by London Lampy
Without Vio to talk to walking soon grows dull, there's nothing to look at except trees and more trees. I'm walking behind the cart again, but as the door is bolted shut I can't even see her and I'm worried that she's angry with me about being made to apologise for calling me "monkey boy". Up ahead Barney is leading the horse and singing to himself in a deep voice, I can't make out the words and eventually I realise that he's singing in the echoback language. Ev is walking beside him with his rifle propped on his shoulder, and he occasionally glances back at me; every time he does he fixes me with his golden eyes and bares his teeth as if to tell me not to try anything. I haven't met that many other echobacks in my life, but I never met one who scared me before. Tippit is further back, only a few yards in front of me and I find myself studying his strange walk. It occurs to me that it could be the result of him not having a tail, which I'm now almost certain is true. I decide to catch up with him and try to talk to him, it's better than worrying about Vio and staring at the trees.
"Hello," he says as he notices me drawing alongside him.
"Hey,"I reply. I want to ask him about his tail but I'm not sure how to, or even if I should, but before I can even open my mouth he speaks.
"I'm sorry," he says quietly. First Barney, and now Tippit, somehow I can't see Ev apologising to me as well today. "I'm sorry at how I deceived you, it was the only way you see. We needed someone to pose as Kremmen and Barney couldn't do it, his face is too well know to the authorities, so I went in disguise."
"It wasn't a very good disguise."
"You worked out I wasn't human?" he sounds shocked.
"Not exactly, but we could tell you were hiding something. You were clearly wearing make up, no human is that pale."
"Vio is, sort of," he points out.
"I suppose so, but it didn't look natural, especially with the black hair and moustache. Why did you bother? I've met humans who are the same colour as me."
"I didn't want any of you to make any sort of connection between me and echobacks, so I hid my skin, stuck on a moustache, dyed my hair and even had my teeth filed down." He turns to me and pulls back his lips so I can see his teeth. They're all the same length, he doesn't have the four longer, sharper ones I do.
"Ouch," I wince.
"It wasn't a pleasant experience," he agrees.
"Isn't there another human in your organisation who could have posed as Kremmen?"
"A few, but none of them wanted to risk doing something like that so Barney asked me. I lived among humans for many years you see so I can speak the language well, most of the rest of us can't, or at least not well enough." It suddenly comes to me, I kept thinking something about his accent sounded familiar, he has much the same accent as Tallis. "And when Barney asks you to do something it's hard to say no."
"I can imagine."
"Also, he's married to my sister. If I'd refused I'd have her on my back too."
This piece of information is quite surprising. "I didn't think that marriages between echobacks and humans were approved of," I frown. At least that's what Tallis told me.
"They're not as a rule, but Barney is different to most humans. Many echobacks see him as a hero for everything he's done, and like me my sister doesn't have a tail, we were both docked when we were younger than you." I was right. "It's hard to marry if you're a tailless one, unless you marry another tailless one, and when you're damaged goods marrying a human isn't seen as nearly such a scandalous thing to do."
"Were you a slave?" I guess it's all right for me to ask him about it now, he brought the subject up.
"Yes," he nods. "For many years."
"What sort of plantation did you work on, was it rubber or cocoa?" I wonder if he was enslaved by any of Ry's family.
"I didn't work on the plantation, we were house slaves, servants really. Both me and Sora, that's my sister, we're small even for echobacks so they thought we'd be of more use in the house when they bought us. I worked in my master's house for nearly twenty years, and we weren't treated badly. I had my own bed and I only had to share my room with three others, they hardly ever beat us, and we never went hungry."
"But they didn't pay you though, did they?"
"They gave us gifts, their old clothes and things they didn't want any more. I mostly got the children's clothes," he smiles.
"Were you free to leave if you wanted?"
"I had a job, a home, food and shelter, why would I have wanted to leave?" Whenever I've talked to echobacks about slavery before they've sounded angry, Tippit sounds as if he misses it.
"So how come you now work for Barney if you didn't want to leave?" I ask.
