A Grain of Respect
Fire guided her way.
With much agony, Natir dragged her battered body, depending on every tree and rock in her path, following the bonfires’ light until she reached the rest of the huddle.
She made it there not long after Gull had defeated the beast. She was close enough to hear their shouts of triumph and realized with much relief that the creature was finally dead.
She inhaled a lungful of cold air and pushed on. Her foot stumbled upon something and she fell forward, but something cushioned her fall.
Natir waved her bangs from over her eyes, and for a moment her mind went numb and she could not understand what she was looking at.
Beautiful white breaths on her lips, Natir reached out with juddering hands and felt the frozen little face with much care.
It was a little girl, even younger than Aina, with stunning beautiful hair of the color of Sand Iris. Her small body tucked amidst a vast pile of ripped flesh, broken bones, blood and frozen corpses, her figure stood out amidst the bloodcurdling scene, looking as perfect as though she had merely shut her eyes and lain down to sleep.
The tears watered her face as Natir fixed the little girl’s hair and then tilted her head back, looking up at all the death gathered before her. Unable to comprehend it. Unable to think of a word for it. And unable to understand what feeling she had, squeezing her heart, for the unmeasurable vastness of it.
She had arrived at the hill of terror.
* * *
Natir went around the hill of flesh, to where the men were, just as Gull pulled her broken spear out of the beast.
Seeing the men rejoicing in such a celebratory atmosphere next to all the dead villagers and the covered corpses of their friends had ignited a fire in her chest, transfiguring all her emotions to rage and masking her face with hatred.
Gull asked, “Whose spear is this?”
“That’s Volk’s.” A man said.
“Volk?” Gull headed towards Earhart, showing the spear in his face. “Where is Milos?”
“I told you, uncle, we got separated.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Nothing! We just...we decided to go our separate ways, that’s all.”
“Now why would Milos do that? And why is it that I find Natir’s spear in that thing? What is it that you’re not telling me?”
Earhart looked away, so Gull pulled him in and hissed, “I’ll ask you again. Where is Milos?”
A handful of snow hit Gull’s back, and Natir shouted, “YOU CALL THIS LEADERSHIP?”
Her cry caused the ruckus to tone down.
They all turned their faces to her as she emerged from between the trees into the light, limping towards Gull.
“Natir!” Teyrnon rushed to aid her as she looked as though she might fall at any moment, but she shoved him out of her way with her forearm.
“What happened to you? You’re all covered with blood.”
“Where did you come from?”
Another asked, “Where is Milos?”
“DEAD,” she shouted at her speaker.
“What nonsense are you spouting, woman? Milos can’t die.”
“Oh, he’s made of flesh. I assure you, he can die.”
Gull glared down at her as she reached him. “How?”
She looked up at him, trembling with so much rage she could barely let the words out.
“There’s a hole the size of that thing’s jaw in his throat, that’s how...JUST LIKE HIM,” she pointed at the dead, “AND HIM, AND HIM. The men you brought into this. The men you called your friends, just this morning, and are now dancing over their dead bodies.”
“Woman, watch your tongue—”
“What’s your problem?”
She slapped him in the chest. “You are my problem. Just look at that!” She pointed at the beast. “Look at it. Is that what men have fought and died for? Does it seem worth it?”
“It’s what we came here for.”
“NO, IT’S NOT! It’s not, and we all know it. But you just don’t care, do you…? HERE—”
She snatched the beast’s head from the man who held it and pushed it into Gull’s hands.
“HERE’S YOUR TROPHY. Another head to hang on your wall. You like it? How many lives have you paid for it? Men who were under your command have paid for it with their lives. They died, all so that you can have this ball of bone in your hands, all so that you can tell another tale of glory.”
“Watch it, woman,” he shouted, “my patience is running thin on you. Letting you accompany us was a mistake from the beginning. This is no place for a woman. What do you understand of how men live and die?”
“I understand just fine that being a man or a woman never stopped the dagger from the heart.”
“BE QUIET. YOU’RE LESS THAN A STEP AWAY FROM CROSSING THE LINE.”
“RAISE YOUR VOICE ALL YOU LIKE, MY VOICE IS LOUDER. GO AHEAD AND SHOUT. SHOUT. SEE WHAT I CARE, SEE IF IT CAN CONCEAL YOUR FAILURE.”
Outraged, he threw the head on the ground and glared at her like a monster.
“I will not warn you again. You really better hold your tongue and shut up before I might do something you will regret. Don’t let my good mood trick you into testing my patience any further. This isn’t the pleasure-house you came from, slut. This isn’t a nice village home behind a ten-foot wall. Out here in the wild, men die all the time. Out here in the wild, death is always just a heartbeat away.”
