Willow '06: The Magnificent Blending - Vin

Vin Tanner sat on the ledge, staring out onto the plain. Below and to the right was the small Seminole village, once his home and family, now just the place where his friends resided without him. To the left and a ways over the rise lay the ranch where Lord Guy Royal lived on his huge and constantly expanding estate, to the detriment of the entire province. Across the river and down the road lay Southtown, the small village which served as the central trading post for the area. And behind him, about two hundred yards, stood his little shack. It wasn't much, but it was home.

Which is why this really sucked.

He turned his head when he heard the wagon coming; he'd figured he'd be getting a visit this morning. The wagon was slow moving, due to both its rickety condition and the ancient horse that pulled it, and that suited the ancient woman who drove it. Vin smiled affectionately at the arrival.

"Hey, Nettie. What brings you out this early?"

The old woman reined her horse to a halt. "Didn't think I'd let you head off on your grand adventure without seeing you off, did ya boy? Now get over here and help an old lady down already."

Vin grinned as he climbed to his feet. Nettie Wells was one of the only people in the Southtown area who treated him with kindness. She and her niece Casey had allowed him on a little corner of their land after he'd had to leave the reservation, and they'd formed a strange sort of kinship. He hunted and gathered from the plains and woods for the ladies, and they in turn provided him with vegetables from their garden and breads from their weekly baking, and shared their table with him regularly. They cared for his spirit, and he protected them from the harsher dangers of the world. It had proved a symbiotic relationship.

And now he would be leaving them alone.

He helped her down from the wagon and followed dutifully as she moved back to the ledge where he had been sitting since before dawn. She perched on the stump of a tree he'd chopped down to build his little shack, arranging her faded shirt over her worn work boots, brushing away a layer of road dust from her lap. Vin settled on the ground in front of her and turned back to looking out over the plain.

"Gonna miss this," he sighed softly. "Just can't imagine a city like Four Corners is gonna have near as nice a sunrise."

"It'll be different," Nettie agreed. "But you'll handle it fine. Do you some good to get a change of scenery."

Vin ducked his head. "Don't know, Nettie. Ain't never been too good around a lot of people, you know that. Hell, most folks here jus' barely suffer my bein' here."

"Well, most folks around here have their heads so far in the sand it's amazing they can breathe," Nettie huffed. "Don't go takin' these folks as an example of all the folks in the world. Lot of different sorts, and you'll find them all in the capital I reckon. Gonna be some of these sort, maybe even some worse. But there'll be good'uns too. You just keep an open eye and you'll find'em."

"Hope so." Vin let his gaze wander over the vast view before him, trying to memorize each color, each shape, each leaf and twig and curve of rock. "Think there are any large parts of land like this?"

Nettie chuckled. "Son, last time I was in Four Corners I was just knee-high to a grasshopper, and don't remember there being more than a few parks inside the city limits. Can't imagine they've gotten it into their heads to have more open spaces. No, afraid you'll have to take a few trips to the edge of the city to feed that yen."

"Damn," Vin breathed, then looked up guiltily. "Sorry, I didn't…"

"Hush, boy, ain't like I ain't never heard the word before," Nettie laughed. It always amused her how Vin treated her as though she were some sort of high-class gentlewoman rather than a down-in-the-dirt farmer. "Used it more than a time or two, I expect." She leaned in toward him conspiratorially. "Just don't get spreadin' that to Casey, you hear? Girl's already got a mouth on her that could make a sailor blush, don't need her thinking I'd approve of it."

Vin laughed; he'd heard Casey say a few things from time to time when she thought no one was around to hear her that he couldn't even picture saying himself in private. "Swear, won't say a word." He wrapped his arms around his knees, enjoying the fleeting contentment of the moment. "Wish I didn't have to leave you two."

"Oh, I think we can manage for a little while," Nettie said. "Lord knows you've spent every second of the last two weeks making sure we have supplies to get us through. I couldn't fit another smoked rabbit in that cellar if you offered me a million dollars in gold to do it."

"If'n I had a million dollars, I'd build ya a house with a smoke house able to hold a year's worth of rabbits," Vin grinned. "Who knows, maybe after these tests I'll have money to burn and we can set to makin' plans."

"Lord, boy, you do dream big!" Nettie smiled. "I'd settle for a new roof and a bigger cellar."

"When I get back, it'll be first on my list," Vin said firmly.

"Well, we'll cross that bridge when it comes," Nettie replied. "For now, we'd better get on the road or you'll miss your coach. And as I understand it there are some mighty strict penalties for that."

"Yeah, I s'pose," Vin sighed.

The two got to their feet and walked to the shack where Vin's travel bag sat on the doorsteps. He'd opted to take only a few select things – a couple changes of clothes and a very few personal items too precious to leave behind. He'd left his old mare in Nettie's barnyard the day before, and packed away anything he was leaving behind in a small trunk which Casey would come for later to store in Nettie's shed. He took a last look around his shack and then closed the door firmly. It was with a heavy heart that he tossed his bag into Nettie's wagon.

