by London Lampy
"You going to be all right sleeping outside?" Jack asks as he drops his pack on the ground in a small clearing that we've found off the track.
"Are you saying I have a choice, is there a hotel somewhere around here we could stay instead?" As I say this I suddenly realise just how much I'd like to sleep in a hotel room again. A real bed, a hot shower, a pillow, all things I haven't experienced in quite some time.
He frowns. "No, we're in the middle of the forest. What I mean is do you want me to build some kind of shelter? I know how."
"I'll be fine, I've slept out here a lot recently."
"I've got blankets." He puts his hand into his bag and pulls out two drab green blankets, handing one to me.
"Thanks," I give him a small smile.
I help him to make a fire, and he heats up a couple of tins of army ration stew over it. "This isn't monkey is it?" I ask, peering at the lumps of meat.
"Monkey? No, more likely horse."
Once we've finished the stew, he eats all of his and most of mine as I don't really want it, he produces a packet of biscuits. "Would you like these?" he says passing them to me. I have to try very hard not to simply stuff the whole lot into my mouth at once. They're rich tea, the plain sort I'd normally leave in the tin at work, but right now they taste like the best thing I've ever eaten.
"You haven't lost your love of sweet things then?" he laughs as I crunch up my forth or fifth biscuit.
"Nuh," I shake my head, suddenly thinking to offer him one.
"I don't like that kind of thing, remember?" Yes, that's right, he doesn't like sweet stuff, which is really really strange.
Once I've finished the packet and am licking the crumbs off my fingers I ask him why he was carrying them if he wasn't going to eat them.
"Most of the lads like them," he shrugs. "You have no idea how much a packet of biscuits can cheer up a bunch of tired soldiers after a long march." I think I have a pretty good idea actually.
"Are you really a sargent?" I quiz him. "Aren't you a bit young? Most of the other men I saw must be older than you."
He runs his hand over his head. "No, most of them are younger then me."
"Are you sure," I frown. "I've only just turned nineteen, so you can't be twenty yet."
"I'm twenty four," he states.
"No you're not, you can't be."
"When I joined up Mother Hardigan faked my age, made it look like I was sixteen already. After my basic training they needed men up here on the Northern Continent to fight against the rebel Surosian groups, problem being you're not meant to see active front line service until you're eighteen, but they were desperate for more soldiers so my age was changed to eighteen on my paper. I looked it, and no one ever questioned me. A while after that our sargent got shot and badly injured and we needed a replacement, but you have to be at least twenty one to be promoted to sargent, so Captain Samuels, thinking I wasn't that far off twenty one altered my age again, and now I'm twenty four."
"But you're not really," I point out.
"What difference does a few years make?" he shrugs. "You don't actually know when you were born do you? You might still be eighteen, or you could even be twenty."
"But I'm not pretending to be older than I am I just don't know, it's different. My real age isn't a secret."
"Alright, but you seem to have plenty of your own secrets. You still haven't really told me what you're doing out here and why I captured you raiding a plantation."
I look at him in the firelight, can I trust him? "What are you going to do with me once we reach Shelly?" I ask.
"As long as you're telling the truth about Sampson being on his way there and he turns up unharmed, nothing. I can't see we have any reason to keep you."
"I am telling the truth!" I protest loudly.
"Fine, I believe you," he grins, holding his hands up. "But it would be easier if I knew what was really going on."
"If I tell you the whole story you've got to promise to keep it to yourself."
"I promise," he replies, sounding serious. "So long as nothing conflicts with my orders."
"Nothing does." At least I don't think it does.
It takes me a long time to explain how I came to be sitting here with him right now. I tell him everything, even about Llando, which he seems quite interested in, and telling him helps me to get it all straight in my own head too. He's almost as amazed as I was to find out about my connection to Father Barnaby, and he agrees that I had no choice but to shoot Ev.
"Fuck me, that's quite some story," he says once I've finished.
"Yeah, I guess it is." I stare into the embers of the fire.
"I've often wondered what you were doing, I never imagined you'd be doing something so..." he frowns. "...adventurous."
"Um..." he looks at me. "In my memory you're this skinny little thing who's of scared of stuff."
I don't know how to take that. "This isn't even the most adventurous thing I've ever done," I retort. "I was a pirate."
He starts to laugh. "That I don't believe."
"It's fucking true!" I glare at him. "That's where I got this," I point to my piercing, "and this," I show him the bullet scar on my thigh.
"You could have got those in Parnell."
"But I didn't, I was a pirate and I learned to sail, and that's why I'm not skinny any more too."
