If there was one thing that defined Mei Ling, it was that she refused to go down without a fight.
When the hands reached into the cage for her, she grabbed the warrior’s wrists and held them in place while she kicked him in the face.
The warriors behind him shouted in surprise and some laughted.
The one reaching for her fought against her, getting kicked in the face again. She scratched his arms with her nails, even bit his hand. She was panicking but also angry. She was not going to let them take her. She was not!
He leaped backwards, cursing and jumping about in pain, his hand bloody.
Mei glowered at them, panting. She felt warm blood on her lips and it wasn’t hers.
To her surprise, the group of Carib warriors reacted two very different ways. About half of them glared daggers and looked ready to jump in next, perhaps furious that a woman would dare fight them.
The other half stood there, arms folded, and laughed. They found her resistance hilarious. More, there was a measure of respect in some of their eyes. Perhaps they, too, were unused to a woman standing up for herself. But in their case, they seemed to approve of it.
The angry warriors moved forward to try and take Mei again, but it was the good-natured ones who pulled their fellows back and talked some reason into them. Mei’s door was closed and locked again.
Only when the chains were back in place did Mei allow herself to feel relieved. She sagged against the back of the cage and tried to catch her breath. She bought herself more time.
The warriors weren’t done yet though. They milled about in front of the cages and continued to debate. This time, they chose the middle cage with the brunette, the redhead and the thief.
The brunette saw them coming and scowled and bared her own claws. The thief backed up as far as he could and made a fist.
But the redhead just lay there, staring at nothing. So it was her that they dragged out by the feet.
The brunnette reacted, throwing herself forward and slashing the warriors with her fingers. But she wasn’t committed enough to do any real damage. When that failed, she tried to grab the redhead and hold onto her. “Help me!” she shouted at the thief next to her.
He just sat there. “No. I’m not giving them any reason to take me instead.”
But Mei reached through into their cage and tried to get her hands on the woman’s clothes, tried to stop her from being dragged away.
“Winny!” the brunette shouted, tugging on the woman’s arms. “Leave her alone, you monsters!”
It was no use. Mei felt the woman slip out of her fingers. Winny was swiftly hauled out and the cage slammed shut and chained once more.
“Winny!” the brunette cried out in despair. She hadn’t seemed all that concerned for the redhead so far, but perhaps her heart had changed in the heat of the dire moment.
Winny seemed to come awake at last. As she was pulled to her feet, she blinked and looked around at all the Carib warriors ringing her, leering at her, and screamed. She tried to run away, but the men circled her again and easily held her in place.
As they did, they appraised her, physically. Some touched her red hair and murmured appreciatively. Others groped her breasts and buttocks and commented. A couple of warriors looked disdainful. One even turned his head and spat in disgust. But more of the men had looks of curiosity or even outright interest.
Ignoring her panic, they walked her into the center of the village where a group of females sat in a loose group, chatting and working on crafts and cooking. When several of the women rose, Winny was passed to them. Then the warriors backed away.
The women came to her and surrounded her, smiles on their faces.
Winny stood, eyes wild and rolling in her head. “Stay away!” she screeched.
But the Carib tribeswomen were not aggressive. Nor did they have any weapons. They approached calmly. They reached out and touched her shoulders and arms, but gently. All of the women spoke in soft, patient tones. It was exactly the way you’d speak to a terrified dog or horse. They were trying to soothe her.
And it seemed to work, albeit slowly. After a few minutes of standing and shivering in fear while they spoke to her, Winny seemed to realize that they were not going to butcher and eat her. And so when they gently pressed her shoulders and pulled her arms, wanting her to sit with them, she reluctantly sank to the ground.
For a while, as patient as any mother or grandmother could be, the women of the village spoke in calm and well-mannered ways. Sometimes they talked to their captive, sometimes to each other, but always softly. One old woman continuously stroked Winny’s back with a wrinkled hand. Someone offered a bowl of water.
Winny stared at the bowl for a few seconds before hesitatingly taking it. She drank, at first slowly, then gulping it all down.
The women all made approving noises.
