When the screaming fades, and Volfred finds clarity returned to him, he is vaguely aware he has fallen on his side. It’s not an easy position for a sap. Hands find him and set him as upright as they can. They’re human hands. They belong to a nomad. That nomad happens to be Oralech. He’s crouched beside him, shaking his hand out. He’s covered in glowing slime and he looks very put out.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” he says, raising three fingers. Slime drips off his sleeve.
“Forgive me,” says Volfred, “I suppose I should have known there would be more to it than that.”
Oralech considers that answer.
“No concussion, then,” he says Oralech. “If there is anything to be concussed.”
“Nothing in the traditional way,” admits Volfred. He lets Oralech ease him into a standing position. His roots bury into the earth, and it is a dear relief to find it loose and waiting for him. “But, if you are suggesting there is nothing left in my head, I would not blame you. How far did we fall?”
Oralech looks up the slope. “Far enough the wraith has gone its way,” he says, rolling his shoulder. “Not far enough for permanent injury. Did you at least find what you’ve sought? Or shall we challenge it to another guessing game.”
“Riddle contest, actually, and no, once has worked well enough,” says Volfred, producing the handful of shining moss from the front of his tunic. He had managed to grab a handful of it before the wraith’s screams blasted them off the ridge. She’d been a sore loser, as it turned out. “And more than the requested five ounces. My friend will be pleased.”
Oralech stares. To him it looks like a pile of dirt. He doesn’t quite say it so plainly, but the thought is clear in his eyes. He offers Volfred one of his empty flasks, and the material is soon enough packed away safely in his satchel, alongside his herbs and his salves.
“I shall take your word for it,” Oralech says, when he is satisfied the slime did not get into his medicines. “For the bog witch, then. Only she would ask for something so… esoteric.”
Life-threatening would be a better word for it, but Oralech let’s that implication dangle between them, much like the strings of slime on his belt.
“I owe her a great debt,” admits Volfred.
“I would say you must, to take such a risk on her account,” says Oralech, with a snort. He has already marched ahead, trying to figure out a way up and around the ridge. A way that wouldn’t take them back past the wraith’s lair. “But I know you would do this for less if it was of interest to you.”
“I can’t deny that,” says Volfred. “Curiosity, I fear, is ever my vice.”
“And here I thought it was insurrection.”
“One can have a few hobbies,” says Volfred.
Oralech’s lips quirk, but only slightly.
“Find one that involves less slime,” he says, pushing some of his sodden hair out of his eyes for the fourth or fifth time. The doctor took the brunt of the wraith’s blast. The remnants of it have stained his robes an off-color green. It smells strongly of swamp. Volfred closes his eyes and trawls his roots deeper into the earth. After a moment, he reopens them.
“...The ground here is wet,” says Volfred, bringing in a few drops through his roots with some care. He has taken in poisons before. It’s not an experience he wishes to repeat -- but when there’s no burning he smiles. “And the water is sweet. There is a fresh spring nearby, I think. That may spare you some discomfort.”
“Optimism is a luxury in the Downside,” warns Oralech. He asks Volfred for an approximate distance and, sure enough, they find a small forest spring not far from where they fell. It pours into a small inset lake, pooling on a rock shelf. From there, the water flows down into the deeper, darker parts of the valley. They rest by the shelf. Oralech shoves his head into the waters nearly before Volfred finishes confirming the lake’s purity.
It’s here that Ti’zo finds them. The wood is just thin enough for him to locate them through the canopy. Through him, Oralech is able to ascertain the location of the Blackwagon. Yes, Erisa and the Minstrel are fine. Yes, it’s not far. Yes there is a way around the ridge, but it will take some time, and night -- and the howlers -- are almost on them.
“Fly back, then, and tell them to stay put until morning,” says Oralech. “No sense in all of us traipsing around in the dark.”
“Skrrikkiki,” says Ti’zo, with great concern. He doesn’t like the thought of Oralech and Volfred camping out on their own.
“Better than leaving Erisa to try and shoot everything that moves to find us,” says Oralech, “and I will not ask you to fly back after dark.”
“Kriihihi,” says Ti’zo, who reminds Oralech that a few howlers hardly bother him, and he is capable of echolocation -- which he quickly explains means he can see in the dark very well.
