As the days went by, I got some more insight into the inner workings of the camp.
Every Monday or so, all the important chores we had were randomly assigned using an app on James's phone. Cooking and baking fell almost exclusively to Manny and all of the repairs and renovations were done by El, but the rest of the work was up to us. Doing the laundry, washing the dishes and taking care of the rubbish, which we threw down a deep hole someone must have made while drilling for oil fell to me way too often and I soon began to suspect the system to be rigged, although I couldn't prove anything.
Concerning all the rubbish, by the way; we would have loved to recycle it, but even if we did, there was no one to collect it. For once in a long while the world had worse problems than pollution.
All of our water had to be hauled up in buckets from the nearby lake, boiled in a kettle or over a fire and divided into parts to be used later. If you have never had pre-boiled water before, I can tell you it's nothing to look forward to. Imagine drinking the most bland tea in history ten days after you brewed it. It wasn't fun.
Since there was no washing machine out there, we had a curious old-fashioned way of doing our laundry too. Nobody in the forest really cared about the pristine cleanliness of their clothes, so all I had to do was to fill the aforementioned bucket with water, add a bit of soap and swish it around for maximum effect. Some of the blokes, like Mark, even seemed to contend with showering with their clothes on.
And speaking about Mark… the man seemed to acclimatise way faster than anyone expected and proved to be an interesting, if not exactly useful, addition to the team. The outlaws assigned him the tiniest of the cabins, which used to be a tool shed. All we had to do was add a couple of windows and the crude little building became as homey as any wooden box I've ever seen.
Even though it didn't feel like the most luxurious lodgings, its resident never complained. A few days after his haphazard introduction, the doctor raided the outlaws' stash of alcohol and now spent most of his time closed behind his door, drinking, smoking like a chimney and generally being a horrible example for the kids.
On the rare occasions when he turned up outside, his presence caused nothing but problems, and although he didn't talk about it, the self-proclaimed leader of the outlaws soon began to regret his initial decision to help him.
Instead of getting to know each other and being grateful for one more person we could talk to in our solitude, we spent our days looking for good ways to get rid of him.
“Is that a Hawaiian shirt?” Will asked him one day during a late breakfast. “We're basically in the middle of a possible apocalypse and you're wearing a Hawaiian shirt like you're on a bloody honeymoon.”
“It's my lucky shirt!” Mark defended himself.
“Because it makes me look hot! And it reminds me of the better times. And it's... It's the last one I have.”
“You could have just said something and we would have lent you whatever you needed,” James proposed. “If you want to, of course.”
That was followed by a grumble and a nonchalant wave of a hand, and we never came back to that discussion. Another time we found him smoking in the evening right in the kitchen.
“I don't mind the smoke,” Manny confessed. “What scares me is having to inhale something that was in your mouth just a second ago.”
“That shouldn't worry you all that much.” El looked at him from across the table. “You literally breathe air that was in someone else's mouth every second of your life.”
Manny's eyes went wide at that and the next second he was sucking in as much air as he could and holding his breath, determined not to give in. For a moment it almost seemed like he was about to pass out, until his brother hit him in the back and made him open his mouth with a loud gasp.
“I give up!” he cried between gasps. “Why do you always have to destroy everything with your science!”
“I don't think I'll ever manage to recover from that,” Will seconded him.
“What's all the fuss about, gentlemen?” Elskan grinned. “Just relax, take a deep breath and rest assured that that stuff going down your throat was safely stored inside my lungs just a minute ago. Have fun living with that realisation.”
“You blokes are a cheery bunch.” Mark frowned to himself. “A little too cheery for me.”
“I've never really understood smoking in the first place.” Will refused to let go of the topic. “I tried it once when I was at school, but from an adult it just seems like nothing but the ultimate act of irresponsibility. Hey kids!” he made his voice a little deeper, “do you want a shorter lifespan? Lemme just inhale this poison and blow it all over your faces!”
His words didn't appear to have any effect at first. Mark just sat there staring at the wall as if contemplating something. Then, a few days later, we found him sitting and smoking outside, well out of sight of the two brothers.
So, maybe he wasn't that bad after all.
The time flew by in a similar manner and for a while our only concern was trying to function together. That was until one morning...
