Hi, dear reader!
It's time for another Chapter One reveal! Her Orc Guardian is the second book of my Black Bear Clan series and features Steagor, who you met already in book one (if you missed out on Her Orc King, read it here).
Will you please look at this gorgeous cover, created by Dennisa at White Book Designs?
At my father’s dying wish, I crossed the realm, looking for his best friend…and ended up in an orc camp.
It turns out the man I’d heard so much about is actually an orc, a warrior with more scars than I can count and a surly disposition.
And after reading the letter my father sent him, he declares himself my guardian - and me his ward.
Which wouldn’t be a problem if he wasn’t intent on marrying me off to some human stranger, even though the tension between us grows with every touch and every heated, forbidden look.
Sometimes, though, a woman has to take her fate and pleasure in her own hands, and after being told what to do my entire life, I’m not taking any more chances. I want to learn more about myself. And I think my orc guardian might be the right male for the job.
Her Orc Guardian is an orc fantasy romance with a large, scarred hero and an innocent heroine who quickly learns she enjoys everything her body is capable of. You’ll love this story if you like reading about size difference issues, age-gap relationships, and grumpy heroes who fall for spirited heroines. This is the second book in a series of standalones - each book can be read separately and features a happily-ever-after for the main couple. All characters in this book are of age and enthusiastically consent to every spicy thing that happens.
Check trigger warnings for the series!
And now for the story...
“I can’t give you more than six silver pieces for this,” the pawnshop owner says, rubbing her thumb over the engraved gold cover of my locket.
My late mother’s locket.
I grip my hands under the counter separating us, squeezing my fingers tight to offset my nervousness. If she catches even a whiff of my desperation, she won’t budge from her initial price.
“It’s worth fifteen, and you know it.” I scowl at her.
“Fifteen!” She lets out a forced cackle, her lined face creasing. “Girl, I wouldn’t pay fifteen silvers for this if my own mother brought it in here.”
Given how old she is, I’d imagine there’s little chance of her mother ever visiting this shop again.
“Fine, I’ll part with it for thirteen, but that’s as low as I can go,” I haggle.
She pops the clasp and inspects the enamel forget-me-nots hidden on the inside. “It’s a pretty piece. Usually, when people bring in lockets, they hold something worthless like a lock of their sister’s hair.”
I try not to fidget in place. The forget-me-nots were my mother’s favorite flower, and my father had bought her this locket when she’d given birth to me.
“So, you know it’s worth more than what you’re offering.” I glower at the woman. “Don’t insult me with another low offer. I can just as easily take it elsewhere.”
I have no idea how much the locket is actually worth, but it’s priceless to me. I’d never sell it if I didn’t have to, and I sold the chain in a town five days ago, but…I have no choice now.
“Eight silvers,” the woman barks, her laughter forgotten.
“Twelve,” I counter.
“Nine.” She leans forward slightly.
She wants the locket, I can tell. Is she really that keen to sell it on?
“Eleven,” I propose, “but you keep it for three months from today so I can come back and buy it from you.”
Her face splits into a grin, and she holds out her dry, wrinkled hand. “Deal.”
I swallow my misgivings and wait as she reaches into the heavy purse at her waist and counts out eleven shiny silver pieces, forming a pile on the polished counter. I should have gotten more from her. But I can’t afford to stay in Ultrup any longer than I already have.
“It was a pleasure doing business with you,” the woman says, beaming. “If you ever find yourself with another such lovely piece to sell, don’t hesitate to visit me again.”
She’s implying I stole this one, I think. Not that I blame her for it. I bet pickpockets are the primary customers of her establishment, and every one of them comes in with a story about their mother’s precious heirloom. I give her a curt nod and keep my reply to myself. There’s no chance of me ever returning here—I have nothing more to sell.
The woman must sense what I’m thinking, though, because she stops me from getting up by placing her hand over mine.
“If you need money, girly, there are other ways to earn it,” she says, her gaze turning speculative. “You’re pretty enough. Men would pay well for—”
I stand abruptly, cutting her off. “No, thank you,” I snap. “That—that won’t be necessary.”
I back slowly toward the door, afraid she might follow, but she holds up her hands in a gesture of surrender.
“The offer stands,” she says. “Maybe a day will come when you’ll consider it. You know where to find me.”
I nearly fall through the doorway and escape down the narrow street, tripping over uneven cobblestones in my haste. With nervous glances over my shoulder, I hurry back toward the main square where I’d seen a cluster of market stalls just hours earlier when I’d arrived in Ultrup. I’d walked for miles, then hitched a ride in a hay cart to get here, and I’ve been hoping to get a cheap room and some hot food tonight.
But with only eleven silver pieces jangling in my pocket, I can’t afford even that. I don’t know how long the trip to find Steagor, son of Torg, will take me, and I really don’t have anything else to sell.
Apart from my body, that is.
