by London Lampy
Sampson's eyes are open and he's drinking water by sucking it out of a rag dipped into a bowl. His clothes have been changed, it looks like someone has borrowed some of Barney's army type stuff for him, and although they are similar heights Sampson is lanky where Barney is solid so the shirt and trousers bag on him. Eline and a young girl of about twelve or so who I assume is her daughter are tending to him, and I'm surprised at how relived I feel to see him starting to improve. He stares at Vio and me as if he's trying to remember who we are, and when he tries to speak Eline hushes him like a baby then waves us out of the hut saying something in a scolding tone of voice.
As we come out into the clearing Barney is standing on his porch eating a banana. "Good morning," he greets me. "Did you sleep well?"
"No," Vio says flatly. I'm not really sure that he was talking to her, they glare at each other for a few seconds, then she disappears into our hut muttering under her breath.
"I have a couple of people I'd like you to meet," Barney walks over to me and looks above him, beckoning whoever it is down.
Out of the trees drop two echobacks who look to be around my age, one boy and one girl. They're dressed in the same way as all the others I've seen, that is mostly naked. The girl has a wide necklace made up of beads sewn onto a strip of fabric that all the women I've seen so far with the exception of Sora have worn. Her hair is plaited into dozens of tiny braids, each one with a black bead at the end. The boy's hair is in a single braid with a leather thong worked into it, and he has a tattoo on his upper arm, not as large as the one Ev has, just a single band a couple of inches wide made up of straight and slanting lines with a patten of dots inside it.
"This," Barney grins, finishing his banana, "is Llando," he points at the boy, "and that's his sister Tula," he indicates the girl. "They're going to show you around the village, they know a few words of the human language. Maybe you could teach them some more in return for them teaching you some of ours."
Ours? If I don't consider the echoback language to be my language I don't see how Barney, a human, can consider it to be his either.
The girl, Tula, points at my head and says something to her brother that makes him laugh.
"What did she say?" I frown.
"She said you have the hair of a little child," Sora says, appearing beside her husband.
I touch my head. "There's nothing wrong with my hair."
"No, there isn't, you're not to know any better," Barney adds, then scolds them, which makes them giggle even more. The boy then gestures to my body and asks what sounds like a question.
"He wants to know why you're wearing so many clothes in the forest," Sora helpfully translates.
"Um...because I forgot to bring my tiny leather underwear with me."
Barney frowns at me while Sora relates my words to them, once she's done they look at me and laugh again. I have no idea if they got the joke or just think I'm funny.
"Tula, Llando, this is Exit," Barney says slowly and clearly. "Can you say "hello" to him?"
"Ixat?" Tula says. "Ixat?" Llando echoes. They both look at each other then laugh so hard they actually start to cry. When they've finally recovered Tula asks Sora something.
"What?" I say in frustration.
Sora glances at her husband. "They want to know if your name really is banana meal porridge."
"No it's not," I retort, glaring at Barney, who has the decency to look slightly embarrassed. "It's Exit E-X-I-T, I am not called "banana meal porridge"!"
Barney tells them off at length, by the time he's finished they both look a little ashamed. "They've got something to say to you," he stares at them.
"S...orry," Tula says. "Sorry," Llando says.
"Apology accepted," I reply, trying to work out if "banana meal porridge" is better or worse than "princess monkey boy".
Barney speaks to them, pointing upward to the village. "They're going to show you around now," he tells me.
Tula gestures for me to follow her and they rapidly disappear into the trees, and it takes me a few minutes to find them. They're sitting on a platform outside a small hut, their legs dangling over the side watching Barney and Sora walking back to their hut.
"I thought you were meant to be showing me around," I say, sitting down next to Llando.
"Vill...age," he says, waving his hand around over his head, Tula giggles again. "Barney hoots," he points down at the clearing.
"Huts," I correct.
"Huts," he repeats. "Huts."
I get the feeling they're not too interested in giving me a tour so I decide to try talking to them instead."Which one of you is the oldest?" I ask.
"Hu?" they both say, frowning at me.
"Oldest...youngest, you know," I point from one of them to the other. They talk to each other, I guess they're tying to work out what I said.
"Two," Tula says, holding up two fingers.
"Look, I know you're not two." This is ridiculous.
"Na, na," She shakes her head and touches her brothers shoulder then her own. "Two," she holds her arms out as if she's cradling something in each of them. Something like babies. Two babies.
"You're twins!" I exclaim, working it out.
"Sa," Llando grins back. "Twi...ns."
"How old are you?" I ask, they look at me blankly. "Age...I'm nineteen." I hold up ten fingers, then nine, then point at myself.
"Sa," Llando nods, "eighty." He points at himself.
"I think you mean eighteen." I know echobacks don't age the way humans do, but they're not that old.
