Chapter 24 – Grollockian Twine Line

Jack was perplexed. ‘I thought we were supposed to find a tunnel through the Westolian. Ambrosius never mentioned a gate. And he didn’t say anything about a maze with rope bridges either.’

‘Do we really have to walk across on these scummy-looking things? It’s like a thousand year-old rope garden with an enchilada of plants hanging around. It could be totally rotten for all we know.’

‘I think we’ve got to follow his maps,’ said Jack.

Ben wasn’t so sure. ‘I don’t think it looks that safe.’

‘Either we continue across, or walk back to where we came from. Then again, I wouldn’t like to stumble into the arms of the ones with no names. Would you?’

‘I know. They could be close behind,’ said Ben.

Sinton made some noises. He pointed. The boys understood there could only be one choice.

Before stepping onto the ropes, they peeked again over the edge. In between the plant life, growing profusely, they watched the murky waterway roaring far down below.

‘Where’s all that water coming from?’ said Jack. ‘It’s bigger than a river. No, don’t tell me. I know there’s water everywhere down here.’

‘Maybe it’s the flood season, or it could even be the backwater undersurge,’ said Ben. ‘For your info, I don’t like all those gaps. Easy to miss a step.’

Jack seemed to think it over. ‘I thought he said it was a dried-out sea bed. I don’t get this. We could be seriously off course here.’

‘Remember that he also said something about floods? I don’t like it. Those slimy ropes must be rotten. They’ll break for sure. It could even be a massive trap, or something weird, or magic with the whole thing.’

‘Stop the magic stuff for a while,’ said Jack. ‘The old guy said we have to crisscross the many rivulets. Maybe this is it. I thought we had to wade through little creek things. It could be that he meant above water. Many rivulets must mean a huge river. Apart from that there’s no sign of a tunnel up here. Give us your notebook, mate!’

Ben opened one of the pockets on his backpack. ‘I know there was a map I didn’t understand earlier. I’ll find it for you.’ He turned the pages, and found the right one. ‘See here, Jack! You could walk this way, or that way, or in between.’

Ben pointed in all possible directions. ‘Those crisscrosses are just about everywhere. You remember when Ambrosius said the hostiles don’t know the way because it’s like a maze, and they hate this place. I think that if we want to find a way to the other side, we’ve got to follow the arrows on his maps.’

‘I don’t get it. I think it’s screwed. So what does it all mean? It’s just arrows, points and crosses. It doesn’t make sense. It’s more like an unsolvable game.’

‘I know how to read it. I’ll do it.’ Ben regretted what he had said at once.

‘Yeah, okay, if you’re so sure,’ said Jack.

Sinton had tried to catch a glimpse of the map, but was unable to reach. He gave up.

They were ready to make a move. Ben had overcome some of his fears, and was the first to step out on the wobbly, swaying ropes with unsteady legs. ‘Come on, Jack! It’s not that bad.’

Jack was behind him. ‘Hold on at all times! Don’t look down! And whatever you do, don’t let go! And Sinton, wherever you are right now, just follow us!’

They made it to the first interlace section without mishaps. There were three alternatives to choose from. All looked the same.

‘So Ben, which way do we go from here?’

‘From my understanding, we should go the right way,’ said Ben, hanging onto the ropes, while his legs wobbled with the swaying movement.

Jack snorted. ‘’Course we should go the right way. That’s what I’m saying too.’

‘No, I mean the right, and not the left.’

‘Yeah, I knew that. How come you’re such an expert all of a sudden?’ Jack had a twinkle in his eye.

‘Because I’m the only one who can read Ambrosius’ weird-looking maps,’ said Ben, holding the notebook in his hand. ‘Do you know? Nah … didn’t think so.’

Jack pulled the rope to check for safety. ‘I wonder who built this and more importantly why.’

Ben turned around to look at him. ‘Some strong Yowies, I suppose. Who else could’ve done it?’

All of a sudden, it happened. Ben had stumbled, and stood there wailing, and flailing, as the notebook with pages sailed fluttering into the depths.

Jack, aghast, stared down. ‘What the … ! What did you do?’

‘I-I don’t know what happened,’ said Ben.

‘Why didn’t you put it away? You shouldn’t have carried it in your hand!’ Jack slammed his hand on the rope railing. Everything wobbled.

‘But we looked at it all the time.’

‘Still it was dumb not to put it away,’ said Jack. ‘I just hope you know the way from here on because I know nothing.’

Ben wanted to fade away. ‘I couldn’t help it.’

Jack watched the tears forming in Ben’s eyes. ‘Not to worry. We’ll make it somehow. I’ve got a feeling.’

‘A feeling?’ said Ben, wiping his face. ‘You’ve got a feeling?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got a feeling that you’ve got a feeling. You’ll find the way, somehow, won’t you?’

Ben nodded. What else could he do than to try, and lead the way? He just had to. There was no one else to do it. If only he could remember the maps in the note book more clearly. ‘Should I get the Wubicus book out, so we can look at that map?’

Jack glared at Ben, as if he was an alien. ‘NO WAY! The map in there only goes from Boab Plute anyway. And we don’t want to lose that one too now, do we?’

‘I suppose not,’ said Ben.

Sinton was not seen, but once in a while, he made himself visible for a brief moment. He waved them on.

At every interlace section, Jack shrugged his shoulders, and looked at Ben.

Ben, far from sure, tried to conjure up the lost maps, and his innermost feelings. Only, he was far from confident.

They battled on through the crude assembly of rope railings, trying to get a good grip, and not to step wrongly through the gaps.

All of a sudden, Jack tapped Ben’s shoulder from behind. ‘What’s that over there?’

Ben had also seen the pile of something further on. ‘Don’t know. Maybe a dead animal.’

‘Or could it be a body? Out here?’ said Jack.

‘You mean … eh …?’ Ben had stopped, and turned to face him. ‘You find out.’

Jack passed Ben in a few awkward movements, while both held onto the railings. He went over to touch, whatever it was, with Ben sneaking up close behind.

At that moment, the bundle stirred.

The boys screamed.

The roll of clothing turned. A face looked up at them. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

‘Sorry, we thought you were dead,’ said Jack.

‘No way, I’m dead, but sometimes I wish I was. I had just closed my eyes. I wanted a rest. I’ve had enough. This place never changes. I want real sunshine, I want the beach, and I miss the flat open spaces. There’s no way out, not without the Binehogen. So, what are you doing here? I mean the Grollockian Twine Line is a rotten sanctuary. How did you end up here of all places? You two must take extreme care. You don’t want to run into any hostiles, do you? Nobody knows where they hide.’

While he scrambled to stand up with some difficulty, Jack and Ben sneaked a peak at each other.

‘Oh, by the way, I’m Wilbur.’

‘I’m Jack, and that’s my brother Ben. You mentioned ‘the Grollockian Twine Line’. Is that what this is called?’

Ben heard he was nervous.

‘Yes, and it’s usually a safe place here,’ said Wilbur. ‘Not a Grim around. They hate this place, especially at this hour.’ He looked at his watch, and then at Ben. ‘Well, it’s already a quarter past six. Have you found it yet?’

Ben was shocked. ‘What? No … eh … I haven’t.’

‘How come you know he’s looking for something?’ said Jack. ‘And why aren’t you imprisoned by those Grims? We’ve heard they catch humans, and keep them in prison.’

‘Down here many can see in the flames what’s happening, and then it spreads like wildfire.’ Wilbur stared at Ben.

‘NO! CAN’T DO THAT! We need it,’ said Ben, throwing his arms up in frustration. ‘Don’t say it’s yours when it isn’t!’

Jack was surprised at Ben’s outburst. He had no idea what had brought it on. He looked at Ben, and then at Wilbur before his eyes went back on Ben.

Ben was clueless. Had Jack not heard what Wilbur said?

‘Okay, if only I could go back, but it can never happen without it. You asked why I wasn’t imprisoned. I’ll tell you why. You see, it was like this. I was with a bunch of newcomers, but had advance warning, and played stupid … like blub, blub, blub.’ He hit his face with both hands, and then played with his tongue. ‘They took them, but thought I was a complete fool, and let me go. What use is that when you cannot leave this unearthly world ever?’

Ben was uneasy. He had seen through Wilbur, and realised he was far smarter than he pretended to be. ‘I need to talk to my brother.’ He made a sign to Jack, and pulled him away.

Jack stood with his back towards Wilbur. ‘So, what’s all this about?’

‘He’s one of them, for sure,’ said Ben. ‘It happened out of the blue. I knew what he was thinking. He didn’t have to say anything. Didn’t you hear him? Why was he here like he was waiting for us? You tell me that, Jack. Something smells here.’

‘No, I think he was just sleeping,’ said Jack.

‘No, he just pretended to be asleep. And he has a bit of trouble with his leg.’

‘Yeah, but he’s got two legs,’ said Jack. ‘He’s not the one-legged bandit, we know about.’

‘Yeah, but one could be a fake one, couldn’t it?’

‘You could be right, Ben. He could be trying to slow us down, so the others can get here. Who knows how they communicate? Did he really get his thoughts through your mind? It doesn’t sound too good. What do we do now?’

Ben thought about asking Sinton. He was nowhere to be seen, but Ben had an idea. He opened his backpack. ‘Don’t move Jack! That maggot isn’t allowed to see what I’m doing.’

Jack continued to stand with his back towards Wilbur.

Ben took out his pencil. He had lost the notebook, but luckily enough, he had a scrap piece of paper. It was the first copy of the map from home on how to get to the Nullarbor, and the cave. It was folded up with a blank part on top. Ben held it out on top of his hand at the level where Sinton could write, if he was there. Soon enough the pencil was pinched from his hand, and the piece of paper too. Both disappeared into thin air. Ben looked at Jack before he whispered. ‘Did you see that? Did they become invisible?’

‘Maybe because he was holding onto them.’ Jack more or less mouthed the words.

When they were back in Ben’s hands, they read what Sinton had written.

Four options:
1. Push him off Twine Line – murder?
2. Tie him up with vines – assault?
3. Take him with you – keep guard?
4. Escape – I will distract.


Jack made up his mind on the spot, and said in a low voice: ‘What do you say? I think we should ditch him by running from here, as fast as possible. He can’t run that good with only one leg anyway.’

Ben pointed to number four.

They went back to Wilbur who was sitting down seemingly entranced with the view.
Without warning, he started to move about, twisting and turning, which turned into giggling before he went into hysterics. It seemed like he was unable to stop. He went on laughing like a lunatic, all the while rolling around on the bridge.

Ben thought he must be crazy after all. He made a sign to Jack, and pointed before they took off trying their best to step carefully on the swaying ropes.

When Ben turned around, he saw Wilbur hanging from the rope. ‘He’s falling off! We’ve got to help him.’

Sinton had caught up to Jack and Ben. He was visible, shook his head, and pointed onward.

———-

Ben decided fast, which way to go, when they came to intersections. He tried his best to choose the least obvious way in case they were followed.

When he saw the changes ahead, he was relieved. ‘Looks like we’re soon off this hanging garden. Only a few meters before we land on land again.’

‘Can’t wait to walk on normal ground,’ said Jack.

Just as Ben was closer to the end, the worst took place. He slipped through one of the gaps. He was hanging on with his hands on the rope-like liana. At the same time he struggled to get one of his legs over the rope to climb up, while the much out dated rope bridge made all kinds of creaks and yawns.

‘Hang on! I’ll pull you up. Sinton get here!’ Jack frantically scanned the area for something useful.

Ben was too scared to look down, but did so anyway. When he saw the ragged boulders, and the dark thundering water below, he was petrified with fear.

‘Hang on, Ben! I think I see something. No, no, it’s nothing.’ Jack ran off a few steps, and then changed to the opposite direction. ‘I think it’s something over there. Hang on! Just have to check. It could be a rope, or liana, or something. Hang on! Okay, I’ve got it. I’ll throw you one end, and you can climb up. I’ll drag you up at the same time.’

‘Hurry … can’t hold on …’

Jack pulled the rope-like vine, and tested it for strength the few steps back. He made a loop at one end.

‘Check … huh … strong enough … huh … hurry,’ whimpered Ben. He knew it was only a matter of seconds before he had to let go.

Jack threw the looped end down after he had tied the other securely to the structure.

‘Put your foot in the loop, and hang on, but you’ve got to try and climb too, while I pull.’

Ben had his foot in the loop, while Jack pulled for all he was worth.

Ben made a new try to twirl his other leg around the rope above, but it was difficult. The ropes moved, and swayed constantly. He swung around, and twisted, but nothing seemed to work. His arms were already numb, and at breaking point. Like a dead weight, he hung on, and tried not to listen to the crashing of water beckoning from below. He made another try, and almost had it, but realised his backpack was too heavy, and in the way.

Jack saw his predicament. ‘Throw off your backpack!’

Ben was on the verge of trying to get rid of it, but knew it would be impossible.

‘No … can’t do,’ he cried out.

‘Hey, bro, you can do it with, or without!’ called Jack. ‘Just a bit higher up with your leg, and you’re up.’

Ben used the last of his remaining strength to grab hold of Jack’s hand. He wriggled, and twisted, and with Jack’s help, he dragged himself up a few more inches. Before he knew it, he was up.

Jack pulled him the short distance to get off the rope bridge.

Ben stayed flat on his stomach, breathing heavily. ‘Phew! … Huh … thanks … what if … huh … what if you … hadn’t been here … huh … close … so very close.’

‘Don’t worry! I will always save you.’

For Ben it was as if an immense burden floated away to bring on an overwhelming feeling of happiness. For some reason Jack had definitely changed. Jack had become more like the brother he had secretly yearned for his whole life.

Jack wrangled off Ben’s backpack. ‘You managed to keep it, mate.’

Ben stood up on shaky legs. ‘Yeah, because you saved me.’

Jack was relieved, but felt some guilt too. He knew full well that he had not tried to save Ben earlier when he was in trouble. At that time he had been so frightened that he was unable to make even the slightest move. After Andy had helped Ben to get out of the trap in the ground, he felt like a complete, and helpless idiot.

Jack gave Ben a strong bear hug. It was as if he never wanted to let go. ‘You’re the best. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you. You’re my best mate. You always will be.’

A shot of warmth went through Ben’s body. He couldn’t remember that he ever had a brotherly hug from Jack. Everything had changed. Now he knew that together they were ready for what lay ahead. As brothers in arms, they were to outsmart the hostile hunters, and the ones with no names, then find the Binehogen, and rescue their parents. Somehow he felt that the keystone was in the possession of a Yowie boy he had seen in the flames. If he could find him, everything from then on would be easy. With the map Sinton had brought them over the secret way through spikes, and thorns, and how to get into the prison fortress with its hidden passageways, it was fool proof. But it was too early to let Jack know. He knew he wasn’t ready to believe it just yet.

Ben decided to test Jack’s feelings by smiling, and then he nodded. It had the desired effect.

Jack looked curiously at him. ‘What?’

‘You know I can see things you can’t. That’s why I know for a fact we’ll find the keystone, and the others. And then we’ll find the prison, and we’ll save mum and dad. Do you believe me?

‘Yeah, I believe you,’ said Jack. ‘But when we get home, remind me never to go caving with YOU again.’

They laughed and made high fives.

Sinton made some funny noises, and slapped his leg.

‘Is he laughing?’ said Ben.

Jack shrugged, but Sinton nodded.

After a short break, recovering from the ordeal, Jack said he was hungry. ‘But there’s no food around, and they might be right on our heels. So we better get a move on!’

‘How far do you think it is to Boab Plute from here?’

‘How long is a piece of string?’ said Jack.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 23 – William Sinton


Jack and Ben had bolted from Earl Vanning’s house to head full steam into the bush. They knew nothing about where they were going, or if they were followed. They raced on until they couldn’t take another step.

Ben was breathless when he pulled out the notebook with the maps. ‘Phew! … A-are we going in the right direction? Huh? What do you think?’

Jack looked at the map, checked his compass, and pointed. ‘Impossible to-to say where we are. I think we gotta … uh … continue north. We might … uh … stumble on a track along the way. Should be in this direction … uh … if we’re not totally off course.’

‘Do-do you think we’ve … uh … got away from them?’

Jack shrugged. ‘How fast …uh … can a blind man run?’

‘We should keep a lid on it, just in case. Don’t you think?’

Jack nodded. He looked again at the map. ‘So, where do you reckon we are?’

‘I think about here,’ said Ben, pointing to the ground.

‘Smarter by the minute, Bugs!’ said Jack.

Ben laughed, and did a high five. Jack was quick to respond.

After walking for a few more minutes, the terrain changed abruptly from thick, dark and gloomy to less dense and softer. The trees became slimmer, and taller, with no root balls in the crowns. Patches of grasses, and small white daisy like flowers, covered the ground.

‘We’ll head over to the other side,’ said Jack. ‘I want to see what’s behind that ridge.’

From the top, they looked down on flat land covered in sand. They tumbled all the way down before they realised that the sand were in fact the tiniest sea shells. Further on, in between low-growing bushes stood freestanding stone structures with large openings.

‘Hey, Ben, they look like enormous ant hills?’

‘Yeah, just like termite nests.’ Ben peered into the closest. ‘Hope the termites aren’t mega big. Wonder if somebody lives in them?’

‘Doesn’t look like anyone’s here. But, I could be wrong. Oh-oh, look on the ground! Those things look like stony artifacts! Maybe somebody did live here, but I suppose it must’ve been a long … uh … What?’ Jack turned with a worried look on his face. ‘What’s that? I hear something.’

‘Are the baddies closing in?’

Jack pointed to one of the many stone huts, and they moved inside fast.

‘Something’s going on out there,’ whispered Jack. He stood at the opening, peeking out from behind a stone pillar.

‘Can you see anything?’ Ben was behind, and couldn’t catch so much as a glimpse.

Jack turned. ‘What’s it doing here? Did it follow us?’

‘What? What’s happening?’ said Ben. ‘I can’t see from here.’

‘Is that the monkey?’

‘What? You mean … eh … the zilch?’

When Jack took a couple of steps back, Ben had to move as well. The apelike creature entered on two legs, carrying a book, and waving with its free limb.

‘Did you see that, Jack? He waved. He actually waved.’

‘Animals don’t wave!’

‘No, but I’ve got a feel … Ben recognised what the zilch carried. ‘Is that the ‘Words of Wubicus’ you’ve got there?’

‘It can’t talk, Ben.’

‘I know, but I think he understands us. Show me what you’ve got there, please.’

The zilch handed over the book.

‘Did it hear you?’ said Jack.

The zilch made some aggravated movements trying to reach the book, which Ben already held. He seemed to want to open the back inside cover.

‘I think he wants to show us something. Oh, look! I think it’s a pocket inside. What’s in there?’ Ben unfolded a huge, thin, leathery, uneven rectangle. ‘Strewth, Jack! It’s a drawing, or some kind of plan … of what? So, what is it?’

Jack was fast to grab it.

Ben was unable to snatch it back. Instead he had to move over to see.

‘What is this?’ said Jack. ‘Looks like it’s done in four different parts.’

Both stared at what could only be described as a map of something they had never come across before.

One part had what looked like complex passageways inside jumbles of piled up pipelines. Another had an entryway into what could be underground tunnels.

Ben was excited and pointed to a different part. ‘See those craters and puddles! A bit like on all other maps we’ve seen. Could this be the whole route from Boab Plute to the Grim Islands? Somebody seems to have mapped it out. If it is, it would be awesome. And look here, on this one, it looks to be the way to the Kernel. It’s even got cells marked out. I wonder which one mum and dad are in.’ He turned to the zilch. ‘Are you coming with us?’

‘No way, that animal can come,’ said Jack.

‘Jack, get a grip! It’s definitely not a normal animal. It’s a zilch. Maybe it’s like the missing link. It could be because it looks a bit human, and a bit like a small caveman.’

The zilch let out its strange mumbling sounds, and hit its chest.

‘What? Does that mean you’re angry?’ said Ben.

The zilch shook its head in frustration before bending down to search the ground. It picked up a stick, scraped away the top layer before it started to write in the sand.

Ben saw the first letters. ‘He can write!’

Jack was not convinced. ‘So what does it say?’

Ben tried to read, but had to wait for more letters to appear.

‘WILL … I … AM … so what does that mean? WILL … I … AM … and now … SIN … TON?’

Jack was shocked. ‘William, Ben! William Sinton? But who the hell is William Sinton?’

The zilch scratched over what it had written, and started again.

William Sinton. Not an animal. A man on the inside. Strange thing happened. Drawn into mossy water by force. Do not know what happened. Have lived like this since then.

Sighing, the zilch dropped its arms. It stood with the flats of its hands showing. It was like it wanted to show it had nothing. Despite the hairy face, they saw the facial expression.

‘This is just the weirdest place on the planet,’ said Jack. ‘I can’t believe what’s happening here. You’ve been right all along, Ben. It seems like anything’s possible.’

‘Yeah, hate to say it, Jack, but I did tell you.’ Ben turned to William Sinton. ‘I don’t think Earl Vanning knew much about zilches, or how you ended up like that. Anything else you can tell us? Like … do you think they’re following us?’

Ben pulled out his notebook, and gave him the pencil. ‘It might be easier if you write in here.’

The zilch wrote with the boys hanging over him.

Bathroom – looking – peeler of potatoes. Never seen one – heard what you called it – saved time – do not trust Vanning = Snake Harmer – wants keystone – will do anything – dark place – greenery – prison at Kernel – not been inside – only close – map accurate – ran off before them – know they follow – much slower.

