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 3 of 3 (Approx. 5000 of 15400)
The plateau came to an edge, cutting down so steeply only a mountain goat could hope to navigate it. Cohriahra scowled at the offending piece of terrain, leaning out to look down at the tips of the trees stretching up towards her, searching for some inkling that they’d been going the right direction. A light touch against her lower back made her heart skip a beat.
“Planning on falling?”
“Only if you push me,” she said.
Mahden’s hand pressed firmer against her flesh, warm despite the rain, and his other came snaking across her middle, pulling her up and tugging her away from the edge. She contemplated shoving him away, her annoyance high at his protective nature that begged the question of how incapable he must think she was. In the end, she relaxed, letting him guide her into stepping away, her body flush with the pleasure of having someone touch her as if they cared.
But once away, she lightly pushed off his hands. Then, purposefully making her tone similar to his amused one, she said, “Now where to? Does Riahr fly down?”
Mahden shook his head and gestured behind him. “There’s a path. Steep, but passable. It’s not exactly a straight shot to the clan and we like it that way.”
They followed the edge of the cliff long enough Cohriahra started to become suspicious that Mahden had lied to her. She stared at his back, at the lines of his shoulder blades under the black markings and dripping hair. She watched how the caramel color of his skin practically glowed as the cloud cover broke and the sinking sun managed to pierce through.
Her own skin felt dull in comparison. Tight across her muscles, screaming for relief from the constant bombardment it’d been subjected to since discovering Lriehl had left Maslahr. She didn’t glow.
When Mahden finally paused, his pants barely hanging onto his hips as he turned, Cohriahra was panting with the effort to keep her balance. The cliff had sloped back down, the steep incline almost worse to travel than it’d been to go up. Mahden’s smile had fled his face. A somber deadness had settled in his expression when he finally looked at her after hours of tense silence. She had to look away, instead examining the rocky line resembling a path that cut haphazardly back and forth all the way to the bottom of the cliff.
“We could camp up here and travel down tomorrow,” offered Mahden. “It’s bound to be rough going as wet as it is right now.”
“And tomorrow could bring even more rain,” countered Cohriahra, “making it worse.”
He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement.
“How far to your clan once we get to the bottom?”
“Not far. Up that fork of the gorge,” said Mahden as he motioned with his hand towards a narrower passage in the lower lands. The cliffs seemed foreboding in this weather despite the sun’s desperate attempt to cheer the world up.
She blinked rainwater from her eyes, wiping it from her brow as she gauged her body’s capabilities. She could make it down, but she didn’t want to enter Riahr as tired as she was. “Have you asked all your questions, Mahden?” She met his gaze again.
“Not all of them. Not yet.” His voice held a hard edge to it that belied the frail smile that played on his lips.
“Then we can camp at the bottom, out of the rain, and you can finish your interrogation.”
Mahden shrugged as if it didn’t matter. And it probably didn’t.
That didn’t stop her from missing his smile as he turned and started down the path, his arms outstretched to grab rocky handholds so he wouldn’t pitch forward. Cohriahra had to go it one-handed, keeping her broken arm close so she wouldn’t be tempted to use it to break her fall if she lost her balance.
Sections of the path were coated with caught pine needles, now sopping and slippery. She tread carefully, yet still managed to slide across them at times. Mahden considerately tried to shove them away as he passed, which made the going easier, but she was still shaking with exertion by the time they reached the bottom and incredibly thankful to be able to relax her calf muscles as they stepped onto ground far more even.
They took cover under a shallow outcropping, the rainwater continuing to pour over its edge and pool in a muddy slice in the ground that meandered downhill. There was little space, so they sat pressed shoulder to shoulder, Mahden’s hand dangling limply from his knee. He absently playing with a sodden bit of pine bark that had become stuck in the recesses of the rock, pulled free when it’d started to dig into his back.
Cohriahra leaned back. Closed her eyes. Her arm seemed to pulse worse now that she was sitting. Worse now that she had nothing to stop her from feeling. She swallowed, trying to breathe in through her nose, out through her mouth. The pain continued to grow, becoming a monster that clawed at her, demanding her lash out at it.
