Empire Road – Part 32

The Hanging Tree

The horses walked slowly toward the ramshackled remains of the two large buildings. The road had heaped piles of wood, bricks and debris stacked about waist high all along it, but the structure in front of us was clearly once a part of the city walls. After seeing what the Jessop battering-rams did to the wall of Pan, I had no doubt that the walls of Schmidt wouldn’t have stood a chance.  These walls were mostly made from stone, pitch sticks and fence lines and were half the height and strength of the walls of Pan. However, this part of the wall was made from mudbrick and still seemed mostly intact for a fair distance. 

Horse hoofs make an unmistakable sound and their clipping and clopping arrived at the tower before we did. In the dust and wind, we saw a single figure emerge from the doorway of the guardhouse. A horse followed him out. It was small horse. I was standing in the doorway of the home cart pressed up against May, but it was hard to make him out at first. Then we got a bit closer and we heard a familiar voice.

‘Haaaahahaha! If it isn’t the one and only Mr Fentaro!?’ the man yelled. It was the short, fat Ranger from New Rome! We stopped. Boss turned around and looked at Alexis. Ben got up into the drive seat of the pole cart and Boss got down to talk to the Ranger. God he is annoying looking with his stupid short looking arms. I was too far away to hear what was being said, but Boss gestured and whistled and we walked the horses over to the buildings. 

Once the horses were tied up I was sent to get them water while the others got out the little bit of food we had left. We would normally unhitch the horses, but since we weren’t sure how long we were about to stay there we thought better of it. I was so hungry! I hadn’t eaten for ages. None of us had. May started preparing her weeds to cook, which she was going to use with the oats that we had left over in a stew. She also had a bag of field grains she’d been collecting for a while. As long as they’re very ripe and not green, they can be milled into a coarse flour that you put with a stew like this and it thickens it. But it always makes it taste bitter. She was busily grinding two stones together with a few seeds between them at a time to make the flour in the back of the home cart, while Ben and the brothers began trying to light a fire. I took the buckets down to the river. I was happy that Boss sent me to get the water because it meant I could also take some water to my seedlings as well. Normally I would only fill one bucket with water, but this time I filled two. 

I went down to the river via a set of stone steps that trailed down beside the drawbridge. It took me outside the walls of Schmidt. The drawbridge was still there. It was our way out of there after we’d rested the horses. It felt reassuring that we could finally get back across the river, and onto the Empire Road again and get away from Jessop, the dead and into a city that wasn’t under attack and full of panic. The water was hard work to carry back up. I climbed a few paces, rested the buckets, then planned my next few steps and so on. I spilled some of the water from one of the buckets as I tripped a little. It was hard work. But then, as I got about halfway up the stone staircase, something caught my eye. I was looking up the sloping bank of the river and noticed huge bushes of the same kind of plant as my seedlings, growing under the drawbridge. I put the buckets down on a stone step and went over to see for sure. They were huge! Much taller than me and so thick that I couldn’t see through the foliage at all! It was so dense and healthy, and most of the plant had the fluffy, light coloured budding flowers on it. They smell terrible when they flower! I looked down though. My friend’s father grew these plants and I knew that the green leaves have to be dried first, but the buds are more powerful. So I reached down and stuffed as many big, dried leaves and buds as I could find that had naturally fallen to the ground into my pockets, before I broke off two thick wooded branches from the trunk. I wanted to show Boss what it was when we got back onto the Empire Road, and then let him see my seedlings. I thought that he could sell it at the markets as a curative for headaches and tension, like it’s used for in Leydon. It still smelled better than the dead, but it stank. I was truly tired of that stench of the dead!

When I got back they were all very excited about the water I brought. Everyone was hungry. The Ranger was smoking a pipe and leaning against the wall near May’s fire. Almost as soon as I got back into the stone gatehouse it began to rain. It started with thick, heavy drops that hit the stone street outside loudly. It fell here and there to begin with, but they got heavier until it was pouring. I thought it was ironic that not long after it started raining, the rain began coming off the roof in thick streams that would fill my buckets easily without needing me to go to the river and collect it. May boiled the oats and mixed in a big bunch of wilted fat-hen she’d collected as we walked into Pan, some mallow leaves, as well as a dozen roots of the same plant that she chopped into disks the same shape and size as small coins. They aren’t as tasty as a carrot, but similar if they’re big enough. They make the food feel more filling too. Hopefully it would help me imagine I wasn’t eating weeds for once.

