IN WHICH Osmorn does not get better at camp construction. He makes food and sings songs, albeit to lesser reception than he might have hoped. The travails of half-elves are compared to those of halflings. A Captain returns and meets a captive.
My second dawn as an exile came all too early, as dawn always does. The nice thing about being amongst other mortals is that they didn’t seem to greet the new day any more eagerly than I did.
I had given up on building my cot again in the night. I figured Thomas wouldn’t be receptive to me asking him for pointers. So I had rolled up in my cloak, on the floor of the tent (for some reason my captors’ tents had floors, made of wood) and made the best of it. It was still better than my first adventure in camping.
Sure, I was cold, alone, on a hard surface, scared, and bruised, but at least I wasn’t under a tree this time. It took a few hours for the shock to leave my system after my cot collapsed, and I believe I drifted off a little before sunrise.
“Songbird, get the fire going!” Thomas yelled seconds after my eyes closed.
“Because if I have to do it I’ll roast you over it. Get to it, birdie.”
“And quietly,” Ivy called from her tent.
So I put on my clammy boots and wrapped my cloak around myself to face the new day. I hated it. It was bright and the birds were singing above the netting. Streams of sunlight filtered down through a fine mist in the dell and dew sparkled on everything. It was hideous and cold and clammy, an adjective I’d never understood before. But the dew soaking everything explained why the woodpile was covered. There, I learned a thing and didn’t even need to ask Thomas to explain it.
“I don’t have to stay here, you know. I could steal your food and bows and run off,” I yelled.
“Go to it then. We’ll come get our stuff back in three days after you’re dead. Fly away, songbird.”
“Just do it quietly,” Ivy said.
Muttering—quietly—to myself, I built up a fire, then found the kettle, and hung it on the tripod over the fire pit, warming water for breakfast tea. I took the left over meat from the previous night’s dinner and shredded it, sliced a couple of potatoes into the frying pan and let them fry up while I found some eggs. Once the potatoes were browned I threw in the meat, let that sizzle a bit and then mixed in some eggs. To this day I can’t tell you if I thought it would be good, I just knew what food they had on hand and it seemed like I could make it edible. Even at the time I wasn’t sure why I was trying to impress my captors. On some level I was genuinely afraid of them. They seemed like nice people but violence was clearly their trade and I had no doubt that they could finish me off immediately should they need to. Thomas had taken my fencing foil, barely concealed scorn on his face, so I was even more weaponless than usual.
And no, at the time I didn’t think of a large, heavy butcher knife as a weapon. Simpler times.
Once I had everything cooked together I banged my spoon heavily on the side of the cast iron pan, which wasn’t as loud as I had hoped it would be. But I needn’t have bothered; Ivy was already on her way out of her tent. “What did you make us then?” She asked.
I shrugged and looked down into the skillet. “Um, that.” I said. Not my most glib that morning. Ivy took a tin plate and fork and served herself a fair helping of “that”.
“Well, it’s better than anything Thomas has ever made,” She said and started eating.
Thomas came out and inspected my handiwork as well. “I’ve seen worse,” he said and dished himself up a large helping.
“You’ve made worse,” Ivy said.
“So have you,” he replied, and they both ate slowly but without stopping. It wasn’t what I was used to; elves almost eat more for pleasure than sustenance. This seemed mechanical, like a duty more than anything else.
I served myself as well and took a few bites. It…wasn’t terrible.
But for some reason it was too much. Dragons take it all I said quietly to myself. The food was fine, but it wasn’t good. It wasn’t what I was used to. My world was over, and I was in this new world. No Shady, no family, no friends.
Not that I had a lot of friends back in Rhys, but there had been a few. Now the closest I had to “friends” was “captors”. I ate a few more bites of…whatever I had made. But I didn’t have any real stomach for it.
“You gonna finish that, songbird?” Thomas asked. I pushed my plate over to him.
After washing all the dishes and cleaning the table I went back to my tent and re-built the cot, with tighter bindings this time. It was nice, mindless, muscle-intensive work and gave me time to be very very angry. Here I was in a thrice-forsaken tent, a captive, odds of death increasing by the day…
I was in my own tent.
I was a captive, and they gave me my own tent.
Come to think of it, there were six tents in the dell.
