Grinda laughed as the wind gusted through her hair, as the wet ground churned beneath Spirit’s hooves and splattered her skirts in dirty wet clumps. Only a week ago it would have been devastating to ruin her only set of clothes. But that was before and this was after. The sun was out again, the sky blue, warm and beautiful, and Spirit was joyous as he galloped through the rolling landscape. Spirit—a good name. The big black beast deserved it.
Behind her, Mock chuckled, enjoying her happiness. She had never been allowed to take the reins back home. At least, not like this. It was always business back in her village. So many chores to do. Early mornings. The tasteless food and worn blankets. Screaming babies and howling children. But here, she was free. It was a feeling she had never experienced before. She had never realised how trapped she once was. Trapped by her father. Trapped by the drudgery. She had never thought life could be so good.
And it was all thanks to Mock.
Mock. Grinda smiled. Mocking. Mockery. Somehow, it fit. It was all in that smile of his: crooked and mischievous. How he made her ache. Everywhere she tingled, everywhere he burned against her, from the muscular arms wrapped around her waist to the hard chest against her back to the hot breaths against her ear. And down below she felt it, pressed up against her backside, rubbing up and down at Spirit’s every lurch. Every time they were close she knew it: riding or sleeping together. She even saw it twitch beneath his kinta—as he called his barbarian skirt. He never seemed embarrassed by it. He didn’t need to be. She was embarrassed enough for them both—and fascinated.
She licked her lips, dug her knees harder into Spirit’s flanks as that powerful, sexual heat pooled between her hips. His manhood might twitch. But her womanhood ached. She had never felt so empty down there in all her life. Not around Father Joel. Not even around the smithy. It was overwhelming.
Daughter of Eve. Whore. Slut. Harlot.
Wincing, she thrust the thoughts aside. Old teachings. And Mock was different now. He wasn’t the man he once was. That man was gone. Father’s murderer. Father Joel’s murderer. Her brothers’ murderer. Leader of the Barbarian horde: fiend and rapist. Gone. She couldn’t be a traitor if that man was dead.
She tightened her fists around the reins. Couldn’t.
A squeeze around her waist and Grinda slowed the horse to a trot. Tired again. His wound was healing and he was looking better, but he still slept several times a day and couldn’t move, whether walking or riding, for more than a couple of hours at a time. Grinda didn’t mind. She liked taking care of him.
The same couldn’t be said for him.
He slid from his perch with a grunt, grabbing onto Spirit as his knees buckled beneath him.
‘You all right?’ Grinda asked as she dismounted beside him.
‘Fine.’ He spat, wiped his mouth, then walked a few paces and sat in the grass. Pale and panting, ribs sliding beneath the muscles of his chest. She sat beside him and they gazed into the vista. The forest wasn’t all that far. A small rest, and they would return and Mock could have a sleep.
She took a drink from her skin and handed it to him.
A swig, cough, splutter. He threw it aside with a snarl. ‘This is ridiculous! I should be better by now.’
‘It’s only been a week.’
‘A week,’ he spat. ‘I should be a new man by now, not—this.’ He looked down at himself in disgust. Grinda smiled at his anger. He was far from disgusting. So much more than just a violent barbarian to be feared: those long, strong legs, the bulging muscles in his arms, broad shoulders, square chin, his rippling abdomen. Even the beard. Sometimes she wondered what it would be like to brush her fingers through it, the way he did when he was agitated.
‘Give yourself time. You lost a lot of blood,’ she said.
She studied the wound. A slight dip in his side but not so blistered and raw anymore, though the scarring was going to be horrid. She had never known someone to heal so quickly. It still ached and sometimes he hissed in pain when something rubbed against it, but he no longer kept it covered and Grinda no longer feared.
Smiling, Mock laid a hand on her leg. Fire. Heat. A blast of wonderfulness up her spine. He was doing that a lot now, ever since they had opened up to each other. Little touches. Sweet words. It made her heart thud, made her head spin. It was enough to drive her wild.
