18.

Please note: The last third (Mock’s portion) has been altered 03/09/2019.

 

Aaron woke first. It had been a dreadful night for sleep. The cot was already far too small for him and was almost useless for the both of them. She was curled tightly into his chest, knee jammed in his groin, her hair pushed in his face. His right arm was numb as she lay against it, his fingers aching. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sunlight glared through the small window. He heard the voices of his soldiers outside. His eyes lingered over the pile of now dry clothes lying discarded on the floor. The little knife lay on the desk. He smelt her hair. He hadn’t touched her all night, just as he promised, and his body was aching.

Her breathing changed. She stirred a little, forgetting herself, then froze in his arms. It was a long time before she drew enough courage to look up at him.

‘Good morning,’ he said.

She didn’t respond. Didn’t move. Dark eyes wide.

‘We need to move. The men are already up and the day is late.’

She glanced up at window, checked to make sure her towel was still in place, then slid from the bed. Aaron dressed quickly before leaving the girl to change on her own.

The rain was gone, the sun bright, but the trail was still muddy. Mud flicked in the air, making it treacherous for the horses. By the end, they decided to journey through the grassy fields and open farmland.

Zin was leading the group. Lord Aaron gripped her wrists lightly, murmuring instructions in her ear, as she learnt how to use the reins. He saw his men’s dark looks, tried to ignore their angry muttering. He was too far gone to care anymore. What was done, was done.

They stopped to camp out in the open that night. It wasn’t far now, another week and a half until he reached his home—Greakin Landing. Where his mother and sister awaited him. He had inherited it from his father. It would have been Jeffrey’s, if their childless Uncle Frederick hadn’t died and left the town of Brickburk untenanted. A much bigger holding. More powerful. Richer. On the bay and home to fleets of powerful ships.

He wondered if his mother and sister had heard the news. Had the king? Had Jeffrey sent word of his little brother’s betrayal yet? Likely. Aaron clenched his fists, then straightened them again, gritting his teeth. Pain burned through his broken knuckles.

Beneath it all, his brother was a whiny, cowardly son of a bitch. How had he not known it before? The way he used to beat kids smaller than himself as a child. The way he slapped and raped the maids. He had even murdered Bronto, their puppy, because he had pissed on his favourite pillow. And the way he treated his mother (Jeffrey’s step-mother) … She had been so much lighter, freer, when Jeffrey had inherited Brickburk and left. Though she would never admit to it.

Now, as Aaron gazed up at the twinkling sky, he wondered if Jeffrey might have murdered him—their Uncle Frederick. He had been a well man until after Jeffrey’s visit those two years back. So much to inherit. So much power. Had it been poison? Had he made him drunk and smothered him in his sleep? The physician reported it as a collapse of the lungs. But it didn’t take much to encourage lies. A few silver coins, perhaps. Maybe blackmail or threats. He was the king’s nephew, after all. Wealthy. Powerful. Maybe he had even murdered their father. Aaron quickly discounted it. Their father had been sick. Riddled with rot. Jeffrey couldn’t be blamed for everything.

Nevertheless, King Guston, the last of the three senior Clapton brothers still living, better watch himself.

Aaron had always known his brother’s evils but hadn’t truly known it, much less done anything about it. He glanced at Zin, who was munching contentedly on a leg of mutton, grease dripping down her chin as she gazed into the flames. The fire lit up her eyes, glazed her hair red. All it had taken was a woman. An unusual woman. He touched his temple where her spear had almost killed him. He thought he felt a lump there, though it could have been his imagination.

His knights sat with him around the fire. He knew their frustration, their irritation. Felt it like a sting against the back of his neck. She shouldn’t be seated with them. She shouldn’t be eating the choicest meat. It was an insult.

He looked at Sir Cletus, who shook his head and spat. His words from the other day blared in Aaron’s mind: You need to be more than a man, Aaron, you need to be a lord.

Aaron kept her close again that night. In his arms. She had lain away, at first. But he would have none of that. Not anymore. She didn’t resist but didn’t do much else when he pulled her against him. What he wouldn’t have given for some privacy, but the next town was too far away. He buried his head into the back of her neck. Very soon, she would give herself over to him, surely. But not tonight. Not in the presence of his men.

