Mock spluttered and gasped, sat up, then leapt to his feet. He staggered as the forest spun around him. But he managed to unsheathe his dagger and step into a defensive crouch, scouring the woods with his blurry eyes. Water trickled down his neck and chest. His hair dripped.
He paused at the sight of a familiar figure. ‘Brother?’
‘Mock,’ Croki nodded, still holding the waterskin he had used to rouse him. Like Mock, he was lathered in blood. Half his knives were missing, along with his spear. A large clump of his beard had been torn out, revealing a bloodied chin. He favoured one leg. And the whole left half of his face was swollen and red.
Mock slowly straightened, grimacing at the pounding at the back of his head. He touched it tentatively. Matted hair sticky with blood. But the skull seemed intact. ‘What’s going on? Where’s the battle?’ He froze, then spun around. ‘Where is she?’
Croki scratched his head. ‘You knocked ye head hard, Mock. She’s back at camp, remember?’
Mock stared at him. ‘Where’s the battle?’ But he was already certain of the answer.
‘The battle’s over. I found you. I carried you. Now we’re ‘ere.’ His eyes were at once dark with sorrow and bright with hope. ‘We succeeded. We held ‘em back. Everyone’s safe.’
The knife slipped from Mock’s grasp. The ground lurched towards him.
Croki reached out helplessly as Mock dropped to his knees and vomited. He gripped his head at a blast of agony that turned the world white. He spat, then staggered back to his feet.
‘I have to go back,’ he panted.
Croki frowned. ‘Ye not in ye right mind, Mock.’
Mock grabbed Croki’s thick wrist. ‘Zin’s back there.’
Mock squeezed his wrist in a crushing grip. ‘She joined the battle against my will. You saved the wrong person.’ Mock bared his teeth. ‘You saved the wrong person, you fucking fool.’
Croki’s eyes widened. ‘There was a woman. But she looked dead.’
‘That was Zin!’ Mock threw Croki’s arm away. ‘And she’s alive. I have to go back.’ He staggered again as he picked up his knife and sheathed it. His stomach heaved but this time nothing came out.
Croki was pale as he stepped in front of him. ‘I’m sorry, brother, but you can’ go back in ye condition. And the forest is swarmin’ with Paleskins. Even if you could get back, they will catch or kill you. And you’ll be no use to anyone.’
Holding his throbbing, swirling head, Mock glared up at him. ‘I’ll take my chances.’
‘Think of ye family—’
‘I am thinking of my family!’
‘No, ye aint!’ His roar boomed around the woods.
Mock’s belly swirled again, but this time with fury. Croki’s lips pulled back into a snarl, the hard muscles of his abdomen bunched up tight. Mock swung but all he hit was a rush of air as Croki stepped out of his path. Mock staggered, lost his balance, and fell. Rolling onto his belly, he heaved green bile.
‘Look at you. You can’t even stand. You need to get home.’
Vomit hung from Mock’s lip. He spat.
Croki crouched in front of him. ‘Listen to me, Mock. We can still save her. If we are patient. If we are smart. We’ll find a way.’
‘The things they’ll do to her,’ Mock choked.
Croki seized his shoulder. ‘You’ll get her back, brother. I’ll make sure of it.’
It was agony. The waiting. That surge of incredible hope at every returning warrior, man or woman. Was it Mock? Was it Zin? Followed by that deep penetrating burn of disappointment.
It was days since the warriors left for battle and only now were they returning. Sometimes during the night. Sometimes during the day. Sometimes in a trickle or tide. Nevertheless—so few. And all in pieces. Whether in their minds or in their bodies. The shamri were overwhelmed. The women and children and the old were just as busy assisting. The caves were large and endless but at every new arrival that wasn’t Mock or Zin, they kept shrinking and shrinking until Grinda thought she must be crushed to death.
It was hard to breathe. It was hard to think. She could hear a woman wailing as she grieved over her dead son and daughter. Somebody was screaming. But Grinda tended to her children like nothing was amiss. She had to be strong. Mock would expect no less.
‘When’s abba coming back?’
‘Do you think he’ll be all right?’
‘All we can do is trust in the Mother, bial.’
With Quess and Grit, it was the same questions over and over. But Grinda bore them as any good mother should. She had less to do with Xala, who spent her time helping the shamri with the injured or dying.
My brave girl.
Usually a settled baby, Quip was fussing constantly, always wanting to be in her arms with his mouth around her breast. Not for feeding but for comfort.
Grinda was hectically busy, as was the rest of the tribe: foraging for food and dry kindling in the cracks of the rock, cooking and cleaning, filling their bladders of water, helping the injured, tending to motherless children, assisting the now childless old and crippled. It went on. But though she might be in the middle of a task, always her senses were locked to that narrow entrance and that dim gleam of hope.
Then finally, it happened.
Morning was just breaking and a thin, dull light was filtering through the cracks in the ceiling high above. Grinda had barely slept at all, eyes locked on the tunnel. Only one warrior had shown up that previous night. It made her despair. Fewer and fewer had made their return.
Soon, there would be none.
She sat up at the scuff of footsteps. Climbed to her feet at the sound of panting. A shadow spilled into the cave. Then there echoed a sound so wonderful it seemed to melt her heart right out of her chest. ‘Grinda?’
