by London Lampy
A mile or so into our journey through the forest it becomes clear that Sampson is getting worse by the minute and can hardly walk any more. There is no clear path and it's not easy going for any of us, even Ev who seems most at home here. Poor Vio is sweating and swearing as we clamber over fallen trees, battle through undergrowth and wade in knee deep stagnant water. When we stop yet again to let Sampson catch up I notice that she's chewing something, she must have resorted to the red berries that Barney gave her as a tobacco substitute. As we reach a steep, rocky slope we have to more or less drag Sampson up it and at the top he collapses to his knees, his eyes roll back in his head and he makes a low groaning sound. Barney tries to pull him to his feet again but Vio steps in and stops him.
"Are you trying to fucking kill him?" she growls. "He needs to be in bed, maybe even a hospital bed, not pushing his way through a bloody jungle."
Surprisingly Barney nods in agreement. "I think we're going to have to carry him the rest of the way," he says, looking at the crumpled form of Sampson.
"How?" I ask, Sampson is quite tall and the going is hard enough already.
"Perhaps if I take his legs and Vio takes his arms..." he frowns.
"That ain't going to work," she shakes her head. "We need a stretcher, have you got anything we can make one out of?"
It takes us the best part of an hour to turn a couple of blankets, some rope and two fairly straight branches into something that looks a bit like a stretcher. Meanwhile Sampson goes downhill fast, by the time we get him onto the thing he barely seems to be conscious at all. We take turns in carrying him in pairs, me with either Ev or Tippit, but mostly Ev, or Barney and Vio. At one point I try carrying him with Vio but because of the difference in our heights we almost end up tipping him out.
I know things are bad because Vio and Barney seem to have called a truce and are working together to get Sampson to the village as fast as we can, which unfortunately isn't very fast at all. Trying to manoeuvre a loaded stretcher through a forest filled with sudden drops and unexpected pools of water is not easy, and added to Sampson we're all carrying packs and bags that were previously in the back of the cart so exhaustion sets in very soon. A couple of hours after we began to stretcher Sampson through the forest we stop for a very brief meal, while we eat Ev disappears, when he returns he grunts a few words to Barney.
"He thinks we're about three miles away now," Barney translates. "We should make it before nightfall."
Three miles, it might as well be three hundred. Beside me Vio spits onto the ground at her feet and I notice that it comes out bright red.
"Are you alright?" I ask, it looks like she spat blood.
"Yeah, if I ignore my feet," she replies. "These things Barney gave me seem to be working, taste fucking awful though."
I look at her and laugh, her teeth and lips are stained red from the berries. "Shit, I thought you you were bleeding."
"What?" she wipes her hand over her mouth and looks at the red smear it leaves there. "Oh, no, it's just berry juice."
It takes us forever to travel the final few miles, none of us can carry Sampson for very long now and we seem to be swapping around every few minutes. My palms are starting to blister and my arms are on fire from wrist to shoulder. By the time we reach the bank of a small river with a pathway winding along it I'm just about ready to give up and abandon my sick boss in the deep forest.
"We're very close now," Barney pants.
On the opposite side of the river is sort of a garden, it's obviously been deliberately planted with a mixture of things, and the trees have been cut back to allow the sunlight through. The only plants I recognise are banana and mango. Two echoback women are among the plants, picking handfuls of shiny dark leaves off some bushes and putting them into large, shallow baskets. They are dressed just like Ev is, they don't even have anything covering their breasts. Neither of them has tattoos but they do have what look like wide, flat necklaces that are sitting on their collar bones and are covered in an assortment of beads. They stare at us as we pass, one of them calls out something, I can only understand the word "Barney", and Barney replies with a tired wave and some kind of greeting. We keep to the pathway as at hugs the river until our exhausted party finally reaches a clearing that has a handful of huts built in it.
"We're home," Barney announces, and Ev and me put the stretcher down gratefully.
I count five huts, some are larger than others, one even has a kind of a porch and looks like it has more than one room inside, but I can't see how this could be described as a village. Also, apart from us no one else is in sight. I can see Vio staring around too, and I imagine she's thinking much the same as me.
"This isn't a village," she says bluntly.
"Sure it is," Barney grins. "Over a hundred and fifty souls live here."
"Where?" I turn around, all I can see in every direction is trees.
"Look," Barney points upwards. I follow where he indicates, and what I see almost takes my breath away. The village isn't on the ground, but built high up amongst the branches of the trees. As far as my eyes can see there are platforms with huts on them, many of them are small but some cover two, or even three stories and those ones are built around the largest trees. Between the platforms are strung bridges and ladders made of thick ropes knotted together, some of the bridges are twenty or thirty feet in length.
