An excerpt from

The Rebels' Riot Feast

Paul Sullivan

A key clanked in the loose lock on the gate. The bull snorted, and rammed its head against the bars at the back of the shed. Its horns struck a grinding musical note that seemed to madden it further. It lashed out again and again, the notes ringing like a broken bell. From outside, it sounded like market day, when the temporary pens and stalls were taken down and the metal bars chimed over the cobbles of the cattle market.

The two boys halted in the yard, listening to the metallic song coming from the shed.

“Sounds like there’s someone here”, said Renny, “Maybe we should come back a bit later…”

“No, that’s just him”, said Ged. “He’ll calm down when he sees me.”

Ged opened the shed door, and Renny pushed past him, eager to get a look at the animal. The bull ran to the full extent of its short chain, until the ring pulled painfully at its nose, and roared. It roared like Renny imagined a lion or tiger might roar – wild and terrifying. The sweet smell of hay blasted him as the beast bellowed, just a few feet from his face, and on pure instinct he turned and ran, hitting Ged head on and sending them both sprawling to the floor.

“That’s not a bull!”, gasped Renny, “It’s a monster!”

Staying in the safety of the doorway and looking across at the simmering beast, Renny was shocked at its ugly beauty, looming in the shadowy space like something from mythology – a black, ghostly minotaur, perhaps. He sat back and soaked in the detail – the beast, the smell, the animal heat, the flies; and then Ged, calmly walking forward and stroking the bull between the horns. It didn’t rip his arm off, as Renny had expected; but it tossed its head and backed away.

“When he first came here, he would let me stroke him”, said Ged. “But I think they’ve been hurting him so much, he doesn’t even trust me anymore. I try to come and see him every day, you know.”

“Hurting it?”, said Renny. “In what way has anyone been hurting it?”

“They prick him and hit him each time they come with food and water”, said Ged, tears welling with anger as he said it. “And on the day of the bull running they’ll cut his ears off, blunt his horns, whip him until strips of skin hang off, rub salt and vinegar into the wounds and blow ground pepper up his nose!”

“That’s barbaric!”, said Renny. “Why do you all let this happen?”

“Exactly”, said Ged, quietly. “That’s why we’re here.”

The bull shook its head, sending saliva splattering on the shed walls. It stood with its head erect, hot breath puffing in brief clouds from huge nostrils. Its long black and grey body looked to Renny like something carved from coal, or from the night sky. It was far bigger than he had imagined, and everything about it seemed alien and out of place in the cramped pen. For a moment it seemed to Renny that this animal had nothing to do with the modern age – nothing to do with butchers and markets, nothing to do with Sunday dinner plates, chains through noses, dung in cattle stalls. It was as if the creature was nothing to do with all the other living bulls of the world, as if human hands should never have gone near it, and as if human eyes were wrong even to look at it. He had only felt anything like this before when looking at old paintings – gazing at angels in religious scenes until their wings had rustled and their otherworldliness spooked him; or peeping at painted mermaids until he could smell the salt water and feel the tide lap at his toes and had to force himself to look away before the water nymphs dragged him to a watery death.

“I know what this is!”, he said to Ged, who was pleased to see the awe he felt for the animal reflected in Renny. “It’s a beast from before the days of farming. It’s a throw-back, something ancient. Have you heard of the aurochs?”

Ged hadn’t. Renny had pronounced the word ‘or-rocks’.

“It’s where we get our word ‘ox’ and ‘oxen’ from”, said Renny, whispering as if he feared he might anger the bull with anything louder. “The aurochsen were the original wild bulls, the things that farmers somehow managed to tame and turn into oxen and cattle. But sometimes you get a throw-back, a calf that wants nothing to do with domestic cattle and farms. And that’s what you’ve got here. An aurochs!”

The bull, relaxing a little, lowered its head and snorted. Ged took a step closer again; but the bull backed away with an angry splutter; and Ged sensed that a corner had been turned: that he had lost the animal’s trust (such as it had been) and could now give it no comfort. All he could offer was freedom.

