Mock stared in disbelief. What had happened?
It was as though his nightmares were finally coming to life. Thall had been right. The Morgrar was coming. The Morgrar was here.
The Paleskins had cut down close to a third of the forest. Great stumps and empty holes littered the landscape. The dust sat thick in the air, dimming the glow of the sun. But all of that was nothing compared with the sludge. It bubbled up from the ground, sucking at the Paleskin’s boots, at the wheels of their machines. Filling the air with its stench. The Paleskins were concerned, he could see, pointing and shouting at each other—they weren’t entirely stupid—but they didn’t stop. Tying scarfs around their noses and mouths, they continued with their destruction, slopping through the sludge like it didn’t matter. And when they got bogged, they simply leveraged the machine free and pushed onto the next tree.
Mock ducked when a Paleskin glanced his way. He was hiding high up on a cliff’s edge, just above the entrance to the caves. The Paleskins had bypassed his people. Most of the work was now further ahead, which gave him a good chance of sneaking inside without being seen. But there were still a number of Paleskins cleaning up the wreckage left behind. It would be a huge risk but there was no choice: he had to get back to his family. His heart pounded against his ribs. Sweat trickled down his spine. Were Grinda and his children still alive? Had the Paleskins found them? What would he find inside?
He gritted his teeth. Questions were useless. He needed answers.
The Paleskin turned away to speak to his companion.
He scuttled down the cliff like a lizard. Every moment he was braced for a shout. His shoulders bunched up around his neck. His cheek scraped against the rock. His heavy breaths blew dust from the rock and back into his face. But the shout never came and he quickly jumped behind a wall of tall bushes hugging the cliffside.
He fell to his knees, gasping, listening hard for discovery. Nothing. There was laughter. A shout. The constant whirr of machinery. He looked up towards the entrance. It was hard to see, backed up behind a tumble of rocks. Climbing plants hung down in a curtain. The Quarthi had been careful when they had first entered not to tear off any of the vines. They looked just as intact now. A good sign. If the Paleskins had already attacked, they would have yanked them down.
Hope bloomed in his chest but his heart didn’t stop hammering all the way through the tunnel. His ears strained against the silence, a silence so deep he was surprised the sound of his heart didn’t echo against the walls.
The tunnels opened up and he took a breath, a slew of terrible images passing behind his eyes: blood, small broken bodies, innocent eyes wide and dull. But the cave was empty. He released his breath.
Enough of this.
He ran. As fast as he could on the slippery floor and through the heavy darkness. Rays of light filtered through the cracks in the ceiling but little more than that. It was enough. The further he got, the more proof he found that his family was alive: wrappings and waste, an old frayed blanket, busted waterskins. He stepped over ram shit.
No blood. No bodies.
He felt like he had run for hours before he finally heard them.
Whispering. A baby’s cry. Weeping. A sharp intake of breath. Then a word that almost made him collapse to his knees. ‘Abba!’
‘Xala,’ he breathed as he pulled her into his arms, lifting her off her feet. The other Quarthi warriors lowered their arrows and spears and knives. Gripping her tight, he breathed in her smell. ‘You all right?’
‘Of course! I missed you, abba.’
‘I missed you too. The Mother take me! I missed you.’ He lowered her to her feet. ‘How is everyone else?’
‘All is well, brother. Grinda. Your family.’ Croki clapped him on the shoulder. Mock gripped his shoulder back. In the dull light, his brother’s eyes were filled with questions.
‘She is safe,’ Mock answered.
The big warrior nodded. ‘Glad to hear it.’ He nodded towards the caves. ‘They are waitin’ for you. She is waitin’ for you. Don’t make ‘em wait any longer.’
Beyond the defending warriors, Mock crept carefully through the darkness. People were everywhere. Sprawled like sacks of grain. He could smell shit and piss and vomit. Such a tight space for so many people. But they were alive.
People watched as he passed, wide-eyed or murmuring quietly to each other. Then he saw them. Or at least, saw her. Her golden head gleamed in the dark like a beacon. He touched her shoulder. She turned.
Her smile seemed to blaze through the black. It made the cave spin.
‘Abba!’ A small weight slammed into his side. Quess, her little arms gripping him around the waist, her face buried into his hip.
Grinda’s blue eyes shone with disbelief, then with tears as she pulled him into her arms.
‘You’re alive,’ she croaked.
‘Of course.’ He kissed her on the cheek, on the jaw, on the neck. Then took her face and kissed her hard on the mouth.
She pulled back. She glanced around desperately, looking for a second person. It tied a painful knot in his stomach.
‘I left her, biala. I left her. She was happy. She is safe.’
Her face crumpled, then smoothed out. ‘I’m glad. I didn’t—’ she blinked back the tears—‘I hoped you wouldn’t return. We are stuck. There’s nowhere for us to go.’ Her eyes glittered up at him. ‘You should have stayed away.’
‘Never. My place is here, with you. With you all. I thought—’ he took a breath—‘I thought I would find you …’ He licked his lips.
She touched his cheek. ‘Don’t think of it. We’re all here.’
Mock took her hand and kissed it, then turned to the rest of his family: Xala, Grit, Quess. Little Quip was snuggled in the sling at Grinda’s chest. His eyes burned with tears at the sight of them.
‘Abba!’ Quess cried. ‘Pick me up!’
He did, pressing his face into the nape of her neck as he crushed her to his chest. Her little limbs. Her sweet smell. She giggled as he kissed her all over. Hoisting her in one arm, he looked at them all, taking them all in. ‘I missed you. I missed you all so much.’
‘We missed you too, abba.’ Grit slipped his little hand into Mock’s. Tears glittered on his cheeks.
Mock squeezed it. ‘I’ll never leave you again.
‘Never. This is where I belong.’
Mock shared a look with Grinda. Her face was all scrunched up with grief. She clutched Quip close to her chest. Their future was doomed. Their fate was assured. But at least they would face it together.
At the end.