Hi, dear reader,
I'm so happy to share another lovely green man chest cover with you! :) This is Vark's story, and I know a lot of you have been waiting (im)patiently for it.
I escaped a life of crime to save my daughter…
But my plan for making it to a safer town has gone awry. The driver of the wagon we snuck on isn’t human at all, and now we’re stuck in a traveling caravan of massive orc merchants.
And the driver who first noticed me? He claims I’m his fated mate. The one person destined to be everything to him.
He says we’re safe. That he’ll protect me and my little girl from the men following us. But I know better than to trust pretty lies. Life has taught me that I can’t rely on anyone but myself, and I intend to keep it that way.
But orcs are a warrior race, and if I can learn from them, I will. And my orc mate is the perfect male to teach me everything he knows about combat…and perhaps about love.
Her Orc Warrior is an orc fantasy romance with a large, scarred hero and a fiery, cautious heroine who needs to learn to trust again. You’ll love this story if you enjoy reading about size difference issues, wounded heroes, and single mothers who would do anything to protect their kiddos. This is the third book in a series of standalones - each book can be read separately and features a happily-ever-after for the main couple.
And now for Chapter One, in which you'll meet Vark's heroine, Hazel!
“Quick,” I whisper, pushing aside the back flap of the covered wagon. “Climb up.”
Wren’s blue eyes are wide, but she obeys without question, scrambling up while I boost her from behind. She disappears between two tall stacks of crates, her too-thin coat swishing after her.
I throw one last look over the Ultrup city market. Twilight is closing in, with the sun just a sliver of orange above the crooked rooftops. The city gates will close soon, and I hope I haven’t made a mistake in picking this exact wagon to hide in.
But it’s too late to worry now. I duck my head and dive in after Wren, then carefully replace the back flap as we found it. I find my little girl sitting on a sack of grain, her hands clasped in front of her. I sit next to her, draw her into my side, and rub her arm.
“You’ve been so good today,” I whisper. “But we need to remain very quiet until we clear the city walls, all right? Once we’re far enough from the city, we’ll hop out and make for Sigda.”
“All right, Mama,” she mumbles and sets her head in my lap.
My heart thumps painfully at the trusting gesture. I lean back against the side of the wagon and make myself as comfortable as possible, then tuck my cloak around Wren to keep her warm. Winter has arrived, and I don’t want us to freeze to death when we’ve finally managed to escape.
Not that we’re free of Timo and his men yet. I’ll only rest easy once we’ve put dozens of miles between us and this cursed city. But passing through the city gate without getting caught will be a good first step.
Voices sound outside, closer than they were before.
“Have the horses been watered?” a man asks.
His voice is a low rumble, but powerful. He must be a large guy. I clutch Wren to me, hoping he won’t check the back of the wagon yet. Even if we only make it past the gate and jump into the first ditch, that’ll be better than staying here another night.
“Yes, sir,” comes a reply—probably the boy I saw earlier tending to the massive beasts that are hitched to this wagon and four others.
Those horses were the reason I chose this wagon and not one of the others that came through the market today. The animals are magnificent, well fed, with glossy black coats and clear eyes. You can tell a lot about a man from how he treats his horse.
Besides, the amount of provisions being loaded onto the wagons signaled a rich owner, possibly a minor noble from one of the baronies at the border of the orc kingdom. Or maybe they’ve come from the east, toward the fae lands? I shudder at the thought. But if we remain undiscovered, we could change our plans and see where this caravan ends up. Start our search for work there. I didn’t see any liveried servants or the noble himself, but then rich men never do their heavy work themselves. They pay others to do it. The merchants of Ultrup were all too eager to stock these wagons with their best wares.
I learned to scope out a rich mark at six years of age, and I’ve honed that talent in the two decades since then. It hasn’t led me wrong yet.
The wagon rocks as the driver climbs into his seat, and after a fraught, tense moment, we’re off. The horses’ hooves clop loudly on the cobblestones, the wagon wheels squeaking and clattering. I breathe more easily—there’s less of a chance we’ll be heard now.
It’s not far from the market to the city gate, though, and my heart beats faster and faster, even though I try to stomp down the panic rising inside me. But I have to keep it together for Wren, so I take deep breaths through my nose and force myself to loosen my hold on her. The last thing I want is to scare her.
