Wounds of the Warrior
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 3 (Approx. 5200 of 15400)
She was dying a shameful death. Life seeping out from the bandage at her side. No bleeding to death from her injuries, no, nothing close to a prideful death. Infection had set in. She could feel it eating at her strength, sapping her energy. Her steps had turned slothful. Lethargy had come to make friends with her before she gave in to her shameful death.
Cohriahra leaned against the wide bark of a pine and ground her teeth on the leather strap she’d shoved into her mouth at the start of the gauntlet. It had kept her from screaming then and it kept her from screaming now.
Every time she glanced down, she winced at her bare, naked skin. Her clan markings were gone. Nothing but real blood leaking down her side, drying in strange patterns.
The hill before her steepened, launching downward until the last half a tree length turned into pure cliff. She recognized it—the Warline, where every young growler had at some point or another painted a war sign for the opposing clan. The line between territories was a fickle, shifting thing, but the Warline marked it approximately.
Not far then.
If she could just cross into Riahr territory, she could die worthily in a real fight, not from this festering wound.
Cohriahra staggered from tree to tree, catching at the rough bark, her hands coated with sap and her teeth aching from biting down on the leather strap every time she moved her side.
Near where the hill steepened into cliff and the grass gave way to rock, Cohriahra felt her balance shear away from her and she pitched down to land hard on her knees on the incline before continuing. She rolled, snapping twigs and crunching over pinecones as she desperately grabbed at the grass, searching for purchase.
Her fingers responded too slow, her body too fatigued to save itself from the fall over the short cliff. She didn’t scream as she went over. She’d never scream. But she bit down so hard on the strap in her mouth she felt blood gushing where her gums had burst open.
She woke to the sound of snuffling and cracking in the underbrush. Her entire body protested wakefulness, her sluggish mind warring with her senses, attempting to pull her back under. Training won out.
Cohriahra opened her eyes tentatively as she took stock of her body. Her side still swam with pain and infection and now her head hurt with more than dehydration. When she crinkled her forehead, she felt wet blood. Aches, most of them unworthy of a second’s consideration, riddled her body. The only other serious problem was the sharp, shooting pain in her right forearm where it lay beneath her body. Probably broken.
She could still use her legs though and that was important because she could smell growler. Unfamiliar growler, so it wasn’t one of the Maslahr come to watch the dredges of her shame. This growler could spell the difference between that shameful death and one that would send her on to drink in the Grand Matriarch’s eternal river.
The other growler moved quietly, but not silently. Wary, but not concerned about his presence being known. Cohriahra smiled inwardly.
With a roar, she threw herself up, shifting into bear form as she launched herself at the strange growler. The shift hurt. As her arm turned into her foreleg, she saw blackness around the edges of her vision, but she refused to let that slow her down. She had advantage. She would use it.
She caught the other growler across the shoulder with her good arm, missing his face and eye by mere inches as he swung his head away. Rising up on both legs so she wouldn’t dump weight upon her wounded arm, Cohriahra swung again, watching in satisfaction as the other growler backed up, snarling.
Then, recovering quicker than she anticipated, the other growler threw itself forward, its jaw catching her around the already throbbing wound on her middle. She roared in agony, swinging out to buff the growler in the head. He let her go with a purposeful shove that sent her toppling on her back to blink at the small birds taking flight who’d been scared by their scuffle.
She rolled to her good side, scrambling up and turning back to attack the growler again, but he was gone. She tossed her head around, searching for him angrily. She needed him, needed this fight because while she doubted she could kill him, she could certainly die trying.
“You’re in no shape to be fighting,” said a man’s voice.
Cohriahra wasted no time running at him three-legged, throwing herself into an attack at the defenseless human man. He turned to growler seamlessly. The painted black bear claw on his cheek that marked him as Riahr disappeared behind his fur as he met her attack, rebuffing her soundly and sending her weak body back to the ground where she lay struggling to find the strength to get back up, to force the death-blow.
“There hasn’t been a skirmish for months,” said the other growler. “Where did you get those wounds? Is there another family? Did Maslahr break in two?”