She jerked, half-asleep, gasping in a dreadful mix of agony and exhaustion.
“Shift,” murmured Mahden. “The Yowler’s piss must have worn off by now.”
Cohriahra found herself laughing. It started out low, slowly rising until she was laughing deep from her belly. Then the pain caught up with her and she gagged on the sound, lurching forward to put her head down and swallowing against the rising nausea.
She was conscious of Mahden massaging her neck, both his hands moving across her shoulders, grounding her, keeping her steady. His voice murmuring for her to relax, that the pain couldn’t kill her, that she didn’t have to worry about that shameful death. Another bitter laugh escaped her.
“Since when do you care about what sort of death I have?” she demanded as the pain receded.
His hands paused, then continued their slow massage against her flesh. “I don’t. The death itself is what matters to Riahr, not the method of it.”
She straightened and leaned back against the rock, Mahden’s hands disappearing. She missed his touch. Missed his smile more. He seemed to have lost it up on that plateau and had yet to find it again. She stared at the thin line of his lips.
“Your questions,” she prompted. “I can’t answer them in bear. So ask before I shift.”
Mahden turned to face the rain, staring through it as if it would give him answers instead of her. “If you could live, would you?”
“If I could… What kind of question is that? If I could live? There’s not a whole lot of choice around here, is there?”
“Tell me, Mahden. Would Riahr choose to let me walk through their territory unscathed? Would they?”
He bowed his head. Shook it. “No. You would die. The only reason you haven’t is because they know you’re with me.”
“And if I’d gone the other way, do you know what Maslahr would have done? They wouldn’t have killed me outright. They would have tied me up and let me have that slow death from infection. They’d have watched and laughed and drunk while they watched me die. If I could live… I don’t have a choice here.”
“But if you did…?” His eyes bore into hers, insisting, almost commanding an answer.
She refused to give him one, turning away as she quickly unwrapped the splint on her arm, shifting the moment the bark fell free. Half her body extended from the overhang, sliding into the mud, rainwater wetting her hair. She wished the rain was falling hard enough to drown out Mahden’s soft, unamused voice.
“Here’s what I think your answer is since you refuse to give one. I think you’d still choose not to live and I just want to understand why. You’re strong, any idiot can see that, even with your wounds I can tell you were one of Maslahr’s great warriors. So why do you fight so hard for death?”
She remained quiet, listening to the unsteady rhythm of Mahden’s breathing.
Flinching at the familiarity, Cohriahra continued to stare out into the rain.
Mahden gave a small sound. “You promised to answer all my questions.”
She closed her eyes, then sighed and opened them as she shifted back. She almost didn’t recognize her own voice. “Because if it hadn’t been for me, Maslahr would never have known about the valley. They would never have known where Lriehl’s new clan was. They would never have known about that cave.”
Nothing but the soft hum of the rain. Her feet stuck out past the overhang. A line of water tickled her ankles.
“I was of Maslahr,” she whispered. “I believe in strength. I believe Aehir should have died if he couldn’t stand to survive even a day in the mountains by himself.”
“But you collapsed the cave.”
“I did.” She hesitated, then forced out the last dredges of her shame. “I may have once been strong. But not anymore. I am weak and I deserve to die. Now, it is simply a matter of how.”
“I really don’t like Maslahr.”
She turned until she could see him. “They don’t like you either.”
“What about you?” And there was a hint of a smile when he asked. But just a hint.
She shifted back to bear form to avoid answering. Instead of seeming perturbed, Mahden just shucked his pants and shifted as well, becoming a mass of fur and warm skin and muscles unburdened with agony. He nuzzled against her, plopping his great head against her flank, far away from her wounds.
She woke to brightness and sunshine after nightmares filled with the screams of Lriehl and her cubs. Filled with visions of the broken, gaping bodies of the Maslahr warriors she had once fought beside. Mahden still slept, his head still against her flank, his paw nestled near her shoulder, almost cradling her broken arm.
