17th week of pregnancy
Looking down at herself, Grinda smoothed her hands over her growing belly. She was showing a lot more now, looking like a real pregnant woman. She shifted her weight from leg to leg as she stood at the cliff edge, waiting for Mock’s return. She was starting to ache more, in various places, and it was getting harder and harder to stand for any significant amount of time.
After that scare a few weeks back, she hadn’t had any more bleeding. From what she could see, her daughter was fine. Though Grinda would have liked to have felt her kicking, just to be sure. The thought that she might be sick or hurt inside was a constant worry.
She sat, dangling her legs over the edge as she gazed into the distance. They were deep into the east now, where the open fields were few and the forests were sprawling and thick. She liked it. It felt comfortable, like home—if she’d ever really known such a thing. She laid her hand on her belly. It was because of her daughter that Grinda was becoming more and more aware of the life around her: the animals, the streams and zamas, the rocks and little lifeforms … the warks. She glanced over her shoulder towards the woods behind her. There was one close by. She could sense it. There was no need for chokra anymore: her daughter was too powerful for that, even when so young.
My daughter—a shamri. A witch. The thought made her smile.
She looked back ahead. Mock. She sensed him now but couldn’t see him. She lifted her hand against the glare of the setting sun, but the thickness of the woods kept him hidden. With the thought of meeting him down below, she stood, only to freeze when she felt something shift beneath her feet. There was a shudder, a loud crack! Then her feet were sinking. She only had time to suck in a breath before she fell.
Time slowed as the cool evening air slapped against her face and the ground came up to meet her. It wasn’t a high drop but the ground knocked the wind out of her, nonetheless. She tumbled over and over. Pain seared through her shoulder and through her hip. Her nose crunched. Then she stopped. Sprawled on her back, she squinted into the red sky, unable to move or think. Her ears rang. Something warm and wet trickled down the side of her head. She winced at a sting as she wiped it away. There was blood on her fingers and on her tunic.
She sat up with a start, grabbed at her shoulder, then at her hip with a hiss. But she quickly forgot about the pain as she lifted up her torn tunic and frantically checked herself. Except for a long, bleeding graze down the side of her belly, there didn’t seem to be any damage. She touched her belly all over, bracing herself for the worst. No pain. No pain. No pain. She took a shuddering breath, then glanced behind her. The top of the little cliff had given away, and she was sitting in a river of rocks and debris. She dropped her head into her hands.
Slowly, she eased herself to her feet, leaning on her right leg with a wince. There was no way she was going to try and climb back up. She would have to go around—and quickly. The last thing she wanted was for Mock to get back before she did and worry about her.
It didn’t take long but it was agony. She kept her arm tight against her chest so her shoulder wouldn’t burn, and she limped at every step. By the time she returned to their tent, she was panting. At least she’d returned in time. She had hoped to wash off the dirt and blood before Mock got back but had only managed to wet her face by the time he arrived.
They stared at each other: Grinda’s face still smeared in pink blood; Mock mounted on Winter, face frozen, hands twisted hard around the reins. He frowned, eyes trailing over the dirt and dust on her ripped tunic, her sore arm, her torn skirts and twisted leg, before turning to the now jagged and broken cliff edge. Nothing got past Mock.
Tightening his jaw, he dismounted.
‘Foolish mistake,’ she told him before he could speak.
Crouching in front of her, Mock took her chin, gently twisting her head from side to side. A cut upper lip, a graze down her face, a swollen nose. ‘You fell?’ She nodded. ‘I told you—’
‘—to keep away from the edge.’ She nodded again, then looked away, swallowing hard.
‘Your arm.’ She was holding it tightly to her chest. He touched it, then tried to move it, only for Grinda to hiss in pain.
She gritted her teeth. ‘Leave it. It doesn’t matter.’ She lowered her good hand to her belly and raised her eyes to his. ‘You think she’s all right?’
‘Any pain?’ He pressed her lightly around the abdomen. Grinda shook her head. ‘I’m sure she’s fine.’
