by London Lampy
In the morning I wake before either Vio or Sampson. The sun has only just risen but Barney and Ev are awake too, Ev is sitting holding his rifle across his knees and staring at me, while Barney removes a battered tin tea pot from the embers of the fire, his hand wrapped in a cloth. Tippit is still under his blankets and I can hear him snoring quietly. I look around me, while there are trees here it's not really what I would call a forest, for every tree there are three or four stumps where others have been cut down, and many of the ones left standing are small and spindly.
I sit up and Barney nods to me. "Would you like a cup of tea?" he asks quietly, holding up the pot.
"Thanks," I reply.
"We don't have any milk I'm afraid, but there's sugar in the pack," he points at a canvas bag by his feet. Once he's poured me a tin cup full of stewed looking tea and I've stirred in three sugars he beckons for me to come over to him. "I'd like you to take a walk with me," he says.
"Um..." I look round at my sleeping colleagues.
Barney laughs. "Don't worry, I'm not about to let Ev shoot them behind your back. I simply want to talk with you in private."
I follow him out of the camp and we walk together through the tree stumps, with me trying not to spill hot tea on my hand. I can now see that the chopped down forest goes on to the horizon. "What happened to all the trees?" I ask him.
"Loggers," he spits. "Every year they get deeper and deeper into the forest, they don't care that it's been there for thousands of years, or that it's a scared place and home to many souls. They don't look at an ancient tree and see a living thing, all they can see is profit."
Once we are a few minutes walk away from the camp we stop, Barney takes a seat on one the of the stumps and indicates for me to do the same. "I need to apologise to you," he looks up at the sky, which is bright blue and streaked with white clouds, like trails of paint. "I did something very wrong, but at the time I knew no better, I thought I was doing the right thing."
I frown at him. "I'm not sure I understand, are you talking about kidnapping me?"
"In a manner of speaking I suppose I am, but I'm not referring to the events of yesterday. You don't remember me at all do you?"
"Have we met before?" I look at Barney and try to place him, but I can't.
"How old are you now?" he asks softly.
"Seventeen years...we met seventeen years ago, not so very far from here as it happens," I blink at him in confusion. "I used to be a priest, back then, I honestly thought that was the best way to make a difference in this world, how wrong I was." He shakes his head.
"You..." it can't be. "You were the priest who brought me to the Twin Islands?"
"Yes," he sighs, "I was, and for that I can't apologise enough. I just didn't know what else to do with you. If I'd known then what I know now," he looks at me sadly, "I'd have taken you deep into the heart of the forest and found a tribe to adopt you, but instead in my naivety I took you away from the place of your birth and to a human orphanage, far from where you should have been, where you belong."
"Why did you do that?" my heart is thumping hard. After all this time, here, under these strange circumstances I've met the man who can fill in the blank spots of my life.
"As I said, I was still a priest then. I came from the Twin Islands originally so I knew of the orphanage in Parnell and I couldn't think where else to take you. I didn't think that a place dedicated to a god and run by holy women could be too bad..." he closes his eyes and drops his head, his full beard coming to rest on his broad chest.
"It wasn't that bad. I mean, it was bad but I've met people who've had worse childhoods. So long as you stuck to the rules they mostly left you alone, they didn't love us, but they weren't particularly cruel either."
"I suppose that's some crumb of comfort. There used to be an orphanage in Kipp too, if I'd know about that back then I might have taken you there instead, I thank Gui I didn't. There was a scandal a few years back, it was so shocking we even got to hear about it out here. Some of the priests were...using the children, in the worst ways possible." He looks at me to make sure I fully understand what he's saying.
"That happened to a couple of the girls, there was this one priest who was at my orphanage for a time," I nod, "but it never happened to me."
"That's a relief to hear. It's something I've worried about often over the years."
"If you were worried about me why didn't you ever visit me?" Every time a new priest appeared at the orphanage I used to wonder if this was the one, but they never were.
"I couldn't. When I found you I was already involving myself in the fight against slavery, albeit mostly alone, I wasn't part of any organisation then. I was disgusted by the slave trade, and as I was rapidly finding out my cohorts in the church seemed perfectly happy to turn a blind eye, then I made the discovery they weren't simply ignoring it, but actively investing in companies that used slaved labour, it wasn't long after that discovery I left the priesthood for good. Many years later they made a show of excommunicating me in my absence, but it was me that left them, not the other way around."
