Mock’s blood hummed with the thrill of his kills. His head felt light and dizzy, as though he had smoked too much chokra. The air was sweet and warm against his face. Like the body of a strong eager woman, his ride rocked between his thighs, smooth and rhythmic. He could feel its powerful pull as it scaled the small inclines of the rolling fields, its push as it navigated the descents. The horizon gleamed red from the flames of the burning village—beautiful, glorious. And all around him were the jubilant voices of his brothers roaring at the smoke-filled sky.
He grinned. He loved the feeling after a raid. Throwing his head back, he roared along with them.
They passed through farmland rich with waving rye. It wouldn’t be rich for long. He could hear his brothers’ laughter as they set it aflame. By tomorrow there would be nothing left of the village and its fields but ash and blackened husks. A black smudge in the ruined land that was once his people’s.
Heat stirred in his balls at the thought, and he tightened his hold around the girl clasped between his legs. His cock pressed up against her back, throbbing at each thud of the horse’s hooves. If he came in his kinta, what did it matter? They had days, maybe even weeks of fun ahead of them, depending on how long she lasted and how soon he got sick of her.
He slowed his mount’s charge from a gallop into a trot. A deeper darkness swept over them as they entered the forest. The distant sounds of destruction muffled into almost silence. Now he could hear the soft panting of the girl, the chirping of crickets, the light hooting of an owl. Mock didn’t know what his people had once called the place. Before he was enslaved, he had lived further north. But it looked old, ancient. The trees were tall and broad, the foliage thick and untouched. He could feel the power of it like a warm rush up his spine. His skin pimpled. The hair stood on his arms. Later, he would explore its reaches. But not tonight. Tonight was for celebration.
He and his men gathered in a small clearing. Dismounting, Mock hauled the girl into his arms. She didn’t fight, didn’t make a sound, but she was shaking violently. When he tried to set her on her feet, she crumpled, and he was forced to hoist her over his shoulder. His men laughed and whistled. Laughing along with them, he yanked back her skirts, revealing her white legs and underclothes.
He was far from the only one bearing spoils. Barrels of ale, other women, a whole assortment of pickings. With many of his brothers still yet to arrive, it would be a decent haul. If they arrived at all. Mock had command during battle but when it came to anything outside of that, his brothers were free to do whatever they pleased. Stay, go, sleep, celebrate, whatever they liked. After so many years a prisoner, he could not deny them that.
He dropped the girl in the midst of them all. She sagged in a heap, her torn and dirty skirts flaring around her. On her hands and knees, she whimpered and trembled, yellow hair draped limply over her face. A few of his brothers watched her with interest before a sharp look turned their faces away. She wasn’t attracting too much trouble for the moment, but that would change by the end of the night once his brothers became sick of the ale and chokra. Once he became sick of the ale and chokra.
Turning to his men, he raised a fist with a triumphant roar. They bellowed in return, enough to shake the ground beneath. Mock laughed.
Grinda kept herself as small as possible as she awaited her fate. Her heart pounded. Sweat trickled between her shoulders. Her chest felt so tight, she wheezed. Her eyes ached as she stared hard at the churned-up earth between her hands. There was a hoof print, grass torn up, but she hardly saw it, all her focus centred on that barbarian somewhere above, waiting, dreading, praying. Would he take her now, right in front of the rest of them? She shuddered so hard vomit surged in her throat. If he did, might they not all want a try? God, no. Not here. Not with all of them.
She winced as he shouted something in his language, cringed as his men shouted back. Her fingers clawed into the earth as she braced herself. Then—nothing. Through her curtain of yellow hair, she watched as he walked away.
She gave a choking sob before slumping to the ground in a wobbly heap. Not here, not now. God had listened.
They were like animals. They drank, they spat, they hooted and growled. Yellow teeth. Glittering beetle eyes. Blood streaked, filthy brown skin. They scratched themselves and pissed out in the open. For the first time in her life, Grinda glimpsed a man’s cock: hairy and wrinkled and sticky with sweat. It made her gag. Ale spilt through their beards and down their chests. Amber droplets stuck to their hairs, glistening in the light of the fires. Then there was that smoke, puffed through long wooden pipes. A white, throat-scratching haze filled the clearing. Her eyes itched and watered. But she dared not cough or rub at her face lest she attract attention. Curled in a ball, she kept her head tucked into her chest, arms wrapped tightly around her. A few times a boot thudded near her head, but she dared not look up. Once, she cringed as a barbarian hissed something in her ear.
Then there was their obscene laughter, as though they were just a bunch of men enjoying themselves after a hard day’s work, as though they hadn’t murdered and maimed, brutalised and slaughtered. Tears coursed down her cheeks. Father, her brothers, Father Joel—all gone. And what about Mama and her little brothers? Had they escaped or had they been burnt alive along with the village?
