A layer of clouds fogged the setting sun, casting out streams of red light that glared in their eyes. As late as it was, what had once been a tide of people going in and out, was now closer to a trickle. And Grinda began to regret her decision on not entering earlier. Better a sea of faces with all its noises and distractions.
Too late now.
They kept pace with a small clutch of people, making sure to keep to the middle of the road. Grinda had her head lowered, letting her golden hair hide her face, trying to look innocent and small. The setting sun flickered against the scabbards and buckles of the waiting guards. Her mouth watered at the smell of cooking meat. She hadn’t eaten in over a day. Three guards sat together on downturned barrels, a fire burning between them as one of them turned a grossly plucked chicken on a spit. A couple of feathers fell into the flames with a small hiss and a gentle puff of smoke. One guard took a swig of ale. Another lay back against the wall, arms folded, yawning.
Three more guards watched the crowd carefully, eyes gleaming against the sunset. Yellow and white uniforms. Lightly armoured. Swords at their hips. Grinda trained her eyes on Spirit. Beside her, Croki didn’t make a sound, hunching as low as he could against Grey Peak’s back without appearing suspicious. It was too quiet. Not enough talking. Not enough laughing. The clop of hooves and the rattle of the wagon rolling behind the only real noises. The gate loomed above, the shadow of the wall spilling across them. Grinda glanced up, catching a guard’s eye. Her knuckles turned white. She held her breath.
Grinda winced but continued on ahead as though she didn’t hear. In the corner of her eye, she saw Croki’s arm jerk, as though about to reach for the sword that was usually at his back. But it was tied amid the supplies on Grey Peak, safely hidden, unable to fit beneath his cloak. Instead, he dropped his hand to his waist, to his belt of blades he kept concealed. His eyes glittered at her within his hood.
‘Stop, in the name of Lord Badden.’
Grinda jerked at the reins, heart hammering in her chest. Croki pulled up beside her, stiff and ready.
‘I’ve got nothin’ to hide,’ a voice protested.
‘What have you got in here?’
They both looked over their shoulders—the wagon. Two of the guards were rummaging through it, the third—the capable-looking one—watching on, hand on the hilt of his sword. Turning back, Grinda and Croki continued on their way.
Then they were through.
They didn’t lose pace, trying to appear like normal people, maybe returning from a trip to one of the villages, maybe coming to see family or hoping for work. When they were far enough away and could conceal themselves in one of the less crowded alleyways, they stopped to regather themselves. Or at least Grinda did. Croki didn’t seem anxious at all.
Croki watched her calmly. ‘You did good.’
Grinda nodded as she bent low over her knees, panting for breath. Her heart no longer thudded in her chest but thumped painfully behind her eyes. Finally, she straightened and leant against Spirit, who snuffled affectionately at her hair.
‘You think he’s up to it?’ Croki eyed the horse doubtfully. She had finally told him of her plan as they sat those long hours hidden in the trees, waiting for sunset.
Grinda patted the horse’s nose. ‘He’s no ordinary horse. We have a connection.’
He grunted. ‘Even so. I will be ready.’
Grinda looked at him. Plan B was written all over him, on the hands at his belt, the stiffness in his back, the growl in his voice. If she failed, it was his plan to storm through the entrance, cutting down everyone in his way. Her eyes dropped to his waist where she knew he continued to bleed. He concealed his pain and weakness well but she could see the hunch in his shoulders.
‘Don’t you worry abou’ me. Just make sure you succeed.’
Grinda turned back to Spirit, patting his nose again. ‘I will.’
Darkness fell swiftly as they wandered the streets. She knew the building where Mock was being held. She could see it clearly in her mind’s eye. The only thing was, it looked like every other building. At almost every turn, she would feel her heart flip in her chest with excitement, only to be disappointed. In her visions she had always come upon it from above, never through the streets. She knew it was somewhere south but the alleys were so twisting and confusing that they often circled back on themselves or ended at dead-ends.
