People wanted to see the meeting between Sings-to-Trees and Celadon Toadstool. This might not have mattered, except that I wanted to see it too.
I cannot say that it is a good story. It rambles badly. I cannot even say it will be a finished story–y’all know me and my perverse muse by now. I can say, with some confidence, that it would be a love story, which is most of the problem, because I have little experience with writing such, and I suspect anything I came up with would be tacky and awkward. And also that my buddy Deb has a lot to answer for.
I am willing to take a stab at it, so long as my muse lasts, because most of my memories of falling in love were actually that it was rather tacky and awkward. But I can’t promise much. This feels less like writing a normal story and more like writing fan fiction about my own characters, if that makes any sense. So expect something rathered hackneyed, because this is ground I do not know well enough to avoid the obvious.
My agent says it’s fine to post writing on-line, and won’t make trouble for us in the future, so hey, what the hell. Besides, this isn’t likely to ever be something a publisher would want, unless the previous book–the as yet unfinished goblin one–saw print, and even then, I don’t know.
I don’t promise it’ll be good. I don’t promise it’ll be finished. I especially, and absolutely, cannot promise it’ll have a happy ending.
You’ve been warned.
There was a wounded orc in the field.
Sings-to-Trees discovered this by stepping on the orc’s sword and losing part of a toe, his balance, and his composure, in that order.
He was out looking for herbs to cure gout in trolls. The summer was well advanced, and the golden meadow grasses were spangled with black-eyed susans and purple coneflower. Every step made flights of goldfinches scatter in the air in front of him. It was a beautiful afternoon, right up until he stepped on the sword.
He shouldn’t have been wearing sandals. There were snakes lurking in the grass, and they wouldn’t have cared how well disposed the elf was towards all living creatures—when a sandal lands on your back, you bite the foot inside it. He should have been wearing boots, and he knew it.
But it had been such a spectacular day, and he hadn’t really planned to go for the walk, he’d just sort of strolled into the woods by the farm, and there had been some interesting mushrooms on a tree trunk a couple yards in, and then it was so cool under the trees, and by then he was halfway to the meadow anyway, and he remembered that Frogsnoggler the troll had been limping a bit from the gout, and…well…
The sword blade rolled under his foot, and he slipped. The orc’s hand was locked on the hilt, which kept the sword upright just long enough for the edge of his little toe to kiss the blade, and then his weight did the rest.
He stumbled forward, saw the orc lying on the ground, saw the blood, realized that he was going to fall no matter what, and threw himself forward, across and over the body. Sings-to-Trees was much more comfortable with animal medicine than people medicine, but he knew you didn’t do any good by falling on the wounded, no matter what species they were.
He landed badly, on one shoulder, tried to roll and didn’t quite make it. By the time the world was right side up again, he’d managed to knee himself in the chin. Goldfinches exploded out of the grass around him in a flurry of lemony wings.
He waited for a few seconds to make sure everything had stopped moving, and began trying to untangle his limbs. Beside him, the orc hadn’t moved.
Sings-to-Trees wondered if it was dead.
It lay face down in the grass. Heavy metal armor cradled its torso and head, but its legs had only leather…armor…things. He wasn’t sure what you called them. Sings-to-Trees knew a lot about being kicked by cows and the proper way to remove botflies from a squirrel, but the intricacies of armor was beyond him. As far as he was concerned, the orc was wearing a pointy thing, a couple of leather things, a metal skirt thing, a helmet thing, and some forearm things. It all looked spiky and hot and uncomfortable.
It had a sword, which he was already acquainted with.
He’d known immediately it was an orc. It was much too large to be a goblin, and the wrong shape, and very few other races came in green.
He sat up, reached down and touched the green skin, and immediately jerked his hand back. The orc was warm.
For a long shameful moment, he thought about getting a really big rock and…
No. He wasn’t that kind of person.
If it had been anything else—anything at all—he wouldn’t have thought twice. He’d helped grumpy cockatrices and manticores with toothaches. He’d midwifed unicorns and deer made of articulated bones. He’d patched up goblins. Some of his best friends were goblins, and elves and goblins had been at war at the time, although it had been a very stupid war, and thankfully it was over now.
But an orc…orcs were…well, they were ancestral enemies. Orcs and elves were like wolves and sheep, cats and dogs, wolverines and everything else. They were always at war.
Sings-to-Trees had no personal enemies whatsoever, but the creature in front of him was The Enemy.
Don’t be stupid, he told himself. Yes, it’s an orc. So what? It’s hurt. Is this any way to act?
