Grinda didn’t like the look of him. He was swaying as he sat and there were dark shadows under his eyes. His hand gripping hers was shaking. What exactly had he seen? Was Zin all right?
She sagged. She’d hoped that after Zin’s transformation she’d be able to hear something of her daughter. Grinda might not have her magic anymore but Zin was powerful. She had hoped to be able to Mind Speak with her. If not that, at least feel something.
Mock could feel her. He wasn’t even of Zin’s blood and yet he had a connection Grinda could only dream about. A white tether. He wasn’t sure what it was. Wasn’t even sure if it meant anything. But Grinda was sure. She’d seen it down in the world beyond the ether. She felt a stab of jealousy, swiftly gone as she met his sad eyes. He looked so haggard.
She squeezed his hand. ‘Bial, you must sleep.’
Pink-eyed, he nodded.
The sky was empty of clouds, thank the Mother. The moon gleamed brightly upon her children, upon the Quarthi’s small camp. Against bare, brown skin. Against the deer-hide tents. Crickets chirped. Something rustled through the long grasses. A snake by the sound of it. She’d been long enough with the Quarthi to know the difference between one creature and another. She might not be a hunter but she was as far away from her village-girl roots as the stars were from the earth. It still hit her sometimes at moments like this, even so many years on, how different her life had become.
It was cold and her children bunched up tightly together in their tent, smothered in pelts: Grit, Quess and Quip. Xala was somewhere out with Bull. She watched them as they slept, then looked down at Mock. His head was in her lap. His eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted. His breath was warm against her leggings. Almost twenty years together. There were lines around his mouth now. More lines around his eyes. Though they’d both been young when they first met, she hadn’t thought him young at the time. At the time he’d seemed generations older, though they had only been a handful of years apart. It wasn’t so now. After all they’d experienced together, she felt as old as him.
She stroked her fingers through his long hair. Mock liked to tell her how much he loved her hair. ‘As golden as the sun,’ he would say, as he dragged his fingers through its lengths. Grinda disagreed. His was the same colour as their children. As Zin’s. There was nothing more beautiful.
He stirred. A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. His eyelids parted.
She paused. ‘Sorry for waking you, bial. I couldn’t resist.’
He smiled. ‘You didn’t. Keep going.’
His eyes closed again as she continued. Soon, she began stroking his beard, touching his lips. He rolled over, pressing his mouth to her navel. ‘My son,’ he murmured. Opening his eyes, he kissed her there again.
Grinda smiled. He raised his hand and she entwined her fingers with his. She knew what he was thinking. ‘You’re tired, bial. You must rest.’
‘I have rested.’
‘Not here. Not near Zin.’
‘Why not? Why else did she save us but to love and live?’ Grabbing her hip, he pressed his face into her belly.
Mock sighed. ‘As you wish, biala.’
She snuggled in next to him, her face pressed into his throat. He slid his heavy right leg between hers and pulled her close.
‘What did you see?’ she said. ‘Is she truly in danger? You spoke about … you spoke about the Morgrar.’
Mock didn’t hold back, telling her everything, whispering so their children wouldn’t hear. The world of ash and char. Zin’s white tower. The terrible creature assaulting her.
Grinda clutched onto Mock, burying her face into his chest. Zin was alone out there.
‘Have no fear, biala. We will prevail. Zin will be right again.’
‘I don’t want her right again. I want her back.’
They pressed their heads together. For a while they were still, breathing each other’s breaths, listening to each other’s heartbeats. They heard Grit snort in his sleep. Quip mewled. A frog was croaking continuously. Then Mock’s mouth was against hers, so soft against her lips she barely felt it.
Grinda kissed back. Mock kissed a little harder. He was careful, pushing against her defences slowly. He slipped his hand beneath the waist of her leggings. Grinda hesitated, then gave in, spreading her legs.
He rubbed her gently, gazing into her eyes. His long hair coursed down his broad shoulders. His beard tickled her chin as he kissed her. She could feel the hardness of him already, pressed against her thigh. She started to burn. She sucked in a breath as he rolled on top. Despite what she said, Grinda didn’t resist. She needed comfort and Mock always knew what she needed, even before she knew it herself.
