Chris looked up from his woodcarving as another crash of thunder rattled the pottery lining the oak mantle. The lingering rumble was literally drowned out as the clouds opened up and sheets of rain lashed the small cottage. The fire in the stone hearth hissed and flared in response to the storm's challenge and the wooden shutters strained to hold back the wind.
Setting aside his knife and the piece of wood that was destined to become a small dragon, Chris picked up his pipe and a pouch of tobacco in their place. As he tamped the moist leaves into the pipe's bowl, he tried to convince himself that it was just the noise of the storm that was distracting him from his hobby. Leaning forward in his chair, he used the metal tongs to grab a burning ember to light the fragrant blend. As the first puffs of smoke rose into the air, the dishes shook once more with the force of the storm.
"Damn it. Where is he?" Finally admitting to his real concern, the mercenary stood up and began pacing the length of his one-room home. Some would call it cozy, others tiny. As far as Chris was concerned, it was better than a tent or a damp cave. At least it was someplace dry and warm. The longest path lay from the front door to the fireplace and with his long strides he cleared the distance in just five steps. Five steps up, five steps back. Five steps up, five steps back. His booted heels thumped on the wooden floorboards in a steady rhythm and with each turn he blew a cloud of smoke into the air.
A candle mark later Chris was standing next to his bed with his sword belt in his hands trying to convince himself that he was overreacting. The storm still raged outside although the wind did seem to be dying down. The worst was probably past and besides, the boy had been taking care of himself for years before he'd met Chris. Storms like this were frequent at the end of summer; he probably had lots of places to hole up until this one blew over.
Chris slowly hung the belt with its sword and dagger back on the bed frame but his fingers trailed reluctantly across the metal buckle. On the other hand, last summer and the following winter the boy had come to the cottage for shelter and companionship whenever the weather had turned foul. Chris hated to admit it but he had actually started looking forward to the rain and snowstorms that were a natural part of the seasons in the small valley.
No matter. It seemed that tonight would be the exception. Obviously he had gotten caught too far away or had simply found a better place to spend the night. No doubt they would see each other again soon enough. Sighing, Chris turned away and crossed back over to the fireplace to add more wood to the dying flames. Just as he was placing the last log in the hearth he froze when he heard a noise that was not caused by the storm.
Pausing just long enough to pull a dagger from the sheath hidden in his boot, Chris moved quickly to the door. He listened for a moment but the sound, whatever it had been, was not repeated. Knowing the light behind him would reveal his presence, he did not attempt to peek out. Tightening his grip on the hilt of his blade, he took a deep breath and flung the door open wide.
Cold rain struck his face and neck and a streak of lightning arced across the sky. In the brilliant flash of light Chris saw trees swaying in the wind and the stones that circled his well. Nothing moved in the cleared space between the house and the woods.
"Damn it. Two turns of the seasons out of the war business and I'm still jumping at things that go bump in the night." Chris slipped the knife back into its sheath and straightened from his fighting crouch. A trickle of cold water worked its way down his tunic and sent a shiver up his spine. Shaking his head in disgust at his own foolishness he stepped back into the warmth of his home.
His name. Spoken so softly he almost didn't hear it. Spoken so faintly that when he did hear it, he thought he'd imagined it. Spoken with so much pain that his heart skipped a beat in response.
"Vin?" Chris moved to one side of the door so that the light of the fire spilled across the opening. He still didn't see anything or anyone but then a small movement and a flash of pale skin drew his eyes down to the ground.
"Bysha's Heart, Vin?" Chris fell to his knees and reached out to what looked like nothing more than a shapeless bundle of rags lying in the rain. It certainly bore little resemblance to his missing friend; little resemblance until his hands gripped the narrow shoulders and he was able to turn the soaking mess into the light.
"Vin!" The light from the fire reflected off the few patches of pale skin visible beneath splatters of mud and tangled brown hair. The point of one elegantly curved ear stood out with its small, gold-loop earring winking brightly.
Wasting no more time, Chris scooped the limp and disturbingly cold body of his friend up into his arms and carried him to the rug in front of the fireplace. After lying him down as gently as possible he turned quickly to close and bar the door. That task complete he moved rapidly about the cottage gathering clean cloths, a bowl of water and the oil lamp from the table.
Placing the lamp where its light fell mostly on Vin's face, Chris knelt once more beside his friend. As he got his first clear look at the young half-elf, Chris swore under his breath. Besides being soaked with water, the boy's tunic and buckskin pants were also dark with blood. Several large tears revealed bloody wounds on his legs, arms and chest. One spot, low on his left side appeared especially dark. Fearing the worst, Chris tried to lift the tunic to get a look at the skin under it but hesitated when he felt it catch and stick to what was obviously a very bad wound.
