Swords, axes, and knives clashed on the training grounds, sending sparks flying in the dim morning light. I walked among the warriors on the mist-covered field, observing their skills and occasionally pausing to demonstrate the most effective fighting methods to the younger, less experienced orcs.
As the commander of the Gaalosh clan army, it was my responsibility to keep our warriors in top form. Not only that, but I needed to keep them busy.
Our clan’s lack of females was causing increasing bouts of anger and tension in our dwindling population, though frequent training sessions helped alleviate some of the agitation and loneliness that plagued us.
But for how long?
I growled under my breath as I tried to fight back my own innate desire for a female. Would our clan die out in a few short decades? Or would we discover a way to lift the curse?
Twenty fertile females. That was all we had left, twenty females who’d been born over a decade before me. All twenty had husbands, yet none had birthed a single girl child. Only males.
Every year, as the eldest members of our clan passed on, our numbers became fewer and fewer. It wasn’t just the Gaalosh clan that was affected, but every clan in the orc lands of Mertokk. My people had learned this terrible truth the first time we’d tried to raid a neighboring clan for young females.
A deep longing pulsed in my chest. I ached to possess a female of my very own. Sometimes the need became so consuming that I contemplated stealing one of the twenty fertile females, even though taking another orc’s wife was an unconscionable crime punishable by death. I gave my head a harsh shake, trying to banish the wicked thoughts.
A familiar voice pulled me from my dark reverie, though I didn’t immediately turn to face the male who was speaking. Instead, I took a few deep breaths, attempting to quell my agitation. Heavy boot steps came to a halt behind me.
“Commander, your father has requested your presence in the castle. We have a visitor. The seer he sent for has finally arrived.”
I turned and met my cousin Lachlan’s worried gaze. Though my unease likely matched his, I tried to maintain a neutral expression. As both the son of the chieftain and the commander of the Gaalosh clan army, I needed to project an aura of strength and confidence.
I straightened and marched off the training grounds, gesturing for Lachlan to follow. Once we were far enough away from anyone who might overhear, I relaxed, if only slightly.
“What is your impression of this seer?” I asked, searching my cousin’s gaze. “Do you think he’s an imposter?”
“His hair is white as the snow and his eyes are a strange, pale shade of pink. He looks the part. I pray to the gods he is a genuine seer. We are running out of time.”
“Even if he’s a true seer,” I said, wishing I felt more hopeful, “he might not deliver good news. He might foretell the end of our clan, rather than divulge a way for us to lift the curse. Perhaps my father has summoned him only to receive confirmation of our impending demise.”
I glanced over my shoulder when shouts rang out on the training grounds. Two warriors had tossed their weapons aside and were pounding one another with fists. It wasn’t long before others on the field followed suit.
“Gods, not this again.” I growled and spun on my heel to face the brawling crowd. “Help me restore order before these fools kill one another, cousin, and then we will go to the castle.”
I sat at my father’s right hand on a dais in the great hall. My uncle and cousins, including Lachlan, had joined us on the platform, and a few of my father’s most trusted advisors sat below at long tables sipping ale.
Noticeably absent from the gathering was Hesham, my father’s most trusted advisor and closest friend. Worry flickered in my father’s eyes as he scanned the hall, no doubt searching for his dearest comrade.
“If Hesham doesn’t return soon,” I murmured in my father’s ear, “I will personally lead a search party to find him.”
My father nodded. “Thank you, Soren. If he’s not back by tonight, I would ask that tomorrow you, as well as your cousins, each lead a contingent of soldiers to find Hesham’s hunting party. They should’ve returned by now. I fear they ran into trouble.”
I glanced at my cousins—Lachlan, as well as his younger brothers, Callum and Randall. For my father to ask us to lead four individual search parties to find Hesham, he must be truly worried.
A hush fell over the hall, and I looked up as the seer appeared on the balcony that overlooked the cavernous room. The pale-eyed, white-haired male wore a long, ornate robe that dragged on the floor. Gem-encrusted rings adorned his fingers, and numerous gold chains hung from his neck. He was rather small for an orc male, and there was an ethereal air about him.
“Master Angus, renowned seer of the Hallon Valley, we welcome you to the Gaalosh clan,” my father said in a booming voice. “I trust you are now well rested enough to answer our questions?”
