Guinevere had won and lost many times, many things. Fortunes, battles, husbands, gangs, lovers. But through it all, she was always careful not to lose her head, either metaphorically or literally. Never get too hung up, those were the words she lived by. Nothing’s worth dying for, those were the words she lived by. If living to see another day meant dumping enough gold to buy a dukedom into the hungry waters of the sea, or setting up a recent sexual plaything to be executed, what of it? She’d live to gain them all over again. Not even Oskar was irreplaceable to her.
That was the order of business when she met with Captain Faltus in one of the small warehouses along the town wall that she kept for meetings just such as this that never officially happened.
This, then, was what was to be done, as arrived at by the rulers of Druvenlode’s day and of its night. Oskar could not stay in town alive. This Garuk, his clan chief of late, he had a grudge against the boy, thought him a spy turned against his own people by the taste of maidenflesh. As long as he stayed in town, unpunished for his crimes either real or perceived, the orcs would grow ever more restless, thinking that their enemies were learning everything they could, preparing for a great all-out attack to wipe them from their thatch-and-hide huts, or however it was orcs lived.
“I can have him dead by tomorrow, if you want”, she said to Captain Faltus, feeling the hard metal press of the long knife against her body, within the folds of her dress. “Let his body wash out, down the river until they find it.”
But the Captain had shaken his head, eyes deep in his haggard, care-lined face. He looked older than she did, but was maybe half her age. It was more than simply the look of one concerned with their survival, which she well knew. No, that kind of exhaustion only came when you had a personal, emotional stake in what was happening. She never allowed herself that luxury, and so she never had paid for it. “No, no. That’s not good enough. They’ll assume we’re finished with him after getting everything we could, assuming they find him at all.”
“And the same with a public execution, then?”
He nodded slowly, not looking at her, but rather past her. Behind those baby blues, she could see great wheels turning at breakneck speed, wearing down their mechanisms to naught but dust. “Can’t do that, either, no. Simplest thing would be to turn him loose outside the walls, but he’d just come right back, wouldn’t he?”
“How’s that?” Guinevere asked sharply. As far as she could see, he had no reason to come back into Druvenlode, except maybe to steal a horse. And they could just give him one, if it came to that.
“Nothing, nothing. Got to give him to them, I think.”
“That would work, yes”, she began, growing increasingly suspicious. Or maybe suspicious wasn’t the right word; curious, perhaps, was more accurate, like a cat pulling at a loose string. Maybe there was something she could use on the other end. “But if they think you want them dead, as you say, why would they meet to receive him? Exchanges only work when both parties believe the other will hold true.”
“Right. I sent out scouts to try to establish contact. None came back. So it can’t be my people who do the exchange.”
“So you want me to do it.”
Faltus flung a hand aside in the air. “I want it done right. You could sell milk to a cow. You certainly can convince some pigs that you kidnapped their outlaw from prison before his execution, to go to your pits. That’s the truth, anyway, isn’t it?”
“It’s a big ask, Faltus, I won’t lie. I have two conditions.”
“Price is no object, Guinevere. Whatever you could want, a war would cost more.”
She nodded. “And the other: you come with us.”
Now she had Faltus’ full attention. His eyes knitted together. “Me?”
“Call it insurance. Dress as one of our people. Bring some of your men, if you like, do the same to them. I can’t imagine having more men who know how to swing a sword around could possibly hurt when dealing with an angry tribe of orcs.”
Faltus sighed sharply, heavily. The lines on his face deepened, if that was possible, and Guinevere’s curiosity was piqued again. Whatever happened that day, it would certainly be interesting. Now all she had to do was make sure that, for her, it wouldn’t get too interesting.
Guinevere returned that night, and probably should have waited for the morning to speak to Oskar, but something in her bade her go to him now. And she found him sleeping, perfectly still in his bed within his cell. All the same, Red-Eye hadn’t been himself, the guards said on her return. When she’d left, he’d been confident, hungry, brutal. A killer both physically and mentally. But it seemed rest had done poorly for him. Peace often defeated a warrior.
“Fine, he was, the first day when you left, ma’am”, the guard said. “But he just laid about all that day, and all the next, and all of today, as well. Ain’t never seen him like this, I haven’t.”
“Has he said anything?” They watched the half-orc through the bars of his cell, speaking in hushed words. The chatter of the underground river beneath them covered their voices enough that even his wild-man’s keen ears didn’t stir at the noise.
“Well, not rightly, no. He mumbles to himself, I can see his mouth moving a-times, but he never properly says nothing to nobody, no. Talks in his sleep, too, which he ain’t never used to do.”
Her face softened as she looked on at the sleeping gladiator, remembering someone she hadn’t thought of in a very long time, who used to talk in his sleep. He would call out to her, sometimes. She’d been forced to leave him when the Crownsguard started closing in on her, leaving him holding the bag—but she’d put him from her mind long ago. “Talks in his sleep, you say?”
“Yes, ma’am, though quiet enough I can’t hear most what he says, over the river and all. Think he’s talking to someone in a dream, if you follow me, account of how he talks. There, he’s at it now.”
And indeed, as the guard had been speaking, the sleeping warrior’s mouth began to move. Guinevere looked in on him from afar for the first time since they’d met in Faltus’ prison cell, but then she’d only had a mind for what his survival-hardened body could bring her. In the time since then, her views on his uses had... grown, considerably. He was beautiful, like a statue, expertly carved from jade in some far-off land, still but for the moving of his lips and the gentle rising and falling of that muscled chest on which she had lain her head after who knew how many displays of his courage and might. But she’d never stayed with him, to sleep beside him. Never get too hung up, those were the words she lived by. Nothing’s worth dying for, those were the words she lived by. Perhaps she had been wise not to stay.
But now she saw him, his jade lips mouthing unheard words, sweet unheard words. Perhaps it was just her fancy, but she thought she might have caught one: Guinevere. A name it had been, certainly, the name of a fine lady. And who would he call out to in the night but her? And even as she caught his words, soft as a shadow in twilight, he began to move, to turn in his bed, as though some dissatisfaction was worming into his mind. As though there was something he needed that he couldn’t find, in his dream-world. Her heart ached for him, remembering the lovers she’d spurned, the things she’d denied herself. She was a survivor, and had always regarded love as a weakness. And still she deemed it. But if it was a weakness, then perhaps it was a weakness she wasn’t unhappy to carry.
No, she wouldn’t do as she agreed with Faltus. She wouldn’t take Oskar to this Garuk, to abandon him to torture and death. She had heard well enough what orcs did to their captives. She would run with him, spirit him away, drop everything and together they would build up their fortunes anew. But all that—that would wait until the morning.
Now, she took the keys from the guards, and dismissed them for the night. They had been only for show for the last few weeks, anyway. No, tonight they would be alone. She took the keys, unlocked his cell, and, taking her shoes off, stole across the cell on bare feet, light as a whisper.
She didn’t wake him, but this close, she could hear what he had been saying in his sleep. It was a woman’s name, after all. But it wasn’t hers.
“Alessia...” he moaned, as though watching her sail into the sunset. “Alessia, no, not him... Alessia, I love you!”
She froze in her stride, and her heart froze also.
He stirred. He roused, and his dream departed also. “Evening, Lady Guinevere. Miss me?” Yet she did not answer. She stood, for perhaps the first time, hurt. Mortally wounded where no doctor could hope to heal. For she had never before now allowed herself to feel the things she had just felt, and so this small thorn-prick was as a deadly arrow.
He would go to Garuk, yes. The only question was, would he be alive when he got there?