"Damn it,Vin, what the pits did you tangle with?" Chris sat back on his heels and ran a shaking hand through his short blond hair. Years spent fighting all manner of men and beasts in all sorts of situations had given the mercenary the incentive to learn some basic first aid skills. He could set broken bones and even stitch up small cuts but this...he needed help. No, Vin needed help. He needed a real healer, if it wasn't too late.
Chris stood and strode over to the small wooden clothes chest at the foot of his bed. Digging inside he pulled out a silk pouch and almost tore the fabric getting it open. When he finally succeeded a clear crystal ball the size of a peach spilled out into his cupped hand. The light reflecting from its depths gave it the illusion of a soft glow. Holding it up at eye level Chris ignored its beauty and focused his thoughts as he stared into the orb.
He quickly grew impatient when nothing immediately happened. "C'mon, c'mon, Josiah. What's taking so long?"
"Sorry Chris, but you did wake me out of ..." The words themselves were apologetic but the pitch of the baritone voice was one of annoyance. Chris didn't care and didn't think to be amazed that he was hearing a voice from a crystal ball.
"Josiah, I need Nathan here and I need him two candle marks ago!"
"Chris? What happened?" Honest concern now colored the voice as all sign of annoyance vanished. "How badly are you hurt?"
"Not me, Vin. He just turned up on my doorstep. He's cut up bad. More than I can handle."
"Right. Put the crystal in a clear space on the floor and wait. We'll be there shortly."
Chris followed the instructions, placing the orb halfway between the door and the rug where Vin lay unconscious. Knowing it would take a few minutes for Josiah to fetch the healer he decided to use the time to try and clean some of the dirt from the tracker's face.
Wiping gently with a wet rag, he soon uncovered the too-pale skin of the half-elf. His narrow face and high cheekbones, along with the pointed ears and gracefully arching eyebrows, were features inherited from his elven father. But now a large bruise discolored one cheek and a small cut bled freely above his right eye. Chris held the cloth to the cut for a moment while he gently brushed damp strands of water-darkened hair from Vin's forehead. The boy responded with a soft moan and a slight turn of his head.
"Hold on, Vin. Nathan will be here soon and he'll put you back together good as new."
No sooner were the words spoken then Chris became aware of a soft glow filling the room behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the crystal ball hovering in midair, light spilling from its core. Just as it was becoming too bright to look at, the light disappeared entirely. Left in its place were two large men, one of whom held the orb tightly in his left hand.
"Josiah! Nathan! Thank Bysha!"
Josiah was shocked to hear the hoarse desperation in his friend's voice. He was even more surprised by the look of fear and helplessness that twisted his handsome features. Chris, while not a young man, was still in the prime of his life. A swordsman since his teens the man had led a hard existence as a king's soldier and in more recent years as a mercenary. In the two turns that Josiah had known him the man's face had never shown such naked emotions. It was both revealing and comforting. That a man who had killed so many for mere money was still able to form strong emotional attachments was amazing. Even more astounding was that one of those attachments seemed to be a certain young half-elf tracker.
"Josiah, can you give me some more light?"
The urgency in Nathan's request captured the wizard's straying thoughts and focused them once more. He saw that the healer had already joined Chris in front of the fire.
"Light, of course." Josiah concentrated on the milky white crystal set at the end of his staff and mumbled the appropriate incantation while feeding a bit of his energy into the stone and was rewarded by a soft white light more luminous than any flame. Stepping around the two kneeling men, he took up a position at Vin's feet. As he extended the head of his staff to focus its light, he saw for the first time the cause for Chris' distress and he found he could not fault him in the least.
"Bysha's Shame! Who did this to him?"
"Not so much who as what." Chris glanced up at the tall wizard but quickly returned his gaze to Nathan's hands while he finally voiced what he feared . "I think he tangled with an orc."
"An orc?! This far south? At the end of summer?" Josiah shook his head in doubt. "What makes you think it was an orc?"
"Some of these places are neat cuts from a sharpened edge but some are definitely claw marks. There's only one animal that I know of that fights with both blades and nails."
While Chris spoke, Nathan finished his quick examination of Vin's injuries. A healer by birth he was able to pass his hands over a person's body and sense exactly where, and to what extent, the damage was. In Vin's case, he was very dismayed by what his powers revealed.
"This knife wound in his side is definitely the worst one. I'll start with it and then close as many of the others as I can." Nathan placed his hands over the site of the cut, then closed his eyes and concentrated on channeling his healing powers.
Chris stared at the large, dark hands covering the damaged flesh and silently gave thanks to the goddess Bysha that Nathan had chosen the small village of Four Winds as his home. No doubt many others in the little vale shared his gratitude, but this was the first time that Chris was faced with the very real chance of losing a friend. And if the truth be known, he didn't have that many that he could afford to lose even one. He wanted to ask if Vin would be all right but now that the healing had begun he didn't dare interrupt.
