The morning dawned bright and full, petering through the trees in rays of golden light. Yesterday’s light rain clung to the leaves like teardrops. The forest floor was slippery smelly mud, the smell of rotting leaves poignant. Everywhere, the noise of the day animals. A rodent scratched through the leafy groundcover. In the canopy above a bird sang. Grinda lifted her head at the sound of breaking branches somewhere through the trees ahead—a heavy animal, forcing its way through the bracken. Probably a deer. She hadn’t seen one yet but Mock said the forest was full of them.
Grinda sat up, throwing off their only pelt. Her skin was already sticky with sweat. Cold and hot, hot and cold, the weather didn’t know what it was doing. Autumn was coming, she could feel it. She peered through the draping, dripping leaves of the quiza they slept under. Or, more accurately, she was sleeping under. Mock hadn’t returned since discovering the startling truth. ‘Just need to think,’ he had muttered, before strapping on his belt of knives, picking up his sword and spear and disappearing deep into the woods.
She touched his usual spot: cold and empty. Tears filled her eyes. She had slept fitfully last night. The wark, her pregnancy and now Mock’s disappearance—it was all too much. He had left the rest of their supplies with her, including Spirit. She hugged her knees to her chest. How could he just leave her? How would she survive? She rocked back and forth. Vulnerable, defenceless, except for a couple of blades he had left behind. Didn’t he care for her at all? Didn’t he love her at all?
Giving a sniff, she wiped at her eyes, then crawled out from beneath the quiza. Despite everything, she was hungry. She picked up the knife with the longer blade. It was heavy, unwieldy. but she would have to get used to it. There was no telling when Mock would come back.
If he came back.
She studied the knife. Until she had met the barbarians, it was like nothing she had ever seen before. Smaller at the top near the hilt, wider at the bottom, it ended in a sort of half-curve. She had seen Mock use it to chop up small animals. She glanced at the second blade. Small and razor sharp, good for skinning. At least he had left her with something useful.
Mock. Anger stirred in the pit of her stomach. What kind of man would do something like this? Tightening her jaw, she hardened her grip on the knife.
Two hours later and her food was cooking. Smoke coiled from beneath the flat rock Mock liked to use to make his chokra as the little possum sizzled on top. It wasn’t all that hard. Back home she used to gut chickens all the time. She flipped it over with her stick. Skinned, flattened and opened up. The flesh bubbled and spat. Blood and grease trickled into the flames beneath, making it hiss and crackle. There was chittering and squawking and the snapping of small branches as birds and rodents fought over the innards she had thrown into the bushes.
The possum burnt her fingers, her lips and tongue but it was good. She smiled as she ate, proud of herself.
When she was done, she waited, listening out for Mock’s return. But the woods were silent. Kicking her boots through the leaves, she sighed. The tears welled again. She missed him already. It hurt like a hole in her chest. She laid a hand against her pelvis. There were options. It was only a week old.
She recalled Christa, a young woman back in her village. She had been working in the fields when a travelling brigand had dragged her away and raped her. She had fallen pregnant but couldn’t handle it. A sharp stick and the deed was done. No more pregnancy and she survived, until she hung herself from the blades of the mill later that year. It was four years now since her death. She and Grinda hadn’t been close, but they had known each other well enough. Saw each other most days. Spoke and laughed as they worked the fields or encountered each other at the well. Inevitable in a small village. The thought had always made her shiver; had it been a different day and a different time, it might have been Grinda the brigand had taken.
Christa had been eighteen and recently engaged. Whether it was because she had regretted the abortion or because of the trauma from the rape, no one had known for sure. The only thing certain was that she was burning in hell now. Grinda would never forget the look on Father Joel’s face at her burial. So cold, so pitiless. Suicide and abortion were mortal sins, no matter the circumstances.
A sharp stick. According to Mock, there was no such thing as hell, only the Mother. She looked at the twigs by her feet, then turned away with a wince, snapping her legs shut. She tried to feel rage, tried to hate, to feel disgust but it wasn’t the child’s fault her father was a monster. My child’s fault.
My son. My daughter. Whichever it would be.
Her heart swelled. More tears pricked her eyes.
No way. No how. And Mock would just have to deal with it.
Throughout the day she wandered the forest, careful to retrace the paths she and Mock had taken together, preferring not to get lost. And of course, she returned to the tree. To the wark.
Such a marvellous thing, she thought as she placed her hand against its trunk. No heaven, no hell, no God. Could it be true? After what happened yesterday, she couldn’t shift the doubts. Father Joel, the church, had they been wrong? Had the savages—the Quarthi—have it right all along?