"Alright, you were a pirate," he's laughing quite a lot now. "So do you want to tell me how you became one, and why you aren't one now?"
"No...I'm tired, I'm going to sleep." I take my blanket and roll myself up in it.
"Will you tell me tomorrow?"
"I've been thinking," Jack says as he cleans his teeth standing in the now sunlit clearing. "We don't want to risk getting to Shelly before Sampson, or I might have to lock you up until he shows. I reckon we should take the long way, go through a couple of the border towns."
I watch Jack enviously, I wish I had a toothbrush. "Are there hotels in the border towns?" I ask.
"Uh huh," he spits out a mouthful of toothpaste and water. "Why?"
"I want to sleep somewhere that's not outdoors, or in a hut, or a tent."
He laughs. "You got a bunch of dollars hidden somewhere in those tiny shorts?"
"Shit, no," I sigh. "I don't even have a toothbrush."
"Want me to make you one?"
"Like this." He breaks a twig off one of the trees then takes a knife out of his pocket and uses it to shred the end of the twig until it looks like a brush, sort of. "That do?" he asks, handing it to me along with his toothpaste and a tin mug of water.
"I guess," I reply, peering at it. The twig/brush works a lot better than I thought it would, and at least one part of me feels clean.
"Don't suppose you could make a hot shower too?" I say once I've finished.
"Find me a bucket, a rubber hose and some clean water and I will."
"Never mind," I mutter. "Didn't know you were so good at all this outdoors stuff."
"I have been in the army for nearly four years," he points out. "And I grew up in the countryside."
Soon after that we start to walk again, following the cart track we were on yesterday.
"Do you know how to get to the border towns from here?" I ask Jack.
"Pretty much, I've got a compass, I don't think we'll get lost."
"Even with a compass I'd get lost."
"Good job I'm here then isn't it?" he grins. "Do you really want to stay in a hotel if we find one?"
"I don't think I've ever wanted anything more." Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not that much of one.
"I've got some money, I'll pay if you'd like," Jack offers. The polite thing to do would be to turn him down. I'm not feeling polite, I'm feeling dirty and sick of sleeping outdoors.
"Thanks, I'll pay you back when we catch up with Vio and Sampson." I'll have to borrow the money off Vio, but I can pay her back when we get home.
"Of course if I'm paying for the room I want to sleep in it too." He gives me a look that reminds me why I fell for him in the first place, not that I need much reminding. Whatever else has changed in the past few years he hasn't stopped being very sexy.
"That's fine, you can sleep on the floor."
By mid morning we reach the edge of the forest, here just as when I entered the forest with Barney are miles of bleak wasteland where the trees have been cut down. We even pass a gang of about twenty men hauling felled tree trunks onto the back of a series of carts. I wonder how far they'll chop into the forest; in ten years time will Llando's village be gone, reduced to nothing more than stumps and bare earth by these men's axes? It's a sad thought, and when Jack notices that I've stopped walking and am looking back at the forest he asks me if I'm feeling alright.
"I wish someone would stop them," I point at the men. "It's not theirs to cut down."
"Yeah, but it's not really anyone's is it?"
"Thousands of people live in it, it should belong to them," I sigh.
"It should," he agrees, putting a hand on my back and rubbing it comfortingly. "But I can't see things changing while there's money in timber."
As the forest disappears into the distance I feel increasingly miserable; all the time I was there I wanted to go home, but suddenly I want to go back. I kind of feel like I've left a part of me behind, and the realisation that I'll probably never see Llando or Barney or any of the others again just makes things worse.
"If I promise you can have a proper shower by the end of the day will you cheer up?" Jack asks me after a bit.
"I'll try," I say. "Tell me something to cheer me up."
"Um...I know, do you remember my sister Dana?"
"Of course." His adopted sister really, the one who didn't get attacked by Father Frederick. I always liked her.
"She joined the circus, she's a trapeze performer now, does somersaults twenty feet off the ground wearing nothing more than a few sequins."
"You're making that up," I laugh.
"No, I swear to the gods I'm not. Anyway, can't see how that's more unlikely than you being a pirate, are you going to explain about that now?"
"It's a very long story."
"And I doubt we'll reach the nearest town until this evening, so you have a very long time to tell it."
"Alright, it all started with some stolen coal..."
Dusk has fallen by the time we reach the town, but to be honest it's hardly a town at all, just a handful of crowded dusty streets filled with wooded buildings, mostly shops and pubs, and lined with stalls selling food. Quite a few of them are trading in freshly cooked snacks and I noticed Jack looking at each one as we pass to see what they sell. After being in the forest for so long the sight of so many buildings and people is very strange, and the town's people seem to find me quite strange too. Despite the fact that there are a fair few echobacks here I'm getting a lot of stares, and I can only put this down to the way I'm dressed as all the other echobacks I see are fully clothed.
