Natir Whitebridge: A Grain of Respect

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Chapter 16

Find the Way Back

A flute played in the dark.

The joyful and fast-paced melody stood in stark contrast to the soothing sound of rain and wind in the primeval wood, and yet it all seemed to blend together in peculiar harmony.

Natir wavered in and out of consciousness for a time before jerking awake; her vision was blurry and the first thing she felt was a pain in her head so severe, it made her wish it would fall off her shoulders.

Fear-stricken, she realized that she could not move. Her hands were tied behind her and she was lying face-down on the ground with a weight on her back.

“Oh, you woke up already?”

It was Keelin who was sitting on her, pinning her down. Natir tried to look up, but her hair obstructed her sight and she could not see much.

“Did I hit you too hard? Here, let’s see if this might help. Wash your face.”

Laughing, Keelin pushed Natir’s head down, rubbing her face in the mud as Natir revolted and kicked her legs, desperate for air.

“There you go, have a little bit more. Swallow some, don’t be shy… Feeling better now?”

Natir spat a mouthful of mud and leaves and gasped for breath. Forehead to the ground, she lay still, sucking in deep breaths and not showing any sign of resistance.

“What, you’re done barking already? You don’t feel like pointing a stick at me anymore, or what?”

Natir shut her eyes with bitter defeat. “No. I’m sorry.”

“What? I can’t hear you. You have to speak up.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I didn’t mean to do any of that. I was… I wasn’t myself, and I did a very stupid thing. I’m truly sorry… Please, don’t tell anyone.”

“Much better.”

Keelin got off her and freed Natir’s hands, speaking as she worked.

“You seriously lost it back there. What were you thinking? Just be glad I was there to save you from yourself. Oh, also—not that I don’t appreciate the cushion and all, but all I intended from sitting on you was to keep you safe from the rain. We only got one cloak, so—you’re welcome.”

Rubbing her wrists, Natir sat up, tilted her head back and let the rain wash the mud off her face. The scent of dirt and wet leaves was sensuous and wild. Its foul taste still tainted her mouth, but she didn’t mind. It felt astoundingly arousing.

Keelin had taken herself a spot on the log and spread out her arm for Natir, inviting her to share the cloak.

“There’s room for two. The rain will stop soon, but why wait? Come, sit closer to the fire.”

They cramped together for a time, sheltering from the rain, and every now and then Natir would steal glances at Keelin, who wasn’t even looking her way. That made Natir worry gravely.

Natir had crossed a line a slave should never approach. She had left the village without her master’s knowledge. Killed a free man. Behaved rebelliously. And worst of all, she threatened Keelin’s life.

If Keelin was holding that last part against her and was planning to say a word about what happened, any of it, then… Natir couldn’t even begin to imagine what fate awaited her if that were to happen. She needed to say something, anything that would make Keelin assure her that she would keep the secret.

After a pause full of dark thoughts, it was Keelin who spoke first.

“Yes, you were right. I had no clue who that man was,” Keelin said blankly. She removed the cloak as the rain stopped and brought out a pouch. “I checked his things and found a nice pouch he was hiding. It’s not exactly a fortune, but it is more than anyone should have on them. I’m guessing he was on his way to buy some livestock or supplies for winter or something… Maybe that’s why he camped off the road—to not risk getting robbed.”

“Is that what we were doing?”

Keelin chuckled and threw the pouch into the fire. “I have no use for such things.”

Astounded, Natir watched the pouch burn. Coins slipped from its belly and disappeared into the embers.

She turned to Keelin. “Then why?”

Keelin remained silent.

“That noise I heard earlier: it was you who caused it. You revealed my whereabouts to him, didn’t you?”

“I may have dropped a rock.”

“And later, when the man and I faced one another—”

“Make that two rocks.”

“Why?”

Keelin shrugged. “Rocks are slippery when wet.”

Her joke wasn’t well received.

Keelin waved her arm. “I needed to stir things up a little. So what?”

Natir dropped her face. “You pushed me to kill him.”

