CHAPTER 1: Rhino Valley and the First Encounter
CHAPTER 1: Rhino Valley and the First Encounter
‘Why does nobody in Rhino Valley answer phones? Are all the lines down?’ Hugh’s father asked.
The man behind the counter shrugged. ‘I haven’t seen any of the Valley farmers here in Ummango for quite a while,’ he said.
‘Would you mind trying the number of the Two Old Fro... I mean, the Henderson brothers for me? It needs to be landline, because, as I’m sure you know, for some reason the whole area gets no mobile reception.’
The man gave a half-shrug this time, but nodded. After listening at the handset for a while he said, ‘Ja, it’s ringing normally, but they’re not answering Maybe they’re out. You’ve stayed there before quite a few times, haven’t you? You are ...’ he paused for a second, and then said, ‘... Mr Redcorn, if I remember.’
‘That’s right: Donald Redcorn, and this is Hugh.’
‘Howzit, Hugh. I’m Jan,’ he said, stretching a hand over the counter.
‘Hugh, Jan here is greeting you!’ Donald said sharply.
Hugh gave a start. ‘Uh ... oh; howja do,’ he mumbled.
His father glared at him, and then said to Jan, ‘I imagine you’d know if the cottage has been booked?’
‘Don’t think it is; and most people who are on their way there stop by. The last ones were a couple of months ago, though.’ He paused to ring up a sale for another customer, and then said, ‘Some of the farmers there have had the worst of luck lately. Ben Coetzee got bitten by a puff adder six times, which is unusual, and they couldn’t get him treated in time so he died. Then Jo Ferreira’s horse threw her, and it trampled her as well, and that was the end of her. Miguel went a bit crazy after that, and he’s now in a sort of home. Then everyone at Crags got some strange sickness and the whole lot are in hospital.’
‘That’s really sad,’ Donald said. ‘We’ve met all of them. It shows, I suppose, that even in such a paradise things go wrong, and one finds danger.’
‘Oh, ja, another one I nearly forgot,’ Jan added. ‘A fisherman told me last week that the new trout hatchery up the other end looks like it’s abandoned.’
Donald shrugged. ‘Anyway, it seems as though we’ll have go out there and take a chance that the cottage is available,’ he said.
Back in the car, his father looked suspiciously at Hugh. ‘You did take your meds, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, Dad,’ Hugh said. It wasn’t quite a lie. He was managing to get away with taking only half what he was supposed to, and was wishing desperately that the effect of the last half-dose would wear off soon. The pills always made him feel less than alive.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the tiny town at the top of the steep climb for which it was named, they turned off onto the gravel road which led towards the mountains. ‘It gets worse every time we come,’ Donald complained, fighting with the steering wheel in trying to miss potholes or at least dodge the bigger ones. The car jounced and juddered. ‘Your mother always said this part of the trip was better than a massage.’
Hugh had also been thinking of his mother, and how he missed her. Rhino Valley brought her to mind particularly strongly. She had always appeared to become so extra alive there, but now, he reminded himself bitterly, she wasn’t alive at all. She was the only one he always felt had understood …
When they reached the view site, which lay just before the part where the road started its imitation of a snake in death-throes to get down into the valley, Donald pulled to a stop and they got out. The scene was, as always, breathtaking. From the top of the saddle they were on, the valley stretched for countless kilometres ahead of them. To the left loomed the range dominated by The Rhino with its distinctive peaks, and to the right the slightly lower range topped by the rock columns of The Sad Ones was etched, closer, against the sky.
‘Magnificent,’ breathed Donald. He turned to look at his son, and his pleasure evaporated. Hugh was staring fixedly here and there with a lost, bemused expression. ‘Hugh!’ he snapped.
Hugh gave a start, and looked at his father in some apprehension. That tone of voice was never good news. ‘Are you um …’ Donald stopped to search for words before going on in a rush, ‘are you seeing things again?’
‘No, Dad; absolutely not!’
The conviction in his voice was unmistakeable, and Donald relaxed. ‘Well, then, why …?’ On second thoughts, he decided to leave well enough alone.
Hugh had to force himself to study the view again and not what had worried him. What he had told his father was quite true. Actually, it was what he wasn’t seeing that was truly disturbing.
‘That’s strange,’ Donald said, his attention again on the valley, ‘no signs of activity.’ For an instant Hugh thought his father had also become Aware … but then he realised that he was talking about the scattered farms in the distance. They did look unusually free of any movement of animals or humans, as did the visible part of the tiny village.
