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       The Enemy, p.27

           Charlie Higson

  “Thanks,” said Achilleus, shoving his arm through the strap. “Shame John’s got one of these too. But them knife blades of his aren’t going to be as strong as my spear. If I can get him to keep knocking them against my shield, they’re gonna bust.”

  “Just make it quick,” said Mick. “He’s taller than you, with a longer reach. He’ll be hard to get at.”

  “He’s full of it,” said Achilleus.

  “Hey!” John was yelling again. “Gay boy? You coming out to play?”

  Achilleus sniffed, stepped away from the crowd, and swung his own spear through a couple of gentle arcs.

  “Ready,” he said, and strolled casually into the center of the yard. He moved gracefully, like an athlete. Still holding it back. Unlike John, who was pulsating with wired-up energy, his head bobbing, his muscles jittery.

  “I’ve never fought a gay before,” he said, and spat at Achilleus’s feet.

  “What’s with all the insults?” said Achilleus.

  “Oh, sorry,” said John. “Am I upsetting you, darling?”

  “If you fancy me, why don’t you just say?” said Achilleus affably.

  “That the best you got?” said John.

  “It’s all you deserve, loser. Now, are you going to talk, or are you gonna fight?”

  David pushed forward from behind his line of guards, chin up, a snooty expression on his pale freckled face.

  “When I give the word, the fight will begin,” he said. “And let’s not forget that this contest will decide what—”

  But Achilleus and John weren’t listening. Before David had finished speaking, they ran at each other, roaring, spears at the ready.

  Wait!” David shouted. He was wasting his breath. John and Achilleus clashed together, their spears thudding into one another’s shields.

  Achilleus looked at John’s spear. It was undamaged. The tip of his own weapon, however, had broken off. He had sharpened it too much. He wasn’t used to fighting someone with a shield. No matter. It would still do some damage if he made contact.

  One – nothing to John, though.

  He didn’t have long to think about this as John launched a furious attack; evidently he had the same idea as Mick—go in hard and get it over quick.

  He ran at Achilleus, driving him back with a series of short, powerful thrusts. Achilleus used his shield to block the assault. He soon found that he didn’t have the muscles for it. Holding it up used a lot of energy. He held on, and in the end he saw a gap and managed to get in a counterstrike. Jabbing beneath John’s shield at his legs. John saw it coming and skipped out of the way, but it broke his rhythm, and he stopped his assault. Achilleus grabbed the breathing space and moved away, dancing around the ring, loosening his muscles. He had tensed up under John’s attack and needed to work off any cramps before they took hold.

  The attack had given John some encouragement. He strutted around the ring with a sneer on his face.

  “Had enough, batty boy?”

  In reply, Achilleus suddenly lunged at John with an overhand downward stab that took John completely by surprise. He got his shield up only just in time and managed to knock the blow aside. Achilleus was left wide open, and John came straight back at him, slicing his spear upward. The triple blades slashed across Achilleus’s chest, ripping his T-shirt and drawing blood. Achilleus swore and spun away, but John didn’t leave him alone for one moment, following in hard with a wild low sweep that took Achilleus in the side of his shin and sent him tumbling to the gravel. John was on to him, thrusting quickly down again and again, like someone trying to spear fish in a barrel. Achilleus rolled and squirmed on the ground so that the blades dug harmlessly into the dirt.

  It wasn’t going well for Achilleus. John was good. He was constantly getting the upper hand. Achilleus was looking like a fool. Wriggling on the ground at John’s feet.

  At last John came too close and Achilleus smashed the rim of his shield into his lower legs so that he too fell over. Landing heavily on his face. The two of them scrambled up. John’s bandage had come loose, and there was blood dripping from his nose, but he barely seemed to notice it. For a while nobody had the upper hand, and they circled each other, panting and sweating. There was a wicked glint in John’s bruised eyes, however. He was enjoying himself. He had rattled Achilleus, and they both knew it.

  The crowd had become deathly quiet. Intent on the battle. Willing their champion to victory.

