‘So, what do you think?’
Mock pulled up at Croki’s side. Shading his face against the glare, he studied the little village. He spat. ‘Easy pickings.’
His mount shifted uneasily, stomping and gnawing at his bit. Mock yanked at the reins until he settled. A big drafthorse, he was over sixteen hands high with ankles as thick as branches and rippling with ropey muscle. He had once belonged to a farmer. Mock smiled, remembering the attack fondly. He had spent hours sharpening his sword the night before, and the man’s belly had opened like warm butter beneath his strike. Even now, Mock could hear his screams as he left him to die. The farm should still be thick with crows. The man was father to six and none had known mercy.
A good day.
The horse didn’t ride fast—more used to pulling carts and tilling fields—but he was as black as a witch’s heart, unfazed by blood and screaming and as strong as an ox. Fitting for Mock, leader of the barbarian horde, purveyor of death and destruction, murder, fiend and raper of women. All who saw him quivered and pissed themselves, then begged for their lives—and lost them.
Mock sneered at the little village. It was a fine day for a raid. ‘Prepare our brothers. We attack within the hour.’
Croki nodded and galloped back the way they came. The eastern regions had seen peace for much too long. Mock’s hand itched for his sword.
He would soon fix that.
‘Go fetch more water from the well, we’re running low.’
‘And did you milk the cow yesterday? She was noisy last night and Husband says she’s leaking everywhere.’
‘No, Mother. But I can do it now.’
‘And when you’ve done that, bake some bread. The men will be hungry when they get home.’
‘Of course, Mother.’
Grinda’s mother looked down at little Edwin suckling at her breast, her dark hair falling across her face. It was gloomy inside their little one-roomed hut. Though the light from the rising sun trailed inside their door and through the gaps in the straw ceiling, it wasn’t enough to shift the darkness.
From outside came the sounds of Grinda’s two little brothers playing catch, shrieking and laughing as they chased each other around the house. They were supposed to be gathering food for the evening meal. The cabbage and onions and some of the potatoes would be ready for picking. Grinda turned on her heel with a sigh, knowing she would be the one taking on the job. Such an important task couldn’t be left to two gormless boys. Her shoes whispered through the rushes as she ducked under the door and stepped outside.
‘Billy, Jacob, do as Mother says!’ she called to her brothers as she circled the house. They tackled each other to the ground, rolling in the dirt, punching and kicking. Grinda grimaced; more clothes to wash, more cuts to nurse, more rips to patch. Billy leapt to his feet with a snort of laughter and fled, Jacob close at his heels, both ignoring her as they disappeared around the neighbour’s house.
Grinda bypassed the garden, scattering chickens as she went. The family cow lifted her head at her approach and gave a great bellow, pulling at the rope tying her to the back of the house. Grinda frowned. Her udder was painfully swollen, her teats red and the earth below was wet with congealed milk. She could smell the sourness on the air. Grinda had heard her all night mooing and stomping but had been too tired to do anything about it.
‘I’m sorry, girl,’ Grinda said with a rush of guilt, patting her on the neck. The cow shook her head, swished her tail and gave another loud bellow. ‘I just didn’t get the time yesterday.’
She picked up the pail and knelt beside her, lifting her skirts as she did so she wouldn’t get them muddied. The earth was cool and wet beneath her knees. The small awning above gave the cow and herself some much needed shade. It was a particularly hot summer and they needed to protect their animals, particularly their only cow.
Her teats were wet and slippery, and the milk jetted forcefully into the pail, hitting the bottom with a loud patter. Before long the pail was almost full and the cow had settled.
Grinda patted the cow’s hind leg. ‘Better?’
The cow nosed her hand with a soft moo.
Grinda left the milk for her mother to tend to, fetched the yoke and headed for the well.
The village was a bustle of activity. Grinda waved at a couple of women as they hauled along their pails of grain and water. A clutch of little girls whispered and giggled, their baskets filled with fresh eggs and newly picked vegetables. Grinda dodged a group of young boys throwing sticks and stones and manure at each other. A couple broke off to chase down a barking dog, shouting and whooping. There were few men, most out on the farms.
Grinda pulled down her wimple low over her face as the sun beat on her head. Warm sweat trickled down the back of her neck. She shifted the yoke, settling it into a more comfortable position across her shoulders, the two pails dangling emptily on either side. She wrinkled her nose at the stench of shit as she passed a woman shovelling manure into a wagon.
The closer Grinda approached the well, the nearer she drew to the smithy and the louder the sound of banging became. There was a hiss of steam as the blacksmith dipped the glowing iron into a barrel of water. Sweat poured down his red face and into his thick bushy beard. More sweat trickled along his bulging biceps and down his broad powerful chest. Grinda stared as she passed.
A group of women waited at the well, all sweltering in the heat. Grinda greeted them. They waved and smiled and said hello back, but they were strangely stiff and quiet as though they had been discussing something secret.
Grinda frowned, looking curiously between them all, before setting down her yoke with a grunt of relief. Even with the pails empty it hurt her shoulders, rubbing against the old bruises that never had a chance to heal. ‘Something wrong?’
Mirabelle shook her head. Agnus looked away. Janelle sighed. Bella had her back to them all, busy at the pulley as she hauled up a bucket of water.
‘We should probably tell her,’ Nella said, folding her fat arms.
Mirabelle agreed, blue eyes bright behind her heavy lashes. ‘I suppose. She’s going to find out anyway.
‘But she’s just a child. We’ll scare her. And what about Karin?’ Janelle said, looking uncertain. A bead of sweat trickled down her cheek. She flicked it away.
