The black demon’s hooves thudded into the earth as Mock trotted around his captives. They pulled away: pathetic, whiny, cringing. Even the men. One of them fell to his knees, begging. A moment later his problems were over. A thwack, a fountain of red and the crowd screamed as his head rolled to a stop at the feet of a little pink-faced girl with rust-coloured hair. The rest of his body kneeled for a moment, hands still clasped, before slumping to the ground with a thud.
The girl shrieked. His brothers laughed. The crowd moaned and wept.
Mock waved his sword. ‘Move!’
And they did, stumbling over each other in their fight to avoid the next slash of his sword. Turning his mount, Mock cantered back towards the centre of the village. Several of his men followed. The rest poked and shoved and kicked the crowd of villagers until they were forced into a near run.
The horse steered well, his great hooves smashing through debris. There was a satisfying crunch as he crushed a skull, followed by a haze of blood in the air.
At the main road the rest of his men were waiting. Reining in, he dismounted. Bodies lay at his feet, mostly men, some women, one child. His brothers lounged, bloodied and hot but whole. Mock took stock of his surroundings. The village was defeated with barely a brother bruised. The prisoners were on their way. One of his brothers guided a horse over to add to the others. Three new mounts, lean but strong. The village itself was clearly poor as most of these far-flung villages were. If riches were their only objective, it would be hardly worth the effort. But at least there were boots and tools and livestock. He watched as one of his brothers picked up a saw-toothed sickle, twisting it in his hands as he studied it.
It reminded him of the dead man with the scythe, and he suddenly recalled the cute yellow-head hiding behind the haystacks. He glanced over the bodies at his feet. No young girls. And he didn’t recall seeing her among the captives.
‘Pith!’ he called. His brother came over, grinning. A thin film of blood shone over rotting teeth. More blood, black and clotted, coated his left ear. ‘You searched the huts?’
His grin widened as he nodded at the bodies.
‘Just the one.’
Mock narrowed his eyes. ‘Where is he?’
His brothers had stripped him naked, knowing how much Mock detested the sight of their robes. His bare back blistered in the heat. He was kneeling, head bowed, hair plastered to his head and dripping over his face. Red stained his right arm from a deep gash to his shoulder. Three of Mock’s brothers stood by, watching. They’d kept him alive at Mock’s orders.
‘He was hiding this in his robes.’ Pith took something gleaming from another brother and handed it over. Mock stroked it, then turned it over: a golden crucifix. Christ’s face was shattered.
‘Good.’ He handed it back. It would fetch them ample supplies—if they ever got the chance to barter it.
Mock crouched in front of their prisoner. ‘Father.’
The priest jerked, looking up in surprise. His face was battered and bruised: swollen nose, a gash to his lip, both eyes red and pinched mostly shut. A string of pink drool hung from the corner of his mouth.
Mock smiled. ‘Yes, I speak English. You and your kind saw to it I did.’
The priest gasped, clutching helplessly at Mock’s arm as Mock grabbed him by the throat and hauled him to his feet. His brothers laughed. Skinny, pasty, small cock curled like a snail in its shell. Mock frowned. How could someone so feeble wield so much power? It wasn’t right. It wasn’t the order of things.
The priest clawed at Mock’s wrist. ‘P-p-please.’
He sucked in a choking breath as Mock tightened his grip. ‘Please, what? Please, mercy? I don’t know mercy. Your kind saw to that too.’
The priest staggered after him, gasping and choking, as Mock hauled him to the village centre.
The prisoners had arrived, kneeling among the dead, weeping and holding each other. One had thrown herself over a body, wailing. There were probably no more than thirty left alive, including the priest.
‘Shut her up.’
The wailing woman shrieked, then cried out as one of his brothers yanked at her hair and dragged her away.
Mock released the priest, then shoved him. He stumbled and would have fallen if Mock hadn’t seized his arm and righted him. The priest gasped, clutching at his wounded shoulder as more blood gushed. A couple of villagers cried out.
‘Father!’ came a child’s cry.
Mock glanced at the boy, then turned back expressionlessly. ‘It seems you’re well-loved here, Father.’
He shoved again, and again Mock grabbed him before he fell. His brothers hooted and laughed as he compelled him towards the chapel. Shove. Grab. Shove. Grab. The big bronze cross grew large, throwing a long shadow across the ground. It glinted bloodily against the sunset.
The priest slumped against the stone wall, panting and bleeding and clutching at his shoulder. He huddled over, trying to conceal his nakedness. Mock slipped a knife from his boot.
The priest stiffened, puffy eyes watching, as Mock lifted the long blade. He shook his head. ‘Please.’
‘There’s that “please” again. Be glad, Father. You’ll be with your god soon.’
Tears leaked from the corners of the priest’s eyes, streaking through the dirt and blood on his cheeks. Mock sneered. There was nothing more contemptible than a man weeping. He tightened his grip on the blade.
Mock paused, lifting his eyebrows. ‘An unusual question, for a priest. You’re usually only interested in saving your own lives: “No’s” and “please’s”, the “don’t kill me’s!” And, of course, the “God have mercy’s”—they’re my favourite.’ He snorted and spat. ‘God knows no mercy.’
The priest didn’t respond.
‘Come now, Father, do you really not know why?’
‘I did nothing.’ He glanced at the villagers. ‘We did nothing. We’re innocent.’
Mock gave a humourless chuckle. ‘Innocent. I was once innocent too. But believe it or not, Father, I’m not a bad man. I’m even generous. I believe in giving back all that I’ve been given. And you and yours have given me so much.’ The priest pushed back against the wall of the chapel as Mock pressed the tip of the blade against his soft white belly. Leaning in close, Mock hissed in his ear, ‘So very much.’
The priest jerked and sucked in a breath, clutching at Mock’s hands, as he sank the knife deep into his guts. Mock watched his eyes widen, heard the gurgle deep in his lungs, as he slowly dragged the knife up, sawing him through. Just below his ribs, Mock released the blade. A cough, a vomit of bright red blood and the priest looked down in mild surprise at the hilt sticking out of his chest. He grabbed at it futilely, then sank heavily to his knees.
Behind Mock a woman screamed. Others joined her. A great wail lifted to the darkening sky, all their voices together. And amid that—a small cry. Mock paused. It had come from inside the chapel.
Another vomit of blood, and the priest slumped to his side, choking and gurgling, as he gazed wide-eyed at the moon rising above.