They had left two of the males behind for some reason and pushed on without them, leaving the road and going inland, where they hurried through fields and bush.
Lia did her best to put on a stoic facade as she strode beside the foreigners this dark night. But inside, she was trembling with nerves.
She’d never done anything this crazy before!
Though she had to admit, it was not the first time she’d done something wild. But this? Leaving her tribe?
The tribe had a culture of gender difference: some things were for women, and others were for men. To be fair, it worked out well most of the time. Most people seemed naturally inclined to a particular division of labour and found fulfillment in their roles. But there were exceptions.
Like Aricae, whose giant ears gave him his name, the chubby man who couldn’t keep his fingers out of the pot and who loved to cook, always craving new ingredients and recipes. No matter how often the other warriors mocked him and the women tried to banish him from their cookfire, he always found a way to create and come up with something new that nobody had ever tasted before.
Another exception was old Fou-fou, named for a chatty bird, the wisest woman in the tribe. As an elder, she often had more and better to say than the men when they gathered the male-only council. That was why her father and some others had often taken Fou-fou aside before tribal discussions for her input. Even if she hadn’t often publicly made her opinions, they were always sought after privately. She’d commanded much more respect than most other tribe members, regardless of gender.
Lia had been born to a sweet little mother, named Cacao after the ripe brown pods of the cacao plant, and an overly indulgent father, Hadali, who had been named after the sun. Ever since Lia had been a child old enough to stand on two legs and begun learning female tasks, she’d begged her parents to also be allowed to join in so-called male pursuits, too, for she was athletic and active and thrived on adventure.
She loved her sisters and fellow tribeswomen, enjoyed sitting about the fire and talking of many things and had fun coming up with pretty new fashions. She could cook, though she was no genius at it. But whenever she could, she’d also pursued things considered unfeminine.
Lia had climbed the fire mountain many times, not just to the hot water pools but to the very top where she could dance on the peak. She’d swum with dolphins and hugged them in the harbour. She’d even swum with sharks out in the reefs, fending them off with her spear as she fished and dived for pretty shells. She’d journeyed to other islands, though she’d never been permitted on a raid, only on peaceful expeditions to fish or gather fruits or other materials.
Her mother had always been more conservative and preferred that Liamuiga excel at the same things that she did, such as hair braiding and making dyes. Her mother was known for her skilled cloth making.
Her father hadn’t always given in to Lia’s desires, of course, especially when other males were about and listening. But he had always had difficulty telling her no in private when the other warriors hadn’t been around to insist that she return to woman’s work.
Lia’s father had taught her how to prepare and handle curare and how to use a blowgun. She had become an excellent hunter of birds, of which she was very proud. Her father had confided that she was a better shot than many of the male hunters, a fact that she resentfully kept secret while longing to show off. She’d grown up with more than a few bullying boys that she would have liked to put in their place with her superior shooting skills.
Lia’s heart both warmed and ached as she thought of these people. So many were gone.
Fou-fou, the wise elder, had died fighting, trying to save the foreign woman that Lia so admired: Mei. Lia would dearly miss Fou-fou’s stern council and comforting wrinkled hands.
Her dear father had been amongst those killed in his sleep by that foul monster, the one the others had drowned on the way here to Ichirouganaim, the island that the foreigners called Barbados. Never again would she sneak off into the forest to hunt together with him. Never again would she hear him call her his little star.
With the deepest appreciation, her lovely mother had been spared and now travelled to a new home, the tribe rich with food and tools they’d never had before, thanks to these foreigners. However, it was also the foreigners who had doomed her people in the first place.
No, that wasn’t entirely fair. As Mei had pointed out, if Lia’s fellow villagers, including her father, hadn’t sought conflict with the foreigners, if they hadn’t insisted on bringing them back as spoils of war, then the foreigners never would have been in a position to do harm in the first place. So there was fault on both sides, which was exactly the kind of new way of thinking that Lia longed to hear more of.
She was both fascinated and repulsed by these foreigners. They were so barbaric in some ways, yet so amazing in others.
