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Solomon’s carefree, happy persona was gone in the blink of an eye.
‘What do you mean?’ he barked.
‘The poor bastards you are keeping locked up to provide food for your people.’
Solomon glared at Davey, his one eye seeming to bore through his skin.
‘That is none of your business, David.’ Davey noticed that even the way the King addressed him had changed.
The King did not seem happy, but, Davey supposed, neither would he in the same position.
‘Why?’ Davey said.
The word hung in the air for what felt like an eternity.
‘I do not have to justify myself to you or anybody else, but I am doing it for the good of my people. They need food. I am providing it.’
‘But doesn’t it feel wrong to you?’
‘Would you have stolen to feed your baby sister?’
The mention of her was like a fist to Davey’s solar plexus.
Solomon’s scarred white eye seemed to pin him to the spot.
Davey shifted from foot to foot while his mind struggled with the question.
‘Of course you would have,’ Solomon cut in. ‘Would you have killed to protect her?’
‘We are prepared to do the most horrific things for the people we love,’ Solomon smiled sadly. ‘I am simply doing what I can to look after those under my care. A minority die, humanely, to keep the majority fit and healthy.’
‘Humane?’ Davey spat, suddenly furious. ‘Is that how you describe that place?’
Davey was surprised by what happened next.
Instead of being furious at being questioned in this manner, Solomon went really quiet.
His gaze dropped to the floor, and he began shifting uncomfortably on his throne.
‘What the hell else could I feed all these people with?’ he said.
Davey saw a tear plop to the ground beneath him.
He looked up at Davey, his good eye pouring with tears which rolled down his scarred cheeks.
‘I have the responsibility of looking after all these people; feeding them, clothing them, keeping them safe. Making sure they don’t try to fucking murder each other. I don’t even remember how I got this responsibility, but I wish like hell I hadn’t. Heavy lies the crown, they say. I always thought that was bullshit. I wanted to be top dog, king dick of shit mountain, but now I’m here the reality is different.’
Davey suddenly went from wanting to punch the King to feeling sorry for him.
‘I wish there was some other way, but the reality is that we’re living in wastelands. Our world is dying and there is nothing to give these people to eat. Please understand that there was no other choice. The decisions I have had to make plague my dreams. They are a weight on my soul dragging it down to hell.’
Davey bowed his head.
He had no idea what to say next.
‘What would you do in my position?’ Solomon said, looking up at him through a veil of tears.
Davey shrugged. ‘I’m sorry, I really don’t know.’
Solomon nodded, as though he had known this would be the case.
‘I’m sure we could come up with a better solution.’
‘This is the best I could do. Maybe you, with your smarts, could come up with something better.’
‘If I had time, I’m sure I could.’
‘Time is something we don’t have. I want to be on the way to Serenity within the hour. Would you do me the honour of coming with me?’
‘I don’t think that’s…’
‘I could talk my way off the gallows, Davey lad. I can get you off the hook, I swear.’
Davey looked him in the eye and saw that he wasn’t lying.
In spite of his failings, the King was still the safest bet.
At heart, he was a good man.
‘A good man who did bad things for the greater good,’ Solomon said, as though he had read Davey’s thoughts.
‘Sorry? What did you say?’
‘That is what I hope they will say about me when I’m no longer around.’
‘I think it fits you perfectly.’
‘Me too, Davey lad.’
Solomon pulled him in with his trademark cupped hand round the back of the head.
‘Now please do not breathe a word of this to anyone in the Freelands.’
‘I won’t. And I am beginning to understand why you have done it.’
‘Is it better they starve?’
Davey left the question unanswered.
‘Now, come. We’ve got a truce to make.’
Again Davey found himself in the bulldozer he’d taken from Serenity.
Solomon had grabbed a garbage can from the outskirts of the nearest fire.
He went to each of the men coming with him and made them put their guns in the garbage can.
They had even been ordered to throw their knives in, leaving them totally unarmed.
‘Isn’t this a bit stupid?’ Max said. ‘We’re leaving ourselves totally unarmed. What if things go south?’
‘They won’t,’ Solomon said, his tone suggesting that this was the last he would hear on the matter.
There were a ton of guns in the can, and that was just from King Solomon and the half a dozen guards who accompanied him.
‘Like sticking our heads in a lion’s mouth,’ Max muttered.
