Sings-to-Trees was being strangled.
He’d always expected a patient to kill him some day, but he’d thought he would be a lot older, and it would be an angry bull or a careless moment with a manticore or something along those lines, with an outside chance of being crushed under a nearsighted troll. He really hadn’t anticipated anything like this.
The orc had been giggling to herself for a few minutes, and when he tried to talk to her, she only giggled harder. He didn’t know if she could speak any of the languages, or if she was so delirious that she wasn’t even hearing him. He had no real idea what the normal temperature for an orc was, but her skin burned against his fingers, and if he had to guess, he’d say she was running quite a high fever.
There was something very surreal about a giggling orc. It wasn’t malicious, like when pixies left flaming piles of pixie-crap on your doorstep and hid to watch you step in it. This was a throaty, genuinely amused chuckle—reduced to a shadow by weakness and a dry throat, mind you, but still definitely there. Wherever the orc was, and whatever she was seeing, she was finding it hysterical.
He’d torn the shoulder out of one of his shirts and gotten it buttoned on to her. It wasn’t terribly pretty, but it was the only way to escape the feeling that her torso was staring at him. She hadn’t resisted. Actually, she’d been as limp as a dead ferret, and she’d giggled through the whole process.
Then he’d knelt by the bed and leaned over to put a cold compress on her head, and without even a break in the laughter, one hand shot out and closed over his throat.
He dropped the compress. It fell over her eyes. She giggled even harder.
She was incredibly strong.
He clawed at the green fingers with both hands. He could feel things in his neck collapsing. He managed to pry one finger loose and peel it back. If that hurt her, it didn’t seem to register at all.
“Rrrrhggaaa? Hna, hna, uruk singhaa…” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper, still choked with laughter.
Black spots were starting to form over his vision. This was ridiculous. An elven lady couldn’t have strangled a mouse with both hands, and this half-dead orc was going to crush his throat one-handed. Parts of his brain were yammering about his impending death, but the parts saying I told you! had almost completely drowned them out.
What was I thinking? It’s an orc! What the hell was I thinking bringing it back here? She’s going to strangle me and then she’ll die of fever and we’ll both be dead and then who will feed the gargoyle and treat Frogsnoggler’s gout?
He got his fingers underneath hers and hauled with all his strength.
Her hand fell away. Sings-to-Trees fell over on his back and lay panting on the floorboards.
For a few minutes, the only sounds in the room were his harsh, throttled breathing, and her increasingly faint giggles. Dust motes danced in a sunbeam, kissing the tangled blankets and the orc woman’s skin until the hand that had tried to strangle him was the translucent green-gold of new leaves. As he watched, the fingers flexed a few times, then went slack.
He massaged his neck and coughed a few times, experimentally There was a band down the left side, where her fingertips had dug in, which ached dreadfully. He suspected he’d be confined to eating soup for awhile, but so would the orc, so at least the cooking would be easier.
You’re going to keep her? She tried to kill you!
He stood up.
She stopped laughing.
He thought for a moment that he’d managed to frighten her, looming over her suddenly, and felt a small, mean pleasure at the thought, but he saw immediately that the wet compress was still over her eyes and she couldn’t have seen him anyway. She’d just trailed off into silence, her breathing growing more and more regular. The sun beam illuminated the even rise and fall of her ribcage, and flickered on a lock of black hair being stirred every time she exhaled. She looked remarkably ordinary, albeit green, and not at all like a sworn enemy who had just tried to murder him.
He stood there in silence, his hands splayed at his throat. He breathed. She breathed.
Finally she began to snore.
She’d tried to kill him, and then she’d fallen asleep.
Sings-to-Trees felt absurdly insulted. People falling asleep without a word after sex was rude, people falling asleep without a word after attempted murder was completely beyond the pale.
He raked a hand through his hair. Adrenalin was making his head spin, and his legs were trembling. He turned away.
He made it outside, to the rocking chair on the porch, and collapsed into it. Fleabane raised his head from the corner of the porch and came up to drag his tongue across the elf’s hand. Sings-to-Trees fisted both hands in the coyote’s fur and shuddered.
She’d nearly killed him. What was he thinking? This wasn’t a lynx kitten, or a fox cub, or even a genial, bumbling troll. She was dangerous.
Fleabane licked his face worriedly, and whined. Sings-to-Trees sat up, pushing him away. “Sorry, boy. Didn’t mean to worry you.” His voice was a low rasp. He took a deep breath, which burned most of the way down.
