She came out of the jungle like something out of a storybook, an avenging angel with no sign of mercy on her face. In her bright blue-and-gold jacket, shining sword in hand and her long black hair streaming in the wind, she instantly reminded him of the great heroes from one of his favourite books: Les Trois Mousquetaires.
Her face was set, tense, and even angry. She only had eyes for the huge brute of a man sitting by the fire, glaring daggers at his back as she stormed towards him.
The brute, who had introduced himself to Armand and the other three prisoners as Putin, was a hard-core member of the Russian mafia. Covered in tattoos and sporting a very dominant attitude, he was a fearful figure. This was a man born and bred in the underworld, someone who gloried in violence. He felt like a coiled cobra, his eyes always following you, always ready to strike, even without provocation.
They had treated him politely but distantly, without any of the warmth that it had seemed so natural to bestow on Mei when she’d arrived. He felt somewhat guilty about how that warmth had died, especially after he’d seen the terror on her face when she’d run from this man.
Given the way she’d screamed then, he never would have guessed that she’d return the way she was now.
Lance also noticed her return from where he stood next to the lean-to he shared with Armand. He looked up and his eyes widened in surprise. “Mei?” he gasped.
Cheeto saw her and swore. “She’s navy!” He cursed and looked around for a weapon.
Juan leaped to his feet and went for one of the clubs they had lying around.
At her name, Putin’s head rose from the fish he was digging into, a fish he’d demanded someone else catch for him. A contemptuous grin came over his lips and he put the fish down. Standing, he turned and spoke mockingly before he’d even caught sight of her. “So. You come ba—?“
Mei’s long legs carried her swiftly across the clearing they’d made a camp out of. Her brown eyes flashed at the sight of him, perhaps a moment of fear striking her heart, yet she mastered it without flinching and approached the gangster without slowing.
Putin caught sight of her expression and her weapons, and his eyes narrowed.
One hand held a gold-and-silver sword at her side. As she got within a few paces, the other hand rose, wielding a beautiful flintlock pistol. She pulled the trigger and smoke bloomed. A bullet shot out and hit Putin in the stomach.
He grunted and staggered backwards in shock. Wide eyes dropped down to the wound and he slapped a hand over it as blood leaked forth.
Mei didn’t slow. She jabbed at his legs, drawing his arms down in defence. Yet it was only a feint. She back-slashed him across the face, then sliced him back the other way.
Putin cried out in agony, hands clutching his face and tried to back away. He tripped over the fire pit and went sprawling next to it. Blood flowed from the facial wounds.
“Holy!” Lance exclaimed, staring in astonishment.
Mei’s hard gaze slid over to Juan and Cheeto and both quickly backed away, hands in the air. She stuck the spent gun in the waist of her pants and drew another out from the small of her back. Standing over Putin, her chest rose up and down quickly, betraying her heightened emotions. “This is justice.” Placing the barrel of the second gun on one of Putin’s knees, she pulled the trigger.
The knee exploded, and fresh screams erupted.
She stared at him, breathing deeply but mostly composed. For several seconds, she was lost in herself. Then she seemed to come back to reality with a jolt. She blinked and backed up a step. Sword in one hand and pistol in the other, she warily took in him and the others. “He had it coming,” she told them all.
Armand could well believe it. Putin had refused to explain after his odd arrival, but from the way that she’d taken off in utter fright, the two of them obviously had an unpleasant history.
Juan, however, didn’t look as convinced. He hefted the club, likely thinking he could take her on, even with the sword in her hand. The guns had been spent.
Even Lance was ready to object. His face screwed up in a mixture of betrayal and anger. “You’re a guard?”
“I can’t believe it!” Cheeto spat.
Juan took a step forward and flexed.
And that’s when the jaguar strolled out of the jungle behind her, calm as you like, golden eyes surveying them all with the confidence only an alpha predator has. At this point, even he, Armand, jumped to his feet and backed away, just as the others were doing.
Only Mei didn’t move.
Armand felt his jaw drop when the jaguar stopped at her side, the majestic animal’s back as high as the woman’s hips. His shock only deepened as he watched her return the pistol to the small of her back and then reach out and lightly touch the jaguar on the neck. And the jaguar let her.
“He’s with me,” she announced.
Armand had no words. It was too strange to believe. Everyone else was tongue-tied too.
Mei called out over her shoulder. “Winny! It’s ok to come out now.”
A woman came out of the trees. She was a local, not a prisoner, barely attired in a loincloth, her arms protectively crossed over her bare breasts. Her red hair was matted and filthy, and her pale skin streaked with red paint and mud and scratches. Each step was awkward and hesitant. Her eyes studied all the males with an expression of distrust and hurt.