Inside her. Deep inside her. Slow, quiet thrusting. They’d learnt how to be quiet after so many years stuck in a small tent with so many children. They barely moved. Grabbing her face, he pressed his forehead hard against hers as he looked deep into her eyes. She gave a shudder. Then Mock’s lips were against hers, stifling her cry. They gazed at each other for several moments, hearts pounding. He kissed her again, then rolled off her, pulling her tightly against him, so tightly she couldn’t move.
Xala opened her eyes. Going by the sounds of weary stirring from the rest of the camp, she assumed it was daylight, though it was hard to see against Black Bull’s chest. They’d barely moved last night, wrapped up tight in each other’s arms. Xala couldn’t remember how long she’d wept for. Hopefully not for too long. Her heart lurched in embarrassment. She was allowed to be sad but she should be strong enough not to cry. What did Bull think about it? Did he think less of her for it? He was still holding her. His arms tight around her, his body hard up against her. That was a good sign.
She refused to move. Comfortable. Warm in the coldness of the morning. And she didn’t want to disturb Bull. His arms were heavy. His chest rose and fell steadily. She couldn’t resist pressing her nose against him. The smell of him. She couldn’t describe it. All she knew was that it lifted her heart and made her burn in all the right places.
Xala looked up with a start as Bull chuckled. He was looking down on her, smiling, his eyes thick with sleep and yet somehow very bright. He’d never looked so handsome as he did then. She couldn’t explain it. It was almost as though something had opened up in his face. Gone were the shadows.
‘Your eyelashes tickle,’ he said. He pulled her harder against her, so he could press his face into her hair. ‘Ah, you smell good. Do you feel better?’
She nodded, hating how quickly her throat swelled with tears. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I should be stronger.’
‘She’s your sister.’
She shrugged and looked away, watching the rest of the camp as they prepared for the oncoming day. A baby started to wail. The younger children were already playing.
‘You should tell me more about her,’ he said.
She swallowed, and it felt like she swallowed a mouthful of prickles. ‘Not right now.’
It was one of the strangest days. It was surprising, uplifting. She had never felt such love for her people. They all knew why they had made the journey. They all knew Zin needed them. That morning, the three shamri who’d arrived with them, reiterated the urgency.
‘Do not fear her. She is our protector,’ shamri Tilly had told them, her grey hair tinged red against the sun. ‘Part of the Mother. Talk with her, touch her, open your hearts.’
‘She’s in need of you now,’ continued shamri Shuk. ‘Never forget what she has done for you. Never forget what she has done for our land.’
‘The Morgrar seeks to destroy her,’ finished shamri Pock. ‘Show it how we, the Quarthi, the Mother’s children, defeat our enemy. Let us drive back the Darkness.’
Xala had had her doubts. The Quarthi feared Zin. They had once despised her. Part-faqwa that she was. It didn’t seem to matter now. Something had changed. Perhaps it was the power of the shamris’ words. Maybe their magic had a part to play. Perhaps it was simply time. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. Xala looked up into Zin’s branches, grinning. There were children everywhere, climbing, swinging, shrieking. Mothers sat suckling their babies at her roots. People brought their belongings and pelts and food so they could spend the day sitting under her great canopy, talking and laughing and eating. Old men and women helped sweep away the dead leaves.
They touched her. They spoke with her. Zin’s branches swayed beneath the weight of children. Xala bit her lip. She must be happy. She must be.
Xala found her parents sitting in their usual spot, watching above as Quess and Grit climbed Zin’s branches. Her mother was tearfully happy, her father quiet. There was some very bad bruising around his throat.
‘Abba?’ He turned and her heart sank. ‘What’s wrong? What’s happened?’
He forced a weary smile. ‘It is nothing, Xala.’ And he turned back to Zin, a faraway look in his eyes. Amma gave her a look which told her not to ask.
Trying not to think about it, Xala took Bull’s hand and they spent the day together with Zin. They hardly spent a moment apart anymore. None of her friends were here yet. She didn’t know when Uncle Croki and her cousins were due to arrive. The rest of the clan would arrive in groups every few days. Overall, it would take weeks.
Bull laid a hand on her knee as they sat together eating through a basket of nuts.
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘Why?’
‘I’m always quiet.’
‘More quiet than usual.’
Xala bit her lip. She felt her cheeks heat up. Her palms became sweaty and she wiped them down her kinta. Tonight was the night. She’d never wanted something so much in all her life.
He took her hand and squeezed it. ‘Tell me. Is it about your sister?’
