Disclaimer: I own no rights to the characters or concept of The Magnificent Seven, and make no financial gain in this amateur publication. Nettie Roe brought the characters into the Dungeons and Dragons AU. She has graciously allowed me to enter her woods and try my hand at the AU.
Notes: This is my first attempt at D&D, I hope that I do it justice. Please be patient as I learn my way around. Also, I got the title via Bablefish, so I'm only hoping that I got it right! I was looking for something different ;)
Rating: I'd say FRT, some violence and language, nothing too graphic.
Dedication: This was for Pamela, for her birthday, over a year ago. She requested some Chris hurtin' with Vin and Buck in tandem comfort roles. Hope this fills the bill!
Two figures materialized at the edge of the quiet clearing. The taller of the two was a raven-haired man with a thick mustache, dressed in the garb of a Ranger with the exception of a deep red sash tied around his waist. Dark blue eyes that normally twinkled with amusement were hard with anger and fear. He turned to his companion, an unspoken conversation passing between him and the other; the one with the not-quite-human appearance. This one was, in fact, a hybrid of human and elf. His eyes, the color of a cloudless morning sky, were not quite almond shaped. Long, light brown locks flowed down his back, the front pulled back with a leather piece that was adorned with a white feather and deep blue beads. With his hair back it was easy to see the graceful, upsweep and point of his ears, each adorned with fine, golden hoops along the shell. He was slender but somewhat shorter than a full-blooded elf. That, along with his darker hair, were marks he bore of his human heritage.
The pair observed the clearing from the shadows. While it was a quiet place, it could not be considered peaceful. Tufts of grass were torn loose, the dark sod beneath exposed. There were other signs of violence as well; broken arrows, a shattered shield and splatters of blood told of the battle fought not long before. There were four bodies as well; one dressed in the robes of a merchant, a second in the tattered garments of a servant, and the other two wore the dark garments of rangers.
None of the bodies were the one they were looking for.
Vin Tannerae, pale eyes taking in every detail, pointed to an arrow that had pierced the merchant's heart. Next he motioned toward the bits of the broken shield.
Buck of Wilmington followed the other's silent thoughts and nodded. In a whisper meant only for Elvish ears he said, "He managed to get that snake, the merchant from Conklinshire, but at what price?"
Venturing out into the clearing, Vin surveyed the damage more closely. Gesturing as he spoke, he said, "they took him here; see how the grass is broken? There is a great deal of blood, too; he did not surrender without giving as good as he got."
"How badly do you think he's hurt?"
"There is a great deal of blood," the half-elf repeated. Moving a few steps, he noted how the blood was sprayed over the grass. "They did not take the time to bind his wounds, only forced him onto a horse and rode away."
"Bastards!" The big Ranger growled.
"They went in that direction," was Vin's only response. The two of them jogged the remaining space of the clearing and disappeared once more into the forest.
Lucas of Jamestown observed the man riding beside him from beneath his hood. The man rode, slumped over, barely aware of his surroundings. He had been a worthy adversary, far more so than Lucas himself. He could admit that only to himself. This Ranger, dressed head to toe in black, had fought with honor. He, on the other hand, had come up behind the blond while the man was fighting his uncle's mercenaries. A swift whack across the back of the head with the hilt of his sword had done what the arrows in his leg and shoulder hadn't been able to do. Silently, Christopher of Larabee slumped to the ground, only barely conscious.
It had been a simple thing, then, to bind the man's hands and force him onto the back of a horse, breaking off the shafts protruding from his body in the process. He cared little whether the blond man lived to complete their journey. His only goal was to present the good Lord James with a fitting gift for the celebration of his birth.
And a dead man would give him no trouble.
As if hearing his thoughts, his dying captive moaned, his head rising briefly, only to drop to his chest once more.
"I'll never understand why you don't just gut him and be done. Listening to his moans and whimpers will most certainly announce us to any thieves in the province."
Lucas leveled a cold gaze at the speaker, who was on foot, moving quickly to keep abreast of the horse and rider. "No more than your mewling and simpering, I'm certain."
The man, known only as Arvan, tried to return that look, but turned away first. It was well known that the man was a coward, who relied on the very large, silent man walking beside him. There was a reason that the man responded to the name Brute. Had he not been busy guarding the wares being taken to Lord James, Brute would have made short work of the Ranger.
They had come upon Christopher of Larabee unexpectedly, while he was dressing out a fine, fat doe. Lucas had seen an opportunity to accuse the man of poaching on his uncle's land. When the Ranger pointed out the fact that they were several miles beyond James holdings, the battle began. In the end, Arvan mused, the merchant and his servant lay dead, and they could claim his merchandise as rightfully that of James. And as a bonus, they would have fresh venison during the rest of their journey.
Now, if only the man would give in to his wounds and die, giving his ears a rest, things would be nearly perfect.
They moved through the woods easily, traversing the open places with care, and following the trail with unerring accuracy, thanks to Tannerae's abilities. They had been chasing after their friend and his captors for many hours without a break, and even Vin's elvish strength had been put to the test. Neither of them would give in to their exhaustion, though, and they stopped only long enough to take a few swallows of water from their 'skins.
"How far ahead are they now?" Buck asked, again, during one such stop.
"They aren't moving quickly... don't sense any need to be on guard. If we continue, we should be on them tonight."
Clasping a hand on Vin's shoulder, Wilmington said, "Then, let's get going."
Lucas dropped to the ground with an angry huff. He hated sleeping in the wild; he despised being in the wilderness at all. He longed for his bed and the warmth of a female lying beside him. With little more than a glance at his captive, he gave orders to his men, "Get the bastard off the horse... no sense in tiring the beast by leaving him there all night."
In response, Arvan motioned to Brute, who roughly pulled the black-clad man from the horse. With just as little care, the big man dragged him across the clearing and dropped him unceremoniously beneath one of the trees at the edge. He showed no response to the weak, pitiful moan that escaped the man's blue-tinged lips. Instead, he wandered of in search of wood, his over-sized stomach telling him that it was mealtime.
Christopher of Larabee managed to pull himself to a sitting position, barely able to stifle the cries in response to the pain that shot through his body, leaning heavily against the tree behind him; he struggled to open his eyes. He couldn't manage to focus, however, and found himself confronted with dim blurs, some moving against the backdrop of others.
