Grinda pressed her forehead against Mirabelle’s, holding her close, trying to conceal as much of the older woman’s naked body as she could. But she was wider and taller than Grinda and Grinda had nothing to cover her with. She tried not to notice the stain of pink between her legs, the blood around her nipples. There were deep scratches down her abdomen and along her thighs too, enflamed and weeping. Made by fingernails by the look of it. But worst of all was the wound above her left ear. Blood had matted in her hair, sticking to the sickening hollow in her head. Someone had sunken in her skull, hitting her so hard she wasn’t Mirabelle anymore.
‘You’re going to be all right. You’re going to be all right,’ Grinda murmured in her ear, but nothing could stop the woman’s violent shuddering. She was babbling too, eyes rolling in her head as she gripped onto Grinda’s arms, digging in her nails until Grinda winced.
What they had done to her defied imagination. And where were Janelle and the other women? Shivering, Grinda blinked back a wave of dizziness. Black spots speckled her eyes. The ground lurched. Against her will her gaze drifted back to Mirabelle’s privates, and she suddenly realised there was much more blood than she first thought, the red concealed by the darkness of her pubic hair.
She began to shudder as violently as Mirabelle. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes and spilled over. Nausea tied her stomach in a hard knot. In a burst of hatred, she glanced over at the two barbarians, wishing for that dagger back, wishing she could go back in time.
The knot in her stomach twisted. A shot of terror made her heart pound. What were they eating? She swallowed, recalling the rumours. Please, no. She made herself look closer, made herself see beyond the disturbing, horrifying first impression. A rush of relief eased the pounding in her heart and she could breathe again. A trotter. A beast only. She spat, trying to clear her mouth of vomit, then pressed her head back against Mirabelle’s.
They clung together as the dawn turned to noon. Mirabelle somehow found a few decent hours sleep and even Grinda fell in and out of dozes. Numerous barbarians trudged in and out of camp but for the most part they left them both alone. The other two women joined them, but to her despair Janelle didn’t. Both were in differing states of distress. Out of the four of them Mirabelle was by far the worst and Grinda the most fortunate. It was clear the others had been brutally abused too. Bekka and Felicia. She knew them now in the bright light of day. Felicia was little older than Grinda, unmarried, the smithy’s daughter. Clearly a virgin no longer. Bekka was a mother of three. They both still wore the vestiges of clothing, black with soot and old blood.
They were quiet as mice, too afraid to attract attention, preferring to speak with their eyes and their hands, holding and soothing each other, weeping and fearing together. Every time a barbarian passed too close, they all huddled and clung, except for Mirabelle who didn’t seem to understand much outside of her own world of darkness, though her babbling intensified, her grip on their arms turning painful. They kept her safely in the middle, arms around her, protecting and consoling. Grinda had never felt so needed in her life, not even when it came to her little brothers. Not only because of Mirabelle, but Bekka and Felicia too. Something was different. Something had switched. She could see the need in their eyes, feel the desperation in their grips. She was their source of strength now. For some reason, they were looking to her for direction.
They are broken and I am whole, she thought. By some chance twist of fate, she had so far escaped relatively unscathed. Looking over at her kidnapper, she wondered.
They were thrown discarded bones to chew on but nobody offered them water or ale and the very idea of getting up to take a piss filled Grinda with dread. So she held onto her urges and went thirsty until her lips cracked and her throat ached. Bekka and Felicia did the same but Mirabelle was another matter. By mid-afternoon she had become agitated.
‘Hold onto her!’ Grinda hissed as the woman twisted and squirmed in their grasps. She kept smacking her lips, babbling to the point of yelping as she tried to get to her feet. Heads were turning now. It was getting dangerous. Grinda hated herself for what she was about to do. She recalled the way Mirabelle once had been, how she had only last night tried to speak words of comfort. She had been the strong one then. A tear trickled down her cheek. ‘Let her go.’
