Darkness. Then the pain—everywhere. Mock jerked, twisted and thrashed, but it only caused more waves of agony. He grunted at the stab in his wrist as his chain rubbed up against his wound, groaned as his shoulder stretched and burned. They had bound his hands hard behind his back and there was no relief from the tension. His ankles were chained too, so tightly together his feet were numb and his thighs throbbed and ached.
He tried to push away the gag with his tongue but it wouldn’t budge. His hot breath made him sweat beneath the eyes. Hip aching against the hard floor of the wagon, he rolled onto his back. He could hear the wheels rattling beneath, the creaking of the surrounding cage, the clop of the horses’ hooves. The rushes stuck to his back, itching and scratching. The heat of the day beat against his skin until he grew so hot he had to roll over again.
The sound of laughter. The whickering and clopping of more horses. Talking—English. He tried to make sense of their conversations but the words were a muddle. With a great heave, he sat up, coughing at the surge of white hot pain. They had yanked out the arrows, one after the other, leaving ragged holes of torn muscle behind that stabbed and clawed at every breath. If by some miracle he ever got out of his, he would never be the same man again. He knew it. Had seen it with his own brothers.
Better off dead.
Slowly, he forced his eyes open but they were so swollen he barely managed a squint. He pinched them shut again. Too bright. Like daggers in the eyes. They had been travelling for hours, Mock stuck in the wagon the whole time. No water. No food. No breaks. Piss and blood soaked his kinta. More of it caked his legs. His ear gave a nasty throb. Somebody had clobbered him in the head last night, knocking him out cold but only after the lifetime of beatings he had suffered. Almost every inch of him felt mashed up, tenderised and softened. Weak. Useless. Barely able to hold himself up.
Ank with an arrow in his back. His brothers shouting and falling. The boys—dead. Failed. He had failed. Then those pasty lips, those perfect straight teeth; slender white hands. All too familiar. A man from his past. He had never forgotten, would never forget. If Mock were a lesser man, he would have wept. Instead, he clenched his fists and gritted his teeth around the gag.
He forced open his eyes again. A stab of white light, then blue. Fuzzy outlines slowly turned into solid shapes. Paleskins everywhere, some armoured in steel, others in boiled leather. Then he saw the uniforms. Only a handful wore them—the knights: blue sleeved tunics with stars along the forearms. He knew them. He ought to. He had seen them most days during his five years as a slave. He looked up, the glare slicing at his eyes. A flag topped the wagon, rippling in the breeze. The sight of it made him want to vomit. He knew it had been placed there to torment him. During the darkness of the attack, he had thought it Lord Badden’s. Perhaps if he had known the truth, he would have seen the danger sooner. At a sudden gust, the fabric whipped out, revealing a great white spire encircled by a halo of stars. The king’s insignia. Fairmont had come for him in the end. Inescapable. Eight months free, sunk into nothing.
No, not nothing. Grinda. His heart lurched. He had failed her too. Betrayed her, even. He rested his head back against the cage with a sigh and closed his eyes. Think of her. Think only of her.
And somehow he fell asleep.
When he woke again, the sun sat high behind a blanket of clouds that turned the day dim. Some relief against the heat, at least. He groaned at a sudden lurch, looked through the cage of the wagon through his pinched eyes, then sat up with a start, hissing at the burst of pain.
The wagon dipped, then lurched again with a violent bump as it travelled over a well-worn road pitted with holes. He stared. A town. Clearly, their destination. For some reason he expected Fairmont, his mind all jumbled. But of course it wasn’t. That was many weeks journey away.
They were allowed through the gates with a respectful bow and a fist to the chest by the waiting guard. Mock didn’t recognise the uniform: yellow, with grey stripes around the wrists, pale britches, topped with a boiled leather breastplate.
A man ahead called out: ‘Make way. Make way!’ The stragglers ahead promptly parted: wagons and livestock, caravans and solitary travellers.
Cobblestone road now as they passed through the outer wall. Mock’s teeth vibrated as the wagon’s wheels rattled more furiously than ever. He winced, gritting those same vibrating teeth as pain darted up and down his spine. He closed his eyes, hands clasped hard together as he tried not to pass out.