I tied the last few knots, then laid on the cot and moved around a bit, tentatively at first then more vigorously. When I was moderately satisfied that it would hold up to regular sleeping I grabbed my lute and went back outside.
Thomas was chopping wood on the far side of the dell from where Ivy was doing something complicated with a rock and a sword. I sat down near her.
“Mind if I get some practice in?” I asked.
“You done with all the tasks Thomas gave you?”
Ivy shrugged and went back to rubbing a rock on a sword, for whatever reason. I tuned my lute and started picking out a simple melody, then increasing the complexity little by little, working up to a lively tune I’d learned from a dwarf merchant in my father’s house some years ago. Thus warmed up I went back to my usual: picking up my music from my surroundings, letting the lute tell me what was going on around me. Here’s what it told me:
The hollow sound of Thomas chopping wood echoed sharp and definite through the dell. Each stroke deliberate, each stroke carried through to the stump below the target log. He did simple work and did it correctly. The net above us was well made and well placed, but was not ‘magic’. It was mortal craft, deception as a precaution.
There were quiet places in the music, places where there should have been trills or bends. The music was too plain, too simple. It missed the parts that were being left out. That theme came from Ivy.
There was a central unifying theme, grander than the others, but it too was subdued. Not absent, not gone, but lessened. It would return, but for now the song was in stasis, waiting for that central theme to return. Without it Thomas and Ivy might have killed each other or at least gone their separate ways. With it in this reduced state they could still work together but there was strain there.
“What do you call this song?” Ivy asked.
“Oh, I don’t, not precisely. This is just me practicing, experimenting. If I feel it bears repeating I might write it down later. If I have a later. And if I have paper.” Ivy nodded and kept at her work. She set one sword aside and picked up another.
“I can’t help but notice, six tents. Two of you.” Ivy nodded without looking up.
“A captain that is returning…tomorrow, I think? To decide my fate, among other things.”
“A captain who doesn’t know you’re here. She’s returning because she promised she would.”
“Ah, yes, forgive me. I apologize for being a bit centered on my own part in this tale.”
Ivy shrugged again.
“Still, that only takes you up to three tents. But there are six set up. You’ve lost people.”
“They could be traveling with the Captain. A retinue.”
“They could be, but they aren’t.”
I should tell you something about music and magic, in this space between my observation and Ivy’s response. It wasn’t long enough for what I have to tell you but this matters.
There are people who think that music is a path to magic; that words and sounds and melodies and tones can be interwoven with other powers, greater powers. People believe that a song can change a mind, or even entrap a mind, bind it subtly to the will of the musician. Perhaps even do harm, all through sound and suggestion and the power of wills and minds.
These people are right.
But music has its own power as well. Music—even without ’magic’—is powerful. It is a language all its own, one that relies less on symbols and logic and grammar and speaks to the blood and the passions. At the time I was a good musician, casually and without reason to be. It had simply been a hobby and Chaedi had enjoyed it when I would play the lute, so I played. At times it was an outlet, a way to express feelings that I wasn’t able to otherwise express.
In this moment it was my only tool. I had no weapons, no knowledge of who Ivy really was or what her intentions might be. In this moment I put more of myself into the music than I had ever done before, because I needed it to build a bridge. A bridge that might well save my life. So I played openness. I played honesty and reflection. I played comfort and connection. And I stopped talking. I just played.
“Aye, we’ve lost people.” She said, after a long moment. I didn’t reply verbally. I played quieter, a more subdued and somber tone. Not hopeless but hurt.
“The Captain doesn’t know. She sent us orders to stand down from combat, but they were waylaid and arrived too late. By the time we got her orders the attack had happened already, and we were trapped. The officers were killed, all save me. The soldiers were killed, all save Thomas. We weren’t ever a large band. But when she returns we’ll be but three of us, and…you.”
I stayed quiet for a long moment, letting Ivy’s words shape my melody.
“Tell me about the captain?” I asked.
Ivy shrugged and kept at her work and I didn’t push. My mind was racing. This had been good; I had learned a little more and perhaps gained some trust. This had been bad; Ivy had let me see that she was vulnerable and would want to dispose of me to cover that embarrassment. I had no idea which way things would go from here.
Thomas’ axe kept up its steady rhythm. Ivy inspected her handiwork on the current blade and set it aside as well, and took up the last in the “to do” pile beside her.
