Empire Road – Part 22

Begin the Band

Back down the stairs we went. It was good not to be up high any more. When we came out into the open again the streets were deserted. Boss gave a single glance, and he knew what was happening. My natural reaction was to say things like, “where is everyone”, but Boss knew as though it was one of the mystery plays that the Catholics liked so much and he knew how it ended. “Quick,” he said and he jogged toward May’s house. We were just passing it when I saw May’s mother bringing out some rubbish to leave out the front of the house while her father was boarding up the windows. With the rubbish was my old pair of trousers and poking out from the pocket that I extended with my knife was the top of one of my plants.

“Wait!” I said, and I ran over to her. I took the whole thing. She said something in that ‘ting tong’ sounding language they speak, but I smiled and took them anyway. She seemed cross. I ran with the trousers protecting my plants under my arm. Boss looked puzzled.

“Ya know that the clothes you’re wearing now are way stronger fabric and much better quality than those old ones? They’re not even mendups!”

“Yes Boss, But these have stuff in the pockets.”

“Oh! Haha, makes sense,” he said. He smiled at me and it made me feel good for a second.

We ran down an alleyway. It was narrow and the paving underfoot was cobbled but not as even as the last streets we’d been walking on, and not as well maintained as the main streets. The stones were round and a bit uneven. We found our way to the back of a shop that I think was a bakery or something. There were two wagons waiting. One was a home cart with a fabled roof, and the other was a flatbed. There were two small cages under the pole cart with three chickens in each them. They sat peacefully. It also had a box at the front near the driver’s seat and a stack of wood planks on the back just like our old pole cart did. The box on the back of the pole cart was covered with a canvas banner of some sort, and boss went over to it. He stopped and turned to me with a grin. I knew that what he was about to show me would be something he hadn’t shown anyone before. I know his smiles and what they mean. I was also aware that he was about to practice his pitch and see how a new audience reacted to it. He took a firm grip and yanked the cloth off from about head height. It made an unfurling sound as it dropped heavily to the ground. Dust flew up, but when I was able to see what he’d unveiled, I was shocked. It was another cage. In it seemed to be the old dead king and a new creature with it in the same cage. I looked a bit closer, and realised that the king was actually a different dead, but for the life of me it looked just like it was dressed in exactly the same outfit, down to the belt that Ben took from it and the hat that we lost in Newhaven. The other was a big, muscly dead male. It was taller than Alexis even, but it was wearing a strange kind of leather strapping on its body. It was wearing a skirt to cover its private area, but otherwise was naked. The straps had heavy metal rings sewn into them in various places. One either side of the outside knee, one either side of the shoulders, one at the front at the middle of the chest, and one on its throat, either side of its neck, and the back of its neck. Tied to a ring on its back was a piece of rope that touched the ground, just like the one I saw in the kangaroo skin. This one however was huge. When it was alive it would have been one of the biggest men I’d have ever seen, and it was very intimidating to be near.

“Wait for it”, Boss said, as he reached up onto the back of the pole cart. He took down what looked like a long, black, leather blanket and began unfolding it to show me what it was. He held it up and then draped it on himself, but not from the shoulders like a normal cloak. He put it on his head and I saw that it had a hood, and he put it over his head. The hood was like a mushroom, and it had a buckle that he fixed in front of his nose.

“When they put these on the dead they pull this real tight so they can’t get anything close to their mouth and they can’t get it off their head either.” His eyes were only able to see through a slim gap, and then it just flowed down, making him otherwise invisible but for the leather cloak. Then I saw his hand. It popped out of a small hole in the leather at the front of the chest. I realised that there were holes in all the places where the metals rings would go, and be attached to the straps that the dead creature in the cage was wearing.

“Out there are about half the people who used to live in Schmidt, all now dead and wearing this gear, along with all the people that Jessop was able to round up from the wilderness before he took Basin, just after he tried his luck and failed to take Upper Essex.” 

“But why?” I asked. It made no sense. Boss took off the cloak and threw it back up onto the pole cart. He looked down the laneway as the rumble passed through the town again.

“Quick, help me cover this!”

I jumped up onto the back of the cart and began throwing the cover back over the cage with him. As we covered he explained.

