Looking up once more, she glared at the men still standing in place. "What's it going to take to move you fools? A stick?" The sudden flurry of activity seemed to indicate otherwise. After hanging a pot of water over the fire and adding another log, Chris offered to help Buck carry Vin to the bed.

"Oh pits, Chris. The boy didn't weigh anything before and now he's been bled to just skin and bones." For all his gruff manner and talk, Buck was extremely careful as he lifted the injured young tracker. Chris settled for carrying the lamp and led the way to the small bed.

"I can close a few more of those cuts..." Nathan moved to join them but Nettie was not having it.

"Nathan, they can wrap good old-fashion bandages around what's left. I saw the number, and size, of the places you did heal. Any other healer would be staggering, if they were even still conscious." Nettie continued her preparations even as she pointed out the cold, hard facts to the stubborn man. "You may still be standing now but if you use any more energy, it's going to be your body lying on the floor. You've done your part, it's time to let others do theirs."

Nathan drew himself up tall and straight and tried to glare his defiance; but when Nettie refused to even glance over her shoulder, he was forced to give in. Sighing in resignation, he slumped down into the chair in front of the fire. As his body settled into the sparse padding he suddenly realized how tired he really was. Telling himself he would sit for just a little while, he watched closely as Buck and Chris tended their injured friend.

"Leave the bite place open to drain. It can't hurt and it might help a little. Might be a good idea to put a warm compress on it."

Josiah couldn't help but smile at his friend's stubborn refusal to simply rest. In the short time he had known the healer, he had never seen the man give up on a patient or put his own needs before others. It puzzled him that a man so gifted with the power of healing had left the Center of Healers before receiving his scroll of completion. He supposed it was one of those secrets that every man seemed to have. A specter in the past that would one day have to be met and dealt with but in the meantime could be avoided in a small town like Four Winds.

Being a living lamppost gave a man plenty of time to think. And to avoid thinking about the young life slowly fading away nearby, Josiah thought about his own past and his decision for settling down in such an obscure little valley. Stone wizards were rare enough that, had he chosen to do so, he could have made a very comfortable living in any of the major cities. But, years of catering to the whims of the rich had left the older man feeling hollow and worthless inside. As the first hints of gray began tinting his beard, Josiah knew he had to find a more meaningful way to spend his last years; however many or few they might be. Four Winds had been just one more town on his way to somewhere else but then he had met Chris and the others and discovered a place for himself and a purpose for living.

Once more Josiah's wandering thoughts were brought back to the present but this time it was Buck's exclamation of surprise that did it.

"Hey, Chris, what's this in his left hand?" The large warrior held up the hand in question and for the first time everyone noticed the way it was tightly clenched and the small bit of chain dangling through the curled fingers.

"I don't know. Can you get his fist open without hurting him?"

Nathan had the solution for that problem. "Hold his wrist tight enough to cut off the blood flow to his hand, that will make his fingers relax."

Following the healer's instructions, Buck gripped the slender wrist tightly and silently hoped he wasn't going to leave bruises. In Vin's weakened condition, it only took a moment for his grip to relax. Chris's own hand was ready to catch the strange object as it fell clear.

"What is it, Chris? Some kind of necklace?"

"It's a medallion." The mercenary frowned in puzzlement as he studied the strange emblem engraved on one side. Turning the silver metal disk over, his frown suddenly changed to a look of disbelief and horror. "Bysha! No, it can't be."

"What? Damn the pits man, what is it?!"

"It's the crest of Duke Cardimal." Chris looked up and saw the same disgust and horror on the faces of his friends.

Every human alive knew of the bloody wars that had been fought to keep the evil duke from taking over the country and placing himself on the throne. And those like Chris and Buck, who had actually fought in the battles, knew first hand of the atrocities inflicted on innocent villagers caught in the middle. The Duke, and the nobles that had supported him, had come frighteningly close to succeeding in their grab for power. Their armies had fought without honor and their wizards had used the blackest of sorceries. Only the combined might of the Center of Wizards coupled with the sheer stubbornness of the king's army had finally managed to destroy the evil forces and drive the Duke across the mountains.

What did the medallion mean? Had Vin gotten it off of an orc? And if he had, what was an orc doing wearing the sign of Duke Cardimal?

"Chris, what's the symbol on the other side?" Josiah had been one of the wizards to stand against Cardimal's evil servants. He also remembered the horrors of the war and prayed that this was merely some horrible coincidence.