Maybe tomorrow. In a town. In a village. In an inn. A second chapel with another terrible cot. Goddamnit, he’d even take a stable and roll in the shit. Anything to get rid of the terrible ache. If he had another dream about her tonight, he would explode.

Anything. Anywhere.

Tomorrow.

*

He didn’t know. None of them knew. Not even the guards who always kept ‘watch’, chuckling and muttering to each other, farting and spitting. Drinking when they should have been focused. Eating when they should have kept their bodies light.

But Zin knew. She was a great hunter, after all. Not even her father could escape her notice. Little more than a whisper through the branches. A fleeting shadow against the moonlight. Her ears pricked up at the sound of his light tread, the suck of his breath. She swore she could smell his sweat. He was circling. She felt his eyes on her. His excitement. His triumph.

The lord remained unaware. He wasn’t asleep but his eyes were closed and she knew his mind was heavy. He was always thinking. Always worrying. It would kill him one day. It would kill him now. She felt a surge of sympathy, then pushed it roughly aside. She needed to be heartless, to be cruel. Her life depended on it.

When they slept out in the open, like they were now, he always kept a knife on him, in the left pocket of his leggings. She felt it now. Pressed up against her. Weighty. Hard. She could kill him and run, meet with her father and be home again.

Her fingers were light. A good hunter knew how to sneak. She felt the cool wood of the handle. Grasped it. He didn’t budge. His breathing didn’t change.

This was it.

She yanked it free and before he had a chance to stop her, she was pressing the blade hard against his throat. He gazed up at her, his eyes bright with shock.
From somewhere behind her a scream shattered the night. Shouting. Bushes thrashed. A terrible, almost beast-like, roar. Swords clanged.

‘There! There!’

‘Stop him!’

‘Look out!’

Horses screamed. More shouting, a second scream, followed by a gurgle. A branch snapped with a crack!

Zin pressed the blade down harder until the lord was forced to arch his neck. No longer so shocked, his eyes were black with rage. He bared his teeth.

Do it, do it, do it. Just one fast slit. It will be over in seconds. Then you will be on your way home. But her hand felt as stiff and as heavy as a rock. Useless. And when she tried to look the Paleskin in the eye, she was forced to turn away.

The Mother take my weak heart!

Leaping to her feet, she charged after her father.

*

Lord Aaron let the girl go. Grabbing up his sword, he joined his men.

Five soldiers were already dead. The creature was fast, a mere shadow in the dark, the gleam of his blade and the flash of his teeth the only proof that he was more than just a phantom. His knights were still standing, a few soldiers had vanished, likely fled or else dragged lifeless into the trees. The flash of a blade again. A shower of blood as another man fell. The savage was faster than the wind, but he was only one man against many. He would tire.

Then Aaron saw Lucas. The boy hung back, letting the two knights do most of the fighting, but he was much too close.

‘Get back, Lucas.’ The boy glanced over at him, then back to their enemy. ‘I command you to get back, or God help me you’ll never squire for me again.’

The boy pulled back reluctantly.

Sir Cletus stepped in to meet the next attack, Sir Brandon at his side. Two against one and they couldn’t make contact. The creature vanished, only to reappear elsewhere through the trees. Sir Ream turned with a bellow at a second, unexpected attack—Zin. Her blade flashed, her teeth gleamed, but it was only a feint. Dodge. Duck. Vanishing into the darkness in a swirl of hair. A distraction to help the other.

The phantom blade flashed through the night. Steel met flesh and Sir Cletus twisted with a cry, clutching at his throat. The old knight’s sword fell as he dropped with a thud to his knees.

‘No!’ Aaron shouted.

‘Zin!’ came a bellow.

Abba!’ the girl cried back. And there followed a stream of native words.

Aaron’s heart thundered. The muscles in his thighs tightened. He caught movement in the corner of his eye. With a roar, he slammed down on the savage’s bloodied sword. Not so fast now, no longer a mere shadow, but a tangible, living man who bled and breathed and died. The savage stumbled back, and for the first time Aaron glimpsed his face. It was hard to see but Aaron thought he looked familiar. Yes. The savage at the battle. The man he almost killed before Zin took Aaron down with her spear. It was a face hard to forget. It was like a wolf’s. Mean and hungry. He was older. Was he her father, uncle, guardian? Maybe her lover? It didn’t matter. He needed to die.

