Scrub, scrub, scrub until her arm ached and her skin was red raw. Her third bath and a week since the rape and she still couldn’t rid herself of his stink, of the feel of him. She dunked her head back under the water, washing away her tears. No matter what she did she still felt dirty. She ran her trembling fingers through her hair, wincing at the memory of his disgusting hands on her, those rotting bloody teeth. Squeezing her legs together, she held herself, rocking back and forth.
Would the pain, the horror, never go away?
She hung her head. Poor Mock. How must he feel? She wanted nothing more than to be close to him, nothing more than to have him touch her in ways she had only dreamt about. But he was right; it was too soon. The horrors of that night … Bloody Teeth … the man with the burns … If Mock hadn’t come … She turned her head with a grimace, holding herself as she shuddered. Don’t think about it. Don’t torture yourself.
But it was so hard.
It wasn’t the first time she had obsessively bathed and it wouldn’t be the last. She had hoped to keep it from Mock. But Mock wasn’t a fool. Even when he was at his sickest, he seemed to know more about her than she did herself. She felt him now, sitting close by. Just beyond the rocks with Spirit, waiting patiently. No questions. No impatience or frustration. A tear rolled down her cheek which she wiped away furiously. No more tears. No more baths.
After dressing, she returned to his side. He looked up with a smile. The clouds sat heavy, a deep bruise across the sky, and yet it only sprinkled, coming and going in short bursts. It was nice. It soothed the sunburn on her shoulders and she could tell it eased Mock’s pain too. Spirit’s tail swished as he grazed. A burst of excitement pushed away the heartache. All that they owned was strapped to his back in a big roll. Time to move on. Mock couldn’t stay in the same spot for very long. And she found she couldn’t either.
‘Ready to go?’ he said, rising to his feet.
Grinda nodded. They mounted, Grinda in the front again, though Mock held the reins.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked.
She felt him shrug. ‘Does it matter?’
Grinda smiled. ‘Guess not.’
North. Unless they wanted to scale the mountain to the east or swim the ocean to the south or face the kingdom of Toth to the west, it was the only way to go.
North. Where his people were. She shifted awkwardly between his legs. She wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.
But that was many leagues away. For now, the countryside was at their disposal. It almost seemed as though they were the only people in the world. No roads, no villages, only forests and rolling hills. And each other. Mock had to stop frequently but the stops were becoming fewer. And besides, Grinda enjoyed them. A new place to explore. More time to herself as Mock rested. And she did enjoy her own time: riding through the grasses, Spirit thundering between her legs, skirts rushing behind her. It was a good way to clear her head, leave her emotions and pain behind. She had never known such wonderful silence before. She missed her brothers, her family. But this …. all this space … all this freedom.
It was still so hard to believe.
Taking shelter in the trees again that night, Grinda sat beside Mock as they smoked more chokra. Relaxing against his chest, she gave a long exhale.
A low chuckle rumbled in Mock’s chest. ‘You’re getting better at that.’
‘Is that a good thing or a bad thing?’
‘That’s entirely up to you.’
She took another puff, exhaled, as she gazed at the canopy above. ‘The trees are taller here.’
He shrugged. ‘Further away from the ocean, less salt in the air.’
Another puff. Eyelids drooping. She could feel Mock’s heartbeat against her back. Comforting. Soothing. She slid her free hand into his and he curled his fingers around it, squeezing gently.
‘You going to give me a turn?’ he asked, a smile in his voice.
Grinning, Grinda handed over the nuk and stretched out her legs, giving a sigh as she gazed around her. To say the chokra made her feel strange was an understatement. The woods shimmered. Colours: purples and yellows and greens, the occasional red. Not bright but distinct enough that it was impossible to ignore. Even the ground was like a rainbow. Then there was the rocking of the wind. How it made her dizzy. How it made her spin. Like she was in a boat on a turbulent stream. Not only that but she kept hearing strange sounds, sounds she shouldn’t be able to hear: the heartbeat of a small bird, the scraping of pincers of a hungry spider, the slither of a snake’s tongue as it sensed the air. How she even knew what the sounds were only furthered the mystery.