"The village is up in the trees," I breath.
"Where else would you find an echoback village?" Barney replies.
I can see people in the village too, some of them are staring curiously down at us, all of them are near naked and many of the men have extensive tattoos and dark rings painted around their eyes like Ev. I spot a group of nearly a dozen completely naked little tailed children swinging down through the branches, using their hands, feet and tails to propel themselves until they nimbly descend a ladder and bounce over to where we're standing. All of them have short hair with leaves, feathers and flowers wound into it, and some of them have designs painted onto their faces and bodies in black, white and red clay.
They stare and point at Vio, Sampson and me. Chattering in high pitched voices they're clearly asking the others questions about us. Barney points to Sampson on the stretcher, says something to them and they scatter, springing back into the trees and disappearing from sight.
"We need to take him indoors," Vio says flatly, indicating Sampson.
"We do," Barney agrees. "Come on."
Ev and me lift him again, and we follow Barney into one of the huts. Inside is a single room, its windows simple holes in the wall, its floor packed earth with a pair of sleeping mats laid out on it.
"This is one of our guest huts," Barney explains to me. "My wife and I live in the large hut and Tippit lives next door. We have another guest hut that you and Vio can share." Oh good, Vio snores like a bear.
Vio and Tippit have followed us in and when we put Sampson down again Vio kneels beside him and lays a hand on his forehead. "He's almost too fucking hot to touch," she says, looking accusingly at Barney.
"I sent the children to find Eline, she's good with herbs, she'll make something to bring his fever down."
"He needs a proper doctor, not some fucking herbalist," Vio growls.
"Who are you to talk to my husband like that?" a voice comes from behind us. I turn and look, the newcomer is a very small echoback woman dressed in the same soldier's clothes as Barney and Tippit. She has no tail on show, her hair is pulled back into a severe braid and she bears a striking resemblance to Tippit. If this is Barney's wife she must be his sister.
"My name is Vio and I'll talk to your husband any way I like seeing as he abducted us and is very soon going to be responsible for the death of this man," she indicates Sampson.
The woman says something to Barney in the echoback language and he replies at length. When he's done she turns to Vio again.
"He's got bluefly fever, it's something only weak humans get, the insects don't bite us. But pathetic as he is he should survive it, with our help."
"You think humans are pathetic, yet you're married to one?" Vio challenges her.
"Barney is the single exception out of your whole sorry race, he has the heart of an echoback, he is a child of Gui." Oh gods, she's as crazy as he is.
"That's correct," he agrees.
Fortunately before this can go any further another person enters the hut. The newcomer is an older echoback woman dressed in the leather underpants that I now know to be the standard clothing of forest dwelling echobacks. She's carrying a cloth bundle, a canteen of water, a patterned china bowl and a sharp looking kitchen knife. She peers down at Sampson then around at the small crowd of people who are now in the hut. She asks Barney what sounds like a question, which he replies to, then addresses all of us. I don't understand the words but the hand gesture that accompanies them is clear, she's shooing us out of here.
"Eline says we should give him some air," Barney translates. I'm quite happy to go back outside.
"Do you think one of us should stay in there with him?" Vio mutters to me. "The gods only know what that fucking herbal woman is going to do to him."
"Surely she can't make things any worse," I look at the hut, not really wanting to go in there again.
"Hah," Vio lets out a mirthless laugh. "Good point monk..." she stops mid word, glancing over at Barney, Tippit and Barney's wife/Tippit's sister, who look to be deep in conversation a few yards away. Ev seems to have disappeared, and I'm not too sorry about that.
"Best not say that here," I nod.
Barney turns around and catches my eye. "Exit, come over here," he calls out, cocking his head at me. I look at Vio, who pats me on the shoulder, and I go over to join the small group.
"Let me introduce you to my wife," Barney says. "Sora, this is Exit, Exit, meet Sora."
She puts a hand out for me to shake, smiling at me warmly. "Barney just filled me in on who you are, it's truly wonderful how you've returned. He's often talked of the little boy he found all those years ago, worrying about what became of you."
She seems to be ignoring the fact that I'm here against my will, and would much rather be back home in Parnell. "It's good to meet you," I say though, not wanting to get into an argument with her right now, she seems quite feisty.
"I thought I'd get some of the youngsters to show him around," Barney says to his wife. "Llando and Tula are close to his age." Sora nods in agreement.
"Do you speak our language?" she asks me.
"Sadly he doesn't," Barney answers for me.