  Achilleus’s T-shirt was drenched with blood, and although John’s mouth was bloody and he was limping slightly, there wasn’t a fresh scratch on him. Achilleus was wary. Not wanting to let John inside his defenses again.

  There began a long stretch of cautious fighting, as first one, then the other, would lunge forward and the blow would be blocked. Their grotesque distorted shadows fought around the walls of the palace like some violent puppet show. They were taking stock of each other, checking out their fighting styles, their strengths and weaknesses. If they had wanted it to be over quickly, they were disappointed.

  There was no doubting that John’s reach was longer. Both his spear and his arm were longer than Achilleus’s, and he was taller by a good three or four inches. More of his strikes were getting through. True, most of them clattered harmlessly off Achilleus’s shield, but one or two found their mark. Achilleus had a gash in his scalp and another on his shoulder. It was looking more and more like John’s size was going to win the day.

  And he knew it. He just had to work away at Achilleus, wear him down, weaken him, then move in for the kill.

  He nudged his assault up to the next level, attacking with such force that Achilleus’s shield rang out like a cracked bell.

  Then John swore as one of his blades shattered and broke in half.

  Achilleus smiled. Seeing that John was distracted, he seized the moment, barged into him, pushing his shield aside and bringing his own shield up with a straight left punch to the side of John’s head.

  John was tough.

  He barely flinched, and shoved Achilleus away with his spear arm, too close to use the blades. He was wounded, though. His right eye was bleeding and swelling shut.

  Lewis nudged Mick. “That’s good,” he said. “Johncan’tsee so well now; he can’t judge distance with one eye. He’s blind on that side. Akkie needs to concentrate on his left. Keep on hitting him from there.”

  That was easier said than done, though. The injury had made John furious, and he was advancing on Achilleus like a berserker, knocking him back with a series of spear thrusts and smashes with his shield. Achilleus tried to hold his own, but he was tired. Finally John cracked him on the jaw with the shaft of his spear, and Achilleus staggered across the yard, stunned.

  “He’s faking it,” Lewis drawled.

  “You think so?” said Mick, unconvinced.

  “Yeah,” said Lewis. “He’s my dog! He’s leading him on, man, hoping John gets cocky and makes a mistake.”

  If Achilleus was faking, he was doing a very good job of it. He looked dazed, cross-eyed, unsteady on his feet. His spear wavered in the air and his shield was low.

  “Here it comes, gay boy,” said John, and he lifted his spear and drove it downward from shoulder height, aiming above Achilleus’s lowered shield.

  Achilleus just managed to jerk his head to the side in time. One of the knives raked his cheek, though, and cut his ear half off. Then some instinct told him to lift his shield, and in the tangle, another of John’s blades broke.

  He was down to one now.

  But one was still enough to kill.

  Achilleus shook his head and blinked. His eyes were red and burning. Feverish. He was losing a lot of blood. His ear was hanging off.

  He was a wreck.

  John was grinning, showing his little jagged teeth.

  “Had enough?” he asked. “You want to surrender? You want to give in?”

  Achilleus smiled back at him. John didn’t know it, but he had shown his first hint of weakness. To offer Achilleus surrende
r meant that somewhere in the back of his mind he maybe didn’t want to take this fight all the way. There was something making him hold back just that tiny bit.

  He didn’t want to kill Achilleus.

  Filled with a fresh burst of energy, Achilleus gripped his spear under his arm halfway down the shaft so that it was perfectly in balance, the point toward John. He arced it up from his knees toward John’s heart. John blocked it, but the momentum of Achilleus’s swing brought the point back and around so that the blunt end of his spear was now toward John. Achilleus swung the spear quickly back in the same arc as his initial thrust, sweeping in toward John from his blind right side. The side that was unprotected by his shield. The pommel punched into John’s shoulder, and he cursed. It wasn’t enough to make him drop his spear, but he was rattled.

