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Mixx turned out to be quite a friendly person when he put down his "toy cannon", as Adam referred to it. He was in his thirties, a man who had been considered good-looking in his youth, but who now scorned such assets as not worthy of his time. He was tall, had shoulder-length fair hair that was so frizzy it looked as though he slept with it in braids, and in spite of the heat wore an ankle-length waterproof coat.
He knew who Kieran was, had known in fact since the day before when he had spied on them all arriving, concealed in a hidden watching-place. He hadn't expected them to stay overnight in the deserted village (no one ever did), and had instantly got distrustful for that reason. Hence the toy cannon. He confessed that he was concerned about them continuing their stay in the house, and invited them all up to his hut instead, which was situated in a fold of the mountains, overlooking the village and the tangled mass of plants that surrounded it.
They trooped up there at dawn, and found that Mixx's hut was just that, a one-roomed wooden affair, comfortably furnished but still decidedly small.
"We'll camp outside", said Kieran "You'll never get us all in there".
Mixx protested that the idea of sleeping outside was unthinkable, and insisted that they all came indoors. There was a loft above the room, he said, that had once been used by sherpas for storing equipment in. It was quite big enough for them. Too tired to argue they unrolled their bedding and slept for a few hours under the rafters. In spite of the skylight being open it was still hot and stuffy up there though.
Come late morning they emerged outside for breakfast, using yet more of their tinned stock cooked over a couple of portable gas fires. Whilst they were eating Mixx told them a little about himself. He was a mystic, he said, and was in the process of reading ancient books (purchased at great expense) by mountain monks. Prior to the Abolition of Religion they had practised meditation, honing it to such a fine art that they could eventually withstand any amount of physical discomfort, including extreme cold and burning.
"Did you choose this place to study in because of all the legends about it?" Kieran asked, as they all sat eating on the grass outside the hut door "It would generate the kind of atmosphere you might need".
"To be honest with you Your Grace I chose it because I thought I wouldn't be bothered too much up here", said Mixx "In spite of all the hype about the Bandorra Legend not many men venture up this way".
For the next few minutes he was bombarded with questions on all sides, such as "What's behind the wall?" "Who built it?" and "What's happened to the villagers?"
"I have lived here for five years", said Mixx "And yet I know little more than you. I have tried to see over the wall, but because of all those damn weeds down there I can't get a decent viewing-point. As far as I know that wall has been there for a couple of hundred years. It predates the Massacre of the Women, as does the exodus from the village. No one has lived there since, and I'm pretty certain it was built by the original villagers. To keep out what, I wouldn't even like to guess".
"What about all the talk of a hole in the wall?" said Joby "Which leads into a parallel universe?"
"It is said that at certain times a hole in the wall appears, and you can get through it", said Mixx "But in all the five years I've been here I've yet to see it myself. Much as I want to believe in idyllic lost colonies containing women, I have to say I haven't come across any concrete evidence that these are anything other than a new sort of fishermen's tale".
"You seemed anxious that we shouldn't sleep down there though", said Kieran.
"You are still my President, even if I have set myself outside society", said Mixx "I'm still a loyal citizen, I'm not one of these nomad figures who refuses to admit allegiance to anyone. You helped me a lot by reinstating religion. It meant I could take up my studies legally, and obtain books that weren't commonly available before. The fact is that just because I haven't myself seen this mythical hole in the wall doesn't mean strange things aren't happening here".
"What sort of things?" said Kieran.
"Noises. Odd, loud noises".
"Booming noises?" said Julian.
"You could describe them like that I guess", said Mixx "Sometimes, although it's scary, I swear it sounds quite comical. Like giant's footsteps in a children's story. Stamping over the ground, making it shake. It sounds funny when I say it to you like this, but it can be damn eerie all the same. That's not the most peculiar thing that's happened up here though. Once I had an experience that was so extraordinary I can scare believe it happened. It had such a dreamlike quality to it".
"Go on", said Kieran.