The chapel was made of stone. The chapel was made of stone. The chapel was made of stone.
But the pews were timber.
Screwing up her eyes, she clenched her fists until her nails dug into her palms. Fighting back her terrors, she opened her eyes again and saw she was being watched. Grinda stared back. Her lips parted. A woman from the village—Mirabelle. She was hard to recognise, covered in soot and blood as she was, red-faced and tearful, her hair all torn up, but it was her.
She was alive.
Like Grinda, she huddled on the ground, untouched. Warmth surged through her. She might be doomed, but at least she wouldn’t go through this alone. An urgent need to find others made her uncurl and dare to roll over. On her other side—Janelle. But she wasn’t as fortunate as they were. One of the barbarians had her in his lap. Her tunic was torn and her breasts were spilled out. She looked so desolate, her dark eyes brimming with tears. There was far more than just fear there, but a terrible grief. And Grinda knew she had watched someone she loved die too. Grinda winced. She was a mother of four…
There was a clotted cut on her lip and redness around her right eye. She kept trying to cover herself up, but the barbarian kept swatting her hands away. He took a swig from his skin, and she cried out as he spat the amber liquid down her cleavage and mashed his face into her breasts, lapping and sucking and gnawing.
To Grinda’s left, another woman. Further along, a fourth. Grinda rolled back over to face Mirabelle. They locked eyes, holding each other’s gazes. Mirabelle mouthed words of comfort. More tears rolled as Grinda tried to do the same. But like Mama, Mirabelle was braver than she was.
The surrounding woods were dark and quiet and so very close. She saw Mirabelle’s eyes flick its way numerous times, and Grinda couldn’t help but do the same. One of the barbarians yawned, another drooped onto the shoulder of his friend, but many still were loud and obnoxious. The man who had kidnapped her was somewhere in between. He was smoking one of those pipes, a half-filled skin at his side. He must have drunk ten of them by now. His eyelids drooped and he swayed a little. He laughed at something one of the barbarians said, dribbling spit into his beard. Grinda scrunched her nose. Something savage flared in her heart. She gritted her teeth. Then he turned, drooping gaze meeting hers, and she went ice-cold. She quickly dropped her eyes. She had hoped he had forgotten about her, hoped they all would. A feeble, stupid hope.
It seemed Mirabelle didn’t think it so stupid. Inch by inch she crawled towards the edge of camp. Grinda tried not to look, frightened of giving her away; instead, she kept her eyes on the barbarians, praying they wouldn’t notice, hoping they wouldn’t see.
No such luck.
One of the barbarians stood, an enormous, beefy man with eyes red with drink and old burns down his right arm. He wiped his mouth, smiling, as he followed her. The surrounding barbarians laughed. Mirabelle continued to crawl, not realising the danger behind her, until he stomped a heavy boot in the middle of her back, and she collapsed with a scream. The barbarians laughed harder.
Grabbing the back of her tunic, he hoisted her to her feet. She struggled to stay upright, her knees bowing beneath her. Grinda knew what that felt like. She felt it now.
Oh, Mirabelle. No.
Grinda winced and turned away as he began tearing off her clothes. The screaming. That horrible laughter. She cringed into a tighter ball, burying her face into the dirt. Another scream—choked off, followed by an explosion of cheering and shouting. Through trembling fingers, Grinda dared to look. She was slung over his shoulder, bare back gleaming in the firelight, long dark hair hanging loose. He took her into the trees. For a moment, silence. Then another burst of screaming. Different screaming. The kind that reached into your guts and squeezed.
Something tightened around Grinda’s chest until her breaths came out in short little bursts. She could hear the other women now, crying and begging. Her ears rang with it. Her heart pounded with it. A sudden urge to run clutched at her chest, seized up her thighs. She lifted her head, so dizzy she was sick. The trees were just ahead. I can make it. Then her breath caught. A whimper escaped her lips. A hand on her shoulder: firm grip, fingertips of ice. Like freezing water, the dread of it coursed along her shoulder, down her chest and into her lungs. That horrifying realisation—
It seemed to take forever to look up. Someone different to her kidnapper: dark eyes, eager grin. His teeth were so rotted that blood covered them in a wet sheen.
She shook her head. ‘No.’
Seizing her arm, he hoisted her to her feet. Sagging against his grip, she raked at his arm with her nails—no use. His grip tightened until she cried out.
A sudden shout. The barbarian turned his head. Grinda looked up. There he was—her kidnapper. He was walking over, hard-faced and grim, shaking his head. He was so big compared with the other. He said something in a low growl. The man holding her growled something back. They glared at each other. Her kidnapper took another forbidding step and the man released her, sneering as he retreated.