Grinda grimaced at the irony. The Toths had thought themselves such superior beings. She had thought herself so superior, so far above all other living things. And yet, they might be wrong.
Her hand fell away and she stepped back, gazing into its canopy. It was warm to the touch, more than a tree should be, but there was no more of that burning, that terrific throbbing. Just a tree. She clasped her hands together. She needed more chokra. She needed to feel it again. She had the nuk, but Mock had taken the chack with him. Clearly, he didn’t want her to smoke while he was gone. No more spiritual journeys. No more secrets.
Turning away with a sigh, she trudged back to camp.
Mock didn’t return that night and nor was he at her side come morning. She let out a sob, then shook herself with a growl. Stop your mewling. Be angry! He was blaming her for something that was in no way her fault. In fact, if anything, it was his fault. He was the one who had put her in the path of his ‘brothers’. If it wasn’t for Mock, Quay may never have been attacked, and she would still be with her family, with Father Joel, safe and loved, and she would never have had to deal with his childishness.
Wiping at her nose, she crawled out from beneath the quiza.
Let him simper and sulk. She pressed a hand to her abdomen. She had a responsibility now, and she would meet it head on, with or without him.
She loosened the reins tying Spirit to his tree. ‘Come on. Let’s go for a ride.’
Grinda smiled as he snuffled at her hand. Only a week ago she had thought him the most abhorrent creature. Brutal, evil. Just like his master.
Against her will, her eyes stung with tears. ‘Goddamn it.’ Wiping at them furiously, she drew the animal through the trees.
Life was better on Spirit’s back. The wind whisked away her tears. The thunder of his hooves helped blocked out her thoughts. And the feel of his powerful strides numbed the pain in her chest. She had left their supplies behind so Mock would know she hadn’t ridden away if he happened to return while she was gone. If he ever returned. There was no certainty he would. A man like that …
A cold surge of despair. How could she think it would ever work? They were so different. And he was filled with so much hate. How could Grinda think he could change? He killed my family. And wasn’t it her plan to leave when he was well enough anyway?
The thought stung. The prospect made her ache. She clung low to Spirit’s back, his warm familiarity helping to soothe her pain.
After a hard ride, she didn’t return to camp straight away, preferring to rest amid the bushes as Spirit drank at a stream and took his fill of the bushes’ soft sweet leaves.
Afterwards, they dawdled, trotting along the edge of the stream. For the first time Grinda felt a nag of regret. With Mock gone, the open freedom didn’t feel so exhilarating. It was lonely. Crushingly lonely.
Spirit nickered. Grinda lifted her head. The smell of cooking food.
Curious, Grinda altered course. Minutes later—voices. Male. And they were speaking English! No accent. Not barbarians. Her people. Laughing and joking.
‘You righ’ there?’
‘You can’t cook a coney worth a shit.’
‘Why don’ you do it then?’
A snort. More laughter. ‘I lie. Ye doin’ a fine job. A fine job. Just don’t burn it like them villagers.’
At least three. She stopped, concealed behind a tall bush-covered ridge, dismounting and tying Spirit to an outjutting rock. Her heart thundered. She shouldn’t be doing this. She should turn around and go back. Keep safe. But it had been almost two weeks since she had seen anybody other than Mock. And it felt like forever since she had encountered her own people. Besides, she was just going to take a peek and by the sound of their muffled voices, they were still safely in the distance.
Quietly, carefully, she climbed. Below, Spirit shook his head with a light snort. She peered over the top. She was right, there were three of them, sitting in a circle around a fire. Shabby clothes, crass language, rusty blades. One of them was slowly turning a skinned rabbit on a spit. Two horses grazed. A small wagon half-filled with supplies sat close by. Inside was an assortment of farming tools, linen, lumpy bags of unknown things, a barrel of what might have been ale and what looked like women’s clothes. Scarves. Drapes. What need had they of those? Some of it was burnt, the rest ash-covered. And that’s when she realised: anything and everything they could steal, devastation or no. She hastily dropped her head from view. Looters. Bandits. How many villages had they trespassed? Burnt or otherwise? Stupid. Stupid. What else would a group of men travelling so far afield be but criminals?
She climbed back down. A ray of hope: could it mean there was a village or even a town somewhere close by? Surely they wouldn’t have strayed too far. If she dug deep into her memory she could probably name some northern towns, what they liked to trade, their liege lords. But now was not the time.
Her feet hit the ground. She turned, and almost shrieked: a fourth man, leaning against the ridge, watching her.
‘Nice horse,’ he grinned.
