They woke together, him wrapped protectively around her beneath the thin blanket they’d shared and he took her again when they did. Though the sun hadn’t yet fully risen, he had—she felt him behind her, swollen, nestled between the valley of her bottom. His hot breath flared in her ear, on her neck, and though she still ached sweetly from their marathon the previous day, her muscles uncoiled, anticipating what was to come.
They lay there for what felt like years, listening to the forest wake up around them. For the rest of her life, Alessia would remember the feeling of his arms twined around her body, his rough fighting man’s hands on her breasts. She melted into him behind her, utterly his, rising and falling with every motion and breath.
“Good morning, hraginakh.” His voice had the crack and rumble of far thunder. “I hope you slept well.”
She had, mostly, though her dreams had worried her—all of Oskar, captured, paraded through Druvenlode. But whenever she had awoken from them, he had been beside her, and she was able to quickly slip back away. “Hraginakh?”
He kissed her between her naked shoulders, sending a shiver down her spine. “One of our words. It means ‘heart-chief’. ‘Ruler of my heart’, if you’re feeling poetic.” He kissed her again, this time higher, at the base of her neck, and let his mouth run up, dragging his tusks through her hair. She shivered again, this time all over, and he laughed softly. “Also sounds similar to a type of dried travel meat.”
She threw her head around, staring back at him with one half-hidden eye. She dropped her voice in her throat, filling it with smoke. As sultry as she could, she whispered to him: “I could be your dried travel meat.”
They laughed together, long and high and sweet, filling the hollowed-out tree with it until it rang with their mingled joy. As it began to soften away, though, she felt his hand moving down from her breast. Over her stomach. “Not so dry.”
Her own hand moved, backward, to him. “No. Not so.”
He began to move, and she stopped him. “Oskar, wait. I’m sorry, but we can’t. I can’t risk the... consequences.”
“What about last time? And before that?” He wasn’t angry, as she might have feared, but he sounded only concerned for her now. “Will you—“
“I took something yesterday. Before we... well, before we began. Bitter squash seeds. But I’ll need more before we can again. I’m sorry, love.”
He snorted laughter. “You don’t need to apologize to me, hraginakh. Not for this, certainly.” But he turned her over, pulling her shoulder down gently, and she saw as she turned a gleam in his eye. “But I’d give you something to remember me by, at least.”
He pulled her to her back, and at first thought he would climb atop her—but instead he moved down, trailing kisses along her stomach as he went. She felt a mingle of fear and anticipation. Shivering as his stubble grazed her low belly. Her fingers snaked all through his hair, bunching it up into crude reins.
White lines drew over her thighs where tusks crossed their flesh. A broad, inexperienced, eager tongue. She hissed narrow breaths through small white teeth, her sun-kissed legs crossing involuntarily, toes curling. Fingers tightening. Eyes closing. “Oskar”, she said, staring up at the sky through the opening in the tree.
“Yes, my hraginakh?” she heard—no, felt—him respond into her, buzzing vibrations throughout even her fingers.
But she said nothing else. Only his name. Again and again. Louder and louder. And each time, Oskar’s response was the same: “Yes, my hraginakh?”
Ruler of my heart.
If this was inexperience in the ways of love, if she could teach him as much as she suspected she could, then she had chosen very well indeed.
They made quick time with Oskar guiding them, even considering Lauriam’s size. For now, Oskar had hitched his sledge with the elk carcass onto the horse, as they made their way back to the forest’s edge. It wasn’t long before they were in sight of it, and Alessia turned back to face him.
“Oskar, I—thank you. For saving my life, obviously, and for this fool’s, too—“ she patted Lauriam’s flank. “But nobody has ever... looked at me like that. Like you do. I love you, Oskar, as silly as it is to say that after a day together.”
“Silly or not, hraginakh.” He took her, held her to him. “I’ll see you again. Soon. Another month. Another hunting trip. Maybe you can even get out without sneaking away from your family this time.”
“Gods, doubtful. They’ll have me under lock and key.” She saw the concern in his eyes. “But don’t worry. It won’t last long. I’ve done this before, I know what I’m talking about. But you be careful, alright?”
“Never fear that.” He bent down, kissed her deeply. His arms wrapped around her, hoisting her up off her feet and spinning her once, twice, before setting back down again. One massive hand took hold of hers, pressing something into it. As she turned it over, she spoke again. “Keep this. It’s a good luck charm among my people.” It was a small token on a rawhide string, carved from what looked like ivory, in the shape of a bow. He let go and began to turn away. “Goodbye, Alessia Coryn. I love you, and I shall see you again soon.”
“Gods keep you, Oskar.”
She watched him go, elk-sledge looped around his chest, his charm clutched tightly to her breast. Then she too turned and walked back to the life she had known before she met him.