The whole place feels like the rough side of town. Despite the fact it's only early evening I see quite a few people who are clearly drunk and if I had anything worth stealing, or anything at all for that matter, I'd be keeping a tight hold on it. I'm glad to have Jack beside me, only a complete idiot would try anything with him around. We must make an odd looking pair, a very tall man wearing the uniform of the Twins Islands army, and a dirty echoback wearing hardly anything at all.
"If I remember correctly there's a hotel down here." Jack leads me down a grubby side street, at the end is a tall thin wooden building with a painted sign saying "Majestic Hotel" over the doorway. One look inside the door suggest that while the place is clearly a hotel, it's far from majestic. The lobby is dimly lit by a pair of gas jets that have left large sooty stains on the ceiling, but this is probably just as well as any more lighting would only serve to show off the peeling paint and clearly unwashed and unswept floor. By the door an old man is sitting drinking beer and reading a newspaper on a sagging and torn leather sofa beside an almost dead pot plant while at the far end is a desk that and sitting on that is a large ledger and a tarnished brass bell.
The man doesn't even look up from his paper as we enter, and Jack walks straight up to the desk and presses the bell, which lets out a dull dinging sound. After a wait of about a minute a female visk shuffles out from a back room, she's entirely a brown grey colour except for a single large patch of bright green just below one eye that forms a tear drop shape. She's wearing a bright red robe, has a head wrap to match, and her arms are loaded with dozens of clinking bangles.
"Hello, we'd like a room for the night if you have any," Jack says smiling at her. She looks the two of us up and down with her bottomless black eyes, then speaks.
"You," she points at Jack with one wide, flat finger, "can have a room, he," she moves her arm to point at me. "Cannot."
"What?" Jack protests. "Why, because he's an echoback? You can't do that, I'll take my money elsewhere."
She makes a hissing noise, and I realise that she's laughing. "Look, there's only one other hotel in town, and they'll say the same."
"That's fucking ridiculous!" Jack retorts. "If you can work here why can't he stay here?"
"Have trouble reading do you solider boy?" she asks, less than pleasantly.
"No," he frowns at her, "I can read." Actually he can't read that well, or he couldn't a few years back, he used to read very slowly with his finger placed under the words.
With a loud sigh she lifts her arm sending her bangles clattering up it, and without turning around she taps a small yellowing hand written notice pinned to the wall behind her, it reads "No shirt, no shoes, no room, by order of the management" in faded lettering.
"Oh," Jack says after a moment. "Are you sure you couldn't make an exception?"
"No." She shakes her head.
"Please," I say, hoping politeness and pleading might work.
"No, it's a rule and it's more than my job's worth to break it," she replies flatly.
I glance at Jack, he looks to be frowning in thought. "If he comes back with a shirt and some shoes on, would you let him in then?"
"Yes, but you won't find any of the shops open, they'll all be shut up for the night by now." She sounds quite smug about this.
Back outside on the street Jack eases his pack off, drops it by his feet and opens it. After a few moments of rummaging he pulls out a khaki shirt identical to the one he's wearing and a very battered pair of once white but now grey rubber soled canvas shoes.
"Shirt and shoes," he grins, holding them up for me to see.
"They're going to be way too big for me."
"Don't matter, she said you had to have shirt and shoes on, she didn't say they had to fit."
The shirt comes down to my knees, and my hands are lost inside the sleeves until Jack rolls them up for me. "I feel like I'm wearing a dress," I giggle, and when I try to walk in his shoes they fall straight off my feet, so he finds a pair of socks and stuffs them into the toes to make them fit.
Jack strides back into the hotel lobby and I follow behind. With an enormous grin on his face he rings the bell again, and when the visk comes back out he says. "We'd like a room for the night please."
She stares at me. "Shirt, and shoes," I point at them in turn.
The sound of someone laughing makes us both turn around, the old man has put down his paper and is watching us with amusement. "They got you there Zetty," he addresses the visk. "For the god's sake let the lads have a room."
"Huh," she sniffs. "Just the one room is it?"
"Yes," Jack replies. "With a bathroom please."
"We've only got a double left with a bathroom, no twins."
"That's fine," he says again, giving her a challenge-me-if you-dare look.
"Number twelve, it's on the fourth floor." She all but throws the key at Jack. "And you'll need to light the gas yourselves, I can't be leaving the desk."
"Thank you very much," he says politely, and as we head for the stairs I can hear the old man still chuckling to himself.
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