The rain had stopped sometime during the night, leaving the sweet scent of damp rock in the air. The morning held a frailness to it, as if the mountain above her head could shatter at any moment. Cohriahra could hear the familiar sounds of snarling growlers, the noise echoing through the gorge from up above.
She had a sudden temptation to throw Mahden off of her and race to find those other growlers, attack them, force their claws to do the deed Mahden refused. But Mahden’s body was so warm, so soft. She could have rolled over and bit through his neck before he’d blinked himself awake. Could have. Nothing in her wanted to. Not even the remnants of disgust and hatred for the Riahr clan that remained swirling in her gut.
As the sounds of the other growlers drifted away, Cohriahra shuffled out from under Mahden, frustrated with herself. He found her later behind an outcropping shaded with small pines where she had sat after relieving herself.
“Thought you’d taken off,” said Mahden in way of greeting.
“No you didn’t,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him.
“Ready?” She walked past Mahden without waiting for his reply, cradling her bad arm to her chest. She hadn’t bothered to attempt to reaffix the splint one-handed. Hadn’t bothered with breakfast either, her stomach too riled up because it knew the fight was imminent.
He guided her to where the mountain closed up into a grass-filled gorge. The cliffs rose on either side of them; a thin stream of light shined above their heads. Birds filled the early morning with music, echoing a happiness that didn’t resound within Cohriahra’s heart. Or on Mahden’s face. They skirted around a few shallow puddles, startling birds from their baths.
When the gorge twisted and widened, but still gave no evidence of a growler camp, she asked, “How far?”
Mahden slowed so that they were walking side by side. “The gorge continues for a ways.” He looked up and squinted as a hawk soared across the stretch of sunlight.
She noted claw marks against the rock and churned mud in the process of drying. The frail scents of growlers lingered on the foliage growing out from the rock. Signs that Mahden had not lied because growlers obviously used this passage, though only for travel. Leaving before their scent had a chance to permeate into the soil.
When the gorge started to close up further, the passage becoming so narrow in places that Cohriahra had to twist sideways to avoid jarring her arm, Mahden stopped, one hand pressed against the warming rock. The sun had yet to rise high enough to be seen, but the heat of it had dried up most of the moistness left from the rain.
“You said that you feel weak.”
Cohriahra clamped her jaw shut and glared at him, hating him for saying it out loud. Hating the fact that it was the truth.
He looked up at her. “And I feel as if we’re at a culture clash again, but why do you feel weak?”
She looked past him up the gorge, wishing they could just get on with things, but the path was too narrow for her keep going without pushing past him. So she settled herself in for a last irritating series of questions. “I chose weakness over strength.”
“But how does that make you weak? I understand how you think Lriehl is weak, because her new clan has growlers who can’t take care of themselves, warriors who can not withstand Maslahr, but that doesn’t tell me why you feel weak.”
She shrugged one shoulder, wishing he would drop the subject. “I betrayed my people.”
Mahden stepped forward, almost menacingly. “That’s what I mean, Cohr. Which people?”
“I’ve told you everything,” she said coldly. “I’ve given you the information you wanted. You know what has happened within Maslahr and it is up to your Matriarch how you use it.” She moved to squeeze past him.
Angrily, he threw out his arms, his palms smacking against the rock to either side, his elbows cocked in slightly because the space was so narrow. With a snarl that would have told her he was growler even if his scent and clan markings had disappeared, he leaned toward her. “Which people?”
“My clan,” she snapped, putting her face into his so that he’d be able to feel the ire in the heat of her voice. “I betrayed them. How many times do you wish me to admit my faults?”
“Until you understand them! You make no sense. One moment you’re telling me you deserve to die because you betrayed your littermate, the next because you saved her, because you betrayed Maslahr. Which is it, Cohriahra? Which betrayal makes you weak? Which one is telling you that you should die?”
“I don’t know!”
Mahden’s eyes widened, but he didn’t respond.