And people were everywhere, slowing them down, blocking their path. A general frustration. What’s more, Grinda couldn’t help but be nervous. The residents looked at Croki an awful lot, heads tilted back, wide-eyed as they gazed up at him on his horse. A dark, cloaked figure the size of a giant.
It was with relief and despair when night finally fell completely. They could keep safe in the shadows now but how were they going to find their way?
Croki was losing patience. ‘Though’ you said you knew where you were goin’,’ he said for the third time.
Grinda didn’t answer.
The streets steadily emptied as the darkness grew so thick it was hard to see anything at all. Moonlight spilled across their path in fits and starts as clouds passed across the sky. Here and there burned a torch but they didn’t dare take one. It was eerily quiet after so much bustle. A few people still wandered the streets, often drunk or hurrying to get home. Grinda attracted the wrong attention. They would look up at her on her big black horse, as though about to say something lewd, only to catch sight of Croki and hastily drop their heads and creep away.
Grinda suddenly stopped. Croki looked at her, then away again. By then the moon was out again and its soft blue light made the tears glisten in her eyes. Her heart seemed to be burning a hole in her chest. Her hands were stiff around the reins. The darkness closed in around her, impenetrable, unassailable. Mock was so close and she couldn’t find him. She should have asked someone for directions to the town prison. She should have taken the risk and entered the town earlier. She should have been more prepared, smarter.
I’m failing him.
She touched her belly. I’m sorry. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She choked out a sob.
Croki touched her knee. ‘We can try again tomorrow. In the day.’
She couldn’t bring herself to respond. No. It had to be tonight. Somehow, she knew, deep in her guts, that his time was almost up. She wiped at her eyes furiously, hating herself. Mock would have found her. Mock wouldn’t have given up. He would have torn down mountains to get to her. Something as absurdly simple as the darkness wouldn’t have been an obstacle.
The thought made her close her eyes. Mock: his laughter, his touch, his smile. All those wonderful, shivery feelings she got whenever he was close. It all came to her: that cute little scar under his eye; the way his skin prickled beneath her fingertips when she stroked his soft inner thigh; those little grunts as he made love to her. She could see him so vividly, it was almost as though she could reach out and touch him.
Something was happening. The heat—it coiled, it twisted. Spirit nickered, shifting beneath her. Grey Peak whinnied. They could feel it too …
Grinda thrust back her head, sucking in a breath as the heat suddenly plunged deep into her stomach, where it flared so hot she though her insides must boil.
She tightened her grip on the reins as Spirit lurched into a trot. She could hear the clopping of Grey Peak as she followed close behind, but it sounded distant, muffled. The only thing important was what lay ahead.
Mock. I’m coming for you.
And it was easy. Eyes still closed, she felt him—that shivery wonderfulness. His heat. His breath. His pain. Just ahead, like a beacon. She spurred Spirit on.
No longer a trot. A gallop.
Weaving and twisting through the streets. The cool brush of the air through her hair. The loud clatter of Spirit’s hooves. They would draw attention, but she found she couldn’t care.
Spirit stopped, stomped his hoof. She could feel his big heart pounding with excitement. She opened her eyes and gave a shrill cry. That ugly non-descript block building, so much like the others. The crumbling brickwork. The barred windows. And that small window, low to the ground, the cell half buried below street level.
She heard Croki pull up behind her as she slipped to the ground and raced over. Dropping to her knees, she gripped the bars as she peered inside. She squinted but it was hard to see. A small bare room. A door. And a dark figure curled up on the floor. Her heart lurched. ‘Mock!’ she hissed.
Nothing. He didn’t respond, didn’t stir.
But she could hear his quiet breathing. It was him. She could have wept in gladness.
Croki crouched beside her. ‘You found him,’ he said in disbelief.
Gently brushing her aside, he gripped the bars in his big hands and pulled. A desperate attempt. And yet, the bars gave a little whine. Then he slipped, dropping to his arse with a grunt. Puffing, he opened and closed his fists, his palms red with rust.
‘Get the chain,’ Grinda said.
