I’m almost giddy with relief.
Days of continuously hiking uphill, living off a dwindling supply of fruit, and nights camping with the endlessly gassy Nom have taken their toll and left me frayed, to say the least. I’m twitchy.
Plus, you’ve never known indignity until you’ve been forced to try to poo in a melting snowdrift with a small child not of your womb who has no sense of boundaries and likes to offer encouragement and helpful suggestions. After that, a town feels like heaven.
Nevertheless, I eye it cautiously. The last town didn’t go so well for me. For a start, I somehow ended up being the guardian for a worm/human hybrid toddler. If I’m not careful I’ll end up with an entire menagerie of children in tow, or dead.
This new town is clearly another crash site, but larger and more cultivated. Ahead of us, the ground is almost flat and is completely covered in what looks like golden wheat fields, broken only by the river meandering through the middle.
Further away, the slope becomes suddenly sheer and it into this that the ship and cargo tube seem to have crashed long ago. Unlike the one in Ash End, this cargo tube has remained intact. There’s no sign of the smaller drive craft. The dark metallic stone of the tube juts out, huge and imposing, like a building frozen mid-topple, or a Footfall sky needle tilted until it points to two o’clock.
Dozens of great cables have been strung from the jutting tower and anchored to the ground. At the base of each cable is a large, woven building. Smaller buildings are dotted further up and smaller ropes connect the cables, making walkways and intersections where yet more structures have been fashioned. Everything, the ropes, the cables, and buildings, seem to be woven from the straw of the fields so it resembles a giant, golden cobweb.
“Wowee!” Nom gasps, impressed. “I hope we don’t meet the spider.”
“I think we’ll be okay,” I say, wondering how long it will take to get chased from this town.
I can see the specks of a few people around the buildings on the ground and more up on the rope walkways, but there’s no-one out by us. Cautiously, we trek closer.
As we near the field, I can see that the wheat is tall, nearly over my head and definitely over Nom’s. There’s a sign in front and a path running around the edge of the field. The sign is in the local alphabet, which is very dotty and squiggly, and completely meaningless to me.
“What do you think that says?” I ask Nom.
“Dunno,” Nom says. “What’s in the field?”
“Wheat, I think.”
“Ooo! Is that for eating?”
“Yes, but not yet.”
“Oh,” Nom looks disappointed. “Maybe it says wheat field?”
“Why would they need a sign on a wheat field saying wheat field?”
“People might not know what it is, Shoo,” Nom says, like she thinks I’m a bit thick.
“Hmm, I don’t think so, it’s not something you do. I mean, is there a sign over there saying mountain?” Nom squints over, trying to see. “That was a rhetorical question,” I tell her.
“A rhetorical question. You know, like where you ask something because the answer’s obvious.”
“Why would you ask it then?”
“Um… It’s more interesting than just saying it, I guess.”
“Yes, it is a bit,” I admit.
“The sign could be the name of the town,” Nom suggests.
It doesn’t look like that kind of sign, but it’s hard to tell when you can’t read it.
“Maybe that’s it,” I look around. The quickest way to town seems to be to follow the river through the field. “Right, come on then,” I say and lead the way.
We enter the field.
With the tall wheat on either side, it’s a bit like walking down a corridor. The river is less full than it was. Most of the snow upstream must have melted, so we’re squelching through mud that yesterday must have been raging water and the day before was probably wheat. Nom looks nervously up the high yellow stalks and presses close to my leg.
The mud is sucking loudly at my boots with every step, but they’re staying on which is something. They’re also coated with mud, which is fine as long as we don’t go anywhere with nice carpets, and I don’t mean to be snobby, but this doesn’t seem like the kind of town with a lot of deep shag pile. Unless it’s made from straw.
Nom scoffs loudly.
“What?” I say.
“What?” she says.
“You just scoffed.”
“I didn’t do that.”
“What? So, there’s just someone really incredulous hanging about in the field?” I say and as I say it, I realise that’s quite possible.
“What’s… in-cred-u-lous?” Nom demands frustrated and clenches her little fists. “Why do you know so many weird big words?”
Someone scoffs again and this time it’s obviously not Nom as I’m looking straight at her. It’s coming from somewhere in the wheat grass… or stalks… or… legs? Whatever wheat has.
“Alright, who’s in there?” I demand.
The scoffing sound I get in response is nearer this time. There’s some rustling and we hear another scoff from further away, then once more from a little closer.
So, okay, several highly sceptical people could all happen to be taking a walk in the deep grass of the field at once and are finding the wheat very hard to take at face value. That could be what’s happening. It could.
But, let’s face it, it’s going to be some horribly dangerous animals.
Probably while stalking prey.
“Nom, I think I just figured out what that sign said,” I push her behind me.
“Me too,” she says anxiously.
We start backing up the way we came.
As we do, the stalks rustle and a creature bursts out. Oh look, the universe is trying to kill me again. Shocking. I react with a strange combination of healthy, life-preserving terror and bored irritation.
It lands snarling on the riverbed in front of us. Funny-looking thing. It kind of resembles a child dressed in a hairy lobster suit, which would be cute except it has a doggish head with eight eyes. It opens its jaws and makes that scoffing noise, which is significantly more unpleasant now we can see where it’s coming from and the strings of saliva that come with it.
Its jaws open wider, and tentacles fan out.
Each tentacle ends with a little mouth that shrieks at us.
“Oh, come on,” I tell it. “You’re just ridiculous.”
“Shoo!” A terrified Nom whimpers, attached to my leg like a trembling limpet.
Freaky lobster child hisses and charges at us.
I should run.
I know I should run.
That’s what I do. I’m very good at it. It might be what I’m best at.
But I’m fed up.
And I’ve got a spear.