This argument failed to convince him. He rubbed absently at his foot, which was bleeding. The sword had neatly shaved a slice off the outside of his toe. It was obviously very, very sharp.
If he got the sword away from the orc, he could…no.
It might be dead. Maybe it hasn’t cooled off yet. You won’t know if you don’t check.
This was a better argument.
The elf grimaced and felt for a pulse. There were ragged layers of cloth around the orc’s neck, probably to keep the armor from rubbing, but when he got two fingers under it and against the skin, he found the pulse, weak but steady.
The orc was alive.
Sings-to-Trees felt his afternoon get a lot more complicated.
He knelt next to the orc, ignoring the pain in his toe, and got his hands under the creature’s side. It was heavy, but Sings-to-Trees, unlike most elves, had the sort of muscle that comes from delivering calves by hand. He heaved.
The orc rolled over on its side, revealing a dark, crusted bandage over one shoulder. The center was black and sticky. Sings-to-Trees winced.
The orc moaned under its—his—breath. Sings-to-Trees heaved a sigh.
Carrying him back was going to be an exercise in misery. He needed a travois, or a cart or something—if he tried to sling the orc over his shoulder, the orc would be bounced and jostled to an early grave, and Sings-to-Trees would almost certainly throw his back out in the process.
He could try to find a troll to carry the body, but it was afternoon, and the trolls wouldn’t be awake for hours.
He could try to treat him on the spot, but when people in full armor carrying swords show up, there is a distressing tendency for other people in full armor to show up, also with their swords, and they tend to ask very pointed questions, like “Who the hell are you?” and “What are you doing trying to patch up an enemy of the state?”
No, there was no help for it. He had to go get the wheelbarrow.
Sings-to-Trees noticed, with a kind of weary amusement, that his thoughts had shifted from “What should I do with an orc?” to “How do I help this orc?” He was a little surprised at how completely unsurprised he was.
He’d known that he didn’t have it in him to leave a wounded creature of any species, but he’d expected to do a bit more soul-searching in this case.
Oh, well. Less time maundering is more time spent working, I suppose.
The first order of business was to get the orc out of the middle of the field, where anyone wandering by would spot him immediately.
The edge of the meadow was edged with blackberry bushes. The elf found a shaded hollow curtained by brambles, and pulled off his shirt. With one hand wrapped in fabric, he hauled the thorny canes back. It wasn’t an ideal hiding spot, but it’d hold up to quick scrutiny if anyone came by looking to finish what they’d started.
He crouched down beside the orc again.
This next bit’ll be fun…
He tried to lift the orc. He got about an inch off the ground, heard his spine crackle, and set the orc back down.
Sings-to-Trees was solidly built, as elves go, and the orc was fairly small for the breed, but that only meant that they were about the same size, and with fifty pounds of armor strapped over strategic points, it just wasn’t going to happen. He thought he could probably lift the orc into the wheelbarrow, but carrying the patient twenty or thirty yards to the edge of the meadow would leave them both laid out on the ground, and nobody was going to come along and help him.
No shield. Didn’t warriors carry shields? Come back with your shield, or on it, that was the old line. And you had to have something for berserkers to chew the edges of, right, or they’d just stand around gnashing their teeth and looking ridiculous. Where was the orc’s shield?
The arm that wasn’t carrying the sword was wrapped in a leather bracelet and layered cloth, but the visible bits of skin were a dark, mottled color. Green skin did not bruise any more prettily than pink did.
He did have a shield. Something broke it, and his arm’s bruised all to hell. Huh.
The orc at least had a cloak. It had been red once, a very long time ago. Now it was a kind of crusted grey. It looked more like an atlas of a peculiarly stained continent than an article of clothing.
He hauled the cloak out from where it was tangled under the orc, spread it out, and with much grunting and cursing rolled the body onto it. One hand went on the cloak, the other went under the orc’s high metal collar, and Sings-to-Trees began dragging.
It was like trying to pull a side of beef wrapped in lead, using a towel. The orc’s neck armor was covered in a pattern of embossed spirals, which he discovered when the metal imprinted itself on his hand.
It took nearly ten minutes to reach the end of the clearing. The body kept rolling off. Cheatgrass seeds sunk tiny hooks into the orc’s clothing, until he was covered in tawny flecks, like grains of rice. Some of the seeds, stuck to his shoulder, turned red in short order.
Every time he hit the ground, he moaned, but he did not wake up.
Sings-to-Trees knew this was a bad sign, but he was a little grateful nonetheless. An unconscious orc was bad enough—a delirious, furious orc didn’t bear thinking about. Sings-to-Trees might have had to hit him over the head, and that would probably have killed him.
