The village of Quay was subdued. The time for word of Lord Triston’s victory had come and passed. Yet the villagers looked up from their tasks to gaze towards the rolling hills of the west, searching for that lone messenger sitting astride his battle-hardened steed, armour shining in the sun, tired and bloody and late but flushed with triumph.
Grinda was no different. In times like this, hope was all she had.
She straightened her back with a groan as she finished tying another sheaf of newly threshed barley. She patted the donkey on the nose, then began to load its back. Father was demanding ten loads. Her chest tightened: the day was late and she was well behind.
Despite the terrors that lurked beyond, life went on: strips of land were tilled, food cooked, water hauled, cows milked, pigs fed. There was nowhere for them to turn: unscaleable mountains to the east, the open sea to the south. The closest stronghold was Paxton Landing where Lord Triston ruled, but it was over a day away at a fast trot to the west and directly in the path of the barbarians.
They might have had a chance to reach it had they left soon after the knight had delivered his warning. But they had trusted in the might of Lord Triston’s forces. They had trusted that God would see them through. After all, the eastern regions had never suffered an attack before.
They had gambled—and lost.
Now all they could do was pray the horde would miss them. They were a small village, even as small villages went, and the eastern plains were vast. Or perhaps the barbarians would grow tired of their raiding and turn north and vanish into the black, wild woods where they belonged, never to be seen again.
Grinda scoffed at the thought: even she wasn’t naive enough to hope for that.
Finishing with her load, Grinda led the donkey towards the mill.
The afternoon sun descended slowly, a great orange orb straddling the horizon, throwing splashes of pink, red and yellow across the darkening sky. It glared so fiercely the villagers lowered the brims of their hats or turned their faces away.
It beat hotly against Mock’s back as he gazed at the little village. His mount flicked its tail and nickered. Behind and below him his brothers waited, hidden by the crest of the hill. The excitement of an oncoming raid had waned after so much relentless destruction, but his rage had not, continuing to burn as fiercely as the fires of the Paleskins’ legendary hell. Unquenchable. Ferocious. They would pay for what they did. Every man, woman and child.
Mercy was for the weak.
The lip of the horn was cool against his mouth as he blew. And he blew hard; the horn was long and spiralled, the passage of air tight as it vibrated through the bone. A tribute to his people, it had been lopped from the crown of a Questat, a ram wiped out by the Paleskins decades before. It echoed through the little village, smooth, deep and long, almost mournful, as though already lamenting the suffering to come.
A warning. A note of revenge.
He took a breath and blew again. The air shifted and the ground trembled as his men gathered around him. He paused, watching and listening, as the sound faded into the distance. Moments of silence passed as the soon to be dead turned their heads towards them, hands lifted against the glare. The silence shattered. Screaming, shouting and wailing—the Paleskins were all the same.
The air around Mock seethed, hot and coiling like a raging fire as the village descended into chaos. The horses stomped and shook their heads, feeling it too. His brothers were impatient and enflamed with blood lust. But Mock waited. Let the Paleskins run. Let them prepare themselves—as useless as that was.
Minutes later, Mock began a slow trot down the hill. His brothers did the same. They began at a canter before falling into a gallop, hooves beating the earth like thunder as they ploughed into the village. Mock reined in as his brothers rushed past, shouting and waving their swords. He liked to take his time, to savour his kills. He liked to see their eyes widen with terror, all those pretty blues and greens and greys, before slicing them through.
In fact …
Dismounting, Mock unsheathed his sword. Let us face each other like men.
Grinda caught sight of the figure atop the hill, a dark shadow against the setting sun, moments before that terrible sound echoed around her. Her hope was stronger than her fear: A knight! she thought. We have won!
The hair on her arms stood up. Those men. So many men. Lord Triston had failed. We’re going to die. The sound of that terrible horn echoed in her bones, then muffled almost to silence, as though she were submerged in deep water. People rushed past: flashes of faces she knew, white with terror, mouths open, screaming silently. They bashed into her as they fled. The donkey reared, yanking the reins out of her slippery hands. Sheaves of barley fell. Hours of hard work lost. Father would be furious.
What was she thinking? Father would be dead.
She shook herself, then began to back away, only to trip and fall with a thud. The earth was hard beneath her hands. A stab of pain shot up her back. Then came a click as the world exploded with noise.
Screaming, so much screaming. Shouts and roars. Dogs bayed. Something screeched. There came a terrific bellow.
Grinda leapt to her feet but fell again as someone knocked her hard to the ground. She cried out at a blast of pain as that same someone stepped on her wrist. Clawing to her feet, she clutched her arm to her chest and ran with the fleeing mob, weaving through the huts and gardens. East. She must go east: to the vast empty plains, to the mountains and away from danger.
