It was one of those rare days that seemed to hang between seasons. The glowing warmth of summer, the whipping wind of autumn. And just beneath it, a flicker, a wisp, of the biting, bundling cold that winter would bring. The town of Druvenlode lay behind her, the Amber Road stretched before her, the eastern wind rippled through her hair, and her rouncey surged beneath her, carrying onward. Cheeks stung, and eyes watered, and her long auburn hair streamed out behind her in a shimmering, undulating wave. Alessia rode hard, and she rode well, but as to where she rode, she knew not.
Laughing, she reined back on Lauriam, slowing the black beauty to a jaunty trot as she bound her hair back up, spooling it inward around a thin-fingered hand. Collected, she tied her hair back in place with a length of ribbon, then wheeled Lauriam around and tipped left in the saddle to snag the cap that had blown off. It, like the rest of the clothes she wore, was plain, but impeccably made. Embroidered in silver thread, nigh invisible at moments, dazzling bright as the light shifted on her, was the sigil of House Coryn, a griffon and a unicorn rampant.
The sigil trembled over her the swell of her breast as she breathed hard, feeling the tingling comedown of sheer exhilaration. She cast about to either side in the saddle, carrying her head high, peering out like a hawk. She was beautiful, Alessia, with high, sharp cheekbones and a delicate nose, and eyes the color of the sky after rain. Her limbs were long, her slim body wrapped with the wiry muscle found most often in dancers, riders, and duelists, and there was something of all three in her. She bore the features of nobility, but she bore them uneasily, and there was something wild to her, something that seemed defiant in the face of some unknown oppression. At her neck was a tight chain, set with a single drop of amber, and at her hip was a short sword well kept in its sheath. To all the world, she would seem little more than a page girl of a middling family, perhaps haughty in youth but otherwise unremarkable. But Alessia Coryn was heir to one of the oldest trading families of Druvenlode. And she was far from home.
Alessia dismounted slowly, patting Lauriam on his broad flank reassuringly. Along this part of the Amber Road, forests rose on either side, dark and sullen, drinking in the light of the sun, shaped like gnarled old witches. Behind them, to the west, like hunched, wizened giants, purple mountains wore white helms. But she knew the dangers—bandits, and worse beasts beside. Orcs, even, it was said, hitting caravans along this stretch. She had never come out this far, and indeed hadn’t even realized she was doing it; when thrill took hold of her, Alessia forgot all else. And today, she had had cause to forget. She bit back the sting of tears.
But as she watched the forest, dark and deep, and the mountains behind it, and the blue skies behind even that, the tears faded. And so did the fear. A warmth replaced it, deep inside her. Faint wind stirred the boughs of trees that were old when her grandfather was born, the small switches crowning them beckoning to her. The sounds of the birds, of Lauriam beside her, fell away. Silence hummed all around her, a thrum in the wind she could almost see, could certainly feel. She could see a pass between two of the mountains, laden with unblemished snow—come, it said, come and master me. Her gut twisted. The forest was seven strides away, and the horizon stretched forever beyond it. Her polished boot rose and came forward.
“Alessia!” She heard a cry from behind, but only distantly, as though through water. That would be Taria, her handmaid, astride her old white nag and struggling to catch up to Lauriam. “Lady Coryn! Come back, I beg you! We’ve passed the border-stones. These woods are unsafe!”
Were they, though? Were these woods unsafe, in truth? No, of course not. Whatever was lurking within them, perhaps, but she had her blade, and Lauriam could outrace a falcon on the wing through a field of stones. Alessia took another step. And they looked quite inviting, the woods. She took a third step. They promised thrill. And when thrill, or the promise of it, took hold of her, Alessia forgot all else. The reins went taut in her hand as she took one more step. Three strides left. Two, and the warmth in her grew. Her fingertips sang with its heat. One step, and she felt as she hadn’t since she’d learned how to ride all those years ago, the excitement, the discovery of limits you hadn’t known you had, the flaunting of those limits, her foot was at the bank of the forest and—
Three things happened at once then. In any other combination, what followed for Alessia Coryn, heir to the fortune of House Coryn of Druvenlode, may have been different, and as a consequence, for the lives of a great many others as well. But again, Taria called out: “Alessia!”, louder this time, piercing the singing silence that had surrounded Alessia. At the same moment, Lauriam, pulled by the reins in a direction he didn’t much care about, turned his shaggy head and nipped her on the bum. She cried out, snapped from her reverie, but as her head came back, the wind picked up, and caught her cap. Again it flew off, this time carried into the forest by the breeze, dancing between trees.
