This was easier said than done.
She gave him some very practical suggestions about how to tie the ropes. A bit of slack between the feet, enough to shuffle, not enough to run. A rope around the neck as a kind of leash in case she attacked him. He could tell she’d done this sort of thing before.
Sings-to-Trees, at that point, would have been happy just untying her completely and pointing her in the direction of the outhouse, but he had a horrible feeling he’d disappoint her if he didn’t at least try to hold up his end. So he steeled himself to stay awake a bit longer and got the ropes set up, and hauled her out of the bed.
Then she wound up needing to use him as a crutch anyway, since her knees kept buckling, so it was a bit of a moot point.
“Can you hold this?” he asked, handing her the leash rope after a few brutal hops toward the door.
“What if I try to escape?”
He sighed. “Just yank it if you feel yourself getting any ideas.”
She started laughing, then they took another step and the pain cut her off. Her lips were getting a bit grey again.
“I’ll make it.”
They staggered across the yard to the outhouse. It was a small, single-holed number, with a basket of corncobs tucked inside the entrance and a complicated elven squiggle carved into the door. (Had Celadon spoken Elven, she would have known that the rune meant something like “The Sacred Place For Returning Gifts To The Earth.” She would have undoubtedly had something very sarcastic to say about this, so perhaps it’s as well she didn’t.)
She limped inside and handed him the neck rope through a crack in the door.
“What? What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Hold the end in case I try something.” Her tone indicated that as captors went, he was distinctly substandard.
“What are you likely to try in an outhouse? Tunneling for help?” He was already exhausted, but he was starting to get exasperated as well.
“I might have a knife cleverly concealed in an orifice.”
It took him a second to remember the word for “orifice,” and once he did, Sings-to-Trees felt himself turning crimson. Elven women didn’t even have—well, obviously they did have—he’d even—it had been a long time ago, mind you, but—they certainly didn’t mention—
The orc was laughing at him. “Are all elves this prudish?” she asked.
God help him, she had to be doing this on purpose. The wild boar wasn’t just telling dirty jokes, it was elbowing him and wiggling its eyebrows suggestively.
“I’m not prudish,” he said, stung. And then, because he was very very tired, and had some vague thought of showing his credentials in this case, “I stick my arm in cows.”
There was a long and interestingly textured silence from inside the outhouse.
The tips of his pointed ears were getting hot. “It’s part of my job. It’s not like I do it for fun.”
“Good to know!”
He rubbed his eyes. Perhaps he was asleep already and having some kind of dreadful nightmare.
The outhouse door swung open.
“I want you to know,” she said, as they limped across the yard again, “that was the oddest conversation I’ve ever had while on the privy. And you’d be surprised how steep the competition was.”
“Nothing surprises me any more,” he said heavily, and wondered how long it would be before he got some sleep at last.
It turned out to be awhile.
By the time they were halfway across the yard, her teeth were chattering again, and she’d broken out in gooseflesh. That would have alarmed him if he hadn’t seen it in humans and occasionally in goblins—it wasn’t something that happened to elves, for whatever reason, and the first time he’d seen a human suddenly turn bumpy, he’d thought it was some kind of lightning-fast pox. Fortunately the human in question had had a good sense of humor about it.
There was a complicated explanation for the phenomenon in Thee Goode Elfe’s Almananack, something about “thee browne fatt,” which basically boiled down to “Because elves are better, that’s why!” only with a lot more E’s and a “forsooth” that had been homeless and looking for work.
“S-s-sorr-ry,” she clicked out. “It’s n-n-not r-really that c-c-c-old out, is it?”
“All you, I’m afraid,” he said, kicking the door open and holding it with one foot. It felt like an oven inside, but she didn’t seem to notice.
Fleabane had fled the scene, leaving only the ammonia-and-wet-dog smell of male coyote behind. Sings-to-Trees sighed.
He settled her down on the floor in front of the fire, never mind the bed, and wrapped several blankets around her, until she was a patchwork cocoon with a green face.
“I have to get more firewood,” he said. “Try not to freeze to death until I get back.”
“You haven’t t-tied me up,” she protested, trying to get her hands free of the blankets, presumably so he could tie them up again.
“Oh, give it a rest,” he said, thoroughly out of patience. “You wouldn’t get ten feet.”
It was hard to tell with the teeth chattering and the spastic shivering, but he thought she was chuckling. “W-what if I try to k-k-kill you again?”
“Just don’t go for the throat this time. I have a whole range of other vital organs that are feeling neglected.”
Sings-to-Trees went out to split firewood. He was tired, but that was okay. It still wasn’t as bad as the thing with the cockatrice and the baby hummingbirds. Nothing could be as bad as that.
He couldn’t keep her tied up. It was stupid, that was what it was. As long as she was conscious, he didn’t think she’d try to kill him. If she went back into a delirium he’d tie her up again, but otherwise, it was just too damn inconvenient.
Plus there was just no point. He had no illusions about who had the upper hand, and it wasn’t him. Only her profound physical weakness had given him the idea that he was in control of the situation.
Thank god she was good-humored about the whole thing. If she yelled at him—or, dear woodland gods, if she cried at him—
Well, an elf had limits, that was all. Was consoling an orc treason? Technically it was providing comfort, if not aid, to the enemy, but he’d always felt they meant something a little more serious than patting the orc on the back and going “There, there.”
