Nighttime was upon them. Gentle moonlight reflected like diamond dust over the swift stream.
Agatha had already caught her game a while back and hid herself behind the bushes with Natir. They kept their eyes on the stream’s bank, trying to make out the shapes of things.
Volk lay on his back a short distance behind them with his hands joined behind his head. He said repeatedly, “I should have brought some beer. I should have brought some beer…”
Annoyed, Agatha whispered, “Will you shut up already?”
“I’m just wishing I had a beer. And why are we whispering?”
“You’ll scare the game. What’s your problem?”
He propped himself up on his elbows. “My problem is that if I had known how ungrateful you two are, then I would’ve brought some beer to warm me up. Seriously, how can a man be left in the cold like this with two women around, doing nothing? You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
“You’re not exactly a lake-maiden yourself.” He lay back down. “In fact, just looking at you makes me feel bad for your children.”
Her face shot toward him. “My children?”
“Yes. Just imagining their poor little hands trying to squeeze milk from those chunks of muscle on your chest, desperately wrestling and wrestling it for a bitter few drips. It brings tears to my eyes.”
He jolted, escaping the stone she threw his way.
Natir whispered, “I see something.”
Volk crawled towards the women. They saw more boars gather at the stream to drink.
“Now’s your chance,” Agatha said. “Whether it’s a hit or a miss, we’re going back after this.”
Natir nodded. She carefully stood up and prepared to take her shot, but Volk held her arm, stopping her.
He signaled Natir to remain quiet then ran his hands over the full length of her legs—fixing her pose. It was as if he was feeling her out and guiding her at the same time. He then made her spread her spear arm in straight line with the throwing direction, hand above the shoulder.
“Pick one,” Volk whispered. “Just one is all you need. The others don’t exist. That’s it. Never take your eyes off it. The spear will go where your eyes guide it… Whenever you’re ready.”
Tense with anxiety, Natir gave her one target her full attention until it became the solitary existence in her world. She sensed it with her everything until she could almost see it clearly in the darkness as it drank and made nearly imperceptible movements.
She groaned, and threw the spear with all her might. It hit the target, piercing the boar’s side, end to end. The wild snort of the animal and the panic among the rest of the pack sent a smile to her lips in a heartbeat.
“YES!” Volk shouted and leapt with joy, shaking Natir by the shoulders. “I knew you could do it. I knew it!”
Agatha exhaled in relief. “Well, it’s about time.”
“I take back what I said about having two women. This one is a man! Kee-kee-kee.”
Natir was frozen. The smile on her face was replaced with worry.
Volk, confused, looked back and forth between Natir and her prey. He asked, “Well? You’re not going to go get it?”
“I can’t. It’s...it’s still alive.”
The injured animal had flipped on its side with the spear wedged through its belly. It was still alive and suffering immensely. Horrific squeals filled the air as it kicked its legs in pain, making it spin crazily in circles around itself in a heart-wrenching sight.
Agatha offered a knife. “It won’t be, once you treat its throat with this.”
Natir’s eyes filled with horror. She dropped to the ground, crouching low, and covered her mouth.
“What’s wrong with you?” Agatha raised her voice.
“I can’t do it.”
“Are you stupid? That’s your game. Go finish it off.”
Natir curled up on herself and covered her ears.
Agatha was exasperated. “Never mind.” She began to go for the boar, but Volk stopped her. “What?”
“It’s not your prey, now, is it?”
Agatha roared, “Have you gone stupid, too? Something else will get it if we don’t hurry. If she won’t do it, then one of us must.”
“But it won’t be you.”
“Did Alfred really send you to fetch another boar for his table?” Volk interrupted, causing Agatha to go silent. “I think we both know better. Now calm down. I got this.”
He led Natir’s hands down off her ears and said softly, “Covering your ears will not make its pain go away. Do you really want to leave it suffering like this?”
Natir shook her head.
Volk put the knife in her hands. “Then go finish the deed.”
“Can’t you, really?”
“You tell me that you’ve been leaving the dirty work for someone else all your life? Do you really expect me to believe that when not even the softest hands of the daughters of nobles are unblemished of this?”
“No, that’s not what I—”
“So you have killed animals before, haven’t you?”
“It’s not the same. Those were at barns. I didn’t think it would be like this.”
“Like what?” Agatha asked.
“What’s the difference? It’s okay, you can tell me.” Volk tried to coax the answer from Natir, but she bit her fist and looked away. “We’re not making fun of you, Natir. We just want to know what’s on your mind. Tell us what’s holding you back. I know it’s not a matter of a child’s first time. I know you can do this. You’ve done it before. You said so yourself.”
“But…? Nothing this big before?”
She looked up at him and squeaked, “Nothing...nothing this loud.”
“Nothing what? Are you kidding me?” Agatha rolled her eyes.
