Strange feelings. A strange situation. Grinda still couldn’t believe she was taking care of the very man who had murdered her family, who had destroyed her life. But there she was, filling their skins at a nearby stream, finding berries, roots and mushrooms to eat, tending his wound—keeping him alive. A traitor. What would Father think? Grinda grimaced. It was best not to ponder such things. Besides, she would only stay while he needed her. Once he was healed, she would leave.
For much of the first two days the barbarian slept, only getting up to pass water, arm wrapped around her neck as he hobbled alongside her. She was concerned. He didn’t seem to be improving, as weak and pale as ever, and his wound didn’t want to stop bleeding. He rarely spoke, and then only to ask for food and water.
With nothing much to do Grinda spent much of her time wandering the hillsides and scanning the horizons. As far as she could tell they were isolated. There didn’t appear to be any roads and she could spy no villages in the distance. She would have liked to explore, particularly the woods further up, but it was too far; she feared she wouldn’t find her way back.
When she wasn’t out riding, Grinda spent the endless hours sitting beside him. She tried to mend her tunic, but without needle or thread it was impossible. By the end, all she could do was tie what remained of it around her breasts. Practically naked but better than nothing. What would Mother think? For some reason the thought made her laugh, only for her to bite down guiltily.
At a surge of grief, she looked at the barbarian, trying to feel something, to stir something more than just worry and pity. She should hate him, should at least fear him. But how could she with the way that he was? Weaker than a child, dependant on her.
She pursed her lips. He was still red with blood from the raid. It made her sick to look at him. At a sudden idea, she stood. That, at least, she could fix.
The blood had ingrained deep into his skin but with a little force and a lot of patience, bit by bit she managed to wipe it free.
Carefully, she tipped more water onto the rag and rubbed at his other cheek.
The barbarian opened his eyes. ‘What are you doing?’
She ignored him, dabbing again before rubbing at his beard. Lord, it was disgusting. If she could she would shear it off.
He grabbed her wrist. She paused, eyebrows raised, surprised by his strength. ‘I said, stop it.’
A flash of anger. ‘Let me go.’
They stared at each other, neither willing to give in. Finally, he released her, too weak to fight, and Grinda continued with her washing. The linen was filthy now. Grimacing, she squeezed it out.
He watched her. ‘You came back.’
She didn’t answer.
‘I don’t blame you for leaving.’
Rubbing at his chest now, careful near the thin, red gash across his ribs.
‘My name’s Mock.’
An uncomfortable silence. He watched. She cleaned. She was starting to think she liked him better asleep.
‘I’m sorry for what happened to you,’ he said.
Grinda paused almost imperceptibly. Those filthy hands, those disgusting teeth. The memory of that horrible night was never far from the front of her mind. Refusing to meet his eye, she bypassed his skirt and started on his legs. But she couldn’t hide the shake in her hands, the tension in her shoulders. Please, talk about something else. ‘You killed my family.’
‘No. Not probably. You did. My father, my brothers. In the most horrible ways.’
‘Do you expect an apology?’
‘I expect nothing from the likes of you.’
More silence. She rubbed at his legs until he grunted in pain. The rag was filthy again. She squeezed it out. She went to wash him some more but stopped, her chest tight. Finding it hard to breathe, she dropped to her arse. Her vision blurred as the tears built behind her eyes. No. Not in front of him.
She scrambled to her feet, head bowed so he wouldn’t see. ‘I need to get more water.’
‘They’re not dead,’ he called after her.
Grinda paused. ‘Who?’
‘Your family. Those in the chapel. Three children and a woman, if I guessed correctly.’
Grinda’s heart leapt. She turned to face him. ‘You lie.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Did you want it to be a lie?’ He winced as he shifted. ‘I saw, I knew, and I convinced my brothers to leave the church unburnt.’
Grinda gazed at him. Around her, the bright sunny world went dim. The blood rushed in her ears. No sound now except for the barbarian’s wheezing breaths. No birdcalls, no bright sun, no hot wind. Nothing but the barbarian, Grinda and his startling admission. The word stuck in her throat: ‘Why?’
‘Does it matter?’
She saw the unspoken demand in his eyes: don’t ask. Grinda nodded, turned and went to mount the horse.