Sir Cletus, my friend, my most loyal knight.

Their swords clashed. The power of the man! The hilt vibrated in his hands. He felt the thrill of it ricochet right down into his knees, and Aaron was forced to take a step back. The savage’s face pulled back into a wolfish snarl as he hammered down again and again. The savage fought widely, all strength and fury—but no skill.

Aaron side-stepped, jabbed out, managing to nick his opponent’s side as he whirled away. Then Sir Brandon stepped in, sword arcing over his head. Sir Ream came from behind.

They had him.

‘You’re mine!’ Aaron’s voice didn’t sound like his at all, deep and gravelly and filled with triumph. He swung his sword.

Abba!’

Aaron gasped. Something ripped like fire through the back of his thigh, his knee buckled, and suddenly he was on the ground. The savage raised his sword with a roar.

Zin screamed something. Then she was on top of Aaron, arm raised defensively against the savage’s strike. Caught by surprise, the savage’s slash went wide. Enough time for Sir Ream to take the advantage. The savage twisted around—too late. Sir Ream battered the sword out of his hand, so hard the savage tripped and fell. The knight stood over him, ready for the final blow.

‘Stop!’ Aaron roared. ‘He’s mine!’

He staggered to his feet, his knee buckling again. Pain seared through his leg. He looked back and saw the tear in his britches, the blood. Zin bared her teeth as she clutched his bloodied blade.

‘No!’ She slashed out again.

He kicked her away. ‘Somebody hold her down!’ Lucas suddenly appeared, face flush with rage as he loomed over her, sword in hand.

She screamed again. ‘He’s my father. He’s my father! Please!’

Aaron glanced at Sir Cletus’s body, then joined Sir Brandon and Sir Ream as they pressed the points of their swords against the savage’s throat. Sir Ream spat out a mouthful of blood. Sir Brandon was gasping for breath.

‘Move,’ Aaron told them. They did and he replaced their swords with his own.
The savage’s eyes flashed, unafraid. ‘Do it!’

Aaron raised his eyebrows, surprised by his English. He pressed down his sword harder.

Abba!’ the girl wailed. She began to cry. ‘No, no, no, no, no.’

Aaron licked his lips. ‘You’re her father.’

A hiss. ‘Yes.’ Blood trickled down his neck. He was a big man, and the seams in the shoulders had torn. The tunic stuck to his side, bloodied, where Aaron had nicked him. He looked ridiculous in civilised clothes, with his long, tangled hair and matted beard and that fierce, wild look. The fact that he had gotten so far into Toth without being killed was astounding.

The beast bared his blood-stained teeth. ‘Do it, faqwa. Don’t make me suffer that pasty white face any longer.’

‘No!’ There came a feminine choke. Then, ‘Aaron.’

Caught by surprise, Aaron almost turned to look at her before remembering himself. One false move and the savage could take the advantage. Her voice was frail but the sound of his name seemed to echo in the night. It buzzed in his head. Pounded in his chest alongside his heart.

‘Aaron,’ she repeated. ‘Please. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. Just let him go. I’ll-I’ll do anything you want.’

‘No, you won’t!’ the savage snarled.

Now it was Aaron baring his teeth. Do it. Do it. You must. He murdered Sir Cletus. Yours and Father’s most loyal knight. And the rest of your men. They must be avenged. He could sense the knights waiting, their expectations … their doubts.

He tightened his grip on the hilt.

The girl was weeping.

‘Shut it!’ his young squire hissed.

‘Don’t you speak to her!’ Aaron snapped. God help me.

‘Lord Aaron,’ Sir Brandon said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. ‘This must be done.’

Aaron shrugged him off. ‘Get off me. Who’s the lord here?’

Aaron was still gritting his teeth, the breath hissing between them. The girl had fallen silent. Aaron glared into the eyes of the savage, who glared right back. There was no fear there. Only hate. Those black eyes, just like Zin’s had been back in the forest when she had slit her own throat.

Her father.

His sword pulled back.