"I don't know. It looks like an eye with fire instead of a pupil."

"By all that Bysha holds dear! Give that to me and pray I don't recognize the symbol."

Chris handed over the medallion to Josiah and was alarmed at the sudden paleness of his friend's complexion.

"Why? What does it mean?"

Josiah held the necklace under the light of his staff and, if possible, his face grew even paler. His eyes closed as if denying the truth revealed in the glow of his crystal. Drawing a shaky breath, he finally met the concerned gazes of those watching him.

"The flaming eye is the mark of Wartolin." Anticipating the next question, the wizard continued to explain. "Wartolin is one of the most powerful wizards ever to study at the Center. He's one of the rare few that can use the anchor and focus of any other wizard. He can even control another's staff of power."

"Even while the wizard has it in his hand?" Nettie knew quite a bit about the way wizards channeled their powers and what Josiah was describing seemed impossible. Every wizard had an energy signature, something that was unique only to them. Whenever they empowered an object in their vocation; stones, metal or wood, that object became keyed to their aura. That another wizard could gain control of those objects, even while in the possession of their owner, was a terrifying thought.

"Yes, he is that strong. It was for that reason that the leaders of the Center feared him and created a plan to put a block on his powers."

"Did they succeed?" Nathan reached for the amulet and studied the two symbols as he listened to the wizard's answer.

Josiah shook his head. "Only partially. They reduced his strength but they could not take away all his power. In anger, he fled the country vowing to regain his full strength then return and destroy every wizard that refuses to swear obedience to him."

"Chris, if that is this Wartolin's emblem and he's teamed up with Duke Cardimal..." Buck glanced down at Vin's ravaged body.

"...and they somehow have the orcs working for them, the kingdom could be facing its bloodiest war ever." Chris completed his friend's thought and felt a shudder course down his spine.

While the men had been talking Nettie had completed her preparations. She was no less concerned than the others but sometimes the greatest wars were won by the smallest of victories. "There, that should do it. Now we let that simmer for a just a short bit and then we'll give him the first dose."

"What's it going to do?"

"How soon will we know if it worked?"

"What happens if you didn't get it right?"

Nettie turned to Josiah who merely looked at her in silence. "Well, aren't you going to ask a question?"

"Do you still need the light?"

Nettie snorted a small laugh and gave Josiah an appreciative nod. "You do all right wizard. You can put your fancy stick away for now. Might need it later. I'll let you know."

"Yes, I'm sure you will." Smiling at the small relief found in the light banter, Josiah propped his staff so that the crystal still brightened the small home.

"Now, to answer the rest of you. Basically, it's going to burn the poison out of his system. I'm not going to lie to you, if it works right he's going to feel like his blood's on fire."

"He's going to be in pain." Chris frowned as he focused on the last part of Nettie's explanation.

"Yes, he is. Depending on how much of a hold the poison has on the elf half of him, he may think he's in the seventh pit. A full elf would feel the same kind of pain but would have the strength to endure it. I'm just not sure if his human half is going to be strong enough."

"How soon will we know?"

"I'm sorry Chris, I don't have an answer for you. It may take just a couple of candle marks, it may take a day. If he lives through the first dose, I have to give it to him again and keep giving it to him until he no longer reacts. When he drinks it and his temperature doesn't go up, that will mean the poison is completely gone from his system."

Chris turned his back on the sympathetic stares of the people he had come to consider friends. Kneeling beside his bed, he reached out and gathered Vin's cold hands into his warm grasp. Looking at the pale, still features of the young tracker the hardened mercenary finally faced the realization that the boy might die. He didn't know when the half elf had become so important to him or even why; but he knew a large part of his spirit would follow the young man to whatever paradise or pit took him. But the one thing Chris had never done in his whole life was give up a fight. No matter what the odds, he always fought to the end and he had always won. And even though this wasn't really his fight, he still had no intention of giving up and if it was within his power, he was going to make sure Vin didn't give up either.

"Chris, it's time." Nettie rested one hand on the mercenary's shoulder and held out the small clay cup with its dark contents. "I'll give it to him if you'd like."

Chris shook his head as he reached for the medicine. A small drop of moisture struck his wrist and he looked up to see tears spilling from the ancient eyes. He also saw the truth behind the drops of sorrow. The liquid in the fragile vessel was either a cure or another poison. Nettie was willing to sacrifice her own conscience to save him the pain of administering the potion himself in case it turned out to be the latter. Smiling sadly, Chris shook his head again.

