Sings-to-Trees’s primary thought through the whole violent encounter was Not the throat again!
His neck hurt. He felt like a troll had used his esophagus as a dance floor. This could not be healthy. If he lived through this, he swore he would be nice to his throat for the rest of the year. Hot teas. Scarfs during winter. Anything.
For awhile, he didn’t think he was going to live to see sunrise, let alone winter.
Then she’d apologized. The orc had stood there, with a distinctly sheepish expression on her face, and she’d apologized.
None of his patients ever apologized. Most of them couldn’t talk, and it didn’t seem to occur to the ones who could.
Half of him wanted to reply automatically—No, it’s okay, these things happen, don’t worry about it—and the other half was jumping up and down screaming You just tried to kill me, you green-faced lunatic! You can’t just apologize for trying to kill people!
Perhaps fortunately, his throat was aching too badly to say any of these things.
It was worse this time. The first time, she’d been delirious, and he couldn’t really hold it against her—it was like when you treated a fox and of course it tried to bite you, it was in pain, and it had to lash out. You dodged, but you didn’t blame the fox.
This time, though—this was attempted, pre-meditated, carefully planned murder. She’d genuinely intended to do him in.
And then she’d brought him tea. And apologized again. For being so rude as to try and kill him.
Sings-to-Trees felt like he was in some strange game with no idea of the rules and distressingly high stakes. If there was an internal logic, he wasn’t following it.
She asked him where the sentries were. He stared at her blankly. She took this for an answer, which was good, because if his throat hadn’t hurt so bad, he would have blurted out “What sentries?” When he realized that she was serious—she really thought she was in the middle of an armed camp, some kind of military outpost, rather than a ramshackle farm holding one elf, one gargoyle, one coyote and an indeterminate number of chickens—he’d started laughing again, as much from sheer disbelief as anything else.
The orc didn’t seem to hold this against him. Actually, she’d seemed quite aware of the absurdity of the situation, but the pointed underteeth gave her smile a wry, crooked look anyway, so it was hard to tell.
She went into the kitchen. He could track her progress trying to cut her bonds by the snarls of pain. She snarled like a wild animal, not like a person.
She was the enemy. It was a lot easier to remember that when she was awake and prowling through the house—lurching occasionally, to be sure, but still definitely a prowl, like a wounded tiger moving through the bush. She had a predatory presence when awake that was largely lacking when she was limp, green, and giggling sporadically.
He wondered if he should try to kill her.
He had the knife he used for all the small, practical jobs, like cutting the sleeves out of shirts. The blade wasn’t very long, but it was sharp. He could probably cut her throat with it, if he could convince her to hold still and stare at the ceiling for a prolonged period of time.
She hadn’t seemed at all worried that he was holding the knife. Sings-to-Trees heaved a sketch of a sigh, so as not to hurt his throat. She was right not to worry. He knew he wouldn’t use it. She’d seen that, somehow or other.
It was depressing, being that transparent to an orc woman who’d known you for less than five conscious minutes.
She came back out of the kitchen, more slowly than she went in. His shirt was tucked up on one side, revealing the hilt of his best butcher knife.
He started to wonder if she was going to use it to kill him, and found that he didn’t believe it. She’d been too upset when she learned he was a healer. She could have killed him easily then, just kept strangling, but she’d let him go, and apologized. Attacking him again now seemed bizarrely irrational.
Not that trying to kill someone and then apologizing could be called entirely rational behavior, but he couldn’t really think of what the rational response would be in that situation. Maybe apologizing and leaving as quickly as possible was all you really could do.
He was willing to let her go. He was in over his head. This was worse than the hippogriff, because he’d been able to trust his judgment with the hippogriff. He couldn’t trust himself with the orc. He should have tied her hands to the bedframe.
Why? You couldn’t have imagined she could use that shoulder. Her left arm should have been like a lead weight.
The arm in question didn’t seem to be terribly effective at the moment, no matter how well she’d been strangling him earlier. She was holding it pressed tightly against her side, and her lips were looking more grey than green.
