She was in the forest.
There was the tree. There was the stream. There were mountains in the west and a wind from the east, and if she peeked out from behind her hiding place, there was the orc. Alessia had been here before, standing right here, a lifetime ago, and she knew it all—every detail, every leaf and rock was etched in her mind. But as she beheld it, it was fresh, new to her eyes. She was seeing with the wonder of one who returns to the place they played as a child, now grown beyond such games; or humming the tune to an old song when you’ve forgotten the words.
She looked down at her feet, and the soft, yielding grassy earth about the broad, black-barked tree into which her boots were slowly sinking. The orc. So she had begun to think of him, in the days and weeks that had kept them apart. There had been a name, she knew. But she couldn’t quite remember. She could carry the tune well enough, but had forgotten those lyrics. Maybe if she kept singing, it would come to her.
Alessia turned around the tree and saw him. But she remembered him differently, somehow. Before, she remembered that he had been wild, a thing seemingly risen from the forest itself—unclothed but not naked, unarmed but not defenseless. He looked much the same to her now, but changed. Now he was clothed, richly but without reason or purpose, his garments dyed and of many manners of men, a riot that tried at culture but met only madness.
At his hip was a broad, ugly-bladed sword like a slab of iron roughly sharpened to a half-edge, and he carried a stabbing spear with an ash haft, and a feathered war-bow after the style of the men of the southern land. Daggers and small throwing hatchets were hung on his legs, in easy reach. Over it all he wore a steel breastplate and gauntlets and greaves, all daubed crudely with red paint in the symbol of a single bloody eye. His face was hard-set and cruel, crossed with fresh cuts beneath a heavy iron helm. She remembered him as a warrior, but this orc before her now, he was no warrior—he was a mercenary, a killer, a roving wolf looking for a new fight. He smelt of blood and leather.
I knew you, once. So she meant to say, to call out to him in the middle of the stream, and to beg him to come to her that she might hum the song together with him, and perhaps together, remember the words. I knew you, once, but take off your helmet and your armor so that I can see you better. So Alessia meant to say. And yet, when she opened her mouth, it was not with her own voice that she spoke, but with a high, hard imperiousness, like a falcon at hunt. “Who are you, orc?” the voice spoke through her lips. “What business do you have in my lands?”
The orc looked up to her and smiled, though not at all reassuringly. He smiled only to show his teeth.
“Your lands? My apologies, lady.” He spoke the language with a new elegance, but it carried a threat on each word that came from his mouth. “Allow me to pay tribute.” The orc advanced on her, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword.
Alessia backed away, but nearly tripped before she had gone even a step. Looking down, she saw that the riding clothes she had been wearing, so easy to move in, had changed, replaced with a beautiful gown cut from silks and studded with precious stones. Despite the peril she knew she was in, her breath caught at the sight of it. In a dress like that, she would be the talk of all Druvenlode, perhaps even of all the Empire, for surely a dress of its like was unique in all the world. Her hands were clothed in fine white gloves that rose to her elbows, baring just enough of her pale flesh to view to hint, but not enough to suggest. While her shoes were uncomfortable and were sinking in the soft ground, they too were of the finest make, and a thin tiara of silver-steel crowned her noble forehead.
But she heard the sloshing of water, and her thoughts returned to the here and the now. An orc, a savage killing thing, was bearing down upon her. She had no knife, no short sword, as she had done before, and she was far from Druvenlode, far from her husband or any of the men under his command. The only thing for it was to run.
Gathering up her gown in both hands, she ran, quick as she could into the forest. With every step, she tried to kick the shoes from her feet, and seemed to succeed—and yet, as she took her next step, there it would be, still uncomfortable and impossible to run in.
The gown caught and snagged everywhere, on every thorn and hanging finger of branch in her path, but it never ripped, somehow. Desperate, hearing the orc closing in behind her, she tried to tear the dress from her body, to shed some of the fabric that imprisoned her, but it was made of stronger stuff than it looked. It would not yield—though it might, she warranted, beneath an orc blade.
No, please! she cried out. I know you, I’m sure I do! Speak with me, I beg! But what was said was: “Stay away from me, pig! Help, Faltus! Help me, Faltus!” The tune was still right, and these words fit, but they weren’t the ones she had learned.
