Go back to previous chapter


By Sarah Hapgood

In the City no one was allowed in or out. All newspapers had been banned, all communications suspended. The banks had been shut down. All traces of normal life had been removed. Now no one bothered to bury the dead which had been left lying in the streets. There was no point as these same dead would rise up and walk come nightfall. Those who had got out before the City walls were sealed, could only wonder at the lack of any contact with those left behind. Father Gabriel had the City firmly in his grasp. He ordered the gates to be shut, and pretended the rest of the world didn't exist.

For two months they had been travelling solidly across the desert, alarmed by the huge size of the salt-pans, and then marvelling at the incredible beauty of the Bunnamor Plain. It was a place that called for sharp wits, some of the beasts they saw were a constant reminder that the Bunnamor wasn't theirs, however free they felt as they crossed it. At each stop they lit fires to ward off the wild cats, and at night everyone slept inside the wagon.

They frequently came across small settlements, pockets of human contact. At each one they were greeted with fear and distrust, and yet it was vital that they had to win their trust, as they needed these people to help them keep their water supplies topped up, and their food rations in a healthy state. After a while they learnt that all they had to do was camp near the settlement and in act as normal a fashion as possible. If they left the villagers to make the first overtures they were fine. If they tried moving in first, being affable and social, they were instantly distrusted, and for good reason. Stories of the Massacre, and then the long reign of the vampires, still fuelled their dark nights. Outsiders meant trouble, destruction and death on a large scale.

Not all recognised Kieran as some tended to believe their own legends regarding the Vanquisher, but a gratifyingly large number did. The small boys would run out of their huts, and try to touch his yellow hair. He was even followed behind a tree by one gang when he wanted to relieve himself.

"It seems even my turds are fascinating", he said to Joby one evening, as they fried vegetables in a pan.

"Perhaps they didn't expect you to go really", Joby replied.

The desert was at its most disturbing and romantic at night. It was then that the silence was truly awesome, and the stars seemed larger and brighter than anywhere else. They had been camping near this settlement for some days now. The villagers were very hospitable, and they in turn were loath to dig themselves out of the comfortable rut in which they had found themselves. This feeling had been exacerbated by an old man in the village who had told them to be wary of Xuste, the next settlement in their path. Xuste was translated from the local and ancient dialect as meaning "Dark Zoo". It sounded forbidding, and from the way the old man had gesticulated and shouted "bad place, bad place", they weren't looking forward to passing through it.

In theory they didn't actually have to pass through Xuste, as it was a couple of miles away from the Desert Road, and not sitting directly in their path. But if they ignored it, then it was a dangerously long haul to the next settlement. Since travelling in the desert they had developed an almost superstitious fear when it came to passing by settlements. Each one served as a good luck talisman, a buffer against death.

"Can't say I like the sound of that place though", said Kieran, as he and Joby discussed the prospect whilst they cooked "Dark Zoo, it has a terrible ring to it".

"I wouldn't read too much into it", said Joby "Sounds to me that its typical of one set of villagers distrusting the next. I bet when we get to Xuste, they'll tell us what a peculiar lot this bunch are!"

"This lot have been the best so far", said Kieran "The sweetest people on earth I think. One fella even cut my toenails for me and cleaned my teeth properly. And I couldn't even pay him!"

"Money's not much use to them out here is it? They've gone right back to how humans lived at the beginning, and they seem to be thriving on it".

"I'm glad the Ministry never decided to put their wee boys in camps, but let them grow up out here as Lonts's lot did in Kiskev".

"Even if some of 'em do believe you're a witch-doctor come to curse them", said Joby, recalling some unwanted aggression earlier in the day, on behalf of a few young men testing their adult status for the first time. It was the elderly man who'd finally persuaded them that it wouldn't be a nice idea to stone Kieran.

Suddenly music wafted across to them from the village. They had seen the wind-up gramophone in a hut doorway a few hours earlier, so it didn't come as a complete surprise.

"It's such a beautiful evening", said Kieran, wistfully "Reminds me of hot summer's evenings back home. In our time I mean".

"I've got an idea", said Joby "Why don't you and me push on ahead tomorrow, to Xuste? As a sort of scouting-party".

"Adam might get funny about that idea. Particularly after everything we've heard about that place".

"Well they'll only be a short way behind us, so we can't come to too much harm. Oh come on, it'll be a laugh. You and me having an adventure all by ourselves again".

"Dirty little devil Jobe, you just want to get me alone so you can get your leg over me".

"So what if I do? It's been ages".

"And what if we get there, and find it's full of slavering zombies?"

"We get killed", said Joby, bluntly "What's the matter, are you losing your nerve?"

"Losing my nerve!" Kieran exclaimed, and kissed him.

"Watch out", said Joby "We're being ogled by the Fruitcake".

Kieran glanced behind him, and saw Lonts standing by the rear of the wagon, watching them with unbridled curiosity.

"He doesn't half give me the hump sometimes", said Joby.

"I thought he was acting better lately", said Kieran "There are times when he almost seems normal. I hold out hopes then that he's getting cured".

"He still keeps asking me stupid questions", said Joby "Everytime he catches me alone he's coming out with some other load of bullshit he wants answers to".

