Empire Road – Part 31

Into the Wind

The sun broke through when we hit the open fields. The earth was a strange sight because I’d never seen anything quite like it before. It had a grey colour, like the dirt that’s always underfoot, but it wasn’t compacted like it usually is out in the forests or beside the Empire Road. It was loose, and clumped, like freshly turned fields look, but it wasn’t dark like healthy soil in a cultivated field. It was pale, and strewn with sticks and stones and difficult to negotiate through. Each community has a growing area. Some even have them outside their city walls like Leydon does, because the dead don’t eat plants. But the animals are always kept within the city walls. None of the communities bothered to grow or raise all the same things unless there was something they needed that they couldn’t get at the markets. The markets happened every Saturday and Sunday. We’ve been to both markets and performed there, but they are much harder work. People there are there to work, buy and sell. But, where there’s money we will go. I don’t know how the wild people get their food. The three we had with us looked lean. They were walking between the wagons, but staying very closely together. Alexis was talking quietly to them in their language. Judging by what he was saying and the occasional head gesture he made, I guessed he was telling them where we were going and about what Boss had said.

The fields didn’t look usable as a place to grow anything. It was just baron land now. A wind picked up and it brought with it dust. It stung as it hit our skin and we had to shield our eyes. The horses hadn’t seen open spaces like this before and they were getting jumpy. They’d spent their whole lives on roads with fences either side of them, or inside community walls. As we began on the path to Jessop, we were accompanied by two soldiers who were both riding small chariots. They were more or less just platforms large enough for one man to stand on with a woven guard at the front that went up to his stomach. The woven basket and the platform had light wooden framing, and from under where the man was standing came a long wooden pole. It was attached from the middle of where he stood and it went upward on an angle with a yoke on its end. The yoke was placed on the shoulders of two creatures who were wearing the straps and metal rings. The yoke was connected to the large rings in the middle of their backs and as they walked they pulled the chariot along. On their heads the creatures also wore leather straps, but attached to them were blinkers on both sides of their face to keep them looking forward, much like horses have. To drive them there was a very clever device that was controlled by the driver. Coming from the yoke between the two creatures was a spindly piece of bamboo. It was shaped like a rainbow, about the length of a normal man. On its other end was what looked like a bird. It probably was once, but it was clearly dead. Any time the driver wanted to move forward he tugged on a line that went to the bamboo arch that held the bird and it would bob up and down like it was flying. But more than that, it had some sort of little whistle in it so that it also made a chirping sound every time it bobbed. The sound and the movement were exactly what excited the dead and they began jogging after it. To turn left or right, the driver pulled another rein and the bird would lean one way or another and the creatures would follow.

“You need to give us some space!” Boss yelled to the soldier in the chariot who was closest to us. “Your creatures are spooking our horses!” The soldier nodded and tugged on his little strap that made the bird tweet and jump about and his creatures broke into a jog. The dead have an inclination to keep walking no matter where they are. Day and night. They never rest. They just keep trudging forwards looking for something living to eat. It’s only when something stimulates them that they get the idea that there might be food in front of them, and then you can tell which ones have been dead for a long time or a short time. One of the two chariots was clearly being pulled by fresher creatures than the other and it went straight off into the distance. The other tried to follow for a bit but then fell back instead and settled on a steady pace a short distance behind us. I got a good look at his creatures. They looked like Paneretians. Both female and both quite young.

May was walking beside me. We were walking behind the home cart to stay away from the wind and the dust. It didn’t seem to bother the wilderness people between the two carts. They just put their heads down and kept on walking. May smiled at me. I saw that there was dust and dirt covering her face because it cracked when the lines beside her mouth and eyes moved.

“You’ve grown,” she said. I looked at her. I didn’t feel like I had. “When I met you, you were shorter than me.” I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. A drip of sweat rolled down her brow and it left a line of clean skin that followed it down her neck and onto her shoulder. I felt sorry for her, to have no family and to have also lost Raf. I looked at her as she walked and my sight was caught by something moving out on the field. It was a fair way off in the distance. There was a track leading off from the one we were on and several dead were walking toward us on it. I guessed they were coming out of the woods, but I found it interesting that they instinctively seemed to be drawn to the track rather than just walking through the rough, bumpy field. It seems that Boss saw it at the same time as I did, and he whistled to the driver of the chariot in front of us. He turned around and saw Boss pointing. He craned his head and began driving across the field to the track. Boss stopped the pole cart and Alexis stopped the home cart. A short time later the other soldier arrived behind us and stopped as well. He was trying to position himself behind the home cart so that he’d also be out of the wind. However, it meant that his creatures started trying to attack May and me as we sat on the cart! They both began swiping at the air and making their half word-grunts at us. To stop them from running away with him, the soldier put on the breaks of the chariot which locked the wheels in place. But still, we were also trying to stay out of the dust and wind, as well as Passalus and Acmon, and it was driving the creatures wild to be so close to us.