"One day Barney and his troops came to the house to demand that my master free all of his slaves. He refused so we were freed by force. In the fighting my master was killed, along with several other members of my household. So now I'm "free", except I have nowhere to go, and my only option is to work for Barney, who by the way doesn't pay me either. By the forest tribes I'm seen as a tailless one, something to be pitied on the ground while they are in the trees, amongst other tailless former slaves I'm seen as a traitor, most of them laboured on the plantations while I lived in the big house with the humans, and to most humans I'm just a monkey, regardless of if I have a tail or not. I'm neither one thing nor the other thing."
Sometimes I feel like that too, like I'm not a proper echoback because I've spent my whole life with humans, but that humans will never really see me as one of them either. However I'm a million times better off than Tippit, I'm not docked.
"I'm sorry," now I'm apologising to him.
He shrugs. "It's not your fault."
"What about Ev, did he used to be a slave too?" I doubt he did as he has a tail, but I'm curious about him all the same.
"No, I think he lost his family to slavers though. I don't really know him all that well, he's sort of Barney's right hand but he doesn't talk much, and I try to stay away from him, he's not a nice person."
"He kind of scares me," I say.
"Me too," Tippit agrees, glancing up ahead at Ev. As if he knows he's being talked about Ev picks that moment to look back at us, narrowing his eyes before looking away. "He doesn't speak much of the human language, but he can understand a fair bit so be careful what you say around him, as Vio found out," Tippit adds when Ev's not looking at us any longer.
"I hope she's alright," I glance at the cart. "I don't care what she calls me, she's my friend."
As the sliver of sky begins to darken Barney starts to look for a place to camp for the night. He finds a smallish clearing a dozen or so yards off the track, it looks like others have camped here before us, there's a charred patch on the ground in the middle of a ring of stones where a fire has been lit in the past.
After Barney unhitches the horse Tippit opens up the back of the cart and Vio and Sampson crawl out. They both look crumpled and sweaty, Sampson's shirt is still open and the fabric is almost entirely sweat darkened. The forest is hot but at least there are breezes to make it bearable, the back of the cart must be like an oven. Neither of them says much, which is surprising in Sampson's case, he simply sits on the ground staring straight ahead, while Vio leans against a tree and lights up what must be one of her last cheroots. I desperately want to get her on her own to talk about what happened earlier, but Barney is handing out the dried meat, bread and water while Ev builds a fire out of sticks that he's collected.
Once we've eaten I try to signal to Vio to get her attention. She's sitting opposite me and eventually I manage to sign to her that I need to talk to her. She gets up and goes to stand by the cart, watched by Ev who's holding his rifle across his knees as usual. I follow her, ignoring the eyes that are boring into my back. Night in the forest is far from quiet, all around us things are making screeching, croaking, clicking, chirruping noises and I only have to lower my voice a little not to be heard.
"Are you alright?" I ask.
"I'm too hot, I've got insect bites on my insect bites, I've almost run out of smokes, I've got blisters on my feet the size of grapefruit, I've just spent several hours in a confined space with a man I can't stand, and one of my closest friends has betrayed me, but apart from that I'm fucking fine."
"I didn't betray you!" I protest. This is what I was afraid of.
"I didn't exactly see you sticking up for me either."
"I was about to but Barney talked over me then you got into the cart. Anyway, what was I suppose to do? Ev had a gun to your head."
"You and Barney, what were you really talking about this morning? I know what you told me when I asked you before was total crap, you're a terrible liar," She glares down at me. "Sampson has a theory that you've been involved in this the whole fucking time. At first I thought he was being his usual batshit insane self, but then I got to thinking, last time you got yourself kidnapped you weren't exactly overjoyed to be brought home were you? You've never really told us the full story about that, about what happened to you out there, maybe this isn't the first time you've met Barney."
"It's you who's fucking batshit insane if you even think that could be true," I throw at her. "You think I'd do a thing like that? You think I'd betray my friends out of choice?" I had to make a horrible decision between betraying one set of friends or another before, I never want to feel like that again. For a very long time neither of us speaks, we just stare at each other. If Vio chooses to believe Sampson over me then I can't see our friendship surviving. After what feels like hours she puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes it.
