Rise she did, as the next day dawned. Sleep had been difficult—even more difficult had been not telling Taria about the strange orc she had met yesterday, who had so enflamed her heart. Their entire ride back to Druvenlode (which per Taria’s demand was conducted at a snail’s pace, to both Alessia and Lauriam’s consternation), she kept grasping, twisting, rubbing, at the cap which had caused all the trouble, using it to work out the frustrations she couldn’t voice.
Well it was that she hadn’t. If anyone in House Coryn knew she had met an orc, she would have been kept under guard from then until her wedding day. If they knew she intended to go out and find him again, they would have thrown her in a madhouse from then until her judgment day. As it was, she had convinced Taria that nothing was wrong, ridden back to Druvenlode, been lectured by her mother at some length about the dangers of riding too far from the city, eaten a meal that her stomach was too filled with butterflies to have any appetite for, and gone to bed.
Yes, sleep had been difficult. Usually, she went out like a light when she lay down. But that night, she found herself grasping, twisting, rubbing, once more. When it came, rest was thin and dreamful, from which she would rise gasping, insides wound all up like ropes around a maypole.
So she was glad to see the sun creeping over the horizon in the east. She stood and dressed herself, choosing the plainest clothes she could find. A simple silken shirt, fine but unadorned, and black riding breeches, such that might be worn by any of the pages who worked for House Coryn. To this, she added a sweeping grey traveler’s cloak. She seriously considered one of the dresses her mother had insisted on stocking her closet with, imagining Oskar’s eyes on her wearing something that “flattered femininity, rather than trying to strangle it”—such were Maerissa Coryn’s watchwords in regards to fashion—but she remembered the tangle of undergrowth, remembered Taria struggling to get through in the relatively simple gown she had been wearing. She dismissed the notion, but allowed the fantasy to remain.
She took a satchel from her closet and shoved three more similar sets of clothes in, then her hard-heeled riding boots and her short sword and hunting bow. Then she opened the heavy wooden door of her room and set off down the hall, padding silently over the wooden floor. House Coryn, and indeed most of Druvenlode, had not yet woken up yet, and she knew that she’d never have a better chance than now to make her move.
She stole down to the kitchen, satchel over her shoulder. She stopped here first because she knew Hax, the cook, would be up soonest, starting on breakfast for everyone. As it was, the only motion in the kitchen on this morning was the rhythmic rasp of Hax’ hound, curled up in the corner near a guttering fire. He started as she drew near, but only followed her with his eyes as she passed through, into the larder. Taking a few scrags of cheesecloth, she cut pork sausages from their chains, sliced into small wheels of hard white cheese, took handfuls of nuts and loaves of honeytack, tying them off into about a week’s worth of rations.
This done, Alessia slid her bounty into her satchel, swiftly becoming overladen. No matter. She would be done soon, and already could practically feel the rhythm of Lauriam charging down the Amber Road. She passed through the halls of House Coryn barefoot, looking up at the high walls, slowly growing to golden as the sun lit them. Her family were traders, and only common folk, but they were damned good at it, it seemed. She cared little for it, though she was wise enough to admit that wealth had its uses.
Moving into the great hall, she slid a loose brick from the side of the hearth, exposing a hollow space that contained a small pouch. It jingled when she took it—too loudly for her, and she swore under her breath, freezing in place for a moment, waiting for the sound of someone stirring. Only echoing silence answered her.
Now her heart was full in her chest, and she fought with herself not to run through the hall. An armed guard stood outside the door at all hours, but long years of practice had taught her which window was closest to the small separate stable in which her steed was quartered.
She slipped out whisper quiet, and crossed the dew-slick grass to the stable. Lauriam stood waiting for her, and she had him saddled and set in minutes. She led him by the hand across the grounds, then jumped him over the low stone wall that rang her family’s property. He took the leap with practiced ease. And with that, she was free of her home.
Druvenlode itself was even easier to escape, and she had many years of experience in doing just that. In her cloak, at these early hours, she was able to practically walk through astride Lauriam, declaring her name for all the guard to hear. She had left no note to explain where she had gone—let her mother think it a fit of pique, just another acting-out from which she would soon come down. Easier than trying to think of an excuse, anyway.
