It wouldn’t have been right, not quite at any rate, to say that they had forgotten each other, Alessia and Oskar. But they both had their lives now, and seldom did they cross with the other’s.
Alessia found that, whatever he might have done before, Faltus was a good man at heart. And she could hardly blame him for defending Druvenlode, nor for being jealous of another. She spent time with him openly, and as the spring came around and the festival of the equinox drew near, it was whispered among those who cared about such things that they would soon be married. The news was much-discussed, examined and reexamined both by the leading lights of the town and by the pretty young people who had hoped they might lure the dashing captain or the willful heiress for themselves.
Yet these happy tidings were overshadowed by dark murmurs from those who lived on the borders of the forest, on the fringes of Druvenlode. It was said that there were orcs massing in the forests, moving down into the world of civilized men. Small farms were falling deathly silent; strange totems dedicated to pagan gods were found erected deep in the woods. For long months, the people of Druvenlode had feared that the escape of the orc spy, who had so heroically been caught by Captain Faltus, might lead to something like this, but they had dared to hope against hope that peace might reign. And aught burns but the sting of misplaced hope.
Now, when they saw her in the streets, folk eyed Alessia with suspicion, if not outright hostility. They had been willing to forgive her transgressions, but the spy had escaped into the night, and they felt cruel, yellowy eyes watching them from every shadow. “Who’s ter say she hadn’t her hand in it?” they asked among themselves down at the taverns and pubs, from deep in their cups. “Always she were a strange’un, I says, I do. Off’n about them woods, even as a girl, she were. Strange doin’s, I says, I do, an’ I shouldn’t wonder she’s had summet ter do with them pigs what’re out in them trees.”
Faltus did what he could to staunch such talk, publicly declaring several times her innocence in the matter, having personally investigated it to the fullest. But still the suspicion persisted. “He’s in love wit her, ain’t he? Bamboozled our cap’n inter not seeing what’s there”, the taverns said.
Patrols along the road were stepped up. The night’s watchmen were doubled, and a bounty of a silver piece was posted for each orc tusk found. It availed them little. And often Faltus was away, tied up in the business of protecting the town. Again, for the second time in far too short a span, Alessia was left alone with her thoughts, for on Faltus’ personal request, she did not ride out beyond the walls of Druvenlode. She was barred up inside the town, and the brief moments when she was able to see Faltus, who had become dear to her, were the rare bright moments.
Tonight was one such moment. They had just returned from a brief walk around Druvenlode, where she had pretended not to notice the folk watching her mistrustfully. At the time, Faltus had bristled. She felt him tense up at each cold greeting, at every backhanded comment. Now, returned to his abode, he was able to unleash.
“Damned peasants”, he muttered as he closed the door and locked it behind them. In these dark times, even the captain of the Crownsguard took such measures. “You’d think you had green skin and tusks a yard long, the way they look at you.”
“Don’t mind them, Faltus. They’re scared. You’ve already done everything you can for my good name.” She slid her arms around him, turning him to face her, and he held her. The feeling of his arms around her was different than Oskar’s had been—not as steely-hard, for he lacked the wild muscle, hard-earned by a lifetime of survival; but though his was a softer grip, it was less tender, somehow, more desperate, as though he held something of both great value and great fragility, and thought he might lose it if his hold lessened. “The more you tell them off, the more you’ll convince them I’m a fiendish witch who’s put you under her mighty spell.” She waggled her fingers under his nose, giggling.
Faltus sighed, walking forwards with her still in his embrace. “Oh, I suppose you’re right, Alessia. And I can’t blame them for their fear, no more than I can blame you for—“ His voice trailed away suddenly at that, and he looked upward, as though something of great interest on the ceiling had suddenly caught his full attention.
They discussed Oskar little between them. She only ever said his name when she spoke with Taria, and that had grown less frequent. Since the affair at the window, Taria had lost much of the favor she once held with Alessia’s mother. But at length, she spoke again: “Is there reason to fear, then? Are the orcs coming for us? To hear them tell it down at the Drunken Unicorn—”
Faltus snorted. “To hear them tell it down at the Drunken Unicorn, I’m half a frost giant and King Bertrand is a red dragon. What were you doing there?” he asked, eyes growing narrow with a pantomime of suspicion. “Are you a spy after all, then, milady?” His fingers reached down below her arms, tickling at the sensitive skin along her ribs, and she laughed.
