The black demon’s hooves thudded into the earth as Mock trotted around his captives. They pulled away: pathetic, whiny, cringing. Even the men. One of them fell to his knees, begging. A moment later his problems were over. A thwack. A fountain of red. And the crowd screamed, his Quarthi brothers sniggering, as his head rolled to a stop at the feet of a little pink-faced girl with rust-coloured hair. The rest of his body knelt there for a moment, hands still clasped, before slumping to the ground with a thud.
The girl shrieked. His brothers laughed. The crowd moaned and wept.
Mock waved his sword. ‘Move!’
And they did, stumbling over each other in their fight to avoid the next slash of his sword. Mock turned his mount and cantered back towards the centre of the village. Several of his men followed. The rest poked and shoved and kicked the crowd of villagers forward until they were forced into a near run.
The horse steered well, his great hooves smashing through debris. There was a satisfying crunch as he crushed a skull, followed by a haze of blood in the air.
At the main road, the rest of his men were waiting. Reining in, he dismounted. Bodies lay at his feet, mostly men, some women, one child. His brothers lounged, bloodied and hot but whole. Mock took stock of his surroundings. The village was defeated with barely a brother bruised. The prisoners were on their way. One of his brothers guided a horse over to add to the others. Three new mounts, skinny but strong. The village itself was clearly poor as most of these far-flung villages were. If riches were their only objective, it would be hardly worth the effort. But at least there were boots and tools and livestock. He watched as one of his brothers picked up a saw-toothed sickle, twisting it in his hands as he studied it.
It reminded him of the dead man with the scythe, and he suddenly recalled the cute yellow-head hiding behind the haystacks. He glanced over the bodies at his feet. No young girls. And he didn’t recall seeing her among the captives.
‘Pith!’ he called. His brother came over, grinning. A thin film of blood shone over rotting teeth. More blood, black and clotted, coated his left ear. ‘You searched the huts?’
His grin widened as he nodded at the bodies.
‘Just the one.’
Mock narrowed his eyes. ‘Where is he?’
His brothers had stripped him naked, knowing how much Mock detested the sight of their robes. His bare back shone red, blistering in the heat. He was kneeling, head bowed, hair plastered to his head and dripping over his face. Red stained his right arm from a deep gash to his shoulder. Three of Mock’s brothers stood by, watching.
They had kept him alive at Mock’s orders.
‘He was hiding this in his robes.’ Pith took something gleaming from another brother and handed it over. Mock stroked it, turned it over. A golden crucifix. Someone had shattered Christ’s face.
‘Good.’ He handed it back. It would fetch them ample supplies—if they ever got the chance to barter it.
Mock crouched in front of their prisoner. ‘Father,’ he said quietly.
The priest jerked, looking up in surprise. His face was battered and bruised: swollen nose, a gash to his lip, both eyes red and pinched mostly shut. A string of pink drool hung from the corner of his mouth.
Mock smiled. ‘Yes, I speak English. You and your kind saw to it I did.’
The priest gasped, clutching feebly at Mock’s arm as Mock grabbed him by the throat and hauled him to his feet. His brothers laughed. Skinny, pasty, small cock curled like a snail in its shell—the Paleskins were all the same. Mock frowned. How could someone so feeble wield so much power? It wasn’t right. It wasn’t the order of things.
‘P-p-please,’ the priest blubbered, clawing at Mock’s wrist.
The priest sucked in a choking breath as Mock tightened his grip. ‘Please, what? Please, mercy? I don’t know mercy. Your kind saw to that too.’
The priest staggered after him, gasping and choking as Mock hauled him to the village centre.
The prisoners had arrived, kneeling among the dead, weeping and holding each other. One had thrown herself over a body, wailing. Probably no more than thirty left alive, including the priest.
‘Shut her up,’ Mock growled.
A shriek and a cry as one of his brothers yanked at the wailing woman’s hair and dragged her away.