She stepped back, feeling her shoulder scrape against the rock and her heel splash in a tiny puddle. She tried, but couldn’t wrap her mind around what Mahden was saying because just like before, she felt ripped in half. “I don’t know. All I know is that there was no answer. No good answer.”
He scoffed. “You—”
“Have you ever had to choose between your sister and your friends? Between people who are weak, but who are family, and people who are strong and have had your back in every fight you’d ever been in? I was torn. I. Was. Weak.” She lowered her voice. “And I made choices and I regret all of them and yet don’t regret them at all because how else could it have gone?”
Mahden continued to stare at her, disgust and horror vying for position on his face.
“I gave Lriehl time to grow strong. And I gave Maslahr the shame of my death. I have nothing else to give.”
This time when she moved to push past him, Mahden dropped his arm to let her by. She felt the heat of his chest against her own, her nipples firming and her body tingling with sensation. Then he was gone and she could breathe deep of the strengthening scent of growlers.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then don’t believe me.”
She went to start again, but Mahden’s voice cut into her, his tone berating and angry. “You want to die because of guilt. Because it’ll be easier not to live than live with the hard choices in your past. Choices that you do regret because you can’t stand the fact that you betrayed your own littermate. That is why you did what you did. That is why you saved her.”
“She was weak,” protested Cohriahra, but even to her own ears her words sounded unsure.
“She went against Maslahr law, took her family and her son to somewhere she thought was safe so she could protect them. How was that weak? She stood up to her entire clan.”
Cohriahra spun around, the pain of her wounds barely registering. “She hid from them! We are not cats to sulk in the dark until our prey is distracted. We are growlers. We are bear!”
Mahden’s chest heaved as his eyes narrowed at her vehemence. “We are bear,” he repeated. “And regardless of what you say, your actions tell a completely different story, Cohriahra. You may not have wanted to accept Lriehl as your new Matriarch, you may not have wanted the association with what you perceived to be a weak clan—”
Mahden held up a hand. “You’re right about that. Lriehl’s clan can’t possibly be as strong as Maslahr or Riahr. But, in the end, did that matter to you? Because you were willing to kill some of your own clan to protect your littermate and her cubs. Your family. You didn’t kill her, you didn’t kill her cub or any of the others in that valley. You killed Maslahr.”
Cohriahra opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Silence reigned between them, broken by the far off shrieking of the eagles and the whistling of the wind through the shallow gorge above their heads.
Quietly, Mahden added, “To me, to an outsider, it feels as if you had already switched clans. Maybe you hadn’t realized it yet, maybe you’d been torn, like you said, not knowing what to do. But to me, at the end, you acted as Lriehl’s warrior, with no shame in what you did to protect your own. Proving to Maslahr that Lriehl’s new clan might not be large, but maybe they are fierce. Because they had you to be fierce for them.
“And the fact that you want to die now, that you actively seek that death, tells me you feel guilty, not for betraying Maslahr, but for betraying Lriehl to begin with.”
“They’re going to die.”
Mahden sucked in a breath, then nodded tightly. “Probably.”
“I meant to die with Maslahr, in that cave.”
The corner of Mahden’s mouth twitched. “That does sound like you.”
She couldn’t help it, his reaction made her laugh, the sound strange in her throat, part growl and part something she would never admit could have been a sob.
“Tell me, had you not been trapped on the wrong side of that cave, would you have joined your littermate’s clan?”
Cohriahra snorted. “Would I have had a choice?”
“You did with Maslahr. You told them what you’d done when you could have kept quiet.”
“Because I’d killed growlers, other warriors who were being mourned. How could I stand around pretending to be sympathetic when I’d caused their deaths?”
“So you did the honorable thing. Had you been with Lriehl…”
She looked away, trying not to recall Lriehl’s face when she’d heard that Maslahr was attacking. At the horror, the utter betrayal there when she’d realized that Cohriahra had told about the valley. Even then though, with hurt still shining in her eyes, Lriehl had simply requested Cohriahra abstain from the battle so they wouldn’t have to fight one another. And then she’d turned her back and left Cohriahra alone with Aehir, her trust in her littermate still so firm that she’d not once thought Cohriahra would attack either her cub or herself.
