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For 4 days they travelled through the forest, beyond Midnight Castle, and hugging the river. Apart from the fact that the nights were dreadfully quiet and eerie, they didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. On the 5th day the track began to climb upwards and came out into a very large clearing, affording a glimpse of snow-capped mountains in the very far distance, which looked a lot closer than they really were.
They set up camp for the night. It was already getting late by now, and the fire was lit and teepee set-up by the light of the full moon.
"Onions'll see the snakes off", said Hillyard "They come out in the moonlight, but if we eat onions they'll keep off".
Joby was annoyed that Adam had let Hillyard help with the cooking, and reacted sourly.
"What, do you breathe on 'em or summat?" he said.
"Yes, a little less onion I think, Hilly", said Adam, as Hillyard chucked a large quantity of sliced onion into the cauldron.
"A little less of Hillyard, I think", said Joby.
"Look, I'm only trying to help", said Hillyard "Trying to ease the load".
"Huh!" said Joby "I'd rather cook breakfast for a whole army than eat one of your meals!"
Hillyard moved away, looking very hurt.
"There was no need for that", said Adam, sharply.
"Oh come off it", said Joby "He's the cook from hell and you know it!"
"If my frontiersman fantasies had ever been realised", said Adam "Instead of being reduced to being just the bloody cook like I have been, I'd have tossed you over a horse and taken you somewhere wild and remote, and done unspeakable things to you!"
"Bengo has those kind of fantasies", said Bardin, stopping by them "He wants to do that to me".
Adam roared with laughter.
"Oh lor!" he cried "Bengo as a ruthless brigand! It's really rather sweet! Bardin, go and tell Hillyard to come back and help us. Tell him Joby will get beaten into submission if he doesn't agree".
"I don't have to put up with your kind of treatment you know", said Joby.
"No, but you do find it rather exciting don't you?" said Adam.
Hillyard returned, eyeing Joby warily. Adam directed him into making a pot of coffee. Nearby, Ransey was cleaning out the twin barrels of a rifle.
"Do you think we should be letting him handle the guns?" said Hillyard, in a low tone "I mean, if he really is losing his marbles, it might not be such a good idea".
Ransey overheard him.
"I'd dearly like to know where these rumours started that I'm going senile", said Ransey, propping the rifle into a little pyramid along with two others "Because I haven't noticed any evidence of it myself".
"Well you wouldn't would you?" said Hillyard "The victim is always the last to realise it".
"Where's your evidence?" said Ransey.
"You're irrational", said Hillyard "Irrational and volatile for no reason".
"Hardly surprising is it?" said Ransey "Considering I live with you lot! Adam, do you think I'm going mad?"
"Don't ask me", said Adam "I'm going mad myself. We'll just have to go senile together, old love".
"Yeah, and we'll know who to blame!" said Ransey, looking at Hillyard and Joby "No prizes for guessing!"
Adam was rather touched to wake up in the night and see Ransey and Hillyard cuddling each other, even if this was for solely practical reasons. They were the ones lying in the direct draft coming through the tent opening, and they were holding each other to keep warm.
Opposite Adam, Julian was also having a restless night, but for an entirely different reason. He kept hearing noises outside which disturbed him. He imagined all sorts of creatures advancing on their teepee, from werewolves to the enormous lizard-like creature he had seen when they were travelling up-river to Woll's place.
In the morning he was so tense and wound-up, he grabbed Kieran and dragged him away from the camp for a private chat.
"I've resigned myself to the fact that you don't know where we're going", said Julian "Or why we're going there. But I'm a practical man first and foremost, and the practical fact is we can't travel for more than another 2 days without coming across a settlement or an oasis of some kind. I have to make sure I can get us all back to the Bay wih enough water and supplies".
"It'll be worth it, I promise you", said Kieran.
"Haven't you listened to what I've just said?" said Julian.
"Y-yes", said Kieran, nervously "If you're really that worried I'll go on by myself, alone".
