Bial. Her bial. So different on her tongue and yet it felt so right. Cherished one. Perfect. Fitting. For someone like Mock. He couldn’t get any sweeter. How could someone once so violent treat her so gently? She saw it sometimes: those hands, red with blood. Curled so tenderly around hers now. But those same hands had pulverised her brother’s face into little more than mush. They had strangled and beaten and torn limbs out of joints, snuffed the life out of so many innocent people.
She smoothed her hand over his strong fingers. Built to grip a spear, a sword, probably a bow too. She turned his hands over. Broad and calloused, the nails broken, but at least they weren’t black and bleeding like they used to be.
These hands. Murderous and kind. Violent and gentle. Hard and soft.
‘What are you doing, biala?’
‘Nothing.’ Biting her lip, she slid her fingers between his. How could one person be so many incompatible things? The back of her neck prickled. She could feel him watching her, sense his concern. He knew something was wrong. He always did. Sometimes she wondered if he had a little of the Mother’s power too. She didn’t know why those old feelings and fears sometimes crept up on her like this. Out of nowhere, and usually after their lovemaking. As though she had fucked the enemy. That old guilty pang.
It must be close to a month now and she still couldn’t shift that horrible feeling. The way her gut wrenched whenever thoughts of her family sprang to mind. That deep, gnawing ache in her chest.
It felt like an eternity since she had last seen her mother and brothers and there were so many painful questions: How were they faring? Were they even alive? Were they starving? Were they hurt? Were they suffering? Were they happy?
‘It’s not too late, biala. We can go find them.’
When she didn’t answer, he slid his hands out of hers and brushed away her hair from her neck so he could kiss her there. She shivered. ‘I don’t mind,’ he said, curling his arms around her waist. ‘What else have we got to do?’
Grinda looked over her shoulder at him. ‘But what about your people?’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘What about my people?’
‘We would have to retreat so far. It will take us weeks or more to get you home.’
He blinked. ‘Get me home? Why do you think I want to go back there?’
Grinda twisted in his arms so she could look at him face on. ‘But isn’t that where we’re going?’ He gave her a quizzical look. ‘But we’re heading north. I just assumed …’
His face darkened. ‘You assumed wrong. I don’t want to go back there. That was never my destination.’
‘But don’t you want to see your family? I know you lost your wife but don’t you have a mother, a father, sisters …?’ A muscle in his jaw began to tick and Grinda shut her mouth. They had never really spoken about his family; she knew his pain. A difficult conversation. She had thought of raising the topic a number of times but there had never been the right moment. It seemed this wasn’t it either.
Grinda twisted away, resting her back against his stiffened body. She gripped his hands. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.’
Strained silence, then he sagged against her. He brushed at her hair again. ‘My fault, biala. We should have discussed it. I should have told you. Now, back to your family.’
‘But it’s dangerous: my people. They’ll know you. They’ll see you. I don’t want you dead, Mock.’ Her heart twisted. Tears filled her eyes. Grief at the thought of Mock’s death or guilt at her family’s betrayal?
So selfish. Her brothers were only children: Billy, Jacob, little Edwin. She winced, chewed her lip. Mama. She looked back at Mock. Silent and strong. We are strong. Together. She might not get another chance. Taking a deep breath, she pushed back the tears. ‘I have to find them.’
‘Of course, biala.’
‘But what about you?’
She could feel him smiling. ‘I’ve ridden horseback almost throughout the entirety of this land. Those many difficult months all the way from your pearly city. This’ll be easy.’
‘But you were with your brothers then. Protected.’
‘And at war. Always on the run. I’m not on the run now, biala. Come.’ He shifted and Grinda pulled out of his lap. He stood, tightening his belt of knives. ‘It’s a long journey. We should start now.’
‘But I don’t even know where to begin.’
‘‘course you do. Back at your village.’
‘But they wouldn’t be there now. Unless they were … unless the barbarians …’ She shook herself, pushing away the thought.
And it was obvious. Either they would have made their way there or Lord Triston and his knights would have found them: Paxton Landing.
Excitement brewed in her chest. To see them again. To see Paxton Landing again. It made her heart gallop.
She looked up at Mock and smiled.
Unlike their aimless journey ahead, their journey back was fast. A hard gallop through the fields, few and swift rest breaks, fast trot through the forests. Nights and days rolled past. It was obvious now: the thinning of the forests, the shrinking of the trees, the vastness of the rolling hills—the closer they got to the sea and her people. She wondered if they would encounter the wark again but quickly dismissed the thought. They were heading west, angling for Paxton Landing. Or at least, where they guessed it might be. Grinda had no idea, and when she asked Mock how he knew, he just shrugged and said, ‘it’s up to the Mother.’ Whatever that meant.
