Grinda leads a peaceful but difficult life until she’s kidnapped by a gang of violent barbarians. But are they all as bad as they seem?
‘Go fetch more water from the well. And when you’ve done that, the cow needs milking. And when you’ve done that, bake some bread. Your father and brothers will be home shortly and they’ll be hungry.’
‘Yes, Mother,’ Grinda said, picking up the pail.
She stepped outside into the burning day. The village was a bustle of activity. Women hauled along their pails of milk or water or grain. Children fetched eggs and tended the family gardens. Men made their way to the farms, carrying scythes and spades and shears, on foot or mounted on donkeys or mules. Grinda could hear banging from the blacksmith as he shaped his iron blades. There was the stench of shit as a woman shovelled manure into a wagon. From the oldest woman to the smallest child, everyone was hard at work.
Just another day in the small village of Quay—long and dull and difficult.
Grinda reached the well, put down her pail and pulled on the rope, hand over hand, the rope scratching against the pulley as she hauled up a full pail of water. She glanced up at the mountains, pale and stark against the sky—the Stone Mountains. A world away, where the wind blew cold and the village was nothing but a dot below, and where there were no cows to milk or bread to bake or heavy pails of water to carry.
She tipped the water into her pail, careful not to wet her skirt, then lifted with a grunt. Staggering with the weight, she was about to make her way home when she stopped at the sound of a horn. Deep and booming, it echoed across the fields and through their little village, making everyone take pause. For several moments the village was still and quiet, the quietest it had ever been.
A crowd of mounted men had gathered atop the hill to the east. Weapons gleamed against the sun. Bronze skin shone with sweat. Then the horn sounded again, and they galloped down the hill towards them.
Mock blew the horn, then licked his lips, grinning as the men around him shouted and whooped. Their target was a large village, rich with women and supplies. Maybe even gold. It would be a great day for the Quarthi.
Villagers scattered, screaming and shouting. Most tried to run. Others hid in their houses, mostly women. Some of the men stayed back to fight. Good. He unsheathed his sword.
His first kill bent beneath his strike, head arched back, eyes wide, as Mock split him from groin to chin. Blood exploded out of him, spraying Mock in a red shower. The man didn’t even have time to cry before he hit the ground.
His next kill decided to drop his weapon and run—too late. Mock ripped him up the back, his blade grating against his vertebrae. More blood splattered his face, and he licked his lips again, savouring his kill, the death, the thrill. Ahhhh. There was little better than a pillage.
He had made seven kills, his sword bloodied from point to hilt, when the village was taken and the real fun began. Women screamed as the Quarthi rushed into their houses and dragged them outside, or else rode them down, sweeping them onto their horses.
There—he saw her. His victim. Petrified, staring straight into his eyes. She was only young, barely a woman, her face white against her pale hair.
She didn’t run from him, didn’t even gasp as he curled his arm around her waist and hoisted her onto his horse. Clasping her against him, pinning her arms tight to her chest, he galloped through the village, passing other Quarthi as they looted homes and robbed the dead, stealing belts and boots and any coins they could find. Bodies were strewn everywhere, most still, some squirming. Several he leapt over, others he trampled, bouncing in his saddle as he did. The girl gasped as she almost slipped from his grasp. He clutched her tighter.
By the time they left the village, he was barely able to control himself. The best fucks he ever had were after a killing. And he had killed seven today.
He reigned in. Several other Quarthi had the same idea, their horses grazing as they thrusted in the grass, bronze arses gleaming with sweat in the midday heat. Women cried out, screamed or moaned.
Mock slipped off his horse, pulling the girl into his arms before throwing her to the ground. Straddling her, he unfastened his pants. His cock sprang free. The girl was whimpering quietly, white as the clouds above, trembling violently between his legs.
He hoisted up her skirt. The girl yelped as he tore at her underclothes, ripping out a few of her hairs. He brushed his hand through her thatch with a sigh. Pale, like the rest of her. Then he pushed his finger inside her. She gasped. Dry as a bone. Not that it would stop him.
He lay on top, groin to groin, face to face. She had blue eyes, rare for these parts. Her hair shone in the sunlight. Tears glistened on her cheeks. She squirmed beneath him, trying to push him off, but he seized her wrists and pinned them to the ground. Her blue eyes looked up at him, begging, pleading.
Grabbing his cock, Mock went to thrust into her, but something was wrong. ‘What the—?’
His cock was flaccid. Impossible. He smoothed it in his hands, jiggled it about, gave a couple of tugs, but nothing could make him hard. Embarrassing. If a Quarthi couldn’t rape his spoils, he was no man. Mock straddled the girl, glaring at her. She had done something to him. Maybe she was a witch. He pulled a knife out of his boot. Not for long.
The girl’s eyes widened in terror. Tears made her eyes glisten. She babbled something in her language, pleading.
He pressed his blade to her throat. She silenced, arching her neck and freezing beneath him. A droplet of blood trickled down her neck, so red against her white skin. Her breast heaved at every breath. More tears streaked down the sides of her face. And her blue eyes looked up at him, still begging.