"Sorry, I thought I was going fucking mad in there," she inclines her head at the cart. "You have no idea what it's like to sit in the dark and listen to Sampson for hours on end."
"I'm very glad I don't," I smile. "You are kind of right about something though, I have met Barney before..." I tell her what he told me this morning and she stands and listens with an amazed expression on her face.
"Fuck," she breaths once I'm done. "That's some coincidence."
"Yeah, I guess it is."
"So can I call you "banana porridge" instead of "monkey boy" now?"
"No!" I say loudly enough to make the others turn and stare at us. "Please don't tell anyone else about that, it's bad enough having a stupid name without people knowing the even stupider reason behind it."
"I've never thought your name was stupid," she frowns at me. "It's unique, and it suits you, and at least you're not named after a bloody small purple flower."
The first night I spent out here I was still suffering from the after effects of whatever Barney drugged us with so I slept soundly, this night is very different. Even on a blanket the ground is hard and lumpy, and full of insects too. I don't seem to get bitten the way Vio does but they still crawl on me, and after a while I can feel them even when nothing is actually there. The constant noise from the forest doesn't help any either. Even over that I can hear both Sampson and Vio snoring, they don't seem to having trouble sleeping, Sampson fell asleep while we were still eating, refusing any food and just laying down and closing his eyes where he was. He's behaving very oddly even for him and I'm starting to wonder if something is wrong beyond the shock of being kidnapped. Both Tippit and Ev are sleeping too, Tippit completely under his blanket so only some tufts of his dyed black hair are showing, Ev with his rifle clutched to him like a child with a stuffed toy. Barney is taking the first watch and he's sitting staring into the fire, a pistol resting on his lap. I decide to go and talk to him, I can't lie here any longer imagining insects crawling over every part of my body.
"Hello," I say softly as I sit down beside him.
"Yeah," I pick up a stick and poke the fire with it, it's mostly embers now and I watch them glowing.
"We'll be at my village by tomorrow night, you should find it more comfortable there."
"I'd rather go home."
"And where do you call home?"
"My flat in Parnell," I reply. "It's where I live, it's where my friends are." Not all of them, but I'm not going into that with him. "And it's where my stuff is."
He sighs and shakes his head. "If you'd been raised in the forest as you should have you'd see it as your home."
"But I wasn't, I like the city, and I know other echobacks who live in Kipp who like it there too." Senis is horrified at the idea of going anywhere near the forest.
"You may feel differently once you've spent some time here. We have some youngsters in our tribe around your age, I'll have them show you how wonderful it is here. The tribe has some pretty girls, maybe one of them will catch your eye."
"I doubt that."
He laughs quietly. "You need to open your mind son."
I wonder how open minded Barney is? "Is Vio going to have to walk again tomorrow?" I ask him to change the subject.
"Yes, we can't take the horse and cart into the deep forest so we'll be leaving it a few miles up the track from here. Some of our members will be waiting to collect it and return it to where we borrowed it from."
"Her feet are really bad."
"I know, but I have something I can give her to put on them. It won't stop them hurting, but it should stop the blisters becoming infected."
"Thank you." An infection a long way from the nearest doctor is a very bad thing, I learned that on The Firebrat. "I don't suppose you've got anything she could smoke?" I add. "She's run out and she's not nice to be around when that happens."
"I might be able to help with that too, I'll talk to Ev in the morning." I assume Ev's got some cigarettes or tobacco.
He goes quite and I prod at the fire some more, watching the charred pieces of wood pulsate orange and red. "Do you know about Gui?" Barney asks me, breaking the silence.
"Gui is the echoback god, although that's too smaller word really, Gui is all things and all things are Gui. Gui is not like the human gods, each one representing one thing only, Gui is unknowable, and Gui is everywhere."
Stupidly I find myself looking around as if this Gui could be standing behind one of the trees. Barney laughs. "I suppose that's as good a place to find Gui as any. Do you know what I believe has happened?"
