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 2 of 3 (Approx. 5200 of 15400)
The first question came as he braced to set her bone. “What’s your name?”
“Cohriahra,” she gritted out from around the edge of the fur he’d let her shove in her mouth.
“How many cub mates do you have?”
She blinked at the question, but relaxed her jaw enough to respond around her mouthful. “You mean littermates or siblings?”
“Either. Both.” He was moving his hands along her arm, his touch agony wherever he pushed.
“One littermate. Three more born to my fath—urgh.” She snarled into the fur as Mahden held her steady after the horrific pain shot up her arm. Thank the Grand Matriarch she’d slept through the first time he’d done that.
She loosed her jaw as Mahden started to bind her arm to a new splint he’d created from thick pieces of bark. “Lriehl was my littermate. The other three are Hlair, Sheo and Miasld. Why such stupid questions?”
Mahden bent over further so she couldn’t see his face. “You said was. Is Lriehl dead?”
Cohriahra stared at where his long dark hair draped over his shoulder. Watched as he absently shoved it aside, an ache in her heart for her own loss. “No. She’s not. None of them are.”
“And your parents?”
“My mother died during a fight with Riahr a long time ago.”
Now Mahden looked up. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not. She died honorably. She was a bad warrior, though her heart was in the right place.”
His left cheek had swollen up and would likely be beautifully colored by tomorrow. Still busy, he only spared her a glance as he continued braiding needles around the bark to keep it together. She had to admit, his work was good, his fingers nimble and strong.
“Why did you lose your marks?”
Ah, finally a real question. Cohriahra didn’t answer right away, remembering how it had felt to watch the water turn murky as the marks swished away under the heavy pressure of the falls. Not sad. A touch of nostalgia, maybe. But not sad.
“Because they were no longer meaningful.”
Mahden stopped braiding and looked up at her. “Do you plan on being this evasive for every question I ask?”
Cohriahra smiled just enough to show her teeth. “That depends on how you ask the questions.”
“You are an exhausting woman.”
“And you are an irritating man.”
He chuckled a little at that. “It’s a pity our clans continue to fight over the same expanse of territory.”
“Maslahr and Riahr fight because of differing beliefs. Not territory. If Riahr believes it is about territory, they are more idiotic than Maslahr has ever presumed.”
Mahden shook his head. “I’m not even going there. Hunting and eating humans might not be cannibalism, but it’s not much better.”
Afterwards, he fed her and this time she wasn’t stupid enough to turn the fish down. Still weak, wounds demanding that she rest, Cohriahra pushed onward, keeping herself going, using the pain to ignore the occasional touches at her elbow or the guarded looks of concern that Mahden seemed intent on giving her. He drove her crazy and with every step Cohriahra became more and more hyperaware of how close he insisted on being, how quickly he moved to catch her if she even looked as if she might sway or stumble.
In fact, she walked with a perpetual snarl for Mahden’s sake for that very reason.
“Touch me again,” she finally growled, “and I’ll bite your hand off.”
Mahden sighed out a laugh. “I’ll remember that when you fall.”
No more questions came after that. At least not ones that mattered. He did ask whether she’d actually eaten a human before to which she lied and said yes, feeling satisfied when he passed her a disgusted look. She deserved his response because reality was she would have eaten a human had she’d ever had the chance, but humans knew better than to travel into Maslahr territory.
As the shadows grew long and the birds began their incessant evening chatter, her steps became shorter and less stable. She had to coax herself to move, ignoring Mahden’s offer for them to stop for the night. It was too early, the sun still gave plenty of light to see by, they could travel that much closer to—
She didn’t realize she had fallen until she blinked up into Mahden’s face. The worry there made her snarl, though she felt far too weak to respond verbally.
“Just checking to make sure you were still alive,” he said, with a hint of the amusement he’d had before their last fight.
Then he left her there, walking away to start gathering up dead needles and dry sticks to start a fire. When he had it crackling, he sat on the other side and observed her in much the same way she’d been observing him, except without the inability to find the strength to even turn his head.
“Are you always this stubborn?” he asked.
“With my enemies,” she rasped out. When he only smiled and shook his head at the fire, she asked, “Is this the extent of your questions? I thought for sure you would have plenty for me once I gave permission.”
Mahden put his chin on his hand. “How did you get that wound?”