"I was fast asleep one morning last summer. Last August in fact. It was very early, around five a.m. I was suddenly woken up by this loud noise outside. It sounded like a dragon breathing fire. Because I wasn't certain what it could be, I ran up into the loft to look out through the skylight, rather than risk going outside and confronting it in the open. It was broad daylight by then, so I could see everything quite clearly. The sound turned out to be a hot-air balloon flying fairly low over this area. I was quite concerned for the small crowd that was in the basket. I thought they were flying far too low for this region, so low in fact they were in danger of getting caught on the trees. I can't say they seemed too bothered though. Quite the reverse in fact, they were laughing and generally sounding as though they were enjoying themselves".
"It was a hot-air balloon, so what?" Joby shrugged.
"It had women in it", said Mixx.
"How can you be sure?" said Kieran "I don't mean to be rude Mixx, but have you ever seen a woman before?"
"Not in the flesh, but I've seen plenty of pictures", said Mixx "I don't expect you to believe me, I scarce believe it myself, but I would swear on all that's holy that they were real women".
"Did they see you?" said Joby.
"No, I kept my head below the parapet".
"What direction was this balloon coming from?" said Adam.
"I'm pretty certain they were from the area beyond the wall".
"That tends to make it all a bit more than a fishermen's tale", said Adam.
"It could have been a haunting", said Kieran "A psychic imprint from a bygone era".
"But it was so vivid", Mixx protested "I could hear their voices. Women's voices. One of them had on a white blazer-style jacket. I could see it so clearly I could draw the design of the buttons for you".
"Some hauntings could be very vivid", said Kieran "And detailed too. Has there been anything else like this since?"
"No, that was the only incident so far", said Mixx "And I never saw the balloon again. Even though I looked out for it all the rest of that day".
Mixx's story certainly had them intrigued. Joby said it reminded him of the old UFO sightings from their own time.
"Shows how easy it is for ordinary things to be unexplainable", said Adam "In our time we'd have thought nothing of seeing a hot-air balloon carrying women, and yet here it's so disturbing it's akin to a religious experience".
"Do you know I think we're missing the point about that wall", said Kieran "We keep assuming it was built to keep something dangerous contained, but what if it was really built to protect what's in there? Such as a colony of women? Maybe the wall was put up at the time of the Massacre to keep them safe".
"Nice try", said Joby "But according to Mixx the wall was put up a hundred years before the Massacre".
"We don't know that for sure", said Kieran "I mean, there's no evidence to show when it was built so we can only guess".
Mixx's story had thrown a whole new light on the expedition. Most of the group were quite taken with Kieran's "protective barrier" theory, if only because it psychologically removed the fear of going beyond the wall. Kieran was enthused with the whole thing, and wanted to get over the wall at once. He was desperate by now to resign from the presidency, and saw returning to the City with a party of women as the best parting-shot he could give the world that had adopted him and elevated him to such heights.
For two days they discussed strategies, sorted out supplies and took advantage of Mixx's hospitality. Kieran's fears that they were imposing on the said man's blissful solitude were unfounded. After all those years of a hermit-like existence, Mixx was only too glad to have an audience for a while. His urge to study and learn the mysteries of life was genuine enough, but it had to be said that an awful lot of it was an act that he had put on to give himself an identity in his own eyes. He wanted to feel intelligent, spiritual and a man with an amazing soul, and this was the best way of doing it.
Sadly it all meant he could be a bit heavy-going at times. He didn't eat normally for a start. When he had come to the mountain he had brought literally trunk-loads of packaged dried food with him, which only needed the addition of hot water to create a thoroughly nutritious and revolting meal. In all his time on the mountain he had made no effort to discover food from natural sources (in spite of the fact that there was a well-stocked stream only a few hundred yards away), or even to plant his own vegetable garden.
He was delighted to learn that Kieran was a vegetarian, like himself, and tried to get him interested in the packets. Kieran decided that he'd rather stick with the tins. The others meanwhile ate more robust fare, relying heavily on Hillyard's trapping skills. The first time he brought home a couple of dead rabbits, and then proceeded to skin and chop them, Mixx reacted in an extraordinary way. He ran into his hut yelling "I don't want this in my memory log!"
On the third morning a bear-cub was found clinging to the branch of a tree near the hut. Instead of leaving the furry little creature to find its own way home, Mixx insisted on enticing it down and wrapping it in his jacket as though it was at imminent risk from hypothermia. He cradled the animal in his arms, who in turn looked completely scandalised by the whole experience.
"I wonder what he's thinking", said Mixx.
"Who are these bunch of wankers, probably", said Joby.
