The next morning, Natir prepared for the big event, with Aina.
“You’re wearing your new clothes?” Volk asked, seeing Natir in the new outfit Diva had made for her.
“I can’t think of a better occasion,” she said as she put on her necklace in front of the copper mirror.
“It’s only the priestess, she doesn’t care. And who do you have to celebrate with, anyway? The same gang of drunks who rather you be naked no matter what you show up in?”
She rolled her eyes and brushed her hair.
“You understand nothing, it’s the thought that counts. The memory. Besides, I don’t want those bitches, Tarania, Agatha and Keelin, to see me in rags at the most important day of my life. Just imagine what they’ll be saying about me. And I do want to see Diva tonight and properly thank her. There you go, that’s someone to celebrate with.”
“It will be the loudest celebration ever. I wonder what she will say.”
She turned around. “How do I look?”
Natir had never looked so fine. She had painted half her face with red ochre bordered with white dots, as it was the Toic women’s traditional paint. It concealed her bruise entirely and turned her face to a jewel for the eyes.
Her necklace settled perfectly over her soft cleavage, and the leather clothes looked stunning on her body with the short skirt stealing men’s eyes to her long legs.
He shrugged. “Like always.”
Natir buried her face in her palms.
“Beautiful, Momma,” Aina said, sharing the exact same face paint as her mother.
Natir picked her daughter and teased their noses together, causing Aina to laugh. “You’re the beautiful one.”
She glanced at the piggy Volk was petting in his arms and rolled her eyes. “Volk?”
“What?” He shrugged. “You want to meet the priestess of Alaunius without an offering? Bad luck will follow you all your life.”
“Oh? And will you really give that to me for free?”
“What other choice do I have? Alfred will have no one to blame but me. I’ll add it to the list of things you owe me.”
“Fine, let’s just go.” Natir took Aina’s hand and headed for the door.
“You know who else needs to see the priestess?”
Shocked, Natir stopped in her tracks and looked back; she had already figured out what he was going to say next.
Volk approached her. “It’s customary that when a Toic comes of age or when we take in new members that they must see the priestess before receiving their mark, to tell their fortune. It is also customary that the earl must consult her before any big decision, including—”
“Going to war!” she yelped, full of joy and excitement to have Alfred by her side on such an important day, “He will meet us there?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know if he will meet us there, but it will certainly make more sense that we all travel together.”
“Volk!” Her smile only grew wider.
“Alaunius’s priestesses love solitary. It will take quite some time for us to get to where she lives, and what better way to kill time than to share the road with a good company…? We will wait for him at the village’s gate.”
Natir ran back to the mirror. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“What are you doing?”
“My bruise! Oh curses, I need more ochre to cover it. You should have said something, I could’ve borrowed more from Diva, paint on it, or something!”
He took Aina’s hand and headed to the door, addressing the little girl quietly, “That’s why I didn’t say anything. But I still ended up opening my mouth too soon.”
* * *
They waited on the back of the horses by the village’s gate.
Natir was anxious; the surprise Volk had for her was so sweet, it almost felt like a gift.
She was finally going to have some real time alone with Alfred. They will talk and joke and laugh. And he will be right there with her when she receives the priestess’s blessing and becomes a Toic.
“You don’t feel cold?” Volk asked, as Natir had taken off her cloak and put it on Aina in front of her.
“It’s okay, Aina needs it more.”
“There’s enough cloak for both of you.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You’ll catch cold.”
“I said I’ll be fine.”
“Look, just keep her close to your lap and wrap the cloak like—”
She snapped, “I don’t want to!”
“Why so stubborn? Listen to Volk for once.”
Natir clenched her teeth and leaned toward him to whisper, “It covers my legs, all right?”
“What about your legs? Oh!” He finally figured it out. “I should have known better.”
Natir rolled her eyes.
