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At dawn a monsoon broke that was of cataclysmic proportions. In very little time at all the surrounding area had turned into a vast swirling mass of mud, several feet deep, and highly treacherous. They grabbed what belongings they could and ran for the trees, leaving their tents behind to be quickly submerged under the filthy onslaught.
Joby hauled Kieran up after him into the branches of one tree, and then they sat in the double fork and watched to make sure the others got off the ground safely too. It was a worrying feature that the mud was breaking down some of the smaller trees in its path.
"I hope it doesn't get any higher", said Joby, staring down in terror at the frightening black mass "We wouldn't stand a chance. We'd suffocate in that lot".
"Our best hope is to get back to the big house", said Kieran "And the best way to do that is by using these trees as a kind of ladder. Leap from one to the other".
"Leap?" said Joby "I'll fall in. Bound to".
"Then I'll fish you out again", said Kieran, patiently "Anyway it won't make any difference to your looks if you did. We all look as though we've been to a three-day open-air rock concert as it is".
"This is all your fault Adam", said Julian, clinging to the trunk of one tree.
"How can it be mine?" said Adam, desperately trying to clear some mud from his face.
"You keep dragging me off on these ridiculous trips. We should be living a dignified old age, not sitting up a tree plastered from head to foot in mud!"
On the opposite branch Lonts and Finia were clinging desperately to one another and squealing like stranded bear-cubs.
"At least it's brought those two together", said Adam "Think how much easier our lives will be from now on".
"That's if we get a chance to find out", said Julian.
After a word from Kieran they began their torturous swing from tree to tree. All the while the mud swirled below them, carrying branches, rocks and the remains of their tents in its wake. There was an extremely hairy moment when one branch cracked underneath Angel and left him hanging by one arm over the torrent.
"Leave him there Kieran", Joby whispered, urgently "It's your big chance to be free of him".
"I can't", said Kieran "I want to with all my heart, but I can't".
He crawled out onto the branch, spreading his weight as he did so, and reached out for Angel's free hand. As Angel grasped it in his, Kieran could suddenly guess what he was thinking. Angel only had to pull hard and they would both go plunging into the torrent. In a matter of seconds their mouths and lungs would fill with mud and it would all be over in no time at all.
"You do", Kieran hissed "And you won't have achieved anything. Not a single damn thing".
Angel grasped the branch with both hands and managed to sidle along to the safety of the trunk before it came away completely.
"Had you going there for a while didn't I?" said Angel, tossing his mud-splattered hair out of his eyes.
By now it was impossible to tell what direction the house was in, but fortunately they managed to reach the sanctuary of a huge rock, which looked as though it may have been used for religious purposes at one time, rather like the one on top of the Catacombs. They clambered onto the surface and climbed up it as far as they could. It was still raining very hard, and the poor visibility made it virtually impossible to get their bearings.
"I feel like Noah arriving at Mount Ararat", said Adam "Oh there you are Patsy. I saw what you did, and I'm not happy with it".
"Helping Angel you mean?" said Kieran.
"It was incredibly stupid".
"You're not the only one who thinks so", said Joby.
"But I couldn't leave him there!" Kieran protested.
"Dammit Patsy, if I had a paddle handy I'd turn your butt into raw meat", said Adam angrily, and he turned to attend to a sobbing Lonts, who had lost his nappy during the impromptu journey.
"Don't you say a bloody word Joby!" said Kieran.
"I can understand how he feels", said Joby.
"Come up here and have a look at this", said Ransey, gravely "The rain's thinning a bit, and it's not revealed a very pretty sight".
Kieran stood at the top of the rock and looked down at the plain below. The jungle had been cleared in this area, and if it wasn't for the two lines of gallows Kieran would have thought it was intended for exercising horses in. The corpses pegged up on the gallows, in postures of crucifixion, were in varying stages of decomposition. Some had been there so long they were nothing but bleached bones, others could only have been there for a few days. But they all had one aspect in common. They were all headless.
"Oh God, I can't stand it", Kieran gave a low moan and turned away.
"It's time we went home", said Hillyard.
"I agree", said Ransey "But to avoid that mud-bath we need to stay on high ground, which means ..."
"Going out through the gallows field", said Hillyard, quietly.
"Walk amongst that lot?" Kieran exclaimed, looking like a wild-man with his grimy face peering out through his long mud-splattered hair.
"We have no choice", said Ransey "I'm not looking forward to it anymore than you are, but it's the only safe way out".
"Don't go mad now Kieran", said Hillyard "It's not good timing".
Kieran sat down on the rock, with his back to the gruesome scene. He looked as though he was losing hold of his reason. Adam directed Joby to sit with Lonts and then went up to him.
"It'll be alright Patsy", he said, taking both his hands in his.
"No", Kieran shook his head as though he was disagreeing with a restaurant bill "No, it won't ever be alright again".
"You have seen far worse sights than that. Remember the City after Gabriel had finished with it?"
