A beautiful day. A clear blue sky. The sun a golden orb that basks the land in glorious pure light that streams down through an air made clear by the cessation of humanity.
Lush green fields. Thickets of trees. Hedgerows bursting with life. Rabbits run free through long grass watched lazily by swollen bellied foxes too fat and full to give chase. Butterflies dance on the thermals amidst swooping birds snatching insects from the air.
Idyllic. Sumptuous and glorious. Heat shimmers hang over the greying tarmac of the country road meandering through the green land.
Even the flies buzzing over the bloated corpses just adds to the ambiance of the place. Maggots writhe in the wounds, happy within their universe of rotten flesh and soggy innards. Theirs is an existence of bliss and perfection. To live is to die. To die is to give life.
The ground shakes. The bodies tremble. The maggots quaver and quake with a vibration that grows steadily greater. The buzzing of the flies grows louder. They give lift to swarm over the carcasses of once-human forms. Still the trembling coming through the road grows. Noise too. A deep rumble of something heavy and solid. The rabbits in the fields freeze. Foxes prick their ears. Birds scatter away to take refuge in the high branches of trees.
The noise grows. The vehicle comes into view. Holding a central position in the road. Big wheels. A solid front full of dents, scrapes and still glistening wet from the bodies it smashed into.
The vehicle stops suddenly. The engine cuts off. Doors open. Boots land and crunch on the road as those inside starburst out frantic and panicked. The peace shatters. The foxes slink away into the undergrowth. The white tails of the rabbits flash as they bob and weave to take cover.
The leader of men stumbles and staggers with a giant at his side and a small man at his back. A huge dog bounds ahead of them, barking high-pitched and sustained. A beautiful woman clambers over the seats from the back of the vehicle to drop, wriggle and fall from the passenger door left open. Her hands clamped over her mouth. She staggers past the small man, shouldering the giant and the leader aside to retch and gag as the dog bounds and barks high-pitched and sustained.
Younger men fall from the open rear doors. Hardened by battle and days of fighting and running. To the last, they stagger, lurch and run with hands over mouths. The flies buzzing over the corpses gain the scent of something new and start drifting over. A pungent tang in the air. An aroma of fecal matter that pervades the air around them. A young woman runs with the young men. Mixed race, dark hair, and athletic. One of the young men goes back to help her, his blond hair slick to his scalp. She waves him away. It’s too dangerous to go back. He nods and turns away. It’s every man for himself. Every woman for herself.
A second vehicle stops. The engine ticks over before shutting off. A big solid blue van used to transport money when the world was given to the worship of cash and objects.
The driver of the van stares out. His keen eyes searching for the cause of the incident. A woman in the seat next to him, wistful, intelligent and connecting the dots as a squat tough-looking young woman saunters to the back of the first vehicle with a wide grin. She drops down and waves her hand round her backside.
‘Ah…Blinky farted,’ Paula says.
‘Ah,’ Roy says, nodding in understanding.
‘What’s happened?’ Reginald asks, peering through the hatch from the back of Roy’s van to see the others all retching as they crawl, stagger and lurch away from the Saxon.
‘Blinky farted,’ Paula says again, pointing at Blinky still waving her hand round her backside while grinning.
‘Ah,’ Reginald says. ‘Indeed.’
‘OH MY GOD,’ Cookey heaves and retches.
‘That’s so bad,’ Blowers gasps, crawling on all fours to gain distance.
‘Blinky, that is…’ Charlie coughs then inhales but that drags in more of the pungent aroma of fecal matter. She coughs again, waving her hand in front of her face. ‘It’s…it’s very….disgusting…’
‘Did you shit yourself?’ Nick calls out.
‘Don’t think so,’ Blinky says, wiggling her arse while holding a thoughtful gaze. ‘Nah, just farted.’
‘Boss?’ Blowers calls out, his voice rough and hoarse.
‘What?’ Howie shouts back, his own voice as rough and hoarse as Blowers.
‘Can we shoot Blinky?’
‘Yes,’ Howie shouts. ‘Bloody hell,’ he spits to the side and tries to stand upright while drawing a deep breath but the stench clings to the hairs in his nose and he coughs and bends double again. ‘What did you eat, Blinky?’
‘Beans, Mr Howie, Sir,’ Blinky shouts back, clipped and snapping out a salute as she speaks.
‘Did Blinky fart?’ Paula asks, dropping out of Roy’s van to walk over.
‘Yes Sir, Miss Paula, Sir. Had beans, Sir…’
‘Ah it can’t be that bad,’ Paula says.
‘Go back,’ Nick waves at her. ‘Seriously…’
‘Idiots,’ Paula mutters then spots the bodies. ‘You seen those…Jesus, that is bad…oh my god…OH MY GOD THAT’S SO BAD…’ The smell hits and surges up her nasal passages to her brain that goes into panic mode and sends signals to her belly that flips and twists. She staggers to the verge, hand over mouth, gagging and retching.
‘Is it that bad?’ Roy asks, leaning out his door.
‘Don’t get out,’ Paula shouts, her voice muffled through her hand.
‘Idiots,’ Roy mutters as Blinky focusses, tilts her head, lifts an eyebrow then her right foot before commencing a long wet rasp.
Roy slams the door closed then leans to grab Paula’s door left open and slams that too. ‘You got any windows open, Reggie?’
‘My windows don’t open,’ Reginald says.
‘We’ll get the air-con on…’ Roy mutters, glancing out the windscreen to see Blinky still holding position with the look of pleasure on her face while Meredith creeps forward with her neck extended tentatively sniffing the new smells coming from the girl. Roy flicks the switch then frowns at the lack of noise that would signify the air-conditioning is on.
‘Perhaps the engine needs to be running,’ Reginald says quietly, shaking his head at the tomfoolery going on. He tuts too, then frowns and shakes his head and tuts again. They have work to do.
Roy turns the key. Nothing. He turns it back and tries again. Nothing. He takes the keys out, pushes it back in, turns and still nothing. He checks the switches, gear stick and anything that could pose an immediate issue but when he turns the key, it stays quiet and inert. No warning lights either. The whole thing is dead. Not even the battery light is flashing. Nothing.
‘Bugger,’ he mutters.
‘Problem?’ Reginald asks politely.
‘Dead,’ Roy says, turning the key again. ‘Nothing, not even turning over.’
‘Oh,’ Reginald says mildly. Engines are things for mechanics and men who are good with their hands.
‘Must be the battery. I’ll get Nick,’ Roy says, opening the door before reeling backwards from the punch to the face that is the fine aroma of Blinky’s arse. He drops down and tries to go forward but it would be easier fighting through dense ranks of undead than going into that gas cloud.
‘Think I need a dump,’ Blinky announces.
‘Go,’ Paula says, waving a hand with tears streaming from her eyes. ‘Down the road. Go on.’
‘Need some bog roll,’ Blinky says, leaning into the Saxon to grab a roll of white toilet tissue before looking around at the others. ‘Pussies, it’s not that bad.’
‘Fucking is.’ Cookey wails.
‘Come and hold my hand while I have a poo, Cookey.’
‘Nothing’s going to attack you with that smell,’ Nick calls out from the front of the Saxon.
Bog roll and rifle in hand she sets off down the side of Roy’s van and past the horsebox holding Jess. Whistling softly then grinning at Roy who whimpers at meeting her at the back then runs away down the other side. Blinky trudges on down the lane. All is well in her world. They’ve had two big scraps this morning, killed loads of zombies, driven about a bit, listened to music, stopped for coffee and listened to Reggie go blah blah with Charlie and Mr Howie and the elders then had another scrap. Blinky doesn’t do overthinking. This life now is awesome and she wouldn’t change it for anything. She ducks into the opening of a footpath, listens intently, turns round fully and seemingly satisfied, starts unbuckling her blood and gore covered clothes to squat and gain relief.
‘Bot a Broblem,’ Roy calls out, muffled and faint from his hand covering his mouth and nose. The rest turn to watch him coming. ‘Ban’s bed,’ he adds, nasal and distorted.
‘Bay?’ Howie asks.
Roy risks pulling his hand away for a second to blurt the words. ‘Said van’s dead,’ he covers his mouth again, nodding at everyone. ‘Not starting,’ he adds, snatching his hand away for a second.
‘It was just working,’ Paula says, copying Roy with her hand snatching away from her mouth and nose to speak.
Roy shrugs. Not wishing to remove the filter from his face.
‘We just drove here,’ Paula adds.
‘Like two seconds ago.’
‘Bot starting,’ Roy mumbles through his hand. ‘Bight be battery.’
‘Be bot a bare bon?’ Nick asks as everyone stares blankly. He sucks air through the filter of his hand. ‘Have we got a spare one?’ he blurts quickly.
‘Bo,’ Roy says, shaking his head.
‘Bucked ben,’ Nick says.
‘Boo’s Ben?’ Cookey asks.
‘Fucked then,’ Nick says, removing the filter for a second.
‘Bab a book in a bin,’ Howie says.
‘Bot?’ Marcy asks.
‘Bab a book in a bin,’ Howie says again. ‘Buck’s sake…have a look in a min,’ he says, snatching his hand from his nose.
‘Boh,’ Marcy says, nodding at him. ‘Bot it now.’
They stand and wait. Hands over noses. Looking at each other and round at the road and high hedgerow. Clothes smeared in blood and gore. Arms and faces marked and streaked. Cuts and bruises, fresh wounds that mark the battles of the day. They nod and rock on feet. Blowers takes a test sniff then yacks and quickly covers up before shaking his head to signify it’s not safe yet.
‘Bodies,’ Paula says, pointing off to the side where the maggot infected corpses lie.
‘Beah,’ Howie says.
‘Bite a bew,’ Marcy says.
Paula frowns, staring at Marcy. ‘Was that quite a few?’ she asks, snatching her hand out.
Marcy nods. ‘Bey book old bo.’
A pause to decipher. Eyes narrow and brows lift. ‘I said they look old though,’ Marcy gasps.
‘Bah,’ Howie says, nodding. ‘Buck bows…’
‘Buck bows?’ Clarence asks.
Howie nods again, ‘buck bows…’
‘Fuck knows?’ Paula asks, getting a thumbs up in response.
Blowers nods at Cookey. ‘Bor Burn.’
‘Bo,’ Cookey says.
‘Bor burn.’ Blowers says again.
‘Bo,’ Cookey says again. Shaking his head firmly.
‘Bile bo it,’ Charlie says.
‘Bon’t boo bit,’ Mo Mo says.
‘Bit’s bine,’ Charlie says, removing her hand to gently sniff and pause, ‘I think it’s gone now.’
‘Beah?’ Howie asks.
She sniffs again. ‘I think so, hard to tell, I’m used to Blinky’s smells.’
‘Buck it,’ Mo Mo says, removing his hand to sniff. ‘S’fine now innit,’ he says to the others.
‘Oh thank god,’ Paula says, lowering her hand. She sniffs distastefully at the trace lingering in the air and scowls round before resting her eyes on Roy then over at Nick. ‘Well?’
‘Bell bot?’ Nick asks his hand still over his mouth and nose.
‘Van’s not going to fix itself.’
‘Bo bossy,’ Nick says.
‘Be is,’ Roy mumbles through his hand.
‘I am,’ Paula says, nodding at them both. ‘We’ve been fighting all day. I’m covered in blood and shit and I want to find somewhere to get clean.’
‘Bere bere,’ Marcy says, nodding enthusiastically.
‘Bum on,’ Roy says motioning for Nick to follow him as Cookey bursts out laughing.
‘Yeah, Nick…bum on.’
‘Bum on, Nicholas,’ Blowers adds.
‘Bet bent,’ Nick says through his hand walking after Roy.
‘Right, eyes open and stay sharp,’ Howie says, ‘Nick, Roy, I want a heads up if we’re here for any length of time so we can get Charlie on Jess.’
‘Bill Boo,’ Nick calls back.
