Sundown comes, and our clan begins to eat hungrily. Varos fears drawing attention from the light of a fire, so we get by roasting scraps of meat between smouldering, unlit coals and on fruits collected from nearby. Everybody seems to love our new clan leader, especially the elders since they have known him since the birthing bed, and I think it gives them pride to see him so strong. He doesn't join us for our meal though, and most believe he is patrolling, but I have other ideas when I see Leira, one of the most beautiful of us all and Anikee's favourite to be his betrothed, emerge from the thickets, her hair falling wildly from her braid.
My insides curl in on themselves at the sight, but what was I to expect? A clan leader can do as they please because they do so much for us. How can I expect him not to use his few liberties of claiming any woman when I am too afraid to ask that it be me?
I finish off the bird I have been absently chewing for a while. Meat disgusts me lately, bringing back the image of the flesh sloshing around in the monster's mouth. I am due to meet Varos, and now that Leira has returned, I know that he will be waiting. I head south as instructed until I hear the flow of running water. I brush aside a few branches and spy Varos kneeling at the edge of a river on a bed of pebbles, a small satchel in front of him. His rough hands dip into the shallows, cleaning a bone needle with a delicacy he must have learnt from Anikee. I look down at my clothes, unclipping the belt that holds the lion skin to me, wrapping it around my hips so that my bandages are revealed, my soft leather vest meagre in stopping the chill of the evening wind.
I step loudly and reveal myself, and Varos' head whips around. He relaxes immediately in seeing me, gesturing for me to sit down next to him. He continues to prepare with me next to him, preparing the needle and thread as I slowly unroll the bandages from my stomach. When I see the wounds, I notice how much I have torn them, and how clean the cut was, almost artistic.
"You'll have to lie back," Varos says, and I look up at him, wide-eyed. "It makes it easier," he adds. I nod as he arranges the satchel for me to rest on against the rocks, each one digging uncomfortably into my back. I fight the temptation to readjust myself as he pierces the edges of the first wound and pulls the thread through. I winch, but what bothers me more than the pain is Varos. He is already leant over me slightly, and the occasional brush of his fingertips against the cuts makes it seem as if his touch goes far deeper. My hands are idle by my sides, and the concentrated silence unnerves me. I sift pebbles across my palms and try not to raise my stomach too high in breathing.
"Why are we so far from the others?" I ask after a minute of hesitation.
He chortles, "I suppose I didn't want the others to see how awful I am at this,"
"How comforting for me,"
I giggle, and it eases some of the pain as I feel the second wound close over. I bite my lip, wondering what to say next. "Were you with Leira before me?" I sense the breath that has been tickling my stomach hitch.
"What of it?" his voice is tight and reserved.
"Nothing, I was only wondering,"
"I see..." The third incision pierces deeper than the edges, and I gasp, my stomach bucking up. "Sorry - sorry," he hastens to say, and as I relax again, his hand presses against me, holding me down as he uses more precision. I hope that I won't feel uncomfortable, but it seems as if I can feel the heart-line on his palm, a line I used to pretend I could read when we were younglings. He had been intrigued, begging me to read it, and I'd told him that the heartline warned him away from women with pale hair. It was false, of course, but at the time I had feared Leira would drag him away with a swish of her beautifully long hair, yellow like the wheat of a new season. That was back when my hair grew long and wavy to my hips, as brown as newly-turned soil.
We do not speak to each other until I feel the fifth wound seal shut, and a feeling of health wash suddenly over me. I try to raise my head to look at him finishing, and as I bring my arms up underneath me, Varos knots the thread and leans down to bite it off. I feel his lips on my skin, and am so surprised that I bolt up so that we are closer than when he had willed me to run from the camp. It seemed that no matter what, Varos is caring for me, making sure that I am safe, but a part of me convinces itself it is fulfilling a promise to my father. I still ache to ask him about that, to act on the memory of waking halfway through the night, when my father was leaving for the raid and I had looked down from the tree to see Varos and him standing together, nodding and agreeing on something that I had substituted many times in my daydreams.
"Namiah..." he says, and again, my name holds the beauty that it once had when my father had whispered it deep in the night.
I notice the flecks of silver in his eyes and the cracks of his lips, but before I can muse on either, we hear a splash from behind us, further up the river. Varos is on his feet in a flash, pulling me up next to him by the arm. The river ahead of us meanders around the forest, and Varos draws a dagger from his belt, as do I. Together, our footsteps matching, we round the corner. I am ready to take down any enemy now, renewed by Varos' stitches and his touch. But we are faced not with monsters, but with clansmen as young as us. They seem to have just emerged from the water, damp and dishevelled, one with brown hair pressed against his forehead, the other with bold tattoos on his wet, shimmering skin. Their flesh seems whole, and there is life in their eyes - I know in that moment they are human. They are both beautiful, but the first has a strange set to his features that remind me of...me.
Varos flips the dagger around in his hand so that the blade is raised to them, everything about his demeanour distrusting. He need only step forward and strike, and the strange boy's chest would be torn down the middle, and realising this, they both raise their hands placatingly to us, and the first gives us the hint of a smile.