The One That Mattered
Natir’s heart beat out of her chest as she followed Cahal.
The closer they got to the village’s square, the more certain Natir was that he intended to kill her there, but when they passed it and took the road which lead to Alfred’s place, a thousand other suspicions ran through her mind of what Cahal intended to do.
Cahal entered one of the houses. He told her to wait for him outside.
Natir’s chest heaved with worry as she waited for the unknown. Cahal was up to something. This was the execution hour of his plot, she felt certain that it was, and it would end up getting her and Alfred killed.
* * *
“Do you have it?” Cahal addressed the two men inside the house, one of whom was armed with a bow.
“I’ll go get it.”
“Hurry up, we don’t have time,” Cahal said then turned to the armed man. “What’s up with the bow?”
“I’m coming with you,” the man said.
“I made up my mind on joining the feat. I will be the backup plan, in case something goes wrong.”
“What backup plan? You want to shoot him? Are you stupid? You’ll ruin everything.”
“No, it’s not Alfred I’m worried about. It’s your slave. I don’t trust her.”
“I told you I have her under my thumb. She will never dare cross us when her daughter’s life is the price.”
“Perhaps, but she can always spread her legs and make another one, can’t she? I don’t know, I just don’t feel comfortable trusting a woman.”
Cahal grimaced. “I have the woman under my control. She will not betray us. What, you don’t trust me?”
“All I’m saying is that I’ll be there to make sure that she doesn’t betray us,” he said, rubbing his thumb over an arrowhead. “If she did, then my arrow would find her heart faster than the whore’s mouth can rat us out, because if something went wrong, it will be so much easier to deny everything with no desperate slaves talking, and we’ll worry about explaining the incident later.”
Cahal didn’t seem convinced, but he approved it anyway. “Fine. Go ahead of me, then. We should not be seen arriving together.”
The other man had returned with a rag at hand. He stood by, listening. He handed the rag to Cahal as the conversation ended. “Here it is.”
Cahal unfolded the rag and was surprised by the poor kind of knife it concealed.
He raised an eyebrow. “What is this?”
“It’s the kind of a weapon a slave can make in secret, exactly as we discussed. Don’t worry about how it looks, it will kill.”
“It’s a bone knife!”
“And it will kill,” he persisted. “I don’t care if he’ll be wearing armor or not, that knife has just enough edge to cut through anything at first use. You don’t want her caught using something from your house, do you?”
Cahal warned, “If this junk breaks—”
“It won’t. Take my word and use it. Let the story we sell get more convenient: she was so mad after what he did to her that she made this knife in secret, and this murder is something she had been planning for days.”
* * *
Cahal and Natir arrived at Alfred’s hall where everyone was so joyous and drinking heavily. It made it look as though they were celebrating something.
Cahal instructed Natir to wait by the door and not talk to anyone. He headed deeper inside and joined a table where Alfred sat with some other men.
“I brought what I need, what about the rest of you?” Cahal cheered.
Natir stood still with her eyes to Alfred, anxiously waiting for him to look her way, to offer her a nod, a wink, anything that can reassure her that he received her message, but he never paid her more than a passing glance.
Fears danced in her chest and she bit her lip as she realized that Diva must have neglected delivering her word, that she never believed Natir and was merely playing along.
Natir spotted the man who had saved her from the wolves the other night, drinking among the crowd. She spontaneously took a step towards him but stepped back right away before Cahal might notice her.
She kept her eyes on the man, hoping that he will notice her looks and approach her with small talk that she can use to ask for help. She wasn’t even sure whether she can trust him or not, but like a drowning person, she was willing at this point to cling to every straw her arm can reach.
“Look who I meet again!”
Startled by the familiar voice, Natir spun around and saw that Volk, as shadowy as she remembered him, had snuck on her.
He was leaning against the wall, holding a drink in his hand, and he reeked with alcohol.
“What’s the matter, Natir the Farmer?” He pushed off the wall and toyed with her braid in his moist fingers. “You don’t look so well. Is everything all right? You can’t possibly still be upset about the small incident in the forest, can you? That’s all in the past now.”