Mock held his smile, hand warm and broad against her thigh, eyes twinkling.
Later that night after Mock rested they sat amid the trees, content in each other’s company. The clouds had returned with a light sprinkle of rain. Grinda didn’t mind. An excuse to bunch up close to Mock. But tonight he wasn’t paying as much attention to her, bent over his lap, head down, as he whittled at a long, lumpy stick he had snapped off a tree.
Grinda watched, studying the swell of his biceps, the strain in his thick muscular fingers. There were a lot of cuts and bruising around the knuckles. Two of them were red and swollen. Broken by the look of them. He didn’t seem to notice. More scars up his arms. A nasty one on his shoulder. A thin red line around his neck that made her shudder. All gleaming against the flames of their little fire. She had looked at him plenty but had never really looked at him. She had known those terrible scars on his back but not the rest. A patchwork of heartache. A life of hardship and suffering. Her heart lurched. She wanted so badly to touch him. To stroke those scars away. To make him whole again.
And those eyes, gleaming now, but the darkness was never far away. Then there was the drag in his cheeks, the hollows between his jawbones, so obvious. He was young, probably early twenties, and yet so old. To think how deep his scars went made her heart ache.
‘What are you doing?’ she said finally.
He didn’t look at her. A long curly sliver of wood fluttered to the ground. ‘I’m making a nuk. I found some chack earlier today. It’s been too long. I need some chokra.’
‘Nuk, chack, chokra?’
A dimple in his cheek as he smiled. ‘Pipe, mushroom, drug.’
Grinda pulled away. ‘Oh.’ It was hard to forget the smoking barbarians. That choking stink. So many horrible memories she wanted to put behind her. Must he? But she didn’t argue.
Sheathing his little knife back into his belt, he blew away a shower of woody debris from the pipe’s surface before rubbing it against his kinta. Then he brought it up to his eyes, twisting it about as he studied it. Appearing satisfied, he picked up the small pouch at his feet. He opened it and spilled the contents onto a smooth flat rock he had chosen from the stream earlier that day. Mushrooms. Black and shrivelled. The chack. Grinda wrinkled her nose. She could smell it already. Using the handle of his dagger he pounded the chack into little pieces before using another stone to grind what was left of it into dust. Chokra.
It took a long time and Grinda was getting bored, chin on her hand as she watched. They could have been talking—maybe even touching.
‘Not the best,’ he said with a grunt. ‘Still big pieces in it. But it’ll have to do.’
He mixed in some herbs, scooped it all into a leaf, then carefully poured it into the hole he had made in the middle of the stick. Next, he turned to the flames. The chokra smouldered as he puffed, and she wondered how the stick didn’t catch alight.
‘Boch,’ he managed between puffs, the pipe clenched between his teeth. ‘A special kind of sap. Waxy. The inside needs to be coated in it or it’ll blow up in your face. I’ve had it soaking all day.’
How did he always know what she was thinking?
A haze of smoke quickly filled the little clearing. Mock sat back, eyelids half-shuttered, puff after puff after puff. Scrunching up her nose, Grinda waved the smoke away. It was awful. Thick, almost sticky. It was hard to describe. But it reminded her of the stench of the mud vomited up after the spring floods back home. It stuck in her throat, built behind her eyes.
Mock grinned around the pipe at the look on her face. ‘You don’t do it because it smells good.’ Another languid puff and he held it out to her. ‘Here.’
Grinda shook her head. ‘No thanks.’
‘Come on. You said you wanted to know more about my people. Well, chokra’s a big part of it. Our shamris use it to coax visions, to predict the future. The rest of us just use it for fun.’
She bit her lip, eyeing it uneasily. Witchcraft. Demons.
‘No,’ he said, watching her closely. ‘I would never give you anything that would harm you. We use chokra for a lot of things. As a salve for wounds, to ease the passing of the dying. If I had the strength to find it earlier, I would have used it on myself.’ He held it out further, his expression serious. ‘It’ll help you, too, Grinda. With the pain.’
‘I’m not injured.’