‘Lord Aaron!’ Sir Ream tried to shove past him, only to stop abruptly when Aaron pressed his blade to his throat. Then Aaron tilted his head back as he, too, felt cold, hard steel press against his own throat.

‘Has it really come to this?’ spoke a voice. ‘Sir Cletus is dead. The savage must die. The girl too.’

‘You’re going to kill me, Brandon?’

The knight didn’t answer. The blade didn’t move.

‘Leave.’ The word caught in Aaron’s throat. ‘Leave,’ he repeated more clearly, ‘the both of you. I relieve you of your duties. I will not hold you in treason. Take Sir Cletus’s body and the rest of my soldiers and return to Greakin Landing. Inform my mother that I will return soon. That I am safe. I trust you will tell her nothing of this.’

Silence filled the night. The skin creased between Sir Ream’s eyes. Aaron released his blade. Brandon did the same. They all stood looking at each other. Sir Ream shook his head but said nothing. Brandon was hard-faced. The savage remained on the ground, sneering up at them all. How much had he understood? Everything, by the look of it. Aaron could see the glint in his eyes.

‘He’ll kill you,’ Sir Brandon said.

‘Maybe.’

‘The king will not—’

‘I said, leave. Now.’

The two knights passed each other grim looks, then sheathed their swords. They turned away, stiffly, mutely. They were furious. Their boots thudded softly as they walked away. Horses grunted as they were readied to depart. There were only two soldiers left plus the two knights. And Lucas, who was watching Aaron with bright, incredulous eyes.

Abba!’

‘Wait.’ Aaron lifted his sword to the savage’s throat. ‘Wait until they’re gone.’

They packed camp quickly, though it seemed to take forever.

‘Lord Aaron,’ came Sir Ream’s voice.

Aaron looked at the knights, they gazed back. They were giving him one last chance. Shaking his head, Aaron dropped his eyes.

Finally, they kicked at their mounts and soon the sound of their departure muffled into the distance. He stepped away from the savage. The savage sprang to his feet, apparently unaffected by his wounds. Aaron gripped his sword hard, prepared for anything, but the savage wasn’t after Aaron.

Abba.’

‘Zin.’

She flew into his arms. The savage embraced her and kissed her cheek and murmured in her ear.

Aaron left them to it, sheathing his sword as he hobbled away. The adrenaline kept the pain at bay but his knee buckled. He sat with his back against a tree, suddenly exhausted.

He was trembling. It was hard to breathe.

He dropped his head into his hands.

*

Mock gripped his daughter tightly, face pressed into her shoulder.

‘I’m sorry, abba. For everything.’

‘Don’t, Zin.’ He kissed her on the cheek. ‘Don’t. I’ve got you now. We can go home.’

She started to tremble, her shoulders began to shudder. Then she was sobbing. ‘I can’t believe … I can’t believe …’ She gasped and pressed her wet face into Mock’s chest. ‘I missed you.’ She clutched him more tightly.

He waited, simply holding her, until the worst of her shaking was over. Finally, she stilled and looked up, her face pink and swollen with tears. Mock gently brushed his thumbs across her wet eyelashes, then laid his hands on her shoulders. She was smiling now, her eyes shining. She looked so young.

So young.

He pulled back a little so he could properly look at her. ‘Did they touch you?’

She shook her head.

‘Did they break you?’ Mock’s eyes fell upon the raw, healing gash around her throat. He brushed his fingers against it. His heart hammered. He turned in the direction of the Paleskin with a growl.

Zin seized his wrist. ‘No, abba. I did it. I did it.’

And Mock understood. His brave girl. His warrior daughter. He felt the pride swell in his chest.

She took in his Paleskin clothes. ‘You look silly.’

‘You look worse.’

They smiled at each other. Mock’s eyes were burning with tears. Whole and intact. He couldn’t believe it.

She touched his bloodied side. ‘You’re injured.’

He grunted. ‘Just a scratch.’

She nodded, then looked over her shoulder to the Paleskin behind.

‘Zin.’ Mock touched her hand. ‘We must go.’