Master Angus gave a deep nod and then lifted his hands in the air, and the gold embroidered sleeves of his robe reflected the torchlight. “I appreciate the welcome, Leader Gaalosh, and yes, I am well rested. I know why you’ve summoned me. But I am afraid you will not like the news I have to share with you regarding the curse that’s afflicted orc clans near and far.”
My father straightened in his seat. “What news is this? Have you had a premonition about the curse? Do you see a way for us to lift it?” He gripped the arms of his chair until his knuckles turned light green, and a vein in his temple pulsed. “Should we assemble a great army and storm the fae lands? Kill the Unseelie Master who cursed us? Is that the answer?”
Murmurs of approval filled the hall. Hunting down and killing the dark fae scum who’d cursed us was a frequent topic of discussion and an idea my father had recently started entertaining more and more, even though such an undertaking would result in great loss of life among the orc clans. Not only did most fae beings wield magic and possess great physical strength, but they outnumbered us ten to one.
Master Angus lowered his hands to his sides and shook his head. “No, that is not what I was about to suggest. When I envision your clan joining with other orc clans to storm the fae lands, I see only death and ruin. Enslavement, followed by the end of your kind.”
The murmurs in the hall turned to growls. I tensed and waited for the seer to reveal more.
“We have twenty fertile females left in our clan,” my father said. “Well, twenty females, period. Sudden illnesses and strange accidents have stolen the rest of our females, the older ones who were no longer capable of reproduction.” Sadness tinged his voice, and I knew he was thinking of his late wife, my dear mother who’d faded fast after coming down with a fever six winters ago. “What can we do to ensure our remaining females finally start birthing girl babies?”
The seer’s pale pink eyes went pure white for a split second. He blinked and the usual shade returned. The back of my neck prickled, and goosebumps rose on my arms.
“You must enter Fommus, the human lands, and take their females,” Master Angus said, his deep voice echoing in the hall. “Once your clan claims one hundred human females and breeds with them, the curse will be lifted, though only in your clan. Other clans must do the same if they wish to lift the curse upon them.”
Many of the advisors at the long tables, as well as the guards who were lined up against the walls, cursed and shouted accusations at the seer. I rose to my feet and glared at my fellow clansmen. My father, uncle, and cousins did the same.
After several minutes, the hall finally grew quiet, though it was a tense, reluctant silence, the sort that might erupt into violence at any moment.
“I invited you all here today to bear witness to the seer’s pronouncements,” my father bellowed. “I’ll ask that you listen with an open mind. I will admit I’m not keen about the idea of interbreeding with humans—they are weak creatures not to be trusted—but if it’s the only way to ensure the survival of our clan, so be it.”
Some of the advisors and guards lowered their heads, appearing ashamed, while others continued to glare at Master Angus, though the seer looked unperturbed by the hatred being directed his way.
“Why one hundred human females? What is the significance of this number?” my father asked the seer.
Master Angus cleared his throat. “It takes one hundred charms to break a fae curse. One hundred fruitful orc-human mating pairs will cause the Unseelie Master’s power over an individual orc clan to snap.”
A collective gasp went up in the hall.
“Human females. Buy them. Court them. Abduct them. It doesn’t matter how you acquire them, but you need at least one hundred human females to break the curse. Though keep in mind that claiming more will help your clan grow even stronger. The more human females you claim as mates, the faster your numbers will climb. And contrary to what you might believe, orc-human hybrids are strong, nearly as strong as full-blooded orcs. I’ve met a few during my travels through the easternmost orc clans who have finally decided to heed my advice. Furthermore—”
An arrow suddenly pierced the seer’s neck, cutting off his speech. Blood spurted from his mouth and his pale pink eyes bulged in terror. I scanned the hall and growled as I sighted a lone guard lowering the bow he’d just used.
“Lies!” the murderous guard shouted. “Mating with humans isn’t the answer. They are vile and we must find another way, a way to keep our bloodlines pure! I say we storm the fae lands and hunt down the one who cursed us!”
I withdrew my battleax and jumped off the dais, heading for the guard. But before I could reach him, another guard ran him through with a sword. It was Gerald, my oldest friend, and he spun in a slow circle with his weapon raised in warning to anyone else who might cause trouble. Our eyes met briefly and I gave him a nod of thanks.
There was a moment where it appeared a fight was about to break out between those who’d shouted accusations at the seer and those who hadn’t. Bodies tensed, hands gripped at weapons, snarls filled the air.
