Chapter 1 – Start Your Journey!

I’m thrilled to have new readers every day, coming across Empire Road for the first time. Below is the link to Chapter 1 and the map of the Road. I look forward to your comments and ideas. Also remember to head over to the Empire Road Facebook page for video uploads and more pics!!!

https://empireroad.art.blog/2020/04/26/empire-road-parts-1-2/

Bonus Chapters of Empire Road!!

Gosh it’s been such an extraordinary experience, both writing and then publishing Empire Road in daily instalments as I did. The process of allowing myself to spend my idle moments engulfed thinking about a topic that I find truly interesting was so luxurious for me, but then to have so many people also tell me they were also keen to read the story was beyond amazing. So far hundreds of people have purchased the book as a printed copy, or downloaded it, and a small number have purchased signed copies from my eBay listings, and I’m so so grateful.

To celebrate the success of Empire Road I have made a bonus gift for you all. When you’ve read the ending of Empire Road, simple send me a message on any platform with the last three words of the book and I will send you back a lengthy bonus chapter as a gift.

Below are the links to where you can get Empire Road in your area during lockdown. I look forward to hearing from ore of you!!

• eBay: https://www.ebay.com.au/itm/224070929899

• eBay signed: https://www.ebay.com.au/itm/224071709252

• Australia printed: https://www.lulu.com/en/au/shop/roy-maloy/empire-road/paperback/product-8yv2d8.html

• Rest of the world Printed AND KINDLE: https://www.amazon.com/Empire-Road-Roy-Maloy-ebook/dp/B08BK5MKJQ

Empire Road – Part 37

Chapter 37
Thronecoming

The wind was starting to pick up and a light drizzle was beginning to fall.  We’d been trotting along the road for about five minutes and Boss turned around to look at me.

“Mate, can you please come up here?”

I got beside him on the drive seat and he gave me the grin that I recognise as his salesman’s smile.  It makes him look slightly more handsome than he usually does, and he tends to only do it when he wants to motivate or impress someone.

“Right-o. Tell me how they did it.” I knew he was talking about Acmon and Passalus. I felt quite proud.

“It’s these,” I said, as I pulled my hand from my pocket and showed him the last of the dried leaves I had left. He took one from me and held it in front of his face to look more closely at it.

“What do you do with it?”

“You smoke it.”

He looked at it more closely for a second.

“Is it the smell?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “But it also makes your mind fly away for a while, and you sometimes see things and feel like … it makes you relax.”

Boss pulled out his pipe from his coat pocket, but I stopped him.

“You should only do it when we’re in a safe place.  It makes you not be able to think straight like Ben that time when the dead didn’t go at him either. He’d just smoked these too. I have two small plants of it in pots in the back of the wagon.  I took them from Ishmael when we were in Basin.” As I spoke he handed me back the leaf.

“We could sell that stuff, you know.”

I smiled.  Suddenly something stumbled out from between two bushes and onto the road up ahead of us.  It was the first creature we’d seen since we started along it.  Boss’ eyes lit up.

“Look!!!!!! It’s that bloody midget again!” But then following him were all the others we thought we’d left behind in the woods to chase after the brothers. Our hearts started to race a bit as the dead began to pour out of the woods onto the track. But then yet another thing surprised us as the brothers charged out of the undergrowth on the side of the road as well. But this time they were screaming and running from the dead for real. It appeared that the effects of the leaves had worn off almost entirely. They saw us approaching and they ran straight toward us. The midget was the closest to them and followed almost as fast as they were running. 

“Bloody hell,” Boss said, as he slowed the horses.  “Quick! Into the back! Get a tarp and try and bag that little bastard for me!” I looked at him with my eyes widening. “Well go on – we can make a fortune at the markets presenting that thing!”

As I got back there, Jeremy came trotting alongside me and he hitched his horse to the tailgate by the reins and jumped on the wagon next to me. 

“What do we do now?”

“Not sure. Boss doesn’t seem worried about the dead.  All he’s interested in is making me grab that midget and bag it up in this tarp. Help me do it?” He gave me a look of disapproval but he did it anyway. Acmon was the first to reach the wagon. Alexis took the opportunity when we slowed down to run up and sit next to Boss. 

As the brothers approached us, they were screaming like little girls.  Boss and Alexis laughed. They both jumped up on the back of the wagon and scurried under the canvas to hide, but didn’t stop shrieking even once they were under there. It was actually very funny. Even Jeremy smiled. He and I were holding the ends of the tarp and we were jogging along in the narrow area between the wagon and the bushes. We had it stretched out like a sail and we intended to just wrap the little creature up as it approached us, and then tie the top.  However, what we didn’t count on was that it would run at one of us rather than running into the middle of the tarp. As we got within twenty paces it became clear he was coming after me. I was right next to the wheel and I was worried he would fall under it and get cut in half or lose a foot. But at the last second Jeremy whistled and it took its eyes off me and changed direction for him.  We grabbed him, pinning him to the ground, tying the top as fast as we could and we heaved it up onto the wagon. Jeremy lifted the canvas and then we both pushed it under.  The brothers had finally stopped shrieking and were under there too, hugging one another tightly when we lifted the canvas up. They both froze still and were silent when we threw the tarp back. We heaved the dwarf on there, and it landed between them.  Jeremy and I fell back a bit when we’d done that, and we kept jogging, watching the brothers.  However, once they had a moving, growling bag between them, it seemed that the brothers couldn’t resist themselves, and they untied the top to see what was in there. As soon as they saw the head of the dwarf pop out and begin growling and thrashing about, they started shrieking again. It was hilarious, but dangerous. So Jeremy jumped back up there and tied it up again. We both laughed.

“Good job! Now get back on!” Boss yelled. We got on the tailgate and kneeled up to see what was ahead.  Coming toward us were about fifty creatures. They looked bewildered, as they weren’t sure what they were chasing anymore. They’d been chasing the screaming sounds of the brothers, but a fair few of them seemed to have gotten lost in the woods. Boss made the horse speed up. “Yah!” he yelled, and they went into a canter. It was fast enough that as we got to them the horse just ploughed through the dead, sending the creatures flying in all directions. An arm came flying past Jeremy as the creature it belonged to seemed to explode on impact with the chest of the horse.  Geez they smelled terrible.

We were finally able to slow the horses down to a walk again as there were no dead left ahead of us. I looked back and saw that there were still a few that escaped collision with the horse, but they were all walking back into the forest again. The brothers were still occasionally screeching under the canvas and the dwarf was thrashing about and making a sound that was a cross between the word “gnarl” and a cat’s mating call. Boss pulled the wagon over and got down with Alexis. He walked straight past them and went to the home cart. Alexis got up and drew back the canvas to reveal the brothers lying in foetal position up against one another, with Acmon at the back, Passalus in front of him, and in front of him was the dwarf in the bag; all three of them spooned up against the other as the dwarf thrashed about.

Boss came back with the last half of the bucket of water I’d gotten from the river. He had a cloth in it and he drew it out soaking wet and walloped them in the face with it. That just made the scream louder and more hysterically. 

“I have an idea,” Alexis said.

I was surprised by two things. I was first of all surprised at how strong Alexis is. I knew he was strong, and just by looking at him you can tell he’s strong. But when you actually get to see him lift things, like the bodies of two fully grown men at the same time, it’s just amazing. But I was also surprised by how quickly he put the contraption together that he used to keep the brothers from hurting themselves, each other or us. First he took the wet rag that Boss had hit them with and tore it in two lengths to use as gags. Then once they couldn’t make as much noise, he flipped them onto their stomachs and tied them like the farmers do with pigs at the markets, with their hands tied behind their backs. Then he tied their feet together, but with a length of rope about two hands wide between each ankle.  He took two of the A-frames that we use to hold up the seating bleachers, grabbed a long pole that we use under the seating planks and put it through the ankle ropes of both brothers. Finally, he took one end of the pole, tied it to the top of the A-frame where there’s a groove cut to seat it, and then lifted the other end clear off the pole cart and put it in the groove of the other A-frame.  By doing so he effectively strung both brothers up by the ankles on the back of the scaffold he’d just made. But the way he was able to do it so effortlessly, made it look like he was only lifting the pole up to the other A-frame without the dead weight of two men dangling from it.

“Keep an eye on them and if they go too red in the face or stop that shrieking cut them down,” he said to me as we all began moving again. “Having them upside down like that will shift their temperature, get the blood through their heads again and clear their minds.” Then he went back to sit next to Boss on the drive seat of the pole cart. The two children were watching the action and I made eye contact with them. Neither looked like the other. The girl was blond and the boy was quite dark in complexion. I imagine they were both orphans, or foundlings at best.

We pushed along that path for about five more hours. I was starving. Everyone must have been too. I cut the brothers down about half an hour after they were put up there because they went quiet. They stayed tied up, but sat on the poles all sprawled out. The midget was quiet for a change finally. May brought soup to us all in the early afternoon. She also had bread. I assumed it was from the Professor because we hadn’t been in one place long enough to make any for ages. As she gave me mine, I took it from her and asked. “Is this the Professor’s?”

“No. Alexis filled the home cart before we left the market. That’s why they couldn’t find the cart.  While they were looking for Tower’s body, he had the cart round the back of the hotel stealing half their pantry!” We both laughed. Then it dawned on me. “Where is Tower’s body?” Last I knew it was under the canvas of the pole cart. 

“Alexis gave it to the Professor in exchange for his help getting us out of there. Anyway, it’s worthless to us. No one will give us a reward for it. They’ll just kill us for killing him.”

“What does the Professor want with it then?” I asked in curiosity.

‘Not sure. I’ve never seen what he does, but Ben told me he sets up a tent and takes a fresh body of the living, ties metal wires to it, and he has a machine that makes sparks and it makes the body jump about even though it’s dead.”

I couldn’t imagine it. It sounded sinister. As though something that should never be able to happen was being made to happen. Bringing the dead back to life! But then again, I realised that the dead come back to life all the time. We’re just used to it happening this way now.

Finally the road began to turn. It was also becoming wider. Then we saw something that none of us expected. We all assumed that the path we were on was most likely an ancient road of some sort that now just the dead and wilderness people used. But as it widened the vegetation got thinner, and then finally we saw a field. It was a square, ploughed field with a crop of edible leaves growing in sewn lines! Then another field with another kind of crop, and over the back was a crop of what was probably wheat of some kind or other. We were all looking around in amazement, but Boss wasn’t. He was steering the horses as though he knew exactly where he was going. And he did. A short time later as we passed a group of trees on either side of the road, the outer wall of a community came into view!  The wall was made from logs standing upright like they had been when they were trees, but now their ends had been cut into points.  All our eyes were as wide as could be, and we started with our mouths open. This wasn’t community that any of us knew of. Wilderness people suddenly came running from the community toward us with bows, arrows and spears all pointed our way.  A couple of them had New Roman swords, which I assumed straight away had been stolen or found.

Boss stopped the wagons. He stood up and held both hands beside his face with his palms facing them. The two dozen men were all wearing furs, but as they got closer we saw that they had other things on under them. They stopped running and stood still. An instant and deafening silence fell over us all. I’m sure everyone was as relieved as I was when Boss broke it by talking to them in their language. He spoke to them for nearly a minute straight before they went into a huge cheering and jumping up and down. Boss had clearly told them something amazing, but none of us had any idea what was going on. The men with the spears and bows turned and led us back to the community gates. Boss sat down and started driving again. I only saw the side of Alexis’ face as he turned to smile at Boss. Boss kept looking straight forward, but it was clear at least that Alexis was in on the plan too.

Empire Road – Part 36

Leaving Roman Roads

As we ventured out into the wilderness, we were surprised to see no dead at all. Although we have a fair idea of how many there might be out there based on the one or two we see each journey on the other side of the fence, we are raised in every village in every community being told that the wastelands are literally crawling with them behind every tree and under every bush. But there were none. It was surprising, especially after all the noise we’d just made cutting the hole to get through the fence. The three carts stayed close. I got back in my spot under cover on the pole cart but Passalus and Acmon were fast to ask me to help them again as soon as I got near them.

“It’s amazing! Please, boy, just one more pipe! Especially now! You know they’ll toss us out as a decoy at the first sight of the dead!” Acmon said in a drunken stupor.

I felt bad for them. So, again, I filled their pipes, which fortunately still had burning coals at the bottom. If I’d had to start from scratch and light another fire for them, I probably wouldn’t have. I put their coals in the tinder box and got some dry grass from beside the road. I blew on the coals and the grass caught fire. I used a small piece of rope to light the pipes once I had stuffed them.

I watched as they puffed madly at them. They weren’t what I would consider to be stupid, like Ben. These two were quite clever in a certain way, but in the short time we’d known them we realised that they were actually quite cunning and self-centred. Alexis calls them survivalists. He says that they’re the kinds of people who always take anything they can get their hands on to get ahead, and they’ll sell you out for a small gain, whereas being loyal might give them much bigger rewards down the track. They both have blue eyes, which is also strange for people from Pan, but they were bloodshot to hell and they almost glowed now because of the pipes I’d given them. They were both staring at me, puffing away. They actually looked a fair bit like the dead do, as they trudged along, rhythmically, staring at me. Puffing madly. Then Ben raised the first alarm.

“Dead over there!”

It was off in the trees, but it came straight at us. A woman, about 30, long dark hair and skinny. She was a wilderness person once, and was still wearing all the clothes she died in. Her stomach was hanging out at the bottom and her left hand was missing. She ran at a fast pace and Boss jumped down with his sword. He positioned himself ready to execute his precision move, as he placed the handle of his sword on his shoulder and the blade level with her head. She ran straight into it, skewering herself through the forehead. She fell to her knees and she hit the floor. I saw another.

“Boss – over this side!” I only saw one of them to begin with, but as it came at us through the trees it was followed by two others. The first one had a broken leg or something that made it drag one leg along behind it. He was a big fat guy with no hair. He was wearing trousers, so I guessed that he was from one of the communities once. They were all torn up now and dirty, so you wouldn’t be able to tell what style or fashion they were at any point. But they weren’t wilderness people clothing. He was followed by a young boy who had been dead for a while, and then up the back was a creature like I’d never seen before! It had almost no skin at all and was wasted away to just bone in a lot of places. It was very slow moving. So slow in fact that I didn’t think it would even catch up to us at all. Boss looked over at me and then at the dead coming toward us.

“Do you have a sword”’

“Yes,” I answered, without thinking.

“Well then go and take care of them! You can do it!” He instructed. My heart started pounding as I got down off the tailgate. Passalus and Acmon were giggling at me. I glared at them and kept walking. I’d never actually killed one by myself with a sword. I considered finding a tree to climb so I could jump onto them like I did last time, but that would take too long. As I walked, my body grew tense in every place. I clasped the sword with both hands as tightly as I could. I stormed toward the fat one as he staggered toward me. His arms were outstretched as far as they could reach. I stopped just before him and waited for him to drag himself on his good leg into my striking zone. The young boy was much faster and he was approaching quickly. I stood, waiting, ready to strike, and then I heard Boss.

“Do it!! Hurry!!”

I didn’t take my eyes off the big one. I just kept moving my weight from leg to leg, getting more and more tense. It took two more steps and then I took my first swipe at it. But it wasn’t close enough. I cut heavily into its chest and arms, but it didn’t even slow down! I raised the sword again and hacked straight down, hitting him right between the eyes. But it still didn’t stop. I didn’t hit it hard enough. I pulled the sword out and ran back. I was going to stop about halfway back to the others, turn and fight again, but to them it looked like I was running away. May came bounding out with her Rapier and flew past me. She glided off the ground in a long leap as she got alongside me and sailed through the air to the fat one. She landed the point of her sword between his eyes, felling it instantly. But she didn’t see the smaller one behind him and she tripped on it, falling heavily on her side and then rolling. The boy also fell over, but it got up quickly. More quickly than she was going to. Suddenly my mind went totally clear, and I ran toward her. I jumped over the carcass of the fat one, and as the young boy walked toward May, making its half formed word noises and swiping at the air with its hands, I slashed horizontally, hitting the back of its head while I was still in the air. The blade cut up into the top of his back, but up into its neck and skull as well. It fell forward and it landed on May’s feet and legs. Its black blood went all over her and she scrambled backwards to get away from it. She looked up at me and put out her hand. I heaved her up and she retrieved her Rapier. The third one posed no problem to any of us. It was kind of just wobbling in our direction. But all the same, she went over to it and slashed at the back of its neck with her sword and dropped it. The wagons were a fair way off by this stage. They hadn’t stopped for us and we needed to get back to them as quickly as we could. We looked around and saw no present danger as we started walking towards the wagons. May looked at me and gave me a smile that made me feel good.

We jogged back to the wagons. I looked at the end of the line and saw the two small children with the Professor. They both had swords that looked as big as they did. They were jogging along on either side of their horse. I suppose they were about five or six years old. They were wearing tiny leather armour and helmets too. I hadn’t ever seen armour like theirs. It was basically leather panels that covered each major part of their body and was laced with leather. I guess at a pinch it would stop the dead from biting them if they were bitten on a forearm or thigh.

I looked behind us as we jogged along and saw that there were two more coming at us. They didn’t seem like they would be such a problem. It was the dozens we were starting to see coming out of the wilderness up ahead that seemed to be concerning the horses more. As we reached the Professor’s wagon, Boss cracked his whip, making Ben do the same thing. We went faster, knocking over two of the dead as we went. One flew off the front of the horse while the other slammed into the front of the pole cart, splatting everywhere. The brothers were starting to run as fast as they could now, as the straps that kept them tied to the tailgate of the cart kept them moving at the same pace, and I yelled out to Boss.

“Oi!! I need to cut these two free or bring them on board!! You’re going too fast now!! They can’t keep up!!”

He turned his head for a moment and then drew his horse to full stop. There were three creatures lurking nearby, all female. As soon as we stopped they came at us. All of them were older women, and two of them wore parts of skins in various ways. Alexis sliced at them and silently put them down in seconds while Boss walked back to us. He looked at Passalus and Acmon, huffing and puffing. They were totally out of it. Their minds were flying from the leaves they’d just smoked. He watched them for a moment and furrowed his brow with concern.

“I swear to god – They’ll get us all killed one way or another.” Boss looked to our left. There were at least a dozen creatures coming our way and some of them were moving quite quickly too. He looked at the lashings on the brothers and saw that they were still quite tight, so he picked Passalus up in a bear hug from the middle of his hips and heaved him onto the back of the cart, then did the same thing to Acmon. They landed on the back with a thud and then they both giggled. Boss shook his head with a cross expression on his face and quickly began marching back to the front of the wagon to resume. Alexis had begun walking toward a large male creature that was coming straight at the home cart. To his surprise, though, he was beaten to it by one of the children. The small girl, the younger of the two. She seemed to fly through the air and slammed her half size sword straight into the side of the creature’s head. Alexis stopped and his face was interesting to see because I’d never seen him genuinely surprised like that before. I’ve seen him pretend to be surprised plenty of times, but never actually surprised.

“Wow!” I said to Boss. ‘Where’d a kid that age learn how to do that?’

“Same place that Alexis did. From the Professor.” he answered and smiled.

The kid smiled directly at me like she had just won a prize, then ran back to the Professor’s wagon. I didn’t know what the Professor did for a living, but I knew that he was a Mountebank. They specialise in a wide range of selling potions and tonics, along with other small instruments at market places. It made sense that he had with him two Merry Andrews. More to the point, he was old. About twice as old as Alexis, and certainly old enough to be Boss’ father. I wondered if he was the same Mountebank that took Boss on as a Merry Andrew when he was a small boy too. It would explain how he knew Alexis.

More dead were coming from the other side of the wagons, and Ben raised the alarm by yelling a sound of some sort. It wasn’t quite a word, more a groan of fear. He’s such a coward.

I got back down and looked but it wasn’t just one or two, it was more like twenty or thirty! There were so many of them. Boss jumped down from the drive-seat and came to me as quickly as he could. “You’ll need to do a better job than your last shot, mate. You can do this! I know it. Just time your steps and strike two before you get there. I need to protect the horse. As soon as there’s a chance to go, I’ll whistle and we’ll move. We can’t go yet or they’ll attack the Professor as he passes. Get going!”

I looked at them. They were all coming as fast as they could, but most had been dead a long time by the look of them. Interestingly though, there was a small person with them. A midget. The kind that are born like that. Boss saw it too and I saw his face. It was almost down to the bones on its knees where there should be skin. Boss stopped for a split second when he saw it and I knew what he was about to do.

“Elijah – you need to keep that one alive. Throw a tarp on it and keep it! We’ll show it!” I groaned.

May was near me now, which made me feel a bit better about the fact that the first of them were now only about twenty paces away from us. They were all wilderness people apart from one. A red headed woman in her late fifties I guess. Quite fat too. The first one of them came at me. A man only. Bit taller than me. I counted my steps and struck when I was two paces away from him, and he fell. A perfect hit. Then May hit one in the side of the neck. It fell too. Jeremy and Alexis were patrolling the front of the carriage with Boss, as the dead seemed to be more attracted to the horses then the wagons. I felt good for a moment about the creature I had just killed. I looked to make sure that the dwarf one was still coming our way. It was up the back and was still coming, but it was slower and kept falling because it’s knees had been damaged somehow.  But as I saw it approaching, my eyes looked further back into the woods. What at first appeared to be shadows turned out to be hundreds behind it. Too many for us to take. I looked over at Boss. He’d seen them too.

“Quick! Cut Acmon and Passalus free. They’re our escape! QUICK, DO IT!” he yelled. May and I ran to them. They were still lying in the back of the wagon, smoking the last of their pipes and we sliced at the ropes with our swords. May pushed Acmon in our direction. Over the other side I could see Alexis slicing and stabbing with two swords as just as many dead approached from that side too. I led Passalus toward the oncoming dead.

“What’s wrong with them?!’” She yelled at me. It was getting hard to hear her over the sounds of the moaning dead.

“I gave them leaves to smoke and it’s made their minds fly away.”

Her face showed surprise, but her mind returned instantly to the task at hand; feeding Acmon and Passalus to the dead. We got them into a light jog and then let them go. Boss jumped back into the drive seat ready to roll, but then he stopped. The first creature came alongside Acmon, but it took no interest in him at all. Acmon was laughing loudly now and jogging along, then Passalus began laughing also, and they ran right into the incoming dead. The creatures turned as they ran past and followed them, because the dead are attracted to the noises that the living make, but they didn’t at all try and stop them, catch them or most of all, eat them. They just followed them because they were making noise.

“What the hell!?” Boss said as he stood up in the driving range of the carriage. Boss’ plan was working, inasmuch that the dead were following the brothers away from us, but they weren’t interested in catching or eating them. In fact, several of them quickly got up alongside the brothers, and broke into a jog alongside them. This only serves to make the brothers scream more intensely, which in turn made the dead cluster themselves more closely to the brothers in an effort to be closer to the source of the sound. It became a sight that none of us could’ve ever have imagined, as the dead mobbed the brothers until they both disappeared from sight

“I can explain how that happens, Boss!” I yelled proudly. Then he turned to me with a look of panic.

“The Midget! Where did it go!?”

Boss was disappointed.

Forward the wagons charged, bouncing about on the unpaved surface, dodging stumps and fallen branches and occasionally crashing through shrubs. It was hard to see where Boss was taking us and I was sure we were going to lose the wagon completely at one point, or more likely break an axle or wheel when we went down a steep slope. The problem with going downhill in a wagon is that the wagon will quickly outrun the horses and hit them or push them and spook them and make them run in sideways directions. But what began as a steep downhill slope covered with low hanging branches, quickly pulled back up steeply to take us up the other side. Fortunately the sound of the dead had faded somewhat behind us, though we could still hear them enough to know that we couldn’t slow or stop. Over the next two hours we kept the horses at an even trot. The trees became more sparse and the ground became harder clay. I thought about the twins a little. Wondered what their endings would be like. We had almost begun to relax a little as we travelled on, when suddenly we were in a clearing of sorts. As we came past a line of trees we were suddenly in an open area. The wagons stopped because the horses had stopped themselves, not because they were told to. Boss cracked his whip and they lurched into a walk again.

I stood up and saw that we were on an open and long dirt road that went straight in both directions for miles. No fence at all, but a road that was clearly used. I could see May on the doorstep of the home cart behind us and she was also very surprised by what she saw. The path wasn’t made for wagons though. More of a wide walking track and quite uneven with potholes along it.

Steadily Boss began picking up the pace and the horses broke into a canter. I was still looking back at May when I noticed that the horse pulling the home cart was starting to buck as it went. They were tired and needed water. I looked at Boss. He was sitting with a straight back, but with his shoulders rounded. It’s the way you need to sit while steering a horse on a wagon. He looked strong and confident. For some reason I knew he had a plan. He always has a plan.

Empire Road – Part 35

Hole in the Wall

After a brief discussion, it was agreed that the only option was to go south and turn off the Empire Road to Pan and warn them of New Rome’s plans to attack from the south. I was still quite tired, so I found a place to curl up on the back of the pole cart under the canvas. I went back to the home cart first and grabbed my branches and put them back under the canvas cover where I would be. I was just starting to push the branches as far under as I could so that I wouldn’t have to smell them as I rested there, when Acmon spoke.

“What is that stuff?” I was surprised that he was coherent enough to speak. He looked dazed but was clearly watching me. They both were.

“It’s like a medicine. You smoke it and it makes your mind fly away for a while.” Their eyes widened and they looked at each other. Most communities have a version of this kind of medicine. The common one is called Angel Trumpet and is a huge white flower that you boil, and its juice makes your mind see all kinds of things.

“Go on, boy. Give us a pipe full then? You saw what they did to Towers. They’re going to do that to us too! At least let us be flying when they do it?” I looked at them. They were pathetic creatures really. Quite stupid both of them, but they were still people. So I took some of the dried leaves I had in my pockets out. I walked behind with them and fetched their pipes out of their coats. I went back to the home cart and got May’s flint box out and sat back on the tailgate of the cart. It takes me a bit longer to light a fire than May, but this time I was able to get a spark into the dry grass in the little box quite quickly. I put their pipes in my mouth and got them going, then put them in their mouths to puff away on while they walked. I packed them really tightly to last them longer.

We had been walking for about four hours when we reached the Empire Road. Boss stopped the cart just before he should have turned off. He looked down the Road. It would be two days walk to get back down to the Pan turn off. As we got to the Empire Road, Boss looked at it for a moment but then he began walking the horses forward again, heading toward Hopetoun. He turned around to me and beckoned me with his hand to go to him. Alexis came running up a moment later to ask why we hadn’t turned off like we all discussed earlier. Jeremy appeared on the other side on his little white pony a moment later.

“There were Roman soldiers on the other side of the road. I thought I saw some dead out there, on the other side of the fence, not long after we left the market. But when we got to the turn off, I heard footsteps running along the outside of the fence, and one of them whistled a whistle to sound like a bird.”

“But how do you know they were Roman?” Jeremy asked.

“Because he whistled a bellbird call. The dead caught all the bellbirds about a hundred years ago when the settlements put the walls up. The Catholics still have some in cages and breed them as mascots. But they’re dead in the wild.”

The sound of hoofs, of wagon wheels and the ground underfoot overtook the talking again. “Where to now?” Alexis asked.

“There aren’t many choices left,” Boss answered. “We need to head to Hopetoun. When we get there, we might be able to convince their elders to send a boat downstream to New Haven to raise the alarm.” But as Boss spoke his eyes widened. The road ahead of us was long and straight and we could see down it far enough that the walls on either side appeared to come together in a point in the distance. We all looked down the road to try and see what Boss was seeing. Then he turned to me.

“Go down along the path and see if that’s a trip line ahead. If it is, don’t touch it. And be careful where you step in case there’s others I haven’t seen.”

So I headed down the road, watching where I was going extremely carefully, being sure not to step on anything other than the road. I walked for about five minutes. Geez his eyes were sharp to see that. Sure enough, it was a piece of thin rope tied tightly across the path and ran out into the wilderness. What purpose it served was beyond me, but there it was. It went out into the western wilderness where there were no dead. If Boss was right, that he’d seen Roman soldiers out there earlier, the trip line would most likely be theirs. I went back and told them. By now the Professor and May were with him too.

“We’re boxed in. There’s nowhere left to go!” Jeremy said with a sound of despair in his voice.

“Not the case, lad,” Boss began. “But what I’m about to ask of you all is to trust me on something and follow me. I know this is gonna sound crazy but just … Please trust me.”

We watched him as he assessed responses. There was never a question that we would follow him, and now more so than ever. “Ok then. Elijah, go and get the saw and the large metalworking pliers, the axes and the crowbar from the pole cart. Alexis, give him a hand.” I liked that he asked Alexis to give me a hand. Alexis didn’t mind.

When we got back Boss, Jeremy and the Professor were studying the western side of the fence. We put the tools on the ground next to Boss.

“Righto. This will be the spot. Fast as you lot can, cut us a hole in the fence that we can get through out into the wilderness. Jeremy started slicing away at the ropes and the vines that grew up in between the pitch sticks, while Boss began hacking at the trunks of the small trees that were growing there. The Professor also took an axe and began slashing at the other point where we’d want it to open to. A few minutes later we had a length of the fence free, and we pulled the debris aside. There was still all manner of wood and sticks on the road, but the wagons could now get through.

“Good!” Boss said. ‘Now, everyone follow and keep the noise down. Keep your swords ready for the dead and stay close.”

Empire Road – Part 34

The Caravan

We got our swords and ran out of the hotel. Ben and Alexis were hitching up the Clydesdale to the pole cart and we walked alongside the home cart toward the gates of Upper Market. Alexis had removed all signs of circus from the wagons. The bunting was gone and so were the painted boards. Ben tied the brothers to each side of the pole cart at its tailgate. They both looked worse for wear, and both had bloodied faces and were limping.

“Leave us here! You know we’ll only betray you again!” Passalus yelled to Alexis. “Or are you going to kill us? You know that you’ll be more hunted for every living person you kill!” Alexis smiled slowly, turned around to face the sorry looking pair.

“Hahahahahaaa… nooooo… we won’t be killing you. Not at all. You’re coming with us in case we end up needing to cut you free to distract the dead so we can make a getaway.”

They went pale and stopped taunting him.

I looked back behind the pole cart. It was hard to see at first, but then as we turned back I noticed we were being followed by a small, black, home cart with a chimney on its chevron roof. It was painted jet black and there was an old man with long, white hair in a ponytail with a top hat driving it.

“Who’s that at the back?” I asked Boss.

“That’s the Professor,” he said with a half-smile.

“Were they his kids back there?”

“Well, not his own kids exactly … but he owns them.” I looked back again. I couldn’t see them much. It was still very early and only just light enough to make out shapes. We reached the gates and a man stopped us. It’s not the same as when you exit a town. You just have to pay to get in or out of the market. They don’t care if you’re pariah or a noble person. Just pay the gate man and you can enter.

Once we were on the Empire Road again Jeremy rode up to be beside us. His old horse was extremely well trained. But since it was killed at Pan, and he was forced to take an old mare as a replacement, he had decided to ride the small, white pony that Towers used to ride after we left the market, since Towers wouldn’t be needing it any more. Towers’ horse did one thing well; trot. It also looked a bit funny because Jeremy was so tall and slender that the little pony made him look even more out of place than Towers looked on it.

“Boss, we need to discuss where we go next.” Jeremy said as he came up alongside us.

“I agree. Can you please go and tell the Professor, Ben and Alexis to come up here, and ask May to watch the brothers and occupy the children?”

I was surprised that he included me in his plan. I didn’t think it was fair that he overlooked May just because she was female though. For a second I thought he was including me as one of the children. When the Professor arrived, I was fascinated by him. He was as tall as Jeremy, but thinner. His hair was snow white and silky. He wore a hat that went straight up like the Pope’s hat, but it was black, and like a tube. He had a moustache that was as white as his hair and curled at the sides with a rift of hair under his bottom lip.

“Professor,” Boss said, “This is Elijah, and Jeremy. Jeremy is a Ranger. You know my guys.” Ben and Alexis nodded to him and he took off his hat.

“Pleasure.”

Empire Road – Part 33

Upper Market

The Upper Market stinks. When we got inside they had everything we could possibly want and Boss bought us all hot meat pies and wine. It felt amazing to eat and drink when we were so hungry. Alexis stayed with the pole cart the whole time to make sure no one went poking around under there and found the body. All of my questions about where all of the outerwall people had gone to were answered as we approached the market. In their hundreds they were there, along with all manner of refugees from Schmidt and some from Pan too. It seems that anybody that wasn’t consumed by the onslaught of the various waves of dead at the different cities made their way here. The man with the quern stone was here as well. As soon as we entered Ben got drunk and then snored loudly, slumped against a wall in the hotel’s main bar room. May began flopping all over Jeremy next to the fireplace. He let his guard down a little and smiled from time to time. She was laughing and whispering in his ear. Boss looked happy. But then I realised I hadn’t seen the brothers since we got there.

I went over to Boss and grabbed his shirt sleeve.

“Boss – I haven’t seen the brothers all night.” He looked at me and his face became stern and serious again instantly. He looked about the room then back at me. “Thanks for the heads up. Can you go and tell Alexis they’re missing, and to keep an eye out for them? If he sees them, tell him to tell them I have pay for all you lot and that I want to give them theirs.” He smiled. “I don’t by the way, but if you see them, just tell them I do.”

The night was really cold now. Bitter in fact. Alexis had a thick, black woollen cloak on that made him hard to see in the dark. He normally keeps his beard trim but he hadn’t cut it for a week or more and it was now thick and bushy, which made him a bit harder to see in the dark.

“Hey,” I said to get his attention. He smiled. He’d seen me well before I realised. “Boss told me to tell you that the brothers are missing, and that if you see them to tell them that Boss has their pay.” He smiled and just said; “Will do.”

I went back into the hotel and saw Boss talking with two men. May was asleep with her head on Jeremy’s lap, but with her head and shoulders under his cloak. Must have been trying to block out the light and sound or something. She probably couldn’t get comfortable because she kept moving her head about trying to get comfortable or something. He was leaning back on the wall next to the fireplace. It was calm and quiet for a change. I settled down on a bench near the fire, but on the other side to Jeremy. I put my head down for a moment and closed my eyes. I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I blinked and it was morning in what seemed like a split second. I opened my eyes and sat up. My ribs hurt from the hard wooden bench. I was the first to wake. Boss only let me have one cup of wine, but they all had a lot. I guess they were still sleeping it off.

Suddenly the two, large, double doors to the room burst open and in walked a dozen men, all dressed in battle gear and all holding swords. There were ten people sleeping in the main room of the hotel and we all sprang to life in response. Boss got to his feet in an instant. I jumped when the doors burst open. I got to my feet as quickly as I could and turned to see the men who were now standing right in the middle of the room. They were all older looking men, most with beards. But at their back, almost hiding, were the brothers, Passalus and Acmon. Boss looked at them and his eyes narrowed. He reached down to take out his sword, but his face suddenly changed. None of our weapons were with us. I had kept one of the old swords beside me when I went to sleep that night, and Boss had one of the new ones. Jeremy’s sword was gone too.

“You would be variously known as the man who owns the Circus of Wonderment, I presume?” The man at the front of the group said in a stern voice to Boss.

“Yes. I am. What of it?”

“You probably already know this,” the bearded man said, as he used the opportunity to show off to his comrades a little. His voice became a little playful in a smug in an arrogant way. “There are bounties on you in both New Rome and Jessop, and a bounty in Haji for the body that we understand you have with you.”

Again, Boss showed them none of his cards. He just stood and watched as they outlined the situation for us. “So,” said the man, “First things first. Where’s Towers’ body?’’

Boss looked over at Jeremy and then at Ben. When I’d seen the wagon with the body loaded onto it the night before, the wagon couldn’t have been more obvious. It was parked right next to the big, public trough in the main square within yelling distance to where we were. It even had Circus written on it. Boss still said nothing, but instead he stared at the men.

Finally the leader of the bearded men broke the tense silence, as he lowered his head and snarled, “The body! Where is it!?”

“I have no bloody idea what body you’re talking about!?” Boss yelled back. “As for there being a bounty on us, how could that be when we were just helped past the wastelands where Schmidt used to be BY the Haji army?”

“Well then, that changes things!” The man said with a new look of surprise on his face. “But if the Haji army are friendly with you, then I’m sure that the Jessop army will pay me for your head anyway! But either way, you’re all worth rewards to me! Now TELL ME WHERE THE BODY IS!!” he bellowed.

Suddenly, as a tense silence crackled, a strange presence became observed. A small girl was now standing in the room. She had seemingly come in behind the men and found her way to the side near me. She was standing near the gap between Boss and the man with the sword. All attention fell to her. Then a small boy walked casually along the other side of the room, stopping at the gap between Boss and the men on the opposite side.

“These children with you?” he snapped at Boss.

Boss’ eyes widened to show a seriousness as he shook his head, “I swear, I’ve never seen either of them in my life.” As Boss finished speaking there came a loud whistle from outside. The men all turned their heads toward the door to see what it was. As they did, the girl caught something that was thrown in to her from the doorway. It hit her chest as it was thrown quite hard. She caught it, and then threw it as hard as she could to the boy, who caught it and then as quickly as he could, he threw it back out the doorway. The motion of catch and throw was so fast no one had a chance to do anything other than just watch as it happened. The object they were throwing looked like a horse shoe and it had a rope tied to it. As the girl threw it to the boy, it sent the rope between Boss and the men. As the boy threw the horseshoe back out the door it sent the rope with it, lassoing the men. With perfect timing, as the horse shoe was thrown back out the door, and the men became aware of the rope, Alexis, who had whistled in the first place, hooked the shoe onto the same rope and then slapped the horse on its ass. The men were all instantly jerked toward the doorway by the rope, pulling them all into one great heap on top of one another as the Clydesdale horse from our pole cart galloped into the main square of the market. Boss, Ben and Jeremy ran after them, grabbing two of the swords that had fallen from the men’s hands while Ben grabbed one from the hand of a man who looked quite badly hurt. One of the men had only been bowled over, and he got to his feet. He had his sword drawn and Alexis stared him down. He was closer to the doorway than we were and he ran.

“I believe that’s our cue?” Boss said, grabbing his bag from the floor where he’d slept.

“I can’t leave without my sword,” Jeremy said in alarm. Panetians are meant to protect and cherish the sword they get in the Patrio. While his wasn’t a typical Rapier it was still Pan in its design so he would treat it the same way.

“Neither can I,” May added.

One of the men was coming too. Alexis grabbed him by the scruff and slapped him across the face.

“Where did you put our swords?!”

“Behind the bar.” The man murmured. “You’ll all hang for this.”

“Yeah – that’s what they keep telling us,” Alexis replied as he threw the man back to the ground. The man fell backward against another of them and they all started moving. Boss pulled back one of their hoods. It was Passalus. Not far away was Acmon. Alexis looked at Boss.

“Bring them,” Boss said. I could tell by the look on his face that he was very angry with them.

Empire Road – Part 32

The Hanging Tree

The horses walked slowly toward the ramshackled remains of the two large buildings. The road had heaped piles of wood, bricks and debris stacked about waist high all along it, but the structure in front of us was clearly once a part of the city walls. After seeing what the Jessop battering-rams did to the wall of Pan, I had no doubt that the walls of Schmidt wouldn’t have stood a chance.  These walls were mostly made from stone, pitch sticks and fence lines and were half the height and strength of the walls of Pan. However, this part of the wall was made from mudbrick and still seemed mostly intact for a fair distance. 

Horse hoofs make an unmistakable sound and their clipping and clopping arrived at the tower before we did. In the dust and wind, we saw a single figure emerge from the doorway of the guardhouse. A horse followed him out. It was small horse. I was standing in the doorway of the home cart pressed up against May, but it was hard to make him out at first. Then we got a bit closer and we heard a familiar voice.

‘Haaaahahaha! If it isn’t the one and only Mr Fentaro!?’ the man yelled. It was the short, fat Ranger from New Rome! We stopped. Boss turned around and looked at Alexis. Ben got up into the drive seat of the pole cart and Boss got down to talk to the Ranger. God he is annoying looking with his stupid short looking arms. I was too far away to hear what was being said, but Boss gestured and whistled and we walked the horses over to the buildings. 

Once the horses were tied up I was sent to get them water while the others got out the little bit of food we had left. We would normally unhitch the horses, but since we weren’t sure how long we were about to stay there we thought better of it. I was so hungry! I hadn’t eaten for ages. None of us had. May started preparing her weeds to cook, which she was going to use with the oats that we had left over in a stew. She also had a bag of field grains she’d been collecting for a while. As long as they’re very ripe and not green, they can be milled into a coarse flour that you put with a stew like this and it thickens it. But it always makes it taste bitter. She was busily grinding two stones together with a few seeds between them at a time to make the flour in the back of the home cart, while Ben and the brothers began trying to light a fire. I took the buckets down to the river. I was happy that Boss sent me to get the water because it meant I could also take some water to my seedlings as well. Normally I would only fill one bucket with water, but this time I filled two. 

I went down to the river via a set of stone steps that trailed down beside the drawbridge. It took me outside the walls of Schmidt. The drawbridge was still there. It was our way out of there after we’d rested the horses. It felt reassuring that we could finally get back across the river, and onto the Empire Road again and get away from Jessop, the dead and into a city that wasn’t under attack and full of panic. The water was hard work to carry back up. I climbed a few paces, rested the buckets, then planned my next few steps and so on. I spilled some of the water from one of the buckets as I tripped a little. It was hard work. But then, as I got about halfway up the stone staircase, something caught my eye. I was looking up the sloping bank of the river and noticed huge bushes of the same kind of plant as my seedlings, growing under the drawbridge. I put the buckets down on a stone step and went over to see for sure. They were huge! Much taller than me and so thick that I couldn’t see through the foliage at all! It was so dense and healthy, and most of the plant had the fluffy, light coloured budding flowers on it. They smell terrible when they flower! I looked down though. My friend’s father grew these plants and I knew that the green leaves have to be dried first, but the buds are more powerful. So I reached down and stuffed as many big, dried leaves and buds as I could find that had naturally fallen to the ground into my pockets, before I broke off two thick wooded branches from the trunk. I wanted to show Boss what it was when we got back onto the Empire Road, and then let him see my seedlings. I thought that he could sell it at the markets as a curative for headaches and tension, like it’s used for in Leydon. It still smelled better than the dead, but it stank. I was truly tired of that stench of the dead!

When I got back they were all very excited about the water I brought. Everyone was hungry. The Ranger was smoking a pipe and leaning against the wall near May’s fire. Almost as soon as I got back into the stone gatehouse it began to rain. It started with thick, heavy drops that hit the stone street outside loudly. It fell here and there to begin with, but they got heavier until it was pouring. I thought it was ironic that not long after it started raining, the rain began coming off the roof in thick streams that would fill my buckets easily without needing me to go to the river and collect it. May boiled the oats and mixed in a big bunch of wilted fat-hen she’d collected as we walked into Pan, some mallow leaves, as well as a dozen roots of the same plant that she chopped into disks the same shape and size as small coins. They aren’t as tasty as a carrot, but similar if they’re big enough. They make the food feel more filling too. Hopefully it would help me imagine I wasn’t eating weeds for once.

The fat Ranger had some salt with him and he threw in a pinch or two. I went outside to put the branches in the back of the pole cart under the canvas. The wagon was parked beside the wall of the building to protect it from the rain. My two smaller plants were doing fine under there. I reached in under the canvas to stand one of them up a bit more. Then I cupped some water in my hand and trickled it onto them. Suddenly something grabbed my shoulder. I jumped!

“What you got in there, boy?” I spun around. It was the Ranger. He was smoking his pipe and looking unusually smug for some reason. He had a sort of cloak over his head which allowed him to be protected from the rain and kept his pipe dry. It was quite a sinister looking hood. I think he liked his little place in the world, and even though it was a run-down ruin he felt powerful to be “in charge” of it. “You planning something?” he added, tilting his head a little to see what I was doing under the canvas.

“No … I was putting these greens in here for the horses to eat later,” I stammered. He smiled slowly. “You like horses?” he asked in a slightly curious voice.  He was short, and fat and had horrid teeth. He had long ginger hair at the back and short hair at the top and front. He was probably only a little bit taller than me. But he was so full of his own importance that anyone meeting him for the first time could easily be forgiven for hating him entirely. I do. And this was only the third time I’d seen him.

“I s’pose so …” I said. I didn’t quite know what else to say. I didn’t want to say anything to him at all in fact. I looked back to the others. Boss and Alexis were talking, leaning against the outside wall, still sheltered from the rain by the eves of the roof. Then I looked back at the Ranger. There was something truly disturbing about him and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But then I heard the first of the dead coming. His eyes widened as we heard them knock some debris over on the path that led to where we were. It clattered a bit and then there was a thud as something larger fell. It was starting to get dark now and the rain wasn’t easing up. The wind was fading but when it blew our way we got a whiff of the potent stench of the dead that were approaching us. He went back to the gate house as quickly as he could. I watched as Alexis drew his sword and Boss reached down and picked up another. The brothers began putting out our fire with the boiling water. May hadn’t put any of the ingredients in yet, and she bundled them up and took them to the home cart with her. She came back a moment later wearing her Patrio breastplate and helmet and holding her rapier. There was no movement for a moment. I hoped that there was only one or two out there. Then we saw the first of them coming toward us. Only about a dozen at first. They were mostly all wearing Schmidt style clothing but there was a wilderness man with them too. The Schmidt clothing usually consists of brown trousers with rope down the outside legs and a white linen shirt. 

I walked swiftly back to the doorway of the gatehouse and Ben threw me a sword. I caught it by the handle and felt very manly. Alexis walked out into the rain, ready to start slaying them, but he was followed by the Ranger. He stopped walking when he noticed the short, fat, red headed Ranger following him, and he glanced back at Boss. Boss shrugged and smiled. He turned back and focussed on the incoming dead again. The Ranger took out his sword and stood beside Alexis. As the dozen or so creatures realised we were there, we were also able to see just how many there were following them. There were so many that we could no longer see any sign of the rubble behind them. It was unquestionably part or all of the group of dead we’d fled from earlier. There were also animals among it. A wombat was down by the side of one of the men, as though it was almost a pet. Suddenly the Ranger ran back toward us. His eyes were wide and he ran to his horse.