Grinda pushed back her shoulders until she stood to her fullest height, which wasn’t much. ‘I’m not a child. I’m almost marriageable now and Mother’s not the boss of me.’ It was a half-truth. Father was the boss, but he wouldn’t care what gossip she listened to, so long as she finished her work.
There was a loud splash as Bella emptied the bucket into her pails.
Nella shrugged. ‘If you insist. A rider arrived at the village late last night. I didn’t see myself, but I was told he was one of Lord Triston’s knights.’
Grinda’s eyes widened. ‘A knight? A real knight?’ She looked up at Nella almost beggingly. She had never seen a knight before. Lord Rickard had once been a knight but he was years past his fighting days now: too much pork in his belly, bald as a trout and as slow as a three-legged ox. ‘Is he still here?’
‘Unlikely. I’m sure he would have left at first light to rush to Redburn.’ Redburn was the next village over, only an hour away from Quay by donkey trot.
‘Well, that’s the news, isn’t it?’ Nella glanced at Bella as she gathered close to listen. She had left her yoke at the well and the wet hem of her skirt stuck to her skinny legs. ‘It seems we might be in danger.’ Nella paused unnecessarily, savouring Grinda’s unease. ‘It seems there have been barbarian raids on the villages of Quinton and Tacturn.’
The breath caught in Grinda’s throat. Agnus rested a hand on her pregnant belly protectively. Bella frowned.
‘But they’re only two days away!’ Grinda said. ‘Do you think they’re going to come here?’
‘We’re not sure,’ Janelle said, giving Nella an annoyed look.
‘But the knight was worried,’ Nella continued, ignoring Janelle. ‘At least from what I hear. He spoke to Lord Rickard last night.’
‘What should we do?’ Grinda said, clutching at her skirts.
Grinda laid out the dishes for dinner, then ladled out the stew. Next she cut and buttered the bread before pouring them each a cup of water, the same she had hauled from the well earlier that day. Her father and three older brothers were tired and dirty and they didn’t look at her, much less thanked her as they shovelled in their fair. The day was still bright, the heat gouging at the mud brick walls of the little hut as the sun settled against the horizon. A waste to light a candle, the family would be in bed by the time darkness fell.
Making sure Jacob and Billy were settled, she sat among them, feeling the same ache she saw in the lines on her father’s face, the same heavy droop in her brothers’ shoulders. Her stomach growled but all she could do was absently push around her food with her spoon. How could she eat when so much hung in the balance?
Her mother sat opposite, trying to eat as Edwin suckled at her breast. The boy was always hungry. He would soon learn not to be.
Their little hut was bare and small but at least it was cooler than outside. The doorway faced south, the window north, so they suffered neither the glaring brightness of the morning nor the suffocating heat of the afternoon. It made for a bearable summer but a freezing winter. The roof was made of mud and straw, baked hard, and the floor was much the same: beaten earth covered in a dusting of rushes, which Grinda shovelled up and replaced when they got too dirty.
Her father scraped the bottom of his bowl and looked up. He glanced at her dish. ‘You’re not eating, daughter?’
‘Are you sick?’
She shook her head.
Her father rested back against the wall, his hands on his firm belly. His fingernails were black with grime and there were streaks of mud and blood on his thick forearms. He was looking haggard and old, more grey in his beard than brown, the lines running deep in his furrowed brow and at the drooping corners of his mouth. His tunic sat loosely on his shoulders. His pants were belted with rope. Life was hard and harder still with so many mouths to feed. Her brothers faired little better.
‘Then share it among your brothers,’ he told her. ‘Lord knows they need it.’
She pushed over her dish and her brothers crowded around it, digging in their spoons. Grinda watched her father carefully, but he showed no sign of anxiety. Surely he must have heard the news.
She cleared her throat. ‘Father?’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Did you—did you hear?’
He pressed his lips together. ‘Yes, I heard.’
Grinda glanced at her mother. She had lowered her face over Edwin, her long dark hair concealing her expression, but Grinda could see the tension in her shoulders. Her brothers revealed nothing but their desperate hunger.
‘What must we do?’
Grinda hesitated. To question Father was to withhold food from a starving boar, but even his formidable wrath was no match for a horde of bloodthirsty barbarians. Torture, murder, rape. Grinda clenched her knees together. She had heard the tales. They would rip her insides out.
‘Is that—is that wise?’ she said.
It was as though a heavy shroud fell over the hut. Everyone froze. Silence fell. Even Edwin stopped fidgeting. The walls closed in, and she lowered her eyes to the table, feeling the heat of her father’s glare.
‘You dare question me, daughter?’
Grinda hunched over, tucking her chin to her chest. Her arse clenched, recalling the sting of his lash. She was still raw from the last time. ‘I’m sorry, Father.’
More silence. Grinda didn’t move. Then Father’s deep sigh, the rasp of fabric against brick as he relaxed against the wall again. The shroud lifted. Her brothers went back to their stew. Edwin mewled and sucked. And Grinda dared look up.
‘There is no sin in knowing fear, especially for a woman,’ he said. ‘But the situation is under control. Word has it Lord Triston has sent three companies of his finest men to meet the barbarians head on. They won’t know a second dawn.’
Grinda nodded. ‘Good, Father.’
Edwin whined as Mother shifted him to her other breast. The bench wobbled as Billy and Joel began kicking each other under the table. Spoons scraped against an empty dish. And Grinda gazed through the window, digging her fingers into her knees until it hurt.