Vin turned the medallion over and studied both sides carefully. "I had this in my hand?"
"Gripped so hard we almost couldn't get it out. You don't remember how you got it?" Chris accepted the disk back and passed it on to Josiah who slipped it into his pouch.
"I kind of remember grabbing something when I stabbed the one through the eye. I guess it could have been that." Vin shuddered as he recalled the last moments of his fight. Chris noticed the involuntary motion and gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze.
"Well, we at least know what direction they were headed in, if not why."
"But, Chris, that's just the thing. Why were they headed toward your place?" Buck finally asked the question that had been plaguing him ever since they had determined the orcs' destination.
"Think about it, Buck. The trail that Vin was using is the one from the north meadow. Anyone or any thing headed toward town would take that path and come here first. The only route more direct is the main road."
"Which orc scouts would avoid if they were on a mission and did not want to be seen." Josiah frowned and began pacing the width of the cottage. "And with the medallion we have to assume that the mission, whatever it was, was ordered by either Wartolin or Duke Cardimal."
"Or both." Chris stood and reached for his sword belt. "One or the other would be bad enough but if they are working together, we need some answers." He finished strapping on his sword and then reached for his cloak, which lay across Vin's feet.
"So what do we do first?" Buck also stood and gathered up his cape. He was used to following Chris' lead and trusted him to make the right decisions.
"You and I will go find what's left of those two orcs. Could be we'll find some more clues as to their reason for being here."
Vin pushed himself up straighter in the bed and hoped the others didn't notice how his arms shook at the slight exertion. "Give me my clothes and I'll take you to straight to them."
He looked from one face to the another, a little disturbed at the sudden stillness in the room. "What? All I did was ask for my clothes."
Buck snorted in amusement and moved toward the door. "I think I'll wait outside for you Chris. I have a feeling I know where this is headed."
The young tracker frowned at the obvious retreat. He had a feeling that something was about to happen that he was not going to care for. Looking up at Chris, he was about to demand an explanation when he realized that Josiah was standing over him with a purposeful look in his eyes. "What...what's going on?"
"You," Chris spoke calmly as he finished pinning his dark wool cloak closed. "Are going to Nathan's place in town. Where," His sharp green stare froze Vin just as he opened his mouth to protest. "You will rest until he and Nettie say you're fully recovered."
"No! The fight was two days ago."
"A day and a night."
"I don't like going into town."
"You'll be inside Nathan's."
"Nathan and Nettie cured me."
"They healed your wounds and burned the poison out of your body but they couldn't replace your blood or keep the chill out of your bones."
The young half-elf crossed his arms in front of his chest and dropped his head stubbornly. The ring in his ear seemed to flash defiantly as he firmly stated, "I'd rather stay here then."
"No choice. You're going. Josiah." Chris nodded his head to the patiently waiting wizard.
"Wait! You've got no right!"
Sighing in exasperation, Chris strode over to the bed and reaching down scooped Vin, blankets and all, up into his arms then calmly stood holding him. "Break free and I'll fetch you some clothes."
Vin strained and squirmed briefly then panting in frustration, he growled; "You were stronger than me before the fight. Doesn't prove anything."
Josiah coughed into his fist in an attempt to hide his laughter. He and the others that had gathered two nights ago to save the boy had discussed the possibility of this very moment when it had finally become apparent that Vin would survive his ordeal.
"He'll be very weak for a few days and, after being wet and cold for so long, he could easily come down with a lung sickness, throat swells, or even brain fever." Nettie spoke while mixing the last of the herbs into the broth she was preparing just for the young tracker.
Nathan agreed and made his suggestion. "If we move him to my place in town there are enough rooms that you could stay and we could both take care of him."
"I don't want to move him until he's fully awake and understands what's happening." Chris rubbed his eyes and squinted out the open window at the early morning sun.