They did so and the woman lurched to her feet. The three of them held onto each other as they watched. It was a pitiful sight. She staggered around, as though she couldn’t keep her balance, still babbling and smacking her lips, and that’s when Grinda saw the dried blood on her backside. She sucked in a sharp breath.
The barbarians laughed and gabbled at each other in their language as she fruitlessly swiped at their skins of ale. The pushed, they shoved, they kicked out. One of them caught at her hair and threw her to the ground. One boot between her breasts, he took a swig from his skin and dribbled a mouthful of ale into her face. Worse yet, another approached, reaching beneath his skirt as he stood over her. She gladly opened her mouth as he pissed.
Before she could stop herself, Grinda was on her feet. ‘Stop it!’ Silence descended so suddenly her ears rang. All eyes turned to her, crooked grins, open sneers, a few of them spat. Even Mirabelle looked at her, licking her wet lips. Grinda stood frozen, except to hold up her ruined tunic against her breasts, not knowing what to do. At her feet, Bekka and Felicia kept themselves small. ‘Le-leave her alone. Haven’t you done enough?’ Her lips seemed to move of their own volition, her voice somehow strong and controlled as it echoed around the clearing. She felt detached, as though she were floating high above, far away and safe from the terrifying things going on below.
The barbarian with his boot braced against Mirabelle raised his eyebrows, then stepped away. Sneering, he gestured for her to approach: she’s all yours—if you dare.
Taking a breath, Grinda held out a trembling hand. ‘Come to me Mirabelle.’
But of course she didn’t. She blinked at the sound of her name but that was all. Instead, she gazed beggingly up at the man who had pissed on her, reaching for his ankle. Somebody sniggered. Another laughed. The bastards were enjoying themselves. Grinda glanced over at her kidnapper. He was swigging on his skin, watching. She saw he had wrapped up the gash on his arm with a clean bandage. Their gazes met but his was cold and merciless, and he didn’t make a move to help her.
Her feet were heavy and her knees seemed to lock in and out of place as she went over to the woman, crouching beside her. ‘Come Mirabelle. I have water for you.’
No response, still reaching for the man’s ankle with grasping fingers. Grinda straightened, almost painfully with everybody’s eyes on her. She could feel the heat of their stares like thorny prickling up her spine. Fear and failure was thick on the air, and it made it difficult to breathe. She looked to the man who had stood on poor Mirabelle and held out her hand. She was in too deep now. There was nothing for it but to persist.
‘Give me your skin.’
The barbarian glanced at his companion, gave a great snort, then howled with laughter. The other pulled back his lips in a sneer and spat at her feet.
‘Give it to me!’ She swiped at it but the barbarian thrust it out of reach. More laughter. More derision. She made a jump for it while he was busy sniggering and managed to knock it out of his grasp. She scrambled for it. The barbarian wasn’t laughing anymore, glaring at her as she crouched beside Mirabelle and helped her to drink.
Grabbing onto her wrist, Mirabelle gulped like a baby, ale running down her neck. Grinda tried to ignore the barbarian behind her, though she could feel his glare boring into the back of her neck. Her heart hammered. She was done for. He wouldn’t let her get away with this.
She gasped, dropping the skin as something tight squeezed around her neck. A sharp pain shot up her throat and into her left eye, so bad light exploded in her vision. He squeezed tighter, cutting off her air as he lifted her slowly to her feet. Choking and gasping, she scrabbled at his hand but he was far too strong, his grip like a steel vice, slowly tightening bit by agonising bit.
Her feet were almost off the ground, toes dragging through the leaves. The other barbarians must have been laughing; their mouths were wide open, filled with spit and ale, but for some reason she couldn’t hear them. Felicia and Becca watched helplessly while Mirabelle smiled up at her, sucking at the skin.
She could feel his damp hot breath on the back of her neck. She tried to beg him to stop but only a squeak came out. The pain was agonising but her need for air quickly became so much worse. Her lungs screamed. Her throat spasmed. Fingertips of fire ran along her ribs. A film of darkness spread over her eyes until there was nothing left of the clearing but a tiny dot.
Then suddenly blackness.
