When Natir woke up, she found she lay alone in the bed.
She sighed sleepily as she stretched and turned over, enjoying the long-forgotten sensation of a soft mattress yielding ever so slightly to her lower back, and cool sheets gliding across her skin with an exotic stimulation.
Alfred sat next to her, fully dressed, watching her with a smile. When Natir noticed him, she straightened up in a flash.
“I’m sorry, have I overslept?”
“You did. It’s well past midday.”
Shocked, she lifted the sheets in a hurry, intending to get off the bed. But, realizing she was naked, she stopped and held the sheets to herself.
Unsure what to do, she asked, “Do I..um, do you wish for me to leave now?”
He shrugged. “You can if you want to. Are you in a hurry to go back? He’s going to beat you, you know.”
Natir had figured out that part already.
It didn’t matter whose fault it was that his slave ended up in Alfred’s bed, Cahal was mad with humiliation and Natir would be the one to suffer the utmost of his wrath. It would be the first real beating she received from him.
She dropped her face as the image of the scars on Joyce’s back flashed through her mind. Her heart sank. She feared going back, but she feared even more for Aina.
As if he could read her mind, Alfred affirmed her worries, “But then again, if you don’t hurry back, who knows what he might do. He might even take it out on Aina and beat her instead of you.”
His words sent a shudder through her skin. She quickly reached out for her clothes, but Alfred put his hand over hers before she could retrieve them.
“So, did you make up your mind on getting whipped? Is that what you want?”
“What choice do I have? Please, let me go. If I don’t go back quickly, he might—”
“But what if I sent someone else instead…? Someone who would tell him just how much I enjoyed your company last night and that I decided to keep you in my bed until the next morning?”
She looked at him, confused and worried.
“And I will pay him for it. He won’t be so mad then, now will he? And no one will have to get whipped.”
Natir’s face brightened before the unexpected resolve. Surely Alfred knew his brother better than anyone.
“Will you?” she asked hastily.
“I don’t know.” He let go of her hand. “Should I really be paying for you?”
Natir froze. His words struck her as impossibly ruthless and made her realize how much she really was under his thumb at this very moment. She found herself forced to choose between her master’s whip or offering her submission to him.
Eyes down, Natir let the sheets slip from over her and bent lower. Slowly and brokenly, she drooped her head down to the back of his hand and kissed it.
“Please. I don’t want to be whipped.”
He didn’t respond.
She looked up at him and pleaded softly, “What would you have me do in return?”
Natir foresaw his next words. Despite what he had said the night before, she was sure that this was the part where he would ask her to spy on Cahal for him. It was the perfect time to do it.
To her surprise, Alfred pulled his hand back and headed out.
Halfway to the door, he spun around and mused “I don’t know.”
Baffled, she froze for a few moments after he left. This wasn’t exactly the wicked scene she had in mind.
Natir lay back down and rolled on her side.
She remained motionless and lost in thought for a time, watching a dead candle and thinking about him.
Alfred hadn’t dragged her to his room for sex: last night’s events made that part clear. Nor did his actions have anything to do with Cahal. She had guessed his intentions wrong, twice in a row.
She tried to recall everything he had done from the day she first saw him up until moments ago, rethinking all his words, all his jokes and his riddles. Natir was desperate to make sense out of him and she was sure that the answer must be hinted at in something he had done or said and that once she figured it out, she would unravel his real intentions.
She pulled on her bangs and cursed, “Rats.”
With a great exhale, she lay on her back and whispered to herself, “Why do I feel it would’ve been smarter to just take the beating?”
* * *
After some time, Diva came into the room.
She stood by the door in a long orange dress, smirking at Natir as if she was sneering at her. Then she slowly raised her arm, holding out the clothes she had brought with her by the tips of her fingers and let them drop at her feet.
Natir figured out that she was to dress in the clothes.
It was a green tunic made of thick wool. The sleeves were long and the tunic a good length, ending just a few inches above her knees. It was a bit wide at the bottom but felt warm and soft against her skin. She was also given a leather belt to go with it and sandals.
Once Natir had dressed, Diva signaled her to follow.