“Move it you lot! You’re working them up being that close to them!” The soldier growled at us. So we moved. I walked away from the pole cart in the same direction that the wind was travelling to try and still be a little bit sheltered. Passalus and Acmon walked to be beside the horse at the front of the cart. The wilderness people just huddled in the space between where the carts had come to a halt. But May walked the other way. She walked along to the back to be beside the soldier. He was a thin man, but well built. He didn’t look terribly interested in anything. I guess being a soldier is hard work and he looked like he wasn’t enjoying it much. May stood beside his wheel, and then leaned against it. I could just make out what she was saying but I pretended I wasn’t listening. It’s a trick I learned from a young age so my dad wouldn’t know I was listening to him or he would stop talking to himself.

“You don’t mind if I stand here do you? That wind is dreadful!”

“Sure,” he answered.

“Can I ask you a question about Jessop?”

The soldier softened a little, but only through guarded curiosity. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say anything so May went right ahead and asked. “Do you have an arena in Jessop?”

He smiled. “Yes. We have four!”

“Are they all arenas? Or are some theatres?” May added, drawing him into the discussion a bit more. He seemed a little amused, though also clearly offended that she wouldn’t think Jessop was big enough to have so many arenas.

“We have four arenas, two theatres and a Pro Cantu,” he explained. May is pretty. Most men like to talk to her. But this one didn’t have much interest in her in the usual ways. He was watching her, but looking at her boobies mostly. I didn’t think May noticed because all she did when he told her about all the places they have entertainment was look away from him. She glanced over her shoulder at the other soldier who was galloping as fast as his dead could carry him in the direction of the creatures that were now cantering toward him on the road. He was about halfway to them and would be another minute or so before he got there.

“What’s a Pro Cantu?” May asked as she turned back to the soldier.

“It’s a place where we listen to songs and music.”

A gust of wind swept past us and brought with it a solid wall of dust. We all got in closer to the home cart to get shelter. The two creatures harnessed to the soldier’s chariot took another swipe at me and he glared. I don’t think he liked his creatures at all. Then again, neither did I. God they stank.

The gust of wind hit us like a wall, and then I watched it as it travelled across the field in a steady line. It looked like heavy rain does when it falls in sheets during a storm. The dust in it was making the pattern of the wind visible and I was surprised by how fast it moved. About that time, I also noticed that it had completely obscured my vision of the other soldier in his chariot and the dead who were coming toward us. They were too far away to see now because of the dust in the wind. In fact, I could only see about half as far as I could when we first stopped there. Then another gust of wind came and hit us. It was getting stronger as the day got warmer, but the warmth of the sun was making the ground drier and picking up more and more dust with each gust of wind. Suddenly a hand grabbed my elbow. It was Boss. I jumped.

“Slowly go and stand as close to the door to this wagon as you can. When I signal go and get the new swords from inside the cart. Hide them from view. Keep one and give one to me. Give May her rapier.” Then he leaned next to me and raised his eyebrows at the soldier. He gave Boss a brief look but then looked back at May, who was now bending over to re-tie her shoe straps again in front of him. She mustn’t be very good with knots because it was the second time she’d tied them in front of him. I slowly walked along toward the horse and leaned against the front corner of the wagon. I could see Ben and the brothers sitting on the back of the pole car. Ben nodded at me and I saw that his hand was on the handle of a sword too. I could just make out Alexis’ shape in the driver’s seat. As I looked at them the wind dropped a bit. The sky was grey and it wasn’t very bright now, but as the dust fell away it seemed to get a little brighter all of a sudden. I was still looking at the brothers when I heard the soldier near May raise the alarm.

