23 weeks pregnant
‘It’s beautiful, bial, and so warm!’
Grinda rubbed her arms up and down the sleeves of her brinta. It was a long-sleeved tunic with fleece on the inside and tanned hide on the outside. It was big enough that it stretched over her belly and had plenty of room for growth. It felt so good against her skin. She smoothed her hands down the legs of her new britches. They were made the same way. She had never been so warm.
‘Of course, biala,’ Mock kissed her on the lips, ‘only the best for you. I’m only sorry it took so long.’
She shook her head, unable to believe he made something so wonderful. They were made from the hide of a strange ram that wandered the forests. He had caught one, killed it and carefully skinned it, then spent the last several days sewing in the fleece and tanning the hide. She wrapped her arms around herself. He had put so much love and care into it, it almost felt like she was carrying him along with her, as though the brinta was his arms wrapped lovingly around her. She pressed her nose to the material and took a breath. It almost smelt like him.
Meanwhile, Mock still wore only his kinta. He didn’t seem to feel the cold. It was strange. Not that Grinda minded. There was nothing she liked better than raking her eyes down his strong, hard body. Seemingly of their own will, her eyes dropped to his navel, where she followed his trail of hair down to the top of his kinta.
‘Come, biala.’ He took her hand and smiled at her in a way that suggested he knew exactly what she was thinking. ‘Time to move on.’
The forests had noticeably thickened the further north they journeyed, but they weren’t even close to the grandness of the forests of his people, so Mock said.
‘The trees are so tall that you can crane your neck right back and still not see into its highest branches …. the water is as sweet as wine … the wind is warm and filled with the scent of lillas … the colours … the soft earth … you’re going to love it.’
He was exaggerating, of course; reality is rarely like one remembers. Still, she had never seen him so wistful. It was strange to think how disgusted he had once been at the idea of going home. Now …
When he looked at her, his eyes bright, his lips pulled back into that sweet smile he reserved only for her, she could see their future shining in his eyes. Their love. Their children. It made her curl into him and grip him tight. She no longer had fear for their future. No matter how the Quarthi might treat her, she had Mock and he would always love and protect her.
They set up camp deep in the woods. Mock lit a small fire but Grinda no longer needed its warmth. It did push the darkness away, however, and she was grateful for that. Mock might be excited about the woods but she was yet to get used to it. Used to the quiet. Used to the blackness. It could get so dark between the trees you could hardly see anything at all.
‘Have no fear, biala, I am with you.’ Pushing aside her hair, he kissed the back of her neck. He always seemed to know what she was feeling.
She started and gripped onto Mock’s arms at the sound of a howl. Another soon followed. Followed by a third. Winter stomped his hoof and snorted in fear
Mock wrapped his arms tightly around her. ‘They are far away. And wolves rarely eat men.’ He kissed her again. ‘Like I said, have no fear, I will protect you.’
She nodded but it did not ease the chill creeping up her spine.
Later that night, Mock left the tent, his belt of knives already strapped to his waist, his sword in hand.
They had come, after all. Quietly, he untied Winter and dragged him over to the tent where he tied him to another tree. Nice and close. He could let the wolves take the old horse down if he had to, giving him and Grinda a chance to escape, but he really didn’t want to. Grinda was getting big and was finding it hard to walk. They needed the beast, old and slow though he might be.
Next, he woke Grinda.
‘What is it?’ she said in the darkness. She was sleeping deep under the pelts.
‘Just come. We are in danger. I need you out of the tent.’
She looked at his sword, about to ask another question, when she froze at a growl. Winter whinnied. His hooves thudded. The horse had never been so full of life—or fear.
Instinctively, Mock grabbed at his belt. He didn’t need to say anything more. Grinda staggered to her feet. She was trembling as Mock took her arm.
It was dark between the trees, the sky thick with clouds, but he could hear well enough. That growl again. Deeper, closer. Grinda sucked in a breath at a second growl. Mock pushed her behind him, still gripping her arm. They turned at another growl. He could feel Grinda’s warm, frightened breaths against his back. She grabbed his hip, fingers digging in around the bone. Then the wolves revealed themselves. One by one. All three of them. Little more than shadows, except for the gleam of an eye or a canine. Two were dark, one was grey. More growling, the licking of chops. Then they began to circle.