"Not sex again?"

"No, worse than that. The meaning of life. I was never any good at that sort of thing. I think you can drive yourself mad looking for answers all the time".

"It's certainly not good for him", said Kieran "He has enough trouble coping with the basics".

"He's either going on about that or wanting me to kiss him", said Joby "As though I was some fucking vending machine or something!"

"If he's getting you down have a word with Adam. He'll sort him out".

"I don't really want to get him into trouble for it", said Joby.

"Put in a recommendation for mercy then!"

"Oh watch out, it's coming over".

"What are you two talking about?" said Lonts, when he got near them.

"Mind your own business, you nosy little git", said Joby.

"I was only asking", said Lonts "You two always clam up when I get near. I'm not a child you know. I used to be peculiar, but I'm better now".

"Oh yea?" said Joby "If that's so why did you have a fit of the screaming ab-dabs yesterday when I threatened to tell Adam about you breaking bits off that banana cake the villagers gave us? You acted pretty childish then".

"That's why it was a funny shape", said Kieran "I did wonder".

"I thought he'd hit me", said Lonts "Anyway Adam once said I wouldn't get better overnight, that occasionally I'd have slip-backs".

"That wasn't a slip-back, that was just you being a greedy little pig", said Joby "It's not surprising you've put on weight lately, whilst we're still like scarecrows. Slip-backs! You've got us lot round your little finger. Everytime you're caught you plead temporary insanity".

"That's a bit unfair Joby", said Kieran "Anyway biting bits out of a banana cake isn't a capital offence. Mind you, under Gabriel it might well be these days".

Hillyard sauntered over, taking swigs out of a bottle of water. He cast a critical look at the mess in the frying-pan.

"That looks disgusting", he said "What is it?"

"Fried spuds and turnips", said Joby "And I know for a fact you couldn't do any better. Anyway, you don't have to have any".

"Don't look like I've got much choice does it?" Hillyard picked up an enamel plate and held it out. Joby slopped some of the concoction onto it.

"Listen to that music!" Adam exclaimed, from a few feet away "It's Tchaikovsky. Oh lor, I think I'm going to cry".

"You what?" said Hillyard.

"A pre-Warming composer", said Adam "The first time I've heard one since we crossed over. And then we go and hear it out here! Life never ceases to be bizarre".

They ate outside just before the sun set. Adam was so enchanted with the strains of music gently wafting across the patch of land between themselves and the village, that he didn't want the evening to end. But twilights were short in the desert, and the night chill came on far too quick. They were hastily polishing off the remains of the banana cake when a figure approached them through the gathering gloom.

He wasn't a villager, and from his many-layered all-enveloping costume he appeared to be a nomad. When he pushed a scarf back from his head it revealed his hair to be close-cropped, apart from a long plaited lock of it trailing over his shoulder, and there were several days growth of beard on his face. He gave the overwhelming impression of being very hungry, and this was reinforced when he held out a plastic cup and politely asked for any scraps they had going spare.

"The villagers won't talk to me after dark", he said "I got here just a little too late".

"Have you come far?" said Kieran.

"I've lost track", he said "I'm a nomad. I don't follow any particular pattern".

"Join us in some coffee", said Adam, feeling that this was the height of generosity on his part.

"You can have what's left of my Turnip Surprise if you like", said Joby.

"There's a little treat for you", said Hillyard.

The stranger was invited to sit on the grass next to the wagon, and fed Turnip Surprise and hard biscuits.

"I thought you might send me off with a flea in my ear", he said, after hurriedly cramming in a few mouthfuls "Sometimes people get distrustful of nomads. Particularly nomads that are as rough-looking as me. My name's Gimmit by the way".

Kieran introduced each of the others in turn, concluding with "wee Lonts", as he called the boy who was by now a head taller than him. Gimmit had already noticed Wee Lonts for himself. Throughout Gimmit's supper the boy had sat opposite him, staring at him with his haunting dark eyes. Gimmit smiled at him and was pleasantly surprised when Lonts smiled back.

"Where are you from, originally?" said Ransey.

"I don't have a birth-place", said Gimmit.

"You must have!" said Ransey "Even nomads have to be hatched somewhere".

"I think of myself as a citizen of the world", said Gimmit.

"Even so ..."

"Don't hassle him if he doesn't want to tell us Ransey", said Adam "We're all entitled to our secrets".

"It's not a secret", Gimmit shrugged "I just feel it has no relevance to my way of life. Many nomads feel the same. We scrub away our past lives and start again with a clean slate".

"Are you heading anywhere in particular then?" said Ransey, feeling exasperated.

"I hope to get to Pepuaah eventually", said Gimmit "I've heard on the grapevine that the City Circus might be heading there for the Spring Festival. I might be able to pick up some temporary work with them. I can turn my hand to most kind of maintenance jobs".

"What's the City Circus doing out in Pepuaah?" said Hillyard "It's normally based in the City all year round".

"Not anymore", said Gimmit, scooping up the last of the Turnip Surprise "They got out apparently just before Father Gabriel banned all entertainment. Since then they've been travelling round. From all I've heard they're doing better now than they were in the City".

