“Deep in the heart of England lives a legend...”
...that would have been a great beginning. Or “there were dragons when I was a boy”, or basically anything else than what it really is.
Instead, my story begins with me, sitting my ass on a toilet and busted for life deep down in the dungeons under Lyonhall, with a guy who liked to call himself Elskan Tesoro sleeping just next door.
Now, little one, you may have heard this story before, but just in case I have not had the time or courage to do so, I'll give you some much needed background.
The very first day it all started was the August 8th 2033, morning, when I woke up to the sound of an alarm on my phone with as much joy to be alive as an injured blobfish and a shrunken, growling stomach complaining of hunger.
My real name, which might be new to you, is Anthony Scott and back then I used to live in some fairly simple lodgings with my sister on the outskirts of the town of Nederstone and I've been unemployed for almost three months, effectively making me a dead weight to her, after they kicked me out of the office for nicking food.
And I get that you might think I used to be just some weird, petty kleptomaniac or something, but trust me! In my days food was more than scarce for us little people and we had to do what we could to get to it.
84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡnVxHEAOTVF
This England of my past might be a little different than the one you know.
84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡzOODH4hE8a
I'm sure your teachers must have bored you to death with the history of all the Great Wars that used to rage throughout Europe at the time and the issues and consequences they had on the world, so I'll try not to bother you too long. This story is not about them. Great Britain was, more or less, managing to stay out of the way of the ever-present conflict and the people who dared to climb the greasy pole at Westminster did their best to shield us from anything that might have been happening behind the Channel.
We'll further explore these minor expository details later.
The important part is that while almost everyone tried to stay blind to the harsh reality of the world around us, we couldn't ignore the thousands of immigrants fleeing from the war and flooding our streets. We called on the army and closed our borders in a vain attempt to stay safe, we cut off all the roads and forced everyone to stay outside no matter who they were and as a final nail into the red, white and blue coffin over our heads, all of our imports and exports straight out died in almost a single week as the kingdom severed its last ties with its former allies and our economy crumbled into something that would try to sell you a bag of tea for the price of a new Chevrolet.
Don't get me wrong. My job at IT used to be fine and all, as is any form of income in the case of a potential political conflict, but only until they started paying me about 10 per cent of my present minimum wage.
And of course the kingdom isn't going to cut your taxes to compensate for all of this, because why would they? Our new king had bigger problems to deal with than his own, dear subjects...
As a natural consequence people started losing their money, then their jobs, then their homes, and in a few short weeks, tens of thousands joined the homeless immigrants on the streets. What a wonderful time we used to live in!
Then the Great food crisis of Great Britain spread throughout the land like a plague.
In desperate attempts to help each other families huddled together in small lodgings just to be able to pay for their basic needs and so it was that I ended up living with my sister, Sam, who used to be a police officer and as such was too important for the future of the kingdom and the town to be left without some form of payment. The rest of our family lived in Wales on the other side of the island, so they left us to rot in this hellhole alone, but I shouldn't be too harsh on them. Our parents were old, and a trip back home would only add more problems and more mouths to feed.
Hell, it's pretty sad to think the two of us were actually the lucky ones out there.
So, anyway... I woke up and after finishing my daily routine of rolling and tossing around got dressed and made my way to the kitchen, one of the grand total of three rooms we owned in this beautiful little house. My sister was already awake, sitting behind the table and watching a morning broadcast of yesterday's grim news on TV, so I went ahead and opened the door of our nearly empty fridge to join her.
In her younger days, Sam looked a lot like me without the beard. Dark hair, wrapped up in a towel as if she'd just gotten out of the shower, dressed in her pyjamas, and rushing to her third decade, she was older than me, taller than me, and way more fit than I could ever hope to be.
“You won't find anything in there.” I heard her voice and scraping of ceramic on wood behind me as she slid a plate of scrambled eggs across the table. “I left you some, but one of us will have to go shopping for new groceries. I'm sure you can take care of that.”
“I was pretty sure it was your turn to shop,” I noted as I sat down across from her.
“Yeah, except I'm the one who's about to go to work in a minute, so you know… the division of labour and stuff.”
“If we scratch that I was the one cleaning this place just yesterday I'm in.”
“Cleaning the place?” she looked around her. “I can't see any change.”
“Maybe you just need to look harder, then.”
“Or maybe you need more practice. Lots more practice!” Sam said with an amused grin, handing me a piece of paper. “Write it down. I want you to take some pastries, butter, and maybe ketchup. With what we have left we can try to make some spaghetti. And don't forget your greens-”
“Don't forget your greens... What am I, ten?” I glanced over my shoulder, trying to find a pen.
“Mentally, maybe. At least sometimes. You know we can't afford real meat so suffer through it and for now let's just stick to a healthy life of a vegetarian. It won't hurt you.”
Sure. At that moment I could have played the 'or you could quit smoking' get-out-of-jail-free card, but it was her place, her life, and her dosh and I was the one freeloading off her job, so I just finished the list like she wanted and lunged at my breakfast.
“Mum called, by the way,” she started after a moment of silence, filled by nothing but the voices from the TV and cars passing by our window.
“This early in the morning?”
“It's half-past ten, Tony. I told you I'd be leaving in a minute.”
“Is it? I thought I changed my alarm. So what did she say?”
“The usual stuff.” She rolled her eyes. “How are we doing and if I found anyone yet and when exactly can she expect me to spawn her some grandchildren…”
“And what did you say?”
“I told her that it would be pretty weird to drag someone in here when we both live in the same place.”
“Other than that I think they are doing fine.”
Sam had a nasty habit of leaving her work scattered all around the kitchen table and it was to these classified files that I turned my attention. They were almost always a brilliant source of gossip.
“What's that about?” I asked as I started mingling through her stuff. In the middle of the pile was a photo of some charred bloke, his remains destroyed by fire. That was a little weird. Her job usually involved just walking around the streets, reprimanding drunkards and teenagers.
“Just something daft. An accident, most likely.” Sam leaned forward and lowered her voice to an ominous whisper. “The bloke got got while sitting in his car. One second he's turning his key in the ignition and the next bam! Like he's been struck by lightning, except there was absolutely nothing that could have caused it and no one knows how it happened.”
“Spooky...” I had to agree.
“Yeah,” she frowned now, “as if we didn't have enough problems as it is.”
After we'd exchanged some more of the usual morning banter and Sam retired to her room to change for work, I took the money from our dangerously thin collective wallet, grabbed the least ugly-looking shopping bag and headed out into the streets, locking the door behind me.
I think I have to clear something up here. When I said I was nothing but a dead weight to her, I was not being entirely honest with you. I helped her with the money too, though not exactly in the way she would have appreciated if she had known about it. You see- I already said my boss kicked me out of my last job for nicking some food from my co-workers and I have to confess that after I tried it for the first time I never managed to drop out of it.
What I'm trying to say is: If you think I was really going to go shopping you would be quite wrong. In reality, every time my sister asked me to go and buy some necessities, instead of rushing over by there to buy everything like the outstanding, law-abiding citizen that I was, I- well… I did rush over by there and I just skipped the part where I gave the cashier any money.
The way it worked was something like this.
Sam would ask me to fetch something. I would tell her I can take care of everything (with some general backtalk, of course, just to make it seem a little more realistic). I'd go to the nearest grocery store, say hi and pick whatever we needed, but instead of wasting our already thin reserve of money, I'd sneak off using some clever distraction or through the back door on the toilet or with a whole loaf of bread hidden under my shirt-
I really did that once!