“Lauriam!” she snapped, wheeling around. “If you think I’ll give you an apple slice after that, you—“ Her hand went to her head, then she wheeled about again. “Dammit! Look what you’ve done now, you great galoot.” She tugged firm at the reins, taking him forward, into the forest. “Come along. You can help me find it.” Lauriam knickered his resignation. “And when we get back here, you can apologize to Taria for going off and leaving her behind. What’s wrong with you?” Her voice shifted as she scolded him, growing thinner, more fraught, in a more than passable impression of her mother. “There are bears in those woods, and bandits, and dragons, and orcs, Garius, tell her about the orcs... No place for any gentlewoman wearing Coryn colors.”
They broke through the trees, Alessia leading the way, and Lauriam just behind her and to the side. They left only footprints behind them, and the forest along the Amber Road swallowed them up.
Alessia’s eyes were sharper than most. They had to be, if she wanted to keep up with her trainers’ instructions. She had watched her cap fly through this forest, had tracked its path, but it was nowhere to be seen. It was the strangest thing. This far into the forest, there was no way the wind was still carrying it, even if it hadn’t caught on a branch by now, but it felt like they had been walking for hours, and still no cap. Gods, if her parents could see her now—wandering the woods, alone. She smiled.
The sound of water broke her thoughts. A light, chuckling stream trickled somewhere up ahead, bouncing down rocks, flashing in the green-tinged light that filtered through the forest canopy. As that light flashed, she saw it, caught on a low branch, hanging out over the water.
She would grab it quickly, then return. By now, Taria was likely beside herself with worry, and as much as they enjoyed needling each other, the thought of that saddened her.
The trees, close but not impossible for Lauriam to negotiate, grew closer as they approached, and though he fought valiantly, she eventually resigned herself to looping his reins around a slim trunk. “Stay here, you naughty creature”, she said, patting him between his big, soulful eyes. “Don’t go wandering off and lose me something else today.”
Alessia padded forward through the underbrush, placing each foot with a hunter’s unconscious precision. Her heeled riding boots, scraped noiselessly by tall grass over the house sigil etched into them, might have been the soft footpads of a mountain cat for all the noise they made.
The stream laughed just ahead of her. It was within an arm’s reach, the branch on which her cap was caught, but only just. Edging down to the waterside, she planted a foot and uncoiled, stretching far out over the flashing water. Biting her lip as she kept her balance, a finger rose beneath the fabric, lifting it off as quick as she could—not that getting a bit wet much concerned her, but now it was a game, and a small species of thrill (far from that which she had felt astride Lauriam) thrummed in her breast. It slipped—turned her head—caught it—eyes focused—
He was down the creek, no more than twenty yards from her, but he hadn’t noticed she was there—not yet. She knew from the ocean-green skin that he was an orc, but he certainly looked nothing like the ones her nurse would describe in stories: all hunched and apish and ugly, with stubby fingers gripping blunt axes, tiny red eyes like pinpricks into the Hells.
No. This one was a specimen, whether an example of his kind or merely an outlier. Her pulse quickened. He was stripped naked, standing in the middle of the creek with the water up to his knees. In one hand, he held a scrap of fabric. He dipped into a kneel, thrusting it beneath the surface, then began to drag it across his body. She could see the bulge of muscle beneath his ocean-green flesh, watched the thick cords twist and contract as he scrubbed himself, slowly, languidly. Unknown to her, her hands began to work, gripping and rubbing and twisting the soft fabric in them as she watched.
All over he bore scars; she could pick out arrow wounds, blade cuts, more than a few sets of jagged claw marks. His bearded face was broad and square, with a jutting chin and a heavy brow, and to first glance, with his pugilist’s nose and flat-tipped tusks peering from his lower jaw, he seemed every bit as wild as her nurse had intimated. But when he moved, it was with complete control. Every motion he made was deliberate, not a single drop of wasted energy.
