We all just stood there. Staring at the dead. Then May’s weeping broke through the sounds of murmuring and splashing that the dead were still making down in the moat below. Boss stood in front of May with his hands on her shoulders. Then he drew her in and hugged her tightly. She let go and she cried deeply and bitterly for ages.
“What rooms are there in town? I have transferable gold in the carriages out there. I can fetch it when night falls.” Boss asked the old man who saved us with the rope. But the man shook his head and puckered his lips in a way that made me think he wanted to say something but didn’t know how.
“The town fell. three weeks ago.”
“What do you mean?” Boss said, sounding very astonished. The words being said didn’t make sense to any of us. May stopped crying.
“Didn’t you notice there were no outerwall people? They came over the wall in their hundreds.”
“over the wall?” This wall?!” Boss asked with a disbelieving voice.
“But your walls are the tallest of all the communities!” Alexis said in astonishment.
“That’s what we thought. So when we saw them gathering down there we did what we always do when we see the dead on the other side of the wall – nothing. We let the outerwall people manage it as we believe that’s their lot in life for the crimes of their past. And for that reason we didn’t know what to do. We’ve never had to ever do anything except watch them get tired and wander off again. We didn’t know how to drive them away and to be honest, our guards didn’t really pay close attention to them. The elders were assembled when there were already so many of them down there that they had clogged the moat completely. We saw two muslim rangers at one point out there attacking them but we also saw something equally strange. We saw what looked like a ladder being pushed down the road behind the dead. Way up the back as far as we could see the dead were thick on the road, but behind them, there was nothing at a certain point, and there was a structure of some kind behind the last of them, moving them along toward us.”
“What… like as in there was a living person pushing a ladder in amongst them? Or the dead had a ladder?” Boss asked with concern.
“It was a living person. He had an armour on that we’ve never seen before. And he was almost corralling them. He also had several of them dressed in a strange way, and tied together in a way that made them act like sheep dogs to the others, rounding them up, forcing them forward. Then the ladder went up against the wall”.
“What happened to the Rangers?” Jeremy asked in stern seriousness.
“Well, we assumed they were overran in the end because we saw one of them the next day – standing there with all the others, as dead as any of them.” The old man answered.
“But what could do that? I just can’t believe there were that many of them…” Boss said contemplatively…”
There was a moment of silence. Then Boss switched back into his normal mannerisms and showed what a true leader he is.
“Are there any safe places left for us to stay just for a short time?” Boss asked.
“Come”, said the man. I will show you where we have been living. It isn’t big, and we don’t have a great deal of food left. But I’m sure we can share what we have with you for a couple of nights.”
We went with him along a corridor at the top of the wall. It led into a staircase that folded back on itself again and again down several flights to the bottom level. Through barred windows we could see into the openness of their community, where streets and shops were. We were walking in an area that’s usually reserved for the guards from Basin, who protect the wall. it’s protected at all points with bars on the windows and heavy bolts on all of the doors. As we walked Ben stopped for a moment and looked through the bars of a window, out into the streets inside Basin. He whispered something and Boss pushed him onward to keep him moving. I looked through the next window and saw what Ben saw. The town’s streets were literally filled with the dead. Almost shoulder to shoulder, standing there, bumping into one another, all looking for something living to eat. We’d just escaped from more dead than I ever imagined existed but now we saw there were just so many more in there. Possibly more in there than we’d seen outside! So many that any hope of killing them and reclaiming the town again was gone. But who would reclaim it anyway? All the people who used to live there were still there, only they were all dead now. No one could possibly ever get in there and kill even one of them without also being killed. I looked at Jeremy and I was sure he was also weighing up the chances of getting in there to try and kill as many of them as he could.
We kept walking through rooms and corridors that were once the offices and garrison of the town’s guards. Finally we came to a wooden door. The man leading us knocked on it three times. The door was unbolted and it opened. Inside were three young men of different ages, one of them who was still a young boy. Over on the other side of the room was an old woman. They were all sitting to one side of the room, playing a dice game with pegs on a wooden board. The young man jumped to his feet and he drew out two blades. It was actually quite funny because none of us reacted at all. Knowing that the man we were with would fix the situation shortly, we watched the boy put on such a display that it was funny; as he frantically whipped his blades about.
“Now now – it’s ok – these people aren’t raiders. They escaped the dead like we did,” the man said. Then he turned to us and gave a half smile. “My name is Ishmael, and this is my family. My wife, Namah, and my boys Shem, Ham and Japheth. The oldest one, Japheth, put his blades away and stood there trying to look all tall and important. I’m not very tall. But that’s also quite good at times.
