KEEPERS OF THE DEEP

By rcheydn

Chapter One

 

Nicholas’s mother had never been outside her homeland before so it was not surprising that when she went to live abroad with his father for the first time she found everything strange.

Most things were unusual: The hot summer with its damp nights and sweltering days, and the chilling winter cold that seemed to slice through the wooden walls and seep relentlessly up through the floorboards of the houses she said looked like they were standing on legs.

There were other peculiarities too: The electric light poles which jutted out of the sidewalks like primitive totem poles, everyone rode in cars and seldom went for strolls even after the strong sun had settled behind the surrounding hills, and the language. Nicholas’s mother found them all difficult to accept at first, but after a time she began to get a little more accustomed to them, even though she still regarded them as odd.

On the other hand Nicholas who had been born shortly after his parents had arrived found everything in his short life fascinating. A day did not pass without his discovering something new and exciting. Hours would be consumed as he searched every corner of the house, or picked his way around the outside garden in search of new wonders.

One afternoon he was playing in the garden of his parent’s house when a shadow passed across the lawn. It was there only a minute or a few seconds really, and then it was gone. So quickly that Nicholas himself hardly noticed it as he busily explored the grass where there was a world unknown to him.

“What was that,” Nicholas’ mother asked his father “Was it a plane?”

“No,” he answered. “It is something you have to know about and be careful of when you are out in the garden with Nicholas. You see,” he went on, “here is this country there are special animals and birds and creatures that you don’t find in other places.”

He told her of animals that hopped instead of walking, and of others that slept during the day and emerged only after darkness fell, or which seemed to fly through the air as they leapt from the branches of one tree to another. There were even birds that could not fly even though they had wings, and reptiles that had all the appearances of miniature dragons and dinosaurs.

Nicholas’ father also told her about a rare bird that apparently lived high in the hills, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. There were very few of them and it was most unusual for them to be seen. It fact, not many people were aware they even existed. They were called Speckled Sparrows and they were said to have a special liking for little children.

It was a huge bird that sometimes left the remote trees and, around dusk usually, flew off towards the crowded city. As it soared high over the houses it peered downward looking for boys and girls. When it saw one, said Nicholas’ father, it swooped down and in its long, strong claws picked up the child and carried it off.

“Oh, stop it,” said his mother. She knew her husband liked teasing her and there were many times he had told her stories she had believed only to learn later he had been joking.

One day,” she said, “you will tell a story too many.” And with that she picked up Nicholas and went in to the house to prepare dinner.

The next day Nicholas’ father went off to work as he always did and after having her own breakfast and doing some chores his mother went into the garden to water the plants. As it was summer the sun already beat down, sucking the night dew aloft.

Nicholas wailed loudly. He did not like having to stay inside his room playing with his toys when he knew his mother was outside. They were interesting enough but he preferred to be outside crawling around among the leaves and climbing on the handle of the metal clothes hoist. So he scrambled over the polished floor to the back door and carefully and very slowly worked his way down the single step. His mother kept a watchful eye on him and decided it was alright if he stayed out in the sun for a short time while she gave the flowers and ferns a good soaking.

Nicholas crawled around happily picking up twigs and leaves and holding them precariously in tiny fingers, sometimes putting them in his mouth, but quickly spitting them out again. Ants tickled his toes and he searched for them in the grass. The sun was hot but Nicholas’ mother was pleased he was getting some colour onto his skin and was no longer pale. A few minutes outside would not hurt.

Suddenly it was very still and Nicholas’ mother began to feel the oppressive heat as all breeze dropped and a single cloud above drifted past the sun allowing unhindered rays to stream down. It was so warm she purposely allowed the water to sprinkle on her feet. The cool spray soothed her. Just as she was beginning to feel better there was a flapping sound and Nicholas gave a cry.

His mother turned around to see a huge brown and yellow bird holding Nicholas in its claws and lifting him off the ground, its large wings beating the air and scattering dead leaves. She dropped the hose and cried out but the bird continued to flap its wings and rose into the air with Nicholas hanging helplessly below calling in his faint voice for his mother.

Within a short time the bird had climbed high into the sky, above the trees and was disappearing towards the south. Then it was gone from view. And Nicholas was gone too, leaving his mother calling after him far behind. The Speckled Sparrow, for that was what it was, a rare Speckled Sparrow just as Nicholas’ father had described, flew for miles, far away from the city and into the hills.

Nicholas was held firmly in its talons, but it was a grip that was not painful. The bird changed course and turned east, soon crossing the sandy coastline and headed out over the sea. It flew on, far over the water, until in the distance an island appeared and the Speckled Sparrow began to slow and gradually fly lower. Undoubtedly it was going to land on the island, which as it got nearer, looked very lush and green with hardly any surrounding beach.

As the bird descended into the thick growth, with Nicholas dangling beneath with his eyes wide, the tallest of the tall trees seemed to shimmer and shake with excitement. The closer he came Nicholas could see the trees were a lot bigger than he had thought. They were, he was soon to find out, the most unusual trees in the world.

The trunks were enormous and measured in a few cases many meters around. Generally they were no smaller than ten meters in circumference and had windows, not holed but actual windows, which had been apparently cut into the sides. And for a moment Nicholas imagined he saw inquisitive faces peering out of a few of them.

The leaves were remarkable. There was no doubting they were unlike any leaves he had ever seen before, either lying on the grass in his backyard or rustling on the trees around the fence. They glistened in the sunlight and shook gently even though there was not the slightest wind. The sound they made was as if orchestras of forest elves were playing sweet lilting tunes with the sole purpose of creating peaceful and tranquil thoughts. And with every note the leaves almost imperceptibly changed their hue to a more delicate and softer shade of pastel green.

Nicholas’ eyes grew wider and wider, all the more so as he realised there were indeed faces behind some of the tree windows, and there were more partly hidden by branches at varying levels between the ground and the tree tops.

The Speckled Sparrow flew noiselessly into the forest until quite suddenly it lifted its head slightly and dropped onto a thick branch of a huge tree, gently nudging Nicholas forward on his bottom with two skipping bumps.

He looked around startled.

The bird perched motionless, the leaves continued their colourful ballet, the elfin orchestras played their delightful compositions, and mysterious faces appeared momentarily and shrank quickly from his glances.

What seemed like ages passed before anything happened. Nicholas had been too stunned to move. But move he did when he heard from below: “Who are you then?”

He jerked his head down and there standing in the cleft of two branches was a young boy about his own age, his feet planted arrogantly astride and his thumbs stuck in his breeches at the sides.

“I said, what’s your name?” the boy repeated. This time he was somewhat more demanding in his question.

“Oh, I’m Nikko,” said Nicholas shyly.

“What sort of name is that?” demanded the boy, adding a jutting chin to his manner. “I’ve never heard it before. Sounds funny to me.”

Naturally Nicholas was very confused. “Nikko is what my mother and father call me. I think my real name is Nicholas though. But I like Nikko better.”