A lie. And they both knew it. Like Mock understood all too well, not all wounds were skin-deep.
She took it with a sigh.
An unknown number of puffs later and Grinda’s head was swimming. She drooped at Mock’s side, head on his shoulder. He was right. She hadn’t known how tense she was, how full of anxiety. Fears for her mother and brothers; grief over the dead; the horrible abuses in the barbarian camp; her rape …
It was all numbed. Not gone. But pushed back so far away it felt like somebody else’s life. It was remarkable. She would sleep easy tonight, for sure. She looked up at the barbarian. No—the Quarthi native. Is that why he smoked? To quell the nightmares?
She couldn’t blame him.
Not only did it make her feel better but it seemed to loosen her up, gave her a courage she never would have expected of herself. She pressed in close, her mouth against the nape of his neck. Despite the smoke, the smell of him was intense. It seemed to fill up the little empty holes in her soul she never knew she had. It made her toes tingle, her mouth water. She sucked in a breath, her lips brushing his skin. He shifted and she pulled back to look up at him. He was looking down on her: intense, eyes dark, lashes thick and low. Passion. Desire. The breath caught in her chest.
This was it.
He lowered his lips. Connection. Softness. Oh, his breath. So gentle and light. Not what she expected after that rough kiss at the chapel. He was careful. Holding back. Why? She knew what he could do. Pressing in harder, she brought up a hand to touch his chest. Hairs there. Soft. Hard muscle. She wanted his tongue, ached for it. She needed some more chokra, needed more courage. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t know what to do. He had to do it, but he was resisting. Didn’t he like her?
She pulled away with a frown.
He gave a weak smile. ‘Later. When you’re not so dazed.’
He raised his eyebrows, lips parting as he chuckled. Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, he kissed her on the head. ‘Later, my fiery little faqwa.’
‘You can be such an ass,’ Grinda said, burying her head into his chest with a sigh. She tried to be angry but couldn’t shift the smile from her lips.
Mock ran his fingers through her hair and kissed her again. It was hard, resisting her. More than hard—agonising. Against his nature. Against everything that made him a hot-blooded man in his physical prime. With a wince, he eased open his thighs. Engorged. Throbbing. He whistled out a breath, rolled his eyes. He would have to fix that if he was ever going to sleep tonight. Three to four times a day he had to relieve himself, and the more open and willing she became, the worse it got until he thought his balls might rupture. He winced again. Horrible thought.
She wasn’t ready yet. She might think otherwise. But he could see. Not yet and certainly not the way she was—all dazed and fogged. It was nice having her so freely in his arms. She was usually so uncertain—sometimes even afraid. He could see the urge in her eyes—the need. But something was holding her back. Unsurprising, after all that had happened to her.
For a long time they held each other, skin against skin, heart against heart, breathing in time, listening to the sounds of the forest as it rustled and croaked and creaked around them. The closest they had ever been. And yet—Danna. Thoughts of her came quickly. Already, the chokra was wearing off, and steadily that painful, open sore in his chest began to weep.
Deep into the night, and Mock was still awake. Earlier he had vanished into the trees to expel the tension, but the relief never lasted long. It didn’t bother him all that much. He never really slept well anyway. Better a bulging cock than the nightmares.
She was curled into him, head down, knees up. It was warm tonight but it hadn’t stopped her snuggling close. He could tell the chokra was still working, despite the little she had smoked: breathing deeply, twitching in her dreams. Her hair was draped over her face, and carefully he brushed it aside, letting his finger linger over the softness of her cheek before dragging it lightly down her arm. She stirred, twitched again. Her eyes opened.
He pulled his hand away. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.’
She smiled, yawned. Her eyes were thick with sleep but the daze was gone. Blinking against the moonlight, she wriggled in closer and reached up to do the same.
She chuckled at his shiver. ‘Such a strong, burly man, startled by the touch of a mere girl.’
Mock grabbed her hand, ‘I’m not startled,’ and kissed her lightly on each of her knuckles.
