walking next to Chris, but he was watching Ezra slumped in Josiah's arms. "Pretty quiet, ain't he? Doesn't seem right, him being so quiet. I kinda liked that smart mouth of his--especially when he used it to get your back up."
"You ever think that maybe this is the real Ezra?"
"Don't think so. I think he's worried about something, almost scared. I'm gonna go see what's what."
"Hey, Ezra! How's it going?"
"You getting your strength back?"
"Yes." For all the good it would do him.
"No headache? Aches or pains?"
"Bet you'll be glad to get into a nice comfy bed with soft pillows instead of sleeping on this here rough ground."
A comfy bed? Pillows? Why was Wilmington tormenting him like this?
"What's the matter? You like sleeping outside better? Don't tell me you're turning into a rugged outdoorsman like Vin over there."
"I did live in the forest for several years before briefly moving to the village. I'm quite used to sleeping on the hard ground."
"Yeah, but is it better?"
No, it wasn't. That was one of the things he liked about humans. They enjoyed their comforts. Pillows and beds, soft fabrics, warm houses, seasoned foods. He could see why mother kept leaving him at home to go into the village disguised as a human. She didn't realize he'd been watching her, learning how to change from her example. It had taken him several days to perfect it--learning to walk with only two legs took a little longer. And finding human clothes to suit his tastes was an adventure in and of itself.
"Yes, Hunter Wilmington?"
"What are you thinking about?"
"Nothing in particular."
"You can tell me."
Their little games were starting to wear on Ezra's nerves. "Why? So you can use it against me?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You're interrogation techniques are quite good. Be kind to the enemy and worm his secrets out of him with innocent questions."
Buck was hurt. He thought he and Ez got along okay. "I don't think of you as the enemy."
"Then what am I to you?"
"I thought we were becoming friends."
"Friends? I'm not really familiar with the concept, but from everything I've heard, humans tend to look out for their friends."
"That's what I'm doing--looking out for you."
"You'll forgive me if I don't believe that you are genuinely interested in my welfare."
"Of course I am! We all are. Why do you think everybody keeps checking up on you?"
"Well, it wouldn't look good for your prisoner to die on you before the trial and execution, would it? I know how disappointed the villagers would be if they didn't get to see 'justice' being served. I've heard them talking rather frankly about what they'd do to the 'vicious dragon' if they caught it. They were quite excited about it."
Josiah stopped. Was that what Ezra thought? That they were taking him back just to execute him? "Now hold on a minute. Whatever gave you the idea that we were going to kill you?"
Why were they toying with him like this? Was this some kind of sick human game? "Oh, I don't know. Perhaps it was the many comments such as 'destroy the monster', 'put down the rabid animal', or 'give the vicious creature what it deserves' that gave me such thoughts."
Josiah looked at Chris like he wanted to choke him. "You didn't tell him? You said you were going to talk to him."
Buck grabbed Josiah's arm. "Whoa! You might want to take it easy there, Josiah. You're squishing Ezra."
Josiah noticed the grimace on Ezra's face. "Sorry, Son. Let me put you down here."
"I'm not your son!"
"Humor me. Now look, Chris! Why didn't you tell him?"
"Didn't get a chance."
"Well, you've got a chance now. Tell him!"
Ezra sat on the ground. He was strong enough to stand up and walk around on his own now, but the angry faces around him squelched that idea. Perhaps it was safer to just stay where he was and look as non-threatening as possible.
Chris saw something in Ezra's eyes that gave him pause. The dragon had that annoying blank face of his on, but his eyes... He was afraid. He was afraid of them. Had that always been there? "Ezra. There isn't going to be a trial."
Ezra shrank into himself. Sthrz's Blood! They were going to just kill him here!
"I didn't mean it like that! Let me finish before you go jumping to conclusions. We're not taking you back to execute you or even try you. The Hunters have the power to investigate crimes and capture the criminals--and to a limited degree, judge them. We don't have the authority to actually sentence or execute anyone. That right is reserved for the King and council. If we thought you were guilty, we would take you to the King for punishment. King Michael will back whatever judgment we agree on because he trusts us to know the circumstances."
A flicker of hope sparked in Ezra. "Did you say 'if'?"
Josiah laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder, trying to give him his most reassuring smile. "You're not guilty of murder, Ezra."
"But those men..."
"Were killed by accident after they attacked you. You were defending yourself. I think you've already suffered enough over their deaths."
"And the villagers?"
"Aren't guilty of attempted murder, either. They should've listened more carefully to the boy, but they truly thought they were protecting themselves from a carnivorous monster. This whole tragedy was caused by a series of horrible misunderstandings."
"You're not going to...kill me?"
Chris was taken aback by how young Ezra sounded just then. It had been hard for him to remember that, according to JD, he was still a child. Chris could easily believe it in unguarded moments like this. He softened his voice. "No, we're not going to kill you. We're going back to the village to clear everything up."
Ezra looked at the men around him. They seemed sincere. What would they have to gain by such a trick, if indeed that's what it was?
JD got down on one knee in front of Ezra. "They say that Belenite and Itreyan dragons are cousins. Is that true?"
"My...my father said so."
"Then you know who Thrr was?"
"He was a dragon of legend who died to save all his dragon brothers and sisters."
"They still use the Oath of Thrr in Belen for treaty signing. Do you know it?"
Ezra nodded. Father used to tell him stories about the great dragons of old. Those stories were pretty much the only things he still remembered of him. The Oath of Thrr was a sacred pledge given in blood. If someone gave the Oath and broke it, he would die a swift and horrible death.
JD took out the dagger from his boot and sliced open his palm. "As Thrr kept faith with his brethren, so, too, do I keep faith with you. We're not taking you back to be executed, Ezra. We just want you to get better because we're worried about you. You have my word." He held up his hand for Ezra to see the blood.
JD had given him the sacred Oath? Then it had to be true. If he were lying, he would've dropped dead just now. Ezra was trembling with relief.
"Ezra? You okay?"
"I'm fine, JD." JD started to rise when Ezra grabbed his sleeve. "Thank you."
JD smiled at the quietly spoken words. Things were going to be better now. Now if he could just get Nathan to fix up this cut... Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow! JD noticed everyone staring at him. "What?"
Nathan grabbed his arm. "Come over here and let me see that."
Vin scratched at the recent stubble on his chin. "Kid don't think before he does things, does he? He'll fit right in."
Chris watched JD wincing as Nathan fussed over his wound. Yeah. JD would fit in just fine.