A month, or thereabouts, passed slowly enough for the both of them.
Oskar hunted. He carried himself differently now, all in his tribe could see it. There was a confidence that he’d brought back along with that elk, pride that hadn’t been there before. Few now disparaged him openly, and none but Garuk to his face. Only once did one of the tribe insult him—Oskar had leveled him with a single punch.
Good, good, the Whitetooths said. He’s becoming an orc. He’s becoming a man.
Even though none of them could guess why.
Alessia was forced to bite her tongue, for her month. She had misjudged the depths of her mother’s anger this time. The threats of being locked in her room for the rest of the year had begun to prove less idle than she had at first taken them to be. And so she swallowed her pride. More than once, Faltus visited her. Though it pained her—if nothing else, he was a good man, and didn’t deserve to be strung along, but it was an effective way to cozen to her mother—she’d flit her eyelashes, laugh at his jokes, be interested in his war stories.
Her mother began smiling again when they spoke. And with a week left before her and Oskar’s next rendezvous, she was allowed out of the Coryn estate again—albeit with Taria watching her like a hawk.
And so it was that, when the day came, Oskar was allowed to leave with only a few words of permission from Garuk. Nobody wanted to test the youth who’d found a new backbone, whether he had half-blood or full. They even sent him off with a few words of well-wishing in the orcish tongue.
Garuk and Bashuk watched him set off from their tent, hidden behind the hide flap, and when he was out of sight, Bashuk turned and grinned broadly at Garuk. “I told you he had fire in him, my boy did”, said the shaman. “Maybe you should watch your throne more closely.”
Garuk grunted and gave half of a smile. He nodded slightly. “Maybe I should at that.”
Alessia realized there was no chance, though, however thoroughly she drew herself into her mother’s good graces, that she could get away without Taria noticing this time. Besides leading on Faltus, she’d been subjected to guilt over the upbraiding her oldest childhood friend had received for letting Alessia slip away. Originally a servant-woman’s daughter, she’d been made Alessia’s handmaid, practically brought into the family; but part of her duties was reining in Alessia’s more wild tendencies, and failures were ill-tolerated in Maerissa Coryn’s eyes. As such, Taria had no intention of failing again.
There was only one thing for it, then, if she wanted to see Oskar again. Alessia swore Taria to secrecy—made her swear it on their very friendship, on their very sisterhood—and told her about the mysterious half-orc named Oskar that she’d fallen in love with.
The next day, the two of them asked permission to leave town again, though admittedly, not for the reason they gave. With reservations, they were granted it.
The two of them left Druvenlode early in the day, trying to beat any curious glances that might be cast their way. Even though Alessia had permission this time, even though she didn’t have to sneak out from the town, she had noe desire to be noticed doing so by any more than was absolutely necessary. Specifically, there was one man in particular who they hoped wouldn’t be there to see them off.
They saw the red cloak before they saw anything else. Captain Faltus, of course, was waiting for them, near the gate. He came out to meet them, seated on his white charger, his sword at his hip and a gleam in his eye as he saw Alessia.
“Good morning to you, ladies!” he called out as he closed he distance. “A little bird came to me, and told me that the two most beautiful souls in Druvenlode were planning an expedition into the wild today. Leaving this very morning, in fact!”
“Hello, Faltus”, Alessia said, with a soft smile.
“Captain”, Taria said pointedly, just behind her.
“Please, no titles, not for either of you. You’ve permitted me to use your names, allow me to reciprocate your courtesy.”
Taria giggled. “Good morning to you as well, then, Faltus.”
“And no, we’re not going into the wild, not as such. Your little bird sings off-key, Faltus. We’re only heading to the next village.”
Faltus drew up alongside them, grinning broadly. Most would have been enchanted by that smile—she had a feeling that Taria had been. “To Totten? Why would you want to go to Totten?”
“Is there much danger there, Faltus?” Taria asked, looking concerned. It was an act, but not for their benefit.
“No, not but for the inherent dangers of the road. Totten is a decent enough place. Just... well, there are a few less-than-model folk there, I suppose. But perhaps I’ve been in a metropolis like Druvenlode for too long, hm?”
“I’m going because I’ve never been”, Alessia said coolly. “Because it’s new to me. And anyway, don’t worry—” she gestured to the heavy hooded cloaks the two of them wore. “We’ll be traveling incognito. Under assumed names.”
“A fine reason, and a wise precaution. But I stand by what I said—the road is dangerous enough, especially with the forests. Orcs in these lands, you know, that’s what the rangers and outriders are saying. Pigs.” He turned, spat down into the dirt. “I’ve seen their handiwork.”
