He reeled backwards, laughing at her. “Kee-kee-kee. You said, Yaah! Kee-kee-kee. How cute.”
It was the skinny man with the foxlike face whom Natir had seen in the hall earlier.
From up close, he looked even creepier than Natir had originally thought. He had yellow, stained teeth, scars on his face, crazy eyes. His clothes smelled of beer and his laughter was like the noise of a big bird.
Natir’s face suddenly shot up, looking over the man’s shoulder. The man hadn’t noticed Natir’s partner, who had snuck up on him from behind, swiftly threw her arm around his neck, and now choked him against her chest.
“What are you doing here, Volk?”
He struggled for a breath, gurgling in her arms.
“What does...what does it...look like? I followed you.”
“That’s exactly what it doesn’t look like.”
“You’ll break my neck. Alfred won’t be happy to see me with a broken neck.”
“Maybe not. But half the village will celebrate it.”
“It’s snapping, it’s snapping!”
She threw him onto the ground. “What do you want?”
Volk got up, rubbing his neck. “What a violent woman… It just occurred to me that I’ve never seen you hunt before, so I came to have a look. An innocent, harmless bystander. What’s wrong with that? So, tell me, how do you do it? Do you choke the boars to death? Or do you rip their lungs out, barehanded?”
“I have no time for your games. Answer my question.”
Natir lowered her rock but kept watching the man cautiously. Unlike Alfred, this man, Volk, wasn’t faking the craziness and the sudden drunken motions.
Volk next circled Natir.
“I was curious,” he said. “It’s very rare to see Alfred interested in someone so young and fresh. Usually he goes for…” he peered at the woman but her mad glare made him hold his tongue, “well, something different,” he finished.
“And who told you he might be interested in her? Did you even see him lay an eye on her? This is just the drinks you had messing with your head again.”
“Well, I know he is interested enough to send you—his bedtime bodyguard. Or was it the drinks that I had who told you to be here?” he asked, causing the woman to go silent. “No, you’re not going to fool Volk that easy. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?”
The woman hissed at him, “What I think is that you better mind your own business.”
Standing between the two women, Volk ignored her and addressed Natir. “Why, hello there. Perhaps I should be the one to introduce myself first. I’m Volk. Volk the blacksmith, kee-kee-kee.”
“Please forgive Agatha’s bad manners. You see, we lost her when she was a child and she ended up being raised by warthogs who often rammed her behind with their—”
Startled, Natir jumped a step back while Volk froze and looked down at the knife Agatha had suddenly thrown between his feet.
“The knife you’ll see at your next unfunny joke will have your bag of nuts attached to it,” Agatha said.
“Allow me to rephrase,” Volk said, still facing Natir. “She’s just not as kind as I am. It’s something we’ve learned to live with. But wait, wait, wait… What’s this?”
Volk made Natir raise her hand, the one with the sling, and he gave it a crazy glare.
“What’s the story with the sling?”
Agatha warned, “None of your business.”
“So, we’re arming slaves now? What’s next, the pigs? Kee-kee-kee… Oh, I see. So that’s what this is all about?”
Agatha rolled her eyes while Volk circled Natir. He suddenly grabbed Natir from behind, by her upper arms, rested his head on her shoulder and addressed Agatha.
“What do you think he’s grooming this one to be? A sword-bearer, or a hunter? Or maybe a hunter by day and a Diva by night? Oh, yes. Look at you. You got all the curves in the right places. You’d make fine entertainment for Alfred the Beheader.”
“Don’t make up dumb names for anyone but yourself.”
“Everyone needs to be known for something. What are you known for?”
Agatha put her hand on the axe at her belt. “As of today, I guess it’s going to be breaking the noses of men like you. Now get lost, your jokes are entertaining no one, and I really think you should leave before you push your luck any further.”
Volk ignored her. He whispered to Natir, “I don’t think I’ve gotten your name yet. That’s rude. Don’t you think so, fair slave?”
“Natir...? Natir, Natir, Natir. Do you like slings, pretty Natir? But you’re not particularly good with them, now, are you? How’s your foot?”
“That’s good to hear. And where exactly did you say you got that sling from? I can’t imagine it’s yours, is it?”
Agatha interrupted, “I gave it to her. Are you happy now?”
“Oh? Why not a bow or a sword? Afraid?”
“She can’t handle a sword.”
“And why not?”
“She’s clumsy. She can’t even cut a piece of ham straight.”
Volk stood between them, comically turning his face back and forth between the two women.
“So you gave her a sling?”
Agatha rolled her eyes.
He went on, “Oh, you and Alfred, I got to give it to you. You’re both so smart it gives me the chills. I humble myself at your feet.”
“I think we’re done talking,” Agatha dismissively announced. Then she addressed Natir, “You, follow me. We still have game to catch.”
