‘I can’ wear that.’
‘You must or you may as well walk around with two heads.’
‘I know I must. It’s not that I won’. I can’.’
Grinda looked over at the big Quarthi as he held up Mock’s cloak. For one strange moment she almost laughed. It had been small on Mock. It would be tiny on Croki. It almost looked like it was made for a child in his enormous hands.
‘You can.’ She took it from him, rolled it up and strapped it to Spirit’s back along with the rest of the frugal supplies she was taking along with her. ‘Let it stretch and tear if you must. The hood’s the most important thing. But you won’t need it now. Later, when we’re in the city.’
Croki grunted without argument, no doubt thinking he would stop her before it came to that.
Grinda looked around, studying the barbarians’ pile of supplies littered all over the ground. ‘You had a chain.’
Croki nodded, digging through the pile. There was a rattle as he pulled it free. Grinda hadn’t forgotten it, nor the tree Mock had chained her to. The weight of it, the pain of it. The day of her rape. When everything had changed.
The big Quarthi looked at her doubtfully.
Grinda patted Spirit’s nose. ‘Take it. We’re probably going to need it.’
They journeyed at a brisk trot, Grinda on Spirit, Croki on Grey Peak, both with their own supplies just in case they got separated. The day remained clear—thankfully. But it was late. If only Croki had woken her. If only he had listened earlier. She despaired. That vision. Why had it been different? Was it truly a vision of the future? Or was it now of the present? She had hoped there might be a chance to get to Mock before … before …
She sucked back her tears and kicked at Spirit. It didn’t matter. Whatever was left of him would be hers.
They followed the roads as often as possible. No time to spare keeping themselves hidden in the trees. The occasional traveller looked at Croki fearfully. Some stopping in their tracks. Others turned around and fled. Only one man drew a sword but it shook in his hands and Croki struck it aside with a lazy fling of his arm that knocked the poor man off his feet.
It was during their journey when Grinda came to realise how foolish it was to think she could ever follow their tracks. It was all a mess, the road frequently travelled. Hoofprints and bootprints, horseshit and wagon tracks everywhere, criss-crossed and confusing. How did the barbarians do it? She felt a surge of respect for Croki—and for Mock.
Evening fell and they were forced to stop for the night. Pointless to continue when it was too hard to see. Croki was hunched over, looking almost green, his bandage soaked in blood.
They kept close to the road and Grinda couldn’t help gazing into its far flung distance, her eyes trying to pick out the tracks in the darkness, anxious and wondering.
She looked up as Croki sat beside her. ‘Are we close?’
Croki shook his head. ‘The tracks are at least a day old.’
‘Do you—do you think we’ll get there in time?’ She clutched desperately at the pelt draped over her lap. She needed him to answer, needed him to talk, to lie. But Croki was quiet as he lay down, his big hands folded on his chest. Biting her lip, Grinda sucked in a shuddering breath, then did the same, wrapped up in her pelt. Within moments Croki’s breathing turned long and deep leaving Grinda to fear alone, gazing up at the sky.
The next day dawned bright and hot. Grinda had hoped they could gain more ground today but Croki kept slowing them down. His wound kept slowing them down. Frequently, he had to stop for rest, and it was only getting worse the further they travelled. She tried not to show her frustration but Croki was no fool.
‘Sorry,’ he panted as she helped change his dressing for the third time that morning.
It reminded her so much of her and Mock those many days when he was recovering that tears sprang to her eyes. ‘I could burn it,’ she offered.
‘No,’ he gasped, wiping at his sweaty mouth. ‘That would only make things worse.’
Grinda couldn’t help but agree. He needed time to rest, and that she could not, would not, provide.
He must have seen what she was thinking because he seized her wrist. ‘Don’ try nothin’.’
‘I won’t,’ she frowned, then shrugged, giving him a crooked smile. ‘I don’t know where I’m going anyway.’ Else I would. I would leave you behind in a heartbeat.
