29 weeks pregnant
‘Are you all right, Grinda?’
Catching her tongue between her teeth, Grinda shifted awkwardly on Winter’s back. She glanced at Mock who had already dismounted, then at the ground. Was the horse getting taller? He never seemed so high. She tried to lift one of her legs to swing herself off but her courage failed her, and she gripped onto his white mane helplessly. At twenty-nine weeks, she was so big and unwieldy that the smallest things cost the biggest efforts.
‘I think I’m stuck.’ She felt her face flush.
Mock laughed. ‘Understandable.’ Resting his hand on Winter’s neck, he looked up at her.
‘Let me help you.’
‘Don’t hurt yourself, Mock. I’m heavy now.’
His voice was gentle. ‘Not for me, biala.’
She bit her lip but reached for him. His strength always amazed her. He was quick. Before she had time to help, he had dragged her from the horse’s back and into his arms. He stood there for a moment, cradling her, his eyes dark and soft. ‘See. As light as air.’
He kissed her, then lowered her to her feet.
Grinda stretched with a groan as Mock secured Winter. Her neck, her back, her legs—everything ached. She smoothed her hands over her belly. So big now. Too big. She could no longer see her toes. It was getting hard to sit down, to stand up, to lie on her back.
The rides were getting shorter too. Only rarely did she ask to stop, trying not to complain or seem weak. But Mock always paid close attention to how she was feeling and always seemed to know when she’d had enough. He was never impatient about it, never frustrated, though his people’s forest was still far into the distance and the birth was rapidly approaching.
When he turned to the supplies at the beast’s back, Grinda went to help.
‘No, biala. You go rest. I can set up camp on my own.’
‘I’m not useless, Mock.’
His mouth twisted as he tried not to smile. ‘If you say so.’ He removed the deer hide tent and handed it over. ‘Here then. Go lay it out and I’ll join you.’
It was tied up in a slim roll. It was heavy, but she clutched it with both arms to her chest. It was only mid-afternoon. They could have ridden for hours more yet. But Grinda was too tired and sore to argue.
Finding a small level spot of land between the trees, she bent to lay the tent on the ground, only to stop partway. She couldn’t do it! She couldn’t bend over. She began to attempt a crouch, only to give-up almost immediately.
‘Something wrong?’ Mock said from behind.
Grinda sighed. ‘I think you better do it.’ She handed it over.
Mock took it with a small, sultry smile.
Grinda sat comfortably with her back up against a tree as she watched him work. His hair was loose and knotted. Any memory of the braids long gone. It kept hanging across his face in a dark curtain every time he bent over. Then he’d push it back, revealing the strong cording of his neck, the hard muscles of his shoulders.
He had a lot of muscles in his back too and she watched as they rolled under his skin. She clenched her hands, feeling the hard smoothness of them against her palms. She dragged her eyes down the length of his spine, from the broad power of his shoulders, to the narrow hard core of his lower back and the top of his kinta.
Then those strong legs, that round arse.
He was quick with his work, and was soon hammering the pins into the earth, his arms bulging at every hit, the veins of his forearms thick and ropey. Every time he lifted his arm, she could see the muscles bunched up along his side, the soft hair of his armpit. And that look on his face, that small smile, those soft eyes—so content, as though he was enjoying every minute of it.
Grinda stood as he finished hammering in the last of the pins. Before he rose, Grinda placed her hands against his shoulders, thumbs pressing lightly into the thick muscles around his neck.
She kissed the back of his head. ‘Thank you, bial,’ she said huskily.
He slowly straightened from his crouch, towering over her. Smiling, he gently took her face and kissed her slow and deep.
They sat outside, Grinda in Mock’s lap, Mock’s back up against a tree. The fire flickered, chasing away the shadows. They didn’t speak for a long time, simply holding each other. Her back was warm against his chest. His heart beat against her back. It was often like this. No words to say, only sensation and the feeling of contentment that so often seemed to surround them both in a warm bubble.
No cares. No worries. Long blissful days stretching out into the distance.
Mock had his chin on her head, his hands around her belly, as he felt the usually soft but sometimes hard kicks of his daughter. His eyes were closed, his shoulders relaxed. He kissed Grinda’s head. His heart felt so swollen it seemed to fill the whole of his chest and reach into his throat.
He floated. He soared.
Grinda gasped at a sudden hard kick. Mock chuckled. Grinda gripped onto his hand.
‘She’s going to be a fighter,’ he said.
‘I hope so.’
‘She’ll be a great hunter. I’ll make sure of it. A great warrior too.’
Grinda turned to look at him, eyes bright and wide. ‘Your women can be warriors?’
‘There’s more to fighting and hunting then just strength. Speed, stamina, skill, instinct, focus. A good warrior uses their brain.’ He smoothed his hands over her belly. ‘A lot of male warriors forget that. Relying too heavily on their strength. That’s why they’re so often defeated.’
Grinda shook her head in disbelief, then turned back to the trees, silent and thoughtful. An owl hooted. Something rustled through the undergrowth. A cool breeze made the fire flicker, sending a dance of light and shadow against the trees.
‘Thought of a name for her yet?’ Mock finally said.
‘I’ve tried,’ she shrugged, ‘but nothing seems right. Though it’s a beautiful name, Mirabelle or the like just wouldn’t fit. She needs something …’
‘… stronger,’ they both finished.
Mock brushed the hair away from the back of her neck. ‘Have you considered using a name from my people?’
She turned to look at him again. ‘You have an idea?’
‘Tell them to me.’
He smiled as he dragged his finger across her lips, then lowered his eyes to her belly. Her hand rested against it. Her brinta was stretched tight.
‘Vex: Light and darkness. The inbetween. The shadows that swallow the light. The light that eats the shadows.
‘Drinn: The deepest oceans. The highest heights. The blackest night. The unknown beyond.
‘Pax: Stepping stones, paths and journeys. Into the horizon.
‘Zin: Sun and moon. Fire and gleaming water. The light that never fades.’
‘The light that never fades,’ Grinda repeated, tapping her lips. Her face brightened, then softened. ‘Zin.’ She looked down at her belly. ‘My sun and moon. Zin.’ She looked up at him.
‘It’s your choice, Grinda.’
She shook her head. ‘No. She’s your daughter too.’
He laid his hand against her belly. ‘It’s a good name. A strong name.’ Particularly if what he had seen beyond the ether was true. Those black eyes. She would need all the light she could get.
Grinda was watching him. He wiped the thought from his mind and smiled. ‘Zin. My daughter. May you grow big and strong and brave, and know only light and happiness for all your days.’ Lowering his head, he kissed Grinda’s navel. When he sat back up, Grinda’s eyes were glittering.
She took his hand and squeezed. ‘It’s beautiful. Thank you, bial.’
He smiled, brushed the hair out of her eyes, then kissed her.
Grinda lay against his chest with a sigh, Mock’s hand still on her belly, on his daughter. He smoothed his hands over her, over them both.
Zin. The light that never fades.