And what about that thudding? She closed her eyes. It was like a heartbeat buried somewhere deep in the bowels of the earth. Thud, thud, thud. Rhythmic, in time. It made her feel … warm. It tugged at her heart. She could feel it through her backside, up her spine. A deep, pulsing throb.
‘Is it always like this?’ she asked Mock.
She gestured at the trees. Even the wave of her hand left handprints of yellow in the air.
He exhaled. ‘Don’t know what you’re talking about.
Eager to see beyond their little spot, she pulled away from Mock, only for an arm to slither around her waist and yank her playfully back. ‘Where you goin’?’
She writhed in his grip. ‘I want to see.’
‘It’s the chokra, Grinda. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Somewhere in the back of her mind a voice agreed with him. But it was small and distant. She couldn’t believe it was only her imagination. It was too real. ‘Let go!’
She twisted the skin on his arm.
His arm slithered away. ‘Hey!’
She stumbled to her feet, staggering to her right as the ground lurched. That was the chokra. But the colours, the sounds, that strange throb in her bones. That was something different. Something strange. Something … else.
The rustle of leaves, a thud, a grunt, a curse as he fell. He had smoked a lot more than she had. So why couldn’t he see what she saw?
Those sounds, they were everywhere. And those colours—they flashed by her as she staggered. She didn’t know what she was hoping to find. All she knew was the closer she got to it, the faster and more resonant that deep thudding became. Warm. Warmer. Hot. She turned to look back. A rush of cool air. She turned back ahead. Hot again.
Her heart seemed to beat in time to the thudding now, and for a moment she wondered if Mock was right. Was it just her own heartbeat she was hearing? No. There was something about it. Something that made her heart swell. Something that filled her with both excitement and terror.
A trip, a cry, and she fell to her knees. She rose, dusted herself off and staggered on. It was so noisy now. It was as though all the little bugs and birds and plant life were calling to her. The trees seemed to turn, as though watching, as she rushed by, their branches bent low to touch her with their leaves, brush against her face, through her hair like flat fuzzy fingers.
Hot. Hotter. Burning hot. A flash of bright red through the leaves. Another tree. But different. So different. Breathing. Pulsing.
Branches snapped as she flung herself towards it, collapsing to her knees amid its enormous tangle of roots. More roots hung in drapes from its huge branches. She craned her neck. Up and up and up it went, as though it disappeared into the clouds. But that was impossible. She would have seen it sticking out high above the rest of the trees before they entered the woods.
And yet, here it was. Unbelievable. Impossible.
Reaching out a trembling hand, she touched the nearest root, before pulling back with a start. A thrum. A burn. Like hot rushing blood. She touched it again, fingertips only, then her palm.
‘Uh,’ she grunted, the air catching in her throat as that heat filled her up. Strange but not unpleasant. Hot fingers of flame rushed up her spine, compelling her to her feet. One step. Two steps. Three steps. Close now. Entranced. Red bark. Sap oozed. That smell—odd. Like fire. Like ash. She could almost taste it, feel the grains in her mouth.
A pressure, almost a push against her elbow, and her hand reached out. She took a breath, closed her eyes. There. Flat against her hand. The trunk. Its heart. It felt good. Comfortable. Powerful. Right.
This was right.
Around her the woods seemed to exhale, pulling back as she got to know the ancient wark. Wark. Yes. That was its name. Somehow she knew, like a thrum in her veins. Thousands of years old. Roots so deep they touched that thudding buried somewhere far below her feet.
That thudding. Up the roots, through the trunk, her fingertips, her wrist, arm, lungs, then down into her pelvis. She clutched at herself with a gasp. There, it pooled. Swirling. Seething. So hot now she burned.
Empty no longer.
A throbbing behind her eyes, a flash of light. Then darkness.
Mock tripped and hit the ground with a crunch.
And again he leapt to his feet and charged through the trees, limping, gasping. He jumped and ducked and skirted. What was going on? It was almost as though the forest was doing its best to keep him away.
