Darx Circle

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CHAPTER 14: Buses and Bicycles

The bicycle part turned out to be quite easy. When Tye’s grandfather collected them from school it transpired that he had already fitted the car with a carrier and loaded her machine onto it, and he also had the suitcase she had packed for the weekend, so he took them straight to Hugh’s home.

‘Thanks, Granddad,’ Tye said. ‘Remember: the plan is that we will prove we can cope completely on our own. Don’t call us; if you do we won’t answer. We’ll call you if we have any sort of problem.’

‘Hmmph,’ said Mr Flynn. ‘I really don’t approve of this whole “teenage independence” idea at all.’ He glared at them for a while, obviously wanting to say a great deal more. ‘Oh, anyway, it’s not for us to overrule your parents. We’ll see you next week.’ He waved and drove off, still looking annoyed.

‘So far, so good,’ Hugh smiled. ‘Next step, Happiness; and I hope it will be!’

She was waiting for them. ‘Eef you theenk you make beeg mess now,’ she growled at them, ‘you theenk more.’ Apart from being overweight and always having a sour expression, one of her things was refusing to speak anything but their own language to Donald and Hugh, even though their Zulu was far better than her English.

‘You wanted to go home to your family for the long weekend, didn’t you?’ Hugh asked her.

‘Eet ees not ever what I want that happen,’ she grumbled. ‘Now I must stay look after you childs.’

‘Why don’t you just go? We’ll be fine. There’s no need to worry that we’ll leave a mess; we’ll be out a lot and I promise you the house will look as if we haven’t been here at all,’ Hugh said.

‘Meestair Donald he be shout at me eef I do that,’ she said.

‘Who’s going to tell him?’ Tye asked sweetly.

Happiness’s expression of misery lightened slightly as she thought this over. ‘You Hugh always speak true,’ she observed. ‘I go. Eef I go now, ees steel time for today late bus. Otherwise only get at time six tomorrow the morning.’ Moving with remarkable speed considering her girth, she went to pack a carry-bag, and very soon they watched her letting herself out of the front gate.

‘Bus;’ Hugh was saying thoughtfully, ’there’s an idea. It would take too long to ride up to Ummango, so as I told you I was thinking of using minibus taxis. With needing to take the bikes, though, a bus would be better. Happiness’s family is up near ‘Maritzburg, which is on one of the routes to get to the Valley. Six o’clock, did she say? We’d better gear ourselves for that. Which reminds me: we need to see what money we can scrape up between us.’

After supper, they went out to check over the bicycles, and Hugh fitted his carrier to go over his back wheel, and another ‘borrowed’ from Donald on Tye’s machine. ‘It is so silly wearing the backpacks when riding a bike, don’t you think …?’ he said on their way back from the garage, and then paused to look out over the garden. ‘Notice anything?’

‘Yes,’ said Tye soberly. ‘Nothing.’

Hugh nodded. ‘Quite so. It looks as if this has become a no-go area for Faie folk. I haven’t seen a trace of one since we came back.’

‘Just as well,’ Tye said. ’If there were any, here or Between, I’m sure reports might get circulated very fast that certain people who are supposed to be guests of Aiennea – aren’t.’

They were up early the next morning. After a hasty breakfast of cereal and fruit they tidied everything, set all the house alarms, locked up, fastened their backpacks to the bicycles, and set out for the nearest ‘bus stop’ – that is, the place where people customarily flagged down privately-owned buses and taxis.

The group of mixed Zulus already there looked at them curiously. It was unusual for pale-faced people to be waiting for cheap transport in an area where they usually came from fairly wealthy backgrounds. Also, it was clear that Pip freaked them out more than somewhat. Hugh addressing them fluently in their own language astonished them even more, but made them respond with friendliness.

‘The money, how much do you pay to ride?’ he asked, and they told him, also volunteering the information of how much extra the bikes would cost to transport.

At about ten-past, a large bus with ’Ravis Special Sunrise Delight’ painted along the side came to a stop, quite ignoring traffic rules and a build-up of traffic behind it. Hugh asked the fare, in English. Once the ‘conductor’ stopped goggling at them in general and Pip in particular, he got a gleam in his eye and named a sum four times what they had been told.

