The Wasteland Monarch
I walked for three hours. I was as quiet as I could be. The sun was falling behind trees and the light was fading. I was tired. I hadn’t eaten and I was thirsty. I should have drunk more of the river. I looked for somewhere to sleep as I jogged until I found an old tree. It was a huge one. A gum tree. The thing is that ants live in gum trees, and while I could climb it and sleep on one of the branches, I would most likely get bitten. It seemed like a small price though. I hate ants.
I stood at the bottom of the tree and looked up. The lowest branch was just outside of my reach. The bark was also too smooth to let me grab hold of it. I jumped a few times, but I couldn’t grab on. I stood there, looking about, looking for another tree, looking for a rock or something I could push under it to jump from, when I heard footsteps. The dead always have a particular sound to their walking because their muscles are dead and just don’t work the same way as the living. The fresh ones are more subtle, and they don’t drag their feet as much, but their steps are never evenly spaced. The living have a gate that’s even; left, right, left, right. The dead don’t. This one seemed freshly dead because its steps were reasonably even, but I couldn’t quite make them out because of a dragging sound that accompanied it. I scanned quickly for it, and realised that it was much closer than I thought. It broke into a jog toward me and I ran. As I saw it I realised that it was dragging a long and thick rope behind it. I only saw it for a glance, but it seemed to be wearing a strange kangaroo skin I’d never seen the savages wear. The light was fading and I found it hard to see where I was running. I almost stumbled once on uneven ground but kept going. He wasn’t gaining on me, but I was tired and he wouldn’t ever stop to rest so neither could I. I had to find a place to hide but I couldn’t see one. I kept running. My nose started to bleed again. But then I saw it. It was another big, old gum tree. It had a small thin, dead branch sticking out about waist high to me, and a branch just above my head height. I jumped into the air, landing my foot on the branch. I pushed up and threw my body onto the large bow, but then stopped long enough to kick down until the smaller branch broke off. Once I was up there I stopped and hid as best I could. My nose was bleeding heavily and I knew it could smell me. I could hear it down there. It came clambering along and stopped under the tree. I looked down and there it was. It was a man. He would have been quite handsome when he was alive. He was about six foot tall and had sandy hair. He was strong. But the thing was, he was wearing the clothes that the people from Basin wear, with the long cotton shirt with the high collar that folded down near his ears. However, on top of that he was wearing what at first glance, in the half light of dusk, looked like a sack with arm and head holes cut into it, and from its back was tied a thick rope. It just stood there, staring up at me. I looked back for a while and then made myself rest so I would be ready to escape in the morning.
I rested as best I could, as well as anyone can as they lay in the branch of a fun tree throughout the night. My clothes were still slightly damp and the night got very very cold. I shivered my way through it. I laid on my back with my arms folded, and felt the blood running down the back of my throat. After a while it stopped. I thought that was a good thing. When the sun came up I was starting to fall asleep for real. I woke with a jerk and nearly threw myself off the limb of the tree. I looked down and saw it there again. Still standing there. But now it was sniffing the ground bent over at the waist. Because it was bent over I could see what it was wearing over the top of its clothes. It took me some time to understand what it was. But then it was clear. It was the skin from the whole upper body of a kangaroo. As though someone had literally chopped the head off at its shoulders, and cut its bottom legs off, and cut two holes for arms and put it on the creature. Kind of a straight jacket in that it was impossible for it to get it off. The rope was tied through two holes in the back like a sort of lead. It was tight fitting and there was no way it could ever get it off by itself. I imagine the rope was to control it or pull it along somehow for some reason. I’d never seen anything like it, nor heard of anything like it either. Not even where they wrangle them for the arena shows. I laid back on the branch and looked up at the leaves and above me. The light was now shining on the tree tops and I could see my breath as it steamed out of my mouth. I could smell the creature below me. It made a scraping sound with the rope against the ground as it stepped forward. I took the blade out of its sheath and looked at it closely. It had a lot of nicks along both edges. Its point was sharp but its edges weren’t. The creature was standing away from the tree now. He wasn’t directly under me anymore. I thought about my options. I could try and drop on him, with the dagger pointing downward, and try and land it in his skull. But what if the people who say you have to hit the bottom of their brain are right? What if I miss? He’d bite me for sure. I also thought I could just drop and run. But the chances of me landing and doing something like twisting my ankle or something like that were too great. About half an hour went by. It just stood there. Looking at the tree and occasionally sniffing the ground. Finally, he took two steps and was once again under me. He still wasn’t looking up. He was staring at the tree trunk where the smaller branch had been. But then he bent over again to look more closely at where the small branch had been and he began sniffing it. Without thinking I slipped the blade back into its sheath and stood up quietly on the branch. I looked down, and seeing him bent over about as far as he could without needing to hold onto something with his hands, I jumped. I landed with the heels of my feet on the back of his neck, and it drove him to the bottom of the tree where it met the earth. As we hit the ground I felt three cracks under-foot in his neck and I tumbled forward. I rolled and jumped to my feet, reasonably unharmed, except for a few sticks I’d rolled over. I glanced back to see the creature and saw that it was still moving, but it was now trying to drag itself onto its feet, without any luck. I may be quite light but I had managed to crush his neck. His head was flopped right down over his left shoulder, and his cheek was resting against his collarbone. He staggered for a moment and then tripped and fell. I ran.