He snorted, but didn’t respond to her inept attempt to piss him off. “The one that was killing you from the inside out when I found you. The one that was obviously inflicted by a large animal.”
“A growler bit me.”
She relented, dropping the last pretenses of resistance out of sheer exhaustion. “I don’t honestly know which one. There were too many to keep track of.”
“Up till recently.”
He nodded as if he understood, but she knew he didn’t, knew that he wouldn’t ask the right questions. And why would that even matter? Why did a part of her want him to know, want him to pry until he could fit the pieces together, string the events up in a line and realize that Riahr might have more of a chance than they’d ever had before?
Some sort of misbegotten nostalgia still playing with her heart?
“Why did they attack you?”
“Because I broke their laws.” Her good side felt numb and her bad arm felt achy and itchy, the pain seeming to get worse with her awkward position, but she just couldn’t manage to move.
“Why not just discipline you?”
“Because it wouldn’t have helped them. They wished me dead. Wished me to die shamefully because they didn’t want to acknowledge me.”
“And it was solely Maslahr involved?”
Mahden must have heard something in her voice, something that she hadn’t realized she’d let slip, because his eyes sharpened in the fading light. “Is there something else I should be asking about?”
Cohriahra smiled through her pain, trying to hold back the laugh because her torso hurt. “There will always be something else you should be asking, Mahden.” Then she gritted her teeth because that little bit of a laugh had made her arm move and now she couldn’t think of anything but how much she wished to pass out and not wake up, screw the cowardice of her death.
She had squeezed her eyes shut so when she felt warm fingertips against her shoulder, she jerked. “No—”
“Quiet. This isn’t a partnership. You’re my prisoner within Riahr land. The least you can do is shut up and act like it.”
Cohriahra practically strangled herself trying to control a laugh, but she couldn’t not let Mahden help her up. Couldn’t not let him half carry her onto the same dirty fur blanket he’d let her have before. Couldn’t do a single thing to stop him from dragging it closer to his little fire, nicely giving her the side that wouldn’t blow the smoke directly in her face.
When he sat at her back and rearranged her body gently so that she wouldn’t be putting undue pressure on any of her wounds, she had to fight the horrifying desire to cry, the loneliness she’d been keeping at bay finally rearing its ugly, traitorous head. She controlled the tears. But just barely.
Mahden’s hand rested against her bare shoulder, his chest warming her back, the fire warming her front. She could feel the ends of his hair gently brushing against her skin as if wanting to paint black lines that served no purpose.
“Why do you think dying is the only way, Cohriahra? Is it a Maslahr belief?”
“It is better to die with all your will intact, then live as only a shell of yourself.”
He didn’t ask any more questions that night. Thankfully.
The next day, she felt better, stronger. They ate in silence in the morning, Mahden scratching at the stubble growing on his chin and Cohriahra running her good hand through her hair as if she could make it grow back that way. They foraged as they walked, Mahden guiding her towards a river near midmorning so that he could shift and gather the fish leaping upstream.
Cohriahra sat on the bank and watched his form, thinking over what to say. She’d already bartered for an honorable death. Had it within her sights. He, however, hadn’t yet received the news he wanted, though perhaps he thought he had and thus the lack of questions this morning.
He shifted to human on the bank after eating his fill, kindly handing over one for her. She ate slowly, watching intently as he shook out his pants and put them back on, noting how his cock gave a jump when he looked up and saw her watching.
Mahden winked and tugged down one side of his pants. “Prefer if I leave them off, Cohriahra?”
She stood, wiping the hand she’d used to eat off on her thigh. “Whatever makes you comfortable around me.”
He reached out suddenly and touched her shorn hair. She tensed, fighting the instinct to shift and bite his hand, knowing that while the Yowler’s piss no longer hummed in her system, getting her arm rebroken and her side ripped open yet again wasn’t exactly the smartest choice if she wanted to make it to the honey country.
“What did you do, Cohriahra, to deserve this?”
“I was a traitor,” she said without hesitation. She’d been expecting this question, had rehearsed her answer in her head. “I altered a riverbed so that it weakened part of a cave, leading to a collapse that killed some of Maslahr’s warriors. I did it on purpose, with no regrets. I stepped into the gauntlet hoping the clan would allow me an honorable death, but knowing that it was futile, not when I sent so many on to the dark cave instead of the honey country.”