Which, arguably, would have solved the problem, but not in a good way.
With the blackberry curtain lowered over the orc—a few scratches from the thorns were the least of the warrior’s worries at this point—the elf surveyed the meadow. There was a trail of broken grass leading directly to the hollow. He might as well have erected a signpost with an arrow. He sighed.
I am not good at subterfuge.
Still, there was no help for it.
He unwadded his shirt and put it back on. It was full of rips from the thorns and stains from blackberry juice. He looked like he’d been in a battle himself, with a foe who inexplicably bled purple.
Limping a little on his injured toe, Sings-to-Trees began the slog back home.
The orc was still there when he got back with the wheelbarrow. Sings-to-Trees felt a complicated stab of emotion, compounded of relief, disappointment, and guilt. It was almost the same feeling he got from finding a badly wounded animal that would probably have to be put down, but was still clinging to life—not quite, but close enough that he knew how to shunt it aside and get to work.
Getting the orc into the wheelbarrow was not a pleasant experience for either of them. The orc seemed to have gained several hundred pounds, and stank of blood and sweat, a muskier, heavier smell than peppery elvish sweat.
I’ve been reduced to comparing the bouquets of humanoid sweat. This may be a new personal low.
Armor clattered into the wheelbarrow. Sings-to-Trees got the legs draped over the sides, and folded the orc’s arms across his chest.
Dragging the wheelbarrow across broken terrain had been bad enough when it was empty. Full of unconscious orc, it was nightmarish. Tree roots seemed to leap out of the soil and throw themselves in his path. Plus the wheel had been squeaking for days now, and he kept meaning to oil it, but of course he hadn’t, so their progress was accompanied by a loud “…skreeka…skreeka…skreeka…”
He kept pushing. The slight slope upward into the woods, which he’d never even noticed on foot, seemed like a mountain. The ground was washboarded. Every jolt went up his hands and rattled his arms in their sockets. The orc’s boots thudded against the sides of the wheelbarrow at every step.
A rock turned under the wheel. The barrow lurched. The orc’s boots thudded against the sides.
A blue jay, possibly taking the skreeking as the mating call of some much larger jay, went hopping through the branches overhead, scolding furiously at his rival.
Ark! Ark! Ark!
Sings-to-Trees could feel his grip on sanity starting to slide.
To distract himself, he began to sing. There was no tune as such, but that was okay, because there wasn’t much in the way of lyrics, either.
I’ve got an orc in a wheelbarrow,
It’s an orc, it’s an orc, it’s an orc–
Err…Oh, I’ve got an orc in a wheelbarrow,
Nothing rhymes with wheelbarrow.
Fortunately lots of stuff rhymes with orc,
Like…err…pork and stork and fork—
Ohhhh….I’ve got an orc in a wheelbarrow…
And I don’t know what to dooooo….!
It went on like that for several increasingly meandering verses, and then they hit a slope and he ran out of breath completely and had to sit down on a rock for awhile. He shoved one foot behind the wheel as a crude brake, which made him realize yet again that he should have put his boots on.
The blue jay, having cowed his enemy into silence, shrieked in triumph.
The orc’s breathing was increasingly labored. This was worrying, but there wasn’t a damn thing Sings-to-Trees could do about it. He slid the visor on the helmet up and skimmed back a green eyelid.
The orc had dark gold eyes, and the pupils contracted smoothly, which would have been promising if the orc had been a fox or a raccoon or even a troll. Sings-to-Trees chose to believe this was a good sign in orcs as well.
He had no books at home on orcish medicine. The issue had never come up.
There were dark circles under the orc’s eyes, but he figured that there were probably going to be equally dark circles under his own eyes before the day was out.
He heaved to his feet and set off through the woods again.
The light of the clearing through the leaves was a hot green blaze. Sings-to-Trees moaned in relief. The orc moaned in pain. The wheelbarrow moaned the way that wood does when you abuse it.
“Nearly home,” he said to the orc. “Well, my home, anyway.” It occurred to him that the orc probably wouldn’t speak Elvish. He wondered if the orc spoke any civilized language, or if they’d be trying communicate in mime.
He wondered if the orc would wake up again, or if it would all be a moot point anyway.
The barn came into view, then the house. The gargoyle on his roof looked badly out of place against the thatch, a bit of gothic architecture sitting on an old A-frame in the middle of the woods. This time of year, it was usually dormant until sunset anyway.
The wheelbarrow skreeked up the path.
