The next morning, we pack up the wagons and set off on the road again. We camped earlier than expected last night because of the incident with Timo and his crew, so we have some time to make up this morning.
Wren begs to ride on Marigold, and she assures me that the horse is kind and still tired, so she won’t try to buck her off. I worry that she might be exaggerating, but Vark tells me it’s all right—apparently, orc children often know how to ride before they’re four years old, so Wren would do well to learn. That triggers a new set of worries about her fitting in with the younglings at the Hill, but there’s not much I can do about that now. Instead, I compromise and ride beside her on Cricket, who seems nervous at first but quickly warms up to me after I offer him an apple.
That’s how we arrive at the Hill, in a slow procession of wagons and horses. Neekar and Sarrai peel off to announce our arrival, and suddenly, a massive oakwood door reinforced with iron is thrown wide in front of us, welcoming us to the underground palace.
From the stories the orcs have told us in the past week, I’ve come to imagine the Hill as an underground dwelling with rooms dug into the earth, possibly damp and gloomy. What I discover now is far better than anything I could have conjured up in my head.
“If you get lost in the tunnels,” Vark is saying to Wren, “find the first person you see and ask for directions. Or stick to your mama, all right? Until you get familiar with every corridor, it can be confusing.”
Wren stares at the tall, well-lit entrance chamber with wide eyes. “All right.”
The guards greet us, some eyeing me and Wren suspiciously while others clap Ozork and the other drivers on the shoulder. Soon, the hall is teeming with orcs who have come to help us unload the wares brought from the city. Vark says he should help take care of the horses, but Ozork waves him off.
“Take your mate to the king,” he says. “We’ll take care of the rest.”
I gape at them. “To the king? You didn’t say anything about meeting the king today.”
I’m wearing clothes that I’ve had on for days, and I’m sure I’ve acquired a new hole or two over the past week. The last time I bathed was in the stream, and my hair is a mess.
Vark brushes the backs of his fingers over my cheek. “Don’t worry. He’s all right. But nothing goes on in the Hill without the king knowing about it.”
Wren’s eyes go round. “Will we meet the queen as well? Is she very pretty?”
Vark chuckles. “Aye. And pregnant. Her belly is round. She’s like a little pumpkin.”
I choke out a laugh. “I’m sure you mean that as a compliment, but maybe don’t say it in front of her? I want your head to stay where it is, on top of your neck.”
Vark grins at me, then picks up Wren and strides into the dark corridor. We soon leave the hustle of the entrance hall behind and enter the narrow tunnel leading straight into the mountain. Vark explains that this is a security measure, as any attackers who breached the front gate would have to proceed one or two abreast, making the inside of the Hill much easier to defend.
“But the only attack we’ve had since we settled here happened from the inside,” he says, his voice neutral. “We’d let the enemy in on our own.”
I know he means the orcs from the Boar Clan, the ones who went after the queen. This is the first time he has spoken about the incident without visible bitterness, so I hope he has finally come to terms with that. And if he hasn’t, I’ll be there to figure it out with him.
We pass through an enormous underground cavern, which Vark tells us is the great hall, where most orcs eat their meals every day. It’s almost empty now, as it’s several hours until dinner, but we stop in the kitchens, where the cook offers Wren and me fresh-baked pastries that melt in my mouth. Wren dips her head, shy of so many new people, but munches on the pastry nevertheless, licking her fingers clean once she’s done.
Vark leads us deeper into the mountain and stops in front of a large wooden door with a guard standing on either side of it. They greet us, confirming that the king and queen are receiving visitors. Vark sets Wren on the floor and brushes pastry crumbs from her tunic. Then he gives me a reassuring smile and knocks on the door.
A moment later, the door flies open, and a pregnant human woman scowls out at us.
“Oh, Vark,” she says, her gaze lighting up. “It’s good to see you. But I have to say I’m in a very bad mood because my mate doesn’t love me anymore.”
I throw a horrified glance at Vark. Did we land in the middle of a romantic dispute? I take a half step back, eager to get away.