“There’s just too many of them!” he exclaimed. “No one said this would happen! It wasn’t meant to happen at all!!” Alexis was fast to follow him and he came running into the doorway. Boss grabbed the fat Ranger by the hair on the back of his head and ripped him to the ground. The Ranger fell on his ass and Boss growled at him; “What do you mean!? Who said what wasn’t meant to happen?!” But there was no time for an explanation. Ben and May moved quickly on Alexis’ orders and turned the carts around. The horses’ hoofs clattered into the confined gate house, and Boss threw the Ranger into the back of the pole cart as the horses walked toward the open drawbridge. He tied the reins of the Ranger’s little white pony to the back of the pole cart and we lurched forward.

As we got to the other side of the drawbridge, we started to see the dead walking past the gatehouse where we’d just been. We could only make out their silhouettes as they passed by the driveway that went into the town. One or two broke away from the pack and walked into the gatehouse to have a look about, but none came out onto the drawbridge. The dead are funny like that. Even though they have nothing to gain by being near others like them, they still seem to instinctively stick together when they can. It was Ben who pointed out the obvious. “They haven’t seen us!”

The horses didn’t break into a run, which surprised me at first. I wondered if it was because Boss didn’t want the noise to attract the dead, but then I saw why. He was walking beside the back of the pole cart and talking to the Ranger who was sitting on it with his legs dangling down. I couldn’t make out what they were saying because of the distance and the rain. More thunder rolled past us. Then I heard yelling, and the fat Ranger made his break for it. He jumped down off the back of the pole cart and started frantically trying to untie the reins of his horse from the flat bed. The Ranger pushed Boss away as he tried to stop him. I’ve always known Boss to solve all his problems with words, however Ben told me once that he saw Boss fight some thugs at a show and not one got close to him. Boss pushed the Ranger back but was met with a punch in the chest. It wouldn’t have hurt that much, because the Ranger was fat and had puny looking little arms. Boss opened up with a left and then a right, both with open palms though, but both hitting the Ranger in the sides of the head. The Ranger decided to make a run for it. It was funny to see how big and tough he likes people to think he is, but at the first sign of confrontation he ran. May was standing in the open doorway to the home cart and she giggled. 

The Ranger began running toward the woods as fast as he could, but it was no use. Alexis stopped the horse and jumped down from the drive seat. He was beside the huffing, puffing, fat Ranger almost instantly. He had his sword out and the Ranger did as he was told. We were still in eyesight of the drawbridge, so Boss started the wagons again as quickly as possible. Alexis lashed the Ranger’s hands and brought him back to me. He handed me the rope. It was tied around the fat man’s wrists extremely tightly and he was complaining that they were going red and swelling. We tied the rope tightly around his waist and then trailed it to me from a knot at his back. His thin red hair and moustache were dripping with the rain, and he looked at me for a brief second, and then back to the ground. I was watching him walking. I didn’t know how to react to this, because I’d never had to do anything like it before. May had the door open and was watching me from her bed. I watched him as he stomped along and wondered if Boss was going to make him walk the whole way. Then I started wondering what he’d said or done that made Boss risk any other Ranger we might meet taking action against us for disobeying one of their own. They could make us all pariah class for doing that! Then we wouldn’t be able to ever go into any community again! Just as I was starting to think about what it would be like to have a huge hole burned in the top of my left ear, which is what they do to pariah class, I saw the Ranger walk over something. It was bushy and looked out of place. It was the two branches from the bush I’d found! I gave May the rope and jumped down to get them. Once I had them again, I caught back up with the home cart and hooked them onto the back where there was a hook to hang luggage.

“Oi!” I yelled out at the brothers. “Stop throwing my stuff out of there!” I don’t think they heard. They probably threw it out from under the canvas because it stunk really bad under there.

The rain was beginning to come down really hard again, and we were all getting drenched. May was in the home cart while I was sitting on its step holding the rope that was towing the fat Ranger along behind us. The brothers were hiding under the canvas on the pole cart while Boss and Alexis drove it. Ben was driving us, and he kept looking back over his shoulder to try and see if any creatures were following us. Lightning shot through the sky. Then thunder.

The road out of Schmidt leads directly west away from it, over the river, onto the Empire Road, and toward Upper Market. It’s one of the two big markets, but it’s slightly smaller than the one down near New Haven. We’ve performed plays there, like a theatre, but we never do very well. This is the market where the farmers all come to sell and swap their animals. Because of that it stinks there of manure and the carcases of the butchered beasts that get left behind. They have a warden there who is meant to police the whole thing, but he takes bribes. At least we would be safe there. Its walls are some of the highest and thickest of any. And it couldn’t smell as bad as the dead.

The road on this side of the river is muddy and uneven. The Empire Road runs north south and parallel to the river, which means that the area we were traveling west to east along was cutting through an area with no dead traditionally inside its walls. It felt strange to be on yet another road with no fences either side of it though. 

It took about four hours to get there. The horses were exhausted and were barely able to pull the wagons when the walls of the market came into sight. The rain had drawn back to an intermittent drizzle, and we were all extremely tired, wet and cold. Boss stopped the pole cart first. We could see smoke columns rising from Upper Market and the occasional twinkle of a light from inside it. It made us all feel a bit safer. Suddenly, Boss pulled the wagon over and he came back to us with Alexis by his side. They stood facing the fat and exhausted Ranger. He was looking extremely tired now. He stopped walking and just stood there with the ropes still tied around his dark red hands. When Boss approached him he looked up. He eyeballed Boss and Boss stared straight back.

“Where would you rather be hung, Haji or Pan?” Boss asked flatly. 

“You’re the ones who’ll hang! You and all your BASTARD kind!” he snarled back. He truly believed in what he was saying. “Now that we know for sure that Jordan Towers AND the bounty hunter are dead, there remains no one left who knows about New Rome’s link to Jessop except for YOU!” The Range felt pretty confident that anything Boss may have suspected about his involvement would only serve to incriminate him by knowing it in the first place. But Boss wasn’t the kind of guy who would ever bet on anything or take a risk he didn’t need to take. I watched Boss. It was a fascinating moment. We were all there, watching, like it was a play. But what I saw was yet another moment when Boss knew when not to speak. It was clear to me, and also Alexis I gathered, that Boss didn’t know that New Rome had any connection with the Jessop attacks. Boss just stood there, with his arms folded, and began to grin smugly. It seemed to provoke the Ranger and his face screwed up before he gave out another spray at Boss. “You, these … HARLOTS and CRIMINALS … You’ll ALL be HUNG! And then every single last person from Pan, and then Haji – this is the realisation of Christ’s Kingdom on earth and no one who doesn’t convert will be spared!” He was out of breath again and almost hissing as he sprayed his last words. Boss looked surprised. He looked at Alexis for a moment.

“Go see what he has in his saddlebags.”

The Ranger’s eyes grew wide and he flew into a panic, tugging and trying desperately to get out of his ropes. 

“Do it,” Boss said, “and I’ll stick you.” He put his sword at the fat man’s ribs. He spat at Boss. He missed, but Boss still slapped him in the side of the head with his palm again.

“Oh, ho, ho!!!!” Alexis bellowed back to Boss. It wasn’t like him to make open or loud displays in any way. Alexis was a quiet man. But something had grabbed his attention and he was rushing to show Boss. He came straight up to him with a small leather envelope in his hand. He gave it to Boss and Boss looked slowly and carefully at whatever was in it. 

“No… hahahahaaaa… Oh… my… GOD! You’re KIDDING me!?” Boss said, with much the same grinning and hearty expression that Alexis had just shown in his voice. “You?! YOU’RE Jordan Towers??” Boss said as he held up an official looking piece of paperwork. “You’re not a ranger at all, are you? You just killed one and have been pretending to be him so you can come and go freely from New Rome and Jessop, so you could help set this whole thing up! You’re just a salt trader from the communities by the sea and you don’t care who wins this as long as you get paid to be a spy! And while everyone was out looking for Jordan Towers, you took cover in plain sight as a fat, retarded Ranger and no one ever suspected anything! Hahahahaa. BRILLIANT!” Boss said mockingly. There was a moment of silence. Boss looked at Alexis. It was kind of hard to overlook the fact the Boss really was enjoying this now. He was so highly entertained I thought he might clap. Alexis was as entertained by Boss’ reaction as Boss was by the whole thing. 

“Says here that he’s really from Schmidt?” Alexis said, as he read more of the papers from inside the Ranger’s pouch. 

“Bullshit!!!!” Boss said in astonished awe. Like someone watching a sporting match and yelling in disbelief at an umpire’s decision. “How could you do that to your own people?!” 

“So what of it?!” he spat back at Alexis in response.

“So… it’s safe to guess that you were a failure in your own community, so you went to Jessop in search of love?” Alexis added in a mocking kind of way. He glared at Boss then Alexis. “And you thought you would rebuild Schmidt and be its king or something? Is that right?”

“I’m more important than the Pope right now, and when this is all finished and I am the new emperor of Schmidt you will all pay for this injustice you’ve committed against me!!”

“Well then,” Boss said after a pensive pause. “If we’ll have to pay that much for making you walk for a few hours…”

“Oh you’ll pay alright! Just as soon as word gets out that you’ve disrespected me and the Papal authority!” 

“Well then, I guess we better make it worth our while and hang you here before you can tell anyone.” Boss added calmly. Tower’s expression dropped from his face and he watched Boss with widening eyes.

“Ben, get the rope. Alexis, back this up to that tree. You lot, help me get his fat ass onto the back of the pole cart.” There was a flurry of activity, and we each began walking toward Towers. He took a slight step backwards, as his head flicked from one of us to another. He snarled and spat at the ground.

“You’ll never get away with this!”

“Hahaha. Who’s gonna help yer out now? The Pope?” Ben said mockingly. But almost on cue, as he spoke, we heard the sound of horse hoofs approaching from the direction we’d come. We all froze and turned our attention back toward Schmidt. It was faint at first and then became louder, until we could hear a horse clearly in the distance. It crossed all of our minds that the horse may not be living. But then it was moving too fast which was reassuring. Dead animals don’t move as quickly as living ones. This horse was really moving. Alexis drew his sword. The light was gone now entirely, and we had to wait until the rider was really close before we could see who it was. Its horse was travelling at a medium canter, but it drew back to a walk as it approached. Then it stopped.

I think I was the first to notice who it was. But May was certainly the next to see.

“Jeremy!” she yelled in a high pitched voice.

The Ranger recognised him too and all his hopes were raised up again. “Thank Christ! GOD SENT YOU!!! Boy – you must untie me at once and help me get these CRIMINALS to a town prison!”

Jeremy got down off his horse slowly. He was assessing what was going on very carefully and was thoughtfully considering his options. He looked at Alexis and then at the sword he was still holding. Alexis put it back in its sheath as a sign of respect and good will. Jeremy turned to look at Boss with the rope. “What’s going on?”

Boss walked over to him and held out the papers. I was standing next to Jeremy now and I got to see them for the first time. Schmidt English is a bit different to Leydon English, but I could make out enough of what was there to see that it was a property deed of some sort. I wasn’t sure if Jeremy could read it because Pan written language is a completely different set of characters called Panskrit. What’s more, it had a red stamp on it that said something like “çonfiscato”. 

Jeremy ripped his sword out of his belt and held it high. He turned to Boss. ‘“Are you 100% sure that this is Jordan Towers?!”

“Yes – completely sure!” Boss said and took a step backward. Jeremy was taller than Alexis by a couple of inches but not as bulky. I would have always thought that Jeremy and Alexis would be a pretty even match against one another if they ever had to fight, because Jeremy seemed to have an intensity that Alexis didn’t. But hearing this news, and finding out that this was the man who had allowed Jessop to kill half his city a day earlier, made Jeremy lose his grip a little bit. It was only a momentary expression. But his temper seemed to rise up in an instant. As his face contorted, it showed just how much rage and strength he was capable of, and he slammed his sword straight down into the front of Tower’s face, cutting him in two down to about the middle of his chest. Towers fell to his knees then flopped sideways to the ground with a thud. There was silence for a moment, then Jeremy yanked his sword from the body. He cleaned its blade on Tower’s leg then put it back in his belt. What he said next was a surprise to us all. “New Rome, Jessop and Haji are offering huge rewards for him dead or alive. I have no use for money so you will take him to Haji. I would imagine that since New Rome has started attacking Pan from the front, that they and Jessop are allies and both would be offering a reward to kill whoever kills Towers. So I’ll come with you to Haji to testify that you killed Towers and you can claim the reward.” Boss smirked at him and shrugged.

“You don’t have to twist my arm.” He said thoughtfully, but with a slightly happier tone.

Literary Agent

The journey of publishing Empire Road has been a fascinating experience for me. Although I’ve also published several other books, this was the first time I’d put a work of my own creation. The bulk of Empire Road was written five years ago and I re-read it over the following years, editing and refining it several times. As a slight spoiler, there is a sequel to Empire Road, which is in a similar position; as I now fiddle with it and finalise it before I am able to publish it too.

From here, however, the future is unknown to me. If I had been asked in January whether I was going to publish Empire Road this year I would have said an absolute no. But lockdown, Covid19 and social isolation has changed so much for everyone, and as a result, with more time on my hands now than ever before, I have been able to edit the text one final time with my editor Tammy, and put it online for any and all to enjoy.

So now, as I find myself in the present, with social isolation and distancing laws changing yet again, and I am about to be thrown back into the frantic pace of life that I’ve always known, and I will most likely have little to no spare time available to spend on the illustrations and uploads of Empire Road that is love to have. And while this makes me more than a little sad, because I’ve truly come to love the chats and discussions that I’ve had with people from all over the world about the different chapters as they’ve been posted, it also means that I will now be limited by work and time to keep posting them in a way that introduces the story to new people who would also enjoy it as a work of literature.

So, after a lot of thought and consideration, I will be publishing Empire Road, both online and in hard copy, later this week. At present I have uploaded a little over half of the story here on WordPress, and this will make the other half available for any and all to access all in one hit.

Finally, I will start sending some sample chapters around to literary agents in the hope that one of them might pick it up. While I have a good reach as an independent publisher, and I tend to sell around 500-1000 of each of my true crime books, I truly believe that this books appeal with a mainstream audience is much larger, and I feel that an established publication house would be able to offer this story a far wider audience than I ever could. So, If anyone reading this post happens to know a literary agent who’d be keen to discuss representing Empire Road, and it’s sequel, Jericho Road, I would love you to show them 🙂

Stay tuned on Facebook and here on WordPress for the following posts while I’m still able and I look forward to your comments and messages as always.

Empire Road – Part 31

Into the Wind

The sun broke through when we hit the open fields. The earth was a strange sight because I’d never seen anything quite like it before. It had a grey colour, like the dirt that’s always underfoot, but it wasn’t compacted like it usually is out in the forests or beside the Empire Road. It was loose, and clumped, like freshly turned fields look, but it wasn’t dark like healthy soil in a cultivated field. It was pale, and strewn with sticks and stones and difficult to negotiate through. Each community has a growing area. Some even have them outside their city walls like Leydon does, because the dead don’t eat plants. But the animals are always kept within the city walls. None of the communities bothered to grow or raise all the same things unless there was something they needed that they couldn’t get at the markets. The markets happened every Saturday and Sunday. We’ve been to both markets and performed there, but they are much harder work. People there are there to work, buy and sell. But, where there’s money we will go. I don’t know how the wild people get their food. The three we had with us looked lean. They were walking between the wagons, but staying very closely together. Alexis was talking quietly to them in their language. Judging by what he was saying and the occasional head gesture he made, I guessed he was telling them where we were going and about what Boss had said.

The fields didn’t look usable as a place to grow anything. It was just baron land now. A wind picked up and it brought with it dust. It stung as it hit our skin and we had to shield our eyes. The horses hadn’t seen open spaces like this before and they were getting jumpy. They’d spent their whole lives on roads with fences either side of them, or inside community walls. As we began on the path to Jessop, we were accompanied by two soldiers who were both riding small chariots. They were more or less just platforms large enough for one man to stand on with a woven guard at the front that went up to his stomach. The woven basket and the platform had light wooden framing, and from under where the man was standing came a long wooden pole. It was attached from the middle of where he stood and it went upward on an angle with a yoke on its end. The yoke was placed on the shoulders of two creatures who were wearing the straps and metal rings. The yoke was connected to the large rings in the middle of their backs and as they walked they pulled the chariot along. On their heads the creatures also wore leather straps, but attached to them were blinkers on both sides of their face to keep them looking forward, much like horses have. To drive them there was a very clever device that was controlled by the driver. Coming from the yoke between the two creatures was a spindly piece of bamboo. It was shaped like a rainbow, about the length of a normal man. On its other end was what looked like a bird. It probably was once, but it was clearly dead. Any time the driver wanted to move forward he tugged on a line that went to the bamboo arch that held the bird and it would bob up and down like it was flying. But more than that, it had some sort of little whistle in it so that it also made a chirping sound every time it bobbed. The sound and the movement were exactly what excited the dead and they began jogging after it. To turn left or right, the driver pulled another rein and the bird would lean one way or another and the creatures would follow.

“You need to give us some space!” Boss yelled to the soldier in the chariot who was closest to us. “Your creatures are spooking our horses!” The soldier nodded and tugged on his little strap that made the bird tweet and jump about and his creatures broke into a jog. The dead have an inclination to keep walking no matter where they are. Day and night. They never rest. They just keep trudging forwards looking for something living to eat. It’s only when something stimulates them that they get the idea that there might be food in front of them, and then you can tell which ones have been dead for a long time or a short time. One of the two chariots was clearly being pulled by fresher creatures than the other and it went straight off into the distance. The other tried to follow for a bit but then fell back instead and settled on a steady pace a short distance behind us. I got a good look at his creatures. They looked like Paneretians. Both female and both quite young.

May was walking beside me. We were walking behind the home cart to stay away from the wind and the dust. It didn’t seem to bother the wilderness people between the two carts. They just put their heads down and kept on walking. May smiled at me. I saw that there was dust and dirt covering her face because it cracked when the lines beside her mouth and eyes moved.

“You’ve grown,” she said. I looked at her. I didn’t feel like I had. “When I met you, you were shorter than me.” I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. A drip of sweat rolled down her brow and it left a line of clean skin that followed it down her neck and onto her shoulder. I felt sorry for her, to have no family and to have also lost Raf. I looked at her as she walked and my sight was caught by something moving out on the field. It was a fair way off in the distance. There was a track leading off from the one we were on and several dead were walking toward us on it. I guessed they were coming out of the woods, but I found it interesting that they instinctively seemed to be drawn to the track rather than just walking through the rough, bumpy field. It seems that Boss saw it at the same time as I did, and he whistled to the driver of the chariot in front of us. He turned around and saw Boss pointing. He craned his head and began driving across the field to the track. Boss stopped the pole cart and Alexis stopped the home cart. A short time later the other soldier arrived behind us and stopped as well. He was trying to position himself behind the home cart so that he’d also be out of the wind. However, it meant that his creatures started trying to attack May and me as we sat on the cart! They both began swiping at the air and making their half word-grunts at us. To stop them from running away with him, the soldier put on the breaks of the chariot which locked the wheels in place. But still, we were also trying to stay out of the dust and wind, as well as Passalus and Acmon, and it was driving the creatures wild to be so close to us.

“Move it you lot! You’re working them up being that close to them!” The soldier growled at us. So we moved. I walked away from the pole cart in the same direction that the wind was travelling to try and still be a little bit sheltered. Passalus and Acmon walked to be beside the horse at the front of the cart. The wilderness people just huddled in the space between where the carts had come to a halt. But May walked the other way. She walked along to the back to be beside the soldier. He was a thin man, but well built. He didn’t look terribly interested in anything. I guess being a soldier is hard work and he looked like he wasn’t enjoying it much. May stood beside his wheel, and then leaned against it. I could just make out what she was saying but I pretended I wasn’t listening. It’s a trick I learned from a young age so my dad wouldn’t know I was listening to him or he would stop talking to himself.

“You don’t mind if I stand here do you? That wind is dreadful!”

“Sure,” he answered.

“Can I ask you a question about Jessop?”

The soldier softened a little, but only through guarded curiosity. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say anything so May went right ahead and asked. “Do you have an arena in Jessop?”

He smiled. “Yes. We have four!”

“Are they all arenas? Or are some theatres?” May added, drawing him into the discussion a bit more. He seemed a little amused, though also clearly offended that she wouldn’t think Jessop was big enough to have so many arenas.

“We have four arenas, two theatres and a Pro Cantu,” he explained. May is pretty. Most men like to talk to her. But this one didn’t have much interest in her in the usual ways. He was watching her, but looking at her boobies mostly. I didn’t think May noticed because all she did when he told her about all the places they have entertainment was look away from him. She glanced over her shoulder at the other soldier who was galloping as fast as his dead could carry him in the direction of the creatures that were now cantering toward him on the road. He was about halfway to them and would be another minute or so before he got there.

“What’s a Pro Cantu?” May asked as she turned back to the soldier.

“It’s a place where we listen to songs and music.”

A gust of wind swept past us and brought with it a solid wall of dust. We all got in closer to the home cart to get shelter. The two creatures harnessed to the soldier’s chariot took another swipe at me and he glared. I don’t think he liked his creatures at all. Then again, neither did I. God they stank.

The gust of wind hit us like a wall, and then I watched it as it travelled across the field in a steady line. It looked like heavy rain does when it falls in sheets during a storm. The dust in it was making the pattern of the wind visible and I was surprised by how fast it moved. About that time, I also noticed that it had completely obscured my vision of the other soldier in his chariot and the dead who were coming toward us. They were too far away to see now because of the dust in the wind. In fact, I could only see about half as far as I could when we first stopped there. Then another gust of wind came and hit us. It was getting stronger as the day got warmer, but the warmth of the sun was making the ground drier and picking up more and more dust with each gust of wind. Suddenly a hand grabbed my elbow. It was Boss. I jumped.

“Slowly go and stand as close to the door to this wagon as you can. When I signal go and get the new swords from inside the cart. Hide them from view. Keep one and give one to me. Give May her rapier.” Then he leaned next to me and raised his eyebrows at the soldier. He gave Boss a brief look but then looked back at May, who was now bending over to re-tie her shoe straps again in front of him. She mustn’t be very good with knots because it was the second time she’d tied them in front of him. I slowly walked along toward the horse and leaned against the front corner of the wagon. I could see Ben and the brothers sitting on the back of the pole car. Ben nodded at me and I saw that his hand was on the handle of a sword too. I could just make out Alexis’ shape in the driver’s seat. As I looked at them the wind dropped a bit. The sky was grey and it wasn’t very bright now, but as the dust fell away it seemed to get a little brighter all of a sudden. I was still looking at the brothers when I heard the soldier near May raise the alarm.

“What the…” I spun around and saw that he was staring off intently toward his friend. I turned the other way to look across the field of dust and saw that the soldier was now running toward us. He was about halfway back from where he’d originally gone to attack the dead, and he was running, on foot, as fast as he could! The dust was still thick in the air and obscuring our vision a little. We strained our eyes. I had to rub mine because they were filling with the fine dust and sand as quickly as I could clear them. But then as he got within voice range, we could make out what he was running from. He wasn’t being chased by the three creatures he went to take care of. In the time that the dust had risen up hundreds, possibly thousands of dead had emerged from the woods and they were coming toward us as fast as they could! But not just human dead; animals of all descriptions too! The first I saw was a fully grown sow. I had to double take when I saw it because I thought it might be a human crawling along, but then behind it I saw a goat and a horse over on the side too. It was so hard to see through the dust! Then the soldier tripped as he ran. He fell into a shallow hole on the field and almost disappeared from view completely. Another huge gust of wind picked back up and swept past us, bringing with it a new cloud of dust. We lost sight of the soldier in the field for a moment, but we could still hear him. It was a moment before the new cloud of dust settled, but when it did we all knew we had to move fast! The dead had caught up to the soldier and were well and truly devouring him, even though he was still screaming!

The soldier beside us looked terrified. His eyes widened and he drew his sword. I don’t know if he saw how many creatures, not to mention animals, there were when the dust fell away for that brief moment, but he clearly didn’t realise how little chance he had of saving his friend. The wilderness people did, because they saw their opportunity and they ran like hell away. The soldier pulled on his little straps, making the little bird tweet and lean left. His creatures started pulling toward the field at a jogging pace and he yelled at them, “YA” like a horse. Boss looked at me and grabbed May as the chariot passed us.

“Get on!” May and I jumped onto the steps that led into the home cart and Boss jumped on its driver’s seat. “Ya!!” he yelled, cracking a whip to also make Alexis know that it was time to move. Boss and Alexis have a lot of signals and codes to communicate with one another while no one is aware of what they’re saying. This time it was a whistle Boss made and Alexis made it back. I don’t know exactly what it meant, but Alexis made the pole cart horse gallop and ours followed. I’d never seen a horse pulling a wagon at gallop pace like that before. I also didn’t know these animals very well yet. I didn’t even know these two horses could gallop in the first place. Our horse was old, with a pronounced sway back. The other was a Clydesdale, but it looked too young to pull something that size. We stayed on the path, but it was still very bouncy. May got us into the home cart and we shut the door. Just her and me. It was dark in there. The pots and pans all clattered against one another as they bounced and swayed on their hooks. She sleeps in there with her mat and things, which were in a bundle at the back on the floor. It looked like a nest. She sat down and I sat next to her. My eyes adjusted to the light a bit and we sat, listening to the horses, bouncing about. We listened for a while; listening for any noise other than the horses, pots and the pans. We were listening to know if the dead were getting close to us or not. After a bit, when we’d relaxed, May spoke.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“I’m nearly fifteen,” I answered. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen,” She replied. After a long pause she sighed and put her head on my shoulder. It made me feel funny. I couldn’t describe it. I didn’t want the horse to stop running. But shortly thereafter they did. They’d been galloping for about fifteen minutes, then they went back to a fast trot. It was a good run for horses pulling carts like this. We stopped bouncing about and the road became smooth again. May got to her feet and opened the door to see where we were. I got alongside her and peeked through the crack. The dust was still thick and the wind was howling. May pushed the door open and we saw that we were on a paved road again. It was cobbled like the roads in New Rome, but there were no buildings around it at all. Just bits of walls, rubble and burnt piles of what were probably once buildings.

“Schmidt,” May said softly. We bounced around for a bit more on the road and the horses slowed to a walk.

“May – Come drive!” Boss yelled. Without a second thought she hopped out onto the seat next to him. Then he jumped down from the cart and whistled a new whistle to Alexis. There were some buildings up ahead and Boss seemed to be studying them closely from where we were. Ben took the reins from Alexis and he got down to walk next to Boss.

“That’s the gatehouse to Schmidt. If the drawbridge is still intact we can get across it and head out, and be back on the Empire Road.” Alexis didn’t offer any thoughts; he just waited for Boss to make a decision that he would follow. That was what he always did unless he knew something that he was sure Boss didn’t know and needed to.

“Look!” he exclaimed, ”Smoke!” It was hard to see through the dust, and the heavy wind was carrying it away quickly, but it was there alright. Coming out of a window in the stone wall of the guard house.

“It could only be a survivor of Schmidt …” Boss said, almost to himself. “You drive this one,” he added to Alexis. “If they try and fight us I’ll whip them into a gallop and we’ll try and charge past them straight over the drawbridge. But either way – follow me closely.”

Empire Road – Part 30

EMPIRE ROAD 

Part 30

The Hanging Tree

The horses walked slowly toward the ram-shackled remains of the two large buildings. The road had heaped piles of wood, bricks and debris stacked about waist high all along it. But the structure in front of us was clearly once a part of the city walls. After seeing what the Jessop battering-rams did to the wall of Pan I had no doubt that the walls of Schmidt wouldn’t have stood a chance.  These walls were mostly made from stone, pitch sticks and fence lines and were half the height and strength of the walls of Pan. However, this part of the wall was made from mud-brick and still seemed mostly intact for a fair distance. 


Horse hoofs make an unmistakable sound and their clipping and clopping arrived at the tower before we did. In the dust and wind we saw a single figure emerge from the doorway of the guardhouse. A horse followed him out. It was small horse. I was standing in the doorway of the home cart pressed up against May, but it was hard to make him out at first. Then we got a bit closer and we heard a familiar voice.

‘Haaaahahaha! If it isn’t the one and only Mr Fentaro!?’ the man yelled. It was the short, fat Ranger from New Rome! We stopped. Boss turned around and looked at Alexis. Ben got up into the drive seat of the pole cart and Boss got down to talk to the Ranger. God he is annoying looking with his stupid short looking arms. I was too far away to hear what was being said, but Boss gestured and whistled and we walked the horses over to the buildings.

Once the horses were tied up I was sent to get them water while the others got out the little bit of food we had left. We would normally unhitch the horses but since we weren’t sure how long we were about to stay there we thought better of it. I was so hungry! I hadn’t eaten for ages. None of us had. May started preparing her weeds to cook, which she was going to use with the oats that we had left over in a stew. She also had a bag of field grains she’d been collecting for a while. As long as they’re very ripe and not green they can be milled into a coarse flour that you put with a stew like this and it thickens it. But it always makes it taste bitter. She was busily grinding two stones together with a few seeds between them at a time to make the flower in the back of the home cart, while Ben and the brothers began trying to light a fire. I took the buckets down to the river. I was happy that Boss sent me to get the water because it meant I could also take some water to my seedlings as well. Normally I would only fill one bucket with water, but this time I filled two. I went down to the river via a set of stone steps that trailed down beside the drawbridge. It took me outside the walls of Schmidt. The drawbridge was still there. It was our way out of there after we’d rested the horses. It felt reassuring that we could finally get back across the river, and onto the Empire Road again and get away from Jessop, the dead and into a city that wasn’t under attack and full of panic. The water was hard work to carry back up. I climbed a few paces then rested the buckets, then planned my next few steps and so on. I spilled some of the water from one of the buckets as I tripped a little. It was hard work. But then, as I got about half way up the stone staircase, something caught my eye. I was looking up the sloping bank of the river and noticed huge bushes of the same kind of plant as my seedlings growing under the drawbridge. I put the buckets down on a stone step and went over to see for sure. They were huge! Much taller than me and so thick that I couldn’t see through the foliage at all! It was so dense and healthy, and most of the plant had the fluffy, light coloured budding flowers on it. They smell terrible when they flower! I looked down though. My friend’s father grew these plants and I knew that the green leaves have to be dried first but the buds are more powerful. So I reached down and stuffed as many big, dried leaves and buds from the ground as I could find that had naturally fallen to the ground into my pockets before I broke off two thick wooded branches from the trunk. I wanted to show Boss what it was when we got back onto the Empire Road, and then let him see my seedlings. I thought that he could sell it at the markets as a curative for headaches and tension, like it’s used for in Leyden. It still smelled better than the dead, but it stank. I was truly tired of that stench of the dead!

When I got back they were all very excited about the water I brought. Everyone was hungry. The Ranger was smoking a pipe and leaning against the wall near May’s fire. Almost as soon as I got back into the stone gatehouse it began to rain. It started with thick, heavy drops that hit the stone street outside loudly. It fell here and there to begin with, but they got heavier until it was pouring. I thought it was ironic that not long after it started raining the rain began coming off the roof in thick streams that would fill my buckets easily without needing me to go to the river and collect it. May boiled the oats and mixed in a big bunch of wilted fat-hen she’d collected as we walked into Pan, some mallow leaves, as well as a dozen roots of the same plant that she chopped into disks the same shape and size as small coins. They aren’t as tasty as a carrot, but similar if they’re big enough. They make the food feel more filling too. Hopefully it would help me imagine I wasn’t eating weeds for once.

The fat Ranger had some salt with him and he threw in a pinch or two. I went outside to put the branches in the back of the pole cart under the canvas. The wagon was parked beside the wall of the building to protect it from the rain. My two smaller plants were doing fine under there. I reached in under the canvas to stand one of them up a bit more. Then I cupped some water in my hand and trickled it onto them. Suddenly something grabbed my shoulder. I jumped!

“What you got in there, boy?” I spun around. It was the Ranger. He was smoking his pipe and looking unusually smug for some reason. He had a sort of cloak over his head which allowed him to be protected from the rain, and kept his pipe dry. It was quite a sinister looking hood. I think he liked his little place in the world, and even though it was a run-down ruin he felt powerful to be ‘in charge’ of it. “You planning something?” he added, tilting his head a little to see what I was doing under the canvas.

“No… I was putting these greens in here for the horses to eat later,” I stammered. He smiled slowly. “You like horses?” he asked in a slightly curious voice.  He was short, and fat and had horrid teeth. He had long ginger hair at the back and short hair at the top and front. He was probably only a little bit taller than me. But he was so full of his own importance that anyone meeting him for the first time could easily be forgiven for hating him entirely. I do. And this was only the third time I’d seen him.

“I s’pose so…” I said. I didn’t quite know what else to say. I didn’t want to say anything to him at all in fact. I looked back to the others. Boss and Alexis were talking, leaning against the outside wall, still sheltered from the rain by the eves of the roof. Then I looked back at the Ranger. There was something truly disturbing about him and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But then I heard the first of the dead coming. His eyes widened as we heard them knock some debris over on the path that led to where we were. It clattered a bit and then there was a thud as something larger fell. It was starting to get dark now and the rain wasn’t easing up. The wind was fading but when it blew our way we got a whiff of the potent stench of the dead that were approaching us. He went back to the gate house as quickly as he could. I watched as Alexis drew his sword and Boss reached down and picked up another. The brothers began putting out our fire with the boiling water. May hadn’t put any of the ingredients in yet, and she bundled them up and took them to the home cart with her. She came back a moment later wearing her Patrio breastplate and helmet and holding her Rapier. There was no movement for a moment. I hoped that there was only one or two out there. Then we saw the first of them coming toward us. Only about a dozen at first. They were mostly all wearing Schmidt style clothing but there was a wilderness man with them too. The Schmidt clothing usually consists of brown trousers with rope down the outside legs and a white linen shirt.

I walked swiftly back to the doorway of the gatehouse and Ben threw me a sword. I caught it by the handle and felt very manly. Alexis walked out into the rain, ready to start slaying them, but he was followed by the Ranger. He stopped walking when he noticed the short, fat, red headed ranger following him and he glanced back at Boss. Boss shrugged and smiled. He turned back and focussed on the incoming dead again. The Ranger took out his sword and stood beside Alexis. As the dozen or so creatures realised we were there we were also able to see just how many there were following them. There were so many that we could no longer see any sign of the rubble behind them. It was unquestionably part or all of the group of dead we’d fled from earlier. There were also animals among it. A wombat was down by the side of one of the men as though it was almost a pet. Suddenly the Ranger ran back toward us. His eyes were wide and he ran to his horse.

“There’s just too many of them!” he exclaimed. ‘No one said this would happen! It wasn’t meant to happen at all!!” Alexis was fast to follow him and he came running into the doorway. Boss grabbed the fat Ranger by the hair on the back of his head and ripped him to the ground. The Ranger fell on his ass and Boss growled at him; “What do you mean!? Who said what wasn’t meant to happen?!” But there was no time for an explanation. Ben and May moved quickly on Alexis’ orders and turned the carts around. The horses’ hoofs clattered into the confined gate house, and Boss threw the Ranger into the back of the pole cart as the Horses walked toward the open drawbridge. He tied the reigns of the Ranger’s little white pony to the back of the pole cart and we lurched forward.

As we got to the other side of the draw bridge we started to see the dead walking past the gatehouse where we’d just been. We could only make out their silhouettes as they passed by the driveway that went into the town. One or two broke away from the pack and walked into the gatehouse to have a look about, but none came out onto the drawbridge. The dead are funny like that. Even though they have nothing to gain by being near others like them, they still seem to instinctively stick together when they can. It was Ben who pointed out the obvious. “They haven’t seen us!”


The horses didn’t break into a run, which surprised me at first. I wondered if it was because Boss didn’t want the noise to attract the dead, but then I saw why. He was walking beside the back of the pole cart and talking to the Ranger; who was sitting on it with his legs dangling down. I couldn’t make out what they were saying because of the distance and the rain. More thunder rolled past us. Then I heard yelling, and the fat Ranger made his break for it. He jumped down off the back of the pole cart and started frantically trying to untie the reigns of his horse from the flat bed. The Ranger pushed Boss away as he tried to stop him. I’ve always known Boss to solve all his problems with words, however, Ben told me once that he saw Boss fight some thugs at a show and not one got close to him. Boss pushed the Ranger back but was met with a punch in the chest. It wouldn’t have hurt that much, because the Ranger was fat and had puny looking little arms. Boss opened up with a left and then a right; both with open palms though, but both hitting the Ranger in the sides of the head. The Ranger decided to make a run for it. It was funny to see how big and tough he likes people to think he is, but at the first sign of confrontation he ran. May was standing in the open doorway to the home cart and she giggled. The Ranger began running toward the woods as fast as he could, but it was no use. Alexis stopped the horse, and jumped down from the drive seat. He was beside the huffing, puffing, fat Ranger almost instantly. He had his sword out and the Ranger did as he was told. We were still in eyesight of the drawbridge so Boss started the wagons again as quickly as possible. Alexis lashed the Ranger’s hands and brought him back to me. He handed me the rope. It was tied around the fat man’s wrists extremely tightly and he was complaining that they were going red and swelling. We tied the rope tightly around his waist and then trailed it to me from a knot at his back. His thin red hair and moustache were dripping with the rain, and he looked at me for a brief second, and then back to the ground. I was watching him walking. I didn’t know how to react to this, because I’d never had to do anything like it before. May had the door open and was watching me from her bed. I watched him as he stomped along and wondered if Boss was going to make him walk the whole way. Then I started wondering what he’d said or done that made Boss risk any other Ranger we might meet taking action against us for disobeying one of their own. They could make us all pariah class for doing that! Then we wouldn’t be able to ever go into any community again! Just as I was starting to think about what it would be like to have a huge hole burned in the top of my left ear, which is what they do to pariah class, I saw the Ranger walk over something. It was bushy and looked out of place. It was the two branches from the bush I’d found! I gave May the rope and jumped down to get them. Once I had them again I caught back up with the home cart and hooked them onto the back where there was a hook to hang luggage.

“Oi!” I yelled out at the brothers. “Stop throwing my stuff out of there!” I don’t think they heard. They probably threw it out from under the canvas because it stunk real bad under there.

The rain was beginning to come down really hard again, and we were all getting drenched. May was in the home cart while I was sitting on its step holding the rope that was towing the fat ranger along behind us. The brothers were hiding under the canvas on the pole cart while Boss and Alexis drove it. Ben was driving us and he kept looking back over his shoulder to try and see if any creatures were following us. Lightning shot through the sky. Then thunder.

The road out of Schmidt leads directly West away from it, over the river, onto the Empire Road, and toward Upper Market. It’s one of the two big markets, but it’s slightly smaller than the one down near New Haven. We’ve performed plays here, like a theatre, but we never do very well. This is the market where the farmers all come to sell and swap their animals. Because of that it stinks there of manure and the carcases of the butchered beasts that get left behind. They have a warden there who is meant to police the whole thing, but he takes bribes. At least we would be safe there. Its walls are some of the highest and thickest of any. And it couldn’t smell as bad as the dead.

The road on this side of the river is muddy and uneven. The Empire Road runs north south and parallel to the river which means that the area we were traveling west to east along was cutting through an area with no dead traditionally inside its walls. It felt strange to be on yet another road with no fences either side of it though.

It took about four hours to get there. The horses were exhausted and were barely able to pull the wagons when the walls of the market came into sight. The rain had drawn back to an intermittent drizzle, and we were all  extremely tired, wet and cold. Boss stopped the pole cart first. We could see smoke columns rising from Upper Market and the occasional twinkle of a light from inside it. It made us all feel a bit safer. Suddenly, Boss pulled the wagon over and he came back to us with Alexis by his side. They stood facing the fat, and exhausted Ranger. He was looking extremely tired now. He stopped walking and just stood there with the ropes still tied around his dark red hands. When Boss approached him he looked up. He eyeballed Boss and Boss stared straight back.

“Where would you rather be hung, Haji or Pan?” Boss asked flatly.

“You’re the ones who’ll hang! You and all your BASTARD kind!” he snarled back. He truly believed in what he was saying. “Now that we know for sure that Jordan Towers AND the bounty hunter are dead, there remains no one left who knows about New Rome’s link to Jessop except for YOU!” The Range felt pretty confident that anything Boss may have suspected about the his involvement would only serve to incriminate him by knowing it in the first place. But Boss wasn’t the kind of guy who would ever bet on anything or take a risk he didn’t need to take. I watched Boss. It was a fascinating moment. We were all there, watching, like it was a play. But what I saw was yet another moment when Boss knew when not to speak. It was clear to me, and also Alexis I gathered, that Boss didn’t know that New Rome had any connection with the Jessop attacks. Boss just stood there, with his arms folded, and began to grin smugly. It seemed to provoke the Ranger and his face screwed up before he gave out another spray at Boss. “You, these… HARLOTS and CRIMINALS… You’ll ALL be HUNG! And then every single last person from Pan, and then Haji – this is the realisation of Christ’s Kingdom on earth and no one who doesn’t convert will be spared!” He was out of breath again and almost hissing as he sprayed his last words. Boss looked surprised. He looked at Alexis for a moment.

“Go see what he has in his saddlebags.”


The Ranger’s eyes grew wide and he flew into a panic; tugging and trying desperately to get out of his ropes.

“Do it,” Boss said, “and I’ll stick you.” He put his sword at the fat man’s ribs. He spat at Boss. He missed, but Boss still slapped him in the side of the head with his palm again.

“Oh, ho, ho!!!!” Alexis bellowed back to Boss. It wasn’t like him to make open or loud displays in any way. Alexis was a quiet man. But something had grabbed his attention and he was rushing to show Boss. He came straight up to him with a small leather envelope in his hand. He gave it to Boss and Boss looked slowly and carefully at whatever was in it.

“No… hahahahaaaa… Oh… my… GOD! You’re KIDDING me!?” Boss said, with much the same grinning and hearty expression that Alexis had just shown in his voice. “You?! YOU’RE Jordan Towers??” Boss said as he held up an official looking piece of paperwork. “You’re not a ranger at all, are you? You just killed one and have been pretending to be him so you can come and go freely from New Rome and Jessop so you could help set this whole thing up! You’re just a salt trader from the communities by the sea and you don’t care who wins this as long as you get paid to be a spy! And while everyone was out looking for Jordan Towers, you took cover in plain sight as a fat, retarded Ranger and no one ever suspected anything! Hahahahaa. BRILLIANT!” Boss said mockingly. There was a moment of silence. Boss looked at Alexis. It was kind of hard to overlook the fact the Boss really was enjoying this now. He was so highly entertained I thought he might clap. Alexis was as entertainment by Boss’ reaction as Boss was, by the whole thing. 


“Says here that he’s really from Schmidt?” Alexis said, as he read more of the papers from inside the Ranger’s pouch. 

“Bullshit!!!!” Boss said in astonishes awe. Like someone watching a sporting match and yelling in disbelief at an umpires decision. “How could you do that to your own people?!”

“So what of it?!” he spat back at Alexis in response.

“So… it’s safe to guess that you were a failure in your own community, so you went to Jessop in search of love?” Alexis added in a mocking kind of way. He glared at Boss then Alexis. “And you thought you would rebuild Schmidt and be its king or something? Is that right?”

“I’m more important than the Pope right now, and when this is all finished and I am the new emperor of Schmidt you will all pay for this injustice you’ve committed against me!!”


“Well then,” Boss said after a pensive pause. “If we’ll have to pay that much for making you walk for a few hours…”


“Oh you’ll pay alright! Just as soon as word gets out that you’ve disrespected me and the Papal authority!” 


“Well then, I guess we better make it worth our while and hang you here before you can tell anyone.” Boss added calmly. Tower’s expression dropped from his face and he watched Boss with widening eyes.

“Ben, get the rope. Alexis, back this up to that tree. You lot, help me get his fat ass onto the back of the pole cart.” There was a flurry of activity, and we each began walking toward the Towers. He took a slight step backwards, as his head flicked from one of us to another. He snarled and spat at the ground.

“You’ll never get away with this!”


“Hahaha. Who’s gonna help yer out now? The Pope?” Ben said mockingly. But almost on cue, as he spoke, we heard the sound of horse hoofs approaching from the direction we’d come. We all froze and turned our attention Back toward Schmidt. It was faint at first and then became louder until we could hear a horse clearly in the distance. Across all of our minds that the horse may not be living. But then, it was moving too fast which was reassuring. Did animals don’t move as quickly living ones. This horse was really moving. Alexis drew his sword. The light was gone now entirely and we had to wait until the rider was really close before we could see who it was. Its horse was travelling at a medium canter, but it drew back to a walk as it approached. Then it stopped.

I think I was the first to notice who it was. But May was certainly the next to see.

“Jeremy!” she yelled in a high pitched voice.

The Ranger recognised him too and all his hopes were raised up again. “Thank Christ! GOD SENT YOU!!! Boy – you must untie with me at once and help me get these CRIMINALS to a town prison!”

Jeremy got down off his horse slowly. He was assessing what was going on very carefully and was thoughtfully considering his options. He looked at Alexis and then at the sword he was still holding. Alexis put it back in its sheath as a sign of respect and good will. Jeremy turned to look at Boss with the rope. “What’s going on?”


Boss walked over to him and held out the papers. I was standing next to Jeremy now and I got to see them for the first time. Schmidt English is a bit different to Leyden English, but I could make out enough of what was there to see that it was a property deed of some sort. I wasn’t sure if Jeremy could read it because Pan written language is a completely different set of characters called Panskrit. What’s more, it had a red stamp on it that said something like ‘çonfiscato’.