Suddenly ahead—a root. He only had time to widen his eyes before he tripped and fell for the third time. He rolled, clawed to his feet, gripping his side now. He wasn’t imagining things; the forest was alive.
And it was after Grinda.
‘Grinda!’ But the trees seemed to crush in around him, muffling his shout. He slashed and slapped and grabbed; leaves were always there, blinding, suffocating. Another root, another trip. But this time he didn’t fall. This time he staggered, crashing through the impeding branches, tearing off leaves and twigs. Then he was out. Free. Into fresh air.
Managing to keep his feet, he slammed into a tree, then jerked away. Hot. More magic. Another ren. Red bark, twisted roots, more that draped from its branches, broad prickly leaves. Nothing unusual. Then a groan somewhere at his feet.
He dropped to his knees beside her. She was curled up between its roots, half-hidden in the leaves except for a soft cheek that burned scarlet. Brushing the leaves away, he dragged her into his lap.
‘Grinda.’ He shook her. Another groan. Her head turned. Yet she appeared uninjured. Her mind couldn’t be that fogged.
He looked up at the tree again. Magic. Old magic.
Respect. Fear. He shivered. It had been too long since he had known the ancient beliefs of his people.
And best to keep it that way.
Scooping Grinda into his arms, he staggered to his feet with a grunt. His wound was throbbing alongside a nagging stitch. He spat, licked his lips, then heaved her over his shoulder. A weak man’s troubles. A weak man’s fears. Nevertheless, a glance over his shoulder and he hurried away.
Back at camp, Grinda stirred. Mock had doused their little fire—she was too hot—and was attempting to cool her down by fanning her legs with her skirts. Not really working. Her cheeks were still red and sweat had broken out on her brow. More trickled between her breasts. Come on. Wake up! What was wrong with her? Was she sick? He began to itch with desperation.
Finally, she opened her eyes. Confused for a moment before she sat up with a gasp.
‘Careful,’ Mock said, seizing her shoulders. She clutched at his wrist, eyes wide. ‘Thirsty?’ He handed her a skin. She drank in a rush, choked, spluttered, gasped. ‘Easy.’ He took it back. ‘What happened?’
Wiping her mouth, she shook her head. ‘I don’t know.’
He touched her cheek, felt her head. Cooling. Her cheeks no longer so red. ‘How are you now?’
‘Better.’ She winced, looked away, hand falling to her pelvis.
She bit her lip. Her eyes were gleaming, glazed with tears. Sadness. No. Fear? Her lips parted as a tear spilled down her cheek. ‘I told you about the colours but you didn’t believe me.’
‘It had something to do with the colours?’
She nodded. ‘But mostly the wark.’
Mock pulled back with a start. A stake of ice shot up his spine. ‘What did you say?’ Another tear. Eyes so wide now. The hair stood on his arms. He gripped her shoulders more firmly, fingers digging in. She gave a small wince. ‘How do you know that word? Did my brothers speak of it?’
She shook her head.
‘It told me.’
Mock’s hands fell away. Impossible. No Paleskin would have the skill. They don’t have the connection with the land. Not even Mock had it. Only powerful shamris …
‘Which one?’ Though of course he knew the answer.
‘The enormous one with the red bark and the big roots.’
The ren. He fell back onto his heels. A pounding in his ears now. A throb behind the eyes. Clenching his fists, he stood.
Grinda’s brow creased. ‘What’s wrong?’ Turning away, he ran his fingers through his hair. ‘You’re angry.’
He rounded his shoulders. ‘It’s just …’ He shook his head.
‘It’s just this is my people’s magic, not yours. You have no right to it. Why would—why would the Mother talk to you after all that your people have done to her?’
He started to pace. A stick snapped loudly underfoot. Dirt and leaves scuffed around the heels of his boots.
Grinda pursed her lips, the red returning to her cheeks. ‘It’s not my fault.’