“Or death”, added Renny, when Ged spoke these thoughts aloud. “Come on, think about it”, he said. “This animal doesn’t belong anywhere. It must have been born on a farm, but it doesn’t belong on one. There’s nowhere in the wild for it to go, either. It’s not as if there are herds of aurochsen waiting out there to receive it! Freedom for this beast just means a wild animal stampeding through Derbyshire. It’ll be hunted and shot in no time. I’m afraid our best bet is to kill him, as painlessly as possible, before they get the chance to torture him at the bull run.”

Ged was horrified.

“Kill him?”, he cried, making the bull snort in anger. “What good is killing him going to do? I want to save him from being killed, not do it myself!”

“Think about it”, hissed Renny, “…and keep your voice down, or you’ll get it all angry again!”

“But I can’t believe that you can’t see…”

“I see clearly enough”, Renny interrupted. “Any painless death now will save him from torture and the bull running. Isn’t that all you want?”

“No!”, shouted Ged. He remembered a market place stray puppy that he had saved and, in saving, had condemned to death anyway. The bull dragged its horns across the iron bars again. Renny grabbed Ged by the collar, hauled him outside and shut the shed door.

“For god’s sake, stop making him angry – he’ll break out of his pen!”, he said.

“We’re not killing him!” cried Ged, ignoring him. “And it’s not just about one bull from being hunted through the streets. I want to end all of it – all the bull running and bull baiting. Not for people’s sake – they can run and bait each other for all I care – but for the animals! Buxton can’t be allowed to get away with it anymore! Are you going to help me or not?”

“And how do you expect me to help exactly?”, he said. “I may be an MP’s son, but I don’t get to do any of the voting! A vote in parliament is the only thing that can get the bull running banned. It’s been carrying on here for centuries… it’s a hugely popular local holiday, a piece of living history!”

“I know all that”, said Ged, “but if you could just let somebody know. Tell the men in London that there’s something up here that they’ve missed, something they would have been stopped if anybody had ever bothered to point it out before. Tell London! And do that through your dad!”

“Dad? Never heard him called that before”, said Renny, strumming his fingers loudly on the doorframe. “But my mother – she’s more likely to help. She’s all for reforming the world. And I’ll tell you what…” His brain was racing. “I’ll say one thing…”

More seconds passed. Ged, desperate, thumped him on the arm in frustration. Renny held the part that Ged had struck, but seemed not to have felt it.

“I’ll tell you what, though”, he said, dreamily, “…this is the genuine thing, isn’t it. The actual show-stopper. An aurochs. And that’s got to be worth something, hasn’t it?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!”, said Ged.

“And, by the way – thump me again and I’ll have you arrested”, said Renny, rubbing his arm. “Meantime, I’ll see what my mother knows about the ban on animal sports, and what she can do to help us get the word out. I’ll speak to my father too. If we’re very, very lucky and Father turns out to be on our side, we’re home and dry. If not – which is much likelier – we’ll need a bit of a miracle. This is shaping up to be a pretty decent game, eh?”

It’s not a game, said Ged to himself. But he didn’t say it aloud. He needed Renny. He knew that without him, he could do nothing.

“Well then”, he said, a bit awkwardly. “I’ll leave it with you for now, then. I’m glad you came and had a look. But we’re not going to kill him, no matter what. There’s got to be another way.”

“You’re right – we can’t kill an aurochs. That would be tragic”, said Renny. “But goodness knows how we’ll see this thing through! I’ll start by talking to my parents and doing my research. We’re travelling back to Carrington Hall tomorrow. There are books and things there. Not sure how they’re going to help, but if you’re going to do any research, it’s no bad thing to do it in a library, eh?”

Ged was shocked. Going back to Carrington Hall already? How would they keep in touch? The Hall was only ten miles away, but Ged never had any reason to ride in that direction, so it may as well have been on the other side of the world.

