Darkness. Hardness. Coldness. And chains, chains everywhere. Mock couldn’t see them but he could feel them, heavy and tight around his wrists and ankles. Another clasped his neck. He tried to move, only to stop with a hiss. Needle-like pain shot through his nipples, navel, along his cock. Carefully, he checked himself. More chains, smaller and thinner, hooked to piercings in his most delicate spots. These were new. The Paleskins … Even with all his hatred, even after all he’d done, they were still the crueller.
He looked up. Voices. Footsteps. The rattle of iron. He looked around the darkness desperately, futilely. He didn’t need to see to know these four walls. He could feel them like a pressure in his lungs, like an iron weight on his back. Dank and heavy. Trapped. Powerless. But he had escaped! He was free. He knew it! He was leagues away on his black horse, covered in Paleskin blood. No more chains. No more fear.
How far would he have to run before he would be rid of them?
The flicker of light beneath the door. A thud. The jangle of keys.
Mock shook his head. ‘No, no, no, no, no.’
A click and the door flung open. Squinting, Mock lifted his hand against the blaze of light. A blurry figure solidified. A familiar face. Those horrible pasty white lips.
Mock woke to darkness. A surge of fear made him sit up. No prison. He was in the woods. Fire, blood, the slash of swords—it all came back to him. The raid, all the dead Paleskins. They couldn’t hurt him anymore. He was far away.
He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. The fires were out, his brothers snoring. There were the snorts and quiet nickering of sleeping horses. He moistened his lips, swallowed. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Too much ale, too much chokra. A good night. A perfect day. He stood with a wince, head thumping, throat aching. After a drink of ale he went to piss, bracing himself against a tree at a wave of dizziness.
Finished, he straightened his kinta, spat, took another swig of ale. Looking around the clearing, he studied his men. About half were present, the rest seeking privacy in the woods. With a guilty jolt he spun around, suddenly remembering. He’d forgotten. For a few blissful hours he’d completely forgotten about her.
He stared at the tree. Everything had been a drunken haze last night but he didn’t remember releasing her. The chain was on the ground.
Confusion. Suspicion. Comprehension. It wasn’t hard to put together. He looked to his men again. Pith and Chid were gone. He balled his hands into fists. And why should he care? Let them. They didn’t really want her. They were testing him. Would he come to rescue her like a weak Paleskin lover? Mock stretched out his fingers, curled them again. If he went to help her it would be the end of his leadership. Worse—it would end friendships, mateships. Two years together. All for a girl.
He sat. He stared. Another swig from his skin. He watched Croki snore: big legs, broad chest, patchy beard. For someone so big, he could never grow a proper beard. Their Paleskin masters had thought it funny. Big boy, they used to call him. In more ways than one. Big boys need big punishments. He winced, took another swig of ale.
A burp, and he shook his head. ‘No.’
Swig of ale.
Swig of ale.
Swig of ale.
A choice. The only choice. Tossing the skin aside, he stood and retrieved his sword. A moment’s pause: such a fool.
Their trail was easy to find. They made it easy to find. They wanted him to find them. He only hoped he wasn’t too late. Drag marks. Staggering footsteps spaced close together. Broken branches. Then the drag marks disappeared and their strides turned long. He tried to keep quiet but the urgency was real. What if …?
He spurred himself on.
Deep into the woods now. Leaves rustled. An owl hooted. Something chirped and slithered away. The sound of his pounding heart. The rush of blood in his ears. Blurry vision. Waves of dizziness, quickly thrust aside. Too drunk, too stoned. Too quiet; he could hear his thoughts, his fears.
Then finally: voices, laughter, a woman’s feeble moan. A surge of hope, and he unsheathed his sword. She wasn’t dead yet.
He burst through the trees. Chid turned, smiling. And on the ground—Pith thrusting: brown arse clenching, shoulders straining. Grunt. Gasp. Groan. Whimper. A woman’s leg lay at a strange angle, white in the moonlight.
The world turned red. Fire. Magma. Rage like he’d never felt before. Everywhere, he prickled. Everywhere, he seethed. His ears rang. A bellow—unfamiliar, strange. But his voice. The clash of swords. Chid’s grinning teeth. A flash of moonlight along the edge of a blade. Thrust. Jab. Slash. The rush of cool air as he spun around to chop at Chid’s legs, who leapt back. Another bellow. Chid’s roar as his sword crashed onto his. Pain down his arms at the force of it. Mock kicked out. Connection. Chid stumbled, red-faced and sweating—he was losing.