‘Fucking day again,’ Marcy says, finally dropping her hand. Mo looks at her, taking in the film of sweat shining on her forehead and the tiredness in her eyes. The same fatigue they all have. Too much death today. Too many fights. The last one was hard. The numbers were greater than they thought. Through street after street they fought and laid waste to those that charged against them. They won again but the expenditure of energy, the loss of fluids and humour all took its toll. It was silent in the Saxon until Blinky farted. Silent and morose. If nothing else this stop has broken that blackness of mood.
‘Hydrate,’ Dave says. His voice as flat as ever. He marches off towards the back of the Saxon with Mo at his side. Of all of them, Dave and Mo are the cleanest, the most untouched by the gore and grime. Smart, tidy, neat and different in the way they are.
‘Patricia,’ Dave says, looking at Blinky as she walks back.
‘Blinky,’ Mo says.
‘Dave,’ Blinky says respectfully before looking at Mo and grinning, ‘I had the best shit ever…you know that feeling? Fucking awesome…’ she stops at the sight of Nick lifting the bonnet on the van. ‘What’s going on?’
‘You fucking stink is what’s going on,’ Nick says, propping the cover open on the latch.
‘Fist me, is the van broke?’ Blinky asks, taking a bottle of water from Mo.
‘Your arse broke it,’ Nick says. ‘Try it now, Roy.’
Blinky watches Nick running his hands over part of the engine then staring at the battery casing.
‘You turning the key?’ Nick calls out.
‘Yes,’ Roy shouts back from the van.
‘Battery,’ Nick says, rubbing the end of his nose. ‘Turn the lights on…they on?’
‘Hazards?’ Nick calls, stepping back to look at the lights again. ‘You got any power at all?’
‘Nothing,’ Roy shouts back. ‘Reggie’s got the other battery in the back for the secondary supply.’
‘I er, I rather thank that is dead also,’ Reginald says, pressing the buttons on the inert monitor on his desk that displays the camera feeds from the light clusters on the van’s four quarters.
‘Seriously?’ Roy asks, going through the hatch to try it himself. He presses the monitor on then the overhead lights. ‘Nick? The back’s dead too.’
‘Fuck it,’ Nick says, lifting his hands up in irritation. ‘Fuck knows. Shorted out maybe?’
‘Bad?’ Howie asks, walking down with the others.
‘Electrics all dead,’ Nick says. ‘Both batteries.’
‘Both?’ Marcy asks.
‘Main battery for the engine,’ Nick says, pointing at the battery casing in the engine block, ‘and another one in the back to power Reginald’s equipment. They both charge as the engine runs but…’ he flaps his hands again and shrugs. ‘Both dead. Must have shorted.’
‘Can we jump-start it?’ Howie asks, ‘from the Saxon?’
‘Nope,’ Nick says, staring back at the van. ‘Battery is completely dead. Jump-start might get a low battery going but not a dead one.’
‘What then?’ Howie asks.
‘New battery then try and work out what caused it,’ Nick says. ‘At a guess I mean, I ain’t a mechanic though.’
‘Tow it,’ Clarence says, heading to the Saxon. ‘We’ve got chains. How much fuel we got in the Saxon?’
‘Getting low,’ Howie says, rubbing his head.
‘Er, sorry for being a complete girl,’ Marcy says, ‘but what difference does having fuel make?’
‘We’ll burn more pulling a big van and horsebox,’ Nick says.
‘Oh that’s so obvious when you say it,’ Marcy says with a wince. ‘Sorry.’
‘Nick, you got a smoke, mate? Mo, you want to back the Saxon up a bit?’
‘Here,’ Nick says, handing his battered packet over as Mo runs on towards the front of the Saxon, passing Clarence walking back dragging a thick chain.
‘Reggie?’ Paula calls out, ‘we’ll need a route to the…’
‘Next town?’ Reginald asks, dropping out from the van to the open air with a squint at the bright daylight. ‘Already done and I’m afraid to say it is over thirty miles.’
‘That’s not so bad,’ Howie says, ‘even going slow we’ll cover that in no time.’
‘Might see another van on the way,’ Nick says. ‘We can nick the battery.’
‘Okay, so not the end of the world then,’ Paula states, blowing air out of her cheeks.
‘Nah, be fine,’ Nick says, grinning at her.
‘We’ll find something,’ Clarence says deep and reassuring as he holds the end of the chain ready for fastening to the tow hook on the front of the van. He turns to look back at the Saxon, waiting for it to reverse. Howie lights the cigarette passed by Nick. Marcy folds her arms and sighs. Paula wipes the sweat from her face then takes the bottle of water held out by Cookey. ‘Mo?’ Clarence calls, ‘what you doing?’
The group turn as Mo drops down from the driver’s door of the Saxon and walks briskly towards them. ‘I was radioing you’s…’ Mo says, pressing the button under his shirt. ‘Saxon’s dead.’
‘Eh?’ Howie says.
‘Not starting,’ Mo says.
‘Radios are dead,’ Blowers says, pressing his button over and again. ‘Anyone here me transmitting?’
‘Nothing,’ Cookey says.
‘What the fuck?’ Howie asks.
‘Roy?’ Nick calls out. ‘You hearing this?’
‘I am,’ Roy says slowly, walking from his van with a look of disbelief. ‘This a wind up, lads? Had a long day and…’
‘Radios are fucked,’ Nick says, ‘try yours.’
‘If this is a prank…’ Roy says, huffing as he presses the button on his radio and looks around. ‘Anyone hear me?’
‘Nothing,’ Nick says.
‘What’s going on?’ Marcy asks.
‘Been EMP’d,’ Nick mutters, scowling in thought as he looks at the engine block of the van then back to the Saxon.
‘What?’ Marcy asks.
‘Out here?’ Roy asks, shaking his head. ‘Unlikely.’
‘Highly unlikely and bordering on impossible,’ Reginald says.
‘Hot now and getting angry,’ Marcy snaps. ‘What is? What’s happening?’
‘It’s about the only solution I can think of,’ Nick says.
‘What is?’ Marcy snaps again, her voice rising.
‘Nick said EMP,’ Charlie says quickly, moving closer to Marcy. ‘Electromagnetic pulse. It’s a naturally occurring phenomenon that can…’
‘Also a weapon,’ Nick says.
‘Not here,’ Roy says.
‘Not possible,’ Reginald says.
‘Fuck the lot of you,’ Marcy snaps. ‘Speak in fucking English so we can all understand.’
‘Well said,’ Paula says.
‘Yeah I’m fucking lost,’ Cookey says.
‘All the electrics are knocked out,’ Nick says, looking around. ‘So, the batteries in the vehicles provide the spark which starts the engines right? They’re dead. The battery also gives power for the lights and other shit…dead…no battery, no electricity. The radios use electricity. They’re dead. An EMP strike knocks all electrical things out…like kills them. Charlie said it happens normally but…’
‘Naturally, not normally, it’s very rare,’ Charlie says.
‘So’z, natural not normal,’ Nick says.
‘Are you saying the infection has done this?’ Paula asks.
‘Good lord no,’ Reginald says. ‘It would have to know our precise location, know where to find an EMP device, know how to use it, know where to take it, know where to wait and then have sufficient numbers to attack us with once it has deployed it…so no.’
‘Times are changing,’ Howie says into the pause that follows. ‘Look at the weather. It’s like the Mediterranean or something. And those storms we get…’
‘The weather is the most likely reason,’ Reginald says. ‘The heat, the humidity, the lack of traffic or some such thing that caused a static build-up which…I don’t know, perhaps it spread through the vehicle killing all the batteries.’
‘Possible,’ Roy says.
‘Makes sense,’ Nick says.
‘Wouldn’t we get shocked?’ Cookey asks. ‘Like, I used to get those static shocks if I walked on carpet in…’
‘We’re earthed maybe,’ Roy says. ‘We’re guessing. We don’t know.’
‘But either way,’ Howie says, ‘we’re fucked, yeah?’
‘Sadly yes,’ Roy says.
‘Yup,’ Nick mutters.
‘How far to the nearest town again?’ Howie asks, looking at Reginald.
‘He said thirty miles,’ Marcy says, turning away.
‘I’m afraid I said over thirty miles. Perhaps closer to forty.’
‘Forty miles?’ Paula asks him, cocking her head over. ‘This is the south of England.’
‘It is,’ Reginald says pointedly.
‘It’s packed with people. People everywhere. Houses and villages and towns and…’
‘It is also very rural,’ Reginald says. ‘And given to vast tracts of arable land for agriculture.’
‘Get the drone up,’ Paula says decidedly, ‘there must be something closer.’
‘Paula?’ Nick says softly.
‘What? Oh. Bollocks. Battery?’
‘No electrics,’ Nick says. ‘Sorry.’
‘There’ll be a farm or something,’ Howie says. ‘Those maps Reggie uses are out of date. We’ll find an industrial estate or…’
‘New housing estate?’ Blowers suggests. ‘They wouldn’t show on the old maps.’
‘Be something,’ Howie says. ‘Charlie, you’d best get Jess out. Everyone else, bags on, get water and ammunition. We’re on foot from here.’
‘Itstill doesn’t make any sense,’ Marcy says tightly. ‘None of us felt a shock. Meredith didn’t yelp. Jess didn’t do whatever noises horses do when they feel pain and…’
‘Whinnie?’ Cookey asks.
‘Neigh,’ Blowers says.
‘They snort don’t they?’ Nick asks.
‘Neigh,’ Blowers says again.
‘They grunt or scream when they’re in pain,’ Charlie says, looking back at Jess.
‘Whatever. Doesn’t make sense,’ Marcy says.
Thirteen people carrying assault rifles, pistols on hips, knives in belts. Faces smeared and shining. Hair slick to scalps. Faces flushed. They trudge on through the country lane bordered by high hedges in a never-ending vista of greenery and humidity. Jess walks behind them. They fought battles today and although Jess can take Charlie’s weight easily, so Charlie thinks to rest the horse in case they really need her. She doesn’t hold the reins or bridle either but simply lets the huge horse walk on of her own accord, side by side with Meredith.
An hour since they left the vehicles. An hour of walking. An hour of trudging on hot tired feet carrying heavy guns, heavy boots, heavy bows, heavy arrows and the even heavier GPMG. Anything is heavy when you are hot and drained.
They look to every corner they approach, hoping to see a driveway or access lane to a farm. Maybe a row of cottages. Anything that has cool running water and a vehicle they can use. Something Nick and Roy can take to find heavy-duty batteries to swap over in the Saxon and van. Only Dave doesn’t look hot and bothered. He stays the same. He always stays the same.
‘Just saying,’ Marcy says, breaking the last fifteen minutes of silence with a continuance of the same conversation still going through her mind. None of the others take the bait. Marcy is irritated. She wants someone to squabble with. It’s too hot. ‘I said I was just saying,’ she says again, looking around for someone to say something. ‘It doesn’t make sense…’
‘Marce?’ Paula says heavily.
‘I love you to bits…but stop picking a fight.’
‘I really was not. I was merely saying…’
‘Not doing it,’ Paula says quietly, wiping the sweat from her forehead.
‘Ley lines!’ Cookey says.
‘What?’ Blowers asks as the others glance to Cookey.
‘Ley lines,’ Cookey says again. ‘Saw something on telly…like…they like meet and stuff and…’
‘And what?’ Nick asks.
Cookey shrugs, ‘dunno, can’t remember…’
‘You dehydrated?’ Blowers asks.
‘Drink some water, Cookey,’ Clarence says.
‘He does look hot,’ Paula says. ‘Come here, get some water on your face to cool down,’ she adds, walking over to him as everyone stops and waits.
‘I’m fine,’ Cookey says. ‘But like seriously, the telly said ley lines do weird shit.’
‘Sure,’ Paula murmurs, slinging her rifle to free her hands to unscrew the cap on the bottle of water. ‘Lean forward a bit…’
‘Fuck’s sake,’ Cookey chuckles. ‘I’m not hot.’