Of course, I had to rotate places so as to not make myself too suspicious and from time to time I actually had to buy something, but all in all, I saved us some good dosh by doing this, and looking back at it now I can't say I would regret a single day.
And Sam? A police officer! There was absolutely no way she could ever find out about any of this. If she did, she would have busted my ass family or not and everything I'd done for us would have been for nothing. To avoid that situation I used to hide the money I managed to spare and then told her I got a part-time job or did a favour for a friend. And so far everything was working out perfectly.
I stepped out the front door, crossed the short porch in front of the house, and immediately found myself jumping out of the way as a heavy military jeep flew through the street right in front of me.
A Foxglove patrol.
Oh, I have so much to tell you about these guys.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn't the only one trying to take advantage of our poor law enforcement system. No offence, sister! Times were tough and food scarce and expensive and as a countermeasure to stop people like me, the town hired a small private company called Foxglove. A private army, in truth.
According to the daft propaganda, their purpose was to 'Enforce order and detain any rebelling townsfolk, which, translated into their language, apparently meant: “Quite literally beat the crap out of anyone who looks at you in a wrong way.”
That, and the fact that the first decision they made when they arrived a few months back was to confiscate a bunch of houses in the centre to accommodate their men, earned them a nice spot at the proper bottom of everyone's favourites list. Children feared them, adults hated them and even the local police despised them for nicking their work. I can't count the number of times Sam came home spitting venom because she had to spend her shift fixing some failed detention the army managed to botch.
Crossing the street, I made my way to the centre of our beautiful town of Nederstone. Bums, diseases, famine, and a private army controlling our every move. We had it all. Not that it was much better than elsewhere in England, mind you. Or for that matter... anywhere in Europe.
I took a familiar route to the nearest grocery shop, walked in through the automatic door, didn't even bother taking a shopping basket, and scanned the area.
An old security guard was walking around the perimeter, looking bored and eyeing younger girls rather than looking out for any robbers. That was good. You can always count on human laziness to do most of the work for you. The cashiers were paying attention to their customers, everyone minded their own business, and thanks to a friend of a friend who used to work here I knew the security cameras were fake. A perfect place to do what was about to be done.
A few baked goods, just like Sam wanted, a loaf of bread and a few bags of instant noodles seemed to be enough for the next week. The last item was a box of rice. The text on the cover claimed one serving would be enough for two people. If we really tried we could stretch it out to eight. Making sure no one was watching me, I sneaked a few of these into my pockets and the bread into the shopping bag and, careful to be as inconspicuous as possible, made my way to my favourite exit, where a robotic voice greeted me from a distance.
“Unknown item in the bagging area.”
In my humble opinion, self-service checkouts are one of the most brilliant inventions of the 21st century. Usually, there's only one person standing guard to help any hopeless customers and stop suspicious individuals like me from getting out without paying and-
It was at that moment I noticed the cashier wasn't alone. A young police officer was standing next to the machines, too and I understand a sight like that might be a little strange in your futuristic, peaceful times, except as I said before, the town took extra care keeping an eye on us to make sure their desperate people had no way to cause any unnecessary problems.
And the cop was in no way a huge complication. This wasn't the first time I'd seen one. It was a serious dent in my plans, sure, but I could have just acted like nothing's wrong. I could have just dropped the act and paid for it like a bog-standard shopper… But that one day I just felt a little more daring than usual. Instead of choosing the reasonable way, I decided to risk it and walk right past them.
I held my breath as I passed the store's sensors and the cop noticed me and his gaze lingered on my stuffed shopping bag for one terrifying moment until he looked away. Everything worked was cracking so far.
They say that criminals get confident after a while, though. They start to think no one can ever catch up to their shenanigans, because up to that point they've been able to run free without any consequences and in this false confidence they start to make mistakes. This was my mistake.
“Excuse me, mister?”
I froze mid-step, like a deer caught in the headlights, and turned around to see the cashier approaching me with her wide, resolute strides. She knew what I did. I could see it in her angry, surprised face. At this point, though, I still thought I might be able to fake it out somehow, so I just smiled and waited for her to come closer.
“Do you need anything?”
“Yes. Are you going to pay for that?” she asked, gesturing to the bag I was holding.
My smile must have turned around so fast it wasn’t even funny.
“I... I'm not sure I understand what you mean. I-”
“I'm sorry, is there any problem?” the officer drew nearer now too, and I could feel sweat begin running down my scalp.
“No, of course not. I- This must be just a little misunderstanding, right?” I began, painfully aware of how guilty I must have looked, and it got even worse as the people around us started watching the scene with amused interest and my two captors exchanged a careful glance.
“I'm going to have to ask you to empty your pockets, sir.”
“That won't be necessary.”
“It will,” the officer said firmly.
“Of course, then…” I smiled.
There was a brief moment that might be considered comical if it was a movie or some daft TV show, when I paused for a solid second and looked from the cashier to the officer. Then, dropping my ugly bag to the floor, I legged it and darted for the door, cursing myself the very first second for not throwing it in their faces instead to slow them down a little.
There were hurried footsteps behind me and someone shouted something that chilled me to the bone.
This had never happened to me before, and I wasn't sure what to do. Most people just stood around, watching me sprint through the store and moving out of the way as fast as they could. I even crashed into some young woman by accident and I can clearly remember I felt sorry for doing it, but there was no time to tell her.
I had to get out of there. If the cop caught me, they would search my pockets, find all the stolen food, take me into custody, question me, book me, there would be a process, they would bust me and most importantly... Sam would murder my ass!
Fortunately, I had a pretty good head start and the people around me were too lazy and too uninterested to try and stop me. The slow automatic door proved to be a bit of a problem, but again, by sheer luck, an elderly couple just happened to be walking in and I darted through to my freedom and-
The Foxglove jeep I'd seen earlier was standing right by the sidewalk and five soldiers, who were all just getting out to get their groceries or something, turned around to face me and see what was all the ruckus about.
I was trapped in between two groups and for a moment; I felt like my heart skipped a beat.
Foxglove… these guys were something else. They didn't do any questioning; they didn't bother to check if you were alive when they beat you into unconsciousness; I don't think they even cared if you were guilty or not. The town paid them to arrest anyone who seemed to be a problem, and that's what they did. Basic human rights? I suppose they would laugh at the mention of such a strange concept.
Now if you want to properly understand my shock you really need to picture this scene in all its glory: Five men in full body armour, kevlar vests, helmets, and automatic weapons adorned with the purple and orange logos of the company, spanning from head to toe of their uniforms. All of them looking at me.
“Put your hands up in the air,” one of them commanded, not even bothering to draw his gun.
Before I could do anything, the door behind me slid open again, and the cop grabbed me by the shoulder to stop me from escaping. His victorious grin vanished the moment he realised what was happening.
“Uh...” A walkie-talkie appeared in his hand. “This is Adam Twelve, I have a code eight here-”
“I'm sure backup won't be necessary,” another soldier interrupted him. “We can handle this by ourselves.”
“I'm sure you can, but with all due respect, this is a work for the force.” The officer was young, and his voice cracked as he spoke. Compared to the armed men, he looked as pitiful as it gets.
“You're a young man, son,” the mercenary appeared to be perceptive. “Straight from the school, I'd bet. Am I right?”
“And this is a hardened criminal you're holding there.” He nodded towards me with a friendly smile. “Probably one of the first you've caught. Maybe the very first ever,” he went on. “And what are you going to do now? Wait for your friends with him in tow? Who knows what could happen before they arrive. We have a car right here and we can take care of everything.”