Nathan ignored the men on either side of him. Reaching out with his mind, he poured his energy into the wound and forced the torn flesh to fuse back together. Starting from the inside and working his way out, he worked quickly but carefully. After just a few moments, he opened his eyes and sighed with relief. "There, that's one down."
"Now only about a dozen more to go." Chris felt a surge of relief, which he tried to quell. Best not to get his hopes up until Nathan had completely finished.
"Here, let's get these wet clothes off of him." Nathan tugged on the bottom hem of the tunic and freed it from the dried blood that had anchored it to the skin beneath. Fresh blood oozed up from assorted tears and cuts as the clothing was removed. They worked rapidly and soon had the tracker stripped. Nathan once more sought out the worst of the remaining injuries. Placing his hand over a gash in Vin's left thigh, he paused for just a moment to give one more order.
"Chris, go ahead and finish washing the worst of the mud and dirt off. Just as soon as I'm done we'll need to get him warmed up. He's gotten cold and wet in addition to losing a lot of blood. We'll be lucky if he doesn't come down with a lung sickness."
Chris nodded his head in agreement and returned to gently washing the grime from his friend's body. During all the moving around Vin had remained completely unresponsive. Josiah watched while the two men worked and silently offered up prayers to Bysha.
Nathan also made his own silent prayers for the strength to save his friend. The healing ability was fueled with energy from his own body. Every wound he healed drained a portion of that power and only time would replace it. As his levels of energy fell, it took longer and longer for him to mend the torn flesh. Soon sweat dotted his brow and his breathing grew harsh but he never once thought about quitting or taking a break. He knew that Vin's life depended on him but he was very much afraid that even his skill would not be enough, especially if what he feared was true.
"There, that's the worst of them." Nathan sat back on his heels and wiped his face with one sleeve.
Chris shifted forward and cleaned the dried blood from the newly healed cut. Only a pale pink line remained and even that would eventually fade. Taking the opportunity presented, Chris finally asked the question he almost dreaded to hear the answer to.
"Is he going to be alright?"
Nathan frowned and did not answer right away. Instead, he looked up at Josiah and motioned towards the wizard's staff. "Shift the light so it shines more on his feet."
Stepping back Josiah repositioned the glowing stone and watched as Nathan carefully examined the wounds on Vin's right ankle. From what he could see they did not look that bad.
Chris felt a little anxious when Nathan didn't answer his question right away. His anxiety grew as he watched the frown deepen on the broad, handsome features. "Nathan, what is it?"
Nathan sighed and forced himself to meet the mercenary's concerned stare. "It's a bite mark. The teeth went in pretty deep. I'm sorry."
Josiah watched the despair settle over his two friends but he felt only confusion.
"I don't understand. Surely you can close the punctures just like the cuts and tears?"
Nathan shook his bowed head. "It was an orc that bit him Josiah. And Vin is half elf."
"It's poison!" Chris shouted as he lurched to his feet and strode over to the door. He stood with his head bowed and his back to the tragic scene unfolding in front of the fire.
Josiah looked down at the set of sluggishly bleeding holes. "I've never heard of an orc's bite being poisonous."
"That's because it's not for humans. Just elves." Nathan wearily rubbed his eyes. "The only reason he's still alive is because his mother was a human. It's just taking longer for the poison to work."
"Damn it!" The angry curse was followed by the hollow thump of a fist striking wood. Josiah jerked slightly at the uncharacteristic show of anger. It seemed that his mercenary friend had become even more attached to the half-elf than he had realized. Suddenly saving Vin's life took on a whole new importance.
"But if an orc bite is poisonous to elves then surely they have a cure."
Nathan nodded his head. "Oh, I'm sure they do. The only problem is 'they' have it, not me or any other human I know of. And their kingdom is at least at least a sixty-days journey from here. Unless you...?"
Josiah hated to dash what seemed to be their only hope. "No, I can't teleport there without an anchor crystal of some kind. I'm sorry." He glanced over to where Chris stood leaning against the door and felt his own flare of anger at the sheer injustice of the whole thing. What was an orc doing here? And why had Vin been the one to fight with it?
"That's it then? We just wrap him up and wait for him to die?" Chris' voice was harsh with emotion as he spoke still facing the door.
"Chris...I wish I could pull the poison out of his blood but you know my powers don't work like that. Mending bones and flesh, that's all I can do." Nathan closed his eyes against the moisture he felt building. He spoke the truth but that didn't ease his guilt. Maybe if he had remained at the healer's Center he would be able to do more. But then again, if he had remained at the Center, he wouldn't have been able to save the ones he had.
"Do you think he'll wake up before..."
Nathan looked up at Josiah wearily. "I don't honestly know. It depends on just how long it takes..."