With a noise that had meant to be a roar, but came out as most of a whimper, Cohriahra dove for him again. Her claw connected with skin and fur as the growler shifted into bear form once more. She felt blood and heard his ferocious snarl as he tore her away and shoved her down, this time clambering on top of her, his massive weight settling on her broken arm and infected side.
She roared in pain, chomping at him as she swiped, pummeling his shoulder to no avail. Her blows became weaker by the second, her consciousness threatened to seep away as the pain pulsed worse.
When the other growler placed a huge strong paw across her windpipe, all she could think was, Thank the Grand Matriarch, I shall be seeing you soon, my pride intact, my shame purged.
But instead of waking in the honey country to visit with her ancestors fishing in the eternal river, she woke to the heavy stench of medicinals and ashy cooking fire. Her arm felt heavy, her mind sluggish and her side, for the first time in days, felt cool instead of burning.
“Good evening,” said an amused voice.
Cohriahra jerked up, twisting sideways as she started to shift, intending on attacking the enemy lounging on the other side of the fire, but her vision became shaky and her body shook with weakness at the attempt.
She snarled angrily. “Yowler’s piss.”
The man smiled slightly. “That’s right. Figured with the way you were acting, it was a good way to keep you human long enough to speak with you.”
“Coward,” she spat.
She attempted to shift again, but the herbal concoction, called anything from Adanwarl tonic to shifter’s bane, to the more growler specific title, Yowler’s piss, had her collapsing back to the ground. Pieces of bark had been wrapped about her forearm, tied tightly as a splint, and they were heavy and awkward as she gathered herself back together.
She glanced down at her bare skin, dirty and scratched, and the bandage on her side. Smears darkened her skin where the blood had been scrubbed, but not scrubbed clean. Even within her old clan she hadn’t felt this naked when the markings had been washed off. Yet, now she felt even more bare. The presence of a man from Riahr, with his black clan marks and assessing eyes, making her desire the confidence a clan gave when facing down an enemy.
The man laughed a little, though she noted he was still on edge, as if he were waiting for her to try something. Good. He should be tense, because when she got the chance she was going to rip her claws straight through that smug expression.
“How were you hurt?” he asked.
“I’m not telling you anything,” she said dryly in between pants, surprised he would ask so bluntly.
“It looked like a bite mark, from another growler maybe? But I’d have heard if someone in my clan had had a run-in with one of yours, and I haven’t. So I’m left to assume you got that from either someone in your own clan before they cast you out or there’s an entirely different enemy that we’re not aware of. Which is it?”
She glared at him, a part of her irate over his assumption that she had been cast out simply because she no longer wore a clan on her flesh.
He sighed and nodded to the fish laid out on the rock next to the fire. One had been gently cooked until it was flaking apart, the other had been gutted and cleaned, but still sat raw. “Didn’t know how you liked your fish, so I did one of both. They’re yours if you open that pretty mouth of yours.”
“When I open my mouth to chew on something, it’ll be you between my teeth.”
He stared at her, his partial smile frozen and not reaching his eyes. In fact, she could feel his distaste, practically smell the hate wafting off of him. Then he shrugged. “Have it your way.” He leaned back. “I’ll talk then. The name’s Mahden, by the way.”
The claw mark on his cheek crinkled when he flashed her a grin false in its brightness. “Here’s what I think happened to you. Based on the fact that your clan’s red markings are no longer staining your face, they found you in contempt of a clan law, forced you into their gauntlet where you failed to fight off the sheer number of growlers they threw at you. They tossed you outside their camp with nothing but your wounds and you made your way here to die by Riahr hand as a form of suicide.”
Cohriahra looked past Mahden into the woods beyond where the shadows were lengthening, the sun turning the needles golden. He’d dragged her from the Warline cliff with its colorful angry signs. Far enough she didn’t recognize the area. Were she alone, she could probably find her way. She looked back to Mahden. However, she doubted she’d ever be alone.
“How’d I do, cub?”
She snarled at the slight, but settled into the furs, hoping that if she remained still enough she might be able to force the change even through the dizziness. Instead, she gagged on her spit and dry heaved into the fallen pine needles.