His memories of what had happened were vague. Hunting to put meat on the table of a poor village that had once given him haven. Confronted by a pompous ass and engaging in combat. After that, there were only fractured memories. Pain. Being thrown on a horse. Riding for what seemed like hours.
He felt chilled and fevered at the same time. his body was wracked with tremors that ignited more pain. But, overriding all of it was a single thought, held in a single word.
No matter what it took, despite the fact that he had no idea of where he was, he would escape. He doubted that he would live more than a few hours more, but it didn't matter. Better to die free, his body feeding scavengers, than to rot in the nether regions of some castle.
Forcing as deep a breath as he could manage, he shifted, rolled to his belly, and began to move away from the clearing, pulling himself a few inches at a time.
Buck cursed as he nearly ran into Vin's back, the half-elf stopped so quickly. "Bysha, boy, what -- !"
"I... there's something... I don't know..."
Moving around to face his companion, the Ranger said again, "What is it? Is it Chris?"
Tannerae's gaze was focused somewhere in the distance; he barely heard the man's question. In a far away voice he said, "He's awake... aware... his anger... his fear... his pain... it's all so strong. It's as if he's... right here..." He felt his knees buckle, but was held upright in a strong grasp.
"Bysha's blood! Vin, what's wrong?"
"I'm okay... sorry, Buck... I... I don't know what happened." Slowly he righted himself and moved away from that freely given source of strength.
"Perhaps it means that Chris is nearby?"
"Perhaps," Vin agreed, his expression still one of confusion.
"Well then, let's get back on the trail. It's time we rescued our friend."
The darkness seemed absolute to the dying man. It seemed an eternity before he ceased to hear the sounds of the camp, his abductors too busy filling their bellies and arguing over who should claim his sword to notice that he was gone. He regretted losing his weapon to the likes of them, but he had no choice. He could only hope that, at some point, one of his friends could claim it back.
He found himself laying still, face pressed against the cool moss on the forest floor. It felt so good that he couldn't find a reason to move. There was no goal other than escaping his captors and now that had been accomplished. He could die here as well as anywhere, and there was some small comfort atop this moss bed. With a sigh, he allowed himself to drift into unconsciousness.
Vin stopped, frowning as he surveyed the surroundings in the gray light of evening. His eyes told him to follow one path, while his mind directed him toward another.
"The path is clear, Vin, even I can follow it. Why do you stop?"
"Something has changed. He's... Bysha! Buck, I think he's escaped!" The duo shared a look of astonishment. They had seen the blood, crimson splashed over green along the trail, far too often and far too much. They had become more convinced as the day went by, that they would retrieve nothing more than their friend's body. To think that he was not only alive, but had escaped...
"It's wistful thinking, nothing more." They all knew of the bond Ranger and half-elf shared.
"No!" Usually soft-spoken and calm, Vin surprised them both with his outburst. Slightly calmer, he continued. "I feel his presence almost as clearly as I feel yours. But..."
"He's given up, Buck." Tear-washed blue eyes met those darkened by anger.
"Hells he has!" the big Ranger growled. "Christopher of Larabee would no more give up his life than I would suddenly pledge celibacy. How can you say at once that he has escaped and then that he's given up? That makes no sense!"
"I can't explain it; I only know what I feel!"
Buck could only stand and stare as the half-elf stormed off, away from the bloody trail. As if jolted awake, he called out, "Bysha! You damned, stubborn, pointy-eared demon!" as he hurried to catch up to his friend.
They moved through the forest, the evening sun nothing but a faint light held back by the leafy canopy above them. Buck was forced to move as close as possible to the half-elf, who was much better suited for travel through the growing darkness. Vin had said nothing for more than a candle mark; he moved as if he was being driven by some unseen force. Then, just as suddenly, he stopped. Buck nearly fell over the half-elf as he dropped to his knees in the darkness.
"The Seven Pits, boy! What were you thinking?" Buck stumbled, barely righting himself against a tree. Then he stopped, gasped, and dropped to the ground as well. "Chris! Chris?"
"He's breathing, but only just." Vin had his pack off, digging through the contents. He was no healer, but he had learned some things from Nathan. Silently he began to mix herbs, grasses and mud into a bit of parchment that he'd shaped into a bowl. Handing the mixture to the dark haired man, he carefully pulled the bloody tunic away. Taking the parchment back, he loosened the sides and swiftly turned it, pressing it firmly against Larabee's wound. Chris moaned slightly, but didn't move or fight against the pressure. While Tannerae prepared another mixture, he instructed Buck to open the man's leggings around the wound in his leg. That done, he pressed the second parchment against this wound. Binding them both with bits of cloth from his pack, Vin said, "We need to get out of here."
"Aye, but where do we go?"
"I know a place."
Carefully lifting Chris into his arms, Buck said, "Lead on, but don't move so fast you lose me, boy."
The sun was only sending her first tendrils of light to breach the darkness; they crawled, slid and danced into the sky and over the distant hills. The trio reached the edge of the forest, two of them witnessing the birth of another day. The third lay, pale and silent, limp in his friend's arms.
"We should be there in a candle mark. Do you need to rest? I can take him for a while."
"No, I'm fine. Lead on."
With a sharp nod, Vin stepped out into the clearing, leading the way toward the hills. They moved through the tall grass with ease, no longer having to dodge around the trees and avoid roots hidden in the darkness. They made good time, Buck spurred by love for his friend to move far more quickly than he should have been able to. Then, about half way across the plain, there was a soft moan that took them both by surprise.
"Vin, hold up." Buck knelt, lowering his burden to the ground. He smiled to see two heavy lidded, hazel-green eyes searching the world around them. "Chris?"
Larabee managed to track that voice, finding a shadowy, out-of-focus image that he vaguely recognized as that of his oldest friend. "Buuuuuu...Buck?"
"Aye. How are you feeling, my friend?"
"In the... in the sev...enth pit."
Wilmington chuckled, looking over at their companion. "Guess that means he's been better."
Tannerae could only shake his head and smile. "Chris..." when the injured man found his face, he continued. "I know you're in great pain, but we need to find shelter. Whoever abducted you... they could come looking for you."