The fat Ranger had some salt with him and he threw in a pinch or two. I went outside to put the branches in the back of the pole cart under the canvas. The wagon was parked beside the wall of the building to protect it from the rain. My two smaller plants were doing fine under there. I reached in under the canvas to stand one of them up a bit more. Then I cupped some water in my hand and trickled it onto them. Suddenly something grabbed my shoulder. I jumped!

“What you got in there, boy?” I spun around. It was the Ranger. He was smoking his pipe and looking unusually smug for some reason. He had a sort of cloak over his head which allowed him to be protected from the rain and kept his pipe dry. It was quite a sinister looking hood. I think he liked his little place in the world, and even though it was a run-down ruin he felt powerful to be “in charge” of it. “You planning something?” he added, tilting his head a little to see what I was doing under the canvas.

“No … I was putting these greens in here for the horses to eat later,” I stammered. He smiled slowly. “You like horses?” he asked in a slightly curious voice.  He was short, and fat and had horrid teeth. He had long ginger hair at the back and short hair at the top and front. He was probably only a little bit taller than me. But he was so full of his own importance that anyone meeting him for the first time could easily be forgiven for hating him entirely. I do. And this was only the third time I’d seen him.

“I s’pose so …” I said. I didn’t quite know what else to say. I didn’t want to say anything to him at all in fact. I looked back to the others. Boss and Alexis were talking, leaning against the outside wall, still sheltered from the rain by the eves of the roof. Then I looked back at the Ranger. There was something truly disturbing about him and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But then I heard the first of the dead coming. His eyes widened as we heard them knock some debris over on the path that led to where we were. It clattered a bit and then there was a thud as something larger fell. It was starting to get dark now and the rain wasn’t easing up. The wind was fading but when it blew our way we got a whiff of the potent stench of the dead that were approaching us. He went back to the gate house as quickly as he could. I watched as Alexis drew his sword and Boss reached down and picked up another. The brothers began putting out our fire with the boiling water. May hadn’t put any of the ingredients in yet, and she bundled them up and took them to the home cart with her. She came back a moment later wearing her Patrio breastplate and helmet and holding her rapier. There was no movement for a moment. I hoped that there was only one or two out there. Then we saw the first of them coming toward us. Only about a dozen at first. They were mostly all wearing Schmidt style clothing but there was a wilderness man with them too. The Schmidt clothing usually consists of brown trousers with rope down the outside legs and a white linen shirt. 

I walked swiftly back to the doorway of the gatehouse and Ben threw me a sword. I caught it by the handle and felt very manly. Alexis walked out into the rain, ready to start slaying them, but he was followed by the Ranger. He stopped walking when he noticed the short, fat, red headed Ranger following him, and he glanced back at Boss. Boss shrugged and smiled. He turned back and focussed on the incoming dead again. The Ranger took out his sword and stood beside Alexis. As the dozen or so creatures realised we were there, we were also able to see just how many there were following them. There were so many that we could no longer see any sign of the rubble behind them. It was unquestionably part or all of the group of dead we’d fled from earlier. There were also animals among it. A wombat was down by the side of one of the men, as though it was almost a pet. Suddenly the Ranger ran back toward us. His eyes were wide and he ran to his horse.

“There’s just too many of them!” he exclaimed. “No one said this would happen! It wasn’t meant to happen at all!!” Alexis was fast to follow him and he came running into the doorway. Boss grabbed the fat Ranger by the hair on the back of his head and ripped him to the ground. The Ranger fell on his ass and Boss growled at him; “What do you mean!? Who said what wasn’t meant to happen?!” But there was no time for an explanation. Ben and May moved quickly on Alexis’ orders and turned the carts around. The horses’ hoofs clattered into the confined gate house, and Boss threw the Ranger into the back of the pole cart as the horses walked toward the open drawbridge. He tied the reins of the Ranger’s little white pony to the back of the pole cart and we lurched forward.

