You’re not a monster, Grinda wanted to say. But the words stuck in her throat. To admit it made her feelings real, her betrayal real.
The rain didn’t let up, only getting heavier, pattering through the leaves, dripping loudly into puddles of water. The forest was filled with the sound of croaking frogs, celebrating after so many weeks of relentless dry.
Shivering, she pressed in close to the barbarian, her back up against his front. He was so hot! Feverishly hot. He curled more tightly around her, his arm firm around her waist. Instinctive. He was asleep. And she wondered how he could sleep, with the way he was making her feel. Her shaking subsided. His light breaths puffed against the back of her neck. His chest pressed up hard against her. Her eyelids fluttered. They had never slept so close, not since that night he had tried to rape her. So different now. No disgust. No fear. She had never lain with a man before, never thought it could feel so good. Waves of pleasure made her whole body flush and tingle. Cold no more. Far from it. Hot. Boiling. At the places where he touched her, she crackled. Little explosions of pleasure that made her heart pound, made the air catch in her throat.
She winced at a surge of guilt but didn’t move. Needing to stay warm, she tried to drive the feelings away: lust, perversion, animal desires. They meant nothing. She was the daughter of Eve, born in sin. It was only to be expected.
Grinda closed her eyes but it was a long time before she fell asleep.
Hours later she jarred awake. She blinked, squinting against the deep darkness, the moon smothered by the clouds. Still raining. What had woken her? She sucked in a breath as the arm around her waist tightened. The barbarian was shuddering against her, breaths catching in his throat, panting breaths, fast and irregular. He grunted, moaned. Another nightmare. He had a lot of them. She tried to turn but he merely gripped her tighter. Strong for someone so weak. And he was still so hot. Her back was wet, and she was fairly certain it wasn’t from the rain.
She grabbed at his arm, tried to pull it away, but it was like a vice around her.
‘Mock,’ she said. ‘Mock. Wake up.’ When that didn’t work, she twisted the skin on his arm.
A grunt and his arm snaked away. He rolled away with a moan. Grinda sat up, watching him as he gazed into the canopy, blinking. He was pale, eyes pink and thick with sleep. His fists were clenched at his sides, the muscles in his stomach tense.
‘Another nightmare,’ she said. He blinked, looked at her, then away. ‘Not even my youngest brother has as many nightmares as you do.’
He didn’t respond, his face blank as he rolled onto his side. Grinda bit her lip. The wrong thing to say. She lay back down with a sigh.
The next morning Grinda woke alone. The rain had ceased, though the sky was still grey between the leaves. The barbarian was nowhere to be found, his spot cold, wet and empty. For the first time since they had escaped the horde, he was awake before she was.
She found him a short way through the trees sitting before a sputtering fire. He was roasting something on a stick. Two somethings. Grinda’s stomach growled at the wonderful smell. Something more than just roots and berries for a change. She stood watching, unsure. Did he want her company? His back was to her, his long brown hair damp and sticking to his shoulders, those criss-crossing scars unusually white.
‘You going to join me?’ he asked without looking.
She went over. ‘What is that?’ she asked as she sat opposite on a small rotting log. Then she saw. Lizard maybe? Frog?
‘Both,’ he answered, seeing the question in her gaze. ‘Not much, but better than nothing. When I’m healed, I’ll hunt you rabbit and deer and boar. You won’t ever be hungry again.’
He took a bite of the frog’s moist dark flesh. His eyes rolled. Grease dripped through his beard. Gripping her knees, Grinda licked her lips. Seeing her watching, he smiled and pulled off the lizard. Grinda took it, grimacing at the sight of its little feet and black eyes. She had never eaten such a thing before. But she was too hungry to care. A bite later, and she was enamoured, tearing at its little legs and tail, biting through its head.
Grinda wiped her mouth, then bit down again. She could feel his eyes on her, and the memory of how he felt against her the night before provoked a sudden shiver.
‘Did I hurt you last night?’
Grinda paused, swallowed as she looked at him. ‘Should you have?’
He gazed into the smouldering fire, eyes dark. ‘Sometimes my dreams can be—violent.’
They were both looking away from each other. Another awkward interaction. More silence. Always, they seemed destined for tension. It was starting to make Grinda tired.
She parted her lips, about to speak, but the barbarian beat her to it. ‘They’re not really dreams—but memories.’ He paused, chewing on his tongue as he stared at the ground between his knees, veins bulging on his arms, shoulders bunched around his neck. ‘Memory of my time as a slave.’
Grinda frowned. ‘Slave?’ That explained the scars. But it couldn’t be true. Not Toth. The sand cities far to the east, yes. Everybody knew they dealt in human lives—savages that they were. But not her land. Not her people. It was against God. ‘We Toths don’t have slaves.’
The barbarian raised his eyes, mouth twisted. Grinda’s heart began to pound. She had done it again. Foolish, stupid. She might as well poke a boar with a stick. What was wrong with her? Grease dripped down her wrist from the partly eaten lizard still gripped in her hand. Her legs tensed, prepared to flee. Then something turned in his face: anger replaced with wonder, an incredulous smile. She jumped, almost to her feet, when he suddenly slapped his knee and burst out laughing. A mocking laugh. He threw the stick away.