"James..." Christopher of Larabee managed to mutter.
"The Lord?" This from Buck.
Shaking his head slightly, Chris explained, "His neph... nephew. Taking me to... Lord."
"Why?" Vin asked, anger flashing in his blue eyes.
"Gi-gift... dead... or alive... p-poacher..." Chris went limp then, eyes rolling back in his head and breath escaping in a moan.
"Bysha, that son of a whore! I'll gut him... string him up and rip him open with my bare hands!"
"Buck, we shall deal with Lucas of Jamestown later. Right now we must focus on Chris. Buck?"
"Aye... aye, you're right. But I'll spend my time planning how to make his torture last an entire turn."
Vin smiled grimly. "You do that, but do it whilst we get Chris to safety."
Nodding, the big man lifted the injured man once more into his arms. "Lead on. How much longer do you think?"
"Less than a candle mark."
Vin's estimate was true, and they were soon in the hills and winding their way through a path he improvised with each footstep. Soon he smiled and with a simple "ah!" He led the way through what looked like a solid wall of bushes.
Behind him, Buck muttered a myriad of curses, trying to keep the branches they passed beyond from striking his friend. When he passed the last treacherous twigs, he stopped. "Bysha's blessings!"
The cave wasn't an act of nature, but of some being that had walked the world. The doorway was well carved, opening first on a stone face as it turned to the right. "Vin, I can't carry him in there, it's not wide enough."
Scratching his chin, the half-elf nodded, "You're right." Turning, he stepped close and said, "I'll take his legs, you his shoulders, then."
They tried to get the Ranger inside the cave, but had no luck in it this way, either. Finally, Buck said, "We'll have to wake him."
"But - "
"We have no choice, Vin. He'll have to walk through if we're to get him inside."
"I can..." Even as he spoke, Chris was struggling to open his eyes. "Let me down, Buck."
Carefully, the bigger man lowered the blond to the ground, holding him as he fought to get his feet beneath him. By the time he managed to stand, he was breathing heavily, his face dripping with perspiration.
"Chris, we don't know how long the passageway is. We'll go on, find another cave."
"No, we'll stay. It... will be... safer. I'm not going... to be any use... need to... catch... off g-guard..."
"Aye, come along then. We need to get you inside before you fall on your face."
Carefully they moved forward. Vin took the lead, dagger at the ready should the cave already be occupied. Behind him, leaning heavily against the stone face as he dragged one foot after another, came Chris. Buck brought up the rear, one arm around his friend's waist, his free hand holding his sword.
Fortunately the corridor opened upon the cave within a dozen steps. It was almost all the injured Ranger could manage. As they reached the opening, he slumped, held up only by his friend's strength.
Vin found quickly that the cave was empty, the hollow room lit by the soft glow of bewitched stone. It was nothing more than the light of the waning moon, but it was enough to show them the accommodations.
Lifting Chris into his arms once more, Buck carried him toward one wall, where the stone face had been carved into a wide platform. Atop it, there was a straw mattress that gave some relief in the stone room. Lowering the blond there, the big Ranger made him as comfortable as possible. Straightening, he turned and surveyed the room. "Someone worked hard to make this. Wonder what its purpose is?"
"I'd say it's serving its purpose right now," Vin grinned. He was crouching in the middle of the room, touching a spark to the filled fire pit there. The wood was well seasoned and gave off little smoke. What there was, moved upward and out through a small hole.
"Won't we give away our position with that?"
"No, it will disappear in the daylight, blown quickly away by the breeze out there. We're safe, for now."
"How far are we from Nathan?"
"Too far for the stones to allow us to communicate."
"Bysha! He needs help, and soon."
"Aye. I believe I can keep him alive... for now at least."
Straightening, the half-elf said, "I won't lie to you; it's bad, Buck. You know that as well as I. He's lost so much blood, and the arrowheads are still inside. There's an infection brewing, too. I can keep him alive for a few days, but after that..."
"One of us will need to go on, then, get close enough to call Nathan."
"Aye. I'd say five candle marks north should be far enough." We'll rest here for now; if James comes it will be today. If we are not found then tomorrow... well, we'll decide then who goes for help."
Not liking the plan but seeing no other, the Ranger nodded. "Aye."
"There's no sign of him, sir," Arvan informed the impatient man pacing back and forth across the campsite.
"You blasted fool! How could you have let him get away!?" Lucas of Jamestown barked angrily.
"Begging your pardon, sir, none of us thought him alive enough to go anywhere. He managed to drag himself off into the forest, but there is no sign of him anywhere."
"Anywhere, or anywhere you lazy oafs care to look? Am I to believe that you truly found no sign? More likely you're too afraid to face a dying man, so pretend to find nothing."
"Sir, you slander me!"
Drawing back, sword in hand, Lucas of Jamestown bellowed, "I'll behead you, you fool! Now, take that idiot and go look again. When you return, let it be with news if you value your head."
"A - Aye, sir!" Arvan motioned to Brute and the two hurried off into the forest.
Vin tended Chris' wounds, placing fresh poultices on them, covering them, and binding them with fresh cloth. With Buck's help he managed to get a few sips of water down the blond, who swallowed the cool liquid greedily and moaned pitifully when the 'skin was taken away. The rest of the time, the injured man lay as still as death, only the ragged rise and fall of his chest telling them that he still lived.
As hunger came, the two men made do with the bread and dried meat and fruit from their packs. While they ate, Vin steeped a medicinal tea by the fire, feeding it to Chris a few sips at a time. The blond wrinkled his nose at the bitter brew, but managed to keep it down.
"I come with news, sir," Arvan spoke before he'd become completely visible beyond the trees. "We've found the trail. We can find him; continue on our way with him to your uncle. He's very weak, it should be easy."
Cold eyes caught the groveling man and held him still. With a cruel smile, Lucas said, "It had better be." He followed Arvan back into the forest.
The day passed uneventfully, Buck slipping out twice to check for signs that Larabee was being sought. The third time, he hurried back in shortly after he left. "They're coming. I saw them below, they're following our trail."
"Seven Pits!" Vin growled. "We need to be ready."