Her eyes shone with tears. ‘I’m a terrible mother.’
‘It was an accident, Grinda.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
Shaking his head, he tried to pull away her arm again. There was swelling and deep bruising around the elbow. He winced as he slowly turned it over: bone was sticking out.
Grinda was looking away, unable to watch. ‘Is it all right?’
‘It’s not good, biala.’ Mock tightened his mouth. A break like that could kill a man, from infection, shock and a whole host of fatal things. If they were with his people, with the shamri, maybe something could be done. They could heal. They had poultices and wrappings that could keep the wound clean. But they were far away.
Grinda dared to look, sucked in a breath, then met his gaze. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve made a mess of things.’
‘No.’ Grabbing her fiercely around the neck, he glared into her eyes. ‘We’ll find a solution.’
Biting her lip, she nodded, though he could see the despair in her eyes. She dropped her gaze, pressing a hand to her belly. ‘I know a way.’
Mock pulled back, sitting on his knees. ‘Do you think it’ll work?’
Her eyes glinted. ‘She healed you, didn’t she?’
Hope flared in his chest. ‘That she did.’
Grinda reached over and Mock took her hand, entwining their fingers. ‘This is far from the end,’ she told him.
Mock watched, his heart in his throat, as Grinda disappeared into the trees. According to Grinda there was a wark close by, within a half day’s walk. A long way to go for an injured, pregnant woman, even one as strong as Grinda. He wanted to go with her but she was adamant that she needed to go alone.
Mock paced the ground in front of the tent until the grass turned to dirt and hardened into clay. The fire burned down. The last, lingering smell of the chokra had blown away on the breeze hours before. The drug had helped with Grinda’s pain before she’d set out. Mock refused to take any, even if it did make the waiting more bearable. Sunset. If she did not return by sunset, he would go looking for her. He needed his mind clear, his senses sharp.
The sun descended and Mock wiped the sweat from his forehead, the muscles of his shoulders bunched tightly around his neck. He shouldn’t have let her go alone. What if the splint he’d made her failed? What if she tripped and fell? He should have made her see reason. He should have forced her to take him with her. Sometimes he wondered at her strange choices and at his own weakness to let her do what she thought best. He was the man, after all. He was supposed to protect her.
Sweeping his hair from his back, he tied it into a knot, only to untie it again, so he could rip his fingers through its lengths. He paced faster, his eyes forever pinned to the trees ahead, waiting and waiting, sweating, his guts twisting tighter and tighter.
Finally, he could take no more. Before the sun touched the horizon, he strapped on his belt of knives, sheathed his sword and stepped into the darkness of the woods. He fell into a fast jog, his heart pounding against his ribcage, the trees passing by in a blur of light and shadow. He could see her trail: the lightly crushed earth, the crumpled leaves and snapped sticks, the occasional strand of golden hair caught on a branch. Small things that only a trained hunter would notice.
He hadn’t gone far when he heard something. He drew his sword, ears pricking up at the gentle crunch of ground litter. It was just ahead, heading towards him. And close. It had to be an animal. Although …
He let himself hope. ‘Grinda?’
‘Mock?’ came her faint voice.
Sheathing his sword, he sped through the trees. A short sprint later and he found her: a small dark figure, sunlight glinting against the top of her golden head. ‘Biala.’ Her eyes, her smile—it was as though he hadn’t seen her for days. His first thought was to sweep her into his embrace and squeeze her until she squirmed. His second thought was her arm. He slowed, then stopped. The splint was gone.
‘Is it …?’ he began.
She smiled, then waved her arm in the air.
Mock grinned, and she squealed as he yanked her against him, hoisting her off her feet as he kissed her down the neck, smelling her, tasting her, taking deep breaths of her hair.
Grinda clung to him, legs and arms wrapped around him, face buried in his chest. Then Mock hoisted her properly into his arms and kissed her so long and hard she had to pull away.
‘Mock,’ she gasped.
Hoisting her more securely against him, Mock carried her back, kissing her along the way.