Jeremy ripped his sword out of his belt and held it high. He turned to Boss. ‘“Are you 100% sure that this is Jordan Towers?!”
“Yes – completely sure!” Boss said, and took a step backward. Jerremy was taller than Alexis by a couple of inches but not as bulky. I would have always thought that Jeremy and Alexis would be a pretty even match against one another if they ever had to fight, because Jeremy seemed to have an intensity that Alexis didn’t. But hearing this news, and finding out that this was the man who had allowed Jessop to kill half his city a day earlier, made Jeremy lose his grip a little bit. It was only a momentary expression. But his temper seemed to rise up in an instant. As his face contorted it showed just how much rage and strength he was capable of, and he slammed his sword straight down into the front of Tower’s face, cutting him in two down to about the middle of his chest. Towers fell to his knees then flopped sideways to the ground with a thud. There was silence for a moment, then Jeremy yanked his sword from the body. He cleaned its blade on Tower’s leg then put it back in his belt. What he said next was a surprise to us all. “New Rome, Jessop and Haji are offering huge rewards for him dead or alive. I have no use for money so you will take him to Haji. I would imagine that since New Rome has started attacking Pan from the front that they and Jessop are allies and both would be offering a reward to kill whoever kills Towers. So I’ll come with you to Haji to testify that you killed Towers and you can claim the reward.” Boss smirked at him and shrugged.

“You don’t have to twist my arm.” He said thoughtfully, but with a slightly happier tone.

Empire Road – Part 29

Into the Wind

The sun broke through when we hit the open fields. The earth was a strange sight because I’d never seen anything quite like it before. It had a grey colour, like the dirt that’s always underfoot, but it wasn’t compacted like it usually is out in the forests or beside the empire road. It was loose, and clumped, like freshly turned fields look, but it wasn’t dark like healthy soil in a cultivated field. It was pale, and strewn with sticks and stones and difficult to negotiate through. Each community has a growing area. Some even have them outside their city walls like Leyden does, because the dead don’t eat plants. But the animals are always kept within the city walls. None of the communities bothered to grow or raise all the same things unless there was something they needed that they couldn’t get at the markets. The markets happened every Saturday and Sunday. We’ve been to both markets and performed there, but they are much harder work. People there are there to work, buy and sell. But, where there’s money we will go. I don’t know how the wild people get their food. The three we had with us looked lean. They were walking between the wagons, but staying very closely together. Alexis was talking quietly to them in their language. Judging by what he was saying, and the occasional head gesture he made, I guessed he was telling them where we were going and about what Boss had said.

The fields didn’t look usable as a place to grow anything. It was just baron land now. A wind picked up and it brought with it dust. It stung as it hit our skin and we had to shield our eyes. The horses hadn’t seen open spaces like this before and they were getting jumpy. They’d spent their whole lives on roads with fences either side of them, or inside community walls. As we began on the path to Jessop we were accompanied by two soldiers who were both riding small chariots. They were more or less just platforms large enough for one man to stand on with a woven guard at the front that went up to his stomach. The woven basket and the platform had light wooden framing and from under where the man was standing came a long wooden pole. It was attached from the middle of where he stood and it went upward on an angle with a yoke on its end. The yoke was placed on the shoulders of two creatures who were wearing the straps and metal rings. The yoke was connected to the large rings in the middle of their backs and as they walked they pulled the chariot along. On their heads the creatures also wore leather straps but attached to them were blinkers on both sides of their face to keep them looking forward; much like horses have. To drive them there was a very clever device that was controlled by the driver. Coming from the yoke between the two creatures was a spindly piece of bamboo. It was shaped like a rainbow, about the length of a normal man. On its other end was what looked like a bird. It probably was once, but it was clearly dead. Any time the driver wanted to move forward he tugged on a line that went to the bamboo arch that held the bird and it would bob up and down; like it was flying. But more than that, it had some sort of little whistle in it so that it also made a chirping sound every time it bobbed. The sound and the movement were exactly what excited the dead and they began jogging after it. To turn left or right the driver pulled another reign and the bird would lean one way or another and the creatures would follow.

“You need to give us some space!” Boss yelled to the soldier in the chariot who was closest to us. “Your creatures are spooking our horses!” The soldier nodded and tugged on his little strap that made the bird tweet and jump about and his creatures broke into a jog. The dead have an inclination to keep walking no matter where they are. Day and night. They never rest. They just keep trudging forwards looking for something living to eat. It’s only when something stimulates them that they get the idea that there might be food in front of them and then you can tell which ones have been dead for a long time or a short time. One of the two chariots was clearly being pulled by fresher creatures than the other and it went straight off into the distance. The other tried to follow for a bit but then fell back instead and settled on a steady pace a short distance behind us. I got a good look at his creatures. They looked like Paneretians. Both female and both quite young.

May was walking beside me. We were walking behind the home cart to stay away from the wind and the dust. It didn’t seem to bother the wilderness people between the two carts. They just put their heads down and kept on walking. May smiled at me. I saw that there was dust and dirt covering her face because it cracked when the lines beside her mouth and eyes moved.

“You’ve grown,” she said. I looked at her. I didn’t feel like I had. “When I met you you were shorter than me.” I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. A drip of sweat rolled down her brow and it left a line of clean skin that followed it down her neck and onto her shoulder. I felt sorry for her, to have no family and to have also lost Raf. I looked at her as she walked and my sight was caught by something moving out on the field. It was a fair way off in the distance. There was a track leading off from the one we were on and several dead were walking toward us on it. I guessed they were coming out of the woods but I found it interesting that they instinctively seemed to be drawn to the track rather than just walking through the rough, bumpy field. It seems that Boss saw it at the same time as I did, and he whistled to the driver of the chariot in front of us. He turned around and saw Boss pointing. He craned his head and began driving across the field to the track. Boss stopped the pole cart and Alexis stopped the home cart. A short time later the other soldier arrived behind us and stopped as well. He was trying to position himself behind the home cart so that he’d also be out of the wind. However, it meant that his creatures started trying to attack May and me as we sat on the cart! They both began swiping at the air and making their half word-grunts at us. To stop them from running away with him the soldier put on the breaks of the chariot, which locked the wheels in place. But still, we were also trying to stay out of the dust and wind, as well as Passalus and Acmon, and it was driving the creatures wild to be so close to us.

“Move it you lot! You’re working them up being that close to them!” The soldier growled at us. So we moved. I walked away from the pole cart in the same direction that the wind was travelling to try and still be a little bit sheltered. Passalus and Acmon walked to be beside the horse at the front of the cart. The wilderness people just huddled in the space between where the carts had come to a halt. But may walked the other way. She walked along to the back to be beside the soldier. He was a thin man, but well built. He didn’t look terribly interested in anything. I guess being a soldier is hard work and he looked like he wasn’t enjoying it much. May stood beside his wheel, and then leaned against it. I could just make out what she was saying but I pretended I wasn’t listening. It’s a trick I learned from a young age so my dad wouldn’t know I was listening to him or he would stop talking to himself.

“You don’t mind if I stand here do you? That wind is dreadful!”


“Sure,” he answered.

“Can I ask you a question about Jessop?” 


The soldier softened a little but only through guarded curiosity. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say anything so May went right ahead and asked. “Do you have an arena in Jessop?”


He smiled. “Yes. We have four!”


“Are they all arenas? Or are some theatres?” May added, drawing him into the discussion a bit more. He seemed a little amused, though also clearly offended that she wouldn’t think Jessop was big enough to have so many arenas.

“We have four arenas, two theatres and a Pro Cantu,” he explained. May is pretty. Most men like to talk to her. But this one didn’t have much interest in her in the usual ways. He was watching her, but looking at her boobies mostly. I didn’t think May noticed because all she did when he told her about all the places they have entertainment was look away from him. She glanced over her shoulder at the other soldier who was galloping as fast as his dead could carry him in the direction of the creatures that were now cantering toward him on the road. He was about halfway to them and would be another minute or so before he got there.

“What’s a Pro Cantu?” May asked as she turned back to the soldier.

“It’s a place where we listen to songs and music.”


A gust of wind swept past us and brought with it a solid wall of dust. We all got in closer to the home cart to get shelter. The two creatures harnessed to his chariot took another swipe at me and he glared. I don’t think he liked his creatures at all. Then again, neither did I. God they stank.

The gust of wind hit us like a wall, and then I watched it as it travelled across the field in a steady line. It looked like heavy rain does when it falls in sheets during a storm. The dust in it was making the pattern of the wind visible and I was surprised by how fast it moved. About that time I also noticed that it had completely obscured my vision of the other soldier in his chariot and the dead who were coming toward us. They were too far away to see now because of the dust in the wind. In fact, I could only see about half as far as I could when we first stopped there. Then another gust of wind came and hit us. It was getting stronger as the day got warmer, but the warmth of the sun was making the ground drier and picking up more and more dust with each gust of wind. Suddenly a hand grabbed my elbow. It was Boss. I jumped.

“Slowly go and stand as close to the door to this wagon as you can. When I signal go and get the new swords from inside the cart. Hide them from view. Keep one and give one to me. Give May her Rapier.” Then he leaned next to me and raised his eyebrows at the soldier. He gave Boss a brief look but then looked back at May, who was now bending over to re-tie her shoe straps again in front of the soldier. She mustn’t be very good with knots because it was the second time she’d tied them in front of him. I slowly walked along toward the horse and leaned against the front corner of the wagon. I could see Ben and the brothers sitting on the back of the pole car. Ben nodded at me and I saw that his hand was on the handle of a sword too. I could just make out Alexis’ shape in the driver’s seat. As I looked at them the wind dropped a bit. The sky was grey and it wasn’t very bright now, but as the dust fell away it seemed to get a little brighter all of a sudden. I was still looking at the brothers when I heard the soldier near may raise the alarm.

“What the…” I spun around and saw that he was staring off intently toward his friend. I turned the other way to look across the field of dust and saw that the soldier was now running toward us. He was about half way back from where he’d originally going to attack the dead, and he was running, on foot, as fast as he could! The dust was still thick in the air and obscuring our vision a little. We strained our eyes. I had to rub mine because they were filling with the fine dust and sand as quickly as I could clear them. But then as he got within voice range we could make out what he was running from. He wasn’t being chased by the three creatures he went to take care of. In the time that the dust had risen up hundreds, possibly thousands of dead had emerged from the woods and they were coming toward us as fast as they could! But not just human dead; animals of all descriptions too! The first I saw was a fully grown sow. I had to double take when I saw it because I thought it might be a human crawling along, but then behind it I saw a goat and a horse over on the side too. It was so hard to see through the dust! Then the soldier tripped as he ran. He fell into a shallow hole on the field and almost disappeared from view completely. Another huge gust of wind picked back up and swept past us, bringing with it a new cloud of dust. We lost sight of the soldier in the field for a moment, but we could still hear him. It was a moment before the new cloud of dust settled, but when it did we all knew we had to move fast! The dead had caught up to the soldier and were well and truly devouring him; even though he was still screaming!

The soldier beside us looked terrified. His eyes widened and he drew his sword. I don’t know if he saw how many creatures, not to mention animals, there were when the dust fell away for that brief moment, but he clearly didn’t realise how little chance he had of saving his friend. The wilderness people did, because they saw their opportunity and they ran like hell away. The soldier pulled on his little straps, making the little bird tweet and lean left. His creatures started pulling toward the field at a jogging pace and he yelled at them, “YA” like a horse. Boss looked at me and grabbed May as the chariot passed us.

“Get on!” May and I jumped onto the steps that led into the home cart and Boss jumped on its driver’s seat. “Ya!!” he yelled, cracking a whip to also make Alexis know that it was time to move. Boss and Alexis have a lot of signals and codes to communicate with one another while no one is aware of what they’resaying. This time it was a whistle Boss made and Alexis made it back. I don’t know exactly what it meant but Alexis made the pole cart horse gallop and ours followed. I’d never seen a horse pulling a wagon at gallop pace like that before. I also didn’t know these animals very well yet. Also, I didn’t even know if these two horses could gallop in the first place. Our horse was old, with a pronounced sway back. The other was a Clydesdale, but it looked too young to pull something that size. We stayed on the path but it was still very bouncy. May got us into the home cart and we shut the door. Just her and me. It was dark in there. The pots and pans all clattered against one another as they bounced and swayed on their hooks. She sleeps in there with her mat and things, which were in a bundle at the back on the floor. It looked like a nest. She sat down and I sat next to her. My eyes adjusted to the light a bit and we sat, listening to the horses, bouncing about. We listened for a while; listening for any noise other than the horses, pots and the pans. We were listening to know if the dead were getting close to us or not. After a bit, when we’d relaxed, May spoke.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“I’m nearly fifteen,” I answered. “How old are you?” 
“Nineteen,” She replied. After a long pause she sighed and put her head on my shoulder. It made me feel funny. I couldn’t describe it. I didn’t want the horse to stop running. But shortly thereafter they did. They’d been galloping for about fifteen minutes, then they went back to a fast trot. It was a good run for horses pulling carts like this. We stopped bouncing about and the road became smooth again. May got to her feet and opened the door to see where we were. I got alongside her and peeked through the crack. The dust was still thick and the wind was howling. May pushed the door open and we saw that we were on a paved road again. It was cobbled like the roads in New Rome, but there were no buildings around it at all. Just bits of walls, rubble and burnt piles of what were probably once buildings.

“Schmidt,” May said softly. We bounced around for a bit more on the road and the horses slowed to a walk.

“May – Come drive!” Boss yelled. Without a second thought she hopped out onto the seat next to him. Then he jumped down from the cart and whistled a new whistle to Alexis. There were some buildings up ahead and Boss seemed to be studying them closely from where we were. Ben took the reins from Alexis and he got down to walk next to Boss.

“That’s the gatehouse to Schmidt. If the drawbridge is still intact we can get across it and head out and be back on the Empire Road.” Alexis didn’t offer any thoughts; he just waited for Boss to make a decision that he would follow. That was what he always did unless he knew something that he was sure Boss didn’t know and needed to.

“Look!” he exclaimed, ”Smoke!” It was hard to see through the dust, and the heavy wind was carrying it away quickly, but it was there alright. Coming out of a window in the stone wall of the guard house.

“It could only be a survivor of Schmidt…” Boss said, almost to himself. “You drive this one,” he added to Alexis. “If they try and fight us I’ll whip them into a gallop and we’ll try and charge past them straight over the drawbridge. But either way – follow me closely.”

Empire Road – Side Note # 3

As I’ve been uploading the chapters of Empire Road I’ve also been trying to create and upload as many illustrations as possible, to help explain the story and how I see it. One of the messages I get the most of is about uniforms and militaries that are discussed in the story. I keep getting messages from readers asking for side by side illustrations of the soldiers in their battle gear, to give a clear picture of what they wear in battle. So, I will add this to the list of pictures I will commit to offering.

In the meantime – I have finally… FINALLY finished the map for Empire Road!!! As a pen and ink drawing it took me over 26 hours to complete, I used up all the ink of over dozen pens and ya be a horrific case of tennis elbow now :-/ I will be making a video upload for YouTube tomorrow, and showing some detailed footage of the various places in the map. I will also be scanning the map and offering signed, high res copies for sale once the hard copy book is published.

I have been asked by a couple of readers where Empire Road will be available for purchase. It will be on sale at Amazon, as well as on eBay for signed copies with high def prints of the illustrations.

Thank you again to everyone who has shared posts and invited friends to like the page. I’m looking forward to announcing when the print edition is available online!

Empire Road – Part 28

Wilderness Trail

I woke with a fright when the brothers began their watch. The sky had just begun to soften from pitch black to a gentle glow and I heard them getting out of their cots. They probably didn’t realise I was slung in my cot under the axle of the pole cart because they came and sat right next to it. The gravel underfoot was crunching with each step they took, and they sat with their backs against the wheel closest to my head. In fact, if I leaned out of my cot far enough I could probably touch them. I rolled my eyes. I wouldn’t have minded except they were whispering a conversation about the likelihood of us being attacked and I was trying to sleep. Passalus was possibly the older one. It’s unusual that they have their hair. People from Pan usually have dark hair. It’s kind of a unusual to see anyone from Pan with ginger, almost sandy coloured hair. But their hair is also thick like the other people from Pan. He was slightly taller and had a wrinkle beside his eye that Acmon didn’t have. He had a darker complexion too. He was theorising that since the dead between us and Jessop were now all being used as slaves for their army, that there probably wouldn’t be many wandering about in the wilderness. He figured that they would all be rounded up and being prepared to make another next assault. He went on to suggest that the first we would see of them would be as they were bringing a new assault to Pan with the living army of Jessop. I was about to cough so that they knew I was right there; when they went quiet. They heard the same sound I did and I’m sure it made their hearts sink too. It was the sound of footsteps. But not the typical kind that the dead usually make. Passalus and Acmon scrambled to their feet and I threw myself out of my cot; hitting the ground with a thud. My leg got caught in the fabric of the cot and it took me a second to get out because it took my shoe off with it. I frantically put my shoe back on, tying it as fast as I could. I scrambled out the side that was away from where I’d heard the footsteps so that I wouldn’t be walking out into active fighting. As I stood up, however, I came face to face with a man. He was about six feet tall, very muscly, wearing a kangaroo skin over one shoulder and another as a shawl. He had a blade with him. It was crudely made, but looked sharp. I didn’t know that the wild people had weapons. He said something but I didn’t understand it. It sounded like a kind of English, but it had a sound like “yut, a, yut, a, yut” in amongst it.

“Boss!?” I said in a stern and audible way. I didn’t want to alarm him but I also needed help quickly.

“Right here, mate.” It was Boss’ voice. “No one do anything! I’ve got this.” Boss walked around to my side of the pole cart with his hands in the air. Following him was another man and a woman that I’d heard approaching when I was in my cot. They had their blades out too and had Acmon, Passalus, Ben, Boss and Alexis with them. No sign of May though. They walked Boss and the others to right beside me and had us surrounded with our backs against the pole cart. The other man had fur-skin trousers on, and a shawl. The woman was wearing a black bikini kind of top that had a fox tail draped down from between her boobies, and the same kind of fur-skin trousers as the man and a shawl. Funnily, they looked well kept and didn’t smell like I thought they would. If anything they looked clean.

The wilderness man behind Alexis was clearly the leader. He looked mad. He barked something at us and I looked at Alexis. Interestingly, they hadn’t tried to take his sword from him. It was still in its sheath on his hip and he stood with his hand on its butt and his other on his hip. When he’s preparing to fight he puts it slightly closer to the handle. It was clear that he probably didn’t have any real intention of drawing it. He could take these guys without much hassle. But then Boss pulled another secret out, which took us all by surprise.

“Feayut, a, nothutta, a,” he began. They looked at him and their expressions softened. On and on Boss went, talking fluently in their language. He put his hands up beside his face, with his his palms facing the wilderness people.They stopped and looked surprised and then did the same thing back to Boss. The leader next to Alexis asked a few questions in their language, and then they lowered their weapons. I looked at Alexis. He smirked but gave me an expression that I was getting used to seeing from him. I think that one of the things he liked most about Boss was that he never quite knew what was coming next, but that nothing would ever outsmart or over take Boss.

Boss smiled at them. Then he walked over to the main one, placed his hand on the man’s heart and said, ‘surendetrrata, a, ya.’ The man said it back with his hand on Boss’ heart. He then went to each of the other wilderness man and then the woman and said the same thing, placing his hand on their hearts and they did the same back to him.

“Right. To bring you up to speed, these blokes all live in a community about two hours walk west from here. Their land was all overrun with the dead from Schmidt and Basin and they are what’s left now.”


There was a moment of silence in the half light of day break. Then we heard another movement from the pole cart. May had made herself a bed up there under the canvas covers.

“Have you explained that there’s nothing for them between here and the Thanatos River?” She asked Boss.

“Yes. But they assured me that there are so many dead in the forest now that there’s no way for them to get to the other side of Jessop, and on the other side of the Empire Road, to where he believes their settlement of… wilderness people.” Boss paused as he was explaining where they were from, and where they wanted to get to. It made me wonder why the wilderness people were on the western side of the Thanatos Rover. Judging by the weapons and small, bundled backpacks they were carrying, I guessed they were hunting. 

There was a brief silence while we all considered what this meant and then the silence was broken as an arrow hit the wood of the pole cart right next to Acmon’s head. The arrow came right through the wood and if he’d been standing an inch to the left it would have killed him. All our shoulders shot up near our ears! May threw herself off the pole cart and we all huddled near the wheels. Boss never forgot for a moment that he was our leader. He gabbled something to the wilderness people and then told us the same thing. “No matter what happens, do NOT draw weapons. Follow what I say and treat the wilderness people like they’re family!” He reached into the pole cart, pulled the canvas cover down and tore it with his teeth to start a rip. Then he tore out of it a square the size of his torso and cut two holes in it to thread a pole through it at the top and bottom. Once he had a white flag he held it high up and waved it about. He kept waving it as he walked around the back of the cart in the direction which the arrow had come from. The horse attached to the wagon was waking up and started snorting. I looked under the wagon but I couldn’t see anything in the immediate area in front of us.

“How many?” Alexis whispered just loudly enough for Boss to hear.

“More than you can possibly imagine!” Boss replied. But then Alexis smiled at me with the same grin he’d used a moment ago before he translated what Boss said to the wilderness people in their language. I guessed it didn’t surprise me that he also spoke their language, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. At least there were no more arrows flying in our direction. 

Gradually we heard the sound of squeaking wood, the rolling wheels of wagons, but then the sound of feet walking. So many feet. Finally, as the Jessop soldiers approached we heard the dreadful and sickening moaning of the dead; but it was like a constant rumble that got louder and louder. Boss kept waving his flag.

“Who are you!?” a voice yelled from the distance. Alexis looked under the pole cart and then looked back. His hand was firmly clasped to his sword.

“My name is Dr Palmanius and this is my wonderful circus! You would know me! I performed at Jessop Kingdom for the Prince’s birthday three years ago!” He turned to face us, “come out!” We walked around to the front of the pole cart with our arms up. The wilderness people did too. May climbed down from the pole cart and met us on the other side. When I saw what was there I stopped walking for a second. Ben bumped into me and gave me a push. Facing us was what looked like a huge boat turned upside down and under it were feet. Hundreds of them. I counted 20 in the front row of feet. I looked along its side and I guessed that it was long enough to have at least fifty rows of twenty sets of feet. We could see the feet up to the knees. They were clearly the feet of the dead.  One of the closest to us had two toes missing and bone showing on the neck’s toes. The boat like thing had a square structure, a bit like a house on top of it. It was kind of like a little hut at its top, and it had about twenty soldiers in it. They were all standing around one man in a throne-like chair. Most of them had bows and arrows pointed at us. On the front of the structure closest to us was a small booth sticking out. A man’s head and shoulders could be seen looking at us from it.

“Indeed!” the voice returned. “And this white flag you bear. Is this flag the surrender flag of the Panerets?”

Boss stood for a moment. A light gust of wind moved the flag a little.

“No. This flag is our own flag. We have no affiliation with any community. As you can see from us, we have a woman from Pan, a boy from Leyden, three comedy performers from the forests, musicians from New Haven and a gladiator from the seaside communities.” The brothers, who were clearly Paneretian, looked at one another. It was the first time they’d seen that Boss will say anything to keep things moving in his direction if the stakes are high enough. But I don’t think they minded.

The man looking down on us looked genuinely puzzled.

“So tell me then, what brings you directly into the path of a war, Mr Palmanius?”


“It’s the fastest way to Jessop.” Boss replied as though it was a surprise that he needed to ask in the first place. “We are a circus and Jessop by now has the biggest audience in the known world. So; we waited until nightfall and began our journey to Jessop.” Boss explained. He lowered the flag into his other hand. One of the horses snorted and a light breeze came through us again. Only this time the wind had the stench of the dead on it that we were facing.

“OK then! My men will take you to Jessop and you can plead your case to the wardens.”


The sun was now high enough that we could see down the path more clearly. The man on top of the land boat pulled a leather strap that went down the front to the man in the booth and then slowly the whole structure began moving left. As it moved it revealed that behind it were over a dozen more; all on their way to Pan, and all about to attack the city. Dotted about their bottom were smaller vehicles with four dead strapped firmly into another wooden structure that looked much like an old bed. One stood on each corner and two men rode on top of it. Three of them came toward us and one of the drivers told Boss to follow them. So; we got into the wagons and began following. Most of us walked alongside. We passed more enormous land boats, along with dozens of two-man chariots, and then found ourselves out in the open planes that had once been Schmidt. There wasn’t a tree in sight. Just freshly ploughed earth, massive piles of logs, bricks that were once housed, and tree roots here and there. There was a long path straight ahead of us that had been flattened by the feet of the dead. There were lines of soldiers from Jessop walking toward Pan in columns of twos. They all wore leather padded breast plates on their fronts that were thick leather. So thick it looked like wood. They had small swords that were straight edged but wide like Alexis’ broadsword. They wore helmets too. I’d seen people wearing helmets in the arenas, but they were for display only. These were helmets that you could hit really hard and their head wouldn’t get hurt. They were made from leather, and sat on their heads like a skull cap with flaps that went down past their cheeks that had a strap-buckle under their chins.

A silence fell over us, and the Jessop soldiers. Boss turned to us and made a gesture with his shoulder and head. We gathered our things but I chose not to bother untiring my sling from under the wagon. It would get dusty, but it would also air it out a little. 

Alexis took the horse with the pole cart by the reins and led it back onto the track. We all followed him. The brothers and I jumped back onto the pole cart and sat with our legs dangling as we went. Boss walked beside me as we passed the huge boat-like structure. We could see the feet of the dead under it and I counted 80 sets of feet. I have a feeling that they were standing under there in ros of three or four. As we passed it the sound that came from under it was like a waterfall. I low rumble, but loud enough that I couldn’t hear someone if they were speaking next to me. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I kept counting the feet as we went past. Five of them were still wearing shoes. One of the dead had collapsed in a heap but was still tied into the thing with the others and its floppy legs and a hand were visible under the bottom of the boat. 

We got past the Jessop army and found ourselves on a wide open track that stretched out in front of us in a straight line. The Empire Road isn’t straight at any place. So it was unusual to see such a long straight road in front of us. 

“Will they follow us?” Acmon asked. 

“I’m not sure it really matters at this point,” Boss answered. “There now in front of us, behind us, out there beside us and probably under us too for all we know.”

The army leader of Jessop who sent us on our way also sent some soldiers with us. They were in front and behind us. I looked at Boss. He was stroking his moustache to keep it away from his mouth. His eyes were fixed on the road immediately in front of him.

“Hey Boss,” I said in a hushed voice so that the soldiers wouldn’t hear me. I also didn’t really want the brothers to hear me either. I couldn’t tell if I trusted them. Boss looked up at me. His eyes looked troubled and deep. They weren’t smiling any more. “What makes people like that?” I asked. 

“Like the Jessop soldiers?” He asked. 

“Yeah… I guess.”

“Fear and greed,” he answered.  And then he smiled. It was the first time I’d seen him smile in connection with a thought. And it made me understand him a little bit better. It was a smile he smiles when he sees an opportunity. And the idea of people being scared or greedy seemed to make him excited because those two things make people willing to pay Boss for the things he likes to make. “But they don’t last long…” he added. 

“Why not?” I asked. 

“Most likely because they’re men,” he answered. I didn’t understand. He smiled. “Men don’t cooperate as well as women. When the Great Ending happened men took over more or less. Usually because men are bigger physically. But when they rely on pure muscle, and fear for progress they don’t get far. Women have a way of making men think harder, and find ways of getting things done that don’t just involve force.” 

I listened to the sound of his feet as he walked. They crunched into the soil, and it let off dust as he went. “Have you ever had a wife?” I asked. I didn’t even think. He raised his eyebrows and smirked. Then he smiled. 

“Yeah. Once.” He walked in silence for a moment, looking back at his feet. I didn’t speak because I wanted him to tell me more. “But love is a funny thing. It’s similar actually. Fear and greed seem to be in relationships too at times… and men usually don’t come up with good plans there either.” He smirked again. 

He smiled again at me then walked up the front to talk to Alexis.

Empire Road – Part 27

Outward Into the Wilds

The soldiers circled around the back of us, and we followed the Haji officer out of the Su-Chai arena. We walked out the main entrance past the area where a couple of local food vendors had set up to sell locally grown and produced weeds that they call food in Pan, and out into the main area of the city. But instead of turning left to exit through the main gates we turned right and headed toward the area across town where the siege had taken place that day. We all looked at Boss, but he gave no sign of either alarm or of understanding. Behind them we walked, carrying our things, heading along the main road. It hadn’t been dark for more than a couple of hours and there were still a lot of people milling about and talking. Soldiers were coming and going in all directions. It was a long walk that took us about fourty five minutes, but when we got to the end of the road we found ourselves at the back wall of Pan that had been destroyed across a wide area of the wall. Soldiers were everywhere carting bricks and water to and from the wall, working through the night to repair the hole. The huge stones that made up the fence and the wall to protect the back of the city had fallen and bash down and landed on top of houses, public buildings and shops. You have destroyed huge part of the back of the city purely by knocking buildings over which intern knocked over other buildings and so on. As we got closer they were hundreds and hundreds of people in the street next to bundles of their own positions, things that they had rescued from the houses before they were demolished. 

We finally came to a place where the wall once was and we stood there amongst the rubble, looking through to the wilderness outside. The whole area was lit up by several huge pyres in the space where the Jessop army of dead had cleared a long wide path to Pan outside the wall. Whole trees had been dragged into piles and the dead were still being thrown onto the heaps to burn. There were also huge clusters of several hundred dead all tied together by their metal rings. The Haji army had built ramps from logs that went on a 45 degree angle out over the tops of the pyres. They were marching the dead up the ramps and they were falling off their ends into the flames. As we stood watching, one of the dead emerged from out of the bottom of one of the huge fires, with its back burning. The soldiers just rounded it back up, pushed it back up the ramp and back into the fire again, still burning.

The Haji officer stop walking. He then he turned to us but only looked at Boss. 

“Why are we here?” Boss asked the Haji Officer. 

The Officer turned to face the wilderness and whistled. A couple of seconds of silence were broken with the sound of horses and then we saw out in the distance, between two of the big fires’ light, our wagons. Boss looked at the Haji Officer.

“You can’t be serious?”


“Yes, Mr Fahaar, I am. You and your troupe are a threat to the safety of the people of Pan and although what you do is very entertaining to many the Haji hold a view that your work is unclean and we do not feel that you have any value to either community.” 


“So… why can’t we just leave the way we came in? We can head off to New Rome or New Haven.”


“Yes; a very self-driven response. We do not feel that anyone who glorifies the infidelity of the amusements that you purvey, promoting women to behave like this,” gesturing at May with his nose turning up as he did so, “and risking the physical and spiritual lives of the living by bringing the dead in amongst them doesn’t hold any value to any community. So, as a last opportunity for you to redeem yourself, we have decided to hold you to your word. When you greeted my men this morning, and then me later, you offered us your every possession and service to assist in the effort to defend Pan from the attack of the Jessop army. So now, I would like you to do that.”


Boss folded his arms, looked back out at the horses and wagons in the wastelands, and then back at the Haji officer.

“Ok. I’ll call it. How can I be of assistance?” Boss spoke with a confidence most wouldn’t have in that kind of situation. The officer didn’t seem smug or as though he was enjoying any of this. He seemed as though he truly believed in what he was saying, and that he was just doing the world a huge favour by sending us out into the wilderness like he was.

“Out there is a new road. It has been built by the dead and the army of Jessop Kingdom. We do not know where it leads, we do not know that if there are other camps of the Jessop armies out there, that might be about to attack. We estimate that we have killed approximately 400 dead and 100 living Jessops today. But we also know that they destroyed Schmidt down to the last brick, taking with it every human there, as well as every human from Inner Essex and Basin. This leads us to believe that they have anything from 10,000 to 15,000 dead or living to use in the same way they did today; to break down the walls and overrun the cities around Jessop and this includes Haji. Today we estimate that they used between 2,000, 5,000 dead in their efforts to overrun us before they retreated. We need to know how many more they have at their disposal.”


“And… you think they need a circus?” Boss seemed to know that there was nothing he could say that would change the mind of the Officer. His comment was more of a facetious remark that honestly showed that none of us had any idea what purpose sending us out there would serve other than to send us to our deaths. The Officer seemed to be losing his patience with Boss.

“NO! Your job is to go out there, with your troupe, driving as far as you can. You will then come back to me and tell me what is there and we will know what we are up against.”


“And if I refuse?” Boss asked after a long pause.

“The ramps,” the Muslim Officer replied coldly, gesturing toward the long ramps that led to the tops of the pyres. “You need to understand that your name causes us concern too. You may think you are clever, but this isn’t a time for cleverness. While Jordan Towers remains unfound, spying on all our communities and feeding our defence strategies back to King Jessop, we also have no guarantee that you are not all of the names you say you are as well as also being Jordan Towers himself!  Since no one seems to know who Jordan Towers is, and we know that the Catholics have paid a bounty hunter a huge amount for his capture, some of which we, and the other communities contributed toward the payment of, we are yet to find the one man who has assisted Jessop Kingdom in learning how to capture, train and utilise the dead as slaves to overrun our communities. So, since you are a man of many faces, we now want to ask you to show us the devotion you speak of, and go out there, and assist our efforts to defeat Jessop Kingdom!”
Boss paused for a moment and looked out at the huge fires. May looked as though she didn’t care either way. The brothers and Ben were standing off to the side listening as though they would just do whatever they were told to do. Alexis stood with his hand on his sword and his other hand on his hip, listening, not interfering. Of all of us he would be the only one who would stand a chance of surviving if we were attacked. But given the numbers we would most likely be up against I don’t think even he would be able to save himself.

“Ok then. I guess that’s it. Let’s go.” Boss said, as he turned, with his head held high, and the yellow fire light from the wilderness hitting his face. It was like walking from a cold dark room into broad daylight. The whole area was so well lit and the fires each threw out such warmth. They were enormous. Each fire was burning at least three fully grown trees as well as mountains of wood debris that had been cleared by the dead to make the road that we were now about to travel.  The smoke from the fires smelled atrocious. When we got to the wagons we could see that the cage was still there but it was now empty. I looked in the cage, and I saw on the ground there was what appeared to be a sort of poop. It wasn’t like the kind of poop that I do. It was… kind of… black liquid with chunks in it. I poked it with a stick and saw that there were bits of the different animals in it that Boss was feeding it, but there was also one of its own teeth in there too. I guess it answered the question. They do poop eventually. I climbed onto the back of the pole cart and saw that my plants were still there also and still intact with my seelings in it. I watered them again. One of them had a new bud.

“Ya!” Boss yelled as he threw the reins onward. The path underfoot was quite soft because it was newly turned dirt, but it had been trampled heavily by Jessop’s dead, so it was smooth and firm in places. May sat next to Boss. She got changed in the home wagon into her Patrio uniform and had her Rapier with her. Alexis and Ben drove the pole cart with me, and then the brothers got on the back. We rode until we were no longer in the light of the pyres and then some more until we were sure that we also couldn’t be seen by the Haji. We could still just see the fires off in the distance from where we’d come, but they were tiny yellow dots now. The road we were travelling on seemed to be getting wider and wider, but the trees were also becoming fewer and fewer naturally. We stopped in an area that was as open as we’d seen so far and Boss came back to talk to us with May.

“I’d say we’re about halfway between Pan and where Schmidt used to be. So we’ll stop here and sleep for as much as we can. I’ll take first watch for any dead and Alexis can take second. Can you two take the third from after midnight until the sun rises?” he said, asking the brothers to play their part.

Boss wandered about the area for a while as we made beds for ourselves. I couldn’t find the cot that I like, so I ended up with the one that I think used to belong to Bo. It stunk of old musty smells and tobacco smoke. I strung it under the front axle of the pole cart and climbed inside. I was extremely tired and had a headache. My nose was still very tender to touch. I was hungry and I watched Boss walking about through a burn-hole in the cot and my eyes grew heavy.

Empire Road – Part 26

The Test

May grabbed Boss’ arm. She squeezed it really tight and she looked like she was not balancing properly. But Alexis wasn’t any the wiser yet. As far as he was concerned there were just three dead coming toward him. Once they got into the light, the female began moving faster than the big one, and she was the first to reach the pit. The audience were going crazy because she had big boobies that were bouncing around wildly as she headed toward him. Raf had been dead longer and was moving a bit more slowly. When he came into the half light of the pine torches we could see that the Panetians had given him a Pan-Rapier to hold in the way they do for their own. May still had his actual rapier in the new home wagon, but he lurched toward Alexis with the one he was holding, but he was just kind of dangling it beside him.

‘NO!’ she screamed! But it wasn’t heard over the audience. They were cheering loudly as they watched the woman head toward the middle of the pit. Alexis began with a move he calls the sweep. He took a large step to the side, pivoted on his left foot, spinning as he went into a squat. His sword came around and sliced straight through the knees of the female creature. She landed perfectly on the stumps beneath her knees, then bounced forward into a belly flop. The soldiers in the audience cheered loudly.  Even the women soldiers cheered. The noise seemed to give Raf a fright and he dropped his rapier. Then the big one from our cage went clambering toward him. But Alexis had something new in mind. Instead of using his sword he put it back in the sheath and dove into a tumbling roll away from it. It was a little confused in the dimly lit area and this gave Alexis the upper hand. By now he’d seen that there was a third creature about to make a swipe at him too. Cleverly, he leapt from the side of the big one to being directly behind it, grabbed the metal ring at its back and pulled it. The creature fell flat on its backside to the delight of the crowd. But then, as he craned his head over toward the side of the ring to look at the new, approaching creature he also realised it was Raf. Still holding the metal ring of the big one he started dragging it toward Raf, but looked directly at Boss for some kind of guidance. Boss put his arms around the shoulders of May and he whispered something into her ear. I didn’t hear what it was but she threw her face into Boss chest.

Boss put his hand in the air, made a fist, and then lowered his arm slowly to horizontal from his shoulder. I’d seen this signal before. It was a signal that Boss used to tell Alexis that they’d get a better response from comedy than blood. Alexis nodded at Boss and then kicked Raf fair in the middle of the chest. Sent him flying backward. Raf was grunting like a pig, and dragged himself back up to his feet. Finally letting go of the metal ring of the big one Alexis darted over to the audience in the front row and found a pretty looking, young Panetian soldier and he smiled at her. Then he took her boots and slid them off her feet. He did it without asking and he did it quickly. The audience love creative stuff like this because when they watch the normal fights the gladiator just tries to kill the dead as quickly as possible. This was real theatre for them and they were lapping it up.

The big creature was now on its hands and knees in the middle of the pit, and Raf had just begun cantering toward Alexis again when he turned to face them with the boots in his hands. But it wasn’t the boots that he wanted. It was their laces. He began acting like the bullfighters do in New Rome at their summer festival. Raf ran past the big one as it heaved itself back onto its feet and Alexis sidestepped past him. Ref stopped, turned to see where he’d gone, snarled and then made another run at him. The big one was now on its feet and Alexis got around behind it again. He’d slipped the boot laces out of the boots, and he threw the boots back toward the girl. He took the laces and slipped one through the metal ring on the big creature’s back. He pulled it tight, making the creature spin back around. Now it was facing the back of the pit where we were standing. Raf saw him then and charged.. Alexis yanked on the boot lace and sent the big creature onto its backside again, making Raf collide with it and also tumble to the ground. Alexis stretched out and grabbed the ring that was strapped to Raf’s knee and he pulled it; dragging him over to them. Raf took a swipe to grab him, sitting up as he was being dragged along the dirt. Alexis heaved Raf’s knee into the air, flipping him onto his stomach. He grabbed the ring on Raf’s back and pulled it to the ring on the big one’s back. Then, finally, much to the screaming and delight of the audience, he proceeded to tie the two together at the backs with one of the boot laces. But with the other he cut it in half with his blade, and tied the two elbow rings together so that neither could move their arms nor move forward without dragging the other.

The audience went crazy for this, as they watched Raf and the big one trying to get back to their feet with their elbows and backs tied together. Alexis took a bow, and stood back near the front row, with his hands on his hips, watching them. Boss took May by the shoulders and looked her in the face.

“Do you want Alexis to do it, or would you prefer to do it yourself?”


May looked at him and was still for a couple of seconds then she surprised all of us. “I want you to do it please.”


The big creature finally found his way to his hands and knees, which meant that Raf was pulled up onto his back like a turtle’s shell facing the sky. The big one stood up, and Raf was left dangling sort of from the back of him. Neither seemed to know why their movement was restricted, only that it was. Both were still trying to do their own thing but the best outcome was Raf being dragged along behind the big one. Alexis drew his sword but then heard Boss’ whistled. He whistled loud and sharp in one long blow that drew the audience silent. He walked into the ring.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen. It is with great delight that we finish tonight’s show and we do so with this message. Here before you are two creatures from the wastelands. One was also once a son of Panerets. But here tonight we see them dressed in the slave rings of Jessop Kingdom and we are reminded of how futile their abilities are. These creatures do indeed possess the ability to make us also like them, but thankfully there are young men and women just like yourselves who have been trained, much like Alexis to destroy these horrible abominations. So now, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to finish tonight’s performance myself and demonstrate that these creatures are every bit as mortal as you and I.”


He took Alexis’ sword and gave him a look of reassurance. He circled the creatures, who had little choice but to stand more or less still because each was counteracting the movements of the other. Finally Boss got so that he was standing side on to both of them. Raf was much smaller than the other one and his head came only up to the middle of its back. Boss drew the sword high over his head and with all his might he took the most powerful swing he could muster and landed it on the back of the neck of the big one. It didn’t cut all the way through like Alexis is able to do, but it was enough to kill it instantly. It dropped to its knees, then bent at the waist, flopping to the ground, with its backside in the air and still on its knees. Raf had no option but to fall backward, again landing on the big creature’s back like a turtle shell once more. He was stuck there and couldn’t move at all. He kicked his legs about a bit, but there wasn’t anything he could do with that dead weight tied to his elbows and back. Boss moved slightly and held up the sword. It was a straight and clean chop directly downward and landed on Raf’s throat. His head came clean off, and the sword found its way into the back of the bigger one in the same blow. They both fell still and the audience erupted. They cheered extremely loudly but it was an oddly short lived blast of happiness, as the soldiers seemed to know that this was the end of the show and they went from cheering to standing and moving off to wherever they were about to spend their night. Those that were to sleep on the stone seats unrolled their kits and the others showed themselves out of the arena.

Boss handed the sword back to Alexis. He put it back in its sheath and they stood there for a moment, looking at Raf’s body. Some of the torches had burned out and it was even darker now. May and I walked slowly over to the dimly lit centre of the pit and Ben followed with what remained of his pine torch. The brothers found their way over just behind us and we all stood in the centre for a moment, staring at Raf. Since we were in Basin none of us had had a moment to stop and process all that had happened or the loss of Raf. Ben’s torch went out and the coals at its end glowed.

“Thank you, Mr Fahaar!” a voice came from the dark back of the arena. “Our troops enjoyed it very much!” It was the Haji officer and with him were a dozen or so mixed troops.

“Well, we were glad to be of assistance.” 


“Now, Mr Fahaar, I must ask you and your troupe to follow me. I’m afraid that we must ask you all to leave Pan tonight.”


“Leave Pan?” Boss said with a concerned tone to his voice.

“Yes. I’m afraid that our soldiers discovered the two creatures that you brought into Pan on the back of your wagon. And I know that you have a business in the capture and execution of the dead, but we are unable to allow people to bring the dead into the city walls like this, especially during the siege that we are undergoing with Jessop.”


“Yes, I understand fully what you’re saying. I’m sorry we couldn’t have been of more help to you in this stressful time of hardship though.” Boss said, as he nodded slowly.

“Oh, but there is something you can do. And for your services we will be most grateful. Please follow us now.”

Empire Road – Part 25

The Twists of The Blade

We were all quiet for a moment. None of us knew what to say. Boss tells Alexis pretty well everything; or at least everything he needs to know. So I knew that he knew most of this already, but he still looked legitimately surprised. I knew it because I was the one who overheard it, and I still felt surprised. May looked surprised too, but the brothers looked curious. I guess this was all new to them. Ben’s stupid face always looks the same.

The brothers went to the back of the arena and started assembling their instruments. They had a little kind of tripod that they put their horns on, and they both set up small drums that sat on the floor in front of them, with the skins facing the sky. They tied little hammers to their right shoes, with the head of the hammer hooking from the stick toward the drum so that when they tapped their feet it hit the drum on the ground. One of the drums had bells on it too. When Boss gave the signal they took their horns and began playing a slow tune that seemed to roll slowly between one horn and then back to the other. Their feet slowly tapped their drums, one and then the other, and then they started speeding up the pace. Their tapping and playing got faster and faster and I saw the soldiers start taking their seats more and more quickly. All their bedding had been removed and there wasn’t a single seat to be seen by the end of their first tune.
there was maybe as many as 2000 soldiers there.


This was the first time Boss had put me on the program. I was wearing a collar that had about a dozen points with bells on it like the jesters wear, and matching cuffs around my wrists and ankles. Alexis gave them to me before the show. I have no idea where he got them from, but they made me feel more like I was part of it. I entered with the second song at Boss’ cue and walked to the middle of the arena. The brothers played a fun and quick tune. I held my first ball in the air, then my second and my third, placing them in front of me on the mud. It smelled terrible! I stepped back and took a fourth ball from my pocket. Then I proceeded to go through the routine that Raf taught me. I did a two ball routine, then took a bow. I did my three ball routine, then I took another bow. But then when I did my four ball routine they went wild. I guess they’d been watching the fourth ball on the ground in front of me whole time I was juggling with three. I finished the four ball routine and instead of catching them I just threw my arms in the air and let the balls hit the dirt. They went completely crazy for me! It felt amazing. I stopped noticing how bad it smelled. I had honestly never felt a rush like that before and I suddenly got it. I got why Boss, Raf, May, Alexis and the brothers performed. I got what they were feeling and getting out of that sense of appreciation that I just got. The brothers stopped playing; I took one more bow, and admittedly took perhaps too long to finish bowing, but then I left.

