Story no. 7.
Elves are awful.
And I should know, because I’ve spent the last forty-eight hours shackled with an iron ring to the wall of this damn elf’s house.
The iron is really unnecessary for Orkin folk, and I told the elf that as she was dragging me into the storeroom with the fellow I’d been fighting with, a Fey with iridescent beetle wings and tusks like a twenty-year-old boar.
“I know,” she said. “I haven’t got anything else on hand.”
She took away my scimitar, and his glaive.
“This part of the forest is supposed to be reasonable for travelers,” she told us both severely, once he’d been docked to the right of a gargantuan barrel of pickles, and I’d been chained up six yards away, between two sacks of potatoes. “If they’re not doing anything actively stupid, they oughtn’t be in danger of decapitation.”
“We were on Fey land,” the other fellow snarled. “I can do whatever I want in my own territory.”
“Wherever Elves walk is Elfin land, and is subject to Elf law,” she said coldly, flipping her red braid back over her shoulder. He had to look away from her fierce eyes first.
She ruined it a bit by stopping to adjust the dressing on the side of my head. “If that starts itching, yell up, and I’ll come change it,” she said, and then left. There had been peach jam in various stages of processing spread out over the kitchen table when she dragged us in, so presumably she was returning to her pits and her peeling.
That should about tell you about what you need to know about Elves. There are, of course, fancy sorts of Elves, mainly down in the south, as I understand it. But the ones living in the Northern Orkin Kingdom (the Fey was lying, by the way; we were fighting on Ork ground) are mostly like this: concerned with making butter and grinding chestnuts into flour and patching up stray idiots who wander near their farmsteads. If they do embroidery, it’s things like little fat ponies frolicking along the edge of the tablecloth. Mystic runes scribbled on knives and crumbled pillars are more in line with us Orks and the Fey.
This wasn’t my first run-in with Elves; I had gotten mauled by a troll bear a few decades before. An Elfin fellow with a long red beard in plaits (I think there’s mainly just one family hereabouts, and they’re all gingers) found me with my guts resting on the soil next to me. He politely stuffed them back in, carried me back to his cabin, and spent the next five weeks entertaining me in between making cider and spinning baby unicorn wool into invisible thread. Normally he preferred to work with merino, he commented one night while we were crawling around on the floor feeling about for a ball that had rolled away. There was a nice farm a week’s journey to the east that would trade him a dozen fleeces for a barrel of cider in the spring. But this mare had been so exasperated with her twins taking nearly two years to shed their baby fuzz that she had asked him to trim it off, and it seemed like a shame to waste it.
There had been the one incident before that; but it gave me a headache to think about it.
I could see the Fey trying his best to curse the barrel of pickles next to him into a rotten mess. The planks of the cask suddenly pulsed with the light of an Elfin protection, and he whinnied and scooted away like he had been burned. Served him right. I had been walking my regular patrol when he had buzzed up out of the bush and demanded by what privilege I trod on the entrance to his domain. Fey don’t actually occupy any space in this world, but they’re particularly nasty about protecting the doors into the Dark Kingdom. I’d be more sympathetic if various Fey rafts didn’t send out channels like mushroom spores, popping open where one was least expecting them. I had told him to sod off (as one does) and promptly regretted it, as he emerged the rest of the way from the bush and proved to be nearly as big as me. Fey spend most of their first few centuries no bigger than a hummingbird, whispering and murmuring their curses on people who see them only as a sort of faint glimmer out of the corners of their eyes. A Fey as tall as a fully-grown Ork is likely to be either more than a millennium old, or particularly potent, or both.
Elves are awful, but I can’t say I was entirely out of sorts to see this one. She had appeared between two trees just as the Fey’s glaive was slicing into the top of my skull.
I had started eating raw potatoes out of sheer boredom when the Elf finally opened the storeroom door again.
“Right, how’s that head coming along?” She pulled my ear to one side and then the other and gently prodded the new skin under the dressing. Orks heal faster than any living creature; we just have to have time and space to do it.
“And you,” she said severely to the Fey. He cowered. “I smelled you trying to mess about with my pickles.”
“No I wasn’t,” he said sullenly.
