There wasn’t much she could do with the long trail of footprints in the wet sand. But the beach itself was heavily littered with that red seaweed and other ocean castoff, which did obscur some of it. She used her feet to sweep the dry sand level as she walked backwards off the beach and into the brush land. It probably wouldn’t fool anyone, but it was something. Once she was inside the tall grasses and onto firmer ground, she knew she’d be able to hide her path better.
The thing about walking inland though? In barefeet? Ouch. Sharp grass, thorns, twigs, rocks. Lots of ouch.
Her pace dramatically slowed. She had to pick her way very carefully. The area grew bushier, much of it high enough to hide her now.
How far should she go? If they did send soldiers after her, and they turned inland at the end of her footprints, they’d canvas the area for her. So she couldn’t stop too soon. But she had very little energy left in her to go on.
So little, in fact, that her rubbery legs gave out and she pitched forward, cracking her head on a fallen palm trunk. She lay on the ground, unable to care or think about anything anymore. Sleep overtook her.
Get up, Mei!
She startled herself awake, still hearing her mother’s barking voice from her dreams. She loved her mother. Really, she did. In a complicated fashion. It’s just that the older woman was rather…overbearing. One of the upsides to being in prison was not having to be nagged on the phone every other day about her job, her love life, her activism. And not having the older woman barge into Mei’s apartment every second Sunday, complaining about how messy it was and going through her bathroom cabinet and doing other invasive things.
One of the upsides of being in prison might be a degree of separation from her traditional, over-active mother. She felt a tiny bit guilty thinking that, but the feeling quickly vanished, replaced by the relief that came with the realization that her mother had only been in her dreams and was not on the island with her. Because if she had been, she’d probably have nine diffrent things to criticize already.
Mei’s nose twitched and she brushed it, knocking a small, black ant off. That made her realize that she was probably covered in creepy crawlies after spending the rest of the night and however many hours of the morning on the ground.
She groggily pushed herself up and winced. Everything hurt. Especially the wound on her shoulder where the sword had gotten her. She only got into a sitting position before needing a break. She squinted at the world around her.
Sunlight bore down. This being the Caribbean, it was likely going to be doing that a lot. The single palm tree nearby did nothing to provide shade. And it was already hot out. It seemed to be mid morning.
Her stomach rumbled. Loudly. Ungrateful and demanding. Didn’t it realize how much effort had gone in to keeping her body out of chains last night?
She pulled herself up until she regained her feet, and did so quietly. There could be soldiers out searching for her. Ears focused and eyes roaming, she studied the land around her through the tall grass. With all revealed in daylight, she was shocked by the vegetation, or lack thereof. She’d always associated the Caribbean with jungle, not bushes and grasses. But this felt more like a green savanah. She paused and squinted at something in the distance. Was that cacti?
She’d have to keep to the thicker bushes and trees just in case the captain’s men were still in the area. All seemed quiet. So she grabbed her gear before moving along.
Food. And water. She desperately needed water. Ugh. Now that she’d thought of it, she was growing thirstier by the moment. But where to find something to drink? Well, water flowed downhill. How about finding valleys and low spots?
Mei normally liked to believe that she was somewhat graceful, even if that was hopeful thinking on her part. But now, at her worst, her movement through the Barbadian countriside was more akin to slogging or plodding along, something that conveyed the idea of lumbering along in a most ungraceful manner. Because she’d never been this tired and sore and in outright pain in her life. And she been in the world of fitness for years.
Her mind couldn’t stay on task. It wandered, as did she, in random directions.
She was free for the moment. Against all odds, she’d actually managed to escape the prison system. Well, sort of. She was still on one of their islands. But she’d fought back and won a temporary battle. But what about the war?
What should she do next? Should she try to find a way off the island? Could she actually manage to survive here? That seemed unlikely. She wasn’t seeing bananas and coconuts and other easy food just growing all over. If she wanted to eat, she’d probably have to steal it from whatever farms and towns they had here. That meant possibly coming into contact with people. And that meant getting caught sooner rather than later.