“I see. I see,” Volk reassured Natir. “It’s okay, we understand. Perhaps it is too sudden. Tell you what, let’s leave it until it dies on its own. It can sing for us until morning. How’s that? Sounds good?”
“Then what do you suggest we do? You tell me.”
Natir looked away.
“So, you do know what must be done, but you’re just not ready for it yet. All right then, don’t worry. It’s no big deal. This is exactly what people live together for: we pick up the work where someone else stumbles. So go ahead, ask me.”
With lost eyes, she looked at him.
“Ask me, and maybe I’ll do it for you.”
“Please put it out of its misery.”
He acted comically in response, gesturing like he couldn’t understand. “What? Put it out of what?”
“Just, just make the noise stop. Please.”
“You mean you want me to gag it? I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you want me to do.”
Natir bit her lip, feeling tears gather in her eyes.
“Ask me properly.”
She pleaded, sobbing, “Please, kill it for me. Please kill it. Please kill it. Just kill it.”
Volk took the knife and let out a great exhale. “Ah, the things I do for a woman’s tears.” He turned to Agatha. “You fire up the torches. I’ve got a favor to do.”
He ran out of the bush and toward the boar, shouting and waving the knife in the air like a mad man rushing to a fight.
* * *
“There has never been a day so dreary; shame of the worlds!” Volk whined.
The three of them were putting the last of the boars’ pieces in their sacks.
“We, the three great hunters, are heading back home with two baby boars,” he went on. “We didn’t even have the time to skin them. I swear, this is even worse than going back empty-handed. At least then we could’ve said that we didn’t find any.”
“And whose fault was it?” Agatha sneered at Natir.
He shrugged. “We were all in it together. If you’re so much better than the rest of us, then why didn’t you go your own way?”
“And leave you alone with her? You really overestimate how much trust people have in you.”
“The point is,” he slung a sack on his back and grabbed a torch, “we share the work. We share the game. And we share the blame. So, I suggest that we keep our mouths shut about this or we’ll turn ourselves into a joke before morning.”
Agatha shook her head; she grabbed her sack and led the way. “Our work is done. Let’s just go.”
Volk turned to Natir. “That was a very good shot, and you’ll get even better with practice.”
Natir nodded lifelessly and began following Agatha, but Volk grabbed her shoulder, stopping her.
“By the way, I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but I guess now is as good a time as any.”
Natir felt on the alert. Volk’s tone was serious for a change, like someone with an important thing to tell. She gave him her full attention as he stood in front of her and resumed his speech.
“It’s customary among our people that the person who teaches you to hunt for the first time gets rewarded with a sexual act.”
Her eyes flung wide open and her stomach turned in an instant.
“This goes for both men and women. In fact, the custom is so ironclad that—”
Volk suddenly shrieked with pain and leapt away. Agatha had come at him from behind and rubbed his ear with the flat side of her knife!
“Will you stop filling her head with nonsense and move out already?”
The two women went ahead, shaking their heads with hopelessness.
Volk felt his ear and streaks of blood trickled onto his hand. He chased after them. “Are you crazy? I could’ve lost my ear. I will not let this one slip quietly. Hey, Agatha? I’m talking to you!”
* * *
An owl flew overhead.
The noises of the forest blended with the dark.
Natir was lost in thought, quietly following Volk and Agatha as they made their way through the forest. Strong, mixed feelings danced in her chest from the experience she’d just had.
The animal’s ugly snorts and struggle was still on her mind, and it weighed heavily on her heart. Yet, she felt proud of herself at the same time, and she couldn’t possibly be more delighted by the weight of the meat she carried on her back.
The bottom of the sack had gotten wet, dripping blood on the back of her calves as she walked. Natir could feel the animal’s blood still held its warmth. It felt sticky and as irritating as snails slowly trailing down her skin, but it didn’t bother her. She even secretly enjoyed the sensation, sullied though it was.
Her thoughts drifted, and soon fantasies played with her mind.
She compared the small amount of meat she had eaten to the heavy weight of her share. Natir imagined how she was not just going to put back twice as much as she had taken from Alfred’s table, but ten, twenty times over.
She would show it to him. All the beautiful, fresh, pink meat she had earned. Alfred would look at her with pride and nod his head. She had done well. She did not disappoint his expectations.
But she would not let him see it like this. No, not before she properly cut and cleaned the meat first. She would spend the rest of the night working on it if she had to.
Even after she paid her tribute, there would still be extra left. Natir would save the best of it for Aina. She already decided on which part: the pork shoulder.
She could almost see it in her mind: the elemental scented steam misting the tan-colored meat, braised in beer and onion and lined with a beautiful thick layer of golden-orange fat.
It would not be greasy or undercooked. No, she would let it take its sweet time until the meat was so tender it would fall off the bone with a feeble touch.