Boss entered the arena from the side closest to the river. Ben was holding a torch and walking beside him to keep him visible. The night seemed to be getting darker and darker by the second, and there was no sight of stars or the moon because of the thick cloud cover. Ben was carrying a pine torch, rather than the glass lanterns we would usually use; because they were still in the wagon and we needed to pretend that we didn’t need anything from there until after the show. The problem with a pine torch is that it’s literally a length of wood that’s been splintered down to about half way with an axe so that it’s a hand-held bunch of burning kindling. It gives off a thick, black smoke that billows from it. But it was the best we could do at short notice and Ben seemed pleased to have a job.

“Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to this, our celebratory performance that honours the might of the combined forces of the Schmidt army, the Haji Army and the forces of the Pan Patrio! Tonight; for your viewing pleasure, we have for you the most celebrated gladiator of all time! A man whose last head count of slain dead was well into the thousands!! A man who stood side by side with your soldiers today as you fought off the army of Jessop and a man who tonight will continue to serve you as an example of swordsmanship! The one and only Alexis, who will be taking the highest honour available to any living man as he demonstrates his skills with the sword! But first, I present to you a talent from your very own city! The first lady of Pan! The siren of the Thanatos! I give you the one, the only, Miss May!!!!” 


The brothers started blowing their horns again. We only have one kind of music in Leyden. It’s a bamboo flute and a drum made from a hollowed bamboo with pig skins on either end. It’s not at all like the music that the brothers were playing, but I have to admit that it was quite catchy anyway. She walked out with a peculiar step. Her toes pointed outward and she paused before she placed her foot each time she stepped. Her head was tilted toward the ground and she stopped about the same place where I was juggling. Then the brothers stopped playing. She looked up at the audience and lifted her hand toward them. The brothers began a new tune and she slowly began her routine. First she went into a back arch, then threw her legs over to be doing a handstand. The soldiers went wild because her skirt fell upward, exposing her backside to them in her G string. Then she folded her body over itself backwards, then into the splits and finally pulled her ankles behind her ears, and began walking about on her hands. Again, the soldiers went absolutely crazy for her. The brothers finished their tune and she took a bow. Then she signalled for Boss and he came in from the wing. He stood beside her and she walked around him seductively. He took a slightly more stable stance and held out his right hand for her. She took it and he seemed to throw her into the air. It didn’t look at all like Raf did, but suddenly he was doing the same stunt with her and she was holding a handstand above him. Boss was at least twice the weight and size as Raf, so it didn’t look anywhere near as impressive to watch, but the audience were none the wiser and they went crazy again. Finally, as her finale, May found her way to standing on Boss’ shoulders. Once there she readied herself, standing completely still, then suddenly threw herself into a double backflip, landing behind him perfectly. The darkness made it hard to see the full stunt unless you were sitting directly to her left, but it was clear to the rest that she was either about to die or do something amazing. The audience went crazy again.

Finally, after all the cheering drew slowly back to silence, Boss took his place again, with Ben lighting them both up.

“Thank you, thank you. Now! Ladies and gentlemen! It is my great delight to present you with our final act for the evening. I bring to you a gladiator not from any of the ten communities we now find ourselves at war to protect! Not even from the communities by the sea! But from a community even further north than we! A man who found his entire village decimated by the dead nearly thirty years ago. But for pure fortune he was spared as a baby and found his way to the safety of a hollowed out tree! Raised for a short time by the savage nomads in the outermost wilderness, then finding his way to the communities by the Sea before being found by me eight years ago. I present you with the one and only, the astounding and powerful, the amazing and brilliant; Alexis the Great!”


The soldiers clapped, but not like they had for May. More of a polite clapping. Alexis entered the ring from the back of the coliseum, walking slowly down the stone stairs that led from the back of the arena to the pit. As he passed more and more of the soldiers saw him and an unnatural silence fell on the place. As he walked on each of the steps his long broad sword occasionally touched the stone steps he was walking down and made a Tink sound as he went. it echoed through the place. When he got to the bottom he took out his broad sword and placed its tip on the ground in front of him; leaning on its handle with both hands. He smiled at the audience. It’s a good moment because it seems like an unnecessarily long gesture. Just when he does that the keepers that Boss has organised release the first creature into the ring. They do so from behind him. It’s a clever bit of theatre because in that moment where he stands still, the audience always goes deathly quiet. When they see the creature released they assume that he hasn’t seen it, so they go even more quiet for a moment. This lets Alexis listen to the footsteps of it as it shuffles toward him. But this night was different.

As he stood there the audience did exactly what they usually do. They went completely silent and watched him. Then, on cue, shadows started moving near the river as the keeper Boss had organised released a creature. It staggered like it should up the hill from down near the river where it was released. It was drawn to the light. Alexis just stood there, listening. The creature stumbled and fell once just before it got to the beginning of the pit. It righted itself and continued staggering forward. I watched the soldiers as they sat and watched. Several of them who had been eating food were now sitting still in anticipation. Murmurs here and there were heard as the soldiers asked one another if Alexis was aware of the creature that was now visible to them. There were women in the audience too, because the Patrio is made up of anyone in Pan who is between 18 and 22 years old. And they were also on the edges of their seats. In fact, if it was any other show, that audience would have been a great one. 

But there, as it came into the light of the pine torches, with the thick black smoke billowing across the space, we saw it for real. It was the King. Our king. The one that Boss had rounded up from god knows where, and dressed in the suit of the last king. I guessed it was a joke from the soldiers of the Pan army to tell Boss who truly was King after all. But then, just as I was underestimating him, Boss came bounding into the arena with a pole and a loop of rope on its end. He looped it over the head of the creature and held it in place. The soldiers were intently watching, but didn’t react at all. Boss secured the creature and stopped it in its tracks.

“But now, ladies and gentlemen, as we present you with this amazing display of prowess and agility, I would like to introduce you to something very special. This, that we have brought to you today is a man who comes from the Kingdom of Jessop! You see the unusual clothes that he wears? We captured him today as he was approaching Pan. He is a Jessop trader who deals with the communities by the sea, but today was trying to enter Pan with plans of sabotage!! However, as he approached the city one of Jessop’s own creatures bit him, so we took both monsters captive!! This man, and the creature that bit him. Carefully we rounded them up to bring to you tonight to show you first hand just how feeble and weak they in fact are! But the victory, ladies and gentlemen, is to be ours tonight as we release this creature into the ring with the greatest dead-slayer in the entire world!” As Boss spoke the audience began murmuring sounds and grunt in waves of support. But by the end they broke into a loud and ruckus cheer for him. When they abated he continued. “I don’t want to give away any surprises, but please let me assure you that tonight you will see not just the enemy of Pan slain, but we will see an even more terrifying and astounding display of good triumphing over evil when we release the next creature! So without further hesitation, I present you with our shared victory!!” He released the creature from its loop and poked it hard in the shoulder to steer it back toward Alexis, who amazingly hadn’t moved the entire time Boss was presenting.

The creature saw Alexis and went straight for him. I’d seen this routine lots of times before but this time he waited far longer than he ever had to make his first move. The creature’s hands must have come within an inch of Alexis before he swooped to the floor, rolling into a tumble over his sword and landed on his back facing the sky, allowing the creature’s momentum to keep it travelling after him. As it fell forwards Alexis drove his sword up into the middle of its chest; leaving it impaled and draped directly above him. He lifted his legs and heaved them forward, away from the creature, and threw his weight away, letting the creature hit the dirt with a thud. Ordinarily any living being would have stayed on the ground after being wounded like that, and the roaring audience went silent instantly as the king began to lift itself from the floor of the pit. Alexis was standing with his back to it again, arms in the air, seeming to be revelling in the applause. Even though the cheering had finished he kept on gesturing to the audience with cocky smirks; his back to the king. The audience began yelling at Alexis, warning him about the approaching beast. But as per usual, he had it all perfectly timed, and as the creature approached he acted. Unbeknown to the soldiers in his audience Alexis’ arms were up in the air all that time because he was using his broad sword as a mirror to watch behind him in its blade. As the creature came toward him again Alexis plunged the sword downward, thrusting it under his arm and again into the chest of the king. He spun, pulled the sword free, pivoted on his left foot and spun again. Now, standing behind the king Alexis swung his sword twice in the air, round about his head, and then on the third approach landed it into the neck of the king. Its head rolled clean off, hitting the ground before his knees did. Then its body followed and the soldiers jumped to their feet, cheering and screaming with delight. Alexis took a bow, walked over to the head of the king and took its hat off. He placed it on his own head and took another bow to the delight of the crowds. That was the sign for Boss to release the next creature. But since I suspected that Boss had nothing to do with the release of the last one I guessed he’d have as little to do with the release of the next one either. I was also keen to see the next one because I was sure I knew who it would be. The creature in the cage with the king was enormous and I couldn’t resist being excited to see how Alexis was going to deal with it. But then, to all our surprise, the next creature appeared; along with two others. One of them was, as I’d suspected, the creature we had in the cage with the king, but following it were two others. I was standing next to May over on the side, and last I saw Ben and Boss were over on the other side of the pit. But suddenly I realised that Boss had found his way with Ben to our side of the arena floor. I saw Boss beside me about the time that he saw the two other creatures following our Jessop creature and he let out three short, sharp whistles. It was interesting to see, because it was another moment where I saw the workings behind the façade that the audience didn’t see. Those three sharp whistles made Alexis know that there wasn’t just one of them coming after him. There were three.

The three dead that were heading up the grassy slope from the river weren’t like the king. He was old. About 60 years old by my judgement. But these three silhouettes were all those of young, nimble people. They had only been dead for a few days at most. The smell was now in the arena with them. It stank something terrible. To my surprise, one of the approaching dead was a woman. I saw her hips as she came into the torch light. But my eyes were more firmly on the big one that used to be in our cage. The other thing that made me more excited was that all three of them moved far faster than the king did. Either the king had been dead longer, or he was just older in life than these three; but either way he moved a lot slower.

It was very exciting for me and the soldiers in the audience were again screaming to alert Alexis of the danger he was facing as he stood with his back to them. I moved as close to the audience as I could to see as much of the show as possible when I saw something that made my heart sink. The muscly creature that we’d had in our cage ran toward Alexis in a very fast jog. He was followed by the female creature, with her boobies bouncing around with every step. But as the third one came into the light it made my blood run cold. It couldn’t have been deliberate, and whoever sent the dead into the ring couldn’t have known who it was. But running just behind the female creature was a younger man in parts of a Patrio outfit. He had the rapier in his hand. I could make out most of his silhouette from where I stood, but May recognised him before I did and she screamed!

“Raf!!!”







Empire Road – Side Notes

Today’s Side Note is in response to some of the comments and messages that I’ve had from my American readers. When I began writing Empire Road I was touring circus shows to regional Australia and spending up to thirty weeks a year in the regions. Anyone who’s driven across the countryside in Australia will be able to testify to the sheer volume of dead kangaroos that litter the freeways, against a backdrop of endless gumtrees and brown dirt. Therefor it is without much surprise to learn that the backdrop for Empire Road in part comes from my own life experiences in that way, along with the supporting cast of a travelling circus.

I mention this because it gives an understanding of how and why I wrote Empire Road in the that way I did, and it also let’s me explain a little bit about why I didn’t choose to set it anywhere else. So far I’ve had about 1000 followers from America follow the Facebook page for Empire Road, which truly surprised me. And that said, it has raised a further question more than once by my American readers about how they approach the story. The first message I had was from a reader in Oklahoma, who asked how it was possible for Alexis to fight kangaroos, and for the people of New Haven to make up so much of their diet from kangaroo meat. His message finished with “how would it be possible for any city to transport that many kangaroos here without international shipping facilities…”. The simple answer is that the story isn’t set in America. On the flip side, I’ve had several other very encouraging messages from American, English and even one Mexican readers who have not been put off by the location setting of the story at all.

The other thought that was sent to me since the last Side Note on Empire Road was to do with the character of May. As a reader I enjoy strong female figures in the stories I read. And I am entirely aware that May appears in this part of Empire Road to be somewhat of a damsel in distress. And although this is known to me, there is more to come with May. However, in the earlier parts of this story she is only a teenager, and still as a person establishing herself much the same way that Elijah is.

Thanks again for the incredibly encouraging messages, and I look forward to any other thoughts that any of you want to send across. I will be posting another side note each week to address any questions you have and I look forward to hearing of your thoughts.

Empire Road – Part 24

The Test Subjects


With Ben sobering up on top of the planks on the pole cart we made our way back into Pan. The town was now completely under the guard of a combination of Pan Patrio, a scattering of the remaining Schmidt soldiers and the Haji army. It was totally clear that the Haji were running the show when we approached. Their leaders were giving out all the commands to the Patrio as well as their own soldiers, while the Patrio commanders stood beside them. Boss was known to every single one of them, however, this was both a blessing and a curse at that exact moment. As far as I could tell from my year and a half travelling with him he was loved by every community he ever toured to for the simple fact that he toured there with entertainment, and he was smart enough to always make it entertainment that suited their culture. However, the moment of truth came when he stood on the home cart drive-seat to tell the guards who he was. The problem was his name. In Haji we perform in their ‘unofficial coliseum’, which they call the Herazmi El’montage. They have another coliseum that’s more like a theatre, but it doesn’t ever host tournaments because they believe that the dead are unclean and nothing unclean is allowed inside the walls of Haji; including us. They hold performances outside in the unofficial arena with acrobats, tumblers and singers and the occasional man on man wrestling and sword fights. When we perform at Herazmi El’montage we can do whatever show we want because it’s outside the walls and Boss introduces himself as ‘Mr Fahaar’s Grand Circus’. Interestingly, as the Haji audience re-enter the gates of home town after the show, they all wash at a long set of troughs that are beside their gates. Only the men ever come to see the shows. In fact, I’ve never even seen a woman from Haji. The outerwall people are also allowed to use these troughs for whatever purpose they like because the Haji are very charitable to them, But after a show they refill the troughs with fresh water and only the Haji are allowed to use it until they’re all safely back inside. Then the outerwall people can also use the water.

In Pan, where they have their arena in the area at the back, closest to the river, Boss introduces himself as ‘Mr Fricnatious’s Circus of Wonderment’. As he stood up to address the gate house soldiers it was obvious that they knew who he was. But it was also instantly obvious that we were in danger because the guard were a combination of Haji and Paneretian soldiers. But, in truly fine form, Boss already had his introduction worked out and he used it in his favour. As we approached the gate the Patrio soldiers jogged up the road to meet us. Boss didn’t stop, because none of them were telling him to. They kind of jogged alongside the wagons until we got within yelling distance of the grand gates of Pan and then Alexis pulled the horses up. The gates of Pan have huge columns that were once logs either side of the entrance. Then there’s a roof that joins them at the top and its edges curl up like a lotus flower. The tiles are red, the pillars are deep blue and all the small details around the other parts are yellow. An important looking Haji soldier was standing in the path, with his arms folded; flanked with about ten others. The sun was completely gone now behind thick, dark grey cloud cover and it was starting to become cold again. Boss stood up and yelled to them, as they watched him in the fire light from the fires that burned in cast iron troughs either side of the gates.

“Greetings my friends! It is me, Mr Fahaar Ficnatious and my Circus of Wonderment! I know that my services here are of no use to yourselves after all that has happened today. However, when I heard the news of the attack I came as fast as I could to offer you my resources in any way they may serve you. My wagons, my artists, if we can serve you, or even entertain your troops tonight, it would be an honour!.”


The Haji soldier walked to the driver’s bench and looked up at Boss. He smiled.

“It is indeed a wonderful thing that you have come, Mr Fahaar! You will be a very welcome guest here tonight! Our army has won a horrible fight, though many were lost. Your performers will be a truly magnificent surprise for our soldiers!”


We were escorted into Pan the same way we’d left only hours earlier. It was surprising to me that the Haji soldiers seemed completely none the wiser that they had jogged straight past us on their way into Pan. But then again, I guessed they had other things on their minds. That, and our painted planks and bunting wasn’t yet up on the wagons. I was standing on the back of the pole cart with May and the brothers as we went back into Pan. We were looking out past the cage that had the creatures in it. We passed the gates into the area where they grow their zucchinis and beans. There were a fair few Haji soldiers watching us as we passed, smiling and occasionally waving at May. But when we got into the housing areas soldiers and civilians were everywhere! They were lining the street and waving at us. Then I got the fright of my life! The brothers began playing their horns behind me and I thought we were about to be attacked by something. May laughed. Ben sat up and looked a little more focussed finally. I’d stashed my trousers with the two saplings in a gap between the poles near the cage. I knew that Ben wouldn’t be likely to go looking for anything near there. He’s a coward. I stood them upright and poured some drinking water on them. Other than one of them being bent at the base, and the wood looking a little worse for wear, they both looked quite healthy still.

Boss turned off the main thoroughfare and headed directly for the arena. The road leading to it is filled with shops of all kinds and is very busy with carts and people.

When we got to the arena I was surprised by how low its walls were. It only looked as tall as a farmhouse from the street level. But the thing about the Pan arena is that it’s dug into the ground by about the same height as it goes up. It’s like a pit that you look down to the bottom of. It’s bottom, where the performances happen, is also close to the waterline of the Thanatos River at the bottom of the pit, so its performance area is always soft and the mud underfoot is always damp. The last time we were here I watched Alexis get covered with mud that sprayed up to his armpits from running about in there. He was the last fight of seven on the program and the other fighters and the dead had been running about in there all night before he got his turn. But also, unlike the other arenas, this one has a completely open side that gives a full view down to the river. It’s seating is made of blue stone, like their streets, and is only a three quarter circle. It smells in there too because of all the dead they kill and the arena is never cleaned out. They wait until the river floods to wash out all the death that goes on in there. It floods about three times a year in winter when the rains come and the river rises. The Panetians call their arena the Su-Chai. It means something like death house in their language. The entrance to the seating and down to the pit all come over the top of the wall, like climbing a stone set of stairs.

We pulled the wagons up in the large court area near the entrance to the Su-Chai arena. When we were here last time there were all kinds of food vendors coming and going, with tents, wagons and merchant tables everywhere. They don’t charge the food Vanders to set up or operate in this arena at all. So it’s a free for all amongst them, and they serve everybody as they sit watching the shows the whole way through. They can also be incredibly disruptive to the performance because they don’t stop selling or sprinkling at any point. But now there was just men coming and going with horses standing at the entrance all tied to the hitching posts. The soldiers all came over to help May down first, and then, obligingly, offered to help us down too. May loves attention like that and it was the first time since Raf was killed that I saw her smile. The seating in the Su-Chai arena was being used as bedding for the Haji army, and their kits were all laid out on them. The whole structure is made from bluestone blocks. It was about three hours before sundown and Boss knew that they would want to see something spectacular! The Muslims were particularly keen to see us kill some of the dead that they hadcaptured in the battle, because this wasn’t a Muslim town and they seemed to have an ‘anything goes’ air of excitement about them when they’re not in Haji. We got our stuff out of the wagons and went down near the far side of the pit; half way between the river and the arena. May was cooking weeds and spices in a stew with eel from the river. I like eel. But the weeds she was cooking were weeds she had bought in the market. BOUGHT! With money! This time we were treated to a combination of yellow woodsorrel flowers, which have a lemon taste, but otherwise come from clover, with the chicken meat they didn’t feed the creatures yesterday, eel, and mallow leaves. I hate mallow leaves now.

I always prefer to watch than to get caught up in the activity when I’m not completely sure what’s required of me. I’ve always been that way. I suppose it was because my dad was so quiet and I had to watch him so closely to work out what I needed to do to look after him when I was still there. But this time I was glad for it. Boss was standing at the back of the performance area as a senior looking Haji soldier walked down the staircase toward where the pit was. He stopped half way down and was met by a senior looking member of the Patrio. They both had gold and silver badges on their chests. They stopped right in front of me and didn’t seem to notice me at all. They greeted one another with a head gesture and just began speaking. The Patrio officer did most of the talking, and begun with a hushed voice.

“I’ve had their wagons moved to the front. They had two dead creatures on the back of the larger wagon.”


“What would he have them for?” The Haji soldier said with surprise, leaning away from the Patrio.

“He’s a circus presenter. He probably shows them off to the other communities for a fee. One of them was wearing the straps and rings that Jessop puts on them, but the other was wearing clothes from the seaside communities.” They paused for a moment and looked down at Boss, talking to one of the men who was organising the performances for that night. My mind was racing, and I almost considered interrupting them to explain that the two creatures Boss had were to be slain by Alexis that night. But I knew they’d never believe it because of the way the dead are usually brought into the arenas. Most of the people that live in the communities are fearful people. They have been born and raised to be afraid of the land outside their communities and the dead are exactly what they’ve been taught to be afraid of. So when they bring them into their arenas they do it in cages, with specially trained guards that carry sticks, and they have set out routes to bring them into the town through at specific times so that no one could possibly ever come into contact with a single creature. I knew that Boss was about to find himself in deep trouble for having two creatures in a flimsy wooden cage on the back of the wagon. But as far as I was concerned I was more worried about my two saplings than the creatures. I knew Boss would always be able to find more wagons, and that nothing we had in them was all that important to us. But I wanted those plants.

“After the show tonight when the men have been entertained take him and his whole outfit to the wagons and send them out,” the Haji soldier said thoughtfully. “They can be the ones to make the test for us.” I had no idea what that meant. Perhaps the test was the performance we were about to give? But in any respect, I would see my plants again, Boss would get his wagons back and we would be on our way once again.

I went straight down to Boss when the soldier had left and told him what I’d heard. He agreed with me that it was stupid of us to have brought the two creatures into the city without telling anyone. But still, he was happy with the sound of getting the wagons back and being sent on our way.

As night fell and the torches were being lit at the tops of the coliseum and around the edges of the pit. Boss and Alexis were in deep discussion. I was practicing my juggling. I was using Raf’s sand bag juggling balls that he gave me as a loan to practice with just before he was killed. I didn’t want May to see, but I wanted to use them anyway. Then Boss called us over.

“Tonight we’re the only talent here. So, Elijah, I want you to begin while Passalus and Acmon play for you.” He turned to the brothers. “Do you two have anything old that you can play? Something that isn’t from either community. Something fast though.” Then he paused for a moment. “I’ve had their soldiers round up some creatures for Alexis to fight as the last act. May, do you think I could be your base for some of the easier lifts that you and Raf were performing? I know that we haven’t done them before, and I understand what I’m asking of you, but I need to level with you all now and tell you something. It turns out that the Haji found the two creatures we had in the cage on the back of the wagon and they’re going to escort us from here to the gate as soon as the show is over. So, I guess, it’s important that we do a good show to lessen the blow as best we can tonight. I have a feeling they’ll at least give us back the wagons and horses, but it might be a bit rough between the end of Alexis’ act and leaving Pan. So please don’t resist, follow my lead, do the best show you can and know that everything is going to be alright. Now… I know that you may not have everything you need for tonight… but we can’t go out of the arena now to get things from the wagons because they aren’t there out the front, and we need to play dumb. So – whatever you have with you now is what you’ll be performing with.”

Empire Road – Part 23

Invisible Ben

Over the fence he went and landed clumsily. He steadied himself against the fence and we could see his shape in the gaps of it.

“Ya need to lose some pounds, old bloke.” Alexis yelled out then smiled to himself.

Boss and Alexis began discussing the strategy for our return to Pan. I acted like I was listening for the first part, but my mind was wandering. I positioned myself so that I was listening but so that I was also facing the fence. The place beside the road was an area that hadn’t had any dead in it for a long time because it was an enclosed area. The Thanatos River was about three or four miles away from it and the Empire Road blocked it off against the side of Pan’s wall at either end. There was no way for the dead to get in or out of that area. Had I known otherwise I wouldn’t have let Ben go over the wall.

It was starting to head toward late afternoon and Ben was walking into the sun, so I could just make out parts of his silhouette, but then it was gone. Suddenly, I saw a new shadow on the fence. My eyes widened. I stood up and grabbed Boss’ arm.

“There’s dead out there!” His head flicked toward the wall. He saw the shadow too and he slapped Alexis with the side of his hand. They didn’t speak words, they knew what they needed to do. Alexis was leaning on the other wheel of the wagon and he jumped to attention. He turned and ran to the home cart to get his sword. Boss, May and I jumped up onto the driving bench and were positioning ourselves to see over the fence. I was behind them, while Passalus and Acmon went around to the back of the pole cart to look over the fence too. As we got there and looked over the fence it was one of the strangest sights. Ben was laying in a clear area of grass, about twenty paces away. He was slowly eating the last of the bread I’d given him. To our left were three dead, walking slowly toward him. One was a Paneretian soldier, but had a thick sword sticking out of his gut and a huge chunk missing from his thigh. I guess the sword wound slowed him down enough to get bitten on the leg. Another was a dead that was wearing the straps and metal rings and the third was a Schmidt soldier with bight marks all over one arm and a chunk missing from his left bicep. His guts were trailing behind him. They were moving quite quickly and their faces looked as though they were chasing something; but it clearly wasn’t Ben. In fact, they walked directly toward him, but seemed completely unaware of him at all. He heard footsteps and sat upright, seeing that one of the creatures was about five paces away. He looked at it, and seemed to question what he saw. The creature looked at Ben, stopping walking for a moment, and sniffed the air. Funnily it did something very unusual and its arms seemed to grab at the air between him and Ben a couple of times, then it began walking again. Ben all the while just sat there, watching. Then the Schmidt soldier and the creature wearing the straps came along and we watched in disbelief. Alexis by now had found his sword and had it on his hip. He came up to us and was about to start heading over the fence when Boss stopped him. “Stop!” Boss whispered as he grabbed Alexis’ arm. We all watched as Ben sat there in a stupor, as the Schmidt soldier in his light brown canvas armour walked directly toward Ben. Had it not stopped right above him it would have without question tripped on Ben’s legs. It stopped though, sniffed the air, looked down at Ben and seemed to flail its arms about as well, then kept walking. But to that, Ben reacted. It seems his mind came back to him enough to let him understand the danger he was in and he let out a scream that sounded more like a lady might make if she saw a mouse. At this all three creatures spun to look at him, and they all knew without question that something living was there amongst them. Only the living make noises like that. They ran directly at him, and Alexis jumped the fence. He ran on foot as fast as he could, sprinting, with broad sword ready to strike. He struck the creature wearing the straps in the back of the head with a clean downward stroke. It fell to its knees and then onto its face. Alexis landed his foot on the creature’s neck and pulled the sword free, bringing it up directly from the fallen one into the middle of the spine of the Schmidt soldier and up into the back of its head.

“hahahahaaaa… see that? Brilliant! Just Brilliant!” Boss said in excitement, as he watched Alexis proving that he possibly had more experience in slaying the dead than any living being. He truly was a magnificent swordsman. Finally, though, as he ploughed his sword into the back of the Schmidt soldier, it was pulled free from his hands and swung forward as the creature also fell to his knees. The sword went flying over the top of Ben, and hit a tree behind him with a clang. Alexis froze. Even though in the arenas he would often look as though he had nothing other than his bare hands with which to fight the dead he always had some secret strategy. It was the “smoke and mirrors”, as boss would describe it. He always had a hard round river stone under his belt in the shape of an hour glass. He’d take one of the rope cords from his costume and appear to have just happened upon the fish shaped stone. He would tie the rope to it. Then he would use it like a slingshot and land it between the eyes of the creature he was fighting. But this time he had literally nothing. The creature looked from where it had heard the scream come from. It looked directly toward where it saw Alexis. Evenly between them Ben sat, trying to grab something that wasn’t in front of him with his hands. The creature looked directly at Alexis and walked straight at him, but it tripped on Ben as it did. It walked straight into that fat idiot as he sat on his backside, legs outstretched in front of him. Alexis saw the creature fall forward, and then continue to fall onto its side. Ben also saw the same thing and again began to shriek like a lady. The creature was next to Ben and started grabbing at the air between them as it tried to get back on its feet. Alexis took two lumbering strides and leapt into the air, landing with his heel on the side of the creature’s face. With his full weight traveling downward Alexis was able to drive its head into the clay earth. We heard bones crunch, and then Alexis jumped again, landing clean on the creature’s neck. It stopped completely still.

Alexis was panting now. He watched the dead underfoot to be sure it was dead for real. Once he was sure the expression on his face went to one of anger, his brow furrowed and he slapped Ben in the back of the head. It made a loud slap! Then he walked over to where his sword was, and came back toward the fence. As he passed Ben he grabbed him by the scruff of his collar and pulled him upward. Ben found his way to hands and knees first, then Alexis hissed at him, “get to yer feet, ya drunk idiot, or I’ll leave you here!” I’m sure he meant this to inspire Ben to keep moving, but it only made him scream like a lady again. Boss looked over at Passalus and Acmon and ordered them to drop the rope ladder that was on the pole cart over the fence. They did this without a thought, but then he ordered them to go and retrieve Ben with Alexis. They just stood there. “Now!” Boss yelled. We could see a fair way out into the wilderness and there were no dead to be seen, but the brothers looked very uneasy about it all. The sun was falling behind cloud cover and a cool breeze fell over us.

Watching them get Ben up onto his feet and walk toward the fence would have been a hilarious comedy if there weren’t such clear and obvious danger about. But, together the three of them were able to get Ben to his feet, and make him trudge to the rope ladder. He seemed to climb it without too much effort, with Alexis guiding his feet onto each rung.

When he got off he flopped onto the flatbed of the pole cart. The dead king and soldier that we had in our cage were still lunging at us. Boss ordered May to kill one of the chickens and to feed its body to the dead, but to rip its legs and breasts out while it was still alive and keep them for us later. She gave him a strange look but went about doing it. I’d seen her and Raf kill birds to eat before, and hug the thing to death in their custom, but this was something new altogether. Along with the brothers, who were also Paneretian, they discussed where they’d cut at the same time to take the meat they needed as quickly as possible and how they would hand its remains to the dead in the cage. They sang a strange song in their language, then stopped, said “Rut, Bunee, Pal,” and sliced it into sections in an instant. Then the dead in our cage were quiet again.

Boss and Alexis stood staring at Ben. He was laying on the planks that we use for seating on the back of the flat bed.

“How did he do it?” Boss said to himself out pensively.



















Empire Road – Side Note

I want to begin this by again thanking all the people who have gotten behind this book, and are sharing it and inviting friends to enjoy it too. I’ve had lots of messages from readers so I thought it would be fun to include the answers to the questions in a side note or two.

The concept of Empire Road, and it’s overarching story, start to finish, has been something I’ve been working on since about 2005. I became aware of the work of John Wyndham who wrote The Lord of the Flies, the Day of the Triffids and The Village of the Damned. I’m also a student of history and very interested in World War history. So the basic concept for a post apocalyptic setting with a war as it’s main narrative was simply the coming together of two of my interest groups.

The character of Jeremiah is an amalgamation of a number of boys his age who have been in my life including myself, my brothers and my sons. His good ethics and intellect are modeled after my grandfather, but his sense of wonder for all things outside of his own world is based more closely on my myself. He is primarily designed to be a way to tell the story that isn’t so potent that the story becomes about him. He is able to be a window into the story this way.

As the story progresses and the true nature’s of characters becomes more evident, I will be posting more side notes to discuss any other questions that may come up.

Thanks again for sharing these posts and for all the support and encouragement.

Empire Road – Part 22

Begin the Band

Back down the stairs we went. It was good not to be up high any more. When we came out into the open again the streets were deserted. Boss gave a single glance, and he knew what was happening. My natural reaction was to say things like, “where is everyone”, but Boss knew as though it was one of the mystery plays that the Catholics liked so much and he knew how it ended. “Quick,” he said and he jogged toward May’s house. We were just passing it when I saw May’s mother bringing out some rubbish to leave out the front of the house while her father was boarding up the windows. With the rubbish was my old pair of trousers and poking out from the pocket that I extended with my knife was the top of one of my plants.

“Wait!” I said, and I ran over to her. I took the whole thing. She said something in that ‘ting tong’ sounding language they speak, but I smiled and took them anyway. She seemed cross. I ran with the trousers protecting my plants under my arm. Boss looked puzzled.

“Ya know that the clothes you’re wearing now are way stronger fabric and much better quality than those old ones? They’re not even mendups!”


“Yes Boss, But these have stuff in the pockets.”


“Oh! Haha, makes sense,” he said. He smiled at me and it made me feel good for a second.

We ran down an alleyway. It was narrow and the paving underfoot was cobbled but not as even as the last streets we’d been walking on, and not as well maintained as the main streets. The stones were round and a bit uneven. We found our way to the back of a shop that I think was a bakery or something. There were two wagons waiting. One was a home cart with a fabled roof, and the other was a flatbed. There were two small cages under the pole cart with three chickens in each them. They sat peacefully. It also had a box at the front near the driver’s seat and a stack of wood planks on the back just like our old pole cart did. The box on the back of the pole cart was covered with a canvas banner of some sort, and boss went over to it. He stopped and turned to me with a grin. I knew that what he was about to show me would be something he hadn’t shown anyone before. I know his smiles and what they mean. I was also aware that he was about to practice his pitch and see how a new audience reacted to it. He took a firm grip and yanked the cloth off from about head height. It made an unfurling sound as it dropped heavily to the ground. Dust flew up, but when I was able to see what he’d unveiled, I was shocked. It was another cage. In it seemed to be the old dead king and a new creature with it in the same cage. I looked a bit closer, and realised that the king was actually a different dead, but for the life of me it looked just like it was dressed in exactly the same outfit, down to the belt that Ben took from it and the hat that we lost in Newhaven. The other was a big, muscly dead male. It was taller than Alexis even, but it was wearing a strange kind of leather strapping on its body. It was wearing a skirt to cover its private area, but otherwise was naked. The straps had heavy metal rings sewn into them in various places. One either side of the outside knee, one either side of the shoulders, one at the front at the middle of the chest, and one on its throat, either side of its neck, and the back of its neck. Tied to a ring on its back was a piece of rope that touched the ground, just like the one I saw in the kangaroo skin. This one however was huge. When it was alive it would have been one of the biggest men I’d have ever seen, and it was very intimidating to be near.

“Wait for it”, Boss said, as he reached up onto the back of the pole cart. He took down what looked like a long, black, leather blanket and began unfolding it to show me what it was. He held it up and then draped it on himself, but not from the shoulders like a normal cloak. He put it on his head and I saw that it had a hood, and he put it over his head. The hood was like a mushroom, and it had a buckle that he fixed in front of his nose.

“When they put these on the dead they pull this real tight so they can’t get anything close to their mouth and they can’t get it off their head either.” His eyes were only able to see through a slim gap, and then it just flowed down, making him otherwise invisible but for the leather cloak. Then I saw his hand. It popped out of a small hole in the leather at the front of the chest. I realised that there were holes in all the places where the metals rings would go, and be attached to the straps that the dead creature in the cage was wearing.

“Out there are about half the people who used to live in Schmidt, all now dead and wearing this gear, along with all the people that Jessop was able to round up from the wilderness before he took Basin, just after he tried his luck and failed to take Upper Essex.” 

“But why?” I asked. It made no sense. Boss took off the cloak and threw it back up onto the pole cart. He looked down the laneway as the rumble passed through the town again.

“Quick, help me cover this!”


I jumped up onto the back of the cart and began throwing the cover back over the cage with him. As we covered he explained.

“No one knows who they are or why they’re attacking. But what I do know is that Pan doesn’t stand a chance. So, now we grab Alexis, May, Ben and two new ones I’ve found, and we’re leaving as soon as we can.”


I landed on the ground again, and Boss began walking; so I followed. We stopped in the middle of the street. A man and two small children ran past us and Boss waited till they were gone.

“Go and get May. She’s at her house. But be subtle. Her parents will have a fit if they know she’s leaving with us. No one knows we’re leaving. They’ve got Alexis in their Army at the gate. He’s waiting for my signal and then he’ll meet us at the front gates. Ben is meeting me here in a moment with the two new ones. Hurry!”


I got to May’s house. I still had my plants under my arm. There was a barrel of rain water beside the front porch, under the drain spout. I put both of the seedlings into the one little ball of soil and tied it all up in some of the old fabric from my mendup trousers. I dunked the whole thing into the barrel and watched the bubbles come up. When it was drenched I pulled it out and gently wrung it so that it no longer dripped.

Another boom rolled through the air, but it also carried with it human shrieking this time. I looked at the front door to May’s house. It was boarded shut. I didn’t know how I would find her, but then she found me. She appeared beside me. Scared the hell out of me.

“Shhhh!!” she hissed with a furrowed brow. “Lets go!”


“But what about your parents?!” I said with alarm.

“They’re not. They are just people Boss paid to pretend to be my parents so we wouldn’t raise suspicion while we’re here l. I’m an orphan. Hurry!”


We ran. I followed her closely so that we stayed quite hidden. Two Panerets Patrio Soldiers ran past us as we entered the main street and we hid in a doorway. Another boom rolled past us. Then I heard a whistle. It was Boss’ whistle. The one that he blows to attract attention before a show. Three long, shrill blasts came from it. We ran to the beginning of the laneway from across the street, when a horse drawing the new pole cart came out of it.

“In the back!” Ben yelled. He’s an idiot but I was glad to see him. There were two other men with him. Both were handsome and they sat either side of him. My eyes glanced from one to the other and then back and forth until I realised they were either twins or at least brothers that looked extremely alike. They both had sandy blond hair with pronounced jaws and brows. We ran to the back of the cart and swung ourselves up on it. May threw the overflowing fabric that covered the king and the new dead soldier over us. I could still see through a gap in it though. I couldn’t see the new home cart, but I could hear it not far behind us. We rolled slowly out of town, past the vegetable growing areas, and then finally to the city gates. When I came to Pan last year I came into the town through those gates with Boss to buy supplies after the fights. They had no drawbridge but instead they have a series of poles that sat in holes in the earth that stopped any cart from entering without them being removed. We stopped at the gate and I saw Alexis walk past. Only a flash, but I saw his shoulder, dark hair trailing down over it, the flash of metal from the broadsword he had strapped to his back, and the canvas straps of the Paneretian Patrio that he was wearing.

“Stop where you are!!” a voice from the guards in front of us yelled.

“You need to open the way for us!” Alexis responded. Then, he pulled down the cloth that covered the cage; revealing the king and the dead soldier. Fortunately he pulled it in our direction so it didn’t reveal us too. “I’m under orders to take these outside the walls and burn them!” he yelled. There was a pause. Then one of the guards replied.

“Burn them here! You have enough wood!”


“My orders are to burn them out there to set fire to the forest that the attackers are in. It will kill these two, and also the twenty we also have crammed in that wagon and we’ll hopefully also burn a bunch of them out there as well! NO OPEN THE WAY!!” 


I heard clattering of wood, dragging of heavy objects and all sorts of voices and sounds of movement. Then Ben yelled “Ya”, and we began moving again. Had the soldiers looked more closely they would have seen the three chickens hanging in their cages under the wagon and known that we weren’t just carting the dead to a bonfire.

The poles I’d seen a year earlier had now been reinforced with sand bags, wooden barricades, wooden doors, tables and so much other stuff that it was apparent they were attempting to block the way completely. The horse’s hoofs echoed against the arched walls as we exited the main gates, and then the sound vanished. Sunlight hit us, and a breeze rolled over us. We were heading back on the Empire Road.













EMPIRE ROAD – Part 21

The Defences of Panerets


My head hurt something dreadful. As I stood up my blood pressure rose and it made a cracking sound behind my ears. May steadied me a bit by holding me under my arm.

I hadn’t been in Panerets properly before. Their arena is beautiful, with carved wood and stone everywhere you look, but it’s on the outskirts of the town like in New Haven. The place we were staying in had a low roof. People from Pan are always short. In the arenas I’ve seen three dead that were from Pan originally. They always let the Pan dead hold onto a blunt Pan-Rapier sword when they’re in the arenas, like some sort of tradition or something. They don’t know what to do with the thing and usually just drop it, but the Paneretians always carry their Rapier with them when they’re alive. Even the old people. Or at least they’re supposed to. May had hers with her. It made me feel a little more confident.

We walked out into the street. The street was cobbled with small, perfectly square, dark blue stones. The roof tops were all tiled in blood red tiles and red curtains seemed to flow out of every window. The Paneretians all wear a kind of dress. Male and female. They are either bright red, or deep blue and have gold patterns woven into them. Their language is not understandable at all. I don’t even think that they can understand it.

Jeremy was sitting on the step leading up to the house. He smiled when he saw me. I nodded to him.

“Told you!” I heard Boss’ voice. “I told you he’d find us!” I was pretty sure what May said was right, and that Boss was a bit too quick to let me drown if that was what was to be. But he came striding over with Ben and Alexis beside him. Alexis, strangely, was wearing the leather and canvas armours of the Paneret Patrio. He still had his broad sword with him, but he was now carrying two Pan Rapiers on his belt. Boss put his hands on my shoulders and smiled at me. “You made me proud, boy. I knew you’d do it!” I smiled back. But I didn’t want to.

The world was peaceful in that second. There were no problems. It was hard to describe but I felt proud of myself. I realised how much I wanted his approval. But then, I also wasn’t sure any more. Suddenly, breaking that silence, like a tree falling to the hard clay soil, there rolled a thundering and unstoppable boom past us. It seemed to carry a geography with it to tell us where it had come from, and it rolled past us; shaking us and the buildings as it went. Boss looked at Alexis and said through gritted teeth, “Go now!” Alexis’ muscles seemed to bristle and he looked so strong. He walked off, into the street, and away from us.

“What was that?” I asked. Boss’s left hand was still on my shoulder. May’s mother was yelling something at her in Paneretian and people were starting to run through the streets.

“C’mon; I’ll show you.”


Boss led me past a long line of houses. Someone had dressed me in a deep blue Pan shirt and trousers that go under their dresses. They were thin cotton but they were clean. I felt full. I guess I must have eaten something before I knew what was happening. My hand brushed past my leg and I realised I didn’t have my pants with me now. The shirt went past my knees. But it felt strange not wearing pants. I kept running. Boss was really moving fast. My head was killing again.

We ran through back alleys and small streets that were endlessly connected with other small winding alleyways. Pan is nothing but alleyways. There is only one area in the whole city with a sort of Main Street, but even that is just wide enough for two horses and wagons to pass. When we got to the city wall we saw Alexis. We got up behind him and Boss slapped him on the leather armour. He turned to see us but looked back instantly. He was listening to someone talking. There were hundreds of other Paneretian soldiers all decked out in their leather and canvas armour. The soldiers, who were both male and female, all yelled out a sound then ran in every direction. We followed Alexis for a moment then Boss slapped him again on the back and we parted off toward a laneway that led up stairs. Boss grabbed my arm and looked at me with an have expression on his face that to anyone else would appeared as though he was kidnapping me. He pulled me into a doorway. “C’mere, I’ll show you something.” We went through a doorway into a corridor that led into another doorway. In there there was a staircase. Up the stairs we went, up and up, in a spiral, until we were at the top of what I presume was a tower, but it had no roof to it. It was probably a look out of some kind along the city wall, but it appeared as though its top had fallen off. As I saw the sky and realised that the staircase led nowhere I also realised how precariously I was close to the edge. I hate heights, pigs and ants. Boss put his hand on my shoulder again and steadied me. I looked out. We were way up high. Above the trees. I looked out across the landscape and then that same rolling sound came past us like a wave again. It shook where we were standing and stones fell down the staircase. They clunked and rattled down the cavern inside the tower, echoing for ages after the rumble passed.

“What is that?!” I asked in a panic.

“There,” Boss said as he pointed down to the forest floor. There, in the trees, I could just make out a place where the thick trees and undergrowth were cleared to make a path. My eyes followed the irregularity in the trees in a straight line and realised that it was leading directly from the back walls of Panerets in the direction of Jessop Kingdom.

Boom. The sound repeated but this time it was louder and faster moving. The stones that the tower was made of shook and more fell away.

“There! THERE!” Boss said, as he edged closer to the precipice, and he pointed downward. I leaned toward the edge, even though it made me feel ill, but I saw it. Something amazing. When I craned my head over the edge I saw something that was only visible by sticking my head out so far that I could see the outside part of Pan’s wall. There was what looked like a house, made from steel, moving slowly away from the wall of Pan. It was a fair distance away, and it was moving slowly, but after watching it for a moment I could see that it was moving. Then it stopped, and then began again. It changed direction and was starting to move back toward the wall. From our position it looked like a giant beetle, with a huge wagon looking thing that was about to make another assault at the wall of Panerets. It looked like it was made from metal. But metal is difficult to get. I’ve never seen that much metal all in the one place before. I knew from the lessons I’d had in my school in Leyden that metal comes from the ground, melted down and then made into the things we use it for. But metal hadn’t been dug up since before the Great Ending happened. All the metal we used today was left over from before then, and was found in the waste lands to be melted. Sticking out the front of the large shell was a log. It stuck out by about five lengths of my body. I assumed it was a battering ram, only to have Boss confirm it for me as the idea came into my head.

“They’re trying to ram their way into Pan like they did to Schmidt. If they get in they’ll flood the city with the dead and make us all dead too.” Boss said. He seemed quite calm about it all, and then pointed to the area where there was still tree cover. “See those?” I looked. I had to focus my eyes a bit to make out what he was pointing at, but then I realised what it was. In the trees, standing waiting for the battering ram to break a hole in the wall, were literally thousands and thousands of humans. I couldn’t see if they were dead or alive. But I could see that they were all wearing dark, armour of some kind. ‘“Follow me – I’ll show you what they are.”

Empire Road – Part 20

The Wasteland Monarch

I walked for three hours. I was as quiet as I could be. The sun was falling behind trees and the light was fading. I was tired. I hadn’t eaten and I was thirsty. I should have drunk more of the river. I looked for somewhere to sleep as I jogged until I found an old tree. It was a huge one. A gum tree. The thing is that ants live in gum trees, and while I could climb it and sleep on one of the branches, I would most likely get bitten. It seemed like a small price though. I hate ants.