“Yes you were, and if you lie again I’ll make you swallow a truth medal. Come along then. I’ve spoken with the Four at the Crossroads and they told me you opened up a gate into the next kingdom in the blackberry bramble between the five-branched oak and the lightning-struck pine without so much as a by-your-leave and they said you’ve already gates from your raft into three places in the forest two of which you don’t really need and didn’t get approval for. So you’ll have to close that off straightaway. It doesn’t do. It won’t do.” She said all this very fast as she was looping an innocuous bit of rope about his ankle. As soon as she released the iron chain he tried to make a break for it, and the rope shone with silver. Elfin magic gets into everything they touch. The Fey howled.
“As for you.” She turned to me. “I’m sorry about the shackle, but I didn’t know who hit who first, as it were. But the Four at the Crossroads knew you, and they said to let you go free.”
She unlatched my ankle and led me back into the kitchen. The Fey she tugged out-of-doors with the silvery rope. I was left standing next to the giant table underneath strings of onions and garlic and obscure pastry-making tools hanging from the rafters. After a bit of hunting around I found a ratty old pouf tucked behind the fireplace irons and tugged it out to sit by the jam shelf and glower.
The Elf was gone for a good hour before she returned, the rope knotted about her hand and a grimace on her face. “That didn’t go particularly well,” she announced to the wall, before noticing me. “I’d thought you’d have gone,” she said reprovingly.
“You’ve still got my sword,” I said.
“Oh. Well, in that case, you might as well stay to dinner.”
“I’d rather have my sword and go, thanks.”
“Well, you can’t, because I don’t have it,” she said brusquely, taking a tray full of jars of peach jam and flinging the storeroom door open with her foot.
“How can you not have it?” I yelped. My ears twitched. My throat tightened. I wanted to knock those stupid jars all over the ground.
“I took it to show the Four at the Crossroads, and the Second-Eldest asked to keep it,” she yelled, her voice muffled by the shelves. “But they’re coming for dinner tonight, so you can ask for it then.”
Dread settled down on top of my fury. “Stupid Elf,” I muttered, and kicked the pouf across the floor.
The Elf had kicked the Fey out at half-past eight in the morning (I knew because of the cuckoo clock behind the jam shelf,) so that gave me twelve hours to sit and wait.
Or be put to work, as it turned out: I had hardly been sitting for ten minutes when she returned with a giant basket of fruit. “Here,” she said, passing me an apple and a paring knife. “Start coring and peeling these, please.”
I bit a chunk out of the apple. Elfin apples are the sweetest and richest you can find. Juice actually ran down my chin. “What’s your name, anyway?” I said, wiping my face with the back of my hand.
“Lia,” she said and sniffed. “What is your name, Ork?”
“Bhaichacurh.” I spent a moment enjoying her face as she tried to wrap her mouth around three gutturals.
“Do you – er – use a short name?”
The morning passed like this. We peeled, cored, and chopped four bushels of apples, which Lia poured into two giant copper pots set on a massive iron stove to cook into jam. She brought out a bucket of cream from the storeroom, sloshed it into a churn, and told me to beat it to butter. I hooked a clawful of jam and drank a ladle of cream. She made evil eyes at me and unhooked a basket of wool from the ceiling to be carded into rolags. I stuck tufts of wool in my ears and a bit of it up my right nostril while she drained the butter and scooped it into molds.
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression; Orks are generally very enthusiastic about etiquette. “Enthusiastic” is perhaps the wrong word; “maniacal” might be better suited. My left ear is a trapezoid rather than a triangle, because I used the wrong title for one of my commanding officers and he bit it off.
Elves, though dangerous, are neither proud nor persnickety. That was probably why – well. Thinking about it still gave me a headache.
Dinner was to be served at seven. At six I figured I should start preparing myself. We had been peeling potatoes and chopping cabbage for an hour. Sometime during this procedure Lia disappeared out-of-doors. A squawk bounced around the kitchen door before being abruptly cut off. A half-hour later she reappeared with a plucked chicken carcass, which she slotted into the oven.
When she sat back down to the potatoes, I aimed my first question and fired. “What exactly do the Four at the Crossroads do?”
