Mock took Grinda’s small, trembling hand in his.
‘But they told me to come alone,’ Grinda said.
‘Not a chance, biala. Besides, they are the shamri. They should have foretold my coming.’
Grinda gave him a small smile and Mock kissed her on the head. The shamri lived apart from the rest of the clan. Not far, but it was a reminder of how different they were. It troubled her. It made her fear. If the general population of the Quarthi didn’t trust her, then might not the shamri be worse?
She had been four days with the Quarthi and was yet to meet one, and yet it almost felt like she knew them already. Both Mock and Croki hadn’t held back with their warnings.
‘They are powerful and all-knowing little faqwa. When they ask questions, speak no half-truths, no full-lies. Because it all will come to nothin’. They will know.’
‘But be strong, biala. Try not to fear them or quail beneath their gaze. Remember, they might have power but so do you—more so. You are far greater than they. Most have not seen or done any of the remarkable things you have.’
Grinda laid her hand over her belly. ‘Most?’
‘Only one has seen the world beyond the ether.’
Thall—was his name. The oldest and most powerful of the shamri. He was the one she needed to convince. He was the one who would make the final decision as to whether she could stay or not. Apparently over the last four days he, as well as the others, had been watching her from afar with their mind vision. Mock hadn’t told her until just now.
‘Didn’t want to unnerve you,’ was his explanation.
Grinda took a deep breath, trying not to shiver at the thought of their wandering eyes. Mock tightened his grip on her hand. ‘I will be with you, biala. At your side. They will harm you at their peril.’
It was a well-worn path they followed, the branches bent back, the earth hard beneath her feet. She looked above into the canopy. Moonlight glinted through the leaves. Somehow it made her calmer, the feel of so much life. Even after four days Grinda still couldn’t get used to how magnificent the trees were, how large, how old. And the warks—she could feel them. They were everywhere. Far behind, far ahead, left and right. They were like little pockets of heat burning against her. And the one up ahead was like a raging fire, so close she could feel the thud of the mother’s blood rushing through its roots and pounding in the earth like a heartbeat.
The trees pulled away as they stepped into a clearing.
And there the shamri were. Six of them. Old and young. Men and women. Waiting and watching. She could feel their magic like a tingle in the air.
Her eyes swept over them briefly before latching onto the tree at their back. The wark. She took another breath but this time it wasn’t out of fear, but surprise. Warmth. Power. She felt it flood her veins.
Releasing Mock’s hand, she stepped towards the group of seated witches, eyes finding the powerful shamri at the centre. Thall. Big and broad with a long white beard and grey hair, skin that sagged off thinning muscle. Old knotted veins bulged along his arms and across his chest. Dark eyes. Heavy brow. Grinda flexed her fingers. She could feel the heat of him. His power. He almost seemed to drown out the others.
Even still, he was nothing to Zin. The thought washed away the last of her fear, and Grinda lifted her chin.
‘Well met Mock, Grinda.’ An old woman nodded at them. Grinda started at the sound of her name. Their eyes met. And a strange something seemed to flower in Grinda’s mind. A name—Flip. Sixty years old. Mother to three. Grandmother to eight. She liked the warmth, hated the cold. A skilled fisherwoman but a poor hunter. Her favourite herb was grinya.
Flip’s eyes widened. The rest of the shamri turned to each other, muttering. All except shamri Thall, who continued to stare at Grinda dark-eyed and seemingly unsurprised. His eyes lowered to her belly.
Grinda dropped her hands to Zin protectively. ‘I want to join your people. My daughter wants to join your people.’
Again, the shamri looked at each other, the murmuring and whispers becoming almost frantic.
‘Quiet.’ The old man’s voice boomed around the clearing. ‘Let her speak.’ His wrinkled eyes lifted to hers again. He completely ignored Mock standing silently behind her. ‘Why do you want to join the Quarthi?’
Grinda opened her mouth before suddenly realising she was speaking English. And yet, somehow, they understood her.
She closed her mouth. For Mock. For my daughter.
The silence that followed was worse than the frantic murmuring.
