Mock’s hands were still wet with blood by the time the Paleskin fighters came for them.
‘Fifty mounted men, maybe more,’ Beltho answered.
Mock slithered along the ground, using his elbows to push himself along. He settled beside Beltho and thrust aside the long grass, squinting. Breastplates glinted. Shields gleamed. Helms glared. Here and there were flashes of uniform: red and white. A formidable force and as pretty as pixies in their colourful dresses and coward’s armour. Mock dug his fingers into the earth. The muscles of his broad shoulders bunched around his neck. But let me peel them bare as babes and let’s see that squishy, pink flesh beneath. Like skinned eels and just as slippery. Easy to gut. Delicious to slaughter.
Mock licked his lips. ‘That all?’
‘They equal us man for man.’
‘You are wrong. We are Quarthi. They are the Paleskins. Our men are worth two to their one.’
He pushed himself to his feet in full view of their enemy. Beltho looked up at him warily, then did the same. Though his sight wasn’t as sharp as Beltho’s, Mock imagined he saw those pretty helms turning one by one. That’s right. Look at me. To see the great Mock is to see death made flesh. Come for me if you dare.
Fire flared. Smoke billowed. Blood flowed. And the screaming. So much screaming.
Grinda woke with a start into the quiet darkness of her family’s little hut. Just outside the window the cow mooed. Somewhere in the distance sheep bleated. The gentle breathing of her family filled the room. But nothing more.
‘God have mercy,’ she whispered into the darkness, wiping away a bead of sweat trickling past her ear. Her shift stuck to her legs and had sunk between her breasts. She tried to air it out, but the air was so thick with moisture she only sweated more.
Closing her eyes, she tried to steady her breathing. There was no sense in fearing the unknown. It was the second dawn. The barbarians were likely dead by now, Lord Tristan’s brave knights setting their stinking carcasses alight. She sniffed the air, willing it to be true, but all she smelt was sweat and cow. Stupid girl. They were leagues away.
Grinda turned over, gazing at the faint mounds of her family. Mother, Father, Kye, Mathew, Dillon, Billy, Jacob and little Edwin. She repeated their names over and over in her mind.
Wincing, she rolled over again, images of those heinous men flashing behind her eyes, swallowing up her family one by one with their wet lips and pointed teeth. Everyone had heard the legends of the savages who once roamed the land of Toth.
‘They say they wore the skins of their fallen enemies,’ Bella had once told her.
‘And drank their blood,’ added Nell.
‘It is said they even ate their flesh, eating right down to the bone.’
‘Where they gnawed and sucked out the marrow.’
‘And what they did to their own women,’ Bella continued, shaking her head. ‘Doesn’t bare thinking about.’
Grinda shivered in the heat.
The next day dawned hot and bright. Her usual route to the well felt harder than it ever had. She tripped over her feet. The buckets rattled emptily on the way there, then sloshed heavily on the way back. Every few minutes she looked around, watching out for the horde of blood-thirsty savages dressed in their blood-soaked man pelts waiting to tear out her throat. To the creeping black forest of the south she looked, where the Kraken Sea glinted like a diamond far into the distance; to the east where the seven frost-bitten peaks of the Windy Mountains reared high into the sky, so stark and cold against the blazing blue. Grinda almost wept at the thought of snow, aching for its blistering touch.
Then there was the west, where across the sweeping plains of waving grass rose the great kingdom of Fairmont. She couldn’t see it of course, so far away. But she imagined it: a white pearl against the summer sky, banners waving, all ramparts and towers and gates. An unbreakable fortress. It would be so safe behind those high, impenetrable walls.
And finally the north. The north. Grinda stopped to stare. The last tribes of the man-eating savages were rumoured to still dwell there, deep within the wild black forests. The region was so perilous, filled with sucking swamps, black magic, unearthly creatures and so much darkness and evil only the bravest knights had dared to tread it.
Dared to tread—and died.
How could Father not be afraid? Grinda hurried to the well.
The village chapel was empty, but it was bright and inviting. Light poured through the windows, playing against the colourful tapestries and the golden sash of the altar. The saints watched from their stone plinths, and on the wall at the back Christ looked down on her sadly from his golden cross. Positioned so it caught the sunlight, the cross gleamed like a jewel.
Grinda gazed at it a moment, then bobbed her head and crossed herself before taking a seat in one of the pews. Bowing her head, she prayed.