‘You look hot,’ Paula says, tilting the bottle so water cascades down his face. She sluices it down his skin gently with her hand and pours more.
‘That’s so nice,’ Cookey mumbles.
‘Yeah?’ Paula asks, ‘it’ll cool you down for a bit. Mo? You look hot, come here…close your eyes…’
‘Don’t be all tough in front of Dave.’
‘Paula…’ Mo Mo groans but still goes forward to have his face washed.
‘Blinky…eyes closed. I said eyes closed…now, Blinky.’
‘Yes, Miss Paula, Sir…’
‘Someone get me another bottle.’
‘Here,’ Marcy says, passing one over. ‘Charlie, I’ll do you then you do me. Oh fuck off you perverts!’ she adds with a laugh at everyone else looking round quickly.
‘Dave?’ Paula says.‘Face wash?’
‘Roy, drop your head a bit. Better? Reggie?’
‘No! I do not wish to…argh stop…I don’t want to be mothered and…oh my, that is somewhat refreshing…gosh yes. Dave, you really should partake in the face washing.’
‘So, ley lines,’ Cookey says, now with a freshly rinsed face. He watches Paula moving from one to the other as she deals with her own stress by mothering anyone within mothering distance then over at Marcy and Charlie rinsing each other’s faces.
‘Can you feel Cookey watching us?’ Marcy asks.
‘I can,’ Charlie replies, grinning.
‘Fucking right I am,’ Cookey says.
‘Best day ever?’ Marcy asks.
‘Fact,’ Cookey says. ‘Anyway, so ley lines broke the Saxon and Roy’s van.’
‘Mate, what the fuck are you on about?’ Blowers asks.
‘Ley lines,’ Cookey asserts, wishing he was the globules of water running down Charlie’s face.
‘What fucking ley lines?’ Nick asks.
‘Wet ones,’ Cookey mumbles as Charlie turns to grin at him. He smiles back with hearts in his eyes.
‘Catch a fly, Cookey,’ Charlie says.
‘Means close your mouth, you’re drooling,’ Marcy says, chuckling as she walks past and gently pushes a finger under his chin to close his gob.
They trudge on with rinsed faces and a few minutes of relief from the heat and fatigue.
‘You must have heard of them,’ Cookey says.
‘What ley lines?’ Blowers asks.
‘I’ve heard of them,’ Nick says.
‘And me,’ Howie says from the front. ‘I think I saw the same programme, Cookey.’
‘Ha! Fuck you,’ Cookey says proudly. ‘Me and the boss saw the same telly thing.’
‘My friend was into all that spiritual stuff,’ Marcy says, ‘burnt those stinky sticks and played a diggereedoodar…the big stick thing…’
‘Digeridoo, my dear,’ Reginald mutters.
‘Yeah that,’ Marcy says. ‘So they real then, Reggie?’
‘Digeridoos? Yes, I rather think they are real.’
‘I meant ley lines.’
‘Oh did you? Forgive me. I was confused as the subject of the conversation at the point you asked my opinion was, in fact, digeridoos and not ley lines hence why I…’
‘I am very hot,’ Clarence rumbles, thereby bringing a quietness that otherwise may not have been brought.
‘So?’ Cookey asks after several more minutes of walking. ‘They real then, Reggie?’
‘An imaginary map of a network of lines that run in accordance to the lie of the land thereby increasing points of power and having magical benefits?’
Feet crunch on the road.
‘He means no, they are not real,’ Charlie says after a short time.
‘Ah,’ Cookey says as everyone looks at Charlie. ‘Why not?’
Reginald sighs heavily. ‘They are not scientifically proven although it is given that a great deal of belief exists in them. In the same vein of a great deal of belief in Santa Claus. Jesus turning water into wine and the pyramids being interstellar points of reference for the alien spaceships that once brought us here.’
Feet crunch on the road.
‘Santa’s not real then?’ Nick asks as everyone bursts out laughing.
‘Are we aliens?’ Cookey asks.
‘I could do with some wine,’ Paula says.
‘What else is made up?’ Marcy asks.
‘Good grief that is a very broad question,’ Reginald says, blinking rapidly as he pushes his glasses back up.
‘Explains why I never got any presents,’ Nick says glumly.
‘Ah mate,’ Blowers laughs. ‘That’s sad as fuck.’
‘Aw Nick,’ Marcy says, dropping back to throw an arm around him.
‘Didn’t you ever get presents?’ Howie asks.
‘Blowers will give you a present tonight,’ Cookey says. ‘All wrapped up and everything.’
‘Urgh fuck off,’ Nick laughs.
‘Grows bigger when you play with it too,’ Cookey adds.
‘Mate! Too much,’ Blowers groans.
‘That’s what I said but you didn’t stop…’
‘Oh god, it’s too hot for this.’ Paula says. ‘Reginald, so you don’t think ley lines are real?’
‘They are not real.’
Feet crunch on the road.
‘That conversation’s over then,’ Marcy says.
‘Appears so,’ Paula replies.
‘I think they’re real,’ Cookey says.
‘They are not real,’ Reginald says.
Feet crunch. Nick and Mo drink water.
‘Might be real,’ Cookey says, ‘they were on the telly so…’
Blinky drinks water and belches.
‘Not everything on the television or internet was real,’ Reginald says.
They walk on. Cookey thinks. Frowns. Ponders. Purses his lips and frowns some more before lifting his chin to speak out. ‘My argument would be that without scientific analysis of what caused the Saxon and Roy’s van to break down then it could be ley lines…as it’s not like…like not proven…’
Silence. Feet crunch.
‘That was a bloody good answer actually,’ Clarence says.
‘I was waiting for the joke,’ Paula admits.
‘Me too,’ Howie says, turning back to Cookey. ‘Well done mate.’
‘Clever me,’ Cookey says. ‘Did I impress you, Charlie?’
‘You always impress me, Cookey.’
‘Really!? Like honestly?’
‘Oh god,’ Howie groans.
‘Best day ever.’
Feet crunch and the lift given by the rinsing of faces wanes as they settle back to the silence of walking. The afternoon glides by. Evening beckons. Not a roof in sight. Not a power line either that would signify a direction towards habitation or buildings. Endless fields that rise and fall. Endless thickets, copses, woods and open land. Endless hedges and the same grey tarmac underfoot.
They stay sharp but minds wander as the repetitive action of walking lulls to a state of easy thinking and to each their own they drift to thoughts. The blood they spilled earlier dries on their clothes and skin. The smell of them rises. The discomfort increases.
Dave stops. His right arm lifts. His fist clenched. The rest stop with an instant switching on as they grip weapons and start peering at the sides and rear.
‘Smoke,’ Dave says quietly before walking on and leading the others down the lane.
Howie nods wisely, ‘what is?’ he asks Dave.
‘In the air, Mr Howie.’
‘Ah got it, you can smell smoke?’
‘Yes, Mr Howie.’
‘What kind of smoke?’
‘Wood smoke, Mr Howie.’
‘Yes, Mr Howie. Wood smoke.’
‘Not cigarette smoke then?’
‘Yes, Mr Howie.’
‘What kind of wood?’
‘Untreated natural wood, Mr Howie.’
‘No way, seriously?’
‘You can tell that by smelling it?’
Howie sniffs, inhaling deep and long. ‘Nope, can’t smell a thing.’
‘Smoke, Mr Howie.’
‘Yeah, you said.’
‘No. You smoke.’
‘I smoke? I’m not smoking. Is Nick smoking?’
‘I’m not smoking,’ Nick says.
‘Nick’s not smoking,’ Howie says.
‘You smoke so you cannot smell the smoke,’ Dave says. ‘Mr Howie,’ he adds.
‘He means your sense of smell is buggered from cigarettes,’ Paula says.
‘I can smell it,’ Clarence says, inhaling deeply. ‘Wood smoke, untreated…’
‘Dave just said that,’ Howie says.
‘Now I’m saying it,’ Clarence says.
‘I can still smell Blinky’s arse,’ Nick says, sniffing the air.
‘I didn’t poo myself,’ Blinky says.
‘I can smell wood smoke actually,’ Marcy says, sniffing the air while nodding seriously. ‘Yep, definitely there…’
‘Untreated natural wood is it?’ Howie asks.
‘I think so,’ Marcy says, sniffing again. ‘Yep, there it is.’
‘Wood smoke,’ Mo says, sniffing.
‘Untreated is it?’ Howie asks.
‘Dunno, just wood smoke,’ Mo says. ‘We used to set wooden packing crates on fire. Same smell innit.’
‘Packing crates?’ Blowers asks. ‘You mean pallets?’
‘Dunno,’ Mo says. ‘Wood.’
‘Yeah two different things,’ Blowers says.
‘What is?’ Mo asks.
‘Probably pallets,’ Clarence says.
‘Pallets are more common,’ Roy says.
‘What’s the difference?’ Mo asks.
‘Both are normally treated though aren’t they?’ Clarence asks.
‘Nah, depends,’ Howie says. ‘We had pallets and packing crates at Tesco.’
‘You put stuff on a pallet,’ Nick says to Mo. ‘And stuff goes inside a packing crate.’
Mo nods, ‘pallets then. Flat…like slats of wood.’
‘Yep,’ Clarence says, clicking his fingers. ‘Pallets.’
‘Not packing crates then,’ Roy says.
‘Nah, pallets,’ Mo says.
‘What colour were they?’ Roy asks.
Mo thinks, ‘wood colour?’
‘Some are blue,’ Roy says.
‘I’ve seen red ones,’ Nick says.
‘And green,’ Clarence says. ‘I think blue is more common though.’
‘Untreated wood ones are more common,’ Howie says.
‘Yeah?’ Clarence asks, genuinely interested.
‘The ones we burnt were wood colour,’ Mo says. ‘From the cash and carry.’
‘Do you like pallets, Marcy?’ Paula asks, mock brightly.
‘Oh I love pallets,’ Marcy replies, flashing the movie star smile.
‘Hold.’ Dave says in a tone that needs to be instantly obeyed.
Thirteen people, one dog, and one horse all covered in grime come to a sudden stop and stare down the lane to the woman reaching out to the hedge. She cocks her head over and smiles bemused and interested. A wicker basket held in the crook of her left arm. Her right hand plucks the berry from the vine and pulls back slowly as she takes in the rifles, the pistols, the blood-stained clothes and the huge horse stood at the back towering over them all. Without a word spoken, she mouths the berry and chews thoughtfully without a flicker of fear.
Everyone else stares at her. At the loose-fitting white linen dress and the apron tied around her waist, at her flowing golden locks and bright blue eyes framed within a face of alabaster.
‘Fit,’ Blinky mutters.
‘Hi!’ Paula blurts quickly.
‘Hullo,’ the woman says softly, smiling sweetly and still without a flicker of fear.
‘We, ‘er, we broke down.’ Paula says as everyone else stares on. A wet splat sounds behind them. The woman leans from the waist to see the fresh steaming pile of manure behind Jess.
‘Did Blinky shit herself again?’ Nick asks.
‘Probably the ley lines,’ Cookey says.
‘She is fit though,’ Blinky says.
‘Haha!’ Paula laughs quickly, ‘I’m Paula.’
‘Hullo,’ the woman says, looking from the manure to Paula. ‘I’m Agnes.’
‘Agnes?’ Marcy asks.
Agnes nods and smiles, ‘Agnes, yes.’
‘That’s a lovely name,’ Paula says, shooting a look at Marcy.
‘Agnes is fit.’
‘Blinky…’ Paula says from the corner of her mouth.
‘Sorry, Miss Paula, Sir…she is though.’
‘You must be hot,’ Agnes says, walking slowly towards them. ‘And thirsty too no doubt. May I offer you some refreshment?’
They all stare at the vision walking towards them who leans once again from the waist to stare past them to Meredith tucking into the steaming pile of manure.
‘Nick, your dog is eating shit,’ Blowers says, following the woman’s gaze.
