Off to eye appointment at an awkwardly scheduled time and then busy all day.
In the meantime, new part!ETA: In the meantime, I want to give a big thanks to jgracio and cccarioca for fixing my horrible, horrible Portuguese. Remember people, friends don't let friends go Bablefishin'.
For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 37.
I shivered. “I’m sure it’s nothing.” This was said more as a hope than a statement of fact. To be honest dear reader, the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that the shadow I saw was a human sneaking across the village in a hunched-over manner. “I’m most likely jumping at shadows.”
Mr. Harris smiled warmly at me and I felt a strangely reassuring touch on my back. “Don’t sweat it. Better we jump at shadows than them jumping at us.”
I tumbled out of the jeep on unsteady legs and shivered. Now that I was bereft of the body heat generated by the crowded, intimate quarters of the jeep’s bed, the full force of the night’s surprisingly damp chill hit me. Although I was wearing long-sleeved shirt, sturdy pants, and hiking boots, the cold seemed to penetrate my clothing with surprising ease. I couldn’t quite see my breath, as it was a few degrees too warm for that, but the air had a suspicious smell of rain.
It would be just my luck if the skies opened up sometime during the night, I sourly thought. I imagined that there was only one thing worse than getting soaked to the bone while standing in the middle of an unfamiliar village in Africa, and that was being crowded in the back of a jeep with the soaked, mud-covered wounded as we made the long, uncomfortable trip back to Mr. Harris’s home base.
I hunched my shoulders and hugged myself to keep warm, but had to uncurl myself long enough to accept my two stakes and bottle of holy water from Bunmi. I jammed the stakes into my back pocket, but was forced to carry the bottle, as I didn’t have any pockets big enough in which to store it. Overall, my attire fit Mr. Harris’s advice not at all. Not because I was being stubborn and going out of my way to do the opposite of what he said, but simply because I had no clothes that fit the bill.
Joe itself was plunged into darkness. Not one spark of light escaped from the dim shapes of the closely placed mudhuts. Either the shutters were much better made than the shutters that adorned my temporary quarters in Mr. Harris’s village, or the inhabitants had opted to eschew all sources of light. All the better to make Joe look abandoned, I supposed at the time.
The Slayers in our tiny band moved swiftly without so much as a hint of hesitation or stumble, thanks to their superior eyesight that allowed them to see clearly in the dark. They efficiently pulled all the equipment and weapons from the back of the jeep and distributed the various items to the rest of us.
To my great surprise, Mr. Harris was given what appeared to be a compound bow and a quiver of arrows without comment. He accepted this with a business-like nod. He slung the quiver across his back and tested the pull of the bow. I wondered how Mr. Harris could use it since it was dark and he had one eye, but his manner seemed to indicate that he was comfortable with the weapon and the circumstances under which he’d be expected to use it.
Dave was handed a crossbow and a quiver of bolts. In contrast to Mr. Harris’s smooth, sure movements and unselfconscious fighter’s stance, Dave nervously checked his crossbow and fumbled for a comfortable way to carry his own quiver. I wondered what Mr. Harris was thinking in handing Dave the weapon. The good scholar seemed just as likely to accidentally shoot his allies as he was the enemy.
Akella, by contrast, pulled a pair of wicked-looking long knives seemingly out of thin air. He practiced some deadly jabs and swoops before settling down. One of the knives disappeared somewhere on his person. The still-visible knife was used to clean underneath his fingernails in a manner that was unnerving for its casual air. I could see why Alexandrienne saw a kinship between Akella and Mr. Harris. Both men showed a familiarity with their weapons and hinted at deadly skills that made them seem like experienced soldiers.
Radar merely watched the other three men with glittering eyes. His rather excited expression was not in the least bit dimmed by the fact that he had no weapon to call his own, save a pair of stakes that he carefully tucked in a back pocket. I suspected he was allowed to have them in case he was forced to defend himself, since he was not expected to march into battle.
Despite this testing of their weapons, the normal humans posed a sharp contrast to the sure-footed Slayers as they moved among our party. They all stayed rather close to the jeep. They stretched and rolled their shoulders in an effort to work out the stiffness in their joints, but otherwise moved from their fixed positions as cautiously as possible. I made very sure to match my own movements to the others since I did not wish to reveal myself to be as sure-footed as the Slayers in our midst.
Once the weapons had been distributed and the fighters in our party had expressed satisfaction with their choices, Alexandrienne retrieved the medical kits from the back of the jeep and silently handed them to Dr. Mboto and Sue.
Mr. Harris whispered to the couple, “Qapla.”
“Qapla,” Dr. Mboto and Sue whispered back in tandem as they shouldered their kits. They then linked arms and cautiously picked their way over the uneven ground into the depths of the darkened and hushed village.
