Go back to previous chapter
The temperature began to drop alarmingly as darkness came on, and Adam moved the oil-drum inside the building. The smell was appalling, but the fire at least helped to warm the place in preparation for the night ahead. After a frugal supper Kieran, Joby and Lonts took some empty bottles and went in search of a source of water. Ransey, Finia and Hillyard in turn went on a quest for more blankets or warm clothing. Anything to sustain them on the journey ahead.
"Congratulations Adam", said Julian, as he helped his friend to unroll bedding and set it out on the floor of the building "You've actually dared to let your little darling out of your sight. Wonders will never cease".
"Oh be quiet Jules", said Adam "I'm not going to apologise for caring about Lonts".
"I don't object to you caring about him. What I object to is you turning him into some bizarre kind of Christmas decoration, wrapped in soft paper to be brought out and aahed over. It's such a terrible waste for one thing, and it's making him extremely pampered. He's still not speaking to me you know".
"I've found that the best thing to do is to make a little conciliatory gesture after a showdown", said Adam "I tend to give him a cuddle or a treat. It works wonders for putting him back in a good humour".
"Then what's the point of punishing him if you're going to do that?" Julian exclaimed "First you give him little homilies beforehand, practically begging for his forgiveness in advance, and then afterwards you stuff him up with apple pie. Whereas I give him a bloody good hiding and that's it. At least he knows where he stands with me. The way you carry on I expect he's thoroughly confused most of the time. And that is why he keeps re-offending. Whereas I expect he won't give me anymore trouble at all".
"But you don't want Lonts to carry on being unhappy around you, do you?"
"That's his problem".
"Oh Jules", said Adam, beseechingly "The punishment's over".
"So? What do you want me to do, apologise?"
"No, say something nice to him".
"In my own good time", said Julian "If you want me to carry on playing doting parent to your deranged Yeti, then you're going to have to accept that I have my own way of doing things. We can't both carry on like you do, it'd be quite absurd".
The door was kicked open and Lonts staggered in, with Kieran leaning heavily against him. Joby was behind them, his face looking pinched and pale.
"What on earth's happened?" said Adam "Patsy, are you alright?"
"Sit him down", said Joby "He's had a helluva shock".
Julian dug out the remains of the brandy, whilst Adam sat on the floor and cradled him against him. Kieran was shivering violently and kept kicking his legs out in a strange manner, as though he was defending himself against some invisible menace.
"There was a really peculiar creature in one of the outbuildings", said Lonts "A huge spider".
"A spider", said Julian, unimpressed "For heaven's sake I thought he'd seen the Gorgon the way he was carrying on!"
"It was really big Julian", said Lonts.
"Patsy does have a bit of an arachnophobia problem", Adam stroked Kieran's hair gently "He'll be alright in a moment, won't you old love?"
"Some Vanquisher of Evil he is!" said Julian "If he's going to be terrified of an insect ..."
"It was bloody huge actually", said Joby, his mouth dry with shock "I've never seen anything like it before. Not even when we were travelling in the desert".
There was a murmuring of voices outside the door and the other three walked in, each carrying more blankets.
"You'd better shake those outside", said Julian, sarcastically "We've got an arachnophobe in here. Can't afford to have any of the little perishers jumping down and setting him off again".
"Are you going to be alright Kieran?" said Hillyard, after the situation had been explained to them.
"I'll be fine", said Kieran hoarsely, his eyes were looking massive in his thin face "I'm sorry to be so dramatic, but even in me worst dreams I couldn't have imagined that".
"Exactly how big was it?" said Ransey.
"About the size of a kitchen table", said Joby.
"A kitchen table!" Adam shrieked "Oh my poor Patsy, no wonder you're in a state".
"That is quite ridiculous", said Julian.
"Go and look if you don't believe me", said Joby "My money's on the spider coming off worse!"
"I'll make some tea", said Julian, in a dignified manner "The Englishman's answer to all known ills".
"And the Irishman's", Kieran smiled, weakly.
"Did you ever see the silent-movie version of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'?" said Julian, wrenching open the lid of the tea-caddy.
"Sounds about your vintage Jules", said Adam.
"There was a scene in it where Jekyll's evil alter-ego is represented by a huge spider, which lumbers around is bedroom", said Julian "Extraordinarily effective".
"So are you saying that thing in there is my evil alter-ego?" said Kieran, incredulously.
"I doubt that such a saintly Catholic as yourself has one", said Julian "I was just making a comparison that's all, don't take me so literally all the time".
The others left a space round Adam and Kieran, and busied themselves doing various things.
"Don't mind Jules too much", said Adam "In his own hamfisted way he's trying to help".
"Lonts surprised me", said Kieran "He was the calmest of the three of us. Barely turned a hair. Rum lot these Kiskevians. They never do what you most expect".