"I'd let him go if I was you Mixx", said Adam "He's doubtless got a mother lurking somewhere nearby who weighs a ton. She might not be too pleased to see you mauling her precious charge".
"I must give him a name before he leaves", said Mixx "I'll call him Destiny, as he's a symbol of hope for the future of this planet".
"It's going to be run by bears?" said Joby.
Mixx fretted about the wretched animal for the rest of the day. At one point he was heard lamenting that he couldn't "stand the thought of little Destiny out in the wilds at night, with only leaves to eat".
"He's a bloody bear", said Joby, losing patience with him "Leaves are his food!"
It rained that evening, quite heavily, and they were forced to sit in the hut after dinner. Mixx hit upon the idea of entertaining them all by doing a spot of fortune-telling. Joby, who'd had quite enough of Mixx's far-out ideas for one day, decided to retreat to the loft and have an early night. He wasn't best pleased when Adam asked him if he could take a sleepy Lonts with him.
"It means I've got to do his flamin' nappy!" said Joby, and slammed the hatch down into place once he and Lonts were above.
"I'm not really into palm-reading Mixx", said Kieran, after Mixx had taken his hand and placed a small glass cube on it "I think it's all a load of hocus-pocus really. A pathetic substitute for religion".
"Oh don't set him off on that one", said Julian, not looking up from a book on ancient lore and magic.
"I once earned money doing this in the City market", said Mixx "I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by how accurate I can be. Let us begin. When is your hatch-day? What sign were you hatched under?"
"As you're such a brilliant soothsayer", said Kieran "I'm disappointed you can't tell me that".
"Very old and shoddy trick by mediums", said Julian "To ask a lot of questions like that. It means you end up inadvertently supplying them with all they need to know".
"March the fifteenth", said Kieran "I'm a Pisces".
"Bad planning on your mother's part", said Julian "Two days later you'd have been born on St Paddy's Day, as befitting a patriotic Irishman".
"Be quiet Jules", said Adam, who was sitting at the table in rapt attention "I want to know what else he has to say about Patsy".
"Pisces the Fish", said Mixx, staring intently at the glass cube "Ancient symbol of Christianity. A deeply spiritual and psychic sign. As a child you were able to communicate with the dead".
"Can he see all that in there?" said Hillyard, looking at the cube.
"Astrology for beginners dear heart", said Julian "Easily gleaned from any cheap paperback book. Worth studying though. If only because it can make for very good pick-up lines".
"Jules if you don't shut up I shall send you upstairs", said Adam.
"It'd be fun to see you try", said Julian.
"Is it true you could communicate with the dead when you were younger Kieran?" said Hillyard.
"I had a few dreams about me grandmother after she'd died", said Kieran "I was seven at the time. Me mam took it all as a sign of messages from beyond the grave. But dreaming about dead relatives is nothing out of the ordinary for anyone".
"You are of a solitary disposition deep down", Mixx went on "And yet at the same time you have a great need for people. You have an enormous capacity for enjoying life, but can easily feel guilty about it. That is very typical for a Piscean".
"Very typical for a Catholic more like", said Kieran.
"The two men closest to you are both compatible water signs".
"That's true", said Adam "I'm a Scorpio".
"You two are both well-suited", said Mixx "Scorpio's and Pisceans are both intense, sensitive signs, who instinctively understand each other's innermost needs".
"We'd better not go into them", said Julian "This is a family show".
"What about Joby?" said Kieran "He's a Cancer".
"Not so good", said Mixx "Cancerians are moody and repressed. Communication can be a problem between you".
"Not that I've noticed", said Kieran "Joby normally communicates only too well!"
"Does he have a drink problem?" said Mixx.
"Only the same as I do", said Kieran "If you can call it a problem. We both like a tipple".
"Someone close to you has a serious drink problem".
"That's me actually", said Adam.
"It's not a problem these days Addy", said Kieran "You've kicked it long since".
"Not necessarily", said Mixx "It may resurface at some time in the future".
"Oh what fun", said Adam, leadenly.
"Hardly a great prophecy", said Julian "Seeing as alcoholics can fall off the wagon at any time".
"Can't you see anything about the next part of our journey?" said Kieran.
