I think we are walking north.
Or what was once called north, what it is now I do not know. I have my reasons for believing so, and I try to teach them to the younger members of the group, but they have a hard time understanding my concern with such archaic terms as north and south. Maybe they are right, maybe it no longer matters when not even the Sun knows where to rise anymore. Still, I tell them, about how the trees in this part of the world would get a thicker bark on the north side to protect them against the cold winter wind. How anthills would always be on the same side of trees and rocks for the same reason. And while I talk about the world I knew when I grew up, decades ago, we walk, steadily northwards (or so I believe).
During the past days' walk the dry landscape has taken on what I think of as a more coastal aspect. I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is, a combination of the plants, the way the landscape slopes, its very rockyness. I know what will meet us when we reach what was once the coast, and so does the others, but we still continue, hoping against hope that it will be different this time, that the ocean will have returned.
Early in the afternoon the horizon widens in glimpses and then suddenly we are on a cliff top, looking out across an immense desert broken by rocks and hollows – a former sea floor now dry and cracked. We silently look out across it, and without speaking we seem to agree to take a break, some sitting down, others unharnessing the horses to let them graze for an hour or so. We carry very little with us, yet it is a relief to put down our packs.
As we have walked we have left behind everything not vital, and our requirements on our belongings are high. Equipment need to be light and sturdy. Even with the horses pulling the wagon, we cannot bring much with us. The wagon is reserved for foodstuffs we gather along the way along with the water bottles we fill whenever we find a source of fresh water, and on our backs we carry what supplies we find essential for our own sake along with some items that belong to the group as a whole. I carry a collapsible spade strapped to my worn backpack. Simon has an axe, it is heavier than my spade and I don't envy him although it is also a weapon.
I think most of us are armed. I know I am. Along with my staff I have a large hunting knife strapped to the piece of rope that does duty as a belt. I also have three more blades hidden under my clothes. I am not sure how well they are hidden and how many knows about them, the way I know that Linda has a handgun in the longhandled bag she carries across her body. She never shows it to anyone, but she sometimes touches the bag as if to reassure herself that it is still there. I don't know if she has any ammunition for it. I don't know if it matters, if someone is pointing a gun at you the likelihood that you will start second-guessing whether it can fire or not is not high. It takes a special sort of person to do that and we are not it, at least.
We used to practice fighting with staves, figuring if we could defend ourself with a readily available weapon we would be better off. The day Kay took a crack on the skull practice ended permanently. I still practice swinging and twirling it, sometimes taking a few cracks at a bush or an innocent tree, but I am not sure how much use it will be in a real situation. Running is our best defense.
A bit up the coast there is an old and not quite abandoned fishing village (nowadays without the fishing). We know we might not be welcome but we head there anyway, to ask for news and maybe barter. This village turns out to be one of the good stops - they don't mind us coming; noone is shouting for us to move along and go back where we came from, or pointing shotguns at us. Instead we are generously offered the use of some uninhabited cottages, provided we break nothing, create no trouble, eat our own foodstuffs, and that we provide help with carrying stone for a drywall being built to fence in a field for their sheep. Reasonable enough demands and after a quick council we decide to stay for a few days in the village at the edge of the dry ocean floor.
The next day the horses and I help ferry stones up the hill to where the drywall is being built. It is hard work, and I cannot but help notice that we travellers with our hunter-gatherer lifestyle seem to be in much better overall shape than the villagers. Working alongside them I ask questions about how they live and they are happy enough to tell me.
They tell me how they are only fifty-some people left in the village which used to be ten times the size with the outlying crofts, how they cannot spare the fresh water they have for crops and how they pick the land around them clean. How they got scurvy in the winter, living off meat and fish. The old men tell me how their language is losing words, how words like "dreich" and "smirr" no longer mean anything to the children who have never seen such weather. They laugh as I frown at their unfamiliar dialect. They tell me that once this village used to be the home of a brewery, making the best beer and whisky, but without grain the traditional golden spirits are gone. Nowadays they brew a kind of mead out of what the countryside offers and wild honey.
Later they tell me about the sea floor with its rugged landscape of old rocks and reefs, about how they used to go there to gather sea weed, crabs and mussles living in the tidal ponds left on it. But as their world dried out they had to go farther and farther out, and nowadays they don't find it safe to venture that far. The tide sometimes still comes in, all the way from the
continental shelf out in the North Sea one grizzled old sailor suggests, and being caught on the ocean floor in an incoming tide is death. They lost several people to that fate. They point out the tide watch on a high cliff, children taking turns throughout the day keeping a lookout for the water. The past month the tide has come in twice, leaving new tidal ponds closer to home where the villagers can forage.
Our group now consist of 34 people, including three toddlers, and we have for the time being settled in three cottages in an abandoned street in the village. I bask in the luxury of going to bed in a real bed with a soft matress instead of in a hammock or on the ground, but in the morning I feel stiff and my back aches.
We barter with the villagers, their sheep means they have wool and luckily some to spare. We get sheepskin and undyed wool yarn as well as some old sheets in exchange for herbs and dried vegetables. We are unhappy to part with the food but we need to mend our clothes before they fall off our backs completely. A different group goes out to help with the wall bordering the sheep field today and I am not among them, instead spending the day looking after my gear and trying to patch together my boots. I have walked barefoot since the end of winter, but eventually it will get colder again and I will regret not having footwear even though the soles of my feet are as tough as the boot leather by now.
That afternoon a fog horns blows an alarm over the village and we all run out in the streets. The locals are running towards the waterfront, carrying various fishing implements and we trail after them, wondering at the tense but happy mood. At the docks the boats sitting tilted on the dry sea floor are now being manned by fisherfolk.
The tide is coming in and the former fishing village will again be a fishing village for a few hours - provided the tide comes far enough in. It mostly does, the smiling people assure us. Tonight there will be a fish dinner which they will share with us provided the catch is good enough.
We are walking what was once southwards.
In the evenings we discuss where to go. Several of us believe we should cross the Channel again, that the continental mountains might be acting as a cloud catcher providing rain and steady supply of fresh water.
Back when we first crossed the channel it was a fellfield, pioneer plants having settled in the soil left behind by the water as it retreated, even young trees growing in sheltered spots. Now we have seen the force with wich the tide comes in from its unaturally long and far low tide point, and we worry about repeating the crossing. Still, we will walk south, and seek an inhabited fishing village there to ask advice on the tidal patterns.
Our next goal now settled, we walk on.