In silence they set off again, and were nearing the bottom of the pass when a sharp bend brought them unexpectedly upon a heavily-laden open pickup, at a standstill and taking up most of the road in a part that hadn’t been visible from above. ‘That bakkie belongs to Dengana Ndhlovu’s dad,’ Hugh said. ‘Yes, there is Dengana with his father and mother and brothers.’
‘That back tyre has obviously had it,’ Donald remarked, and went over to inspect a thing so depressed it was clear that nothing would ever cheer it up again. He exchanged proper greetings in Zulu, and then asked if they had a spare. Apparently they did, but their jack had broken. Donald took his out and started adapting it.
Hugh moved back to the car and Dengana followed. The two were old friends from the previous visits, when sometimes Hugh had shared his herding duties, and whenever possible they had gone on various expeditions together, on foot or on bicycles.
Hugh looked curiously at the piles of furniture and luggage strapped all over the pickup. ‘You have many things they are loaded here,’ he said, also speaking Zulu. ‘You move to another home?’
‘Yes; we go,’ Dengana nodded. ‘We all go.’
‘All? You don’t mean the whole village, do you?’
Again, Dengana nodded. ‘Everyone go away already. We are last ones, because of wheel it is broken. The valley, it is a bad place, now.’
‘What about the ones they work for The Two Old Frogs? Surely they haven’t gone?’
Dengana looked nervously to where the adults were still wrestling with the jack. ‘The Old Frogs they go away. Everyone they go away. Nothing it is left there,’ he said abruptly, and when Hugh asked further questions he only responded by shaking his head.
It took a great deal of time and labour to get the wheel changed. Most of the load had to be taken off before the jack would lift the wheel clear enough to be removed, and then it turned out that the spare was buried under one of the few sections that had been left. Finally the job was completed, and all of them helped with reloading.
Just before climbing aboard Dengana rushed up to Hugh and said quietly but urgently, ‘Not go to Old Frogs. Not go! I see tokoloshe. Bad tokoloshe!’ Then he cast a guilty look at his father and dashed back to clamber onto the bakkie, which resumed its journey out of the valley, swaying rather alarmingly beneath its pile.
‘It doesn’t seem that we’ll be able to stay in the cottage,’ Hugh said as they got back into their car.
‘No,’ Donald agreed. ‘I gather the Old Fr… the Hendersons … have gone away. I couldn’t get any sense about where and why, though. At any rate, I suppose we’ll just have to turn back and find a bed and breakfast somewhere. I don’t feel like driving all the way home again today.’
A sudden thought struck Hugh. ‘I wonder if the Field of Bees - I mean, Rhino Valley Apiary – is still going strong?’
‘No reason why not,’ his father replied vaguely. ‘Well, let’s start back and see where we can find to stay.’
Startlingly, just thinking about the Field of Bees had triggered something truly weird in Hugh’s mind. Sensations he couldn’t describe to himself properly, then or later, came rushing over him. He was aware of a pressuring, urging presence which had the paradox of familiarity on the one hand, of something he knew and welcomed; while on the other hand also giving a feeling of utter repugnance, of being something alien and hateful. At the same time, he was aware of a growing force of unrest and wrongness, completely separate from the first presence but being fed from it.
All this entered his consciousness in a flash, and though he didn’t understand it in the least he was left with a total conviction that he needed to get to the Field of Bees as quickly as possible. Calm, he told himself. Be completely calm.
‘It’s fairly close by from here,’ he said in as reasonable and casual voice as he could manage, ‘and maybe they can tell us what’s going on. Anyway, we haven’t had any of that wonderful honey for simply ages.’
‘Hmm,’ said his father. ‘Yes; you’re right. Bob and Beryl will know what has become of the Frogs. We may as well call in there – only about five minutes out of our way.’
Hugh breathed a huge sigh of relief, but then tried to hide his increasing agitation as the ‘feelings’ returned to him. The driving pressure was increasing, and the other … person? … force? … was turning from uneasiness to a growing rage and some sort of purpose.
Soon they came to the farm gateway and drove over the cattle grid past the sign which read:
Rhino Valley Apiary
Bob and Beryl Kippen loved relating that when they were first married many people had joked that with their names they should be keeping bees. They had tried it, loved it, and it had become their lives.
The farm road ran along a hillside jutting out to one side of the house before curving in towards it, and gave a good view of the old verandah-style building and of the neat boxes of the forty hives, set in rows of eight, which it overlooked. The air above the boxes was looking increasingly hazy.