It was approaching midday when Croki stopped—again. Grinda gripped the reins hard in her fists. He had only rested less than an hour ago. Before she could snap at him, something made her take pause. It was the way he sat Grey peak, so straight, so taut, not hunched over like he usually was.
Then suddenly he was off like a shot, galloping at full speed into the trees ahead.
She kicked Spirit. ‘Ha!’
The trees grew thick and she was forced back into a trot. Lost. The way ahead much the same in all directions. ‘Croki!’ she cried.
‘ ‘ere!’ boomed his voice.
She turned Spirit. She could see it now, the broken trail of sticks and branches. She nudged Spirit on. After a few moments she could hear movement somewhere up ahead.
She jerked to a stop, heart dropping into her stomach. A body. And not just any body, but a barbarian. The one who had tormented Janelle in his lap so long ago. Rog? Cold fear seized her throat, but she clasped her thighs hard around Spirit and flicked the reins, entering a small clearing.
The first thing she saw was Croki mounted on Grey Peak, still and quiet, staring at something on the ground. The second thing she saw was the bodies. She gazed at them all, at the broken clearing with its snapped branches and trampled bushes. Blood. So much blood. It coated the ground, painted the leaves, clotted blackly in the wounds of the dead. The stink of it filled the clearing like a fog and sat like a fist in the back of Grinda’s throat. Arrows. Lots of arrows. Her heart skipped a beat. This was where it happened. This was where Mock had been captured.
She looked at Croki. The big Quarthi was very still as he gazed at the scene. Seven bodies.
‘Mock’s not here,’ he whispered.
He stared at the nearest barbarian, one she didn’t recognise. Doubtless one of the boys they had tried to save. He looked her age. Grinda kept her distance, wary.
‘They’re all dead,’ he said to no one. He ran his thick fingers through his hair, hand shaking. ‘Dead, all dead.’ He turned slowly, eyes raised to hers. Spirit whickered and shook his head as Grinda jerked at the reins nervously. The hairs on her arms stood up. She could see his thoughts, knew his heart: a faqwa, standing right before him. One of them, the same murderous blood pumping through her veins.
Grinda tensed. She would never get away quick enough. He could bash her skull into mush, tear her arms out of her sockets before she had time to protest. No matter his promise, he was still only human—and a damaged one at that.
Just like Mock.
He dismounted. Grinda’s heart pounded. Then he turned away, and with a roar, slammed a boot into the nearest tree. Grinda could almost feel the thud of it vibrate in her bones. Spirit whinnied, reared a little, but she kept her grip tight on his reins. A loud creak, a long groan and the tree began to topple. It was only small, but a tree nonetheless. The power of the man. Branches snapped as it crashed through its neighbours before slamming into the ground with an earth-shuddering thud.
Grinda sat frozen. Should she wait? Should she run? Croki was panting, fists opening and closing at his sides, all the muscles in his back and neck tight and bulging. Then he turned, and ice filled her heart. Eyes red-rimmed, lips a thin white line, face all twisted up. He looked savage, feral, wild, and she shivered at the thought of him as her enemy. What a fool she had been to challenge him.
He growled something in Quarthi, spat, then grabbed Grey Peak’s reins and hoisted himself on top in one skilful move. Surprisingly nimble for a big man. Blood soaked his bandage. He didn’t seem to notice or care.
‘We go save Mock,’ he said, eyes glittering. ‘No more dallyin’.’
He flicked the reins and charged ahead. Grinda followed after him, her heart sitting high in her chest. Buoyed. Elated. Unable to keep the smile from her lips.
The countryside passed by in a blur. Her arse ached, her neck was tight, her back screamed for a break, but she didn’t care. Time was running out.
Twice they stopped. Reluctantly. The horses need to rest and though Croki protested he was fine, he was swaying on his feet and his face was so pale his lips were almost blue. The bandage was soaked red. He guzzled water from his skin as Grinda watched on helplessly.
‘There are no more dressings,’ she said.