On some unseen signal, the others arranged themselves in a loose formation with the Slayers on the outside and the normal humans in the center. Bunmi took me by the arm and guided me so that I was next to Mr. Harris. It was only from this vantage point and in this circumstance that I realized how tall Mr. Harris actually was. He was easily a head taller than the rest of our company. How I had missed this, I had positively no idea.
Back in the village, Mr. Harris seemed no taller or any more physically impressive than anyone else. Certainly he could seem like a large man when he was angered, but it was more a question of width in the sense that his jaw and shoulders had squared and his feet had been planted slightly apart, as if he were rooting himself to the earth in an effort to be an immovable object.
I am the chain to the earth... the memory of my dream whispered to me.
Out here in the dark and marching into God knows what sort of trouble Mr. Harris seemed to grow taller. I continuously glanced up at him as we moved into the village in an effort to figure it out. It took several such surreptitious looks to finally discover the cause. He wasn’t slouching, nor was he strolling in a loose-limbed manner as was his wont when he was engaged in nothing so pressing as traveling from Point A to Point B.
He’s very good at passing, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce had warned me.
Of course, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce had said this in reference to Mr. Harris’s former ability to appear no more extraordinary than his neighbors. However, it was clear to everyone that Mr. Harris no longer bothered to blend in, if only because his present employment did not require it of him. Although I suspected the eye patch, which advertised his questionable and violent past to the whole world, often hindered his ability to hide in plain sight.
I was unnerved to see that Mr. Harris’s normal body posture was nothing more than a costume or a well-worn jacket and that it had been casually tossed aside in our march into the unknown future. While there was never a time that I did not think Mr. Harris was a somewhat dangerous man — a position I hold even to this day — it was the first time I saw the Ethiopian Wolf when he about to spring a trap on his helpless prey and the first disconcerting hint I had that he was far more dangerous than even his nearest and dearest ever realized.
It appeared that Mr. Harris was still very good at passing, although what he was trying to pass himself off as was difficult to say.
I was lost in these thoughts when we finally reached the center of the village. A tiny, light-skinned girl stepped out shadows. Her hair was pulled back from her face and she wore a skirt and shirt of subdued colors. Like Alexandrienne, she wore heavy combat boots. She was a delicately pretty girl; or rather she would be once the scowl was removed from her face.
Mr. Harris detached himself from our group and made his way over to her with Alexandrienne padding close behind him. He and the girl, who I assumed to be Oscar-worthy Maria, engaged in a low-voiced, intense exchange in the barbaric growling of tlhIngan Hol.
At one point Maria pointedly glanced in my direction. It was clear that my company was at least partially responsible for the source of her unhappiness. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Harris stopped trying to reason with her and then — and there is no other word to describe this — he loomed over her to the point that he appeared to be looking down his nose at her. This cowed the girl into a sulky sort of silence.
I chanced a glance at Alexandrienne and was surprised to discover that she had not taken up her usual protective stance when she believed her Watcher to be under threat. I squinted my eyes in an effort to better focus my vision. I wasn’t wrong. Alexandrienne was not even bothering to so much as give the girl a harsh look for the crime of arguing with Mr. Harris. What’s more, she seemed rather amused by the whole affair, as if she were watching a pantomime put on for her sole benefit.
Satisfied that he had got his way, Mr. Harris placed a comforting hand on Maria’s shoulder and dropped his voice even lower. The girl nodded in return as her head drooped and her shoulders slouched.
His words of either wisdom, comfort, or apology at an end, Mr. Harris once more drew himself up to his full height and returned to our group.
“Eva, this is your stop. Good luck. And don’t worry,” he said to me. He then glanced around at the dim shapes of the others. “The rest of you, let’s get going before the fun starts without us.”
And just like that, they pulled away as a cohesive group, although this time Mr. Harris was firmly in the lead. I felt exposed without their protection and my despairing eyes strained to follow them until they were lost among the huts. When they were out of sight, I found myself wishing mightily to join them on the frontlines. At least then I’d be in the company of multitudes, instead of trapped in silence with a very unhappy Slayer.
Once they were out of sight, however, I thought it best to make do with the company I had instead of the well-armed company I wanted. I turned to Maria only to discover that the girl was glaring at me.
“Hello,” I tremulously ventured.
She sniffed disdainfully, crossed her arms, and looked away in response.
I soldiered on, despite this crass display of bad manners. “You must be Maria. I’m Miss Swithin.”
“Eu não falo inglês,” the girl said shortly.
“Yes. English,” I nodded. “You speak?”