Grinda clutched at herself, shivering as her kidnapper looked her up and down. Most of the other women were gone, except one. The poor woman. Every grunting thrust was like a stab in Grinda’s chest. Every cry a kick in the guts. Her knees buckled. Her heart hammered. She turned away with shuddering gasp. At that moment she’d give anything not to be a woman.
She looked up in surprise. She had forgotten some of them could speak English. It confused her. How could a savage like him know how to speak a civilised language?
‘Come,’ he repeated, holding out his hand.
She stared at it but didn’t move.
‘Come with me or stay with them.’ He nodded at the group of watching men, including the man with the rotting teeth. They grinned, sneered, leered. One licked his lips.
With another shuddering gasp, she took it.
The men hooted. Weeping quietly, she staggered after him. His grip was firm, almost gentle, not what she expected. But it did nothing to ease her fear. The bright light of the camp fires receded behind them, replaced with the thin glow of moonlight trickling through the leaves. It turned the barbarian a bright shade of blue, concealing the blood on his skin but highlighting the scars on his back, thick and criss-crossed like he’d been whipped.
‘Please,’ she gasped.
He ignored her.
The forest was her enemy. It seemed every rock and root and fallen branch sought to trip her up. At every stumble he tightened his grip, hauling her to her feet. He was so strong it made her shoulder ache, her wrist throb.
Again, he ignored her.
It wasn’t until the noise of the camp had reduced to a distant muffle that he stopped. He turned to face her. Grinda looked away, focusing on a large mossy root that was bent up like a bended knee. He was still and silent, except for his deep breaths. From the corner of her eye she could see the gleam of his gaze, more like a cat’s than a man’s. Wild. Feral. He reached out, and she closed her eyes at the brush of fingers against her cheek, her mouth. She whimpered as he parted her lips, poking a finger inside. She tasted blood and sweat and grime.
‘Look at me,’ he said.
She opened her eyes again. That mossy root. So strange looking. She had never been in the dark woods before, never seen such big trees.
‘Look at me,’ he repeated, this time dangerously.
She obeyed, though her neck resisted, like a lid twisted on too tight. He cupped her cheek, leant in and suddenly his mouth was on hers. He wasn’t tender but he wasn’t brutal like the last time. He was almost clumsy. She could smell the ale on his breath, that smoke on his skin, his man-sweat. He reeked like the village tavern. His long, knotted hair brushed against the nape of her neck. His beard scratched against her chin. His eyes were closed, at least. A small relief.
He staggered, clutched onto her shoulders to steady himself. He gave a small burp, wiped at his mouth and that’s when she noticed how foggy his eyes were. A small flare of hope kindled, quickly smothered as he pulled her to the ground. He was no less strong for being drunk. No less hungry.
‘Get off!’ she screamed.
He merely laughed, pinning her wrists above her head. Something dug into her back as he lay on top of her. He was so heavy he crushed the air out of her lungs. It took all her effort just to breathe. She tried to bring up her legs to no avail. She thrashed and squirmed but all he had to do was tighten his grip to the point of agony and she was forced to still. It wasn’t fair! She screamed again, twisted in his grip.
‘Shut up!’ he hissed, slapping a hand to her mouth.
With her free hand she clawed at his cheek. Skin came away like crumbly cheese. Snarling, he reached for his waist, drawing a dagger out of his belt. It glinted in the moonlight, sharp and long. He hadn’t cleaned it and old blood gleamed.
Grinda had no choice but to submit. She turned her face away. ‘Please.’
Panting, holding the dagger above her face, he thrust up her skirts. She yelped, fire ripping across her groin as he tore at her underclothes, snatching out some of her hairs as he did. He yanked open her legs and she braced herself, clawing her fingers into the dirt. She felt a rush of cool air down there. Then there he was, hot and sticky against her. She cried out at his thrust. He thrust again—but there was nothing. No hardness. No pain. He was as limp as a dead fish.
With a growl, he rolled her onto her stomach and hoisted her arse into the air. Her skirts thrust up again. Another rush of coolness. Then more hot softness as he tried to push into her. He tried using his hands to help slide in, but it was no use. It took all Grinda’s will not to weep in relief.
Finally, he gave up and shoved her to the ground. He joined her, pulling her back up against his chest as they lay on their sides together, one thick arm wrapped tightly around her waist. His breath was warm against the nape of her neck, as were his lips as he kissed her gently. He kept muttering something under his breath. Cupping her breast, he gave a light squeeze. Grinda didn’t dare move, not wanting to provoke him. His dagger was somewhere and there were more blades at his waist and probably in his boots too.
At his waist. Near my hands. Within reach.
He must sleep some time.