Winny drank a second. More approval.
Mei noticed movement next to the women. Most of the village children were either sitting with the women, standing with the men, gender divided, of course, or were such babes that they were in baskets next to the working women.
But a few wandered around on their own. She saw the little flower boy was one of them. With that unsteady amble he had, he wobbled away from his mother to where cooking preparations had been abandoned a couple of meters away. Examining the remains of a cleaned fish, he squatted and poked about with a pudgy finger.
Mei gasped when she saw him slowly take hold of a knife. She considered shouting out in warning. Yet she needn’t have bothered. The mother tilted her head, watching the little boy out of the corner of her eye, even as she and the others worked to calm the redhead.
The little boy, with that sense of experimentation all youth have, raised the knife up and hacked at the fish head and guts sitting on a board. He’d seen this done. He knew how to do it too. He repeated this a few times with great care and concentration. And the watchful mother left him to it.
One teen girl in the group touched Winny’s red hair and cooed over it. Following her lead, many of the others did the same. They appeared enchanted by the colour and the natural curls. They spoke with awe and smiled wide.
As this went on, Winny seemed to relax. She didn’t sit as stiffly. Her eyes no longer rolled and instead she looked around her, wary and confused.
As with the hair, so too were the European clothes pinched and stroked and examined with much attention. An old woman gave Winny a grandmotherly pat and then reached forward to take the clothing off.
That was too much. Winny yelped in fright and jumped to her feet once more, defensive. She turned around, looking befuddled and then stumbled in a random direction, arms protectively crossed over her chest.
The warriors were all sitting in a group on the other side of the village. Some had left, walking off towards the canoes earlier, so it was only a handful of males remaining. A single warrior, middle aged, stood up and walked after Winny with long, purposeful strides. He grabbed her by the wrist.
She freaked out and spun to face him, screaming hysterically.
He held up his other hand, all calm. Then he pointed at the group of women and said something.
The women all sat in silence, watching.
Winny looked only confused. She shook her head. “No! Leave me alone! I want to go home!” She tugged her arm away.
But he was much stronger and held her in place. He pointed and repeated himself. When Winny tried to scream at him, he calmly backhanded her across the face.
The woman’s head snapped to the side, then she looked at him with wide eyes. But she was quiet.
He pointed again.
She hesitated, then shook her head.
He released her and walked over to the central firepit. Speaking in his language, he pointed at the firepit and mimed cutting his throat and eating.
She backed up a step. “No!”
He pointed at the sitting women.
Winny glanced at them, then back at the warrior by the firepit. Then at the group of men also sitting and watching not too far away.
Mei watched the scene playing out. There was no way Winny could run. Realistically, the woman had two choices: sit and go along with whatever they wanted of her, or fight or flee and she’d be dinner.
Winny seemed to pick up on that fast enough herself, dsepite her state of shock. Something broke inside of her and she sagged and sobbed.
Two of the women, one middle aged, one very young, stood and went to her. Cooing and patting her gently, they led the sobbing woman back into their circle.
The warrior nodded and walked off and Mei saw him return to where the other males were polishing their spears. Well, maintaining them or their fishing gear or whatever else they were doing. But the lewd pun popped into her head at the sight and she almost chuckled.
The two women who brought the weeping Winny back to her spot sat on either side of her. Each took half of her hair and began brushing it, like sisters might.
The little boy, entirely uninterested by all the drama going on around him, left the fish guts he was playing with and wobbled away, this time unnoticed by the others. He’d apparently had enough of the soft, smelly fish. He continued to experiment though, poking his knife into a fallen log and watching in amazement as it got stuck. He heaved it out and then struck again. This was interesting for a minute or so. Then he wandered off again, slashing at grass and even a wildflower. He giggled and ran about, poking and chopping everything he could with the knife.
Mei couldn’t help but laugh at his antics. He was like an adorable little serial killer discovering his first weapon. Ok, that was probably unfair. All children did the same when they were that age.
Did that mean there was a little knife wielding maniac in all of us? Perhaps. But Mei’s eye was soon drawn back to the main event.