“Little one, I would never doubt all that you are capable of,” says Oralech, his eyes going softer, now. He reaches down to stroke Ti’zo behind his horn, the way Ti’zo only ever trusts the doctor to do right. “...it is for my own peace of mind that I ask. I would not risk you for our own foolishness. Return, and rest in the safety of the wagon, and my heart will be at ease.”
Ti’zo relents, but not before coughing up a few hairballs in the surrounding treeline. It’s disgusting work, but it’s as good a howler repellant as any. He flits back over the treeline and away, with one last screech: a promise to return at dawn, to guide them back to the wagon.
“‘Our own foolishness,’” remarks Volfred. “You mean mine. I’m the one who dragged you into this mess.”
“No. You were the one who was ready to take on the task alone,” says Oralech. “I chose to follow you on my own accord.”
“And you have suffered great indignity for it.”
Oralech sets his satchels along the rocks overlooking the pond. He stares out across the water. It’s a long, measuring gaze.
“I have a heatstone from the basin,” he says, all at once. “It is in my fifth pouch.”
“Hm?” That’s about all Volfred is able to manage before Oralech begins to shrug out of his stained robes.
“Light it for my clothes,” says Oralech, “and help me dry them when I am done and I will consider this indignity forgotten.”
“Surely, that can’t be all..” says Volfred, but Oralech’s clothes are becoming an increasingly large pile on the stones, and Oralech himself is a vanishing figure into the pond.
“Fine, then,” says Oralech, over one bare shoulder. “If it bothers you so, you can wash my back.”
They fill a few waterskins for the wagon. They soak Oralech’s slime-covered robes. After they’ve been laid out to dry, Oralech vanishes into the spring with a great splash. Volfred trails his roots into the water. He hovers over it with more concern than he’d care to admit, but Oralech surfaces. The water is cold, he admits, but it feels amazing. He hasn’t had a true bath in weeks and sheer luxury of it drives him to splash and bob around in the water like a boy. When he’s done, he pulls himself up onto the rocks that make up the bank, dangling his feet over the edge. He submits himself to a proper scrubbing, with the flaky chunk of soap he keeps in a sealed pouch in his satchel. Volfred helps him lather up his hair.
“Perhaps your witch might get me another stick of the stuff,” he says. “How much would that cost?”
“More than you would guess,” admits Volfred, “but less than the Slugmarket, I imagine.”
“That damnable merchant gouged me for this batch,” says Oralech, slaking water down his back. Volfred tries not to get too distracted by path they make through Oralech’s straining back muscles as the doctor bends to get at his feet. “It took a fair piece of our funds. Erisa was furious with me, but men live and die based on whether or not I have washed my hands. I would not go without.”
“Do you take nothing for your own enjoyment?” asks Volfred. He runs a soapy hand down Oralech’s back after all, he watches those muscles stop as he does it. Oralech makes a low sound in the back of his throat.
“If we can afford it, and we seldom could. In the Downside or on the front. It makes little difference.” He falls back against Volfred, who holds out an arm to receive him. Oralech has long ago learned his weight is nothing to a fully rooted sap. Volfred takes him with only the faintest of creaks. “Not that it stopped some from trying. You would not believe the amount of diseases that could be spread in a poorly watched bathhouse.”
“Ah,” says Volfred, working a bit of the lingering soap out of the curls that have stuck themselves behind Oralech’s ear. “I take it you mean of a venereal nature? Is that a trouble for you?”
For a moment Oralech had forgotten he was a sap.
“Yes,” says Oralech. “One of my species’ particular weaknesses, I suppose. We are hot blooded. More so when danger looms at every corner. No amount of lectures on the subject ever reduced the cases of it we saw after a skirmish. Young men, women, anything in between. We even posted warning sigils. With pictures, Volfred! …I suppose to you it must seem frivolous.”
“Not particularly,” says Volfred. “Have I given you the impression I live chastely?”
Oralech considers this. He has, of late, learned some particulars about sap biology. The memory is all at once hot in his mind and flush in his skin. It prickles above his cheekbones and in his ears, especially. “Not in season, no.”