Taking several deep breaths, he opened them again. Buildings reared up on either side. Rushes and shit coated the road. People everywhere. And the smell! He had forgotten. The sweat and shit and other bodily secretions of too many people and animals in one place. It was a town built on farming, he could see, going by all the livestock. The massive white arse of a bull gazed back at him.
‘Make way!’ the man ahead called.
People were staring. It seemed he was the centre of attention. Most were silent and wide-eyed but some spat or cursed, recognising him for what he was, or at least what he used to be: murderer, plunderer and rapist.
The town’s inner wall loomed over him, the stakes of the portcullis bearing down like a giant maw. But they didn’t pass through, turning a sharp left. He glimpsed the castle. Not particularly spectacular compared with Fairmont. Old and in disrepair: the walls cracked, the murder holes infested with weeds and nests.
His prison was much the same. Three Paleskins had to haul him out. They unlocked his ankle chains but he was unable to keep his feet, his knees buckling to the point of collapse. His head swam as he was dragged inside, down stairs, the heavy footsteps of the guards echoing in the narrow corridor. Cold and hard, the stone floor slammed into his face as they dropped him. He released a breath, dust puffing into the air. Then the door crashed shut and all he had was the light pouring through the small, barred window high in the wall. Just as Grinda had described it.
He rolled onto his side, staring into nothing. Waiting. He started to tremble, then shake violently. All those old traumas coming back. He closed his eyes, pushing them way down. Think of Grinda. The smoothness of her hair, the softness of her skin, the sweetness of her breath against his ear as he moved inside her. He pressed his face into the floor with grunt, a tear trickling down his cheek.
He didn’t have to wait long. Woozy with loss of blood, he was listing between wake and sleep when the dungeon door opened again and a long, dark shadow spilled over him. Spindly. Crooked. How many times had he recalled the same situation over and over in his dreams?
The scrape of a chair, the rustle of linen as he sat his skinny arse on the hard timber. Small eyes. Bony cheeks. Thin lips. How could something so diminutive strike such horror in him? Mock didn’t move, lips kissing the floor. Two guards stood at the old priest’s side. Another two strolled in, and Mock snarled in pain as they hooked him under the arms and thrust him against the wall, threading his chain through two iron loops lodged in the stone bricks beneath the window. At least the chain was long enough that he could sit. Back against the wall, he stretched out his aching legs. His wounds had stopped bleeding hours ago, filled with grime and clotted with black blood. A guard yanked off his gag and Mock licked his lips in relief.
The two guards left, their footsteps fading into the distance, leaving the other two guards and the man who Mock had feared and hated for so long—Father Grayson. One of five on his list to murder.
The old priest smoothed his robes over his knees, then leant over his lap, grey eyes fixed on his. ‘So, we meet again, dear Dog.’
Mock didn’t respond. The old man sniffed, then straightened, leaning against the back of his chair. He looked around the cell, tapping his long fingers against his knee. ‘So much like your old one. I get the feeling you’ll get used to it here,’ he smiled at Mock, ‘don’t you think?’
When Mock didn’t answer, he gave a small nod and one of the guards approached. ‘You will answer me when I’m talking to you.’
A boot in the guts, a crushing pain and the air sucked out of his lungs so he coughed and spluttered. The priest waited as he struggled to catch his breath.
Mock leant his head back against the wall, swallowing down the bile in his throat. He played along. ‘What do you want, Father?’
The old priest’s lips twisted. ‘Your death, of course. After what you and those other savages did, you deserve nothing less.’
‘So kill me then.’
‘All in good time.’ He ran his slender fingers along the chain around his neck, the cross at the end flashing in the wan sunlight. ‘I’ve been hearing of your conquests ever since your escape. Eight months of destruction, rape and murder. Your crimes are uncountable. You will surely follow your ‘brothers’ into hell.’
‘I already know hell. I was there five long years.’
The priest pretended not to hear. ‘I could pray for you. But God doesn’t take savages into his keeping, particularly murderous ones. Do you admit to your crimes?’
The cell swam. Head so heavy, eyelids heavier still. His head lolled, then hung, chin touching his chest. A brief moment of darkness before a hard yank at his hair brought him back in a blaze of light.
