Chapter 11: A Matter of Trust

Kurdog couldn't stop shaking, long after Osric left. Godric made the coward swear an oath in the Goddess's name not to reveal Kurdog's existence, but it didn't matter. When had Men ever counted an Orc's thread worthy of honoring such a vow? He was as good as dead.

"Come, Kurdog," Godric said stiffly, gesturing toward the kitchen. "Nerinda, help me with supper, if you please."

"Yes, father," she said meekly, following him. Kurdog couldn't move.

They were fools, both of them. Putting so much faith in the Goddess, assuming a filthy pig like Osric would feel the same. Kurdog's experience had always been that the teachings of the gods only meant something from Man to Man. Beyond that, the words had no meaning.

He would die tonight, Kurdog was certain. The coward would go straight to the guards and bring them right back here. Every moment he stayed made it more likely he'd be caught. He'd be condemned as his fellows had been, locked in the stocks like they were, buggered by the guards to the cheers of the citizens – likely in the daylight, for he was an Orc and none would consider it wrong – then he would hang. He would dangle from the rope for long, drawn out minutes, maybe hours, for his neck was too strong to break. He could almost feel the noose cinching tight at this moment.

Cutting off his air. He suddenly couldn't breathe.

Gasping and clutching his throat, Kurdog staggered out the back door, heedless of the shocked looks of his hosts. He barely remembered to draw the cowl over his face as he stumbled down the steps. Before he knew it, he was on his hands and knees, gulping air as though he'd been underwater for too long. His gorge was rising; he was close to vomiting.

"Kurdog," Godric said quietly behind him. The man didn't leave the doorway. He must fear getting too close to the beast. Kurdog didn't blame him. "Come inside. You are safe here."

"Ain't safe no where," the Orc hissed.

Sighing, the weaver approached. Kurdog heard his footsteps and tensed.

"I believe... I understand," Godric ventured cautiously. "You see no reason to trust Osric, or any of us, for no example of goodness has been shown you."

"Never," Kurdog spat.

"If you trust Nerinda," the weaver said softly, "you may trust me. We will protect you, even if Osric proves himself false." His tone told Kurdog that even the weaver wasn't entirely lulled by Osric's sworn oath.

Godric's offer was unexpected. The Orc didn't dare imagine it wasn't some sort of trick.

"No one has ever given me anything without wanting something." He slowly looked over his shoulder and leveled an angry glare at the man. "What'll be your price, eh? What'll you want from me for all of this? What're you gonna take from me?" Swallowing a hard lump, he growled through clenched teeth, "Cause I got nothing. Nothing. Just... nothing."

Easing himself down to sit on the ground beside the Orc, Godric regarded the scowling face before him. For all Kurdog's anger and hurt, Godric could see no hate. Not for Godric, and certainly not for Nerinda. "I've no intention of taking anything from you, Kurdog, except one thing. I believe it is something you can easily part with."

Smirking, the Orc snarled, "What's that, then?"

"A promise," the weaver replied mildly. "A simple promise."

The man's calm made Kurdog feel like a bastard. An ungrateful bastard, at that. "What sort of promise?" he asked, his tone slightly contrite.

Godric's brow furrowed in thought before speaking. Sighing, he said, "I know you have feelings for Nerinda. Perhaps you don't realize it yourself, but..." A slight smile crinkled his eyes. "I am not so blind that I can't see it."

Kurdog stiffened and looked away. "You want me to keep my... 'feelings' to myself, then."

"Hmph," Godric grunted with amusement. "When has an anxious father's request ever been heeded by a youth under the sway of Hathos?"

"Who the fuck's Hathos?" the Orc grumbled with little interest.

"She is the Goddess of Love and Passion," the man explained, and Kurdog narrowed his eyes. "If you feel drawn to someone, if there is yearning in your heart for another, we say it is Hathos's Fire that consumes you. It burns brightest, and hottest, at its dawning. If it finds fertile ground, and is nurtured, the Fire will smolder for a lifetime. I see Her flame in your eyes... and in Nerinda's."

Swallowing hard, Kurdog avoided Godric's gaze. He thought he'd hidden it well enough from Nerinda; evidently the older man's eyes weren't so easily fooled.

"I ask for your promise," Godric continued, "to... to restrain your passion. For now. The young are willful about these matters; I understand. Believe it or not, I remember it well. But just now, your position is precarious. You have a far greater task ahead of you than fanning the flames of love."

