Bridget's Days Ch. 04bypatricia51©
(The West Coast of Africa, 1684)
I frantically dug into the soft floor of the jungle, one eye fixed on the growing light appearing in the Eastern sky. My hands scooped dirt, rotted vegetation, fallen branches and anything else they encountered, flinging it in a pile beside the shallow trench I knelt in. The triple canopy overhead was thick enough to filter most of the day's sunlight. I just prayed it would filter enough.
I was out of time. I took the woven mat of branches and leaves I had constructed and placed it over the trench I had dug. I covered it as much as possible with the dirt I had dug from the hole. Then I wiggled into the trench and pulled the mat up over my head and grimly settled down to wait. Come nightfall I would continue the pursuit I was engaged in, or I would be a pile of ashes.
As I waited for whichever outcome would take place, I shook my head ruefully. The moment I relax always seems the moment I end up falling deep into shit.
Just weeks before things had seemed perfect. I had been returning from an extended trip to the Orient following my hasty departure from Budapest. "Extended" fits well, since it had been about 60 years. Because I had traveled overland on my way there, I had decided to return by boat, on several of the numerous Arab ships that plied their way all the way from China back to the Middle-East. I had not had trouble even with exposure. It was considered natural for a female to remain below decks in her cabin, and since we stopped quite frequently I had been able to slip ashore to obtain food. No point in panicking the crew when you're out at sea.
After reaching Alexandria I had decided to skirt the coast of Africa, rather than attempt to pass through Southern Europe, since that whole area was in upheaval, again. I was contemplating trying to reach France and Paris from the Atlantic side when once again my luck ran thin. The crew of the last small boat I had charted decided that they would keep the cargo, mostly consisting of what I had brought back from the Far East. Having me to sell on the coast of Africa as a slave was merely a bonus. So when we passed what would be called the Straits Of Gibraltar they simply locked me in and sailed south.
Someone might ask why I didn't just break out. Well, two reasons. First, because of where I was in the hold I wasn't sure when it was day or night. Second, they had placed a timber across the door that even I couldn't break. So I waited. Besides, its not as if I HAD to get to France. Africa might be interesting too. When you're immortal you go where you're blown sometimes. I was getting tired of getting just a little water and bread through a small hatchway though.
Finally I heard the anchor fall one evening. I knew it was evening because I heard the crew discussing the "night's feast" they were about to go to. So when the hatch was opened later I pulled the man through and fed from him. He had given one squawk before becoming a late night snack for me. When another man came running to see what was wrong I had two for dinner. With the strength that gave me I was able to break the hatch cover and finish off the other three crew members.
Once that was accomplished and the bodies had been all tied to a heavy piece of chain and dumped overboard I decided to go ashore. I was wearing an open shirt and trousers and added a pair of boots. There were a couple of muskets on board but I decided to stick with the katana I had brought back from the Orient. After all, a sword never jams, doesn't take two minutes to reload and works just fine when its wet.
I sculled a small dingy ashore, happy that the oar arrangement allowed me to face where I was going. Something about approaching an unknown place with my back turned seems to make me grumpy. The shore was lined with dark skinned people, outlined in the glow of fire built on the beach. They looked friendly enough, given that every male was holding a weapon of some kind. They weren't pointed at me though, which is always a comforting sign. Instead everyone was waving. As the boat touched land eager hands pulled it on to the sand.
I hopped out, my hands carefully held to the side. I had never met any African people before, so my mind was filled with nothing but fifth-hand comments and rumors. Contrary to so much that I had heard, they simply looked like people. But then I had heard silly rumors about the peoples of the Far East until I got there.
All the men, and some of the women, were armed. However no arrows were fixed to the strings of the bows and I noted the spears seemed to be held in the left hands and were not presented in a threatening manner. Since both spears and arrows were wooden shafted I was glad of that. Its funny how as weapons became more sophisticated they also became less dangerous to my kind.
