Celadon woke up in the elf’s arms.
This sounded a lot more romantic than it actually was.
For one thing, learning to sleep in proximity to another person is an acquired skill. You learn what to do with the arm that always seems to get stuck between you and where to put your feet and whether they mind having a leg draped over theirs and who can use whose arm as a pillow without nerve damage or a sore neck. Then there’s the whole complex negotiation of blanket treaties and sheets and who gets what and who needs layers and who has to stick their feet out.
Without acquiring these vital habits, you wake up pretty much like Celadon—stiff, sore, with a knee wedged into your ribs and blankets tangled around both of them like sleeping anacondas.
While it’s traditional when parties of the opposite sex find themselves entangled for someone’s hands to be in an embarrassing position, that actually wasn’t the case. She was pretty much in the elf’s lap, where one of his knees was up and digging into her side. He was holding her upright with his hands clasped together on the far side of her elbow, which no society in the history of the world has ever considered a naughty bit. That was it.
Further killing any possible romance, they both stank. She smelled like blood and the sour sweat of illness, and rancid oil. Hmm, that was interesting. Water for bathing got very thin on the ground during a campaign, so warriors usually oiled their hair instead. Apparently that gap in her memory involved a recent campaign, or something similar.
And speaking of smells, her pants…well…whatever had happened to her before she wound up here, it hadn’t involved too many changes of clothes.
The elf wasn’t much better—he hadn’t had time for such frivolities as bathing in the last two days, and he smelled like sweat and the acrid scent of fear and exhaustion, and something she suspected was compost.
On top of this, Fleabane had wallowed all over the blankets, which reeked of wet fur and the powerful gamy tang of coyote musk, and the pot of tea had overheated, the herbs had stewed, and there was a bitter undertone of burnt willowbark in the air.
On the bright side, her body temperature seemed to have stabilized, because she was in serious danger of roasting to death. The fire was only now burning down and they were still wrapped in blankets and the elf gave off nearly as much heat as the coyote.
Also, he was snoring.
She could have told that he wasn’t an orc just by the snore, which wasn’t nearly deep enough, and didn’t resonate. Elves must not have any sinus cavities worth mentioning. Which was a shame, because he had a fairly decent nose, even if it was unnaturally pasty pink.
No tusks, though. Pity.
Celadon was of the opinion that waking up in someone’s arms, as opposed to alone in bed, is a good thing until proven otherwise, but an elf….that was a bit of a leap. Leaving aside that he was the enemy, the pink skin made him look like an albino. There were albino orcs, but they were all a particular priest-caste that most people never even saw, and if you woke up and found yourself staring at one of them, things had gone very, very badly for you indeed.
She shuddered a bit at the thought.
Still, she felt bad for the elf. Pasty pink might be normal for his species, but those deep blue hollows under his eyes didn’t look good at all. And the red and purple bruises down his throat—well, that was completely her fault. And here he was, still trying to keep her alive, with his neck kinked in a position that was going to kill him when he finally woke up.
She couldn’t fault his care, even if he was a vet.
Come to think of it, that would explain the blushing. He probably wasn’t used to patients that talked.
She wondered if she could get out of the blankets without waking him up. He undoubtedly needed the sleep.
Celadon frowned and tried to work out where all her limbs were in relation to the Gordian knot of blankets. This was easier said than done, particularly with a bad shoulder. Her right wrist was blanket-tied to somebody’s knee. She wasn’t actually sure whose knee. She flexed one calf and worried at her lower lip with her teeth.
It was at that moment that the elf opened his eyes, and found himself staring into the face of a ferociously scowling orc, which can be unsettling even when you’re an orc yourself and expect it to be there.
“Eeep!” he said.
“Hi,” she said.
They stared at each other from about four inches away for a minute or two. This is an awkward proximity for members of the opposite sex to be at, regardless of species or mutual interest. About the only things you can pursue comfortably at this distance are eye exams, dentistry, and kissing.
