The redheaded captive, Winny, stayed with the villagers for the rest of the day and into the evening. The men generally kept their distance while the women worked hard to earn her trust and make her one of their own.
Mei was amazed at how well it seemed to work. She watched as Winny eventually stopped crying, and while she didn’t speak and barely participated, she wasn’t fighting back. The women of the tribe were good at what they did. Some of it was perhaps because many of them had gone through the same at one point and they could empathize like no one else.
The other part of it was that this was so natural. Women were the heart of any human community, the original social network. They were experts at bonding and companionship. They wanted to build bridges between each other and Winny, regardless of their differences, because she was now being made a member of the tribe. As a woman herself, she naturally responded to this.
Of course, there would undoubtedly be more tears later, and perhaps she’d freak out again. But for now, she quietly sat with them in the evening while the other females enjoyed each other’s company, always with a hand on her or sitting right up next to her, making her feel included.
The tribe seemed encouraged by how well the transition was going, from kidnapped captive to accepted tribe member. There was some ritual feasting and dancing, some songs. The males were approving. Though they kept their distance, they cast looks the redhead’s way and made obscene gestures now and then.
A couple of hours after sunset, as usual, people began drifting off to bed. Without electric lighting, people tended to get up with the sun and go down with it too. The village was dark now that the fire had burned low, the grass and wood huts in deep shadow. Three of the women, each of a different age, took Winny by the hand and led her to a hut and went inside with her.
A drunk warrior approached that hut with a swagger, no doubt intent on finding out for himself what the new girl was made of.
Almost immediately, two females slid in front of the door and politely refused his sentry.
He angrily waved them off and demanded something.
They politely but firmly refused him.
He growled and snapped something but turned away and stalked off.
That was the last of the drama. After that, villagers all found a place to sleep and retired for the night. The fire ebbed until it was no more than embers glowing under the stars.
Four people were not asleep. Though they lay in their cages and pretended otherwise, they had never been more awake.
Mei stealthily reached for the knife with a nervous heartbeat and found it in the dirt. Her fingers curled around it. Yet she didn’t bring it into the cage immediately. Her eyes roamed the dark. Had everyone got to bed? Was there a night sentry? There had been before, though a lax one. And yet, this night, it seemed that they hadn’t bothered.
She slowly pulled the knife into the cage and got to work cutting the leather bindings keeping the bars in place.
The other prisoners practically held their breaths. Mei could feel their anxiousness pushing her to hurry.
It must have taken a couple of hours. The fire was out and no one had moved in the village for quite some time. But by then, Mei had cut a few of the bars free. She took off her jacket and pushed it through the bars. With one last look around, she silently crawled her way between bars that now bent. It was a very tight fit. Perhaps she should have cut away more but, with freedom so close, she was impatient. She wriggled and pushed and squeezed her way through.
She paused in the foliage, alert and watchful. The cages were right up next to the jungle, so she had cover here.
“Hurry up!” the brunette hissed, glaring at her. Even whispered, the words felt shocking loud.
Mei frowned and cut her off with a hand, though her expression was probably hidden in the darkness. Stupid. They had to remain calm, or they were going to get caught.
The jaguar, perhaps sensing something important going on, rose to its feet and watched her.
She met its eyes. The cat could probably see perfectly well in the low lighting. And she knew what she had to do first.
The warriors had made no secret of where the keys to the cages were. They were conveniently hanging up in a nearby tree, out of reach of anyone in the cages, but easily within reach of Mei’s hand. Skirting the jaguar’s cage, she stood next to the tree and felt up the trunk until she found the iron key ring. Then she bent and knelt next to the jaguar’s manacles.
“The fuck are you doing?” the thief asked in a very worried whisper.
Mei held up her hand in a stop sign and stared. Shut up, she mouthed.
The thief didn’t look happy that she was bothering with the animal.
She didn’t care; she wasn’t leaving it behind. She just sincerely hoped it wouldn’t attack her after she freed it. But she cared a lot more about letting the cat out of the cage than the three less-than-impressive humans.
She cautiously reached a hand into the cage.
The jaguar, looking back at her, moved its head closer.
She yanked her hand back.
It watched her.
She reached in again. Slowly… She pointed the key at the half of the manacle attached to the jaguar’s back leg.
It lowered its head again and opened its mouth.
Mei jerked back, but not all the way.
The jaguar lowered its nose and sniffed. It nipped at her hand, but gently—a warning. But also permission.