"You will face extreme danger towards the end of it", said Mixx "In fact very extreme caution will be needed, but if you keep your wits about you then you will have a good chance of surviving. Although the problem may not in itself go away. You will not have to face this danger alone. There is one other person with you".
"Just one?" said Kieran.
"Yes, but there is nothing to fear. The others are all safe".
"Who's the lucky candidate then?" said Kieran.
"Is Joby the only Cancerian in the group?"
"Yes, as far as I know", said Kieran "When I became President I tracked down everyone's hatch-days, as you call them. Joby's the only July-born amongst us".
"It's more likely to be Joby with you than anyone else", said Adam "Seeing as I'm too geriatric to be sidekick material these days".
"I wouldn't have said that Adam", said Kieran.
"I'm getting more information", said Mixx, as though he was receiving orders over a telephone-line "This danger you and Joby face will be very very acute. I can't stress enough the level of danger involved".
"But the others are safe?" said Kieran.
"Yes, oh yes, they're well off the scene. In fact you and Joby are some considerable distance from them".
"Does Joby survive too?" said Kieran, anxiously.
"Yes, as long as like you he exercises extreme caution".
"It's probably whilst all this is going on that I start drinking again", said Adam.
"You should've stayed down with us Jobe", said Hillyard, lighting the hurricane lamp in the loft "We had a laugh".
"Predictions of extreme danger don't sound a laugh", said Joby, grumpily. He and Lonts had been fast asleep until the others had thundered up into the loft like a herd of sheep at dipping-time.
"It wasn't all doom and gloom".
"Did he read yours then?"
"Nah, didn't get round to me", said Hillyard "I'm glad to say. I don't want too many glimpses into my future on this trip".
"When did you have the others then?" said Joby "Was it something to do with the Catacombs?"
"I'll tell you one day", Hillyard sighed "But not now".
"He did Julian as well", said Kieran "Predicted a long life, which made us all laugh after what Adam said that time".
"Whether Julian does live to a great old age", said Adam "Or whether it'll just feel like it for everyone else is another matter".
"It's all complete nonsense", said Julian, folding his jacket in a precise manner "It's women's stuff anyway, all this astrology rubbish. Why do you think we don't get daily horoscopes printed in the papers anymore? Because they were only ever done for women, so that they'd know which was the best day to get their hair done".
"Jules, you are the worst misogynist I've ever met", said Adam.
"No let him speak", said Kieran "The comment about the ladies getting their hair done suddenly reminds me how much we miss 'em".
"I had female clients in the old life who drove me spare", said Julian "They couldn't decide on anything without checking with their spiritual guru's first. And then they'd decide something completely absurd, like they couldn't have the mirror opposite their bed as their soul could watch them sleeping, or absorb their energy, or some such rubbish. I kid you not, I did have one woman come out with something like that once".
"More like she didn't wanna see herself first thing in the morning", said Joby "Anyway, you get plenty of blokes like that. Look at our host downstairs. If I have to put up with anymore of his twaddle I'll go barmy".
"I've just heard the main door slam", said Finia, who was securing his silk night-turban round his head.
"Probably just his nib's going out to commune with the Moon or something", said Joby.
"That's true. He did say he liked sitting outside and looking at it", said Kieran.
"Could someone turn the lamp out?" said Julian, once everyone had settled down.
"Don't you exert yourself then", said Hillyard, stepping over everyone to get to it "Goodnight".
By daybreak Mixx hadn't returned from his nocturnal wanderings, and once breakfast was over Kieran decided he was sufficiently concerned to go with the usual scouting-party down to the village to investigate. They found Mixx only too soon, lying sprawled stiffly on the verandah of their previous accommodation.
"His neck's been broken", said Ransey, standing over the lifeless body "Looks like someone got him in an armlock from behind and wrenched his head round".
"It could've been Angel", said Kieran, quietly "He was once killed the same way".
"Angel couldn't have managed that surely?" said Joby "He's about half Mixx's size".
"He could've taken him by surprise", said Kieran "And quite frankly we don't know what Angel's capable of these days".
"There are footprints running up to the wall", said Hillyard "I don't think they were made by Mixx. They're too small, and more like someone was running in bare feet".
"They stop at the wall and don't come back", said Joby, perplexed.
"Let's do the decent thing and bury him first", said Kieran "Bury him and get it over with".
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