A voice echoes in my head, deep and distorted. I try to open my eyes, but my lids are so heavy. Then someone shakes me, and I finally manage to squint up.
Dark eyes, a shadowed face. Long, lovely hair.
I reach up to touch the hair, but my arm is too heavy to lift.
“Ivy, talk to me,” Korr demands, leaning over me.
I realize I’m lying on the cot, and he’s kneeling beside it, his hands on my shoulders.
“Call the guards again,” he barks.
From behind me, Marut’s voice echoes through the small cell. “Guards! We need the healer!”
The clatter of footsteps and the unlocking of the cell door tells me Marut was successful. There’s a rapid conversation, and someone takes off, then two more faces appear above me. One belongs to my brother-in-law, the other to the female guard.
“Are you all right?” the woman demands. She crouches next to me, a lantern clutched in her hand. “What happened?”
“She was using her magic,” Korr says, his voice terse.
He brushes back my hair from my face, and I notice the tremor in his hand. I reach up to grasp his wrist, and he immediately intertwines our fingers, squeezing gently.
“I’m all right.” My voice comes out raspy, but I clear my throat and ask, “Could you help me sit up?”
I feel vulnerable lying flat on my back with all of them leaning over me. My vision is a little fuzzy, but other than that, I don’t think anything is wrong with me.
“Ivy, what—what did you do?” Korr sits by me. “You closed your eyes and went limp, and I had to catch you. Is it the light? Did it hurt you?”
I know what he’s asking—did I get hurt because I was trying to help him. Immediately, I shake my head. “No, that’s not it.” Not knowing what happened isn’t great, but I won’t allow Korr to feel guilty about it either.
“Here, have some water.” Marut shoves a clay cup into my hands.
Some of it spills over, wetting my dress, and Korr growls at him. Marut retreats, his hands raised in surrender, and I put a hand on Korr’s knee.
“Thank you,” I say to Marut. “This will help.”
Korr takes a deep inhale through the nose, then lets the air out again. He wraps his arm carefully around my shoulders, and that’s how Taris finds us when she bustles through the cell door.
“Out of my way,” she calls, wielding her basket of tinctures and herbs like a shield in front of her.
Marut and the female guard scoot to the side, and the herbalist kneels in front of me, her large bosom heaving with exertion. She motions to the guard, and the woman sets down the lantern, then leaves the cell, closing the door behind her.
“I’m all right,” I say immediately. “I’m sorry they worried you over this.”
“You are not all right,” Korr barks. “You were unconscious. I couldn’t wake you.”
Taris narrows her eyes at him. “For how long?”
Korr swallows, then looks up at his brother. “I-I don’t know. It seemed like a long while. But it might not have been…”
I can’t even imagine what he was feeling. Trapped in here, worrying about me. It must have felt like a manifestation of his deepest fears.
“A short while,” Marut interrupts him. “Not long, but she was out cold.”
“Hmm.” Taris puts her fingers to my wrist and counts silently, then peers into my eyes and listens to my breathing. She feels my forehead with the back of her hand, then has me hold out my palms so she can inspect my fingernails in the lantern light. “What were you doing before you blacked out?”
I glance at Korr, worry streaking through me. He might have accepted me as a witch, but would Taris? He nudges my knee with his and gives me that crooked half-smile of his, looking adorably disheveled, and I know it’ll be all right.
“I was, um, using magic,” I say quietly, then add, “Only to light up the room. I can’t do anything else.”
“Oh, Ivy.” Taris sighs. “I knew I should have talked to you about it when I first met you, but I didn’t think you’d be this inexperienced, then it just never came up, so I kept putting it off.”
I sit up straight. “You knew?”
“Aye.” She pats my hand and heaves herself to her feet. “Who do you think makes that magic balm everyone likes so much?”
I gasp. “Oh, I should have known!”
“You should have,” she agrees. “But you had your mind full of your mate and trying to survive here.”
Korr gives me a happy smile at that, as if he wasn’t completely sure I’ve been thinking about him all this time. I try not to get overwhelmed by how handsome he is because I need more answers, yet I have to grin back at him.
“How come nobody knows?” Marut demands, his hands at his hips. “If you have healing magic, you could have been helping the clan all this time—”
Taris draws herself up to her full height, and even though she’s half a foot shorter than Marut, he cringes back at her expression.
“You fool boy,” she snaps. “What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?”
“Er,” is all he says.
I cover my mouth with my hand to hide a smile. He should have known better.
“I’ve been giving my help to those who need it,” Taris continues. “If I’d let everyone know, I’d be treating imaginary illnesses and beauty complaints. Instead, I’ve been saving lives. I hope that’s enough for you.”