She shook her head.
She turned away, then turned back. His eyes seemed to swallow her up.
She stood. ‘Come with me.’
He stood and she took his hand, dragging him back to camp.
With so many warriors content to sleep beneath the communal awnings, she would be surprised if there wasn’t at least one deer-hide tent waiting to be used.
She was right. There were several, all folded up amid their pile of supplies. She hauled one in a heavy lump over her shoulder, walking alongside Bull as he passed her curious sidelong glances. She chose a spot far enough away from her parents but close enough to the centre of camp.
And when you’re ready for your first time, keep close.
‘Another tent,’ he sighed. ‘Who’s this one for?’
Xala didn’t answer, rolling out the hide onto the ground
Bull watched her work. He should help, but they both knew he was a fumbler. He was still so new to all of this. Besides, he liked the way she moved. The way her muscles rolled under her skin. Particularly the ones in her sides as she bent over and laid out the heavy deer-hide. Her stomach was smooth and flat. The kinta accentuated her hips. And her breasts—they were always fun to watch. The way they drooped when she bent over. The way they flattened as she lay down. How could two little bits of flesh be so fascinating?
He dragged his hand over his thick stubble. She stood and turned, her dark nipples tinged red against the setting sun. The light caught the golden streaks in her hair and made her dark eyes shine. He stared. There couldn’t be a more perfect woman. Inside or out. He clenched and unclenched his fists. All that muscle and strength but so much softness and vulnerability too. He remembered how she lay weeping in his arms the previous night. It had been one of the best nights of his life. To hold her. To protect her. To keep her warm and safe.
She was his. She is mine.
She gave a crooked smile that sent his heart thundering. ‘You going to help or are you just going to stand there uselessly, gawking at me?’
‘Just give me a moment,’ he said in a strained voice. When she turned away, Bull adjusted his kinta.
Laughter. Darkness. Cold hard floor beneath his knees. The rasping grunts.
See what I mean? He wants it. He’s asking for it.
Black Bull shivered, then shook himself. Forget it. Forget it! It’s in the past. Lifting his chin, he went to help Xala.
It didn’t take long, and when they were done, he stood back, rubbing his hands together. ‘So who’s the lucky family?’
Xala wore a secretive smile as she stood at the tent flap. Shaking her head, she entered.
And that’s when Bull suddenly realised. He grabbed onto the tent to steady himself. He stumbled as he entered, dropping to his knees. The sun had almost set and the walls of the tent gleamed red. His mouth went dry. Xala was on her knees within the bundle of pelts, her eyes shining.
Bull ran his hand through the stubble on his head. She smiled. He gave a weak smile back.
‘You look nervous,’ she said as she began to unbraid her hair.
‘No, I’m not.’ His voice sounded too high. He watched as her long slim fingers brushed through her dark hair. He shifted on his knees, trying to find relief for his aching cock. Soon, she was done and it flowed down her shoulders in a dark curtain, draping over her perfect shoulders, over the beautiful swell of her breasts. He stared at her navel, at the hole that was her bellybutton, suddenly feeling a desperate urge to tickle it with his tongue.
She unfastened her kinta.
He stared. He’d only caught lucky glimpses of it before now—that dark thatch of hair. So many secrets hidden within. She spread her knees, exposing her soft woman’s flesh. He licked his lips as his heart hammered.
She held out her arms. ‘You ready?’
‘What about …?’ He closed his eyes at the sound of screaming in his head. At the laughter and mockery. The scars on his back burned like little tongues of flame.
He jerked back, eyes snapping open, as Xala touched his face. Grabbing her wrist, he waited as the terrible sounds slowly muffled into nothing. He kissed the heel of her palm, then pressed it against his cheek, staring hard into those beautiful, wide eyes.
‘How do you do that?’ he panted.
She smiled, then drew him close, kissing him on the mouth. Her hands fell to his hips, so small and light against him. He widened his thighs, his cock bulging against his kinta like a pole.
She chuckled. Pulling away, she sat back in the pile of pelts, cross-legged, hands relaxed on her thighs. Perfectly comfortable with herself, not embarrassed at all about the way womanhood was stretched wide. He could see everything. Her soft wrinkled opening and that little nub he was yet to explore.
His hands were shaking as he unfastened his own kinta. A curious expression passed over her face as she dropped her eyes to his cock. Purple and hard. A bead of seed welled at the tip. It was throbbing in time with his heartbeat as he crawled over.