"No, I don't," I put in, not liking being talked over.
"You'll learn soon enough," Sora says, her head tilted to one side as if she's talking to a child.
They seem to be acting like I'm here out of choice and am going to stay, rather than a hostage taken alongside their actual goal who would much rather be set free.
"The sun is starting to set," Sora looks up through the trees. "Come husband, we need to organise the sleeping hut for our visitors." With a smile they go off and I'm left alone with Tippit. I look in the direction they went and see Vio sitting on their porch chewing on what I assume to be more of the red berries.
"I'm sorry about my sister," Tippit says quietly. "She wasn't always like that, after we were freed she took up with Barney and it was like she was reborn as some sort of pro-echoback anti-slavery crusader. She can't seem to see any point of view save her own now."
"It's alright, I can see they mean well," I shrug. "But I'm not staying here, Barney can't want to keep Sampson forever, when he lets him go I'm off home too."
"Can I come with you?" Tippit asks darkly.
"What do you think it's like up there?" I point to the village in the trees. Vio and me are sitting on the ground in front of the hut we've been given to sleep in. Barney has given us some sort of fruit juice and we're drinking that out of tin cups while looking up into the trees. It's dark now and the village is lit by hundreds of tiny glass oil lamps that are balanced on the platforms or hanging from the branches of the trees. These makes it look like something strange and magical is floating above us.
"Don't know, and I'm not in any fucking hurry to find out." Vio doesn't like heights, and I can't imagine her scrambling up the trees or balancing across the rope bridges. I saw Barney go up there before it got fully dark, awkwardly making his way up one of the ladders that's hanging down out of the trees. Sora might think he's got the heart of an echoback, but he certainly doesn't have the agility of one.
"You'll be going up there tomorrow though won't you?" she says, putting another red berry in her mouth and chewing on it.
"Maybe. Barney wants some of the villagers to show me around, but you know I don't belong here any more than you do."
She laughs softly. "I know, you're a city boy, but you're fucking curious, aren't you? I'd be if I was you, this is your chance to find out about the life you could have had."
I look up at the village again, I can see figures moving up there, I wonder if any of them are looking down and watching us? "Would you mind if I did? I don't want to leave you down here on your own."
"I've got Sampson to keep me company," we both laugh at this. Whatever Eline did to him has made him a little better. We went to check on him a while ago, his fever seems to have broken, the rash has calmed down a little and he looked to be sleeping rather than unconscious.
Eline told us, through Barney, that he was now on the mend, but it wouldn't happen overnight, and she'd be back to check on him in the morning.
"Look, you'll probably never get another chance like this again. The circumstances might not be ideal, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take advantage."
"Thanks," I really want to explore the village but I don't want to be disloyal to Vio, or even Sampson. He might be a fuckwit but he's also my boss and the man we were suppose to protect. We've made a pretty crappy job of that, all things considered.
"Do you think Vin's alright?" I ask after a moment.
"Yeah, he'll be fine, fucking pissed off though, and Zale is going to skin him alive for this. He'll be lucky if he keeps his job, maybe he'll have to go and work for his father-in-law after all."
"Perhaps he'll rescue us."
"You want him to ride in here on a white horse and carry you away from the bad men like a princess in distress?" Vio teases.
"Princess monkey boy." She laughs so hard she ends up coughing.
"Ssh, you don't want Ev hearing you say that. Anyway, I don't mean that sort of romantic rescue, I just mean get us out of here."
"Aw, has princess monkey boy stopped believing in fairy tales?"
"I think you've had too many red berries."
"I think you might be right," she laughs.
We sit in silence for a while, I can't help thinking about the idea of romantic rescues. "I thought someone was going to rescue me once. He promised he would, then he didn't."
"What happened?" she asks quietly.
"Everything got kind of fucked up, he did a stupid thing and left and I never saw him again."
"Did he cheat on you?"
"No. He killed someone."
"Fuck," she breaths. "That's a bit more than stupid, did he go to gaol?"
"He joined the army, left the Twin Islands, don't know where he ended up."
"That's...shitty," she declares.
"Yeah, but it happened a long time ago."
"How long? You ain't that old."
"At your age that's pretty much a lifetime I suppose," She looks at me. "You want to try one of the red berries?" Vio puts her hand into her pocket, pulls out one and offers it to me.
"No...thanks, I kind of like my teeth the colour they are."
"Fine," she shrugs, putting it in her own mouth and chewing.
"I'm going to go bed," I stand up, stretching.
"Good night princess monkey boy," she laughs, and I can still hear her giggling as I pull the blanket over me and try to fall asleep.
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