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He was in an underground tunnel, not dissimilar to the ones at Mundaba Heights, although somehow he knew he wasn't there. He was chained to a damp wall and dirty water slopped around his feet. He was struggling to see clearly, but he had trouble opening his eyes and then adjusting them to the gloom. A circle of light appeared in the distance and a figure advanced towards him. A tall figure dressed entirely in black, looking not unlike a seedy small-town undertaker. Two ravens were perched on either shoulder, more of the dratted birds circled around him as though they were suspended on wires.
The manacles around Kieran's wrists held firm, however hard he struggled. As the figure of Gabriel got nearer Kieran could see that his face was covered entirely by a plastic mask, which left only his black eyes visible. The mask terrified him, and yet the thought of what lay beneath it was even more terrifying still. Kieran noticed Gabriel was still carrying his stick, and when the man had got close to him he suddenly felt a sharp pain as the stick was whacked around his ankles. Kieran's limbs gave way and his feet shot out from beneath him. He fell slumped against the wall, as far down as the manacles would let him go.
Gabriel turned his back on him and left without a word. In the gloom Kieran could see blood trickling from his ankles and mingling with the swamp water at his feet. The crocodile was attracted by the blood, as it was inevitable it would be. It paced heavily through the gloom, its small legs supporting its enormous body. Kieran could see its teeth curling up over its leathery skin. He knew it would eat him from the feet up. He wondered crazily how far the crocodile would get up his body before he died from shock, pain, and loss of blood. He had an image of his head left bobbing about in the bloodstained swill. He told himself he should find this thought amusing, and if he laughed at the grotesqueness of it then it just might save his sanity. And yet he couldn't laugh because he was too afraid. So afraid in fact that he knew could die of fright, it was practically a certainty.
"Shit Adam, he's stopped breathing!" Joby screamed, leaping off the top bunk in terror "Adam do something, it's Kiel. He's stopped breathing!"
Joby's outburst had come out of nowhere. They had spent a mournful evening sitting in the wagon, bemoaning the fate of the horses. They had then gone to bed silently. After a while Joby had realised there was something very wrong with the man who beside him.
Adam listened for his breath, felt his pulse, felt his heart. There was nothing. Suddenly he pulled Kieran's body off the bunk, hooked him up by his armpits and, to all appearances anyway, proceeded to dance with him around the wagon. He paused every so often to slap him as hard as he could around the face, and then resumed the stumbling dance once more.
"I think we must be getting somewhere", said Adam, breathlessly "I can hear something".
"This is the Winter Palace all over again", Joby wailed.
"Not quite", said Adam "That was oblivion he faced. This means Gabriel's taken his spirit somewhere and left his body behind. We have to try and recall it".
They both began to yell at Kieran hysterically. Lonts joined in, although he was hampered by a fit of sobbing at the sight of Kieran in such a state.
"I think he's coming through", said Ransey "He must have heard you".
"Come on Kieran!" Hillyard bellowed, in a voice that could have lifted the torn canvas off the wagon "I've lost the horses today, don't you go too!"
"Focking teeth!" Kieran screamed out suddenly, and began a scrabbling motion as though he was trying to get his feet off the floor "It'll get your feet, don't let it!"
He was hurled back into consciousness as quickly as if he'd been shot out of a cannon. For a few bewildering moments the real state and the dream state overlapped, and he thought the crocodile was at large in the wagon. He felt reassuringly daft when he realised this wasn't in fact the case.
For the rest of the night Adam insisted Kieran slept in his bunk, and sent Lonts above with Joby. Kieran passed the next few hours with no danger at all, and didn't seem to dream. Come the morning though he was considerably weakened and not up to travelling. Unfortunately Hillyard was determined to move on, away from where he had buried the horses.
"We need the wagon though, Ad", he said "It's protection for us, not just against locusts but the weather and anything else. It's our shell. We can't abandon it".
"And to do that we'd have to get rid of too many of our supplies anyway", said Ransey.
"Which means we're going to have to pull it ourselves", said Adam "Oh what fun".
It turned out to live down to expectations completely. Even with six of them tugging on it (Kieran had been ordered to stay in bed, and after all his weight was minimal), it felt akin to being a galley-slave. It also made the journey agonisingly slow, they seemed to cover a limited amount of ground in a very long time.
"I wish you'd let me get up and help", said Kieran, when Adam came in with his supper "You look all in Addy. And I notice you've all got blisters on your hands. It's not right that you're doing all that and I'm lying here like some Roman emperor. It reminds me of that journey to the Freak Colony when I lolled around in the litter whilst you lot walked".
