Grinda huddled in the corner of the tent as the wind howled, snapping and whipping at the walls. It was late in the day and almost as dark as night, the clouds black and the rain thick. The trees rustled and creaked all around her. Large droplets were pelting down, and she wondered how the tent didn’t leak. Her home had leaked all the time—before the barbarians had burnt it to the ground at least.
She could hear the other women screaming as the men took their pleasure. The storms were making it worse. It meant the barbarians were stuck at the camp with nothing to do but drink and fight and rape.
All the women suffered. All of them, except Grinda.
She looked up as the tent flap opened. Mock smiled at her as he entered, carrying a parcel under his arm. He was saturated, dripping all over the furs on the floor.
‘Food,’ he said in his language. Grinda knew basic words but little more. He crawled into the middle of the tent and unwrapped the parcel, revealing nuts and berries. She smiled at him as she helped herself. He frowned. ‘No meat. Too wet,’ was all she understood.
She shrugged, smiled. ‘That’s fine.’
As Mock dried himself off, Grinda gazed at him. He could break her neck if he wanted, rape her until she bled, like the other women suffered. But he hadn’t touched her since that first time. It was so strange. She had thought him a monster. When he had laid her out in that field, she was sure her life was at an end.
Now, her life had never been better. Mock always made sure she was fed, warm and safe, and she didn’t have to work: no baking bread, no milking cows, no carrying pails or serving the men. For the most part, she just slept, for hours and hours, catching up on years of lost sleep. And he let her. Sometimes she woke to see him watching her, but he never touched her, never violated her, just watched, as though he had never seen something like her before.
That first day he brought her to the barbarian settlement, he seemed to hate her, throwing her in his tent like she was a flaming torch that burnt him. But day by day he became more tender, the sharpness in his eyes softening, the anger in his voice blunting, until his frowns turned to smiles, though he never seemed to laugh.
How could she not fall in love with him despite the terrible things he’d done?
‘Mock,’ she whispered.
He looked up.
She crept into their bedding and lay down, holding out her arms. ‘Hold me.’
There was silence a moment, then rustling as he crept over to her. He gazed down on her, much as he had done out in the field, but this time she felt no fear. He lowered himself onto her and she wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders.
His kiss was soft, and she giggled as his beard tickled her chin. He grinned, kissed harder, his tongue pushing against hers, then slipped his hands under her shirt. Grinda gasped as he rubbed his thumbs over her nipples, so gentle and soft, turning them hard and making her whole body erupt into goose bumps. Then he pushed his hand between her legs. She stiffened.
He stopped kissing. ‘Grinda?’ He said it with such an accented ‘a’ that it made her chuckle. She smiled, touched his face, brushing her fingers through his beard. He waited, trembling at the strain of keeping control. She kissed him, took his hand and pushed it back between her legs. He stroked her opening, making her tingle, then pushed his finger deep inside. And this time she was wet.
He quickly unfastened his pants. And there it was. Grinda stared at it. She had only seen an erection once before, on Pentash, the village stallion. But this was very different. She touched it, tentatively at first, then ran her hand along it, more confident. It was hard and yet so smooth and velvety. Everything she had ever learnt from her parents, from the church, from the other village women, told her to abstain, to protect her virginity. It was the most valuable thing she would ever have. But as she gazed up at Mock, none of it seemed to matter anymore.
He tried to be gentle but Grinda still hissed, digging her nails into his shoulders, as he slid inside her. He pressed his cheek against hers as he thrust, planting light kisses on her face at every hiss and grunt and gasp she made. She gripped onto him tightly, tried not to express her pain, but it was impossible. The stinging only got worse until it became more than just painful, but agonising. She held her breath, bit back a cry and was on the verge of telling him to stop when it was suddenly over.
He grunted, gasped, then slowed his thrusting, and the sting began to ease. Grinda closed her eyes, finally able to enjoy the feel of him inside her, the heat of his closeness, the smell of his skin.
‘Grinda?’ he said, brushing at her eyelids. Grinda opened her eyes and Mock brushed away a tear trickling down her cheek. ‘Hurt?’
She shook her head, and he smiled and wrapped her in his arms.
Mock woke the next morning to a grey dawn. The storm had finally passed.
He sat up. ‘Grinda?’
His bedding was empty. He stared at the patch of dried blood. There was blood on his penis too. Maybe she’s out relieving herself or cleaning herself up. He froze at the sound of a small shriek. Quickly, he seized his sword and wriggled out the tent. He stood and looked around but the woods gave him no answers. Between the trees he could see the other Quarthi tents—but no movement and no Grinda. Everything was still. Somewhere nearby a crow cawed.
‘Grinda!’ he bellowed, his voice echoing through the trees.
