by London Lampy
We're setting out tomorrow and there's a feeling of anticipation in the village. The population has grown by about twenty echobacks, all of them men, some tailless and mostly dressed in the same kind of military clothes that Barney wears.
"Where have they all come from?" I ask him as we stand on his porch looking out at them sitting in the clearing talking together.
"The border towns mostly, they're our troops. Some of the villagers will be going too, more to help us with the slaves than as fighters though."
"What will I be doing?"
"Assisting me in finding all the slaves and freeing them, we'll need to search the house and all the outbuildings. Sometimes they're under lock and key or chained up so we take tools to break the doors down and smash the locks."
"I'm good at picking locks," I say. "You still have my set of lock picks though."
"Ah, that's what they are, I did wonder. Yes, that could be useful, you can have them back, and your gun too. I trust you not to use it on any of us," he chuckles.
"Thanks, it's not really mine though, I don't own a gun."
"Even so, it would be a wise precaution for you to carry it."
"Alright," I agree. I can see his point, but I always feel uncomfortable carrying a gun.
We stare out at the clearing together for a time, until Barney clears his throat and I know he has something to say. "I want to ask you one last time if you won't reconsider staying. This is where you come from and where you belong, not some cold, grey city hundreds of miles away."
"Parnell is my home, I can't see how I could have a future here," I look around. I understand now why the people who live in it love the forest so much, feel so connected to it, but understanding doesn't mean I feel the same way.
"No future? You could work with me the way Ev and Tippit do, what could be more fulfilling then ensuring the freedom of your species?" He looks very intense, and I can't help thinking of how much Tippit wants to leave.
"I already have a job, but that's not the only thing in life. I don't want to live in a place where I can't be with someone, where I can't have a boyfriend without one of us being sent to another village to be married off."
"I should never have put you in that damn orphanage." He slaps his hand down on the porch rail hard enough to make some of the fighters look round at the noise. "Those bloody nuns, no wonder you were put off women. A nice, understanding girl though, a good echoback wife, I think that would set you right."
I can't even be bothered to reply to him. Barney really cannot see things any way other than his own and I'm sick of defending myself to him. "I'll be going back to Parnell once we're done with the raid," I say flatly.
"If that really is what you want." Good gods, he still sounds hopeful I'll stay.
Vio and Tippit find me down by the river throwing stones into it, trying to calm down.
"What's wrong?" Vio asks.
"Fucking Barney," I mutter, heaving a largish rock in.
"Stop doing that," Tippit say as I go to pick up another one. "Much more and you'll dam it up."
"Sorry." I drop the rock back onto the ground.
"What's he gone and done now?" Vio quizzes me.
"Wants me to stay, wants me to get married, thinks a wife will "set me right"." I kick at the dirt path with my bare toes.
"Fuckwit," she mutters.
"He very much wants to be a father," Tippit says. "Him and Sora adopted a baby a year or so back, we found him on one of our raids, never managed to identify his real mother, but he didn't live long. The poor thing was tiny and sick, he was born to a slave mother who was most likely too exhausted and underfed to be able to make much milk to nourish him. I think Barney was hoping that you would fill the gap, he feels that you and him have a sort of connection because of him finding you when you were young."
"But I don't want to be his son," I say, feeling a little bad now.
"And sad as that is it's hardly Exit's fault," Vio adds, chewing on a red berry.
"I know, and I'm well aware what's Barney's like," Tippit replies. "He ploughs through life so certain that he's right he can't see other people sometimes want other things. I'm just trying to explain."
"We'll be home soon," Vio sounds like she's trying to cheer me up. "I've said Tippit can stay with me if he wants, until he's decided what he's going to do. I've got the space now my father is...living elsewhere." I'm pleased that she's happy for him to come with us. "And Sampson's even offered to pay for his boat and train tickets."
"I wonder how long it's going to be until Sampson goes back to normal?"
"Hopefully he'll put some fucking clothes on before we board the train, or the boat. Can you imagine it? Sampson's bum hanging out all over first class."
I start to laugh at the image of my boss in nothing but tiny leather pants sitting in the ship's fancy dining room. "The waiters won't want to stab him this time, they'll be asking for blindfolds," I giggle. "What do you think Vin's going to say about the state of him?"
"Fuck Vin," she says. I give her a look. "Bad choice of phrase," she chuckles. "But he's not been here, and I'd like to have seen him try and stop Sampson from going native."
"Maybe he'd have joined him," Tippit suggests.
Now Vin I'd quite like to see in echoback clothes. Actually I just want to see Vin naked again, I wonder what he would think about Llando and me? I reckon I know what he'd think, that he want to join us, now that could be fun...
"...Exit," Vio clicks her fingers in front of my face. "Wherever the fuck you've gone, come back."
"What?" I shake my head.
"He does this," she addresses Tippit. "It's best not to ask what's going on in here," she raps on my head with her knuckles to make her point. "I was saying that in the city he'll have the advantage over you, he won't have to worry about hiding his tail seeing as he doesn't have much of one."
"I don't hide it, not really," I say defensively. "I just don't want people staring at me more than they already do, and it's cold and raining a lot of the time, I hate having a cold tail."
I need to live somewhere where people are used to echobacks and the weather is warm. Hell, I did live somewhere like that for a bit. Perhaps Barney does have a point about me not really belonging in Parnell, but I do miss it.
"Should I take any clothes with me?" I ask Vio, peering into my bag.
"Don't see you need to, you've worn nothing but those shorts almost since we got here."
"I have washed them."
"I'd bloody well hope so. Have they got shorter?" she peers at me critically. "I can almost see your tackle."
