Published: October 4, 2006
She let him go. She couldn’t do much else. He was an elf, sure, but there were rules, and you didn’t kill healers and you didn’t kill priests.
The rage had to go somewhere. You couldn’t go from halfway to gnawing your shield back to normal just like that. Celadon swallowed it, bitterly, the stone shattering, the red sea pouring through the wreckage. She threw her head back and snarled with the pain.
The elf lay sprawled on the ground beside the bed, holding his throat, his eyes closed. He was breathing in tight little gasps. She could have stomped on his head, but of course she wouldn’t.
She was furious. Mostly at herself, truth be told. It had been so obvious. He’d checked her bandages, he hadn’t been wearing armor, and this was as far from a cell as you could get. What more did she need, a sign saying “Non-combatant, please do not throttle,” in several languages? But she’d been so mad—and scared, yes, let’s be honest with ourselves—that she hadn’t seen past the Enemy.
She’d just about killed a civilian.
Her skull bones felt like they were coming unknit.
She swung herself over and put both feet on the floor. The shirt felt most of the way to her knees. She peered over the side of the bed. The elf was still there, curled in fetal position, hands at his throat. She wondered if she’d accidentally broken his neck.
That would be bad. Leaving aside all moral ramifications, there were curses for those who killed healers. The Ronhai came for you, the dark-faced dead women with their dreadlocked hair, riding in carts pulled by black goats and black jays. They weren’t likely to accept that it was an accident.
Celadon, who was as rational as a poet and sometime berserker could possibly be, did not believe in the Ronhai for one second, and would probably have fainted if a jay had called outside the window at that moment. Fortunately, the only one in the area was keeping a close eye on the wheelbarrow in case it got ideas again.
Worse yet, she’d almost killed him twice. She strangled him once already, and he’d come back and kept trying to fix her up. That was dedication for you.
She felt like a right bastard, even if he was an elf.
She stood up. Her shoulder raged at her, and she staggered to one side, growling with the pain. It didn’t help much. Her guts roiled. Swallowing a berserker rage was dreadfully hard on your stomach lining.
The elf just laid there. It occurred to her that he was probably expecting her to kill him.
“Sorry,” she said in Glibber. “Me-sorry, me-sorry.” Gods, Glibber was even worse for apologies than pronouns.
The elf just laid there. She could see the glitter of green eyes watching her behind the fall of white hair.
She couldn’t believe she’d nearly killed a healer. Red Lungfish would have boxed her ears until they bled, and rightly so.
She lurched over to the hearth. There was a teapot sitting near the fire, and a mug hooked on a nail wedged into the stones. She lifted the lid off the teapot—awkwardly, with her wrists still bound—and steam rolled up, carrying the scent of herbs and willowbark.
Probably a painkiller, then, and that was what they both needed at the moment.
Pouring a teapot with her wrists bound was an exercise in frustration, and she left puddles steaming on the hearthstones, but she managed. It was a nice teapot, heavy earthenware in a light blue-purple glaze, with a chip out of the rim. Celadon approved. Teapots were functional items. Covering them in chintz and roses was just crass.
She got the mug by the handle and turned back. The elf was sitting up. There was a glint of metal in his hand—a very small knife, it looked like. Something for cutting bandages, not a weapon. She sighed.
“Sorry,” she said again. She walked back, carrying the mug carefully. Every step swamped her shoulder with pain and she lurched, spilling a trail of drops across the floorboards and the tops of her bare feet. Gods, what a pair—a healer trying to be a warrior and a warrior in desperate need of a healer. She’d have laughed, but her shoulder probably couldn’t take it.
She crouched down on her haunches next to him. He wasn’t holding the knife like someone who meant to use it. His fingers were locked around it like a talisman. She would have put money that he’d never been in a knife fight in his life. Celadon figured she was in marginally less danger than if he’d been carrying a sharpened pencil.
“…me-have knife…” he rasped, as she sat down.
“Me-have tea,” she replied. “Wanna swap?”
He sagged back against the frame of the bed and closed his eyes. Celadon figured that they both knew she could kill him without much trouble, and hoped that he was figuring out that she didn’t plan to.
She sipped the tea. It was bitter, but that probably meant it was good for you. She held out the mug to him.
“You-have tea. Good-for…gods! Do you speak any other languages?” She tried a few human dialects. “How about this one? No? Okay…Is honorable elf speaking this unworthy tongue? No? Thank goodness, the formalities are agony. How about this one?”
The last one was one of the more common human languages, although it’d been a few years since Celadon had been in the part of the world where they spoke it. His chin jerked in what might have been a nod.
“What? Really? Excellent. Have some tea.”
He gazed at her with deep mistrust.
“I’m not trying to poison you. It’s from your teapot. It’ll help your throat. Probably.”
He reached out, warily, with the hand that wasn’t holding the knife, and took the mug.
“Look,” she said again, as he drank, “I’m really sorry I tried to kill you. I had no idea you were a healer. I woke up and my hands were tied and I got upset.” She folded her bound hands into her lap. “It was very rude of me.”
His shoulders spasmed. For a minute she thought he was choking, and then she realized he was laughing, silently, trying to spare his bruised throat.
“…very rude…” he whispered, into the tea cup.
“I didn’t break anything, did I?” She eyed him worriedly.
“Yeah, that’ll happen.”
“Well—this is a reason, not an excuse, mind you—I was kind of disoriented, and there was a battle—I think there was a battle, it gets a little blurry—and then I woke up and my hands were tied—“
He shook his head and swallowed more tea, grimacing. There were creases running from the corners of his nose down to frame his mouth. “…why…not…kill?”
