Oskar had restrained Garuk well enough that when the stronger orc came to consciousness, he could only thrash in his bindings and curse Oskar’s blood. That he did, freely and loudly.
It would have been a simple thing for Oskar to kill Garuk—nobody would know anything had ever happened. Or better yet, he could go back, catch up with Alessia and Taria and the wounded man Garuk had been trying to kill, bring the orc chief into Druvenlode itself and present him as a prisoner. The townsfolk might even be willing to overlook certain aspects of his heritage if he were to give them a prize like that. And there was always the old standby of tying him to a tree, naked, without a weapon, and let the gods decide his fate. All of these were solid solutions to the problem that now stood before him, and the one he had decided upon was—of course—the worst one of the bunch.
“I hope they kill you, traitor. I hope they string you up from their walls and leave you for crows.” Garuk sneered horribly, his tusks splitting his face like two jag-edged scars, one eye screwed shut and swollen up. “And if they don’t, if they let you keep your pink-skin whore? We’re—“
Oskar turned and leveled the older orc with a swinging hook. Garuk went sprawling. “You’ll leave her, Garuk.”
“Betrayed your people for her, I hope the tumble was worth it, at least.” Garuk grinned up from the ground, a tooth broken off in his mouth. “Enjoy it while you can, half-blood. But if I were you, I’d hope it was us that find you first. Because we’ll just kill you.”
“Shut your mouth. On your feet, old man. We’ve a long way to go yet.” He hauled the orc back upright by his arm.
“That’s right. Too cowardly to kill me.” He spat out his tooth on the ground, staring daggers at Oskar.
Oskar sighed, running a hand through his knotted black hair. It would solve a lot of problems, Garuk bleeding out now. But— “You’re still my chief. Even if only for a little bit longer. And if I kill you, it’ll be a fair fight.”
Garuk laughed, but said nothing.
“Think what you will. My feelings for Alessia never made me betray my tribe. I know it, and Gruumsh will know it, even if no-one else does.”
Garuk’s face grew dark, and his smile slowly peeled away. He was solemn, and regarded his adopted son with something of a mixture of disgust and heartbreak. “If you truly believe that, Oskar, then I am sorry for what’ll come next. But I don’t believe it.”
“And I’m sorry for what I did. What I’m going to do.”
They began walking again, killing miles. Few words passed between them over the next hours, as they approached the clan lands. At the sight of the first border-marker, a standing stone carved with the eye of Gruumsh. Beneath it, a pair of wide-open jaws marked the sigil of Clan Whitetooth. At its sight, Oskar felt the warmth of shame rising in his face, and he turned from its sight.
“You don’t have to go, Oskar. You can face our justice, can still die in honor.”
“I do. Even if only to rescue her and say goodbye, I have to go to her again.” He took a knife from his belt, and cut the rope binding Garuk’s hands together.
“We’ll have to disown you. We will come for you. Eternal shame. Gruumsh will turn from you, and I and all the clan will say we do not know you.”
“I accept the consequences. Tell mother I’m sorry.”
He sighed, heavily, and clapped Oskar on his shoulder with a heavy, scarred hand. Many men—many orcs—had died at those hands. Perhaps soon one who was neither would die at them, as well. “You would’ve made a good orc, son.”
“No. I am one.” Oskar turned from Garuk, and turned from the totem-stone.
The two of them got Harsk back to Druvenlode quick enough. They knew what they would face. And despite Taria’s insistence to the contrary, Alessia would shoulder the blame. It had been her fault that Taria was dragged into this, and so she would face whatever consequences would come. She owed her friend that much, at least.
She rode with Harsk in front of her, holding him up with her arms. When they were within sight of the town, the guards saw them coming and sent out riders to meet them. And who should it have been coming down the road to greet them, but the redoubtable Captain Faltus?