“No one knows who they are or why they’re attacking. But what I do know is that Pan doesn’t stand a chance. So, now we grab Alexis, May, Ben and two new ones I’ve found, and we’re leaving as soon as we can.”

I landed on the ground again, and Boss began walking; so I followed. We stopped in the middle of the street. A man and two small children ran past us and Boss waited till they were gone.

“Go and get May. She’s at her house. But be subtle. Her parents will have a fit if they know she’s leaving with us. No one knows we’re leaving. They’ve got Alexis in their Army at the gate. He’s waiting for my signal and then he’ll meet us at the front gates. Ben is meeting me here in a moment with the two new ones. Hurry!”

I got to May’s house. I still had my plants under my arm. There was a barrel of rain water beside the front porch, under the drain spout. I put both of the seedlings into the one little ball of soil and tied it all up in some of the old fabric from my mendup trousers. I dunked the whole thing into the barrel and watched the bubbles come up. When it was drenched I pulled it out and gently wrung it so that it no longer dripped.

Another boom rolled through the air, but it also carried with it human shrieking this time. I looked at the front door to May’s house. It was boarded shut. I didn’t know how I would find her, but then she found me. She appeared beside me. Scared the hell out of me.

“Shhhh!!” she hissed with a furrowed brow. “Lets go!”

“But what about your parents?!” I said with alarm.

“They’re not. They are just people Boss paid to pretend to be my parents so we wouldn’t raise suspicion while we’re here l. I’m an orphan. Hurry!”

We ran. I followed her closely so that we stayed quite hidden. Two Panerets Patrio Soldiers ran past us as we entered the main street and we hid in a doorway. Another boom rolled past us. Then I heard a whistle. It was Boss’ whistle. The one that he blows to attract attention before a show. Three long, shrill blasts came from it. We ran to the beginning of the laneway from across the street, when a horse drawing the new pole cart came out of it.

“In the back!” Ben yelled. He’s an idiot but I was glad to see him. There were two other men with him. Both were handsome and they sat either side of him. My eyes glanced from one to the other and then back and forth until I realised they were either twins or at least brothers that looked extremely alike. They both had sandy blond hair with pronounced jaws and brows. We ran to the back of the cart and swung ourselves up on it. May threw the overflowing fabric that covered the king and the new dead soldier over us. I could still see through a gap in it though. I couldn’t see the new home cart, but I could hear it not far behind us. We rolled slowly out of town, past the vegetable growing areas, and then finally to the city gates. When I came to Pan last year I came into the town through those gates with Boss to buy supplies after the fights. They had no drawbridge but instead they have a series of poles that sat in holes in the earth that stopped any cart from entering without them being removed. We stopped at the gate and I saw Alexis walk past. Only a flash, but I saw his shoulder, dark hair trailing down over it, the flash of metal from the broadsword he had strapped to his back, and the canvas straps of the Paneretian Patrio that he was wearing.

“Stop where you are!!” a voice from the guards in front of us yelled.

“You need to open the way for us!” Alexis responded. Then, he pulled down the cloth that covered the cage; revealing the king and the dead soldier. Fortunately he pulled it in our direction so it didn’t reveal us too. “I’m under orders to take these outside the walls and burn them!” he yelled. There was a pause. Then one of the guards replied.

“Burn them here! You have enough wood!”

“My orders are to burn them out there to set fire to the forest that the attackers are in. It will kill these two, and also the twenty we also have crammed in that wagon and we’ll hopefully also burn a bunch of them out there as well! NO OPEN THE WAY!!” 

I heard clattering of wood, dragging of heavy objects and all sorts of voices and sounds of movement. Then Ben yelled “Ya”, and we began moving again. Had the soldiers looked more closely they would have seen the three chickens hanging in their cages under the wagon and known that we weren’t just carting the dead to a bonfire.

The poles I’d seen a year earlier had now been reinforced with sand bags, wooden barricades, wooden doors, tables and so much other stuff that it was apparent they were attempting to block the way completely. The horse’s hoofs echoed against the arched walls as we exited the main gates, and then the sound vanished. Sunlight hit us, and a breeze rolled over us. We were heading back on the Empire Road.

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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