A Bathys Serial
by Nial Thorne
Usual warnings. Reading further constitutes an unambiguous gesture of assent to the statement: I am not a minor person, nor in the company of a minor person. The story and the Bathys scenario are copyright © 2002 Nial Thorne. You may copy this for your own private use; all other rights reserved.
Comments very welcome at Nial_Thorne@hotmail.com
October 3, evening and night: Max and Paul
Although he had no more to drink than that single glass of raki, the way Paul behaved for the rest of that evening was wild: taunting, lubricious, blatantly displaying himself to the lust of the entire room. To start with I assumed he was trying to drive away the feelings from our dire conversation with Will and David by forcing himself to have a good time. But that was not it. He was really into it, I realised; he had discovered himself as an object of desire, and he relished it.
He soon had Emek under his spell. I could see that my friend realised he was being toyed with, but he was enjoying it, playing up to Paul with glee. And when Paul noticed that Danny was resenting this, he effortlessly transferred his attentions to him. Soon he was helping the boys to clear the tables, flirting and joking with them and the other customers, allowing the occasional touch. He was without shame.
"My God, Max, do you allow this performance?"
"How can I stop it, Emek? Anyhow, I don't mind at all. I'm glad he's enjoying himself. I've never seen him like this before - it's something of an eyeopener."
"He was just incredible with David."
"Yes. And he himself hates the availability rules, that's the amazing thing, and he dreads the resolution being repealed, he dreads the thought of being made to go with people, that's the truth. So do I. I can't imagine what we'll go through when it happens. I wish to God we'd never gone that way, Emek."
"It was a compromise, Max, you know that. Myself, I went with it because Michael persuaded me."
"Yes. I know all the arguments, like Paul, but I still worry. We had a ferocious argument this morning about the orientation programming. He's no pushover, Emek. All this is partly for my benefit, you know."
Paul was actually kissing another diner. I suddenly recognised him as Damon, who had been wounded on the last day of the Gathering. Then he saw me looking and almost danced across the room to me.
"Your grace!" he sang. "Isn't it time for us to go to bed?"
They all heard; he wanted them to hear. I winked at him.
"Maybe, young man, maybe it is."
"You still have to punish me," he whispered in my ear.
"God help me! What am I to do with you?"
But before we left he had a kiss for Emek, and another for Danny, full and impassioned, and a hug and a peck on the lips for Osman; then we were going up the stairs, he in front, of course, so that I would have a full view of his leathron-clad buttocks as we climbed.
"God! What a disgraceful display!"
"Thought you'd like it."
"One glass of raki..."
"That wasn't it. I'm... I'm beginning to enjoy being in Bathys. Really enjoy it!"
"You were seducing the entire room!"
"So?" We were in our room now. "I'm the Prince. Don't forget that."
An odd remark. I sat on the edge of the bed; he kicked off his boots and came to stand between my knees, smiling.
"Are you up for something new?" I said.
"Yeah," he whispered. "Are you going to fuck me?"
I ran my hands over his hair, down his back, over his tightly-encased arse. He was hard, I could see, his eyes glistened, and I could feel his body shiver. He was in full heat; tonight he would deny me nothing I asked for.
"No. Not yet... I have something else in mind."
I lifted his arms one by one and undid the wristbands, smiling at him, taunting him with my slowness, and then pulled his shirt over his head. He stood, waiting; through the fullness of his mouth I could see a glint of white teeth. I started to undo those trousers, slowly peeling them down his hips until it stood out, straight, slender, no longer a child's dick, but a teenager's, the glans half revealed and shiny.
I rolled the trousers down to his ankles, and he stepped out of them.
"Come with me," I said.
I laid a hand across his shoulders and led him into the bathroom. It was large, the largest in the building (I was the King, after all) and I had noticed that Emek had installed what we needed. There was a chair, and I sat down.
"Over my lap."
"Dad? What are you going to do? Are you going to spank me?"
I patted my lap, and he lay over me, his stomach over my legs, and I began to stroke his back, along the muscles, over the spine. His skin was the smoothest, the most delicate thing I could remember feeling, and I let my hands wander over him, round his sides, lightly, in long, slow circles. My eyes closed; I felt I could sit here and do this for ever, enjoying the warmth and smoothness of his skin, the tiny movements as his body pulsed in time with his heart. It was peace.
"Hmmmm..." he said.