She walked Lauriam for the first few miles, just to be on the safe side, until they were out of eyeshot of the town’s walls. He proved to be unhappy with this, seemingly just as anxious as she was to properly be off. “Not for the same reasons, though, hm?” she said, patting his side affectionately. He whickered in response. They were the first words she’d said that day.
When Oskar had woken, he was fully aware. Of the crackling of embers in a dying fire. The low sweep of wind through the trees. Soft bowing of branches in the fire-hollowed tree he camped in. Growling hunger in his gut. Padded feet in long grass. Senses flooded. It was not a skill you were born with. It was not a skill many of his clan possessed.
Now it was perhaps mid-morning. The sun, which had soaked the purple mountains to the east in blood, was high in the crisp blue sky. It was cloudless, again, despite the bite of cold in the air. Autumn was upon them, and winter would soon follow, and then Oskar’s work would truly begin.
He’d come here about a tenday before. Most other hunters in his clan—the ones who didn’t wake up instantly, for example—would have gone back after their food ran out. But he stayed, foraging for what he could find. Because he had to. Because his tusks were smaller. Because he worked twice as hard for half as much respect, and because his father wasn’t green. Most orcs would have given up and gone back to their clan empty-handed. Oskar, of course, wasn’t an orc at all.
But it had paid off. There were elk in these lands, he knew it, but only yesterday had he found one: a big bull, maybe eight hundred pounds. It was a good shot—one arrow, barely any chase, but by the time he had the thing back to camp and strapped down to his sledge, he’d worked up a sweat. A quick dip in the stream nearby took care of that, but—
But the girl, that’s but. For the twelfth time, he checked his pack. It was still secured. The only thing he had left to do in breaking camp was to actually break camp. He should have done it yesterday, before she could go back to Druvenlode and raise a posse to flush him. He certainly should have gone now, while he had what sounded like wolves snuffing around his camp. So why was he checking his back a thirteenth time?
But the girl. Alessia. Alessia Coryn, he said her name slowly in his head. He didn’t like the way it sounded through his tusks. It was ten o’clock now, or thereabouts, he estimated, gazing up into the cloudless sky. He’d give her another hour, and then he’d set back to Whitetooth land.
He checked his pack a fourteenth time as he waited.
Whatever force had guided Alessia yesterday, it guided her to the spot where she’d entered the woods, and no further. Lauriam was by her side now—she’d take no chances leaving him by the road this time, not where anyone could walk by and take him—and as a result, she was forced to wind her way about obstacles she’d otherwise go straight through. She was too proud to admit it to herself, but she knew, and Lauriam knew, she was lost.
Somewhere ahead, there had to be a stream. If she could find that, she could follow it up until she came to the spot where he’d been. How she’d find him from there, she had no idea, but—
“Getting ahead of yourself, aren’t you, girl?” she chided herself. “Have to actually find the damn thing first.”
Which was proving difficult. Her boots, perfect for stirrups, sank into mud. Burrs and thorns caught at her pants, tore into Lauriam, leaving shallow bloody tracks. She’d done her fair share of exploring the forests around Druvenlode, but rarely had she ever gone into anything deeper. And that was just when she was alone; try trailblazing with an animal that can smell panic.
Gliding over the forest floor was difficult enough wearing sensible clothes—“Gods, I almost wore a dress—“ She meant to force a laugh, to calm down, but she heard the fear in her voice. Nothing looked familiar. She’d been so sure she’d find her way through, she hadn’t told anyone where she was going. Alessia turned around, but nobody came through this part of the forest—even Lauriam’s trail had been swallowed up by the brush.
Lost. And Lauriam knew it. Alessia set her hand on his flank, felt the shiver under his skin. “No, we’re fine.” But her voice was high and hitched in her throat, barbs of panic set in deep. Breath came shallow, quick. “We’re fine, we’re—“
She heard the shuff of leaves, and her heart swelled. She turned around and it died. What was that story, the one nurse’d tell her? Don’t go off the path in the wood, Alessia, or the wolves will get you!
The padded feet had returned. It sealed any doubt there may have been remaining in his mind. Wolves indeed. He put his back to the tree, bow across his lap and a heavy blade by his side, and they dared not show themselves. That was well. Not too long later, they shuffed away. That was better.