“She would have forgiven me,” whispered Cohriahra. Maybe she already had. Shaking her head, she snarled slightly at Mahden. “How do you bring this out in me? Why couldn’t you just let it rest?”
“You’re real,” he said, sounding surprised, confusion shining in his eyes. “We fight Maslahr, we hate Maslahr, but then you were never anything but an enemy on the battlefield, hidden in the forest. But you’re more than that. You have family you love. You have a voice and opinions, that maybe I don’t agree with, but they are a part of you. You are just as strong as we always thought you were, and yet so…weak.”
She growled at the weak comment, but Mahden only chuckled.
“I told you, I don’t think loving someone and wanting them safe is a weakness. I think it’s a strength. It certainly gives Riahr strength when we fight.”
“You and I have vastly different opinions on that subject.”
He shrugged, that smile playing around the edges of his mouth again. “You’re a person, not just an idea and while I can’t agree with everything you think, I at least feel as if I can understand a little of what you’ve gone through.”
Cohriahra looked at him as she regained control over herself. She felt emotionally drained and mentally taxed. With a dismissive tone, she said, “It doesn’t truly matter how you see me, because I’m still an enemy and I’ll still be dying.” She turned and started off through the gorge again. “Everything else is simply prolonging the inevitable.”
She heard Mahden behind her, felt his presence at her side and was shocked to discover how comforting it felt. As if he walked her to her death, ready to be there at the last like a spirit friend to take her to the honey country. If only that were true.
“So what do you think my weakness is, Cohriahra?”
Instantly, she said, “You hesitate, sometimes overthink things that should be simple and while the trust you have in your clan is an amazing strength, the fact that you’re willing to walk potential danger right into their midst is foolish. You should have left me to die from that infection. You should have crushed my skull during that first fight. You should have killed me long before we got this close to Riahr.” She staggered, but caught herself before Mahden could do more than graze her elbow. Added, “Your foolish risks will be the end of you one day.”
“My foolish risks allow me to see things others don’t. Even if they carry deplorable beliefs from Maslahr.”
“The only thing you needed to see about me was that I’ve no love for Riahr.”
Mahden make a soft noise as he reached out and slid his fingers against the curve of her back. “But would that still be the case when I tell you our Matriarch may be open to a treaty with Lriehl?”
Cohriahra slowed to a stop as the gorge finished a gentle turn. In front of them, the cliff to the right opened, a thick layer of pine trees rising up beyond. Bone chimes draped the branches, extending down almost to the forest floor, making it impossible to step beyond without announcing one’s presence. She could smell the blood from the meat pits and hear the faint sounds of moving growlers. The tang of berries reached her nose underneath the heavier scents, sparking memories of the valley and Lriehl.
Mahden let his hand drift across her hip, directly under the bandage on her side, as he stepped in front of her, blocking the edge of Riahr’s camp from view. He wore the same amused expression she remembered from when they’d first met, but it was tempered with strain.
“I happen to know a bunny who could easily drop a note for you. We could be able to open communication lines.”
Mahden grinned. “That’s right. You’ll probably have to apologize for that crack about eating him.”
Cohriahra narrowed her eyes. “I refuse to apologize to a human.”
“It would be his mate you would need to apologize to. Suhar is one of Riahr’s more tested warriors.”
“A warrior took a human as mate?”
“She did. She wanted to protect him.” Mahden paused, his gaze lowering for a brief moment before lifting back up to stare at her hard. “Because he was worth protecting, not because he was weak. He has his own strengths, even if they aren’t the same as ours.”
Cohriahra snorted in disbelief.
“Don’t believe if it you don’t want to, Cohr, but it’s the truth.”
Mahden looked away, towards the cliff face. His jaw clenched and his nostrils flared. Behind him there was a faint shout and the bones rustled as if someone peeked beyond.
Quietly, he said, “It could be your truth too.” When Cohriahra opened her mouth, he took her hand and added, “Or at least you could respect the belief while you’re here. Respect that within our territory, our laws reign. That would be enough for Riahr.”
