Mock gently took Grinda’s chin. ‘What happened?’
‘Foolishness,’ she spat. But she told him.
Mock’s heart thudded as he listened. He felt the blood pool in his neck and turn his ears hot. He hadn’t made the Paleskins suffer nearly enough. He raised his eyebrows when she spoke of Spirit.
‘Was that part of the Mother’s power too?’ she asked. She peered around him, watching as the dark horse pressed noses with one of the mares. ‘He heard me. Did what I told him to do.’
Mock nodded. ‘I would say so. Some shamri are known to speak to animals.’ He paused. ‘I heard you.’
Her eyes widened. ‘You did?’
‘Loud and clear.’ He smiled, then frowned. ‘I don’t want to hear you sound like that again.’
She tightened her arms around his waist. ‘I’m sorry.’ She went quiet, brow puckered, lips pursed, then her face smoothed over and she shook her head with a sigh. ‘It doesn’t work when I want it to.’
‘Perhaps it’s when you need it to.’
She pressed a hand to her belly. ‘So, she saved me. Her power.’
She looked up with a start. ‘I—I—’ She paused, staring into the distance. Then a sharp nod. ‘Yes. She. Another mystery.’ She smiled up at him, then frowned. ‘You all right with this now?
‘More than all right. I was a fool.’
‘Yes, you were.’ Silence fell between them, but it was calm, hopeful. Her eyes travelled over the carnage behind them. ‘What should we do with them?’
Mock raised an eyebrow. ‘We?’
‘Of course. I’m not leaving you to fix all this alone. It’s my responsibility too. Mostly mine, actually. I was the one foolish enough to get into trouble.’
Mock couldn’t help but feel proud of her. She kept him guessing all the time. Every day she was something different, something more.
‘Take their horses, scavenge their possessions, hide the bodies as best we can.’
Grinda nodded at the still squirming and weeping Roland. ‘What about him?’
‘We kill him.’ Grinda pursed her lips. ‘Swiftly, if that’s what you want. A mercy killing. He’s mortally wounded. Unless you want him to suffer?’ Did she want him to suffer? He didn’t mind if she did. It was hard to miss that new hardness in her eyes. ‘Or perhaps you want to take him with us? Bind his wounds, like you did mine, pray to your God to help him? He might survive.’ Mock watched her closely. A little nudge, just to see where her heart lay.
Watching the injured man, she shook her head.
Grinda stood by, pale but hard-faced, as Mock put him out of his misery. Then they took the horses. Mock couldn’t believe their luck—three horses now. Spirit and the two palfreys, both mares. In good shape too. Mock mounted the larger of the two mares, leaving Grinda with Spirit and the smaller palfrey. ‘Go back to camp. Pack everything up and wait for me. You sure there were only two?’
Grinda shook her head. ‘I can’t be certain but there are at least two others. One is likely dead, the other stranded.’
He nodded. He would dispatch them swiftly. Four men. What would have happened if he hadn’t returned when he had? He couldn’t help but recall the last time he had taken too long to get to her. His stomach twisted. A hard kick and he galloped away.
Upon his return to camp, Grinda was waiting for him. She stood at his approach. ‘You were gone a long time.’ He nodded as he drew the palfrey after him. ‘Did you find them?’
He nodded again. ‘It’s been taken care of.’
‘What about their bodies?’
She frowned. ‘But I was going to help you.’
Grinda pouted, folding her arms. ‘Mock.’
He smiled at her tone. ‘Grinda.’
Her lips twitched, threatening a smile.
‘The wagon of supplies—’ he began—‘you sure you didn’t want to take a look? A lot of the stuff was salvageable: tunics and dresses, even some of those ridiculous scarves for your head.’
She grimaced. ‘No, thank you.’
Mock understood. He appraised her packing. The smaller palfrey was already loaded. Spirit would carry Grinda. The bigger palfrey would be Mock’s. ‘You ready to go?’
She nodded, then paused, chewing her lip. ‘Do we have to? I doubt there’ll be anybody else out here.’
‘We can’t take the risk. We must go now. Ride until sunset.’
Grinda looked across her shoulder and Mock knew she was thinking of the wark. ‘There will be more of them,’ he told her. ‘Even ones more powerful than that.’