Mahden slowly pulled his hand back. “Why did you do it?”
“Because if the cave hadn’t been closed than even more people I cared about would have died.” She turned and started to walk along the bank, cutting the conversation short. Mahden might get to the bottom of this, but she wanted to be closer to his clan when that happened.
Closer to death.
“I only have one cub mate,” volunteered Mahden as they walked. He’d been silent for a time as they picked their way along the dried out sides of the cold river. As they turned westward, away from the water to head for the rocky cliffs that were usually covered in perpetual ice during winter, he continued, “She’s far older, mated to another warrior, and they’ve had two litters.”
“And you? You have any litters?”
Mahden laughed. “I can’t imagine raising cubs. I would be a terrible father.”
“I’m too easily amused. They would never be disciplined.”
She made a noncommittal sound, then added when that didn’t seem enough, “I always thought I would have cubs.” Cohriahra bared her teeth. “I would have raised them to be warriors, to ignore pain and laugh at fear. They would have been powerful. Riahr would have cowered when they heard my cubs’ growls.”
“I’ve heard that Maslahr forces their cubs to go farther into the mountains and fight the cougars there.”
“They bring back a pelt as proof,” agreed Cohriahra. “The rite turns you from cub to warrior.”
“Are there any who fail?”
“Plenty. But my cubs wouldn’t have.”
“You are quite humble, Cohriahra.”
She snorted and glanced at him, pretending that her aches weren’t getting the best of her already. It was barely noon, the sun still high in the sky. She couldn’t rest now. “Humbleness is for the weak.” She faced front, concentrating on her steps, unwilling to collapse in front of Mahden again. “I am not weak.”
“Everyone has their weaknesses,” murmured Mahden.
The mischievous twinkle in his eye almost made her stumble, her splinted forearm coming out to brace for the fall that never happened.
Cohriahra still seethed when Mahden coaxed her to stop for the night. Her arm and side both pulsed in agony and her body had become riddled with purple bruises throughout the day. Her single beacon of satisfaction was that Mahden’s left side, from his face to his hip, sported many colorful additions as well. His cheek had purpled and the claw wound on his shoulder and pectoral had turned the whole area red and splotchy. His wounds were all superficial though, nothing to keep him from holding his own.
As they sat across from one another, the fire crackling happily between them, Mahden sighed and leaned back, his fingers absently stroking the ground and tossing in dead pine needles whenever he came up with something.
“Your hawk man mentioned others that had been with you when you found me,” said Cohriahra. “Why did you send them away? Afraid it would seem weak to need three of you to watch me?”
“My niece and nephew. She’s a wild one, always dragging him off to get into trouble. They’re still cubs though. When they found you, they came to get me because I was patrolling nearby.”
Cohriahra blinked. “So…you’re telling me I could have been killed by a couple of cubs while I was passed out?”
Mahden’s tiny smile spread across his face.
She turned away. “How embarrassing,” she said dryly.
“If it helps, I sent them away because I was concerned you might attack again when the fever left you.”
“Which I did.”
“Which you did.” He was braiding again, yet the pine needles were cracking under his fingers because they were too dead. He made a face and tossed them into the fire, watched it spark, then lifted his gaze to hers. “What was in this cave you mentioned?”
She shrugged. “Bones. Rock. Bats. Water. What you could expect in a cave.”
“So why was it so important that it be blocked off?”
“Because leaving it open would have killed more growlers.”
Mahden threw his head back in unconcealed exasperation. “Why? What was in the cave that could hurt them?”
In any other circumstance, Cohriahra would have laughed at him, but this was serious. What had happened was serious. She met his gaze steadily. “There was nothing in the cave that could hurt them.”
Mahden stood up abruptly and shoved his pants off. The shadows of the dark hair at his groin caught her eye as he lifted his feet from the offending garment. His thighs flexed, shining bright in the fire before he turned away, his bare ass on display for a mere moment before he shifted to do a walk of the perimeter that was probably more about calming down than it was for any safety reasons.
Cohriahra settled on the fur blanket while she listened to him pace, his treads heavy in the soil, loud when they crunched needles. High in the trees the branches creaked, while to their southwest the sounds of scurrying animals could be heard echoing off the cliffs.