"But that just means he'll be awake to argue. You know he doesn't like going into town and he sure ain't going to like the idea of staying at Nathan's. Not meaning to insult you or anything." Buck quickly nodded his apology to the healer who merely waved it aside in understanding. Vin was almost notorious in his dislike of crowds and noise and even though the town of Four Winds was small by most standards, it was busy enough to make the half-elf uncomfortable.
"Won't matter. He can argue all he wants to. I'll see to it that he does what's best for him." Chris folded his arms and leaned wearily back against the wall next to the bed where Vin lay calmly sleeping at last.
It had taken four doses of Nettie's cure to finally drive the last of the poison from his system. Four times the mercenary had had to hold his young friend in his arms while he writhed and cried out in pain. In a way the last treatment had almost been the worst. By that time, the boy was so weak he could only lie twitching and moaning while his tear-filled eyes begged Chris for relief. He wasn't going to go through all that just to lose him to some common illness.
Nettie interrupted his dark thoughts as she shook out her cloak and draped it across her shoulders. "While you're at it, you should get some rest yourself. I had Buck make you a pallet while you sat with Vin. Now that the worst is over, he can sit with the boy while you get some sleep. Josiah will take Nathan and me back to town and help us get things ready." Nettie smiled fondly at the sleeping tracker. "I expect that by tomorrow morning, he'll be awake enough to put up a fight."
Chris thanked each of them and agreed to relay a message through Josiah should Vin suddenly develop problems. And if Josiah didn't hear differently he would plan on returning the next morning to collect the patient. Willing or otherwise.
And now that the moment of collecting had come, it would seem that Buck had been exactly right in his prediction. But it also seemed that Chris was going to be true to his word as well.
Josiah's amused smile was revealed when he had to drop his hand to catch the angry bundle suddenly thrust into his arms.
"Here, he's all yours. Tell Nathan I said he could box his pointed ears if he gives him too much trouble."
"Better just to tie him to the bedposts and avoid any trouble at all." Buck made his suggestion poking his head cautiously through the door. Vin found he had just enough strength to reach down and snag a pillow from the bed and throw it at the grinning face. He frowned in dismay when the missile fell at least two feet short of its target.
"Buck, outside. Vin, calm down. Josiah, I'm taking the crystal with me, so as soon as Buck and I finish you can fetch us to Nathan's as well." Chris and the wizard exchanged nods of understanding before he turned toward the door.
"Chris, wait! I never told you...I mean I didn't...ah pits." Vin ducked his head in embarrassment sure that the mercenary would ignore him and keep going. But this time he wasn't trying to argue. He wanted to tell his friend how grateful he was for saving his life. He knew that Nathan had been the one to heal his injuries and Nettie had brewed the potion that destroyed the poison but if Chris hadn't been there...well he just didn't think any of that would have really mattered.
The young tracker jerked his head up in surprise and blinked his eyes clear of their unwanted moisture. Chris stood just inside the door with a smile of understanding on his face. Vin found himself smiling in return as the two shared one of their special moments of silent communication. Chris gave him a quick two-fingered salute before stepping through the door and closing it behind him.
Settling back into Josiah's arms, Vin sighed in resignation. "Guess you'd better take me to Nathan's before your arms get tired and you drop me on the floor. Hate to have to tell him how I got the new bruises."
Josiah's rumbling laughter filled the small cottage as a bright glow slowly surrounded them. In a flash of light the two men vanished from that room to reappear at a specially reserved place inside Nathan's home. The wizard's laughter continued as the crystal now clutched in his left hand went dark and he was able to safely deposit his burden in the waiting bed.
"Well, from your laughter and his frown, I guess it went about the way Buck said it would." Nathan smiled happily as he stepped into the room. Vin looked a lot better than he had the last time the healer had seen him, even with the darkening bruise and disgruntled look on his face.
"Chris did say that if he gives you too much trouble..."
"...you can box his ears." The wizard smiled at the fuming young man. "But I think he will behave himself. At least until I return with Chris and Buck. Isn't that right, Vin?"
Vin mumbled something under his breath as he squirmed lower under the covers.
"What was that, Vin? I didn't quite catch what you just said." Nathan leaned over and began tucking the blankets in tightly.