The thought sends shivers down my spine, and I clutch my wool cloak tighter around my shoulders. I’ve seen enough brothels to know what kind of men frequent them—and the ladies of the night who came by my father’s shop for new dresses always gossiped about how crude and unwashed their customers were. I’m definitely not going to go down that route unless I have no other choice.
I stop in a recessed doorway to hide some of the coins in my stockings and a couple in the hem of my skirt. It wouldn’t do to show off all my money in my purse. That would be a good way to get my pockets picked.
The market square is less crowded than it was in the morning, but the bakery stall is still there, as is the cart selling apples, so I buy a loaf of the cheapest dark bread and several apples and get a handful of copper coins in return. I can’t resist buying a wedge of cheese at the dairy stall either, and I carefully stow all my purchases in my shoulder bag. I’m debating with myself on whether I should take the risk and purchase some warm wool stockings and a pair of mittens for the cold days ahead when the clatter of hooves has me turning around.
I’m not the only one. All around the market square, conversations die down and people back away as four guards in the Duke of Ultrup’s livery ride into the square, their blue coats billowing behind them. One dismounts by the wide wooden noticeboard while the other three remain in their saddles, surveying the crowd with cold, disinterested eyes.
The first man opens his satchel, pulls out a sheaf of papers and starts pasting the new notices on the board. He slathers the papers with glue and sticks them on, covering old wanted posters and news from the previous weeks. Then he turns his back on the board, and a hush falls over the crowd.
“The duke requires all taxes to be paid by the tenth of the month,” the guard intones. “A new wheat store has been set up under the city ramparts by the river…”
Not everyone can read, so the herald shouts out the news. I tune out his loud voice as best I can because this doesn’t concern me since I won’t be staying here, but I don’t dare leave. There’s little movement in the crowd, but I see a young short-haired woman in men’s clothing reach carefully into the pocket of the merchant in front of her, picking his pockets. I clutch my bag closer to my chest, happy I’d taken the time to hide my money where it’s hard to access for pickpockets. But I don’t alert anyone to what she’s doing. The last thing I want is trouble with the authorities, and I’d attract the other guards’ attention if I moved now. So I stay by the dairy stall, half hidden behind the awning, and listen to the man drone on and on.
At last, he moves slightly to the side, and I sigh in relief because the man is almost finished. Even in my hometown, these news alerts always had the same order. Taxes first, general news next, and at the end—to ensure that people stayed and listened to the entire thing—came the really interesting part.
“Wanted for arson and disrupting the peace, Fangel of Lainah is a man in his early forties, five feet eight, with short dark hair. The reward for information or live capture is three gold marks.” The herald points to an etching of a bearded man stuck to the noticeboard. “He was last seen in Lainah but has known associates in Ultrup.”
He indicates another etching, this time of a younger man with light hair. “Wanted for murder of two guards, Bec of Ultrup is a young man of nineteen, five feet ten, with sandy hair. Dead or alive, he is worth seven gold marks.”
I shiver at his declaration, but if this guy really murdered two guards, his days are numbered. A cold gust of wind whips through the square, and I decide to find a milliner as soon as the guards leave. I’m heading north, so the weather won’t get any warmer from now on.
The herald moves another step to the left and exposes the last of the posters stuck on the noticeboard. I frown at the etching of a young woman’s face with curly light-colored hair and rounded cheeks. My stomach does a somersault, but it’s the herald’s words that really push the truth through the fog in my mind.
“Wanted for theft and fraud, Poppy of Morav is a young woman of twenty-two, five feet four, with curly blonde hair and blue eyes. The reward for credible information or live capture is set at five gold marks.”
Five gold marks.
Five gold marks?
It’s my shock that saves me from drawing attention to myself. I’m rooted to the spot, dread setting in, and I don’t move until the herald mounts his horse once more and the four horsemen lead their animals through the crowd and out of the town square. Then I hunch my shoulders and turn away from the crowd, worried someone might connect me to the poster.
I have to get out of the city. News travels much slower between smaller villages than in towns, and I might escape the guards’ attention for long enough to reach the man my father always told me about.
I can’t believe my stepmother has actually set the guards on me. I didn’t steal anything from her that wasn’t rightfully mine. But now my poster is on that board, and if any one of the townspeople recognizes me and reports me, I’ll be thrown in jail and dragged back to her.
I draw the hood of my cloak over my head to hide my curls, which I never thought would be a problem for me, but they are easily recognizable. I glance toward the apple farmer and the bakery stall, but neither of the merchants are paying any attention to me. If they made the connection between the woman on the poster and me, they don’t care.
Lingering in town would be foolish, however. The faster I get out of here, the better, and I’ll have to do with my linen underwear and without mittens for now. Maybe the weather will hold for a while.
