by London Lampy
My eyes watering from the smell I force myself through the doorway and into the building. I look down, the floor is damp and slimy underfoot, it's covered with rotten filthy straw and I try not to think about what I might be standing in as fat blue black flies buzz around my head. Taking another step I pull my eyes from the floor and despite everything I know I'm still unprepared for what I see. There must be at least forty echobacks in the barn, all of them chained by either their feet or hands to a long iron rail that's bolted to the wall at shoulder height. Most of them turn to look at us as we enter, a few barely move though, as if they are too exhausted or are simply beyond caring, and a couple don't move at all. Some have longish chains and can at least sit down on the dirty floor, but others are forced to stand or crouch awkwardly. They are all naked, although a few still have the tattered remains of their clothing around their waists, not a single one of them has a tail left. While I can only see a few of the stumps they don't look like the long healed wound Tippit showed Vio and me, these are half healed at best, ragged, scabbed and bloody; more than one is blackened around the edges with infection, and I suddenly realise that part of the foul smell is coming from living rotting flesh.
Every single one of them is beyond thin, they have protruding bones, hollow stomachs and skull faces with brutally shaved heads. Most of them sport wounds, both fresh and old, and I recognise the stripes on many backs as those made by a biting punishment whip.
Barney speaks to them in a calm, gentle voice, telling them what's happening in their own language, they simply look back at him in terror. Tippit speaks too, I can tell he's trying to reassure them, and despite his fear and having thrown up only minutes ago he seems to be getting through to them.
"Are you alright?" Sora says quietly, coming and standing at my side. I just look at her, I can't find any words. "I know," she rubs my back. "I know, but you need to try to hold your feelings inside for now, we're here to help. Barney told me you're good at forcing locks, could you start to release them?"
I nod, taking my lock picks out of my pocket I approach the nearest slave, a boy who looks to be a few years younger than me. He shies away from me, moving as far as his chain will allow, his eyes wide with fear. Barney comes over and speaks softly to the him, holding his lantern up so he can see the boy's face clearly, then taking the boy's hand in his as I set to work removing the manacle from around his leg. It doesn't take me long, the lock is crude and simple, the iron band falls open with a clink and the boy steps free, his ankle raw and bloody where the metal was. The look of terror on his face is replaced by one of wonder as Sora ushers him out of the door and into the company of the village men.
After that I work as fast as I can, only stopping to shoo away the disgusting fat flies that seem to be everywhere. They keep landing on me, making my skin crawl. Barney smashes the chains and breaks apart the shackles on the least frightened looking slaves, while I use my quieter method on the younger and sicker ones. Soon I come to a woman slumped in the corner, at first I assume she's very ill, her head is resting on her knees, one arm chained to the iron rail above her. When I take her wrist to pick the lock she feels cold and rigid to the touch, then her skin seems to tear under my fingertips and as I jerk back she falls sideways and I see her face, still and frozen, except for the wriggling grubs that have burrowed into her eye sockets and have started to feast on her.
I jump to me feet in horror. "She's dead," I yelp pointlessly, it's clear to everybody that she's dead.
"Yes, she is," Sora nods. "Exit please, you need to keep going." I'm backing away from the remaining slaves, my feet seem to have a life of their own. "Please, you're doing really well, we need to get them out of here as fast as we can."
"But...maggots," I mumble.
"Keep going son," Barney's deep voice echoes around the room. "Now isn't the time for panic."
My hands shaking I return to what I was doing, trying not to think, trying to push away the horror. Locks, I'm opening locks, that's all. I focus on the locks, nothing else, not on the slaves or the flies or the smell or what's under my bare feet.
"I think that's the last of them," Barney says after what could be minutes or hours have passed since we entered the barn.
I lift my head and look around, two slaves remain, one is the woman I found earlier and the other is a man slumped against the wall, also dead, but for longer even than the woman; his bones clearly visible through his rotted skin.
