Marks of the Protector
Copyright © Emmi Lawrence
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission from the author.
Serial: Part 1 of 2 (Approx. 4700 of 8900)
Garon had assumed that he’d hear the growlers long before he saw them, considering their size. Assumed that he’d be able to climb high enough he could spend precious moments shifting into hawk to escape. Assumed that the growlers would work alone, given what he knew of bears.
So when the actual growl came from between the pine trees to his left, he instantly turned and ran to his right, eyeing a good tree to throw himself into. He’d not gone three steps when something moved, bulky weight throwing him to the ground, fur pressed against his face and sharp teeth exposed behind lifted lips.
His shout died and he jerked away, scrambling for a way out from underneath the beast before its jaw crunched his skull. He strained and fought, fear ramping up his heart rate as he avoided looking into the growler’s eyes. The growler settled on him, the weight sending pain up through his thighs, strong enough he arched, blinking back tears.
“You done?” asked a voice above his head.
The pressure relaxed a little, just enough for him to handle the pain. Twisting his head, he caught sight of a man. Arms crossed, leaning against a tall conifer, a black bear claw painted on his left cheek, his arms and torso painted with black lines that curled and squiggled. He wore loose leathery pants and his feet were bare. His hair was long and black and his skin was a caramel color.
Garon sucked in a breath and refused to look back at the growler still sitting upon him. But he nodded slowly, thankful that no one seemed keen on eating him just yet.
“Good,” said the man.
The weight shifted. Then shifted again. Dark hair, the same color as the man’s, fell against his eyes. He blinked and chanced a look up at the growler. And froze.
She was absolutely stunning. Long black hair drifting off her face, the black claw mark on her left cheek smeared with a red too bright to be blood. The color of her skin was similar to the other man’s, but hers was broken up more with parallel scars that ranged from against her collarbone to her lower forearm and further down…
She was naked. Her breasts were pressed against his chest and her groin rested lightly against his own. He tried very hard to not react, but damn it, he’d almost died, and wasn’t there something to be said about fucking being a perfectly good reaction to near death experiences?
The woman didn’t seem to notice his erection though. She merely pulled herself up from him until she stood, her glare steady. “Who are you?”
He licked dry lips and kept his eyes on her face as he propped himself on his elbows. “Garon. Garon Jafsid.” Stress on the second syllable, unlike the strange names of the people of the Sasamonie tribe he’d just left.
“The druid sanctuary.”
That wasn’t a question, so he didn’t respond, though his eyes were becoming dry from the focus he had over not letting his gaze drift down the gorgeous woman’s body—growler, she’s a growler, you fool, she could still be wanting to eat you. Her eyes did drop, however briefly, to the three transference bands around his wrists. One on his right. Two on his left.
“Are you a druid?”
It was the rudest question one could ask a druid, but he didn’t think pointing that out right now would benefit him. “Rabbit, dog and hawk.”
The man behind him gave a snort of laughter.
“You shift without permission, you die,” said the woman.
“I figured.” He attempted a tentative smile, but she didn’t react, her eyes still narrowed.
“Tell me, Garon Jafsid, what are you doing in our territory?”
The terror that had banked when he hadn’t immediately been mauled came back with a vengeance, making his voice quiver a little as he tried to explain. “The Sasamonie tribe said this way was safe, that the cliffs were too south for the growlers to smell me and the pass would lead to Shelter Port.”
“The Sasamonie tribe and the Riahr clan have an agreement. You do not.”
“Though they were right about one thing. These cliffs are too far south for the Maslahr growlers to smell you. They would have eaten you.”
“And…you won’t?” asked Garon.
“We have higher standards,” said the man.
“Glad to hear it,” he murmured.
“We’ll just kill you.”
Garon jerked his head up and met the man’s wry expression.
“Stand up,” said the woman.
He obeyed her, ducking his head and examining her legs, noting the way the black lines had been painted up each of them in opposing designs. The world lurched and he staggered, putting out a hand that didn’t get taken as he refocused on the forest around him. Sweat had soaked his shirt under his arms and his neck felt overly hot.
“You are pale.”
Was he supposed to respond to that? He was well aware of how pale he was compared to them. He even had the burns across his cheeks and nose to accentuate the fact.
“You stand out,” she continued. “Like a fish out of water.”
“Gasping for air,” added the man with a chuckle.
Garon laughed a little. “If you want me to believe you’re not going to eat me perhaps you should stop comparing me to a fish.”