She looked back at Mock, biting her lip. Suddenly fearful, Mock took her wrist. He knew that look. The Mother take him, he knew that look! He felt a rush of anger, of fear. Had the Paleskin possessed her already? He bared his teeth. ‘Zin, let’s go. Your mother will be in pieces.’

She looked at the waiting horse, at the bundle of supplies strapped to its back, then back over her shoulder.

‘Zin!’ Mock yanked her ahead. Zin yanked back, pulling out of his grasp. He glared at her. ‘Zin, don’t even think about it.’

She took a step back. ‘We can’t just leave him.’

Zin.’ He went to seize her but she slipped through his grasp.

The lord watched her approach, still seated, the moon glowing against his eyes. Zin stopped at a distance. Opened, shut her mouth. Mock stood at her side, his hand wrapped around the handle of his slashing blade. The lord’s eyes took him in, dropping to his knife. His face darkened. ‘Make it quick.’

Mock stepped towards him.

Abba.’ She seized his wrist. ‘No. He saved us.’

‘We wouldn’t have needed saving, Zin, if he hadn’t taken you in the first place.’

‘I wouldn’t have needed saving because I’d be dead—or worse.’ Mock looked at her. Her voice deepened. ‘I owe him.’

Before Mock could speak, she turned back to the Paleskin. ‘Come with us.’

Mock shifted on his feet. He tightened his grip on the slashing blade. ‘This is a waste of time.’

Abba,’ she snapped.

Mock gritted his teeth. His stomach twisted. This was not going the way he planned. She should want to kill him. They should already be charging their way back home.

The lord gazed at her. His leg was stretched out at an awkward angle. His shirt was dark with blood. He was sweating under the eyes. ‘I can’t.’

‘Why not?’

‘That way is death. For you, for me, for your father. You’d be a fool to go back and I’d be an extra fool to go with you. Come with me.’

She gazed at him, then slowly shook her head.

‘Come with me, Goddamnit, or you’ll die! Why do you think I saved you? Why do you think I brought you all the way out here? Why do you think …?’ He gritted his teeth. ‘I sacrificed everything! For you.’

‘So she could be your slave,’ Mock sneered. He was sweating. The handle of his blade dug against his palm. ‘So you could fuck her any time or any way that you could. Not my daughter. Not my daughter.’

‘Never,’ the Paleskin snarled. ‘I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t do that. And I won’t.’

Mock scoffed. ‘The words of a Paleskin are as weightless as air.’

‘What kind of father are you? What kind of father willingly thrusts his child into danger? My brother will find you and destroy you. It’s only a matter of time.’

‘And she’d be safer with you?’ Mock laughed. ‘You? Here? In the middle of Paleskin hell? Even if I did believe you would be good to her, you can’t protect her. Look at you.’ He sneered as he ran his eyes up and down him. He turned, gesturing at the campsite, at the dead. ‘Your men have abandoned you. You are weak and alone.’

‘I’m still a lord. I am the king’s nephew! I have power. You have nothing.’ Mock stiffened. The Paleskin’s eyes flashed at Zin. ‘A strong arm and wooden sticks won’t save you, Zin. But I can protect you.’

Zin was silent. ‘I don’t need protection.’

The Paleskin frowned at her. Mock almost grinned. His daughter: strong and brave. It was the wrong thing to say.

His eyes flicked back to Mock. ‘If you take her back, she will die. My brother will find her, rape and torture her, then murder her. If she isn’t already dead when he finds her. She is safest with me. You know it. I know it.’

Mock frowned at a sudden rush of doubt. He looked at Zin, who gazed back. Those big brown eyes. They looked so wide in her face. He recalled how she looked at the battle. On her knees. Bowed over. Half dead. The horror he felt.

Never again. Not if he could help it.

‘I know you want to do what you can for your people,’ the Paleskin continued. ‘But dying is useless. Surely, you must see that.’ Slowly bending his wounded leg, he used the tree to haul himself to his feet. He unsheathed his sword. ‘I’m not going to let you die, Zin,’ he pointed his sword at Mock, ‘and you’re not going to take her. Not back there. Not to my brother.’

Mock’s heart was pounding. The Paleskin sword gleamed pink in the growing morning light. His fingers felt numb as he relaxed his hand from around his blade. The Paleskin was right. The Mother take him, he was right!