He was looking up at me dreamily. I let my hand make a circuit of his arse, over both cheeks, slowly moving over it, over its softness, its roundness, again and again.
"I'm not going to fuck you," I said. "But it's time for you to find out a bit more about your bum. Me too. Explore it. Get to know what it can give you..."
My fingers ventured into his cleft, finally, working deeper and deeper. He knew where they were going, and he whimpered. Emek had left some of it there, the cream designed just for this. I dug a finger into the jar; and then it was on his opening, going over it and round it.
"O-o-oh, that's nice..."
Gently I pressed, pressed on him and into him; his body scarcely resisted me. I turned it in him, smoothing the cream round.
"Paul," I said, "I'm going to give you an enema."
I said nothing, but I pulled the tube from the washbasin, and adjusted the dials that controlled Emek's equipment.
"I'm going to put this in you. It's no bigger than my finger. It won't hurt."
He looked at me quizzically, but didn't protest. I covered the nozzle in the cream, and slowly inserted it, maybe and inch or so.
I moved deeper; still there was no resistance.
"Now it'll squirt water into you," I said. "Just keep relaxed."
He shivered; I could feel that the idea excited him. I pressed the release, and the equipment started its programme. It was water, mostly, at a little less than blood heat, but there were other things in it too, the same things that there were in the cream, things to enhance his feelings. The flow was quite slow, just a trickle. To start with, he scarcely seemed to notice it, and I continued to stroke him, over his back and sides and down his legs.
"I can feel it," he whispered after a while. "It's... odd."
"It may hurt once or twice," I said. "You may cramp a bit. But it won't last long. Just keep relaxed."
He started to hum quietly. He was still hard, and I could feel his belly swelling slightly. It would not be a large filling, not this time; just three pints, measured automatically. It would be enough.
Suddenly he squealed and bucked acrosss my knees; I was ready for this, and held him tightly.
"Just relax, son, it'll pass..."
He gave another squeal and then slumped onto me again.
"Shit! That hurt!"
But that was the only cramp he had, and when it was all in, he lay across my knee for a few minutes, humming, accepting my caresses happily.
"Nice... Ooh, that's nice..."
"Let's get you to the toilet, son. I'll pull it out now. Keep your bum tight or there could be a very nasty accident!"
He giggled and bolted for it, and discharged safely, if rather noisily.
"Poo!" he said. "Urgh. This is gross!"
"Come on, let's have a shower. Clean you off."
I slipped easily out of my tunic and we got into the shower together.
"Not sure. It was - funny. It didn't hurt, exactly, but it made me kind of shivery, and I could feel it pushing my insides around. But at the end when I was all full - that was good. It felt nice to be full like that..."
I smiled at him, and knelt. His dick was before me, and I sucked it gently into my mouth, moving the foreskin smoothly back, lightly caressing the delicate head with my tongue.
I moved over him slowly; and when, soon, he was almost beyond noticing, I edged a finger into his opening. The pressure of his sphincter was amazingly erotic; I rotated my finger and pressed forwards, and, sure enough, there it was, his prostate. I stroked it, curling my finger tip over it.
"Oh! Oh my God!"
He screamed and instantly erupted in my mouth, flooding me. I sucked him hard, and stroked, and he convulsed, flopping over my head and kicking his legs out sideways; using my other hand I managed to hold him, but I continued ruthlessly with my internal caress, until, finally, he was still.
"Dad! That was... What was it?"
"Your prostate. Everyone has one, every man or boy, that is. And if you do that, that's what happens. If you do it right."
I looked at him smugly. I had never done that before, and I was delighted it had worked.
"Come on," I said. "I haven't finished with you yet!"
We dried off, and then he allowed me to carry him into the bedroom. I put him on his back on the bed, with his knees up; and I lay between his legs and gently partly his cheeks where they pressed against the sheet. Glistening, pink, now showing just slightly the opening in its centre; I started to lick it. I had done this before, of course, but it was different this time; he was six months older now, more assured, confident with his sexuality, and he responded with vigour. I pressed my tongue into him, and his body welcomed me, let me sweetly in. Soon, once again, he was rising, rising to his ecstasy; and I took his dick in my mouth, and consumed him.
Spent after two major orgasms in half an hour, he sprawled in his back, and the look he gave me was sultry.
"Sure you don't want to fuck me?"