"We... need to draw... draw them... here. F-finish... it..." Chris broke in breathlessly.
"You lay still and let us handle it," Buck admonished, one hand on his old friend's shoulder. "We don't need to worry about you getting hurt again."
Managing to brush the other man's hand aside, Larabee struggled to rise, making it as far as he could on one elbow. Little more than a whisper now, his words were nonetheless easily understood. "They search... for... me, Buck. You... both of you... hide o-outside the cave. I'll let them... see... see me... you take them... out."
"Chris, you can't - " Buck argued.
"It's our best chance," Vin disagreed, earning himself a heated look from the bigger man.
"It will... will wo... work." Chris gasped out. Then with determination, he pulled himself up to a sitting position and turned so that his legs slid off the side of the stone bed. Groaning when his injured leg stopped with a jarring movement, he managed to say, "Let's... go."
Vin was at his elbow, letting the bigger man lean on him. Reluctantly Buck joined them, standing at Chris' other side. They guided the weak, feverish man toward the opening. There, they stopped. Once more they formed a line, Chris couched between his two friends. He was slightly more alert this time, but with alertness came more pain. The wounded Ranger couldn't keep the cries from escaping time and again.
"This is folly," Buck protested once again.
"Then... let... it... be... folly," Chris grated out, just as his knees buckled. He was relieved to feel the bigger man's strong arms around his chest, holding him up. Getting his feet under him again, he resumed walking.
Larabee slipped out of the opening, into the light of late afternoon. He moved away far enough to allow Buck to slip behind cover to his right, Vin having taken position on his left. Holding onto the rock wall for a few minutes more, he gathered what little strength he could find within himself. Blinking, he tried to clear his vision, but found it just as blurred as it had been. In a whisper he knew would reach Vin, he asked, "where... are... they?"
"To your right... a little more... yes, there." He guided the trembling man.
Taking a deep breath, Larabee managed to call out, "Up here, you fools!"
"That got them." Vin watched from his place behind the greenery. Lucas of Jamestown was there below, mounted on a white horse that caused him to smirk, as if the color of purity should be connected with the man in any way. There were two other men, on foot, standing on either side of him. Judging by the size of one of the men, the half-elf could understand how Chris had been taken by so few men. As Lucas dismounted, he watched as the trio began to climb up the hill. "They're coming this way."
"Then you need to get back into the cave, Chris." Buck ordered.
"I agree with Buck. We'll take it from here."
"No arguing, Christopher of Larabee. Back inside with you."
Silently agreeing but refusing to give it voice, Chris moved back toward the entrance. "I'll... be wa... waiting... inside."
"We'll be there in just a few minutes," Buck reassured.
Watching just long enough to make certain the man got to the cave opening, the other two prepared to do battle.
Lucas kept behind Brute, Arvan to one side as they made their way up the steep hill. He fingered the hilt of his recently procured weapon, silently praying that the Ranger was as badly injured as he had seemed to be. At the same time, he recognized that, if he had been that badly injured, he would never have been able to make it this far.
At least the others would be the first to die.
He slid along the rough stone, working hard to keep his feet under him. Every two or three steps he stopped, a trembling hand reaching up to wipe the perspiration out of his eyes. By the time he reached the end of the corridor, he knew he would never be able to make it any farther. Turning slightly, he slid to the ground, gasping and crying out when his decent stopped, jarring his entire body. He coughed hard, eliciting another cry, and spit blood into the dirt; he had bitten his tongue.
When his mind cleared and the ringing ceased in his ears, he heard something else. The sounds of battle.
Cries. The sound of metal on metal. The sound of flesh on flesh. The unmistakable sound of metal meeting flesh and bone. Screams of pain, screams of anger. It seemed to go on and on. He had to get back out there. He should never have left them. It had been his battle to fight, not Vin's or Buck's. Had he left them to be killed by the men who had meant to kill him?
With every bit of strength he could muster, and some that he no longer thought he had, he pushed himself away from the rock wall.
He fell forward, unable to catch himself, landing in the dirt with a soft whimper of pain. It was all he had left in him. Had his friends sacrificed themselves for a dying man?
"Is he... he's not..."
"He's breathing. Just exhausted, let's get him back over there."
"Shall we draw straws to see who drags the bodies away so the carrion doesn't pay us a visit tonight?"
"Let's choose this way. The one with the biggest ears..."
"What if we choose by the biggest mouth?"
"You make me laugh."
"Anything to keep you from telling more stories about you and the wench you were with last week."
"Fine, I'll tell you about the one I was with last night."
"Buck, we were in the forest - together - last night."
"Three nights ago then."
"I'm not interested."
"He's waking up. Chris?"
Larabee managed to slide his lids open halfway, staring at the familiar shapes around him. "Not... dead?"
"You aren't, my friend."
"No, we're not dead, either, Chris." Vin gently wiped the perspiration from the blond's face with a cloth.
"They are, though," Buck added.
"A-all of... them?"
"Aye, all of them."
Managing a smile, Larabee said softly. "Good."
The darkness was complete when Chris woke sometime later. Even so, he could see the face of the man who stood over him. "How did you... get in here... James?"
"Lord James, Ranger. I've come to seek retribution against you, Christopher of Larabee, for the death of my nephew."
He frowned. "How did you...?"
Suddenly the form of Lucas was at his uncle's side, although he didn't seem to be as solid as his uncle. And then there was the fact that there was a deep slash across his throat, and a bloody hole in his forehead, just the size of an arrowhead.
"You may destroy a James body, but you cannot destroy a James," the Lord gloated. "Now, Larabee, you're going to come with me."
Chris opened his mouth to protest, but found that he couldn't. All he could do was lie there, while everything around him seemed to melt and reform. Suddenly he found himself in the Lord's Hall.
"You will never see your friends, your home, or your freedom again, Larabee. You are mine," James taunted him. Chris stared at the man but then found his strength had deserted him completely and he dropped unceremoniously into oblivion.
Vin woke with a start, sensing that something was wrong. He looked around, eyes coming to rest on the sight of the empty place where his friend had been. Leaping to his feet, he called out, "Buck!"
The Ranger jerked awake. "Bysha! What is it?"
"Chris is gone!"