‘I think you should come with us. What do you think, Jack? If he can make himself invisible, it might help us. Can you do that whenever you want to, or how does it work?’

William Sinton nodded a few times.

‘I don’t know how it works, but if he can get in there without being seen, I’m all for it. One thing though, if he’s to come, we can’t call him the apelike zilch every time. So what do we call him?’ said Jack.

‘And we can’t call him William, or Bill because of grandpa. We could call him Sinton,’ said Ben. ‘Are you okay with that?’

The zilch nodded.

‘You’re coming with us, Sinton,’ said Jack. ‘We’re heading to Boab Plute. Have you been there?’

Sinton shook his head.

Ben folded up the huge map, and put it back inside the Wubicus book. ‘I’ll take care of it for now since you don’t have a backpack.’

‘It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been to the Grim Islands,’ said Jack. ‘What matters is, if you’ve been here for a while, you might know more about the different types of magic forces in these lands?’

‘You know Sinton can’t answer, so why ask? And we’ve got to get going, so no more writing for now.’ Ben smiled as he put the notebook back into the pocket of his backpack. He thought it was funny how Jack had asked about different types of magic.

———-

It was late in the day when they stumbled onto a gorge. On the way down they discovered that the area was littered with caves. If they wanted to hide for the night, this was the place. Snake Harmer and Eagleperch could not possibly look in every single one. They searched for a cave, which looked less obvious, and found one with the entry hidden behind some bushes.

After a drink from the pool at the bottom, and filling their bottles, they had the best of luck. Sinton found a birds’ nest with eight large eggs. He ate four, while Jack and Ben unpacked some of the pinched provisions, mostly bush tomatoes and what looked to be smoked fish. All found in Earl Vanning’s cupboard. After a frugal meal, Jack offered to take the first watch. ‘I’ll stay close to the opening, just in case.’

Ben had an idea and searched his backpack. ‘Sinton, come on man, here’s a singlet if you want it. I don’t have anything else for you to wear. Might help a bit if you’re cold.’

Sinton gratefully put it on.

‘Looks like a dress,’ said Jack. ‘But don’t worry we won’t laugh at you.’

‘No, we won’t.’ Ben was almost angry with Jack. ‘How would you like to become a zilch?’

‘Hey, don’t get your knickers in a knot!’

Everything was fine. The boys snuggled in their sleeping bags. Sinton chose a nook in the wall. He looked comfortable. In no time they were all sleeping. Even Jack had trouble to keep awake.

In the early morning, everyone woke up at the same time. The rain came down like steel rods, which made it impossible to see through the bushes at the opening.

‘We’ve got to wait until it eases up a bit,’ said Jack.

‘How can it rain? It doesn’t make sense,’ said Ben. ‘No clouds, no rain.’

‘Nothing makes sense here. I don’t know where it comes from. It could be that it’s so much moisture in the air that it’s bound to happen now and then. Or, it could be the fog-rain, couldn’t it?’

‘Or a backwater undersurge?’ said Ben. ‘We don’t know how they work.’

Sinton tried to get their attention by pointing to Ben’s backpack.

‘I think he wants the notebook,’ said Jack.

As soon as he had it in his hand, he started to write.

LEAVE! NOW! No waiting for weather change. If following us, will be here soon. Raining, our tracks disappear.

The boys agreed it was the most sensible thing to do. After checking the cave for traces left behind, Jack swept the ground inside by dragging his jumper in the dirt.

They stepped out through the cave opening. The rain seemed to have slowed down somewhat. With no movements outside, they felt safe enough to fill up their bottles before leaving by climbing up, and out of the gorge. Not much in the way of footprints were left behind in the drizzle.

At the top, they walked on fast to enter a wooded area. The trees grew in split-levels with rain coming through as a misty sprinkler system. Root balls with messy spirals hung low, just above their heads, and the ground was swampy with mosses, and leaf litter. The sombre atmosphere was disturbed by a soft murmur of water, and a constant croaking.

As soon as they were used to the strange, but lush terrain, the region changed. The vegetation became sparser. There were sandy ridges with hoards of seaweed left at the bottom. In other places were large mounds made of mud. Smoke lingered out, and up, as if something inside was burning.

‘What are they?’ said Ben.

‘I wouldn’t have a clue, but it stinks here. I don’t know about this place. Looks like a whole ocean’s been through here. Is it a dried out seabed? All those plants between the ripples looks like dead seaweed. I think they’ve been dragged around by waves by the looks of it.’

‘Do you think it’s some kind of tidal area?’ said Ben. ‘What if the tide hits now?’

Jack shook his shoulders. ‘How would I know?’ He stretched out his hand on top of one of the mounds to wave away some of the smoke. ‘Ouch! It’s hot steam! Not smoke!’

‘So where’s the steam coming from?’ said Ben.

‘From somewhere below, I suppose,’ said Jack. ‘We have to leave. It’s not safe here.’

Ben, Jack and Sinton hurried on by trudging, sliding, and plodding through the mountainous ridges with sand, and wilted plants.

As they stood up on top of the last one, they saw a flat field stretching out below.

‘By the looks of it, it should be plain sailing from now on,’ said Jack.

‘What about the holes down there? They might be deep as anything.’

‘You mean, you don’t want to go down there.’ Jack sighed. ‘But this is the mapped route according to Ambrosius.’

‘But what if that backwater undersurge hits all of a sudden?’ said Ben.

Jack shrugged. ‘Doubt it, mate. There’s no river down there. So, how can it flood? Where would it come from?’

‘You said it must be a dried out sea bed. Maybe down there too. And it’s millions of them holes there. I-I don’t like it.’

‘Come on!’ called Jack, as he slid down. ‘Don’t be such a chicken!’ He was followed by Sinton. Both marched out between the openings in the ground.

Ben waited at the top, hesitating in the longest, before he staggered down.

‘Whatever you do, don’t step into them!’ called Jack.

‘I think we should change course,’ replied Ben.

Jack failed to listen. He moved on without waiting. Sinton followed by walking fast on his shorter legs. Ben didn’t want to be left behind, and was forced to run to catch up.

The walking was awkward through the masses of sand, and holes, and then there were the mound stacks of foul-smelling material.

The air turned humid, and hummed with swarms of mosquitoes. The sandy parts were gone. Grass clumps, and mosses grew between swampy waterlogged pockets.

Jack waved his arms to keep the annoying insects at bay. ‘I’m dead hungry. We’ve got to eat something. Could this area have something to do with the Westolian Sea? Maybe we’re there soon. Strewth! It’s so hot here!’

‘But we’ve got nothing left to eat.’

‘I so hate mozzies. They always like me for some reason. Let’s check again if we have anything left.’

‘Since they’re so big, we could eat them. You try one first,’ said Ben.

Jack shook his head.

Sinton, with his eyes on the boys, sat down on a murky piece of wood.

Jack heaved off his backpack, and went through it in a methodical, but calm way. His frame of mind changed when he found nothing edible. When the gigantic insects buzzed much too close, he lost it. ‘I can’t stand them!’ he shouted, while throwing everything back in his pack in no order. ‘We’ve got to get away from here. I refuse to be mozzie fodder! Cover yourself with a t-shirt around your head, if you’re worried, Ben. Or, maybe not, if you don’t have an extra since you left that when we fled. Have no idea what you can do, Sinton. Hopefully, they won’t like you that much.’

Sinton made a sign, as if he didn’t care one way or another.

Hungry, but tired, they took off in haste.

———-

The reached a new area with wet spots, which turned into large watery pools. In some places the water went up to their knees. They tried to avoid stepping into them.

Jack bent down. ‘It’s sweet water.’

They filled their bottles. With nothing much to eat, they knew it was important to at least drink.

‘Jump on the clumps, Ben, but don’t step in the puddles! I think Ambrosius said something about quicksand, didn’t he?’

Ben was faster, and way ahead. ‘Sounds like running water close by!’

Jack called another warning. ‘HEY! DON’T RUN! One wrong step, and I might not be able to save you this time.’

Without turning around, Ben almost burst out laughing. Jack had not saved him the last time. With Andy’s help, he had saved himself when he realised how the plants in the pit worked.

Before Jack and Sinton were there, Ben stood waiting in front of a long wall of greenery. ‘Is this some kind of fence, or barrier? If it is, maybe there’s a gate somewhere.’

‘What? You mean a Star Gate? That can’t be, can it?’

Ben laughed. ‘No, not a Star Gate. But that fence looks almost like the Great Wall of China. If it’s that high and long, instead of trying to climb over, we can search through all the green stuff if there’s a gate somewhere. Can you hear the sounds of a river from below, behind all that growth?’

‘Yeah, I can hear the roaring,’ said Jack.

Sinton, who had made himself visible, searched through the vegetation at bottom level. Jack and Ben joined in by reaching further up. They rummaged through branches, and leaves to break vines and creepers to find a way to get through.

When Sinton found no anchoring of the structure at the bottom in one place, he eagerly pointed it out to the others.

‘Look!’ said Ben. ‘Could that be a gate right there?’

Excited to find out, all three began to clear away more of the stubborn greenery. Ben and Jack used their pocket knifes to cut off the strong gripping tendrils, which tied the gate into the structure. After their exhausting work, they were able to break it free to open.

On the other side they had to work themselves through a maze of wild-growing hedges before they discovered the most unusual structure, stretching widely, and as far as the eye could see. This was far from one ordinary rope bridge. This was a plethora of rope bridges. There were walkways made of lianas and ropes, both to walk on, and to hold onto, in order to cross a deep valley to the other side. The huge contraption was covered by overgrown mosses, and where the ropes met, creepers and vines sprouted. Here and there were tufts of long slim grasses, billowing in the breeze. All resembled narrow overgrown streets in the air, but dangerously out of kilter.

They stood looking from the cliff edge, unsure of what to do.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 22 – Earl Vanning

Ben was wary. With a scared face, he looked at Jack before they headed towards what was hidden behind the trees.

As they approached the uncanny dwelling, Ben tried to read. ‘Vanning’s Para … something.’

‘Yeah, it’s a weird sort of writing. Vanning’s Paraphernalia, I think it’s supposed to be.’

‘Looks a bit creepy,’ said Ben. ‘But what does it mean?’

‘Lots of different things, I suppose.’

Ben stared at Jack. ‘Yeah, but what does it really mean?’

‘What I’m saying, lots of different things. That’s probably what they sell, or trade, or something. Look at it! The whole thing is like a concoction of sphagnum, and ordinary moss. Throw in some gooey mud, creepy vines, and some rotten logs, and you’ll have some fancy real estate in Panghellan. How could this be down here?’

‘You’re asking me?’

‘Do you see those sharp things on top of what looks to be the door?’ said Jack. ‘Are they spears? It looks like it could be some kind of gate. Maybe they can pull it down. Do you think it’s some sort of protection? From what?’

‘Maybe from us? But what’s all the other stuff hanging around? Those long flapping things.’

Jack thought for a second. ‘Yeah, it’s heaps of them. Wonder what they’re for.’

‘I wouldn’t know.’ Ben pointed to the side of the house. ‘I think they must have some food around since they have plots over there with green things.’

‘Let’s move on!’ said Jack.

As they went closer, and were only a few meters away, they noticed the primitive wooden tools. Rakes and spades made of gnarled branches, and all sorts of wooden pieces were fastened to the outside wall. Baskets had been placed in groups on the bumpy ground. The larger containers had cones, leaves, and what looked to be dried seaweed, while the smaller ones were filled with different sizes of speckled eggs, and various small dried fruits. A collection of wrinkly, moving bands hung from the veranda roof between bunches of other indescribable mummified creatures. All suspended on strings.

‘Snake skins?’ mumbled Ben.

With eyes and ears alert, the boys tip-toed in the direction of the front door, which was hardly an ordinary door. It hung loosely from a woody climbing plant.

Jack was ready to knock, but Ben had changed his mind, and held out his arm. ‘No! Don’t!’

‘I know it’s a weird place, but I’m starving,’ whispered Jack. ‘We can beg for something. A scavenger-prawn wouldn’t be so bad. Even a pickled one would do it for me. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but WATER! I want water! They might know a good water hole where we can fill our bottles.’

‘Jack, whatever you do, don’t say anything about the Silver Stick.’

‘You think I’m stupid?’

‘Another thing,’ said Ben.

‘Yeah, what’s that?’

Ben looked at Jack. ‘I’ve been here before.’

‘What’re you trying to pull now?’

‘It’s true, Jack. If I tell you that there’s an invisible staircase in there, do you believe me?’

‘No, I don’t. We’ve never been here, so how do you know that? And if it’s invisible; how come you’ve seen it?’

‘I’ve seen it in the flames.’

Jack burst out laughing, but Ben shushed him.

‘You know what!’ whispered Jack. ‘It might’ve been something you saw in a movie. Hollywood is known for all their weird stuff.’

Ben had to let it go. It was still hard to convince Jack about supernatural, or magical things.

They waited a few more seconds, looking at one another, and at the house.

Ben nodded. ‘You still want to knock?’

But there was no time for knocking. The door had swayed open.

A larger than normal kangaroo stood on its hind legs with the front ones in a boxing stance.

The boys instinctively took a step back.

Ben couldn’t stop himself from giggling. ‘Do you think it heard us coming?’

‘If it did, it doesn’t look like we’re welcome,’ said Jack.

‘Who’s there?’ croaked a voice from the inner parts.

The boys were taken aback. Ben made a sign, as if to run.

Jack shook his head. ‘We would like to buy some food if you have any,’ he called out before whispering to Ben. ‘How much have you got?’

‘A few dollars, I think.’

There was a creaking, followed by small bumps, as if something was dragged across uneven floorboards.

Out of the shadows a wrinkly old man appeared. He was tall, and thin like a flagpole, and he had a hunchback. His clothes were ragged with holes, and knotted, and frayed like an old-fashioned table cloth.

Ben discovered what he had pulled across the floor, and wanted to flee. A weirdo pulling a carcass of what looked to be a dead kangaroo would not be the one he wanted to ask for mercy, or worse; something to eat.

‘So, what is it you want? Really?’ said the man gruffly. He bent down to stare into Ben’s eyes. His breath was loaded with garlic.

Ben tried not to breathe in more than once.

‘Sorry, to disturb you, Sir, but we’re very hungry,’ said Jack. ‘We’re a bit lost, kind of, and thought you could spare something to eat.’

‘Got any currency?’ said the man, staring at Ben. ‘You’re the green-eyed one? No?’

Ben was shocked. He thought about what to say, but nothing came out.

‘We’ve got a few dollars,’ said Jack, turning to Ben. ‘How much have you got?’

Ben recovered, and had to search for his wallet. ‘I’ve got three dollars, and fifty five cents.’

The man had his gaze firmly on Ben, while he shook his head before pulling at a few wispy hairs on his chin. ‘What about currency?’

‘Yeah, it is currency,’ said Jack, in the doorway. ‘Do-do you have anything at all for that?’

He motioned for them to come through.

Jack and Ben hesitated. They watched from the doorway, as the man turned away to walk across the floor towards a colossal piece of home-made furniture. It was in the shape of an intricate shelf system made of thin, knotted, and twisted tree branches. On the shelves were fancily made, but crappy-looking books, which obviously had seen their best days.

He turned around and called out. ‘Without currency you can’t have anything!’

‘Excuse me, but this is money, Sir! It is currency!’ Jack threw the dollar notes, and coins on the floor.

‘Not the currency in Panghellan, it isn’t!’ screamed the man, as he turned around to step towards them like a towering mean-spirited madman.

Ben was prepared to run when the most amazing thought raced through his mind. ‘What about this then?’ He had pulled out his lucky stone from a pocket.

The man stared at the white stone with a black line. ‘Rosemary, Marigold! Now we’re talking! What about bed and breakfast?’

Jack was astonished. ‘No, that’s not necessary. We only want something to eat. We’re not staying. We’re on our way to the Grim Islands.’

‘What about a smackaroo burger then?’

‘Uh … what … d-do you have something else?’ asked Jack.

‘A stew from yesterday,’ said the man. ‘It’s some left.’

Jack looked at Ben.

With a mouth feeling like the thickest blotting paper, and with a stomach in knots, Ben could only nod.

‘Settled then. Walk through! Don’t be shy! We eat soon. Wait a moment! I need to look for something.’ He began to search carelessly from top to bottom of the shelving system, throwing books hither and dither. ‘I know it’s here somewhere. But where? By the way, Earl Vanning, and who might you be?’

‘I’m Jack and that’s my brother, Ben.’

The eccentric man turned back to the shelf, muttering. ‘Good, good, good.’

He searched a few of the books before grabbing a worn, leather-bound one with a long tassel of straggling bird feathers. He went through the pages, and found what he was looking for. He handed the book to Jack. ‘Show your green-eyed brother!’ he said in a syrupy voice.

The boys looked at each other. Then read silently.

Among the prickle mesh with sharpest thorns
And grimmest spinners with their spiky horns
Stands a wooden fortress in the swaying vines
With decaying walls, and captives in confines

In each of every dampened grime filled cell
Resides a human who may rather live in hell
Forced by hostile Grims to teach in isolation
They live in consternation and damnation

When the green-eyed one in flames may see
The long lost keystone, seize it fast, and flee
At the Phosphene, the keyhole may be found
Place in slot, wait, what follows will astound


A bubble sphere appears, bound for transfer up
Make it through to enter a brighter world on top
Glimpsed, and written down in bloom of youth
Doubt my words, albeit forever know the truth

– Wubicus

‘The green-eyed one? Do-do you mean it’s me? Has someone written something about me?’ Ben found it hard to contain his confused excitement. ‘What does it mean?’

‘Who wrote it?’ said Jack.

‘It’s from the Words of Wubicus,’ said Earl Vanning.

‘And who is this … Wubicus?’ whispered Jack. ‘I thought we weren’t allowed to speak out hostile names aloud.’

‘Bull dust! Wubicus is the one with the greatest insight, but with the greatest deception. He can see into flames, and will know where you are, before you’re there.’

‘Is that something that’s normal down here? We met an old man, and he can see things in flames too.’ Jack was too scared to mention that Ben claimed to have the same gift.

‘To see images in flames happens in these parts. It’s the way some of us communicate. Wubicus is the one with the ultimate gift. I can’t even read tea leaves, not that there’s any tea around.’

‘Don’t say his name! I don’t think we should,’ said Ben. ‘He might belong to the hostiles.’

‘So, what do you reckon, Mr Vanning? Is he a hostile?’ said Jack. ‘And aren’t they sort of the same as the Grims, and the other ones?’

‘May be, may be so. I have endeavoured to keep out of their reach by fortifying my trading post to keep unwanted visitors out. Consequently have never come close to them. Wubicus is an old soul, close to the Hogen. Yes, the Hogen of Grim, an old silver backed Yowie who rules the Grim Islands with more than an iron fist. Sometimes I think it’s that biff Wubicus who rules the roost. He is the head hunter of the hunting patrol, but never hunts, not in person, per se, only in flames, which is more dangerous than lies in the lyrics. Those Grims are the gravest danger to us all decent folks down here. Everyone knows it. Well, you’ve come to the right place because I can help you. I will keep you safe when the green-eyed one has found the Binehogen.’

Ben felt sick and shaken at once. ‘But … eh … how?’

‘So, you know about the Binehogen?’ said Jack.

‘Everyone knows about the Binehogen,’ said Earl Vanning. ‘That’s how it’s always been.’

Jack thought about what the man Wubicus had written. ‘So how did you get that book? If it’s his book, I mean, it seems like Wubicus isn’t somebody you’d want to deal with.’

‘Not by honest means. Oh, no, more like I found it, and took it. It intrigued me.’ He pointed to his forehead, and then to the book. ‘Freshen up?’

‘Fresh …? Oh, yeah,’ said Jack. ‘Great!’

‘South of the corridor,’ said Earl Vanning, pointing the way.

The boys walked through the house in the direction he had shown. There were two doors. The first they tried led to the outside.

‘Must be the other one, said Jack.

Ben was the first to open. Before he fell down the stairs, Jack grabbed onto him.

There was no landing and no warnings. Just a steep ladder leading down immediately inside the door.

‘That was close,’ said Jack.

‘He could have warned us,’ said Ben.

They stood at the top listening to water gurgling down below.

‘I’ll go first,’ said Jack. He descended backwards by holding onto the ladder. When he was safely down the ten steps, it was Ben’s turn.

Both stood in awe at the bottom.

The area had a bathroom setting, but not one they had ever expected to come across. The room was incorporated into a rain forest setting with huge ferns, and a riveting stream running through. The ceiling, composed of twisted trees stretching all the way up to form an intertwined layer on top. That’s where vines, creepers and lianas grew like balls of yarn to hang down like fancy decorations. A rope ladder with a basket, the size of a coffin, hung half-suspended in the cascading water.

‘What the …? What’s that used for? Maybe he dips himself in the river. It’d be like taking a bath, but without a tub,’ said Jack.

‘Not very often. Not if we go by the smell. By the way, I’ll stick to an Aussie splash.’

‘Hey, look at that, Ben! Something’s up there! Do you see? It’s staring at us. Looks like a a monkey, doesn’t it?’

‘I think it looks like a person, a hairy little person. What is that on it? Is that jocks? Monkeys don’t wear jocks.’

‘Can’t be a monkey,’ said Jack. ‘We don’t have monkeys in Australia.’