Celadon came from a society without an advanced science of ophthalmology, she wasn’t letting a vet, no matter how talented, anywhere near her teeth—and he was pink and at least technically The Enemy.
“Um,” he said.
“Indeed,” she said.
He had bright green eyes. Celadon approved of that. Also he had rather absurdly thick eyelashes, of the sort only found on elves and for some reason, large hoofed mammals. Celadon had no particular opinion on that, since orcs tend to view eyelashes primarily as methods of keeping grit and small insects out of your eyes, but it was the sort of thing you can’t help but notice at that distance.
Still, pink. Not a lot positive one could say about pink men.
“Look,” she said, after a moment, while he didn’t do anything, “either make a move or help me get out of these damn blankets. I’m dyin’ here.”
The elf yelped and tried to go from reclining to vertical without passing through any intervening stages. The blankets, and most of Celadon’s weight, took him in the back of the knee and he went down. Celadon got a hand free in time to grab his belt and haul, which meant that he fell mostly into a chair instead of into the fireplace.
A knee took her in the shoulder on the way. She hissed in pain and curled up around the sudden bright agony.
“Sorry!” said Sings-to-Trees desperately. “Sorry, sorry—oh, god—“
“It’s fine,” she growled, her upper teeth fastened firmly in her lower lip. This brought her tusks into clear display on the sides. She looked like an anguished bulldog. Sings-to-Trees looked like he didn’t know whether to help her up or try to get the chair between them.
She fought her way free of the remaining blankets and sat up. The elf hovered over her with his hands out, but he seemed reluctant to actually touch her. He settled for making nervous little cradling motions with his fingers, as if kneading an invisible ball of dough.
“It’s fine,” she said.
“Let me take a look at it.”
“I said, it’s—“
“Look,” said the elf, with an unexpected drill-sergeant ring to his voice, “I am going to check your wound and change the dressing, so sit down, shut up and let me see it, if you want to keep that arm!”
Celadon’s heart was pure poet, but her spinal column belonged to the orcish military. Her back snapped erect, her mouth snapped shut, and she very nearly fired off a salute.
“That’s better,” he grumbled, peeling her dressing back. Celadon got control of herself and stared up at the ceiling with her lips twitching. She should have guessed, of course, that there was a little iron in him somewhere. You probably didn’t get your arm in a cow by flinching and apologizing.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Celadon had great respect for healers of any variety, but there were definite limits.
“Well,” he said, sounding mollified, “the infection’s not any worse. You’ll keep the arm. I wondered for a bit there.”
“I’ve had worse,” Celadon said, shrugging one shoulder.
One pale eyebrow went up.
“Really,” she said, leaning down and rolling up her pant leg. A thick scar zig-zagged down the calf, surrounded with swirls of black ink.
“That’s a tattoo,” he said, sounding unnecessarily snide.
“It’s a tattoo around a scar.”
“Hmm.” He leaned down and poked her leg with one finger. The scar tissue was pale bronze. “So it is. Why the tattoo?”
“It’s traditional. The scar is a veteran, the tattoo makes it belong, keeps it from being forgotten or getting lonely.”
He blinked at her. Possibly that hadn’t translated all that well. Orcish language treated scars and weapons and battlefields as living beings, but she’d never picked that sense up from Elvish. Maybe they thought their weapons were just metal and their scars were just meat.
What a sad way to live.
“But you don’t have tattoos on every scar,” he was saying. “Your hands—“ he plucked at a finger, and she let him lift it, “—they’d be covered in tattoos.”
“I’d look like I was wearing fishnet gloves,” she said, grinning. Red Lungfish had often said the same of his body, which had more ink than a rhyming dictionary. “No, there are practical limits, and none of these are particularly important—you take all these little nicks even inside a gauntlet, just from impact. The important scars are the ones where an enemy weapon actually touches you, you know? The one on my leg was taken in battle, and nearly turned bad on me. There’s an arrow wound on my thigh that’s tattooed, too, and another one on the other calf—our legs usually get cut up the worst, we wear less armor there.”
