The next time Natir saw it, Alfred’s hall was full of guests. They were very loud, laughing and chattering as they drank.
The scent of food reminded Natir how hungry she was as she hadn’t eaten a single bite all day. Her stomach growled. Natir regretted wasting her chance to ask Diva for something to eat. She doubted that she would have another chance now, not with so many free men around.
Unsure what to do, Natir stood by the wall where Diva had left her. She let her sight wander, inspecting the attendees.
Alfred was on his throne, joking with the tall man she had seen earlier. Natir wondered if he had noticed her yet.
On the second throne, next to Alfred’s, sat a blonde woman with beautifully braided long hair. She seemed bored as she minded her drink and occasionally faked a smile or exchanged a word with someone.
The woman looked to be several years older than Alfred and had a very graceful presence. She wore a long white dress embroidered with golden patterns, fit for one high-born. Silver earrings shaped like tears dangled from her ears, and a necklace of bone and silver lay on her neck.
A slave in a revealing velvet dress danced near one of the fire pits to the rhythm of music played by three midgets. The dancer’s attractive moves accentuated the charms of her legs and slender waist, but were nothing that Natir couldn’t replicate.
A young man who occupied a low seat near the fireplace, away from the rest, soon became the center of Natir’s attention.
He was slightly older than Natir, had brown hair and a nice short beard. His face was quite charming, and his broad chest and manly figure were built to fulfill women’s fantasies. Her eyes spotted nothing to complain about. Everything about the young man was appealing to Natir, and she was not the only woman attracted to him.
The dancer had her eyes set on the young man as well. She constantly harassed him with attempts to gain his attention. Her flirtations were so obvious they made Natir roll her eyes at the dancer’s tireless attempts to seduce him.
Natir watched the dancer as she repeatedly swayed his way. She would make a lascivious motion toward the young man, then act as if she didn’t mean to do it, and retreat again. She even leaned on him from behind once and tried to establish eye contact as she whispered something to him.
He did not seem interested enough to respond. He appeared drowned in his own thoughts, and he kept himself busy toying a short axe he held in his hands.
If Natir’s situation were different—much different—then she wouldn’t need to give it a second thought before taking a shot at him herself. She would walk straight up to him, trip the dancer on her way and crouch in front of the young man to ask him what was wrong.
At least that’s what her fantasies told her.
She snapped out of daydreaming and back to the present.
Soon, someone else caught her attention. This time it was not someone Natir wanted to risk letting notice that she was stealing looks back at him.
He was a skinny, sly-looking man with a foxlike face and dark blond hair. He looked to be in his late forties at best with a bald spot atop his head. He sat among the crowd, eating like a vulture.
His looks gave her chills. The man hadn’t taken his eyes off Natir since the moment she came into the hall.
Someone hit Natir’s shoulder from behind and almost knocked her off her feet.
“Don’t block the way,” the woman who slammed into her warned with a fiery glare.
She had a braided, light-colored hair and a slim build, but she must have been over six feet tall. She gave off a very strong impression. The puffed veins in the woman’s forearms told Natir not to try arm-wrestling with this one anytime soon, not unless she wanted to lose the use of her wrists for a day or two.
The woman made her way to Alfred, who gave her his hand. She kissed it.
Natir couldn’t hear what the two were saying, but she guessed from their momentary gazes in her direction that the conversation was about her.
The woman in the white dress also followed their conversation. Her eyes were now upon Natir.
The tall woman returned. She sneered at Natir, “What are you standing here for?”
Deliberately raising her voice, the woman gave Natir a push. “Go help in the kitchen.”
* * *
The kitchen was a narrow room with an uneven table set on one side and a large brick stove on the other. Sacks of cheese and chunks of meat dangled from the ceiling. Natir bumped her forehead on one of them as she hurried in.
A slave was in there. He was an old man, and he was working on dough. He looked her way when Natir came in, but before either of them could say anything, his expression soured.
Natir followed his gaze and saw that the tall woman had followed her.
The slave quickly put aside what he was working on and left. The woman stepped in and closed the door behind her. Her motion allowed Natir to spot a tattoo on the woman’s collar bone which marked her as a free woman.
