Chapter 19

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Chapter Nineteen

A New Start


‘Come on Sarah, let’s get out of here.’ David had no intention of testing Limivo’s theory that they would not be missed yet. He wanted to put as much distance as possible between them and the increasing number of people who would be looking for them. He figured that at least they could present a moving, and hopefully elusive, target if they got going now.

‘Just a minute,’ Limivo said. ‘We had a deal, remember? I got your friend back, now you owe me.’  

‘OK, but don’t get in the way. If you slow us down, we’re leaving you.’

‘Wait here,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to get something.’ He turned and disappeared back into Creophas’s house, leaving the front door wide open. David didn’t pause.

‘Run!’ David whispered in Sarah’s ear. He was already moving by the time Sarah reacted. They slipped and splashed past forlorn, deserted shacks, over piles of rotting rubbish, and out beyond the immediate confines of the fat man’s huddle of houses.

‘Where are we going?’ Sarah said. She looked nervously over her shoulder.

‘We need to hide. Just trust me.’ David too looked back, as the voice of Limivo rang out through the quiet streets. He could not see their pursuer, but he was behind them, and he had a trail to follow. He was also making a lot of noise. David looked around frantically for a place to hide. That much shouting so close to Creophas’s house could bring an army of servants out looking for them.

‘In here!’

He shoved open the door of a shack, much like any other they had passed, but sufficient for their needs. With Sarah inside, he eased the door quietly closed and pulled her down against the wall. A quick glance around the room and through the open doors that led from it into other rooms that were either collapsed or burned out reassured him that they were alone. For now, at least.

‘Dave! Where are you? Come on, we had a deal!’ Limivo was getting closer, walking quickly now along the street where they had taken refuge, trying to follow their distinctive footprints in the mud. David chanced a glance from the glassless window of the shack. Limivo approached rapidly, looking into every building, calling to them.

‘Get down – he’ll see you.’ Sarah pulled on David’s trouser leg, but he held his position a few feet back from the window, hidden in the gloom. Limivo approached. He stopped right outside their hiding place.

‘Come on, Dave! This ain’t a game. We’ve got to go!’ Limivo was about to continue along the road when David stepped into the light falling through the window.

‘In here,’ he said quietly.

‘What are you doing?’ Limivo said. He kicked the door open and stepped into the deserted house.

‘Sorry. I had to be sure of you before I could let you come with us.’

‘So what did running away, then letting him find us prove?’ Sarah sounded as angry as Limivo looked.

‘It was the only way of knowing whose side he was on. He whispered something to Creophas before we left to look for you, but he wouldn’t tell me what. Then when he said he had to get something just now, I thought, well, it didn’t look good, did it? Running was the only way I could flush out his real intentions. If he followed us with back-up, he meant to betray us. If he came alone, then he was genuine.’

‘So now you trust me?’

‘Yes. But what did you say to Creophas?’

‘Just not to expect us back too soon, you idiot, to give us more time before he missed us. And I went back in to get my stick – it’s useful to have some kind of weapon out here. Then I heard you running away and came straight back out. So no stick. Just hope for your sake we don’t need it – there’s no way I can go back now.’

‘Sorry, but I had to know.’

‘Well, at least you seem to have learned something about this place at last. Getting yourself out of Creophas’s place was impressive, but getting yourself in there in the first place wasn’t.’

‘Point taken.’

‘So before you run off again, let’s get this deal sorted out, OK?’ Limivo said.

‘I don’t see how we can help you. We don’t really have a lot to offer.’

‘Oh, but you do.’

‘Like what?’

‘Take me with you.’

‘We are doing!’

‘No. Back home.’

‘What?’

‘Home. Where you came from. Before you came here, I mean.’

‘We can’t.’

‘Why not?’

‘We just can’t. It’s not like here. I told you it was beyond the Outlands, but not how far beyond. We’re not really part of this world at all, we came from somewhere… else.’

‘Doesn’t matter to me. I can’t live here. You’ve seen what it’s like. You image spending the rest of your short, pathetic life under the fat man’s table?’

