He felt himself being lifted into an upright position and the smooth surface of a clay cup pressed against his lips. He gritted his teeth and tried to turn his head away. He had vague memories of similar experiences and they had always been followed by a raging fire that seemed to burn under his skin. At least he thought they were memories and not nightmares. His body felt stiff and heavy and his thoughts were almost as sluggish.
"Vin, it's just a little broth with some herbs to make you stronger. I promise, it won't make you hurt."
With his lips locked tightly together, Vin had to draw air in through his nose to breath. Suddenly his mouth filled with saliva, as he smelled the rich soup with its fragrant seasonings. His stomach growled in response and he heard a deep chuckle of laughter above his head.
"Sounds like you've got an angry dragon in there. Better drink up so he'll quiet down."
Angry dragon? Maybe it was the dragon flames that set him on fire. Maybe he could drown the flames with the broth.
"Easy there. You can have all you want; just sip it slow, so you don't choke."
There was laughter in the familiar voice. As Vin swallowed another mouthful of the delicious liquid, he tried to open his eyes but his lids felt like they were glued together. Next, he tried to lift a hand to wipe away the glue but there seemed to be a lead weight holding his arms down. Frustrated, he jerked his head just as the cup was being tilted again and he felt the warm broth run down his chin and neck.
"Pits! Now look at what you made me do."
"Can't." Vin wasn't sure he had actually managed to say anything. When he tried to speak his throat felt like it was scraped raw.
"What? Can't? Can't what?"
"See. Eyes. Can't." Bysha, but his throat hurt! More of that soup would feel good but the voice must have lied since it no longer offered the cup.
"Well pits, course you can't with your eyes closed. Hold on, let me get a rag and clean you up."
Vin felt himself being shifted about and couldn't help the moan of protest as his head fell back at an awkward angle.
"Buck! What the pits are you doing?!"
Chris! Vin tried to raise his head, speak, lift a hand, anything to get the mercenary's attention. Chris was his friend; he would fix everything.
"Chris! Look, I was just trying to help. Before she left Nettie said you needed sleep but that Vin should drink some of this broth she made. We were doing fine until he started moving around."
The surface beneath his body suddenly shifted and then Vin felt another pair of strong hands support his shoulders while his head was propped against a firm chest. The sweet sent of burnt tobacco tickled his nose and he might have sneezed but a wet cloth was suddenly swiped across his face and neck. He jerked his head again and gave a small mewl of protest.
"Buck! Give me that. You're not wiping down a lathered horse."
"Here then! Curse a man just for trying to help, why don't you?"
Buck. That would explain the familiar voice and the rough handling. In his mind Vin could picture the thick mustache and the easy grin of the fighter. Not someone he could imagine patiently feeding him soup. But he must have been. And what had he said? Something about Chris needing sleep?
"I'm sorry, Buck; didn't mean to snap your head off. Guess I could have used a few more hours of rest. I appreciate your help and I'm sure Vin does too."
"Well, he'll probably appreciate your help more. You seem to know what he wants and needs without him having to say anything."
The wet cloth was back but this time it was being gently and slowly moved across his eyelids and finally he felt the lashes pull free of each other. He carefully cracked his eyes open as the rag wiped at their gummy corners. The brightness caused his eyes to sting and water but the moisture helped clear the last of the gritty residue from his lids. As his vision cleared, Vin found himself staring right at the bristly mustache and wide grin he had pictured moments before.
"Buck." It came out as a hoarse croak but hearing it seemed to make the man even happier if the size of his grin was any indication.
"And a good afternoon to you, too. You're looking a lot better than you were last night."
Last night? Vague images of glowing eyes and flashing blades sent a shiver down his spine.
"Might be best if we don't talk about that yet, Buck."
Chris! Vin tried to tilt his head back so that he could match the voice with the face but a shoulder got in his way and then he was slipping down and to the side.
"Whoa now, Vin. See, Chris? He'll be doing fine and then he starts trying to move about and you just can't hold him."
"That's because he wants to look around but his muscles are all wrung out. Bring me the cushions from that chair."
Vin watched from his semi-reclining position as Buck hurried to fetch the pillows. He was sure now that the person holding him up was Chris but he still had to 'see' him.