"Nobody's feeling resentful about it", said Adam "I won't hear of you getting up Patsy, you have to conserve your strength. If you get any weaker Gabriel will get to you again".
Kieran groaned and drummed his feet on the mattress in frustration.
"Stop that Patsy", said Adam "It happens to be true".
"But I have to lie here and see you all looking like death, punishing yourselves in this damn heat".
"The end is in sight. It's only a few more days to Pepuaah. We'll be fine as long as the water holds out".
"I hope you're keeping an eye on Gimmit then", said Kieran "I still don't trust him".
"Neither do I, but I think he's harmless at the moment. It's a bit hard to get worked up about him really, when he's only a scrap of a thing like you".
"You're all scraps of things".
"I know", Adam laughed "Even Hillyard seems half his normal size".
"I'm worried about him. He seems to have drawn into himself so much since the Dobbins were killed. Whereas you, nothing seems to get to you. Whatever happens you always manage to bounce back with an attack of acid wit".
"I get scared too though", said Adam "Usually at the thought of anything happening to you. Sometimes, when we're pulling this bloody wagon along, I fantasise in my head".
"Oh yes?" said Kieran, suggestively.
"That too!" said Adam "But sometimes I try and imagine what it would be like if it was just you and me living together. I start planning rooms in the house".
"Very untidy rooms", said Kieran "As neither of us are brilliant at clearing up. We'd probably end up having blazing rows all the time about the mess".
"Oh damn the mess, I'd get a cleaner in for that. It would be enough for me just to have you there".
"Normally at this moment I'd start the 'when all this is over' speech", said Kieran "Except I made that mistake last time, of thinking that all would be cosy and safe when the task was done. Only it can't be like that this time can it? From what I've heard of the City these days, nothing can be the same there ever again and ..."
"And if we defeat Gabriel you will be President".
"Does that bother you?"
"No", said Adam "Particularly when I remember what the alternative will be - if we lose".
Kieran dozed, and woke up suddenly halfway through the evening to find Hillyard sitting on the edge of the bunk. He had been staring at Kieran sorrowfully. Kieran was astonished by how faded he looked, like a colour photograph losing its lustre. Even though he wasn't scrawny like some of them, he had lost his well-rounded burliness. He looked uncomfortably like someone in the last stages of consumption instead.
"You look ill Hillyard", said Kieran, reaching out to touch his face "Those dark rings under your eyes ..."
"You can talk", Hillyard managed a chuckle "You look like a wisp of smoke lying there".
"I'm not much bloody use am I?"
Hillyard leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the lips.
"I overheard you earlier", he said "When you were talking to Adam. You mustn't worry about me, that's what I came in to tell you. I'm not withdrawn, just in need of a bit of fun that's all".
"We'll have to see what we can manage when we get to Pepuaah".
"As I said, don't worry about me. You just keep Gabriel away. When you look at it that way, you've got the hardest part by a long way".
"Sometimes I feel I should apologise to you Hillyard. Since the day you stumbled in on us at Kiskev, your life has been one damn thing after another. You should never have got mixed up with us".
"You haven't guessed it yet have you?" said Hillyard, stroking his hair "Not since Stombal have I felt this way about ..."
"Ssh", Kieran placed his fingers on the other man's lips "I already know. I guessed long ago. I'm not always as daft as I like to make out".
"I never expect anything to happen. I know you've got enough with Adam and Joby, and you can share things, experiences with them that I can't even guess at. Joby once said to me that you'd never been loved enough, and he wanted to make it up to you. Perhaps I feel the same".
"I'm certainly having it made up to me now. The thing is I can split meself two ways, but three? Well as you can see, there isn't much of me to go round as it is".
"It doesn't matter. What I have with you is special, although that's not to say I wouldn't like to ..."
"I think we'd better get you to Pepuaah toot-suite!"
The nothingness was nerve-wracking. Day after day after day, and nothing to show for it but sand, sky and a bit of broken road. When they did come across a break in the landscape, however small, it was usually something disturbing. Such as the stunted dead tree on which an unkindness of ravens had gathered, as though assembling to watch them die.
"It doesn't mean anything", said Adam breathlessly, as they pulled the wagon slowly past "Birds often gather like that".
Nevertheless it was hard to feel reassured when they felt so vulnerable.
When civilisation encroached again, it came without warning like the blaze of a field-fire bursting upon the countryside. The ancient walled city of Pepuaah was first glimpsed on the horizon by the dramatic glow of the setting sun. They were too late to enter it that night, as the gates were firmly locked at the sunset curfew. Anyone arriving after that had to form an orderly queue outside and wait for the dawn.
