Grinda woke slowly, almost painfully. No matter her wish, morning had to come eventually. She could feel it beating on her skin, hear it in the joyful trills of the birds above. But she didn’t open her eyes, and did her best not to stir. Though aching to stretch and yawn, she didn’t want to wake Mock. She enjoyed how they were: arms wrapped around each other, her head buried into his strong neck, the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the warmth of his naked skin.
Thinking of last night, she couldn’t help but smile. They had stayed up for most of it, touching and exploring, talking about silly things. And the laughter. There was so much of it. She had never laughed so hard in her life. She gazed at the sleeping Mock. Her heart throbbed. Warmth spread across her chest. His eyelashes were so dark.
Stirring, a shift, a small smile on his lips, then his eyes opened a crack. Dark eyes, not molten like last night, but burning, simmering, enough to make her heart lurch. ‘Good morning, biala.’ He spoke in a low growl that resonated deep in his chest. Grinda shivered.
Smiling back, she brushed her lips against his. ‘What does that mean?’ Her voice sounded surprisingly husky, older, not like hers at all.
‘It means cherished one. My people use it for those they care about deeply.’
‘It sounds so beautiful. Biala,’ she whispered back.
Mock chuckled. ‘Bial. I’m a man. Biala is for women.’ He kissed her mouth, then sat up with a contented groan. His hair was all mussed up, his eyes thick with sleep. Then he smiled. A very private smile, filled with all the delights of the night before. It made her tingle all over. ‘Come, biala. Let’s eat, I’m starving.’
The meat melted in her mouth, made her stomach roar. She hadn’t realised how hungry she was. She sank her teeth in, tore and chewed like she hadn’t eaten for days. Grease dribbled down her chin and she swiped it away.
She saw Mock watching. He was eating too but without nearly the same enthusiasm.
Grinda’s cheeks filled with heat. ‘Sorry. I haven’t eaten game in years. And deer meat—not since I was a small child.’
‘Don’t apologise. I enjoy your pleasure.’
‘Lord Rickard rarely let us hunt his forests, even during the difficult seasons when we were starving.’
Mock’s eyes glittered. ‘You won’t need to worry about that anymore. You won’t go hungry again. Not with me.’
Afterwards, they explored the woods, hand in hand as they trudged through the leaf litter. Mock tried to keep talking, telling her everything he knew about the forests, the land and his people’s ways, but she could see he was finding it difficult. His eyes kept lingering over her, his hand was hot and slippery in hers and there was that glint in his eye that hadn’t quite left him since last night.
Feeling a little wobbly, Grinda looked around for another wark, heart thudding in her chest at every turn, but didn’t find one.
Mock noticed her disappointment. ‘It won’t work, biala. Not without the chokra.’
‘You mean there’s one here? Do you feel it?’
He shook his head. ‘I can’t. I don’t have that power. I only mean there could be one. But let’s not talk about that now.’ He gave her a smouldering look. Grinda bit her lip.
In his arms again. Panting, gasping, growling. Enfolded in a blanket of fallen leaves, the canopy spiralling high above. Hot slippery skin, warm steaming breaths, Grinda’s wrists pinned to the ground. Teeth bared, backs arched, clinging to each other desperately. Never wanting to let go.
Then Mock’s big hand in hers, his crooked smile, as he helped her to her feet. The smell of him all over her. She could still feel his hands, hot and calloused against her skin, though he was no longer touching. They walked, smiling their secret smiles, pretending to gaze at the watching trees as they stole stares at each other.
The rest of the day was spent much the same way. In each other’s arms, holding each other’s hands. Sometimes tender and gentle, other times hot and passionate. Riding their horses: Grinda on Spirit, Mock on Starshine (the big palfrey), slowly, often in circles, sometimes rubbing up against each other. Laughter. Shrieks. No care where they were or where they should be because there was nowhere to go, nothing to do but be together.
Mock couldn’t stop smiling and the look of him burned into Grinda’s mind. Even when she had to leave to pass water, he was there: pointing, laughing, smiling his mocking smile.
Her small hands around his thick waist. Head against his powerful chest. The strong thud of his heart. Speaking quiet, gentle words. His long hair. His wild spirit. The long, ropey veins she had come to love so much. Then those scars. How she loved them too. How they made her ache. Hard and scratchy beneath her fingertips as she stroked them.