“They watch the road and take news to the Council of Ten in the south,” she said, dropping another naked potato in the pot beside her chair.
“What do they do besides that?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“What are their names?”
“The Council of Ten? There’s Ugan, Kemel – “
“No. The Four at the Crossroads.”
“Don’t you know?”
I clipped the edge of my finger with the paring knife and snarled. “Why would I ask if I knew?”
“But they knew you,” she said.
“How could they?” I snapped. “I haven’t met four Elves in my whole life!”
She shrugged and looked in the pot. “I think that’s enough potatoes.”
I had a sudden flash of inspiration. “One of them isn’t named Hab – Habel – Habo something, is he? I stayed with a fellow by that name up near where the Izgurach River turns north. Tall fellow. Red beard.”
“You just described three-quarters the male Elf population of the Northern Wood, but none of the Four are men this turn. Pass me that string of onions, please.”
So I pretty well knew who was going to greet me at seven o’clock when a raft of chimes hung outside the gate of the farmstead jangled. I went out to stand in the yard and screwed up my face in my best stoic expression. Habo had been the last Elf I encountered, but he hadn’t been the first.
It isn’t true that Elves don’t age. Soja had lines in her face and gray in her hair. It is true that they don’t lose their beauty, and I had to look away from her in embarrassment.
“Bai,” she said, and the same old mispronunciation made my guts curl up.
“Soja,” I said.
The three other Elves with her were also red-haired, two older and shorter, one younger and taller. They looked displeased though not surprised at my presence.
“So this is him,” the tall, young one said.
“Potatoes are on the table,” Lia yelled from inside.
“Forgive me,” Soja said stiffly. “Odai, Tani, Dias. Baikakur.”
We muttered greetings at each other, and they filed past me, glaring out of the corners of their eyes.
I stood, feeling particularly stupid, trying not to look at Soja and not knowing where else to look and something ending up staring at her eyebrows.
“Is this recent?” she asked, brushing her fingertips against the almost-healed glaive slash.
I hadn’t been expecting her to touch me, and the tickle of her nails startled me into jumping backwards.
“I see. So it’s like that.” She sounded hurt.
“No, it’s not like that,” I said, wondering how I came to be having this asinine half-conversation with a person who I had planned to avoid for the rest of my natural life. “Why do the rest of them know who I am?”
“I recognized the sword,” she said.
“Right. Brilliant. Did you have to tell all and sundry about something that ended – “
“Thirty-eight years ago.” She sounded pained.
“Yes.” I struggled for a bit, then spit, “Why did you want to see me again, anyway? I’d think you’d want to cut my head off and dance on the spot where I bled out.”
I had delivered all my lines while staring at her eyebrows, then her hairline, then the fence between her left ear, then her nostrils. The silence grew and and multiplied, filling the space between us with dancing shadows, leftover bits of memory and pointless regrets. I guessed it had been my fault, though Soja was always easier at heart than any thinking creature I had met before or since. I have never been easy at heart; it is not an Orkish trait. We do not even marry, because two Orks trapped in a life together would invariably rip each other to pieces.
Finally I looked her in the eye. The silence became diaphanous and sticky, infiltrating every corner of every thing. I wondered what she saw when she looked at me. Orks are ugly. It is one of our characteristic traits, our heritage, as it were.
“They’re used to seeing you,” she said. “I mean, they’re used to seeing your face. He takes mostly after you, anyway. He’s in the south. He’s studying with one of Councillors.”
The silence was abruptly gone, replaced by blood rushing through my head. “Is there – er – any doubt – as to who the father . . . ?”
She stared at me.
“Can I take my sword and go?”
She still didn’t answer, so I walked past her and pushed the farmstead gate open.
It is a very bad idea to trespass on Elfin land; they have all sorts of hidden magics and vicious friends and transnational alliances. However, despite what Lia had said, the definition of what counts as “Elfin land” is a bit flexible. Orks mostly consider it to be within sight of a farmstead.
Fey apparently have an even looser definition. The fellow with the glaive was waiting for me in a maple tree just past the gate. I am surmising this; in fact I didn’t see him at all, but only fell the blade penetrate my back.