‘Mock,’ came a muffled cry.
Left. Away from the rest of his Quarthi brothers. He sped towards the sound, his bare feet slapping through mud and puddles of water. Who was it? Pith? Khun? Croki? They were the more untrustworthy of his brothers, but they still should have known better. Grinda was his and no one else’s. He had made that very clear. His grip tightened on his sword. Whoever it was would pay.
He burst into a small clearing, sword raised. Croki sneered within his beard, already on the defensive, waiting for him. Grinda lay unmoving on the wet ground, still naked from their lovemaking yesterday, pale hair knotted and matted, eyes wide with fear.
There was blood between her legs and through her pubic hair, but he couldn’t know if it was from him yesterday or from Croki.
Hot rage flooded his body at the thought.
Croki gave nothing away but simply met Mock’s slash with his war hammer. Croki was strong and the sword jarred in Mock’s hands as it struck the hammer’s iron head. But Mock was strong too—and furious.
He cut and slashed and chopped, forcing Croki to back away, turning Croki’s sneer into a snarl. Croki might have been the biggest of the Quarthi, but Mock was the fiercest. You should have known better, Brother.
‘Die, die die!’ Mock cried as he cast blow upon blow upon Croki’s hammer, driving him to his knees. Finally he smashed the hammer from Croki’s grasp. Croki dropped to the ground, avoiding Mock’s slash, then rolled back to his knees. Baring his teeth, he whipped out a knife from his boot and jabbed Mock in the side. Mock grunted. Blood spurted. Agony ripped up his left side. But he swung his sword again, and this time Croki wasn’t so quick. Mock’s sword was sharp and it sliced through Croki’s neck in one sweep. His head hit the ground with a thud, rolled and settled upright.
Silence followed. Leaves rustled. That same crow continued to caw. Then Mock clutched at his side, warm blood welling through his fingers. The sword slipped from his grasp and he fell to his knees, bowing over Croki’s headless body as blood pumped from his stump onto the groundcover, filling the air with the scent of iron.
Grinda dropped to her knees beside him. She touched his bloodied hand as it gripped his wound, then looked up at him in despair. He shook his head. ‘I am strong.’ He gently touched her between the legs. ‘Hurt—?’ He almost choked on the word.
She shook her head. And he knew the truth of it; his fingers came away dry. No new blood. No rape. He grabbed the back of her neck and pushed his face against hers in relief. ‘Grinda.’
They had to flee before his other brothers realised what happened. He wasn’t concerned about revenge—none of them would care about Croki—but if they knew Mock was injured, there was nothing stopping them from slaughtering him and taking Grinda for their own. And I won’t let that happen.
They dressed quickly, grabbed a skin of water, then Grinda mounted his horse. He tried to climb up behind her, but it was difficult and painful. Croki had wounded him deeply and blood gushed down his horse’s flank, coating its pale hair in red. But he succeeded, gasping for breath and so dizzy he had to wrap his arms around Grinda’s waist lest he fall.
Grinda flicked the reins, and with a ‘Ha!’ their horse galloped through the trees.
The sun was blazing by the time they left the woods and sped over the grassy fields. Mock glanced behind him but his brothers weren’t following. Grinda looked across her shoulder too, her gaze distant, and he knew she was thinking of her burnt village many leagues away.
Mock gave her a gentle squeeze around the waist, and she turned away, facing the mountains ahead. They reared high above, sharp and distinct against the gleaming blue.
He tightened his grip as Grinda flicked the reins and drove in her heels, spurring their horse into a faster pace.
Grinda was worried. Mock’s wound was deep—and crippling. She could feel the weakness in his arms around her waist, the increasing weight against her back as he sagged against her, the catch in his throat at every panting breath. He was slipping away. She flicked the reins again, but the horse was already grunting and lathered with sweat. She looked up. Their destination was approaching fast but not fast enough. The horse slowed as the ground inclined. By the time they reached the mountains’ rocky foot, Mock slipped from their horse.
‘Mock!’ Grinda cried.
She dropped to the ground beside him, hovering her hands over him helplessly. Her heart skipped a beat. Blood coated his pants, and he was so pale he was almost white. What do I do? His eyes were closed, and he had his fist jammed hard into his wound, trying to stem the flow of blood. It appeared to be working, but he couldn’t do it forever. A wall of heat built behind her eyes at the sight of a tear glinting on his face. Another trickled down to join it. She sucked in a shuddering sob. Mock opened his eyes a crack, that beautiful mossy green so bright against his pallid cheeks. He was in so much pain, so weak, maybe even dying and yet he smiled, lifting a hand to stroke her cheek.