“I'm not sure what my superiors would say about that.”
“Well, they would thank you for taking all this hard work of their hands, of course,” another soldier chipped in with a grin. The voice of this one appeared to be tainted by some strange, outlandish accent. “Come on, buddy. You can trust us.”
With clear confusion the officer looked from one man to another as a growing audience began to gather around us. When I managed to twist my head ever so slightly to the left, I could see even the cashier from earlier and some other people watching the spectacle from behind the glass door of the shop.
“I think- I'm going to have to make a call to let them know.”
“You make your calls and we will take care of this guy,” the first soldier assured him and then turned to me. The initial smile vanished from his face so fast it might have never even been there. “Into the car. Now.”
This had to be a nightmare. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs at inexperienced cop and try out some of the most inventive of my curses, but the best I could do was to stand there and stare at him like an idiot.
Of course, I knew what this whole squabble was really about, even though this greenie seemed to be completely lost. Thanks to Sam I knew both sides were getting bonuses for every head they managed to bring in and instead of cheers the young bloke was most probably in for a few days of jokes and ridicule from his colleagues.
Me? I was sure I would be dead by the end of the week.
They took my bag, emptied my pockets, searched me for any weapons I might have had hidden in my trousers and my captors half led, half dragged me into the backseat of the jeep and then forced me to wait and watch as they argued with the cop outside, making some wide gestures and feigned claims of camaraderie. After a moment, the group split up and three of them got into the jeep with me.
“-and we have two more rounds to make,” the soldier in charge of the whole ordeal spoke first. When he took off his helmet, he turned out to have had a clean-shaven head and looked like two meters of solid muscle.
“We'll just drop him off at Lyonhall,” another one replied, sitting down next to me. “We can pick up something in the canteen, come back for the boys and be on our way.”
“You!” the third one pointed his gun at me. “Don't try anything, you understand? We have the authorisation to shoot you in the face.” Then his angry expression turned into a grin. “So what did you do?”
He must have interpreted my silence as some odd sign of talkativeness because this bloke didn't shut up the entire way to the centre of the town. We passed the Doyle bridge, the Red church, stopped at a square where they locked the doors and got out to break off some minor fight between two bums, and before I knew it the tall towers of Lyonhall appeared above the rooftops around us.
Now Lyonhall is a proper ancient fortress standing on a hill right in the middle of Nederstone. Back then, when Foxglove first came to town, it was a big deal of an arrival. They brought all their vehicles, weapons, equipment, and a couple hundred employees. It looked like an occupation. And in a way it really was.
As an effective means of housing all their newly gained mercenaries, the town decided to gift them one of the oldest and most precious historical locations of eastern England. Proper conveniently, the council forgot to mention the place was a complete ruin and from day to day transferred the burden of restoration to its new owners. Needless to say, the spacious halls of the place turned out to be far from enough, and over the next few weeks, the company proceeded to further destroy everybody's lives by confiscating homes and property of every poor indebted sucker in the near vicinity. It took only a few weeks for them to transform a small part of the centre into their own military camp, designed to terrorise us in every way imaginable.
A guardsman raised a boom gate for us at a security checkpoint at the foot of the small hill and ten minutes later the car was already pulling up to the large iron gate, its wings opening wide, as if to swallow us.
Crude white plastering was falling off in places and the dark red roofs looked down at the rows and rows of armoured vehicles standing in the courtyard. Most were simple heavy-duty jeeps they used every day, though I noticed one particularly menacing specimen among them, bigger and shinier than all the rest, sporting a huge machine gun mounted on the top of its roof. Dozens of soldiers marched around, going about their morning routine, putting on an impressive show for anyone unlucky enough to get inside.
The car stopped next to a row of jeeps parked against one of the walls, and they ushered me into the building, jamming the muzzle of a gun between my shoulder blades and nudging me along the whole way.
When I crossed the threshold of the main entrance, it was like stepping out of a time machine. Where outside balconies and pilasters adorned the ancient walls, inside the foxes have made their lair. Not only was the interior renovated; computers, high-tech military equipment, and long cables lined every corridor. Foxglove operatives were running back and forth, getting in our way and disappearing out of sight… There were many more employees than just the obvious brutes running around the streets and enforcing the law. Cooks, officers, and cleaning ladies... They were all just as important in keeping their operation afloat.
We descended some stairs, passed an old guard sleeping on duty, entered a huge underground dungeon, and before I had time to look around, I was sitting in an ancient stone cell with metal bars for a door.
What are you saying? That was pretty quick, wasn't it? The author probably wanted to get straight to the point or something. No security checks? No scanning of my nether regions? No trial and presumption of innocence and all that stuff they have in free countries?
Well, yeah. No, not here.
What did you expect? I've said it before. These blokes were not there to read you your rights. They busted you first and asked questions ten years later when they dragged your stiff, rotting corpse out of the cell.
I didn't know what to do. I was scared and confused by this new terrifying situation I'd got myself into. A part of me couldn't even properly believe that I was really there; captured by Foxglove, about to rot away into nothingness in a cell that hadn't heard of a sanitiser in three hundred years.
It took me a few minutes of pointless self-loathing to check my pockets and realise they hadn't even bothered to take my papers. In truth, they didn't even take my phone!
With my fingers shaking with frustration, it took me three tries to unlock it and get to the menu-
There was no signal...
For a moment I felt the urge to throw the device across the cell until my common sense took the better of me and I settled for punching one of the walls.
The following pain thankfully served as something of a post-nut clarity and as soon as I was done jumping around and flailing my hand around in the customary manner of a fractured phalanges, I started looking around for a way to get out.
There had to be a way if only I looked long enough.
And, as far as I could see, I had nothing but the whole of eternity ahead of me.
The place looked like a typical decrepit dungeon you might have seen on TV. A place people from the 14th century built to punish other people from the 14th century for raping and murdering and make sure they never got out to try it again. Massive blocks of stone overgrown with moss and rusty iron bars prevented my exit. Not rusty enough to give out, though. I tried that. The only effort they'd put into renovating down here was a line of ugly, electric lights running down the main corridor of the dungeon.
How kind of them...
There was no one in the empty cell directly across, and as far as I could tell, I might have been the only prisoner in this part of the underground. Come to think of it, I never did figure out how big the place was. On the way down we descended at least two levels into the darkness and if the rumours were to be believed, there were even deeper levels than this one. Levels where the gaolers of old went to break your bones or flay the skin off your back.
A few minutes later I heard footsteps echoing in the hallway and yet another soldier came, commanded me to face the wall, and took my stuff at last, so I guess in the end they didn't forget about me.
This bloke also brought an old rancid blanket to sleep under and a rusty tin bucket. I will spare you my slow continuous realisation of what the latter was for. And if you're still as curious as I know you are… then yes. I did end up using it in the end. It's not one of my proudest moments, but what was I supposed to do?
A few days went by and slowly, I began to understand how the place worked. I had full healthy meal three times a day, which, to Foxglove's credit, was thrown together from the leftovers of whatever the soldiers ate the day before, a personal attendant of sorts to clean my miser's toilet, and a place to sleep in, in case I decided I wouldn't care to freeze to death.