"Heheh. Keen, aren't you? Not tonight, Josephine."
"But I do have something else in mind. Wait."
I padded across to our bag and got what I wanted.
"What is it?" he said, staring at the thing as I held it up.
"It goes - inside you."
"Inside me? In my bum? It's - it's huge!"
It was actually quite small. I smeared it with the cream. It was a butt plug, that's what these things were called, but this was special: specially designed by Lord Anton for a boy of his age and size, deviously shaped, it would press on his prostate remorselessly, with exactly the right weight to cause no pain, but to keep him constantly on edge, massaging it as he moved and walked. It was merciless, and wicked. He would love it.
"It'll be okay. Just relax, now..."
"Dad! I'm not sure..."
I got myself under control; there was a line here, and I would not cross it.
"If you'd rather not, we won't. But it won't hurt, not really."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, that's what they say. But if does, I'll stop. Okay?"
"O - okay. But do it slowly!"
I smiled at him. The point moved into him without any trouble, and I pressed it carefully. Although it was only an inch across at the widest, that was far more than my finger; but he parted for it easily.
"Feels kind of - tight. Go slowly!"
"I am. Biggest part coming... It'll be there in a moment - now!"
His sphincter contracted hard against the narrow stalk, and he gasped.
"That's it! It's in. How does it feel?"
"Okay." He raised himself on his elbows. "Oh! Oh my God! Oh, I can feel it now! Oh, Dad, it's..."
"Yes," I said, and grinned at him. "That's what it's meant to do. Just to - tickle you inside!"
I lay down and hugged him to me, holding him loosely. His body was shaking with little tremors, and he kissed me frantically, his face confused.
"Suck my dick, little man. Kneel between my legs and do it."
"Okay..." he whispered.
And he did it. Trembling, he moved round and knelt. I could see his eyes darting wildly as he lent forwards and licked me, holding me with one hand; then he gave a strange cry, and took me fiercely into his mouth. After all that happened that evening, I did not last long, and my orgasm was gigantic, tumultuous; and as my seed surged into him, he came again himself, screeching.
When it was over, he flopped bonelessly beside me.
"It's - Dad, it's too much!"
"No, it isn't. You have to learn - to learn to give in to it. To let it do what it wants... I'd like you to wear it all night."
"Oh, God..." He was almost weeping from it. "What's happening to me?"
I held him gently; I could feel his breath, panting, in my ear.
"What's happening to you? That boy - that you were pretending to be in the restaurant?"
"You're turning into him."
It was a strange night. Four times I woke as he writhed against me, forced into ecstasy again. And when finally it was light, and the sounds of activity downstairs made us stir, the eyes he opened to me were still blurred with lust.
October 3: Yuexing
It had been a satisfactory morning, one that had made me feel good. I had cleaned the floors in my little set of caves, washed the window in the one that looked out over the hills, out over to the mountains and the Grasslands, and now it was like crystal, almost invisible. I had washed some clothes, dusted and polished the furniture and tidied the kitchen. I went outside and collected the leaves from under the little grove of tree I regarded as my own; then I put down some food for my cat, and made myself a small lunch: steamed rolls with a cabbage filling, and some tea.
Many of the others, the other Lords and Knights, would not have understood, of course. They would simply have summoned a couple of robots and left these trivial tasks to them. I was not easy with this. I knew the devices we called robots had no intelligence at all, of course: they were mere drones, just the arms and legs of Bathys. It was just the thought of having things done for me that was disturbing. Even in my own country this was now a totally atavistic feeling, but I came from an old revolutionary family; my great-grand-parents had been on the Long March, and even though my parents were themselves wealthy, I was not permitted to assume bourgeois attitudes or lord it over others. My childhood had been frugal, although full of love: simple clothes, simple food; and a proletarian did his own washing, and cleaned his own bedroom.
The Three Great Rules and Eight Points of Attention: Take not a needle and cotton from the masses, that's how they brought me up. They were admired, but they were eccentrics. A needle and cotton! The economic system of China had over the last hundred years merged silently with the rest of the world, into the structure which an American writer had once called 'free-range fascism'. Now people took from the masses not just a needle and cotton, but warehouses full of clothes, factories, whole provinces, and you couldn't tell where industry, government, the party and organised crime divided: one vast seamless cloak of repression. If it was 'free-range fascism' in the rest of the world, the free-range aspect of it was, in China, pretty much invisible.
