The danger was so palpable Mock could almost taste it. He didn’t want to admit it but it unnerved him. His brothers had never doubted him before, had never questioned his loyalty. And yet here they were doing just that. They said nothing, but he could see it in their eyes, in the stiffness of their movements, in their sidelong looks, their quiet murmuring. He couldn’t blame them. He would be the same way.
He picked up his sword, still in its sheath, and slung it over his back. For his protection but also as a warning to them all. He might be weakening in his heart but he was no weaker in his arms. He was still their most savage fighter. The girl followed quietly, eyes to the ground, hair draped over her face. He had told her to be fearful and obedient. She seemed to understand, though it was hard to tell with her quiet grieving.
Good. Tears made it real.
He shoved her to the ground as he sat beside Croki, the only man he now trusted. Croki didn’t say a word, strong at his side, but he could sense his confusion, his dismay. It didn’t make the situation any easier returning without the idiot woman. She wasn’t Mock’s to slay. She was Thrick’s and the rest of his brothers’ to play with. The Paleskin girl might think him a monster for what he did but it had been an act of mercy and mercy was weak.
Mock the Merciless indeed.
The night passed with agonising slowness. His brothers ate and drank and murmured, and Mock sweated, eyes everywhere, ears bent on each conversation. Who would confront him first? His bets were on Thrick. But there was also Pith, Ghettz, Ank and Chid amongst others he knew who had their eye on his leadership.
But the night deepened and by the time most had taken to sleep, nobody had sought to challenge him. It did not make him breathe easy. A smart man bided his time.
Croki leant in to his ear. ‘We need to talk.’
Mock gave a sharp nod. They both stood. The girl looked up at Croki wide-eyed. He couldn’t blame her fear. He was enormous, even for a Quarthi. Nudging seven feet, he had forearms the size of her neck and thighs almost as big as her waist. Croki’s mouth twisted but he said nothing as she followed them into the trees.
The girl kept her distance as the two men sat together. Gazing at Mock, Croki shook his head. ‘What’s happened to you?’
Avoiding his eyes, Mock flicked his tongue. A strained silence brewed between them.
‘The men are talkin’,’ Croki continued.
‘I know, and they’d better stop if they don’t want their heads on a stake.’
Croki dropped his chin onto his fist, watching him, dark eyes glinting in the moonlight. ‘You speak of your brothers like that? The same brothers who helped break our chains and set us free? The same brothers who have fought and killed and died for you? What’s happened to you, my brother? Or can I even call you that anymore?’ His gaze flicked towards the girl. ‘Or are you just a Paleskin in disguise?’
Mock’s fist whipped out. A crunch and Croki’s head thrust back. Flames flared up Mock’s knuckles. A flash of regret, quickly squashed. Croki was his friend but he needed to know his place. Grimacing, the big Quarthi clutched at his jaw and spat. Mock heard a click as bone shifted back into place. They glared at each other.
‘Want another?’ Mock snarled. Croki pursed his lips, blinked, then dropped his eyes. Pain shot along Mock’s forearm as he gripped his knees. ‘I haven’t changed. I am as I always was. They have changed.’
Croki raised his eyes. ‘Then show ‘em. I am your brother and I say to you: you need to show ‘em strength. Pissin’ around with this Paleskin makes you weak. Are you even fucking her? I see. Our brothers see. And know. Prove to ‘em you’re still our Mock.’
Croki hauled his massive body to his feet, glanced at the girl and shook his head. It was clear what Croki thought Mock should do. And Mock couldn’t help but agree. A swift, sharp slice to the neck was all that was needed, and everything would be right again. It didn’t have to be cruel or brutal. He had already shown how merciful he could be. He would do it so she would barely feel a thing. His brothers would trust him again. He could trust himself again.
Croki left. Mock’s hand twitched, itching for a blade. His heart thundered. Sweat trickled under his arms. Just as he reached for his sword, he paused. Now that they were alone, he could hear her gentle breathing. He looked over, their eyes met and Mock lowered his arm.
There had to be another way.
Grinda’s heart pounded furiously. She knew that look. That icy darkness. She couldn’t know what that huge man said to him but it was clearly nothing good. She kept his gaze a moment, then dropped her eyes. She clawed her fingers into the ground. How she hated him. How she feared him. If he didn’t want to murder her, if he didn’t want to … She shifted uncomfortably. God help her, she couldn’t even think the word. If he didn’t want to … do the deed, then what was he going to do with her? She wasn’t a fool. She could see the tension between him and the others. It wouldn’t be long before something happened, to her or to them both. And if it were true that a savage like him could feel anything at all for someone like her, then why not let her go?