We were just eating tinned beans and toast when the conversation turned back to the night we'd managed to triumphantly escape from Lyonhall. It was one of the all-time favourites of our tiny audience, occasionally asked to be retold from different perspectives and with all the juicy details when the mood turned a little nibbling. It was a genuine little mystery how he did it, but to my surprise Elskan managed to sneak in more and more impossible action every time he told it.
“So, did they take you because they found out you were a deserter?” Mark was trying to make some sense of all the new information he was learning about us. I could honestly perfectly understand him. I was in the same position only a few days back.
“Nah, that was because of something else. If they knew who I was, they would just deport me and then...” He pointed two fingers at his head and pressed an imaginary trigger. “I got lucky.”
“I still don't like this whole Foxglove thing,” James frowned. “It won't go without consequences, mark my words.”
“I already told you not to worry about it! They don't know where we are. They don't know who we are. They don't even care about their prisoners enough to keep any records on them. And even if they did, I didn't have any papers on me when they caught me! There's no way to find out who I am and Tony over here-”
Elskan stopped suddenly, as if someone had punched him in the gut, with his hand frozen in the air. After a slight pause that had almost a perfect comedic timing, he slowly turned to me.
“Tony, you didn't happen to have any papers on you when they caught you. Did you?”
For a second I felt like I didn't properly understand the question. Papers? Like my identity card and stuff like that? I didn't have them on me. They took them away when that soldier threw me in the dungeon, along with my phone and... and…
I looked at him and the expression on my face must have said it all.
The outlaw lowered his arm, rolled his eyes and let out a deep breath.
“Oh, what the fu-”
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We had a big problem on our hands.
98Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡJvtOPKzZft
98Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡg1ndwLfYUq
How could I have been so daft?
James was pacing up and down the kitchen, trying and failing to think of some solution. The rest of us were sitting by the table, pondering the darkest of thoughts.
“Th- they can't get to me anyway, right?” I stammered. “Even if they find out who I am, there's no way to know I'm in here with you.”
Elskan stopped and scratched at his beard. “But they can find your family and through them...” he frowned. “You did write your- sister. Was it a sister? Do I remember that right?”
“Yes, but you told me to leave out the details.”
“True. Yeah. That means we as a group should be safe. Your sister could have some serious problems though.”
Sam. To think the army could do something to her because of the dumb evidence I left behind... “We have to do something, then!”
“And what? Are we supposed to charge in there and ask them to give us back all the documentation concerning two escaped prisoners, pretty please?”
All I could do at that moment was to stare at him with my eyes open wide. I was truly lost. Sam could have ended up at Lyonhall instead of me, and it was all my fault! And what were they going to do when they questioned her? A thousand gruesome visions flashed through my head when I tried to imagine all the horrible things that might be happening in the lower levels of their dungeons.
All of the sudden there was a rap at the door and everyone fell silent. Was that supposed to be Foxglove coming to take us all into our cold, empty cells? El looked from one of us to the other, stood up and walked over to the entrance.
The door opened with a soft creak.
“Hey, guys! So I was just walking by and...” As if by the intervention of some strange higher power, the girl from before stood outside, trying to peek over El's shoulder to see us. We hadn't heard of her ever since that first day we met in such a chaotic way and yet there she was in our hour of need, ready to bless us with her presence.
“You know, I just had the brightest idea. I'm gonna put some traps around this place.” The outlaw leader gave her a sharp look but moved out of the way anyway, and Ashley strutted into the kitchen as if she owned the place.
“How are you doing, everyone?”
“We're just having a kind of a situation-” El tried again, only to be rudely ignored.
“This is a nice place!” Ashley plopped down into his vacant chair at the head of the table and threw her legs up on the desk. “What kind of situation?”
“Nothing too important.”
“Foxglove might be after us.”
“What? It's not like she can do anything about it.” Manny crossed his hands on his chest defensively.
“Foxglove is after all of us, that's old news. What's so different about this situation?” the girl smiled, her eyes shining. That's when she noticed me. “And what happened to your nose?”
“It's a long tale.” James glared at her with quiet suspicion, without a doubt ready to jump out of the way at the first sign of any vicious attack from her part. “But since you're already sitting down…”
We didn't share the complete story, of course. Two prisoners escaping from Lyonhall? Foxglove on our tails? She seemed scared enough the first time we met. No reason to make things any worse than they were. So all she got were half-truths and lies, a tactic I was already far too familiar with for my taste.
