Part VI: Travelling Companions
And away we go.
The roads were pretty quite when we finally scrabbled down the hillside to meet it. I had seen the occasional person amble past while Archie slept. They were all new travellers obviously, just having left Fringetown, all taking their first steps on a journey that would take months. It was a journey of near epic proportions ahead of them, yet there they were, heading out. As I watched them a wave of guilt and shame swept through me. Guilt that I hadn't wanted to leave. Shame that it had taken Archie to get me to leave. To this day I still feel ashamed that I was unable to take my own first steps. That I had failed so early and so simply.
A snort behind me signalled Archie had awoken. Climbing out of his blankets he sat down next to me and for a few minutes we watched the road in silence, until I just had to say something.
"Put some clothes on."
I minded the things while he went and bathed in the river, then vice versa when it was my turn for a wash. When I walked back Archie had packed all our supplies. He handed me some cheese and tomato sandwiches. I can't stand tomato, but I wasn't in the mood to complain, so I just ate them. After lunch Archie pulled out a map and showed it to me.
"You've probably seen this vaguely before. We need to head west, roughly speaking. They're aren't too many detours on the way. Basically, we follow the road until here." He stabbed the map with his finger, where a small dot was nestled between a narrowing in the cave walls. "Spartown, it's called."
"What, very Greek is it?" I muttered sarcastically. Archie ignored me.
"It's half a weeks walk away. We've enough food and lights to last us until then. Once there, we can work or trade for some more, although frankly the former will be more profitable." He was silent a moment, then continued. "It's fairly easy going, the road is well travelled. After Spartown though, we'll have to start making our own paths. There are other towns, but no more roads."
"Why didn't they put roads in?" I wondered aloud. Archie shot me a grin.
"What, and make it nice and easy for us? Where's your sense of adventure Jerry?"
I grinned back but there wasn't that much good humour in it. My dad had taken me hiking once as a child. I still hadn't forgiven him, and he'd been dead for years. Any trace of a smile that was left on my face vanished at the thought. Oh no. He's done here, somewhere. Probably hiking.
It was time for us to leave, so we made our way down the loose stones of the hill, until we planted our feet on the road. There finally, I took my first step. And we were on our way.
The highway bandits.
The walk was surprisingly pleasant, and we had covered a fair portion of rock by the time we camped in for the night. The road was wide, but we didn't pass anyone on our way. It wound over the rock, staying basically as flat as possible, going around mounds and hills. At some points the cave walls crept slowly closer to the path we walked, before steering away again into the distance.
Despite my experience on the farm back in Fringetown I was surprised by the amount of vegetation I saw. Down here the majority of the plants were small stubby plants I hadn't seen before, but there were one or two larger trees, including a large patch of them off to the south at one point. According to Archie, who seemed to know an awful lot about down here, it was plantations like the ones I saw in the distance where they got all their timber. After the first few I didn't pay them any more heed, and kept walking.
We had not walked long on our second day when we heard shouts from ahead of us. Speeding up, we rounded the bend to see a man being accosted by what I assumed must have been highway bandits. A pair of women. The largest of the pair was brandishing a crude wooden club menacingly, and was advancing on their victim slowly with deliberation. The man was backing away, and fear showed on her face. Assuming robbery I stepped forward, pulling my knife from my pocket. It was small and not the most intimidating but had the advantage of being sharp and also being able to open bottles. As an afterthought I pulled my sleeve down over my watch. I didn't want them to see that, if at all possible.
"What's going on here?" I asked, doing my best to not looked intimidated. It was a very big club. The smaller of the two bandits and evidently the one who had any brains, turned to me and smiled. "Nothing, friend. Why don't you keep on walking."
"I'm not your friend, and neither is he." I retorted, pointing to their intended victim. He nodded emphatically at this and, before they could stop them, ran behind Archie and me, and used us as a human shield. Realising the stakes had changed; the bandits stopped looking so confident.
"Look, we weren't meaning to cause any trouble."
"And neither are we," I replied, amiably enough. "So we'll keep walking this way, and you can walk that way, and if all goes well we'll never lay eyes on each other again." I waited, but they didn't move. "Goodbye." The bandits looked uneasily at each other, but they walked past us and down the road. We stayed watching them until they had disappeared round a bend and out of sight. Then their victim turned to us.
"Hey thanks guys, thank you very very much. Generous thing to do, that. Very nice." He held out a hand, and Archie took it. "Name's Will."
Will and expectation.
Will was fairly short. His hair was a roughish blonde and it was obvious from how he looked that his supplies were lacking several essentials, such as enough food and a comb. He also spoke very fast and sometimes ran his sentences together, till you didn't know when he started or stopped. Like pretty much everyone out here between settlements Will was a traveller on his way to the other side of Underworld.