"Having grown up in a village surrounded by marsh mammoths, polar bears, and goodness knows what else", said Adam "I expect it'd take more than a spider, however huge, to scare him. Isn't that right Lonts?"
"Reindeer were the worst", said Lonts "Really dopey creatures, always getting in the way, only good for eating. The fur trapper apprentices nicknamed me Lonts The Reindeer, which I thought was cruel. They kept saying they were going to get a pair of antlers for me".
"They'd have suited you", said Joby "I can just see you in them, along with a big red nose".
"Reindeers don't have red noses, Joby", said Lonts, solemnly.
"They did in our time", said Joby "Big red noses that glowed in the dark. Very useful for pulling sleighs at night".
"Particularly on Christmas Eve", said Julian "But it only worked if they were called Rudolph".
Lonts looked thoroughly confused by now.
"It's alright Lo-Lo", Adam laughed "They're teasing you".
"I've never heard anything so silly", said Lonts, stiffly.
"Better not go on to mention Father Christmas then", said Joby "He'd never get his head round that one. A fat, bearded old man jumping down your chimney one night of the year, crying 'ho ho ho have I got a surprise for you little boy!'"
"Oh I don't know", said Julian "I can just see Lonts as Santa's Little Helper. Crashing his way round the workshop at the North Pole, terrifying all the fairies".
"Get on with the tea Jules", said Adam, trying to stop laughing for Lonts's sake.
"Can this giant spider get out?" said Finia, nervously.
"Only if it can open doors", Joby grunted.
"There might be a hole somewhere it can squeeze out", said Finia "What will we do if it comes over here?"
"Shoot it", said Ransey.
"Your gun-ban didn't last long", said Hillyard.
Kieran's nervousness returned when he wrapped himself in his blanket to go to sleep. The spider had been so huge that he could imagine it bursting through the walls if it so chose. His skin crawled at the thought of it. He was slightly mollified by Hillyard lying down on one side of him. His comfortable bulk was warm and its close proximity helped to alleviate a lot of terrors.
"Will you be alright Pats?" Adam whispered, leaning towards him.
"I should be fine", said Kieran.
"Call me if it all starts to get to you in the night".
Worn out with the day's travelling Kieran fell asleep fairly soon, only to be woken sharply an hour or so later by a muffled crash outside. Immediately his whole body went tense with worry and fear, and his stomach felt as though it was swimming with volcanic lava.
He was comfortably wedged in between Hillyard and Joby, neither of whom reacted to the noise at all. Suddenly there was a scuttling noise outside the door. Kieran had no wish to see the spider again, but neither did he want to lie there whilst it crawled over his face and body. He sat up and roughly reached for one of the stack of guns they kept stockpiled at their feet.
"What are you up to?" Joby muttered, sleepily.
"It's outside the focking door Joby", Kieran hissed "I can hear it".
"Kiel for God's sake be careful, it might be anything out there. The Gorgon even".
Kieran wasn't listening though. He scrambled over to the filthy window next to the door and rubbed a clear space on the glass. Attracted by his movement a figure lumbered across the courtyard towards him. Kieran actually got quite a good look at it in the moonlight. It was short, only about four feet tall, and covered all over in a snowy-white body hair. And yet it couldn't be dismissed as simply some exotic form of monkey, its movements and reflexes were altogether too human for that.
Most striking of all though were the eyes. At first barely discernible under the matted fur on its face, curiosity at seeing Kieran opened them wide to reveal that they were an extraordinary electric blue, quite unlike anything he had ever seen on any living creature before. It staggered to the door and tried to wrench it open, but Ransey, ever security-conscious, had rammed an old chair under the handle before he turned in. The creature seemed to grow exasperated by this impediment and began to grunt wildly, hammering on the door with its fists.
"I'll send it off", said Hillyard, and he fired his gun at the wall next to the door. It only succeeded in dislodging a small chunk of plaster, yet the loud rapport had the effect of sending the creature away, squealing in terror.
They had barely recovered from this intrusion when they realised that another creature was actually on the roof and could be heard fumbling about as though searching for an opening.
"If I fire at the roof I could bring the whole bloody lot down on top of us", said Hillyard "It's not that safe as it is".
"They don't seem to like loud noises", said Kieran "Let's scream and shout or something. See if that does the trick".
They screamed, shrieked, whistled, stamped and clapped for what seemed like an age, but they eventually heard the creature scramble down from the roof and scamper away across the courtyard outside.
"We should've convinced 'em we're barking mad, if nothing else", said Joby "With any luck they might leave us alone now".
"There are too many weird creatures around here for my liking", said Kieran "I'll be glad when daylight comes and we can get out of here".
"What were they though?" said Joby "Can't have been Reptile Men, because they were too hairy".