David couldn’t. But right now, he had no choice. There was not much chance that any of them would get back, but there was at least a marginally better chance if Limivo was with them.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘but let’s move. We have to get to Toby first. If you still want to come with us when we get back to the forest, we’ll see what we can do.’

‘Good enough for me. But you run off again, I’ll consider the deal off. I’ll take my payment more directly, OK?’

‘Don’t threaten me, Limivo. We’ve already outwitted bigger threats than you.’

They stepped out into the street and began to make their way out of Creophas’s district in the direction of the brooding walls of the capital.

By now, the clouds were turning darker. A cold steady wind blew along the streets as the sun sank into the sea beyond Dis. The dark flat silhouette of the Ice Palace’s purple-black ziggurats loomed malevolently way behind the city walls. The gates of Dis still looked to be some way off. David wound the chain that Fulgar had attached to him all those hours earlier around his wrist and stuffed his hands into his pockets.

‘Limivo, can we get to Dis before it gets dark?’ he said.

‘No way. Even if we could get straight through to the edge of Exdis, there’s no chance I’m going to risk crossing the river until daylight. Anyway, Fulgar’ll be making his way back to the fat man’s place soon enough, so I think we should take it slow, not just run into him blind. We can hide out nearer the river for the night, but we’ll take the long way round to get there.’

Sarah, still looking pale and shaken, pulled her blanket up over her head. They crossed a narrow no-man’s-land of deserted scrubland and Limivo led them into a maze of narrow streets among midden heaps and mud-brick dwellings.

With each passing minute the great city to their left grew darker and more solid, reaching up to the rolling clouds above like a silent machine about to wake. Even when they could not see its outline amongst the buildings of Exdis, they felt its dark energy pulsating out across the villages. Dis breathed, waiting for them, calling them.

As the evening thickened around them, ragged, scrawny people began to emerge from the buildings. The same intense, concentrated activity they had seen earlier that morning filled the streets. Servants, relieved of their duties for a few minutes hurried here and there, trading scraps of food, fetching and carrying boxes of rags and bits of wood and metal.

While the adults went about their useless business, exchanging nods and grunts to their fellow workers, children played among the shacks that lined the streets. Happy laughter filled the air. Two girls stood at a glassless window trading vicious yanks on each other’s pig-tails, reciting something that reminded David of a primary-school skipping rhyme, though he could not make out the words. At the end of each line one or other would yank her friend’s hair, or administer a sharp slap to her face. Further on, a group of boys stood around a small child who drank from a puddle in the gutter. Now and then they kicked lazily at the child, landing shoeless blows on its head and body. They too laughed and jeered as the child struggled to stay drinking at the dirty water.

‘We’ll need to find shelter for the night,’ Limivo said. ‘You don’t want to be out on the streets when it gets really dark.’

The houses began to thin out, but before they left the district completely, they came to a wall of people across the road. Limivo pushed his way through the throng with his two companions doing their best to keep up.

A group of about seven youngsters, boys and girls, were involved in frantic activity around a small mud-brick shack. It sounded as if the house was being demolished. There was a heavy pounding from within and the walls shook with each blow. Suddenly, there was a sharp metallic rumble and the roof of the house came crashing out into the street. Two boys emerged through a window, screaming with laughter.

Limivo indicated that they should move on, but David stood his ground. An orange glow appeared from within the shack. Flickering flames quickly took hold and smoke billowed up through the open roof. An old man on the edge of the crowd shouted something David could not understand, but was quickly silenced as the group surrounded him and began to drag him forwards to the burning house. Giggling and prodding each other, they punched the old man until he fell to the ground, hunched over in a protective crouch. The two who had brought down the roof took the old man under the arms and hauled him to his feet.

David tried to break free from the crowd, but Limivo caught him.

‘What are you doing?’ he hissed.

‘We’ve got to stop them…’

While most of the group danced and cheered at the fire, the two who had hold of the old man gradually pushed him forward, forcing him to watch the fire engulf his home.