He wanted to ask the other boy what his name was, but he was too shaken and shocked to say anything more. He was sill thinking this when the boy spoke again.

“Come with me,” he said. “Come on. Hurry up.” With that he turned and opened a window in the tree trunk and disappeared inside, still with his thumbs in his breeches in a very cocky manner.

Nikko did not want to stay sitting on the branch with the giant bird staring at him and with the feeling that many strange pairs of eyes were peeking at him. So he stood up and followed the boy, hitching his own breeches which had slipped around his knees during the long flight and bumpy landing. Warily he climbed in through the window and found himself in a large room.

The first thing Nikko noticed was that he was not alone. A group of boys and girls stood motionless around the sides staring at him. They looked just like him with the breeches securely fastened at the front and wearing pale green shirts. The one thing that instantly stood out with all the children was that they were scrubbed clean with big round brown eyes. And each carried a tiny bow and arrows on his back, even the girls. Having been playing in his own back garden before he was carried off Nikko was rather grubby with dirt on his hands and feet, and he felt a little embarrassed.

Above them where the ceiling would have been if the room had one, which it didn’t because there seemed to be no roof and there was only a hint of light at the top, there were miniature chandeliers,. They were not fixed to anything, and from time to time they rotated slowly clockwise, casting rays of green light on the walls which were covered with shelves stocked to overflowing with toys Nikko had never seen the likes of before.

His attention was interrupted by the arrogant boy who had spoken to him outside.

“Who are you,” the boy asked with the emphasis on the are this time.

“I told you before. My name is Nicholas or Nikko. I prefer Nikko.”

“Don’t be rude,” said the boy. “Just answer the question. If I want to ask it again I will. And I do so I will. Who are you?”

Nikko once more told him his name, and as he did so he looked at the other children who had said nothing and had not moved. They stood there staring at him with their big brown eyes.

“What are you doing here?” continued the boy. “Why did you let Torpah take you away from where you were?”

Nikko told the boy he did not let anyone take him away from his home. He had been happily exploring in his garden when the big bird carried him off.

“That big bird, as you call it,” chastised the boy, “is Torpah. And he doesn’t just carry off anyone.”

Nikko was about to ask why he had been singled out by Torpah when a pretty little girl stepped from behind some of the children and put her hand on the elbow of the boy, quietening him. She was the only one who did not carry any weapons, but she did wear a thin gold chain around her neck from which hung a shiny red marble.

The lights suspended in the sir danced around, the sound of the sweet music from all the leaves seemed to grow louder and all the children, even the inquisitive boy, appeared to move slightly back.

“Jason sometimes thinks everyone should be as smart as he is, and know everything he does,” she whispered. “Welcome to the trees. And please, don’t be afraid.”

Nikko was not really frightened. He didn’t exactly know how he felt. If he thought about it he guessed he would probably have said he was mostly mystified. Apart from the boy Jason who had been his inquisitor, and the only one to speak to him before the girl, nothing else had caused him alarm. Even the flight in the claws of the Speckled Sparrow had been more of an adventure.

The girl continued: “My name is Gabrysia and we are the Leaf Children. You might have felt outside that you were being spied on by someone you couldn’t see. There are a lot of us here. But most of our family are very shy and hide when a stranger comes. Don’t mind them. They will come out and meet you after a while.”

Nikko continued to look around him at the other children. There was something else about them he had not realised before which surprised him now because it was so obvious. They all acted so grown up. They were apparently only the same age as he was but their manner they were so much older. They seemed confident and obviously perfectly capable of looking after themselves very well.

Jason over exemplified the confidence of the group with his arrogance, but there was quiet strength in the other children. He wanted to ask Gabrysia how they all got there and where they were. Many other questions too.

Such as why he had been brought to the island and most importantly how long he was going to have to say before he would be allowed to go home. After all, he was certain his mother would be worrying about him. But another of the children came forward, the smallest boy in the room who was less tidy than the rest. His breeches hung lower and he had a tiny bow, but there were no arrows in his quiver.

He came up to Gabrysia’s side and stated rather sternly: “Your eyes are green.”

Before Nikko could say anything himself the little boy spoke again. “We all have brown eyes. Even Gabrysia doesn’t have green eyes.”

The girl, who clearly was the leader of the children, put her arm around the small boy’s shoulder and spoke very gently. “Jordon, don’t be so impolite. And where are your arrows? What have you done with them this time?”

The boy dropped his eyes to the floor. “I don’t know. I lost them again.”

Jason snickered but was hushed with a quick glance from Gabrysia who spoke to the small boy once more. “Go outside and try to find them Jordon. Get someone to help you look, but remember not to go far. Stay close by.”

However, before he could take a step the leaf music took on a very agitated note, and everyone in the chamber started. They looked at one another and then to Gabrysia who spoke sharply. “Call the others in quickly. Jason, get your group into position.”

Immediately there was action as the children ran off in different directions and the leaf music became a continuous urgent rustle.

Nikko did not know what to do and stood watching the hectic activity without the slightest idea of what was going on. The girl Gabrysia had disappeared through the window and Jason had followed out the same way. Other children scampered up rope ladders that had dropped from above and still others had opened unseen trapdoors in the floor and slipped through them.

Nikko thought he was going to be left alone to fend for himself until little Jordon appeared at his side and took his elbow. “Come on,” he said. “Come and watch the fun.” And with that he led Nikko to one of the trapdoors where a rope ladder took them down to the ground.

There he opened a door and motioning Nikko to follow ran very fast on his bandy little legs across the grass to a smaller tree about twenty meters away. He opened a hidden door where another rope ladder hung.

Following the smaller boy Nikko climbed higher and higher carefully going up hand over hand and mindful to make sure his feet gripped the rungs tightly so he didn’t slip. Eventually they reached the top of the rope, raised themselves through another trapdoor and once again stood in a chamber similar to the one they had just left.

Jordon repeated his earlier instruction “Come on. Come and watch the fun.”


Chapter Two

 

When Nikko followed Jordon outside onto a platform built across two sturdy branches high in the tree he looked around and could not believe his eyes.

On similar platforms in surrounding trees scores of children stood and sat chanting an enormous noise and waving their bows in the air. Far below ion the ground a small group of about ten boys and girls crouched behind tree trunks and bushes.

Gabrysia could not be seen anywhere but there was no mistaking Jason. As usual he was standing clearly visible in a small clearing, his legs planted astride and his thumbs thrust into his breeches.

Following the direction Jason was facing Nikko caught sight of movement, movement that was unclear for a minute or two but which then became the scattered members of a second groui0p of children.

“There they are,” shouted Jordon. At the same time the chanting from the trees died down and everything was very still as the children watched the scene on the ground.

Nikko did not know exactly what to expect, but he felt sure there was going to be a battle of some sort between Jason and a group of children who were apparently members of the Leaf family as Gabrysia had called them, and a group of other children who he imagined were not part of the family.