Then Pith. Sword raised, smiling his bloodied teeth. Now two against one. Unfair. Dishonourable. Unbecoming of a Quarthi. He expected more from his brothers. But at least they were away from her.
Mock had no equal when it came to sword-fighting. But two against one while drunk and enraged? Not even he could defeat the odds. His shoulders ached at the effort of each strike. His legs trembled. Gasping. Sweating. His hair dripped. Each clash vibrated through his bones. He hissed at a shot of pain across his ribs. Pith’s sword. Pith’s grin. The tickle of trickling blood. Too slow. Too tired. A grunt, a cry. Pain in his left side now, so deep he felt it rip up his spine and into the back of his head. The sword withdrew—Chid’s sword, dark and wet with blood. Mock bent over, spat, as he clutched at himself. Too much blood, warm and wet through his fingers. He staggered. Another blade flashed—Pith, ready for the killing strike. Mock raised his sword.
Pith’s bloody grin froze. His eyes widened. A choke, gurgle, a gush of blood. More blood trickled from a steel point in his throat. He reached for it, fingers clawing weakly. No use. The point withdrew. A cough, a belch of blood, and he slumped to his knees. And there was Beltho standing behind him, bloodied dagger in hand, eyes dark as he looked upon his dying brother. Where had he come from?
Mock turned at a shout. The clash of blades. His big friend Croki with Chid. He looked around. Several of his brothers watched on. Bracing himself against his sword, Mock heaved himself to his feet, still doubled over. The sounds of battle. His brothers everywhere and witnessing. But all he knew was the girl.
Staggering over, he fell to his knees beside her. She was sitting up now, holding her knees to her chest as she wept. Her skirts were all torn, her tunic ripped to shreds. He gently touched her knee. She recoiled.
‘I won’t hurt you,’ he said. No response, trembling beneath his touch, but she was whole.
The same couldn’t be said for him. With a grunt, he stood, wobbling a little but strong enough. He turned to face his brothers. Croki wiped his sword on his kinta. The rest were watching, waiting. Both Pith and Chid were dead. He gazed at their bodies, spat. Cowards. How could he have not known their weak hearts? No matter the reason, it was never two against one, armed against unarmed, man against woman. The Quarthi were honourable. When it came to the Paleskins, they could do as they pleased but when it was between their own people—honour, loyalty, bravery. Nothing less was tolerated.
He looked up at his brothers. Now he was the one waiting. He had attacked his own, and for a Paleskin no less. Who would land the killing blow? Croki, surely. His friend. They stared at each other, Croki with his sword in hand. Mock had dropped his when he had rushed over to check on the girl. As a warrior, as their leader, it was better to die fighting. As futile as that was. Hunched over with the pain, he went and picked it up. It was heavy now and slippery with blood. His arm trembled as he raised it.
Croki watched expressionlessly, eyes dark, then sheathed his sword. ‘Go.’
‘Go. And never come back.’
Lowering his sword, Mock looked to the rest of his brothers. Nobody moved. Nobody argued. Respect, loyalty, for a leader they once loved.
Croki frowned; a push too hard. But with a reluctant nod a brother left to fetch it. Then one by one the rest walked away. Soon, there was only Croki. Disappointment. Sadness. The end of an era. But no anger. They said nothing. Didn’t need to. Dizzy, Mock sat, fist jammed in his wound. It was quiet now, the only sound the girl whimpering. He fought the urge to go over and touch her. Not now. Not in front of his brother. Besides, he would have endless time to make amends. If he survived, that was.
The snap of branches, the thud of hooves, and his brother returned with his horse. Supplies were strapped to its back: a roll, skin, a short spear, among other things. Mock staggered to his feet. His brother handed him the sheathe he had lost in the trees. With a nod, Mock sheathed his sword and strapped it to his back, then went over to the girl.
‘Come. We must go.’ Again, no response. More trembling, a shuddering sob. With a grunt and a wave of agony, he crouched beside her. ‘Grinda.’ She jerked, looked up. He had never called her by her name before. It was enough. Their eyes met, and he winced. Dark and filled with pain, her gaze seemed like someone else’s. ‘We need to go.’
