The last of the lingering hot days finally faded and Mock was forced to snatch Paleskin clothing to keep Grinda warm (he wouldn’t wear them), along with a battered sword and a few blades for good measure. Being so close to the Paleskin settlements meant there was nothing big enough to skin, little more than fox or bird or rabbit.
He did manage to steal a horse though. Winter, Grinda called him. An old horse, white as Spirit was once black, with eyes the same shade as Grinda’s. He was slow but big and sturdy. Another draft horse. Mock couldn’t deny it; after Spirit—it was all he would take.
It was three weeks since his near death. Three weeks since they last suffered anything more than Grinda’s morning sickness or nightmares or the backlash of their memories. Surprises, too, were few and far between. Rarely more than a big rabbit Mock managed to trap or a stream deep enough to dunk themselves in.
They could never have expected what was waiting for them on one crisp, unexceptional evening as they prepared to set up camp. Though life had been good the past three weeks, Mock was always on alert. The hunter, the warrior, was ingrained too deeply. Always, he had one eye out for danger, his ears pricked for enemies. So, when he saw that distant figure, a mere dot in the distance against the flaming horizon, his hand was already at his sword and Grinda was already at his back.
‘Be still,’ he told her, ‘and do as I say.’
She nodded, her lips thin as she gripped her blade.
Narrowing his eyes, Mock unsheathed his sword. They were at a disadvantage with the light blazing against them but Mock had never been stronger. He could take on an ox if he had to.
The man was mounted, moving at a steady pace. He didn’t appear like someone prepared for battle. But he was following their trail, that much was clear. Mock hardened his grip on his sword. He could hear Grinda’s panting behind him. A light breeze stirred the grass. The closer the man came, the sooner Mock realised that an ox wouldn’t be far off. He was much bigger than any ordinary man, even slouched over his mount as he was. Almost as big as …
‘You fucking bastard.’
‘What?’ Grinda said.
Laughing, Mock sheathed his sword. ‘You fucking bastard!’ Face splitting into a grin, he spun around, grabbed Grinda and shook her. ‘You said he was dead!’
Turning back to the approaching figure, Mock punched the air with a whoop. His brother raised his arms, roaring back. Grinda shrieked as she suddenly realised, shoving past Mock as she raced over. Mock laughed as Croki reached down to haul her up behind him. Then the big Quarthi kicked his horse into a gallop and moments later Mock and Croki had each other’s forearms clasped in a warrior’s grip.
‘Brother, the Mother smiles upon you,’ Mock said.
‘And you,’ Croki grinned from his horse. He looked Mock up and down. ‘Grins upon you more like. You look … different.’
Grinda slipped to the ground, bearing a wide smile, her face glowing. Releasing Mock’s arm, Croki dismounted. Grinda reached out to help.
‘I’m all righ’. Just a bit stiff.’
‘What happened? I thought you were dead,’ she said guiltily.
‘Don’ worry, little faqwa,’ he said, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder, ‘I though’ I was too.’
Mock studied him. There was a raw, red wound in his left side that seemed to pain him and his face was drawn, fatigued. But other than that, he appeared in one piece. Mock thumped him on the shoulder. ‘Come join us. I’m about to spit some bird.’
‘Good. I’m starvin’.’ He gripped at his stomach as it gave a growl. ‘It’s been hard tryin’ to catch up with ye.’
Later, they all sat around the fire, the darkness held at bay in a flickering circle as Croki told his story.
‘Five men, there were, and me wounded. Cut four of them down but the last knocked me senseless with a coward hit to the back of me head, ‘ere.’ He patted himself behind the neck. ‘Though’ I was doomed. Though’ I’d end up like you, Mock. Dead or dyin’, imprisoned and tortured like they used to.’ He snapped through a wing, spat, wiped at his mouth. ‘But they though’ me dead, the ‘alfwits. Tossed me into the drink. I woke pretty fast. Don’ like the water, ye know?’ He paused as he took a swig of water.
‘I’m sorry,’ Grinda whispered. ‘I thought, when that guard broke through …’
Mock squeezed her knee.
