Every new day was like a twist in the guts. What new horror would it bring to Zin?
Nine days Mock and his group of warriors had been travelling through the mountains, circling the forest and the invading camp of Paleskins. From their height they could observe the destruction—the dust and smoke eating away at their home. Despite his fears, they were making good progress and the Paleskin camp that once appeared like nothing but a shadow against the filthy haze steadily took form.
Croki and Mock glanced at each other. The camp was far bigger than he had ever envisioned, sprawling from the edge of the forest and into the horizon. Only a fighting force and yet it was bigger than their entire clan. Their twenty warriors were stunned.
‘What hope have we against that?’ a young hunter asked doubtfully. Plod, his name was. Good with the spear. Better with the bow.
‘Plenty,’ Croki said. ‘We’ve had to deal with much worse, haven’ we, Mock?’
Mock grunted, squinting as he studied the camp. It seemed strange. It didn’t have the usual layout he expected. ‘We must get closer. I can’t see.’
The sun sat high in the sky, Mock and Croki sweating as they crept close to the camp. The rest of the warriors remained behind. There was no use bringing them along if they didn’t know what they were looking at.
‘Where are the soldiers?’ Croki puffed, wiping the sweat from his forehead. They had travelled hours to reach the edge of camp, and the big Quarthi was red-faced and panting, unused to the heat. No trees. No shade. ‘I know it’s been a while but this don’ look right.’
‘No,’ Mock agreed, peering through the bushes they were hiding behind. No. It was more than just an invading camp. They were preparing to settle. There were farmers and builders and livestock, even merchants. It almost looked like a town. Huts had been set up. Land was being tilled.
‘Let’s keep moving,’ Mock said.
They spent the rest of the day scouting the edge of the camp. And at each passing hour Mock felt more and more hopeful. Few soldiers to fight. Almost no defences. If he could discover where Zin was held, they might actually succeed.
Then they found it.
‘Mock,’ Croki growled.
A slave pen. He smelt it before he saw it, the stink of shit and body odour. Darkness had fallen by then but he could see the soft white light of the moon gleaming off the slaves’ iron cuffs and stakes. He rubbed at his neck where his own collar used to sit.
Croki crouched stiffly beside him. Mock stared hard into the darkness until his eyes ached. The slaves were hardly moving, which was to be expected. It was hard to see but there couldn’t be more than a dozen. Thank the Mother for small mercies. But where was Zin? Every time one of them shifted or moonlight caught against someone’s hair, Mock’s heart lurched. Was it Zin? Was she alive?
There were no guards nearby as far as he could see. The slaves didn’t need them. Had the Paleskins broken her? He grimaced as he thought of his own breaking. The pain, the chains, the hunger. The utter humiliation. That horrible clang of the door as his enemies entered his cell in the darkness. He clenched his fists. Zin was just a girl. His girl. Nobody would touch her. And especially no filthy Paleskin.
Croki seized his wrist. ‘No, my brother.’
Mock wrenched his arm away. ‘I have to get her back.’ He tried to rise only for Croki to seize him again. Mock bared his teeth, resisting the urge to slam his fist into his friend’s throat. ‘Let go, brother.’
‘No.’ Croki tightened his grip around his wrist. ‘There is more than just Zin’s life at stake ‘ere. And I won’ let you fail. We need the other warriors. Let’s do this once. Let’s do this right’.’
The breath hissed through Mock’s teeth. ‘If I don’t go now, she might not be there tomorrow.’
‘See reason, Mock. You goin’ to save your daughter only to leave them all behind? Are you a warrior or not?’
‘I’m a father, the Mother take you, I’m a father!’
‘And so am I. Leave it. Tomorrow. With all our strength.’
Mock glared at the pen of slaves, his heart thudding in his throat, then finally sagged.
Croki gripped his shoulder. ‘We will succeed, my brother. We will get her back.’
Mock grunted. Or die trying.
They returned to their clutch of warriors late that morning, slept, ate, planned, then returned to the slave pen late the next evening, journeying under the cover of darkness. They were fortunate. The moon was bright but the haze from the forest was particularly thick, swallowing most of the light before it could catch on their knives and spears.
The twenty warriors were swift and obedient. It reminded Mock so much of his time with his raiding brothers, that when he turned to make a command, he was surprised to see a woman, or a man that wasn’t Ank or Rog or Ghettz.