He spared her a glare, then looked away, folding his arms. Silence between them and yet so much more than that. Confusion, anger, disbelief, sadness—they turned the air thick. He had never known a silence so heavy. Why did she have to complicate things? There was a stab of regret as he thought of his brothers. How he missed them. How he missed the simplicity of a life bent on rage and revenge.
But then he looked at her, saw the sadness in her eyes, and his heart twisted. He didn’t like seeing her like that. Not at all. Particularly when it had to do with him.
How he loved her.
He winced, ran his fingers through his hair again. Love. He loved her. And suddenly, the rage drained away, leaving behind an ache so deep he couldn’t stand it.
He stopped pacing, crouching in front of her as he touched her knee. ‘I’m sorry.’
She looked up at him, frowned, nodded. Unconvinced. So he took her chin and kissed her. Soft as a whisper. No tongue. Slow and gentle. When he pulled away, her lips followed, wanting more. So he kissed her again.
When they eventually pulled apart, he kissed the corner of her jaw, brushed the hair from her face as he looked deeply into her eyes. Believe me. ‘I’m sorry.’
She nodded, pressed her forehead against his, breathing in time with him. Then, ‘I want to see it again.’ Barely a whisper.
Mock agreed. ‘As long as I come with you.’
No tripping this time, though it was dark and they walked fast. No ankle twisting roots, no branches smacking him in the face. A different forest. But that was the power of the Mother. Quickly come, quickly gone. Unfathomable.
Hand in hand they stood before it. Grinda looked confused, disappointed. ‘It just looks like an ordinary tree.’
‘That, it is not. Can you feel it?’
Grinda took a breath, nodded. Slipping out of his grip, she stepped towards it and placed her hand against it. ‘It’s so warm. But it doesn’t feel like it did. It burned, it pounded.’ She looked up. ‘And it was so tall I thought it reached right into the heavens.’
‘It’s different when you’re in gressa.’
‘When you’re in communion with the Mother. You touched her, felt her.’ He couldn’t keep the envy from his voice. ‘Things aren’t always what they seem.’
‘She spoke to me.’
‘What did she say?’
‘It wasn’t in words.’
‘No. So the shamri tell me.’
‘People of power. Witches, you might call them.’ He smiled at the crease in her nose. ‘Don’t worry. It’s not like your legends. They commune with the Mother, feel the power of the earth around them. Some can communicate with animals, others can make things grow, heal the sick, predict the future …’
Mock sniffed, cleared his throat. Hard to believe it all after what happened to Danna.
Silence fell. The girl stepped back beside him, her hand slipping back into his. ‘But then, does that make me one of these shamri?’
Mock frowned. ‘I don’t know. That’s the mystery. By rights, you shouldn’t have any power. Only the Quarthi do. We were born to this land. You weren’t.’ It was almost accusatory. Grinda stiffened.
Grimacing at the throb in his side, he squeezed her hand. ‘Come on. Let’s go back.’
They were quiet on their return. Mock’s head buzzed and deep down that simmering anger had returned. It couldn’t be true. It didn’t make sense. He could only imagine what his people would think. The same thing he was thinking—impossible. He could imagine the huge uproar. He chewed his tongue. The only way she could have any kind of power was if she were—
‘Something wrong?’ Grinda asked.
How had he not figured it out sooner? Because I didn’t want to. Like I don’t want to know now. Better the mystery, better the anger.
Not this … horror.
His hand slipped from hers. ‘Is it true?’
He took a breath of air, blew it out slowly as he tried to calm himself. ‘What did the Mother tell you?’
And there it was—that instinctive hand to her pelvis, to her womb. He couldn’t stop the swell of disgust. Pith. Pith?
No! It was supposed to be his!
‘Mock?’ Grinda tried to take his hand but he yanked it away, stepping back.
He clenched his fists, nails digging deep into his palms. His stomach churned. His eyes felt hot in his head. The night turned red. ‘You’re pregnant.’
Her eyes widened, then fell.
It was all the confirmation he needed. Stomach muscles tightening so hard, he thought he might be sick, he spat, shook his head, then stalked away.