On his feet now as well, the bigger man said, "How? He couldn't stand!"
Vin was studying the ground around the missing man's bed. "There's no sign that he did. Nothing is amiss - "
"Other than the fact that he's gone, you mean?"
Ignoring the jibe, Tannerae continued. "I sense something, though. Bucklin! He's been taken by magic!"
"Damn it! Who?"
Straightening, the half-elf said, "Who do you think? You've heard the stories just as I have. James dabbles in the Dark Arts. I believe that he's discovered what happened to his nephew and has taken our comrade for revenge."
"Then we take him back."
"You and I cannot do it alone. We need to call the others."
Nodding, the Ranger said, "Then let us be off."
Chris slowly returned to consciousness, the sounds of whispered conversation coaxing him to open his eyes. He found himself slumped in a chair, his wrists bound to the chair arms. His vision was blurred, but he could see several people seated at the great table, enjoying a meal. From time to time one of the blurs would seem to turn toward him, and a few whispered comments would lead the gathering to laugh. That they were laughing at his expense was clear even to his fevered mind.
"Burn in... the Seventh... Pit... a-all of... you," he managed, although there wasn't much strength behind the words. He managed nothing more than to elicit another round of laughter.
Seated nearby, Lord James reached out and stroked a hand over the blond's sweat-matted hair. "As you can all see, my new pet does not suffer quietly. I believe he will be a source of much entertainment for days to come. Until he becomes still for eternity." He paused and then added, "Perhaps I will mount his head on my wall when that occurs."
More laughter rang across the Hall.
"Bysha's soul, what has happened!?" Josiah asked as soon as the crystal carried him to Vin and Buck's side. Behind him came Nathan, Jaydee and Ezra as they met the other two in a quiet glen.
Tannerae quickly filled the newcomers in, stopping only when their growls of protest grew too loud for him to continue. In the end, all six were agitated and ready to draw blood.
"How close are we to James Hall?" JD asked.
"Not close enough." Ezra groused, his hands opening and closing into fists.
"It will grow closer if we begin to move now, brothers," Josiah added in a soft rumble.
"Let us be off, then," Buck said, effectively ending the conversation. All six men began to move quickly, Vin in the lead as they marched toward James Hall to rescue their friend.
It was quiet the next time Christopher awoke. The Hall was empty, the merry-makers having grown tired of his suffering, he supposed. Managing to lift his head, the injured man peered around him. No, not completely empty. There was someone there, busily scrubbing the table. One of the servants then.
"Please... water..." he managed to force the words out, although it was nothing more than a rough whisper. It was enough, though. The servant turned in his direction.
A woman, it sounded female at least. He tried again. "A sip... please..." Hesitation this time, then the figure stood and came nearer. Yes, a woman. Young, frightened. "Please."
She came to stand before him, and then knelt at his feet. "I cannot. Lord James has given me strict orders. I... I am sorry."
Tears came unbidden; only a few. He was too far gone to care any longer. What was pride to a dying man, especially when his dying had been made a public spectacle? "I am... so... th-thirsty. Please. The fires... burn me... please, Miss..."
"Sir, I will be beaten... the Lord has a horrible temper." With that she rose and retuned to her duties.
Chris watched her as best he could, he still saw little more than shapes and colors, his body ceasing its work as he drew closer to the next world. He could tell, however, that she watched him from where she continued to scrub the table.
"What's... your name?" he asked.
"Th... that's a beautiful n-name."
She ducked her head. "Many thanks, Sir."
"Chris... it's... it's Chris."
"Chris," she tried the name out, the single syllable sounding foreign as it left her tongue.
Then, suddenly she turned and hurried across the room to the other end of the table, her back to him.
It quickly became evident why she had, as Lord James entered the Hall. He moved to where his captive sat, looking down on him from his full height. "Hm. Not dead yet, I see. Well, good then. We shall have entertainment at dinner."
The Ranger attempted a glare, but it was unfocused and held little of the heat he felt burning in his belly. "Perhaps Bysha... will spoil... y-your plans..."
The older man delivered a sharp slap to the blond's face, smirking as the injured man's head snapped back, striking the heavy wood of the chair back with a hollow thud. "Bysha be damned. You'll live as long as I wish it... and much, much longer than you wish it." With that he turned and left the Hall once more.
Chris lay slumped in the chair, his body trembling with both pain and anger. If only he could gather the energy for one final battle, it would be reward enough before he dropped into the pits to reap the rewards of his violent life.
He managed to roll his head to the side, his faulty vision manage to find the speaker only when she drew close to him. He could see her tremble with fear even with dying eyes. "Child, no..."
"Sh. It is little enough." Annamaria cupped her hand against his cheek while she carefully fed him from a mug of chilled water. A few sips, and then she withdrew it. When he seemed to be ready for it, she fed him a few more. Her kindness continued until her head snapped up, fear filling her face. "I'm sorry."
He watched as she hurried back to the table, the mug dropped into the bucket of soapy water. She returned to her work, seemingly oblivious to anything around her. This time it was another servant who entered the Hall, this one larger and seemingly male.
"What takes you so long, girl? You're needed in the kitchen if we're to have the feast prepared on time. You know what will happen if our Lord is displeased."
Annamaria straightened, picked up the bucket and started toward the door. "I was just finishing."
Chris watched as they both disappeared from view, and then allowed himself to relax against the chair. Once again he offered up a prayer to Bysha for deliverance; either by his friends, or by death.
Dinner was riotous affair, the Hall filled with those James favored, and those he sought the favor of. He sat at the end of the long table, now covered with rich cloth and richer food. Beside him, Larabee sat, still bound to the chair. He was delirious with fever, the taunts of the Lord and others around him feeding his hallucinations.
The Hall became a battlefield, the diners became enemy soldiers. Time and again the Ranger struggled to gain his feet, only to be held tight by the ropes that bound him. Unable to free his body, the blond cried out hoarsely again and again, taunting the enemy he saw before him. His battlecry, weak and pathetic, caused laughter from the heartier of those gathered, while it caused indigestion in the more timid. None moved to free him however, they simply waited for death to claim him.
Standing with the other servants along the wall, Annamaria watched the spectacle with mounting horror and a sense of impotence. What could she do to rescue the Ranger?