‘We’re not as stupid as we look,’ Hugh grinned, and offered the exact normal amount. The other passengers roared with laughter, and that was that.

The luggage compartment was spacious, and they didn’t even need to take any wheels off the bikes for them to fit comfortably. Within a couple of minutes of stopping the bus was on its way again. Hugh and Tye had a section of seats all to themselves – the other passengers showed a preference for keeping a good distance away from Pip even if it meant huddling together.

The trip to Pietermaritzburg was uneventful apart from diving off the motorway a few times to pick up more passengers, or drop some off. A couple of new ones thought they would avail themselves of the space near Hugh and Tye, but suddenly decided to sit somewhere else when Pip sniffed at them.

Hugh found that he was spotting expected signs of Faie activity here and there on the route, and a couple of times Tye elbowed him and indicated with head gestures where she had spotted something of special interest. Now, though, he found that he was not fixated on them as he had always been in the part, but was accepting them as normal.

The end of the route was at an informal bus station on the outskirts of the little city nestled at the foot of Town Hill, and from there they had been able to get directions to the place from which another bus heading for Umtata usually left on Saturdays at ‘about eight o’clock’.

The streets leading there were not busy, justifying the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ title often used to describe the place, and it didn’t take them long to cycle to the departure point. The bus which - quite a bit after eight - wheezed up to the new group of passengers they had joined was smaller than the last, and had a less spectacular paint job. The bikes had to be tied on a roof rack for this one, and it was so cramped that some fearful passengers had no option but to sit next to Tye. The same strategy had been employed to pay a ‘normal’ fare, which turned out a good deal less than what the conventional bus lines were charging.

Hugh had a long discussion with the driver during the start of the journey regarding where best he and Tye should leave the bus so as to cut across to Ummango, which was off to one side of the route. It was as well he had done so.

‘If you ride all the way along the road that branches off to go there,’ the man said, ‘there is much up-up-up, but if you go past a little and take the farm roads to link up from other side, road already on high part.’ This made a good deal of sense.

After an uncomfortable journey of about two-and-a-half hours, the bus groaned its way painfully up a particularly long climb, and the driver called out, ‘At the top is road where you go.’

The other passengers looked relieved when the two got out. No help was offered in climbing up the ladder up the back to retrieve their bicycles, which they managed with good teamwork. They had hardly set the second one down before the bus, with renewed vigour after having finished the climb, roared off.

‘More like a path than a road,’ Hugh observed after they had fastened their backpacks onto the carriers and mounted. ‘Just a sec. – let me check the reception,’ and he hauled his phone out of his pocket. ‘Yes the GPS is working fine and there is a strong signal at the top here. Maybe I should send a quick message to your grandparents, that we’re doing fine and are out on a ride?’ Tye shrugged and he texted busily; adding, ‘I won’t leave it on, to save the battery, but at least we can’t get lost. Wish I’d thought of making a clamp or something for it, though.’

‘It wouldn’t be shock-proof enough for that, stupid, even with front shocks,’ Tye responded.

’There are times when I’d like to give you some shocks,’ Hugh said, but under his breath. Then he added, this time out loud but breathlessly instead, ‘Phew, just this slight rise and I’m tired already. I’m unfit when it comes to cycling. Don’t know how I’m going to get all the way.’

Tye’s tone became even more infuriatingly Tyrentia-ish. ‘You should remember that one normally feels like that at the beginning of a ride, especially after some sitting, even if you’re fit from walking or running. Once you warm up properly, you’ll be able to carry on and on.’

What was even more infuriating was that she soon proved to be right.

Pip was clearly enjoying the added speed of the level or downhill bits, and was sitting balanced upright on her shoulder with tail streaming behind like a short puff of smoke. After a while they came to the top of a slight rise from which they had a good view all round. Nobody was in sight, human or Faie.

‘Yip-eep?’ said Pip.

‘Why not? Go ahead,’ Tye responded, while Hugh gaped.