She had to open her mouth because her heart was racing and her breathing had picked up. But she fought her nerves. Very gently, she put the key in the lock, which took two tries until she got the right one, and undid the manacle. It fell free with a clank.
The jaguar turned fully around.
She withdrew her hands and waited in the dark, listening for any sign of the Caribs. None came. She stood and unlocked the jaguar’s cage next, opening the door just wide enough for it to escape.
The great cat looked up at her; it experimentally nosed the door. Showing no fear of her at all, it pushed its way through, eager to be out.
Mei was no fool. She backed up and gave it space. She pointed to the jungle and motioned. “Go go,” she told it in a barely audible voice.
The jaguar regarded her for a few eternal moments, looked over at the village, then calmly walked off into the night.
Mei’s knees were weak. She put a hand on the cage and breathed to steady herself. But not for long. She hurried to the next cage and released the brunette and thief.
They crawled out.
“Boats,” the thief whispered, head tilting in that direction.
The brunette nodded and they jogged off towards the shore.
That left one. He watched her from the shadows, eyes white, his hands on the cage door.
Should she free him?
He knew exactly what she was thinking. He snarled. “Free me. Or I make noise.”
She dropped the keys next to the door. “Free yourself.” She ran off towards the shore.
The other two were already at the canoes. The huge, ocean-going boats had been hauled up high on shore and roped to trees. It took all three of them just to untie one and push it down into the water.
The ocean was sat dark and ominous before them despite how calm it was on the surface. One couldn’t help but conjure imagines of gigantic, terrible, and hungry leviathans just waiting in the depths for some fool to leave the safety of land.
Mei felt more able to speak this far from the village. “Do you know which way to go? Where’s the nearest island?”
“I’m going home,” the brunette insisted like it was obvious.
Mei frowned. “Home?”
“Barbados, of course.” She was an NPC, not a prisoner, so her desire to return made sense.
The thief nodded. “I’ve only got six months left. Hell, they might knock a month or two off if I come back on my own. I’m going too.”
“But—“ Mei scowled internally. She did not want to return to Barbados. “I’m not going back. Help me with another canoe.”
“Sorry,” the thief shook his head. “We’re not waiting around. Get that other guy to help.” True to his word, he and the woman climbed in and started paddling.
“What about the other woman!” Mei hissed as loudly as she could. “Winny!”
The brunette paused with the paddle over the water, then looked back and shrugged. She kept going.
Mei stood, dumbfounded by their selfishness and angry that they were slowly escaping on their own, leaving everyone else behind. There was no help for it. Hopefully, Tattoos wasn’t planning on going back to Barbados as well. Although, one look at him, and that was unlikely. He seemed like the kind of person with a life sentence. But he looked strong. They could get a canoe into the water together and leave this place. So she waited for him to catch up.
Minutes passed. Then longer. She wrang her fingers and threw long looks at the jungle. Where was he? Had he not been able to unlock the cage on his own? It shouldn’t have been that hard. She considered trying to get another canoe into the water on her own and knew that even if she did, she had little hope of paddling it by herself. Frustrated, she crept back through the jungle to the village.
To her surprise, Tattoos was not in his cage. And the door was wide open.
She looked around. Where had he gone? She cast about, looking for clues, and then crouched and focused her hearing.
Indistinct sounds came from the village. Voices? Mei backed up a step, ready to run.
Then Tattoos came out of a hut, carefully brushing the grass curtain over the door out of his way. He had the knife in one hand, a spear in the other. Both were darker than they should have been, as was the man’s shirt. He approached the next hut and peeked inside, then entered.
What was he doing? Looking for Winny? Hadn’t he seen what hut she’d gone into?
Mei was about to investigate when Tattoos exited, his shirt even darker, and made his way to the next hut. Realization kicked in.
He was murdering the villagers in their sleep.
Mixed feelings swirled within her. Part of her was fine with it, especially with some of those macho warriors getting due justice. And these people were cannibals, which was horrendously wrong.
But then she remembered the little flower boy. He certainly didn’t deserve to die. Nor did his mother.
And what about Winny? How could Mei get her out of the hut when multiple women were sleeping in there with her?
Mei growled to herself. This was insane. She should just run off by herself, save herself. Forget working with Tattoos. But how? Could she hide on this island somewhere, or would they come for her?
Tattoos exited the hut and entered yet another.