"Probably just a form of monkey", said Adam "The way that one was moving over the roof reminded me of an orangutan".
"One of us had better keep watch for what's left of the night", said Ransey, and he moved a chair out into the centre of the room as though he'd already made up his mind that it was to be him.
"Wake me in a couple of hours", said Adam "And I'll take over".
"I might", said Ransey.
In the end he didn't, but the rest of the night passed without incident. Adam was annoyed that Ransey had let him sleep, suspecting that he didn't think he was up to the job.
"You need your sleep", Ransey snapped "You have to be alert during the day to keep an eye on Lonts".
"I sometimes think that's all I ever have been ever since we crossed over", said Adam "A glorified babysitter!"
There was no sign of any disturbance in the courtyard, and the doors to the dreaded outbuilding were still firmly closed. They loaded their new supplies of water and blankets onto the balloon, and were extremely grateful to leave the area.
For a few days they crossed the mountains without dropping anchor. By operating on a shift system they were able to keep the balloon in the air at all times. What had started off as an exciting way to travel began to feel hopeless though when no sign of civilisation reared its head. They were travelling into colder weather, but had only the thin summer clothes they had managed to salvage from the mud slide, plus the musty blankets which they improvised as woollen togas.
"We seem to be going vaguely north", said Kieran "Which is the exact opposite direction to what we want. I can't ever recall hearing of any civilised places up here".
"Stop whining", said Julian, testily.
Eight men cooped up in a balloon day-in day-out wasn't the most ideal way to live. There was a distinct lack of sleeping space, and no privacy at all to perform life's most basic functions (a bowl emptied over the side). There was no room for cooking, so they didn't even have the bonus of hot food to cheer them up.
"It's like being sentenced to The Cage", said Hillyard, grimly "Victims of that used to live exactly as we are now".
It wasn't long after this gloomy reflection that they sighted something extraordinary below. The light was fading so the figure wasn't distinct. As far as they could tell it was a very tall, bulky shape, whose outline ended abruptly at the shoulders, like a headless giant. It was moving slowly and in an upright position through a fold in the mountains.
"I'm glad we're up here and not down there", said Joby "I don't think I'd wanna meet him on a dark night".
Those words were proved to be spoken too soon. At dawn the following day Julian gave them the unwelcome news that the stock of hydrogen cylinders was getting low. They could no longer afford to simply drift and hope for the best. They would have to land and try somehow to sort out a firm plan of action.
"I don't fancy going back down there amongst all that weird stuff", said Joby.
"If we run out of gas", said Julian, patiently "We will find ourselves down there all the time, with no hope of getting out again!"
They were now flying over a white level plain in the mountains, which at first they had taken to be snow, but turned out on closer inspection to be salt crystals. Julian lowered the balloon and they landed gently.
"Where the hell do we go from here?" said Adam, in exasperation "There is just absolutely nothing here. Not a thing. No one's probably been up here in decades. The place is deserted, apart from that unsightly selection of creatures we've occasionally seen".
"We look pretty unsightly ourselves", said Joby "A bunch of hairy jerks in woolly togas standing round a hot-air balloon!"
"A lost legion", said Julian.
"How far can we keep going on low gas, Jules?" said Adam.
"It very much depends on the climatic conditions dear heart", said Julian "A good strong wind would help us enormously, as it meant we could lift off manually, and elevate us to a decent height".
"As it stands there's no bloody wind at all", said Joby "It's just bright sunshine and absolute silence".
At least being on the ground again enabled them to have a hot breakfast, using the last of the tinned beef. There was another unwelcome fact in that the water supply was also getting low.
"At this rate all we're going to have a lot of is salt", said Ransey.
They decided to rest on the ground during the day and elevate at night, when any of the "weird creatures" would be much harder to detect. Adam tried to keep his shortness of breath from being brought to anyone's attention, but this was a forlorn hope, and when Ransey organised a combined hunting and scouting group Adam was told firmly to stay behind by the fire and mind the balloon.
"It's the altitude Adam, you've got to expect it", said Julian "Anyway you won't be alone, I'm leaving Finia with you for protection".
"Oh that's generous of you", said Adam "Considering he's about four feet tall and weighs somewhere in the region of five stones!"
"Don't exaggerate", said Julian, selecting a rifle "And make sure you keep a gun near you at all times. I'm taking Lonts with me by the way".
"You are not".
"Yes I am. A big strapping boy like him with hunting in his blood, and an intimate knowledge of the unsociable parts of the world, is far too invaluable to leave tied to your apron-strings. He's coming with us".
"For God's sake be careful!"
"I will", said Julian "You just sit there and do your Dirk Bogarde impression. The final scene in 'Death In Venice' where he watches his beloved boy so anxiously".
"Whilst hair-dye trickles down my face and wrecks my pan-stick make-up?" said Adam, tartly "Thank you very much!"