“You might want to refrain from trying to shift.”
Cohriahra ignored him.
“You do realize that even after I retrieve the information I want, I won’t be killing you. That would be too kind, little berry cub.”
She shot him an irate glance, noting the wry expression that proved he was baiting her on purpose. “Oh? Then why exactly did you treat my side if you didn’t want to be kind?”
“Can’t very well get decent answers from you when you’re delirious from fever. I tried, but all you mumbled about was a blackberry field and a cave that was too loud.”
Snorting laughter, Cohriahra lowered her eyelids. He wouldn’t know. Couldn’t know, really. And she wouldn’t be telling him that the cave and the blackberry field beyond were exactly why she’d been ripped apart. At least her mouth hadn’t driven her into further shame by having her become a traitor twice over in the eyes of Maslahr.
Instead, she had to suffer through the indignity of having an enemy treat her wounds, care for her as if she were one of his own. If Recoar or Siahd could see her now. How they would howl at her misfortune, mocking her inability to even die with honor.
She would have ripped at the bandage on her side and shook off the splint had it not been for reason telling her she’d be better capable of forcing Mahden’s hand were she at full warrior capability.
So she watched him through narrowed eyes, ignoring his endless chatter and constant belittling pet names. She noted that he was left-handed and that he tended to favor the hip where old scar tissue had grown in the shape of deep claw marks. She discovered that he couldn’t help but laugh at his own jokes and that his fingers wanted to be in constant motion, intricately braided pine needles finding their way into the fire time and time again.
His dark hair was long, straight and flat, parted on one side and often tucked behind his ear. Much longer than her own unruly mess that had been shorn when her markings had been removed. His shoulders were broad, sleek power obvious even in the way he relaxed on the other side of the tiny, flickering fire. Bare feet propped up, the toes bending often, almost in tandem with the way he constantly moved his fingers as he braided.
Always in motion. Laugh lines upon his face. Crinkles at the corners of eyes the color of wet bark that spoke of more years on his life than she’d first gauged. He wore life well, it seemed, laughing at its feeble attempts to diminish that amused smirk.
Cohriahra let herself sleep off and on, waking instantly every time she heard Mahden rise. He would shift to bear, becoming thick muscle, and lumber the circumference of his little makeshift camp, eventually coming back to his same spot. She would stare at him, at his dark fur, the streaks of lighter brown noteworthy in their contrast.
After the first few times of his perimeter checking, Cohriahra ceased examining him when he turned bear and turned to examining his man-form, but for a different reason this time. Where before she’d been looking for advantages in a fight and nuances of his character, now she examined the markings upon his skin, barely keeping her jealousy at bay.
The Riahr clan’s painted lines were always black in color and strange in form. Where the Maslahr clan would mimic the scrape of claws and gaping open wounds to shock or trick their opponents, the Riahr clan used the paint as useless decoration. Black curving lines twisted around Mahden’s arms and linked across his shoulders. They also reached up his thighs to meet again at his lower back. A single undulating line had been painted down the length of his flaccid cock, covered half the time when he pulled on a pair of pants. None of the lines were symmetrical. None of them bore any significance to Cohriahra.
By the time morning arrived on the next day, the fire smoldering, Mahden looked tired, but not unusually so. Which probably meant he’d slept in fits and bursts when Cohriahra herself had been fighting off the infection in her body. She tried to shift again when Mahden collected a little more firewood, but she only succeeded in making herself sick once more.
“You have a hard head,” observed Mahden as he fed the tiny fire. “You’re probably too stubborn to do as you’re told. That why you were run through Maslahr’s gauntlet?”
Cohriahra snickered at him, carefully running a hand through her shorn hair. “You don’t have a single subtle bone in your body.”
Mahden shrugged, passing her a loaded glance. “I’m not above torture.”
“Dealing with you is torture.”
She caught his stare and held it, daring him to try whatever it was he was thinking. There might be some shame in having to die in human form, but if she went down fighting, the shame would be balanced out somewhat. She could believe that she would still pass on to the honey country.
