In My Stead
They gathered around the sack where a man was examining the wounds on the terribly disfigured human remains they’d discovered inside.
Alfred circled around the scene, holding his chin with his hand. His eyes nailed to the corpse.
“Wolves,” the man declared.
Gull said, “I’ve seen what the wolves have done to many men, but I’ve never seen one bite off half a man’s head like that.”
“What else could it be?”
Volk said, “Unless this resulted from multiple bites and a rock falling over the poor fella’s head then I wouldn’t put my money on a wolf if I were you.”
“A bear, perhaps?”
“The bears are sleeping this time of year.”
“Not all of them, yet, and they are very active right before they sleep for winter.”
Alfred addressed the gathering, “Does no one here recognize either of them?”
“I think I do,” a man said. “The one who fainted, I’ve seen him before. He’s from Kreme, down the river.”
“Kreme?” Alfred turned his face back to the corpse. “That’s a long way to travel on foot.”
Natir and another slave, an old woman, appeared at one of the doors with blood on their hands and gloom on their faces.
Alfred asked, “Is he awake?”
The old woman shook her head. “He won’t be waking up again. I’m sorry, but he’s gone.”
“Dead?” he spat and raised his voice with growing impatience. “Well, did you manage to wake him up before he died, at least? Did he say anything? Speak, woman.”
“No, none of that.”
Natir stuttered, “All he said was: the earl, right before he collapsed. He asked for you, but he never had the chance to finish.”
He waved his hands to his sides. “Just like that? A man walks into my house and falls dead for no reason?”
“No.” Natir poked the old woman, who approached the men with a rag in her hands.
“These are all the things we found on the deceased, sir.” She laid the rag on the table and unfolded it. “I hope you find it helpful. But if you’re asking about what killed him, well, he was wounded very badly. There are scars everywhere and a whole chunk of flesh bigger than a man’s fist is missing from his side.”
Alfred poked about the things she laid before him.
“It wasn’t too recent,” the old woman resumed. “Someone must have ironed the flesh for him days ago, but it only extended his life long enough to get here. There was nothing anyone could have done for him.”
“What’s this?” Volk took a small piece of a bloodied rag from among the items.
“What’s inside, we found it stuck in his wound.”
He unfolded it.
“What is that?” a man asked.
“No. Not a wolf fang.” Volk picked up the small piece of bone and turned it in his hand. “It looks like a tooth.”
* * *
It came as no surprise that the day after the incident more men than ever showed up at Alfred’s hall.
Natir and Volk came in early as they had anticipated that, but there were not enough places to seat the freemen, much less an accompanying slave.
She had no place for herself but to stand by a wall, and even there she soon had a line of men blocking her sight with their backs as more people came in.
She listened to the ongoing conversations.
Rumors had it that Alfred intended to send someone to Kreme to find out about their undelivered message, while others spoke of a rogue bear roaming nearby that must be hunted.
The murmur died down as Alfred and Tarania arrived, so Natir stood on her toes to try and see what was happening.
“Yesterday, I received what I believe is a cry for help from Kreme,” Alfred said. “We’re not entirely sure as, I believe most of you have already heard, the messenger died before completing his task.”
“How do we know that it’s a call for help, not just some traveler who was assaulted on the way?”
Voices of approval rose, and Alfred waved his hand to quiet them.
“Like I said, we just don’t know. But here’s the thing: I don’t recall ever receiving a messenger from Kreme in winter, not in my time, and not in my father’s time. Kreme is simply too far and too deep in the hills for normal matters to bear fruit at such a season, which makes such messages pointless. That’s why this gives me a reason to believe that something important must have happened to justify the unusual move, and I want to know what that is.”
A man spoke, “It’s a long way to Kreme, and even longer in this weather. There are no roads, the path is treacherous, and the snowy hillsides are a horse’s death trap. No messenger will go there cheap.”
“Ah, but I don’t want to send a messenger. I want to send a whole party.” Alfred said, causing the chatter to grow.
Natir couldn’t have heard herself if she had spoken at that moment for the chatter had risen so much, it sounded like she was standing in the rain.
A voice rose above the rest, “To do what?”
Alfred got up and walked among them.
“I’ll tell you… If this really was a cry for help, as I believe it is, then wouldn’t it make sense to go there with a reasonable force, even if a small one. I’m thinking somewhere between ten and twelve strong. It will be just enough to send any bandits terrorizing our poor neighbors running for their lives while avoiding the more expensive resolve.”
“What if it isn’t a matter of bandits? What if the forest surrounding them is infested with wolves?”
