When she opened her eyes again, she was welcomed by so much pain she wished she were dead. Her face was on fire and every fiber of her being screamed with misery.
Natir whimpered in pain and blinked repeatedly, but the image before her eyes did not improve. The clouds above were acting strange, rocking back and forth.
She soon realized that she was strapped to a stretcher, getting dragged by a horse; the ropes binding her were too tight, she could not move her limbs, and half her face was covered with bandages.
“Are you awake?”
The ringing in her head was still there, and she failed to recognize his voice.
Natir peeked to her side when the rocking stopped and realized it was Teyrnon who spoke to her. He had halted the horse and come down, and he waved at his friends to keep going.
“You go ahead, we’ll catch up.”
Teyrnon crouched next to her and brought a Bota-bag near her face. “Here, drink some water.”
It hurt when she opened her mouth to drink, but she was so thirsty she forced herself to it.
“How do you feel, Natir…? The wagon broke down, we had to abandon it and put you on a stretcher instead.”
She asked weakly, “What...wagon?”
“Where are we?”
“We’re almost home. We’ll be back in the village by tomorrow, so you won’t have to bear this for long.”
She looked at him strangely.
“You don’t remember?” She shook her head. “We’ve been on the road for five days now.”
“You don’t remember us putting you in the wagon? I fed you whenever you woke up. We talked.”
It didn’t ring any bells. Natir shut her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose.
“How bad do I look?”
“Compared to me? Stunning.”
She chuckled, and it caused her face to twitch with pain.
“Alfred will not like me anymore.”
“Then you don’t know Alfred.”
“Yes, well, some men are hard for me to read.”
His laughter caused her to chuckle.
“Ah..unn..uh. Don’t make me laugh. It hurts, curse you.”
“You’re the one who made the joke. Anyway, let me have a look.”
Teyrnon removed her bandage and carefully wiped her face with a wet rag. “Oh, wow! Look at that! That is the cutest bruise I’ve ever seen.”
Natir resisted his humor. She shut her eyes and glued her lips together.
“And that scar? Wooh! What a turn on!”
Half a chuckle escaped through her nose, causing her head to jerk.
Teyrnon leaned closer and whispered, “You know, it’s only a rumor, but the word going around is that Alfred has thisss...uncontrollable...passion...for scarred women.”
Natir laughed and cried with pain, both together.
“Seriously, he goes crazy over them.”
“Stop. Stop. It hurts. No more jokes, please.”
“I couldn’t help it.”
“I hate you.”
Teyrnon laughed and wrapped the bandage on her face again. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing like you think. Just a few scratches here and there, and compared to a few days ago, the swelling is almost gone. Give it a couple more days and you’ll be fine.”
“My head feels three times bigger than I remember.”
“You love to exaggerate.”
Natir noticed that she wasn’t the only one on a stretcher. Teyrnon had been left in charge of a herd of them. Their friends’ bodies lay on the rest, wrapped by cloaks and cloth from head to toe in a heartwrenching sight. But then Natir saw one of them move.
She motioned. “Who’s there?”
“Nothing, he just couldn’t ride his horse because of the injury to his shoulder which, by the way, he suffered while saving you from a falling tree.”
Half a chuckle escaped her.
“I was there. I saw the whole thing.”
She shook her head with disbelief. “Still twisting stories?”
“Mm? You tell me you can’t remember the tree, too? The one so big, its twigs were as sharp as spears?”
“Oh, I remember it. I remember the tree. And my gods, do I hope it hurt like a horse’s kick.”
“Well, I guess I should be checking on him later,” he said then looked down at her and winked. “I’ll see to it that it does. You just never know what might accidentally slip my hand and, bam!”
“The rest are,” his tone turned sad, “well… Five men is no small loss.”
Natir grimaced; over half their party were either dead or injured.
She called after a moment, “Teyrnon, that mountain back there, the one near the lake,” she looked at him and asked, “what’s there?”
He sighed. “That’s the cave dwellers’ land… It was a mistake. We shouldn’t have gotten so close.”
“The Daiyans. Ugly people. You wouldn’t like them. Why you ask?”
“I saw something.”
“I… I’m not sure… I don’t know what I saw. But I worry we haven’t seen the last of that thing yet.”
“No, we’ve seen the last of it,” he said, nodding towards the beast’s head, attached to a horse’s side.
“Now, is there anything you need?” he asked, and she shook her head. “Try to get some rest, then. Don’t worry, we’re almost home.”
Natir nodded tiredly.
She turned her face upward and shut her eyes.
“Teyrnon. You abandoned me, Teyrnon.”
He dropped his face.
“…Yes,” he said quietly, and when he looked at her again, Natir had fallen unconscious once more.