“What the…” I spun around and saw that he was staring off intently toward his friend. I turned the other way to look across the field of dust and saw that the soldier was now running toward us. He was about halfway back from where he’d originally gone to attack the dead, and he was running, on foot, as fast as he could! The dust was still thick in the air and obscuring our vision a little. We strained our eyes. I had to rub mine because they were filling with the fine dust and sand as quickly as I could clear them. But then as he got within voice range, we could make out what he was running from. He wasn’t being chased by the three creatures he went to take care of. In the time that the dust had risen up hundreds, possibly thousands of dead had emerged from the woods and they were coming toward us as fast as they could! But not just human dead; animals of all descriptions too! The first I saw was a fully grown sow. I had to double take when I saw it because I thought it might be a human crawling along, but then behind it I saw a goat and a horse over on the side too. It was so hard to see through the dust! Then the soldier tripped as he ran. He fell into a shallow hole on the field and almost disappeared from view completely. Another huge gust of wind picked back up and swept past us, bringing with it a new cloud of dust. We lost sight of the soldier in the field for a moment, but we could still hear him. It was a moment before the new cloud of dust settled, but when it did we all knew we had to move fast! The dead had caught up to the soldier and were well and truly devouring him, even though he was still screaming!

The soldier beside us looked terrified. His eyes widened and he drew his sword. I don’t know if he saw how many creatures, not to mention animals, there were when the dust fell away for that brief moment, but he clearly didn’t realise how little chance he had of saving his friend. The wilderness people did, because they saw their opportunity and they ran like hell away. The soldier pulled on his little straps, making the little bird tweet and lean left. His creatures started pulling toward the field at a jogging pace and he yelled at them, “YA” like a horse. Boss looked at me and grabbed May as the chariot passed us.

“Get on!” May and I jumped onto the steps that led into the home cart and Boss jumped on its driver’s seat. “Ya!!” he yelled, cracking a whip to also make Alexis know that it was time to move. Boss and Alexis have a lot of signals and codes to communicate with one another while no one is aware of what they’re saying. This time it was a whistle Boss made and Alexis made it back. I don’t know exactly what it meant, but Alexis made the pole cart horse gallop and ours followed. I’d never seen a horse pulling a wagon at gallop pace like that before. I also didn’t know these animals very well yet. I didn’t even know these two horses could gallop in the first place. Our horse was old, with a pronounced sway back. The other was a Clydesdale, but it looked too young to pull something that size. We stayed on the path, but it was still very bouncy. May got us into the home cart and we shut the door. Just her and me. It was dark in there. The pots and pans all clattered against one another as they bounced and swayed on their hooks. She sleeps in there with her mat and things, which were in a bundle at the back on the floor. It looked like a nest. She sat down and I sat next to her. My eyes adjusted to the light a bit and we sat, listening to the horses, bouncing about. We listened for a while; listening for any noise other than the horses, pots and the pans. We were listening to know if the dead were getting close to us or not. After a bit, when we’d relaxed, May spoke.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“I’m nearly fifteen,” I answered. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen,” She replied. After a long pause she sighed and put her head on my shoulder. It made me feel funny. I couldn’t describe it. I didn’t want the horse to stop running. But shortly thereafter they did. They’d been galloping for about fifteen minutes, then they went back to a fast trot. It was a good run for horses pulling carts like this. We stopped bouncing about and the road became smooth again. May got to her feet and opened the door to see where we were. I got alongside her and peeked through the crack. The dust was still thick and the wind was howling. May pushed the door open and we saw that we were on a paved road again. It was cobbled like the roads in New Rome, but there were no buildings around it at all. Just bits of walls, rubble and burnt piles of what were probably once buildings.

“Schmidt,” May said softly. We bounced around for a bit more on the road and the horses slowed to a walk.

“May – Come drive!” Boss yelled. Without a second thought she hopped out onto the seat next to him. Then he jumped down from the cart and whistled a new whistle to Alexis. There were some buildings up ahead and Boss seemed to be studying them closely from where we were. Ben took the reins from Alexis and he got down to walk next to Boss.

“That’s the gatehouse to Schmidt. If the drawbridge is still intact we can get across it and head out, and be back on the Empire Road.” Alexis didn’t offer any thoughts; he just waited for Boss to make a decision that he would follow. That was what he always did unless he knew something that he was sure Boss didn’t know and needed to.

“Look!” he exclaimed, ”Smoke!” It was hard to see through the dust, and the heavy wind was carrying it away quickly, but it was there alright. Coming out of a window in the stone wall of the guard house.

“It could only be a survivor of Schmidt …” Boss said, almost to himself. “You drive this one,” he added to Alexis. “If they try and fight us I’ll whip them into a gallop and we’ll try and charge past them straight over the drawbridge. But either way – follow me closely.”

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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