Alfred waved his hands.
“Then we’ll know what we’re dealing with.” Said Alfred. “And there isn’t a single man here who doesn’t know how to instruct those ignorant peasants to build proper wolves’ repellants, something that would hold until next spring… Maybe bed their daughters while they work on it!” He caused them to laugh. “I don’t know, I’ve never been to Kreme, are their women worth it?”
“Trust me, they aren’t.”
Another said, “That’s too much trouble in return for the poor tribute the bastards pay. I say we ignore them.”
“Ah, so true, so true. But it doesn’t change the fact that they do pay,” Alfred said. “Just as it doesn’t change the fact that I am their earl. I am the earl of all Toic and all the surrounding villages. Their protection is my business. So, what will happen when I refuse to extend my wing to this village at their time of need, and the one after that, and the one after that…? Will I still be an earl?”
“So, who do you want to send?”
“That’s exactly why we are having this meeting…” he said then raised his voice louder, “I know that many of you are not so enthusiastic about this and rightfully so. If it was me, I’d hate to be assigned to something like this myself. That is why I decided to call for volunteers instead… I will pay a silver quinar for every man willing to accept the job.”
They mumbled with obvious lack of interest.
“What?” Alfred asked. “Is a silver quinar for a work that will probably turn out to be nothing really so little? Or have you all gone so soft that you prefer to hide your cocks in the warmth of your women rather than to go out there and face the world like real men do?”
“I—” A man had just opened his mouth to volunteer when Gull suddenly groaned and threw him out of the way.
“No one steps forth ahead of me,” he roared with rage.
Natir noticed Joyce among the crowd, burying her face in her palms with dismay.
Natir smirked with satisfaction. This had certainly ruined Joyce’s hopes of having the man all for herself this winter, and who knew what else might happen?
Gull stepped forward, glaring at the men left and right. He announced with such strong voice, “I am the first to answer the call! Be it wolves, filthy bandits, bears or all beasts of the night combined for all I care. It’s all the same to me.” He motioned at Alfred. “Let Kreme bring forth their worst nightmare. I’m your man.”
“As am I.” Earhart stood up.
Her son’s declaration sent shockwaves through Tarania.
“Where my uncle rides, trust that I’ll be there with him,” Earhart said, and Gull pat his shoulder with pride.
Sipping from his cup, Volk chuckled sarcastically. Tarania noticed his reaction, it caused her blood to boil.
Alfred pointed at them. “Then the two of you will lead the party. And anyone else who wishes to join them, for TWO silver quinars,” the commotion rose, “should ask for Earhart and Gull’s permission, who will choose only the best to ride by their side.”
Tarania quickly seized the opportunity to pay Volk back.
She intoned, “If it is our best you wish to send, my dearest, then how about we ask Volk to join them?”
Volk choked on his drink as laughter erupted from every corner.
She looked at Volk with a smirk and narrowed eyes. “After all, I don’t recall seeing him volunteer for anything but emptying your jugs for all the past years.”
Alfred laughed with the rest at her obvious machinate.
“As much as I’d love to see that happen, let us not sacrifice our rock so easily, my dear. Volk is needed here.”
“Oh? My mistake.” Tarania shrugged. “I had thought it was exactly for a day like this that you’ve been saving him for. He is our rock, after all.”
Amidst the rising jokes and sarcastic comments, Gull slapped Volk’s back and humored, “How about it, rock, you coming?”
“I’ll lend you my horse!”
Cup in hand and surrounded by laughter, Volk stood up and spun around himself, acting like a drunk as he addressed the crowd.
“Oh, I see what’s going on here. I see it. It’s a joke. A joke about me.”
Laughing, Alfred waved him down. “Sit down, Volk.”
“I will not sit down. Not about this, no… I see what you’re all doing. You think I’m too old for this? You think..you think that I will say no, hunch my back and stay quiet and have you all laugh at me, is that it?”
“It’s fine, Volk, sit down.”
“So, are you going?” Tarania asked.
“Of course I am. Let it be known to all of you that when duty calls, and the wolves, and bears, and,” he signaled at Gull, “All the other things he said. When they call, Volk, too, shall answer.”
Natir covered her face with her palm. She couldn’t watch. Volk was making a joke out of himself again, this time in front of the whole village.
“Oh really?” Tarania suppressed a laugh. “You’re not going to get sick at the last moment and they end up leaving a man short?”
“Not a chance!” He growled then turned to the people around him. “You all want to see me go?”
Their voices rose, encouraging him.