And what about for yourself, faqwa?
Grinda turned her eyes to a young man with hair that was almost black, a thin chest and a sharp, pointed beard. He held his mouth in a sneer.
Will you renounce your god? Your ways? another said, less aggressively but no less dismissively.
Grinda didn’t bother to answer. Instead, she lifted her chin higher.
You’re more the fool to think she hasn’t, intervened the most powerful of them all.
Grinda turned back to Thall. His eyes seemed to bore into her eyes, into her thoughts, into her very soul. Again, she held back a shiver. What had he seen when he’d been watching her those four days from afar? Good? Bad? Did he like her or hate her? Unlike the others, he kept his emotions to himself.
Slowly, he stood. He was much taller than she had expected. As tall as Mock. Mock shifted uneasily behind her, then drew to her side.
The old shamri approached, dark eyes never leaving her face, except to glance again at Zin. Something cold passed over Grinda, then dissipated. Mock might have felt it too because he stepped in front of her.
The powerful shamri stopped. The others watched on.
‘Watch yourself,’ Mock told him.
‘If I wanted to hurt her, I would have done so already.’
Mock didn’t move. Grinda touched his hand. ‘Mock.’
He looked down at her, his brow all crinkled up. ‘If you’re sure, biala.’ He stepped aside.
Shamri Thall stared at her. Grinda stood straight and tall, feet braced apart, refusing to drop her eyes. He might be powerful, he might have seen the ether, but so have I. I’ve brought a man back from the dead, I’ve seen the future, I know more about violence and fear and horror than he could ever know.
If he heard her thoughts, he didn’t show it.
Then, suddenly, his big broad hand was against her belly. Mock growled and grabbed the hilt of one of his knives but didn’t move. The air caught in Grinda’s throat and she dropped her hands over the shamri’s.
They stayed like that for a long time. She could feel the heat of him, the smell of sweat and pine needles. His hand was warm and calloused, his breathing deep and long. His expression didn’t change, deep in thought, until he finally pulled away and there appeared a crease between his eyes.
Doubt? Fear? Concern?
Whatever it was, it wasn’t good. And Grinda couldn’t help but remember the darkness in her daughter’s eyes down beyond the ether.
He went to move away when she seized his wrist. What does it mean?
He looked down at her gripping his wrist and she quickly released him.
Can you do something?
He didn’t answer. Returning to the rest of the shamri, he sat back down.
Giving an almost offhanded gesture, he said, ‘Welcome to the clan. May you and yours enjoy the warmth of the Mother’s love.’
A couple of the shamri, particularly the man with the pointed beard, shifted angrily.
‘Th-thank you,’ Grinda said, taken aback. It was that easy? No questions? No interrogation? She looked up at Mock. His eyes were narrowed and he was frowning.
They were both quiet on the way back, the air between them thick with surprise. His hand was warm and strong in hers. The forest seemed to close in around her like a warm blanket. Safe. Protective. And slowly, the excitement cracked through her unease.
‘What are you thinking, Mock?’
He squeezed her hand. ‘Same thoughts you are, biala.’
She rubbed at her belly and smiled. By the time she returned to camp she couldn’t stop grinning. Croki took one look at her and leapt to his feet with a triumphant roar. Forgetting all about their awkward past, he pulled her into a tight hug, hoisting her off her feet.
‘Knew ye’d do it!’ He slapped Mock on the back. ‘Welcome to the clan!’
Grinda glanced at the rest of the Quarthi. Not so welcome. But it was a beginning.
It was a beginning.
She turned her eyes to the rainforest, to the high canopy, to the smoking fires. Suddenly overflowing with anticipation, she yanked at Mock’s arm, pulling him down so she could kiss his mouth.
Mock slid an arm around her waist and pulled her close. There was a flutter in her stomach as Zin kicked out. They kissed so long and hard that those watching eventually turned away in disgust. Croki slapped his thigh and cackled.
Grinda smiled against Mock’s lips. No matter the difficulties that lay ahead, she had all she needed: Mock, Zin, love and happiness.
Let come what may.