“What about the one on your ribs?”
“Your—it’s—under your right—“ He was suddenly turning an astonishing color. Celadon watched, mildly fascinated, as the blush worked its way up from his throat.
“The what now?”
“Under your—errm—right—chest—“ The blush hit his cheeks and spread out, staining the skin like a silt-rich river delta fanning into the sea.
“I believe the word you’re after is “breast,” actually,” she said mildly. His ears were turning pink. She wondered if she could get them red clear to the tips. “And I wasn’t aware I had a scar there.”
She pulled the over-long shirt up on the side, flattened her right breast with one hand, and peered over it at her side.
There was a scar there.
It wasn’t a pretty one, either. It was a flat, ugly band, several inches long, like a burn or a scrape, rather than a slice. It was still new enough to be pink and raised. She ran a finger over it, and the shape spoke of pain, but there was no answering echo in her mind.
“I definitely ought to remember getting this,” she murmured.
The elf made a strangled noise.
She looked up, and found him staring at the ceiling with great intensity. His ears, she noted with some small satisfaction, were scarlet clear to the points.
The new scar worried her a great deal, but Celadon still felt the warm glow of a job well done.
“Did you find any others like that?” she asked, dropped the shirt back. He slid his gaze cautiously back down.
“Nothing that big. There’s a few smaller ones. You’ve got some marks on your back, but they look old…”
“Oh, yes, those. I was flogged.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Why so shocked? Your people did it.”
“Well, I was there at the time,” she said, rather dryly, “and I don’t remember seeing you, so I think my version is probably—”
“Flogged? We would never—those were whip marks!”
“A flogger, actually. It’s a different sort of—never mind. They’ve nearly faded, anyway.”
His blush had ebbed. Now he looked whiter than a sheet. “How?”
Celadon thought about telling him.
She opened her mouth, saw him watching her with those wide, pale-green eyes, saw the dark hollows under them and the whites all around the iris, like a nervous horse, and closed her mouth again.
She couldn’t do it.
It was an ugly story, and he’d been too kind to her. And more than that--he was a civilian. There weren’t all that many civilians in orcish society—they had a draft, after all, there were too few of them and too damn many elves—but there were enough of them, and the first thing you learned was that you never really told them what it was like.
It was funny, but apparently the gap between elf and orc wasn’t half as broad as the gap between soldier and civilian.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said abruptly, and then, almost gently, “it was a long time ago.
He turned away, looking stricken. He paced three long steps to the window, and back, and then again. White hair hung down in his face.
“You didn’t tattoo them,” he said. He sounded oddly choked.
“No. I was—young. They’d only have distorted as I grew, and then, once I was grown—“ She shrugged. Her own thinking on them was too complicated to trust to a language that wasn’t her own. When the enemy put a weapon to you, you ceased to completely own your flesh. The wound belonged to him. You got a tattoo, partly to honor the scar, and partly to claim your own skin back from the enemy, to make it yours again.
There were a fair number of orc women with tattoos in some very private places, because it was a war after all. They said it helped. Celadon had never been in that particular situation, the great grim gods be thanked, but she knew she’d felt better when each scar had been honored in ink and reclaimed. Red Lungish had said sometimes that so much of his flesh had been scarred and reclaimed that he felt like a patchwork held together by thin, tattooed threads.
The scars on her back, though, as faint as they were—she’d never wanted those scars back. They belonged to the elves, so far as she was concerned, and she’d dedicated a large portion of her life to returning them to the enemy on the point of a sword.
The enemy was currently looking as if he was about to cry.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Really.”
What are you saying? You should tell him—make him see what his kind did—show him—
I’ve hurt him already. Twice. There’s no joy in wounding a man who has been nothing but kind to me. He’s not a warrior—it’d be like beating a dog who can’t understand why you’re angry.
“Are you—is it—I’m sorry!“
Her lips twisted into something between a smile and a smirk. She wasn’t sure which herself. Was the poor elf trying to apologize for his entire people? How sweet, and how utterly useless.