Solomon silenced him with a furious glare.
‘We are here to negotiate a truce. How the hell can we do that if we are armed to the teeth and ready to throw down?’ Solomon said. ‘Use your fucking head, Max.’
Max scowled but accepted defeat.
As they passed the garbage mountains, Davey had an idea; ‘Can’t we use the rats as food?’
Max looked surprised that Davey had mentioned it.
‘It’s ok, Max, he knows,’ Solomon said. ‘And no, Davey, we can’t. The rats are toxic to humans. Something in the DNA strand that has made them that size is really bad for us. We saw the aftermath of that from early visitors to the Freelands.’
Davey frowned. ‘That’s about as good as I can come up with. Unless, aren’t there any rivers around? Any fish?’
Max laughed. ‘I’d rather run through Serenity with a pentagram scrawled on my bare arse than risk going anywhere near those rivers again.’
‘Why?’ Davey said.
Max just shook his head as though remembering something particularly horrific. ‘Just trust me you don’t want to go there.’
The journey passed with Davey and the guards discussing the various methods of acquiring food.
Most of them were no goes, but Davey vowed to try some of them anyway if they ever made it out of Serenity alive.
Bullets raked the ground in front of the dozer blade as the pristine wrought iron gates of Serenity appeared.
‘Stop, in the name of God. Stop,’ demanded a voice heavily distorted by a loudhailer.
The driver pulled up where they were.
They all raised their hands in surrender, a position emphasised by the white flag that fluttered from the rear wall of the dozer cab.
Solomon stood slowly, his hands above his head. ‘We have come to pay our respects to Reverend Cross,’ he shouted. ‘We wish to speak to whoever is now in charge.’
The guard with the loudhailer ducked away while his three colleagues maintained their stances.
Red dots flickered over each of their skulls every second or so.
If the guards got the word, they were done for, that much was certain.
Davey hoped the King had this right.
The guard with the loudhailer slowly walked back to the guard tower.
‘You carryin’?’ he announced.
Solomon shook his head, pointed into the garbage can at the front. ‘We come in peace. Every weapon we have is in there.’
‘I’m coming out to search you all. Any shit and you’re all going home in body bags.’
‘There’s no shit to worry about,’ Solomon smiled. ‘We come in peace.’
The guard came out, his own gun inches from Solomon’s face.
Solomon climbed out and let the guard pat him down.
‘Clear,’ the guard shouted through the loudhailer. ‘Get back in. You,’ he pointed to Davey. ‘You’re next. Get out here.’
Davey’s legs trembled, especially when the red dot hovered consistently over his forehead.
The guard roughly patted him down.
‘Clear,’ the guard shouted. ‘Next.’
When he’d searched all of them and not found a weapon, the guard moved back to the tower and waved them in.
The gates opened to admit them, the red dots still hovering around them.
As they came in, the gates clanged shut.
‘Hey, nice job,’ Solomon smiled, pointing to the tower that Davey had demolished during his escape from the village.
Davey smiled, but this did little to ease his concern.
Doubt still gnawed away at his courage.
‘Follow the guard vehicle,’ the voice over the loudspeaker instructed them.
Another dozer came in behind them, carrying armed guard who watched their every move.
The three vehicles headed down the straight road that led through the centre of the village towards the gold church.
The red dots slowly faded into the distance, but Davey’s fear remained.
Serenity’s gold church looked much less impressive than it had the first time Davey had seen it.
The stonework was crumbled and scorched.
The gold was melted, pouring down the walls like sparkling tears.
Blackened debris was scattered liberally across the church’s lawn.
‘What are you doing here?’ a hard female voice said from their right.
‘I have come to pay my respects to your husband,’ Solomon said. ‘May I get out of the vehicle?’
One of her hands rubbed at the scars on her right thigh, bumpy even through the material of the smart dress trousers she wore.
‘All of our weapons are in there,’ he said, idly kicking the garbage can with one booted foot. ‘We come in peace.’
He took a knee, bowed his head to her.
Davey saw the livid mass of scars that covered the back of his head.
‘A king kneeling at my feet?’ Deborah laughed. ‘What a time to be alive.’
Solomon looked up at her, a pained expression on his face. ‘I was truly sorry to hear about your husband, Mrs Cross.’
‘Not as sorry as I was.’
‘He was a strong man, doing his best to look after his flock. I respect the hell out of that.’