The girl stared at me as if I was quite obviously the most stupid woman she had ever met.
“The answer is clearly no,” I muttered.
I heard a yet another disdainful sniff.
“Well I hope you don’t expect me to speak your vulgar argot,” I snottily replied. “Because I most certainly can’t speak that sorry language.”
I was met with silence.
“Not that I’d speak it to the like of you even if I could,” I childishly grumbled.
And so my attempt to pleasantly verbally interact with my disaffected company came to an end.
I hugged myself in an effort to keep warm and looked to the sky. The stars had all finally come out of hiding and were now littering the nightscape like shattered glass. Standing in the middle of a pitch-dark village like I was, they seemed incongruously close enough to touch, while still seeming cold, distant, and utterly uncaring of my concerns.
As I stared up, I felt a suspicious drop of wetness on my forehead. I reached up to touch it. That drop was soon followed by another. And another. Before long, the isolated drops were joined by companions in a soft, if steady beat.
Just perfect, I remember sourly thinking. It had begun to rain. It was quite the capper to my already too-long day.
I moved to the lee of a mudhut out of some forlorn hope that I would not be soaked through to the bone before the night was over. Maria watched me go with dismissive eyes, but otherwise did not move from her sentry’s post in what I presumed to be the center of the village.
In those final moments before my world went permanently pear-shared, I remember thinking that the night was far too quiet. While I couldn’t say how long ago Mr. Harris and his companions had abandoned me to the care of a most unpleasant Slayer, it seemed I had been left behind quite some time ago. I would have thought sure the battle would have been joined by now.
Perhaps the vampires and their supernatural allies had escaped. Perhaps they opted to retreat to the relative safety of Gao, leaving Mr. Harris and his protectorate untouched for the time being.
My heart momentarily soared with optimism, despite my wet state.
Then I remembered the human-shaped shadow I saw skulking across Mr. Harris’s village when I spared it a final glance.
That’s when a more horrifying thought occurred. Perhaps the vampires escaped and marched on Mr. Harris’s village instead. Such an attack would be the perfect way to demoralize Mr. Harris and his people and raise doubts among his neighbors about his ability to extend a protective hand against the darkness.
I hissed through my teeth and debated with myself. If the vampires had escaped, Mr. Harris would discover it soon enough. However, precious time might be lost if the army out beyond the village wasted time beating the bush for their elusive prey.
Yes, Mr. Harris’s village was devoid of life. Yes, all the blackguards could do was property damage. But how much would be lost? And how much more terrible would the vengeance of the humans be once they saw their vampiric companions fall victim to Grandmother Touré’s wards?
The school’s skeletal structure would be an easy target and it was no bet that it would be gone if those human monsters had their way. Dave had informed me that even in the best of times the school’s needs were met on an ad hoc basis because too many other things took precedence. Its complete destruction might spell the school’s death-knell, especially if the locals decided that it was too dangerous to associate too closely with Mr. Harris’s people.
The health clinic, the one that Mr. Harris and Dave said was so desperately needed by the local population, would be utterly destroyed and its stores of medicines sacked. Dr. Mboto and Sue would have to start from scratch with no guarantee that the Malian government would be willing to put up funds for a new clinic in the bush, especially once the government discovered that vile saboteurs were responsible for its destruction.
Even the well was vulnerable. Any number of things — from chemicals to dead animals — could be dumped in it, thus befouling the water and making it unfit to even wash in, let alone drink.
As the silence stretched to an unbearable length, I realized that I had to voice my suspicions to someone. Pity that a non-English-speaking Slayer who disliked me on sight was my only option.
Just in case I was wrong, I stowed my bottle of holy water on conveniently placed window ledge so I could easily retrieve it if I had to, steeled my nerve, and marched away from the protection of the hut into the rain by Maria’s side.
“I need to speak to Mr. Harris,” I slowly annunciated.
She turned to face me and frowned.
I stood on tiptoe and stretched my arm above my head to indicate I was looking for someone tall. “Meeeesssssteeerrrrrr Haaaaarrrrriiiiiisssssss,” I said.
“Sim?” Maria asked cautiously.
Sim? I wondered. What on earth did “sim” mean?
“I think,” here I tapped my head, “we may have been lead astray.”
Maria frowned and tapped her head in an echo of my move, but no comprehension dawned in her wet face.
“I think!” I shouted at her frustration. “I believe! I think! I guess! Please tell me you understand!”
Maria took a cautious step back, but kept her questioning eyes on me.
I snarled in frustration. “This is about the vampires!”
“Onde?” Maria asked as she looked wildly around
That needed no translation. She obviously thought I had told her we were under attack. “No!” I shouted in frustration.
This earned me an angry glare.