She felt an iron grip close around her hair, and her head was yanked savagely backwards. Her dress was caught in another thicket, this one insurmountable. She had ran only perhaps a hundred yards before he caught her. She felt hot, stinking breath on her neck, in her ear. “No-one’s coming, your ladyship. Certainly not Faltus. It’s just us now. Shall we talk? I’ve so much to saw.” She felt, rather than heard, the sound of steel drawn from leather, dragging itself up along her spine. “And my name isn’t pig, either, your ladyship. It’s Oskar. But you can call me Red-Eye. You’ll be calling it out ere long.”
“Faltus! Faltus! Faltus!” Again and again she called it, thrashing about, back and forth. The grip tightened around her. She couldn’t breath. With one last great ragged effort, she raised up her voice, crying out: “OSKAR, YOU KNOW ME! I LOVE YOU!”
Something hit her head, but it wasn’t a blade or fist. It was flat and hard and wooden. As she opened her eyes, drinking in air in shallow gasps, she looked around her. To one side, the bed from which she had fallen lay bare, stripped of blankets. Those were wrapped all about her like bindings, twisted by her thrashings, but they had at the least protected her from any injury from falling out of her bed.
The room was cool, unseasonably so even as summer gave way to fall, and was lit with the orange glow of several candles, enough to throw a soft flickering half-light over the entire room but not bright enough to keep her from sleep. The faint smell of nature drifted from the potpourri that were placed strategically throughout her room. That explained the forest setting, at least. But that nightmare...
Or was it even a nightmare? It had been so intense in the moment, but now, awake, laying on the floor, she felt rather foolish. It wasn’t such a much, really. Just another silly dream. She had had plenty of those, gods knew. Had it even been in a forest? In the warm light of her own room, the terror she had felt seemed so far away and unimportant. But still, she thought to herself, she’d sleep on the floor tonight. Somehow, together with the thought of the forest, the hard ground beneath her reminded her of something pleasant.
As she drifted off to sleep again, the last thing she thought was: Oskar.
“Alessia, no, not him... Alessia, I love you!”
Red-Eye stirred. He roused, and his dream departed also. “Evening, Lady Guinevere. Miss me?”
But she said nothing to him. She left, wordlessly, an expression on her face that Red-Eye couldn’t ever remember having seen there before. Was that pain? Hurt? He marveled at the thought of someone finding a way to hurt her.
They left the next day, taking Guinevere’s boat down the river, paddling along it in silence, steadily southwestwards, until the wet, rocky tunnels gave way and they emerged into the sunlight. It dazzled Red-Eye eyes, bringing water to them. He hadn’t seen the sun in... how long had it been, in truth? Weeks? Months? Years, perhaps, it could’ve been, and Red-Eye would have known little different. It was difficult to track time when the only real way to do it was by whether you’d killed something yet.
Still, Guinevere said nothing to him, and the only thing he could get out of any of her guards was that they had a job. He was being brought along for insurance. That was the kind of job you got when you were the most dangerous thing in Undertown, it seemed. A little ways past the mouth of the tunnel, they picked up more men—added security, it was claimed—and kept on along the river aboard the little flat-bottomed boat. That river split off in several places throughout the forest as it wound its course southward and westward. Not that he knew it, but the stream that he had been bathing in a little less than a year ago when he had first met Alessia, that was one of its tributaries.
Guinevere was unusually cold that day, even for her. She refused to look him in the eye, and he saw the strain on her face. She was beginning to look her age, which was a frightening prospect. What could’ve shaken her so deeply, to have that effect on her? Red-Eye supposed he’d find out soon enough. So in the meantime, he busied himself with trying to recall the dream he’d had last night.
He had been in the woods, in a stream. He was dressed in his armor, in full regalia, with all his weapons. Must have looked a right fool, standing out in the water. He heard a noise. Looked up. There had been a woman, he knew that, but who was it? It was on the tip of his tongue, and he was pretty sure he knew her. But she had looked different. Terrible, and beautiful as anything, wearing a dress that looked like it cost more than the lives of his entire tribe. He’d tried talking to her, but—
But she fled. And he chased her, for some reason. Why’d he done that? Why’d he drawn his sword? He thought he knew the answer, and it brought a quiver to his guts. He didn’t want to do it, not even in the dream, but something was guiding his hand, forcing him to do it—he hoped. Maybe it had been him all along. She called out to someone, asking him for help, and then—
And then she called him Oskar. Nobody had done that in a long time. Certainly not a beautiful woman.
