The wind was starting to pick up and a light drizzle was beginning to fall. We’d been trotting along the road for about five minutes and Boss turned around to look at me.
“Mate, can you please come up here?”
I got beside him on the drive seat and he gave me the grin that I recognise as his salesman’s smile. It makes him look slightly more handsome than he usually does, and he tends to only do it when he wants to motivate or impress someone.
“Right-o. Tell me how they did it.” I knew he was talking about Acmon and Passalus. I felt quite proud.
“It’s these,” I said, as I pulled my hand from my pocket and showed him the last of the dried leaves I had left. He took one from me and held it in front of his face to look more closely at it.
“What do you do with it?”
“You smoke it.”
He looked at it more closely for a second.
“Is it the smell?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “But it also makes your mind fly away for a while, and you sometimes see things and feel like … it makes you relax.”
Boss pulled out his pipe from his coat pocket, but I stopped him.
“You should only do it when we’re in a safe place. It makes you not be able to think straight like Ben that time when the dead didn’t go at him either. He’d just smoked these too. I have two small plants of it in pots in the back of the wagon. I took them from Ishmael when we were in Basin.” As I spoke he handed me back the leaf.
“We could sell that stuff, you know.”
I smiled. Suddenly something stumbled out from between two bushes and onto the road up ahead of us. It was the first creature we’d seen since we started along it. Boss’ eyes lit up.
“Look!!!!!! It’s that bloody midget again!” But then following him were all the others we thought we’d left behind in the woods to chase after the brothers. Our hearts started to race a bit as the dead began to pour out of the woods onto the track. But then yet another thing surprised us as the brothers charged out of the undergrowth on the side of the road as well. But this time they were screaming and running from the dead for real. It appeared that the effects of the leaves had worn off almost entirely. They saw us approaching and they ran straight toward us. The midget was the closest to them and followed almost as fast as they were running.
“Bloody hell,” Boss said, as he slowed the horses. “Quick! Into the back! Get a tarp and try and bag that little bastard for me!” I looked at him with my eyes widening. “Well go on – we can make a fortune at the markets presenting that thing!”
As I got back there, Jeremy came trotting alongside me and he hitched his horse to the tailgate by the reins and jumped on the wagon next to me.
“What do we do now?”
“Not sure. Boss doesn’t seem worried about the dead. All he’s interested in is making me grab that midget and bag it up in this tarp. Help me do it?” He gave me a look of disapproval but he did it anyway. Acmon was the first to reach the wagon. Alexis took the opportunity when we slowed down to run up and sit next to Boss.
As the brothers approached us, they were screaming like little girls. Boss and Alexis laughed. They both jumped up on the back of the wagon and scurried under the canvas to hide, but didn’t stop shrieking even once they were under there. It was actually very funny. Even Jeremy smiled. He and I were holding the ends of the tarp and we were jogging along in the narrow area between the wagon and the bushes. We had it stretched out like a sail and we intended to just wrap the little creature up as it approached us, and then tie the top. However, what we didn’t count on was that it would run at one of us rather than running into the middle of the tarp. As we got within twenty paces it became clear he was coming after me. I was right next to the wheel and I was worried he would fall under it and get cut in half or lose a foot. But at the last second Jeremy whistled and it took its eyes off me and changed direction for him. We grabbed him, pinning him to the ground, tying the top as fast as we could and we heaved it up onto the wagon. Jeremy lifted the canvas and then we both pushed it under. The brothers had finally stopped shrieking and were under there too, hugging one another tightly when we lifted the canvas up. They both froze still and were silent when we threw the tarp back. We heaved the dwarf on there, and it landed between them. Jeremy and I fell back a bit when we’d done that, and we kept jogging, watching the brothers. However, once they had a moving, growling bag between them, it seemed that the brothers couldn’t resist themselves, and they untied the top to see what was in there. As soon as they saw the head of the dwarf pop out and begin growling and thrashing about, they started shrieking again. It was hilarious, but dangerous. So Jeremy jumped back up there and tied it up again. We both laughed.
“Good job! Now get back on!” Boss yelled. We got on the tailgate and kneeled up to see what was ahead. Coming toward us were about fifty creatures. They looked bewildered, as they weren’t sure what they were chasing anymore. They’d been chasing the screaming sounds of the brothers, but a fair few of them seemed to have gotten lost in the woods. Boss made the horse speed up. “Yah!” he yelled, and they went into a canter. It was fast enough that as we got to them the horse just ploughed through the dead, sending the creatures flying in all directions. An arm came flying past Jeremy as the creature it belonged to seemed to explode on impact with the chest of the horse. Geez they smelled terrible.
We were finally able to slow the horses down to a walk again as there were no dead left ahead of us. I looked back and saw that there were still a few that escaped collision with the horse, but they were all walking back into the forest again. The brothers were still occasionally screeching under the canvas and the dwarf was thrashing about and making a sound that was a cross between the word “gnarl” and a cat’s mating call. Boss pulled the wagon over and got down with Alexis. He walked straight past them and went to the home cart. Alexis got up and drew back the canvas to reveal the brothers lying in foetal position up against one another, with Acmon at the back, Passalus in front of him, and in front of him was the dwarf in the bag; all three of them spooned up against the other as the dwarf thrashed about.