"Oh yes, I can just see Joby accepting that!" said Julian.
"I know he'll insist on coming too", said Kieran "I'm spoilt where his love's concerned".
For a moment Kieran really thought Julian was going to swipe him across the face, and he braced himself accordingly. The moment passed though, and to ensure it didn't recur Kieran burrowed himself against Julian's chest, enfolding his arms around him.
"Two more days, that's all", said Julian, disentangling himself reluctantly "And then, if nothing happens, we're ALL going back to the Bay, including you. Even if I have to tie you up personally. This is your Captain speaking! Understand?"
They set off on the next leg of their journey after breakfast. Julian and Bardin sat up on the front of the hay-cart. Bardin was driving, with Julian occasionally directing operations. This seemed to irritate Bardin, so by the time they stopped for their first break Julian was feeling a bit down.
"I'm beginning to think you and I should have stayed at home with our knitting!" he said to Adam "I'm beginning to feel about as popular as a member of the House of Lords at a Socialist Workers' Rally! I'm only trying to help!"
"What did Patsy say when you spoke to him?" said Adam.
"Not much", said Julian "I stamped my big foot and exerted my authority, and he started hugging me!"
"He's always been like that", Adam laughed.
"I don't know what you're fretting about", said Tamaz, striding over to them and swatting Julian on the arm "We won't starve out here. Not even if we're here for years and years. This place is swarming with animals".
"Is it?" said Adam, looking around doubtfully at the desolate landscape.
"Me and Mieps have seen deer and antelope in the distance", said Tamaz "You'll probably find there's even more ahead. Not that it'll be much use I expect. The little blonde guy would rather we starved than shot anything!"
"The little blonde guy will be left living with the animals if he's not careful!" Julian snapped.
Tamaz yodelled and laughed.
When they resumed travelling again, Julian found that Bardin was being less tetchy, and even began asking questions about hunting and the care of animals, the answers of which he already knew, so Julian assumed cynically that the "young upstart was trying to mollify the ageing pack-leader", as he later said to Adam.
As the day progressed Kieran knew with a thudding certainty that Julian would only tolerate one more night in these gloomy unknown wastes. That meant if they didn't show signs of nearing their mysterious goal soon, Julian would order them all to turn back. Kieran could insist on going on alone, and Joby would come with him, so naturally Tamaz would have hysterics and insist on joining them as well. But Kieran wanted them all to go on together. They all deserved the prize waiting for them, and he wanted them to have it.
He knew they wouldn't appreciate it though. That they would much rather return to the Bay with its silvery beach and cool forest. But Kieran wanted them to know exactly how special they had been, that everything had depended on them and their loyalty, and this was his way of repaying it. The fact that they had gone off on this expedition into the unknown, humouring his enigmatic whims, was proof of their loyalty.
Even so, they were getting bored. They travelled, stopped, ate and slept, and travelled again. They had long since left the river behind, so there was nowhere to bathe and fish. There was precious little to look at either. By late afternoon Kieran was frantic. He hadn't bargained at all on their destination being so far off. He jumped nimbly onto the moving cart and hung onto the side of the box, imploring Julian to give it just one more day.
"Go away", said Julian, tersely.
Kieran jumped off again in dejection.
Another dense crop of forest loomed ahead, but it only bordered one side of the track. The other side was a sharp drop to a valley some distance below, the cleft of which was filled with a bubbling river.
Kieran had been praying fervently all afternoon for some sign that they weren't on a wild-goose chase, and just as they were planning where to pitch for the night, it happened. They came upon a small village, or rather a settlement of huts on the edge of the forest, which had been set up around a vegetable plot sewn into a hollow.
This was another of those hidden mixed-gender villages which had so successfully hid themselves from the Ministry. This was mainly due to the Ministry's own utter lack of subtlety. The few visits they had ever made to the area had been noisy, landing on the plain the Indigo-ites had just crossed, descending out of the sky, giving the women and girl-children plenty of time to hide themselves in the forest.
