Everything was a blur, a haze of flying shapes, of sensation and sounds. Overwhelming pain. Blasts of it shot up from his groin, through his spine and into the back of his head in a pounding headache that brought tears to his swollen eyes. Everywhere he burned, everywhere he ached.
He still wasn’t sure if this was just a dream. He’d had plenty of them in that cell. It didn’t feel real. Or maybe he was already dead. But then why was Grinda here? Tightening his arms around her, he pressed his face into her hair and took a breath. It certainly smelt like her, felt like her. He should have been angry, furious. Croki had promised to protect her. But Mock didn’t have the strength to feel anything. He had barely enough to hold on. His arms felt disconnected, like dead branches, his head lolled and he couldn’t feel his legs at all.
He didn’t know how long they had run but the moon was drifting low, and pink light gleamed across the horizon by the time they finally stopped.
Grinda touched his arms. ‘You can let go now.’
He tried. At least he thought he tried, but his arms wouldn’t obey.
She looked over her shoulder at him. ‘Mock?’
Her face was a blur between his swollen eyelids, but her voice rang sharp and clear. Still, he couldn’t move. He opened his lips, tried to say something, but all that came out was an inaudible croak. Gently disentangling his arms, she eased from Spirit’s back.
She looked up at him, waiting.
‘Can’t—’ he swallowed. His tongue felt thick in his mouth and his throat was like gravel—‘can’t move.’
Mock felt a stab of disgust. It wasn’t that he couldn’t move, he was afraid to move. Afraid. He licked his lips. The pain between his legs had eased to a bearable throb after being stuck in the same position for so long. To move meant to awaken the beast. But it was more than just the pain. He was used to pain. He used to revel in it, for the Mother’s sake. This was different. This was his manhood—or at least it used to be. The core of everything he was: strong, brave, fearsome. He didn’t want to be reminded. He didn’t want to see. Let him sit astride Spirit, pretending that everything was all right. That he was still a whole man.
‘Mock.’ She touched his leg.
He looked down at her, and there it happened, at the sight of her blurry face: grief, heartache, despair. Emotions he hadn’t let himself feel in a long time. He began to shiver, then shake. His shoulders shuddered, his throat swelled. A choking sob escaped him, then another. The tears followed close behind.
Disbelief, dismay, disgust. He was no man. ‘Don’t touch me!’
Grinda jerked her arm away. He turned his head, unable to look at her, unwilling to let her see his weakness. Spirit shifted beneath him with a snort. He gazed through the trees into the brightening day, across the rolling fields and forests, the great expanse of blue and green, without seeing anything at all. The tears cooled against his cheeks. The shuddering eased. Numb now.
Mock took a breath. ‘Just—just stand away and don’t look. I don’t want you to see. Where’s my kinta?’
‘I—I didn’t see it anywhere.’
The breath hissed between his teeth.
‘I’ll give you my tunic.’
‘No. Leave it.’
He looked at her, making sure she was far enough away. ‘Turn around.’
When she had done so, he gripped Spirit’s mane and very slightly shifted. He paused, hissing at the sharp sting. He would have to do it quickly if he was ever going to get down. He swallowed, closed his eyes, and in one swift movement, kicked over his leg. Stars burst behind his eyes. A cry escaped his lips. A thud, a blast of pain in his shoulder as he hit the ground hard. Clutching at his groin, he rolled over, burying his face into the earth. He gritted his teeth at the surge of tears, but they were too much for him and he wept.
He lay that way for what seemed a long time, shuddering and gasping. Grinda approached briefly to hand him a skin of water and to lay a pelt over his nakedness before leaving him alone. Good. He couldn’t deal with her right now. Vaguely, he heard her moving around him, the ground litter crunching beneath her boots. The trees above cut out the sun, and he was grateful for the shade. He heard snapping branches, the crackling of a fire. Then a sharp, earthy smell filled the air.
Another crunch of leaves as Grinda walked over. Crouching beside him, she handed over a pipe. It looked familiar—Rog’s.
‘Smoke,’ she said.