"I began to join up with some of the groups of humans who were campaigning to abolish slavery, however I swiftly realised that words weren't enough to make changes and I found like minded souls who were involved in more direct action. We attacked plantations, freeing the slaves, and where possible burning the crops to prevent the owners from simply replacing the slaves. In one raid I shot and killed a plantation owner, I'm not proud of taking his life, but it was me or him, and better him. Since then I've been a wanted man and if the authorities catch up with me I'll be executed. They won't come into the forest, they know if they do it's unlikely that they'll make it out alive, so I'm safe there but for me to venture outside is a risk, although one I sometimes take for the sake of our organisation, however trying to leave these shores would be suicide."
I nod, understanding his explanation. It's stupid but I'm strangely pleased there's a good reason for him never having come to Parnell to find me, not just that he didn't care or couldn't be bothered. I take a deep breath and ask him the question I want to know the answer to more than any other. "My parents, what happened to them, who were they?"
"I'm sorry son, that part I don't know. I found you all alone beside the track that leads from the forest to the border towns. I scoured the whole area for any signs of how you got there, but I never saw a single soul beside you."
"How did I get there then?" I can't keep the disappointment out of my voice.
"That route is often used by salvers to take their living wares to the markets. If I had to hazard a guess I would say that you had somehow become separated from one of their caravans, although if it was by accident or design I can't say. What I can tell you is that you were healthy and seemed like you'd been cared for. You weren't afraid of me, just very hungry."
"Didn't I tell you anything about where I'd come from?"
"Back then I was unable to speak the echoback language, and you couldn't speak mine. Besides, even if we had spoken the same language you were little more than a baby, I'm not sure how much you would have been able to tell me."
"I spoke the echoback language?" I ask amazed.
"Yes. I assume you can't now having been raised among humans."
"I know a few words," Tallis taught me some, "but not many."
"I also have another apology to make to you, and I'm not sure you'll ever be able to forgive me for this one." For some reason he almost looks like he's smiling.
"What?" I quiz him.
"I'm afraid I'm responsible for your rather...eccentric name."
"You named me?" I always assumed my name came from my parents, although Tallis told me it wasn't an echoback name as far as he knew. "Why the hell did you call me "Exit"?"
"I didn't as such, it was a mistake. When I found you I asked you what your name was and you kept repeating the same word over and over, so I simply assumed it was your name, you see it sounded like "Exit" to me at the time," he gives me an apologetic wince. "Some time later I think I worked out what you were actually saying. Well, as I said, it sounded like "Exit" but I think it was really "ixat"."
"So my name is "Ixat"?" Ixat isn't too bad.
"No, the thing is "ixat" means...you see, it's banana meal porridge, it's what echoback children are weaned on. You were very hungry and I think you were asking me for food."
I stare at him. "Are you telling me that I'm named after banana porridge?"
"Yes, sort of, and for that I really am truly very sorry."
We walk back to the camp in silence. As I'm trying to take in everything that Barney has just told me I've more or less forgotten why I'm here and how I got here until I hear Sampson's voice. I can't tell what he's saying but he's clearly woken up and remembered that he's been kidnapped. As the camp comes into view I'm greeted by the sight of Sampson still bound hand and foot but sitting up, his face bright red with anger. He's shouting at Ev, who is standing over him, his rifle trained on Sampson's head. To add to this Vio has wrestled Tippit to the ground, something that I somehow doubt gave her much difficulty, and has him in a painful looking head lock. Tippit is also bright red, but more likely from having Vio's arm wrapped around his neck than anger.
"Look, you blithering idiot, she'll break his neck, one word from me and your friend is a dead man unless you untie me!" Sampson shouts at Ev. In reply Ev gives a one shouldered shrug, and I get the feeling that he isn't too bothered about the well being of Tippit. Barney glances at me, shakes his head and walks swiftly over to Sampson.
"Mr Sampson, I'll gladly remove your bonds if you promise to remain calm and not to attempt to attack us again."
I hear a gurgling sound and look round, Tippit has gone from red to purple and his eyes are starting to bulge.
"You blaggard!" Sampson shouts. "You're nothing but a traitor to your own kind! Them," he nods at Ev and Tippit, and possibly me too. "I can understand trying something this stupid, they don't have the wherewithal to know any better."
That was not a good thing to say, Ev growls and cocks his gun, meanwhile Tippit makes a rattling sound, his face now taking on a worryingly blueish tinge.
"Vio, stop it, you're going to kill him!" I shout over to her. She frowns at me, but loosens her grip somewhat, and Tippit starts to take gasping gulps of air, his skin colour changing back to normal. He gives me a grateful look.