They all ducked at a sudden burst of laughter before moving on again when they realised it was safely in the distance. Soon, they were close, the stink of the pen filling their lungs. Mock gestured them to stop. They obeyed, spread thin as they hid amid the bushes or slunk low to the ground.
Croki and Mock scanned the pen. They had studied the camp until daybreak last night. Observing any obstacles. Monitoring the movements of their enemies. And there had been plenty of movement: Paleskins leaving with their purchases, returning come morning. Most of the activity had occurred early in the night. From then, for the most part, it remained still and quiet. It had taken all Mock’s might not to leap out of the darkness and gore them. But at least none of those taken had been Zin. Thank the Mother. If she had been, Croki would not have been able to stop him.
Then there were the men in the brown robes. The pastor’s tent. Mock stared at the banner waving in the breeze. The wooden crucifix. Did he know the priest? It was seventeen years since he had last been locked and chained in the cells of Fairmont. A few would be old but not dead. His heart hammered as he watched. He clutched onto the hilt of his slashing knife until his palm blistered.
He glanced up at the sky. It was deep in the night. Plenty of time to make their attack—their rescue, he corrected, without being spotted. He glanced at Croki and nodded. The big warrior gestured widely to the others.
Mock was the first to enter the settlement, hunched over and keeping close to the ground. His boots thudded softly. All senses peeled for danger.
He arrived at the pen without issue. He glanced behind him. The warriors were close on his heels. One of the slaves stirred. The rest were sleeping or unconscious. Croki and three continued on, heading for the pastor’s tent.
‘Zin!’ Mock hissed. He stepped between bodies. Wide, white eyes gazed up at him. Someone seized his ankle. Another cried out. ‘Quiet!’ he hissed again. ‘Zin!’
No answer. A few women didn’t move. He checked them but none were his daughter. He straightened, twisting around as he scanned the slaves again. Where was she? He turned towards the pastor’s tent, suddenly fearful. He raced over.
Croki was rummaging through the robes of one of the two dead assistants. The two warriors were searching through the rest of the tent. A lantern flickered on the bedside table. The sheets were all tousled. A book lay open on the floor. The only sign of the struggle. The big Quarthi spun around at the sound of Mock’s entrance, face pulled into a snarl as he unsheathed his knife. He relaxed when he saw who it was.
‘Didn’ find her?’
Mock shook his head.
The big warrior nodded towards the pastor gagged and bound in the corner of the room.
‘I’ll warn ye. He aint for speakin’. Won’ tell me where the keys are.’
‘I’ll make him speak.’
The light from the lantern flickered against the priest’s balding head and a pair of eyes so pale they seemed almost translucent. Blood caked the left side of his head. The priest was lucky he wasn’t dead. A punch to the temple from Croki could take out a horse. He didn’t look familiar.
He showed no fear, only contempt as he looked Mock up and down. It didn’t last. The priest’s eyes widened, long white fingers clawing desperately at Mock’s hand, as Mock dragged him to his feet by his neck.
‘You had a girl. She looked different to the others. A half and half. Where is she?’
The priest glared up at him, quiet behind the gag, his fingernails clawing into Mock’s hand. Mock tightened his grip. His pale eyes widened more. Something in his skinny throat creaked. ‘Think smart. Refuse to answer or try to call out, and I’ll make you suffer worse than your slaves. Answer me, and I’ll gift you a swift death.’
The priest stared at him.
Mock slowly removed the gag, watching him closely. The priest’s eyes glinted icily. His mouth widened. Mock was faster. A hard jerk of his hands and the priest’s neck snapped before he could call out.
‘Fuck!’ He let the lifeless body slump to the floor.
‘Found ‘em,’ Croki said, holding up a set of heavy iron keys. Mock didn’t move, panting, as he stared at the body. ‘Mock.’ Croki clapped him on the shoulder and shook him. ‘It’s not over yet, brother.’
They returned to the pen. Croki tossed a warrior a second key and they began unlocking the iron collars. The slaves kept quiet, though a couple were weeping. Mock watched distantly, his mind elsewhere, as he gazed towards the forest. For the first time, the possibility that she might truly be dead turned his heart cold. Her body might still be lying crumpled where she had fallen or more likely gouged into the earth by the Paleskins’ heavy machinery.
Taking a breath, he rubbed at his face. His eyes burned.