By the time he came back, he’d regained some of his natural humor and settled himself, sans pants, closer to her than before. She had to readjust her position on his fur to see him.
“What was beyond the cave?” he asked quietly.
She smiled. “A huge waterfall. Larger than the one within the cave. It spilled from one of the highest peaks in the Ghallihor Range. And a blackberry field that extended throughout an entire enclosed valley.”
“Those things don’t seem dangerous.”
“No, they don’t, do they?” She closed her eyes.
“Unless you’re fighting for them. Was there a werecat family there? Mountain goats? A human tribe?”
She shook her head without opening her eyes. “No, no and no.”
“Was there anyone else there?”
“No. No one.”
Mahden remained silent, obviously thinking it over. Nothing but the crackling of the fire and the howling of the wind far up within the treetops.
“So how could have this valley hurt Maslahr?” he finally asked.
Cohriahra held her breath, debating on how to answer. She could feel her heart thudding painfully in her chest, somehow overwhelming her real wounds for a moment. She still had near two more days of travel. Two more days to get to someone who wouldn’t be hesitant about the death blow as Mahden was.
“The valley,” she started, then had to clear her throat. “The valley itself wasn’t a threat to Maslahr.”
“Then what was?” Mahden laughed, but she could hear the irritation lacing the sound.
She cracked her eyes to see him, to see how even in his annoyed, possibly even angry, state the corners of his mouth still curled up. “I was the threat to Maslahr.”
Mahden’s face froze, then he sighed and crawled closer to the fire. “Your honor doesn’t let you murder people in their sleep, right?”
“People? Or growlers, specifically?”
“Ha. Ha. You so much as move, I’ll rebreak your arm.”
She didn’t doubt him, but she did sniff as if she did.
Cohriahra stayed awake for a long time, partly because of the pain, partly because Mahden had fallen asleep with his body on display, his hair draping over his pecs and his cock lying limply against his thigh. She watched dispassionately as it thickened as he slept, then shrunk, then thickened again, a single drop of precome trailing through the hair upon his thigh, trickling over the marks of his clan.
Then again, dispassionately might have been only an outward appearance.
The next day they woke to rain. Soft pattering upon the soil. The day wasn’t entirely dark, but the sky stayed a pale gray while tiny raindrops fell about them. Mahden threw a handful of damp soil on their fire before stepping back into his pants, covering up the painted black lines Cohriahra had already memorized.
“Do they mean anything?” she asked.
Mahden paused, pants still hovering around his thighs. His own gaze traveled up and down Cohriahra’s body as if trying to envision Maslahr’s marks upon her naked skin. His cock gave another pulse that she’d come to recognize during the night before he yanked his pants all the way up.
She snarled slightly. “To strike fear in our enemies. To prove we had been bloodied and not found lacking. To fool anyone who comes upon us that we may have been attacked and hurt when we weren’t.”
“Ours are more clan-related. Symbols meant to signify stories told around the meat pits at night. Some of the marks speak to personal achievements.”
Pretty decoration, just as she’d thought. She lifted her eyebrows and shook her head, turning to start out through the light rain.
“How are you a threat to Maslahr?” he asked almost immediately, as if he could taste the hours counting down until she forced Riahr’s hand.
“I’m not. Anymore. I’m nothing but a forgotten embarrassment to them.”
“How were you a threat to Maslahr?”
“I told you, I killed members of the clan when I caused the cave to collapse.”
“Are you a threat to Riahr?”
She laughed, then grimaced, starting to reach for her side, then stopping and letting her hand fall. “Not much of one, I’m sure. Not by myself.”
“By yourself… Are you lonely, Cohriahra? Is my company not pleasant enough for you? Should I start telling you stories, like when I convinced my nephew that spinefish were delicious or when I climbed up into an eagle’s aerie only to have them come down and attack the camp?”
She chuckled despite herself. “I hope you got in trouble for that one.”
“Not a bit. No one knew it was me.” He flashed her a grin. “You haven’t answered my question though.”
She actually had to think to remember what he’d asked. “No. Yes, but no.”
“Which is it?”
“I wish for company, but I don’t wish anyone I know to be here to witness my shame. It is bad enough that I know I accepted an enemy’s help.”
