She smelt nice, even for a Paleskin. And she was so soft and warm against him. Mock closed his eyes as he kissed her neck, just like he used to with Danna. Oh, Danna. How she had loved it. How she used to giggle and squirm in his arms. ‘It tickles!’ she would cry.
He kissed her again, breathed in the scent of her hair. If he thought hard enough, he could almost imagine it was her. The Paleskin wasn’t that much younger than Danna had been before she died. She was smaller though and more delicate, as Paleskins generally were. He flicked his tongue at her earlobe. She tasted the same, that salty sweetness.
He tightened his hold around her. His cock stirred—but not enough. It was enough just to hold her and pretend, at least for tonight. He smoothed his hand down her soft neck, then along her shoulders. His mouth twisted. He never understood the Paleskin’s obsession with clothing. Quarthi women only wore tops when it was cold. They were proud of their womanhood. As they should be. They didn’t know shame. And I bet her back is smooth as an oiled pelt: no scars, no wounds and oh so wonderful to stroke. Aching to know, he tugged at her sleeves. She gasped, tried to push them back up but he thrust her hands away. Riiiiip! and the tunic slipped down, proving how right he was.
Moaning, he kissed the back of her neck, then followed the bones of her spine, kissing each one in turn until he reached the top of her rounded backside. Her skirts were pulled low, and the very top of her crack peeked up at him. Heat pooled in his balls at the sight of it. Oh, how he loved women, how he missed them. The shape of them, the feel of them, the sound of them. Real women. Not the kind he took for fun. But the kind he could love and protect and adore, who could love and adore him back.
Tears pricked his eyes. ‘Danna.’
It had been too long.
The point of her hip begged for his lips and he obliged. He sucked, he gnawed, until she cried out. Looking up at her, he smiled.
Danna smiled back, dark eyes gleaming, long dark hair trailing between soft brown nipples. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’ He clenched his jaw. ‘Why did you have to leave?’
She just shook her head and laughed. She was just how he remembered her, so happy and glowing. She had been pregnant then, only a small bump, but it had been no less his child, no less his world. He smoothed his hand over it, landed a kiss on her belly button, before feeling below her skirt. He moaned at the softness of her hair, at the warm wetness of her opening. He pressed his face into her breasts and gave them each a gentle, sucking kiss. Just how she liked it.
‘Don’t leave me again.’
She smiled that beautiful smile. ‘I never did.’
He lay against her with a sigh.
Grinda didn’t know what to do. She jerked at a sudden loud snore. He was lying on top of her, face buried in her breasts, hand in her skirts. Now and then he murmured something. She could feel wetness on her skin as he drooled. Should she stay still and wait? Should she push him away? He snorted, coughed, then reached up to grab onto her breast.
Trying to keep her breaths shallow and quiet, she waited. Another snore, then his breathing fell into a regular deep rhythm. She could feel his heart beating against her pelvis, slow and strong. Her right nipple hardened at the feel of his hot breaths. Biting her lip, she very gently held his head as she eased out from beneath him. His hand slid away from her breast. His hand pulled out from her skirts. So far, so good. Then she was out! Carefully, she lowered his head to the ground. She stared at him in disbelief.
She was free.
She wasted a moment trying to pull up her shirt. He had torn it almost clean in half. Giving up, she stood. She had no idea where she was, no idea where to go but anywhere was better than here. Her father and older brothers had explored the dark woods several times over the years during hunting trips whenever Lord Rickard allowed it. She had never been inside herself, but she knew it was expansive and dangerous. ‘A place you can easily get lost without the right guide,’ Father had told them all.
She could well believe it. But it was the only hope she had.
She took another look at the sleeping barbarian and paused. The hilt of one of his blades stuck out of its sheath at his left hip. Suddenly recalling the dagger he had threatened her with, she glanced around. There! Lost beneath a layer of leaves except for its pointed tip which glinted sharply in the moonlight. She circled the barbarian and picked it up. It was surprisingly heavy and long and wicked-looking. For a fleeting moment it made her feel powerful. She stared at the blood along its sharpened edge, then glanced at the barbarian. Should she? Could she? Licking her lips, she took a step towards him, then paused again, rocking on her heels. A chop to the back of the neck. Swift and silent. That’s all it would take. Revenge for Father, her brothers and Father Joel, all in one fell move. She would be right to do it. It was what he deserved. The anger was there, the fury. She could feel it simmering deep in her guts, but when she reached for it, all she felt was a biting coldness.
She was no killer.
Lowering the dagger, she studied his face. He had such long, dark eyelashes and he was much younger than she first thought. For such a terrible, brutal man he looked so vulnerable. And the way he had touched her. Those kisses down her back, so gentle, so tender, so unexpected. She shivered. And how he kissed her breasts. She smoothed her hands over her nipples. Still a little wet. She had never been touched that way before, had never gotten close enough to a man to be touched at all. Except, perhaps, Father Joel: his fatherly kisses, his chaste attentions.
How she had loved him.
Guilt tugged at her bowels. Sickened with herself, she desperately tried to pull up her ruined tunic. He was a killer! A mean dog. Disgusting, abhorrent, foul.