And he had called her Alessia.
Oskar and Alessia. The beast and the beauty. Like lyrics he had forgotten that fit with a tune he remembered well, it worked perfectly.
The day was failing as they got to where they were going. “We’re here.” One of the guards at the prow of the boat called out, holding up a mailed hand. He was one of the new boys, and was wearing a mask that concealed his face (as all his lot were), but he had a voice that Oskar remembered. “Pull to the side.”
The boat lurched as it ran aground. The river wasn’t particularly deep here, but it was wide, and too swift for most folk who hadn’t grown up swimming with salmon, as he had. Even still, he wouldn’t like to try it, as he looked down into the dark waters. Men sprang from her deck, lashing ropes around trees, making her fast to the muddy bank. It would be oar-work all the way back up, to which he wasn’t looking forward. And yet...
And yet something was wrong. Something felt off, some hinking warning on the back of his neck that he hadn’t felt, nor had the need of, for some time, a preternatural sixth sense for danger that he’d earned by years of survival. In the wild, now, it was starting to come back to him.
The same guard leapt ashore, but Guinevere stayed behind, standing near him, arms folded, face grim. Her hand was out of sight, gripping something he couldn’t see. “Show yourself! We’ve brought it to you, as agreed!”
For some time, there was no response. Only a screaming in his mind that Oskar should run, dive into the river and swim downstream until he couldn’t see or hear anything of the scene behind him. But loyalty kept him there. Loyalty to Guinevere, who, for all her faults, had taken care of him. And had, in some way, grown dear to him. Not as Alessia had been, he remembered suddenly. Alessia, again, twice in one day—
“Faltus, you coward, I smell you from here!” a sonorous voice called out from the forest on the bank, hidden past the treeline. “I warned you what would happen if you came here. Perhaps you humans break your oaths, but Whitetooth? We do not! You were warned, and yet you came anyway. Now you will die with the traitor.”
It was the voice of Garuk, speaking to the one who had taken him from Alessia—Faltus! Orcs appeared, seeming to materialize from the trees on the near side of the bank where they were. Men rushed forward, but the orcs had the advantage of surprise and speed, lightly armored and running along muddied, soft ground. He saw Garuk, swift as lightning, descend from the shadows, blade in hand, darting through two of Guinevere’s men, making a mad dash for Oskar.
His blood was roused, and he looked about, searching for a weapon he could put to use. He took his eyes from Guinevere—and that proved to be a mistake, for he felt her slip behind him, quick and deadly as a snake, a thin length of steel in her hand. He felt it press against his neck, and her against his back. She hissed in his ear, her voice soft and lovely like poisoned honey. “Who is Alessia, my darling, my champion? You love her, do you? After everything I’ve done for you!”
Garuk struck down a man who tried to block his way, and leapt aboard the boat, climbing with the agility of a jungle cat.
“You betrayed me as no man has, Oskar, I’ll admit”, Guinevere spoke, sadly now. “Perhaps I let myself love you. That’s my fault.”
“Guinevere—“ But the knife tightened. Garuk was aboard, and had seen them. He was advancing now, naked blade in hand, a look of rage and triumph in his eyes.
“Not a word, Oskar. Not a word, or I’ll cheat Garuk of his revenge and Druvenlode of its peace. I swear it. And if I live, perhaps I’ll find Alessia, too.”
That did it. That awakened something in Oskar that had lain dormant since he had fended off the wolves from Alessia and Lauriam all those months before. His flesh grew as steel. Driving backward, he rammed Guinevere into the wall of the ship, and casting his arm to the side, he searched for something he could wield.
His fingers closed over it.
He missed. But the ship lantern that he had thrown shattered as it hit the deck, sending fire spreading out across the deck. Well-sealed against the dampness of Undertown, the boat was like a giant pile of kindling, and it took up as though a twig touched to a bonfire. But Garuk had turned to mark its progress, and now Oskar had in his hand the thin knife Guinevere had held.