They all seemed as ready to kill as the most bloodthirsty of her own Kalinago people, so it was no wonder that the Kalinago called them demons. She’d heard many stories of how her people all over the islands and beyond had been butchered by them or fallen to strange ailments after being around them. Whenever the foreigners landed on the’s tribe’s island to hunt their own, the tribe always ran in fear, desperately hoping not to come into conflict with the red men and their deadly guns.
And yet, there was more to them than that, like with Mei.
She looked up and broke from her thoughts so she could secretly steal glances at the object of her admiration.
Mei was so tall and strong. She walked proudly and not only argued with males as an equal but even seemed to lead them! She wore the prettiest blue coat and carried more weapons than the men, surely both signs of great status. Mei had the most beautiful, easy smile that seemed to shine on everyone.
Mei had argued with the warriors of Lia’s tribe without ever backing down when they’d shouted at her and bullied her. When the tribe had discussed the invasion of the red men and the future of Lia’s people, Mei had insisted that the voices of the women be equal to those of the men. It had seemed so natural to her.
Lia was in awe. To Lia, Mei was everything she longed to become: brave and strong, confident and beautiful. So when the time had arrived for the Kalinago and foreigners to part ways on the beach, her tribe preparing to sail to new shores, Lia had suddenly elected to stay behind with this powerful, breathtaking woman.
It had not been an easy decision. Her mother had been in tears, so much so that others had had to carry her away, which had broken Lia’s heart. Lia, scared of the unknown, had been afraid to be alone from her people, not knowing if she’d ever see her mother or what remained of her tribe again.
She did not know what these strange foreigners had planned in Ichirouganaim, why they were here or where they were going. She knew with a high degree of certainty that she was in danger with them and could die. And she did not want to die.
But staying behind in the world she already knew so well had seemed a stale death of its own.
Lia wanted to live. And for her, that meant growing beyond what was known to explore and experience the unknown. So here she was, risking her life for an adventure.
Nervous excitement prompted a shakey smile on her lips.
Mei caught it and gave her a warm smile of her own. She said something in her language that Lia didn’t understand.
Lia tilted her head in confusion and then frowned. “I want to learn your language,” she earnestly told the other woman. “I want to speak together.”
Mei’s brow creased slightly, then she chuckled and replied with something that sounded encouraging and nodded.
There was no way to easily understand each other. Lia would correct that. She would learn this strange foreign tongue because there was so much that she wanted to talk to Mei about.
She giddily hoped they could be friends. Or more than friends: sisters! The thought of it made her want to dance and sing. Only the seriousness of the others and the danger all around kept her quiet. Recalling that danger brought her mind back into focus. She needed to be in the present and wary. Ichirouganaim was home to many foreigners and the red men.
They crept along the road for a short while, moving south. Lia saw entire fields where only a single plant grew. It was so unnatural and strange compared to the chaos of the wilderness. Yet some of it was surely food.
She recognized the tall grass that could be chewed for a sweet treat. There was so much of it here! And the cotton plant that her people harvested to make clothing with. Soil squished between Lia’s toes as she wound her way around knee-high cotton plants in neat rows. How her mother would love this place when the white flowers came!
At the place they’d raided earlier, she’d discovered a brilliant red berry or fruit of some kind in the fields. Mei had called it a tomato. Lia had eaten one and rather liked it. Mei had also shown her potatoes and carrots and cabbages. Walking along, Lia now saw thousands of such plants, more food than her tribe could live on for a year. It reminded her of the meaning of her name: fertile land. She marvelled at the crops and wondered what they could possibly need so much food for. Perhaps a great many foreigners were fat.
Lia got her first hint of their civilization as they neared a place called Speightstown on the coast. It was a village of foreigners. Yet it seemed strange to call it a village as it bore only a faint resemblance to the likes of her own.
She saw buildings that were many times the size of the huts her people used, like the ones from the plantation, but more than she could count. Her jaw dropped. Just how big was this village?
Mei saw her expression and laughed under her breath.
Looking back over her shoulder, Lia studied the two men behind them.
So far, she had the most respect for the black-skinned one. He was serious but also had a radiant, white smile that made her think of him as grandfatherly, despite, or perhaps because of, the dangerous glint that sometimes appeared in his eyes. She’d seen something like that in one of the elder warriors who died a few years ago, with many legends of bravery and cunning to his name.
