Sings-to-Trees' head shot up. He knew Fleabane’s barks like the back of his hand. Short, rapid barks, not grating, hysterical ones--somewhere between a greeting and a warning. Fleabane knew the person approaching, but he didn’t really like them.
That meant it was either one of the humans from down the road (excepting Matilda, who brought cheeses and always had a tidbit for a hungry coyote) or the rangers.
“Shit!” Sings-to-Trees leapt to his feet and began kicking Celadon’s armor under the bed, followed by the extra blankets.
Celadon got unsteadily to her feet. “What is it?”
“Company. Might be rangers.”
She could have asked questions, like “Are you going to turn me in?” or “Why are you panicking, if they’re your people?” but Celadon was not inclined to waste time on stupid questions. She looked around hurriedly for a hiding place.
Sings-to-Trees caught her elbow. “Do you trust me?”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not.”
Getting her into the hiding place was awkward, but Celadon took it in stride, particularly since Fleabane’s barking was becoming louder as the coyote retreated toward the house. Her knees were never going to be the same, but her knees hadn’t been the same since she was twenty.
“Elf!” Celadon hissed from the cedar-scented shadows.
“Keep your lower eyelids relaxed. Everybody tenses them up when they lie.”
“I’ll try to remember that.”
Fleabane had stopped barking. God was informed, and now he could lurk under the porch and dream about biting the rangers’ ankles. God made one last sweep of the room for suspicious orky bits, and hurried out to meet them.
Matthien Finchbones was coming up the path. He looked up and raised a hand in greeting.
The ranger looked tired. He’d always looked tired, as long as Sings-to-Trees had known him, a weary man whose stooped shoulders belied the speed contained in them. The angular planes of his face were less pure elven than purely haggard, and his white hair made him look prematurely old.
Sings-to-Trees had once seen him hit a charging boar at ten feet with an arrow through the eye, and then step aside as its charge carried it past, another fifty feet, until it hit a tree and fell down dead. He had looked tired the whole time.
“We—great woodlands gods! What happened to your neck?”
Whoops, thought Sings-to-Trees. All that effort to conceal the orc, and he’d forgotten that his neck currently looked like abstract art. He felt suddenly, horribly embarrassed, as if the bruises were hickeys rather than strangulation marks.
“A troll picked me up by it,” said Sings-to-Trees, trying to feel whether or not his lower eyelids were relaxed, and not having much luck. He felt a stab of guilt. He was selling his favorite species down the river to protect an enemy of the state.
Sorry, trolls. I’ll make it up to you, promise.
“A rogue?” Matthien’s hand went to his sword hilt, as if an angry troll might suddenly leap from behind the wheelbarrow. Then again, the rangers’ primary jobs were dispatching dangerous animals and glaring at people who came into the woods until they left.
“No, no.” Sings-to-Trees waved a hand with what he hoped was nonchalance. “It’d got into some bad mushrooms. Two of its buddies brought it in. Charcoal enema and a good night’s sleep and it was fine. Poor thing was so embarrassed it had tried to hurt me that it practically groveled.”
I’m babbling. I’m definitely babbling. Shut up. Shut up.
“Hmmm. Well, if you say so…”
Sings-to-Trees shrugged. His palms were sweating direly. “What brings you around, anyway? Not that I’m not glad to see you…” Eyelids relaxed. Eyelids relaxed. Don’t babble. Babbling is bad. Babbling is probably as bad as eyelids.
Now I’m babbling internally. Great.
“We found a sword in a field not far from here. The water meadow, you know?”
Sings-to-Trees nodded. “A sword? So?” Careful, he told himself, careful. Don’t know too much.
“An orc sword,” said Matthien.
Sings-to-Trees schooled his face into what he hoped was suitable surprise. “Where’s the orc?”
“Where, indeed…” The ranger tapped his fingers on one of the porch posts. “May I come in?”
“Sure.” Sing-to-Trees stepped aside.
Matthien’s eyes swept the room. Sings-to-Trees leaned against the wall and did not, did not follow the ranger’s gaze. All Celadon’s armor was shoved under the bed, kicked far back against the wall, and the blankets of the unmade bed hung down to hide it. The ranger had the eyes of an eagle, but even he couldn’t see through flannel.
It was a room notably devoid of orc. Matthien looked at it wearily.
