The Slave: 2

Grinda kissed Quip’s soft, pink cheek. ‘Keep still, little terror.’ He kicked out a fat leg. She caught it and quickly secured his wrapping before he sprayed everything the way little boys liked to. Once it was safe, she leaned over and pressed her mouth against his belly, blowing until he squealed.

Quess pulled her thumb out of her mouth. ‘Amma, can I hold him?’

‘Not right now, biala.

She pouted. ‘Where’s abba?’

‘I told you, he’s at the edge of the forest keeping us safe. He should be back very soon.’

Quip squawked as Grinda bundled him into the sling at her chest. He settled quickly, pressing his mouth to her left breast with a happy gurgle.

Her daughter gave a stern nod, as though she knew exactly what was going on. ‘Yes, he’s keeping us safe from the monsters.’

‘Don’t be stupid, Quess. It’s the Paleskins he’s keeping us safe from.’ Grit jabbed his bone knife in the air. ‘And they’re worse than monsters. They’ll enslave you like they did abba and Uncle Croki. They’ll torture you, cut off each of your fingers, then leave you out in the sun to fry to death.’

Quess’s eyes went as wide as her mouth. ‘Amma!’

Oh, Mother. ‘Grit, don’t say things like that!’

‘What? It’s true, isn’t it?’

Quess burst into tears.

Grinda pulled her daughter into her arms, squashing her against Quip. She glared at her son, who rolled his eyes at her. ‘Nothing’s going to happen to you.’ She smoothed her fingers through Quess’s hair. ‘There are no monsters and there are no Paleskins after us. Your brother’s being silly.’

Her daughter squirmed against her. ‘I want abba!’

‘Did someone call?’ A shadow spilled through the doorway of their tent.

They all turned, and it was as though everything in the room suddenly brightened.

Abba!’ Quess flung out of her arms, slamming into Mock as he bent low through the doorway.

‘Quess!’ Sweeping her into his embrace, he pressed his lips against the side of her neck and blew loudly, much like Grinda had done with Quip.

She giggled, then cried out. ‘Stop!’ She pushed his face away with a small hand. ‘Grit says the Paleskins are going to chop off my fingers.’

‘Did he?’ Mock whirled on Grit. He was much too tall for the tent and was forced into a stoop. Broad and muscular, long dark braid trailing down his bronze back, he loomed over his oldest son. He could certainly look menacing when he wanted to. Grinda had known it all too well in her younger days, when she was his victim and he her tormentor, before they’d fallen in love and both their worlds had changed.

‘I’m sorry, all right?’ Grit cried before his father could say a word. Their son looked away with a sniff, folding his arms.

‘You’ll protect us won’t you, abba?’ Quess pleaded, tugging at Mock’s beard.

Mock’s face softened. She was so small in his big arms. ‘Of course.’ He rubbed his nose against hers. ‘I’ll never let anything happen to you. Don’t listen to your brother. You know what he’s like.’

Mock lowered her to the floor. Quess poked her tongue at Grit. Grit rolled his eyes again.

Mock turned to Grinda. ‘And how are you, biala?’ He wrapped his arms around her hips, pulling her close. ‘And how’s troublemaker?’ He kissed Quip on the head, who grabbed at his beard with a squeal. Mock’s smile broadened and his eyes took on a proud shine. ‘Sorry I took so long.’ He kissed her softly on the mouth.

Grinda sagged into him, pressing her face into his chest and breathing him in. Even after eighteen years, he only seemed to smell better, of sweat and strength and heat. Though he’d only been gone a few days, it seemed like forever.

‘Where’s Xala?’ he said in her ear, his breath warm against her cheek.

‘With Zin,’ she murmured.

‘And where’s Zin?’

‘Not sure. Out hunting, I guess.’ She peered up at him. ‘Why?’

His smile faded. ‘I’ve got something to tell you.’