That got a small smile from the woman. He took that as an accomplishment. Nothing more, because he refused to acknowledge the fact that the authority exuding from her did anything to stir his insides. Or that the fact that she could exude such power while standing stark naked, decorated solely by the marks of her tribe and the scars of her past, made him want to impress her.
“Is there some way to request passage through your territory…ma’am.”
“Suhar,” she volunteered. Then she nodded to the other growler. “Mahden. Of the Riahr clan. And to answer your question, yes.” But she didn’t elucidate, instead choosing to slowly circle him, her footsteps soft against the soil. He held down the desire to turn with her, to not let her at his back, forcing himself to stare straight ahead as she examined him.
“Pleasure to meet you both,” he said, conscious that he was worn and dirty from his trip, his face burnt and his short hair oily. “I’m sure you probably hear this every day, but you are beautiful.”
“I have dragged men barely out of cubhood off to my den for saying such sweet things to me.”
Garon wiped his sweaty palms on his pants, wondering if being dragged off to Suhar’s den would be such an imposition.
“You didn’t eat them after, did you?”
Suhar stopped walking.
Mahden laughed. “He’s skittish and fearful, like a bunny. He even has the pink nose for it.”
Suhar came back around to his front and stopped. The fierceness had dimmed in her expression, but the suspicion remained. “If you can change to a hawk, why not fly?”
He hesitated for just a moment. The last thing he wanted was for the growlers to hand him over to the druids, but he was no good at lying, not even when it might save his life. “I didn’t exactly leave Maezad Castel on good terms.”
“They hunt you.” She stated it, glancing up into the canopy as if checking for other druids.
“Why?” Her eyes were back on his. They were close now, the color of running sap, the barest traces of green leaves dotting the outer ring as if caught in the sticky substance.
“I disobeyed one of the druidic tenants. Failed to keep myself from getting caught within a shifted form.”
Mahden snorted again. “Humans dabbling in things they shouldn’t.”
Garon tilted his head, but didn’t agree. “It’s true, we’re not like normal weres, but what we do is perfectly legitimate.”
“You play make believe as if you were cubs,” laughed Mahden.
“If it were make believe then we wouldn’t be able to shift. Yet, our best can easily shift from one form to another as smoothly as any were and have twenty different forms in their arsenal,” said Garon.
Mahden let out another sharp bark of laughter. “Now the cute little bunny is mad.”
“What happened after you lost yourself?” asked Suhar, pulling Garon’s attention back to her.
Garon looked down. “I mated with a real hawk. They found me, dragged me back to the Grand Druid to push the change back into myself and said I’d be put on trial. If I was found incompetent, they would burn my bands.” He absently rubbed the hawk feathers of his favorite shift. “Had it just been losing myself, they would have let me off with a slap to the wrist, but I’d compromised our laws when I helped create offspring. So I ran.”
The two growlers were silent for a long moment. Garon looked up in time to see them share an unreadable expression.
“What happened to your cubs?” asked Suhar.
Garon closed his eyes. “They had the eggs smashed before I even remembered my name.”
“And that,” snapped Mahden, “is why you’re hacks. You can’t be close to what we are unless you embrace every side of yourself.”
“But how do you identify when you split yourself four different ways? Or more?” asked Suhar. Her fingers were calloused, but still soft, when she ran them over Garon’s cheek. “You could get lost,” she answered herself.
“We’re just different,” said Garon, trying to keep the defensive anger from his tone. “Not better or worse than you. Or any other were.”
Suhar dropped her hand and Garon’s eyes instinctively went to her breasts. He forced his gaze back up, feeling his cheek tic when he saw she was still watching him.
“Different or the same,” she said after a pause. “Regardless, you’ve broken our laws as well.”
Garon felt his stomach give out. Suhar stepped back, pushing her long hair off her face, her features beginning to quiver.
He stumbled backwards, palms out towards her as she dropped. Her mass shifted, dark hair sprouting from every inch of her body. Hands turned to paws and eyes widened apart. Teeth elongated and a tail appeared. Her necklace hadn’t changed, but it must have been made to accommodate her larger neck because the decorative teeth hung below her throat, off-white against her dark fur.
She was huge, coming up to his head, her gaze steady and unyielding.
Garon stood there gaping, mouth opening and closing like the damn fish they’d compared him to. Suhar gave a sound, grunt or cough, then turned and padded through the trees.
“She’s patient,” said Mahden as Garon stared after Suhar. Mahden leaned closer, his expression one of extreme amusement. “But she’s not that patient. You better start moving before she thinks you need encouragement.”
