Chapter 1: Barking Up the Wrong Tree
“Girl, you’re plum crazy, you know that? Ain’t you ever heard the stories of folk what come to challenge the Lady of the Realm?”
“I imagine I have, little birdie. Wouldn’t have told you I’m here to do just that if I wasn’t. Mother always told me that telling folks the truth is the only way you can expect it in return.”
The crow clucked at my words, a begrudging concession if I’d ever heard one. At least, it sounded like a crow. Black feathers, black beak, and a caw in its cough. Not that I’d ever seen a talking crow before, nor did I ever hear of any other birds that could talk. But that was the least of my worries.
The blasted thing had settled atop my shoulder to keep from getting tangled up in the grasping fingers of sleeping trees. I might’ve made a much-needed meal of the nuisance if I wasn’t certain it’d just take off the moment I made a grab for it.
Lady knows I needed to save my energy for the bitter cold that had already settled in my bones. And to think, the Great Wound was less than a day’s trudge behind me and I was already freezing. Figured the cold might take me before the Lady does. Maybe it’d be a small mercy.
The stupid bird started preening—not like there was much else to do atop my shoulder. I was too busy burying my face into the neck of my cloak to pay the thing any more mind. “I seen women three times the challenger you are get themselves killed doing what you’re trying to do. One was a warrior of sorts, I reckon—figured she could take on anything with enough blind rage.” Damn thing started fidgeting on my shoulder. Stopped rattling on about its story, too.
“And? What happened to her?” I finally managed to say between the scraping fingers of dead branches and cutting bites of wind.
“Ain’t your momma taught you any manners, girl? You can’t rush a storyteller. Only end up tangling the yarn that way, you know.”
I pushed my way past a particularly rudely positioned branch. Think I stirred the tree up from its slumber, doing what I did. Thankfully, it obliged without any further trouble. I muttered my thanks—not certain it could hear without ears, but not willing to take any chances.
After all, if a girl gets felled in a forest, and none of the trees care to help her, it’s not long before she ends up feeding them. Circle of life, I supposed. Big Brother had something to say about that back when we worked the land, but the memory had turned sour with time, and I couldn’t so much as remember his face, let alone his words.
“Who cares if the yarn gets tangled?” I sniffed at the bird. “Sure didn’t sound like you were knitting me some mittens with your tale.” I wondered if I could make maybe a mitt and a half with the skin on the bird. Probably wouldn’t even be very warm with its feathers plucked and all. And when would I make the time to do the deed for it, anyhow? Not like I could just hunker down anywhere in the forest. Treefolk don’t take kindly to vagrants snapping their limbs for tinder or laying up against their trunks. Stingy bastards, even in the dead of winter.
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, girl. See, a good tale can warm your soul when you need it most. Helps you to see when you feel blind.” It paused for a moment, some errant thought probably rattling around in that tiny head. “Sure, I mean, it don’t put food in your belly—but it can help you to do that. We can’t all be as perfect as the Lady.”
“Spoken true.” I recited, the deference to her Ladyship still so hard to shake.
I crested a hill, making my way into the sorriest excuse for a clearing I’d ever seen. Branches were strewn haphazardly along the ground, dead leaves littering the spaces between them, and even the earth itself looked torn up to the Dark Bride’s domain and back. Seemed like a small tornado had come on through here, but it was what it was. Yet, even so, the trees managed to still press in on me in the darkness. I didn’t like it one bit, but what was I to do? Sure couldn’t ask the trees to make a little room for me—it’s just rude to wake sleeping folk.
I gazed up at the starry sky, watching the Lady’s Lights dancing overhead. Brilliant ribbons of colour swaying in the distance—always easiest to spot at night, but nevertheless always there. Tonight they carried a languid blue hue, and I thought it was a fitting reflection of how I felt. I wondered what might have happened that would be making the Lady feel just as I did tonight—always heard stories told that they changed upon her mood, anyway. However much truth there was to that, I couldn’t be sure.
“So, this warrior-lady—”
“Woman, really.” The bird interrupted. I would learn that the bird liked doing that. “Certainly didn’t have half the manners you’ve got, and you’ve little enough to spare as things are.”
I snorted. Snorting wasn’t for proper folk, but when all you’ve got is a bird for company, you’ve got other problems.
Like a bird for company.
“Warrior woman.” I corrected myself. “How’d she meet her end against the Lady? Poison in her wine?”