She took it and kissed him lightly on the palm. ‘Oh, Mock. Please, don’t leave me. Not now. Not after everything.’ His image wavered as hot, burning tears spilled over.
‘Grinda,’ he murmured, closing his eyes. He stopped smiling and his hand went limp in hers. The fist in his side slipped to the ground, and his blood poured.
Without thinking, she jammed her own fist into his warm, slippery wound. Blood continued to trickle through her fingers, so she pushed harder. He winced and groaned. She held, watching carefully, and to her relief he stopped bleeding.
She leant over him and brushed her lips lightly over his. ‘I won’t leave you.’ Even if it means I must sit like this through the day and night, I will have you live.
She didn’t know how much time passed, all she knew was the ache in her knees, the trembling in her arm and the peaceful look on Mock’s face. Overhead, the sun began its descent, casting its bright light against her face. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck. She must have been as red as a beetroot by now. Carefully, she eased out her fist, holding her breath. It was the third time she had attempted to release him. She almost cried out—the bleeding had finally ceased.
Grinda staggered to her feet, her mind awhirl with things to do. I must bind his wound, find food, shelter, water. But where to begin? She looked around the rocks and trees. High above, the nearest mountain soared into the sky. She looked down at her skirt—my only skirt—struck by an idea. She unfastened it and let it slip to the ground.
Minutes later, she had laid out several long strips of linen with the help of the dagger in Mock’s boot. Kneeling close beside him, she bathed his wound as best she could in the water from his skin, using it all except for a little bit to moisten Mock’s lips. Then she carefully packed the wound and tried her best to bind it as tightly as she could. It was difficult: he was still unconscious and he was thick and heavy. After several attempts and lots of struggling, she was satisfied. She stood, water skin in hand, taking a moment to gaze down on his sleeping form. Her heart clenched. He was so beautiful: his handsome face, his strong arms, his sculpted stomach, his lips, ears, beard and fingers. Even the scar under his eye. Everything about him sent a shot of warmth through her chest. How did I get to be so lucky? She blew him a kiss and went to look for water.
Evening descended quickly. She had found water, but they were still out in the open and it was getting cool, her skin prickling with goose bumps. Grinda almost despaired. It was too dangerous to move him, and there was no way she had the strength to do move him alone anyway. She gazed at the trees, thinking. If I can’t bring him to shelter, then I’ll bring shelter to him.
It was dark by the time Grinda put her finishing touches on her project. It had taken her several hours but she had finally managed a crude little shelter built of branches and fronds and rocks and whatever else she could find to keep Mock warm and comfortable. She looked down at her skirt, shaking her head. She had used more strips of linen to tie the shelter together and now all that was left was little more than a ragged loincloth. But I am glad. I would use my shirt and hair if I had to. She glanced up at the full moon, hoping the weather would hold. The little shelter was enough to cut out the cold during the night and provide shade during the day, but she had small confidence it would survive even a light shower of rain.
Grinda wriggled inside and snuggled in close to Mock. She had draped him in the pelt he used as a saddle. It was thin and worn but it was better than nothing. Outside, the horse whickered softly. She took Mock’s hand. It was cold and limp, and she could feel him shivering. She snuggled in close, head against his chest, wrapping his big arms around her. She took comfort in his pounding heart. It sounded strong, and his breaths were long and deep. There was a chance—a good chance.
Tomorrow he will be well, she told herself, squeezing his hand gently. She pressed her nose against his skin and filled her lungs with his sweet smell. I know he will.
Waking the next morning, Grinda stretched and looked up at Mock hopefully. It was bright and warm in their little shelter, light breaching the gaps in the leaves. Her face split into a grin. Her barbarian’s eyes were wide open, bright and glorious and full of life.
He stroked her hair. ‘Grinda.’
Grinda’s eyes fluttered at his touch. Even the sound of his deep voice sent a shiver down her spine. She squirmed up to meet his lips, gripping the sides of his head as she gently kissed him all over his face: his cheeks, his nose, his forehead, repeating his name after each smack of her lips—‘Mock, Mock, Mock’—until his name was like sugar on her tongue.
Mock grinned but didn’t do anything more than that, still too weak to pull her into his arms and make love to her the way he did before, the way she could see he wanted so badly to do again. ‘Soon,’ she promised him.
He tried to sit but Grinda pushed him back. ‘Rest.’ She checked his bandages. They were dry. He smacked his cracked lips together. Grinda quickly handed her his skin of water. He half sat up and gulped it down like a dying man. He handed it back, took a breath and briefly studied the little shelter she had made.
He looked impressed. ‘Good.’
He improved quickly. By mid-afternoon Grinda relented and let him crawl out the tent, so he could stretch out his big body beneath the sun. Grinda watched him hungrily. He was still pale and drawn but bit by bit he was becoming more himself.