Darkness hid the world in shadow, offering the six men cover as they crept closer to the Lord's Manor. Vin led the way, elfish eyes picking out the easiest route to travel. Buck was close behind him, the others taking up position at their backs.
Startled, six figures stopped at once, eyes traveling in search of the speaker of that whispered word. Finally Vin spotted a young woman, standing near a closed door, a rough wooden bucket in her hands. Turning to the man behind him, he stood aside. If anyone could charm the girl, it would be Buck.
"What brings you out here at this time of night, miss?" He kept his voice low as he moved forward a few steps, stopping when she backed up a step. "Did we frighten you?"
"Do you seek the Lord's prisoner, the one called Chris?"
"Why do you ask?"
"If you do I... I can tell you wh-where he is."
With a gentle smile, Wilmington said, "And why would you do that, girl?"
Annamaria ducked her head for a heartbeat, and then raised it to pierce the big Ranger with a look. Tears glittered in her eyes, but so did determination. "He is a cruel man... he learns the magic of darkness and... and he practices it on any servant who dares anger him. He... my Father dared to defy him once... when James would have his way with my Mother. I watched as he tortured my Father to death with his spells, even why he..." She broke off with a soft sob, and then continued. "After... my Mother took her own life."
"Bysha!" Josiah growled from where he stood behind the Ranger. "If this is so - "
"I speak the truth!" The girl interrupted in a tone of anger.
"Take it easy, little one," the wizard appeased. "I don't doubt you, I swear."
"I ask only one thing. If I show you... please... take me with you when you leave."
"Are you certain? It will be very dangerous," Jaydee interjected.
"More so if I show you and remain behind," she countered.
"Might we discuss this later? Someone could discover us at any time and we will be unable to rescue our friend!" Ezra hissed.
"Yes, time is of the essence," the woman said softly. "James is in his chambers... with several young women, so he will be occupied for the night... and the rest of the house is asleep. Good Sirs, your comrade is dying." Her words hit the men squarely and, as one, they drew their weapons. Annamaria stared at them each, one at a time, until they nodded their agreement that they would take her away when they left. That settled, she turned, opened the door, and disappeared inside.
"Are you certain we should trust her?" Jaydee asked no one in particular.
"No," Nathan whispered back, not missing a step as he followed the others into the darkness. "But it is the only way."
Chris sighed, the sound turning into a moan as he tried to shift his position. The pain was only a constant thrum that danced through his body; it seemed as if he was no longer quite within that vessel of flesh and bone. In his more lucid moments he wondered if this was what it felt like to die. He was certain that was what was happening; his life was drawing to a close. He only wished that he were closer to home, so that Vin, Buck and the others could lay him to rest beside Sarah and Adam.
"And here we were worried about him."
The wounded man frowned as he heard his old friend's voice. Surely Buck hadn't died as well?
"Nathan, is he strong enough to leave here?" Vin's voice now.
"I would rather at least strengthen him now."
"Lord James will sense your work," Annamaria argued. "We must get as far away as possible."
"Are... are you d-dead as... well?" The face of his oldest friend swam into Larabee's field of vision.
"No one is dead, old friend. We've come to take you home."
"Good... rest beside my... f-fami..." His voice faded as he lost consciousness once more.
"No," Vin whispered with conviction. "We will take you home and heal you."
"We'll carry him back to the glen; then the crystal will take us all home." Josiah said, one big hand on the servant girl's shoulder.
While they had been talking, Ezra had managed to free the badly injured man. With great care, Buck lifted Chris into his arms. Silently the band moved back along the path they had taken, the young servant girl couched between them for protection. Vin was once more in the lead, sword ready to dispatch anyone who dared to challenge them. The others formed an effective barrier between Buck, carrying their fallen comrade, and anyone who dared to try and harm Chris again. Their escape was successful, their path remaining safely within the shadows of night. Lord James would awake to find his prisoner spirited away.
Dawn was just dancing across the horizon, spreading her glittering cloak of sunlight over the hills, when the little group stopped at the glen. Josiah spread his cloak on the ground, in the shade of a large tree, and Buck lowered the gravely injured man to it. None of them could ignore the colorless features that were scarred with the bruised flesh of illness and dying.
"Bysha's Wrath upon that devil, James!" Jaydee cursed as he got his first good look at the man he thought indestructible.
"I don't think that even that would be enough," Buck murmured in agreement as he reached out to stroke a callused hand across his old friend's face. "But on my oath I will do my best to make this right."
"For now, give me room to work," Nathan ordered. "The rest of you go and watch for signs we've been followed.
"We weren't," Vin stated matter-of-factly, however he moved off to stand guard at the edge of the clearing.
"You can make him well?" Annamaria asked, moving away a few feet and curling up on the ground beneath another tree.
Shaking his head sadly, the healer said, "No, he is very near death."
"Then why send his friends away?" Her tone grew angry. "Why not allow them the chance to say good-bye?"
Brown eyes flaring with anger as well, the big man said, "I do not intend to allow him to die, girl! I will do my best to give him the strength to fight back. I would give him all of my own lifeforce if I thought it would make him well!"
Taken aback by the man's anger, Annamaria said softly, "I am sorry. I meant no offense Healer. If I can help in any way..."
Heaving a sigh, Nathan calmed and said, "No offense taken, child. It's just that... seeing him bound like that, so ill used... seeing him as he is now... I'm sorry."
"He is important to you."
Nodding, the man replied, "As are all of my friends. We have found a kinship amongst us. One that has strengthened over time."
"I envy that," Annamaria said wistfully. Then she smiled and stood. "I will bother you no more, Healer."
Nathan returned her smile and turned to his work.
Sometime later the men gathered back around their comrades. Nathan had healed Chris as much as he could, but the blond was still gravely ill. He lay listlessly on the ground, his head in the servant girl's lap while the Healer fed him a strong smelling brew. It was testament enough how weakened the blond was that he made no comment about the tea.
Kneeling beside his friend, Vin said, "It is good to see you awake again, Larabee."
With a small smile, the injured man said, "It is good to see you... all of you. I had lost hope of ever laying eyes upon any of you again."