At that, the ‘squirrel’ suddenly grew a set of wings, and took off. Then it was swooping and soaring above them, giving happy little yip-yips from time to time, and looking like a massive black bat.

After quite a while Pip suddenly dived down to perch on Tye’s shoulder again, abruptly de-winging on the instant of landing. Not long after that they passed some workers in a field. Even after these had been left far behind, Pip was then happy to remain as a passenger again, though.

Most of the gradients were fairly easy, and Hugh tried to do some chatting while they rode, but he found Tye unresponsive as usual. She simply wouldn’t talk about herself, and didn’t show much interest in anything to do with his own life and memories.

They had to branch onto other roads and tracks, consulting the GPS map from time to time, before they came across more and more dwellings, and finally intersected the road on the Rhino Valley side of Ummango. Hugh glanced at his watch. ‘We couldn’t have timed that much better if we’d tried. Twenty-five to. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dengana is a bit late, though. Not that I mind if he is; I’m dying for a rest and a nice cold drink from a fridge.’

‘They know you at the shop, don’t they?’ Tye asked. ‘Maybe I should go in for what we want while you look after the bikes. The ideal number of people to find out that you are anywhere near this area is none whatsoever. Anyway, I’m better than you are at answering awkward questions.’

‘Fibbing, you mean,’ said Hugh, a trifle testily.

‘Only if I have to,’ Tye nodded. ‘Usually, a careful selection of bits of truth work better – as I notice you have managed to do quite a bit of, lately.’

There was, indeed, no sign of Dengana yet, so Tye bought refreshments while Pip stayed with Hugh looking miserable and going, ‘Meep, meep.’ She fobbed off awkward questions by saying that they were exploring for good routes, and would probably be joined by another member of their group before they got picked up some time later.

They had to wait another twenty-five minutes or so before Dengana breezed in, not in any particular hurry. He took rather casually the miracle the pair of them had brought off by being there, saying simply, ‘I know all the time you would find way to do it.’ Then he noticed Tye looking blank, so said it again in English, but still in casual tones.

He was far more enthusiastic about the spare ‘cooldrink’ and chocolate bar Tye had bought for him. Some of the enthusiasm was dampened when, although Pip had enjoyed a good share of those of Hugh and Tye, he insisted on having some of that as well.

Dengana told them smugly that he had been rather cunning about his own departure. He had sneaked out after leaving a note which said he was going to visit ‘scribble’ for a few days and that he would explain when he got back. The ‘scribble’ had been provided by a convenient flaw in the paper, making the writing on that spot completely illegible.

‘This way,’ he said, ‘parents they not worry, and I only worry about trouble for come back when come back.’

He made light of the experience of leaving Safah Ring, saying, ‘Rhaxen they wait, but Lusi she make good plan.’ Then he was quite devastated when they told him about Avinia.

They made good time when they set out as a group. Dengana’s bicycle, which was a pride and joy he had gone through many sacrifices to buy, was not as light or as fancy as those of Tye and Hugh. Nevertheless, he was a strong rider, and kept up with them easily except where their extra gearing allowed for pedal-assisted speed even on steep downhill stretches.

Not that the state of the road, once they had taken the turnoff for Rhino Valley after an hour’s hard riding, would allow for great speed. It took constant concentration to pick a route through stones, corrugations, ruts, and potholes.

The afternoon was well-advanced when they finally came to the spot where the road started its winding drop into Rhino Valley, and they stopped to look out over the magnificent view.

Tye took in the distant stretch of the valley with its river and streams, little hills, fields, groups of trees and the few dotted farms. Then she looked left at the imposing bulk of Rhino Peak, and right at the steep hill crowned by the stooped, brooding rock formations she knew from what Hugh had described must be The Sad Ones.

‘Not bad,’ she said lightly, and Hugh glared at her.

‘Well, we’re here,’ he said after a pause, ’Question is, what on earth do we do from this point forward? We’ve reached as far as I’ve been able to think ahead, but now I haven’t a clue. How and where do we eat and sleep? How can we possibly get through that valley and find the entrance to Darx Circle without any creature detecting us?

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