He got a nasty start a few hours later, when he came in to check on her.
He’d tied her hands, her feet, thrown a loop or two around her waist, and roped everything to the bed, the chair, and the fire iron, just for good measure, He’d done everything short of hog-tying. She wasn’t going to get loose in a hurry.
He wasn’t sure why he was bothering, really, since he had a horrible feeling that if she said “Will you untie me?” he might do it, and if she said “please,” he’d definitely do it.
Still, she didn’t seem to be a threat conscious, so maybe that was okay.
Then, because his feelings were still churning and there was nothing for emotional turmoil like hard work, he’d gone off, fed the chickens and the gargoyle, picked peas, turned the compost heap, washed his hands and made soup. By the end, he was really quite exhausted, and ready for at least a nap in his chair.
Then he came back in to discover that her fever had vanished and she was shivering violently with cold.
“…hell…” he rasped.
He dragged every blanket he owned out of winter storage and began piling them around her. They smelled of mouse nests and cedar. She practically vanished under stacks of patchwork and flannel, but he could still hear her teeth chattering.
He built up the fire. He didn’t have near enough wood, because it was summer, and the fire was basically for cooking things and heating water, not for trying to turn the cottage into a sauna. He got some hot tea into her—her teeth, particularly those big lower canines, clicked madly on the rim of the cup—and ordered Fleabane inside.
Fleabane slunk into the house, looking decidedly uncomfortable. He knew he wasn’t allowed in the house, and while this generally did not stop him, being invited in felt like a trap. He definitely wasn’t allowed on the bed, and when the elf—whom Fleabane thought of as a kind of dimwitted but benevolent god—actually heaved him onto the bed and dumped blankets on him, the coyote was convinced that something horrible was in the offing.
“…stay…!” whispered God.
Like many religious types, Fleabane obeyed God only when it was convenient, particularly since God in this case was not particularly vengeful and would only yell and occasionally throw cold water. This time, however, God was acting weird, and somewhere in the dim reaches of the coyote brain, which was quite sharp about things like food and rabbits and female coyotes, but murky on theology, Fleabane decided that he had better do what God commanded, or some heavy duty smiting might be in order.
Possibly if he obeyed God, there would be chicken from heaven. Chicken was worth a bit of existential bafflement.
The coyote settled rather heavily over the orc woman’s legs, exuding a strong and pungent odor of male coyote, which did not combine particularly well with mouse-nest. However, he also radiated heat like a furry stove, and that was all to the good as far as Sings-to-Trees was concerned.
There was a large wooden chest at the foot of the bed, which Sings-to-Trees used mostly for stacking clothes that he hadn’t gotten around to putting away yet, and tossing clothes he hadn’t washed yet. The chest had the gnawed look of all the elf’s furniture, but it was a big, solid piece of work that could have resisted a safecracker, or at least an interested raccoon.
He cleared the clothes off and put the lid up with a creak.
Fleabane made a doggy muttering sound and chewed on the corner of a convenient quilt.
Inside the wooden chest were books. Sings-to-Trees had a small medical library, some of which was actually useful, and a few of which were at least entertaining.
He had several herbals, full of small, neat drawings of plants and careful notes (most of which he’d written himself.) He had Sleestak’s Guide To Common Farmyard Maladies, and Diseases of the Goat, (it was amazing how many of those showed up in trolls) and Thee Goode Elf’s Alamanack (which contained many, many ‘E’s, and not much useful information) and the exhaustive Herbal Remedies, which was six inches thick and full of bookmarks. There was the Bestiary, which had been written by a lunatic wizard, and was both exhaustive and mostly useless. He even had a dog-eared copy of Medica Magica, which wavered between hearsay and outright lies, but every now and then had something worth paying attention to.
He pulled out Herbal Remedies, Sleestak’s Guide, and for good measure, Diseases of the Goat. He settled down in the chair with yet another cup of tea and hoped for something useful.
There wasn’t much. He got through three cups of tea and a trip to the outhouse. His throat felt better after all the tea, even if his bladder was starting to protest, but strain and work were catching up with him and his eyelids kept sagging as he read.
Everything said to keep her warm and keep pouring fluids into her, unless she was a goat, in which case she probably had milk fever, found in goats who had just kidded, and he was supposed to give her calcium and molasses in warm water.
Nothing said what to do with orcs specifically. He looked up from his reading and met Fleabane’s gaze.
“Do you think she’s kidded recently?” he asked the coyote. He was pleased to find that his voice was hoarse but no longer completely destroyed.
Fleabane gave him a look indicating that God had better be generous with the chicken at the end of this.
He didn’t think she’d kidded recently, or orked, or whatever you call it when they had little orcs. For one thing, she’d been wandering around in full armor with a sword and…well, no, that probably wasn’t diagnostic in orcs.
He peeled back a blanket. No stretch marks on the stomach. (There were a few across the hip, but he chalked that up to none of us being as young as we used to be.) Surely if she’d just had another orc…err…an orkling?...she’d have some visible signs. It wasn’t like orcs just hatched.
No, she was definitely a mammal. No questions there.