"Before we link arms and begin singing, I suggest we return home," Ezra remarked, although it was plain to see that he was as caught up in the moment as much as any of them."
"Aye, brethren, let us be off." With that, Josiah raised his staff, his focus folding in on the crystal on its end. Around him he sensed the others gathering close, Chris once more held protectively in Buck's arms. Softly he recited the appropriate incantation, and in a few moments the air crackled with energy, the light of the sun was challenged by the brightness that expanded through the glen, and then the world righted itself once more. The forest was quiet, its visitors having disappeared.
"How is he, Miss?" Vin asked as Annamaria came down the stairs of Larabee's home, a tray in her hands.
In a sad tone, the young woman replied, "He ate a few spoons full, but nothing more."
"Pits!" This from Buck. "It's been well over a week, and he seems no better."
"You heard Nathan. It will take time." Vin said, the words hollow.
One large fist slamming against the wooden table he sat beside, the big Ranger's dark blue eyes flared. "Time! Bysha's Blood! He is no better now than he was when we rescued him. How much time will be enough?"
"As long as it takes!" While normally calm and reasonable, the half-elf's anger flared as well.
The two of them had remained at the home; guardians against James or anyone else that dared to bring harm on their friend. So far none had tried, but they would not be shaken from the blond's side until he was able enough to protect himself. At this point, however, they all despaired that the time would ever come again, and that thought had them all short-tempered and easily angered.
"Sirs," Annamaria interjected. "I know that I am a stranger in your midst, but may I say something?"
"You need not ask our leave to speak, child," Buck said in way of answer.
"Christopher of Larabee... he is a proud man, yes?"
"Yes," Vin responded, although his attention seemed to be on the fire dancing beyond the hearth.
"Lord James... he... he did something far worse than any arrow or sword could do. The hurt he delivered to Chris..." She touched her temple and then moved her hand to rest over her heart. "It was to his pride."
Scrubbing a hand over his face, Buck sat back in the chair. "Bysha. You're right." They had all heard the words Larabee spoke in the midst of fever dreams. They had heard him begging Bysha to end his torment. To end his life.
"What do we do, then?" Vin asked.
"That, my friend, is far beyond my knowledge," the brunet admitted. Turning to lock gazes with the half-elf, he said, "How do we give Chris back his pride?"
The man his friends were discussing lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling. He didn't see the wooden beams however. Instead his mind displayed the face of Lord James, the man's eyes glittering with vicious humor. He listened as the man taunted him, displaying him like some prize boar, before the crowds of people. While he had been near death and delirious with fever it only made the memories that much more difficult to deal with.
Bysha, why did he still live? Why did his heart beat, why did he still breathe? The others, they worried and fussed over him, but he didn't understand why. Couldn't they see that he was nothing but a corpse?
He would have thrown himself from the window, but his muscles no longer responded to him. Even the act of relieving himself required assistance. If he had an ounce of pride it would have left him the first time Nathan had been forced to clean him up after his body betrayed him in a chore even a beast could manage.
So he lay there, waiting for his heart to cease and the final breath to leave him.
Annamaria opened the door of Larabee's home, standing aside to allow the minstrel to enter.
"Ezra! How is life in the tavern?" Buck asked; a somewhat challenging tone in his voice.
"Prosperous," the young man replied as he took a seat at the table. Leaning back he began absently strumming the instrument he carried. "I have news."
"Aye? News of purses emptied?" Wilmington grumbled.
"No. News of our old friend, Lord James." He spit the name out venomously, heartened to see the anger flare in every eye that turned his way. "I thought it might be of interest to you."
"Then, tell us," Vin encouraged.
Ignoring the two men, he looked at the young woman standing nearby. "My dear, might I trouble you for a drink? The trail is so dusty today."
"Ezra," Buck said in a warning tone, and then he closed his mouth. The twinkle in the younger man's eye told him that threats would do no good, Standish would continue in his own time.
Taking a long draw on the mead Annamaria provided him with, he smiled. "Thank you, that is quite good." Then, turning to his friends, he shared, "I have found that we have nothing to fear from James."
"Oh? And why is that?"
"There is a talisman secreted deep within the walls of his Manor house. It is the source of his dark powers. While his powers are great within a certain range of the charm, they diminish as he moves away from it."
"In other words - " Vin started.
"He cannot come to us, but we may go to him." Buck finished. Both man and half-elf smiled as they turned toward the minstrel. "So, were you able to discover what that talisman is, where it is, and how we destroy it?"
With a sigh, Ezra admitted, "not as yet, but I am working on it."
"A job well done, nonetheless," Vin replied in a grateful tone.
"Aye. Good enough to know that he cannot retaliate for now. Later... well, later we will worry about our own retaliation."
His smile fading, Vin looked toward the stairs. "For now, we have more important things to concern ourselves with."
Reaching out and clasping the slender elf on the shoulder, the mercenary said, "Boy, you know only too well that you are the one who can help him find his way back."
"I've tried," Tannerae argued.
The others were all very well aware of the bond between Ranger and Tracker, and Buck had witnessed the strength of that bond while they searched for their friend. Dark brows furrowed as he ordered, "Then you must try again!"
Suddenly feeling angry and beset upon, the long-haired creature of fey leapt to his feet. "What do you expect of me?"
"We expect you to bring our friend back to us, you fool!"
"Pits!" With that, Vin all but ran from the house. Behind him, his friends watched in dismay.
The Healer, Nettie, was busily hanging a bundle of herbs over a line strung across her porch when movement caught her attention. Shading her eyes as she looked across her front yard, she smiled as she recognized the half-elf coming toward her. "Greetings."
"Good afternoon, Mistress Nettie." Vin smiled, but it was easy to see that the expression was forced.
"Come in, child, I was just going to partake of some stew. Will you join me?"
"Thank you, that sounds fine." He stepped up onto the porch and opened the front door of the old woman's home, gesturing her in before him.
The relative darkness and the cooler air of the home greeted them both, along with the smell of one of the Herbalist's fine stews. She knew more about plants than how to mix a potion; she used them to cook some of the more incredible meals he had ever eaten.
It was only after their bowls and mugs had been emptied that Nettie spoke up. "What is it on your mind, son?"
