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.