Mahden slipped his arm around her waist when she lurched over an unsteady rock, the sudden movement stretching the wound at her side.
“Literally,” she muttered.
“It’s not so bad.” He smiled down at her, the bear claw on his cheek looking as if it needed a touchup where it’d become smeared around the edges. Had the rain been harder, he’d likely need a whole body redo, but the paint held better than she expected. “I get to see my fill of a beautiful woman and you have my charming company. Better than lying at the base of the Warline dying slowly from infection and dehydration.”
“There is that,” she said slowly, trying to determine whether he was being facetious.
She wanted to unwind his arm from her waist now that she wasn’t in any danger of falling, but she couldn’t bring herself to push him away. She missed the touch of her family. Of Lriehl and her constant worried countenance, yet always at Cohriahra’s back. Of Recoar and his quick wit that would lead to mostly-in-good-fun squabbles over nothing that always had her laughing. Of the heat in Siahd’s eyes that had led them together often enough though never for good because they clashed far more than they laughed.
Mahden did nothing but laugh. As if the problems of his world could be countered by a cheery attitude.
It took longer than it should have, but she did unwind his arm. He stepped away, then paused, pointing out across the top of the cliff that had been slowly rising under their feet.
“There’s the peak of the mountain on the south side of Black Stone Pass. We call it Ashr’s Drop. It’s not a requirement for our cubs, but most of us have been up there, spent the night in the watering hole of the old werepanther who lives there, and then came down the steep incline when the morning has lit up the mountain.”
“A werepanther?” repeated Cohriahra. “How many cubs has it eaten?”
Mahden chuckled. “None, that I’m aware of. It could just be a story, but every so often someone comes down swearing they saw it.”
He continued on, turning so that the trees would soon be eclipsing the view of Ashr’s Drop. Cohriahra stared for another long moment, then cradled her forearm to her chest and followed.
“You went up there.”
Mahden glanced over his shoulder with a bright grin. “I did. Stayed awake all night. In human form.”
“Tempting it, were you?”
“I was young and a little more stupid.”
“You’re still young and a little more than stupid,” she said, quietly enough that it sounded as if she’d been attempting to mumble, loud enough she was sure he heard.
Mahden burst out laughing again, this time from his belly. “I don’t trust you, Cohriahra.” He stopped and braced one bare foot against the incline. Water trailed down his stomach. Beaded on his face from all the mist in the air. “But I trust my clan. And I trust the patrols in these woods. The only thing I gamble is my own life. And while I’m not exactly known for always betting on sure things, this time, I’m deeply suspicious that you aren’t going to suddenly become a full-strength battle-ready Maslahr warrior between here and home.”
She kept walking until she was standing before him, looking up because the incline gave him extra inches in height. “Ex-Maslahr warrior. Not notice the lack of markings on my body?”
“I noticed your body.” He gave her a salacious once over, his gaze lingering, the heat in his eyes reminding her of Siahd. But when Mahden met her gaze again, there was nothing of Siahd there, because Mahden’s eyes danced instead of burned.
“Save it for someone of your own clan.” She turned away. “I’ll be dead tomorrow.”
The incline plateaued, then turned into a steeper incline before plateauing again. The trees had grown thicker during the first plateau, then sparser on the second. More rock than soil under their feet, what soil there was mostly taken over by hearty beige grass.
Cohriahra paused and looked northeast, toward what had once been home. The gray sky hadn’t lifted, but nor had the rain poured down, keeping to its steady light rhythm, almost sad when she stopped to listen to it. She could see the swooping lines of Mt. Shuvah and the jagged line of cliffs to its left where Maslahr made their home. Further northwest, almost lost within the grayness of the day, she could make out the smaller mountains of Joarh and Garlial, between which—
“Do you need to rest?”
She jerked towards Mahden. He stood with his small pack dangling from one hand, the other pulling wet strands of hair from his face. His eyes dropped to where she’d absently held her side again, the pain an ever-present reminder of her weakness.
She dropped her hand and shook her head.
Mahden’s lips twitched and he opened his mouth as if to say something, but then he seemed to change his mind, staring off towards Mt. Shuvah where Cohriahra had been looking. She heard him approach, gentle steps on the rocky soil, grass bending under his weight. He stopped too far away to touch, but close enough she could hear his every breath.