"Now stack'em up against the head of the bed. Move that one up a little more. Good. Now hold'em in place."
Vin felt the mattress shift again and then his body was being pulled up and over to finally rest against the firm cushions. He felt a moment of panic as his head started to fall back but there was another pillow there to catch it. At last he was sitting up and able to see everything around him. He wasn't sure if the giddy feeling was caused by joy or lack of food but he didn't really care. Finally the person he had been desperate to see was right in front of him.
"Chris." It didn't come out much louder than his attempt at saying Buck's name but it got the same grinning response.
"Hey there, Vin. Ready to drink some more of this soup? Nettie made it specially for you."
Vin heard the question but he was too busy taking in Chris' appearance to respond. Just like the one he had for Buck, Vin had an image in his mind of what Chris was supposed to look like. The person he saw sitting beside him on the bed didn't quite match the one in his memory. The Chris he remembered was a strong and serious man with flashing green eyes in a lean, clean-shaven face tanned from long hours spent in the sun. This man sitting with him now, well it was still Chris but at the same time it wasn't.
This Chris had the same green eyes but they looked dull and somehow both happy and sad at the same time. The skin beneath them looked dark, almost bruised and that made his whole face look paler. His blond hair was mussed like he had carelessly run his fingers through it in a half-hearted attempt at grooming. And judging by the stubble of beard on his cheeks and chin that was all the grooming he had done. Overall the mercenary looked older and just plain worn out. And hadn't Buck said something about him needing to sleep? Was he sick?
"Sick?" He tried to ask the question but he couldn't seem to get past one-word sentences.
"What'd he say? Is he asking if he's sick?"
"No, Buck. He wants to know if 'I'm' sick." Chris smiled and held the cup to Vin's lips as he answered. "And to answer your question, no, I'm not sick. Just didn't get much sleep last night."
Vin frowned as he swallowed the quickly cooling broth. Dark memories were trying to surface but he wasn't ready to deal with those yet.
"Buck can stay." There, three words and above a whisper.
"What, kicking me out of my own home?" Chris shook his head in mock despair as he tilted the cup once more. Vin was forced to swallow another mouthful before he could speak again.
"You should rest." Vin turned his head so that he could see Buck, in hopes that the man would offer some kind of support. Wasn't Buck the one that had started all this by trying to feed him while Chris slept?
"Ain't that something? He's the one that spent the night fighting orcs and burning from their poison and he's worried about you sleeping." Buck couldn't help laughing even though the sight was kind of pitiful. There Vin lay like he hadn't the muscles of a new born babe, with a face so pale he looked like a ghost, and he was worried that Chris was tired.
Unfortunately, Buck's words served as the key to unlocking all the memories of the previous night that Vin had been trying so hard to ignore. They came rushing up out of the dark recesses of his mind like a river in flood and he was swept along in their grip. He lost sight of Chris and Buck and the light-filled room as he was plunged once more into a night of fear and pain.
The storm had built rapidly and by the feel of the air it was going to be a bad one. The heavy, rain-filled clouds had long since blocked out the glow of the moon and the night was pitch black. Luckily, Vin had inherited some of his father's ability to see in the dark and he was very familiar with the path he followed through the woods. At the end of the trail lay his friend's house where he knew there would be a warm fire and maybe a mug of that rich ale that Chris was so fond of. While the storm raged outside, he would sit and watch the mercenary carve little wooden figurines or simply enjoy the smell of the pipe that the man liked to smoke. They wouldn't talk much. There never seemed to be a need for idle conversation when they were alone together. Just each other's presence was more than enough to fill the long hours.
Maybe if Vin hadn't been thinking ahead to the end of the trail, he wouldn't have failed to notice the broken branches and trampled briars that indicated something else's use of the same path. Something big and careless in its passage. In fact two 'somethings' that walked upright like men but were much broader and heavier, hence the mangled condition of the undergrowth. But the night was exceptionally dark due to the building storm and Vin's thoughts were already safely tucked away in his friend's cottage. He found the 'somethings' on the trail when he rounded a large tree and literally ran into them.