As for people like me, when they were discovered, the treatment was simple and predictable: a bullet in the back of the head. Here modern practice echoed the practices of traditional revolutionary morality, and even extended them. I had heard of cases where they shot the boy as well, just to be sure. When I questioned this to a party cadre of my acquaintance, he defended it as a revolutionary necessity: the boy, he said, was corrupted beyond redemption. Liquidating him was inevitable and, in fact, kinder than letting him live. In any case, he said, there was no of shortage of children; let an unspoilt child have his place!
My revolutionary background and my parents' atavistic tendencies protected me to a degree, but infinite care was always necessary. I often wondered what they would have thought of me, my parents, what they would have done if they had known. I hope they would have defended me. Yes, I hope so.
At all events, when Darren and Max had contacted me, it proved to be harder than one would have thought to make the break. My father lived only a short while after my mother's death: they were comrades in everything, and his grief had been profound and unending. Yet, I sat by his bedside as life ebbed away, and his last words were not of her: "Renmin gongheguo wansui! - Long live the People's Republic!" Even though the state to which he bequeathed me had become a tyranny without parallel in the history of the world, it is hard to shake off ties of that sort. "We must have faith in the masses, we must have faith in the party," wrote Mao Zedong, back then in the twentieth century, "Without the masses and the party we are nothing." Well, the masses and the party had long ago lost faith themselves, both in my parents' ideals and in mine. But as for me, it took a long while to abandon my faith in them.
Hard, also, once I had made the break, to fling myself into the astonishing world that surrounded me, a world of boys and men in pursuit of one another, openly and happily doing those things which, if I had even thought about them too hard, would have put me in peril of my life, so sophisticated was the security apparatus that surrounded me. I was not concerned; there was, after all, time; time stretching out and out into the far future. I sometimes asked myself if the people round me had any notion what it meant, to announce calmly that we would all be here a quarter of a million years from now. That, after all, is something like forty times the entire length of recorded history! Just imagine: the Indus valley, Sumeria, Babylon, Egypt, the Shang, Greece, Rome: they all rise, flourish and die, and still - still only one fortieth! It froze the imagination. And yet, the other Lords, some of them, laughed kindly at me, because, six months into my life in Bathys, I had still not touched a boy!
I was not concerned. To me it was a liberation, a huge and amazing joy, simply to sit in the Southwall Centre or in the street in Hillside and watch them, watch the boys playing, running, shouting and arguing, flirting, just to watch them, and to know that nothing would happen if I did, no one would mind in the slightest. Yes, for the present that was more than enough, and when I had a chance to exchange a few words with one, that was even better. What's more, I was not exclusively a boy-lover; it was not just boys for me, but men, too...
I finished my lunch, and lit a cigarette to go with my tea: a stupid and disgusting habit, one inherited from my parents, who smoked because Mao did, I suppose, although I noticed that they did not also choose to emulate Mao by getting divorced a couple of times. But I only had ten years to go of this cycle, so I couldn't see that it mattered.
This afternoon I would devote to my work, and in particular, the gnawing problem for which, so far, I could find no easy solution. The water! Where was it all coming from? All the calculations had been done: so much in the lakes, so much in the tanks, so much in the atmosphere and the ecology; what was happening? The tanks were filling, and soon I would have to decide: get rid of some? See if I could find room in the capsule for more tanks, and get them built? Force some of it back into the ecology? Increase atmospheric humidity? The water was accumulating in Lake Fosca, the Waterfall was running way over its specification, Lake Paul was at its maximum, the Marshes were growing - and the tanks filled and filled, there seemed no end to it. What to do?
I went over my calculations again and again. There was no doubt: the ecology simply was not holding as much water at it should. Why not?
"Bathys? Please connect me to Lord Ortan."
"My Lord, Lord Ortan has left instructions that he should not be disturbed, except in an emergency. Is this an emergency?"
"No, I suppose not. Not yet. What is he doing, Bathys?"
"He is watching the beavers, my Lord. He requires silence."
I laughed. I liked Ortan, and his enthusiasm for his speciality appealed to me.
"Very well, Bathys, it will keep. When will he be back?"
"Probably tomorrow, my Lord."
Nothing to do, then; I was stuck. I went out into my grove, sat on the bench I had placed there, and lit another cigarette, watching the landscape beneath me, and the patchwork of white clouds.