They say people go daft in prison. The tiny enclosed space, the lack of your usual routine, and the absolute minimum of stimulants for your brain end up forcing you to go mad. That's why I exercised my grey matter by observing my surroundings. More prisoners were brought in from time to time, and although I could only see them for a split second, I noticed that there were certain traits dividing them into groups. A few of them seemed quite defiant in the face of their odds, crying and yelling at the guards to let them go as they dragged them across the floor in front of my cell, then there were people who simply calmly and with a sort of resignation accepted their fate. These, as I've noticed, were the most numerous in their numbers, and last but not least, there were those who looked too shocked to do anything, as if their brains were unable to process this sudden horrible situation. I imagine that must've been my face too, the first day I got here.84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡwumA5eDqVA
Other than that, I never got to know my fellow inmates. To be honest, I never even had the chance to see them. There was never any free time to go out and socialise with other alleged criminals. Nothing but an endless sitting in my private quarters.84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡF3yOSqG47Y
Everything changed the day they dragged in my new neighbour. What do you call it when you make a new friend in prison? I'm not entirely sure, so I'll just call him my inmate mate. Sitting in my usual corner and enjoying the daily routine of filling my bucket, I couldn't really get a good look at him at first, but by the way he walked I knew he'd be no ordinary outlaw. Unbeknownst to me they tossed him right into the cell to my left, and a few hours passed without me even realising that I was no longer alone.84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡaiF7V4hJD7
And that's how, finally, we come back to the first paragraph and to the beginning of this story.84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡPN69u5jEJI
The years have a strange way of playing tricks on your mind, you'll find out. As you get older, some of the memories that always seemed crystal clear to you can suddenly appear brighter or much more drastic and theatrical than at the time when they happened. I suspect this one might be quite well falling into that category, but I will try to recall the exact events to the best of my abilities.84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ6wwKxwtHtH
Maybe I was just sitting in my cell, staring at the moss-covered ceiling when yet another newcomer walked past my door, and maybe, because I was beginning to lose all the remaining traces of normal sanity, I said aloud to myself:84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡvNiH0bYfSf
“Now this one won't last two minutes.”84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡiVoLxRVGaV
And to my surprise, a few seconds later, I got a muffled response.84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ8bmmpQmtdi
“That's usually more than I do.”84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡLVMuGQZ28H
For a moment, I had to think of something clever to say. I hadn't even expected anyone to answer me. “God? Is that you?”84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡLGGrkEE8lp
“There's a hole in the wall, buddy. I can hear you.”84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡS2uQfohCaf
After looking around for a moment, I had to agree with him. There was a tiny crack in between the stones, just big enough to stick the tip of a knife through. What the hell, maybe that's how it got there in the first place.84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡxfLpB1q4tX
“What's your name?” the voice went on, glad that there was someone to talk to.84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡq1VtVxW6e0
“It's- just Tony.” I decided to omit my last name for the time being.84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡnO1pMYRruJ
“Just Tony...that's pretty cool. I like that name.”84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡArj6sOPxHm
“And you?”84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡKFR4X6fJ8F
“Elskan,” he said. “My name is Elskan.”84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡOmcbZN1vS4
“Is that like a real name?” I asked hesitantly. “You don't sound Spanish.”84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡdiMAGV4fLf
He had no reply to that. What I did get was a change of the topic. “So what are you in here for, anyway? That's like the traditional prison introduction, isn't it?”
“They caught me nicking food from a shop. Caught by the soldiers at that, so there you go.”
The voice waited a few seconds before replying again. “Yeah, I've heard people do that now. What has the world come to, right?”
There was a hint of a foreign accent in the voice coming from the other side, as if English wasn't his first language, but I couldn't properly place it. It sounded a little like Russian or something and not at all Spanish, as the name would suggest. Maybe he was simply one of the immigrants fleeing from the war, and if he was, he hadn't picked the best town to settle in.
“And you?” I asked, “what are you in here for?”
“Me? That doesn't matter. I don't plan to stay here for very long, anyway.”
“Really?” I raised an eyebrow, even though he couldn't see it. “Why not?”
“Because, Tony, I don't know about you, but I have people out there who rely on me and I'm getting the hell out of here.”
If it were somehow anatomically possible, I'd raise my eyebrows even higher. “Oh... and how are you going to do that?”
“Well, by the look of this door-” the voice faded away into nothingness and there was some shuffling from the other side, then banging and screeching as if someone was pushing something wooden across the floor. And finally silence.
At that point, I was beginning to wonder if the bloke I was talking to was nothing but some sort of a madman and I tried to stick my head as close as I could to the tiny crack dividing our cells to try and see something. It would have been a real shame if the first human being I've met down here turned out to be a psycho.
That's when a loud metallic bang at my door startled me so bad that I jumped up in surprise, expecting a guard to be standing just outside the door, eavesdropping on our chin wag. But when I whirled around to invent some clever lie, what I saw instead was a man well into his thirties, watching me intently through the rusty bars. His hair was short and blond and a two-week old beard covered his face, a green hoodie he wore had a torn sleeve, as if someone had pulled on it in a recent fight, and when he saw the shock on my face, his mouth twisted into a satisfied grin.
“Hey,” a familiar voice said and only then did I realise I was looking at my new neighbour standing outside my door...
“Wha... How?” was all I managed to gasp out.
“It's easy. All you need to do is use a bit of smart thinking, Tony, and your life's gonna turn right around.”
84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡsiz4jEUwu0
84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡjwdchnFDj0
The method my new friend Elskan used to get out of his cell, as he kindly explained to me over the next few days, was maddeningly simple. All one needed to unlock an old rusty door was, apparently, a heavy wooden bench acting as a leverage, a concentrated amount of force and simple physics, and the door flew off its hinges as if it were magic.
And his explanation as to the origin of this miraculous unlocking method? He said he'd seen it in a movie. Thank god for the random technology of the twenty-first century!
And what do you know! The cells and doors at Lyonhall were literally ancient and as I found out later, Elskan's cell had the luxury of having a slightly rotten wooden bench.
It sounded so daft, and yet it was absolutely brilliant. And, of course, once I found out that he wasn't being funny about his plans, I wanted to join him in the act. That's why I'd spent most of my remaining time in prison trying to butter him up and lost countless waking hours inventing ways I could be useful to him during the attempted escape.
In the process, I found out we had a lot in common, but it somehow became an unspoken rule to never talk about the deeper elements of our personal lives. Every time I tried to find out something new about my neighbour, he would just divert my attention to a different topic. A new problem we had to think through to escape or some clever jape to make me forget about my questions. And in the end, I learned to appreciate this confidentiality. He could keep whatever it was he wanted to himself, and I didn't have to tell him anything about my sister being a cop.
I was thinking about Sam pretty often, too. The word I was being held in a dungeon must have reached her a long time ago through one of her colleagues, and I could only imagine what she must have been thinking. Was it possible she might have been trying to get me out some legal way? Even if she was, I had no reason to wait in the dungeons to find out, because the army would never release me anyway. Foxglove wasn't accustomed to the strange idea of yielding to the official force, and they sure as hell weren't going to randomly change their minds overnight.
Whatever was going on out there, I just hoped she was doing fine. With me gone, Sam had her whole life just for herself and as long as she didn't try to look up my browser history or anything, everything was probably okay. I was about to explain myself to her as soon as I got out of here.
And talking about that-
How exactly had we planned to get out?
After a few nights of careful examination, we noticed a pattern in the way the soldiers brought in our food, checked on our good behaviour, and took care for our hygiene three times a day. The only irregularities were the days when someone brought in new prisoners, but we couldn't predict those even if we wanted to, so there was no point in trying.
A fixed pattern of guards' working hours allowed us to move more or less freely around the dungeon and that was brilliant, but it was only one level of the whole underground and there were floors and floors of uncharted territory above our heads and eyes and ears everywhere. At one point I got so desperate I proposed we could use the old trick from spy movies where the protagonist nicks clothes off some minion and sneaks around unnoticed, which was promptly rejected, re-evaluated, and finally taken into consideration as one of the worse options.
