Grinda woke, safe in Mock’s arms, his warm breath against the back of her neck. Still dark. She didn’t remember falling asleep. No nightmare this time. Still naked but strangely warm. Though a whistling wind pounded against the rock face, the branches of the tree didn’t rustle, nor did the leaves around them stir.
Still and quiet. Barely a sound. Different from the last time. Is that what the Mother was? Always unexpected, unfathomable. Because Grinda knew, like that gnawing instinct deep in your guts—a wark.
She couldn’t understand how she knew without the chokra. Mock was adamant you needed it. She touched her belly. Perhaps her daughter was different. Powerful, even. Or maybe it was an unusually powerful wark. Or maybe Mock was simply wrong.
It didn’t matter either way. It was what it was and it was calling to her.
It was surprising. It looked dead. Forgettable. Nothing like that magnificent ren. But when she reached out to touch a root, she pulled back with a start. Warm. Hot. Then there was that faint beating in the earth, louder now, thudding in time with Grinda’s heart. Dizzy. Scared. But she needed to know.
She touched the root again. ‘Tell me. Is he going to be all right?’
She waited but there was nothing. She closed her eyes with a sigh, only to flick them open again. Someone was crying. She sat up, Mock’s arm slipping from her waist as she looked around. Only the dark, rolling hills.
The crying turned to sobbing. ‘Mock.’ She rubbed his shoulder. ‘Mock.’ But his head merely lolled. Deep asleep or forced asleep by the Mother? She twisted around to look but there were only the horses, nodding as they slept.
A woman. It was a woman.
‘Where are you?’
‘Why are you crying?’
She rubbed at her chest, then clutched at it with a gasp. Grief. Heartbreak. She knew them. Her father, her brothers, Father Joel. But worse. It was all there, twisting deep in her heart, in her guts. Whoever it was was suffering greatly and Grinda could feel it, every bit of it. She didn’t want it. The damn wark. The damn Mother. She could keep her visions, her pain. She began to pant. She didn’t like it here. It hurt too much.
Still out cold.
Scrambling to her feet, she hurried away, until the sobbing faded, until the heartache dissipated. Bending over her knees, she spat. Cold now. She turned around. Mock was still visible, blissfully undisturbed. I can’t just leave him.
But when she tried to return, so too did the sobbing and the pain. All twisted up inside, she staggered away until she was safely out of the wark’s grip. Crippled. Sick. She gazed back. He was safe. As long as she could see him. She sank to her knees, suddenly exhausted. Lying on her side, she grabbed at her arms, shivering.
Better the cold than the heartbreak.
‘Grinda? Grinda.’ A gentle nudge at her shoulder.
She rolled over with a sneeze, opened her eyes to a squint. Daylight. A crisp morning.
‘What are you doing out here? Aren’t you cold?’ He was crouched beside her, hands dangling between his legs.
‘Freezing.’ Even in her sleep, she had felt herself toss and turn. She shivered, just like she’d been shivering all night. She tried to sit up and found she was stiff and twitchy.
‘Let me get your clothes,’ Mock said and hurried back to camp. To the wark. She gazed at it. Spindly. Weak-looking. And yet everything but. She glanced around the hills. As far as she could see it was the only tree, dead or alive within sight. That meant something.
‘Here,’ Mock said. He helped her into her tunic, her skirts, rubbed her arms up and down as she continued to tremble. ‘Foolish thing to do. Lying out here, naked. Anything could have happened to you. You above all should know that.’
He frowned down on her.
Wobbly now. Mock took her arm, steadying her. She looked at the tree, then at him.
‘Don’t you feel it?’
She swallowed. ‘I want to go back.’
‘No, Mock. I want to go back.’
‘What about your family?’
She sucked in a breath, shook her head.
‘I want to help you find them, Grinda.’ Something in his voice. She looked at him. His dark eyes were almost black. Remorse. Guilt. Regret. It was all there. She hadn’t considered his motivations might be deeper than simply his desire to help her. He took her wrist, his eyes boring into hers. ‘Let me help you find them.’
She looked at the wark again, shivered at the thought of that horrible sobbing, at that terrible pain. But what about her family? And besides, how didn’t she know that it wasn’t her mother crying? Her mother suffering? Because I asked about Mock, she reminded herself. Then there were those dreams.