A pleasant nothing, then a flash of light peeled away the darkness and Grinda came to with a wracking gasp. The ground was hard and cold against her back. Rolling onto her stomach, she coughed and spluttered, gulped and sucked, never realising until then how wonderful air could taste. Keep your wine and sweet treats, just give me air!
She rolled onto her side, looked up, blinked. Boots, a man’s calves, a barbarian’s skirt, long knotted hair trailing down a broad back covered in white scars. She knew him—her kidnapper, Father’s murderer, standing between her and her almost killer. Mirabelle looked up at him too. Creeping over, Grinda pulled her close. She was still babbling but at least she wasn’t fighting anymore.
Grinda’s ears rang in the silence. Everything was still, almost frozen, except for the rustle of leaves in the breeze. What was happening? The barbarians were no longer laughing. They seemed surprised, almost confused, all eyes turned to the man defending Mirabelle and herself. Defending. Was that what he was really doing?
But then he turned to her and she realised she was right. For a passing moment at least, before that hint of softness in his gaze hardened into stone. She didn’t need to be told. Dragging herself to her feet, she pulled Mirabelle up along with her. The barbarian narrowed his eyes disapprovingly.
I will not leave her behind, Grinda glared back.
There was nothing she could do for Becca and Felicia who both looked up at her imploringly. She couldn’t meet their eyes.
Grinda kept her eyes lowered, not daring a glance at the watching barbarians as she followed him into the trees, Mirabelle’s hand tight in her grasp. The sun had almost set and rays of warm red light glared through the canopy. Mirabelle kept staggering beside her, holding onto Grinda’s hand with both of hers, using her to keep balance. It was torture. Everywhere she ached. She winced as she rubbed at her throat, winced again as she tentatively explored the gash on her arm, sticky and clotted with blood.
They walked for a long time, at least it seemed that way, though it could have simply been because Grinda was so drained every step felt like forever. Finally, the barbarian stopped, turned. Grinda stared at him and he stared back. Turning away again, he found a seat on a fallen branch and dropped his head into his hands.
Unable to stand any longer, Grinda sat hard on her arse, dragging Mirabelle down along with her. There she lay down, the ground cold against her back, gazing into the canopy as she panted. She was still finding it hard to breathe, the air scratching against her aching throat.
They were silent a long time, the air between them churning with a range of emotions Grinda didn’t care to explore, was afraid to explore. She should be alert, she should be on edge. He had done the same the night before: saving her from the others only to almost rape and kill her. But her eyelids were so heavy and it felt as though her body was sunk into the ground.
She closed her eyes.
Mock’s head was pounding. What had he done? He had just risked everything, and for what? An idiot woman and a timid Paleskin who only knew how to cause trouble.
Gripping his head, he peered through his fingers. She had fallen asleep, soft breasts gently rising and falling, nipples red against the setting sun. Perhaps not so timid anymore. Not after standing up to Thrick of all people. She was lucky he hadn’t torn her throat out with his teeth.
She was stupid. Brave, but stupid.
But no more stupid than I. Dropping his hands, he gripped his knees. He had to make things right. His brothers despised weakness. He despised weakness. And he was weak. He stood. So very weak.
The idiot woman with the sunken head looked up at him, garbled something, then laughed. The girl jerked awake, sat up, stared up at him with eyes bright with uncertainty. Not fear. He should hate that. He should show her how fearsome he really was. But he didn’t, and he couldn’t.
She coughed, wiped her mouth, and Mock saw that her lips were so chapped they were bleeding. He should have brought his skin. His eyes fell to her breasts but she quickly pulled up her tunic with a small scowl.
‘I know where there’s water.’ He didn’t give her a chance to hesitate before walking away. Moments later, he heard the crunch of ground litter behind, the idiot woman’s incessant gabbling. The two Paleskins maintained their distance: enemies behind, enemies ahead. He knew how that felt. He had felt it every day for the past five years.