A cry of a bird had Mahden looking up through the expansive openings left by the branches of the tall pine trees. “Ah, here comes the bunny. What shall we tell him?” He seemed to be speaking to himself, so Cohriahra didn’t answer, but when a hawk came winging through the trees, neatly dodging green pine needles, she raised her eyebrows.
“That looks like a hawk,” she said dryly.
“Trust me, he’s a bunny.”
The hawk winged about the camp once before settling near Mahden. Its wings stretched out as it shivered, forming a pale human man with similar markings across his body as Mahden’s, though the claw mark on his cheek was different. More bird-like than bear-like. Cohriahra barely held down an exclamation of disgust, but let it show upon her face as she examined the new man.
“The Matriarch was worried when Nuhrioh and Daernushar came back without you,” said the man as greeting.
Mahden chuckled. “You can tell her I’ve got things under control here.”
The new man looked towards Cohriahra when she made a scoffing sound. “Maslahr?”
“Not sure yet. She doesn’t like to talk and she doesn’t have the markings of them.”
The hawk man nodded, his eyes never leaving Cohriahra. She gave him a nasty feral grin and pushed herself up, ignoring the twinges of pain emanating from her side and her arm. If she could reach him, she could snap him easily in two. Break that precious little neck, declaw the bird who seemed to have been adopted by a growler clan. She didn’t attempt a shift though, not yet. The Yowler’s piss was loosing its hold on her, but she still needed time to let it burn through her system.
“What would you have me tell her?” asked the man.
Mahden stood, stretching his arms above his head. “That there’s a possibility that Maslahr has been attacked by another set of weres or possibly the cougars, but it’s far more likely that they’ve simply employed their barbaric ways to destroy one of their own.”
The look the other man gave Cohriahra was filled with pity. Eyes widening, body responding to that distasteful emotion, she threw herself across the camp, bending her knees and coming up with one hand to knock the man’s head back. She had the satisfaction of seeing the man jerk away, startled at her angry roar, then Mahden was in the way, taking the hit on his bear flank. He swung his head sideways at her, growling.
She ignored him, snarling at the other man. “Run away, back into the sky before I tear your head from your pathetic little body and eat your carcass.”
His eyebrows rose, but he no longer had the frightened expression he’d worn when she’d attacked. Now he just seemed disturbed by her. Little bunny, indeed. No wonder Mahden called him that.
“I’ll tell the Matriarch,” he said simply. Then he shifted into hawk, seeming to take his time with it, as if the smoothness of the transition was beyond him. He took off into the air, winging through the pine boughs and shaking needles in his passing.
As Mahden shifted into human, Cohriahra settled back into the fur blanket, taking extra care to make it look as if she were more capable than she was, pretending her wounds didn’t pulse in agony from her actions.
“Your clan is taking in weaklings now? Maslahr would love to hear of it,” she mocked.
“Oh? Are you a spy? Attempting to infiltrate Riahr and learn all our weaknesses so that Maslahr can spread itself thinly across the range? Is that why you’ve been washed of your clan’s markings?”
She raised her eyebrows and laughed through the pain in her side, enjoying the way Mahden’s expression hardened. “Spy? Is that how Riahr thinks to win its battles? Through fox-like cowardice? Your people are weak, Mahden. Weak and inadequate. More so now than any point in our history.”
“If we are so weak,” he countered, “how is it that we still stand between you and the pass and the Sasamonie tribe?”
She waved the hand of her good arm dismissively, but stopped herself from spilling secrets by letting another feral grin stretch across her face. She watched a flurry of emotion flicker across his face before Mahden seemed to center himself, the same smug smile he’d worn all night reappearing with a vengeance and his words heavy with harsh mockery.
“They’ve cast you out, berry cub. They’ve cast you out, they’ve stripped your clan’s markings from your skin, cut your hair practically to your scalp. You are nothing. Not to Riahr. Not to Maslahr. Not to anyone anymore. Your words mean little because you can’t back them up. Your actions are crazed posturing. Your world has shrunk until you are the only one within it.” He paused, letting out a little laugh. “You must be lonely, berry cub.”
