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Nessa woke with a start. She’d been having the strangest dream …
She glanced around the hut she was in. Outside, night had fallen, or near enough, and there was a cool breeze wafting in through barred bamboo windows. That, and her hands and ankles had been tied together by the islanders who’d taken her prisoner, bound tightly around with some sort of jungle creeper (which had so far withstood all attempts to gnaw, wriggle out of, or cut through it). Her head felt muzzy as she blinked more awake and tried to remember.
They’d been in the medicine woman’s hut. Nemo had just drunk that potion (she smiled slightly. Poor goof had been hit with so much magic he couldn’t remember his own name, and that was before the potion. Well, he didn’t know who he was anymore, so she’d called him Nemo “No One” because everyone should have a name at least.) Then the medicine woman had thrown something on the fire, and the fumes had started making her drowsy, and … the mask had come off — she wasn’t a medicine woman — and they’d walked into a trap.
Nessa kicked out angrily against one of the other pillars of the hut. Dammit!
She sighed, leaning back with her eyes closed. Nothing was ever simple.
In the jungle, the mighty jungle … Feathers the parrot bobbed jauntily up and down on the man called Nemo’s shoulder as he walked. ‘Wait, wait, stop here.’
Feathers turned ’round and looked at him with a gleam in his eye. ‘Because I just spotted something, and I think I got an idea. Trust me, you’ll love it.’
‘Ya ready?’ said Feathers from up in the branches.
‘Yes, I’m ready. What’s all the—’
‘Just be sure you catch it, is all I’m saying: This is genius …’
There was a kind of beak-like snipping sound from up above, he reached out, and a lemon-shaped fruit fell into his hand.
‘A lemon? What happened to the genius plan?’
Feathers fluttered down and landed on his shoulder, shaking his head to one side and shuddering. ‘Don’t you know what that is? That’s an outaya. Answer to all your problems.’
‘It looks a bit like a gourd.’
‘How’d ya think it got its name?’ said Feathers, waggling his eyebrows. Nemo frowned. Could parrots do that? ‘C’mon, it’s a great idea. Let you shake off what the witch lady drugged you with.’
‘Which one?’ Nemo asked, and then despite himself, ‘… What else does it do?’
‘It’ll help you rescue that girl you mentioned …’ said Feathers, with the assurance of one laying down an ace. ‘Rawk!’
They were in the bushes near the edge of the village, on the low side of the volcano, watching a couple of sentries in brightly painted carved masks go by in the moonlight. He could hear the ocean from here. ‘Was that a pirate ship in the bay I saw earlier?’ he whispered.
‘Yeah, yeah, pirates.’ Feathers grinned at him. Strange, it never occurred to him to wonder how he did it. ‘Ya got the fruit? Now bite into it, and keep eating till ya feel it.’
Nemo sighed. He hadn’t got any shoes on, he was cold and tired — he bit into the fruit — and surprisingly hungry … He took another big bite and another …
‘Hey, steady on there!’ whispered Feathers urgently. ‘Not too— much …’ he trailed off as Nemo finished licking the last of the outaya juice off his fingers.
He felt good. Stronger. More in tune with his senses. Like something was building in him, like it was making a new man of him. For a moment a sudden burst of suspicion flashed across his mind and he grabbed hold of Feathers. ‘Wait a minute. Outaya? As in “out’a ya gourd”?’
‘What, don’t look at me like that — it’s great stuff, make you twice as strong, help you shrug off the poison,’ said the parrot, trying to struggle free.
Nemo noticed how Feathers’ eyes were swiveling a little and he was twitching. ‘Did you by any chance ingest some of this too?’
‘When I was snippin’ it off the branch for ya with my beak. Birds aren’t supposed to, but it kinda gets to you and—’
He let go. He felt great. Feathers was right. Good Feathers. He patted him on the head and nimbly dodged the nip of an annoyed beak. Outayas. He should have one for breakfast, every morning. Maybe two or three. Or five. He should take some seeds home with him. Only just now, he had something to do …
‘Wait, wait!’ hissed Feathers. ‘Not out in the open like that! It makes you stronger, not arrow-proof!’ He shook his head. Crazy kid! He was going to get himself killed. He jerked his head to one side. Say, this outaya was good stuff …
Simeo the sentry stood with his mask back, leaning against the privy wall, enjoying a quiet smoke. His spear rested against the wall beside him along with that of Vaxil, his co-sentry for the evening, who had had something disagree with him at dinner and was wrestling out the disagreement behind the door behind him with the crescent shape cut out of it.