Mock looked up at the guard, licking at the spittle on his lips. ‘Fully. I killed them all and I’d do it again.’ The guard released him and Mock’s eyes lowered to the priest’s lap. Those hands. Always so white, as though lit by their own source of light. Nails of pain. Fingers of humiliation. He knew them well. Mock slowly raised his eyes, forcing himself to meet the priest’s cold gaze.
Father Grayson frowned. Mock passed his tongue over his teeth, then spat. ‘And I’d kill him again. Over and over. I still dream about it sometimes. His mashed-up skull. His brain on my hands.’ Though the cell was quiet, a hush seemed to fall. The priest sat like polished marble, unmoving, barely breathing. Apparently unaffected. Mock knew better. He leant towards him, ignoring the blast of pain in his shoulder as the chains pulled. ‘I was surprised by how hot it was. His brains, I mean. I’ll never forget it.’ He bared his teeth in a half-snarl, half-grin. ‘What took you so long, Father? Eight months. Did our great king even care? Or did he have better things to do than to avenge your dear, brainless, cockless little brother?’
Mock pulled back, chin lifted, glad his hands were chained behind his back; he couldn’t let the Paleskin see how they trembled. The silence was long and drawn as the old priest tried to contain himself. Then, in a voice flat and emotionless, he gave the command,
Mock gnashed his teeth but the guard gripped his mouth, digging his fingers into the joints of his jaw as the second guard replaced the filthy, stinking fabric.
Tall and slender, the old Paleskin unfolded himself, his dark clean robes sweeping against the dirty floor. The two guards stepped back. He withdrew something from his robes, hard to see through Mock’s swollen, painful eyes. There was a flash as he unsheathed it. A long, wicked blade.
Mock didn’t move, chin still lifted, though his hands trembled so hard the chain rattled against the floor.
The priest sneered, knowing his fear. Knowing him all too well. ‘Spread his legs.’
‘Mock!’ Grinda screamed. ‘Answer me!’
His eyelids flickered but nothing more. She saw him clearly now like she never had before as he lay prostrate on the hard, cellar floor: blood coated the left side of his head, his ear mangled; there was a nasty, clotted wound on his upper left arm that looked like a bite; punctures in his shoulder and legs; a deadly hole in his belly that wouldn’t stop weeping blood. But there was worse still. She sucked in a breath. He was naked, and down below—all mangled up. What had they done to him?
She reached out for him. ‘Mock!’ But as it always was with her visions, she couldn’t touch him, her hand passing through him like he didn’t exist. Like he was already gone.
His eyelids flickered again and this time his lips parted. Grinda leant in close.
Barely a whisper. ‘Sorry.’
Grinda jerked back. ‘You’re not sorry, you’re not! Come back to me!’ Again she tried desperately to reach for him and that’s when she saw it. She stopped, hands hovering over him. It shouldn’t have been a shock. She had always known deep in her guts that this was a future telling, more so now than ever.
Nevertheless, it struck away that last, lingering, foolish hope that Mock hadn’t lied just to make her feel better. That she was wrong. That this was, indeed, a vision of the past.
The wound in his left side, now coated in blood. That telltale wrinkled skin. So carefully and so long had she cared for it.
Her hands dropped and all she could do was stare. Numb. The whole world, her entire life, reduced to that little patch of ugly skin.
Grinda woke with a gasp, then sat up. Too real. Too vivid. Too painful. She knew what it meant: Mock wouldn’t come back.
She blinked. It was morning, more than morning. The sun bright, the sky blue. Hot. Late! She scrambled to her feet. That fucking barbarian, he wasn’t supposed to let her fall asleep.
She paused, grasping at her stomach with a gasp. Vomit surged up her throat and she heaved. She spat, licked her lips then arched her back, closing her eyes at the feel of more churning. She swallowed, tried to force it back, only to make things worse. Again and again, she vomited.
Legs trembling beneath her, she sat, her last meal in her hair, streaks of tears down her cheeks. Not a pretty sight. She pressed a hand to her belly, knowing what it was. She had seen enough pregnancies back home to know. Five weeks now. Right on schedule. The morning sickness. Bad timing. But it won’t stop me. She staggered to her feet.