"You'll not get away with this," Sampson blusters. "It's not just the three of us you know, there are others, they'll be on your trail right now."
"Are you referring to that red haired man?" Barney questions. "He won't be coming to your rescue any time soon, trust me."
"What did you do to him?" I round on Barney.
"Nothing worse than I did to any of you," the bearded man pats the pouch hanging off his belt. "After we caught you I thought I'd better check to see if anyone else might be liable to pay us a visit. Tippit gave me a description of him, and I found him breaking into the back of the house, he never even saw me. Probably woke up a few hours ago in an empty building wondering what the hell happened."
"He'll alert the authorities," Sampson declaims.
"Good," Barney replies. "This whole endeavour relies on people knowing what we've done." He then looks over at Vio and Tippit, she still has him pinned down but at least he can now breath. "Vio, isn't it?" he asks her.
"Yes," she grudgingly replies.
"If I agree to untie your boss would you be so good as to put my man down?"
She's got no choice really, she can't stay sitting on Tippit forever. Vio stands up slowly, stepping away from Tippit, who rolls onto his back and lays there, rubbing his throat. Barney steps over to Sampson and slowly lets him free, Ev keeping his gun pointed at Sampson's head until Barney is finished when Sampson shakily stands up, glaring at the pair of them. "What do you intend to do with us now?" he asks.
"We're headed for our village deep inside the forest, you can walk with us if you wish, or ride in the cart, at least until we need to turn off the track. See, we're not savages, your welfare is of the utmost importance, we even brought extra food and water supplies for the three of you."
"Poisoned no doubt," Sampson retorts.
"Mr Sampson, what would be the point in bringing you all the way out here to poison you? We could have done that days ago if we wanted to." Barney's right, and even Sampson doesn't argue, just snorts at him.
"Now," Barney looks around at everyone, clapping his hands. "That's all sorted out, how about some breakfast before we break camp?"
Sampson elects to ride in the cart while the rest of us walk, he still looks a bit unsteady on his feet, the drug must have effected him badly. He's also very angry, not so much about being kidnapped any more but because he's discovered that his two suitcases got left behind in Shelly as they didn't have space for them in the cart. To add insult to injury Vio and me got to keep our much smaller bags, although Vin's gun, my lock picks and pocket knife have been removed from mine, and Vio's lost her gun and a small dagger.
"What were you and that Barney fucker off doing when I woke up?" Vio asks me as soon as we're far enough behind the others not to be heard.
"He..." I want to keep the connection between Barney and me to myself until I'm used to it. "He wanted to know about me, you know, how come an echoback comes from in Parnell," she nods, accepting my answer.
"You alright without your boots?" she points to my feet. I glance down, I'd forgotten that they we're bare.
"Fine," I look up ahead at Ev and Tippit, neither of them has anything on their feet. I can't believe I didn't work out that Tippit wasn't human.
"Do you reckon we could take them?" she asks, seeing me looking at our abductors.
"No. I think you proved earlier that Tippit is a pushover, but Barney's big and strong looking, and he has that stick thing he can spit sleeping drugs down."
"It's called a blow pipe," she informs me.
"A fucking psycho," she finishes my sentence.
"Never far from his gun I was going to say."
"An armed psycho. A bloke like that, he'd have been my worst fucking nightmare back when I was a cop."
"He's not exactly ideal as a kidnapper," I reply.
"Oh yes, I forgot you were an expert on getting kidnapped, this being your second time and all."
"Third," I correct her.
"Third?" She repeats, frowning at me. So to pass the time I tell her the story of when Tobias and Rufus snatched Topher and me.
"You used a bedspring as a lock pick? That's fucking ingenious," she laughs when I've finished.
"Yeah, it was, wasn't it?" I grin. "If he'd tied us up with rope it'd have been a different story I guess, I might still be there now." I shudder at the thought of being held captive by Tobias for months on end.
"You got any good ideas about how to get us out of this one?" she asks, lighting up. I notice her peering into the cheroot box, she's going to run out soon, and we're a long way from any shops.
"Not really, it wouldn't be hard for me to escape but we're miles from anywhere. Even if I found a town the best I could do is could raise the alarm, and I'd guess Vin's already done that, so long as Barney was telling the truth about only knocking him out."
"Yeah," she nods. "Stupid fucker. If he hadn't been so insistent he wanted to catch all the kidnappers this would never had happened. You know why don't you?"
"Got it in one. He fucking hates Knox, every time he gets close to catching him and shutting them down they disappear like smoke." She blows out a plume and waves her hand through it until it's gone to make her point.