“That’s not what I said,” a booming voice calls from inside the chamber. “I only said it might be difficult to find fresh peaches in the winter, so the cook won’t be able to make you a peach pie.”
The queen turns on her heels and glares into the room. “This is your child, too, you know. Why is it that I’m the only one experiencing these cravings?”
A massive orc walks up to her and puts his hands on her shoulders. The king—for this must be him, considering he’s wearing an iron crown on his brow—is taller than Vark by an inch, and the queen is shorter than me, so the difference between them is even more pronounced. Yet he watches at her with such tenderness, I know he loves her deeply.
“I always crave you, little mate,” he rumbles, as if he’s unaware of our presence. “You are ever perfect, but especially now that you’re carrying our baby.”
He wraps the queen in his arms, curling his big body around her, while she melts into his embrace. She growls softly, as if angry he’s using the hug and sweet words to calm her down, then leans against him, all the fight going out of her.
Vark grins at me, but I can only stare back in confusion.
Wren tugs at my hand, and when I glance down at her, she whispers, “Like a fairy story!”
The queen lets out a sigh, then extricates herself from her mate’s grip. She pats down her hair and straightens her dress. Then her gaze falls on me.
“Hello,” she says. “I’m so sorry. The pregnancy cravings are getting to me today.”
I sketch an awkward curtsy, all the more aware of my unkempt state when I see how lovely she is, her dress beautiful and her face radiant. “It’s all right, my lady.”
She waves her hands, motioning for me to get up. “Gods, please don’t do that. And call me Dawn. We don’t do all that ceremony stuff here. And I’m sorry about the drama. I spent the first couple of months of my pregnancy throwing up, and now I want to eat everything in sight.”
She takes me by the elbow and guides me inside, then peers down at Wren, who’s hiding behind my leg now.
“And who’s this?” she asks.
“My name is Wren,” my little girl says. “Pleased to meet you. I’ve always wanted to meet a queen. Do you have a crown as well?”
Pride swells in my chest at her serious expression.
“I do have a crown, but it’s quite heavy, so I don’t wear it often,” Dawn says, offering Wren her hand. “Would you like to see it?”
Wren nods, and they walk through an open doorway into the next room. The king watches them go, rubbing his chin.
“She never told me it was uncomfortable,” he says thoughtfully. “I’ll have to have a new one made for her.” Then he focuses back on us. “Welcome back, brother. Was the trip to the city successful?”
“Aye.” Vark straightens his shoulders. “I have met my mate. This is Hazel.”
The orc king fixes me with an intelligent gaze. He stares at me for a long moment, then extends his hand. “Welcome to the Black Bear Clan.”
I reach forward and shake his hand. “Thank you, my lord.”
“Gorvor, please,” he rumbles. “My mate would tease me mercilessly if she heard you call me that.”
I’ve never heard of a king who would allow his wife to tease him, mercilessly or not, but I like him immediately. He may look severe, but there’s a glint of humor in his dark eyes that tells me he knows how to laugh.
Vark takes a moment to recount what happened with my old crew, and I try not to flush under the king’s scrutinizing gaze.
“I don’t want to cause any more trouble, my—I mean, King Gorvor,” I fumble for words. “I only want to ask you if my daughter and I could remain at the Hill for the winter, like Vark proposed in our bet. I can work in exchange for room and board.”
The two orcs stare at me as if I’ve grown another head. Then Vark steps forward and takes my hand gently.
“You don’t want to stay in my room with me?” he asks.
I bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from blurting out anything silly. “You never said… I mean, I don’t want to impose.”
He runs his palm over his face. “Hazel, I am sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. But I want you and Wren to stay with me. Not only for the winter—always.”
“We’ll have to give you a larger set of rooms. I think one with two bedrooms and a window to the outside?” the king says. “Dawn told me humans need sunlight, as they are not mushrooms. I think Neekar has been asking for a different room. He’ll be happy to take over yours, Vark. He has more than earned it this past year.”
I have no clue what that was about mushrooms, but I’m happy. So ridiculously, completely happy. Never in my life have I felt this sense of hope about our future life. I know it won’t be perfect, but it’ll be filled with so much love.
I cannot wait for it to begin.
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