The sound of heavy footsteps, a deep growl as the big barbarian appeared through the trees. ‘You all right?’
‘Why didn’t you wake me!’
He didn’t answer, mouth thin in his patchy beard. His dark eyes dropped to the vomit. ‘You’re sick.’
‘Wrong,’ she snapped.
‘Of course, I’m angry! You let me fall asleep and now look.’ She gestured at the sky. ‘We might be too late.’
‘Too late for what?’
‘To save Mock, of course.’
His mouth thinned further. ‘I can’ let that happen.’
Grinda bristled. ‘And why not? Frightened?’ she dared.
He pulled back his shoulders. A muscle ticked in his jaw. ‘I swore to Mock to protect you.’
‘Of course you did. But guess what? I’m my own woman. And you can’t stop me.’
She glanced at Spirit and Grey Peak tied up behind him. Refreshed. Strong. Ready to go.
‘Don’ even think about it.’
Her eyes flicked to his bandage. ‘And what are you going to do?’
‘I’m more than strong enough for you, little faqwa.’
She stood to her fullest height, chin lifted. Even with that, she didn’t reach his nipple line. And he was so much broader than Mock, his hands huge. Bulky too, unlike Mock, who was almost entirely muscle. She couldn’t be sure, but his thighs looked as big as her waist. Was he a man or a giant?
Even still, he was hunched over, his face drawn, eyes sunken. She could get past him if she were quick. She licked her lips.
‘And how are you goin’ to find him?’ the big barbarian said, watching her sharply, clearly knowing exactly what she was thinking.
‘I’ll follow their tracks, just as Mock did.’
‘So easy, eh?’
‘I’ve got to try.’ She paused, meeting his eyes. ‘You could come with me. Help me find him.’
‘You’re his friend. He’d do the same for you.’
‘No’ if he swore not to.’
She glared at him. He stared back, arms limp at his sides but no doubt ready for anything she tried. There was nothing for it. She couldn’t wait any longer and no great, big oaf was going to stand in her way.
She charged, ducking under his arm as he attempted to grab her. Only for his other arm, hard and strong, to wrap around her middle, yanking her back. Her feet left the ground. The sky arced. And suddenly she was against his chest, face pressed hard into his flesh. There was a thud, a jolt, as he collapsed to his arse with her on top. She wriggled and thrashed but he soon had her arms pinned, two great bulging lengths wrapped around her. Sweat and hair and grime, all in her nose, in her mouth. She spat at him, screamed,
‘Let me go!’
She couldn’t move at all, firmly trapped in his embrace. She couldn’t even dig her nails into him, her fists crushed to her chest. ‘Let me go,’ she cried again, more feeble now as her vision swam, as tears streaked her cheeks. Helpless. Hopeless. ‘Mock,’ she croaked.
Then she wept—hard, wetting the hairs on his chest, soaking his bandage. He remained silent, his arms as strong and unyielding as a steel chain. He smelt like Mock, felt like him, even if just a little. It didn’t make her feel better. ‘Let me go.’ A pitiful whine.
‘I can’t live without him.’
She glared up at him. ‘Never. I’d rather be dead.’
The big man’s eyes lowered. ‘And what abou’ ye baby?’
Grinda froze. She had completely forgotten about it. ‘What kind of mother would I be if I let her father die?’
‘Don’t say it,’ Grinda snarled. ‘He is her father and will forever be.’ Her voice lowered dangerously. ‘Now, let me go.’
This time he did and Grinda scrambled to her feet. He remained seated but she could see he was braced for another fight, tensed, hands balled into fists on his knees. Pink blood stained the bandage from the struggle. She tried to feel rage. How dare he! But all she could feel was coldness, her heart sitting in her chest like an icy stone. ‘Why didn’t he listen? Why did he abandon me?’
‘He had no choice. Mock is a good man. He had to try.’
‘But he knew he’d fail.’
‘No, he knew he’d be caugh’.’ He gazed up at her, eyes dark and swimming with grief, his lips all flushed and twisted. Grinda’s heart lurched; he loved Mock too. ‘Did he—did he ever tell you about Danna?’
‘Only a little. That she died. He didn’t like to talk about her.’ She gripped her elbows, looking at her feet.
