I woke with a fright when the brothers began their watch. The sky had just begun to soften from pitch black to a gentle glow and I heard them getting out of their cots. They probably didn’t realise I was slung in my cot under the axle of the pole cart because they came and sat right next to it. The gravel underfoot was crunching with each step they took, and they sat with their backs against the wheel closest to my head. In fact, if I leaned out of my cot far enough I could probably touch them. I rolled my eyes. I wouldn’t have minded except they were whispering a conversation about the likelihood of us being attacked and I was trying to sleep. Passalus was possibly the older one. It’s unusual that they have their hair. People from Pan usually have dark hair. It’s kind of a unusual to see anyone from Pan with ginger, almost sandy coloured hair. But their hair is also thick like the other people from Pan. He was slightly taller and had a wrinkle beside his eye that Acmon didn’t have. He had a darker complexion too. He was theorising that since the dead between us and Jessop were now all being used as slaves for their army, that there probably wouldn’t be many wandering about in the wilderness. He figured that they would all be rounded up and being prepared to make another next assault. He went on to suggest that the first we would see of them would be as they were bringing a new assault to Pan with the living army of Jessop. I was about to cough so that they knew I was right there; when they went quiet. They heard the same sound I did and I’m sure it made their hearts sink too. It was the sound of footsteps. But not the typical kind that the dead usually make. Passalus and Acmon scrambled to their feet and I threw myself out of my cot; hitting the ground with a thud. My leg got caught in the fabric of the cot and it took me a second to get out because it took my shoe off with it. I frantically put my shoe back on, tying it as fast as I could. I scrambled out the side that was away from where I’d heard the footsteps so that I wouldn’t be walking out into active fighting. As I stood up, however, I came face to face with a man. He was about six feet tall, very muscly, wearing a kangaroo skin over one shoulder and another as a shawl. He had a blade with him. It was crudely made, but looked sharp. I didn’t know that the wild people had weapons. He said something but I didn’t understand it. It sounded like a kind of English, but it had a sound like “yut, a, yut, a, yut” in amongst it.
“Boss!?” I said in a stern and audible way. I didn’t want to alarm him but I also needed help quickly.
“Right here, mate.” It was Boss’ voice. “No one do anything! I’ve got this.” Boss walked around to my side of the pole cart with his hands in the air. Following him was another man and a woman that I’d heard approaching when I was in my cot. They had their blades out too and had Acmon, Passalus, Ben, Boss and Alexis with them. No sign of May though. They walked Boss and the others to right beside me and had us surrounded with our backs against the pole cart. The other man had fur-skin trousers on, and a shawl. The woman was wearing a black bikini kind of top that had a fox tail draped down from between her boobies, and the same kind of fur-skin trousers as the man and a shawl. Funnily, they looked well kept and didn’t smell like I thought they would. If anything they looked clean.
The wilderness man behind Alexis was clearly the leader. He looked mad. He barked something at us and I looked at Alexis. Interestingly, they hadn’t tried to take his sword from him. It was still in its sheath on his hip and he stood with his hand on its butt and his other on his hip. When he’s preparing to fight he puts it slightly closer to the handle. It was clear that he probably didn’t have any real intention of drawing it. He could take these guys without much hassle. But then Boss pulled another secret out, which took us all by surprise.
“Feayut, a, nothutta, a,” he began. They looked at him and their expressions softened. On and on Boss went, talking fluently in their language. He put his hands up beside his face, with his his palms facing the wilderness people.They stopped and looked surprised and then did the same thing back to Boss. The leader next to Alexis asked a few questions in their language, and then they lowered their weapons. I looked at Alexis. He smirked but gave me an expression that I was getting used to seeing from him. I think that one of the things he liked most about Boss was that he never quite knew what was coming next, but that nothing would ever outsmart or over take Boss.
Boss smiled at them. Then he walked over to the main one, placed his hand on the man’s heart and said, ‘surendetrrata, a, ya.’ The man said it back with his hand on Boss’ heart. He then went to each of the other wilderness man and then the woman and said the same thing, placing his hand on their hearts and they did the same back to him.
“Right. To bring you up to speed, these blokes all live in a community about two hours walk west from here. Their land was all overrun with the dead from Schmidt and Basin and they are what’s left now.”
There was a moment of silence in the half light of day break. Then we heard another movement from the pole cart. May had made herself a bed up there under the canvas covers.
