“Where is she?” Oskar snarled. He stared up at the man in the window, murder flashing bright in his eyes. “By all the gods, if you’ve—“
“If I’ve hurt her?” The man laughed, a high, piercing sound that worried Oskar far more than the marksmen positioned around him. “Believe me, pig, I’ve no interest in harming her. She’ll answer for her treachery in her turn, and in her own way. But let’s don’t get distracted, Oskar, my friend. You and I have business now.”
Oskar heard the shuffle of feet around him, and the hidden guardsmen came forth from the shadows that ringed the wall of the Coryn estate. There were six of them, each with a longbow knocked and drawn, and hungry-looking swords at their hips. One slowly eased up his bowstring, and from behind his back, produced a set of manacles. The guard approached cautiously. “Easy, big fella. Drop that sword belt and quiver. Nice and slow. Or we’ll fill you up like a porcupine.”
Oskar didn’t look to him, but continued staring up at the man in the window. “Where is Alessia? Show her to me, damn you, and I’ll come quietly!” He span his head toward the approaching guard, who jumped back in surprise.
“You’re in no position to make demands, pig”, said the captain. “But if it will spare another hearth the sting of your brutality...” He cast his hand back, as though introducing a troupe of actors, a sadistic grin spreading over his face as Oskar waited. The seconds ticked by, but each one felt as an age of the earth. Until, finally, she came forward, her grey stormcloud eyes wavering. Behind her, on either side, was a guard dressed in dark leathers, holding her tightly.
“Oskar!” she called down. “Oskar, my love, I’m sorry! Don’t—“ But more was not forthcoming, for the two soldiers flanking her pulled her back, away from the window, a hand clamped over her mouth.
The captain sneered. “A traitor to Druvenlode”, he said, smiling, as though he’d just presented a farce at the theater. “Now. Drop your weapons, before one of my men lets his patriotism get the better of him.” The threat hung in the air between them.
With a final furious glance up to the window, Oskar’s fingers began to move, unbuckling the sword from his waist, and unslinging the bow and quiver about his back. Both dropped to the ground unceremoniously, and were kicked aside by the guard with the manacles, rushing forward and pinning Oskar’s arms behind his back. The other soldiers advanced, seizing him, laying into the defenseless half-orc with fists and boots and the pommels of their swords. Oskar tried to roll with each strike, but he felt knuckles crack into his jaw, a steel toe drill into his ribs. He went to his knees, and then to his side, curling up into a ball, trying to protect himself in what small way he could. He had blood in his mouth and clouding his vision. He felt at least three broken bones, but he’d be shocked if there weren’t more. One guard swung a kick that broke through his meager defenses, connecting high in the chest, and his breath was a shallow hitching. It went on for what felt like an interminability.
And finally, at last, the six guards withdrew from him, parting, as their captain came forward, striding across the Coryn grounds toward them, his red cape billowing freely behind him. Oskar watched him approach with one eye swollen wholly shut and the other nearly so. But his ears worked just fine. “Sergeant, did I give orders to beat the prisoner?” That earned a round of soft snickers.
The one who’d shackled Oskar spoke, still quietly laughing. “No, sir. Only, he was resisting arrest, weren’t he? Me and the boys had to pacify him, sharpish-like. Might’ve killed us all otherwise.”
“Resisting arrest?” There was no mock disbelief in the captain’s voice. Only a cold hatred. And there was hatred, too, in the boot that came down on Oskar’s ankle. Once, twice, and thrice, and Oskar felt it grinding into the broken bone. “There. That should pacify him.” He reached down with both hands, hauling Oskar up by his shirt, pulling the orc into his face. This close, Oskar could see him clear enough: he wore a curious expression, somewhere between blind fury and heartbreak. “My name is Captain Faltus Perregine of the Crownsguard, pig. You are under arrest for attempted murder, espionage, and sedition against the people of Druvenlode and his Imperial Majesty, King Bertrand Dwendle.” He threw the half-orc back down to the bloodied ground. “Take him away.”
The next few hours passed by in a blur for Oskar, a haze of violence and commotion. He was thrown into a cell in the Crownsguard barracks, and only seemingly a few minutes later, hauled forth from it—so briefly was he locked away that it was still dark outside—and brought with great haste to a nearly-deserted courthouse, with a bleary-eyed lawmaster and a handful of Crownsguard in attendance.
There, the captain recounted his version of the capture of Oskar, who was now a notorious raider who’d been sacking caravans for years. A judgment was made only a few minutes after that, but so quickly that Oskar wasn’t even sure what it had been, though he presumed it was guilt. Alessia’s name was mentioned only once. After that, he was brought back to his cell, where he was interrogated by a quick succession of guardsmen, each asking the same set of questions: where was his tribe, how many were they, when were they attacking, would he redeem himself in the eyes of the King.
