Not A Step Closer
Since her return, Natir had had her mind set on one thing: having a talk with Alfred no matter what.
And now, emboldened by the confidence of a free-woman and armed with the other night’s event, her determination had only gotten heartier.
She had spent every hour of her recovery time over the past two days counting the moments to when she could accompany Volk to Alfred’s next feast and preparing for it in her head, imagining a thousand scenes of how the event would unfold and what she would say.
For once in her life, Natir felt the world going her way. But when she was finally there —dressed in the new outfit Diva had made for her— Natir had found nothing but disappointment as Alfred didn’t show up for much of the night, until she doubted that he would.
Natir sat quietly on her seat, close to the throne, discontent and toying with her untouched food.
“Natir,” Tarania called, “I don’t believe you have yet told us your story of what happened at Kreme.”
Tarania’s request gained the interest of several faces.
With her bandage concealing half her face, Natir summoned a smile. “I’m not much of a storyteller, I’m afraid. But I’m sure everyone else had it covered.”
“You were with my son at the time, were you not?”
Natir peeked at Earhart, who stopped eating.
“Yes. I was lucky to have Earhart and Milos by my side,” she lied through her teeth, “especially Earhart, I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for him.”
“Tell us,” she insisted.
“It was...I’m sorry, I really am bad at this kind of thing and so much happened that I don’t know where to begin. But, in a way, he saved my life. Before we had found the first demon, the one in the village, he was the one who—”
Earhart suddenly left the table.
Natir attempted to stand up a little too fast. The pain sent her back down.
“Excuse me.” She pressed her hand against her wound and went after Earhart.
Natir found Earhart standing outside with his back to her, staring at nothing.
She asked, “Why did you do that?”
“You know what.”
Earhart approached her. His face marred with anger, but he still managed to keep his voice down. “Now you listen to me, filth. Just because I wasn’t lucky to have that animal show up in my way—”
“And kill it myself, it doesn’t mean I need you doing me any favors. So take my advice and keep my name out of your lies or the next time I might smash your skull against the table. You got that, slave?”
Natir frowned. “Haven’t you heard? I’m a free woman now.”
He waved his hand with airy derision and slammed into her shoulder as he passed by her.
She spun after him. “Oh, so I’ll always be on the wrong no matter what I do and no matter what I am, is that it?” She raised her voice. “We both know what happened out there, Earhart.”
“I’m not the one who abandoned the other,” she panted. “I’m just the one willing to put it all behind me. Don’t misunderstand, I’m neither afraid of you nor was I trying to do you any favors in front of them. I just want us to move on.”
Earhart returned to her and fumed, “Just what is it that you want from me?”
“I just told you!”
“Nothing! I want nothing from you! Just let there be peace between us, that’s all I’m asking.”
“You want peace? Then stay OUT OF MY WAY. That’s your peace.” He waved his forefinger at her. “I will not warn you a second time, don’t you ever interfere with me again. Now leave me alone.” He headed back inside. “I have bigger problems to worry about than another one of Alfred’s sluts.”
Jaw dropped, Natir was left standing alone outside; she cursed and kicked a mound of snow.
When Natir returned into the hall, she saw that Earhart had taken a corner with some of his friends. All of them looked discontent and were arguing quietly about something.
Natir ignored him and took her seat, with Tarania watching her from her first step to the last.
“Is everything all right?”
Natir drank a sip and feigned playfulness, “Well—”
Tarania raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
“A little gratitude was in order.”
Tarania clearly didn’t fall for it. Still, she gave Natir a threatening glare, as if she had thought Natir intended to steal a necklace from around her neck.
“Keep it to the minimum,” Tarania hissed.
Just then, Alfred entered the hall. Natir’s face brightened, but only for a brief moment. Alfred was in the worst mood she could have possibly hoped for as he made his way to his throne in a hurry, yelling at the man who followed him.
“I’m done with this nonsense!”
“I said NO!”
The scene stole the attention, and Earhart immediately made his way to them.
Still taking in the situation, Natir recognized the man following Alfred as one of Earhart’s friends —who had caused a fight the first time she accompanied Volk into the hall—.
The look on Alfred’s face told her that something was not going to end well; whatever Alfred was mad about, it must have been some very serious business.
Tarania looked away when he sat next to her.
He hissed, “How much longer do I have to endure this? Look at me, woman!” She looked at him. “Put, an end, to this.”
“I don’t rule over your men’s hearts. The whole village is divided about this.”
“The whole village? Or is it your son who’s leading the uprising?”
Tarania responded by turning her face away.
Agitated by his friend’s failure, Earhart exchanged but a quick word with his friend before he approached Alfred directly to ask him himself this time, causing Alfred to bury his face in his palm.