I took a deep breath. “I,” here I pointed to myself, “need to find,” I walked in place as I mimed putting binoculars in front of my eyes, “Mr. Harris,” I finished by again repeating my mime for a tall man.
A virtual light bulb appeared to snap on over her head. Her mouth opened in an “oh” shape as she slowly nodded. “Eu entendo o que está a tentar dizer, você precisa falar com o Sr. Harris?”
I almost danced with glee. “Você,” sounded like "voice," so a reasonable guess was that it meant "to speak to." “Harris” was also in that word salad, so she most likely understood that I wanted to speak to Mr. Harris. We were at last making progress.
“Yes! Yes!” I nodded with relief. “I need you to take me to him.”
She blinked and comprehension was gone.
I reached out and grasped her hand. “You,” I pointed at her, “take me,” I pointed at myself and began walking in place again, “to Mr. Harris,” I said as I yet again repeated my mime for a tall man.
She gave me a confused look and pulled her hand away. “Por que?” she asked suspiciously.
Oh dear God, I wildly thought. Mr. Harris had left me with the Slayer equivalent of Basil Fawlty’s Manuel. We were doomed.
Out of sheer frustration I shouted at her. “I think we’ve been fooled! The vampires aren’t here!” I pointed down at the mud. “I think they’re trying to attack your village.” I pointed at Maria. “We have to get out of here,” I waved behind me, “and go back to your village,” I again pointed at her, “as fast as possible.” I finished by jogging in place. “This is a trap!”
Maria leapt backwards. Her eyes looked wildly around her. Something at long last had penetrated. “Quem lhe falou da armadilha?” the Slayer babbled.
“Slow down!” I shouted at her.
Maria was breathing heavily as she inched away further from me. “Quem lhe falou da armadilha? Quem lhe falou da armadilha?” she demanded in a desperate voice.
“Please,” I pleaded with her. “I need to speak to Mr. Harris! This is an emergency!”
Maria squared her shoulders and she glared at me. “Não. Não vou deixar que vá para perto do Sr. Harris,” she said in a threatening voice. She said “não” several more times in the Portuguese word salad that followed, not that I could make heads nor tails of what she was saying.
I believe I got the gist of what she was saying with the word “não.” Even with my tin ear I knew a “no” when I heard it.
“What?” I shouted at her in frustration. “You stupid girl! I’m trying to save you some bloody heartache! The longer we stand here the worse it’ll be.” I threw my hands up in the air. “Oh, why do I bother? It’s most likely too late anyway. Your village is probably already in flames!”
Maria pursed her lips and watched me closely. She resembled a lioness that was about to spring.
I stopped and glared at her. “Fine! I’ll go find him without your help.” I turned my back on her and began determinedly marching in the direction where I last saw Mr. Harris and his people.
That’s when the little minx attacked me from behind!
I was so taken by surprise that I fought back as we scrambled around in the mud. I managed to just barely escape her grasp and I whirled on her. “What the bloody hell did you do that for?” I shouted at her as I rubbed the spot on my temple where Maria had thumped me rather hard.
Maria stared at me with wide eyes and brought her hand up to her muddy cheek. I could see a trickle of blood leaking out of the corner of her mouth.
My heart dropped and I glanced down at my own befouled state. “Oh, no,” I whispered. In the blink of an eye, I had flushed years of hiding down the loo. Everything was out in the open and the evidence was as plain as the blood leaking out of Maria’s mouth. All because the stupid girl attacked me from behind and took me completely by surprise.
Maria’s eyes narrowed and she skittered around me in a circle so that she eventually placed herself between me and the point where I last saw Mr. Harris. “Não posso deixá-la ir até lá. Não posso.” Despite her hostile posture, Maria sounded like she was pleading with me.
I stared at her with a slack jaw. Whatever the girl thought I planned to do, it was clearly not what I had intended to do.
Maria gamely pressed on by saying that Alexandrienne would do something called “mata-nos ás duas” if I “furiosa” Mr. Harris. Or maybe that was if I “falar com” something to Mr. Harris while I was “furiosa.” I was not entirely sure who was supposed to be “furiosa” at whom for Alexandrienne to “mata-nos ás duas.” I got the impression that whatever “mata-nos ás duas” was, it would be rather unpleasant.
“This is ridiculous,” I hissed. The situation had already spiraled out of control, and it only promised to get worse. I knew that the longer we delayed, my current predicament would be nothing compared to the what Mr. Harris and his people would find when they returned to what was left of their homes.
“Se você ferir o Sr. Harris, teremos que impedir a Ally de a matar!” Maria shouted at me. “Não entende?”
That’s when the vampire seemingly came out of nowhere and attacked us.