With a grunt, he sat up and puffed hard at the nuk, making sure the pelt lay across his lap. Grinda left him but he could feel her eyes all over him, watching. Soon, the world dimmed, blurred, hazed and he felt himself floating, his crossed legs sitting somewhere a foot off the ground. The pain diminished to a distant throb. His head lolled pleasantly. The bright sun sent down streams of gold, yellow and bronze. He held his hand out to touch them. They tingled against his skin.
Then a voice: ‘Let me help you, Mock.’ Like an echo.
He looked up. Grinda seemed as bright as the sun, her hair a halo of gold, her skin as white as the moon, her eyes as blue as the sky. Everything about her was high up, as though she drifted amid the clouds, close to the Paleskin heaven. Without thinking, he nodded.
She crouched beside him, so close her breath was warm against his cheek. A shiver ran through him as she brushed at his shoulder, at the wound in his stomach, his painful thighs. Then she went to lift up his pelt.
He grabbed her wrist. ‘No.’
‘I must see, bial, if you want me to help you.’
Even despite the chokra, his voice was sharp. ‘There’s nothing to see.’
She pulled back. ‘I think you’ve had enough.’ She went to snatch the pipe out of his grasp.
Mock pulled it away. ‘No.’
She gave a sigh. ‘You’re too weak, Mock. You’ll smoke yourself to death.’
He took another puff. ‘What does it matter?’
Her eyes widened. ‘It matters to me!’
She was staring at him. He tried to blow out a ring of smoke, but his breath caught in his throat. She did that to him—made him lose control. ‘Nothing matters anymore.’
Her eyes lowered to his lap. ‘Let me see. I don’t care.’
‘You’re more than just your cock, Mock.’
Mock burst out into laughter, a high, wild cackling. ‘Cock, Mock. You should be a poet.’ He stared at her, his eyes a little off centre, her image fuzzy. He took a puff, then blew out that ring, though his hand trembled, though his heart pounded. ‘You want to see it?’ He whipped the pelt away. ‘There you go.’
He watched her closely, at how she paled, at how her bottom lip pulled down. To her credit, she lifted her gaze and looked him in the eye, but she couldn’t hide the shadow in her face, the way the lines around her mouth and nose bunched up—pity. She pitied him.
Mock threw back the pelt with a scowl.
Grinda threw it back again with her own little scowl. ‘I have to fix it. You’re still bleeding.’
He shrugged, looking away as he took another puff.
‘You’ll die, Mock.’
He tightened his mouth, still looking across his shoulder.
Silence. Then, ‘Is that it then,’ she choked, ‘after all I risked for you?’
Mock held his nerve, glaring into the trees. ‘I can’t be a man for you, Grinda.’
‘And I told you I don’t care!’
His heart was thundering now. Not good with the chokra and his blood loss. It made him woozy. The pipe slipped from his fingers. He badly needed to piss, to shit. Very woozy now. The world seemed to sway around him. He grew cold, and he never got cold. And he suddenly realised—he was dying.
The sky arced, there was a soft thud, and he found himself staring into the canopy, golden light glittering between the leaves. Vaguely, he thought it looked pleasant. Pleasant enough that he could die here. Then there was Grinda’s face leaning over him, her long hair brushing his cheek. Her mouth opened and sounds came out, but they were muffled, as though she were speaking through deep water.
He blinked, blinked again, rolled his eyes. Who would have thought, that with all his strength, eyelids could be so heavy?
‘Mock!’ Grinda screamed. ‘MOCK!’
She desperately tried for her mind speak but she was beyond panic and couldn’t focus.
Rushing over to the fire, she grabbed a burning stick and rushed back. Grimacing, she lowered it. A small hiss. Mock sucked in a sharp breath, eyes flicking wide open, despite all the swelling, then sat up with a bellow. Grabbing at his reddened ribs with one hand, he tried to seize the stick with the other, his face pulled back in a snarl, his eyes so dark they were almost black. Dazed, wild, delirious. He snarled again as he made a grab for her wrist.
She jumped back. ‘Mock! It’s me!’
He paused, mouth opening and shutting. She dropped the stick. He was so pale, his eyes sunken in his head.
She was losing him.
