Go back to previous chapter
Adam sat at the entrance to the tunnel. Lonts was sprawled across his lap sleepily, and Adam stroked his back as though he was caressing a cat. It was the best way to soothe the boy, and calm his own nerves at the same time. He didn't know how long he had been sitting there. If felt like several years.
Suddenly two scarecrow figures approached out of the gloom. Both were liberally splattered with blood, and both were covered from head to foot in thick swabs of a cobwebby substance, which they were desperately trying to peel away from themselves.
"It's over Addy", Kieran grinned at him from behind the mess, as though he was wearing a mourning veil.
"He did it", Joby wept "We walked into the Thing, and I didn't think it would work but it did. It evaporated. I still can't believe it. It just went, right into thin air!"
They stood in the room which overlooked the main square and picked the cobwebs off each other, like monkeys picking out fleas. Somebody was tolling the great brass bell over the City gates, and the air outside was alive with voices, as men came running in from the surrounding countryside. The City was being re-born from its new foundations of bones and half-eaten flesh.
In the Ministry Headquarters the walls echoed with shouts and screams and laughter as though exorcising the evil that had contaminated it. Things had been quiet for too long. Evil bred in silence. The clowns and acrobats performed somersaults and pratfalls in the main foyer. Hillyard released the white stallion from the shafts of the carriage which housed the Gorgon, and rode the animal up the main staircase. Lonts took off his clothes and ran through the corridors, until Adam caught up with him.
"I can't help it Adam", the boy cried "I'm so excited".
"So am I", said Adam "But you don't catch me stripping down to the buff do you?"
"Then don't be a spoilsport and get on with it", said Julian, appearing next to him.
"Jules, what the fuck are you doing here?" said Adam "You're supposed to be minding Vanod".
"I heard the bell clanging, and I thought I'm not missing this", said Julian "So I came along. Vanod is quite secure believe me. I took him into the Monstrous Freaks section. He is currently locked up in a large metal box with the Three-Headed Man and the Faceless Child. And jolly good company they must all be for each other too".
The men were massing in the square. Some had been following the circus for days, wanting to be ready and nearby when the Vanquisher destroyed Father Gabriel. When Ully rang the great bell they knew it was all over and poured through the City gates. They were now waiting impatiently outside, under the balcony where presidents had always appeared on ceremonial occasions.
"They want to see you Patsy", said Adam, picking the cobwebs off him "Look at you! You look like something from an M R James ghost story".
"I feel like it", said Kieran "I can't go out there alone. You'll have to come with me".
"Apparently Trixie's got it all stage-managed, haven't you old love?"
Trixie looked barely soiled in his white linen pyjamas, and yet he had been with them as they walked into the City and explored the Headquarters.
"Yes I thought you should go out first Kieran", he said "Then Adam and Joby follow you out, and then finally the rest of us. But it's you they want to see first".
"I'm covered in Gabriel's blood", Kieran protested.
"That's what they want to see", said Adam.
"I thought you could take this to show them as well", said Ransey, holding out a bloodstained bundle wrapped in an old curtain "This is the proof they want".
"What the bloody hell is it?" said Kieran, warily.
"Gabriel's head", said Ransey, pulling it out of the bundle like a white rabbit out of a hat. He held it by its sparse matted hair, blood still dripping from the ragged stump where its neck had been. The horrific eyes rolled open lazily and then closed again.
"Don't worry about that", said Ransey "That's just a reflex action".
"I can't touch that", said Kieran, recoiling from it.
"You have to", said Ransey "It's what they want to see".
"Bloodthirsty louts", said Kieran.
Tentatively he took the head by its hair and carried it out onto the balcony. A huge roar went up from below. Kieran was appalled at how ragged and hungry the crowd looked. The crops had been failing for some time. There was famine in many parts of the surrounding countryside. Kieran suddenly realised what a huge task he had ahead of him, and it was all due to the man whose head he was now carrying. Angrily he lifted the head and thrust it at the screaming crowd. Then he flung back his arm and hurled it out to them. The last he ever saw of it many were using it as a football. He felt it was only what Gabriel deserved.