She didn’t respond, couldn’t respond. All she could do was breathe and stare, heart thundering, feet rooted to the earth. He was clearly part of the group, filthy and ragged as the rest of them: scraggly beard, greasy hair, torn clothes; his boots had holes in the toes. And he reeked of old smoke. His fingernails were black—doubtless from the char. Had he scrabbled through the remains of the dead? For all she knew he could have been at Quay. Her guts squirmed.
Her eyes flicked from him to the horse. Spirit was halfway between them but still tied to the rock. Her chance was slim.
The brigand dragged his tongue over his teeth, then spat, a yellow glob. ‘Don’ think so. This ‘ere horse is mine now.’ His grin broadened as his eyes raked over her. Grinda crossed her arms over her breasts, suddenly very aware of her almost useless tunic. He unsheathed a rusty old blade from his belt. Her eyes fastened on it. Blunt. Dirty. Painful. ‘Not that I need it. But I’ll have you too, before Dario gets to you. Quietly. No noise, understand? Or I’ll slit you from ear to ear.’
He took a step towards her, another. A surge of panic, and fire erupted in her pelvis.
Eyes rolling wildly, the horse reared with a scream. A hard yank of his beautiful head and rock exploded, the reins pulling free from the ridge. The brigand’s eyes widened. He only had time to shout before Spirit’s black hooves slammed him in the chest, throwing him backwards. Over and over he rolled, arms flung out, blade spinning across the ground.
No time for surprise, Grinda moved quickly, vaulting onto Spirit’s back with a skill she couldn’t believe of herself. Fists tight around the reins, she looked over her shoulder at a shout. ‘Smelk! You all righ’?’
The others. Another surge of panic and the fire in her belly swirled.
She tightened her grip as Spirit lurched ahead. Head down, mane flying, nostrils flaring, powerful legs pounding the earth, he must have been a sight to see. As it was, all she could do was bend low against him, listening hard for the sounds of pursuit.
Back to the forest, back to camp. It was the only place she could think to flee to. If she made it. Spirit was strong, not fast, and those horses looked built for speed. And even if she did make it, what then? She tried not to think. All she could do was hope.
Mock, I need you.
Everything was a blur as Mock ran. The trees flashed by. Branches scraped, bushes caught at his boots and kinta and sliced at his thighs. But unlike his race to find Grinda he didn’t trip or fumble. He was in control. The woods almost seemed to part for him, bending away from his furious rush. Up an incline now. His legs ached. His lungs screamed. And the wound in his side was torture.
He pushed harder.
A place he knew. A place he understood. Comfortable. Pain was easy. Pain was good. It cleared his mind, salved that ripping ache in his chest.
Finally, he could take no more. With a choke and a gasp, he staggered to a halt, gripping his waist, chest heaving, dazed and dizzy. His stomach was empty but it heaved and he vomited green bile. Bracing himself against a tree, he vomited again and again.
Still too tired to think. Good. He stumbled, then fell on his arse and sprawled on his back, arms flung out, knife in one hand, spear in the other, staring into the void above.
The canopy spun. The ground beneath did the same. There was a haunting whistle, as of air rushing through a hollow trunk. Something slithered amid the leaves. Still panting, still throbbing, mind empty. But not for long. Quickly, the thoughts trickled back: Grinda, the wark, the baby. He rolled onto his side with a wince. Pith: Mock’s almost killer, traitor, coward. What kind of progeny could come of him? Gritting his teeth, he hauled himself to his feet. He needed to keep going, to do something.
He had run throughout the night, ever since he’d left Grinda, bashing through the trees, chopping and cutting and slashing with his knife, growling and spitting like an animal, like a fool. Now it was close to midday. He hadn’t eaten. He’d barely drunk. And he’d left Grinda behind. He felt sure she could take care of herself. She knew how to feed herself, make a fire, keep safe. But what about predators? Wolves, bears, boars. He hadn’t thought of that. He hadn’t been thinking much at all. He chewed his lip, then shook his head. Doubtful, not so close to the edge of the woods.
It didn’t make him feel any better.
And still, that torment, that disgust. He couldn’t bear to look at her, not yet. Pith’s baby. It wouldn’t go away. What was the Mother playing at? She had control over fertility, over the burgeoning of new life.
He spat at the woods, ‘Kiss my arse,’ then hefted his spear. Time to hunt. Time to eat. Time to spill some blood. He hoped there was boar. Something feisty.
The sun had almost set by the time he dragged the carcass into a small clearing. A big doe. Common sense told him to skin and quarter it and haul it back piecemeal. But he wanted the struggle, the ache in his back, the twist in his guts as he strained to drag it along.