‘Limivo, they’re going to kill him!’ David shouted, straining to get free of Limivo’s grip.

‘No they’re not. They’re only playing!’

The children kicked at the mud walls of the house as the flames licked around the inside of the crumbling building. The front wall disintegrated and fell inwards into the inferno, to a general murmuring of approval from the watching throng. The old man was finally allowed to slump unhurt to the ground, where he crouched silently watching the remains of his house crumble to ash.

‘You just let them do it?’ David said.

‘Of course. They’re just kids having some fun. This is a pretty crappy place to live, you know.’

‘And the best way to deal with it is to make it worse?’

‘Hey, look,’ Sarah said. Through the thick smoke and the heaving crowd they could just see another commotion at the far corner of the building. Two adults, little more than vague shadowy figures, appeared to be having a disagreement of their own.

‘That’s not good,’ Limivo said. ‘When the adults start to get involved, things can get nasty. Come on, we need to get under cover.’

Limivo hustled them past the flaming ruins of the shack without giving it another look and turned left towards the edge of the district. The crowd behind them gradually began to drift away too. The two adults, one a huge hulk of a man, the other slight but strongly built, did not notice the fugitives as they slipped away into the darkness.

The sound of the crowds faded behind them as the three youngsters made their way to a silhouetted huddle of shacks a mile or so along the mud track. Darkness was creeping in on them rapidly, the ominous shape of Dis withdrawing into the heavy sky beyond it. A cold breeze stabbed into every gap in their protective blankets causing David to shiver, but bringing Sarah back to life more with every step. Out of the gloom that enveloped Dis, David could see smaller, darker shapes emerge into the sky. They appeared to be birds, or large bats, coming out to hunt under cover of night.

Limivo scouted around the silent buildings, looking into each one before moving on having rejected it as a suitable place for them to hide out. Eventually he found one that suited his requirements and he led them in to the dark damp interior.

‘They all seem deserted, so we should be safe here for the night. David, go and see if you can find any wood for a fire, and I’ll try to make some kind of door.’

David went back out into the night once more. There was very little wood left in any of the other houses, but in time he had gathered a reasonable collection of small pieces. They were mostly damp, rotten sticks, chunks of building waste too small to be of interest to scavengers, but good enough to make a fire.

Limivo managed to find a broken door that had been covering the entrance to the cellar in a house on the next block. He propped it up against the opening of their refuge and leaned bricks against it to make it secure. David built a small fire in the centre of the room. A cold breeze trickled in through the glassless windows, but they were sheltered from the worst of the night.

As David and Sarah huddled beneath their blankets, Limivo coaxed a flame into the pile of wet splinters that would be their only buffer against the frightening darkness that surrounded their hide-away.

Soon a steady fire burned. It cast a warm glow in the room, though what little heat it produced was quickly swallowed by the damp or carried away on the cold draft. They snacked silently on some of the food they had stolen from Creophas’s haul, and began to relax for the first time in many hours. The only reminder of the outside world was the distant sound of human voices and the occasional screaming of the creatures that had flown out of the city.

It was Sarah who spoke first as the all stared into the crackling fire.

‘Who are you, Limivo?’ She sat huddled beneath her blanket, the flickering orange light of the fire playing shadows across her weary face. ‘You don’t seem like all the others.’

‘Nice of you to say so,’ he said, shuffling a little closer to her. David sat cross-legged opposite them, poking idly at the edge of the fire with a long splinter.

‘Yes, who are you?’ he said. ‘Why do you want to come with us so much?’

‘You’re joking, right? You’ve seen this place. Would you want to spend the rest of your lives here?’

‘I guess not, but is it all this bad?’

‘Dis, and Exdis, are ruled from the Ice Palace by a king who came to power after Firestorm. You know about Firestorm?’ They nodded. ‘He’s not one of us, not human, I mean. I’ve heard tell that there was once a god who ruled over Levantium, but he’s gone now, and this new king’s taken his place. When he came, he brought the Barons with him. They keep order in the world. At the moment, they only live around here, but there are plans to recolonise the whole of Levantium and build a new world. I only know what little bits I heard when I lived with Satyris. Creophas was no use for information. But I learned enough to know I don’t want to be around when they move out beyond the mountains in force.’