“Enough! Stop! There will be no fighting amongst us! We are brothers! Clansmen!” My father’s voice resounded off the walls, and every soul in the hall froze and looked at him. He might be an old male nearing the end of his days, but he still commanded respect. He was still the undisputed leader of the Gaalosh clan.
I made my way to the balcony and knelt beside the seer, feeling for a pulse but finding none. The arrow had pierced straight through his neck. He’d choked on his own blood. A quick but agonizing death, one he hadn’t deserved. He’d answered my father’s summons and come here to help us.
I stood and peered down at my father. “He’s gone, Leader Gaalosh.”
Fury brimmed in my father’s eyes as his gaze swept around the hall. “I will not allow our clan to perish. We will journey into Fommus and take their females,” he said in a steely voice.
He turned to me and then gazed at my cousins. We stood straighter as we awaited his orders.
“Soren, Lachlan, Callum, and Randall. The four of you will each lead a small group into Fommus, where you will search for fertile human females to claim. During your travels, I ask that you also look for Hesham’s missing hunting party. Few as our numbers are, we cannot afford to lose any more of our clansmen. Go forth and make preparations. You leave tomorrow at sunrise.”
“Her mother had wild black hair and strange dual-colored eyes, too.”
“Bet she’s a witch herself.”
“Of course she’s a witch! Just look at her!”
Hateful whispers followed me through the marketplace. Shoppers and passersby alike gave me a wide berth. The superstitious fools scurried out of my path as though I carried the plague. I tried to ignore them, tried to pretend their cruel words didn’t cut, yet my hands trembled, and I struggled to maintain a grip on the basket I was carrying. I swallowed past the sudden burning in my throat.
Several people gasped when a rapid gust of wind knocked the hood of my cloak back, revealing my aforementioned wild black locks. I hurried to cover my hair and pull the hood down to conceal my face.
I hastened my steps, wanting to complete my purchases and return home quickly. I might’ve been born and raised in Mayfair but the whispers always reminded me that I would never fit in here. Sometimes the whispers scared me too.
I couldn’t wait to leave this village behind and make a new home in a place where no one knew my name. A fresh start. If I weren’t so afraid of the beasts that roamed the countryside, I would’ve left months ago. I hoped the next merchant caravan arrived soon because I planned to buy safe passage to another village, or even a large city, in the very near future.
“I still can’t believe William married her. The old rich idiot probably dropped dead on their wedding night when he saw her true face.”
Anger surged through me at the mention of my late husband. Before I could decide whether to glare at the woman who was still murmuring her ideas regarding William’s death, another whisper caught my attention.
“Last time Elisa came to the marketplace, an illness broke out not long after. Remember? Old Mr. Farley and his daughter died, and so did three of the Clement brothers. Bet she cursed them all.”
Shock rippled through me. Since I mostly kept to myself, I hadn’t known about the illness. Talk of illnesses and curses didn’t bode well for me, and I hoped very few people heard this comment. This was the sort of whisper that scared me, the sort that could easily rile up the whole village. Another reason I must leave soon.
“She probably dances with demons at night. Just last week, my boy said he heard odd music coming from her house after dark.”
Odd music? Must be the wind chimes I’d recently hung on the porch. I would have to take them down at once.
Every merchant whose booth I visited scowled at me or wrinkled their nose in disgust when I approached, though in the end, they all accepted my money. Or rather, my late husband’s money. I filled my basket with as much food and supplies as I could carry, hoping I wouldn’t have to return for at least two weeks.
Relief filled me at the prospect of not having to endure any stares or whispers for a while. And if a merchant caravan arrived before my food and supplies ran out, all the better. Nothing tied me to this place. I was desperate to leave.
Keeping my head lowered, I clutched the heavy basket to my chest and headed toward home. All I wanted to do was get inside, lock the door, shut the curtains, and hide from the entire world.
“All witches should burn!” someone shouted in the distance.
Well, this was new. No one had ever yelled at me before. Until now, I’d only heard whispers. Coldness gripped me, and I moved as fast as I could while carrying the heavy basket. Though I longed to know if I was being followed, I didn’t dare turn around. I kept going, and I prayed to any gods who were listening that I would make it home without incident.
A tomato whirled past my head and went splat in the dirt. Several more followed, and finally, one struck the back of my head. I almost broke into a run, but I didn’t want to give the loathsome crowd the satisfaction of watching me flee like a coward.