They say they wore the skins of their fallen enemies.
And drank their blood.
And what they did to their own women…
Escape the village, leave home, avoid death. No pain. No rape. No murder. Home. She slowed, stopped, turned. My family. Mother, Father, all her brothers. Little Edwin. Something flared in her chest. The muscles in her thighs tightened. The pain in her wrist suddenly didn’t seem so bad.
Against the tide of human terror, she raced back home.
Mock’s sword sang alongside the screams of the dying. Blood spurted. Bone crunched against his fist. Standing over his crawling, blubbering victim, he brought down his fist again and again. Pain rushed like fire through his knuckles and up his arm. But pain was his friend. He revelled in it. He took pleasure in it. Something cracked, and his fist sank into soft gooey flesh. The man stopped blubbering, bleeding from his ears and eyes and the mangled lump that was now his nose.
Mock straightened with a roar, bashing his fists against his chest, splattering blood and gore in all directions. You think us savages? Here we are!
Mock hefted his sword as a fierce-looking Paleskin charged him from the left, scythe upraised. Mock waited, pretending he didn’t see.
In a flash of steel, the scythe came down. Mock ducked, leapt and swung. His sword rang through the air, thudding against flesh with a spray of blood. It was so red, like a whore’s painted mouth. Warm droplets beaded his skin.
He licked his lips, then spat. Paleskin blood. Nasty. Weak and lifeless. It still surprised him—how red it was. With their skin so pale, you’d think it pink or blue.
There was a gasp and a flash of movement to his right. In the corner of his vision he saw a girl hiding. Between the stacks of hay, a wide blue eye stared within a face as pale as the moon: a yellow-head and a cute one—for a Paleskin, that was. Ripe and ready for the picking. Not yet, Mock told himself with a grin. But if she survives the first blooding, she’s mine.
Wielding his sword, he charged away.
Shock: that empty, black void that stole the thoughts from your mind and the breath from your lungs. She stared at her father in horror, still bleeding and choking as he clutched at his throat. And beyond him was Mathew or maybe Kye? It was hard to recognise who, with his face all mashed up like that.
At least the barbarian hadn’t spotted her, but it had been close: a swift duck behind the haystacks, the prick of straw against her knees. She’d been fortunate so far, sneaking between the huts and overturned wagons unseen. And home was just ahead. Most of the brutality was now contained to the edges of the village where she’d rushed away from. She could hear the distant screaming, of men and women and startled horses.
That could have been me. She felt nothing at the thought. Shock: such a terrible, wonderful thing. But it didn’t last. She looked at her father again. The blood still flowed and he’d stopped moving, except for a vague twitch of his right boot and the blink of one eye. Grinda swallowed, gasped. Tears pricked her eyes. Her heart thudded. She started to shake so violently her teeth chattered.
She collapsed to her arse. No longer quiet, she gulped and grunted down the air. How had it become so thick? She should stop, someone would hear.
Taking a deep breath, she scrambled back to her knees. Clutching onto the haystacks with trembling fingers, she peered through the gap. The way ahead was empty. She was so close. Their hut was just around the corner, not far from the bodies of her father and brother.
Father and my brother—dead. A spike of horror shot up her spine. What if Mother was dead too? What if Grinda was the only one left? Alone and at the mercy of the barbarians, to that horror who’d murdered Father. Vomit surged in her throat. The shaking intensified. She bit down on her lip.
Either way she needed to find out.
Grinda’s pulse thudded in her ears as she raced past the haystacks and out into the open. She twisted and turned through the labyrinth of walkways, careful not to stumble over debris. But it was hard: everything was a blur and her feet didn’t seem to want to obey directions. Trip, stagger, fall. Get up. Repeat. There was no dead here, thank the Lord, but lots of panicked animals and broken fences. Most houses had already been swiftly pillaged, their meagre belongings tossed outside, broken and useless. Here a table, there a chair. Pots and pans.
She cried out when her ankle twisted in a pail. Wet coldness rushed through her boot and up her ankle. What it was, she couldn’t care. Kicking it away, she hobbled on, turning a bend.
And there it was.
The hut. The doorway was dark, the walls intact. None of their treasures littered the ground. Hope seized her heart. It looked just as it should.
‘Mama?’ she dared. She hadn’t called her that since she was small, yet it leapt to her tongue now as though she’d been saying it for years.
Grinda staggered through the doorway. Dropping to her knees, she let the tears fall. Mama, Jacob, Billy, Edwin—they were all there, pale faces in the gloom. Two hard little bodies thumped into her. Skinny arms encircled her neck. Wet cheeks pressed up against hers. They cried her name over and over again.
Grinda kissed and hugged and wept. Billy and Jacob—her little brothers.
