Damp-haired with a cream piece of cloth wrapped around her moist body, Natir returned to the bedroom.
The promised warmth of the stone fireplace, the sweet scent of beeswax candles, the clean sheets and soft fur pelts—in all their brilliance, silver-gray fuzziness and captivating gold-brown texture like that of autumn leaves—calling her to bed, were not all that welcomed her eyes when she stepped through the door.
Alfred was there.
He lay shirtless on the bed waiting for her, and had kept himself entertained chewing on forest-nuts. When he saw her enter, he childishly threw another into his mouth and asked with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“So, how was your first hunting experience?”
Natir failed to read his mood. She moved in with small steps and sat next to him. She tucked her palms between her thighs and answered in a small voice, “It didn’t go well. The wolves were on us. And we didn’t get to bring the game.”
“So I’ve heard.”
She remained silent, so he moved closer and toyed with the piece of cloth, repeatedly veiling and unveiling her thigh.
“Does it upset you?” he asked.
“Yes. I mean, it shouldn’t. But—”
She lowered her face. “I don’t know. My mind is still confused.”
“It’s okay.” He matched her soft tone and rubbed her leg. “If your thoughts are not at peace, then tell me how you feel, instead.”
“How I feel?”
“Yes. Give it a try.”
Natir stole herself a moment by shutting her eyes. She then inhaled a deep breath through her nose and let it out.
“I feel… Everything is telling me that I should be grateful that I made it back here. I should be grateful that it’s over, and I should be grateful that I’m unharmed, I really should. But somehow, I feel strange. It’s like the gratitude is only in my mind but not in my heart. I’m not… I’m not really thankful for it.”
“Because… I don’t know. I feel that these things aren’t that important. No, it’s like it doesn’t even matter. And I can’t help but to feel upset. I’m really more upset about losing the game than...than...more than anything.”
“What was it that you caught?”
“A boar. A very young one, maybe fifty pounds.”
A chuckle escaped through his nose. “Fifty?”
He moved to sit behind her. His warm chest came against her shoulders. His hands moved freely up and down her arms, massaging them lightly as he teased her ear with a low and unbearably mean tone.
“You’re right, that is very young… A baby boar. I bet it didn’t even fuck its first gilt yet.”
It provoked her.
“Maybe it was sixty. I don’t know. It was hard to tell how much it was after Volk was done with it and all. But, but it was bigger than Agatha’s for sure.”
“I think I understand now why you’re so upset.” Slowly, he pulled the piece of cloth down her body. “After all…” he let the cloth drop down into her lap, baring her from the waist up, and surrounded her with his arms, “Young ones taste the best.”
Sweet goosebumps caused a hushed moan to escape her lips as his warm kisses trailed down the side of her neck and onto her shoulder.
His hands moved smoothly around her waist, tickling her skin as they stroked her belly from behind and reached up, teasing her breasts.
Alfred lay back down and signaled Natir to follow. She obeyed. She lay on her side near the edge with her back towards him.
Natir spaced out as she watched a hot wax droplet descend down a nearby candle, ever so slowly; it looked so perfect, a manifestation of how she felt the world around her truly had become at this very moment.
From the first step Natir had taken into the bedroom, their motions, their speech, their thoughts, and everything seemed to be happening so slowly. She wondered if her tiredness was causing her mind to play games on her, for it felt as if they were stuck in every moment and that time itself had slowed down, just for the two of them.
Alfred ran his palm back and forth across her side and seemed to enjoy examining the curve of her little waist the most.
His hand felt as rough as tree bark and it rested a bit too heavily against her body, but the motion was nice and warmed her skin. She shut her eyes and let him enjoy feeling her out as he pleased.
“So tense!” he said. “Is it because of me?”
“I’m sure I have plenty of boar meat in my storage. Will it make you feel better to have some?”
“No, I don’t want any. I’m fine. I don’t want anything.”
“Oh? Did you have a change of heart already?”
“No, it’s just...it’s not the same. I don’t want it.”
“What’s the difference?”
“It’s hard to explain, I’ll sound stupid.”
He pushed closer against her back, surrounded her with his arm and whispered, “I order you to sound stupid.”
“It’s really stupid. You’ll laugh at me.”
“I promise that I won’t… It’s okay, just let it all out.”
Her resistance shattered easily. She surrendered to his command and released a breath that had long warmed in her lungs.
“I can’t help but to think: that’s my boar they’ve taken from me. My boar. I caught it. I spilled its blood. It’s mine. It’s mine and I want it back. I want to be the one to skin it. I want to be the one to cut and cook and share it. I want to decide what to do with it. And I want...I want its fat on my lips. I deserve to have that much. I earned it; this just feels so unfair. So wrong. I can’t stand this feeling. It feels like they’ve taken a piece of me. I really hate it. I hate it more than—”
“More than what?”
She exhaled heavily.
“More than when I was first made into what I am now.” She turned face down and buried her face in a cushion. “I’m sorry. It’s stupid. A lot has happened so fast. I’m lightheaded and I don’t know what I’m saying.”
He patted her head.
After a little pause, Natir turned on her other side, facing him, and ran the tips of her fingers across his cheek while avoiding looking directly into his eyes.
She said with a voice as soft as water seeping down his skin, “I’m terribly sorry, please forgive me. I know that wasn’t what I’m supposed to be saying at a time like this… I’m not myself right now, and it just came out. It wasn’t what you wish to hear.”
“Wrong.” He made her look at him. “It was exactly what I wanted to hear.”
“That’s not true. I’ve ruined the mood. I disappointed you now just as I disappointed you out there.”
“How did you disappoint me out there?”
“Agatha explained to me what it’s like. There’s hardly any cattle or farms around for us to live on. She told me that is why everyone is expected to hunt. And I understood, and I know that you thought I have the arm for it and all, but I fear that I can never become the huntress you want me to be. I’m not cut out for it.”
“Is that what I want? I must be short on hunters, then.”
“And I certainly won’t be a good sword-bearer of yours, either. I’m nothing like Agatha.”
“I must be short on sword-bearers, too.”
Puzzled, she stuttered, “But… But Volk said—”
“Volk?” Alfred laughed. “You listened to Volk? All right, entertain me: please tell me exactly what Volk said.”
“He asked: what are you grooming me to be? A hunter? Or a sword-bearer? Or...or a Diva?”
Alfred dropped on his back, laughing crazily. “A Diva!”
“No. No. Volk got it right. The crazy bastard really got it right,” he said through his laughter.
He caught his breath and turned to her again. “It’s you who got it wrong.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I told you already.” He held her chin and stared straight down into her eyes. “It makes me happy to make women.”
“What do you mean? I am a woman.”
Alfred chuckled then planted a kiss on her lips in a hurry and rolled out of bed.
“You’re tired.” He began putting out the candles all around the bed with his fingers. “You should get some sleep.”
Natir was anxious. She quickly tried to get up after him, but her body suddenly felt as if it was made of lead. She hadn’t even noticed when the tiredness had taken such a firm hold on her that her body refused to listen to her anymore. She ended up tilting her head up and down, pathetically attempting to rise herself.
“But...aren’t we going...to have—?”
“Hush now,” he said gently. “Just go to sleep.”
Natir quickly lost the futile fight and dropped her head back down.
She watched the candles’ light disappear from all around her, one after another, and could never tell for sure if it was the dark of the night that enwrapped her first or the one waiting to embrace her just behind her own eyelids.