Morning dawned bright through the tree canopy before striking PD’s eyes. She blinked, yawned, and rolled off her branch bed to land lightly beside Chande, still asleep on the ground.
PD reached down to touch the very tips of the long flukes that served her as feet, a good solid stretch, and then folded backwards to get the equivalent stretch in the opposite direction, and ended by standing on one hand. “This is a nice place,” she said, when she was back to a more usual form of bodily arrangement. She looked around the clearing, taking in the chattering of happy birds and the warm sunlight just beginning to sift through the trees to the forest floor.
No one answered. PD frowned. “Bee?”
Bee didn’t respond.
PD knelt beside Chande and patted her gently on the cheek. Chande muttered and shifted away, and then suddenly there was a knife poking into the tip of PD’s nose pad.
“You’re quick with that thing,” said PD. “Come on, get up. It’s too nice a morning to kill me anyway.”
Chande blinked at her, confused, but her eyes cleared and she removed the knife. She yawned. “I’m so glad you’re just as cheerful in the morning.”
The sarcasm went over PD’s head. She offered a hand to help Chande up, which the other woman accepted with only the smallest grimace.
This was the first time PD could get a good look at Chande, in decent light without an angry howling mob in the distance. The woman was definitely not fully human, although if she went by human years she was probably just past the age of maturity, and therefore in relative terms only a few years older than PD. The teeth were more obvious now, coming up from her lower jaw and protruding over her upper lip. She was bulky with muscle and gear, but even so she had a faded look about her, a stretched look that said wherever there was no muscle and bone on her body, there was nothing else at all.
Chande’s armour was not what PD had supposed it to be in the dark. She did have a shield and sword, both serviceable, but instead of a metal cuirass, she wore a leather jerkin with metal plates sewn onto it, a patchwork of scraps and rusted studs that boasted a large puncture over the right shoulder.
Chande knew that PD was studying her. She shifted away, uncomfortably presenting her left side, covering her face with short, choppy hair. “I guess this is it, then,” she said, “I’ll be off now.” She turned in the direction that led back to the town, frowned, and turned around to stare in the opposite direction.
“Oh, no,” said PD quickly, “why don’t we stick together? Neither of us know where we are, right? So we might as well help each other.”
Chande hesitated. She was obviously not comfortable around PD, but she also really didn’t know where she was. Eventually she nodded reluctantly. “Which way do you want to go?”
PD gestured behind her. “We came from that direction. We’ll go the other way. We need Bee, first, though.”
“I’m here,” said Bee, climbing up the back of PD’s leg. “We should leave. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve sent a hunting party out for the two of you.” Bee looked from Chande to PD. “She’s coming with us?”
“Yes,” PD replied. She thought Bee might have more to say about that, but the lizard only settled down on her shoulder as they set off.
After about twenty minutes of a quiet, awkward walk, PD asked, “Why were people chasing you?”
Chande blew out all her air in a big puff. “If you’re going to ask questions like that, I really will go on my own.”
“No, no, please,” said PD, “I was just – I’ve never seen anyone act like that.”
“I could tell,” Chande replied. She collected herself, and then said, “I’m … I thought you’d noticed. I’m half orc.”
PD frowned. “Orc?”
“You’ve never heard of them?”
“No, it sounds familiar.” PD didn’t want to seem too ignorant, and she did think she’d heard the name.
Chande sighed. “They’re a northern people, mountain dwellers. Sometimes they raid the southern plains. They kill whole villages, steal everything, burn the village and crops. People here are very afraid of them.” She said this matter-of-factly, but there was still something strange in her voice, something PD didn’t recognise.
“And that fear extends to you?” PD asked. “Why are you not with your people, then, if you are unwelcome in the plains?”
“I’m not more welcome in the mountains,” said Chande shortly, and PD got the impression she didn’t want to talk about it.
After a moment PD tried again. “Where I am from, any grievance against another member of the clan is brought before the Prorastomus and the council. No one would think of raising arms against another in defiance of the law.”
Chande rolled her eyes, which PD didn’t understand either. “What if it’s someone who isn’t a member of the clan?”
“Well, then -” PD stopped and thought about it. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
They walked on in silence after that. PD felt a little ashamed of her ignorance of humanity, which had been a sore point ever since she’d left her swamp, but she was also annoyed that Chande so easily dismissed Merfolk traditions, when PD felt they would have solved her problem rather nicely.