Fleabane, the one-eyed coyote that slept on Sings-to-Trees’ porch most days, lifted his head and eyed the approaching wheelbarrow with deep mistrust. He came down the steps, greeted Sings-to-Trees with the merest suggestion of a wag, and sniffed cautiously at the orc’s boot.
The elf was never quite sure how intelligent Fleabane was, but the look the coyote gave him was eloquent with disbelief.
“Yes, I know,” said Sings-to-Trees. “I’ve lost my mind.”
The coyote shook himself, and padded down the path, giving the wheelbarrow a wide berth. Sings-to-Trees watched him vanish into the barn. It felt like a judgment.
On the other hand, Fleabane had been known to eat cat feces when he could get them, so he should probably take the coyote’s opinions with a grain of salt.
He got up to the porch. The orc still appeared to be breathing. Sings-to-Trees gritted his teeth.
There was no easy way to get the orc out of the wheelbarrow and over his shoulder. Leverage was against him. He squatted by the wheel, slid his arms under knees and shoulders, and lifted the body out of the wheelbarrow. The orc’s head lolled. Things in Sings-to-Trees’ back made exciting twangy sensations.
There were only about twenty steps from the porch to the bed, and he did it at a run, before his back gave out. He barked his shins on the table along the way, but as far as pain went, it would have to get in line.
The orc landed on the bed. Sings-to-Trees landed on his knees.
He stayed there for a minute or two, panting like an exhausted hound. Painful pinpricks of light danced in his vision.
I’m getting old. I’m less than a hundred, and I’m getting old.
At last, though, he had to straighten up, and sit down on the edge of the bed, and figure out the next thing to be done.
The first thing was to get the orc out of all that armor, which was easier said than done. There was a lot of it, and none of it matched. Some had snaps and some had snaffles and some had buckles and one he just cut off with a knife after several minutes of bafflement. Every time he thought he’d gotten it, there’d be another piece. It was like trying to peel a turtle wearing an armadillo.
The helmet came off last. The face underneath was thinner than he had expected, the lips pinched, half-hidden under matted black hair. Two teeth protruded from his mouth, on either side. Sings-to-Trees peeled back a lip, revealing purple gums. The teeth were not precisely tusks–Sings-to-Trees had dodged plenty of boars and knew a tusk when he saw one–but rather enlarged lower canines, the tips of which extended a little past the lips.
Used to the jutting fangs of trolls and the enormous froggy underbite of goblins, they hardly registered with the elf. There was a scrape across his cheek, narrowly missing the eye. Dried and crusted blood ran from it, down the side of the nose, and smeared across the upper lip. It was nothing serious. Far more alarming was the gaping hole in the orc’s shoulder.
The area around the wound was discolored to a nasty mottled brown, hot to the touch, and it was oozing. Oozing was never a good sign. Sings-to-Trees groaned.
At least one bit was just going to have to come out. If he cut away the dead flesh, and bathed the rest in hot water and astringents and healing herbs…well, it’d be a near thing. He’d try it with a troll or a coyote, but not with a deer or a horse. The weary woodland gods only knew where orcs fell on that spectrum.
At least it was all in the meat, not the bone. The orc might conceivably keep the use of the arm.
So he can swing a sword against elves in the future?
“Enough of that,” said Sings-to-Trees, under his breath. He cut away at the fabric. It looked like the orc had ripped the bottom half of his shirt off, wadded it up, and shoved it into the hole, until the blood cemented it in place. It was crude, but effective. Unfortunately, it had to come off.
He went out to the pump and pumped two jugs of water. One he poured into the pot to boil, and the other he took to the bedside.
A little water, drizzled between the orc’s lips, went down easily enough. The creature swallowed in his sleep, tongue protruding a little. His tongue was as blue as a skink’s. Sings-to-Trees shook his head, wondering if that was a normal color for orc tongues, or if it was as bad a sign as blue lips would be in an elf.
He sponged off the area around the wound, sluicing off the grime, pried off the remnants of the orc’s tunic and peeled the crumpled mass of the shirt back.
He found his eyes fixed on the ceiling. The ceiling seemed safe. There were rafters. Nice rafters. Good rafters. Safe rafters.
When he had suitably composed himself by careful study of the ceiling, he allowed his eyes to drop downward.
Still had breasts.
Green breasts. With piercings.
His gaze shot back up to the ceiling, and stayed there.
It was a female orc.
“Oh dear lord, ” said Sings-to-Trees.