They took so many curtain-calls on the balcony that Bissy began to wish it was all part of the show. It seemed to go on for most of the afternoon. Kieran kept telling himself that it was their moment of glory and that they should relish it. But he simply felt exhausted and soiled. He wanted to wash himself free of Gabriel's blood, as it seemed to be everywhere, in his hair, on his skin and in his clothes. Added to that he kept finding more and more of the cobwebby material sticking to various parts of his body.
When the final cheer had eventually died down he ran back into the room and continued to pull at the black cobwebs, feeling as though he would never be free of them. Lonts appeared and draped an old curtain round his shoulders. Fortunately not the one that Gabriel's head had been wrapped in.
"You don't want to catch cold", the boy said.
"Lonts, it's about forty in the shade, I don't think there's much chance of that", said Kieran, tiredly.
"I hope you're not bothering Patsy, Lonts", said Adam.
"I'm taking care of him", said Lonts.
"Is Joby alright, Adam?" said Kieran "Is he bearing up under all this new fame?"
"He's fine", said Adam "Hillyard's taking him for a ride around the corridors on the back of the horse".
"What do you want to know about Joby for?" Lonts said "I'm going to be your consort now. If I was good enough for Trixie to choose, then you should want me too".
"Lonts, go and see if Ransey wants a hand with anything", said Adam.
"What brought all that on?" Kieran exclaimed, after the boy had walked away.
"The excitement of the day I expect. Don't worry about him".
"He will be a worry", Kieran sighed "He's almost as tall as you. I suddenly realised that when I was talking to him just now. I hope he won't be too difficult to control in the future".
"Lonts is my problem Patsy", said Adam "You just concentrate on running the world".
In the courtyard at the back of the Headquarters stood the Gorgon's carriage. Manada was waiting next to it, sheltering under the shade of his large hat.
"I don't anticipate any problems with the zombies", said Kieran "Not now their motivating force has been destroyed, but ..."
"We'll hang onto her here all the same", said Manada.
"We won't know if we're really safe from them until dawn tomorrow. We have to be alert in case any crawl out of the woodwork during the dark hours".
Kieran went round to the door of the carriage. The Gorgon had rested one of her hands on the side of it, easily distinguishable by the long green nails. Kieran picked up the hand and kissed it. He then stared boldly up into her masked face. Suddenly she reached up and pulled down the blind, shutting him out.
"If it hadn't been for her formidable presence here", said Kieran "I doubt if I would have had the courage to even enter that building".
"By all accounts it was a pretty grim place", said Manada.
"It should be completely pulled down. I think I'll make that one of my first tasks".
They filed up the stairs to their old apartment, only to find when they got to the top that they had mislaid the key a long time ago. Hillyard kicked the door in, which caused their next-door neighbour to emerge in his dressing-gown.
"Good God, are you still here?" Adam cried "I swear you'd survive a nuclear blast".
"I didn't think you'd come and live back here", said the neighbour.
"We have nowhere else to go. Are you the only one left here?"
"Apart from some ancient old git on the top floor. The rest all legged it in dribs and drabs. I expect they'll all be back now", he said, gloomily.
"You never know your luck gorgeous!" said Adam "That dressing-gown should be in a museum by now".
The apartment was dusty and swarming with cockroaches, but otherwise completely intact. Hillyard inspected his bedroom, then the stove and the bathroom. He flung the windows open, but the dry air outside did little to shake the stifling heat trapped inside the four rooms.
"Guess which idiot forgot to wash his coffee-cup before he set off on his hols", said Hillyard, thrusting the offending article at Adam "The spoon's stuck to it. I can't budge it".
Kieran and Joby had ran into their own room and jumped around on the bed so much that the entire frame collapsed. Whilst they were rolling around on the mattress, Ransey returned from having an inspection of his own home.
"Completely wrecked", he said, glumly "And thoroughly looted. I don't think they've left me with a even a toilet-roll to my name".
"Never mind old love", said Adam "You can come and live with us. It's not as if you're not used to our ways by now".
"Do you live here Adam?" said Julian, disdainfully "In this rabbit-hutch?"
"After the wagon it seems quite palatial", said Adam.