Ashley sat through the whole thing without a word, paying close attention to every detail. In only a few short minutes, she learned about our problems, about the fact that we weren't exactly welcome in the town, and about the army holding the documents that could be absolutely detrimental to my future and the fate of my close family members. When James had finished, she didn't appear shocked or weirded out by anything and, to our immense surprise simply smiled.
“Alright… look, I like you guys, so what if I told you I might have a way to solve this?” she waited to see she got everyone's attention and then she went on. “What if I told you that there are people in town just like you?”
“You mean hungry?” James offered.
“Desperate?” Elskan chimed in.
“Devilishly handsome?” Will said.
“Who the hell are you?” Mark closed up.
The girl rolled her eyes. “People who don't like the foxes. I'm trying to tell you I might actually know someone able to help you!”
James frowned at the notion with some understandable scepticism. “Who are you talking about?”
“Well... I'm not sure I can tell you. You're going to have to trust me on this one.”
“And I'm not sure we should trust you. The first time we met, you incapacitated me, and just a second ago you came into our semi-secret hideout like nobody cares, with a weirdly convenient offer to lure us out into the town? I don't like that one bit.”
On the one hand, I understood his concerns. It all sounded way too good to be true. On the other, I was really desperate! I refused to give up now that I got a whiff of a simple solution to save myself, however improbable it may have sounded.
“Oh, come on! You scared me way more than I scared you and now when I try to help you despite everything that's happened, you're still trying to push me away? Don't be such a puss.”
The main outlaw of the pack seemed to share our suspicions.
“While I admit you've made me curious, I also have to agree with James. Right now, you are nothing but a huge security risk.”
“I just wanted-”
“I know. Now can you step outside for a second? We have to discuss what to do next.”
Puffing up her cheeks as if taking offence to our, I'd think, understandable disposition, Ashley got up from the table, gave us one last look and left the room to wait outside under the open sky of the glade.
“If she tells it true, she seems to have some powerful friends,” Will pointed out the second she was out of the door.
“She's clearly just a young, broke girl trying to lure you out of this place for her own benefit,” Mark shared his version. “I don't know who she is and how you even met her in the first place, but if she really does have some friends out there, I'd bet they will beat you up and rob you of everything you have. Wouldn't be my first time. Nor the last, I'm willing to bet.”
“I believe most of us would manage to defend ourselves against her if it came to the worst.” Elskan joked, glancing over at James. “Whatever her true intentions may be, the truth is the situation is dire and we don't have a whole lot of ideas as to how to resolve it. Right now the only two options are either to go and knock at the gate of Lyonhall-”
“Which you broke,” Manny said.
“Which we broke, as if it wasn't enough- or to follow her and see if she really does have some miraculous way to help us. Considering we are completely lost, I vote to at least explore the second option and see where it leads.”
I immediately agreed with his decision, of course, and raised a hand to show my support.
“You don't have to do that, Tony.”
“Don't apologise either.”
“And what if Mark's right and somebody decides to jump us the second we walk out of that door? What about Manny and Will?” James was still concerned.
“We don't have to go as a full group, of course. I can come along because I had a whole lot of fun the last time I was in town and I need to go for a visit to the Barrel again, Tony can come because, after all, this is all his own problem and he should do his best to resolve it.“ El pointed a finger at his friend. “And you should come along, because who would be better to stay vigilant and keep us safe from this terrifying young woman than the very one who got the taste of her filthy tactics?”
“I'm not going anywhere.”
“You could arm yourself if it makes you feel safer,” El offered sarcastically. “We still have those two rifles and a handgun we stole from the fortress.”
“Yes. The gun would be nice.”
“Do you even know how to use it?”
“I'll just pop her over the head if she tries anything.”
Having no better lead to go on we did the one exact thing every little child learns to avoid from an early age, and followed a complete stranger out of our safe zone, on the promise of some presumed, imaginary help that might never arrive.
For the first time ever Ashley joined us for the classic ride in the car and down to the edge of the forest. She looked awfully pleased with herself, grinning from ear to ear all the way down to the closest outskirts of the town.
It was a fairly quiet ride and even when we got out to continue the rest of the way on foot, she kept the identity of her mysterious acquaintances quite vague. Whatever strange reasons she might have had for keeping her silence and whoever our saviours were supposed to be, I didn't really care. The only thoughts flying through my head were of my sister. Would Foxglove be able to do something to her, a police officer, if they found out we were related? Being of a private company, the soldiers technically didn't outrank her the way regular armed forces would. Then again, the town did pretty much gave them a free hand in whatever they decided to do, and Foxglove as a whole wasn't exactly famous for bothering with the rules where they didn't have to.
