Gunshots at the crack of dawn.
Mei twitched at the sound, though her body was in too rough a shape to do much more. She was very drowsy from being awake most of the night and had a headache both from being sleep deprived and dehydrated. Her stomach gurgled from hunger. Muscles ached from being cramped up in the same position for hours on end, after being too terrified to move.
Movement above caught her eye though and she dared to tilt her gaze upwards. Past the fluffy, suddenly curled tail hanging in front of her.
The jaguar’s head was raised and alert. It stared out onto the beach.
A board near Mei’s head exploded.
“Whoa!” She ducked even further and tried to bury herself in the sand. Someone was shooting at her.
The jaguar rose and leaped from its perch in one, smooth motion. It didn’t seem frightened, but it was focused on something. Or, rather, someone. Dislodged by the cat’s jump, the boards it had been laying on fell into the center of the fort, on top of Mei.
Another shot split the gray morning air.
The great cat bounded away, out of sight.
She heard voices approaching: laughing, male. Adrenalin kicked in and she rose up just enough to peek through the hole in her fort.
The sun was just breaching the horizon in the east, a slender band of pink and orange splitting the dark blue sea below and gray sky above. The white of the beach was muted, the greenery above the shore still shadowed.
Two soldiers jogged down the beach towards her. They were in blue and white uniforms and carried rifles. Swords were strapped to their waists. Both grinned and one raised his long-barrelled firearm and took another shot.
She ducked down, frantic, face pressed against the sand wall of her hideout. They were almost upon her. What the hell was she going to do? She was curled up in her hole in the beach, the wood and sand no real protection. She had to get up. To run. But they’d see her instantly and gun her down.
Her hesitation and groggy mental state wasted time. The two soldiers arrived and their footsteps in the sand slowed.
“Ha! Told ya you couldn’t it it at that distance,” mocked one voice.
“Bah,” scoffed the other, sounding blasé about the miss. “Aren’t we supposed to be catching the damnable thing anyway?”
“Not exactly what the captain said,” the first said knowingly.
“It’s is the guv’s cat though,” countered the second.
“And the guv’s a grade-A wanker. Whatever. We only scared it off. Let someone else capture it. I’m not tackling a bloody jaguar with my bare hands now, am I?”
The footsteps approached. “Looks like someone’s been playing in the sand. Wonder who’s built this then, eh?”
Two curious heads peered over the edges of the fort and looked down inside.
Mei pulled the triggers on both pistols. The men screamed and fell back. Awkwardly, she clambered up to her feet and dropped the pistol in her right hand, snatching up her sword instead.
Unfortunately for Mei, she did not yet have any skills in the use of guns to assist her aim. Nor was it easy to aim at two targets at the same time, especially from a prone position, with her arms not even extended. So while she’d hit both men at that short distance, neither was dead. Despite taking lead bullets to the head, both still had half their health because the shots had only grazed them, one on the side of the skull and the other in the jaw. Still, being grazed by a bullet hurts. The two soldiers staggered backwards, the one hit in the skull falling to a knee.
She stumbled out of her fort and charged them as best she could on stiff legs. With no skill at all, she went for the nearest one, the jaw injury, slashing him in the face and sending him reeling back with a second cry of pain, his eye now bloody.
The other soldier was already recovering and gripped his rifle and growled. Crimson rivulets trickled down from the gouge in the side of his head. His eyes were unfocused, but angry.
She spun and lunged, driving her sword into his chest. She hit bone first, but slid the blade in a short ways. Again, her lack of skills hampered her and she was getting lucky more than anything, though her athleticism definitely helped. The strength in her arm from years spent working out was the only reason the tip of the blade had entered the man’s body at all.
His health dropped again and he grunted in pain. “Bitch!” he raged and wildly swung with his rifle, missing her.
Fear energizing her, she drove forward, stabbing again and again, pushing him back. Little red flowers appeared on his white uniform. She saw him trip backwards and rushed forwards, leaping at him. She gripped the hilt with two hands and plunged the blade into his body with everything she had.
He gasped and died.
A sword rasped from its sheath behind her.
She spun, eyes wide, and saw the other soldier, one hand over his now-ruined eye, his blooded face a rictus of agony.
He stepped forward, cautious, but the sword held up dangerously before him.
She stood, breathing hard. Even wounded, he was likely more than a match for her with a sword. She backed up a step. Should she take her chances and run for it?
He grinned evilly. The blood pouring down his face coloured his teeth. He slashed at her.
