The next morning they crossed the river on the ferry. The only strange thing that happened was that when the cart got on the ferry it suddenly took off at great speed. The driver, who normally lolled over the steering wheel half asleep, sat up in fright, eyes wide. He clung desperately to the wheel thinking he was going to crash into the bank on the other side. When it came to a gentle stop at the landing bay he shook his head in disbelief. Maybe he hadn’t woken up yet and this was a nightmare. He had drunk rather a lot of chubuku the night before; with all this fuss with lions and stuff he had needed something to help him sleep. Nobody else seemed to notice anything except of course for the trio in the cart, who giggled quietly to themselves.
Driving along the road past a couple of villages Lorato kept the cart at a steady pace. He didn’t want to attract too much attention as they were getting into enemy territory. They noticed that as they moved further and further west the more miserable and dejected people looked. They were also very unfriendly, turning away or looking down as they passed. At first Lesedi and Lorato tried to greet them as they would normally but they soon realised that it was no use and drove along in silence, feeling the gloom of the place settle over them.
The landscape was becoming dry and dusty. There were no more green trees—in fact there were hardly any trees at all. The ones that were there all looked dead, their blackened, bare branches reaching up despairingly to the sky. There was no grass, just a few tough thorn bushes clinging to the sand, which was becoming thicker and thicker as they moved on. If they hadn’t had the cart they would have bogged down in it in no time. The sun was becoming more and more intense and there was a strange purplish green colour to the sky. Lesedi was starting to feel very tired. He was used to water and green trees and bushes, not this hot, dry nothingness. There were no people now and they noticed that there were vultures circling up ahead. As they approached they saw a number of dead cattle, obviously having perished from lack of water and grazing. Lorato wondered where their owners might be. He was horrified by all this. It was a couple of years since he had been in this area and then there had still been grass, green trees, and wells with fresh water. There had also been a number of villages, but now all they were passing was abandoned huts and dry wells.
It was getting towards sunset and the light from the sun took on a strange luminous glow, making the landscape look very surreal. A sinister black cloud had appeared above them. It didn’t seem to promise rain, just gloom. Lesedi shivered. He didn’t like this place. There was a feeling of evil about it. Kgatwe was peering out over the top of his pocket. Vultures, they made him nervous. What if they decided he looked like a tasty snack?
Suddenly in front of them they saw a hut with a fire and someone sitting in front of it. Lesedi blinked, sure it wasn’t there before. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. As they pulled up next to the hut they saw that it was an old man sitting by the fire. He sat hunched, not looking up as they approached. Lorato knew who he was. He was one of the original people of The Hills, keeper of the ways, the Mokaedi. They had been driven from their land by Bosula. Many of them had died and only a few remained, often appearing out of seemingly nowhere to help guide and advise travelers on their way. Lorato got out and greeted the old man. Lesedi stayed in the cart. This was partly out of respect but mainly because he was too scared to move. The old man answered Lorato’s greeting as though he was expecting him, motioning him to take a seat next to him. He had a ceros made of jackal skin around him and was sucking on an old wooden pipe. His skin was dry and wrinkled as if he had been many years in the harsh sun. The two old men sat and stared into the fire. Lesedi watched them, searching his memory. There was something familiar about this old man. Then he remembered the story Lorato had told him about the original people of The Hills.
At one stage in the cycle of life there had been many. For thousands of years they had lived in The Hills and the surrounding area, coping with the harsh environment by observing the ways of animals, birds, and insects. They knew how to find water when there was no rain and food in times of drought. As with many other ancient people they were very aware of their environment and caused very little if any destruction to it. Then Bosula had arrived, bringing with him his army of corn crickets and his fancy lifestyle, which required vast amounts of resources. Animals died from lack of grazing and water and gradually these ancient people were driven out. Some wandered off and were absorbed by other tribes. Others went to the larger towns and took to alcohol, ending their days as bums and layabouts. A few stayed and retained their skills. They were mainly the older people and would appear when needed by travelers to help and guide. They were known as the Mokaedi and had obtained almost mythological status, seeming to appear and disappear at will. People who met them could never be absolutely sure of their reality.
After a while the Mokaedi said, “So you have come with the child to retrieve the stone.”
Lorato didn’t answer, he knew that the Mokaedi knew where the stone was and why they were there.
“This task will not be easy,” said the old man. “Bosula has created some new creatures to protect him and keep people away from The Hills.”
“What about the corn crickets?”
“These are causing him a big problem. They destroy everything in sight, making the place unlivable even for him.”
“I heard he managed to persuade Tsenwa the mad scientist to join him. Is he creating these creatures?”
“Yes and Tsenwa was quite happy about joining him at first but I think he has become a bit disillusioned. Bosula has virtually imprisoned him in the caves and is forcing him to create creatures of mass destruction.”
“How does he do this?”
“Well, when Tsenwa produces a creature he tries it out on the corn crickets and if it can’t destroy them then he throws it back in the cave with Tsenwa and lets him deal with it. This caused quite a fuss in the beginning, with Tsenwa rushing around the cave trying to get away from his creatures. Then he found a blow pipe in his cave and he pushes them up there and they fly out in all sorts of bits and pieces.”
Lesedi had climbed down from the cart and was squatting at the fire’s edge, his initial fear dampened by the easy way the old man spoke to Lorato. He looked at the old man with wide eyes. “Bits and pieces?” he said, trying to imagine the sight.
“Yes,” said the old man. “I have seen bits of donkey and crocodile mixed with bits of goat and lizard.”
This was all getting a bit too much for Lesedi, who decided to take evasive tactics. “Could I make some tea? I am starting to feel very hungry.”
“There is water in the pot but I do not have tea and food.”
“We do,” said Lesedi, jumping up and running to the cart. He was glad of the distraction. He didn’t want to think about what was in store for them in the next few days.
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