He’d treated dangerous animals before. He could handle this. He couldn’t very well shove her in a hutch, and he probably didn’t need to wear cowhide gloves—she didn’t seem inclined to bite—but he could figure something out. She couldn’t be any worse than the hippogriff. He’d managed that, even if he’d had to wrap a rope around its jaw to make it swallow herbal draughts, and kept it weighted down with chains like a rogue elephant. He’d needed three trolls as a guard when it was time to release the creature, but it had run off with no more than a faint limp, vestigal wings raking the air. If he could do that, he could do this.
Granted, he hadn’t tried to treat the hippogriff inside the house. But what other option did he have? Go in and slit her throat? Dump her back out in the field? There was nothing in Sings-to-Trees’ heart that would let him do either of those things.
That’s how it always is with animals. You scrape them off the ground or pull them out of the trap, and then they’re your problem. You don’t get to say “No, this is too hard, I can’t handle it,” and put them back.
He stood up, pushing Fleabane off his knees. The coyote shook himself, let his tail thump once against the elf’s shins, and trotted off, around the side of his house.
He went back into the house. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. The orc woman was still snoring. Her uninjured arm dangled off the side of the bed. He stared at it as if it were a venomous serpent grafted to her shoulder.
There was no help for it. He was going to have to tie her hands.
Sings-to-Trees was a very good hand with a rope—one doesn’t treat large animals regularly without becoming skilled in the art—but he’d never actually tied up a person. Despite the fact that she had tried to strangle him, he felt absurdly guilty. He could just imagine what the rangers would say—“You took the orc woman home and then you tied her to the bed?”—and there would be a lot of sardonically raised eyebrows, and probably hand gestures as well.
While he knew some people were into that sort of thing, Sings-to-Trees did not have tastes nearly that cosmopolitan. The whole process made him rather queasy.
Plus, she was green.
He settled for tying her wrists together. She was back to being dead-ferret limp again. He gave her probably more slack than was necessary, and even that made him feel desperately uncomfortable. Tying her up made her a prisoner, and having a prisoner made him…what?
He couldn’t imagine what his mother would have said. Well, his mother was dead, but his aunt, Whisper-of-Shade, would have hysterics.
Actually, she’d probably have approved of an orcish prisoner, she just wouldn’t have gotten past him bringing home a wounded orc in the first place. Aunt Whisper was a patriot. She’d never quite forgiven him for not joining the military, and engaging the foe in a far off land.
Of course, now, he was directly engaging the foe, practically in his own back yard, and…
He sank slowly down into a chair, his eyes drawn back to the heap of mismatched armor at the foot of the bed.
Belated—very belatedly—it occurred to him to wonder what the hell an orc was doing out here, anyway.
Dear woodland gods, I am a fool.
The last major skirmish with the orcs had been the goblin war, a year ago and the nearest battle had been a good fifty miles away. There’d been goblins here—a whole division of them, bless their deviant little hearts—but there’d been magic involved, and a rogue magician, and the whole thing had been a mess.
What there hadn’t been were orcs. In all the time he’d lived out on the farm, he’d never heard so much as a rumor of one. They were the monsters under the bed, yes, but someone else’s bed. The orcs lived somewhere else, clear on the other side of the elven nation, and they definitely did not run loose through the woods, on the far border between human and elven lands. The rangers would have had a litter of rhinoceros kittens apiece at the very notion.
What was she doing here?
He stared at her, as if the answer might be written on her face, possibly in very tiny script on the side of her nose. Unfortunately, she remained green, opaque, and uncommunicative.
She had quite an impressive nose. You could have fitted a fairly lengthy explanation on it. He’d washed off the blood, and underneath it was large and aqualine and, yes, green, with an angled bump at the ridge. He guessed it had been broken, but that someone had done quite a good job setting it. If you weren’t staring at it and thinking about broken bones, you’d hardly notice.
There were her hands, too. He’d spotted that while he was binding her wrists. She had scars along the backs of her hands and fingers, defensive wounds, layer after layer, a roadmap of old knife fights. But the underside of the fingertips on her right hand were stained black, each stain standing out dark against the pale green skin of her palms.
It took him a few minutes to realize—and another few more to believe—that they were ink stains. Whatever she did, she spent a lot of time writing. Fending off weapons with her hands, and writing.
What a bizarre life she must lead.
Somehow, it had led her here, to a place she had no business being.
Someone who wrote as much as she fought. A clerk?
No. Warm bodies to throw into battle were easy to come by, people who could do complicated math were precious. They’d never let a competent clerk within ten miles of a battlefield, unless orcs engaged in some kind of commando knife-fight accounting that he didn’t know about.
