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 2 of 2 (Approx. 4200 of 8900)
Torches flickered along the walls, burning slowly. Suhar and Garon passed through a huge room with a low ceiling where growlers stopped what they were doing and stared at Garon, making him self-conscious and overtly aware of how little he could defend himself were any of them to decide to take offense at his presence.
The corridors became skinnier and steeper, heading downward, the air growing a little stale. Then they opened back up and Suhar ducked under a heavy skin that looked like a mash up of small animal pelts.
Inside, the room was warm and almost cheery, filled with furs of brown and black and gold and shelves of carved wood where berry-stained bark rested with marks of her people’s old written words. The ceiling had been left bare, its character derived from the edges and cuts within the rock.
Suhar lit the oil torch on one side and gestured to the thick nest of furs on the opposite side of the room. “Lie down.”
Garon swallowed, performance anxiety making his dick twitch, but he obediently went to the furs, tucked his fingers into his pants and pulled them down. He left them where they fell and crawled onto the bedding, turning on his side to watch Suhar.
This time he didn’t stop himself from admiring her body. The strength in her figure and the curve of her firm ass. He followed the black decorations that curled around her calves and up her thighs. And when she turned…he let himself take a good long look at the curls at her groin.
His dick was doing more than twitching now, slowly hardening as he watched her clean out a shallow set of scratches at her side.
“Letting another get first blood is always a good tactic,” she said absently, her eyes on the dark smears of blood. “Gets them overconfident. Removes their fear so they forget that they are fallible.” She met Garon’s gaze and smiled, her gold-green eyes dancing in the torchlight. “Scars are never to be ashamed of. They are proof that you are a protector, that you aren’t scared to place your own body in danger for your family.” She glanced down. “Though, I doubt these will scar visibly.”
She dabbed at the scratches once more, then folded the cloth and left it on top of a carved trunk that looked more like the trunk of a tree than a chest to hold things. Then she turned and came to him, the teeth on her necklace silent, her bare feet making little sound on the furs stretched out across her floor.
With every step, Garon felt his heart ramp up, this time out of excitement rather than fear. He could already feel her hair brushing against his skin. Her curves molding to his body. Her lips gliding over his own. Her folds wet and welcoming as he held onto her hips and pushed up.
He looked down instinctively, eyes drawn to the curls around her groin. As he watched her approach, she shivered again and the hair grew, her hips expanding, her legs flexing as she shifted.
He scrambled away from her as she climbed into the furs in bear form. Suhar paused, giving him an open-mouthed look, then settled herself onto her bed. She blinked at him, then closed her eyes, her huge body settling comfortably.
The spike of terror when she’d climbed up in bear form eased from his limbs, leaving Garon shaky with the dredges of adrenaline. He lowered himself back to the furs and put his head into his hands. And when Suhar seemed to have no intention of doing anything but sleep, he rolled himself back onto the furs.
There was quiet, nothing but the muted noises of other growlers within the den network. Then Suhar shifted so that the line of her body pressed against his, warming his naked skin with soft fur. He tensed, but when Suhar didn’t move again, his muscles relaxed into her bulk, finding a strange sort of comfort from the growler.
The next few days were the strangest of his life, and that was saying something considering he’d spent a quite a number of years learning the secrets to shifting and numerous days stumbling around in brand-new bodies.
Suhar actually wore pants generally, unless she was sleeping or in one of the meat pits, but her breasts were always out, giving Garon more than enough reason to find his nights in her bed painful in an exquisite fashion. Never once did she touch him sexually, though his cock had found quite a few reasons to harden at intervals.
When he refused to bite into the raw meat she brought back, she made a few remarks about human metabolisms, then went and had it cooked. The meat always ended up dry and burnt, but he thanked her regardless and ate it like it was the best he’d ever tasted, because it sort of was now that he realized they didn’t plan on chewing on him.
She let him go wherever he wished as long as she was with him, and when she couldn’t be, he found himself in Mahden’s presence or a man she’d introduced as her cubmate, Arhehl. His transference bands remained on her necklace and any mention of Shelter Port or safe passage off their territory was met with chuckles and laughter, as if they shared some private joke.
