They had travelled a short distance when Cassidy caught up with them. She quickly wiped her dirt and tear streaked face before reaching them. She took the lead again, following the markings she herself had written as a child.
They had questioned the elders, gaining vague reassurances and unsatisfactory answers. There was a greater threat to Fairfield and the other communities. Now they were supposed to hide and await an escape attempt.
“What did he say?” Frida said, speeding up her pace to walk alongside Cassidy. Cassidy just held up her finger, pointing it at the roof.
"So, how do we know what's going on up there?" asked Jacob.
"I think we can trust the Domarrah," said Cassidy, "and my own brother." Although the others were not convinced that even she believed that.
They had reached a narrow side chamber that lead through into a wider compartment.
"I'd feel safer following the Mystic Frog," said Frida. She indicated one of Cassidy's juvenile scribbles, a crude frog shaped symbol scrawled across a redundant warning sign.
"It's upside down," said Jacob. He placed his palm on the metal plate and rotated it. The plate hid a small recess, empty except for a desiccated grey orange. The grey husk rolled out onto his hand. Behind it he could see the pale blue fluorescence of a Lashline. He stepped away to allow Frida access.
"Always trust the Mystic Frog," said Frida, as she began uncoiling wire from the delicate device around her neck. "I may be a while."
She continued fiddling with the wire. Within a few moments she had taken her jacket off to untangle it. She clipped the wires to the Lashline, cupping the Tapbox device gently in her hand. Then she sat cross-legged, closed her eyes and concentrated.
The others watched her, waiting for something to happen.
"It's not really a frog," said Cassidy.
Nelya nodded. She explained to Cassidy that she had seen the symbol before, in the wilderness, in the places her people avoided. Her people would not communicate with the voices of the living ghosts.
Frida continued to nod her head to the sounds of the Lashlines. Cassidy rummaged through the food Ellis had wrapped for them, handing small parcels to Jacob and Nelya.
They ate without talking, waiting for Frida to finish. Coiling up her wire, she began to relate her assessment of what she had heard. The news from the Lashlines confirmed what they had guessed; the Grinders were not the only people out there. Something else was emerging from the East. The remoter outlying towns had ceased communication. Other towns were sending brief messages to friends and allies requesting assistance. From the West, from IronHaven, there was confusion; the city had become paranoid about outsiders and its citizens panicked by mysterious deaths.
There was a solemn silence after Frida’s report. They had no option but to trust Ellis and the Domorrah, accept the escape plan, get out of town and keep running. Head North West, skirting the borders of IronHaven. They settled down to rest in the flickering light of torches. Trouble could find them later, now was a time to sleep.
The sunlight burnt their eyes as they emerged into the clear skied morning. A day had passed underground, a day of preparing and planning. The art of practical disguise was to blend in, to be boring, to avoid attention. Frida had learnt this travelling with the traders. She was proud of Nelya’s transformation into a Harvest boy. The loose overalls and dull colours hid the wild girl's form. Dressing the others was easy compared to Nelya, even with Cassidy reassuring her. Putting a Leercat in a clown suit may have been easier than covering her facial tattoos.
The early morning streets were still busy with locals and the numerous bright awnings of the caravans when they stepped out of their underground shelter. A non-descript group of farm workers wearing cloth masks, they were covered in a pale white dust from the outlying fields. Frida and Nelya, who were naturally darker than the others, looked unrecognisable. They walked through town, hoping that whatever deception Ellis had planned would work. There was no sign of Grinders; possibly they had retreated, waiting for Cassidy’s gang to leave. Passing through the caravan traders unrecognised, they travelled up the main Avenue. Ahead were the low walled buildings where the rescue would occur.
For a long while Cassidy stood looking back at the Oasis, the inn that had been her home for so long. The others could all relate to her sense of loss. Frida gave Cassidy a gentle nudge. Time to go. They all moved off in different directions, each taking the path assigned to them. The plan involved scampering along the centre of the low rooftops, avoiding the chance of being spotted by a casual observer from the ground.
The ochre mud brick courtyard was well hidden. There was one main exit, a wide archway leading out into the countryside. The only other access was from above. The group quickly descended the carved brick staircase. Stepping down into the courtyard, they could see movement in the alcoves that surrounded the central square. A deep green lichen covered the few areas of concrete or stone that extruded out of the mud brick surface. It grew especially thick in the dark alcove where five horses had been tied up. The horses continued to graze on the lichen as the group crossed the square towards them.
“I assume this is our escape plan,” said Jacob. Cassidy nodded.
“I assume you can all ride?” Cassidy asked.
Frida’s heart jumped. There alongside the other horses was her own, Gravity. They were riding out of here, right now. The gate was open, the road beckoned.
“But why have we got five?” Nelya said.