“Have you explained that there’s nothing for them between here and the Thanatos River?” She asked Boss.
“Yes. But they assured me that there are so many dead in the forest now that there’s no way for them to get to the other side of Jessop, and on the other side of the Empire Road, to where he believes their settlement of… wilderness people.” Boss paused as he was explaining where they were from, and where they wanted to get to. It made me wonder why the wilderness people were on the western side of the Thanatos Rover. Judging by the weapons and small, bundled backpacks they were carrying, I guessed they were hunting.
There was a brief silence while we all considered what this meant and then the silence was broken as an arrow hit the wood of the pole cart right next to Acmon’s head. The arrow came right through the wood and if he’d been standing an inch to the left it would have killed him. All our shoulders shot up near our ears! May threw herself off the pole cart and we all huddled near the wheels. Boss never forgot for a moment that he was our leader. He gabbled something to the wilderness people and then told us the same thing. “No matter what happens, do NOT draw weapons. Follow what I say and treat the wilderness people like they’re family!” He reached into the pole cart, pulled the canvas cover down and tore it with his teeth to start a rip. Then he tore out of it a square the size of his torso and cut two holes in it to thread a pole through it at the top and bottom. Once he had a white flag he held it high up and waved it about. He kept waving it as he walked around the back of the cart in the direction which the arrow had come from. The horse attached to the wagon was waking up and started snorting. I looked under the wagon but I couldn’t see anything in the immediate area in front of us.
“How many?” Alexis whispered just loudly enough for Boss to hear.
“More than you can possibly imagine!” Boss replied. But then Alexis smiled at me with the same grin he’d used a moment ago before he translated what Boss said to the wilderness people in their language. I guessed it didn’t surprise me that he also spoke their language, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. At least there were no more arrows flying in our direction.
Gradually we heard the sound of squeaking wood, the rolling wheels of wagons, but then the sound of feet walking. So many feet. Finally, as the Jessop soldiers approached we heard the dreadful and sickening moaning of the dead; but it was like a constant rumble that got louder and louder. Boss kept waving his flag.
“Who are you!?” a voice yelled from the distance. Alexis looked under the pole cart and then looked back. His hand was firmly clasped to his sword.
“My name is Dr Palmanius and this is my wonderful circus! You would know me! I performed at Jessop Kingdom for the Prince’s birthday three years ago!” He turned to face us, “come out!” We walked around to the front of the pole cart with our arms up. The wilderness people did too. May climbed down from the pole cart and met us on the other side. When I saw what was there I stopped walking for a second. Ben bumped into me and gave me a push. Facing us was what looked like a huge boat turned upside down and under it were feet. Hundreds of them. I counted 20 in the front row of feet. I looked along its side and I guessed that it was long enough to have at least fifty rows of twenty sets of feet. We could see the feet up to the knees. They were clearly the feet of the dead. One of the closest to us had two toes missing and bone showing on the neck’s toes. The boat like thing had a square structure, a bit like a house on top of it. It was kind of like a little hut at its top, and it had about twenty soldiers in it. They were all standing around one man in a throne-like chair. Most of them had bows and arrows pointed at us. On the front of the structure closest to us was a small booth sticking out. A man’s head and shoulders could be seen looking at us from it.
“Indeed!” the voice returned. “And this white flag you bear. Is this flag the surrender flag of the Panerets?”
Boss stood for a moment. A light gust of wind moved the flag a little.
“No. This flag is our own flag. We have no affiliation with any community. As you can see from us, we have a woman from Pan, a boy from Leyden, three comedy performers from the forests, musicians from New Haven and a gladiator from the seaside communities.” The brothers, who were clearly Paneretian, looked at one another. It was the first time they’d seen that Boss will say anything to keep things moving in his direction if the stakes are high enough. But I don’t think they minded.
The man looking down on us looked genuinely puzzled.
“So tell me then, what brings you directly into the path of a war, Mr Palmanius?”
“It’s the fastest way to Jessop.” Boss replied as though it was a surprise that he needed to ask in the first place. “We are a circus and Jessop by now has the biggest audience in the known world. So; we waited until nightfall and began our journey to Jessop.” Boss explained. He lowered the flag into his other hand. One of the horses snorted and a light breeze came through us again. Only this time the wind had the stench of the dead on it that we were facing.
“OK then! My men will take you to Jessop and you can plead your case to the wardens.”
