Chapter 23

23.

 

Grinda woke to a gentle rub on her shoulder. ‘Grinda, it’s time to get up.’

She heard Mock shift, then clamber to his feet. She shivered at the cool gust of air, skin prickling with goose bumps.

‘Do we have to?’ she murmured.

‘Afraid so.’

Unable to keep the smile from her lips, she rolled onto her back. She kept her eyes closed, revelling in the sensations of last night. Twice, they had made love. Then he held her, so close, so tightly. All through the night, brushing at her hair, murmuring sweet words in her ear. At least she had thought they had been sweet; they were in Quarthi.

She smoothed her hands down her breasts. His saliva had dried. His seed had hardened between her legs, cold and crusty. She could still feel the touch of his warm scratchy hands against her skin. So gentle. She had never felt so loved.

She opened her eyes. Grey light filtered through the branches.

‘It’s too early,’ she whined, stretching as she admired his naked arse, the soft but generous lump of his cock. She held out her arms. ‘Come back to me.’

He stepped into his kinta, then pulled on his belt. ‘Can’t biala. I have to go.’

Grinda sat up, suddenly wary. ‘Go? Go where?’

He sighed, bunched his shoulders against his neck until all the muscles stood out. He turned to face her and the look in his eyes turned her heart cold. ‘I have to save them.’

‘Who?’

‘My brothers. Three of them were taken by the Paleskins. I won’t let them suffer. I have to do something.’

Grinda folded her arms across her breasts, suddenly feeling very vulnerable and very cold. She quickly pulled on her tunic. It was difficult; her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. She flung out her hair, then tugged on the ends. She opened her mouth, only to close it again, her voice stuck in her throat. That lump again. Impossible to swallow.

Mock watched her stone-faced.

‘Mock,’ she croaked. Don’t do this to me, she wanted to say. But the words wouldn’t come.

‘Remember what I told you. Your visions aren’t what they seem. I will return.’

‘Liar.’ It came out in barely a whisper but it made him look at her sharply. Didn’t he think she knew him well enough by now? That little twist in his bottom lip. That stiffness in the back of his neck. A good liar. Indiscernible to everyone else. But not to her. Not to her. It was almost insulting he thought she wouldn’t know.

Cold and numb, shaking all over, she pulled herself to her feet. One step, two steps, three steps. It seemed to take forever to get to him. He watched her blankly as she gazed up at him. He must have seen it coming. Mock had incredible reflexes. But he didn’t stop her. He probably hardly felt it. Probably thought he deserved it. Her hand stung, his cheek flushed red. Then she began beating at his chest. That’s what he spoke about so long with his men. That’s why had made love to her so tenderly. That’s why he hadn’t told her his plans until now.

It all made sense.

No longer cold. Hot now. Boiling. The lump in her throat melted, and finally: ‘Do I mean nothing to you!’

She thumped him some more, but she might as well be hitting a boulder for all the good it did. Everything was a blur. Nothing seemed real. She could hardly see, hot tears in her eyes. Finally, he grabbed her, enfolding her into his chest.

She sagged in his arms, sucking in the scent of his skin. She couldn’t help it. ‘Don’t go.’

‘I must. What kind of man would I be?’

‘A living one. A well one.’

‘Half a man.’

‘Foolishness.’ She shoved him away. ‘How could you possibly hope to save them?’

‘I must try. They’re only boys.’

‘You are only one man.’

‘The others are coming with me.

She scoffed. ‘Five men against who knows.’

‘I’ve rescued my brothers once. I can do it again.’

Folding her arms, she looked away. ‘Why don’t you listen? The Mother is warning you. She doesn’t want you to get hurt.’

‘Nobody can know what the Mother wants.’

There was steel in his voice. Grinda looked up. His eyes were dark, his face set. No arguments. It was over. ‘No more time. I must go. Every minute lost is a lost opportunity. If we hurry, if we’re fast, we can catch them before they reach their destination.’

He pulled her into his arms, tried to kiss her, but she shoved him away.

He sighed. ‘Croki is too wounded to come. And you need someone …’ He twisted his lips, unable to finish. ‘He will keep you safe. Finish your journey to your family, if you still wish it.’ When she didn’t respond, he said, ‘I trust him. Have no fear.’