“You have two mugs out,” he said.
“Some of us like to keep our tea and our soup separate.”
“Mmm,” said Matthien. And then “Trees—this is important.”
“An orc clear out here? I’d say so.”
The ranger turned and looked at him. Sings-to-Trees met his eyes squarely and concentrated furiously on keep his eyelids relaxed.
It came to him, rather dryly, that Celadon would probably have been much better at lying her way out of this situation, and not just because she was an orc, which was a notoriously tricky and devious species, etc, etc, elf power, yay.
“Trees—“ said the ranger again, and stopped. He dropped his eyes, and rubbed his forehead, looking tired again. “Trees, this isn’t like the goblins, okay? The goblins were bad enough, but you came out of that smelling like roses, fine. This isn’t like that. This isn’t like that time somebody reported a troll went rogue and you had me looking the other way about your suspiciously mobile haystack, either. This matters.”
Sings-to-Trees lifted his eyebrows and said nothing.
Matthien’s eyes bored into his. “Command isn’t saying anything specific, but they’re much more interested in this than they ought to be. If they find that somebody’s been harboring this orc—they’re going to be very very interested. Do you understand?”
“Not really, no,” said Sings-to-Trees, grateful that he could tell the truth for once and stop worrying about involuntary ocular gymnastics.
The ranger made a frustrated noise and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look, Trees—you and those idiot goblins practically stopped the war, okay? You’re a hero, god only knows how. The peasants down the road think you’re either a saint or an idiot, maybe both. And I like you, and I’ll do my best for you, okay?”
“And none of that will matter a badger’s ass if it turns out you’re the one sitting on this orc. They are not happy about this. They will do bad things.” He poked an emphatic finger at Sings-to-Trees, looking like a zealot about to settle down for a really intense nap.
“Look,” said Sings-to-Trees desperately, “I haven’t seen an orc around here, but if one shows up, I’ll send a pigeon right away. I promise.”
Matthien nodded slowly. “It’ll have to do, I guess.” He gave Sings-to-Trees a long last look, and then turned and stumped out of the door.
Sings-to-Trees did not sigh with relief. Instead he tapped a fingernail against his teeth and waited.
With barely a pause, the footsteps started up again, and Matthien walked down the steps of the porch and away.
Celadon lay on her back, in fetal position, inside the big wooden chest. There were books under her back, corners driving into her ribs, and she was desperately uncomfortable.
She was also starting to get a touch of claustrophobia, which was unusual. Orc cities were usually at least half underground, and she had plenty of experience with tight spaces. Sharing an elevator with a dozen goblins was nearly as bad as this, particularly since goblins had no sense at all of personal space. Weight pressing down over her head never bothered her. The lid of a wooden chest had nothing on a thousandweight of stone.
And yet…and yet…
It was something about the dark. It was too familiar. She was sweating badly, all over the elf’s—Sings-to-Trees’—books. She felt clammy and cold and sick.
It was like a night terror where you know that there is an intruder in the room, even as you know that there cannot possibly be one. Celadon knew that she was hiding in a wooden chest at the foot of the elven vet’s bed, and that in a few minutes, he would come back in and let her out. And at the same time, she knew—knew—that the lid would lift and instead of the elf, there would be—
She didn’t know. There would be something, or someone, but they were lost in the empty space that ought to hold her memories.
They were lost. She grabbed for that, as if it was the fragment of a dream she was trying to remember—they—there would be several of them, silhouetted against the light, she could almost see the shadows of their faces—
The scar under her right breast throbbed suddenly as if it had caught fire.
It’s a book digging into your ribs. It’s just a book. It can’t be anything but a book.
She wanted the lid to open so she could be out of the cramping dark.
She wanted the lid to stay closed so that she wouldn’t see whatever was coming to get her.
Actually, she wanted a bath really really badly. The smell had been bad enough when she’d been out in the open, but inside the chest, her own stink was choking her. In defiance of all anatomical probability, her entire body smelled like feet.
She tried to shift to a position that didn’t hurt so bad, heard the beginning of a warning creak of wood, and froze.
There were voices outside, speaking in a sinuous, twisting flow of Elvish, the words whistling and slithering together like a weasel playing the pan pipes.
Better not make any weird noises. I just hope nobody sits on the lid.
The dark pressed in on her. It smelled like cedar and old paper. She could not shake the feeling it should smell like something else.