Armand swallowed. Someone had brutalized that poor woman. And it wasn’t difficult to guess who. The man wasn’t screaming anymore, but he was grunting in pain and mouthing threats at his attacker.
“I kill you!” He tried to back away from her with his one good leg, the other dragging on the ground, looking like someone had stuck it through a meat grinder. Armand could see something white that might have been bone or cartilage.
Mei raised the sword and rested it on her shoulder. Then she surveyed those still standing. “First of all, I’m not navy. I took the jacket. And the weapons.” She paused as if waiting for someone to challenge her statements. Then she gestured to the other woman, who came to stand a couple of paces behind her and seemed wary of both the men and the jaguar. “This is Winny. She was taken from Barbados, along with me and this villain.” She nodded down at the wounded man. “I found her in the forest. Tied to a tree. Where he’d raped her more than once and probably planned to continue.”
All eyes went to Putin.
The gangster glared up at her. Luckily for him, the blade hadn’t cut his eyes.
Armand waited for someone else to ask, ‘Is that true?’ but, luckily, no one was that stupid. They could readily believe her. He stepped forward and bowed his head. “She will be safe here. None of us would ever do such a horrible thing, I believe, yes?” He gave the other three a questioning look.
Lance scowled. “Of course not!”
Juan and Cheeto adamantly shook their heads.
Mei didn’t look like she was sure that she believed them. But then again, what woman would, in this situation? When unfortunate events happen, it is easy for humans to lose sight of the fact that this was one individual versus another and, instead, we think in terms of one gender versus another. At this moment, the women were united in victimhood and self-defence and all men were the enemy, or potentially so. It hurt to be seen that way, but Armand was old and wise enough not to get offended.
He gestured to the lean-to furthest from everyone else and addressed the violated woman with a kind tone. “I’m sorry that we cannot offer you privacy. But please, lay down if you like. We have only a little food, but we can get more if you feel up to eating.”
Winny didn’t move.
Mei pulled the pistol out of her pants and stepped backwards to hand it to the redhead. “Here. It’s ok. I’ll make sure they stay away from you.”
Winny took the gun with a shaky hand and almost dropped it, surprised at the weight.
Mei hesitated, then planted her sword point-first in the ground. She removed her jacket, wrapped it around Winny’s shoulders, and urged her towards the lean-to.
Winny gave them all a wary look but retreated to the lean-to, where she lowered herself to the ground in obvious pain.
Mei retrieved the sword and turned to the group. “So. As I said, despite how it looks, I’m not a guard. I’m not navy.”
Lance appeared to have calmed, yet he still looked at her with suspicion. “How did you get that gear then?”
“I took it. I arrived in this world about a week ago. On a ship headed to Barbados and in chains. They put me to work that day, without food or water, in the sun. Gave me heatstroke. That night they threw me in a cell. One of them showed up and tried to rape me. I used the opportunity to escape.”
“You escaped a ship at sea?” Juan shook his head. “Impossible.”
“We were nearing the island,” she clarified, “just off the coast. I lit a fuse, threw it in the gunpowder magazine and ran, grabbing the guns on the way out. Swam to shore after the ship blew.”
Armand’s eyes widened again. He felt like this was becoming a habit. “You blew up the ship. The navy ship?”
Her eyes met his, and they were steady. “Yes.”
Lance scoffed in disbelief. “With the cannons and the two masts. The big ship?”
“Yes.” She answered in such a matter-of-fact way that it felt like it could only be the truth. “The captain of the ship followed me to the beach. We fought and I got lucky. I killed him and took his jacket. And this sword.”
“C’est pas possible,” Armand muttered. “It is like some kind of fairy tale. It can’t be true.”
“It is,” she calmly insisted. “I lived alone on the island for a few days. That’s where we met.” She patted the jaguar’s neck again, though cautiously. “The Carib’s got us and some others and brought us here. They put us in cages.”
Cheeto coughed a laugh. “Yeah, we’re familiar with those.”
She pointed the sword at Putin. “Woke up the first morning and he’d killed the other man in his cage. Maybe so they’d open the door and give him a chance to escape. Maybe to give the Caribs someone else to eat so they wouldn’t come for him instead. Yet he got no real escape opportunity at all. And the Caribs had killed and cooked two guards already. So they got annoyed at having another body so soon.”
Armand looked down at Putin. The wounded man was growing weaker. He’d probably bleed out at some point. And Armand felt no compunction to help him.
Mei continued. “A little boy accidentally gave me a knife. I used it so that we could escape. I left Tattoos here the knife while the other two and I made for the canoes. Two left. I waited for him, but he didn’t show. So I went back for him. And found him crawling from hut to hut in the night, murdering villagers in their sleep.”
Lance made an awkward laugh. “What?”
