The village of Quay was subdued. The time for word of Lord Triston’s victory had come and passed. Yet the villagers looked up from their tasks to gaze towards the rolling hills of the west, searching for that lone messenger sitting astride his battle-hardened steed, armour shining in the sun, tired and bloody and late but flush with triumph.
Grinda was no different. In times like this, hope was all they had.
She straightened her back with a groan as she finished tying another sheaf of freshly threshed barley. She patted the donkey lightly on the nose, then began to load its back. Father was demanding ten loads. Her chest tightened; the day was late and she was well behind.
Despite the terrors that lurked beyond, life went on. Strips still had to be tilled, food had to be cooked, water hauled, cows milked, pigs fed. There was nowhere for them to turn. Unscaleable mountains to the east, the open sea to the south. The closest stronghold was Paxton Landing where Lord Triston ruled, over a day away at a fast trot to the west. Right in the path of the barbarians.
They might have had a chance to reach it had they left soon after the knight had delivered his warning. But they had trusted in the might of Lord Triston’s forces. Trusted that God would see them through. After all, the eastern regions had never suffered an attack before.
They had gambled—and lost.
Now all they could do was pray the horde would miss them. They were a small village, even as small villages went, and the eastern plains were vast. Or perhaps the barbarians would grow tired of their raiding and turn north and vanish into the black, wild woods where they belonged. Never to be seen again.
Grinda scoffed at the thought; even she wasn’t naive enough to hope for that.
Finishing with her load, Grinda led the donkey towards the mill, stumbling over her feet as she trembled.
The afternoon sun descended slowly, a great orange orb straddling the horizon, throwing splashes of pink, red and yellow across the darkening sky. It glared so fiercely, the villagers must lower the brims of their hats or turn their faces away.
It beat hotly against Mock’s back as he gazed at the little village. His mount flicked its tail and nickered. Behind and below him his brothers waited, hidden by the crest of the hill. The excitement of an oncoming raid had waned after so much relentless destruction, but his rage had not, continuing to burn as fiercely as the fires of the Paleskins’ legendary hell. Unquenchable, ferocious. They would pay for what they did. Every man, woman and child.
Mercy was for the weak.
The lip of the horn was cool against his mouth as he blew. He had to blow hard; the horn was long and spiralled, the passage of air tight, vibrating through the bone. A tribute to his people, it had been lopped from the crown of a Questat, a ram almost wiped out by the Paleskins decades before. It echoed through the little village, smooth, deep and long, almost mournful, as though already lamenting the suffering to come.
A warning. A note of revenge.
He took a breath and blew again. The air shifted, the ground trembled as his men gathered around him. He paused: watching, listening as the sound faded into the distance. A moment of silence as the soon to be dead turned their heads, hands lifted against the glare. Then an explosion of noise: screaming, shouting, wailing—the Paleskins were all the same.
The air around Mock seethed, hot and coiling like a fire raging as the village descended into chaos. The horses stomped and shook their heads, feeling it too. His brothers were impatient, enflamed with blood lust. But Mock waited. Let the Paleskins run. Let them prepare themselves. As useless as that was.
Minutes later, and Mock began a slow trot down the hill. His brothers did the same. A canter, then a gallop, hooves beating the earth like thunder as they ploughed into the village. Mock reigned in as his brothers rushed past, shouting and waving their swords. He liked to take his time, to savour his kills. He liked to see their eyes widen with terror, all those pretty blues and greens and greys, before slicing them through.
Dismounting, Mock unsheathed his sword. Let us face each other like men.
Grinda caught sight of the figure atop the hill only moments before that terrible sound. A dark shadow against the setting sun. Her hope was stronger than her fear: A knight! she thought. We have won!
The hair on her arms stood up. Those men. So many men. Lord Triston had failed. We’re going to die. The sound of that terrible horn echoed in her bones, then nothing, as though she were drowning in deep water. People rushed past, flashes of faces she knew, white with terror, mouths open. Screaming silently. They bashed into her as they fled. The donkey reared. A pull, then a flash of pain in her right shoulder. The reins yanked from her slippery hands. Sheaves of barley fell. Hours of hard work lost. Father would be furious.
What was she thinking? Father would be dead.
She shook herself, began to back away, tripped and fell. A thud. Hard earth beneath her hands. A stab of pain up her back. A click, and the world exploded with noise.
Screaming, so much screaming. Shouts and roars. Dogs bayed. Something screeched. Somewhere, a terrific bellow. Figures raced down a distant hill in a black wave.
Grinda leapt to her feet, fell again as someone knocked her hard. She cried out at a blast of pain as that same someone stepped on her wrist. Clawing to her feet, she clutched her arm to her chest and ran with the fleeing mob, weaving through the huts and gardens. East. Must go east. To the vast empty plains, to the mountains, away from danger.
They say they wore the skins of their fallen enemies.
And drank their blood.