The stench of frightened orc, though—that was right. That was the same smell.
She could feel something in her throat. It felt like a whimper. She squelched it, partly out of pride, mostly because it was hard to explain to people when your furniture was whimpering, and she doubted Sings-to-Trees was doing all that well anyway. People who blushed that easily tended to make terrible liars.
Floorboards creaked. Celadon gritted her teeth. Either the elf had pulled it off, or the lid was about to flip up and she’d be looking at the unhappy end of a crossbow.
She heard the door close, and sagged a little with relief. One set of feet walked across the floor.
Don’t come get me yet, she thought furiously, even though she desperately wanted to be out. It could be a trick, they could come back, they could be waiting—
Footsteps paced back and forth. The boards groaned painfully.
She wondered if there were any termites in them.
Nah, he was an elf. They probably bloody well sang to the termites. She’d bet good money that somebody’d cried over the tree they cut up to make the boards.
Somebody would probably cry over her—her poetry was wildly successful, she’d even been poet laureate one year—
They won’t cry if they don’t know you’re dead.
No one will ever know what happened to you, little green girl.
That made her jerk. That didn’t sound like the usual run of voices in her head at all, which all sounded like various shades of Celadon. That was a male voice—was something—something else again—who had ever called her that, anyway?
Little green girl. She’d have punched somebody who called her that.
It would be a weird thing to call someone anyway. Everybody was green. Everybody who mattered anyway. Mentioning it would be like saying “You, there, walking upright! With the arms!” Who would have done it?
Not Red Lungfish, certainly, he’d never patronize her like that, and her first husband hadn’t been one for pet names, and anyway he was as dead as the elves could make him, she’d lit the pyre herself, and her second husband had called her “grezhlik,” which meant something like “my little earwig,” and she’d broken with him after five months, and taken a chunk of his ear when she caught him in bed with the little hellcat from down the street.
That the little hellcat had been male was probably a good indication that the marriage had been doomed from the start, so she’d sworn off matrimony ever since. A couple of lovers, but none of them had ever called her that. None of them had ever lasted, anyway—Red Lungfish had been the only constant man in her life for years.
Think of her mentor calmed her a bit. He’d laugh at her—frothing and twitching inside a wooden box, forgetting everything she knew. She’d mastered berserk rage and public speaking, and a box made her twitch? Great grim gods, he’d have howled.
She closed her eyes against the dark and concentrated on breathing, slowing it down.
This would be the worst sort of place for a berserker fit. She could probably smash her way out of the chest, the workmanship was surprisingly solid, but very few things can stand up to the kicking power of an orc. The toll on her joints would be unbelievable, though, and anyway she didn’t need to do it. She could be a stone in the sea, without anything needing to be washed away.
I am a stone…I am a stone in the sea…
She’d loved Red Lungfish better than either husband, certainly better than any lover. She’d even offered, a time or two, but he’d laughed, and told her not to waste herself on old meat.
The sea is all around me, but the stone is stronger than the sea.
Her panic receded. Not much, not as much as it should have, but enough to clear her head, and let her laugh at herself. Idiot, afraid of voices in her head and memories that weren’t there. A regiment of rangers probably a dozen feet away, and she sat here and twitched because she was afraid of the dark.
She wondered what they’d do if they caught her. She’d been a prisoner a time or two.
It wasn't like in the old days. You had to give them that. No more "examples" getting made, not like in Red Lungfish's day. They’d probably just exchange her. Most of the elves got very twitchy around women warriors, and arranged prisoner exchanges as quickly as possible.
You never saw their women on the battlefield, of course—now and then, once in a blue moon, one would turn up in the archers, but never in the infantry.
‘Course, that made sense—the males were so thin they looked ready to break under their armor, she couldn’t imagine what the females were like. Sings-to-Trees’ fantasies were probably about tiny little spun-sugar creatures with waists thinner than Celadon’s neck.
This was an unexpectedly depressing thought.
She didn’t get time to analyze that, because the floorboards creaked again. A moment later, there was a scuffling at the latch. Celadon gritted her teeth.
Sings-to-Trees peered down at her, silhouetted against the light. There was only one of him, and that was more of a relief than it should have been.
“I’m pretty sure they’re gone. Are you okay?”
“I really, really need a bath,” said Celadon Toadstool.