Keelin of the Wild
A young woman sat alone beneath the torch, playing a pan flute the size of her palm.
She was barefoot, her clothes were the skins of animals and her necklace was of the fangs of beasts. Braided, long chestnut hair hung at her back and there were symmetrical lines painted on one side of her face. She had several belts strapped around her waist which held a bota-bag, bone knives, and a short axe.
A spear was wedged in the ground next her.
The woman seemed to be about the same age as Natir, if not younger. Her face told of sweetness, but still something was off about her.
It just didn’t feel right.
Natir couldn’t explain the feeling she had. It could have been the cold and the creepy tree clouding her judgment. Nevertheless, her senses were flooded with a sense of danger, as if she were not approaching another human but rather something of the wilderness.
“You must be Natir.”
Smiling and full of energy, the young woman jumped to her feet. “You’re late.”
“I’m Keelin. I come when called. Did you like my playing?” Before Natir could respond, Keelin threw her the spear. “Yours,” she announced.
“I was told you’re good with it,” Keelin said, collecting her bow and arrows in a hurry, and reaching for the torch.
“I’ve only thrown twice.”
“And you’re good with it, no? Now, hurry up. We must go.”
Natir already recognized that Keelin was the hyper and talkative type—even her speech was fast.
Natir asked worriedly, “Where to?”
“Just follow me quickly or we’ll lose our chance.”
Keelin headed out without delay, humming the same joyful tune from before and not bothering to look back.
Natir had to rush her steps to keep up with Keelin’s pace. She felt anxious the further they went and guessed that Alfred must have set her up for another hunt, amid the dangers of the night, no less.
The direction Keelin was taking confirmed her suspicion. Natir stopped and raised her voice against the wind.
“Keelin, aren’t you forgetting something?”
“If we’re going out hunting, then shouldn’t we first get—”
“Hunting? Well, I guess you can call it that if you like. So, what are we forgetting?”
She signaled at her legs. “The leg guard.”
“The what? What for?”
“For the snakes.”
“Oh yes. There’s plenty of those. They love to come out at night. I tried to keep one as pet once but—oh, long story, maybe some other time. But it’s very funny. Anyway, what about them?”
Natir raised an eyebrow. “They bite people. Us! They bite us! We can get poisoned.”
“Well, yes, that’s what snakes do. But what will a leg guard do about it?”
“But Agatha said—”
“Agatha?” A wild laugh escaped Keelin. “Oh, now I get it, I get it—so that’s what this is about. You went out with useless Agatha? For real? What were you thinking? No, wait, please tell me what she caught, I beg of you. Was it a dead squirrel, or a lizard?”
“The next time Agatha tells you to wear a leg guard, do me a favor and ask her if she got one for her behind, too, because I’m pretty sure she can still get bitten there.” Keelin turned around, shaking her head, chuckles still dancing in her chest. “But then again, her butt is so high, I’m not sure we can find a snake big enough to reach it. Now, come on. We don’t have much time.”
The way Keelin was acting, so carefree and with such urgency, brought a sense of unease to Natir’s chest that only grew when the two snuck their way out of the village and over the wall instead of going through the gate.
It wasn’t normal, but Natir didn’t argue and kept her thoughts to herself, at least until she could find out where this whole thing was going. After all, it was clear that she was given to Keelin’s hands on Alfred’s command, and there was very little Natir dared to call “normal” about the man in the first place.
Keelin led the way deep into the woods, off the marked road. The place was very wild, and the bushes were taller than they were. Natir wondered how Keelin could look so relaxed amidst the frightening dark.
She asked nervously, “Isn’t this the wrong time to be doing this?”
“What are you talking about? Night is the best time of day. I love it. What, you can’t see your footing? You want to hold the torch?”
“No, I’m fine, but what about the wolves? They come out at night, you know.”
“Yes, I believe they do.”
“Well, aren’t you worried about them? Just the other day I was attacked—”
“Not if you knew what you’re doing.”