Then, just before evening, when the wind was not too cold and Cahal was surely not coming back for a while, Natir would find a secret place and enjoy the prized meat together with her daughter. The two of them would share the moment, they would laugh, and they would eat their fill until Aina complained she could eat no more. Then she would quickly fall asleep in Natir’s arms.
What Natir carried on her back was something more precious than anyone could ever understand. She carried a wish of one rare evening of peace and joy, just for the two of them.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Volk waved his hand for them to stop. He crouched down and carefully peered all around.
Agatha looked to be on alert, too.
Natir double-checked beneath her, looking for snakes, then asked worriedly, “What is it?”
Volk signaled her to keep her voice down and whispered, “It’s gotten too quiet too sudden. This can only mean one thing.”
Agatha whispered back, “Wolves.”
Natir’s skin prickled with horror. She searched the dark with her eyes. “They’re on us?”
“I don’t know. I have yet to hear a howl. But we are carrying blood.”
Agatha said, “I told you we should have returned sooner.”
Natir offered, “We’ve got torches and two spears.”
He warned, “I wouldn’t let that make me feel safe if I were you, not with the wolves of this forest.”
“But there’s three of us. Surely they—”
“Three of us, and probably over forty of them. The bastards love to form some pretty large packs in these parts, and the dark and vegetation are on their side. They can easily snatch us, one at a time.”
Agatha tried to hurry them along. “In any case, standing still is the worst thing we can possibly do. The village isn’t far. Let’s move out faster.”
Volk nodded, and they rushed their steps.
Natir stayed close to the other two this time, feeling her heart beating out of her chest and waving her torch into the dark as she went, at every tree, at every bush and at every deceitful shadow.
The feeling of being watched rattled her nerves. Natir told herself that it was all in her head. She convinced herself it was just her imagination and her fears playing games on her. With every step she was closer to safety, Natir assured herself that everything would be all right.
Suddenly a howl came from behind. It sent a chill down her spine, and the three of them stopped in their tracks and looked back.
Volk sighed with defeat, “They are calling for dinner. Not much we can do now.”
He crouched down and emptied his sack on the ground. “Tribute for the beasts.”
Agatha did the same. “Tribute for the beasts.”
Natir felt an ache in her chest for having to leave her catch behind like this, but she had no other choice but to follow their lead.
“Tribute for the beasts.” She emptied her sack.
Volk put his hand on the pile of meat, shut his eyes and prayed.
“Cech and Lech guide our way. Great Veles of the earth, bless our offering, shun your servants off our tracks.”
He wet his thumb in the blood-tainted mud and wiped it once over his lips. “Holy.”
He did the same for Agatha. “Holy.”
“Holy,” Natir repeated when he ran his thumb over her lips, painting them with blood and dirt.
Volk got up slowly, and so did the two women. He suddenly shouted, “Run fast!”
Natir jumped out with them, racing like the wind. She looked over her shoulder, and she thought she recognized the shapes of half a dozen wolves spring out of the dark and gather over the tribute where they had been standing just a moment ago.
Her heart raced. She couldn’t afford to look back any more. They were running through the woods so fast that the trees were appearing in her way out of nowhere.
Natir’s torch was about to go out for how much it was shaking. The ground beneath her was very tricky. She stumbled several times and barely managed to regain her balance.
The other two were doing better; their backs were getting further and further ahead.
Natir called, breathless, “Wait! Wait for me!”
“Don’t stop!” Volk shouted back.
She could hear Agatha’s voice as well, but she couldn’t make out what Agatha was saying, and soon Natir lost sight of the other two’s torches.
“Slow down. Wait!”
Panic began to take the best of her as she could no longer tell if she was still on their track.
Her eyes darted everywhere as she ran. The trees and the shadows looked like demons closing in on her, determined to trip her with their roots and their branches that kept slamming into her feet and face.
Natir didn’t know where she was going. The mere thought that she might have been left behind, lost in the forest at its deadliest time, filled her heart with horror.
“Where are you? Where are you? Which way did you go?”
Only the howl at her back answered her call.
In her panic, Natir looked over her shoulder for but a moment and when she looked forward again, a tree had appeared in her way.
She slammed into it at full speed and fell back screaming in pain.
Quickly, she retrieved her torch and sprang up, waving it left and right.
The place was eerily quiet, save for her wild breaths.
All of a sudden, a wolf jumped out of nowhere, growling at her like a mad dog. She screamed and ran the other way.
Natir could not see even a shadow of them, but she could swear that the wolves were right there, running with her, every step of the way.
Another wolf appeared, then a third, and a fourth—they were not attacking, but just appearing in her way, one after another, growling viciously and sending their jaws biting the air so close to her legs. Natir screamed in terror and changed direction each time as she ran aimlessly into the dark.
Panting with horror, sweating all over, she spun on her heel, holding the torch with both hands.
She couldn’t see a thing but the dark and the grim shadows of the trees encircling her.
“VOLK? AGATHA? VOLK? ANYBODY?”