Mayor Nelbum nodded at some of the people gathered behind us and they rushed off. A little of the tension surrounding our pow wow lessened and there was a sense that no one was going to have to die. Not until later.
Then the tension went back up as we waited for the food to arrive and didn’t have anything to say to each other. It’s all very well being in a standoff with weapons drawn, you can make use of all your facial muscles to keep the conversation going without having to say anything. But anyone who’s been to a barbecue where you don’t know many people, exchanging raised eyebrows while you wait for the sausages to brown, knows what true tension is.
“So,” said Maurice, making the valiant attempt to cross the uncrossable divide, “can we let the girls down now?”
“They must remain where they are,” said Mayor Nelbum, happiest when he could make portentous proclamations and avoid small talk.
“But they must be hungry,” Maurice continued, emboldened by love and also the dark looks Claire was sending his way.
“We will feed them. The One True God accepts only the healthiest sacrifices. You need not concern yourself with their well-being. They will be hale and hearty right up until the end.”
I guess that was sort of a positive.
Maurice and Dudley looked at each other, no doubt considering a doomed attempt at rescuing the girls. It would have been quite a job to get them down without being stabbed to death by the local constabulary.
The poles the girls were tied to were a good ten feet tall with the bonfire built up around their base reaching around halfway up. How they’d managed to get the girls up there without the whole thing collapsing was a mystery. One of those baffling architectural feats people from ancient times were always pulling off.
They moved giant rocks from this part of the country, all the way to this part hundreds of miles away, and we have absolutely no idea how they did it. We also have no idea why the fuck they bothered. It achieved nothing.
Ancient peoples, always too much time on their hands.
The food arrived about twenty minutes later. Tables were brought out first and set up with everyone pitching in. It was like a street party with less bunting and more human sacrifices.
Benches were lined up alongside the table and trays of food were set out. Vegetables, meat and fruit. All boiled. Even the fruit.
We had a table to ourselves in the middle of everything, boxed in on all sides. The Mayor indicated one of his people to hand me a pot of boiled chicken (I want to say) that looked white and uninteresting.
“You may serve your masters,” he said to me.
At first I thought he just assumed I was the servant of the group because, well, it was me. I was hardly going to be the one giving the orders. He probably thought I did most of the talking because my masters were above that sort of thing. Let the peasants talk among themselves.
When I took a moment to look at my two masters, though, it was clear no one would assume they were in charge, either. It was the clothing. They had the colourful, well-made garb they’d got from Laney, and I was in my usual comfortable but grimy duds. It was sort of nice to know there was an actual reason I was being looked down on. Progress.
“Actually,” said Dudley, always eager to step back, “he isn’t —”
“Master, please,” I interrupted. “Let’s accept their hospitality which they’ve clearly spent minutes preparing.” If they wanted to think someone else was the chief assassination target, who was I to argue?
I put the pot on the table and we sat down. Everyone else had taken their seats with the Mayor at the head of the longest table. They were tucking in with the least eager faces I’ve ever seen at a banquet.
I used my spoon, attached to me for all time by a chain, to taste a little of the sauce the chicken was in. The sauce was thin and watery, mainly because it was water. I picked out some meat on a drumstick (these are all guesses; could have been a horn for all I know) and took a bite. Bland as fuck. And I’m English, so I know a thing or two about bland food.
“Do you have any salt?” I asked.
There was a gasp. Which either meant their chef was a Gordon Ramsay type who was easily offended if you accused him of seasoning the meat poorly, or these people took high blood pressure very seriously.
“Salt is the evil that consumes the human soul,” said the mayor.
He seemed to be overstating it a bit, but I guess that’s one way to get people to cut back on their sodium intake.
Maurice and Dudley tried the chicken, chewing slowly, because you had no choice.
“It’s very well boiled,” said Maurice.
“Thank you,” said the mayor. He nodded at the woman sitting beside him who beamed with pride. A smattering of applause ran up and down the tables.
It was like eating rubber. I was hungry but my appetite quickly deserted me.