“If we keep turning our backs on this any longer, we’ll be making a joke of ourselves,” Earhart said quietly, but Alfred didn’t respond. “You have to make a stand. Ardent must be stopped.”
“Stopped from doing what?” Alfred shouted like a mad man. “Hm? Go on. Tell me, stop him from what? What is it that you want us to go to war for?”
Alfred came down and walked among them, raising his voice with anger.
“ALL OF YOU. You. And you. And you. And everyone who has been giving me a headache about Ardent for the past two months. You all want us to talk about this? Fine. Answer just one question for me: What does it have to do with us? What did Ardent ever do to us that’s even worth sending him a messenger about it?”
A man stood up. “So we’ll just wait until he’s at our front door?”
Another man countered, “We are sick and tired of you sticking your nose in business a hundred hills away. We’ve got nothing to gain from this.”
Natir was stunned. The hall which had looked so dull compared to most nights was suddenly swathed with chaos.
Everyone was on their toes about this. It was like dropping a torch on oil.
The quarrels rose from every corner, accusations and threats filling the air and sending the hall back to how she remembered it many nights ago when they were fighting over the exact same topic.
Alfred shouted, “Everyone be quiet!” He then turned to one of them. “You, stand up… Repeat what you said last.”
The man looked about then voiced his opinion.
“Ardent can’t be trusted.” The mutter rose, so the man raised his voice. “He can’t be trusted! There is no meaning behind what he is doing other than picking a fight. And a fight is what he will get.”
Alfred quieted them down then asked the man again, “And what is it that he’s doing? Please, do tell me.”
“He’s attacking everybody.”
“EXACTLY!” Alfred said. “He is doing what we all do. He is RAIDING! And we’re supposed to cry about it like women? You want us to panic because of a man like Ardent?”
Earhart said, “This isn’t panic. This is a rightful response. You call it just a raid, but Ardent has never raided this far west before.”
Alfred waved his arms. “So he’s hungry. He had a bad year and decided to scrap for food a little bit farther, so what?”
“He’s not just raiding, he’s taking land. This is a conquest.”
The hall was in chaos again.
“I’ve known Ardent since I was a child…” Alfred raised his voice and waited for them to be quiet. “I lived under the same roof with him. I know him, I know his sons, I know his men, I know more about him than any of you, and I’m telling you right now that this whole thing is just a swirl in a bucket… There are a dozen rivers between us! And Ardent is an old man, he suffers no youth’s foolishness,” he said, glaring at Earhart. “He has no interest in land or tales of glory, and he certainly has no interest in conquest, much less has the men for it.”
One man said, “Then what do you call all the villages he’s taken? And all the earls he rallied to his side?”
Alfred humored, “Maybe he wants to call himself king!”
The hall flared up with laughter.
“Maybe he wants to build himself a house of stone and teach his men how to weave clothes and dance for visitors like women… Another king of the Boii. So what? I’ve got a dozen men calling themselves kings in Bohemia alone.”
Hedged with laughter, Alfred slated for his throne. “Nonsense. This whole thing is nothing but nonsense, not even worth the breath I’ve just wasted on it, and you know why—?” He stopped halfway to spin around and point at the door. “Because it’s winter! That is the edge of Morana’s white dress at the step of my door, telling me that raiding time is over…” He continued his way, speaking tiredly, “Satisfied by his spoils or not, Ardent has to go home, if he hasn’t already done so. And in a matter of days, that’s exactly what we’ll hear, and everything will be back to the way it was… As for me—?”
He assumed his throne, and a slave, an old man, approached him with a drink.
“Not from you!” he joked, tilting his head from side to side and causing another round of laughter. “Did you look at your face? You want me to have nightmares?”
He singled out a pretty woman instead, “You there, yes, you get me my drink.”
The woman —a redhead with long curly hair and such firm breasts that they stood out like oranges beneath her leather shirt— turned her face left and right as the teasing woos surrounded her.
The clamors grew wilder when she stood up tall and raised the jug high in her arm, pouring her wine. She had not a shred of modesty in her chest as she moseyed amongst the tables and made her way to him with no hurry, a luscious smile on her lips, a cup in hand, and whistles of admiration following every sway of her hips.
The woman offered the cup to him, but Alfred snatched her, shrieking, and seated her on his lap instead before accepting the cup.
Alfred resumed from where he stopped, wine in one hand and a beautiful woman at the other. “As for me… My depot is full, and my wine jugs, too. And all that I want is to have my share of this year’s time of peace and laziness. I want us all to have a peaceful, lazy time and to do exactly what we do every winter: Absolutely nothing… And the single worry that any of us should really have on their mind is just how much effort you have to put into tonight’s lovemaking not to get kicked out of bed.”