“Or we could just lure them in and knock someone out,” was the next of my brilliant ideas. “I could pretend to be sick or something and when they come to try and help me, you just pop them over the back of their neck and it's done.”
“But we can't do that!” The implication seemed to shock my accomplice.
“Why ever not?”
“The real world is not that simple,” Elskan explained. “If you ever actually manage to knock someone out for more than like five seconds, they're either slowly dying in front of your eyes or you just gave them some permanent brain damage. We'll have to think of something else.”
I never asked him how he knew all this stuff, but way later during my adventures I found out that he really was telling the truth, and falling unconscious is not just some convenient, harmless way to jump through the plot with little effort. So remember this: if you ever see your favourite action hero choking people because he claims he doesn't kill, just ask him how many years of medical service he did to be so confident about his claims.
The days came and went and came again until finally one fateful evening we were met with an unexpected complication that prevented us from procrastinating the realisation of our plan any further.
It was one of those instances of the everyday routine when a bored guard came around to give us our supper. The man opened the door, pulled out his chain of heavy iron keys, stopped the push-cart full of food in front of my cell, and got to work filling my plate. I had to stand attention with my back against the far wall every time this happened, just in case I got some wrong ideas and tried to bother or straight out injure him, and in this position, looking straight ahead of me, my heart skipped a beat when I saw a dark figure emerge from behind the soldier.
At this point in our story we were fairly used to visiting each other's cells whenever we got a bit of breathing space and to my shock and immense astonishment, I realised it was no none other but my neighbour, buried in his thoughts and walking around carefree as if he was taking a stroll in the park. He must have forgotten about the hour, considering there was no proper way to tell time down here, and wandered out, thinking it was safe to come out for a bit of chat. When he saw I already had a visitor, he froze in place, trying to make as little noise as possible.
And the mercenary, looking up from his work and noticing my startled expression, turned around to investigate.
There was a brief moment of uncomfortable silence when all three of us just stood there, waiting for someone else to make the first move. Then the soldier grabbed for his handgun and Elskan lunged forward to wrestle it from his hands. The following fight was over so fast I didn't even have a chance to get a grasp of the situation and before I knew it, the man was down on the floor with his hands up in the air and my new friend standing victoriously over him.
“How did you get out?”
“Tony, check if he's got a walkie-talkie at his belt,” Elskan ignored him, addressing me instead. It took me a second to snap out of it, though, and he had to repeat himself. “The belt, Tony! And take his keys too.”
As if in some kind of haze, I knelt down to retrieve what he wanted and found both items buried deep inside of one of the soldier's many pockets. Keeping the gun pointed at his face the whole time, we left the dank interior of the cell towards the sweet freedom of the open fortress.
“Listen, if you just march back in here and give me the keys, we can forget about all of this and pretend like it never happened,” the man tried to plead for the last time as we closed him inside. “You're not getting out of here alive!”
“What are we going to do?” I turned to Elskan.
“Well… there's no going back now,” he said, glancing at the weapon in his hand. “Are you in?”
“What choice do I have?”
“Good point.” The outlaw stared at me for a moment as if he, too, couldn't believe we were actually about to do this. “Good point… Do you have any last-minute corrections to the plan?”
I wasn't sure what to suggest. We had practically nothing as it was.
“Alright. Damn it then. Let's do your weird idea with dressing up as foxes.”
“Why not?” he shrugged. “What do we got to lose, anyway? If they catch us, they'll send us back to our cells.”
“Or shoot us!”
“I have to agree that's a real possibility, but let's try and focus on the brighter side of things. You won't have to use the bucket anymore.”
The trapped soldier seemed amused by the notion of stripping down to his pants, but only until he realised we weren't being funny. We left him almost completely starkers in the cold cell with nothing but his briefs and our two blankets because we weren't totally heartless, and while I stood guard to make sure no one would be coming our way Elskan, who was slightly shorter than I, took the orange and purple uniform from his hands, pulled both pieces over his regular clothes and transformed himself into a mercenary indistinguishable from our enemies.
“So, what do you think?” he tried to strike a pose as he finished.
“Charming… I think we're going to die.”
“Well, you will with this attitude. You clearly lack the proper motivation to escape, Tony. Me? I've got so much to lose by staying here. If this is our opportunity to escape, I'm taking it no matter what.”
“This will never work!”
“Nonsense. We'll do the classic move with a guard leading a prisoner. Just play it like you're confused and afraid, don't look anyone in the eyes, and before you know it we'll be out of the gate.”
“I am confused and afraid!” I argued.
“See? You're a natural.”
Pretend like nothing is wrong and people won't notice you. I knew this method because I'd used it before in the various stores and malls around town. Just walk on, be quiet, keep to yourself and you'll blend into the crowd. I knew all this and yet I was scared out of my mind something might go wrong. My stomach turned and grumbled at the mere thought of someone looking our way and I felt like I was either going to puke or my legs would simply buckle under me and I'd fall to the floor, unable to take another step.
In the end, I guess my supposition actually helped me to fulfil my role to the fullest. With my accomplice's hand on my shoulder, we stumbled up the long stone steps out of the dungeon, over the threshold and into a small white room above. It was one of those places of the interior innovated enough as to be almost unrecognisable from the original cold fortress around us.
Up there I could see the first few people potentially able to see through this masquerade. There were three of them, dressed in regular clothes and working on something, sitting by little tables and hidden behind their monitors. My heart nearly leapt up into my neck when a man in glasses, lured by the sound of the door creaking open, looked straight at me. His gaze lingered for one infinite second as I looked at him with a desperation clearly written on my face, then his eyes dropped back down as he returned to his work and we walked on through the hallway, one step after another, getting closer and closer to our freedom.
From there it was a short way through the main hall and out into the open space outside. Of course, there were even more scary people to thwart our plans, but with every extra step and with every other, unsuspecting person we passed, I grew more and more confident we were about to come out of this mad ordeal as free men.
That was only until the first two proper soldiers entered our line of sight.
Dressed in their significant colours and standing on duty by the main entrance, I didn't have to be a world-class detective to see, just from their body language, they could immediately tell something was very wrong about us. The change in their posture, the brief questioning look they shared… The whole thing was done when the younger and shorter of them stepped forward to block our way and spoke.
“Hey. Where are you taking him?”
“Where?” I had to admire the way Elskan managed to speak without stuttering or any other clear signs of panic. Me? I wanted to scream like a little girl. “To the infirmary, of course!”
“The infirmary?” The young man turned to his colleague for help. “Where's that? I didn't know we have an infirmary.”
“Heh, you see. That's a funny thing-” Without any warning whatsoever or any hint to make sure I wasn't going to piss myself, Elskan pointed his newly gained weapon straight at the soldier's chest. “Drop your damn gun. Nobody moves!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
“Jesus Christ!” I dropped to the floor while my accomplice grabbed the unlucky bastard as a hostage and twisted one of his hands behind his back. People around us started shouting and the second soldier fumbled for his rifle.
“You drop that!” I heard from above me right as the aforementioned weapon fell to my hands and I stood up, not at all ready to fight for my life. It was the first time ever I'd held a big gun like that and I had no clue how to use it, so I simply settled for a menacing pointing in every direction I could think of.
Most of the less militaristic personnel did their best to stay out of our way when I followed the outlaw through the door and out into the open air. It must have been the middle of the night already, because the electric lights hanging from the metal wires above our heads were the only thing illuminating the courtyard. There were not a whole lot of people out there and those who were were quite clearly having a hard time figuring out what was going on. There was no time to lose.