“No, I only pushed you to make a choice. You’re the one who decided on the killing. That was all you.”

“I was so scared. I could’ve died tonight. I have a daughter and—”

“You were perfectly safe,” Keelin interrupted. “I had my arrow pointed at his heart the whole time. Or did you really think that I missed?”

“I… Keelin, I’m asking you—no, I’m begging you: please tell me why. Why am I here? Why put me through all of this? And why do I have a stranger’s blood on my hands? Is telling me why really too much to ask?”

“No. I just don’t see what there is to explain. You said it yourself: we’re out hunting, and when you’re hunting, you don’t really get to choose. You just take whatever comes your way.”

Natir’s eyes flickered with disbelief. “You compare people to animals?”

“I’d be stupid if I didn’t… I’ve gutted animals. I’ve gutted men. And I’ve seen no difference. Once the knife works through the skin, it’s always the same mess of stinking gut pouring out of their bellies. It’s made the same, looks the same, feels the same, smells the same; they piss themselves the same, and they die the same. So, you tell me: what’s the difference?”

The conversation was going nowhere and Natir was in no position to dare push Keelin to reveal more than she was willing. Feeling helpless, Natir buried her face in her palms and resigned herself to swallowing the nonsense for an answer Keelin fed to her— like leftovers to a dog.

“It’s time to head back.” Keelin got up and offered Natir the cloak. “You want it? It’s half-decent.”

Natir’s heart raced, her eyes fixated on the hole her spear had pierced through cloak. The appealing scent of the wild was replaced with a smell so foul it caused her stomach to flinch with disgust. The cloak stank with death. Natir couldn’t stand to even look at it.

“How far are we?”

“Not that far. If we’re lucky, we might make it back before it rains again.”

“Then no thanks.”

“You sure? I thought I felt you shiver.”

“It’s nothing. I can take it.”

“Suit yourself.” Keelin threw the cloak away and began to collect her things. “Personally, I don’t mind the rain, but you don’t strike me as someone who’s used to it.”

“Keelin. May I ask you for something?”

“Sure. What do you need?”

“Will you please keep what happened tonight a secret?”

“That goes without saying, silly!” Keelin said, and Natir breathed in relief. “Oh, and don’t worry about the mess. The forest will take care of it. In two days’ time, there won’t be a trace left.”

Keelin soaked one of the man’s bark-torches with animal oil from a bota-bag she found and set it on fire.

“All right. Let’s go.”

Natir asked, surprised, “You’re really leaving all that money behind?”

“I thought I made myself clear about that. Why? You want it?”

Keelin kicked the sticks holding up the canopy covering, causing all the water that had gathered on it to drop and extinguish the fire.

“There you go. Feel free to look for it. You’re the one who killed the bastard.” Keelin headed out. “But there’s nothing in it for me. Why would I wait for you? Get it fast and catch up with me.”

Perplexed, Natir turned her face between Keelin’s back and the campfire. She tried to snatch a visible coin in a hurry but burnt her hand. She would not have time to be able to dig out a single coin before losing sight of Keelin.

With a little regret, Natir abandoned the money and hurried out after Keelin.

* * *

It started to rain even more heavily than before just as they came to a stream.

There were fewer trees by the stream bank to give them shelter. Natir was soaked wet again in no time, but she stopped worrying about it when she saw a light at a distance, penetrating the dark, and realized it must be the village.

Keelin stopped. “This is as far as I can take you.”

“What?”

“I’m not allowed into the village, but I trust that you can find your way back on your own now.”

Turning her face between Keelin and the village, Natir asked, “But… weren’t you in the village earlier?”

“Yes, well, that was then, this is now. I have no reason left to risk sneaking in again, and it will cause a big problem if someone notices me.”

“Why?”

Keelin shrugged. “Another long story. Maybe I’ll share it with you some other time.” She passed the torch to Natir. “Good luck, and watch your step.”

Natir called out after her, “Keelin. Before you go, can I ask you one more thing?”

“Sure, what is it?”