At last, I reached my large house on the outskirts of Mayfair. After I flung the door open and crossed the threshold, I nearly sobbed with relief. Safe at last. Alone. I set the heavy basket down and spun around to close the door.
But what I saw caused me to freeze in place.
About two dozen people marched toward my home with torches in hand. “Burn the witch! Burn the witch! Burn the witch!” they chanted.
Oh, gods, no. Please, no.
I slammed the door and secured the chain lock, as well as the deadbolt. Then I backed away from the door as disbelief coursed through me.
If I went outside and tried to reason with the mob, they would only drag me away, tie me to a stake, and burn me alive. But if I stayed inside, I would still burn. They would simply set the house on fire.
As the shouts grew louder, I came to a decision. After dumping half the contents of the basket onto the floor, I lifted the lightened load in my arms and rushed for the back door. Once I made it outside, I paused to close the door quietly, hoping no one would hear or witness my escape.
Thankfully, all that rested between my home and the forest was my garden and a small meadow. The tall grass of the meadow reached my chest, so I hunched over to remain somewhat hidden as I ran for my life.
Eventually, I made it to the tree line, where I bolted into the forest and kept going. I didn’t stop even when the angry shouts of the mob became lost in the wind. Nor did I stop when my sides began to ache and a coppery taste filled my mouth. I clutched the basket and ran until I became so lightheaded that I feared I might faint.
Finally, I paused and leaned against a tree, fighting to catch my breath. My lungs seized painfully with each rapid inhale and my legs felt weakened from overexertion and fear.
The horror of what had just happened washed over me and settled deep in my bones. I blinked back tears and couldn’t stop shaking.
They had actually tried to burn me alive. Just like they’d done to my mother some twenty years ago when I was just a baby. She was a confessed witch, or so my father had claimed, but I most definitely wasn’t.
I didn’t possess any magic. I didn’t know how to cast spells. And I didn’t consort with demons or other frightful creatures of the night.
Once I caught my breath, I glanced around the lush forest with growing trepidation, and all the scary stories from my childhood returned. Stories about spirits and demons and murderous orcs. Not to mention the giant snakes, bloodthirsty wolves, and huge bears that were said to call the forest home. Oh, and the occasional fae being.
Were the stories true?
The back of my neck prickled as I continued to look around. I half-expected the ground to open beneath my feet and swallow me whole.
It was eerily silent.
I held my breath and listened carefully, but the only noise was that of the wind rustling the leaves. No birds were calling. No insects were buzzing or singing. The chatter of squirrels was also absent. Sure, I’d never actually walked into the forest before, but I’d expected it to be noisier.
The scent of smoke reached me, and my spirits sank.
My house. They were burning my house.
I’d lost my home and nearly all my belongings. All I had were the clothes on my back—my black mourning gown, no less—and the meager supplies in the basket. Tears burned in my eyes and for a few seconds, I couldn’t take in air.
Where did I go from here?
I glanced around the forest again. If I picked a direction and started walking, would I eventually reach another settlement?
While I’d never left the boundaries of my village until today, I knew it was located far from other towns. The only outsiders who visited were traveling merchants who arrived in well-guarded caravans. And the hunters from the village always went out in threes or fours. No one entered the forest alone and unarmed. It was unheard of.
The wind picked up and I shivered. It was early spring, but there was a chill in the air. How cold would it get tonight? Would I really have to sleep out in the open?
I set off at a rapid pace, thankful I’d worn my sturdiest boots today. My sides hurt too much to break into another run, but I didn’t think the villagers were aware of my escape. Perhaps tomorrow when they failed to find my charred corpse in the remains of my house, they might come looking for me—if they dared to enter the forest. But I planned to be long gone before then.
Not that I knew where I was going.
Shelter. I needed to find shelter. A place where the beasts of the forest wouldn’t easily spot me (or smell me) tonight.
The scent of smoke grew stronger, and I peered cautiously around the woods, thinking it odd that I could still detect the smell of my house burning. I’d run for a long time and put a good deal of distance between myself and the village.
Then I heard something that filled me with fear.
Voices, along with the crackling of fire.
I stilled mid-step and looked around. It was a cloudy day, and little light penetrated the thick canopy overhead. I squinted and tried to better make out my surroundings.