Dropping the carcass, he took out his sharpest blade. Not his skinning knife—he left that for Grinda—but it would do. He knelt beside it and began the long task.
Deep into the night and it was done. Shoulders aching, eyes tired, blood from wrists to elbows, but feeling good. Healed, almost. The disgust was gone but the ache was still there—the regret, the missed chance. It would always be there, he supposed, until the baby was born and they could have another. They were young. Plenty of time. Why had he been so angry? All his strength, and yet he could be a weak, blubbering fool sometimes.
He studied the deerskin. Disappointing. He would have liked to have replaced that wrecked tunic of hers but he didn’t have the tools and it would take days to tan the hide. But at least he could provide her with some real food. For the baby too.
She’d like that.
The next morning, he strapped his spear to his back alongside his sword and hefted the leg of deer. Smoked, slathered in herbs and wrapped it bark, it would keep for a few days. Not that he’d need that long. He twisted his mouth at the remaining carcass. A waste. But there was only so much he could carry, and he had a long journey back after all that furious running.
He fell into a slow jog. So much stronger now. All that meat pulsing through his veins, all that pushing himself to breaking point, it had done him good. He felt more himself. Powerful.
Just you wait, my little faqwa, see the man I can really be.
He followed his own tracks. Easy to find. All his rage had left a trail of destruction: broken branches, slashed trunks, torn leaves. It made it easy going but he couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed by his senseless rage.
Darkness fell before he could make it back, but he was close. He was sure to get there by morning. His heart thumped at the prospect of their reunion. How he missed her. How he feared her. Funny—to fear a woman. Particularly one so small. Would she forgive, cry, slap him in the face? He swallowed. Leave? Women were so hard to predict. He gazed at the deer leg, recalling the hunt. Sometimes they were wild animals themselves. Danna had been like that. All wind and fire.
But not Grinda. A smile tugged at his mouth. She was different and much more interesting. She hadn’t shown her whole self yet. Only young and untried. But he could see it. Feel it. It was coming. That force within. Building. Pleasant on the surface but dangerous beneath. Deceptive.
Like an ocean current.
He lay back to rest, hands behind his head, gazing into the canopy as the darkness draped over him. Yes. Like an ocean current, and he was a man adrift, powerless in her swell. Lost. Drowning. So far away from where he planned to be. The land long gone.
Closing his eyes, he couldn’t wipe the grin from his face. How he loved the water.
And feared it.
Dawn. Minutes after waking, he was back on the run. Still early. Strong. Fast. It wasn’t his plan to make any detours, wanting to get to Grinda as fast as he could, but when he saw the lilla bush he couldn’t help himself. He hadn’t noticed it on the run up but he noticed it now. Full bloom. Dripping with flowers. He took a moment to catch his breath, making sure his fingers were steady before carefully picking the best he could find—over a dozen or more—and tucking them gently into the pouch at his belt.
Back on the run.
He reached camp by mid-morning. He paused. It was empty. Spirit was gone too but their supplies remained. Probably out for a ride. He dropped the deer leg with relief, rounded his shoulders, cricked his neck. Sticky with sweat. Long deep breaths. His side throbbed but it was nothing he couldn’t handle.
He shrugged. While he waited …
He pulled out the pouch of lillas.
No more than an hour later, and he draped the necklace around his neck, careful not to crush the flowers any further. They were looking wilted, a little forlorn, but they would be perfect around Grinda’s slender neck, amid her golden hair. She would pour the life back into them.
He lay back, head against a log, hands resting on his chest as he waited.
Mock, I need you.
He sat up with a start. ‘Grinda?’ He twisted around but the woods were empty. How? Where? It was almost as though she had yelled in his ear. He winced at a sudden pounding in his head. His heart hammered. Something was wrong. She was panicked, frightened. He could feel it like a throb in his chest.
On his feet, he strapped on his sword and belt of knives and hurried to the edge of the woods. A distant scream, a muffled shout, and his uncertain pace became a sprint.
He burst through the trees. A little dazed by the glaring sunlight but he saw them. In the near distance. Little more than a short sprint away. Three dark figures: two men and Grinda. Three horses. Spirit the blackest. One man had a hold of Spirit, the other was struggling with Grinda.
Three heads turned and he charged over. Close enough now he could see their sneering faces, their rusty blades, their wary stances. Paleskins: skinny, weak, desperate. Easy kills. A shove, and Grinda spilled to the ground. White hot rage flooded Mock’s veins. He stopped before them, chest heaving, more from fury than his need for breath. He could have speared them through on the run but he wanted to see their fear, know their pain, make them suffer. He could almost taste their blood already. His heart pounded. It had been too long.