‘I know, but wasn’t Australia joined to India and Africa aeons ago?’ said Ben. ‘They’ve got monkeys over there.’

‘Hmm … you might be onto something,’ said Jack.

For some reason the animal turned away, as the boys washed their hands and faces. When they were finished, they went back down the hallway where they found Earl Vanning fiddling with food items and bowls.

‘Is that a monkey in the bathroom?’ said Jack.

‘No, that must be the zilch. We call it the apelike zilch. A bit like a monkey in some ways. In other ways, it’s a zilch – a zero. You see, the zilch turns into nothing when it wants to. Sometimes you see it. Other times you don’t.’

‘You mean it can make itself invisible?’ said Ben. ‘How cool is that!’

‘That is so, yes, that is so. But it may also be treacherous.’

‘Just too weird,’ said Jack. ‘I don’t believe it.’

‘It’s the truth. Sit down, my friends! We won’t get the zilch in here. If it was here, it would eat from your bowls, and you would find nothing in there. If you’re hungry, you better guard your food from that one just in case.’

During the meal, despite the disgusting hovel with odours of rotting meat, and scuttling things with nails and claws against the floorboards, Jack and Ben relaxed. One thing led to another, and soon Earl Vanning knew most of their story. He in turn, let them know how he had ended up in the unknown land. His tale was a long one about a medieval abode, Vanningbroke Castle, in the south-west of England, and ended with a day in the Australian bush when the ground had opened up.

‘Here on an innocent journey, I hit some kind of never ending tunnel. I was swallowed hook, line and sinker.’

‘It must have been like a sinkhole,’ said Ben.

‘Possibly so. I could never crawl out of the darned pipeline, not wider than a dandelion stalk. I exaggerate a bit, of course, but to walk upright was impossible. I had to crawl through the length of it. Ate and drank what I could lay my hands on. Not an easy time for one used to the finer things in life. Weeks later I found myself stuck here in this godforsaken place. My regret is that I’ve never found out who inherited my estate. I have no close relatives, only a rat of a cousin. Ah, well, with some luck, it’s in ruins today. And if it isn’t, I don’t think they’ll find my stash of valuables. Nobody knows what the owl statue in the secret passageway behind the fireplace can do.’

‘I don’t know anything about that, Sir,’ said Jack. ‘But can I ask you something? Do you know a man called Ambrosius? He was there when we came through the Eye Socket. He told us about a store or trading post. I think he must have meant your store. He lives at Terra Rowillian.’

‘Shush! Do not mention his living arrangements! What did you say his name was?’

‘Ambrosius,’ said Jack.

‘Don’t really know him. Even so, you need to be careful who you mention his name too. The Grims cannot know where people live. They would capture him for sure.’

‘He was captured, but later freed,’ said Jack. ‘Anyway, the hostiles are not around here. They take the right fork to the Prickle Mesh Haimalyas. We’re supposed to take the left. This one’s on the left, isn’t it?’

Earl Vanning looked concerned. ‘Grims are here, there and everywhere. I don’t know why that Ambrosius character never told you that we have an extremely dangerous place here. This land has an abundance of ill-willing creatures. Tell you what though! I will help you. If you’re on your way to the Grim Islands, you have to go past Boab Plute. Haven’t seen Agrimona for the longest time. I’ll come with you.’

‘I-I don’t think you have to,’ said Ben. ‘We kind of know the way.’

‘Yeah, we’ve got a map, and a compass,’ said Jack. ‘It’s enough, I think.’

‘If you insist,’ said Earl Vanning.

Ben thought it best to change the subject. ‘I like your roo. I haven’t seen any down here until now. It’s big.’

‘Not as prevalent, as up the top. This one’s a joey, and not fully grown.’

The boys were surprised. ‘Must belong to some sort of mega fauna then,’ said Jack. ‘Could it be more of those big ones around?’

‘Yes, the large ones abound. We’ve got all the usual ones from above, but so much bigger here. A bit like the tigers and lions.’

‘You mean like giant marsupial tigers and lions?’ said Jack. ‘I mean like the real mega fauna. What do we do if we meet one of those?’

Earl Vanning laughed. ‘I would say to keep away.’

‘I knew there were lions or tigers down here. I heard one,’ said Ben.

Jack stared at him. ‘When was that?’

‘When I was trapped on my own, I heard a really big roar.’

‘Maybe you thought you did. They’re not exactly right here, are they?’

‘Could be anywhere,’ said Earl Vanning.

The information left the boys uneasy. What if they stumbled on a wild beast somewhere? With no protection, and no weapons, not even a bow and arrow, they knew they were vulnerable to the extreme.

They ate in silence. When finished with the entrée dish of what was indescribable, the old man abruptly stood up. ‘Back in a minute with the main course. No, on second thoughts, it’s far better if you help me. Come with me to the kitchen!’

They ended up in a room, small like a walk-in-robe, with no windows. A flimsy piece of homemade furniture stood in one corner with a furry hide hanging on the front as a protective cover.

Earl Vanning pulled it to the side to reveal the inside. ‘WHAT? The thieving zilch is at it again!’ he screamed.

The creature sat on a shelf. Something looking like a frog’s leg hung from the corner of its mouth. It made a sound, like mumbling. The next moment it was gone.

‘Did it just become invisible?’ said Jack.

‘If he thinks his life is dear, you would think so.’

Earl Vanning pointed for the boys to pick up more utensils from a shelf before he grabbed a much larger bowl, blackened by soot.

‘Is that a skull? From a giant wombat, or something?’ said Ben.

‘Yes, and very handy for stew,’ said Earl Vanning, pointing towards a plaited garland hanging on the wall. ‘Bring a bit of that too.’

‘I didn’t know you had normal food like garlic down here,’ said Jack. ‘Should I break off a clove?’

‘I want three whole bulbs, not sections. It keeps you healthy. How many do you eat each? Yes, I’ve managed to get garlic growing from a couple of cloves I had many years ago.’

‘I don’t think we want any. What about you, Ben?’

He shook his head. ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

They were back at the scruffy table to sit down. Their host began to dish out.
‘Dig in quickly, my friends. The zilch’s around, and may be closing in.’

Ben was guarded. He scraped around with a wooden implement, which was something between a fork and a spoon. With one hand covering the bowl, and with the other holding the fork-like thing, he tried to distinguish every ingredient before he dared put them in his mouth. He saw flower heads, seed pods and something, which could be slugs, and long thin curly lines, reminding him of mouse tails. ‘Excuse me, Sir, what’s in this stew?’

‘Bit of everything, I’m afraid,’ said Earl Vanning.

Ben didn’t like the word ‘afraid’. What could he possibly be afraid of? He hesitated to ask. Hunger took over. He tried to think of fossils, and thunder eggs to keep his mind from mice and larva.

Suddenly, Earl Vanning put his finger onto his mouth.

‘What? What’s the matter?’ said Jack.

‘Is it the zilch?’ said Ben.

‘Can’t you hear the pounding? They’re here.’

Jack was puzzled, but tried to listen.

‘Who is it? Who’s coming?’ said Ben, hearing nothing.

Earl Vanning seemed lost in thought. ‘May well be them. Saw them in my morning fire, but refrained from telling you earlier.’

‘Who do you mean?’ said Jack.

He rushed to his feet, while motioning for them to grab the bowls. ‘Get it! Get everything!’ He pulled up a short piece of wood, which was part of the floor. Food, bowls and utensils were shoved into the hole underneath. ‘Just so they think no one’s here.’

After he had replaced the plank, he raced up to the wall where a rope was fastened to a hook. He loosened it, and pulled. ‘Down with the hatches!’

There were thuds and bangs from the outside around the house. ‘That’s my measures to keep away from conceivable trouble. Doors and windows are covered. Come with me to the tower!’

He took the boys to a square on the floor marked out as a burn mark. He hugged them close.

Jack and Ben were utterly bewildered. They tried to wrangle themselves free.

‘Not to be alarmed! Stay close, or you will not make it.’ He knocked twice on the floor at a precise point, a pencil-thin ordinary knot hole, which wasn’t a real hole.

‘Make it? What’re you on about?’ Jack thought the man must be crazy.

He made a sign to Ben, and whispered. ‘Spaghetti!’

Just as they were to break out of his bear hug, bits of wood started to fall from above. As the pieces showered down through the air, they moved in an orderly fashion. Before the boys knew what was happening, the pieces had assembled into something entirely on their own. From nothing, a spiral staircase had materialised.

Ben was far from surprised, and whispered. ‘You believe me now? I mean about magic.’

Jack was stunned. ‘How did you do that, Sir?’

Earl Vanning shook his head, and shushed them. ‘We’re not safe here. We’ve got to get up there at once.’

He took them up the stairs into a strangely shaped look-out built into the ceiling structure, and through to the outside roof. The stair case, underneath, lifted up and disappeared. Out in the open, they were covered inside the tower. They saw not only all the way down to the ground, but also to a fair distance from the house.

‘Don’t worry! We’re safe here. They can’t see us, and they will not find the staircase should they be so brave to enter my abode. It’s gone for now.’

‘How can that be? And why can’t they see that, or us? Where did the staircase come from? And where did it go?’ said Jack.

‘Better be quiet,’ said Earl Vanning. ‘It’s best if they don’t know we’re here. They could hear us, but inside this fortification, it’s impossible to see us.’

‘What about the front door?’ It was kind of loose,’ whispered Ben. ‘Can’t they get in there?’

‘The spear gate has been activated,’ said Earl Vanning. ‘Quiet now! They’re close.’

‘Over there, Ben! Kenairies with all nine sons!’ Jack had tried to talk quietly, but Earl Vanning had heard him.

‘Never set eyes on him, only heard of the ruffian,’ he said. ‘Well, they don’t often leave their domain, and I’ve got no desire to visit. But what would those scoundrels be looking for? Here? I’ve got nothing of interest.’

Jack and Ben watched as Kenairies came stomping with the most important members of his tribe; his older sons, Arizindo, Jocush, Therkel, Washeld and Horek plus four more of the younger ones. Grain, his grandson, was with them too.

When they heard the tribe struggling to get into the house by pulling, scratching and huffing, Ben remembered what he had in his backpack. ‘The crystal!’ he whispered in Jack’s ear.

A loud crash came from below followed by a sharp cry. Somebody was hurt in the process of breaking in.

‘I don’t know why we’re doing this,’ said Earl Vanning. ‘That horde is not even remotely related to the Grims. They’re supposed to be kind of peaceful collectors, or so I’ve heard. What I’m saying is that we could go down there. Maybe offer them something to eat. No?’ He had seen their horror-struck faces. ‘What are you so incredibly scared of?’

‘They’re not that peaceful. We were prisoners there. They wouldn’t let us leave,’ said Jack. ‘And there’s something else.’

‘No, Jack! Don’t!’

‘What is it?’ said Earl Vanning.

‘We’ve …eh … escaped from them,’ said Jack. ‘I don’t think they liked it because we were teaching them things they didn’t know. They want to know lots more.’

‘So, they want you back. Is that what you’re saying? Really?’

‘Yeah, definitely,’ said Jack.

Ben nodded.

‘I’ll go down and explain to them. You can stay here.’

‘NO! Please, don’t!’ begged Jack.

Earl Vanning’s forehead wrinkled. He said no more, but stayed.

During their hardly audible conversation, loud noises came constantly from downstairs.

‘Well, if they don’t find what they’re looking for, I would take it they’ll leave,’ said the old man.

Fifteen minutes later, a large tumult was heard before the place turned quiet. The tribe had walked away as noisily, as they had arrived.

Earl Vanning made a move. ‘We should go down. But, I’m curious to know something. Can we agree that you’re the green-eyed one?’

‘I suppose I could be,’ said Ben, as they went down the stairs, which again had appeared out of nothing. ‘I would like to know how you do that.’

Earl Vanning never replied. ‘So, tell me, how do you expect to find the keystone?’

‘I’m not sure. I’m scared of finding it now. I’ve heard that everybody wants it. If I find it, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We might be in more trouble than ever before.’

‘Give it to me then!’ said Earl Vanning, forcefully, while struggling with a rope to pull up the hatches. Rattling and banging came from all ends of the house, as they went up.

‘I-I don’t think that’s wise,’ said Jack. ‘We need it if we want to go back home. But you could come with us if you want. We could come back here to let you know when we’ve got it, if we get it.’

‘It would be better if you let me take care of it, as soon as,’ said Earl Vanning, sneakily.

‘But I don’t know if we’ll ever find it,’ said Jack.

‘I’ll have to think about what to do when it’s found. You should not be on your own with it. It’ll burn holes in your pockets. Well, literally speaking, of course.’

Ben had listened, but had trouble understanding. His mind was off in a different direction. ‘Have you been to many other places down here?’

Earl Vanning sat down on a small cart, which was placed upside down on the floor. ‘I can’t say I have. I don’t often go anywhere, and never seem to get visitors. Why?’

‘Have you ever seen a place totally overgrown with stuff? A kind of dark and mossy place built with wood, big rocks, and blocks of stone. And lots of balconies hanging on the outside.’

‘I can’t say I have. On the other hand, every building is rare down here. And every building is how you describe them. Not many are as magnificently hideous as mine though. Oh, look, at the time! It’s almost a quarter past six.’

Ben and Jack glared at the old gnarly grandfather style clock.

‘How did you get that clock?’ said Jack. ‘Not something easy to find down here, I don’t think.’

‘Found it in a flood years ago. The backwater undersurge must’ve brought it down here,’ said Earl Vanning.

‘Okay, but it doesn’t seem to work very well,’ said Jack. It had been ten past six since they entered the room long before dinner.

‘It’s only half past twelve,’ said Ben, after a glance at his watch.

‘No, it’s, as it always is, at this time of evening,’ said Earl Vanning, looking at the clock.

Ben sneaked a peek towards Jack.

‘No, I don’t think you understand,’ said Jack. ‘You clock has stopped. I don’t think it works.’

‘No, I don’t think you understand. Time here is always ten or quarter past six. It doesn’t matter what time it is. It never changes even if the light changes. It reminds me that I’ll have to catch the Nomad.’

‘Catch the nomad?’ said Jack.

Ben was as confused as Jack. Both looked at one another, then back at Earl Vanning.

‘Well, he’s coming through around a quarter past six. That is, of course, when and if he comes.’

‘What do you mean?’ Jack had trouble understanding.

‘He’s an old wanderer, traversing this land in leaps and bounds. He goes by the name of Simon Eagleperch, but is known by others as the Nomad.’

Alarm bells went off, but Jack’s eyebrows told Ben not to say anything. Ambrosius words about keeping away from Snake Harmer, Eagleperch and Ironforce kept ringing in Ben’s head. They were the ones who would murder, and plunder to get the keystone.

Jack could not hold it in any longer. ‘Do you know who that is? He’s dangerous. He would kill for the keystone.’

‘Really? Oh, no, old Eagleperch wouldn’t hurt a fly. Surely, you don’t believe that to be the truth … huh?’

‘Oh, yeah, we’ve heard all about him. You should be careful. He’s not who he seems.’

‘Well, since you’re so worried about him, you can stay here. I have to look for him outside. Oh, I nearly forgot. I have something for you.’

Earl Vanning pulled out a small leather bag from a pocket, and handed it to Ben. ‘That’s what’s left of your currency. I might be many things, but honest I am. Ah, well, at least when I want to be.’

Ben looked at the small white stones. If that’s what they used in Panghellan, he would use them sparingly. They were not that easy to come by.

‘Okay, we’ll stay here then,’ said Jack. ‘Can we check your books, while you talk to him?’

Earl Vanning nodded and left.

The boys were alone.

‘We’ve got to get away from here now,’ said Jack.

‘But you said we were going to look at the books,’ said Ben.

‘I only said that to keep him happy. We won’t let him know more than he thinks he knows. Haven’t you realised that this old guy is actually the one who likes snakes if you catch my drift?’

‘You’re kidding!’

‘Let’s face it, Ben! Those things hanging on the veranda must be snake skins, and the way he talks about the Binehogen is more than suspect.’

While talking, he had walked to the front door with Ben following. When he opened a fraction, they saw the kangaroo resting on the veranda. Earl Vanning paced behind a couple of tree trunks some distance from the house. There was no sign of anybody else.

They stayed in the doorway, waiting to see what he was up to. Their host walked around, glancing, often in one direction.

When a dark shape appeared down the track, Ben turned livid. ‘Look! He’s coming. Must be him. We’ve got to go now!’

‘Hang on a sec,’ said Jack.

They watched the figure, dressed like a monk with a hood covering most of his face. He seemed to be feeling his way with a long stick. When he happened to point the stick to the legs of Earl Vanning, both laughed.

‘Is he blind?’ said Ben.

‘How can he hunt for the keystone if he’s blind?’ said Jack. ‘This is so incredibly scary. We’ve got to get away now.’

He pushed Ben inside. Then shut the door fast. ‘There’s that door to the back. If we get out there, they won’t see us. Have to get our stuff first.’

As they picked up their belongings, Jack looked out through an opening between the wall boards.

Earl Vanning and the nomad were in deep conversation. Only it seemed less jolly now.

‘Head to the bathroom!’ said Jack. ‘First we have to get some food from his pantry.’

‘Not enough time,’ said Ben.

Jack had already decided what they had to do first. ‘Provisions!’

After the visit to the kitchen, they hurried on to the bathroom. Jack rummaged around in his pack. ‘Get something from your stuff, anything at all!’

Ben pulled out his extra t-shirt. ‘So, your plan is to leave something here, and they’ll think that we’ve left through the river. You mean swimming through his sewer?’

‘That’s the idea, yeah. We won’t, of course, but even so, it’s fresh water all the time. Pull off the one you have on! Leave that here!’

‘Okay, then,’ said Ben, searching through one of the pockets. ‘This could be good.’ He left a potato peeler beside his t-shirt before putting the fresh T-shirt on.

‘What? Tell me you didn’t bring potatoes!’

‘You didn’t bring potatoes. But I brought a potato peeler. I thought it would come in handy for something. I think they’ll pick it up, look at it, and can’t figure it out. If they’ve been living down here for a really long time, they might not know what it is. We could get some extra time to get away.’

‘You could be right. Actually, pretty good thinking.’

They messed up the place by throwing a few more things from the bathroom on the floor, and then went back to the other side of the house.

Both looked through a gap in the wall.

‘Come on! We haven’t got much time,’ said Jack when he discovered the men on the move, coming closer every second.

They scrambled to reach the back door before Earl Vanning, and his friend were to enter the front of the house.

Jack had imagined it to be easy. He had seen when Earl Vanning pulled the rope to release all the hatches. Hopefully, the door would still be unlocked, and they would disappear into the bush.

Jack grabbed the knobbly door handle. He tried to open, but it wouldn’t budge. ‘It’s stuck! You try the handle, while I push.’ He leaned with his body against the door.

Ben tried with his t-shirt around the handle. He pushed with the weight of his body at the same time as Jack.

They struggled and pulled. Nothing worked.

‘They’re getting closer! Come on, come on!’ said Jack, with his teeth clenched. ‘This is no good.’

‘Let me try something else!’ said Ben. He tried another firm grip before he pushed the handle upwards instead of down, while at the same time pulling the door towards him.

Both were stunned.

‘Can’t believe it worked!’ said Ben.

‘I hear them! They’re coming! Run, Ben, run!’

They were out of the door in a flash, and took off through the wilderness.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 21 – Trapped

Ben held up a pair of dirty, worn to oblivion, ugg boots.

‘What the …?’

He threw them to Jack. ‘Mum’s old uggies.’

‘But … eh … we must’ve thrown them out years ago. Well, if they don’t fit, I’ll cut off the toes.’

‘What?’ Ben stared at him.

‘Okay, I just meant the toe part,’ said Jack. He tried one, and it was okay. ‘I can’t believe you saved them, and then brought them. ‘How come you had enough room? But thanks to you, I won’t go barefoot all the way.’

‘Got them from the bin, but I never showed anyone. I had them in my wardrobe, just in case they came back. I had a feeling … So I took them with me.’

‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but glad you did even if it was kind of a stupid thing to do,’ said Jack. ‘But only at the time.’

Ben found his missing sneaker under a bush. Both socks were inside.

Jack rummaged around, and found an extra pair of socks in his backpack. After putting them on, plus the uggies, he emptied his water bottle in one big gulp. He glanced around the area. ‘Hey, I think I can see some sort of trail over there.’

Ben wasn’t interested in the trail. He had noticed a fickle movement from the nature around them. It was as if trees and vines increased in size every few seconds. All waved, and swayed, even though there was no wind. ‘I-I think we should leave right now. Can’t you see how everything moves?’

Ben tied his sneakers, as fast as possible, while Jack packed the last bits. When ready, they looked up at the same time. They were astonished. Something unfathomable had happened in the few seconds it took to get organised. Now there were bizarre movements all around. Spellbound, they watched, as masses of sprouting plants popped up before turning into saplings, only to end up as fully grown trees. All happened in a few moments.

Jack cried out. ‘Ben! Wh-what’s going on here? What is this?

‘I-I think it’s too late. Something’s happening. And it’s not good,’ said Ben.

‘DO SOMETHING!’ Jack twirled, and twirled, the hem of his t-shirt.

‘What? I don’t know what’s happening, but I don’t think we can get through,’ said Ben. ‘It’s almost like what happened to me on my own. Must be some kind of trap. But who’s doing it?’