“Who are the others?”” he asked. “What’s going to happen?”

Very quietly, almost inaudibly, Jordon answered without taking his eyes off the scene below. “It’s a war. They are our enemies and they try to make us leave the trees, but each time we drive them back. We’ve been fighting them for as long as I can remember.”

“They are called Drongs,” continued Jordon. “They try to make us leave the trees so they can get all our toys and things.”

On the ground the two groups of children were getting closer and Nikko could now see that the Drongs were very different. Those he could make out were filthy. They had incredibly dirty breeches and torn shirts which had not been washed in a long time. The faces of the children were smeared and their hair was black and matted. Like the Leaf Children they carried bows and arrows. When they were only about thirty meters apart the two groups stood up and shouted at each other and generally acted very threateningly.

Soon the Drongs started shooting their arrows and it was only then that Nikko realised they did not have sharp dangerous points. Instead they had little plastic balls which when they landed splashed yellow dye or paint everywhere.

It wasn’t long before many of the trees and bushes, and much of the grass was covered in yellow dye. But very few of the Leaf Children were stained. For that matter very few of the Drongs were marked either. Those who were had patches of bright red on their tunics because the Leaf Children had bubbles of red solution on their arrows.

Once the shouting started the onlookers in the trees resumed their loud chanting and it became a raucous din, drowning out the shouting of the opposing sides.

Jordon must have been one of the loudest even though he was one of the smallest and do so carried away he almost fell off the platform and Nikko had to physically hold him back more than once.

It was not long before both sides had used up their arrows and there was a lull when nothing happened. Then they charged each other and there was a mighty wrestling session with children falling over each other and rolling around in the grass locked in one

anothers arms. They squirmed and huffed and puffed all trying to get on top of one another and pin their opponents to the ground…

The chanting from the trees got noisier and Nikko by this time was almost pinning Jordon to the planks of the platform to prevent him from dropping into the melee unintentionally.

Suddenly out of the bushes stepped Gabrysia. Her golden hair shone and her clear brown eyes glistened as she called out: “Stop! Stop””

Nikko thought her call would have no effect with the fierceness of the wrestling on the ground, but incredibly the two sides stopped at once with the brawling boys and girls remaining in their entwined positions like frozen statues.

A tallish boy walked from behind a tree carrying a large silver ball in his hand and wearing an elegant white beret at a jaunty angle. He was obviously the leader of the Drongs despite his comparatively clean and snappy appearance, and it was also clear that he was not afraid of anything that confronted him.

“Well Gabrysia,” he began. “This is not like you to interfere with a bout. What are you doing down on the ground and why have you stopped the fun?” As he said this the boy narrowed his eyes and cocked his head to one side so that it looked as if his beret might well slide off.

“It is not fun Kerry,” said Gabrysia. “And it is not normal for you to show yourself either. You usually skulk around in the background giving orders but you never risk anything on your own. You always let the others take the chances.” She looked at the children who had begun to disengage themselves and form into two ranks behind their respective leaders. The children in the trees had stopped their noise and were watching the development closely. The leaves were rusting no more and it was as if the world had stopped to watch what happened next.

The boy laughed and patted two of his group on the shoulders. “We were just about to give you a good licking this time. Before you stuck your nose in.”

Jason leapt forward and was about to strike the Drong leader when Gabrysia called sharply: “Jason! Stop it. This whole business is stupid.”

“Stop it?” said the Drong leader. “Why should we stop now? We’re having a great time. Are you afraid of losing Queen Gabrysia?”

When he used the title queen the Drong was not being polite and showing respect for Gabrysia. He was, rather, being facetious and displaying his derision. The last thing he considered Gabrysia to be was a queen. To him she was a little goody goody who deserved a “good licking”.

That was something he had been trying to do for a long time but he had always been unsuccessful and had had to retreat to his hidden camp. Each time he blamed the fighters and usually took out his anger on one, often the weakest. The result was they feared him even more.

“Kerry,” said Gabrysia calmly, “your bad manners and cheekiness does not hurt me. It hurts only yourself. All you are doing when you act that way is to show everyone how nasty you really are. So why don’t you just listen and try to do something that would be good for all of us and not only you?”

The Drong leader laughed, throwing his head backwards so that his beret actually did fall off and land in a clump of red stained grass. Quickly picking it up and trying to brush off the stain, which only made it worse as his fist succeeded in spreading the offending mark, the boy glared at Gabrysia and then at the group behind her, one by one.

“You silly fool,” he spat. “I will never give up trying the beat you. I will go on and on until I win the trees and then I will take all your stupid toys and throw them on a big pile of grass and burn them. You will never see them again.”

He paused and then said: “You have a mistake Queen of the Leaves. This time you’ll see how smart I am.” And with that he tossed the silver ball that was in his hand high into the air over his head. As the sunlight struck it there was an enormous burst of white light which blinded the Leaf Children who had not had time to raise their arms to protect their eyes.

The Drong leader rushed forward and grabbed Gabrysia’s arms. Simultaneously two of his soldiers threw a bag over her head and together they lifted her off the ground and bundled her off into the trees. The other Drongs also dashed forward and pushed all the Leaf warriors to the ground before turning and following their leader. Suddenly they were all gone.

The silver ball glowed brilliantly for another few seconds and then simply exploded in an even brighter light.

When the Leaf warriors had recovered and struggled to their feet they were alone. The Drongs had vanished and with them Gabrysia. There was almost total silence.

High in the trees the Leaf Children, so rowdy a few minutes before, were now mute. They were utterly shocked and seemed not to comprehend what had taken place. On the ground the children looked left and right, noticing they were all present, but also instantly aware that Gabrysia was missing.

“Gabrysia! Gabrysia! Where are you?” called Jason. “Gabrysia!”

There was no response.

On the platform where Nikko had been watching the battle Jordon was crying with tears rolling down his face, leaving thin watery marks before dropping off his chin onto the planks where they left a damp dark brown stain.

“Where’s Gabrysia?” he asked plaintively. “What have they done wither?”

He was about to start crying again when there was a shout from below. “The necklace. I’ve found Gabrysia’s necklace.”

“Come on Jordon,” said Nikko, “Let’s go and see what we can do help the others,” and he helped the youngster to his feet and together they climbed down the rope ladder to the ground where all the warriors were gathered in a huddle.

Jason had the gold chain in his hand and was looking at it when Nikko and Jordon approached. He seemed uncertain what to do but when he saw Nikko he turned on him and said: “It’s all your fault. Before you came here we always won the battles. But now we lost and they have taken Gabrysia away with them. We will never see her again.”

Nikko wanted to protest but Jason would now allow him. He went on: “Why have you come and done this to us? Everything was alright before. You are probably a spy and planned the whole thing.”

He grabbed Nikko by the arm and pushed him backwards so that he stumbled over a branch and fell. Jason and the others advanced and were about to set on him when out of the sky swooped a huge bird and flapped its wings violently.