The bird clucked at me indignantly. “Girl, don’t you go putting words in my mouth—”
“Beak.” It was my turn to correct it. I could start to see why the bird was so fond of interrupting other folk.
“Beak. You’ll only get your fingers wet for doing it.”
“Putting words in my beak, girl. You got dirt in your ears or something?”
I grumbled, already putting the enchanting display of lights overhead out of my mind. I pressed on through the tangle of trees ahead, seemingly having grown closer together since I last looked. I minded my manners and remembered to beg pardon every so often, supposing it wouldn’t hurt.
The bird cawed, presumably clearing its throat. “As I was saying—”
“You were saying something?” I asked absentmindedly, giving one of my branches a good push that it might thwack the pest good.
No such luck.
“As a matter of fact, I was. See, this warrior woman, she ain’t never even made it near the Lady. Started off hereabouts, where you was maybe a handful of minutes ago. Started hacking away at all the tree branches she could to clear a path, still in a bit of a huff from wherever she’d come from.”
I could only imagine what it might take to drive someone to challenge the Lady in a blind rage. Some questions are better left unanswered.
“The treefolk didn’t take kindly to what she’d done. But they was kindhearted folk. They knew she was hurting inside, what with the tears streaming down her face, so they beared with her until she gone went and weared herself out.”
I continued pressing through the dense branches and bramble, fingers of wood plucking at my woolspun clothes, seemingly fascinated by the material. I supposed what with them only ever having touched the sleek garb of other animals, rags like mine must’ve seemed mighty strange.
The bird clucked like some sort of chicken when I ducked under a particularly thick bit of what looked to be a spider’s webbing. Reminded me of rope. Funny, that.
“So, when she was well and tired, they asked the only olive tree they’d ever known for miles around to go and talk with her. Empathisize with her, I reckon, and let her know that the hurt only continues if she takes it out on the treefolk.”
“Empathize. I think you meant empathize.”
The bird squawked. “Girl, I know what I said and I meant what I meant. Empathisize. Means to feel what someone else feels—that’s what I read in some book a while back.”
“You can read?”
“Well, I can talk, can’t I? Reading’s not so far a stretch when you consider that, girl.”
The bird was right. Broken clocks and all that, I imagined.
“Okay. So this tree—”
“Olive tree,” the bird clucked. “That’s important. Can’t be leaving that out.”
My foot sank into knee-deep snow in my distraction, but I could still move.
“Right.” I said.
“Right.” The bird concurred. “So, the olive tree walks up to this woman—”
“Trees can walk?”
“If a bird can talk, is it so hard to imagine that a tree can walk?”
The bird was right. Again. I wasn’t fond of this trend.
I continued to slog through the snow; a life living on a farm hadn’t prepared me for anything quite like this. Then again, I couldn’t imagine what kind of life might’ve prepared me. It was draining. As if every foot of snow was a hand grasping at my ankles.
Whistling wind carried through the branches above. I would need to find shelter. And soon.
I thought the bird noticed the change in weather, too, because it started talking faster. “The long and short of it, girl, is that the olive tree tried to talk the warrior woman down from her anger. Sat down next to her and told her what could be seen from where she sat. There was destruction behind the warrior—that’s where she came from, mind—but a peaceful forest ahead of her. Beautiful and frozen in an image of crystalline beauty, you can imagine.
“Only, it didn't matter to her one bit. See, her son had been killed by raiders when they done went for their seasonal appearance. In fact, it’d been a wintry day a lot like today. Maybe even not so long ago…” The bird trailed off, lost in memories.
“And what happened next? You said the warrior woman died.” I slipped past a pair of particularly stiff branches, their ends decorated in a sparkling arrangement of gossamer.
The bird didn’t answer. Some storyteller it was. I was finally interested, and the fool thing clammed up.
I didn’t dwell on it. You get used to folks not bothering to be straight with you as a country girl. Think you can’t appreciate anything too complex. Might hurt your brain that way. Fools, the lot of them.
I made my way into an actual, honest-to-goodness clearing. But it sure wasn’t a natural clearing. Snapped branches littered the ground like broken bones, and I could make out the beheaded stumps of trees poking out from beneath a blanket of snow. Fitting, I supposed, that they might have been laid to rest by the weather.
Smelled of ugly ends, to boot—the clearing did. Never thought the sap of treefolk ran red. It streaked the snow all around me like a grisly kind of syrup.
In the centre of this frozen picture laid a gnarled, twisted tree of a thing; a sword through its middle.
“There’s your answer, girl.” The bird clucked. “Not like it was about to run off.”