Volk called after them, “Do you think you and Alfred were born swinging swords?”
He approached them like a drunk. “Of course she can’t handle a sword if she never held one before, or a sling! Just look at her: Is this the face of someone who killed before?”
“She can swing a sling if she practices. Even children can do it.”
“If…” he waved his forefinger in her face. “If she practices. Like, let’s say, until sunset—will that work? You think she can become a sling-master by then? Shoot eagles out of the sky? Because if she doesn’t, then she will not catch any game today, and you will have to lower your face and lick Alfred’s shoe, begging him to forget your failure.”
He quickly jumped back as Agatha drew her knife.
“Easy, easy,” he said. “Poor Volk is only trying to help.”
“Are you really?”
“Well, of course I am. We’re like family. I’m like family to everyone. Tell you what, let’s forget about the sling practice for now and just answer me: if a woman who can’t use a sword or a sling was left starving in these woods, then what would she do? Hm? She still has to eat, doesn’t she? So how? And the answer is: she will go with what she knows!”
“And what’s that?”
“Well, let’s find out.” He turned to Natir. “I think I overheard you say you were a farmer?”
Agatha roared out, “Exactly how long have you been following us?”
Volk ignored her. “What did you work with, Natir the farmer? Certainly there was some kind of tool you used.”
Natir turned her face between them, unsure if she should answer. “Just a plow. Sometimes I helped with the wheel.”
“A plow? A stick with a shovel-like head? That’s the one?”
He gave her his axe. “Give it a shot.”
Agatha’s jaw dropped. “Are you stupid? Who hunts with an axe?”
“Everything that kills can be used for hunting. It’s called a killing, isn’t it?” He turned to Natir. “Pay our lovers’ quarrel no mind, my dear. Go ahead, show us how you use it. It’s okay—just swing it like you would with a plow.”
Natir wasn’t exactly sure what he was expecting her to do. Instead of asking, she held the axe with both hands, groaned aloud, and struck it to the ground like a plow.
Agatha raised an eyebrow.
“Nice.” Volk picked the axe up. “But let’s try to hunt something smaller than the earth for a start.”
“It’s what you told me to do! You said to use it like a plow,” Natir said, feeling ridiculous.
“Yes, yes, my mistake. Now let’s try something else. That log over there? Go take a swing at it.”
“You are wasting our time. What is she supposed to do? Chase a boar and swing an axe at it?” Agatha couldn’t believe Volk’s display.
Volk shrugged. “If that’s what she has to do.”
Natir huffed, headed to the log, and took a swing at it.
“Well, don’t stop,” he encouraged her. “Keep going. Kill that evil log before it kills us all! Go on, swing. The world will be a better place without it.”
Natir did as she was told and worked away at the log. Her strikes were clumsy. She hit vertically instead of at an angle as raw wood should be struck, and her axe never hit the same place twice. But she did succeed in ripping chunks of wood from the log.
The thick scent of pine filled her nose. Pine needles and small pieces of wood shrapnel flew through the air and found their way to her face, some sticking to her moist skin.
Volk watched her for a time, then grabbed the axe, stopping her. “Okay, that’s enough. You are still using the wrong tool. Nevertheless, these are some very impressive marks.”
He looked Natir up and down as she panted breathlessly, sweat running down her face.
“Come with me.” He dragged her to the stream bank where he gave her a stone. “Here, try this. Throw it as far as you can.”
“You want her to throw stones?”
“You want me to throw a stone?”
“Humor me,” he insisted.
Agatha wiped her face with her palm, mad from impatience. Natir followed Volk’s instructions.
“Very good. Now, try again… Again. Try using your shoulder more than your arm. Like this—”
“You are teaching her to throw stones?”
Volk said, “I think we may have found just the right tool for you. Wait here.” Volk disappeared behind the bushes and soon returned with his spear. “There you go.”
Agatha shouted, “Volk! She can’t even use a sword. You’re really wasting our time.”
“Who’s the blacksmith, me or you?” he roared back. “You just wait there and watch me do my business, all right?”
He turned to Natir and spoke softly, “Take it.”
“Even if you never used one before, even without practice, if it comes natural to your hand, then it comes natural. And you will have a chance to kill and eat… Take it.”
Natir had never held a spear before. It looked longer and more intimidating up close than she had imagined. The wood was thick. She could barely wrap her hand around it, and it was much heavier than she had expected.
Volk took a step back and waved his arm, inviting her. “That tree. Give it a try. Use your shoulder like you did earlier and throw it as hard as you can.”
Natir shook her head. She let out a mad shout and threw the spear.
Agatha was stunned, turning her head in disbelief between the spear, wedged deep into the tree, and Natir, who was just as shocked as Agatha.
Volk’s creepy laugh echoed around them. “We’re eating a tree tonight!”