The villagers accepted Kieran The Yellow Head immediately. Not because he was the Vanquisher of Evil, but because he turned up in a horse-drawn cart, along with donkeys, horses, goats and all his family. This was fortunate, as it meant they were allowed access to the villagers' main water-supply.
The people were friendly, but highly superstitious. Cut off from the world for so long they trusted few people, and like a lot of rural folk, didn't like anyone whom they couldn't get the full gist of immediately. This made the Indigo-ites anxious for Mieps and Tamaz. The area had never been troubled by Ghoomers, but it didn't take much insight to see that they would be highly disturbed at finding two hermaphrodites in their midst. To keep them safe the Indigo-ites decided to pretend that Mieps and Tamaz were women.
Mieps went along with it readily enough. He had lived alone for a long time and had the loner's dislike of being noticed too much. Anything that kept him anonymous was fine by him. It was easy to pass himself off as a woman. He looked very much like a strong woman who had adopted men's clothing as simply being more convenient for travelling.
Tamaz (of course) was a different matter entirely. Rationality never came into anything where Tamaz was concerned. He was volatile and impulsive. He didn't like being restricted in any way.
"I am not a girl!" he cried.
"You're not a boy either!" said Joby, in exasperation "All you've got to do is keep your dick in your drawers! It's not asking much is it!"
Joby stamped over to the well, where Julian was smoking a cigar, watched with abject fascination by some of the village children.
"He, I mean, she", said Joby, remembering that they had agreed to refer to Tamaz as 'she' whilst they were in the village "Needs paddling 4 times a day!"
"So glad you've come round to my point of view, old fruit", said Julian "The paddle's in my rucksack if you want it".
"We'll see", Joby growled.
He was aware that Tamaz was watching him, standing at the back of the hay-cat, his reptilian eyes hard to ignore.
"We're only here for one night", said Julian, reassuringly.
"And then what happens?" said Joby.
"We torture Kieran", said Julian "And find out exactly why he wants to go on so much. If he doesn't give a satisfactory answer then we go home. But of course you'll do everything he wants, so I'm wasting my breath where you're concerned!"
"No I won't!" said Joby "If I think he's being a prat I'll tell him so. He's got some idea in his head that this is all for our benefit. But if I refuse to go any further he won't either".
"Are you sure?" said Julian.
"Yeah", said Joby "'Cos I'll knock him unconscious and tie him up!"
"He won't like that", said Julian.
"Yes he will", said Joby "He quite likes it. No responsibility you see".
Meanwhile, Tamaz had gone into the teepee which the clowns had just set-up. Bardin followed him in, and jostled him out of his black mood.
"You've played women in our act", he said "So what's the problem?"
"I'm not a woman", said Tamaz.
"It's no big thing", said Bardin "Nothing's going to change. We're not going to start tying ribbons in your hair and making you bake cakes!"
"It's this village", said Tamaz, miserably "It's depressing. I wish we weren't here".
"Tomorrow we won't be", said Bardin, stroking Tamaz's leg "Little sir!"
Tamaz gave a tee-hee-hee giggle.
A nervy evening followed in the village. The natives came out with one tale of fear and suspicion after another. The land on the other side of the gorge apaprently was inhabited by the Tremblers, people with a disease that cuased them to shake uncontrollably. The disease was brought on by eating other people who had also been contaminated with the same disease, like a cannibalistic version of BSE. "Those borders are bad", they said, referring to the other side of the gorge.
As if that wasn't bad enough, they also spoke of a mysterious man in black, rumoured to be the Devil no less, who roamed the forest at night, luring people to their doom.
In spite of all this terror, there was a town further down the track, right on the coast, which seemed to be mercifully free of such malign forces, As Far As They Knew, Although You Could Never Be Too Sure About Towns.
The Indigo-ites decided to head there at first light.
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