Tula holds up ten, then eight fingers in response. They are eighteen.
"Hey," Sora's head appears from amongst the branches. She scrambles onto the platform and stands looking down at the three of us. "Are they showing you around?" she asks me.
"Um...we're talking," I reply. She glares at the twins, then tells them off, at least I think she does.
"They're going to show you around now," Sora says once she's done nagging them. She says a few more words to them, I catch my name, then she disappears back the way she came. Tula makes a hand gesture at her retreating form. It's not one I've seen before, she sort of jerks her thumb upwards rapidly, but it's clearly not meant as anything complimentary. Llando grabs her wrist to stop her, and she pulls her arm back glaring at him, speaking sharply.
"Come," he says to me, ignoring his sister and standing up.
I get to my feet too, but Tula stubbornly stays where she is. The two of them exchange a few words, which ends in Llando giving her a one shouldered shrug then beckoning for me to follow him, Tula stays put. We climb further up the tree then jump through the branches eventually landing on one of the knotted rope bridges. As I go my shirt snags on a broken branch and I have to untangle it by hanging upside down by my tail and I can see why Llando thought I was overdressed for the forest.
Standing on the bridge I examine the damage, I've lost two buttons and it has a large tear. "Shit," I mutter, I only have two others with me, and this was my last cleanish one. Before I can get too annoyed about the damage to my clothing Llando is off again, jogging across the bridge and springing back into the trees at the other end. We make our way across several platforms, some of which have huts and most of which have people on them who stare at us and call out to Llando as we pass by. He replies each time with a quick greeting then swiftly moves on.
I have to admit I'm sort of finding it hard to keep up with him, which is something that's never happened to me before. All my life I've been used to being able to out run, out jump and out climb everyone I've ever known. I'm not sure this feeling is one I like, even Tallis couldn't move as fast as me, he was in his seventies, but Llando is my age and he's grown up here. After a few minutes we reach what kind of feels like the centre of the village, and a structure that's much bigger than any other I've seen here stands in front of us. It's two stories tall and is built to span between four large trees. Several of the children we saw earlier are playing in front of it, engaged in some kind of game that looks a bit like marbles but they're using nuts instead. They look up at us, a small girl leaves the group and jumps up into Llando's arms, wrapping her tail around his body and chatting to him while pointing to me.
"Small..." he says frowning, "small...Tula." He ruffles the girls short hair.
Small Tula, is this girl called Tula too? No, I get it. "She's your little sister, your smaller sister," I say.
"Sa," he grins nodding.
We go into the large building, Llando still carrying the girl in his arms. There are no windows inside but the walls have been built with gaps between the timbers so some light can get in in, making striped pattens on the floor. Inside are more children and adults too, all sitting on the floor and ranged in age from tiny babies feeding from their mothers to a women so old she must be well into her hundreds.
It looks like they have just finished eating a meal, an assortment of bowls and dishes are spread around. Many of the dishes basic and home made looking, but I spot some fine china too and even a large soup tureen with handles moulded into the shape of dolphins. It's got something that kind of looks like yellow mashed potato in it.
Everyone in the room stares at me, I swear even the babies are staring. A man sitting at the far end gets to his feet and comes over to us. Never once taking his eyes off of me he addresses Llando who puts his sister down and talks to him and I hear both mine and Barney's names being mentioned. I look at the man, his entire chest and arms are covered in tattoos, fine pattens of lines and dots marching across his skin, he has black painted rings around his eyes like Ev and many of the other men, and he carries himself with authority.
"Hello," he says to me. "Welcome to village...I'm Mathi, chief."
"Hello, I'm Exit," I introduce myself to him.
"You come city?" he asks me. I guess he means Shelly, or even Kipp, but I tell him yes, after all I do come from a city.
"You come Barney...he steal you chief?"
"Yes," I nod.
"He steal you?"
He gives me a considering look. "Barney do bad...Barney do good. You stay?"
"Um...for now." It's not really like I have a choice at the moment, although I'm kind of hoping that when Sampson is better Barney might decide he's made his point and let us go. He clearly doesn't mean any harm but I still don't want to stay here any longer than I have to.
"My son...he show you village?" Ah, he's Llando's father.
"Yes," sort of.
"You meet Tula?"
"Tula pretty girl...we need..." he stops to think. "Need more...different people. You different people."
Oh gods, does he mean what I think he does? Is someone else trying to marry me off? Or maybe he just wants me to make her pregnant, either way it's not happening.
"Exit...you welcome here...you want?" he makes a sweeping gesture which I interpret as meaning anything. There is one thing I want, very badly.
"Do you have somewhere I could wash...a bath or a shower or something?" I haven't washed since the train, and I haven't showered since Kipp and I don't think I've ever felt so dirty in my life.
