And they still aren't mine.
Special thanks to Tiffany Pena for the beta-reading!
The regular customers paused a moment to watch as three very different men entered the local eatery together; a tall black man dressed in healer greens, a blond mercenary all in black, and one all in browns and blues, with a look of the wilds about him. The healer, Nathan Jackson, headed off to find the tavern's owner to order some food and drinks for the three of them. The other two men moved towards the nearest table, which quickly became free once they approached, and sat down.
"Name's Chris," said the one in black. "Chris Larabee."
"Vin Tanner," answered the long-haired one. "Been looking for you."
"Heard you killed a friend of mine."
The mercenary raised a brow. "Could be, but I haven't killed anyone worth mentioning lately. What's his name?"
Tanner eyed the man for a moment, gauging his sincerity, and then answered. "Ezra Standish, otherwise known as Lazy Snake."
Larabee gave a low whistle. "Interesting company you keep, Tanner."
"Guess that means you know him. So, did you kill him?"
"Yeah, I know him. In fact, we were supposed to meet at this very tavern three days ago, and no, I didn't kill him."
Vin nodded. He couldn't say why he believed The Black Rider, only that he did.
"If you're looking for him…are you Grey Eagle?" Chris asked casually.
"You're a smart fellow. Yes, I am." Larabee didn't seem fazed by this admission; Vin hadn't thought he would be, though.
"You sure that Snake is your friend? Rumor has you as mortal rivals."
Vin snorted. "Rumors are useful sometimes. The guild leaders believe a little healthy competition is good for the job. We don't dissuade them - much safer that way."
Vin swallowed, again hit with the realization that, despite Larabee's denial and his own gut feeling, Ezra might still be dead. It wasn't a thought that Vin Tanner, Grey Eagle of the Spy and Assassin's Guild, was ready for.
…The two of them had joined the Guild at the same time about ten years ago, both at the age of 17. Each one of them had survived their own hell already, and though completely different ones, those hells had left them with skills and attitudes that belonged nowhere else but in the Guild. The Chief Assassin, and guild leader, had seen their potential right away. He'd been playing them against one another ever since, especially lately, where he kept saying he would choose one of them as his successor. But this tactic had never really worked with them; the two best guildsmen considered themselves brothers, and though they rarely, if ever, worked together, they always watched each other's backs in the serpentarium (an Ezra word) that was the Guild. So, when Ezra had been reported as killed on the job, Vin had said to hell with orders, and had gone to investigate himself. And he won't stop until he knows the truth.
Another question from Larabee broke Vin from his thoughts. "Who told you I killed him?"
Chris sucked in a shocked breath, then slowly released it, seemingly trying to control himself, before he hissed angrily: "Where is that bastard?"
"Know him, too?"
"He killed my family. And that I know for sure."
Vin wasn't actually surprised. He knew the Guild took all kinds of jobs, and though the Chief knew better than to ask some things from Vin or Ezra, there were enough members who had less talents and skills, who lacked principles completely, to fulfill those other contracts. Fowler was one of them. Well, Vin had never extended his loyalty to the Guild to also cover the likes of him…
"I can track that piece of shit, but I need to find out what happened to Ezra first."
"Fowler might know."
Vin shook his head. "The Chief might order Ezra killed, but not while he's in the middle of carrying out a contract. That'd be bad for the Guild's reputation. And Fowler doesn't have the balls to do something like this without orders, and besides, he ain't good enough to take Ez down. Reckon it's someone from the outside, and Ezra might still be alive out there and needing my help."
Chris looked at the table for a minute, thinking, and then met Tanner's eyes. "The living always matter more than the dead. I'll help you find Standish. I might even know where to start."
"His last job was to track and retrieve an ancient amulet, stolen from the Seminoles."
Chris nodded. "He tracked it all right, straight to Anderson's castle."
It was Vin's turn to give a whistle. "No wonder he contacted you."
Chris shrugged. "The Castle is too well guarded, even for Snake. He needed help, I agreed. But someone must have gotten to him first."
Vin didn't ask how The Black Rider knew Ezra in the first place, it didn't matter right now. Maybe later; there was definitely a story there, especially if Ezra trusted the man enough to ask for his help on a job. He was really interested in knowing what the agreed pay was for Larabee's involvement – because Vin was the only person Ezra had ever accepted unpaid help from.
"So," Vin mused aloud. "Anderson's castle. Time's pressing, we'll need more men."
As he finished sharing that thought aloud, the healer finally returned, accompanied by the tavern's serving boy, both loaded with food. They kept silent while the table was set, then, when the boy was out of earshot, Jackson asked:
"What do you need men for?"
Deciding that a man whose life they'd just saved could be trusted, at least to a degree, Chris answered: "Assaulting Anderson's castle."
Nathan's jaw dropped in disbelief. "Man, you two sure are crazy. But I'd like to go with you."
"It'll be dangerous. Crazy dangerous."
He nodded firmly. "I could've been killed over nothing today, if not for you. Might as well try dying for something worthwhile."
"Who said anything about worthwhile?" Vin asked with a grin.
Jackson smiled back. "Anything against that animal Anderson is pretty worthy in my book."
Vin chuckled. "Reckon you're right. Know anyone else thinking the same who's good in a fight?"
Nathan shook his head 'no', but Chris said: "I know someone... if we can get him out of bed."