Stumbling back, Vin had a few seconds to take in the scant details of his sudden encounter. A deep grunt of surprise from the thing he had run into told him it was as shocked as he was. Then he noticed the two pairs of yellow, glowing eyes that loomed a good three heads above his own. Vin knew he wasn't tall by human standards but he wasn't that short either. And he had never heard of men with eyes that glowed in the dark. But orcs had yellow eyes and they could see very well in the dark. They were also evil creatures that tended to kill first and never worry about asking questions.
Vin was drawing his long knife from its sheath and falling back into a defensive crouch even as the pair decided that he was an enemy that needed to be dealt with. A sudden flash of lightning lit the forest and illuminated the true horror of what the tracker was facing. The orc race as a whole was as ugly as they were big. And this pair was a prime example. Their skin, what little of it wasn't covered by leather armor, was blotched and warty like the skins of ground-toads. Pointed ears stuck up above bald heads and the pale yellow eyes gleamed out of broad faces with flat noses and thick-lipped mouths. Growling deeply and flashing their razor sharp teeth, they drew huge, curved swords from their brass-studded belts and advanced on the young half-elf.
There was a moment when Vin could have turned and fled through the forest, safely escaping the two orcs. His agile body and woodland skills would have enabled him to easily elude the hulking brutes, even in the darkness. And he did think about running. He wasn't a fool. He was better with the bow slung across his back than the double-edged knife in his hand. And no sane man would try to fight two sword-wielding orcs armed with just an extra long knife. But if he ran, then what?
The trail they were standing on led to only one place and that was Chris' small home. And the orcs had been headed in the same direction as Vin. The trail was the most direct route there and if he left it to escape and the orcs either ignored him or split up, one or both of them could reach the mercenary before he did. Chris was his friend, one of the few he had, and he wasn't about to save his own hide if it meant putting his friend's at risk.
Suddenly the moment of decision was past and Vin was fighting for his life. The two orcs did split up at first and while one kept him busy parrying sword thrusts, the other tried to circle around behind him. But years of living in the forest and naturally fast reflexes allowed the half-elf to keep both fighters in front of him. Where they stumbled over fallen trees and crashed through thorn-filled shrubs, Vin leaped and slithered. The orcs' skin and armor were snagged and caught by low branches and clinging vines that the nimble tracker seemed to ghost right past.
Matched one against one, knife against knife, the odds would have been in his favor. But the orcs were seasoned fighters and knew how to work together. Their long arms and heavy swords gave them an advantage when the trees didn't block their swings. Added to that the orcs had their own natural abilities. They could see better in the dark than Vin and besides their curved swords they had thick, hard nails at the ends of their fingers that they used just like miniature blades. All too soon the young tracker was covered with shallow cuts and claw marks and with each one he lost a little more blood and a little more strength.
Vin's moment came when one of the lumbering beasts stepped into a hole left by a rotting stump. As the creature fell heavily on its side the tracker leaped forward and slashed it across its throat. But the move left him open to an attack from the other orc. Too close to block the falling sword, the best he could do was try and roll from underneath it. The sharpened steel cut deep into the earth but not before slicing through Vin's side. The scream that escaped his lips was drowned out in a sudden crash of thunder.
Rather than pushing its advantage, the remaining orc hesitated and lifted its head as if testing the wind. Seeing his chance, Vin blocked out the pain from his newest wound and leaped straight at the monster's face. The fingers of his left hand found something to hold onto while he brought his knife down with all his remaining strength. Now it was the orc's turn to cry out in agony and not even the fury of the storm could drown out its bellow. But even with Vin's knife buried to the hilt in its eye, it still managed to throw the tracker several feet before falling to the ground dead.
For several long moments, Vin lay stunned among the roots of a very old tree. The sudden downpour of cold rain revived him just enough to push himself upright against the broad trunk. Tilting his face to the falling drops, he drew in shuddering gasps of air and held his left arm pressed tight to his side. He looked over to the scene of his battle as another streak of lightning flashed through the clouds. The bodies of the two orcs lay motionless on the forest floor and knowing that to remain seated was to join them in death, Vin gritted his teeth and struggled to his feet.
Staggering with exhaustion, his first thought was to retrieve his knife. With his bow lying discarded somewhere during the fight that blade was his only weapon and means of defense if any other orcs, or other equally foul creatures, still lurked in the woods. His weaving steps brought him close to the body of his first kill but he barely glanced at it. All of his attention was focused on the hilt of his blade and the need to find help.
