It didn't take her long to find someone. Two men were shouting to each other up ahead, slightly to her left. She made for them instantly.
"What do you mean he wants it all? That's the last of it and God knows when we'll get our hands on anymore!"
"He wants it all Chris. I've never seen him this determined – he's about to walk in there; dynamite or no dynamite. He's suicidal."
The first man let out a noise of frustration and then one of exertion as he hauled a large wooden crate into the air and moved forward through the trees with it. The two men were heading towards her - back to the commune. Ava took a breath to steel her nerves then emerged from the brush right into the path of the two men. They didn't notice her until she was stood directly before them. The man carrying the crate lost a grip on it, his eyes wide and shocked as he took her in. The other man, who seemed to be older – though it was difficult to tell with the grey camouflage paint they were both wearing on their faces – came to an abrupt stop.
"Holy shit…" The man carrying the crate stuttered. "What the…. Who…?"
For the first time since leaving the bedroom of the house Ava realised how ridiculous she must look. Clothed only in a ratty tunic that thankfully reached almost to her knees, and boots that weren't even laced; not to mention the bloody gash on her leg – nor the white bandage circling her throat. Escaped mental patient flashed through her mind. She certainly felt like it.
Raising her palms up in a defensive gesture, she was praying the men were intrigued enough to hear her out. However when her mouth opened nothing came out but a slight whoosh of air. Opening and closing her lips like a beached fish she stared desperately between the men – silently entreating them to do anything that might help. Finally the older of the two made a gentle move toward her and raised a palm of his own.
"Alright." His voice was soothing, calm. "It's alright." He addressed his next words to his partner.
"Max is going to want to know about this. Five minutes ago. Can you get her back to the camp? We'll meet you back there."
Crate-man nodded in affirmation and the older man took off through the trees back toward the commune at lightning speed. Ava watched him go, then slowly turned her attention back to the man stood in front of her. He was examining her now, head tilted slightly to one side throughout his perusal. Finally, after Ava felt there was nothing more he could possibly see, he addressed her.
"I think we can probably skip pleasantries as quite frankly you look close to collapsing. I'll tell you how it is and hope for both our sakes that you agree. I need to get you, and this ammunition, to our camp over there." He accompanied the words with a point behind him. "There are supplies there; water, and shelter. And I have to warn you, probably lots of questions. But in return for coming with me I promise no questions just yet. Alright?"
Ava slowly nodded her head. Fear tight as a vice was squeezing her heart but really, what choice did she have? She was actually thankful the man was speaking to her like she had a say in the matter. Like she had a choice. He would find out the truth soon enough. Surprisingly he flashed her a quick smile, and his white teeth and eyes sparkled through the grey paint.
"Oh, and I'm Chris. In case you were wondering. Come on then; I'm for it if Joe and Max make it back before us." With that he turned on his heel and started back the way he and the other man – Joe, she deduced, had originally come from. She waited a moment, until there were a few feet separating them, and then slowly began to follow him into the brush.
They walked for around fifteen minutes, though it was difficult to gage distance as they took a rather meandering path, and Ava stumbled more than once though sheer fatigue. Though it was dark – probably now quite late in the night – there was a natural light amongst the trees that helped them navigate their path. The night was clear, and the moon bright. Chris kept turning now and then, as if to check she was still following. And probably to check she was still upright and conscious, though she barely felt it. Finally they reached the base of a small hill flanked on either side by large boulders, stopping them in their tracks. Chris placed the crate gently down on the grass by his feet, straightened, and using his fingers made two high pitched whistles that rang out sharply in the quiet evening air. Immediately an answering single whistle sounded, followed by a head rising from behind one of the left hand boulders.
"Hey Chris, what's happen…" The man stopped short when he spotted Ava. His eyes were bright and searching in the half-light. Without another word he came out from behind the boulders – there were two placed one in front of the other so that from the front they looked impassable, when in fact they had a walkway between. He came over and stood in front of Chris, leaning over to say a few words that Ava couldn't quite make out. Then he placed a hand on his shoulder, moved down to pick up the crate and walked back beyond the boulders. Chris turned and gestured for Ava to follow.