I was an engineer, and my speciality was services: water, heating, electricity, sewage, data links, power links, everything; and in Bathys, too, I had the same role. I was good at my work and enjoyed it, but there was another side to life, a side I recognised well enough: a kind of quietism which only found peace away from my work, deep in the immemorial heart of the countryside, where through the centuries and the millennia the Old Hundred Names had tended their fields, one generation after another, anonymously, effectively, the foundation of everything. And around them the mountains and the woods and, above all, the rivers had continued, sometimes partners, sometimes enemies, but always consequential. There was a life out there, a coherence. I was not superstitious, and yet... Balance and dialectic seemed to require that there be something else, something which interacted with that whole visible system, interpenetrated it, as the Marxists said; transcended it.
But if that was so, where was it in Bathys? Bathys was a construct of our own: we had built her, from the capsule inwards she was all our work. So where was the balance there? Could it be that Bathys, despite everything I could see to the contrary, was in some very deep fashion not really alive at all? No more a living country than a tailor's dummy was a living person?
During the building I had become close to Artur, Artur the psychometrician, and on one occasion I had spoken to him about this, because I knew that he was a man who thought. He had listened to what I tried so tentatively to voice, but at the time he had kept his counsel, too concerned with the registration procedure. Since then, I had heard that he had built a temple in the woods north of Southwall, and that he now lived there. Perhaps... perhaps he had some answer to this. And in any case, it came to me that I would very much like to see Artur; I had missed him.
I resolved to go to his temple and look for my answers there.
October 3 - 4: Don and Rhys
After Rhys's adoption of Fred we had our breakfast and continued on our slow trek across the Grasslands. The weather was still wonderful, bright and sunny, with just a few white clouds drifting across the dome, and the gently rolling plains, interrupted with occasional woods, stretched around us in every direction, with the mountains rising sheer in distance. The landscape felt vast, vast under a yawning sky; it was almost impossible to believe where we really were. As we walked, Fred dashed around us squeaking and whistling, darting from side to side and stopping to pull insects and worms out of the grass.
It was a strange experience for me. Rhys prattled on in his lilting Welsh treble, giving us a running commentary on everything that happened, and I answered easily and cheerfully. It was delightful to have him around: his fascination with everything we saw was endless, and if I couldn't answer one of his endless questions, Bathys would come my rescue. But at the same time, the despair I felt about my whole situation hadn't gone away. I wouldn't be so cruel as to express it to Rhys, to ruin his joy so brutally, and it sank into a dull, bitter sorrow, gnawing away at the back of everything.
When the sun seemed to be at its height, we stopped for some lunch, which Fred seemed as keen on as either of us. I tried him on various foods: he was happy enough with bits of meat and fish, as well as fruit - a banana was especially well received. He turned everything carefully over his hands first, and then ate it in a few bites, without chewing. It made me hungry to watch him.
"What did you call Fred, Bathys?"
"He is a batheos-compsognathus longipes, Rhys."
"That's a very long name!"
"It is a scientific species name, Rhys. Your species name is homo sapiens, for example. The zebras you saw are equus quagga."
"So does Fred have an ordinary name, like 'zebra'?"
Fred dashed round us and plunged into a clump of bushes.
"No, Rhys, not as far as I know."
"Well, I'll call him a 'nipper'," said Rhys. "Look at the way he nips around!"
Shortly after lunch, we found ourselves at the top of a grassy bank, maybe a couple of yards high. In front of it lay a wide meadow covered in deep, lush grass and dotted with poplars and willows; and beyond, the river, about twenty yards across, moving slowly bwtween its low banks.
"Where are we, Bathys?"
"That is the River Ganymede, Don. You are about seventeen miles from the centre of the cavern."
"Ganymede? Why's it called that?" said Rhys.
"According to legend, Rhys, Ganymede was a boy who was so beautiful that Zeus, the father of the gods, snatched him away to heaven, to be his cup-bearer," said Bathys.
"Like us! Snatched away to heaven..." said Rhys in a sing-song voice.
I turned away from him, overcome.
"What's the matter, Don?"
"Nothing, kid, nothing." I swallowed, and gripped myself mentally. "How can we cross, Bathys?"
"You could swim, Don."
"I don't know how!" said Rhys.
"There is a bridge about five miles downstream, where the River Quickwater joins this one. Or I could send you some flitters."
