If you missed it, here's chapter 4.
The short drop drove Rowan’s ribs into the mole’s shoulder and spattered his face with something cold and wet. The grainy taste of earth met his tongue as he swept it around his lips.
His mole lurched sideways, and then struggled upwards and level again. Mud slurped like the last drops of a milkshake being sucked through a straw, obviously hindering the mole’s progress.
Once again Rowan was engulfed in darkness. If he stayed in the Pockets much longer, he’d have to learn to see in the dark. The sound of other moles squelching through the mud came from ahead, and soon his own carrier was lumbering after them.
Just then a beam of white light cut sharply across them. The sudden brightness seemed to claw at Rowan’s eyes and he was forced to clench them shut. A dull red filled his vision where the light tried to penetrate his eyelids.
Squinting to avoid the glare, he opened his eyes. Shafts of light had sliced keenly through the darkness all round them, casting enormous mole-shadows in every direction. But there were smaller figures too, people stepping casually in and out of the light free of mole escort.
Rowan followed the lights to their sources. At first they appeared as giant eyes, perfectly round and glowing a fierce white. Then the familiarity hit him: they were headlights.
‘Turn them down, turn them down!’ hollered a mighty voice somewhere out of sight.
The lights mellowed to an even glow that illuminated the entire space. They seemed to be in a peculiar underground campsite, the mud sucking at the wheels of waywardly arranged camper vans. The light came from the front of the rectangular vehicles.
Many had been torn open along the sides or cut in half, the interior seating and kitchens exposed like home life entrails. Bed sheets and pieces of material had been arranged to create extensions of these out into the mud.
The moles were moving again, and shortly Rowan’s carrier brought him to what seemed to be the centre of the camp. A small wood fire burned within a pile of stones, and around it were a collection of multi-coloured deckchairs, benches, and fold-up fishing stools.
Other moles were emerging from the camper vans now, as well as people, flocking to the centre to greet the party’s return.
Rowan looked on as Marvin was dropped down onto a hard stool, his waistcoat slipping down his shoulders with the force. Then he too was unloaded onto a striped green deckchair that sunk into the mud beneath his weight.
He looked across to the magician, and was surprised to find his face a picture of calm.
Dumped onto a deckchair next to them, still dressed head to toe in tattered brown animal skin and with a trickle of blood from the dent in his head, was Fasol. He was shaking like a washing machine on high spin, and let out a whimper when he realised who was next to him.
‘Prisoners!’ shouted Rowan’s mole with a voice like a chainsaw.
A great deal of banging erupted in a campervan just on the edge of the camp centre. There was a large hole carved in its side, and as the van rocked on its suspension there was a clattering of pots and pans, and a saucepan rolled out into the mud.
It was followed by a mole wearing a golden sash across its chest. After stumbling on the threshold of the campervan, it ambled toward them grumbling under its breath.
The other moles threw a salute, most of them whacking themselves in the head.
‘Chief,’ said Rowan’s mole, ‘these are the bandits what we extraticated from the underground base.’
The Chief Mole returned the clumsy salute, and then turned his attention to the prisoners.
He was taller than the other moles, with a tuft of unruly brown hair on his head. It was difficult to tell if his fur was thicker than the other moles, or if he was just fatter.
The Chief Mole turned his stubby snout this way and that, aiming almost invisible eyes at the prisoners. Printed on his golden sash was a crudely drawn emblem, a molehill speared with a conquering flag.
‘We’re not bandits,’ interjected Marvin.
The Chief Mole turned its head to face Marvin.
‘Well, he is,’ Marvin added, tilting his head to indicate Fasol.
‘Am not!’ protested Fasol, digging at the dent in his head.
‘Yes you are!’
‘Quiet!’ boomed the Chief Mole. His voice was like a rusty lawnmower. ‘You lot have a lot to answer for, and I’ll be doing the talking!’
‘How are we to answer for anything if you’re the only one who is allowed to speak?’ asked Marvin neatly.
The Chief Mole considered this for a moment. Then he shook his head violently from side to side. ‘Quiet! You won’t be woolling the pull over my eyes with your bandit tricks! Now, what one of you is the honcho?’
Rowan’s stomach sank; they were the only prisoners the moles had taken. Somehow, Doremi had escaped the underground raid. Now he could be anywhere in the Pockets. While they were being interrogated by overgrown chimney brushes, Doremi could be selling Rowan’s dad’s beard.
None of us are!’ Rowan shouted. ‘You’ve tried to capture the bandit leader, and all you’ve got are two victims and a pathetic stooge!’ He pointed a shaking finger at Fasol.
‘Who are you calling a stooge?’ Fasol shot to his feet in offence, but was quickly shoved back into it by the nearest mole.