After the boulders the path followed the line of the hill until coming to a clearing that was obviously not visible from the route they had just followed. Ava knew that it could not be visible from the commune either as it was lit up by several fires and would have been like a beacon in the night sky. The opening was littered with tents and makeshift lean-to huts against the rocky hill. It was funny that Ava noticed these first, and not the people stood around them – staring at her like she had two heads. Everyone had stopped stock still, like she had pressed pause on her Sky + remote. If only she could press Stop instead. Or better; Delete. It was like a strange stalemate – no one moving or speaking or even breathing it seemed.
Aside from Chris and the guy that had come out to meet them there were around eight others dotted around the camp, one of whom was female. Ava knew it shouldn't be so odd to see another woman, but seeing one free and going about the mundane task of stirring a cooking pot on a fire was like a shot of fire into her gut. The woman was older, perhaps early 40s, and looked so much like a mother figure in that moment that Ava let out a muffled sob, and unknowingly took a step toward her. The woman was staring at Ava too, but not in the unsure way that the men were. Everything about her, from her expression to her body language – screamed comfort, and Ava was lost in her fight against it. She ran to the woman without hesitation and into her open arms. There was nothing left to do when she got there but cry; cry on this woman's shoulder about everything she couldn't say or do, and everything that she was completely powerless to stop. Ava could hear the men tittering anxiously around them – obviously unsure of what to do. The woman simply held Ava to her chest, shushing her with soft soothing words, and stroking her matted hair. After a while she felt strong enough to lift her head again and looked at the woman. Like the men she too was wearing camouflage face paint, but it was thinner and worn off in some places – like it had been on a while and she had forgotten to clean it off. Her dark eyes searched Ava's own for a moment, looking for something. Whatever it was she seemed satisfied that she'd found it, and placed her hands gently onto Ava's shoulders.
"Okay?" Her voice was just as soothing as her hug had been. "Come, sit down. You need something to drink. And, David? Would you pass me a blanket please? She's frozen to the bone."
Ava hadn't even noticed. She let herself be gently placed on a stool next to a crackling fire – the warmth instantly seeping into her fingers and face as she placed them both near to its glow. Some of the men had started moving back around the camp, though slowly and with deliberate frequent glances her way. The woman placed a tin mug of steaming liquid into her hands and encouraged her to take a sip. The hot, sweet coffee burned its way from her mouth right down into her stomach and it warmed her immediately. She noticed a blanket had been placed around her shoulders too, though when it had happened she couldn't be sure. Ava stared into the flames of the fire, aware the woman was sitting patiently to her left, but couldn't find the words to say thank you. There was too much and nothing to be thankful for. Where would she begin? In the end the dilemma was answered for her.
The calming quiet of the clearing was broken by the approach of shouting men, getting louder and louder until finally they were coming round the side of the rocky hill and into the camp. Ava stood and backed away from the fire on instinct, attempting to move further into the shadows. Similarly the woman next to her stood and came backwards with Ava, placing herself slightly in front and slightly to the side of her in an almost defensive stance. The men poured into the clearing quickly - there were around ten in total, but it became obvious very quickly that some of them were hurt. The woman left Ava and quickly rushed forward to a man that was clearly bleeding from a shoulder wound. She began barking orders and collecting supplies, encouraging the injured men to sit or lay down immediately. But then a noise from the path caught everyone's attention.
"SARAH! Get some dressings and some morphine over here – quickly!"
The voice made Ava's heart plummet so far down into her feet she was sure it had abandoned her for the grass below. The voice was unmistakeable. She took another step backwards, but somehow was unable to tear her eyes from the horrifying scene before her.
The man in the trees, the man who had stabbed her; Katie's brother - was carrying another man on his back, and even from this distance she could tell he was unconscious. He quickly made his way to the centre of the clearing where someone was hastily placing a sheet of tarpaulin on the floor. He gently lowered the man to it and immediately set to work removing the man's shirt. Ava could see two bullet wounds from where she was. Both lower abdomen; both bleeding profusely. The woman and Katie's brother worked frantically about him, pressuring and cleaning and pressuring the wounds, trying to keep the man conscious, giving him morphine when it was clear he wasn't. It seemed to go on forever and all of a sudden it seemed to be over. The man jerked up and coughed several times; on the last cough a splutter of blood burst from his lips down onto his chin. Then he was still. The woman moved immediately to shut the man's eyelids, smoothed his hair from his forehead and kissed it. Then she gently prised the other men away and slowly pulled a blanket up over the man's lifeless body.
