It was night when Grinda woke again. She gazed through the branches, blinking. It was several puzzling moments before she remembered where she was. She sat up with a start as it all came tumbling back.
Even after all they went through: the swirling world, the Mograr, that horrible trudge through the tar, he was still in the same spot she had left him, as though nothing had happened. Close by, Spirit’s big body was cold and still. An icy grip seized her heart as she dropped to her knees beside Mock. Please, no. Not after everything. But when she laid her hand on his shoulder, his skin was warm, and she could see the rise and fall of his chest. Her heart leapt. His face was still swollen but there wasn’t that ugly droop to his cheeks, that deathly pallor.
Grinda slumped onto her hip, took long shuddering breaths. She had done it. She had brought him back. She glanced up at the wark. So small now. Unremarkable. Thank you, she mouthed. Its empty branches creaked. Then she touched her belly. Thank you, she repeated. She kept her hand there as she wondered. What had it all meant? Was her baby all right? Would she be all right? She recalled those black eyes with a wince, then pushed it aside. That was for another day. Another time. The time now was for Mock.
She touched his shoulder, then leant down and kissed him on the neck. His skin was clean, free of the stinking, tarry sludge. He didn’t move but his lips parted in what might have been an almost smile. Getting up, she went over and collected their pelt, gazing at Spirit sadly before returning to Mock. She checked his wounds but it was hard to see much in the gentle light of the moon. If she wasn’t mistaken, they appeared lessened and they were no longer bleeding, the blood dark and clotted and dried. She threw over the pelt.
Soon, she was wiping at her eyes. Leaving him, she went over to the fallen horse, and there she let the tears come fast and free. Kneeling beside him, she let herself go, let everything out. All her heartache and sorrow, from the death of Father Joel, her father and brothers, to her horrifying capture and rape. To her terrible visions, when Mock left to fight and was captured. To all those dead Quarthi in the woods. Croki’s final brave fight and Mock’s near death. Spirit’s last gallop. Never again would that glorious black mane blast back against the wind. Never again would she hear his soft snorts, feel his gentle nuzzling. Her tears became thick and hot as it all crashed upon her.
But it wasn’t all from fear and sorrow. There was happiness there, too, relief, hope. A mishmash of emotions that left her choking and gasping for breath.
There, beneath the apparently dead, lonely tree, in the darkest hours of the night, she bowed over the dead horse and finally let herself grieve.
For the first time since his capture by the Paleskins, Mock opened his eyes without pain. He blinked, squinting against the glare of a bright sun. It flickered through the autumn leaves in a dazzling show of light, and for a moment he thought himself back in that strange, swirling world. He blinked again and realised his error. He knew this tree. He had been here before. But hadn’t it been leafless and dead? He turned his head. Grinda. Lovely. Peaceful. Lying beside him, her little hand clasped in his. Her dark lashes fanned over her cheeks. She looked like one of those Paleskin dolls. She almost didn’t seem real. He reached out to touch her, forgetting about his wounds, the pain. The pain. No pain! He sat up, holding out his arms as he looked himself over, then gripped himself between his legs and almost wept.
Grinda sat up, hands at her heart, lips parted as she stared at him wide-eyed. ‘You’re better!’ Getting to her knees, she touched his cheeks, his eyes. Her blue eyes shone. ‘The swelling’s all gone, the bruising. But what about …?’ She dropped her eyes to the rest of his body, then to his lap where he was gripping himself.
He grinned a private grin, filled with shock and relief and the eagerness of all the fun awaiting him in the days to come. Grinda’s own grin spread across her face. His eyes dropped to her breasts, her golden thatch, felt the familiar rush of heat in his balls. His balls! He had forgotten her clothes had burned away. His smile thinned as his gaze centred on her belly.
Grinda gripped his jaw, forcing him to meet her eyes. ‘Don’t think about that now. Later.’ Smiling, she ran her fingers through his hair. Mock closed his eyes. Those little fingers … She always knew how to touch him in just the right way. Funny how something so delicate could have such power over him.
His throat tightened as he struggled against the grin pulling at his lips. His body was burning. Not from fear, not from pain. Definitely not pain. Despite his best control, the laughter boomed from his lips and Grinda shrieked as he pulled her into his lap, then onto the ground as he rolled on top of her.
Laughing, Grinda playfully punched at his chest. He wrestled her beneath him, pinning her wrists to the ground. She thrust her head from side to side as he nuzzled her neck, his groin pressed up against hers, his cock as hard as a tree trunk. ‘No, Mock, Mock, you stink and you’re filthy.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘So? You are too.’
She shrieked some more, squirmed uselessly as he pressed his lips, swirled his tongue, sucked and gnawed, all over her beautiful body. Finally, he found her lips and for a long time they were quiet, limbs and tongues entangled, as the tree watched from above, leaves rustling in the wind.