The little chapel had always been a source of comfort. She had sought out its stone walls so often it had become a second home. Life was hard in the village of Quay and her sins were many. As a child she would often hobble her way here after a whipping from her father. When her brothers teased her, she would rush inside crying. When she ached with hunger, prayer would help ease her pangs.
As she grew older, her visits were no less frequent but the reasons for doing so were very different: guilt over her wandering eyes, absolution for that extra spoonful of dinner, guidance for her discontent.
And now here she was again. But this time she wasn’t so sure she would find what she needed.
‘My good daughter, back again?’
Grinda smiled. She had hoped he would be here. ‘Sorry, Father.’
‘Sorry? No apologies for seeking the house of the Lord.’
Father Joel smiled back. He was still a young man, early thirties, with faint lines around his eyes and mouth. Kindly lines, she thought them, of a man who liked to smile a lot. Not like Father. As a girl, she would often imagine Father Joel replacing her real father. A sin, of course. A child must always cherish their parents. Another reason for her frequent visits. He was dressed in the simple robe he always wore. His hands were pale and smooth, the nails clean and neatly cut.
He sat beside her and Grinda couldn’t help but take a deep breath. He smelt sweet and wonderful, like the woody sharpness of the timber pews, like the throat-tickling must of the tapestries, like the cool wet thickness of the stone brick walls. All that she loved of the chapel was imbued in that simple brown robe, in that pale clean skin. How she ached to press her nose to the nape of that warm, soft neck and breathe to her heart’s content.
Another reason why she visited so often.
‘You seek my counsel?’ he asked.
‘Am I so obvious, Father?’
‘You wear your suffering like a donkey at harvest time. What ails you?’
‘I’ve heard tell of the barbarians.’
His smile faltered. ‘As have I.’
Grinda turned back to the altar and kissed her mouth to her clasped hands, hiding the tremble in her lips. ‘I fear them.’
‘As do I. As do we all.’
‘Have you heard if Lord Triston’s forces prevailed?’
‘There has been no word.’
Silence. An aching, cold silence that clamped around Grinda’s throat like icy fingers. ‘Then, what now?’ Her voice was a strangled croak. She gazed absently at the cross, now little more than a golden blur. She blinked rapidly.
‘It is still early yet. All we can do is wait and pray and hope.’
The fingers tightened. ‘I fear I don’t have the courage.’
Father Joel laid a hand on her shoulder. There was a rush of heat, melting that icy grip and making her throat swell. Hot tears spilled and she trembled. ‘Forgive me, Father,’ she gasped.
Warm breath against her cheek, soft lips against her head. A fatherly kiss. A kiss of comfort. ‘Remember whose side you’re on,’ he said. ‘We will prevail. We must. Have faith in God.’
Grinda swallowed her tears. ‘I’ll try.’
Mock stared into the eyes of his enemy like he’d stared so many times before. They had so many different coloured eyes, these Paleskins. All different shades of blue and green and grey. Once he even saw violet. So pretty, so weak. But despite the colour, they otherwise looked the same. That same blankness, that same grey film across the widened pupil. Death made brothers of them all. Sometimes all those little blood vessels would burst, turning the white part pink. But not these eyes. These eyes stayed as pasty as their owner’s skin.
Mock thrust the spear into the ground, then shoved the head onto the point he had sharpened at the other end. He had to push down hard, then twisted it so it faced east. Gripping the spear in his slippery hand, Mock watched alongside it as though they were allies, even friends.
He gestured at the scene. ‘So, my friend. What do you think?’
The horizon was painted red, partly from the descending sun but mostly from the blazing fires. Pyres of bodies, blackening, curling, melting. Billows of acrid smoke stained the pink clouds grey. The stench was so thick it lodged like a moss-covered stone in Mock’s throat. It tickled. It scratched.
How he loved it.
Warm blood from the Paleskin head trickled down his wrist.
‘A fine day. A great kill. Only ten of my men dead. Thirty of yours. Or was it fifty?’ He looked at his new friend, then shrugged. ‘I don’t know either. But I assumed wrong, it seems we’re worth at least three to your one.’
Something shifted in one of the pyres, body parts rolled. A crackle, a snap, a flash. A tongue of flame licked. Thick black smoke mushroomed. His brothers didn’t budge, watching as intently as he, their bodies flickering in the light of the flames. Bloodied and bruised, black with soot and reeking of death. Satisfied, even joyous.
But not yet redeemed.
Turning his gaze far afield, Mock licked his lips. So much more to be done.