Lonts did prove invaluable during their lengthy hunting-trip. He could be very sharp-witted when it came to sighting prey. His healthy physique also meant he put in good service as a bearer. Adam couldn't have been prouder of him than Julian at that time, if only because Julian always liked to be proved right.
"I knew all that boy needed was a tougher regime", he said, as he helped Hillyard to brace together two shot rabbits "It brings out the best in him. That pampered lap-dog lifestyle he has with Adam is quite absurd".
"You won't be happy until you've turned Lonts into a hired field-hand", said Hillyard.
"Rubbish", said Julian "I'm not knocking the way Adam brings him up".
"Could've fooled me".
"I'm merely saying that he does spoil him, and so it does Lonts good to be treated as ... as ..."
"As a simple peasant?" Hillyard spat "Make sure he doesn't forget his original status in life?"
"You're deliberately misconstruing me, I didn't mean that at all", said Julian.
"Don't bother arguing with him Hillyard", said Joby "His sort thought civilisation ended when slavery was abolished!"
"I know exactly the opinion you have of me and my background Joby Long", said Julian "But the fact remains that my contemptible toffee-nosed skills, as you undoubtedly regard them, have helped us to survive on this trip. I can shoot, hunt and fish as well as Hillyard here, and I am the only one possessed of any knowledge as to how to operate that balloon or navigate it".
"That why we're lost is it?" said Joby "That why you got so stroppy when Kieran pointed out that we've been going in the opposite direction to what we should have been?"
Julian looked mutinous, but fortunately an all-out fight was averted by a shot-gun blast coming from the direction in which they had left the balloon.
"Adam's in trouble!" Lonts cried, and immediately began to pelt through the salt.
"Lonts, wait for us", said Kieran, as hurtled after him.
When they finally got back to the camp they found Adam had stoked up the fire to Guy Fawkes Night proportions, and both he and Finia were standing near it, both with their guns poised.
"Addy, what's happened?" Kieran edged in front of Lonts and reached him first.
"Why's the fire suddenly so huge?" said Julian "You must be burning the branches of every tree in the district".
"Fire wards off danger", said Adam "We learnt that in the desert".
"The last of our food supplies have been stolen", Finia blurted out.
"Explain!" Ransey barked.
"Finia and I were brewing some coffee", said Adam "Unfortunately we both had our backs to the balloon at the time. It was only when Finia said he could hear something nearby that we realised there was one of those hideous white furry monkeys in the balloon car. It was ransacking everything, but obviously after food. I think it was quite desperate. I fired my gun in the air which at least scared it off, and it bolted rather clumsily. We're very lucky it didn't manage to accidentally unmoor the balloon".
"Good job we've got these rabbits then", said Hillyard.
"Where did the monkey go?" said Ransey.
"Ah now that's the weirdest part", said Adam "It bolted towards those large rocks in the far distance. Disappeared into them".
"Into them?" Ransey exclaimed, in disbelief.
"We reckon there's an opening round the side or the back of them", said Finia "In fact it seems to us we might have yet another opening to the Catacombs nearby".
"All the way up here?" said Kieran.
"Looks that way", said Finia.
"Finia and I have been hearing noises under our feet", said Adam "The odd thump, but mainly scampering noises".
"If what you're saying is true", said Kieran "Then that means there's a whole network of these things throughout the Uncharted Area. For all we know there might be an entire subterranean civilisation down there".
"I hope you're not planning on looking", said Hillyard, horrified by the very idea.
"Hilly, it may be our best chance", said Kieran "If we keep our heads and explore the tunnels properly they may be a convenient route back to civilisation. If we could just find our way back to the one near Bandorra we'd be practically home and hosed in no time at all".
"Have you forgotten what happened to me there?" said Hillyard.
"You never told us to start with", said Joby "But I agree with you it's not a good idea. We don't know what's lurking down there. Reptile Men for instance".
"We're well-armed", said Ransey "And we'd be facing danger just as much if we got stranded without the balloon up here".
"The white monkeys don't seem a terribly big threat", said Adam "They flee in terror at the slightest thing".
"But what about the balloon?" said Hillyard.
"We take the remaining hydrogen cylinders with us", said Kieran "That would be as effective at disabling it as taking the battery out of a car. And we try and leave some kind of trail so that we can get back to it in a hurry if needs be".
"That's if it's still here", said Hillyard "Those bloody monkeys might cut the mooring-ropes".
"I don't think so", said Adam "They've got what they were after. The balloon holds no further interest for them, or they'd have sabotaged it during our pit-stop at the deserted village".
"Well at least let me cook the rabbits first", said Hillyard "Seeing as I expect they're the only nourishment we're going to get in a long while!"
Go forward to next chapter
Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site