Natir trailed behind the rest.
She was distraught, thinking about what had happened back in the village and where she had gone wrong.
Teyrnon slowed down. He rode next to her. “You’re all right?”
“You don’t look like it.”
“How am I supposed to look after what we’ve just been through?”
“Yes,” he chuckled, “that thing scared the life out of me too.”
She only dropped her face in response.
He started again, “You know, I don’t think anyone I know of can say they’ve ever encountered a real demon before.”
“Is that what it was?”
“What else could it be? It was either that or someone possessed by something. Either way, drop this mask of gloom and look at the bright side: you’ll now get to tell everyone the story of how you bravely fought against a demon.”
Natir rolled her eyes. “Yes, right! Well, I didn’t fight anything, I just ran, and all that you did was get bitten.”
“That’s not how it happened in my version of events,” he said, causing her to raise an eyebrow.
Teyrnon teased her further, “As I recall it, it was me who was the first to rush into the jaws of danger to save the defenseless damsel in distress.”
A chuckle escaped her. “Don’t you mean a slave in destress?”
“A beauty nevertheless. That’s all that counts in this kind of story.”
“Riiight! Please pardon my ignorance.”
Teyrnon resumed, with hand signals to match his tale, “Then, I took her trembling soft body in my arms—”
“You what? When?”
“And whispered tender words of encouragement into her ear, and the innocent soul looked at me with eyes glittering with hope and gratitude then she threw her arms around me and clung her body to mine so desperately, not even the water could run in between us—”
“As I selflessly shielded her from evil with my own flesh, I almost sacrificed my own hand to protect her when the sly demon took the chance to attack me from the back—”
She interrupted, laughing, “Stop! Just stop it! That’s not what happened!”
“It’s not, you’re already twisting the facts. You kicked me.”
“I didn’t kick you.”
“Then you hit me with...something! You almost broke my arm. That’s not even how you were bitten, that happened when—”
“Look, you tell your story, I tell mine.”
“You’re twisting the facts.”
“No such thing, it’s totally accurate.”
Natir covered her mouth, suppressing a laugh.
She looked at him, unable to wipe the silly smile off her face as she tried to determine if he could be trusted with her thoughts or not.
She leaned toward him and whispered, “Promise to keep the secret out of your version of the story.”
He made a gesture, waving his hand as though to tell her not to worry.
“When that thing came after me, I think I peed myself a little.”
He cracked a laugh.
She said, embarrassed, “Hush, keep it down.”
“This will totally be in my story.”
“You won’t dare.”
“You bet I will.”
“You won’t. I’ll hate you forever,” she said, laughing, then motioned towards Gull. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter how far you can twist the facts, in the end the story is all about him. He gets the credit.”
“Oh, this reminds me of a story my father used to tell. There was an old man who wanted to teach his three sons a lesson in life, so he gathered them together and told them: let your strongest come forth—”
Natir rolled her eyes. “I know that one.”
“So, the strongest son came forward and he gave him an arrow and told him to break it, and so he did—”
“I said I already know it, don’t be boring.”
“Now hold on—”
“He gives him ten arrows and the son can’t break them, and the old man says: you’re like the arrows, weak by yourselves, but strong together—”
“Just listen. Next, he gave him five arrows and told him to break them—”
“Just listen, okay? So, he gave him five and told him to break them, and so he did—”
Natir huffed and rolled her eyes. She prepared herself to hear the boring tale for the thousandth time.
“The old man then gave his son ten arrows and said: Now try to break all of these… And so he did—”
Natir raised an eyebrow at him and listened with interest to this new twist on the old tale.
“The old man was surprised by his son’s abnormal strength. Nevertheless, he was determined to teach them the lesson. So he gave his son twenty arrows next, and, snap, the son broke all of them together, just as easy! Now, the old man was in dismay, so what he did is that he brought a whole pile of arrows, sticks and spears and said: Now let’s see you try to break all of these! And he did it again…! The old man then looked at his other two sons and said: SO LONG AS YOU HAVE THIS MULE FOR A BROTHER, YOU’LL BE JUST FINE!”
Natir cracked up with a wild laugh that made everyone look back at her.
“Will you two keep it down?”
“Sorry! I’m sorry!” She struggled to pull herself together.
Teyrnon said, “Keep your voice down.”
Chuckling, she said, “I couldn’t help it. That was hilarious, curse you.” She sucked a deep breath. “So, I take it that twisting tales is your thing?”
He shrugged. “You’re missing the moral of the story.”
“The story is about unity! You twisted it, there is no moral behind this version of yours.”
He whispered while secretly motioning with his head, “Think again.”
She realized that it was Gull he was pointing out; she looked back at him with puzzle on her face.
“We got the mule,” he winked, “and you’ll be just fine.”
He then rode ahead, leaving Natir behind in a state of bedazzlement.
Natir smiled ear to ear and shook her head. She couldn’t believe how easily she had fallen into his trap, and she felt glad that she did.