  Achilleus now set up a regular attacking rhythm. A slice up with the point, a punch down with the pommel on the return swing. Steady and solid like a machine. Not giving John time to gather himself and respond properly. At first he was thrown, blocking, ducking and weaving, always on the back foot. It gradually dawned on him, however, that Achilleus’s attack was the same each time. His swing the same length. Holding the spear halfway along the shaft meant that his reach wasn’t too great. John only had to step back each time and the spear swished harmlessly past in front of him. Achilleus could keep it up for as long as he wanted. He’d get exhausted long before John. John let him come on, swinging away. Then he would step lightly back to keep out of reach. He had always known that he had the longer arms.

  He didn’t smile now. He didn’t want Achilleus to know that he had the measure of him, that Achilleus’s strikes were useless.

  “What’s he doing?” said Mick. “He can’t get near to John. He’s just walking out of the way.”

  “That blow to the head must have shaken his brain loose, man,” said Lewis. “I can’t watch. It’s embarrassing.”

  Still Achilleus plodded on. Slicing up and clubbing down. Like a nerd with a playground bully, goaded to fight, and swinging his arms in useless silly punches. John was growing more relaxed with each swing. More sure of himself.

  Sure of victory.

  Even Maxie could see that Achilleus’s plan wasn’t working. John was playing with him, letting Achilleus wear himself out, hardly even bothering to counterattack, just offering the odd contemptuous poke with his longer spear. Maxie closed her eyes. She couldn’t watch any more. She knew it now. Achilleus was going to get killed.

  Still Achilleus swung away—up down up down. He stumbled, blood pouring down his face, his ruined ear flapping.

  John smiled at last as his cockiness got the better of him. He lowered his shield and spear, mocking Achilleus, exposing himself, as if to say, “Look at me. You can’t get anywhere near me.” He sneered at Achilleus and gave a dismissive click of his tongue.

  Achilleus was ready. It was time to finish it. On the upswing, as the point of his spear lanced back over his shoulder, he loosened his grip, letting the shaft run through his fingers. As it slid to the end and he felt the pommel, he gripped tight again. He now had the full length of the spear in his grasp and he swung it around in a wide circle.

  Instead of Achilleus’s reach being a yard, it was now nearer to two, and the sharp end of the spear easily reached John’s head.

  It happened too fast for John to react. He had no idea what Achilleus had done. He stood there, casually expecting the spear to be out of range. And then the spear slammed into the side of his head. He staggered drunkenly, shocked and stunned, with no idea where the blow had come from. Achilleus quickly choked up on his spear and moved in for the kill. He knocked John’s shield and spear out to either side with his own weapons, stepped in, and brought a knee up sharply between John’s legs. John grunted and buckled, bent double. Achilleus raised his shield and brought it crashing down on the back of John’s head. John went down fast and heavy, his face smashing into the dirt.

  “That was for Freak,” said Achilleus.

  John lay there without moving.

  A great cheer went up from the palace kids, and a groan of disappointment came from the little knot of squatters. It was over so quickly in the end.

  Achilleus stood over John, sucking in oxygen, his chest heaving. He rolled the body over with his foot.

  John was conscious, but his black eyes were swollen shut. The bandage had fallen completely off his nose, which was a horrible flattened mess.

  Achilleus put the point of his spear to John’s stomach, pushing it into the soft flesh.

  John winced.

  “Do it, then,” he said. “Kill me.”

  “Nah,” said Achilleus. “You’re already dead. Nobody remembers a loser.”

  “Kill me!” John yelled.

  Achilleus gave his spear a little push, and John gasped.

  “You really want me to? You know how slowly you’ll die if I stick you in the stomach? You really want me to shove my spear into you and spill your crappy guts all over the ground? Hmm? Do you? You really want that, big man?”

  “No,” John said quietly. “No, I don’t. Please don’t. I don’t want to die.”

  “Who does?” Achilleus knelt down. He put his face very close to John’s. Dripping blood onto it.

  “And this is for me,” he said, and kissed John full on the lips.

  The palace kids laughed as Achilleus stood up. Carl the pirate went over to John and helped him to his feet. His legs were like rubber.

