The orcs decide to set up camp on a nearby clearing. I make sure Wren is comfortable taking an afternoon nap. While the orcs light the cookfire and start roasting several fat rabbits Korr brings from the forest, Vark and I dig the graves for the two dead men.
It’s hard work, turning over the half-frozen ground, and I quickly shed my coat, sweating through my tunic. Vark digs beside me, his hole in the ground deepening at a much faster rate than mine. When the first blister from the shovel pops on my palm, Vark gently nudges me out of the way and digs the rest of Timo’s shallow grave.
Then the time comes to roll the two bodies into the earth, and I choke up, my throat closing. Vark stands with me, staring down at Timo’s corpse.
“Do you want to say something?” he asks quietly.
I shake my head. I may have known the man for years, but I have nothing good to say about my former boss. I don’t have the will to curse him either.
“Do orcs have a way of sending off their enemies?” I force out.
Vark opens his mouth, then closes it again. Finally, he shakes his head. “Nothing that would be appropriate for this moment.”
In the end, we simply take up our shovels again and cover the bodies with dirt, filling up the graves. I collect two flat stones and set them atop the earthy mounds to mark the place where they’ll rest forever.
I thought I’d feel relieved, knowing Timo won’t threaten us anymore, but all I feel is tired and empty. Vark seems to know it, too, and he takes me to the stream to wash, guiding me by my elbow. He undresses me, even though I’m shivering, and washes the dirt off my body, then wraps me in his cloak and quickly bathes in the frigid water. The sight of his naked body stirs me back to life, a strange energy coursing through me. We survived what could have been a deadly confrontation, and I suddenly feel the need to prove to the universe that I’m alive. Vark glances over at me and finds me ogling him. I grin, unrepentant.
“Don’t look at me like that, pet,” he growls, turning his back on me. “You are too tired tonight.”
I glance over my shoulder in the direction of the camp. The forest is silent, and no sounds other than the rushing of the stream and the distant birdsong disrupt the silence.
“I could let you do all the work…” I let the fur-lined cloak slip off my shoulders and give Vark a coy glance from under my eyelashes. I’ve never tried seducing a man, and I’m not sure how effective my efforts will be, but I’m willing to give it a try. “We could be very quiet.”
The muscles in Vark’s ass clench at my words, and he lets out a rough exhale. He’s up to his ankles in the freezing water, and I think it’s the cold that has him tensing up so much, but when he faces me, my mouth falls open at the sight.
His hard, thick cock is clasped in his big fist. The knot has already swelled at the bottom, and he’s leaking at the tip, the creamy white cum dripping down his length.
I scramble to my knees, no longer feeling the cold. “Come here. Now.”
He lets out a low chuckle but walks over and stops in front of me. I lock my gaze on his beautiful, dark-green cock. Then I reach out—but instead of wrapping my fingers around Vark’s cock, I grab his ass instead and draw him closer still. Vark hisses in a breath. My lips brush over the broad cockhead, but he doesn’t retreat. Instead, he holds himself at the right angle and slowly pushes forward, as if asking permission to fuck my mouth.
I part my lips and glance up at him, our eyes meeting. The first taste of him explodes over my tongue as I take the thick head into my mouth. I suck it gently, and he lets out a groan, his gaze trained on me.
It’s the most satisfying thing to watch Vark fall apart under my care. There’s no way I could ever take his entire cock in my mouth, so I don’t try, instead focusing on his cockhead. I bring my hand forward to cup his tight balls, tugging on them gently until he’s rocking his hips forward in a steady rhythm. He shows me what he likes and has me grip his knot with my other hand, then pushes his fingers in my hair and sets the pace for us.
His precum fills my mouth, and he hasn’t even come yet, so I pull away from him and swallow, then lick his cock all the way from the knot to the tip.
“Will you drink up all my cum, pet?” Vark rasps.
I peer up at him through my eyelashes. “As much as you’ll give me.”
He shudders and pushes his cock between my lips again. I clasp his knot harder and suck on the head, and he groans, throwing his head back so the tendons in his neck stand out. I wish I could bite down on them, but I’ll have to wait—he’s so close now, he’s trembling under my touch. I love that he’s a mess for me, his hips thrusting forward in a disjointed rhythm.
Then his back bows, his cock grows impossibly harder in my grip, and he starts to come, shooting hot jets of cum down my throat. If I thought I knew how much he gave me each time he came inside me, I had no idea—the thick, creamy cum fills my mouth, and I swallow, but there’s too much. I release his cock from my mouth and jerk my hand down the long shaft, and he explodes all over my chest, ropes of cum painting my skin.
