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Kieran spent a sleepless and uncomfortable night and was relieved when daylight came once more. He was on his feet before anyone else, and decided to do a quick inventory of supplies in the balloon before making any breakfast.
"I hope you're not letting Angel prey on your mind", said Julian, appearing beside him.
"I can't help it", said Kieran "He was a part of me for so long. And I can't shake off the feeling that I failed him".
"You're not stupid Kieran", Julian sighed "You know as well as I do that the end had to come sometime. Are you sure a lot of this breast-beating isn't just guilt because you're relieved he's gone?"
"Yes I am relieved", said Kieran, candidly "Sometimes I think you know me almost as well as Joby and Adam do".
"You're a pretty open book compared to a lot of men I've known".
"Is that a compliment or an insult?"
"Compliment", said Julian "Your chief insult-giver has gone".
"There were times when to even stand close to him made me feel violated", said Kieran "Like how a victim of abuse must feel. And I hated myself for feeling that way".
"Stop it", said Julian, firmly "It's over. Let it go".
"You've got a certain knack there", said Kieran, wryly.
"Years of practice from coping with Adam", said Julian "He's queen of the guilt and histrionics".
"Thanks for getting Lonts out so quick last night. Even Joby was impressed with the way you handled him. 'Not bad for ninety-two!' was his comment".
"I'm not going to pass a remark on that", said Julian "As for Lonts, I sometimes think I could make something of that boy".
"How do you mean?"
"Well he's young and he's very strong and fit. Physically he should be an enormous asset to us on these trips. But we can't rely on him, because we're constantly having to fish him out of trouble. Either that or trying to stop him bolting every five minutes. And it's all the fault of Old Mother Hubbard, who can't stop pampering him".
"Adam's brilliant with him", said Kieran "He makes Lonts so happy, and that's important after the terrible start he had in life. Adam's also firm with him when it's needed".
"I know, but because he spends so much of his time plastering him with kisses and spouting on about what an adorable boy he is, he undermines any hope of giving him backbone".
"What do you suggest then?" said Kieran, tartly "A regime of cross-country hikes and cold porridge, combined with regular thrashings for no reason at all. The sort of regime that produced Englishmen of the highest calibre, such as yourself!"
"Yes alright, make fun of me, I can take it", said Julian "Believe it or not, I have no time for such a system either. My schooling never did me any favours and I'd be happy to admit it to anyone who asks. To be quite frank with you, if it hadn't made me so emotionally repressed and embattled I doubt Adam and I would have had such a stormy relationship in our younger days. But that's neither here nor there now. What I'm really saying is Adam spoils that boy far too much. He practically has a heart-attack if Lonts is out of his sight for longer than five minutes, and he's getting worse! Lonts is going to end up a mollycoddled mummy's boy".
"Yes and we can't have that", said Kieran "He might grow up into a pansy!"
"You're impossible", said Julian.
"So what is your point Julian?"
"Whether Adam likes it or not I'm going to take over some of Lonts's guidance", said Julian "He needs toughening up a little. It's too easy for him to think all he has to do is wheedle or throw a tantrum and he'll get his own way. You're all to blame for that".
"He is the baby", said Kieran "And I hope you're not going to upset Adam with all this".
"I'll try very hard not to do so", said Julian "It'll do Adam good too. He frets far too much about Lonts, it can't do his chest any favours at all. It's him I'm thinking of more than anyone".
Ransey mentioned the mysterious light he had seen in the cairn during his final confrontation with Angel. It didn't surprise him that nobody was keen to go and discover what it was, although he didn't bank on the vehemence of Hillyard's reaction.
"None of you are going down there!" he cried "Enough's enough. I don't trust anything I see in those places and with good reason too".
"Calm down old love", said Adam "Have some more coffee".
"You can stick your coffee".
"It was only a suggestion!"
"Come on Hilly, it's not like you", said Kieran.
"I'm sorry", said Hillyard, trying to calm himself "I'll listen to any amount of crazy schemes you lot come up with, but I'm not putting up with that one. I'm really not".