“I’ve got a good idea,” I said. “Why don’t we turn this into a cookout?”
Both Maurice and Dudley gave me a look that suggested this was not a good idea. I ignored them and went over to the girls propped on top of their soon to be funeral pyres.
“We just need a wood fire. Oh, look. Here’s the perfect thing.”
“Don’t you dare,” said Claire.
“Calm down, I’m not going to light it with you on top of it. Would ruin the taste.” I gathered up some of the wood.
The guards were still standing by and had their torches ready to ignite all three bonfires but allowed me to take what I wanted. I hardly made a dent in the large piles they’d collected.
“Did you miss me?” asked Jenny as I selected a few choice branches from her stack.
“Meh,” I said. “Nice to have a little breathing room.”
“He freaked out when he woke and you weren’t there,” said Maurice.
“I did not freak out. I calmly looked around for you. I assumed you’d gone for a shit. When you didn’t come back, I just assumed it was a really big shit.”
“He admonished us for being sexist at one point,” said Dudley.
The girls looked from one to the other, as best they could with their arms bound around their stakes, making faces like this was meaningful in some way. A sign of growth, perhaps.
“I was joking,” I insisted. “I would never call them sexist. Our defining characteristic as a group is not thinking we’re better than anyone. Apart from the French, obviously.”
I took an armful of wood and went back to the table. I made a small pyramid of twigs and branches and then lit it with my hand.
There were screams and a rush to get away, which is hard when you’re sitting on a bench with your knees all jammed together.
“Remain calm!” shouted Mayor Nelbum. “The savages were sent here by the One True God.” He was only a small man but he had a bellowing voice. The panic stricken villagers stopped trying to dive into the nearest bush and up any available tree and looked around nervously.
I had my fire going, orange flames licking the length of the wood. Please don’t blame me for perverse thoughts in your mind. It’s your mind, you sicko.
I took a large piece of chicken and skewered it on a stick. It was bleached white after what I would imagine was several days simmering in a pot. The skinny white body was definitely a bird of some kind, but chicken seemed less likely now.
“Hey, Claire,” I said, “looks just like you.” I waved the stick about with the bird impaled on it. “Oh no, save me Maurice.” I stuck it in the fire where it began browning nicely.
The condescending look on her face suggesting I was finally growing up evaporated into a scowl.
There was more muttering and whimpering from the villagers. Their expressions ranged from fear to disgust; a narrow but deep furrow.
“Why are you doing that?” asked the mayor, holding a hand over his face like he was trying to not be blinded by some cursed light.
“This?” I thrust the chicken in the fire and turned it over. “I’m just getting it nice and crispy.”
“To burn the skin is to disrespect the flesh.”
I could think of worse ways to disrespect the flesh. Some of them quite fun.
“The One True God forbids it.”
I pointed at the girls tied to the stake, ready for roasting. “What do you think’s going to happen to them if you light them up?”
“That’s different,” said the Mayor. “They are for the One True God’s table.”
Same old religion wherever you go. One rule for them, one rule for us.
“Well, if he disapproves, I’m sure he’ll send me a sign.” I looked up expectantly. Nothing happened. “Looks like he’s fine with it.”
We continued eating. Ours was finger licking good, theirs like ash in their mouths. More meat was brought out. More vegetables. I baked some potatoes (or some tuber type of plant) and drew oohs and ahs from the crowd as I passed them around. Technically speaking, the skins were a little burnt, but they didn’t seem as horrified by this desecration. I was winning them over with my potato strategy (although some would say all my strategies were potato strategies). They’d never seen anything as soft and fluffy as my potatoes. Once I showed them my mash with chives, they would be mine! Although I can’t take full credit for this root vegetable based approach to conquest, it’s pretty much the same way Britain took control of Ireland.
It was dark before we knew it and I was tempted to light one of the bonfires myself, just for the dramatic effect. Although sitting around a large bonfire at night after a big meal carries the danger of someone pulling out a guitar and trying to start a singalong. Evil can strike at any time, from anywhere, but mostly from a guy in corduroy trousers who wants you to listen to him play Stairway to Heaven.