This struck him as possible, but unlikely, although the image of spectacled orcs dueling with razor-wire abacuses had a lot to recommend it.
Could she be a spy?
Out here? She almost has to be, doesn’t she?
The idea seemed absurd. She had no chance at all of passing for human, and even less of passing for an elf—her ears were pointed, true, but she bore as much resemblance to an elven woman as a draft horse does to a lady’s pony. Elven women were slender, ethereal creatures, all bird bones and enormous eyes. “Slender” was not a word you would ever apply to the orc, and “ethereal” wouldn’t be caught in the same room. She had heavy hips and biceps like a blacksmith. You could have made two elven maidens out of her, provided you had a sufficient quantity of bleach.
And then there were the feet. He’d wrestled her boots off earlier—the boots were a piece of work in and of themselves, more like siege weapons than footwear—and her feet were nearly the same size as his, and possibly a little wider. An elven beauty possessing feet that unfashionably sized would have hacked them off at the ankle and told people she’d been in a tragic threshing accident.
No, no one who’d ever seen an elven woman, even by faint moonlight--which was generally how they liked to be seen--would mistake this creature for one.
Which meant that even if he did patch her up, even if he was treasonous enough to let her go--he had no idea how to send her back where she belonged. She’d be shot by the first person who saw her.
He slumped back in the chair, massaging his throat, and wondered what he was going to do.
Celadon Toadstool woke.
Her throat was dry and her hair was in her face. She lifted a hand to push it back, and her shoulder exploded with pain. She let the hand drop and discovered then that her wrists were roped together.
So. She was a prisoner, then.
This was not the first time she’d been a captive. It wasn’t even the third time. She was pretty sure that the grand total was still less than ten, but the prisoner exchanges tended to blur together after awhile.
Celadon flexed one foot, very slowly, and satisfied herself that her feet weren’t bound.
Good. That would make things easier.
She opened her eyes a slit.
Her hands were indeed bound, although they’d left an almost criminal amount of slack. She was wearing somebody else’s shirt, and there was a heavy bandage plastered across her shoulder. She didn’t like the look of the bandage. It was a big, solid piece of work. It looked like there was something unfortunate underneath.
Her surroundings were unexpected, but not entirely unfamiliar. She remembered fragments of the room from the long fever dream. She wasn’t sure how long she had been feverish—the nightmares seemed to stretch as far back as the battle, and that couldn’t be right—but she didn’t think she had been here for very long.
It wasn’t very prison like. It looked like a log cabin with a high, peaked ceiling. Rafters crisscrossed it like the web of a particularly linear-minded spider. She was on a bed, with an actual mattress, and there was a fire on the hearth.
Sitting in a chair, facing the bed, was the enemy.
Celadon let her head loll to one side, with a faint, sleepy sound, for verisimilitude.
He wasn’t much of an enemy. Actually, he seemed to be asleep. She studied him warily through her eyelashes.
He was an elf, and a pretty big one, but he was not wearing armor. His arms were long and lanky and hung off the ends of the armrests. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, and there was blood on his clothes. Typical elf face, all bones and angles and pasty flesh, typical white elf hair, although he didn’t have any coup markers braided into it.
That was interesting. If he was a warrior, he was a very inexperienced one.
Well, stood to reason. No warrior with an ounce of sense would fall asleep while watching an orc, even a wounded one. That was the sort of mistake you didn’t live to make twice.
His chin sank forward onto his chest, and he jerked awake with a snort. Celadon closed her eyes quickly.
She heard the squeak of leather as he got up, and the rustle of cloth. His footsteps were very light, but of course, that was the trouble with the bloody elves—you never heard them sneak up on you.
Fingers touched her forehead. They were long and cool and that woke a memory from somewhere in the feverish mists.
Did I strangle someone? They took my sword, but I remember someone touching my face, and then I think I throttled him.
He touched her shoulder. A savage pain, hot and dull all at once, like a blow from a burning hammer, smashed through her. Pain sank redly into her bones. She jerked, but stifled a noise of pain.
Was it to be torture? She could handle torture, although not for very long. Under five minutes, say.
It would have helped if she knew why they were torturing her, though. She didn’t think she knew anything important. There was the initial draft of her next epic, but that seemed unlikely. Some of them got translated into Elvish occasionally, some cultural exchange program or other, and of course she never saw a copper from it, but she doubted sales were good enough for someone to have spotted her on the battlefield and hauled her in for a preview. You heard about tortured poets, but not usually in that sense.