"It's alright", said Kieran, in a placatory fashion "I wasn't looking forward to stepping over Angel's corpse anyway".
"Exactly", said Hillyard "Let's just leave it all be. Get in the balloon and try and find some way back to civilisation".
"No sooner the word than the blow", said Kieran, and he began packing what was left of his belongings into his rucksack.
Adam was mightily intrigued by Hillyard's extreme reaction whenever the cairns were mentioned, but he also didn't relish the thought of exploring them. Whatever lay at the bottom of those subterranean steps was bad news, and at that moment he knew he wouldn't feel safe until they were all floating in the air again. As such he began unpinning Lonts's nappy in a very determined fashion, and acted oblivious to the fact that Lonts was ignoring him.
"I think you're awful Adam", he suddenly blurted out, when he grew tired of the dearth of concern his friend was showing.
"You are surely not still harping on about last night?" said Adam "Julian had to get you out of there very quickly, and carrying you out was the most expedient way. And that is all there is to it".
"I'm not on about that", said Lonts, screwing his mouth up in the old tell-tale signs of anger "I'm upset because you stood by and let him smack me".
"And I warned you that that was exactly what would happen if you didn't behave", said Adam "Fancy biting him for heaven's sake! I thought I'd long since cured you of such savage behaviour. If Julian hadn't have spanked you for it, I would have done".
Lonts began to cry very loudly.
"Nobody wants me", he wailed.
"For goodness sake get that boy into the balloon", Julian sighed "Drop him on his head if necessary. If you start trying to reason with him we'll never leave this place".
And by now that was what everyone wanted to do. The balloon was loaded up and let out a dragon's tongue of flame. The anchor was dragged in, and the unwieldy-looking car with its substantial human cargo began to rise into the air. Looking down on something from a great height always puts a whole new slant on the situation, and this was certainly the case now. Hillyard relaxed considerably when the burial cairn was left behind, and his mood was infectious. Kieran felt as though he had been released from iron chains. Angel was gone. Whatever happened next could only be an improvement.
They returned to the mountains without having seen a soul in the desert. But the re-emergence of the Thet Mountains close by boosted their confidence. All they had to do was locate a dwelling or an inhabited settlement of some kind, and Kieran's presence would do the rest. They could contact the Ministry via a handset (someone was bound to have one) and then eventually get air-lifted back to the City, ready for Kieran to begin his abdication procedure.
Supplies were still good, and thanks to the Ghoomers' unwitting generosity they were well-armed for hunting, or protection if necessary. Because of this the journey began to take on more of the aspect of an outing, and there was a lightening of spirits. Lonts forgot his hysterical feelings of insecurity and nuzzled close to Adam in the basket. Adam kissed his hair and beamed at him indulgently, much to Julian's disgust.
"I've just remembered what the word 'ghoom' means", he said.
"It's a real word then?" said Joby.
"Yes, I've only ever heard it once before, and that was in some old Victorian Gothic horror", said Julian "It means to hunt prey in darkness".
"Sounds slightly Indian to me", said Adam.
"Could well be of Indian origin", said Julian "Brought over from the days of the Raj, that sort of thing".
They were floating over the interior of the mountains before they saw their first sign of life, a huge marsh mammoth grazing on the lower slopes.
"I didn't know they came up this far", said Hillyard "Although I suppose they go where the food is. He hasn't got his shaggy winter coat yet, so we're alright in that respect, it's still summer".
"Of course it's still summer", said Adam "We haven't been gone that long!"
"The only snow is on the extreme mountain-tops", said Joby "But I don't spose it ever completely goes from up there".
"When I was little some of the men in the village found the skeleton of a really large marsh mammoth out on the tundra", said Lonts "They took it back to Kiskev to show us all. It was so big that they got all us boys to pose inside it's belly for a photograph".
"Were you in this photograph Lonts?" said Adam "How old were you?"