They went through a long corridor then past a very large hall that must have occupied most of the structure’s space.
The hall stimulated her curiosity. It had multiple entrances and smelled of smoke and beer. The pillars were made from engraved whole tree trunks, and the walls were covered with weapons, shields and animals’ skulls. There was an oversized fireplace at one end, and several black iron pits filled with embers were scattered across the hall. The iron pits featured ox-head-shaped holes on their sides, creating the illusion of fiery beasts.
In the main space were three long tables set for guests. A handful of men sat at them, eating and chattering away.
At the head of the hall there was a dias surrounded from both sides by two ox heads engraved from whole oak-tree bases, positioned as if they were charging one another, with real ox horns seven feet tall attached to their heads. On the dias there were two distinctive seats covered by fur and animal’s skin.
Natir and Diva passed by a tall man who was heading in the opposite direction.
His figure made her anxious.
He was armed, big and muscular; Natir didn’t even measure up to his shoulder. He had long black hair and a short beard, and his expression was firm. His clothes were made of damaged leather, and his hands were rough and so big that he could have probably fit Natir’s whole head in his palm.
As they quietly walked by him, the man spun around, trailing the two women with his eyes. It made Natir secretly hope that it was Diva whom he had eyes for.
Diva opened a door which led to the backyard and nodded for Natir to step outside.
* * *
The wind crept under her dress and caused her skin to tingle. The warmth that had wrapped Natir inside the house had deceived her and made her forget just how cold it really was outside.
She looked over her shoulder at Diva, who closed the door and left her alone out there; Natir turned to take in her surroundings.
Overwhelmed by sudden horror, Natir gasped and leapt back with her fist to her chest.
There was Alfred, trimming his nails with a small knife, and on the dead tree under which he had crouched, there were tens of skulls and severed heads hung to its branches.
He looked up at the tree and then back at her again.
“No need to be afraid, they can’t harm anyone. They’ve got no bodies.” He mused and pointed the knife at one head. “That man there, he was the stupidest thief I’ve ever seen. He stole a cow, but it slipped his mind how slow cows are. He realized a little too late that he wasn’t going to escape with it in time, so he killed it and took off with just a few pounds of meat.” He got up, dusting off his clothes. “We followed the blood trail straight to his house.”
Alfred headed towards her but spun around halfway and again pointed at the heads.
“That one was much smarter, he made a hole in his neighbor’s barn and stole a few eggs every morning over a whole autumn before he was finally caught by chance… There, a horse thief… There, a pig thief… Another pig thief. And those two, you see them? Those two actually plotted to steal from me. From me! So, I hung their heads far apart so they could never conspire against me again.”
Natir was made of stone, unable to take her eyes off the horrific sight.
He walked the rest of the way to her, threw his arm over her shoulders and joined her, looking at the tree with a smile. “So, as you may have already guessed, it’s a tree of thieves.”
Alfred comically turned his face between her and the tree, faking shock. “What? You don’t like it?”
Natir fretfully shook her head.
“Well, yes, I know what you mean. There are far more thieves out there than this. But don’t worry, I’m getting there. One head at a time, I’ll hang them all. And it will be,” he breezed out a true sigh, “it will be the fairest sight in the world… That’s why I called you out here. I need your help with something.”
She stammered, terrified, “My help?”
“Yes, you.” He looked back and shouted, “All right, bring him.”
Natir turned around and saw three men leading a tied-up prisoner towards them.
The prisoner was crying and in miserable condition. He wore only a tattered shirt, and his body was so bony that his arms seemed barely attached to his shoulders. He’d been beaten so badly that he couldn’t walk straight anymore.
Natir felt a churn in her stomach for how anxious she was as she figured out that Alfred intended to behead the man in front of her.
One of the men kicked the back of the prisoner’s knee. “On your knees!”
The kick made the prisoner fall face-down, so they forced him up to his knees before Alfred and Natir.
“Now, this man, this man I just can’t make up my mind about him. You see—” Alfred grabbed the prisoner’s hair, making him tilt his head back to look up at Natir as he roared in his face. “He stole a chicken. And he ate it. He filled his stomach and the stomachs of his family with its meat and its soup. And he can’t replace it or even pay for it!”