“I guess what I don’t understand,” he started carefully, his voice low, “and maybe it’s simply a case of our cultures clashing, but why, if what you did saved more of Maslahr, would they punish you for it? Even if your actions killed some of your clan, why wouldn’t they acknowledge that you’d saved even more of them from whatever was in that valley?”
Cohriahra took a deep breath. Raindrops kissed her eyelashes, sprinkled on her cheeks. Her ears pounded with blood. So loud she felt as if she stood next to the falls again, laughing with Lriehl.
“I never said that I saved Maslahr. I said I saved people I cared about.”
Mahden sucked in a hasty breath, the reality she’d been hesitating to announce finally realized. She turned and moved past him across the plateau, avoiding the sight of her home. She’d only gone a few steps past him when she heard him break into motion, the pack hitting the ground, his footsteps suddenly heavier before he grabbed her upper arm to stop her.
“Are you saying that Maslahr has shattered? That there’s been a civil disruption or a split or—”
She met his excited eyes, feeling calmer than she thought she’d be as she lifted her chin. “A split, yes, but the group is small enough that Riahr wouldn’t find too great an advantage in attacking.” She pulled out of Mahden’s grasp, his fingers instantly loosening at her tug.
He stepped back as well, his eyes wide in surprise, his hair plastered to his scalp. She could practically hear his mind working, his gaze dropping once to scour her body as if he would be able to see residue of the clan markings that had once been there.
Cohriahra smiled slightly. “My cubs would have been strong enough to become great warriors. My cubs would have thrived during their rite of passage. Lriehl’s youngest…he was weak. He wouldn’t have made it.”
“Your littermate. So what did she do?”
“She sent his older brother up to fetch him from the mountain. He was injured, his leg torn up from a cat’s claws. Most of Maslahr wanted to send him back up to finish his rite. Even he wanted to go, wanted to die striving to become a warrior rather than live as a cripple.” She paused, blinking when the rain caught on her eyelashes. “It split the clan.”
Mahden waited, barely blinking, even when the wind changed direction and blew the rain right into his face.
“Four families, with scattered friends, moved into the valley. Aehir, my nephew, was only the catalyst. There were others—a cub born without sight, another who’d lost mobility in one of his arms during an accident. And then there was an older growler who had been fierce in his younger days, but who has grown shaky, unable to even catch his own fish. A scattering of people unable to care for themselves forcing real warriors to hold them up.”
“Isn’t that what we do for cubs?”
“Cubs, no. We teach cubs to fend for themselves. There are some things that can not be taught away. I feel every growler should be able to hold their own.”
“Everyone needs help once in a while.”
“If they need that much help once they’ve stepped beyond cubhood, then they deserve to die.”
Mahden gave a mirthless laugh full of bitterness and distaste. “So I should have left you to that infection? Carried you back across the territory border and dumped you?”
Cohriahra winced inwardly at the shameful death that would have brought upon her, but nodded. “Yes. Because now no matter how I fight, I carry that shame around with me every moment, unable to scour it away.”
“But you—you can’t possibly…” Mahden’s eyes narrowed. “You can’t believe that.”
She gave him a twisted smile and raised an eyebrow.
“You saved them. You said so yourself. You closed off that cave. You helped them.”
“I did. I helped them, even when they deserved to die. They are not like Riahr. Riahr holds their own, can stand up for whatever foolish ways you wish to live. Lriehl can not. They’re too few. I washed off my clan’s markings myself. Cut my own hair. Because I knew that I couldn’t live with myself after what I’d done.”
“But…you saved them.”
“They should have been able to save themselves. Instead, they let love blind them to reality, made them weak. Now they’ll live in that valley with cubs who will never be capable of becoming great warriors.”
“Loving someone doesn’t make you weak. Caring and protecting someone who isn’t able to care for themselves isn’t weak,” said Mahden fiercely.
“Tell that to Lriehl’s new clan when Maslahr finally finds a way around those cliffs. Their deaths might tell you otherwise.”
She started to move away, shaking with anger, her heart aching with both disgust and horror at the truth in her words. That it might take years for Maslahr to find Lriehl, but it would happen. And then they would all die.
And it would be entirely her fault.
She’d given them time, but probably not nearly enough to grow strong.
Not nearly enough.
End of Part 2