It began to snow.
Surrounded by the dark and gentle snowflakes descending from the sky before his eyes, Alfred sat alone with his back to the Thieves’ Tree, sad with his face down and an old blanket on his shoulders, looking like a begger in the night.
A noise interrupted his solitude.
He raised his face but did not look back at her. “Keelin?”
Standing right behind him with her shoulder to the tree, Keelin watched over him. She responded softly, “How rare to see you so withdrawn, my Alfred.”
“My heart aches for Natir.”
“Then I shall comfort it.”
He dropped his face, his voice hoarse with sorrow. “This business I’ve sent her on. I don’t know. I feel doubt. Something doesn’t feel right about it. I did not think this one through, Keelin, and the more I think about it now, the more foul it seems. So foul, I can almost smell it.”
He let out a troubled sigh. “I wish you were with her. I wish you were watching over her.”
“But I’m not.”
“Yes… You didn’t answer my call.”
“I always answer. But that doesn’t mean it’s something I want to do.”
“I should not have sent her.”
“Still, it was you who sent her.”
“Foolish Volk forced my hand.”
“Still, it was you who sent her.”
“Yes.” He admitted after a pause, swallowed a lungful of the cold night air and looked up onto the sky. “If she doesn’t return, I will paint my tree with Volk’s blood. And yours.”
Keelin came in front of him.
She spread her legs and slowly knelt down, mounting him and removing the blanket from over his shoulders.
“I know,” she said with a tender breath as she stripped herself topless, wrapped her arms around his head and came down at him, kissing him ever so gently.
Alfred looked into her eyes. “Your touch is as cold as ever.”
“How mean,” she whispered with a voice as soft as the snowflakes caught in his hair and leaned down against him and spread his lips with her tongue once again.
As the intensity of their kisses grew swiftly, her passion became more furious.
She sucked on his lips with the thirst of an animal and rocked her body over him in every way as her hand snuck down in between them, reaching for him and taking him into her flesh.
So intense her passion had become, it melted the falling snowflakes on impact and sent drops of maiden-pure water running ever so beautifully down her skin as her voice called the night with ever-yearning moans.
* * *
Using the trees, Natir played a deadly game of cat and mouse.
She moved restlessly in between the trunks, shifting behind them for cover whenever it attacked and sending her broken spear at her assailant from behind the branches at every chance.
Many times the bloody claws came close enough to snatch a piece of her, and just as many times she got lucky and evaded it in the nick of time.
With a line of trees between them, the beast looked for an open space to jump to her side and attack, but Natir wouldn’t allow it; she anticipated its movements and faced it at every opening.
The beast moved to the right and back to the left, watching how her spearhead follow its movements.
It paused for a moment and looked past Natir with a low grunt.
Panting for air and with her eyes never losing sight of it, Natir gasped with shock and momentarily peeked over her shoulder as she realized the creature was eyeing her torch.
It retreated backwards then sprang out her way. Natir yelped and instinctively drew her arms in, protecting her body with the spear.
The beast swung around like lightning and, aiming for the torch, it darted forth from beside Natir, causing her to spin and fall as the forest was sent back into pitch darkness.
She scrambled for the spear in the snow and found it just in time and rolled away from danger when the creature screamed past her.
Her luck had run out.
Her game was over once it had killed the torch. Natir could no longer see her own hand in front of her face, much less where the beast was.
Overtaken by rage, she spun around as blind as a bat and bellowed with all her voice, “I WILL NOT BE FRIGHTENED BY THE DARK. I WILL NOT GIVE YOU MY BACK. And if I can’t see you then you, as sure as the sun rising again, can see me. So come, and hurry with it.”
The beast roared and splintered the branches with its body as it made for her.
The noise advised her of the right direction and she blindly thrusted her spear into the dark, trusting to luck, and landed a hit, but the monstrous force of the attack was so overwhelming that her strike wasn’t enough to fend it off.
Its body slammed into her and knocked Natir off her feet, sending her flying in the air.
She crashed into a tree and tumbled over the snow, crying with pain; she reached for her lower leg, which felt as if it were engulfed by fire.
Blood came onto her palm, and she drew her hand back and looked at it. She recognized its shape as her eyes began to adjust to the dark and she knew she was injured, but she didn’t know how bad it was nor did she have the time to worry about it.
She got up and limped forward. Her lower leg hurt real bad and she felt her way around with her arm and her feet, trying to make her way towards the distant campfire of Gull’s group in the hopes of getting more light.
Anxious and on full alert, she kept searching for signs of the beast as she went. Then, in a split second, a roar broke out of nowhere and all she could see were the jaws that appeared right in front of her face, closing in on her.
Natir screamed and tumbled backwards as she fell underneath her attacker.
The foul scent of the beast filled the air.
The creature was all over her, and for the next couple of moments she kicked her legs like a mad woman and held the spear in between them with both hands, pushing back the invisible weight that threatened to crush her.
Something punctured her side and she let out a long and piercing scream just before the weight vanished from over her.
Natir immediately attempted to get up when she suddenly realized that the attack wasn’t over. The beast had merely jumped off somewhere and now, in the blink of an eye, it leaped back at her to finish the job before she could fully recover her footing.
She quickly attempted to spin towards it but before she could do anything else, the beast landed on her, pinning her beneath it with her back against the ground, and she lost her spear.
Overwhelmed with panic, she hurled her fists and shot her legs up at the beast in desperate struggle, trying to get away, trying to push it off herself, and feeling the claws cutting her flesh like ten knives in the night.
Her hand landed on a rock and she immediately seized it.
A savage screaming wild, she thrashed the beast across the head with the rock before it could rip off a piece of her throat and again, pushing with her legs and her whole body as her arm shot the rock up into the dark with a trance-like fury and landing strike after strike on its head as swift as lightning.
She’d gone berserk, mad with pain.
Blood, saliva and broken fangs showered her face as she treated the beast with all her might until it finally let go of her.
Howling with madness, she stumbled up to her feet and threw the rock after it.
Injured and unarmed, Natir ran the other way from where it had gone, pain stabbing her injured leg like a knife with every step.
Her hand was on her bleeding side, and she smarted from pain all over. It was as if her thighs and whole upper half were covered with stabs.
She gasped and stopped after a few steps as she recognized the motion in the dark and heard the creature’s sound.
The beast had intercepted her way a little over ten steps away from where she was, eyeing her back and growling like a dog to an intruder.
Unable to put up a fight as she was, Natir intended to hurry the other way before it could jump her again when, suddenly, her foot hit something —her old spear— and she froze with shock.
It dawned on her.
Natir had seen this exact scene happen before.
Her hand to a tree, her mouth sucking lungfuls of cold air into her heaving chest, and not a muscle in her body moved anymore; Natir finally realized: she was wrong all along.
She slowly picked the spear up and turned her face between the creature and the campfire light of Gull’s group—which served as her guide—and told Natir that she was back to the very same place she ran into Viri and Teyrnon at.
“Why are you there?” she called calmly.
Gentle white breaths on her lips, she turned towards the beast. “Why aren’t you attacking?”
The beast snarled.
“You didn’t come here after us, did you…? You came after us because we were here.”
Whenever she would turn any other way, the beast would attack her. It was only when she faced this direction that it just blocked her way.
“What’s there?” She motioned with her head. “What are you guarding?”