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Davey wasn’t sure how long they were walking but he’d have guessed it to be at least half an hour.
An explosion from his right startled him out of his reveries.
A huge column of flame leapt into the air, close enough for him to feel on his bare arms.
The colour of the flames changed every split-second, then multi-coloured smoke billowed out.
Some of it drifted towards them and Davey found himself wanting to push it away, in spite of the effects it had had on the Grims cavorting by the fire.
The girl, he noticed, neither encouraged nor impeded its ingress into her airways.
He did find that when he’d inhaled a little of it – which was inevitable with the vast quantities that were spilling from the fire – it tasted like wood smoke infused with strawberry jam.
After a minute or so, he did find that his worries about meeting the King had lifted a little and he felt a strange peace descend upon him.
A hint of a smile creased his lips.
They reached a wall of stout wooden logs.
Hanging from the wall was a vast array of weapons; guns, rifles, shotguns identical to those carried by the cullsmen, knives, spears, swords, pretty much every make and model of weapon still available in the city and a few that had ceased to be manufactured or carried long ago.
‘That’s the armoury,’ the girl said with quiet reverence. ‘In case we ever need to protect the King.’
The firepower on display here seemed more than enough to take on the cullsmen.
And revenge on them was still on his mind, although the sheer terror of being attacked by the Grim in the alley and the subsequent chase from the cullsmen had pushed it to the back a little.
The wooden logs formed a maze which seemed to stretch for miles in either direction.
It reminded Davey of the alleys he’d blundered through on his way to the Freelands.
He was glad of the girl’s company, as without her he had no doubt he’d have perished in here trying to find his way out.
‘You’ll soon get the hang of it,’ she said, upon seeing his worried expression. ‘So don’t worry.’
Another inhalation carried more of the rainbow – or flamebow – steam into his mouth and made him forget about his concerns and just enjoy the journey.
He noticed ornate pictures and what looked like misspelt words carved into the wooden logs in places.
Directions, he hoped.
Noises seemed to carry strangely in this maze of logs.
This dead forest.
The voices of the Grims eating around the fire were distorted to monstrous proportions.
It wasn’t clear whether they were happy and boisterous or on the verge of starting a riot.
Possibly both, he guessed.
The girl paused in front of what seemed like just another blank stretch of wooden wall.
This one, though, was completely devoid of any marks.
She knocked three times; knock, knock-knock, and waited.
The section of wall slid along itself, revealing a hidden passageway.
Two huge Grims armed with what were unmistakably Cullsmen shotguns stood either side of the doorway.
Davey noted the sword scabbards that hung from their backs.
The knives that dangled from either side of their gun belts which also held twin revolvers.
Their faces were hostile; four grimacing sentinels laden with weapons, but he didn’t feel worried.
He felt safe.
Davey’s vision blurred a little as he scanned the area.
‘Do you wish to speak to King Solomon?’ the shortest of the guards grunted. He was still six feet tall and almost half as wide.
Davey noted that an X had been branded deep into the Grim’s forehead, the branding clearly from long ago as it had healed over. He looked and saw that the other Grims also had them.
There were more Grims, as heavily armed as the first four, scattered around the space inside the entrance.
‘Yes, I do,’ Davey said, his voice quaking a little.
The guard nodded. ‘Come with me. Tia, are you coming?’
‘Yes,’ the little girl said, smiling. ‘It’s been a while since I’ve seen Daddy.’
‘Come,’ the guard said. ‘King Solomon is eager to speak with you.’
Davey felt honoured and terrified at the same time.
The log area wound round in a spiral before coming out in a clearing as wide as a football field.
At the centre of it blazed a small fire, tiny in comparison to the vast fire pits that had been attended by the other Grims.
For future reference Davey tried to figure out where he was in relation to the Freelands’ skull layout and began to get a headache.
The layout of the log maze – and indeed the rest of the tenement leading to it – was so baffling that he hadn’t the foggiest idea where he was.
But he guessed this was to disorient intruders searching for the King.
Above the fire was a makeshift spit; a broom shank that ran through the open mouth of what looked like a small calf.
Where the hell the King had found a calf out here on the outskirts of the city was something that confused Davey somewhat but he didn’t have time to linger on this as his eyes picked up movement at the far end of the clearing.
‘Come,’ a voice boomed, as loud as an explosion.
Davey followed the girl, who squealed with delight and ran round the fire.
A large wooden hut sat at the far end of the clearing. The door was ajar and Davey tried to take a peek inside.
He saw a half-dressed lady on the bed. She was clearly asleep.
‘That’s tonight’s queen,’ Tia said, giving Davey just enough information to puzzle over.
While he stared at her in curiosity, he noticed a giant Grim with a shotgun in each hand lurking in the shadows behind the bed.
More wooden huts were strewn around the centre of this area and Davey counted a dozen before his eyes were diverted.
Right in the centre of the dwellings was a huge throne made out of what looked like bones.
Looking at it made his skin crawl.
‘Welcome,’ the same booming voice that had bid him called.
‘Daddy,’ Tia again squealed and ran to the man who was still hidden by the shadows.
He scooped her up one-handed, kissed her cheek and set her back down on the floor.
‘Hello, my angel,’ he said, his grin easily matching those of the Grims who had been huffing the fumes from the flamebow. ‘Go and play, I need to speak to this young man.’
She nodded, blew him a kiss and ran off into the shadows that surrounded the other huts.
King Solomon was still concealed by the darkness, as were the half a dozen guards Davey saw dotted around the huts.