Grinda couldn’t care less about her own safety. Not right then. Tears of rage, of sadness. Salt on her lips, on her tongue. She should say something. Beg him to stay. Tell him how much she loved him. Just don’t let him go. Not like this.

But she could only watch as he walked away.

The sun was yet to rise when they rode off. She thought Mock would take Spirit but he had taken Starshine instead. He’s yours if you want, he had told her as he patted Spirit’s neck. It seemed so long ago. Their first real talk. Their first real connection. The memory was so vivid she could almost feel the heat of him against her side.

Hand at her throat, she watched him go, well after he had disappeared into the hills beyond.

‘He’ll be fine. Mock knows what he’s doin’.’

Grinda turned. The barbarian, Croki, stood behind her, back against a tree, slightly hunched over.

‘You’re a worse liar than he is,’ Grinda said before striding away.

*

The ground rolled beneath. Hills and flats, bushes and streams. A long winding road. The villages and farms they kept well away from. The rising sun beat against their backs as the cloudless blue sky opened up overhead. A beautiful day, Mock thought vaguely. Good. The Paleskins would be that much easier to follow. Not that it was hard. For the most part they were following the road, and going by the breadth of their tracks Mock could estimate at least sixty fighters. By the depth of their hoofprints, he could see a few were heavily armoured knights. While the rest were only men-at-arms. There were the wheel ruts of supply wagons. Here and there he spied a footprint. Jogging. No doubt his brothers tethered behind like animals. They were travelling slow, barely a trot. Taking their time. For a force that size they could easily move faster.

He felt a pinch of hope and yet his heart sat like a stone in his chest. He pushed thoughts of Grinda aside. His brothers were counting on him. He could not lose focus.

Though Mock was anxious to speed ahead, they kept a steady pace, making sure to rest their horses as often as needed. They would need to be strong on their flight back. Whether that be with or without Mock.

Mock tightened his jaw. Grinda’s visions. He had little doubt now they were visions of his future. The way she described the cell wasn’t right. There was a window. In Fairmont, Mock had been locked underground. There had been no light. And she had never spoken of other cellmates. In her vision he had been alone. It was definitely not Fairmont.

It didn’t matter. If he had learnt anything after Danna’s death, visions weren’t to be trusted. One needed to live their life in spite of them. After Danna, he never really understood their purpose other than to cause heartache and confusion.

Never again.

The sun had arced beyond its zenith by the time the tracks began to turn fresh. Mock whistled to his men. Those ahead turned to join him, those behind hurried to catch up. He liked to keep his men spread out. It made them harder to spot, as well as keeping them off the road. Travellers had become much less frequent since that tide of humanity yesterday but they still created difficulty. Mock could see how his brothers watched them, could see the rage, the bloodlust on their faces. Twice he warned them away.

When they had all gathered, Mock spoke, ‘Best to pull well away from the road now. Keep to the trees. We must not be seen. Our ally, as always, is surprise. By my guess we’ll reach them sometime before the sun sets. Keep close together but not too close, and keep your eyes peeled. Knowing the Paleskins, they’ll likely have men scouting both ahead as well as behind. If you are seen, run them down and kill them.’

His men nodded but didn’t ask any questions. He could see they were tired. Wounded, uncertain but resolute.

They did their best to keep cover, their pace much slower now as they tried to keep the road within view. At every crossroad, Mock would reveal himself, approaching the road to see which direction their enemy took. Always west. Deeper into Paleskin territory.

They were very close now, their tracks distinctive.

It was mid-afternoon when they found them. Mock started at the sound of birdsong, high and shrill. A signal. Flicking the reins, he sped towards it, reaching two of his brothers, Ank and Rog, as they sat their horses gazing into the distance.

Mock shaded his face against the glare. The three of them stood just within the edge of the forest, the wood of the trees turned red against the setting sun. From behind he heard the rustle of leaves and the crack of breaking sticks as the rest of his brothers caught up.

It was hard to see with the sun blazing in his face but Mock could discern an indistinct blur of movement following the road between the hills further ahead. A blur of many horses and men. Moments later, it turned a corner and disappeared.

