Later that night, Alfred’s hall was as busy as ever.
Natir had come to know the attendees with time. It was always the same carefree bunch and almost none of them had any business being there.
Other than the usual troublemakers—Earhart and his friends—pretty much getting together to enjoy a feast at Alfred’s expense every other night was the sole concern of most.
At rare times, however, serious business would be brought to Alfred’s attention, and Natir really hated it when that happened…
Just as the evening seemed to be going well, Natir was taken by surprise when a group of three men barged into the hall, cursing and dragging a young boy with them whom they threw before Alfred’s throne.
The commotion went down.
Alfred said with laughter and a comical motion with his cup, “Another lover of your daughter Airic, Glyn?”
“I thought I’ve already told you: either you secure that window or you find her a man already, before I too might sneak into her bedroom.”
The man, Glyn, wasn’t entertained in the least. He pointed the boy out and shouted, “I caught him stealing from my storage.”
Natir felt a chill run down her spine, and a perfect silence fell upon the hall as everyone knew what that meant.
She glanced at the boy, who shivered and turned his face everywhere like an entrapped mouse. His sight was nothing but a call for pity.
With rage rising in his chest, Alfred’s eyes ricocheted aimlessly as he tilted his head from side to side.
He asked with a contained voice, “What did he steal?”
In response, the man threw a sack of food onto the floor.
“You have witnesses?”
“Yes.” He waved at the other two. “When I heard a noise in the storage I called my neighbors. We searched the place together and caught him inside with that sack in his hand.”
A commotion erupted, and the man spun around with his arms raised to his sides. “He can’t deny it. He can’t deny it! We saw him with our own eyes!”
Alfred waved his hand for them to be silent. He leaned forward, glaring at the boy.
“Thief… My tree is burdened. Yet it seems that no matter how strict I am about this, a thief will still steal, just as a man can’t help but to bow to the urge to breathe.”
The man yelled, “We demand justice.”
Alfred shot the man with a glare that made him back off then turned his attention back to the boy.
“Well, not that it matters anymore, but I still want to hear your excuse.”
The boy stuttered, “I...I...I was hungry, sir. I was left with nothing. I just wanted to eat.”
Natir stared at Alfred with a heaving chest and held on to the fragile hope that the boy’s plea would move a shred of mercy in his heart.
“Hungry,” Alfred echoed. He nodded with his head as he slowly straightened back on his throne. He looked at his guests and made a comical shrug. “Take him to the tree.”
Chaos erupted. Several men gathered over the boy and dragged him outside as he begged and squirmed across the floor, while the rest made their way out in a hurry.
Wherever Natir turned her face, all that her eyes could see was joy.
Men bumped into her as they scrambled to the door with food and torches at hand, dancers and harlots holding their drinks up high not to spill amidst the jostle of human flesh and filling the air with their jokes and sharp laughter as everyone hurried out to watch.
An invisible weight fell upon her chest. Natir couldn’t stand it. She hurried the other way, out of the hall.
Alfred saw her pushing her way against the flow, her face that of a woman desperate for air.
* * *
Beneath a starless night, Natir embraced herself and fought back tears.
The cold outside was merciless, and the dress she wore —an old, long woolen dress with faded mint color and decayed yellow embroidery on its collar and sleeves—could not have protected its wearer from the harshness of winter, not even in the prime of its days.
Yet the torment of being exposed to the cold was preferable to her heart compared to how agonized she was by the scene her eyes had witnessed.
She heard someone approaching her and glanced back.
Alfred had followed her; he stood next to her and asked, “You’re not coming for the show?”
She sniffled and wiped her watery eyes.
“You haven’t spoken a word to me in a month, and this is the first thing you ask me? Do I want to see another person hanged?”
He didn’t respond, so she turned towards him.
“For Veles’ sake, Alfred, he’s not even thirteen years old, he’s just a boy.”
“A boy who stole something that isn’t his. That makes him a thief, regardless.”
“He was starving, didn’t you see for yourself what he looks like? He’s skin on bone, he..he probably hadn’t had a breadcrumb to eat in days. What else could he have done…? Alfred? Alfred, is there no room for mercy in your heart?”
“Plenty. Just not for thieves.”
“You know what? Forget mercy. Everyone knows how frightening you are. Everyone knows how tough you are on thieves. You made that clear a long time ago. And yet, he still did it, he did what he had to do to live, knowing that he’s defying you no less.”
“That sounds very foolish.”