Easy. I am his possession, his to own. He’ll never let me go.
She looked up as he stood. He stared at her, that darkness still in his eyes, then turned and disappeared into the trees.
They slept apart that night and the next night after that. The barbarian made sure to keep her close but didn’t try to molest her. Though deep into that first night, when Grinda slipped out of her dreams and into the harshness of reality, she thought she saw him standing over her, watching. But it was dark and she had been so fogged with sleep she couldn’t be sure.
He had grown quiet too, had stopped talking to her completely, except to grunt or nod when he wanted her to do something. He barely even looked at her. Grinda was grateful but unnerved. He was so unpredictable.
She couldn’t know what to expect.
There was nothing that made Mock feel more himself than the thought of an impending raid. If his brothers could see him in the midst of one of his blood-frenzies, be reminded of the true extent of his ferocity, then they wouldn’t dare question his heart. He would make sure to be the most brutal, the most savage he’d ever been. His cruelty would be legendary.
He already pitied his next victims.
His brothers whet their blades, checked their mounts’ hooves, secured their weapons. The thrill of the coming day churned the air. They laughed, shouted, clapped each other’s shoulders. Too caught up in the excitement to entertain any doubt about their leader. Some were still stoned or drunk from last night’s carousing, but they were no less prepared to fight.
Two nights had passed since Croki and Mock had had their talk. And it had been the very next morning when he had told his brothers of his plans. He had intended on waiting another week before carrying on with their raiding, so they could rest, to regather their strength, but things were becoming too desperate.
Surprised glances were exchanged, doubtful murmurings. Chid and Thrick had watched him with murky expressions as he spoke his thoughts to his brothers.
‘Only a few more towns and the south-east is ours. Why delay? The mountains will be ours again, the ocean, the forest, the great wide plains. It will be as it should. The Quarthi will rule again!’
They weren’t hard to convince. Half his brothers had been slaves like him, eager to exact revenge. The rest were free men, drawn to the violence from the north where the last of their people resided. Where Mock’s family still lived: his mother, sister and probably nieces and nephews by now. They didn’t know the pain like the rest of them, but they knew the rage. They would rather die than let the Paleskins live unmolested.
After the speech, they partied and the threat to his leadership fizzled.
It was barely morning by the time they were ready to go, a vague grey filtering through the trees, a fresh crispness to the air. The horses stomped their hooves and swished their tales, sensing his brothers’ agitation. Mock couldn’t be sure where the villages were located, but they wouldn’t be hard to find. With so much of the forests razed by the Paleskins, men with vision as sharp as Beltho could see unobstructed for leagues.
They would find them.
With his horse readied, he turned to look at the Paleskin girl. His mouth twisted. His brothers wouldn’t like it, but he was their leader and he would do as he wished. He slung her onto his horse’s back and mounted behind her, pressing up against her more than he needed. To have her so close … Stealing a whiff of her hair, he slung an arm around her waist and nudged their ride through the trees.
They were fast.
Within the hour, as the sun straddled the horizon in a warm pink glow, they were pounding through the open fields, the woods lost to the distance behind them. It was a glorious day: not a cloud in the sky, their way sharp and clear. The wind was at their backs. The ground was firm and steady. A flock of birds flew ahead in an arrow formation. It was almost as though the sky and the earth and the beasts were working together to urge them along, wanting them to succeed.
The barbarian’s arm was curled tightly around Grinda’s waist, so tightly she couldn’t move. Already, the horse’s back rubbed against her backside, sending stabs of pain up her spine and down her thighs. Grass and dirt kicked up, stinging her legs and splattering her skirts and boots. The sun was rising, forcing Grinda to squint. It sat the horizon in a red haze, blazing against her skin until she burned and sweat trickled down the back of her neck and gushed under her arms. It seemed to bleed across the landscape, leeching out all but a thin remembrance of colour. Above, a flock of birds screeched obscenely, black against the glare.
Grinda didn’t know where they were going. The barbarian hadn’t spoken a word to her since shortly after he had murdered Mirabelle. Grinda grimaced but quickly pushed her grief aside. What was worse was the thought of Felicia and Bella. She hadn’t seen either of them since that same night, just as she didn’t see them now, though the entire horde was within view. It was as she feared—she was the only one left of the kidnapped women, maybe the only one still alive from the whole of Quay. She bit her lip, trying not to think about Mama and her brothers.