“The Captain will tell you anything she feels you need to know about her when she arrives tomorrow.” Ivy said. I had no idea what to do with that statement. How much did I need to know? Nothing, and Ivy was tired of talking? Was I truly a new recruit? I could see Ivy wanting to present a new person to replace the ones that had fallen.
“Well then, tell me about Ivy.” I said. It had just come out. I hadn’t intended it. Dragons take me I cursed myself, but I couldn’t show that I had made a mistake. I just kept playing.
Ivy shrugged, which was better than anger. Then she stopped her work and looked up at me, the first time she’d looked me in the eye today. “I’ll make you a deal, songbird. I’ll tell you a little about myself…if you tell me, no sing me a song about this elf maid of yours.”
“You ask a high price, milady.” I said.
“Perhaps. Do we have a deal?”
I looked quietly off into the distance. Of course I was going to do it, what choice did I have? But I had to make it seem valuable, and I had to decide what I would put into a song about Chaedi that was to be sung for a mortal. How on earth do you distill the agelessness, the endless grace, the depth?
I nodded. “We do. But you first. You listed yourself first, and I asked first, so it’s only fair.” My condition was trivial, and she could very well refuse, she held every card in the entire game. But if she gave me this…perhaps I was at least able to bluff an empty hand.
She smiled, clearly seeing through my stratagem. “Very well, Osmorn No-House. I’ll tell you how Ivy joined the band of— and perhaps a little before.”
I wasn’t sure why she had left the name of her apparently revered captain out of her comments, but I nodded and set my lute aside.
“No accompaniment for my story?” She asked.
“How can I fit a tune to a story I don’t know?” I responded.
"Fair enough. Here then is the story of Ivy.
"I was born east of here, in Lostwell. My father died when Casinia ‘annexed’ our fiefdom. He was a soldier, a sapper. His job was to reduce enemy defenses. It’s never a safe job, never easy, but he was one of the best. Sadly Casinia’s soldiers were better or lucky.
"My mother raised me and my brother herself, until my brother was ‘recruited’ into the Casinian army. Since he was a recruit, not an officer or the son of a titled family, he was a foot soldier, a pikeman. His death was all but guaranteed.
“I left home that same week. I was sixteen. I had to get out before he could be deployed to battle anywhere, before I could know what happened to him.”
Ivy finished her work on the last sword and laid it aside.
“Well that’s done. And you owe me a song, songbird.” She said.
“But that was so very little of your tale…but very well.”
I picked up my lute again and began to play. An elven tune, but simplified, refined for mortal temperament and taste. Sweet like an autumn rain: Chaedi’s favorite season. And I sang of my well beloved, a song of her innate grace, of long winters that had taught her wisdom without robbing her of summer’s mischievous passion. She was twice my age yet still had open innocence and curiosity and enthusiasm, even in my song of loss those aspects of her personality buoyed me up.
In all this song I named her but once and I named her Chaedi; her nickname, the slight mispronunciation, that was for me and her alone, not for a mortal, not to be included in a tawdry bargain such as this.
Tears ran down my cheeks again when I finished, but the feeling was different. The loss of my beloved was still poignant, but some measure of acceptance was creeping in. I stopped singing, I stopped playing. Ivy wasn’t looking at me. She was looking off into the woods. I stopped and waited.
“She sounds nice,” Ivy said, and stood up, walked away.
I stood and followed her.
“Nice, that’s all?”
“Isn’t it enough?”
“I mean…’nice’. That’s…that’s a fine word for a kitten or a puppy, but—”
“But what, songbird? You think you’re the only person to have loved and lost? Great skies, I’ve heard sixteen year old halflings tell sadder stories of greater loss. You sing well enough, I’ll give you that, but your story is so juvenile, so simple. She yet lives, you yet live, nobody discovered the other in the arms another. She didn’t toss you out and build a bonfire out of your possessions—”
“Who would do that?” I asked.
“He deserved…I…look, the point is. Ugh. The point is don’t play that song for the Captain. Really, don’t play it again for anyone. Learn what real pain is first. Then maybe it’ll matter.”
My cot collapsed under me again that night.
“More rope isn’t always better,” Thomas called out.
“Shut UP!” Ivy said.
The next morning I got up before Thomas or Ivy had time to yell at me. I was hurting, and ashamed, and angry. What made it worse was that Ivy had probably been right, and I was starting to see myself as she saw me. I was in my early fifties, but in many ways time in elf havens doesn’t really pass. Mortals had to pack so much more experience into their shorter lifespans.