She looked so peaceful as she slept. Her chest heaved steadily up and down, a sheen of sweat coated her blazing skin, and an adorable tress of hair adhered to her face.
He reached down and carefully fixed her hair back and pat her head like he would have to a sick child.
“You’ve done enough. Rest for now.”
* * *
Natir woke up screaming with pain.
Her upper half shot up into a sitting position and her hands raced to grab the wound to her side.
“Momma!” Aina yelled.
Confused and pain-stricken, Natir was yet to understand where she was. Who was that old woman sitting next to her? Where did Aina come from, and why was she so angry, shooting the woman with her little fists?
“You hurt Momma! You hurt Momma!”
“Child, be quiet.”
“You’re bad, you got no patience!”
“I got no what? What does patience got to do with this?”
Not all the pain in the world could have stopped Natir from rushing to hold Aina in her arms, repeatedly calling her name and showering her small face with tears and a thousand kisses.
She was back at Volk’s house.
“What an impudent child you have,” the old woman sneered and resumed weaving the scarf she was working on while lecturing Natir. “Make sure the next lesson you teach her is to respect the elderly. Do it now, or she will grow up with no manners at all.”
Natir whimpered and held her side with one hand as she addressed the woman, “Who are you?”
“As if even a worthless slave like you will remember my name by next morning.” She shrugged. “I’m exactly what you see. An old woman. Nothing more, nothing less. They called me to do what old women do best: look after the sick and children.”
Only just now did Natir realize she was naked. She held the cover to herself with Aina still to her bare chest.
“No need.” She turned Natir down, as grumpy as people her age usually are. “Tending to your wounds gave me something to keep myself busy with other than napping all day.”
The old woman then motioned at Natir’s waist without taking her eyes off the knitting.
“Men!” she scoffed. “You’d think they were dealing with a pig or something. I’m surprised someone remembered to clean the wound before they stitched it. Still, it was so bad, I had to cut it open and stitch you up all over again… Does it hurt a lot?”
“Hm, better now than when I was working on it. I thought the pain would wake you up for sure, but you slept through the whole thing. Bless Morana. Remember to offer her your thanks later, I wouldn’t have managed to do this good of a job if you were to move about… The wound to your lower leg is more pain than damage, it will pass just fine. But the one to your waist won’t be without a nasty scar. That’s not good. A woman’s body is her only fortune, and it’s only for a handful of years. You should look after yourself better than this.”
Natir looked around. “Where is Volk?”
She shrugged. “Where men always are! Celebrating something. Celebrating nothing. Any excuse will do so long as drinking is involved. He went to the earl’s house soon after they brought you.”
Natir gazed down silently for a while then made up her mind. “Where are my clothes?”
“I threw them away.”
“As if it can be called clothes anymore! It smelled like death and was soaked in so much blood that the wool hardened. There was no washing something like that.” She peeked at Natir. “Why do you want them?”
“I have to be there. I have to see Alfred.”
“Watch your tongue, slave. Who do you think you are?” she warned. “Slaves’ heads have rolled for less. When you speak of the earl, you call him the earl. You never refer to him by his first name. Did no one teach you nothing?”
Natir froze. She had only just realized that she never referred to him as anything but Alfred, and yet not once did he correct her.
It made her more determined. “I must see him.”
“Nonsense. That wound will open if you move so soon.”
“Please, can you get me my clothes? I have another dress on the upper floor.”
The woman clearly wasn’t going to help Natir hurt herself.
“You want an old woman to climb that dangerous ladder? Now I see where your child got her manners from.”
Natir tried to get up and get it herself, but the pain sent her back down.
“The wound will open,” she warned again, still weaving. “You can’t go up there. I can’t go up there. And neither can the child, so lie down and rest.”
Natir held the cover to her body and told Aina to wait, then bit on her lips and forced herself up.
“It will open. I will not stitch you up again.”
“I have to be there.”
She secretly watched Natir struggling through so much pain to raise her foot to the first step alone.
The old woman exhaled and raised her voice, “Cut it out, you fool, and get back here before I might smack you.”
Natir stopped and looked at her.
The woman went to get something, mumbling to herself, “Stubborn. Stubborn and foolish. If you were half as stubborn seducing a good man for yourself, you’d be the solitary companion to the king of the world by now!”
She returned with new clothes in her hands.
Something about it felt familiar.
Natir unfolded it and found in her hands a full set of clothes, footwear, and arm-bracers of wolf-skin.
It wasn’t just any clothes. This wasn’t something Natir could dream of affording or ever hope to find something like it in a market; it was very well made and beautiful like a work of art.
The leather was dry tanned with the ideal timber-brown color, and the vest was hardened into true armor, perfect for her size. Symmetrical and floral designs were tooled over every inch of its face, dressed in flawless contours and shading like a true painting.