Chande might have been aware that she’d been a bit rude, but she was concentrating on where to put her feet, and didn’t have the energy to think about social interaction, which had never been her strong suit anyway.
Bee was taking a nap.
For breakfast PD shared some of the dried fish she carried with Chande and Bee; in the swamp, local fish was part of the daily diet, but out here, only ocean fish was to be found. PD didn’t mind, since she loved all tasty fish, but she couldn’t help noticing the inferior quality. She said this to Chande as she offered a piece.
Although Chande was obviously unsure about the fish, the quality, and the lingering smell, she ate the whole thing without comment.
When Bee refused their share, as Bee often did, PD offered that portion to Chande as well, thinking to herself that the orc-woman-human could use the extra food.
PD was right. By midday Chande was falling behind. She looked washed out, almost green in the face.
Bee took the opportunity to murmur in PD’s ear that Chande might be ill. PD quietly agreed.
“Take a rest,” suggested the lizard. “Don’t push her more than you need to.”
“Let’s stop for a bit,” PD said to Chande. “We’ve gone far enough for now.”
Chande nodded, and did not so much sit down as collapsed into a bowl of tree-roots.
“Scalepox,” said Bee, which seemed to be a swear and not a diagnosis.
When they reached her, Chande’s head lolled against a pillow of roots, and one arm was awkwardly bent beneath her. “I’m alright,” she said, trying to push PD away. “I just need to sit down.”
“You are sitting down,” Bee told her, unhelpfully.
PD ignored the push and put a hand on Chande’s forehead. “You’re clammy,” she said. On the inside PD began to panic: she had no medical experience, and no idea where they were, or how to get out of the forest. Over the past few hours she’d seen no sign of water, although she was carrying enough for two days at a stretch – one day, if she had to share. PD shook her head and told herself to deal with one thing at a time. She helped Chande sit up until PD could rearrange the arm that was stuck behind her.
“Tell me how you feel,” PD said. She tried to keep her tone low and soothing, like her parents had done when she’d been sick as a child.
“I’m fine,” was Chande’s response, loud and angry. “Stop fussing.” She sat up a little. “I don’t need help.”
PD hesitated, because she really didn’t know what to do with sick people, and then she settled down next to Chande. “I suppose it’s about time for lunch.” She reached into her pack and pulled out the rest of the dried fish. “Here,” she said, trying to give it to Chande. “It’s good for you.”
Chande turned an unpleasant pale green colour.
Bee crawled around PD’s neck and along her arm until they were looking Chande at about her eye height. “Ignore the fish,” Bee said. “You should at least drink some water. It must be as obvious to you as it is to us that you are ill, and it will not be helpful to anyone if you cannot keep moving.”
Chande stared at Bee for a long moment, still unsure about the talking lizard, but she did open her pack and retrieve a waterskin. After a good-sized gulp she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, apparently going to sleep.
“Oh!” said PD. She tipped Bee off onto a root and rummaged around in her own pack excitedly to come out with a small cloth pouch. “I have nuts, too. And some raisins, I think.” She pulled out a raisin and popped it in her mouth. “Do you want any?” she asked Bee.
Bee turned to stare at her. “Have you had that this entire time?”
PD frowned, looked at her pack, then back at Bee. “I forgot about it?” She ate one of the nuts. “Humans aren’t good for much, but they do make tasty snacks.”
Bee shook their head and paced a small agitated circle on the root. “We really need to know where we are,” said the lizard. They looked up at PD. “You can climb trees, can’t you? If you can sleep in them, you can climb them.”
“Sure,” said PD. “Can’t you?”
“Not quickly,” replied Bee. “Does it look like I cover ground quickly?” They didn’t wait for PD to answer. “Can you climb one of these trees? Can you get to the top and see over the forest?”
PD looked up and up and up to the crown of the tree above her. “I can try,” she said. “These are bigger than I’m used to.”
“Please try,” said Bee. “We should be somewhere useful before she gets too sick to walk herself.” Bee turned their nose pointedly at Chande, who must have been asleep, since that seemed like something she would have taken offense to.
PD dusted herself off and stood up. Tree-climbing was not an issue for her. Her people lived half in trees and half in watery dens – climbing was second only to swimming in their lives. She was halfway up the tree and climbing steadily when she had a horrible wave of homesickness. Suddenly PD could feel a soft breeze that wasn’t actually there, and with her eyes closed she might have thought that if she let go she’d only fall into the Teth with a great splash and disturb an unlucky turtle.
