‘Why? What’s it called?’ asked Ben.
‘The Bay of Skulls.’
Hothbrodd muttered something about Odin’s ravens and his own opinion of the advice of birds in general. But when the island lay beneath them, he steered towards its southern shore as Me-Rah had advised.
Pulau Bulu was considerably larger than Ben had expected. Beyond hills covered with dense jungle, the outline of high mountains stood out against the sunset sky. As Me-Rah had said, there was no sign of any human settlements.
Ben exchanged a glance with Barnabas. ‘Let’s just hope that Me-Rah’s lion-birds really are griffins!’ he whispered.
And that they didn’t get eaten before they’d even had a chance to ask about the feather, Ben thought.
The important thing about having lots of things to
remember is that you’ve got to go somewhere afterwards
where you can remember them, you see? You’ve got to stop.
You haven’t really been anywhere until you’ve got back home.
Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic
Even in the gathering twilight, the ripples on the surface of the sea where Hothbrod
d landed shone like dull green glass.
Lola examined the wide bay ahead of them through her binoculars. Twigleg envied her very much for possessing those. Lola’s youngest sister, Vera Mae Greytail, had made them. Vera Mae’s optical instruments could compete with any made by human hands, and yet fitted easily into a rat’s paw (or the hand of a homunculus). There was hardly any craft or trade that wasn’t practised by one of Lola’s countless relations. Barnabas thought that was because Lola’s ancestors included fabulous beings such as the Singing Rat of Holstein, the Ship’s Compass Rat and the Ratbird.
‘Nothing alarming to be seen, humpelcuss,’ she announced. ‘Only a few crabs and turtles. Noticeably large turtles,’ she added, handing Twigleg the binoculars.
What the homunculus saw through them reminded him strongly of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, one of his and Ben’s favourite books. (Not that Twigleg had ever felt any wish to experience the adventures described in it for himself!) The beach, which had large rocks scattered over it, was on the outskirts of a jungle so wild and impenetrable that it seemed to Twigleg the perfect hideout for a few savage cannibal tribes. Maybe Me-Rah had forgotten to mention those because she didn’t consider them human beings?
At the sight of the deserted beach Ben, of course, also thought of Treasure Island and buried pirate treasure. Unlike Twigleg, however, he could hardly wait to set foot on the untouched sand. Even Hothbrodd, who had carved several reindeer and wolves since they set out because he missed MÍMAMEIÐR, grunted with delight when he saw the huge trees casting their shade over the beach.
Lola had already gone off on her first reconnaissance flight in her tiny propeller-driven plane (which had survived the flight from Norway intact in a baggage compartment), while Hothbrodd was still anchoring his own aircraft among the rocks. Before taking off, of course, the rat had been unable to refrain from telling Twigleg that the inhabitants of nearby Papua New Guinea were notorious headhunters.
‘My dear Twigleg,’ said Barnabas, as the homunculus hid behind Ben’s legs in alarm, ‘I don’t think we need feel worried about our heads. You heard what Me-Rah said: the only hunters who venture to come to this island are after birds and monkeys. Although, of course, we should still be on our guard.’
The sun was sinking behind the mountains that Ben had already admired from the air, casting a shade of pink mother-of-pearl over the beach. The outline of the island became black, like a silhouette, against the sunset sky, and from the trees a chorus of nocturnal voices such as Ben had never heard before echoed over the beach. He couldn’t have said whether the cries were those of birds, toads or mammals.
Ben had expected Me-Rah to set off at once in search of her own flock of parrots, but when he was helping Hothbrodd to unload their provisions he saw her sitting on one of the crates on the beach.
‘You can fly home now, Me-Rah!’ he told her. ‘You’ve been a wonderful guide. Thank you very much.’
But Me-Rah only shook her head in astonishment, and explained that no parrot in full possession of its wits would fly in the dark. ‘There are many robbers on my island, still-growing Greenbloom,’ she squawked. ‘And I warn you, some of them would like to eat you too. Only that wooden-skinned person is safe,’ she added, glancing at Hothbrodd’s bark-like skin. ‘Presumably.’
‘That’s nice to know,’ Hothbrodd grunted. He seemed to take Me-Rah’s remark as a compliment.
‘How about rats?’ Lola landed her plane on a rock so that no sand would get into the propeller. ‘I bet a lot of the inhabitants of this island would like the taste of rat. But,’ she said, taking off her leather flying helmet, ‘they’d all better steer clear of this one!’
Ben had never met any other creature as fond of adventures as Lola Greytail. Every patch on her well-worn flying suit bore witness to one of those adventures, and Lola did not, like Me-Rah, feel at home in only one place. There were many places that she liked, and she was really at home only in her plane.
‘I’m afraid that on this island we must assume we’re all on the menu of some beast of prey or another,’ commented Barnabas as he dug a seashell out of the moist sand. His face cleared, and he smiled happily as he pressed the shell, with its red and white pattern, to his ear. ‘My word! This actually is the shell of a balungan snail – and it really does sound as if a mermaid were singing inside it!’ He put the shell in the box that he carried around with him for such purposes, and looked along the beach. ‘Shall we camp here overnight? What do you say?’
‘Not before I’ve shown you something else,’ said Lola. ‘Maybe Me-Rah can tell us more about what it means.’