When I open my eyes and come to my senses, the smell of burnt things is faint in the air, and I know that we have drifted not far from what was once our camp. I realise that Varos no longer carries me, and my back is pressed against the rough bark of a tree, inclined so that my stomach is flat, and where bandages tightly bind my wound. I look and see the five arranged spots of blood through the cloth, and my mind is lit by the memory of the intruder's eyes, shining with bloodlust that, somehow, she overcame to spare my life.
Why didn't she kill me? She murdered our warriors without a second thought, but Varos and I...we live...
I realise he is not with me as I take in the small copse I sit in. Duffel bags of salvaged supplies lie around, and the heads of fellow survivors lie there in silent rest. The only ones standing are the few warriors that I count on patrol, four of them, one Darius who stands alert with a spear in both hands, but I do not see Varos anywhere.
I still feel as though most of my strength is gone, and as I pull myself up straighter, my wounds protest a little. My arms shake weakly, so to stand I have no choice but to roll onto my front, using my knees and the grip of the tree to hoist me up. Darius notices my movement, and I glance him stepping over legs and bags towards me.
"I was given orders that you not move," he says. There is hatred still in him for me, I know this, an irritation that he is to watch me. Did Varos tell him to do that? To annoy him, most likely, but maybe...
"Darius," I say, matching the severity in his voice, "I will not lie around and waste space when I could be of better use. I never have before, and I won't now -," as I stand straight, taking a strong breath, I feel my wounds tear wider, hot blood reaching the surface, whilst pain sears my nerves. I double over, letting out a gasp close to a scream, and Darius catches me by the shoulders.
"You are such a fool," he snaps. "You can barely move, you think you could take anybody on in combat in your condition?"
I smile smugly, pressing a hand to my stomach to ease the pain and say, "I could take you."
Anger sparks in him, but duty overrides it. "Varos is clan leader now, and we swore as sentries to follow the leader's orders, so you should -,"
"Varos? What about Anikee? Where is she?"
Darius shrugs. "We know she escaped with a small group of wise women, but we do not know where. Varos has gone to try and track her, but he has found nothing. Even if he does, he knows he can't pursue her to abandon the rest of us."
My heart aches for him slightly. Varos is a warrior, and he is a mighty leader to them, but he had once told me that to lead the entire clan in place of his mother terrified him. Now his terror is reality. His mother is missing, his warriors are dead, and our home has been destroyed by a creature darker than sin itself.
"Is he alright?" the words slip out, and Darius eyes me darkly.
"Why would that be any of your concern? You really think he wants you to care about him? You were our watcher, but what good are you now? Anything that makes you different from the other women that he denies is gone -,"
"Darius, enough." I hear the voice behind me, and I spin around to see him. Already, Varos is different. The time that I slept was his transformation from clan leader's son to clan leader, and I see it in him. There's a hardness in his expression, and his body is smeared with mud in the usual patterns of a new leader, swirling in lines the thickness of fingertips over his shoulders, his chest, his throat.
Did he do it himself alone? Or did somebody else do it? It is usually a wise-woman...so who could have done it?
The idea lights a dark fire in my belly, to imagine a woman's hands across his body like that. I have seen the induction of Anikee by her mate who was lost in battle years ago. There is an intimacy to the ritual and the drawing of lines, and it is rumoured that Neita the Lovemaker burns in us like oil on nights like that. The marks are worn for a week afterwards, and whilst they remain on the skin, the leader can embrace whoever he desires outside of their marriagebed.
Would he - no, he wouldn't -
"Namiah, are you better?" I snap from my daze at his invocation of my name.
"I am," I nod, lying. "My wounds are much better after rest -,"
"She lies," Darius interjects, and I glare at him. "She tore her wounds trying to stand, against your orders."
I wonder if Varos will be angry. I would not disrespect the clan leader, not if it was him. But his expression is calm and measured, and approaches me with mighty, slow steps. "We have lost all but one healer, and she is very weak. My mother taught me well, I will stitch your wounds tonight."
"Tonight?" I ask, then noticing by the height of the sun that it is midday.
"Yes," Varos nods, slipping a satchel off his back, which tips over and lets out several plump, orange fruits that remind me of my father. He would always harvest them for the clan, but leave a few just for us, and we gather the hard kernels inside to slingshot them at children who had harmed me. The day I cut off my hair, we had hit Darius twice on the head.
"There is a river nearby to the south of here," Varos continues. "I will tend to you there out of sight from others. Make your way at sundown, I will be there after I have conducted clan leader... business." He walks away, gently waking the young and elderly of the clan, leaving me with my heart palpitating in my chest as though it will burst.