That night they camped with Bragdon at the foot of Lemirius Rock. He was the sole custodian of a cave overhang where he had the necessary items for his survival. There were animal hides, and baskets, some with edible stuff, which he had no trouble sharing. Simple decorations brightened up the place. Ben couldn’t help, but wonder how he knew how to decorate when he had never seen a normal home.
‘He doesn’t have much, but it’s nice, it is,’ whispered Ben.
‘One thing’s for sure,’ said Bill. ‘He lives frugally in a harsh landscape.’
As they woke the next morning, Bragdon was already on the go, wandering up and down the trail.
‘Muss go … mighty trouble … stuff water … no good … come now?’
Everybody looked at Bill. They were used to the fact that Bill looked like a child, but acted, and talked like an adult.
‘I don’t know why you all stare at me, but I do think it’s about time we hit the salt pan. Where’s that ship of yours?’
Bragdon took them through the forest, to the shoreline where he pointed.
‘We’re not going on that thing, are we?’ said Bill.
‘Where’s the Mackle Ship?’ said Ben.
‘Is Mackle Ship!’ said Bragdon.
‘It’s not a ship, boy!’ screamed Bill. ‘Are we to raft across an unpredictable piece of water on a few planks?’
‘Is that really the Mackle Ship?’ said Ben.
Bragdon nodded. ‘Is Mackle Ship.’
Bill shook his head. ‘But that’s not a ship!’
‘If he can, we can,’ said Ben.
‘Ben’s right,’ said Jack.
Ben felt happy, but was slightly apprehensive, as he spied out to sea where a thick haze lingered across the water. His immediate thoughts were on what lay ahead. He was interrupted by the movements of boarding. The others had already placed themselves with all their gear between baskets with supplies. Ben took a seat close to Bragdon.
The sail, which looked like a thinner animal hide, was up. Andy, Jack and Whistler pushed off. With the help of oars they left the shore.
Further out, as the wind ripped, and flapped through the sail, Bragdon sat on his knees, wriggling the rudder through the muddy water. He knew what to do, and seemed to know the direction.
‘I hate to think what we’d have to do if the water mark had been lower,’ said Bill.
Andy couldn’t agree more. ‘In that case, we would’ve had to walk through the mud, and just about slide the raft across. We’re probably lucky, the flood water came through when it did, and before we got here. At least there’s enough water left.’
‘So, that’s why it cannot sink,’ said Ben. ‘Remember when Ambrosius talked about the ship and the Ciyon Sea? He said it couldn’t sink.’
Ben wanted to have a go at steering. Bragdon pointed out obstacles to avoid, a boulder here, and a wooden stump there. At crucial points, he made a sign to Ben, and took over.
The wind died off. The going slowed down. Bill became impatient, and had a hissy fit.
‘This is plain stupid, Bragdon! Just about as fruitless as a boiled potato. With this turtle-pace, we might have to spend next Christmas on this salt pan.’
‘Hey, come on, grandpa, it’s not his fault. I’m sure we’re there soon,’ said Ben.
They had been on the raft for most part of the day, sailing faster when the wind intensified, and moving along more slowly, by using the oars, in between.
The usual evening light seemed to come closer. All were dead tired. Irritation simmered on top.
Then it happened. The haze was gone. Bragdon became excited, and waved. ‘Look!’
The foreboding coastline had become visible.
Bragdon steered them closer. The raft passed the smaller isles of hardened clay with thick, stubby vegetation. He pointed out the wild-growing prickle mesh, while he took them in, and out through narrow channels.
As they went on, danger became closer than before. Bragdon made signs, which could only mean no talking. He steered the raft into a tiny cove covered in a muddle of growth. Agitated, he pointed, while whispering. ‘Grims … go water!’
‘Are we that close? So, you think it’s necessary, do you?’ said Bill. ‘It’s kind of late. Would they be out looking at this time of day?’
‘Muss go water,’ said Bragdon.
One by one, they slunk off the raft.
‘Far out! It hurts like hell,’ said Bill when the salt water hit every scratch.
Charlie frowned. ‘I can’t stand it. Why do we have to do this?’
‘You want the Grims to find you?’ said Jack.
‘I need some cream to put on after this. Can’t believe I didn’t bring any.’
‘Ouch! Yeeh!’ cried Ben. ‘Do we have to stay in here long?’
‘Till closer,’ said Bragdon. ‘Them look … uh … eyes. He pointed to his eyes, having them half-closed. ‘See no good.’ He nodded before he went on with wide open eyes. ‘Now can see.’
They understood from his actions, and sign language, to pulling the raft along to reach land. Closer, Bragdon spied for the right place. Then he jumped off to tie the raft to a spindly branch hanging out over the water’s edge.