I stood at the bottom of the tree and looked up. The lowest branch was just outside of my reach. The bark was also too smooth to let me grab hold of it. I jumped a few times, but I couldn’t grab on. I stood there, looking about, looking for another tree, looking for a rock or something I could push under it to jump from, when I heard footsteps. The dead always have a particular sound to their walking because their muscles are dead and just don’t work the same way as the living. The fresh ones are more subtle, and they don’t drag their feet as much, but their steps are never evenly spaced. The living have a gate that’s even; left, right, left, right. The dead don’t. This one seemed freshly dead because its steps were reasonably even, but I couldn’t quite make them out because of a dragging sound that accompanied it. I scanned quickly for it, and realised that it was much closer than I thought. It broke into a jog toward me and I ran. As I saw it I realised that it was dragging a long and thick rope behind it. I only saw it for a glance, but it seemed to be wearing a strange kangaroo skin I’d never seen the savages wear. The light was fading and I found it hard to see where I was running. I almost stumbled once on uneven ground but kept going. He wasn’t gaining on me, but I was tired and he wouldn’t ever stop to rest so neither could I. I had to find a place to hide but I couldn’t see one. I kept running. My nose started to bleed again. But then I saw it. It was another big, old gum tree. It had a small thin, dead branch sticking out about waist high to me, and a branch just above my head height. I jumped into the air, landing my foot on the branch. I pushed up and threw my body onto the large bow, but then stopped long enough to kick down until the smaller branch broke off. Once I was up there I stopped and hid as best I could. My nose was bleeding heavily and I knew it could smell me. I could hear it down there. It came clambering along and stopped under the tree. I looked down and there it was. It was a man. He would have been quite handsome when he was alive. He was about six foot tall and had sandy hair. He was strong. But the thing was, he was wearing the clothes that the people from Basin wear, with the long cotton shirt with the high collar that folded down near his ears. However, on top of that he was wearing what at first glance, in the half light of dusk, looked like a sack with arm and head holes cut into it, and from its back was tied a thick rope. It just stood there, staring up at me. I looked back for a while and then made myself rest so I would be ready to escape in the morning.

I rested as best I could, as well as anyone can as they lay in the branch of a fun tree throughout the night. My clothes were still slightly damp and the night got very very cold. I shivered my way through it. I laid on my back with my arms folded, and felt the blood running down the back of my throat. After a while it stopped. I thought that was a good thing. When the sun came up I was starting to fall asleep for real. I woke with a jerk and nearly threw myself off the limb of the tree. I looked down and saw it there again. Still standing there. But now it was sniffing the ground bent over at the waist. Because it was bent over I could see what it was wearing over the top of its clothes. It took me some time to understand what it was. But then it was clear. It was the skin from the whole upper body of a kangaroo. As though someone had literally chopped the head off at its shoulders, and cut its bottom legs off, and cut two holes for arms and put it on the creature. Kind of a straight jacket in that it was impossible for it to get it off. The rope was tied through two holes in the back like a sort of lead. It was tight fitting and there was no way it could ever get it off by itself. I imagine the rope was to control it or pull it along somehow for some reason. I’d never seen anything like it, nor heard of anything like it either. Not even where they wrangle them for the arena shows. I laid back on the branch and looked up at the leaves and above me. The light was now shining on the tree tops and I could see my breath as it steamed out of my mouth. I could smell the creature below me. It made a scraping sound with the rope against the ground as it stepped forward. I took the blade out of its sheath and looked at it closely. It had a lot of nicks along both edges. Its point was sharp but its edges weren’t. The creature was standing away from the tree now. He wasn’t directly under me anymore. I thought about my options. I could try and drop on him, with the dagger pointing downward, and try and land it in his skull. But what if the people who say you have to hit the bottom of their brain are right? What if I miss? He’d bite me for sure. I also thought I could just drop and run. But the chances of me landing and doing something like twisting my ankle or something like that were too great. About half an hour went by. It just stood there. Looking at the tree and occasionally sniffing the ground. Finally, he took two steps and was once again under me. He still wasn’t looking up. He was staring at the tree trunk where the smaller branch had been. But then he bent over again to look more closely at where the small branch had been and he began sniffing it. Without thinking I slipped the blade back into its sheath and stood up quietly on the branch. I looked down, and seeing him bent over about as far as he could without needing to hold onto something with his hands, I jumped. I landed with the heels of my feet on the back of his neck, and it drove him to the bottom of the tree where it met the earth. As we hit the ground I felt three cracks under-foot in his neck and I tumbled forward. I rolled and jumped to my feet, reasonably unharmed, except for a few sticks I’d rolled over. I glanced back to see the creature and saw that it was still moving, but it was now trying to drag itself onto its feet, without any luck. I may be quite light but I had managed to crush his neck. His head was flopped right down over his left shoulder, and his cheek was resting against his collarbone. He staggered for a moment and then tripped and fell. I ran.

I was extremely thirsty. I jogged at a slow and easy pace, but I needed something to drink. I saw dew on some of the grasses as I went and I lapped at it with my tongue. Didn’t have much effect though. I saw another creature a couple of hours later. It was off in the distance and it looked very frail. It didn’t seem to notice me at all. I didn’t know where I was going. The sun was out and it was a clear day, thankfully, so I knew that I was heading North East and assumed I’d hit Jessop Kingdom by nightfall if I jogged at a steady pace. The thing was, Jessop and Basin are the two towns I had never been to before. Basin was always a closed community because they feared the outside world, but Jessop Kingdom was the last monarchy amongst the communities and was run by King Jessop. His ancestors were the Great Warlords around the time of the Great Ending, and they took control of the remaining food supplies when the dead overran the towns. I read about their community in a book in the great library of Leyden. It was a book confiscated from a traveller from Jessop, and it was a history of their community. When their ancestors ran out of the food they’d hoarded they began raiding the other communities for any food that they’d grown. They killed off two small communities near them and took over three others that make up who they are now. All the while, the Jessop family claim to be the Kings and Queens of Jessop and don’t allow travellers to pass through without paying a tribute. It’s a community that’s off the main Empire Road by a bit too, which means that there’s little reason for a traveller to ever pass through there unless they deliberately intended to go there. Funnily, Boss told me once that he’d performed there, for the royal court, when he was a boy and also the year before he met me.

I stopped for a rest in the middle of the afternoon. I could smell spring in the air again. The sun was shining and it felt nice. I sat up in a tree like the one I’d slept in. I didn’t get bitten by any ants either so I felt pretty happy. I figured it should be only a few more hours jog to the part of the Empire Road that led to Jessop Kingdom. I would jump over the wall somehow and then head along the Road until I met a Ranger to tell him about the dead storming Basin or I’d get myself to Pan where I’d hopefully meet up with Boss and the others. In my head I was having a conversation that went, “ok – one more minute then back to jogging…” and then I’d follow that up with, “Ok – one more minute of resting, and THEN back to jogging.” I was tired. My legs hurt. I had a headache from the lump on my head and my nose was killing me. But that was the moment when I discovered what was really happening. It started as a faint rumbling noise at first. I actually wondered if it was a cart on a hard road quite close to me. But there were no roads and I was in bushland. It rose and fell again and I kept listening. I climbed down from the tree and started heading up the slight rise to find where it was coming from. As I came to a line of large boulders in the earth I climbed one, quietly and carefully, being sure not to fall as I went. As I looked over the top of the largest rock I stared in disbelief at what I saw. Way off in the distance I could see the town of Jessop. Its buildings were there, standing all by themselves with nothing between me and them that looked like a wall or a moat. All the towns have walls. They keep the dead out. But this one didn’t. Where the wall should be, it just wasn’t there. There were only a few more shrubs and trees in front of me and then the earth was completely cleared of all trees and bushes. In their place were fields of freshly turned earth and huge piles of the roots of trees, branches and logs. I listened and I could still hear the rumbling sound. I focussed my eyes to see where it was coming from. I was trying to see movement, and finally I was able to focus on something that caught my eye about half way between me and the town. There, pushing its way along, was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. There was a group of about a hundred dead, all wearing the top skins of the Kangaroo bodies that I’d seen on the one that chased me. They were all tied to ropes from their backs, and the ropes were tied to a huge plough that was being driven by a man a few meters behind them. He was using the dead like horses to plough these enormous fields. Suddenly I nearly jumped out of my skin when a hand grabbed my shoulder, and a voice said, “Hey!” I scrambled backward, my feet flying about and kicking the gravel out from under them. 

EMPIRE ROAD 

Part 20

Remaining Guardians 

Two men were standing in front of me. “Please don’t hurt me”. I said quickly, and they let me go. I fell to the ground and sat there as they stared at me.

“Why are you here?” the taller one asked me. They were wearing leather armour that was painted black. On their chests were a yellow emblem that I recognised. It was the crest from the community of Schmidt. A small farming community between Pan and Jessop Kingdom. 


“I’m part of the Mr Frictanious’ Magic Circus!” I said pleadingly. That’s what they call him in Schmidt. I wasn’t sure what they were intending with me, but I was getting more nervous by the second.

“Ya don’t say?” The other one said. “Why are you here?”


“The Empire Road was overrun with the dead on the road that leads to Basin. They stormed the whole city and we escaped out the back of the community into the Thanatos. I was trying to make my way back to the Empire Road and into Jessop to warn someone and get help, but I got separated from the rest of the circus and now I’m by myself.”


The two men looked at one another and came alongside me. Their body language made it clear that they too were trying to not be noticed by whatever laid between us and Jessop Kingdom.

“See that out there? Where that field ands?” the tall one asked. I looked over the boulder again. He pointed to the right hand side of the fields, out into the distance. “See those walls sticking out of the earth? That’s all that remains of the community of Schmidt.” I looked and stared. I was closer to where Schmidt must have once been than were Jessop Kingdom ended. I could see smoke rising from the chimneys of Jessop way off in the distance. Between us and them was this incredible field with open, freshly turned soil, being ploughed by the most incredible thing I have ever seen, with hundreds of dead in kangaroo skins pulling the plough. None of that made any sense to me.

“But why?” I asked in astonishment.

“Food, and area to grow crops. Jessop knew that we could grow food, and they’ve taken our people as slaves to build their new area of farmland, and then our people will be forced to build the new wall to keep it safe as a part of their wider Kingdom,” the taller one explained. “We need to get you out of here. All who weren’t taken as prisoners by Jessop Kingdom are now refugees in Pan. So follow us and we’ll get you there before nightfall.”


I stood up and looked out over the vast open land again toward Jessop Kingdom. I glanced briefly at the two ploughs being pulled by the packs of dead, and then saw another one over further in the distance; all leaving trails of dust behind them. It was hard to understand what I was looking at. 


The two Schmidt soldiers led the way and we all broke back into a jog. I was so thirsty and one of them seemed to notice. He handed me his small leather pouch to drink from. The water tasted like mud and coriander. But I didn’t care.

The morning was bright with sunshine, but it was cold unless you were directly in the sun. We jogged and jogged for what seemed like forever. My chest burned and I had to slow down. I hadn’t eaten in nearly two days.

“C’mon!” the slightly larger one said as I began falling back from them. I looked up and saw them in front of me, but my eyes couldn’t quite gain their perspective. I couldn’t make out how far away they were or whether they were facing me or not; and then I saw a flash of the gravel under me, and then blackness.

I’d never been fully unconscious before like that. It was the first time for me. I saw Alexis knocked out for about half an hour once when the tailgate of the home cart was thrown open into his face. I remembered in my community there was a man who gave a talk in the public hall about the brain and he said that in the repair state it will be unconscious if it is damaged in a physical or extremely emotional way and if it needs to self-preserve and repair. But after that happens the individual will often require sleep and rest to bring their body back to a strong state again. All this came flooding into my ears as I came too but I knew that the place I blacked out in wasn’t a place where I couldn’t rest and I needed to keep running. I jumped to my feet and ran. My eyes could see daylight but I didn’t know if I was facing the same direction as the men I was following. I could hear sounds, but I didn’t know what they were. I needed to run. Almost like half formed words and voices, I could hear them, but I still needed to run. I knew that the dead made sounds like that so my running began in a sprint. I felt hands touch my shoulder, but I shook free, and kept pushing; then I gained my vision, and I saw Boss’s face in front of me. Then everything went black again.

When I came too again I was lying in a bed and my eyes opened slowly. Like waking up in the morning. I opened them slowly and saw May there, sitting beside me. I looked at her sweet smile for a second and smiled back before the whole situation flooded into my head again. I sat upright and she pushed me back down gently; guiding my head with her warm hand.

“You’re ok,” she said quietly. “We knew you’d find us. The Schmidt soldiers that found you carried you for over four hours. Boss didn’t wait for you at Basin because he said you were a smart boy like he was at your age and you’d find us. But in honesty, I’m pretty sure he thought you had drowned. In fact, we all did. You just sort of disappeared.”


“Bo…” I said.

Her face lost its smile. I doubted she liked him any more than I did, but she would never want him dead.

“Yeah. When we headed to the other bank of the river Bo was the first to go across after you. He got across ok. Then he stayed there waiting. We all went over after him, and I was last. When I got across we were just about to leave, and Boss was talking to Alexis about you. Alexis wanted to go looking for you. Boss was insisting that you were either at the bottom of the river or you were so far down it that we would never find you. Then, as I got to the land we heard a noise, and saw that it was the soldier from Jessop. He had one of the dead on a sort of lead. It’s hard to describe but it was almost like a dog on a lead. Like it was on a rope and he was leading it along somehow. Boss began spinning a line, and the Soldier told us to go with him as his prisoners. Alexis drew his sword and his first blow cut the soldier down. He let go of the creature and it lunged into Bo. Alexis kicked it in the back to get it off him, and it fell into the river. We watched Bo after that. We watched him die. And the.n we watched him come back. Alexis had no choice but to do what he did.”

Empire Road – Part 19

Face Blood and Running

When morning came I was finally dozing off and I heard movement. Boss, Jeremy and Alexis were heading out. They were being as quiet as they could and closed the door behind them. Bo and Ben were asleep on the floor, sprawled out as though there was a mattress under them, and May was still in the same position in the corner she’d been in since the night before; her knees pulled into her chest and forehead resting on them.

By mid-morning the others had woken and were stirring. May was looking about the room now, showing an actual engagement. Bo and Ben smoked foul smelling something in their pipes that they had cut from the leaves of some of the plants in the room. They went down the hall to ask Ishmael for some fire to light them with, but didn’t mention to him where they were getting the leaves from that they were smoking. My family was apparently very well known in my home community for their ability to make medicines from plants. There was a man in my community who was my dad’s close friend. He told me once that before my mother died my dad was able to make any illness go away. But more so, he could make the mind travel into places that were outside of the body. He even said that before my mother died he was working on a cure to the virus that makes the dead live again. But not long after that his mind seemed to vanish completely.

“How are you feeling?” I asked May.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “Where’s Boss and the others?”


“I heard them leave when the sun was rising. I think they’ve gone out of the city to get what they can from the wagons.”


May looked like she was drunk. Her eyes weren’t focussed and she kept vaguely staring up to the window closest to her. It was casting a shadow of its bars on the wall opposite, and giving the room warmth that we all needed from the morning sun. We were hungry. Bo and Ben seemed to be looking at the plants with the intention of eating them when Boss came back in. They would eat anything. Boss had with him two of the pigs we’d rescued. I hate pigs. They came into the room, snorting and squeaking away, looking to the same plants that Bo and Ben were thinking about eating a moment earlier.

“Ok – here’s the plan.” Boss started telling us. We all got to our feet, apart from May. “The dead are still in their hundreds outside the wall and even in the moat. Too many to get past and it doesn’t look like they’ll clear any time soon. However, we went to the other side of the community and looked over the wall. There are only one or two dead out there in the wastelands. So, we’re going to go out over the wall and head north till we hit the outer wall of Pan.” 

With this May sat up. Boss knew she would take an interest.

Ishmael entered the room with his eldest son. Boss told him the plan and asked him if he wanted to come with us. He said that he felt it was his god’s intention that he wait until all the dead had perished in the town and then he begin rebuilding it with the travellers who come there in the future. Didn’t seem like he had enough plants to keep them all fed. But Boss didn’t care too much. 

We made our way around the top of the rampart wall that protects the town to the back of the community. I know what ramparts are for. They are designed so that people with those and arrows can shoot from the top of the wall, and then take cover behind the higher stones. They would’ve needed ramparts in the early stages when the communities were attacking each other. The back wall of the community was pressed right up against the river and we would have to cross it to get to the other side. Boss, Jeremy and Alexis had prepared a raft at the top of the wall made from doors, tables and all sorts of things, all tied together. We lowered it into the water three stories below and it settled there on the water quite well. I didn’t realise that they’d already chosen me to volunteer as the first one to use the raft, because I was the skinniest and lightest, until Alexis turned to me and gestured to the river with his head. I knew then that I couldn’t stop them from making me go, so I just did it. I didn’t want to though. But, down I went. 

They tied ropes under my arms and lowered me down slowly until I was on the raft. The rope that went from me up to the others was also tied to a rope that Alexis held onto. He threw another piece of rope, which had  a small chair tied to its end, across to the other side of the river. It hooked onto the branch of a huge gum tree on the other bank. I looked up and saw them all looking at me. I looked at the other bank. There were no signs of any dead. I settled on to the raft, tucking my feet under a rope, and grabbed hold of the rope that went to the other bank of the river. The river was moving quite fast, and the raft wasn’t easy to balance on. It was made from over a dozen different wooden things and each had its own movement. I hooked my left foot under some lashings toward the back, as I squatted and tried to stay upright, pulling the raft across the river. However, what I did next proved to be one of those things that you regret for the rest of your life. I took my arms out from the loops that I’d use while lowering myself onto the raft so that I could have freer movement while pulling the rope. But almost as soon as I freed myself my foot slipped through the gap between a door a table and my whole body followed, straight through the middle of the raft. Instantly I was in the water. But on the way in I hit my forehead and nose on the door, making my vision go white for a moment. It hurt something savage. I came too and surfaced expecting to be still right beside the raft, but as I opened my eyes I realised the raft was a long way off now. The river had taken me downstream by almost enough distance that it was useless to try and swim back to it. I did what I could to fight the heavy current and swam to the bank instead. 

By the time I got there the town was almost out of sight. I dragged myself up onto the clay bank. I was tired and nervous. This was the first time I’d been in the wilderness without anyone with me. When I realised where I was I stopped and listened for sounds of the dead. I waited there, against the steep mud river bank for a while. Listening and then poking my head up to see if I could see anything moving. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at first. I wiped my hand over my face to clear the water from my eyes, but when I saw my hand it was red. I touched carefully around my nose and face and worked out that I had a big cut on my nose and on my forehead. I looked at my shirt. I hadn’t had it long. It was already filthy, had a tear now and the blood had made the whole front of it crimson red. I began to panic. The dead can smell blood. I took the shirt off and tore it into strips. I hated to do it, because it was the nicest mendup I’d every owned, but I needed to stop the bleeding. I noticed that the two small seedlings I’d stolen from Ishmael were still in inside my coat pockets, so I carefully put them on the ground next to me while I made my bandage. I tied it round and round my forehead to see if that was what was bleeding the most. Once the bandage was in place I checked with my hand but realised it was my nose that was bleeding more. So I stuffed wads of the cloth up my nose to stop it. Once I was sure I’d stopped the bleeding I gathered the two small plants up and put them in the pockets I’d made in my trousers by making small tears in the outside seems. I was almost inclined to leave them for a moment, but I remembered what they can do as a medicine and how valuable they were in my home community. If I wasn’t able to find Boss again, at least I might be able to get back onto the Empire Road and into one of the communities where I could sell them. God I hoped I wouldn’t become an outerwall boy.

I got up and began to creep along the bank of the river. I knew that the raft was still in Alexis’ control because the ropes never gave out. I just fell in. So hopefully they were still able to find their way to the other side and start their way toward Pan. I knew that was my best bet too. To find my way to the outside wall of Pan. It was the middle of the day by now and the sun was warming me up. The water was freezing but I wasn’t cold anymore. I broke into a jog, still being as quiet as I could and staying alert for any dead I might see. I travelled like this for about half an hour, jogging as quietly as I could, careful not to tread on branches or to rustle through any of the undergrowth as I went, when I caught sight of the back wall of Basin again. It took me a while to actually reach it , but when I got to where I was meant to land the raft in the first place I saw that it was now pulled up onto the bank, and there were footprints in the mud leading away from it. My heart began to race! I looked around the immediate area, but to my horror, just up the embankment I saw a hand laying on the ground. I shrunk to squatting position instantly, as I assessed what it might be. It wasn’t moving and the dead never rested or slept. So I slowly and very quietly crept up the bank to its top where the limp hand flopped over its edge. To my horror I knew who that hand belonged to before I saw the rest of its body. I knew it well from seeing it so much in the past. My eyes widened as I got to my feet to see if I was correct, and there, lying sprawled out on his back was the body of Bo, but the scene kept opening up in front of me! His head was removed at the shoulders in the way that Alexis killed the dead in his shows. It sat on the ground in the mud over to the side, with its mouth open and tongue flopped out. His eyes were closed though. I stopped still, almost frozen as I stared at the head laying there. But I snapped back into reality when I heard a sound. It was a half formed word and groan from a creature that I didn’t immediately notice because it seemed to blend into the surroundings a little. It had been crouching over Bo’s body, feasting on his entrails. It saw me and stood up slowly and awkwardly. God it stunk. It was an older looking man, but it was very decomposed, so it was slow moving and having great difficulty coming toward me. If it caught me it would have no trouble biting me because I was half his size. As I looked down at Bo, however, I saw that he had his new dagger still on his belt. I needed that! So I ran quickly to a big tree near the bank. Its roots were growing out of the embankment into the river. The creature followed me as fast as it was able, dragging its feet as it did. I climbed out onto the roots of the tree that hung over the water and waited for it to follow me out there. However, to my surprise it didn’t. It assumed I was going around the tree and it went round the back to cut me off. I was surprised because I didn’t know they could think ahead like that or problem solve. Either way though, it gave me enough of a chance to climb back up onto the bank and run over to Bo’s body. I pulled the plugs from my nose. They were restricting my breathing, making me feel like I was suffocating, and my heart was racing. However, when I did, blood just poured out again, into my hand. I threw the wads of cloth down and began trying to free Bo’s belt. He was laying on it so it was difficult to get it out from under him. I looked over my shoulder and the creature had just worked out I’d given him the slip. He was heading toward me again. I looked back down and began heaving at the belt. The blood from my nose was dripping everywhere, as well as down my throat and it tasted gross. But it was also on my hands and making my grip of the belt slippery. God the creature smelled terrible. I was surprised I could smell anything with my nose as messed up as it was. 

Finally the belt came free, with the sheath and dagger still attached, and I ran. I ran as fast as I could, but back the way I’d come to stay well away from it. I stopped after running at full pace for a few minutes and I figured that I was a safe distance away from it now. I looked at my chest. It was red all over. My body was sweating so it was still wet. I looked at the smooth silver bark gum tree that I’d stopped at, and then again at my chest. I took the turban bandage off my head, put two new wads of cloth into my nose. I tore off a small patch of the shirt to clean the blood off myself with. Once I had most of the blood off my chest I hung the cloth on the tree as a decoy for any dead that might be looking for where the smell of my blood was coming from. I smeared the blood on the bark as much as I could to get their attention. I looked at the tree for a moment. The bark was so smooth and white. My blood on it was like paint. So I wrote on it with my blood in case I wasn’t ever found. I wanted Boss and others to know where I ended up if I… well… ended. So I used the blood on my chest, which was mixed in with sweat, to write on the bark. “I am Elijah from Leydon. I did not die. I will go to Jessop”. I looked back the way I’d come. It would be dark in about four hours, and I needed to catch up to Boss and the others. There seemed to be a clear path ahead of me but it would take me more North than East. I knew the landscape quite well because I’d been to almost all of the towns along the Empire Road at least twice already the year before. I wasn’t totally sure but I had a feeling that if I kept going north from there I’d end up almost as quickly at the Kingdom of Jessop, rather than at Pan. I figured either would be as good as the other, so I started to jog north.





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EMPIRE ROAD – Part 18

Basin

We all just stood there. Staring at the dead. Then May’s weeping broke through the sounds of murmuring and splashing that the dead were still making down in the moat below. Boss stood in front of May with his hands on her shoulders. Then he drew her in and hugged her tightly. She let go and she cried deeply and bitterly for ages.

“What rooms are there in town? I have transferable gold in the carriages out there. I can fetch it when night falls.” Boss asked the old man who saved us with the rope. But the man shook his head and puckered his lips in a way that made me think he wanted to say something but didn’t know how.

“The town fell. three weeks ago.”

“What do you mean?” Boss said, sounding very astonished. The words being said didn’t make sense to any of us. May stopped crying.

“Didn’t you notice there were no outerwall people? They came over the wall in their hundreds.”

“over the wall?” This wall?!” Boss asked with a disbelieving voice.

“But your walls are the tallest of all the communities!” Alexis said in astonishment.

“That’s what we thought. So when we saw them gathering down there we did what we always do when we see the dead on the other side of the wall – nothing. We let the outerwall people manage it as we believe that’s their lot in life for the crimes of their past. And for that reason we didn’t know what to do. We’ve never had to ever do anything except watch them get tired and wander off again. We didn’t know how to drive them away and to be honest, our guards didn’t really pay close attention to them. The elders were assembled when there were already so many of them down there that they had clogged the moat completely. We saw two muslim rangers at one point out there attacking them but we also saw something equally strange. We saw what looked like a ladder being pushed down the road behind the dead. Way up the back as far as we could see the dead were thick on the road, but behind them, there was nothing at a certain point, and there was a structure of some kind behind the last of them, moving them along toward us.”

“What… like as in there was a living person pushing a ladder in amongst them? Or the dead had a ladder?” Boss asked with concern.

“It was a living person. He had an armour on that we’ve never seen before. And he was almost corralling them. He also had several of them dressed in a strange way, and tied together in a way that made them act like sheep dogs to the others, rounding them up, forcing them forward. Then the ladder went up against the wall”.

“What happened to the Rangers?” Jeremy asked in stern seriousness.

“Well, we assumed they were overran in the end because we saw one of them the next day – standing there with all the others, as dead as any of them.” The old man answered.

“But what could do that? I just can’t believe there were that many of them…” Boss said contemplatively…”

There was a moment of silence. Then Boss switched back into his normal mannerisms and showed what a true leader he is.

“Are there any safe places left for us to stay just for a short time?” Boss asked.

“Come”, said the man. I will show you where we have been living. It isn’t big, and we don’t have a great deal of food left. But I’m sure we can share what we have with you for a couple of nights.”

We went with him along a corridor at the top of the wall. It led into a staircase that folded back on itself again and again down several flights to the bottom level. Through barred windows we could see into the openness of their community, where streets and shops were. We were walking in an area that’s usually reserved for the guards from Basin, who protect the wall. it’s protected at all points with bars on the windows and heavy bolts on all of the doors. As we walked Ben stopped for a moment and looked through the bars of a window, out into the streets inside Basin. He whispered something and Boss pushed him onward to keep him moving. I looked through the next window and saw what Ben saw. The town’s streets were literally filled with the dead. Almost shoulder to shoulder, standing there, bumping into one another, all looking for something living to eat. We’d just escaped from more dead than I ever imagined existed but now we saw there were just so many more in there. Possibly more in there than we’d seen outside! So many that any hope of killing them and reclaiming the town again was gone. But who would reclaim it anyway? All the people who used to live there were still there, only they were all dead now. No one could possibly ever get in there and kill even one of them without also being killed. I looked at Jeremy and I was sure he was also weighing up the chances of getting in there to try and kill as many of them as he could.

We kept walking through rooms and corridors that were once the offices and garrison of the town’s guards. Finally we came to a wooden door. The man leading us knocked on it three times. The door was unbolted and it opened. Inside were three young men of different ages, one of them who was still a young boy. Over on the other side of the room was an old woman. They were all sitting to one side of the room, playing a dice game with pegs on a wooden board. The young man jumped to his feet and he drew out two blades. It was actually quite funny because none of us reacted at all. Knowing that the man we were with would fix the situation shortly, we watched the boy put on such a display that it was funny; as he frantically whipped his blades about.

“Now now – it’s ok – these people aren’t raiders. They escaped the dead like we did,” the man said. Then he turned to us and gave a half smile. “My name is Ishmael, and this is my family. My wife, Namah, and my boys Shem, Ham and Japheth. The oldest one, Japheth, put his blades away and stood there trying to look all tall and important. I’m not very tall. But that’s also quite good at times.

There was a silence. No one knew what to say. Ishmael moved through the now crowded space to the other side and stood near his wife. They had a small fire going in the fireplace. It gave the room a warm glow. She handed him some keys and he shuffled back across the room to the door we’d come in through. He beckoned us and we followed him. Back into the dark corridors, and we followed him until he came to a new, large wooden door. He stopped and opened it. It was light inside this room because it had windows. In the room there were tables set out in lines. Seven of them. On each table were dozens of tiny plants, all growing in little pots, all in rows.

“When the town fell I had two choices. I could try and save others or I could save the collection of our horticultural samples. There are two of every plant that is grown in our fields to sustain our community here as well as the spices and herbs that we use for medicine and cooking.” Ishmael looked intensely at the plants.

“How did you gather these plants with all those dead out there?” Jeremy asked with a furrowed brow of suspicion.

“I can’t really understand it myself. It was something in my heart that told me… I can’t explain it.” Ishmail looked deeply at the plants and touched on of their leaves. “I had a compulsion to collect them for a month before this happened… I just knew something was coming. I didn’t quite know exactly what it was, but I knew something was coming. Perhaps I thought it was a famine… Maybe it was God’s doing… And I told them. I told everyone I knew. But none of them believed me. Most of them laughed. But as the dead were pouring in over the wall I watched as two of my neighbours were killed right there against that very window.” He added. No one spoke until he broke the silence again. “This is where you’ll be sleeping. Please don’t touch the plants. They require special care.”

That afternoon, and into the evening, we found places for ourselves in that room where we could rest. It was a bit strange alongside all those plants. But it was warmer than outside and safe. We stayed quiet as much as we could, so that the dead on the other side of the room’s barred windows wouldn’t hear us. There was a kind of courtyard and a wide garden bed in front of the window and it kept the dead away. We could see them though. There was no glass on the window. But the dead wouldn’t be able to get at us through the bars. Nonetheless, they would make it terrible for us to be in there if they knew we in were. May found a place in the corner and was curled up on the floor, weeping quietly; not moving at all. Bo and Ben were playing some sort of card game, while Jeremy, Boss and Alexis talked quietly to one another. It amazes me that Bo and Ben can produce some form of gambling apparatus at any moment and start some kind of game, no matter where they are. I guess they were also playing to try and dry the cards which would have been wet when we crossed the moat. They’d ignored Ishmael’s request not to touch the plants and they moved them toward the window a bit each so that one end of the table was free. They found some wooden crates and were sitting on them, leaning on the table.

The community I come from, Leyden, is very different to most of the other communities. We don’t have a religion. Our founder, Mick Leyden, was a doctor. And his famous quote was “all things are knowledge, and the future depends on it”. We have a set of rules and guidelines for living. We call them The Principals. They’re kind of like what religions have, but we don’t believe in a God. I find religious people a bit annoying at times. Raf and May are ok, I guess. The way they do it it’s kind of entertaining at times even. Especially when May gets carried away with it. There are ten principles in Leydon. The most important ones are the first two. The first one is: “desire less and become more”.

The second principal is harder to keep. “Do the most right possible at all times, for all people”.

We meditate too. I used to meditate with my community a lot but I don’t now. My dad was a herbalist. I felt like I was a herbalist too as I walked around that room, looking at all the seedlings on the tables. I liked looking at the different plants that he had saved from the dead. But then I noticed something. There was a plant that we had in Leyden. My dad grew it to sell. It’s a plant that makes your head leave this earth and you see things when you burn it and breathe in the smoke. We use it on meditation days. They would burn it in a bowl in the middle of a round hut and we would all breathe it in. Like all the others, there were two of these plants. Both of them were the length of my forearm. They grow to the size of a bush taller than most men when they’re fully grown. I looked about and saw that Boss, Jeremy and Alexis were deep in discussion, Bo and Ben were being idiots like usual. May was motionless in her grief in the corner. I looked around and saw that no one was looking at me. In one quick movement I took both of the tiny plants and I put them into the folds of my jacket. Then I went and casually sat down near May. I took off my coat and folded it in a way that hid both the pots inside it. I pulled the foliage upward so that it hugged the stems of the plants and wouldn’t break the branches off as I wrapped them in the coat so they couldn’t be seen. The first principal was repeating itself loudly in my head – desire less. But then I was able to tell myself that Ishmael should desire fewer plants as well, and that it was only two plants.

We slept that night in that room with no further sign from Ishmael. We knew we were safe from the dead, but they were out there and we could hear and smell them all night. None of us got much sleep. I leaned against May for some of the night and used her coat as a blanket. I didn’t have a coat because I was being careful not to crush my two plants which were in it. So I was freezing all night.

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Empire Road – Parts 16 & 17

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 16

Basin Bound

The road to Basin was extremely dark and quiet. The clouds had covered the moon and a wind was picking up. It was 14 km from the turn-off to the moat that surrounded it, and we let the horses fall back to walking pace shortly after we turned. instances where a ranger needs to take care of the dead on the road isn’t unheard of. Admittedly there were a lot more of them than I ever accustomed to see, but still, it’s not unheard of. And someone with Jeremy’s skills would be pretty capable of killing them all, and then repairing the fence. We couldn’t offer him much by staying. It is his job after all.

The sounds of the road become a bit hypnotic after a while. The hoses and their hoofs all make the same sound as they hit the dirt, but they never walk at the same pace because they aren’t exactly the same height. So as they walk their hoofs make a rhythm that slowly changes until it’s a constant sound like a drum roll, then it slowly changes again until they are all walking at exactly the same time again. When we were approaching the moat of Basin the horses’ hoofs were all in perfect rhythm, and sounded like one animal.

“Woah!” Boss said sharply and loudly enough for Bo to hear him and he pulled up his reigns too. A mist was coming down and my eyes were getting dry from tired. Basin had two huge towers in front of its gate, with the usual kind of draw bridge. But where most towns have a draw bridge that’s about five times the height of a normal person this one was three times taller than that even. The towers were so tall that we couldn’t clearly see their tops because of the night and its darkness and the mist. We stopped and waited for the draw bridge to lower; but it didn’t. Boss whistled with his two fingers in his mouth. It was a huge whistle. We saw a light in one of the tower windows, but then it went out and still nothing. Boss got down and walked to the closest part of the road where the moat edge was and stood there, but still; nothing. Then he turned and stood facing us for a short time, turned back to face Basin, turned back to us and unfolded his arms.

“Get some sleep,” he said in a voice just loud enough to be heard, and we all gladly got our things out.

I was just getting comfortable in my sling under the pole cart when Bo pulled into his sling.

“If the dead get onto the road,” I said to him, “and they’re coming up the road now as we lay here, will they get to us before morning?”


He went silent for a minute, then got out of his sling and walked away. I heard his voice. I heard him telling Boss the same thing I’d said. Then boss told him he was impressed with how clever he was and thanked him. I bet Bo was really pleased with himself too. But then I also heard Boss tell Bo to go and get the twine from the home cart and tie it to as many pots, pans and tin cans as we had on hand and make a trip line on the road about 500 paces away from Basin to make a noise if anyone trips it during the night. Stupid Bo. He got into his sling a while later but he didn’t say anything to me.

We all slept as best we could. Bo usually snores but he didn’t that night. It felt like I blinked, then opened my eyes and the sun was rising. As I lay in my sling I felt warm and cosy. I was really warm in it. The slings have a padded bottom to protect us from the cold, and I had all my clothes on with the thick wool blanket. It was mostly across my shoulders and upper body keeping me warm. The slings are made of a light brown canvas. I guess they were white once, but they need a wash. They have two ropes that meet at either end and are woven around a metal eye to put a hook through. Because I’m small the ropes pull together a bit and they almost close around me, keeping me even warmer in winter. In summer I put a bit of wood between the two ropes to keep the gap open a bit. As I lay in the sling I was laying on my side, and I could see the fabric of the canvas. I rubbed my eye, and then focussed to look through a hole in it. As I looked through it I could see down the Road to the the blue, crisp sky. The trees that lined the road made an arch all the way along it with the sky which winking through. As I stared for a few minutes, thinking how beautiful and peaceful it seemed, I could just make out two tiny figures running toward us from the further St part of the road. It took me a second to work out what I was looking at, but as soon as I realised they were people, and they were running as fast as they possibly could. I threw myself out of the sling. I scrambled out from under the wagon and grabbed the sword from where I left it on the pole cart the night before. The king was above me and he was beginning to moan a bit. I slapped the bars of his cage with the flat side of my sword. Mainly just because it made me feel tough. But also because I was scared. I figured he was hungry. He smelled disgusting. He didn’t even jump. Just looked at me. They give me the heebies. He was still naked because Boss hadn’t bothered re-dressing him after the fight. He’s so gross.

I got around to the other side of the pole cart and saw that it was Bo and Alexis running toward us.Ordinarily, seeing either of them run is alarming because they run for different reasons. Bo would only run because he’s afraid of something, and anything that’s able to make that lazy bastard run is probably pretty terrifying. Seeing Alexis run means that he’s running from something that he can’t beat in a fight, and that’s equally terrifying for different reasons. They were running as fast as they could. And then, as they got a bit closer it became clear what they were running from. The dead were cantering along behind them in the way they do when they are on the chase of living meat. The ones that haven’t been dead as long run faster, almost at full pace. They were up the front. Their muscles haven’t broken down as much and they can still move pretty well. Their clothes are also in better condition if they were wearing any when they died. But the ones who have been dead the longest look like nothing you can describe. Often they have their guts dragging along behind them, or out their ass. I saw one that had been attacked by the throat and it had its tongue dangling from the hole in its neck.

I looked around and I saw Boss pulling his trousers on. I guess he’d just relieved himself. He looked back the other way at the moat and then back at the hoard of dead running our way. There was so many that there were no gaps between them to see the road behind them. Raf and May appeared, but this time they weren’t naked. In fact, they were wearing their full Patrio uniforms. When people from Pan turn 16 they have to do a year of Patrio service where they join the Panerets Army and they go out into the woods and live in a training camp for six months then they have to kill five dead and bury them. Their armour was the same kind of look as Jeremy’s, but no metal bits. It was all canvas and leather. Just enough to stop them getting bitten I guess. I looked back along the road and could see the looks on Alexis’ and Bo’s faces. Alexis looked mean. Bo looked like he’d soiled himself. But then I saw also running toward us, much closer to the dead, was another figure. It was Jeremy. I only noticed him because he stopped running and slashed at the dead that were getting too close to him and then started running again. I guess he was slowing a bit because he would have run the better part of 10km without a horse. And then I realised he didn’t have his horse. Which is a shame. Because I liked that horse. I reckon that Raf and May saw too because they started running toward him with their swords in hand. Pan swords are about the same length as a broad sword, but thinner. They’re lighter and have a solid steel handle so they’re easier to manoeuvre in a tight space.

“Stop right there!!” Boss yelled at them. Raf and May stopped, but their bodies looked like they weren’t obeying their heads completely. “He’s a Ranger and he’s still in front of them. Help me get the wagons in a line to block off the road!”

EMPIRE ROAD 

Part 17

Loss of Life


We got the horses unhitched as quickly as we could and tied them to the spot closest to the moat edge. Then we heaved the pole cart to a better position and Boss started untying everything and then pushed the planks down to make a barrier that would stop the dead from crawling under the cart. We lined the other carts up so that there was only one gap in the middle because the road was wider than the three carts all lined up end to end. Alexis and Bo got back to us just as we were lining up the small cart at the fence line. Jeremy made some good distance and got to us with a bit of a gap between him and the dead.

“How many are there?” Boss said with urgency in his voice.

“Too many,” Jeremy said. He was only wearing part of his armour now, His trousers, belt, shoes and shoulder straps to hold his sword to his back. One of the best tricks to pull on the dead is to throw your clothes at them and they think they’ve caught something for a second. His face was contorted from the agony of running at full pace for such a long distance. “I spent most of the night killing them and they just kept pouring through the hole in the fence and climbing over their own dead. I filled the road to head height with their corpses for about half a mile, and then I knew that I wasn’t going to win so I ran to join you. I tripped your trip wire at the turn off and Alexis and Bo came. Why haven’t they lowered the bridge?’

“We tried to get attention all night but they won’t respond.” Boss answered.

“I sacrificed my horse. It stalled them for a short time,” Jeremy added as he doubled over to catch his breath.

Then he pulled a whistle out of his belt pouch. It looked like it was once a seed pod and had a small hole cut in one end and one on the top. He got to his feet and blew it with all his might. It let out a shrill sound, then he stopped and started in a pattern that was quite distinctive.

“Here they come!” Said Raf, and Alexis pushed his way past us.

“We need to block this hole between the carts with the bodies of their own dead to buy us some time and secure our position!” He went through the gap in the wagons and stood, waiting, with his sword ready. May and Raf went too, pushing me out the way. Jeremy kept blowing his whistle, and I watched as the dead in their hundreds clambered past one another to get at us. The first to reach us was a woman. About 20 years in age, with blonde hair. Her face was fresh and she couldn’t have been dead for longer than a week. She was only wearing a belt and part of a top. Her arms were stretched out and her teeth were snarling. She ran straight at Alexis. He just stood, strongly, with his sword positioned exactly where her mouth was and she ran straight into it, falling limp as she collided with it. He yanked it free and spun it to slash into the neck of another directly behind her; but the teeth of the first lady seemed to still be attached to the sword and they flew off to the side in a white flash. The man he hit was a fat man with a beard who had been dead a lot longer. May and Raf also slashed away with extremely accurate slices, falling three within seconds.

“There!” Jeremy said in an urgent tone, as he pointed up the tower on the other side of the moat. I turned and saw a man looking out the same window where we’d seen the light the night before. He yelled out something, but we couldn’t hear what it was over the moaning and growling of the dead.

“I can’t hear you!!” Boss yelled back to the man.

He disappeared from the window. Jeremy looked at Boss with panic on his face. We were all hoping that the draw bridge would lower, but it wasn’t moving and there were no sounds of chains clinking inside either. 

The dead were up against the wagons. I swung my sword at one that was trying to get at us from between the spokes of the wheel. It died. I felt pretty good. I looked up and Raf and May were slashing at the dead that were over on the side near the fence. May had a position behind the King’s cage and she was using it as a sort of shield, popping out to slash at them and then retreating again. We were all scared and all looking for ways to kill them as the first ones got to the wagons. But then we heard a sound that made all of our stomachs turn. Raf let out a scream of agony. One of the dead got stuck on the end of his sword. He couldn’t free it and another grabbed his arm and pulled him in. It bit deeply into Raf’s neck. May screamed out the word “NO!”’ and Boss said “Shit! Get her, NOW!” and Jeremy sprang to his feet. He jumped through the gap, standing on the head of one of the creatures as he reached through to yank her out and back behind the lines. Alexis systematically slashed and sliced with two hands, moving slowly into the gap between the carts. Jeremy threw May into Boss’ arms and then leapt back into the fight with Alexis. May screamed and thrashed about, trying to get back out there where Raf was still screaming.

“Look! Up there!!” Bo yelled at Boss, and we spun around to see the man from the tower lowering a rope down the wall and into the moat below. He was offering us a way up and into Basin. Boss’ face flashed a look of making a plan and he yelled, “GO! GO!”


We ran into the water of the moat. It was quite clean water because it flowed straight out of the Thanatos River behind the community via a channel that the Basin people had dug generations ago to fill their moat with. It was freezing but I didn’t care. I looked back and Boss was dragging, and then pushing, May. She punched him in the face, and then he punched her in the face and she fell. He picked her up, over his shoulder and put her on Ben’s shoulder. He waded into the water with her behind me. I was surprised that the water was only neck deep even at its deepest place. But I kept pushing toward the rope, which had a loop at the bottom. I looked back. Boss had the five baby pigs on their leads, and was leading them into the water, with the two caged chickens in his hands. He handed three of the pigs to Bo while Raf and Jeremy both flew through the gap in the wagons, but turned again to keep slashing at the dead for a moment until they’d killed enough to block the gap. Then they ran into the water after Boss and helped with the chickens and pigs. The pigs let out a squeal that was deafening, and echoed against the walls to double its horrible sound. I grabbed the rope and suddenly began being lifted up out of the water into the air, up along the wall to the top. It took only a short time, but I turned to look back along the road, to see how many dead there were. There were so many that I could only just see an end to them on the Basin Road. What’s more, they were starting to climb over one another to get on top of the carts.

There was an old man at the top of the wall. He was out of breath and clearly frail. But he had just pulled me up. He was wearing a long cotton shirt that went to his feet with a very high collar that folded back over itself in line with the bottom of his ears. I scrambled over the top and he threw the rope down again. Bo was about to come up, and together we pulled. It was hard work. We struggled a lot, but Bo seemed to help by putting his feet in the gaps in the stones of the wall and pushing himself up a bit. He didn’t have the three pigs anymore, so I assumed he’d dropped them. Once he was up it was a faster task, and we began helping Alexis up. He had the three pigs under his arm, squashed together, squealing wildly. As we heaved him up I heard a horrible noise. The dead had made their way over the pole cart and were starting to alarm the horses. The big one knew what was about to happen and she turned and started kicking and bucking like a wild horse. It connected with one and it fell backwards, but then it bucked a male creature and got him at full range right in the middle of its chest. He flew so high he hit the fence across the path and his arms flew out of their sockets! But then they started jumping off the pole cart, and landing on her back, and biting in. She screamed a horrible scream, as well as the other two horses. They were all still tied up together. All of them screaming like horses do when they’re afraid. Then they weren’t visible any more, as the dead covered their bodies completely, gorging on their entrails. Boss came up with the last baby pig under his arm and the chickens tied to his belt. He had taken his belt off, threaded the bars of the cage through it and then done it up again. The baby pig was still screaming it’s squeal and Boss was swearing wildly as it bit him in any place it could. He threw it on the ground as soon as he got to the top and it scrambled away like a little beast from hell, screaming as it went.