Jack shook a couple of steady tree trunks. Leaves in green, yellow and brown fell like cornflakes. ‘What is this? Trees don’t grow this fast! NO WAY!’ He tried to fold away branches, and leaves, but where one layer finished, another one had already started. Before their eyes, the woody trunks accumulated with vines, and creepers, into an impenetrable cage-ring.

‘AN AMBUSH! THAT’S WHAT IT IS!’ screamed Ben. He used his pocket knife, but every small hole he managed to cut closed again with interweaving twigs, and leaves.

By now, Jack was frantic. He pulled and struggled. Some of the plants broke off, but new ones took their places at once.

‘I don’t know what’s happening, but let’s try something!’ Ben pulled out the silver veined crystal from a pocket in his backpack.

‘What the …?’

‘Yeah, but I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you think. Grain gave it to me when you were pushed into the map room before me. I hid it quickly. He whispered that we might need it, and told me to leave it later. Then he was gone. I don’t know what he meant. Either he meant for us to use it to get out of the map room, but I knew what to do anyway. Or maybe he meant to get out of this trap, and leave it here. I hope they don’t find out it’s missing before we’re out of here for good. I wouldn’t like for Kenairies, and his bunch, to come after us. Unless they’re already on our heels.’

‘Are you out of your mind? You shouldn’t have taken it.’

Ben shrugged. He pointed the crystal towards the fast growing wall. ‘Earlier you told me to take it. Too late now. We’re here. And we’re stuck. We have to try it.’

Jack held onto his forehead with eyes closed. Creepers and tendrils continued to move onto him. ‘Wait a minute! Let me think!’ When he opened his eyes, he moved his head from side to side.

‘No time to think.’ We have to do something now.’ Ben moved the crystal. The slithering vines, and creepers, shook and rustled.

Jack became hysterical. He screamed. ‘YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!’

Ben shook his head, as he watched more creepers sneaking in through the bottom, only to plait themselves into the encircling frame. The structure, already compacted, became an even tighter packed fortress.

‘I-I’ve got to do something else. We’ll get squashed if it doesn’t stop.’ Ben fumbled with the crystal, but dropped it. He bent down quickly to search the leaf litter.

Jack was beside himself. ‘GET IT! DO SOMETHING! DO IT NOW!’

‘WHAT?’ Ben screamed, as he snatched through the leaves.

‘COME ON!’ Jack fought with the creepers, which had begun to twirl around his neck.

‘I can’t find it! Ben began to panic. Desperately, he shoved his arms through piles of leaves around him.

Jack was in strife, trying to pull away all the green stuff encircling his body.

Ben used his pocket knife. He sliced through vines, and pulled away some around Jack’s neck to make it easier for him to breathe. Next he dropped down again to crawl on all fours, scrambling around with his hands sweeping, and throwing leaves around, while more kept falling down like a constant rain of confetti.

When he found the stick at last, Jack was struggling with his breathing. Harsh whispering sounds came out. With his hands he showed Ben to be faster when moving the crystal in an upward motion.

‘What do you mean? Up? You mean the upward thing?’

Jack nodded.

Ben was quick to do the movement.

Nothing happened.

Jack shook his head, while trying to hold off the layer around his neck. He signed to Ben that he wanted to try.

‘Yeah, you do it!’

Jack grabbed it, while trying to hold the swaying vines, and creepers at bay with the other hand. He did a quick, but longer push upwards. But the vigorous plants continued to make their way into the framework.

Jack’s breathing became more anguished. He was forced to hand back the crystal before he had another fight with the plant life by pulling, and thrashing anything coming too close.

Ben, holding the stick, closed his eyes. He tried to imagine the wall moving up. He willed it to lift, as strongly as he possibly could, before he went through the same motions, only more forcefully.

When he opened his eyes, he was surprised. The impenetrable wall had lifted a tiny fraction.

Jack struggled to talk. ‘Yes … yes … not enough … more.’

Ben concentrated again, and imagined the wall rising higher, as he made another movement. The wall rose a tiny bit further. He threw himself down to sneak a quick look underneath. He tried to flatten the backpack, but was unable to push it through. He had to use the crystal again. The wall went up a few inches. He decided to point the crystal right onto the vines around Jack’s neck. He willed them to let go. They loosened slightly.

‘Come on! We’ve got to get out of here fast,’ said Ben, before sliding through with his backpack pushed in front.

Jack managed to follow with a massive amount of loose greenery hanging onto him.

As they stood shaking outside the plant structure, massive creaks, and rustles, came from within. A few seconds later, the strangely built-up cage collapsed. The whole thing started to disintegrate.

The boys stared at the spot where the enclosure had been, and then at each other.

‘WHAT HAPPENED?’ said Jack, trying to rid himself of everything green hanging onto him. ‘How come plants can build into something like that? And then come crashing down? I don’t get it.’

‘How could it just disappear? Nothing’s there! Nothing! This place gives me the creeps. Nothing’s natural. Did you notice that the stuff only attacked you, and not me? I think it had to do with that I was holding the Silver Stick.’

‘Could be,’ said Jack. ‘Nothing is normal here.’

‘Did you see my magic trick? You saw that it worked. And don’t say that there’s nothing like magic because you’ve seen it yourself.’

‘It wasn’t a magic trick, Ben. It’s the real thing. But it could also be some sort of mechanism ….’

Ben frowned.

Jack saw the look on his face. ‘Okay, okay, only kidding. It must be real. Magic is real.’

———-

The dusky evening had turned grey and cold. The fog-rain seemed to hang in the air. As they plodded through waterlogged grounds with swamps, and small pools of water, they were soaked.

‘Do you think a flood’s been through here?’ said Ben.

‘I-I-I wouldn’t know … It-it’s likely, I suppose.’

Ben was silent. He worried about more flooding. Jack’s condition worried him too.

Jack threw off his backpack before slumping to the ground under a tree. He was shaking uncontrollably. ‘I think w-we should camp here. W-w-we sh-should make a fff-fire. It-it sh-should be safe.’

‘How can you say it’s safe when we don’t know who’s after us? Put on a jumper, or something, if you’re that cold!’ Ben was comfortable with a spray-jacket on top of his jumper.’

But-but we-we need to w-w-warm up. D-d-dry our clothes-s-s. I-I just wish-sh-sh I had a jumper. It-it was so hot when we left … I d-d-don’t know if I had it … b-b-but I-I might’ve lost it. We’ll just make sm-sm-small one, if we can find s-s-some dry wood.’

Ben searched through his backpack. ‘Hey, Jack, try this one!’

‘H-h-h-how come you-you brought that?’

‘Had a feeling, it’d come in handy. It’s dad’s old jumper. Try to warm up! Get into your sleeping bag, while I’ll get some wood.’

Ben returned with a couple of branches, and some kindling. He put the pile in front of Jack, who with shaking hands, and despite the dampness of the wood, managed to get a small fire going.

Both were hungry, but had nothing to eat. Wet and shivering, they sat close together for comfort. Before long, Jack slid down. He closed his eyes. Ben assumed he was asleep. He worried about his brother. What if he had a fever? He desperately needed the security of somebody wiser and older, someone like his grandpa. He also craved the comfort of having Charlie around.

He felt Jack’s forehead. It was quite warm, but maybe it could be worse. Overcome by the strangest feeling, he grabbed another piece of wood. He put it carefully on the fire. While he sat staring at the flames, deep in thoughts, a picture flared through the small blaze. At first it was a dark shape in a narrow beam of light, but when hairy legs and arms became visible, he realised it must be a Yowie boy holding on to a bag. He also knew he had seen him before, but had no inkling of where. Only that he didn’t seem to be from the Baffling tribe. Just as the boy looked up, and was to open the bag, the picture faded away.

Ben was stunned. He felt ill at ease to have lost the little he had seen. Desperate to find out more, he tried his hardest to recall what had happened. He closed his eyes tightly before opening them again. When a new picture emerged, and then one more, he was eager to find out what he had almost discovered before, but there was no sign of the Yowie boy. But the images kept coming. They turned into a movie. Something changed. Now the others were there, but something was wrong. Andy was first, followed by Whistler holding onto Charlie’s hand, all three running, while turning their heads repeatedly to look behind their backs with anxious faces. As they approached the biggest Boab tree he had ever seen, everything stopped abruptly. No more pictures appeared.

At that point he felt like screaming out in frustration, but was hit by something else. It was like a thunder boomer on a sunny day, totally unexpected. He had been blessed with the most significant insight. He had gleaned bits of the future, the same as old Ambrosius.

He was interrupted by the sight of Jack, mumbling in his sleep. He took off his spray-jacket, and put it across Jack’s upper body.

Jack shivered in his sleeping bag. He hallucinated about the most fantastic pasta dish. In his feverish mind, he put onion, garlic, a few flakes of dried chili in the big old iron pot, and sautéed the whole lot in extra virgin olive oil. Then he added the best minced beef, plus pinches of salt and pepper from the grinding mills. He chucked in two bottles of the special Italian tomato mix. To this he added leaves of fresh basil and oregano. He searched the fridge for a piece of hot Pepperoni he knew was there, but the fridge was empty.

His mind went in all directions. Feeling a tad bit warmer, he began to massage his aching stomach. When he realised where he was, his thoughts went off in a new direction. Now they went to their neighbour at home – Mrs Chiavelli. If only he could step into her kitchen for a meal instead of sleeping in the open in a weird cave world, with no extra blanket. Not even a pickled thalami, or the smallest water lily to munch on.

Jack stretched. With the jumper on, he snuggled in his sleeping bag. He sighed, while he watched Ben, curled up, sleeping soundly.

The night was chilly and damp, but exhaustion took over. Jack went back to dreaming.

As they slept, side by side, none noticed when the drizzle killed the fire.

———-

With morning came better weather. The rain had stopped, and it was lighter.

Both woke up by a harsh croaking sound. Four black and white birds, the size of emus, with pinkish necks, and no head feathers, encircled the campsite. Their eyes were dark and not moving.

‘Jack,’ whispered Ben. ‘They look kind of weird. It’s like they’re waiting for something.’

‘I think they’re carrion birds,’ said Jack.

‘Carry on where?’ said Ben.

‘NO!’ screamed Jack. ‘They eat dead things. We’ve got to get out of here before they … ATTACK! Get your stuff! Run!’

With no time to pack, they dived to pull up their sleeping bags. They threw them over their shoulders before seizing their backpacks.

The birds screeched, fluttered their wings, and made small hops.

‘Where to?’ called Ben with his arms full.

Jack shrugged, but pointed with his head. ‘Over there! That way!’

They took off with no way of knowing where they were going. Forcing their way through thick undergrowth, they jumped and sprinted, aimlessly. When they reached a small grass-covered glen, they stopped for a breather.

Ben turned. ‘Do you … huh … actually think they would have attacked?’

‘Down here … huh … anything’s possible … you know it … huh … and I know it.’

Ben put his backpack on a clump of grass to pack away his things. ‘Sounds like you’re feeling better. So where do you reckon we are?’

‘Yeah, I feel okay now, but I think we’ve lost the actual track,’ said Jack, trying to squash in the last bit, the old fleece jumper, but it didn’t fit. He had to tie it around his waist. ‘Where’s the map?’

Ben brought out his notebook with the drawings. ‘Where do you think we are? Is this the right direction?’

Jack checked the compass. ‘If we can find a trail, any trail, we should be fine. Remember how Ambrosius said that most trails lead to Boab Plute. Unless we hit the trail used by the hostile hunters. Hope not. Well, no trail here, so let’s look over on the other side.’

They strode through the soft grasses across the open area.

‘Jack, I’m scared.’

‘Don’t worry, Ben! If it’s no trail, we’ll head north-west. We can’t go wrong. They don’t use that direction.’

‘Hope not!’

There was no track on the other side. Only dense scrub land. After a back-breaking stint making their way through, it appeared to be the last of the difficult terrain.

Jack wiped his forehead. ‘Glad to get out of that!’

‘Hey, Jack! Look down! See, what I see?’

‘Oh-oh! We’re on it! And we didn’t even notice! And look over there! It looks like a fork. This could be it. We should go left at the fork, or what do you reckon? See any footprints? Grandpa and the others could have come the same way.’

‘What about those? Looks like the ‘barefoots’ we saw earlier! They’re pretty big. Could it be the hunting patrol?’

‘They’re definitely on the right track, I mean not the wrong one, and we were told to take the left. I can’t see anything else, can you? Are you with me that we’ll take the left? We’ve got to make tracks … eh … yeah … you know what I mean.’

Ben offered Jack a high five. Both were happy, and laughing.

———-

The boys followed the track towards north-west. Hours went by with nothing to eat, and nothing to drink. Their situation was sombre. Hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, they chose a couple of rocks to rest on.

Ben had slowly gone through his backpack like a forensic expert without finding anything of substance. He had done it at least five times.

Jack searched his backpack for the third time. ‘Nothing! Nothing at all! Not a single seed. Not even a squashed bush tomato. I don’t want to die of hunger. We don’t even have a drop of water left. If it’s so wet around here, it should be heaps of waterholes.’

‘We could suck up water from the moss. We might have to since we’ve got nothing. You know how Ambrosius said that nothing in the bush down here will poison you to death. Yeah, that’ll be right. If there’s nothing, we can’t even get poisoned, even if it was possible.’

Jack turned his head in all directions. He spied something through the trees. Squinting, he tried to distinguish what was there. ‘What the …? What’s that? Over there? I can see some sort of sign. It looks like a … What? … Could it be a house? Here?’

‘What does it say on the sign?’ Ben tried to see what Jack saw.

‘I can’t read it from here. We’ll have to get closer.’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Merry Christmas

Now it’s Christmas time, and I still have many chapters left to publish. There will be more adventures before the story is finished. When I work through the chapters again, which I wrote a few years ago, some go faster, others take longer. But there will soon be a few more posted on this page. Around 34 chapters in all, unless I combine a few.

Hope you’re following the story about the Starlings, and their fantasy adventures, filled with magic, and not only scary times, but with some fun moments too. Everything started when they went to explore one of the many caves in the south of Western Australia, where they happened to enter a hidden, unknown land.

If we try and go back in time, the truth, not fantasy, seems to be that Gondwanaland included most of the landmasses in today’s Southern Hemisphere; Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, and Australia. The Arabian peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent were also part thereof, but slowly, slowly moved into the Northern Hemisphere.

The following photos are from an ancient remnant of Gondwanaland. We were there, in a rainforest area left behind in Hellyer Gorge in Tasmania, a few years ago. Just to explain where I found some of my inspiration.

If all that was possible millions of years ago, why can’t there be an underground continent, which came to be partly submerged, or hidden, when the landmasses broke up? Maybe only for those who can imagine. 😁

So, this is my imagination about a mysterious world hiding beneath the dusty crust of the Nullarbor. Null arbor means no trees. Yes, it’s an enormous, but almost treeless plain. It’s also a karst region, honeycombed by a massive amount of limestone caves, even blowholes up to a couple of hundred meters long, supposedly connecting to the ocean. Some caves contain skeletal remains of Australia’s early mega fauna, which I find very interesting. You can read more about this on the link.

Caverns give up huge fossil haul

Link to Owner of Photo

My husband and I, with our three children, drove across the Nullarbor in 1980, from Adelaide to Perth, a stretch of around 2,695km. Took us four days. With young children we took it easy, and stopped at many places. One such place was at the Great Australian Bight where we were able to whale-watch a mummy whale and a baby calf frolicking in the waves. We stood on top of the high cliff wall worried about our children, and the possibility of the ground crumbling away.

If you were to enter the puzzling land with its limestone caves, blowholes, tunnels, waterlogged terrain, swamps, sinkholes, dried out seabeds, and strangely growing forests, you may be doomed. There is no way out – not without the Binehogen Keystone.

Ben Starling, is the only one predicted to find it. But how can he find it, when he doesn’t know what it looks like, and it’s not lost downunder, but above in Australia, where they can’t return. Not without the keystone. Hmm … Catch 22?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 20 – Imprisoned

The new ways, taught by Jack and Ben, had not been experienced by the Yowies. They seemed to catch on, and were eager to learn. The boys had fun, and the days went fast.

Every new development happened at lightning speed. In less than a week, some caves were abandoned when a few moved into small huts. All built according to instructions from the boys. The Yowies had an insatiable thirst for change, and greedily absorbed what they learned.

To transform ideas from the world above into something useful down under took time and effort. Every available hand had to help, which meant that every single one crawled into their nest at any hour to get some well-deserved rest. When time came for the boys to curl up in their foul smelling nests, they were too worn-out to be bothered.

During a few days, rickety primitive, and kiosk-looking cottages sprouted from the ground to resemble the way of living in the world above. Only these were built in a cartoon-like miniature format. All were one room dwellings, and not big enough for even the smallest of families. The one room had a king-size nest in the ground for the whole family to share. Some plain furniture, a log and a few boulders, were added. To make the dwellings homelier, the windows were decorated with curtains made of paperbark, or straw, with potted ferns adorning the windowsills.

There were dirt walkways between houses where it was barely enough space for a shop to be erected, but up they came, space or not. Signs were produced and added. First were Leeches Lane and Snail Square.

In just a couple of days the village began to resemble a shanty town. Apart from House of Therkel and Washeld’s Wash Place, close to the stream, there was another filled with oddly shaped clay bowls. Dried in the sun by young Yoldia, they could unfortunately not hold any liquid. The shop was called Paris Plums on Jack’s suggestion. According to him it told everything there was to know. Another, Cornwall’s Corny Wall, sold wall hangings made of grasses with hard to distinguish images. They hung on the walls mixed with junk from the trash chamber. A third was decked out like a museum with old stuff, mostly broken or bent, and with misshapen wooden plates, old cutlery, and a few hubcaps. Jack named the shop The Little Shop of Horek’s Horrors.

‘I can’t believe how much stuff we’ve built,’ said Ben. ‘I mean they’ve built. They can open souvenir shops any day.’

Jack spun on the idea. ‘If we ever get out of here, maybe we can start with tours down under. And it’ll be the real down under.’

‘Yeah, if you think about it, we could sell trips to Panghellan for thousands of dollars,’ said Ben. ‘People would be baffled. They wouldn’t know what to expect, and if nobody comes back, they can’t ever complain.’

Jack laughed. ‘Smart thinking, but they can get back because by then the one with the greenest eyes would have found the keystone.’

‘I know, but where? And why am I supposed to find it? At first I was sure it’d be around this place, but I’ve looked everywhere. I can’t find anything looking like a stone key.’

‘Hey, Ben, we should leave tomorrow. Our problem is the camera. Where is it? We should take some photos as evidence first, and then we need to get back to where I took off my sneakers.’

‘But we could ask them about the camera, and how to get there, couldn’t we?’

‘Nah! I don’t trust Kenairies. We can’t say anything. He might try to stop us. They could be related to the hostiles from the Grim Islands somehow. Have you thought about that?’

‘Okay, then, I’m with you. Can’t wait to see the others,’ said Ben.

‘I can’t wait to meet that Whistler guy. I want him to make me a bow, and some arrows. We need some form of protection against the hostiles. Not forgetting the ones with no names.’

‘So how do we get out of this place?’

‘I think I know the way,’ said Jack.

———-

In the early morning hours, Jack and Ben made their move before the clan had started to stir. They whispered, while getting ready.

‘We’ve got to leave now,’ said Jack.

‘I would’ve have liked some pictures,’ said Ben.

‘We can’t worry about that. If we can get away before they wake up, we might make it to the spot with an enchilada of plants, and some weird-looking trees with bundles of threads hanging from them. It was some sort of fluffy stuff like you see in movies shot down in Mississippi in the US, seriously ghost like, woo-ooh. You know what I mean?’

‘Yeah, it’s called Spanish moss.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I just know,’ said Ben. ‘Okay then, from some program on TV. But I wouldn’t know why something like that grows here.’

With their backpacks heaved on, they were ready to sneak off when a sudden rustling came from behind.

Startled, they turned to see Kenairies. He came stomping towards them with his arms going haywire. As soon as he stopped, one of his feet scraped the ground like an angry bull. He screamed, as he pointed with both hands to their backpacks. ‘NO! Knowledge, you learn knowledge – NOW!’

The sudden commotion made the whole village stir like a disturbed ants’ nest. Alerted, but drowsy, they came out of doors, windows or cave openings, wailing and flailing.

‘This no happen,’ called Therkel.

‘We want school,’ screamed Aranoa, stomping his feet. ‘NOW!’

‘Me no wag,’ said a sullen Croker.

Kenairies shouted orders. ‘Put away-runners in prison. No easy cave prison. Put in maps.’

‘What’s that? ‘Put in maps’?’ said Jack, looking at Ben.

They were resolutely hauled off.

‘Don’t worry!’ whispered Ben. ‘I know the place.’

Kenairies whistled, and called out. ‘Silver Stick!’

‘What … eh … what do you think you’re going to do to us?’ said Jack, struggling to get rid of his captor. ‘Whatever it is, it’s not on, you hear!’

Ben whispered in Jack’s ear. ‘Don’t worry! Just do what they say. I know a way out. Nothing to it.’

Cornwall, out of breath, came running, and stumbled, holding onto a crystal. It was long and slim with silver veins running through.

Jack tried to talk with his hand partly covering his mouth. ‘Hey, Ben, what do you think?’

‘Don’t know what they’re up to with that,’ said Ben.

‘You think it could be the Binehogen? What if it can do things?’

‘Do things? Or you mean magic?’ said Ben. ‘Could it be the real keystone? Why would it? It doesn’t look like a key.’