The group crawled out of the water, and onto land resembling a mangrove swamp. The area had like a mesh canopy, bursting with twigs and leaves, as far as they could see. Under this roof, and between tree trunks with strangling tentacles, grew long, slender branches in straight lines. All trees and branches formed a colossal arrangement of geometric patterns, growing both vertically, and horizontally. Through the gloom, millions of spiky thorns hung threatening not only from the top, but also pointing out along the sides.
‘I can’t believe this place,’ said Andy. ‘How’re we going to get through that?’
‘That’s as inviting as a river full of saltwater crocs,’ said Bill. ‘You mean we’ve got to get in there?’
‘The whole thing reminds me of a home made oil refinery,’ said Andy. ‘Well, there are no home made oil refineries, but you know what I mean.’
‘I think it looks like a humongous spike mat, or something that’s been turned upside down with a thousand nails hanging down,’ said Ben.
‘Did they build this?’ said Jack.
‘It must be some sort of fortification,’ said Andy. ‘How it was done, I’ve no idea.’
‘It can’t grow like that. It’s not natural,’ said Charlie.
‘Well, is anything natural down here?’ said Jack. He whispered to Ben. ‘Is Sinton around? We haven’t seen him since yesterday. Hope we haven’t lost him.’
‘Oh, yeah, he’s around, but he probably doesn’t want to show himself to Bragdon yet.’
Ben turned to the raft. He quietly counted how many would fit. If they found both pairs of parents, it would be four more people. ‘Jack, do you think it works with four more on the raft? I mean five with Angelica.’
‘Nothing to it,’ said Jack. ‘By then we have dumped the sea gherkins, and the other goods right here. If we need more room than that, we’ll have to figure out something else.’
‘Yeah, I agree,’ said Bill. ‘Hey, I feel as pickled as one of those.’
‘Up … an up,’ said Bragdon, pointing way ahead.
All looked at him.
‘What do you mean?’ said Ben.
‘Muss go … first muss … like so.’ Bragdon scooped his hands full of smelly mud, which he started to smear across his face and arms.
‘What’s that for?’ said Ben.
‘Is that really necessary? We’re not like a commando unit now, are we,’ said Jack.
‘Mighty do … no bite.’
‘So you mean that the spinners don’t like the smell, do you?’ said Andy. ‘How did you know all that?’
Bill was eager to smear his face, arms and legs. He took off his t-shirt. ‘Ben, can you do my back, please? Hey, Bragdon, do you think we can make it in there before it’s too late? I wouldn’t like to go through that jungle of spikes, and spinners in the middle of night even if it’s not pitch black.’
‘No dark … go … soon.’
They watched as Bragdon took off his clothes with his back turned. He dabbed more of the gunk onto his small body, as much as he could.
Bill helped with the middle of his back. ‘I can’t believe that we’ve got to go to so much trouble. But, if necessary, I’m all for it.’
All were covered from head to foot. Charlie had preferred careful dabbing, almost as if cleaning off nail polish. Even if she did go to more trouble, she ended up the same. Her long tresses became mud stained, and she made faces of great suffering.
While the gooey stuff dried, they had a break. Bragdon handed out sea gherkins to those interested. He also offered edible fruits, and eggs from one of the other baskets. Then he pulled out some leafy stems from a small bag hanging at his side, and handed them one each.
‘Eat … no sick … mud bad …,’ said Bragdon.
‘WHAT?!’ Bill was aghast. ‘You mean to say that we can get poisoned by muddy bacteria creeping into our sores. Is that what you’re saying? Does it really help with this little flower thingie against dangerous germs?’
Bragdon looked scared.
Ben had seen his reaction. ‘Don’t worry! He talks like an old person even if he looks like a child. That’s why he sounds angry, but he’s not.’
Charlie started to shake uncontrollably, but no tears came this time.
‘Come on, sweet pea, it’s not that bad,’ said Bill. ‘The quicker we go on, the quicker we’ll be on our way back to Perth.’
‘You’re right,’ said Andy. ‘Nothing else we can do.’ His eyes scanned the prickle mesh as he chewed on the bitter plant. ‘But it’s scary. I had no idea it could be so dense in there.’
‘It’s worse than a mumbo jumbo, and thick as a broom head,’ said Bill. ‘Are you sure you know the way in that chaos, Bragdon?’
‘Door … not know … open.’
‘I think we’ll have to worry about that when we get there,’ said Andy. ‘First we’ll have to go through that damned mess.’
Bill nodded. ‘It sure doesn’t look welcoming. How many arrows do you have there, Whistler?’
‘This many. Whistler held up his fingers on both hands, minus one thumb.
Charlie was quick to respond. ‘Andy and me have some too.’