He balanced another chunk of wood on the block and swung the axe.
Her insistence on the ropes was odd. It felt like they were acting out some kind of play for the benefit of an unseen audience.
Well, maybe they were. The rangers would be a lot happier if, when they discovered her, she was tied to something, looking like a prisoner. That way everybody knew their part.
He hefted the axe and split a piece of wood as if it had personally offended him.
For all he knew, she felt the same way. Maybe when the other orcs asked how she’d been treated, she’d have an easier time if she had a tale of traditional captivity instead of a story about an elf who wrapped her in blankets and made her tea.
Making tea could definitely be called providing comfort to the enemy. There were few things as comforting as a nice cup of tea. Had he already betrayed his country by putting the kettle on?
More wood split down the middle with a crisp ripping sound.
Maybe it wasn’t treason as long as you didn’t put sugar in it.
He sighed. It was a sad state of affairs when open warfare made things easier for everybody than just being polite.
He heaved an armload of wood into the wheelbarrow and wheeled it up to the house.
The orc was still alive. All he could see were her bright gold eyes over the top of the blankets.
“Want to move to the bed?”
“Fair enough.” The pot of soup he’d left simmering wasn’t at it’s best yet, but it was still hot. He poured some into a mug. She excavated face and fingers from the blankets long enough to swallow some of it, then sat with her long, scarred fingers wrapped around the mug.
“Sorry,” she said, after a moment. “I’ve b-been a lot of t-trouble…”
She had. He hadn’t gotten anything done around the farm for two days. He said “Don’t worry about it,” anyway and put another log on the fire.
“N-no. Really. You’re not—this isn’t a guard post, is it? Y-y-you’re—“ she was overcome with shivering and swallowed more soup, “—alone out here, aren’t you?”
A chill slid down his own spine. You’re alone out here isn’t a comfortable phrase in the mouth of the enemy.
“There’s some human settlements down the road. The rangers come by some times.”
Fear did not exactly leap in her eyes, but something definitely pooled in their bottoms, like dark oil over gold.
“They don’t know you’re here,” he said.
“Are you going to tell them?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said, and realized that this was absolutely true.
She stared into her soup, and then grinned abruptly. It made her look like a good-natured shark.
“The only altruist in the elven nation,” she said, “and I nearly throttle him. T-twice.”
This startled half a laugh out of him.
“Really, though. You spend all this time brooding over how wars get started, and then you’re not any better in the pinch.” She pulled the blankets tighter, and looked resigned and amused and a bit sad.
It was an expression he understood completely, even with the green skin and the teeth.
“It’s not that bad. Most of my patients bite me,” he said honestly. “Or kick me, or occasionally gore me. Really, it’s not that bad.”
She blinked at him.
It occurred to him rather belatedly that the respect she accorded healers might not extend to healers of animals, and that he might just have put his neck back on the chopping block.
“You’re a vet?”
He nodded warily.
She laughed out loud. She laughed so hard he had to take the soup away from her. She put her hands over her face and whooped.
He suspected that there might be some hysteria in there, but Sings-to-Trees knew enough about humanoid nature to know better than to mention it, or say anything awkward.
“T-t-typical,” she said, once she calmed down. She wiped away tears. They were the same color as elven tears. That was something, at least. “Ah, great grim gods, that’s my life in a nutshell.”
She waved a hand. “Never mind, n-n-never m-mind…” Another shiver wracked her, and she slouched deeper into the blankets.
“You’re still freezing. I shouldn’t have let you go outside,” Sings-to-Trees said guiltily.
“I’ve a philosophic-c-cal objection to peeing on your f-floor.”
“You wouldn’t be the first. Or the last, probably.”
A muffled snort emerged from under the blankets.
“No, really. That stain over there was coyote, and this stain was baby raccoon, and that stain was a deer—don’t ask why it was in the house, it was one of those weeks—and that big green one was a troll—“
“It is p-p-possible,” she said, with dignity, “that I am h-happier not kn-n-nowing this.”
She giggled. It emerged through chattering teeth and made her sound like a giddy woodpecker.
The silence that fell that wasn’t entirely uncomfortable. The fire crackled. Sings-to-Trees was sweating profusely in the heat, and mopped his forehead with the tail of his shirt.
“Are you feeling any better?” he asked after awhile.
She didn’t reply. He excavated a hole in the blankets and found her dozing. Her skin was still cool to the touch, and she was curled awkwardly around her injured shoulder.
For lack of anything better to do, like stuff a live coyote in with her, Sings-to-Trees propped her up rather uncomfortably and wrapped his arms around the knot of blankets and orc.
“Come on, warm up…” he muttered, willing heat into her. “If you drop dead after all this, I’ll feel like such an idiot…”
A few minutes later, Fleabane tucked a long nose around the door frame and saw that God had fallen asleep with his chin on the shoulder of the woman-that-smelled-like-blood.
Fleabane had no opinion of this whatsoever—what God did in his own time was no business of the coyote’s—but it did mean that no one was guarding the soup.
Fleabane poked his muzzle delicately into the abandoned mugs and lapped down the remains of the chicken broth. Not as good as real chicken, but still nothing to pass up.
He considered climbing back on the bed, but decided that he’d pushed his luck enough for one day, and trotted out of the cabin, his tail wagging absently behind him.