Whatever the reality was, I wasn't about to idly sit around and wait to find out.
Our second big adventure took us a little closer to the centre. The streets out there were much nicer than the ones we had the displeasure of visiting the last time, and with the young woman as our guide, we soon found ourselves standing at the doorstep of a nice little house.
“You live here?”
“This?” she looked at us frowning. “This is way too fancy.”
Nobody came to answer her fearsome knocks at the front door, and it was only when she moved further away to throw a fistful of pebbles at one of the windows that a rattle of locks being opened and bolts being raised announced the coming of an old, wrinkled prune of a man. He wore a flat leather cap over the bald dome of his head and seemed less than pleased to see us.
“What do you want?”
“We're here to play with little Tommy,” Ashley replied cheerfully.
“All four of you?” the old-timer glared at us as if we were some strange bunch of freaks, then quickly leaned out and looked both ways, left and right, down the street before stepping out of the way. “Well, come on, then.”
Properly weirded out by the whole situation, I followed her inside the old man's house, the two outlaws at my back. Nothing seemed to be especially out of the ordinary. Passing through the short main hallway, I noticed yellowed photos of his family, colourfully embroidered quilts, and ancient artwork of the early twentieth century hung up the same way any other small-town pensioner would display them. With every extra step I grew more and more sure we wouldn't be robbed by these people, though whether the frail old man would really be of some use to help us with our problem was dubitable too.
Things got a little more interesting when the hallway bent to reveal a short flight of stairs and we were all herded into a narrow brick passage leading down underneath the house where our guide wished us a happy journey, closed a heavy wooden door to seal us inside and left us in almost complete darkness with nothing but the faint sounds of cars passing over the road above our heads.
In the last beam of light coming in from outside, I had just enough time to notice Ashley bending down above her bag and producing a torch from one of the pockets.
The light flashed on and we found ourselves in an ancient-looking basement. There was not much to look at; some old cupboard full of tinned conserves, a one-wheeled bicycle, a broken barrel…
“Help me move this.” Ashley shone the light on the single, lonely piece of furniture.
With James' help, I pushed the cupboard out of the way, revealing a hole in the wall. The withered bricks seemed to have been knocked out of the room to create some sort of a secret passage.
“After you-” Ashley offered and laughed at her own joke. “Wait! That doesn't actually make any sense. I'm going in first.”
The passage connected the tiny space with another basement, more spacious than the first one. We passed through a wooden door into another one, and then another that was full of junk, and finally down a flight of short steps where a horrible stench threatened to choke us all. In that short period of time we must have crossed half the nearby neighbourhood, hidden from the sight of anyone living above us.
Only a few moments later we emerged in a sewer.
I've never been in any part of the sewers before and I would imagine you can't say you would share this singular experience either. It was like standing in an absolutely enormous tube, just big enough to stand upright. A shallow stream of a non-specific liquid substance ran down the middle and we all made damn sure to stay well away from it. Both ends were fading into darkness after only a few metres, and when Ashley stopped to shine her light into one of them, something splashed in the water and scurried off to hide from us.
“Where are we?” James touched one of the walls.
“Nederstone is a surprisingly old town,” the girl started on a seemingly different topic. “The bloke who built Lyonhall must have been pretty paranoid about something, because next to the fortress, he added a whole ancient underground full of hidden passages and stone tunnels under the hill. The years went by and when people started digging sewers, roads and cellars, everything got all mangled up together. Old Victorian era sewers connect to the tunnels leading out from Lyonhall, the tunnels connect to the modern paths we use for maintenance, and if you live in the right place, those can connect to your basement and to your house.
“It would be a historical site if half of all these passages weren't caved in.”
We took a maintenance door in the side of one of the walls and true to her word, only a few steps lower, the stairs led us into a completely different environment.
The walls were suddenly lined with dark red bricks and wooden beams, and stray roots jutted from the decrepit ceiling. Cobwebs covered our way as we kept moving forward.
Every now and then we came upon a branching path and our lead seemed to stop and think for a second to decide which side to choose. The first few instances were really scary, seeing her seemingly lost and searching for her way this deep down and away from any hope of a phone signal, and it took me a good few minutes before I noticed she was looking for small arrows on the walls made out in white chalk. Once I started looking for them, I could see they were strewn all around, sometimes low, high or completely hidden behind a piece of wood to conceal their existence.
