He had been locked away now for a little over two months. The sound of laughter from the community danced around his cell, taunting him, letting him know what he was missing. He so often dreamed of getting away. Perhaps that was why he was locked up. Paddy, his prison guard, dreamed of getting away too, but he was better at hiding it, better at the pretended game of ‘assimilation’. Klonar recognised the laughter of little Kettie. It must be her marriage time. The sound of drums told him that someone was getting married and surely only Kettie was now the right age. Banging on the cage walls he called Paddy to him.
Paddy rounded the corner with a swagger and a grin, one eyebrow raised in silent question.
“Paddy, me lad. What’s the racket? A man can’t get any sleep.”
Plonking himself down on the guard’s bench seat, Paddy took off a boot a rubbed his sore, aching feet.
“Mettie’s marriage ceremony. Started last night. Had to hold up her damn skirts for four hours while they painted and plucked and pricked. You should see her, Klonar! She’s inherited some pretty powerful tattoos from Old Auntie May. She packs some clout around here, does the dragon lady.”
They sat in companionable silence for a while, Paddy remembering, a little wistfully, a time when he knocked back a business deal with Old Auntie May, never knowing she would rise in power the way she had.
“Where is Mettie’s bride space?”, asked Klonar.
“Hmm? Oh, it’s a long way out. On the boundary edge, by the Eagle’s Rest. They’ve been cooking up a mighty feast and the wagons are all loaded. They’ll be heading out just before sundown. Yours truly is being left behind. In fact, just about everyone except me is going. To be honest, I don’t mind all that much. Damn feet are killing me. If I had to dance I’d end up with blisters.”
For a moment, silence, then Paddy looked up at Klonar with a mix of excitement and alarm. Sure enough, Klonar had that feral burning fire in his eyes. The last time that fire had burned in Klonar’s eyes, Klonar had been standing up to The Master, outright defying him! Paddy would never have the balls to do that. Which is why Paddy was a trusted guardsman and Klonar was locked up. Paddy cleared his throat nervously.
“You aren’t thinking….”
The fire in Klonars eyes turned his way, boring down into his soul and making his toes squirm. Klonar really did look scary when he got these crazy ideas in his head.
“Are you the only one being left behind, Paddy? Who else?”
His head spinning, Paddy stammered as he named Steve, the other guard, his heart making another loud clamour in his chest. Like Klonar, Paddy wanted to break free, but he wondered, with his sore feet and his noisy heart, if he was really up to the task.
Klonar’s voice took on an urgency now, hushed and low.
“Get him away from camp. Let me know when he’s gone, then let me out. Are you coming?”
The question hung in the air between them, filled with all the fears and hopes Paddy so often left unexplored. The panic of being forced to make such a big decision so quickly nearly undid him, but then a strange calm washed over him and he nodded. He would come.
Later, when the camp was silent and it was his turn for a break, he searched and found something that had been left behind. There was always something left behind. It was the brides night-slippers. Her side-maid Tammy was going to get a beating for leaving them behind. It was his duty to ensure she got them. If he stayed, it would win him brownie points, but if he stayed, he would forever be dancing to the beat of someone else’s drum. He would never truly be free.
With the carefully wrapped slippers tucked under his arm, he returned to relieve Steve of guard duty. Sidling up beside him he offered a contraband cigarette and they sat happily together, enjoying a rare treat. Paddy forced himself to stay calm, masterfully relaxing every muscle in his body, so that his voice would convey none of his inner unease.
“I heard you crossed Papa Joe last week. Stepped on his turf. I’m guessing that’s why you got left behind on guard duty with me, yeah?”
Steve nodded, a little forlornly.
“Yeah, it’s little May. I try to protect her but Joe has claimed her as his own. Breaks my heart, to see the way he treats her. And now I’m stuck here for the next two weeks, anything could happen! At least when I’m around he holds back a bit.”
Paddy grunted empathetically and handed the slippers over. Steve hesitated then took them.
“What is this?”
Paddy waved his hand, indicating that he should open the cloth and see for himself. Lifting the cloth, Steve uncovered the golden slippers underneath and let out a low chuckle.
“Oh this is going to make for a song and dance. Poor Tammy!”
He took another drag on the cigarette, his eyes far away.
“You know, she only just recovered from the last beating. She’s still covered in bruises. One of us should go. We could slip in without being seen, get them to her so no-one knows. It’s not too late. The slippers won’t be missed until morning.”
He looked at Paddy hopefully, feeling a little worried he might disagree, but Paddy only nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s a good idea Steve. That poor girl gets more than her fair share of trouble, what with Caleb gone and so much falling to her. It would be a pity if we didn’t help her. Would be a risk though. We don’t have much time. I’d love to do it myself but after the marathon trial yesterday and four hours holding up Kettie’s skirts this morning, my feet have seen better days. I don’t think I’d be very fast. Why don’t you go? I’ll cover for you here in case someone comes back.”
Steve nodded and slid off the bench with the slippers neatly rewrapped.
“Thank you brother. I’ll see you in a few hours”
Paddy smiled back warmly, all the while feeling like a heel. How would Steve explain their disappearance? He would surely be flogged or end up in the clanger himself. After Steve left, Paddy silently suffered Klonar’s praise for his clever diversion, with a wan smile. They waited a good twenty minutes before unlocking the prison door, just to be on the safe side. Paddy had earlier packed two backpacks and had them ready. They loaded up and walked towards the high grass that skirted the forest. This was it, thought Paddy, no turning back now. A low rumble made them look up. One of the biker boys was cresting the hill in the far distance. They panicked. Klonar pushed him roughly back towards the settlement.