The woman in front of the captive reached forward and again sought to remove Winny’s clothing. This time, Winny did nothing to prevent it. She just sat there, quietly crying, but resigned, her shoulders drooping.
Talking and laughing at Winny, and with each other, the women pulled the dress down to Winny’s waist, and did the same with the white shift beneath it, leaving her topless. Her skin was as pale as cream and as yet untouched by the Caribbean sunlight. She must either be new to the region or had spent all her time indoors rather than labouring in the fields.
One woman reached over a hefted one of Winny’s round breasts, saying something to the others that got them all laughing.
A couple of teens on the outside of the circle stood and came forward with bowls filled with some kind of red paste that they had been making while the others had been focused on Winny. Others took the bowls and they began painting Winny. They put streaks of red on her face, on her back and arms, even detailed drawings on her breasts.
Another woman came over with a pretty, shell necklace and draped it around Winny’s neck. As she tied it, the others all praised Winny and clapped, as excited and encouraging as any group of girlfriends might be.
Winny actually looked down. She took the necklace in her fingers and stared at it, though she didn’t try to remove it.
Someone held up a loincloth like the ones worn by all females in the tribe. It was a rectangular piece of leather, dyed or painted white and decorated with red frills, perhaps made of feathers. Leather cords on the corners would serve to hold it in place. There was nothing to cover the wearer’s backside. Male and female alike, there was a lot of bums on display here.
Applauding at the hand-crafted fashion, the women gently lifted Winny to her feet and pulled the rest of her dress off. Her white buttocks practically glowed and a rather loud murmer of appreciation came from the watching males, along with some grins and shoulder slapping. One warrior turned away, revolted by the sight, but the rest apparently liked what they saw.
Ignoring Winny’s fresh burst of tears, the women tied the loincloth around the woman’s narrow waist so that it would hide her sex.
“What are they doing?”
Mei jumped at the sudden voice. She’d been so caught up in watching that she’d forgotten herself and the thief’s voice had really startled her. “What?” she asked, looking back at him.
He leaned against the bars and pointed. “What are they doing?” he asked again.
Mei took a breath and steadied herself. “Looks like they’re inducting her into the tribe.”
The brunette frowned. “They’re what?”
Having studied the scene so closely, an understanding was coming to Mei. “I think, and I’m guessing, but I think that many of the women here aren’t originally from this tribe. I think the’re slave wives.”
The thief’s brows rose. “Slaves?”
Mei nodded. “Tribal humans throughout history regularly traded members when they met up with each other. It helped prevent inbreeding. But it was also very common for tribes who were more warlike to raid others, both for supplies and treasure, but also for women. I think they took her as a prize and now they’re making her part of the tribe. Or at least, giving her the chance. That’s probably the other reason for these cages, keeping stolen women captive until they can be inducted into their new home.”
“I’d rather die.” The brunette sneared. “Become a sex slave to these heathens? Never. If they try that with me, they’ll regret it.”
“You’d rather be eaten?” Mei asked in disbelief.
The brunette didn’t answer.
Mei continued to watch. The women were all very happy, admiring Winny’s new look. Winny was hunched over, trying to hide and they only laughed at her and dragged her down to sit again before passing out food and drink and trying to make merry. But with everything they did, they very deliberately included Winny, always happy and patient and calm with her.
And this was for females only. Absolutely no males came around during the entire process. Nothing that might threaten the newcomer’s fragility.
Mei was thoughtful. More than that, she felt a buzz of excitement, of hope restored. Perhaps this was a way out. Was this what they’d had planned for her when they’d come for her, earlier? Mei’s Asian features and black hair were somewhat similar to that of the Caribs, though her own light skin colour contrasted sharply with their brown. Perhaps that made her both familiar and exotic.
But if they also wanted her to be a member of the tribe, perhaps she could fake it and go along with it. It might give her a chance to run away later. She wasn’t sure how big the island was or if she could maybe get to a canoe and paddle off by herself. But if she had to walk around naked and play villager for a few days, she could safely gather some intel. Though she wouldn’t be dining on any red meat.