"Thank you, Nettie, but I'd rather do it myself."

The herbalist nodded her understanding and backed away, drawing Buck with her. Like Josiah and Nathan, they had done their part. Now it was up to Chris and Vin himself.

"C'mon, Vin, time to get rid of that orc venom and wake up." Speaking softly, Chris gently lifted the boy's head and poured some of the warm brew between his slightly parted lips. He watched carefully to make sure the liquid was swallowed before pouring a little more. Bit by bit, he administered what was hopefully the cure until at last the cup was empty.

"There, all gone. So what happens ne...?"

Chris was unable to complete his question as Vin suddenly provided a kind of answer. There was a loud gasp as he sucked in lungs full of air only to expel it again in a cry of pain. His body arched up off the bed and his eyes flew open as the potion began to work. As his back hit the mattress, he looked about the room wildly and finally focused on the face of his friend.

"Chrisss. Hurrrtsss." The young tracker could barely force the words past his gritted teeth as he writhed beneath the blanket. He was confused. He had come to the mercenary for help. He remembered staggering through the woods with his hand pressed to his side and the feel of his own warm blood against his cold flesh. He remembered falling repeatedly and only the thought of Chris had given him the strength to get back on his feet and keep going. If his eyes weren't lying to him, he had reached the home of his friend. And he was lying on a bed all dry and warm. Too warm. And the pain of his wounds had been replaced by a new agony that seemed to engulf his body from his toes to his scalp. And his 'friend' was just sitting there looking at him.

"Chris?" Vin squeezed his eyes shut and the tears that rolled down his cheeks felt ice-cold against his burning skin. " Please."

He felt cool hands cup his face and he opened his eyes once more. Looking up he blinked his vision clear and at last saw the anguish in Chris' face.

"Vin, I'm sorry. Listen to me. Do you remember fighting an orc?"

The half-elf nodded and gasped, "Ta...two."

"Pits! Two of them! Only orc scouts travel in pairs." Buck swore from his position at the foot of the bed. He had moved there as soon as Vin had started tossing about just in case he could help. It had been a shock to see the too-pale skin of the tracker suddenly redden as the medicine took effect, though not as great a surprise as hearing that the boy had fought not one but two orcs and lived. So far.

Chris was also shocked to hear Vin's answer but decided to think about it later. In the meantime he wanted his friend to understand why he was in such agony.

"One of the orcs bit you on the ankle. Do you remember getting bit?"

Vin tried to think past the pain. It seemed to be important to Chris that he remember. "Bite? Ye...yeah. One of 'em...on the ground. Not...not dead. Stepped...too...clossse..." His sentence ended in a harsh hiss as the heat in his body seemed to flare even higher.

Chris moved his hands to Vin's shoulders and pressed him down onto the bed in an attempt to hold him still. The unnatural heat of the tracker's body quickly made his palms slick with sweat.

"Now listen, Vin, this is important." Chris spoke loudly and waited until he saw the blue, pain-filled eyes focus on him once more. "Orc bites are poisonous to elves. Half your blood is elven so the venom was killing you."

"Is hurts?" Vin did his best to focus on what his friend was saying. Poison? Killing him? He was dying? If this was what his last moments were going to be like he wished Chris would just use his sword and end his misery. He tried to say that but it was so hard to talk. "Make it...stop...sword..."

Chris frowned at first in confusion. Had Vin said something about a sword? Then it struck him what the tracker was asking for and he tightened his hold on the thin shoulders. "No. I won't kill you." He ignored the gasps of surprise from the others who had not heard Vin's request. "It's not the orc venom that's making you hurt. Nettie knew the cure and we gave it to you. The potion is burning the poison out of your blood."

Vin listened to the words but he was past understanding. The only ones he really caught were the ones that he already knew through experience. Hurt. Poison. Burning. All the rest were consumed in the fire that now seemed to be eating at his very bones. The tears that continued roll down the sides of his face were as much from confusion as pain. Why wouldn't Chris help him? Wasn't Chris his friend? Why? Why? Why?

"Vin, I'm sorry. It's the only way." Chris ignored his own tears as he continued to try and comfort the now delirious tracker. Vin's struggles became weaker and his breathing more shallow as the damage to his body took its toll. With a gentleness that would have surprised those that did not know him, the mercenary gathered the trembling boy up into his arms and held him close while murmuring soothing words of encouragement.