I approached the figure, only the crunching of snow to remind me how quiet the world had seemed to grow. The wind was still, and even the bird had stopped shuffling.
It had been a short and squat thing, for a tree—made shorter by the fact that it seemed to have been doubled over in its last moments, its coarse facial features forever petrified in a pained moment of surprise. I might’ve mistook it for a man in life, I supposed—but I knew enough about plants to know that they come fully equipped with both a man and a woman’s business. Not quite like us humans, but their stamen and pistils made up for it.
The sword’s hilt sprouted from the treant’s back, glittering evilly with gold. It seemed too cruel a fate to leave the treant’s body forever trapped with its murder weapon, doomed to turn to stone in time.
“Girl, what kind of fool idea have you got in your head already?”
“Does it look like I’m trying to skewer myself alongside the olive tree? Because I’m only trying to pull the sword out by its hilt.” I spared the bird a glance. “You know. The end that isn’t pointy.”
“Hush up, girl. I know that much.”
“Could’ve fooled me.”
The sword didn’t give so much as an inch, even with some elbow grease. Just goes to show that I never had been cut out for the rugged life of a true farm girl. Mostly I stuck with watering things, making dinner, and the odd poultice or two when they were needed. Even my own mother could manage the heavy lifting better than I could. What a burden I’d been.
The bird squawked. Such an ugly sound. “Girl, I don’t suppose you brought with you something to protect yourself with, did you?”
I had to wipe the sweat from my brow. When had it grown so stuffy in this clearing? “Only a knife for skinning pesky birds who talk too much. Why do you ask?”
The bird was silent for a moment, as if it had heard something in the distance. I couldn’t make anything else out over my own breathing. My chest felt tight. How strange.
“You’re too young for this business, girl. Such a waste to throw away your life trying to challenge the Lady.”
“First I was crazy, now I’m too young? You’ve lost your nerve, birdie. Gone soft on the little farm girl, have you?”
“Hush up. I’m only gonna say this once: turn back now, and keep what’s left of your life. Or stay here, and lose it.” The bird ruffled its feathers and made to take off. “Best be scramming like a varmint right now if that’s what you decide on. Keeper of the Wood sure don’t take kindly to visitors, not since that warrior woman what come and done all this, anyway.”
Just like that, the bird was gone, and I was left wondering about the fates of the other two women it had mentioned. Maybe the bird thought we all might have that in common.
I slumped against the olive tree’s husk, gazing up at the sky. The Lady’s Lights had taken on a purplish colour, halfway between grief and anger, I imagined. They seemed to boil with emotion, hanging there in the sky. Had to wonder what had happened since I last looked for her mood to have changed, but I figured that it wasn’t really any of my business.
Snow crunched. How odd. I couldn’t remember moving since sitting down. I decided to ignore it—working away at the sword had drained me far faster than I’d expected, and I just needed a moment or two more to myself.
Again, the crunching of snow filled the clearing—this one far closer to me than before.
“Lost in the woods, are you?” Her voice sounded. It might have once been soft and soothing like the gentle rustle of leaves in the wind, but the leaves had dried up, and bare branches gouged the wind in their place.
I gazed up at the figure, her looming frame blotting out the sky behind her. If I said that her face looked as though it had been carved by the hand of a woodworker, I might’ve been half-right. With the delicate features of a fair maiden wrought from branches and roots alike, I was sure that I was gazing upon a dryad.
Only, all of her leaves had disappeared along with the autumn weather, and I had to wonder why she was the only one among her kin that wasn’t slumbering. She looked like a skeletal memory of a dryad, if ever there was one, with bone-like fingers of wood framing her face like hair might a human’s.
“Keeper of the Wood,” I smiled sheepishly. “I’m just passing through your land. Got business with the Lady of the Realm is all—I’m sure you understand.”
She returned my smile, but there was no mirth in it. “I’m sure I don’t. Not since the last woman came through here saying she had business with the Lady of the Realm went and slew innocent folk.”
I glanced at the sword embedded over my head. I was suddenly a lot less comfortable with that knowledge.
“I don’t suppose you’ll let me be on my way through this wood, even if you escorted me on out.”
“I don’t suppose I will.” She responded, already a distant quality to her voice—as if her thoughts were miles away.
I sighed. I could’ve done with the bird’s company right about now. Something to soothe the soul, as it had said.
“Will you tell me about the last woman that came through here? Seems a bit of a waste to do me in, just like that.”