“Fuck!” he groans, taking a half step back like he’s unsteady on his feet. “Hazel!”
To know I’ve brought this strong warrior to a climax so powerful is a heady sensation. I stroke him until he’s all spent, still hard and panting above me. He looks down at me, and I grin, excited.
“I want to do this every day,” I tell him, licking my lips. “It’s fun.”
He groans. “I’ve created a monster.”
Vark kneels in front of me, still naked. “If it was up to me, we’d be naked all the time. And never leave my bed.”
I giggle, running my palms over his broad chest. “I’m sure we can make it work somehow.”
Vark lays me down on his cloak and kisses his way down my body, his tusks rasping against my skin. He licks my pussy until I shatter beneath him, muffling my screams with my hand. Then he rears over me, lifts my knees, and hooks his arms under them. He lines up his cock and pushes inside my slick core slowly, working himself in with shallow thrusts.
I open my thighs wider and accept him in, eager for more. He sinks all the way to his knot, then retreats, the thick length of him dragging over the sensitive tissue of my pussy.
“I love you,” I repeat the words from earlier. “I didn’t just say it because I was worried.”
He leans down and kisses me deeply. I taste myself on his lips and wonder if he can taste himself, too, if our essences are completely entwined yet.
“I love you, Hazel,” he rumbles. “I will be forever grateful you chose to climb into my wagon that day.”
I gasp as he pushes all the way into me. On the next stroke, he adds pressure to my pearl by rolling his fingertips over it, and pleasure bursts through me, beautiful and bright. My body softens on the downward slide of my climax, allowing Vark to nudge his knot inside me. My pussy accepts it willingly, my muscles clenching around it. Vark roars, the sound echoing through the forest. I thought he’d spent all his cum earlier, but his release coats my insides, triggering more pleasure.
We remain locked together, Vark’s body heat seeping into me. He fusses anyway and wraps his cloak around me as much as he can while we’re locked. I tease him by squeezing my inner muscles around his thick girth, and he gives in, drawing one more climax out of both of us before his knot finally releases.
We wash again in the stream, and Vark curses when he realizes my lips are turning blue. Ignoring my protests, he shoves my tunic back over my head, glares at me until I put on my leather pants and boots, then bundles me into his cloak and carries me back to camp in his arms.
I giggle all the way. Wren runs up to us, and I let her know I’m all right with Vark lugging me around like a bag of turnips.
We sit by the fire together, my daughter and I, and I cut up her meat in bite-sized pieces before passing her a plate heaped with apple slices and baked potatoes. She digs in, eating quietly, but her small, rounded ears twitch from time to time as if she’s listening to the song of the forest around us.
As the orcs finish their meal and move around camp, preparing for the night, I wrap my arms around Wren’s shoulders and draw her into my lap.
“Do you want to talk about what happened today?” I ask.
She shakes her head, her curls brushing the underside of my chin.
“Are you sure?” I press. “Because it was a lot, even for me. I’m sad and angry over what Timo did, so I thought you might be, too.”
“You’re sad?” She peers up at me.
I nod. “I’ve known him most of my life, so even though he turned bad, I know he wasn’t always like that.”
I still remember the young man I’d had a crush on as a teenager. So charming—and though not kind, he took care of me and the other orphans who’d had nowhere better to go than to be swallowed up by Ultrup’s dirty underbelly.
“Is it wrong that I’m not sad?” Wren’s voice is a tiny squeak, and her shoulders hunch at the admission. “Am I bad because of it?”
“No,” I reassure her. “You don’t owe him that. He was never good to you, and you needn’t feel bad over his death.”
She ponders this for a moment. “That’s good. My belly feels better now.”
“I’m glad,” I say. “I’m relieved as well, you know. That he won’t hurt us anymore. It’s all right to feel different emotions at once.”
She lifts her chin suddenly. “Ozork says I can have one of the horses you got today.” She beams at me, our conversation already a thing of the past.
I look up at the older orc. His face flushes a deeper green, and he shrugs, as if to say he couldn’t help himself.
“Well, if Ozork said that, I’m sure it’s all right.” I make a mental note to have a word with all of the orcs about giving in too easily to Wren. If she learns she can have anything she wishes, simply because she’s adorable, we’ll all be in trouble.
“Her name is Marigold,” Wren explains. “She’s tired today but she says she likes me, especially because I gave her a carrot. She never got carrots in the city, only hay and boring oats.”
She takes my hand and drags me over to where the horses are picketed, and I meet Marigold, as well as Barley, Cricket, and Samuel. I goggle at the last name, so at odds with all the rest she’d chosen for the horses, but Wren assures me it’s what the horse wants to be called, and that’s the end of it.