Jeremy was last up the rope. He flew up the wall with all of us pulling. The dead were just starting to splash into the moat when we got him out of the water. By the time he reached the top they were threshing about in it close to the wall.

We stood there, looking down at the thousands of dead, wading into the brown moat. The water around them was a lighter brown than the rest of it. We watched them as they milled around, falling in when they tripped on each other, or fell into a deeper parts.

“Can they drown?” Bo asked.

“No,” Boss answered grimly as he watched the two swarms of them that were mauling whatever was left of the horses.

Empire Road – Parts 14 & 15

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 12

The Mysteries

We set up our coliseum in the open square where we’d camped that afternoon. The area was paved with large, round, flat, heavy stones. They sit one next to another but we can still find places to hammer in our wooden stakes into the earth between them. We were due to perform the following morning. It would be a Saturday and New Romans take weekends as holidays. My community didn’t observe weekends. We had feast days to mark different things that happened throughout our history. Sometimes there were two feast days with only a few days between them. Sometimes there was no feast day for weeks. May and Raf are Pantheists so they don’t believe a person or an animal can be a god. They believe that everything is god… I don’t fully get it, but they also celebrate everything, all the time. Every community thinks they do nothing but party, sex each other and get drunk. Boss lets me drink wine sometimes. I like wine. One time when we were celebrating the birth of their god, Pan, May kissed me on the mouth when we were all drinking. Raf and Boss laughed. I liked it.

We put the pole wagon and the home wagon side by side with enough space between them to build the stage. We stretched the canvas backdrop scenery between the two wagons and then made the benches in front of the stage. We made two walls for the sides of the coliseum from the wagons to the posts that we hammered into the ground. The sidewalls then went to the small wagon which was used as a ticket booth. The whole area seats about 200 people. Boss lets them sit in the aisle and stand at the back when all the seats are filled.

He wasn’t himself that morning. Neither was Alexis. We were going to do the play of David and Goliath. We had a full house. Usually Boss would be happy about that, but he just seemed to want to get the work done and then pack down. Usually we stay in New Rome for three nights and leave on the Monday. We only do shows on Saturday though. Three shows. But this time Boss told us we were only doing two because he needed Alexis for something the next morning.

When the coliseum was all set up Boss, Raf and Alexis came back to camp. Raf was carrying a crossbow and Alexis was carrying a new sword. Both He and Boss had daggers attached to their belts now and Raf had daggers to give to me and to May. Seems they all knew what was going on. I didn’t. No one ever tells me much. Bo and Ben were given the old swords from Boss’ collection. I bet they’ll sell them when we get back to New Haven.

The play went well. I didn’t have many lines. It was good not to be the character that dies for once. When I killed Ben with the pebble though he fell on the stage and it shook like it was going to collapse.

After the two shows we packed down the coliseum and headed back out the way we came in. It was a quiet beginning. Usually by this stage of the tour we are all happy and making jokes as we go. But now, this time no one was talking except Bo and Ben, and no one cared what they said, so they just said it to each other. When we walked across the draw bridge we saw the fat Ranger sitting on the other side waiting for us. He had his flag out and wasn’t smoking. He was waiting with two other travellers who probably paid him as well to escort them to New Haven. Truth is they’d be safer without him. We only ended up going a few miles anyway when we came across another Ranger. He was a different kind of Ranger. I hadn’t seen him before. But he was young, handsome and wearing a different kind of armour all together. His horse was a palomino, and his saddle was ornate. He had long, brown hair, and wore light brown leathers with tan canvass under paddings. He had a sword on his back, with the handle pointing down toward his left hip. His broad sword was hung at his waist and I later saw that he had three small daggers on his belt also. The Roman Ranger handed us over to the new Ranger and off we went.

I was up the front of the line, walking with the small wagon that May was driving. The two travellers were walking up ahead with Boss and the new Ranger. The Ranger introduced himself as Jeremy Reynolds from Panerets. I’d heard about this one. He’s talked about in every place we go to. They tell stories about him. About how his family were attacked on a side road up near Pan and the dead killed his family, but he escaped as a baby, crawling back under the fence line. They also say that he killed his own parents with his first sword when he was 12 years old as they and a hoard of other dead broke into a part of Pan where he was living in an orphanage. May and Raph didn’t personally know him. I suppose it’s a pretty big place after all.

As we walked Boss began chatting with the Ranger. He smiled as he responded each time, being quite pleasant but short of words on the most part. However, when Boss cut to the chase the Ranger’s face lost its happy look a little and he became far more interested in talking with Boss.

“Have you seen many dead recently?”


“Some,” The Ranger replied. I see them off in the woods most days, but they move too slowly usually to get close enough to cause any trouble. I’m usually well past them by the time they get close to the road.’

“Did you hear the story about Jordan Towers?” Boss asked with a wry look on his face. The Ranger raised his eyebrows to Boss and just answered, ‘I’ve heard a couple of versions of the story… what particularly are you referring to?’

“Well – I guess the bits and pieces I’ve heard are different to the story I heard from Cardinal Marcus just yesterday. The Cardinal has asked us to be his eyes and ears a bit while we’re on the road, and to tell him what we hear when we return.”


“Indeed.” Said the Ranger thoughtfully. “Well, you’re probably asking me because you heard that I was one of the witnesses who saw him at Inner Essex?” 


“Yes, the Cardinal did mention that. He said that your testimony was above reproach and that it formed an integral part of his understanding of the events.”
Boss said without pausing. He’s able to pick up the bits of conversations he needs to at any given moment and add new bits in a way that’s like watching someone with a jigsaw puzzle. 

“That’s very kind of him to say,” The Ranger said, as he seemed to contemplate Boss’ lies as flattery. “It was a dreadful night. The worst raid I’ve ever heard of. When the dead overran Inner Essex they came in numbers unlike anything I could have dreamed of. Until then I’d only seen as many as a dozen dead together at any one time. But when I started seeing them beside the Road in their hundreds leading up to the attack I couldn’t believe how many there were. I had just left Inner Essex and was heading to New Rome. I turned back and went to get some of the fence guards from the town, but when I got there the dead were climbing over one another and made a pile of themselves so high that they just walked up and over the top and into the town like a ramp over the wall! So we stood in the town, me and anyone else we could find with a sword, and we just cut them down one after another after another after another. But they kept coming and coming and we were being pushed back into the town by the limp bodies of the dead, which were mounting up between the wall and the nearest houses. We became restricted until we couldn’t swing swords effectively any longer. That was when the town’s men rounded up about 100 pigs from their fielded area and they let them out through a hole they made in the fence. It worked too. Most of the dead who were still coming toward the wall when they turned and headed after them into the woods. That let us take care of those that were still in the city. About 70 of the town people were bitten and had to be finished too.”


There was a silence when Jeremy said that. I looked about and saw that Alexis had put Bo at the reigns of the pole wagon, and Raf had done the same thing by putting Ben at the reigns of his wagon, so that they could both walk quietly beside the small wagon that May was driving; listening to the story.

“It was when we were throwing the dead over the wall the following morning that the townsfolk realised that most of the houses close to that part of their wall had been robbed of all its gold and other valuable things.”


“But Inner Essex is a monastic community… was Towers in the town when the dead raided it?” Boss asked.

“No. It was as we were burying them that I saw him. We took them close to the edge of the woods to bury them and there he was. It’s hard to know who he is exactly. Just that he was not dead. He was too deep in the woods to make out a clear likeness, but he was with about 20 dead, all of them walking along, away from us. They didn’t see us, and we were being very quiet so that we didn’t attract attention while we buried them. I was with three other men from the town. We heard the footsteps and we hid behind a log. The other three I was with started praying to their god with their eyes shut, but I looked over and saw him there – walking in front of the 20 dead, but alive as you and I, leading them with a long pole of wood that was attached to leashes that they wore around their necks. Walking them like dogs, but in control of them because they couldn’t get closer than the pole would let them.”


Boss kept walking for a while, and then he pensively said, “yeah, that’s pretty much the same as the story that the Cardinal told me yesterday.”


“Did he mention that the dead were mostly all clothed?” the Ranger asked.

“Yes, he did,” Boss answered without thinking. “And we’ve also seen some dead beside the road lately wearing clothes from the communities by the sea.”


“Well this is the issue. It’s believed that Jordan was a trader in salt until about a year ago when he stopped coming to the inland communities. No one really knows this for sure, but people keep saying it, so I suppose it’s true. So he certainly knew the communities by the sea and could have also overrun them with dead the way he did to Inner Essex.” 


Boss thought about the Ranger’s words a bit before he broke the silence. The sound of footsteps on the dirt road was all we could hear. It was approaching the middle of the afternoon and the air was beginning to feel like spring was approaching. Boss drew a deep breath and said quite thoughtfully, “is Jordan originally from the sea communities?”


“I don’t know”.

“The dead that you saw with him; what clothes were they wearing?”


“Most were wearing the usual trousers and shirts, but most of them had torn their clothes so badly it was hard to tell where they’d originally come from. But they certainly weren’t wild ones.”


We stopped a short time later and I helped May cook several loaves of bread with barley oats, and she cooked the carcass of the chicken we had eaten a few nights earlier with a variety of barley, potatoes, peas and weeds as a soup. It was quite good too. We fed the other travellers. Their horses were old and well trained, but slow. By the time we stopped at a rest area on the road, with a fireplace and bathroom pits it took them several minutes to catch up to us.

It doesn’t take the whole day to walk from New Rome to New Haven, but it’s a bit hard on the horses to do it all in one go, so we decided to stop for the night one mile before the turn off to Basin. Jeremy the Ranger told Boss that he would walk the two other travellers to New Haven to get there before dark and would then come back to our camp by early evening. We had soup again for dinner, leftovers of what May made for lunch, but this time she added huge tufts of mallow weeds we found near the camp to give it taste, as well as dandelion leaves. You can eat them raw, or in cooked food. They have a lemon flavour. We didn’t have any bread left but it was still ok. May and Raf were all over each other as we sat in front of the fire. They were up to something. But they’re from Pan so it’s hard to tell what. 

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 13

The Pan Festival of the Neried 



As we ate dinner, just before the sun went down, May went to the home cart, got some things from her bag, then came back and stood in front of the fire to make an announcement. She took a hat out of a sack and put it on her head. It was the top part of a bull’s skull, with the skin and horns still stuck to it, as though it had been cleaved straight off. She also had a rattle in her hand that looked like a piece of bamboo with rice in it. She shook the rattle slowly as she spoke and it sounded a bit like rain.

“Everyone – tonight is an important night for all those from Panerets. It is one of our three most important days in the year and our most holy night. Tonight we celebrate water in all its ways. The soup we are sharing, the wine we are about to drink…” Bo and Ben sat up, “and for the water that makes our bodies function in every glorious way it is able.” She kept moving the rattle slowly and then Raff began using one too. They made their rattles produce a long, slow, consistent sound of the grains inside it rolling slowly from one side to the other.

“When Panerets was first formed by the founders they marked out the elements of life that we know to be true; earth, air, fire, sun, wind and water. Of them it is said that the sun, water and the earth are our most necessary in that order. So on this day, which we call the Neried, we set aside the evening to include water in all our actions, in any way we can, that lets us glorify and revel in its power, vitality and essence.” 


Bo put his hand up like he was in a classroom.

“Yes, Bo?” Raf said, while he continued twisting his wrist back and forth, making the sound of rain with his rattle.

“Did ya say you brought wine?”


“Perhaps instead of wine you two could celebrate water with a bath tonight instead?” Alexis said. We all laughed, including Bo and Ben. Jeremy returned about that time and got off his horse. He also had with him now two big jugs of water, one hung on each side of his horse’s saddle, and a wooden barrel about the size of my torso behind his saddle. The wooden barrel was clearly the kind you fill with wine. Bo and Ben were very obliging and helped him get it off his horse. They didn’t help get the much bigger water jugs down though.

Jeremy stood near the fire as the night got a bit colder. I had a blanket wrapped around me and was sitting with my back against the wheel of the pole cart. The creature was quite content since Boss had fed it a whole possum that was unfortunate enough to cross the road as we were walking. Jeremy, asked Boss why he wanted a possum, and he explained that Alexis kills them as a part of the show in the arenas. He then twisted it’s neck when the Ranger wasn’t looking, most likely so it wouldn’t scratch the creature up, and handed it to the king through the bars as it still twitched. It ate every part of the possum. The fur and everything. Interestingly, it hasn’t pooped yet. I wonder if they do. It doesn’t drink anything either. Just eats living things and sort of lives without living. Freaks me out.

Jeremy had a rattle too. His was black. It had carving on it and looked old and expensive. He also started doing that thing they do to make the sound of rain. May opened the wine and Raf set about serving it. “Apart of our tradition is to wash on the night of the Neried.” Jeremy said. He’d positioned the jugs beside the fire to warm the water, and Raf started setting up the small canvas side tent that we usually use at camp sites to store stuff outdoors when it rains. “If you would like to be washed tonight I will happily oblige any of you as I am a priesthood holder in Panerets.”


“It’s your lucky day!” Alexis whispered loudly to Bo, “now’s your chance – go!”


“Piss orf,” he snarled back, and we all laughed again. Even Jeremy laughed a bit.

“Please – be my guests and enjoy the wine. Please drink as much as you like and reflect on the glory and wonder of water as you do.”


“You’re the boss!” said Boss and we all laughed at that too. Then he handed me a cup of the wine and smiled. “Enjoy yourself boy. You’re nearly a man now.” I sipped the wine and it was really sweet. I like wine. It wasn’t the same as the Pan wine we had last time. That tasted like wood. I like this better.

Just then, as I was taking my second or third sip Jeremy started taking off his armour, and May began singing a song in their language. The Pan language is a funny one. It sounds a bit like our language but their words have the sound tweedleee deedle eee dee sounds in it with the occasional ‘po’ sound thrown in here and there. Their songs are beautiful to listen to as long as you don’t care if you can’t understand what they’re about. They never have instruments. People in Pan sing a lot. It’s their main form of entertainment, and they sing the harmonies beautifully. We sat and listened to Raf, Jeremy and May singing their Neried song, as they took off their clothes and then disappeared inside the small tent to begin washing one another. The singing went quiet a short time later, and the sounds of them washing each other replaced it. Then we heard Jeremy and Raf making sexing noises and then May as well… and some splashing… then one of them knocked over the jug of water and it smashed, letting water roll out from under the tent onto the dirt near the fire. We all sat where we were and enjoyed the show.

The water from under their sexing tent was almost soaked into the mud, but it just managed to make it to the fire pit, and we watched it bubble against a hot blue stone when we heard the first noise.




Empire Road – Parts 12 & 13

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 12

The Mysteries

We set up our coliseum in the open square where we’d camped that afternoon. The area was paved with large, round, flat, heavy stones. They sit one next to another but we can still find places to hammer in our wooden stakes into the earth between them. We were due to perform the following morning. It would be a Saturday and New Romans take weekends as holidays. My community didn’t observe weekends. We had feast days to mark different things that happened throughout our history. Sometimes there were two feast days with only a few days between them. Sometimes there was no feast day for weeks. May and Raf are Pantheists so they don’t believe a person or an animal can be a god. They believe that everything is god… I don’t fully get it, but they also celebrate everything, all the time. Every community thinks they do nothing but party, sex each other and get drunk. Boss lets me drink wine sometimes. I like wine. One time when we were celebrating the birth of their god, Pan, May kissed me on the mouth when we were all drinking. Raf and Boss laughed. I liked it.

We put the pole wagon and the home wagon side by side with enough space between them to build the stage. We stretched the canvas backdrop scenery between the two wagons and then made the benches in front of the stage. We made two walls for the sides of the coliseum from the wagons to the posts that we hammered into the ground. The sidewalls then went to the small wagon which was used as a ticket booth. The whole area seats about 200 people. Boss lets them sit in the aisle and stand at the back when all the seats are filled.

He wasn’t himself that morning. Neither was Alexis. We were going to do the play of David and Goliath. We had a full house. Usually Boss would be happy about that, but he just seemed to want to get the work done and then pack down. Usually we stay in New Rome for three nights and leave on the Monday. We only do shows on Saturday though. Three shows. But this time Boss told us we were only doing two because he needed Alexis for something the next morning.

When the coliseum was all set up Boss, Raf and Alexis came back to camp. Raf was carrying a crossbow and Alexis was carrying a new sword. Both He and Boss had daggers attached to their belts now and Raf had daggers to give to me and to May. Seems they all knew what was going on. I didn’t. No one ever tells me much. Bo and Ben were given the old swords from Boss’ collection. I bet they’ll sell them when we get back to New Haven.

The play went well. I didn’t have many lines. It was good not to be the character that dies for once. When I killed Ben with the pebble though he fell on the stage and it shook like it was going to collapse.

After the two shows we packed down the coliseum and headed back out the way we came in. It was a quiet beginning. Usually by this stage of the tour we are all happy and making jokes as we go. But now, this time no one was talking except Bo and Ben, and no one cared what they said, so they just said it to each other. When we walked across the draw bridge we saw the fat Ranger sitting on the other side waiting for us. He had his flag out and wasn’t smoking. He was waiting with two other travellers who probably paid him as well to escort them to New Haven. Truth is they’d be safer without him. We only ended up going a few miles anyway when we came across another Ranger. He was a different kind of Ranger. I hadn’t seen him before. But he was young, handsome and wearing a different kind of armour all together. His horse was a palomino, and his saddle was ornate. He had long, brown hair, and wore light brown leathers with tan canvass under paddings. He had a sword on his back, with the handle pointing down toward his left hip. His broad sword was hung at his waist and I later saw that he had three small daggers on his belt also. The Roman Ranger handed us over to the new Ranger and off we went.

I was up the front of the line, walking with the small wagon that May was driving. The two travellers were walking up ahead with Boss and the new Ranger. The Ranger introduced himself as Jeremy Reynolds from Panerets. I’d heard about this one. He’s talked about in every place we go to. They tell stories about him. About how his family were attacked on a side road up near Pan and the dead killed his family, but he escaped as a baby, crawling back under the fence line. They also say that he killed his own parents with his first sword when he was 12 years old as they and a hoard of other dead broke into a part of Pan where he was living in an orphanage. May and Raph didn’t personally know him. I suppose it’s a pretty big place after all.

As we walked Boss began chatting with the Ranger. He smiled as he responded each time, being quite pleasant but short of words on the most part. However, when Boss cut to the chase the Ranger’s face lost its happy look a little and he became far more interested in talking with Boss.

“Have you seen many dead recently?”


“Some,” The Ranger replied. I see them off in the woods most days, but they move too slowly usually to get close enough to cause any trouble. I’m usually well past them by the time they get close to the road.’

“Did you hear the story about Jordan Towers?” Boss asked with a wry look on his face. The Ranger raised his eyebrows to Boss and just answered, ‘I’ve heard a couple of versions of the story… what particularly are you referring to?’

“Well – I guess the bits and pieces I’ve heard are different to the story I heard from Cardinal Marcus just yesterday. The Cardinal has asked us to be his eyes and ears a bit while we’re on the road, and to tell him what we hear when we return.”


“Indeed.” Said the Ranger thoughtfully. “Well, you’re probably asking me because you heard that I was one of the witnesses who saw him at Inner Essex?” 


“Yes, the Cardinal did mention that. He said that your testimony was above reproach and that it formed an integral part of his understanding of the events.”
Boss said without pausing. He’s able to pick up the bits of conversations he needs to at any given moment and add new bits in a way that’s like watching someone with a jigsaw puzzle. 

“That’s very kind of him to say,” The Ranger said, as he seemed to contemplate Boss’ lies as flattery. “It was a dreadful night. The worst raid I’ve ever heard of. When the dead overran Inner Essex they came in numbers unlike anything I could have dreamed of. Until then I’d only seen as many as a dozen dead together at any one time. But when I started seeing them beside the Road in their hundreds leading up to the attack I couldn’t believe how many there were. I had just left Inner Essex and was heading to New Rome. I turned back and went to get some of the fence guards from the town, but when I got there the dead were climbing over one another and made a pile of themselves so high that they just walked up and over the top and into the town like a ramp over the wall! So we stood in the town, me and anyone else we could find with a sword, and we just cut them down one after another after another after another. But they kept coming and coming and we were being pushed back into the town by the limp bodies of the dead, which were mounting up between the wall and the nearest houses. We became restricted until we couldn’t swing swords effectively any longer. That was when the town’s men rounded up about 100 pigs from their fielded area and they let them out through a hole they made in the fence. It worked too. Most of the dead who were still coming toward the wall when they turned and headed after them into the woods. That let us take care of those that were still in the city. About 70 of the town people were bitten and had to be finished too.”


There was a silence when Jeremy said that. I looked about and saw that Alexis had put Bo at the reigns of the pole wagon, and Raf had done the same thing by putting Ben at the reigns of his wagon, so that they could both walk quietly beside the small wagon that May was driving; listening to the story.

“It was when we were throwing the dead over the wall the following morning that the townsfolk realised that most of the houses close to that part of their wall had been robbed of all its gold and other valuable things.”


“But Inner Essex is a monastic community… was Towers in the town when the dead raided it?” Boss asked.

“No. It was as we were burying them that I saw him. We took them close to the edge of the woods to bury them and there he was. It’s hard to know who he is exactly. Just that he was not dead. He was too deep in the woods to make out a clear likeness, but he was with about 20 dead, all of them walking along, away from us. They didn’t see us, and we were being very quiet so that we didn’t attract attention while we buried them. I was with three other men from the town. We heard the footsteps and we hid behind a log. The other three I was with started praying to their god with their eyes shut, but I looked over and saw him there – walking in front of the 20 dead, but alive as you and I, leading them with a long pole of wood that was attached to leashes that they wore around their necks. Walking them like dogs, but in control of them because they couldn’t get closer than the pole would let them.”


Boss kept walking for a while, and then he pensively said, “yeah, that’s pretty much the same as the story that the Cardinal told me yesterday.”


“Did he mention that the dead were mostly all clothed?” the Ranger asked.

“Yes, he did,” Boss answered without thinking. “And we’ve also seen some dead beside the road lately wearing clothes from the communities by the sea.”


“Well this is the issue. It’s believed that Jordan was a trader in salt until about a year ago when he stopped coming to the inland communities. No one really knows this for sure, but people keep saying it, so I suppose it’s true. So he certainly knew the communities by the sea and could have also overrun them with dead the way he did to Inner Essex.” 


Boss thought about the Ranger’s words a bit before he broke the silence. The sound of footsteps on the dirt road was all we could hear. It was approaching the middle of the afternoon and the air was beginning to feel like spring was approaching. Boss drew a deep breath and said quite thoughtfully, “is Jordan originally from the sea communities?”


“I don’t know”.

“The dead that you saw with him; what clothes were they wearing?”


“Most were wearing the usual trousers and shirts, but most of them had torn their clothes so badly it was hard to tell where they’d originally come from. But they certainly weren’t wild ones.”


We stopped a short time later and I helped May cook several loaves of bread with barley oats, and she cooked the carcass of the chicken we had eaten a few nights earlier with a variety of barley, potatoes, peas and weeds as a soup. It was quite good too. We fed the other travellers. Their horses were old and well trained, but slow. By the time we stopped at a rest area on the road, with a fireplace and bathroom pits it took them several minutes to catch up to us.

It doesn’t take the whole day to walk from New Rome to New Haven, but it’s a bit hard on the horses to do it all in one go, so we decided to stop for the night one mile before the turn off to Basin. Jeremy the Ranger told Boss that he would walk the two other travellers to New Haven to get there before dark and would then come back to our camp by early evening. We had soup again for dinner, leftovers of what May made for lunch, but this time she added huge tufts of mallow weeds we found near the camp to give it taste, as well as dandelion leaves. You can eat them raw, or in cooked food. They have a lemon flavour. We didn’t have any bread left but it was still ok. May and Raf were all over each other as we sat in front of the fire. They were up to something. But they’re from Pan so it’s hard to tell what. 

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 13

The Pan Festival of the Neried 



As we ate dinner, just before the sun went down, May went to the home cart, got some things from her bag, then came back and stood in front of the fire to make an announcement. She took a hat out of a sack and put it on her head. It was the top part of a bull’s skull, with the skin and horns still stuck to it, as though it had been cleaved straight off. She also had a rattle in her hand that looked like a piece of bamboo with rice in it. She shook the rattle slowly as she spoke and it sounded a bit like rain.

“Everyone – tonight is an important night for all those from Panerets. It is one of our three most important days in the year and our most holy night. Tonight we celebrate water in all its ways. The soup we are sharing, the wine we are about to drink…” Bo and Ben sat up, “and for the water that makes our bodies function in every glorious way it is able.” She kept moving the rattle slowly and then Raff began using one too. They made their rattles produce a long, slow, consistent sound of the grains inside it rolling slowly from one side to the other.

“When Panerets was first formed by the founders they marked out the elements of life that we know to be true; earth, air, fire, sun, wind and water. Of them it is said that the sun, water and the earth are our most necessary in that order. So on this day, which we call the Neried, we set aside the evening to include water in all our actions, in any way we can, that lets us glorify and revel in its power, vitality and essence.” 


Bo put his hand up like he was in a classroom.

“Yes, Bo?” Raf said, while he continued twisting his wrist back and forth, making the sound of rain with his rattle.

“Did ya say you brought wine?”


“Perhaps instead of wine you two could celebrate water with a bath tonight instead?” Alexis said. We all laughed, including Bo and Ben. Jeremy returned about that time and got off his horse. He also had with him now two big jugs of water, one hung on each side of his horse’s saddle, and a wooden barrel about the size of my torso behind his saddle. The wooden barrel was clearly the kind you fill with wine. Bo and Ben were very obliging and helped him get it off his horse. They didn’t help get the much bigger water jugs down though.

Jeremy stood near the fire as the night got a bit colder. I had a blanket wrapped around me and was sitting with my back against the wheel of the pole cart. The creature was quite content since Boss had fed it a whole possum that was unfortunate enough to cross the road as we were walking. Jeremy, asked Boss why he wanted a possum, and he explained that Alexis kills them as a part of the show in the arenas. He then twisted it’s neck when the Ranger wasn’t looking, most likely so it wouldn’t scratch the creature up, and handed it to the king through the bars as it still twitched. It ate every part of the possum. The fur and everything. Interestingly, it hasn’t pooped yet. I wonder if they do. It doesn’t drink anything either. Just eats living things and sort of lives without living. Freaks me out.

Jeremy had a rattle too. His was black. It had carving on it and looked old and expensive. He also started doing that thing they do to make the sound of rain. May opened the wine and Raf set about serving it. “Apart of our tradition is to wash on the night of the Neried.” Jeremy said. He’d positioned the jugs beside the fire to warm the water, and Raf started setting up the small canvas side tent that we usually use at camp sites to store stuff outdoors when it rains. “If you would like to be washed tonight I will happily oblige any of you as I am a priesthood holder in Panerets.”


“It’s your lucky day!” Alexis whispered loudly to Bo, “now’s your chance – go!”


“Piss orf,” he snarled back, and we all laughed again. Even Jeremy laughed a bit.

“Please – be my guests and enjoy the wine. Please drink as much as you like and reflect on the glory and wonder of water as you do.”


“You’re the boss!” said Boss and we all laughed at that too. Then he handed me a cup of the wine and smiled. “Enjoy yourself boy. You’re nearly a man now.” I sipped the wine and it was really sweet. I like wine. It wasn’t the same as the Pan wine we had last time. That tasted like wood. I like this better.

Just then, as I was taking my second or third sip Jeremy started taking off his armour, and May began singing a song in their language. The Pan language is a funny one. It sounds a bit like our language but their words have the sound tweedleee deedle eee dee sounds in it with the occasional ‘po’ sound thrown in here and there. Their songs are beautiful to listen to as long as you don’t care if you can’t understand what they’re about. They never have instruments. People in Pan sing a lot. It’s their main form of entertainment, and they sing the harmonies beautifully. We sat and listened to Raf, Jeremy and May singing their Neried song, as they took off their clothes and then disappeared inside the small tent to begin washing one another. The singing went quiet a short time later, and the sounds of them washing each other replaced it. Then we heard Jeremy and Raf making sexing noises and then May as well… and some splashing… then one of them knocked over the jug of water and it smashed, letting water roll out from under the tent onto the dirt near the fire. We all sat where we were and enjoyed the show.

The water from under their sexing tent was almost soaked into the mud, but it just managed to make it to the fire pit, and we watched it bubble against a hot blue stone when we heard the first noise.

Empire Road Part 11

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 11

New Rome

After the show in New Haven at the Arena we moved our camp into the town, just inside the walls. Boss was worried that the dead would come down from the hills to see what all the cheering was about. Outer wall people are a great way of knowing if the dead are at the walls near a community, because they light up their torches for the wall guards to see, and they come down and take care of them. We camped near the back of a hotel where there was a line of troughs. We watered the horses there and I washed. I like to be clean. So do Raf and May. Alexis is ok and so is Boss unless it’s hot, then they smell. I don’t think Bo or Ben has ever washed. Ever. Boss went off somewhere straight after the show. He takes all the money he makes after a show and he changes it for transferable gold coins. They’re smaller than the local coins and they can be spent in all the communities. They’re made of real gold. There’s four kinds that each have different values.

We were on the road early the following morning. The creature was still naked in the back of the Pole Cart, and Boss fed him the other half of the dog. He had to warm it up though because the dead don’t like to eat rotting food or cooked food. It only ate a few mouthfuls of the dog. It didn’t care much for it. I reckon that if they would eat raw meat instead of having to kill to eat, they wouldn’t be hated as much. But they need to eat living things as the life is leaving them. They don’t give me the heebees like other people get from them. I just dislike them the same way I hate rats and other things that I never want to go near or touch.

We only had a few hours’ sleep that night, and we were packed up and ready to go well before the sun came up. The man at the town gate recognised Boss and asked if he could meet Alexis. They’re meant to examine everything that goes in and out of the gates, but they didn’t look at our stuff at all on the way in or the way out. When we arrived we made May drive the small cart in, and she was still wearing her costume from the show. It worked. On the way out Boss also had a plan with May prepared, but the gate man wanting to meet Alexis made it easy for us to get the King out without raising his attention. 

Alexis was polite and the guard was younger. Only about 19 years old. He wanted to hold Alexis’ sword. Alexis is very kind to the people who look up to him like that. He always asks them what their interests are and if they enjoyed the show. He listens to them and asks more questions usually. But this time he didn’t. He just said thank you and we went on our way. 

”Ok then, we’re off!” Boss bellowed. 

“Where are you heading?” The young guard asked. 

“New Rome, then Basin.” Boss answered. And the horses lurched forward.

Ben was the first to ask the question we were all wondering.

“Basin?” He blurted out to Boss.

Basin is the closest town to New Haven geographically. But usually anyone who is going past it would do just that. You don’t have to pass it’s gate on the Empire Road. New Rome, Pan, and Schmidt have gates that go over the top of the Road. Like a roof with guard towers. But the rest of them have gates beside the wall and a short road from the Road to their gate. Basin has a long road from the Empire Road that is about 18 km long, and it goes to the front gate of Basin and stops there. The thing about Basin is that they are extremely suspicious about outsiders and they have a religion that nobody can join unless you’re born into it. So as we leave New Haven on the  Empire Road, we can either take a side road north from the northern gate of New Haven that lands us back on the Empire Road past the entrance of New Rome, which would be quicker, or we have to leave from the main gates on New Haven’s West, where the coliseum is, which takes us to New Rome. Boss wouldn’t take the short cut because it would mean having to bribe the Bell again to get the wagons through town to the northern gate. The side roads also aren’t good options because the Rangers don’t patrol them, and the fences aren’t usually in good shape. But they’re a calculated risk to save a lot of time. The Thanatos River hugs the back of Basin, and Alexis said that they have a moat around the front of the community to keep the dead out. Most of the towns have a water ditch directly in front of their town gate so that the dead can’t get in through the gates. But Basin has a huge water-filled ditch all the way around the town that joins to the Thanatos and the water flows past them in all directions. The stupid thing of it all is that, the dead aren’t even worried about water. They don’t need to breathe. But I guess moving water would cause a bit of a problem for the dead.

So we left the main gates of New Haven and headed north west toward New Rome. Boss is well known in New Rome. I don’t like New Rome much. I don’t like the Catholics. I haven’t been to Basin before. Alexis told me last year that they trust Boss in Basin as much as a religious leader. I’ll be interested to see what Basin is like. We didn’t go there on the way to New Haven at the end of last year’s season either. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has been there. 


It’s about 45 km toward New Rome from New Haven we rode past the 18th white, marker-stone when we came across a Ranger. It was the same, fat Catholic one we’d seen on the other side of New Haven. He was smoking a long pipe and sitting on a tree stump. He’s got ginger hair that’s short at the front and longer at the back, and a moustache. He has a funny shape to him. His arms seem to be a little bit too short for his body. Like chicken wings. And he has a pot belly. They aren’t meant to smoke, or drink, or bed women. The Muslims don’t do any of those things. They’re extremely strict. Boss says that the Roman Christian ones are sometimes good, but most the time they do what they like, and spend about half their time in the towns making arrangements to take groups from one place to another, from start to finish, like a ride-along protector, because the payments are better. They don’t usually live on the roads like the Muslims, Paneretian and other Rangers do. This one is shifty. And fat.


“Well, well, well! If it isn’t the famous Mr Parry! Or is it Mr Fentario today? Thought you’d seen the last of me, till next year, didn’t ya?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Boss said back to the ranger in a dry, suspicious voice.

“You told me that those moozies found a pile of clothed, dead creatures and were burying them.”

“Your point?” Boss asked. 


“Weren’t a clothed one among ‘em!” he snarled.

“Did you ask them if there were any clothed ones?”

“Didn’t need to!” the Ranger snarled. He didn’t like being tested. “I saw for myself that they were all savages. Only one skin amongst em, and it smelled too much to be of any use to anyone!”

“I stand by my statement. You should have asked the other Rangers if they knew what happened to their clothes. We left before they burned or buried them, and there were plenty of dressed ones when we left. We all saw them.” Boss said. That was our cue. We all murmured our support, and nodded. 


The Ranger should have known better; that the Muslim rangers would never touch one of those creatures, let alone steal from them either. The Muslim’s are honest like that. They call them “unclean” and they just bury or burn them like they said they would. The only change that the Muslims have made to their holy book, the Koran, since it was written was to add at the back that “the dead and all things to do with them are unclean in the eyes of Allah and should be burned”. They don’t always burn them though. If the smoke will attract more dead they’ll bury them. But this one is a Catholic Ranger, and he thinks that everyone is corrupt like he is. His horse is cute though. It’s small and fat. 


“So – we’ll start at the beginning, shall we?” the Ranger said in a fat kind of way. “I think some sort of gesture of appreciation is in order for the service I was offering on your way to New Haven, as well as for the protection I’m about to offer you to New Rome.” As he spoke, he tilted his head backward slightly and his eyelids fluttered in a strange way so that his eyes nearly closed as he was speaking. Like he thought he was the most impressive person ever born and too lofty to even speak with us.

Boss had no interest in getting the Ranger worked up, especially since we were heading directly toward the one place, in New Rome, where he may actually have a small amount of clout.

“Sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” Boss said. “After all, I wouldn’t want you thinking that I, Peter Potter, were not a full supporter of the fine work of the Rangers, now, would I?” He put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a few of the coins that the New Haven people spend. It couldn’t have been much. The Ranger looked at it and smirked as he pushed it into his belt bag bag. We rode on together with him riding in front of us. 

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 12

The sun didn’t come out that day, or the next. We camped with the fat Ranger, and continued on the next morning. May had chicken for us to eat that night. I guessed that Bo or Ben had stolen them from a yard somewhere in New Haven before we left because we still had three in the cage that hung from our wagon. There were also two new chickens hanging from another cage next to them now. One of them laid an egg. May and Raf killed the new chickens the way people from Pan kill anything. It’s strange if you ask me. They face the thing toward the setting sun, they sing a short song in their language, then May holds it out and Raf stands facing her right hand side. Then he takes his rapier, which is the sword they use in Pan, and he swings it so hard it hits the dirt after it’s sliced its head clean off. Then, as the bird’s body is flapping and trying to run about, without its head, Raf and May hug each other, holding the bird between their chests, and they kiss, deeply and passionately. I think they’d pop each other right there on the spot if no one were looking. It’s supposed to take the energy from the dying bird into them. She cooked it with weeds.

It was cold when we slept in the tents. Very cold. When we woke up there was a frost on everything. Bo and Ben made a fire and they were smoking with the fat, Catholic Ranger when I woke up. They were all laughing about something. Boss walked past me with another small, dying bird on a stick. He made eye contact with me as we passed one another. Boss has blue eyes. But they change. Sometimes he smiles and only his eyes move. But this wasn’t one of those times. He was clearly anxious about the fat Ranger still being around us while we have the King in the cage on the back of the pole cart. I walked alongside him toward the creature.

“Does that Ranger sound like a Catholic to you?” he asked quietly.

“What do Catholics usually sound like?” I asked. He smiled at me as he subtelly drew back the canvas cover from the cage and he fed the dying bird to the King through the gap.

“Good point,” he answered. I didn’t follow what he meant.

I headed for the fire to get warm. I slept the night with all my clothes on but my feet were still freezing.

Most of the Empire Road is wide enough for two large carriages to ride along side by side. But along the path a mile or so before New Rome the trees that lined the sides of the roads get thicker and thicker until they are like a solid wall. Their trunks have grown into the road and made the road thinner. It meant that if we saw another wagon coming our way we’d have to back up to let them through. Fortunately we were alone on the way into New Rome. As we walked alongside the horses we all got into a rhythm. The beat of our walking, along with the sound that our feet make, as the hoofs of the horses make a clopping beat, all come together to make a sort of combined rhythm. It’s hypnotising at times. And it helps the long walks pass by, as you listen to it for hours, drumming, just beating. 

We arrived at New Rome shortly before lunch. As we approached the gates of the community the Ranger took out several lengths of thin rods of wood that joined together to make a long pole from the pack behind his saddle and slotted them into one another to make one long pole. Then he unfurled a flag with the Cross and two trumpets on it, which is the symbol of New Rome. Last year when we were here we exited New Rome through these gates and entered from a northern side entrance via a side road. I didn’t really notice them when we were here last time. But this time, entering through the main gates I was impressed by how grand it was. 


The fat Ranger had no idea we had the creature with us, or he would have charged us a bribe to get it into the city. I wonder if the other people in New Rome also hate him. He rode most of the journey alongside May. She knew he was being a creep, but she pretended not to notice. On the most part she just drove the cart and let him talk, but every time there were bumps in the road she’d help the bouncing of the cart along a little bit and give the Ranger a show. Raf smirked occasionally. That Ranger wouldn’t stand a chance against Raf. He may be only a bit bigger than me, but Raf as fast as lightning with his rapier. He’s not jealous of May with other men though. The like that in Pan.

The moat under the gates went about 20 meters along the side of the wall. The water in it stinks. It’s a dark brown colour and full of turds. They get their drinking water from the Thanatos just like everyone else, but they don’t throw their waste off their side of the wall like everyone else does. In New Haven they have a windmill that pumps water out of the Thanatos and sends it past the public toilets and then out to the wastelands. The Romans just send it straight back into the river. Geez, New Rome stinks.

New Rome has no coliseum. They hold regular dog fights all year round with the occasional rooster and wombat thrown in for good measure, but they’re terrified of all things outside of New Rome. Instead of a coliseum they hold what they call mysteries. They’re plays about their God or the life of the pope that was in charge when the Great Ending happened. All their plays are boring. I always have to play the part of whoever dies first. Boss used to make me play the girl parts until May joined us. I prefer to die than play the girl.

Their boring plays about the Great Ending aren’t accurate either. In the Great Library at Leyden there are nine Apocalypse books. One is a diary by a man named Mike Anderson. He was in a city when the dead arrived. Then there are the two books of Ministry. They were made by an army to help fight the dead, and they describe a lot of things to help the soldiers kill them. They don’t say whether you have to cut a specific part of their brain or not. So people still argue about that. But they had guns back then, so they were talking about shooting at the head. I’ve never seen a gun. Boss said he has. But the dead heard the pop sounds that the guns made as they’d go straight toward them. So no one has guns now. Getting the right kind of metal is too hard too. That’s described in a book called Jessop. Its in “the Letter of the Founding Father”. They’re all letters from the leaders of the different communities at the time when the first walls were built. They are the letters of Jessop, Leydon, Schmidt, Phoenicia, Mohammed and Bretheren Kaleb. The first three were the letters written by the founders of the towns that they started, and the communities that still have their names. Phoenicia was a town that was lost in the earlier wars between the towns and isn’t there anymore, or no one knows where it was. Some people say that the Thanatos River changed course and it swept Pheonetia away. Mohammed was the guy who started Haji and his letter is a declaration of removal of Haji from all the other communities. The letter of Bretheren Kaleb is a letter from the founders of Basin to all the other communities telling them that they believe that another Great Ending was coming, bigger and worse than the first, and that they want nothing to do with anyone else who doesn’t eat what they eat and do what they do because their god didn’t allow it. All the Apocalipse books are bound and together as a complete history of the time when the dead began to rise. Most of the other communities have a copy of it somewhere.

When we arrived at New Rome we were taken into the town and then into the middle of the community. It’s an open space, paved with stones, where travellers can camp. It’s in the open space so that the travellers can be seen at all times by the locals who are suspicious of outsiders. We drew the wagons into a circle around one of the fire pits. There was another group camped on the other side. A family with four small children. They were merchants and had pots and pans along with all sizes of clay jugs to sell. Boss put his hand on my shoulder. He wanted me to follow him with Alexis and Raf to go and see the Priests in the town. He had the satchel with him, with the clay all inside it, that the creature originally had when we pulled it over the wall. The first place we stopped was a tailor. I own three shirts, two coats, a scarf, two pairs of trousers and one pair of boots. None of them fit me anymore, and most of them have at least one hole somewhere or other. Boss is meant to keep me in clothes and feed me as part of my apprenticeship. I think he was trying to kid May into making costumes for the shows, and new clothes for me, because she’s female. I don’t think she even knows how to sew. But she quickly told him she wasn’t his servant and he didn’t discuss it with her again.

We picked up three new costumes for the mysteries we would perform later. They were all robes, which meant that we were telling bible stories again. “You get to be David against Goliath tonight”, Boss told me as we walked out. I didn’t know that play.

“David dies at the end, huh?” I asked.

“Oh – no – he kills a giant with a pebble, then he grows up to be a king!” Alexis said with a smirk.

“With a pebble?” I asked. They chuckled under their breath. “Christian plays are stupid,” I added.

“Ben is going to be the giant,” Boss added.

“And I get to kill him?” I asked. They laughed. I guess this one may not be so stupid after all.

He also bought me a new pair of trousers, a shirt and a coat that all looked like they had been owned before and mended. We call clothes that have been mended for resale, mendups. These were good mendups because I couldn’t see any obvious signs of mending on the knees or elbows. There’s lots of ways you can make a good mendup. When I thought I was going to have an apprenticeship I originally hoped I would be apprenticed to a tailor. I find it interesting. Mostly what they do is just stitch up the holes and re-sell them. But the better ones are mendups where they take the whole piece of clothing apart, turn it inside out and re-stitch it so that the fresher looking fabric from the inside is now facing the outside so it looks new. These looked like that. The coat was a bit big, but since I’m skinny maybe it wasn’t.

We walked a short distance to the cathedral that sits in front of the Papal Palace. New Rome is crowded. There are too many people living in too small an area, but they won’t expand their walls because they’re afraid of the dead attacking them when they let the wall down to widen it. Catholics always have as many kids as they can. Most families have at least four. And they will all share a single bed. The mother, the father, even the grand parents sometimes. It’s weird. They also don’t bathe often, so the whole town stinks like poop, wet animals and Ben. People stare at us as we walk into the cathedral and Alexis told me to bow at them as they look at us. Raf didn’t know he had to bow either, but we all did anyway.

A man in robes came to see us shortly after we got there and he talked with Boss. He showed the priest the ball from the satchel and the priest nodded. We all followed him into a corridor to the side of the huge church. The buildings were dark, and didn’t have enough windows. We walked through several corridors and rooms until we came to a large open courtyard with gardens and peacocks walking about. There was a fountain there with fresh water coming out of its top and we were told to wait there for a moment. Alexis drank from the fountain. I would never do that in New Rome. It’s a gross place. Boss thought it was funny. We were actually there for quite a while before we were taken to the other side of the courtyard and into the Papal Palace. We walked through a few more corridors and were shown into an office with lots of seats waiting for us. We sat down and waited.

Boss looked calm. I’ve never seen him look nervous. Sometimes his eyes look serious, but never nervous. Alexis is a bit the same. But sometimes he puts his hand on the pommel of his sword. That’s when I know he’s not completely comfortable. He didn’t have any weapons with him this time but I noticed his thumbs were inside his belt. Raf doesn’t take anything too seriously. He smiles a lot and leans on anything close to him in a way that looks confident. I just stand wherever I can so that no one notices me.

The door opened and eleven men in robes walked in. Most were wearing white robes with black shoulder pieces, two were in brown robes, and one of them was wearing a black robe with fancy, purple trimming and a big gold cross around his neck. I wished they’d let us use their tailor for our costumes. Their dresses were amazing. Our show would be a million times fancier if we had their kinds of costumes instead of our mendups.

“Greetings, Mr Fentaro” the one with the black robe and purple sash said to Boss. “My name is Cardinal Marcus Varro and I understand you are wishing to discuss a contract you have in your possession?”


Boss smiled and took the ball out of the satchel. He handed it to one of the priests in white robes, who inspected it carefully, and then handed it to another who did the same. They passed it from one to the next until all of the priests in white robes had seen it. Then they sat it down on the table in front of the two priests in the brown robes. They began flipping through a big, heavy book until they’d found the right page. Then they slid the book to the Cardinal and he took the ball in his hand as he looked between it and the page in front of him.