Of course, she might have been an egg-laying mammal, like a platypus—he’d never seen a platypus, but there was one in the Bestiary—so in theory—
It occurred to Sings-to-Trees that he was standing and staring fixedly at an expanse of green stomach and thinking about platypi. He obviously needed sleep desperately. He wasn’t going to get it any time soon. He dropped the blanket hurriedly and felt her wrist.
Her skin was still clammy, but starting to heat up again under Fleabane’s somewhat odorous influence. Her pulse was good, she just seemed to be cold.
He consulted Diseases of the Goat again for any other useful suggestions. It suggested checking the udders to make sure there was no blockage. Sings-to-Trees scoured the rafters for smoke again, put the book down, and kicked it under the chair for good measure.
He settled on more tea, with a dollop of molasses just in case. Fleabane turned up his nose at the tea but was happy to lick the molasses spoon.
An hour or two passed, with the only sounds the turning of pages and Fleabane snuffling around under the blankets. The coyote was not keen on the blood-smell coming from the orc’s shoulder, but had swiped his tongue across her hands a few times and found them acceptable.
Sings-to-Trees was very, very tired. He heaved himself out of the chair and went to go liberate more tea.
When he got back, her eyes were open. Fleabane had spread out until he took up two-thirds of the bed and was washing her face and grinning hugely.
“Sorry—“ said Sings-to-Trees, darting forward. “Sorry, sorry…” He hauled the coyote to the foot of the bed. Fleabane suffered divine intervention patiently, his tail making at least a good quarter of a wag.
“It’s okay,” said the orc woman hoarsely. She wiggled under the blankets, apparently testing the ropes.
He held his breath. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if she yelled at him or demanded to be untied. He might actually do it. He’d almost certainly do it.
Instead she gave him a crooked smile. “Waking up all tied up with a hairy animal in bed with me…almost reminds me of my first marriage.”
Then she laughed.
This was much worse than yelling.
Sings-to-Trees felt that he was handling this all rather well, all things considered. He hadn’t had a nervous breakdown, he hadn’t killed her, and he hadn’t climbed up on the roof with the gargoyle, whimpering. He was doing great.
But dirty jokes from an orc woman he’d tied to the bed was just too far. It was like patching up a wounded boar and then having it turn around and tell you the one about the clergyman and the deaf milkmaid. He didn’t know whether to laugh or turn purple.
Anyway, laughing at orc humor was probably treasonous in some fashion.
“That was a joke,” she said, after a moment, while his cheeks burned and he busied himself tidying up the stack of blankets. “Don’t try to tell me elves don’t joke, because I’ve read your poets.”
“Err. We joke, yes.” This was getting worse and worse. He tried to divert the conversation to a safer topic. “Do you feel cold?”
“A bit, yes. Your friend here is helping.” She peered down at Fleabane, who yawned.
“His name is Serethong. Um, that means ‘Fleabane,’ in my language.”
“Good name.” She nodded, and moved as if to extend a hand, but ran against the ropes again.
There was an awkward silence. He approached the bed diffidently and laid the back of his hand across her forehead.
She eyed the hand coming toward her, seemed to nod almost imperceptibly, and looked back to Fleabane. Sings-to-Trees had the oddest feeling that she had decided to allow him to monitor her temperature, which should have been funny, since she was trussed up like a roast, and somehow wasn’t.
He had a distinct impression that if she hadn’t allowed it, she could have stopped him. He wasn’t sure how. Possibly she would have bitten his hand off.
“You seem cool still,” he said, and then, apologetically, “but I don’t have much experience with orcs.”
She appeared to digest this.
“You haven’t, um, kid…err…given birth recently, have you?”
The orc woman’s eyebrows climbed, rather slowly, giving him plenty of time to turn red again.
This was ridiculous. She’d tried to kill him. She was the one who ought to be embarrassed, damnit.
“Not that I know of,” she said, and looked suddenly rather terrifyingly thoughtful. “At least, not that I—no, I’m pretty sure I’d remember something like that. Was I hit on the head, do you know?”
“I don’t think so. Just exhaustion and blood loss, I’d imagine. I think someone stabbed you.”
“I’d sort of gotten that part, yes.”
“Err.” He twisted his hands together. He was astonishingly tired. “Probably not milk fever then. I don’t think you’ve had a—that is—no stretch marks, you see—and anyway, you’re not all that much like a goat—“
Funny, Sings-to-Trees thought, I don’t remember being a gibbering idiot.
The orc woman’s gaze went through him like a metal pin through a butterfly. He squirmed on it. Sings-to-Trees could almost see the little white card. Sylvanus tooinquisitivus, or possibly Sylvanus wontshutupus.
“Well,” said the orc woman after a moment. “That’s…quite a relief. Now what?”
“I have to sleep,” he said, deciding that honesty was the best policy. “I’ve been awake for nearly two days and I’m obviously losing it. Will you be okay?”
“I really need to use the facilities,” she said.
*Author's Note: Milk fever, characterized by a sudden drop in body temperature, is an actual affliction of goats, and the old cure, which probably didn't work too well, really was to give them molasses in water. It used to kill a lot of goats, but then somebody invented calcium injections, and now it's a lot better.
See? Come for the love story, stay for the antiquated goat medicine!