Wherever we were headed, it seemed to be in the right direction.
“Do we really trust her? This is starting to look more and more sketchy with every step.” I heard James whisper behind me.
“What are you afraid of?” Elskan replied carefully. “It's just one girl. Do you think she's doing all of this just to spray you again or what?”
“Don't make fun of that! She's dangerous. The first time I saw her, she blinded me for half an hour!”
“What are you two talking about back there?” Ashley called out, her voice echoing throughout the enclosed space.
“James was just telling me that you got some nice interior.”
“Oh, you've seen nothing yet.”
The old tunnels led us into a half swamped dungeon and that into yet another structure of undeniably modern times. Halfway through we came upon a part that was completely submerged, which seemed to make Ashley visibly distressed, and we had to backtrack and find the correct way all over.
The place was starting to feel a lot like a maze and I couldn't have been the only one who felt uncomfortable at the thought of all the little sideways and dark crevices we passed. If I got lost down there, no one would ever find me.
James started to complain again, muttering something under his breath. This time, however, the problem seemed to be of an entirely different origin.
“It's just empty cobwebs!” Elskan announced loud enough for all of us to hear him. “Don't worry about it.”
“Afraid of spiders, are you?” Ashley couldn't let an opportunity like that pass her by.
“No!” James barked out. “Just... cautious.”
“Sure you are. It's important to be cautious with all the overgrown specimens we've got down here.”
Their quarrel was cut short when we passed the next corner, and something immediately caught our attention.
“What's that now?”
“A door? You must have seen a lot of those in your life. Don't get all excited,” the girl continued her savage assault.
And a door it was. Simple, metallic; a light streamed through and around the hinges and down above the threshold. There was something in the air, too. A slight murmur, the kind you can hear when you see dozens of people all jammed up into one place, talking over each other.
The three of us, dumbfounded and Ashley with her smug little smile, stepped through. I wasn't sure what to expect; the light blinded me for a second, and when I recovered from the shock I found myself in a... room? Room is probably the best word to describe this place.
We appeared to be in some underground complex. Every centimetre of the concrete walls and concrete ceiling were covered with dusty old tubes and pipes while a white electric light illuminated the scene. There were chairs and a table and other furniture that simply seemed to had been pushed to the sides just to make room with no further thought. No two pieces seemed to be alike, as if the arrangement of the place was completely haphazard, thrown together from whatever its inhabitants could find.
And there they were. The people we had heard from outside earlier, at least a dozen of them, all staring at us in surprise. I can't imagine they've got a whole lot of visitors down there.
“Hey, guys!” Ashley greeted them light-heartedly, the way you would a group of your old friends. Some of them muttered something back, some of them nodded in our direction, some of them didn't even seem to acknowledge us at all. “They are here with me. Everything's cool!”
This main room led to another one and that to another and that to a huge corridor that seemed to connect the whole place.
The more rooms we passed, the more people we met. I counted twenty, thirty and finally stopped when I realised that the entire population of Nedestone might as well be gathering down here. Old, young, kids... this wasn't just some tiny refuge for scared homeless townsfolk. In fact, the place was big enough to house its own little village.
This deeper part of the underground was apparently much better equipped than the entrance room we'd passed through on our way here. I saw a kitchen and an adjoining area that must have been an improvised mess hall, one room served as an infirmary, another looked like a public bathroom and in yet another children were playing board games and laughing as if the outside world didn't matter to them. I haven't seen a sight like that in a long time.
I was chuffed to find out I wasn't the only one in awe. My outlaw friends were staring wide-eyed around them, just as I was.
“What is this place? When did we resurface?”
“Yeah. I feel like you owe us some serious exposition.”
“Of course!” Ashley twirled around with a theatrical bow. “First things first don't get confused, because we are still in the sewers. In its deepest part, in fact.” She smiled. “Welcome to the underground where all the hurt, poor and wroth citizens of this town gather to conspire against the extremities that have befallen us. People we trust come here to find free food, shelter for the night, or simply to hide from Foxglove, and we always help them to get back up on their feet, whoever they might be.”
James almost stumbled as a dog ran around him, wagging its tail. “How did you get your hands on this place?”