"Probably because everyone's desperate for entertainment out here", said Joby.

"That and nostalgia", said Gimmit "They represent a life in the City that's now gone. The whole place is like a fortress these days. We're better off out here".

Gimmit set up his own camp a few feet from their wagon. He said he was long-since used to sleeping in dangerous country, and had never been attacked by any wild beasts yet. He then zipped himself into a very small tent which resembled a silver-grey capsule.

Inside the wagon Adam took off his shirt, rolled it up and used it as a pillow on his bunk. Joby and Kieran had the narrow bunk over his, and the other three slept on bed-rolls on the floor. There were far too many bodies crammed into a small space, and yet over the course of several weeks they had got used to it. Having a bunk to sleep in was by no means a luxury. Joby and Kieran's was so narrow it was more like a shelf, and Adam often nervously lay awake expecting it to collapse on top of him.

"Makes you wonder doesn't it?" said Ransey, who was making a great show about bedding down on the floor next to him.

"About what?" said Adam.

"Where he's from. Gimmit that is. After all, he could be one of you lot, a time-crosser. He's so cagey about his origins it makes me a bit suspicious".

"We'll have to ask him first thing", said Joby, from overhead "If Julian got through, there's no reason why he shouldn't have. I'm surprised we don't meet more like us actually".

"Most were fed to the vampires that's why", said Hillyard.

"A lot did evade capture though", said Ransey "Usually by doing what Julian did and bluffing their way round, pretending they were from this era. Some did become nomads, so he could be a time-crosser".

First thing the following morning Adam stepped out into the chilly dawn. Gimmit's tent was unzipped, and the man himself was emptying his bladder over a tired-looking bush.

"Where are you heading today?" said Adam.

"I haven't decided", said Gimmit, tersely "Why, are you worried I might tag along with you?"

"That's up to you. The desert's a big place. There should be room for all of us in it".

"I might follow your route for a while, but I won't get in your way. You'll hardly know I'm around. I'll walk on along behind".

Adam tried to act relaxed about this, but found it difficult. It was like hearing that the class bully wasn't going to be expelled after all, and they were stuck with him.

The day hadn't got off to a good start, and it showed no signs of improving. Joby emerged from the wagon with his hair combed back against his head. Adam knew from long experience that this meant he was in an aggressive mood, and was determined to get his own way about something. Joby hopped around him, trying pointedly to get his attention. Adam ignored him, and went to sit on a rock nearby to have his first cigar of the day.

A few minutes later Lonts walked carefully up to him, carrying a mug full to the brim with coffee. Adam was delighted by this, but less delighted by the fact that Lonts was butt-naked.

"Why haven't you got any clothes on?" he said, sharply.

"Kieran said you'd want your coffee straightaway", said Lonts, sitting down next to him "Anyway I feel uncomfortable in those clothes. They're too small for me".

"I don't care. I'm not having you roaming about like that, particularly as we've got a stranger in our midst".

"I don't think he minds".

"Whether he minds or not is irrelevant!"

Lonts leaned his head against Adam's shoulder and sucked his thumb. Adam always found it difficult to carry on being sharp with him when he was like this. They sat together for some time, and when they returned to the wagon it was to find Gimmit preparing to set off on his day's hike.

"Doubtless we'll see you in Xuste, Gimmit", said Adam, when he was alone with him.

"You will definitely be stopping there then?" said Gimmit.

"As the next settlement of any size beyond that is a further three hundred miles along the road, I don't see that we have any choice".

"I was watching you earlier", Gimmit smiled like a reptile "With the boy".

"You make it sound like an accusation".

"You've got it all sewn up with this lot haven't you? The king of all he surveys. Do they defer to you in everything? Including, what's the ancient phrase, 'droit de seigneur'?"

"What are you getting at?" Adam snapped "If you're trying to imply I take advantage of Lonts you're mistaken. I look after him, it doesn't go any further".

"A big fairy looking after his big doll", Gimmit sneered "Bye-bye for now then!"

"Are you alright mate?" said Hillyard, after Gimmit had waved farewell to everyone and walked on.

"I would bet my last cigar that he was a time-crosser", said Adam.

"What makes you so sure?"

"Some of the phrases he used, such as 'droit de seigneur'. I wouldn't expect anyone post-Warming to use it".

"I don't trust him", said Hillyard "I reckon he's that nomad we saw on the road just after we left the Waxworks Resort. Ransey said I was mad, because he was going in the opposite direction to us. But I don't think that proves anything, do you?"

"I think you're right. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he's been following us these past few weeks. Oh not blatantly so, or we'd have noticed him, but perhaps he's been travelling at night to catch us up".

"I thought he was a bit rude to you just now".

"Oh don't worry about it. I've long since got used to that kind of rudeness. The only thing that intrigues me about this is that he almost said exactly the same thing as Brenfar said, regarding me and Lonts I mean".

"Do you think there's a connection between those two then?" said Hillyard "He was heading down that way when we saw him".

"Too much guesswork at the moment Hillyard", said Adam "But we'll keep an eye on him, that's for sure".

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License.

Go forward to next chapter

Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site