Don't worry, I'm not cruel enough to leave you at that cliffhanger for long. Promise.
Celadon Toadstool was delirious.
The funny bit—uproariously funny, it seemed to her—was that she knew she was delirious. The world was billowing around her. It looked as if someone had meticulously painted the inside of a cottage on silk, and then hung it in a gentle breeze. The corners floated inward and collapsed back out again with a sigh.
That someone would go to all that trouble, painting a cottage on silk, was hilarious.
She knew she was wounded. She couldn’t quite remember how she’d been wounded. Imagine not remembering a thing like that!
This also struck her as hilarious.
Her name, in Orcish, was Urrsharruk-gah, and she had skin the delicate gray-green of the gills of cave mushrooms, and eyes the color of stolen gold. Her hair was thick and dark and she wore it tucked under her helmet to keep enemies from being able to grab it, which was problematic, because she’d lost her helmet somewhere along the way, and she wasn’t in the best of shape anyway.
Even in her immense good humor at the moment, the lack of her helmet struck her as a bit unnerving.
She couldn’t remember quite where she’d lost it. There’d been a battle—yes—that was pretty clear. Someone had hit her. Well, it was a battle, people tried to hit you a lot. Nothing unusual about that.
The great truth of this observation sent her off into gales of laughter, which was a bad idea, because her shoulder flared up with a heat that rapidly ceased to be pain and became something else altogether.
She still couldn’t stop laughing. It was the unstoppable, shaky-bladder’d laughter that came over you sometimes, and there was just no stopping it, despite the pain. The agony was breathtaking, and she couldn’t remember why, and it was so—damn—funny!
Celadon couldn’t get enough air in her lungs to sustain that for very long. Her head lolled back and she wheezed. Her eyes opened again.
A worried face was staring back at her. It didn’t look right at all. The silk painter had obviously run out of green pigment, and left it at just a pale underpainting. He was probably off getting more paint. Celadon felt smug at having caught this unknown artist out. Once he got back, she was going to say something really snide.
One pale hand came out and laid across her forehead. The fingers were like bars of ice across her skin.
Come to think of it, she was feeling a bit hot.
More than a bit, actually. Had she gone into battle wearing a parka? That didn’t make any sense.
The owner of the fingers was frowning. The artist had gotten the expression down pretty well, even if it was rendered in ghosts of color.
The unpainted person said something in a language she didn’t recognize, all liquid clicking vowels, and then something else in another language. She didn’t think she spoke that one, either. Then he said “You have a fever.”
Then he said it again, only in Glibber, the goblin language, except that in Glibber what he said was “You blood-heat-sick.”
That makes sense, Celadon thought absently. I really am quite hot.
She’d written a poem about fevers once. “Heat of Battle,” or something stupid like that. One of her early poems, before she’d gotten over herself and stopped thinking that she was the only person on earth who’d ever thrust words in the fire and hammered.
She wondered if he’d read it. She hoped not. It would be embarrassing to be hovered over by someone who’d read your dreadful early work. She wanted to ask him, but when she tried to talk, her voice came out in a weak, breathy rasp, like an asthmatic baby bird, and that was so funny she lost it again.
And where the hell was her helmet, anyway?
She’d taken it off. She remembered that fairly clearly. She’d taken it off on the battlefield.
Was she still on the battlefield? She didn’t remember leaving.
The silk billowed around her again, bringing shouting and the clang of metal on metal with it, and the underpainting of a person leaned forward, his frown deepening even farther.
Losing your helmet in the middle of a battle is never a good idea, and she normally would no more have removed her helmet during combat than her underwear (and granted that her underwear had little protective value, she would probably have sacrificed it first.) But a stray mace coming up from below had missed her face by the width of a hair, caught her nose guard, and pushed it up sideways so that it was completely blocking the left side of her vision. Celadon hadn’t even seen what had happened, and had halfway believed she’d lost an eye. She still couldn’t quite believe it, when she had half a moment clear and pried the helmet off—the force of the blow must have been extraordinary, and she’d gotten away with a gouge across her cheekbone that was oozing blood down the side of her nose. Given the choice between vision or a helmet, she’d reluctantly chosen vision, but it was a near thing.
The battle was nearly over now. The first few minutes had passed in the kind of mad daze of screaming and noise and hammering and stupid luck and stupider accidents that characterize battles, and now it was down to a last few pockets of fighting. In a way it was a lot worse—you could actually see what was happening, and notice the blows that were coming your way and feel sick when they just missed you, or a lot sicker when they didn’t.
Their side had won, but that wouldn’t matter for a few more minutes yet.
A great blond brute, six feet tall if he was an inch, and also missing his helmet, appeared in front of her. He roared something. She roared something back—the great grim gods only knew what. They both knew what it meant, anyway, no matter what the words said—“Let’s try to kill each other!” “Yes, let’s!” and then they fell on each other, hammer and tongs. He bent her shield into weird shapes with his hammer, and she carved his thighs up like a ham. At the end of it, her left arm was limp and the shoulder felt like water, and he was dead.
It went on like that, a couple more encounters. She would have lost count, if she’d bothered counting to begin with. The last one was a whippy redhead with a broken nose who realized that her shield wasn’t worth much any more, and kept going for her left side. She would have been in serious trouble, but Thrugguk, her eighth cousin a few dozen times removed, wandered by and broke the man’s collarbone, and after that it was butchery.
She stood and tried to catch her breath. She was very, very hot. Battle was hot work, but this was worse than usual.
She couldn’t see out of her helmet. She took it off. The nose guard was pushed out of position. She should have lost the eye. A cut leaked blood down her cheek.
Wait…wait. Didn’t I do this already?
Where was her helmet, again?
She turned around. The world was rippling. There was someone standing there, one of the elves, except that he wasn’t wearing armor. This was so stupid, not to be wearing armor on the field of battle, that Celadon didn’t immediately attack him. You didn’t cut down lunatics or holy men, and he might have been either. It wasn’t always possible to tell the difference.
But then he reached for her, his face so pale and angular, like a white fox, and his fingers were coming towards her face, and she raised her sword against him.
Err…where was her sword?
And where the hell was her helmet?
He was still reaching for her. Deprived of weapons, Celadon did the only thing she could think of. One of her arms didn’t seem to be working—had she been wounded? She couldn’t remember—but the other one worked just fine, and she reached out and wrapped her hand around his throat.
No sword. No helmet. He didn’t have a sword or a helmet either. What were they doing on a battlefield with no swords and no helmets? Were they both mad?
This, too, struck her as hysterically funny, and as her fingers dug into the elf’s windpipe, all she could do was laugh and laugh and laugh.