He saw Alessia first, and his face wove itself into a mask of fear. “Alessia! Are you alright? Were you hurt? Bandits? Gods, I never should have let you go off on your own. You! Ride back, tell the men to form a search party, I want these woods scoured for—“
“Faltus!” Alessia cut in. “I’m fine. He’s not.” She tilted her head downward, at Harsk. He was a hardy old bastard, but he’d lost a lot of blood by now, and the ride back hadn’t been an easy one.
“Harsk?” He liked down, first at Harsk, then up to Alessa. “I sent him along to make sure you arrived in Totten safely. I was—I was worried. Justifiably, it seems.”
Harsk stared into Faltus’ face with a mad eye. “Cap. Orcs. She’s...”
“She’s safe, old man. You’ve earned a bonus.”
“No. She’s... with...” But more was too much for the old man, and he slipped away, into half-consciousness. Too much to hope for, that he dies, I suppose, Alessia thought, then pushed the notion away. He was a living man, even if a bit of a strange one, and he didn’t deserve to die just so Alessia wouldn’t get in trouble.
They rode back into the town together, and apart from the man carrying Harsk peeling away to leave him with the apothecary, they made a beeline for House Coryn. Her mother was waiting on the steps, wringing her hands. When she saw Alesisa, she nearly burst into tears, and came running down toward them. “Alessia, thank the gods! All of them! Oh, they told me Harsk was hurt, and I feared you’d been, as well! Oh, bless him, bless him for saving you.” She wrapped herself around Alessia as she unmounted, looking up into Faltus’ face. “And bless you, Captain, for sending him off with them. If not for you—I shudder to think.”
Faltus nodded seriously. “Of course, Lady Coryn. We think—“
“Maerissa. You’re practically family at this point, Captain, after all you’ve done for us. For me and for my daughter.”
“We think it may have been orcs. Harsk is unconscious.”
Maerissa gasped, clutching Alessia even tighter to her breast. Not since Alessia was a toddler had she been held so tightly by her mother. “Orcs! Pigs! In my town? Alessia, you’re lucky to be alive! Those brutal swine! Lucky to be... to be...” And she broke down, tears freely streaming down her cheeks.
“They’re not so bad.” Alessia muttered that, under her breath. She should’ve said nothing, but it was difficult living in a town that feared and hated orcs while also being in love with one. She had found herself snapping at people on the streets, recently, who said similar things. Rumor was, in fact (not that Alessia knew this) that Alessia was something of a pig sympathizer. That she was even fond of orcs.
Faltus had heard these rumors. He put no stock in them, chalking it up to her contrarian nature, to the flames of her passion. She saw the goodness in all things, so she did. And even though he heard what Alessia said, something which would have horrified her mother to hear her say, he put no stock in that, either. She’d just seen a man almost die for her. Of course she wasn’t thinking clearly. But still, rumors like that, ideas like that, did make you wonder, didn’t they? He resolved: he’d go and see Harsk. Alone. Let Alessia and Taria sleep, let them recover from their ordeal. Let him find out the truth.
Alessia had never known her mother to be so loving, not for many years. For the next few days, she was the kindest woman in the world—hard to believe she was still the same Maerissa Coryn. She spent almost every waking moment by her daughter’s side, talking. Just talking. They spoke more in those few days than they had in the last few years. There was much said that improved their relationship, and given another few weeks of uninterrupted dialogue, might have led to something of a reconciliation between the two. In fact, if they had long enough, Alessia might even have told her mother about Oskar. She considered it, once or twice, but decided otherwise. Not quite ready. She hoped only that he would be alright. She prayed for it every night. She felt he was still alive, somehow. Somehow, she knew that he was still alive.
For her part, Maerissa had decided, in the absence of any other knowledge, that Alessia had finally fallen for the handsome—and prestigious—young Captain Faltus. Alessia did, to her credit, discourage the notion, but never outright quashed it. She seemed distracted, in fact, worried by some nameless fear that weighed on her always. And her mother ascribed that to mere nerves, and the stress of what she’d endured. Certainly, she’d been coy with her mother about her feelings for Eirich, but when it came down to it, she’d fancied Lord Coryn for a long time. So too would it be with Alessia and Faltus. They’d look back on this and laugh, she thought, as she closed Alessia’s door on the fifth night since her return to Druvenlode. How she once had acted as though she didn’t care for the Captain.