Keelin stopped. “Look, I see where you’re coming from, but you’re with me now, so relax and try to have some fun, okay? Sure, there are wolves, and there are snakes, and bears, unhinged owls keen to gouge ones’ eyes out and hogs the size of ten men with such ginormous fangs they can rip a man in half. Yes, there are all kinds of sanguinary beasts out here and it can get really ugly if we run into any of them. But you know what else? They aren’t exactly hiding behind every tree of the forest! If you know what you’re doing and where you’re going, then you got nothing to worry about but bad luck.”
At Keelin’s last remark, Natir found herself nervously looking about.
“No, no, no—that wasn’t nothing. Come out and say it.”
“Well, it’s nothing really. It’s just that...we are at the second half of Anagantio—”
“Oh my gods!” Keelin rolled her eyes, almost bursting into laughter.
“It’s an unlucky fortnight in an unlucky month!”
“What are you, eighty years old? Who believes in that nonsense nowadays?”
“I’m not, I was just saying! And besides, um, what I’m really concerned about is that we’re leaving too lightly dressed. It’s cold, and it looks like it might rain.”
“Oh puh-lease, when did a little rain ever stop anyone? You ever had sex in the rain? Wooh! It’s really something,” Keelin said, laughing.
Natir was not amused.
Keelin dropped the droll attitude and said, far more seriously, “Are we done with the small talk now?”
“All the pointless excuses you’ve been showering me with: are you done? Because I don’t like that kind of twisted way to get to the point. If there’s something bothering you, now is the time to tell me what you really have on your mind.”
Natir wasn’t comfortable with such a direct approach, but she let it out anyway and asked: “Why did Alfred send you? Why is he trying to teach me how to hunt?”
“If it was something so boring then I wouldn’t have accepted.”
“Then what is it that he’s trying to do? It’s okay—it’s only the two of us out here. Please tell me.”
Keelin approached Natir and patted her cheek. The touch of her hand against Natir’s skin was abnormally cold, it was impossible not to notice it. It almost made Natir jolt back.
“Do you really want to know?”
Keelin eyed her for a moment, then a chuckle escaped her. “Who knows?”
Natir felt she was being made a fool of. “But you said—”
Keelin laughed. “All I said was I want to know what’s on your mind, silly.”
“So, you’re not going to tell me?”
“Even if I want to, I’m afraid we can’t afford the time for that right now. Now come on, we’re almost there.”
A howl sounded from afar. It startled Natir and she turned toward the sound.
“Oh?” A naughty smile sprang on Keelin’s lips. “Please don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark.”
“What? No, I’m not. I was just—”
Keelin suddenly stabbed the torch to the ground, putting it out, and ran off laughing.
Natir panicked and chased after her. “No! Why did you do that? Keelin! Wait!”
* * *
As Natir expected, it started to rain, and her clothes were quickly drenched.
She couldn’t afford to stop, nor to lose sight of Keelin. After a short chase, her face brightened when she saw a campfire’s light ahead where Keelin was heading.
Natir hurried and caught up. It was hard to see, but she realized Keelin was signaling her to be quiet and follow her lead. This gave Natir the ominous feeling that the camp ahead might not turn out to be the relief she hoped it would be.
The two snuck through the bushes.
“There. You see him?” Keelin whispered.
A man was lying next to the fire. He was alone, and he had no horse.
Natir was able to spy that his eyes were shut. He had a piece of leather hung at an angle over the campfire to protect it from the rain, and his cloak covered him completely, save for his face. Natir guessed that either he wasn’t asleep or hadn’t been for long.
“I’ve been tracking him down for days.”
“Who is he?”
“A murderer,” Keelin said. Shock ran through Natir, and Keelin winked. “And we will get him.”
“If we don’t, then he will get away with it and kill again for sure. The man is insane.”
Natir stuttered, “But...no...wait...I can’t, we can’t—I’m just a slave.”
“Hush! Keep your voice down.”
“This isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“Calm down, calm down. Let me finish first. Look, I understand that, and no one is asking you to do anything extreme, okay? I just needed an extra hand on a very short notice. You’re only here to watch my back for me, you got it…? It’s okay, you’ll be all right. But then again, if something goes wrong—” She nodded at Natir’s weapon. “Then do what you have to do, or we’ll both be in danger.”
