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.
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.