It felt like a long time since Grinda felt so light. Happiness. Gladness. Hope. Emotions so unfamiliar they made her weep. Mama, Edwin, Billy, Joel—alive. She couldn’t believe it. It was too good to be true.
Too good to be true.
A stab of despair. He could be lying. But why would he bother? To keep me close. Shaking her head, Grinda kicked the horse into a canter. No. She had to believe.
After filling their skins, she decided she might as well go find some food. She studied the countryside with a sigh. After two days in the same place, there was less and less to forage.
Two hours later, and all she found were three wild potatoes and two handfuls of elder berries. And her hands were small. Sweating, her shoulders blistered and raw from the sun, she dared to ride further afield, glancing frequently behind her to reorientate herself. But her journey was without much success. An hour, and all she found were some mushrooms, wilted and brown. She frowned at them. From what she understood, the barbarian despised mushrooms. She shoved them into her little makeshift rag bag.
By the time she returned it was mid-afternoon. She paused before dismounting. Something was wrong. He wasn’t sitting right—on a slant, his fist buried into his side again. When she got closer, she saw the blood.
She tied the horse to the rocks and crouched beside him.
He looked at her, bleary-eyed. ‘This is futile. Packing won’t do.’
‘But we have nothing to stitch it with.’
‘We have all we need. Build me a fire.’
Until two days ago, Grinda had never built a fire without a tinderbox. It was difficult and slow using rocks and sticks, and by the end her wrists and arms and shoulders ached. The first time she tried the barbarian had laughed at her, muttering under his breath: faqwa.
She had scowled at him as she struggled. ‘If you have something to say, then say it.’
‘Faqwa. It means Paleskin in my people’s language.’
She paused. ‘You mean me. I remember hearing that word a lot from the others.’
‘Yes. We have no love for your people.’
A faqwa she might be, but he had no cause to tease her now. She was a fast learner. The little flame caught, and she quickly fanned it across the kindling.
‘It must be hot, very hot, before you heat the blade,’ he told her.
She stared at the dagger, feeling sick. The reflected flames turned the steel orange. She had only ever seen cauterisation in animals. It was too dangerous. People were always stitched.
‘You have your doubts,’ he said, ‘but we Quarthi have often done it this way. It heals quickly and staves off the rot.’
‘Then why didn’t you do it before?’
‘It’s been known to a stop a man’s heart.’
She looked at him, aghast. ‘And you want me to do it?’
‘I’m stronger now. I will live.’
Grinda bit down on her retort. He sure didn’t look strong: pale, limp and panting.
‘Ideally I would have plenty of ale and chokra to help.’ He shrugged, then gave a crazy laugh. ‘Alas!’ He tried his best to conceal it, but his fear was unmistakeable. It made Grinda sicker than ever.
Soon, the fire was to his satisfaction. ‘Good. Now, untie my binding.’
She did, face pinched. More blood oozed. It was so wet and dirty and macerated. It made her think of the wolf attack on the village sheep last year. It didn’t bode well. With a groan, he pressed his hand against it. Back at the fire, she eased the blade into the flames, twisting so both sides glowed hot. The barbarian watched closely, mouth thin.
‘That should do it,’ he told her after several minutes.
Taking a deep breath, Grinda got up and knelt beside him, making sure to keep the blade well away from herself. The old slash on her arm nagged, reminding her to be careful. ‘How should we do this?’
Grimacing, he lay on his right side and stretched out. Blood trickled through the fingers grabbing the wound, staining his torso red. ‘Don’t hesitate,’ he panted. ‘Don’t pull away. That’ll only make it worse. Press down hard and don’t release until my say so. Got it?’
He stuffed some rag into his mouth and braced himself. She hovered over the wound, took a breath—here goes. The blade lowered. An awful sizzle. The barbarian jerked, cried out, then bit down. The smell of burning flesh filled the back of her throat. Steam coiled. He jerked again, and she grabbed his arse to steady herself.
He spat out the rag. ‘Enough!’
Pulling away, Grinda tossed the dagger into the dirt like she couldn’t get it away soon enough. He turned to look, and she was surprised to see his cheeks were wet. She had never thought him capable. Her heart lurched, and without thinking she reached for him.
‘I’m fine,’ he croaked. She pulled back. He nodded. ‘Good job.’
Then his eyes rolled back and he slumped over.