She rested a hand on the sword’s hilt, her fingers made of long, slender branches. “Perhaps I’m the wasteful sort.”
In one fluid motion, she slid the sword from its resting place so easily. Its blade had the awful look of caked-on blood, and the pieces of this clearing seemed to fall into place.
“You’re the one that did away with the woman before me.”
She raised the weapon high above her head, purple hues glinting off its edge. “And if I am?”
Down came the sword, and even as I rolled away, I could feel the force with which it struck the frozen earth.
“It wasn’t a question,” I managed as I circled around the olive tree’s bough—interposing it between she and I. “Only an observation.”
“An accusation was what that was.” She spat, her voice like splintering wood. “Dustlings like you are all the same: you come into our lands, wreak what havoc you like, and call us the monsters for protecting our own.”
Another swing. An imprecise blow, with far too much force. I might have never held a sword, but even a farmhand doesn’t swing her hoe with near as much recklessness.
I kept sliding around the treant’s husk, just barely keeping my pursuer out of reach. “It’s not my place to cast judgment, Keeper. I imagine that’s between each one of us and the Lady.”
No pause. The dryad continued after me, menacing me with her sword. I couldn’t keep this up forever. All it would’ve taken was one mistake, and my journey to the Lady of the Realm would really have been as short-lived as the bird had predicted.
“But I will tell you what I’m thinking, since it’s only fair to be forthright.” Another swing. Another miss. “Even though you might pick my brain any moment now, and have a look at my thoughts for yourself.”
Her weapon hesitated overhead for the briefest of moments before we resumed our deadly dance.
“What you did before, that was a crime of passion, I’d say.”
“It was justice!” She hissed. “Bloody and righteous.”
“A murder’s a murder, doesn’t matter how you spin it.” I ducked under one of her swings. It had come perilously close for comfort. “Only difference is you killed a murderer yourself, but you’ve become one as well.”
Her leg shot out at me, coiling like a whip in the way that only roots could. It caught me off guard, and my breath left me. I couldn’t breathe, let alone move, as I lay there, slumped against the olive tree. Perhaps she’d skewer me against it with the blade, an ironic end for my wanting to free the treant of it.
The sword crested in the air far above her head, readied for a savage end when a graceful one would have worked better. “Killing a murderer makes me just.”
The sword hovered in the air, perhaps awaiting my final words.
“That’s between you and the Lady. But why must the innocent pay for the crimes of the guilty? Only a murderer kills the innocent, and that’s what you’re about to do. What else but a murderous monster would do that?”
She roared. It was a coarse and wounded thing, just like the crashing of a felled tree. I yanked my head away from the arc of her sword in a bid to save myself, and I grew still at the tremors that echoed down my body.
Only, I wasn’t dead. My would-be slayer’s sword had bitten deep into the stonelike flesh of the olive tree, one of its knotted branches having been severed neatly into my lap. Such is the nearsightedness of rage.
I rolled away from the dryad in the confusion, branch in hand, the sword stubbornly refusing to leave its burial ground. Fittingly, I thought.
There was only a small relief in me at the sight of an undeserving memory being mutilated by anger. “It’s such a waste that you’d spit on the olive tree’s memory with this. Some Keeper you are.”
“Shut your meat-hole, dustling.” She gave me a fiery look, still struggling with the sword. Perhaps some vestige of the treant remained, and he didn’t want her to have it.
I thought I spotted sap-like tears crystallizing on her cheeks, draining out of her the same as her rage. She didn’t seem to want the sword back for herself, so much as she just wanted the sword gone.
Something stirred in me, and I approached her cautiously. “I think he’d understand.”
Her gaze snapped to meet mine. “How would you know. You’re only a dustling. Meat.” She looked back at the treant’s deathly form. “Meat doesn’t care. Doesn’t provide for itself like treefolk do. Only takes and takes. Take our bodies to make your dwellings, to raise more meat. Make weapons out of our bodies that you might slay more meat. You even turn your blades on each other in your selfishness.
“Us treefolk, we have the sister sun to warm our leaves, and the mother earth to feed our roots. And each other. Only each other. Only trees can make a forest, after all.”
Her words gave me pause. What could I say to that? On all accounts, she was right. Or, at least, she seemed to be right. I was no thinker—certainly not a poet—what could I match her with? I wasn’t the learned sort to have read enough books to come up with a cutting observation, or to quote some universal truth.
But I was thinking about it the wrong way: I could only be myself, and I could only say what I knew to be true, and what I could make of what I thought.