The drive from the farm to Southtown was made in silence, the two simply enjoying each other's company in a way they knew they wouldn't for a long time to come. Unfortunately the trip didn't take nearly as long as Vin would have liked and too soon Nettie was reigning to a stop in front of Virgil Watson's hardware store, where Virgil was standing waiting to say his goodbyes to his sometimes employee. Virgil was one of the few townsfolk who had accepted Vin without prejudice, and in return for the man's kindness Vin occasionally helped out at the store.

"Ain't gonna be the same without you around, son," the older man said, taking Vin's hand in a hearty shake. "Damn proud to have known you, boy, and I look forward to you comin' back an important who-de- who."

"Don't know 'bout that," Vin blushed. "Just hopin' I kin make good enough to make a difference."

"Do your best and that's all anyone kin ask of ya," Virgil said firmly. "Got something for ya." The man stepped to the sideboard just inside the doors and picked up a good-sized package, which he handed to his young friend. "The missus made you some of her good Johnny cake for the trip, and there's a small jar of her best pear cactus preserves to go with it."

"Tell her I 'preciate it," Vin said, embarrassed at the gesture.

Virgil shook his hand again and then disappeared back into the store, leaving Vin and Nettie on the stoop. Nettie smiled and reached under the bench of the wagon for a package of her own.

"Well, looks like you'll be well fed for the first ten minutes at least," she chuckled, handing him a small basket. "I put enough venison jerky in here to keep you going a while, and Casey packed a half dozen apple rolls and her best dried peach turnovers. There's also package of dried apple rings and a bag of cherries just picked the other day. That ought to get you down the road a piece before you gotta start dipping into your purse."

"Ain't got much to dip into," Vin sighed. "And before you even try it, I ain't takin' no money from you, Nettie. I got a coin or two enough and if needs be I got my bow and arrow with me and can hunt up somethin' for roasting."

"Now don't go gettin' your dander up, young man." Nettie laughed. " 'sides, I already asked Master Borwin on that matter."

"You didn't," Vin whimpered. It was hard to be mad at Nettie for caring, but at the same time he wasn't sure he was happy about her talking to the town's Guild master about his pocket money.

"Don't fuss with me, boy, I'm old enough to be allowed to worry about whom I choose and you should be used to my nose getting in it if I think it needs be," the woman said, smacking his arm lightly. "I just wanted to check on how they expected you to be paying for this trip when they're not givin' you the choice of takin' it. Master Borwin said the Empire gives each participant a stipend to live off until after the first tests. If you pass the first one you then will be provided with room and enough silver for board until the competitions. So I don't have to worry about you in that respect, so long as you're as tight-fisted as you usually are and don't let havin' a little money in your pocket go to your head." The look of shock on Vin's face at the idea of spending frivolously had Nettie laughing out loud and affectionately cuffing him on the shoulder.

The two walked to across the street to the stage depot where Vin's life took another turn for the less pleasant, a feeling Nettie apparently agreed with from the disgusted snort she made under her breath. Standing at the depot was one of Vin's least-favorite persons on the face of the earth: Elias Darius Jo. The same age as Vin, Eli was an arrogant, self-important bully whose father operated one of the largest ranches in the province. Michalus Jo was a fair man himself, if a bit hard, and had made a good life for himself and his family, and he wielded considerable power in the community.

Unfortunately he had a blind spot for his son's tendency toward bad behavior, writing off Eli's vicious pranks and nastiness as misunderstandings or selfishness on the behalf of Eli's adversaries. Vin had been on the receiving end of Eli's wicked doings more than a few times, something that hadn't endeared him to the Wells women any more than it had to Vin himself.

"Well, Vin Tanner," the older Jo said seriously. "I'd heard you were going to the tests as well."

"Hadn't heard your son was being sent, Michalus," Nettie replied. "Looks like our boys will be travelin' together."

"Boy's gonna make the family proud, he is," Michalus nodded with satisfaction. "Always knew he was born for more than the farm life."

Vin studied Eli's beady little eyes behind his father's shoulder, the way the boy's greasy blond hair hung around his narrow, weasely face. As usual, Eli met his gaze with a smug expression full of over- self-confidence and the assurance that no one could possibly be better at anything than he was. As usual, Vin resisted the urge to smack that look right off.

"What the hell is that?" Eli asked suddenly, his gaze shifting from Vin's eyes to over Vin's shoulder. Vin and Nettie turned just in time to a giant fireball hurtling toward them. Years of carefully honed reflexes had Vin quickly pulling Nettie out of the way and into the nearest building as the fireball rushed past, while Eli and Michalus dove the other direction. Once Vin was sure Nettie was okay, Vin rolled to his feet and turned to face the danger. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eli jumping up as well, the boy's father struggling to his feet behind him.

The fireball bore down on them again, and again the men dove out of the way but this time Vin was prepared to return fire, as it were. Reaching out with his own talent, he found himself feeling the power of the earth under him, the strength of the metals and woods that made the buildings and objects around him. Opening up to the power had always felt as natural as the earth itself that was under his command, and today he used it.