A desolate landscape. Smoke. Darkness. Ash. Mock grunted as he and his ride sank into something wet. Shaking its big black head, the horse pulled out with a startled nicker, thrusting back up onto solid ground. Mock twisted his mouth. A dark, sticky substance coated the horse’s legs. Blood. The place was steeped in it. He paused, gazing into the distance. Up ahead the ancient woods were gone, razed to the ground. His home. His family. Everything he loved. In its place was a hard, tarry substance that gripped the earth like a sucking black fungus. Nothing grew. Nothing moved. Dead. It was all dead. His land, his life. Death and destruction, that was all the Paleskins were good for.
He was about to nudge his mount ahead when he grabbed his side with a gasp. A sudden pain—like fire—ripped up and down his whole left side before crackling up his spine. His whole body went hot, so hot his eyes fogged over and steam coiled from his skin. He pulled his hand away and stared—ash and char. He was nothing but ash and char. Like the earth. Like all those burnt villages. A sudden wind picked up and his hand disintegrated. Nothing but black and grey dust. Was that all he amounted to? Another gust and more of him blew away: wrist, arm, then knees and thighs. Flecks of charred skin peeled away from his chest and torso. He tried to scream but the wind was clawing at his throat now. He didn’t make a sound as the rest of him blasted away.
A gasp. Eyes open. The real world. Awake. He blinked. At least he thought he was. A blurry figure hovered over him. Something bright brushed his face, tickling his nose. More fire shot up his side. He sucked in a breath, tried to grab at whatever it was that was provoking the pain, but his arm was as heavy as a log.
A soothing sound followed by a muffled voice and a cold compress on his head. He relaxed, closed his eyes. No nightmare this time, just a serene darkness filled with gentle murmuring and the feel of small hands against his body.
Next time he woke it was to darkness. The stars twinkled, the moon glowed. A gentle breeze rustled through his kinta. So quiet. He wasn’t used to it. His brothers were want to snore and grunt and snort. He winced. But still that pain. He reached for his wound, only to pull back with a start. He turned to look. The girl was bunched up against him, so close her hair spilled down his shoulder. A small hand lay against a new wrapping around his abdomen. His heart thudded. His tongue stuck to his throat. Suddenly, the pain didn’t seem so bad. He went very still as he gazed at her. Carefully, he raised a heavy arm and very softly touched her hair. It was as soft as it looked, even after all she’d been through. She didn’t stir and all too quickly his strength gave way. Dropping his arm, he closed his eyes.
The morning dawned hot and bright. Or was it morning? The sun was too high for that—and it was far too hot. Sweat trickled around his neck and beneath his arms. Vaguely he recalled tossing and turning, troubled by the heat—and his dreams. He sat up with a groan, winced; the wound in his side pulled, his head thumped. He dropped his head into his hands.
‘You’re up,’ came a voice. ‘Finally. You’ve been asleep all day.’ He looked up. The girl was watching him, smiling thinly. ‘You look better.’
He looked at his wound. The dressing was dry and intact but it was burning like a bitch. That terrible heat from his dream rushed through his body. He pulled himself to his feet, suddenly desperate to get away, to cool down. The girl went to approach, only to stop, watching him anxiously. He was so hot it made him pant, made him claw at his head as though he could rip the fire out of him. Grinding his teeth, he began to pace.
‘Damn heat! I need water,’ he said. She pointed at his water skin. ‘No. Lots of water. Where’s the river?’
It was only a short gallop away. She reined in and he dropped to the ground with a small curse as his knees buckled, so sick of being useless. It was more a stream than a river, barely knee-height, trickling over slippery rocks. The water was so clear he could see the sandy bottom. Prickly bushes scratched and tore as he scrambled through to the water’s edge. The heat was intolerable. More sweat coursed down his face and dripped into his eyes. He didn’t know whether he was feverish or just irritable—it didn’t matter. It was the most he’d moved in days.
He paused, trembling as he struggled to unwrap the dressing. ‘Help me, why don’t you!’
‘I don’t think—’
‘I don’t care what you think. Just help!’
Pursing her mouth until her lips turned white, she obeyed.