  Achilleus looked at David.

  “You got what you wanted, David. They ain’t backing out of this.”

  David shouted at the squatters.

  “Do we have a deal?”

  “Guess so,” said Carl.

  “Yeah,” said John. “You’ve got your bloody deal.”

  Achilleus faltered and nearly fell. Maeve and Maxie ran to him and steadied him on either side. Maeve already had a bandage ready, and she began to wind it around Achilleus’s head. Achilleus tried to push her away, but he was too weak.

  “I’m all right,” he slurred. And he once again looked at David and the palace kids.

  “Remember what I done for you here today,” he shouted, and passed out.

  Are you satisfied? Freak dead, Achilleus nearly killed as well.

  Are you so damned keen to become emperor of bloody London that you don’t care one bit about our kids at all?”

  “Your kids?”

  “Yes, our kids.”

  Maxie and David were standing on the balcony above the parade ground at the front of the palace. A bright moon was shining through a break in the clouds. The streets and rooftops and trees, still wet from the earlier rain, were streaked with silver.

  “We’re all in this together now, Maxie,” said David, in that annoyingly unruffled and patronizing manner of his. “You mustn’t keep thinking about us and them. We’re all playing on the same team.”

  “I’m not sure I want to be on your team, David.”

  “Then what are you doing here, Maxie? Living under my roof? Eating my food?”

  “I’m sorry? Your roof? Your food? I thought we were all playing on the same team.”

  “We are. But if you prefer not to, then why don’t you just leave?”

  Maxie looked out over London. From up here there was a view clear down across St. James’s Park to Admiralty Arch and Trafalgar Square beyond. There was a whole world out there.

  She wondered where Sophie and her archers might be now. It took guts to leave somewhere safe like this and go back out onto the streets.

  Did Maxie have the guts to do it?

  “What do you think you’ll find out there?” said David. “Other wandering bands of kids, living like savages, scavenging for food. Is that what you want? Because that’s what it’s like.”

  “I know, David, I’m not stupid. I’ve seen more of all that than you have.”

  “I don’t think so,” said David, a cold edge to his voice. “You don’t know half of what I saw on my way to the palace.
I saw things you couldn’t even dream of. I’ve done my fair share of killing. It’s different here in the center, but I fought my way through a total nightmare to get to where I am now. And I don’t want to go back to all that. I want to build on what we’ve achieved.”

  “Killing grown-ups is one thing,” said Maxie. “They’re diseased. They’re crazy. No longer human. We have to defend ourselves from them. But killing other kids. That’s wrong.”

  “I agree,” said David. “But with some kids it’s the only language they understand.”

  “Maybe you’re one of those kids, David.”

  “As I say, if you don’t like it here, why don’t you leave?” The smug, superior tone had come back into David’s voice.

  “Maybe I will,” said Maxie quietly. “And maybe I’ll take my crew with me.”

  “Maybe they won’t want to go,” said David, his voice flat and bland and irritating. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Maxie, but your kids like it here.”

  “If I say we’re going, they’ll come with me,” said Maxie.

  “Are you so sure of that?”

  “Stop trying to undermine me, David,” Maxie snapped. “I know my kids.”

  “And what about Blue’s crew? The kids from Morrisons?”

  “What about them?”

  “Can you speak for them as well? Maybe you’d better go and see Blue, see what he thinks about all this.”

  “He’s sick. Your nurse, Rose, won’t let anyone up to see him.”

  “Nonsense. You can go and talk to him anytime you want. He’s well enough now. You’re seeing plots and conspiracies everywhere. I’m not an evil person.”

  Maxie shook her head slowly. She suddenly felt dog tired. The day had been very stressful.

  “I know you’re not evil, David. But we’re all so young. We can’t always know the best thing to do.”

  David put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. The action felt clumsy and calculated.

  “You do what you think’s best, Maxie,” he said. “I’ll respect your decision. Now, shall we go in? I think it’s going to start raining again.”

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