Lowering her eyes, she nodded.
They rode fast, covering more ground than they ever had before now that Mock was strong and potential danger snapped at their heels. He kept his eyes peeled but there was no other soul around. By the time they took cover again for the night, Grinda almost fell from her horse, hobbling as she walked.
‘It’s not funny.’
She shrieked as he pulled her into his arms. ‘It is so funny. You’re funny.’ Brushing her hair away, he pressed his nose against the nape of his neck, breathing her in, letting her scent fill him up. ‘I missed you.’
Grinda turned, cupping his jaw, brushing her thumb across his lower lip. Her eyes gleamed against the setting sun. ‘I missed you too.’
They gazed at each other, taking each other in. Pressed up against his body, she was so warm, so alive. She breathed little puffs of air, sweet against his face. The space between them seemed to vibrate. The gentle noises of the forest creatures became a hum, hardly discernible against the pounding of his heart. She started to tremble, or was that him? Their lips brushed, their tongues entangled. A gentle kiss. They pressed their foreheads together, staring into each other’s eyes.
There were so many questions to ask, so many unspoken answers. But not yet.
She took his hand. ‘Come with me.’
He followed obediently. ‘Where?’
She didn’t answer.
The trees weren’t so thick here and they moved quietly, their boots sounding softly against the grass. He heard it before he saw it: the gurgle and drip of trickling water. Night fell quickly and it was almost dark by the time they reached the stream.
‘How did you know this was here?’
Grinda paused. ‘I—I don’t know. I just did.’
Their eyes met: The Mother.
The moon shone brightly between the branches, turning the water an almost luminescent blue. Frogs croaked. Crickets chirped. Somewhere an owl hooted.
Beautiful. But Mock hardly noticed.
Her eyes gleamed up at him, as bright as the water. Her pale skin glowed. There was something different about her. The way she looked, the way she held herself. Sensual. Desirable. She had never looked that way before. Mock traced his eyes over the curve of her hips, the dip of her slim waist, the gentle rise and fall of her breasts as she breathed.
As she breathed. Mock had to focus hard on his own breathing. He couldn’t stop staring at that little notch in her throat, that little dip between the collarbones. For some reason it was the most stimulating thing he’d ever seen. Womanly. Beautiful. Sensual. It seemed to pulse, sucking in and out, moving in time with the rise and fall of her breasts. His heart lurched, his stomach tightened, then that familiar warmth pooled in his balls so quickly it seemed to drain the blood from his head, leaving him gasping for air.
He straightened his fingers, clenched them again, as though he could feel the soft brush of her skin already.
She smiled, and it almost snapped his control in two. It was an excited smile, yet uncertain. Virginal. Vulnerable. It was more than he could take.
‘Oh, the Mother keep me,’ he panted, lapsing into Quarthi.
Releasing his hand, she stepped up to the stream, a little stiff, nervous. But that only added to her attraction. Slowly, awkwardly, she pulled down her skirts. Mock sucked in a sharp breath. Her wonderful arse. How he wanted it, needed it in his hands. He watched, so dizzy and hot, he had to brace himself against a tree as she removed her tunic. Those shoulders, the curve of her spine. He remembered how he kissed her there. Each of those perfect little bones. She tossed her hair back, still turned away as she stepped into the water, submerging herself waist-deep.
Women. Grinda. How could the Mother make something so perfect?
She turned to face him, chin lifted. And he could see the struggle in her face. The desire to expose herself so openly, against her deeply ingrained shame. Paleskin customs ruined women. Quarthi women were not afraid of their womanhood.
He stood frozen, thoughtless, staring.
‘You coming?’ she said, a small quaver in her voice.
He licked his suddenly dry lips, cleared his throat. He swallowed and it was like he swallowed a mouthful of sand. He was such a fool—acting like it was his first time. Straightening, he pushed himself off from the tree. It was as though his whole body was aflame and it surprised him when the leaves didn’t crisp and curl beneath his feet. Oh, Mother, he was so ready for this.
At the water’s edge, toes dipped into the cool water, he loosened his kinta.