Her eyes on Natir, she dragged a chair and sat sideways on it. She nodded at the large chunk of meat on the table. “Chop some for me.”
Natir picked up a bone-knife.
“No. Use that one.”
Natir slowly put the knife down. The other knife wasn’t suitable for this kind of work. Nevertheless, without question Natir took the forearm-long iron knife and cut a strip of meat.
The meat was awfully greasy and seemed to be undercooked. Natir passed it to the woman who chewed on it as she spoke. Her speech was brutish by nature.
“Who told you to stand in there like that?”
“Diva doesn’t talk.”
“No. But she took me there, and I just waited.”
The woman hummed, “I think I’ll have to have a word with stupid Diva.” She took another bite. Then she noticed the looks Natir was stealing at the food in her hand. She asked, “Did you eat yet?”
“No. All day. I haven’t had the chance.”
The woman looked overhead at all the food hung in there. “You haven’t had the chance to reach with your hand to your mouth? Chop some more.”
Natir did as she was told.
“I said more.”
Natir sawed at the meat nonstop until there was a pile of it on the table. The woman watched her as she worked, and then she approached Natir.
Natir was on her toes, nervously trying to steal looks back as the woman stood behind her.
She wiped her greasy palm on her clothes, then pushed herself against Natir’s back. She put her hand over Natir’s—the one with the knife. “Do it again.”
Natir cut another piece.
“Do I frighten you?” the woman asked.
“Then why is your hand shaking?”
“Yes. Yes, you’re frightening me.”
“What’s so frightening about me? My face?”
“No. You...you are very tall.”
She chuckled, “So I’ve been told.” She headed back to her seat. “You know what Alfred tells me? Why he likes women taller than himself? He says it’s because they’re not so tall when they’re on their knees. I feel the same way. I, too, like the tall. Too bad there aren’t that many for me to choose from. Bad luck, I guess… Well? You going to eat something or not?”
Natir took a piece of the meat with both hands. She hesitated for a moment, but then her hunger took the best of her. She set her teeth in it and winced, ripping the half-raw meat like an animal.
Meat juices tainted her mouth and dripped all over her hands and onto the floor.
The woman watched her with a smirk. She broke a big piece from a ball of cheese and sent it rolling down the long table towards Natir, who took a bite from it before she was even done swallowing the meat. The woman then filled a cup with beer and offered it to Natir.
“Drink some. You are forgetting to swallow.”
Natir took the cup with a trembling hand and drank like a man. She didn’t regain her senses and realize how she was acting until she had already devoured two large pieces of the half-raw meat. They made her stomach ache.
She felt suddenly embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I was very hungry and—” She wiped her greasy palms on the table. “Sorry. What I meant to say was thank you.”
“I’ve been told that you’re supposed to be under this roof for sex. Tell me, is that what Cahal would think if he had seen you in there looking like you do? Dressed and all cleaned up?”
It suddenly dawned on Natir why the woman led her there.
“I didn’t think… I mean, I don’t even know why I am like this. I thought I was here for sex, but then… I’m sorry. I just don’t know anything. I’m only doing as I’m told.”
The woman shook her head. She grabbed a sack and loaded it with bread, meat and cheese and shoved it into Natir’s hands. “Let’s go.”
“You took food from Alfred’s table. Now you must put twice as much back.”
* * *
The woman had led Natir through a backdoor to a nearby hut where she gave Natir a few leather pieces.
“You do mine; I’ll do yours,” the woman said as she sat on a box and stretched her leg.
“What do you want me to do with this?”
She glared at Natir then waved her arm dismissively. “Fine, just watch and we’ll each do our own. If you don’t want to, then don’t do it. It’s up to you.”
She watched attentively as the woman folded the leather in half, wrapped it around her shins, and then stacked pieces of wood in the makeshift pocket before tying it up.
Natir sat down and did the same. “What is it that we’re doing?”
“It’s just a leg guard. Some like to put it on, others don’t.”
“A leg guard for what?”
“Snakes,” she said.
Natir’s eyes flung wide open. Already, she had an ominous feeling about this.