Heat rushed into her cheeks. Her frown deepened. Against all good sense, she said, ‘You’re making fun. But it’s true.’
His laughter petered off. He stiffened, stilled. And just like that, he was as hard as stone.
‘You’re saying I’m lying?’
Grinda held his gaze but didn’t respond.
‘You think I imagined the torture, the brutality, the years of humiliation?’ He leant forward, so stiff she could almost hear him creak. Eyes glittering, he tapped the side of his head with a hard, taut finger. ‘Or perhaps you think it’s all in here? That I’m a madman?’
‘No … it’s just—’ Dropping her eyes, she shifted awkwardly on her seat—‘you—you never gave us a chance.’
Straightening, the barbarian raised his eyebrows. ‘Should we have? You take our land, burn our forests, slaughter us in the thousands and you think we should have given you a chance?’
Grinda reeled. ‘We didn’t do that.’
His eyebrows shot higher. They stared at each other and Grinda watched as his eyes darkened, turned black, then steadily sank into his face until they were little more than two holes staring back at her. Dead. Empty. Wiping his mouth, he grinned that incredulous grin, clasped his hands together, then dropped his head against them. He rocked back and forth, body rippling, muscles so tense his veins stood out in long twisted ropes.
Taking a deep breath, he lifted his head again, eyeing her over as he dragged his fingers through his beard, up and down, up and down, twisting and tugging. ‘Well, then, please—enlighten me. What do you think happened between our people?’
Those dead eyes. Too far. Back away. ‘I—I don’t think so.’
‘I don’t see how it’s going to be helpful.’
He pulled his lips back. Part grimace, part snarl. ‘Afraid you might learn the truth?’
Grinda turned her head, refusing to answer. She wouldn’t risk it, but nor would she deign to respond. She knew the truth. Father Joel wasn’t a liar. The Toths were good people. It wasn’t their fault the natives were so violent, so savage. Her people had been desperate: starving, poor. If the natives had shared their land, if they had listened, things would have been different. There needn’t have been so much destruction.
That silence again, now so taut she could feel it cracking.
‘My dreams—my nightmares—’ he suddenly said. Grinda turned back. He was bowed over now, running his fingers through his hair. ‘They’ve never stopped. Not for the last five years. Not since my escape. Those chains—I can never get rid of them. I’m far away and yet more trapped than ever. You think me a monster. And I guess I am. But you Paleskins made me one. You think you know suffering?’ He gripped his knees. ‘Try watching your woman die before your eyes, ripped from groin to throat. And your baby—torn from the womb, pink and wrinkled but alive enough to take a breath, only to be tossed aside like it meant nothing.’ He paused, swallowed, then raised his eyes. No longer black. No longer sunken. Old and worn, pink and wet. The eyes of an old man lived too long. ‘Do these sound like the actions of a good people? I have done many terrible things but nothing like that.’ He shook his head. ‘Nothing like that.’
More silence. Grinda’s ears rang. She felt like a stone, weighed down by what she was hearing.
He snarled, spat. ‘The Toths.’ Spat again. ‘Faqwa. You deserve the hell you created—and then some.’
He stood, so big and threatening Grinda had to dig her boots into the ground so she wouldn’t run. But he had no interest in her. Looking down at himself, he blinked, as though surprised, then walked away.
Mock couldn’t believe himself. What had made him spill his guts like that? And look at the result! Snarling, he yanked at a branch in his way. It snapped and crashed to the ground. He rounded his shoulders, clenched and unclenched his fists. Typical Paleskin. He should just leave. He was strong enough now. Take the horse and leave her behind. It was as much as she deserved. As much as they all deserved.
But he didn’t, as he knew he wouldn’t. After wandering the woods for a while, cooling himself down, he returned. She was sitting with her back up against a tree, patting the horse’s nose, its head bent low as it swished its tail. She was talking quietly to it. He paused in the shadow of the trees, watching. He had never seen her look that way before: happy and smiling. Her eyes were bright, almost as bright as her hair, which had mostly dried and now flowed over her shoulders in tight, coiling waves. He had never seen her looking so lovely. It wasn’t beauty. He wouldn’t call her beautiful: nose overlong, eyes too close together, thin and bony. It was something else. Something more. A glow. It made her face shine.
A knot tightened in his gut. Why couldn’t she look at him that way? The horse hadn’t saved her life. The horse hadn’t sacrificed everything for her. A smile of disbelief tugged at his lips. Jealous of an animal. He was jealous. He twisted his mouth.
This couldn’t be happening.
‘Has he been treating you well?’ she asked it. She waited, then nodded, as though it had answered. ‘It looks like he has. He seems to love you very much.’ She tugged at its mane. ‘Where have you come from? My village had a horse like you once. His name was Pentash. He wasn’t black—he was chestnut. Used to pull the plough. Whenever I passed him through the village, I patted him like I’m patting you now. He was so friendly. But he died a few years back. I miss him.’ Her smile sank, the glow dimmed. She pressed her face to his nose with a shuddering sigh. ‘I miss everyone.’
