All in all, it took surprisingly little time to descend down into the basin. The path, although still narrow was clear and easy to follow. It seemed to lead directly into the village too, which blew my theory that it might be abandoned right out of the water. If it was deserted, the path would have been overgrown.
The ground levelled off as we neared and the trees thinned revealing lawns of grass between them. I say lawns but they weren't neatly trimmed with stripes or anything. It was more like parkland with trees dotted about and probably grazed by rabbits, goats or whatever the Dirrian equivalent was, rather than being tended. We could also see the first of the wooden huts through the trees, but they weren't wooden at all.
Igloo shaped, they were low and built of branches, leaves, sticks and mud, all bound together like a bird's nest. The entrance was in the side, about halfway up, round and just large enough to crawl through. Not very practical for getting in and out of, but it would keep the draughts off those sleeping inside, probably.
Despite the path, though, the village was deserted and may have been for some time. It was hard to say. If it had been recently abandoned I would have expected to see spent fires, pots and pans, clothes on a washing line—that sort of thing, but none of those things were evident. Other than the igloos, there was no indication of anybody living there at all.
I braved a peak in one of them to see if there was anything there that might give an indication of habitation. It was warm and cosy with a soft lining of feathers and fluff from plants and animals, but other than that, it was bare—distinctly lacking in personal possessions or household goods. Yet, everything was in good repair. Even the bedding was freshly puffed, smelled fresh and was clean. I became convinced that the village was inhabited, but where was everyone? Had our arrival frightened the natives off? I aired my thoughts with the rest of the team.
"I agree," said Al, her head emerging from one of the huts. "I think the village is occupied too, and I think the pods are just for sleeping in."
Pod was certainly a very good name for them. They were definitely pod-like.
"But if all they do is sleep here, where do they live?"
"What about over there?" said Traeth, pointing towards the stone structure.
It certainly warranted investigation, so we weaved our way through the huts towards the building.
To our surprise, it wasn't built of stone at all. It was beautifully constructed from more basic materials. The walls were a series of square columns made from neat, mud bricks that supported a low, thatched roof with a gentle apex. Between the columns, wattle and daub screens stretched, filling the gaps to form solid walls, but they didn't reach to the ceiling, thus allowing light to fill the room. The mastery with which it had been built, the regular size of the mud bricks had all made it appear much sturdier than it was from afar.
We had to duck down in order to enter through the wide doorway (simply the omission of a screen between two columns) but once inside, it was roomier than we had anticipated. although it wouldn't hold more than a hundred people at most. The floor was beautifully laid in stone tiles, plain but expertly laid, and it stepped down into an atrium. In the middle of that stood a solitary, low stone bench with sides that arched up into scrolled edges, and in the middle of it sat the most enormous cat I had ever seen!
It was a typical ginger cat with a white breast but was easily the size of a large Staffordshire Bull Terrier. He was sitting with his paws tucked under his chest and glaring at me in the evil fashion that cats reserve for strangers invading their space. Of course, I immediately went into cat mode.
"Hello there, little puddy-cat!" I cried in my best, super-friendly cat voice.
"Little!" exclaimed Al. "He's ENORMOUS!"
I crouched down and made my way gently towards him, eager not to frighten him off. I made the usual kissing noises that cats like and spoke in gentle tones. He, on the other hand, continued to glare at me through intelligent, bright green eyes that told me I was an idiot. It never ceases to amaze me how expressive a cat's face can be.
"Careful. He might take a swipe at you," warned Rutter.
"You wouldn't do that, would you, my little friend," I cooed.
As if on cue, he pulled a paw out from under his chest and let it dangle menacingly over the edge of the bench. I could see the tips of his claws peaking out of the ends—little razor blades that could strike in a moment, just like my Beastie's.
Rutter laughed but I ignored him. I sat on the floor in front of the cat and continued to chat to him in soft tones.
"Now don't you be frightened," I said to him. "I'm just going to reach out with one little finger and tiggle your liggle head."
Rutter leaned into Al and asked quietly, "Does she talk to Beastie like that?"
"'Fraid so," she confirmed. I could hear the contempt in her voice, which was a bit rich bearing in mind she was just as bad.
Slowly, I reached out with my index finger and touched him on his neck, just underneath his cheek. He withdrew a little but not enough to break the contact. His fur was rich, soft, warm and thick. Gently, I tickled him, turning my finger in a figure of eight through his fur, and gazed into his big bottle-green eyes that never left me.
I inched my finger slowly up to his cheek, aiming for that sweet spot where Beastie and most cats love to be petted. Once there, I rubbed gently, all the while continuing with more sweet words. As my finger hit the spot, the eye nearest my finger twitched in pleasure. I could feel his conflict. He wanted to resist but the temptation to succumb was too much. He heaved a sigh (can cats sigh?) and surrendered, pushing his head closer to my finger. Soon his head was buried in my hand as I massaged his face. He even began to purr.
"Oh, you are a big, sweet boy," I said.
Rutter heaved a sigh too. "Well, at least we've made first contact with something," he laughed.
"Yes, but what do we do now?" asked Al.
She had a point. If the people had evacuated the village because of our arrival, would they return? Or were they watching us from afar? More worryingly, would they, like their ancestors, want to chop our heads off and shove them on spikes?
The light was starting to give so after a debate, we decided that we would set up camp just outside the village in the trees. We thought about taking shelter in the stone building but decided against it. We didn't want to offend them or insult them by dishonouring what might be a sacred place.
I said goodbye to the cat and we made our way back through the village and pitched our tents. We didn't light a fire but only because we could see no evidence of the villagers having any at all. We weren't sure what that meant but didn't want to risk anything. As Rutter had pointed out, this was basically a first contact situation and none of us wanted to fluff it up.