Grinda watched, caught up in a whirl of emotions, a surge of sensations, some pleasant, most wild. The water was cold and yet she felt so hot. She imagined the water bubbling around her but it was calm and still. It barely rippled. She was so still. Paralysed. Afraid to move. She knew the forest was filled with noise and yet she barely heard it, a faint echo in her ears, as though she were listening from a distance. There was a cool wind but she hardly felt that too. The world was slowly disappearing. It didn’t matter anymore. There was only herself and Mock and what was about to happen.
The kinta slipped away. And there it was. She’d been wanting it for so long, been terrified for so long. And now the time had finally come, and she was relieved to find she didn’t shake, only trembled a little in her hands. Nervous, not afraid. Healthy for her first time. And it was her first time. That night with the barbarians didn’t count. She would never count Bloody Teeth as her first.
‘You all right?’ he said, watching her closely.
She nodded. She wanted to say so much. How much she wanted him, how much she ached for him, to have him so deep inside her they were one soul. But the words stuck in her throat. He seemed to understand, though, smiling that gentle smile as he eased himself into the water.
‘You’re so beautiful,’ he whispered. Placing his hands on her hips, he drew her close. Not knowing what else to do, she rested her hands on his forearms. She had felt so strong when she had drawn him to the stream. Now, so weak, so powerless. The trembling increased. With his height, the water was hip deep and it was hard not to notice his manhood standing to attention along the surface, hard and thick and full. She tried not to look but couldn’t help how it brushed up against her inner thigh. Lifting a hand, he entwined their fingers. A trickle of dirty water trailed down his arm, and she suddenly remembered why she had brought him to the stream in the first place.
‘We should wash.’
He had only splashed himself briefly in the shallow brook back at their previous camp, and he still stank of blood and steel and grime. Grinda wasn’t much better.
‘All right,’ he said in a hoarse voice.
She pushed down on his shoulders, forcing him to kneel. Chest-deep now, his hardened nipples resting on the surface. Only the water and her hands against his calloused, scar-torn skin. No soap, no brush, but it was enough. The horrors of the day trickled away. Fingers through his hair. He looked up, the moon shining in his eyes. Usually a deep brown, ochre around the edges. But not tonight. They blazed golden, molten. A trick of the light? Or a reflection of what he was feeling? Was he as hot as she was? She could imagine it: burning, boiling. She smiled, enjoying the thought of his gentle torture.
His eyes half-shuttered as she drew her fingers along his scalp before dragging them through the lengths of his hair, her fingers brushing lightly against his shoulders as she did. So long. Before meeting Mock she hadn’t known men with long hair. The men back home kept it short. It was clean, Godly that way. The sign of a hard worker. Only bandits and barbarians, dirty and Godless, kept it long.
Her smile broadened. How she liked it.
Next, fingers down the creases in his cheeks. He tilted his head back further as she reached for his beard. Still staring up at her, eyes blazing as furiously as ever, mouth tight as he shook beneath her touch. Here, the hair wasn’t so soft, almost wiry in her hand.
She liked that too. Everything about him was just right, the way it was meant to be.
She gasped as Mock suddenly pulled her to him, hands on her arse, lips against her lower left rib, sucking and gnawing. She sank into the water beside him, and he was on her, over her, bending her back, lips on her breasts now, trailing down to her belly button, to the golden thatch of hair below.
‘Mock!’ she cried as he touched her down there, cupping her beneath the water, thumb tracing her opening.
‘Clean enough,’ he growled, ‘Now, or I’m going to explode.’
‘Now,’ she agreed in a breathless whisper.
A torrent of water as he surged to his feet. Flowing, splashing, tumbling over him, over her, as he lifted her into his arms. His hands burned against her skin, sending such shocks of heat through her body, tears filled her eyes. She sucked at the air but it felt thick in her throat, hard in her lungs, almost like she was breathing in water. Better just to stop breathing. She lay limp in his arms as he carried her to dry ground. The sound of splashing water, of Mock’s panting. Her skin pimpled at the cool, dry air. The canopy spun in tight circles above. She felt so close to the treetops, so far away from the land below. Dizzy. Lost. Flying.
