It was supposed to be a simple excavation. One chaotic storm later, it has become anything but.
There were fish in the Big River. Huge, fat, colorful fish that leapt out and splashed back in as the boat cut through the water. Pelicans gathered up on the cliffs, which Fabi, with his great geology know-how, thought might technically be fjords. Wedging himself between two of the many linen sacks filling the scow, Fabi rested his chin on the lip of the boat and let the stick he’d plucked out of the river drag in the chilly water.
They had been traveling for hours. While it was good to not have to walk everywhere, the constant sitting was uncomfortable and deadly boring. Jan was fretting over Juri and badgering Mäx- who had told Fabi to leave it alone when he asked what was wrong- and not having much luck with either of them. Juri and Mäx were in no mood to do anything because the meds Frank had weren’t strong enough on the one hand and Juri was refusing to take them so Mäx would have more on the other (no one was telling Fabi why Mäx needed meds so he was going to assume Mäx was dying of consumption because why the hell not). Jo, the bruise on his cheek a dark blue-black, was in a worse mood than either of them and was sitting in the bottom of the boat, resting his head in Mäx’s lap.
The Lachik were busy sailing and didn’t speak German, which was, like, the biggest surprise ever. For a while, Fabi watched them at work. They were dressed completely differently from Taaq, Uunuun, and Svabalrea. They wore little, square hats that tied on top of their long, loose, red-dyed hair that blew pornishly in the wind (Fabi had been baffled about the hats not blowing off before he noticed the braided, black cords tied under their chins), shawls over their close-fitting leather shirts, and calf-length pants. Yellow moccasins protected the bottoms of their hairy feet.
Fabi thought they looked awesome. He tried to get Ivgalrea to tell them so, but she apparently didn’t know that word and explaining it only made her more confused. Discouraged and unable to express his emotions properly, Fabi stopped. That only left three people in the boat possibly in the mood to talk. Svabalrea didn’t speak German and Fabi was starting to suspect Ivgalrea couldn’t or didn’t want to understand him, which left one person.
So Fabi played cards with Frank for a bit before resigning himself to watching nature. And he was shit at watching nature. It was just so slow. Even the splashing fish moved lazily, like they had nowhere to go. Being fish, they probably didn’t but, jeez, it was boring. Fabi needed excitement, and this nature thing wasn’t cutting it.
At least it was warm along the river. The water itself was cold, as most rivers were, but the air was pleasant and almost humid. Jo had completely ignored this fact and draped a Mylar blanket over Fabi’s shoulders like a cape because Jo. His baleful look was enough to keep Fabi from yanking it off.
Jo listened to Mäx’s unsteady breathing, each inhalation like a razorblade being drawn across the back of his thighs. He had told Mäx to take more if the aspirin he had already taken wasn’t working; Mäx had just shaken his head and muttered something he must have thought was reassuring. It wasn’t.
Mäx wasn’t okay. He needed real medical help, as did Juri. Jo couldn’t trust the locals in that regard. As an anthropologist, you had to shove all your ethnocentric tendencies down, but that didn’t mean they disappeared, and Jo just couldn’t trust people who used sand in lieu of soap.
Soap. They all desperately needed soap and a real bath. Jo could still see salt streaks on the back of Fabi’s neck, could see the grease in everyone’s hair, not to mention the fuzz that covered all the men’s faces. Water could wash some of the dirt and sweat away, but did nothing for the smell or the lingering salt.
Their need to trust Ivgalrea to lead them on an increasingly long journey to a vague location was growing, and Jo didn’t like it. Jan had found Ivgalrea in, what? A cave? And had decided to trust her immediately.
Jo didn’t know how to explain it, hadn’t ever even tried to explain it, what he and Mäx had for fear that detangling it might stop it. And it was too good to ruin.
They had spent years in a grey area between friends and more, sometimes lighter, sometimes darker but never, ever on certain ground. Then recently, less than a year ago, they went that much further, and, God, Jo was so terrified of losing that. So maybe he was a little more on edge than he needed to be.
The boat slowed, the Lachik sailors shouting to each other as one jumped out and drew the boat up the sandy beach.
“We get out now,” Ivgalrea said cryptically.
“Where are we going?” Linke asked, echoing Jo’s thoughts. In the last week and a half, Jo had come to realize they shared the same, slightly cynical approach to the world when under pressure.
Ivgalrea pointed towards the cliff, where Jo could see small, irregular steps cut into the rock in a zigzag fashion and a long, thick rope extending from the top of the cliff to several feet above the ground.
The Lachik took the lead. Plainly familiar with the steps, they barely touched the rope.