No one cared by this time. Most were too relieved to have survived the desert and all its extremes, to be near civilisation once more. They had survived, and beyond the gates lay a box of delights to be sampled as soon as they were allowed. The crowd outside the city walls were made up of the usual blend of nomads, beggars, peddlers, street entertainers, whores, and a sprinkling of businessmen. For this one night everyone was friends, all swapping tales of adventure and misdeeds on their travels. But when the gates opened all that would change. Everyone would then be in competition, all desperate to get money from within the same few square miles of space.
At dawn the gates were opened after the traditional ceremonial yelling by the gate-keeper from the top of one of the towers, and then everyone rolled in. Adam and his crew pulled the wagon into the town and made for the Pauper's Pitch. This was a temporary holding-space for those to park their vehicles who couldn't afford to pay in advance. It worked on a pawn-ticket basis. If they hadn't managed to find money for the renting of the space by the time three days were up, any transport, horses and belongings were commandeered by the Pepuaahan authorities. This system operated surprisingly well, as the rents weren't extortionate, and it was felt that anyone could earn money in Pepuaah if they put their minds (or their bodies) to it.
Pepuaah was like a huge bazaar. Within its ancient walls lay buildings of all sizes, ages and styles, crammed together in a maze of higgledy-piggledy streets. It was a filthy, stinking, noisy and yet beautiful place. It burst over with life, oozed it from every stone and brick. During these troubled days there was an even more giddy air to it. So many had fled from the darkness in the City, and eventually made it here, so many were grateful to be alive and not a member of the Undead, that it could seem as though the entire population was high on drugs, and determined never to be brought down again.
At the Pauper's Pitch they settled the wagon and caught the euphoria of the town. It was like the first day of a holiday. One by one they wandered off during the course of the day to stroll around (always leaving someone in charge of the wagon), and strolled back again, ready for another fascinated ramble a short time later. For the morning and most of the afternoon Kieran obeyed Adam's instructions to stay in bed, mainly because he was too tired not to, but by dusk he was desperate for action. Adam was nowhere in sight, so he clamped his straw hat on his head and disappeared into the crowds to see the sights.
Joby saw him leave, but was too late to stop him. Anxiously he dived after him, but the crowds seemed to have swallowed him up, like some huge monster with many teeth. He was pursuing a line of investigation down a narrow side-street, when he was stopped by a young boy who could have been no more than thirteen at the most.
"Please help me", the boy cried "I'm lost".
Joby was instantly on the alert for a scam. In the City it wasn't unusual for muggers to employ this tactic. He glanced round him nervously, expecting at any moment to see some thug emerge from the shadows brandishing a gleaming knife or an empty hypodermic syringe.
"I can't help you", said Joby, backing away.
The boy looked and sounded genuine. He was plump (which ruled out him being a beggar or a drug-addict), with thick hair pulled back untidily into a pony-tail, which might have looked striking on some men, but on him it merely looked stupid, giving him the appearance of a worried seal. There was absolutely nothing about him to suggest he was a sharp child of the streets. What clinched it were his clothes, which were moderately clean, in good repair and looked as though they might have cost a fair amount of money.
"Where do you want to go?" said Joby, irritably "I'm new here myself".
"The Palace of Shells".
"Where the bloody hell is that?"
"If you can get me to the town centre, I might be able to find my own way from there".
"Can't you find it yourself? I'm looking for someone".
"I'm afraid", the boy's eyes filled with tears "I've had my money taken, and my ring. I'm frightened they'll find me again and kill me".
"I doubt it they'd bother if they've already got what they wanted", said Joby "Oh alright. Look I'll take you back to near where our wagon is parked, and then you can try and find your bearings from there".
"I would appreciate it so much".
"You look to me as though you shouldn't be out on your own".
"I gave them the slip, I wanted an adventure".
"The slip?" said Joby "Are you under arrest, or locked up for something?"
"No, no, nothing like that", the boy protested "Just over-protected that's all. I so rarely get to see what the town is really like".
"And after today I doubt you'll be in a hurry to see it that way again!"
Joby nicknamed the boy Trixie, after a bad-tempered Pekinese his gran had had, which had specialised in savaging newspaper-boys. The boy's appearance gave him the idea, although there was certainly nothing of the dog's vicious temperament about him. Joby took him back to the vicinity of the Pauper's Pitch, and they stood for a while to get their bearings.
"You've no idea which direction then?" said Joby.
"Perhaps if we head round the market I might remember something", said Trixie "We might see your friend there as well. What does he look like? I'll look out for him too".