“It’s okay,” she said again, even though it wasn’t. She cast about for something to distract him from an increasingly painful conversation, and found it, fortunately, near at hand. “I’m more worried about this scar here—I don’t remember it.”
“How can you not remember it?” he asked, visibly allowing himself to be diverted. He remembered what he was doing and sat down on the arm of the chair, uncorking a small jar of something green and eye-watering.
“An excellent question. I don’t remember a good number of things. I do not, for example, remember how I got here.”
“Oh.” He slathered the green gunk on her shoulder. She grimaced, as much at the smell as the pain. “You were in the meadow—I put you in the wheelbarrow. You were unconscious.”
“Well, that explains that, but I don’t remember how I got to your meadow, either.”
“I assume you were fighting something, or leaving a fight.”
“Probably. Was there a battle near here?”
“Err.” He rubbed at his neck, leaving a smear of green. “Well, no. Actually, we never see orcs over here at all. We’re on the other side of the country from the fighting, practically.”
Celadon felt this news settle in her stomach like cold oatmeal. She’d almost expected it—he just didn’t act right for someone anywhere near the front—but she’d been half-hoping he was merely a sort of mad innocent.
Still, she supposed it didn’t matter much anyway. She was in no shape to travel, even if the orc nation had been half a mile away. She could worry about getting home later.
The elf was eyeing her. She didn’t know if he could read whatever was flickering across her face. It seemed unlikely, but then again, someone used to reading rebellion in the vague eyes of cattle might be at an advantage.
“Do you have a name?” he asked, rather suddenly. “I mean, you must, I suppose—I just didn’t think of it, because my patients almost never do—“
She blinked at him.
Oddly, it had not occurred to her that he might have a name, either. He was just an elf. The only elves in her world that had any individuality were poets.
“Yes. I do.”
There was a brief silence, while the fire crackled and something thumped around on the roof.
“Oh. Um.” He busied himself finishing off the dressing. “Do you not tell—um—non-orcs—your names?”
She started to laugh. She couldn’t help it. The reasons that a prisoner might not want to reveal her name to her captor had passed him by completely. Innocent, or idiot, or possibly insane. Either way—“No. I’m Urrsharruk-gah.”
His lips moved around the word for a minute.
“I can’t pronounce that.”
“No, I—errrrgsh—urrgggh—no. We don’t do things like that to innocent Rs.”
Celadon grinned. “And your name is?”
He told her. It was a sinuous run of liquid syllables, all L’s and vowels. Celadon was pretty sure Orcish didn’t even have letters for some of those sounds. It was the sort of name you spelled with apostrophes and exclamation points, and possibly even semicolons.
Celadon did not approve of that. Punctuation had enough of a job already without making it work nights.
“Is that a name or a bird call?”
“Hmm. What do we do, then? “Miss Orc” seems a little…well…”
“Great grim gods preserve us. “ She raised her hands to fend off any chance of being called “Miss Orc.”
“Goodwife Orc? Mistress Orc?”
She wiggled an eyebrow. “You start calling me Mistress Orc and your rangers are gonna get entirely the wrong idea.”
He went pink again. She was pleased.
“No, let me think of the translation. In this language it’d be…mmm…” She tried to remember what they’d translated her name as on the frontispiece of the last book. In Glibber it was “Big-green-gray-gilled-mushroom-bad” but that was nearly as bad as “Miss Orc.” “Toadstool. Celadon Toadstool.” It was a translation stripped of most of the nuance—the human dialect was sorely lacking in words for fungus, and so all the overtones were missing.
Pity, some of the better ones would have really made him blush.
“Mine is—I think—Sings-to-Trees.”
“And do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Sing to trees.”
He gave her an exasperated look, gathering up the tea mugs from the hearth. “I don’t know. Are you a green mushroom?”
He opened his mouth to say something else, but whatever it might have been was lost, as outside, Fleabane began barking.