They made him wash in the ford, Suhar swiping out a paw to dunk him into the flowing water, nearly making him smack one of the rocks. He came up spluttering and humiliated, forced to pull off his clothes until he was as naked as she was while she crouched on one of the larger rocks, her eyes in the water at the leaping fish.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
They ignored him. Though, Suhar did offer him a raw fish. He looked at it, then back up at her.
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
She gave a huge yawn, then ate it herself, leaving him hungry and tired. And clean. He scrubbed extra over his burns, feeling the dead skin peel off under his nails.
Mahden searched through Garon’s pack, handing over a clean pair of pants. The clothes he’d been wearing were ripped and buried despite his protests.
“They’re gross and completely insensible in the forest,” said Mahden, still holding on to Garon’s pack. “If you want, you can go without the pants.”
Garon shut up after that, hopping into the pants Mahden had given him and glaring down at his own pale skin. He wasn’t as light as some people, nothing like the people who lived up north, but he still stood out, just as Suhar had said. Like a fish out of water.
She rubbed against him, rumbling as if she was laughing at him. Feeling brave, or perhaps foolish, he shoved at her.
“It’s not funny. It’s not as if I had a lot of time to prepare. I took what I could and got out of there.”
Mahden mumbled something under his breath about a bunny.
They slept on the ground, Garon curled up with a growling stomach until Mahden took pity on him and threw him some of the dried meat Garon had gotten from the Sasamonie tribe. He didn’t know what it was and he didn’t much care, eating it down as if it’d been longer than this morning that he’d eaten.
Suhar, still in bear form, ambled up behind him and lay down. Her head remained up, her eyes alert, but she snarled when Garon attempted to crawl away.
A few feet from them, Mahden laughed under his breath. “Remember, she’s patient, but not that patient.”
Garon settled back against Suhar, his muscles tense and his body high-strung. Sleep was a long time coming.
The next day they reached the base of a small cliff, hearty bushes overgrew the bottom and fur trees with soft needles grew off the top. A set of weather made ledge-like steps that looked as if they’d been helped along by hand at some points moved up the cliff. Wide enough for humans, a bit of a squeeze for a bear.
Mahden went first, followed by Garon, with Suhar, now in human form, at his back. Partway up, he glanced over the edge, the tip of one of the trees in line with his head. A huge bird’s nest hung in the tree, looking abandoned, old eggshells still caught in the branches.
Suhar’s hand caught his elbow as he leaned over to look down the length of the tree trunk. “Careful.”
“The height doesn’t bother you?”
“Me neither,” he said, looking back down, then up into the sky. The longing must have been apparent on his face because the next thing he knew, his bands were being removed from his wrists.
“I said I wouldn’t shift,” he protested.
“Just making sure,” said Suhar as she handed them over to Mahden.
“Do you feed humans to your cubs?” He purposefully made his tone abrasive.
Suhar touched his burnt cheek. “Only when the river’s dried up and the berry patches have ceased producing.”
“Don’t worry,” added Mahden. “We had plenty of snow this winter. The river’s plenty full.”
“And the berry patches?” asked Garon dryly.
Neither answered, but a tiny evil grin spread on Suhar’s face.
“Not funny,” he said.
She leaned close and sniffed his head. “You smell like berries.”
“I do not!” He jerked away, feeling the cliff against his back, but her lingering smell followed him, worming its way through his veins.
She laughed out loud, the sound low and steady and not at all mocking. Then she motioned him on. He gladly turned to keep climbing, keeping his gaze on Mahden’s feet as he tried to forget the burning vision of Suhar’s body and the effect of her gorgeous laugh on his cock.
Over the top of the cliff, the land cut back down, twisting to the right. Larger cliffs rose around them, the trees becoming heavier, straighter, the lower branches either long gone or in the process of breaking. The feeling of being closed off bore down on him as the sky became nothing but pinpricks of occasional blue through the canopy. Then the cliffs spread again and the trees pulled apart.
Mahden guided him towards an arched opening in the trees, the branches pulled and tied together, skulls of rodents and smaller prey animals decorating the entrance. To either side, for as far as Garon could see, the branches had been linked together, bones and teeth strung up in such a way that no one could get past without shaking them loudly.
As they moved through the archway, Garon couldn’t help but freeze. Suhar was a presence at his back as Mahden kept going, strolling right through the growler camp filled with tumbling cubs, bloody meat pits and lazing bears. There were growlers in human form too, but Garon’s eyes skipped right over the figures covered in black lines, fixing on the huge beasts that speckled the area among the conifers.
Fingers pressed against his lower back, touching bare skin.
“Easy,” whispered Suhar. “Easy.”
In just as quiet of a voice, with the slightest of tremors, Garon asked, “Am I to be in one of those?”