Out of the corner of his eye, Vin saw Eli stepping out onto the street behind him, but his focus was on the task at hand. His mental fingers thrust into the dirt of the street, pulling it up into a whirlwind of brown and grey specks. Using his magics to control the spinning earth, Vin pulled the dirt in to surround the fireball, bringing in more and more dirt until there was more earth than fire. He then began squeezing the dirt tighter and tighter around the fire, cutting off the air the fire needed to survive, using the dirt to suffocate it. The fire spat angrily and struggled to maintain its existence but Vin was stronger. By the time he finally succeeded he was sweating heavily, but he managed to stifle every last spark of the vicious flames.

When it was finally over, Vin sighed in relief and allowed himself to lean against the horse trough nearby and watched as the huddling townsfolk began to emerge from their hiding spots, including Eli's appearance from behind the trough where he'd ducked. Vin couldn't resist from throwing a dark look; despite also having Earth magic, and the fact that he'd qualified for testing in the capital meant that Eli was considerably stronger than the average person, Eli hadn't even opened himself to the power much less attempted to help Vin in dealing with the problems.

Then again, that would have been something selfless and for the good of others, so Eli lending a hand would have probably given Vin a heart attack.

"What in the name of the Highest Aspect is going on?" Vin turned to see a short, pudgy fellow jogging up the street. Borwin trundled up the boardwalk to where Vin and Eli stood, coming to a stop just as Nettie and Michalus joined the two young men.

"Someone playing stupid pranks," the elder Jo growled, brushing dust from his clothes. "Good thing Vin and I were able to stop it," Eli chimed in, puffing up with self-importance. "Someone oughta look into the kind of person who'd do something so stupid."

Vin scowled and considered a retort, but it would just lead to Eli being even more a pain than he usually was. Since they would be spending the next four days together on the same stagecoach, he really didn't need that kind of grief.

"I certainly will," Master Borwin nodded. "Is everyone alright?"

"Well, certainly took a year off my life I can't afford to lose," Nettie said. "But, so long as no one's hurt I s'pose it's 'nough done."

"I suppose that's true, and the coach should be hear any minute, so I'll leave it be for the moment," Borwin sighed. "I do promise, though that I will look into it. For now, we need to get a few things in order." The Guild master handed Vin and Eli each a small pouch and a folded leather booklet. "These are your coach tickets all the way to Four Corners. You'll need to take care not to lose them, as you'll be asked for the correct installments at each stop along the way, as well as needing the final stub for your entrance to the tests. Remember, you'll be taken directly to the testing center and should go in immediately. If you don't check in before your scheduled time, you may be disqualified and arrested for disobeying the law."

Both young men nodded soberly, though Eli was obviously more enthusiastic about the whole thing than Vin was. Master Borwin continued, "These purses contain your expense money for the trip. If you dip into your allotment for more than modest meals on your journey, you will likely run out and there will not be any more until after you have passed the initial tests. Keep it safe and protected, for there are more than a few folk along the way who will be happy to relieve you of your funds."

At this both young men carefully tucked away their purses and tickets, though Vin was sure Eli hadn't taken that last instruction terribly seriously. But then, why should he? Most likely his father had provided him with a sizeable traveling purse that would allow Eli to spend with an open hand both on the trip and once he arrived at the capital city. If a purse hadn't been provided outright, Eli would at least have a letter of credit which would give the boy access to his father's significant bank accounts. Vin didn't have such options, so he planned at the first opportunity to hide his coins in the various small pockets he'd long ago sewed into his jacket, shirt and pants. It would also ensure that Eli himself didn't decide to lighten his load when Vin wasn't looking.

"Alright then, here's the coach," Borwin said as the stage pulled up and the drivers dealt with the stable hand for their quick changeover of the horses. "Get your bags and be gone with you then, and do us all proud."

Vin smiled politely and took Master Borwin's offered hand, while Eli simply turned away and climbed into the coach without a backward glance, even leaving it to his father to hand his travel bag to the coachman. Vin shook his head at the boy's actions.

"Can't believe that boy," he heard Nettie cluck. "Ought to be put over a knee, would do him some good I say. Edward, is he really a potential High talent? Never seen that boy do more than throw a mud ball just to vex someone."

"Honestly Nettie?" Borwin said softly. "I suspect Eli is no more than a strong Middle talent, but he's strong enough that he qualifies for testing. Which, Vin, you should keep in mind. You know Eli well enough to know that when you best him in the tests he's likely to not take it well. You watch your back in that case."

"I will, sir, thank you," Vin nodded.

"Alright then, get on with you," Nettie insisted. The old woman gave him a fierce hug before shoving him toward the coach, and Vin reluctantly followed her silent instruction. Handing his small satchel to the coachman, he tucked his lunch basket and Mrs. Watson's package under his arm and climbed into his seat, opposite Eli who had already stretched out comfortably to take more legroom than he was due.

Vin sighed. It was going to be a very long trip.

Nathan's Story