“You all want me, your rock, to lend this pity party of weaklings, my might…? Well then, you’ve got it. I will show you that there’s more than one way this old boar can fight. Yes, I will show you all what a small fraction of me can do.”
He turned to Tarania and bowed lightly.
“I accept your call. And I’m aiding this party,” he then spun around all of a sudden, shouting and pointing Natir out with his hand, “by sending, in my stead, MY SLAVE, NATIR THE ATTEE.”
Alfred, Tarania, Diva and Agatha, all of them had their faces darken in an instant.
And Natir? Natir felt her eyes about to pop out of her head. She couldn’t believe what he just did.
An awkward silence steadily took over the hall, save for a murmur of confused comments.
“Volk has a slave?”
Natir peeked left and right and cowered down in her spot, wanting nothing more than to turn invisible that instant.
“VOLK?” Alfred roared.
Tarania’s joke had backfired terribly. She was in a pinch with her eyes are darting in panic between Alfred’s face and Volk.
Someone summoned a pretended laugh. “Volk, relax, we were just messing with you.”
“Well, I’m not messing with no one,” he shouted. “No, not with my honor on the line.”
“The deal is that you go yourself.”
“And I just did that. Is it not my property that I’m sending? Don’t I own my living, breathing slave as much as everything else that is mine? As much as I own my chest, my arm, my mind, and my own self? Is it not all part of who I am…? Who here dare tell me what I can and cannot do with my legs? Then why not my slave as well? No, none of you can.” He motioned at Alfred. “Not even an earl can claim such a right.”
Alfred approached him and hissed in his face, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Volk shrugged. “All that I’m doing is sending a small part of me to answer the call of honor.” He turned to the rest. “So, there you have it, Volk has joined this party. I have! And no one here can say I didn’t.”
Tarania grimaced. She ripped Volk to shreds with her eyes and hissed on a breath of fire, “You wish to arm a slave? Have you gone mad?”
“No, no, no, not a slave. Who will do something so ridiculous? I’m arming my slave, an extension of myself. Just like this arm. You see it?”
Volk then raised his cup in a toast like rubbing dirt in her face. “Like I told you, there’s more than one way this old boar can fight.”
* * *
Natir chased after Volk into the corridor, where he walked like a drunk and sang even clumsier.
He entered a room, so she quickly glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one was roaming close by then barged in after him.
“Have you lost your mind?” Natir yelled, but before she could vent her wrath upon him, she was startled to her toes when Alfred appeared out of thin air, clutched Volk’s neck in his hand and nailed Volk against the wall.
Alfred turned his face to her and hissed like a monster, “Leave.”
Never had Natir seen a man so mad before. It filled her with fear and sent her retreating on her heels, leaving the two of them alone.
* * *
Natir waited outside Alfred’s house for a while, rubbing her upper arms against the cold, but neither Volk nor Alfred showed up.
She decided to head back to Volk’s house and wait for the news there as she was worried about leaving Aina all by herself for too long.
The fury she saw in Alfred’s eyes was more than enough to assure her that everything was going to be all right. He was going to fix what the feud between Volk and Tarania had ruined and not allow this joke to move a step further.
* * *
Natir killed time making a common toy for Aina until Volk returned. His shirt was ripped at the neck line and he had a big bruise to his face which told her he had gotten what he deserved.
She welcomed him with a frown and arms folded across her chest. “Well?”
“There was, some talk.”
“And… You’re going.” He dropped the news on her and hurried inside, attempting to escape the conversation.
Her jaw dropped. “SAY WHAT?”
Volk made his way to a mattress which he kept on the first floor —to be used in times of injuries or crippling intoxication— “It’s very late,” he said, not slowing down, “I’m not getting into details at such hour.”
“Volk? You wait right there.”
“We’ll talk in the morning.”
“We will talk now.”
Natir chased him, flapped the curtain open to where he slept, and found that he had already snuck under the covers with his back towards her.
“What does that mean? No, what in Veles’ name were you thinking?”
“I said we’ll talk in the morning.”
“So you’ve got issues with Tarania, and I’m the one who always pays the price for it? You want me to die, is that it?”
“Natir, it’s late.”
“What did Alfred say about this…? I asked, what did Alfred say? You said there was a talk.”
“Alfred said nothing!” He shouted and pulled the cover over his head. “We’ll talk in the morning. Now, let me sleep.”
She glared at him for a while before she flapped the curtain shut, and for hours that night she paced the house back and forth, not knowing what to think of the news he had told her and not knowing what to do.