She looked over at him. “Not just warriors. Women. Children. Everyone.” She swallowed. Her eyes focused on the bloody murderer at her feet. “I tried to save Winny. Then tried to stop him from killing others. He kicked me into the fire.” She paused and her voice shook. Her skin paled as she went through the memories. “Then he stood on me and watched as I burned to death. Very slowly.”
Expressions of understanding dawned on everyone’s faces. Armand also felt a deep revulsion. No wonder she had screamed and run off like that. No wonder she had come back here and attacked him the way that she had. An ordeal like that… He couldn’t even imagine the horror of it. He looked at her with new sympathy. What unimaginable pain she must have gone through.
Juan watched Putin bleed with rising anger. From previous conversations, Armand suspected that the Spaniard had an ingrained chivalry towards the other gender.
Cheeto sneered in disgust at the gangster. “He’ll be dead soon enough. You want us to roll him into the fire for you?” he offered.
Mei hesitated but shook her head. “No. He’ll just respawn. And then he’ll come back. For me. Or for Winny. Or he’ll attack the villagers again.”
“What do you want to do with him then?” Juan asked.
Putin stared at her with hatred in his eyes.
Mei straightened. “Burn his wounds closed. Cauterize them. Stop him from bleeding to death. Then we’ll tie him up.”
Putin’s eyes widened and he started shouting at her in Russian.
Lance looked uneasy and didn’t move from where he stood, but Cheeto immediately stepped forward as if burning a man alive was no big deal, just another Saturday chore. Juan was slower to follow, but he did, dropping the club to help.
Armand was no stranger to the worst violence. He did not make a habit of it, but he had seen war in Africa, been a soldier for a couple of years way back when he’d been young and idealistic and dreamed of somehow returning to his ethnic roots. How foolish. He’d led a very different life after returning to France. Not the most honest one, but a safer one. It had been a long time since he’d seen a man bloodied like this.
He’d thought that perhaps he’d be more shocked at the sight of it. As if, having left war behind, he could have somehow regrown his innocence in the sheltered streets of refined Paris. Decades had passed, after all. And yet, there was almost something nostalgic about the sight of this wounded fighter, if still sickening.
He came forwards. “Hold him down,” he told Cheeto and Juan. “I will burn him.” It’s not as if it would be the first time. And he didn’t want a child such as Cheeto to have such an experience on his conscience. Though the boy had been through horrors and violence himself. Nor did he want Juan to do it. Juan might look tough, but this was not a job for regular men. Not when there were those at hand who had already crossed a certain line of humanity within themselves and who could take that added burden on instead.
Lance watched them, looking torn about helping but too sickened to join in.
Armand did not fault him for his reaction. Nor did he entreat Lance to help. He just reached for the firewood and started placing logs half into the fire pit’s flames and pulling out those already blackened and glowing red.
He turned his head and looked up at the woman who’d started this. “We will do this. But you do not have to watch.”
She didn’t move. “Thank you.”
The flaming sticks did sear Putin’s flesh, but they went out quickly in the blood, necessitating multiple tries before each wound was closed. The leg they had to bind above and below the wound, using vines taken from a hanging fig tree to do it. They could do nothing about the cuts on the face and, as neither was deep, they left them.
It was a lengthy and challenging process. Armand did not hesitate at it. Nor did he mock the others from turning away now and then. He did not laugh when Lance vomited in the bushes after the smell and oily smoke had reached him. Indeed, he was impressed by the determined effort that both Juan and Cheeto made in holding Putin down. The gangster was a large and powerful man, and only Juan could match him for muscle.
More, Armand was impressed with Mei. She looked away a few times. She cried throughout as she relived her own nightmarish experience. She, too, threw up. But still, she stayed and watched until it was over.
At last, the three rose and backed away from the near-corpse laying next to the fire. Putin had passed in and out of consciousness from the pain, moaning and weak.
Armand gazed down at the ash and blood on his hands. He would need to wash them. He had not thought that he would ever stain them again this way. Ah well. C’est la vie, no? He turned to Mei. “The bleeding has slowed, but we cannot stop it entirely, especially inside. He’ll die in a couple of days. Three maybe, with that gut wound. And only because there is no infection here.”
“Do we even have three days?” Lance asked with a worried look. “If she’s telling the truth, she blew up a warship and killed a naval captain. They’re going to be extremely upset. And they’re going to come for her. Frankly, I’m shocked they’re not here already.”
Mei shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t realize the Caribs got me.”
Cheeto sat on the ground. “Sounds like vacation is over, huh?”
Lance rubbed his jaw in thought. “Probably. The colony only has the one warship though, which is now gone. They’ve got a smaller ship, and commercial vessels do come by. They could show up any day now.”