"Short and very skinny with long blonde hair", said Joby, feeling it was best to err on the side of caution at the moment and not reveal that Kieran was the Vanquisher of Evil.
"Joby! Joby!" came a familiar voice from a short distance away.
"Somebody seems to be trying to get your attention", said Trixie, looking with concern at Lonts, who was standing by the wooden fence which bordered their wagon-space.
"Ignore him", said Joby, taking Trixie's elbow and leading him away "He's the mad one of the family. If you talk to him he'll only want to come with us, and that'll be a real pain".
"He's very good-looking", said Trixie, admiringly "Is he really mad?"
"Nutty as a fruitcake. Drives everyone else mad too. Come on".
To Joby's dismay Lonts ran after them.
"Where are you going Joby?" he asked.
"I don't have to give you my movements", said Joby, rounding on him "Now bog off back to the wagon Lonts, or you'll be in deep shit".
"Are you looking for Kieran?"
"Why, is he back?"
"Stop wasting my time then!" Joby cried "Now piss off Lonts, or I'll tell Adam you've been playing up".
"But I haven't".
"Then I'll lie then won't I!"
"I think you've upset him", said Trixie, as they left Lonts behind "Surely he could have come with us couldn't he? We'd have kept an eye on him".
"Are you kidding? You don't know what trouble he could get into round here".
"What's wrong with him?"
"Nothing in particular. He's just barmy", Joby suddenly glimpsed who he was looking for a few paces away "Kieran!"
He ran towards him, dragging Trixie with him. Kieran was munching on a hash-cake, his hat askew on his head.
"Where did you get that?" said Joby, accusingly.
"The fella over there", said Kieran, airily waving a hand in the direction of a nomad who was baking the cakes in a stove on the side of the street.
"How did you pay for it?"
"I didn't", Kieran giggled "Being Vanquisher gets you in everywhere. I promised him I could put a lot of business his way".
"Oh you're fucking loaded aren't you?" said Joby "Come on, I'm taking you back to the wagon".
"Not yet you're not!" Kieran slipped away, dancing nimbly amongst the crowds like an agile young colt.
"He is, isn't he?" said Trixie, with awe "The Vanquisher I mean?"
"He's a prat", said Joby, catching up with Kieran and grabbing his arm firmly.
"Oh don't be boring Joby, I can get you some too", said Kieran.
"You're mad you are. How do you know he hasn't put some dodgy stuff in it?"
"Oh well, you'll know if it is when all me teeth turn brown and fall out", Kieran exclaimed.
"Look I'm gonna have to take him back", said Joby to Trixie.
"I'll come with you".
"I don't mind waiting", said Trixie "I'd rather you took me home".
"Ooh Joby's got a date!" said Kieran "But he's terrible young. I don't suppose he's started shaving yet. Joby, you cradle-snatcher!"
"You are seriously pissing me off, you know that?" said Joby "You forget who you are".
"Too bloody true I do!"
"Alright", said Joby, in a softer voice "I understand. Come on".
"Somehow I didn't expect him to be like that", said Trixie.
"Don't you judge him!" said Joby, angrily "You don't know what he's been through".
"I-I wasn't", Trixie protested "I wouldn't dream of .. what I meant was he's so much more human than I expected, and that's a pleasant surprise. I mean it".
"O.K, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap", said Joby "It's just that there have been so many out to get him and ... let's follow him into the wagon. You can see how we live. That should destroy any more pre-conceived ideas you have of him".
Gimmit was sitting on the steps of the wagon, eating something from a bowl that looked quite disgusting. Joby pushed him aside roughly.
"He's not one of us", he said to Trixie.
He strode on into the wagon and instantly fell over Lonts, who was kneeling on the floor just inside the entrance. Kieran fell back on Adam's bunk in a fit of hysterical laughter.
"That was brilliant Joby!" he cried "The most perfect pratfall I've ever seen".
"You're always in the fucking way", Joby screamed at Lonts, who backed away into a corner, and sat there, huddled in terror.
Trixie noticed immediately that the wagon stank, chiefly of unwashed male flesh. This made him squeamish about sitting anywhere or touching anything. The wagon was filled with stained bed-rolls and filthy linen, dead locusts and a great quantity of sand.
"If we'd known you were coming we'd have cleaned up", said Kieran, as though reading his mind "You'll have to excuse the mess. I know it's diabolical isn't it? Oh here's Hillyard. You've lost too much weight Hilly. You used to have the kind of body that could carry the tears of the world on its chest, and now you're a ghostly spectre".
"I'm not that bad", said Hillyard "You sound like you've been enjoying yourself. Who's this then? We're not taking in someone else are we?"