She shook her head. The Mother can be deceptive with her visions.
Before she could make a decision, Mock began guiding her away. ‘Come on. Let’s go.’
A modest trot, Grinda on Spirit in her tunic and skirts, Mock on Starshine, cloaked and hooded. The third horse, Grey Peak, jogged alongside them, reins in Mock’s fist. They came upon a winding road and followed. Few people. A man and his donkey loaded with leafy vegetables. A family in their wagon. They nodded at one another but didn’t speak.
Another village. Bypassed. Needlessly dangerous to enter. Off the road now, through the fields, through the woods. Then back on the road again. More people. First a trickle, then a tide.
‘What’s going on?’ Grinda dared to ask one man. A father and a farmer, six children and a cow in tow. Around him people surged, noisy and shoving. Wagons and horses, livestock, all their worldly possessions, heading east against them.
‘Barbarians,’ he spat. ‘And good riddance. Rumour tells Lord Badden has them routed. God willing they’ll be dead before the day is out.’ He squinted at her. An older man, weathered face, deep grooves around the eyes and mouth ‘You’d best turn around. Keep safe. Girl like you. No telling what a cornered fox might do.’
Grinda glanced at Mock, stiff and silent on his horse.
They left the road, away from all the people. Mock didn’t say a word. And now they stood atop a hill, gazing into the distance. A grey cloud sat the horizon. Smoke. Fire. Devastation. Grinda knew it all too well. How many villages had they raided? How many lives had they destroyed before now?
A wrench of hope, a rush of pleasure at their defeat. After all the barbarians had done, after all she had suffered, how could she not feel so? Mock simply stared, face hard and unreadable, but his fists were clenched so tightly around the reins his veins bulged twice their usual size.
‘I abandoned them.’
‘You didn’t. They left you—to die. Remember?’
‘I made the choice.’ Those unspoken words: I made the choice—to save you.
Grinda kept her face straight. ‘The right choice.’
‘What are you going to do?’
Silence. Then, ‘I don’t know.’
They rode on, avoiding the roads. Too many people. And all it did was make Mock more withdrawn. The things the villagers said, the pain and anger. The smoke was to their right now, still in the distance. Grinda kept glancing at Mock. Mock kept glancing at the smoke. She felt so powerless. What was going on inside him? What was he thinking?
Sick. He felt sick. His insides all knotted up. He had left them and now they were dying: Croki, Beltho, Thrick, Ank …. Fifty men. How many were already dead? If he hadn’t left them … If he hadn’t left them. He tightened his fists on the reins, clenched his jaw. He could feel Grinda watching him. But he couldn’t look at her. Afraid she might see. Always that nagging regret. It had never left him. Usually a pinch in the back of the neck, sometimes a flutter in the chest. Distant. Fuzzy. Now a hard twist in the guts. Sickening and very real. Almost a year he and his brothers had been together and never had they been caught. Not with Mock as leader.
Mock the Merciless.
And now …
He looked at her then. Just a moment. And he wished he hadn’t. A flash of anger, a twist of regret.
If Grinda had never been …
He stopped his horse.
‘Mock?’ That voice. Suddenly annoying. Almost hateful. His hands shook. No! He wouldn’t be like this. He wouldn’t feel like this. He had to make things right.
‘I have to see.’
Her nose creased. Her lips pressed together. She gazed at the smoke in the distance, then sighed. ‘You must do what you must do.’ She touched his taut hand. ‘Be careful, my love.’
A hard gallop, avoiding the roads if he could but untroubled if he had to use them. The Paleskins shouted and cursed as he pushed past, caring little who got in his way.
Who had been in charge since he’d left them? Likely Thrick. A skilled warrior, but he had never been a slave. He didn’t know the Paleskins like Mock did. And he was rash. Angry and rash. Croki could speak wisdom in his ear but he doubted Thrick would listen.
Clearly he hadn’t.
The village was little more than a blackened husk, smoke coiling into the thick haze above. The flames were long burnt out. It was definitely his brothers’ work. Little identifiers: the ruthless way the homes were ransacked; how the burnt villagers were sprawled on the ground, slaughtered as they were dragged away. The blackened interiors of the few remaining walls; most of his brothers burnt the homes from the inside out, then kicked them down.