He pulled himself to his feet. ‘Wai’. Let me scout the buildin’ first.’
Grinda felt a rush of impatience but saw the sense in it and gave a nod, crouching by the window again as Croki retrieved his sword and vanished around the corner. ‘Mock,’ she whispered, ‘I’m coming for you. Just a little longer.’
It wasn’t long before Croki returned. ‘All clear. There’s a door on the other side. It’s closed but I could hear voices. There’re guards inside. We best be quick.’
So they were—and quiet. The chain was thick and heavy, more than strong enough for their plan, but Spirit was another matter. While Croki tightened the chain around the bars of the window, Grinda pressed her head against the big draft horse’s nose. Spirit bobbed his head, snuffling at her cheek.
‘Will you do this for me? You love him too, I know. You helped me find him.’ She looked into his big beautiful eyes, the light of the moon turning them silver. Her heart swelled with sadness. ‘It’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt a lot. But we have to save him.’
It was unlikely he understood. Her words were too complicated and she wasn’t speaking with her mind, but she could only hope for some understanding. Some awareness that she didn’t want to do this.
Croki approached with the chain. Spirit watched him calmly, swishing his tail, as the big Quarthi wrapped it around his belly and chest. The two ends came together, locking into place with an audible click. Gently pulling at the reins, Grinda guided Spirit forward until the length of the chain tightened.
‘Ready?’ she said, more to herself than to Croki or Spirit.
Croki nodded. Spirit gazed at her. ‘All right.’ She stared back into Spirit’s eyes. ‘Pull, Spirit, pull.’
The heat in her belly surged as her voice echoed in his mind. Pull.
The horse stomped his hooves as he tried to obey, straining hard against the chain. More stomping, more straining, then a whinny as the chain bit into his body. Grinda looked past him towards the cell, then at Croki, who shook his head. The big Quarthi had flung off his hood and was looking doubtful. The window hadn’t budged.
‘Come on, Spirit. Pull.’
Another whinny, a shake of his black head, as he tried again. There was a groan, a whine. But nothing more. The window was firmly stuck. Spirit stopped, snorting and grunting. Grinda pressed a hand to his chest. He was shivering and sweating, from the pain, from the strain, maybe even from the feel of Grinda’s disappointment.
And that’s when the tears came. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she curled into his big chest. She didn’t want him to feel bad. The heat in her belly expanded, rushing into her chest until it burned deep in her heart—her daughter. Her daughter loved him too.
‘I’m going to the door,’ Croki said, breaking her focus.
‘No! He’ll do it.’ She stepped back, hand cupping Spirit’s soft pink mouth, as the tears continued to flow. This time, her mind speak was more than just a voice but a surge of energy that seemed to rush up her spine, through her fingertips and into Spirit in a little explosion that snatched the air from of her lungs.
With a scream that split the night, the horse reared and Grinda dropped to her arse with a gasp. The chain jerked as one of the bars dislodged, the brick below pulling loose and hitting the ground with a crack. Something yanked at her tunic and she was hauled away to safety just as Spirit’s hooves slammed into the ground right where she had collapsed.
‘Let go!’ she yelled at Croki.
He did and she scrambled to her feet. There were voices now, shouting. Not on the street but down below—the guards! Alerted by the noise. No time.
‘I’ll hold ‘em off!’ She heard Croki say before he rushed away.
She looked at Spirit again. He was agitated: lathered in sweat, foaming at the mouth, baring his teeth as he stomped the ground. But the chain was taut behind him. He knew what he had to do.
‘Come on. You can do it.’
PULL, SPIRIT, PUUUULLLLL!
Another wild scream and Spirit reared again, eyes rolling as he kicked at the air. The chain jerked again, Spirit lurched and with a bang that rang in her ears, the wall exploded in a haze of dust and shattered brick as the bars yanked free.
Before she could make sense of what she was doing, Grinda was scrambling through the hole, stumbling over the jagged debris as it cut and stabbed at her hands and knees.
Then she was below, at Mock’s side.