"This is Hillyard", said Kieran to Trixie "He is one of the nicest men you're ever likely to meet. And yet he and Joby don't get on. Not at all. You see, years and years ago, when we first met him, Hillyard made the terrible mistake of tickling Joby's neck, and since then Joby's never forgiven him! Now isn't that a dreadful story?"
"I think you've seen enough for one night", said Joby, grabbing Trixie's elbow and flinging some final words back at Kieran "I'll sort you out when I get back!"
"Are you talking to me?" said Kieran "You can't take him away just yet. He hasn't met Adam and Ransey".
"And what a bloody relief that is!" Joby exclaimed.
"It's a shame you didn't meet him when he was his usual self", said Joby "You'd like him then".
"I like him now", said Trixie "I like you too. You did a very kind thing this evening. I was quite scared before you came along".
"What made you wander off on your own?" said Joby, as they pushed their way through a crowd who had gathered to watch a trio of fire-eaters.
"I wanted to enjoy my last night of freedom", said Trixie "It's my coming-of-age birthday tomorrow. I'm to have a huge party, and from then on my life won't be my own. Not that it ever has been really. But tomorrow the really serious grooming starts".
"Grooming for what?"
"I'm to be Grand Lord of the City, it's like a localised version of being President, although of course we all ultimately answer to Father Gabriel".
"Father Gabriel's influence doesn't seem to be very strong here".
"Pepuaah always was a law unto itself. I can't see even Father Gabriel changing that".
"You're a bit young to have all that responsibility aren't you?"
"You don't have to tell me that!" said Trixie "But I had the misfortune to have the highest I.Q in my camp when I was seven, and since then my fate has been sealed. They even have a consort lined up for me".
"I wish I were. A perfectly loathsome beast called Vanod. I hate him. He's always so horrible and sarcastic to me. He dislikes me as much as I dislike him".
"Can't you refuse him?"
"It's not the done thing. He was chosen because he had the highest I.Q in HIS camp, although not as high as mine, otherwise he would be Grand Lord instead".
"Seems daft to me", said Joby "All this harping on about I.Q's. A complete waste of time. After all, it's not as if they're going to be able to mate you together and produce a string of intelligent brats is it?"
"Fortunately there is no pressure on us to consummate the relationship, I'm glad to say. Because as you rightly pointed out, there's no need. Being Consort can be just a status role, someone to sit next to me at state banquets that kind of thing".
"You've got nothing to complain about then. Or is he so grotty you can't put up with him even then?"
"I could, if he'd only be nice to me", said Trixie "But I think he resents me too much. I got the position he wanted. Will the Vanquisher overthrow Father Gabriel eventually?"
"That's the idea", said Joby "Although it doesn't seem at all real at the moment".
"I hope he does. As Grand Lord of Pepuaah I will have to liaise with the President a lot. I'd rather deal with Kieran anyday than Father Gabriel. I've spoken to him on the monitor. He scares me. He doesn't seem human at times. Will Kieran choose a consort do you think?"
"He already has", said Joby "Two in fact. Me and Adam".
"Oh I see", said Trixie "He's lucky to have someone who cares about him as much as you do. I'd have liked a consort I could be friends with, but it doesn't look very likely with Vanod. Is Adam as nice as you?"
"Put it this way. He's much nicer to Kieran than he is to anyone else. Oh he's not a bad old stick really, although he frightens a lot of people".
"Does he frighten Kieran?"
"Not anymore. Kieran's got the measure of him now".
"He won't try and push you out will he?"
"No, we get on alright", said Joby "And Kieran's such a handful at times, he needs two of us to look after him".
They came within sight of the Palace of Shells, so-called because its walls were made up of a rare stonework which was the colour of the interior of a sea-shell, thus giving the impression that it was made up of shells. The Palace was huge, and sat in the middle of the city like a baroque ship marooned on a sea of concrete. With its wide steps sweeping up to the main entrance doors, and its candyfloss towers, reminiscent of the old Kremlin in Russia, it looked far grander even than the Ministry Headquarters in the City.
"You live here?" said Joby, incredulously.
"It's a wonderful place isn't it?" said Trixie "It's very very old. They reckon some of the foundations date back to before the Warming".
"I'd better leave you here".
"Thank you for bringing me home. I do appreciate it".
"Shame your last night of freedom wasn't more fun. If I'd known earlier we could've gone out and got pissed somewhere, as long as you paid though".
"I wouldn't have the nerve to go out drinking", said Trixie "I'm too disciplined and well-trained. It's one of the reasons Vanod despises me so much".
"Some people are like that. Enjoy your party tomorrow. Goodnight".
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