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. 



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.

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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