Alfred spat in the man’s face and pushed him onto the ground.
Clapping his hands from the moist, Alfred returned to Natir but then suddenly spun around and vented his anger on the man, kicking him voraciously.
“Stupid. Idiot. Thief! You just had to add more work onto my shoulders, didn’t you?”
His men were making fun of the prisoner. Alfred silenced them.
“Be quiet now, everyone.”
Alfred then stood next to Natir, catching his breath. “So, that makes him a thief, too. And our way is very clear about this: if you steal food, then you will die.”
Natir was on her toes as Alfred circled around her, speaking more calmly.
“But then again, it’s a very old rule, wouldn’t you say? Some are starting to question it. They think it’s unfair. And it gets even worse when what’s been stolen is trivial. It’s just a chicken, they tell me! Well, I didn’t make the rules, I only enforce them. But I must also consider what my people have to say. So, I want to ask you, Natir the slave, what do you think of all of this? Do you think I should put his head up there for it?”
The prisoner cried, “Please—”
“You shut up. SHUT UP,” Alfred yelled. Then he hissed in the prisoner’s face, “Don’t you dare open your mouth, you hear me?” He turned to Natir again and asked softly, “So, what do you think?”
The sudden change in his tone sent chills down her spine.
Natir, unsure and shaken, said, “No.”
“I mean yes.”
“I don’t understand. Is it no or yes?”
“I don’t know. You, you are the earl, sir, if you decided that he should—”
“Whatever you decide—”
“Natir, look at me.”
“Look at me. No, or yes? Make up your mind, Natir. You’re not the one on trial here. It’s okay, just tell us what you think.”
She swallowed. “No…no. It’s just a chicken.”
Alfred suddenly clapped his hands together; it startled her so much she nearly fell over.
“I knew you’d say that,” he said. “You think it’s wrong. You think it’s not fair. Yes? Yes? Say it. Make it clear.”
“Yes, it isn’t fair.”
He turned to his men. “Did you hear that, all of you? This slave has just told your earl that his judgment is not fair.”
Natir’s blood froze in her veins. She stuttered with haste and fear and desperately held to his sleeve, “No, no, no, I didn’t mean it like that—”
Alfred laughed as he attempted to calm her down, “It’s okay, it’s okay—”
“No, please, sir. I swear I didn’t mean it—”
“I was stupid. I didn’t know what I was saying—”
“Natir, listen to me. It’s really okay. You’ve got nothing to worry about, I promise. All right? Hush now.” He held her and patted her head. “Don’t worry, you were perfect.”
She tried to pull herself together as Alfred turned to his men and clapped his arms to his sides.
“A slave said no,” Alfred announced. “A slave! Can you imagine? She must really believe it to face her earl like this.”
He then took himself a spot in front of her and signaled her out with his arm.
“That’s why you are so perfect for this, Natir. Now, let me tell you what I decided to do: I told this man that I’m going to get someone who absolutely disagrees with that rule. Someone who really believes it’s unfair. And then I’m going to hang him on this tree, and if that person can cut the rope for him, he will be free to go. If not, the Thieves’ Tree shall claim him.”
Natir went pale in an instant. She slowly shook her head from side to side, silently begging Alfred not to do it and praying in her mind that the whole thing was just a bad dream.
Alfred rubbed his hands together and chortled, “All right, it’s cold out here. Let’s hurry up and put him up there.”
Crying, the prisoner was led to the tree. He begged Natir as they took him, “Cut the rope. Please cut the rope—”
“Move it!” A man gave the prisoner a push.
Natir was petrified. Her mind blanked. She could no longer believe that what was happening was real. She couldn’t even understand how she ended up in the middle of something like this.
They put the rope around the prisoner’s neck.
Alfred stood beside Natir, grinning ear to ear. As before, he turned between her and the tree with a look of false shock.
“What are you doing? You can’t cut the rope from over here! Go. Go over there. Go.”
He dragged her towards the tree by her wrist.