The pink-white man she didn’t like at all. He seemed childish and weak. He’d attacked Mei on the boat, and Lia didn’t like how she caught him sneaking looks at her. If he tried to hurt Mei again, Lia would use her curare on him. And then skin him alive while he watched.
The other two males hadn’t returned yet.
She thought that the tall, big one was handsome but sad and wondered, as she had before, what it would be like to mate with him. The idea of being with a foreigner was strange, even perverse, and yet titillating as well.
The little one was younger than she was and almost as short. She wasn’t sure she liked how he hung his head and glowered sometimes. He seemed to carry some deep anger inside, and she wondered why.
All except the black one were clumsy, not hunters at all, especially pink-white.
Lia lifted her head with pride. She was far more graceful and quiet. She smiled to herself. While she wasn’t clear about the purpose of their mission, she did understand that it was a kind of hunt.
She would prove to herself and Mei both that she could be a great hunter. Better than the others. She would make Mei proud of her.
That was why she’d volunteered to be one of those who had gone into the house with many warriors and why she had, for the first time in her life, killed another person. It had been awful and bloody and terrifying. But she would not let that stop her from being a warrior, too, just like Mei.
As they encroached on the enormous buildings of the foreigner village, Lia gaped up at the windows and roofs high overhead. These places were made of wood beams and blocks of stone that were beautifully constructed and far heavier than anyone should be able to lift. How had they been able to do that? It must have taken more people than she could count.
All was relatively quiet. Yet misfortune could come from any direction at any time.
Mei’s eyes and ears were tuned for trouble as the group slunk between a few houses, each painted either white or a bright pastel colour. They pulled up in an alley between a pink grocer and a sky-blue butcher shop that smelled of blood. A set of metal stairs led up to the flat roof of the grocer.
Mei warily tested the stairs. When they didn’t creak, she climbed up onto the roof, hearing Lia stealthily follow. Staying low in the center of the space, she surveyed the town around her and listened to the others follow her up.
Speightstown might have been Barbados’s most important economic port, but it wasn’t an overly large community. With the agricultural economy being very labour intensive, most Barbadians and prisoners were spread out amongst the plantations and fishing hamlets.
Still, there were many warehouses, shops, and factories. People might live and work throughout the island, but they would come here to shop and resupply, buy or repair tools, and seek entertainment. While rich landowners resided on their plantations, merchants lived alongside their businesses in town.
In odd contrast to modern urban areas, there were no streetlights here, and the town was tranquil, practically dead at this time of night. Looking up, it was a surprise to still be able to see the stars above, something one never could, even in small towns in the real world.
Armand came to squat beside her.
“What do you think?” she asked him, looking for potential targets.
He, too, scanned Speightstown, eyes narrowed. Out of the four men she’d met, she naturally felt inclined to trust his opinions the most. With his calm presence and logical mind, he had a maturity and sense of experience that appealed to her.
“One of those grand mansions?” She indicated one of the several very wealthy estates closer to the center of town.
The houses were two and three-story behemoths similar to the main hall back on the plantation. Each probably housed not only a family but also a dozen servants and would still have plenty of rooms to spare. Each had a green space around it filled with flowers and trees, and even fountains.
Oddly, right across the street from some, and in view of many other mansions, there were plenty of regular homes and dozens of run-down hovels and rough apartments. The town was too young to have separated into wealth-based districts yet, and so it was a mishmash of ultra-rich and commoners, homes next door to businesses and factories.
Lance approached from behind and surprised her with an insightful answer before Armand could reply. “Not the mansions. You’re just gonna upset a bunch of wealthy merchants and plantation owners. It’s not what Spanish agents would attack. Spies would target something military or economic, something the government would want to protect.” His eyes roamed, then stopped. He pointed. “There.”
Mei followed his gaze and saw a very large stone-and-canvas windmill standing on the edge of town, a giant cyclopean sentinel watching over the place. A mischievous twist took over her lips. “Good. We light that on fire, and it should get everyone’s attention, right?” She caught sight of Lia.