‘There, there,’ said the Simeo, exhaling a stream of smoke into the night air as he tried not to listen to the retching sounds behind him. ‘Soon be over, pal. Say, do you think I should ask Matiki to the luau on Friday?’
‘Why ask me that now,’ said a queasy voice from behind the privy door. ‘I—’
‘Yeah, yeah, sorry, bad time … Still …’ He flexed his muscles. They were nice muscles. All the girls in the village thought so. He worked on them, toned them. He wished there was a mirror nearby. Lala and Sarassa, he thought. He could ask them to the luau. Apparently, the witch doctress had one of those new little magic mirrors that everyone was talking about, from the big islands. A man who looked as good as he did should have a magic mirror of his own, he thought … They said you could take reflections of yourself, so everyone could see how good you looked. And, you could talk to people on them and send them your, “self-reflections”, were they called? They even said that on the big islands you could get paid for standing around attractively while people pointed magic mirrors at you and took reflections of you. He’d like that. He’d like that a lot. They also said, on the big islands, they had indoor plumbing. Better not tell Vaxil, he might want to go too. Wait …
What was that rustling?
Did those bushes just move?
He looked down at the cigarette. They said these things were bad for you. Still, it wasn’t as if they were his, Vaxil had left his pouch hanging on the door next to his carved wooden mask, and, well … what did he expect?
He turned. ‘Vaxil, dude, are you nearly done in there? Only, some of us got work to do—’
Vaxil sighed and rested for a moment. Senora de Cthonos! Our Lady of the Lava! What was in that chilli! There was no rush to get back on guard was there? Besides, who was going to actually attack them? The pirates? They were all too busy combing their beards. Plus he happened to know because he’d heard it from one the witch doctress’s assistants that the Amazons were all off the island right now, off on some crazy crusade or something. Their war canoes had last been seen heading off into the distant sunset. And the witch doctress had ways of knowing that—
—Unfortunately, before he could learn more he’d had to go on duty. And then the chili had struck. Cthoney’s Revenge, as they sometimes called it. Only not too loudly, and not near the witch doctress or the big stone temple complex, and never round about now, he thought — as the volcano rumbled ominously in the distance. Uh-oh. Cthoney was vengeful, but merciful, but merciful, he hastened to add goddess, and worthy of respect, he thought fervently. The rumbling seemed to die down. Phew.
There was a little oil lamp hanging from the privy roof, casting a yellowish light. Huh, the new catalog from the big islands. Why hadn’t somebody told him? Something fell out of it. He held it up to the light and read: ‘WANTED, Mostly Dead or Slightly Alive’ …
‘… dude, are you nearly done in there?’ came Simeo’s voice from outside. Lady of the Lava, couldn’t a guy get over Cthoney’s Revenge in peace— Rumble. Uh-oh. He didn’t mean it, he didn’t mean it, honest! ‘Only,’ came Simeo’s voice again, ‘some of us got work to do—’ Thump. There were some heavy meaty sounds from outside, a brief gurgling – and then silence …
‘Simeo, if this is another one of those practical jokes, it isn’t funny. And those better not be my smokes I smell out there. I told you about that before, dude.’ Tell ya, he thought, unlatching the door, when I get to the big islands, and the young ladies are all swooning over the handsome guy from the volcano island … ‘Simeo …?’
After it was all over, Vaxil was never keen to talk about what happened that night. But when the witch doctress’s assistants got him alone afterward and asked him about it — with the help of a firepit, a turning spit, and a big cauldron of Mama Witch Doctress’s special chili — this is what he said:
There was this … guy, and he sort of … glowed. And he didn’t have any shoes on. I mean, hey, even out here we have the latest sandles from the big islands — aaah, all right, all right! Anyway, he was dressed so strangely. And he just said, ‘Tell me where the mermaid is, or I’ll shove this spear so far up—’
(Apparently, Vaxil passed out at this point and had to be revived. But it was one heck of a black eye he had. ‘One punch. Knockout,’ he had muttered as he faded off.)