The smooth-talker didn’t just raise her spirit, but he also made her feel so safe in an instant that she couldn’t believe it.
* * *
Natir halted her horse and tried to peek ahead to see what’s going on. She then followed the lead of the men nearby and led her horse to the front.
They stood over a snow-covered slope in the ground that oversaw the broken remains of two carts and a wagon.
“I’ll go check it out,” Earhart volunteered.
“Go with him. The rest of you stay put,” Gull instructed.
Swords at hand, Earhart and his friend went through the carts, wood debris, and shattered clothes.
Natir fidgeted anxiously. The slope was too easy for the vehicles to overturn, even with the snow.
What confused her even more was that she could clearly see some valuables, steel, and copper items and even new clothes among the debris. They were things that bandits wouldn’t leave behind. The only thing she couldn’t see was food. All the baskets and boxes were empty.
“I’ve found the villagers!” Earhart declared.
Natir looked attentively as Earhart threw a cover aside and raised, by the hair, the remains of a torn man.
She felt a chill run down her spine. It was a monstrous sight. Nothing was left of the man but his head, attached to an empty half-shell of what used to be his chest.
* * *
“Blood. Blood. Blood,” a man mumbled, staring left and right as he walked through the woods.
He returned to the gathering. “Every here and there I see blood,” he waved his arms, “but where are the bodies?”
“It’s not concentrated in one place.” Earhart pushed off the cart he was leaning on. “They panicked, scattered about, and were hunted down one by one.”
Gull kicked over the remains of the man they’d found. “This is the work of an animal.”
A man said, “This time it’s wolves for sure, a large pack.”
“I don’t know,” Gull said. “I see no traces that a wolf pack would leave behind, and the wounds this one suffered are too deep to be caused by a wolf. This is more like what a bear can do.” Gull then motioned towards the woods. “But then again, I see no bear tracks, either. The blood traces where they each fell are too close to have been killed by just one animal, and bears don’t usually hunt in big groups to begin with.”
“We must go back,” Natir said.
“Go back?” Earhart frowned at her.
“The people we came to save are all dead. There is no point to this anymore, we must go back.”
Earhart came closer. “Go back and say what?”
“That we wasted our time freezing our butts out in the cold for nothing? Saw a little blood, got scared, and turned back with our tails between our legs? Is that what you want everyone to say about us?”
“Do you even have the slightest idea how this world works, woman?”
Another man said, “Well, I’m not going back. Go back empty-handed and Alfred will offer you an empty hand in return. I came for the money, I’ll stay for the money.”
“Look, fine, just,” Natir waved her hands nervously, “let us just find a clue as to what the culprit was before it gets dark, take it with us and head back home. You said it was wolves, what do you need to prove it?”
“Yes. What else are we supposed to do? Take revenge on every animal in the forest? Return with a bunch of wolves’ heads on spears? No one is expecting us to do anything like that.”
One of them approached her, a man called Milos.
He was an ox of a man with an intimidating figure, a large head, and broad, powerful shoulders. He kept no beard, but his enormous red mustache looked as if its ends exploded at his cheekbones, like big stains to his face.
He said, “Woman, what are you panicking about?”
“I’m not panicking, I’m only—”
“Look at me. It doesn’t take eyes to see what panic looks like, and I’ve been watching you for the past few days. This is not your normal self. Tell me, what’s going on inside that small head of yours?”
Natir exhaled and looked away.
“Answer me, slave. Finish what you started.”
“Well? You’re going to answer Milos or not?”
Gull said, “If you got something to say then now is the time. Otherwise you better never open that mouth again until we’re back in the village.”
Natir hesitated. She really didn’t want to share what was on her mind, but she was pushed back into a corner.
She addressed Gull, hoping that he’d give her a break, “This is the work of the thing we found in the village.”
Every man was already giving her a deaf ear.
“It has to be,” she explained in a hurry. “Look, there were two of them, one of them was the one we found, the other escaped the fire somehow. It’s why they fled out here in the first place.”
“I’m not listening to this.”
“This isn’t something bandits would do. Just look around you, no one would leave all these things and walk away with a trophy of corpses! And if it were the animals then where are their tracks? Where are the wolves’ bodies? Couldn’t tens of villagers kill even one of them? And the villagers bodies, where are they? There’s nothing of them left.”
“Enough,” Gull roared at her. He then said, shaking his head from side to side, “We’ve heard you. Now you will keep the rest to yourself. You want to go back? By all means, please do so. And anyone here who feels the same is welcome to join her. As for me, I’m not going back until I get to the bottom of this.”
Natir looked at their faces. They all resented her. Not one of them was going to accompany her back.
She gave up, walked to a large stone and sat on it, burying her face in her hands and letting them do as they wanted.
“Night will be upon us soon,” Gull said. “We’ll camp here. Animals, bandits, even demons must return to their hunting ground. And that’s when we’ll get them… All killers return to the hunting ground.”