He felt intimidated, and wondered who would be stupid enough to break in here and make an attempt on the King’s life.
‘You carryin’?’ the King boomed, his words like thunder in Davey’s ears.
‘I don’t kn—’
‘Are you in possession of a weapon?’ the King asked, his tone firm.
‘Yes. I have a knife in the pocket on my right.’
‘And is that everything? Be honest with me now, or you will live just long enough to regret it.’
‘Y-yes, that’s all I have.’
‘Take it out slowly and throw it to the guard to your right.’
Davey did as he was told, holding the knife between thumb and forefinger, making it absolutely clear he wasn’t going to attempt the suicidal trick of using it on the King or any of his guards.
He turned to see which guard the King had meant and was amazed to see a Grim standing a mere six feet away to his right.
His approach had been as silent as the grave.
He threw the knife carefully then raised his hands above his head.
‘My man Max here is gonna pat you down, make sure you aren’t lying to me,’ the King said.
‘Yes, that’s fine.’
‘So if you’re carrying anything else now would be the time to tell me.’
‘I’m not, I swear.’
Max came in and roughly patted Davey down.
It was hard to tell if the force was deliberate; Max was a giant of a man and this may have been his version of gentle for all Davey knew.
‘All clear, Sol,’ Max said, loud enough to almost perforate Davey’s right eardrum.
‘Excellent,’ the King said and stepped out of the shadows.
Davey had been in awe of the guards, but King Solomon was truly an impressive physical specimen.
He was a bull of a man, a huge head – with the same X branding as the guards had had – a neck as thick as the stoutest of logs, broad shoulders, legs like pillars of concrete.
A thick red beard that made it appear as though streaks of blood were running down his chin.
His left eye was a gnarled mass of burnt flesh, twisted and contorted shut. It looked like it had been an agonising wound, but had long healed over.
The remaining eye was sharp and piercing like that of a bird of prey.
The King had a gondolier-style bullet belt crisscrossing his broad chest.
Davey noticed that the King’s black robe was as dirty and tattered as those of his Grims had been.
He liked that; it meant Solomon wasn’t putting his own needs before those of his people.
The King sat down on his throne, an audible crack ringing out as the bones creaked beneath his weight.
He placed his massive hands on the skulls that made the end of the arm rests.
His left index finger slowly traced a circle around the right eye socket of the skull there.
His expression was solemn, distant – clearly that of a man deep in thought.
Without being told, Davey moved closer to the throne and knelt in the dirt.
‘What’s your name, boy?’ the King boomed.
‘Davey,’ he said without looking up.
‘Davey, I don’t like any of that bowing crap. I understand why you are doing it, and I appreciate it, but a better mark of respect would be you looking me in my eye as you addressed me.’
Davey nodded, rose to his feet, suddenly feeling a little dizzy.
The prospect of looking at the King was daunting to say the least.
‘There, isn’t that better?’ Solomon smiled as they locked stares.
‘Yes,’ Davey said.
‘You’re uncomfortable. Do you need to be?’
Davey’s brow furrowed.
‘Are you here to do me harm, Davey?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Then relax. We’re just talking. Shooting the shit as we used to say once upon a time. Although, as I’m sure you have noticed, we are more than equipped to deal with a threat.’
‘Yes, I’ve noticed. It’s quite the collection of weapons you have.’
The King nodded. ‘We digress. What is the reason for your coming to my Freelands?’
‘My family was culled.’
‘I see. I’m deeply sorry to hear that, Davey. Please carry on.’
‘They killed all of them, even my baby sister.’ At the thought of her, tears welled up out of Davey’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks.
‘But you got away.’
‘Well that in itself is an achievement, David. You should be proud of yourself. Not many escape the twin bores of a Cullsman.’
‘So what happened next?’
‘I was ready for the Cullsmen coming, from the first time I heard about them. I had prepared an escape route. I hid out in an abandoned apartment and made my escape. But I had to kill a boy and switch IDs with him.’
Solomon nodded, an impressed look on his face. ‘Nice work.’
‘I hit the streets earlier this evening. A Grim tried to attack me outside the apartment block where I used to live. The Cullsmen came and chased me.’
‘Were they aware it was you who had survived the Cull?’
‘I’m not sure. I hope that they think I’m the boy I had to kill.’
‘That would be best, yes.’
‘There were loads of them. I ran through the alleys and I just ended up here. I was terrified to enter, but it was better than being gunned down by the Cullsmen.’
‘So you came here seeking sanctuary?’
‘Well you have it, Davey. You can stay here as long as you like, but you must do your bit.’
‘I understand that. I’ll do anything you want me to.’
The King nodded. ‘Be careful what you volunteer yourself for. There are some very… unsavoury jobs to be done around here.’
Davey didn’t know how to reply to this.
The King smiled, breaking the tension. Davey noticed that his teeth were pretty much perfect, except for a chipped molar at the top.
‘Well, there is accommodation in the tin sector for guests. You can stay there until I have deemed that you are one of us. Are you hungry, Davey?’
‘I’ll get you some food, but I must warn you, it’s not the best. Until you’ve proven your loyalty you won’t be getting anything too palatable. For that I apologise, but you will find it is fairer than any of the other Grim tenements in the City.’
‘I understand. Thank you.’
‘You look tired. Get yourself some sleep.’
Davey turned to leave.
‘Oh and one more thing,’ King Solomon bellowed.
Davey turned, wary, not sure what to expect.
‘Welcome to the Freelands, Davey lad.’
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