by London Lampy
In the morning Barney wakes us up before the sun has even risen, and over a breakfast of bread and fruit explains how things are going to work today. "We should reach the plantation by early evening if we set a good pace," he says, sipping on a mug of black tea.
"So we attack tomorrow?" Sampson asks, sounding much too eager.
"No," Barney shakes his head. "Tonight, and don't forget Mr Sampson, you won't be a part of the actual raid."
Tonight? I thought we would have a bit more time. Vio is clearly thinking much the same because she asks him why we are attacking at night when we could wait until the next morning.
"In the dark we have the advantage, well all except me," Barney chuckles ruefully. "And to spend any extra time in the vicinity would only increase our chances of discovery."
"Indeed," Sampson nods. "So what are our orders?"
"Some of the fighters have already left to set up the false camp ahead of us, once we arrive there the two of you make your way to the plantation house and we'll wait a safe distance away. Mathi and Llando will be accompanying you to help you find your way, but it will be up to you to lead the guards back to the decoy camp once you've made contact with the humans in the house. Mathi will be staying with you though, he'll shadow you from above, and you must try not to give his presence away," I notice he looks at Sampson as he says this. "While Llando will return to us to tell us when the guards have gone and that all is ready, that's when the rest of us set off. As soon as the guards have reached the camp the two of you need to try to slip away into the forest, once the cost is clear Mathi will come back to the ground and help you find our meeting point, that's where you are to wait for us."
"Orders received and understood!" Sampson declares loudly, then mock salutes Barney. Vio rolls her eyes at me over his antics.
"What if something goes wrong?" I ask. "What should they do then?"
"Son, nothing will go wrong, not when we have Gui on our side," Barney squeezes my shoulder. "However if they do become lost I'll send out scouting parties to find them, and if the pair of them somehow end up in the company of the enemy they're to stick to their kidnap story and ask to be sent back to Shelly, and I'll make sure you get back there too so you can join up with them once everything is done out here. But none of that is going to happen."
"Is that alright with you?" Vio asks me.
"I suppose so, one way or another we'll find each other again," I shrug. They should be fine, I hope. No one is going to suspect Sampson of helping with the raid, so long as he can keep his mouth shut about it.
"Exit, you're to stick with me," Barney looks at me. "Steer clear of any fighting, let Ev deal with that."
"Will do," I nod. I'm not planning on going anywhere near Ev if I can help it.
As soon as the sky shows the first hint of dawn we leave. Both Sampson and Vio are visibly suffering today. Despite the borrowed boots Vio is limping, and for all his keenness Sampson can only slowly puff along behind everyone else.
I walk alongside Vio, and once the sun is fully up I notice her staring at me. "What?" I ask, frowning.
"You got bitten last night."
"I didn't, the insects don't bite echobacks, remember?"
"Ha! I didn't say you had an insect bite," she laughs. "Looks more like a monkey bite to me."
"Ssh!" Fortunately no one else is close enough to hear her say the m word. "Where?" I quiz her, and in reply she jabs at the junction of my neck and shoulder with her finger.
"Crap," I say, rubbing the spot she poked. "Do you think anyone else has noticed?"
"Only the ones with eyes, but they most likely think you got sucked by a leech there, not a Llando. At least I assume it was him, unless you've moved onto someone else."
"Yes, it was him, I'm not that bad."
"I beg to differ," she grins.
It's another long, hard day of walking and we have to make several stops to let Sampson rest. During one I hear Barney and Ev having what sounds like a very a heated discussion. When I ask Tippit what's going on he tells me that Ev wants to change the plans to leave Sampson behind and simply go in and shoot the guards, but Barney has refused, saying that would be much too dangerous.
By early evening even I'm starting to ache, and when Barney calls for us all to halt at first I'm glad, then I look around and realise that the reason we've stopped is because we've reached the false camp. Mathi and Llando leave the group of village men to come and join us, and Barney tells Vio and Sampson that it's time for them to leave.
"Gui willing we'll see one another before the sun rises again," he says, shaking their hands in turn.
Before they go Vio hugs me tightly. "Be very careful," she says quietly into my ear. "I want to see you again in one piece."
"You to," I reply, returning her embrace. And then they're gone, disappearing off between the trees, and I'm left all alone with Barney.
As we wait a mile or so away from the decoy camp for Llando to return the sun sets and the mood amongst both the fighters and the villagers turns serious. Ev's group is no longer chatting and joking amongst themselves, but instead most of them are silently checking their weapons, or are simply sitting on the ground looking out into the forest. The men from the village are clustered together along with Barney and Sora and I'm pretty sure that they are praying. Without Vio here I'm feeling very alone, and only feel a little better when Tippit wanders over to join me.
"Are you ready?" he asks, his voice sounding unsteady.
"I don't know," I admit. "I've never done anything like this before, I've got a gun." I show him Vin's pistol that I've removed from the my bag as we are leaving our possessions hidden here and have tucked into my waistband. "But I'm hoping I won't need to use it."
"You shouldn't do, don't worry," he sighs and shakes his head. "Thank Gui, thank the gods, thank...thank the visk's everlasting fire, this the last time I'm ever going to have to do this."
"First and last for me," I add.