Croki waved his big, flat hand. ‘Stop, little faqwa. Told you already. No sorries. I made my choice.’ Croki’s face had turned ruddy. It seemed every time Grinda spoke, he blushed and went stiff and had trouble looking either of them in the eye. Mock leant across his lap, chin on fist, watching more closely. ‘Couldn’ swim, as ye know,’ he nodded at Mock, ‘but managed to hang on to a floatin’ barrel and was taken righ’ ou’ the city wall. Not much for defence, that city. The sewer gate was all broken up. I washed up on a bank, crawled my way along, ‘til ol’ Agnus found me.’ He reached for the spit, and tore off some meat.
‘Agnus?’ Grinda said.
‘Righ’, righ’,’ he said quickly, casting his eyes away, hiding behind the hunk of bird as he stuffed his face. ‘An old witch. Lived alone. We had an agreement: she looke’ after me while I recovered, and I helped her choppin’ wood, buildin’ things, helpin’ roun’ the house.’ He sucked at his fat fingers.
‘And now you’re here,’ Mock finished for him. ‘Found our trail easily enough. Stole a horse. But why seek us so quickly?’
Their eyes met. The accusation was clear. They had known each other too long. Croki clenched his jaw, the grease from the bird glinting wetly in his beard. ‘Had to make sure you was all right.’
‘Who? Me or Grinda?’
‘Both of ye!’
Mock could feel Grinda’s glare boring into the side of his head. He squeezed her knee harder.
Grinda lifted her chin. ‘I’m so glad you’re all right, Croki. If it wasn’t for you, Mock would be dead, and I … I am eternally grateful.’ She pressed her hand to her chest, and Mock was never more glad she was wearing a tunic.
Croki blazed bright red. ‘‘s all righ’. Anythin’ for you—and for Mock.’
Grinda stood. ‘Right. Make sure you eat all you want. And we’re happy for you to stay as long as you need.’ She squeezed Mock’s shoulder. ‘Mock, let’s go. I’m tired.’
He knew she wanted to talk. But that’s not how this worked. ‘Later,’ he said, without looking away from Croki.
‘I said later. You go. Croki and I need to talk.’ He felt her stiffen, felt her grip tighten around his shoulder. But he would not be moved. ‘Go. I’ll be with you shortly.’
He heard the reluctance in her retreating footsteps.
Croki spoke first. ‘Nothin’ happened, I swear.’
Mock stared at him.
Croki swallowed. ‘Didn’ know how I felt ‘til I saw her again, else I wouldn’ have come. You’re my brother, Mock.’
Mock didn’t respond. Croki’s neck flushed scarlet. ‘Say somethin’.’
Mock stared at him some more. Then, finally, ‘Come morning, you must leave.’
Croki nodded. ‘Of course.’
‘If you approach her—’
Mock studied him, then nodded, satisfied. ‘You will always be my greatest brother, Croki.’
The big Quarthi visibly deflated. ‘And you mine.’
Mock leant back, allowing himself to relax. ‘Where will you go?’
He gazed at the bird’s bones as he twisted them between his fingers. ‘Home. It’s time. I miss ‘em: Amma, Quoth. Ippa should have had her babe by now. It will be nice.’ He looked up at Mock. ‘You should too. They’ll be missin’ ye, for sure.’
Mock twisted his mouth. ‘Maybe.’ And then he stood. Dropping the bones, Croki did too.
They clasped arms. ‘Brothers forever.’
Grinda glared up at Mock’s approach. ‘What did you say to him?’
‘We spoke man to man, that’s all. He just needed to know his place.’
‘We did nothing. I feel nothing.’
He flopped beside her. ‘I know.’
‘Then why bring it up? He’s your friend and he saved your life.’
Two men with designs on one woman—’ he looked around—‘out here, alone. Need I tell you the conflict? I will not risk you and I will not risk our brotherhood. It had to be done.’
Grinda frowned. ‘It doesn’t make me feel good—seeing you two that way.’