As we got to the other side of the drawbridge, we started to see the dead walking past the gatehouse where we’d just been. We could only make out their silhouettes as they passed by the driveway that went into the town. One or two broke away from the pack and walked into the gatehouse to have a look about, but none came out onto the drawbridge. The dead are funny like that. Even though they have nothing to gain by being near others like them, they still seem to instinctively stick together when they can. It was Ben who pointed out the obvious. “They haven’t seen us!”

The horses didn’t break into a run, which surprised me at first. I wondered if it was because Boss didn’t want the noise to attract the dead, but then I saw why. He was walking beside the back of the pole cart and talking to the Ranger who was sitting on it with his legs dangling down. I couldn’t make out what they were saying because of the distance and the rain. More thunder rolled past us. Then I heard yelling, and the fat Ranger made his break for it. He jumped down off the back of the pole cart and started frantically trying to untie the reins of his horse from the flat bed. The Ranger pushed Boss away as he tried to stop him. I’ve always known Boss to solve all his problems with words, however Ben told me once that he saw Boss fight some thugs at a show and not one got close to him. Boss pushed the Ranger back but was met with a punch in the chest. It wouldn’t have hurt that much, because the Ranger was fat and had puny looking little arms. Boss opened up with a left and then a right, both with open palms though, but both hitting the Ranger in the sides of the head. The Ranger decided to make a run for it. It was funny to see how big and tough he likes people to think he is, but at the first sign of confrontation he ran. May was standing in the open doorway to the home cart and she giggled. 

The Ranger began running toward the woods as fast as he could, but it was no use. Alexis stopped the horse and jumped down from the drive seat. He was beside the huffing, puffing, fat Ranger almost instantly. He had his sword out and the Ranger did as he was told. We were still in eyesight of the drawbridge, so Boss started the wagons again as quickly as possible. Alexis lashed the Ranger’s hands and brought him back to me. He handed me the rope. It was tied around the fat man’s wrists extremely tightly and he was complaining that they were going red and swelling. We tied the rope tightly around his waist and then trailed it to me from a knot at his back. His thin red hair and moustache were dripping with the rain, and he looked at me for a brief second, and then back to the ground. I was watching him walking. I didn’t know how to react to this, because I’d never had to do anything like it before. May had the door open and was watching me from her bed. I watched him as he stomped along and wondered if Boss was going to make him walk the whole way. Then I started wondering what he’d said or done that made Boss risk any other Ranger we might meet taking action against us for disobeying one of their own. They could make us all pariah class for doing that! Then we wouldn’t be able to ever go into any community again! Just as I was starting to think about what it would be like to have a huge hole burned in the top of my left ear, which is what they do to pariah class, I saw the Ranger walk over something. It was bushy and looked out of place. It was the two branches from the bush I’d found! I gave May the rope and jumped down to get them. Once I had them again, I caught back up with the home cart and hooked them onto the back where there was a hook to hang luggage.

“Oi!” I yelled out at the brothers. “Stop throwing my stuff out of there!” I don’t think they heard. They probably threw it out from under the canvas because it stunk really bad under there.

The rain was beginning to come down really hard again, and we were all getting drenched. May was in the home cart while I was sitting on its step holding the rope that was towing the fat Ranger along behind us. The brothers were hiding under the canvas on the pole cart while Boss and Alexis drove it. Ben was driving us, and he kept looking back over his shoulder to try and see if any creatures were following us. Lightning shot through the sky. Then thunder.

The road out of Schmidt leads directly west away from it, over the river, onto the Empire Road, and toward Upper Market. It’s one of the two big markets, but it’s slightly smaller than the one down near New Haven. We’ve performed plays there, like a theatre, but we never do very well. This is the market where the farmers all come to sell and swap their animals. Because of that it stinks there of manure and the carcases of the butchered beasts that get left behind. They have a warden there who is meant to police the whole thing, but he takes bribes. At least we would be safe there. Its walls are some of the highest and thickest of any. And it couldn’t smell as bad as the dead.