"That's just it though", said Kieran, heatedly "I'm tired of these sights. Of all this destruction, barbaric loss of life. I can't stand it anymore. I refuse to go any further".
"I see", said Adam "So you propose to sit here until the mud freezes over do you? Patsy, you haven't any choice!"
"It seems to me I've never had any choice".
"None of us have", Adam began to cry "All these years we've all had to trail along behind you because we couldn't bear the thought of leaving you. And now we're in this situation. Lost in the Uncharted Area with no clear way out, covered in mud with most of our possessions gone for good. I haven't even got a nappy to put on Lonts! And now you're going to abandon us. It's not bloody fair Patsy, it really isn't!"
"Addy I'm sorry", Kieran threw his arms round him and held him tight "Ignore me, I'm crazy. If things are this bad they can only get better. It won't always be like this. Think of when I retire. Think of the cottage in the woods, and you coming to see me one night a week".
"Who were they?" said Hillyard, looking down at the bodies on the gallows "And how did they end up like that?"
"I don't know", said Ransey "But somehow it wouldn't surprise me if it had something to do with that lot at the house yesterday. Perhaps some visitors they just didn't take kindly to".
"But what do they do with the heads?" said Hillyard.
"Cutting off the heads of your enemies isn't uncommon", Ransey sighed "There used to be a tribe in the Southern Desert who always did it, believed by doing so they absorbed their enemy's power or some such thing".
"We'd best get it over with", said Julian "Adam, has Lonts got no clothes at all?"
"Yes", Adam sniffed violently, and rooted around in the rucksack he had hastily snatched from his tent "A very muddy pair of shorts and t-shirt. Oh look, our luck's changing! Here's a spare nappy!"
They walked silently through the grim tableau, trying not to look above their heads. Adam was extremely concerned about Lonts, but the boy was pre-occupied with his clothes, which were uncomfortable in the extreme.
Joby couldn't decide if it would have been worse if the bodies had had heads or not. In some ways it was easier without. The lack of a head dehumanised them, made them seem unreal, and there were no open eyes or eye sockets to haunt them as they walked past. When they finally reached the sanctuary of the other side though Joby found he wasn't the only one who was physically sick.
"Some were women", said Kieran, crouching down next to him.
"I know, I noticed", said Joby "It might account for why the villagers built the wall. To keep that lot in the house in!"
"The wall was there along time before that lot were", Kieran pointed out.
"Oh yea, I forgot", said Joby "It must have been to keep something else in then".
"Well whatever it is, I hope we don't find it", said Kieran.
They all agreed with Ransey's idea that it would be best to stick to the ridge of high ground on which the gallows rested, and see where it took them. It ran along for some distance, like the spine of some huge slumbering animal, rising out of the dense mud of the swamp. Eventually it took them round the back of the house they had visited the day before.
The house lay at the bottom of the ridge, as though nestling into its side. The mud hadn't penetrated this far and seemed to be causing no undue alarm to the inhabitants. In fact these peculiar people appeared to be preparing to set off on a hunting expedition. The hot-air balloon was moored on a concrete launch-pad at the side of the house, and the stewards were loading the basket with weapons, food and hydrogen cylinders.
A trio of ageing, overweight women in jodhpurs (even though there were no horses in sight) came out of the back door and instantly spotted Kieran and his party up on the ridge. Letting out chants of "Ghoom! Ghoom!" they indicated to the rest of their group that the hunt could begin much closer to home than they had anticipated.
"If they wanted us why didn't they take us yesterday?" said Joby.
"Because it didn't fit in with the charade yesterday", said Kieran "Come on, we've got to get to that balloon before they do".
Ransey had salvaged his revolver from his tent, but it only contained six bullets, and he was loath to go firing them off at random. In the meantime he had to content himself with pointing it in a threatening manner. Sheer terror got them to the balloon ahead of the Ghooming party. Hillyard punched aside a steward and crawled into the basket. At once he noticed the stack of rifles lying on the wooden and iron-banded floor of the car. The steward was coming back for more so he smashed him in the face with the butt of one rifle before hastily re-loading it.
The hunting-party knew a few tactics of their own and fanned out around the balloon so that they could advance from all corners. Hillyard and Ransey were by now firing volleys at them to give the others covering-fire. Julian checked the valves, and made sure the gum-covered silk of the balloon itself hadn't suffered any damage.
Some of the Ghooming party had reached the outside of the car now and were obviously intending to hang onto the side to prevent it rising. One was a stocky, middle-aged woman with a hard face. Ransey socked her hard on the jaw and she went sprawling backwards.
"There was no need for that", Kieran protested.
"Would you rather I'd shot her instead?" Ransey yelled.
The ballasts were lifted over the side, the mooring-ropes were cut and the anchor pulled. The balloon rose slowly into the air, its graceful departure impeded by on enterprising Ghoomer who had latched himself onto one of the hemp ropes, and was still clinging on in spite of the fact that his feet were well clear of the ground. His substantial weight was pulling the car down at a severe lurch to the right. Ransey shot him between the eyes, and the man fell heavily to the ground.
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