No matter. They would eventually come upon a road. Weary travellers, farmers and their wagons. Villages, then towns. For some reason, she grew nervous, hands fisted tight around the reins. After weeks with only Mock for company, the thought was strange. All the noise and the people and the smells. She hadn’t missed that about her old life.
Old life. She smiled at herself. Only four weeks and it was already her old life. How swiftly things could change.
Windy and cool. They took shelter behind a small ridge for the night. Much like the one where the brigand had attacked her, except fewer bushes and no demolished rock where Spirit had yanked out his reins. She shivered. The flames flickered. Drawing an arm around her shoulders, Mock held her close. Her shivering eased, and she sagged against him.
‘Why are you always so hot?’ she asked.
‘Why are you always so cold?’
He grinned. She grinned. Mock poked the fire with a stick. ‘Feel like some chokra?’
Grinda looked up at him in surprise. ‘You found some chak? Where?’ They had run out days ago. It was Grinda’s fault. She was using far more than she should, hoping to find some answers. Hoping to meet the Mother again. No luck. There were no warks. No magic. Only a dizzying sickness and a lingering pounding behind her eyes.
He prepared the drug and they smoked. The usual results: strange colours, that distant deep thudding, all those strange noises. But no pull. No wark.
‘Be patient, biala. The Mother will show herself when she needs to.’
Grinda nodded. But she couldn’t help but wonder if she had only ever dreamed it.
Morgrar. The Darkness. Grinda shivered as she stood on a field of emptiness, her toes curling in the tarry substance curdling at her feet. From grey horizon to grey horizon, nothing but ash and dust. Just like Mock said: no trees, no mountains, no water. All life dead. All except her.
And her baby within.
She gasped, hunched over, as it twisted savagely. Something yanked, something burst, then a terrific heat filled her belly. She cried out. Dizzy. Sick. She stumbled. Gripping at her abdomen, so swollen now. Too swollen. She gasped at the sharp movement. Not dead as she feared but somehow worse. Something wasn’t right. The pain! She doubled over, screaming. Gnashing. Tearing. Eating her up inside. Another sudden movement, ripping, gnawing. A surge in her stomach and she heaved.
Vomit. But it was like nothing she had ever seen before. Her mouth yawned open until her jaw clicked. She choked, gagged. Solid and slimy, black and twisted, it reached out of her mouth like a long ropey arm. It waved and clenched, curled and bent. She heaved again. Blood this time. She couldn’t breathe. She snorted in the air but the air was gone, only more dust and ash.
Another twist in her stomach. Savage. Dizzying. She lifted away her hands from her swollen belly. More blood. Shredded. Soft fleshy baby fingers scrabbled from the womb.
Somewhere in the back of her mind she heard her sleeping self groan. Somewhere in the real world, safe within Mock’s arms.
A flash of light swept away the darkness. A sicking lurch, a gusting wind and she was speeding across the landscape. Over hills and mountains and oceans. She looked down, touched her mouth. No more swollen stomach, no hideous writhing arm.
But no less fear. Something ahead. Something horrible. She could feel it like an ache in her chest. Villages and towns, roads and wagons. Her heart leapt at the sight of her people: farming, laughing, living. Then, in the distance, another town. Big. Not Paxton Landing. Strong defensive outer wall, cobbled streets, markets in full swing. Soaring high above, then falling. No time to scream. No time to think. Darkness. Damp. Heat. A dungeon.
Silence. Suffocating. Then a shift in the blackness, the scrape of boots against stone, the jangle of chains. Then a groan. Familiar. One that stabbed like a dagger in her heart. A small barred window high up. His long beautiful hair, she had so often brushed her fingers through, now knotted and bloodied. Bruised face. Dry cracked lips. That hurt—like a kick in the chest. They had always been so soft against hers.
‘Mock,’ she whispered.
He jerked his head. His eyelids flickered, struggling to open, but his eyes were too swollen. He opened his mouth. His lips didn’t move, and yet somehow he spoke. ‘Grinda, Grinda.’
‘Mock!’ She heard her voice but it didn’t sound like hers at all. High and shrieking. She struck out her arms but they were quickly pinned against her chest. Strong arms around her. Mock’s arms. Mock’s smell. His heat. His voice. ‘Wake up, Grinda. It’s all right. You’re only dreaming.’
She opened her eyes, squinting against the grey dawn light. She sucked in a shuddering breath. Just a dream. But it had felt so real. She rolled over, then sat up, taking Mock’s face in her hands. ‘Mock.’ She kissed him on the lips. ‘You’re all right.’
Chuckling, he kissed her neck.
She smoothed her thumbs over his eyelids. Not swollen. She tugged at his beard. Whole and beautiful. She gazed at him, and he gazed back, brown eyes bright.
She dragged her finger down his cheek. ‘You were suffering.’
‘It was a dream, Grinda. Nothing more.’
‘No. This was different.’