“I can’t argue that. I’m just a stupid little girl, what come through this place to face the Lady.” The dryad gave me a hard look, the wariness in her eyes piercing me. “But I know that we both have hearts, meat or not. The olive tree could feel the woman’s pain before me, and he only wanted to share what he could with her. He’d be doing the same for you, if he was still around. And even though he’s gone, he wouldn’t want you to be slaying folk in his memory. Don’t you think it would break his heart?”
In a long-lost time, before passing through this wood, the look she gave me might’ve stopped my heart. “How do you know.” The way she spoke it, wood grating against wood, I knew that it wasn’t a question.
But I was just a dumb country girl, who don’t know what’s what and done come through here to throw her life away finding the Lady, anyhow. “A little birdie told me.”
She started reaching for the sword again.
Chapter 2: Homesteads and Home Fronts
“I see you ain’t up and died yet, girl.” The bird’s voice stirred me from my freezing sleep, a dusting of snow covering my body in crystalline kisses.
Truth be told, I hadn’t been certain I’d wake up when I’d fallen asleep. “Were you hoping for a free meal or something?”
The bird clucked. “Places like this, it’s harder to come by decent company than it is to rustle up some grub.”
I was reminded of my sharp hunger pangs at the mention of food. I couldn’t rightly remember the last time I’d eaten, and there certainly wasn’t much food to be gathered—not in this weather, and certainly not for a human.
Not that there was any time to be had gathering, what with that dryad from before still after me. I cast a wary glance backwards, the forest I’d left behind still too close for comfort.
The bird followed my gaze. “She ain’t gonna follow you out here. Not this far from the olive tree.”
The poor thing had a bird’s brain, and I couldn’t help but give it a funny look. “Why’s she care how far she’s gotten from that tree? Sure didn’t seem the sentimental type, not last we met.”
“Ain’t you even studied up on the fair folk this side of the Great Wound? Dryads can’t leave the forest where their parent tree done got planted. Their lives are tied together by a sort of string, invisible as it is. And seeing how long that treant’s been gone for, I reckon she won’t last much longer. Probably turn to stone with it. That’s how the stories go, anyhow.”
I felt around for the branch I’d stowed away in my pack, and sure enough, it was already taking on the qualities of an ugly rock.
My stomach growled, and I felt as though a knife had been twisted in my gut. I didn’t care for it, and pressed on. The sooner I reached the Lady, the better.
I set off through the frozen fields, the Lady’s Lights too faint to spot next to the morning sun. Long-abandoned ploughs lay in shallow graves, only their top halves exposed to the weather, and even then they had been smothered by a blanket of snow. Rakes, hoes, and even the tattered remains of gloves resembled the rotted bones and hide of a lumbering beast.
The sight reminded me of raiders, and my blood boiled nearly enough to warm my seething bones at the thought of such savages. Yet, there was something off; something missing from this picture. There were no bodies; no sign of a struggle at all. It was as if one day, everyone just put down their farm equipment and never came back.
“Been like this for years,” the bird piped up, as if it had somehow read my mind.
“But why? These lands haven’t been cursed to eternal winter. The trees we saw would have starved to death in their slumber if that was the truth of the matter.”
The damn thing preened before launching into the air, as if that passed for an answer. It circled overhead briefly, then made a lazy zigzag ahead of me. I gave an exasperated sigh and followed after it.
It weaved between boulders of ice, seemingly planted in the ground by a giant’s hand. Was this winter the fruit of its labour? I had to wonder. Back on the farm, folks used to say that it was the Lady’s doing what caused the weather to change. Longer nights for the faint of heart, colder chills for the weak of body. They never spoke about what caused the summery weather to return, though. I imagined they didn’t like how their words tasted the second time around.
With a caw, the bird alighted upon one of the boulders. Easily five times my size, it was massive, and would’ve made a fine headstone for any giant. Strange, regular divots formed a dotted crown around this and many others—always six dots, with two more placed above them, repeating around the entire girth of the thing. Beak marks?
No sooner than I had thought that did the fool bird start pecking at it. Even I knew that the dead were better left undisturbed.
I swatted at the pest. “Stop that. This journey is already cursed enough without your stirring up more trouble rousing ghosts.”
The bird gave an indignant squawk, grasping my head with its no doubt filthy feet. “Shut your fool mouth, girl. Ain’t nobody said nothing about no ghosts.”
“Just look at the blasted thing. I was trying to chip a piece off for your ungrateful eyes.”
