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As soon as Davey’s eyelids fluttered open, sunlight streamed in.
It was like shards of glass in his retinas.
His head pounded.
He ached from arsehole to eyelids.
And he hadn’t the foggiest idea what had happened.
Wasn’t sure he wanted to; especially when he discovered his trousers were still pulled down around his ankles.
Whimpering, he pulled them back up.
Somehow the fact that the bag containing his bulging wallet had gone missing was the least upsetting part of the ordeal.
The fact that he wasn’t on a spit over a roaring fire was comforting, but he had no idea where he was or how he’d got here.
A pain flared in the back of his neck.
Where Old Jimmy’s hand had crushed in, pinning him belly down on the leafy floor.
The memory was scarred into his mind like a razor carving through soft flesh.
Holy shit, they didn’t?
He remembered their last words before he’d slumped into darkness.
Before his battered body had finally let go of consciousness.
Hey, there’s plenty of time for all of us to… welcome… him.
Then Old Jimmy’s unsettling high-pitched giggle.
Icewater flooded through his veins.
‘They’re going to regret ever seeing your face,’ a gruff voice said.
He jumped as he hadn’t been aware that there’d been anyone there.
He turned as fast as his broken body would allow and saw Max, one of the King’s guards, standing over him.
Blood dripped from the blade in his right hand.
The sound of the drops landing on the dry leaves by Davey’s head seemed ridiculously loud.
‘What happened?’ Blood poured from Davey’s lips as he spoke.
‘A gang of child murderers lured you into the woods and tried to do very bad things to you. It was Ollie, the Grim from the bait cabin, who sent us looking for you. Said you were looking out of your depth and could do with a helping hand. Thank the Gods we found you in time.’
Davey sobbed as the thought of what had happened – and what, without the intervention of the royal guards, was just about to happen – hit him.
‘Hey, it’s ok,’ Max said, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.
Davey recoiled from the grip, hating contact.
‘They didn’t get to…’ Max trailed off.
Davey said nothing, but he felt a small flicker of relief flood into him.
‘Come on, let’s get you fixed up,’ Max said.
Max hoisted Davey over his shoulder with the bare minimum of effort.
He carried him for what seemed like a long time, to a white wooden building.
Inside, it could have been a snapshot from the days before the world went sour.
White-coated doctors and nurses ran around what was a fully-constructed hospital ward.
They were clean-cut, a far-cry from the steam-huffing rabble he’d seen in other parts of the Freelands.
‘This young gentleman needs treatment right now,’ Max told the nearest doctor. His tone indicated that there was to be no discussion on the matter.
The doctor nodded. ‘Put him in the first booth on the left. I’ll move him to the top of my list.’
Max thanked him and laid Davey carefully down on the bed.
‘Thank you,’ Davey said. ‘For everything.’
Max smiled. ‘My pleasure.’
‘What will you do with them?’ Davey said.
Max’s smile widened. ‘I’ll let your next guest decide that.’
Davey was gobsmacked when the curtain parted to reveal all seven feet of King Solomon.
His face was grave, concern etched into his brow.
‘I came as soon as I heard what happened to you, Davey lad,’ the King said.
‘I’m deeply sorry that this has happened to you in my Freelands. I feel responsible. I hope you understand that this is not the way my people behave.’
‘Yes I do. I felt safe up until I bumped into them.’
‘Well, you can rest assured that there will be retribution. This is not something that can go unpunished.’
Davey nodded. ‘Good. I think they were going to…’ Tears began to fill his eyes as the ordeal hit him anew.
The King clapped a hand on his shoulder. ‘Relax. Don’t think about it. It’s over now. The doctor is outside. I will speak to you after he has fixed you up.’
The King welcomed the doctor in with a firm handshake. ‘Take special care of him, Doctor,’ he smiled.
The doctor nodded.
‘Do you need anything, Davey?’ the King said.
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ the King said.
I’m being waited on by a fucking King, Davey thought. This is the craziest goddamned thing.
The doctor poked and prodded him and told him he had some swelling but nothing was broken.
‘I hesitate to say you’ve been lucky,’ he began. ‘But your injuries could have been a lot worse.’
At this, Davey burst into tears.
‘I’m sorry,’ the doctor said, before scuttling out.
A few minutes into Davey’s crying jag, the King returned clutching a pizza box.
He put it to one side and hugged Davey tight to him.