He pursed his lips. ‘A vision?’
‘I hope not.’ She shook her head, more for herself than for him. She gave him a watery smile ‘No. It was just a dream. Just a dream.’
Lips on lips, lips on his neck, his cheek, his chin, back on his lips again. He laughed, that knot in his throat bobbing up and down. So masculine. It made her itch in all those wonderful places. Then she crawled into his lap and wrapped her arms tightly around him.
His beard brushed against her ear as he kissed her, rocked her back and forth. She bit down on her lip but it didn’t help. Mock tightened his arms around her, and Grinda took another shuddering breath. Nothing bad was going to happen. How could it? It was just a dream.
Just a dream.
But the dream returned. Every night. And every night she woke up gasping Mock’s name. Mock dealt with it patiently, but she could see the grooves of impatience around his mouth.
‘We need to turn back,’ she said on the third night since her first vision. For vision it was—she knew it now. Dreams didn’t repeat themselves over and over. The Mother was warning her: keep to the path ahead and Mock would suffer.
Mock took her hands. It was another cloudy night. In the distance a storm brewed. A jagged lightning bolt split the sky. A crack of thunder. No rain, only wind blasting through the branches, whipping away the leaves in a shower of auburn and gold.
‘Grinda, calm down. They’re only dreams.’
‘No! I see you: trapped, tortured, suffering.’ A lump swelled in her throat. ‘Why don’t you believe me?’
Mock licked his lips. ‘Have you ever thought this might be a vision of the past?’
She froze. ‘The past?’
He nodded. ‘The way you describe it. It very well could be. The cell, the chains, the injuries.’
Grinda grabbed onto his hand desperately. ‘I can have visions of the past?’
‘Definitely. And the present.’
Grinda relaxed. The past. Could it be? She released a shuddering breath, then shook her head. ‘No. Something’s not right.’
Grinda tried to think but the dreams were so hard to remember in detail. Always a blur once she woke up. ‘I don’t know.’
‘It’s just your fears talking, Grinda. Now, come here.’ He pulled her close until he rested his chin on her head and wrapped her securely in his arms. ‘You’re not going to lose me. If I’m captured, then that means I’ve lost you. And I won’t let that happen, all right?’
She nodded. ‘All right.’
Please let him be right.
Another morning and the storm had cleared. Cooler now and a little shady; a thin sheet of white wispy clouds shielded the sun. It hardly affected Mock but Grinda was shivering. She still only wore her ruined tunic, and he could see her skin pimpling in the light breeze, her nipples pinched tight beneath the fabric.
He frowned, annoyed with himself. He had promised her a proper tunic but had failed to make one. No excuse. They needed to find a village.
It was as though the Mother listened. The next day and Mock stopped, hand lifted against the glare.
‘What is it?’ Grinda asked, squinting.
There. A dark smudge in the distance.
When he didn’t answer, Grinda squinted harder, leaning over Spirit. She gasped. ‘What do we do?’
‘Do?’ Starshine shifted under him with a wicker. ‘Pay a visit.’
It was close to darkness by the time they reached the village outskirts.
Grinda argued, of course. ‘Let me do it. If they see you …’
‘Not a chance in your Paleskin hell, Grinda. Besides, they won’t see me. You think I haven’t done this before?’
She seized his wrist, desperation in her eyes.
A sudden fire licked his belly, and he snapped. ‘Stop thinking about it! It was only a dream. You think a few drowsy peasants are a match for me?’
Releasing him, she stepped back.
As quickly as it came, the fire snuffed out, leaving him with a gnawing pang in the chest. She didn’t know. There was so much she didn’t know about him. And she suffered every time for it.
He softened his voice. ‘I’ll return, biala. Believe me.’
While Grinda waited in the cover of the trees, Mock snuck through the darkness, fields of rye waving around him, crunching under his boots. His heart thudded. The blood thrummed through his veins. How he missed the thrill of a raid. Even as subtle and sneaky as it was. Not his usual method but he had promised Grinda he wouldn’t hurt anyone.
It proved to be an easy steal. And why shouldn’t it be? A tunic. Pffff. Not worth the effort. There was plenty of choice. Plenty of linen out to dry, fluttering in the cool breeze: tunics and britches, sheets and scarves. But that was too easy.
Indoors. A random hut. A random sleeping family. Sneaking. Barely breathing. Father, mother, four children, infant. How often had he slaughtered families like this without a second thought? He could do it right now. He rounded his shoulders, closed and opened his fists near the blades at his belt. The thought made him feel powerful. He rummaged through a basket of clothes in the corner. They were richer than Grinda once was. She only used to have one set of clothes, she had told him.
He lifted out a long-sleeved tunic, white against the moonlight pouring through the window. Clearly a man’s, but it was thick and warm. He looked at the basket with more interest.
Down at the bottom, a cloak. He pulled it out. Small. But better than nothing.
