by London Lampy
"He's not well," I can hear Vio saying. "Your husband loaded him up on drugs then did fuck knows what with him, and look at his arm, I'd put money on it being infected. I can't imagine that weird old man used anything clean to tattoo him with."
"I feel sorry for you," Sora replies. "You'll never understand our culture. He's fine, he only needs some rest, and Eline gave me this for his arm, that's why I came here."
"Would the pair of you please shut up, I've got a headache," I croak from under my blankets.
"See!" Vio whispers loudly. "I told you he was ill."
I groan, wishing that they'd both go away. To be honest I think Sora's right, I feel hungover, I'm very thirsty, my stomach is queasy and my head is pounding, but I don't really think I'm ill. My arm is throbbing too, it's kind of all scabby and peeling at the moment, but once it has healed it's going to look pretty good. Sosa did a pattern of zigzags overlapping one another to form diamonds, with a dot in the centre of each diamond, and I really like it. Which is good because I'm stuck with it now.
"Drink some water and have a light breakfast, that'll make you feel better, and congratulations on becoming a man, I'll see you later." With that thankfully Sora goes, not bothering to say goodbye to Vio.
"She's worse than fucking Sonja," Vio mutters. "Oh gods! I think I'm homesick for Sonja." I almost manage a laugh. "Do you want me to put some of this stuff on your arm? I think it's the same stuff Barney gave me for my blisters, smells the same." I hear her sniffing.
"No, I'll do it," I sit up, and briefly regret it, the hut spins and my stomach lurches. When I take a deep breath things settle down and Vio passes me a small bowl with sticky yellow ointment in it. I smear some over my new tattoo, it stings a bit at first but it does actually seem to calm the throbbing.
"Are you going to tell me exactly what they did to you?" Vio asks, sitting down cross legged next to me.
"I can't." My stomach hurts, and I realise that despite the queasiness I'm really hungry, all I've eaten in the past three days are two bananas and a piece of flat bread.
"Oh fuck, don't tell me you're starting to believe all that bullshit now too?"
How can I explain it to her? Something did happen to me out there, and I do feel different. I know she'll say it's only because they gave me some sort of drug, and maybe she's right, or maybe she isn't, I don't know. "I can't remember that much about what happened, it was all dreams and stuff, and I'm not meant to talk to you about it anyway because you're a woman."
"For fucks sake," she snorts. "Do you really think if you tell me the echoback god is going to send a bolt of lightning and strike us down?"
"No, but they believe it's something I shouldn't do, and I kind of think it'd be wrong to ignore that."
"Fine," she frowns at me. "If you're feeling up to it you should go and have a wash, you look like you've been rolling around in the dirt, and you smell like puke."
"So kind of you to point that out."
"Just saying," she grins.
After a breakfast of fruit and bread I head off toward the bathing pool. I like fruit, and I like bread, but what I'd really like is some bacon, and some eggs, and maybe some fried potatoes too. My mouth waters at the thought. A few people are in the pool, and as usual they stare at me as I wade in, but this time they also smile, and those closest to me greet me by name. I see Mathi swimming over to me.
"Welcome tendra," he says, standing up next to me.
"Hello," I nod.
"Now Exit man...one of us one of...family."
"Thank you," I reply. It feels nice, him saying that, but they aren't my family, and somehow the whole experience has made me feel even more that this isn't my place, and that they need to know that. "I'll never forget how well you've treated me, even when I go home."
"You want city home?" he gives me a considering look.
"Yes, I still want to go back to my city, back home."
"You not meant forest...only visit, I know," he nods.
"Could you try to explain to Barney? He doesn't understand."
"Barney see only Barney want see. Barney good man...Barney sometime...wrong."
A sudden loud splash comes from beside us and I turn to look. Llando his joined us, leaping into the water from one of the boulders. He grabs my left arm to look at my tattoo, running his fingers over it, slightly more firmly than I would like right now.
"Good," he grins, twisting my arm around.
"You like it?"
Mindful of that his father is standing in front of us I take my arm back and wade a little further out into the water. He follows, and I kind of wish he hadn't, even still feeling a bit "hungover" my body is aware that we have unfinished business from a few nights ago. I attempt to keep a few feet away from him to stop him from wrapping any part of himself around me. I'm trying to work out how to suggest to him that we spend a bit of time alone together later when I'm distracted by the unmistakeable sound of Sampson's voice floating across the water.