Mock released the priest, then shoved him. He stumbled and would have fallen if Mock hadn’t seized his arm and righted him. The priest gasped, clutching at his wounded shoulder as more blood gushed. A couple of villagers cried out.
‘Father!’ cried a young child.
Mock glanced at the boy, then turned back expressionlessly. ‘It seems you’re well-loved here, Father.’
He shoved again, and again Mock grabbed him before he fell. His brothers hooted and laughed as he compelled him towards the chapel. Shove, grab, shove grab. The big bronze cross grew large, throwing a long shadow across the ground and glinting bloodily against the sunset.
The priest slumped against the stone wall, panting and bleeding and clutching at his shoulder. He huddled over, trying to conceal his nakedness. Mock slipped a knife from his boot.
The priest stilled, puffy eyes watching as Mock lifted the long blade. He shook his head.
‘There’s that ‘please’ again. Be glad, Father. You’ll be with your god soon.’
Tears leaked from the corners of the priest’s eyes, streaking through the dirt and blood on his cheeks. Mock sneered. Nothing worse than a man weeping. He tightened his grip on the blade.
Mock paused, lifting his eyebrows. ‘An unusual question, for a priest. You’re usually only interested in saving your own lives. No’s and please’s, the don’t kill me’s! And, of course, the God have mercy’s—they’re my favourite.’ He snorted and spat. ‘God knows no mercy.’
The priest didn’t respond.
‘Come now, Father, do you really not know why?’
‘I did nothing.’ He glanced at the villagers. ‘We did nothing. We’re innocent.’
Mock laughed, shaking his head. ‘Innocent. I was once innocent too. But believe it or not, Father, I’m not a bad man. I’m even generous. I believe in giving back all that I’ve been given. And you and yours have given me so much.’ The priest pushed back against the wall as Mock pressed the tip of the blade against his soft white belly. Leaning in close, Mock hissed in his ear. ‘So very much.’
The priest jerked, sucked in a breath, clutched at Mock’s hands as he sank the knife deep into his guts. Mock watched his eyes widen, heard the gurgle deep in his lungs, as he slowly dragged the knife up, sawing him through. Just below his ribs, Mock released the blade. A cough, a vomit of bright red blood and the priest looked down in mild surprise at the hilt sticking out of his chest. He grabbed at it futilely, then sank heavily to his knees.
Behind Mock a woman screamed, others joined her. A great wail lifted to the darkening sky, all their voices together. And amid that—a small cry. Mock paused, a smile tugging the corners of his lips. It had come from inside the chapel.
Another vomit of blood, and the priest slumped to his side, choking and gurgling as he gazed wide-eyed at the moon above.
Grinda wrapped her hands around her mouth so tightly it made her teeth ache. She tried hard to stifle her cries, but they kept surging up her throat in shuddering waves, making her cough and splutter. Hot tears pooled between her fingers and dripped into her lap. Billy wept too, face pressed hard into her hip as he wrapped himself around her waist. She no longer felt the hardness of the stone floor; it was nothing against the pounding of her grief. Father Joel—dead.
All hope lost. God had abandoned them.
She glanced over at Mama. She seemed to be keeping herself well in control, though Grinda had never seen her so pale. Why can’t I be as strong as her? Even in the darkness she could see how tightly she held her children, all those ropey blue veins and little bones sticking out in her hands. The villagers were screaming, and she could hear the barbarians shouting in their savage language as they tried to restore control. There was a rush of cries and shrieks, the sounds of violence.
But something worse, something much too close: the scuff of a boot, a faint sigh.
Not from Grinda or her siblings.
Stifling her sobs with a final suck of air, she stilled, not even daring to move her eyes. Billy was the same. All Mama and she could do was stare at each other.
Another scuff, louder this time. Whoever it was wasn’t taking care to be quiet. Fear me, his footsteps seemed to echo around the chamber.
He took his time, and she imagined him looking between the pews in the darkness, holding his bloodied sword casually over his shoulder. That awful yellow-toothed grin, the same as the others. And she wondered if he was the barbarian who had murdered Father Joel.