"No, let's walk," said Rhys.
I held his shoulder.
Fred was standing motionless on the river bank, looking down into it with one eye. And suddenly, faster than you could see, he plunged his head into the water, and pulled out a fair-sized fish; then, with a squeak of satisfaction, he throw his head back, and swallowed it.
"Wow!" said Rhys. "I didn't know he could do that!"
"Nor did I, Rhys," said Bathys. "That behaviour has never been recorded before."
Fred, unaware of his sudden fame, walked - or rather, waddled - to a nearby tree, curled up and closed his eyes. It looked as if he had decided to sleep off his meal; and all at once that seemed like a good idea. We lay down in the grass beside him, and with the warm sun, the gentle hissing of the trees, and the clean, watery smell of the river, it wasn't long before we were asleep as well, cradled in the grass.
When we awoke, the sun was already on its way down the sky. The thought of spending another night outside didn't worry us at all, but we decided to reach the bridge first. It took us a couple of hours, and by then it was nearly dark.
The bridge was a simple arch, and it carried a narrow road of stone flags over the river. On the other side the Quickwater bubbled towards us across the Grasslands, and in the distance we could now see a range of hills, covered in trees.
"What's this road, Bathys?"
"It runs from Lakeport to Hillside, Don."
On our side of the bridge there was a small wood, and by the edge of this we set up our camp for the night, and cooked a meal. We were both ravenous by now, and ate most of the rest of the food we had brought; fortunately, Fred was happy to root for insects and worms in the undergrowth of the woods. We lit a small fire, more for the light and the company than for warmth, and sat around it in the dark for a while, Fred stretched out on the ground, his head in Rhys's lap. And there, finally, we went to sleep, all three of us curled up together.
Unlike the night before I was completely exhausted, and we all slept well until we were awoken by a gigantic clap of thunder; and then, before we could gather ourselves, we were drenched by a stupendous downpour. Fred squeaked in protest and cuddled up to Rhys, but in seconds we were lying in mud, and we had to get up. The food and other things we had brought were soaked, and although the ormics kept us warm, the rain was so heavy we could scarcely see. Breakfast was out of the question; we huddled together under the eaves of the wood, buffeted by the thunder, and lightning played over the mountains and hills in front of us.
"We can't stay here!" I yelled. "Bathys? Can you send us some flitters?"
"It would not be advisable to fly in this weather, Don. However, if you wait five minutes, a ground transport will be passing. Maybe the driver will give you a lift."
So we stood by the side of the road, the rain pouring over us, and sure enough, in a few minutes the transport arrived; or rather, a train of five narrow wagons behind a lorry. Desperately I waved, and it came grinding to a stop, its electric engine ticking.
"Wanna lift, kids?" yelled the driver, once he'd opened the window.
"Yes! Yes please!"
"I'm going to Hillside," he said, as we clambered in, soaking his seats and floor. "Will that do you? Hey! What the fuck is that?"
"He's a nipper," said Rhys. "He's called Fred!"
"He is? And what the hell is a nipper?"
"It's a kind of dinosaur," I said.
The lorry was a tight fit, and Fred was sitting on Rhys's lap. He reached out his head and sniffed the driver experimentally.
"Hey, you're cute, little fellow," said the driver, stroking his feathered neck. "Fred, eh? And who are you guys?"
"I'm Rhys, and he's Don. Who are you?"
The driver put the lorry into gear and we moved off.
"Damon. I think I know you, Don. In the last group from London? I was shot, remember?"
I did remember, and it was awful. I struggled to be polite.
"Yes... Is your leg better?"
"It was fucked," said Damon. "They had to give me a new one. But I'm okay now." He looked at me oddly. "Are you okay, kid?"
"Yeah... We're - we're a bit wet."
"I'll take you to Hillside, you can warm up and have something to eat. But it's a couple of hours' drive - sorry."
The rain was still pelting down as we moved along the road by the side of the Quickwater, windscreen wipers flailing, and the cab quickly got warm and steamy. Before long we were into the foothills, and going higher and higher; soon, the landscape round us was craggy and the road almost perilous, rounding hairpin corners over terrrifying drops. The hills plunged down from above, their forests, orange and red and gold with the colours of autumn, crowding to the road's edge, and little streams, noisy with rain, tumbled down their sides.