I was extremely thirsty. I jogged at a slow and easy pace, but I needed something to drink. I saw dew on some of the grasses as I went and I lapped at it with my tongue. Didn’t have much effect though. I saw another creature a couple of hours later. It was off in the distance and it looked very frail. It didn’t seem to notice me at all. I didn’t know where I was going. The sun was out and it was a clear day, thankfully, so I knew that I was heading North East and assumed I’d hit Jessop Kingdom by nightfall if I jogged at a steady pace. The thing was, Jessop and Basin are the two towns I had never been to before. Basin was always a closed community because they feared the outside world, but Jessop Kingdom was the last monarchy amongst the communities and was run by King Jessop. His ancestors were the Great Warlords around the time of the Great Ending, and they took control of the remaining food supplies when the dead overran the towns. I read about their community in a book in the great library of Leyden. It was a book confiscated from a traveller from Jessop, and it was a history of their community. When their ancestors ran out of the food they’d hoarded they began raiding the other communities for any food that they’d grown. They killed off two small communities near them and took over three others that make up who they are now. All the while, the Jessop family claim to be the Kings and Queens of Jessop and don’t allow travellers to pass through without paying a tribute. It’s a community that’s off the main Empire Road by a bit too, which means that there’s little reason for a traveller to ever pass through there unless they deliberately intended to go there. Funnily, Boss told me once that he’d performed there, for the royal court, when he was a boy and also the year before he met me.
I stopped for a rest in the middle of the afternoon. I could smell spring in the air again. The sun was shining and it felt nice. I sat up in a tree like the one I’d slept in. I didn’t get bitten by any ants either so I felt pretty happy. I figured it should be only a few more hours jog to the part of the Empire Road that led to Jessop Kingdom. I would jump over the wall somehow and then head along the Road until I met a Ranger to tell him about the dead storming Basin or I’d get myself to Pan where I’d hopefully meet up with Boss and the others. In my head I was having a conversation that went, “ok – one more minute then back to jogging…” and then I’d follow that up with, “Ok – one more minute of resting, and THEN back to jogging.” I was tired. My legs hurt. I had a headache from the lump on my head and my nose was killing me. But that was the moment when I discovered what was really happening. It started as a faint rumbling noise at first. I actually wondered if it was a cart on a hard road quite close to me. But there were no roads and I was in bushland. It rose and fell again and I kept listening. I climbed down from the tree and started heading up the slight rise to find where it was coming from. As I came to a line of large boulders in the earth I climbed one, quietly and carefully, being sure not to fall as I went. As I looked over the top of the largest rock I stared in disbelief at what I saw. Way off in the distance I could see the town of Jessop. Its buildings were there, standing all by themselves with nothing between me and them that looked like a wall or a moat. All the towns have walls. They keep the dead out. But this one didn’t. Where the wall should be, it just wasn’t there. There were only a few more shrubs and trees in front of me and then the earth was completely cleared of all trees and bushes. In their place were fields of freshly turned earth and huge piles of the roots of trees, branches and logs. I listened and I could still hear the rumbling sound. I focussed my eyes to see where it was coming from. I was trying to see movement, and finally I was able to focus on something that caught my eye about half way between me and the town. There, pushing its way along, was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. There was a group of about a hundred dead, all wearing the top skins of the Kangaroo bodies that I’d seen on the one that chased me. They were all tied to ropes from their backs, and the ropes were tied to a huge plough that was being driven by a man a few meters behind them. He was using the dead like horses to plough these enormous fields. Suddenly I nearly jumped out of my skin when a hand grabbed my shoulder, and a voice said, “Hey!” I scrambled backward, my feet flying about and kicking the gravel out from under them.
Two men were standing in front of me. “Please don’t hurt me”. I said quickly, and they let me go. I fell to the ground and sat there as they stared at me.
“Why are you here?” the taller one asked me. They were wearing leather armour that was painted black. On their chests were a yellow emblem that I recognised. It was the crest from the community of Schmidt. A small farming community between Pan and Jessop Kingdom.
“I’m part of the Mr Frictanious’ Magic Circus!” I said pleadingly. That’s what they call him in Schmidt. I wasn’t sure what they were intending with me, but I was getting more nervous by the second.
“Ya don’t say?” The other one said. “Why are you here?”