‘Tell me their stories,’ she whispered as she leaned over him, hair flowing over his chest like sunlit water. ‘I want to know them, each and every one.’
Lips against the scar below his left nipple, the little nick like a shooting star across his bellybutton. That deep gouge in his inner left thigh. She kissed them all. They were his, thus they were hers.
Mock lay stretched out on the ground, naked, his bronze skin shining with a thin layer of sweat in the setting sun. Hands behind his head, watching her.
‘I will tell you some but not all.’ He pulled himself up onto his elbows. Grinda stroked each one in turn and he explained: hooks and blades, chains and screws, burns and beatings.
Tears spilled as she listened, her lips shook. How could her people do such things? How could they treat Mock like he was nothing? Her beautiful, strong, gentle Mock.
‘I lived most of my life in a darkened cell little more than the size of a large wagon. Chained and bound so I couldn’t stand, could barely move. Hard stone floor beneath. Cold—so cold in the winter. Boiling in the summer. Three of us together. Lords, knights and priests—whoever—they shuffled us around, depending on their need of us. That’s how I met Croki.’ He stuttered as he spoke and struggled to meet her eyes. Grinda’s heart ached. Her stomach knotted. She didn’t want to hear but she had to. That darkness in his face. His cheeks hollowed out. His lips went thin. Even gravely wounded he had always been so strong. But now—such pain. Wounds so deep they could never be healed.
She sat back on her knees, though she so badly wanted to touch him, to console him, to soothe his troubled brow. But she knew he wouldn’t want that.
Listen, just listen.
‘We learnt how to survive. So many sickened. So many died. Some fought. Others withered. While Croki and I lingered.’ He looked at her without really looking at her, eyes somehow dark and bright at the same time. ‘I learnt quickly: their language, their ways. Better than Croki, better than any of the others. Don’t understand their orders? Get a beating. Don’t move quickly enough? The stockade or worse. Too tired to work the fields or mine their rock? Then sleep on your knees in the hot, burning sun. They saw to it we learnt and learnt fast.’ He looked into his lap, hands clenching and unclenching. ‘But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was in the darkness, alone, all chained up. Their appetites for torture, for … other things.’ He turned away with a wince. ‘The women suffered worst of all.’
Silence, so thick it was hard to breathe. Grinda gripped her shoulders with a shudder. He knew it too. He knew it all too well. The trembling returned. She closed her eyes, took deep breaths as she tried to forget her own suffering.
Warm hands tugged gently at hers, pulling them away. Lips on her shoulder, against the nape of her neck. ‘No fear, biala, you will always be safe with me.’
She opened her eyes. Mock was on his knees beside her, hair tumbling over his shoulders, looking grim. She felt a stab of guilt. ‘This was supposed to be about you, not me.’
‘There is no me or you anymore. Only us.’ He pressed her hands to his mouth. ‘Your suffering is my suffering.’
He pulled her down beside him and they both gazed up at the stars.
‘Five years I was there,’ he continued. ‘Five brutal years.’
‘How did you get away?’
‘I was smart. I listened. I learnt. I understood minutes and numbers and leagues. Months and seasons. The names of cities. The names of my masters. Anything and everything. But most particularly their strengths and weaknesses. More than I should. More than they knew.’
He placed a warm hand on her thigh, gave a light squeeze ‘I knew it all so well, I even began to think in their language. It was almost like I was becoming one of them. I didn’t like that.’ His eyes flashed. ‘I had to get out. Always, I was on the lookout. I had tried and failed twice. And I was punished. The first time they whipped me. I couldn’t see, but Croki told me my back was little more than carrion feed, all mush and clotted blood. I felt it though. For months after I couldn’t lie face up. The second time they beat me so badly I couldn’t remember my name. My real name, I mean. Not my slave name.’
‘Your slave name?’
‘They called me Dog. Those of us strong enough to survive so long always got names. Croki was Big Boy.’ He took a breath. ‘Then one night it happened. A way out. My master at the time was drunk and too trusting. After so many years, it was only inevitable they dropped their guard. He should have taken me back to my cell. And by that point one of my locks had rusted over. It took me a long time but I cracked it open. Then I bashed in my master’s head as he slept, stole his cloak and fled in the darkness.’ His lips pursed. ‘Not a particularly dignified escape. But it is what it is. It was a hard slog from there. I stole a horse from a village and rode as far and as fast as I could. I eventually came upon my own people. Men out to exact revenge, the very men who raided your village. Once I was strong enough, we returned to free the others, the few that were left anyway. And such as they were.’