‘Yeah, but we don’t know what it’s supposed to look like, do we?’

‘But it’s definitely not a key, Jack.’

They watched as Cornwall passed the crystal to Kenairies who strode along with an outstretched hand.

Young Grain came up from behind. ‘What is you do?’

Kenairies never answered. He just pushed him away.

Grain, sulking, followed behind.

‘Should we make a run for it?’ whispered Jack.

Ben shook his head like he was trying to get rid of something annoying. ‘No! We’re surrounded, but don’t worry. I know how to get out. I’ve got an escape route.’

‘You’re sure?’

Ben nodded.

‘How sure is that?’ said Jack.

‘Sure enough,’ said Ben, and winked. ‘Wait and see!’

They arrived at the Boab, and stepped into what Ben thought of as the magic circle. Kenairies pointed the crystal to the tree trunk, and made a sign in the form of an upright rectangle.

‘What sort of hocus pocus are you trying to do?’ said Jack. His eyes widened when there was a ripping and a cracking, as a line formed in the bark. In seconds it transformed into a shape of a door frame.

Ben was thrilled. ‘Jack! Did you see that? It-it could actually be the keystone, couldn’t it? Maybe that’s how it works.’

‘Doesn’t look much like a key.’

They watched as Kenairies twirled the crystal before hitting the shape on the tree trunk. Out of nothing, a real door with a handle had materialised.

‘I saw it, but it just can’t be true,’ said Jack. ‘You can’t do things like that with a plain crystal.’

‘It’s not a plain crystal! It’s a supernatural crystal. I think it’s some sort of magic wand.’

‘Magic wand, or not, I think I’ve got to believe you. If you’re supposed to find the keystone, and this might be it, you should try and get it from them.’

‘How do I do that?’ said Ben. ‘Steal it right in front of them? How’s that possible? Do you really think it could it be the Binehogen? No, I can’t just take it. Think about what they’d do to us if I did!’

They were pushed roughly by Arizindo, Jocush and Horek through the opened door, and onward through the murky inside.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Jack hit out at Horek, but was brushed off like a bit of dirt.

Ben lost his temper and screamed. ‘Crazier than dunny rats! So this is your thank-you for what we’ve done for you?’

There were no replies. Instead Jack and Ben were forced through the inside of the Boab, into tunnels and chambers. They ended up at the rusted toilet bowl.

Kenairies didn’t use the umbrella handle to open, but pointed the crystal. Again, the wall cracked, and a doorway appeared. It was in the same position where Ben had entered on his earlier visit on his own. Only larger now.

Kenairies handed the crystal to Grain. Then he watched as the prisoners were brusquely pushed through.

‘Why are you doing this to us?’ said Jack. ‘We’ve done nothing to you. Well, correct that. We’ve helped you, a lot. Ben has and me too. Is it so hard to understand that we can’t stay here? You can’t keep us prisoners. It’s just not on.’

‘Grims do. We do,’ said Kenairies from the outside, as Therkel and Jocush left two torches to light up the inside.

Ben turned around. ‘Just because they’re doing it doesn’t mean you’ve got to be the same. Have you never heard of individuality?’

Kenairies turned to Jack. ‘You stay. Want more knowledge. We bring eat a ‘fore sleep time.’

Jack was stunned. He was unable to stop what came next. The group of Yowies disappeared. So did the door. The boys were left on their own.

Jack had trouble believing what he had seen. He became frantic, circling around the room, looking at every wall. ‘What happened? Where’s the door out of here? Where’s your bright ideas now, mate.’

‘Hang on! Have to do something first.’

Jack calmed down slightly, and began to study the small room with four walls, and nothing else. ‘I-I don’t know how to get out of this mess when the door’s gone. But another thing, what did he say about eating?’ said Jack.

‘I don’t think I want to stay, and find out,’ said Ben, fiddling with his backpack.

‘You have any bright idea what to do then? Stop that mucking around, will you? We’re locked in. Four walls, no doors, no windows! We’ve got to plan something. Take them by surprise when they come back with the food.’

‘No worries! I’ll get us out of here. Check the walls first, will you?’

Jack shook his head. ‘It’s no good. They’re solid, and we’re stuck. Where are your bright ideas now, mate? There’s no way out. We’re imprisoned! This is bad, so bad.’

Ben pointed to the maps.

Jack went up to read the place names.

‘Yep, that’s right, study them up close,’ said Ben. ‘I’m a bit worried that it’s longer to those islands than we first thought.’

‘Or, we were led to believe. Ambrosius didn’t tell the full truth now, did he? Do you think he could be some kind of spy, or something? Maybe he’s in cahoots with the hostiles. He couldn’t just have forgotten to tell us all the important bits now, could he? Maybe he’s steering us in the right direction, so they can capture us. Just too easy, isn’t it? Oh, no, look! That can’t be right! Look at all those places on the maps! We don’t even know if the map is done to scale. It’s going to take ages before we get to Boab Plute.’

Ben mucked around with a stone in the wall by using his pocket knife.

‘STOP IT!’ screamed Jack. ‘Don’t you remember what loose stones can do? NO! Whatever you do! DON’T!’

But it was too late. Ben gave it a strong push. Two thuds were heard from the other side of the wall.

Jack lost control. ‘YOU’RE OUT OF YOUR MIND! TOTALLY AND UTTERLY!’

Ben was as calm, as a glass of milk. ‘No, it’s perfectly alright. Trust me.’

‘What about the ceiling? It might cave in. It might crash on top of us. You’re crazy!’

Ben had his arm inside to find the handle. At the same time, he pointed with his other hand. ‘There! On the wall Jack! You’ll see what happens.’

He pulled the toilet chain.

As soon as he did, the ripping, and cracking started. The crawl-through hatchway at the bottom of the wall opened up. ‘See that? That’s what I call an emergency exit. Get our stuff!’

‘NO, NO, NO! Don’t go in there! It could be some sort of mechanism. It might close on us.’

‘Stop being so paranoid, Jack!’

‘I’m not paranoid, but this place is not what it seems. Does that doorway have anything to do with the door they kind of ‘drew’ to get in here?’ Jack had stressed the word ‘drew’ with finger signals.

‘This isn’t exactly magic, Jack. This could be some kind of natural thing that I discovered when I was here before. I don’t do magic. Come on! We’ve got to leave before millions of creepy crawlies come out from between the rocks at the bottom. Grab the torches!’

Ben crouched down to slither through the tight passageway by pushing the backpack in front while holding a torch with the other. He was out in no time. Jack, with his larger body, had more trouble. He managed to get stuck in the middle when his t-shirt was caught on a sharp point. When he struggled to get free, he ripped it on the shoulder. ‘What the …?’

‘Put a lid on it out here,’ whispered Ben from the outside. ‘This is their favourite jaunt.’

Jack was through. Ben closed with the umbrella handle, and put the stones back in place. He told Jack about the possible escape routes. They had to find the particular one Angelica must have chosen to get away.

‘What’s that? Somebody’s coming,’ whispered Ben. ‘Follow me!’

Ben had the route imprinted on his mind from his previous escape attempt. Now he had to trace it backwards. He knew the way. If necessary, the pebbles were there to point the way.

He moved on with Jack hanging onto his heels. In places, he stopped to check before taking off again. Just as they were going past the chamber with the mushrooms, Ben pointed. ‘Hey Jack, I think that pile of pebbles in there must be their bank. Maybe it’s the vault. I think they said that Angelica had to wash the pebbles. Maybe they wanted to say she had to watch them.’

‘In their crazy world, anything is possible. Hey, do you see what I see?’

‘What? Is that my sleeping bag over there. Looks like it,’ said Ben. He took a few steps inside to grab it. ‘Yeah, it’s definitely mine. So, they stole this too. Oh-oh, is that over there yours?’

‘Can’t believe it!’ said Jack, and grabbed his. ‘Come on now! We have to hurry.’

‘Could you carry two backpacks?’ said Ben. ‘I’m thinking about Andy’s.’

‘Better not. Could be too much. Would slow us down. Especially if we were followed. Is it much further?’

‘Nearly there. Follow me!’

They reached the storeroom. Ben slowed down for a few seconds to grab a few birds’ eggs, and a handful of bush tomatoes.

Jack was fast to do the same.

Ben pointed to the large basket. ‘We’ve got to do down under there. Help me!’

They moved it to the side.

‘You’re sure?’ said Jack. ‘You’re saying you’ve done this before?’

‘Yeah, this is where I went. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the dark.’

Before they dragged the basket back in place, Ben went up again. ‘We need more food on the way.’

‘No, you’re crazy! Get down here NOW! Before somebody comes! What if they find us?’

Ben grabbed a few handfuls from the closest container, and shoved all into his backpack.

The basket was hauled back on top before they hurried down the steps.

‘You’re sure you know the way?’ said Jack. ‘Because I can tell you that this doesn’t look good to me.’

‘No worries mate. I know what I’m doing.’

Before they continued, they fastened their sleeping bags to their backpacks. Ready, they hurried on, while holding up the flame torches to light the way.

At the area with several openings into other tunnels, they stopped.

‘I told you before how I felt a breeze coming from the outside,’ said Ben. ‘I thought it was the tunnel Angelica took, but now I don’t think it was the right one because I ended up at the banquet chamber with all the trash. Remember? Behind the waterfall.’

‘Think Ben! Think which one it could be. I don’t know. I’m not like you. Can’t you get the sort of feeling that you sometimes get? Just try it!’

‘I’m trying my damn hardest. No, I can’t think of anything.’

‘You’ve got to try harder,’ said Jack. ‘You know you can do it.’

Ben stared at the many openings before closing his eyes. He tried to feel where the coolest air came from. When that didn’t work, he used all his senses to conjure up an image of which tunnel would be the one to lead out of the cave system. After the longest time, he opened his eyes and pointed. ‘It’s this one!’

‘You’re sure? Absolutely sure?’

‘No, I’m not, but that’s what I get.’ Ben went quiet.

Jack stared at him.

‘Okay, take it or leave it!,’ said Ben. ‘But we’ve got to hurry.’

‘Okay, we’ll take our chances. We’ll go that way. Have to trust you.’

They were off into another murky passageway, not knowing where it would take them, or if they were followed.

Pebbles slid, and rolled under their feet. Tree roots, and spider webs hung from the ceiling to slither around their bodies. They stopped at intervals to listen for sounds from behind.

‘Yuck!’ said Ben, as a drape of the clingy stuff brushed right in his face.

‘Jack sighed. ‘Can this be the right way? Through all this bad stuff? Something isn’t right.’

‘Haven’t been here before. But it could be …’

‘What? Could be what?’

‘I mean it doesn’t look like it’s been used that much with all these spider webs hanging around. Maybe Angelica didn’t come through here.’

‘Or, it could be the breeding season for all sorts of spiders,’ said Jack. ‘I wonder how big they’re down here. See that light? Is that the end?’

‘Yeah, I see the light. And I know how big they can get. I’ve seen one, and you wouldn’t want to mess with him, I can tell you. But I did. I had to kill it before I was to be bitten.’

They walked faster. At the end, they had to climb over a few boulders to reach the light at the top. On the outside, they brushed themselves off to get rid of every trace.

‘No signs of Angelica anywhere,’ said Ben, looking around.

‘Did you really think we were going to find her in there, or out here?’

Ben never answered. He swept his arm out fast to smack Jack on the shoulder.

‘HEY! WHAT YOU’RE DOING?’

Ben stomped on the ground. ‘Did you want to keep it as a pet?’

‘What?’

‘You had one on you, a really big one too.’

‘You’re kidding? Oh, that must have been huge,’ said Jack when looking on the ground. Nervously he checked his arms and legs. ‘What about my back?’

‘No kidding,’ said Ben. ‘There’s nothing on your back, mate. Check me too!’

When done, it was time to move on. Before they left, they searched the area for recent activity, but there was nothing. Instead they found a trail.

Ben looked at Jack. ‘What do you think? Have you been here before?’

‘Yeah, this could be it,’ said Jack. ‘The forest looks dense enough from what I remember.’

They took to the trail with branches hanging low above their heads. The flourishing vegetation made it difficult to move.

‘Why is it always so thick?’ said Ben, climbing over moss-covered rocks to fold away sweeping branches between lianas, and strangler figs.

‘Don’t get too close to those slinkier fronds!’ said Jack. ‘They look a bit like the stingers around Multus Arbor.’

‘Hope not. But Jack, are we still on the right trail? You think this is part of the Alkasar Forest? Was it this thick when you walked here before? Anything you recognise?

‘It was a bit like this … eh … but I don’t think I remember it that well to tell you the truth.’

Ben turned to grab Jack’s arm. ‘What do you mean? You said you could find it.’

‘Yeah, but I don’t recognise it now. Something’s happened. I don’t know what’s going on around here.’

Ben was alarmed. ‘What do we do if we can’t find the place?’

Jack shook his shoulders.

‘We have to find it, Jack. Nothing else we can do. We can’t go back.’

Tired and wary, they lumbered on, not knowing if they were followed. They chatted quietly about the others, where they could be, and how to find them.

‘Have you worked out how to get there yet?’ said Ben. ‘We’re walking in some kind of blindness. Haven’t you seen anything familiar? Anything at all?’

‘Nothing much, but we can’t leave this track.’ Jack stopped, scanned around, and stopped in one direction to stare. ‘What’s that over there? Look Ben! That’s the enchilada of tassels I talked about. Our escape route could be around here somewhere.’

They scampered about trying to find the opening where Jack had come out before he ended up by walking into Baffling.

‘You can’t find it. I don’t think it’s here. Tell me more about what it looked like,’ said Ben. ‘I’m so hungry. I want something before we go on. What’s left?’

‘Not much. Too bad we never had time to grab more food,’ said Jack.

‘You wouldn’t let me. Don’t you have anything?’ Ben searched through the pockets of his backpack.

‘No, I thought you did. When you went back to grab some more, what did you get? The eggs are gone too. I can’t believe we ate raw eggs. Birds’ eggs at that, blah!’

Ben grinned. ‘You eat chicken eggs.’

‘I know, but it’s not the same now, is it?’

‘Still a bird!’ Ben held up a bar of chocolate. ‘I’ve got this.’

Jack was quick to grab it. He broke it in two pieces. ‘Here!’

‘That’s not fair.’

‘Oh, yes, it is,’ said Jack.

‘No, I don’t agree.’

‘I say it’s right,’ said Jack. ‘Why argue?’

‘But how come I should get more?’

‘Because I say so, but don’t worry I’m not that hungry anyway.’

Ben’s eyes widened. What had happened? Jack was overly friendly, and not even hungry.

———-

Jack was the first to notice. He remembered the exact tree from earlier. The trunk had roots, which grew above ground to form a hollow cage.

He rushed up to point through the gaps. ‘That’s it, mate! I remember now. This is where I came out before I caught up with you. See! A couple of roots are broken off. I think I did that.’

Ben peeked into the hole. ‘So, this is it?’

‘Don’t you recognise it? You must’ve been here as well. I don’t think you can get to Baffling, and the rain forest without coming through here. Unless there’s more than one way.’

‘If I was here, I wasn’t even conscious, which might be right ’cause I don’t remember anything. If you’re so sure, let’s get in there. Could lead us to the place before we were lost.’

Jack made his way through the root cage. Ben followed. That was the easy part. It became so much worse when they entered a limestone encrusted tunnel. Long calcite formations hung from the top, while thick, short ones had formed into natural side panels.

‘Was it like this when you went through here?’ said Ben.

‘Hmm … not sure, but I suppose,’ said Jack.

They made it through after what seemed like an eternity of swerving and ducking. At the other end, they dragged themselves up by hanging onto long thick roots.

On the outside, between trees, hung myriads of vines and creepers. ‘This is it, Jack! The freak place! Like those over there, the swaying ones. The area was full of them. More than what is here now. Hard to explain, but I was tied up. No way I could move. It’s too dangerous to stay here. Look! There’s one of my sneakers! Where’s the other one? What about yours? Didn’t you say that you left them here?’

‘Yeah, I did, but they don’t seem to be here. Not now. Why would yours be here, and mine not? It doesn’t make sense. You know what this means? I’ve got to go barefoot all the way to those creepy islands. Through all that prickly stuff, and those other things? That’s going to be hell on earth. A bummer if ever there was one.’

‘You mean the hornlike spinners,’ said Ben. He heaved off his backpack, and started to pull out all his gear. At the very bottom, he found what he was looking for.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 19 – Development

Ben’s haphazardly plan to escape had failed, but deterred he was not. Next day he decided to come up with a new strategy. He needed to think, and strolled down to the riverside. While trying to make plans, he shuffled over the stony ground before he arrived at the area with small flat stones. He picked up a handful of chucking ones, and skimmed them across the water.

A sudden clattering came from behind. ‘Hey, am I glad to see you!’

Ben turned in a heart beat. ‘Where did you come from?’

‘I’ve been going around for days without as much as a footprint from any of you,’ said Jack. ‘So, where are they?’

‘You mean the others? They’re not here. I’m by myself. I got lost after you disappeared. Where were you? Do you know where you are?’

Jack shook his head. ‘No, do you?’

‘You’re with the rain forest tribe. You know the ones Ambrosius talked about. I think he called them the Rainlanders. They’re the real thing. They’re real Yowies, Jack.’

‘Don’t start that again! You know I don’t believe in mythical figures.’

‘I’ve met them. I’ll take you there, and you can see for yourself. You can meet Kenairies, and all nine sons. Plus many more. You thought I was dreaming when I talked about canaries, but one is actually called Kenairies. It just spells differently. He’s the boss around here.’

‘Okay, okay, first we should talk about how we’re going to find the others.’

‘You never met Whistler, did you?’ said Ben.

‘Who’s Whistler?’

Ben told the story about how Whistler had walked into their campsite, and how he had promised to help them with the rescue. Since he was good with a bow and arrow, he had showed them not only how to make them, but also how to use them. ‘I don’t know where my bow is, but I think I can make a new one,’ said Ben.

‘Okay, we need all the help we can get. Be fun to meet up with him.’

‘So, how did you find me?’ said Ben. ‘I don’t even know how I got here. I tell you, this place is weird. Wait until you see the big Boab tree, and all the tunnels under. And, oh, yeah, I’ve got to show you what’s behind the waterfall. I know that will blow your mind. Awesomely harsh. So, how did you find me?’

‘I walked on and on, trying to find all of you. Then, for some reason, I came across your sneakers close to a hole in the ground. And your sleeping bag was there too. It was after I got away from some freaky tree roots. Believe it or not, I know it must sound crazy, but I think they tried to tie me up. I had to get away through the hole to escape. Actually, I thought I’d find you down there, or that the tunnel would lead somewhere. Well, it led to this place. I think it’s like a different world. Looks like that swampy, forest place in New Zealand with all the green moss. You know which one I mean? It was on TV recently.’

‘Yeah, I reckon. Know what?’ said Ben. ‘I had a lot of stuff happening around me too. I was enclosed in some kind of plant cage. Couldn’t get out. All of a sudden I woke up here, in a different place. Could the Yowies have tried to trap you, but for some reason got me instead?’

‘Bugs! Yowies don’t exist! Don’t believe everything grandpa tells you!’

‘You have no clue, Jack. But why don’t we head off to the village, so you can see for yourself? It’s totally awesome. I don’t think they squint. Ah, well, one does. Why are you barefoot?’

‘I left my sneakers there with yours. I thought it must be a reason why you’d left them. Okay, then show me what you think is here.’

‘I didn’t put my sneakers anywhere. Not the sleeping bag either. Don’t know where they are.’

Jack explained more as they walked on to find the village, and the tribe. Ben went through about his escape attempt, and how he had found out that Angelica had been there together with the backpacks.

‘I wonder where she’s now,’ said Jack.

‘Nobody knows,’ said Ben. ‘Or, they’re not telling. Hope she’s okay somewhere.’

As they neared the village with Yowies moving around, Kenairies crawled out of a cave. He stood up, and walked fast towards them.

‘Is-is that a Yowie?’ said Jack. ‘He struts about like a peacock on a catwalk. What’s that around his neck? Is that keys? But not the one we’re looking for, I take it?’

‘Who you?’ said Kenairies.

‘I’m Jack Starling. I’m his brother.’ He pointed with a shaking finger towards Ben.

‘What do here?’ said Kenairies.

‘I’ve come to pick him up. You’ve got a problem with that?’

‘Well come to Baffling! You like here?’ Kenairies smiled his lop-sided smile.

‘Thanks mate, but we can only stay for a short while before we head off to the islands up north, or more like northeast.’

‘Grim? What you want in Grim?’ said Kenairies.

‘Haven’t you told them about mum and Jerry?’ whispered Jack. ‘And why is he from Scotland?’

‘I think I did. I’ll tell you about the Scottish later,’ said Ben, close to his ear. ‘It’s a story in itself.’

‘Okay, you see, our parents are prisoners at the Kernel in the Grim Islands, and we’ve come to rescue them,’ said Jack.

Kenairies burst out laughing.

‘What? What’s so funny?’ tried Jack.

Kenairies slapped his legs, and seemed unable to stop. He wiped away a few tears with his hairy arms.

‘I don’t see the funny side of it. They’re actually prisoners. How would you like to be a prisoner there?’

‘How to do? You mean take out prison? You have smuscles, no? Need big and strong … um … parents like Kernel, no? You want stay Baffling!’

‘I don’t believe you,’ said Ben. ‘Why would they like it there? And why keep them locked up if they’re not prisoners? You tell me that, Kenairies.’