“Well, this contract seems to be intact and it’s registered to our treasury. The mallet please, brother Dom?” he said, as he turned to one of the white-robed priests. Brother Dom handed the Cardinal a small, silver mallet and the Cardinal began tapping carefully on the top of the ball. After a few taps the ball split into three pieces. I think it was supposed to split into two bits down the middle, but a chunk fell off on the side as well. Boss leaned forward to see what was inside the ball. The Cardinal picked out of the ball three small gold coins, five glass marbles and in the middle of the ball was a small key. I looked at Boss’ eyes and I could see that he was amazed. The coins weren’t the transferable gold that Boss usually buys, they were much smaller. But they would easily buy a few bits and pieces worth having.

The Cardinal looked up at Boss. He looked puzzled. “So… where is it then?” The Cardinal asked. There was a long silence as Boss’ face stayed perfectly still.

“Which one?” Boss asked carefully, and then smirked. He never looks like he’s out of control, but Alexis’ hand moved slowly to his hip again, even though he didn’t have a sword there.

“Well, either of them,” the Cardinal replied, as he furrowed his brow.

“Which one would you like first?’” boss asked, still owning the discussion; although I suspected he had no idea what the Cardinal was talking about.

“You could begin by explaining what happened to the bounty hunter we gave this contract to, and then you can explain where the prisoner is who he was sent after”


Boss thought for only a second, and then drew breath to tell a new kind of story. One he was making up as he told it from the small bits of information that he had gathered since that ball was broken open. “Well… The bounty hunter is a tragic story, I’m afraid.” Boss began. “We encountered him on the road out of New Haven a week ago. He was walking to New Rome from the communities by the sea to present you with the prisoner. He had confined the prisoner to a cage in the wilderness just outside the communities by the sea. Sadly, however, the Empire Road was attacked by the dead in numbers that were unthinkable!” The priests’ eyes all widened and two of them did that thing where they touch their shoulders and forehead. “In fact, your Ranger, the one who brought us in to New Rome, he was one of the three rangers who fended off the dead in a heroic way that allowed us to escape with our lives! Tragically, I’m afraid, the bounty hunter was bitten by the dead. We cared for him until we were certain that he was about to turn and we secured him with a chain around his neck to a tree just outside the road in the wastelands for you to witness if you so desired. As you will realise, both the bounty hunter and the prisoner are now accounted for and in his dying breath the bounty hunter asked me to fulfil this contract with you, redeeming its fifteen hundred Denarius to take to his mother in the communities by the sea.”


The Cardinal sat for a moment. He studied Boss, and then looked at the priest in the white robe beside him. He looked back at Boss again and I could see that Boss had clearly managed to guess too many things correctly for the Cardinal to dismiss what he was saying as a lie.

“If it weren’t for the fact that you are so well known here, for your piety, and your respect for our religion, and for all the times that the Mr Fantario mystery plays had been performed here at the May Games, I would almost have a concern that you had taken possession of this contract through ill-gotten gain” said the Cardinal. “That said, your reputation has preceded you, and I am willing, on this occasion, to give you the benefit of the doubt. I also did not issue this contract, and I have no knowledge of why it was issued. The criminal in question is one that the Pope himself had asked for the capture of, with no explanation as to why. However, it will be necessary for you to get the prisoner and bring him here for trial. Then, and only then, can I give you the fifteen hundred Denarius.”

“We can do that, your grace. However, I ask that you please consider the fact that this task will, in fact, become a difficult one in and of itself for me to take on. With all due respects, your Grace, this task will take away from the tour of towns that make up my livelihood. So, I ask for your consideration as I perform this obligation, and that you consider a fair compensation for my time as I bring this criminal to you for trial” Boss said slowly, softly and cautiously. “After all, the bounty hunter, this news, and this contract were all delivered as a free service by myself and my troupe up until this point. I will also take no part of the fifteen hundred Denarius that will be given to his mother when I finish performing my show rout this autumn. However, for me to ensure that the prisoner remains alive for a trial, one would imagine that a speedy return to him is required to ensure he is not freed by his present captors, or cast out to the wastelands once more. When the bounty hunter told us he left him two days ago he was said to be in a healthy state in a cage, in the wastelands. But I every minute we wait here threatens that. The task of delivering the prisoner to you would in fact require me to abandon my current season of performances and head straight to the communities by the sea, where I would then take the prisoner. This of course would also, in turn, require some sort of payment in place of my earnings as a showman.”


There was a deafening silence when Boss stopped talking. Then the priests whispered amongst themselves for a moment. Boss is clever like that. Knowing when to talk, what to say, and how to squeeze every last opportunity out of every situation for maximum effect. He also knows when to be silent. One of the men in brown robes walked out of the room. We stayed in silence while he was gone for a few minutes. Boss’s gaze stayed firmly on his hands. Then he came back into the room a few minutes later with another man. He had a small box with him and the new man handed the priest its key.

“How much would you anticipate your services might cost to recover the prisoner?”


“Well, we were just beginning our season you see. Last year was my lowest takings since I began and I needed to try and recover some of last year’s losses… I guess it would be fair to estimate that I’d need at least… thirty five hundred Denarius to be able to offer such a service… Which I guess transfers into about… 700 Interchangeable Gedle.’

The Cardinal looked at the box’s lid for a moment and then opened it. He counted out a small pile of the thin gold coins. Then he gestured to the priests in the brown robes to also count the money. Once they were sure that it was the right amount of money he dragged it off the table with his hand and into a cloth purse and handed it to Boss.

“This is half. When you return with the prisoner I will give you the remainder of your payment along with the payment for the bounty hunter’s family.”


“Thank you, your grace.” Boss said, as he handed the purse to Alexis. “One last thought. May I ask the name of the prisoner that we are to collect and what he’s guilty of?”


The Cardinal didn’t move for a moment. Then he drew breath in through his nose and spoke slowly and calmly. A little bit too calmly in fact.

“His name is Jordan Towers. His crimes are not ones that you need to concern yourself with. If he is, indeed, as you said, confined already in a cage, then you should be wise and keep him in it. He is a dangerous man. Now – what mystery play do you have for us tonight?”

Empire Road Parts 9 & 10

EMPIRE ROAD 

Part 9
Protecting the King


“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Now, we have for your entertainment a final bonus performance on tonight’s program. A feature that is sure to thrill, amaze and entertain you all. Please put your hands together for the one and only Acrobatico!” That was our cue to start playing. Bo and Ben get the easy jobs. Ben hits a drum, and Bo plays a brass instrument called a Tri-horn. It’s exactly what it sounds like; three horns with three mouth pieces for him to blow through. He plays four notes. The three base notes and then at the end of each round he blows one slightly higher. That’s it. It’s all he has to do. He even manages to get that wrong almost every time we play the intro. Then again, Ben manages to forget to hit the drum every now and then too. When I began with Boss the first thing he did was teach me this tune on the horn. I can get four notes out of it. Most people can only get three. It took a while to train my mouth to get the top note, and I only blow it once at the end of the tune when Raf and May are finished.

It was funny watching the audience. When the announcer introduced Raf and May there were a fair few who were starting to leave. However, when they saw May, they sat back down. Then they waited while Boss and Alexis went up and down the aisles taking their money. It’s a fine line between waiting until Boss has all their money and starting before they get bored. There were about four hundred people waiting by the time Boss and Alexis collected all their money, but they weren’t complaining yet because May was striking new poses on the spot every so often. When Boss was almost finished collecting the money, May lifted her leg up straight up so her knee was against her chest and her foot was directly above her head, and a murder went out around the audience.

We began playing our tune and the audience were how they should be for a few seconds, then May grabbed Raf’s shoulders and threw herself into a handstand on top of him. Her skirt fell the opposite way to how it had been a moment ago and the audience suddenly went silent. Not like before, when the fights were on, and not like while they were waiting for us to start. They were completely silent. It was a bit scary actually. Even Bo and Ben looked at one another half way through. Their act has seven holds in it, and finishes with May doing a headstand on top of Raf’s head, with their arms out wide. We finished our piece, I blew my top note while Bo got his part wrong. At least Ben didn’t forget to hit the drum. Then the audience suddenly burst into a huge screaming applause; easily as loud as they’d clapped and cheered for Harry earlier! We walked off with Raf and it was a good feeling!

Boss walked out next and announced the special feature we were about to show them. Alexis was well known in New Haven and this was the third year he’d fought there. Last year Boss got him seven creatures that all went him at the same time. I didn’t get to see the fight because I had to do other stuff for Boss at the home cart, but I heard the mugs cheering anyway.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! It is my pleasure to be here again tonight! This is the tenth year in a row that I, Markus Poller, have been at New Haven to present you with some of the finest fighting, exciting exhibits and death defying daredevilry!!’ Boss began yelling. ‘But tonight – TONIGHT, ladies and gentlemen, you are about to witness what may go down in history as the night that became the final fight for the almighty Alexis! Tonight he will take on some of the most evil and wild of all creatures ever captured in the wilderness!! So now; ladies, gentlemen, girls and boys, please make as much noise as you are able to for the one, the only, the mighty, Mighty Alexis!”


The crowd went completely wild for Alexis. He walked out wearing just a white loin cloth and a piece of red rope around his belt with a few things hanging from it. His sword was the most obvious thing, because it was huge. He had it made specially for his show. It was wider, heavier and longer than most usual swords. But he only ever used it to finish the very last creature he killed. As he walked in the tip of the sword touched the ground twice, as he waved to the cheering audience. He stopped in the middle of the arena as Boss walked out through the door we were standing near. The mugs went quiet again.

There are three doors to the arena that the dead can enter through. I had no doubt that Alexis knew already what was about to happen, but I didn’t, and he acted like he was extremely surprised. The first door opened. It was the door behind him. It stayed open for a second or two which was unusual. Normally when the doors open the dead rush into the light. The sun was setting now but it was still light enough to see clearly. Then the audience all gasped at the exact same time. Into the ring came bounding five huge, fully grown, grey kangaroos. But these weren’t just normal kangaroos, they were dead! I’d never heard of or seen dead kangaroos before and it seemed that none of the mugs had either. What’s more, about half the meat they eat in New Haven is kangaroo meat. So the thought that there are dead kangaroos was a huge shock to everyone. Boss pays a professional dead catcher to get things like that for him. I wondered if he’d caught them dead or had live ones infected by the dead.

“Kill them!!!” the first man yelled in a panicked voice, then the rest of the audience; “Killll Themmmmm!!!!”


The dead usually eat anything they can catch in the woods. But I doubt they could ever catch a live kangaroo. Let alone catch one and bight it along with four of its friends. They bounded in, but panicked a little at first by the noise from the crowds. Then they saw Alexis in the middle and they all seemed to head toward him at the same time. What fascinated me was that kangaroos are herbivores. They only eat grass. So it seemed even more unusual that they would be rushing toward a living person to bight and eat him. They were all together near the door that they’d come in through. Headlong they began hopping at him, making their long bounds that made thumping noises into the dirt each time they landed. And then, I realised that although he may have known that the kangaroos were going to be sent after him, he was actually in over his head. He drew his sword as soon as they ran for him. He usually only takes his sword out at the end of a fight to finish it. But he wasn’t fast enough! Three of the five kangaroos knocked into one another as they got within several feet of him, but the other two jumped over their top. Alexis all the while dove to his right, but collided with one of the falling kangaroos, and it made him spin in the air as he fell. All five of them crashed to the ground after they collided together, with one coming straight to its feet and heading straight back after Alexis as quickly as it could. With one separated from the others he knew he had a chance now, and he swung wide with his sword as the others clambered to their feet. It wasn’t the strongest swing I’d ever seen him take, but he was probably winded from his fall. His sword cut three quarters through the front of its neck of the roo and it fell to the ground. It landed on its side, and kept trying to hop even though it was now unable to get back upright. He hadn’t killed it. Alexis put the sword back in its sheath and ran to the other side of the arena. He was really fast on his feet. He ran directly at the wall of the ring, knowing that they were following him and getting closer every second. Their long feet thumped into the ground as their strides got longer and longer, thumping as they landed, and then, quite predictably, Alexis got to the wall, and changed direction, sprinting to his right. The four remaining kangaroos slammed into the wall, making a sickening thud and crash sound as they did, scaring the audience who fell off their fruit boxes, followed by a huge roar from the rest of the crowd. The walls were made of thick and heavy stone slabs that were painted white. As they hit the floor in a writhing pile the white wall had black splats against it.

Alexis took his opportunity to descend on them and took out his sword, stabbing into the back of two of their heads. They didn’t get back up; but much to our surprise neither did one of the others. It just thrashed around on the ground, probably with broken leg bones or something. The first one he cut was still pushing its body around on the ground, unable to get up. Alexis pulled his sword out and did a windmill-like swing of it, slicing the remaining part of its neck as he walked past it, and it’s head rolled off. The crowd roared.

The last one seemed to be getting madder and madder by the second, and Alexis began playing the same games he often did with the human dead. He began by running this way, then stepping sideways at the last moment, letting the creature glide straight past him. Then again, and again, letting it get closer and closer each time. As soon as he has a good estimation of how close it can get to him without bighting him he uses the opportunity to finish it in the most dramatic way possible.

It bounded past him one final time after several attempts to catch Alexis, and he drew his sword again. The audience exploded. The beast turned to focus on him again, not realising that it was its last opportunity. It took off, flying through the air in long bounds as it headed straight at him; but this time he didn’t move. He stood, poised, waiting. Sword in front of him. The crowd seemed to freeze in their seats as they watched the roo hurtling toward him, knowing that it would be nearly impossible for Alexis to kill it from the front. But still, he didn’t move. The Kangaroo took one huge bound just after it passed the middle of the ring, it’s thump resonating a deep thump into the ground, and then flew through the air until it collided with Alexis without touching the ground. They crashed together as they hit the ground together in a ball of flesh that slid through the dirt until it crashed into the wall behind them. They both lay still. They lay there for what seemed like forever! The mugs didn’t make a sound! They just watched, and waited. Then the kangaroo started to move, and a murmur went out amongst the crowd. But then it rolled to the side, revealing a tired and scruffy looking Alexis. He pushed the kangaroo off of him and revealed that his sword had entered it in the middle of its chest, but passed up into its brain through its spine. The crowd went wild; cheering and cheering in a roar! But then, as Alexis found the middle of the ring, and was bowing proudly, the cheering started changing into a chant. It wasn’t clear at first, and it took a little bit for it to get to the whole crowd, but before too long it was quite clear what was being said.

“Kill the king, kill the king, kill the king…”

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 10

Kill the King


Alexis’ arms dropped as he heard the doors behind him fly open. He spun around to see what the audience had seen as it entered the ring. To all our surprise, there, being wheeled in to the ring was the king. It was in one of the small, portable cages on wheels that they transport the dead in before the fights. He saw the creature being wheeled into the arena, wearing its clothes, but also now wearing the blue hat as well pulled down low over its brow, and he spun back the other way to see Boss entering from the other direction.

“Kill the king, kill the king, kill the king…” the audience were still chanting. Boss made his way quickly into the middle of the ring and stood beside Alexis. He began gesturing with his arms for quiet from the crowd, and then slowly they stopped until there was calm once more. It was getting darker now, and Boss began to speak.

“Please, ladies and gentlemen! Out of respect to this man who was once a king! I ask that you spare him his life and allow him to remain in this state, to be shown to the other communities as my troupe and I continue travelling!”


“Kill the king, kill the king, kill the king!!” the crowd began again – this time louder than before. I had seen the beer sellers selling lots of beer all night, so I guessed they were also pretty drunk. Boss gestured for Bo, Ben, me, Raf and May to run into the ring. We ran in thinking we were about to have to fight our way out to save the existence of that fowl, stinking creature, but as we got into the ring Boss again began quieting the crowd.

“You lot, get up there into the audience as fast as you can, and get ready to collect a blow-off of B2 per person, from them to see this!”


So we ran up into the seating area and waited with the buckets that Bo and Ben already had with them.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I would be a fool to deny such a discerning audience the chance to see the finish of this creature; this wretched and evil monster!” They cheered. “What’s more, I KNOW that this is what you want to see, IS IT NOT?!” they screamed again! “Who wants to see this?” And again, they screamed! “Then ladies and gentlemen I ask that you please hand my performers B2 to see this final performance of the night – the only time in your entire lives that you will see the beheading of the King of all the dead!” There was a mad flurry of hands reaching into pockets and into bags. Some people left, but not many. Once we’d collected the money we held up the buckets and then headed back down to our underground storeroom to watch the fight.

“But to make this all the more interesting, ladies and gentlemen, before I release this creature for its final moment on earth, I want to give you one last thrill!” He took his sword out from his belt and held it up in the air above him; holding it by the blade with the handle up high in the air. Then he lowered it until the handle was inside the cage, and the creature grabbed it frantically! The audience gasped and cheered! Boss opened the cage and the creature saw its chance, freeing itself as quickly as possible. Alexis yelled out to it, then ran toward it, baiting it while Boss exited the arena through our door. He was sweating now and out of breath. We shut the door behind him and he went straight to the window to watch what would happen next with us.

“Sorry about the king, Boss”, Ben said.

“What are you talking about?” Boss asked with a surprised look on his face. Then he took Ben by the shoulders, and turned him to face behind us. There, standing in a small cage, was our real king, naked as the day it was born! We all rolled around laughing.

“Dressing the dead is a LOT harder than stripping them”, Boss added.

As we watched Alexis fighting we realised that he was now performing a comedy number. Giving the creature in the ring a sword meant that Alexis could pretend to have a proper sword fight with it. It was brilliant showmanship because I have never heard of any other show giving the dead a sword before. It was Boss’ own idea. The creature instinctively swung its sword back a dozen or so times before it got sick of that and dropped it then ran at Alexis. The crowd cheered when the creature dropped its sword, and Alexis wasted no time in completely beheading it as soon as it made a dash toward him. Clean off. The crowd cheered, but it was more like a clap. They were tired I guess, and they wanted to leave since it was the very last of the twilight now and the taverns were all opening.

“See all those people?” Boss whispered to me. “Every one of them has paid me more than they paid to see the entire night of fights, and I only paid a couple hundred Baznas in bribes to work them tonight. The guy who runs this place pays about half his door in bribes and rent to own this place.” He was proud of himself, but he was only telling me. He’d never been that familiar with me before. It felt nice.

Empire Road – Parts 7 & 8

Part 7
Fight to the Dead

A trumpet blew from inside the doorway that led underground to the tunnels under the rise next to the Arena. It was time for the fights to begin. I liked the look of his trumpet. It was shiny and would be great to have for our show. There are different kinds of fights in the different arenas we go to. I like this kind of fight the best. At the New Haven Arena they have a program with at least five fights, and the food vendors walk about amongst the benches and the stacked fruit boxes selling food and beer to the audience. The food makes you smell the dead a little bit less. Five fights is a good amount to have on the program. The smaller towns sometimes only have one or two fights, but they’ll add to it with acrobats like Raf and May, or trained dog and pony displays. Sometimes both. There’s a guy in Upper Market that has a dog that does tricks on a pony that does tricks at the same time.  Usually it’s just one or the other. He’s pretty well known. I always feel sorry for the animals though. They never look very happy. 

The fighters are given a choice of several wooden boxes that are dragged into the middle of the ring just before their fight. Inside are different kinds of weapons that he can use to fight the dead with. They don’t get to bring their own weapons. Sometimes it’s a sword and a rope-net, sometimes it’s an axe and a shield and sometimes it’s something strange like a rope and a hammer. The more fights the gladiator has fought, and the better known he is, the more unusual his weapons will be. One time the fighter was a well known gladiator in Schmidt when we were there last year and he chose a box that had a long pitch fork and nothing else. He stabbed and stabbed the two dead they sent after him, but he ended up getting bit by one. If a fighter is bitten they stop the fight and the other gladiators are sent in to round up the remaining creatures, and get them ready for the next fights. If a creature has killed a gladiator it becomes a real prize for the other gladiators to kill it. The guy who got the pitch fork and was bitten was killed in the next fight when they sent him into the arena as one of the dead. I thought that was a bit sad to watch. The audience didn’t cheer though. So they probably thought the same thing.

When the first fight started Boss instructed us to hide the pole cart out of the way. He didn’t want the mugs coming out of the fights and looking for our creature. Sometimes they bet on the fights and if the fight didn’t go the way they hoped it would they might come looking for the King to get even with. None of us asked Boss how much he made on the attraction, but I counted 211 people go through. That’s B633, assuming he didn’t let any of them in for free. He’s smart as well because it costs B6 to get into see the fights. B3 is the same amount it costs to buy a meal and since most of the mugs were in the area where the vendors were they would all have been holding B3 spare to either buy a meal or see the dead King with. I wonder if the vendors knew that Boss had dug into their profits by competing with them. I know that the pork knuckle guy paid to see the King though. That means that he gave Boss B3 and four pork knuckles to feed me, Bo, Ben and Raf with in exchange for seeing the show after the one he was allowed to sell food at and watch for free.

When we got into the Arena we were in the holding area where the dead are kept. It was the only place where we could see the show without getting in the way of the fighters. The dead were in their cages, moaning and making lunges at us through the bars when we got too close. God it stank. I put my shirt over my nose. Raf, May, Bo, Ben and I watched the first fighter as he walked into the Arena from the doors on the other side to us. The audience were above us and the door beside us opened straight out into the Arena floor. The announcer entered the ring with two other men, dressed like clowns. One was blowing a whistle and the other was banging a big gong. The people cheered and then began to listen as the announcer started bellowing at them.

“The next champion is a local from New Haven!” The audience erupted into a screaming roar. “He has been training for tonight for nearly three years!! This is his first professional fight, as he risks life and limb against a truly fierce opponent! Please make welcome Harry Myer!” The audience cheered as he walked proudly into the ring. He was wearing only a pair of blue shorts and he’d painted his arms red and his body and head blue. It’s said that the dead who were forest savages when they were alive are confused by humans that are painted red or blue because they aren’t colours seen often out in the woods. “He will be fighting against a scattered opponent and will be given a choice of three weapon boxes!!!”

I like scattered opponent starts. They’re my favourites.
The clowns wheeled out the cart with three large wooden boxes on it. They were numbered one, two and three in white paint on the sides and tops. The audience were screaming out the numbers they wanted him to choose. Finally, after a few seconds of thinking he chose number one. The clowns pulled it down off the back of the wagon and it landed on the ground with a heavy thud. They took their whistle and gong out and began blowing and gonging wildly as the audience cheered in a frenzy before they wheeled the cart out again. They make as much noise as they can to stir the dead up as they wait in their cages over on the sides before the match. They also round up the dead at the end with nets and ropes if the they bight the gladiator.

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 8

Fight

“Let the fight BEGIN!” the announcer bellowed and he walked swiftly out of the ring. The fighter, Harry, was very strong looking. He was probably about 20 years old, had thick black hair, and a big nose. But his body had no fat on it at all. He ran over to the box and turned it over. Out spilled a whip, a short sword and three stones about the same size as a fist. He picked up one of the stones, tucked another into his shorts, held onto another, and left the third one on the ground.

“Out of the way, you lot!” a man behind us barked, as he began fixing the railings of the cage inside to open into the arena. Then, he pulled a rope that led from the ceiling to the wall making the door to the arena fling open. The two creatures that were in the cage saw the light from the arena, and they kind of jogged toward it. They were both male. Both very small; probably teenagers. They looked like they could have been related even, and they both moved quite fast. So I’d say they hadn’t been dead very long. They saw Harry in the middle and made a dash for him. The dead can’t move quite as fast as the living can, but they also can’t be stopped like the living can. They don’t get tired. They just keep going. Harry threw his first rock at one of them as it ran toward him, and it hit him right between the eyes. Its head flung backwards, but it didn’t slow down in any way. They both kept cantering towards him. He took the second stone and threw it, as well, but this time he threw it at their feet. It hit the other one on the left foot and it apparently broke several of the bones, making it limp a bit. He picked up the whip and the last rock and got ready to move. He threw the third rock; hitting the same creature in the middle of its knee, which blew it right out. Its leg was now no longer useful at all and it fell to the ground in a heap. Its attention was still on Harry, but it was unable to move because its bones wouldn’t support it, so it began crawling at him; lunging with its arms like it thought it was closer than it was, trying to grab at him.

Harry turned his attention onto the other one. He unfurled the whip and sent out a huge, deafening crack with it. The audience cheered wildly. He cracked it at the creature again, popping it loudly right in front of its face, but it didn’t even flinch! It just kept jogging toward Harry. He took a step backward and then flung the whip at it, winding it tightly around one of its legs. He pulled it tight, and yanked it in one swift move. The creature flew flat on its back, and Harry ran, dragging the creature behind him. He ran around the outside of the stadium, with dust flying up behind the creature as it was dragged along. He did this, most likely, to make the crowd appreciate him more. They cheered loudly as he passed them. Once he’d done a full lap he turned and ran straight toward the one with the broken leg in the middle. It had by now worked out how to drag itself along quite efficiently on one knee. Harry ran directly at it, dragging the other one behind him. He came to the fallen one and jumped it, dragging the other one along with him and making them collide into the other one on the ground. Then he changed course, still holding onto the whip, and ran in a circle, winding it around and around them both until they were tied quite tightly together. Knowing he had only a few seconds before the able bodied one would be free from the whip he turned to the audience and appealed to them to tell him which one he should finish first. Bo and Ben were very caught up in it all and were screaming out through the window we were watching through, “That one, THAT ONE!!” They’re such idiots.

The audience cheered loudly and Harry took his blade and slashed it into the back of the neck of the one with the broken leg. It went limp instantly. The audience cheered wildly! Then he jumped over its carcass and plunged into the head of the other with his blade as he landed. Unfortunately for him though, his strike didn’t kill the creature. What’s more, he yanked at the small sword and it was firmly lodged in its skull! Four times he pulled at it, as it stuck out the top of the creature’s head, making its whole body yank with it, but there it stayed and the creature flailed its arms upward trying to grab Harry. Not knowing what to do he looked around for a moment, and saw that he was quite close to one of the rocks he’d begun with. He got to his feet and began dragging the creature behind him by the sword, which in turn dragged the dead weight of the other creature as well, still lashed together by the whip, as he lugged them toward the rock. Three giant heaves and he was within reaching distance. and he grabbed the rock. He turned to the creature and began smashing at its face with the rock; pounding at it, sending spray of its black blood in all directions. The creature never stopped trying to grab Harry with its arms, even though after twenty or so impacts it had lost use of its eyes, mouth and nose completely. Finally, exhausted, Harry must have chopped his way to the back of the creature’s brain with that rock because as he eventually hit it with that rock it went limp and the top of its skull broke off, freeing the sword in his other hand.

Completely covered with the black goo from the inside of the dead thing, Harry stood up to the screaming applause and cheers of the wild audience, holding the rock in one hand and the sword with a the top of a skull on its end in the other hand, and completely covered in black, brains mixed with blue and red paint. It was extremely exciting. The audience began singing some kind of song in a language I couldn’t understand and they started waving flags that were white, with a blue stripe top and bottom and a blue star in the middle. People from all parts of the arena jumped the fence and threw him into the air, carrying him off to the side, and into the audience. It would be great to be a hero like that.

The fights that followed were not as exciting. This was good for us. They featured very well-known fighters who had a lot of experience, and were quite good at fighting, so they killed them off almost as soon as they staggered into the ring. The audience clapped politely, but they weren’t excited about it like they were when Harry won. The announcer walked in to the ring at the end of the last fight. The fighter had just made short work of three very fat and tall wasteland savages that they’d managed to dress in fairy skirts. It was quite funny I guess. He was given two swords in his box, so it was all over quite quickly.

After the last fight the announcer walked into the ring. Walking almost directly behind him was May and Raf. Bo, Ben and I walked behind them with the horns. May was wearing a G-string with a thin skirt over it and a tight cloth that held her breasts in place. Raf was only wearing tight, black trousers. The announcer stopped in the middle of the ring while May and Raf found places behind him to his left and right. In New Haven there are no naked dancing women like there are in some of the other towns. So this was a really risky stunt for May to attempt. She needed to be sexy but not too sexy.

Empire Road – Parts 5 & 6

Chapter 3
Fight Night

Raf is a great Juggler. He’s teaching me to juggle four balls. The trick wasn’t being able to catch the balls, it was because I wasn’t strong enough to move my arms fast enough to catch them all and throw them all. I wasn’t throwing them high enough in the first place. He suggested I use round stones instead of sand bags to grow my muscles. It worked too. I hope Boss will let me juggle in the show one day.

My apprenticeship with Boss wasn’t a formal one. Formal apprenticeships have to be issued by the community leaders who draw up the contract between the boss and the worker. My dad didn’t really care if I went or not. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. My mum died having me. I went to my auntie’s house until she died when I was ten. Then I went back to my Dad’s. He didn’t really want me. But that was ok because I didn’t really want him either. He was a quiet person. Most people who live in Leyden are quiet. Leyden is different to all the other communities because all it’s interested in is learning, reading, writing and schools. Leyden has the only university where people go to learn how to be doctors and builders. It costs a huge amount to send someone from a community to Leyden to learn how to be a doctor. But when they are studying at Leyden they are treated like a god. Everything they can eat or drink is given to them for the year they are there. My Dad was more like a chair or a piece of furniture than a person. He would just sit there all day every day and look out the same window. If I tried to speak to him he’d just ignore me all together or he’d say a one word answer. So when I was 12 and I saw Boss talking to an elder from Leyden about staying the night because he’d had wagon problems and couldn’t make it to Inner Essex by nightfall, I knew I had to know who he was. The roads near Leyden are not as well protected as the roads are close to the bigger towns. So Boss was allowed to stay in the town that night, inside its walls with the wagons. I snuck down there and met Alexis. He was kind to me and took me over to meet Boss. The next morning, Boss came to my dad’s house and asked him if I could begin an apprenticeship with him. So my Dad signed the paper that Boss wrote up, and then they tore it in half, from top to bottom, with my dad’s signature at the bottom left and Boss’ on the bottom right. When I finish my apprenticeship in four more years my dad has to give me his half and Boss has to give me his half. Then I can show it to anyone who I want to work for in the future that I finished my apprenticeship and was given my papers. I have a small tin that I keep my good stuff in. I don’t have much worth protecting. I just keep the half of the apprenticeship contract that Boss gave me and my juggling balls in it.

When Boss woke up on Friday morning we began erecting the canvas banner that May and I had painted a picture of the “king’ on. It was about twice my height and three times as wide. It had a picture on the left of the King sitting on a throne. On the right was a picture of him as he appears now; all grey and head on a slight angle. We had to take great care to make sure his clothes looked the same in both pictures, with the addition of a cape and a crown in the first one. Boss was feeding it two small birds every day, and it seemed to keep it quiet on the most part. But that morning he came with a dog. Not a small one either. It was middle sized and brown. He walked the dog straight into the enclosure behind the sidewall. I was in there at the time with Bo and Ben when Boss came in with the dog on the end of a piece of rope. It was still wearing a collar, so I guessed that he’d just stolen it from someone’s house. It surprised me, in honesty. I mean, I know Boss has a different way of approaching the world around him and he operates in a different way to other people. The things that I would think are “right” and “wrong” if I was living in a community, and seeing the same people every day, and working in the same job every day, don’t tend to apply to the way you have to live when you’re travelling and on the road. But even by his standards I wondered how he could justify taking someone’s pet like that. He had a look on his face of concern. Like he was just doing what had to be done, but he wasn’t going to enjoy it. The dog, however; it knew immediately that the creature in front of it was nothing but evil and the hair on its back stood on end as it stopped dead in its tracks. Boss didn’t wait a second and stabbed it in the top of the head with his knife. The dog’s body went into spasms and it began throwing itself about violently for a second, and then went limp. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. My mouth just dropped open and all the muscles in my torso contracted. Bo and Ben didn’t need to be told what to do. They rushed to the back of the cage and opened the door as Boss threw the dog in by the collar. The creature caught it like a football, then ripped into it like people rip into a bread roll when we have soup. I vomited. Boss looked at me and his face showed care but consternation. “Get dirt on top of that quickly”, he said. 

We all watched the creature without speaking as it ripped at the dog. It focussed on its entrails as it’s first port of call, then began working at getting into its brain. They go in through where the eyes are to get the bran. Part of me didn’t want to be anywhere near that thing, and I also had to admit that I’d just seen a side of Boss that I didn’t want to be near either. I was pretty shocked by it all. I watched the creature shove the chunks of the dog into its mouth, fur and all, and I felt sick again. But as I stood there watching it, I found myself feeling a strange sense of concern also for the creature. Part of me was growing attached to the thing in a way that was different to the concern I felt for the poor dog that was just murdered in front of me. It still smelled something terrible though and I still felt thoroughly sick.

“When it’s finished with that, go get water in buckets and keep throwing them at him as hard as you can until it looks and smells a little bit cleaner.” Boss told Bo and Ben. They gave slight nods but otherwise stood there staring at the horror in front of us. 


By the time nightfall came the creature looked a little better, owing to the drenching it had received from Bo and Ben. Or at least its clothes looked cleaner. We’d painted the top of his cage in bright red paint and the bars were painted black. It continued to pace back and forth in the cage, aimlessly, unless someone came into its vision, then it walked to the closest point of the cage and put its arm through the bars and reached for them pathetically. If it was hungry it would moan and snarl. But since it had just eaten both back legs and half the entrails of an entire dog, it was only walking to the closest part of the cage in the direction of anyone it saw. Bo got the remainder of the carcass out so that no one from the local town would identify it as their pet. 


The people were due to begin arriving at the Arena just after lunch. The vendors were all there and ready by mid-morning, and their food smelled amazing. One in particular caught my attention. Pork knuckles. The man had a whole herd of small pigs with him. Must have been 40 of them. He was killing them off as needed to. Hooking and hanging them from the branch of the tree his barbecue was under, then he’d fillet them on the spot so he could cook them fresh. He was catching the blood in a bucket to make black pudding with later. Seemed a bit cruel to me; making them sit there and watch their friends get killed and gutted in front of them. Every time he killed another one they would all scream and squeal in a horrific chorus. Pigs make a huge racket when they’re not happy. They’re not stupid, but they’re not at all smart either. Boss swapped free entry with the vendors to see our show at the end of the night for one free meal for each of us. It meant that we could all go to every vendor once. Boss is great at getting whatever we need by swapping things for it. He’s especially good at swapping things that don’t belong to him with people for things we need. Technically the tickets to the show weren’t his to swap. He asked the Bell for passes for all of us to come and go from the arena. Those were the passes he swapped for the food. In reality though, the food vendors weren’t likely to use them either because they would be busy selling food. I imagine they sell them to the public for more than the food would cost. 

**

EMPIRE ROAD

Part 6

Cone One Come All

When the people started arriving Boss began selling. We all like to watch him sell. It’s something unique that none of us can do. It’s as much of a show for us as it is for the public. I had a whole pork knuckle to myself as I stood there and I gnawed on it while I watched him begin. They serve the Knuckles in paper. The paper he gage me was too thin and it was dripping down my hand. I didn’t mind. 


He began by taking out a whistle that he keeps in his waistcoat pocket and blowing it with a long, steady blast that dropped slowly in pitch and volume in the middle, before intensifying at the end. He can make that whistle do all sorts of things that really get the attention of the people around him. The way he blows it and the way he paces about as he does it makes the people passing by know for sure that a show of some kind of other is about to begin. “Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. You all know that lurking out there, scrounging in the evils of the world, there are two forms of animated creature. There are those that live… and those that do not. There are those who still draw breath from God’s clean air… and there are those that need no air at all to live!! And for reasons known only to the great almighty, those that only exist in their dead forms want nothing more than to bring their same, wicked and horrible fate of un-death to all who now remain happy, healthy and alive.”


About twenty people had gathered to listen to what Boss was saying. They could see the banners we had painted, and they were quietly discussing them amongst themselves, pointing and whispering about what was behind them. It always interested me how Boss could make people forget who they were when he was making something like this happen. There was a man standing at the back who was pretending not to be very interested at the beginning. He was wearing a full length, bone-coloured robe like most of the rich people wear in New Haven, with a red sash that went from just above his knees to the bottom of his chest. He had three teenage boys with him, all wearing the same clothes too. Beside them were his servants and they all stood there eating their food from the vendors. Boss began barking up his story and within a few seconds they stopped talking amongst themselves and began listening quite intently. As Boss went on with his presentation, more and more people came to listen; and the rich people who wouldn’t normally stand near the poor or the working people paid no attention to who was beside them. They were more interested in listening to Boss than worrying about how rich they were trying to be. They were eating pork knuckles like mine, but the vendor seemed to have given them more paper to wrap theirs in than he gave me.

“You’ve all heard the story about Inner Essex. You no doubt heard how it was overrun with the dead just before winter?” Boss bellowed out to those who were listening.

“is it true?” one man yelled from the crowd of over fifty who had gathered.

“Have you seen it?” a woman yelled.

“Sadly – I have to say that… Yes… I’m afraid – it is true and yes, we have seen for ourselves. In fact, we came from there not but a couple of weeks ago. We spent winter near there, and we were part of the force that fought the dead off, much to our own peril!!” The audience murmured and gasped. “But ladies and gentlemen… the story I am about to tell you is perhaps the most tragic one of all!! It is a terrifying tale of sadness that will affect you in the deepest possible ways!!” Boss looked at his feet and drew breath slowly. It was silent in the market as every person there had stopped what they were doing to watch him now. Presentations like this were unusual. There were other kinds of performances where the artist would hope people would toss a coin into a pot in front of them. But the people in the market would mostly all walk past without stopping for long. Boss had this way about him where he could make everyone stop and listen.

This was a new kind of performance. It was one I hadn’t seen him do before. He was telling a story that was completely made up, but it had things in it that the people knew about, and believed it to be true. He was telling them about things that were part of their lives that they’d talked about, heard about and things that made them have to listen. But most amazingly of all, Boss had developed a plan to display that creature as it stood inside our sidewall semicircle, and he knew he was going to do it the very moment when he first clapped eyes on it, standing there wearing clothes on the other side of the fence. He knew then that he was going to be here, presenting this. Or maybe he knew even earlier than that.

When we do our usual shows Boss does something a little bit the same. If he can get the manager of the Arena to let us be the last attraction for the night he will begin by telling a story like this one. He starts most of his stories the same way. He usually starts with a context. He tells the audience that Alexis was once a savage in the hills, and battled the dead every day after his parents died when he was a toddler. He tells them that the dead killed every one of Alexis’ family, ripping them limb from limb in front of him! As he talks Bo, Ben and I open the cage that the dead are in. Then, as Alexis uses skilful tricks, like backflips and running slides along the dirt to dodge them as Boss keeps narrating, telling them that what they just saw was a slide that Alexis learned after watching how the wild dogs in the wastelands have taught themselves to avoid the dead by sliding under bushes to escape. By the time he kills all three creatures the audience can’t believe how close he’s let them come to him without being touched or killed thanks to Boss’ words. But the story Boss tells for Alexis is just a story. Whereas this one is a story that has bits of truth in it that affect the people listening to it and then… then he always stops the story when the audience are wide eyed, wanting more and he flips the situation to his own advantage. 


“So ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. I ask that you appreciate the severe and tragic nature of that which lays inside this enclosure. Here, inside these thin canvas walls, secured in a cage, is what remains of a man who was once the mighty King of a nation of intelligent, peace-loving people from one of the communities by the sea!!” The audience took another gasp and murmured in horror. “Yes – it is true!” boss continued. “The dead who breached the wall at Essex were mostly savages from the hills, but amongst them were also a large number of those from the communities by the sea including none other than a man who I myself have performed in the Royal court for! A man who was once the King of a community, and whose face can be seen on this very coin!!” Boss produced a coin from his pocket. It was copper and small, and one I had never seen before. He handed it to one of the young men in the bone coloured robes with the rich father. “Please, young man, take this coin inside there and look long and hard at the coin and then long and hard at the fowl and twisted wreck of a man that stands before you… then I ask you to come out here and tell everyone here what you’ve seen!!” I hadn’t seen the coin, but it was clearly metal. So it was obviously not a coin that Boss had made for this stunt.

The young man looked for approval from his father, who nodded with a smug expression as he tried to look as though it was beneath him. The boy went inside the enclosure and while he was in there Boss stood perfectly still, hands clasped loosely in front of him, not moving, with a still and quiet expression on his face. As the boy walked inside the entrance flap, the creature must have seen him and it made a groaning sound. There was deathly quiet all around us apart from horses and the sounds of the pigs in the nearby pen. We could hear the boy’s sandals on the dirt as he came out of the exit flap. His expression was fantastic to me. He came out still holding the coin between his index finger and thumb at chest height. His eyes were so wide that they looked like they were about to fall right out of his head.

there was a long silence before someone from the side of the audience near one of the vendors yelled to him “Well?!?”.

Then a woman from the crowd yelled “Was it him?!?”

The boy nodded slowly and then said in a quiet voice, “It was him”.

The audience erupted into loud talking and sounds I’d never heard before. I’d heard a few audiences clap and cheer very loudly at the shows where we did really well last year, and I’d heard some of them geer and yell abuse occasionally, but this was a new kind of audience sound. It was loud talking almost. I find audiences interesting. I’d finished my pork knuckle, so I dropped it at my feet in the dirt. A dog ran past and grabbed the bone, and ran off with it. It reminded me of the dog that the“king” ripped apart earlier. My stomach felt a bit wheezy again.

Boss fought their voices down, then began making his closing statements. “Here, for only the price of three Bazna you can see for yourselves the effects that the dead have on real people of any class, JUST LIKE YOU!!!”


He stepped forward and walked slowly and quietly, like he was at a funeral, and stood beside the door to the tent. The people began wildly reaching into their pockets, erupting in loud talking and the clinking of coins could be heard. Inside the roofless tent Bo and Ben stood either side of the cage with wooden clubs, looking like they would know what to do if the creature actually decided to make a break for it. The people filed past it silently, staring in disbelief as they entered the small area in front of the cage, then out the exit flap. The creature looked a bit puzzled by what was going on. It looked at the people, then it looked at Bo, but got distracted by Ben and shuffled over to that side of that cage and reached for him. Ben stinks almost as bad as the creature, so It could probably smell him. When it began shuffling over to try and reach for Ben a lady standing close to the cage let out a shriek. All of a sudden, all the people standing out the front who were thinking about going in rushed to join the line at the door. Boss looked at Alexis and smiled.

Empire Road – Parts 3 & 4

EMPIRE ROAD 

Part 3

Into New Haven



No one questions what Boss does. He’s the boss. Bo and Ben don’t think twice when he tells them to do things. They’re idiots though. The sun was starting to head back down by the time we stopped to eat. May doesn’t like everyone expecting her to cook the food just because she’s female. I used to do the food before she was on the show. I liked doing it too. Sometimes I help her do it. But the others just seemed to think she had to do it because she’s female. She is better at the food than me. I still liked doing it before she came though. She makes different stuff that I can make. She makes it taste different too. She uses a lot more herbs and spices when we can get them. She also uses different weeds that grow beside the roads too. She even buys them from the markets in the towns and dries them out sometimes if they are plants that don’t grow beside the roads. I think that some of the food from Panerets tastes like poison. They put heaps of spices on everything they make. I prefer potatoes with salt and eggs. I hope those chickens lay again soon. I think they’re spooked from us moving now. 


As we walked along in the late afternoon sun Boss was talking with Bo and Ben. He talks to them a lot but they don’t talk back. They just listen. I was walking beside Raf, who was driving the pole wagon. May was walking beside me. She kept walking over to the roadside to gather the plants that were growing next to the fence. People from Pan like to eat. They eat a lot, and they like their food to be as strong flavoured and as rich tasting as possible. Their god, or way of life, is about “everything” and lots of it. They’re not usually fat because although they eat a lot they exercise a lot. They do everything a lot. That’s their thing. When I get the chance I cook the kind of food that normal people eat I like it pretty plain. Vegetables, breads and meat. May cooks pretty much anything. Bo and Ben like her cooking. Alexis prefers meat. Boss likes eating anything that’s exciting or novel. Today May is collecting a plant called fat hen. It’s like a plant that grows just about anywhere, with fat green leaves that have a light green, almost white colour on their underside. She boils it like spinach. It tastes the same too I guess, but a bit rubbery. At least once a day she makes me help her dig out a scotch thistle with her. She uses a shovel to cut it off at the base, then she hacks back the leaves with a knife that have the thorns on them, and she throws away every part of it and keeps just the thick bases and the bulb at the top. She peels them and slices them to go into a stew and they have a buttery flavour. They’re the best thing she cooks out of all the things she finds. What we don’t eat we feed to the chickens and pigs but this day was different. As we were cooking a man with quern-stone on a little wagon approached us. He was an outer wall man. He was going in the opposite direction to us, but stopped when he came alongside us. He was tall and thin but reasonably well dressed. He was coming back from the Middle Market up near Pan. They let outer wall people into the markets. He ground some of the dried corn into flower that Boss was using to feed the chickens with. May made it into a hard bread to eat with dinner. The man took the leftovers of the flour as his payment. They sell the flour as well in little paper bags. Boss was careful to keep him well away from the pole cart. The creature was being quiet though. I imagine that if the creature made a noise and the quern man heard it, Boss would be able to justify us having it by saying that we had captured it for Alexis to slaughter in an arena somewhere. But it was still a risk we didn’t need to take.

We didn’t see any Rangers for the rest of that day. Probably because of the pigs. Most of the Rangers are Muslim but there are plenty of others. It didn’t bother us though. We already have to put up with May and Raf praying every day; watching the muslims pray gives me the willies. I don’t pray. People from Leydon don’t usually pray. 

We stopped to camp at a place on the highway about halfway to New Haven when the sun was about an hour away from going down. We set up the tents in between the carts. There are several ways to set up tents when you have a cart; but more ways to set them up when you have more than one cart. We usually get the carts in a straight line and unhitch the horses. Then we put chocks under the wheels so they can’t role away in the night, and then we tie a rope between each cart and drape a canvas over it to make the roof. Simple. The carts also break the wind at night. The end two tents have a stake in the ground and a rope to hold their outer end up. Bo and Ben always set up at the end, behind the pole cart, with the pigs in their tent to keep them warm. I share a tent with Alexis between the pole cart and the house cart. May and Raf have a tent between the house cart and the storage buggy unless they sneak into the home cart when no one is looking. They do that most nights. They think no one knows but we all know.  Boss sleeps in a tent at the front.