Heat pooled in her pelvis. No!
He jerked, looked up at her.
She held out her hand. Come, Mock. She spoke like she would to Spirit, doubting he could understand much more than that. Not with that dead look in his eyes. Her heart beat wildly. If he didn’t obey, she could do nothing. There was no way she could haul him across the distance on her own.
A few moments passed and then his hand slipped into hers, limp and cool. She could have wept; instead, she hardened her resolve: move!
With a great heave, he staggered to his feet. His arm over her shoulders, they hobbled over to Spirit. The poor horse wasn’t ready. He had barely rested. His head hung low and he was matted with his own and Mock’s blood. Flies buzzed around the bloodied welts the chain had left behind. She winced at a stab of guilt; she hadn’t cared for him at all, too busy with Mock.
The horse didn’t protest as Grinda helped Mock scramble onto his back. Mock swayed, gripping Spirit’s mane with weak hands. He had barely made a sound: no cries of pain or grunts of complaint. Beyond strong, as always. Grinda paused, glanced at the still smoking pipe. She rushed over and picked it up, tucking it into Spirit’s supplies before mounting in front of Mock. Curling his arms around her waist, she commanded him in her mind speak to hold tight. She glanced at their camp. No time to repack their supplies. No time for hesitation. The fire continued to burn. The pipe continued to smoke. A haze of chokra fell around her. Filling her lungs, filing her head, rushing into the blood that pulsed through her veins in time with her beating heart.
Thud, thud, thud. Another heartbeat. Huge, powerful, ancient.
The wark was calling to her. The Mother was waiting for her. She only hoped Spirit had the strength. How long had it been since she had lain beneath its seemingly dead branches? So much had happened since that night that she couldn’t remember. All she knew was that it lay at a great distance, at least a day’s gallop, beyond the reach of any normal horse, particularly an injured one.
But Spirit was no normal horse. And they had the power of the Mother.
The heat whipped in her belly and a sudden surge of energy filled her with strength. Back straight, hands firm on the reins, she cried, run, Spirit, run!
‘As fast as you can,’ she added in a heartfelt whisper.
A lurch and they were speeding through the countryside. It all passed by in a blur of colours—yellows and pinks and purples. Swirls and spirals and clouds of it. It didn’t look real. Chokra was a powerful thing. Strange noises too. Whistling. Howling. Was it the wind or something else she couldn’t see? Grinda kept her eyes ahead, keeping the mysteries at a distance, that powerful thudding quickening with her hammering heart. The wark was well beyond her sight but she could feel it, like a distant warmth, like hot, glowing embers. Tugging at her heart, it drew her. As long as the chokra lasted. As long as Spirit stayed strong. As long as Mock hung on.
She would get there.
She had to.
Spirit’s hooves pounded as they arrowed directly towards the wark. Whether that was over hills or through forests or along the roads, it didn’t matter. Nor did it seem to matter to Spirit; he passed through any obstacles as though they didn’t exist, as though they were nothing but weightless images in the air: ridges, trees, wagons and villages. It was a power she had never expected. Every time they seemed about to smash into something, Grinda would wince and huddle close to his back, only to survive unscathed in a blast of warm wind. It was almost as though they were running somewhere else, on some other world she couldn’t see.
Those colours. They seemed to vibrate now, swirling and seething at an unnatural pace. Unnatural. She almost laughed. As if anything of this was natural. And she felt so hot, burning hot, boiling. She began to pant, the air seeming to steam in her lungs. Her heart was pounding so hard she could feel it in her throat, in her head, behind her eyes. It felt like it was going to explode.
She had no sense of how long they had been running, but the sun had passed over, lowering towards the horizon in splashes of gold and red and silver. And yet Spirit wasn’t wavering.
Mock’s arms tightened around her waist. His breath was warm in her ear. And somehow, above all the whistling and howling and the pounding of Spirit’s hooves, she heard him: ‘Stop, biala.’
Mock. ‘Mock,’ she choked. You’re back. ‘You’re back.’
That breath in her ear again. ‘Stop. You can’t help me.’
How can you say that? ‘How can you say that?’
