Sixteen

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They walked for a day and a half, seeing no-one. They found ruins, much like the foundation stones at Cragside, largely unrecognisable and so consumed by the forest that it would be easy to walk right by. One cluster of ruins extended over a huge distance, to the point where they were unable to see its edges.


"Perhaps this used to be a town?" Rufus pondered. "Maybe people used to live here?" His imagination was sparking like it hadn't for months. He'd been right to come on the expedition - his mind was so full of new story ideas that he didn't know how to keep hold of them all.

"Doesn't look very nice," said Erik, examining the weathered and moss-covered stone. What may have once been brickwork had disintegrated and lost definition, remaining only as mounds of nondescript remnants.

"It's not here anymore," Eva said, ruffling his hair. "All these piles of stone are all that's left."

Erik ran his hand over a low remains of what might have been a wall. "Why is it all so smooth?"

"I'd guess everything here is very old," Eva said. "It's been worn down by the rain, or animals, or cold weather."

Kicking at the wall, which easily reduced it to a fine rubble, Ramin crouched down and ran the "How old would this have to be to be in this state?"

"Look at the forest here," Eva said, gesturing at the trees all around them. "Whatever this place used to be, it's been gone long enough for the trees to be full grown and cover the entire area."

"What I'm wondering," Rufus said, "is where are all the people? This place covers a big area. Where did they all go?"

"Wherever it was, it happened a long time ago."

They moved through the ruins, following the shadows of old paths. Rufus watched Tilda, who was uncharacteristically quiet. He was more used to her endlessly sniping at everyone around her, to the point that he'd always tried to avoid her company. Though occasionally funny, her cynicism was wearying after not too long, and Rufus had always found he couldn't write if he was too morose. Her general disdain for his creative efforts was legendary as well, of course. Now, though, she kept to herself, staying physically close to the group but a distance away in all other regards. He still found it hard to understand her accompanying them, as it was so out of character. If it was merely a response to Harry's death, an impulsive reaction against what had happened, then it could be difficult for her once that impetus faded. Then again, one way or another, weren't they were all here because of what had happened to Harry?

The ruin rarely made it higher than their shoulders. Rain, wind, animals, whatever combination it had been, had whittled the settlement - if that's what it had been - down to the barest remains, the quietest echo. It was impossible to tell what had once been here, only that it had spread over a large area.

"It's strange for something this expansive to be stuck in the middle of a forest," he said out loud, to nobody in particular.

"Perhaps the forest hasn't always been here," Eva said.

Robin had been looking increasingly uncomfortable, his gaze shifting left and right at the slightest sound. "Why is nobody here?"

"Nobody has been here for years," Eva said. "Longer than any of us have been alive, probably."

"I know," he continued, "but why is nobody else out here? Exploring? Poking around, like us?"

Ramin made a low humming noise in his throat, as he tended to when pondering on something of deep import. "It could be that we are the only people on the planet."

"But it's so big!" Erik threw his arms up in annoyance. "There must be others somewhere. It wouldn't make sense if it was just us." Rufus smiled at the kid's enthusiasm for joining in the conversation, though made sure to hide his amusement.

"Ah," said Ramin, "but if there were others, don't you think they'd have found us already?"

Tilda laughed, short, sharp, bitter. "Maybe they've been sitting in their tiny villages doing nothing, just like us."

The walk continued, and they passed through the ruins and out the other side, where the forest closed in, thick and steaming with moisture. The afternoon was swelteringly hot, the humidity beneath the trees decidedly uncomfortable. "I'm going to need to wash my clothes after today," he said. "Good job I brought a change."

Eva looked over her shoulder at him, grinning. "You only brought two sets of clothes?"

"That's all I have!"

Exchanging glances, Eva and Ramin said nothing more. Rufus adjusted the pack on his back and walked on, trying not to feel annoyed. Even the slightest criticism from Eva, even meant in fun, cut through to the bone. He couldn't help but imagine what this expedition might have been like if Ramin hadn't accompanied them. Him, Eva and the others, out in the wilds. Ramin back at Cragside, none the wiser. Away from him, perhaps Eva would have at last seen Rufus. Properly seen him, understood him, paid attention to him.

But no, Ramin was there. As he always was, getting in the way.

*

Erik was afraid. He was often afraid, because he was six, but since leaving Cragside he'd felt especially afraid. Everything was different, and weird, and a bit on the wonk. He'd heard someone use that phrase once and it had stuck in his brain. Sometimes he stopped being afraid for a bit, and the trees looked like normal trees, like the ones back at Cragside. The animal sounds would drift towards the ones he knew so well. But it only took a single strange call from up in the trees - an unfamiliar bird, or monkey, or something else - and he'd remember where he was. There was no yurt to snuggle in, no fire pit, no lake to splash about in or kitchen full of food. He wasn't surrounded by a whole village of people who liked to cuddle him and ruffle his hair and chase him about. Everything was serious now. Sleeping was uncomfortable. Going for a poo was awkward. Food was boring and there was never enough.

But at least there was Eva. As worried as he was about their journey, it was better than being left back at Cragside without her.

He trudged along, sometimes hopping up onto Ramin's shoulders, or Rufus' back when his legs got too tired. He wasn't as fast as the others, no matter how hard he tried to keep up and be more grown up: his legs just weren't long enough. They were kind, though, and helped him keep up.

The forest began to thin as they started to get to the end of the day. The trees weren't so close and they didn't have to hack their way through the foliage just to progress; they could see further, which helped Erik to feel less scared. When it felt like the trees were pressing in on all sides and there was no escape it was worst, like being locked in a room with no doors. Being able to see a good twenty metres before the trees blocked the view made the world feel bigger again, and less intimidating.

None of them expected the forest to end when it did. The late afternoon gloom, compounded by the tree canopy, gave way to the beginnings of a glowing sunset, and they emerged onto a different landscape entirely - the forest had ended, save for smaller pockets dotted about, replaced with an undulating series of hills, rolling over each other as far as they could see. In the near distance was another ruin, much smaller in scale but seemingly in better condition - at least from where they stood, at the edge of the trees.

Erik blinked several times and stared at the landscape, and in particular at the grey smudge on the grass that was the ruin. It might have been a single large building, or a cluster of smaller dwellings, once, long ago.

The shape of the hills, the curve of the horizon, and the texture of the ruin blazed into Erik's eyes.

"I'm not sure," he said, speaking very slowly, "but I think I've been here before."



Mysterious. Thanks for reading! Please do leave a comment to let me know what you think so far. You can support the book at patreon.com/simonkjones - thanks again!

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