The sun was now high enough that we could see down the path more clearly. The man on top of the land boat pulled a leather strap that went down the front to the man in the booth and then slowly the whole structure began moving left. As it moved it revealed that behind it were over a dozen more; all on their way to Pan, and all about to attack the city. Dotted about their bottom were smaller vehicles with four dead strapped firmly into another wooden structure that looked much like an old bed. One stood on each corner and two men rode on top of it. Three of them came toward us and one of the drivers told Boss to follow them. So; we got into the wagons and began following. Most of us walked alongside. We passed more enormous land boats, along with dozens of two-man chariots, and then found ourselves out in the open planes that had once been Schmidt. There wasn’t a tree in sight. Just freshly ploughed earth, massive piles of logs, bricks that were once housed, and tree roots here and there. There was a long path straight ahead of us that had been flattened by the feet of the dead. There were lines of soldiers from Jessop walking toward Pan in columns of twos. They all wore leather padded breast plates on their fronts that were thick leather. So thick it looked like wood. They had small swords that were straight edged but wide like Alexis’ broadsword. They wore helmets too. I’d seen people wearing helmets in the arenas, but they were for display only. These were helmets that you could hit really hard and their head wouldn’t get hurt. They were made from leather, and sat on their heads like a skull cap with flaps that went down past their cheeks that had a strap-buckle under their chins.
A silence fell over us, and the Jessop soldiers. Boss turned to us and made a gesture with his shoulder and head. We gathered our things but I chose not to bother untiring my sling from under the wagon. It would get dusty, but it would also air it out a little.
Alexis took the horse with the pole cart by the reins and led it back onto the track. We all followed him. The brothers and I jumped back onto the pole cart and sat with our legs dangling as we went. Boss walked beside me as we passed the huge boat-like structure. We could see the feet of the dead under it and I counted 80 sets of feet. I have a feeling that they were standing under there in ros of three or four. As we passed it the sound that came from under it was like a waterfall. I low rumble, but loud enough that I couldn’t hear someone if they were speaking next to me. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I kept counting the feet as we went past. Five of them were still wearing shoes. One of the dead had collapsed in a heap but was still tied into the thing with the others and its floppy legs and a hand were visible under the bottom of the boat.
We got past the Jessop army and found ourselves on a wide open track that stretched out in front of us in a straight line. The Empire Road isn’t straight at any place. So it was unusual to see such a long straight road in front of us.
“Will they follow us?” Acmon asked.
“I’m not sure it really matters at this point,” Boss answered. “There now in front of us, behind us, out there beside us and probably under us too for all we know.”
The army leader of Jessop who sent us on our way also sent some soldiers with us. They were in front and behind us. I looked at Boss. He was stroking his moustache to keep it away from his mouth. His eyes were fixed on the road immediately in front of him.
“Hey Boss,” I said in a hushed voice so that the soldiers wouldn’t hear me. I also didn’t really want the brothers to hear me either. I couldn’t tell if I trusted them. Boss looked up at me. His eyes looked troubled and deep. They weren’t smiling any more. “What makes people like that?” I asked.
“Like the Jessop soldiers?” He asked.
“Yeah… I guess.”
“Fear and greed,” he answered. And then he smiled. It was the first time I’d seen him smile in connection with a thought. And it made me understand him a little bit better. It was a smile he smiles when he sees an opportunity. And the idea of people being scared or greedy seemed to make him excited because those two things make people willing to pay Boss for the things he likes to make. “But they don’t last long…” he added.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Most likely because they’re men,” he answered. I didn’t understand. He smiled. “Men don’t cooperate as well as women. When the Great Ending happened men took over more or less. Usually because men are bigger physically. But when they rely on pure muscle, and fear for progress they don’t get far. Women have a way of making men think harder, and find ways of getting things done that don’t just involve force.”
I listened to the sound of his feet as he walked. They crunched into the soil, and it let off dust as he went. “Have you ever had a wife?” I asked. I didn’t even think. He raised his eyebrows and smirked. Then he smiled.
“Yeah. Once.” He walked in silence for a moment, looking back at his feet. I didn’t speak because I wanted him to tell me more. “But love is a funny thing. It’s similar actually. Fear and greed seem to be in relationships too at times… and men usually don’t come up with good plans there either.” He smirked again.
He smiled again at me then walked up the front to talk to Alexis.