Mock turned Starshine, looking hard at his brothers. ‘Last chance,’ he told them. ‘The risk is great. If you don’t want to proceed, I won’t think less of you. You can return to Croki and wait for me there or go on with your own lives.’

Nobody moved, their faces grim. Ank pounded a fist to his chest; the others did the same.

 

Waiting. Lots of waiting before an attack. Looking, assessing, planning. Mock’s estimate wasn’t far off. Probably fifty men, if that, gathered close together as they prepared for rest. Most would sleep on the ground, he saw, but there were a few tents and a modest-sized pavilion rearing above it all, its flag rustling in the light wind. He squinted, but it was too dark to see Lord Badden’s insignia, the light from the flaming torches throwing a blinding dance of light and shadow. He felt a sting between his ribs at the thought of Beltho. Mock could have really used him right now.

It was a small force and poorly patrolled. Only three men circled the camp, often stopping to talk and laugh. What need had they of proper defences? This wasn’t war. This was their own land, and as far as they knew the barbarians were no longer a threat. In a way they were right. Four men and Mock. Mock pursed his lips. But they didn’t count on the ferocity of the Quarthi. That was what was wrong with the Paleskins. They didn’t know how to think like the enemy. Or refused to.

His eyes travelled over the three boys. Sitting together, the light of the flames flickering against their brown skin. Tired and wary. Bloodied. Zak looked the worst. Mock couldn’t see their faces but the boy was swaying, head bowed, a bloodied bandage around his chest. More blood stained his abdomen. All were bound. Two guards. Right in the middle of the camp.

Mock withdrew, slithering back through the bushes, elbow over elbow, Ank and Sid doing the same.

They returned to the others waiting amid the trees. Their eyes gleamed with eagerness. ‘Not yet. Later, when their heads are down.’ He glanced up through the branches. Dark clouds shrouded the moon. Fortunate. The Mother was on their side.

More waiting. Quiet murmuring to each other. Eyes drawn frequently to the camp, to the moon above. A cool night but Mock was sweating. Laughter and shouting from the Paleskins, the distant flash and whip of flames through the air as the torches moved around the camp like wandering stars. Chin on his fist, Mock watched, stiff and still. Patient.

Deep into the night the laughter quietened, torches winked out, and finally Mock stood. The murmuring from his brothers silenced. All eyes on him. He could almost feel their thoughts, their anxieties, their eagerness like a fine buzzing in the air. ‘It is time.’

Ank and Mock advanced, swift and silent through the darkness. Hunched over, swords at their backs, daggers at their waists, eyes trained on the fight ahead. The occasional scuff of a boot, a grunting breath, but that was all the sound they made. Skilled. Like hunters. Like fighters. Killers. Calm and focused.

The edge of the camp now. Still dark. Then the heavy footsteps of an approaching patrol. Mock nodded and Ank took him out. The quick flick of an arm. A flash of steel. A suck of air. Quietly, they pulled his weight into the bushes, Ank’s hand clapped over his bloodied mouth as the dying man took his last choking breath.

They glanced at each other, then turned to the camp.

Weaving through the sleeping men, quiet as a whisper, Mock felt as high as the clouds. Though his heart beat steady and slow, his blood thrummed through his veins. A Paleskin’s eyes flicked open, widening at the sight of him. A quick slash and Mock crouched beside him, hand against his mouth like the last one. A silent death. Torchlight flickered. Mock’s ears pricked at the sound of rustling behind. But it was just a Paleskin turning in his sleep.

Keeping to the shadows, Ank reached the boys, rousing Kid first. Steel gleamed as Ank cut through his bindings. The boy was still and quiet but Mock saw the hope, the rage, glittering in his eyes. And Mock knew that his heart beat with the heat of a hundred flaming suns. Mock knew how that felt. He only hoped the boy could keep control of himself.

Fleet was Mock’s to unbind. As he did, he looked up at a strange whistling, crackling sound. It was coming from Zak. Mock looked at Ank. Their eyes locked, and he saw the same bleakness. They knew that sound.

Once free, Fleet grinned. Two missing teeth. Blood down his face. He squeezed Mock’s forearm, accepting one of Mock’s blades.

‘Go!’ Mock hissed. The boy glanced at Zak who lay barely conscious. Mock seized his wrist, then thrust him away. ‘Now!’