Volk was surely the most worthless straw Natir could hope to grasp, yet she went for it.
Stealing looks at Cahal, she whispered, “Help.”
“What was that?”
Her heart took a leap as Volk leaned closely at her and gave her his ear, exposing that she broke Cahal’s order.
“I thought I saw your lips moving.”
She whispered again, “Help.”
With a puzzled face, he backed off.
“Why, of course.” He gave her his drink. “Here you go.”
Natir turned her face with disbelief between the cup and his face.
“All the help in the world lives in this little cup, and it’s all yours.”
She opened her mouth to speak but he clumsily put his forefinger on her lips to silence her, almost pushing it into her mouth in the process.
“Hush, hush, hush. No need to thank me. Good old Volk is all about helping those in need. And now, I’ll get myself another one.” He left, reeling from side to side as though he might fall off at any moment. “After all, I too need some help. I need the help of all the drinks I can get, or I’ll freeze to death on my lonely bed this winter.”
Her jaw dropped. She couldn’t believe how thickheaded he was. She couldn’t believe that she was literally standing in the middle of a large crowd and still couldn’t cry out for help or that she couldn’t tell the face of friend from foe around her.
Cahal, Alfred, and a few other men gathered at a corner where they armed themselves then came her way.
Cahal grabbed her arm. “Let’s go.”
A man asked, “What did you bring your slave for?”
“So that you losers can watch me celebrate my victory over her belly,” he joked.
Volk asked aloud. “And just where are you folks planning on going at a time like this?”
One man stopped at the door to answer, “We’re off hunting.”
“Hunting? What unlucky, skinny, mother-abandoned forest rat do you hope to catch in this cold?”
“Cahal and Alfred made a bet, and we decided to join them.”
Cahal followed, “It’s just for fun. Whoever catches the biggest game wins.”
“A bet?” Volk asked. “What are we betting on? Because I got to tell you: not even ten denarius will make me leave this joy and warmth and go out there searching for an animal to kill.”
“Good. Stay here then,” Cahal said.
“A barrel of this.” The man raised a cup of wine.
With unsettled eyes, Volk flipped his empty cup then threw it over his shoulder. “Count me in.”
* * *
Cahal placed her in front of him on the horse and rode into the forest with the rest; aside from Natir, their party had ten men and nine horses total.
Natir’s eyes were fixed upon Alfred’s back the whole time as he rode solemnly on the back of his horse, chattering away with another rider.
Volk was the loudest, and he behaved like a fool. Everyone expected to see him fall off the back of the horse he shared with another man at any given moment.
Cahal whispered, “Here.”
Her face darkened as she looked at her lap and saw that he was secretly handing her a bone-knife.
Her eyes darted around with panic. She quickly took the knife and hid it in her dress.
Cahal leaned into her from behind to whisper in her ear, “You know what to do.”
Natir whispered back, grim-faced and looking forward with lidless eyes, “I can’t. There are so many men around.”
“Leave that to me.”
His hand pressed against her chest, suffocating her.
“We talked about this, didn’t we?” He eased the pressure off her. “Don’t do anything stupid. I’ll deny everything and slit your throat for it, you got that? Think of your daughter.”
“I am, but I can’t do it. Please, this isn’t what you said it would be like, there are so many.”
“I said don’t worry about it. I’ll create a chance for you to be alone with him. You just do as you’re told, understood…? Understood?”
As they entered a denser part of the forest, where the heavy vegetation obstructed the view on both sides of the path, Cahal secretly motioned one of the riders.
The man nodded back and steadily led his horse to the center of the group then suddenly he raised his spear and darted to the side.
His action took Natir and the rest by surprise.
“What? What happened?”
“Hey? Where are you going?”
A man yelped, “Curses, he spotted game, after him!” He raced after the first rider.
“Get it before he does.”
Natir watched, stunned, as over half their group chased after the first rider like a mindless herd.
She looked over her shoulder with puzzled eyes and read in the smirk Cahal flashed at her that they had fallen into his trap.
Her heart raced. All that was left were the three horses carrying Alfred, Natir and Cahal, and Volk and his partner.