"I... I don't want...," Kurdog said gruffly. "Not now. Not... not ever. I just... She..." His face crumpled and he bowed his head. He knew he was lying to himself. He did want. He'd wanted for so long he couldn't remember a time when he didn't. Wanting and having were very different things; he'd always known he would never have no matter how desperately he wanted.

Godric gripped the Orc's shoulder sympathetically. "It is a frightening prospect to love someone, I know. You seem to be a young man who has never been in a place where he could be... soft. Gentle, as it were. In the company of one with whom he can be vulnerable without judgment. For you, I imagine, life has been harsh, and you have been a hair's breadth from your own destruction each day. It is wearing, to face such challenges without respite." He sighed and released his grip. "I cannot promise you an end to your pain."

Closing his eyes, Kurdog bowed his head and said nothing.

"I suspect you wish to woo my daughter," Godric bluntly stated, and the Orc looked sharply at him. The weaver gazed shrewdly at Kurdog. "Though you are both of an age that disregards the advice of its elders, I want you to know my thoughts on the matter."

"I know what they are," Kurdog snarled, turning away again.

"Do you?" Godric asked, arching his brow. "Or do you just assume? Because I confess, I had hoped not to be called upon to make this speech for some years yet." Chuckling to himself, he shook his head. "They grow so fast. A father wishes the day will never come when a young man comes to take his daughter away from him, then one day that man appears. What are we to do but lament the loss?"

"She won't go anywhere with me, so don't worry yourself," Kurdog growled. "Look at me. Look at what I am." He raised his hands, showing the weaver his brutally sharp claws. "You think she'd ever want these touching her?" Wincing at the man's instinctive flinch at such dangerous weapons brought so close, Kurdog turned away again. He tucked his hands under his arms, hiding them from sight. "She's not blind or stupid. Don't you fucking try to make me go blind, cause I'm not stupid either."

"Neither are you worthy to court my daughter as you are," Godric said sternly. "And not because of your... parentage."

"Hmph," Kurdog snorted. "Even if I never raised a hand against anyone, I wouldn't be worthy of her because of my 'parentage'."

"But you did raise your hand," the weaver reminded him, "and the crimes you committed must be answered. If you ever want to live as a free man, you must make amends. In all honesty, if you have any ambitions toward my daughter, you will never be worthy of her while you carry this burden on your shoulders. At least in my eyes."

"You're saying I should turn myself in, then?" Kurdog snarled. "Give myself up to the magistrate's mercy?"

"Yes, I would propose that course of action," Godric nodded. "Only by taking responsibility for your misdeeds, and accepting just punishment, may you be redeemed. I realize you have made mistakes, but Kurdog... your mistakes were monstrous. People lost their lives because of your mistakes."

"Seems to me that giving myself up would be a mistake I wouldn't walk away from," the Orc retorted.

"So you will walk away from this," Godric nodded. "And Nerinda will foolishly follow." A wave of pain crossed the man's face. His voice was desperate as he said, "You can't take my daughter away from me, Kurdog. She's all I have. She... she looks so like her mother." Godric paused to master himself, for his voice shook. "Seeing her... gives me pleasant memories of the woman I lost. Please don't take her from me."

Seeing the man's grief, still fresh after all these years, humbled Kurdog as much as it frightened him. He couldn't conceive of a devotion so strong it spanned years, even after death. Yet he couldn't deny a similar feeling growing within him for Nerinda. Was it strong enough to make him foolish? Strong enough to keep him here, regardless of the consequences? He wasn't sure of the answer, and was afraid to learn it.

Shaking it off, he replied, "What have I got to give her, eh? Everything I used to have was stolen, and now I've got nothing. No coin, no home, no future... She's not a fool; she won't follow me across the yard, much less out of Synseal."

Godric regarded the sullen youth for several moments, then shook his head. "You have so little regard for yourself. I suppose that is to be expected. It isn't likely you were encouraged to think otherwise. You present a dilemma, young man. You find trust difficult; do you think it is easy for me? You are, to be quite blunt, a thief and a murderer. Perhaps a hard childhood and the mistakes of youth may lie at the root, but the truth is the truth. Yet there is honor in you, in spite of all. I can't help but wonder at that. From whence did it come? Your father, perhaps? Your mother?"

"Wouldn't know," Kurdog muttered, plucking viciously at the grass. "I was abandoned. Thrown away like... like garbage. That doesn't sound 'honorable' to me."

