Exit Strategy

by London Lampy


The inside of the cart was dark, the only light coming in was from the chinks between the rough splintery boards that the formed the sides and roof, and the air was close and thick with the smell of fear and too many bodies in too smaller space.

Alian sat pressed against one of the rough wooden walls with her infant son squirming in her arms, trying to peer out through one of the tiny gaps at the ever changing scenery. A few hours ago they had passed through what she guessed was some kind of town, she had been able to make out row after row of buildings as they trundled by, and she had heard the muffled sounds of many voices.

She had never seen a town before, never even seen a structure higher than a single story, all she had ever known was the forest, the trees and the small huts her tribe built among them, but now she knew for certain that she would never see these things again. Her son began crying once more, he was hungry and thirsty as they all were, but being only two years old he was unable to understand why he couldn't have anything to eat or drink, or why he had to stay inside a cramped wooden box on wheels. He was once again asking for banana porridge, his favourite food, his voice breaking with emotion as he sobbed the single word for the dish, ixat, over and over.

She tried to comfort him the best she could, but there was little she could do except stroke his hair and murmur his name. She could barely even move as she was chained by the legs to those of her tribe members around her, her son wasn't shackled though, as the the shackles were too large for his baby legs and their captors knew that the infant was no threat to them, nor was he likely to be able to escape on his own.

She wanted to cry too, but her husband had told her to be strong for their son, and it was the only thing she could do to honour his memory. The slavers had come two days ago, she had been bathing herself and her son in the wide, shallow stream that ran through the heart of their village at the time and the men hadn't even bothered to drug them into submission, they just grabbed her and her child and roughly tied them to one of the many pack mules they had brought for that purpose. Then they had started to shoot drugged darts up into the trees, the limp bodies of her family, her tribe, falling to the ground around her. Some became entangled in the tree branches, so the men awkwardly climbed up and shook them loose, one of them was her husband, and she watched him being trussed to another mule, his eyes closed and blood running freely from his nose and mouth. Her son had screamed and screamed until one of the slavers shot him too, and she screamed when his tiny body went floppy with the dart still sticking out of his leg.

They were transported like that through the thick forest for half a day, until they reached the rough packed earth road that led toward the nearest town, where they were removed from the mules and laid out on the ground. The men spoke in a language Alian didn't understand as they walked among their captives, they examined each one, seemingly trying to decide who to take and who to leave behind. Her husband had been dropped a short distance away from her, his eyes were open but glassy, his face and body covered in blood, and those parts of his skin that weren't stained red were a terrible grey colour. He called out to her softly, his voice hoarse, and asked her if their son was still alive, when she replied yes he told her to hold on, to be strong for him. She tried to tell him the same thing but his eyes suddenly unfocused and his face fell slack, and she knew without a doubt that his life had left him. After that she was thrown into the darkness of the cart along with the rest of living, then chained up, and that's where she had remained as the cart trundled across the land.

Father Barnaby was riding back toward the coast from a mission to try to bring some spiritual enlightenment into the lives of the men and women who lived in the logging towns around the edge of the forest. He was from the Twin Islands, based in Parnell, but as a young man of twenty five he found he much preferred the adventure of travelling into the frontier towns of the Northern Continent to a safe and cosy parish and a life of lunches with the bishop and taking tea with old ladies. The panniers on his horse were loaded up with food, skins of clean water, medical supplies and spare clothes. Rolled up on the saddle behind him was a small canvas tent and blankets, and slung across his back was a rifle. He might be a man of the gods, but he was also a practical man who knew that despite the beauty of the region the dangers were many, from wild animals, aggressive humans and latterly echobacks as well.

He'd first encountered the tailed men and women a couple years back during his initial visit to the region. As an educated person he was aware of their existence, but to actually see them up close was still a startling experience. Standing a little shorter than most humans and visks, their unusual blue black hair and slit pupil golden eyes would have made them exceptional enough, but the thing that really set them apart was their long tails, starting out as thick as his forearm from the base of their spines and tapering down to a delicate point a few inches shy of their feet. The first ones he saw were in the small towns that dotted edges of the forest, and that was where he encountered the tailless ones too. He originally thought that he was seeing two different, although similar, species until it was explained to him that the tailless echobacks were the result of the slave trade. The discovery of this fact sickened him to his stomach, and he railed against the practise to his colleagues on the continent, but to little avail. While they all agreed that both slavery and docking were deplorable, the echobacks were neither members of their congregations, nor in most instances members of the society they inhabited. In fact many felt that although the tailed people were clearly intelligent, they belonged to a lower order of creature than humans, and indeed visk, and while cruelty to any living creature was wrong, it wasn't as if it were being done to humans.