He finished drinking with a burp, wiped his mouth, then shrugged. ‘Useless anyway.’ He splashed water on his face, ran his fingers through his beard, then hauled himself to his feet. Some colour had returned but he was doubled over and holding himself. Blood trickled down his abdomen. He raised an eyebrow at her as she hovered around him uncertainly. ‘Ready?’
Straightening, Grinda nodded.
It was hours later, just as the sun saddled the horizon, when they finally saw it—their destination.
‘It’s exactly how I imagined it,’ she whispered, squinting against the glare.
‘A big town,’ Croki grunted. A fact, not a warning. Croki seemed beyond caring about much else than seeking revenge.
‘What should we do?’
He looked at her. ‘I though’ you were the one with the plan.’
Grinda bit her lip. ‘It’s not really a plan. More a hope.’
Croki turned back to the town. ‘Better than nothin’, I suppose. We should get closer, check it out, then wait for darkness.’
‘Wait.’ Grinda seized his wrist before he could ride off. ‘Your cloak.’
His glared at her, pale-lipped, dark shadows under his eyes, then gave a huff.
The cloak ripped at the seams, particularly around the shoulders and elbows. It sat tight midway up his forearms, bunched around his neck. But it was enough to cover his chest and kinta, though it was almost obscenely high, his wide, hairy thighs sticking out like tree trunks. At least the hood fit.
Grinda patted his arm at the look on his face. He wasn’t impressed.
Croki hunched low upon Grey Peak in an attempt to diminish his size as they trotted along with the crowd. Close to the gates, they veered off the main road and pretended to take a rest, sitting and drinking from their skins or rummaging through their items as though they were looking for something.
It was with a mixture of excitement and despair that Grinda gazed at the town. She couldn’t believe it. A town. How few times had she been to Paxton Landing? So many people. Powerful people. Knights and lords. Trades and merchants. A bustling centre of humanity. So different to her village back home. She bit her lip at a sudden wave of doubt. How could she think to succeed? How could she think to outwit so many smart and powerful men? She was only a girl. Somebody who spent her days milking cows, threshing barley and walking to and from the well. A nobody. Useless. A lump swelled in her throat. She curled her hands through her skirts as they began to tremble.
Then Croki placed a hand on her shoulder, warm and big and comforting. She looked at him. He squeezed gently, and the tension in her chest eased just a little. At least she had Croki—and she had the Mother. And she had done so many things now: she had saved Mock’s life all on her own; had learnt to take care of herself; had harnessed the power of the Mother.
But most of all—she had no choice.
Taking a shuddering breath, she thrust her dark thoughts aside and turned back to the town. Looking at it with different eyes, it seemed smaller than it was in her visions, even smaller than Paxton Landing if she remembered correctly. Then again, she had been a little girl when she had last seen their neighbouring town and everything always seemed so big to a child. The wall didn’t look as sturdy as she initially thought: crumbling, missing stones, vines and weeds coiling between the gaps. And the guards: they wore uniforms and bore weapons but only one of them seemed serious about his duty. Probably just regular townspeople, maybe even farmers, forced to volunteer. The tension in her chest eased some more. Did they even know how to fight?
Then there was the gate.
‘Uh, don’ it close at sunset?’ Croki said.
‘Not this one. It’s stuck. According to my visions, at least.’ The gate indeed looked stuck, sitting crookedly halfway up the wall, its rust-bitten iron spikes grinning down on them like wonky teeth. Going by what she had already seen of the town, it probably wasn’t an unusual occurrence. The east. Never had she been more glad to live in a region with so few enemies. So little reason to take proper care of their defences. If it wasn’t proof that the Mother was on their side, she didn’t know what was.
She took a swig of water, a smile tugging at her lips. This could be done. She just needed to believe.
‘Should we wait or should we go in now?’ Croki dragged his hands down his face. ‘I’m not much for plannin’. That was Mock’s job.’
Grinda stood, tying her water skin back onto Spirit. ‘Closer to sunset, I think.’ She pursed her lips at Croki’s ridiculous cloak. ‘The less we walk the streets the better. But before dark. I don’t trust they’ll let us in after that, even if the gate is open.’
‘Good. Let’s get this done.’