It was, of course, that night, that Oskar returned.
Oskar slipped in at dusk, he would later tell them. He looked human enough from a distance that he was able to cover his more orcish traits with a heavy cloak. Drawing near the city, he stole from the road and scaled the walls—no failure of the walls, he assured them. But he’d spent his entire life climbing rocks and trees and cliffs, so climbing a worked stone wall was child’s play for him. And once inside, he was able to ask for directions to House Coryn easily enough—after all, it was dark and he was hidden by his cloak. He even once passed within a hand’s distance of a Crownsguard, out on his rounds, not that the two of them ever saw each other (the Crownsguard was busy, he’d later claim, closing in on the trail of Guinevere, a crime lord in Druvenlode that they’d been pursuing for months).
He scaled the wall that rang the Coryn estate as well. This was a little bit harder for the half-orc, but still done quickly. Now came the challenging part—finding Alessia’s room.
She had a view of the sunrise, she’d said once. Hated being woken up by it, in fact. Oskar smiled. East-facing. Second-story, as well, because she’d mentioned having to sneak down stairs. He was a hunter—a damned good one, and little escaped his notice, if anything. There were three windows on the second story of the eastern wall of the building. Any one of them could be hers, but choosing the wrong one could be disastrous just the same. Whatever was happening, it had to happen tonight, before Garuk and the Whitetooths caught up with him.
He bent down, and picked a stone from the ground. It was smooth, round, quite small, and fit easily in his hand. Then he closed his eyes, listening not with his ears but with his heart. The love of his life was up there somewhere. He would find her. He could hear her, she was close. He could practically see her. Kneeling by her bed. Praying. For him. For his safety. In... the middle.
He opened his eyes. He let loose his stone. It sailed through the air. And struck the glass of the window, and for a moment that stretched into forever, Oskar held his breath.
Then it opened.
Alessia fought not to cry as she beheld her love. Oskar wasn’t so strong. Tears fell freely from his eyes. Both of them had considered that they might never see one another again, and they’d managed to overcome it. Pushed the fears aside to continue functioning normally. And now it all came rushing to the fore. Neither of them said anything, for they were separated still not only by the distance between them but by the silence that they had to maintain, but even for that, they were together again, at last. He threw up a rope, and she caught it deftly, tying it off to her heavy bed. She practically threw herself down to the ground, scaling down the rope like a spider along her silk in her eagerness to kiss Oskar again.
“I thought you might be dead”, she murmured into his chest as he wrapped his arms around her small frame. “I could see it. The idea. But I knew—somehow, I knew...”
He tilted her head upwards, and they embraced deeply, melting into each other. Everything they said was desperate, gasped out between kisses. “I knew I couldn’t die. Not before I saw you again.”
“Then you’re still in danger?”
“Yes. My tribe has outlawed me, and obviously I can’t stay here. I can’t ask you to go with me, but—“
“I’ll grab my pack. Wait here. Don’t move.” And she somehow managed to tear herself away from him again, though it nearly caused her to break down again doing so. And she shimmied right back up the rope again.
She was gone for several tense minutes.
“Alessia?” Oskar hissed. “Alessia, what’s taking so long?”
“Apologies, Oskar.” Oskar’s blood froze in his veins. It wasn’t Alessia’s voice speaking. It was the cold, hard-edged voice of a man. One who has lost something he cares for and will do anything to get it back. “That is your name, isn’t it? That’s what I’m told.” From within Alessia’s room, a figure, lit by a blazing torch, stuck its head out from the window, staring down at Oskar. Captain Faltus smiled. “Allow me to officially welcome you to Druvenlode, pig.” He raised his hand. The next sound Oskar heard, loud as a million thunderclaps, was bowstrings being drawn.