They rode for what must have been hours, stopping only to drink and pass water and for her kidnapper to consult with his men. He was the leader, she had come to realise. They all listened to him, did what he told them, at least as far as she could tell without knowing their language. She didn’t know how to feel about it. It stirred conflicting emotions, made her look at him differently; he was the worst of the worst of these terrible men and directly responsible for all this death and destruction. And yet he was keeping her alive.
It didn’t make sense. And it made her fear and hope.
At the sound of a shout, she looked over. One of the barbarians was pointing at something ahead. She squinted but saw nothing except an empty horizon. The horde slowed to a trot. After a few minutes other barbarians began to shout and cheer. There—a cluster of dark dots in the distance.
‘No,’ she whispered.
More cheering, howling and hooting. Some unsheathed their swords and waved them about before a shout from her kidnapper made them sheathe them again. They continued to ride until the dark dots became shapes: numerous little huts, windmill, chapel, a small castle atop a hill. Much like Quay, though considerably bigger. Grinda’s heart clenched. Those poor people. They might as well be dead already. She tried to think which village it might be. A variety of names passed through her mind pointlessly. She had never been so far outside Quay before and had rarely heard word about them. Father preferred to take her older brothers whenever he had anything to trade.
It didn’t matter. By the end of the day it would be gone.
They took cover in a copse of trees. The horse shifted as her kidnapper dismounted. He pulled her down after him, none too gently as she fell to her knees. As he left to join his men, she stayed as she was, keeping low and out of trouble.
Most of the barbarians remained mounted while others took the opportunity to take another piss or check their gear one last time, talking and laughing and milling around as they did. By the way they were acting, it was hard to imagine they were about to kill.
Her kidnapper returned.
Through her hair she looked up at him, eyes wide. ‘What are you going to do with that?’
A chain—thick and heavy and red with rust. He didn’t answer. Grabbing her arm, he hoisted her to her feet and dragged her over to a nearby tree. Once, twice, thrice, four times, he looped it around her waist, chest and legs, binding her to the thick trunk before staking the end of the chain into the ground with an iron pin. The chain was so tight it forced her to stand, bruising her shins and ribs and making it difficult to take a deep breath.
‘You can’t leave me like this!’ she cried after him.
His long dark hair brushed over his broad shoulders as he wordlessly remounted. At his back was his sword, hilt sitting up by his head. And beneath that were his scars, hardly noticeable in the shadows of the trees. Some of the other barbarians were watching the exchange with sidelong glances. Two of them in particular: the man who had spat on Mirabelle and the man with the bloody teeth. She didn’t like the look of them, even more so than usual. Bloody Teeth caught her watching and licked his lips. Her kidnapper didn’t seem to notice their dark looks, or at least pretended not to.
He shouted something and the horde kicked their mounts into a trot. Moments later, they were gone.
She had no idea where she would go or how she’d survive but anywhere was safer than here. She pulled, yanked, twisted, squirmed, before trying to slip out her arms. The chain bruised her wrists to the point of agony and the gnarled trunk scraped her palms until they were slick with blood. But it didn’t stop her. She hissed, moaned, screamed.
Then—finally, one last yank and her hand was free!
It throbbed so badly, Grinda wept. It was rubbed red raw. Blood trickled down her fingertips, both from her knuckles and her palm—layers of skin gone. Still, a success, small though it was. She glanced up. It was hard to tell through the trees but it looked close to noon. An hour, at least, had passed. How long did it take to ransack a village?
Her excitement at her success was brief. One arm was free but the rest of her was no less stuck. No matter how hard she clawed or pulled or heaved, there was no getting loose. Exhausted, she slumped against the chain. It felt like her whole body was on fire, bruised and battered. With nothing else to do, she wept.
The evening shadows were coalescing by the time they returned. First was their distant shouting and catcalling, then the thunder of hooves. Next came the rustling of leaves and the snapping of branches as they entered the woods. Talking, laughter.
She guessed four hours, going by the dryness of her mouth and the length of the shadows. Four hours it took to murder over a hundred people and raze their village to the ground. Only a little longer than the destruction of Quay, if she remembered correctly.