"Bloody hell woman, you're my employee, not my wife. I don't let Mrs S tell me what I can and cannot wear, and if I don't bow to her I'm not damn well about to bow to you!"
I look round to see what's going on, and I really wish I hadn't. Sampson is striding toward the pool, with Vio a few paces behind. He's not wearing his own clothes that he arrived here in, neither is he wearing any of the khaki stuff that Barney lent him that he's had on for the past few days. Instead he's decided to dress in the style of the tribe, and he has on nothing except a small square of leather held together with thongs. Oh gods. Everyone in the pool stares at him, Llando swims up behind me, puts his arms around my shoulders and starts laughing loudly.
"Ssh!" I say. "He's my boss, my chief." Although I'm trying very hard to stifle my own giggles.
Sampson looks ridiculous, even Barney doesn't go that far. For a man of his age he's not in bad shape I suppose, but what he's wearing wasn't made for a fifty year old human with greying body hair and no tail, and I'm glad I can only see him from the front. When he removes it to get into the pool it's kind of a relief, at least he's simply naked then and somehow that's not nearly so bad. He swims splashily to the other side then perches on the rocks next to a young woman who he starts talking loudly to about how he wishes he had his fishing rods here, despite the fact that she can have no clue what he is saying.
"Mr Sampson...he bit crazy?" Mathi asks, appearing by my side treading water.
"Yes, I'm very much afraid he is," I reply.
"Where did he get if from?" I quiz Vio, pulling my shorts back on. I didn't stay in the pool very long, Llando was too much of a distraction, and I also wanted to get out before Sampson decided to start talking to me. He's still in there, happily swimming around talking nonsense to people.
"Eline apparently." She takes a red berry out of her pocket and puts it in her mouth. Having exhausted her original supply Barney gave her some more yesterday, she seems to have stopped chewing too many at once and getting stoned, or maybe she's built up some sort of tolerance to them.
"But why? I mean even I wouldn't wear one of those things."
"Says he wants to experience what it's like to be a member of the tribe. I just bloody well wish that didn't involve him walking around with his ass hanging out."
"It doesn't work without a tail, does it?"
"No, it fucking doesn't. He got me to help him tie it up," she shudders. "I never ever want to get that close to his tackle again."
Hours later he's unfortunately still wearing it, and I can't say I've grown used to the sight. Sampson and his dubious clothing choices apart, something is going on. The three of us have been summoned to a meeting in the village, not in the public surroundings of the big house, but in what I take to be Mathi's private hut. Barney, Sora and Tippit are also here, along with Ev, who is crouched by the doorway with his gun held close to him. We are all sitting on the floor, with the exception of Mathi who is perched on a stack of blue velvet cushions with golden tassels, and beside him is Llando. I can only assume whatever we're here for is something serious as Llando hasn't come over and wrapped his tail around me like he normally does.
"I reckon they're going to let us go," Vio whispers to me.
"Yes," I say quietly, nodding. At least I hope that's what it is, I want to go home. I glance over and catch Llando's eye, he gives me a quick smile, there are some things I'm going to miss.
"Ahem!" Barney noisily clears his throat to get everyone's attention. "Some of you already know this, but I'll say it again for the benefit of those who don't. Ev came back from a scouting mission earlier today, there is plantation that lies a couple of days walk from here that we destroyed some years ago, but it seems that it has been reoccupied, the land is being replanted, by slaves."
"What the fuck has that got to do with us?" Vio hisses into my ear. I shrug, feeling disappointed, it doesn't sound like we're getting to go home any time soon.
"In addition to this they have armed guards protecting the place, hardly surprising considering what we did last time, but a problem none the less."
"That's all very interesting," Vio says. "But why are you telling us?"
"If you'd let my husband finish speaking you'd find out," Sora snaps at her. I hear Vio drawing breath to reply so I squeeze her arm to stop her, this is not a good time for her to continue her feud with Barney's wife.
"I understand your curiosity," Barney says as the two women glare at one another across the hut. "And I will explain in due course..."
"I say," Sampson buts in. "This is starting to sound like the old days, like a campaign. Are we going to march down to this plantation and show them what's what?"
