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The first day's travelling across the desert took them along the base of the Thet mountain range and towards a cluster of ancient rocks that were known locally as The Catacombs. This was because the rocks were in fact an ancient underground suite of burial chambers, all linked by subterranean corridors. The chambers had long since been emptied of any mummified corpses or funereal treasure, and now stood cold, echoey and empty. Carved into the top of the rocks was a flight of perilous stone steps, like enormous teeth. These ran up to a level plateau at the top. No one knew what this plateau had originally been intended for, and was often the subject of much heated archaeological debate. The most popular theory was that it was used as a sacrificial altar in some ancient worship of the Sun or the Moon. It was a theory that had yet to be disproved or bettered.
There were enough legends about The Catacombs to fill a book on its own. Eerie tales of how men had got lost in the labyrinthine corridors, never to appear again. As well as equally disturbing stories of men emerging from the depths, looking shaken (or even ageing overnight), and refusing to say what they had seen.
There was certainly a doleful atmosphere at The Catacombs when they reached them an hour before sunset. There was an oppressive feeling in the air that was hard to ignore, but after eight hours of walking and horseback-riding under the hot sun, no one felt very inclined to go any further that day.
Camp was set up in a subdued and hurried way. There was a general unspoken feeling that everyone wanted to be under canvas by the time night fell in earnest. No one could stomach the thought of looking at the bleak outline of The Catacombs in the dark.
"Don't you want any dinner Hillyard?" said Lonts, stepping into the said man's tent.
Hillyard was drunk. As soon as he had got his tent up he had retreated under canvas with a bottle of brandy he'd had stowed in his rucksack. He had been in very low spirits since getting up that morning. The affair with Mushti had run its course with predictable speed, and now he was left with Hirrid's wounded expression to haunt him. Added to that he had been dismayed by the prospect of this trip. He didn't care whether there were women in the desert or not. As far as he was concerned he had lived his life so far without noticing their absence, and he would continue to do so. If they did find women he knew it would be the end of their life as it was now, possibly the end of the family. It was a prospect which appalled him.
"I'm not hungry", he said, brusquely.
"You should eat something", said Lonts, coming into the tent completely.
"Insanity, the whole bloody thing", Hillyard went on "If we find women it'll mean Ransey'll marry one of 'em I expect, and so might Kieran and Joby. That'll be it Lonts. Everyone will go their separate ways, and settle down to a life of breeding spewing brats".
"It won't be like that Hillyard", said Lonts "Adam says it shouldn't make any difference really".
"It won't make any difference to him, so you'll be alright", said Hillyard "I'm the one who'll lose out. You'll all split into nice little units of your own. You with Adam, Julian and Finia. And the others in nice cosy family groups".
"It won't be like that Hillyard".
"Oh yes it will. And I'll be alone", said Hillyard "I'll be about as wanted as Angel".
Lonts knelt down beside him and placed his hand on Hillyard's stomach, rubbing it gently through the folds of his robe. It was a soothing gesture that Hillyard had sometimes done to him when he was getting agitated. Hillyard was far from getting soothed by this though.
"Leave me alone", he wept "You think I can take you touching me? When I know that if it wasn't for my cowardice in relationships I could have had you. But Adam's got you, so don't tease me".
"I wasn't", Lonts protested, tearfully.
"Leave me alone!" Hillyard bellowed.
Lonts had never seen Hillyard so despondent before. Not ever. It disturbed him so much that he ran out of the tent and across the camp without noticing anyone around him. He was only vaguely aware of reaching The Catacombs, and beginning to pull himself up the jagged step rocks.
"Lonts, for God's sake be careful!" Adam yelled, barely able to get his words out, with his chest rebelling against the stress of the moment so much.
"I'll get him down", said Ransey, going after the boy.
"I think I'm really going to kill him this time", said Julian, with an ominous calmness "I mistakenly believed I had talked some sense into that dim-witted brain of his the other day. That he would no longer perform this trick of charging off".
"Hillyard must have upset him", said Adam, glancing back at the said man's tent, which Hillyard hadn't emerged from "Although goodness knows how, they normally get on like a house on fire".
"I don't care who's said what to him", said Julian "I'm not having him being so inconsiderate to you".
"Don't go on Jules".
"Don't go on!"
"At the moment I just want him to get back down safely, that's all".
"I wasn't teasing him Ransey, honest", said Lonts, crying so hard he was hiccuping "I don't know what I did wrong". "He's been in a funny mood all day", said Ransey, sitting down next to him on the flat slab "I'm actually beginning to regret suggesting this trip. It's causing trouble already. And I don't want us all splitting up anymore than Hillyard does".
"But you wanted the trip so badly back in the town".
"It seemed like a good idea then, now I'm not so sure. Kieran was right, it's going to be an impossible task assimilating women back into the world. And when I really stop and think about it, I'm not so certain I want it. Not when I think what I might lose".
"Nothing's going to split us up", said Lonts, firmly "I won't let it".
"I've got to hand it to you Lonts, you certainly know how to shinny up places easily enough", said Ransey "I can quite believe the tales I've heard of you leaping across the snowy rooftops of Marlsblad".
"I didn't mean to come up here", said Lonts "Adam's going to be so upset. And so's Julian. He's probably going to punish me".
"Then you'd better show him you can take it. Let's get back down, it's getting dark quickly now".
Adam went delirious when Lonts finally reached the ground again. The others weren't quite so pleased with him.
"You're a pillock Lonts", said Joby "Fancy getting upset over something Hillyard said".
"He upsets you too sometimes", Lonts retorted.
"Yes but Joby doesn't go risking his neck climbing up ancient masonry", said Kieran "Or giving Adam a seizure into the bargain".