It’s not over yet. He turned towards the slaves. The last of them was freed. Some staggered to their feet. Others barely moved.
‘Take a load,’ Croki told the warriors as he hoisted a large, semi-conscious man over his shoulder.
‘Zin. Did anyone see Zin?’ Mock demanded of the prisoners.
Nobody answered, too absorbed by their own suffering. He grabbed at a man’s shoulder as he struggled to his knees.
Then came a voice. ‘I know Zin,’ it said weakly.
He turned. ‘Crest?’ She was on her feet, arm slung around a warrior’s shoulders as he held her up. The huntress squinted at him between swollen eyes, hair matted with blood and grime. She was naked. Blood on her breasts. Bruises all down her torso. He seized her wrist. The last time he’d seen her was during the battle, busy sawing through a Paleskin’s throat. ‘You saw her? Where is she?’
‘A Paleskin took her only two nights past.’
‘Took her where?’
‘To his bed, I suppose. I haven’t seen her since.’
Mock gritted his teeth. ‘Is she still here?’
‘I don’t know. Let go …’ She winced.
His grip had turned crushing. He released her. The warrior holding her up hoisted her over his shoulder.
The rest of the slaves were recovered. Some staggered in the arms of their fellow Quarthi, others were carried. One was left behind, unmoving. Croki had already vanished into the darkness. Mock stood frozen, gazing at the camp, hand at his belt of knives. It had been a long time since he had felt so helpless. At least she wasn’t dead. At least, not as far as he knew. His chest swelled. His palms were slippery with sweat.
But there was nothing he could do tonight.
They fled through the darkness of the night. And when day broke, they ran through the heat of the day. The Quarthi were strong. They tired but never gave up. They feared but never lost courage. The Paleskins might have their technology and their steel and their numbers but they lacked the qualities that had made the Quarthis survive against the odds.
Twelve slaves. Twenty warriors. They cycled the captives between them. Women helped women. Men carried men. They blistered in the sun, gasped in the heat. A warrior staggered, then collapsed beneath the weight of his load, only to take a drink and get to his feet again, eyes burning with ferocity.
They didn’t stop until they were safely away, partway up the mountains, concealed amid the rocks and the trees. Groth, who Mock had been half-carrying for most of the afternoon, withdrew his arm from around Mock’s neck and slumped to his knees. And there, within the shelter of the rock, they tended the wounded.
Mock felt a vague disgust but nothing more. It was nothing new to Mock and Croki, having suffered worse abuse themselves. But for the rest of the Quarthi, who had only ever heard stories of the Paleskins’ evils, it was eye-opening.
Mock knelt beside Crest, who was lying on her side, knees to her chest. He felt a surge of sympathy. He had never seen her look so small. A fine huntress, one of the best. He had never forgotten how she had taken down that enormous, fearsome bull with only an arrow and her bird blade.
‘Was she well?’
She looked up at him. The swelling in her face was worse, one eye completely swollen shut. But she smiled. ‘You would have been proud of her, Mock. She held her own. Helped us all.’ A tear leaked down her cheek. She gripped his hand. ‘I told her I was sorry. That we were all sorry.’
Mock nodded. He didn’t need to ask what she meant.
He left her to join Croki who was standing at the edge of the precipice, surveying their surroundings. ‘They ain’ followin’.
Croki released a breath. ‘Home.’ And Mock knew his thoughts were on Seera. She was close to her due date. She might have already given birth.
It was hard to think now that many years ago, before Zin was born, Croki had been in love with Grinda. No longer. Soon after they had parted ways, Croki returned to his people and found Seera. Three children later—soon to be four—they couldn’t be more in love. The two friends hadn’t brought up the subject since. In fact, Mock had almost forgotten. But he couldn’t help but think of it now.
‘I’m going to find her.’
‘I know.’ Croki gazed unblinking into the distance. ‘I will come.’
‘No,’ Mock said. Croki turned to him with a frown. ‘Return to Seera and your family. Help our people. And tell Grinda … tell her that I am well, that Zin is alive and that I’m going to get her back.’
If the worst came to pass, nobody could support Mock’s family better than his oldest friend.
Croki nodded. ‘Your family is my family, be sure of it. But you will return, Mock. Nothin’s been able to kill you yet.’
Mock grinned as they locked arms in a warrior’s grip. ‘I will see you again. And so will Zin.’
‘Till then, my brother. May the Mother always be on ye side.’