Her face brightened when she saw Alfred and another man approaching them on horses. The man was leading a bull for an offering, loaded with gifts. It was sure to slow them down even more, giving them all the time together Natir could hope for.
Her mind raced, thinking of what to say to fix what her impulse had ruined last night.
Alfred greeted, “You were waiting for us?”
Volk said, “We thought we’d share the road.”
“Always a good idea.” He nodded at Natir. “You look wonderful.”
“Uncle Alfred!” Aina reached out her arms.
“Yes.” He handed her a piece of dried meat. “You know that I never forget.”
Realizing that it meant he was expecting to see them, a beautiful, warm feeling inhabited Natir’s chest.
She looked down. “Aina? What do you say when someone does something nice for you?”
He laughed. “Well then, we better head out or we won’t make it back in time.”
Natir rode ahead, next to Alfred, whereas Volk trailed behind with the other man and the bull.
The snowy scenery was breathtaking. The trails they used were filled with thick, fresh powder and coated with a thin layer of fog floating ever so slowly just an inch above the ground.
Massive snow-capped oaks lined their path like ancient guardians, and not a single other person was there for as far as her eyes could see, transfiguring the wilderness into a dream-like trance.
A bird fluttered through the sky, singing. It stole her eyes, and her hair tossed around her face with the swiftness of her motion.
Alfred asked, “One braid?”
“Your two braids, you joined them as one.”
“Oh!” She was happy that he noticed. “I thought it looked better like this.”
He didn’t comment back, but Natir didn’t allow the conversation to lose its flame. “Listen, Alfred, about last night—”
“I guess I should apologize for what I did. I was still agitated by what happened before, and it got to me.”
“What? No, that’s not...I mean, I understand and, um, I just need to say that I did drank a bit too much, I didn’t know what I was saying and—”
“No,” he interrupted, “what I did was inexcusable. Even the earl should know better than to treat a woman like that for no fault of her own.”
He then looked at her and winked. “So, since an apology is in order, how about you come over to my house tonight, and maybe you’ll give me the chance to convey my atonement into action?”
Her cheeks were on fire. She couldn’t believe how well it had worked out.
She turned her face forward to hide her smile. “Well, if you must.”
“How many children you think you’ll have?”
He laughed at her reaction, “The priestess, it’s pretty much all she ever tells women who see her.”
“Oh!” She looked down at Aina, who was enjoying her food. “Many, I hope. Aina needs brothers and sisters to play with and look after each other.”
Natir looked ahead, full of hope. “Yes. I want many.”
* * *
The priestess lived in a cave far from the village. Natir let her sight wander around as Alfred and the man tied the bull next to an altar.
Natir thought it was strange no one came to welcome them and take the gifts, so she asked Volk, “Where are the servants?”
“This priestess has none,” he said. “She is very tenacious about her privacy. I never liked her. She creeps me out, and not once did she foretell something good to come my way.”
Despite what he said, Natir saw nothing to be creeped out about. In fact, the place was dull compared to what she had expected.
Right in front of the entrance there was a small altar made of lined stones, towered by the symbol of the sun. A wooden wall and door were erected at the mouth of the cave. Some jars, traces of past offerings, and items for everyday life were left carelessly lying around, all of which gave Natir the impression they were merely visiting another house. But once Natir followed the men inside, it was a different story all together.
Calm was alienated to her chest. The inside of the cave was a setting for horrors.
The dark was intimidating in its intensity. The air was heavy and moist, insects crawled in the dark, skulls of humans and animals hung to the walls and the wedges, and ropes like nets hindered their way, all whilst the priestess’s incomprehensible, low chanting rang in her ears from her first step to the last, keeping Natir on her toes.
Natir tightened her grip on Aina’s hand as they trailed behind the men, turning their faces left and right.
A creature of the dark ran past their feet, terrifying Aina to tears; Natir picked up Aina and held her to her chest. She spoke quietly to calm her down, telling Aina that she must be respectful and not cry.