Winter screamed, then reared, his hooves thudding heavily against the ground. He shook his head, wrenching hard at the reins tied to the tree to no avail. It did nothing to break the wolves’ focus. Mock could see their intent. They wanted the horse, first and foremost. Man-meat was secondary.
Mock tightened his grip on Grinda’s arm and slowly backed away. He would leave them to it.
‘No,’ Grinda said.
Mock froze. The wolves turned their heads.
‘No. I will not leave him.’
Grinda tried to push past him.
He pushed back. ‘What are you doing?’
She tried again but he wouldn’t let her pass.
One of the black wolves snarled. Its face lit up as a cloud passed over the moon and Mock saw that it was female, skinny, with long heavy teats that dangled beneath her belly. Her lips were drawn back, the hackles raised on her neck.
Mock shivered at a strange tickling sensation that seemed to itch at his brain. All three wolves stiffened. The grey one lifted its head. The dark male licked his chops. The female stared. They all stared—at Grinda. And suddenly Mock understood what she was doing.
‘They’re just hungry, Mock.’
‘What does it matter? I won’t let us be their prey.’
She tore her arm out of his grip and shoved past, and this time Mock didn’t try to pull her back. She stood in front of Mock—protecting him—all five feet of her. Clenching her hands at her sides, she lifted her chin. Mock tightened his grip on his sword.
Winter reared again but quietly now, snorting and grunting. His big panting breaths came out in puffs of white mist.
Again, that itch. Mock cricked his neck.
The large dark male ducked his head, gave a low growl, then began to back away. The grey followed. The female lingered. She stared at them with her silvery eyes, then sat, panting. She licked her chops, whined.
‘Go,’ Grinda said, her voice cutting through the darkness. ‘Leave us.’
The she-wolf whined again, stood, then turned and hurried away. Mock didn’t move, still gripping his sword.
‘I’m cold, Mock.’
He scoured the surrounding trees. ‘Just wait. They could come back.’
Gripping her arms, Grinda looked up at him. ‘They won’t come back.’
‘How can you be sure?’ She gave him a look. He lowered his sword. ‘All right, biala. Go back in but I’m going to stay out here a little while longer.’
‘As you wish.’ Standing on her tiptoes, she kissed him on the lips.
She crawled back inside.
Mock stood guard until dawn, but the wolves didn’t return.
‘You sure she’s here?’
‘Definitely.’ Grinda glanced around her. And she’s watching us.
Mock dropped the deer leg, adding it to the rest of the carcass he had quartered. He stretched himself out with a low moan, pushing out his chest as he cricked his neck. Grinda watched him with a crooked smile.
Mock smiled back. ‘You sure about this, biala?’
‘Definitely.’ She turned to look at the surrounding woods. ‘I promised her.’
Taking her hand, he kissed it. ‘Then come. Let’s not push her patience.’
They hid a short distance away, lying low against the ground. They waited a long time, hearing only the rustling of bushes and the creak of branches. Mock was stiff beside her. She could almost feel his disbelief. A while later, when they still hadn’t appeared, she began to doubt herself too. She and Mock kept their distance, out of sight of the waiting carcass, but close enough they would hear their approach.
And hear them they did.
A sharp yap. Then quiet again. Then more sharp yapping. Grinda glanced at Mock, who looked back at her in surprise. Grinda could sense them as well as hear them: the two males, the starving she-wolf and her litter of six. They all approached. The two males stood guard, panting heavily. The mother was cautious, keeping her young back, sensing Mock and Grinda’s presence.
Grinda tried to ease her worries. Trust. Yours.
Again, the she-wolf hesitated, but her pups were starving. Grinda could feel their little hearts galloping, their stomachs roaring, as they smelt the blood.
Finally, the she-wolf relented. Beside her, Mock laughed at the sound of the pups’ rapturous yapping as they took their fill of the carcass. Grinda took his hand and squeezed.
Mock smiled at her proudly. ‘This is a good thing, biala. The Mother should be pleased.’
Grinda smiled. ‘She is.’
They both turned back to the family of wolves, side by side, hand in hand, as they listened to their joy.