The King was strong, Davey could feel that in the embrace.
He felt safe.
‘It’s ok,’ the King said. ‘They can’t hurt you now.’
Davey’s tears ceased after a few more sniffs.
‘Here, I managed to scrounge this,’ the King said, passing him the pizza. ‘I hope you like pepperoni.’
Davey grinned up at him. The jagged teeth in the front of his mouth felt strange against his lips.
‘As soon as you are out of here, I’ve got a special surprise for you.’
Davey smiled, and began to eat.
That night’s sleep in the hospital was plagued with nightmares from his ordeal.
He kept seeing Old Jimmy’s leering grin as he moved in, the knife glinting in his hand.
Their words echoed ominously around the trees.
In this dream he was naked and tied to a spit over a roaring fire.
Old Jimmy – also naked – moved around him, throwing herbs and spices into his crackling flesh.
The others leered and watched, drool spilling over their lips as they drew in the scent of his seared flesh.
Then, their teeth sharpened and blood-smeared, they came in for the first taste.
He woke screaming, the bedsheets plastered to him with his rancid sweat.
The doctors came in and sedated him in the end.
The next morning, the doctor came in and told him that he was free to go.
Three of the King’s personal guards greeted him outside the makeshift hospital. They were armed in the same way as they had been when he’d seen them in the King’s compound; to the teeth.
‘The King has requested your presence. You’re to come with us.’
Even if he’d had the energy to argue he didn’t want to be alone.
‘What’s going on?’
‘It’s a surprise,’ the guard beamed.
He followed them through the tin sector and he once again marvelled at the sheer scale of it.
It felt like he was being led through the VIP entrance, as he saw things that he felt like he wasn’t meant to have seen.
There were buildings that looked like factories in the middle of the compound.
His jaw dropped when he heard the low sound of cows mooing from their general direction.
He could smell food being made and what he guessed were drugs being made.
There was a building which looked like it was a water purification plant.
This area was a hive of activity.
But when a siren went off, the Grims all turned and started moving in the same direction as Davey and his entourage.
After a long journey through what looked like the tenement’s industrial sector, they came upon a huge clearing.
At the end of the clearing lay a building which looked very similar to the photos he’d seen in the old days when they used to learn about the outside world in school.
It reminded him of the coliseum, which he’d read about online before the internet was taken down.
Closer up, it looked like an abandoned football stadium that had been remodelled to look like a gladiator’s arena.
There were loads of raised stone seats, banked so that the seats behind could see over the ones in front.
A thick black tarp rustled overhead.
It was to the very highest of the seats that Davey was led.
The King was there already in a private booth which looked suspiciously like a stolen builder’s lockup, but lined with plush finery.
Again, up close, it turned out to be old carpets nailed to the walls, but still, he couldn’t fault the effort that had been made.
King Solomon had a throne here, but it was much more modest – and less disturbing – than the throne of bones he’d had in his compound.
‘Ah, Davey lad. Pleased you’re feeling better, my friend,’ he beamed. ‘Come, sit with me.’
‘What’s all this?’ Davey asked.
The King held a finger to his own lips to shush him.
The same finger raised to point out to the impressively made coliseum.
Davey examined it more thoroughly.
At first, the seats had looked to be raised up high into the sky.
He wondered how this was possible, but further inspection made it clear that the arena was sunken into the floor and the highest of the seats were actually only a few dozen feet above the floor level of the rest of the camp.
The arena floor was mostly flat, concrete, roughly the size of a football pitch.
In the very centre was a structure – a white vertical beam with a shorter horizontal beam at the top – that Davey recognised from history lessons as a gallows.
A thick rope hung from the end of the horizontal beam.
The realisation that the gallows pole was made up from dismantled goalposts confirmed Davey’s suspicion that it was a converted football stadium.
There was a sunken pit in the floor, surrounded by what looked like a huge pile of stones.
‘What is this?’ Davey said.
The King didn’t get to reply as a huge roar went up.
The large wooden gates of the arena opened and what looked to be thousands of Grims rushed inside, clamouring – almost fighting – for a place at the front.
There was a sea of them, stretched out below their seats.
The noise the Grims made was unreal; Davey was sure it would have been heard back in the city proper.
The volume went up a few dozen decibels when the prisoners were dragged in by the King’s armed guards.
The King let the noise die down a little, then stood.
At once, everyone in the place went silent.
Next chapter is here