She looked over at Croki, the bodies. Nothing. No fear. No disgust. Emptiness. He held out his hand. A moment’s pause, and she took it.
It was agony climbing onto the horse but he managed it, though his left side was dark with blood from waist to boot. The girl hauled herself up behind him, arms loose around his waist, pressed lightly against his back, shuddering and panting. A thin film of dawn light was trickling through the leaves now. One last time he looked at his best friend.
Closer than just a friend, not just a brother in title. After all they had suffered together—a real brother.
But times changed and all things must inevitably come to an end.
A flick of the reins and they trotted through the trees.
Stop shaking! Biting her lip, Grinda tried to imagine pushing all that terror way down into her boots. It worked briefly but the memory of her rape was too close to the surface and the shaking started up again worse than ever. She winced, sucked in a breath, pressed her head hard into the barbarian’s back. Bloody Teeth was dead, and she was glad, but it didn’t make her feel any better. It didn’t lessen the agony of his thrusting, the press of his sweaty, blood-soaked skin, the feel of his hot breath against her cheek. She clamped her thighs hard around the horse, shuddering so violently she bit her lip.
They broke through the trees and Grinda blinked against the glaring sunlight. Rolling green dotted with trees and rocks spread out before them. The mountains reared high into the blue, their tips glinting with snow. She had never been so far away from home. Illogically, she glanced behind her but her village was far away in the distance. The village the barbarians just raided, however, was all too close: a black, smoking ruin. No more huts, no more mill. Only ash and the dead.
The barbarian kicked their mount into a gallop. Where were they going? There was nothing out here except more villages. Her heart lightened. Perhaps he would take her to one? She scoffed inwardly. Unlikely. Then where?
Maybe he doesn’t know. The thought made her despair. Stuck with him in the middle of nowhere. There could be nothing worse.
No. There could be so much worse. Back there—with them. She shuddered again. He saved me. She tightened her arms around his waist.
The barbarian grunted, pulled away. She loosened her grip at the feel of wetness along her left arm and looked. Bright red from wrist to elbow. So much blood. He was wounded—badly.
Another grunt, a gasp, and he leant dangerously to his left. The horse slowed to a trot. He dropped the reins. She tried to hold onto him but he was much too heavy. He hit the ground hard. A wave of fear; what would she do without him? She was about to slip off the horse to help when she paused. He was on his back, fist jammed into a gaping wound in his left side. There was another gash across his chest. His thigh and skirt were black with blood. Moaning, he turned his head, eyes closed against the sun. She saw him then as she had never seen him before: vulnerable, laid out. He was still covered in blood from the raid, faded and peeling away, but still there.
She glanced towards the village. Only ash and the dead.
Something hardened in her gut. She could be a lot without him. Killer rapist, thief, he had murdered her family. Had she forgotten? She wriggled to the front, grabbed the reins, and digging her heels into the horse’s flanks, trotted away.
Soon, she was at a hard gallop, fear at her back. He mightn’t pose any threat but the rest of them still could. She kept glancing over her shoulder, but the fields were empty, the forest barely more than a dark smudge behind her. She slowed the horse, heart thundering so hard her jaw ached. She gulped at the air like a dying fish, hand on her pelvis. The horse’s bare back was not helping the pain. Every bump was like a stab between the legs. She closed her eyes at the icy rush of fear. She began to shudder again. Breathe. Breathe. It eased but she couldn’t stop the tears. Angry at herself, she swiped them away. There was no time to be weak. The next village could be days away—if she even found it. She spun the horse around. She needed to find a road.
She paused, fists tightening on the reins as she looked back in the direction of the wounded barbarian. Her stomach squirmed unpleasantly. No. She continued to trot away, only to pause again. She winced at more squirming. A lump swelled at the back of her throat. What was wrong with her? This was her chance to be free of him.
‘Ha!’ She dug in her heels. The horse stomped its hoof, swished its tail with a light nicker, but that was all. There was no strength in her kick. No desire. She gazed at her surroundings, forcing herself to feel excited. Look at it! How beautiful. All that freedom! No more pain or terrors. But it was a shallow excitement, quickly extinguished. Somehow, the prospect didn’t look so inviting anymore.