She took a step back, then turned and fled into the trees.
Mock rolled over with a moan, something hard digging into his sternum. He blinked blearily at the treetops, his eyes sticking together. It was still dark. Rubbing at his chest, he looked over. A rock. He flung it away with a growl. Good sleep was hard to come by.
He sat up with a start, staggered to his feet, looked around. But she was nowhere to be seen. The little bitch. Bracing himself against a tree, he spat and wiped his mouth. He immediately patted at his belt, checking his weapons. His dagger was missing. He swept around, looking for it, but it was gone. A small smile tugged at his lips. She was more resourceful than he gave her credit for. He liked that in a woman.
Yawning, he rubbed at his face. He couldn’t hear his brothers anymore, no doubt comatose with fucking and drink. As he should be. He shook his head. Still a touch dizzy but he was sober enough. Sober enough to track down the little bitch before she did something stupid or fell into someone else’s hands.
He spat again, clucked his tongue at the sour taste of old ale. How he hated slippery seconds.
Grinda crashed through the forest so loudly it was a wonder the whole of Toth didn’t hear. Every crack of a branch, every crunch of ground litter was like an explosion in her ears. And no matter how hard she tried, she seemed to step on, trip over and bash through every Godforsaken noise-making treachery in sight. It was hard. Teary and shaken and weary as she was. The trees all seemed to blur together into a tapestry of shadows and gloom, making no sense. Why did it have to be so dark? Why did everything have to work against her?
Clutching the dagger in one hand, she grabbed at a stich in her side with the other. Every breath was like a knife plunging in her guts.
She finally came to a stop. She hadn’t run nearly far enough but it had been too long since she had eaten or drunk. Her hands were shaking, her knees trembling and the need for rest made her stumble and lurch.
Gulping at the air, she braced herself against a tree, head between here elbows. After a few minutes she strove on, this time at a staggering walk that didn’t last long. Just as dawn began to filter through the leaves, she tripped and crashed to the ground. For a moment, she was still, gazing up at the treetops, the air wheezing in her lungs. Then, with a grunt of effort, she rolled over, heaved herself to her knees and crawled her way through the ground litter. The smell of dirt and rot filled her nostrils. The ground was cool and wet against her hands. Leaves stuck up her arms and clung to her skirts. She paused. There!
She shoved through the bushes. They scratched and stung but she hardly felt it. Behind was a small smooth depression hidden beneath a rotting log. A perfect place to hide. It was a squeeze but she managed to slither into it and huddle into a ball. Already her eyelids were growing heavy. She yawned, coughed, tightened her hold around her knees, the dagger still clutched tightly in her fist.
Mock almost laughed. For such a small person, she caused a lot of damage. The poor forest was trashed. It was like tracking a drunken boar. Hardly a challenge.
The woods were bright with morning by the time he discovered her. She had found a well-concealed hiding place. Pity about the beaten trail leading directly to it. He had been a hunter for a good ten years before he was enslaved, and his instincts hadn’t dulled. Not that he needed them with someone as hopeless as she.
He crouched for a closer look. She was all scratched up, skirts torn, yellow hair matted and knotted. A nasty gash dripped along her left forearm. His dagger was lying beside her in the dirt, glinting with fresh blood. Accidently slashed herself by the look of it, probably while she was running. He tightened his mouth at the sharp twist in his chest. She was barely a woman. Innocent, vulnerable.
He shook his head with a growl. He should wake her, drag her out by the hair kicking and screaming. It’s all that the Paleskin deserved, her and her kind. They had no right to sympathy. They lost that right when they invaded his land and murdered his people.
He tried to urge himself to his feet but slumped to his arse instead, suddenly breathless. It sometimes took him like this—the old pain, the heartache. It was like a great weeping sore buried deep in his chest. It ripped. It tore. He shook himself, then ground his nail into the wound still healing on his thigh until he hissed at the pain. Anything to push the tears back. Glaring at the girl, he spat. Why now? Why her?
I am Mock the Merciless. To know me is to know death made flesh.
The pain receded. He straightened his back. Renewed strength coursed through his thighs as he stood. Hate. Rage. Fire. Everything he knew so well. Unsheathing the blade at his hip, he slashed at the bushes. The girl jerked awake, her blue eyes widening as she screamed and scrambled away, deeper into her hidey hole. He swiped at her, missed.
‘Leave me alone!’
She dove for the dagger on the ground. Rearing up, she attempted a desperate slash. A sting. Skin peeled open. Red flashed down his wrist. A sharp blade, of course. Mock always made sure of it. He licked his lips at the pain. Better. Better than the agony within.