He gabbled away as we walked, for we had accepted him into our small party for the time being, and we found out that he had been a surveyor in life; before his wife had come at him with a bread knife for cheating on her. Evidently his wife's aim had been spot on, for here he was. As his chatter continued, I found myself wishing more than once that his wife had missed. He wasn't too bad a chap really, but you thought that mainly when you weren't talking to him.
That night Will insisted we keep walking until we found a defensible camping spot "They'll be back. I'm sure of it. Those aren't the type to let bygones live merrily." We were uncertain, but not enough so to ignore his advice. So we kept walking, until at last Will smiled and pointed off the track. There, nestled behind some rocks was a small cave, with just enough room for the three of us. There were several small trees nearby that Will stripped for firewood, then Archie and I set up our beds while Will built a fire in the entrance. In almost no time he had an unnecessarily large fire burning.
"That's a bit large, isn't it?" asked Archie. Will shook his head emphatically.
"They're coming, and we're not going to be able to hide. We might as well make it as easy as possible for us to see."
"And them too," I added, but my heart wasn't really in it. "They're probably long gone, Will, but you do what you like. I'm going to sleep." Will nodded, Archie yawned, and I lay my head down on the mat. I kept my eyes slightly open though, and through my lashes I saw Will finish with the fire and then creep softly away. My suspicions had been proved correct; he was running away, leaving us to face them, if they did arrive. Well, so much for him. I rolled over and tried to sleep.
Although I didn't know it, behind a far off mound, two darkened shapes watched me as I dropped off. Then, slowly, they made their way forwards.
I awoke suddenly. Unsure of what had awoken me, I listened carefully and heard some small stones clatter in the darkness, followed by something scraping against stone. More awake now, I opened my eyes. The fire was still burning strongly, but far from helping me, it rendered the cavern a few dozen feet away pitch black. Again, I heard stone being scraped. I fumbled for my knife and wondered whether to risk trying to wake Archie. The option to throw Archie into the fire as a decoy entered my mind but didn't stay long. It probably wouldn't work, and anyway Archie was the only one who knew where we were going.
My time spent deciding what to do had resulted in one thing, I now no longer had any time to do anything in; the attackers were upon me. With a yell to Archie I leapt out of my blankets, brandishing the knife. My two assailants were silhouetted against the fire, but they would have had a perfect view of me. Cursing Will, I stood my ground, waiting for them to approach. They didn't move, and for a minute or more we did nothing except warily watch each other. Finally they took a step forward.
I shifted my grip on my knife and readied myself to defend against their attacks. The three silhouettes were… three? I took a closer look. A third shadow had moved up behind the other two. As I watched, he raised a burning tree branch, and I saw his face.
Will swung his branch; it was thick, and hit the first assailant in the back with some force, knocking them flat on the ground. Will kicked the first in the stomach and wasting no time I leapt forward and seized the second. Pressing into their back as hard as I could, I managed to force them to the ground. They struggled but I kept them pinned until Archie came up behind me and disarmed them. He also brought a lantern, and as he held it high I saw who our assailants were. It was the two women from the road.
Looking about as smug as I've ever seen anyone look, Will produced two coils of rope and proceeded to bound our new captives, until they were unable to move. Then he grabbed their packs and went through them, removing food, water, blankets, anything we could use. He set these aside, then threw the packs aside. Removing some handkerchiefs from his pocket, he gagged them, though they weren't really making much noise to begin with. Finally, he sat back, and looked at me.
"Oh, all right, fine. Yes. You were right. All along, yes. Well done. How could we ever have doubted you?" I supplied, though fairly good humouredly. He smiled back, and so did Archie. The bandits didn't smile, but even if they weren't gagged I don't think they'd have seen the joke.
"Well, now that's sorted, it's probably time we got some sleep," Will remarked.
"But are you sure we can trust those two to remain tied up?" I asked.
"Good point," he replied. And before I could stop him he picked up one the bandit's clubs and brought down heavily on their heads, rendering them unconscious. Archie looked fairly horrified and I couldn't really blame him, but since there wasn't really much we could do about the situation, we just went to bed.
The next morning, we awoke to find our prisoners awake and annoyed but still very much tied up. After breakfast Archie raised the point that we had to do something with our captives.
"No we don't," answered Will. "We're too far form any settlements to take them with us, they'd only be a burden. We can't kill them because, well, that's impossible down here." Archie and I exchanged glances; we could think of a few other reasons, but we didn't speak up. "And if we let them go they'll only come after us again." We had to concede this point.
"So what can we do with them?" asked Archie. Will smiled.