I frowned, but approached the boulder all the same. “Do you just like shiny things, bird? The thing doesn’t look any different up close than it did a healthy distance away.”
“That so?” The bird clucked. “Then why don’t you tell me why the damn things don’t got no snow tucking them in this gentle morning?”
As much as it pained me to admit it, the damn thing had a point; not a single one of the supposed boulders of ice had so much as a nightcap of snow on it.
“Why don’t you try tasting it with that smart mouth of yours, girl?”
If looks could kill.
“What have you got to lose?”
“My dignity. My self-respect. My tongue, if it really is ice.”
“It’s the only way you’ll get your answer, girl.”
If it hadn’t fluttered out of reach, I’m certain I could’ve killed it in that moment. Leave it to a bird to talk its way around an answer. They spend enough time making a nuisance of themselves as things are, yet they can’t help but go the extra mile.
So I did it. It was sour, and bitter, and so awful that I thought for a moment that my tongue might shrivel up and fall right off. It was salt. They were all boulders of salt.
“And the ground’s not much better off, mind you. Not much at the surface to melt the snow, but once any roots get deep enough in there, they don’t make it until harvest.”
I could feel years of congealed, bitter anger curdling to shame at my realization. It was because of these that the raiders existed. It wasn’t because they were too lazy to work the land, or because they thirsted for blood. They couldn’t work the land, and yet they had no fewer mouths to feed.
I had my answer, and yet, an even bigger question loomed over it. “How did these get here? It wasn’t always like this. We didn’t always have raiders.”
My hunger decided just then to make itself rudely known as the bird settled back onto my shoulder. “That’s a story for another time, girl. You won’t make it to sundown if you don’t get a move on and find something fit for a human to eat.”
It should come as no surprise that I didn’t, in fact, manage to find anything edible by the time the sun began to trade places with her sister. Though, it was only a matter of time before I came across what looked like the shell of a farmhouse—the first of what I suspected to be many. Its windows were boarded up as tightly as a child might squeeze her eyes shut; unwilling to see the reality of the world changing around her. The steps that led up to its entrance were broken and twisted like an awful grimace; they howled and groaned beneath my tread. There would be no cautious questions to break this silence. Pity, that.
The door hung loosely from its frame, only a weak suggestion that visitors knock first. I worried it might swing right off its hinges, even from the gentlest tap. So I rapped as loudly as I could upon it. How else would any inhabitants hear me?
“Hello! Is anybody home?” My words were more a formality than anything else, as I slipped through the threshold before any response could reasonably be made.
Imagine my surprise when a shadowy figure lumbered into view, swaddled as tightly as could be in the furs of woodland creatures. A wolf's visage shielded his eyes from mine, and I could only make out the lifeless gaze of a once fierce beast. He was possessed of a sickly green hue to his skin, but what truly drew my gaze were his jagged dagger-like teeth—with an underbite so pronounced that I had to wonder how he ever managed to eat.
“Watch your plate of meat, you pink goblin. I don't want no funny business.”
I froze. While he wasn't armed, I knew he wasn't like any folk south of the Great Wound. Didn't matter that he might've been twice my height and four times my girth. He was a greenskin.
There was no mistaking it. Even his words had a sort of lilting, rhyme-like quality to them. There was a rattly, deathly quality to his voice—as though he'd been sucking down smoke through his teeth. It wasn't horse puckey to say that his sort spoke like they went and crawled right out of a children's tale.
“I suggest you scamper back down them apples and pears what you come up from, and we can both be getting on with it.”
Before I could so much as even think to try and talk this fellow down, the damn bird decided to pipe up from atop my shoulder. “What’s an orc like you staying home for? The raids have only just started, and you certainly look the able-bodied sort.”
“Ain’t none of your business, ham curd. Got no tomfoolery for your grubby bands, neither, pinkie.” He huffed, not once pausing to consider the riddles he spewed forth.
“Ah, but it’s not jewelry that the girl’s after.” The bird chimed in easily, as if it could actually parse the orc's words. “She’s just looking for a bite to eat and a place to bed down for the night. Be out of your hair come sunup.” Not that the brute had any hair to speak of, but I think we all secretly knew that.
He seemed to consider me for a moment, though an unsteady sway swiftly undid his focus. “Got anything to put in a braid?”
“Trade? She scarce has—”
“Not you, ham curd. The bird. She can talk well enough. Heard so myself.”
I realized that I was the bird in this case, and my companion was the ham curd. Whatever that was.