“I don’t like them,” the woman explained. “They are not much of a problem if you can see them, but if you don’t, and you end up stepping on one, then guess where you’ll get bitten?”
Natir felt anxious and added some extra wood. “And there’s going to be snakes where we’re going?”
“This forest is full of them. Two things they can’t bite through are wood and hard leather. I’m not going to waste good pieces of leather on this. Don’t worry. If it’s not the kind that jumps, then you’ll be fine.”
“They… they jump?”
“A few do.” She got up and reached for her weapons. “Once I saw a snake jump straight at a man’s throat. It wasn’t poisonous, but the bitch had the fangs of a dog. It ripped a chunk of his throat and the poor bastard chocked to death. But that kind of snake is rare and big. You can spot them in time if you’re paying attention. You just need to watch out for the little ones under your feet.”
Natir didn’t notice her hand had reached up towards her throat. She tied the leg guards firmly to her shins and didn’t mind the pain in the slightest.
“Why are we going to the forest?” she asked as she straightened up. “I don’t think I’m supposed to—”
“Hunting,” the woman cut Natir off. “I told you: you’re putting back twice as much meat as what you’ve taken from that table. That is Alfred’s rule. If you don’t like it, then feel free to beg him for a pass—though I’ve never seen him give one.”
The woman shoved an axe and hunting knives in her belt, kept a spear at hand and bow and arrows on her back. Once she was done arming herself to the teeth, she passed a sling and an empty pouch to Natir.
“This is yours. Now follow me. You can pick rocks on the way.”
“Does Alfred know—”
“I said, Follow me.”
Natir looked anxiously to the woman’s back, to the sling in her own hands, and then to the weapons on the wall.
“Can I take the big knife instead?”
“I’ve seen what you do with a knife. Now move. We’re wasting daylight.”
There was an old man manning the gate. Without saying anything, the woman paid him a coin before the two of them passed through. It seemed a bit unusual to Natir, but she didn’t question and followed the woman into the forest.
Natir kept her eyes to the ground the whole time, searching for snakes.
“Is this really okay?” Natir asked.
“Us—just two women—going out hunting?”
The woman stopped and waited for Natir to catch up. “How else do you think we feed ourselves in this rotten village? Everyone hunts.”
“If we don’t store enough food to get us through winter, Alfred will have to open his pouch. Do I really need to explain to you what will happen then?”
“Okay, I understand. But can I please ask something?”
“What’s your name?”
“Haven’t I told you already?”
The woman sighed and moved on without an answer.
They arrived near a shallow stream. The woman picked a high spot overlooking the water with a good cover of bushes to conceal them.
“This is a good place.” She laid down her weapons. “We’ll wait here. The animals will soon come down the hill to drink. It will be mostly boars. This is their trail.”
“What do we do until then?”
She lay down, placed her hands behind her head, and shut her eyes. “We wait. You watch the stream and let me know when you see game worth it.”
Sunset was almost upon them.
Natir watched until she spotted movement. Four small boars came down to drink. She quietly nudged her partner who got up, crouching.
The woman loaded an arrow and whispered, “Okay, you go first. Aim for the big one.”
Natir looked back at her anxiously.
Natir carefully stood up, loaded a rock in her sling and swung it, but the rock slipped off and hit the woman’s back instead, causing the woman to drop forward to her hands and knees—half buried in the bush. The boars noticed them and ran away.
“What was that?”
“That was the perfect game! What, you never shot a sling before?”
“No. I’m a farmer!”
The woman grabbed Natir by her throat. “I am not going back empty-handed. The next game that shows up is mine. You go over there and practice until you get it right. Go.”
As Natir turned to leave, the woman stopped her to hiss in her face some more. “And if a single rock of yours ever flies my way again, I’m going to feed it to you. You got that?”
Natir went upstream a safe distance. She double-checked to make sure that no snakes were around and began practicing. Of every four rocks she shot, three ended at her feet.
She swung again, but a moment later, she was jumping with pain as the rock fell on her foot.
Exasperated, she bent down to pick it up. When Natir straightened up again, she suddenly heard a sniff right behind her ear.
Frightened out of her mind, Natir screamed and jumped away, rock raised high in her hand.