Staring into Grinda’s eyes, he dragged a finger down her cheek, her throat, her breast, then slid off her and pulled her close. Grinda smiled at him, shivering as he brushed his fingers along the length of her, over her hip, down her thigh. Grabbing his hand, she entwined their fingers and kissed his knuckles. Mock felt how her lips trembled, the wetness of her tears. Without saying a word, he pulled her close and let her shudder against him. Smiling, Mock brushed his lips beneath her ear at her every sob, tightened his arms at her every whimper.
After a while she’d had enough and thrust him away, wiping at her eyes. ‘Enough of this. No more tears. No more sadness. I’m sick of it.’
She stood. Mock stayed as he was, hands behind his head as he gazed up at her. Her skin and hair gleamed against the sun. Her nipples were like pink flower petals. He curled his hands at the thought of them pressed softly against his palms. His mouth watered. He winced at a hard throb between his legs. Oh, Mother, but he needed her so badly.
Her mouth twisted into a crooked smile. ‘Careful there, or you might rupture something.’
‘You might rupture something.’ He hauled himself to his feet with a grunt, staggering a little. Dizzy but no pain. He straightened, flexed his arms, cricked his neck. He wasn’t tired. Not even sore. He couldn’t remember when he hadn’t last suffered from some kind of ailment, small or large.
Grinda cocked her head.
‘Something wrong?’ he asked.
‘No. It’s just—’ Biting her lip, she smiled.
She shook her head, then walked over to Spirit. Mock stared at the dead horse, lips twisted. He only vaguely recalled that hard gallop, those moments before he died, all the pain and confusion and despair.
He raised his eyes to Grinda as she bent to retrieve a water skin. ‘Where’s Croki?’
She paused, her shoulders slumped. Turning away, Mock folded his arms and stared sightlessly at the carpet of leaves beneath him. The only man left. He was their leader. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He remembered his failure with the boys. His decision had killed them all. Those fucking visions had beaten him once again.
‘Mock,’ Grinda called gently. He continued to stare. ‘Bial.’
Slowly, as though he was made of wood, he turned.
Grinda shook her head at him. ‘Don’t. Not now. Just this once, let us be happy.’
Forcing a smile, he nodded.
‘Here.’ She handed him a water skin. It was light, almost empty. ‘We’d best go. After all that’s happened, I don’t want to die of thirst.’
He took it with a grin. ‘Never.’
She grinned back.
No clothes. No horse. No shoes. Hungry and thirsty, filthy and bloodied. Little better than vagrants. Mock smiled. But he had his freedom and he had Grinda. The clothes were easy. A few deft slashes through the pelt and he made a couple of kintas. Short and tight, ragged and odd-looking, but enough. With what was left, he managed to cover their feet. He wouldn’t call them shoes but they did the trick.
The supplies he hauled onto his back.
‘Let me help,’ Grinda said.
Her eyes laughed, then went dark as they travelled over to Spirit. She paused. ‘We can’t just—’
‘We must. I have nothing to dig a grave with. Besides, the foxes will get him, the wild pigs and dogs. It’s a good thing,’ he said as her eyes widened. ‘He will feed into the living quicker. Be a part of this world, be a part of us, sooner. It is the belief of my people that when we die, we don’t go to heaven, we stay here, as part of the rocks and the trees and the wind, the great mountains and deep oceans.’ He brushed at her lips. ‘He will be a mountain, Grinda.’
She swallowed, smiled.
Mock stepped back, eyes travelling over her. Over her kinta, her breasts, her long knotted hair. Then there was that look in her face. That hardness. That fierceness. He remembered when they first met. She had been so terrified, so naïve and small. No longer. Back then, he never understood what he had seen in her. A Paleskin—frail and delicate. He could see it now. It had only been a little over a month, but the girl was gone.
‘What?’ she said.
‘You look like a real Quarthi woman.’ Her hands leapt to her breasts. He pulled them down. ‘Don’t. Quarthi women are proud, not bashful.’
She straightened, dropping her hands to her sides. He took one of them, small but strong in his, and together they left Spirit, the wark and their sadness behind.
They found a stream within the hour. It wasn’t much of a stream, more like a bubbling of water over rocks but plenty enough to fill their water skins and wash themselves.
‘You’re giving me that strange look again,’ Mock smiled, as he sat rubbing himself down.
‘What’s wrong? Have I sprouted something on my arse?’
‘Not even close.’
She nodded at him. ‘Look at yourself.’
He stopped washing and lifted his arms. It took several moments before he realised. He started, sitting up tall as he felt down his legs and arms and gut. Nothing.