‘I won’t leave—’ Zin began.

‘And there’s more,’ the Paleskin continued before she could argue. He took a breath. ‘There is a chance … there is a chance to help your people.’

Mock froze. ‘What?’

‘The chance is slim. Very slim. I don’t think it will be possible but … but it’s something, at least.’

‘What is it?’ Zin said, wide-eyed.

‘We can petition the king,’ he told her. ‘You and I. Petition the king to withdraw his forces.’

Silence fell in the brightening dawn. A bird began to twitter.

‘He would never do it,’ Mock said.

‘Most likely not, but it’s better than your plan, which is no plan at all.’ He turned to Zin. They gazed at each other silently. She was frowning, her forehead all crinkled up. Her lips were slightly parted.

That look again, and Mock knew she had made her decision.

As had he.

Mock narrowed his eyes. ‘Leave us, Zin.’ She turned to Mock with a start, as though she had forgotten about him. ‘Leave us. I want to talk with the faqwa alone.’

She was looking confused, her eyes dark with uncertainty. Her back was stiff as she walked away.

Mock’s ears were burning. He couldn’t believe what he was about to do. But what other choice did he have? He stepped up to the Paleskin, invading his space. The Paleskin didn’t flinch or back away. He lowered his sword but didn’t sheathe it. A good start.

‘I still don’t trust you, faqwa.’

‘After all that you’ve seen tonight, do you really think I’d hurt her?’

A second bird started to warble. Light gleamed against the horizon. It brought out the lines around the Paleskin’s mouth, the dimple in his chin. His jaw was strong. Young. As young as Mock had once been when he had first met Grinda. But his eyes—they were wary and hard. Old.

Mock’s eyes travelled over him. Good stance. Strong arm. Skilled and cunning. And he could withstand one of Mock’s heaviest blows. Not many men could claim that.
Broad shoulders. Strong neck. Big hands. ‘Remove your tunic.’

‘Excuse me?’

Mock hissed through his teeth. ‘I said, remove your tunic. I need to know if you’re enough man for my daughter.’

Sheathing his sword, the Paleskin obeyed.

The Paleskin glared at him as Mock studied him closely. Strong core. Stronger back. Lots of scars, which meant he’d had experience in war. He was as pale as the moon but long, ropey veins encircled his arms. He was not like the lords Mock had encountered as a slave in Fairmont: smooth and plump and useless.

He was stronger than he seemed but that wasn’t the most important thing.

‘You love her.’

‘Yes.’

‘You will always love her.’ A command, not a question.

The Paleskin’s gaze drifted to Zin—and something changed in his face. Softened. That look. He had it too. ‘Until the end.’

‘Make her happy.’

The Paleskin nodded.

‘Protect her. Love her. Keep her safe. If anything happens to her I’ll know, and I’ll hunt you down and destroy you.’

‘By the time anything happens to her, I’ll already be dead.’

Mock looked over his shoulder towards his mount. The muscles in his stomach screwed into a tight ball. He had to go. Get back to his family as fast as possible.

He returned to Zin. His stomach was in such a knot it was hard to breathe. He felt cold.

Her face crumpled and she fell into his arms. ‘Abba.’

Mock held her tight. She was so warm and vital and it made him remember … made him remember so many things. The first time he held her in his arms, so small and wrinkled and pink, with that tuft of thick dark hair. Her little hand in his as they foraged for nuts. Carrying her on his shoulders as they forded the depths of the great river. Her first hunt. Her first kill. Growing into a woman. Her anger and sadness—her loneliness.

He gently pulled away. She looked up at him with sorrow in her eyes. Her cheeks were wet with tears. The fact that this might be the very last time they’d see each other wasn’t lost on her.

‘Zin.’ It was hard to speak, his mouth dry. ‘Biala.’

More tears spilled down her cheeks. ‘I love you, abba. Tell amma I love her. And Xala and Quess and Grit. So very much. Kiss Quip for me. And tell them … tell them I won’t fail them.’

He nodded, swallowed, then released her, marching over to his horse. He mounted. Mock could feel her eyes on his back but didn’t dare steal one last glance, barely holding himself together as it was.

With a kick, he galloped into the pink horizon.

 

19.

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