Brace yourself, this is going to be a long chapter! Not gonna lie, I tried making it shorter, by splitting it in two parts. There just wasn’t any moment in the storyline or the overall story structure were a break made any sense at this point at all. So, gotta keep reading I guess 😉
Anyway, it’s been a while since we last heard from Abbida, so if you like to refresh your memory on where we left off with her, you might want to have a peak in Chapter 11 Part 3!
Abbida held her running pace as long as possible and a bit longer than that. Though heading out into the swamp alone had seemed daunting even in broad daylight, it had seemed doable. It wasn’t until she was way out in the swamps that she started to seriously doubt the sanity of her undertaking. By then, turning back was no option.
The site of the wreck turned out to be further from the village than she’d expected. And that’s not counting the part she’d been unconscious the first time around. What strength she’d regained from those few hours of sleep had worn off quickly, leaving her hungry and tired and lonely. More and more often she’d stumble, her muscles burning, her legs feeling like they belonged to someone else. There was no denying it, she was spent. She needed to rest, but she didn’t dare sit down! Not only were there snakes and other dubious creatures. More than that she feared, she might not be able to get up afterwards.
Once more she oriented herself, based on the position of the sun. According to Lian, she should be able to reach the village in about two days marching northwestwards. But Abbida was set on making it in less time. She allowed herself to rest just long enough to munch on half a food ration and take a few sips from her water bottle. Then she pushed herself on again. The first few steps felt awkward and her legs wouldn’t quite comply, but the memory of Rona’s and Tarek’s treachery kept her going. With time she got into her stride again.
Those two had a substantial lead on her. Abbida’s best hope was they might just not be driven by the same kind of desperation: she had to leave the swamps behind before sunset by all means! After that she planned to go on for as long as possible. If she made it back before them she’d tell the council the truth, or Rona would twist the facts all around.
During the day the swamps were hardly any better than at night. The squelchy ground reflected the sunlight, gleaming in her eyes. The stench of algae fermenting in the heat made her nauseous. Only her dark skin protected her from sunburn, while myriads of gnats and flies kept buzzing around her face and bare arms, finding their way underneath her clothes. Frustrated she slapped and wiped at them, to no avail. Again and again she got bitten, stung, and sucked dry. Soon her skin burned and itched from sweat, grime and blisters. Swearing in time to her running steps she kept going, telling herself that this, too, shall pass.
Every now and then she took a moment to check the course of the sun and see if she was still on track. Sometimes the terrain forced a detour on her, whenever she felt the marsh unsafe. The scene of the poor ox’s death still all too present before her mind’s eye. She kept Lian’s knife ready at all times. There was no telling if she would be able to react fast and confident enough if she really did run into a crocodile, but holding the hilt firmly in her hand gave her that bit of confidence that prevented her from loosing it altogether out here.
With her free hand she shaded her eyes, and tried to make out what lay ahead. Way out there, in the direction where the village was supposed to be, clouds were rolling in like a bad omen. Rapidly closing in on her, they soon covered the sky and shrouded the sun. Darn! As much as Abbida welcomed the cooling air, the darkening clouds made it difficult to keep on course, not to mention her sense of time. What if she had to spend the night out here again–without a tent, without any light, and this time all by herself? The thought caused her a chill that ran deep under her skin.
Was she even on track anymore? She may have been running around in circles for hours! Fear started to raise its head, and if she’d at all been able to, she would have run faster. But she was almost spent. Trodding on, she kept looking for landmarks, anything she recognized, the faintest hint…
Was she imagining things or was the vegetation changing? Reeds passed into shrubs, the ground underneath her boots became more firm and began to slope upwards ever so slightly. Exhausted, she gazed ahead. Yes, oh yes: trees! There were trees, a mere thousand paces ahead! A croaking escaped her dry mouth, the best she could do for a cheer. But who cared? She had reached the woodlands, was all that mattered.
Despite her feet throbbing and her legs quivering as it was, the prospect of escaping the swamps before nightfall gave her the strength to manage that last stretch. Somehow she mustered up a last bit of reserve to climb a tree and curl up between its mighty branches. A deep sigh escaped her as she closed her eyes.
She woke up to a pitch dark sky above. The moon was nowhere to be seen. The air felt heavy with clouds and smelled of pending rain. She felt stiff and ached all over, from exertion as much as from the awkward position her body had been cramped in. She must have slept several hours.
Shivering, she fished one of Lian’s food rations from her bag, almost dropping it because her hands felt numb. She took a bite, but her teeth were chattering so hard, she almost bit her tongue. The drinking bottle was empty. As soon as there was enough light to see her hands before her eyes she needed to set out and find water.
Frustrated, she rubbed her bleary eyes. All of this took way too much time! She had wanted to reach the village by now, instead she was clinging to a limb like a cat caught in the rain. Rona and Tarek would laugh at her if they could see this. But they had probably reached the village by now to spread their lies. Would Cole be there to set things straight? Could she even rely on him anymore after everything that had happened?
With him being so different, so distant lately, she wondered if she ever really knew him at all. But she wasn’t ready to mistrust him completely, just yet.
Where was he, anyhow? He’d been gone long before Rona showed her true self. Did he even know of her treachery? What if–? Her heart skipped a beat. Had they gotten to him before anyone else? How could they! Cole was Tarek’s best friend!
But Tarek was Rona’s lover first of all, it seemed. So, would he…?
A surge of adrenaline almost made her lose her grip of the tree. Was Cole even alive? Maybe he was injured! Lying somewhere in the thicket of the jungle, unable to call for help… Stop it! Pounding her chest, she forced herself to breathe more steadily. Don’t go imagining things! Tarek may be all but under Rona’s spell, but he was no murderer.
Or was he? What about Rona’s late husband?