Mock lowered his eyes as the knot twisted tighter, so tight it made the frog he had eaten churn. It had been a very long time since he had felt anything other than rage, and the pain of it rushed up his throat. The words were out before he could stop himself: ‘he’s yours if you want.’
The girl looked up with a start.
What had he just said? Feeling strangely numb, he stepped through the trees and joined her. The horse’s hair was coarse and damp as he patted it. The animal must have brushed up against the wet branches. It turned to nose his hand with a snuffle.
The girl was pale now, anxious and tense. The glow was gone. He continued to pat the horse without looking at her, rubbing it between the ears the way it liked. A snort, and it gave a full body shiver, shaking its head with a whinny. The girl chuckled.
Mock’s heart lurched. A small glow to her face now, a little smile. Encouraging. His chest swelled. ‘I spoke the truth: he’s yours if you want.’
She was looking confused now. ‘Really?’
She fell quiet as she stood beside him and returned to patting it. She was so close he could feel her heat radiating against his left side, though she was obviously cold: goose bumps on her arms, lips so pale they were almost blue. More clouds had darkened the sky and a strong breeze made the branches wave, showering them in droplets of water. He needed to find her something more than that ridiculous ragged tunic.
Finally, after several moments: ‘Why? He’s yours,’ she said.
‘Because he makes you happy.’ And that was it. The words were out and there was no taking them back.
An almost imperceptible pause in her patting. A new stiffness in her neck. He bit down at a rush of frustration. What was it about her that made him say the most foolish things?
Then her cheeks went pink, her eyes brightened; a small tug at the corner of her mouth. Filled with life. Glowing. And suddenly, he was glad of his foolishness.
‘Thank you,’ she said, and her cheeks went scarlet.
Something had changed. No more fear. No more anger. The tension remained—but it was different. Pleasurable, fun. Less about not trodding on toes and more about how to trigger smiles. They wandered the woods together, Mock pointing out all the different plant life and giving them their Quarthi—their true—names, and the girl listening. Poisonous here. Edible there. Beautiful in the spring.
‘My people believe they are their own living beings,’ Mock said, gazing into the treetops. Like the forest before, these woods were ancient. He could feel the power of it thrumming through his veins. And for the first time in a long time, he allowed himself to miss home.
So many things were changing.
‘You mean they have souls?’ she asked.
‘Not the way I would put it. But yes, in effect.’
The girl looked about in wonder. ‘I was always taught they were nothing. Empty. Put on Earth to be subdued by man.’ She leant her hand against an enormous trunk and looked up into its distant branches. ‘But looking at this now—I find it hard to agree. Why would God make something as beautiful as this only for us to pull it down?’
Mock placed his hand beside hers. An old ren, ancient and tall. And very much full of life. It burned against his palm. ‘My people believe the land should be revered. The land gives to us. We do not take from it.’
She smiled. ‘I like that.’
They moved on, boots crunching through the groundcover. More tension. The girl kept folding and unfolding her hands. Mock watched and waited.
‘Is it really true?’ she finally asked, folding her hands beneath her armpits, looking down at her feet.
‘About your wife.’ She swallowed. ‘Your child.’
She shook her head. ‘I just can’t believe it.’
He stopped. ‘Still think me a liar?’
She looked up with a start. ‘That’s not what I meant. I believe you. I just—can’t believe it.’ Mistaking his silence for confusion, she shook her head again. ‘I’m not making myself clear. I only mean—’
‘I know what you mean.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, and suddenly her eyes shone with tears. ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you.’
Too raw. Too painful. Even after so many years. Jaw clenched, Mock nodded.
It was cold again that night—and wet. They took shelter under the same quista, its overhang of broad red leaves providing them with as much shelter as they could hope for. Mock rubbed his hands together, anxious to make things right. Every little goose bump on her skin, every bead of water tangled in her hair, pricked his heart. Once he was well he would build her a real shelter, clothe her in warm animal skins, hunt the finest deer and dress her in the loveliest flowers. The lillas would be the best, he thought: pink and delicate on the outside but a sombre blue within. Much like her. They would complement her hair, bring out her eyes. Yes. He might not have touched a flower in years and his fingers were thick and covered in scars and callouses, but he was sure he could string something together.
He hadn’t forgotten everything.
She lay close again that night, his big body curved around hers as she shivered. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight. She stiffened but didn’t protest. And soon she settled, warm and soft in his embrace. He couldn’t help but recall the last time he had held her this way, before they had left his brothers. He winced. He had almost brutalised her. And what would have happened if he had? Where would he be now? Would he be back with his brothers? Busy raiding and raping and killing? And what would have happened to her? Would he still have fallen for her, or would he have simply discarded her like so many others? He closed his eyes at the thought. Dead and rotting, those glorious blue eyes filmed over, blank and grey and empty.
Shivering, he clutched her tighter.