But Alessia sensed there was less love in the gesture than an attempt to change the subject. “Stop, stop!” she cried, laughing, as his tickles slowed. “No more, I’m no spy. But tell me truly, Faltus, is Druvenlode in danger?”
Again, he looked away. “Alessia, I don’t want to worry you. And I don’t want to think about it, not while I’m with you. I spend so precious little time with you.”
“I know, Faltus.” She looked up at him with her big grey doe’s eyes, and knew he couldn’t say no to her this time, not with that look. “But I ask anyway. If I caused this—“
“You didn’t, Alessia”, he said, snapping his words and surprising her with their venom. But even as he said it, he softened again. “You didn’t. Sorry. But it irritates me, having to hear that question all day and say nothing but ‘no, sir, sorry, sir, have a nice day, sir’.”
“When last we—“ Now it was Alessia’s turn to trail off. “When last we met, he claimed he was in some kind of trouble from his clan. Could they think Druvenlode still has him? That we shelter a criminal of their kind?”
At this, Faltus stroked his chin thoughtfully. His eyes were lit with a pale light that reminded Alessia of gears in a clock, turning over on each other. “I hadn’t thought of that. It may be so. Yes, in truth, there are orcs massing in the forests, though I’d ask you not to repeat the news, of course. Perhaps they think we mean to strike them first, and are attempting a preemptive attack. I can’t say.” He looked down at her, smiling, and led her to the bed, where they sat down next to each other. “But Druvenlode will weather that storm, as it has weathered similar storms before, for many years. Whatever happens, we’ll be alright.”
“Will it be war, then?” She drew against him, tense and feeling very small. It was well enough to read about battles and wars, but to think that she might have caused one, brought it upon her people, that folk may die for her doings and for her own carelessness, made her feel weak in the knees and set the room spinning.
Again, Faltus sighed, this time with a terrible weariness in his shoulders. “I can’t say. But I’m going to attempt to send word to their chieftain. A warlord named Garuk. I fear it will be war, yes, but if I tell him what was done with Oskar—“ But here he paused, and his eyes darted down to her, like he was cheating at cards and hoped she hadn’t noticed one in his sleeve. “How he escaped us, I mean. If I tell him of that, I hope he might return his people to the mountains and leave us be.”
With that, they concluded their talk of such things as war and orc warlords, and turned it to softer things—pillows, and wine, and flesh. Whereas he had sparked new flames within her, Faltus fed those that already burned there, and had shaped himself well to her desires. She used him as she willed in those days, and always he held her in that same soft, needing embrace. If Oskar had awoken something wild in her heart, Faltus had clothed it in the garb of an empress. And she had found both to her liking, in these last few months, months of sighs and moans, of obedience and tightenings. As Druvenlode believed her all the more to be a witch who had enthralled their Crownsguard captain, so she did. But by his own desires. He made love to her then, responding to her, following her, obeying her, with gasps and biting and the sliding of wet skin on wet skin.
And yet, when it was done, she was left asking a question.
What had his glance meant when he said what was done with Oskar? And for all his obedience to her in the realm where they found themselves now, laying naked and languid among pillows and leather, what had he done to fear her so?
Even as Alessia’s reputation within Druvenlode shrank, Oskar’s reputation beneath it exploded. The devil-man with his whirling scimitars and pretty tattoos had been the first, but he had not been the last. Every night, it seemed, for time was different below the earth, where there was no light but what lanterns bore, every night there was a new enemy to face, a new challenge to overcome.
At first, Oskar had chafed against it, planned his escape, his return and revenge and his life with Alessia. But they watched him closely, and held fast any possible means of escape. And in the months that followed his first fight and his first encounter with the Lady Guinevere, he changed, just as his lover had.
There was something intoxicating about the feeling of victory. He stood over his opponent, battered, beaten, but not always dead, and he smelt blood and wine seeped into the wood of Undertown for decades, and it awakened some deep part of him that he hadn’t known was there. He couldn’t name it, couldn’t place it in himself, but he knew he’d felt it before—once, when he’d defended her from the wolves in the forest, and again, when he’d fought Garuk. Garuk! Were he here with Oskar, he would have nodded and understood. Perhaps such was his birthright as an orc. Or perhaps he just enjoyed it.