"We leave them here. Eventually they'll manage to untie themselves, or someone will come along and free them, but either way we'll be long gone, and while they'll know the direction we've gone in, they're not going to know where in that direction we are. No harm will come to them, after all."
"But, but, you can't leave them here, with no food or water!" exclaimed Archie.
"There's a lake nearby. But as for food, good point. And reaching into his back he placed between the bandits a small pile of wheat biscuits. "As incentive," he told them, as their eyes focussed desperately on the biscuits. He laughed maliciously, shouldered his pack and walked towards the main road. Archie and I looked at each other, as we followed. We weren't entirely sure we had stumbled across the best of travelling companions.
It is hard, if you walk far enough, to not talk to the person next to you. And Will was amiable enough now that the bandits were far behind. Conversation was constant, though mainly it was asking Archie to explain what was ahead, since he seemed to have memorised the maps before he left.
"It's pretty much smooth going ahead," he told us. "The road only goes as far as Spartown. So after we reach Spartown, its all-terrain travel. That's in a week, if you chaps are wondering. We'll travel further this week than we will the week after when the road's gone. But we'll stay a couple of days in Fringetown, to relax and rebuild our supplies. Until then, all we do is walk and talk."
By the time Archie had finished we had a pretty good idea of what lay ahead ourselves, so none of us were surprised when we reached the first chasm. It wasn't very wide, but ran from north to south wall, so there was no way around it. It wasn't bottomless; we could see the chasm floor. However, should we fall, it was going to hurt severely, and there wasn't any out, so we would be stuck down there. There was a heavy duty wooden bridge built where the main road ran across it.
"Remember, no roads means no bridges," Archie had warned us. "If you find any chasms once the roads gone, you're going to have to either go around it or find some kind of way over. Don't get too worried," he said, seeing our expressions. "People have been trekking these caverns for thousands of years. There'll always be some kind of a way across. The roads a work in progress, only been here a few years. It gets further every day, but its slow work. One of these days, a long way from now, people'll take the road all the way to the other side. But us, we'll hike it."
We crossed the bridge slowly, although it looked sturdy enough. Grabbing a loose stone I dropped it over the side, and watched it fall. It took a very long time. Catching my eye, Archie nodded. "They're all that deep. Or deeper." We kept walking, and soon we turned a corner and the chasm swung out of sight, and shortly afterwards it left our thoughts to.
Will would make notes as Archie answered his questions about the layout of Underworld. Since he had told us he used to be a Surveyor I supposed his fascination with the land down here was understandable. I personally was more curious as to how exactly Archie knew all this information, or had obtained it. I didn't bother to ask though, because the answer would most likely be boring. I tried to remember what I could of what Archie said, in case it proved necessary, but I didn't really succeed.
That night we made camp without any major hassles. After our supper we crawled under our blankets, doused the lights and lay awhile in darkness. As I began to drift off I voiced a question which had been bugging me for some time.
"Archie?" I heard a small yawn from off to my left and then his voice, tired but still irritatingly chirpy, replied.
"Yes, old chap?"
"You said you died within a few hours of me." There was a long pause before he answered.
"What of?" Again there was a pause, before his voice answered, uneasily.
"I don't know Jerry. And, before you ask, I don't know how you died either. I know you're desperate to know, and well, so am I. I think the place to find that out would have to be at the Resting Place."
"But," I was disappointed, but pressed on. "What about those files in your backpack? Don't they…"
Will shifted suddenly and we immediately dropped silent. Hoping to bring the subject up with Archie later, I closed my eyes and eventually drifted off to sleep.
The next morning I awoke before the others. Archie's head poked out from his bedding with a silly grin on his face and Will was firmly bundled up in his blankets. I got a small fire going and started cooking some porridge. Helping myself to a bowl I sat down and contemplated this and that until the sound of Archie spilling the porridge into the fire told me he was awake.
"Morning Archie," I called good-naturedly. He halloed me back and set about making some more porridge. Will still hadn't awoken when we started clearing the campsite. I gave him a prod with a stick. "Will, get up, we're leaving." He didn't budge, so yelled slightly louder and increased my stick prodding proportionally. Still no response I tugged the blankets, which spilled open revealing more blankets and no Will. More than a little surprised I prodded it with a stick to check if Will hadn't suddenly lost weight and was still under there somewhere. After five seconds or so I began to realise that, no, he actually had gone.
"Archie! Will's gone." I called as I bundled up the blankets to take with us. Archie approached me from where he had been packing with a rather grim look on his face.
"Unfortunately, Jerry old pal, it's a lot worse than that. Not only is Will gone, the maps and my files have decided they'd quite like to go with him." I stared at him. "All in all we're in a spot of trouble."
I had words to add to the subject, but perhaps they're best not mentioned.