‘But if they came after Firestorm, what are they waiting for?’ Sarah said. ‘That was, what, a hundred years ago?’

Limivo shrugged, either because he didn’t know, or because the answer was irrelevant. When and why the Barons intended to move out into the Outlands would make no difference to him. Even assuming he was not already dead by then, the difference for him would be marginal. He was already in hell. Moving it to another place wouldn’t change that.

‘And what about the servants?’ David said.

‘Most of the servants are humans, or half humans. After Firestorm, thousands of humans came in from the Outlands. Most were killed, but some bred and kept their masters supplied with servants for generations. But they’re fragile. They get diseased and die, and they can’t work hard enough, so there was a new plan. Breed humans with the new rulers, to create a hybrid that might die eventually, but was much tougher than the original Outlander while they were alive.’

‘How many of these Barons are there? Sarah said.

‘Don’t know for sure. More. We’ll be moving through other territories tomorrow. Then there are some who are still within the City.’

‘So why haven’t you just got out? Moved into the Outlands?’ Sarah’s eyes sparkled in the firelight.

‘Sounds easy. But it’s just not like that.’

‘Because of the Cerberites?’

‘No. The Cerberites are effective up to a point, but they’re more concerned about keeping order for the Barons, not turning this place into a prison. They don’t need to.’

‘You mean people would stay here even if the mountains weren’t guarded?’

‘Sure. The humans just talk. They say their parents were stolen from the Outlands, and they want to return to their homelands. But for most of them it’s just words. No one ever tries to leave. It’s just words.’

‘But why? They could just walk out.’

‘Into what? Isn’t it easier to stay here and complain than take the risk of leaving into the unknown? It gives them a purpose, some kind of meaning. They know it’s bad in the Outlands and that whatever’s here would only catch up with them anyway once the Barons are released. Right now they’re fine. They get food, they get jobs, they get all the freedom they want to complain as much as they like, and they don’t have to take any real risk.’

‘So this is a prison of their own making.’

‘Name me one that isn’t. Even Britannia was full of people who went there voluntarily. No one made them commit the crimes they did.’

‘That’s a pretty cynical way of looking at it,’ David said.

‘Humans have free will. Don’t think it’s the Barons, or even the king, who made Exdis. The humans populated this place right after the war and were quite happy to accept the order the Barons could offer. Creophas and Satyris and all the rest of them might be in charge, but it’s the humans who bowed down before them.’

‘You’re talking as if you’re not one of them,’ Sarah said.

‘Am I? It was you who said I was different. There was a world here before Firestorm, you know. Before the Barons, before the king. I guess the half of me that is human’s still got some of that old world running through me.’

‘So you still believe things could get better?’

‘I believe humans, even half-humans, have free will.’

The world beyond their four walls had ceased to exist for them now. It was full-dark and the last of the people had moved off to take shelter. Even the bats had become silent. The flicker of their inadequate fire drove the darkness back, but not all the way. The edges of the room were in deep, shimmering shadow, the windows patches of depthless black.

‘So these humans, servants, whatever, must be getting something out of staying,’ David said. ‘But what? They all look so miserable and half-starved.’

‘Sure, but that’s part of what does keep them here. They learn. They sit at the feet of the Barons, who are supposed to be this great new ruling force. Everyone knows the big push into the Outlands is coming.’

‘And they want to be around when it happens?’ David said.

‘I guess. Take Creophas. They see this man with all the food he could ever want, sitting there gorging himself, not a care in the world. They stay because they think if they ride on his coat-tails for long enough, they might get a bit of it rub off on them. Meanwhile, he keeps them starving, so they stay keen to learn, keen to stay just a little bit longer.’

‘So what about Satyris?’ Sarah said. She had pulled the blanket from her head and was kneeling in front of the fire. ‘You can’t possibly believe that his wives as he calls them want to be there! What do they get out of it? What can they possibly be learning?’