In turn, I make her come with me to wash the dishes, so she acquires a new skill and learns to help out for the community. By the time I wrap her in a blanket by the fire and sing her a lullaby, she’s barely awake and slips easily into the land of dreams.
I find Vark sitting by the fire, sharpening his battle-ax. It’s a stark reminder of what happened today. He seems to realize this, too, and puts it away, out of sight. My heart pangs at the gesture, so instead of sitting next to him, I climb into his lap and lean on his chest.
“You don’t have to hide things from me,” I murmur.
We’re in the middle of the camp, so I’m sure others are listening—without meaning to.
Vark runs his palm over my back in soothing circles. “I don’t want you or Wren to be scared of me. But…it’s who I am. I’ve killed before.”
“To protect others, like you did today?” I ask, peering up at him.
“Aye.” The word rumbles from his chest, quick and sincere.
I brush my lips over his neck in a soft kiss. “Then I have no issue with that.”
I would have killed Timo today if my aim had been true. I believe he would have bled out even if Vark hadn’t finished him off, and his death would have been far less clean than it was in the end.
There’s something we have to talk about, though. I reach into the pocket of my pants and draw out the gold mark I stole on the day Vark made a bet with me.
“Here,” I say. “This is yours.”
He takes the coin and rolls it between his fingers. “Is it?”
I shove down my shame and admit, “I palmed it from your purse when I asked for proof that you had the money for our bet.”
He takes my hand, presses the coin in the center of my palm, and closes my fingers around it. “I know. I saw.”
My face feels hot now. He’s known all along that I’m a thief?
“What Timo said,” I start to say, then fail to find the right words. I fidget with the coin. “He said I was like a penny slut, stealing small amounts of money. I was—I mean, he was right. My role in his crew was to be a pickpocket. I worked crowds, mostly. Hangings, public speeches, that sort of thing.”
I can’t look him in the eye, too embarrassed but needing to get the whole story out.
“I’m quick, you know?” I continue. “I can slit a purse without the mark ever knowing. Timo would take a cut of anything I brought in, and I was left with just enough to survive on. But I didn’t want that kind of life for Wren. So we left. But I promise I won’t try to steal anything from you or anyone else.” I run the pad of my thumb over the golden mark. “I only did it that first day because I thought we were going to leave you all soon.”
That doesn’t excuse my actions, but I need him to know that I’m willing to do honest work in exchange for being able to stay at the Hill. I’ll do my best to earn the money to send Wren to school, too, so she can learn her letters and do better in life than I did.
Vark puts his fingers under my chin, forcing me to acknowledge him. My flush deepens at his understanding expression.
“I don’t care about one coin,” Vark says quietly. “And I have something to confess, too.”
I raise my eyebrows. “You do?”
The corner of his mouth tips up. “I knew when making the bet with you that you were never going to win. I tricked you.”
I frown, trying to find the words to contradict him. I’ve been training hard, and I was growing more and more comfortable with my blades. I could take him…maybe.
Then I remember that he plucked a blade straight from the air—and that he aimed his knife at Snitch so well, he disarmed him but didn’t cause him permanent injury. The throw must have been extremely accurate, because Snitch had been able to move his hand afterward. A poorer hit, such as one I’d make, would have broken a bone or at least cut the tendons in his palm.
“You mean to say I never had a chance of landing a winning blow?” I ask, the truth dawning on me. “You only humored me?”
Vark’s cheeks turn a deeper shade of green. “Well, I had to make sure somehow that you didn’t run off into the night.”
“And enticing me with a fortune in gold was your best option?”
I don’t know whether to be impressed by his ingenuity or offended that he’d thought me that easy.
“No,” he says, “I gave you a challenge. One you couldn’t back away from.”
Oh, the clever orc.
I punch him lightly in the shoulder. “Can we agree to be honest with each other from now on?”
“Aye.” He presses a kiss to my mouth, a passionate, sweet promise. Then he breaks away. “I would have followed you.”
I blink at him, dazed. “What?”
“I would have followed you if you had left,” he says. “If I couldn’t keep you with us, I would have gone after you and Wren. I spoke to Ozork about it. He wasn’t happy that he’d be left with one driverless wagon, but he understood.”
Heart swelling with love, I glance over at the older orc.
He gives me a wry smile and shrugs, going back to setting up his bed roll for the night.
“I’m glad it didn’t come to that,” I say softly.
It feels like home now, traveling with this group of orcs, and I don’t even mind that Neekar and Sarrai have joined us, strangers that they are. I know not all orcs will be this friendly or accepting, but for now, I couldn’t imagine a better family for Wren and me.
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