‘What my friend is trying to say,’ said Marvin, ‘is that he and myself are not bandits at all. In fact, the lad has only been in the Pockets for two days.’
The Chief Mole looked across the three of them, his lip curling over needle-sharp teeth. ‘Moldywarp!’ he bellowed suddenly, tipping his head back so that Rowan saw deep into his dark throat.
‘Positive and in attendances, Chief!’ replied a mole that had been standing behind Fasol the entire time.
‘Oh, you’re there. Then you privvied what the prisoners said!’
‘Foultruths, sir!’ Moldywarp’s voice was higher-pitched than the other moles. The paw he held high in salute was missing two claws and a chunk of flesh, like a piece cut from a birthday cake.
‘We was told that the bandit honcho has a stolen beard, Moldywarp! None of this lot have a beard at all!’
‘That one’s got a moustache,’ retorted Moldywarp defensively, pointing his damaged paw at Marvin.
‘I made you frontbearer of the assaultage, Moldywarp, and you haven’t done it right!’
Rowan snatched a look across at Marvin, and saw that the magician was grinning.
‘If they’re not bandits, sir, then what is they?’
Marvin piped up. ‘We were prisoners of the bandits, held against our will. I had been there for quite some time, and I must thank you for breaking me out. The gentleman beside me here was one of my jailers, and I strongly recommend that you do not let him go. The boy and I however, well, I’m not sure what use we could possibly be to you.’
‘Hang on!’ said the Chief Mole. ‘You can’t dullify us that slickerly! If you were prisoners, then why did you scarper?’
Marvin sighed. ‘Perhaps it was the anticipation of an impending brutal death.’
Rowan leaned over to Marvin and whispered, ‘No wonder my Dad made me chase moles with a spade.’
‘What was that?’ exclaimed Moldywarp, shuffling angrily round from behind Fasol to stand in front of Rowan.
‘Nothing.’ Rowan folded his hands in his lap and dropped his eyes to join them.
‘With a spade, did he? Well, I never! Is you awares what things us moles have had to go through? All we did was try and help! Till and aerate the soil, we did! We deadened all those slimerly wrigglers what were trying to overrule your gardens, us moles! King William III of England? We made the molehill what deadened him! We fished you lot from his dastardly schemings. Planning to sky high the whole of the country, he was!’
‘No he wasn’t, Moldywarp,’ the Chief Mole sighed wearily.
Moldywarp ignored him. ‘But you still tried to cull us, bonk our heads in with rackles and spades! Even when we find this place you’re still causing us trouble!’
‘I’m not sure that I understand,’ said Marvin. ‘What trouble have the bandits caused you?’
‘What trouble? I’ll show you what trouble!’
Moldywarp turned around. Glaring out of his black fur like a splash of whitewash on charcoal was a bald spot, at the very base of his back so that it looked like a grotesque bottom. It had been Moldywarp who had carried Marvin from the underground prison. And now that Rowan saw it up close, he knew why the bald patch had looked so familiar; it had been shaved out in the shape of a beard.
‘Chase us with barkers, they do, until we is slow and airy. Then they blows thorns in our behinds that swim our heads and sleep us! Broked my paw, they did!’ The mole let out a high-pitched sob. Before the Chief Mole could console him, Moldywarp had run off on all fours, and disappeared behind a camper van.
Now Fasol was sweating buckets, both hands clawing at his head-dent.
‘You’ve been shaving moles!’ Marvin’s eyes were wide with outrage.
‘We haven’t ever shaved no moles, I swear! It’s that other lot what shaves, not us!’ Fasol turned pleadingly to Rowan. ‘You didn’t see no moles locked in our cells, did ya?’
‘Guilty!’ roared the Chief Mole. ‘Our organs-nation is dedicated to suqueshing all this bandit no sense!’
‘How very honourable of you, sir!’ Marvin dabbed at the blood on his eyebrow. ‘Let me assure you that the boy and myself have nothing whatsoever to do with the beard black market. We too are victims of it. Rowan came to the Pockets only yesterday because the bandits took his father’s beard.’
‘I’m hear to sorry that,’ grumbled the Chief Mole, turning his head to look at Rowan. ‘Some comfashion in my beater tells me to believes you. Your moustache is real, after all.’
Marvin nodded graciously, before turning to Rowan with a grin of triumph.
The Chief Mole rounded on Fasol. ‘Where is your honcho localed?’
Fasol’s eyelids fluttered with the force of the shout. ‘Central Pocket, Central Pocket!’ he whined, tipping so far back in the deckchair that its legs disappeared into the mud.