Oh dear gods! I think I preferred the old Sampson, the one who hadn't met Gui and called me a monkey. We don't want to get involved in this.
"Yes Mr Sampson we are," Barney addresses him. "And I've invited yourself and Vio here today to ask for your help."
Not me? Why not me?
"Splendid," Sampson rubs his hands together. "Sign me up! Who'd have thought it, going back into battle at my age?"
"No," Vio says firmly, "this is fucking stupid. Sir you can't, it'll be dangerous, not to mention illegal. This isn't our fight and we're not getting involved, they don't need us."
"Will you let the man make up his own mind?" Sora throws at Vio.
"Shut up!" Vio retorts. "This is none of your sodding business."
"Do not speak to me like that!" Sora's golden eyes narrow in anger.
"Damn it woman, if I want to fight, I'll fight. It's not your choice to make," Sampson declares to Vio, not helping one bit.
"Sir," I look at my boss. I don't find him as intimidating as I normally do, seeing as he's sitting on the floor in nothing but leather underwear. "Don't be rude to Vio, she's doing her job. We came out here to protect you, what would Vin say if he knew you were intending to put yourself in danger? We don't want any part of this."
"Actually son," Barney looks at me. "I wasn't planning on involving you, not unless you want to be involved, and I wasn't planning on asking Mr Sampson or Vio to take part in any actual fighting. If you'll all stop interrupting me I'll finish my explanation."
"Yes," Sora says. "Let my husband speak." She looks smugly at Vio.
"Sora, cut it out," Tippit adds unexpectedly, glaring at his sister.
"All people," everybody turns to look at Mathi. "Stop argue, listen Barney, then decide. If people not want help, people not help, we not slavers."
A general mutter of "sorry" comes from around the room. I like the way Mathi commands respect without superiority, and I can see Llando looking up at his father proudly. Mathi would be a good father to have.
"Alright," Barney starts again, "this is our plan. The abduction of Mr Sampson is now a well known fact, the humans on the plantation can't fail to be aware of it, and if we are to have any hope of freeing those who have been enslaved we need to somehow get rid of the guards."
From beside the door comes a grunt, Ev holds up his rifle and says something I don't understand, which Barney replies to.
"Ev is suggesting we just shoot them all," Tippit translates, his tone of voice telling me what he thinks of that idea. When Barney is done talking to him Ev makes a dismissive noise then spits out of the doorway, and the ex priest turns back to us.
"What we need to do is to draw the guards away, and this is where you two come in," he indicates Vio and Sampson. "You will approach the house and ask to speak to the owner, then tell him who you are and that you've escaped from your kidnappers who have been marching you through the forest for several days and are camped some distance away preparing to attack his estate. If the owner doesn't think of it first you need to suggest that he send his guards to ambush these attackers, thus drawing them away from the place."
"So what happens when they go looking for the attackers and find nothing? That ain't going to put us in a good position," Vio frowns.
"I've thought of that, we'll set up a clearing to look like a recently abandoned camp, that should distract them. Hopefully at some point in the confusion the pair of you can disappear, we'll arrange a meeting point a few miles away, you can find us back there."
"A truly excellent plan Barney!" Sampson beams at him. "Couldn't have done better myself."
"What's to stop us from telling whoever is in the house the truth, that you sent us to distract their guards?" Vio asks.
"Decency," Barney replies. "I know that out of the three of you, you have the hardest time understanding our way of thinking, but I also know that you wouldn't side with slave owners, if nothing else out of respect to Exit."
She sighs deeply and looks away, he's got her on that point. "And what if I refuse to have any part in this?"
"As Mathi said, we won't force you, it's your and Mr Sampson's free choice."
I have to know. "Why aren't you including me in this?"
"Because I think you'd cause a degree of confusion."
"Why? I can follow orders," I protest.
Barney chuckles and shakes his head. "I don't doubt that you can, you've misunderstood me son. It's been reported that Mr Sampson and two of his employees have been abducted but no further details about either of you two have appeared. If you turn up at the plantation house it's going to look quite strange, they won't be expecting an echoback, I'm concerned it may somehow raise their suspicions."
"But I do actually work for Mr Sampson," I retort.