Natir was sure by now that she would have a better chance of convincing Diva to talk than of getting a straight answer from Keelin, but she still hoped she might get something from the exchange.

She asked Keelin. “What do you want?”

Keelin cracked up laughing. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“What? You said it’s okay to ask… Will you please listen?”

“No way you’re that bad, just no way. What is Alfred thinking?!”

“Keelin? Keelin, can you please get serious for a moment?”

Keelin laughed so hard that her stomach hurt.

Wooh! So this is where laughter lives: in the tummy. It really hurts.”

“Are you done?” Natir asked, unamused. “Look at me, Keelin. You see this? I’m cold, beaten, tired and confused. I’m standing under the rain waiting for a woman I’ve just met to stop laughing at me, and I’ve done...I’ve just done a horrible thing that I otherwise would never have done… And I’m afraid. Is that what you want to hear? I don’t know what’s going on around me and this whole thing is really frightening me, Keelin. So, please, please be the one who gives me something. Anything.”

Keelin replied, still chuckling “You’re an idiot. No wonder he needed my help.”

“If you won’t answer me, then at least tell me what he wants, because I think I’m about to lose my mind!”

“I’ve got a better idea.” Keelin approached Natir. “How about I tell you what he doesn’t want, instead?”

“What do you mean?”

She smirked and teased Natir’s cheek with her fingers.

“Yes, I’ve heard fragments of your story, just enough to tell me what has happened so far. Now, use your head, Natir, and tell me: who cares if you had saved that man or laughed at him getting hung? Who cares about hunting? The game you caught? Or the man you just killed? Look me in the eye and tell me: what does Alfred have to gain from any of it?”

Her nerves wrecked, Natir answered in a small voice, “Nothing.”

“Yes. Nothing.”

“Then why is he doing this?”

“Well, I suppose I can tell you, but then again, why ruin his fun?”

Natir stepped away and buried her face in her palms.

She gave it another shot: “Is that what I am to him? To you? Entertainment…? Fine. Tell me that’s what it is, and I promise I can live with it. Just don’t leave me hanging with no answer.”

“Mmm, nice try,” Keelin cocked her head to the side with amusement, “but twisting my words on purpose will get you nowhere. You’re going to have to try harder than that.”

“Then what about you? The question I asked you: what do you want? Will you give me that much at least?”

“You really want to know?”

“Yes.”

“All right then.” Keelin kept Natir waiting for it then said through her laughter, “I’m a woman. I don’t know what I want!”

“That’s your answer? That you don’t know?”

“I know, right! Isn’t that the best? While everyone else knows exactly what they want and go after it, I wanderrr.”

“Keelin—”

“This conversation is over,” Keelin said firmly but with a smile on her lips. “I’ve told you more than enough, if you knew what to make out of it. It’s time to go back now. Walk in straight through the main gate. The one manning it is Alfred’s man. Worry about nothing, he knows how to keep his mouth shut.”

Natir blew a helpless breath and went on her way by the stream.

“What are you doing?”

Natir stopped. “What?”

“You can’t go that way. The animals come down to drink at night. It’s dangerous. Go around—through the forest.”

Natir hesitated. The village was in sight, but she decided to take Keelin’s advice as she surely knew better.

Keelin laughed. “Where are you going? You can’t go there.”

“But you said—”

“It’s dark and the forest is full of all kinds of animals waiting to prey on you. And how long do you think that torch will last— forever? You’ll get lost if you can’t see your way.”

Natir turned left and right. “So, which one is it?”

Keelin approached her and suddenly snatched the torch from Natir’s hand, threw it in the stream and took off laughing. Natir shouted after her, but Keelin had already disappeared into the dark.

Natir realized she had been played again. It was as unfunny and confusing as all of Keelin’s jokes.

Left alone in the dark, Natir had a hard time choosing which way to go. She decided to hurry up and go with the stream. From there, at least she had a glimpse of where she was and where she should go, and if something bad were going to come her way then she would worry about it when it happened.

Her heart beat out of her chest every step of the way, and Natir prayed that she had not made the wrong choice.

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