In those first days, Garon started to believe they might have been saving him for some feast or party. When he mentioned his fear to Suhar, she tapped his cheek and walked away with a shake of her head, never bothering to translate what in hells that even meant.
In the days following that incident, he began to wonder whether Suhar had condemned herself to the camp by bringing him into her den.
“Confined?” she asked. “How do you mean?”
“To the camp. Because you have to watch me all the time, unable to leave.”
Her eyebrows rose. “If the Matriarch needed me to patrol, I would leave you to Arhehl or Mahden. I trust them to care for you while I am gone.”
“But what about what you want?”
She shrugged and passed him a water skin. “Drink more. I think you are still dehydrated.”
“I feel like a water skin you’ve pushed so much in me.”
“Not drinking is dangerous and you had gone days upon days without enough.”
“I was drinking.”
“You swayed on your feet constantly. Did you not notice?”
He turned his head and drank, but only a small sip because he already felt bloated. “I did,” he admitted.
“Glad to see you are not foolish as well as lost.”
“I wasn’t lost. I knew where I was and where I was going. Now I’m lost. I have no idea where I am.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “There’s lost and then there’s lost.”
“You growlers make no sense.”
“You druids become cranky when you can’t shift.”
He opened his mouth to refute her, but he couldn’t, because it was true. The days had ticked by with his gaze often wandering towards the clouds, his desire to steal his hawk band back from her growing with every day, becoming a pressing need.
That night, Suhar pulled down the patch-worked skin covering of her den, pulled off his feathered hawk band and slid it over his wrist herself.
“For a time,” she said, then she shifted into bear and settled by the door, her golden eyes watching him intently.
Pants already off and in a heap on the ground, Garon closed his eyes as he grazed his thumb over the feathers. The shift took him seamlessly, twisting his limbs into a creature no human should be capable of becoming. Joyously, he launched himself up from the furs and screeched happily as he soared around the room.
Well, soared as much as he was able, which admittedly, wasn’t much. But he flew for a time, circling the enclosed space until his wings grew tired and he had to rest. He dropped upon Suhar’s broad back and tucked himself into her fur, twisting his neck so he could see her.
She growled, but it was a gentle sound, not menacing. When he finally shifted back, she hushed him as she restrung his transference band upon her necklace.
He gasped. “Don’t get in trouble because of me, Suhar.”
She smiled and touched his cheek again. “It was worth it to see you smile for real.”
That night he curled up against her huge form before she could move, closing his eyes and breathing in her scent, letting it sooth him to sleep.
“What’s it like to fly?” she asked a few days later when they were both flat on their backs on one of the ledges above the camp, looking up into the clear blue sky, watching the eagles soar between their aeries.
“Freeing,” Garon answered instantly. His head pressed against hers, her hair tickling his ear, but he didn’t move, enjoying the proximity.
A mountain breeze kicked up, bending the trees and hardening his nipples. The needles rustled and the branches creaked. The warmth of the hard rock beneath his back was practically burning, but it felt too good for him to move.
Garon asked, “What’s it like here? To live here, I mean?”
“The Maslahr are dangerous. We fight them at times, help the Sasamonie tribe. Prove ourselves worthy protectors of our family.”
He smiled to himself. “I remember. Scars aren’t to be ashamed of.”
“That’s right. In the spring we gather at the river, feast on the returning fish. In the winter we sleep often.”
“That’s it?” He laughed. “You eat and sleep and fight?”
“We play as well.”
“I would hope so.”
“Garon?” Suhar rolled and lifted onto her elbow so that she looked down at his face. The peeling on his nose had finally stopped and his body had gained color from never wearing a shirt, but he still felt self-conscious, unsure of where he stood with her or with any other growler.
“Yes?” he asked, licking his lips.
Her gaze tracked the movement before her brow furrowed and she met his eyes. She bent, as if to kiss him and his heart ramped up. But she paused and turned at a sound on the ledge right before Mahden climbed up to join them.