Finally a pale, watery sun emerged, and the rain stopped. We swung round a final corner, and there, on the other side of a valley, was the village, two or three rows of brightly coloured doors against the side of a steep, green hill.
"There - there aren't any houses!" yelled Rhys, as the engine protested.
"They're buried in the hill, mostly," said Damon. "Like hobbits!"
"Yes!" shrieked Rhys. "I want to see them! Can we go in one?"
We rounded the head of the valley, and soon we were in the village itself, grinding along the street, a wall of green set with doors and windows. Damon brought the lorry to a stop.
"This is the pub," he said. "Come inside and get warm!"
To Rhys's delight, the pub was as subterranean as the other houses, and it was just what we wanted, warm, cosy and lit by an enormous wood fire at one end. The room seemed to be empty, but at the moment the fire was all we needed; we stood in front of it and basked, steaming.
"So! What have we here?"
We turned to find a man looking at us, his hands on his hips; he was tall, grey haired, maybe in his fifties, with a long, workman-like brown tunic. He was smiling; but when his eye fell on me, he froze and gasped.
"My God! You... here?"
"I - I'm sorry?" I said.
He seemed to shake himself.
"No - no, son, I'm sorry. You just reminded me of someone. No, in fact, you reminded me of several people. My God... What's your name?"
"Don. And this is Rhys."
"Well, Don and Rhys, I'm Lord Derek. And... And what on earth's that?"
Fred was sitting in front of the fire, carefully preening his feathers with his hands and mouth.
"He's Fred," said Rhys, sitting down beside him. "He's a nipper."
"A nipper, eh? I know someone who'd like to hear about Fred, I think... Bathys, please connect me to Lord Ortan."
Derek knelt by Fred, stroking his side; the little beast craned his head round and looked at him sideways.
"Hello, Ortan? There's something I think you'd like to see. There's a boy here who's made an interesting pet."
"Come and see. Don't know what on earth he is, but he's called Fred."
Rhys and Derek looked at each other and grinned.
"Really? What's he like?"
"Hm? About eight, I'd say, blond, Welsh, nicely rounded and cute as a button!"
He pinched Rhys's tummy through the ormic, and the boy squealed and laughed.
"Derek, for pity's sake... Okay, I'll come and see."
Derek stood up.
"Well! I think... Are you boys hungry? I bet you are. Bill?"
A man came bustling out of the back of the pub, and although it was nearly lunchtime he'd soon produced a huge breakfast for us, eggs, bacon, mushrooms and toast, with coffee for me and chocolate for Rhys. At Rhys's instruction he found some minced meat for Fred, and we all stuffed ourselves. Damon had to leave, but Lord Derek joined us, although he had only a cup of coffee, and all through the meal I could see him looking at me oddly. It was disquieting. All the same, I found it hard to dislike him, even though my inclination was to mistrust all the adults in Bathys, especially the Lords.
We were still eating when the door opened to admit a short, bustling man in his thirties, with a mop of unruly black hair, and sharp, canny eyes.
"Ortan!" said Derek, holding out his arms, and to my surprise they hugged. "Come in, man. Now, these are Don and Rhys, and this - this is Fred."
"Oh yes," said Ortan, kneeling to examine the animal. "Yes, I think I know what you are. Do you know what he is, kid?"
"He's a - a batheos-compsognathus longipes," said Rhys, to my amazement. "But I call him a nipper."
"A nipper? Not a bad name." He stroked Fred's neck. "So, how did you get him to come with you?"
"I - I gave him some food. The other nippers just ran away, we were at the edge of this wood, you see, on the Grasslands, and they were snuffling around, that's what woke us up. So he came to sniff me, and I gave him some bits of meat, and then the big ones ran away. So he stayed with us, and he's followed us everywhere."
Ortan gave him a long look, and ruffled his hair.
"Interesting. Do you like animals?"
"I've - I've always wanted to have a pet, but my dad never let me."
"And how does Fred behave? Tell me all about him."
"He caught a fish..."
And Rhys began to describe everything that Fred had done; I was intrigued, because I had no idea he'd been paying such close attention. Ortan listened seriously, not interrupting, but asking questions and explaining. They were deeply into it, just the two of them, united in a common fascination.
"While they're at it, son, I'd like to have a chat with you," said Derek. "Do you mind?"
I supposed I might as well find out what was on his mind. I nodded.
"Come along to my workshop," he said. "I've got something to show you."