The young woman kneeled on the edge of the roof, eyes wide and mouth open as she studied the strange world around her. It might have been the first time she’d ever seen such large buildings and such a huge community. Carib tribes probably each held only one or two hundred people, at most. Speightstown was probably home to a thousand people.
Mei held back a laugh and recalled the first couple of times she’d gone overseas to different countries and cultures. Like the time spent studying in Canada. Everything had been fascinating simply for its difference those first few months. And when she’d returned to Asia, Mei had found herself with a much broader perspective of the world and of her own people and places.
She was incredibly grateful for that experience and wondered if going after the same had been Lia’s intention as well.
For some of us, just being in the world that we are born into isn’t enough. We wonder if there is more to life and better ways to live. So we study other cultures and other people to better understand ourselves and the many ways life can be lived. We can then compare these differences against our own ways of living and then seek to improve them.
Joining the wannabe pirates on their crazy gamble for freedom had been something Mei had protested, only guiltily relenting at Lia’s intense instance, perhaps empathizing because she saw her own spirit mirrored in the younger woman. Mei promised herself that she’d protect Lia and give her the chance to grow. Though her guilt returned because she knew that she had precious little ability to make good on that promise right now.
Destination chosen, they returned to the streets, where Jie had been waiting for them. Darting from one shadow to another, they dodged late-night drunks stumbling home, a military patrol of red coats who eyed everyone with distrust, even a horse that had gotten loose and was wandering on its own.
Several grand warehouses stood on the main street that led directly to the docks, the only road paved with stone. Sadly, the docks were empty of all but small fishing vessels, nothing any of them cared to risk on the open seas very far from shore.
Mei spoke with regret as she stood on the cobblestone and wistfully looked at the docks. “Too bad we can’t wait around for a merchant ship to show up,”
“It’s a race against time.” Armand patted her on the back. “Let’s hurry.”
They followed the main street all the way to the windmill, which loomed above them larger with every step. The four massive blades didn’t move as the night air was still. The stone building was cone-shaped, wide at the base and narrow at the top. Three stories tall, it was part of a larger complex, with a long, low, rectangular building attached to the side.
A large, wooden door with an arched top sat in the base of the windmill. A guard stood next to it, alert, his musket in his hands. Two more guards stood at attention on either side of the main doors to the rectangular building.
The companions hid in the lee of a warehouse on one side of the main street, just out of sight, and contemplated their next move.
To Mei’s continued surprise, Jie proved odd for a wild animal, quietly following along even through town. She seemed interested in many things, her eyes constantly roaming around her, her nose sniffing the strange scents. Why she seemed content to follow Mei around, she had no idea, and she worried for the big cat’s safety.
“Should we circle around back?” Armand suggested.
“Only doors are in the front,” Lance told them. “And all the lower windows are barred.”
Mei’s stomach fell. “Too bad. That means we have to find a way past this guard. And without the other two noticing us.”
Lance peeked around the corner of the building, then popped his head back. “It’s all open ground in front. If we charge him from any angle, he’ll call out or shoot. That’ll bring the others.”
Lia looked around at the three of them, confused. She, too, peeked around the corner. Then she pulled back and pointed with one hand while holding up her blowgun in the other, puffing up her chest like a man.
Mei lightly laughed at the young woman’s audacity. “Umm…” She tried to think, then drew a finger across her throat. “Stop him. But…” She puffed up her chest, held up two fingers, then pointed farther down. “Two more, close.”
Lia rechecked the front of the mill. She held up her blowpipe and mimed blowing it three times.
Lance’s brows rose in doubt. “Really? From here? It’s far.” The distance had to be twenty metres.
Lia tapped her chest and nodded, then mimed the pipe again.
The two men looked at Mei.
She bit her lip in indecision. But seeing the eager but confident look on the Carib woman’s face, she gave in. “Ok. Try.” She nodded and pointed.
Lia gave her a fierce smile and prepared herself.
“Guys, get ready to rush them if we need to,” Mei instructed the others. “Before they can sound an alarm.”
The men nodded, each giving the Carib woman skeptical looks. Tensions rose.