Since than he had made it his business to try to find out just how many plantations used slave labour, and to approach their owners to speak to them about the evils of this. So far his efforts had got him shot at several times, and on one truly terrifying occasion chased off the property by six huge dogs. If he hadn't been able to rapidly mount his horse and gallop away he felt their was a fair chance that he would have been torn to pieces.

Recently he had also been shot at by echoback tribesmen as well, admittedly they were warning shots intended to keep any human away from their villages, but it had spooked his horse badly enough that she almost cantered into a ravine. In a way he was glad to see that they were fighting back and protecting their own, but if they did start killing passing humans, even accidentally, it would give the slavers a shred of justification for their actions, and alienate the local humans as well. He was a man of faith, but some of the things he had seen in the Northern Continent had tested that faith to its limits, and his thoughts on his long lone journeys often turned to how the gods could allow such evil to both exist and flourish.

Alian pressed her son's small body against her own, grateful that in sleep he was finally still and quiet. He'd screamed and cried for what felt like hours, getting himself upset to the point where he'd vomited up what little he had left in his stomach over her and himself.

As she held him she considered placing her hand over his nose and mouth and letting him suffocate in his sleep, for a child as young as him what hope was their once they reached their destination? Even if he survived the docking and worked as best he could alongside her, did she really want her precious son to spend his whole life a mutilated slave?

She knew a bit of what happened to the enslaved echobacks from those members of her tribe who travelled into the humans world, and she had even seen a tailless one once. It was girl a few years younger than her, who had been freed and was being escorted back into the forest to be reunited with her family. She had felt a mixture of pity and horror at the sight of her, now she realised that she and her child would become like that girl. She put her palm to the boys face, but when she felt his warm breath against it she knew she couldn't do it, and instead stroked his soft hair as he stirred in his sleep. Alian knew that she was a coward, but she couldn't bring herself to take her own son's life.

The cart suddenly jolted and lurched, its living cargo thrown around the interior as it tipped onto one side, the chained echobacks coming to rest on what had been the wall a few moments ago. Alian's arm and shoulder ached from where she had been thrown onto the boards, and her son had woken again, but she had managed to cushion him from the fall. He promptly began to cry anew as she and he fellow villagers attempted to right themselves, a job made all the more difficult by them being shackled together. She could hear men's voices shouting from outside and she didn't need to understand the words to know that they were angry.

The cart stayed tipped on its side for nearly an hour, loud thuds and more shouts from the outside coupled with the whinnying of the horses could be heard, and occasionally the whole thing would shake as if it was being kicked. Eventually she felt the cart start to rock, it was set back on its wheels with a judder and all the captives were tipped onto the floor, although this time more slowly. Alian retook her position by the wall as they started to move off, her child held in her lap. As she once again tried to peer through the gaps in the wood she noticed something, one of the rough hewn boards at her head hight had cracked, and was flapping loose with every move the cart made. She pushed at it experimentally, when she applied enough pressure she could see a hands width of daylight and it started to splinter further. A couple of the others noticed her, and one, her husband's cousin who she had never liked, asked her what she was doing. She didn't answer, just pushed on it again, this time it splintered more, finally snapped and dropped out onto the track. Her husband's cousin then asked what she was doing again, this time more harshly, pointing out that if she thought they could escape through the hole she had made then she was truly stupid, as it was too small, and how were they suppose to get through chained together?

"One of us is small enough, one of us isn't chained." Was all she said in reply.

She held her son to her, burying her nose in his hair to try and fix the scent of him in her mind forever. She kissed him on the mouth, then spoke his name, the very last time he would ever be called by the name she and his father chose for him, then lifted him to the hole she had made. The grass beside the track was long and thick, and she prayed that this, along with his natural agility would be enough to keep him from injury. She took a deep breath, hating what she was about to do, but knowing it was his only chance, then half pushed, half threw him out into the sunlight. She heard his shocked cry as he hit the ground, and for a moment thought that their human captors may have heard it also, but the cart continued rolling and she watched as the small form of her son got to his feet and looked around. She kept her eyes trained on him until he disappeared from her sight, then her tears finally came.