In fairness, some of the elven poets they translated into Orcish were pretty good, enemy scum-dogs not withstanding, although they tended to be too damn verbose when given the chance. Quatrains, that was the way to do it. Then they didn’t have enough time to go on about the sublime sounds of silver beech leaves moving in a breeze at the sixth hour of midnight when the cuckoo crapped under the waning crescent moon. Quatrains made you get to the damn point already. Celadon approved heartily of quatrains.
The enemy did not recite any quatrains, but instead made a clucking sound of disapproval with his tongue. She heard the rustle of cloth moving away, and the familiar clanging of crockery.
She didn’t have much time.
Celadon let her eyes roll back under her eyelids, and concentrated on controlling her breathing. She started slowly and evenly. If the elf was listening closely, he might notice it, and if he was clever he might even recognize what she was doing, but there wasn’t much help for that.
Pots banged. Water was poured from one vessel to another. A poker scraped across the hearthstones.
Her breathing under control, she began to increase it. It came faster, and more shallowly. Her shoulder throbbed and she turned her attention to it. The voice of old Harragukkhan came back to her, as it always did, old Red Lungfish, who had one eye and three teeth and could talk about fly-fishing until you begged him for mercy. Harragukkhan, master berserker. She’d loved him like a father, until the elves had killed him.
Pain is a sea. Pain is a sea, and I will not drown in it. See, I am an island, I am a stone, I rise out of the sea. It washes over me, it contains me, but I stand above it…
Her breath was coming in short, harsh pants now. She flexed her left wrist. It hurt, but it would do what she needed, for a little while at least.
You will regret caging me, my enemy. You should have killed me when you had the chance, not tied me up somewhere to rot.
Footsteps came toward her rapidly. The elf was muttering to himself in worried Elvish now. His shadow fell across her face, and he laid a hand across her throat.
Still! Quiet! Do not give a sign!
It was hard to hold to such coherent thought, with the berserker starting to stir in her blood. Every nerve screamed to fight, to rip the hand away from her neck and then perhaps beat him to death with it.
Fingers lay across her jugular, taking her pulse. She knew it was rapid, she could hear it pounding in her ears. Then the hand moved, and she felt him touch the bandage on her shoulder.
The cloth was pulled back. The red sea washed over the island. She opened her eyes the merest slit again.
She could see his profile, the brows drawn together over worried green eyes. He was leaning over her, poking at the bandage. Her rapid breathing must have alarmed him.
A flare of purple caught her eye. His throat was covered in a flowering of bruises, almost floral colors of red-violet and blue stark against the pale skin. She recognized the marks.
So. She had tried to strangle him.
Celadon Toadstool had never been one to second-guess herself, unless iambic pentameter was involved.
If I tried to strangle him, I bet I had a damn good reason.
The elf turned away, the blood soaked bandage in his hand.
The berserker came roiling out of the dark, up her spine, saturating her brain with a red haze.
Time to finish the job.
Both hands shot over the elf’s head, and she hauled backward. The ropes binding her hands made an effective garrote. He yelped something in Elvish,* cut off abruptly. Her shoulder flared into agony and she snarled with the pain, but it was the red sea washing over the stone, and the stone was stronger than the sea.
The elf was on his knees, clutching at her hands. He tore at the rope and her fingers. The berserker roared.
She wanted to kill him. It would be easy to kill him. There could never be enough dead elves to satisfy her, not anymore. But she needed information worse than vengeance right now. She fought back the haze and gave him an inch of slack.
He choked, making a series of ratcheting noises almost exactly like a cat having a hairball.
“Give me a reason why I shouldn’t kill you,” she hissed into his ear.
He gasped something out. It took her a moment to decipher—it was in Glibber again—and then she had to snort at her own foolishness.
“I don’t speak Orcish,” he’d said.
Well, of course he didn’t.
She hated Glibber. Good for some poetry, oddly enough, particularly haiku, and nobody could write a dirty limerick like a goblin, but the possessive pronouns were desperately unaesthetic. She took a deep breath as the red sea threatened to swamp her, and fought it back.
“Give—“ (damn, what was “reason” again? Bugger!) “—give fact why me-not you-kill!”
As threats go, it just lacked something. She had a mad urge to apologize to her victim for the inelegance of her phrasing.
He wheezed. She gave him a bit more slack. For a warrior, he wasn’t holding up very well at all.
“…healer…” he gasped. “…you…help...” His head lolled forward, and his fingers scrabbled, increasingly weakly, at her wrists.
“Aw, hell,” said Celadon Toadstool.
*While Celadon did not speak Elvish, as a service for the curious, what he said was “Not again--!”