Sixteen year old halfling indeed.
The previous evening I had found the other food box, the onions and garlic and a few peppers. I knew that an omelette was basically what I had done the morning before but made more carefully. I chopped an onion and a pepper, mixed them with some eggs and then gently folded three omelettes. I was acutely aware that “skill at cooking” would not convince Ivy that I had “life experience” but I had a limited range in which to prove myself.
Two of the omelettes didn’t turn, they tore. I kept those for Thomas and myself, and gave the perfect one to Ivy. I set it quietly in front of her, holding myself back, not being contemptuous towards this short lived little human who thought no more of my rent heart than a sixteen year old halfling who had been denied their tea.
“This is pretty good, songbird, you’ve got a career as a camp chef ahead of you…GREAT DRAGONS OF ICE AND FIRE” Thomas yelled, gasping. He grabbed his cup of water, and swallowed quickly, then uncapped his wineskin and drank deeply.
“Dragons take you, birdie, you can’t put whacking great chunks of adder sting peppers in things and not tell people,” he yelled, picking through his omelette and removing anything even remotely red. Ivy laughed quietly and Thomas looked at her reproachfully. Once she was sure she was holding his attention, Ivy cut a section of her omelette out, made sure Thomas could see the bright red chunk of pepper, and put it in her mouth. Her eye locked on Thomas’ the entire time, she chewed thoroughly, and took another bite without any change in her expression.
Thomas grumbled and left the table.
“The Captain should be back before midday. Her tent is the one nearest the central bole. Get breakfast cleaned up, then go sweep her tent, then rebuild your cot, or just sleep on the boards tonight. Or hang a hammock. Whatever you do, no more midnight explosions, got it?”
“I’ll see to it all directly,” I said. Ivy nodded and walked away as well.
I cleaned up breakfast first. I had learned that as annoying as it is to immediately wash dishes after eating when you want to sit and think about the world, it’s far worse to try and clean cold and congealed food off of things. Then I went to the designated tent and started sweeping it out. There was a single cot in there, one that was made with brass fittings holding the legs together instead of rope lashings. That felt unfair, but I reminded myself that I was technically a prisoner, of course it was unfair. There was a desk in that tent as well, but nothing on top of it and I was fairly sure that snooping through it would not be welcomed should I get caught.
Anyway the two drawers were both locked.
Once the tent looked as good as anything can when you’re camping, I went back to my tent. A hammock wasn’t a terrible idea. There were trees close enough to my tent to make it feasible to hang one inside the tent, and thus out of the rain. I got some extra rope, unthreaded the canvas mat from my ruined cot, and started tying it for a hammock instead.
I don’t know how long I spent on my engineering project. Hours, certainly. I had a good rope system on the canvas, had tied a loop around one tree, and was opening the back flap of my tent to tie my hammock up to the other tree when I heard noise out in the clearing.
“She’s here, Thomas! Thomas, the Captain is returning.” Ivy called out.
“About time,” Thomas said and he stuck his head in my tent. “Birdie, get out here, your new owner is arriving.”
The Captain made her way under the net, leading a horse. She wore a green cloak and mantle with a deep hood, pulled forward to shade her face. The cloak was well made but travel stained and tattered at the hem a bit. She had a fine bow, strung and worn on her back, and a quiver of long arrows hung from her saddle, in easy reach. She dismounted and approached Ivy.
“Captain, ma’am. Welcome back. I’m…I’m afraid I have bad news,” Ivy began, but Thomas interrupted her.
“I captured a lordling to ransom,” He said, pushing me forward.
A low chuckle came from the captain as she stood in front of me.
“A lordling? Hardly. Thomas I appreciate your initiative, but you still lack a certain measure of judgement.” The captain looked up into my face and smiled.
“But in this case I’m glad you did what you did. Oh, we won’t get any money for this one, but you’ve saved me the work of tracking him down myself. Work I might or might not have done, I suppose.”
She threw her hood back. Her dark brown hair was braided and piled on top of her head. Her green eyes, ever so slightly upturned at the corners, were sparkling with mirth.
“But now at least I get a good story. How in the world did you end up in this forest, Osmorn?” She asked.
“Hello, Sis,” I replied.