In which Dodger finds help in unexpected places.
For some time, all was darkness. He had no way of knowing how long, because he was enjoying it far too much. The very same darkness he always loved cradled him to her bosom, soothing his aches (which were many) and his worries (which were plentiful) and his fears (which were embarrassingly abundant). He swam for awhile in that blessed darkness, tracing lazy circles in the cool calm of his secret heart.
All was tranquil. All was peace.
Until a voice brought him back around. It threatened to pull him from his sea of black and shove him into that unbearable light of being. He tried to ignore it and sink into the arms of his dark mistress once more, but no, the voice was persistent. And soft. And feminine.
“Get up,” a woman whispered.
Dodger groaned as he lolled his head to one side, then the other.
“Are you awake yet?” the woman asked.
He was jostled from behind, someone pushing against his back in an attempt to rouse him. Clouded with the fog of sleep, Dodger wasn’t sure where he was, much less who he was. Nor to whom the voice belonged. Was it a lover? Did he overdo it last night? And, even more important, why did his nose hurt so damned much? He cracked an eye and peered over the swollen bridge of his aching proboscis. Oh yes. Now he remembered. That bastard Butch busted his nose. It all tumbled back to him then: Bulldog Butch coaxing him out to the Gap, the challenge Dodger so foolishly made, Jack and Thad meeting their doom in defense of him. He closed his eyes again and groaned at the racing memories.
“Say something,” the woman demanded.
“What should I shay?” Dodger asked in an almost drunken slur.
“Great Ganesha, you almost sounded like Ched.”
At the odd choice in curse and the reference to his fellow crewmember, Dodger at last recognized the woman’s voice. “Miss Lelanea?”
“Yes,” she hissed. “But keep your voice down. I don’t want them to know you’re awake yet.”
Dodger tried to raise his hands but found his arms bound behind his back. In a whisper, he asked, “Where are we?”
“In the leader’s tent,” she whispered. “Butch is his name?”
“Right.” Dodger glanced around the dimly lit room, to the beat up cot and worn trunk and various broken-down camping equipment strewn about the place. “And where are you?”
“I’m behind you.”
He felt a wiggling at his back, confirming her claims. Pushing against her, Dodger leaned against the form of something solid dividing them.
“Don’t jostle too much,” she warned. “We’re bound to the center support pole for the tent. If we pull at it, the whole thing will collapse and they’ll know we are trying to escape.”
“Clever,” he said.
“I imagine it was quite by accident. Butch doesn’t seem like the clever sort. How he stays in charge is beyond me.”
“You don’t need brains when everyone’s afraid of you.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“In a way, yes. Are you well? Have they harmed you in any way?”
“Me? I’m peachy. Took three of them to get me here, wherever ‘here’ is. Aside from being rough handled on that little trip, I remain unmolested. They may not be clever, but they’re smart enough to keep their hands off of me.”
“Good.” It appeared Thad was a man of his word.
“What about you, Mr. Dodger? Hopefully that maniac didn’t harm you beyond repair.”
He started at the name. “How do you know me as Dodger?”
“Why? Isn’t that your name? Or am I supposed to pretend you’re Arnold Carpenter? Or is Rodger Dodger your fake name and Carpenter the real one? I just wish you would pick one and settle on it, because this is getting very confusing.”
“No, my real name is Dodger. But … how did you know?”
Lelanea tittered softly with a mocking laugh. “Are you kidding? I overheard them gossiping. Yap. Yap. Yap. They’re worse than a bunch of women. The great Rodger Dodger is the talk of the camp. Those morons can’t go for five minutes without mentioning you. Dodger should be our new leader. Dodger is the answer to all of our prayers. Dodger got his rump handed to him by Butch.”
Dodger leaned toward the tent flap, listening as best he could, but all he got was a jumbled bunch of incoherent mumbles. “And you can hear all of that? From in here?”
He felt her stiffen against him as she stammered, “Well … I … I mean … sometimes they come closer to the tent. And when I wasn’t tied to someone who snores like a hyena in heat, I heard a few things. In passing.” Lelanea huffed. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“Trying to rescue you.”
“Rescue me? What part of this is a rescue, Mr. Dodger? The part where you challenge that hulking beast to a wrestling match when he so obviously outweighs you? Or the part where you get your nose broken? Or maybe it’s the part where you get yourself hogtied to the very woman you’re here to liberate? Please, enlighten me. Because I’m having a fairly difficult time discerning just where the rescue ends and your failure begins.”
Ched’s words came back to Dodger in a flash of truth. The girl not only had the Devil in her, she stored a fair amount of venom there too. “This ain’t over. No, ma’am, it’s far from over. I’ll have you out of here and back to your uncle before you can say thank you. I promise.”
“No offense meant, Mr. Dodger, but I stopped relying on the promises of others a very, very long time ago.” There was an edge to her voice, an aged perception that spoke with wisdom far beyond the young woman’s years.
“In that case, I apologize and withdraw my promise.”
She gave a very unladylike snort. “Typical man.”
“Instead, I’ll guarantee I’ll get you out of here. Is that better?”
Lelanea gasped, ever so softly, then fell into a brooding silence. Dodger smiled, pleased at himself for rendering her speechless. In her silence, he started to wriggle, and as he did, he could sense the ropes slacking in their hold. At this rate, he might be free in under an hour. He just hoped they had that much time. As it stood, he couldn’t be sure how long he’d been out for, but judging by the dim light of the tent, he believed the sun had long since set.
“What are you doing?” she finally asked.
“I can feel that. We’re tied too tightly, you know. It won’t do any good.”
“It’s been my experience that most ropes are more elastic than they’re given credit for. If you keep on moving-”
“It will loosen?”
“But the center pole will-”
“Be fine as long as I don’t thrash about. Trick is to pull a little, then relax. Pull a little. Relax.” Dodger did just that, hoping she could sense his movements and get the idea. “I can get out of this if I have enough time. And some help.”
“Of course.” Lelanea joined in his efforts as she began to gently squirm behind him. “I feel so foolish. I could have been loosening the rope this whole time.”
“Not at all. It’s natural to just sit still. After all, you’re tied up. Where you gonna go?”
“It’s just silly, when I think of all the times I’ve been lashed to something. I have my own means of escaping, usually. But it’s nice to have an alternative.”
“This happens a lot to you, then?”
“More than I would like.”
“And how do you usually escape?”
“Now, you don’t expect a woman to reveal all of her secrets. Do you?” They wiggled a bit more before she asked, “How about you?”
“How about me?”
“You sound like you have some experience with bondage.”
“I’ve been tied up a few times by hands both cruel and kind, but I’m no expert on the topic.”
“So you’re saying that you don’t learn from experience.”
“No, I’m saying that I also get my hair cut from time to time, but I have yet to call myself a barber.”
Lelanea did not.
“Don’t presume that I enjoy this sort of thing,” she said. “It’s just a side effect of living with Uncle in this forsaken land you call home. Every Tom, Dick and Harry out here seems to think the woman is an easy target for ransom.”
He grinned to himself as he wriggled. “And here I thought it was just my charming company that got you into this mess.”
Lelanea stopped moving. “Is that what you think? That this is all about you?”
“Well, sort of. But this can be about you if you prefer. Now get to wiggling. We need to get you out of here before they get the nerve to approach the train. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let them loot the thing my first day on the job.”
She gave an exasperated sigh. “You just don’t get it. This isn’t about you. Or me. Or the Sleipnir. This is about my uncle.”