It was Torpah and he settled on the ground in front of Nikko facing the group with his wings spread wide.

Nikko sat up and Jordon came over to him cautiously to help. “Are you?” he asked. “Did you come here to make trouble for us?”

“No,” replied Nikko. “I didn’t even know any of you existed until Torpah brought me here. Against my will. How could I be a spy?”

“Why did Torpah bring you then?” demanded Jason. “What is so special about you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe it’s because he has green eyes and we all have brown,” suggested Jordon.

“Quiet,” said Jason sharply. He then added: “Alright, maybe he’s not a spy, but we have to decide what to do. The Drongs have captured Gabrysia and we have to figure out how we are going to get her back.”

As he was saying this Torpah hopped forward on his two big feet and picked up the gold necklace which Jason had forgotten and dropped when the big bird came to Nikko’s rescue. He hobbled back to where Nikko was sitting and offered it to him in his beak.

Nikko did not know what to do. He just stared at the chain and then looked at Jason.

Torpah inched closer with a hobbling step again and once more proffered the necklace. This time Nikko very carefully took it from the bird’s beak and as soon as he held it in his hands the red marble lit up in a dazzling glow. Nikko dropped it on the ground in fright.

As the glow suddenly died Jordon picked it up and slowly hung it around Nikko’s neck. Instantly the marble radiated its bright glow again and Torpah gave a piercing shriek that made the hairs on the back of the children’s necks stand on end. He then flapped his giant wings and flew off above the trees and disappeared, his shrieks getting fainter and fainter.


Chapter Three

 

“So, what are we going to do?”

The question was posed by Jason and it was the fourth time someone had asked. He and about fifteen other Leaf Children were sitting in a half circle with Nikko rather self consciously in the middle facing them.

One of the children, a young girl with long brown hair that flowed down her back in curls, spoke up. “You tell us Nikko. You have the necklace. You are our new leader.”

From the time he had had the chain placed around his neck and the marble had shone, which it continued to do, Nikko had been not only accepted into the family but held as their leader. Even Jason agreed reluctantly at first, and then more readily regarded him as the senior member. That did not mean he lost his arrogance. Far from it. Jason maintained his manner and made it quite plain that if Nikko was the Number One then he was Number Two.

The children were all looking at Nikko for an answer and he knew he had to give them a good one. There could be no uncertainty or indecision. He knew that, in a way, his future with the Leaf Children depended on how he was going to lead the rescue of Gabrysia. Indeed, his entire future depended on it.

Well,” he started. “First, we have to find out where the Drongs have taken her.”

He looked into their faces and continued. “If I understand what you said before your search parties in the past didn’t find anything. Where have you looked?”

“We looked everywhere.” It was Jason who answered. “We went out to the north and the south and then east. Nothing but empty forest.”

“What about the west? Didn’t you look there too?”

“There is nothing there. Once you go about a kilometre the trees end and there is nothing but rocks and sand hills. It’s known as the dead Place.”

“Are you sure there could be nothing there? A camp hidden in the hills?”

“It has always been known as the Dead Place,” said Jason. “No-one has ever seen anything there.”

Jordon interrupted. “Venki went there once. Ad when he went back we didn’t see him again.”

“Be quiet brat,” said Jason and glared at the younger boy.

“Who is Venki?”

“Who is this Venki, and what was he doing here?” repeated Nikko when he received no immediate response.

There was a brief silence and then the girl with the long curls spoke. “He was our leader before Gabrysia. He went to the dead Place looking for one of our family who had disappeared and he thought the Drongs might have taken him. But he came back and said he could find nothing. Then he said he was going back to have a closer look at the Dead Place and we never saw him again. At least that’s the story that has been passed down to us. It was before our time too.”

“Maybe we should look again,” suggested Nikko. “There must be a reason why this Venki didn’t come back. He couldn’t have just disappeared like that.”

There was a general fidgeting by the children as they exchanged glances. There was an air of fear in the room and Nikko sensed they all suspected he was right but did not have the courage to agree in case the next decision was for someone, maybe one of them, to go to the Dead Place and see what was there.

They were absolutely correct in their worrying assumption for Nikko elected to reinforce his position. If he was going to be ultimately held responsible for either finding Gabrysia or leading a search party that turned up nothing, he was not going to neglect any possibility. Even if it meant facing the mystery of the Dead Place.

“We will go there,” he stated, “First thing in the morning some of us will set out.

We will have to leave early because it is a long way and we don’t want to have to spend the night there if it is as desolate as you say.”

There was an audible shiver in the chamber, and again all present looked sideways to one another, asking in their eyes if they or their companions would be chosen.

Little Jordon stood up and said firmly: “I’ll go. Please Nikko, can I come with you?”

“Don’t be silly, squirt,” said Jason. “You’re too small and would get in the way. Anyway, you keep losing your arrows and if you came you would probably lose yourself. Then we would have to go looking for you too.”

“I will not,” said the boy. “Please Nikko. Can I come?”

Nikko thought for a moment and said: “I think Jason is right Jordon. You are too small for this. We might actually find the Drongs and have to do battle with them. You could get hurt. Why don’t you stay here this time and help the others look after things.”

Jordon was about to protest but sat down and sniffed a few times before lapsing into silence with his eyes downcast.

“I will go of course,” said Jason. “And I suggest five others come with us. We don’t want too many to go crashing through the forest making all sorts of noise. Also we have to leave a good group behind as defenders just in case.”

He looked at Nikko who did not disagree. Jason immediately went on: “Those who will come are Fallon, Danielle and Simon.” He paused before adding: “Porky, you and Josh should be with us too.”

Seated to the left of Nikko, nearest the doorway, a fat boy with ruddy cheeks and blonde hair that seemed to stick out from his round head in all directions, smiled broadly. “Great,” he said and slapped the boy next to him on the knee. His friend, who was facially the mirror image of Porky, also grinned and said “Great.”

Nikko was to learn later the two boys were identical twins whose names were Joshua and Mordacai. They were alike in every way except Mordacai was a lot heavier. They both ate huge amounts of food but for some reason while Mordacai expanded sideways Joshua kept a slim figure. He also kept an abbreviated proper name whereas his brother was soon to become known to all simply as Porky.

They were excellent fighters who were not only skilful but who also loved to test their abilities in any way, whether it was in archery or physical combat, or in tracking or devising tactics. The others in the intended search party would be glad to have them along.

As much as Porky and Josh were alike, Fallon and Simon were dissimilar. They were about the same height and weight with fair hair and brown eyes of course, but Simon was the most talkative member of the Leaf Children. He would enter any conversation and attempt to take it over completely with his incessant patter. Fallon was the complete opposite. Comments had to be prized out of him and then they were more often than not limited to a single word.

Oddly enough they seemed to seek out each other’s company and it was quite amusing to see them together with Simon merrily chatting away without taking pause for breath and Fallon seeming never to say anything. He either agreed with everything Simon said, the others remarked, or he simply didn’t listen or couldn’t be bothered to comment.