Her knees buckled but Mock caught her before she collapsed. Then all she knew of the world was the smell of him, the heat of him, the pounding of his living heart against hers.
‘Mock, Mock, Mock.’ She kissed his jaw, pressed her face into the nape of his neck. It didn’t matter that he was filthy and covered in blood. He was home.
The joy didn’t last. He pulled back and suddenly her whole body was shaking. That look in his face. Those dark, sad eyes. He didn’t need to explain. She already knew.
‘I’m sorry, biala,’ he said. ‘I failed you. They have her.’
He didn’t stay long.
After the shamri attended his injuries, Mock rested for a day and night. And again, Grinda didn’t sleep, sitting there watching them all in the darkness. All their children had cuddled up to him: Quip curled up on his chest, Mock’s big strong hand holding him secure; Quess nestled in the crook of the same arm; Grit bunched up close to his side, his head in his armpit; Xala next to Quess, a long slim arm thrust over him. Breathing together. Dreaming together.
And she saw Zin, stretched out behind Grit. A false shadow. A dream. The way she looked the last time Grinda had seen her. Happy and whole and safe. Her head pressed up against Mock’s shoulder, her own strong arm joining Xala’s. She had a small smile on her face.
All through the night Grinda watched, sitting tall amongst their pelts, quiet and still. Barely breathing so she wouldn’t disturb the scene. Trying to imbed every small detail deep into her memory.
Before she lost it all again.
Mock woke early, blinking against the gloom as grey light trickled from above. He looked down at each of his children, his eyes bright with pride. Then he saw Grinda. He frowned. ‘Didn’t you sleep, biala?’
Grinda pressed a finger to her lips. She stood, gave him ‘the look’, and he very carefully eased out of bed. Xala turned on her side. Quip mewled as he curled up against Grit. But that was all.
Good. This time was their time.
The caves might have been big and sprawling, the tribe dispersed far and wide, giving them plenty of privacy, but any little noise echoed loudly.
And it was hard to keep quiet.
So very hard.
Grinda sat in Mock’s lap, legs wrapped around him, curled tightly into his chest. He was swollen, deep and tight inside her. They were slow. Achingly slow. She could feel the pain of his holding back in the way he trembled against her, in the way his breath fluttered unevenly against her cheek. They had plenty of time before he and Croki were due to leave and Grinda intended on using every minute they had.
Every gentle rock burned. Every moment’s stillness was a terrible ache. And the whole while they never looked away from each other. A tear trickled down Grinda’s cheek, which Mock kissed away. His fingers were in her hair, down her neck, along her shoulders, under her breasts, stroking her gently.
She touched him too, more gently still. He was covered in cuts and bruises. The shamri had healed his head and his broken bones and the worst of the gashes, but the rest would have to heal on their own. Grinda dragged her fingers down his cheek, kissing him again.
After all he had been through throughout his life, how much more pain could his body take?
She sucked in a breath as he thrust deeply. Gripping onto his neck, she kissed hard and furiously. He thrust again and she pulled away with a small cry. They froze but didn’t hear anyone stir. His mouth was back on hers. The burning turned to throbbing. They tried to stay slow but they were no longer in control of their bodies. Mock thrusted, Grinda rocked. Lips against lips. Chest against chest. Breath against breath.
Then the moment came and Grinda pulled him against her with a gasp. She felt him—the heat of him inside her. That wild pulsing. She ran her fingers through his hair as he lowered his face to her breasts, lightly kissing her nipples. When he looked up again, the whites of his eyes were pink and a big vein stood out on his left temple. The pulsing slowed. The throbbing eased. Then they were holding each other, arms wrapped around each other, enjoying the last of their waning pleasure. She felt a warm trickle between her legs as he slipped out of her. Quip was only six months old. Usually she would chew the moonweed soon after their lovemaking, unprepared for another baby so soon. But not this time. If this were to be their last time together, let there be happiness. Let there be something to brighten the darkness.
Let there be life.
Mock kissed her softly, then pressed his forehead against hers. ‘Love you, Grinda.’
Grinda grabbed his hand and entwined their fingers. ‘Love you, Mock.’
‘I will find her and bring her back.’
She swallowed, then nodded. He brushed away a tear from under her eye, another from the corner of her mouth.
‘I may be gone a long time.’
‘I know.’ She pressed her lips to his. ‘No more talking.’ He obliged, kissing her back.
He had already informed her of their plans. Mock and Croki had discussed it together during their journey back: of their intended trek through the caves and along the mountains; to circle the enemy and approach from behind. They would go with a small contingent of warriors. Those who weren’t too injured or too overcome. She wasn’t a fool. She knew how great the risk was. They might get lost. They might never reach their destination. They very likely could be killed. Zin might not be there or might already be dead. So might the rest of those captured.
So many possible dead ends.
But the Mother was on their side.
And it was the only hope they had.
They were gone before the sun had fully risen. Grinda closed her eyes, holding onto the image from the night before. Mock and their children. Peaceful and content. For some reason her mind zeroed in on the strong, broad hand lying protectively against Quip’s back.
How she loved those hands.
‘Find her, bial. I’ll be waiting.’