It was evening and the light had started to fade by the time we returned to the shed. Captain Grayson was sitting on the edge of his desk with a stack of grey blankets next to him.
“Welcome back,” he said. “I see you’ve been…” His voiced trailed off as he saw the rabbit and he pulled a strange face I couldn’t quite place. “Here, you’ll need these. It gets a little chilly at night.”
He handed each of us a blanket. They weren’t very big, about the size of a towel—more shawl, than cloak—made of a scratchy, wiry material. We happily took them from him.
“Do you have anything we can use to carry water?” I asked him.
He raised an eyebrow at me and then jumped off the desk. He walked over to a wall that had a large cloth hanging over it, which turned out to be curtains. He parted them enough to reach in and pulled out another box. This one had a bunch of water skins in it.
I felt a bit irked that he hadn’t told us about them before, but it seemed like it was kind of a test to only give us certain things when we asked for them. It made me realise we should have been asking a lot more questions. I tried to think of what else we might need and came up with a complete blank.
There were a couple of soldiers waiting by the exit to the courtyard with a bucket of stew. They slopped out a ladleful into a metal dish and handed it to us as we walked out. It looked like the same stuff we had for lunch, but at least we could add some rabbit to it now.
Two of the other groups had already returned and set up for the night. On the right, the cool kids had a decent-sized fire going, and they had what looked like chickens roasting on a spit.
On the left side, Golden Boy and company had gone one better. They had a whole pig over a roaring inferno. Their fire was huge, and the pig, some kind of boar judging by the tusks, was already a golden brown.
Members of both groups had water skins at their feet or hanging from belts, most of them bigger and in better condition than the ones we got. Apparently they were a lot quicker on the uptake than us.
We headed over to the remains of our fire. It looked piddly by comparison to theirs, but it had been a trial run. We needed to build something that would last us all night. Only there was a slight problem.
There had been a load of firewood piled up against one of the walls that ran around the courtyard. Lots of smaller twigs and branches, and some bigger logs. Obviously the others had used some already. There was still quite a few of the smaller bits of wood, but all the logs had gone. It was pretty obvious where.
“Oh ah, it’ll be alright,” said Flossie, smiling anxiously. “We can still use these small ones to get a fire going. Be nice and cozy in no time.”
True, but for how long? We needed those bigger logs if we wanted to have a fire that lasted more than a couple of hours. I was already annoyed by Grayson’s sneakiness, now this fuckwittery—I wasn’t having it.
I marched over to Golden Boy, leaving the rest of my party to stand and watch from a distance, of course. Had I stopped to think about what I was doing, I wouldn’t have done it. Probably would have had a panic attack just at the idea of confronting them. Fortunately, I wasn’t thinking at all.
“Hey, why did you take all the larger bits of wood? There’s none left now.” I sounded whiney and like a little bitch, but there was nothing I could do about it now. I was all in.
“Hey, hey, hey,” said the big black dude, putting his hands on his hips and ‘inadvertently’ flexing the huge muscles in his arms. “Easy bruv. We just took what we needed. Plenty left over there.”
“Yeah, thanks for leaving us the twigs. I don’t know if you understand how weather works, but it gets colder at night. If you want a fire that lasts, you need those larger logs to form a base. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
My little speech designed to imply he must be stupid did its job. His smile dropped and he ran his tongue over his lips.
“You want to watch your mouth, mate. No need to be uncivil.”
When a big guy starts talking about good manners, you know he’s lining up a punch aimed at your face. But I was in a strange world, trapped with the Noob Squad, facing imminent death by ogres of one kind or another. I was too pissed off to backdown.
“Really? You think taking more than your fair share and leaving others to freeze is civil behaviour? Take what you want and the hell with everyone else, that’s your idea of being a decent human being? Your mum would be proud of you, would she?” I threw in the mother thing because all the black guys I’ve ever known held their mothers in high regard. To a ridiculous degree in some cases. Racist stereotype? Possibly, but when you’re up against a guy who can crush your skull with his bare hands, you don’t really have time to consider all the politically correct ramifications.
“Guys, come on, calm down.” Golden Boy had decided to take charge of the situation. “We only took a little extra because there’s more of us.”