My eyes fixed on the tall man standing in the center of the gathering. He carried himself with pride. Alone among the others, he held a shinning steel axe. His broad forehead was topped by a magnificent headdress which included bright feathers of unusual size. Centuries later, I still wondered how the peoples of that village had come to possess ostrich feathers.
I stood on the sand in front of all of them, waiting for whatever was going to happen. The powerfully built man in the lead stepped forward and indicated himself. "T'shombe," he announced with a ringing voice.
"Bridget," I replied, touching myself on the chest. He turned and walked towards the village proper and the fire in its center. I could smell roasting meat. With a gesture he indicated I should follow him. I did and the rest of the villagers fell in behind me. I sensed no threat from them.
T'shombe laid his weapon against a frame by the central hut. Instinctively I doffed the baldric supporting my katana and leaned it beside the axe. From the nod and grunts of approval around me I knew I had done the right thing. Peace had been offered and peace had been accepted.
T'shombe and I and a young warrior I took to be his son sat on a bench that appeared to be the only place other than the sand to rest. The three of us strove to talk. We discovered that we shared a number of Arabic words and managed to make ourselves understood to each other in a broken version of that tongue. I learned that Arabic traders often stopped here. They had thought the boat was another of those itinerants and were surprised to discover a woman, especially one alone.
As we conversed, the party apparently already planned had got underway. Food and drink were served all around. The home brewed wine was quite good, and quite powerful. I made the offer of a cask of red wine I had found on the sloop and eager hands used my skiff to fetch it. Then we all sat down to a good old fashioned feast.
Songs that I could not understand were sung and the villagers all enjoyed themselves, as did I. From my conversations with T'shombe and his son I gathered that the village had been here for as long as anyone knew. The people were a mixture of farmers and fishermen. There was only one other village anywhere nearby, farther up the river. They had peaceable relations with those others, although a word that I didn't understand was used in reference to them, or possibly to certain members of the other tribe. When the word was used, the people shivered slightly.
They had seen a number of Arabs and Arab traders but they had never met a European before. My red hair and pale skin fascinated them. Even more so, T'shombe himself seemed taken with my green eyes and spent quite some time starring into them.
For my own part, I found the entire village charming and the people both friendly and attractive. T'shombe himself, although not classically handsome, was muscular and I thought quite good looking. Never having been one to deny myself a new experience, I was rather attracted to him, as I certainly could tell he was to me.
I would never know what would have happened next. Suddenly the night was shattered by war-cries and screams and a large party of unfamiliar men flooded the village. They must have been lurking in the jungle for some time, waiting for the village's guard to be lowered, as it had been for the feast.
The fight was a blur. I saw T'shombe seize his axe and try to rally the warriors but they were caught unaware and half-drunk. A pile of invaders swarmed over him. I screamed in anger and launched myself into them, hoping that if I could get him clear we could at least get some of the women and children to safety.
There were too many for even me to deal with. I was just about drunk myself and my speed and coordination were affected. I broke one's neck and tore the jugular out of another with my fangs. My vampire instincts overcame me for once and I stopped to drink his blood. That was when a vicious blow caught my head and I fell senseless.
My vampiric constitution brought me back to consciouscness after probably no more than three or four hours. I searched the village, finding only dead bodies among the half-burned ruins. I was thankful the flames had not spread to where I had been. I dug through a pile of bodies to where I had last seen T'shombe. He was dead of course. I wanted to take time to bury him decently but I couldn't. I had too much to do.
From the number of missing villagers, most everyone had been taken away. I had found the tracks of many people walking in a line, suggesting they had been tied or chained together. I realized this had not been a surprise battle between warring peoples. This had been a slaving expedition, pure and simple.
I don't like slaving. You don't own people, often enough though I have seen it over the years. I had been received in friendship by the village here. I thought of the children and of the men and women who had treated me kindly. I was pissed. Most of the legends are true on that fact. Don't piss off the vampire.