Ava had watched the scene unfold before her like it was a scene from a movie; from a Hollywood blockbuster where everything happened from the page of a script. All too late she realised the enormity of what had just happened, and the terrifying truth – that she was the enemy here. For one brilliant second she considered running – taking off into the night, hoping they would hunt her down and kill her like the coward that she was. But then she thought of Katie and the other women, and that blood soaked mattress.., and James.
The clearing was silent. Everyone was watching the man who sat kneeled before the blanket, his head down. After a moment he looked up and toward a couple of men who were stood at the opposite end of camp to Ava, one of whom was Joe. Chris was also standing there and as if on cue the two of them looked at the man, then raised their eyes and nodded over towards Ava. Every muscle in her entire body strung itself so tight she couldn't breathe. In slow motion – every second played out like a death sentence – the man turned his head until he had his green eyes fixed completely on her hiding away in the shadows of the fire. He was on his feet in an instant – his gun out of its holder and pointed directly at her face as he stalked towards her. Everyone moved around her in a flurry of shouting and pleading and running, but she could see nothing but the hatred of those green eyes and the barrel of the gun at the end of them. As he came closer and closer Ava stared right into his eyes and willed him on. Go on then. Shoot me. The silent plea stopped him for a second, confusion clouding the determined look on his face. The gun never wavered, but the pause allowed for the woman; Sarah, to reclaim her place at Ava's side.
"Max! What the hell are you doing? I know you're upset but-"
His response was more of a roar than a sentence. "She's one of them Sarah!"
That made her pause. She looked at Ava again; searching her face desperately. Whatever she saw made her shake her head.
"Are you sure of that Max? She looks pretty damn broken to me"
His stare was unflinching and the gun never moved an inch. "I'm certain. She's one of them. This is a trap. She's acting. I've watched her; she lives with one of them – the leader."
The way he said 'lives' made Ava's skin crawl and vomit tease the back of her throat. She began to shake her head back and forth – not knowing how but desperate for them to know the truth.
"Don't you dare try and pretend you're not! How stupid do you think we are? God they must be getting desperate if they're sending you out as a trap."
Slowly but surely anger was rising up to match the fear pulsing through Ava's veins. This was hopeless - truly and utterly hopeless. This man wouldn't even listen to a word she had to say. Even Sarah had moved away from her and was now looking at them both in grim sadness.
"There isn't one good reason why I shouldn't shoot you in the head right now. Or better still – shoot you in the leg and send you back to them. Nice try and all, but next time make sure I haven't seen the bait banging the leader before you sen-"
"DO IT THEN! Go on! FUCKING shoot me in the FUCKING head! In fact – give me the gun and I'll shoot myself ten times over – in every possible limb, in every possible way! Because I want to die – Fuck I'm aching to die. Ever since you stabbed me and I woke up to this hell I've wanted nothing more than to fucking end my life." Unable to control anything else, Ava walked right up to him and placed the gun to her forehead. She was as close to him as she was the night of the raid, and she was praying this time he had the balls to follow through.
"You stabbed her?!" Sarah's voice was incredulous and judgemental all at the same time.
"I told you Sarah; she's one of them." This close Ava could see the scar that ran down from his left eyebrow, and the slightly crooked line of his nose. Her words when they came were calm and quiet – a universe away from how she felt.
"I am not one of them. I was; and now that I know what they are, I want you to kill me for ever being one of them. But before you do I came here for a reason – I think that I could help you. I need to help you."
His eyes flashed with hatred and his lip curled into a dangerous smirk. "Nice try sweetheart. Like I told you – a fucking trap."
Her frustration and anger bubbled up over the surface so quickly it took everyone by surprise. "A fucking trap – how?! How the fuck am I, barely six stone wet through; weak, cowardly with less fighting experience than a fucking otter, going to outwit you!? It's ludicrous!" Slowly and deliberately she reached up and removed the gun from her head – pushing it slowly down and away to the side. This was it – one last shot. She figured she might as well go for the truth.
"Please. I promised I would go back for them." Her voice broke on the word promise and she could feel tears on her face – the adrenaline from seconds before turning to ice in her veins. The final words coming out in a whisper. "I promised Katie I would go back for them."