To be fair Fallon was the strong silent type. Literally he was the strongest boy in the forest having proved this one day when a branch from a tree was blown down in a gale and finished up on top of one of the girls who had against all caution ventured outside. He had heard her cries for help and had gone into the story and by himself lifted the branch off her legs so she could crawl away. After the storm passed and the wind had died down two other boys had tried to move the branch nearer the tree so they could break it up for firewood. But they couldn’t budge it.

His silent side was evident when he was asked how he had managed to do it himself. Fallon merely replied: “Had to.”

“That’s it then,” said Jason. “The seven of us will leave when the sun rises tomorrow. In the meantime we had better spend the rest of the day getting ready and making sure everything is alright while we are gone.”

Later Nikko approached Jason who was filling water bottles made out of small twigs covered with layers of sap from the trees. The resin set firm and prevented any liquid leaking out and at the same time ensured the bottle was not broken if it was dropped. This method was also adopted in the making of doors and windows and trap doors. Thin layers also protected ropes.

Nikko called Jason to one side. Making certain that no-one else was within hearing he said: “Tomorrow could be very dangerous you know. We don’t know what we will find or what will happen. Do you think we should be taking Danielle with us? She is just a girl.”

Jason looked at him and then roared with laughter. “Just a girl,” he spluttered. “You wait. You’ll find out she not just a girl.” Then he added: “Don’t worry. She’ll be OK.” Then he thumped the stopper in the water bottle and walked off, still laughing.

For the rest of the day the children prepared for their trip and helped make sure they were leaving all in order at the camp. Precautions were outlined numerous times and lookout positions posted, arrows apportioned out and windows and doors checked. Ropes were tested and then everything was scrutinized again.

By nightfall everyone was satisfied with the arrangements and they retired to their tree chambers to get a good sleep. But Nikko did not sleep well. He tossed and turned fitfully with his thoughts racing over the day’s adventures already and those which he might experience the next.

When he did finally fall asleep he dreamed of his home and pictured his mother and father sitting in the lounge of their house watching television and talking. In his dream each of them left what they were doing from time to time and went into his room where he saw himself lying in his cot with his quilt kicked to one side and his toys arranged around him. His parents would bend over him to see he was alright and then stand by the side of his cot smiling at him before tip toeing back down the hall to the lounge.

He dreamed the same scene over and over again throughout the night until he was jolted awake by Jason shaking him with an urgent: “Wake up. Come on. It’s dawn and we have to get moving.” His parents vanished and he was back in the chamber on a bed of soft warm leaves.

Within half an hour the seven children were ready and prepared to set out on the long trek to the Dead Place. The other children had gathered to farewell them and with final reminders of safety measures the group departed. Before they left Nikko gave the necklace with the red stone to a tall child named David. Someone had to be in charge during their absence and Nikko did not want to lose it while they were out exploring the unknown.

If they were not concentrating on what lay before them, known and unknown, they would have noticed that not all the children could be accounted for. Jordon was missing.

They headed west and walked until the sun had lost its pink tint and was a gleaming golden ball in the sky behind them. They trudged through the forest for about three quarters of a kilometre and then Nikko called a halt and ordered a rest and refreshments before they proceeded on the final stage.

Later, as they were about to continue on Danielle lightly caught Nikko’s arm, and whispered to him and Jason nearby “Don’t look now but someone is in the bushes to the left. There was some movement there and I thought I heard a sound.”

Neither of them turned but Jason let his water bottle slide off his shoulder. It rolled a few feet in the direction of Danielle’s warning and came to a stop. He casually walked to pick it up. Then at the last second he rushed towards the bushes. As he did so there was a scream and out through the brush hurtled Jordon yelling at the top of his voice. As he ran his little hands reached behind him into his breeches rubbing up and down briskly. Then he bent to rub his leg and fell heels over head landing in front of a dumbstruck Jason.

“You,” bawled Jason. “What are you doing here?”

Jordon was rolling around on the ground trying to undo the pin on his breeches and at the same time undo his tunic straps.

“Yoowwie,” he wailed. “Ants. I’ve got ants all over me. Get them off me please. Oowww! Oowww!”

Nikko could see the ants, big black ones, all over his legs and on his shirt. Some were crawling up on to his neck. He and Danielle quickly joined Jason and together they brushed the biting insects off the little boy’s body. They could see there were already tiny red bumps which in a few minutes became larger and more nasty looking. By the time Jordon had refastened his pin and completely removed his top he was a mass of painful looking bumps and lumps.

“How did you get here?” asked Nikko. “You should be back at the camp. Why did you follow us?”

Jordon explained what he had done as he scratched at his legs, bottom and arms. It turned out he had risen before the sunrise and waited in the trees some distance to the west of the camp until the search party had headed off. Somehow he had managed to stay just in front to the side of them the whole time until they stopped to rest. He was tired too and sat down on the ground and closed his eyes for a while. The next thing he knew was that ants were crawling all over his legs and when he tried to brush them away they started biting him and he had to get up and run to try to avoid being what he feared was eaten alive.

“You stupid little brat,” Jason said. “You could have ruined everything. What are we going to do now?” Then he answered his own question: “We’ll have to take him back.”

“No time,” said Fallon.

“Fallon’s right,” agreed Simon. “It’s too late and we’ve come too far to turn back now. By the time we reached the camp we would not have enough time to come back and still have a good look at the Dead Place. We’ve already walked about seven hundred meters by my count and it has taken this long. Also the water would have to be fetched again and then it would be another long walk back. We would not reach this point again until afternoon. Then we would have only an hour or….”

“Agreed,” interrupted Fallon.

“He’ll have to come with us,” said Nikko. They had no choice. Jordon would have to join them or they would have to put off their search until tomorrow. The sun was already approaching the high point.

“You should have seen yourself,” giggled Porky. “You stopped dead in your tracks when Jordon came bursting out of that bush. You looked like you had seen a bear.”

“Two bears” laughed Josh. “Two huge black bears charging. You look terrified. Dead in your tracks. If he had been two bears, or even one, you would have been. Dead, that is.”

Jason glared at the twins, his eyes blazing. “That’s it. Come on parrot. Can’t you say anything that fatty doesn’t start for you? Let’s see who’s afraid.”

Nikko stepped between them. “That’s enough,” he snapped. “Any fighting we do will be with the Drongs. Not ourselves.” He added quickly: “We have to get moving again. As Fallon said we have a lot to do yet and there’s not much time left. Josh, you take care of Jordon. Danielle and Jason will come with me in the lead.”

And with that he straightened his things and handing Jason his water bottle moved off.

The rest of the party fell into place with Jordon trailing, still scratching and rubbing his now swollen arms and legs.

As they had been walking through the forest Nikko had been able for the first time since his arrival to closely examine his surroundings. He observed that the musical leaves extended only in a relatively small perimeter around the tree camp and were to be seen nowhere else. In fact, the whole nature of the forest had changed dramatically once they were out of sight of the camp.