With laughter and sullied humor all around her, Natir eyed the redhead with jealousy, but she also felt relieved that Alfred managed to solve the problem, at least for now.
She saw a few unsatisfied faces here and there and Earhart leaving the hall, but they were keeping their dissatisfaction to themselves now that Alfred had left them with nothing to argue with.
Alfred exchanged a hushed word and a kiss with the woman before sending her off with a spank to the hip. He noticed Natir looking at him—it was just all too obvious what she wanted—so he teased her eagerness for a while before nodding for her to follow.
Tarania noticed it. She put her hand on his forearm as he was about to get up, but Alfred shot her with a fiery gaze that made her back off.
Natir didn’t know if she was feeling so mad she wanted to bite him for teasing her like that or so elated by it that she couldn’t wait to suck his tongue into her mouth.
She chucked some more liquid courage down her throat and followed him.
* * *
Surrounded by warmth and silence, Natir entered his room where Alfred stood with his back to her, examining a sword in his hands.
“A gift from Ardent. Back when I was ten years old or so.” he said. “What a cheap piece of junk. I should have asked Volk to melt it a long time ago.”
She stepped in, massaging her upper arm, and asked softly, “Is it someone important?”
“Important?” He showed her the sword. “I’ll tell you this: After all the ruckus the kids made about him, I had to see it again to remind myself what a strapped, cheap bastard I’m dealing with.”
“You had rough days while I was gone.”
He chuckled. “It never ends, you know. Sometimes I wonder what man with a sane head on his shoulders would want to be earl… But then again, it wasn’t half as rough as the days you had, it seems. As the story goes, you encountered a demon, no less. Now who would have thought?”
“We’re still not sure what it was.”
“No, we’re not, and perhaps we never will.”
She dropped her face with sudden gloom. “I hope so. If only the gods would be so kind to give us such a gift then I couldn’t be more grateful.”
“Speaking of gifts,” he changed topics, acting comically, “I just so happen to notice that I’m missing a certain piece of fur.”
Natir sucked on her lip not to laugh, realizing that Diva had… borrowed it without permission.
“You wouldn’t by any chance know what happened to it, now would you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I was miles and miles away, as you surely recall.”
“Hm, true. Perhaps I simply misplaced it. Things do have their way of disappearing, you know.”
“If it’s so dear to you then I’m all faith that it will turn up again. You just need to keep your eyes open.”
“It is dear to me. I recall hunting that wolf myself five years ago with nothing but a rusted dagger.”
“Just a dagger?”
“Just a dagger… I still remember it like it was yesterday. My hunting adventure was a failure, my horse died on the way back, and I had to march alone and on foot for miles. Then a blizzard was upon me and it was...it was phenomenal! I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. It turned the whole world to snow. Snow, snow, snow wherever I looked. It was like being sucked into a swirl of mist. And the devious beast was as white as a woman, and it knew it. It knew exactly how to sneak up on me… I heard no howl, I was alerted by no shadow and I saw nothing until its jaws were inches from closing in on my neck. I still can’t recall why I had my dagger in my hand at the time, but I’m glad that I did, and LIKE THIS, I thrust it under its jaw, straight into its skull. And I dragged it behind me for the rest of the way by its tail.”
“You must be such a bad hunter.”
At her remark, he turned his face back to her.
“First, you go out hunting with nothing but a rusty dagger. Second,” she rested her shoulder against the wall and gave him a flirtatious look, “you end up having to hunt the same beast, twice.”
Alfred chuckled and shook his head. “I didn’t have just a dagger. But I do see your point. It was stupid of me to leave all my things behind. As for the second thing you said,” he approached her, “I don’t think there’s a shred of truth to it.”
“No. Not one.”
Natir held herself still as he slowly peeled the bandage off her face with the tip of his sword.
Natir looked away, embarrassed.
Alfred whistled when he saw her bruises.
“Do you need this?”
She quickly reached out her arm to snatch the bandage back, but he was faster and tossed it over his shoulder.
“No, you don’t. It’s a bruise, not a wound.”
Feeling disfigured, she turned her face away.
“Look at me.”
“Look at me, Natir.” He waited for her to meet his eyes. “It’s not you. It’s only flesh. You live in it for a while, that’s all.”
He opened his arms for her, and she rushed into his grasp.
“I’m so glad you’re safe,” he moaned. “It was never what I wanted. You were not ready for any of this.”
Her breath shuddered and she tightened her arms around him.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “I understand.”
Alfred held her for a while then went to put the sword away and said, clearing his voice, “So, I heard that Volk set you free. You’re a free woman now.”