His words didn’t hurt. Worse words had been spoken to her recently. Words that had trapped her in a powerful, strangling net. The words of a stranger meant nothing, especially when she knew what she had sacrificed for.
But when he spoke of being lonely…
No. Even the loneliness that dwelled within her heart was false, because she would be damned if she wanted anyone to see her now—a shell of her once strong self. She shrugged and settled onto the fur, watching him silently as she waited for the Yowler’s piss to burn away.
Mahden tried to pry information out of her. She had to give him credit for that. He ragged on her, attempting to get a response, and when she refused to play that childish game, he switched tactics, praising the way things were done in Riahr, explaining how Maslahr was cruel to its people and wouldn’t she love to switch clans?
That was so horrifically disturbing of an idea she could only stare in shock at his enthusiasm.
“I could let you die of fever,” he said at last, finally going full circle to threats. “Rub the cloths I used to clean you into your wounds so that your infection comes back.”
“I would crush your skull first,” she said.
He laughed, eyes actually twinkling. “She speaks! The fear of death in its awe-inspiring capabilities.”
Cohriahra snapped so hard she saw murky blood rush in front of her eyes. She leapt, forcing her body through the change with barely a thought. The splint broke and the bandage tore. She roared in hate, letting the anger burn away the sickening rush of the Yowler’s piss in her veins. She wanted to lay Mahden out flat, crush his human body so that his bones shattered and his tendons snapped. She wanted to feel him yell out a death rattle.
Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew it wouldn’t happen. She’d seen how fast he shifted, witnessed how quickly it could occur. She knew her claw wouldn’t land on human flesh.
And it didn’t.
She tumbled into Mahden as he twisted so that his neck was protected and his teeth were ready. Then they fought upright, Cohriahra blinded by rage, feeding it because it burned away the pain. They fought until Mahden caught her against the face, the buffet laying her onto the ground. She immediately turned to throw herself up, already anticipating a death-blow and desiring nothing more than to beat him to it. But he’d backed away, snarling, in a defensive posture.
With another roar of irritation at his tactics, Cohriahra lurched toward him again, only stumbling slightly when she put too much pressure on her injured leg. Their jaws locked, their spittle mixing before she pulled off and used her foreleg to throw another hard blow onto Mahden’s face.
She growled when the blow landed, forgetting in those few seconds that her leg couldn’t handle that sort of pressure. Mahden instantly caught the same leg between his teeth and slammed her down to the ground, using his weight to resnap the bone.
Seeing white through the haze of anger, she cursed him, the words turning human as the Yowler’s piss ripped her back through the shift as her will crumbled. She panted, trying to keep as still as possible as the worst of the pain ebbed.
When she turned her head she became furious and horrified to discover Mahden leaning against a tree a good ten to fifteen paces away after having spent the time to pull his pants back on. As if she hadn’t already seen his flaccid cock when she’d first woken. A claw mark had blossomed bright red blood upon his shoulder, cutting down towards his pectoral. Bruises would likely compound his looks upon his left side where she’d hit him with her good arm. And if she hadn’t been so caught up in the way her wound screamed at her, she suspected she’d be feeling similar bruises upon herself.
Slowly, using her good arm to brace her bad one, Cohriahra got to her feet, only feeling the swampiness of a blackout attempt to pull her down once. When she straightened, she leveled a heated gaze upon Mahden.
“I do not fear death,” she intoned.
“Then you’re a fool,” said Mahden.
His voice sounded strained. Strained as if she’d managed to hurt him worse than she’d first thought. Examining his body again, she noted the way he was carefully not holding anything, but that he favored, just slightly, his left side where she’d railed against him.
“Who is the worse fool?” she asked. “The one who seeks an honorable death or the one who allows his enemy to heal until she can destroy him?”
She watched his jaw stiffen, saw his attempt to laugh away her words, but the twinkle that had been in his eyes before had fled to parts unknown. With a sickening realization, Cohriahra felt her body lose the last pumps of adrenaline, her every aching wound demanding attention.
“You haven’t killed before,” she said quietly.
Mahden laughed at her, but it was wrong. All wrong. “I’ve eaten plenty of my own kills.”