The big barbarian nodded. ‘He felt responsible. He always felt he should have been the one to die. The Mother foretold it.’
Grinda stared at him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘It was time for the hunt. West, his tribe used to go. Deep in the forest. The shamri go’ a vision that Mock and the others would meet their doom if they went.’ He shrugged. ‘Everyone listens to the shamri. So they went north instead. They didn’t die, it’s true. Only …. everyone else did. Undefended, their clan was left wide open to the Paleskins. Men, women, children. By the time Mock and the rest returned, most had already been slaughtered.’
Grinda gripped herself more tightly at a sudden chill.
He paused. ‘You see. If they’d gone west as they should, they would have met the Paleskins instead. They would have died as the Mother foretold. But the clan migh’ have lived. They migh’ of had a chance. Danna died instead of him. And Mock has never forgiven himself.’
‘But how could you know? How could you know that the clan would survive? They might have died too. Along with the hunters.’
The barbarian shrugged. ‘Possibly. Possibly not. We’ll never know. All we know is that nothin’ good came of that vision. That’s why he won’ listen. That’s why he hates the shamri now. That’s why he don’ trust the Mother. That’s why he’ll never go back home.’
‘Nothing good came of it? He lived, didn’t he?’
He didn’t answer.
Grinda began to pace, thinking. The whole thing was so hard to grasp. She ran her fingers through her hair. ‘So … he thought he could save the boys. If he didn’t act, he’d live but they’d die. A greater cost.’ And he didn’t think of me at all. She shook herself. She was so selfish. He was no small man. He made the courageous choice: to place others above himself. It was why she loved him so much. She should expect nothing less.
‘And now they’re all dead.’ The big barbarian shook his head sadly. ‘Be doomed if you do. Be doomed if you don’. Aint that what ye people always say?’
Grinda turned to face him. ‘He’s not dead. I don’t know about the others but Mock’s alive. I’ve seen it. I know it,’ she clenched a fist to her chest, ‘I feel it.’ She paused, gazing hard into nothing as she thought. ‘The Mother must have sent that vision for a reason. It can’t just be pointless.’ She recalled the high walls, the cobbled streets, the cell in which Mock sat, all bloodied and twisted. That last vision. It had been powerful. She had seen everything in such detail. And suddenly, it all clicked. She turned to the barbarian, heart galloping in her chest. ‘That vision wasn’t meant for Mock. The Mother wasn’t trying to warn him. She knew he wouldn’t listen. It was meant for me. She wants me to go save him. I know it. I know it!’
‘Maybe. Maybe not. But how do ye think to do it? I wan’ him back too, along with the rest of my brothers. But he’d be locked behind walls now in one of ye great cities. I might try with a force but I am only one man, wounded at that.’
Grinda ignored him, pacing in excitement as the barbarian watched her sadly, clearly unconvinced. Why wasn’t he motivated? Why wasn’t he leaping onto his horse, punching the air with his fist and raring to go? It was clear as day! She felt all twitchy, heat rushing through her veins in hot, boiling waves. She knew it now. She would succeed where Mock failed. She had to. How couldn’t she when the Mother was on their side?
‘Come, we must go.’ She made towards the horses.
He grabbed her ankle. ‘No.’
Grinda glared down at him, then thought better of it and let her face soften. ‘Croki.’ He jerked at the sound of his name. ‘Bapu.’ She spoke the Quarthi word softly, the tears coming fast and free. ‘Please. I love him. You understand that, don’t you? Wouldn’t you do anything for someone you loved?’ Her voice was barely a whisper. He gazed up at her, dark eyes wide, lips parted. Then she touched his shoulder and that was it. He jerked again, turning away as he cleared his throat.
His enormous shoulders bunched as he ran his fingers through his hair, over and over. After several moments, he heaved a sigh and Grinda held her breath. ‘We go, but only so you can see for yeself how impossible it is.’
Grinda nodded. ‘So I can see for myself.’
He glanced up at her, looked away again, tugging at his patchy beard. ‘I don’ like this. I swore.’
‘I know.’ She pressed a hand to her heart. ‘Upa, Croki. I am grateful. Thank you.’