By the time the sun had reached the highest point of its journey through the sky Father Barnaby had been in the saddle for six hours and was in need of food and a good stretch. He spotted a shady looking patch by the side of the road and dismounted then tied his horse off to a tree branch and retrieved one of the water skins from his panniers. He took a long drink of the warm stale water, then went over to his horse, and holding the skin between his teeth cupped his hands and filled them with liquid, offering them up to the animal to drink from, which she gratefully did.

He then unpacked a portion of dried meat and hard bread from his supplies and began to eat. As he chewed he heard a noise, in this part of the world their was never silence, birds sang, insects trilled and all manner of unseen creatures added to the cacophony with their own individual sounds, but this was different, it sounded like a cry of despair from a child. He listened with his head cocked, trying to work out what direction it was coming from. It seemed unlikely that it actually was a child, it was probably some wounded animal crying out in pain, but he felt that it was worth trying to track it down, if only to put a bullet in its head to end its misery. The priest patted his horse and reassured her that he would soon return, then started out in the direction of the noise. The sounds got louder as he got closer, and sometimes he almost thought he heard words, but none he could make any sense of. He took his rifle off his back and cocked it, an injured beast may be prone to attack and he wasn't about to take any chances.

What he saw when he finally found the source of the noise made him stop dead, a tiny naked child was standing in a patch of long grass crying. A second glance quickly established that the child was echoback not human, and for that he felt some relief. The lack of clothes wasn't down to some unspeakable attack but simply how offspring of the tailed people were kept, they didn't don any kind of garment until puberty took hold, at least that was the custom in the forest.

He approached with caution, wary that the boy's family may be near by and mistake the priests intentions for hostile ones, and to that end he kept his rifle clutched in one hand. The child looked round and saw him, his golden eyes fixed on the man warily, but he didn't run or call out, just watched as the human drew closer.

Father Barnaby took a gamble and slung his gun across his shoulders, holding his hands up in front of him. The child continued to watch, no longer crying, and once he was a couple of feet away the priest slowly knelt in front of him.

"Hello young man." He said gently. "Are you all alone?"

The boy looked at him and the priest could see that apart from a few bruises and a lot of dirt he was healthy. "Are your parents near by?" He tried again, knowing there was little chance the boy could understand his words. "My name is Father Barnaby." He pointed to his chest, and repeated "Father Barnaby" again for emphasis.

The boy pointed to himself, although more to his stomach than his chest, and spoke, the priest tried to catch what he said, it sounded very much like "exit".

"Exit, is that your name?" He asked, the boy grinned excitedly and repeated the word "exit" several times over, or at least that's what he heard. He knew that echoback names were different from those humans gave their children, just as those of visk were, so he supposed it must be right.

"All right Exit, shall we see if we can find who you belong to?" Father Barnaby said, and stood to scan the surrounding area. When he took a few steps away the child followed, and he started by leading him back to where he had left his horse. He offered him his water skin to drink from, but the boy just looked at it puzzled, and he ended up tipping the liquid into his hands and having him slurp it from there as he had done with his horse. He figured if the boy was thirsty he may be hungry as well, and he found a small paper packet of dried fruit that he gave to him. The boy started to eat so rapidly he was afraid he would bring it back up again, but when he tried to take the packet off the child he screamed so loudly he gave it straight back.

Once the child had finished eating and drinking he began his search of the area for any sign of other echobacks. For the next two hours Father Barnaby scoured the landscape, at first with the boy following, and then when he visibly tired of this with him carried in his arms. Eventually when he had shouted himself hoarse and walked a mile or so in every direction he had to admit defeat.

"I think the only thing to do is take you with me." The priest mused, carrying the boy back toward his horse. He wrapped him in one of his spare shirts, feeling rather strange about the idea of riding along with a naked child, then sat him at the front of the saddle and swung himself up behind.

As they set off along the track toward the coast that would eventuality lead him to the ship back to the Twin Islands, Father Barnaby spoke to the child again. "Well young Exit, you're going to find Parnell a little different from the forest, more buildings, less trees, but in time I'm sure you'll grow used to it." The boy just chatted happily in his own language, then rested against the priest and fell asleep, and Father Barnaby prayed to the gods that he was doing the right thing.

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