I keep to the side alleys, trying not to get too hopelessly lost in a city I’ve never visited before. Through the warren of smelly streets, I keep my sights on one of the tall watchtowers built into the city walls. I came into Ultrup through a gate guarded by such a tower to the south, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to leave it the same way, only on the north side.
Loud shouting echoes from a tavern, and I flinch, scuttling to the other side of the street. Then I remember that cowering will only draw more attention, so I straighten my shoulders and do my best to walk as if I have every right to be there. The shadows are lengthening, and if I don’t reach the city gates soon, I might get stuck in here without a way out.
The narrow alley suddenly dumps me onto the main street, and I follow the flow of carts and foot traffic around the corner.
And there it is. The city gate. Two thick, tall slabs of steel-reinforced oakwood are flung wide, allowing the passengers to shuffle through. On either side of the gate, two guards stand at attention, their helmets glinting in the late-evening sun. They’re heavily armed, as if expecting trouble, and I don’t doubt that they could easily subdue me if they discovered who I am.
I slow my steps and move to the side of the street, not wanting to cause a congestion in the road. But if I march right through the door, there’s a good chance someone will take note of my hooded head and demand I take it off. Or see that I’m trying to slink past them.
What I need is a distraction.
I pretend to browse the collection of leather-bound books set on a wooden stand in front of a paper merchant’s shop, even though I couldn’t afford them. Or have any use of them. Keeping one eye on the guards, I survey the passing people for the best possible option.
I could spook one of the horses into rearing up, but that might mean hurting the animal, and besides, someone could get trampled.
I’m almost ready to give up and take my chances with the guards—the sun has almost set, and the guards are shuffling on their feet, probably eager to shut the gates and get inside their guardhouse, out of the cold wind—when a cart trundles down the street from the direction of the market square.
Sitting on top of the donkey-drawn cart is an old man with a floppy gray hat, and behind him, several cages full of fluttering chickens. They’re clucking softly, as chickens do as the day draws to a close, but they’re gaunt and stringy, looking a little worse for wear.
I put back the book I’d been paging through and reach into my shoulder bag. It hurts my heart to rip the heel off the loaf of bread I bought earlier, but I need it for my plan to work. Falling into step with the slow-moving cart, I tear the fist-sized chunk of bread into pieces, small enough to fit through the bars of the chicken cages.
I need to time this just right.
The cart nears the gate, and the farmer raises his hand in a weary salute. The guards don’t even blink at him, focused instead on the people passing through on foot—including me.
“Hey,” a guard on the right side of the gate says, “you in the—”
I toss the bread crumbs in the air.
They scatter over the chicken cages, and the birds, so docile just moments earlier, erupt in a flurry of squawking, clucking, and feathers, causing an unholy ruckus. One of them must be a rooster because it crows loudly in his battle for the bread.
Everyone turns to stare, including the guards. People crane their necks, and several of them stop mid-step to goggle at the noise. I don’t waste any time, though, and hurry on as fast as I can without actually running. I slip past the chicken farmer and put myself in front of his cart, then weave between the slow-moving townspeople returning to the safety of the city walls for the night.
I don’t glance back, not even to check whether the guards are following me. If that guard thought I looked familiar, he’ll pay even more attention now. At the first clump of bushes by the road, I hide in the darkening shadows, pull down my hood, and bind my hair with a brown kerchief. It’s how farmer wives protect their hair in the fields, and while the style would have been out of place in the city, I can get away with it in the countryside.
Then I return to the road despite the gathering dusk and start walking. I don’t know where I’ll sleep tonight, and I’ll need to ask for directions soon, but for now, my only task is to put as much distance as possible between myself and that noticeboard in Ultrup.
With my remaining ten silver pieces weighing down my purse—and stockings—I might be able to reach the man my father promised would help me.
And if you can’t?
I swallow my fear, raise my chin, and keep marching forward.
I have to. If I don’t, I’ll be forced to take up some low-paying position somewhere, and with the winter coming on, the offer from that pawnshop owner will soon start looking too attractive.
So I keep walking long past sunset, past dusk and through the night, until I collapse in a small copse of trees, hidden from the road by a cluster of rocks. I wrap myself in my cloak as best I can and squeeze my eyes shut, hoping it won’t freeze in the night.
If it does, I might die in my sleep, and no one will ever find me. I won’t be able to go back for my mother’s locket, and my father’s friend will never even know I attempted to reach him.
But that would mean my stepmother won. And I’m not about to cede this last bit of myself to her. So I clutch the letter my father wrote for this Steagor I’m searching for and dry my tears. Tomorrow is a new day, and I have to be close to King Gorvor’s lands now. The city of Ultrup is one of the last border towns in the kingdom of Styria, and I’ve learned that King Gorvor’s lands lie beyond that, in the heart of Bellhaven.
It shouldn’t take me long to reach them at all.
Oh Poppy, you sweet summer child...
xo, Zoe 💖