“I joined this group pretty late in the making, so please excuse anything I might get wrong, but from what I've gathered, these used to be a couple of maintenance rooms or something. These tunnels and corridors used to be dark and completely bare until they made them into a place where everyone can forget about the world above. At least for a little while.”
“That's some impressive progress. A lot better than what we managed to do with our lot.” James nudged his friend's elbow.
“You could sleep under a blanket hanging over a stick. Give me a break…”
As we walked past them, people gave us curious looks. They might have felt a little safer down there than outside, but they still seemed to be careful and wary around strangers. The corridor finally ended in a bigger space I would have never expected to find down there. The ceiling suddenly disappeared above our heads and I could see stairs on either side, leading up and down into upper and lower levels. Straight ahead there was a metal railing, continuing on into a big drop into the darkness where the sound of rushing water could be heard drowning out everything else.
On a wall above this endless abyss was displayed a curious piece of art. A graffiti made in red and blue colours that showed an arrow with outstretched wings on each side, as if just about to take flight.
“You like it?” the girl caught me staring. “I made that one myself. Some kids ruined the wall over the night, so I offered to repaint it and make us a wicked new symbol to spice the place up a little.”
“Yeah, it's nice. Nice.” I cleared my throat.
“Hm... We are here for a reason, aren't we?” Elskan leaned over the railing and stared down into the void. “So let's get to it.” If it hadn't been for him, I might have forgotten our visit down here was far more important than a simple tour through the sewers. The sightseeing part was over.
The rusty metal staircase on our left took us upward, onto the second floor of sorts. The walls seemed to be closer together here, forcing us to shamble in a single file. The feel of the place reminded me of an old bunker or a submarine, though I've never been in either of them, so don't take my word for it.
We stopped in front of another door.
I'm not exactly versed in metal, but the noise coming from the room seemed to be some clear offshoot of it. Ashley turned around and raised her hands to stop us.
“Alright guys, this is Tommy. She's something like a boss around here and if there's anyone able to help you with your situation, it's gotta be her. Now, I know it might be hard for you, but try and act cool around her and-” she pointed at James, “if you can help it, definitely don't jump out of the bushes to scare the living crap out of her or anything!”
“And if everything goes right, you might have your papers resolved faster than you can tape a helpless girl to a chair.” She didn't wait for any answers this time and knocked on the door.
The music stopped.
A few hurried steps and the flick of the handle and I was staring face to face with the one person who seemed to be powerful enough to rescue me from my peril.
“Oh, hey Ash-” she stopped and her tone changed as soon as she noticed us. “Can I help you with anything?” Tommy turned out to be a tall young woman, with bright blue eyes and dark, shiny hair that fell to her shoulders. A single piercing gleamed above her left eye.
“Hey. Don't worry, they are my friends,” the girl gestured to us. “They have this teeny tiny problem with Foxglove and I thought maybe we could be able to help them...”
The woman frowned. “Depends on the problem.”
I got a taste of her iron grip as she shook hands with each of us in turn before stepping away to let us into her office.
It was a small grey cube of a room originally used for maintenance purposes as I guessed, just like everything else down here. Low ceilinged and positively claustrophobic, with pipes and valves going up and down the walls and a plain wooden table and a couple of chairs in one corner. Probably the greatest luxury they could have afforded to get.
“You can sit down if you want to.” Tommy bobbed her head towards the table. “Every new enemies of the army are welcome, as well as anyone who isn't shy to ask for help.”
“That's good to hear.” El and James took the only two seats, and I was left standing behind them, with Ashley by the door. “I feel like I gotta ask though... is this supposed to be like some sort of your typical homeguard resistance or something? What's going on here?”
Tommy smiled. “You can call it whatever you want. Personally, I like to think of us as a kind of a necessary wartime charity. Concerned townsfolk, trying to fix whatever wrongs this new age has done to our town.”
“Sounds like an honourable service.” James was still looking around.
“A thankless one would be more accurate. Then again, no charitable work is, I suppose.”
After this brief introduction, an uncomfortable silence took place, filled only by the sound of the woman's fingers rapping on the table. Then at last she spoke.
“Most people come to us because they need food.”
“We haven't come with exactly full bellies, but that's not our primary concern,” Elskan took the hint. “What we need from you are papers.”
“If it is alright to bother you about it,” James added.
“I'm sure there's plenty of paper anywhere you would look.”
“The matter is a little more delicate than just a search for artistic supplies. I'm not sure your... band of brothers will be-”
“The Rebels,” Ashley cut him off.