Guinevere watched it in horror, as she lay dazed on the ground. Her boat was going to go up in flames. The only way off it, forward onto the bank, was blocked by a wall of fire that grew by the second, and would soon be entirely cut off. And between her and even that faint hope of escape were two armed orcs, trained killers, well-versed in their craft. She watched them as they circled each other, like dancers making their niceties before the beat really took up on them. The smart money would have bet on Oskar, having seen what he could do—but that had been fully armed and armored. Now he was nigh naked, holding only her long dagger, while this Garuk was girt in thick hides, with a heavy sword in his hand, three and a half feet long.
Everything she had would go up with her boat. She would never return to Undertown, to make another fortune—all because of that damned orc. She had wanted to run away with him! The thought burned within her, hotter even than the flames that danced ever-closer to her. She had wanted to live with him!
They circled, and Oskar stepped closer and closer to the rail, to the waters that waited below. She couldn’t swim, and knew that that way held death for her—but perhaps before she drowned, she could take her murderer with her. Then they would be together, after all. Let Alessia burn in Garuk’s revenge.
She charged him, quicker than should have been possible for a woman such as her. She hit Oskar with all the force she could muster, driving him backwards. For a moment, he teetered, seemed to catch himself, arms waving wildly—and then he fell backward from the boat, dragged down by Guinevere’s mad suicidal rush.
Oskar hit the water, sputtering and gasping. It was icy cold, and Guinevere was atop him, scratching, clawing like a possessed animal, trying to bring him down. It was fast, the river. He could have swam away if he had been alone—but he wasn’t alone. “Arrows!” he heard Garuk’s harsh voice call out, and he ducked into the water again. It whistled as missiles just missed him, their aim thrown off by the current. Lucky. But now he was beneath the water, and Guinevere clawed at him, trying to bring him down. Her hands were inhumanly strong, a vice grip around his neck, legs wrapped around his waist. He felt himself sinking, despite all his strength.
“OSKAR, YOU KNOW ME! I LOVE YOU!”
From where it came, he couldn’t say. But he had heard it. Alessia’s voice, after so long without it. It propelled him. Wrenching with all his strength, he pulled Guinevere from him—not even her jealous madness could resist that kind of power. All the fight fled from her, and she was again the woman he had known.
Beneath the water, their eyes locked for a moment, and he saw in them now only sadness and fear. She had lost her lover, her ship, her empire, and shortly would lose her life. It would have been a simple thing to let her go, to drift down to the bottom of the river while he swam aside and made his way back home.
But he couldn’t. He had seen fear like that in Alessia’s eyes once before, when the wolves closed in around her. He hadn’t abandoned her then. He wouldn’t abandon Guinevere now.
Muscles working as they had never before, he swam hard for the far bank, using only one arm, the other holding Guinevere by the scruff of the neck, face aloft above the water’s surface. He heard her breathing desperately.
He reached the shore, choking and spluttering. He hacked hard, water falling from his mouth, aware how close he had come to drowning. But still, he couldn’t allow himself too long to recover, he knew, watching Guinevere doing the same thing not too far from him. The river had carried them far, and they were on the other side, true, but Garuk’s men could swim better than Guinevere, and they held a grudge at least as well. They would be across soon, and looking for them. They had to reach Druvenlode before Garuk could.
“You saved me”, Guinevere said at last. There was a hope in her eyes that broke his heart, but he had had a flame rekindled in him that would not be put out. He would find Alessia again, and hold her close.
“I had to, my lady. I’m sworn to your service.” He said it slowly, measured.
She watched him, tears in her eyes, before she spoke again. “Then this Alessia...”
“I’m afraid so, my lady. My heart belongs to her.”
Guinevere’s head dropped, and she cried for a brief time. Or maybe she laughed. The sound could have been of either. At length, she looked back to him, eyes red. “Then she is a woman lucky beyond words, Oskar. Truly. Thank you for saving me.”
“I haven’t saved you yet, Guinevere”, Oskar said, rising to his feet. He had lost the knife in the water, and so he set to a tree nearby, breaking off a heavy length of branch to serve as a club. Even such a simple weapon was better than no weapon at all. “First, we have to get away from Garuk and his hunters.”
“Back to Druvenlode, then?” she said, a resigned, faraway look in her face.
Oskar nodded. “Back to Druvenlode. Then we’ll have to fight again, I fear. Because Garuk will be coming there, too. And he’ll have every orc he can muster marching beneath his banner.”