"I'm sorry Adam", Lonts wailed.
"You will be when I've finished with you", said Julian.
"I'll sort this one out Jules", said Adam.
"That boy needs some discipline", said Julian.
"And I'll see he gets it", said Adam "Now I'm going to take him where we can be alone together. You lot cease your caterwauling and see if you can sober Hillyard up".
"How many times do I have to tell you?" said Adam, as he and Lonts walked across the sand under the dying rays of the sun "When someone upsets you in any way, the first thing you do is come to me".
"I know Adam, but I didn't think".
"Lifelong affliction of yours is that".
"I don't know why I do it. The last thing I want to do is upset you Adam".
"Then tell me when these things happen Lonts", said Adam, imploringly "Otherwise I feel like you don't trust me".
"But I do Adam, I trust you in everything".
"You've hurt me this evening", said Adam "That's why I wanted to sort you out and not leave it to Jules. I want you to understand how much it scars me inside when you not only risk your life, but don't confide in me. I'm going to punish you, and I'm not going to make any promises that it won't hurt".
Lonts tried to reply, but couldn't, squirming as he did on one leg and remembering what Ransey had said about showing them he could take it. This was easier said than done in practice. Adam spanked him very severely. More often than not when Adam punished Lonts in this way he did it as token gesture, and made sure he didn't smack him very hard. This was different though. This spanking really hurt. Lonts forgot his good intentions and wept very loudly. Afterwards he knelt in the sand and continued sobbing.
"You don't normally do it for so long!" he wailed, accusingly.
"I wanted you to know what it feels like when someone you love hurts you", said Adam "Not very nice is it?"
Lonts climbed to his feet stiffly and then flung his arms round Adam's neck, weeping into the man's shoulder as he spoke.
"I won't ever hurt you again Adam. I promise. I promise".
"I adore you Lonts", Adam began to cry in return "I can't bear the thought of anything happening to you, and everytime you run off I think it has".
"I won't ever do it again. I really mean it this time".
"I believe you do", said Adam "Dry your tears, you've set me off. Let's move onwards now".
"Adam", Lonts gulped "My bum hurts!"
"Oh dear", Adam stroked it gently "Just be glad Julian didn't take over then or you'd really be in a bad way. Let's get you back to the camp. You'll feel better after some supper".
Hillyard remained in his tent all through the meal. As far as Adam was concerned this was just as well, as he didn't trust himself to speak to him in a civilised manner. After eating, Lonts startled Adam by announcing that he was going to have a quick word with Julian in his tent before turning in. Adam was quite delighted by this, and managed to persuade Finia to stay outside until Lonts had finished.
"I'm not sure I've got anything to say to you Kiskev", said Julian, who was changing into his silk robe "You reneged on our deal. We agreed. No more running off".
"It really won't happen again Julian", said Lonts "That's what I came to tell you. I know how much it upsets Adam".
"You've realised it at long last?" said Julian "Well it only confirms what I've always suspected. You keep what little brains you've got in your posterior, so a spanking's bound to knock some sense into you".
"You can't upset me", said Lonts, jubilantly "I'm going to show you just how brilliant I can be".
"That should certainly be interesting to see", said Julian.
"We're going to look after Adam together, you and me", said Lonts.
Before Julian could reply, Lonts had got him in a bear-hug and was planting firm kisses on his lips. Considerably shaken, Julian managed to extricate himself, whilst yelling for Adam at the same time.
"Take your demented brat to bed", he said breathlessly, as Adam appeared.
"You run along and start getting undressed Lo-Lo", Adam laughed "I'll be along shortly".
"He's pottier than I even gave him credit for", said Julian, after Lonts had gone.
"He was just being affectionate", said Adam "I bet you enjoyed it really".
"I found it highly disturbing", said Julian "But then what do you expect when an extremely attractive young man flings himself at me and plants firm kisses all over my face! I can assure you that when he does that I forget his mental age entirely".
"I do know what it's like Jules", said Adam.
"After all, physically he's only a couple of years off thirty. Even though he easily looks ten years younger".
"Yes it's easy to forget with Lonts how the years are passing", said Adam, sombrely.
"I rue the day you ever met those bloody doctors", said Julian "They should be struck off for sheer incompetence. Lonts is one of the most healthy-looking people I've ever seen".
"It's not his body that's the problem though Jules".
"His mind has stabilised, Adam", said Julian "He doesn't get anywhere near the number of nightmares that he used to, and the tantrums are much less spectacular. I know he's never going to be eligible for MENSA, it would help for one thing if he was even semi-literate, but he really is doing fine. And that's all down to you. At the cost of your own health I might add".
"It was the cheap cigars that did for me, not Lonts", said Adam "So don't go saying such things in his hearing".
"What do you take me for?" said Julian "That's the sort of shabby trick my parents would have done. I hope I'm not as low as that".
"Of course you're not", Adam kissed him "You're wonderful".
"Go away before I start crying", said Julian.
Hillyard waited until the camp had gone completely quiet before emerging from his tent. He wasn't quite as drunk as he was earlier in the evening, but he was still a long way off sober. He was horrified by how much he'd upset Lonts and couldn't understand why he had yelled at the boy like that. No matter how much in his cups he had previously got in life he would never have believed himself capable of wilfully upsetting Lonts. Added to that he was now scared stiff of facing Adam.
He staggered across the camp to The Catacombs. He hated the sight of that huge black obelisk silhouetted against the night sky. Even as he went towards it he didn't understand why he was doing so. His mind wanted him back in the sanctuary of his own tent, but his feet were leading him forward. He paused next to Adam's tent, and briefly looked in. Both Adam and Lonts were in a deep sleep. Satisfied, Hillyard moved on and disappeared below.
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