“Oh, my,” says Volfred. “Have I given you the impression I live chastely outside of my season?”
Oralech goes quiet. His ankles, which had been gently moving back and forth in the water, still. By now, it’s dark. The heatstone grants them some light. The flowers floating on the far end of the pond grant a light of their own. It’s a faint blue-white, likethe stardust the Minstrel occasionally shows them how to strain from the river. It’s possible the stones here contain traces of stardust, but Volfred’s roots are currently too occupied to check for it. He twines them, instead, gently alongside Oralech’s legs.
“I did not presume,” says Oralech, at last.
“My dear Oralech,” says Volfred. He doesn’t quite laugh. He’s too kind to subject Oralech to that, but the hand in Oralech’s hair presses against the side of his jaw, stroking with more gentle purpose. “You were ready to be very patient with me, weren’t you?”
“It seemed selfish.”
“How so?” asks Volfred.
“It would seem I would get more from it than you.”
“Biologically, perhaps,” says Volfred, “but you forget something.”
“And what is that?”
“I like to watch,” says Volfred, simply.
“Ah.” Oralech shifts against him. The flush has gone from his cheekbones to his chest, and now across his stomach, breaking only for the occasional old scar.
“And I doubt we share the same illnesses,” added Volfred, just to be clear. That earns him a startled laugh.
“I should think you keep yourself in better health than the average underfed cadet. No, that’s not my concern.”
“Have you any left?”
“Have you the means to fuck me?”
“Hm.” Volfred hums in consideration. He twines one of his roots around Oralech’s ankle. “I have several. It is only a matter of your preference. And the second concern?”
“...Can you reach the oils in my satchel?”
As it turns out, Volfred can.
“Does it hurt?”
Oralech sucks in a breath. He has to think about it. It aches. It aches in a deep, full way he’s never felt in all of the ill-advised battlefront flings of his youth. The oils have done their job, but it doesn’t change the way the little crooks of Volfred’s pistil rub against him with every breath. He braces himself against Volfred’s boughs. One of his hands tangles with his. Oralech grips it tight. He thinks more about it, takes a deeper breath, and, swallowing hard, lowers himself further onto it until the back of his thighs are rested firmly against Volfred’s upper roots. He groans with the motion. Volfred leans his mouth near the crook of his neck.
“If it is too much,” Volfred whispers, in a voice more quick and urgent than the sap is accustomed to. Immediacy has never been one of his strong point, and everything here is immediate, hot, and very new. “You needn’t bear it for my sake—”
“Spare me your dissertation,” snaps Oralech, his own voice half lost in a gasp. The water laps at his thighs and stomach. It’s cool, but not cool enough to take the heat from him. His cock is hard, despite it all, and straining desperately. He’s distinctly aware of just how long it’s been for him. “I do it for my own sake, but if you so wish to drive me to complete distraction, I can think of far better means.”
And, with the unerring instinct that has nothing to do with his skills as a reader, Volfred takes his meaning and slides his free hand down Oralech’s stomach, curling loosely around his cock.
“Will that do, my dear?” murmurs Volfred. Oralech laughs despite himself.
“Tighter than that,” says Oralech. “You have oiled your hands, haven’t you? Do not make it a wasted effort.’
“Forgive me, I’d like to be certain.”
“ I’m certain,” says Oralech, and Volfred does tighten his hand. It’s polished and warm, thrumming with the vibrating heat that is natural to a sap in a state of pleasure. Oralech bucks his hips into it, a motion that serves both to provide him delightful friction to his cock, and rock him up and down on Volfred’s pistil. “Not bad. More than that, though. You think me so fragile, Volfred?”
“You are so very soft,” says Volfred, pressing his mouth to Oralech’s neck, “and warm. I have always marveled at it. How humans can be made of so little and yet so much, you bend where others would break, your beating hearts carry you so very far.”
“Fetishist. Soft is not a word oft used to describe me,” says Oralech, who has, after years of fighting and survival on the downside, been reduced to little more than the muscle that keeps him alight in the Rites: broad and hard and, at present, flexed to full as he lowers himself onto Volfred again. “I am no stripling.”