But was escaping the island actually a realistic possibility? If she stole a rowboat, how far could she get with it? That was the Caribbean Sea out there, and the Atlantic Ocean. And weren’t there hurricanes in this part of the world? Lots of them?
Trying to live alone on this island would probably only last a few days until they tracked her down. Or she died of thirst or starvation. She could turn herself in and spare herself that pain. Take whatever torture and punishment they dolled out and try to endure until they got bored and put her in a sugarcane field at some point. It would be hard, but also much easier than trying to survive on her own. At least she’d have food and water.
Feeling the sun on her head, the heat of the day, heat stroke was probably inevitable yet again. If she died of dehydration, she’d just end up in chains anyway. Maybe she should spare herself a few miserable days?
Bah! She kicked a dead palm leaf in sudden frustration. She didn’t want to be chained. She wanted freedom. She wanted to decide her own fate. Why did that have to be so difficult?
The ground tilted as she walked and she found herself stumbling downhill into a patch of darker vegetation and trees. She careened through this dangerously, without really thinking. Then the bushes parted, her feet splashed into water, and she fell on her face in the muck.
Ignoring how dirty it was, she drank. Then she spit mud out and crawled forward to a cleaner patch and drank again. Only when she’d had her fill did she relax and drop into the water, laying on her belly, enjoying the coolness.
She was at the edge of a very small lake, more of a pond, really. Thick bush and forest hemmed it in from all sides, forming a cool ring of shade. For the moment, she felt safe. Laughing, she rolled over onto her back to soak that side of her as well. Staring up into the branches overhead, she wondered if there were any monkeys or parrots or something. That would be fun to see.
Something glinted in the shadows. No, two somethings. They blinked.
Mei frowned and sat up. She rubbed her eyes and peered harder into the light shadows.
And saw the face of a jaguar looking down at her.
It seemed completely relaxed, laid out like a house cat along a thick branch that was draped with vines, mottled fur blending in very nicely with the dappled shade from the leaves of the bearded fig tree it was in. And it watched her, very much at ease.
She tightened her hand on the hilt of the rapier.
White fur on its belly, orange on top, and black spots everywhere. Golden eyes watched her and then it yawned, revealing large, yellow teeth as big as her fingers. It didn’t look like an adult. At least, she didn’t think it was. She’d seen a jaguar in a zoo once, and she was pretty sure it had been larger. Still, this one definitely looked large enough to hurt her.
It made no move, only watched her. Yet it was likely up in that tree because it was waiting for stupid prey, like her, to come down to the edge of the water and drink, as she’d just done, before pouncing. She pictured it hitting her from behind, the front claws latching onto the top of her head, digging into her eyes. The back claws would rake down the length of her back, stripping skin and flesh from her bones. The powerful jaws would clamp down around the back of her neck and crush her spine, killing her.
Breathing faster, pulse racing, she swallowed. She picked up the box and manacles and inched backwards, deeper into the water.
The jaguar watched her go. It made no move to stop her. Probably because it could just track her down whenever it wanted to. Whenever it was hungry.
Please don’t be hungry right now…
She backed up into the pond until the water was too deep to stand in. Then, just like she had in the ocean, she swam on her back all the way to the opposite shore.
Still the jaguar sat where it was, seemingly uninterested. Hopefully, it would remain there for a good long while. Like forever. Forever would be a good time. Or until she got off the island. Then it could eat all the soldiers it wanted and she’d cheer it on. From afar.
Mei got out of the water and pushed through the bush. She kept an eye out behind herself, but spotted (get it?) nothing as she quickly made her way far away from the beast.
Trouble was, she was going to need water on a regular basis. If she came back, if she remained in the big cat’s territory, she was never going to be safe.