The Leaf Children lived in about a dozen trees scattered around a clear area of roughly two hectares. The border of the camp was marked by thickening scrubland where the trees were closer together and the undergrowth was dense. The further out one ventured the denser became the forest until about half a kilometre away it was more like a jungle than a forest where the tree tops almost blocked out the sub and the big green leaves of the ground plants slapped a person with waterladen plops and the tall grass made walking tiring.

Occasionally there were places where a big old tree had finally ended its life and come crashing down, cleaning a space where it landed and making an opening for the warm rays to penetrate until the combination of water and sunlight fostered the regrowth of plants and the clearing eventually became overgrown again. It was in one of these recently created clearings that the search party had momentarily rested.

During the long hours of walking, and for that matter the brief stay in the camp, Nikko had not seen any birds or animals. Naturally he excluded Torpah from that observation but not a single bird had flown in the trees or any animals large or small passed within sight or hearing.

He had seen ants and Porky and Josh had referred to bears but he had not seen one or the tracks or any other signs of animals. Certainly no pets were kept by the Leaf Children. The family had not talked about animals at all, but if he remembered correctly some of the toys on the shelves in the main tree chamber were dogs and elephants and so on and he thought he had seen a giraffe even. Most of them however he had not been able to recognize.

Nikko recalled his own toys he had to play with. There were plastic fish and two favourite green and blue turtles and a pink whale that he splashed around with in the bath, a large fluffy raccoon that was appropriately named Racky by his mother, a brown and white dog with large floppy ears and a cute little pink tongue that stuck out of its mouth, and a penguin dressed in a red tuxedo which left only the white breast and face showing. For a time he had also had real animals coming to see him.

A little black and white kitten had suddenly appeared one day and his mother and father had allowed it onto the house where it explored every room carefully and sniffed at him. The kitten visited a number of times but equally suddenly stopped coming which was a shame because he liked feeling its sleek fur and chasing it from room to room. A big black dog had also called on them and slept on the front steps during the night. But it too went away and never returned.

Nikko loved animals and was surprised why the Leaf Children did not have any as pets. It was certainly peculiar that the forest did not seem to harbour any at all. Maybe they were there but he just had not seen them. He made a mental note to ask someone about it when they got back to camp. For now though he had to concentrate on searching for Gabrysia and preparing for their arrival at the Dead Place.

The party continued through the jungle with the dropping leaves soaking their tunics. The further they walked the denser it seemed to get and Nikko began to wonder how far they would be able to go before the jungle prevented them from proceeding any further. But just as this thought was starting to realty concern him the trees and scrub ended and white light struck their faces.

Someone might just as well have sheared off all the plant life in a straight line and then poisoned all the grass. For there in front of them lay a vast arid landscape. Not a single tree or bush. Not a blade of grass or indeed any life at all. There was only cracked brown earth rising in ranges of small to large hills covered with boulders.

It was as if a giant hand had torn some of the island away, squeezed every drop of life out of it, and then stuck it back, throwing rocks and stones all over it in an attempt to hide the damage it had caused. The peaks were mostly craggy and sharp and there was a steamy mist rising from the ground which made the horizon fuzzy and unclear.

The unhindered rays of the sun beat down on the land and the searchers could almost feel their damp bodies and clothes sizzle and dry out. The Dead Place was indeed very dead looking and resembled a cemetery with some of the boulders looking like rough headstones.

“Well, I think we’ve found it,” said Porky. He added without his usual grin: “And now that we have I’m not sure that I’m glad.”

“What an awful place,” joined in Jordon. “It looks like it’s cooking.”

Desolate was not an adequate description. Foreboding and evil was more appropriate and whoever had given it the name of the Dead Place had been very perceptive. Surely nothing could live out there.

“Look at those hills and those rocks,” said Simon. “Some of them must be a hundred meters high and weigh tons. We can’t go out there. Half an hour in that sun without shade at all and we’d probably fry and die. I’m already thirsty just standing here looking at it,” and with that he took a long drink of water from his bottle.

Jason had said nothing but now he turned to the group. “Listen” he said. “We’ve spent hours getting here and we can’t simply turn around and go back. We came to look for Gabrysia and she might be out there somewhere hoping we’ll come and get her. So we can’t go back without having a look. If we are careful and it doesn’t take too long we can at least try.”

Danielle nodded her agreement. “I think we should do as Jason says. We have to try.”

Nikko had been scanning the area through squinting eyes. He too was deeply worried about venturing into the barren land but knew they must. He had not expected the Dead Place to be quite so terrible. So dead. A brief search was all they would be able to carry out.

He wiped the perspiration from his eyes. “There is no way we can just walk out there and wander around hoping to find Gabrysia. It would take us whole days and we could get lost. We don’t even know how far the Dead Place extends.” The others murmured their agreement. “What we’ll do I think is head for that fairly big hill over there to the right. If we can climb it I think we might be high enough to get a good view of the land. We might save a lot of time and it could show the parts we should concentrate our search on.”

“Right,” said Fallon.

The children checked their water bottles and using the straps from their tunics tied bunches of soggy leaves around their feet in rough fashioned shoes. Living in the forest where the grass was thick and soft they had not had to worry about their feet. But here in the blistering heat it was essential and it was Josh who had come up with the idea of the leaves and straps. He had also cautioned against removing their tops or they would be badly burnt so their garments hung loosely about their waists.

Cautiously they set off ever mindful of stepping around the rocks whenever possible because they looked sharp and were undoubtedly hot. It was relatively easy to concentrate on where they walked because they kept their faces down to avoid the persistent sun, and before long they were covered in perspiration and had to constantly wipe their eyes and brows. The sun burned into their shoulders and they could feel the moisture dribbling down their backs.

They walked in single file with Jason leading, followed by Nikko and the others and Josh bringing up the rear as guard, keeping a hand near Jordon in front of him. With brief upward glances to ensure they were heading in the right direction they reached the base of the hill Nikko had pointed out.

Rocks and dirt had tumbled down and formed a barrier around the bottom which they had to scramble over before they were able to tackle the slope. The hillside itself did not appear too difficult to climb. There were jutting ledges every few feet and rocky crevices they could put their feet into to help them up.

After a short pause to catch their breath they began the climb with Jason again going first and the others in order.

The hill was a lot higher than they had thought and despite its being relatively easy to scale they were exhausted after only twenty meters or so from having to exert themselves so much in the merciless heat. A few times young Jordon slipped but was grabbed by Josh and pushed back up to the next ledge and crevice.

Finally they reached a level very near the top, about fifty meters off the ground where a wide ledge formed a platform. Having all clambered onto it and taken deep hot breaths they looked around them.

The view was incredible. It a straight line from where they had come the jungle formed a solid wall as far as they could see. It looked impenetrable. To their right and left there was an endless expanse of nothingness. Hill after hill and countless boulders strewn haphazardly around. It was simply a lifeless land.