‘As a token of our respect, I have had this made for him.’ He clicked his fingers and Max and three of the other guards pulled something off the back of the vehicle.
A mahogany box, polished so bright that Davey could see the clouds and the sun reflected in its lid.
‘It would be an honour to hear your husband had been buried in this. I had my finest carpenters working round the clock to make it for him.’
Deborah nodded. ‘A beautiful coffin, I’ll give you that. Thank you for your time and your consideration. It means a great deal to me.’
A tear rolled down her cheek.
Before she could say anything else, Solomon blurted; ‘Take this gift as a sign that our grudge is over. The vendetta I had against Serenity died with your husband. I would like to suggest that we make peace between our communities and work together to improve all of our lives.’
Deborah said nothing, but it seemed she was thinking it over.
‘We will help you to repair anything that was damaged in the attacks, as a show of our intent.’
‘How do I know you aren’t going to murder me like you did my husband?’ she said, eyes narrowed.
‘We had nothing to do with your husband’s death, Mrs Cross. I was as shocked to hear about it as you were,’ Solomon said. ‘But, in fairness, you don’t know that I’m not here to cause trouble. In my defence, I am here unarmed. Sticking my head in the lion’s mouth, as it were. I am trusting you with my life right now.’
She nodded, as if she hadn’t previously considered this.
‘And I think a part of you is ready for my proposal.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you could have told the guards on the gate to put a bullet in our heads before we’d even got out of the dozer. But you didn’t. I’m taking that as a good sign.’
She met his eye for a second then looked away.
He leant in closer.
‘I know what he did to you, Deborah,’ Solomon whispered.
Kneeling in the cage, screaming, blood pouring down her thighs.
‘I know how he made you feel.’
Fastening the towel around her neck, keen to leave this hell behind.
‘I know how desperate he made you.’
Opening her jaws wide and sinking her teeth into her upper arm.
Savouring the taste of her own flesh and blood.
‘And I also know that, deep down, you are glad he is gone.’
Deborah’s mind flashed back to the fantasy she’d had in the early days of her incarceration.
She stood, blood running thick over her hands and plopping to the concrete floor, looking down on Cross’ body which had been stabbed dozens of times.
The fantasy she had since made reality on the night of the fire.
‘You wish it had been you who killed him, don’t you?’ Solomon said, looking into her eyes.
She met his gaze again but looked away just as fast.
‘You don’t have to admit it, but I can tell you aren’t as distraught about it as you should be.’ Solomon smiled kindly and leant in even closer. ‘And who the fuck could blame you?’
A faint smile played across her lips but it was gone just as quickly.
‘As a show of our intent, Davey here is going to finish his time in the cage.’
Davey’s jaw dropped.
He hadn’t been informed of this bit.
‘Aren’t you, Davey?’ Max grinned, slapping Davey on the arm.
Deborah smiled at this.
‘Yes, I am,’ Davey said.
For the greater good, he thought.
Deborah met his gaze for a second, saw that he meant it.
‘That won’t be necessary,’ she smiled. ‘Although I appreciate the gesture. And if you guys are dumb enough to want to help clean up this fucking mess then who am I to stop you?’
‘Well alright,’ Solomon grinned. ‘We’re making progress already.’
‘Any horseshit and you’ll be wearing your guts as a scarf,’ she said.
‘I saw the flayed guys on the way in,’ Solomon said. ‘Not my style. And you can trust us. We mean you no harm.’
‘You’d best get started then,’ she said. ‘The fire made one hell of a mess.’
Deborah had raised a hand in the air, and armed guards had come to drag away the garbage can full of guns.
They’d replaced it with a few empty carts for the rubble.
It was thankless work, picking up the many chunks of scorched masonry, but they plodded on, weary in back and lungs, palms bleeding and torn.
Their backs and heads were sticky with a paste of sweat and brick dust.
At the end of a hard day, the place looked a lot better.
‘Nice job,’ Deborah said, coming round at sunset. ‘Thank you.’
‘Another couple of days and she’ll be right as rain,’ Max said, back-handing the grime from his face.
‘Another day like you’ve put in today and we’ll be done,’ Deborah said.
Davey said nothing as he was still trying to catch his breath.
Still, they were all smiles.
The only person who wasn’t smiling was the man watching from the ruins of the church spire.
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