The trees stood guard high along the creek bed, their roots plunging deep into the soil and coiling along the edges of the banks. It was dark now and the usually green water glowed blue against the moonlight. He looked up. The canopy pulled back along the water, revealing twinkling stars. A thin white cloud draped like a moth’s wing over the grey moon. He remembered seeing the sky that first night he stepped out into the world a free man again. A feeling he would never forget. His skin pimpled, feeling an echo of it now. It was strange how the sky could look so different through different eyes.
The girl climbed carefully down the bank, leaving the woman to follow as she willed. Mock stood watching. She knelt by the edge, cupping handfuls of water into her mouth. So small and thin, not particularly smart, not even that pretty. If it weren’t for her youth and so few women around, he wouldn’t have noticed her. Nothing special—and yet she was changing everything.
‘Don’t forget to wash that wound,’ he called down to her.
She paused, looking up at him. He pointed at her arm. She continued to drink. The other woman knelt beside her and copied her movements like a teasing younger sister. When they were done, they climbed back up the bank. The girl said nothing but simply followed him back through the trees.
He sat back on the same branch. She sat on the ground. The woman padded about, running her fingers up and down the trees, giggling as the leaves brushed against her head.
‘We have to do the right thing,’ he said. The girl looked at him in confusion. He nodded at the woman.
Still confused, then her eyes widened. ‘No!’
‘You’re a monster,’ she spat, ‘just like the rest of them.’
A sudden rage licked at his belly. ‘No more a monster than your people.’ His voice was quiet but deadly. ‘And at least I know when the battle is lost. There is nothing for her now. Leave her alive and my brothers will use her for sport.’
She pulled her knees up to her chest, face creased with anguish as she watched the woman tug at a leafy vine, jump back giggling, then tug at it again. ‘I won’t let you. She’s suffered enough.’
‘She’s bound to suffer a lot more.’
‘I’ll protect her.’
‘Like you did tonight?’ She looked away, kicking the heels of her boots along the ground.
‘She puts us at too much risk.’
The word seemed to echo through the trees. It stuck to the roof of his mouth.
He dragged his tongue over his teeth. He didn’t like where this was going. There couldn’t be an us. Not with a Paleskin. The idea made his stomach twist. He spat, grabbed the hilt of the dagger at his waist, finding comfort in its familiar grip. He could feel her watching him, feel the prickle of fear in the air.
‘Let us go,’ she dared in a small voice.
‘You saved me twice already. You can do it again.’
He glared at her. The gall of the girl! He should cut her tongue out. ‘Saved you?’ He gave a dangerous laugh. ‘You make me hard, I won’t deny it, but just because I want to wet your insides, doesn’t mean I care for you.’
She winced. He waited, daring her to challenge him. The question hung in the air: Why hadn’t he done it already? Ask me. Ask me. Ask me. He tightened his grip on his dagger, willed the heat into his balls. His cock uncurled. He would do it and it would be the best fuck of his life.
But she didn’t, and the danger passed. She was either smarter than he thought, or more cowardly than he expected.
He stood. She looked up at him, and this time there was dread in her eyes. He quickly looked away, towards the idiot woman. ‘It will be as you wish. She will live.’ He heard the girl take a breath. ‘But when we get back, she will be under your protection. Defend her if you can. I will do nothing.’
A heavy silence. Then she realised. ‘No! You can’t take us back! They’ll, they’ll…’
He looked at her. ‘She is my brothers’ right.’
She blinked, looked over at the woman. The woman was sitting in the leaves now, laughing as she threw them in the air. The girl’s eyes shone like little stars in the moonlight. He saw her stiffen, heard the breath catch in her throat. ‘Do it.’
He unsheathed his dagger.
‘Wait,’ she said and went over to the woman. Crouching beside her, she spoke quietly, then embraced her. The woman held her back before quickly pulling away, more interested in the leaves. The girl stood, watched her a moment, then walked away, sparing Mock a glare as she disappeared into the trees.
The girl was silent on their journey back but he could feel the hatred rolling off her in waves. How he hated it. And how he hated how he hated it.