But they hadn’t finished. Little more than a blackened husk the village was but there were still plenty of walls left standing, as though his brothers had been disrupted.
Churned earth. Horse tracks. He trotted further, towards the middle of the settlement. He stared. So many of his brothers. Sword thrusts, twisted necks, their broken bodies trampled into the ashen ground. Crows tore at their remains, fleshy strings caught in their beaks. They cawed and flapped their black wings as Mock approached a cluster of them. His heart clenched. Beltho: innards spilled, abdomen torn open. His once sharp eyes, now vacant and unseeing, stared up at the smoky sky.
His heart pounded in his chest as he trotted through the devastation, naming those he recognised, remembering their voices and laughter, like distant echoes on the breeze. Others he couldn’t, their faces too messed up. He spotted the Questat horn, cloven in two, half slathered in mud. Then he found Thrick. On his side, hair thrown across his face, though Mock could see his eyes were missing. The crows had been busy. He looked strangely whole except for the big gash down the back of his knee over that big, pulsing artery. A mortal wound. Mock stopped and turned his horse slowly. As far as he could see, thirty-three men.
Thirty-three of his brothers. His friends. Men he had fought with, loved, men he would have died for. Gone. Starshine whinnied and shook her head, anxious around all the blood and death.
Thirty-three men out of fifty-two. Where were the rest?
The horse stomped her hooves, backed up, until Mock yanked at the reins. She stopped obediently, snorting. He looked around, thinking. Prisoners or escapees? The village was cold, the bodies sunken and blue. An old attack. At least several hours. The tracks of the Paleskin force were easy to identify amid all the ruin. West. He could follow and see.
Or not. He turned: north, east, south. If there were survivors, he would find them.
After scouring the village, he found it. Another track. South-east. Small and pathetic next to the Paleskin’s main thrust, barely discernible amid the debris. He imagined them swift and silent as they stole away. Smart or cowardly? It didn’t matter. They were alive.
He kicked Starshine into a fast trot.
They weren’t far. Less than an hour, hidden in a copse of thick woods. Dismounting, Mock stood amid the trees. Leaves rustled. Starshine nickered. Silence, stillness, though his arms and neck prickled. They were watching. Alert. Many eyes. Caution kept his hands to his belt of knives, their last encounter at the front of his mind.
Ank’s voice. The crunch of leaf litter as the big warrior stepped from the shadows. They stared at each other warily. He was wounded but not badly. Gashes on his arms and legs. A nick at the corner of his mouth. Knuckles all skinned and bloodied around the hilt of his blade.
Ank’s eyes were all over him too, mostly on the wound on his left side, now fully healed but for an ugly ripple of stretched and twisted skin.
‘How many?’ Mock said.
‘Six. Soon to be five. Ghettz is dying.’ He lowered his blade. ‘It’s good to see you.’
And just like that the tension broke. More of his brothers revealed themselves. Relief. He could see it in their faces. They said his name, as though they thought they’d never say it again, clapped his shoulder, asked about his conquests, how he survived, how he had found them. Was he back?
They steered him through the trees, laughing and chatting like a bunch of women, but all Mock could feel was coldness. Six men. That left thirteen unaccounted for. And Ghettz was dying.
He was slumped against a tree, white as a Paleskin, panting as he clutched at the deep gouge in his belly. A thick sheen of sweat glistened against the lowering sun. He was an older Quarthi, grey at the temples, but as strong and tough as any of them. He had been the first to welcome Mock into their fold after his escape, the first to agree to go back and free Croki and the other slaves. Eight months they had fought and laughed and drank together. No longer. He could barely open his eyes and his breath rattled in his chest. Mock sniffed at the smell of chokra. His dying brother was clutching a still smoking nuk in his hand but was too far gone to smoke it.
‘Mock,’ came a growl.
Mock lifted his chin. That familiar voice. Both comforting and disquieting at the same time. His parting words echoed in Mock’s head: Go, and never come back.
Croki wasn’t as fortunate as Ank. He sat not far from Ghetzz, hunched over a blood soaked bandage bound to his side. The same vicinity as his own wound, Mock noted. There was another deep gash from pelvis to chest, red and wet. Mock imagined a sword strike, a swift jump back. Swift enough to save his life but not to avoid a wounding. He was pale too, his eyes crinkled in pain. Mock couldn’t see the extent of his abdominal wound but he appeared strong. In fact, he stood. Slowly, and with considerable effort, his face twisting in agony as he straightened to his enormous height.