Which was exactly as she had predicted it being, in truth. Her return was met with much fanfare, much excitement, as any time she’d snuck out—long ago she’d learned that the best way to make a return from that kind of stunt was overtly. So she rode proudly up to Druvenlode’s gates, astride Lauriam, and announced herself.
Now, an hour later, she was riding side-by-side with the man her family expected she would marry. Faltus Perregine rode a massive white charger, a swaggering red cloak with the symbol of the Dwendalian Empire streaming out behind him, marking him as master of the town’s guard and bringer of the King’s justice in these lands. Close-cropped black hair had been smoothed into place, and he rode in full regalia, helmet tucked beneath an armored arm.
He was every inch the shining knight today, and as they rode down the main street toward her family estate, she could see girls whispering among themselves. Three days ago, she would’ve been doing the same thing, in all honesty. The man was handsome, and honest, and damned good at his job, not to mention in favor with the Empire. But now she’d met Oskar. And that complicated matters rather.
“Are you sure you’re alright, Lady Alessia?” Faltus asked for what felt like the twelfth time. “I can send for the apothecary, to meet us at your house. I’m sure it would be no trouble.”
“No, Captain. Thank you, again. I’m perfectly fine.” She put her hand to her chest, where just beneath her shirt Oskar’s good luck charm hung from around her neck. “All I need is a good solid meal. Maybe a warm bath.” She stretched up, arching her back in the cold sunlight. From slitted eyes, she saw Faltus watching her.
He nodded sympathetically. “Still, a noble thing it was, Lady Alessia. I had heard the rumors, of course, but never gave them much credence.” He rubbed at a cut on his cheek, fresh from shaving around his short, regimented beard. “But you say you saw them?”
“Sign of them, yes. In the close forest, nearest the city. Poor dears. How children survive out there is beyond me.” Such was the lie she’d constructed. The story had persisted in Druvenlode for decades, of a band of feral children in the forest, waylaying travelers. Oskar claimed it was a band of faeries, mischievous but otherwise harmless, living there. Either way, it made a convenient cover story for any future expeditions she might decide upon, stealing away to bring supplies to needy children who somehow evaded trained soldiers with ease.
Faltus shook his head slowly. “We’ll send out some men, to see if we can find them. We’re no woodsmen, but we’ll see what we can do. But still, Alessia—may I call you that?”
She nodded noncommittally.
“But still, Alessia, leaving your poor mother and father without even a note? I’m sure they would have understood. And even if they didn’t, did they deserve that kind of fright?”
At first she thought he was lecturing her, but when she looked to the side, she saw that he was genuinely concerned. They had courted in a loose sense, dancing at summer’s night festivals, chaperoned walks—even once a brief physical tryst over an otherwise particularly dull winter—but she’d never seen much in him beyond her mother’s approval. He, however, seemed smitten. If the way he looked at her didn’t say that, what he said next did.
“I had the full guard searching for you, all over the town. I... Alessia, I was frightened for you.”
If only she hadn’t met Oskar. She thought that, then cursed herself for thinking it—then cursed herself for thinking that. He’d always been a good man, Faltus Perregine, and he deserved the truth, but the truth simply wouldn’t work this time.
“Faltus, I’m sorry.” She reached over, put a hand atop one of his, and he looked up into her eyes. “I didn’t mean any harm. I didn’t think.”
He smiled softly, warmly. “You needn’t apologize, Alessia. Not to me.” He gestured up to her house, which they were swiftly approaching, now only a few moments away. She could see her mother standing at the door, arms crossed, murder on her face. “But to her, I think, perhaps that might be in order.”
Maerissa Coryn was a small, slight woman, lithe, and more than one physician had posited elven ancestry in her. They said that was responsible for her seeming agelessness, for she had maintained the beauty of her youth even into her middle years, with only her fiery red hair starting to turn at the temples to mark the passage of time. The physicians had, then, never seen her angry, Alessia surmised, else they couldn’t have missed the dragon’s blood in her.
“So.” She said it quietly, seething, arms crossed. “So.”
“I’m grown, mother. I go where I wish. I don’t need guards and attendants and swarms of servants with me if I decide to go into the forest for a day.” Alessia hung up her pack and pulled off her boots, her mother watching her from the corner of the room like a particularly angry spider.
“Wild children. Is that right? Feral children. Is that right?”
“Yes. That’s right.” She didn’t turn to look, however. “Captain Faltus himself says—“
“Don’t even say that name. You don’t deserve him. You certainly don’t deserve this family.” She stayed in the corner, but Alessia could feel furious heat from across the room. “Two days ago—two days—we talked about this. I apologized. I thought we were getting somewhere with you, you ungrateful brat.” Each word was spat out, as though they were daggers meant to slice into Alessia’s flesh. “The Captain—gods keep him—he still loves you, though I can’t fathom why. You realize this?”