The closer one, the one holding Spirit, gave a snigger. ‘Wha’ do we ‘ave ‘ere?’ He looked Mock up and down with a sneer, taking in his kinta, the necklace of flowers and long wavy hair. ‘Pretty aren’t we?’
The second man chortled. ‘Should go for ‘im, Roland. Two for two.’
Roland spat. ‘Don’ go for no man. No matter how pretty.’
Mock glanced at Grinda. She was gazing up at him, ashen-faced, wide-eyed, but otherwise uninjured. Turning back to the men, Mock reached for his sword, enjoying how the sneers left their faces as he slowly unsheathed it. In face of their rust-bitten daggers, it seemed to go on forever.
‘‘ey now,’ the man called Roland stuttered, lowering his blade. ‘No need for that.’ He released Spirit and stepped back. ‘You can ‘ave it. Got me own horse, see?’ He patted the palfrey’s neck.
Mock sized up the second Paleskin whose eyes were travelling along the length of his gleaming sword. Not such a coward, he tightened his mouth. They stared at each other.
He was quick but Mock was quicker.
The blade slashed, a rusty streak through the air, directly at Grinda’s throat. Mock’s dagger flew, a bright gleam against the glaring sun, lodging under his arm. A cry and the slash went wide. Grinda rolled away, scrambling to his feet.
Mock sped towards them, striking swiftly at the stuttering Roland as he passed. Blood sprayed. A cry. Then Mock was at Grinda’s side, pushing her behind him. The second man pulled out Mock’s dagger with a roar, glared at them both, then began slashing haphazardly through the air, face pulled back in an ugly snarl. Blood spattered, spit flew. A desperate slice at Mock’s chest, quickly dodged. A swift downward strike and Mock took him across the groin and upper thighs. Muscle gaped, blood poured and the man staggered, dropping his blade.
Mock’s lips pulled back into a feral grin as he cut him down. Chop, chop, chop. Shoulder, back, upper arm before kicking him to the ground. Mock circled as the man crawled like a bug trying to get away, coughing and spluttering, left shoulder mangled, right arm dangling. Shoving a boot in his side, Mock flipped him over.
His sword gleamed. The man’s eyes widened in terror. He shook his head, pleading, ‘Don—’
A streak of steel, a satisfying thud and his head parted his body. Blood gushed, his eyes twitched spastically, then nothing. Funny thing, decapitation. Mock watched as the now headless body’s hands curled into half claws, then stilled.
Silence, except for the thunder of his heart and the blood pulsing in his ears. The world seemed dark, tinged with red. The sun beat against his shoulders. The ends of his hair lifted on a gentle breeze. A hawk circled high above. Then a groan split the calm. Mock turned and the world blushed scarlet. Roland—still alive.
His eyes narrowed to slits.
But a small white hand curled around his wrist before he could take a step. A familiar, beseeching gaze looked up at him. ‘No more.’
He paused, confused, as his bloodlust slowly drained away. ‘Grinda?’ He lowered his sword, and suddenly the world was filled with colour again: yellow hair, blue eyes, white skin. All his favourite shades.
Gently, she pulled him away and he followed. Once the carnage was far enough away, she turned back, studying him uncertainly, a frown on her lips. All the blood, the death. Mock the Merciless returned.
‘I’ll go bathe,’ he said thoughtlessly, turning.
‘Wait.’ She seized his hand.
He turned back, eyes travelling over her body. ‘Did they hurt you?’
‘They deserved it.’
She lowered her eyes. ‘I know.’ Silence fell between them. The hawk shrieked. A gust of warm air blew through their hair. Then, ‘thank you for coming back.’
‘I should never have left.’
She gazed at their hands as she entwined their fingers, then looked up, meeting his eyes.
The sword slipped from Mock’s grasp. He cleared his throat. ‘I made something for you.’ Slipping his hand out of hers, he carefully lifted off the necklace. ‘Ah.’ A stab of disappointment. It was blood spattered, crushed and mangled. Petals blew away in the wind.
Grinda stared at it, smiled, chuckled, then laughed. So strange, so unexpected. He didn’t know what to make of it. And suddenly she was in his arms, holding him tightly, head buried in his chest. No reservations. No care about the blood, that he just murdered a man.
Mock closed his eyes, resting his head on top of hers as he held her back, heart thudding so hard he thought the whole world must hear it.