He fell silent, stiff as a board beside her. Grinda didn’t move, didn’t speak, barely breathed, afraid to do anything that might stop him talking. Her heart thudded.
He shifted, cleared his throat. ‘But the worst of it was, I almost didn’t escape. I stared at that broken lock, afraid, confused. But it wasn’t from fear of being caught. No. I was used to the punishments by then. You see, they had broken me. I had been a slave so long that it was the thought of freedom that was terrifying.’ He gave a nervous chuckle. ‘Can you imagine?’
He swallowed, sucked in a breath. ‘I was a coward. And, you know, it wasn’t the first time I had the chance to escape. There had been a number of times in those final two years, but I didn’t take them. I didn’t take them. I had become everything I hate.’
And that’s when Grinda realised with startling clarity: Mock didn’t hate her people, he feared them.
Heat built behind her eyes but she forced the tears back. She would not cry. Mock would hate that. Pity, sympathy—they were not for him.
She rolled over. He was staring up at the sky, unmoving, eyes shining, but she knew that his every sense was focused on her, waiting for her reaction. As though fearful she would think less of him.
As though she ever could.
She touched his cheek and he looked at her, face twisted in pain. Without a word, she pulled his arm over her and snuggled in close, head buried in his neck.
Drained. Empty. That’s how Mock felt. And yet somehow renewed.
Grinda lay soft in his arms, the warm grey light making her skin glow. Naked and beautiful. He had opened himself up to her, exposed the broken man within, but she hadn’t pulled away. Though he was a coward, weak and hateful, there had been no disgust.
He kissed her on the head.
Her small, firm breasts filled his hands as he kissed her neck, her shoulder. She woke slowly, stretching beneath his touch. So agonising to watch. That beautiful body, all its curves and supple angles. That sweet smile, warm and bright. She laughed, pretending to shove him away as he rubbed his face in her breasts, gasped as he took a nipple in his mouth and swirled his tongue.
Hands on her hips, hands on her thighs. Then her sweetened core, already slippery against his mouth. She shrieked, almost clasping his head between her legs in her excitement. He thrust them apart, tongue deep inside her, until she squirmed, until she moaned and screamed his name.
Then they were one again. Grinda on top this time. Mock’s hands on her thighs as she rocked, her breasts heaving. Her nipples silky pink and shining wetly with his kisses. He could live forever like this, just the two of them, and be content. He knew it now. He could be happy if he let himself be.
Nights and days passed. How many? He didn’t care to know. All he knew was he couldn’t remember being so happy to wake up in the morning. By her side, wrapped in her arms, heaving bodies entangled. He couldn’t get enough of her. And he wondered, with a laugh to himself, how his balls hadn’t shrivelled to raisins. Surely, there couldn’t be much left in there. But it always came. He always came. And so did she. By nightfall they were well and truly emptied, only to be filled to bursting by morning. It was her fault. The smell of her. It made him want to ride down savage predators, climb mountains, run until his heart gave out, just so he could ignite that spark in her eye.
No more Paleskins. No more fear and rage. All gone. There was only her, their endless love and their limitless fucking.
He laughed again.
Grinda slid her hand into his. ‘What’s so funny?’
‘You, of course. You make me happy.’
Grinda grinned up at him. ‘And how, pray tell, are you going to catch anything if you make so much noise?’
Mock hefted his spear. ‘Trust me, I always get what I want, no matter what.’ He gave her a hungry grin. ‘Didn’t you know that?’ Grinda shrieked and laughed as he shoved her with his pelvis, pushing her backwards until she was backed up against a tree. He dropped his spear, shed his belt. Hands braced against the trunk above her head, he leant over her, so close he could smell her breath.
His kinta was unbearably tight again, as it so often was lately. Why he even bothered to wear it, he didn’t know. It was off more than on anyway. He gazed down on her, eyes burning in his head. She smiled up at him, gaze glittering with that new openness, that new sensuality she had never had before. All for him. All because of him.
He puckered his lips, but before he could get too close, he rolled his eyes with a grunt, her hand warm around his cock. Another hand, warmer still, around his balls. If she wasn’t careful …
‘Careful,’ he panted.