“The Empire Road was overrun with the dead on the road that leads to Basin. They stormed the whole city and we escaped out the back of the community into the Thanatos. I was trying to make my way back to the Empire Road and into Jessop to warn someone and get help, but I got separated from the rest of the circus and now I’m by myself.”
The two men looked at one another and came alongside me. Their body language made it clear that they too were trying to not be noticed by whatever laid between us and Jessop Kingdom.
“See that out there? Where that field ands?” the tall one asked. I looked over the boulder again. He pointed to the right hand side of the fields, out into the distance. “See those walls sticking out of the earth? That’s all that remains of the community of Schmidt.” I looked and stared. I was closer to where Schmidt must have once been than were Jessop Kingdom ended. I could see smoke rising from the chimneys of Jessop way off in the distance. Between us and them was this incredible field with open, freshly turned soil, being ploughed by the most incredible thing I have ever seen, with hundreds of dead in kangaroo skins pulling the plough. None of that made any sense to me.
“But why?” I asked in astonishment.
“Food, and area to grow crops. Jessop knew that we could grow food, and they’ve taken our people as slaves to build their new area of farmland, and then our people will be forced to build the new wall to keep it safe as a part of their wider Kingdom,” the taller one explained. “We need to get you out of here. All who weren’t taken as prisoners by Jessop Kingdom are now refugees in Pan. So follow us and we’ll get you there before nightfall.”
I stood up and looked out over the vast open land again toward Jessop Kingdom. I glanced briefly at the two ploughs being pulled by the packs of dead, and then saw another one over further in the distance; all leaving trails of dust behind them. It was hard to understand what I was looking at.
The two Schmidt soldiers led the way and we all broke back into a jog. I was so thirsty and one of them seemed to notice. He handed me his small leather pouch to drink from. The water tasted like mud and coriander. But I didn’t care.
The morning was bright with sunshine, but it was cold unless you were directly in the sun. We jogged and jogged for what seemed like forever. My chest burned and I had to slow down. I hadn’t eaten in nearly two days.
“C’mon!” the slightly larger one said as I began falling back from them. I looked up and saw them in front of me, but my eyes couldn’t quite gain their perspective. I couldn’t make out how far away they were or whether they were facing me or not; and then I saw a flash of the gravel under me, and then blackness.
I’d never been fully unconscious before like that. It was the first time for me. I saw Alexis knocked out for about half an hour once when the tailgate of the home cart was thrown open into his face. I remembered in my community there was a man who gave a talk in the public hall about the brain and he said that in the repair state it will be unconscious if it is damaged in a physical or extremely emotional way and if it needs to self-preserve and repair. But after that happens the individual will often require sleep and rest to bring their body back to a strong state again. All this came flooding into my ears as I came too but I knew that the place I blacked out in wasn’t a place where I couldn’t rest and I needed to keep running. I jumped to my feet and ran. My eyes could see daylight but I didn’t know if I was facing the same direction as the men I was following. I could hear sounds, but I didn’t know what they were. I needed to run. Almost like half formed words and voices, I could hear them, but I still needed to run. I knew that the dead made sounds like that so my running began in a sprint. I felt hands touch my shoulder, but I shook free, and kept pushing; then I gained my vision, and I saw Boss’s face in front of me. Then everything went black again.
When I came too again I was lying in a bed and my eyes opened slowly. Like waking up in the morning. I opened them slowly and saw May there, sitting beside me. I looked at her sweet smile for a second and smiled back before the whole situation flooded into my head again. I sat upright and she pushed me back down gently; guiding my head with her warm hand.
“You’re ok,” she said quietly. “We knew you’d find us. The Schmidt soldiers that found you carried you for over four hours. Boss didn’t wait for you at Basin because he said you were a smart boy like he was at your age and you’d find us. But in honesty, I’m pretty sure he thought you had drowned. In fact, we all did. You just sort of disappeared.”
“Bo…” I said.
Her face lost its smile. I doubted she liked him any more than I did, but she would never want him dead.
“Yeah. When we headed to the other bank of the river Bo was the first to go across after you. He got across ok. Then he stayed there waiting. We all went over after him, and I was last. When I got across we were just about to leave, and Boss was talking to Alexis about you. Alexis wanted to go looking for you. Boss was insisting that you were either at the bottom of the river or you were so far down it that we would never find you. Then, as I got to the land we heard a noise, and saw that it was the soldier from Jessop. He had one of the dead on a sort of lead. It’s hard to describe but it was almost like a dog on a lead. Like it was on a rope and he was leading it along somehow. Boss began spinning a line, and the Soldier told us to go with him as his prisoners. Alexis drew his sword and his first blow cut the soldier down. He let go of the creature and it lunged into Bo. Alexis kicked it in the back to get it off him, and it fell into the river. We watched Bo after that. We watched him die. And the.n we watched him come back. Alexis had no choice but to do what he did.”