“The Rebels. That's what we like to call ourselves.” She seemed like she wasn't being funny about it.
“That's... awfully original.”
Tommy grinned. “It's easy to remember. And I can assure you, whatever it is you're looking for, as long as there's a proper way to even out the debt, we can do it for you.”
While her last statement bothered me more than I dared to confess at the moment, James was clearly fascinated by the existence of this whole secret society, an almost complete one-eighty from the sceptical nonbeliever he appeared to be in the morning.
“Who would have thought there was a whole rebellion right under the army's noses? Literally.”
“I'm glad you're impressed.”
With that, the leader of the Rebels looked past us to address the girl by the door.
“Ash, could you bring us something to drink?”
As soon as Ashley left, Tommy leaned over the table as if she wanted to be more secretive.
“So... Ashley's friends, right? How come I've never heard of you people before? Are you relatives?”
El glanced around at the both of us before coming up with an answer. “Honestly? The first time we met her, we thought she was from Foxglove and we taped her to a chair.”
“She doesn't seem to be affected by that at all.”
“Yeah, she's a little weird.”
With a small amused smile playing on her lips, Tommy cut straight to the chase.
“And now that she's gone... what problem is it you have?”
Whatever we were about to say, we had to be extremely careful now. I took the word, not trusting the outlaws to say anything. After all, this was my own problem.
“If someone happened to lose their papers, like personal documents and such, and if those now happened to be in the possession of Foxglove... Ashley said you might be able to help us get them back.”
It wasn't until now that I said the words out loud when I realised how mental it all sounded. Foxglove was a gigantic, terrifying organisation. An immovable force. What were we even doing down here, trying to stand against them?
“Documents?” the Rebel tapped her fingers on the table once more. There was a moment of suspense as she stared at me, thinking. “Sure. We could do that.”
“You could?” I gasped.
“Of course. The question is whether we would.”
It was at this moment that we realised the woman sitting in front of us was more cunning than we'd originally expected.
“Don't take this the wrong way,” Tommy raised her arms in defence, “I really do want to help you, but let's not beat about the bush. Usually people come here when they run out of food, or when they need to hide because the army took their home, or when their old parents need some medicine. Anyone can see you're in a much more complicated situation. Does Foxglove have your papers? I have a way to solve that. I do. I'm not gonna ask you what you did or how did you got into this situation but a service like this one requires a proper counter service. Don't we all agree?”
“I see...” Elskan leaned closer. “And what would be the appropriate counter service for something like this?”
“Any way you can contribute would be nice. There are only a few ways for us to acquire finances and most of what we have we give away. You can imagine it's not easy to keep an organisation like this afloat.”
“We're not exactly flush with coin either.”
“Right... then some spare clothes, maybe? Or something different? There's always the option of simply helping out with the chores. Experience counts too. Maybe one of you knows something that could help us.”
“We do have a doctor!” James blurted out.
“Well, then,” Tommy's eyes lit up. “You could have started with that.”
The prospect of offering the drunken clown currently residing in our camp to pay for the impossible task we needed to accomplish was quite brilliant. We could have killed two birds with one stone, as gruesome as the saying goes. Have our cake and eat it too. Although…
“Can I have a word with you?” I turned to Elskan.
James looked a little hurt we didn't decide to include him in our plotting behind the closed door, but stayed put to carry on in the small talk.
“So what's the problem, Tony?”
“We can't give them Mark!”
“What?” he lowered his voice and smiled politely as one of the Rebels passed by us through the narrow passage. “Isn't that what we've been trying to do for the past week or so? And this is a great opportunity.”
“We took him in to help us, but he can barely pass for a proper doctor. He can barely stand.”
“And what does it matter? He's proved to be useful so far.”
“He's helped James get the pepper spray out of his eyes and he's told you not to eat some weird eggs we found in the woods. None of these things has anything to do with his profession and other than that he's done anything else but sit in his room and drink for days on end. Do you think he can help these people in his current state?”
“Look, Tony,” El began patiently, “these Rebels seem like they have some real resources. They have money and they have food and have you seen this place?”
“The place is pretty wicked,” I had to admit.
“Yeah… and I'm not even mentioning their obvious capability to help us with this annoying Foxglove problem. So I say let's strengthen our relations with them as much as we can for now and we'll see what happens.”