"Pointed ears." The tracker glared at the two men then turned his back to them. "He said you could box my 'pointed ears' and Buck suggested you just tie me down. I think your all a bunch of worry warts with too much free time on your hands. Should get a hobby like...carving or...or weaving or...somethin'..."
Vin's voice faded and his tirade ground to a halt as he fell once more into a healing sleep. Smiling broadly, Nathan and Josiah quietly slipped from the room. Once safely in the hallway with the door tightly shut, the healer had to ask, "Did Buck and Chris really say those things?"
Josiah nodded solemnly but his eyes sparkled with laughter.
Nathan's dark eyes also shone but he shook his head in exasperation. "They didn't try to make this any easier for me, did they?"
"Now Nathan, I couldn't help but notice that the windows in Vin's room are securely locked and unless I am very much mistaken your room is on one side and Nettie's is on the other. All this leads me to believe that you are not only anticipating trouble but are also very well prepared for it."
The healer grinned, his white teeth standing out sharply against his dark skin. "Well, Mistress Nettie and I didn't get him this far just to lose him through carelessness."
Josiah nodded and led the way down the hall and to the stairs. "I'm sure Chris appreciates your concern. He seems to have become very fond of the young man."
Nathan snorted and held his front door open for the wizard. "Attached is more like it. The only two that don't seem to be aware of it are him and Vin."
"Give them time Nathan. Vin is young and I get the feeling that Chris has never been one to rush into any situation without careful planning." Josiah pulled his dark cloak tightly closed as he stepped out into the chill air. "Who knows, this near disaster may be just the thing to open their eyes."
"Hopefully. You'll be bringing Chris and Buck here when they finish examining the bodies." Nathan made it a statement instead of a question and continued with an invitation. "Why don't you plan on staying for lunch? Nettie is having her niece, Casey, bring her some things from her home and you know with her here, Jaydee will show up sooner or later."
"Ah yes, another perfect match. Perhaps you should invite Ezra as well and we could make it a party complete with music." Josiah grinned at his joke but Nathan had a thoughtful look on his face.
"You know, that's not a bad idea. It would keep Vin distracted and wear him out enough that he would probably sleep the rest of the day. I don't suppose you would stop by the inn and deliver the invitation yourself?"
"Consider it done my friend. Until later."
The two men each raised a hand in farewell and went about their chosen tasks. Josiah would stop by the inn for Nathan and then he would keep his appointment with a certain individual that just might have some information that would shed a little light on their mystery.
"Do you really think there's going to be anything left worth looking at?" Buck spoke to his friend's back as they hiked along the narrow path.
"Don't see why not. About the only things that will eat orc flesh are maggots and dragons. Maggots take a while and dragons don't care for forests."
"Yeah, but with that rain storm and another day in between, how do you think we're even going to find where the fight took place?" Stopping to unhook a branch from the edge of his cape, the fighter looked to see Chris staring at something just off the trail.
"Somehow, Buck, I don't think that's going to be a problem."
Following his gaze, Buck saw the same things that Chris did and a shiver raced up his spine. To their left the ground sloped gradually downward and looking through the trees the two men could easily trace the direction of the battle. In several places there were huge gouges plainly visible in the thick trunks and above them the smooth, blunt ends of branches where they had been sheered clean through.
Buck let out a low whistle at the chilling sight. "Pits. If all these trees hadn't been in the way..."
Chris remained silent as he started following the new path. From his grim expression Buck had a feeling their thoughts were of a similar nature. Bysha must have truly been looking out for their young friend that night.
"Hey, Chris, look what I found." Ignoring the sharp thorns, Buck reached into a small patch of briars and triumphantly pulled out a long, slender, beautifully polished piece of wood.
Chris smiled happily. He knew how fond Vin was of that particular bow. Chris had helped him make it to replace the one that had gotten broken when they had first repelled the band of raiders. The young tracker carried it slung on his back wherever he went. "That's good, Buck. He'll be glad to get it back."