"No." But I'm sure he's going to tell me.
"I think that Gui has sent you back to me so I can right the wrong I did all those years ago. So I can return you to where you should have been all along."
I think that Barney is a little insane, and I want to go home all the more now, but I don't say that, I just poke the fire again.
In the morning Vio elects to walk from the off despite the state of her feet. I'm glad, I want the company and I don't like the thought of Sampson putting stupid ideas in her head again. Sampson himself is in a sorry state, his face has developed an angry looking purple rash in the night, his eyes are sunken and bloodshot and he's staring around as if he doesn't know where he is. The others have been busy breaking camp and haven't noticed the state of him so I find Barney and quietly tell him that I think Sampson may be sick. Barney goes over to where he's sitting and places a hand on his head to feel for fever, which causes Sampson to suddenly launch himself at the bearded man with a loud yelp. Unsurprisingly Ev immediately cocks his rifle, but Barney make quick work of Sampson and soon has him pinned down. Barney then proceeds to do what he was trying to do to start with and feels his forehead. "Hell, he's burning up," he mutters.
"What's the matter with him?" Vio joins Barney.
"From the rash I'd say he's contracted bluefly fever, we need to get him to the village before he gets worse." Sampson is making groaning noises now and Barney and Vio help him to clamber into the back of the cart.
"What happens to all your plans if he dies out here?" she asks him harshly.
"He's not going to die," Barney replies, but he doesn't sound totally confident.
Before we set off again Barney says something to Ev in the echoback language, Ev snorts in reply then disappears briefly into the back of the cart. He comes out carrying a small drawstring pouch which he hands to Vio. She takes it slightly reluctantly, opening it and pouring out a small handful of some sort of dried red berries.
"Why has he given me this?" she frowns at Barney.
"Exit told me you'd run out of tobacco, those berries are an acceptable alternative."
"Are you suggesting I fucking smoke them?" she holds them up looking annoyed.
"No," he shakes his head. "You chew them, one or two at a time."
"Hmm." She doesn't put any in her mouth, but I notice she doesn't give them back either.
We walk for a couple of hours, Vio is limping quite badly but she doesn't complain, both of us are concerned about Sampson but as he's shut up in the back of the cart so we can't check on him. Eventually we stop at a small track leading off into the forest, Ev put his his hands to his mouth and makes a loud hooting noise, which is repeated back to us from the forest. Two echobacks dressed like our captors step out from behind the trees and hold a short conversation with Barney that I can't understand a word of. The back of the cart is opened and the contents is shared out amongst all of us to be carried, with the exception of Sampson. He almost falls out of the cart, and if possible looks worse than he did earlier. He's taken his shirt off all together now and I can see that the purple rash has spread over his whole chest and back. He's dripping with sweat and Vio hands him a canteen of water and tries to get him to drink, but he just stares at it as if he has no idea what it is.
"You can't make him walk through the forest in this state," Vio protests to Barney.
"We don't have much choice," he snaps. I think he's worried about Sampson too.
"Of course you fucking do, put him back in the cart and take us back to Shelly."
I didn't notice Ev go, but he must have slipped away into the forest a few minutes ago as he comes out from behind a tree dressed in...almost nothing really. His military style clothes are gone, and have been replaced by something that looks like a very small pair of leather underpants which are held together by leather thongs that wrap around the side of his body and tie under his tail. And that's all, unless you count the black rings that he's painted around his eyes which make him look even more menacing then he normally does, and of course his ever present rifle. Crawling all the way up one arm and across his chest is a tattoo that's made up of a lot of lines, circles and dots and I recognise the style of it, Tallis had one like that.
While Barney and Vio continue to argue about Sampson I go over to Tippit who is standing a few yards back from everyone else. "Why is Ev dressed like that?" I ask him quietly.
"It's what echobacks, what we, wear in the forest." He replies, and suddenly it hits me. I'm about to go into the deep forest, go to the place where I must have been born, where my family came from, and I have absolutely no idea what to expect.
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