The wolf’s silky fur was facing the inside for warmth, but at the edges and all along one shoulder it was flipped so that the fur was facing the outside, giving it an attractive design, and where there was no fur on the inside a layer of a fine woolen fabric was added.
Natir could spend a night out in a blizzard with no cloak or campfire and survive wearing this thing alone.
The buttons and buckles were of pure copper, and the pieces were stitched together not with a woolen thread but braided leather cords as strong as steel.
It was just too perfect to be real. What Natir held in her hands could only be the work of spirits.
She gasped as it suddenly dawned on Natir where she had seen it before: This was the very same piece of fur she was holding to her chest the night she met Diva for the first time.
Her face darted to the old woman, lost for words.
“The silent woman brought it earlier,” she said, smiling. “I heard that she confined herself in her room for days, working on something. Only the gods know how she did it, the tooling alone would’ve taken three craftswomen a fortnight to make something so fine… As you may have already guessed, she said nothing.”
She returned to her place and resumed weaving.
Natir didn’t waste a moment. She put the new clothes on in a hurry, took Aina’s hand and limped towards the door.
She stopped to thank the woman before she left, but the old woman pretended she didn’t hear her.
She smiled with gratitude and headed out.
* * *
When she arrived in Alfred’s hall, she noted that the place was full of more attendees than she could ever remember.
A great celebration was being held, with laughter, joy, shouts and drinks at every corner.
The tables had been rearranged to make a large space in the middle, and at the center of it all was the beast’s head, decorated with necklaces for mockery and wedged to a spear. From all around it the dancers leapt and laughed and swayed in a salacious show of sweat-coated, half-bare bodies.
Gull was the loudest, getting hyper from telling the tale of his fight with the demon.
He grimaced and went quiet when he saw her at the door and slowly took back his seat.
His friends followed his gaze.
Volk noticed her, too, and he buried his face in his palm with disbelief.
Alfred and Tarania stopped chatting and set their eyes on her, and so did everyone who saw her.
They were all but shocked to see her in there, and in no time at all the awkward mood swept over the hall.
The chatter ended. The laughter went down. The music stopped playing, and even the dancers stopped in their tracks, confused and turning their faces left and right trying to figure out what must have happened as the hall fell into utter silence.
Aina was frightened by the sudden change and clung closely to her mother’s leg.
Natir did not anticipated this hostile atmosphere, but she was already there, and she was still determined to speak to Alfred.
Intimidated by the silence, she limped inside, nervous to the core and holding Aina’s hand tight.
Many faces she recognized.
Many she didn’t.
Hundreds of eyes penetrated her like spears from all around every step of the way, and the echo of her footsteps was the only sound in the whole place.
She sat next to Volk, feeling secretly grateful for the bandage she had on her face as she didn’t dare to look up from the floor or even send one peek in Alfred’s direction.
Gull had his eyes nailed to the table with a hard expression on his face as he lived through a harsh inner-struggle.
All of a sudden, he let out a groan and stood up, throwing his drink onto the floor and causing one of the dancers to yelp and jump away to avoid the wine splashing her legs.
He then held his cup in his fist and hammered it to the table with a loud clang.
It startled Natir and she looked at him, confused.
He did it again.
Teyrnon was the first to follow suit. He too splashed his drink onto the floor and tapped his cup to the table, gradually falling into rhythm with Gull’s clanging, then came the men from their party, and within moments the dancers’ screams and laughter filled the air as they leapt left and right on the slippery floor, trying to avoid the flood of wine sent at their feet from all around as everyone in the hall emptied their drinks one after another and tapped their cups to the tables.
Some deliberately showered the dancers’ bodies with their drinks, soaking them with sweet red and sending sharp feminine shrieks and wild laughter out of their mouths. And the music played loudly once more.
Earhart tapped his cup, but he did so halfheartedly, as though forced to it.
Volk’s face darted left and right, overwhelmed with shock as the hall was sent back to its glorious ruckus and beyond.
Aina was so taken by the thrill of what was happening, like being introduced to a new game. She grabbed a spoon and clanged it to the table with childish excitement.
Natir became stiff as a log. She did not see any of this coming. This was more than a dream. It was an impossibility, happening right before her shocked eyes.
Just a few steps back she walked in through that door, exactly the same as she had done through a thousand doors before it, believing she’s worth less than the dirt anyone else walks on, only to find herself now being celebrated in a manner that surpassed her wildest dreams.
She didn’t know what to do.
Her face as red as an apple, she could raise her gaze no more. Her embarrassment only grew as Volk stood by her side and began waving his hands left and right, taking credit and making a fool out of himself.
And through the deafening cries, the music, the noise and the laughter, Natir could hear it so clearly: Alfred’s voice, laughing his heart out.