It had been quite a pleasant way to spend a day, if it hadn’t been for the being burnt alive motif they’d gone for. The girls looked tired but hadn’t complained or tried to get themselves free. We did try to feed them by throwing chicken at their faces, like trying to feed seals with fish, but our efforts weren’t appreciated, especially when we started keeping score (Jenny won by a mile).
I cooked some more chicken over an open flame and I could see the villager starting to look at the chargrilled meat like something they might like to try stuffing in their mouths. A little more time and I’d have them dancing around a golden calf, denouncing their One True God as a big fat killjoy.
I didn’t get the chance. There was the sound of a shrill trumpet, possibly a bugle. A flash of light lit up the green and hung in the air over us and there was a group of women standing in front of the girls.
They were very attractive women, dressed in white togas that only just reached their thighs. They had big hair, brushed out into waves like various incarnations of Charlie’s Angels and they wore a tonne of makeup. They did look quite sexy, like a dance troop from the 70s about to do a routine to the latest Boney M hit single, but they also had that terrifying aura about them that all heavily-tarted up women carry around.
“I have put everything on display! Don’t look! Why aren’t you looking? My eyes are up here, pervert! Desire me! Don’t touch me!”
Scary stuff. Better to leave the whole confusing mess to people who understand it. I could feel Maurice and Dudley backing away just as I was.
“Sacrilege,” shouted the woman in the middle of the seven of them. She carried a long staff with a very questionable carving at the top. I assumed she was the head priestess. “Flesh has been burnt here. Who is responsible?”
The village as one pointed at me. I showed these people how to cook chicken. Bros before hoes meant nothing here. Nothing.
The priestess nodded and her Farrah Fawcett hair didn’t move at all. I’ve seen helmets with more give.
“We are the virgins of the One True God. No man shall touch us, all shall bow to the One True God.”
I leaned towards Maurice. “I think it’s okay. I think they’re lesbians.”
“You can’t say that,” said Maurice, his eyes darting around guiltily.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but virgins, no man touching, giant dildo on a stick…”
Maurice looked at the priestess’s staff, mouth agape. “That’s not a dildo. It’s too big.”
“Anything’s a dildo if you’re brave enough,” I said, imparting true wisdom under pressure.
“You fear us,” she said. “You fear the vulva!”
“I do if you call it that,” I said. “Sounds like something I should watch out for when I’m crossing the road.”
“Vulva, vulva,” muttered Dudley, like he was trying to remember an old friend’s nickname at school. “Female urethra?”
“No,” said Maurice, like he was an expert on these matters. “Women have a urethra, too. The vulva’s the bit at the top.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “You’re thinking of the uvula, you know, that thing that hangs at the back of your throat like a punching bag. Hey, by the way, anyone know what you call the indent in your upper lip just below your nose?”
“The philtrum,” said Claire. “Now shut up.” She tilted her head at the priestess who didn’t look happy.
“Sorry, you were saying something about Volvos? Excellent safety record, not the greatest mileage.”
“You will be tamed and bow down to the One True God.” She ripped off her toga and threw it aside. Her followers did the same.
Maurice and Dudley immediately turned around, refusing to look. I was transfixed.
“Holy shit, don’t they have hedge trimmers where you come from?” I suddenly knew where Boney M had been hiding for the last thirty years.
There was some confusion at this point.
“Bow down!” insisted the priestess.
I looked around. The villagers were all on their knees. There was some pretty impressive bush on display, but hardly worthy of worship.
“Can you put your knickers back on, love?” I asked. “There’s kids present. And they’ve just eaten.”
The naked women couldn’t understand why I wasn’t all weak and powerless under the gaze of their giant muffs, and I couldn’t understand why they thought I would be. I’d seen 70s porn. This was no worse than that.
There was a roar that shattered the still night air.
“Monster!” someone screamed helpfully. And then they rioted.