Boss came back with the last half of the bucket of water I’d gotten from the river. He had a cloth in it and he drew it out soaking wet and walloped them in the face with it. That just made the scream louder and more hysterically.
“I have an idea,” Alexis said.
I was surprised by two things. I was first of all surprised at how strong Alexis is. I knew he was strong, and just by looking at him you can tell he’s strong. But when you actually get to see him lift things, like the bodies of two fully grown men at the same time, it’s just amazing. But I was also surprised by how quickly he put the contraption together that he used to keep the brothers from hurting themselves, each other or us. First he took the wet rag that Boss had hit them with and tore it in two lengths to use as gags. Then once they couldn’t make as much noise, he flipped them onto their stomachs and tied them like the farmers do with pigs at the markets, with their hands tied behind their backs. Then he tied their feet together, but with a length of rope about two hands wide between each ankle. He took two of the A-frames that we use to hold up the seating bleachers, grabbed a long pole that we use under the seating planks and put it through the ankle ropes of both brothers. Finally, he took one end of the pole, tied it to the top of the A-frame where there’s a groove cut to seat it, and then lifted the other end clear off the pole cart and put it in the groove of the other A-frame. By doing so he effectively strung both brothers up by the ankles on the back of the scaffold he’d just made. But the way he was able to do it so effortlessly, made it look like he was only lifting the pole up to the other A-frame without the dead weight of two men dangling from it.
“Keep an eye on them and if they go too red in the face or stop that shrieking cut them down,” he said to me as we all began moving again. “Having them upside down like that will shift their temperature, get the blood through their heads again and clear their minds.” Then he went back to sit next to Boss on the drive seat of the pole cart. The two children were watching the action and I made eye contact with them. Neither looked like the other. The girl was blond and the boy was quite dark in complexion. I imagine they were both orphans, or foundlings at best.
We pushed along that path for about five more hours. I was starving. Everyone must have been too. I cut the brothers down about half an hour after they were put up there because they went quiet. They stayed tied up, but sat on the poles all sprawled out. The midget was quiet for a change finally. May brought soup to us all in the early afternoon. She also had bread. I assumed it was from the Professor because we hadn’t been in one place long enough to make any for ages. As she gave me mine, I took it from her and asked. “Is this the Professor’s?”
“No. Alexis filled the home cart before we left the market. That’s why they couldn’t find the cart. While they were looking for Tower’s body, he had the cart round the back of the hotel stealing half their pantry!” We both laughed. Then it dawned on me. “Where is Tower’s body?” Last I knew it was under the canvas of the pole cart.
“Alexis gave it to the Professor in exchange for his help getting us out of there. Anyway, it’s worthless to us. No one will give us a reward for it. They’ll just kill us for killing him.”
“What does the Professor want with it then?” I asked in curiosity.
‘Not sure. I’ve never seen what he does, but Ben told me he sets up a tent and takes a fresh body of the living, ties metal wires to it, and he has a machine that makes sparks and it makes the body jump about even though it’s dead.”
I couldn’t imagine it. It sounded sinister. As though something that should never be able to happen was being made to happen. Bringing the dead back to life! But then again, I realised that the dead come back to life all the time. We’re just used to it happening this way now.
Finally the road began to turn. It was also becoming wider. Then we saw something that none of us expected. We all assumed that the path we were on was most likely an ancient road of some sort that now just the dead and wilderness people used. But as it widened the vegetation got thinner, and then finally we saw a field. It was a square, ploughed field with a crop of edible leaves growing in sewn lines! Then another field with another kind of crop, and over the back was a crop of what was probably wheat of some kind or other. We were all looking around in amazement, but Boss wasn’t. He was steering the horses as though he knew exactly where he was going. And he did. A short time later as we passed a group of trees on either side of the road, the outer wall of a community came into view! The wall was made from logs standing upright like they had been when they were trees, but now their ends had been cut into points. All our eyes were as wide as could be, and we started with our mouths open. This wasn’t community that any of us knew of. Wilderness people suddenly came running from the community toward us with bows, arrows and spears all pointed our way. A couple of them had New Roman swords, which I assumed straight away had been stolen or found.
Boss stopped the wagons. He stood up and held both hands beside his face with his palms facing them. The two dozen men were all wearing furs, but as they got closer we saw that they had other things on under them. They stopped running and stood still. An instant and deafening silence fell over us all. I’m sure everyone was as relieved as I was when Boss broke it by talking to them in their language. He spoke to them for nearly a minute straight before they went into a huge cheering and jumping up and down. Boss had clearly told them something amazing, but none of us had any idea what was going on. The men with the spears and bows turned and led us back to the community gates. Boss sat down and started driving again. I only saw the side of Alexis’ face as he turned to smile at Boss. Boss kept looking straight forward, but it was clear at least that Alexis was in on the plan too.