He said nothing at first, but when they increased the intensity of their interrogations, he spoke freely—though he didn’t remember everything he said, and was quite sure most of it was a lie. Still, the lies seemed to satisfy his jailers, and they left pleased, telling Oskar that in light of his cooperation, they’d try to get his sentence reduced, or something to eat, or a healer for him, or whatever their angle was, until the next one would come in and the whole thing would start over again.
The next morning, he was brought forth from his cell again (the last questioner having promised a hot meal and a few hours’ sleep not thirty minutes before), and back to the courthouse. This time, though, the streets were lined with people, throngs of curious onlookers and wrathful civilians.
The entourage around him had grown from six guards to twelve, and they did their best to keep back the people that clamored to reach Oskar, trying to pelt him with whatever they had on hand—even once or twice he felt the small, sharp stinging of a copper piece, whipped into his face by a skilled hand.
In the courthouse, he was again put on trial, but this time, it took much longer, in part because it seemed the entire town had tried to cram itself into the courthouse to get a peek at what would happen to the tribal spy who had snuck into their midst. Not once was Alessia mentioned, Oskar was pleased to see. He had forgone Gruumsh’s blessings, he knew that. Betrayed his people. At least whatever they did to him here, his tribe wouldn’t have to do it to him, and he was thankful for it. But he prayed to Gruumsh now, nonetheless, and to any other powers that might be listening: Let her survive this, he said. Let Alessia escape my fate. Whatever should befall me, only life, only peace for her.
He spoke only when spoken to, which was infrequently. The crowd ate it up. Each witness, each accusation, and they fell into a hushed whisper, only to explode into roars immediately after. The judge seemed bored. The outcome, it seemed, had already been decided, but this wasn’t for his benefit. This was for the townsfolk.
Finally, the end came. The judge spoke, handing down the sentence, reading it off in a distracted voice that did nothing to dampen the crowd’s spirit. He would hang by the neck until dead, to be carried out the next day, at dawn.
None of it mattered to Oskar. He couldn’t care less about the sentencing, he knew his life was forfeit one way or the other from the second he left Garuk on the outskirts of Whitetooth lands. This was simply the same song from a different mouth. The only emotion he showed during the entire trial, in fact, came at the very end. Given the chance to defend himself, to name any co-conspirators he may have had, he held his silence. And from behind him, he heard the cold, icily calm voice of Captain Faltus, hissing into his ear. “Well done, orc. She’ll live, for your silence.”
At that, Oskar cried silently, unnoticed by anyone in the court.
She would live, yes. Alessia would live. And she would have done it regardless of Oskar’s silence on their association. But his silence would allow her to escape legal consequences, if nothing else.
She had a far slower day than Oskar had had. She was locked in her room, alone with her thoughts. And she thought.
She thought about her family. Her mother would disown her for this, possibly. Certainly there would be dire consequences, even if she’d avoided a trial.
She thought about Taria. Her friend might not be so lucky. Harsk had seen her, as well. It was easy to imagine her, swinging from a gallows in Alessia’s stead.
But, of course, mostly she thought about Oskar. She knew she’d be lucky to see him alive once more. The best she could hope for was to see his body before it was gibbeted and left for the carrion-birds. She thought that perhaps there was a way to save him. Perhaps. And if she had to humble herself to do it, then she would. In a heartbeat, and gladly.
Only once were her thoughts interrupted. There was a knock on the door, and despite the two guards outside, for a brief, mad moment of joy, she thought that perhaps Oskar had come, that he’d found a way to slip away and they would escape together. But it wasn’t, of course.
It was the next best thing.
Faltus strode in, his swagger undiminished. But it was only an instinctual thing. A mere look into his face could tell her that he was disturbed. His face cycled through emotions as he looked to her, from love to hatred to confusion, to everything that lay between.
“I spoke to Harsk last night”, he said, as though recounting a summer rainstorm the night before. “That was how I—how I knew.”
“Oskar saved his life.” She said it evenly, forcing calm into her voice. Faltus, of anyone, could save Oskar. Stabbing him with whatever she could get her fingers on wouldn’t help her lover.
“Perhaps. He says differently, of course.” The Captain walked to the window from which he’d overseen Oskar’s capture. “That they were fighting over who got the honor of killing him.”
“He’ll say anything, I think, if it means another gold piece or two.”
“He said much more than that. That the two of you—you and the orc—were lovers.”
She turned, her face draining of color but otherwise emotionless. It remained so by force of will alone. Only the swell in her breast as her breaths grew shallower betrayed her feelings. “Did he?”
Faltus nodded slowly. He looked around the room, almost distracted. His mind was elsewhere, letting his body operate on sheer instinct. If she were to attack him, Alessia thought then, he would defend himself without ever even realizing he was doing it. “He did. He was... most descriptive.” He held out a hand, holding himself up against the windowsill. “I sent him with you to keep you safe, Alessia. I didn’t expect...”
“Faltus—“ she began, but he spun around, finger jutting forward, pointing at her face like a knife.
“Don’t lie to me, Alessia, don’t you dare. If you fucked that orc, I can accept that. But don’t you dare lie to me, or I’ll have his throat slit right now. I swear that on all the gods.”