"Chris," Vin admitted softly, his head bowed. When he looked up at her tears were sparkling in his eyes. "He's... Mistress Nettie, he is getting no better. It would seem that... that he is slipping away."
Nettie sat back in her chair, studying her friend. After several long moments of silence, she asked, "What does he see in your eyes when he looks at you?"
"What?" He frowned, trying to make sense of her words.
She leaned forward, staring deeply into the pale blue eyes. "The night I came to help Nathan with the healing, I saw it in your eyes. In yours, and in the eyes of the others."
"What did you see?"
"Pity, Vin. I saw pity. Is that something Christopher of Larabee deserves? Is it something he would want?"
"Then, you must not offer it to him. Go to him as a friend, offer him your hand, not sorrow."
Vin sighed, knowing that she was right, but uncertain that he would be able to offer his friend what he needed. Then he straightened his back and returned Nettie's look with determination. Yes, he could do it, and he would.
Chris lay abed, eyes closed against the shafts of late afternoon light that insisted upon dancing across his blankets. He would have asked to have the shutters to be closed, but even that seemed to take too much energy.
"Chris." Reluctantly the blond turned to regard his half-elf comrade silently. When Tannerae saw that he wasn't going to speak, he continued, "Isn't it time you thought about getting out of that bed?"
"Leave me be, Vin. Leave me in peace."
Taking a deep breath and stealing himself, the Tracker strode across the room and stared down at the Ranger. "Why? So you can continue willing yourself into an early grave?"
"Not early," Larabee mumbled, "not nearly early enough."
Perching on the edge of the mattress now, Vin continued softly. "No my friend. It is not your time... not yet. You need to regain your strength so that we can go together and seek our revenge on that pit dweller, James."
Shaking his head, Chris argued, "It isn't in me any more, my friend. All I want now is to stop breathing."
Angered by that, Vin leapt to his feet. "If that were true, then why were you still breathing when we found you? Huh? Why do you, even now, fight James in your dreams? Is that what someone a single breath from death would do?!"
"Leave me alone," The blond turned his face toward the wall.
"You are not Christopher of Larabee!" Vin reached down and forced the man to turn back in his direction. "Christopher of Larabee would not surrender to the likes of that pit dweller, James, and the scum who find him their better!" With that he turned and stormed from the room.
Behind him, Chris lay, mouth agape, watching his friend leave.
Annamaria sat on the hearth, eating a bowl of stew. At the table, Vin Tannerae and Buck of Wilmington sat, picking at their food in silence. They had both invited her to join them at the table, but she had refused. It wasn't that she felt unworthy of supping with them; the anger and dismay was so thick around them both, that she felt more comfortable sitting next to the fire.
A sound came from the shadows beyond the firelight, soft, hesitant. Then it came again, and all three stood, facing toward the sound. Then, a smile brushing his lips, Vin moved toward the stairs. Behind him, Buck and Annamaria stood still and listened as he ascended.
Vin returned to the light a short time later, but he wasn't alone. Chris, shaken, pale and soaked in perspiration, clung to him weakly. Just as he entered the room, his knees buckled and he found himself supported by the smaller man.
"Bysha's blessing!" Buck called out jovially. He drew the most comfortable chair in the humble home close to the fire, helping Vin to settle the Ranger onto the cushions. Placing a hand on his old friend's quivering shoulder, he said, "Good to see you up and about, Larabee, even if you are showing off those bony knees."
Annamaria, rolling her eyes at the big man's jest at the blond's expense and referring to the fact he was in nothing but a nightshirt, shook out a blanket and covered the man's legs. She couldn't help but notice just how well muscled they were... and how many scars covered them.
"The fool was trying to walk down here on his own," the half-elf said, his voice filled with emotion. "It's a good thing I got up there before he reached the stairs, or he'd be nursing broken bones now!"
"Perhaps building onto that little shack he used to have wasn't such a good idea, what with him getting on in years," Wilmington teased, referring to the additional room the Ranger had decided he needed three turns ago.
Chris tried desperately to glare at his old friend, but couldn't quite pull it off. "When I can raise my sword..." he muttered.
Slapping the angry man on the shoulder, nearly sending him toppling off the chair, the mustached Ranger said, "You couldn't best me in your prime."
"If the two of you have finished harassing him, why don't you go find something better to do with your time?" Annamaria suggested, in a very pointed tone.
"I'm suddenly very hungry," Buck stated, turning back to his forgotten meal. Likewise, Vin moved to reclaim his bowl.
The young woman positioned herself beside the blond, affectively providing him privacy as he struggled to regain what little strength he had. Surreptitiously she bathed his fevered brow. He leaned back against the chair and managed a smile at the former servant. It was the first time he had smiled in much too long.
Ezra sat beneath one of the trees beyond Larabee's home, playing his guitar. Nearby, Jaydee and Casey were talking and giggling, their bodies close together. Mistress Nettie, Josiah and Nathan were gathered at the table the men had carried from inside. It was a beautiful, late spring day, and they had gathered to enjoy it together.
Annamaria came from inside the house, carrying a tray laden with cooked meat and fresh bread. Placing it next to the other food already there, she stood back and smiled. "I do believe we're ready for the Master of the home to join us now."
As if on cue, Chris stepped out the door. He was dressed in his typical black garb, although the clothing seemed too big for him now. His face was still too pale, but there was a faint blush of color to his features now. His steps were short, uneven, but he was walking - mostly - on his own. The two men behind him would not share the fact that they had carried him down the stairs.
It had been a week since the first time he had left his bed and he still had a long road before him on the way toward recovery. But the Ranger had learned, finally, that it wasn't a road that he wouldn't travel, and it wasn't one that he would travel alone.
Settling on the seat set aside for him, the seat and back lined with pillows and quilts, Larabee let out the breath he had been holding. Taking another, he felt life flowing through him. With a gesture, he bade his friends to join him at the table. For a second he was reminded of that other table, the one where the minions of the demon laughed at him and encouraged his death, but he banished it from his mind.
Time enough to remember all of that later. When he was well, he would return to that table; to face those who treated him as if he were nothing but a beast. He would face Lord James. But this time, he would not be alone.
Looking around him Chris basked in the company of his friends. No, not alone. Never again.
September 1, 2008