She couldn’t help but look as they entered the clearing. The stench of smoke and sweat made her head swim, made her stomach roil. They were more disgusting than ever: covered in soot and blood, some with skin red from the sun or else because they strayed too close to the fires. Again, barrels of ale and little treasures to fight over. No women this time. That was a relief at least.
Then her kidnapper, though she only knew him after a double take. His big black horse she recognised immediately. But the man on top—he was beyond horror. Covered from head to foot in blood. No, not just blood—gore. She dared not look too close but bits of it hung off his arms, caught between his ribs, sat along the top of his skirt. Slimy and wet. His hair and beard dripped. The only clean spots were his eyes which glowed almost unearthly white against the red. Grinda gagged, spat, wiped a trembling hand along her lips.
‘God in heaven,’ she gasped.
And it wasn’t just his appearance but the look in his face. Wild. Savage. Something utterly feral. All twisted up and ugly. He was even worse than when she first encountered him killing her father. So much worse. A sliver of ice slipped into her stomach. Vomit surged in her throat. The chain clinked as she violently shook. All hope squashed. No more fear—but terror.
That monster had touched her, and she had enjoyed it! Not again. Never again.
They partied like demons. Fires raged. Shouts and howls and laughter from chapped lips and wet mouths. Ale splashed over broad bloodied chests. Puffs of smoke from their long ash-covered pipes added to the haze. They staggered and crashed into each other. A couple of fights broke out: raised fists and sprayed blood; the occasional flying tooth. And in the midst of it all was their leader: drunken, stoned, obnoxious. The loudest, the drunkest, the most violent. What had happened? She couldn’t stop looking at the blood, at the gore. He hadn’t even washed, revelling in his day of destruction. Please don’t let him come to me. Make him so drunk he’ll forget. At least the party was across the clearing, away from her. It gave her a measure of safety, as flimsy as that was.
The evening darkened into the depths of night and there she stood, slumped against the chain, head lolling, exhausted, thirsty and sore. Soon, she was falling in and out of a fitful sleep.
It didn’t last.
Something hard gripped her jaw, so painfully it jarred her from her dreams. The sound of a snigger—much too close. A surge of fear and her eyes sprang open. She tried to scream but a filthy hand slapped her hard across the face. A blast of pain. A flash of red. The world swooned. She coughed, spat. The taste of iron. Her mouth was so dry she doubted she would have made anything more than a croak anyway. He gripped her jaw again, digging his fingers in so hard she whimpered and squirmed. Grinning, he flicked his tongue over his bloody teeth.
She glanced passed him. The party had ceased, the barbarians resting. All quiet except for the sound of snoring. She couldn’t see her kidnapper.
A second barbarian, burns down his right arm, circled the tree to release her chains. She knew him too. If she thought her kidnapper a monster, then he was the devil. Mirabelle’s rapist. The things he had done to her, that he was sure to do to Grinda.
‘No, no, no, no,’ she pleaded in Bloody Teeth’s grip. Anything, anyone, but him.
He gnashed his teeth, gripped her jaw tighter. Quiet! Unlike their leader, they didn’t speak English. So much worse. She couldn’t even beg.
The chains loosened, and she staggered into Bloody Teeth’s arms, barely able to stand. Laughing in her ear, he squeezed a breast, cupped her groin before landing a bloody kiss on her mouth. She gagged, coughed. The other was laughing too, deep and growling, like a wolf. It made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. He was so big, so fearsome, an enormous mass of muscle, sweat and hair—and that look in his eye. She stood no chance.
Gripping an arm each, they dragged her into the trees. She struggled to keep up, gasping and staggering, tripping over everything in her path. Eventually they lost patience and the man with the burns hoisted her over his shoulder. She was so tired and aching she could hardly move. She had been on her feet all night, thirsty, starving and in constant pain. But it was more than just fatigue. She couldn’t take anymore. No more suffering, no more terrors.
Just kill me now.
The woody floor rolled beneath her. The heels of the barbarian’s boots passed in and out of her vision. The agony of his shoulder pressing into her already bruised belly brought stars to her eyes, but she didn’t have the strength to shift.
She thought they took her a fair distance. But it was hard to tell as she slipped in and out of consciousness. Probably far enough away no one would hear her struggling. She should have been terrified but all she could think was how utterly tired she was.
A dizzying whirl and she slammed into the ground. The canopy crowded above, the leaves waving in a light breeze. And below—her two attackers, grinning down on her. She didn’t bother protesting as Bloody Teeth hiked up her skirts.