"If he'd had a chance to use this thing those orcs wouldn't have put a mark on him." Buck held the bow tightly in one hand as he and Chris finally reached the end of the fight's path.
The two orcs lay just as Vin had described them. The one nearest the trail lay on its back with the hilt of Vin's knife glinting in the sunlight that filtered through the trees. The other lay on its side, its yellow eyes filmed with death and crawling with blue-flies. Its lips were pulled back revealing dark-stained teeth. Looking at them, Chris wished the thing was still alive so that he could have the pleasure of killing it.
"Well, guess I'll take the one with its throat cut, you can check this one and retrieve Vin's knife while you're at it." Buck propped the bow up against a tree and made his way over to the orc lying on its side.
Chris started to kneel down beside his orc when he noticed Buck suddenly freeze in place. It was obvious that he was staring at something on the ground but Chris couldn't tell what had captured his attention. "Buck, what is it?" When he didn't get an answer he moved to stand beside his friend and scanned the earth at his feet. At first he couldn't understand what he was seeing and then he remembered Vin telling them how he had received the deep wound on his side.
There in the ground, even after a night of hard rain, was the most chilling sight of all; a dark gouge in the forest floor, two feet long and at least three inches deep.
"By all the pits, Chris. If Vin hadn't rolled clear..."
"It would have split him in two."
The men stood staring at the wound in the earth, each trapped in images of what might have been. Chris was the first to shake free and with a snarl on his lips, he stomped the rain-softened soil, partially obliterating the telling mark. "C'mon, let's get this over with."
They split up once more and quickly checked the rotting bodies for additional clues. Unfortunately, neither orc carried any kind of bag or pouch other than small sacks of trail provisions. Buck did find a similar medallion around the throat of his orc but decided to leave it. Chris pulled Vin's knife free and drove it into the soil to clean the worst of the gore from its blade. He would be sure to clean and re-sharpen it before returning it to the tracker.
Working together they rolled the two bodies over just to make sure they had not missed any markings on the plain leather armor, or any other bits of jewelry. But the orc race as a whole was not one for decorations, so just finding the medallions was odd enough. Deciding that there was nothing more to be learned, Chris pulled the crystal ball from his pouch and summoned Josiah.
"Chris. Have you finished already?"
"Looks that way. We found another disk but no clues as to why they were here." As Chris spoke he looked around the scene of the fight one more time. His eyes rested briefly on one of the large, curved swords and unconsciously his hand tightened on the crystal sphere. "How's Vin doing?"
"Sleeping like a newborn when I left him at Nathan's."
Buck overheard the remark and couldn't resist. "Sounds only right since he was fussing like one this morning."
Chris shot him a scolding look but couldn't hide the amusement in his green eyes. "Well, anytime you can come get us we'll be ready."
"Certainly. I need just a few moments to end my current meeting and I will be right there. Just make sure you don't place the crystal under any low branches."
"No worries." Chris wondered briefly whom the wizard was seeing but decided it was none of his business. He knew the man earned a meager living performing assorted spells for townspeople and it might have only been a customer. Placing the ball in a relatively clear space he looked around to see what Buck was up to.
He found him standing near one of the orcs with a puzzled look on his face.
"What have you found now?"
"Not sure. Does this look natural to you?" Buck pointed to the back of the creature's neck where a large bump seemed to have formed.
Chris stared at it a moment then crouched down to get a closer look. "Is there one on the other orc too?"
Buck did a quick check and was surprised to find the exact same lump. "What do you think it is? Some kind of growth?"
"We've seen dead orcs before. Do you remember ever seeing anything like this?" Tentatively, Chris reached out and pushed against the hard knot. It felt strangely smooth and rounded. It reminded him of something. Taking out his knife, he quickly made an incision just below the lump.
"Chris! What are you...?" Buck forgot to finish his question as light suddenly gleamed from a crystal ball about half the size of the one carried by Chris. "I'll be pitted. Is that what I think it is?"