‘They learn the Grim.’

‘Learn the Grim?’ said Jack. ‘You mean learn their language? Do they have their own?’

Kenairies looked confused.

‘Or you mean our parents are there to teach them? said Jack. ‘It’s not a bloody one-way exchange program. They’re prisoners, and there’s nothing to it. If you don’t understand that, I don’t know what your motives are here either. So, why’s Ben’s stuck here?’

‘Jack, don’t make them angry, or we’ll never get out of here.’

‘You learn much. We want learn much. Go udder land, and come back. Stone can do.’

‘Stone?’ said Jack. ‘Did you say stone? Do-do you mean the Binehogen Keystone?’

Kenairies walked off, turning to shout behind him. ‘What is name? Break bubble and wall! Look!’

Jack turned.

Dozens of Yowies came towards them. ‘What the …?’ Jack made a rapid move to stand closer to Ben. ‘Are they dangerous?’

‘Don’t worry, they’re pretty cool.’

———-

In the evening, after another peculiar meal, which was Jack’s first in Baffling, Ben showed him where to sleep in a borrowed foul-smelling nest. Jack took it in his stride, and tried to get comfortable.

As usual at night time, Ben’s mind slipped into an endless stream of questions. Where were the others? Had they found Boab Plute? Had they already left the plain with the Boab trees, and gone through the blowholes? Were they hit by the backwater under surge? Had they headed off to the Grim Islands without them? Or where they waiting at Lemirius Rock? Would they ever find any of them? The only comfort he had now was that he was not alone. He had his brother.

He turned to Jack. ‘We’ll have to catch up, wherever they are. They don’t know much about this place. It’s just too dangerous down here.’

‘I know,’ said Jack. ‘But first let’s have some fun.’

‘Do we have time?’ said Ben.

‘Forget about time!’ said Jack. ‘First we need your camera. We have to find it, so we can record what’s here. When we get back to Perth, we have to show everyone that Yowies are real. Don’t you think we should have some fun, while we’re at it!’

‘Okay, but don’t let anyone know we’re about to leave.’

Jack nodded.

Ben started on a few great ideas for the village. When he came to the part of building shacks with wooden stumps and branches, Jack was snoring.

Ben turned to the other side. Why was it always so hard to fall asleep? How come every single thought whirled around in his head without getting anywhere? Instead of counting sheep, he began to count Yowies. There were Washeld, Horek, Croker, Broner, Arizindo, Jocush and then there were Elforia, Bissarilla, Grain and … Kenairies and …

———-

In the morning, after breakfast, they asked the Yowies to gather. Jack started by explaining the concept of money. He went on about how somebody can charge another for services, and the possibility to receive payment for goods produced. The natural progression was to buy what you wanted, and couldn’t get any other way. For that, shops were needed.

Everyone listened attentively, and seemed to catch on.

Kenairies left and came back with a pouch. He opened it and poured out some small white pebbles.

‘Yeah, that’s right. You can use that for money. Use it wisely,’ said Jack.

There was a commotion as everyone seemed to grasp the idea of gaining more pebbles. Nobody was happy with the few stones they had somewhere. They quibbled, and squabbled. All wanted more.

Therkel thought the idea of a shop sounded good, but had no clue what to sell. Washeld wanted one too. Shops came up the same day. They were flimsy structures made of sticks, stones, mosses and grasses held together with plaited string, and sloppy mud.

Jack helped to name the shops according to what was for sale. Signs were quickly scratched with charcoal on paperbark. House of Therkel sold all sorts of household goods. Maybe he had been to their treasure trove to borrow some pieces. Washeld’s Wash Place became a laundry for the lazier ones. Washing had been unheard of, but Ben thought they should learn. He came up with a slogan, and it became Washeld’s motto. ‘Leave one day, pick up next,’ Washeld told everyone, while he dipped kangaroo hides in the stream, and hit them with a stick.

———-

The days went fast. Jack and Ben fitted in fabulously, and came up with new ideas. Thoughts about leaving were momentarily gone.

Every day started with Yowie meetings, which were repeated every few hours. Before the first day ended, they had turned into seminars.

Jack held one about tourism, a subject important in today’s world. The tribe caught on. Jocush was granted permission to start his own business, as a Tour Operator.

‘This how make pebbles,’ said Jocush, rubbing his hands together, while Jack went through the ins and outs of running a tourism business.

‘You can call it Panghellan Tours, or why not; Baffling Trips,’ said Jack. ‘You can charge pebbles from the others even if they don’t get anywhere. That’s the beauty of it.’

Ben and Jack went in search of a suitable log. They found one, which was long with an enormous girth. The insides had been partly burnt out. Jack knew it would be impossible to move from its resting place on a few large boulders. He organised to have it made into the wanted shape on the spot. Many were put to work to hollow out the rest with their stone scrapers.

Horek helped Ben to make a chaotic grass roof on top. It was held up by rough wooden poles tied to the sides. With some wild imagination, the log looked like a homemade bus at a country play school.

Ben had to teach them what to do. To be the bus-driver, he made himself a hat out of an old basket. The next step was to borrow a plaited seaweed hold-all, which he hung on his chest. He showed the Yowies how to wait at their stop, board the bus, and pay with their pebbles.

Jocush boarded. He placed a pebble in front of Ben.

‘So, where do you want to go,’ said Ben.

‘Stay Baffling,’ said Jocush.

‘No, you can’t stay here. You’ve got to decide where you want to go.’

Jocush remembered something from Ben’s unruly lessons. ‘Want go Soud Amerca.’

‘No, that’s too far. You’ve got to go somewhere closer.’

‘No go,’ said Jocush, and jumped out through the ‘make believe’ window. Those outside, waiting to board, nodded, as if this was normal.

‘Okay, come on again, and sit down,’ said Ben. ‘Pretend, and we’ll go wherever. It doesn’t really matter whereto.’

Ben pulled off his hat, and shoved it onto Jocush’s head, as he boarded a second time. ‘It’s your turn, mate.’

After the bus driving, it was time to try something new. The log was quickly remodelled into a passenger plane. Jack and Ben tied vines, paperbark and branches into larger pieces resembling wings. A propeller was produced from an old tree root.

‘Now we’re going to fly in the air,’ said Jack to the ones who stood closest.

‘Fly?’ said Elforia. ‘What is fly?’

‘It’s when you’re up in the air like a bird, and don’t fall down,’ said Ben.

‘Log no bird,’ said Elforia.

‘No, Ellie, this is only a pretend game, the same as before,’ said Jack. ‘It’s good to know what happens out there in the real world. In our country, we fly to different places all the time. It’s quicker than walking, but if you’ve never been up there, you haven’t seen planes in the sky.’

Aranoa, looking upwards, had a miserable look on his face. ‘No see planes.’

Jack told them about airports, queuing in and out of planes, tickets and more.

Ben showed how to sit in the seats, and how to put on the home-made seat belts. The food had been prepared on small wooden discs, which he stored at the back of the plane.

Everything was ready. The crowd began to board the log.

‘You can be the captain,’ said Jack.

‘I don’t know how to be one. I don’t know what to say,’ said Ben. ‘You do it.’

Jack took the position at the front, and pretended to be the pilot. Kenairies wanted the spot beside him. The others sat down after the usual scuttling about.

‘Welcome aboard! This is Captain Jack Starling. I’ve got Navigator Kenairies at my side. Today we’re cruising at zero speed, and zero altitude. Estimated time of arrival at Baffling Airport is 13.00 hours Western Standard Time. Shortly, a meal will be served – Molluscs à la Ellie – followed by Grilled Pedes in Pods, and as dessert we have … okay … sorry, we forgot about dessert. You’ll get that next trip. Have a pleasant flight!’

Ben directed Mindossa and Yoldia to serve the food like perfect hostesses. They walked along the middle with little Bissarilla tottering behind, handing out the wooden tray-plates with gastropods in a slimy lemon coloured sauce, and fancy-looking, but grubby centipedes resting on leaves cut up in slivers like lettuce. All were decorated as French cuisine according to Ben. Later, the passengers had drinks from leafy bowls.

After dinner most of the passengers became restless. They moved back and forth, up and down the aisle. Their movements made the log unstable. It began to sway and tilt.

Ben hurried up to Jack to explain the situation.

‘They probably don’t understand everything, but I’ll try anyway,’ said Jack. ‘This is your Captain speaking. We have some turbulence ahead. For safety reasons you’re required to stay in your seats until the bad weather’s passed. Fasten your seat belts!’

There was a sudden jerk. The log rocked up and down, and then started to slide off the boulders.

Chaos erupted with screams from all ends of the plane.

‘Mayday, mayday, we’ve crashed in the valley, Alpha, Bravo, Delta, 123. Acknowledge!’ screamed Jack. ‘Hey, Ben, anybody hurt?’

The passengers were lying in a heap at one end. No sobbing, or screaming was heard. Instead there were laughs and giggles.

‘Play again? Now?’ said Grain.

‘Not now, maybe later,’ said Jack. ‘There’s so much to learn, but so little time.’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 18 – The Note

There it was! Standing on top of a crumbling limestone boulder! A short distance away was another.

Tears sprang to his eyes. He raced over to search through the many compartments. He sighed, and snivelled when he found Jack’s compass, and the notebook with Ambrosius’ maps. To get rid of the annoying snot, he wiped his nose on the hem of his t-shirt. Deliriously happy, despite the crying, he wondered why his backpack had been hidden.

He shrugged off all the different feelings. It was time to make a serious move. He reckoned he was set. The maps, and how to get to Boab Plute were crucial, but he needed one more thing. The map from the back of Bartholomew Finch’s Journal was essential. What if he could pinch it? Would they even notice it gone? It would come in handy to use with Ambrosius’ many small maps. He thought long and hard. He just had to get back to the trash chamber, and steal it, since it was an outright emergency. Escape looked sweeter by the minute.

Another important thought struck him. What about his camera? He couldn’t find it among all his things. So where was it? And where were his sneakers? And the sleeping bag?

The time had come to check out the other backpack. He felt like a thief when he opened the flap. It was as he suspected. Most of Andy’s clothes, and things were there. The Yowies must have sneaked up on them in Alkasar Forest, as they slept, to steal Andy’s pack. That must be how it came to be hidden inside the Boab cave system with his own backpack. His next thought came down on him like a blast of thunder. Could he really trust them? They had hidden his backpack, and they didn’t want him to know. What if he had been abducted? What a pack of dirty mongrels were they?

He searched again through every pocket of his own pack. He opened one more zip, and felt inside the pocket. Surprised, he pulled out what was a folded piece of paper, and opened it.

I’ve got no idea how I ended up here. Captured by Scottish-talking orangutans who stole my backpack. When I wasn’t guarded on the outside, I was kept imprisoned in a strange cupboard room with maps on the walls. Can’t wait around any longer. Escaped with my backpack. Leaving through tunnel in the room with all the food. Under the largest basket is a hole with steps leading down. After I found it, went back to place note in the backpack. Have to take my chances. Must get away.
Angelica Hawk


When Ben read the signature, he was shocked. Angelica had been there! But where was she now?

Suddenly, it became perfectly clear to him. Angelica must have left after he had ended up in Baffling. How else could she have put the note in his backpack? For some reason, Andy’s backpack had not been there at the time, or she would have recognised it, and put the note in his pack.

Ben was dumbfounded, but excruciatingly angry. He felt utterly deceived by Kenairies, and his tribe. He made up his mind on the spot. Scrap the Finch map, and his camera! What about his sneakers? And what about his sleeping bag? Scrap them, and the Binehogen too! Scrap it all! He had the maps from Ambrosius. What use was a camera if he wanted to escape? No time for snaps, and no time for more searches for something he had no idea what it looked like.

He grabbed his backpack, and went back to the storeroom with all the baskets. There he stuffed, as much of the fruits, nuts, and small eggs, as he could fit into his backpack.

The middle basket was the largest. He managed to drag, and push it, to the side. Sure enough, as written in the note, there was an opening. He struggled to shift the basket a bit further to look down over the edge. The black hole oozed of unwelcome doom. Still, he was tempted to run down the uneven stairs at once, but restrained himself for a moment to think. What if the tunnel didn’t lead to the outside? How would he ever find the others if that happened? What if he never found Angelica?

He anguished about the unknown in a world he had trouble understanding. For a minute he was unable to decide. He had to sweet talk himself into that it was sensible to follow the same route as Angelica had taken. If she still wandered alone in a tunnel somewhere, he might be the only one who could help her. Maybe it was to stretch it too far, but if she had found food and water on the way, she must have survived. There was also a strong possibility for the tunnel to end up in the forest outside Baffling, or maybe outside the whole rain forest area. If he was lucky, it finished close to Alkasar Forest, and the place where they last camped. He was good at tracking, and wasn’t called ‘Eagle Eyes’ for nothing. He knew he could spot signs along the way where she had been, and where she was headed. And he had his notebook with all the maps even if he didn’t have the Finch map. What could go wrong?

It was only one way to find out. If he felt like it, he could go back. He still had many pebbles left, and intended to mark out the way. His spirits soared. There was no more trouble talking himself into success. He was going to find Angelica first, and then the others.

On his way down, he carefully placed the burning torch on a step further down, while reaching up to move the basket back to cover the hole. It was awkward, but he made it. The darkness was abrupt. With the torch in front, he sneaked down the steps, wet with umpteen years of moisture. He prayed the torch would last for many hours before he had to use his own, which he feared had only a smidgen of power left. Unfortunately, he still had trouble with his LED head light.

From the bottom, while he walked on, he thought about the strange cave systems under the Nullarbor. There were weird forests, blowholes, tunnels, river channels, caves, dead craters, inland seas, and puddle-lakes crisscrossing the strange land. Would anyone in the civilised world ever believe it? He imagined himself on TV, maybe on A Current Affair, when he would be asked questions. ‘So, Ben Starling, you claim there are some strange creatures, Yowielike, underneath us. Here in Australia? Under the Nullarbor? And they live in caves, and blowholes, and have supernatural, or somehow magic stones, and keys, pantries in Boab trees, and keep their rubbish behind waterfalls? Where do you get all this from? Do you have any concrete evidence? Isn’t this only a fancy dream? Maybe it’s just a young boy’s imagination running wild, or what do you think, Ben?’ He had to admit the whole lot sounded farfetched. Of course he needed proof, extensive proof, but without his camera, there would be nothing to show.

Eager to find out where the tunnel ended, he hurried along with the burning torch in front, as a lifesaving beam through the darkness.

The passage opened up into a chamber with a massive root system, swaying from the ceiling like knotted rope-curtains. He likened it to something of a theater stage. To make sure he knew the way back, he put a white pebble before he went through the exit.

On the ground were puzzling stone formations, and slabs of limestone, the size of chest drawers, stacked in large piles. A constant drip from above rippled a small pool.

He made his way through the bizarre curtains. Behind them were several entries into more tunnels. He stared into each one. They were dripping, and much too dark with no signs of Angelica. Nervous and scared, he wondered what he had gotten himself into.

‘I’ve so had it … or not, never thought I could do this, but here I am down in a black hole, and I’m not that scared. Yeah, only a bit, but I know I can do this, even if it’s better on the outside. Yep, okay …so which one?’

A soft whistling sound made him turn around. He wondered where it came from when a cool breeze hit his face. He turned towards each tunnel to find out if there was a difference. He knew he had to choose, and it had to be right.

From one of the openings, he felt the flow of air much stronger than from the others. Quickly, before he had a chance to change his mind, he took off.

Minutes later, he heard a faint sound, and felt good. The sound of pouring water could only mean one thing. Impatient to see the outside light, he started running.

He came to a bend, passed it, and was shocked when a wall stopped him dead in his tracks. His immediate thoughts were to return to the point with all the tunnels, but then he realised that an opening looked large enough to enter. He pushed his backpack through before sliding in behind it. On the other side, the sound of water intensified.

But, as he was out, disappointment hit him smack bang. He had been there before with the torches on the walls. Bewildered and frustrated, he smashed his knuckles on the stone. He was, as close to the trash chamber, as you could get, but now he must have come a back way. He sank to the floor. His escape plan had exploded into smithereens.

After staring into space for the longest time, he decided it was no use to look through all the rubbish one more time. He had searched the place from top to bottom the first time, and there was no inkling of any keystone. It was the same with his camera, nowhere to be found. He looked at his watch. It was hard to believe, but he reckoned he had spent five whole days with a tribe of Yowies.

‘I’m freaking out. That’s what I’m doing. I’ve got to get away from here. This place is just too crazy …’ He had whispered every word, as if somebody was watching from a dark corner.

The escapade without finding a way out was a serious setback. He knew the time had come to be more drastic. Maybe he should plainly demand to be told how to get out of the rain forest area, and back to where they had found him. He was desperate to join the others, if not before, then definitely at Boab Plute. Kenairies could forget about him staying forever in Baffling. To teach Yowies downunder was not all fun and games.

He was still on the floor when he happened to turn his head. A stream of excitement rushed through his body. At floor level was a line of faint arrows pointing in one direction. He had not seen them the first time he was there, but then his eyes had been focused at table level.

The first was to exchange his torch with a fresh one from the wall. He thought it was pure luck that somebody looked after the torches, as long as the Duty Manager himself wasn’t around.

He crawled along the floor by following the marks. When he came to the end, he discovered something else, a scribble on the wall. It was too hard to work out what it meant, but beside it was something more intriguing. Why was there a handle? It was fastened low beside the antique toilet bowl. It was no ordinary handle, more like a curved piece of bone in the shape of an old-fashioned umbrella handle.

Thrilled with the thought of what it possibly could do, he fiddled with the bony thing. He played with it like a gear stick. He tried numerous things, but nothing happened. He had a new idea, and pressed hard.

He was stunned when a humming sound came from inside the wall. He looked up and down, but saw nothing unusual. His eyes flickered around the chamber before they were back at the wall. Then, as if out of nowhere, an outline started to form. Spooked, he watched as it crept on, cracking its way to become an upright, but uneven rectangle shape in a few seconds. Then it opened up into a dark hole.

He went over to peer inside, and felt a rush through his body. Could this be the actual hiding spot he had been looking for? Talking to himself, he said, ‘I can crawl through that. I’ll do anything for a keystone.’

He left his belongings on the outside, and held the burning torch awkwardly in front, while snaking his way through the narrow shaft. He moved one arm at a time by leaning on his elbows, and tried to be careful. Even so, the flame managed to singe both his t-shirt, and his hair to leave a burning stench. That it could have ended in disaster was the furthest from his mind.

On the inside, he discovered the room was only slightly larger than a decent sized bathroom, or the size of a small bedroom, but there was nothing there. The floor was empty with no hiding places as far as he could see.

He held the torch up high. ‘Wow! Maps! Could this be the map room? Maybe this is where Angelica was locked up before she escaped.’

The walls were full of pictures drawn on both leather, and sheets of bark. He went up to study them closer. When he saw familiar place names, he was hit by a bolt of angst, and felt a strong need to compare with the other maps from his backpack. He left the torch in what looked to be a holder on the wall, and turned. He stopped to stare. The opening out was nowhere to be seen. What had happened? He staggered a couple of steps forward, hit the wall, and kicked it. He went around, and did the same on all four walls. They were as solid as a steel bank vault with not the slightest evidence of where he had come through.

How was it possible for an opening to disappear? He walked around again, slamming his fists against all walls, before he sank to the floor. For a few moments, he sat in a daze, snivelling, and talking to himself like a madman.

A few moments later, he rubbed his eyes. With nothing else around, he had to wipe his nose on the hem of his t-shirt. ‘It’s the same again … trapped with no way out. No, it can’t be! It just can’t! Where is that bloody hole? I did crawl out of it, so how can it be gone? Where’s my special stone?’

He searched through every pocket, and when he found it, he was prepared to beg for something supernatural, but as soon as that thought had entered his mind, he realised it was ridiculous. The stone was just a plain stone, nothing to it.

Alarmed, shocked, and confused, he sat down to analyse what had happened. He went over every single thing in his mind. Yes, the hole had been there. He had come through. Yes, it was as clear as water. But now it was gone, and there were no marks at all where it had been. He strained his mind, and tried to think what his grandpa would have done if he had been in the same situation. Nothing came to mind. Nobody could help him. Nobody knew he was there. 
 
His problem of being stuck in a small chamber with no doors or windows, no food or water, and without a soul knowing his whereabouts, made him shiver. He wondered how long it would take before he threw up. With nothing much in his stomach it would be gut-wrenching.

He curled up in a corner with his arms tight around his body, but found it impossible to relax. The nausea turned into a feeling of hundreds of ice cubes rolling around in his stomach. He felt helpless and sick, but knew he had to stop feeling sorry for himself. ‘No! No! NO! GET UP! You’ve got to think of something. You know you’re good at finding stuff. Do it! Do it NOW! Think! THINK!’

How about finding something useful? But without a single tool in the place, there was no way he could work on the wall to try, and break out. He had a new idea, and began crawling around the sides on all fours to look from every angle. Something must be there somewhere to show where he had come through. 

He found nothing. Nothing resembling an exit. Not even a shadow of a door frame.
‘So, now I’ve got to wait here until someone comes around for a map? Why would they look for maps? They’re not going anywhere. Not without the keystone, or that silver thingie, or whatever they have. Okay, let me think. Somebody built this room once. Hey, it was built with rocks, a bit like the wall where Jack fell down when I pulled out the white marble stone. How could they’ve done it, and hidden the passageway in and out? It’s weird …ha … ha … ha … it’s a weird place with magic knobs just about everywhere.’