PD shook her head. This was not the time or place to be thinking such things. She kept climbing until she broke through the tree’s crown, balancing daintily on the thinnest of branches with a face-full of leaves and one or two disturbed birds.
Around her the forest spread out, as far as she could see. On her left, though, there was a break in the trees, a large one, and gentle wisps of smoke rose from it in random places. PD grinned and began the long climb down.
“There is something,” she said as soon as she reached the ground. “There’s a clearing over that way.” She pointed. “With smoke! There must be people there. It’s probably where that stream flows out of.”
Bee was now sitting on Chande’s shoulder. “Thank you, PD,” said the lizard.
“It’s not far away. We’ll be there soon.” PD began shoving things back into her bag and slung it on her back. She picked up Bee and placed them on her shoulder. “Chande,” she said, and reached out gingerly to touch the back of Chande’s hand. “Chande, it’s time to wake up.”
It didn’t work. PD got in closer, ready to jump out of the way when the knife showed up again. “Chande, wake up. We have to go.”
Chande groaned and turned her head away.
“Oh, come on.” PD patted her on the cheek. To Bee, she said, “She really doesn’t look good. What do you think is wrong with her?”
“Hard to tell yet,” replied the lizard. “Could be nothing. Or she could be dying.”
“You asked my opinion.”
PD tried again. This time Chande opened her eyes and lifted her head.
“Hey,” said PD. “It’s time to go.”
Chande nodded and took another long drink of water. She needed PD’s help to stand, but she could and did begin walking beside her.
They were almost there (PD judged about half a mile out – she could just see odd shapes in the distance) when Chande stopped, swayed where she stood, and then dropped like a sack of rocks.
This time both PD and Bee swore.
Chande had landed on soft moss, which PD counted as a blessing, but she was out cold. PD knelt beside her and slid her arms under the larger, heavier woman, trying to lift her whole body. It might have worked, but PD’s right shoulder began to scream at her, and after a horribly uncomfortable moment for everyone involved, Chande slid out of PD’s arms and back to the forest floor.
“I’m confused,” said Bee. “What are you trying to do?”
PD was panting, hands on her hips. “We need to get her to the village, right?”
“Mm, no,” said Bee. “I don’t think they’d be happy to see her.”
“Why?” asked PD. She could have sworn that the lizard’s white eyebrows rose when she asked this, but since lizards don’t really have eyebrows, and Bee’s were just an odd birthmark of some sort, she discounted that idea.
“I’m sorry we haven’t had a chance to discuss your behaviour last night,” said Bee, “but I’m sure you remember what happened. These people won’t be interested in helping her either.” Bee held onto PD’s ear and leaned out to point with their paw at Chande. “The first thing we need to do is wake her up.”
PD knelt next to Chande again. “It’s not exactly an easy thing to do.” She put a hand on Chande’s forehead. “It’s hot. Really hot. How did she get that hot?” She patted Chande on the cheek.
“She’s got a fever,” Bee replied. “She needs more water.”
After a very long moment, Chande’s eyelids fluttered. She looked around and seemed to recognise PD.
“Drink more!” said PD with enthusiasm, brandishing her waterskin.
Chande winced. Her eyes danced strangely, and her face had turned pale. Her lips were cracked and dry. She was awake and aware, though, for the moment. She took the skin, but before she drank she croaked out, “The world was dark.”
“You fainted,” said Bee. “That’s what happens.”
Chande’s eyes found PD. A furrow had formed in her forehead.
“What is it?” PD asked.
Chande drank, tried to swallow, grimaced, coughed a bit, and said, “You shouldn’t help me.” Her eyelids were already fluttering again.
PD frowned, but it was Bee who said, “What if she’s right? You don’t have to do this. You can take her to the village and leave. You can even leave her here.”
“I’m not going to do that, Bee,” PD replied. “She needs help.”
“Yes,” said Bee, “but she may need more than you can give.”
PD shook her head. “I’ll do what I can.” She took off her pack and set it next to Chande. “I’m going to the village to see if they have a healer.” She pulled out her waterskin and set it by Chande’s hand. “You watch Chande. If she wakes up, make her drink. I’ll refill her skin in the village well.” PD thought a moment, then pulled out the bag of nuts and raisins. “And give her some of these.” She opened the bag and dug through it. “Where did all the raisins go?”
Bee shifted guiltily.
“Are raisins even good for you?”
“Is fish good for me?” asked Bee, indignant.
“Ugh. Nevermind. Just take care of her.” PD shook her head and walked away.