“I don't know…”
“You might have the point in offering them a drunkard in place of a promised able medic might not be the best start of our partnership, though.” He shook his head, thinking. “Alright, let's head back inside.”
The door opened once more.
“We discussed my previous offer and apparently-” El glanced in my direction. “At the moment the doctor is not... ready to do his best.”
“So you won't lend him to us? Why even bring him up then?”
“I can't spare him at the moment. We could come to some arrangement in the future, though.”
“In the future?” Tommy frowned at the notion. “I'm not a fan of empty promises.”
She looked down at her table, thinking, and in the silent pause, I began to doubt my decision. Maybe I should have allowed Elskan's lie.
“Then it seems like we have only one last option,” the Rebel finally looked up. “And now that I think of it, this might be even more favourable for both sides.”
She left us hanging for a second and steepled her fingers together.
“I've told you before, there are certain chores that need to be taken care of. Normally we have our own people to do it, but the more we grow, the more problems we tend to have, and some additional help never hurts-”
She didn't get halfway through her monologue before Elskan sprang up from his chair.
“Respectfully, we don't want anything to do with your... personal war against Foxglove or whatever is this supposed to be.”
“Calling it a war might be just a little bit too generous. I'm not entirely sure what exactly Ashley told you we do down here, but the most exciting thing of our week tends to be giving away clothes to homeless people. Despite our name, we're not planning any sort of overblown rebellion or anything. We are hiding.”
“Giving away clothes doesn't sound so bad,” James allowed, trying to calm his friend down.
“Good… as I mentioned before, most folk who come here agree to exchange our services for some kind of minor help to our cause. That can range from running around and doing our errands to helping clean in the kitchen… And if you try it out and won't mind what we do here, there's always the option of prolonged cooperation. We have plenty of food to give out, more or less fresh clothes and we always manage to find something extra for the people we like. That might be one more thing that could persuade you if you're still reluctant to agree.”
To our immense surprise, Ashley was more than correct in her assumptions. Not only was this woman willing to help us with my personal problem, but she also offered us long-term food and supplies, which was exactly what we needed at the moment. And not to forget the awesome fact that we finally had an option to eventually get rid of our unwanted guest.
“So we'll be taking sidequests,” Elskan glared at her. “You basically want to give us sidequests. Is that what it is?”
“If that's what you want to call it.”
The two outlaws exchanged a curious look…
By the time Ashley came back with a simple tray of lemon water, my two companions and the Rebel were already reluctantly shaking hands.
“I can feel this is a start of a very convenient relationship,” James smiled. “For both sides.”
That day, deep down beneath the busy streets of Nederstone we sealed what seemed to be a deal of our lifetimes. The only slight complication occurred when the Rebel pulled out her phone to make some last minute notes.
“So that will be one set of papers nicked from under Foxglove's noses… and where do you want these delivered?” she paused with a finger hovering above the screen.
The outlaws froze, and for half a heartbeat I could see the two men exchange a nervous glance. Then James blurted out:
“Yes! Ashley,” Elskan jumped in. “She knows where to find us.”
Tommy looked over to the door to see the girl's reaction. She just shrugged.
“Very well then.”
“A- and can I have one last question?” The request came from James. “Do you guys have anyone who can actually cut hair? Like, without all the weird edges and angles… Someone who can actually make it look normal?”
“We do,” the Rebel smiled to the satisfaction of our entire group.
“Well, if we needed any more leverage to persuade us, I think the simple fact we won't have to get our hair done by Manny is more than enough.”
He moved out of the way as Elskan moved past him.
“And I have one last, last question too, if you don't mind. This one is more of a technical matter. How exactly do you plan to recover these papers? To boast you're able to do it is great. Being assured is nicer. You will have to break into a literal fortress full of soldiers, so just… how?”
“We have our ways.” Tommy gave us one last confident look before we were ushered out of her office. “And our people at Lyonhall, if you must know.”
“So…” I found myself standing face to face with the girl we'd almost kidnapped only a few days back. “What do you think?”
“That went pretty well.”
“Unless we just signed a deal with the devil.” El shrugged, though I could see excitement in his eyes too.
“Yeah... We'll see about that.”
I tried my best to ignore the outlaws' morose ramblings. It surely couldn't be that bad.
We'd made some new friends today!
And as we walked back to the exit, surrounded by dozens and dozens of people rallied to the cause of saving this wretched town, I'm not sure what changed, but the army didn't seem so scary anymore.ns22.214.171.124da2