He rose up his head, rough ropes of thick black hair shifting on his shoulders as he looked out toward the horizon. Absently, he kept scrubbing himself, but as she followed his gaze, she knew he was, as she had, staring out at those purple mountains at the edge of his world and wondering what lay beyond them. His golden eyes, large and round and set deep with a great fire behind them, were far away and melancholy. Naked, alone in the wild, he should have been the very picture of barbarism. And yet, she found, somehow, there was more of nobility about him, this orc, than a great many of the civilized men she had known. For a moment, she was possessed with a mad urge—go out to him, tell him they would scale those far mountains together. But her mind, what little of it wasn’t given over to the fire that burned between her breast (and between her legs, she finished the thought for herself) held her back.
The coarse black hair that covered his chest, arms, and legs glimmered as though it had been studded with jewels, and between those legs she saw much of promise—as he soaked the cold, clear creek water into his aches, his other hand slid over his thigh, thick as her waist, and began to move there.
Her stomach was a pit, and it felt as though it would draw her inward, where there would be nothing but heat and thoughts of him. She couldn’t have looked away if she’d wanted to, now. Her ragged breath was drowned out by the mocking laughter of the creek, but that was drowned out in turn by the surging blood in her head. Between teeth and lip, a thin moan slipped from her mouth. He was working faster, eyes to the horizon but half-lidded with lust. From behind her tree and over her pants, she worked faster, too. There had been men in her life; some good, some bad. But none had made her feel like this. All she could see was him—all else had faded, into a thick red fog.
Even if she hadn’t been able to see him, she knew he was close. She felt it, and she felt it too. His breath rose above the water, just a whisper, but to her it sounded out across the distance between them, clear as a bell. He gasped—
—and she gasped, too, leaning hard against the tree. She lay there, panting, and he stood in the water, his barrel chest heaving. Inexorably, the way the world turns, her breath carried across the water to his ears. Still breathing hard between those ivory tusks, sounding like the bellows of the Allhammer himself, he looked back over his mountain of a shoulder with his big, golden eyes. A small, mischievous smile spread across his mouth.
“Were you spying on me, little one?” he said. His voice was deep and rich, rolling out over his tusks.
She opened her mouth to speak, but found her breath gone.
“Alessia!” From somewhere behind her, Taria’s voice cried out. The sound ripped through the forest’s still like a blade in the back before she could speak. As she watched, the orc’s entire body changed. A heartbeat ago, he had stood before her proudly. But at the sound of Taria’s voice, he twisted in on himself, back hunching into an animalistic stance. His legs splayed, ready to move, and his long fingers, which she had so recently imagined playing across her neck, curled into murderous claws. His form was the same, but it held little trace of the man she had seen. His eyes still gazed into hers. Now, however, she saw in them a deadly calculus: Will I have to kill you?, they asked. No longer were they a wise eagle’s gold. Now, they were a wolf’s hungry yellow. Now, the stories her nurse had told her seemed just a bit truer.
His eyes darted toward the source of the sound, then back to her. Her heart was pounding. “Go!” she hissed to him. “I’ll take care of her. No-one will hunt you.”
He delayed, only for a moment, but in it, she saw his eyes flicker. Yellow gave way to gold. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Alessia Coryn, of Druvenlode. Now go, before she catches you!” Already, she could hear Taria tromping through the undergrowth.
He nodded. “Alessia Coryn of Druvenlode. You have my thanks. I am Whitetooth clan. My name is Oskar.” With that, he darted across the stream and up the far bank with a speed she could only just follow, grabbing a bundle that had been stashed in the crotch of an old oak tree there.
“Alessia, is that you I hear?” Now Taria’s voice was beginning to grow frantic.
She watched the brush settle as the orc’s path faded into nothing. “Yes! Yes, it’s me, Taria, don’t worry.” She circled around, heading back to where her friend was making her way through the undergrowth. “The wind took my damned cap. I had to go in all this way to get it, can you believe it?” Yes, there had been men in her life. Some good, some bad. But as she re-mounted Lauriam, as she assuaged Taria’s frightened inquiries, as the two of them rode back into Druvenlode, and even as she bedded down and rose the next day, ready to ride back out and find Oskar again, she knew there would be no others.