‘I understand. He understands. We are brothers.’
She shook her head, looked away. Gently, Mock took her face. She didn’t resist. He kissed her ear, then laid kisses across her face until he reached her lips. Softly, he parted them, brushed his tongue against hers. Sliding his hands beneath her tunic, he lowered her to the ground.
Grinda pulled away. ‘No. I know what you’re doing. And I won’t be a part of it.’
She pursed her lips. ‘He’s not just your friend, he’s my friend too. And I’m not going to have him hear us.’
Mock rolled off her with a sigh. Silence fell between them. Both remained still. The night was quiet except for a noisy cricket and the sounds of something scuttling through the bushes. Clouds drifted across the new moon. Then Grinda’s hand slipped into his. She squeezed and he squeezed back.
Croki was gone by sun up. Grinda gazed at his empty spot as Mock packed up camp, saying nothing.
They were quiet for most of the morning. Another cool day, the wind swept through her hair, bringing goose bumps to her neck, but her new—stolen—clothes kept most of the chill at bay. Mock’s strong arm was warm around her waist and she leant back into him. He shifted his big body so that it curved comfortably around her. Grinda closed her eyes, letting Winter’s gentle rocking and Mock’s warm embrace ease her into a doze. She grimaced at the gnawing in her stomach—morning sickness. A consistent reminder of what was to come. Her daughter’s face flashed behind her eyes. All that had happened that day whirled in her mind. It filled her with excitement, fear, hope and dread. But just like Mock had told her, there was no way she would ever unfold its mysteries. Better off leaving it alone. She opened her eyes at a sudden thought. She might not be able to understand it but there might be someone who could. Many someones.
She glanced back at Mock, then turned away again, straightening in her seat, knowing he wouldn’t like to talk about it.
‘Something on your mind?’
‘I was just wondering … what are your plans for our future?’
‘Mmmm … Stop to eat, make love to you, have a nap. Maybe search around for something to catch for dinner.’
‘No, I mean, in a year to come or before the baby arrives.’
‘I try not to think too far ahead. It only brings trouble.’
Grinda scoffed. ‘I know you, bial. You’re always planning. What is it?’
He hesitated. She felt the muscles in his arms tense. ‘There is really only one option, biala.’
Grinda’s heart leapt. ‘Your people.’
She sensed his surprise and smiled. She was getting good at knowing what he was thinking.
‘Yes. I can’t look after you in the way you need. You need other women. Care.’ He paused, tensed some more. ‘The shamri are good with such things. In all my time I’ve only known one baby to die in my clan. And no mothers. It surprises me how different things are with the faqwa.’
She rested her arm against his. ‘I hoped you’d say that.’
‘Make no mistake, it will be hard, biala. They may not be welcoming.’
She lifted her chin. ‘After all that’s happened, I’m ready for anything.’
‘I have no doubt.’ A smile in his voice. ‘And what about your family?’
Too abruptly spoken, too casual. Clearly, it had been burdening him. Grinda had already thought about it, long and hard, ever since that first day they began their journey back towards the east, away from her home, away from her mother and brothers. It had never left her: the guilt, the worry. But she wouldn’t risk it. Not again. May the Mother keep them.
‘I love them and I’ll miss them and I’ll forever wonder.’ She shook her head, lowered her eyes. ‘But they are not a part of my future.’ Mock tightened his arm around her, and she shivered as he kissed the back of her neck. ‘We are in no hurry, though, are we? Going back to your people, I mean.’ Despite being ‘ready for anything’, the thought made her nervous. More trials. More hardship.
Mock smiled. ‘No, biala. We’ll take our time. I intend to have you all to myself for as long as I can. Besides, I doubt Winter has the energy.’
Grinda laughed. He was right about that. The horse didn’t trot, he plodded.
Leaning back into Mock, Grinda gazed into the distance, into the months and years ahead, first nervous, then excited. She took a breath.
‘You all right, biala?’
She nodded. ‘Are you?’
She felt him smile. ‘Definitely.’
To be continued …