The road on this side of the river is muddy and uneven. The Empire Road runs north south and parallel to the river, which means that the area we were traveling west to east along was cutting through an area with no dead traditionally inside its walls. It felt strange to be on yet another road with no fences either side of it though. 

It took about four hours to get there. The horses were exhausted and were barely able to pull the wagons when the walls of the market came into sight. The rain had drawn back to an intermittent drizzle, and we were all extremely tired, wet and cold. Boss stopped the pole cart first. We could see smoke columns rising from Upper Market and the occasional twinkle of a light from inside it. It made us all feel a bit safer. Suddenly, Boss pulled the wagon over and he came back to us with Alexis by his side. They stood facing the fat and exhausted Ranger. He was looking extremely tired now. He stopped walking and just stood there with the ropes still tied around his dark red hands. When Boss approached him he looked up. He eyeballed Boss and Boss stared straight back.

“Where would you rather be hung, Haji or Pan?” Boss asked flatly. 

“You’re the ones who’ll hang! You and all your BASTARD kind!” he snarled back. He truly believed in what he was saying. “Now that we know for sure that Jordan Towers AND the bounty hunter are dead, there remains no one left who knows about New Rome’s link to Jessop except for YOU!” The Range felt pretty confident that anything Boss may have suspected about his involvement would only serve to incriminate him by knowing it in the first place. But Boss wasn’t the kind of guy who would ever bet on anything or take a risk he didn’t need to take. I watched Boss. It was a fascinating moment. We were all there, watching, like it was a play. But what I saw was yet another moment when Boss knew when not to speak. It was clear to me, and also Alexis I gathered, that Boss didn’t know that New Rome had any connection with the Jessop attacks. Boss just stood there, with his arms folded, and began to grin smugly. It seemed to provoke the Ranger and his face screwed up before he gave out another spray at Boss. “You, these … HARLOTS and CRIMINALS … You’ll ALL be HUNG! And then every single last person from Pan, and then Haji – this is the realisation of Christ’s Kingdom on earth and no one who doesn’t convert will be spared!” He was out of breath again and almost hissing as he sprayed his last words. Boss looked surprised. He looked at Alexis for a moment.

“Go see what he has in his saddlebags.”

The Ranger’s eyes grew wide and he flew into a panic, tugging and trying desperately to get out of his ropes. 

“Do it,” Boss said, “and I’ll stick you.” He put his sword at the fat man’s ribs. He spat at Boss. He missed, but Boss still slapped him in the side of the head with his palm again.

“Oh, ho, ho!!!!” Alexis bellowed back to Boss. It wasn’t like him to make open or loud displays in any way. Alexis was a quiet man. But something had grabbed his attention and he was rushing to show Boss. He came straight up to him with a small leather envelope in his hand. He gave it to Boss and Boss looked slowly and carefully at whatever was in it. 

“No… hahahahaaaa… Oh… my… GOD! You’re KIDDING me!?” Boss said, with much the same grinning and hearty expression that Alexis had just shown in his voice. “You?! YOU’RE Jordan Towers??” Boss said as he held up an official looking piece of paperwork. “You’re not a ranger at all, are you? You just killed one and have been pretending to be him so you can come and go freely from New Rome and Jessop, so you could help set this whole thing up! You’re just a salt trader from the communities by the sea and you don’t care who wins this as long as you get paid to be a spy! And while everyone was out looking for Jordan Towers, you took cover in plain sight as a fat, retarded Ranger and no one ever suspected anything! Hahahahaa. BRILLIANT!” Boss said mockingly. There was a moment of silence. Boss looked at Alexis. It was kind of hard to overlook the fact the Boss really was enjoying this now. He was so highly entertained I thought he might clap. Alexis was as entertained by Boss’ reaction as Boss was by the whole thing. 

“Says here that he’s really from Schmidt?” Alexis said, as he read more of the papers from inside the Ranger’s pouch. 

“Bullshit!!!!” Boss said in astonished awe. Like someone watching a sporting match and yelling in disbelief at an umpire’s decision. “How could you do that to your own people?!” 

“So what of it?!” he spat back at Alexis in response.