Oh, God. Please, no. Protect us.
Billy tightened his arms around her waist, whimpering. Another footstep, the rustle of fabric, the deep rush of air as he breathed. He was slow, savouring his victims’ fear.
Please, don’t let Edwin cry out.
Huddling into a ball, she crushed Billy against her, letting her hair fall over her face so she wouldn’t see. He was shuddering in her arms, so hard his breaths came out in soft, little grunts.
A light thud, the whisper of steel against leather. Grinda looked up. He was so close now, the stink of him hung thick on the air: sweat, smoke and blood. The noise outside had dulled. Now there was nothing in the world but the sound of death on quiet footsteps. She looked at Mama, Jacob and Edwin. Why did they all have to die? If she were smart and brave, there might be a chance.
We cannot let them die in vain.
Recalling the final act of her father, she hardened her jaw. It wouldn’t be the worst thing. Her heart hammered in her ears as she gently untangled Billy’s arms. He looked up at her in wide-eyed protest, tried to tighten his hold, but she seized his chin and held his gaze. His eyes gleamed in the darkness. She didn’t know what he saw, but the shuddering ceased and his skinny arms slipped away.
From across the aisle, her mother stared.
Slowly, she stood. And it fell strange, like she was a plank of wood trying to bend, stiff and unyielding. She could almost hear her joints creak. There should have been pain. She had been stuck in that awkward position for too long, but it was like a dull buzzing in the background. The air felt thick, and it was as if she were wading through oil, making it hard to move, to breathe, to think.
They stared at each other.
Grinda gripped onto the pews on either side, the timber biting into her hands, though she hardly felt the discomfort. Her heart thundered, so hard she thought it must give out, and all she heard was the rush of blood in her ears. He was as foul as she imagined: a great hulking figure in the gloom. Bestial eyes gleamed beneath a heavy brow. Grime and blood matted the hair on his chest. His beard was little better, and the hair on his head hung in greasy waves down past his shoulders. Everywhere he bulged with muscle and ropey veins. But worse than all that—she recognised him.
Father’s killer. Her brother’s killer. Maybe even Father Joel’s killer.
Her eyes fell to the nasty-looking dagger in his hand. She had never seen one so long before. He saw her looking. With a second whisper of steel, he returned it to a sheath at his hip.
He took a step towards her, and she almost stepped back, before remembering the whole point of her exposure. Stiff and numb, she moved out from between the pews, hands sliding over the timber. Again, she seemed to move slowly, as though her feet were made of granite.
His eyes raked her over as she stepped into the aisle. She could feel her mother’s gaze boring into the side of her head, but she didn’t dare look back. One step, two steps, three steps. The corner of his mouth lifted—a half-smirk. Surprised, dangerous, hungry.
Grinda blinked at the rush of heat behind her eyes. She had never felt so filthy or so naked.
Another step, and she stood before him, quivering. She was an armlength away, unable to bring herself to get any closer. Head lowered, she stared at his leather boots, waiting, despairing. He stank so bad, like a dog that had rolled in something dead. From outside came a sharp scream, quickly silenced. More shouting from the barbarians.
Would it never end?
He closed the gap, and Grinda sucked in a breath as he took her chin in his thick, dirty fingers. He raised it, forcing her to look at him. A wet pointed tongue ran over thick purplish lips. Dark eyes glittered. He lifted his other hand, and she jerked back as he brushed his fingers through her hair. A whimper escaped her, and she hated herself for it.
Grinning, he tightened his grip on her chin and lowered his face. Scratchy beard, hot sour breath, scaly lips. She tried to keep her mouth tightly shut but his fingers dug into her chin until she opened it. That slimy, wet tongue. Then his mouth was all over hers, grinding, sucking, lapping. An arm slid around her waist, pulling her hard against him, so he could penetrate deeper. She choked, gagged.