"Yeah, they've frayed a bit. Hell, I'll leave the rest of my stuff behind, I don't want to carry too much and we'll be coming back here before we go home." I pack my wash things, locks picks, pocket knife and Vin's gun, which I push right down to the bottom of the bag so I don't have to see it. I think it's the same gun I got shot with, which makes me even more uncomfortable about carrying it.
"Are your feet going to be alright? It's a couple of days walk to the plantation," I ask her, remembering her horrible blisters from the journey here.
"Should be, Barney found me these." She pulls a well worn looking pair of boots out from behind her bag.
"That's good," I nod. "What about Sampson?"
"No idea, I simply hope he puts some fucking clothes back on for the journey, I don't want to spend two days looking at his wrinkly rear end," she shudders. "The sooner we all get back home the better.
The chandelier has been lit in the big house and it's more crowded than it was last time because of the extra fighters. Tonight there is a feast in honour of those who are going on the raid. As we walk in heads turn to look at us as usual, and I thank every god I can think of that Barney has managed to persuade Sampson back into human clothes.
"I feel positively trussed up," he grumbles, undoing half of the buttons on his shirt and untucking it from his trousers.
We carefully pick our way across a floor filled with seated groups, as we go I almost trip over Tula's tail. She looks up, frowns at me and says something that sounds less than complimentary. I don't think she's ever forgiven me for turning her down that day, every time I've seen her since she's shot me a dirty look and tossed her head. I have no idea if she knows about what's been going on between her twin and me, but if she does it hasn't made her any more understanding about why I didn't want to have sex with her.
When we find Barney, Sora and Tippit we sit down with them and are immediately served with cups brimming full of palm wine. I didn't see Llando on the way in but almost as soon as we've greeted the others he appears and settles himself next to me, putting his tail around my waist. I have to very strongly resist the temptation to kiss him hello. Barney smiles at Llando, greeting him in the echoback language, and despite what he knows about me it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that there's more than friendship going on between us, but then as Mathi said, Barney only sees what he wants to see, and I'm not about to enlighten him.
Some of the women hand round plates of food containing the same mixture of vegetables, pounded roots and roasted meat we had last time. I make sure to ask what the meat is, and am assured by both Tippit and Sora that my plate only has pig on it.
"What exactly is it you have against eating monkey?" Sora asks me.
"Um...it's monkey," I reply.
"And bloody delicious it is too!" Sampson declares, chomping meat off what very much looks like a monkey's leg bone that he's holding in his hand. "Can't get stuff like this at home."
"But you eat other animals," Sora persists. "Why should one kind be deemed any more suitable to eat than another?"
"I don't know," I shrug. "It just feels kind of wrong, they look like little hairy people."
"But they're not. Gui gave us mastery over all the beasts, birds and fishes, and permission to eat them, all of them." Sora informs me.
"For fucks sake leave him alone," Vio puts in. "He can choose what he does and doesn't want to eat, it has nothing to do with you." Back in the city Vio often complains at me, saying I'm far too much of a picky eater, she just doesn't like it when somebody else does it especially if that somebody is Sora.
The two women continue to give one another dirty looks as we eat, but fortunately neither of them decides to turn this into a full scale slanging match and we finish our meal in peace. Once we're done Mathi stands at the front of the room and asks Barney to join him, I guess some sort of speech is about to happen.
Mathi speaks first, a few sentences in his own language, then stops to let Barney translate so we can understand.
"Tomorrow many of our tribe will be leaving on a journey to free our enslaved brethren, and tonight we eat and drink to honour their bravery, along with those outsiders who have joined us to assist," he indicates the group of fighters sitting toward the back of the room, and the villagers bang their hands and feet on the floor, giving out loud cheers that fill the room. Once they've quietened down Mathi speaks again, and Barney once again translates.
"When we return our guests Mr Sampson, Vio and Exit will be leaving us." I suppose we have been Mathi's guests, even if we were brought here as Barney's prisoners. "I want to wish them Gui's blessings for the future, along with the hope that they will never forget the time they spent with us."
"Forget? I've had the best damn time I've had in years!" Sampson calls out loudly. He sounds a little drunk and I peer into the tea cup he's drinking out of, whatever is in there looks more like brandy or whiskey than palm wine now. I wonder where he got it from?
Mathi translates Sampson's outburst, which causes more banging and cheering, which in turn has Vio looking around the room anxiously, she's still not all that comfortable in the village. Mathi then finishes off with a lengthy prayer to Gui, after which the all villagers cheer again and the pair of them return to where they were sitting. Barney plonks himself back down beside Sampson, Sampson drains the contents of his tea cup and Barney pulls a small flask out of his pocket and refills it, that's where it came from. They clink cups, toasting one another, and I notice Vio watching them and shaking her head to herself, and I'm pretty sure I know what she's thinking because I'm thinking it too. Barney and Sampson united is a terrifying prospect, both men only have a slight grasp on reality.
Sosa then takes Mathi and Barney's place at the front of the room and announces something.
"Aha, he's going to tell the tale of how the brave little boy defeated the stone monsters," Barney explains to us. "An excellent allegory for our own activities of the next few days."
"Yes it is indeed husband," Sora adds, fortunately not noticing that Vio is rolling her eyes at her.
As Sosa begins to tell the story Llando leans over and speaks quietly into my ear. "Exit want fuck?" he asks.
I look around, no one is paying any attention to us, Barney is now busy filling Vio's cup from his flask and Sampson, Tippit and Sora are watching Sosa.
"Sa," I reply, resting my hand on the naked skin of his back. "I want that very much."
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