‘Not my dog,’ Nick says.
‘Fruit?’ Agnes says, holding her basket out. She heads for Howie, whether by design or otherwise. ‘It’s very ripe,’ she says in a voice lilting and soft.
‘Thanks,’ Howie mumbles reaching into the basket suddenly very aware of the filth on his hands and fingers. He freezes as he looks at the mound of berries inside. All of them plump and juicy looking. His mouth waters and he swallows but pulls back with a grim smile, not wishing to taint the contents with his dirty hands.
‘It’s fine,’ Agnes says. ‘Take some.’
‘No, thanks but…’
‘Here,’ Agnes says, reaching in for a handful of berries. She holds her hand out to Howie. ‘Take them.’
He holds his hands out and lets the fruit tumble in as she smiles and makes him feel he is the centre of the world. She moves to Clarence, giving him two handfuls then on to the others, smiling, laughing and moving like water over rocks, fluid, graceful and full of serenity. Marcy stares daggers at the woman for staring at Howie like that, until Agnes reaches her and gives the same look that makes Marcy feel wonderful and like she is the only other person here.
Meredith eats manure. The rest eat fruit. Munching berries and watching the blond woman closely as she steps away and motions with her head. ‘Come, my village is very close.’
‘Village?’ Reginald says, pulling a map book from his bag. ‘What village? Is there a village near here? Is it new? I say, young lady, is your village new?’
‘Very old,’ Agnes says, smiling at him. ‘But very small,’ she adds as though imparting a secret.
‘Ah,’ Reginald says staring down at the page tracing a fingertip along the road they walked.
‘Listen er….Agnes?’ Howie says. ‘Our vehicles like shorted out or something…electrical fault. We need new batteries.’
‘Sure,’ Agnes says. ‘Come to the village. We’ll see what we can do.’
‘Right,’ Howie says, looking from Agnes to Clarence to Paula to Marcy. ‘Guess we’re following her then.’
‘She’s creepy,’ Marcy whispers. ‘But I like her. Is that weird?’
‘She’s not creepy,’ Howie says. ‘And yes you’re weird.’
‘I’m weird? She’s wearing a frock and picking berries at the end of the world. Nice frock though. Suits her. She’s got gorgeous hair too.’
‘Fit,’ Blinky says.
‘Very pretty young lady,’ Clarence says.
‘Very polite,’ Roy says.
‘I wonder if she likes pallets,’ Paula mutters. ‘Come on, we’re not hanging round here.’
They set off. Thirteen heavily armed, very grimy people, one horse, and one dog all trudging after Agnes in her loose-fitting white linen dress.
The road narrows, the hedges becoming less cared for, more overgrown and not just from the last few weeks either but years of wildness showing in the thick branches poking out. The trees become thicker in number too. Tall and heavy loaded with foliage that reaches over the road to form a canopy, plunging them into greater darkness that magnifies the shadows caused by the setting sun.
‘You got a few survivors then?’ Howie asks after a few minutes of silent walking. Agnes slows and looks back, waiting for them to catch up before walking on. Howie waits for the reply but none comes. ‘Agnes? You got a few survivors?’
‘We’ve been lucky,’ she says in that lilting voice. ‘But then we’re very remote so…’
‘Say that again,’ Paula groans. ‘How far is it? I am desperate for a shower.’
‘You must be hungry,’ Agnes says. ‘We have plenty of food.’
‘Thank fuck,’ Nick says. ‘Starving.’
‘Nick,’ Paula whispers. ‘Don’t swear.’
‘Eh? Oh, sorry.’
Agnes doesn’t say anything but walks on next to Howie. Seemingly happy in silence. She looks round every now and then, smiling and warm, her blue eyes twinkling and deep.
‘Carry that for you, Miss?’ Blinky offers, moving up to Agnes’s side.
‘Thank you but it is not heavy.’
‘Oh,’ Blinky says, crestfallen.
‘But perhaps yes, yes I could rest my arm for a short time.’
‘Fuck yes,’ Blinky says, staring in wonder at the basket now clutched in her hand.
‘Sneaky fucker,’ a low voice whispers out.
‘Get fucked, Mo,’ Blinky says, beaming at Agnes. ‘You’re pretty.’
‘Thank you,’ Agnes says, giving no indication to the awkwardness of the statement that makes everyone else wince and look away.
The road drops down on a steady decline that gives the effect of going deeper into a snug valley. The outlines of big hills on both sides beyond the thick trees. The tang of smoke comes thicker and richer. Other smells too. Meat cooking. Stomachs rumble. They look at each other. Weapons gripped and held as they trudge on. Nobody makes smell like this now. Smell draws the undead.
‘Almost there,’ Agnes says, nodding at the next corner.
They follow the contour of the road and stop with wide eyes at the view ahead. A sudden opening of the road as it goes through the centre of a village. Low thatched houses, white walls with dark timber frames all bordering a wide central area full of people. Lights glowing within the houses. Flickering light too. Not electrical light but that caused by flame, fire, and lantern.
In the middle of the central area, a hog is being roasted on a spit over a fire. The smells of the fat dripping on the flames waft over to the thirteen staring with mouths hanging open.
‘What the fuck?’ Howie whispers.
‘Like a movie set,’ Paula whispers back.
‘Creepy,’ Marcy whispers softly, ‘but so pretty. We should go back…after having some food I mean.’
‘It’s fine,’ Agnes says, turning to smile at Marcy having somehow heard the very softly spoken words. ‘We live a simple life…always have.’
The way she says it. The ease of the words, the sincerity of her tone and the warmth in which she speaks all imbue them to follow. Marcy narrows her eyes. Suspicious but also very hungry and the setting is beautiful too.
They walk on. Rifles held but pointed down. Eyes scanning. Meredith pushes to the front, smelling the new scents and wagging her tail as they near the tiny village. As they get closer so they see more houses and buildings tucked up further back amidst the trees. The road ends. Simply giving way to the large central area and the open fire.
‘Agnes,’ a man booms, his voice hearty, warm and full of humour as he strides towards them. His clothes are soft cotton and natural in colour. Light brown trousers of a heavy twill, a shirt hanging free, the sleeves loose but he looks comfortable. A bushy brown beard streaked with grey. Soft eyes. Warm eyes. ‘We have visitors,’ he adds, smiling at the group.
‘Found them on the road,’ Agnes says, turning back to look at Howie for a lingering second before smiling at the others.
‘Welcome, welcome, welcome,’ the man says, offering a firm handshake to Howie then from one to the next. ‘You look exhausted, tired. Welcome. Agnes, get some refreshment for our guests.’
‘Of course, father,’ she says while walking off.
‘What the actual fuck?’ Howie mouths, staring around. People drift over, smiling and calling out greetings.
‘Seen the clothes?’ Paula whispers.
‘Aye,’ Howie says.
Everyone in the same earthy natural clothing of soft browns, beiges, whites, and all cotton, linen, twill and looking homespun. Neatly made though. Well-fitting and they look comfortable too. The lights from the small windows. The smells in the air. The warm voices. Surreal, jarring and very weird but a sight for the weary souls and eyes of the group. They stay alert but don’t see any weapons. No guns. No knives or bats held by anyone. No defensive structures or walls built. They look to Meredith who wags her tail and greets people happily.
‘Like a fucking Dickens book,’ Howie mutters.
‘Fucking Hobbit town more like,’ Blowers says.
‘I’m Alfred,’ the bearded man says once he has greeted everyone personally. ‘You are welcome to stay for food and refreshment.’
‘Is Agnes your daughter? She’s fit.’
‘Blinky!’ Paula groans.
‘Why’s he keep saying refreshment like that?’ Marcy mouths.
‘What else can we call it?’ Alfred asks, beaming a smile at Marcy with humour in his eyes that reflect the flames burning on the open fire. ‘And yes, Agnes is my daughter. All the younger women are my daughters as are the older women my wives and the even older ones are my mothers.’
‘Eh?’ Cookey asks, speaking on before anyone can stop him. ‘So you shag them all then?’
‘Oh mate,’ Blowers says, looking down at the ground.
‘Metaphorical,’ Charlie whispers.
‘What here?’ Cookey asks immediately looking up. ‘I don’t see any meteors.’
‘Come, have a drink.’ Alfred says, grinning at Cookey, ‘and later I shall explain our way of life to your young ears.’
‘Er listen,’ Howie says. ‘Thanks but…we need batteries.’
‘Heavy duty ones,’ Nick adds.
‘For diesel engines,’ Roy joins in.
‘Oh, I am sure we can sort something out. Did your vehicles break down?’
‘Yep, few miles back on the road,’ Paula says.
‘How did you know we had more than one?’ Reginald asks warily.
Alfred chuckles, hearty and deep. ‘Of course, my apologies, these are new times and dangerous times at that. Your suspicions are understood. There are many of you so I assume you would not fit in one vehicle? And of course you asked for batteries and not one battery. Come now, I am sure we look strange but we are tucked away here. Miles from anywhere. Relax. Have some food and refreshment.’
‘Does smell nice,’ Nick says.
‘Does,’ Blowers says.
‘You seen any then?’ Howie asks.
‘Here?’ Alfred asks. ‘No,’ he says deep and long, shaking his head. ‘We are too remote.’
‘How do you know then?’ Howie asks. ‘About what happened I mean.’
‘Travellers such as yourselves of course, people passing through to whom we greeted as we do you. Come now, have a drink. You must be thirsty.’
The lads turn to see Agnes holding a tray filled with several different sized cups, wooden, bronze, old chipped ceramic mugs, tin military style ones. She smiles so sweetly, so warmly. It’s been a long day. A hard day. Fighting. Killing. Slaughter, blood and death. Questions hang waiting to be asked but the light is soft, the scents are inviting and to the last they are thirsty.
‘What is it?’ Howie asks.
‘Simple mead,’ Agnes says then spots a few puzzled looks. ‘Beer,’ she says with a soft whisper, ‘made from honey…it’s very nice.’
‘Boss?’ Blowers asks, thereby indicating to everyone else to wait.
Howie takes a cup, sniffs and tries a sip. The taste is divine. Thick and golden yet light and fragrant. Sweet too. ‘Yeah, yeah sure, thank you.’
‘You were saying?’ Reginald prompts, staring at Alfred.
‘I was a financier in the City of London,’ Alfred says. ‘Millionaire by the time I was twenty three. Addicted to cocaine, borderline alcoholic, sociopathic tendencies. A truly terrible man. I went to rehab and heard of this place. I found it and never went back.’
‘Very cliché,’ Reginald says, taking a wooden mug from the tray.
‘We are a small commune,’ Alfred says with the air of someone used to explaining such things to bespectacled intellectuals surrounded by armed people. ‘A cult as it were. We forsake technology, modern life and live simply.’
‘That was so nice,’ Nick sighs, his mug already drained.
‘You greedy shit,’ Blowers says.
‘Some more?’ Agnes asks.
‘Yeah sure, thanks,’ Nick says.
‘I’ll help you,’ Blinky says, rushing to Agnes’s side. ‘You’re so pretty. Mo, piss off.’
‘I’m fucking helping.’
‘Alfred,’ a man calls out from the fire. ‘We shall be carving shortly. Are our guests feasting with us?’
Howie notices the buzz going through the people in the village. More now gathering by the fire, smiling and nodding earnestly at the armed visitors while whispering and making quiet comments.
‘Feasting? I’m in,’ Nick says.
‘We feasting?’ Clarence asks.
‘I fancy a feast,’ Marcy says. ‘Creepy feast but still feasting…whatever, I’m starving. Is there anywhere we can have a wash?’