A problem for tomorrow. Right now she needed food. She traipsed far and wide, covering several kilometers. The lay of the land naturally led her back towards the ocean again, without her realizing this until she saw the water. She discovered a very small bay. And just off the beach were the remains of human habitation, now overgrown and falling apart, likely decades old. There were a half dozen shacks or former houses and some fencing. And a number of fruit trees. They were in orderly rows that told her they’d been planted for cultivation.
The fruits were light brown and growing in clusters. Each was bigger than her fist. With some difficulty, she dumped her gear on the ground and climbed up into the branches. Then she remembered the jaguar hiding in a tree and panicked, looking in all directions until she was sure that she was alone. Finally, she grabbed a fruit, and twisted and tore it from the branch.
The skin was quite thick. She had to bash the fruit repeatedly on a rocky protrusion in the nearby grass to get it open. Inside, the flesh was yellow orange. With her fingers, she tore the skin away and then dug in with her teeth, hoping the thing wasn’t poisonous.
The taste was a mix of passionfruit and apricot. And it was tangy but very good! She devoured the fruit and had three more.
Sated and refreshed, she decided it was time for a break. She was still extremely weak from the previous day. Still keeping an eye out for the jaguar, she sat with her back to the tree, facing the brilliant blue ocean, and rested. She let out a big sigh and closed her eyes for a moment.
The next thing she knew, she was waking up. And it was now afternoon. Feeling a bit slow in the head, she gradually roused herself. Then she recalled the jaguar and snapped to attention. She checked in all directions, then in the tree overhead. She was still alone. No jaguar and no soldiers. She chided herself for being sloppy, though she knew she was just worn out and couldn’t help herself. Besides, the rest had done her some good.
Her gaze wandered and came across the dark, wooden box that she’d taken from the captain’s quarters. She huffed a short laugh. Here she was, dragging that thing around and she hadn’t the faintest idea what was even inside. She brought it onto her lap. A pair of silver clasps held the box shut tight. She slid them open and lifted the lid.
Inside, on a bed of deep blue velvet, rested two beautiful pistols.
Mei gasped. They were definitely not something you’d give to any old soldier. Actually, the soldiers on the ship had seemed to carry rifles. These pistols were probably custom made. They were as long as her forearm. The wood was pale, with gray veins. The butt was capped with black iron in the shape of a lion’s head. It looked heavy and solid enough to be used as a club and do serious damage. The barrel was smooth steel and there was a flintlock, an old firing mechanism that meant that the pistol could fire only one shot before it needed to be reloaded with ball and powder.
She gently picked one of the pistols up.
Weapon Acquired: Lionhead Flintlock Pistol (2) [unique]
Weapon Class: Pistol
Skill Level: None
She grinned from ear to ear. Well well. Wasn’t this a glorious surprise. She pointed it at herself so that she could look down the barrel and see if it was loaded—
Then promptly turned it the other direction when she realized just how stupid that was. What if it actually was loaded? She laughed at her own stupidity, pointed it at the ocean and fired.
Bang! A cloud of white smoke enveloped the gun.
Mei was so startled, she almost dropped it. Shaking her head from the noise, she blinked and looked at the weapon. A countdown timer had appeared in the air over the flintlock device. It started at two minutes. She thought about that. Checking the box, she saw no sign of bullets or padding or gunpowder. Perhaps, in the system, none of that was necessary. Guns simply had a timer instead? That would save work.
She waited for the timer to count down and fade away. When it had, she pointed and fired again. And another sharp blast and puff of white gunsmoke filled the air.
She nodded, happy. That would make things much easier. Having to learn to load these old weapons and find ammo would have been difficult to say the least. But now, she was well armed. Although, with a two minute timer on each, she probably shouldn’t get into too many shootouts. And she’d better learn to use that rapier.
Speaking of which… She picked the beautiful, gilded sword up too. Holding gun and sword in hand, and wearing the captain’s fine, blue jacket, she stood. The ocean breakers crashed before her. The Caribbean sun beat down. The breeze rustled the leaves of the fruit tree overhead.
She was free. She was well armed. She was filled with hope.