If the latter turn out to be on Cahal’s side then Alfred and Natir were as good as finished. All that Cahal needed to do was kill him and tie up the sacrificial lamb for show.
“The fools,” Alfred said with amusement. He then turned to Volk and his partner. “You aren’t joining them?”
“My horse is carrying two,” said the man. “Don’t worry about me, another chance will come up.”
“Same here,” Cahal joined in.
Volk said, “How more twisted can life get? Two fools like you have made the right choice for all the wrong reasons.”
“You mean you wouldn’t go with them if you had your own horse?” his partner asked.
“Of course not. A wise man like myself will chase after no prey that he can’t see nor hear. Wouldn’t you agree, silent beauty?”
“I said, wouldn’t it be wiser to go after a game within sight?”
“Um..yes. Sure,” she spluttered with a tongue of lead.
Her chest was on fire. The answers which they had paid Alfred brought Natir no comfort. Instead, it only asserted her suspicion that the reason those two stayed behind was because they were part of Cahal’s plot.
If Volk was on Cahal’s side then he must have long told him about her first hunting venture and the kind of relationship she had with Alfred, which can very much be why Cahal was so convinced she’s the right woman for the job.
Natir found herself unable to stop watching Volk with the corner of her eye like heeding a snake residing next to her.
Volk dismounted. “This is where we part ways, my friends.”
“You’re walking?” Cahal laughed.
“We ride together. We drink and eat together. But the killing? That I’d rather do alone. This is a contest, after all, and I intend to win it.”
Alfred asked, “And what do you hope to chase on foot?”
“Oh, I’ll leave the chase for the rest of you. As for me, I prefer to let my prey come to me instead. There’s a good trail that I know nearby. I’ll lay low and wait. The gods never disappoint a patient man.”
They rode ahead, laughing back, “Suit yourself.”
“Freeze to death for all I care.”
“Don’t lay too low or we might miss you on our way back.”
Natir watched Volk from over her shoulder until he blended with the trees, wondering what he was really up to and how it sits with Cahal’s plan.
After a short ride, Volk’s companion made a comment, “You know what, Volk is right. We need to split up or we’ll end up fighting with each other over the same prey.”
“And you figured that out only just now?”
Cahal stopped. “Of course each needs to go on his own way. This isn’t your usual hunt, it’s a competition. But then again,” he looked back to where they had left Volk, “you don’t just do it without a horse. Volk should know this. I wonder what he’s thinking.”
“I think he acted on whim, he did drink a lot.”
“If that’s what it is then he just messed up his chances, and he will have no one to blame but himself.”
Alfred turned his horse around to join them. “It’s what he decided to do. I never argue with a man once he makes up his mind.”
Turning his face between them, Alfred asked, “So, is it time for us to part ways as well?”
His gaze settled upon her.
Natir met his look with eyes glittering with silent despair, hoping that he could read on her face what she couldn’t speak with her lips.
Even after getting drawn this deep into Cahal’s plot, she still hoped that Alfred would notice something and that it would turn the flow of the coming events around, but all that his eyes reflected was his childish humor.
Her heart throbbed, and she lost all hope of making him understand; it hurt to see him so alien to her feelings. It was as if he had truly forgotten her. It was as if he had never known her for a moment.
“Well, it’s not like we need to go far,” the man answered, “but just far enough not to step on each other’s toes.”
Cahal said, “This is a good spot, something will show up.”
Alfred took his eyes off her. “All right then, I’ll let you two choose which way you want to go.”
“It’s all the same to me.”
“My horse is already facing that direction.”
“Then it’s settled,” Alfred said. “We’ll meet back here in one hour to decide the winner. Any longer than that and sunset will be upon us.”
* * *
Cahal and Natir followed Alfred in secret.
They watched him from their hideout amidst the vegetation as he dismounted near a cliff and crouched down near the edge with his back to them, looking as though he was spying on some game.