Howie looks round. It’s all too weird. Too surreal. The world is over. Everyone is either dead, dying or fighting to survive. The smell of the hog is good though. The mead has softened his mind. He blinks slowly. Places like this do exist. He’s heard of them. Weirdos that run about in sheepskin coats throwing carrots at each other, plus they are miles from anywhere. They should keep on but it’s been a long day, a hard day and anyway, they’ve got guns and knives and axes and Meredith. They’ve got Dave and Clarence. Nothing can hurt them. They are the living army. He looks round to Reginald, to the chief tactician and strategist who only seconds ago had a voice of doubt and concern. Reginald, however, has his head tilted back while he downs the cup of mead and finally lowers the cup with a fresh crimson blush blooming in his cheeks and a big smile slowly spreading across his face.
‘Thanks,’ Howie says. ‘We’ll grab a bite then be on our way.’
‘Of course,’ Alfred says in that warm tone. ‘As you wish.’
Pressure on his face. He stirs, mumbles and tries to shift position while lost somewhere in the layers of deep sleep and wakefulness. The thing on his face moves. He grumbles and tries to swat ineffectually but can’t quite summon the energy to lift his hands properly. He dreams of cheese. The mouldy stuff and the other stuff streaked with blue bits. He dreams the cheese is right in front of his mouth. Howie likes cheese. He murmurs and opens his mouth to get some of the cheese. It feels weird. Not like cheese at all. Cheese isn’t hairy for a start.
Wide-awake. Eyes snap open. Air rushes to inflate his lungs as he pulls back and away from sucking Clarence’s big toe. He tries to push the huge hairy leg away but something snags his hands. Heart hammering. An awareness of being naked. Sunlight harsh and bright in his eyes. The taste of hairy cheese in his mouth. Too many sensations. His brain isn’t working properly. He swallows and shakes his head while rising up on his feet and trying to pull his hands up to rub his face. Something stops them rising. Pressure on his wrists. He tries looking but the light is too bright.
‘Dave?’ Howie calls out, his voice croaky and hoarse.
‘Huh?’ A voice from nearby.
‘Howie?’ A female voice, Paula? Marcy?
‘Oh god, I feel sick.’
Voices hoarse and rough. Howie blinks and forces his eyes to stay open to adjust to the glare of the sun. He tries to turn away but finds he can’t from the pressure on his wrists. Finally, he spots the thin rope bound tightly holding his hands together.
‘What the fuck…’ he grunts and tugs his arms then follows the rope to the thick metal pole driven into the ground. Still confused. Still not awake properly. He again tries to turn away but can’t because of the tether. He tugs and looks around, craning to see. Clarence sprawled out in his underpants nearby. The big toe of his right foot still glistening wet from being sucked by Howie.
That glimpse makes Howie retch and gag. Bent over coughing and hacking. He looks again to see Clarence stripped down to his boxers then looks down at himself to see the same. His clothes are gone. His boots are gone. No weapons. Grass underfoot. The rope on his wrists. The metal pole in the ground.
Sense kicks in. He steps closer to the pole to slacken the rope enough to turn and finds his heart jackhammering in his chest as his stomach flips and drops. Everyone is the same. Stripped to underwear. Bound with rope around wrists that are secured to thick metal poles driven into the ground. As he stares and takes it in so they wake, rouse, grumble and slowly come to.
‘Up…UP…GET UP!’ Howie shouts. ‘Dave? Dave where are you?’ There’s no way someone could tie Dave up. It couldn’t happen. It’s not possible. Ah shit. It is possible. Dave is right there. Sitting in his pants staring at his bound wrists then along the rope to the metal pole then round to everyone else before looking at Howie with a look of utter sorrow etched on his face.
‘Holy fuck,’ Cookey shouts, snapping to awareness.
‘HOWIE!’ Marcy cries out.
‘Marcy, I’m right here. We’re all the same.’
‘Why is my toe wet?’ Clarence grumbles, easing himself up into a sitting position and staring bleary-eyed at his wet foot. ‘Is it raining?’
‘We’re tied up, mate,’ Howie blurts.
‘Huh?’ Clarence says slowly, looking at his wrists then to the pole. He blinks and looks up at Howie then round at everyone else. ‘Bugger.’ he mutters. ‘So why is my toe wet?’
‘What?’ Howie says, spinning at the panic in Cookey’s voice.
‘Blowers tied me up and stripped me to my pants.’
‘Fuck’s sake,’ Howie snaps. ‘Not now, mate. Is everyone okay? Anyone hurt? We all here? Blowers…Nick? Nick? You awake?’
‘Yup. What the fuck…where’s…oh shit…’
‘Here, Mr Howie, Sir…’
‘She’s okay, boss,’ Cookey shouts. ‘Just waking up. Charlie, don’t panic…we’re all tied up.’
‘Oh gosh,’ Charlie says, sitting bolt upright to stare down at her bra and knickers with a look of panic.
‘We’ll be okay,’ Blowers says. ‘Mo? You okay?’
‘Yeah,’ Mo says quietly, blinking slowly.
‘My toe is soaking…’
‘Oh shit,’ Paula says, standing unsteadily. ‘Everyone can see my bum.’
‘Looks fine,’ Marcy says, leaning over to look. ‘At least you put big pants on. Charlie, have you got big pants on or a thong?’
‘Er…big pants, Marcy,’ Charlie says slowly, still waking up.
‘Blinky?’ Marcy calls out.
‘Boxers, Marcy. That Agnes is fit.’
‘Reggie? Roy?’ Paula asks, twitching side to side.
‘Here,’ Roy says gruffly, lifting his head to look at his wrists.
‘Oh gosh,’ Reginald says, floundering about on the grass while he tries to sit up. ‘Oh dear, this is most undignified. I am in underwear in public. This is most humiliating. I don’t even have a tie on…’
‘What the fuck?’ Paula snaps. ‘What happened?’
‘Drugged,’ Dave says quietly, bringing an instant silence as everyone takes stock of their present situation.
‘Fucking honey mead,’ Nick says. ‘Have some refreshment weary travellers…Fucking pricks.’
‘That fucking beardy bloke,’ Blowers says. ‘And that bitch Agnes.’
‘Fit though,’ Blinky says.
‘She was,’ Mo says wistfully.
‘But why is my toe wet? Anyone else got wet toes?’
‘Oh mine was,’ Howie says quickly. ‘Like dew or something?’
‘My toes are dry,’ Marcy says.
‘Mine too,’ Roy says. ‘No dew either.’
‘Um, there was a bit here,’ Howie says. ‘Just like…small patch…’
‘Weird,’ Clarence says.
A bark. A yelp. They all turn to see Meredith tied from a collar to a metal pole. Her tail wagging furiously at the sight of everyone as she pulls and strains to break free.
‘Good girl,’ Nick says. ‘Can anyone reach her?’
‘Blinky, you’re closest,’ Blowers says.
‘Trying,’ Blinky says, twisting to reach a foot out to rub Meredith’s neck. ‘Good girl.’
‘Has the dog got wet feet?’ Clarence asks.
‘Don’t think so,’ Blinky says.
‘Ha! Can we forget the wet feet,’ Howie says. ‘Why are we tied up?’
‘Oh gosh, oh dear…oh yes that is a problem…’
‘What is?’ Howie says, looking around at Reginald staring off to one side. He turns again, tutting and cursing the rope snagging his arms. A wide field of grass bordered by a dense treeline. Hills in the near distance rising up but just meadows and rolling land unbroken by anything other than the thing Reginald is staring at. Unmistakable. Instantly recognised by all of them.
‘What the fuck is that?’ Blinky asks at the thing instantly recognised by all of them apart from her.
‘Ah shit,’ Howie groans.
‘Not good,’ Clarence rumbles.
‘Is that Stonehenge?’ Nick asks.
‘Yep,’ Howie says.
‘Not good,’ Clarence rumbles.
‘What’s Stonehenge?’ Blinky asks.
‘HA! I fucking knew it,’ Cookey exclaims. ‘Ley lines…what did I say? I said ley lines. I said that.’
‘Oh fuck,’ Blowers groans.
‘Shit,’ Nick whispers, closing his eyes.
‘Damn,’ Charlie mouths.
‘No Cookey it’s not ley lines…it’s a metaphorical shower of asteroids caused by the cows all farting but it’s not ley lines.’
‘Cookey,’ Paula says quietly. ‘Not now, hun.’
‘I was right though,’ Cookey says.
‘What’s Stonehenge?’ Blinky asks. ‘Why you all staring at them old rock things?’
‘We’re not close though,’ Howie says, examining the distance from them to the stones. ‘Got to be fifteen miles?’
‘More I’d say,’ Roy says.
‘Is this bad then?’ Marcy asks. ‘I mean I know what Stonehenge is. Druids and all that but…Paula, what are you doing?’
‘Nothing,’ Paula says, freezing as she backs into the pole behind her. ‘Just trying to hide my bum.’
‘You’ve got a lovely bum,’ Marcy says.
‘Thanks. Can you stop drawing attention to my arse, please…Reggie? What’s going on?’
‘I honestly have no idea,’ Reginald says.
‘We’re fucked then,’ Marcy mutters. ‘Can anyone get free?’
‘Dave?’ Howie asks.
‘No,’ Dave says quietly in a tone that suggests perhaps Dave is just a little bit sulky right now.
‘You can’t get free?’ Howie asks.
‘You’re Dave. You must have a knife up your arse or something.’
Dave thinks and wiggles an inch, ‘no.’
‘Fuck it. Clarence. Rip your pole out. Everyone get down in case Clarence snaps his rope.’
‘Right,’ Clarence says, gripping the thick pole in his hands. He pauses, bunching energy then explodes out with huge muscles tensing. He strains and curses, his face flushes red, his muscles bulge bigger but the pole doesn’t move. He starts trying to rock it free. Nothing. He pushes into it, using his big legs to drive his shoulder into it. Still nothing. Finally, he stands back, amazed at something not giving into him.
‘Shit,’ Howie says.
‘Must be concreted in,’ Clarence says.
‘Meredith can bite through her ropes,’ Cookey says, ‘Nick, tell your dog to bite her ropes.’
‘Er, so…she’s not my dog and exactly how the fuck do I do that, Cookey?’
‘I dunno! Fucking doggy language or something. Meredith, bite the rope, bite the rope! Good girl. Bite the rope, Meredith. Bite it. Go on…that rope called you a cunt…bite it…’
Meredith sits watching him. Her tail wagging. Her tongue hanging from her open mouth.
‘Boss,’ Nick says. ‘Do the angry thing.’
‘No!’ Marcy says. ‘Don’t do the angry thing.’
‘No!’ Paula says just as quickly.
‘Charlie? Charlie? Charlie?’
‘What’s Stonehenge? What’s going on?’
‘Those big stones over there in the distance, that’s called Stonehenge. They are prehistoric.’
‘What, the dinosaurs made them? That’s clever as fuck that is,’ Blinky says earnestly. ‘Like a T-rex nest house or something yeah?’
‘Er…no, not quite,’ Charlie says.
‘Actually,’ Cookey says, ‘I would say that without scientific analysis to disprove it wasn’t t-rex nest house that…’
‘Cookey, shut up.’
‘Yes, Clarence. Sorry, Clarence.’
‘Calendar or something isn’t it?’ Nick asks.
‘Nah it’s meant to say when the longest day is,’ Blowers says.
‘The sun shines through the gaps at different times,’ Marcy says.
‘Um,’ Charlie says, not wishing to be that person who always knows the answer.
‘Stonehenge was built over thousands of years,’ Reginald says, happy to be that person.‘Settlements, burial grounds, religious worship…and yes, the inner horseshoe trilithon stones are aligned to show the setting sun at the winter solstice and the rising sun at the summer solstice. They really are a magnificent feat of engineering given the lack of tools and equipment but as to the exact nature, the original intended purpose or the evolved multi purposes over millennia are entirely subjective and based on…’
‘Anything to do with wet toes?’
‘Oh er, no, no I do not recall anything to do with er, with wet toes, Clarence.’
‘Okay, so what the fuck are we doing here?’ Blowers asks. ‘Apart from being drugged, stripped and tied up that is. Who are those fuckers anyway?’
‘Druids I should imagine,’ Reginald says mildly.