“Suhar, we’re scheduled to head back out.” He nodded to Garon. “The Matriarch has allowed him passage. We’re to guide him to the edge of our territory and let him go.”
Garon sat up. “And my bands?”
Mahden chuckled. “Yes, you’ll get your bunny bands back once we see you off.” He winked and jumped off the ledge, his head disappearing a few moments later as he climbed further down.
The wind picked up again, rocking the tops of the trees, and drowning out an eagle’s cry. As it died, the sun baked down on Garon’s skin.
“He didn’t say when.”
Suhar turned so she was sitting beside him, her bare shoulder pressed against his. His eyes instinctively went to her hands where she held her knees. The back of her left had a small scar, diamond shaped as if she’d been smashed with a sharp rock. He reached out and traced the mark.
“Soon,” she supplied. “Probably leave tomorrow.” She flashed him a grin. “It’s been an honor being your protector, Garon Jafsid.”
“My protector? Is that what you are?”
He took back his hand, feeling very young and stupid. He’d assumed there’d been another reason, but she’d never made any mention of anything more. Never acknowledged when he became hard when he drank in her scent while they slept.
Suhar gave her typical low laugh, the sound soft and breathy. Her laugh had become familiar in the days he’d been here. And not just her laugh. Her smell, the slow way she smiled, the light touch of her fingers against his cheek every day, her purposeful motions and confident stride. Her unflappable manner, as if nothing disturbed her, but everything mattered.
As if he mattered, regardless that he wasn’t a growler, wasn’t from here.
“I fought for the right to care for you, Garon Jafsid. You are like a lost little cub in need of a mother.”
He licked his lips. He knew he had a babyish face, that his hair grew in patches on his cheeks if he let it grow, but he wasn’t that young. “I don’t need a mother.”
Suhar cocked her head at him, something twinkling in her eyes. “Then what do you need?”
Their lips were inches apart. Hers lush, parted in question. He could see their dampness. The same want that had been growing daily pulsed through his veins, leaving him nervous and shy.
He tried to remember how easily she could crush his skull, or how different he looked to all the growlers, as he murmured, “You,” but he’d ceased caring. No, he’d started trusting. A distinct difference, one that changed everything.
Suhar’s eyes widened fractionally, going clear with a light he didn’t understand. He could feel his heart pressing at the back of his throat, felt as if he were free falling from the sky, the wind ripping at his feathers, his wings caught close to his body, unable to stretch out and catch the air.
When she didn’t respond, he made a self-conscious noise and shook his head. “Sorry, sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Don’t know what I was thinking.”
“So it wasn’t true?” Unaffected, Suhar sounded more curious than concerned.
“No. Yes, it was…it doesn’t matter.” He quickly lay back down, gaze following the path of an eagle as it disappeared over the cliff. His face flushed with embarrassment, feeling Suhar still watching him, probably with that dispassionate expression she wore most of the time.
Her weight came down on top of him, her hair brushing against his cheeks as she settled on top of his prone body. Just like the day they’d met, when she’d tossed him easily to the ground. He looked up at her, breathing out a raggedy breath that probably reeked of hormonal desire.
Suhar touched his cheek gently.
“Why do you do that? I don’t have a mark on my face.” The words were hard to force out with her this close.
“Just because no one has painted it on doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
“I’m not a growler,” he whispered as she relaxed, her face dropping toward him.
“No,” she agreed. “But hawks have claws as well.”
Then she touched her lips to his. The kiss started soft and gentle, the kind where neither person knew whether it was truly what they wanted. The kind where every slightest move, every single touch, every sound became of great importance.
The moment froze in Garon’s mind. The far off cries of the eagles, the breeze flowing down from the cliff, the sound of the trees creaking and the muted laughter of playing cubs all burned themselves into his memory, linking with the sweet taste of Suhar’s lips.
That first kiss seemed to go on forever, heating up when Garon wrapped his arms around Suhar’s warm back, tangling his hands in her long hair. She kneaded his shoulders, her hips dancing, that dance sending crackling fire pulsing through his cock and sparking up his spine.
