The dreams were unremitting. With no beginning and no end. Thoughts, sounds and images shimmered in and out of focus until Winston Young no longer had any idea who or what he was. Sometimes there were fleeting moments of clarity: the taste of liquid in his mouth, the smell of burning incense, the voice of someone singing a strange song with words that had no meaning. But at other times Winston was as a child, seeing the world for the first time through eyes that could make no sense of the colours and shapes that drifted in and out of focus.
And there was the pain. It was with him all the time. It had been with him for as long as he could remember. For Winston Young to exist was to endure pain. Pain was in every pore of his body. Pain was all that he knew and all that he would ever know.
On the fifteenth day the pain grew too much. Its level of intensity could no longer be controlled by Winston’s sub-conscious mind and he awoke for a few seconds, howling like a newborn baby. Winston could not see the wide-eyed look of surprise from the people sitting around him but he felt hands constrain him as he instinctively tried to climb off his back. Then he was back to the dreams. And the pain.
Winston slept for four days before he woke up and opened his eyes for a second time. A little of his strength had returned and he was briefly able to gather his senses, to lie still for a few moments and try to think about who he was and what had happened to him. Before the pain grew too much and he slipped back into the sanctity of unconsciousness, there was even time for him to bend his neck and look around at the stark wooden walls that surrounded him, to take in the smell of hay and fish and spices, to hear the soft, gentle snoring of the young girl asleep at his feet.
Then, when it seemed to the people who were caring for him that Winston was destined to sleep forever, he awoke for good.
No word for day existed in their language. There was no need for such precision. They measured their events in seasons, often in generations. That was why they had no means of recording that Winston Young had been lying in a coma in the hut for almost three weeks. Oh, they knew he’d been there for some time, and that his injuries had brought him to the brink of death, but they could no more tell him how long he’d been lying there unconscious than he could tell them how to cut down a tree or skin a dog.
It was the young girl named Kut who found Winston lying unconscious by the steam. She was carrying a sharpened stick on her shoulders on to which half a dozen freshly caught fish were impaled. At first she had thought that the lifeless bundle of blood and bone was a dead animal that had been mauled by scavengers. But on closer inspection she realized it was a man. He had evidently collapsed while attempting to wash away the blood from his wounds.
Kut had never seen anyone who looked or dressed like Winston. He was a strange sort of man. She had seen people with dark skin before, though. They usually carried bags and boxes for the white people but always smiled cheerfully at Kut whenever they spotted her peering out at them from the bushes with her astonished young eyes. She did not feel afraid of them for they shared a common bond – they were slaves just as she was.
Kut had run like thunder through the woods to find Naax, who pondered the situation for a few moments as he usually did before assembling a party of warriors to go and find the wounded stranger. Naax was right to be wary; Scotseye had already killed two of Naax’s brothers and was known to be trading scalps with the white men. These were dangerous times for the Haida, who took great care to watch out for ambushes as they approached the beaten up figure.
Naax could see that the young black slave was close to death. His wounds were terrible and he was burning with fever. This man had obviously escaped from the white man and had almost paid with his life. Naax ordered his warriors to carry Winston on their shoulders; it only took two of them to carry his emaciated body through the woods. Naax thought long and hard before deciding what to do with his find. It was not in his mind to give this man his freedom – even if he managed to survive his terrible injuries. Naax immediately understood that an opportunity had fallen into his lap: if this man had injured or killed the white man they would be coming after him. There would be a heavy price on his head and Naax could use the man to strengthen his fragile relations with the unwanted visitors. Naax inwardly thanked the Raven for his good fortune and promised to be wise in his dealings with the white man.
Winston was sitting up with his back propped against a wooden wall when he saw Naax heading towards him. A young girl was squatting beside him on the ground giving him his third cup of water. Winston’s lips were bone dry and he felt ravenously hungry. He was aware of a bad smell coming from somewhere nearby and realised that it originated from his own wounds. The gunshot wound to his shoulder had been covered in what looked like baked clay; he tried to move it but it hurt like hell. His other wounds were tightly wrapped in a kind of rough textured gauze. The man who approached was a tall and handsome, with bronzed flesh and sharp Mongoloid features. He wore a straw hat and had his long black hair tied behind it. Another young girl walked excitedly behind the newcomer; when Winston had awoken from his long sleep she had immediately hurried off to alert somebody, presumably this person. The man carried an air of authority – he was apparently the leader. But leader of what?
The man moved his face close to Winston’s. His eyes carefully worked their way over Winston’s features and the crowd of onlookers fell silent. “I am Naax, chief of the Haiku tribe,” he said slowly. “We have cared for you and healed your wounds. I welcome you. You are my slave. You will serve me.”
Winston felt for his weapons and realised that they had been taken from him. The abort button strapped to his thigh was also gone. In fact, all his clothing had been removed. Winston was completely naked.