“Maybe, but it took courage. It took a mountain of courage. Give him credit for that much, at least… Alfred? Alfred, if it was any other earl then he would have let him go. He would have...he would have invited him to eat from all that food you have in there. All the food your guests don’t really need and are wasting more of it on the floor than they can put in their mouths.”
“Bad luck for him that it’s not any other earl sitting on that seat, then.”
She stared at him with desperate eyes and pled softly, “What would you have me do…? Please, let him go. I’ll do anything you ask.”
“You will do that for me, regardless. All I need is to signal you, and you’d come running. You’ve got nothing to bargain with, Natir.”
Natir sat with her back against the wall and her palms covering her face.
He crouched next to her and asked softly, “Why are you taking it so hard? He brought this on himself and you’ve got no fault in it… He’s just a thief.”
Sobs rising in her throat, Natir fought the urge to cry. “My mother was a thief. They hanged her, just like you’re about to hang that boy… And it was all my fault.”
“How was it your fault?”
“She did it for me… We were poor. Farmers. At our happiest days we could barely make ends meet. Then sickness came and everything fell apart. It took everyone, our whole family was wiped out. Then, like a bad joke, it spared only my mother and me. We were like the un-cremated bones of the carcass of our family. Nothing about what happened to us afterwards could be called living. We couldn’t feed ourselves. We couldn’t meet the payments. Then, when I was ten, the debtors came for me and sold me to the pleasure house… My mother couldn’t take it, I was all that she had left. So she stole some money hoping to buy me back. And they hung her for it.”
“They hang people for stealing money where you came from?”
“No. It’s the same. But she stole from the wrong person.”
She lifted her face and looked at him with eyes glittering with pain, “I’d give a piece of my flesh to make it stop… Is there nothing I can say or do to make you spare him? Anything? Please.”
Alfred pat her knee, “Come watch the show. It’s good for the heart.”
He headed back into the house.
Her chest heaved out of control as she witnessed her pleas fall like drops of rain over a heart of stone, and she called after him, aloud and with a hurtful, trembling voice.
“IS THAT AN ORDER, SIR…? DO YOU WISH FOR THIS SLAVE TO WATCH YOUR SHOW?”
He stopped at the door and said before he walked inside, “No. Just an invitation.”
Overwhelmed by despair, Natir pulled on her bangs then buried her face in her palms.
She lived through this horrid time with silence in the air and pain squeezing her raging chest.
The cheers rose, and her heart exploded.
She wept straight from the heart and felt the nausea turn her stomach so hard she almost threw up.
Her pain was vast, yet her moment of grief had to be cut short.
Having lived in semi-confinement for most of her life, within a single group, Natir knew better than to let herself be seen so indifferent from the rest. So, she tried her best to get a hold of herself.
She sniffled and took a handful of snow to melt in her hands and wipe her face with then she sucked in deep breaths of cold air and forced her body to move as she headed back inside.
With gloom and her face down, she entered the hall.
It was still empty, and she couldn’t really focus on the world around her for that her senses were still hazy with strong emotions, but after a few steps Natir stopped and looked back as she noticed something which alarmed her.
At the entrance from which she had come, there was a trail of water, snow and blood.
She slowly followed the trail with her eyes from the door, beneath her feet, and all the way into the belly of the hall where a man whom she had never seen before was still making his way, limping, towards Alfred’s throne.
The man had one hand pressed against his side, and he dragged a large sack with the other.
Something didn’t feel right.
The silence was very intimidating as she moved in cautiously and took herself a place by one of the pillars, never taking her eyes off his back.
His motions were odd, and he seemed disoriented, as though he didn’t know where he was. He slowly turned his face left and right and then turned around and looked at her.
The instant she met his gaze, Natir felt a chill run down her spine. The man had the look of a thousand deaths in his eyes.
He tried to speak but his voice betrayed him several times.
“The earl—” He collapsed right after.
Natir gasped and rushed to him; she got down on her knees and shook him.
“You all right? Sir? Sir? Are you all right?”
He wasn’t responding.
Natir froze and slowly turned her face. She hadn’t noticed that she had had her other hand pressed against the sack which caused a cold, thick liquid to ooze from underneath the burlap.
She drew her hand back and looked at the glutted blood tainting her palm then, very cautiously, she opened the sack.
The hair on the back of her neck rose in awe.
Natir was overtaken by hysteria, so much so that she didn’t feel her own legs as she ran to the door and screamed.
“HELP, HELP, SOMEBODY HELP!”