The group was speechless. No-one said anything for a long time. They could not take their eyes off the depressing scene and felt compelled to gaze in amazement.

It was Fallon who spoke the first uncharacteristic words. “This place is bad. Things have happened here which are evil. We must not stay.” They were the longest sentences he had ever spoken but no-one noticed. All were captivated by the horror of the landscape before them.

None of them had ever witnessed anything like it in their lives. The Leaf Children had been protected by the forest with its verdant life. Nikko had only experienced his own home with its small garden and the various parks and similar gardens he had visited with his parents. The nearest he had been to such a barren place was the beach but that was quite different. This scene was utter desolation. There was nothing clean here, no water and any life that may have existed in the past had long expired.

Danielle broke the stunned silence. “I can’t believe anyone could survive in this place. Even the Drongs would not possibly choose to live here. The jungle is better.” She added: “What do you think Nikko? Do we waste time looking for Gabrysia here or do we go back and try the woods again?”

Nikko had been looking to the right, that is to say the north, studying the land as closely as he could through the heat and steamy air. There was a sense of sameness in every direction, but something was bothering him which he could not put his finger on.

“Umm,” he answered. “Umm. I suppose so.”

“What is it?” asked Jason. “You’re not certain. Is it something you see or what? You’re not considering going out there and turning over rocks or climbing more hills are you?”

Nikko continued his northerly gaze. “I suppose it is just the place. But something does bother me. I don’t know what it is but something is not right here.”

“We know that,” said Porky. “It’s like hell. Of course it is not right. In fact everything I can see is wrong. Just look at it. There is nothing but rocks and mountains and this awful heat. Another minute here and I will probably melt.”

“Come on,” said Josh. “We’re wasting our time. Let’s go.”

“Just a minute,” continued Nikko, waving his hand as if to ask them all to sit and be quiet. “We can wait a bit longer.” Then he said: “Look. Tell me what you see there. Danielle?”

“Well, I can see for forest or jungle very clearly. And I can see many hills, a dead tree, a lot of parched ground that looks like concrete and hundreds of boulders all over the place.”

“Jason?”

“The same. Also the heat. I can feel it and see it too. It’s stifling.”

“Josh?”

“The same.”

“Porky?”

“Me too.”

Fallon?”

“Same.”

“Simon?”

“I can’t see anything different.”

Nikko seemed to not to be satisfied still. “There is something,” he said. “I am sure of it.”

“I can see something,” said Jordon.

They all looked at him and Jason gave an exasperated hurrumph and asked impatiently: “What can you see brat?”

“A dog,” he replied. “Up there. On the top of the hill over our heads. There’s a big black dog sitting near the edge watching us.”

The others quickly looked up, craning their necks and scanning the hilltop from one end to the other. There was nothing but the white hot sun burning into their eyes,

“What are you up to Jordon?” asked Josh. “There’s nothing there. It must be the heat and the haze. You’re seeing things.”

“We’ll all be seeing things if we stay here any longer,” added Porky. “I say we get back to the trees and the shade as soon as we can.”

“I saw it,” repeated the youngster. “I did truly. It was there.”

Simon wiped his forehead with his arm. “If there was a dog up there it is a pretty smart one. How could it have climbed up? We had enough trouble ourselves.”

They all agreed Jordon was imagining things and that the heat was playing tricks with his eyesight. On the other hand Jordon insisted he had seen an animal. And that’s where they left the argument as they prepared to climb back down the hill. As they were about to continue their descent over the side of the ledge Nikko clicked his fingers.

“That’s it,” he exclaimed. “I knew something did not fit.”

“What?” asked Danielle. “What is it?”

“Look again,” said Nikko. “Go on. Look carefully. What do you see out there?”

Jason answered. “We’ve already told you. Hills, rocks, a dead tree, heat, evil, misery, and more heat. There’s nothing else.”

“But that’s it,” said Nikko. “The tree.”

“What about it?” It was Danielle who asked trying to calm the others into listening for an explanation though she could not for the life of her imagine the importance of a tree.

“Don’t you see,” said Nikko. “There is only the one tree. Not another one anywhere.” He went on: “Where are the others? How come there is only that one? If there had been trees here in the past you would expect to find something remaining of them. But there is not even a branch or a tree trunk lying anywhere. Except for that one big dead tree with no branches, I find that peculiar.”

Nikko went on cautiously, almost like he was thinking aloud: “Assuming there were trees here before, where are the others? Assuming there was never any trees here where did that one come from? Either way I don’t know the answer.”

He turned and looked at the others’ faces. They did not reply. Nikko looked in the direction of the tree again and said: “I think we should check it out.”

“How far away is it?” asked Danielle. Then she added: “It’s getting late Nikko. Maybe we should leave it today.”

“You’ve got me curious now,” interrupted Simon. “I agree. It is odd. There are no others. That’s the only one and it looks pretty solid from here, Mind you, it is hard to tell from where we are. We are not even sure how far away it is. But it is a big one I reckon.”

They exchanged comments and finally decided they would climb back down the hill and have a look from there to see if the perspective changed very much. If they thought they would be able to walk to the tree and then back to the jungle in an hour they would try it. That would still leave them a few hours or so to return to the camp before it got too dark.”

Twenty minutes later they were on the ground at the base of the hill, sweaty and irritable.

Jordon was the first to speak. “I can’t see it,” he said. “It’s gone.”

“Don’t be stupid,” said Jason. “You’re just a squirt. That’s why you can’t see it.”

“No,” said Porky. “I can’t see it either. It’s gone alright. I’ll be blowed.”

“There are no hills between us and where it was,” said Simon. “There is nothing blocking our view except a few rocks. But they are not big enough to hide it.”

“A tree doesn’t just vanish.” Jason was annoyed. He didn’t want to spend any longer in the hot sun. He was already burnt on the neck and arms and the tops of his legs were scratched and itchy. “It’s got to be there some place.”

They peered towards where the tree had been, shielding their eyes with their hands. Porky and Josh even jumped up and down as though the extra meter’s elevation would result in the tree being visible.

“It’s not there,” he panted. “It’s definitely not there.”

Nikko decided. “We can’t stay here jumping up and down and saying it is not there. We saw it. Come on, we have an hour before we have to get back so let’s use it usefully.” With that he took a sip of water from his bottle, adjusted his makeshift leaf sandals which were brittle and barely holding up, and started off. The others quickly did the same and tell into line.

The children walked almost parallel with the rim of the jungle, keeping it in sight as they were far from happy being alone and vulnerable in the Dead Place. They walked around rocks, occasionally slipping or stubbing their toes on the sharp jutting edges so that by the time they had gone about four hundred meters they were in no mood for Porky’s humour.

