Face Blood and Running
When morning came I was finally dozing off and I heard movement. Boss, Jeremy and Alexis were heading out. They were being as quiet as they could and closed the door behind them. Bo and Ben were asleep on the floor, sprawled out as though there was a mattress under them, and May was still in the same position in the corner she’d been in since the night before; her knees pulled into her chest and forehead resting on them.
By mid-morning the others had woken and were stirring. May was looking about the room now, showing an actual engagement. Bo and Ben smoked foul smelling something in their pipes that they had cut from the leaves of some of the plants in the room. They went down the hall to ask Ishmael for some fire to light them with, but didn’t mention to him where they were getting the leaves from that they were smoking. My family was apparently very well known in my home community for their ability to make medicines from plants. There was a man in my community who was my dad’s close friend. He told me once that before my mother died my dad was able to make any illness go away. But more so, he could make the mind travel into places that were outside of the body. He even said that before my mother died he was working on a cure to the virus that makes the dead live again. But not long after that his mind seemed to vanish completely.
“How are you feeling?” I asked May.
“I don’t know,” she responded. “Where’s Boss and the others?”
“I heard them leave when the sun was rising. I think they’ve gone out of the city to get what they can from the wagons.”
May looked like she was drunk. Her eyes weren’t focussed and she kept vaguely staring up to the window closest to her. It was casting a shadow of its bars on the wall opposite, and giving the room warmth that we all needed from the morning sun. We were hungry. Bo and Ben seemed to be looking at the plants with the intention of eating them when Boss came back in. They would eat anything. Boss had with him two of the pigs we’d rescued. I hate pigs. They came into the room, snorting and squeaking away, looking to the same plants that Bo and Ben were thinking about eating a moment earlier.
“Ok – here’s the plan.” Boss started telling us. We all got to our feet, apart from May. “The dead are still in their hundreds outside the wall and even in the moat. Too many to get past and it doesn’t look like they’ll clear any time soon. However, we went to the other side of the community and looked over the wall. There are only one or two dead out there in the wastelands. So, we’re going to go out over the wall and head north till we hit the outer wall of Pan.”
With this May sat up. Boss knew she would take an interest.
Ishmael entered the room with his eldest son. Boss told him the plan and asked him if he wanted to come with us. He said that he felt it was his god’s intention that he wait until all the dead had perished in the town and then he begin rebuilding it with the travellers who come there in the future. Didn’t seem like he had enough plants to keep them all fed. But Boss didn’t care too much.
We made our way around the top of the rampart wall that protects the town to the back of the community. I know what ramparts are for. They are designed so that people with those and arrows can shoot from the top of the wall, and then take cover behind the higher stones. They would’ve needed ramparts in the early stages when the communities were attacking each other. The back wall of the community was pressed right up against the river and we would have to cross it to get to the other side. Boss, Jeremy and Alexis had prepared a raft at the top of the wall made from doors, tables and all sorts of things, all tied together. We lowered it into the water three stories below and it settled there on the water quite well. I didn’t realise that they’d already chosen me to volunteer as the first one to use the raft, because I was the skinniest and lightest, until Alexis turned to me and gestured to the river with his head. I knew then that I couldn’t stop them from making me go, so I just did it. I didn’t want to though. But, down I went.
They tied ropes under my arms and lowered me down slowly until I was on the raft. The rope that went from me up to the others was also tied to a rope that Alexis held onto. He threw another piece of rope, which had a small chair tied to its end, across to the other side of the river. It hooked onto the branch of a huge gum tree on the other bank. I looked up and saw them all looking at me. I looked at the other bank. There were no signs of any dead. I settled on to the raft, tucking my feet under a rope, and grabbed hold of the rope that went to the other bank of the river. The river was moving quite fast, and the raft wasn’t easy to balance on. It was made from over a dozen different wooden things and each had its own movement. I hooked my left foot under some lashings toward the back, as I squatted and tried to stay upright, pulling the raft across the river. However, what I did next proved to be one of those things that you regret for the rest of your life. I took my arms out from the loops that I’d use while lowering myself onto the raft so that I could have freer movement while pulling the rope. But almost as soon as I freed myself my foot slipped through the gap between a door a table and my whole body followed, straight through the middle of the raft. Instantly I was in the water. But on the way in I hit my forehead and nose on the door, making my vision go white for a moment. It hurt something savage. I came too and surfaced expecting to be still right beside the raft, but as I opened my eyes I realised the raft was a long way off now. The river had taken me downstream by almost enough distance that it was useless to try and swim back to it. I did what I could to fight the heavy current and swam to the bank instead.
By the time I got there the town was almost out of sight. I dragged myself up onto the clay bank. I was tired and nervous. This was the first time I’d been in the wilderness without anyone with me. When I realised where I was I stopped and listened for sounds of the dead. I waited there, against the steep mud river bank for a while. Listening and then poking my head up to see if I could see anything moving. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at first. I wiped my hand over my face to clear the water from my eyes, but when I saw my hand it was red. I touched carefully around my nose and face and worked out that I had a big cut on my nose and on my forehead. I looked at my shirt. I hadn’t had it long. It was already filthy, had a tear now and the blood had made the whole front of it crimson red. I began to panic. The dead can smell blood. I took the shirt off and tore it into strips. I hated to do it, because it was the nicest mendup I’d every owned, but I needed to stop the bleeding. I noticed that the two small seedlings I’d stolen from Ishmael were still in inside my coat pockets, so I carefully put them on the ground next to me while I made my bandage. I tied it round and round my forehead to see if that was what was bleeding the most. Once the bandage was in place I checked with my hand but realised it was my nose that was bleeding more. So I stuffed wads of the cloth up my nose to stop it. Once I was sure I’d stopped the bleeding I gathered the two small plants up and put them in the pockets I’d made in my trousers by making small tears in the outside seems. I was almost inclined to leave them for a moment, but I remembered what they can do as a medicine and how valuable they were in my home community. If I wasn’t able to find Boss again, at least I might be able to get back onto the Empire Road and into one of the communities where I could sell them. God I hoped I wouldn’t become an outerwall boy.