Barney leads us back outside and I find myself taking in deep lungfuls of fresh air, my skin feeling like it still has flies crawling over it even though the disgusting things have stayed in the barn with the dead. The village men have left, I can see them away in the distance leading the slaves off across the field to the safety of the forest. I get it now, why Barney does this, why he took Sampson, why he's given his life over to ending slavery. What I saw in the barn was worse than I had imaged it would be, but before I can think about it any further Barney is telling us that we need to search the rest of the place to see if there are any more slaves.
He orders Sora and Tippit to look outside then him and head me toward the house so the two of us can search it for house slaves. When we get close I can see a group of the fighters with five seemly unconscious humans lying tied hand and foot on the ground in front of them. Barney says something to them as we pass by, and one of them holds up a bottle of liquid and asks him a question.
"Na," he replies, followed by words I don't understand.
"What was that?" I ask puzzled, it seems like a strange time to be offering him a drink.
"Firestarter," he replies, "to destroy the crop. I told him not until we've cleared the house."
The door to the house is hanging open, the fighters having already come this way and broken in. "I'll search upstairs and you take down here," Barney says as we step into the entrance hall. "If you find any slaves bring them to me, I'll explain what's happening. Be very careful, there could well still be some humans in here, keep hold of your gun."
I watch as Barney heads off up a sweeping staircase, lantern in hand, as I try to decide where to start my search. I feel numb, I want to go home, I want to wake up and find I'm at home. Images of the slaves won't leave my head as I run through the house's empty rooms looking for any signs of life. Many of the rooms have nothing in them, not a stick of furniture or lit lamp. I don't think the new owners have been here long, much of the house has a dusty, unlived in feel about it and I find no one, not a single slave or human.
At the end of a long shabbily painted passageway I smell cooking and an open door takes me into a very big kitchen with a scrubbed flagstone floor and blazing oil lamps hanging around the walls. A large black range has a pot of something steaming on it, and on the table are two plucked chickens that someone has been making ready for the oven. If they have house slaves this is the sort of place I would expect to find them, and I hear a noise coming from behind what I assume to be a larder door. It's not a loud noise, just a slight hissing or rustling sound that could be frightened whispers, or nothing more than a breeze through an open window.
Holding the gun out in front of me I walk over to the larder, put my hand on the handle and turn it slowly, pulling the door open. As I do this someone inside lets out a squeak of fear, and on the floor at the far end of the larder, huddled together amongst shelves packed with tins and jars of food are two figures looking up at me with huge, scared eyes. Huge, scared human eyes. It's two women, an older one with swept back greying hair is wearing a stained apron that marks her out as a cook. She's holding out a carving knife defensively in front of her with a trembling hand, while the younger of the pair looks little more than fifteen or sixteen, she has Surosian colouring, her black hair bobbed short under a starched lace cap, her hand clutching tightly onto the cooks arm in terror.
"Please..." the maid says, her voice unsteady, "do not hurt us."
"He can't understand you," the cook tells her. "They don't speak our language."
"I do," I say. "And I don't want to hurt you, I only want to know something, are there any house slaves?"
"No..." the maid sounds close to tears. "Just those in the barn."
"Don't tell him that!" the cook scolds. "Now we'll be in so much trouble with the master."
Assuming that their master is one of the people tied up outside I doubt it. I think the maid is telling the truth, she's much too scared to think up a lie and I decide to stop searching. I leave them to it in the larder, shutting the door behind me and running back through the house until I spot Barney on an upstairs landing.
"I didn't find anyone," I say, not telling him about the cook and the maid. I don't want him to turn them over to the fighters and they're no threat to us.
"Neither did I," he replies. "We need to go, I doubt it'll be long now until the guards make it back here."
Barney and I hurry outside, the fighters are all gathered in front of the house now, along with Tippit and Sora, who we join. "We found nothing, how about you?" Sora asks.
"The same," Barney nods. "Let's go, the fighters can burn the crops behind us."
Sora starts to walk away followed by her husband and brother, as I join them out of the corner of my eye I see something no one else seems to have noticed. Someone is climbing into the house through one of the downstairs windows, I briefly glimpse the someone's profile, it's Ev. I stop and turn to watch just as the end of his tail disappears over the sill.
