Natir approached Teyrnon as he bandaged his hand. “Let me help you.”
“It’s okay, I got it.”
“Does it hurt?”
He laughed with agony. “The bitch punched a hole right between my thumb and palm. Worst place possible! Of course it hurts, I can’t even close my fist.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Gull said to the men around him, all gathered around the corpse, “Look at that. It doesn’t look like a wound.”
“I can’t see.”
“I’m not touching that thing.”
Natir, her interest piqued, massaged Teyrnon’s shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
She joined the gathering and covered her nose from the smell. The sight of the maimed girl was even worse in broad daylight than Natir had thought. She was demonic in every way.
Earhart pulled a long knife and turned what was left of the girl’s head with it to reveal the part Gull had pointed out.
On one side of the girl’s face large parts of her skin had hardened, were greenish in color, and were split off the rest of her cheek like scales.
“No, not a wound,” Earhart affirmed. “It looks like something a disease would do.”
A man spat on the ground. “It looks like a leper.”
“What’s with the rotten-eggs smell?”
Earhart wiped his dagger on the snow. “Well, I guess we now know what scared the villagers off. She was possessed by evil. A spirit.”
Gull turned to Natir. “And you said she just attacked you? Nothing else happened?”
“Yes. Just as I told you before, she kept saying that she’s hungry then she jumped us.”
He turned to someone else. “Did you search the house? Was there anyone else inside?”
“No, it’s just a trashed house.”
Natir asked, “What about the other houses?”
“There wasn’t much to find. It’s just a few houses and all of them are abandoned.”
“I’ve had enough of this disgusting thing,” Earhart said. “Let’s throw it back inside and set the house on fire.”
Gull turned to his horse. “We need to find the villagers, fast.”
Natir spaced out with what Earhart had said and the men’s words still on her mind. Then, just as they were dragging the corpse back inside, she shouted, “Wait!”
“What?” They stopped.
She nodded at the house. “They already had her locked inside. The place was shut-solid.”
“So, why didn’t they burn the house down?”
The man shrugged. “They just didn’t!”
“We’ll know when we find them.”
“Maybe they were scared.”
She motioned at one of them. “But he said he saw another house burnt. They weren’t too scared to burn that one down, were they? So why not this one?”
Gull, who stopped half way to listen, returned to Natir. “What are you trying to say, woman?”
She hesitated. “I...I’m not sure yet. I’m just trying to make sense out of this.”
She turned to the man she had pointed out. “Was there a burnt body in the other house?”
“I didn’t really look.”
“Well, where is it?”
The house he spoke of was reduced to nothing but charcoaled pillars and snow-capped black rubble in between.
Natir searched through the rubble until she was satisfied she hadn’t missed anything.
“You done yet?” Gull asked, sitting nearby and watching her.
“Yes,” she said, her hands as black as charcoal. “There’s nothing. I can’t find any bodies.” She turned to him. “What about the altar?”
A man stood over the pit of the altar, digging through the ash. “Why do I have to do this?”
Natir asked, “Do you see anything? Any human remains in there?”
“Yes. Here’s some human remains for you,” he threw a cow’s skull at Natir’s feet, “It’s your mother, Mooo.”
Gull roared at them, “Enough fooling around.” He turned to Natir. “And you. I’ve been very patient so far, so how about you tell us already what you think you’re doing?”
“Sir, well, the first thing villagers do when it’s a disease or something like...like that girl, is that they panic and burn the house down with everyone in it, we’ve all seen it happen before—”
“Yes, yes, we got that part already. Now make it short, forget the bones and give us the meat.”
Natir had to come out with it. Still hesitant, she summarized, “They did exactly that with the first house. They burned it, but there were no remains in the rubble and the thing they feared didn’t go away—”
“And you think it was the possessed girl?”
“Fine. Go on.”
“Then when they trapped her again in the other house, they didn’t try to burn it the second time. So, I was thinking, maybe fire doesn’t work.”
Gull glared at her and raised his voice, “Woman, is there a shock of wheat in that head of yours? Is this what you wasted my time on?”
“Please listen, it was only one girl, and the villagers are dozens. Fire is their first weapon, if fire worked on her, if that thing feared it at all, then they should’ve been able to—”
“Fire burns everything.”
“Then where are the remains?”
Gull stepped forward, he leaned down at her face and hissed with impatience, “First of all, that house could’ve burnt down months ago for all we know. An accident that has got nothing to do with this. Second, there are no human remains in the altar because those were sacrifices to Veles. He accepts no human offering. And finally, the only reason they could not beat that thing is not because they didn’t have fire and weapons, but because they’re cowards who never tried.”
“You honestly think they never put a fight before giving up on their home?”
“If they had, then they would have killed it, and I wouldn’t have to be here. Now open your ears and listen: Fire. Burns. Everything.”
“What if it doesn’t?” Natir said. “What if the first time failed and that thing escaped unharmed?”
A man raised his voice, “What good is any of this? What are you two even argue about? You must really enjoy sanding out in the cold, don’t you? Who cares why they didn’t burn the house?”
Her voice wasn’t getting to them. It was as if she was speaking a different language. Natir blamed it on her own hesitation as a woman, as a slave, faced by freemen. Not to make herself look a fool, she summoned her courage and let them know what she was thinking, straight forward.
“I am trying to understand what we’re dealing with.” Natir said. “That girl, that thing, is made of something none of us have seen before!” She faced Gull, “Fire is the villagers first weapon. And ours. If it doesn’t work, if that thing wasn’t afraid of it, maybe even immune to it, then I’d certainly want to know that. So that the next time something like this happens, I want to know if the hand with which I strike holds a weapon between its fingers, or not.”
Gull eyed her briefly. He hummed then instructed his men, “This I would love to see… Put that thing on the altar.”
Natir was shocked, “You’re going to disgrace an altar? Sir, that’s a demon’s...something’s corpse!”
“If it’s not used for an offering then it’s just another hole. Either way, I don’t care. Get the wood.”
They put the corpse on the altar, started the fire and watched it burn.
Gull had had enough. He glared at Natir and intoned meanly, “Fire burns everything.” He headed to his horse, disappointed. “We’re done here.”
“Nice try, Natir,” Earhart said as walked by.
“You almost convinced me,” another said.
“Last time I listen to a woman.”
Gull raised his voice, “And will somebody throw a torch into that house already? If we hurry, we might catch up with the villagers before sunset.”
The looks the men gave Natir disheartened her gravely.
Teyrnon approached Natir and put a rag in her palms, to clean the black off her hands and face. He tightened his grip on her hand as he handed the rag over to her, silently comforting her before he, too, went for his horse.
Natir trailed his back with her eyes then turned to the altar where the fire burnt the flesh off the bones right before her eyes.
She was wrong.
But it also didn’t make any sense.