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The silence was so sudden that Davey would have sworn that he’d gone deaf.
‘Dear Grims of the Freelands,’ the King boomed, seemingly without a microphone. ‘Thank you for your attendance here today. We are all here to witness the punishment of those who have seen fit to abuse one of our guests.’
A great jeering cry went up at this.
‘Fucking string ’em up,’ one Grim shouted through the din.
The King smiled.
He held his arm out to indicate Davey. ‘This young man came here a few nights ago seeking sanctuary. I offered him the standard welcome. He was on his way to convert his money into the currency of the Freelands when these men attacked him. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say they deserve everything that is coming to them.’
The crowd again jeered and booed.
Projectiles were hurled at the men, who looked in a much worse state than they’d been when Davey had left them.
‘Alright, alright,’ the King said. Again the silence was sudden and absolute. ‘So the purpose of today’s celebration is twofold; firstly, to punish those who have seen fit to violate the rules I have set for my people. And secondly, to act as a deterrent to those thinking of following a similar course of action in the future. Crime will not be tolerated here. We are a community. We look after one another. We do not rob, attack or kill each other. Anyone breaking these rules will live just long enough to regret it.’
The crowd roared their approval.
‘Now,’ the King said, ‘Feel free to grab some hooch or medicine, and join me in a toast. To health, to happiness, to harmony. To the Freelands.’
‘To the Freelands,’ the crowd roared. ‘And to King Solomon.’
Drinks were hoisted and sent down greedy throats.
‘Now, let’s get this party started,’ the King roared to deafening applause.
He offered Davey a pair of binoculars which looked to have been fashioned by gaffa-taping a pair of discarded telescope lenses at the end of two toilet roll tubes.
Davey took them, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to see what was going to happen.
As Davey scanned the line of prisoners, a pang of alarm went through him.
‘Old Jimmy’s not there,’ he said.
The King’s brow furrowed.
‘He must have got away.’
‘Not to worry. We’ll find him after the celebration. Relax and enjoy the show.’
Tia suddenly appeared from nowhere, squealing with glee as she jumped onto her father’s lap.
Davey tried to catch her eye, but a deafening roar rang out from below.
Max had grabbed the first prisoner – the one who’d attacked Davey with the tree branch – and was leading him over to the gallows.
Davey couldn’t hear what he said, but he could tell the man was terrified.
His legs were quaking and, as Max fastened the rope around his neck – tight enough to make the flesh around it turn white, he noticed – a puddle appeared below his bare feet.
He smiled, despite his apprehension of what was to come.
Max looked up to the King, who gave a firm nod.
In a movement so fast that Davey didn’t even see it, Max produced a blade and drew it across the lower curve of the man’s belly.
A roar went up as blood began to soak through the white gown the man wore – with their transgression, they wore the white garments of prisoners, not the traditional black cloaks of the Grims, as they were no longer classed as part of their society.
Then Max kicked away the stool.
The man fell fast, jolting to a sudden stop as the rope reached its full extent.
The crack of his neck rang out, as did the sickly tearing sound as his entrails appeared through the slit in his belly and dropped into the crowd below like steaming snakes.
The Grims fought for possession of the guts, which slipped through everyone’s fingers due to the gore that coated them.
Other Grims fought to get under the platform where the blood was dripping.
The most bizarre spectacle Davey saw was a heavily bearded Grim forcing his way through the crowd. One arm held a writhing infant, the other shoved his fellow Grims out of the way.
As the kid cried, he shoved it under the platform.
The first drop of blood missed its intended target, plopping onto the miniature version of the Grims’ black robe that the infant wore.
The Grim scowled and looked up, clearly trying to gauge the path of the blood’s fall.
He repositioned the baby and smiled when a double splat of blood landed on its forehead.
He made a symbol in the air which looked like an S, repeated the gesture on his own forehead, then forced his way back through the crowd.
When the blood stopped dripping, Max got up and cut the offender down, throwing his body to the baying crowd below.
Blood-smeared, they let out a primal roar.
The King stood, a smile on his features. ‘Are we having fun yet?’ he bellowed.
The crowd roared in return.
Max raised his arms in the air like a boxer who’d just won a fight and went to the next quaking prisoner; Billy.
He tried to get away, but Max clubbed him hard on the temple with the side of his fist.
He landed on the floor in a stunned heap.
‘What do you think, free Grims? Do you want to take this one?’
The crowd roared.
‘A week of free food for the Grim who brings me this bastard’s head,’ the King grinned.
The crowd roared and jostled for position as Max dragged the terrified prisoner to the platform.
Billy sunk to his knees, hands clasped together in the old way of praying.
‘Your God can’t help you now,’ the King grinned.
Max grabbed the criminal bodily and pitched him headfirst into the writhing crowd.
He disappeared into the sea of outstretched arms.
Davey didn’t see too much of what was going on, but he did see clouds of gore rising from the rabid crowd.
The screams lasted a matter of seconds before he was literally torn limb from limb.
A fight ensued for the head.
Despite the brutality of the scene, Davey found it touching when the Grim who’d lost a few teeth and almost one of his eyes fighting for the head handed it to a small, unaccompanied child near him.
The rest of the Grims ceased struggling and cheered, taking turns to lift the child above their heads in a victory parade.
The decapitated head swung from the kid’s blood-smeared mitt like some obscene pendulum.
‘Well done,’ the King bellowed. ‘Free meals for you this week. And also for the Grim who gave it to you.’
