33 weeks pregnant
Mock was tense. Grinda could feel it in the hardness of his waist beneath her hands, could see it in the stiffness in his shoulders. Winter felt it too, his ears flicking every which way and that as he nickered nervously.
The forest was so thick here she couldn’t see the sky. Only a thin trickle of ruddy light through the canopy. Mock had hoped to arrive before sunset. He got his wish. Though Grinda ached all over—in her heavy breasts, in her lower back, her legs and groin, she didn’t complain. Making the four hour journey by gritting her teeth.
Now, she was too tired to be fearful.
At the sound of a bird call, Mock turned his head, Grinda stiffened, Winter’s ears flicked towards the left. Another bird call echoed the first from the opposite side.
‘Stay on Winter,’ Mock had told her before they had begun their journey that afternoon. ‘No matter what. If I get off or should fall. Anything happens, you ride back as far and as fast as you can.’
‘You think they might hurt us?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve been gone too long. I have no idea what’s happened to them since. I can’t even be sure of their location.’
But the location had been right. And Grinda couldn’t believe she was actually here.
‘I am Mock,’ he called in Quarthi into the trees, turning Winter as he did, his hands tight around the reins. He spoke more Quarthi words Grinda couldn’t understand. He spoke about her, their child. Something about escape and return.
‘Mock,’ came a voice.
Their heads turned.
‘Kopta,’ Mock replied in surprise. He said something more in Quarthi. Grinda recognised the word friend but that was all.
Grinda dared to peer around Mock’s broad back, squinting into the trees. The Quarthi man blended so well with one of the thick trunks of the trees her eyes passed over him several times before she saw him.
He looked remarkably like Mock in so many ways: bronze skin, thick dark hair tied into a tail, broad jawline. But he lacked Mock’s height and size and he looked several years older.
‘Kopta’ approached and Grinda tightened her grip on Mock’s waist.
Mock turned to look at her. ‘Have no fear, biala. He’s an old friend of mine.’
Dismounting, Mock gave her the reins. The two men kept a wary distance as they spoke. Grinda lifted her eyes to the rest of the forest, and that’s when she saw the others. Many others. At least half a dozen. Her pulse began to race. Mostly men. Some women. All armed with spears or bows, and all wore the same belts as Mock did. Though the knives were different. Made of bone, not steel.
Four of them were staring at her. No, not staring. Glaring at her. A tingle rushed down her spine. One of them even had an arrow nocked at her head.
She was about to call out to Mock when laughter boomed around the clearing. Mock and Kopta were grinning at each other as they grasped forearms in what Grinda had come to know was their ‘warrior’ grip. They then turned away from each other: Kopta returned to the trees and Mock returned to Grinda.
‘It’s all right, biala.’ He took the reins. ‘They’re going to lead us to the clan.’
Grinda wasn’t so certain. She glanced towards the tree again but the woman with the bow was gone. ‘Do you trust them?
His mouth thinned. ‘As much as I can at this point.’ He pressed his hand to her belly. ‘The shamri already know of our coming. These warriors were sent out to wait for us. They know of Zin and they’re ready for you. Everything is going to be fine.’
Grinda laid her hand on top of his. ‘Truly?’
He grabbed her hand and squeezed. ‘Truly.’
The lie tasted foul in Mock’s mouth. But what else should he say? He couldn’t be certain of anything. Kopta was welcoming enough but he felt the wariness of the others, and why they should come fully armed was troubling.
He tried to appear relaxed as he led Winter through the trees, Grinda mounted uncertainly on his back, but always his senses were spanned out, his free hand close to the knives at his belt.
He heard the clan before he saw them, and to his surprise he felt his spirits lift. In spite of all the tragedy, these were the people he had grown up with. Children laughed and screamed. He could hear the shrill shouts of women, the bleating of a ram.
Looking up at Grinda, he smiled at her. Hand pressed to her belly, she smiled back. Before they broke through the trees and revealed themselves, Mock helped her down. Her hand was small in his but it gripped him tightly. She took a deep breath.
Side by side, they entered the clearing. The silence was almost instant. Heads turned. Conversation stopped. Even the screaming children quietened.
Then a familiar voice cracked through the silence like a whip. ‘Mock! Grinda!’
Mock grinned. Grinda cried out desperately. ‘Croki!’
The big Quarthi warrior didn’t seem to notice the reaction of the clan as he gripped Mock’s arm before laughing and pulling him into a hug. He slapped him on the back. ‘My brother!’ His eyes softened as they lowered to Grinda. ‘And sister.’ Grinda’s welcome was much more reserved: a swift, one-armed embrace. Clearly, he hadn’t forgotten Mock’s warning from their last meeting.
‘Croki, I’ve missed you,’ Grinda said, grinning widely.
‘Missed you too. Come! I’ve got some deer on the fire.’
Mock led over Winter and tied him securely. A large ram with an enormous set of testicles eyed the old horse warily. Almost as warily as the clan eyed Mock and Grinda. They kept their distance but surrounded them in a loose circle, watching shamelessly. It didn’t help that Grinda’s bright hair shone like gold against the light of Croki’s fire.
The men and women muttered to each other but the children weren’t so discreet, tugging at their parents’ hands, hissing faqwa under their breath so loudly they might as well be shouting it.
Mock kept Grinda close, his arm tight around her waist. ‘Don’t be nervous.’ He leaned down and kissed her on the lips in front of them all, then placed his hand on her belly. If his people entertained any doubt about their relationship, they had none now.
Children gasped and giggled. There was a collective suck of breath. Muttering turned to grumbling.
Croki watched it all with a broad grin. ‘Come and sit. Join us,’ he told them. ‘The Paleskin won’t bite. Or are you afraid of a little woman?’
Nobody budged except to scowl or turn to leave. Several men and women skulked away. The rest twisted their mouths or grumbled.
Mock handed Grinda a hunk of deer flesh before taking some himself.
‘Take the faqwa away!’ an elder holding a staff suddenly exclaimed. ‘She doesn’t belong here. And neither does the traitor.’ He pointed a gnarled finger at Mock. Like the rest of the clan, he wore only his kinta. A nest of long, curly grey hair stood thick and matted on his chest and shoulders.
Grinda pressed up against Mock, face lowered. Mock spat out a chunk of gristle. ‘If you weren’t an elder, old man, I’d knock your head off. Remove yourself.’ He glared at them all, most particularly at the young hunters and warriors, men and women both. A couple held spears. One had her hand at her belt of knives. ‘And the rest of you. If you have a problem—go speak to the shamri. Or—’ wiping his mouth, he rose slowly to his feet—‘you can tell me in private how much you want us gone.’
He pushed out his chest, parting his feet into a fighter’s stance as he gripped the handle of one of his slashing blades. One warrior with a long dark braid and an old scar across his chest looked ready to challenge him.
Then Croki stood, towering over Mock and the rest of him. Mock’s giant friend didn’t care to hold back—unsheathing his own blade. ‘You face him, you face me too.’
The fire in the warrior’s eyes dimmed. The rest looked at each other with hard expressions. Nobody wanted to meet their challenge and fewer still wanted to speak with the shamri.
Steadily, they began moving away. Mock and Croki sat back down. Grinda hadn’t taken a single bite of her deer meat. Grease and blood dripped down her wrist and into her lap as she held it limply.
She looked up at him uncertainly.
‘Have no fear, little faqwa, they’ll come around,’ Croki said gently.
She gave a sigh, then took a bite.
Croki and Mock looked at each other.
How long that would take only the Mother could know.