More shouting, a thud against the door, Croki roaring in Quarthi as steel screamed against steel.
‘Mock!’ she cried.
No response. Her stomach dropped. He was as bad as she had seen in her visions. His eyes were pinched shut. The air rattled in his lungs. So much blood.
‘Mock!’ This time she shook his shoulders. He winced, his breath caught, but nothing more. She hesitated briefly before slapping him hard in the face—still nothing.
That powerful fire whipped in her guts. Mock! Wake up!
For a moment he remained unmoving, then his lips parted, his nose creased and he reached up, his big hand encircling her wrist.
Then, as though from somewhere far away, from another lifetime, a memory:
Some shamri are known to speak to animals.’ He paused. ‘I heard you.’
‘Loud and clear.’ He smiled, then frowned. ‘I don’t want to hear you sound like that again.’
Loud and clear. He remembered. He heard. Beneath his swollen lids, his eyes gleamed. In spite of their dire circumstances, Grinda laughed, a high peal that echoed through the cell. A smile tugged at the corners of Mock’s lips.
‘Let’s go,’ Grinda said.
Another thud at the door. A scream. Rattling as they fought with the lock. Mock sat up with a gasp, then heaved himself to his feet, staggering beside her as she did her best to prop him up. She slipped against something. A chain—his chain, discarded on the ground, the cuffs wet with blood.
Much of the brick had spilt inside and Mock used it to help haul himself up to ground level. He cried out as he did, clutching at his groin. Grinda refused to look, couldn’t look.
Spirit was waiting, grunting and snorting, the chain still wrapped around him, loose now. Quickly, she unbound him. It seemed to take forever, the chain heavy and slick with Spirit’s blood. She grimaced, then turned at a sudden bang. The door! The guards had got through. Her stomach twisted into a sickening knot—Croki.
Finally, the chain came loose. Mock didn’t need encouragement. With Grinda’s help, he scrambled onto his back. Grinda winced, heart twisting in her chest at another cry, an almost scream, as he sat upon his wounded groin.
Hoisting herself up in front of him, she took the reins, just as the guard appeared. Only one, eyes wide in disbelief, sword at the ready.
She flicked the reins, more out of habit than need. Run.
The guard leapt aside with a yell as they sped past him. And then they were galloping through the streets, the few people still wandering around shouting curses as they scrambled out the way.
Grinda was running on instinct now, all rational thought forgotten as her heart pounded, as her head whirled, as the cool night air blasted through her hair. She could feel Mock’s arms wrapped around her like a warm band around her waist. He panted in her ear, gasping at every jolt, tightening his grip at every leap.
It wasn’t over yet.
Spirit snorted, hooves clattering against the cobblestones. All Grinda could do was hope he knew where he was going. All the streets seemed the same: confusing and meandering. Then she saw the glow of a torch, the familiar building it was bracketed to. More turns and familiar landmarks: a door hanging on its hinges, a brightly lit brothel. Her heart lifted. Another turn and they were speeding down the main thoroughfare, empty of people now. Up ahead the broken gate yawned onto freedom.
Grinda held her breath. At the sound of their thunderous approach, three of the six guards rushed into the gateway to see. They shouted at each other, not knowing what to do. Moonlight glinted against their swords, against their yellow uniforms. So close now, she could see the gleam of their startled eyes. Bowing his head, Spirit ploughed straight through them. One leapt out of the way, a second was knocked to the ground, the third swung his sword wildly.
Freedom! The taste of it, the smell of it. She almost couldn’t believe it. She had succeeded! Then a sudden, horrible icy something coiled in her chest. She couldn’t feel him, she couldn’t hear him! For one terrible second she thought she had lost him. Mock! One hand still on the reins, she reached down for his arm. It was there. And that’s when she felt the warmth against her back, his breath in her ear.
Still, it shook her and it was several breaths before she could shake that horrible feeling completely.
Everything was all right. He was with her. They were together.
Releasing a shuddering breath, she focused on the way ahead.