The moment the last of the bandage slid off, he staggered into the water, dropping to his arse. Relief! The water washed over him, cooling the burn in his side and the ache in his skin. Ahhhh. He flopped back, floating, staring up at the blue. White fluffy clouds passed overhead, and to the west—grey. A storm, perhaps? After all this time? That would be perfect. It had been a long, dry summer. He felt the girl gazing, waiting, but all he did was close his eyes.
After a time, when the worst of the heat drained away, he sat up to wash himself. Red rivulets trickled away like streaks of dawn in the blue. His hair, beard. He passed his hand over his wound. Concave, lumpy and blistered. It felt like a wolf had taken a bite out of him. It felt sticky too, oozy, even in the water. He would have to take good care of it. Burns could just as easily take the rot. He glanced over at the girl. She would have to take good care of it. It was in a difficult spot and he still hadn’t the strength. He removed his kinta, washed it. It was stiff, crusted with old blood, sweat—and yes, come. He was still a man. Even if he hadn’t taken a woman for weeks. Slowly he stood. He could feel the girl’s eyes on him. She was a woman, after all. Much more than just a girl.
Stifling a grin, he turned to face her, sure of himself, unembarrassed. But she was looking away, knees to her chest, face to her knees, as she waited. His black demon was grazing on the bushes behind her.
Giving an annoyed grunt, he returned his kinta. His stomach clenched, reminding him he hadn’t had a bite to eat in over a day. He scanned the bushes for berries. ‘I’m hungry.’
The girl looked up. ‘There is no more. We’ve eaten it all.’
He met her eyes. ‘Then we move on. I’m sick of this place anyway.’
She stood uncertainly as he pulled the horse over and mounted. ‘Move on where?’
He shrugged. ‘Away from here.’
Returning to camp, they pulled down their little shelter and packed their few possessions. The girl was silent. Stiff—and silent. Surely she wasn’t upset by his little snap before? He shook his head—Paleskins, they were all the same.
‘Could you bind my wound again?’ he asked her, making sure to keep the edge out of his voice.
She paused, frowned. For a moment he thought she’d refuse. Then a nod. Friends again. As much as they could be friends.
Afterwards, Mock let her take the reins, content to let her take control as he slumped against her. He was still very weak, his wound grabbing at every bump and lurch. For the rest of the day they travelled in stops and starts, riding no more than an hour at a time before Mock needed to rest.
‘Maybe we should make camp for the night,’ she said after their fourth stop.
‘No.’ There are woods up just ahead. It’s no good to be out in the open. Unsafe. Besides,’ he gazed at the darkening sky, ‘rain is coming.’
He wasn’t wrong. First the coolness, then the wind, and finally the wet. Thunder cracked. Lightning struck over the hills behind them. By the time they reached the safety of the woods, Mock was wheezing, fat droplets pounding his head. He had expected the rain to soothe but somehow it was hot against his skin. No relief. It only made him sticky.
Quickly they dismounted and huddled under the trees. She was so close her leg brushed up against his. Unlike him, she was shivering, her skin prickled with goose bumps.
‘You cold?’ With considerable effort, he slung an arm around her shoulders. Immediately, she pulled away, giving him a sour look.
Dropping his arm, Mock leant back against the tree, shaking his head. ‘If we’re going to survive—’ he clutched at his side, wheezing—‘we’re going to have to trust each other.’
Her eyes dropped to his wound. ‘You’re still in pain.’
He closed his eyes, winced. ‘I’m going to be in pain for many days yet.’
An uncomfortable silence brewed between them. Then, ‘Will you die?’
Mock opened his eyes, surprised by the strain in her voice. She was looking his way but her eyes were lowered, unable to meet his gaze. Her hair was more brown than yellow now, plastered against her head in the wet. But somehow it made her look lovelier. It made her eyes overlarge, the blue in them super bright. She was so pale, too, with the cold. Vulnerable. Something flipped in his stomach. A sudden urge—need—to touch her, became almost overwhelming.
He took a breath, hissed at the pain. ‘Does it matter, for a monster, as you put it?’
She raised her eyes, hugging herself as she shivered. Hesitation, then the rustle and squelch of wet leaves as she shuffled in close, shoulder against shoulder, hip against hip, thigh against thigh. At her every touch Mock burned. His whole right side was set alight: fire, more heat, but pleasant, even pleasurable. He lifted his arm again, and this time she didn’t pulled away.