By Roy Maloy
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.
Capture of the King
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.”