Limivo shrugged.

‘No! That’s not good enough. You’ve got this great theory about how this place works, so explain that!’

‘I can’t. But there is an explanation. Tell me, did you see a single lock on any door when you were in his compound?’

‘No, but…’

‘But nothing. Your answer lies somewhere in that ‘but’. I told you, humans made Exdis; the Barons just run it.’

Sarah pulled the blanket back over her head furiously and sat staring into the fire.

‘Do you think they will ever get out, better themselves?’ David said into the stony silence.

‘Who knows?’ Limivo said. ‘Some might. Eventually the Barons’ll move out, and they’ll need underlings to push their work on a grander scale. I imagine the deputies’ll be appointed from the ranks of the servants. Until then, most are too stupid, or greedy, or brainwashed to want anything different.’

‘Why are some of the Barons still in Dis?’ Sarah asked.

‘They’re the really bad ones, so I’ve heard.’

‘Worse than Satyris? I can’t believe that.’

Limivo thought for a long time. So long that David began to wonder if he was going to say any more on the subject at all.

‘Think of it this way,’ Limivo said eventually. He drew a line on the floor with a stick he had pulled from the fire. ‘On this side of the walls are the Barons who are lazy, greedy, stupid, whatever. They live in communities with servants, and they trade with the other Barons. It’s kind of a happy state out here.’

‘Happy?’ Sarah said in disbelief.

‘Happy,’ Limivo said.

He drew a passable outline of the city walls on the floor.

‘In there are the violent ones, the ones who can’t live in communities because it’s their nature to destroy. They’re like caged animals. Once they’re set free they’ll live fine, but Exdis isn’t big enough to contain them. Only the walls can contain them.’

‘So this, Exdis, is like the start of some great new society? The Barons getting on and making a happy new world, living in peace and harmony?’

 ‘That’s about it. Oh, except one. There’s Pelf. Pelf’s nature is to steal, so no one has much to do with him. He’s only got one servant too. All the others left him, which I suppose proves they can if they want to.’

Outside there was the suck-squelch sound of footsteps in the mud – quiet, but not quiet enough against the backdrop of silence.

Limivo motioned them to move back to the walls. Each shuffled into the concealing gloom and pressed against the wall.

Alone in their patches of darkness, far from the reaches of the light of the fire, they waited. Only David saw the shadowy figure outside the window, indistinct and fluid in the depths of the night. The figure paused for a moment, maybe looking in at their fire – wary, cunning, thoughtful. Out of the darkness something turned end over end through the air and landed with a hissing plop in the fire. A shower of sparks span upwards and David was sure that their light would be enough to illuminate his face. He held his breath and waited, but the figure outside did not move.

After what seemed like several minutes the figure drew back from the window and David let his breath out. His heart thumped in his throat. Footsteps and whispered voices moved away.

It was a long time before they moved back towards the fire. It was longer still before anyone spoke.

‘OK,’ David said, pushing fragments of their dying fire together to keep it burning just a little longer. ‘I think we should turn in. We’re almost out of fuel and this fire’s only going to attract attention if we keep it going.’

‘Agreed,’ Limivo said. ‘I’ll stay up a while, keep a look-out.’

David lay down by the fire and began to doze almost immediately. He heard Limivo pacing their refuge, but could not see him in the dying light.

Some time later, a faint rattling made David sit up with a start. He looked to the window to try to pinpoint the source of the familiar mechanical voice.

‘Don’t worry,’ Limivo whispered. ‘They’re just out looking for stragglers. They won’t check in the houses.’  Sarah was asleep close to the almost-dead fire, but Limivo still sat watching as the last of the embers dwindled to nothing.

David lay back down with the sound of the Cerberites drifting through the night. They were far-off sounds, sounds that posed no threat, sounds that were, in their way, almost comforting. They were becoming familiar.

Given time and repetition, anything can become familiar. Even the certainty of death has the power to soothe eventually.

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