Natir’s heart raced with a flurried throbbing. She did not see this coming, and even if she had, there was no way she could have prepared for any of it.
“No, I really can’t. Look, you’ve got to get someone else. Even if he’s—”
“You’re seriously telling me this only just now? You have any idea how hard it was for me to find him?”
“No one said anything about any of this!”
“Hush! Relax, I’ve done this before, and I’ll be the one doing all the work, all right? Don’t worry, you probably won’t have to do a thing. Just watch my back for me, okay? Now, stay quiet and follow me. Don’t make a sound or he’ll notice us.”
Not waiting for Natir’s answer, Keelin snuck closer to the man’s camp.
Heart beating out of her chest, Natir crawled forward, barely able to comprehend how her world had flipped upside-down so quickly.
It wasn’t even an hour ago that she lay asleep in her master’s house, content with her valueless place and expecting nothing of the world. Now, here she was, cold and wet to the bone, armed and with dangerous company, crawling in mud on her arms and knees amidst the dreadful dark of the woods to hunt down another person, a dangerous man with blood on his hands.
None of it made any sense.
The noise of the rain veiled their approach.
Keelin took herself a position and signaled Natir to keep going and take cover behind a bush that was a few steps ahead from where Keelin was.
Natir hid in her appointed place and looked back at Keelin, who licked the feathers of an arrow and loaded it into her bow.
Natir trembled with anxiety, her face to the sleeping man. There was no way Keelin could miss him from such distance; they’d snuck up on him perfectly and were going to take him out by surprise without him standing a shred of a chance.
Natir covered her mouth, expecting to see the arrow penetrate the man’s neck at any moment now.
What Alfred intended by summoning her at such an hour had become crystal clear: for some sick reason, he set her up to witness another man getting killed. This time Natir had nowhere to run. She was forced to watch the whole thing.
Her emotions were in chaos. Natir could swear she could hear the noise of the tension building in the bow as Keelin drew the bowstring.
Suddenly, Natir was overwhelmed by fear.
It was an impossibility! She could not believe what just happened. Not only did Keelin’s shot miss its target, it also stabbed the ground right in front of the man’s face, splattering mud all over him.
The man jumped up, panicking and arming himself. “Who’s there?”
Natir looked back and realized with shock that Keelin was gone, disappeared without a trace.
Natir quickly dropped, lying face-down as the man spun around, cursing and shouting for his attackers to show themselves.
She held her breath and lived through terrifying moments when he passed in front of her a mere couple of steps from her hideout, sword in one hand and a torch in the other.
Just as Natir breathed in relief after he passed by, she heard a thud right behind her. It sent her heart to her throat.
Her face darted back and forth in panic. She could not tell what caused the noise nor did she have the time to think about it. She was discovered.
She cursed and immediately took off running, but the man was on her trail, shouting for her to stop.
The ground was slippery, and it seemed as if every tree in the forest was in her way. Natir went around a tree but slipped and fell sideways. Her head knocked against the ground, and she slid on mud five feet down a slope.
The torchlight at her back told her it was too late to make a run for it. She turned quickly, lying on her back, and brandished her spear at the man.
He stopped and shouted, out of breath, “Who are you?”
Rain hammering her face, Natir got up, careful not to lose sight of him. Her spear pointed at his chest. Each poisoned with tension so much so that they panted for air.
“You got no bow. Who shot that arrow? WHO?”
Natir shouted, “Stay back! Stay away from me.”
“Hah, stay away?” He circled around her, striking the bushes to intimidate her and trying to inspect his surroundings. “Stay away? YOU ATTACKED ME. Why? What do you want?”
“Don’t take a step closer. Stop moving.”
“Who’s with you?”
“I said stop moving.”
A flash of lightning illuminated their faces.
“You have short hair. You’re a slave! Who’s giving you orders? Where is he?”
“I’ll kill you, I swear.”
A rustle among the shrubbery came from behind him. The man took his eyes off Natir for less than a moment and she immediately seized the chance to escape.