Finally, he released her. She staggered back, wiping her mouth, the tears hot on her cheeks. He smacked his lips, gave a satisfied grunt, then seized her wrist in a bone-crushing grip. He turned, and she cried out as she stumbled after him. Her legs, once so stiff, were now like water. For the life of her she couldn’t straighten her knees, and he half-dragged, half-carried her out through the chapel.
Another cry stuck in her throat, tears whisked away in the breeze. Hot and cold, she trembled, she shook. Father Joel—sprawled on the ground, naked. Blood everywhere. Blank eyes staring. She lost her courage then. It simply fell away, like leaves in an autumn wind.
The ground lurched up to meet her as her whole body went limp. A yank on her arm, but she twisted in the barbarian’s grasp, arse falling hard to the earth. A terrific wind whistled in her ears. Her heart pounded like the smithy with his hammer. She couldn’t breathe. Her lungs clawed at the air, but it was like she was gasping through a wet cloth.
Everything was spinning, little more than a blur, but there was Father Joel, as real and as unmoving as a boulder in a roaring stream. No, no. He couldn’t be real. Father Joel could never die. God would never allow it. And yet there he was, still and grey.
All hope lost.
She didn’t know how long she sat there staring. Things were happening around her. There was a lot of noise, lots of movement. But she understood nothing. It was all muffled and faded, as though a quilt had been thrown over her head. Someone else’s life. Someone else’s problem. At least for the moment. Even Father Joel looked small, as though she were gazing at him from a distance.
Then something hard grabbed her around the waist, so tightly it snatched the air from her lungs. Coughing and gasping, she clutched at it, tried to pull it away, but it was much too strong. It hoisted her to her feet. She wobbled, but there was strength in her legs again. Hard and stiff but better than water.
The barbarian. Yellow teeth, matted chest hair, big hand wrapped around her upper arm, he yanked her along. Left and right, she turned her head: shouting barbarians, crying villagers, screaming horses. A sword thrust through a chest. A fountain of blood as a head rolled. A trail of slippery entrails. Screaming and gurgling and sobbing. A little girl stood bawling as her mother lay crumpled at her feet. Everywhere—chaos, destruction, suffering. Smoke engulfed a hut. Flames flickered brightly through the window of another. A black ash-filled cloud draped the village to the east. Burning torches hissed and licked as the barbarians ran around setting fire to all they could. She coughed and retched as a thick haze fell around them.
Up ahead, another horse. Huge and black, with rolling grey eyes, it almost blended into the darkness. It stomped its hoof, shook its head as it eyed her evilly. The barbarian took her by the hips, and she gasped as she was hoisted on top. The horse was round and thick between her legs. No saddle. Something sharp pinched her backside. The horse shifted as a heavy weight settled behind her. Hard and hot, the barbarian pressed up against her back. Thick, hairy forearms curled around her as they took hold of the reins.
She winced at a shout in her ear as the barbarian commanded something in his language to the other barbarians. His warm breath tickled her neck, blew through her hair. Hot and sour. She could still smell the stink of it around her mouth from when he kissed her, taste it on her tongue.
The horse turned. He shouted some more. The horse turned again. A kick, followed by a ‘Ha!’ and Grinda jerked back into the barbarian’s hard chest as the horse lurched into a gallop. With nothing else to hold onto, she seized onto his forearms, tightening her thighs around the horse’s ample girth.
The horse was a monster. It sped through the village, trampling through broken fences, furniture, bodies. The village whisked by in a blur of smoke and flames: the chapel, the smithy, the well, all her neighbours’ homes. Everything that was once her whole life—gone forever.
The last of the huts dropped behind, and they were pounding through open fields and waving grass. To her left were the Windy Mountains. Straight ahead was the thick and creeping black forest. And barbarians, barbarians everywhere, hooting, shouting and waving their swords or axes or stolen tools.
And all around her, that stink. It clung to her skirts, it buried into her skin, coiled through her golden hair. That stink of burning flesh, of devastation, of her life going up in flames.