She lay down beneath him, trusting and vulnerable. Her breasts flattened against her chest. Her thighs were spread wide. Bull couldn’t help but stare with hot burning eyes at the slender curve of her throat. He gently slid his hand behind her neck, smoothing his thumb over the ridge of bone down the front of her throat until he reached that little dip at the base between the collar bones.
‘You’re so beautiful.’ He kissed the corner of her jaw. ‘And amazing.’ He kissed the corner of her mouth. ‘And strong and brave.’ He sucked the nape of her neck. ‘And utterly perfect for me.’ He kissed her softly on the lips. Then harder until Xala had to break free with a gasp. Throwing her arms around his neck, she arched her neck and laughed.
He kissed down her throat, stopping at her breasts where he sucked and nibbled at her perfect little brown nipples, sucking them until they were hard little knots and her breasts glistened with the wetness of his saliva. Breasts. He sat up on his knees, cupping them between his giant hands. Squeezing them. Kneading them. She was watching him with a crooked smile. Breasts. The Toths were right about one thing: there was a God and he was a man.
He bent over to kiss her again, his long braid pooling onto her chest. Then he lay on top of her—carefully, worried he would crush her. She might be big for a woman but he was twice her size at least. And he wasn’t just big in his body.
Bull paused. ‘You’re a virgin, aren’t you?’
Xala froze, then narrowed her eyes. ‘Does it matter?’
‘No,’ he said quickly. ‘It’s just … won’t it hurt?’
Her eyes softened. She touched his cheek. ‘It’ll hurt but only a moment.’
He grabbed her hand. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, even for a moment.’
She wrapped her arms around his neck. ‘You want a life with me, don’t you?’ He nodded. ‘Well, what do you expect? How much pain do you think I’ll be in when we have babies?’
His eyes widened. Babies. Children. He grinned. She laughed.
‘Come on.’ She wrapped her arms more tightly around his neck, drawing him to her lips.
‘I’m big, Xala. That’s one of the reasons why they call me Bull.’
‘I know.’ She grinned. ‘Don’t you think I know? I’m not afraid.’
‘Liar.’ He brushed his hand through her fringe. ‘You’re a liar.’
‘Just do it. I want you inside me. Fuck the pain.’ And she wrapped her legs tightly around his waist. Reaching down between their bodies, she seized onto him, guiding him towards her opening.
Bull leant heavily on his forearms, keeping his weight away as best he could. Her hand felt surprisingly small around his cock. He could feel the shock of her warm, wetness against his tip. He rolled his eyes, struggling to keep control of himself. He fisted his big hands into the pelts. He felt the big tendons in his neck tighten and bulge. If he didn’t enter her now …
He thrust. She sucked in a breath, shutting her eyes. He thrust again. Her face rippled in pain, her teeth gritted between thin lips. He should get control of himself. He should slow down. He should stop. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t. Against all his will he continued to pound into her. Like an animal. Like a dog.
‘Xala,’ he breathed.
She grabbed onto him more tightly, pulling him closer, until his face was pressed into the pelts, into her dark pool of hair. ‘Don’t stop. Don’t stop,’ she rasped in his ear. ‘Keep going.’
So he did. Her body was tense. Her arms were like chains around him. Her fingers dug hard into the big muscles in his shoulders. There was a sharp pain in his earlobe. He grunted, almost jerking back in surprise. It was Xala. She was biting him.
He gripped the pelts so tightly veins bulged like hard ropes in the back of his hands and in his fingers. Thrust. Thrust. Thrust. He’d never been so hard. He’d never felt so big. And Xala was like a tight little fist around him, becoming tighter and tighter at every passing moment. He glimpsed her face—it was strained with pain, her eyes clamped shut, her lips white in her face. Then finally …
He arched his back with a part-groan, part-roar, as he emptied into her in a long, hot gush. Pressing his face into her hair, he slumped against her. Breathing with her. Sweating with her. Hearts racing together. Xala’s legs were still clamped around his waist. Her fingers still dug into his shoulders.
Smoothing away her damp hair, he kissed her on the ear. ‘I love you, Xala.’
She touched his cheek. ‘I love you, too.’
Grinning, Bull took her hand and kissed each of her perfect, beautiful fingers, then pressed his face into her neck with a sigh.