She only ran a few steps before she heard him shout and jump after her. She stopped and quickly spun around to face him again. She was shocked to see that he was practically in her face; they were a heartbeat away from slamming onto each other.
On instinct, Natir swiftly struck him with the spear, crosswise, hitting his head and causing him to stumble. He managed to grab the shaft of her spear and pulled her down with him as he fell.
It all happened so fast.
The torch was on the ground. The rain and the dark restricted their visions. They were both on their backs, fighting for the spear, throwing blind hits at one another and kicking at the slurry of rain-muddied ground trying to get up.
He pulled the spear with both hands, with Natir still holding on to it, before grabbing her neck with one hand and attempting to force her down. Natir grabbed his wrist, and they both lost their hold on the spear as he fell on top of her.
The man rushed to get off her, scrambling for the spear on his knees. Natir launched herself at his back, wrapped her legs around him and pulled on his hair, managing to throw him back before he could seize the weapon.
Natir then threw herself on her side and grabbed her spear, and almost immediately he was there too, holding the other end.
On her knee, Natir received a hit to the chest as she tried to free her weapon. The blow sent her plummeting to the ground on her back.
She retaliated by shooting her legs at him, and managed to land a kick on his head. That freed her weapon and sent him back down.
Natir scrambled to her feet in a hurry. In the flash of her motion, she saw his shadowy figure with the corner of her eye. He had found his sword and raced up to his knee, sending his blade at her.
She didn’t have a moment to think; she didn’t have time to hesitate. Half-standing, she screamed a wild cry and thrust her spear down at him.
The man howled with pain. The spearhead went through his chest so easily, Natir couldn’t believe it was real.
She pulled it out of him and jumped backwards. The man fell face down, grunting.
Hysteria took the best of her. Her legs could carry her no more. Natir dropped the spear and fell, knees in the mud and hands on wet leaves.
Natir couldn’t breathe. Her chest gasped for air as her eyes, wide with dismay, locked on him, unable to wrap her mind around what had happened.
Just then, Natir tossed her head up and saw Keelin appear from the dark, strolling towards them.
Keelin, in no hurry, picked a knife from her belt.
She then lay a knee on his back, grabbed his hair and pulled his head up to expose his throat and—like a butcher—she worked her knife back and forth, slitting his throat wide open as the man gargled and kicked the ground like a struggling animal.
Keelin wiped her knife clean with his clothes and got up, standing over him as his body still writhed underneath her in a loathsome scuffle.
She said to Natir, “Always make sure.”
* * *
“Oh, rats! He was a Cami.” Keelin said, checking the man’s tribal tattoo. “Oh, well. Far from home, far from the heart, right? By next season no one will be looking for this one.”
Natir was still trembling violently as Keelin searched the dead man for anything useful, took his cloak, and headed toward the campfire.
Natir needed a moment for her legs to obey her. She took her spear with her and found Keelin sitting by the campfire, sheltering herself from the rain beneath the man’s cloak with one hand spread to the fire and the other busily searching through his sack.
Still not herself, Natir’s voice was dry and full of hate as she stood over Keelin and demanded answers.
“Who was that?”
“For you.” Keelin threw her a bota-bag. It hit Natir’s arm and fell on the ground. Keelin shrugged. “It’s good. You should drink some.”
“Keelin, I asked you who that was.”
“There’s some cheese, too, if you’re interested, and something, I’m not sure what that is. It smells, but it looks edible—”
“DID YOU NOT HEAR ME?”
She put her spear at Keelin’s neck, panting with rage.
Not moving a muscle, Keelin hissed, “Take that stick off my neck before I rape you with it.”
“You lied to me. He was no murderer, was he?”
Keelin took her by surprise when she suddenly slapped the spear off her neck and dropped herself backwards, rolling on the ground.
She got up just as fast, facing Natir with her axe at hand.
“You really want this? Huh? Then go for it. COME ON. I’ll take your pieces back in a sack.”
“You didn’t even know who that man was, did you?”
“I think you want to put that stick down before I lose my patience on you.”
Before Natir could finish, Keelin spun around the spear like a snake and struck the side of Natir’s head with the poll of her axe, knocking her unconscious.