“I know it, yes.”
“You insult him. You insult us. Your blood. Your mother. Your father. We suffered enough shame after His Majesty—“ her tongue paused on those words a moment, particularly disliking them— “moved on the Briarwoods. You could bring us such prestige by marrying the Captain—or at the least, by not acting like a spoiled child. And yet.” She gestured a ring-laden hand around the room. “Here we are.”
“Rich enough.” She drew a hand across the sheets, imported from far lands.
“Not where it counts, my daughter.” She opened the door, turning on her heel, and spoke to someone Alessia couldn’t see, outside the door. “She doesn’t leave. She doesn’t move. Nobody comes in except Taria, her father, or I. Understand? Good.” The door shut behind her.
Alessia had the feeling it would be an uneventful month.
Not many of his tribe could have made the journey so quickly. Not many of his tribe could have done what he did.
He pulled the sledge into the village slowly, feeling all the eyes on him. The elk was still fresh—perhaps a little off for human gut, but for orcs it was perfect. As the snows came, they’d appreciate the meat. Even if they’d never acknowledge who it was that brought it in. That was alright.
Out from the largest of the huts gathered around the tribe-stone, naked and gleaming with sweat, strode Garuk. His wild beard was punctuated by two jutting tusks, like Gruumsh’s own, poised to gore his enemies. Oskar lowered his gaze as the older orc moved across the village ground with the speed of a wolf, but caught his mother behind him, in his hut, peering out around the hide flap that served as a door, concern writ on her face.
“Hail, Garuk”, Oskar began, in the guttural language of his mother. “I return from my hunt successful.”
“You return from your hunt late, whelp.” Garuk scowled fiercely, speaking in harsh, thunderous common. The language of your father, they always reminded him. If it hadn’t been for his mother, he mightn’t even know his own tongue. “But what can I expect from a half-blooded?”
“Are the others back yet, Garuk?” Again, he spoke in orcish. He only ever spoke to orcs in orcish. They needed no more reason to distrust him.
“Of course. They returned days ago. They knew the Blackfurs were sniffing around. They knew the value of extra hands if a raid came.”
“Garuk, if a raid came, we’d need meat all the more. I—“ He was cut off by a wicked backhand from Garuk, struck almost idly, so fast Oskar hadn’t even time to prepare. It took him from his feet, and he came down in the shallow snows, tasting copper.
Garuk crouched down beside him, breathing hot disdain down upon him. His body was covered in tattoos, scars, and muscle, even more than Oskar’s, but he was built like a bull—like an orc. He growled between his massive tusks, staring into Oskar’s eyes with tiny red pinpricks. “You’re a good enough hunter, boy. For a half-blooded. But I don’t tolerate back-talk from my own children. I’ll be damned if I take it from you, even if you are Bashuk’s boy. Understand?”
Oskar felt the response rising up inside him. Then he saw his mother, a look of purest worry on her face. She shook her head. “Understood, Garuk.”
Garuk grunted. “Good enough. Butcher this and take your watch.” He rose and returned to the tent.
He cut into the elk with savage, but accurate strokes, pairing it down to base parts in short time.
“If you’re come to check up on me, I’m fine.”
His mother glided across the snow, quiet as the nightfall. “How did you know I was there, little one?” she asked him, speaking in orcish. She took his head in her hands and kissed the top of it.
“Your furs. They make too much noise.” He cut away a hunk of meat, tossing it into a rough-woven basket.
“Of course. Been too long since I’ve hunted.”
“I’m fine, mother.”
He felt her smiling without even looking at him. “I didn’t even ask you anything, Oskar. But I’m glad to see it.”
“Glad?” He turned, carving knife in hand, incredulous. “Glad, that Garuk still thinks of me as weak? How many of the hunters came back with anything, mother?”
She shrugged, moving to the carcass and taking the basket of entrails. She’d read them later. “Half, or thereabouts. They said it was slim picking this hunt.”
“And the ones that came back didn’t come back with an elk. Did they?” He helped her load baskets onto her sledge, to take them back to her hut for fortune telling and curing. “And he insults me, strikes me, and threatens me further. You’re gladdened by that?”
“No”, she said, leaning in close to him. It was difficult for him to see her as a shaman—for his entire life, she’d simply been his mother. But every once in a while, she’d give him a look so strange, so otherworldly, that he’d be reminded why Garuk had tolerated her to sire a child by a human, and to raise him among her own people. “That’s set my blood boiling.
“But I’m happy because it’s finally set yours boiling, too. And because you’ve met someone.” His mother leaned back, grinning broadly, showing her tusks.