She dodged. Thinking quickly, she squatted and grabbed a handful of sand.
He spun away and the sand harmlessly fell on his head and shoulders. He turned back, only to get a second clump of sand right in his remaining eye. The eye shut, full of grit, and he shouted in anger. Desperate, he waved his sword back and forth in front of him.
Mei checked her gun. It was still counting down, useless. She threw it at his left shoulder and then ran to his right side.
When the gun hit him, he reacted instinctively and turned, cutting to that side. Only for Mei to ram her blade into his belly from the opposite angle. She twisted it, making him scream, and then he, too, fell dead.
She pulled the sword free with some effort against the suction from his blood and guts. But before she could even take a breath, another shot split the air. Another board in the sand fort next to her exploded. She whirled. But no one else was on the beach. She backed up, scanning the area. She saw something in the distance and squinted in the poor light. Was that a puff of smoke in the air?
Another shot. Sand kicked up at her feet.
She threw herself behind the fort. Sniper!
Another board got hit and showered her with pieces of weather-worn wood. The shots were fairly close together. Either a man with two rifles, or two men.
Heart racing, she looked around. She had to run. Now. She couldn’t stay here. They’d just walk up and shoot her. She needed to get into jungle. She needed cover.
When the next shot came, spraying her with sand, she knew she had a short window of opportunity while the sniper’s gun recharged, and that only one more shot was coming. Mei scrambled forth and retrieved the two pistols, the next bullet whizzing loudly over her head. Then she jumped back behind the fort, just as the next bullet cut a line across the side of her calf. She cried out in surprise and pain and curled up in the sand. Checking the wound, she saw it wasn’t serious. She’d still be able to run. And run she did.
After the next shot, she bolted inland, crashing almost blindly through tall grass and bushes. The vegetation must have covered her because the gunshots stopped. But she didn’t slow. She ran on, all the way to the fresh water pond.
There was no time to worry about the jaguar or any of his kind while she was being pursued. Mei forced her way through the thick ring of greenery to the water’s edge. There, she scanned the area only briefly before dropping to her knees and drinking deep. In her rush, she’d muddied the water and tasted silt. Dehydration was already wearing her down though so she took as much as she could, feeling her belly slosh. Then she rose back to her feet and moved inland again.
It must have been a good ten or fifteen minutes before she slowed and sank to the ground behind a thick tree trunk to catch her breath.
Mei cursed herself for her own stupidity. She should have left the beach the night before. Or earlier. Of course it was the first place the marines would look for her. It was startling that it had taken them until now. She’d been a cowardly, weak fool to stay there for so long. She hadn’t been using her best asset: her brain.
They’d forced her hand. Fair enough. She might be in a weakened condition, but she could still function, for now. How to get off the damned island?
The soldiers would expect her to run away from civilization, wouldn’t they? Could she fool them by running towards it? If she was going to find a sailboat or rowboat or something, she’d have to find a town or port. The ship she’d started out on had been headed to the opposite side of the island. And the smaller one chased by the Spanish ship had gone that way too. So Mei stood up and faced west. Time to brave the island and make her daring escape. Or die trying.
Warily peeking out from behind the tree, she surveyed the tropical forest. The trees and undergrowth weren’t overly dense here. Barbados must be drier than Central or South America. She waited, breathing quietly, looking for any movement, be it soldier or jaguar. But there was only greenery and the sounds of birds.
Mei crouched and stepped forth. Moving slowly but steadily, she snaked through the underbrush, putting her feet down with care so as not to make noise. She pushed fronds and branches out of her way but held them as she passed and gently returned them to their position so as not to give herself away with extra movement.
For a long while, she stealthily crept along. She heard more sounds around her. But whether it was a branch knocking another in the wind or something else, she couldn’t say. Twice, she thought she saw movement in the forest, but when she stopped to look, there was nothing there. But it left her nerves on edge.
In this manner, she pushed through the forest towards the center of the island. Eventually, she came to a shallow stream bubbling along over rounded stones. The branches above blocked the light, leaving the water in dappled shade. Keeping an eye out in all directions, she knelt next to the water and took another drink, but not as much as the last time.
Which way to go? The water was flowing behind her, so that would mean it was going east, right? She needed to keep heading west. That meant upstream.
Something snapped over to her left and she dropped low, all her attention on listening for more sounds in that direction. She didn’t dare move. And then she realized that she was somewhat exposed in the water.
A rustle. This time on the right. She glanced that way, but saw nothing.