But as he checked his back for, gods, the thirtieth time, surely, he realized something. The wolves had left, yes. “But they went somewhere.”
He wound his bow faster than he knew it could be done. No time for subtlety now. He took hold of his blade in its sheath in the other hand, sprinting headlong through the forest. Finding a wolf’s trail at this speed wasn’t a skill you were born with. It was not a skill many of his clan possessed.
He heard her before he heard them, and his heart sank. For a moment, he’d held out hope that it was simply an easier kill—he had been right, then, though not as he’d wanted. She was lost, by the sound of it, stumbling blind. They’d find her. They’d smell fear. Tangy iron bit at his nose.
“ALESSIA!” He roared the name like a battlecry, flinging the sheath from his sword with a single fluid motion. “ALESSIA, STAND YOUR GROUND!”
“Oskar?” he heard her shout, but it was faint. There was more than fear in her voice. A horse screamed. Good. Hopefully they’d go for that before they went for her. “Wolves! They’re after Lauriam!”
This time, when he called it, it was a battlecry. “ALESSIA!” He exploded from the brush, swinging downward in a heavy stroke. Four wolves had backed her against a black, mossy rock, but they were more concerned with the horse. Lauriam, his mind echoed dimly. She cares for the beast. And so do you, now. His slash took one, gouging a blackish border into knotted grey fur. It let out a yelp and skitted away. It’d live. Probably.
The ones that had been advancing turned, and he slotted himself between them and their prey. He dropped the bow—hadn’t even brought any arrows, of course—spread his hands out, sword in one. Brow low. Tusks bared. Eyes bloody red pinpricks. Orc.
The biggest, a black-white striped old man, came forward, grinning his evil hunger grin, showing yellowy, blood-blacked fangs. Oskar knew, somehow, what that grin said. Give them to us. We are like you, and they are not.
Oskar did not move. But the sound that came from his mouth was not a sound a human made—nor a sound an orc made.
Are you sure, little brother?
“Back to your den.”
The old man turned slowly, favoring him one last time with that devil’s smile. Then the rest of the pack bowed, turned, and followed him down the game trail.
Oskar watched them. He looked back to her. “Ales—“
She was on him, as hungry as the wolves, but not for the same thing. Her sweet mouth showered him with kisses, leaving burning marks on his green skin. His blade fell to the grassy floor with a clatter, fingers forgetting anything but her. Her hair, her clothes, her body, the smell and feel of her. She melted him. She melted with him. His knees gave out, and she held him up for only a moment before hers did too. “Gods—“ one of them whispered, unsure who, “gods—you—“
Lauriam made a noise behind them, quieter this time, but still fearful. After all, wasn’t there still a wolf among them? It was the only reason they stopped. But they did, and in that brief moment, that lull in passion, Oskar regained some semblance of his sanity. There were still wolves about, and there was an abandoned camp nearby with an elk all laid out for eating. And there was a bedroll.
He held her down as she rose up to kiss him again, and her lips just grazed one of his tusks. The gentleness, the firmness, of that grip, had her heart pounding like a forgemaster’s hammer. “Alessia Coryn, of Druvenlode?” he asked her. He was rock hard, pressed against her. She shifted, never breaking eye contact.
“Oskar of clan Whitetooth. You—you have saved me. I owe you my life.” Her grey eyes shimmered like the waters of a storm-tossed lake.
“You owe me nothing. Not for this. Not for anything. I do it gladly.”
Her lips parted, and a quivering whimper came forth. “Kiss me, Oskar. Please. Once more, at least.”
“Not now, Lady Coryn.” One would turn to many would turn to— “We must go now, before our friends come back around for us. Such a tasty morsel I denied them, I would be jealous.”
They stood, and she rose a hand to her mouth, stifling a laugh. “Jealous? Do you intend to eat me, sir orc? Gobble me up, like a bogie from stories?”
He towered over her, tusks splitting his grin. “In a single bite, lady Coryn.”
“Oh, call me Alessia, you great dolt.” She struck him in the shoulder. His hand went to it, pulling a wounded face. “That’s right, you brute. So don’t get any ideas!”
They recovered his sword, his bow, his sheath, and her horse. They went back to camp.
There they ruined each other for anyone else.