He studied, he prodded, he pinched, and he came to two conclusions. Either it was something magic, or it would be some kind of mechanism somewhere to trigger the chute to become visible when it opened, but invisible, as it closed. To him it sounded totally weird, and stupid, but everything in their world was weird, and stupid. The hardest to understand was that there were no marks on the wall where the opening was supposed to be. Even if the opening itself was not visible to the naked eye, something ought to be there.

When he thought about how he had entered, it was obvious that the umbrella-like handle on the outside was to open from that side. What could it be from the inside?
He took his time to inspect every single stone more closely.

After some searching he found a spot, which appeared slightly out of the ordinary. One of the stones didn’t seem to be positioned exactly as the pattern suggested. It was pushed a tiny bit further in than the rest.

He pulled out his pocket knife to scrape around the stone with the blade. ‘Is that it? Could it be, or is it just a bit … it’s got to be this, or what else?’

His curiosity had no bounds. He worked feverishly, and managed to move it slightly with the tips of his fingers, but it was hard to get a good grip. He scratched around some more. ‘If I could just get this little sucker out.’

Not knowing why, only that he had some sort of feeling, he gave it a hard push through the hole. He heard a thud, and another thud. Was it the stone, or were there two? Did they fall to the floor, on the other side? He imagined the worst. What if the ceiling came down? Or the walls closed in?

He was quick to dismiss the thoughts. He sighed, and rubbed his hands together before peeping through the hole. He was fast to back away when a spider, the size of a Mandurah crab, but with a hairy body, and the longest, thinnest legs came racing full speed towards his face. As soon as it was out, and running on the wall, he tried to sweep it down. He failed miserably. It ended up on his arm. Thrashing blindly, he knocked it to the floor where it tried to scamper off in into a dark corner. Too scared to have it on the loose, he searched by holding the burning torch in front. When he found the crab-like thing, he stomped on it again, and again, until it was plastered well into the dirt. His thoughts about being trapped were gone. Unfortunately, they were followed by flashes of something massive from above coming down to crush him into another wet stain on the ground. Out of his wits, he stared towards the ceiling.

By now he was close to an overwhelming panic. He had to restrain himself. ‘Come on, don’t worry. You’ll be fine. It’s only a room, nothing seriously magic about it. You’ll get out. I know you will. I’ve got a feeling …’

His eyes wandered up to the hole in the wall where the stone had been. He could make out that it was no larger than a shoe-box. As an escape route, it was out of the question. He flopped to the floor, but away from the spider stain. His sight was fixed on the tight opening, but if that route was out of the question, there must be something else. For his life, he couldn’t work out how Angelica had escaped. Gravely disappointed, he hit the floor repeatedly until his hand hurt.

He sat for ages, staring at the torch on the wall, worrying how long it would take for it to burn out. What was he to do? Nothing made sense. Not until a sliver of thought crept into his mind. He stood up, grabbed the torch, walked over, and stretched his arm bravely all the way to the back. When fumbling around on the outside wall, he touched something.

‘What’s that? Another handle?’ He knew it was not the same as the umbrella handle he had used to get into the room. This felt smaller, and seemed to have a kind of pull-string, similar to a flushing device for an old world toilet. He was reminded of the toilet with the rust stains on the outside.

He closed his eyes and made a wish. Then he pulled the handle quickly before he pulled out his arm fast to avoid having it crushed.

A loud creaking sound came from one of the walls. Where he thought the doorway had been to enter the room, something was happening.

Stunned, he watched as an outline began to form. The shape cracked to become an opening. He left the torch, threw himself down on the floor and crawled through. The backpack was still there on the outside. He found his notebook and pencil before he snaked his way back. All done in less than half a minute. There was nothing to worry about. He knew how it worked now.

In the diffuse light, he stood close to the wall with the notebook in hand, and looked at the many pictures for a second time. On the maps, already drawn by Ambrosius in his notebook, he started to add more place names in a long list, and tried to do them in order. The maps would be more complete with the new details.

He stared at the wall. Were the maps made to scale? To him, they looked horribly out of whack. At the same time, what would he know? Everything was strange. He refused to dwell on it, or to worry about distances and names. His plan had been to escape. There was no way he was to defer from his plan. Supplies, maps, and Jack’s compass to keep him going were essential. He had them now. With some luck, he should be able to find the plain with the Boab trees. Maybe his grandpa, Jack, Charlie, and the others were there waiting for him. A lump formed in his throat. His eyes moistened. When a tear rolled down his cheek, he quickly brushed it off. No time for crying.

He turned away from the maps, and was ready to leave before he happened to glance down.

The floor heaved and moved like waves of an ocean. When he realised it was covered in masses of bugs with black legs, and bodies, he wailed. More kept streaming out from gaps and crevices.

‘NO!’ he yelled, as he cowered in the middle. ‘GO AWAY!’

With no time to lose, he dived towards the opening. Using the notebook, he hastily scraped the mass of crab-like spiders to the sides before crawling out, as fast, as if his life depended on it. In the short tunnel, he imagined the spindly legs running across his own between the socks, and the pants.

Once out he swung around to bolt the doorway by turning the umbrella handle. He managed to crush thousands of them in the process, and brushed away the evidence with his notebook before hiding everything under the wheelbarrow. The door disappeared in the process, and the wall became an empty wall.

He found the two rocks, which had fallen out, and pushed them back into the wall, one to the original spot far inside, and the other to cover the hole in the outside wall. He had no doubt he would have to stay, as a teacher under the ground for the rest of his life if Kenairies found out what he had been up to.

Just as he was ready to pick up his backpack, he heard a rustling from around the bend. Quick as a darting bird, he moved away from the toilet bowl, which showed the way to the map room.

Kenairies came around the corner, huffing and puffing. ‘Oh, what do here?’

‘I-I thought I’d grab a book to read,’ said Ben. ‘That’s what people do sometimes if they’re bored. Read, you know? Well, no use explaining. You wouldn’t understand.’

Suddenly, he grabbed onto Ben, who had to hang onto his arm all the way to where the books were stored.

Kenairies let him go, and grabbed the book about discoveries before he followed row by row on a page with his claw-like finger.

Ben was curious if he was able to really read. ‘So, what does it say?’

‘Say? Books no talk. Why Ben go big tree? No go there.’ He pointed to Ben’s backpack where one of the pockets had opened up to spill out fruits and birds eggs.

‘Yeah, I did find my backpack! Why did you hide it? I’ve asked for it, and you knew I needed it.’

‘No hide.’ Kenairies smiled his crooked smile. ‘In here every time.’

‘You know what? The other backpack belongs to our friend. How come you’ve got that here?’

‘We found.’

Ben wasn’t so sure. ‘Where was it?’

‘You leave?’

‘Yeah, I want to leave. Jack is lost. My grandpa, my sister, and our friends might be lost somewhere too. But I think you’re lying. I don’t think you found his backpack. I think somebody stole it. Maybe not you, but somebody did. Anyway, I can’t help them when I’m stuck here. They don’t understand much about this place. I think I know more than them. I actually do.’

‘Stay long! Good here,’ said Kenairies. ‘I give trove for you.’

‘Sorry, can’t.’ Ben thought about a hand-me-down of a rusty toilet bowl, or something smaller like an old toothbrush. ‘I think I’ve been here five days. I’ve got to move on, but before I do, I want to know something. What about a girl who was here? Her name’s Angelica. What do you know about her?’

‘No here.’ Kenairies had a confused look on his face. ‘Leave, she did.’

‘Leave? You’re saying she left? So what do you mean? I thought she was a prisoner here.’ By now Ben was seriously worried about his own safety.

‘Show bank, keep money big tree. Wash money in walt,’ said Kenairies. ‘Hate money.
She leave.’

‘Wash money? Why wash it? And how can you have money? Where did you get it from?’

‘We find,’ said Kenairies, proudly.

Ben was confused. Why would there be money? There was no printing factory, and no banks. And why did the money have to be laundered?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 17 – Daily Journal

The writing on the piece of cloth was messy, but readable.

Daily Journal by Bartholomew Finch

Ben was intrigued. He quickly turned the cover.

Baffling on the 17th of November 1965

If somebody some day from the country above finds this booklet, I want to tell a wee bit of who I am. I was born in Scotland, and arrived on the shores of Australia, as a young man. This is how I ended up down here, in the strangest of all places, inhabited by odd beings, and a fauna and flora I have never seen, or could not even contemplate.


I had travelled from Perth to the south, to Cape Naturaliste, and then on to Cape Leeuwin for a restful time. The ocean around Geographe Bay was inviting, and I took to the clear blue waters in a small cove along the coast.


Unfortunately the weather changed, and drastically fast. I had no inkling of dangers regarding currents, or rips, and ended up having a horrible misfortune. I was thrown about in the waves like a bobbing cork, only to be pulled into the strongest vortex. From under the water, whilst struggling to hold my breath, I was surged into a natural chasm resembling an enclosed pipeline. By the luck of my last sprig of white heather, air pockets had, for some unknown reason, built up along the way. I survived such a horrifying ordeal, but found myself imprisoned in a large cavern consisting of mineral-streaked walls, crystals hanging both vertical, and almost horizontal. Pure luck was with me when I found a small fresh waterway embedded in river sand.

After further exploration, I stumbled into a naturally well-disguised tunnel, leading to a massive chamber connected to more passageways. I was amazed at the natural beauty of this intricate, and extraordinary cave system.

I survived against all odds by living on rain water, which had seemingly seeped through in places to form puddles. I also came to enjoy the many fruits of the sea, although I had to consume every fish and crustacean raw. Eventually, I found my way into a colossal system of tunnels and blowholes, which seem to intersperse the limestone rocks at the coast. The strangest part of this story is that, after weeks of trekking, and living on what nature was able to provide, I ended up walking into some kind of rain forest. I have no idea how such could be formed inside the caves. I could only deduce, I was still in the south of the state. Therefore it was unfathomable how such a rain forest could have developed in such a way, and seemingly under sea level. From what I have come to understand from the beings here, and my own deductions, is that Australia is fortunate to have an ancient continent hidden under the ground.


I met the clan with no name living here. After some time partaking of their daily lives, they, for some reason, came to call their small village – Baffling. Maybe on the grounds that I constantly cried out the word: Baffling! Yes, this place is certainly baffling.

I arrived with new ideas, which they eagerly engaged. I have also given them more of my English language. It is hardly surprising when they talk with a Scottish accent. They in turn assisted when I wanted to draw up a map with as much detail as possible to try, and understand this wild, and chilling, but impressive land.

The tribe have had sporadic contact with humans. In some unknown way, they were able to step out of the underground world to visit the land above. This was mostly undertaken to collect their so called treasures, which would be considered, as ordinary trash to us. However, some items have also appeared out of underground streams brought down from above.

Apparently, they are no longer able to leave, although they have the most remarkable aid in their possession – a crystal with unknown powers. After my English lessons when I likened it to a silver-veined stick, they began to call it the Silver Stick. I came to understand this was no ordinary crystal when after a quick pointing, a doorway appeared on a cliff wall. It certainly has some form of magic powers, but I have no idea yet exactly what powers this crystal holds. Undoubtedly, I will find out more in due course.

I have found no way out of this cave system, and I am forced to stay here. I must say I do miss my Neeps and Tatties. Here, the fare is quite odd. It will take time to get accustomed to. As I most likely will end my days in these lands, I have succumbed to the strangeness of the food, and look forward to some of the fanciful dishes. Today, when I write this entry, I am almost fond of the cooked centipedes, and braised frogs in all their glory.

This journal was started when I happened to stumble onto a pencil, and an old notebook. Together with some natural materials such as ochre, and charcoal, I have composed the enclosed map, and finished this day …


Ben turned the page fast. What? There was nothing. The Daily Journal covered less than one day. What had happened? Where was the map? And why was the handwritten record not completed?

Ben wished so much that he could have read more of the story. As it was, he would never know more about Bartholomew Finch. At least he had found out why the Yowies talked the way they did.

Kenairies appeared beside him without a sound.

‘Is he dead?’ Ben pointed to the notebook.

‘Bart no here, no.’ Kenairies walked off without another word of explanation.

Ben flicked through the rest of the pages. They were blank. When he came to the back inside cover, he noticed a separate piece of paper. After unfolding it, he found a scribbled map with names on. The words ‘Parts of Panghellan Lands’ were written at the bottom. It looked better, and more accurate than Ambrosius’ quickly scribbled notes in the notebook. He wanted the map badly, and thought about stealing it, but he also knew it was wrong. Then again with his mind split, he swerved back and forth. In the end he made a decision not to take it. He could not risk ending up in trouble with no inkling of consequences. Maybe he would never be able to leave.

After he had put the journal back, he looked again at the surrounding mess. Their world inside the cave was a mirror image of his world. Only their world was full of junk, while his was mainly made up of new things, except for some collections in his room, of course. Where had they found everything? If they could not leave the place without the keystone, how could they possibly have collected all the stuff? Even if some had appeared out of streams from above according to Mr Finch.

Ben walked along the table. ‘Cool! Awesomely mad! You’ll have to see it, but it’s near enough impossible to believe it. Oh, boy, take a look at that old kettle! Oh-oh! Nothing inside that one either.’ He looked and searched again through more of the junk. But there was no sign of the keystone.

Kenairies returned for the second time.

‘Where is my camera? Haven’t you seen it?’

Kenairies just shook his head.

‘Okay for now, I suppose. Is all this meant to be your treasure? Some people call it a load of rubbish.’

‘We have things. One and all.’ Kenairies grinned, and started to play with a scraggly old tooth brush.

‘We’ve got heaps of this close to where we live. Nobody wants it. There’s a super pit close to my suburb.’

‘Nobody? Nobody wants? We want. Not easy find.’

‘But how did you manage to get all this in the first place? I’ve heard that it’s impossible for you to leave this place. How did you do it? And how were you able to get everything up here?’

‘We find long time,’ said Kenairies. ‘Early father find things. Leave and come back, leave and come back. No can do. No now.’

‘How did you do it? What did you have? Was it some kind of key, or what?’

Kenairies looked surprised. ‘What … eh … key?’

‘Yeah, kind of the same, as what you’ve got around your neck. Was it the keystone?’

Kenairies looked confused. ‘Silver Stick we call for.’

‘Aha, so it wasn’t the keystone. Okay, so if you don’t know what the keystone is, it’s no use to explain. So what can the Silver Stick do?’

Kenairies shrugged his shoulders.

Ben wasn’t to give up that easily. ‘So, you don’t want to tell me, is that it? Okay then, the keystone is a sort of a key to get out of these lands. So what’s the ‘Silver Stick’?’

‘Silver Stick is stick,’ said Kenairies.

Right then, it dawned on Ben. Kenairies was unwilling to tell him more. He had been grumpy, and unfriendly at times. Maybe they were the same, as the hostile Grims. They were not going to let him leave. At least not until he had given them much more knowledge. He thought about what he could possibly teach them. His thoughts made him worry. With no way out, he was near enough in the same position as his parents. They were held in a prison fortress in the Grim Islands. He was stuck in Baffling, which sounded like a nicer place. But was it? The Yowies here were supposed to be friendly, living peacefully. Had Ambrosius not said they need not fear the ones in the rain forest? Only, something didn’t add up. Why did they act like prison officers guarding every step he took? And why wasn’t he allowed to enter the magic circle around the Boab tree? What was it they wanted to keep from him?

———-

The same evening, Ben watched from his nest, as Enardo and Ormeng, the identical twins with short stubby, bright red hair, climbed up the Boab before they were swallowed up by the crown.

He waited for their return, while the light turned duskier. Out of boredom, he closed his eyes. Before long, he was fast asleep.

In the morning, his first thoughts were on the twins. Did they come back, or not? He looked over to the other side of the burnt out fire. Their double nest seemed untouched. Where had they been the whole night?

Every day the mysterious Boab enticed him to explore. He wanted so much to enter the invisible circle, but knew it was guarded in some odd way. Jack could be right about mechanisms. Maybe the tree had some invisible, but unknown alarm system to deter him. Why else was it that every time he tried to get close, he was stopped?

All of a sudden, it was obvious to him. To be able to do what he wanted, and to explore the Boab without raising suspicions, he had to gain more of their trust. If he could start a school, and hold some lessons, maybe he would be allowed free rein.

He had to find Kenairies to tell him. First he had to find him. He started at the outdoor kitchen area, since the leader was a glutton for tribal eating. Ben asked around, but nobody had seen him. Before leaving, he grabbed a couple of the weird pancakes.

Next he took to the track towards the waterfall. There’s where he found Kenairies snoozing under a tree fern with his head on a roll of moss. His helmet was parked on a stick.

Ben tapped him gently on the shoulder.

Kenairies looked up, but was quick to close his eyes and roll over.

He tapped again. ‘You want a school, or not?’

The old Yowie grunted, then stood up to let out a fierce growl.

Ben gasped, took a step back, but tried not to show fear. He stood waiting for what was to happen next.

Kenairies laughed, drummed on his chest, whistled and yelled. Villagers came running from all directions to gather around on moss covered logs and rocks.

All eyes turned towards Ben. Kenairies motioned for him to start.

Ben explained about the school. He went into how to set it up with rocks, logs and paperbark.

The strongest ones, Horek and Washeld, were ordered by Kenairies to bring four fallen tree logs to an area close to the river’s edge. This place was, according to Ben, the perfect spot. Smaller logs, and boulders, were required to sit on, and more orders were yelled.

Ben was adamant it had to look like a proper school. He sorted out every detail he could think of for the learning environment to function. A desk was needed if he was to be the teacher. He ordered the eager twins, Enardo and Ormeng, to collect big shawls of paperbark. These were hung from a tree behind the log desk. The pieces of paper bark were to be in place of an interactive whiteboard.

In the afternoon, a large group of older, and younger ones, were eager to join in the lessons. Ben found it hard to make them understand what was expected. When he thought he had all under control, they continued darting around, letting out fierce growls, melodic trills, or long blabbers with no end.

‘OKAY, GUYS! You said you wanted a school. So stop acting like crazy chooks! You’ve got to SIT DOWN! Didn’t Mr Finch tell you what a school is all about? Anyway, this is how normal schools work. SIT! No, it doesn’t matter where you sit. And you have to keep quiet. You talk when I tell you.’

Croker, who Ben reckoned was, as friendly, as a salt-water crocodile, crawled in under a huge Pandanus tree with leaves pointing, and drooping in all directions. He ended up resting on one elbow with a grumpy expression on his face.

A few minutes later, the rest were composed enough for Ben to make himself heard without shouting. ‘When humans go to school, they’ve also got to sit up. Why don’t you do that too, Croker?’

The sullen Croker averted his eyes. He made no effort to correct his position. He turned his head slanting backwards, and glared at Ben with half-closed eyes. Ben was overwhelmed. Was Croker squinting like a hostile? He was quick to dismiss the thoughts, and started with a head count.

That’s when Croker stood up, ready to walk off.

‘No, you can’t leave,’ said Ben, bravely. ‘If you don’t stay, you’re wagging.’

‘Wagging?’ Broner was the shortest of them all with arms reaching his feet. His knuckles came to rest on the ground as he stood up.

‘Wagging is no good,’ said Ben.

‘Wagging, you tell,’ said Kenairies, as Croker, looking miserable, went back under the leaves.

‘Okay then, wagging is when you don’t want to go to school, and you stay away. If you do that, you won’t learn much. It’s no good because you’ve told me you don’t know enough. You want to learn, don’t you?’

‘Me no wagging,’ said Kenairies.

Yoldia, with a greasy pony tail on top of her head, sat on the ground. She was cuddling a tree root, which Ben could only think of as some kind of doll. Her sister, Mindossa, giggling, was busy devouring a large leaf by having the tiniest nibbles. Ben thought she ate like a caterpillar. Little Bissarilla sat up, looking and listening, all the while playing with crawling worms on a wooden platter. One after the other disappeared into her mouth.

Grain, a young Yowie boy, came sauntering in, holding a stone axe.

‘Leave that here!’ Ben pointed to his desk.

Grain, taking no notice of the request, sat down with the axe in his lap.

Ben said no more. He waited for all to be settled before pointing to his crude paperbark map. Names and outlines were drawn with charcoal.

‘This is the whole world right here. These are continents – Africa, Asia, North America, South America, Europe and Australia. Oh, and Antarctica is down here. We’re on one of the continents. We’re actually under Australia, which is an ancient continent. Your continent is called Panghellan. Both are in a region called Oceania. All of you, and me, and Baffling, are somewhere around here.’

Ben did a quick swipe on the map, and ended up with his finger in the middle of what he reckoned to be the Nullarbor Plain, if it had been a proper map.

‘No! You no right. We here, Baffling.’ Broner pointed to the ground. He got up from his seat to study the map up close, but was unable to reach. He rolled a boulder closer to the map, and climbed up before turning the map over to look at the other side.

Ben sighed. ‘Of course, we’re not all on there. Maybe you don’t get it. Let’s say we pretend this map is Australia, and this here’s the rest of the world!’ He pointed to the map again. ‘Then we would be right here.’

Ormeng jumped up, pointing to his feet. ‘No right. We here.’

Enardo mimicked him.

A sour-looking Croker peeked out from the leafy undergrowth. He crawled out, stood up, grunted, and was on his way.

An angry Ben pointed his finger. ‘Ah, well, you can leave, but you should know you’re wagging.’

