Grinda paced through the trees, patting the horses for comfort as she waited, stomach twisted into a hard, sickening knot. Thoughts of her visions were never far away. She sat down, her legs tired, only to rise again minutes later. More pacing, as she ran her fingers through her hair and gazed up at the moon. Bright tonight, but clouds gathered in the distance.
She paused. A noise. Distant. The thunder of hooves? She raced through the trees to see. Her cry sprang from her lips before she could stop it. It was Mock racing towards her: hood down; long hair blowing back, bright in the moonlight.
She rushed to meet him, grabbing at the reins before he dismounted. He was unsmiling, though his eyes gleamed at the sight of her. Then his arms were around her, strong and warm, heart pounding fast in his chest. Something was wrong. He was stiff and quiet—but alive.
Wrapping her arms around his waist, she kissed his sweet, soft mouth. ‘Mock.’ She inhaled his name. ‘You took too long.’
‘I found them.’
His eyes glittered. ‘My brothers.’
‘They’re alive?’ She stepped back, then looked fearfully past his shoulder. ‘They’re not coming, are they?’
‘You didn’t tell them about me?’
‘I did. We’re going to join them.’
She took another step back. ‘No, we’re not.’
‘Yes we are. I have to help them. They’re wounded and weak.’
Grinda clutched at her throat, heart pounding so hard she could barely breathe. Then the shaking. The air turned to water, thick and heavy. Dizzy, she bent over her knees, sucking at each breath like a gasping fish.
‘They won’t hurt you, Grinda. You’re safe with me.’
She shook her head, spat, then dropped onto her arse. ‘No. No. No.’ She winced as Bloody Teeth flashed in her mind, followed by poor Mirabelle. Clutching her knees to her chest, she rocked back and forth.
She could feel Mock watching her, doing nothing. No warm touch. No embrace. No gentle words. Hardness. Coldness. What had happened?
Mock the Merciless he had once called himself.
‘You will come with me and I will keep you safe.’
She shook her head. ‘I can’t. I won’t.’
He stiffened. The air between them seemed to twist and harden. Grinda clutched her knees tighter as the tears began to flow. She couldn’t believe he was asking this of her. Now. After everything.
He crouched in front of her but Grinda refused to look at him. Then he touched her knee, just like he had that terrible night. She lifted her eyes.
His gaze filled the night, dark and twinkling. ‘I would rip their arms out of their sockets before they touched you. I would boil their heads. Eviscerate them. Understand me, Grinda. They will not hurt you. Not while my heart is beating.’
No. Not Mock the Merciless.
Releasing a shuddering breath, Grinda wiped at her eyes.
Gently grabbing her chin, he kissed her on the lips, then drew her to her feet. ‘Come.’
Hand limp in his, she followed.
Both on Spirit this time, Grinda in front, Mock’s arm tight around her waist. Starshine and Grey Peak tied behind. Was he afraid she might gallop away or did he just want to hold her close? Licking her lips, she gazed at the approaching woods. To her left was the smoking village, too far away to see any detail but close enough she could smell the smoke, close enough that she shivered in Mock’s arms.
By the time they reached the edge of the trees, she was shaking uncontrollably, clutching at Mock’s arm, panting. The trees seemed to loom over her, filled with shadows and nightmares. ‘I don’t … I can’t … Mock …’ She tried to swallow the lump in her throat but it only grew larger. ‘Don’t make me do this.’
He stopped. The shaking was so violent now she found it hard to keep her seat and Mock had to hold her up.
‘All right.’ He gave her a gentle squeeze. ‘You don’t need to see them.’ He turned Spirit.
‘What are you going to do?’
‘We’ll go further up, away from them. Somewhere safe. But I’ll have to leave you. My brothers and I have things to discuss.’
‘Leave me? But what if …?’
‘They won’t touch you,’ he snapped. She winced and Mock sighed. ‘I’m sorry but this has to be done. I have to make things right.’
‘You don’t have to make anything. They’re the ones who betrayed you.’
No response as he nudged Spirit into a trot.
‘Wait.’ Gritting her teeth, she took a breath. ‘I’ll go with you. Just … just keep me close. And I don’t want any of them near me.’
‘Of course, biala.’ He paused. ‘Thank you.’
True to his word, Mock kept his arm tight around her waist as they walked through the trees, the three horses following in a trail. She tried to keep her chin up, tried to be brave, but she kept stumbling over her feet and found it hard to think straight, her mind sitting somewhere high in the branches.
She heard them before she saw them. Voices murmuring in Quarthi. The crackle of flames. Before they revealed themselves, Mock paused, checking to see she was all right. Grinda gave a reluctant nod.
They stepped into view. The murmuring ceased. Eyes gleamed, first on Mock, then on her. Her knees buckled but Mock held on tight. Her heart pounded. Her stomach churned. All their faces so terribly familiar. She saw them: the creep who had molested Janelle in his lap, the bastard who had pissed in Mirabelle’s face. Which ones had murdered Felicia and Bekka? She could name their crimes, their terrors. Hateful men. All of them. Then there was the big one. Mock’s friend. Croki. Staring at her in a way that made the back of her neck prickle.