Taria looked then like she would ask exactly what he’d seen, perhaps draw him into a recounting of his exploits against the orc menace—but Alessia gave her a look, and the words died in her throat.
“Perhaps I might go with you? I was born near Totten, you know. Know the area well. It might do well to have a more experienced blade-hand with you if trouble starts, no?” He patted his longsword for effect.
Alessia forced a smile. She liked Faltus well enough, but somehow she had a feeling that he wouldn’t get on well with Oskar. She was desperate to be off, anyway. “We thank you, Faltus, truly”, she said, cutting over Taria. “But the thrill of the adventure is in the journey itself, as you know. We’ll be in Totten before lunch if we leave now and move quickly. And besides—“ At this, Alessia’s voice grew low, conspiratorial, and she drew in close to Faltus, letting him get a good whiff of the perfume Taria had recommended she wear for Oskar. “Lady Taria had an admirer in Totten, you see. I trust you can keep a rumor from spreading during our absence?”
Faltus laughed deep at the scandalized glance Taria shot her, and nodded. “Oh, I’ll do my best. Be careful, then, ladies. I bid you farewell.”
They all said their goodbyes, and as the two of them moved further down the road, Alessia’s mind was fixed on Oskar. It had been a month now since she’d seen him, and she’d been alone with her thoughts, alone with her memories of him, for all that time. She was ready to see him, and to make new ones.
Taria’s mind was fixed on Faltus—Taria Arannandiel was lovely, lovlier even than Alessia, some said; certainly more feminine than her childhood friend, with her mother’s elven blood, green eyes, near-white blonde hair, all gentle waves and soft curves and kind words. And so it was a damned thing, then, that the men she fancied mostly seemed to fancy a tomboy like Alessia. Certainly Captain Faltus Perregine always had. Taria had never been angry about it, though. It was the way such things went. But now, with Alessia bent on this Oskar—which, by the way, Alessia wished the two of them nothing but the best of luck—it certainly didn’t seem fair for her to make the Captain think she was some kind of floozy, with a rural lover off in a village. She wasn’t angry, no. But it was irritating.
And as he watched them go, Faltus’ mind was fixed on Alessia. Their time together had been brief, and even he, romantic that he was, wouldn’t have called it anything more than a fling, a summer dalliance at most. But he had always hoped that, with time, Lady Coryn (for such did he still think of her) would come to feel something for him as well.
And it seemed that, slowly, she was. This last month, she’d been nothing but wonderful to him, welcoming him openly, warmly, whenever he popped over. Maerissa would tell him of how rebellious she was; he saw none of it. A bit less ladylike than Taria, perhaps. Strong-spirited, surely. But a good person all the same. And the truth was, while he’d hoped to accompany them to Totten, the roads were probably safe enough at this time of year. The few orcs sighted had been further near to the mountains.
Even still, though, he worried. So when he went to old Harsk, who was perhaps the only man for a hundred miles more versed in trailcraft than Oskar, and offered to pay him a week’s wage to follow the two of them to Totten and make sure they got there all right, he did it out of concern. Out of love, in fact. For him, it was always for love.
Oskar found them. He was close to the border of the forest, too close for Alessia’s comfort, and she would, later, speak to him about it. It wasn’t worth the risk of being caught, not with things being what they were. But when she saw him, she said none of those things.
They were riding along the forest road, eyes scanning the treeline for movement both friendly and otherwise. The two of them were fairly perceptive—moreso than the average soul, they’d have liked to think. But they rode right by him, hidden by a fallen tree. He stood once they’d ridden past him, and called out, in a booming voice. “Have you already forgotten what I look like, Lady Coryn?”
Her head whipped around, and in a flash she was down from Lauriam’s back, sprinting toward him. He, even quicker, was past the trees, out into the open road, arms wide to meet her. He swept her up in his arms, spinning and laughing, grinning from ear to point-tipped ear, as she showered him with soft, fast kisses, both her hands cupped beneath his head. “Oskar!” she cried softly, over and over again. “Oskar! Gods, it’s been forever. Oskar, I felt I’d never see you again!”
“The same, my love. Orcs and wolves are poor substitutes for you, Alessia.” He set her down, still grinning dopily. In that moment, you might have told him that his entire tribe had been wiped from the face of the earth and only gotten an absent-minded shrug and nod. He had his lover back beside him. All else would fall into place behind that. “And who’s this you’ve brought with you?” he asked, shifting his focus from Alessia’s eyes to Taria, approaching warily behind her. She had the look of a bird being offered seed by an unfamiliar hand.