The two boys fled.

‘Zak.’ Mock rubbed his shoulder. A flicker of eyelids. A moan. More of that crackling and sucking. Louder, foreboding. He was so pale. Mock lowered the blood-soaked bandage, gave a grim nod. Ank released a breath. Just as they suspected: a punctured lung, the crackling and sucking more audible now that it wasn’t muffled by the bandage.

Replacing the fabric, Mock stood. ‘Go,’ he told Ank. ‘I’ll take the boy.’

Ank grasped his shoulder. ‘There’s no point.’

Mock glared at him, hand at his belt. For emphasis, not out of a desire to hurt him. Ank shook his head.

Mock straightened. ‘If anything happens to me, just leave. Don’t come back for me. Promise me that.’ Ank’s eyes gleamed into Mock’s. Mock tightened a hand around a hilt.

‘Promise me.’

Ank twisted his mouth, but nodded, then hurried away.

Not completely senseless, the boy grunted, then groaned as Mock hauled him over his shoulder. He paused but none of the Paleskins stirred. He started to doubt himself. Ank was right. The boy would surely die. There was no point. But there is a point. He won’t die alone. With the enemy. Something Mock had both dreaded and hoped for in his darkest hours back at Fairmont. He could at least give the boy’s mother that solace, if Mock ever decided to return home.

He reached the edge of camp without incident, fist slippery with nervous sweat around the hilt of his sword. Mock glanced over his shoulder at the camp behind, the back of his neck prickling. Something wasn’t right. It was too easy. He looked back ahead, hesitating. Suddenly, the trees didn’t appear so safe. He shook himself and continued.

It seemed he needn’t have worried; his men were mounted and waiting.

‘What are you doing?’ he hissed. ‘I told you to run!’

‘Mock,’ Ank said.

Mock froze, something in Ank’s voice. Something that made his stomach wrench. Around him, the rest of his brothers were silent. Too late, he realised. Mock rushed over just as Ank slipped from his mount but there was nothing he could do with the boy over his shoulder. He hit the ground with a thud, face down, an arrow in his back.

Then the night was filled with the sleek, sharp whistling of flying arrows. Everywhere. Grunts and gasps and cries. Horses reared, screaming, throwing their riders. One of his brothers—Rog—managed to gallop away, only to be cut down with a shining sword thrust from the bushes.

He felt a thud, heard a cry, as an arrow lodged into Zak. Then another thud, closer still. The boy slid from Mock’s grasp as he stared at the arrow in his thigh. His ears rang. Everything slowed down. You would think he would be used to fighting. But he was always the perpetrator, never the victim. And he had never been taken by surprise before. Surprise—once his ally, now his enemy. Ironic. Another arrow slammed into his shoulder, knocking him off his feet.

The pain came soon after, as it always did, in a blast of fire that ran diagonally from his left thigh to his right shoulder. He was grateful; it snapped him out of his shock. He broke off the fletching in his shoulder with a roar, then staggered to his feet. His left knee buckled, so he placed most of his weight on his right. He raised his sword, but it was useless. Surrounded. Paleskins everywhere. Ten, he counted. Sneering faces, armoured, weapons raised. So there had been around sixty men. His estimate hadn’t been off.

And he realised in dismay: they had been waiting.

Swords pointed at him. Arrows were nocked. He gazed at his fallen brothers. All eight of them. Dead or dying. Just as he knew he would be.

But not like this. He was supposed to die, they were supposed to live.

He glared at his enemy, unafraid. He wouldn’t be taken. Not again. He raised his sword, left hand now. But before he could take a step a third arrow pierced his wrist and the sword slipped from his grasp. Another pierced his other thigh and he dropped to his knees. Weak now, soaked with blood. He slumped to his side. Black dots speckled his vision.

‘Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.’ A husky, whispery voice.

Mock started. Familiar. He knew it, all too well. He looked up. A blurry figure, skin as white as the moon. A wave of horror seared through his chest, blocking out the pain. Suddenly, he couldn’t move, couldn’t speak.

‘Oh, Dog. My beautiful, obedient Dog. How I’ve missed you.’

All Mock saw were those familiar pasty white lips before darkness claimed him.

 

Chapter 24

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