Chris was talking about Buck 'Charming-Your-Wife-Right-Now' Wilmington. They'd been close friends once, back when they had both served in the Duke's Guard. Chris had been a happy family man back then; a lot of snow had become water since that time. Chris was now a mercenary, one of the most dangerous, and Buck had gone back to being an adventurer. But Chris was sure Buck would agree to join them; after all, the only thing the ladies man loved almost as much as the ladies, was taking down vicious bastards. Anderson sure qualified.
The three men were almost finished with their meal, when Chris decided: "We need a place to meet and discuss further plans. A place without extra ears."
Surprisingly, it was Vin, the newcomer to the town, who spoke first: "There's an abandoned temple in the south part of town. Nobody will bother us there."
"I'm not sure that's a good place. A former priest settled down there a week ago, it's not abandoned any more."
Nathan's argument didn't surprise, or disappoint, the guildsman. "I know him, he's a friend."
"From the Guild?" Chris asked cautiously.
"Nah, I ain't involving the Guild in this op. I knew him before."
That was the first notion in the conversation that really surprised Chris Larabee. The guildsmen weren't supposed to have a 'before', especially not a 'before' they talked about; and people with friends usually didn't end up in the Guild at all. But Chris didn't say anything, just nodded, acknowledging the location, and agreed on a meeting time and immediate plans.
Vin had seen Chris's reaction, and the other man's surprise was completely understandable. He, himself, didn't fully believe that Josiah Sanchez still welcomed him and called him family.
…Back when Josiah Sanchez had been a priest, he'd run a small, modest temple in an equally small town, named Tascosa, in the South. Vin's mother, a wandering priestess herself, had been passing through the settlement when she'd realized she was dying. She had nobody in the world, so she'd left her little boy on the steps of Tascosa's temple, with nothing more than the clothes on his back and his name. The young priest had taken Vin in and raised him, being something between a big brother and a father to the boy. They'd gotten along just fine, until Vin had reached adolescence and fallen head over heels in love with an older girl, and had allowed her to make an errand boy of him. Josiah had warned him, of course, and Vin had ignored him, but even the wise priest hadn't foreseen what would happen next. The girl hadn't just broken Vin's heart – she and her lover had framed him up for a horrendous crime. Josiah had done his best to prove Vin's innocence, but it hadn't been enough. Vin had been found guilty and sent to the Territories as punishment, which had been as good as a death sentence. But he'd survived, and he'd come back – but too late. A plague had paid Tascosa a visit, wiping out half of the town and scaring off the rest. Clearing his name had seemed pointless then, and with Charlotte and Eli Joe among the dead, he'd been robbed of his vengeance as well. The temple had been abandoned, but Vin had looked for traces of Josiah for several months, before he'd given up and joined the Guild.
But fate surely had a sense of humor; Vin had run into his guardian accidentally two months ago during his last job. When news of Ezra's possible death had reached him, he'd told Josiah everything: about the Territories, his return to Tascosa, and his years in the Guild. He'd told the closest thing he had left to family everything about the man he'd become, and had waited for some sort of condemnation. But instead, the former priest had said he'd go to Four Corners with Vin – because somebody had to watch Vin's back. The guildsman was still actually digesting this turn of events, but he was sure Josiah would help in any way he could.
Vin felt someone watching him and quickly looked the tavern over. Everyone was more or less minding their own business, except for the tavern boy, who was watching them with awe in his eyes. Well, nothing strange or dangerous there; their recent adventure with those amateur hangmen was enough to draw that sort of attention to them. Besides, though very few people knew Grey Eagle by sight (and even fewer knew his true name), The Black Rider was well known among young hero wannabes. Dismissing the boy, Vin returned his attention to his companions.
The tavern boy, an Eastern born lad called JD Dunne, who was actually in his late teens, was indeed watching the three men with awe. And, in the brief moment he met the blue eyes of one of them, he got the last proof he needed. Yes, that's him - Grey Eagle.
Of course, the guildsman didn't recognize him, even if he did remember the family he'd saved years before, JD had been just a little boy then. A little boy who'd admired their savior and followed the man everywhere while he'd rested and recuperated in their home. Naturally, JD had been excited by the events and had decided to become a man like Grey Eagle. He had wanted to join the Guild as soon as he was old enough to leave home. He still remembered the harsh talking to Eagle had given him then, that the Guild wasn't the place for 'such a kind-hearted boy'….
When JD had grown older, he'd realized for himself that, indeed, the Guild definitely wasn't an organization his mother would have wanted him to join, but he'd never stopped admiring Grey Eagle. As he listened to local gossip he'd been choosing very carefully which rumors about the man he believed, and which he discarded. And now it looked like his dream might come true. He'd finally found Grey Eagle, and the guildsman wasn't alone, he was with none other than Chris Larabee, The Black Rider. Larabee was the most famous mercenary outside the Guilds! It looked like the healer wasn't an average citizen either; JD had heard about (though alas hadn't seen) what had happened earlier that day.
The youth was too smart to actually try eavesdropping on them, but he did overhear that they needed men, and no matter what they needed them for, this was the opportunity for which he'd been waiting! JD hadn't come west to serve in a tavern, that was only temporary; he'd come west for adventures. He was an excellent horseman and good with a blade – he was sure he could be put to good use in whatever Eagle was planning. Of course, if he approached them about it here and now, they would laugh him off, but…
JD didn't know where they were staying in town, but he did know where the livery was, and that nobody would risk traveling along any of the trails around here at night. He would simply have to wait for them in the livery at dawn to join in their adventure – if they accepted him that is, and if not, he would just have to follow them secretly…
A harsh shout from the tavern's owner brought JD back to reality, but, for once, the youth didn't mind the abuse. It was his last evening working there anyway. Tomorrow, his new life would begin.