“Watch your steps,” Volk whispered as he came back to get them and motioned Natir to hurry.
They rounded a narrow corner where beams of light penetrated the dark. Soon, a vast open space welcomed their party as they reached the priestess.
The priestess was but a child, barely twelve years old; her small body lay on its side over a stone slab before an iron plate where the fire burned. A large wooden effigy of Alaunius towered behind her, casting its awe into their chest with its ferocious hollow eyes.
The priestess was creepy in her own way. She was very skinny and had nothing but woolen loincloths on her. Every inch of her body was tattooed with seals and she had her eyes blindfolded with a rag.
They came down on their knees before her, with Alfred at the lead.
“I’ve come before the great Alaunius, bearing faith in my heart and gifts in my hands, to humbly seek his council.”
The priestess remained silent, save for her low, uninterrupted chanting. It was as if she didn’t hear him.
“Priestess of the great. Will I, and the forces of Valdes, triumph over Ardent?”
A question was asked. The priestess slowly straightened, sitting up, and reached out her hand to a sealed jar.
With a creeped-out look on his face, Volk followed the priestess’s every move as she picked a large spider from the jar, tilted her head back and swallowed it alive.
Her chanting rose higher. The priestess unfolded the rag but kept her eyes shut as she reached for a small pot with some powder inside, stretched her arm over the plate and sprinkled it over the flames, causing it to burst.
Then, with an unsettling sough on her mouth, she opened her eyes at last and looked at them.
Suddenly, the moment her sight fell on Natir’s necklace, tens of eyes opened on her face and on her arms and the priestess let out such a horrific scream it scared their souls out.
Aina screamed with terror and everyone shouted incomprehensibly as they scrambled to the entrance, not seeing a thing in their way…
* * *
In the snowy wilderness, the seer was hurling a small axe at a broken branch for firewood when he stopped and quickly turned his face west, as though he could hear that scream echoing from so far away, beyond the mountains.
A thin veil concealing his face, he hissed to no ears to hear.
“It is here… The wolf.”
* * *
They stumbled on each other as they escaped the cave and some of them fell on the snow.
Natir was on her knees, trying to calm Aina down as her cries filled the air.
The man panted, breathless with terror, “What just happened?”
Volk stammered with crazy hand signals, “She got, eyes, and, and, things, and her fingers were, did you see that? Did you see that?”
“Yes, yes, I saw! Will you make that child shut up already?”
She shouted back, “She’s scared.”
“This is the last time I come to this place,” Volk panted. “Last time. I had enough of that little witch… My pig? Where’s my pig? I’m not paying for nothing.”
“What do we tell the others?”
Alfred got up and slapped his arms to his sides. “We’ll tell them what happened. We came, we saw her, and we left with no answer.”
Alfred grimaced. “Yes. No answer, and no sign. That’s what we saw and that’s exactly what we will tell.”
Volk got up. “Alfred, Alfred, my friend, I don’t mean to second guess you or anything, but, I think that scream was a sign bad enough.”
“That was no sign, and it meant nothing. Look, she’s only a child, she probably just saw a spider.”
“She eats spiders!” Volk said just before Alfred grabbed him and put a dagger on his throat, “But then again, she’s only a child. Children are afraid of spiders. Really, it scares the pickles out of them.”
Alfred pushed Volk back onto the ground.
“The priestess was wrong before.” Said Alfred, “Do yourselves a favor and keep that in mind. Now, I want you all to clear your heads and realize what really happened: We received no answer, nothing, and that’s the only truth there is. And if I ever hear any of you ranting with any other nonsense about this, then, may the gods help him, because no one else will. DID I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?”
Alfred looked about then headed to his horse. “We’re going back.”
Volk turned to Natir and nodded at the cave. “I guess you two will have to get your marks some other day.” He then got up and headed to the altar. “And it will not be with me. No. Not with me. I’m not going back in there. Where is my pig? Did anyone see my pig?”