She felt him jerk. Enough mind speak! she told herself. But it was hard to disentangle the two.
‘Spirit is tired,’ he said.
‘And you are dying.’
‘If the Mother wills it.’
‘But she doesn’t. Don’t you see?’
Clamping her thighs hard around Spirit, she glanced back at him in surprise. His swollen face showed no awe. His eyes were dull. He saw nothing of the mysterious world around him.
She turned back to the front. ‘Just promise me to hold on tight. Next time we stop, we stop for good. I promise.’
He sighed, muttered something. Only after a few seconds did it register: ‘pointless’.
Spirit had reached the point of exhaustion by the time the sun settled behind the horizon. She could feel it. In the way he grunted. In the flicker of spittle against her hands. Sometimes he jerked suddenly for reasons she couldn’t understand. They needed to get to the wark—and soon.
She was tired, her hands stiff around the reins, her arse like rock. She could only imagine how Mock felt, and yet he managed to hold her, his chin digging into her back. Every few minutes she would touch his hands just to make sure he was still there. He didn’t move, didn’t speak. And she wondered if in his silence he was clinging onto life.
Just don’t fall.
She closed her eyes and took a breath at a wave of dizziness. It had been hours since the chokra. It should have well and truly worn off, yet she was still fuzzy headed. Still the colours.
Opening her eyes, she almost choked. All that she knew of her world had vanished. And what she saw was what must have been what Spirit saw. She glanced back at Mock, but he had his eyes closed, unmoving.
She looked ahead. A flat and endless plain. Horizon to horizon, nothing, except for the most enormous trees she had ever seen. Warks. But so much bigger and more frightening than she could have imagined. They stood like giant pillars holding up the sky. She could see them all. Countless. All through Toth and well beyond its borders, forever into the distance. Bolts of lightning flickered across a purple sky. The ground shimmered in rainbows of pink and gold and greens. Shadows flashed across it, as though giant birds or fast drifting clouds passed overhead, but when she looked up, there was nothing but those circling colours and the lightning.
The nearest wark seemed so close now. She craned her neck. It disappeared high into the sky, its branches spreading across the purple, blending in with the lightning. Or was it the lightning? She squinted, then winced at another flash.
Its roots were enormous and she felt a rush of relief as she reached the closest one. It was thicker than Spirit, taller than Mock, huge and tentacular. It sent her heart pounding.
This was no tree.
Spirit didn’t lose pace, but his grunts had turned to painful snorts and the next flicker of spittle was pink and frothy.
‘Come on, Spirit. Just a little more.’
Mock felt heavy against her, his arms loose around her waist. She thrust an arm back to grab hold of him. He was breathing against the back of her neck, shallow and irregular.
Finally, they reached the trunk. A lurch, a wounded whinny and Spirit staggered. Grinda grabbed desperately onto his mane as he slumped to the ground, and with a gasp toppled off. She sat up, her hair covering her face in a veil. The howling and whistling had reduced to a faint whisper, then nothing. So quiet now. She still felt like she was moving, the pounding of Spirit’s hooves vibrating in her bones.
She pushed her hair aside and looked around. Everything was back to normal. Back in her world. The ridge. The spindly, leafless tree. Normal-sized now, though still beating with that deep thudding. A cool breeze prickled her skin. All the colours had gone, though their lingering brightness still stabbed at the night from behind her eyes.
Spirit was sitting on his knees, swaying from side to side. Whinnying and snorting as he chewed his bloodied teeth on the bit. Foamy pink saliva glistened all down his mouth and neck and front until he was soaked with it. His eyes rolled. Grinda gasped and reached out, as he fell to his side with a snort, his legs kicking weakly through the leaves.
Then she saw Mock, flung away on Spirit’s other side. She scrambled over. ‘Mock!’ Seizing his face, she shook him. ‘Mock!’ Her heart leapt into her throat. There was something wrong. Something very wrong. It didn’t look like him. His eyes had drooped, his cheeks had sunken in and there was a pallor to his face that sent her skin crawling.
She took his hand, squeezed it. It sagged limp and cool in her grasp.
A dead man’s hand.