“There’s six of you, and five of us. That’s one more person, out of twenty. Does it look like you took an extra one-twentieth?” I pointed at the bonfire of the vanities raging behind him.
“Okay,” said Golden Boy, “maybe we overdid it, but we didn’t mean any harm. We aren’t trying to deprive you guys. You’re all welcome to come over here and share the fire with us. How about it?”
He looked past me at the rest of my group over by our area. His smile was big and magnanimous and it made me want to puke. I could sense the others walking over towards us. I’d look pretty silly if they all agreed to share the fire and only I held out. A compromise would probably be the best thing. If you think that’s what I went with, you obviously don’t know me at all.
“How about it? How about fuck you? You did a shitty thing and now you’ve been called on it, instead of giving back what you stole, you’re trying to wheedle out a way so you keep what you took.”
“Jesus,” said the black guy, sounding like he was right on the edge. “We invited you to join us, what more do you want?”
“Yeah, an invitation to join a bunch of thieving arseholes. No thanks.” The others were now standing behind me. I was just waiting for one of them to suggest we agree to share, so I could tell them they could go fuck themselves too. But they didn’t say anything. Whether because they were backing me up, or just too nervous to speak, it’s hard to say.
“You know,” said the black guy, “I’ve had just about enough of you.” He moved his hand along his waist.
I noticed their weapons for the first time. The black guy had an axe. Only a small one, a hatchet I guess, but it looked like it could do some serious damage. Golden Boy had a sword. Yes, a real sword. I don’t think he got it from the handouts earlier, so he must have found it or bought it.
“Easy, Dag,” said Golden Boy. “No need for that.”
“Come on, Tin, he’s asking for it.”
“Dag and Tin?” said Maurice. “What are you two supposed to be, Teletubbies?”
I started sniggering. I couldn’t help it. Not at Maurice’s terrible attempt at a cutting slam, but at the way it totally killed the conversation. Everyone just stared at him.
I patted him on the shoulder. “Nice try, man.”
He shook his head, looking more upset about the premature death of his stand-up comedy career than the life-threatening beating we were on the verge of receiving.
“Tough crowd,” he muttered under his breath.
Maurice’s intervention did have one good side-effect. It lifted the red mist and made me realise you don’t beat arseholes by acting like one.
“Look,” I said, “once we get out of this place, you can do what you want. Kill us all in a fair fight if you want. You with your swords and axes, us with our sticks and stones. I’m sure the girls will all be very impressed.”
The three girls in their party, including Jenny, had been watching silently. I decided to include them because a guy will act differently when he’s in front of girls. He wants them to believe he’s cool and brave and whatever other bullshit he thinks will get him laid.
“But while we’re in here,” I continued, “it would be nice if you let us do what we want instead of stealing our options. We want to build our own fire, our own way. Do you think you could stop cockblocking us?”
“Fine,” said Golden Boy, whose name was Tin (short for Justin?). “Help yourself.” He stepped aside.
The heat from the fire made your face melt if you looked at it too long. The flames crackled and popped, and the centre glowed crimson like a warning light. Getting the burning logs out of that seemed like a fool’s errand. The job I was born for.
I raised my stick, letting them see its barbed end for a moment (I enjoyed seeing their eyes widen as they realised I wasn’t quite so defenseless as they’d thought) before smacking it into the fire. I felt the nails dig into wood and pulled.
A large log, bathed in flames, came skidding out. At the same time, the rest of the fire collapsed. Logs rolled out, the roasting pig fell, burning twigs went flying. Everyone jumped back, squealing and swearing as they tried to avoid getting hit by red-hot embers.
I ignored the protests and hooked out some more logs.
“For fuck’s sake! Look what you’ve done, bruv.” Dag sounded extremely hacked off. “It’s ruined!”
The pig was lying in the dirt, a couple of burning branches on top searing the flesh.
“What? He told me to help myself. If you want to blame someone—” I pointed at Tin “—blame him for being a cocky wanker. Anyway, the pig looks fine. Just think of it as barbecue.”
I kicked the log nearest me so it rolled over to our area. The others followed my lead and kicked and poked the still-burning wood away from the murderous looks aimed our way.
Author's Note: This is the second chapter today, don't miss out the one before! That's it for today, two more chapters tomorrow. Also, please let me know if you spot any typos. Cheers.