He reached again, slamming his fist down upon her wrist. She cried out, her fingers opened and the dagger slipped from her grasp. A grab later and he was hauling her out through the bushes by the back of her head. Sticks snapped, more cuts opened up on her pale skin before he threw her to the ground. She was crying now, her tears bright on her cheeks in the dappled dawn light. She fumbled at her ripped tunic as she tried to cover her breasts, but not before he glimpsed her pink nipples. It was the only thing he liked about the Paleskins—those pink nipples. At least on the women. They were ridiculous on the men. He opened and clenched his fist, imagining their softness pressed up against his palms. His balls throbbed. He was sobering up and he could feel his lust for her like a warm sweep through his body. His kinta tightened around his thighs as his cock pushed against it. The Paleskin saw, staring at his bulge in terror. She seemed to fear it even more than the dagger. In the blackest, most distant corner of Mock’s mind, there stirred a painful understanding.
He thrust the thought aside. He should take her now while he was running hot. Show her what it was like to fuck a real man. He took a lurching step towards her, and she kicked out at him with a scream. He stopped, gripping his dagger so tightly his arm ached. That damn twist in his chest again. What was wrong with him?
With a roar he slashed at the air, then flung the dagger into the bushes. Useless! Weak! Bristling, he circled her. He glimpsed that bright blue gaze of hers, before she quickly bowed her head and hid behind her hair. If he couldn’t fuck her, then he should kill her. Again, he opened and clenched his fists, this time at the thought of burying them deep into her pretty little face. He winced. No. He continued to circle, uncertain what to do. Nobody had ever had this kind of power over him. He always did what he wanted to do, no regrets, no hesitation. And she merely a woman and a Paleskin to boot!
‘What’s your name?’ The words tumbled from his lips unbidden, as though someone else had spoken them. He scowled, hating himself. Who cared what her name was? And yet a strange, almost desperate, need to know willed her to respond. She stayed quiet, head bowed. ‘Answer me!’
Her head jerked but she didn’t look up, answering in a small voice, ‘Grinda.’
‘Grinda,’ he repeated, smoothing his tongue over his teeth. Paleskin names—they always felt sticky in his mouth. Wrong. He spat. ‘You’re coming with me.’
She didn’t move.
‘Did you hear me?’
She cringed, dropping her chin to her chest. Seizing her under the arm, Mock hauled her to her feet with a snarl. She was so damn small, barely reaching his shoulders. Danna had been much taller, tall enough he could look her in the eye. Pathetic. Half a woman. Why he should feel anything more than disgust was beyond him. He shoved her ahead.
The walk was cruel and it made him glad he was still able to take some pleasure out of her suffering. She wept and staggered and every time she slowed he gave her a hard shove. When she fell, he hauled her none too gently to her feet so that she cried out. She soon learnt how to keep her balance. It made him despise her—how weak she was. She knew nothing of suffering, compared with what her people did to him—and to Danna.
The camp was half asleep, his brothers resting where they collapsed or else finding beds amid the trees. Only a few were awake.
Crouching as he roasted a boar’s leg over the fire, Croki looked up at Mock’s approach. His gaze flicked between them both, at the Paleskin’s torn tunic, at the gash on Mock’s arm, the scratches on his cheek. The corner of his mouth tugged.
Scowling at him, Mock shoved her to the ground. ‘Cooked yet?’
Croki tore off a strip of flesh and chucked it to him, hot and greasy in his hands. Maybe he’d feel more himself with something in his stomach. Sitting beside him, Mock gnawed, watching as the girl crept over to another Paleskin who was curled up in a weeping ball. He spat out a hunk of gristle.
He could sense Croki’s interest as he watched them too. Mock turned to him, baring his teeth. ‘What do you think you’re looking at?’
‘Then stop lookin’ at her.’
Croki didn’t respond, chomping into his meat. Turning back to the two Paleskins, Mock chewed, spat and tore.
‘You all right?’ Croki asked finally after several bites, wiping at the grease catching in his beard.
‘‘course I’m all right,’ Mock snapped. ‘Stupid question.’
Croki raised his big, broad hands, palms outwards in a calming gesture, his left clutched around the boar bone. ‘Don’t mean anything by it. Just askin’.’
Mock took a breath. He needed to get control of himself. If he couldn’t get along with Croki, he couldn’t get along with any of his brothers. They had known each other five years, both enslaved by the Paleskins. Brothers in pain. They had seen each other in chains, witnessed each other at their weakest. If it wasn’t for the big Quarthi’s help, Mock might still be back at that fuck-awful Paleskin city: beaten, raped, humiliated—dead, if he were lucky. Would still be back at that fuck-awful city.
Fairmont. The great city of Fairmont. Pearly white walls and blood-soaked floors. There were more chains than bricks in that filthy arsehole of a place. Sneering, he licked the grease from his lips. One day he would go back and rip it apart, brick by pale brick, then set fire to anything that could burn. But before that he would gouge out the eyes of every priest he could find, then chop off each of their small, limp cocks and feed them to them. He smiled as he recalled the priest yesterday, how nicely his blade had sunk into his soft, lily-white guts. He would be a stinking, black carcass now.
Closing his eyes, he sniffed at the air, almost as though he could smell his burnt flesh, smell all those yet to die: Father Ben, Father Cleaton, Father Grayson, Bishop Canterton…. He ticked them off in his mind. So many. One day soon, when we have enough strength. But for now I must be content. Relax. Patience.