Were there multiple soldiers hunting her? Did jaguars make noise? Or were these just natural forest sounds? Maybe she was just being paranoid.
Staying very low, she crawled across the stream, heedless of how wet and dirty she got.
Two quick shots shattered the stillness of the forest. One ripped a branch in half over Mei’s head. The other kicked up dirt only a handspan from her knee and sprayed her with dirt.
She hurled herself forward, away from the stream.
Something, or more likely someone, crashed through the bush, close behind.
She tripped and fell forward. She hit the ground hard, ribs on an exposed root, the wind knocked out of her and stunning her. But her mind screamed at her body to get up, to flee or to fight. Desperately trying to suck air back into her lungs, she fumbled in a pocket for a pistol.
A marine charged out of the greenery, rifle in his hands. As soon as he spotted her, he skidded to a halt and raised the weapon, pointing it at her.
Mei rolled to the side and the first shot cut the dirt behind her.
The soldier yelped in fright. Something growled.
She looked up, pistol ready to fire.
The soldier screamed as the jaguar bit into his head, crushing skull bones. The great cat’s front paws were hooked deep into the man’s neck and shoulders. As she watched, the powerful hind legs pushed down, disembowelling him and spilling his entrails out onto the ground, great ropes of them.
She watched in horror, unable to believe what she was seeing or to look away.
A shot fired. It thudded into the soldier’s back. Another came and flew past the jaguar’s head, scaring it enough for it to release its prey and drop to the ground. Then two more marines were running at Mei and the cat, rifles in one hand, drawn pistols in the other.
Mei urged herself to her feet and ran the other direction. Only the fact that she wove around bushes and trees saved her as more bullets thrummed by in the air or tore at the leaves around her.
The jaguar, perhaps just as spooked, ran alongside of her, only a couple meters away, driven by the hunters. But she could do nothing about that. Any second, she expected a bullet to tear through her back and shred her pounding heart.
She ran pellmell, not caring or thinking of where she was going. And then the trees parted and she was running through a field of young tobacco. A handful of houses stood before her and the ocean beyond. A village!
“Halt!” one of the marines shouted. Yet he didn’t wait; he fired.
The bullet caught her in the shoulder and spun her around, sending her to the ground. Pain blossomed and she cried out, tears appearing in her eyes. Damn that hurt!
“Caribs!” one of the men shouted, though she could not see it with her eyes closed as she rolled about in pain. There were more shots, shouts of panic and hooting and hollering from multiple people as they must have come out of the trees or village.
Mei rolled to her good side and tried to stand. She raised her head and felt an arrow hit her in the stomach. She looked down in shock. No. No, this couldn’t be happening. If she died here, she’d respawn in chains, a prisoner again. No! It was too soon.
Refusing to die here, she forced herself to her feet. The beach. There must be boats. One foot in front of the other, she staggered forward.
A very thin man with jet black hair and light brown skin appeared beside her, walking casually, a big, mocking grin on his face. He wore a necklace of feathers and a hide loincloth but nothing else. A short, crude bow was in one hand and a quiver on his back.
She looked at him, in something of a daze from the massive amounts of pain and…something else. Was he the one who’d shot her? Was was he just walking along like that? It didn’t matter. She turned her head forward. The beach. She had to find a boat. And she did.
Passing one of the houses, she saw two huge canoes pulled up onto the sand. Inside each were a three or four adult English people, looking beaten and terrified. A couple of them sat like statues, unmoving, eyes just staring, unblinking.
Mei felt her own movements grow sluggish. In fact, her body was growing very numb, very quickly. She fell forwards and landed with a thunk on the ground, unable to do so much as raise her hands to stop it. What was going on? And why wasn’t she panicking like she should be? What was wrong with her?
The carib stood over her and laughed. He looked over his shoulder and said something to others, pointing at her and laughing.
Someone else replied in their tongue. Then two more men walked by, carrying a dead soldier between them. Then two more followed with the last soldier.
Mei saw herself lifted off the ground and dragged to the canoe. She felt nothing. Her thoughts were fuzzy. It took a lot of time and effort to think about what was happening to her. Poison, surely. What was that famous toxin used in the Americas? Curare. It paralyzed. But didn’t it also kill?
She was carelessly dumped into the canoe alongside the dead bodies, her body flopping loosely. Then the caribs pushed the canoes into the water and jumped in before grabbing long paddles. She was aware that her breathing was growing very shallow. Her lungs burned, starved for oxygen.
This was not at all a pleasant nor quick way to die.