The ledge sank its heat into their flesh as they rocked, sinking further into each other, the world beyond fading from Garon’s awareness. Their pants found themselves in a tangled heap upon the ledge as Garon traced Suhar’s scars with his tongue and curled his fingers into the long ago claw marks.
She found his scars as well. She traced the small curve around his wrist from his first failed attempt at a transference band. She kissed the blotchy birthmark that sat above his navel. Then ran fingers along the long, jagged line down his thigh where the druids had caught him when he’d lost himself in his hawk form. When he’d failed to care for the family he’d found.
“Mine aren’t the same as yours,” he said. “Mine carry shame.”
Suhar put a finger over his lips. “Only if you let them.” Then she kissed away his protest that he hadn’t been able to protect himself, let alone the hawk he’d been mated to. She drowned his protests in the strong insistence of her tongue.
When she settled against him, sinking onto him, he groaned, the sound ripping from his lungs as his cock was pulled deep, covered with wet and warmth and flooded with sensation. Suhar arched up, her hair streaming around her shoulders and brushing back and forth across her breasts. She upturned her face to the sky, one hand against his chest as she rolled her hips.
Garon traced the painted lines on her flesh, lingering over the underside of her breasts, flicking his thumbs over her nipples. He could see the bear in Suhar, in the way her muscles tensed and rippled, in the way she lifted her lips in a sensuous snarl, in the way her eyes glowed pale golden brown when she looked back down at him.
And when she tilted her head suggestively, he rose up and clutched her to him as he thrust in counter to her rolling hips. She came with a low roar, the sound vibrating against his chest and heaving him over the edge of the dance she’d led him on.
After, they kissed tenderly. He carded his fingers through her hair, enjoying its silkiness, while she massaged his neck, pausing now and then to touch his cheek as if she could truly see a hawk claw there.
That night, Suhar remained human for a time so he rolled on top of her and entered her once more, watching her eyes in the flickering torch light. Kissed her because he wasn’t sure he’d taste anyone who had such an intoxicating mix of berry-sweet and bear-strong as part of her being.
And when she turned bear, he curled his fingers in her fur and buried his face in her shoulder, letting her rough breathing sing him to sleep.
Suhar and Mahden bade the Matriarch good-bye before they left, dragging Garon behind them. The Matriarch didn’t say a word, didn’t even change out of her bear form, simply flicked an ear and nodded, her eyes seeming to pierce right through Garon’s soul when he looked at her.
The trek itself was easier. His pants were hide instead of the soft fabric he’d packed and his skin had picked up a layer of tan that kept the sun from destroying him too badly. Mostly, he simply walked with more confidence, unworried that he’d find a growler jaw crunching down upon his skull at any moment.
“Do you have friends in Shelter Port?” asked Suhar. Mahden ambled ahead of them in bear form, pretending to ignore them when they spoke.
“No. I don’t know anyone there.”
“And you think you’re not lost?”
Garon remained silent for a time, thinking over her words. Yes, he’d been lost. Still was. But the only way out was to head forward. “I think I’ll find what to do there.”
Suhar nodded, more to herself than to Garon, but her eyes had shuttered. “It’s another four days out. Keep to the low paths. Sleep as hawk in the highest branches, if you can, because there are solitary werecats who stalk the underbrush and pounce from lower branches. Be extra wary around watering holes.”
She spoke matter-of-factly, like a woman who’d learned those lessons the hard way. Maybe had fought a cat or two herself. She didn’t seem worried though. Nor did she seem to care about his leaving, her expression becoming closed off.
It’d been only eight days since she’d pounced upon him, what exactly was he hoping for? A powerful growler warrior to pine for him? To put herself as his permanent protector within her family so that he could stay? To risk druids attacking her people?
He shook his head. The Matriarch would have had final say, and he couldn’t envision her wanting him in her camp long-term. Short-term, maybe, to wait for word from the Sasamonie tribe—Suhar had confided early the morning they’d left that had been what had convinced the Matriarch to let him go—but not long-term.