She could hear the pleading note in his voice. Could feel herself wanting to capitulate. So she stood taller, summoning reserves to keep her focused. “You want me to just walk into an enemy camp? Not attack? Not fight?”
Mahden placed his other hand over hers, encasing her entire hand with both of his and bringing it back so that her palm was against his heart. He leaned close and practically breathed his response. “Not die.” Then he smiled. “Right now, you aren’t an enemy because you aren’t of Maslahr. Why turn Riahr against Lriehl before Lriehl has a chance to strengthen her clan?”
When she didn’t immediately answer, he continued, “It’s up to you, Cohr, how you make your entrance. You can go in as an ex-Maslahr warrior and attack and I will stop you and someone else will kill you. Or you can go in as Lriehl’s warrior and liaison and speak to the Matriarch about forming a treaty between our two clans.”
There was such hope in his eyes that she wanted to pull away and close herself off from it, but she was stronger than that. She could face him. Face the fear that hope stirred within her. Dying would be easier, she knew. She had long ago fought and won against the fear of death. But hope…for Lriehl, for her entire family. Maybe even herself. She wasn’t sure what to do with that.
If she shifted right now, her claws could dig into Mahden’s heart before he even registered the fact that he was dead. But there would be no reason behind it. Every death when she fought Riahr before had given her standing among the Maslahr, had given her prestige and proven her strength. Mahden’s death beneath her claw would prove nothing. Give her nothing.
The only meager argument her mind could come up with was that one less Riahr meant one less warrior to fight against Maslahr. But she couldn’t help wondering if she even cared anymore.
She cared. The moment she thought of not caring, she knew her answer, because she cared. She cared a whole awful lot. And it wasn’t for Maslahr. It was for Lriehl. For every death of a Riahr meant Maslahr might have an edge in the next fight. Every edge given to Maslahr meant that more of her old clan could hunt down Lriehl.
Her hand slid off of Mahden’s chest as she straightened herself as much as her wounds would allow. “I am of Lriehl’s clan.” The words sounded odd in her mouth, more question than statement. So she tried again, this time with more conviction. “I am of Lriehl’s clan.” Then she blinked and looked down at her battered body, feeling suddenly adrift and confused. “I don’t know how they’ve changed their marks.”
“You didn’t see?” Mahden shivered with barely controlled excitement, his face lit up and his eyes dancing as if he had won a fight.
She shrugged one shoulder, avoiding moving her wounded arm. “She hadn’t yet gone that far. But knowing Lriehl…” Cohriahra closed her eyes, imagining her littermate. “She would have gone with the colors of pine bark and needles, brown and green and…” She tried to envision what patterns Lriehl would have used, but came up short, shaking her head. “I don’t know.”
“But you could find out.”
Cohriahra stared at Mahden. “Through your bunny?” She blanched when he nodded. “If I start believing humans have value than—”
“Then maybe those cubs who Maslahr would have killed might have some as well?” asked Mahden.
She glowered at him. “I don’t think I’m ready to go there yet.” Under her breath, she added, “If ever.”
He laughed and tugged at her good arm. “Are you ready to meet Riahr’s Matriarch?”
Cohriahra resisted for a moment, enjoying the feel of Mahden’s fingers wrapped lightly about her arm, so warm and teasing. She slid her own hand over his and squeezed. He ceased tugging at her, surprise registering on his features before his lips curled and he winked.
“Maybe you won’t be dead, after all, Cohr, and I won’t have to save anything for women of my own clan.”
She gave his hand another squeeze as she narrowed her eyes, then flicked his fingers off her arm. “Why don’t we see what your Matriarch has to say first.”
She strode past him, head held high, wounds jarring with every step, but a thudding in her heart that came from an unfamiliar mix of fear and hope that confused her almost as much as it excited her. And when Mahden’s fingers came back to touch behind her shoulder as she lifted the curtain of bone chimes out of their way, she didn’t move beyond his reach, instead waiting for him to step alongside her into his home.