It didn’t feel real. The earth—soft and warm against her back. That was real. Mock’s face looking down on her, brow creased, frowning, so eager he was gritting his teeth. The press of his chest against hers. His warm, panting breaths. Soft lips upon her nipple, the nape of her neck, the corner of her jaw. Real. Real. Real. All so very real. Then that hot hardness between her legs, seeking, nudging, parting. A slow slide in. Slippery down there, even despite the water. She opened up for him, willing, needful. Deep now, filling her up. So good. So very good. All the way inside her and he held her tight, still gritting his teeth as he pressed his forehead to hers. That warm tingle high up inside her. Her eyelids fluttered. A moan escaped her lips. Wild, uncaged, as he thrusted, until that tingle became a burn.
She grabbed his hair. ‘Mock!’ Fingers digging into his scalp as she gritted her teeth. Back arching as she drew him in deeper. His arms so tight around her, pulling her closer still as he thrusted deeper, deeper and deeper. Swelling now, bigger and bigger. Faster and faster. How she stretched, how she ached, how she burned. She was going to break. She was going to shatter. No. Not shatter—rupture. It was coming, coming, coming fast.
She arched her neck. A tearing, a pounding, a wonderful throbbing, and she split right through her middle, up through her navel, along her spine, then out through her mouth in a wild cry.
Easing now. Going away. The sound of panting. The feel of his hot breaths again. The weight of him. No more rupture but still that wild throbbing. Up and down, up and down, head to foot. Hot, molten waves that didn’t stop, that she never wanted to end.
She hadn’t realised her eyes were closed until Mock touched her cheek, willing them to open. Their eyes locked, then he planted a gentle, lingering kiss on her mouth that made her close them again. Wet. Soft. Slow. A grunt, a sigh. Still connected. Little throbs now. Still deep, and yet she wanted him deeper. Closer. Until she could breathe his breaths, feel his heart beat in her chest, hear his thoughts.
But there was only so much real she could take.
Peace. Satisfaction. Long, heavy breaths now. Mock rolled away, lying beside her, legs entangled with hers, hand hot on her breast. He blinked, smiling, and she smiled back. No words. Only sensation and feeling.
It was enough and so much more.
His hand left her breast, to brush its broad fingers along her arm. More bumps erupted on her skin. A tingle rushed through her body. She began to shiver. Fingers along her hip now before curving around her arse. A gentle squeeze. Eyes bright, he leant close. Another gentle kiss. Long and slow until she ached between the legs again. Heavy arm around her waist. Chest pressed up against her breasts. A quick roll and he was on top again. A slippery slide in. Slow this time. Softer, shorter but swelling quickly. Not so desperate. Achingly slow.
‘Mock.’ She breathed his name, tasted it.
‘Grinda,’ he whispered back. And for some reason a shiver wracked her body. The way he said it … oh. She shivered again.
Such long minutes until the sweat pooled between them, beneath her back, trickled down the side of her face. Mock panting now, Grinda gasping. Lips together. Arms wrapped around each other tightly. She was starting to get sore inside but how she liked it. How she liked the way Mock’s face contorted, how he bared his teeth and yet could look in her eyes with such startling gentleness.
Right before the end, he paused, deep inside her, breathing in her breaths as he pressed his cheek against hers. ‘Biala,’ he whispered.
The tiniest nudge, a gasp, a shudder that wracked his muscular body. A hard throb inside and Grinda sucked in a breath.
Another kiss. More gentle touches, then Mock pulled away, helping her to her feet. Her knees buckled and he caught her, holding her against him as he laughed, a deep booming laugh that made her heart melt. A shower of sweat. So hot she thought she must burst into flames. A warm trickle down her thigh. She touched it, smoothing it between her fingers.
Him, all him.
‘Come, biala,’ he said. That word again. What did it mean? By the way he was looking at her, she could guess. A gentle tug at her arm, then a yank as he rushed to the water, dragging her behind him. Laughter. Splashing. A rush of cold as Grinda dunked her head. Then strong arms around her, pulling her up against a hard chest.
Surrounded by the noises of the forest, they held each other, Mock’s heart beating in her ear as the moonlight streamed onto their wet bare skin.
How she didn’t want the sun to rise again. Let the sun go dark. Let the earth go cold. Let time stand still.
Just let tonight go on forever.