Out in the wild, Cahal and two of his close friends sat around a campfire, eating in the quiet atmosphere that had settled around them.
One man, who looked particularly troubled, lowered his bowl of stew and let the other two know what he’s thinking, “We need to talk.”
“Then talk,” Cahal said.
“This plan of yours,” he said, causing Cahal to stop eating and look his way. “It’s not working. We need to think of some other way.”
Cahal motioned at him. “We didn’t get started yet, and you’re chickening out already?”
“No one is chickening out.” He threw away his bowl. “The plan is not working. Alfred is not summoning your slave anymore.”
“It’s only been a little while,” Cahal said, resuming his meal, “and he’s been busy with all the trouble Earhart has been causing him about Ardent. He will ask for her eventually.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“He will, I know him. You two just sit tight and stick to your part of the plan.”
“We’ve been sitting tight long enough. It’s been over a fortnight already.”
The other man spoke his mind as well, “Cahal, I have to tell you, this doesn’t seem like Alfred’s usual interest in women. He either gets his fill of them after one time, or he sticks around them like crazy.”
Cahal said, “He asked for her twice, didn’t he?”
“That doesn’t mean anything. So he wasn’t sure the first time if she’s his type or not, but now it’s settled in his head. Cahal, we need to face the possibility that he has had enough of her, and we’re waiting for something that will never happen. We should call the whole thing off.”
“And get rid of her before word gets out. Cahal, this is not the kind of thing you can trust a slave on for long.”
Cahal hummed and looked away.
“I’ve been advising you about this for years,” one of them said. “You can oust Alfred anytime you want, all you have to do is talk to Gull.”
“If you can get Gull to support you, Milos will follow, and so will their whole group, and we won’t need to play games like these.”
Cahal roared, impatient. “You think I haven’t tried? Who but Gull is responsible for this mess? For the last time, Gull is an idiot who will not take sides. He never will.” He took a moment to regain his composure. He set his bowl aside and muttered, “But you’re right. We did wait long enough. I waited long enough. And I long to see the day when my sons will return with their heads up high, seeing for themselves what their old man can do… You’re right, enough is enough. Perhaps it’s time to shake the bucket a little bit.”
“So, what will we do?”
“Leave it to me,” Cahal said. “I will arrange something to speed things up.”
He then got up and turned his face between them. “Don’t you worry, by this time tomorrow, no one will be telling us what to do.”
* * *
Over a fortnight had passed, and every day of it had been a living nightmare.
Ever since Natir agreed to join in on Cahal’s conspiracy, neither Natir nor Aina were allowed to set foot outside the house. Natir had no means to send out word to beg for Alfred’s help, and she could not trust the only other person she had contact with—Joyce—on something so dangerous. All that Natir could do was sit still like a captive in a cage, waiting for Cahal to signal to her that the time has come.
Nightmares haunted her nights. She would see herself approach Alfred’s bed like a shadow, raise a knife high in the air and stab him in his sleep, followed by reliving the nightmare of her mother’s hanging with Natir’s face on the hung corpse.
To make things even worse, Alfred never sent for Natir again. It caused Cahal’s patience to grow thinner as the days passed. Natir could easily notice how anxious Cahal had become, and it caused her to worry what he might do next? And if he might suddenly decided to go back on his plan and silence the only witness there was.
Torn between two bitter fates, Natir could no longer tell which was worse: that she couldn’t warn Alfred? Or that she couldn’t carry out Cahal’s order and save her daughter at least?
She sat in the shadows of the hut with eyes lost in the void, thinking about the impossible situation she was in and wondering to herself what wrong she must have done to cause Alfred to turn a cold shoulder to her. Why did he decide to ignore her now, just as things seemed to be going so well between them?
The sound of dry coughs made Natir raise her face.
Joyce had returned from the market. The cold must have caused the sickness—which had overtaken Joyce the other night—to get worse. Joyce was coughing nonstop and had to support herself against a wall, and suddenly, she collapsed.
Natir rushed to help her friend and pulled her closer to the fireplace.
Joyce said weakly, “It’s okay, I’m all right.”
“Hush, don’t talk… Here, drink some.”
Joyce drank the water, which helped calm her seizure. “Thank you.”