Natir panicked. She resisted, tears forming in her eyes and her feet clinching to the ground.
“No, no, no, please, please, I don’t want anything to do with this. No—”
“Just come, come. Stand right there.”
“Look at me, Natir. Look at me.” Alfred shook her by the shoulders to make her snap out of it and then said firmly, “We’re going to hang him whether you play your role or not. This man’s only hope is if you can cut the rope for him. Understand…? Do you understand?”
She nodded hysterically.
He kissed her forehead then hugged her head to his chest, her body shaking like a leaf in his arms. “It’s okay. All you have to do is cut the rope.”
“Sir Alfred,” one of the men said and passed him a sword.
Alfred put the sword in her hands. “Just cut the rope. Okay?”
Natir’s watery eyes were on the sword. She was so afraid that it shook in her hands, and her knees threatened to give at any moment.
The sword felt unbelievably heavy. She could not believe it; it was as if she were holding a mountain in her hands.
“Please,” the prisoner begged, immediately gaining her attention. “Please. I have a family. A daughter your age. They need me.”
The men were disgusting. They laughed and jumped like excited animals, mocking the prisoner.
“Oh, don’t worry, we’ll take care of your daughter all right.”
“We’ll buy and sell her ass for a cabbage.”
“I’ll introduce the chicken-thief’s daughter to the wolf between my legs and make her cluck for me all night long.”
“Howl, howl, howlll—”
Trembling with fear and humiliation, the prisoner sobbed like a woman. He looked at Natir. “Please, cut the rope. I beg you. For Sud’s sake, cut the rope. Cut the rope. Cut it. Please—”
Alfred signaled them, and they raised the prisoner high in the air. His throat made such a horrible noise when the knot tightened around his neck, it sent a shiver down Natir’s spine.
Natir felt dazed, her eyes were wide and darting left and right like someone still trying to comprehend what’s going on around her.
Two of the men jumped with excitement as they hurriedly brought the end of the rope in front of her and tied it to a large trunk of a tree lying on the ground.
The rope was stretched straight before her.
Alfred waved his hand, inviting her to cut it.
Shaking all over, Natir groaned aloud as she swung the sword high in the air and struck the rope with all her force.
It bounced under her strike.
She gasped and looked up at the man as he choked and kicked his legs in the air. She quickly struck the rope again, but again it just bounced.
Natir panicked and repeatedly struck the rope as fast as she could.
“What are you doing?”
Alfred snatched the sword from her hands and angrily waved it in the air, mimicking her strikes.
“It’s a sword, not a stick! Swing it. Like this. Swing!” He put it back in her hands. “Hurry, he’s going to die. Cut that rope. Cut the rope.”
Surrounded by the men’s laughter and mockery, telling her to give up, telling her to let the pig die, Natir shouted with all her might and struck at the rope.
The hysteria took the best of her. She hit it again and again like a mad woman, but she just couldn’t hit it right. The rope bounced back and forth. Her final strike caused the sword to jerk out of her hands and its hilt slammed back onto her.
Natir fell to her knees screaming, “I CAN’T DO IT. I CAN’T DO IT. I’M SORRY. I CAN’T DO IT.”
She covered her face and cried aloud.
Alfred pulled her up and held her tightly to his chest. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
She only howled louder.
He forced her to look at him. “Hey, I said it’s okay. It’s all right. Just go back inside, okay? Go back inside and rest. Go. Have lunch.”
She ran back to the house, not seeing a thing in her way.
Alfred took his eyes off her back and looked up at the hung man, still beating at the air.
“Women!” he said, slapping his hands to his sides. “I guess it’s not your lucky day, chicken thief.”
* * *
Natir didn’t even know where she had run to.
She fell and crawled on the floor to the first corner she could find. She curled in on herself, covered her face and burst into tears.
Someone pulled her sleeve. “Mama.”
It was Aina’s voice. Natir hysterically pulled her daughter into her arms.
Aina had a piece of meat in her hand, which she pushed at her mother’s mouth. “Mama, don’t cry.”
Her cries only grew bitterer, and she clung to Aina so hard that it hurt her.