“Not for nothing. No. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for you. You caused this. You were put in charge, but you were wrong with every decision you made, and they died because of it. ALL OF US WERE PUT IN DANGER BECAUSE OF YOU! YOU! YOU DID THIS—”
She panted, breathless with hate, and waved her forefinger at him.
“You are nothing like your brother. You really care for no one but yourself. I had...I had a mountain of respect and gratitude for you. But now I see that you’re JUST LIKE THE REST OF THEM! AN ANIMAL!”
He slapped her, sending Natir rolling on the snow ten feet away.
His friend shouted, “Gull!”
“Not the face, it’s all she has!”
“Easy now, it’s just a woman. She’s panicked.”
He joked, “Well, it’s not like I hit her for real! I was just patting her to the cheek.”
Surrounded by laughter, the hit made her ears ring and brought tears to her eyes. It was like being struck by a bull.
Natir slipped on snow and fell back down a couple of times as she struggled to get up. She walked back to him.
“You still have something to say?”
Natir looked him in the eye and repeated with defiance, “You were wrong. And it caused men to die.”
Gull smacked her again even harder than before, sending her back onto the ground.
A man whistled for how loud the slap echoed.
Gull shouted, “Let me see you spout that nonsense in my face again. I’ll kill you.”
“Gull, come on. She’s injured.”
“YOU SHUT UP.”
A man joked, “Will someone give her a cock already? That should fix her mood.”
“You’re hitting the wrong end! Their minds are in their butts. She won’t regain her sense like this.”
“Did you see how she fell? Wooh!”
Natir failed to get up. She couldn’t even feel the pain anymore as half her face went numb.
“I think we’re done here,” a man sneered. “Someone help the bitch up.”
A man came to help her, but she groaned aloud and tore herself from his grip. Her shout made them turn their faces back to her with shock.
“What are you doing?”
“Is she getting up again?”
“Enough with the stubbornness, stupid.”
Through much pain, Natir managed to get up on her own and returned to him, with Gull eyeing her from over his shoulder, then he turned towards her when she reached him.
“You were wrong,” she panted, “and it caused men to die.”
He was so enraged, he didn’t hold back this time as his slap sent her spinning in the air.
“What are you doing?”
“Not like that, you want her neck to snap?”
Gull roared, “SHE ASKED FOR IT.”
They looked at Natir, laying face-down, flat on the snow.
“She’s not getting back up after this one.”
Natir still got up.
“Woman, what are you doing? Stay down!”
“Enough with this.”
“He’s not joking, stupid. You’ll die.”
Her whole body trembled like a leaf, and she could barely walk. The beating she received from him was even worse than that she had from the beast.
Yet she still dragged her feet and returned to him once more. Tear-soaked cheeks. Her eye, as the whole side of her face, swollen like dough.
“Natir, that’s enough, he’ll kill you!”
He hissed, “I dare you to say—”
She spat in his face before everyone’s shocked eyes, and with a slurred voice she repeated, “You wer...you were wrong… And it caused men to die.”
He hit her again so viciously that everyone thought in the back of their minds that he had killed her.
It happened again…
No one stood up to stop what was happening.
No one knew when it had gotten so quiet.
And no one was laughing anymore.
It was just sad.
They all watched, mesmerized, as the battered, fragile body, barely clinging to life as it was, faced a man four times her size, only to embrace the pain over and over again.
She stood before him once more, blood on her face and on her teeth, reeling on her feet like a drunk.
“You wer...wrong...men died.”
Shaking with rage, Gull raised his hand to hit again when Teyrnon shouted and raced to grab his hand, “GULL, THAT’S ENOUGH!”
“Enough, she will die for real.”
“Can’t you see she’s injured?”
“For Veles’s sake, she had enough. Really, stop it, you two!”
“She’s only a woman, she doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
“Gull, she’s just a slave, it’s not worth it.”
His arm trembled as Natir eyed him still, waiting for him to hit her again and refusing to ever back off.
He leaned down and hissed in her face, “Whatever.”
Gull left right away and groaned aloud as he hammered a tree with his fist as he went.
Her body reeled to the side so hard that Teyrnon and another man raced to hold her and keep her from falling.
Caught in their arms and trembling all over, she puked a mouthful of blood onto the ground, gasped for breath for a moment then revolted in their grasp, shaking their arms off her.
She dragged her legs to Earhart and stared him in the eye with her face so battered and painted with blood all over, it was scary.
“Take a good look at this, boy. This. Is what earning a grain of respect looks like… And to lose it is a whole lot worse.”
She turned her back on him and two steps later she felt the ground turn to waves beneath her feet.
The whole world blurred beyond recognition right before her eyes and her sight turned in every way, like being swept away by a vortex, and before she could tell what was happening to her, she was embraced by the dark.
Natir fell unconscious with Teyrnon and his friend rushing to catch her before she hit the ground.