The zombies didn't appear that night, or the following night. By the third night the City was fully alive again. There had been an exhaustive tidying-up of all the bones and corpses, and the alehouses and restaurants had been emptied of their alcohol stocks to form a mammoth street-party. Kieran was uncomfortably aware that he had no law and order system to speak of, but there was no bad feeling in the streets. Only an exhausted, drunken relief. He could barely sleep for the enormity of the task ahead of him. The City would have to be rebuilt from nothing, and somehow he would have to try and salvage some skills and intellect from the men that were left, entice back those that had fled into exile.
The morning of the third day had been set aside as his inauguration ceremony. He had flatly refused to have it held on the balcony of the Ministry Headquarters, as was custom, as he said he never wanted to set foot inside that building again. Instead a platform, uncomfortably he felt resembling a scaffold, had been erected in the Ministry Square.
Ully came to the apartment early and helped him to dress in the long white shift and sea-green robe that constituted the inauguration robes. Kieran had been relieved to hear that Gabriel hadn't worn these himself, although they were in a dilapidated state from having been scrunched up in a trunk for the past few years.
"Shame about the colour", said Ully "It makes you looked washed out. A nice electric blue would have set off your hair and brought out your eyes".
"I know", Kieran chuckled "But I have a feeling the great public wants a bit of tradition at long last".
"There's no accounting for taste", Ully sighed.
The sun was blistering, even though it was only nine o'clock in the morning, and baked the cobbles in the square. By the time he got there Trixie was already waiting on the platform, looking plain and solemn. He was to inaugurate Kieran, in the absence of anyone else of high public standing. In front of a packed crowd Kieran slipped off the sea-green robe, and opened his shift so that Trixie could smear the sacred anointing fluid on his chest.
Kieran then had to do the same to Adam and Joby, as they were now to be his consorts. Adam's nipple-rings glistened in the sunshine, and Kieran had to resist the urge to laugh. Instead he squeezed Adam's hand, and stood on tiptoe to kiss him either side of his nose.
"Don't look so scared", Kieran whispered, when he moved onto Joby "I'm not going to eat you".
He anointed Joby, and then ignored protocol by hugging him tight before giving the solemn two-fold kiss.
"This is where it all starts to get really difficult", said Joby.
"I think we'll manage", said Kieran "We always have up til now".
The solemnities ended when the inauguration banquet began afterwards. This was eaten under canvas awnings in the streets. Many came up to the top table to swear their allegiance to Kieran, and still more arrived whilst the banquet was going on, each traveller bringing tales of how the roads to the City were becoming clogged with men all returning to help Kieran re-build their world.
When darkness fell torches were lit and placed along the roadsides. The acrobats entertained the crowd by performing somersaults over the heads of the banqueters, as they continued to feast on such delicacies as roast snake and crocodile eggs. Boats were taken out onto the river, and men sang from them. The boats were lit by so many torches that it could seem as though the water was on fire.
"Joby old love", said Adam, walking up to the said man, who was watching the festivities from one of the bridges "For someone who has just become the joint-second man in the land, you look very unhappy".
"I'm alright", said Joby "It's just that it's all a bit frightening isn't it? Presidents have a habit of coming to sticky ends, and there's so much work needs doing".
"That's tomorrow's problem", said Adam "Tonight is for enjoyment only".
"I wish I coped with it as well as you do. I was watching you all through dinner. You didn't let all the ceremonials and the sycophanting faze you one bit".
"Too busy keeping an eye on Lonts I suppose. He's having a marathon sulk because Patsy didn't choose him to be one of his consorts. All this is a bit bewildering for him, he's been getting terribly confused all day".
"I'm scared too", said Joby.
"So am I", said Kieran, coming up behind him "I don't even know where to start for crying out loud".
"We'll look after you, won't we Joby?" said Adam.
"Haven't we always?" said Joby.
"Lonts is blubbing, Addy", said Kieran.
"Oh lor, what now?"
"Nothing in particular, I think it's just all got to him, and the noise is frightening him a bit".
"He needs putting to bed really", said Adam "I'll have to see if I can calm him down".
"If you do that", said Kieran "I'll try and get Joby drunk. It's never been a problem achieving that before, but tonight obviously requires some extra effort".
Hillyard and Ransey walked onto the bridge, tugging Lonts along between them. They all walked towards each other, and embraced in one large group.
"Right then", said Kieran, when they finally came up for air "Let's see what we can do with a bit of power!"
Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site