“But nothing with intelligence shining from its eyes.” She straightened as best she was able. “Nothing you’ve spoken with first.”
Mahden’s smile froze. “There’s been a dearth of battles with Maslahr lately.” He hesitated, then added, “That’s why we want to know what’s going on. Whether Maslahr has plans that we should be aware of or if something else…”
Cohriahra turned her head to look into the forest, reflecting on her limited options here. She could wait him out again and again. Attack him as many times as she wished, but she suspected the ending would always be the same. That Mahden wouldn’t kill her during any fight. That he would win and then let her live, over and over. Playing with her wounded body, using her weaknesses to force her down without ever killing her.
She could perhaps force his hand, but she was already so exhausted. Wanting the rest that came with death, but refusing to lie down and accept a cowardly one. Her arm pulsed, sending wave after wave of pain. Her side had been pulled open again, fresh blood dripping over her hip.
Closing her eyes, she envisioned the cave she’d found with Lriehl and Siahd. The roaring waterfall within its depths. The opening among the stalactites letting bright sunlight pour down to feed the moss. And beyond, where the trees overhung the entrance, a forest expanding into their secret valley. She could taste the berries from the expansive lay of them and see the cracked fruits that had fallen. She could almost smell the sex that had hovered in the air every time they visited.
Would it be so horrific were Riahr to discover, at least in part, some of what had occurred? Could she make it so it could benefit the people she’d left behind?
She lifted her head proudly to face Mahden again. “I have two questions. You answer them, I answer any number you have for me.”
Only the barest trace of surprise registered on Mahden’s features. “What two questions?” he asked suspiciously.
“Which direction is your clan’s camp?”
He laughed, this time with real mirth. “No. I’m not telling Maslahr where our clan is.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “And how would Maslahr ever find out? Am I bird to fly away with a broken wing to tell them? Or a spy, as you so eloquently suggested?” She’d taken a step forward as she spoke and now sucked in a breath at the sharp pain that staggered through her arm even as she didn’t correct Mahden’s mistaken assumption. “Don’t you have warriors who would crush me the moment I attacked one of your own, especially considering your hawk man has already flown there to warn them of me?”
“And that’s what you intend? To suicide that way?”
She glared at him. “It’s not suicide.”
“Call it what you want.”
She waited, the glare still steady on her face.
Finally, he lifted one hand and pointed in a direction between them, closer to her side than his. “And your other question?”
Following his finger with her gaze, she nodded. “How far is it?”
He hesitated until she looked at him. “Three days. Give or take.” The silent “more for you” could be read easily when he glanced at her naked, battered body.
“Three days,” she repeated under her breath. Could she trek for three days with the way she felt now, arm broken and needing to be set again, body feeling sick and weak with hunger because she’d refused the single offer of food from Mahden? “I can do it,” she whispered to herself. “Three days.”
She started off in that direction, keeping her forearm cradled. Behind her she heard Mahden scramble to dump dirt on the fire and collect the bit of food he’d packed away. He caught up with her easily and if she’d injured him seriously, he certainly didn’t show it.
For a long while they walked silently, the flurry of questions she’d been anticipating lodged somewhere within Mahden’s mind. It wasn’t until he grumbled under his breath, threw his small pack to the ground and put a gentle hand on her belly that she had a reason why he’d not said a word.
“At this pace it’ll take you three times as long. Let me set your arm.”
Cohriahra looked down at where his fingers curved into her abdomen, where her marks had been just days before. “Wouldn’t I be less of a threat were you to leave it? What if I were to kill someone because you cared for me?” While she meant to treat his care with disdain, her words came out softer than she’d intended.
“I have faith in my clan. And if it ever comes to that, it will be me who gets the brunt of your attack.”
A good answer. One she could get behind because she would have done the same, had done the same, when her actions had almost killed those she’d cared about. She met his eyes, focusing on their gentle brown color. “I’m going to find someone better than you who is willing to kill me.”
Mahden gave her a hint of a wry smile, as if he were both amused and saddened by her declaration. “I know.”
End of Part One
Part Two / Part Three will be available Aug 31