I got up and began to creep along the bank of the river. I knew that the raft was still in Alexis’ control because the ropes never gave out. I just fell in. So hopefully they were still able to find their way to the other side and start their way toward Pan. I knew that was my best bet too. To find my way to the outside wall of Pan. It was the middle of the day by now and the sun was warming me up. The water was freezing but I wasn’t cold anymore. I broke into a jog, still being as quiet as I could and staying alert for any dead I might see. I travelled like this for about half an hour, jogging as quietly as I could, careful not to tread on branches or to rustle through any of the undergrowth as I went, when I caught sight of the back wall of Basin again. It took me a while to actually reach it , but when I got to where I was meant to land the raft in the first place I saw that it was now pulled up onto the bank, and there were footprints in the mud leading away from it. My heart began to race! I looked around the immediate area, but to my horror, just up the embankment I saw a hand laying on the ground. I shrunk to squatting position instantly, as I assessed what it might be. It wasn’t moving and the dead never rested or slept. So I slowly and very quietly crept up the bank to its top where the limp hand flopped over its edge. To my horror I knew who that hand belonged to before I saw the rest of its body. I knew it well from seeing it so much in the past. My eyes widened as I got to my feet to see if I was correct, and there, lying sprawled out on his back was the body of Bo, but the scene kept opening up in front of me! His head was removed at the shoulders in the way that Alexis killed the dead in his shows. It sat on the ground in the mud over to the side, with its mouth open and tongue flopped out. His eyes were closed though. I stopped still, almost frozen as I stared at the head laying there. But I snapped back into reality when I heard a sound. It was a half formed word and groan from a creature that I didn’t immediately notice because it seemed to blend into the surroundings a little. It had been crouching over Bo’s body, feasting on his entrails. It saw me and stood up slowly and awkwardly. God it stunk. It was an older looking man, but it was very decomposed, so it was slow moving and having great difficulty coming toward me. If it caught me it would have no trouble biting me because I was half his size. As I looked down at Bo, however, I saw that he had his new dagger still on his belt. I needed that! So I ran quickly to a big tree near the bank. Its roots were growing out of the embankment into the river. The creature followed me as fast as it was able, dragging its feet as it did. I climbed out onto the roots of the tree that hung over the water and waited for it to follow me out there. However, to my surprise it didn’t. It assumed I was going around the tree and it went round the back to cut me off. I was surprised because I didn’t know they could think ahead like that or problem solve. Either way though, it gave me enough of a chance to climb back up onto the bank and run over to Bo’s body. I pulled the plugs from my nose. They were restricting my breathing, making me feel like I was suffocating, and my heart was racing. However, when I did, blood just poured out again, into my hand. I threw the wads of cloth down and began trying to free Bo’s belt. He was laying on it so it was difficult to get it out from under him. I looked over my shoulder and the creature had just worked out I’d given him the slip. He was heading toward me again. I looked back down and began heaving at the belt. The blood from my nose was dripping everywhere, as well as down my throat and it tasted gross. But it was also on my hands and making my grip of the belt slippery. God the creature smelled terrible. I was surprised I could smell anything with my nose as messed up as it was.
Finally the belt came free, with the sheath and dagger still attached, and I ran. I ran as fast as I could, but back the way I’d come to stay well away from it. I stopped after running at full pace for a few minutes and I figured that I was a safe distance away from it now. I looked at my chest. It was red all over. My body was sweating so it was still wet. I looked at the smooth silver bark gum tree that I’d stopped at, and then again at my chest. I took the turban bandage off my head, put two new wads of cloth into my nose. I tore off a small patch of the shirt to clean the blood off myself with. Once I had most of the blood off my chest I hung the cloth on the tree as a decoy for any dead that might be looking for where the smell of my blood was coming from. I smeared the blood on the bark as much as I could to get their attention. I looked at the tree for a moment. The bark was so smooth and white. My blood on it was like paint. So I wrote on it with my blood in case I wasn’t ever found. I wanted Boss and others to know where I ended up if I… well… ended. So I used the blood on my chest, which was mixed in with sweat, to write on the bark. “I am Elijah from Leydon. I did not die. I will go to Jessop”. I looked back the way I’d come. It would be dark in about four hours, and I needed to catch up to Boss and the others. There seemed to be a clear path ahead of me but it would take me more North than East. I knew the landscape quite well because I’d been to almost all of the towns along the Empire Road at least twice already the year before. I wasn’t totally sure but I had a feeling that if I kept going north from there I’d end up almost as quickly at the Kingdom of Jessop, rather than at Pan. I figured either would be as good as the other, so I started to jog north.
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