" . . . for the poison to kill him." Chris finally turned and moved over to pick up the blanket from his bed. Just as he grabbed the coarse fabric, a loud pounding on the outside of the door made all three men jump with surprise. Chris let go of the blanket and grabbed his sword in a well-practiced maneuver that had it clear of its scabbard before the blanket completed its fall.
Nathan lurched to his feet and reached out a calming hand. "Chris, I don't think an enemy would knock."
Ignoring the healer, Chris sprang to the door with a menacing snarl curling his lips. Dropping the bar and jerking the door open, Chris held his sword in a defensive barrier across his chest.
"Hey there, Chris! Is that any way to welcome guests?"
What the mercenary saw was a big grin topped by a thick mustache dripping with rain.
"Buck! What in the seven pits are you doing here?"
Chris' oldest companion simply through the fact that he had out lived all the others, Buck was the closest thing the mercenary had to a brother. The men knew each other too well to refer to themselves as just 'friends.' They had fought side by side for several years and when Chris had finally decided he was through, Buck decided he was done as well. And when Chris had accepted the job of protecting the small town of Four Winds, well, Buck thought that he might need a little help. Besides, the raiders that had been plaguing the town had seriously reduced the number of available men and Buck felt sorry for all the lonely young women. But the woman that followed Buck in out of the stormy night was neither young nor lonely.
"Brought you a visitor. I tried to convince her that it would be best to wait until daylight or at least until the rain stopped but she insisted on coming out ee-mee-dee-at-ly. So here we are."
"Mistress Nettie? What?"
Chris quickly laid his sword aside and reached out a hand to welcome in the older woman. The fingers that gripped his in response were still strong and supple despite their knarled and brittle appearance. With her free hand Mistress Nettie pushed back the hood of her dripping cloak and bright, ancient eyes searched Chris' face. Nettie was the descendant of a long line of herbalists and she had been the town's only healer until Nathan's arrival two winters earlier. With her medicines she could cure most any sickness and ease a great number of aches and pains that Nathan couldn't so her abilities were still very much in demand.
Besides her homegrown and brewed remedies, Nettie had one other very special talent also handed down through the generations of her family. She could sense when there was someone in pain or suffering from some ailment. She couldn't always tell who or what the exact problem was but she could sense the direction of the need and that generally gave her an idea of the identity of the person in trouble. On this stormy night she had been sure that the one in need was Chris and had insisted on Buck escorting her all the way to his home. But as Buck was currently pointing out...
"Now you see? I told you Chris would be fine. Why look, he even has visitors already." Buck finally noticed who the visitors were and looked at Chris with concern. "You are alright, right?"
"It's not me, Buck, it's Vin." Chris stepped back to give Buck and Nettie a clear view. Nathan stepped back as well and the two new arrivals gasped in shock. In the radiance of Josiah's staff, Vin's flesh seemed to glow with an inner light, it was so very pale. The few cuts that Nathan had not healed glistened with blood, looking like exotic tattoos.
"Bysha's Tears." Nettie shrugged free of her cloak and, in a swirl of dark skirts, hurried to the boy's side.
Buck remained standing by the door and shook his head in disbelief. "Chris, what in the pits happened to him?"
"I think he fought with an orc."
"This far south? Are you sure?"
Chris nodded his head then turned to slowly replace his sword back into its scabbard. "Sure as we can be. Buck...there's a bite mark on his leg."
A brief flicker of confusion caused the man to frown but then his eyes widened as he made the connection. His hands knotted into fists but for once there was no enemy he could lash out at. He gave vent to some of his anger through a long and colorful string of curses, forgetting the presence of a woman. But if Nettie heard him she obviously didn't care. Standing up, she swept back her silver hair and began issuing orders in a manner that would have made Chris' first drill captain proud.
"Chris, I need a pot of water that I can set to boil over the fire. Josiah, you bring that light over here to the table. Nathan, you look like you're about to fall over so you sit down and rest. Buck, take off that axe and get out of that wet cape before you catch something. Then, get that boy up off the floor and into the bed." Nettie paused to see all four men staring at her in bewilderment. "Well, what are you waiting for? You want to save his life, don't you?"
"Nettie, it's an orc bite and Vin is..."
"Half elf. I know, that's why I've got half a chance of this working." Nettie began emptying the contents of her leather satchel out onto the wooden table. "He's held on this long, I just hope he can hold on a little bit longer."
The truth finally dawned on Chris. "You know a cure!"
"I know 'the' cure. The only problem is I know the cure for a full elf. I'm going to have to guess at the right mixture for a half-breed."
"If you guess wrong?"
"The end result will be the same as if I hadn't tried at all." She ducked her head to keep the men from seeing the doubt in her eyes. What she said was true, if she got the mixture wrong Vin would still die but rather than just slipping away quietly, his last moments would be filled with excruciating pain. But it was a risk that she was willing to take. For Vin's sake as well as Chris's.