 

An hour later Ged was back in his father’s butcher shop, gazing through the open panel on the streetside door and daydreaming. Three peacock butterflies had settled into nooks in the brickwork of the porch at the back of the shop for their winter hibernation, and this had reminded him of a chrysalis that his sister Mary had brought home in the spring. She had found it stuck to the nose of a dog belonging to one of their cousins, and had rescued it and placed it in a jam jar. Wondering what type of butterfly would emerge, she was horrified when, in August, the shell cracked and a crane fly dragged its way out, its buzzing and grating wings waking her in the middle of the night. It had not occurred to her that other insects might have adopted the same trick as the butterflies. Ged’s first thought had been “So, am I the butterfly or the crane fly?”

In the midst of these daydreams in the butcher shop he noticed a woman standing by the market cross, on the far side of the wide square. She must have been hiding behind the high steps of the cross beforehand, as Ged had been watching the street for ten minutes or more, and had not seen her approach.

As he looked, a chill ran through him, making his arms and legs tingle and the back of his neck itch. He had no idea why; but his entire focus was now on the figure by the cross. She had a bonnet that overshadowed her face, of the sort that the very oldest women in the town wore – the fashion of a bygone age. She wore a red shawl and a dark dress, belted much higher than the waist (another long gone fashion). On her arm she carried a basket, the contents of which were covered with a cloth so white that it seemed the brightest thing in the whole market place – typically grey on this October day, under a watery sun wiped by fast-moving rags of cloud.

Fear rose in Ged, like an awful truth suddenly dawning. It rose very quickly, and then he knew… he knew something. Something uncanny, and something very important. But the moment was over almost before it had begun, like a dream that runs away as soon as you try to recall it. When his stepfather William Aldridge appeared behind him asking what the problem was, Ged had nothing to say. The ‘something very important’ fled from his mind.

“Did you see that?”, he said – for the woman in the market place had vanished, as if she had been a ghost.

“See what?”, said Aldridge.

“There was something there, something weird”, said Ged, even as all his reasons for being afraid slipped away, leaving him confused and embarrassed. “It’s hard to describe… no, hang on, she’s over there again!”

“Has our Mary been scaring you with stories of the Gipsies?”, said Aldridge with a nasal chuckle. “That’s just some woman from the Gipsy camp, selling summat or other. Don’t let her in, and don’t take anything from her! But be polite, mind, and just say you’re busy and don’t want to buy anything. Don’t want to offend the likes of her, but we don’t want her hanging around either, or getting the wrong idea.”

Aldridge went back to his work on the meat-chopping blocks, and Ged looked outside again. The woman was there – but on the shop side of the road this time, gazing at him. Her face was shadowed by her bonnet, and her eyes at this distance seemed coal black. She neither smiled nor moved; but under the white cloth on top of the basket something stirred, causing the cloth to rise, as if a small creature were about to emerge.

Ged closed the top half of the door quietly, so that William Aldridge would not hear. As he did so, there was a knock on the door. He opened it again, knowing that it could not possibly be the woman, who had still been quite a distance away when he closed the top section.

But it was.

“Did your mother tell you ‘I never should, Play with the Gipsies in the wood?’”, she sang. Her eyes were the darkest brown an eye could ever be, like wet peat, and the skin of her long face reminded him of smooth, tanned leather.

“My mother’s dead”, was all Ged could think of saying.

“Precisely”, said the woman, her accent strange and musical. “That’s why we must play in the woods one day. You and I. I’m not here to sell you anything. There’s nothing in this basket you need.”

The basket cloth was writhing, as if it covered snakes.

“But you’ll be needing words from me”, she continued, calming the basket contents with a soft stroke of her hand. “Words for taming bulls. Words instead of whips and chains. My name is Baalien Troy, and I can make a deal with you…”

“Come on now, leave the boy alone!”, shouted William Aldridge, re-entering the front of the shop. “We gave some bones and off-cuts to your camp a couple of weeks ago…”

“I do not have a camp”, said the woman with a cold smile, and walked away without further word.

Ged’s heart was racing. His alarm, the woman’s riddling words, the goosebumps on his arms – none of it made sense. He peered around the door, looking up and down the street. But she had vanished.