"Exit," Tippit joins in. "You surprised the hell out of me back in Kipp, no one expects one of us to be living on the Twin Islands."
"Tippit's hit the nail on the head," Barney agrees. "But seeing as you're clearly so keen to be a part of this you can come as a member of the raiding party." He looks very pleased.
Oh shit! That's the last thing I want, but I don't feel like I can say so now, having made a fuss about not being included.
"I'll make a bargain with you," Vio fixes Barney with her ice blue eyes. "We do this for you, then you let us go."
"It's a deal," he says quickly, and I wonder if he planned it that way all along. "I'll arrange for you to be taken to Shelly once we're done, assuming you all want to go that is," he glances at me.
"I want to go home," I state firmly. I suppose I'm involved in his plan now, and if Vio and Sampson are part of it too it would feel wrong not to be, but there is no way I'm staying on in the forest.
"I think I might remain here," Sampson muses. "I haven't felt so alive in years."
"But Sir," Vio looks pained. "What about the company?"
"Bugger the company! Zale can run it," he all but shouts, grinning gleefully.
I have an idea. "What about Mrs Sampson Sir? She must be worried sick about you by now."
"Ah yes, the fragrant Mrs S," his face takes on a far away expression. "Perhaps I could send for her, bring her out here."
Vio glances at me, giving me a little nod of approval. "Sir," she says. "I hope you don't mind me reminding you about this, but I recall that last year Mrs Sampson sacked a maid because she forgot to scent her bathwater. I'm not sure your wife would really take to life in the forest."
"True, true," he sighs. "Mrs Sampson does like her little luxuries. Oh well, back to civilisation it is for me then."
Thank the gods for that, we're all going home soon. Only the small matter of attacking a plantation and freeing the slaves first. Easy.
After that the meeting breaks up. Ev is the first to go, disappearing without a word, not that I'm sorry he does. Barney announces that he wants to speak with Mathi alone, (apart from Sora, I doubt she'd let him leave her out) so the rest of us go. While we were talking the sun has set and the village is now alive with dozens of tiny, twinkling lights. The others head for the nearest bridge, but both Llando and me linger behind on the platform.
"Exit come me?" he asks quietly, taking my hand.
"Yes," I reply, I was going to suggest the same thing to him. "But I want to get something from my hut first."
"Hu? Exit hut? Vio in Exit hut."
"No, we go to your hut, but I'm going to fetch something from my hut." He gives me a puzzled look, I'm not sure how to make it any clearer so I simply tell him to follow me, which he does.
We would have caught up with the others if Llando hadn't pulled me into a gap between a hut and a tree to kiss me on the way. By the time we reach the clearing the only person in sight is Tippit, who's standing outside his hut with a thoughtful expression on his face.
"Can I ask you something?" he says as we approach him.
"I guess." Unless it's about why Llando's with me.
"How would you feel if I came with you when you left?"
"Um...fine, doesn't bother me. You want to come back to Parnell with us?"
"Maybe. I'd go to Kipp but I don't really know anyone there, and I know you and Vio, and Mr Sampson as well, sort of."
"You'd need to ask the others too, and if you do come to Parnell you'd need to get used to being stared at all the time, but I don't see why not."
"Thank you," Tippit disappears into his hut, seemingly lost in thought.
"Stay there," I say to Llando. "I'll be back very soon."
I was hoping that Vio might be at the latrines and I could avoid her, but no such luck. She's lying on her sleeping mat and glances up at me as I come in. "Where did you go?" she quizzes me.
"Nowhere, I was a bit behind you, that's all." I squat down and open my bag, rummaging around inside.
"What do you think, is getting involved in this whole raid thing worth it if we get to go home?"
"Um...yeah." I find what I'm looking for and slip it into my pocket without her noticing, or so I think.
"What are you up to?" she asks, propping herself up on her elbows and looking at me. I should have known, nothing gets past her.
"Llando is waiting outside, I'm going up to his hut with him."
"So I shouldn't expect to see you back until the morning then?" she sounds slightly disapproving.
"Probably not. By the way, when we go Tippit wants to come with us. I told him I didn't mind but he needed to check with you and Sampson too." Using that as a distraction I quickly leave, fortunately Llando is still waiting outside.
"Exit come?" he asks.
"Oh yes," I grin. "I'll come."
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