I found enough torn cloth to wrap around my midsection. I was glad they had left my soft boots on my feet. From the condition of the rest of my clothing and what I could feel on and in my body, the raiders hadn't cared that I was apparently dead. I really don't like being raped. It upsets me. And I was already upset enough that I didn't plan on taking anyone alive. At least for long.
I debated going out to the boat. From a quick look it appeared that she had not been touched. I could retrieve better clothing and one of my spare swords from her, since the raiders had carried off my favorite. But time was a'wasting. What if my new friends were only being carried off a short distance to an already waiting ship? I started in pursuit, running down the easily marked trail until I had to stop for the sun.
All day long I waited inside my make-shift shelter. Twice I was burned by stray sunbeams that penetrated chinks in my coverings. The canopy above diffused the sunlight but what reached me was enough to cause me great discomfort. My skin tightened until every slight movement was agony. I trembled, gasping for air that I didn't need. The only thing that kept me from bursting from my shelter was the knowledge that I wouldn't get 10 steps before I was reduced to a pile of ashes. And that might be only the beginning. I really don't want to go to Hell.
Finally, after what seemed like eons, I dimly realized the sun was going down. Exercising all the patience I could, I managed to wait until I was sure darkness had overtaken the jungle. Pushing my coverings aside, I knelt at the edge of what had come close to being my grave until I was able to regain control of myself and stand up.
I still hurt all over. Only one thing was going to help me now. I half-staggered to the trail at the far end of the clearing. I could still smell blood, mingled with the aroma of fear and pain. I started after the slavers, moving slowly at first until my body loosened. Then I was running, accepting the occasional fall as the price I had to pay for speed.
The aches and the pains paid off. I saw a flickering light through the jungle long before I actually came on the slavers. I slowed and then left the trail, moving as silently as I could through the jungle, letting my ability to smell blood keep me oriented. I crouched where I could see the entire encampment.
"Yes!" I thought exhaultantly. I recognized the faces of my new friends, including T'shombe's son. I also noted there were other, unfamiliar people locked in the slavers' chains. Not that I could possibly know everyone from the village, but mingled with them were a number of slender, shorter blacks. My guess was that the raiding party had hit the other village first.
I crept closer. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I was determined to do something. Fortunately it seemed a lot of the raiders were missing, probably gone ahead to wherever the rendezvous was set up with the Arabs or Europeans the prisoners were to be sold to. Still, there were too many guards for even me to handle.
Then the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I turned, just my head, and got one of the biggest shocks of my undead life. Crouched almost directly behind me was a huge, black panther. Its yellow eyes bored into me and its teeth were bared.
All I could think of was to demonstrate that I might not be as easy to eat as I appeared. My eyes glowed and I matched the panther's teeth with my fangs.
The panther never budged. However, her, and somehow I knew it was a "her", mouth closed and the hunting light in her eyes was replaced by a look that almost seemed questioning. In response, I let my face return to its human form. She slipped closer, her eyes fixed on the chained people. I thought for a moment I saw sorrow in those eyes and then determination. The intelligence in them was staggering. I knew I was side-by-side with no ordinary animal.
Moved by an impulse, I pointed to the guard to our right. I indicated myself and swept my hand in an arc in that direction. I pointed at her and then at the other side of the encampment. The great head dipped and with barely a rustle she was gone. Now I had an ally, whatever and whomever she was.
It seemed to take no time at all to get behind the guard. He was leaning against a tree, a musket propped beside him. He never sensed me rise up behind him. Then my hand was around his mouth and my fangs were in his neck. I carefully laid his body down. As I did, I heard a faint rustle only my ears could have picked up. Looking to my left, I saw only quivering bushes where a guard had been moments before.
I felt better. The blood I had drained from the slaver was already knitting my injuries. The next man I took helped even more. Now I was strong again, and one of a pair of silent killers slipping through the jungle.
The two of us had almost eliminated the entire circle of sentries when finally someone noticed. A hawk-faced man came out of a tent in the middle of the camp. His eyes swept the perimeter and his face filled with alarm. He shouted something and ducked back inside the tent. As the remaining slavers rose from where they were sleeping, he reemerged, fastening a bright sash around himself that supported two pistols and a sword. MY sword.