“Aye, Taris,” Marut says. “Forgive me.”
I find I’m quite enjoying seeing Marut being told off, and so is Korr, if his expression is any indication.
Despite my exhaustion, I have a question to ask. “Does the king know?”
She glances at me, and her gaze softens. “Of course. He knows just about everything that goes on in this Hill.” Then she puts her hands to her hips. “Except, apparently, that Korr shouldn’t be shut into small spaces.”
There’s a bustle in the hallway in front of the cell. The door opens suddenly, and the king himself is there, looking more than a little disgruntled.
“What is going on?” he demands, his gaze bouncing between us. “Taris, what is this about an emergency? My mate was just—” He stops himself, then lets out a long breath through his nose. “No one looks injured. I expected blood. What happened?”
“My mate fainted,” Korr says immediately. “You must take her out of here.”
“I agree,” Taris says.
The king seems somewhat annoyed at being told what to do, but then he turns to me, studying me closely, and says, “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I say immediately. “I’m just, ah, a little tired.”
Taris rolls her eyes. “She overextended herself trying to use her magic.”
The king hums but doesn’t demand I be burned at the stake or beheaded, which is a definitive improvement to the reaction I got from the village elders.
“All right,” he rumbles at last. “If Taris says we should let you go, we shall.”
“And Korr,” blurts Marut. “He’s her mate. He should go with her.”
At that, the king straightens his shoulders and sends Marut a sharp look down his nose. “Is that so?”
“Aye,” Marut says. A muscle twitches in his cheek, but he doesn’t fold under the king’s scrutiny. “We had our talk. There will be no more problems with the two of us, you have my word.”
“And mine,” Korr adds.
The king pinches the bridge of his nose and lets out a long sigh. “What is it with the two of you? You were ready to murder each other not two hours earlier, and now you’re banding up together?”
“I think Korr would be willing to explain everything,” Taris says, “provided we move this conversation outside?”
“Outside?” King Gorvor asks. “At this time of night?”
She gives him a curt nod, and he relents, leading our small procession from the cell, through the double prison doors and past the curious-looking guards. We take turn after turn, and I don’t even try to remember the way, only follow behind him, clutching Korr’s hand for support.
When I stumble, tired beyond belief, Korr swings me into his arms and carries me the rest of the way. We enter the entrance hall, and there is the main gate, with two orc guards on each side of it. The king motions for the guards to open the gate, and we pass through, finally exiting the Hill.
I sense Korr’s relief the moment the inky night sky opens above us. His shoulders relax, his muscles loosening. He holds me closer to his chest and presses a quick kiss to my lips, a warm, heartfelt caress.
Carrying a lantern to show the way, the king leads us down the main road leading from the Hill and stops by a wooden fence. From the smell of horse manure, I think this must be a horse paddock where the orcs’ horses are kept during the day. It’s not exactly a great place to spend the evening, but it’s private, and most importantly, it’s outside.
I shiver, though, so Korr sets me gently on my feet, turns me away from him, and wraps his arms around me from behind so my entire back is plastered to his chest, which is warm as always, my personal furnace. To know that he’s thinking about my comfort after he went through the traumatic experience of being locked up fills my eyes with fresh tears, but I blink them away because I don’t want him to think anything’s wrong.
“Who will explain to me why I’m out in the cold, smelling horse shit, instead of taking a bath with my mate?” the king asks.
From the words alone, I’d have thought he’s angry, but his voice is merely resigned, as if he knows he will get no peace until this matter is resolved.
Korr clears his throat and says, “I will.” He grips my sides tightly, steeling himself, then continues, “I dislike being underground. If I stay inside the Hill for more than a couple of hours at a time, I…get ill.”
The strain in his words tells me how much this is costing him to say, and I squeeze his hand, offering silent support. Everyone waits for him to continue, but he just shakes his head, then finally adds, “Ivy was using her magic to help me.”
In the lantern light, I see how King Gorvor lifts his eyebrows. “But—this is your home.”
Korr scratches the back of his head. “Aye, it is.”
“Is that why you’re always volunteering for scouting and hunting?” the king demands.
This time, my mate only nods.
“Gods, Korr, why didn’t you say something sooner?” King Gorvor’s voice booms out, exasperated. Then he takes a deep breath and adds more calmly, “We could have done something—we have villages in our territory. Why would you live here, underground, if this is such an issue?”
Korr doesn’t answer, but I sense how he turns toward Marut, who’s standing to our left.
The king follows his gaze, then lets out a groan. “Of course. I should have known. You bicker constantly, but you’d rather torture yourself than move away from your brother.”
