Morning rose, and they were too dead on their feet to keep
going, especially with the shimmering wave of heat that struck them with the
rising sun. Old Neg fainted, and that was that. They splashed water on his face,
then half-carried him to a small gorge where they laid up in its shadows. Ink
took the first watch; the rest were out like a light.
They were roused by Bilge Joe at midday, and wobbled their
way out the gorge and west once more.
They relaxed somewhat as the days passed, for no pursuit seemed
to be coming. Maybe Caesar really had decided he had better things to do than
chase them down. They deviated from their course slightly to approach an old
village. Half-naked children played in the red dust, and stopped to stare at
the strangers. Somewhere women were singing, wailing, an ethereal sound that
carried through the village. It spoke to India of waving lemon grass, of a
boiling sun that rose giant and scarlet over the rim of the world as a million
birds took to the air. Of titanic mumaphants shaking the earth with their
steps, and rhinosaurs rolling in the mud. Of children playing and laughing in
the dust and the doom palms and the fever trees.
They struggled to make themselves understood to the
villagers, but with enough pantomiming by Bilge Joe they succeeded in both
buying food and hiring camels – the only ones, it seemed, the village had. Bilge
Joe thrust a handful of battered silver coins at them and their faces opened in
wonder and delight.
‘Good thing too,’ India heard him mutter to Bill Timber. ‘I
very much doubt they’re gettin’ these camels back.’
Their progress was much better mounted, and not having to
pass the bags of gear between them. They kept the camels in a trot for a while
– the beasts seemed eager for the rare chance to run – then settled them into a
steady walk when they got tired.
There was still no sign of Captain Grimmer and the rest of
the crew. India, now worried, asked if they should go back for them (despite absolutely
not wanting to retrace all those steps and returning to their place of
imprisonment), but Ink and Bilge Joe snorted practically in unison.
‘They’ll be out, don’t you worry,’ the first mate said. ‘Straight
west, Cap’n’s orders. We ain’t to go against that.’
‘And if we don’t see him?’
‘Then we don’t see him,’ Bill Timber said in his deep voice.
‘We’re a crew up to a point, lad,’ Bilge Joe said. ‘After
that, well, sometimes you can’t do somethin’ for someone more than they can do
it for themselves. You understand?’
India didn’t, but kept his mouth closed.
Days, nights, days. The sky was cloudless, the country arid, but for verdant watering holes, crowded with grazing animals of every shape and size. Eventually long grasses returned, the air thicker, the trees frequent. They passed lines of quiver trees alternating with petrified wood in the most unnatural shapes; they looked almost like people who had been magicked into statues by one of the less merciful Afrikan gods. Bushwillows followed, and then, as the foliage grew denser and the climate more humid, red silk-cottons and giant kokrodua and heavy-leafed coffin trees, and many not one of them could name. There were no rocks in this land.
Another day and their camels rode awkwardly and out-of-place
along winding forest trails. Black hardwoods and evergreens and blossoming flowers
of every colour. The undergrowth thickened, and sometimes the way ahead to
smoother grass had to be hacked away with Ink’s machete. Sweat rolled down
every inch of their skin. The buzz of insects were regular, and Bilge Joe was
attacked on countless occasions; they seemed to be the only things in the world
that liked his odour.
They had shifted to riding in the days; the nights here
seemed too dangerous, fraught by frightening animal cries. The forest became a
predator. They saw slinking shapes away from the light of the campfire, and
chittering in the trees, heard prey pounced upon and eaten. One night they all
woke up one by one to the sound of discordant humming. None of them were making
the noise – it was coming from the forest. Bilge Joe and Ink were on watch, and
told them firmly not to investigate. India thought that wise, though he
wondered at its source – the humming was wordless singing, now. It was scarier
just for the lack of knowing. Oshun and Meria’s stories came back to him. Were
they Obambo bush ghosts? Biloko treasure guardians? Mashetani spirits? Was it
the trickster god Ogo in one of his disguises? Or was it the Rompo, that
corpse-feeder that crooned as it ate?
India shuddered. Much as he liked to experience new things,
he didn’t fancy meeting whatever was making that sound, at least not in the
middle of the night.
Thankfully the sound faded into the forest, and after a while of staring into the black-green foliage and seeing things that weren’t there, India eventually drifted back into an uneasy sleep.
India Bones and the Indigo Caves is a work in progress. The first book in this series, India Bones and the Ship of the Dead, is currently available FREE as a US/UK ebook here.