And in the middle of it all, as if standing straight in a spotlight, bright and shiny as it was, stood the enormous armoured car I could recall from before, its mounted gun sticking out over the roofs of the rest of the other vehicles. There was even a man staring at us in bewilderment, with his key right in the ignition.
“Anyone moves I'll blast his head off! Get to the car, Tony! Now!”
Everyone stared at us as if in a dream. Or in a horrible nightmare. I darted for the door.
“Get out, please!” I barked at the bloke behind the wheel in between breaths. Over the loud pounding of my heart, I could hear heavy footsteps in the distance. An entire army was coming to stop us.
Elskan was right in my heels and shoved our young hostage through the front door next to me into the passenger seat.
“Point the gun at him,” was his only advice before he jumped into the back and to man the gigantic machine gun.
“This was not the plan!”
“It was my plan B, I just didn't tell you about it. Step on it!”
Without a clue on how to threaten the man sitting next to me and drive at the same time, I simply tossed the gun I was holding to the backseat and fired up the engine. The heavy entrance gate was wide open and in the headlights, I saw someone running to the booth next to it to cut off our only exit.
I'm not sure who started it first, but bullets sprayed our windows like a swarm of cheesed off cockroaches and I could hear our machine gun returning fire. With a terrible roar, the armoured jeep shot forward and scraped past one side of the gate, practically bending the metal in half. Bullets, shrapnels, and bits of stone flew all around us as the night lights of the town appeared in my view. We were flying down the road.
The tiny checkpoint at the bottom of the hill lit up and someone started lowering the boom gate. A huge wooden splinter lodged itself in between the wipers in front of me when I drove straight through it and turned onto the high road.
The machine gun behind me stopped for a moment, only to start barking again a second later. When I looked into the rear-view mirror I could see at least twenty cars slipping through the damaged gate uphill one after another.
At this hour, the streets were mostly empty, and apart from a few frightened pedestrians and one car that almost crashed into the river trying to avoid us, I was free to keep speeding forward.
“If we're gonna run someone over…” I complained over the thundering sounds of gunfire.
“You can do this, Tony!” I got a few almost inaudible words of encouragement. “Just keep going!”
Without a warning, the man we'd taken hostage reached into the back and I almost crashed into a lamppost in shock. My accomplice suddenly appeared behind him and pressed my gun to his head.
“This could have seriously backfired, you know that? I didn't even ask you if you could drive. I don't know how to drive on the left side!” I didn't know what to reply to that. In fact, I felt like I was on the verge of tears. “Did you know this thing wasn't even cocked?” Elskan went on in his monologue, waving the rifle around. “I'm going to give them some more warning shots, but I'm watching you!” he addressed the soldier before disappearing again.
One by one the military jeeps began to slow down and give up the chase as our mounted weapon tore up the ground in front of them. After a while and a few more wild turns, Elskan jumped back into the backseat to share the latest news.
“Are they gone?”
“Looks like we made it,” he assured me. “Time to get rid of this guy.”
“Wait, what?” I would have looked at him in disbelief if I'd dare to tear my eyes off the road. Was he going to kill him?
“He can't come with us, Tony! We have to throw him out.”
This time I decided to look to my left and saw the young soldier staring at me, wide-eyed. “Now wait a minute-” he began before Elskan put the gun to his head again.
“You continue driving and you open the door for yourself. We can't do any breaks.”
“You're bloody mad!” the soldier replied and started fumbling for the handle. When the door opened, I slowed down involuntarily, just before El shoved him outside with “bon voyage, bastard,” and squeezed himself into his seat next to me.
For a while, we just drove on before we both managed to catch our breath.
“Where-” I finally asked.
“Into the forest,” the answer came immediately. “Do you know how to get there? We can hide the car among the trees.”
It sounded like a perfectly logical idea. Right on the outskirts of the town was a huge forest that encircled almost a third of the entire perimeter from the northwest. From memory, I manoeuvred the car in the right way and crossed over to a side road, not slowing down again for even a second. It didn't take us whole five minutes before we had to change our plans.
“You know what?” Elskan stopped me. “By now I'm sure the police must be on our trail too, and those guys are not as dumb as the foxes. I'd bet they are closing up the town one exit after another looking for a stolen military vehicle. This thing is practically a tank and no matter where we go with it, people are going to notice.”
“So do you want me to just pull over by the sidewalk and leg it?”
Elskan scratched at his beard. “To be honest, I don't really like the idea of leaving the safety of this car. It did prove to be pretty useful after all-”
Somewhere in the distance, a police siren started to wail.
“But we all need to get out of our comfort zone every now and then, don't we? Turn it about if you can. We can try to exit the town a different way. I'll try to lower the gun in the back and if we're lucky, who's gonna notice we're not just some normal patrol driving around in the night? We could- but wait a minute…”
I turned the car around on the next roundabout and slowed down to a pace the foxes usually kept while scanning their surroundings for any scoundrels. At the end of the street, a tiny Fiat Multipla made a right turn and immediately stopped. The driver was an old shrivelled man, no doubt afraid for his life because he'd just encountered one of the army jeeps in the middle of the night, alone and helpless.
“Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”
“Yeah,” I remember nodding in agreement. “Sure. Let's do this.”
I could only imagine the old-timer's immense surprise when one of the windows rolled down and Elskan leaned out in his false attire of a mercenary with:
“Excuse me, sir!” he smiled. “Uh… we're from Foxglove, obviously, and I believe we have a proposition for you.”
84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ43CLW4H0yR
84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡwswYWlMydP
Now if you want a properly nice cinematic experience, you can imagine a camera panning away from the scene as we drive away into the night, focusing first on the rooftops and then flying over the sleeping town, alive with flickering blue lights of police cars searching every inch of every street for a huge Foxglove jeep. The scene shifts as we fly over a synagogue built entirely out of red bricks, we can see the fortress of Lyonhall, a river running straight through the middle of it all like a giant green snake full of stars, and the docks in the distance at the coast of the North Sea, before our view finally settles as a black forest appears in the background right at the edge of it all.
And a tiny old car we exchanged with a poor, clueless pensioner slips unseen into the cover of the trees.
“You can park it wherever you want now. It's not like anyone's gonna notice, anyway.”
Elskan had been guiding me all the way along the narrow muddy roads and if I hadn't been so knackered, stressed, terrified and absolutely lost as to what to do, I might have asked him how in bloody hell was it possible that he knew these paths so well.
We abandoned our new Fiat, took what we could, including our stolen weapons, and started making our way through the bushes. My new friend led the way forward, and it wasn't until a good while in when I finally asked, “so, where are we going? Do you have a plan or something?”
“Eh...” was my only answer, “just follow the road.”
Needless to say, there wasn't really any road to follow, so I just kept walking in his footsteps, pushing the wild branches out of my way and slapping away at all the annoying bugs.
If I'd been any smarter, I might have started to have some doubts. This strange bloke I'd met not even a full week ago leading me deep into the heart of a forest I didn't know... but I just wanted everything to be finally over. I wanted to go back to my boring life, living with my sister in a tiny cramped house, struggling every day to get my hands on something we could eat... Compared to the current situation, even the grim reality of my former life seemed more than comfortable.
We crossed a brook where cold water got in my boots; I managed to trip over a stray tree branch and at one point we saw the dark silhouette of a deer jump out of the hedges, scaring us half to death. Finally, I almost crashed into Elskan as he froze in place in front of me.