“This is it,” Cahal said. “Go to him. Tell him that I left you behind with the horse, tell him that you want to talk, show him your tits, I don’t care what you have to do to gain his trust, you will make it happen. Then once you get close enough, you will drive that knife into his chest with all that you’ve got.”
Natir looked down at the knife.
Her hands were trembling.
Cahal grabbed her hand. “Focus.” He warned, “Keep in mind that if you don’t go through with it then I will do what I have to do, and neither you nor your daughter will live to see another day. Keep in mind that if as much as a breath is left in him then he will do the same to both of you. There’s only one way for your daughter out of this and you know that. So, do it.” He pat her cheek. “Don’t worry, it will all be over in an instant.”
Without a shred of hope left in her chest for a turn in events, Natir shut her eyes and answered, “Yes.”
There was no turning back now.
She steeled her heart into getting it done with and take the fall for the sake of Aina’s life.
Cahal made Natir turn her face to him. “You’ve only got one shot at this, if you fail me.”
She nodded, hid the knife in her sleeve and headed out.
A rustle in the bushes made Cahal look to the side where he saw that his friend, the man with the bow, had caught up with them and was taking himself a shooting position that oversaw Alfred’s place.
The two men nodded to one another and watched.
Natir approached Alfred with a steady pace. She was so anxious that she thought the whole world could hear her heartbeats.
She stopped a few yards behind him; Alfred surely must have noticed her by now, yet he didn’t turn nor offer her a mere look.
The place got deathly quiet save for the virile wind.
She swallowed. “I..my master went ahead, on foot. He left me behind to look after the horse and not risk unnecessary noise.”
“Smart move. You can be a very loud woman, you know.”
Her palm was sweaty. She fixed her grip on the knife under her sleeve.
“So?” He glanced at her from over his shoulder. “Is there something you want?”
“Yes,” she took a step in, “I want to talk to you. I need to ask you something.”
“Then ask… Well? I’m waiting.”
“That night when you sent me out with Keelin, I know that you planned the whole thing. I may still not know what you had hoped to achieve from it, but it’s no secret that you planned every little detail.”
“Every little detail?” He chuckled. “You think too much of me. I’m only a man. But yes, for the most part it was as I had hoped for.”
“And I ended up playing right into your palm. Everything that happened that night was exactly as you wanted. It was all preplanned.”
“Like you said: it was never a secret. In fact, a child can put the pieces together. And if there is nothing hidden then what’s there to ask about?”
“Just one thing.”
He turned to her and slapped his arms to his sides. “I’m still waiting. Ask.”
She panted with exertion, “The sex, too?”
Alfred shook his head with disbelief.
“Please answer me.”
“That’s what you’ve been aching to ask? Really?”
“You were waiting for us to come back, weren’t you? Why else would you be there? It was preplanned too, wasn’t it? It was...it was another part of your game, just like everything else. It had to be.”
He looked away.
“Alfred…? Please, I need to know.”
He met her gaze and said, pointing with his forefinger, “Only the first time. As for the second time, well...that one just happened.”
Natir trembled with happiness and her eyes glittered with unshed tears as her emotions got the best of her.
The moment they had was real, and that by itself meant the world to her.
She sobbed and laughed both together. “That was..it was the one that mattered.”
The weight of the knife hidden in her hand became unbearable. Her mind went hazy and her heart throbbed with clashing emotions. Natir reeled beneath the pressure; she was a step away from falling to her knees and burst with tears for what she had to do next.
“Let me ask..I have..I have one more thing to ask you.” She sniffled and wiped her eyes. “Why did you lie to me?”
“When did I ever lie to you?”
“You did. You said you helped me because I have a good arm, but I could never accept that was your reason.”
“That was no lie.”
“Then it’s not the whole truth, either. There’s something else you’re not telling me. You hesitated back then, I could tell that there was something else you wanted to say, but you choose not to.”
“That is true.”
“What was it? Why did you help me? Tell me.”
“I still choose not to answer that.”
“Because I don’t believe it’s an answer you can yet accept.”
“Alfred...Alfred, please, no more of this. Please just tell me why, I beg you.”
He sighed, dropped his head and nodded. “Fine.”