“One of what?”
He nodded towards the closest meat pit. One of the cubs, in bear form, still tore at whatever creature the bloody mass had once been.
Suhar breathed out against his neck. “If the Matriarch demands it, yes.”
Mahden had stopped, looking back at them with an annoyed expression, but Garon felt rooted to the spot, as if the very ground had sucked him down. His wrists felt cold and bare, the comforting presence of his hawk’s feather band in the hands of a beast. A beast who could probably crush him within seconds.
And here he was, surrounded by dozens, possibly even hundreds of those beasts considering the trees within the camp blocked much of his view. And if he wasn’t mistaken, the entrance in the cliff to his right probably hid hundreds more within their dens.
Run a hundred miles and become a feast for animals instead of simply accepting your fate back in Maezad Castel.
He should have flown. Should have risked the druids catching up with him and tearing him apart instead of letting himself fall. At least then he’d have died in the sky where he belonged.
He turned his head so that he could address Suhar easier, struggling to keep his voice level. “Will she…will she demand it?”
“If you keep her waiting, she might.”
Garon looked into Suhar’s eyes, seeing the bear who had first caught him.
“If it comes to that—I mean, if it…” He took a deep breath, trying to calm, to get his voice steady. “Would you make it quick.” When she furrowed her brow, he rushed on. “I just…if I’m to be torn apart, don’t…don’t let me feel it.” He let out a shuddering breath. “Please.”
The fingers still pressed to his lower back became an entire warm hand and Suhar’s face softened. Just a tad, but he saw it, relief making him more unsteady. “I will stand for you, Garon Jafsid.”
He didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded good.
The Matriarch sprawled towards the back of the camp. To her side a number of smaller cubs mock-fought among a hefty-sized berry patch, their little black coats disappearing in and out of the bushes. Occasionally a human-shaped child would rush out.
The great growler herself was a sight to behold. She was almost twice as large as Suhar had been in bear form, larger than any of the other growlers Garon had passed on his way here. Her fur had taken on a graying quality, echoing her age in her human form, no doubt. Though, her teeth seemed just as sharp and her eyes even sharper.
She didn’t look away from the playing cubs as they walked up, barely flicking an ear to acknowledge Mahden and Suhar. They each placed their hand over the cheek with the painted bear claw, then put the same hand over their heart, their fingers curled inward as if a claw.
“Matriarch, this is Garon Jafsid, a druid from Maezad Castel,” introduced Mahden. He pulled out Garon’s bands, holding them up for the Matriarch to see as he continued on, telling the great bear everything they’d gleaned from Garon on their trek to their growler camp.
When Mahden was done, Suhar added, “He has come willingly, Matriarch. Has not fought us.”
The Matriarch hefted her huge body, shivering as she shifted into an old, but quite capable, woman, with long gray hair and sagging breasts. She held herself firm though. Confident and capable, like she could knock down anyone, growler or human or any other beast, who dared to threaten her family.
“He’s no danger,” were the first words out of her mouth, easily dismissing him as no threat.
“No, Matriarch,” agreed Suhar.
“You look young, for a human. How old are you, Garon Jafsid?”
She ran two fingers down his cheek in much the same way Suhar had done the day before, but the Matriarch’s fingers were dry and measuring. “You have a cub face. Unblemished skin.” She touched the middle of his chest before dropping her hand. “Untested. What is in Shelter Port for you, cub?”
“A new start, is my hope.”
“Would the druids not follow you there?”
“They are sticklers for their rules, but not to the point where they would spend too much time or money searching me out.”
“You hope,” she said.
He looked down. “I hope,” he repeated, annoyed that she’d read his concern.
“Much of your life seems to be hinging on hope right now.”
He felt his cheek ticking again and tried to force it to stop, but that just made it tic more crazily. The scent of pinesap and sweet squished berries clogged in his throat. The way she’d spoken to him reminded him of the Grand Druid, making him feel all of eight years old again, timid and shy as he held the bunny he’d shaved to make his first transference band.
The Matriarch moved away, touching first Mahden on his cheek, right in the middle of his painted claw mark, then Suhar in the same spot. With the same two fingers she’d used to touch Garon’s cheek. “You’ve brought me an innocent cub. And now we must determine what to do with it.”
“He’s more bunny than bear, Matriarch,” said Mahden.
“Is he?” She looked straight at Garon, her gaze piercing. “That’s possible. It’s also possible you wouldn’t recognize a bird of prey when you see one, Mahden, simply because they don’t go after creatures so much larger than themselves.”