The orc reached down to the pile of her armor and picked up her helmet with her good hand. Rope dangled from her wrists like lumpy jewelry. The motion turned her, so that she was facing Sings-to-Trees enough for him to see the bandage.
There was a red bloom forming in the center. She’d torn the stitches and was bleeding again.
She had to be in immense pain. He was astonished she’d managed to strangle him in the first place. If he’d been in half that much agony, he’d have stayed in bed and sent a pigeon to the humans down the road, asking them to send someone up to fluff his pillow and make him tea.
Somehow, it wasn’t surprising. He’d seen it in wild animals—boars, particularly. They never stopped. You could put a spear through one’s heart, and it would charge up the thing, impaling itself all the way along the shaft, just so it could get to you and take you down with it.
Lord, maybe the propaganda was right. Maybe orcs were more animals than people.
On the other hand, animals never apologized. He was in a position to know. Dogs were the only things that came close, and generally it was more along the lines of “I’m sorry you’re mad at me.” Fleabane didn’t even do that much. Guilt was entirely alien to the coyote’s nature.
The orc woman put the helmet on her head. Straps dangled under her chin. She reached much more slowly down to the pile. The bandage got redder, and she snarled again.
Sings-to-Trees clutched the cooling mug of tea, and watched her pull the armor on.
It was almost hypnotic, like performance art of some sort. She was slowing down, almost visibly, like clockwork grinding to a halt. The arm guards went on quickly enough, but the leg guards were much slower. By the time she reached the complicated little chainmail skirt-and-belt thing, she was moving as if she was underwater. Her breathing was loud and labored.
She held the last piece—an elaborate shoulder guard—in her hands for a long time. Sings-to-Trees realized that she was swaying, and set his mug down.
She didn’t look up at the sound, or at the movement. The bandage was almost completely red now.
He stood up. He didn’t know why he was standing up. He was perfectly willing to let her walk out the door and take her chances. If she made it off the farm, he’d wash his hands of her.
There was no dealing with some people. Sings-to-Trees tuned himself out.
Still holding the armor, the orc woman turned around. Her breathing was still labored, but it had gotten oddly slow, as if each one took an immense amount of concentration.
She took a step towards the door.
Sings-to-Trees shuffled forward, and stopped. Maybe he had some thought of opening the door for her. He wasn’t actually sure.
She took another step.
It was physically painful to watch her walk. He knew she was going to fall down—anything short of a wild boar or a troll would have fallen down twenty minutes ago. There was blood actually running down her shoulder now.
He didn’t dare touch her. She’d gut him with the butcher knife, he was sure of it. She might not mean to, she’d probably apologize afterward, but she’d still do it.
The orc stumbled on the edge of the hearthrug. He would have screamed from the tension if his throat hadn’t felt like a burning sponge.
She caught herself. He took another step forward, and gnawed helplessly on a fingernail.
Against all odds, she made it to the door.
She looked at the door knob for a very long time, long enough for him to wonder if orcs even used door knobs, or if they just propped their doors shut with the severed heads of their enemies. Then she muttered something in that guttural, cursing language, and her good hand went out, and she pushed the door open.
The orc woman stood on his doorstep, and stared out at the world. From the end of the porch, Fleabane’s head shot up.
Sings-to-Trees took another step forward, and then another, and then tried to cross the rest of the room at a dead run because the orc had suddenly blanched an astonishing shade of chartreuse.
She collapsed. She went down spectacularly, like a felled ox, straight forward with no attempt to catch herself at all.
Sings-to-Trees leapt forward and managed to break about half her fall—just enough to keep her head from bouncing off the porch pillars, and to gouge himself on the leg with the butcher knife. The shoulder guard spun out of her hands and skidded across the porch, making a foolish clattering, like a drawer full of dropped cutlery. Fleabane hid under the porch.
He shrugged the orc onto the bed, and stood looking down at her. His throat ached abominably, and he was tired and parts of him were heartsick for no reason except that someone had just tried to kill him, who had never done conscious harm to anyone in his life.
And he had to get her out of all that damn armor all over again.
Shoulders sagging, Sings-to-Trees went and put on a fresh pot of tea.