‘Just as we invisored.’ The Chief Mole turned to the guard that had been Rowan’s carrier. ‘Stay sentry and eye this bandit scummins!’
‘Positive and inclined, sir!’
Then the Chief focused on Rowan and Marvin. ‘You two must be completely brubbling.’ He clapped his mighty paws together. ‘We’ll show you some mole hospitality!’
Rowan hoped that mole hospitality was better than mole underground assaults. The Chief Mole invited them to follow him across the mud to his camper van, leaving Fasol whimpering in his deckchair.
Just moving across the campsite was difficult, the boggy ground determined to liberate Rowan of his remaining slipper. One had been lost somewhere along the way.
It posed no difficulty for the Chief Mole, who strode quickly to the torn opening in his van and stepped into the brightly lit interior. Rowan followed Marvin inside, taking care not to slip on the muddy floor.
Rowan had been camping with his parents once before, when he was only little. It had been somewhere by the sea, at the end of a car journey that seemed to take forever.
The inside of the Chief Mole’s campervan was surprisingly similar to where he had stayed all those years ago. On entry, the driver’s cabin was to the left, both seats ripped out to make room for an oversized armchair lodged behind the steering wheel.
On the other side of the door was a sort of kitchen, a white plastic counter with a tin kettle on top. Cupboards had been nailed wonkily to the walls; their doors hung open, frying pans and cutlery littering the floor.
The rest of the campervan was missing. As Rowan was led to where he thought the seating should be, he found that the far corner had been torn away and an extension built from a selection of dirty bed sheets and tarpaulin. They had been knitted together and suspended on wooden pikes hammered into the mud.
‘Sit down,’ said the Chief Mole.
Both Rowan and Marvin stepped out into the muddy extension, taking seats on blue plastic crates with floral cushions nailed on top.
‘What does both of you want for chomp and slurping, then?’
‘Believe me, whatever you can provide us with will be better than anything I’ve eaten for months!’ Marvin beamed heartily.
‘Yeah, invisor it, I can. I’ll rustle up some droolery and compose some tea!’
The Chief Mole’s mouth opened at a lopsided angle, two thin teeth poking out into his fur. Rowan guessed that it was his attempt at a smile.
The overgrown mole pottered into the kitchen. ‘How do you take it?’
‘Milk and two, for me!’ answered Marvin cheerily.
‘Just milk for me, please.’ Rowan squirmed in his seat. He took it the same way his dad did.
The Chief Mole pushed down the switch on the kettle. As he came back to join them he tripped on the edge of the extension, waved his stubby arms in windmills to try and regain his balance, and then fell flat on his face in the mud.
Rowan did all he could to keep a straight face, as if he had just witnessed the Queen tripping over the red carpet. The Chief Mole got to his feet and brushed the mud out of his coat. Rowan managed a reassuring smile.
‘Isn’t my fault!’ the Chief Mole insisted. ‘Us moles don’t see quite right in bright shining, you know?’
‘Why do you keep the lights on, then?’ asked Rowan.
‘For you, and the other humans! We’s got quite a few around here, part of our organs-nation!’ His chest fur plumped up with pride. ‘Wouldn’t be fair to makes them step about in the dark, would it?’
‘That’s very thoughtful of you,’ said Marvin, bowing his head slightly. ‘Would you prefer to talk to us with the lights off?’
‘That would be to my likings, thank you mucherly.’
The Chief Mole reached out and batted the light switch. The fluorescent strip overhead went out, leaving smudges of orange at either end that went slowly down like sunsets. The campervan was not entirely dark; light from the neighbours still snuck in through the net curtains, allowing Rowan to see well enough so as not to be uneasy. The Chief Mole moved expertly now, striding over to the kitchen and retrieving cutlery from the floor. The kettle boiled, and the Chief busied himself preparing the meal.
It wasn’t until he saw the shape of the Chief Mole coming back towards them with a tray that Rowan realised he was starving. It felt like days since he’d eaten the cheese in his cell.
‘Here we are!’
The Chief Mole set down the tray on a seat in front of them, before forcing a cup and saucer into both their hands.
‘I left the tea-bug sinked inside so’s that you could choose your strength.’
Rowan looked down into his cup. His tea looked rather weak, the water quite clear apart from a dirty tinge around the sunken teabag. Regardless, he raised it to his mouth. Before he could drink, he felt a tickle on his lip. Something was moving in his drink. He looked again at the teabag and found that it had sprouted a collection of spindly legs and a pair of fierce-looking pincers.
Suddenly the bug leaped out of the beverage, tore a hole in the tarpaulin wall and was gone. At the same time, Marvin screamed. Rowan turned to see the magician batting at a black beetle that had latched on to his upper lip.
‘Get it off!’ Marvin screamed.