Walking a few steps behind the others I can see the fighters running ahead of us, starting to pour the bottles of firestarter onto the crops. I've almost caught up with Barney, but something is starting to bother me. Tippit told me Ev will find and shoot unarmed humans during these raids, and the cook and the maid are most likely still hiding in the back of the larder. Barney turns a blind eye, that's what Tippit said, and after the things I've seen tonight I can almost understand why, but those two women aren't slave owners, just servants, and as much as I try to put them out of my mind I can't.
I think quickly, it will only take me a few minutes to go back into the house and warn them. I doubt Ev will have made it as far as the kitchens yet and I can easily catch up with the others once I'm done. Without saying a word I drop back, then turn and run as fast as I can toward the house, hurrying back in inside the entrance hall. As I'm making my way through some sort of reception room I suddenly see a sheet of flame leaping up from the field, the fighters have begun to light the trees, and I have to pray that I can somehow get around it when I leave.
As I reach the shabby passageway that leads to the kitchen I hear voices shouting from outside the house. I don't know what's happening out there but I keep going until I find the larder once again, the two women are still huddled there, frightened but unharmed.
"You need to get out," I pant. "There's a man in the house who wants to hurt you, you need to get outside now!"
"No way, there's monkeys with guns out there," the cook says, waving her knife at me.
"There's a mo...a man with a gun in here, and he'll kill you if he finds you," I persist.
"You have got a gun, you might shoot us," the maid says, her voice full of fear.
"No," I shake my head. "Trust me, I don't want to hurt you...please, just go," I beg, taking a step toward them, which makes the cook brandish her carving knife once again.
At that moment I hear footsteps behind me, and my heart sinks. Turning around I see Ev standing in the doorway, his rifle held out in front of him as if he were hunting. When he spots me a puzzled expression briefly crosses his face, but he doesn't drop his gun one inch, instead he walks across the room until he's standing a few feet in front of me, and I can see him staring over my shoulder into the pantry.
"Move," he grunts at me, jerking his head.
"No," I reply, levelling my gun at him. "They're only servants."
"Fuck humans," he spits on the floor. "I kill one every one us slaved."
"How's that going to help end slavery?" I ask. The shouting outside is getting louder and closer, and the smell of smoke is making its way into the house.
"Move," he says again, this time his finger is on the trigger. I realise that there is a very real possibility he'll shoot me too, so I do the same with my gun, my hand shaking.
He laughs, and it's a nasty snickering sound. "Child...you na have..." Ev says a word I don't understand, but along with it he makes a gesture, grabbing himself between the legs with his free hand and that I do get. He means I don't have the balls to shoot him.
Ev closes one eye and looks down the barrel of his rifle at me. My whole body breaks out into a cold sweat; he's going to do it, he's going to shoot me, and this time the bullet won't go into my leg but straight into my heart, and there's no one here to save my life. I know what I need to do, I need to shoot him first, but I can't, I can't move...I can't move, I'm going to die and I can't move and just when I think it's the end and my life is going to be snuffed out here in this kitchen several things happen at once.
A window set high in the wall behind Ev shatters in an explosion of glass as a bottle of firestarter with a burning rag stuffed into the neck comes sailing through the air, hitting the stone floor on the far side of the room and bursting into a fireball that ignites everything around it. The cook and the maid both scream at the top of their lungs and Ev is hit by flying glass, a large shard of it pierces his shoulder and he drops to the floor, his shirt blooming red with blood. The two women, obviously realising that a burning room with two armed men in it is no safe place to hide any more, come flying out of the pantry. They almost knock me off my feet as they go, then they disappear off down the passageway. I'm about to follow them when I hear a shot and feel something whooshing past no more than two inches away from my body. Looking round I see that Ev has got to his knees and let his rifle off; I don't know if it was a warning shot or he missed because he's injured, but even if the room wasn't on fire I wouldn't stay around to find out.