Svabalrea was next so she could help her elderly mother. Not that Ivgalrea needed the help: she clambered up with an ease any hiker would be jealous of.
The rest of them…weren’t so graceful. Oh, Frank got up fine, and Juri barely wavered and that mostly as a result of his injured back, but they favored the rope heavily. Jan was a mess and a half, and Fabi was an embarrassment. As the number of people between him and the cliff dwindled, Jo’s uneasiness grew.
He wasn’t worried about himself. Jo didn’t spend his free time rock climbing or anything, but he was more coordinated than Fabi and a bit of a showoff besides. He could do this without too much trouble. There was no question he was getting up that cliff. But. The medicine wasn’t blocking Mäx’s pain. Juri wasn’t having trouble and he wasn’t taking anything, but he was taller, fitter, and hurt in a different place than Mäx. Jo didn’t know much about anatomy, but it didn’t take much to see that Mäx hurt when he breathed and Juri didn’t. Worse, Linke was clearly holding back, and Jo wasn’t sure why.
Maybe the guy thought he could catch them if they fell. Juri or Svabalrea would have been a better bet (Jo counted the Lachik out as having no personal responsibility for the group) had they not had their own issues to deal with, Juri his own injuries and Svabalrea her mother. Maybe he thought he was being polite. Maybe- and this was what Jo was betting his money on- Linke didn’t want to go up those steps.
And Jo didn’t need to be thinking about this except this was exactly how Jo thought roughly fifty percent of the time. He’d all but raised Fabi. Years of making sure a hyperactive, half-feral child didn’t split his head open walking down the street or get run over by cars because, Jesus Christ, Fabi, you are too fucking short for them to see you had flipped the misplaced maternal switch in him permanently on. So, yes, he was rapidly shuffling through possible, relatively inoffensive ways to convince Linke to get up the damn cliff ahead of him.
And, yeah, Jo wasn’t going to be saving anyone’s ass if they fell, but neither was Linke.
“Are you going to move?” Jo asked Linke as Mäx started his painful ascent. Jo gritted his teeth and tried not to watch too closely.
“Are you?” Linke returned.
“Not until you do.”
They stared at each other for several long seconds. Linke wasn’t giving in. Jo wasn’t, either.
“You two coming?” Mäx asked. Jo’s eyes flicked to him for a second before moving back to Linke.
“Are we?” he asked the taller man.
Linke scowled, but he started moving.
Jo would have counted it as a point for himself, but he already had enough of those, in that one, specific context, for a lifetime. Fabi was still alive for a reason.
And that reason was that Jo was badass when it came to bossing people around.
The steps were the most uneven, tiny, bullshit excuse for steps that had ever existed. Jo had been a lot of places, many of them less than up with modern times. This, however, was bullshit. Mostly because he was forced to linger on each one a tremendously, agonizingly long time while watching the two people in front of him struggle, for completely different reasons, to move forward.
The rope probably seemed like a good idea to the person who put it up. To a certain extent, it was. When multiple people were trying to use it at the same time, not so much. Why? Because everyone after the first person was relying on a rope only as steady as the hands of the people in front of them. So Jo, as the last person in their line of progressively worse climbers (excluding Jo, of course, who was at least better at this than the four people in front of him), was probably worse off holding on to the rope than free-balling it.
Jo took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He didn’t want to alarm Mäx or Linke and have them turn around and lose their footing and fling themselves off the cliff to their grisly death, taking him with them. Sliding Jo could take. Flinging was pretty much a death sentence for two or three of them, depending on who fell.
Neither of them noticed or they were too focused on their problems or something because they didn’t turn around and Jo didn’t die. He really would rather he died, though, because this halting upwards movement was killing him.
He still hadn’t figured Linke’s deal out since Linke had a bit of talent in the dissembling department and wasn’t revealing his deep, dark secrets while he clung to a rope and ascended the shittiest stairs in the history of ever. Obviously, it involved fear and cliffs or stairs (but nobody was scared of stairs, right? How could you function in modern society if you were scared of stairs?), but whether that fear was of heights or rocks, or fucking stairs, Jo didn’t know.
Because he wasn’t a dick, Jo didn’t ask nor did he tell Linke to hurry up. He did, however, regret that Linke was between him and Mäx because Mäx…Mäx was in way too much pain. A band constricted around Jo’s chest every time Mäx let out a pained hiss or stumbled the slightest bit.
Finally, they reached the top.