“Your body is on fire. You have a fever.”
Joyce replied, coughing, “I’m fine..it’s just cold..my head hurts.”
“You need to rest. I’ll do the cooking.”
“No, I’m fine, really. I can help.”
“Help with what? Look at you, you’re covered with sweat. Rest now, leave everything to me.”
“Ah… Ah, curse it.” Joyce threw her forearm over her face, dragged a breath and tried to get up. “I must go back.”
Natir stopped her. “What?”
“I must go back, I forgot something, he’ll beat me.”
“Calm down, calm down. Joyce, what did you forget?”
“I forgot...to buy the fish. He wants..he wants to have fish for dinner. I must go.”
A thought flashed through Natir’s mind and she immediately seized the rare chance.
“No, Joyce, you’re not leaving like this.”
“No, I won’t let you. Your fever will only get worse, you understand? You won’t make it halfway to the market before you faint. I’ll tell you what,” she fixed a cover over Joyce, “you stay here, don’t move, stay right here where it’s warm, and I’ll go buy the fish.”
“No, we can’t, you’re not allowed to go out.”
“I won’t tell!”
“Stop arguing. Don’t worry, I’ll be back before you know it, all right? Now lay still and rest.”
Natir grabbed a robe with a hood and rushed to the door.
“Natir? Natir, no.”
“I’ll be right back, I promise.”
Cold wind licked her face and sunlight momentarily blinded her. Natir had been locked inside for so long that the mere sight of the outside world stole her breath away.
She sucked a deep breath, pulled the hood over her head to conceal her face, and rushed her steps, trying to figure out what to do next now that she had finally found a way to leave the house without worrying about Cahal finding out about it.
* * *
Natir decided to buy the fish first to use it to prove her excuse and minimize the damage —on the off chance that Cahal or a friend of his might recognize her—. She would then make her way to Alfred’s place, pass him a message somehow, and go back as fast as she could.
Just as Natir was paying the salesman, she saw Diva walking in the market. Natir couldn’t believe her luck. She hurried after Diva.
Diva was shocked when Natir pulled her into a quiet alley. Natir craned her head back and forth, making sure no one saw them.
“Diva, listen to me,” she whispered. “I don’t have much time. I need you to pass a message to Alfred for me. It’s very important. Tell him that he’s in danger, and it’s not just him but my daughter and I are in danger, too. Cahal is planning something, he gave me a horrible order and I can’t disobey him. You understand what I’m saying? You must tell Alfred not to send for me. No matter what happens, he can’t send for me. But...but he must find a way to meet me in secret as soon as possible so that I can tell him what’s happening. You got this? Diva, you got this?”
Diva wore Natir a smile full of sarcasm. She looked as though she was trying not to laugh as she listened to Natir. She nodded her head as though she would to a child.
“Diva, this is not a joke. I’m serious, I mean every word I said. Talk to me, Diva, tell me that you got this… Diva? Diva, I beg you, please say something just this once, tell me that you got this. For Veles’ sake this is no time for games, my daughter’s life is in danger, SAY SOMETHING!”
Diva put her forefinger on Natir’s lips, silencing her, then pat Natir’s cheek and turned to leave.
Natir grabbed Diva’s dress. “Why didn’t Alfred send for me?”
Diva rolled her eyes. She tried to leave, but Natir moved in front of her. “It’s been well over a fortnight. Why didn’t he send for me? Tell me what happened. Is he bored of me? Is that what this is about?”
Diva pushed Natir out of her way and headed back to the market, shaking her head.
* * *
Natir hurried back, hoping that Diva took her seriously but unsure of how convincing she had been.
Holding a fish—by the cord in its mouth—with one hand, Natir shut the door behind her and removed her hood; her blood froze in her veins after a mere look inside.
There was blood on the floor.
Aina was cowering behind a big jar, tears soaking her little face and looking terrified to death, while Joyce was knocked next to a wall in an awkward posture, bleeding from her mouth and nose, her breaths a to chilling whistles.
Cahal stared daggers at Natir from where he sat.
She trembled like a leaf as he came her way.
He slapped the fish from her hand, ripped the hood off her body, and then grabbed her and grimaced.
“You’re coming with me.”