He rolled his eyes again as she squeezed, barely hanging on. He licked his lips, dug his nails into the wood of the tree until his fingers ached. Smiling up at him, she smoothed her hand over his length. Then she knelt. He sucked in a breath as she grabbed his arse. So unexpected. So uncharacteristic. She was always so …
‘Mmmmm.’ He could barely breathe. He grabbed her head, arching his neck, as she ran her lips along him, tongue swirling around his painfully tender tip.
He tried to hold on, but it was over almost instantly. Gasping, he knotted his fingers through her glorious hair as she smacked her glorious lips. ‘God, Grinda.’
Climbing to her feet, a sneaky smile on her face, she picked up his spear and kissed him on the cheek. ‘I’m hungry.’
Mock could only watch, stunned, as she walked on ahead.
Rabbit. Moist and glistening. They laughed together as the moon glowed bright above, as the flames between them flickered in their eyes.
Grinda wiped her mouth. ‘You know, the first time we met I thought you were going to eat me.’
Mock laughed, but he wasn’t surprised. He had heard the rumours, even encouraged them. ‘You weren’t wrong, in a way.’ He gave her a lascivious grin.
She echoed his laughter, then took a bite of meat, suddenly serious. ‘But it’s sad. The rumours are wrong. You, your people, you’re nothing like that.’
‘How does that happen?’
He shrugged. ‘I guess we tell stories the way we want to hear them. Your people want to hear how vicious we are. It gives you reason to invade our land.’
‘Then, how do your people tell them?’
He licked his lips. ‘Do you really want to know?’
Grinda gave a grunt of impatience. ‘Mock.’
‘Fine,’ he grinned. ‘There’s this old legend our elders speak of, passed down through the generations. It concerns Morgrar, the Darkness. The legend tells of a power so heinous that it consumes everything in its wake. The grass, the rocks, the trees—all are engulfed. The animals, water, even wind, and humans of course, all gone. We Quarthi are the only ones who can stand in its way. Us and the Mother. It’s only with her power and through our strength that we can keep it at bay.’
He sank in his teeth and tore a strip off the bone.
He could feel her watching him. The fire crackled. A cricket chirped loudly. Then, ‘And you think this, this Morgrar, you think that’s us, don’t you? My people. The faqwa.’
He raised his eyes. ‘What else could it be?’
She tightened her mouth.
Truth be told, not all his people believed that Morgrar referred to the Paleskins. Particularly the elders who liked to take things literally. They still believed it was something more insidious, much more powerful, far more ancient. That its time had yet to pass.
Mock spat out a mouthful of gristle. It was hard to believe their stories, their so-called predictions, when they had so often been misread before. To him, it was clear as day.
They just refused to see it.
Grinda didn’t speak, eyes lowered as she picked at her meat. Mock sighed. He had hurt her again. But it was the truth. He couldn’t help that.
‘You are not the Morgrar, Grinda.’
‘Then what else could I be?’
‘Must we always fight about this?’
‘I’m not the one fighting, Mock.’
She was right about that. More silence.
Another bite and Mock wrapped up the rest of his meat in its bark sheathe. He watched her a moment, then stood, the flames flickering against the rush of air. Briefly, her eyes flicked upward before lowering again. Mock forced back a smile. She couldn’t be angry for too long.
Circling the fire, he crouched beside her. She looked away, still fiddling with the rabbit bone, fingers wet and greasy.
‘Grinda.’ He took her chin but she yanked away.
‘Leave me alone. I’m not in the mood.’
He took her chin again, more firmly this time. She glared up at him, eyes glistening.
‘Don’t be angry.’ He cupped her cheek, stroked away her tears with his thumb. Her lips trembled. She clenched her jaw, tried to be resolute, but all it did was make her eyes shine with more tears. He pressed his lips against hers, softly, gently. At first it was like kissing something dead, with her lips all folded in like that. Cold and hard. But it didn’t take long for her to give in. Soon, she let him in, lips parting, breath quickening as their tongues met.
He eased her to the ground. Gentle and tender, lips lingering on all her most delicate places. Smooth and slow inside her. He preferred it that way. He felt more connected with her. She stared up at him, no longer teary, her blue eyes bright. He kissed her again, his fingers knotted in her hair, her hands digging into his waist as he paused in his gentle thrusting, holding himself deep inside, her soft channel clenching hard around him.
Slow and easy. Eyes locked together. Lips locked together. Have her forget all the foolish things he said. A shudder. Connected. One.
Later, they lay together, side by side, hand in hand. Silent, as they gazed up at the stars.