“Go back. I need you to cover for me or I’ll never get away. They will come after us too quickly. Go! I’ll come back for you. I promise!”
His fiery eyes burned into Paddy and Paddy felt a low howl of despair rise in him. Freedom so close but still he was so conflicted. He could have argued but he didn’t. Angry at Klonar, more angry at himself, he headed back to the settlement at a run. He had to get back before biker boy did.
Klonar watched him go and then started to run. He dumped the backpack because it was too heavy, slowing him down. The light from a second motorbike flashed past him like a searching spotlight and he dove down into the grass, crawling through it like a dog. Had he been seen? Heart hammering in his chest he reached the mound and saw the forest rise up in front of him, a mere six metres away. Wriggling over the mound on his belly he got to his feet and made a run for the trees. He had to keep running even then because he didn’t know if he’d been seen. If he had, they would bring the dogs after him and they would find him in no time.
Clearing the other side of the forest, he found himself blocked by wall of fences. The only way forwards was to go over them, into people’s properties. What followed was a mad, crazy blunder through a series of homes. In one house he disturbed a burglar who thought he was muscling in on his turf and narrowly avoided being knifed. In another home he rushed right through a families lounge room while they were watching television and out the front door before anyone gathered their wits enough to respond.
Now he found himself in a yard faced with a snarling dog. The only way out was over a barbed wire fence. It was a miracle he didn’t get caught up on the wire. As his feet hit the ground on the other side, he was relieved to find himself on the open street, cut and bleeding from the wire. The dog smashed up against the fence behind him in a fury. The sky was lighter now and he could see an open drainage area and parklands off in the distance. At first he ran fast but then he realised he was drawing attention to himself and slowed his pace, hoping to blend in with the early morning joggers.
Now that he was away from the houses he had some hope of not being caught. The grassy drainage area was like a valley, leading into parkland walking areas, hemmed in by houses. As he ran, he calmed himself, easing his ragged breathing. On the path ahead of him, four dogs ran towards him. At first, he faltered in his stride, wondering if they were hunting dogs from the encampment, but in the next second he realised they weren’t. They acted like hunting dogs but they had none of the brand markings from his clan. He breathed a sigh of relief as they ran past him, giving him barely a sniff. Tossing his head over his shoulder he saw that they ran on for a way and then suddenly turned, coming back towards him.
Now they were milling around him, sniffing, licking his hand. One of them even howled at him. It was strange, how they gathered around him as he ran, running with him. They herded him down specific paths as though he was a sheep. Perhaps he should have been worried but he felt as though they were old friends come to guide him. At length, the pace slowed. They had arrived outside a house, and were pushing him towards the front door, with a nudge here and there. When he tried to back away they became more forceful, a little rougher. The largest dog growled and bared his teeth. Klonar got the hint and stood still.
A second tawny coloured dog with a short coat scratched on the door and looked up at him, whining. Cautiously, he tried the door handle. It was unlocked and the door swung gently open. A man was walking towards him. He only seemed mildly surprised to see a stranger at his door. The dogs rushed in, pulling him along with them and the man in the house waved him forward, directly him vaguely towards the sitting room as he shut the door behind them.
“These dogs yours?”, asked Klonar
The man nodded and shrugged.
“My wife’s. She dead. I’ve got no control over the bloody mongrels, they do as they want.”
Klonar walked into the sitting area. Two of the dogs settled themselves in front of the fire. The tawny coloured dog was licking the hand of a young boy who lay sprawled in one of the seats. His eyes were dead as he gazed into the fire. He didn’t respond to the dog. The man who had met him at the door offered tea and went off towards the kitchen. Klonar looked around the room. The fourth dog was sitting beside a man in a chair. The man was patting him.
“Hello”, said the man. “I’m Peter. This young chap here is Tobias. And this here is Sam”, he looked down at the dog he was patting was a smile.
“We’ve always been good buddies, me and Sam. She looked after me when I was sick with pneumonia last year. Never left my side, even when the rest of them went out running.”
He pointed to the tawny dog sitting beside the boy.
“That there is Rosie, a Ridgeback cross. See the ridge of hair on her back? She worries about the boy you know. Tobias hasn’t said a word since his ma died. Just gazes into the fire mostly. Don’t do much at all the way he used to.”
He gestured towards the two dogs on the mat beside the fire, just as the older man came back in with a tray of tea.
“That’s King Willie, the big one there with the shaggy coat. I think he’s some kind of Shepherd cross. He’s the boss. And that skinny one beside him is Bones, his faithful sidekick.”
The older man offered him tea and Klonar accepted gratefully. Rosie gave up on getting a reaction out of Tobias and came over to Klonar, very gently licking the cuts on his legs. Peter looked down at the cuts, then back up at Klonar with a searching look. Rosie stopped licking and looked at Peter, warning him off with a soft growl.
Clearing his throat of the question he had been about to ask, Peter instead decided to introduce the tea-man.
“This is John, the gentleman of the house. He is Tobias’s grandfather. He doesn’t say much, but that’s okay, I do enough talking for the three of us.”
He smiled fondly down at Sam and gave her ears a rub. For a while, no one spoke and they drank their tea. Peter briefly considered asking the bleeding stranger who he was and where he had come from, but every time he went to ask, Rosie gave him one of those looks. Last time he had ignored one of those looks she bit him. He wasn’t inclined to risk that again.