He shouldn’t. He knew he shouldn’t. But by that point all he knew was the pain in his groin and the ache in his chest.
He was only a man, after all.
She arched her neck with a small cry as his lips turned to her throat. Sweet and salty against his lips. Warmth. Smoothness. He kissed lower, following her collarbone. She sucked in a breath as he reached her shoulder and lapped at her earlobe.
Giggling, she hunched up her shoulders. ‘It tickles!’
Grinning, Mock turned back to her lips, parting them with his tongue. A proper kiss now. Gentle, careful. She pushed her tongue back: cautious, uncertain—but eager. Always eager. Tightening his arms around her, Mock let her take the lead. If this was going to be the night, let her be comfortable, let her be sure. Her little hand rested against his waist, limp and motionless. And the rest of her was as stiff as a log. Her lips were the only things moving.
He pulled away.
‘What’s wrong?’ she said.
‘About to ask you that.’
‘Are you sure?’
A quiver in her lips. Her eyes dropped. But the hand on his waist gripped hard and she nodded. ‘I want this. With you.’ Then she leant in and kissed him again. Less cautious this time. More certain. Mock rolled on top.
She smiled up at him, eyes gleaming, leaves and twigs stuck in her hair. He traced the back of his hand down her face. So lovely. He should have found them a better spot. Some place more comfortable. Some place beautiful. Too late now. The least he could do was make sure it was memorable.
Pulling back, he lowered his head and dragged his tongue up along her abdomen, dipping into her navel with a little twirl. She gasped, giggled, grabbed at his hair. The muscles in her stomach tightened. She began to pant, little puffs of air that made his heart pound. Reaching the remains of her wretched tunic, he slid it up over her breasts. And there they were. It felt like a long time since he’d seen them. Too long. Pointed and hard. Pink and perfect. He smoothed them beneath his hands. So wonderful, as though his hands were made for them. He rolled his eyes, growled from the back of his throat.
His kinta was so tight.
He took them in his mouth, taking his time with each of them, enjoying how she shivered beneath his touch. ‘Like that?’ he said between sucks.
‘Very much,’ she panted.
He kissed them both, then kissed some more. Lower. In a straight line towards her navel, to the top of her skirts. Her stomach tightened again. He twisted his mouth at the sight of all the fabric. What was with the Paleskins and covering up? It hurt the mood. So thick and heavy. So much to get out of the way. She was very quiet now, so quiet he could no longer hear her breathing. Bunching the fabric up in his fists, he slowly dragged upwards. Shins, knees, thighs. So female. So womanly. After living so long with filthy men, it was like the heaven the Paleskin’s were always on about. He groaned. How he ached to be inside her. Connection. Joined. A real partnership. For the first time in a long time it was more than just the physical. Not since Danna. His arms ached at the thought of crushing her against him as he moved inside her, holding her so tight she could barely take a breath.
He pushed the skirts higher. Hair. Golden. The same as her head.
She took a sharp suck of air, shuddered.
‘Who’s startled now?’ Mock growled. Another shudder. A choke. A whimper. Mock paused, then sat up, straddling her legs. More than just startled. ‘Grinda?’
She didn’t answer. Head to the side. Shaking violently now. Hands fisted into the earth. Quickly, he lowered her skirts and pulled away.
‘I’m sorry,’ she hiccoughed, still turned away.
He clenched his jaw. ‘Don’t. Don’t apologise. Not to me.’
Hands on her breasts now, legs crossed. She rolled away from him as she adjusted her tunic. Silence, stillness as Mock waited. Taking a deep breath, she wiped at her eyes and sat up, knees to her chest. She glanced at Mock, gave a weak smile, then looked down at her toes.
‘We don’t need to do this, Grinda. Not ‘til you’re ready.’
She nodded, scrunching up her face as she tried to hold back the tears. Slowly, Mock shuffled in close. She didn’t pull away. Encouraged, he reached for her and eased her into his arms. More shuddering as the tears came.
Kissing her head, he wiped the wet hair out of her eyes.
At least he got to hold her, if not in the way he expected.