“Even a hawk would be foolish to attack us, Matriarch.”
“I agree. But we’d be foolish to think we could attack them. We live in peace with those birds because our worlds rarely intersect.”
“He’s not a bird,” murmured Suhar.
“True,” said the Matriarch. “He’s a human. A druid. A lost cub in my forest.” She lifted her chin and addressed those beyond Garon. “Is there anyone here who would have him killed for trespassing?”
A few gathered growlers murmured acquiesce, but the response was vague and uncaring at best. Garon felt sweat breaking out across his skin again, only some of it from the warmth of the sun and the lack of water. His legs ached to run, to launch himself into the sky. His arms ached to feel the currents catch them and lift him up.
“Anyone here who would like to fight for the right to bring him into your den?”
Garon’s heart stopped as Suhar stepped forward. The Matriarch barely flicked her gaze to Suhar before looking to Garon.
“Then I guess there will be a fight,” said the Matriarch dryly.
She turned and beckoned to Mahden and then nodded to someone else, a burly man with huge arms and a massive scar that cut across one of his pectorals. The black paint had been dipped into the scar tissue, giving it a grotesque look.
Mahden took Garon’s arm and dragged him off to the side, close to the Matriarch, then he stood in front of him while another two growlers, one man and one woman, stood to either side of him.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Quiet, little bunny,” said Mahden, without a hint of amusement.
Beyond, growlers had backed away, leaving Suhar and another woman standing alone. The other woman shoved down her pants and tossed them aside where an older cub ran out and plucked them from the ground before rushing away. Then the two of them shivered and twisted, falling to all fours as they smoothly adjusted into their bear forms. The other woman was bigger, but not by much.
The large man with the scar on his chest stepped between them, a palm out to each side and his gaze on the Matriarch. The Matriarch, once again in bear form, settled herself on the ground, letting the cubs clamber across her body. Her great head gave a nod and the man dropped his palms and stepped away quickly.
Suhar gave a loud roar and threw herself forward, her paw sweeping out in what would have been a crushing blow against a human. The other bear bent to the side and came up, snarling and biting, but Suhar met her head on, jaws snapping. She caught a claw to her side that barely moved her before throwing her weight onto the larger bear.
The ring of onlookers were silent in their watching. There was no cheering at the bloodshed, no praise for a successful blow or wincing when Suhar or the other took a hard hit. Even the cubs kept themselves still and quiet, some of them with wide eyes. One boy even had his hands digging into the dirt like claws as he stared raptly at the fight.
Suhar rolled between two trees, snapping a sapling and getting herself caught against the bark of the larger conifer. Garon let out a shuddering, horrified breath as the larger bear came barreling down, her teeth dripping with spit, mouth aimed for Suhar’s throat. He turned his head, not wanting to witness his one chance at survival being finished off.
In front of him, Mahden’s back stiffened, but it was the woman next to Garon who prodded his side. “You watch,” she said softly. “Watch, because it is rude not to.”
Garon nodded tightly and looked back, thinking he’d be seeing Suhar’s huge body going limp. Instead, Suhar had thrown her weight back up and slammed the other bear onto the ground, one paw at the woman’s throat, her jaw close, but not closing.
The man who’d started the fight stepped out and with a glance towards the Matriarch, he addressed those gathered. “Suhar has won the right. Eherh, step away.”
Conversation started back up and the two fighting bears shifted themselves to their human shapes, Suhar putting out a hand to Eherh to help her to her feet. The two nodded to one another and then Suhar moved to mimic her earlier greeting to the Matriarch before coming over to where Mahden and Garon waited, her smile self-satisfied.
“You didn’t think I’d loose, did you?” she asked, addressing Mahden.
“Only for a second.”
She snorted. “I’d have to be crippled or blind for her to ever beat me.”
Garon glanced between them, the cold sweat now having turned warm as his heart picked back up. “You didn’t have to kill her?”
They looked at him askance.
“Of course not,” said Mahden.
“She’s family,” said Suhar, as if that were answer enough. Then she stepped forward and took Garon by the elbow. “Come. I’ll show you my den.”
Her den. For what? So she could claim some tenuous reward? Not that he’d complain, unless she planned on eating him later, but it wasn’t as if he were a great catch. He was a fallen druid, barely skilled enough to change into three animals, lesser animals at that. And nothing had been said about giving him safe passage to Shelter Port. Maybe there was a reason for that…shit.
He watched dispassionately as Suhar took his druidic bands from Mahden and strung them on her necklace. They landed among the teeth, seeming almost at home among her breasts. Then she led him into the cliff.
End of Part One