"Once he tells the cartel what's going on they'll come out here and find us though, won't they?" I say.
"How the fuck would they do that? They've no idea where we've gone."
"They'll work it out. They know we're being taken into the forest, Barney wants people to know who took Sampson, they'll find us," I say confidently.
"Monkey boy, how fucking big do you think the Reah basin forest is?" she asks me.
"I don't know, but it's got villages in it so it must be at least the size of Parnell, maybe even Kipp."
She starts to laugh. "Yeah, and then some. You've never looked at it on a map?"
"It's bigger than the Twin Islands put together."
I stop walking and stare around me. In the past hour or so the trees have got much thicker, fewer of them have been cut down here and they are much taller than where we spent the night. I try to get my head around the idea of a forest that big, how can there be that many trees in the world? "It can't be, that would be huge."
"Well it is, trust me. I can't believe you didn't know that," she shakes her head at me. "It's your fucking homeland."
I think about what Barney told me earlier, I must have been born in the forest. I feel like it should be familiar, like some part of me should remember, but it isn't, and I don't.
We walk all morning until the forest completely swallows us up and the sky is nothing more than a thin blue strip above the cart track we're following. We stop for a brief lunch of dried meat and flat bread, exactly the same as we were offered last night, had for breakfast, and I'm guessing it's what we will be having again tonight too. Sampson refuses to leave the inside of the cart, I think he's still sulking about the loss of his belongings, so I take him some of the food and a canteen of water once I've finished.
The cart is nothing more than a roughly made wooden box on wheels and the inside is dark and musty smelling. Sampson is sitting in its gloomy interior with his back against the furthest wall, his shirt undone to the naval, which is not an appealing sight. He is sweating heavily even for here, and his eyes have dark circles under them.
"Do you want some lunch?" I try to pass him the food and water, but he doesn't move to take them off me so I end up placing them beside him instead.
"You're in on this aren't you?" he says staring at me, his eyes burning. "You knew all along didn't you?"
"No," I protest. "Why would you think that?"
"These are your people," he points at me, and I notice that his hand is shaking.
"No! I knew nothing and these aren't my people. For the gods sake, Barney is human." Jumping out of the cart I find any sympathy I had for him vanishing. I go and sit beside Vio, I'm angry at Sampson's accusation but I don't want to say anything to her about it in front of our kidnappers. Vio has taken her shoes off and is looking at her feet, she's got some very nasty looking blisters come up on her heels and big toes.
"Wasn't expecting to be going hiking," she says prodding one of them gently. "Or I'd have worn my old police boots."
"That doesn't look good," Barney says, appearing beside her. "I think you'd best ride in the cart for the rest of the day too. We're going to be leaving it behind tomorrow, we can't take it into the deep forest."
Bloody hell, are we not in the deep forest yet? It looks like it to me. Vio sighs, and I give her a pitying look. Sampson's not going to be leaving the inside of the cart if he doesn't have to so she's going to be stuck with him all day.
We get ready ready to set off again, Vio puts her shoes back on, sucking her teeth and wincing as she does. I decide to go and relieve myself behind a tree before we leave, I stand up and head off the side off the track, and as I go Vio shouts to me. "Hey, monkey boy, where are you going?" This is immediately followed by a low growl, and the click of a rifle being cocked. I turn around to see Ev with the barrel of his gun pressed against her temple, his eyes narrowed, his teeth bared in a snarl. Barney is frowning at her from where he's standing, and even Tippit, who's sitting in the shade of the cart a few yards away, looks shocked.
"Apologise to him now," Barney's voice is harsh.
Vio looks puzzled, I don't think she realises what she just said. "It's fine, really, she calls me monkey boy all the time." Oh shit, that wasn't the right thing to say either.
"She shouldn't," Barney looks at me, then back to Vio. "Don't you realise how incredibly offensive that is?" Vio doesn't normally back down, but with Ev's gun at her head I don't think she's got much choice.
"I'm sorry," she says flatly, her ice blue eyes boring into me.
"Exit," Barney calls out to me. "Do you accept her apology?"
"Um...yes...but..." I want to say that she had no need to say sorry, but Barney cuts me off.
"Then that's good enough for me. Ev, stand down." Ev steps away from her, but as a parting gesture spits on the ground by her feet.
I need to speak to Vio, to tell her that I don't care what she calls me but she clambers straight into the back of the cart without looking back. Barney shuts the door and pushes the iron latch home with a firm clunk, leaving me separated from her and Sampson, them inside the cart in the dark and me out on the track with our kidnappers.
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