‘Dave, stop it,’ Paula says. ‘You’ll break your teeth.’
‘What’s he doing?’ Howie asks.
‘Trying to bite through the rope,’ Marcy says.
‘Is it working?’ Howie asks, looking at his own rope. It’s thin and modern with no fraying edges. He bites into it. Chewing and tugging but feeling the solidity and density that will break teeth before it yields. He looks to the pole to examine the point the rope meets the metal, knowing that will be the weakest point. A metal hoop has been welded on. The rope threaded through then wrapped, tied and melted. He tugs, examines and even bites at the joint but knows it’s hopeless.
‘Bearded fucking arsewankingshitfacedcuntbreath stupid bastard fuckstick,’ Howie says, tugging furiously at the rope.
‘Go on, dear,’ Marcy tells him. ‘Get it off your chest.’
‘Well! Fuck me. Have some bastard refreshment. Have some bastard food. Stupid drugging bastard bastards. Seriously. I’ll…fucking druids! It’s the zombie apocalypse. What the fuck?’
‘I need a piss,’ Nick says.
‘Me too,’ Blowers admits.
‘I could do with one actually,’ Marcy says.
‘FUCK IT,’ Howie shouts.
‘Maybe that’s how I got a wet toe,’ Clarence says thoughtfully.
‘Oh yeah, yeah totally,’ Howie says, nodding at him. ‘Pissed on your own foot, mate.’
‘Meredith is having a piss,’ Blinky reports.
They all look round to see Meredith squatting at the far side of her pole before finishing and walking back to the nearside and Blinky’s foot.
‘I really need a piss now,’ Nick says.
‘It’ll stink if we all have a wee,’ Paula says. ‘And it’s morning wee too.’
‘Is there a pattern to our poles?’ Reginald asks, stepping away from his pole to look round at the others.
‘Pattern?’ Roy asks.
‘Are we positioned in any way discernible? Charlie, what can you see?’ Reginald asks.
‘Two lines, Reginald,’ Charlie says.
‘I see,’ Reginald says. ‘Indeed. So we can just about reach the person next to us but not the person opposite which leaves a wider central aisle running between us. Very interesting. Very interesting indeed.’
‘So what’s it mean?’ Paula asks when he trails off.
‘Not a clue,’ Reginald says. ‘Oh I say, are there spare poles as in poles currently unused?’
‘Yep, few at this end,’ Nick calls down.’
‘Same at this end,’ Howie says.
‘Ah so, we can surmise we are not an intended target but rather an opportune target,’ Reginald says. ‘Either that or these poles were positioned for something other than securing people and have been adapted recently. I say, Nick and Roy, can you look at that joint the rope is secured to on the pole. Is that a recent addition?’
‘Looks that way,’ Roy says, examining the welded joint. ‘Hard to say if I’m honest.’
‘Okay,’ Marcy says slowly through gritted teeth. ‘Did any of that help in anyway?’
‘Well no but…’ Reginald says.
‘Great,’ Marcy mumbles. Howie looks at her and in a surreal moment of surrealness, he thinks she does look very good in bra and knickers with her hair all tousled and messy. She flicks her head at him as though catching his thoughts hanging in the air. A slow grin. White teeth showing. He smiles back with a private moment captured between them.
‘Get a room,’ Paula mutters.
‘Where’s Jess?’ Charlie asks suddenly, turning round to view all sides.
‘No idea,’ Blowers says.
‘They’ve stolen our fucking horse the cheeky bastards,’ Howie says, the incredulity rising with every second.
‘In fairness, we did steal her first,’ Paula says.
‘Appropriated,’ Clarence says.
‘ARGH I need a piss so badly,’ Nick says.
‘He’ll have to have one,’ Paula says. ‘Nick, honey, go to the far side of your pole.’
‘But it’ll stink,’ he replies.
‘Hold it in then you bellend,’ Blowers says.
‘I cant fuckstick,’ Nick fires back. ‘Argh shit, so sorry, I got to piss.’
‘Right, everyone turn away so Nick can wee,’ Paula calls out.
‘Cheers,’ Nick says, moving to the far side of his pole as everyone shuffles to face the other way.
‘Um, so can someone whistle please?’ Nick asks politely. ‘Got a bit of stage fright now.’
Twelve people whistle and hum as Nick gains relief on his bladder. He aims out, trying to get the urine as far from the pole as possible. ‘Finished,’ he announces.
The whistling and humming stops.
‘I do apologise but may I take a turn?’ Charlie asks.
Twelve people whistle and hum as Charlie gains relief on her bladder. Blushing furiously at the indignity of having to expose her bum in a field while tied to a pole. ‘Finished,’ she announces. ‘Thank you.’
‘BLINKY!’ Cookey wails, turning away quickly.
‘What? I’m not shy,’ Blinky says, squatting to piss on the ground.
‘Someone’s coming,’ Mo calls out from the far end opposite Nick. ‘Treeline down there.’
They all turn to face the treeline at the far side of the field. Figures seen moving in the shadows, gradually coming closer towards the edge. Snatches of views. Flashes of white. Tension rises. Eyes grow hard as they strain to see.
Something breaks the line and moves out. Something big and high with brown hair and a head that tosses left to right as she steps clear of the branches and lifts her head to sniff the air full of Charlie and the others.
‘Jess!’ Charlie says.
‘Cheeky fucking bastards,’ Howie says at the sight of the person riding her. A solid looking form swathed in white robes wearing a white hooded thing covering the face. Rough cut eye holes give the figure a morbid macabre appearance. His left hand holding the reins. His right clutching a long stick full of knobbly bits and with a natural split in the end making a two-forked prong. Tassels tied on. Strands of leather and material hanging down.
The figure pulls back on the reins to stop Jess as more people emerge from the treeline, all wearing similar robes with hoods and face masks complete with rough eye holes. All in shades of white. All holding wooden staves and sticks. Tassels, leather strands, and materials tied on.
‘They’ve stolen our bloody horse,’ Blowers mutters.
‘And again we did steal it first,’ Paula says.
‘Appropriated,’ Clarence says.
The figures start walking towards them in a ragged line. A few at first but then more emerge. All sizes too. The clear forms of big men. The sway of women and the sickening sight of smaller figures swathed in robes clutching small sticks.
‘What the actual fuck,’ Howie whispers, entranced at the sight.
‘Urgh I can’t look,’ Marcy says, turning away with her eyes closed. ‘That’s gross.’
‘What is?’ Howie asks, glancing across to her.
‘That,’ she says nodding at the people coming towards them. ‘Just creepy.’
‘After the things we’ve seen?’ Paula asks.
‘Are they humming?’ Blowers asks, cocking his head over to listen. ‘Can you hear it?’
‘Yeah I can,’ Nick says, glaring at the lines coming towards them.
Distinct low murmuring sounds come from the robed figures. Tuneful and deep. A sound of sorrow and sadness. Meredith cocks her head like Blowers, staring intently.
‘Why is Jess letting that twat ride her, Charles?’ Blinky asks.
‘Because she’s a trained horse that’s why,’ Charlie replies quietly.
‘Make her kick him off.’
‘She’s a horse, Blinky.’
‘Meredith wouldn’t let them ride her.’
‘Focus,’ Howie says quietly.
‘They’re stopping,’ Clarence says. ‘Maybe they know why my toe was wet.’
‘Stop with the wet toe for fuck’s sake,’ Howie says.
‘You didn’t wake up with a wet toe.’
‘Maybe a bird shit on it…look, just forget the wet toe.’
‘It was wet not covered in bird shit.’
‘Oh my fucking God can we just focus on this.’
‘OI FUCKSTICK! GET OFF MY MATES HORSE.’
‘Blinky!’ Paula hisses.
‘Sorry, Sir. CUNT.’
‘Blinky!’ Paula says again.
‘Sorry, Sir, won’t do it again…’
‘Um,’ Cookey says, scratching his head. ‘Did that bloke just say awooga?’
‘Er,’ Blowers says.
‘Shush,’ Paula says, her voice edging towards that irritated tone.
The robed figures stop. The one on the horse simply holding still out front as he purveys the tied people ten metres away. He lifts his stick. The others lift their sticks.
‘AWOOOOOOOOOOOGA WACKA WACKA WOCKA WOOOOGLE.’
The robed figure on the horse shakes his stick. The other robed figures all shake their sticks.
‘AWOOOOOOOGA WACKA WACKA WOCKA WOOOGLE.’the voices of the robed figures all chant in unison. Deep and sinister.
Cookey looks at Blowers. Blowers stares back. Nick looks at them. They look at Nick. Blinky flicks her eyes from the chanting figures to the lads. Mo’s face strains.
‘WICKA WOCKA WANGLE…’the figures boom and chant. Waving sticks in the air at thirteen people in underwear tied to metal poles in a field.
Cookey fights it. Blowers face turns red. Nick bites his lip. Blinky blows air from her cheeks and looks up. Charlie looks down. A vein in Mo’s forehead bulges.
‘WACKKKKAAAAAA,’ a long drawn out chant. ‘WOCKKAAAAAA,‘ another the same. A pause, a sense of foreboding builds. ‘WIBBLE.’
Cookey goes first, unable to contain himself. The others follow a split second behind him. Laughter breaking out. Giggles and guffaws. A big braying donkey. A smaller braying donkey in Charlie. Blowers almost pissing himself from the single wibble at the end. Nick and Mo with tears streaming down cheeks. Paula laughing. Roy chuckling, shaking his head. Reginald grinning. Howie leaning his forehead on his pole.
‘S’not funny,’ a plaintive muffled voice says from within the ranks of robed figures. That sets Cookey off even more. The lad howling with laughter, his face bright red and his eyes glistening.
‘I said it’s not funny. Stop laughing. Seriously stop bloody laughing….’
‘Oh my god,’ Cookey gasps, turning away then looking back at them with a fresh peel of laughter breaking out. Blowers sinks to his knees. Nick and Mo the same. Clarence bends over for his hands to reach his face to wipe the tears away.
‘Alfred, tell ‘em it’s not funny,’ the muffled voice says.
‘LET THEM LAUGH HA HA HA,’ Alfred booms from atop Jess. Which only makes Cookey go off even more as the lad sinks down laughing so hard it hurts his sides.
‘Oh my god…oh my god…stop mate, seriously….’ Cookey gasps.
‘Funniest ever,’ Blowers blurts, trying to draw breath.
‘YOU WILL NOT LAUGH!’ Alfred booms, pausing for effect, ‘WHEN WE….’ He pauses again, for more effect. They all look at him, tears in eyes. ‘WHEN WE….RELEASE THE BEAST!’
‘Why are they bloody laughing? Tell ‘em to stop laughing.’
‘Beast!’ Nick mutters, widening his eyes and trying ever so hard to stop laughing. ‘They’ve got a beast.’
‘Fucking beast,’ Blowers says.
‘They gonna make Blinky fart again?’ Mo asks. Paula bursts out laughing at the quip. Clarence brays.
‘Is it a gimp?’ Cookey asks, trying to sound normal but laughing too much.
‘Gimp!’ Marcy goes off, unable to look at the creepy weirdoes but unable to stop laughing.
Alfred holds still. His poise and stature exemplified by the height of the horse and now suddenly not so sure. Jess spots Meredith and starts off to say hello. Alfred pulls on the reins. Jess ignores him. Alfred pulls harder. Jess tosses her head forward yanking him across her back.
‘Stop it…stop it…I SAID STOP IT…WHOA…How the…stupid bloody horse…’
Cookey’s gone. The sight of Jess walking on heedless to the frantic robed figure trying desperately to stop her is too much. Charlie tries watching but her eyes are misted and blurred.
‘Right just stop,’ Alfred hisses, tugging on the reins. Jess snickers. She dislikes the reins being tugged so hard. Anyway, she can see Charlie. Charlie is the one who goes on her. She lifts her head back, slackening the reins in Alfred’s grip.
