I crouch hidden by shadow in the branches, holding a dart, waiting for the perfect moment.
That moment never comes. My target sees me. He ducks, and lunges, and I am on the ground, the dart knocked out of my hand. He carefully examines my weapon. “Poisoned,” he says in disgust.
He calls two other men over. They bind my hands and feet, and my life is over.
They don’t kill me. They don’t give me that mercy. I would have killed them, quietly, with a minimum of suffering, not dragged them away from their homes and their lives and their freedom, as they now do to me.
I know what happens to those who are caught by their enemies. I would have jabbed the dart’s tip into my own hand, if I had the chance. But my last resort is gone, and they march me on, every step taking me away from my home.
They march me along, through the jungle I grew up in, past the beautiful palace of our queen, over roads leading to the homes of my friends. I will never see any of these places again.
We are a peaceful people. We kill to eat, and we kill in self-defense. Once, we rarely needed to. Now nearly every intruder onto our lands is raider, there to kill and enslave us. We fight to stay alive, and free, under the onslaught. Or perhaps I should say they fight, now. I have lost.
No. I won’t give up yet.
They march me though the jungle for five days. Then the trees begin to thin, and a little after noon on the fifth day, we emerge onto the plains.
The brightness blinds me. I’ve lived all my life under the shade of trees, but here the sun reflects off every blade of golden-brown grass. The sea of shining grass would be beautiful, in a way, if I had chosen to come here. And if the plain was not covered by a small army of raiders, camped, for now, but clearly heading into the jungle.
My captors shove me into a tent. Another man is standing there, looking at me. Like the landscape, he would be handsome if I did not hate him. “We got another one,” one of my captors told him.
“I can see that,” he says coldly. “Leave her with me.”
They hand him my chains and leave. I’m terrified. I try not to let him see my fear.
“What’s your name?” he asks me.
I try to stare him down. “I won’t tell you.”
He shrugs, as if my answer makes no difference, and waits. Once we surrounded by silence, he says softly, “Do not despair.”
I glare at him. “And why not?”
“We’re going to stop them.”
I don’t understand. He’s one of them, isn’t he? Not just one of them, but one of them in a position of some authority. But who else could he mean, besides his army of raiders? And by we, does he mean to include me? I look at him carefully, but nothing about him gives anything away.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“My name is Arthend. I am an officer in this army of what you call raiders.” He smiles, and lowers his voice. “I also call them raiders, if only in my thoughts. There were once people who lived on this plain, did you know that? I was one of them. I was captured. Some of us were allowed to join them, rather than be sold. I pretend loyalty and bide my time.”
“At first I was no one, there was nothing I could do against them. I did my best to rise as high as I could, but though these men follow me, they are not on my side. I have no one to lead, and I can’t take down the entire army by myself. They are a small army, true, but I would still be outnumbered a hundred to one.”
“What are you asking?”
“The raiders would not follow me, to destroy themselves. But they take captives, as you well know.”
“Clearly,” I say, my voice acidic.
“I ordered that a captive be brought to me. The men who brought you made the usual assumptions, of course. When I call them back, they will put you with the others.” He looked at me to see if I understood, or if he had to spell out what he wanted.
“And… I tell them what you told me, and we revolt?”
“Yes. You will be kept in a pen. I will see that the gate is not properly locked. In the middle of the night, you will break free and attack them in their sleep. There are weapons, in the large white tent. There are as many captives as there are raiders, and they have far more reason to fight.”
“What if I refuse?”
“Why would you refuse?” He sounds as though the possibility that I would not agree had never occurred to him.
“Maybe I don’t like being used.”
“All the more reason to fight, then. What do you think your life would be, as a slave?”
“Don’t worry, I have no thoughts of refusing. I was just wondering, is all.” A thought strikes me. “What if everyone else refuses?”
“You’ll just have to convince them—I’m sorry, you never did tell me your name.”
I hesitate. “Jai.”
Arthend calls back the men who captured me, and they bring me to a pen crowded with my people. I don’t recognize anyone, but they are still my people. They are sitting, and standing, and some even lying on the ground, and all are despairing.
I don’t know how to rally them. I’ve never been any kind of leader, I can’t just say a few words and start a rebellion.
But if I don’t I’ll never see my home again.
I turn to a woman leaning against the gate. “We’re going to escape, and fight them,” I say, with every shred of confidence I’ve ever had. She laughs. I tell her of Arthend, and his plan, and she shakes her head in hopelessness.
I go from person to person, saying the same things. Most are no more receptive than the first woman. Some agree to join me, though. A boy who can’t be more than half my age says that he’ll help fight. A woman nursing a baby says she’ll do anything for her baby’s freedom. I ask them to help spread the word, and more people agree, and soon people I haven’t spoken to begin to come up and volunteer. And by nightfall, even those who’d laughed say they’ve considered the idea, and even if there’s no chance of success, well, there’s no chance anyway.
We wait until the hour is so late as to be near to morning. I try the lock, and sure enough, the gate opens. We creep into the tent of weapons and takes swords and knives and bows and bludgeons. We creep into the other tents, and use them.
The raiders fight back, of course, and some of us die. But all of them do.
All of them save one, who is not really one of them.
When the fighting is over, the tents full of corpses, the plains full of former captives heading back towards the jungle, I search for Arthend.
“Thank you,” he says, when I find him.
“I’m free, that’s more than thanks enough.”
He nods. “Are you going home now?”
“Yes. What about you?”
Arthend shrugs. “My people are long dead, and this is no home anymore.”
“Come back with us. With me.”
“I… they’ll see me as an enemy.”
“No they won’t. I’ll make sure they don’t.”
He considers for a long time, and agrees.