Sings-to-Trees was not, by most measures, prudish. He had spent far too many hours with his arm inside a large mammal, trying to haul their recalcitrant offspring out into the world. The human farm down the road occasionally called him in to help with the spring castrations. He had even treated an embarrassed troll for erectile dysfunction once, and since he didn’t speak Troll, the situation had involved some truly disturbing pantomime.
He was a professional. He had seen it all before. Admittedly, he hadn’t seen that in particular for a few years, but—well, he’d seen things. Yes. And he was a professional, damnit.
He was still staring at the ceiling.
There was a logical reason for that, surely. After all, the ceiling might be on fire. Very problematic, ceiling fires.
He scanned the rafters for smoke. Nothing. Disaster averted, yet again. Well done.
His eyes slid downward again, hit a nipple ring with a snarling silver skull on it, and he snapped his head upward again so fast that his neck cracked.
Now that he was actually looking for it, of course, her gender was obvious, and not just the…err…obvious. The face, which would have been thin and drawn on a male orc, was about right for a strong-jawed female. Even allowing for the pull of tusks, there was a bit more lip than one would expect on a man, and the collarbone was surprisingly delicate. She was very well-muscled—Sings-to-Trees would not want to get into a fist-fight with her—but the muscle didn’t extend as heavily across the shoulders, and her wrists were slim, even if her forearms weren’t.
This complicated things.
Well…actually, no, it doesn’t.
Once his nerves settled down—which involved him throwing a blanket over the orc woman’s bare chest and retreating hurriedly to the other side of the room—he felt a sudden immense relief.
Helping a fallen orc warrior might not be treason, but it was definitely skating on the edge of it. The rangers would have had a lot to say if they found out. They’d been rather grumpy about the goblins last year, and that had been an enormous success in the end.
But even the rangers couldn’t find fault with helping an orc woman. Sure, she was probably at least as dangerous as her male counterparts, if not more so, but—well—it was the principle. The rangers, much like Sings-to-Trees, ascribed to the practical chivalry that you never, ever hit a girl, unless she was coming at you with a sword, in which case all bets were off. And you certainly didn’t mistreat them. If she was charging you on a battlefield, that was one thing, but leaving her to die in a ditch was another matter entirely.
Maybe it wasn’t fair, maybe there should have been even-handed, equal opportunity loathing, but that was the way it was. Women—even orc women with biceps like iron, even combatant orc women covered in the blood of what was probably Sings-to-Trees’ countrymen—were treated with a certain measure of dignity.
You might kick an orc warrior when he was down—it wasn’t right, but you might do it, because it was war, and even good men go a little nuts—but only scum kicked women.
Even green women.
Having fixed this all clearly in his mind, Sings-to-Trees still had to deal with the wounded orc woman in his bed, or all matters of kicking and non-kicking would be academic, and the issue would be one of burying or non-burying.
Steam hissed from the pot by the fireplace. He dumped a packet of herbs into it, and an eye-watering, astringent smell filled the cabin. He found some clean rags, located his catgut and needle from where he’d last left it, and turned back to the bed.
It was just as well that she was unconscious. There were fragments of cloth embedded in the swollen flesh, which would have to be picked out. He wouldn’t have wished the next hour on his worst enemy.
Once she wakes up, she probably will be your worst enemy. What are you planning on doing—keeping her locked up in a hutch like an injured rabbit, or are you just going to hope she doesn’t take it in her head to slit your throat some evening?
He ignored himself, cutting into the puffy flesh of her shoulder. Dark blood oozed, and a foul odor mixed with the scent of herbs. She jerked at the pain and he had to pin the shoulder down with an elbow on her collarbone. She was astonishingly strong.
He’d figure something out. He’d figured out how to treat the cockatrice—smoked glass goggles—and he’d figured out how to empty a dragon’s stomach—charcoal paste mixed with mustard—and he’d figure this out, too. She was a thinking, rational being, which put her head and shoulders above most of his other patients.
She almost certainly wouldn’t try to chew out her stitches. Probably.
Surely they could work something out.
The last fragment of cloth was a tough one. He had to dig with tweezers. It was rather like pry a stringy bit of meat out of a back molar, which was inexplicably located inside a raw steak that kept twitching.
Well, as long as I can come up with gruesome metaphors, I should be fine…
He sponged hot water, steaming with herbs, into the wound. The orc jerked again, and muttered something, in the depths of whatever nightmare pain and fever had sunk her into. He didn’t speak the language, but the syllables were hard and guttural. Every word sounded like a curse.
Surely they could work something out.
The wound was as clean as he could make it. He threaded the needle and bent to the task of closing it up, while the orc woman cursed him softly in delirium.