He approached her, felt her cheek in his palm and stared into her eyes then said with a voice as soft as butter to her skin, “Because you’re a cursed child, Natir—”
Her lips parted but no words were coming to her mouth as she returned his gaze with confused and flickering eyes, searching his lips for an explanation.
“A hated child. The grapes shall not sprout from the ground you tread, only bloodstained thorns to kiss your feet. The sunlight hides behind the clouds from you, only frost-bound wind to wrap your skin. Misfortune dresses you. Enmity washes your hair. And the world itself detests you.”
Alien to his words, Natir didn’t understand a thing he said. “What...Alfred? What are you saying?”
“Your people did not sell you to repay your family’s debt, Natir. That was a lie.”
“No. No, it’s all true.”
“No. It is but the husk that enwraps a seed of truth far bitterer than that. It is an illusion you choose to believe because the true reason why they’ve forsaken you is much too ugly for you to accept.”
“Alfred...Alfred, you’re scaring me. What are you talking about? What truth?”
“That you were never a slave.”
“Please don’t joke about this, it’s not funny. You’re not making any sense.”
He took a step in, causing Natir to retreat backwards.
“Oh yes, you play the role so beautifully. You don’t just act the role, you dress yourself with it. I am a slave is what you scream with your everything. A lie resident in you to the bone, so much so that even you believed it, but it is your eyes who betray you and refuse to ever hide what a horrendous nightmare you really are. They sold you off because they feared you, Natir. Because a woman who cannot be broken after all that they’ve done to you is something terrifying indeed. It’s because you, who has the flesh of a human yet not the soul of one, are truly terrifying—”
“I know this because I’ve seen it in your dreams how you murdered them all, from the ones who truly hurt you to those who wronged you with as little as a look, not one of them can you ever forgive, and in your beastly mind you did to them what you couldn’t do in this world and feasted on their flesh a thousand times over.”
Her face darkened. “No one can see another’s dreams.”
“But I did. I saw it as clear as day. For that from the heart the dreams are born, and the eyes and heart are in full accord. And what your heart is made of, Natir, is a dominion of hatred unlike anything the world has known before—”
Cahal and his friend lost their patience.
The man prepared his bow and mouthed to Cahal that Natir is betraying them.
Cahal madly waved his friend to lower his weapon and came out of his hideout instead.
Alfred nodded at her hand.
“I will not ask who that knife you conceal in your hand is for, Natir. I cannot find in myself a shred of doubt that you intend to kill me, but I will ask instead: who else do you want to kill with it, and how many? Do even you, yourself, know?”
No longer a mistress of herself, her hand flew to her mouth and tears of pain gathered in her eyes.
What he faced her with had pushed Natir to the edge of her sanity as it brought a thousand, thousand hateful faces to her mind, for each and every one of them she’d lay her own heart as a price just to see them dead.
“Where had you gone off to?” Cahal raised his voice as he rushed his steps towards them. “Natir, Natir, I’m talking to you, what are you doing there? What are you telling him? Alfred, what did she say? What is that woman telling you?”
Cahal grabbed her shoulder. “Now, you listen—”
Just as Cahal swung her around, Natir lost it; she let out a mad cry and swung her knife at him.
The hysteria had taken hold of Natir. Her bloodstained hands shook crazily, and her chest heaved like she couldn’t catch her breath as Cahal reeled backward, overwhelmed with shock.
He glared at the vast wound to his blood-soaked palm like he couldn’t believe what had just happened.
“What is this? What have you done—?”
Natir couldn’t understand a word he said nor did she have any conception of what she was doing anymore. All that she knew was that the mere sight of his face was making her skin crawl, and it was unbearable.
“You see this? What have you done? HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND, SLAVE, WHORE? I WILL HAVE YOU GUTTED—”
Half-insane, she lashed out at him, sending her knife straight into his gut.
Natir screamed with all her voice as she slapped and stabbed him everywhere with strikes as swift as lightning.
Surprised, Cahal couldn’t get a hold of her hands for how swiftly they were shooting at him; it was like being jumped by a lynx.