And what they did to their own women…
Escape the village, leave home, avoid death. No pain. No rape. No murder. Home. She slowed, stopped, turned. My family. Mother, Father, all her brothers. Little Edwin.
Something flared in her chest. The muscles in her thighs tightened. The pain in her wrist suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
Against the tide of human terror, she raced back home.
Mock’s sword sang alongside the screams of the dying. More blood spurted. Then the crunch of bone against fist. But it wasn’t over. Standing over his crawling, blubbering victim, he brought down his fist again and again. Pain rushed like fire through his knuckles and up his arm. But pain was his friend. He revelled in it. Took pleasure in it. Something cracked, and his fist sank into soft gooey flesh. The man stopped blubbering, bleeding from his ears and eyes and the mangled lump that was now his nose.
Mock straightened with a roar, bashing his fists against his chest, splattering blood and gore in all directions. You think us savages? Here we are!
Mock hefted his sword as a fierce-looking Paleskin charged him from the left, scythe upraised. Mock waited, pretending he didn’t see. Let him strike first, let him think he’s in control for the brief, precious seconds he has left.
In a flash of steel, the scythe came down. Mock ducked, leapt, then swung. His sword rang through the air, so sharp he swore it cut through sunlight. That soft thud of steel against flesh, that spray of blood, so red like a whore’s painted mouth. Those warm droplets.
Then the taste of iron on his lips. He licked, then spat. Paleskin blood. Nasty. Like that of a woman’s moon time. Weak and lifeless. It still surprised him, how red it was. With their skin so pale, you’d think it pink or blue.
A gasp. A flash of movement to his right. In the corner of his vision—a girl hiding. Again, he pretended not to notice. Between the stacks of hay, a wide blue eye stared, face as pale as the moon. A yellow-head and a cute one—for a Paleskin, that was. Ripe and ready for the picking. Not yet, Mock told himself with a grin. But if she survives the first blooding, she’s mine.
Wielding his sword, he charged away.
Shock. That empty, black void that stole the thoughts from your mind and the breath from your lungs. Father—still bleeding and choking, clutching at his throat. And beyond him—Mathew or maybe Kye? It was hard to recognise who, with his face all mashed up like that.
At least the barbarian hadn’t spotted her, but it had been close: a swift duck behind the haystacks, the prick of straw against her knees. She had been fortunate so far, sneaking between the huts and overturned wagons unseen. And home was just ahead. Most of the brutality was now contained to the edges of the village, where she had rushed away from. She could hear the distant screaming: men, women, startled horses.
That could have been me. She felt nothing at the thought. Shock. Such a terrible, wonderful thing. But it didn’t last. She looked at her father again. The blood still flowed but he had stopped moving, except for a vague twitch of his right boot, the blink of one eye. Grinda swallowed, gasped as a sudden fire filled the void, so hot she could scream. Tears pricked her eyes, then coursed down her cheeks. Her heart thudded. She started to shake so violently her teeth chattered. Her fingers and toes burned. So dizzy.
She collapsed to her arse. No longer quiet, she gulped and grunted down the air. How had it become so thick? She should stop, someone would hear.
Taking a deep breath, she scrambled back to her knees. Clutching onto the haystacks with trembling fingers, she peered through the gap. The way ahead was empty. So close. Their hut was just around the corner, not far from the bodies of her father and brother.
Father and my brother—dead. A spike of horror shot up her spine. What if Mother was dead too? What if Grinda was the only one left? Alone and at the mercy of the barbarians, to that horror who had murdered Father. Vomit surged in her throat. The shaking intensified. She bit down on her lip. A sharp pain, the taste of iron and her thoughts cleared.
Either way she needed to find out.
Grinda’s pulse thudded in her ears as she raced past the haystacks and out into the open. She twisted and turned through the labyrinth of walkways, careful not to stumble over the debris. But it was hard. Everything was a blur and her feet didn’t seem to want to obey directions. Trip, stagger, fall. Get up. Repeat. No dead here, thank the Lord, but lots of panicked animals and broken fences. Already hurriedly pillaged, some of the houses had their meagre belongings tossed outside, broken and useless. Here a table, there a chair. Pots and pans.
She cried out when her ankle twisted in a pail. Wet coldness rushed through her boot and up her ankle. What it was, she couldn’t care. She kicked it away, hobbled on, turned a bend.
And there it was.
The hut, just ahead. The doorway was dark, the walls intact. None of their treasures discarded like rubbish. Hope seized her heart. It looked just as it should.
‘Mama?’ she dared. She hadn’t called her that since she was small, yet it leapt to her tongue now as though she had been saying it for years.
‘Grinda?’ came an urgent reply.
Grinda staggered through the doorway. Dropping to her knees, she let the tears fall. Mama, Jacob, Billy, Edwin. They were all here, pale faces in the gloom. Two hard little bodies thumped into her. Skinny arms encircled her neck. Wet cheeks pressed against hers. Her name cried over and over again.