“I’ll keep all of that in mind,” he said. “Thank you.”
“There is no reason to thank me,” she said harshly. Harshly enough he stared at her in surprise. She glanced sideways at him. “I will not be protecting you. I will be doing nothing. Words are meaningless and practically useless in this situation.”
“They aren’t meaningless to me, Suhar,” he said, softening his voice so that he could try to get across his feelings on the matter.
In front of them, Mahden snorted and picked up his pace as if to get away from them. Garon ducked a dead strand of orange needles, waiting for Suhar to reply, but she never did.
They stopped abruptly partway through that second day, Mahden checking the area before shifting to human. “Good-bye, bunny,” he said with a chuckle. For the first time, he reached out and touched Garon’s cheek the same way Suhar had been doing all week. “Don’t get eaten.” The amusement from the past days hovered in his voice, but lacked the conviction from earlier conversations. Garon had barely enough time to say his own good-bye before Mahden shifted back and ran off the way they’d come.
“I’ve a gift,” said Suhar before Mahden had disappeared.
“You’ve already helped me—”
Her eyes bore that same glare he’d seen the first time he’d laid eyes on her. In her hand was a leather pouch that he recognized from her den. He took it tentatively, twisting his hand to try and graze his fingers against her palm, but she dropped her hand before he could.
“Remember,” she said. “There’s no one to protect you.”
“No one protected me before I came here either, Suhar.”
She blinked rapidly in shock. “Why not?” she demanded.
He shrugged helplessly. “I was fostered by the druids. They did their best, I guess.” To stop her from pushing further, he asked, intending to make a point about his ability to care for himself, “Who protects you?”
The shock didn’t disappear. “The Matriarch. Arhehl. Mahden. Everyone else in my clan.”
“Who protects the Matriarch?” he asked, completely confused.
Now she was looking at him as if he were an idiot. “The clan.” She reached up and touched her own claw mark. “We do.”
“So…you didn’t protect me because you thought I was just some lost cub who couldn’t care for himself?”
“You are lost. And we are all cubs compared to the Matriarch. I promised the protection of my den because you looked as if you needed a friend.”
Sudden longing, that had nothing to do with sexual attraction, suddenly squeezed his insides. This is what he’d been looking for. What Suhar had in abundance. What Suhar had given him freely while he’d been with her. What he’d thought he’d found when he’d allowed his human mind to fade into hawk. But the druids had killed his mate and killed his chance at more, with him practically powerless to stop it.
“What if,” he started. He forced himself to meet her eyes. “What if you failed to protect someone?”
“You bear the marks on your skin to prove that you did your best.” Her voice became hard. “And then you do far better next time.”
Garon tightened his fingers around the leather pouch and stepped closer to her. Fighting back insecurity, he lifted his opposite hand and touched her cheek the same way she’d touched his so often. She closed her eyes and turned ever so slightly into his fingertips. Then she opened her eyes and stepped away.
“Better to travel while there’s still light.”
He bit his lip to keep from saying all the things clawing their way up his throat. Let me stay. Let me be with you. Want me. Protect me. Let me protect you.
Instead, he said, “I will,” and turned to walk away, because reality told a different story. Reality said he’d never find what Suhar had while surrounded by growlers. He needed his own kind. Wanted his own kind. He kept walking because he knew, even if he broke down and begged to stay, even if Suhar wanted him too and the Matriarch allowed it, he knew he’d never belong the way he wanted.
He heard her turn to follow Mahden, her footsteps going from soft against the soil, to heavier, but he didn’t turn back to see her bear once more.
It wasn’t until three days later when he crested a hill to see Shelter Port in the distance that he realized there was actually something inside the leather pouch she’d given him. He’d taken it out as he’d done every day. Smelling it, because it still smelled like Suhar. The tie had snagged and pulled open, revealing strands of deep black, soft and silky.
Fur. Bear fur. Suhar’s fur. Enough to make a druidic transference band.
Letting out a shaky sigh of amazement, he gave Shelter Port one last look, then turned around, wondering just how fast he could fly.