Lia pulled out four arrows and placed them on the ground in front of her. Unstoppering the gourd, she dipped three arrows into the sticky liquid inside. Lance and Armand scooted further away at the sight of it, and she silently laughed at their uneasiness.
With practiced expertise, she checked the ends of the blowpipe and blew it clear of any dust or debris, first empty, then using the arrow without poison. Seeing the arrow come out clean, she hummed in satisfaction. Then she loaded a poisoned arrow and gingerly placed herself at the corner of the building.
Lia planted both feet squarely on the ground and raised the pipe to her lips, her left arm outstretched before her to balance the long device. With a deep breath through her nose, she aimed and steadied, then exhaled.
The man on guard yelped.
Quick as a wink, she ducked back out of sight.
Everyone else flattened themselves to the building, hoping that nobody thought to search for them there.
“What’s going on?” an annoyed voice called.
There was a pause and some cursing. “I’m bloody well shot in the neck! Bleeding like a stuck pig!”
Footsteps jogged over.
“What the heck is that? Doesn’t look like any arrow I’ve ever seen.”
“Who shot it? Some kid with a miniature bow?”
Lia had wasted no time while the men gathered. As they grew increasingly concerned, she picked up the two remaining arrows and planted herself at the corner of the building again. Twice in quick succession, she puffed, and two more men cried out in pain.
“Ah! I’m hit!”
The first voice shouted into the night. “I swear, if you’re some brat who thinks this is funny, I’ll tan your hide for this!”
“Sound the alarm,” one of the others suggested with concern. “Maybe this is an attack.”
“With big toothpicks? Really? Idiot. You think the sergeant will think so too?”
“I need a doctor.”
“Guys…I’m nob feeshigud.”
“Bime…” A thud as someone hit the ground.
They heard the sound of two more bodies falling to the ground from paralysis.
Armand peeked. Grinning with a thumbs up at Lia, he darted out from cover. The others quickly followed.
All three guards lay on the ground, staring and unable to move, breathing growing short.
Lance was stunned. “I can’t believe it. She’s a sniper!”
“Remarkable,” Armand breathed.
Lia looked thrilled and proud. She tapped Mei on the shoulder, jumping up and down like a little girl while pointing at the prey she’d successfully taken down.
Mei hugged the woman’s shoulders, glad everything had turned out ok and astonished at the Carib’s skill. “Good girl!”
Lance stood over the bodies. “So that’s what I looked like when it happened to me. Yup, about as embarrassing as I thought it would be.”
“One of the most terrifying things I’ve ever experienced.” Mei shuddered. “I don’t ever want to go through that again.”
Lia clutched her stomach and silently laughed, making Mei chuckle. Fierce little warrior girl.
Digging the door keys out of the pockets of one of the guards, they let themselves into the main door at the base of the windmill and dragged the bodies inside and out of sight.
Jie sniffed at the door but elected to remain outside, and Mei had to hope the animal would go unnoticed and unharmed until they returned.
The mill’s interior was pitch black except for star- and moonlight coming through two square windows high above.
“Lance,” Mei nudged him, “light that lantern again.”
He fiddled with the lantern he’d taken from the plantation that now hung at his waist.
“I really wouldn’t do that if I were yew,” an English voice growled from out of the darkness.
Everyone jumped and whirled in all directions, trying to locate the voice source.
Mei felt a shiver crawl up her spine and began to panic. They’d been discovered!
A tiny sliver of orange light appeared ahead of them and then grew, illuminating a glass-shielded lantern and a man in prison uniform, sitting chained to the floor.
He was a massive man, bigger than Juan. But where Juan was toned and had the body of a man in his prime, this old prisoner’s muscular bulk was covered with a layer of fat. A large belly stretched his shirt out, probably a product of age and a slower lifestyle. His white hair and bushy, gray beard, lines around his eyes, and wrinkled hands indicated a man in his sixties. He bore a surprising resemblance to an incarcerated Santa Claus.
The aged prisoner eyed them from where he sat on the stone floor. “Now, yew lo’ are dressed like soldiers, most of yew. But something tells me yew ain’t.” Eyes glinted from the shadows, and a hint of crooked teeth caught the light.