Chris. He needed Chris. He would retrieve his knife then he would go to his friend's home. Chris would help him. Chris would...
Vin screamed as the orc at his feet suddenly lunged forward to sink its fangs through his soft leather boot and deep into his ankle. His cry was abruptly choked off as he fell and his face struck the leaf-covered ground. He felt a clawed hand grip his calf even as the jaws closed tighter on his leg. His knee joint burned as he twisted to his side, bringing his left foot up to kick desperately at the still glowing eyes. It took two strikes to finally break free of the dying creature's grasp. Half sobbing, half panting in reaction to the pain and sudden fright, Vin dragged himself away from the two orcs.
Forgetting about his knife, he stumbled to his feet and found his way back to the trail. Instinct, more than conscious thought, kept him heading in the right direction and visions of a warm fire and a friendly face were all that kept him moving. The night seemed to grow even darker and the trail stretched on forever. At first his ankle burned and throbbed with every limping step, then it went mercifully numb. Some of the numbness seemed to migrate to his brain and he grew confused and at times forgot where he was heading. He couldn't remember why he was walking in the rain. Why wasn't he inside where it was dry? Why wasn't he with Chris? Chris. He had to find Chris.
"Vin. Snap out of it, Vin. It's alright. You're safe now."
Suddenly he could feel rough, warm hands on his face instead of cold rain. Forcing his eyes open, he expected it to be dark but sunlight streamed through an open window. Worried green eyes peered into his and he cried out in relief.
"Shhh. It's all over now, Vin. You're safe." Chris did his best to calm the weakly-sobbing tracker. He kept up a steady murmur of soothing words, just as he had the night before but this time Vin's pain wasn't physical.
Slowly his ragged breathing steadied and his eyes gradually closed. When Chris was sure Vin was asleep he motioned for Buck to remove the cushions so that he could lay the young man back on the bed. Tucking the blanket in securely Chris stood at last and almost tripped over his own feet.
"Whoa there, friend. Looks to me like you need to follow his example." Buck kept his voice down to avoid waking the sleeping boy but he kept a firm grip on Chris' arm as he directed him towards a nearby pallet.
Chris nodded wearily and sank gratefully down onto the makeshift bed. "You'll wake me if..."
"Yes, I'll wake you if he needs you. Now sleep. Otherwise you aren't going to be any help to him at all."
Buck watched until he was sure his friend was asleep then moved back over to where Vin lay quiet at last. As he stood looking down at the frail looking half-elf he couldn't help feeling more than a little awed. Caught up in his memories, the tracker had unconsciously spoken out loud and though sometimes a little incoherent, he had described his fight with enough detail to shake both seasoned fighters.
"Killed two orcs and lived to tell about it. Next time I get into a scrape I wouldn't mind having you cover my back."
"Safer than standing in front, I guess."
Buck's jaw dropped at the softly spoken words then he grinned and shot a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure Chris was still asleep. Easing down onto the side of the bed, he spoke in a hoarse whisper. "You little faker. You pretended to be asleep so Chris would sleep."
"Did it work?"
"Like a charm. Feel like drinking some more of this broth? There's still some warm in the pot."
"Think you can keep from spilling it all over me?"
The two conspirators smiled knowingly at each other as they reached an agreement. Buck was able to get Vin propped up against the cushions again and, for his part, the tracker held still and allowed the fighter to feed him the soup. Full at last and feeling like he really could go to sleep, Vin let Buck lay him back down on the bed and tuck the blankets in once more. But before he could succumb to his body's needs, he felt he had tell someone the truth.
"Buck. When I was fighting the orcs...I was scared."
"Pits, boy, who wouldn't have been?"
Buck grinned and rumpled the hair on top of Vin's head, ignoring his frown of annoyance. "I think if you asked him, Chris would tell you there's been lots of times he was afraid going into a fight. Only fools and liars will tell you they ain't never known fear."
Standing up, Buck gave him one more pat on the head and a last word of advice. "Being a little bit afraid will keep you cautious and on your toes. When you're so scared you can't move or all you can do is run, that's when you take up goat herding."
"Oh, and Buck?"
"Don't ever pat me on the head again."