At the very least, she’d stay alive. And that was very important. Because dying meant respawning in chains and just about anything was better than that. Perhaps even performing ‘wifely’ duties for her captors. Better than being raped by sailors and guards in between torture sessions. And the more she thought about it, the more willing she found herself to do whatever it would take to survive.
She broke free of her thoughts as someone approached. It was the little flower boy and he’d come back to play again.
With a goofy grin and drool on his chin, he made a bee line for her, his wooden ball in one hand and the knife in the other. He stopped in front of her cage, a happy boy, and tried to jump up and down to show it, though he wasn’t grown enough yet where actual jumping was possible. So he almost fell over on his face. Which might have resulted in him also stabbing himself in the eye. Luckily, he did not do that.
Mei smiled at him, a little anxious that he was running wild and unsupervised with a knife. “Hi! How are you? Do you want to play again?”
The boy grunted and threw the ball, a Herculean effort. It bounced off the cage and rolled too far away to grab. The little boy didn’t seem to mind though. Then he pulled back his other arm and threw the knife.
She yelped and ducked out of the way, covering her head with her arms. The knife flew right between the bars, just missing her hair, and bounced off the back wall before falling to the ground.
All four prisoners froze and stared at it.
Even the jaguar’s eyes followed the knife to where it lay.
She sat up and marvelled at the little blade. Then Mei’s heart kicked back into gear and started racing. A knife. A knife! She dove and grabbed for it, a split second faster than the thief, who lunged between the bars for it. Then it was in her hands. The thing that they could all use to escape with.
And the boy was gurgling and picking up his ball. Any moment now, he was going to draw attention. And someone would see Mei with the knife.
Very calmly, she turned and sat back against the rear wall of the cage. One hand behind her back, she put her arm between the bars and prepared to hide the knife in the dirt and grass there. And then she glanced over and saw the way the thief was still staring at her, no expression, slowly pulling his arm back. And she decided to put the knife a little closer to the jaguar’s side, well out of the man’s reach.
Tattoos, who had also been staring at her, blinked and forcibly relaxed. “Turn around,” he told them. “Look normal. Go to sleep. You. Play with boy,” he said to Mei.
The others jolted and came to their senses. The brunette and the thief both relaxed as if nothing had changed.
Mei went back to the door of the cage and stuck her arms through, trying to tell her heart to slow down. “Play catch? Throw the ball again. Come on.” She clapped her hands and spoke to the child. “Throw!”
The boy giggled and threw.
An old man working on a fishing net near the other males looked up and sighed. Uncrossing his withered legs, he stood and ambled over. “Arau.” He grabbed the boy and the ball and took them back over to the other males, where he made the boy sit next to him and entertained the toddler so that the youngster wouldn’t cause any more mischief.
And Mei breathed. She looked over at the others.
They were all staring at her again.
Tattoos’s eyes were filled with fire. “Give knife.” He reached his hand out for it, looking expectant. After all, who would refuse an obvious gangster?
Mei would. “I don’t trust you. So no.”
Anger clouded his features. “Give!” he hissed.
“No.” She was not about to put her freedom in that man’s hands.
His eyes narrowed. “Give. Or I make noise. Bring them. Tell them of knife.”
She laughed at him. “Go ahead. They take the knife. And I’ll go play tribal housewife until I can escape. While they turn you into barbecue.”
Tattoos’s anger turned to fury. Muscles in his jaw and neck flexed. “Blyat.”
The thief licked his lips and cut in. “Hey. Let me take it. I’m good with a knife. I’ll get us out of here.”
She eyed him. “I think I’ll hold onto it for now.”
He held up his hands in defense. “Sure sure. No prob. But we’re going tonight, right?”
“Tonight. We go,” Tattoos snapped.
The brunette and the thief both nodded in agreement.
Mei swallowed hard, nervous now, and nodded too. “Tonight.” Funny. She’d been resigned to dying here, losing hope. Now that she had real hope, it scared her. Because it could go terribly wrong.