The ground lurched, the forest spun. Mock’s arm slipped away as she stepped half behind him, hand on his back.
Their eyes flicked back to Mock as he spoke in their language. Not entirely incomprehensible. Mock had taught her a little. Here and there she picked up a familiar word. Then she heard her name and all eyes swivelled back to her. Though she couldn’t speak the language, she could hear the warning in Mock’s voice. The threat.
It wasn’t lost on them either. At least it appeared that way. A few of them looked away. Others lowered their eyes. Croki watched her expressionlessly, chin in his big hand.
Finished, Mock turned to Grinda, drawing her forward. ‘Come. It’s safe. You’re safe.’
After handing over the reins, they sat with their backs against a tree, side by side, Mock’s hand on her thigh. He gave it a squeeze.
They seemed to talk for hours. At first Grinda kept her eyes lowered in her lap as she listened. She understood a few words: help, horse, slave, alongside a dozen others. But little more. He spoke too fast. The others spoke just as quickly until the forest filled with the harsh growl of their voices. Nobody seemed to take any notice of her and she soon dared to lift her eyes.
She looked at them, eyes travelling over their weathered faces, their grim expressions. Long tangled hair, dirty beards. Some were older but most were Mock’s age or younger. Some were covered in scars like Mock, others were smooth and unblemished. Most were injured. Bloodied dressings, all scratched up. Croki appeared the worst, pale and sweating with that great big wound in his stomach. Much like Mock once was. She felt a moment’s savage pleasure. After all he’d done, let him suffer. And that’s when Grinda noticed the empty spot amid them all, a big gap in their little circle, the patch of crushed leaves and the sticky darkness left behind. As though someone had lain there recently. Never to return. She shivered. It was strange to see them this way. On the other side—almost. Not her attackers. Not something to be feared. Mock’s hand hadn’t left her thigh and she suddenly felt his strength, his fearlessness.
They weren’t so scary, not with Mock by her side.
Tired. Careworn. She yawned. The gentle murmuring of their language became soothing in her ears. The moon dimmed.
‘Grinda.’ A rub at her shoulder.
‘Wha’?’ She sat up, leaves falling away. She blinked up at Mock, then glanced around the clearing. The fire was little more than glowing embers. The barbarians were leaving, muttering quietly to each other. She rubbed at her eyes, yawned, licked her dry lips. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember falling asleep.
‘Come, biala. The meeting’s over.’
Mock’s face was drawn, the grooves in his cheeks as deep as craters, shadows under his eyes.
She took his hand, stumbling blearily as he drew her through the trees. A soft place. A dark spot. Away from the others, just as he promised.
It had been her intention to show him her back tonight after what he’d made her do. But her fears, her sense of betrayal, had abandoned her. And Mock—he looked so lost. She drew close, wrapping an arm around his thick waist as he lay on his back beside her staring into the branches.
‘What are you thinking about?’ she asked.
He forced a shrug. ‘Many things.’
She squeezed his hand. ‘You’re sad.’
He didn’t answer. Grinda burned with questions but she knew this wasn’t the time. After all their time together she knew when to leave well alone.
Grinda seemed to take forever to sleep. When her arm around his waist finally slackened and her breaths turned long and deep, gently he slipped away.
Almost black. Hard to see. Thick grey clouds had passed over the moon. A short way through the trees and Croki was waiting for him, a still, bulky shadow in the darkness. Only the whites of his eyes were sharp and clear.
‘You sure abou’ this?’ his deep voice growled.
‘There is no other choice,’ Mock replied.
‘There is always a choice. How do you expect to succeed? Five against—countless. You’ll die, Mock. Or they’ll catch you.’
‘Yes. I know. It’s been foretold.’
Croki stiffened. ‘Wha’ do ye mean?’
Mock sat beside him. ‘How’s the wound?’
The big Quarthi pressed a hand to his side. ‘I’ll live.’
‘Good. I need you here.’
‘For your Paleskin whore.’
Mock sucked in a sharp breath. ‘If you knew her, you wouldn’t speak like that.’
‘She’s still a Paleskin. I can call her what I like.’
‘Not around me you can’t. Not unless you want cold steel in your throat.’
‘You speak of me like that? Your oldest friend?’
‘I will if you insult my woman.’
Croki grunted. ‘You’ve changed.’
‘No. I was changed. Now I’m back.’
Silence. Then, ‘What do ye mean foretold?’
‘Grinda. She has the sight.’
Though it was close to pitch black, Mock could almost see Croki’s disbelief. ‘Impossible. No Paleskin …’
Mock waved his hand in dismissal. ‘She’s with child.’
A pause. ‘Oh.’
‘It’s not mine.’
A longer pause. ‘Oh.’