“Do we stay, or do we run?” Juan asked. “We could take the canoes. Try to get to another island.”
Armand saw the problem but did not mock or scold. “We could. But do you know how to navigate the way the natives do? Could you find your way across hundreds of kilometres to another island? And which one? There are colonies on most.”
Cheeto let out a long sigh. “Man, when they get here, they are gonna be so pissed because of her. You think they’re gonna take it out on the rest of us too?”
That silenced the group.
Mei had the decency to look guilty at that. “Sorry. It’s not like I planned it. Or planned anything.”
Lance kicked a burnt log away in frustration.
Armand sighed, resigned that his months of peaceful life here were finally at an end. He had been lucky to have enjoyed as much time as he’d had.
Juan hung his head.
“I’m not going back,” Mei stated in no uncertain terms.
“Ha! Like you have a choice.” Lance ran a hand through his hair.
She looked at him. “You said there’s another ship, right? A smaller one? Could we pilot it ourselves? Er, sail. Whatever.”
He looked at her like she was insane. “You must be joking. You want us to somehow avoid getting caught on this island, and then magically steal their ship from the other island? And then run off and play pirate?”
She didn’t back down from his tone. “Yes.”
Cheeto laughed. “Chica, you really are loca.”
“I’m serious.” She looked around at all of them. “I’m not suggesting it would be easy. But couldn’t we try? If we get caught, we get caught. But at least if we try, there’s a chance we could get away permanently. We could go to some pirate town or something. Someplace free.”
Armand thought about that, and it was tempting. He had a lot of years left on his sentence.
Juan frowned at Mei. “After the things you’ve done, maybe you’ve got nothing to lose. They aren’t going to punish you any worse than they already are. But the rest of us? Cheeto and I, and Armand, we’ve done nothing to England. They have no reason to punish us. They’ll take us back to their colony, treat us the same as any other new prisoner.”
“True,” Armand added.
“We’d be crazy to try and fight them. Let alone steal a ship.” Lance shook his head. “The odds are overwhelmingly stacked against us. And you may not be familiar with how things work around here, but they don’t take acts of rebellion lightly. You heard what he said about being locked in a cage and dying repeatedly.” He gestured at Cheeto.
He stared at her, not hostile, but definitely not friendly either. “Well, it’s not just going without food or being put on lousy work details, which also does happen. They beat us, torture us, lock us in windowless boxes for weeks on end. This isn’t the real world. Here, the guards are a law unto themselves. And they will make your life miserable.”
Mei looked grim. “I understand. But we’ve also got a choice right now. A chance, however small, to escape this abusive system and live our own lives. If we let them take us back to a colony, we may never get that choice again.”
Cheeto shook his head, hard. He looked scared. “I don’t want to end up in a cage. Not like that. I don’t wanna go mad.”
Armand saw the emotions on the faces of the others, worry and fear prominent. Frustration and anger were not far behind. Self-preservation was strong in all of them. You might not be able to die in this prison world, but the tradeoff was that you could suffer indefinitely, and that might be even worse because it could break you, sometimes forever.
His own heart was pulled in both directions. The life of a plantation worker was not easy. But it was better than being in a cell. And with the number of years that he had left to serve, he would likely work his way up over time into a relatively easy life at some commercial or service job.
The decision should be quite straightforward. Why on Earth was he drawn to the idea of going on the run? To live free? What did that even mean? Scrounging for food? Playing pirate for meagre coin? Lying about, drinking yourself into a stupor on the beach. Never knowing whether you’d live or die that day? Life would be unpredictable, perhaps hard. Especially compared to life in a colony, where meals were regular, and life might be dull and occasionally painful, but it was also predictable. Relatively safe. Other than the occasional beating.
On a colony, he would not have to kill. He would not bloody his hands torturing evil men like he had done today.
And yet, despite all that, some spark of youthful foolishness remained in his heart, the part of him that still smiled when he read Alexandre Dumas and dreamed of adventure. Faced with the same choice, what would Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d’Artagnon do in this situation? Actually, the answer was obvious, so maybe he didn’t want to consider that line of thought after all.
A ragged laugh caught everyone’s attention. When they looked down, Putin was looking up at them, a bloody grin mocking them all.
Cheeto kicked him in the leg. “What you laughin’ at?”
His feral eyes twinkled with malice. “Stupid. All you. You go nowhere. ‘Cause I get you first.”
“Yeah? How’s that?” Cheeto challenged him, winding up for another kick.
Putin had been lying quietly. He reached for something underneath him, and the murderous grin widened.
“He’s got a knife!” Lance shouted.
Mei lunged with her sword.
But Putin was faster. His hand blurred, and he buried the knife to the hilt in his own throat.