He steeled himself, pressed the blade down harder. The girl whimpered. Kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her. But his hand wouldn’t obey. He released her with a snarl, plunging the blade into the earth beside her head.
Getting up, he yanked her to her feet.
Mock dragged her back to his horse, heaving her onto it. He retrieved his knife and slipped it back into his boot before refastening his pants and climbing up behind her. He would take her back to camp, where everything would be right again. Nothing to worry about.
Nothing to worry about, he told himself, though he didn’t quite believe it.
Grinda wept, the wind turning her tears cold on her cheeks as they galloped away from the village. What of her father and brothers? And what of my mother? she thought in horror. Had she been raped and murdered like the others? Grinda closed her eyes, trying not to think about it.
She desperately wanted to look behind, to see her village one more time before they burned it to the ground, but she didn’t dare, fearing what the barbarian might do if she met his eyes. Life at Quay might have been difficult, but it was still her home.
They rode for what felt like hours until her tears of heartache turned to tears of pain. Her backside was rubbed raw and little shocks of agony shot up her back and neck and along her shoulders at every bump. More barbarians rode ahead and behind, waving their weapons and shouting.
She was taken deep into the Mobic Woods where nobody would find her, the trees spindly and twisted, the canopy thick enough to cut out most of the light, leaving their surroundings cool and dark. By the time they stopped, Grinda could barely move and the barbarian had to pull her into his arms to get her down. Through the trees to her left she saw what looked like a small tent made of sticks and hide. The barbarian held her against him for a moment, breathing deeply as he gazed down into her face. Grinda kept her eyes averted, praying to God for His protection. She sucked in a breath when he gripped her chin, tilting her face so she was forced to look at him.
He was younger than she first thought with a full beard and long wiry hair. Like the rest of the barbarians, he was overlarge, bursting with muscle and so tall she had to crane her head back to look at him. Grinda recoiled. Blood was spattered all over him.
He was gazing into her eyes now. Swallowing in fear, Grinda could only gaze back. He released her chin to touch her cheek. He stroked his thumb over her mouth, pressed it between her lips, pushing in gently until Grinda tasted sweat and blood. He swirled it in her mouth, before pulling it out with a grunt and grabbing her by the back of the neck. Other hand at her waist, he pulled her against him, chest hard against hers, eyes darkening as he leant in for a kiss. Grinda closed her eyes with a whimper.
Warm breath against her cheek. A rush of cool air as he stepped away. She opened her eyes. He was frowning at her. The corners of his mouth deepened. He looked her up and down, his mouth tightening into a sneer. With a snarl, he seized her wrist, and Grinda squealed as he dragged her to his tent. He shoved her to the ground and booted her in the backside, forcing her to crawl inside.
It was a small tent, barely high enough to crouch in. There was a bundle of furs at the back, a dish of water and a few bits and pieces she didn’t care to study closer. She huddled in the corner, arms wrapped around her knees, expecting him to come in after her and do the inevitable. But the light blinked out as the flap dropped over the entrance. The groundcover crunched underfoot as he walked away.
Grinda took a deep breath, suddenly alone.
For hours she just sat there, staring at the entrance, waiting for someone to throw open the flap, whether it be the barbarian who kidnapped her or one of the others. She could hear them somewhere close by, laughing and shouting. At the sound of crying, she clutched at herself. A woman was begging for her life. Grinda shivered, trying not to think who it might be.
She clapped her hands to her ears and lay down on her side as the woman’s begging turned to screaming. They sounded like animals, and Grinda tried to drown it out by humming a lullaby her mother used to sing to her when she was little. Curling into a ball, she wept.
Darkness was falling when the barbarian returned. The flap ripped open, and his big muscular body squirmed inside. Grinda sat up, holding her breath as she huddled in the corner. He was looking angry but not murderous—or anything else. He looked clean, his chest and arms and face washed free of blood and grime. The ends of his hair dripped water onto the earthen floor, as though he had properly bathed. Her eyes dropped to the parcel he was carrying under his arm. Her mouth watered at the smell.
He sat cross-legged in front of her and placed it between them, unwrapping the bark. ‘Grat,’ he grunted, gesturing at it. He pointed his finger at her. ‘Nuk.’
Grinda didn’t move, staring at him wide-eyed, heart thundering in her chest. He shook his head, annoyed. He touched the bundle of flesh. ‘Grat.’ He pressed his fingers to his lips. ‘Nuk.’
Food. Eat. Tentatively, Grinda crept over. What more did she have to fear? If he wanted to hurt her, he could do so anytime whether she ate or not. The flesh was warm under her fingertips. Blood pooled in the bark beneath it. It had been a long time since she last had meat, her family too poor to eat anything outside of bread and stew.
‘Nuk.’ He stripped off a piece from the bone and ate it. ‘Grun.’ He patted his stomach, then pointed at the meat. ‘Grun grat.’
‘Grun grat,’ she repeated. Good meat? She stripped off a piece. He was right. It was so good she had to wipe the drool from her chin. Her stomach roared for more, and she had eaten several mouthfuls before she realised the barbarian was watching her intently. She paused, meeting his gaze, the grease wet on her lips. The corner of his mouth was curled up beneath his beard. She pushed the wrapping of meat over to him. ‘Yours.’