Alessia laughed. “This is my oldest friend. Taria Arannandiel. You’ve not met, but I think you remember her. She... interrupted our first meeting.”
It took him a moment, but Oskar took a sharp breath in recognition. “Yes. I do remember.”
“Her handmaiden, as well. And her protector”, she said, coming closer. Oskar held up an open hand, and Taria took it with some suspicion. “I’ve heard much of you, Oskar.” What went unsaid was: But she is my sister, and I’ve loved her longer than you. Don’t forget that.
“I know we didn’t plan on it, but it was the only way I could get out to see you. No offense, Taria.”
“No, I wouldn’t have brought me either, were I you.”
“It’s no trouble”, Oskar said, moving them off from the road to somewhere a little less vulnerable. “I brought plenty of supplies this time. More than enough to build a camp for three.”
“Will you need to hunt, as well?” Taria asked.
Oskar shrugged, grunted. “At some point.” Now he guided them and the horses through the trees with an expert woodsman’s eye. “But not for a while yet. I’m not expected back for a tenday or so.”
“And we won’t be missed for a few days as well. Plenty of time, then”, finished Alessia.
They spent two days together. At least, Alessia and Oskar did, scarcely keeping their hands off one another for the entire forty-eight hours. Taria mostly kept to herself, realizing that she was the proverbial third wheel on the cart. She didn’t begrudge Alessia that, not really, but it was difficult not to be irritated by it.
And then she’d see the look on Oskar’s face. Not once did she see anything less than abject love there. She, like Alessia, had grown up hearing of how dangerous his kind was—but seeing this, seeing him, it was difficult to put much stock in those rumors. Certainly when she saw that love reciprocated in Alessia’s face. If she had to endure a few awkward days for that love to flourish, then that was a price that she was willing to pay.
Oskar taught them how to use a knife, how to use a bow. Alessia learned more about survival from watching him than she had from actively trying to learn from Druvenlode’s experts on the subject. The first night, he caught them a brace of rabbits, and they had a stew that even Taria’s more refined palate admitted was delicious, for all its rusticity. They made love—trying to be, and mostly failing to be, quiet for Taria’s sake, on the bank of the stream where they’d first met, and he was tender and gentle, for all the passion and hunger in his eyes when he looked at her.
Laying there, in the sandy earth, looking up at the stars and feeling the wintery wind cool their sweaty, naked bodies, she looked to him and couldn’t believe her fortune in finding him.
He saw her looking. “What?” he asked, shifting uncomfortably, grinning. Despite his skill as a hunter, and for all his physical might, he still had a boyishness to him that swelled Alessia’s heart. “Have I got something on my face?”
She smiled—first honestly and sweetly, but then mischievously. “Not yet.” She drew close to him again.
The second day passed much in the same way, though now it was her turn to teach him—this time on swordsmanship. They used sticks, facing each other in a series of sparring matches, with Taria acting as judge. She won them handily. He relied overmuch on his raw strength (though it was difficult for him to practice on Alessia—if he was unwilling to unshackle himself in bed with her, he would never do it in even mock combat), and she was able to practically dance around him, using skill and speed to end the fight before his strength could come into play. But Oskar proved a quick study as she corrected his techniques, and she doubted that, if he had even a month or so to practice, she would be able to so easily beat him.
Now they were lying together again, naked beneath a thick hide blanket, some distance from the camp where Taria was sleeping.
“This was wonderful”, he murmured, holding a handful of her hair to his nose and breathing in deeply. “These last few days.”
“I wish we didn’t have to go.”
“No more than I, Alessia. Though”, he said, turning his gaze back toward camp, “I think not everyone feels that way.”
“She’s sweet for putting up with it. It can’t have been easy for her, I know. But I’ll make it up to her, somehow.”
He nodded at that. “Good. No good deed should go unrewarded. That’s our way.”
“That’s a good way.” She kissed him.
“And no kiss should go unreturned.” He kissed her back. “That’s our way as well.”
“I like that way even better.”
The next day brought their separation, though both of them knew it would be briefer than the last. She could move freer, and he could as well. But even still, they dreaded it. He walked them to the edge, and watched them go, before he set about the business of hunting another prize for his clan.
The two of them had a quiet conversation about what Taria thought of Oskar. They had it all the way up until they went to bed that night.
None of the three of them saw the grizzled old man who’d shadowed them through those days. Old Harsk was the best there was when it came to staying unnoticed. He’d not quite seen it all, but he’d seen enough. The only question Harsk had left was who’d pay more to hear what he had to say: young Lady Coryn, or the noble Captain Faltus.