‘What are you doing?’
‘Making a spear.’
His blade scraped against the wood, flakes of it curling in a pile at his feet. He had cut down a long spindly tree and had been busy chopping and whittling for the past little while. It sat across his lap, already shaping into something smooth and even. The little forest crowded around them, their trunks flashing red against the flames. The moon peered down through the branches. Yellow tonight.
Grinda licked the grease from her mouth, the taste of the fox she had eaten still salty and thick on her lips.
‘Do you need to?’ she said. ‘We’ve been eating well enough.’
‘It’s not enough for me, biala. And it shouldn’t be enough for you. Not while you’re with babe. I’ll catch you real food.’
She instinctively touched her belly. Ten weeks, she thought, but couldn’t be sure. The days and weeks and months were starting to roll into one. Still too soon for a big appetite, though. She wasn’t even showing yet. ‘Like what?’
‘Boar, deer, maybe even wolf.’
Her heart flipped. ‘Wolf?’
He looked at her, eyes dark against the flames. ‘Yes. The further we travel north, the thicker and older the forests become, the more predators. Fear not. I’ll protect you. Killed my first wolf when I was still a boy.’
A long sliver of timber fluttered to the ground. She watched him quietly. It was hard work, she could see. The muscles in his upper arms bulged, his veins stood out, that long tendon in his neck was taut. He hadn’t noticed but his kinta had ridden high up his thighs, giving her a very revealing view of his manhood. She licked her lips again.
‘If you continue to look at me like that, biala, I’m going to cut myself.’
Eyes still on his work, he smiled. His hair trailed over his broad chest, looking almost red in the firelight. That masculine knot in his throat bobbed as he swallowed. And those fingers. So strong, so deft. Despite what he claimed, he would never cut himself.
She glanced around their little camp. Winter was roped to a nearby tree, head low, dosing as usual. They were still quite close to the west, to the faqwas—her people, she corrected herself quickly, so the forest was only small. She didn’t sense any warks and she doubted Mock was in the mood for chokra, not while focused on his task.
She turned back to Mock. ‘Will you give me a try?’
She nodded at the half-made spear. ‘A throw.’
He peered up at her in surprise. ‘I suppose. But it may be too heavy for you.’
She straightened, fisted her hands around her knees. ‘I might be small but I’m not that weak.’
Turning back to the spear, he gave a knowing smile, a deep, sultry groove in one cheek.
‘If you wish it, biala. Anything you want.’
A good morning for a hunt, Grinda thought. Though she hadn’t actually hunted before so she couldn’t be sure. A cloudless day, a gentle breeze.
Mock walked ahead, spear in hand. She studied it. It did look heavy and very long, much bigger than the one his barbarian brothers had left him when he was expelled from their camp.
They walked to the edge of the trees, then out into the open. Grinda squinted against the harsh blaze of light. Mock kept walking and she followed until they stood a fair distance away from the woods.
He looked down at her, smiling that frustratingly knowing smile, as though he already knew she was going to fail.
Grinda lifted her chin. She would prove him wrong. ‘I thought we were going to hunt? Shouldn’t we go deeper into the forest?’
‘Patience, biala. You haven’t even thrown it yet. Practice first.’
Grinda pursed her lips.
‘Now,’ he said, hefting the spear to his shoulder. ‘Step away.’ Facing the woods, he focused. Several moments passed, then: one, two, three slow steps, a sudden sprint as his arm pulled back. The big muscles in his shoulder bunched, his neck corded. Then the release. Grinda’s eyes widened as it soared high into the air. It was so fast she could hear it whistling. It arced, flattened out, then fell. A heavy thud, which she swore she felt even at her distance, and it lodged deep into a tree.
Grinda stared. Mock’s eyes glittered as he turned to her. ‘Easy as that. Now, your turn.’
They stood at the tree, Mock waiting patiently as Grinda tried to yank out the spear, or at least what he called a spear. It didn’t have a proper point yet, merely his knife tied tightly to the end. Once he made his kill, he would shape and sharpen some bone instead.
He tried not to smile as she struggled. It was a good throw. Even for him. Particularly since the shaft had a curve to it which meant it didn’t throw entirely straight. A lot of skill but luck as well. Though he wouldn’t tell Grinda that.
Finally, he felt pity, and made to grab it. ‘Here, let me help.’
‘No,’ she gasped. ‘I’ve got it.’
He stepped away. Bracing a foot against the trunk, she heaved, failed, then heaved again, and finally wrenched it free. Surprised, she stumbled back, falling on her arse. Mock laughed. Grinda tossed her hair.
Standing awkwardly, she held the spear like she would a post, one end braced against the ground. It was taller than she was. He twisted his lips, trying not to smile.
Grinda nodded. ‘Let’s do it then.’ Though she didn’t sound so certain.
She tried to hold the spear in one hand as she walked, couldn’t, so ended up cradling it against her chest in both. Mock’s heart lurched. He should have made a shorter, lighter spear. But how was he to predict she would want to hunt? She had never shown any interest before.
She kept walking, apparently determined to throw from where Mock had. A gentle squeeze of her shoulder and he stopped her halfway. ‘Far enough, biala.’
Turning to face the trees, she held her mouth tight, narrowed her eyes. Though she tried not to show it, he could see how she strained to raise the spear to her shoulder. It wobbled. The back of it hit the ground. She used her other hand to try and straighten it, only for the point to fall instead.
Finally, she dropped it with a hiss, shaking her hand at the strain in her wrist. He was about to make a joke when he saw the tears in her eyes. He picked up the spear.
‘Here, biala,’ he said gently. ‘Let me help for now until you’re ready.’
She said nothing and didn’t resist, keeping her head lowered as she tried to hide her disappointment.
Helping her to hold it aloft, he shifted her hand further down the shaft. ‘Try here. Now, spread your legs. Left foot forward and make sure you’re evenly balanced.’
He stood close behind her, one hand on her hip, the other tightened around her grip on the shaft. ‘Keep it steady. Now, just focus on throwing straight, not on power.’
She stared ahead.
‘Take a few steps, then run, making sure to pull back as you do.’
She went for it and he followed, still helping to hold the spear aloft. A pull back and she released. It flew … thunk. He raised his eyebrows; it had lodged into the base of the tree. Not deep, barely piercing the bark, but enough that it held for a few moments before falling to the ground. And more importantly, Grinda was smiling.
Brushing aside her hair, he pressed his lips to the nape of her neck. ‘Good job, biala.’
She nodded. ‘It’s a start.’ She turned, smiling up at him, as she placed her hands on his hips and drew him close. ‘You’re a patient teacher.’
He kissed her head. ‘I’ll make you a shorter, lighter one.’
‘You don’t have to do that.’
‘Yes, I do. Then we can hunt together.’
Her smile turned doubtful. ‘Do the Quarthi women hunt?’
‘Are they good?’
‘Very good. But they learn as children. It takes years of practice.’
Lowering her eyes, she nodded. Curling an arm around her waist, he lifted her chin and kissed her. ‘You did good,’ he breathed against her lips.
‘Thanks to you.’
‘Thanks to us.’
They smiled at each other.