He was pushed back, receiving one stab after another until he managed to land a hit on her head with the back of his hand.
He took the chance to grab her throat with both hands, strangling her, but she just kept coming at him, kicking with her legs, pulling on his clothes, and stabbing him to the chest and arms nonstop like a mad woman and had put over twenty wounds in him in mere moments.
Soaked with blood, Cahal let out a great groan and threw her into the air before collapsing to his knees, grunting with pain.
Natir crashed and rolled down the slope, her scream muted when her head hit a rock and the strike sent blood streaming down her face.
As soon as Cahal and Natir broke apart, Cahal’s friend seized the chance to take aim and shoot Natir, but someone had snuck up on him from behind and put a long dagger to his neck just as he was releasing the arrow, causing him to miss the shot.
Natir lay on her back with her head hurting, and her sight was clouded.
A man’s scream echoed from afar.
She turned her head to look at the bloody sight of her hand; her fingers were firmly clutching the knife still, but she realized it must have broke inside Cahal’s chest at some point and only the handle remained.
With some struggle, she raised her upper half and saw an arrow wedged into the ground right next to her. She didn’t think, she just pulled it out and headed back towards Cahal, reeling from side to side like a drunk.
Cahal was on his knees, coughing blood and repeatedly failing to get up on his feet. He reached his hand out to Alfred.
“Alfred… Alfred. The slave. Whatever she said. Lies. All lies. Kill her. Kill the slave. Alfred. Alfred, my brother—”
Once Natir was there, breathing like a grunting bear, she suddenly let out a loud shout and threw herself at him from behind, stabbing him to the back.
She pulled her arrow out of him and pinned him, flat on the ground, under her knee.
Alfred hadn’t raised a finger throughout the whole thing.
He crouched down in front of Cahal.
“Oh, brother, how long have you lived, and how many women have you had? And yet, to the very end, you never understood a thing about women: what magnificent evil they are. And I’m the one to dance with evil.”
Mounting him from behind, Natir put one hand over Cahal’s chin and pulled his head up, where she set the arrowhead on his exposed neck and worked its small blade repeatedly across his throat, sawing his neck open in a hurry and inch by inch like she would to the belly of a fish until she slashed his throat wide open.
The blood splattered into the air and onto her face, yet she kept holding his head up as he quivered and gargled to death beneath her.
Her eyes were set on the vast wound the whole time like a thirsty woman staring at water, unable to get enough of the sight of the gushing, thick mixture of blood and mucus until the shaking stopped and his body finally went flat against the ground.
She let go of him and collapsed onto her back, covering her face with her stained hands and letting out a mad scream before she burst into tears.
“Poor Cahal.” Volk said.
Natir removed her hands and saw Volk approaching them.
“I saw the whole thing,” he said. “He wanted to win the bet so much, he got reckless and ended up chasing the elk,” he grabbed Cahal’s legs and pulled him to the edge of the cliff, “to this cliff...and before he realize it...it turned...on him...and they both...fell over it—”
He threw the corpse down the cliff where it crashed against the rocks and dove into the stream below.
Volk turned to Natir and finished, “To where we can’t hope to retrieve his body.”
“Are you done fooling around?”
Natir’s face darted, shocked, towards the source of the voice: Agatha.
Agatha was accompanied by two men, one of whom Natir recalled as a member of their hunting party. They had their weapons drawn down on a third man, Cahal’s friend, who was down on his knees, holding his injured hand as Agatha had cut off three of the fingers that he had used to shoot the arrow.
Agatha motioned towards Alfred. “What do you want done with this one?”
Volk answered for Alfred, “I think we’ll have a small talk with our brave friend on our way back. He did, after all, loose that hand trying to save Cahal from the crazy elk.”
“Did it sound like I was asking you?”
Volk shrugged and turned to Alfred, who walked away without saying a word, and on his way, he paid Natir’s confused gaze a flashing smirk.
Natir rolled to her knees, set her bloody palms on the ground and dropped her face, unable to take it in all at once, but not too confused to realize that they had known about Cahal’s conspiracy from the beginning, down to the very role she had been assigned to play.