Jo thought they were done, but getting over was just as bad as getting up. When Mäx hauled his body over the edge, even with the others’ help, he slipped and slammed chest-first into the rock. The agony was palpable, knocking the breath from Jo’s lungs and making his fist tighten around the now much-hated rope. He needed to get up there, needed to see that Mäx was okay, that he hadn’t turned his fractured ribs into broken ribs.
But Linke still had to get up there.
And Linke wouldn’t move.
Because Linke was a douche.
Jo’s nerves being frayed from, oh, everything, he snarled in the least understanding tone, “Move your ass, Linke.”
Linke turned his head enough to look Jo dead in the eyes and he glared. Again, because Linke was a douche.
“Move,” Jo repeated, his nearly nonexistent sympathy for Linke’s deathly fear of stairs vanishing with a jaunty little “poof”. “Your. Fucking. Ass.”
“Give me a minute.” Linke readjusted his grip on the rope, looked about to take the next step up- and did nothing.
Jo contemplated shoving him out of the way. Hard.
“Go,” he told Linke. “Go or I will fucking make you.”
“I. Can’t,” Linke snapped back.
“You don’t have a choice. Everyone else is up there. We’re going up there. So, move.”
“I said I can’t!” And now Linke was panicking. Great. Fucking great.
“I’m not judging you, man.” Jo wasn’t. He really wasn’t. He had his issues. He’d had a meltdown in front of other people a time or two. He’d had other people, strong, assertive, confident (which Linke was not- Jo could spot fake bravado from ten kilometers away, like recognizing like and all that) people, melt down in front of him. It was embarrassing for everyone, but you got over it. That was life. He wasn’t judging, but he didn’t have time for this. “But we both need to get up there. To do that, you need to move.”
“Stop thinking about it,” Jo said, interrupting him. Mäx better be letting Jan look him over. “Just climb the next step.” A dark head poked over the edge, looking down at them with a vaguely quizzical expression. Relief coursed through Jo’s veins. “Climb the next step,” he told Linke again. “Frank will be there to help you over.”
Linke looked up then and it was like the skies had parted and manna was raining down from the heavens like pita bread or some shit, Jo was never really big on going to church (it clashed with too many of his life choices, like anything involving Mäx). Linke’s face was like relief personified, is what he was getting at.
And that was the shitty story of how Jo got Linke over a cliff and bagged an IOU from someone he never expected.
Thankfully, Mäx hadn’t gotten any worse. Linke, irrational fear of stairs or not, would have died if he had. But he hadn’t, so they could continue on after Jo, with Jan’s input, was absolutely sure Mäx’s left lung wasn’t going to collapse just yet.
The top of the cliff was the familiar steppe with a light dusting of crunchy snow covering the short grass. The Lachik moved at a ground-eating pace, forcing the rest of them to trail behind at varying speeds.
Jo let Fabi lope on ahead with the Lachik. He felt drained, absolutely exhausted mentally. His right hand wouldn’t uncramp no matter how much he shook or massaged it.
Buildings in the distance grew larger as they moved towards them, Ivgalrea telling them that this was the long-promised city. Here they would find the help they needed to leave this island.
Once they were less than a kilometer off and the buildings were clearly visible, the Lachik turned back. Taaq had bartered for safe passage to the city. They had no more reason to stay. They talked to Ivgalrea for a few moments, then passed her a small pouch before taking their leave.
The rest of them continued on, Ivgalrea leading. Her daughter trailed behind the group, hatchet in hand.
The city was…less disappointing than it could have been. It was bigger than Svabalrea’s village- not that that could rightly be called a village- for one. There were upwards of twenty buildings for two, which, if you had never seen a legitimate city or village, probably seemed city-like.
They passed through an unguarded gap in the chest-high stone wall- poorly built with cement block-sized stones tumbling out in places- that could have been a gate. People milled about the dirt streets with their heads down, dressed in all manner of clothing and carrying woven baskets and pottery. They paid no attention to the strangers passing through, which Jo thought strange. Surely they stood out? But, no, to these people they were perfectly unremarkable.
Ivgalrea paid no more attention to the people of the city than they did to her, walking them past the cluster of buildings that made up the city center. Giving no explanation, she took them up a rocky hill on which a few buildings were scattered. Jan eventually asked where she was
“Hot water nearby,” Ivgalrea said in her cryptic manner. “We go there first.”
What the old woman meant was that there were hot springs nearby. Large huts had been built around them to capture the steam and make for an altogether wonderful experience.
Jo relaxed into the milky-white water. The slight sulfur smell wasn’t entirely pleasant, but the water was deliciously hot. Jo actually felt warm and just a little bit cleaner than before.