There came a whimper, a whine—Edwin, cradled to Mama’s breast. Grinda looked up, straight into her mother’s eyes. Pain, horror, fear. Don’t ask me the question, Mama, and I won’t either. Mama didn’t ask. She didn’t need to, the answer plain in Grinda’s tears: Mathew, Kye, Dillon, Father—all gone; their family half dead.
They were alone.
Mama’s already pale lips whitened. The hard lines of her face deepened. She was about to say something when the sound of shouting turned their heads. Jacob and Billy cried out, clinging to Grinda so tightly they cut off her air.
‘Shush!’ Mama hissed. Clasping Edwin tightly to her chest, she lurched to her feet. Her voice was hoarse, like an old woman’s. Grinda supposed she was. ‘We must go. We cannot—’ she took a shuddering breath ‘—we cannot let them die in vain.’
Mama carried Edwin while Grinda clung onto Jacob and Billy’s small slippery hands as they hurried on quiet feet away from the hut, away from their old life and all they knew. Grinda stole one last glance of her home before it was lost behind her.
They fled, stumbling and weeping, as the shouts echoed behind them, drawing ever closer and ever more ferocious. Grinda could hear the thud of their mounts now. At every turn, at every deep bellow, the back of her neck tingled and her lower back cramped, waiting for that sword thrust, that dagger throw. Did they use arrows and spears? Likely. And worse. How could they outrun those?
Jacob lost his footing, wrenching at Grinda’s arm as she dragged him after her. Stopping briefly, she hoisted him into her arms. He was limp and cool, wet with tears and sweat, shocked and whimpering. But at least Billy hung on, matching her stride for stride as he clutched furiously at her skirts. Grinda thanked God for small mercies.
Come on, Billy. Be strong.
The edge of their little village drew closer, but the barbarians drew closer still. We’re not going to make it. We’re not going to make it. And she wondered: Where are we even escaping to?
They raced ahead, skirts and hair flying. Mama didn’t look back, pressing Edwin’s face hard against her chest, muffling his cries. Escaping the maze of huts, they hit the village’s main road. Mama wheeled back with a hiss. Grinda skidded into her, and they all tumbled to the ground in a heap.
More barbarians were sneaking between the huts further ahead, looking for women and valuables: six of them, all facing away. One of them laughed. They were so filthy, so savage, so utterly abominable. They wore hardly anything at all, except for a strip of fabric around their privates. One wore a sleeveless tunic, but the rest left their chests bare. Muscles bulged. Yellow teeth gleamed through thick, dirty beards. They wore spears and swords at their backs, long daggers at their hips and knives in their boots. They were slathered all over in blood, grime and gore, concealing their deep brown skin in a motley of sickening colours.
No man-pelts, at least.
Somehow the boys stayed silent, weeping quietly. Mama smothered Edwin’s cries. Pain shot up the back of Grinda’s neck from the fall. Jacob was still cradled in her arms, his head pressed hard into her breasts, thankfully uninjured but in terrible danger. They were out in the open. All the barbarians had to do was turn.
Bodies lay on the road, fallen where they died. Grinda turned Billy’s face away so he wouldn’t see—too late. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, unable to find words of comfort.
They were trapped.
‘The church!’ Mama hissed, scrambling to her feet.
And that’s when Grinda saw it: the steeple, the crucifix, that welcoming door always open. Hope flared in her heart, then died. What hope did they have in there? But she rushed after Mama, nonetheless.
The sun was setting, the gloom gathering in the dusty corners and between the rows of silent pews. Good. Today, shadows were their friends. Quickly they hid themselves away. Mama and Edwin huddled between the pews to the right while Grinda and her brothers clung to each other between the pews to the left.
‘Mama!’ Jacob cried.
‘Jacob!’ Grinda hissed as he wrenched out of her grasp and scurried over to their mother. He fell into her lap.
Mama gave a quiet curse. Edwin mewled but was quickly silenced.
Everyone froze. Had the barbarians heard? Grinda’s ears rang as she listened out for sounds of discovery: a yell of triumph, an ominous silence, the thud of a heavy footstep.
Nothing except laughter and the sounds of pillaging.
Grinda took a breath. The stone floor was hard and the seats on either side dug into her knees. Sweat dripped down her back and under her arms. A big wet patch was forming where Billy cuddled into her chest. There was too little space and too little air. Her eyes flicked left and right between Mama and the direction of the open door hidden behind the pews. There they lingered, gazing hard, as though she could will the barbarians away. She had a sudden thought: Where was Father Joel? She caught her breath at a rush of panic, then gritted her teeth.
She hadn’t recognised him as one of the bodies on the road outside. He might not be dead.
Remember whose side you’re on. Have faith in God.
I’ll try, Grinda thought. Lord help me, I’ll try.