Several candle marks later, Chris became aware of a hand resting on his shoulder and Nettie's soft voice calling his name. "Chris. Chris. It's over. You can let him go now."

At first he didn't understand. Over? Let him go? Then a wave of despair made him gasp as he realized how still and cool the body in his arms had become. "It didn't work? He's...?"

"No! No, it did work and he's still alive. Here," Nettie guided one of Chris' hands to Vin's throat so that he could feel the soft but steady beat of the tracker's heart. "See? He's still got a chance. Thanks to you."

Greatly relieved, Chris lowered Vin back down onto the bed and pulled the blanket up to his chin. Brushing aside the sweat-dampened locks of brown hair, he felt the welcome coolness of the once more pale skin. "You mean thanks to you and your potion."

"No, Chris. It would probably have killed him if you hadn't given him the strength he needed to survive." Nettie patted him on the shoulder, then urged him to stand, firmly directing him to the table where she had laid out a simple meal. "And now you need to replenish your own strength so that you can help him again."

Looking back over his shoulder, Chris reluctantly allowed himself to be guided away. "How soon?"

"He needs a little time to rest but not too long. The poison is still inside, eating away at him. The longer it stays in his blood, the weaker he will become."

Chris nodded his understanding as he sat down next to Buck. Across from him, Nathan and Josiah each sat nursing a mug of what appeared to be hot tea. Nettie handed him a similar cup and he gratefully swallowed a large, steaming mouthful.

"Careful there, Chris, you just about turned the same color as Vin." Buck sat with his elbows propped on the table on either side of an empty plate.

"Still making yourself at home, I see."

Buck grinned at the familiar teasing. The mood in the small cottage was definitely lighter now that there was hope of Vin recovering. Chris started to take another drink but his eyes fell on the ominous medallion lying in the middle of the table. Reaching out, he snagged the broken chain and pulled the disk towards him.

"So, what do we do about this?"

"I think we have to wait until Vin can answer some questions." Josiah frowned thoughtfully at the disk spinning from the chain Chris held over his untouched plate of food.

"What kind of questions? How much do you think Vin is going to be able to tell us?" Nathan also frowned but his gaze was directed towards the unconscious tracker. He continued to watch as Nettie gently bathed the boy's face with a cool, wet cloth.

"The first questions would be where he encountered the orcs and what direction they were headed in." Chris answered the healer's question before dropping the necklace back onto the table.

Buck picked it up next and continued where Chris left off. "And then we need to know if he for sure killed both of them or if they were still alive and he just managed to escape."

"Ain't no 'just managed' about it Buck. I don't know that you would fare any better alone against two orcs on a night like this." The mercenary glared at his friend and his hands curled into fists where they rested on the table.

"Now, I didn't mean it like that and you know it." Buck tossed the medallion to Josiah and rested one hand on Chris' tense shoulder. "Pits, man, the kid's best weapon is a bow. If he took on two orcs with just that little knife of his, I'm damned impressed. If I'd gone against them without my axe, it probably wouldn't be poison that laid me out."

Chris visibly relaxed and shook his head as he apologized. "Sorry, Buck, I know you weren't putting Vin down. Just a little tired, I suppose."

Buck squeezed his shoulder in understanding. He had seen the despair and emotional pain in Chris' dark green eyes as he had held onto the young half-elf. He didn't know when or how his friend had become so attached to the boy but it didn't really matter. What counted was that since they'd settled in the small town of Four Winds his life-long companion and battle partner had found a reason to live besides fighting. He had more friends now than he had ever had and someplace to call home. Buck had the same thing and he knew how that made him feel. There was even a young man in town named Jaydee that had become like a brother to him. If something like this had happened to him, Buck imagined he'd be feeling about the same way as Chris.

"I can think of other questions that need to be asked but I don't think Vin will have the answers." Josiah held up the medallion for the others to see while he spoke. "What does this mean; why did the orcs have it and why were they here?"

The four men sat in silence after that, each lost in his own thoughts. Chris cleared the food from his plate without really tasting it. He couldn't stop thinking about how close he had come to losing Vin and how that had made him feel. Sitting there at his table he made a silent vow to himself; as long as he had the strength to lift his sword he would protect the young tracker and keep him safe.