When we pulled in we set up camp and then began the usual training exercises we do most days for our performances. Alexis does press-ups, sit-ups and other exercises. Raf and May lift each other in different ways and stretch out their bodies. I juggle. I juggle with rocks at the moment to strengthen my arms. I have sand bags for performances that are bright red and made from canvas. I’m learning to juggle four balls and Raf gives me pointers. He’s a great juggler.

We were doing our exercises when we were reminded that something had changed. I don’t know if the others had forgotten about the creature on the pole cat, but I had.

“Come and give us a hand?” Boss yelled out from the pole cart. We went down there to see what he was doing and found him with Bo and Ben, standing in front of the pole cart with the cage now on the ground and the creature still in it.

“We need to distribute all the flat planks and seating boards to the bottom of the cart so I can build a cage on the back with its front facing outwards.” Boss ordered. So that’s what we did. We got to work re-stacking the planks that we use as seats so that they were flat and side by side. Then Boss and Alexis made the frame for a bigger cage using pitch sticks and positioned it so that it was on top of the wood pile. We left it at that for the night and Boss told us to get sleep. We had scotch thistle and weed soup with corn bread for dinner. I prefer anything to what we ate. It was tart and made my teeth feel funny against my tongue.

It was hard to sleep that night because the creature kept making noises. It was between Bo and Ben’s tent and mine. I was just glad I had Alexis in my tent. Twice I whispered to Alexis, “did you hear that?” and both times he pretended to be asleep. But I know he wasn’t because he snores something cruel when he actually sleeps laying on his back. He was laying on his back but he wasn’t snoring. That; and he had his blade beside him all night and his hand stayed on it.

We ate what was left of the weed soup the next morning and then fed the rest to the pigs. Boss was up before us and had two small birds that he’d trapped in a bag. For a split second I thought that perhaps he was going to offer them to us to eat. But then he cut their wings off with his knife and tied them onto the end of a pole. The poor little things were only barely alive. Bo and Ben pulled the bars apart on the cage a little, just enough for Boss to carefully push the dying birds through the hole for the creature to grab. It grabbed at them greedily. Then it went quiet. It ate those poor little, bleeding, dying birds like they were scones. We could hear its teeth crunching into their bones and then the sloppy way it chewed with its mouth open. Even Bo and Ben eat better than it does. I watched it eat, I wondered what he would have been like as a person before he died. I saw his face through the bars as they pulled them apart. It was only a glimpse. But he looked like he could’ve been reasonably handsome when he was alive. It always feels strange when you see a real person in the creatures from time to time.


We got back to work on making a more permanent cage quite quickly, finishing it within an hour. It looked great too. We put a top on it that was tall, which we made from the seating boards. The cage was an oblong shape and had a door that opened to the back of the wagon. Bo and Ben lifted the old cage up and positioned it to face the door of the new cage. Then they untied the pitch sticks that let the creature fight its way into its new cage. The smell that rolled out with it was something terrible.

“We should’a dunked it in a river before we let it out,” Boss commented, with his hand covering his nose. “Ok – now grab those sidewalls and cover it up,” he added, gesturing to the piles of canvas sidewalls that were on the back of the cart. We use them to make a wall around our show sometimes to keep people from perving in on the show for free.

It was a good thing we covered it up. We’d only been travelling a short time after breakfast when we came across another Ranger. He was a Christian one. Reasonably old looking. About 60. We’d seen him a few times last year and none of us liked him. Every time we’ve seen him on the road he’s asked for ‘indulgences’. It’s like a bribe but he makes out that it’s a payment to God. We haven’t seen him on this side of New Rome before. He usually patrolles up near the market because more people have money up there. He looks odd because he rides a particularly small ambler. I find horses interesting. Horses have four gates. They can walk, trot, canter or gallop. An ambler is one that has a fifth gate and can… well… amble. They’re better for riding long distances because they don’t tire as easily and it’s less tiring to ride an ambler because you don’t get thrown about. Amblers are usually small horses, though his was particularly small. Fat too, with a sway back. He’s a catholic Ranger and he wears all their colours and emblems. Anyway, we didn’t want him knowing we had one of the dead with us unless it was chained with a neck pole, and being walked at the back of the last cart like the ones that have been caught for the arena do. A neck pole is a long piece of wood that has a collar at one end. They put the collar on the dead and walk them at the end of the pole so they can’t get too close to the person walking them.

The Ranger got off his horse and came over to Boss. I was close enough to hear them and I could tell that Boss was using what I call his “presentation voice”. It’s a way that he speaks where he’s trying to convince someone that something will be fun or exciting when it’s not really going to be at all. They shook hands and the Ranger put his thumbs in his belt, under his fat belly. His gut was swollen like a lady’s when she has a baby in there. “Where are you lot off to then?”


“We’re heading to your hometown, actually,” Boss answered with a smile. “But I tell ou what – did you hear about the huge onslaught of dead up that way that the Muslim Rangers just cut down? All clothed and carrying those lather satchels that the people from the sea wear!”


The fat Ranger looked at Boss. His face went quite strange. His attention on Boss became so fixed that it was like he’d been slapped across the face. “You saw that?”


“Sure did!” Boss replied. “The Rangers were cutting down dozens of them on the other side of the fence. But… sadly, they told us to leave for our own safety, so we headed off. I’m sure they got the job done. But I can’t say for sure as we had to leave.”


The Ranger looked at Boss for a second once he’d finished talking, and then he turned and threw his fat arse back onto his pony as quickly as he could. It was quite funny to see him trying to heave himself up there because he was so fat, but once he was up there he didn’t pay us any attention. He just yelled “yah!” and his little horse carried him away as fast as its tiny legs would trot. Boss grinned at me and then the others.

“Right-o, onwards!” he yelled. I looked back at Raf and he shrugged his shoulders, then smiled. 

It was a strange interaction, and I don’t know if any of the others really thought much about it. But I did. I couldn’t work out why the Ranger reacted like he did, especially since he is the last person on earth who would rush to help anybody for any reason. Technically, I guess, he would be obliged to go back and help the Muslim Rangers that Boss told him about. But this was not at all the kind of person who would offer any kind of help without payment for any reason, and even then, he’s the kind of person who would only offer the bare minimum amount of help. So it seemed extremely unusual to me that he hurried off like you did.

EMPIRE ROAD 

Part 4


By nightfall we were all quite tired. It had been about three months since we were on the road last, and the walking was a bit hard going on us all. It’s 28 miles between Astrid and New Haven and we stopped at the 25th mile marker-stone for the night. It wasn’t actually that late when we stopped and we could have made it the last three miles easily. However, Boss has a rule – we never enter a community after lunch. It’s one of the reasons he’s successful. He has rules and he knows how to say and do things that make the people in the different towns talk about him and the show. He knows that if he arrives before lunch the people who see us enter will tell their friends during the lunch break. He also knows that if he enters before lunch he’ll have more time to find and pay-off the right people to get a good place to perform. That way we have more time to set up and more time to find all the right people to get permission from. But because this was New Haven, l Boss had to get a special kind of permission for us to perform. 

New Haven is a slightly larger community, with its own market, and that means that their arena has a huge audience, and lots of fights. In the smaller communities they will have maybe two fights a month, a short dance show from local dancers and then we will do our shows and be the main attraction. In Newhaven we aren’t the main attraction at all. So, Boss needs to negotiate for us to perform before the fights, between them or after them. He always prefers us to perform as the last part of the event, but even that comes with its good and bad parts. The good bit is that he has an arena full of people who have seen everything they paid to see already. So when the last fight is finished he does a big speech and tells them they need to see our shows, and then we can charge them to stay. Because they’re already there they usually choose to stay. The bad thing is that the taverns all open after the sun sets in New Haven, so if the show runs late, a lot of the men disappear. That’s why Boss brought Raf and May onto the show; Because along with Raf came May. May is extremely pretty, even if she is from Pan. She has an amazing body. This is the first time she’s appeared at New Haven, so I think Boss is hoping to get the last spot and present her as the last act, then charge everyone to stay. If we get the spot before the fights, it means we have to try and get the audience to pay to see us at the same time that they’re paying to see the fight, and it seems too expensive to them. It’s an easier deal to be at the end, since they’ve already paid to see the fights. The other reason it’s difficult to get the locals to watch us before the show is that in New Haven they usually hold children’s plays during the day leading up to fight nights. This means that the locals associate pre-fight shows with children’s plays and it’s hard to convince them that we aren’t a puppet show or a story about pigs being chased around the forest by thee dead. Sometimes if we get the middle spot we will perform during the break in the program. And it equally as tough for other reasons. The intermission spot is the worst spot to get because the only way we can make any money is by asking the audience to throw coins into a sheet we carry around in front of them. For all these reasons it’s extremely important that we get there early, giving Boss enough time to pay all the right people off to make sure that we get the last spot on the programs so that we don’t have to beg at intermission. 


The arena at New Haven hasn’t got a name like all the others. It’s the biggest one too. When we are in New Haven it is just called the Arena. All the other communities refer to it as New Haven Arena. We found a place at the back of it near where the food vendors make a small market place when the fights are on. It’s a good spot to be if you’re a vendor. However, Boss usually likes to stay away from the food sellers. He says they’re crooks and steal from one another. Alexis agrees but says that they’re just different kinds of crooks to us. We couldn’t get a place this close to the Arena last time because we got here on a Thursday, which is two days before the fights, so we camped along the road with the outer-wall people. Boss likes the outer-wall people for some reason. I think they stink. And they have sad eyes. Today is Tuesday so we have plenty of time to get ready. Boss disappeared just after we arrived. The Arena is outside the city wall so he still had to go and discuss whether we could perform there this week or not with all the right people who control the town and the Arena. This week is the first week that the Arena is open since winter, and everyone in town will probably come to watch the fights.

I like the food in New Haven. The Arena has benches that go around the ring and they seat about 3000 people. The ring is a pit that’s been dug into the ground and it’s about as deep as Alexis is tall. The benches are made from wood. Then behind the benches the people build seats on the grassy areas with wood boxes from the food markets. Those boxes stack with a lip that fits into the bottom of the box above it. So the people sitting directly behind the benches will sit on a single box. Then the person behind that one will stack two boxes and sit on that, while the person behind them sits on a stack of boxes three high. I’ve seen them stack their boxes six high at times. Each box is so large that it usually takes two men to carry it if it’s full of fruit. When they’re on the ground they are about as high as my knee. Boss told me about a time when they all went over because one of the dead was thrown into the audience by the gladiator, and heaps of people were hurt. But they still do it. They also climb up and down the boxes all through the night as they come and go to the food vendors on the other side of the grass rise. When it’s not show time all the boxes are stacked where the food vendors are. When it rains they get wet. So most of the boxes are pretty wonky at the best of times. The whole Arena is built on a small hill that they dug the middle out of. Under the seating there are rooms underground. Out where the markets are there are entrances that lead to passages that go into the rooms under the seats and then they continue out into the Arena. The passageways stink though. Worse than the creature on the pole wagon even. At the end of the fight they drag the carcass of whatever beast or creature has been killed in the ring through those passageways and all the entrails drag along and foul up the tunnels in there. So they truly stink.

Boss came back just before dark and took me and Alexis back with him. We walked all the way into town. It was unusual for him to want me to go with him. As we walked he told us what he had arranged. He’d spoken to the local Sheriff, and given him a bribe of fifty Baznas. They’re the local coins that are silver in colour. The Sheriff gave one back to Boss because it had been clipped. That’s where someone cuts the outer edge off the coin to take the silver it’s made from, and then spend the coin. Truth be told, it was probably Boss who clipped it. One Baz will buy a loaf of bread. The Sheriff directed us to the mayor’s assistant, and he also took a bribe of fifty Bazna. Then we went to see the holy man, known as the Bell, and Boss gave him a small, cloth bag. He opened it and counted the coins, which were the transferable coins that all communities accept. They’re made of gold. They’re thin, small and look a bit like a pinky fingernail if it wasn’t on the finger anymore. Finally the Bell agreed to take Boss to meet the man who runs the Arena, and would give him permission to let us perform the last spot of the night. Funny thing is, Boss knows the man who runs the Arena, and has known him for a long time. But without going and bribing all those other people, the guy who runs the Arena wouldn’t be allowed to let us perform because he has to bribe them all as well to be allowed to run the Arena in the first place.

The discussion was short, but Boss handed him a fist full of Baznas at the end. They laughed, then he slapped Boss on the back, and off we went. I assumed we were going to head back to the Arena and tell the others the good news; that we’d secured the last spot, but then Boss explained the other part of the plan to us. “So now we need to go and pick up some new side-walling and the paint that I’ve ordered,” Boss said as we walked.

“What are we going to paint? And what are the side walls for?” Alexis asked curiously. Alexis was the closest to Boss. He’d known him the longest, and was the first person to begin working with him years ago. If Boss is about 45 years old or so it would make Alexis somewhere in his early 30’s. So I guess Alexis was quite young when he met Boss.

“We’re setting up a new kind of attraction today. We’re going to set the side walls up around the pole cart in a semicircle. Then we’ll make a front to it. The front will be a door that the mugs have to pay to get in through, and then they’ll walk past the pole cart and out another door on the other side of it. I’m going to stand out the front before the fights and tell the mugs that the creature we have in that cage is a King from the towns by the sea. I’ll tell a story about how they were overrun just before the dead attacked Essex. I’ll be telling them that this creature was captured in the battle, and that his dead army are still in the woods… waiting,” He laughed to himself. The others probably didn’t notice that he laughed. But I did. He does that when he thinks he’s clever. He likes to admire his own humour and his own jokes a lot more than other people usually do. Then again, most people don’t actually hear him say them, or they don’t get what he is saying in the first place. Sometimes his jokes are incredibly clever, the other people just don’t understand them. That’s when he laughed to himself. This was one of those moments.

Alexis stopped walking, then Boss did too. Boss looked at him, with me between them. It felt tense for a second and Alexis looked as though he was deeply concerned. Then his face blew into a smile, then a laugh, until he doubled over at the waist, and barely able to compose himself. It turned out that Alexis got what he was saying. It took him a little bit to understand it. But he got it too. Boss put his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels, waiting for Alexis to compose himself. He finished his robust laugh and began walking again toward Boss. He landed his huge hand on my shoulder and squeezed it firmly.

”That – right there – is why he is the Boss of this. Genius!”

Empire Road – Parts 1 & 2

Empire Road
By Roy Maloy

Part 1 

First Foot on the Road

I’ve only ever known things to be the way they are now. I didn’t know my grandparents but they were in the first generation born after it all happened. None of their generation lived very long. It’s unusual to meet anyone over 60  even now. But people used to live until they were 100 before it. The Muslims say it’s been 209 years, but the Christian communities think it’s only been 207 years since the Great Ending. I guess it’s somewhere between those dates. Makes no real difference I suppose, but it’s interesting anyway. I like history. 

There are eleven communities now, but there used to be 21. Disease killed off seven of them. Cholera mainly, in the earlier times. It still infects some of the communities occasionally and people can die from it in a couple of days. Two of the communities were killed off completely because of the early wars between them, and two other communities were killed off when the birds died from eating the remains of the dead things and then began to attack the living.

None of the communities agree on where or how the Great Ending happened. They all just agree for sure that it did happen. The eleven communities, along with the five communities by the sea, are all that there is now. I’ve never been to the communities by the sea. The road that goes from the land communities to the sea has no fences to protect the people who travel on it. Very few people ever go between here and the sea communities anymore because the dead get at them on that part of the road where there is no fence. But they used to. The path between the communities use to be safe, and the Rangers patrolled all of it. They stop at the Jerrico tree now. There are still parts of the original fence along the sides of the old road are still there. The first survivors put stones which they painted white all along the roads, spaced evenly so you could know how far you were from the next town. They were numbered. Some of them are still there, but their numbers are gone now. The road to the sea is called the Jericho Road. There is only one road that joins the eleven communities together. It has high fences to keep the dead from getting at anyone who travels along it. The Rangers also fix the fence when it is broken. It’s called the Empire Road.

The two largest communities are at the top and bottom of the Empire Road. All of our communities are situated along the Thanatos River. Most of them are small, but there are five that are larger than the others. New Haven is in the south, and Haji is at the north. New Haven was made by the Christian survivors, except for the Catholics; they have their own community. New Haven is almost at the bottom of the river that we all drink from. The river is called the Thanatos. There’s a small town called Astrid about two hours“ walk south of New Haven. Then as you go up the river there’s another big community called New Rome. It’s the catholic community. It’s not huge but reasonably big. It’s toward the middle of the river. It smells bad to me. Haji was made by the Muslim survivors and it’s up near the top end of the river. They built their community up as far north as they could because they have a lot of religious ideas about being clean, and they can’t drink water that other communities drop waste in if it flows down to them. The river makes a sort of ‘S“ shape. There’s one other large community, right in the middle. It’s called Panerets after their god, Pan. Well, it’s not actually a god. More like a way of life, but they pray to the… Well, they pray to everything… and they have religious elders and other things like the Christians and Muslims have, so I guess it’s like a god. People usually refer to the whole town as Pan. The longer version of the name is supposed to mean something like “all of the earth’, or something like that… People from Pan have funny eyes. Their hair is always very dark brown and thick. And their skin is always darker. Most of them have green eyes. The other eight communities more or less all follow gods too. They all have their own festivals, traditions and clothing and so on. I don’t believe in gods, but I do like festivals.

I don’t know a lot about the Boss. We all work for him, and I guess he is the boss of more than just our jobs. None of us know how long he has been running his circus. In fact I don’t think I actually know how old he is. Probably mid fourties I’d say… so quite old. He tells a few stories here and there, but they’re all stories that happened in the last few years. Occasionally, however, he tells ones about when he was much younger and performing in the markets and fairs for a guy who was his master back then. He says he was a gymnast when he was small and worked for a man that sold medecine and special cures. We still see those kinds of medicine shows at the big markets occasionally. They’re called Mountebanks and they always have at least one young boy or girl with them that does acrobatics to draw up a crowd before they present their medicines. The child is known as a Merry Andrew. It’s hard to imagine Boss being a Merry Andrew.

When he’s not dealing with other people or presenting a show, Boss is usually a quiet guy, but he always has a huge presence. Like, you always know he’s around. He always seems to be watching what’s happening and looking for some sort of opportunity. He’s known by several different names that I know of. In every community that we go to they seem to know him as a different thing. None of us know what his real name was when he was born or which community he was born in. We just call him Boss. The inland communities believe he was born down by the sea. Boss never corrects any of them but he once told a story about when he was a Merry Andrew as a boy in New Haven, so perhaps they’re wrong.

Today is our first day of the new season. We stayed this winter in Astrid while it was too cold to travel the roads. Astrid is a nice place I guess. It’s below New Haven and is at the bottom of the Empire Road to the south. This is my third year with Boss’s show and he says we did well last year. He had enough gold to keep us fed without selling any of the horses this winter. The year I joined I had to wait until we left the town before I could join the show, because he had a bad year and didn’t have enough gold to feed us all. There are five of us in the troupe. My name is Elijah. I’m fourteen . I’m small for my age. I was born in a community called Leyden. It’s the smallest community of the eleven and on the east. There’s also an acrobatic duo, a man and a woman who come from Pan. They juggle as well. They were a big thing at the arenas in Upper Market and Boss had to promise them a lot of gold as part of the deal to make them join. His name is Raf and hers is May. They’ll get paid at the end of the year. They’re good for the show because the upper communities as well as the people from Pan know who they are. They’re nice people and fun to be around. Then there’s Alexis. He’s a gladiator and he fights the dead in the arenas we go to. There’s also Bo and Ben. They do the lifting work. I don’t think Boss pays them at all. Just feeds them. I’m learning to juggle.

As we walked across the moat bridge on the way out of Astrid the clattering of our horse hoofs and carriage wheels was quite loud. The bridge we crossed was wooden and it was still covered with ice. The sound of our feet, hooves and wagons echoed against the community walls, making the sound even louder. Loud noises on the Empire road aren’t good. They attract the dead. We have three wagons now. Boss traded most of the gold he had left over from the last season for the new one. It’s a small, two wheel buggy type wagon with a small box in it, but it means we don’t have to carry bags on our backs when we travel now. Bo and Ben used to drive the two wagons, but now Raf drives the small one while Bo drives the pole cart. It’s called the pole cart because it carries all the poles and seating boards on it that we need to put up our coliseum when we go to smaller communities that don’t have their own theatres. The pole cart is just a flat bed wagon with a small mountain of poles, planks and other props on it. Ben usually drives the house wagon. It’s called that because it has a small hut with a gabled roof on the back of it and it has the cooking equipment, the small tents, the bedding, and all the costumes in it. It’s also water tight. May and Raf sleep in there at night.

All three wagons travel in size order from smallest to largest. It was a cold start and it felt strange because it had been so long since we were travelling last. Shortly into the trip we met a Ranger. He was a Muslim Ranger and I remember him from the first year I started working with Boss. He rides a huge black horse, and he wears all black leather armour. His sword is so long it hung almost to the ground from his hip. I prefer the Muslims because they’re cleaner than the Christians and they’re usually more polite. They say that the streets in Haji are really clean too. They don’t have pigs roaming the streets like most of the other communities do because they hate pigs. I hate pigs too. Behind the new wagon we have three pigs on leads at the moment. About every half a mile they want to stop and eat and they let out a squeal when they stop walking to eat a weed beside the road when the lead pulls their necks. The small wagon has a cage with five chickens haunting from its side. I guess we’ll probably trade or eat those sooner rather than later if they don’t lay eggs. Our pigs are small. Maybe three months old. But they’ll grow. Boss bought them to give as a gift to the elders of a community about half way up the Empire Road. It’s a place called Inner Essex. They are a pretty uptight community but they have a lot of gold because they are close to the middle market where everyone comes to trade or sell their stuff. Inner Essex only has a few pigs now because their community was attacked by a large group of dead just before winter. We were told the dead from the hills got through a hole in the fence when the winter came. Boss said that the only thing they could do to get the dead away from the wall of their community was to set their pigs free. Pigs make a hell of a noise. So the dead followed the pigs, and the people of Inner Essex were l able to get their wall closed again. But now they don’t have many pigs left. The Ranger we met doesn’t like pigs, so he’s riding in front of us in case one of them does its business on the path. The rangers are usually quiet people, no matter where they’re from. There are probably only about 20 of them in total. As far as I know they only come from either Haji, New Rome or New Haven. They’re like a priest, but they dedicate their life to killing the dead and protecting people who use the roads. I heard there was someone from Pan who became a ranger. Raf and May told us about him. The ones that dress in black are the Muslim ones and the ones who wear lots of colours but carry a shield are the Christian ones. The Catholic ones wear white and red. 

As we rode along the path I could hear the Ranger telling Boss about the dead he’d seen beside the road recently. Boss asked him if he had seen any that were wearing clothes. Most of the dead in the forests are naked because they were forest people before they were killed. Forest people are savages who lived in the forests after the Great Ending. They wear clothes made from kangaroo, cat and rabbit skins. Alexis told me that if a forest person ever gets caught by the dead the first thing they do is take off their clothes and throw them away as a decoy. Sometimes when we see the dead in the woods near the roads they are wearing bits and pieces that were once clothes. Like a shoulder strap. We saw one once that was wearing just a hat! It was hilarious. Boss is extremely interested in knowing if the dead have been wearing proper clothing though. He heard a story that dead that attacked Inner Eseex were not all savages, and that some of them were wearing proper clothes. 


As we left Astrid heading north there were surprisingly few outer-wall people. They’re the people who don’t live inside the main communities. Some of them have diseases, so they’ve been thrown out to protect other people from getting sick. Some of them are criminals that aren’t allowed in any of the communities. Outer-wall people usually camp just outside the city walls near the entrance gates in huddled groups with poorly made tents. Calling them ‘outer-wall“ people is the polite name for them. They’re usually called pariah or “vicci’s”. Calling them a vicci is like a swear word though. It means they’ve been evicted. Most people hate them and don’t even look at them. But Boss is always kind to them. He even talks to them sometimes. They always look unwell and thin. They might as well be dead. When I passed by here with Boss last year there were hundreds of them all camped in rows leading up to the entry bridge. But this time there was only 20 or so. One of them approached us as we got to the other side of the moat. He had a stick that was burning and he came toward us with it. We call that kind of outer-wall man a tinder-man. They make their money selling fire to people. They make more when it’s cold and wet. Boss stopped and pulled out his pipe. After he’d lit it he pointed to Bo and the man went back along the line of carriages to see him. Bo held out a pipe as well and the tinder-man lit him up too. Then Bo gave him a small cloth bag. It had three eggs in it. I think it was charity more than anything. We have a tinder box of our own. It made the old tinder-man look happy.

It took a while for the sun to make anything warm. There were a couple of other travellers walking along the roads. We passed a family early into the trip. A man and three children who were coming along the road in the opposite direction to us. They looked like they were outer-wall people too. They were wearing torn and tattered rags as capes that touched the ground behind them. Each cloak was made up of all sorts of old rags they’d found or traded for and sewn together. The children were pulling a small wagon with two solid wood wheels. It was piled high with junk. One of the children was a little girl, but the smaller two were too dirty and wearing too many cloaks to tell if they were male or female. Their father had a big hole in the cartilage of his left ear. Some of the communities do that to people when they get caught stealing, and then they throw them out of town. The Muslims cut off their hands though. I feel sorry for some of the pariahs. But not this one. The old man was dirty, even for a pariah, and he looked hard and mean. I feel sorry for his kids though.

We walked for about half an hour when I noticed five women and a teenage boy who were walking about half a mile behind us. On the Empire Road people don’t usually walk with other people if they don’t know them. We’d been walking for an hour or so when we stopped at a small watering pond. The small group of women with the teenage boy stopped walking when we stopped. But They stayed about half a mile back along the road, not wanting to get any closer to us. They started walking again when we did. They were pulling some sort of sled on wheels, piled high with a cloth over it. Probably going to a market. They looked like they were from Pan, with that same thick hair and eyes like Raf and May have.

We stopped for lunch after another couple of hours walking, then went back to walking again until we stopped in the late afternoon next to a reinforced section of the wall. It was made from actual stone, rather than pitch-sticks and vines. It was made by one of the communities that used to be there before they were killed in a war, I suppose. Someone had built a fireplace with stones and mud against the middle of the section of wall, which meant we could have a fire without it being seen by the dead in the forest. The group of ladies with their barrow walked past us not long after we stopped to make camp. The teenage boy with them was very excited about his job of protecting the women, and he had both swords drawn as they walked past. Raf smiled at me and gestured with his eyes for me to see the boy with his chest all puffed up; feeling brave. I was tempted to knock over a pot or drop a plank from the pole cart to make a noise and give him a shock. But I knew that Boss would be angry if I made a loud noise like that, and the boy would probably overreact and kill one of the women he was with out of fright. So I just smiled back at Raf instead.

Although it’s meant to be spring the nights are still very cold. When we woke up it was so cold that everything around us had ice on it. One of the horses managed to get untied in the night and had wandered off in the dark. It was standing peacefully about half a mile along the road, eating grass when I saw it. I knew that Boss would send me to get her anyway, so I got my coat from the small wagon and headed off after her. I folded my arms and kept my hands in my arm pits. My coat itches under the arms and it’s too small for me now. It was also damp from the morning dew so it smelled a bit too. A bit like wet dog or sheep. My feet were a bit numb. It was a long walk, but when I got there she just stood still. She is the newest horse and a young one. She probably has Palomino in her. I like horses. I approached her slowly because I was sure she’d run from me, but she didn’t. She just stood still and I was able to take her by the bridle easily. Her leathers were all clean and didn’t have dirt on them yet. I patted her face softly and we made eye contact. She snorted and I thought she was smiling at me. I thought everything was going well, actually. So we started to walk back. Her hooves made a nice sound. I like listening to the rhythms of horse hooves. I find it soothing. But then she stopped suddenly. I pulled the bridal but she pulled back. I turned and looked at her and her eyes had widened, her nostrils flared and I sensed the muscles in her chest flex. I could tell that something close to us had just spooked her. I didn’t let go of the bridle though. Suddenly she reared up and bolted back toward camp. Galloping. With me literally dangling from her head leathers, she charged the half mile back up the road but all I could see was glimpses of the sky, then the road, then the fence, then the side of the horse. Boss heard her hoofs pounding the dirt. When we got to him he was standing with the Ranger and Raf either side of him. Boss is amazing with horses. He saw her approaching and stood directly in her path; his arms and legs spread as wide as they’d go. She would have just run over the top of me if I’d tried to get in her way like that. I reckon I saw the ranger go for his sword a bit and Raf flinched. Bit not Boss. She reared up again, lifting me off the ground! Boss yelled at me “Let GO!!’. I did, and I fell to the ground and scurried backward. The horse came down and Boss grabbed its bridle. Being almost twice my size he was able to control her in a way that I couldn’t, and he brought her to a stand-still. He turned to me and he looked cross. He was about to speak when we heard a sound from further along the road in the direction I’d just come from. His eyes shifted from me toward the distance of the road behind me. I turned around to see what it was. The fence that was made from wooden pitch-sticks and vines that continued where the stone wall ended was moving – gently moving back and forth.

EMPIRE ROAD

Capture of the King

Part 2 


The Ranger and Boss drew their swords and walked in a hurry toward the fence. Raf saw what was happening too and he began waking the others in a loud kind of hiss. Raf is pretty clever. Although he didn’t know what was happening we all knew that the fence shouldn’t move like that. This was a known danger of travelling on the road. We had seen the dead beside the roads before and the ones that worked out that we were on the other side of the fence would try and push their way past it. The first year I joined him Boss told me what my job was if this ever happened. To help and not hinder. So I ran back to the small wagon and began handing out the swords that Boss keeps in there. They’re rusty, blunt and we also use them as props in some of the religious plays we do in the bigger communities. Bo and Ben carry daggers. Alexis is the only one among us with a proper sword that’s sharp enough to do any real damage. I reckon you’d be able to kill someone for sure with one of Boss’s old swords if you hit them with a full swing to the head. But then again, the dead don’t fall so easily, and I don’t think one of these could cut deep enough to finish the job. It would slow them down a bit though. May and Raf have weapons too, but they’re not proper swords like Alexis’. They have Pan-rapiers. I guess you’d have to say that a rapier is a proper weapon too, but it’s a lot smaller than a normal sword. They keep them extremely sharp, and they use them to shave every hair below their neck clean off with. You know a Paneretian is around because you can always hear them sharpening their rapier with a stone. And they never have a beard.

I handed Bo a sword and I could smell the dead in the air wafting toward us from up the road. They smell so bad it makes me want to be sick. Next Ben took a sword.  Bo and Ben are exactly the same in so many ways, but the opposite as well. Bo is Fat and Ben is skinny. They both have brown stumps for teeth and shave about once a month when we are on the way into a town and Boss forces them to wash. When they both had a sword each in their hands they just stood there, next to the small cart where I was, looking up the road. Not moving, just standing there. They didn’t appear to have any intention of helping or fighting. Neither of them would ever do anything more than protect themselves as a last resort anyway. Bo has a huge gut that hangs down past his flopper. Ben is too skinny to even swing the sword. They smell almost as bad as the dead in a wet-dog kind of way. Raf caught up with Boss and the Ranger, while May and I tried to keep the horses calm. Alexis appeared from the top of the seating wagon, where he usually sleeps. He stood up on top of it and craned his neck in the direction of the commotion.

“By God’s bones!“ Alexis said, as his eyes widened, and his body tensed. He threw himself down from the top of the wood pile and onto the ground near me. He turned to Bo and Ben and growled at them. “Move it or I’ll move you both, ya lazy cowards!” Bo and Ben have been afraid of Alexis ever since he caught them trying to steal tobacco from his bag, and he nearly killed them. They ran together toward Boss. That was hilarious also. Watching them run. One looked like a boulder falling down a hill with arms and the other looked like a stick insect that was having a fit. Alexis smiled.

As Alexis reached the others he whispered to them in the quietest voice as he could, “There’s at least twenty of them out there!” The wall we camped against was made from stone. The fence at the end of the stone was made from all sorts of branches and sticks that were sewn together with pitch sticks, vines and sometimes hemp rope. It wasn’t the most secure way to build a fence in my opinion, but I suppose it’s been there for a long time. One of the Rangers“ jobs is to take any small seedlings they find and plant them in the fence line to strengthen it. Then trees grow and secure the fence to the ground. This section of fence, however, had no trees growing in it for miles. There was an advantage to this, because the rangers could slash at the dead with their swords through the gaps in between pitch sticks. But the disadvantage of not having trees nearby is that the Ranger would usually use a tree to hang out above the dead on a branch from the tree and slash downward onto them and kill them easily as they try and grab upwards. In the old days it was thought that the dead could climb. But they can’t.

Boss plunged his sword between two pitch sticks and straight into the face of one of the dead on the other side. But it didn’t do a thing. It was pushed backwards a bit, and then forwards as Boss pulled it out again, but it didn’t die. In my community we were brought up being told that the only way to kill them is to cut their whole head off. Boss says you can still kill them with a cut to the brain, but it’s got to cut the place where the spine meets the brain. He says that that’s all the brain they need to keep functioning. Raf and May say that the Paneretians believe in slashing the back of their neck where the skull starts, which is the same thing Boss believes I guess. Alexis always takes their whole heads off. 


“Bring the seating wagon!“ Boss yelled back  up the path. I grabbed the most reliable horse, an old Clydesdale names Floo. I harnessed her up as quickly as I could. Faster than I usually can. As I approached them in the wagon Alexis ran and jumped up into the drivers range. He steered it into position alongside the fence where the dead were. Now that the fence couldn’t be pulled back and forth by the dead it stood less chance of breaking apart and letting them onto the road. We tied rope to the fence, being careful that the dead didn’t touch us through the gaps, and then we lashed it to the wagon wheels to give it stability. We all stopped for a moment. There was a lot of noise out there. We stayed silent. The moaning, the grunting and the sounds of partly-formed words that the dead were trying to say, as though they were trying to remember how to be human, made for a gut-wrenching sound. 


“Are they wearing clothes?” Boss whispered to Alexis. It was a strange question, because it seemed like he wasn’t aware of the danger that the dead were to us at all. He seemed more interested in something that made no sense. Then he started climbing onto the planks even before Alexis could answer.

“Yes!!“ he said in his hushed voice, “some are!!’. His eyes were wide and he looked excited. As a surprise to me, Alexis was smiling too. I don’t think he knew what Boss was up to, but it was clear that he was happy to play along. He’s known Boss the longest. But I still don’t think he understands him. 


Boss raised his head above the ten foot fence-line from the top of the wagon, then quickly withdrawing it to crouch back down again. He gazed at the fence for a moment, then took another look at the dead, and then quickly drew back down again. He looked at the planks on the back of the Pole Cart, and then back at the other carts that we had.

“What do you see?” the Ranger asked. Boss didn’t hear him at first. His mind was completely somewhere else. Then he focussed on the Ranger, and his expression came back to how it should look.

Boss got down and answered the Ranger, “We’ll stay here a day and wait till they lose interest. We need to be as quiet as we can be so they don’t sense us in here. Better to live a long time as a coward than to die quickly as a hero.“ He slapped the Ranger on the shoulder, but the Ranger glared.

“No, this is not to be. I am a Ranger; and it is my sworn duty to protect the roads from the dead. I am sworn to kill every single one of them!“ He seemed angry with Boss. Alexis was looking at the ground and he was smirking. I could see his face because I’m shorter than the others.

Boss looked thoughtful for a moment, while the Ranger began looking as though he was getting mad.

“I tell you what,“ Boss said. “There are at least 50 of them out there now. There are also a lot of them lurking in the woods too. So let’s say there could be as many as 70 to 100 of them out there. I know you’re a trained fighter but we’re not. We’re artists. If you want to fight and kill those dead you’re gonna need help. You’ll need at least one other Ranger with you. Best bet would be to ride up the road and find another Ranger to come and help kill them. You know as well as we do that one man, no matter how well trained he is, wouldn’t stand a chance against that many dead.“

The Ranger thought for a moment and then nodded. He mounted his horse and turned to Boss.

“I will return by nightfall.”

Boss nodded to him and the Ranger galloped away down the road. For a moment the dead all shuffled quickly along the wall to catch the Ranger as he left, but then they returned to where the wagon was tied and began trying to pull the fence down again. They could probably smell Bo and Ben.

“Now listen to me all of you. I sent that Ranger on his way for a very good reason.“ Boss turned back to the wagon and took out a bundle of the six-foot poles that we usually use to prop up the banners and the side walls. “I need you to take these poles, lash them together with this rope and make a seven-foot tall cage that a person can fit inside. Make it facing the horses at the end of the pole cart. Then reassemble the planks and other stuff so it can’t be seen from the road and don’t put a top on it yet.”

Instantly we knew what he was about to do. He intended to capture one of the dead and put it in a cage, but for what purpose? There are professional dead catchers who catch the bigger ones for the gladiators to kill in the arenas. But they use traps and cages and never go near them. I looked at Alexis and he wasn’t smiling anymore. One of the greatest things Boss had on his side was the loyalty of Bo and Ben. Although they were idiots they would do literally anything he said without questioning him, and they instantly began pulling down the poles. Alexis didn’t though.

“You can’t be serious!?” Alexis said cautiously and quietly. His face was long and drawn by the shock of what Boss had asked us to do.

“Which bit confused you?” Boss answered in a cold and stern voice.

“The bit where you’re about to ask us to capture one of them while there’s dozens all grouped together and put it in a cage and take it with us!“ he added.

Boss grinned and paused. Bo and Ben also stopped and watched him. “Come up here. All of you!“ So; up onto the top of the wood planks we all climbed on the top of the pole cart. I was one of the first up there. We crouched down next to Boss. Watching Bo hauling his fat arse up there was hilarious. Boss didn’t wait till he was all the way up before he started talking.

“One at a time… put your heads up and looked at them.“ Boss whispered to us.

Alexis went first, then Raf. I went, then May. Finally Bo then Ben followed. What I saw was probably the same thing everyone saw. There were about thirty of them out there. They were standing close by in a huddle; staring at the fence. Some were milling about at the back of the huddle and one or two more were approaching from the tree-line a short distance away. But one thing stood out in a way that couldn’t be missed. Toward the back, standing there was a male that was wearing a full set of clothes. Others were also wearing parts of torn clothes with sleeves ripped off and shirts ripped open, but this one looked like it had just been dressed that morning. It was wearing a blue shirt, an over-vest that went down past its knees, brown trousers, nice shoes, and he even had a black leather satchel over his shoulder and a pouch that hung on it. The rest were savages from the forests that were either naked or wearing only pieces of skins here and there. They were mostly female actually.

“Did you all see him?” Boss asked. No one answered directly, but Alexis spoke for all of us.

“What do we do next, Boss?’

“We need to lasso him, and pull him over the fence; then drop him into a cage. We’ll make the cage and put it on the road. Then we’ll lsasso it, pull it up over the fence, and drop it into the cage, and then put the cage on the wagon before we cover it.”

“With all due respects, the creatures we fight in the arena are much bigger than that one. You’d see that he’s a small one, if you saw him face to face. He wouldn’t get us much at all in fact, whether he’s wearing cloths or not.“ Alexis still had hesitations.

“Not what I have in mind at all. Now get busy and make the cage before it wanders off!’

Boss doesn’t like to be questioned. Alexis and occasionally Raf can ask questions. Boss answers Raf to be polite, but usually changes the subject and Raf leaves confused. He sometimes tells Alexis things. I keep my mouth shut and sometimes I hear and see things others don’t.

We got busy and built the cage. Raf is good with ropes. We lashed it so tightly, and used so many pitch sticks that the gaps to see in and out were only big enough to fit my fingers through. When we’d finished Boss called us back up on top. There were more dead waiting just outside the wall now. They were listening to us. One near the fence was grinding its teeth and it made a deep, churning sound. I don’t think they can always see properly though. But they can smell you a mile away. Alexis says that we could all use our sense of smell as well as they do if we had no eyes to see with. Most of their eyes look like they don’t work so well and are white with cloudy covers. When Alexis has to fight a particularly fast one in the ring he has a few small bells in a pouch around his waist that he throws to the side of the arena and it distracts them just long enough for him to get the upper hand.

Bo had ropes ready. Boss turned to me and said, “now head over there, Elijah, and bang on the fence. Watch my hand and if I hold it up – stop. If I hold up two hands run to the other side of the wagon and bang on the fence close to the stone wall. We need to draw them apart and then lasso the clothed one.”

So off I went, a short walk away from the wagon, and I stopped. I started banging on the fence with my palm. I could only see their shadows through the fence but they were there. And they were getting closer to me. I was watching Boss for the signal to stop and then run to the other side of the wagon, but he only signalled me to stop. Then suddenly there was a scuffle at the wagon as they hauled the creature over the fence, and dropped it into the cage that we’d made. I ran back to see what they had and it was thrashing about in there. It was really wild.

“Hand me that” Boss said, as he pointed to something that Bo was holding. It was the satchel that had been hanging over the shoulder of the creature only moments earlier; but now he was holding it. We were all shocked that he’d managed to get it off the creature in that scurry. He handed it to Boss. Raf’s mouth fell open and he said in a shocked voice to Bo, “How?? How the hell did you get that off him in that short time?” 


Bo laughed and pulled his knife out of his belt. Ben laughed too. They’d steal from each other if they didn’t know all the same tricks. 

“Now this – this is the icing on the cake!“ Boss said as he took something from inside the bag. It was round and a red, earthy colour.

“What is it?” Bo asked.

“Hahaha. This is a contract!“ Boss said happily, still studying it closely. “See these marks here?” he added, showing us the emblem that was stamped all over the ball. “This is the crest you see when we enter New Rome. See the cross, and the two trumpets?” we all looked closely. “Inside this ball is something that the Pope at New Rome put there and when I return this to him he has to give me whatever it’s worth in exchange for this ball. It could be gold, could be livestock… could be anything’.

“But why is it in a ball of clay?” Bo asked him.

“Because clay is fragile. When the Pope’s treasurer gets hold of this he’ll look at it carefully to make sure it isn’t already broken, and then he’ll crack it open like an egg to see what the promise is. If there’s a sheep’s tooth in there then he will give me a sheep. If there’s a sheep’s tooth and ten pebbles around it he will give me ten sheep, and so on.”

The creature began thrashing about some more, trying to get at any of us he could.

“Cover that up, would you?” Boss said as he climbed down from the wagon. I began covering it with a canvas sidewalls with Bo and Ben. It smelled terrible. And so did they. 


A short time later the Ranger came back with another one. They were both Muslims. He was faster than we thought he’d be. We all stood up and took our swords out. We were all getting ready to fight the dead; although I didn’t for a second think that Boss would let me go over. But the Rangers insisted that we put our swords away. this was not something for us to be involved in, he told us. In their opinion, this was their job alone. Boss didn’t seem to mind at all, and he happily handed me his sword. We watched as the rangers, dressed in black, climbed to the top of the wagon, right next to our creature in the cage. They peeked out over the fence, then whispered a little to one another in that language they speak in Haj. It sounds like coughing and growling to me. Then they sprang over the fence at the same time.

Naturally, we madly scrambled up to the top of the wagon to watch, and boy what a sight! Dressed in their traditional black leather armours they hit the ground slashing and swiping at the dead in all directions! The one who just arrived was wearing a deep, blood red sash around his waist and he was more nimble than the one we began with. He cut three down, then took two quick steps and slid in the dirt as he sliced upward into another! Together they cut the dead down where they could, or they chopped off arms and legs if they couldn’t get a clean hits at their necks. This maims them enough to slow them or makes them fall so they’re easy to finish off later. I think I could probably do some of those things. But I don’t have a good sword like they do. I would always try and hit them in the back of the head though. The Rangers were good at it. They were swinging their swords at the dead with such speed that it made their heads leave their shoulders like it was pulling the top off a mushroom. 

Then the smell came.

Trying to describe the stench that comes out of one of those things is impossible. Some of them were a deep green and purple. One of them was a lady who would have been attractive when she was still alive. But something had already ripped off her left arm and most of the breast under it. The Ranger aimed lower at her and cut her off in the middle of her chest. Her innards fell everywhere with a splash sound, and that was the worst smell I’ve ever smelled. The ones who have been dead the longest are the darkest colours. Another woman with dark brown hair, was almost black she was so rotted, but she would have been quite fair when she was alive. I don’t think she was a forest savage either. She had part of a skirt on still. Just the belt bit mainly. When the Ranger with the red sash slashed at her he got her just above the hips. It cut her in two and it looked like he was cutting cheese, she was so soft and rotted. She just sort of fell into two pieces. But sure enough, the top half of her kept on waving its arms about at him until he took her head off. It’s exciting to watching but gross too.

When they’d finished Boss saw the two rangers standing there. Two more dead were now coming at them from the trees a short way off. They’d probably heard the commotion and come for a look. The Ranger we were travelling with nodded to the other one. It was like giving him an order and he went over, finishing them with single chops. Then there were no more left. Just fat, almost indescribable heaps of meat and bone and flesh in different colours all over the ground. The Ranger we knew looked up at Boss, who was perched on the top of the wagon next to me, and explained what happens next.

“You will need to travel alone until you get to the next Ranger. We must dispose of these bodies so that the birds of prey do not eat from them.”

“No problem. Thank you for your bravery.“ Boss said in his most charming voice. “but before you go – could I trouble you to pass me that hat?’

The Ranger looked to where Boss was pointing and saw a small blue hat on the ground. He didn’t ask any questions. He just put it on the end of his sword and hoisted it into the air for Boss to reach down and grab. Boss examined it carefully.

“Ever seen one like this before?” he asked the rangers.

“Yes,“ the Ranger with the red sash answered. “They are worn by the traders from Jessop.”

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