A mewl, a whimper, a sudden cry. The baby. Bad timing.
‘Hey!’ A man’s voice.
Or maybe good timing?
Crouched beside the basket, Mock slowly unfolded himself to his fullest height. The father fell silent, eyes widening as Mock’s head brushed the ceiling. Beside him, the woman watched too, clutching at her covers.
A gasp. ‘Father!’
Mock turned. All the children had woken, pale-faced, wide-eyed. The infant wailed.
Baring his teeth at them all, Mock swept from the room.
Running, sweating, crashing through the fields of rye. The sound of shouting behind him. Ah, but it felt good.
Grinda was on her feet, stiff and pale, upon his return.
He threw her the tunic. ‘We must go.’
Grinda’s face blanched but she didn’t argue.
They raced away until the distant glimmer of torches was left far behind.
‘What happened?’ Grinda asked when they eventually stopped. They were hiding away between a cluster of hills. A spindly tree bent over them from a small rock face, its branches bare. Leaves lay in a carpet around its thick, twisting roots. More roots weaved through the rock.
Smiling, Mock gestured at her tunic. ‘I got what you asked for. And something for myself.’
He swung on the foolish cloak. It was a squeeze. Already he could feel the seams at the shoulders pulling.
She squinted at him. ‘You didn’t hurt anyone, did you?’
‘No.’ He tugged at the sleeves but they sat tight around his forearms. Useless for warmth. He pulled over the hood. But good for concealment. It was a dark fabric too.
He smiled. A shadow in the night.
‘Then why are you smiling so much?’
He sighed. ‘When are you going to trust me? I told you I wouldn’t and I didn’t.’
Silence. Then, ‘I like you better without it.’
She was looking him up and down, her mouth twitching as she held back a smile.
He shook his head at her ridiculous tunic. It was enormous on her. She had to roll the sleeves back and the bottom reached beyond her knees. So many layers. He couldn’t wait to tear them off.
‘Old women with their saggy tits have more attraction than you do, right now.’
She looked down at herself, pinching at the fabric. ‘Is that so? Well, then, I guess I’ll be keeping myself warm tonight.’
She turned, only to suck in a shriek when Mock seized her around the waist, hauling her off her feet.
‘Oh no!’ she laughed.
Mock eased her back to the ground, looking down at his cloak in disgust. The left shoulder had torn, gaping open. Grinda kissed the exposed skin. ‘Better.’
Suddenly stifling, he tried to shrug it off, but it was too tight. ‘Help me out of this, would you?’
They tugged and yanked until he was finally free, then Grinda squawked as he hoisted her over his shoulder. Still pumped from the thrill of the night, he nestled her between the roots of the tree, straddling her as he tugged at her top.
‘Careful,’ she said.
Lips on her breasts, hand buried beneath her skirts. They should have been quiet but their laughter echoed into the night.
Later, naked and spent, Mock sat with his back against the rock face, Grinda tucked up against him, her bare backside pressed up against his sticky cock. He tightened his arms around her, making sure to keep her warm. He didn’t want her to put her shirt back on. Not yet. Not ever. Cupping her left breast, he stroked her nipple, turning the softness hard. Grinda shifted as she placed a soft kiss beneath the corner of his jaw. He shivered. She always knew his best places.
‘Mock?’ she asked as she rested her head against his shoulder.
‘Tell me about the Mother.’
‘Trying to get me hot?’ He felt her smile against his arm. ‘I’ve already told you all I know.’
‘Tell me again. I like to hear your voice.’
‘Still worried, biala?’
She released a breath. ‘How can I not be? You would, if it were me in pain.’
‘True. But I told you, it’s the past. Either that or you’re seeing wrong. The Mother can be … deceptive with her visions.’
She looked up at him. ‘What do you mean?’
He opened his mouth, closed it again, then cleared his throat. ‘The Mother. She’s the all-powerful. Not God but something more. She pervades all living things.’ He paused as Grinda relaxed into him. No more questions. ‘To know the Mother is to know the divine. Magic. Power. Soul. They’re one and the same. Through the roots of the trees, the stone, the rivers, you can find her. In your heart, in your mind. We are her children. She protects us, keeps us safe. And yet we are her and she is us. Animals and humans alike …’
He spoke until his voice was hoarse. When Grinda hadn’t moved for a time, he poked her gently. ‘Grinda?’
Kissing her on the head, he eased her to the ground. They lay together in the carpet of leaves, Grinda’s chest rising and falling gently against his arm. He looked up through the bare branches of the tree. Dead? He had never known a tree that would lose all its leaves so early in the season. The stars twinkled between them. The moon glared, turning the twisted wood blue.
Unusually warm. A gentle beat deep in the earth. Like the lullabies his mother used to sing to him.
Suddenly tired, he closed his eyes.