Mock waited. The men fell silent. Ghettz continued to pant and grunt. Croki eyed him expressionlessly before dropping his gaze to Mock’s healed wound. Something rippled over his face. His lips pursed in his ratty beard.
‘Good job,’ the big Quarthi said. ‘Maybe you can help with mine.’
‘I wasn’t the one who did it.’
Their eyes met. Silence. Then Croki’s weathered face cracked into a smile. Moments later, they were gripping each other’s forearms.
‘I’m glad you survived,’ Croki said.
‘Me too,’ Mock grinned.
Ghettz groaned, spluttered. They both turned. Mock didn’t need to think as he drew one of his blades. It was inevitable he would die naturally, but it could be many hours yet. There was no point to his suffering. Mock shook his head, surprised by his brothers.
‘My faul’,’ Croki said guiltily. ‘With so many dead now. And he was there … he was there that first time. In Fairmont. In the cells.’
‘Nevertheless.’ Kneeling beside the dying Quarthi, Mock spoke quietly, ‘Ghettz. Ghettz, it’s me. Wake up.’ A flutter of eyelids, a gasp. Mock seized his wrist and squeezed. The older man’s eyes cracked open. A weak, bloody smile. He tried to speak but it came out in a babbling croak.
Mock grabbed his shoulder. ‘You ready?’
His slitted eyes gleamed, then he nodded, resting his head back against the tree so his neck was exposed. The knot in his throat lifted and dropped as he swallowed.
Mock took a breath, made sure his hand was steady. A gleam of steel, then red. Quick and silent. Ghetzz didn’t make to clutch at his throat and he hardly made a noise. One sucking gasp and that was all. Brave unto the end.
Sheathing his blade, Mock took a seat. ‘What happened?’
So Croki and his brothers told him. Just as Mock suspected, Thrick had taken over his leadership. Croki spoke about him mournfully, though he couldn’t keep the frustration out of his voice. They hadn’t done a great deal of raiding since Mock’s departure. Two far flung villages with less than a hundred people in both.
‘And you know Thrick, he wasn’t satisfied,’ Croki said, shaking his head. ‘Said we needed to hit faster and harder. Bigger villages. Anythin’ smaller than two hundred people was wasti’ our time.’
Mock wasn’t surprised. Thrick had never been happy with Mock’s own cautious leadership.
Such a fool.
‘I warned him but he didn’t listen. Though’ he knew best. Though’ me a coward for holdin’ back.’ He rubbed at his nose. ‘We attacked some big village. Town, almost. Way too big. It had walls, defences, but Thrick didn’t want to know about their danger. We hardly moved a brick before we were attacked. Ten men dead. Arrows. Burning oil. And the laughter. That was worst of all.’ He sniffed, rubbed at his nose more vigorously. ‘Ten good men: Rikko, Chig, Phat, Mon, Crag …’ He shook his head.
‘But what happened at the last village?’
‘After that first attack, we hid, bidin’ our time, lickin’ our wounds. Days. Weeks even. When Thrick thought us ready, we revealed ourselves again. Another village but this time small.’ Croki’s eyes gleamed at Mock. ‘They were waitin’ for us. The village was almost bare, most of the people gone. They knew we were comin’.’ He gazed into his lap. ‘Somehow.’
‘Thrick was a fool. The Mother keep him,’ Mock added quickly. ‘It wouldn’t have been hard to predict where he would attack next. Our ally was surprise.’
‘We should never have lost you.’ A shared grumble as the rest of his brothers agreed.
Mock rubbed his hands together. ‘You say you lost ten men. By my count that leaves three unaccounted for.’
Croki licked his lips. ‘Taken by the Paleskins.’
Mock leaned back, grasping his knees until the veins stuck out. ‘Who?’
‘Zak, Kid, Fleet.’
Mock took a breath. All young, barely more than boys.
His brothers fell silent, the encroaching darkness washing over their grim faces.
‘May the Mother keep them all,’ Croki said finally.
‘May the Mother keep them all,’ his brothers echoed, their voices rumbling through the quiet trees. As the moon shone down. As the stars twinkled.
Nobody noticed that Mock didn’t say a word.