Now Hugh was managing to put the impressions into words in his mind to make sense of them. The persuasive ‘voice’ was saying, ‘Come; come back; gather, come back! Danger! Defend! Gather together back at home to fight danger! Come; come; gather! Prepare! Defend!’
The other was repeating much the same thing, but in a way that was building up to a mad fury. In a sudden flash of realisation, Hugh knew that this second, responding, one was from some sort of group mind of the bees, and that all of the hives together were preparing to form an attacking swarm.
Two figures were visible on the verandah. They had been seated, but now both man and woman were standing and the man had moved forward and was pointing down at the hives. Seconds later, an enormous dark cloud formed above the rows at about their midpoint, and started to move towards the house. The first voice was now rising to a frenzy of, ‘Attack, attack, attack! Danger! Attack!’ and the second was obediently echoing the same message. Then he could sense that the movement of their car had been noticed, and that part of the cloud had been sent towards them. The rest began to move at speed towards the house.
‘Dad! They’re coming at us!’ Hugh yelled.
Donald had seen them. He used a word he normally wouldn’t have uttered in his son’s presence, and slammed on the brakes, adding, ‘Check every window! Close that vent your side! Try to think of anywhere they might find a way in, and plug it!’
Hugh was too busy looking in horror at the couple on the verandah. They had realised the danger rather too late, and although they were dashing towards the door he doubted if they would make it in time. ‘No!’ he found himself shouting. ‘Don’t do it! There is no danger! All is calm! Return to your hives! There is no danger! Stop the attack!’
Instantly, he could sense that his message was being transmitted in the same manner as he had been receiving the others. There was an impression of astonishment from the first ‘voice’, followed by fury. ‘Who are you? Keep out of this! This is nothing to do with you! Keep out of it!’
From the other side came a slight wavering and uncertainty, and he worked upon it. ‘Calm; relax; calm; no danger; no danger; no danger; calm; go back,’ he repeated again and again. Even the small part of what must have been more than a million bees in the total attacking force was now creating a deafening buzzing, and soon bees were crawling over every part of the car. They were doing it with less and less urgency, though, and it struck Hugh that his ‘transmission’ was probably stronger from close by.
Then the other voice tried again with a rather feeble, ‘Attack, attack!’ and Hugh sent a mental shout as hard as he could, ‘Go away!’ It did, to his mild surprise. At least, he wasn’t conscious of it any longer.
He went on repeating the soothing message, over and over – and suddenly the ‘mind’ of the bees was no longer in a rage but was transmitting things which meant nothing to Hugh, so he decided they were just ‘bees’-iness communications and tuned them out.
Then the bees all simply flew away. One second the car was covered in them; the next they were all dispersing and returning to their normal gathering activities. The same thing was happening with the main swarm at the house – but was it too late?
Donald was staring at Hugh in utter astonishment. ‘Good lord!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s almost as if they listened to you!’ He shook his head slightly as if to clear it, and added with urgency, ‘Anyway, we’d better get to the house and see if the Kippens are alright.’
They weren’t. Hugh and his father found them lying on the floor just inside the front door, covered in beestings. Some bees must have stung them before they closed it, while others had somehow found their way into the house. Beryl was in a coma, but fortunately Bob stayed conscious for long enough to instruct Donald how to give them emergency treatments which were kept on the farm as a matter of course. Bob gasped that these should keep them alive for long enough to get to the hospital. The clinic in Kranzton, only some seventy kilometres away, had the facilities for treatment.
There were no signs of any of the usual farm workers, and Donald and Hugh had to carry the unconscious bodies of the couple to the car. Then Donald drove to the hospital as fast as the roads would allow.
There was a great deal of frustrating red tape and argument before they managed to get them admitted. Even though Donald had managed to find where the Kippens kept their personal documents and had grabbed them, the Reception kept insisting on asking questions with answers which simply weren’t available.
By the time they succeeded in finding a bed and breakfast it was late. Fortunately they were too tired to be interested in an evening meal, because the owners of the converted farmhouse said the kitchen was closed and did not offer to re-open it.
They were shown to a room which seemed to have stepped back in time for a century or two. All the items of furniture were antiques. A couple of massive wardrobes and two dressing-tables with high mirrors still left space for a number of paintings. Three armchairs also somehow managed to fit in without looking cramped.
There was even a washstand with a round basin and a jug of hot water on it. A huge bathroom down a long corridor only had cold water, so they decided to make do with the jug.
The bedsprings on both four-poster beds creaked every time they moved, but in spite of that sleep came quickly and stayed with them until morning.