Knowing the time for stealth was past, I burst from the trees. At the same time the panther, her jaws bloody, bounded from the site of her last kill. She scattered the dazed men, sending them scattering in fear. I heard the hawk-faced man I took to be the leader screaming and then he fired one pistol. The heavy ball took the panther in the leg, crumpling her to the ground. He ran towards her, drawing my katana and raising it over his head for a stroke.
The stroke never fell because I had caught him before he could strike. I spun him around, having recognized his scent as matching that of some of the semen left on my body. In full vampire fury and appearance, I tore my sword from his hand. Before he do anything more than start to scream, his head bounced along the ground.
You would have thought those slavers had never seen a vampire with a sword before, or a killer jungle creature as her partner. They scattered to the winds, running in all directions. I took a ring of keys from the body in front of me and began to unlock the chains holding the villagers. I freed the first of the unfamiliar people from the shackles and they darted past me. I almost had everyone unchained when I remembered to look for the panther. There was no sight of her, although a number of the other villagers were over where I had last seen her. I shrugged. Wouldn't be the first time something happened I couldn't explain.
T'shombe's son, who's name, T'shombu, I finally managed to get straight hugged me and then began to organize the villagers. He had the help of a slender woman whom I did not recognize, obviously from the other tribe. He treated her with great deference. After a quick discussion he came to me and I lost sight of her.
With a bit of uncertainty but growing understanding he made me understand that the two villages had decided to combine and move to a new location. He searched my face, anxiously, with a hint of fear. I sighed to myself, sure that I would be asked, politely hopefully, to go elsewhere. I was quite sure he had either seen me or heard reports of my actions.
Instead, he made it clear I was being asked to join them for however long I wanted to stay with them. I happily accepted and then helped them strip the corpses of the slavers and plunder the camp for anything useful. I did convince him to let me have the tent, explaining that I would need to rest and would catch up to them. He drew a map in the dirt before the tent flap, showing where they would be headed. I noted the distance and thought I could probably cover it in a single night.
I slept, comfortably this time, through the day and then followed my friends after nightfall. During the trip, I caught up with one of the slavers, wandering through the jungle after fleeing the encampment. After feeding on him, I knew I would be able to go for a long period of time without human blood if I supplemented with animal blood. Its not the same, but it would keep me going.
I reached the combined villagers before morning and accompanied them to the new site, It was a strong position, at the base of a steep hill, which would allow for both security and for a place to escape. Then we all pitched in, raising huts and a palisade and clearing plots to plant for crops. No one seemed to care at all that I was only around at night. I came to have many friends and learned their language.
After the days, and nights, of rebuilding work, the time had come for a feast. That night a huge bonfire roared in the center of the new, combined village. Food was everywhere, well, except for me but that I understood, and was thankful. They knew I wasn't some demon that had to be placated or sacrificed to. Drink flowed and songs filled the night air. The lilt of reed pipes meshed with the low rumble of the drums. Men and women danced around the fire, moving sinuously. It was definitely my kind of party.
Several times I was drawn into the circle of dancers. I didn't stay long each time though, as I was enjoying watching more than dancing. I drank enough to be relaxed, but remembering what happened last time I got drunk, I kept my head clear. Therefore I was still awake when most of the others had slipped away and the fire ring was left to a single dancer.
The pipes had stopped. One by one the drums faded out until there was only one beating slowly. Then it fell silent. The woman standing in front of the flames stood as still as though she had been craved from ebony. I realized that it was the woman I had first seen talking with T'shombu the night of the battle, whom I had not seen since. Then the single drum started and she began to move.
She moved with a grace that the great ballet dancers I would see in the future could have only envied. The beat quickened, the other drums joining in. She blurred in the speed of her dancing, her feet almost spurning the ground. At times it seemed even the shadows cast by the firelight could not match her.