‘Oh dear,’ Charlie mouths, wincing in advance.
‘Better,’ Alfred says smugly just before Jess thrusts her head forward and sends the robed figure over her head to sprawl on the grass. She carries on walking. Stepping over him calmly as the others nearly explode in laughter at the sight. She trots faster to greet Charlie. Snorting and blasting hot air in Charlie’s face as Alfred tries rising too fast but snags his robe under his feet and curses foully as the whole robe shifts over his body.
‘FUCK IT,’ Alfred roars, surging up while wrenching his hood off. His bearded face so genial last night now flushed red and angry.
‘Can’t say fuck it,’ the muffled voice in the ranks mutters. ‘Not very druid-like is it…’
‘Oh fuck off, Tim,’ Alfred says. ‘Get the gimp….FUCK IT! Get the beast. Release the beast on the fucking idiots. You lot are in so much trouble now.’
‘We haven’t done the ritual,’ the muffled voice says as robed heads turn to look at each other and shrug.
‘BRING OUT THE GIMP,’ Nick shouts.
‘BEAST NOT GIMP,’ Alfred shouts back.
‘You did say gimp…’
‘FUCK OFF TIM!’ Alfred roars.
‘Is Agnes there?’ Blinky calls over. ‘AGNES?’
‘Er, yes, yes I’m here,’ a slender arm lifts to wave under a robe.
‘Hey, Agnes,’ Blinky says, utterly nonplussed in her bra and knickers.
‘Um, hullo, Blinky,’ Agnes says.
‘She knows my name!’
‘Fuck off,’ Mo groans. ‘Hey, Agnes…’
‘Oh, hullo, Mo Mo.’
‘She knew my name first.’
‘Stop fucking chatting with the sacrificial…with the sacrificial…’ Alfred snaps, his face contorting as he struggles to find the right word.
‘Sacrificees?’ a muffled voice suggests.
‘Ah now, terribly sorry to interject but that is not actually a word,’ Reginald calls out.
‘Isn’t it?’ the muffled voice asks. ‘What, sacrificee?’
‘Sadly not. You can be sacrificed or subject to sacrifice but not sacrificee.’
‘Oh,’ the muffled voice says. ‘We been saying sacrificee for years.’
‘Whatever,’ Alfred shouts, desperate to regain control. ‘Just get the beast…’ no one moves. ‘I said get the beast. Who has the beast?’
‘John’s got him back in the woods,’ a woman says under a hood, turning to point. ‘HERE JOHN. ALFIE WANTS THE BEAST UP HERE.’
‘YOU WHAT?’ a voice shouts from the woods.
‘ALFIE WANTS THE BEAST UP HERE.’
‘EH? CAN’T HEAR YOU.’
‘Dave, help ‘em out, mate,’ Howie says.
‘RELEASE THE BEAST.’Dave roars, his enormous voice rolling over the field. Every robed figure turns to look at him then to each other as low voices start muttering.
‘Cor that was good.’
‘Did you hear that, Alfie?’
‘Alfie, can we keep that one?’
‘No we bloody cannot,’ Alfie says, deciding this is the right time to put his hood back on. He struggles for a few seconds with getting it right while holding the stick.
‘You alright there mate?’ Nick asks.
‘Fine!’ Alfred says.
‘Agnes, you fancy coming with us when we bust free?’ Blinky calls out.
‘Ah good idea,’ Cookey says.
‘Is it?’ Charlie asks icily, arching an eyebrow at Cookey. ‘I rather think not, thank you.’
‘Ooh you just got told, mate,’ Blowers says.
‘Ah go on, Charlie,’ Mo says. ‘She’s fit as fuck.’
‘I don’t think she’s that pretty,’ Charlie says stiffly.
‘She is,’ Blinky says. ‘Like…like…I would…’ she adds, nodding eagerly. ‘Agnes? Agnes? Agnes? You coming with us?’
‘Go on, Agnes,’ Mo says.
‘Er,’ Agnes says from under her hood, ‘um…so…’
‘Maybe Agnes does not want to go with us,’ Paula says tactfully. ‘And besides, she did rather lead us into this situation in the first place.’
‘Oh fuck,’ Blinky says. ‘Forgot about that…Agnes? Agnes? Agnes? Did you lead us into this situation in the first place? We gotta know now so we don’t kill you when we bust free. Or like if you did then fuck it, you’re totally getting killed…’
‘You are not busting free.’
‘Who’s talking to you fuckstick?’ Blinky snaps at Alfred. ‘Go shag your mum.’
‘Fist me, pencil dick.’
‘Bend over and get fucked by giant dildo you stupid cunt.’
‘All day long twat…Agnes? Agnes? Agnes? Did you lead us into this situation in the first place or not? And your dad is a total cunt.’
‘John’s here,’ the woman’s muffled voice calls out.
‘HAHA!’ Alfred booms, ‘THE BEAST IS HERE. PREPARE TO DIE.’
‘Dramatic chap isn’t he,’ Roy says.
‘Where is it then?’ Blowers asks. ‘I can’t see it.’
‘No I can’t either,’ Nick says.
‘Mate,’ Howie calls out. ‘Shift over a bit so we can see.’
‘You lot are weird,’ Alfred says, huffing as he waggles his stick in the air. ‘AWOOGA…AWOOGA…’
‘Oh fuck off, not that again,’ Howie says. ‘Can anyone see the beast thing?’
‘Nope,’ Blowers says.
‘Not yet, Mr Howie,’ Charlie says.
‘Clarence, you’re tall. You see it?’ Howie asks.
‘Nope, too many pointy hoods in the way.’
‘I said…AWOOGA…’Alfred shouts, turning to look at the robed figures.
‘Kinda lost the moment really,’ Tim mumbles to a murmur of agreement. ‘And they keep laughing at us.’
‘You are wearing bedsheets,’ Paula points out.
‘Druid robes actually,’ someone says.
‘You the Klu Klux Klan then?’ Nick asks.
‘WHAT!’ Someone shouts indignantly.
‘We had robes before they did…by like a thousand years!’ Someone else scoffs.
‘Oh, sorry,’ Nick says. ‘No offence.’
‘Nah it’s alright, mate, easy mistake to make.’
‘You look similar though,’ Nick adds.
‘Agnes? Agnes? Did you lead us into this situation in the first place?’ Blinky asks again.
‘Yes,’ Agnes says.
‘What? No!’ Blinky says sadly. ‘Ah bet you were forced though. Did your cunt dad make you do it? He’s a twat.’
‘It was her idea actually,’ Tim says. ‘You know…when it all started and the first people came through…’
Blinky blinks. Mo’s eyebrow lifts. Silence rolls out for a few seconds.
‘THE BEAST IS HERE.’ Alfred roars as the crowd of robed figures parts quickly and moves back out of the way.
John leads the beast. A snuffling, snarling, groaning, hissing evil fetid rotten thing. Lank greasy hair hanging down. A thick collar on the neck fixed with a stick that John pushes to propel it on. Hands clawed to talons. Teeth gnashing. Eyes red and bloodshot. Withered, scrawny and emaciated as it hisses and drools.
A sense of power ripples through the robed figures. A sense of awe and shock. A tangible trepidation as they shy back to stay clear of the beast.
Howie stares at it. Meredith stands up, hackles lifting. Jess lifts her head to look then goes back to eating the grass. Clarence looks at Howie and shrugs. Howie shrugs back at him.
‘Is it just one?’ Howie asks.
‘Looks like it,’ Clarence says. ‘Er, just the one is it?’ He calls out.
‘What?’ Alfred says.
‘Just the one is it?’ Clarence asks again. ‘The one beast you’ve got?’
‘Your bravery is commendable,’ Alfred replies scathingly but also taking in the complete lack of response in the tied up group.
‘That’s a zombie,’ Cookey points out.
‘We don’t use that word, Cookey,’ Clarence says.
‘What? Zombie?’ Blowers asks.
‘Which word?’ Nick asks. ‘Zombie?’
‘Agnes, did your dad make you?’
‘Oh I almost forgot, do any of you know why my toe was wet?’
‘Toe?’ Tim asks from under his hood.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ Howie huffs. ‘Forget the fucking toe.’
‘Alfred? They don’t seem that bothered,’ Tim says.
‘HAHA!’ Alfred booms. ‘They are scared. They are terrified. They are waiting in vain hope for a reprieve.’
‘Agnes? Is your dad always a complete cunt? Did he make you lead us into this present situation?’
‘Bloody hell, Blinky,’ Blowers says. ‘You really like Agnes don’t you.’
‘Yeah! She’s gorgeous.’
‘Yeah she is quite pretty,’ Blowers concedes.
‘Plain if you ask me,’ Charlie says.
‘I think she’s plain too,’ Marcy says.
‘Marcy and I think she is plain,’ Charlie says.
‘Agnes?’ Marcy calls out. ‘You’re not that pretty.’
‘Ooh that was spiteful,’ Paula says.
‘Was a bit,’ Roy says.
‘Easy, Marcy,’ Blowers says.
‘Fuck it, I feel bad now,’ Marcy says. ‘Agnes, sorry. I take it back.’
‘That’s okay,’ Agnes says, lifting a robed hand. ‘Circumstances and all that…’
‘DRAW BACK MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS,’ Alfred roars dramatically. ‘DRAW BACK AND GIVE THE BEAST ROOM TO FEAST…’
They move back. Shuffling and walking backwards while trying not to trip over robes or knock sticks into each other.
John, in his robes, comes forward and braces to hold the withered old man on the end of the stick. The red eyes flash at Howie and the group. The head rolling side to side. The infected look awful. Far worse than the ones they’ve been dealing with lately. Alfred goes back several steps, majestic and proud. His stick held over his head.
‘Don’t let him go yet,’ Tim yelps. ‘He chased us last time. Get him closer, John.’
‘Eh? Closer?’ John asks. ‘Can’t hear a thing in this hood.’
‘Yeah closer,’ Tim shouts.
‘Closer?’ John shouts.
‘CLOSER,’ someone shouts from the robed figures.
Alfred moves back with his knobbly stick held above his head. The other robed figures also edge away while lifting their cassocks free from the ground ready to leg it unhindered. Even with the morbid hoods on, Howie and the others can see the nervous way the figures all twitch and watch the infected man.
‘WE SACRIFICE YOU TO THE GODS. WE FEED THE BEAST TO PACIFY THEIR HUNGER.’ Alfred shouts his dramatic delivery.
‘I wonder how many they’ve killed here,’ Paula says quietly.
‘And they’re letting kids watch it,’ Clarence says.
‘Judging by the way they’re watching I’d say we’re definitely not the first,’ Howie says.
‘WE GIVE BLOOD TO SATISFY THE CRAVINGS OF THE NEW MOON.’
‘Charlie, call Jess to you,’ Blowers whispers.
‘THE NEW MOON THAT HAS BROUGHT THE CHANGE TO MANKIND AND…’
‘Bit sexist isn’t it,’ Paula calls out. ‘Saying mankind. What about women?’
‘We said that,’ a muffled female voice calls out from the robed figures.
‘I think you’re right too,’ Paula shouts. ‘Should be humanity not mankind.’
‘Yeah Alfie, we said to say humanity…’
‘It doesn’t sound the same,’ Alfie says, clearly unhappy.
‘Bloody hell that old bugger is taking his time,’ Howie says, sagging to lean against his pole as John continues pushing to guide the old zombie towards them.
‘Jess, here girl,’ Charlie says, clucking and making noises to the horse that lifts her head, thinks for a second then walks over slowly to blast air and have her nose rubbed.
‘That thing in her mouth,’ Blowers says.
‘The bit?’ Charlie asks.
‘Yeah, it’s got metal on it. Get it off. Chuck it to Clarence.’
‘Bloody hell mate, well done,’ Howie says, standing upright.
Charlie reaches up but finds the rope snagging taut. She backs up, bringing the horse closer to get a higher reach but paws at the reins and straps, her fingers numb from lack of blood. Gritting her teeth she tries harder, stubbing her hands into the strap but unable to gain leverage or dexterity to unfasten the buckle.