Mock sniffed, clenched and unclenched his fists. The feeling was still raw.
‘So you know you’re goin’ to fail and yet you’re goin’ to go anyway.’ The big Quarthi huffed. ‘Don’t sound so smart.’
‘I didn’t say I’d fail.’
Croki looked at him. ‘Same thin’.’
‘No. It’s not.’
Silence fell like a pall around them. Steadily, soft white light filtered through the trees as the clouds passed over, glinting against the smears of blood on Croki’s chest, the sweat in his hair. Mock waited, knowing what was coming.
‘This won’t be like Danna,’ Croki finally said.
And there it was.
Still that pang in his chest. ‘It will always be like Danna, from now until the end. I won’t make the same mistake again.’
‘And what about the four goin’ with you? You goin’ to sacrifice them?’
‘They’re coming is of their own choosing. I cannot stop them.’
Croki looked at him. ‘And if you die, you expect me to take care of her.’
‘It’s your duty. As my brother.’
‘We’re not brothers by blood.’
‘No.’ Croki agreed.
They were closer than that. They stared into the night. The blackness fell again, shielding their faces.
‘Protect her. Bring her solace, if nothing else. She has family somewhere.’
‘She won’t like me.’
‘Make her like you. She can be—’ Mock smiled—‘unpredictable. Stubborn, even. But you’ll learn to love that about her.’
‘How are you going to tell her?’
‘I won’t. Of course. For her to know would only make things worse.’
Croki shook his head. ‘For the first time in my life I feel pity for a wretched Paleskin.’
Mock clapped a hand on his shoulder and shook him roughly.
Croki feigned a gasp, clutching at his side. ‘‘ey now. Watch it!’
Mock laughed, then laughed some more until tears filled his eyes. What else could he do?
Grinda hadn’t stirred. Mock paused, watching. The moon was out again, bathing her in glowing white light. Glittering hair. Long, dark eyelashes. Perfect little hands. A small smile curved her lips. Easing in beside her, he drew her into his arms. He studied her a moment, taking in the delicate lines under her eyes, that cute little mole under her left brow, the scar along her jawline. He wondered how she had got that. He had never asked her. He ran his fingertip down her nose. A little crooked, a little wide. Perfect. He kissed her lips, her neck. Pushing aside her tunic, he pressed his lips along the length of her beautiful shoulder. Hands on her waist, under her shirt, as he breathed in the scent of her hair. How he would miss that smell.
Finally, Grinda stirred. ‘Mock?’ She smiled, then giggled as he nuzzled her ear. Lips on lips, slow and tender, the gentle brush of tongues. Blue eyes still thick with sleep gazed into his. ‘You all right?’
He slid his arm around her waist, pressing her closer against him. ‘I love you, biala.’
‘I love you too.’
Pressing his face into her soft neck, he sighed as he grabbed onto her breast. Feeling her breathe in and out. In and out. Other hand beneath her shirt as he felt along her smooth back, then kissed her again. Not so tender this time. Passionate. Desperate. He rolled on top.
Grinda pulled her lips away. ‘Here? Now? With those barbarians?’
‘They won’t know anything.’
Her eyes flicked to the trees fearfully.
She looked at him. Her eyes crinkled up in concern. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing. Just … let me hold you tonight.’
Her eyes gleamed into his.
He kissed her again, hands tender around her neck. He wanted to feel her, all of her. To taste her. To know her so fully she would always be a part of him. Tonight, the last of their nights. He pushed up her tunic and she gasped, gripping onto his head as he sucked at her nipple. He moved his mouth to her ribs. Her body rippled as he swirled his tongue in her belly button. Next, her skirts. He tugged them down, ran his fingers through her thatch of hair with a sigh. Warm and soft. He lay his cheek there, hand on her hip, tracing his fingers around it.
I could stay here forever, he thought to himself. Content.
When he hadn’t moved for a while, Grinda sat up. ‘Mock, tell me what’s wrong.’
He didn’t answer. Instead, he turned his head, pressing his lips to her wet, soft flesh. Grinda fell back with a gasp. He swirled his tongue, lapping at that powerful little piece of skin that made life worth living. To hear her gasp, to hear her moan. He would remember her like this.
He crawled over her, lips on hers as he entered her. Thrust, kiss, thrust, kiss. Little thrusts, then longer, harder. He gazed into her eyes, watching her pleasure, watching as she came. He felt her hand on his arse, the weight of her legs wrapped around his waist. Her blue eyes were shut. Deep lines of pleasure around the corners of her nose. Lips parted, wet and wanting. He kissed her, almost biting her lip as he shuddered into her.
Inside her, for as long as his hardness lasted, kissing and nuzzling. She grunted and smiled as he pushed deeper within, as deep as he could get. Resting his cheek against hers, he ran his fingers down her breast, her ribs, her hip, touching every little part of her. She continued to smile, eyes closed. She seemed to have forgotten that something might be wrong.
Good. Let this night be perfect.