"Quick, cut the neck on the other one and see if it's the same." Chris used the point of his knife to pry the ball free and send it rolling across the ground. There was surprisingly little blood and gore from the open wound but that might have been because the orc had been dead for so long.
"Same thing, Chris. What should we do with them?"
"Nothing. Don't touch it." The mercenary stood and moved over to pick up the crystal given to him by Josiah. Meeting or no, they needed the wizard now.
"Bysha! You say they were under the skin?"
Chris nodded and pointed to the open wound. "Buck noticed the lump while I was talking to you the first time."
When told of the new discovery, Josiah had immediately transported himself to their location. What his two friends had described had seemed impossible to him at first but now that he was actually looking at the crystals, he had to believe.
"What are they, Josiah? They look just like the rocks you use for talking and hopping about." Buck could see that the crystals really had the wizard upset but he couldn't figure out why.
"They are just like my 'rocks' Buck. But judging by the aura, the spell on them is very different. Nothing like I've ever felt before."
"But why were they embedded in their necks? And how did they get there?" Chris watched as Josiah opened a leather pouch that was decorated with an intricate design of stone beads. Picking up a handy stick, the wizard nudged the two balls into it and spoke a few words as he tied it closed. He thought that the wizard's reluctance to touch them probably had more to do with the magic than the dried blood.
"Well, under the skin the orcs wouldn't have to carry them in a pouch. It's possible it was just a way to keep them hidden from chance discovery." Josiah held the sack tightly as he stood and faced his two friends. There was a look of fear and doubt in his eyes that made Chris step forward and clasp his arm in concern.
"But you don't think that's really the reason." It was a statement, not a question, but Josiah answered anyway.
"No, I don't. And Bysha help us all if what I think is true." Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes for a moment as if gathering his courage to continue. "When I was studying at the Center, some of the wizards were experimenting with a way to control animals. You know that metal wizards can make collars for hounds that keep them from straying from home? Well, some wizards were trying to take it even further and actually force the animals to obey commands through empowered objects."
"And you think," Chris looked down at the two orcs, and forced himself to say the words. "You think that these orcs were being controlled through those stones?"
Josiah nodded silently and Buck began swearing under his breath.
"Possibly. Such magic might still be within his range of power."
"But how did he get the crystals into their necks like that?" Buck had stopped his cursing but his face still held a red, flushed look.
"A healer could have done it."
Chris gritted his teeth and pointed an angry finger at the two bodies. "You're saying that a 'healer' would help Wartolin do something like this?"
Josiah sighed and shook his head sadly. "Chris, not all healers are such men of honor like our Nathan. I am sure that during the war there were healers tending to Cardimal's armies, just like ours."
The three men stood in silence for a few moments. A cool breeze stirred the branches over their heads and a few birds called cheerfully from their hidden perches. Sunlight spilled through the canopy of leaves that were just starting to change color with the start of the new season. The horror that lay at their feet was so out of place on such a beautiful day that it felt like a waking nightmare.
Chris was the first to break free of the dark shadows that he saw threatening his future. "Josiah, is there anything more you can do or learn here?"
The wizard blinked at his friend as he too brought his thoughts back to the present. "No, I feel there is nothing more to be gained here."
"Right, take Buck first and..."
"Ah, if it's all the same to you Chris I'd just as soon you go first." Buck nervously smoothed the edges of his mustache but tried to look calm and nonchalant. "I mean, no tellin' what kind of mood Vin's going to be in if he's awake and all."
Chris and Josiah smiled at their friend's excuse for going second. They both knew that if the fighter had his way he'd just as soon walk all the way back to town. It wasn't that he didn't trust Josiah; he trusted the wizard with his life. He was just bothered by the thought of his body being in one place one moment and an instant later being somewhere else. He kind of feared that one day he'd return to a spot and see himself still there.
"Alright, Buck. I'll go first and clear the way of irritable half-elf trackers armed with pillows." Chris stepped closer to Josiah as he teased his friend.
Buck took the dig in the spirit it was given. "Thank you, Chris. I knew I could depend on you for protection."