And like she had shot him in the chest he staggered backwards towards the fire, the gun slipping forgotten from his hand. All of his height and swagger seemed to deflate and for one fleeting second he looked like a lost little boy. Then, as quick as it had come, it was gone. He stalked back to Ava and took her by both shoulders, practically lifting her from the ground.
"You've seen Katie? You knew that her name would affect me - why? If this is a trick I swear to god I will pull you apart with my bare hands." The way he was squeezing her, she didn't doubt it. There would be bruises on her arms to match the one around her neck.
"Jesus, Max - give her a minute to explain then. She's not a rag doll." Sarah's voice was ever calm, and it was interestingly only her that tried to get through his blind rage.
Max glared at Sarah and then glared back at the woman he was holding, but he did release his vice like grip on her arms. Ava rubbed at them gently and his eyes flitted to the spot where his hands had just been.
"Out with it then."
"Look I don't really know where to start bu-"
"Why don't you start with how you went from happy fucking families to realising you lived in a rape cult-"
Ava winced at his words like she'd been slapped.
"Max!" Sarah admonished.
"No he's right." She braved a look around for the first time. Everyone was stood round her in a circle; like a twisted fucked up version of a campfire story. The flickering light bounced off the faces around her, reflecting back a plethora of emotions; anger, wariness, intrigue, pity. She took a breath and addressed them all; in particular the enormous man stood in front of her.
"I didn't know. However hard you may find that to believe it is the God's honest truth. I swear it on anyone I have ever loved and everyone I lost; I never knew. I lived there because it was easy to; I had food and shelter. But I wasn't really living – I stopped doing that a long time ago I think." She addressed her next words directly to the man before her.
"The night you came into camp…" Ava didn't need to elaborate; Max's eyes were burning right through her bandaged neck, searing through to the wound below. "I just knew that something was terribly wrong. The first chance I got I went looking, and what I found brought me straight out here – to you."
He scoffed loudly; "The first chance you got?! Over a week later..?"
Ava's fists clenched at her side; nails digging painfully into her palms. "The first chance when I wasn't unconscious, or being drugged, or kept under armed guard; yes. And then once you had answered my signal I was able to—"
A man to her left spoke up. "That was you?"
Ava nodded. Then she looked around at the faces surrounding her, finally coming to rest on the one with green eyes. "I guess there are two choices here; either you trust me and I help you in any way that I can to rescue those women, or you don't - and you kill me here and now. Lay me down next to that man over there and just let me be." She took a shaky breath and crossed her arms over her chest – raising her chin ever so slightly in a small gesture of defiance. There was murmuring and shuffling all around her. Finally a man in the circle stepped forward.
"Think about this Max; she knows a hell of a lot more about them than we do. We could use her; she could be helpful." Ava bristled at the word use, but knew she probably deserved worse. Max looked thoroughly unconvinced.
"But what if this is a trap? She could lead us all back in there and we all come out like Jim." From the hardening of Max's face and the downcast eyes all around her, she could tell that Jim was the lifeless man beneath that bloodied blanket.
"What choice do we have Max? Nothing is working and we're getting fewer and fewer with less and less to fight with. It's worth a shot surely?"
Ava watched the internal argument bounce around on his stern face. Finally he looked at her, his eyes boring into hers like nothing she had ever experienced. Even Before. His green eyes seemed to search into her very soul – testing out every word she had spoken and looking for its origin. Her palms were sweating and a shiver chased its way straight up her spine, but she didn't move an inch. She desperately searched back and saw the last thing she was expecting to see; fear.
Finally he looked away and addressed everyone else. "Okay. We give it a shot." Ava could feel the collective exhale of breath like it was on her face. She too let out a very long and shaky one. He rounded back to her like lightning.
"But on one condition – you are never to be out of my sight. I will be on you every moment; every second, you do nothing without me knowing." His voice lowered slightly and became something infinitely more terrifying. "And I swear to God if this is a trap; if you're leading us to the end of it all then you're coming straight down with us. I will make sure you die, even if it's the last thing I ever do."
Without even a moment's hesitation Ava raised her chin, looked him dead in the eye and spoke with more conviction than she had all night.
"I'm counting on it."
A/N. Well, what can I possibly say? Other than I apologise and that life, as it invariably does, got massively in the way.
Thank you to everyone that has taken the time to read my story, I hope that my lack of updating hasn't led anyone to give up on it just yet.