But it couldn’t last forever. Not only were his fingers getting pruned, Jo had begun to feel lightheaded, which anyone who had ever been in a hot tub would tell you that meant it was time to get out. Juri had already gotten out, complaining that he was too hot. From the surprised looks of his friends, he didn’t do that very often. Jo…really didn’t care.
He got out of the water, helping Mäx out as well. He moved to help Fabi, but the mortified look on his brother’s face told Jo to leave him be. Jo huffed. Fabi could get so weird about nudity sometimes, as though he hadn’t just spent almost an hour lounging around with six naked dudes.
Jo was tugging his pants on when a rustling sound alerted him to Svabalrea’s presence. Jan, who had just gotten out with Linke and Frank following, squeaked and clasped his shirt to his uncovered crotch. Svabalrea took no notice of him. She looked shifty and slightly afraid, not exactly the emotions you expected or wanted from a woman who carried a hatchet and a stony expression at all times.
They stared at her. She stared at them. There wasn’t much else they could do, seeing as they didn’t speak a common language.
“Can we help you?” Linke finally drawled. Jan punched him in the arm.
What happened next shocked them all. Svabalrea, she- she spoke.
“Run now. No way off this island,” Svabalrea hissed in perfectly understandable, urgent German. She whipped her head about, looking for someone. “Run. Lachik slave traders. Ivgalrea going to-”
A loud crack resounded throughout the hut. Svabalrea fell against the wall, clutching the side of her face. Ivgalrea had slapped her daughter.
“Foolish girl,” she snarled. “There is a way off. There has always been a way.” Smirking, she let her eyes roam over the anthropologists in their various states of undress. Jo took a step forward, putting space between her and those who belonged to him. A corner of Ivgalrea’s mouth drew up, amused. “Too late for that,” she said.
Jo had a moment to recognize the sailors before his hands were bound behind him and a gag was stuffed into his mouth.
Between the bondage and the pouch Ivgalrea accepted from the Lachik traders, it was child’s work to realize Svabalrea had been right and they’d been sold as chattel slaves.
Naturally, slavery was a thing here. Jo scowled. Somewhere between twelve and twenty-seven million people were enslaved around the globe and these otherwise backward-ass, Stone Age motherfuckers were all too modern in that regard. Jo didn’t even care that his language had devolved into expletive filled trash he was so fucking pissed. The Kaulitzes better fucking pay them double for this bullshit detour. And then a little extra for saving their asses, which they would. Because they were charitable that way.
One of the sailors crouched down and smiled at Jo, saying something the ethnomusicologist didn’t understand. He waited, like Jo would suddenly start speaking his language if he was polite enough.
Jo, not inclined to believe in the power of politeness, spit in his face.
He may have deserved the rude cuff that followed.
Jo had realized several days ago that Ivgalrea could barely understand Fabi. There was a continuum of understanding between Jan and Fabi, with Jan being the easiest and Fabi being the hardest. Jo had tucked that information away and, now that the guards had disappeared, he knew what to do with it.
His gag wasn’t tight, so it didn’t take long to work his mouth free of it. Linke and Jan had already done the same, instantly falling into a furious argument consisting of little more than blaming each other for their predicament. Linke claimed Jan was responsible for talking to Ivgalrea in the first place, and Jan blamed Linke for letting her be their guide. Jo thought they were both to blame, but didn’t say so because he was a little more interested in getting free than joining in.
He tilted his head at Mäx, who shifted to let Fabi extract the No. 10 Opinel from his pants’ pocket. Jo set about loosening the rope around his wrists. Though he mostly failed, it gave him something to do while Fabi under Mäx’s direction sliced through Mäx’s bindings.
Soon, Mäx knelt behind him, Opinel in hand, his body heat comforting. It took only two slices before he could move his hands separately again.
“Done,” Mäx said unnecessarily. Jo rubbed his wrists wryly, then snaked out an arm and yanked Mäx’s mouth down to his. Mäx’s eyes closed and he leaned into it. Jo fiercely regretted the timing. He pulled back, hand still resting on the back of Mäx’s neck, thumb brushing against his curls.
“Have I told you lately how much I fucking love you?”
Mäx smiled. “Think I should get them, too?”
Jo glanced to where Linke and Jan were still arguing, oblivious to what was happening around them.
“Do Frank and the other guy first.”
“Frank,” Jo said, thickening his accent as much as possible. Ivgalrea hadn’t caught up to them yet, but he wasn’t risking anyone overhearing their plans. “We’re going to knock the guards out, then get the hell away from here. Sound good to you?”
“Absolutely,” Frank answered once Mäx had undone his gag and begun to work on the rope around his wrists. Juri eyed them, making no objection.
They’d need the big guy.