A sigh, and she turned the horse back around, squinting into the distance. Would she even be able to find him again? I must try. Another kick, and the horse galloped back the way they came.
The return journey seemed to take an agonizing long time as she scoured the countryside. He had fallen at the bottom of a hill near a pile of rocks and bushes. But there were rocks and bushes everywhere. Why couldn’t he have fallen near a tall tree?
She was beginning to despair when she spotted a flash in the distance. She shaded her face with her hand. Another flash, as though someone were twisting a blade in the sun.
A hard kick and she sped towards it.
He was sitting up upon her arrival, backed up against the slope amid the rocks in an attempt to find shade. A trail of blood followed him. Her heart lurched. Beneath the blood and grime he was so pale, almost as pale as she.
He didn’t say anything as she slipped from the horse, only dropped his dagger weakly into the dirt. Either he had seen her searching for him, or somehow knew—or more likely hoped—she’d come back.
Clutching at her skirts, she kept her distance.
‘Water,’ he rasped.
Quickly, she untied the skin from the horse and handed it to him. He coughed, gasped. Water trickled through his beard and along his chest, leaving clean streaks. He coughed again, rested back against the rocks. He still had his fist pressed deeply into his wound. Grinda winced; it was black with clotted blood. His skirt was drenched with it.
He nodded at the horse. ‘Supplies. My wound.’
She fumbled at the straps as she untied the load, searching for whatever she could find to bind his injury. She jumped back when it all spilled to the ground. There—clean linen, wrappings and even a second skin of water. Gathering them up, she hurried back and placed them beside him.
He pursed his lips. ‘You do it.’
Grinda’s eyes widened. She didn’t want to touch him, didn’t want to go near him. But that was silly, why else had she come back but to help him? Tightening her mouth, she dropped to her knees, hands hovering, not knowing what to do. So much blood—and the stink of it! She was sick of the smell. That metallic smell. It had always filled the barbarian camp like a noxious stench.
‘Clean it first.’
She grabbed the second skin, removed the cover only to pull back with a start. A blast of sour smell in her face—ale.
‘Good,’ he said, eyes gleaming. ‘Better. Use it all.’ With a groan, he eased out his fist. Blood poured.
She did as he asked—and quickly—tongue between her teeth as she focused. He gave more instructions, and she packed the wound. Blood coated her hands, stained her skirts, but she kept going. ‘Deeper,’ he groaned, eyes rolling in his head. ‘Deeper, tighter.’
Next, the binding. He seized her wrist. ‘Much tighter.’
Gritting her teeth, she unwound the binding from around his waist and started again. He was so big and thick with muscle it was hard to get her arms around him. Briefly, something stirred in her pelvis, quickly buried.
‘Tighter!’ he said.
‘I’m doing it tight!’
He smiled at her then, an ugly grimace: white teeth in a bloodied beard. By the end she was sweating, the sun beating down hotly on her head. The meagre shade of the hillside was not enough.
As she took a drink of water, the barbarian looked down at her work. ‘Good.’ Sweat flowed in rivers down his neck and torso, wetting the bandage and catching in between the hard muscles of his abdomen. Grinda looked away.
She handed him the water and he drank.
‘Shelter,’ he said.
‘Where?’ She glanced around. There were a few trees close by but nothing much else.
She stood, raising her hand against the glare. There might have been woods in the distance. ‘Can you move?’
Panting, he tried to sit up taller, only to slump back down with another groan. Red blushed through his dressing.
‘What should I do?’
His head lolled, eyelids fluttering. Biting her lip, Grinda studied their supplies.
Within the hour she had built a makeshift shelter. Hardly a shelter. Just a pelt tied between the rocks and a couple of sticks she had jammed into the earth. It would be nothing against the rain but at least it would keep the sun off their heads. She joined him beneath.
He stirred feebly, moaned, still very pale. Muttering something under his breath, he rolled over, flinging out a hand into her lap. She stared as it clenched and unclenched. It was caked in blood, fingernails black. It was so big, his pinkie thicker than her thumb. Usually so strong—now so weak.
Ceased by a strange, powerful urge, she slid her fingers through his. For a moment—nothing. Then his fingers curled, holding her back.