She was quiet for a long time.
He laughed, rubbing his forehead with the heel of one hand. “No, I think it was I who lied earlier. I sent him with you because I loved you, Alessia. Love you. Hells, I don’t know. I think I still love you, even if you have given yourself to an orc.”
“I know. And you’re a good man, Faltus.”
“Good?” He snorted a derisive laugh. “I had him beaten, you know. Badly. I myself broke his ankle. So.” He moved from the window, turning to face her, face utterly blank. “Do you love him?”
Part of her wanted to attack him for that. She’d heard the grunts of pain, even though he’d never allowed himself to scream, to beg for mercy. She’d have done it for him, if they hadn’t held her mouth closed, made her listen. But at the same time, she saw the madness that was festering in Faltus’ eyes. He had loved her. And he’d loved her because she’d all but asked him to love her, used that love to her advantage. And she was going to do it again. “Why are you here, Faltus?
“You know why I’m here.” He drew nearer, swaying, almost as though drunk. There was heartbreak in his eye now, and only that. “Do you love him?”
She knew. The room swirled. “And if I say yes, you’ll let him live?”
“Swear it, Faltus.”
“I swear. By my watch and warrant. The orc will live. If you wish it. If you love him, Alessia.”
“He’s a half-orc.” But she only said it in a whisper, almost too quiet to be heard. She steeled herself. She took him in her arms and drew him in to her. It would save Oskar, perhaps. It was the only option she had. But that didn’t stop it from breaking her heart. “And I love him. More than anything.”
“Then it shall be so.”
Oskar looked up as the door of his cell opened. His eyes were still almost shut, but he could make out Captain Faltus, walking into his cell. His sword was at his side. Oskar didn’t even try to fight.
But to his surprise, no blade came into his chest. Instead, Faltus took from his belt a small flask. With a grunt and a groan, he put his back against the wall and slid down, until he was sitting beside Oskar.
He held the flask sideways, offering it to the prisoner. “Hell of a trial, orc.”
Oskar took the flask in hand. “Poisoned, I assume?”
Faltus shrugged. “Maybe. You’ll be hanged in a few hours anyway. What does poison matter?” To emphasize the point, he took a big swig, then held it back out. This time, Oskar took it.
“Why are you here?” It burned down his throat as he swallowed.
“I had to check something before the trial. I had a suspicion.” He took it back, and took another drink. “It was accurate.”
Oskar’s head spun, despite the throbbing in it. “You saw her?”
“I did. She sends her love.”
“What’ll happen to her?”
Again, Faltus shrugged. Oskar took the flask. “She’ll be fine. Nothing like what’ll happen to you. But she loves you terribly, my friend. You’re lucky.”
“And I love her, Faltus. And if anything happens to her—“
“Don’t threaten me, Oskar. I can’t tell you how unwise that would be.” He snapped his fingers. “And besides, it would be ungrateful. I’m doing you a favor.”
Oskar stared sideways at him, his gaze a dagger.
“You’re lucky to have her love, my friend. But you’re lucky in more ways that that. Because she loves you more than perhaps even you know. My friend, you’re about to experience a good old-fashioned Druvenlode prison break.”
And striding into the hallway of the prison came three figures: two of them, behind the first, were hulking, brutish humans, muscular and carrying nasty-looking knives in boot-hilts. Tattoos wound up their arms and necks, covering every visible inch of flesh, and their faces were ugly, scarred with dozens of tiny cuts and burns.
But the first was a woman, also human. Oskar placed her in her mid-fifties. Her hair was greying, but once blonde, her face lined with stress and wrinkles. But despite that, her eyes danced with a light that was rare in folk half her age. She reminded Oskar of an old she-cat, too aged and too stately to keep chasing mice every day, but not so old to have forgotten the sadistic pleasure she once took in it.
She approached the two of them with a confidence that neither of her musclebound companions matched, and an ease neither could match. Despite the dress she wore, which wouldn’t have looked out-of-place in an Imperial ballroom, she didn’t seem to be out of place in a jail cell, either. She cast an appraising eye across Oskar. When she spoke, it was with a soft purring voice, sliding through the air like smoke in his ear. “Afternoon, Faltus, darling. This is the one? He looks good.”
Faltus nodded to the newcomers. “Oskar, meet Guinevere Erbroar, crime lord. Guinevere, this is Oskar, orc raider.”
“Crime lord?” she pouted. “That’s a bit unfair.”
“Unfair or not.” He smiled, and she winked, whether at Faltus or Oskar, Oskar was unsure. “You’ll be going with her now.”
“And...” she smiled softly, showing long teeth behind full, red lips. She gazed at Oskar freely. “You can call me Lady Guinevere. Or Mistress. Whichever takes your fancy.”
Guinevere took Oskar from the prison, and from Druvenlode—or at least Druvenlode as most of its citizens knew it. There was a whole other world beneath.