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!”

Published by RoyMaloy

To keep one of my agents happy I've started a blog... yup. It will mostly be a combination of stories I've written, stories that *actually* happened to me and stories I *want* to happen. Please susbcribe to my blog. and remember - if you read it and you enjoy it, please remember to share the link!

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