If we’re lucky, the person in charge of this entire wagon train has paid off the guards in advance to let us through without stopping. The city guard is susceptible to bribery, no matter how hard the Duke of Ultrup tries to keep them in line. It’s why Wren and I have to sneak past the guards, hidden like this—Timo has men everywhere, and I don’t want anyone to know which way we went.
The traffic lags, and the horses snort softly, their harnesses jingling. Right beside us, I sense the bulk of the driver, his outline visible through the canvas. I barely dare to breathe, especially when he sniffs several times as if trying to catch a scent.
He can’t be smelling us, can he?
I’m not saying we’re the cleanest people in Ultrup, but we definitely aren’t the most pungent either. The filth in the streets and the presence of so many pack animals should cover any stink from us.
I try to imagine the streets leading from the market to the northern gate. The twists and turns I’ve walked so many times are etched in my mind, but in the covered wagon, it’s hard to gauge the distances. Surely we must be there already? Yet the wheels keep rolling on, excruciatingly slow.
Unable to sit still and not know why we’ve stopped, I release Wren, motion for her to remain in place, and silently pad toward the back flap of the wagon. I’d picked the last wagon in the caravan for a reason—so we could jump out unseen later—so I can now risk peeking out to see what’s going on.
I only move the canvas an inch, creating an opening wide enough to squint out with one eye, blinking in the light of the setting sun. We seem to have arrived at the main thoroughfare leading to the north gate, but the traffic has ground to a standstill, carts blocking the path both ways. An old donkey lets out an annoyed bray, and the chickens laden in cages at the back of its cart send up a flurry of squawks.
Then movement catches my eye, of the kind I’ve been taught to spot as part of my training. A young man darts through the crowd, his movements sinuous. He’s careful not to attract attention, but I narrow my eyes at the sight of him. Then he turns his face toward me, and my breath stalls in my throat.
It’s not a man but a woman dressed as one. It’s Lindie. She’s not a friend—I never had many of those—but she’s part of our crew, and I definitely don’t want her seeing me right now. I go to lower the flap slowly, but something has her looking up at me anyway. Maybe she sensed me watching her, or maybe she’s attuned to notice strange occurrences, but she stares straight at me.
Her face goes slack with surprise, and I cling to a fragile hope for a moment that perhaps I’m not visible to her. But the last of the sun’s rays are on my face, and she steps forward, her brows creasing in a frown.
“Hazel?” she calls.
Her voice gets lost under more braying from the donkey. I open the flap an inch more, enough for her to see my face. Then I put my index finger to my mouth, staring at her, pleading to keep my secret.
She scowls, confusion plain in her expression. I’d been avoiding the entire crew for days, hiding with Wren. They must have thought I was dead or worse. I wish I could explain to her why I’m doing this—I even wish I could offer her to run with us. But I’m not sure she’d take the chance, and I can’t have Timo following me.
Already, this urge to satisfy my curiosity might have cost us a clean escape. I let the flap fall back in place and take a shuddering breath. I don’t know how long it’ll take Lindie to find Timo and report to him. Or if she’ll do me this one last favor and keep my escape a secret.
I curse myself and quietly make my way back to Wren. She must pick up on my tension, because she fidgets at my side, then scratches her head. She probably has lice, as do I, but we’ll figure that out later. The past couple of days, we’ve slept in some questionable places while trying to avoid Timo’s men. Ever since he declared that Wren will soon be old enough to start earning for the “family business,” I knew our time here had come to an end. We had to leave. Immediately.
A shout rings out, a male voice calling for the wagons to stop. I close my eyes, squeezing them tight against the terror. We must be at the gate, and if we’re stopping again, that means the cargo will get searched. Maybe I was wrong about the owner of this caravan. They clearly aren’t influential enough to secure a passage undisturbed.
The driver jumps to the ground, and the entire wagon sways with the shifting of the weight. He speaks with a guard, listing the supplies stacked in the back with us. Apples, pears, barrels of salted fish, and heavy sacks of grains. I also smell spices, though he doesn’t mention those, and I wonder if he’s a smuggler—or if he forgot. They’re expensive, a luxury, so maybe he bought them without paying the proper taxes.
The guard demands to see the wares in the bored voice of a man who’s had to say the exact same words dozens of times already. The driver’s footsteps scuff on the cobblestones as he rounds the corner of the wagon and lifts the back flap.
My breath goes out from me in one terrified exhale.