Movement. My stomach flipped and I half-wondered if perhaps my eyes were playing tricks on me. I thought I saw giant men moving around in a clearing not far ahead. I counted about a dozen of them. When one finally turned and I glimpsed his green, tusked face, a chill skittered down my spine.
Orcs. I’d stumbled upon a contingent of orcs.
Holy fires. I needed to get out of here. Before they spotted me. Before they smelled me.
I crouched down, set the basket aside, and hastily covered myself with soil, dried leaves, and other gunk from the forest floor. I prayed it would help. I prayed the wind wouldn’t blow at an inopportune time and carry my scent directly to the beasts. It was said that when the winds were favorable, orcs could smell their prey from miles away. Before hunters from my village ventured into the woods, they always covered their bodies in filth for this very reason. I would know. My father used to be one of them.
Once I’d thoroughly coated myself in dirt and dried leaves, I lifted the basket in my arms and turned around…
Only to come face-to-face with a huge, fearsome orc.
A scream caught in my throat and the basket tumbled from my arms.
Until today, I’d never seen an orc in the flesh before, but I knew him for what he was—a massive, cold-hearted beast. A killer of humans. A monster. Few people who encountered orcs lived to tell the tale, and those who escaped usually came back with grievous injuries they often succumbed to in the end.
The orc stood at least seven feet tall, possessed long wavy hair as black as mine, dark green skin, and large, gleaming white tusks that protruded from his lower jaw. He wore fitted black trousers, tall boots, and a loose gray tunic that revealed his massive biceps and a glimpse of his muscular chest. He held an ax high in one hand, though as the seconds ticked by and we continued staring at one another, he slowly lowered the weapon.
A light breeze swept through the woods, and my dirt-caked hair shifted about my shoulders. The orc’s nostrils flared suddenly, and he took a long, deliberate inhale as he gazed into my eyes.
I couldn’t look away. I was strangely captivated by the fierce creature who would surely spring into action and kill me at any moment.
Though he was rugged and terrifying, he was handsome in his own right. Mayhap the fear was causing me to lose my mind. I ought to be turning around and running for my life, yet I remained in place, admiring the masculine beauty of the monster who would probably soon take my head off.
But to my shock, he affixed the ax to his weapons belt—which, I noted, also held several knives—before taking a few steps closer to me.
Oh, gods. My pulse beat so loudly in my ears, I could no longer hear the leaves dancing in the wind, or the voices and crackling fire in the nearby clearing.
The orc closed the space between us in three long strides. I gasped and had to strain my neck to peer up at him, tall as he was. I swallowed past the dryness in my throat and tried to think of something to say.
“Please,” I whispered. It was all I could think of. Please. Please don’t hurt me. Please don’t kill me. I trembled in place as I watched him. He was so close, but he hadn’t touched me yet. The rich earthy scent of him washed over me, and for a reason I couldn’t fathom, an urgent, heated spasm shot between my thighs.
His nostrils flared wider, and a deep growl resounded from his throat. His eyes darkened as he leaned down and started… sniffing me.
Oh, dear gods.
Did he like the way I smelled? Did orcs eat humans?
His breath stirred my hair as he exhaled next to my ear. My stomach dropped to the ground. When I tried to back up, he placed his hands on my shoulders, and a whimper escaped me.
This is it. This is how I die.
“Please,” I whispered again. “Please, let me go.”
The orc peered into my face, his lips mere inches from mine, his tusks oh so close. “Let you go? I think not,” he said in a deep, rumbling tone. “You are ripe for claiming, a fertile beauty, and I would be a fool to let you go.” He inhaled deeply and emitted another animalistic growl that vibrated through my body and heightened my fear.
And yet, despite my sheer terror, the heated pulses in my womanly core wouldn’t cease, and my nipples tightened against the fabric of my bodice. My breath came in rapid, shallow gasps and I felt increasingly dizzy. Shame coursed through me. What was happening to me? Why couldn’t I make it stop?
Dark triumph gleamed in the orc’s eyes, and a slight chuckle reverberated from him. But his expression soon became serious, and he stepped closer, allowing me to feel the enormous bulge in his pants. He pressed his shaft against my stomach and jerked his hips forward as his fingers dug into my shoulders. Goosebumps prickled my flesh even as heat throbbed in my core.
“Gods, human, the scent of your desire is intoxicating.”
Before I could reply, he threw me over his shoulder and took off through the forest.