“No, and it’s more the wonder to me,” says Volfred. He does tighten his hand a centimeter more, and Oralech practically thrums at the tug of it. The water ripples around them. Volfred’s lips move up Oralech’s neck, to his ear, and Volfred buries his face in his hair. “You must know, I had wanted to touch your hair since nearly the first day I met you. I’ve always found human hair marvelous in its delicacy, like spun glass, but yours seemed especially fine. I had to know how it felt.”
“You hardly restrained yourself then,” mutters Oralech, who remembers well enough the first time Volfred settled a hand on his head. How he’d leaned his head into it, and been surprised by his own stab of desire for the closeness of it, then immediately bewildered at what he’d thought was the impossibility of such desire.
Oralech’s learned better since.
“You inspire me to such impertinence,” hummed Volfred against his temple. Oralech tilts his head up to catch his mouth. Volfred takes him with a surge, swallowing Oralech’s gasp with an answering shiver. His very leaves quiver with it. Oralech’s hand grips his tighter.
“Impertinence only?” says Oralech. “You’ve enough of that on your own.”
“Impertinence,” says Volfred. “Passion. Eloquence. Rebellion.”
“Rebellion,” says Oralech, savoring the word. It’s come up more and more in their conversations of late, the late night chats in the low lanterns, when they’ve forgotten what hour it is. “A dangerous word.”
“Do you mind it?”
“Only if you stop,” says Oralech, who rolls his hips, reminding Volfred of his particular task. He leans forward, meaning to give himself the leverage to shove himself into his hand in full, but Volfred twines a branch around his leg to still him and Oralech has to bite back a growl.
“Careful,” says Volfred.
“You know I can take this,” says Oralech.
“Of this, my dear, I have no doubt,” says Volfred, and all at once Oralech becomes keenly aware of Volfred’s tendrils winding up his other leg, around his waist, all the while his hand has never released him, now squeezing him in earnest, pumping him deliciously. “But you must forgive me, if you are close to the brink, I would rather like a good view.”
He shoves into him with a ruthlessness Oralech has always known him capable of, but never knows when exactly to expect. His bark rubs against the back of his legs, the small of his back. His branches hold Oralech suspended, half in the water, nearly on his hands and knees but held strong, held still. Volfred’s body groans like a tree in a storm, swaying, hard, twisting inside of him with steady, deep strokes that never once falter in their rhythm.
Oralech comes with a shout. He’s never been prone to noise, but despite having felt it building, it takes him entirely by surprise. He would bury the sound in his wrist, but Volfred holds his hands firm right where they are. Volfred watches Oralech as he spends in his hand, the sort of clenching, teeth-rattling, ear-popping orgasm Oralech hasn’t had since he was a cadet. Volfred watches him as he spasms around his pistil and then, finally, lifting him effortlessly off of him to turn him around in his arms, rest him against his trunk, and drink the last cold gasps from his slack mouth.
Volfred, as always, tastes like sweet nectar. Oralech’s hand spasms as he reaches blindly to run his fingers along his bottom lip. Volfred obliges, sucking his finger gently.
“Does it hurt?” he asks, not for the first time that evening.
“No,” says Oralech, “and if it does, only in a way that suits me.”
“I should hope that way would not make the walk back to camp tomorrow difficult for you.”
Oralech chuckles against Volfred’s trunk. He presses his face into it. It’s hard. It’s what most people would call unyielding, but when he rests his full weight against him, Volfred doesn’t sway in the slightest and that is somehow the greatest comfort of all.
“Help me with my ointments, and I doubt it will be an issue,” says Oralech. “Unless you would do that again in the next hour so, then it certainly will be.”
Oralech punctuated this with a particular roll of his hips. He’s spent, soaked, and still twitching in the afterglow, but he can feel the tiny wisps of the desire still curled in his stomach, he knows with some time, he could coax that flame anew.
“How ill-advised,” says Volfred, rubbing the back of his head and his hair in that way he knows makes Oralech slack all over. “Is that a possibility?”
“It might be,” says Oralech, twining his arm around Volfred’s waist, “but I find I would hardly object. In fact, I recommend that you do. You have made a reckless man of me, Volfred Sandalwood, and I do not know you to leave anything half done.”