The only issue was food.
Nigh on darkness, he patted his stomach ‘Nuk’, then pointed at his blade. ‘Quith.’
Grinda shook her head, puzzled.
‘Quith,’ he said again and went to grab it.
‘No,’ she snapped, suddenly realising. Hunt, he means hunt. He couldn’t, he would rip open his wound. She jabbed a thumb at her chest. ‘Me.’
He raised his eyebrows but didn’t stop her as she took up his blade. It was heavier than it looked, dragging down her right arm, but she hauled it outside.
Hunt. I can’t hunt. She gazed in despair at the trees. But I have to do something. Her eyes lingered over the horse.
They feasted that night and for the next two nights after. The horsemeat was tough and she knew almost nothing of skinning or quartering or cooking over an open fire, but Mock didn’t tease or complain. He stared at her across the flames, eager, hungry, as he always was, but now there was something more—interest, curiosity, even a glint of respect that she had never seen from anybody before, not her mother or father or brothers or from the people in Quay. Heat flared between Grinda’s legs. The horsemeat didn’t seem so tough anymore.
They made love that night. Straddling him around the hips, Grinda eased him gently inside. He was so long, and she winced a little as he filled her up. She rocked slowly, careful she shouldn’t rip open his wound. Mock groaned. He tried to half sit up so he could see her body, but he was still too weak and had to content himself with staring at the ceiling. He didn’t seem to mind.
She closed her eyes. It was nothing like before: no pain, no discomfort, only pleasure. At every forward motion, his penis would rub at the very top of her channel, making her gasp. She rocked faster as waves of pleasure began to roll through her body. She could feel Mock swell inside her, hear the breath catch in his throat. Right at that final moment, he sat up with a cry, grimacing as he dug his fingers hard into her hips. Wet heat filled her up, and Grinda pulled him against her as she came too. She held on to him as those waves of pleasure crashed and crashed again until she could barely catch her breath.
Then it was over and all that was left behind was their ragged breathing, the warmth of each other’s arms and a love so sweeping it felt like Grinda’s whole body was on fire. They held each other, faces buried in each other’s necks, simply enjoying the sensations, the smells, the beat of each other’s hearts, until Mock eventually pulled away. He gazed at her, a dazed almost helpless look in his eyes. She had never seen him so vulnerable, not even at his weakest. Something burst in her heart.
Grinda ran her fingers through his beard. ‘Mock.’
He squeezed her waist. ‘Grinda.’
Grinda put a hand to her heart. ‘Love.’
He stopped, smiled and placed a big hand on his chest, echoing the word. ‘Love.’
Her heart lurched. She squirmed around his wilting member, giggling. Mock’s face split into a broad grin, and he joined in, his laughter so booming it seemed to rustle the leaves of their little shelter and echo around the mountainside.
And once again Grinda couldn’t help but wonder, after all the death and sorrow and pain, how she had come to be so lucky.
It was two weeks before Mock had strength enough to ascend the mountain. His wound still pinched when he moved a certain way but it was long past a concern. He would wear the scar forever—and proudly. A reminder of how he and Grinda had come together. A reminder of when he first learnt how to laugh and love and hold a woman. A mark he would show his sons and daughters in the years to come. Children. It was an odd thought, a strange feeling.
He paused a moment, holding out his hand for Grinda as she struggled over a trail of slippery rocks. She smiled up at him, that pretty smile that sent his heart pounding. He never would have thought a woman could have such control over him. Him—a criminal, a barbarian, a rapist, murderer and thief. How swiftly things could change.
Grinda was puffed and even Mock was tired, still not fully recovered from his injury, so they stopped for a break. It hadn’t rained since that night he almost lost Grinda to Croki. The sky was so clear he swore he could see the Kraken Sea glinting like a jewel on the horizon. Sitting hip to hip, they looked into the distance, as though gazing into their pasts, the world they had left behind spread out before them: a patchwork of crops, the blurry shadows of faraway villages, farms dotted here and there, the green expanse of the forest. Grinda was quiet beside him, panting lightly, and he wondered if she was thinking of her family—or maybe even regretting her change of circumstances. Her village was long gone, burnt to cinders, and Mock’s Quarthi brothers would have abandoned their camp days ago, off to raid another village, to destroy more people’s lives, maybe even rape and murder someone like Grinda.
Frowning, he gripped onto Grinda’s hand, small and warm in his. The girl looked up at him, smiling, and his dark thoughts vanished. If she felt any grief or regret, she didn’t show it. She squeezed his hand and he squeezed back.
After a few minutes, they had rested enough and continued with their journey, leaving their pasts and woes behind as they picked carefully through the rock, the mountain and their future waiting patiently above.