Nessa jerked awake guiltily. She must have dozed off. Aah. Her hands and feet had gone to sleep again. These bonds were too tight. Hard to move her legs. Pins and needles … What was that? She froze — and listened. There was a fluttering behind her, and a kind of scratchy sound followed by a rustling. She tried to peer her head round the post. A … creature was shuffling in through the bars on the window. It hopped down on to the floor and fluttered over to her.
‘The bird flies at midnight,’ it said mysteriously.
‘The bird flies at midnight,’ it repeated and swiveled its head. ‘Yowzer, but that outaya’s good stuff!’
She hung her head. She was going mad. She was hallucinating. Maybe it had been that fumy stuff the witch doctress had thrown into the flames …
‘Now hang in there, dolly, we’re bustin’ ya out of here,’ said Feathers. ‘Rawk!‘
‘Who are you? What are you?’ Then she thought about it a second. ‘Dolly?’ she said, dangerously.
‘Name’s Feathers, but you can call me–‘ he glanced at her, ‘–anything you like, actually. Rawk! Help is on the way! Now, hold still,’ he said angling his beak, ‘and let’s see if we can get ya untied …’
She held still. Best not to argue with a hallucination, especially if it might get her bonds cut. She paused. Had that bird just waggled its eyebrows at her … ?
The vines fell away from her wrists. ‘Up-si-daisy! There ya go, now we’re cookin’ with charcoal,’ said the parrot, hopping down to free her feet. ‘How d’ya like them coconuts, huh?’ he continued, apparently to himself, as Nessa tried to rub a bit of life back into her hands. Then she heard something else. A tapping, as if a-rapping, tapping at her prison door …
It was playing ‘Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits’.
‘Sounds like a signal,’ said Feathers conspiratorially, dragging away cut creepers as she stretched her legs out and then fell sideways. ‘Er, I’d get clear of the door if I was you. I think he’s a had a little much …’
‘A little much what?’ she said, scrabbling painfully to one side.
‘You’ll see,’ said Feathers, just as the door exploded inward and shattered against a pillar, which snapped and brought half the roof in with it. As the dust cleared, standing there with his leg out in a kung-fu pose, was Nemo. In the distance, there were shouts and cries as the noise attracted attention.
Feathers sighed and somehow contrived the birdlike equivalent of putting a hand against his eyes and shaking his head. ‘I only told the kid to kick the ruddy door in! Rawk!’
Nessa shook off whatever the tropical equivalent of half a thatched roof was and spluttered away some stray straw. ‘Nemo? I … hardly recognized you …’ And she didn’t. He was walking taller, he had this … and he … she’d never noticed him quite like that before …
‘Yeah, the kid does have that glowy effect going on,’ said Feathers. ‘Tell ya what, boys and girls, this is nice and all, but I think we’d better am-scray before the annibals-cay catch up with us, eh?’
‘Can you move? Did they hurt you — if they did, why I’ll—’
A hand gripped his wrist, another touched his cheek. ‘Nemo,’ she said firmly, ‘I’m fine — I’m okay. But the talking hallucination is right, we’d better—’ she staggered as her legs gave way – grabbed out to stop herself falling – grabbed on to Nemo … The circulation to her feet was still cut off, no way she could run like this. And then she realized she had her arms ’round Nemo’s neck — looking up into his eyes … Nemo had nice eyes, she found herself thinking—
‘Rawk! Trouble on the way,’ called Feathers, fluttering up onto Nemo’s other shoulder. ‘Grab the girl and run, Forrest, run!’
‘Hold on tight!’ said Nemo as he lifted her up, and started sprinting away into the night. Not even the fact that he was carrying a well-built young lady (plus talking parrot) seemed to slow him down. What had gotten into him?
‘He must be out of his gourd …’ she said, wonderingly, as arrows and poisoned darts whistled through the air around them.
‘You said it!’ said Feathers happily. Only, a dim and distant part of his brain had started to ask, should they be running towards the volcano … ?
To be continued …