“What are we doing now?” I whispered.
My answer presented itself in front of my eyes when a glimmer of light shot through the leaves. Some distance away from us, someone was using a torch. Or was it perhaps the headlights of a car?
“You think that's them?” I asked, referring to the Foxglove soldiers. What if they followed us all the way here just to stop us at the last moment of our victory?
“Oh, that's definitely them,” Elskan replied and despite the obvious threat, continued moving forward. Sensing this might be a part of some clever new plan, I followed without a question.
It wasn't until a few meters closer that I realised a simple torch would have been way too small. So was it really a car, after all?
Slowly, we made our way down to the foot of a small hill hidden beneath the trees, and an outline of a wooden cabin appeared against the starry sky.
Elskan grinned at me and beckoned. “Let's go. We're almost there.”
“Wait!” I caught him by the arm. How could anyone be so careless? “Do you think someone lives up there?”
“Tony,” he brushed my hand off. “I live up there. Come on.”
He started up the hill. Hidden behind one of the bushes were a haphazardly dug stairs and a creaky railing that seemed so ragged it might have very well been put together by a child. Afraid to touch anything, I ascended after him.
There were four wooden cabins at the top, three of them crudely put together just to withstand wind and rain more than anything else. The largest was the one with light coming out of its windows and also the only one that looked like a proper house, what looked like three shiny solar panels glimmered on its roof; the smallest building had nothing but holes and reminded me more of a tool shack. They were encircling a kind of a glade in the middle with a cold, frequently used fireplace and a few benches to sit on. Everything was perfectly silent.
In a few quick strides, we crossed the place, and Elskan reached for the handle.
Then someone whispered right in my ear.
I almost jumped out of my skin as something pushed me in the back. Back then I had no idea it was just a broken stick.
“Now give me your weapon.”
I grabbed for the gun I'd nicked back at Lyonhall and threw it on the ground behind me.
“And put your hands up, slowly!”
Elskan started to raise his hands as well, but stopped halfway in and turned around to confront our new assaulter.
“What the hell are you doing?!”
“El?” the other man stared at us in disbelief. He was fairly tall, with short brown hair and a pale, square face. The improvised weapon dropped from his hands.
“What's going on? Did you join the army or what?”
Only now did I realise the outlaw was still wearing the orange and purple masking of a Foxglove uniform. That sight would probably have startled anyone.
“We joined the army for like ten minutes before they found out,” Elskan grinned from ear to ear and hugged his friend. Then he slapped me on the back. “This is Tony, by the way. He helped me get out, but I'll tell you the rest of the story inside, if you don't mind. Tony, this is my good buddy James.”
“We thought you were a goner.” James didn't bother with any pleasantries. His voice was tainted by the same strange Eastern-European accent as Elskan's, if even a little stronger. “I- I told the boys we might be in it alone from now on.”
“Go and fetch them, will you?”
James looked at me one more time, turned on his heel, and disappeared into the night as Elskan opened the door.
The inside of the cabin was a single open space that must have served as a dining room or something. A single light bulb dangled from the ceiling by its exposed cable. A tiny microwave and various kitchen utensils and furniture lined one of the walls, and a wooden table and six wobbly chairs stood in the middle.
“You don't need to take your boots off. We do it the American style in here.”
Promptly, my host seated himself down at the head of the table with a loud groan and gestured around us. “Welcome to my humble crib. It's not much, is it?”
I was ready to disagree in as polite way as I could when he silenced me with a wave of his hand.
“I know it's not, but we're working on that. Take a seat, buddy. You must be really exhausted and really confused.”
When I plopped down on the nearest chair, it was as if the shock of this whole day suddenly dropped from me and words started streaming out like a flood.
“Okay. What the hell are we doing here? You- you said you live here? How does anyone manage to live in the forest? And who are these people? I thought we had to ride in here just to conceal the car and then disappear!”
“In my defence, we did go to the forest to conceal the car. I just didn't tell you the whole truth,” Elskan countered. “Look, I know this might be a lot of new information to chew up, but I promise I'm gonna explain everything just as James comes back with the boys. Do we have a deal?”
I didn't have any time to make my choice, because the door flew open and James strolled inside with two other young men in tow.
'Men' was probably a pretty generous term in this case. One of them was clearly older; twenty-ish or something. The other one couldn't have been over seventeen. Both had reddish-brown hair, both had the same surprised faces, and both stopped in shock when they saw us.
“You gotta be pooping on my kidneys...” the older one glared while the younger boy walked right up to the table. “Is that a gun?”
“Don't touch it!” James warned him before he addressed us. “You two want some coffee?”
“There are only a few spoonfuls left,” the older one spoke up. By their voices, these two appeared to be simple locals, just like me. “I thought we were saving it for a special occasion.”
“And what would this be if not a special occasion?” Elskan looked at him. “I got out of prison without a single scratch.” He seemed way more comfortable now that he was back among the people he knew, hollering and smiling all around at his friends.
I wished I could say the same.
“What are you doing in here, where have you been all this time and, umm...” the younger one glared in my direction.
“This is my good friend, Tony. He helped me get out of Lyonhall and now, I believe, he doesn't have a place to go to, so I took him in with me.”
For a second I thought about introducing myself, but I literally had no idea where to start or what to tell these people. It made no matter because they skipped right past me.
“I feel like we're gonna need some more details than that.”
“Of course,” Elskan nodded and took a sip from his mug. “Oh, yeah... I mean, sex is great and all, but have you ever tried getting a coffee after a few days in a literal dungeon?”
Frankly, it tasted pretty horrible. Not that it mattered, of course. He was right.
James frowned at him impatiently. “Alright, go on.”
“So they put us in the cells next to each other. And can you imagine what the fortress looks like from the inside? It's huge!”
I don't think there's any need to retell our story all the way from the beginning, as he did in that tiny, cramped kitchen. The way we met, the complete and utter destruction of our plans, the action-packed car chase… When he finished he left the trio of his friends completely speechless and the young one stared in shock at the obvious implications our escape could have had for them.
“But they won't come in here. Will they?”
“Of course not. They have no idea where we've gone to and even if they did, they would have to search the whole forest to find us. Chill out.”
Our entire story explained, and all the curious little details figured out, he finally spoke to me.
“Now, Tony, you must be wondering where the hell did you turn out. Who are these people and what are their, no doubt, really weird intentions? I'm going to try to explain everything the best way I can, but where do you start with something like this?”
I just shrugged. A quiet resignation was all I could do at this point.
“So I'm El and this is James, Will and the tiny one is Manny. Those two are brothers, as you might have guessed.”
“Whoah, what do you mean tiny?” the youngest one of the group complained, but Elskan paid him no mind.
“To put it as plainly as possible, we're trying to survive out here. Just like you do and just like everyone else out there in the town. We've found our own unique ways of doing it by living outside in our little camp. There's just this one teeny tiny problem. Erm...”
“We're outlaws,” James helped him. “The police are after all of us and we're hiding out there because we don't want to be careless and get caught like him.”
“Yes, and let me explain that. I'm something like a leader out here, so-”
“Sure he is. Don't get yourself fooled by this guy.” James frowned and looked at the other two for support. “In truth, we are trying to keep more of a round table mentality around here.”
“Yeah. Right,” Elskan winked at me, “of course we do. Anyway, every one of us is wanted out there for various fun reasons, unfortunately, and having lived through it yourself, you can imagine a quiet solitude would be preferable to the cold stone walls of a cell.”
“Wait, what's that?” James exclaimed, looking at me. When I followed his gaze, I found a small splotch of red spreading over my left shoulder.