She stared at the dark building he was in. Part of her wished someone would wake up and put an end to what he was doing. How many people had he already killed? And for what? There was no need! Anxious and desperate, she tiptoed into the village towards the home he was in. When he emerged, she threw her arms up to get his attention.
He spun on her and levelled the knife. Yes, he was covered in blood. But he just waved her off.
“Boats!” she hissed as loudly as she dared.
He ignored her and entered another hut.
She despaired. She needed his help with the canoe. Did she just wait until he murdered an entire village? Had he already killed that cute little boy?
She stood in the darkness, agonizing over her situation for about thirty seconds. “To hell with it.” She wasn’t going to let everyone die. Not that little boy, nor his mother. She looked around and spotted a stack of wood. Grabbing a few pieces, she piled them on the last remnants of the fire. Kneeling, she blew on the last embers, which glowed brighter, prompting flames.
She would…what? Create a distraction? Set a couple of huts on fire, the ones that only had corpses inside? Force Tattoos to run after waking the villagers, then grab Winny and go for the canoes? Maybe. But some of the villagers would be warriors. If only she had her guns and sword, but she’d no idea where they’d been kept. She didn’t see any spears lying around. Her eyes caught sight of the cages.
Ah. Manacles. Her old friends. She dashed back and took the length of chain that had secured the door of her cage. Wrapping it around her fist, about half a meter dangling down. It wasn’t as long as a spear, but it was something.
The fire was brightening quickly. New flames crept up the fresh wood, casting light and shadows around the village.
Tattoos came out of the hut and his face twisted in anger at the sight of the fire. With haste, he dove into the next hut.
Mei grabbed a burning log and tossed it at the first hut she’d seen him come out of. Then a log at the second. The dry grass quickly went up in flames. She ran across the village towards the hut she’d seen Winny go into. “Fire! Fire!” she shouted. She heard Tattoos curse in his language as she ran past his hut.
Villagers woke. Heads poked out of a couple of curtained doors, followed by exclamations and panic, shouts of alarm. More people poured forth.
Two women came out of Winny’s hut and ran towards the fire.
Mei ducked inside and almost ran into the third guardian.
The woman jumped back in fright.
Mei raised her chain threateningly but didn’t hit the woman. “Winny! Winny! Get up. We’re escaping!”
The redhead rose from a mat on the floor. “We are?”
“Get up. Run!”
She practically dragged the confused and scared woman out of the hut and ran with her through the chaos in the direction of the shore. “Get to the canoes!” she shouted.
A warrior appeared on Mei’s right, thrusting with his spear.
Mei dodged and pushed Winny. “Go! We’ll catch up!”
Winny ran, her nearly nude body as pale as the moon in the silver light.
Mei lashed out with her chain. It knocked the spear aside, surprising the warrior so much that she was able to step closer and punch him in the face and then whip him again. The warrior stumbled back, hand on his face, grunting in pain. But she didn’t try to finish him off. She spun. Where was—
Tattoos stood over several bodies already. And he had a big grin on his face. He was enjoying himself. With contemptuous ease, he slew another warrior.
“Leave them!” Mei called. “Get to the canoes!”
His grin drooped as he saw her. “Fuck off, blyat. No leave yet.”
A woman ducked out of a hut, a toddler in her arms.
Mei’s heart stopped.
Tattoos saw them and his teeth shone in the firelight. He ran at them.
The mother, with the little flower boy in her arms, screamed.
Mei didn’t hesitate. She ran too, trying to intercept Tattoos. They arrived almost at the same time.
The mother screamed and tried to go back into the hut.
Tattoos drove his spear at the pair.
Mei wound up and slashed the chain length through the air. It missed him completely.
He turned his fury on her.
They battled back and forth for a few seconds, but she was weaker, slower, and her chain no match for his knife and spear, let alone his muscles. The spear tangled the chain and swept it aside. He stepped forward, arm swinging.
She felt the metal blade punch into her gut. Once, twice, three times, fast. She staggered back, pain flaring, and his boot kicked high into her chest, sending her toppling backwards.
Right into the fire.
She felt the heat and felt the flames on her skin. She screamed in pain and rolled away.
He ignored the flames and ruthlessly kicked her back into the fire. Then he planted his foot on her chest and stood on her.
He grinned down at her, a devil in human form. “Say hi to guards for me, bitch.” He laughed.
She screamed and screamed and felt herself being burned alive.