“Once upon a time,” he began, “there was a magic tree that mysteriously appeared and disappeared in the desert. One minute you could see it and the next you couldn’t. One day some kids set out in the middle of the most unbearably hot day to try to find the answer to the mystery. They had no idea of where they were or what…”

“Shut up,” said Jason, “This is no time for joking. Where is that tree? It’s got to be here somewhere.”

Another two hundred meters and the party stopped. They were surrounded by low hills and rocks and boulders. They looked around them in desperation searching for anything that might be part of a tree or even a column of stone that they might have mistaken for a tall stump.

“I don’t understand it,” said Nikko. “We all saw it. There was a tree out here. Can anyone see anything at all apart from these confounded rocks?”

They were huddled together in what appeared to be a shallow crater with hills on all sides. Had they been looking down on themselves they would have realized this but as it was from where they were standing they had no way of knowing. Such was the deception caused by the heat and blandness of the landscape that the children imagined they were walking on flat terrain.

“I can’t see anything that looks like it might have once been a tree, let alone still it,” offered Jason.

“We’ll spread out,” said Nikko. “But don’t go far from one another. The last thing we need now if for anyone to get lost.”

Danielle and Nikko would go around the dunes to the right, furthest from the jungle edge. Jason and Jordon would go further north just beyond the next hill behind a cluster of boulders that were perfectly round. And Josh and Porky would go east. Fallon and Simon were to remain where they were in order to keep the group’s bearings and to be ready in support if anyone needed help. They fanned out and each pair soon faded into the hazy horizon, gradually appearing like mirages for a second or two before disappearing altogether.

When they were alone Fallon and Simon looked about them at the silence of the barren land, the oppressive heat almost clogging their nostrils and the sun though now lower in the west still watering their eyes. Simon examined his friend’s face and then smiled. “The right side if your face is red. You look as if someone slapped you with a paint brush. Or if you had been hit with an arrow.”

Fallon instinctively put his hand to his face and rubbed sweat from his brow. “You too,” he said and moved off in the direction of the round boulders which Jason and Jordon had passed. There were about six of them and they formed a sort of triangle which at this time of the afternoon cast a small shadow across the narrow opening. Fallon crept in and sat tentatively on the ground and eased his back against the smooth surface of one of the boulders. It was remarkably cool after the glare that had endured since leaving the shelter of the tree.

Simon continued to stand in the open, a solitary figure watching Fallon who slowly closed his eyes and began to breathe in long deep breaths. Simon watched for a while and then turned about to face the way they had come.

“The others are not going to believe this,” he said faintly, more to himself that to anyone else. “It is incredible. Just incredible. Who would believe there could be anywhere like this so close to the forest? A few hours walk from here and there is beauty and peace. We’ve only been gone a day and I long to be home again. I wonder what the others are doing@ Getting ready for the night I suppose. Playing their last games of the day or cleaning up before the meal. The leaved will be starting their night music and it will be getting dark. Not like here which wouldn’t surprise me if it stayed hot and sunny twenty-four hours a day.”

Simon heard Fallon grunt and he thrust his arms out wide and pivoted to look directly at the blazing sun. Closing his eyes he called: “Come on rotten sun. Burn if you want to. You won’t beat us. We have a mission and we are going to complete it. We will find Gabrysia.”

He stood, his head held high with his eyes screwed tightly shut until he felt the hot rays suck droplets of perspiration from his forehead which dropped down his cheeks and off the end of his nose and chin. Suddenly he dropped his head and shook it violently sending a shower of moisture left and right like a dog wagging itself try after a dip in a pool.

“How long have the others been gone Fallon?” he asked. He blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes with the back of the thumb of one hand and repeated. “Fallon, how long have the others been gone?”

He looked up towards where Fallon was sitting, focusing slowly on the cluster of round boulders. Fallon was not there.

“Fallon, where are you?” he called again. Then more urgently. “Fallon! Fallon! Where are you?”

Fallon was nowhere to be seen. Simon was alone, surrounded by silent hills and unmoving rocks.

Nikko and Danielle were nearing the other side of the hill when they heard Simon’s shout. They ran towards the voice and burst into the opening to see Simon running in one direction and then another shouting at the top of his lungs: “Fallon! Fallon! Fallon!”

At almost the same time Josh and Porky appeared at the run, followed by Jason and Jordon whom they had met up with a few minutes before.

“He’s gone,” yelled Simon. “Fallon. He’s disappeared. He was sitting here asleep and when I looked again he had disappeared. Fallon!” he called once more.

Immediately the others joined in shouting Fallon’s name. But there was no response.

“Where was he?” demanded Nikko.

Simon led them over to the boulders. They looked very carefully and it was Josh who exclaimed: “Here. Look here.”

Porky added seriously. “There’s been a scuffle. Here. See these marks. It looks like there has been a fight or something.” He then turned to Simon. “Didn’t you see anything at all?”

Simon was flustered. He looked around the group, from one to the other. “No,” he said. “I wasn’t looking. I was thinking about home and cursing the sun and this place. Then when I turned back he had gone.”

“Did you hear anything?” asked Jason. “There must have been some noise. Fallon would have out up some sort of struggle. There is no way he would have gone quietly.”

Simon insisted he had heard nothing unusual. In fact the only sound Fallon had made was a grunt as a comment to a remark he had made.

Danielle intervened before the situation reached a stage where accusations were made and blame levelled unfairly. “What matters,” she said, “is what happened to Fallon. We agree he would not have been taken easily. But that is not the big question. What we should be trying to work out, and quickly, is where he was taken to and where his captors came from.”

She continued as they all quieted and watched her. “We were all out looking for the tree when it happened. And remember, we had all four directions covered. The six of us went south, east and west, and Simon was here watching the north at the time. So it seems that whoever, or whatever, took Fallon did not come from there.”

“Oh come on,” said Porky. “Are you saying the thing, whatever it was, dropped out of the sky, grabbed Fallon and then lifted him up and carried him off? Without him calling out for help?”

“What I’m saying,” said Danielle, “is that we had all four land directions covered.”

“That leaves up or down,” said Josh. “And I don’t believe any bird could have snatched him away. Certainly not out here.”

“That leaves down,” said Nikko, searching the ground as if for some sign. Automatically the rest followed suit scanning the cracked earth in increasing circles. Porky and Josh also looked behind the boulders but found nothing that would give any indication of what might have happened to Fallon.

It was Nikko who spoke again. “We have to be sensible about this. It’s no good standing out here in the sun looking for a scrawled message in the dirt. There is none. We have to use reason and common sense.”

“That’s not easy in his heat,” said Porky. “I’m boiling.”

“Come over here then,” called Jordon who was perched on one of the boulders looking every bit the young master of the scene. “These rocks are cool. Much cooler than on the ground.”

“What are you talking about this time,” said Jason. “The rocks out here are all hot. These must be like fire,” and he marched over to the boulder where Jordon was sitting and put his hand on kit, ready to remove it speedily if it burnt.

However, it was not only less hot than he expected. It was actually quite cool.

 

 

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