Not to my surprise, when Varos and I return to our camp - our path lit in the dark by the orange hue of firelight - with two strangers, everybody fears as we had. Varos assures them that they are not bitten and are harmless to us, and though it takes hours, eventually the boys Riele and Ren sit amongst the people like they have always belonged.
I sit against the tree where Varos had first left me and pull a blanket tightly around me. I reach to my new stitches and delicately trace my finger across the stubs of thread, remembering his touch but trying desperately to forget. That moment at the river, I could have sworn that...
It takes me a while to notice him standing above me, the painted tattoos running a little on his hands and neck where he's washed.
"Can I sit?" he asks, gesturing to a patch of grass in front of me, and I nod. "Thank you for restraining me earlier today," Varos adds, turning and looking discreetly at Ren and Riele as they settle down to sleep amongst our people,
"You probably wouldn't have done it anyway," I say, shrugging nonchalantly, feeling uncomfortable at my obvious lie. Part of the reason why I admire Varos so much is that, unlike me, when he needs to, he will.
"The one from the North tells me that the mountains are already completely infected with these demons. There doesn't appear to be many other places to go other than here,"
"Does that mean we will meet others, do you think?"
Varos sighs, "I do not know. If we do, we can't help them. We must concentrate on finding my mother and the other women,"
"What about the boy, Riele, his sister?" I don't know how old she is, but sickness fills me as I imagine her in the clutches of the demon woman, bringing forth images of smears of blood, screams and crackling fire, now feeling like an ancient memory and not something that I have lived in the days past.
"If he wishes to find her, he can go it alone," Varos answers coldly, sitting straight and proud with the duty of a leader. "If he does as he says, hunting for us, then I will happily give him shelter, but my cooperation parts there. Given what they have both said about the creatures, I'd say there is little hope for the girl -,"
"More than there is for your mother?" The words jump out and I instantly look down, hiding my face in embarrassment. His fingers hook under my chin and lift my head to him, the pressure gentle and comforting.
He meets my eyes seriously. "I will not give up hope, Namiah. Not for anything. I feel it deep within me that my mother still lives. Like the body that she created still senses its beginning, I know she's out there searching for me,"
"That's what I thought of my father," I mumble. I never talk about him to anybody. To many, like Anikee, he was a pariah and not a true part of the clan. I'd been the only one to visit his burial mound, the only one who had cared. I had submerged myself in my new duties for days after his body returned, and I had refused to see him until days later. When I'd seen him, clean, his face bloodless and expressionless - nothing like my father, sheeted in white, it had become too much, and I'd cried curled on the floor at the table. There had only been one who'd heard me and paid attention, only one person's arms had come over my back and pulled me out of the dirt to cry at his chest for as long as was needed.
"If I can make any difference to this tribe that my mother has not," Varos says as he stands up ready to leave, "it will be to make sure that nobody under my care has to feel how you did that day." I look up at him, at the arms that had held me just a year ago. I wondered if they were still as strong and warm as back then, or if his voice could soften and soothe in the same way.
"You can cry, Namiah. Don't worry, it's only me. With me, you need never be afraid to cry..." he'd whispered to me, and I remember that moment as the first time that I'd wanted to tell him the truth. That I wondered each and every day after Varos had asked my father to be my mate what his answer would have been. That I hadn't cut my hair like I'd said, to spite Darius who always used to play with it as he'd leant in to try and touch me. I'd done it so that Varos would look at me differently from the others, so that he might pick me out in a crowd, and in doing so pull me away from the others and call me his.
All of those questions and desires still seared in my mind, but each time I tried, disaster and Fate seemed to tell me that I shouldn't. Father used to say that I'd know when times were right by the winds, or by the feeling in the morning what I should do, but he'd always been the translator, and the morning says nothing to me.
"Sleep," Varos says to me as he walks away to consult with surviving warriors nearest the fire, and pulling the blanket up to my chin that tingles from his touch, I shut my eyes and do exactly that.