Andy had been thinking. ‘Yes, at least we’re a bit prepared. Say we can get through this, well, if Bragdon knows the way into the fortress, what do we do, and where do we go from there? Does anyone have any suggestions on how to save them? We don’t even have a plan yet.’
Ben grabbed his backpack. ‘I’ve got the map. Bragdon, since you’ve been in there, you must know if this map is right. What do you think?’
Bragdon had a confused look on his face. He had never seen a map before, and had no inkling if the details were right, or not. He followed the lines with his finger.
‘Ah, well, we’ve got to trust it, I think,’ said Bill. ‘What else can we do?’
Bill and Andy looked at the layout with Howie taking an interest.
Sinton had still not shown himself.
‘I think we’ve got to think about the first thing to do when we get to that door,’ said Bill.
‘I’m worried if we can’t get through,’ said Andy. ‘If it’s locked, we’ve had it. Maybe they have guards on both sides. So, how do you suggest we get past them?’
‘I think we can get in,’ said Ben. ‘But I don’t know what to do if they’ve got hostiles posted there.’
He felt a tug on his t-shirt.
Sinton stood silently waiting.
Bragdon had startled, and moved fast to stand behind Bill.
‘Oh, that’s only Sinton,’ said Jack. ‘Don’t worry! He’s okay.’
‘Have you never seen an ape-like zilch?’ said Ben.
Quickly, as if his life depended on it, Ben ran through about zilches, and how they came to be the way they were.
As soon as he was finished, Sinton pointed to make Ben understand what he wanted.
Ben threw his arms in the air. ‘I don’t have my notebook any more. I don’t know what we can write on.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ve got one,’ said Charlie, rummaging around in her backpack.
As soon as it was found, Sinton was quick to grab both book and pencil.
He wrote fast.
I know what we can do. Touch my arm first, and you will see what I mean.
Ben laid his hand on Sinton’s shoulder.
‘What happened now?’ said Bill, looking around him.
Jack snorted. ‘Where did they go?’
‘What’s with this place?’ said Andy. ‘Nothing’s ever as it seems.’
Charlie looked on the verge of falling to pieces.
As sudden as Ben and Sinton had disappeared, they were back.
Sinton continued his writing.
Hold on to me to be invisible. We should use this to get into the prison fortress. Nobody will know we are there unless we talk.
‘It’s too simple,’ said Bill. ‘Well, it’s not that simple, but it won’t work.’
‘What if it does work?’ said Andy. ‘If we’re invisible, we could easily walk around in there without them knowing. But what do you propose we do with all our gear?’
‘We can’t leave it here in case they’ll find it,’ said Bill. ‘Then we’re sold, completely, and utterly.’
Bragdon pointed away from where they were. ‘Ship hide there … go pricklies … here.’
‘Can we take all our stuff over there? You mean on the raft?’ said Bill.
‘How do we get back here then?’ said Jack.
‘Suppose we have to crawl through,’ said Ben. ‘Nothing else we can do. First we’ve got to try something. Put your hands on Sinton all of you, and we’ll see what happens before we do anything else.’
Everyone grabbed onto Sinton. As the last hand was upon him, he was gone, and so was everyone else.
‘It’s bloody fantastic!’ said Andy. ‘I can’t see anybody, can you?’
‘No, I don’t see anything. Awesome!’ said Jack.
‘Okay, we should try something else now. Everyone let go of Sinton. Hold onto the next person. I mean like one of those conga lines. I’ll hold onto him first. Everybody stand behind me!’
This way worked too.
‘We’ve got to write a note for mum and dad,’ said Ben. ‘If we find them, and we can’t talk to them, say, if there are hostiles around. At least they’ll know what’s going on.’
‘Would they really believe we’re invisible? What if they’ve never heard of zilches?’ said Charlie. ‘I don’t think they’re very common down here.’
‘We’ve got to explain about it in the note somehow,’ said Jack.
Okay, the note has to be right,’ said Bill. ‘We don’t want to spook them.’
Ben was ready with Charlie’s notebook. ‘Tell me what to write!’
Thinking aloud and contemplating all issues, Bill spoke. ‘Okay, let’s see! We’ll start with ‘Dear Pumpkin and Jerry’. That way they’ll know for sure it’s us, and that something out of the ordinary’s going on.’
Bill continued, walking on the spot. ‘Write like this Ben! Don’t get alarmed! Whatever you do, please stay calm. Your family is here to rescue you. We can’t go into details now, but will explain later. You only need to know we found out you’re held prisoners. When you’ve read the note, destroy it. Just so you know, we’re all here: Jack, Charlie, Ben and me, your dad, and we’ve also have help from Andy Crest, and a zilch-man called William Sinton, plus two younger guys, Whistler and Bragdon. Ben is writing the note to you.