No, Abbida, get a grip! She couldn’t think that way. She needed to stay focused. Find out what was really going on.
If only day would come quicker! The uncertainty drove her crazy. She would have climbed down and got going, but it was too dark. She’d only get lost and waste more time. She was too worn out to risk that. Cautiously, so as not to slip off, she shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position and ease the soreness in her limbs. If only she could get some more sleep. But she felt too anxious.
Latisha, her dear sister, would know of some relaxation technique or other, wouldn’t she? Like, ‘Close your eyes and imagine your feet…’ Her poor aching feet!… ‘Deliberately relax your ankles…’ How did one relax a joint? Wasn’t that for muscles? ‘Deliberately relax your knees. Your hips. The underbelly. Breathe…’
Abbida hardly made it up to her shoulders before she forgot, what she’d been thinking about and let herself slip off to slumber.
A rustling overhead and a sharp pain on the bridge of her nose, where something hit her from way up the tree, woke her with a start. Judging by all the chattering, the scurrying and flitting movements, her tree was inhabited by squirrels. Another nut hit her face. “Ouch!” Abbida glared accusingly at the perpetrator, and realized the sun had risen high already.
Startled, she almost lost her balance and caught herself with aching limbs. Her stomach growled, but her mouth was dry and her throat almost too sore to swallow the rest of last night’s ration. Each tiny movement pained her and her dry skin, cracked and bitten all over, smarted and itched. She needed to pull herself together! She needed to get back, and she needed to get help for Lian. She had made a promise.
Gritting her teeth, Abbida somehow managed to climb down and set foot on solid ground. Cautiously, she stretched until her joints creaked. Then, one foot in front of the other, she set off again. The first couple of steps were pure torture, gradually she found back into her old steady rhythm: much slower than the day before, but at least she made progress.
She was still thirsty, desperately on the look-out for water. The trail led deeper into the woods, and after a while she thought the surroundings felt familiar. Wasn’t this the path to the hunters’ deer stand? She had visited Cole more than once there, sometimes to relay a message, sometimes to sneak away from kitchen duty.
If she was right, then the hunters’ camp site must be close by, as well. There was a cabin and–much more important!–there was a well. Since the previous moon circulation even with a hoist and a crank that she’d helped build. A smile made its way to her cracked lips. With renewed hope, Abbida broke out in that direction. There it was, she could see the cabin! With luck, she might even find something to eat!
Excited, she broke into a run, when one of her feet caught on some roots, and she tumbled headlong. With a cry she stretched her hands out to catch the fall. Huffing, she planted her hands on her knees and caught her breath. Too late she heard a noise from the left, suddenly something–no someone!–grabbed her shoulder. She cried out, pulled the knife and slashed out.
“Woah, easy!” The attacker jumped back and got his satchel between them. “It’s only me!”
Heart still beating like crazy, Abbida recognized the brightly colored, absurd heart patterns on the satchel’s strap. Dumbfounded, she lifted her head and stared into Cole’s wide eyes.
Back at the station, Li Xiao was pacing up and down his quarters. Unbelievable! How dare Guo send him away like one of his recruits? He had to know the Haodang Long was waiting for Li Xiao’s report!
Which might just be why Guo had wanted to get rid of him so quickly. But then why make him fly there in the first place? He wasn’t running a taxi service here!
Li Xiao never got a chance to speak with the escaped prisoners either. Security levels had been raised based on the ‘added risk’ those people posed, and his uncle wasn’t willing to give him clearance. Li Xiao gritted his teeth. Ridiculous.
For a while now he’d been suspecting Colonel Guo and his uncle of acting unauthorized. He was willing to bet a whole year’s pay they’d been sending forged reports back to the capital. Whitewashed at the least. It was no surprise that they would do their best to keep Li Xiao in the dark. Which was not to say that he was going to comply! No, sir, he’d make some secret inquiries of his own.
First of all he needed to know what was happening back at the village of the natives. Again he checked the Sysnet for anything, but the news embargo was still in place. His uncle wouldn’t even give him access to satellite images, though he’d immediately requested it upon returning to base.
But Li Xiao was getting to a point where he was done with asking for permission.
Though nobody had ever asked him if he wanted the post, he was designated successor to the Haodang Long! Prospective tenth Patriarch to the Oligarchy. The homeland’s interests were his, very personally. He was not going to be refused any longer!
Li Xiao stopped the pacing, straightened out his uniform jacket, clamped his cap under his arm and marched towards the door. He was just about to open it, when the signaling tone announced a visitor outside. With a strange sensation of déjà vu he said, “Open!”
The door slid to the side, revealing his uncle Admiral Zhao Meng Hui, station commander of Tou Hao in the flesh. “A word, nephew.”
It wasn’t a request. For whatever reasons his uncle had chosen to pay him a visit instead of sending for him. Knocked out of his stride, Li Xiao decided to play for time and stepped aside. “Please, do come in.”
More confused, he realized, his uncle had come alone. “Your adjutant…?”
“Is busy with other things,” his uncle said, waving dismissively.
Standing in the middle of Li Xiao’s combined living and work area, his uncle looked around as if he’d never seen the quarters of his lower ranked officers from the inside. Maybe he really hadn’t. Why was he even here? Was this a courtesy call?
His next thought was: tea!
Was it appropriate to serve tea? What was the protocol for this kind of situation? Perplexed, he pointed to the only armchair in the room. “Please, have a seat.”
“I need a pilot. We’re leaving immediately!”
“Where to?” Against known protocol, the words slipped out of Li Xiao’s mouth before he could catch himself.
But his uncle already stormed out of his quarters. Marching down the corridor at such pace, he was practically running. And that was definitely against any protocol!
~ to be continued! ~
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