“It’s only here,” Ron whispered, as if Charlie was right beside him, “that the lichen grows like this.”
They had lost themselves deep in the scrubland, or the forest, or the creek; in fact, in all of them at once, for they were no longer sure what this place was. It seemed to change with every turning, to stop them becoming too comfortable.
In the rose glow of the sunset behind them, the rocks were becoming slabs of Turkish delight, and the caverns, huge gaping mouths. Sedum, dehydrated and pale, sprouted like gruff hairs in every crevice, and below them the stream twisted left, right, back on itself and under their feet.
What marked their way was red paint, daubed faintly, flakily upon the faces of certain stones that faced them. At least, Ron hoped it was paint.
Charlie had run up ahead as if he already knew the way. After bounding ahead for a dozen paces, he would turn and stare back, waiting for Ron to catch up. “It’s not a race, mate,” Ron panted, but Charlie said nothing, and carried on up.
In a couple of months this path would be thick with ripe figs; pomegranate bushes would be groaning under their carmine loads; the plums would be sweet. Tonight, there was nothing but sour cherries and crickets to stave off hunger, and he knew Charlie would turn his nose up at both.
A shrill shriek echoed from inside a cave. It came from far up on the hillside. Was it Charlie? He had never heard a sound like it. Ron scrambled up as fast as he could, sending pebbles tumbling like handfuls of dice behind him.
At the entrance to the cave, Charlie stood, blood dripping from his toothy grin, tail wagging, the corpse of a bat on the ground before him.