She inhaled sharply, her lips curling. It was like asking why not sodomize puppies? Then again, he was an elf, he didn’t know any better, and her own behavior had certainly been atrocious enough.
“You don’t kill healers. You just—urgh—don’t.”
“It’s not decent.”
He nodded. He wasn’t looking directly at her, but when she lifted her bound hands to push her hair out of her eyes, he flinched back from the movement.
She’d tried to kill him. Twice. It would have asked entirely too much for him to simply forgive her and go about patching her up. If he had a shred of sense, he’d be out the door looking for the guards the minute her back was turned.
She needed to leave, and quickly. Her shoulder was in no shape for prolonged travel, but Celadon suspected that when the guards got a look at the elf’s throat, they’d have a great deal to say, in the universal language of pain.
She couldn’t say that she didn’t deserve it, either. Better to get going, and take her chances.
She thought about tying him up. She didn’t know where she was, and the odds were pretty good that there was a military unit right outside the door. Any chance she had hinged on secrecy and surprise.
She really ought to tie him up.
His shoulders were hunched defensively, and his fist, holding the knife, lay flat against his thigh. His hair hung in his face, pale on pale, marred by the ugly dark bruises across his neck. He looked like a wretched stork.
She couldn’t do it. Red Lungfish would have understood.
“I should go,” she said, rising slowly to her feet. “I need to get out of here. I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me the sentry positions outside?”
He stared at her. His lips moved, but no sound came out.
“Right,” Celadon said, sighing. “I wouldn’t tell me either. You can’t scream, I realize, but I’d just as soon not tie you up. Do you suppose you could give me a few minutes before you raise the alarm? You know, for…err…complete lack of old time’s sake?”
He bent his head over the mug of tea and broke into that soundless, shuddering laughter again.
Well, she could hardly blame him. At least he had the guts to laugh in her face.
She got to her feet, listing unsteadily to one side. Her shoulder throbbed, and the rage had turned into a hard, acid-etched knot in her belly. She wasn’t going to get far, but at least she might be able to fall under a log somewhere and ride out the fever.
There was a kitchen attached to the main room. She walked into it, pulled open several drawers in rapid succession, and finally found the knives.
Getting the ropes sawed through was an exercise in misery. She thought about asking the elf for help, but she suspected that would be pushing a little too far. He wasn’t going to stab her—she could see it as clearly as if he’d had “pacifist” stamped across his forehead in scarlet ink—but there was no sense tempting fate.
She found a heavy bladed butcher knife and got the ropes cut, although it cost her more than a few nicks, and she had to stop a few times and press her forehead against the cool wood of the cupboard door. Her stomach was really roiling. It felt like she’d eaten a live weasel, which was ripping chunks out of her insides and swallowing them whole.
She shoved the knife through her belt—she couldn’t imagine they’d have left her sword, even if her armor was in a heap on the floor—and went back into the main room. She was definitely feeling the worse for wear now. Her feet didn’t seem to be the same length any more. Every time she stepped on the side with her bad shoulder, it screamed at the impact, and she lurched to the left.
I’d probably have noticed if one of my feet was missing.
She checked anyway. Yep, both still there. That was a bit of good news at least. Sometimes you had to take what silver linings you could get.
The elf was huddled up in the chair, his feet pulled up. He watched her, silently, while she went to the pile of armor and picked up the first piece.
It was her helmet.
I thought this was destroyed. The nose guard…
The nose guard was in place. She turned the helmet over in her hands. It had a spiral design on the outside, stylized ram horns. It was perfectly intact.
Of course it was. The battle where she had nearly lost an eye had been eleven months ago.
What had she been doing for eleven months?
She’d bought a helmet, obviously. She remembered buying it. There’d been an armorsmith, a bent old woman with knuckles like walnuts and a forge full of grandkids running around, heedless of sparks and hot metal.
The incident stood alone in her mind, splendidly isolated. She could not remember how long ago it had been, or what had happened before or after.
How do I know it’s been eleven months, then?
She just did. It was like knowing where her feet were—although at the moment, that was admittedly a little shaky. Still, she’d swear it had been not quite a year ago, and the helmet bought not long after.
Did I take a blow to the head? A severe one? Do I have amnesia?
She didn’t feel like an amnesiac. Of course, she had no idea how being an amnesiac felt, if she’d ever been one before, she didn’t remember it, either. That would be ironic, losing your memory of losing your memory. A person could get really confused trying to adjust to that sort of thing.
Her head didn’t ache—or rather, it ached from fever and choking down a berserker rage, not in the sickening way of a concussion. When she moved her head, the world moved with it, smoothly, it didn’t wobble and lurch sideways. It was a little murky at the edges, but that was probably exhaustion. If there had been a blow to the head, it had been some time ago.
She didn’t feel like she’d forgotten something important. There were no huge emptinesses in her head. It was more like she’d been busy and looked up suddenly and goodness, where had that year gone anyway, I could swear it was just June a moment ago…
Celadon shook herself. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter now, anyway. What mattered was that she was in the house of—well, of a noncombatant—practically in the hands of the enemy. She didn’t know how many troops were outside, but probably quite a few, if they were this nonchalant about security. She might be a good distance behind enemy lines for all she knew.
The past eleven months were not nearly so important as the next eleven hours.
She put the helmet on. Her stomach felt like a live coal.
She reached for the breastplate. Her shoulder throbbed. There was a great deal of armor left to go, and the grey wash at the edges of her vision was starting to leach inward.
One piece at a time.