The troll crashed to the ground in front of her. His face, turned toward her, revealed beady black eyes now blanked out—glassy.
The tip of a dagger protruded from his neck.
Ruwin! Her beloved had finally–
But her eager gaze, searching the crowd, failed to find him, only…
Her confusion settled on a tall, lean-muscled orc striding straight toward her as the mob scrabbled back.
Several of his features marked him as orc: his blue-gray skin; the untidy, unkempt braids interspersed in the loose blue-black hair that brushed his shoulders…
But the unlaced vest flapping open across his torso, his black boots, and the fitted leather encasing his thighs implied a much narrower physique than an orc’s usual bulk.
Moreover, his charcoal-dark mouth lacked the tusks typical of his kind.
No, that wasn’t true, for when his lips peeled back, it showed that his tusks had been ground down.
For an awful moment, Altheira’s stomach dipped in a stunning plunge to pity, for what beastly creature would have done such a thing to an orc’s pride and joy?
But then what captured her attention were his clawed hands with their blunt black nails, which clutched between them a dark jewel.
Her coughing rammed against her shock, and stuttered, and stopped.
She scrambled to her feet, uncaring of the faint agony that the motion cost. “Who are you?” she rasped. Her shaking fingers clenched her jewel, its slight warmth pulsing against her skin.
“Scyther,” the orc replied curtly, halting in front of her.
Unthinking, she blurted out, “What have you done with Ruwin? Why do you have his jewel?”
“His jewel?” A blue-black eyebrow went up.
“That’s his dark jewel.” Altheira gingerly tilted her head toward it.
“It’s mine,” the stranger countered, his voice hard.
“Where is he?” The question tumbled out of her like water from a spilled pail, tumbling and terrified in a breathless, hopeful rush. “Where is Ruwin?” Her gaze left the orc’s and scanned the crowd, anxious, not yet believing he wasn’t here. After all her tribulation to get here…
“Your Ruwin is dead,” the orc told her. “I killed him.”
Altheira’s gaze jerked back to his.
“Silver elf, wasn’t he?” The orc gestured lazily, although the latent power every orc possessed turned even this lax motion into something forceful. “I met him outside the main city. He was trying to get back in—to you, I guess.”
Altheira blinked and stumbled, as though he’d dealt her a blow to the stomach.
Ruwin had never left the city. He had died trying to get back in to her.
This orc had slain him and taken the jewel and she—she had been lured into thinking Ruwin was here.
Mercy. She’d come this far for nothing.
The orc measured her up and down, a flicker of undisguised interest quirking his dark lips. “You captivated a silver elf? And he got you so wrapped up that you came all the way here seeking him?”
Ruwin wasn’t here.
He would never be ‘here’ again.
Altheira reeled, sick, ill, disbelieving.
Ruwin and all his hope, her hope—
It cleaved in half her residual strength, dropped her to her brittle knees, and dealt a death blow to her waning will. And after the utter depletion of the past three strenuous days, and starvation, sleep deficit, and skirting death in recent moments, she spun into a bottomless oblivion.
She woke to a sensation of floating. Suspended midair.
The lolling motion made her head spin and her stomach roll, threatening rebellion with its half-digested dead squirrel.
She opened her eyes, and the wooden ceiling was swaying gently, rocking…
Was she on a ship?
Frantic, she bolted upright and whipped her head around.
Not at sea. Iron bars encircled her—not too close, but if she lay down, her toes would touch one side, the crown of her head the other.
And beyond those cage bars fencing her in, curious creatures of all races congregated around scored wooden tables: companions cheering and chatting, lovers nuzzling. Goblins, trolls, orcs, a few silver elves, a table of dwarvesp; even a few scruffy human ruffians with charming smirks were playing cards…
And near Altheira, a laughing nymph bounced on the lap of a grinning orc. While the nymph sprouted flowers from her cheeks, the orc playfully hooked them on his tusks and licked them off to swallow whole.
The whimsy of it almost—almost made Altheira smile before shock finally blinked her back to reality.
She was in a cage, hanging in the middle of a tavern dining hall, and most of the creatures weaving drunkenly between the tables or exuberantly raising tankards and laughing were staring at her.
A human princess. Caged in a lowly tavern.
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