Just so you know, William Sinton can do some extraordinary things to make both him, and us invisible. You can’t see us. Bragdon is a young boy who brings food to the Kernel from the north. His parents are stuck in the prison too, and if Angelica Hawk is in there, you must find her, and Bragdon’s parents, so that all of you can come with us. We’re not able to take any more people, as we only have one raft for the rescue. If there are more prisoners, we’ll have to organise something else. A warning! Under no circumstances can the Grims find the note. Destroy it at once! It would be best if you eat it. And wait for our sign before you do anything. We will let you know when the time is right.’
‘Well, that should do it, I think,’ said Andy.
‘Let me see, Ben! Okay, looks fine,’ said Bill. ‘We’ll head off now. Put the note in your pocket! Have it ready at a moment’s notice.’
They boarded the raft again with all belongings before steering out with the pole to make their way into a better disguised cove. They disembarked, and left their gear well hidden at a point much higher up than the waterline.
‘No way I can leave my backpack here,’ said Ben. ‘I’ll need it later. I’ve got things in there. Have to take it with me.’
‘Come on Ben! Leave it here for when we get back,’ said Bill. He changed his mind when he saw Ben’s face. ‘Okay, if you’re so sure, you better bring it. We’ll leave everything else for when we return.’
Charlie bent down to look under the mess of gnarled tree branches. ‘Those sharp-looking thorns are everywhere here too. How big are the spinners?’
Bragdon showed his outstretched hands before pointing into the maze.
‘Big like crabs then,’ said Jack.
‘How do you know your way in that mess?’ said Ben.
‘Know way … back,’ said Bragdon, and showed the way in. The others followed, crawling in a line over the muddy ground between growing pipelines of gnarled branches to reach the spot where they had first embarked.
The going was tough. What everybody feared happened. Shirts and trousers were ripped, but worse was the piercing wherever skin was exposed.
Ben felt utter hopelessness. ‘This is terrible! We’ve got to go back.’
‘We can’t go back,’ said Jack. ‘Whatever happens here, we just have to continue.’
Charlie wailed and carried on. ‘If it’s not the wicked thorns, it’s the evil spinners and they suck blood.’
‘You want to save your parents, and the others, or not?’ said Bill. He had a line of blood running down his cheek, and made a quick swipe. He managed to smear it across.
The distance was short to get back to the first spot where the main trail was located, but dusk was approaching. Too much time had been spent already.
With scratched, and bloodied bodies, they stood around contemplating the next phase.
‘I know it’s hopeless, but we just have to go on,’ said Jack.
‘No other way,’ said Andy.
‘We should go the closest way. I don’t want to be side-tracked in there,’ said Bill.
‘Know way,’ said Bragdon. ‘Papa Scaramoss ….’
Ben saw tears in Bragdon’s eyes, and was lost for words. He felt an overwhelming sympathy for the boy.
‘Let’s crawl through the bloody grater again,’ said Bill. ‘Everyone ready?’
All nodded. Even Sinton.
Bragdon crouched down to enter by crawling into the cramped tunnel inside the gnarled branches intertwined with greenery. He turned and waved them on.
A few meters in everything worsened. The branches grew denser, and the spikes were longer. There was no way to avoid being scratched.
‘Ouch!’ cried Ben. ‘They hurt! They really do!’
Charlie let out an ear piercing scream. ‘WHAT’S THAT NOISE?’
‘THEY’RE COMING!’ Jack was on his stomach. ‘I can’t reach … uh … my pocket. Get some food … fast … anyone …’
‘They’re squealing like pigs,’ cried Ben, trying to fish something out.
Charlie tried to turn around, but was too limited. ‘Throw more … uh … MORE JACK! They’re moving too fast.’
Bill managed to get out a handful of bush tomatoes. He threw them in one hit, while Andy hurled pieces of crisp bread in their direction. ‘You’ve got some gherkins, Bragdon? Throw them, but save some for when we go back, or we won’t make it home.’
‘I can’t hold them back. Aren’t we there yet? Bragdon, where are you?’ cried Ben. He had thrown four sultanas, which were like trying to appease attacking tigers with four meatballs.
The squealing stopped, but was followed by the strangest sounds, almost like slurping. That was their cue. All crawled at breakneck speed up a rise. At the top, they stopped. Through a clutter of spiky wooden branches, they watched the view far down below.
‘Did we leave them behind?’ said Andy.
‘Spinners … down … ‘ said Bragdon. ‘Look! See Kernel!’ He pointed to what could be seen in the distance through the wide prison-like bars.
‘Yeah, I can see it,’ said Jack. ‘But … but … how do we get over there with all that water in between?’
‘Not another puddle,’ cried Bill.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.