Either way, he grew in stature in the pits of Undertown. Before long, he had earned enough from his fights to buy his own weapons—he chose a great, savage blade for himself, four feet of steel so weighty that it required both of even his mighty hands to use, and a longbow, said to have been made from dragon-horn. He wore no armor and held no shield when he fought, but ornamented himself with trinkets and warpaints, and though they still kept him in a cell, within its bars one might have thought his dwelling a small, if eclectic, palace, so decorated with trophies was it. Often he daubed onto his bare chest the symbol of the heritage he’d been denied: in red paint, the open eye of Gruumsh, watching him and reveling in his conquests, and it was soon by that name that he began to be known. No longer was he Oskar; now he was Red-Eye. And other titles were heaped at his feet.
And after his fights, he walked the shanty-streets of Undertown with Lady Guinevere. There he spent his coin, purchasing whatever took his fancy, silver and gold flowing freely from his pockets. In the pits he was called Red-Eye, but among the merchants and fences who dwelt in Lady Guinevere’s domain, he was known as Open-Purse. He wore many clothes, swung many weapons, and ate many foreign delicacies. And in his off-hours, he studied from whatever tomes he could find down in Undertown, and became wiser than many of the so-called learned men in Druvenlode, up above.
But when the fighting had finished, and the shopping was done, Lady Guinevere stayed with him. They sometimes went back to his palace-cell, sometimes to her cabin in the ship that served as her headquarters n the river of Undertown, but after seemingly every fight, which happened seemingly every day, they would find themselves alone—he becoming every day the marauding orcish barbarian, and she, sly and hungry-eyed, wearing jewels that could buy men whole, garbed as though attending the balls of royalty rather than maintaining the peace among a crowd of criminals.
Just as he had resisted the call of blood, so too he had resisted Lady Guinevere. But he knew, even at the start, that he could not deny her, for to do so would mean perhaps his death. She held his life in her hands, among the many rings that adorned her fingers. And she knew it, taunting him, using his burning for life to drive him onward. And they burned together, then, in that fire.
Perhaps, in the months earlier, he might have recognized in that relationship something, the tale of the noble lady and the savage orc, something that might have reminded him of another lady. But he was losing himself to blood and thunder, and to the sensations of a full belly and empty loins. They used one another, Oskar and Guinevere, and they used each other often. But there was little of love in it.
Then, one night, she came to him, hungrier than usual. They didn’t even go out into Undertown, nor did she even take the moment to send away the guards. He had fought, and slain, a towering blue-skinned mountain of a creature, with snowy hair and a pike that sang in the air as it slid through flesh, but he had managed to drop the beast. Its scalp would hang next on his wall.
“Lady Guinevere”, he said, rising to meet her, but she brushed him aside, throwing him backward with the force of her embrace. She fumbled at him, a gnawing hunger running all through her body.
“Never”, she said, breathless, hissing her words between clenched teeth. “Never—have I—that thing—cost me—thousands—you were—“ She turned his head up in her hands from where it had been, buried in her chest, to stare into her eyes. They were green, wroth and lustful. As she had guided him, he had grown hard as iron in body and in mind, and she kept him as a cat kept a mouse. But he had proven to be more than a mouse himself, to her delight.
“You killed—an oni—yourself—cost me—thousands—magnificent.” Her words came around great, ragged hitches of breath, but they halted when her lips shot in, pressing desperately into his in a savage kiss, practically biting at him. “Red-Eye—Oskar. You are amazing.” Then, atop him, with the guards still watching, though awkwardly and averting their eyes much of the time, she began to move atop him.
They fucked—there was no other word for it, and whatever emotions might have been there, love was not one of them, so it couldn’t be called lovemaking—for hours, longer than they ever had before. She was insatiate, and he was unstoppable. But at length, immovable object and irresistible force came to terms, and ended. And she stood, buttoning herself back together, smoothing her hair back into something like it had been before she’d arrived. “I’m leaving for a few days, Red-Eye. Something up in the real world has my concern. So you get a few nights without any fights. Lucky you.”
He chuckled, a sonorous noise as though from the mountains. “Lucky, sure. But I wonder what you’ll do with yourself while I’m not there at night.”
She smiled fiercely, daring him to push his luck. They were always like that, at each other’s throats. If circumstances had placed them as equals, they might have been good friends. If they had been on the same side to begin with, they might already rule Druvenlode in its entirety. But such was not their fate. “I’ll manage. I hope you will, too.”
She left quickly. But she didn’t tell him whom it was she was going to meet, and what the meeting was concerning.
Captain Faltus had called her. Concerning a certain orc gladiator he’d sold to her some time ago. Perhaps they had a better use for him, in preventing a war.