"I see," Godric nodded. "Are these your words, or words spoken to you?"

Grunting a bitter laugh, Kurdog growled, "Every day, I heard that, and worse. The Priest told me someone of my making... is only made one way, and is hated for it. One of the boys... told me one of my parents... must've been a dog. The Matron... she never missed a chance to remind me I wasn't wanted by my kin. Someone... something like me... nobody wants... nobody..." Squeezing his eyes shut, he felt tears slide down his cheeks, and grimaced with disgust at his weakness as he roughly wiped them away.

"I think I understand you better now," Godric said, his voice hoarse. This man... this boy's pain moved him deeply. "Your life has been without caring, without love. Certainly without the love of woman to man, but lacking a parent's love as well. It is acceptance and understanding that you long for, isn't it? Perhaps the choices you made... were a way of belonging, of being accepted?"

Kurdog stared ahead of him, trying to keep his expression blank, and grinding his jaw with the effort. It was enough to satisfy Godric.

"You needn't answer," he said, nodding. "Come inside and share our meal, Kurdog. Rest yourself here in safety. Perhaps in the morning... things will be more clear."

Fretting and worrying in her bed, Nerinda frequently stole glances across the house to the opposite loft where her father snored peacefully. She could barely make out the dark form of Kurdog on a pallet upon the platform near the ladder.

The dinner conversation had been stiff and awkward; Nerinda didn't know what her father talked about outside with the Orc, but they both returned to the table with troubled expressions. She tried to subtly inquire after the subject of their talk, but found both men too stubborn to comply.

Her thoughts wandered about, touching lightly on the events of the past few days, lingering on snippets here and there. Nerinda found herself frequently revisiting her time with Kurdog in the small shelter, of the things they talked about, and his rare smiles. Her heart fairly fluttered at the memory, for a smile warmed his cold expressions and put light in his eyes.

A smile also smoothed the harsh lines of his face, stole away years wrought by cruel treatment, and revealed the playful youth he could have been.

In the safety of her home, curled in comfort beneath a warm blanket, listening to the familiar sounds of the distant marketplace and the not-so-distant forest, she could indulge memories of Kurdog's muscular body. The shape of his muscles, the color of his skin, the very scent of him... She closed her eyes and let her imagination run. She allowed herself to fall into his arms, invited his hands to explore her body, let him kiss her lips...

Nerinda jerked from her fantasies and stared at the timbered ceiling, endeavoring to calm her racing heart. She slowly turned her head, looking to the pallet across the way and wondering...

But he was not there. A dark form had just descended the ladder and was silently padding toward the kitchen. For only a moment, she thought he might be visiting the necessary, but her instincts told her differently.

Throwing the blanket off her, Nerinda bolted out of bed and hastily climbed down her own ladder, fighting the voluminous skirts of her nightdress all the way. She heard the sound of the back door closing quietly and hurried her steps.

Her hand on the door latch, she paused, staring at the table. There were two small coinpurses lying there, one of which she recognized as her own.

Terrified now, she pulled open the door and stepped out into the chill night. She closed the door at her back lest a breath of cold wind waken her father. Frantically searching the gloom, she could see no sign of the Orc.

"Kurdog!" she hissed desperately. "Kurdog, are you there?" Lower lip trembling, she whispered, "Please don't leave me."

"Not gone yet," Kurdog's softly rumbling voice answered, and she saw him approaching. He came close enough for her to see him, stopping on the step below her.

"Where are you going?" she asked, though she already knew the answer. She saw his cowled head bow and turn aside.

"I have to go, Nerinda," he replied quietly. "That piece of shit won't keep quiet. He'll tell somebody."

"He swore," she insisted. "In the Goddess's name, he swore."

"He left you with me," Kurdog snarled. "You think he's the kind of man who'd honor a sworn oath? What the fuck makes you think that's enough to hold him, if... if friendship with you meant so little?"

Nerinda's eyes filled and her lip trembled. "I don't want you to go."

Kurdog's voice softened apologetically. "I don't belong here. I don't deserve your trust. I don't deserve the kindness you've given me." Glancing up at her stricken face, he winced at the pain he saw there. Yet he pressed on. He couldn't have her foolishly following him, as Godric feared. Ridiculous as that notion sounded. "This isn't my world, Nerinda. I've got to go. Sorry." He made to turn away, but she halted him with a hand on his arm.

"No, please," she begged. "Don't leave. Let me... at least... We could at least talk to Wymond. Get his advice. He is very wise; he will know what to do. Stay for that, at least."