“That's probably nothing,” I tried to be brave. “I must have gotten scrammed in the car or something.”
“Look, I don't want you to think I have any kind of reliable medical practice, but I'm definitely not going to let you bleed out in here. I'm gonna go get you something.”
“James is something like our caring, self-elected mother,” Elskan explained when the door closed. “He's probably the most responsible of all of us, so you'd better listen to him when he gets worried about something. He's just gonna have a look at you.”
While I waited for the rescue, I had more time to look around. There were two more doors on the other side of the room, leading god knows where, and a simple fridge hummed in a corner. In the silence, I could hear a single, lonely cricket chirping outside. The inevitability of the next question pounded in my head so hard I couldn't keep it in any longer.
“So, what did you people do to become criminals?”
I wasn't expecting anything horrible. After all, only hours ago I've been kept behind bars just for nicking food from a grocery store.
“We killed someone,” Will answered, dead serious.
“Did we?” His brother recoiled in horror.
“None of us killed anyone. It's the opposite, actually.” James came back through the door with a yellowish first aid kit; the kind everyone should have in their car. This time he took the lead in telling the story.
“We're not from around here. Not me and El anyway… will you show me that wound?”
I took off my shirt to reveal an ugly scram above one shoulder. It couldn't have been a cut because my clothes seemed to be otherwise untouched. I must simply have fallen somewhere during our escape and burst the skin. Now that I knew about it, it finally started to hurt.
“All of Europe is up in flames and England is one of the last safe places you can flee to. Over the years our country got invaded, freed, then invaded again and when our new masters came for us to go and join their war, we decided it was about the right time to leave-”
“You don't realise how stupid war really is until you actually see one,” Elskan cut in. “If someone wants to be dragged away from their home to murder strangers for the benefit of some rich bastard, they will never even meet, I guess they are welcome to go and join the fun. But we're not that dumb. So we ran.”
When he put it that way, I had to agree.
“At first we wanted to go south, to Italy, Greece or maybe even Africa, but all the borders down there were already closed. Barbed wires and soldiers with guns… It wasn't pretty. So we took what we had and went through Germany and France until we got up to the coast.”
I hissed involuntarily as James rubbed a disinfectant-soaked napkin over my shoulder.
“Turns out we were not the only ones with that idea, because both your annoying police and all the other runaways had already managed to flood the Chunnel and there was no getting through them. If we hadn't paid a generous sum to that random guy with a ferry, I don't know where we would be,” he turned to Elskan. “Then a good dozen or so days of walking, hitching and sleeping out under the open sky and that's how we got here. All three of-”
“Three months,” Elskan interrupted him. “We've been living here for like three months already, and at first I expected a nice, warm welcome from the locals. You all live in this place, so you know I couldn't have been further away from the truth. This town looks like a graveyard and they even got a private army to keep you in line? That's just horrible.”
“So we fled again,” James said as he finished patching me up.
“And into the forest. Really?”
“You should enjoy nature, Tony,” Elskan grinned at me from across the table. “After all, we're some of the last generations with that luxury.”
I have to say they really got me hooked up with that story.
“So why won't you just leave?” I asked. Most of the locals in Nederstone wouldn't even dare thinking about it. This was their home, a place they were born to, lived with their families and worked in, but these blokes were free to do whatever they wanted. “Any other place in England is better than this bloody town.”
“We have our reasons,” Elskan explained, “and besides, we've already built these beautiful houses, haven't we?” he gestured to the window. “And that's where these two came into play.”
I looked at the two brothers. The younger one fidgeted uncertainly in his seat.
“So, one day we're just sitting at home, resting after all the hard work and having a blast doing whatever it was we were doing, and out of the blue someone knocks at our door. You can probably imagine it's a little weird to get visitors out here so James circled around the back, took a long, dry branch and used that thing he'd done to us just a minute ago.”
“He scared the crap out of us,” Will added.
“We take them in and it turns out we've got two runaways from the town on our hands. Do you care to tell the story or do you want us to do it?”
Manny had been looking down at his toes this whole time and raised his gaze now. “I think you're doing a pretty good job.”
“Of course I do. So these two got evicted from their home back when the army started seizing properties to house their soldiers and had been living on the street ever since. When hunger finally drove them outside to try and hunt something among the trees, they happened to bump into us.”
“Seems like no one is safe from the reach of Foxglove,” James pointed out.
“Everyone in this room is a living proof of that,” Elskan finished his coffee and stood up to put his mug away. James took advantage of the sudden silence.
“And who are you, Tony? You've heard a lot about us, but we know wholly nothing about you. Would you care to share?”
I'd had no idea what to say. Not that I would suddenly forget my whole backstory. It was simply a matter of how much I dared to tell these people. So far they might have seemed to be friendly, but for all I knew it could have been just a prelude to them stripping me of everything I had on my person and eating me alive out here. And what about Sam? I couldn't even mention my sister was in the force with the kind of attitude they showed against the police!
“I live here in the town,” I started pretty harmlessly, “and a while ago I lost my job. You know how it goes after that; you start doing what you have to do to survive. In my case, it was nicking from a shop just so I'd have something to eat. Every time I went in there in the morning, I took something small. Then I moved on to the bigger things and I suppose from that it was just a matter of time before my luck ran out. There was no trial and no accusations… I just got got and escorted straight to Lyonhall.
“And you know the rest,” I looked at Elskan, sitting straight opposite of me.
“You're safe here,” he nodded to himself. “We all are. The nights are getting a little colder and the ever-present insects are a bit of an inconvenience, but as long as we stay careful and our meagre provisions last to feed us, I think the life in our camp is not all that bad.”
All the adventures of the day must have begun taking its toll on Elskan because he suddenly yawned and stretched like a man who hasn't seen his bed in a long time.
“Anyway… I'm gonna head back to town.”
“Right now?” James looked at him as if he'd gone mad.
“You, of all the people, know this can't wait.”
“Then at least wait until tomorrow and get some sleep. The streets will be full of foxes and everyone will be searching for you wherever they can. Going out right now would be just dumb.”
The outlaw clearly didn't like the notion of that, though he smiled and nodded, “First thing in the morning then.”
If I had a little more energy than I did, I might have given more thought to this strange interaction. Did it have any real significance, or was it just some strange burst of energy the outlaw always got after a rush of adrenaline? I was forced out of my thoughts by Manny's curious question.
“Wait. So is he like staying in here with us?”
“That's up to him,” Elskan looked at me, expecting some kind of an answer I wasn't yet prepared to give him. “He can definitely squat here for a while. That's the least we can do for a guy who got me out of prison.”
The image of a comfy bed that appeared in my head was just one temptation too many for me to handle. At my request, they led me out of the door and into the open glade in between the houses.
“The one to the right is where Will and Manny are staying at the moment. The one across is mine so you can sleep in there. I think I have like a couch or something you can crash on. That should be enough, right?”
I wasn't even listening to him at that point. We entered the dark cabin which, yet again, consisted of only one enormous room and in the darkness I could see nothing but outlines of furniture along the walls as my new host led me to a folding couch in one of the corners.
84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ9V9JU4PGu7
And that's it. That's how it all started.
I just flopped down onto my improvised bed and didn't even care what would happen to me the next day.
Could I trust these people? I had no idea. Were they going to murder, mug, or rape me in the morning or any of the following days? I was too knackered to care.
And most certainly I had no idea this would be the beginning of some of the best, the worst, and the most terrifying few months of my life.
84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡPJYHmdog1S
84Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡKfGtMuXszc