Chapter 17

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Chapter seventeen

Creophas and Limivo

‘What are they going to do to Sarah?’ David asked as he struggled to keep pace with Fulgar through the muddy street.

‘She’ll be fine. She’s going to have a better life than you! What do you care anyway? I don’t know how you put up with her constant sniping and whining. Good riddance, and a good price too.’

Fulgar yanked his chain. He didn’t look back, or he might have seen the tears that were now merging with the rain on David’s cheeks. But these were not the tears of defeat, but of a new thing: rage.

‘Hey! Wait!’

David pulled back on the chain and Fulgar did indeed come to a stop. He looked at his prisoner quizzically.

‘What?’

‘I’m not going any further until you tell me what’s going on. What are we doing here?’

‘You’re in Exdis, you’ve managed to lose both your friends, and now I’m pretty much your whole world. Good enough?’

‘No!’

‘Well tough. That’s as good as your biography’s going to get. Whatever you were before has gone.’ Fulgar once again set off, but David dug his heels in and hauled back on the chain. Fortunately, Fulgar did not turn this into a tug-of-war (or David would even now be being dragged face down through the mud). Fulgar stopped once more and looked at his prisoner.

‘What now?’ he said.

‘Have we met before?’

‘Why would you think that?’

‘It’s not an accident you were at the Council when we arrived. Or that you saved us from the lion and the… whatever, leopard, on Mormo. You knew we were coming.’

‘I got lucky.’

‘You’re lying. We have met before, haven’t we?’

‘I think I’d remember you,’ Fulgar laughed, but it was an insincere sound. It was a sound suffused with wariness, even fear. ‘Now come on.’

He pulled David forwards again, but David was not finished. He lunged at Fulgar and thrust his hand into his captor’s pocket.

‘What about this then?’ he almost screamed. His fingers caught around a sliver of paper and he pulled it out. Fulgar rounded on him and back-handed him around the face so hard that David reeled backwards and only the tension in the chain stopped him landing on his backside in the road. He sank to his knees, his head spinning.

‘Don’t you ever touch me!’ Fulgar shouted. ‘I’m warning you. I’ve been sorely tempted to crush you like an insect, and don’t doubt that I’d do it. Cross me again and you’ll wish the guardians had caught you on Mormo. Now get up!’ He tore the paper from David’s fist and as he thrust it back into his pocket David saw that all he had managed to get hold of was a crumped and torn bank note.

Wrong pocket.

Given a fifty-fifty chance – left pocket/right pocket – David had picked the wrong one. The best, and probably last, chance he had to discover the truth before this world swallowed him completely had gone.

They walked. For half an hour they trudged through the now-deserted streets without a word. David fumed and plotted, turned over the events of the last day or so, looking for a way out. He needed a weapon. Something that could disable Fulgar long enough for him to retrace his steps and track down Sarah. An iron bar, a plank, even a splinter of wood…  

Fulgar steered him on across a patch of open ground to a small huddle of houses packed tightly together in a circle. The rain had begun to ease off now, the wind dropping to a steady breeze. That breeze carried with it a new smell, a rank odour of something living which should by rights be dead.

‘I’m leaving you with Creophas for a while. He owes me a favour, so he’ll feed you up. Don’t annoy him. Creophas likes an easy life.’

‘Where are you going?’ David said.

‘I’m going to juggle monkeys. What’s it to you?’

David just stared at him. There wasn’t much else he could do.

A large, squat concrete house stood at the centre of the huddle of buildings. Silvery drops of rain dripped from its uneven roof. Fulgar hauled David around in front of him and knocked on the door.

The smell hit David even before he focussed on the skeletal figure that peered around the edge of the door. It was a smell of rich cooking. Spices merged with burning oil, fish and game with something rotten. It was every Friday-night takeaway and every pub kitchen all compressed into a single, almost visible, blast of hot, sticky air.

‘Ah, F-Fulgar,’ the thin man said, opening the door a little further. ‘How can I h-h-help you?’

‘I’ve brought my friend here to see Creophas. He’s in dire need of a good meal.’

The door opened and the figure was revealed fully in the entrance. The man was barely David’s height, but barely a third of his weight. His body was little more than a walking bag of bones, loosely held together by winding sinews and tiny, emaciated muscles. His eyes bulged through the tight grey skin of his face. His lips were shrunken and drawn back to reveal black stumps of teeth.

He stepped aside to allow David and Fulgar entry to the hot, dark hallway. As he did so, David was horrified to see that the stained apron that formed this man’s only clothing was pinned to his skin at the back. Deep brown circles of dried blood marked the points where rusty safety pins attached the fabric to his body.

‘Please, c-c-come this way,’ the little servant said. ‘The feast is about to b-begin.’

‘The feast is always about to begin,’ Fulgar told David quietly. ‘Creophas lives in a state of constant preparedness for a feast. He passes the time between them by eating. You’ll like him – he’s a big old softy.’

The servant stopped at a door half way along the corridor and fumbled with a complex lock. His bony fingers worked like mice around a bag of corn – quickly, deftly, with a constant nervousness. Fulgar grimaced and was about to intervene when the lock clicked open and the servant drew back, too afraid to even look into the room beyond. With his head bowed, he motioned his two visitors into a long, low-ceilinged banqueting hall, then closed the door behind them.

More thin and emaciated servants scurried around the hall, carrying trays, tending a table that ran the length of the room, or darting in and out of a swing door at the side. The walls of the room were panelled with dark wood, over which tattered deep red curtains hung. There were a few windows high on one wall, but they were so heavily encrusted with grease and dust that almost no light came through them. The only light in the room came from red globe lamps suspended from the ornate ceiling. The fires within these globes crackled and spat, casting swirling ghosts of smoke and light across the room. The air was hot and still, rank with the mixed odours of meals past (the remains of which, in many cases, were still piled up on the table), and the stale sweat of the servants.

At the head of the table sat Creophas. Two skeletal servants stood behind him, giving David the momentary impression that the man had horns.

‘Fulgar, welcome! Join the feast. We’re just about to begin. And your little friend, bring him here where I can see him.’

Fulgar pushed David down the side of the table towards their host.

Creophas lounged back on a chair that could easily have accommodated six normal men, yet his bloated grey flesh still spilled over the thick arms. He examined David through tiny, round eyes set deeply among rolls of soft hairless flesh.

‘He needs a good meal, Creophas. He’s being taken to the Island on the next ship, and you know how the Cerberites like one who can put up a fight.’

‘Indeed. Sit, boy. You’ll join us Fulgar?’

‘Not today. I have business elsewhere, but I will return at nightfall for the boy.’

‘In time for the feast! Excellent!’

‘Maybe some other time. Thanks to this one, I’ll be in Exdis for a while.’

‘Very well. Come along, boy, sit!’

David edged onto a long bench that ran the length of the table while Fulgar made his exit. Creophas slumped back in his chair, paying no further attention to his dinner guest, while the two servants standing on the boxes behind him massaged his head.

The servants’ nimble fingers worked on the vein-mapped skin of Creophas’s pointed skull. Although his frame was basically human, his head was elongated, with a high, pronounced ridge running from front to back. His piggy eyes were closed.

Servants began to appear, bearing trays covered with shiny metal hoods, which they piled onto the mounds of plates and remnants of food that were already strewn across the table. Presently one arrived with a cauldron of smoking oil, heated from below by a portable fire. Splashes of hot fat erupted from the cauldron, releasing thick greasy smoke into the room. The oil had been flavoured with rich spices and chilies, making the smoke so pungent David’s eyes watered.

Creophas opened his eyes and leaned forwards towards the table, his flabby jowls quivering in anticipation of the coming food.

One of the metal hoods was removed to reveal a small cage.

‘You like bats, boy?’ Creophas asked.

David shrugged. There really was no answer to that.

‘Try some. They truly are delicious.’ So delicious, apparently, that the very thought of them made Creophas salivate. A servant mopped the drool with a sponge mounted on a long stick.

Something brushed against David’s leg. He looked down andsaw that as well as all the servants busying themselves around the table, more had now joined the feast beneath it. Starving bodies crammed together like rats in the darkness, positioning themselves as close to Creophas as possible without alerting him to their presence. Creophas’s tiny, perfectly pink feet were pressed together, exactly square to the line of the table. On his feet he wore elaborate gold sandals, on the fronts of which were long metal spikes. David could see why the servants beneath the table wanted to conceal their presence.

The servant who had brought the cauldron climbed onto the bench then up onto the table. He kicked plates and dishes out of his way and crouched in front of the cauldron to begin his cooking duties.

He reached into the cage and withdrew a live bat, which he skewered on a wooden stick before plunging the still-wriggling creature into the hot oil. A piercing scream came from the cauldron amongst the rush of bubbles and smoke. After a few seconds, the bat was removed and passed along the table to Creophas on a small silver plate.

The fat man took the bat, rolled it up, dipped it in a bowl of liquid butter, and popped the whole package into his mouth. Already the cook was preparing another bat. David prayed that this one was not destined for his plate. The sound of crunching bones turned his stomach in a way even the smell had not yet managed.

The second and third bats went to Creophas, to be treated to the same butter dip before vanishing whole into his huge mouth. The fourth was placed on a pewter plate and passed to David. He resisted the rancid bowl of butter, but felt it was best to at least make some pretence of eating. Creophas watched him eagerly.

He peeled some of the skin from the bat’s breast and nibbled at the flesh. The soft, spiced meat was almost, but not quite, pleasant. He managed a forced smile at Creophas, who, happy that his guest was now eating, returned to his own dinner. David took another nibble, and furtively dropped the remainder of the bat on the floor.

There was a sudden scurrying of sharp bodies around his legs. Beneath the table he saw a silent but vicious fight for his discarded food. One youngster, who appeared to be rather  healthier than the rest, scooped up the bat along with a handful of the earth from the floor and crammed it all into his mouth before any of his companions could wrest it from him. He grinned up at David.

‘Don’t feed them, boy. If you don’t like the food, throw it this way. I’m hungry, if you’re not.’ Creophas spat glistening fragments of wings and bones as he spoke.

The smoking cauldron was removed, and the next course uncovered. The tureen of pale green soup bubbled softly. Round white objects, like hard boiled eggs, rose and sank in the warm liquid currents, appearing for a moment, then vanishing as they were engulfed by the soup once more. As one such sphere came up through the murky liquid it appeared to wink at David. The sheep’s eye stared right at him before floating gently down out of sight again.

Creophas clicked his stubby fingers, and a large bowl of the green liquid was poured for him. Another steep-sided tureen was uncovered and he reached in for a fistful of live cicadas, which he sprinkled delicately over his soup. Now seemingly oblivious to David’s presence, Creophas began to slurp ladlefuls of soup into his mouth.

A bowl of soup was passed to David, who pretended to drink tiny amounts of the salty green liquid in case Creophas should look his way. Fortunately, his host had by now become bored with his guest, and went on slurping as if he were dining alone.

The door lock rattled again, and David’s pulse quickened. He had to think of something fast. When that door opened, he needed a way of getting through it before it closed again. Once outside, he would think of something.

Don’t over-think it. One step at a time. Win one battle at a time and winning will become easier. Just get out of here.

The door swung open and a girl of no more than thirteen, small and sickly-looking, entered.

‘Please, Sir, I have come to see Mr. Fulgar,’ she said without looking at the fat man. ‘I was told he was dining with you.’

‘Fulgar’s out. Will you join us for the feast while you wait?’ Creophas said. ‘My guest here has such a little appetite, there’s some I could spare.’

‘I can’t, Sir. If must be back to Satyris in half an hour, or he will…’ Her voice trailed off and she looked at the floor.

‘Your loss,’ the host said, picking a sliver of sheep’s eye from between his front teeth. ‘You, boy! Where are you going?’

David had made it as far as the door while Creophas’s attention had been on the girl. In truth, he had not expected to get even that far.

‘I wanted to speak to the doorman,’ he said. ‘See if he knew where Fulgar had gone. If he’s close, the girl can wait for him.’

‘The doorman won’t know,’ Creophas said. ‘Sit down.’

David’s hand paused for a moment on the door handle. He could see the cool light of day creeping around its edge. It wasn’t locked; it was barely even closed. Maybe he could make a run for it. There was only the half-dead doorman between him and freedom.

‘Sit down!’ Creophas roared.

David obeyed – a habit in-built by years of submission. He returned to his place at the table and sat down. His chances were running out.

‘Now, why do you need to see him so urgently?’ Creophas said to the girl.

‘I have money for him.’ She showed Creophas a small leather bag.

‘The boy here is with Fulgar. Leave it with him. I will see that he gets what he is due.’ He waved a flabby arm at David. The girl placed the bag on the table and was about to flee when David caught her arm.

‘Have you seen anyone new with Satyris today?’ he whispered urgently.

The girl looked at him in blank terror.

‘It’s all right. I just need to know if he’s taken anyone new back to….’

She shook her head, her eyes never leaving David’s.

‘Why’s he got you so terrified? What does he do to you?’

‘I’ve got to go,’ she whimpered. ‘Please, let me go.’ She twisted in David’s hand, but he held firm, as if this child of Satyris’s was his only link to Sarah.

‘Let her go, boy,’ Creophas said. ‘She’ll lose her feet if she doesn’t use them.’ The fat man laughed, and the girl slipped out of David’s grip. She ran from the room and the door slammed shut behind her.

David stared at the little bag of money. Money exchanged for Sarah. However cheap life was out here, Fulgar had seemed pleased with his price. David knew nothing of the currency of this place, but that little bag of coins might get him a long way if he could just find a way of using it. He pocketed it, pleased by its weight as it rested against his leg.

Creophas picked his teeth thoughtfully. There was a look of melancholy in the big man’s eyes. He stared vacantly at his empty soup bowl as servants came and went from the kitchen. David fiddled with the bag of coins in his pocket.

As he was running through possible options that this new-found wealth might bring him, the soup was cleared from the table, and the next course was unveiled. Creophas watched for a moment then lifted a heavy arm for attention.

‘Bring the brush!’ he screamed. A servant rushed to his side and began to work a scrubbing brush into a crevice of flesh below Creophas’s right arm. After much effort he withdrew a huge grey worm from its warm dark hiding place. He handed the worm to Creophas, who examined it closely before bashing its head on the table and throwing the twitching body to the excited hoards waiting on the floor.

‘They get everywhere.’ Creophas said with some regret. ‘Now, young man, you must be hungry. Time we ate.’

A silver plate was laid before Creophas, and four servants began to pile on slabs of meat, vegetables and a mass of yellow things that might have been fried grubs. David saw his opportunity to make a deal with his captor.

When his own plate was full, he used the knife to push the meat around and draw patterns in the mush of over-cooked vegetables. He felt Creophas looking at him, but he had to be patient. Creophas had to come to him.

For several minutes, Creophas ate in silence, all the time watching his guest with increasing interest. When the activity around the fat man was at its lowest ebb, David yawned dramatically.

‘Something wrong, boy?’ Creophas said. ‘Still not hungry?’

‘It’s not that,’ David said. ‘It’s just… don’t you ever get bored with the food your servants bring you day after day?’

‘Bored with food, boy? How can one ever be bored with food? These little meals are what keep us alive. Without them I would simply waste away.’ He crammed a forkful of meat into his mouth.

‘No, I mean wouldn’t you like some variety?’

‘Variety?’ Creophas eyed him suspiciously. ‘What would you know about variety? What, boy, would you know about food at all?’

‘I know enough,’ David said. ‘I could prepare something quite different for you. Something you would never have tasted before.’

Creophas froze in mid-chew and looked at him with interest. ‘Could you indeed?’

‘I could… with some finer ingredients.’

‘And where might you find these ‘finer’ ingredients?’

‘I have my sources,’ he said. ‘I have a friend, not far from here, who lives in a house with what is said to be the finest food in the area.’

‘Satyris! Damn that creature!’ Creophas banged his fist on the table, sending plates bouncing to the floor, much to the delight of those crawling in the filth beneath. ‘While we starve out here, he has more food than he could ever need. Do you know, boy, that he gives that food to humans? Servants!’

At the sound of the word, there was a scurrying of activity from those closest to the table, but he waved them away like flies.

‘No, I won’t take anything from that beast! I have my pride!’

He slammed his fork so forcefully into a slab of meat that it went through the plate and stuck in the table. He looked at it with a sudden sadness in his eyes, as if he had been cheated of the only morsel of food left to him.

‘But Sir,’ David said. He was feeling his way through a minefield, but he was sure now that there was salvation on the other side. ‘You wouldn’t be taking a thing from Satyris. I would. So if you were to sample – just a little – of what I bring, you would only be taking it from me, and I offer it to you freely.’

David held his breath. His host wiggled the fork out of the table and took another bite out of the steak. He chewed for a moment, then turned his eyes to David.

‘If you could get some of this food… well, I would be mightily pleased,’ Creophas said.

‘Well, I think I can. Of course, I’d have to go in person. I don’t think my contact would deal with anyone else.’

Creophas considered this as he shovelled a pile of vegetables into his mouth. He had been charged with the task of keeping David here until Fulgar returned for him at nightfall, but then, here was a rare and delicious opportunity to get hold of some of Satyris’s supplies. Supplies altogether ‘finer’ than anything his kitchen had to work with. He belched loudly.

‘Head!’ he called, and the two head-massagers mounted their boxes and began to work on his scalp.

‘Very well. I will allow you to try. But be sure you are back before nightfall. Fulgar will be here for you, and I really can’t be bothered entertaining him tonight. I’m not feeling myself at all today. Hunger, I suppose.’

‘I’ll make sure I’m back well before he comes.’

‘You do that.’

David stood to go, and even made it half way to the door before Creophas spoke again.

 ‘Take Limivo,’ he said. ‘You’ll need help carrying the feast.’

‘I’ll be fine. I’ll use a… cart,’ David said.

‘I’m sure you might,’ Creophas said. David could not see the fat man so clearly now, but even the distance and the gloom could not completely obscure the twinkle of cunning in his eyes.

‘But you might try to escape, don’t you think? Safer for all of us if you take Limivo.’

This had not been in David’s plan, but he was caught. If he refused to take a body-guard he would never be allowed to leave. At least this way he’d be outside. Limivo might even prove useful to fill the one gap in his plan that he had only just seen. He had no idea where Satyris’s place was.

Limivo was summoned through another mouthful of food. From under the table the relatively healthy-looking youngster who had taken David’s bat appeared and stood in mock reverence beside his master.

‘Accompany the prisoner to the house of Satyris. The boy has work to do there. Be sure to be back before dark, or there will be trouble for both of you. Now, go, I am getting behind with my meal.’

Limivo looked at David with a curious intensity, weighing him up. He whispered something to Creophas, but the fat man just waved his hand dismissively. Limivo took a stem of something red and twisted from a jar on the end of the table and shoved in his mouth. Without a backward glance at his owner, he took David’s chain and deftly clicked the lock of the door open. As they left the room Creophas called out after them.

‘We’ll have a feast to celebrate our victory over Satyris when you return.’ David just caught the words ‘if you return’ chuckled as they closed the door behind them.

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