He shook his head and pushed it back. ‘Rin.’ He feigned picking up the bone and gnawing at it. ‘Nuk. Rin a nuk.’
Grinda dared a smile. ‘Okay.’
Mock lay on his side, staring at the woman as she slept wrapped up in his bundle of furs. She had first resisted his urgings to enter his bed, no doubt fearful he would join her in them, and she would have been right if he were his usual self.
He dragged his hands down his face. She had complicated things. His brothers wouldn’t be impressed by his newfound weakness.
He stared at the girl harder, trying to stir something more than weak, womanly emotions. But there was nothing. His coldness, his fury, his lust—everything that made him a great raider, were gone. All that was left was the desire to hold her. It was overwhelming—and frightening. He clenched his fists, resisting the urge to go over and touch her pale hair. What would she feel like wrapped in his arms? His cock swelled at the thought. He had been hard all evening, ever since she had smiled at him. Take her now. Take her now. Take her now. But he couldn’t. The thought twisted something deep in his stomach.
He turned on his side with a growl, facing the wall of his tent. The earth was hard and cool beneath his hip as he seized himself. Three hard pulls and it was over. His whole body began to relax. Maybe now he could get some sleep. Maybe a good night’s rest would clear his head, and he would be more himself.
Maybe … He could only hope.
But tomorrow proved no different, and neither did the following morning and the mornings following that.
He spent every waking moment he could with her, though her waking moments were fewer than he’d hoped. For some reason she slept a lot, and he wondered if she was sick. But when she woke, her face would light up at the sight of him and they would spend the evening together, trying to speak in each other’s language. He learnt her name was Grinda and she was sixteen years old.
‘Grin-a,’ he said, his tongue curling around the strange letters.
She chuckled, and something lurched inside Mock’s chest. She reached out, touching his cheek with her fingertips. ‘No. Grinda.’
Her touch was like fire against his cheek. The breath caught in his throat and he coughed out, ‘Grink-aa.’
This time she threw her head back and laughed, a wild clear peal that sent his heart racing. He had never really heard a woman laugh before and certainly not when around him. They were usually screaming. He didn’t laugh much either. He suddenly got the mad urge to crush her against him and mash his mouth full onto her warm pink lips. Maybe if he were lucky, some of that sweet laughter could fill him up too.
Though things were going well with Grinda, the same couldn’t be said about his brothers. Every night Mock brought Grinda meat, knowing how much she enjoyed it, but it was becoming harder and harder to get. He couldn’t hunt; it was too dangerous to leave her alone, so he had to steal from his brothers.
Needless to say, they didn’t like it much.
Mock approached the fire. It was boar tonight. Good. Grinda loved pig. The fire hissed and spat as grease dripped into the flames. Mock’s gut growled. The carcass was already mostly eaten but there was still a sizeable chunk of rump left. His brothers were sitting in a circle around it, eyes gleaming against the flickering light as they watched him. They were quiet, the air thick with tension. One of them had a naked woman in his lap, his arms wrapped around her quivering body, chin on her shoulder. She was turned away, facing the trees, her back covered in welts and bruises. It looked like somebody had been at her with the chain. Another woman whimpered as Croki fondled her roughly between her legs. Her pale hair hung in a knotted veil around her face, shielding her tears. Mock tightened his mouth. She could have been Grinda.
Mock glared at them all, daring any of them to challenge him. A couple of them whispered to each other, sniggering. Mock stiffened. Rukta, they called him—a womanly man. His right hand twitched, his mind on the sword strapped to his back. One false move and he would take off their heads, all their heads if he had to. They were fast losing respect for him, he knew, but he could still see the uncertainty in their eyes, the fear. His heart might have grown weak, but he wasn’t their most brutal fighter for nothing. He had already killed three brothers over minor squabbles, and he would do so again tonight just as happily.
He unsheathed his sword, ready to carve off his portion, when Croki leapt to his feet. ‘Hands off!’ The woman spilled out of his arms with a cry.
Mock glared at him, sword at the ready, as Croki took up his war hammer. Croki was a big man, close to seven feet and the biggest of all his brothers, but Mock held little fear. Mock had always been the better fighter, and he could see that Croki knew it too.
Mock sneered at his uncertainty. ‘Want to fight me, brother? Come on, then!’ He chopped his blade through the air. ‘I’ll bathe in your blood and wear your pretty head for a hat.’ He feinted a lunge. His brother didn’t flinch, but nor did he retaliate, glaring at him with a ferocity as hot as the flames, his hammer tight in his grip.
Mock straightened and spat. He turned his back on him, showing Croki and the rest of his brothers how little he cared for their threats. He hacked through the spit, splintering the wood with a sharp crack. The fire hissed and crackled as the pig flesh rolled into the flames and onto the ground. Sheathing his sword, he picked up his dinner and turned to the circle of watching brothers. Nobody tried to stop him. Croki gripped his hammer, his eyes glinting beneath his heavy brow. Mock could see the hunger there, and it wasn’t for the meat. It would only be a matter of time before he would stake his claim as the Quarthi’s fiercest fighter.
Sneering at them all, Mock stalked away.