“Well, just so that you know, if it was me then I would have never done something so stupid. But it’s no business of mine what another man does with what he holds.” He turned to her. “What’s more, he’s vouching for you to become a Toic. Such a thing will require the earl’s approval, you know.”
“So it seems.”
“You didn’t need to see me for something like this, Volk could’ve come to me himself. Of course you have my blessing.” He headed to the door. “Tomorrow you’ll see the priestess of Alaunius, and you’ll receive your mark after.”
“He didn’t send me.”
“I needed to talk to you about something.”
Alfred suppressed a laugh. “And here I was blubbering around all this time like the know-it-all capon that I am! Well, I’m listening.”
“It’s about your question. It’s about what I want.”
He approached her with open interest and asked once more, “What do you want?”
Natir met his gaze. “You.”
Alfred dropped his face with a heavy sigh. “Natir, listen—”
“It’s what I want!”
Overwhelmed by her emotions, Natir snapped. She ripped her heart open and spilled it all out beyond control.
“I didn’t understand it before, but the days opened my eyes. I see it now. Alfred, you’re nothing like other men. I want you. Day and night all I can think of is you. There’s no one who can replace you. There’s no one who can see into my heart like you do. Alfred...Alfred I’m giving you my answer: I want you. I want you with my everything. I want to call you my man, I want...I want to hold you, I want to relive the night we once had. I’m empty without you. Alfred? Alfred, please understand what I’m saying. I...I’ll follow you to the end of the world and back, I want to be yours, I want to make love to you, and I want to give you children, sons who will carry your blood and your name and daughters to fill your home with joy and laughter. Alfred? Alfred, I love you—”
“ENOUGH.” He stunned her silent.
Shaking his head, he turned to leave and said with such disappointment in his voice that it shattered her heart to pieces, “You… Shut up… You… You’re not a step closer to finding the answer since the day I met you.”
Natir stuttered with shock, “Alfred? No. Alfred, don’t leave me.” She ran after him. “ALFRED!”
She intercepted him and held on to his clothes, eyes glittering with despair. “Alfred, please understand, Alfred, I love you.”
“Move out of my way, Natir.”
“I LOVE YOU.”
“I SAID ENOUGH.” He pushed her onto the floor where she twitched from the pain in her side.
Alfred was overwhelmed by rage so much so that he seemed disoriented, raising his palm to his face and down again, trying to find the words.
“I want this. I want that. I want, I want, I want, BUT WHAT IS IT THAT YOU REALLY WANT?”
“I told you!”
“YOU’VE TOLD ME NOTHING. I had...I had such hopes for you...a fantasy...a dream so magnificent IT WOULD MAKE THE WORLD TREMBLE. But you...you betray my dream. Now, for the first time in my life, all I feel is doubt… Agatha, Tarania, even Diva, they all told me I was wrong about you… Perhaps I am. Perhaps you really are a mistake.”
“WHAT IS IT THAT YOU WANT ME TO SAY?” she cried with all her voice.
Tears flowing down her cheeks, she crawled to him on her knees and kissed his hand with her tears before her lips.
“What is it that you want me to say?” she sobbed, her voice weak and taut. “What...what would you have me do to prove it? Tonight...tonight I’ve done what I’ve never dreamed of. Half my life I longed and I ached and I prayed to be free. And here I am, freed one day only to offer myself to you the very next. I’m on my knees offering myself to you. What more do you want me to do? You want me to worship you? I already do. I worship you. You want...you want me to worship your tree? I’ll do it. I’ll worship your cursed tree. Alfred, there is nothing that I won’t do for you. I’ll stand naked in snow for you. I...I’ll say anything you want. Just tell me what you wish to hear and I’ll scream it. TELL ME. PLEASE TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT ME TO SAY.”
He drew his hand with disgust and rushed out.
She shouted after him, “Alfred? Alfred, please. Just tell me. TELL MEEE.”
Devastated with rejection, Natir broke down.
She pushed herself to a wall where she hugged her knees and cried her heart out.
“Well, that was embarrassing.”
Natir saw Keelin at the door, sneering at her.
“Just the other night you were doing great, who would have thought you’d make such a joke out of yourself so soon? How will you even look him in the eye after the splendid show you’ve just pulled?”
Sobbing, Natir looked away, “Leave me alone.”
“I would, but I feel pity for you.” She closed the door. “You see, I keep thinking, is it perhaps because you’re an outsider that you don’t understand the question…? That is why, just this once, I’ll help you.”
Natir looked up as Keelin came her way and crouched in front of her.
Keelin looked Natir in the eye as she drew a bone-knife from her belt and offered it to Natir.
“Here. Kill yourself.”