After that we stand together in silence, listening to the chanting of the villagers, Tippit taking deep even breaths that I assume is his way of trying to keep himself calm. Finally Llando reappears, joining Barney and the other villagers he talks to the ex priest for a few minutes. Once he's finished Barney addresses his group, moves onto the fighters, and then finally comes over to where Tippit and me are standing.
"We've been blessed by Gui, our plan worked. The guards have left with Mr Sampson and Vio on their wild goose chase, and we now have a clear hour to get in there to free those unfortunate souls who have been enslaved. Ev and his group will go first to draw out and deal with any guards who have remained behind, or any of the household who could cause us problems, then the rest of us will follow."
I watch the fighters setting off, some of them are carrying large clinking bags on their backs and I'm curious about what they contain, so I ask Tippit.
"Bottles of firestarter," he replies. "Fire is the quickest way to destroy the crops."
Once Ev's troops have disappeared from sight we prepare to leave, the villagers all carry bows and blowpipes, while Barney hefts a heavy looking rucksack onto his shoulders. He also carries a small, shuttered lantern in front of him so he can see in the dark, none of the rest of us need one. It takes us about twenty minutes of fast walking to reach the edge of the forest, and when we get there it's something of a shock. The trees just abruptly stop, and in front of us is what looks like a huge ploughed field stretching as far as I can see in every direction, partly planted with short, spindly large leafed trees.
"We should have salted the ground last time," Barney muses. "Even though to kill the living earth is a crime against Gui, it would have prevented these humans from committing a far larger one."
As we make our way along the edge of the field the house itself comes into view. It's a large, elegant looking building made out of blocks of grey stone and it looks wildly out of place in the middle of the forest like this. I can see lights in some of the windows, there must be people inside. My stomach flip with nerves, and this isn't helped when a loud, eerie hooting noise comes from up ahead of us.
"It's Ev, signalling for the attack to start," Tippit whispers to me.
More "animal" calls float across the field after that, and when I hear the first shot being fired I think that my heart is going to stop in my chest even though it comes from some distance away. It's then followed by shouts and the sound of several dogs barking at once.
"If a dog comes after you don't hesitate to shoot it," Barney says to me. "They're not pets, they're trained to attack and will rip your throat out given a chance."
I try to reply but find I can hardly speak, I don't think I've ever been this scared in my whole life. More shots ring out, loud cracks to the right and in front of us, and although I have no way of telling if it's the fighters firing their guns or the humans on the plantation the sound of breaking glass lets me know that the fighters have reached the house.
"There'll be outbuildings, barns, those are the first place we'll look. The humans are normally more concerned with defending the house than the slaves, but keep your wits about you." Barney begins to stride quickly out across the field.
A few minutes later and we are alongside two long, low stone barns set about three hundred yards away from from the main house. They are both windowless and have heavy wooden doors with large iron hasps and padlocks attached, the door on the nearest barn's padlock has been left hanging open, and the door itself is slightly ajar. Barney flings the door wide open and holding his lantern out in front of him indicates for me to follow him inside along with Sora and Tippit, while the village men stay outside to keep watch.
I'm anticipating people, either slaves or servants of the plantation owner possibly being inside, but the barn contains only tools, a plough, stacks of sacking and two well groomed horses that are tethered in a straw filled stall with a net bag of hay and a trough of water. They whinny at us in surprise, tossing their heads and pulling at their tethers.
My relief at finding nothing amiss in the barn is short lived when from outside comes the sounds of a dog barking and someone shouting in pain. Barney all but pushes Tippit out of the way to get to the door and I follow reluctantly, pulling Vin's gun out of my shorts and holding it in front of me. As I'm coming out I see something fly overhead and this is swiftly followed by an animal howl. A very large black dog falls to the ground, an arrow shaft sticking out of it's neck that's rapidly joined by several others until the beast gives out a long, piercing yelp then stops moving. The village men, Llando among them, lower their bows, all except one who's collapsed onto the hard packed earth rolling in agony as he bleeds from a wound to his leg. The dog must have attacked him and it seems to have bitten a sizeable chunk from his calf.
"Come on," Barney says, leading us away from the bloody scene. "Leave them to deal with that, we have other things to do."
The second building is firmly locked shut. I reach into my pocket for my lock picks, but before I can pull them out Sora has opened the bag on Barney's back, pulled out a large iron sledgehammer and handed it to him.
"Stand back," he orders us as he swings the hammer against the padlock and hasp.
The first stroke only knocks the whole thing crooked, but the second smashes the hasp clean off the door in an explosion of splinters, and the heavy wooden door swings open on its own. Then the smell hits me. It's raw and acrid to start with, the sort of smell that you can taste in your throat like the river in Kipp, but under the sewage stink is something worse, something like rotten meat and I put my hand over my nose and mouth, trying not to gag. Tippit is fairing even worse than me, and due to what I assume to be a mixture of nerves and the smell has actually vomited to the left of the doorway. I can sympathise with him.
"This will be it," Barney's voice, normally full of slightly too much good cheer, sounds harsh and angry as he strides inside, and this alone sends a spike of dread through me.
Sora follows close behind him, her face set into an emotionless mask and I know I have to go inside too. I've come this far, I have to see the worst, see the slaves and how they are kept. I need to understand the whole thing, why we ended up here and what's at the heart of everything that Barney is fighting for, so I step forward into the stinking barn.
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