"Wash?" He repeats, I nod in reply. He briefly speaks to Llando who indicates for me to follow him again.
We leave the large hut and go further into the village, this time the group of children, led by Llando's little sister, follow us. They almost seem to fly through the trees, they never stop moving and even when they could use a bridge or a platform they mostly chose to jump from branch to branch instead, using their hands and their tails to hold on with and their feet to propel them when necessary.
They're upside down as often as they're right side up and they never once stop chattering to one another. Again I find it hard to keep up and on a couple of occasions Llando stops for me to catch up, and I feel slightly embarrassed. When we descend a knotted rope to the ground I can see why I've been brought here, we're beside the small river but the ground drops steeply away and the river becomes a waterfall that tumbles over smooth, grey boulders into a wide rocky pool. At the far end of the pool the ground drops away again, although this time not as steeply and the river forms another, much smaller waterfall before it continues on its way. The children run down the slope and throw themselves into the pool with loud whoops and shrieks then swim and splash around with the same energy and ability they had swinging through the trees.
"Exit...water?" Llando says, pointing at the pool.
I don't need to be asked twice, I quickly remove my shirt and trousers and lower myself in from a large, flat rock. The water feels amazing, it's cool but not cold and so clear I can see the stones on the bottom. I wade out then swim to the middle, treading water and look around. Llando having removed the small amount of clothing he was wearing has climbed up to the top of the waterfall high above us and is standing looking down at the children, who are all chanting something encouragingly at him. He waves to them, which makes them shout even louder. I watch him, he looks pretty good and suddenly I think I can see what other people see in me. His body is sleekly muscled and smooth looking, and in the shafts of sunlight that fall between the leaves and branches his skin is the most incredibly beautiful golden colour. He raises his arms above his head and places his palms together, then launches himself off, jumping in a graceful arc and hitting the water so cleanly that he hardly makes a splash. When he comes back up the children all cheer him, then resume their splashing games. He grins at me, swimming over to where I am and shaking the water off his hair, the drops catching the light as they fall.
"That was impressive," I say when he's close enough to hear me. Soaking wet he looks even better and...shit...I'm going to have to stop this train of thought right now or things could get very embarrassing. It's not really appropriate in a pool full of little children either, and I shouldn't be fantasying about someone I only met a couple of hours ago for that matter.
"Exit?" he questions, pointing to the top of the waterfall.
"Erm..." I can swim a lot better since my time on Nightport, but I've never tried diving off anything. However I don't want to look like a coward in front of Llando, or the children, and it can't be that difficult. "Alright," I agree.
I swim back to the side followed by Llando, as I climb out the rocks feel warm against my wet skin and I leave damp hand and foot prints on them as I go. I stand and look up at the top of the waterfall, it's quite high. I'm not afraid of heights, obviously, but deliberately throwing myself off of one is a different matter.
I'm suddenly distracted from my fears by Llando putting out his hand and touching the ring in my navel, running his fingertip around it. "Hurt?" he questions me.
"Not really," I shrug, trying very hard not to let an image form in my mind of his hand travelling lower.
I decide that I'd better climb the rocks before I lose my nerve and also before I start having inappropriate thoughts about Llando again. It's an easy climb, it doesn't take me long to reach the top and soon I find myself standing where Llando was a few minutes ago, looking down at the children, who are staring up at me and shouting. They look very small from up here. Llando is still out of the water on the rocks at the side and and he waves to me. What's the worst thing that could happen? I could hit my head on one of the rocks on the way down and drown, that's what, but I can't back out now.
I take a deep breath and raise my arms above my head the way the way Llando did. Pressing my hands together I summon all my courage, then I jump. I somehow don't manage to do it as neatly as he did and my body twists in the air so instead of breaking the water with my fingertips and gliding in I strike the surface hard with my left shoulder. I'm forced under the water toward the bottom of the pool and I realise that not only have I never tried diving before, I've never swum underwater either. I panic a bit, I don't know which way is up and stupidly I breath in and my nose and mouth fill up with water. Kicking frantically I spot some of the children's legs above me and I push myself in that direction, and after what feels like forever but can really only have been a few seconds I surface, coughing and spitting out water. I can hear the children cheering again and I just about manage to swim back to the rocks at the side and haul myself out onto one, my heart thumping in my chest.
As I'm trying to empty the water out of my ears I become aware of a figure standing behind me, I turn around to see who it is and am surprised to find Vio frowning down at me.
"That," she says crossly, "was just about the most fucking stupid thing I've ever seen you do, what in the god's names possessed you?" I look past her to where Llando is balanced on a boulder holding his little sister over the pool by her feet, she's giggling and squealing in excitement. Vio turns her head and follows my gaze. "For fucks sake," she mutters in disgust when she sees what I'm looking at. "Your brain really is in your pants, isn't it?"
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