The Grim punched the air, whereas the kid seemed to have no idea what was going on.
‘I’m sure this doesn’t need repeating,’ the King said. ‘But I’d like to make this crystal clear. Death to robbers, rapists and murderers.’
The crowd roared their assent.
In the background a huge bonfire was being prepared.
Several Grims worked hard to pile up the wood.
‘Please, fill your bellies, on me,’ the King said, indicating huge wooden carts that had come in bearing food.
The Grims were very orderly in making a queue, in total contrast to the way they’d fought to be the first to get the dead man’s blood on them.
‘We’ll resume in ten minutes.’
Old Jimmy watched, aghast, from his place in the baying crowd.
He’d watched as his comrades in depravity had been torn to shreds by the furious Grims.
He’d remained pretty impassive; this was the way the world was now – even the end of civilisation as it had been in the early twenty-first century had done little to change the hatred that men like him inspired.
The last straw had been his brother, the final execution.
Young Jimmy had been in tears the whole time, as had Old Jimmy, though he hid it well from the crowd that surrounded him.
Young Jimmy was borderline retarded, didn’t really understand what it was that he was doing.
He was simply there because he liked to spend time with his brother.
‘I got him killed,’ Old Jimmy muttered to himself, quiet enough to go unheard by the crowd around him.
His vision of his brother had been blurred by the tears that streamed down his face.
This was probably just as well judging by the screams as he was led up to the gallows pole.
Young Jimmy was looking round, his face hopeful, right up until the end.
Old Jimmy knew his brother was waiting for him to bail him out like he had many times in the past.
But this time he wouldn’t be coming.
This time, he had chosen to save his own skin.
Young Jimmy kept looking out into the crowd for his brother right up until the King’s guards tied a rope around his ankles and hung him upside down from the gallows.
‘You know what time it is,’ the King boomed, relishing his role as showman. ‘My friends, we all know you can’t have a party without a…’
‘Piñata,’ the crowd shouted as one.
Before Old Jimmy could figure out what was going to happen, Max had beckoned a Grim up from the base of the platform.
A blood-stained golf club was in his hand.
He kissed the end of it, raised it high into the sky, then pointed up to King Solomon, who pointed right back at him, bouncing slightly on his feet with excitement.
At that moment Old Jimmy vowed he’d slit the King’s throat some day.
The sound of the golf club hitting his brother’s skull made him jolt.
The crowd roared their approval.
Old Jimmy almost relented, so pitiful was his brother’s cry, but he hardened.
There was no way he could possibly have saved him.
They would both have died for nothing.
A female Grim with a stout tree branch climbed onto the platform and also pointed to King Solomon.
Again the King pointed back.
She grinned and slammed the makeshift weapon into the side of Young Jimmy’s skull so hard that it snapped.
The crowd again voiced their support.
Old Jimmy looked at the queue of Grims lining up to batter his brother, each hoping to be the one who administered the killing blow and earned themselves the admiration of their colleagues and a few free meals.
The thought made him sick to his stomach.
Even kids were there to join in.
‘You hurt our kids, you die, you sick fuck,’ one female Grim shouted, grabbing Young Jimmy’s hair and yanking his head up so she could see the terror-stricken tears in his eyes.
She spat in his face and began punching him in the face until two of the guard Grims dragged her away.
The crowd cheered, the odd cry of, ‘Give someone else a go, lady,’ coming through the din.
As Young Jimmy swung on his rope, blood pissing from his head in a dozen places, Old Jimmy bowed his head and sobbed.
The crowd around him shouted and he screamed with them, though his were cries of pure anguish and despair.
He had betrayed his own flesh and blood, the last surviving member of his family, the final link to life as it had once been.
He was a snake in the grass, the lowest of the low.
They could have done anything to him up there and he would have taken it, but to do this to Young Jimmy, the poor retard, was unthinkable.
He turned away as a huge Grim moved up the stairs.
His footsteps were like gunshots.
In his hands was a full concrete bollard.
He raised it skyward, his arms and chest bulging with the strain.
Then he held up a fist towards King Solomon.
‘For King Solomon. For the Freelands,’ the Grim bellowed, making the crowd’s response double in volume.
Solomon’s face lit up in a shit-eating grin then he raised his hand.
Drew his thumb across his throat from ear to ear.
A noise that was akin to a thunderclap rang out as the bollard met Young Jimmy’s skull.
Gobbets of blood and brain flew through the air, spattering Old Jimmy and the Grims around him.
As they roared their approval, Old Jimmy turned away, but not before he saw his brother’s body begin twitching violently on the end of the rope.
The terror still hewn into the crumpled remains of his brother’s face was enough to cleave his heart right in two.
The Grim who’d administered the killing blow dropped the bollard, put his clenched fists out to his sides, tipped his head to the sky and bellowed his triumph.
He dipped his hands into the bloody crater on the side of Young Jimmy’s head and rubbed the blood all over his face.
Tears blurring his vision, Old Jimmy moved slowly through the crowd towards the exit.
‘Cut that sack of shit down,’ the King bellowed.
There was a thump as the body hit the gallows platform.
Old Jimmy glanced up at the royal box for a final time, hatred blazing in his eyes for the King and his young companion.
He promised himself that both of them would suffer a painful end before he met his maker.
And with that, he left King Solomon’s stronghold without a backwards glance.
Next chapter is here