There was a silence. No one knew what to say. Ishmael moved through the now crowded space to the other side and stood near his wife. They had a small fire going in the fireplace. It gave the room a warm glow. She handed him some keys and he shuffled back across the room to the door we’d come in through. He beckoned us and we followed him. Back into the dark corridors, and we followed him until he came to a new, large wooden door. He stopped and opened it. It was light inside this room because it had windows. In the room there were tables set out in lines. Seven of them. On each table were dozens of tiny plants, all growing in little pots, all in rows.
“When the town fell I had two choices. I could try and save others or I could save the collection of our horticultural samples. There are two of every plant that is grown in our fields to sustain our community here as well as the spices and herbs that we use for medicine and cooking.” Ishmael looked intensely at the plants.
“How did you gather these plants with all those dead out there?” Jeremy asked with a furrowed brow of suspicion.
“I can’t really understand it myself. It was something in my heart that told me… I can’t explain it.” Ishmail looked deeply at the plants and touched on of their leaves. “I had a compulsion to collect them for a month before this happened… I just knew something was coming. I didn’t quite know exactly what it was, but I knew something was coming. Perhaps I thought it was a famine… Maybe it was God’s doing… And I told them. I told everyone I knew. But none of them believed me. Most of them laughed. But as the dead were pouring in over the wall I watched as two of my neighbours were killed right there against that very window.” He added. No one spoke until he broke the silence again. “This is where you’ll be sleeping. Please don’t touch the plants. They require special care.”
That afternoon, and into the evening, we found places for ourselves in that room where we could rest. It was a bit strange alongside all those plants. But it was warmer than outside and safe. We stayed quiet as much as we could, so that the dead on the other side of the room’s barred windows wouldn’t hear us. There was a kind of courtyard and a wide garden bed in front of the window and it kept the dead away. We could see them though. There was no glass on the window. But the dead wouldn’t be able to get at us through the bars. Nonetheless, they would make it terrible for us to be in there if they knew we in were. May found a place in the corner and was curled up on the floor, weeping quietly; not moving at all. Bo and Ben were playing some sort of card game, while Jeremy, Boss and Alexis talked quietly to one another. It amazes me that Bo and Ben can produce some form of gambling apparatus at any moment and start some kind of game, no matter where they are. I guess they were also playing to try and dry the cards which would have been wet when we crossed the moat. They’d ignored Ishmael’s request not to touch the plants and they moved them toward the window a bit each so that one end of the table was free. They found some wooden crates and were sitting on them, leaning on the table.
The community I come from, Leyden, is very different to most of the other communities. We don’t have a religion. Our founder, Mick Leyden, was a doctor. And his famous quote was “all things are knowledge, and the future depends on it”. We have a set of rules and guidelines for living. We call them The Principals. They’re kind of like what religions have, but we don’t believe in a God. I find religious people a bit annoying at times. Raf and May are ok, I guess. The way they do it it’s kind of entertaining at times even. Especially when May gets carried away with it. There are ten principles in Leydon. The most important ones are the first two. The first one is: “desire less and become more”.
The second principal is harder to keep. “Do the most right possible at all times, for all people”.
We meditate too. I used to meditate with my community a lot but I don’t now. My dad was a herbalist. I felt like I was a herbalist too as I walked around that room, looking at all the seedlings on the tables. I liked looking at the different plants that he had saved from the dead. But then I noticed something. There was a plant that we had in Leyden. My dad grew it to sell. It’s a plant that makes your head leave this earth and you see things when you burn it and breathe in the smoke. We use it on meditation days. They would burn it in a bowl in the middle of a round hut and we would all breathe it in. Like all the others, there were two of these plants. Both of them were the length of my forearm. They grow to the size of a bush taller than most men when they’re fully grown. I looked about and saw that Boss, Jeremy and Alexis were deep in discussion, Bo and Ben were being idiots like usual. May was motionless in her grief in the corner. I looked around and saw that no one was looking at me. In one quick movement I took both of the tiny plants and I put them into the folds of my jacket. Then I went and casually sat down near May. I took off my coat and folded it in a way that hid both the pots inside it. I pulled the foliage upward so that it hugged the stems of the plants and wouldn’t break the branches off as I wrapped them in the coat so they couldn’t be seen. The first principal was repeating itself loudly in my head – desire less. But then I was able to tell myself that Ishmael should desire fewer plants as well, and that it was only two plants.
We slept that night in that room with no further sign from Ishmael. We knew we were safe from the dead, but they were out there and we could hear and smell them all night. None of us got much sleep. I leaned against May for some of the night and used her coat as a blanket. I didn’t have a coat because I was being careful not to crush my two plants which were in it. So I was freezing all night.
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