Grinda kissed and hugged and wept with them. Billy, Jacob. Her little brothers.
A whimper, a whine—Edwin, cradled to Mama’s breast. Grinda looked up, straight into Mama’s eyes. Pain, horror, fear. Don’t ask me the question, Mama, and I won’t either. Mama didn’t ask. She didn’t need to, the answer plain in Grinda’s tears. Mathew, Kye, Dillon, Father—all gone. Their family half dead.
They were alone.
Mama’s already pale lips whitened. The hard lines of her face deepened. She was about to say something when the sound of shouting turned their heads. Jacob and Billy cried out, clinging to Grinda so tightly they cut off her air.
‘Shush!’ Mama hissed. Clasping Edwin tightly to her chest, she lurched to her feet. Her voice was hoarse, like an old woman’s. Grinda supposed she was. ‘We must go. We cannot—’ she took a shuddering breath—‘cannot let them die in vain.’
Edwin with Mama, Jacob and Billy’s small slippery hands in Grinda’s, they hurried on quiet feet away from the hut, away from their old life and all they knew. Grinda stole one last glance before it was lost behind her.
They fled, stumbling and weeping, as the shouts echoed behind them, drawing ever closer, ever more ferocious. Grinda could hear the thud of their mounts now. At every turn, at every deep bellow, the back of her neck tingled, her lower back cramped, waiting for that sword thrust, that dagger throw. Did they use arrows and spears? Likely. And worse. How could they outrun those?
Jacob lost his footing. Grinda’s arm wrenched as she dragged him after her. Stopping briefly, she hoisted him into her arms. He was limp and cool, wet with tears and sweat. Shocked and whimpering. But at least Billy hung on, matching her stride for stride, clutching at her skirts. Grinda thanked God for small mercies. She had no more arms. He had always been the stronger one.
Come on, Billy. Be strong.
The edge of their little village drew closer, but the barbarians drew closer still. We’re not going to make it. We’re not going to make it. And she wondered: Where are we even escaping to?
Away from the barbarians. That’s all that’s important now.
Racing ahead, skirts and hair flying, Mama didn’t look back. Edwin was upset, his cries muffled against her chest. Escaping the maze of huts, they hit the village’s main road. Mama wheeled back with a hiss. Grinda skidded into her, and they all tumbled to the ground in a heap.
More Barbarians, sneaking between the huts further ahead, looking for women, searching for valuables. Six of them. All facing away. One of them laughed. So filthy. So savage. So utterly abominable. They wore hardly anything at all, except for a strip of fabric around their privates. One wore a sleeveless tunic, but the rest left their chests bare. Muscles bulged. Yellow teeth gleamed through thick, dirty beards. Spears and swords at their backs. Long daggers at their hips. Knives in their boots. Slathered all over in blood, grime and gore, concealing their deep brown skin in a motley of sickening colours.
No man-pelts, at least.
Somehow the boys stayed silent, weeping quietly. Mama smothered Edwin’s cries. Pain shot up the back of Grinda’s neck from the fall. Jacob was still cradled in her arms, head pressed hard into her breasts. Thankfully uninjured, but in terrible danger. They were out in the open. All the barbarians had to do was turn.
Bodies lay on the road, fallen where they died. Grinda turned Billy’s face away—too late; he was already ashen-faced and trembling. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, unable to find words of comfort.
They were trapped.
‘The church!’ Mama hissed, scrambling to her feet.
And that’s when Grinda saw it. The steeple. The crucifix. That welcoming door, always open. Hope flared in her heart, then died. What hope did they have in there? She rushed after Mama, nonetheless.
The sun was setting, the gloom gathering in the dusty corners and between the rows of silent pews. Good. Today, shadows were their friends. Quickly they hid themselves away: Mama and Edwin between the pews to the right; Grinda and her brothers between the pews to the left. They stared across the aisle at each other.
‘Mama!’ Jacob cried.
‘Jacob!’ Grinda hissed as he wrenched out of her grasp and scurried over to their mother.
He fell into her lap.
A quiet curse from Mama. A baby’s mewl, quickly silenced.
Everyone froze. Had they heard? Grinda’s ears rang as she listened out for sounds of discovery: a yell of triumph, an ominous silence, the thud of a heavy footstep.
Nothing but more laughter and the sounds of pillaging.
Grinda took a breath, shifted awkwardly. The stone floor was hard and the seats on either side dug into her knees. Sweat dripped down her back and under her arms. A big wet patch was forming where Billy cuddled into her chest. Too little space. Too little air. Her eyes flicked left and right, at Mama, then at the open door. There they lingered, gazing hard, as though she could will the barbarians away. A sudden thought: Where was Father Joel? She caught her breath at a rush of panic but gritted her teeth and shoved it way down.
She hadn’t recognised him as one of the bodies on the road outside. He might not be dead.
Remember whose side you’re on. Have faith in God.
I’ll try. Lord help me, I’ll try.