As I run out of the kitchen I realise that he's following me, he must have reloaded as another shot ricochets off the wall and I know I have to stop him before one of his bullets finds its mark. At the end of the passage I run to the left then stop, holding Vin's gun out in front of me I wait a few seconds until Ev catches up. As he sets foot around the corner I aim downward while squeezing the trigger, hitting him squarely in his knee. He drops on the spot shouting in pain, and with my arm still shaking from the gun's recoil I sprint away through the house.
When I reach the main door again I find that outside has turned into some kind of hell; everything is on fire, the trees in the plantation are in flames and the two barns are burning fiercely Someone has set the horses loose and they're galloping round in circles in front of their barn, rearing on their back legs and letting out terrified screams, but worse than all of this, the guards have come back. Everywhere I look there are human men in uniform holding guns, some are walking out into the field, searching for the attackers I guess, while another group are carrying the trussed up humans away from the fires. Fortunately they're all too busy to spot me slipping out of the house and I carefully pick my way to the field, thinking that if I can make it around the fires and back to the forest I should still be able to catch up with the others. I have the advantage, even with the fires the men can't see well in the darkness and I pass close by them unnoticed, but then a wall of flame blocks me and the only way forward is to cross their path. However I'm still not spotted and I think that finally my luck has turned and I'm going to make it, until I hear a voice shouting out "Sarge, look, over there, a monkey!", and I don't waste time looking to see where it came from, or trying to remain hidden any more, I just run for my life.
"Stop, or I'll shoot!" a different, deeper voice comes from far too close. I'm being chased, and I find myself forced to run in a straight line between two rows of burning trees with the guard behind me. I can outrun any human, and I feel a tiny grain of relief when I hear his footsteps falling further and further behind.
"Last warning, stop or I shoot!" I hear him shout, but nothing would make me stop running now. If I stop and let him catch me he'd most likely just shoot me anyway, so I keep going, my feet pounding down on the ploughed earth of the field. A crack of gunfire comes from behind me, but no stinging pain, I haven't been hit. Up ahead of me is a fallen tree blocking my path, still smouldering, small blueish flames licking along it's skinny trunk. No problem, I'll simply jump over it, and hopefully it will slow the guard down further. I launch myself into the air, but I've failed to notice that on the other side a large rock is sticking out of the earth. Instead of landing cleanly one foot clips the rock and I end up falling to the ground, my ankle twisting outward. Trying to ignore the spasms of pain from my ankle I struggle back to my feet, the guard now closing in on me. All I can see of him through the smoke is a shadow, but it's enough to be able to tell he's very tall and solidly built, and if he catches me I'll have no chance.
I start to run again, each step is agony and my pace has slowed to less than a human running speed. As I limp along I realise that much as I don't want to I'm going to have to use the gun again if I'm to have any chance of escaping, if I aim for his legs like I did with Ev at least I won't kill him.
The man has crossed the fallen tree now and can't be more than a few feet behind me. "Stop!" he shouts once more, and I'm about to turn and shoot at him, half expecting him to put a bullet in me first but before I can even aim the gun I'm knocked to the ground. All the air is forced out of my lungs and my vision briefly dims before I can draw breath again. The man has thrown himself onto me, bringing me to the ground and forcing me face down into the dirt of the field. I feel him pull Vin's gun out of my hand as I struggle pointlessly to get him off of my back.
"Easy there or you'll hurt yourself," I hear him say. I go limp, giving up. With an injured ankle, no gun and a ton of guard on top of me I haven't got a hope. I lie panting in the earth between the smouldering trees waiting to see what's going to happen now, praying it won't be a bullet to my head. The guard eases some of his weight off me and turns me over, not a bullet to the back of the head then. I blink the grit out of my eyes and look up at my captor, and then the world stops. He stares down at me, and for long seconds neither of us moves or speaks, until eventually he breaks the silence.
"Exit?" he says, turning my name into a thousand questions, and I understand completely. How can this be? Out here with all the fear and horror and confusion of tonight, how can it be him? And I reply with the only word I can.
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