He twisted around as he felt where Chid had stabbed him, the old burn where Grinda had seared him. The skin was smooth. Whole.
Grinda laughed. ‘Guess she healed more than we expected.’
‘I can’t look like this. A warrior can’t look like this. I’m as smooth as a newborn babe.’ He studied Grinda’s cuts and bruises, the pink scar down her left arm where she had accidentally sliced herself with his blade, now so long ago. ‘I’m even smoother than you. That’s not right.’ Grinda continued to laugh, gripping her knees as she rocked in the water. He grinned. ‘Stop laughing!’
She shrieked as he pushed her into the stream. ‘Oh, no!’ She kicked out at him playfully but he soon had her pinned. She winced, sucked in a breath. ‘Not here. The rocks are digging into my back.’
‘Fine by me.’
He rose, dragging her along with him. She cried out as he hoisted her over his shoulder. He searched amid the bushes, found a patch of soft, dry grass and carefully lowered her onto it.
She touched his cheek as he hovered over her, burying her fingers into his beard. ‘My bial. How I love you.’
Mock smiled, took her hand and kissed the heel of her palm. ‘My biala. Mine forever.’
Kissing her eye, her cheek bone, her lips, he eased inside her. Warmth and sweat. The way her fingernails dug into his shoulder blades, how her thighs clamped against his hips. He had never felt so close to her than he did then. After almost losing her, how could he not? He felt her beating in his heart, thrumming through his veins. Their breaths mingled. Grabbing her hip, curling his arm behind her neck, he thrust deeper until her lips parted and her neck arched. Pressing his lips against her slim, pale throat, he sucked until she screamed. A groan and all his tension emptied out into her in a hot gush that left him sated and content. He couldn’t help but feel relief. Everything worked.
He was himself again.
Gently, he kissed her, savouring the taste of her sweet tongue against his. Sweat—or was it water?—had pooled in the notch at her throat. Her breasts heaved against his chest, her nipples hard and wet. Her eyes were bright and little wrinkles of pleasure creased the corners of her mouth.
Was it only him or had she never looked more beautiful?
They didn’t get far that day. But they had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Better to love than to hurry to nowhere. They couldn’t stop looking at each other, couldn’t stop touching each other, and every time Grinda smiled, it was as though a fire lit inside him. Insatiable. Ravenous. And when she laughed … well … he would have her screaming shortly afterwards. Their kintas proved useless, and by morning’s end, Mock had swung his own over his shoulder like a cape, sick and tired of it getting in the way.
By mid-afternoon, they decided to stay put, concealing themselves in a copse of trees. Poor Grinda was walking a little bow-legged and Mock’s midriff ached to the point he could barely stand straight; too much thrusting. In the distance, they could spy a road and the occasional solitary traveller. Red light splashed across the vista, making it seem as though the world was on fire.
‘You all right?’ Mock asked.
She nodded, winced as she touched her pelvis. ‘Just a little raw.’
He flipped over the rabbit, frying its underside against the sizzling rock. Flopping down beside him, she sucked in the smell with a sigh, then kissed his neck.
His cock promptly engorged. ‘If you’re going to do that, you’re asking for it.’
She shrugged, chuckled, then lay down. Mock focused on the rabbit, or at least tried to. His eyes kept wandering over to her before flicking back. She still wore only the kinta, riding high against her supple thighs. She stretched out like a cat, hands behind her head, back slightly arched, so that her breasts caught the light and stood out red.
Licking his lips, Mock brushed away the bead of sweat coursing down his cheek. With his stick, he flipped over the meat, though it was still raw, then flipped it over again. He gritted his teeth but it was useless. He was so full, so throbbing, that he felt a droplet of seed trickle down his length.
The Mother help me.
He dropped the stick, turned and the sun set to the sounds of screams and laughter.
They ended up eating charred rabbit that night but it was worth every bitter bite.
Bliss. That’s how he would describe the following days, then the following weeks. Filled with laughter and lovemaking. No worries. No cares. In an unspoken agreement, they decided not to talk about the past. Not yet. The wounds were still too close to the surface, too painful. And as for the mystery of the Mother and what exactly lay nestled in Grinda’s womb—they too remained unspoken. There was no point. To unravel such mysteries was impossible, so what was the point in trying? But he could see how Grinda wondered and worried. It was only natural. She was the child’s mother, after all. Mock didn’t have that connection, though he swore to be the child’s father in name, since he couldn’t in blood. The child had saved his life. He owed her, and he owed Grinda. He would do his best to love her as his own. And when he had his own children, he would treat her no less, no differently. He could do that. Children were innocent, unconditional in their love. Despite what he experienced in that other world, there would be no conflict, no darkness.
He would make sure of it.
It would be easy.