“Is that true?” Marut demands. “That’s a fool thing to do, Korr, what were you—”
“Didn’t you just promise me the two of you have solved your issues?” the king interrupts him.
Marut shuts up, hanging his head, but I see the way he glances at his brother when Korr focuses back on the king. I send Marut a grin, and his lips twitch up a little. It’s not a real smile, but I believe that things will turn for the better now.
The king rubs his forehead. “What can I do to make it easier for you to bear it?”
I look up at Korr to find him clenching his jaw. He still doesn’t want to appear weak, which I understand, and the last thing that would help is him being singled out from all the other orcs in the clan. Which is what would happen if the king started giving him preferential treatment because of this.
“Do you have any rooms with windows?” I ask.
The orcs turn to stare at me as one.
I shrug and add, “It would keep us in the Hill, but Korr would know he’s not trapped inside. I’m not saying it will solve all our problems, but it might be a good first step.”
“The outer rooms are where we keep the animals,” the king says thoughtfully. “And we use them for storage. They’re cold, too far from the hot springs.”
“We could get a stove.” I face Korr. “Like the one you have in your hut.”
He stares down at me. “You would do that? Live in quarters that aren’t as comfortable?”
I raise my hand to his cheek. “If it means you feel better, yes, of course. How can you even ask?”
He curls over me, pressing his forehead to mine. “Thank you.”
I want to say that this is nothing, that it’s what anyone would do, but I don’t want to diminish the significance this has for him. So I merely wrap my arms around his waist and hold on, enjoying his warmth.
“Taris,” the king says behind me, “in the future, I’d like to be informed if you know of someone feeling this uncomfortable.”
His voice is a little stiff, so I let go of Korr, curious. I find Taris glaring at the much larger King Gorvor, her arms crossed over her ample chest.
“I cannot divulge my patients’ issues,” she snaps.
He puts his hands on his hips, scowling down at her. “I know, and I’m not asking you to. I don’t need to know who is suffering—but I never even knew this problem existed. What if others are as unhappy as Korr, and they’re not saying anything?”
“I’ve never been unhappy,” Korr interjects earnestly. “I love my clan. I would never—”
“That’s good to hear, friend.” The king claps a heavy hand on Korr’s shoulder. “But I want to know if my people are suffering. I have to know. Or I’ll be just as bad as—as my father.”
Taris draws in an outraged breath. “Bite your tongue, Gorvor. You are nothing like him.”
“No,” Marut agrees. “There is no comparison.”
I don’t know all of their clan’s history, but I’ve seen enough to know that King Gorvor is nothing like the tyrant king they’d all escaped from more than a decade ago.
He chuckles roughly. “All right, thank you. But do you understand what I mean? We have all the gold we could ever need, but if we’re not using it to ensure our people’s comfort, what is the point?”
Taris nods thoughtfully. “All right. I will note any new developments, and Ivy will help.” She offers me a smile. “She brings knowledge of human issues, too, which will be invaluable in the coming years.”
A bubble of happiness grows inside me, pushing out the last of the anger and fear. I’ve found my place—not just as Korr’s mate but as a member of the community—and it feels amazing.
“Now, if we are reasonably certain that there are no more emergencies,” the king says, “I would very much like to return to my queen.”
Marut straightens and shuffles closer to Korr. I release my mate and take a small step back, allowing them space. They stare at each other for a long moment, and then Korr closes the distance between them and wraps his brother in a bear hug. From where I’m standing, I see the first flicker of surprise on Marut’s face. Then he closes his eyes and hugs Korr, thumping him on the back.
No one comments on the fact that both twins’ eyes are damp when they separate again.
Korr finally clears his throat. “Ivy and I will remain here a while longer. If we may.”
The king nods, but Taris walks over to me, unwraps her knitted woolen shawl from her shoulders, and drapes it around mine.
“You can return it tomorrow at work,” she says. “I’ll expect you to be prompt, we have a lot of work to do.”
I grin at her, though my throat is tight with emotion. “Of course. I’ll be there.”
“And when you’re ready to learn more about your gift, tell me.” She pulls the ends of the shawl tight and smooths the soft fabric gently. “There might be more to it than you think.”
She pats my cheek, then leaves, following King Gorvor and Marut to the main gate. They left the lantern for us, which fills me with gratitude, because the light allows me to see Korr’s expression.
He cups my face with both hands and stares down at me. “You punched my brother in the face for me.”
I wince. “I did. I’m really sorry about that, I just didn’t know what else to do.”
His grin is beautiful, lopsided and earnest and just for me. “You love me, don’t you?”
“I do.” I reach up to cup the back of his neck, tugging him down for a kiss. “I love you so much.”
He kisses me, pressing me back against the wooden fence. “I love you, too.”
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