"About five or six", said Lonts "We smaller boys sat at the front, and the older boys stood behind us. They stuck their hands in the air to show how big it was".
"Oh I wish I'd seen this photograph", said Adam, emotionally "Can you all imagine Lonts when he was five or six? I bet he was so sweet".
"I wish he was that size still", said Julian "It'd make him a lot easier to cope with. I could just stuff him in my jacket pocket at times of danger".
"What say we make a landing for the night?" said Ransey "I could do with stretching my legs before they seize up through lack of use".
"I vote we go on a bit further first", said Julian "Try and find an old building for shelter if we can. There must be some around here. Only we don't know how cold it gets up here after dark, and we haven't got much in the way of protection against the chill".
"Taken over as expedition leader now have you?" said Adam.
"No, I was just offering a sensible suggestion that's all", said Julian "I wouldn't dare usurp your position dear heart, as I'm sure you'd have suggested it yourself if you hadn't been so busy rhapsodising over Lonts. You can't be expedition leader and matron you know!"
Nobody really expected to find any shelter, as the whole area had been singularly lacking in such features, but as they ascended higher into the mountains, they came across the ruins of a small walled village, which looked as though it had been deserted since the Massacre. They landed the balloon comfortably in the middle of the central courtyard, and immediately located a shelter nearby that still had its roof intact.
It must at one time have been someone's living quarters, and traces of their existence were still apparent, even after all these years. Such as a patchwork quilt on the bed, a pair of rusted wind-chimes hanging over the door and a row of burnt-down candles on the window-sill. They collected together any blankets they could find in neighbouring houses which, although uncomfortably musty, still achieved the main purpose of promoting warmth.
Whilst the others were exploring, Adam tipped the remains of Mixx's packet food into a large pot and cooked it over an old oil-drum in the yard.
"Hillyard's going to do a bit of trapping whilst the light holds", said Kieran, carrying another stack of blankets towards him "Quite like old times really. So you never know he might bring you a couple of rabbits later".
"Bring ME a couple of rabbits?" Adam exclaimed "Have I suddenly grown tits Patsy?"
"Not that I've noticed", said Kieran "But I'd still love you if you did!"
"I might as well", said Adam "Here I am, cooking, washing, changing nappies. Somehow, without noticing, I seem to have slipped into the role of Mother. It's disturbing me greatly".
"Well someone's got to play it I suppose", said Kieran "We all have our roles. Don't worry about it Addy, you're still in charge as far as I'm concerned, and always will be".
"You're very kind to a pathetic old man, Patsy".
"You don't look old or pathetic from where I'm standing", said Kieran "I don't know why you let Julian get to you so much. We won't let him get too big for his boots, rest assured on that one".
"You'd better watch him then", said Adam "Its not at all unusual for him to get delusions of leadership. He's never been the same since they asked him to play Julius Caesar in the school play".
"Who did you play then?" said Kieran "Brutus?"
"Brutus's wife", said Adam, dryly "I think I had one big speech in the entire play, and that was to proclaim that I was more like Brutus's harlot than his wife or some such nonsense. When you make a young boy at an impressionable age come out with lines like that it can scar him for life! It encouraged the other boys even more to nickname me the School Tart. I couldn't go anywhere without getting wolf-whistled".
"I bet that got Julian jealous".
"Yes, not that I was allowed to get much pleasure from it", said Adam "All it meant was that he upped the level of punishment I got".
"Your schooldays were barbaric", said Kieran "All we got were lectures on the dangers of excessive masturbation, and later on desperate requests from the Church that they were always on the lookout for new priests".
"I'm very glad your mother never coerced you into that racket", said Adam "What a terrible waste, you taking a vow of celibacy!"
"She's have quite liked it if I had", said Kieran "Even in our day it was still a great honour in Irish-Catholic families to have one of you join the Church. The sort of thing your mothers could brag about with their friends".
"I'm very glad she can't see you now then, some of the antics you get up to with Joby and me".
"Oh I don't know", Kieran chuckled "I'd have fitted in quite well with the priesthood!"
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