When Natir woke up, she found a pile of the clothing Cahal had given her folded beside her head.
It looked so shabby with its uneven red dye and loose woolen weave, almost like the burlap of a used up sack, and so small—like something she could only hope to dress to children.
Natir sat up on the bed and stared at the clothes for a long time with soulless eyes. The message they held couldn’t have been any easier to understand: It simply meant her time here was up and she was leaving this house exactly as she walked into it.
Yet, several times Natir walked to the door and peeked outside, secretly hoping she was wrong and that someone was going to show up and tell her otherwise, and just as many times she returned to her earlier spot, burdened with disappointment.
After spending two nights under this roof and after all the bad things that had happened, Natir could only describe Alfred’s house as horrible. Yet she couldn’t help but feel sad to leave. She didn’t want to leave the warmth, the soft bed, the tub, the food, and above all else, the change.
After all, what was waiting for her behind these walls was something far worse than Alfred’s eeriness. It was nothingness.
In the end, her hope was in vain. She let out a heavy breath and put the rags-for-clothes on.
The corridor led her straight to the main hall. Natir entered it just as a slave was handing Tarania something to drink. Tarania signaled Natir to come closer, so she approached her and kissed Tarania’s hand.
“Did you rest well?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Well, that makes one of us,” Tarania mused.
Natir noticed only just then that Tarania looked exhausted and her eyes reflected a lack of sleep.
“I was surprised to see him in my room last night—”
The reason for that suddenly dawned on Natir.
“Then I figured it simply means that you’re stupider than the rest.”
Natir could swear she saw the other slave pinch herself not to laugh.
Tarania felt Natir’s cheek, stealing back her attention. “Do yourself a favor, my dear. Next time, please be smarter. There’s not one woman in all the surrounding villages who wouldn’t sell her soul for what you let slip from between your arms last night.”
Natir hadn’t even thought about that until now.
She had only a vague memory of the conversation that had happened between her and Alfred. If anything, she felt relieved earlier for the much needed break she got, but now that her mistake was pointed out for her, whatever it was that she did to make Alfred abandon her, Natir truly regretted it.
“I’m sorry… Was he upset?”
“Upset?” Tarania smirked. “He was as excited as a child.”
Natir was baffled.
Tarania pulled Natir’s hand and handed her four denarius—bronze coins.
The amount surprised her. It was twice as much the highest price her previous owner had ever received for her services.
“Go now, make your master proud.”
* * *
It was still very early in the morning and the wind was quite cold. With so few clothes on, by the time Natir found her way back to Cahal’s house, her skin was made of ice.
She was surprised to see Aina awake already. Aina ran to welcome her with a hug around the leg, acting as energetic as kids her age always are. Natir carried Aina in her arms and said a few loving words before she put Aina back down.
Natir headed to the bed where Cahal lay with Joyce.
He was awake but still too lazy to get out and face the cold.
Natir approached him with an anxious heart, unsure of the kind of welcome waiting for her. The look she read on his face didn’t reflect the anger she feared.
She kneeled on the floor and offered him the coins, which he took and rubbed together in his hand.
“How did it go?”
“It was all right. As good as this kind of thing can be,” she responded quietly with eyes down.
“What was it that I’ve heard happened over there yesterday?”
His question startled her.
“By the Thieves’ Tree ?”
Natir felt relieved that she didn’t say anything before he had finished. Cahal didn’t know about her going out on a hunt. She quickly decided that it was best not to volunteer any details.
“He took me there and made me watch a man being hanged.”
“I don’t know.”
“Just like that? For no reason?”
“Yes. I still don’t understand myself why he did it. Maybe he thought it was funny. But it wasn’t. It was horrible. I couldn’t stay and watch. I cried, so he let me leave and I ran back inside. I just don’t know, and I’m still shocked by what happened.”
He hummed and put the coins in a pouch. “Will he send for you again?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Woman, you should know. Yes or no?”
“Yes. Yes, I think he will.”
Cahal brushed through his beard, thinking about something for a while.
“All right, I guess I’ll wait and see what happens. Now come over here. Do your thing.”
Natir looked anxiously at Joyce, who nodded back that she understood.
“I’ll prepare breakfast,” Joyce said.
Joyce took Aina’s hand and told her to come help outside.
Once Joyce shut the door behind her, Natir quietly undressed herself and went down to serve him.
* * *
Days passed during which Alfred did not send for Natir again.
It was just enough time to shatter whatever vague fantasies Natir had allowed her mind to foster about him. He had his fun, he paid her price, and now he was gone just like all the rest.
All his words were but a breath in the wind.
On the other hand, Cahal’s attitude towards her changed dramatically. It became much softer.
Natir could feel that the change wasn’t normal. Nevertheless, she allowed herself to think the best of it and convinced herself that he must have gotten used to her presence by now…
Cahal was asleep on his side with Natir at his back, her arm over him, while Joyce and Aina slept at their usual corner.
Someone knocked on the door.
Natir rose up on her elbow and rubbed the sand from her eyes. It was unusually late for visitors, and the one oil lamp they left burning at its minimum could barely fight the dark off for her eyes to recognize the shape of things.
Cahal said to Joyce, who also woke up, “See who that is.”
Still fighting sleep, Natir put her head back on the cushion and shut her eyes. Joyce carefully got up—so as not to wake Aina—and answered the door.
The lack of conversation alerted Natir. She raised her head to have a look, and the shock made her freeze.
It was Diva.
* * *
Slippery grass and mud under their feet, Diva led the way to Alfred’s house, holding the torch.
The wind was strong. All that Natir had on was the same old dress she was wearing when Cahal bought her. The wind easily crept through its fabric and its holes, causing her to shiver.
Natir comforted herself with the promise of the warmth waiting for them. But when they finally arrived, instead of allowing Natir inside, Diva signaled Natir to go around the house to where a single torch was left burning in the backyard.
Diva went inside and shut the door, leaving Natir alone outside.
Natir embraced herself against the cold and headed towards the torch, unsure what to expect.
In the dark, illuminated by the torch’s orange light, the sight of the Thieves’ Tree couldn’t possibly be scarier. She tried not to look at it or even think about it, but it felt as if all the hung skulls and rotten heads were staring down at her every step of the way.
There was a sound.
At first, Natir didn’t pay it much attention as she had thought it was just a trick of the wind. But the closer she came to the tree, the clearer it became that it was something else Natir was hearing.
It was music!
Someone else was out there, playing a fast and joyful rhythm with a flute.