Crocker turned to glare before he was out of sight.

Ben decided not to let it bother him. He went on to talk about oceans. ‘We’ve got enormous oceans in the world. We’ve got the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean to name a few.’

He pointed to where the oceans were marked out. ‘Oceans are big areas of water, much bigger than your river. In the middle of the ocean, you can’t see land. Just imagine that you’re in your river, and you can’t see the sides. Only the ocean is so much bigger than the river.’

‘Ingenrod no see sides,’ said Horek. ‘We see sides.’

‘Yeah, but you cannot see the sides in the middle of the ocean. The ocean is enormous. It’s much bigger than your forest.’

‘You said river like ocean. In river see sides,’ said Horek.

Ben realised it was harder than he could imagine. With not much knowledge of the world above, what hope was there. Not knowing what to say, or do next, he gave them the afternoon off, and took off down the river to be alone.

Once there, he splashed his bare feet before walking around aimlessly. He ended up in an area with different coloured pebbles. While thinking about his family, and how to escape, he collected some of the whitest, smoothest ones, which he put in his pocket for keeps.

He felt a twang in his heart. He longed so much for the others, and wondered where they were. The predicament of being stuck in an unbelievable world, not knowing how long he had to stay, made him worried. He realised there was only one thing to do. He had to escape. Soon. And do it without finding the keystone.

There was one thing he had to do first. He had to get into the Boab tree. After he had discovered what was there, he planned to leave whether Kenairies liked it or not. If there was a way into the rain forest, there would be a way out. Then it was just a matter of finding one of the trails leading to Boab Plute.

Before evening came with its grey shadows, he collected new material to freshen up his bed. This was his tactic to try, and delay sleeping for, as long, as possible.

With the youngest fast asleep, daily life in the village slowed down. Some families had gone into their caves, some slept in the open. He watched from the corner of his eye as the last of the outside grown-ups snuggled into their nests.

The consistent snoring, grunting, and farting to let out the foul-smelling gases started, and was his cue to leave. Wary, as a fox on the run, and with nerves on tenterhooks, he moved out of his hollow. Without a sound, he crept on all fours to the invisible circle surrounding the Boab. Then managed to get through the seemingly invisible barrier. There was no sign of activation of possible alarm bells.

His body tingled with razor-sharp excitement, as he circled the trunk in search of possible footholds. He found them, and scaled to the top in seconds.

When he looked down, he found the tree hollow in the middle. A mass of tangled roots covered the inside walls in a mysterious net-like fashion where torches were fastened to lighten up the place.

He descended by hanging onto the jumbled mess. At the bottom he took one good look before he grasped the closest burning stick.

The time had come to explore. One thing bothered him, and he stopped to listen. What if somebody was there? Maybe a caretaker? What if he was caught?

A few moments later, he had talked himself out of worries. He went on his way, keen to explore.

From the room at the bottom led five tunnels. He stepped into one, and before he knew it, he was in another. This also branched off. As a precaution not to get lost, he had a struck of genius. With his pockets half-full of small white pebbles, he grabbed one, and put it on the ground at the exit of the tunnel he came from. If there were many tunnels, and he had to retrace his steps, he was sure to find the right way.

The narrow thoroughfare became wider. All sorts of debris, which he had to clamber over, littered the ground. A new chamber opened up. Grass-woven baskets with fruits, and berries had been placed along the floor in no particular order. Behind them, hanging on a wall, were braided seaweed holders filled with nuts, and the tiniest eggs. Ben thought of the area as one enormous pantry.

At the end of the room he found a small opening. It looked tight, but he thought he could get through. He crawled inside the chute to explore, but when he heard a hissing sound coming from within, he panicked, and backed out fast.

He left the room, went back to the first entry point, and chose another tunnel. At the end, a large room opened up to one side. He took a brief look, but was hit by a strong smell of dampness. Mushrooms grew in mossy layers everywhere he looked. In one corner were piles of small white rocks. For his life he couldn’t work out why they needed all the pebbles, but he chose some good ones, and put them in his pockets.

He found his way back to the starting point again. This time he chose the opposite tunnel. After a few steps, he stood at the opening of another chamber, only smaller. The inside had a bit of greenery lit up from small holes in the cave ceiling.

What he discovered made him shocked to the core.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 16 – Tribal Eating

In the dusky light, the same evening, Ben watched as four campfires were lit. Yowies were busy moving around, as if preparing for something. His feelings of immediate threats had been blown away by their friendly manner.

In the beginning, while things were happening all around him, stories were told. Many wanted to talk to him. Even if he was used to how Ambrosius talked, he still had trouble understanding. They talked with fewer words, and seemed to have some kind of accent.

What had started in terror a few hours earlier became a happy celebration. Dishes of food came out on the cliff shelves in endless streams. After nibbles of well done lizard meat, which had simmered in the ground, Ben watched as long centipede insects, hairy with masses of legs, were grilled on large flat stones. They were served inside wilted leaves to be rolled into big, fat cigar shapes. He tried to think of them as enormous hot dogs. That was until he saw how the Yowies opened them to pick away some parts before letting the parcel slip down their throats. Even if he was revolted, he had to refrain from showing his feelings.

Instead he sneaked over to the hot flat rocks where a smorgasbord of slugs were grilled. Not satisfied they were entirely edible, he slowly made his way to another protruding shelf. There was something looking more pancake-like on display. Earlier, he had watched, as hundreds of molluscs were pulled from a stream. The toddlers had acted as if it was some kind of game. The globbery mush found inside were mixed with flour from ground grass seeds, plus a green paste of unknown origins, before they were cooked. He waited for a couple of the freshly fired hotcakes when it happened.

He was about to say something to a young one beside him when a morsel was pressed fast inside his mouth by a dirty claw-like hand from above. With no inkling of its contents, he tried to chew fast and swallow. He tried to imagine a bread roll with pork, apple sauce, and crackling, to make it easier. It worked until something inside cracked open, and a gooey lump like a raw oyster swirled around the back of his mouth without getting anywhere. He tried to make it glide down his throat, but it came up. He tried again, but it was impossible, The only thing left was to turn away to spit it out, hoping nobody would notice. If this was tribal eating at its best, it was the worst.

After the meal Kenairies introduced more of the clan. He pointed out all nine sons, and their families. Then Kenairies wrote their names in the sand. Ben was surprised. They could talk. And they could write.

Ar first Ben thought they all looked the same. After he had met them, he made a mental note of what was different with each one. Something always seemed to mark them out. He was told Arizindo and Jocush, both adults sons of Kenairies, were the ones who had found him and brought him to the village. Arizindo was taller than most and had a straight scar, visible through the hair, on his cheek. Jocush was shorter with larger ears than the rest. Stanley, another son, had brighter hair, bordering on tomato red. He had longer arms, bigger feet, and a bigger nose. He brought out an object, something between a drum, and a home made guitar. He played a bewitching tune, which had everyone whistling, while hitting on something close. When Ben was clapped on the head too many times, he moved.

Kenairies stood up to tell their ancient history, but it was short, and in a nutshell. As noises died down, he felt confident enough to tell his story about how he, and his family had ended up in their land. Ben told Kenairies he must find them soon.

‘You go?’ Kenairies looked shocked. ‘Why?’

‘I don’t belong here,’ said Ben. ‘They’re searching for me, like we searched for my brother. They need to know, I’m okay.’

Kenairies scrunched his forehead. He looked far from convinced. In short words, he explained how Ben had been hurt and how Arizindo and Jocush had saved him. Ben said he was grateful, but had to leave. Then he mentioned Ambrosius. Nobody seemed to know him.

‘Look like?’ said Kenairies.

‘He’s not like you. He’s more like me, but old, and he doesn’t have any hair on his head. He wears animal skins. I think he’s got a whale bone as a walking stick.’

‘Well bone? What is well bone?’

‘You’ve never seen a whale? It’s a mammal, a bit like a really big fish. It’s a bone from that fish.’ Ben wondered about why they had never heard about whales or Ambrosius. They seemed to know so much else.

Before the evening came to a close, Ben had still not lost all his fears. But he knew his grandpa had been right all along. The Yowies were a friendly mob, not unlike humans, despite some weird eating habits.

The party was finally over. Preparations started for the night. Those who slept inside caves left, others stayed outside. Ben was offered Arizindo’s used bed, which resembled a large bird’s nest built in an indent in the ground. The bottom reminded him of an old spring mattress without a cover. It reeked of rotten eggs. He was wary of offending, and accepted the friendly gesture before he was shown how to dress it with fresh grasses and leaves.

The villagers seemed to settle, but he fidgeted in his nest. He could not decide if he should sleep with his head, or feet in the direction of the fire. If he was too close, his hair could get singed. If he chose the other way, his feet would stay warm. He decided on sideways to have all parts close to the glowing embers.

However, the bad odour lingered, and kept him awake for what seemed to be hours. In the end, he pulled off his jumper, and angrily shoved his head inside. Before he drifted off, his awful gut feelings came back. As always, every straightforward concern became insurmountable at night. His mind wandered in all directions. Were they as friendly, as he thought they were? Could he be sure of where he was? What if he was a prisoner without knowing? Would he be able to escape? Where would he go? Where was Jack? And where were grandpa, Charlie, and Andy? And Whistler, was he still around? How would he ever find any of them?

He knew he had been through a frightening ordeal. Here he was, alone in the most peculiar place. None seemed hostile, but his persistent gut feelings never left. There was something hard to pinpoint. He tried to let go of his wandering thoughts, which seemed to hit curves before going into circles. In the end he must have dozed off into a lousy slumber with endless tossing and turning.

In the morning, he woke up, but had trouble breathing. Something covered his head. He fumbled about, struggling to free himself. Then he remembered. The night before, he had dived into his jumper to stop the bad smell from the bed. He flung it off fast.

At that moment, it hit him. Maybe this was the prediction Ambrosius had seen in the flames. Was it possible for the Binehogen keystone to be right there, waiting for him in that place? Maybe it was hidden, and he was the only one who could find it. He felt excited, but the cold feeling of dread was firmly entrenched in every corner of his stomach. He knew it would be impossible to shake it off altogether. This was how he felt when something bad was to happen. Today it was so much worse. He was lost, completely on his own, in a place with beings nobody knew existed, and he had no way of knowing how to get away.

Cautiously, as not to be noticed, he rolled out from his lined hollow. He looked around and found the village in full activity. He watched them go about their chores, while he tried to act in an inconspicuous way. There were no signs of other prisoners, but he decided there was only one way to find out if he could trust them. If he was free to walk around, he would be able to search for the keystone. If it was there somewhere, there was no way he was to leave without it.

To try out how free he was, he bounced away on the swampy ground. His foot felt so much better. He skipped over mossy rocks, and threw himself across a pond by grabbing hold of a liana, dragging in the water. Half-drenched, he reached the other side where he walked through high tree ferns, and large leafy plants before entering the rambling river. The current was strong, and he was close to be pulled away. Nobody had stopped him, and he was able to play around before he had a quick wash.

Upon his return to the cooking center, the Yowies strolled around doing what must be on their program every morning. More fires were lit, and more food prepared before the serving started at the central gathering point.

Soon the air filled with more of the unfamiliar aromas. He was hungry, but worried about another wacky meal. The food, and the accommodation were not five stars, but it was important to eat. He had to keep his strength for an extensive search, and if he was going to escape.

He came to think of his camera. If he could snap them in one big crowd in front of their cave homes, it would be a world first. A once in a lifetime thing. Magazines and newspapers from all over the world would stand in queues to buy his photos. He would make millions of dollars. He could buy a new 4-wheel drive for his grandpa. Maybe even a caravan. He knew his grandpa had always wanted one. And he could tell his mates, and show them proof that Yowies were tangible.

While the cooking went on, Ben walked around, asking everyone for his backpack, his hold-all. Nobody seemed to understand. He showed with hand signals how you carry it on your back. They were not the least interested. He realised the possibility that the backpack had disappeared before he ended up in the village. His sneakers were gone too. He thought about Jack’s compass among all other things. If he wanted to escape, the compass would be his best ticket out of there. None in his family knew he could use one, but he had practiced on his own. He also wanted his water bottle, his knife, plus the sultanas, and the chocolate, which were stashed away in one of the pockets. They were important to his survival if he was to run off in limbo to find the trail leading to Boab Plute. Above all, it was crucial to get hold of his camera to gather evidence about beings in a world nobody knew existed. He could bet his bottom dollar that nobody had ever heard about the land of Panghellan under the Nullarbor.

He realised he had to make plans. Without plans, there was no moving on. He had to locate his stuff. Then find his way back to the place before he had ended up in Baffling. With his eagle eyes, he knew he was good at tracking. He knew he could find the right trail. There was so much to tell if he could only meet up with them.

He realised something important had changed. The usual feelings of dread and gloom were almost gone. He, Ben Starling, who always worried about the smallest thing, now believed he could handle whatever came his way. For some reason his confidence had grown. It had almost happened overnight. Of course, he was alone with unreal folklore beings. He knew nothing about them. They could act unpredictably, and he could hardly say he understood them. But he missed his family, and of course he wanted to get away. However, there was something else, something very surprising. He kind of liked the place.

Ben touched the stone in his pocket, but knew it was no good. His imagination had run haywire, thinking it was magic. Now he knew it was as useless as a computer with a crashed hard drive. He decided to keep it, if nothing else than for its beauty.

Going through everything in his mind, he knew the time was ripe. He knew he had to make plans. He needed his backpack first and foremost. In fact, it was crucial to find it. Another priority was to locate the mysterious stone key, or at least learn more about it.

‘Okay, I’m not absolutely terrified, but I need to get out of here even if this place isn’t such a bad place after all.’ He had talked to himself, loud enough for others to hear. ‘At least I’ve got food, as much as I can eat. You’re a pretty generous crowd. My brother, the hungry Jack, should’ve been here. He might have liked the grilled crawly things that you had last night even if you don’t have tomato sauce. Oh, yeah, and I’m glad you don’t squint. Wow! I can’t believe I’m living with Yowies! I think I’ll write a book when I get home. I could call it … eh … maybe something like A Starling living with Yowlings.’

Therkel, a son of Kenairies, came limping. He had a wonky leg. He handed a green package to Ben, and motioned for him to eat. Ben watched as others munched on the same kind of parcels with leaves folded together. But when green-tinged see-through ants escaped from the inside to walk down their chins, he felt unsure. He had seen enough of the little creepy crawlies the night before. He wanted to reject the offering, but worried about Therkel’s reaction. Maybe it was one thing not to eat a bandage, but another to say no to breakfast. He still held the package, but had sneaky peeks into different containers standing on the many stone ledges.

There were soups, gruel-like liquids, and some greenish sludge, which crawled with insects and worms in basket containers woven so tightly that no liquid escaped. Nothing took his fancy until he discovered platters with small fruits. They looked the same as the bush-tomatoes offered earlier by Ambrosius. He grabbed a few before he shoved the nest of ants quickly into his pocket.

The Yowies walked around, eating and making hand gestures. Ben tried to join in by making a few signs too, but their wrinkled foreheads said it all. They were clueless about what the sign ‘thumbs up’ meant. He strolled about with a smile on his face, trying his best to socialise. That was until ants wandered out of their nest to explore the insides of his cargo pants. He felt some sharp nips. He had to pull the nest out of his pocket fast. Then he raced screaming towards the stream to the great enjoyment from the astonished onlookers.

The same afternoon he sat alone, deep in thoughts, on a rock ledge close to the river. He knew most people at home saw him as a scared worrier. The same ones would have been incredibly surprised at his newfound confidence. He could almost hear Jack’s voice. ‘How could a weirdo like Bugs end up in a place like that, and not be absolutely terrified? Okay, he’s just too dumb.’ Ben knew his brother would be absolutely flabbergasted to know the new truth.

His daydreaming settled back on Jack, and his whereabouts. He was dying to know if he had been found, how far they had all gone, and what they were doing at the time. He was interrupted by Kenairies, who had sneaked up on him. ‘Ben have knowledge? We know every thing. Must know best than Grims.’

‘You do, do you?’ Ben thought for a moment. If he did what they wanted, maybe they would give him his backpack, and maybe even show him how to get to the place where he was found. If he did not co-operate, what chance did he have of leaving with all his gear. Jack’s compass was essential if he was to find his way to Boab Plute. And he wanted his camera.

‘Okay then,’ said Ben. ‘I just don’t know where to start. I’ll think about it. How did you learn all the things you already know?’

‘From other … learn English. We have book,’ said Kenairies. ‘And we have B-E-E-E-G trove.’

He whispered in Ben’s ear, and made sure he was followed back to the settlement where they took off down a well-trodden dirt path. Kenairies jumped around, while Ben walked behind feeling like it was some kind of school excursion, but the wrong way around. He was the teacher with Kenairies as the unruly student.

The track took them through the lush forest with overgrown fig trees, which had root systems spreading on the ground into net creations. Others hung like drapes in the air.

When they arrived at a small glen with a cascading waterfall, Kenairies pointed up a high cliff wall. ‘Up high land to go.’

‘Highland?’ said Ben. ‘Yep, it’s high alright.’

Kenairies snatched a liana, and started to climb.

Ben did the same by grabbing another. It was not all that easy, but he managed to follow up the wall. He made it to where Kenairies stood waiting in front of a drape of leafy vines before he knew his fear of heights was gone.

Kenairies separated the greenery. ‘This is way.’

‘How cool is that! A secret passageway behind a waterfall! What’s in there?’

Kenairies looked at him with a crooked smile, and motioned for him to follow.

The tunnel, leading inside, was hot and steamy with droplets running down the walls. They walked through to the end where they entered an enormous cave chamber.

Ben was gobsmacked. He could hardly believe what he saw. Yowies swarmed around as commuters inside a train station at rush hour. But that was not all there was to see. He looked at all the things in between, behind, and in front. Everything reminded him of a suburban rubbish dump. He saw rusting metal cans, wrecked equipment, odd human belongings, an ancient-looking suitcase, broken cups, mugs and all sorts of wooden trash.

‘Awesome! Just about the perfect place to hide something,’ muttered Ben. His eyes came to rest on a heavily decorated table, which stood in the middle. He thought of the whole area as an enormous banquet room even if the huge table was chunky and homemade out of an enormous log. He was gobsmacked when he realised they had carried it all the way up there. And they had done it climbing the steep cliff wall. ‘Okay, I get it. You did it with magic.’

‘What … we did?’ Kenairies scrunched his nose to bare his teeth.

Ben wasn’t deterred. He smiled cunningly. ‘I mean how you got the table up here.’

Kenairies shook his head. ‘Table long time here.’

Obviously Kenairies was tight-lipped about the magic part. Ben decided it was best not to press him. Instead he scrutinised the table. The top was laid out with odd pieces of wrecked household goods, such as knives, forks with broken prongs, or a bent spoon here and there, some broken or chipped enamel mugs, a dented billy-can, an ancient rusty can opener, probably from another era altogether, and scraggly old tooth-brushes, plus other odd bits and pieces. Some items were not unlike his own collection at home. Only his was newer and better.

‘What is this? I mean, how did all this end up here?’

Kenairies beamed with pride. ‘We find bit and piece. From river.’

Ben wandered around the table. He searched for possible hiding spots for what he was searching for without being too obvious. Nothing reminded him of any sort of key.

At the far back was an opening. Ben had ended up on his own, and he wanted to explore. He went into a tunnel leading into another large chamber. Inside were more things. All outdated too. When he discovered half of the most basic wheelbarrow with a wrecked, and withered wooden wheel, an old box camera on a stand with the covering cloth in a pile resting on top, and even an old-fashioned toilet bowl with rust stains, he thought of both big rooms as some kind of museum for hundreds of years’ old rubbish.

He ended up in a small alcove with stone shelving, and found a treasure trove of books. A large hardcover one ‘Etiquette Through History’ stood out. It was thick, but worn, with parts missing. On the cover was a faded medieval painting of an English king with turkey drumsticks in both hands.

He turned a couple of pages, and saw artistically drawn pictures of ballrooms, and beautifully dressed people from previous centuries. He skimmed over outlandish menus, and some of the protocols when socialising at conferences and balls. One picture showed what seemed to be a very important function with luxurious table decorations in the form of exquisite flower arrangements, and fantastic ice sculptures. The guests were royals galore, and well-dressed dignitaries, all wearing medals, ribbons and amazing jewels.

He pulled out book after book to see what else was there. As he skimmed through an old encyclopaedia with dog-eared pages, the truth dawned on him. The Yowies had cleverly made replicas of clothes from the pictures in the book. They had done so by using animal hides, and materials straight from nature. Some had made a good job of looking like they were at a stone-age banquet, while others wore not much at all. Ben had to smile. In the world on top, they would have looked like cave surfers from earliest history mingling with serious diplomats at a weird embassy convention held in the outback.

He looked through the ledges, and found more books between ancient-looking household goods. Another book took his fancy, ‘Geographical Discoveries During the Last 300 Years’. He skimmed through the illustrated pages, and found a bookmark, a dried gum leaf. It was placed at a listing for Madagascar.

He searched through another pile. He found an aged atlas, and several books about the ABC, and nursery rhymes, all covered in stains, and hardly kept together.

Then he stumbled onto something, making him seriously excited. Hidden between two rocks, it stuck out like a sore thumb. He pulled it out. The dark blue book with stains had no picture on its cover. The only adornment was five words written on a torn piece of checkered material.

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© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

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