He arched his brow skeptically. "I don't care how wise you think he is; if I stay, I won't live through the week, if I even make it through tomorrow somehow."

"But... but I don't want you to go," she sobbed, clutching his arm tightly. Tears were pouring down her cheeks. "Please. Can't you just stay the night? And talk to Wymond in the morning? Then decide?"

Kurdog's gut wrenched at the sight of her tears, for he was the cause. Yet overwhelming his senses was the instinct to run; the hounds were surely closing in, though he could not hear their baying just yet.

Worse than either of these was the longing. He'd found something in her to treasure, and he had to let it go. It would certainly mean his death if he stayed. Why, then, was he so torn?

Looking up at her, his throat constricted and his voice became hoarse. "You think I don't want to be with you? I do. I want it more than anything. But if I stay... I'll die. You and your father can't hide me forever."

"I want to be with you, too," she replied shakily. "I could come with you..."

"No," he snapped sharply, startling her. Lowering his voice, he repeated, "No. You don't know me. You don't know anything about me."

"That's not true," she said stubbornly. "I know a good deal about you. And I know what kind of man you are."

A half smile turned up the corner of his mouth. "If you know that much, you ought to know better than to go anywhere with me."

"I trust you, Kurdog," she said softly. "With my life as well as my virtue. Neither has ever been threatened by you." Straightening, she added, "But if you run now, you will be little more than a coward. If you do not face this, that is what you will be. Whatever your fate, I had hoped..."

"I don't want to talk about my fucking fate!" he lashed out in a sudden fury. Stepping onto the porch, his advance made her draw back and press into the door behind her. He could smell her fear increasing, and hated himself for it. "I choose what I do," he snarled. "It's got nothing to do with the Goddess."

He shouldn't have gotten so close, he realized. His acute sense of smell picked up the scent of lilacs about her. While his anger dissolved, his passion did not; it merely shifted focus.

Almost of their own accord, his hands took hold of her about the waist and he pressed his face into the hollow of her neck and shoulder. He felt her startle; her arms extended to the doorframe, her hands gripping the wood tightly to steady herself. Otherwise she made no protest. Kurdog breathed deeply.

His mouth opened slightly and he kissed her neck, grazing his sharp teeth on her tender flesh. He could feel her pulse racing against his lips, could almost smell the blood flowing through every inch of her body. Something in the back of his mind urged him to sink his tusks into her flesh, to taste her blood, to revel in the offering.

It was not the predatory instinct that drove him. His years alone in the forest had honed his hunter's instincts; he knew what it felt like to bring down prey and savor the flesh and blood of the kill. This was a completely different impulse, and he no more understood it than he did any other strange inclinations he'd likely inherited from the Orcs.

He soon found that her blood was not the only thing calling him. His hand slid up her body to the bodice of her gown, took the neckline in its grip, and pulled it down. He heard the sharp intake of breath as he exposed her breast, yet she still did not make any attempt to stop him.

His experiences were not so long ago that he couldn't readily recall the pleasures of coupling. The need to have Nerinda at this moment was strong... and she seemingly so willing... He was overwhelmed. Leaning down, he mouthed her breast, flicking his tongue over her taut nipple. One arm encircled her waist and brought her nearer, while his other hand cupped that mound of sweet flesh, holding it to his hungry mouth.

The sound of her fearful whimper broke through the fog in his mind, and he startled. Breathing heavily, he drew back and finally examined the scent of her. Yes, there was the familiar musk of arousal, but she was giving off a strong fear scent as well.

And there it was, the reason he had to go. Wanting something so badly he ignored the fear of it. He wanted to be with her, but he feared what would happen if he did. If he let his guard down, if he gave in to this, if he gave himself to her in the way he felt driven to...

He would expose himself to a worse pain than he'd ever thought he'd face. Death wasn't even as fearsome as this.

"I'm sorry," he murmured hoarsely, and stagged down the steps. "I've got to go."

"Would this...," she began, her voice trembling as much as the rest of her, "would you stay? If I... if I let you..."

"No," he said, unexpectedly sickened at the thought. "You... you save that... for someone... better. Don't... don't waste it on me."

"Kurdog," she tried again, but he shook his head.

"I got nothing to give you," he rasped, his voice betraying his sorrow. "Nothing... worthy of you."

Nerinda collapsed with a wail of despair as he melted into the shadows and was gone.