‘JOHN HURRY UP.’ Alfred booms.
‘I can’t,’ Charlie says, looking back at the man pushing the zombie towards them. She tries harder, physically forcing her numb fingertips into the straps but unable to grip, pull or push. ‘I can’t…let me just…’
‘Charlie, don’t worry,’ Cookey says.
‘I’m trying…I’m…my fingers are numb…’
‘Charlie, don’t worry,’ Cookey says again.
‘Jess stay still, just stay there…’
Hopeless. Blowers shakes his head at Howie. There’s no way Charlie can unbuckle the strap.
‘Teeth?’ Paula asks.
‘Can’t reach,’ Charlie says, giving up to rest her forehead against Jess’s neck. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s fine,’ Howie says. ‘My hands are numb too. Gonna hurt like a bitch when we get free.’
‘And just how do you propose we do that?’ Paula asks.
‘READY,’ John shouts, standing just metres away with the infected straining to be free.
‘WE FEED THE BEAST TO PACIFY THE HUNGER AND SATISFY THE GODS.’ Alfred roars. ‘WE GIVE HIM BLOOD AND FLESH SO HE MAY LEAVE US IN PEACE…’
Meredith barks, giving voice to warn the thing to stay back, to stay away. That ripple of aggression spreads to Jess who flings her head up with her bulging eyes rolling as she snaps her jaws and snorts loudly. Meredith barks louder. Jess rears up, lifting her front legs high as she whinnies into the air. Charlie darts back out of the way and to the last they feel the thump in the earth as Jess lands her front feet down and starts walking with high steps towards the infected man.
She whinnies and skitters. Her flanks rippling with bunched power and strength. Her eyes fixed on the thing and the foul smell coming from him. John gawps through his hood at her. At the change from the docile animal to this thing now bursting to speed. He drops the stick and runs. Jess charges. Everyone tenses. The impact is hard and brutal. A shoulder barge that flings the infected aside so hard he rams into John trying to run away. They both go down sprawling and spinning. John loses vision as his hood pulls over his head. Several robed figures cry out. The infected gnashes and thrashes. His mouth finding flesh as he sinks teeth into John’s calf muscle and tears the muscle out. Jess turns and trots back. Her front legs lifting high with big oversized steps. She bucks at the last second to lift up and slam down on the bodies. Bones break. John screams. Jess steps forward and back kicks the two figures, flinging them across the grass with brutal ease. All humour gone. Any trace of the surrealness vanishes as Jess turns and runs back to do the same again. Stamping, stomping and kicking. More of the robed figures stupidly run into the fray, desperate to save John. Men shout out and wave sticks at Jess, trying to beat her back. Jess spins round. This is not new to her. Being surrounded by angry shouting things is not new. She slams her rump into two, knocking them flat. She back kicks another, killing him outright with her hard hooves caving his chest in and driving the bones into his heart. Alfred slams his stick into her neck. She lifts up and slams down, head-butting him into the ground. She thrashes and dances, rears and skitters. The infected biting John has broken legs, broken arms, broken ribs, broken pelvis. He should be dead from the pain and blood loss but he feels nothing and his life juice clots fast. He crawls to another robed figure as Howie and the others scream a warning from instinct alone. Teeth find an arm and clamp down to gnash and chew. Blood sprays out. The man screams. Other robed figures kick at the one biting but it twists fast and bites an ankle then rakes a leg with ragged fingernails. Men scream and shout out as Jess runs back through them sending them flying like skittles. More run in. Men and women who have no real idea of the danger of the infection.
Alfred runs for it. Ripping his robes off overhead as he runs for the treeline after all the others screaming and crying out. Howie watches them and catches sight of Agnes stood to the side with her hood off watching it all with a wry smile.
Adrenalin pumps. Clarence tries again to rip the pole from the ground. Dave goes back to biting the rope. The others tug and heave on their bindings. All apart from Howie who stares across the carnage to Agnes and the sheer benign psychotic pleasure she is taking in the death she is seeing.
Jess runs back through them. Heedless to who she knocks over or steps on. They are not her herd. They are not her pack. Meredith barks again and again, desperate to be free and in the fight. Jess’s trailing back right foot snags a robe as she runs, pulling a fully grown man behind who bounces and slams over the grass.
‘JESS,’ Charlie cries out, ‘HERE JESS…ON ME….ON ME JESS…’
Jess rears at the voice, turning on a sixpence to gallop towards the voice she knows so well. She goes close, expecting Charlie to jump out and land on her back but Charlie, Blowers, Cookey and Mo all watch the bouncing body being pulled behind her. As the horse passes they lunge out and dive to trap the robed man and stop him. The ropes holding them snag tight. The man bounces on. They cry out as Charlie calls Jess to come back.
‘Oh shit,’ Paula mutters as John suddenly sits up with red bloodshot eyes glaring out at the new world. On his feet within a second and he’s not like the old zombie. He’s fresh and strong. His system is pumped and primed. He howls and runs into a robed figure, slamming him down to rake and bite at the neck as the hood slips off.
The white robes splash with blood. He lunges up and off into another, then into another and more. Frenzied and wild. White robes soak with blood. He rises again and again to sprint at them trying to crawl away while sobbing. Biting, raking, passing the infection as more hosts are taken. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Dozens are taken with ease. With sickening violent ease and they lie dying with pain in their guts as John turns and finally looks at the ones all tied up. Seeing Howie and the others. He goes for it. His lips pulled back with bloodied drool hanging from his mouth.
Jess runs past. Charlie and the ones at her end try again to snag and grab the body in the hope he’ll have a knife or something to use. He goes by bouncing and bloodied.
John fixes the ones closest to him in his red glaring eyes. He looks at the small man at the end and the complete lack of emotion in his eyes. He looks at the dark curly haired man then along to Clarence. He looks beyond them to Paula, Marcy and Reginald. Which to take? He will take all of them. He runs in. His manner and gait focussed and steady.
‘Mine?’ Howie asks, trying to judge the angle of attack.
‘Looks like it’ll be Dave,’ Paula says, leaning over.
‘Er, I’d say more Howie,’ Marcy says.
‘You think so?’ Paula asks mildly. ‘Ah yep, he’s veering off a bit now…oh…looks like Clarence then.’
‘Ooh, that’s not going to end well,’ Marcy says, pulling a grimace.
John runs. He aims for Clarence. Clarence is big. Big hosts are good. Clarence steps closer to his pole and waits. John charges in. His mouth ready. His fingers clawed. He lunges as Clarence reaches a hand out to help guide him into the pole with a dull thonk that makes Howie wince and Paula tut.
‘Went well didn’t it,’ Clarence says mildly, staring down at the zombie somewhat stunned as big foot comes down on his neck.
‘HOWIE!’ Paula shouts. Howie spins round to see another one charging in. The white robes soaked in blood. The mouth open and the eyes fixed. He runs in hard as Howie holds for a second then slams forward to meet the impact. As they go down so Howie grapples to get around behind and wrap the rope round the infected man’s neck. The man grunts and hisses. Dave strains to reach but the rope holds him back. Howie heaves back, strangling the beast from behind while trying to twist and get the man’s feet closer to Dave. Bucking and thrashing. The infected and Howie rolling side to side as much as the rope will allow. Howie draws breath and explodes with power to drive the rope harder into the neck as he thrashes to kill it quickly. The end comes. The thing goes limp. Howie kicks it free towards Dave who finally grabs a foot and drags the body to him.
Paula watches with her heart hammering. Two dead but more rising from the grass as the infection takes root within them.
She looks to Clarence to see him fumbling like Charlie with numb fingers to search John. Huffing and puffing to get into pockets. A lighter falls out. A plastic disposable thing.
‘Yes!’ Paula says.
Clarence stares at it, already feeling the frustration at knowing he won’t be able to make his fingers work to use it. He tries anyway. Picking it up and fumbling to thumb the wheel and make a spark. No good.
‘Clarence, chuck it over,’ Marcy says.
He struggles to hold it steady and throw it the short distance to Marcy who drops down onto her arse and fumbles to get it between the toes on her left foot. Biting her bottom lip in concentration she uses the big toe on her right foot to thumb the wheel. Flame is made. Paula cries out. Marcy curses at the heat burning her toe and pulls away enough to lose traction and the flame with it.
‘Try again,’ Paula says, glancing at the bodies rising up.
‘I am,’ Marcy says, also glancing up. She strikes the wheel and makes a spark but no flame. She tries again. The flame holds. She gets the rope over it, grimacing at the burning sensation going through her toe from being so close to the flame. The smell of burning fills the air as the rope starts to smoulder and give off black smoke.
‘GOT HIM!’ Blowers shouts. Howie snaps his head over to see Blowers stretched out with his feet on the ruined bloodied white robed body that went past behind Jess again. He strains to use his feet to work the body closer. The rope taut from his wrists to the pole.
‘Incoming,’ Nick shouts. A figure runs in at that end. Charging to feast and chomp and meet Mo who darts out to trip it and Blinky who lunges to kick it in the gut. It sags back into Nick who wraps the rope round the neck like Howie did and heaves.
Dave works his rope round the little finger of the infected man underneath him. His manner busy and focussed. He tightens the ligature then bunches to snap force. A dull crack as the bone breaks. He heaves again. Tensing harder. His body weight on the arm while he pulls up to wrench the finger from the hand with a wet tearing sound.
Marcy curses again. Tears in her eyes from the pain in her foot. The rope burnt halfway through.
Dave snaps around and spots the infected charging at him. He goes back a step then drops flat to trip the man then lunges up onto his back to drive the point of his knee into the spine so hard it breaks with a dull crack. He stares at the dismembered finger still wedged in his numb hands and frowns at the lack of a sharp shard of bone to use. This thing is dull and broken cleanly at the joint.
He rams a head into his pole. Teeth spill out. He drops the body and looks down at the teeth before carefully selecting one that is jagged and sharp. He too uses his feet to grip it while sawing the rope over the broken tooth, forcing the strands apart to weaken the material enough to break.
‘CHARLIE…’ Roy shouts. Charlie jumps back from the infected aiming for her that staggers past into the range of Meredith who takes it down with ease.
‘HURTS…’ Marcy cries at the burning of her toe.
‘Almost there…’ Paula says, watching her closely.
‘That bitch is still watching us,’ Cookey shouts. Howie looks over to see Agnes still standing with that wry smile watching it all play out.
Marcy burns her rope and Dave uses a tooth to cut his while Meredith eats a zombie and Jess runs past knocking more over.
Dave’s rope breaks. He looks up with a mild expression of satisfaction at a job well done and stands up to walk over to Marcy. She stops burning her rope to stare up. He nods and walks past to the one Blowers just dragged in. He drops to a squat, pulls the robes up and slides the knife from the belt on the dead body before nodding at Blowers gasping for air.
‘Simon,’ Dave says dully.
‘What the fuck?’ Marcy says. ‘I was burning my toe. You could have said, Dave.’
‘Said you were breaking free, my toe’s really burning now.’
Dave looks around at everyone then over at Agnes now backing away towards the treeline, then to Howie. He nods again then looks out to the dozens of white-robed blood-soaked red-eyed zombie druids all sitting up to stare out. An assessment within the blink of an eye.
Dave moves to the body next to Blowers and flicks the knife down so it embeds in the sternum of the corpse.
‘Use that,’ Dave says dully before walking off in his underpants with his wrists still bound together.
‘Now we’ll know,’ Howie says quietly into the silence that follows.
‘We will,’ Clarence says.
‘Yep,’ Blowers says.
‘Had to happen one day,’ Nick says.
‘What did?’ Charlie asks.
‘Dave,’ Howie says.
‘What about him?’ Charlie asks.
‘Mr Howie always said,’ Cookey explains. ‘Dave in his underpants with his hands tied together could still beat the zombies.’