“So… it’s safe to guess that you were a failure in your own community, so you went to Jessop in search of love?” Alexis added in a mocking kind of way. He glared at Boss then Alexis. “And you thought you would rebuild Schmidt and be its king or something? Is that right?”

“I’m more important than the Pope right now, and when this is all finished and I am the new emperor of Schmidt you will all pay for this injustice you’ve committed against me!!”

“Well then,” Boss said after a pensive pause. “If we’ll have to pay that much for making you walk for a few hours…”

“Oh you’ll pay alright! Just as soon as word gets out that you’ve disrespected me and the Papal authority!” 

“Well then, I guess we better make it worth our while and hang you here before you can tell anyone.” Boss added calmly. Tower’s expression dropped from his face and he watched Boss with widening eyes.

“Ben, get the rope. Alexis, back this up to that tree. You lot, help me get his fat ass onto the back of the pole cart.” There was a flurry of activity, and we each began walking toward Towers. He took a slight step backwards, as his head flicked from one of us to another. He snarled and spat at the ground.

“You’ll never get away with this!”

“Hahaha. Who’s gonna help yer out now? The Pope?” Ben said mockingly. But almost on cue, as he spoke, we heard the sound of horse hoofs approaching from the direction we’d come. We all froze and turned our attention back toward Schmidt. It was faint at first and then became louder, until we could hear a horse clearly in the distance. It crossed all of our minds that the horse may not be living. But then it was moving too fast which was reassuring. Dead animals don’t move as quickly as living ones. This horse was really moving. Alexis drew his sword. The light was gone now entirely, and we had to wait until the rider was really close before we could see who it was. Its horse was travelling at a medium canter, but it drew back to a walk as it approached. Then it stopped.

I think I was the first to notice who it was. But May was certainly the next to see.

“Jeremy!” she yelled in a high pitched voice.

The Ranger recognised him too and all his hopes were raised up again. “Thank Christ! GOD SENT YOU!!! Boy – you must untie me at once and help me get these CRIMINALS to a town prison!”

Jeremy got down off his horse slowly. He was assessing what was going on very carefully and was thoughtfully considering his options. He looked at Alexis and then at the sword he was still holding. Alexis put it back in its sheath as a sign of respect and good will. Jeremy turned to look at Boss with the rope. “What’s going on?”

Boss walked over to him and held out the papers. I was standing next to Jeremy now and I got to see them for the first time. Schmidt English is a bit different to Leydon English, but I could make out enough of what was there to see that it was a property deed of some sort. I wasn’t sure if Jeremy could read it because Pan written language is a completely different set of characters called Panskrit. What’s more, it had a red stamp on it that said something like “çonfiscato”. 

Jeremy ripped his sword out of his belt and held it high. He turned to Boss. ‘“Are you 100% sure that this is Jordan Towers?!”

“Yes – completely sure!” Boss said and took a step backward. Jeremy was taller than Alexis by a couple of inches but not as bulky. I would have always thought that Jeremy and Alexis would be a pretty even match against one another if they ever had to fight, because Jeremy seemed to have an intensity that Alexis didn’t. But hearing this news, and finding out that this was the man who had allowed Jessop to kill half his city a day earlier, made Jeremy lose his grip a little bit. It was only a momentary expression. But his temper seemed to rise up in an instant. As his face contorted, it showed just how much rage and strength he was capable of, and he slammed his sword straight down into the front of Tower’s face, cutting him in two down to about the middle of his chest. Towers fell to his knees then flopped sideways to the ground with a thud. There was silence for a moment, then Jeremy yanked his sword from the body. He cleaned its blade on Tower’s leg then put it back in his belt. What he said next was a surprise to us all. “New Rome, Jessop and Haji are offering huge rewards for him dead or alive. I have no use for money so you will take him to Haji. I would imagine that since New Rome has started attacking Pan from the front, that they and Jessop are allies and both would be offering a reward to kill whoever kills Towers. So I’ll come with you to Haji to testify that you killed Towers and you can claim the reward.” Boss smirked at him and shrugged.

“You don’t have to twist my arm.” He said thoughtfully, but with a slightly happier tone.

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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