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Davey smiled as he pulled the bulldozer into the entranceway of the Freelands.
Max was one of the guards on the gates and he pulled him into a bearhug when he recognised him.
‘How the fuck are you, lad? I’m pleased to see your face again.’
‘And I yours,’ Davey grinned, glad to be home. ‘Is the King around?’
‘He’s always around for you, Davey lad.’
Life in the Freelands seemed to have continued in his absence.
The bonfires were still just as intense, likewise the roars and cheers of the partying Grims.
The steam was at a minimum, although it was daytime, so no doubt it was probably going to ramp up as darkness fell.
Davey tried not to think about the atrocities he’d seen in the warehouses in the heart of the Freelands, but he vowed to challenge the King on them.
‘How have things been, then?’ Davey asked Max, who was now guiding him through the log maze.
Davey found it hard not to notice how far away from the warehouses they were.
It was as though they were deliberately shielding the average Grim from it.
‘Loud and lairy, just the way we like ’em. But there’s been no bother.’
‘Any sign of that creepy Jimmy guy?’
‘Na, he’ll not be back now. Doesn’t have the balls.’
‘Anything else kick off?’
‘Na, it’s been pretty chilled.’
After a nice walk – which took longer than usual because Duke was determined to sniff and leave his scent on pretty much everything they passed – they arrived at Solomon’s compound.
‘We’ll need to leave the little fella out here,’ Max said, pointing down to Duke.
‘The King isn’t keen on dogs.’
‘Fuck knows. He won’t say, but I reckon something really bad must have happened to him. Sometimes he shakes really fucking bad when he hears a big dog barking.’
Davey nodded. ‘That’s fine. I mean, I don’t want to upset him.’
Max used one of his ammo belts as a makeshift leash and fastened Duke to one of the gate posts.
Davey bent and stroked Duke’s face, whispering softly to him.
Duke’s tongue flicked across his master’s cheek.
He let out a high-pitched whine when Davey stepped away from him.
‘It’s ok, boy, I won’t be long,’ Davey reassured him.
Duke’s eyes were fixed on Davey as he moved into the central compound.
He began to bark as the gate closed between him and Davey.
Solomon was sitting on his throne of bones when Davey first saw him.
Davey felt instantly glad to be back in the King’s presence, in spite of the things he’d seen in the warehouses.
The King stood quickly upon seeing Davey and rushed over, hugging him hard like a long lost son.
‘I thought I’d sent you to your death,’ he said, his relief impossible to miss.
Davey said nothing, just sobbed as he tried to process all that had happened since they had last seen each other.
‘Shhh, my lad, it’s ok. You’re safe now,’ Solomon said, his arms crushing into Davey’s ribs. One hand stroked Davey’s hair.
The embrace seemed to make everything ok, as though the King’s strong arms were enough to block out everything that was troubling Davey.
‘Tell me about your journey,’ Solomon said.
‘Well, first of all, Cross is dead.’
‘I heard rumours among the Grims, but wasn’t sure if it was true. It was reported that flames were seen coming from the direction of Cross’ village.’
‘Yes, that was me. He imprisoned me and tried to convert me to his religious cause. But I escaped and managed to start a fire. It got pretty bad.’
‘You could see the smoke from over here, so I would agree it got pretty bad.’
‘I didn’t kill him, but someone did. I think it was one of the other prisoners. They cut his throat.’
Solomon cupped the back of Davey’s head. ‘Hey, you did good, Davey lad. I knew you would do us proud. Thank you so much for your service.’
‘It’s ok, I think. I mean I’m still a bit shaken up by it, but I guess I’m glad it’s done.’
‘He really wasn’t a good man, despite his claims,’ Solomon agreed.
Pot and fucking kettle, Davey thought with a scowl.
‘So what’s your plan now?’ Davey asked.
‘I plan on heading over there for Cross’ funeral, me and a few of my royal guard. You are welcome to come if you choose.’
‘Have you lost your mind?’
‘Not at all. Cross was the problem. Everyone else over there was too scared of him to disagree with anything he said. He kidnapped and brainwashed his wife many moons ago. I think I can sway her now that her psychotic husband is no longer around.’
‘And what are you going to do when you get there?’
‘Propose a truce. Suggest that we live in harmony and help each other’s communities, in spite of our wildly differing belief systems.’
‘And do you think that will work?’
‘I have no reason to believe that it won’t. She seems a lot more reasonable than her husband was.’
‘I think you’d be safer walking right into that fire,’ Davey said, pointing at the towering inferno in the square behind them.
Solomon shook his head. ‘Not at all.’
‘And while we’re there, do we steal some supplies?’
Solomon scowled and shook his head, furious. ‘Of course not. How in hell do we get them to trust us by doing things like that?’
‘They might not trust us anyway. I made a bit of a mess when I escaped.’
‘Nothing I can’t smooth over, I’m sure.’
Davey feigned amusement, but didn’t have the energy to do a convincing job of it.
Solomon fell quiet, his one eye looking Davey up and down.
‘Are you ok, Davey lad? You seem like there’s something on your mind.’
No time like the present, Davey thought.
He took a deep breath. ‘I know about the people in the warehouses,’ he said quickly, not giving himself time to back out of it.
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