Rowan seized the beetle and tugged it as hard as he could. Marvin’s lip stretched out with it, until finally the bug released him. Rowan tossed it to the floor, where it skittered wildly over the mud.
The Chief Mole dropped to all fours and snaffled the beetle into his mouth. ‘Mayhaps I didn’t sunk them lengtherly enough.’ He crunched the beetle between his teeth and rose back to full height. ‘Help yourself to chomp.’
He indicated the tray in front of them. Rowan looked; it was overrun with slowly pulsating worms.
Fortunately the Chief didn’t see his grimace of horror. ‘The boarlet is called Rowan, but I has not asked your title, Mr Moustache.’
‘I am Marvin the magician,’ answered Marvin with pride.
‘Magician? Not a great confuzzle why they took you, then.’
‘Indeed not, sir,’ said Marvin. ‘Fortunately I was unable to help them. It would seem that something isn’t right in the beard stealing business.’
‘There’s nothing what you can tell us we don’t already have. Just ask Moldywarp.’
‘I’m sorry if I offended him,’ said Rowan, hanging his head. ‘I didn’t mean to.’
‘Oh, don’t you be conturned with him, he’s a drama-boar through-and-through. Hates all humans, he does. They thieved our home in the upworld, layered it with their nests.’ He indicated the campervan with his paw. ‘Tried scrubbing us off, they did. Then Moldywarp founded this place, down deep as you can go. We all moved and got strengthened. Then we went back and thieved all their nests, like they did us. Ours now.’
But you’re still not safe,’ said Rowan.
‘Ho ho, don’t be worrying about us! I’m more conturned how a boarlet like you’s been crinkled into all this.’
Rowan told the Chief Mole the whole story; from not being able to wake his dad right through to the mole assault. The thought of having lost his dad made his eyes wet, but Rowan bit back the tears and finished his story.
The Chief Mole was silent for a moment, and then cleared his throat gruffly.
‘I must paw you my most sincerincest agolopies on the moles of my behalf. I had no thinking things got so squiffy.’
‘But if it wasn’t for you moles, we would never have escaped, and Rowan would have been in far greater danger,’ said Marvin.
‘Doremi is the title of their honcho, you says?’ The Chief Mole scratched under his snout. ‘Bothersome, that isn’t what we was told. And we fumbles the mission! I’ll give Moldywarp a thing or two to thinks about, mark my words!’
‘Are you quite certain that these are the bandits who have been attacking you?’ Marvin asked. ‘Fasol was rather insistent that they had not been shaving moles.’
‘Foultruths! Just a custarderly presaving of skin! You saw what they had contained, all those animals what we’ve helped scarper!’
Rowan was on his feet. ‘It doesn’t matter if they’re the same bandits or not! They’ve got my dad’s beard and I have to get it back before they sell it!’
‘Most bothersome. Never heard of these slimerly bandits taking humans beards. Most bothersome, it is.’ He was quiet for a moment, before bursting into a roar. ‘The Vigilante Moles are going to squak these bandits! They shave us and dollops our fur on people’s faces! And now they’re crinkling boarlets into it! We won’t stand for this, we won’t!’
‘I’m not a child! Just tell me where to look and I’ll go myself!’
It’s far too dangerous, my boy,’ said Marvin, getting to his feet. He turned to the Chief Mole, who was still breathing heavily from his outburst. ‘We need a way to get to the Central Pocket. Fasol said that Doremi will hide there.’
‘The Central Pocket? Tricksome, tricksome. Something’s not positive that way. Most of the humans what have been apsorbed come from there, left because of the bandits. All said that something in the air had shifled. And now we ain’t had no Central newsings in weeks! The tunnel what we were construing caved in, and the grounds gone white and solid, like it’s pactrified. Too hard to dig through. We’s got tunnels and schnickle spies all over, but nothing blowing back from the Central Pocket. Tells me, have you had a visit from the Spirit?’
Rowan shook his head.
‘Most bothersome. All the new brand spanking humans we’s taken on have had no visit neither. No one in the last six moons, like the spirit’s gone missing.’
‘What does that mean?’ asked Rowan.
There was a bang on the side of the campervan.
‘Who is it?’ boomed the Chief Mole.
The mole that had been left to guard Fasol fumbled into the van. ‘Sir, the prisoner’s scarpered, sir.’
‘What?’ The teacups rattled under the Chief’s rage.
‘Don’t know what happened, sir. We can’t place him nowhere!’
‘We must get to the Central Pocket as quickly as possible,’ Marvin was on his feet. ‘Fasol will give us away the moment he gets back to Doremi. Is there no way at all that you can get us there?’
The Chief Mole looked at them all each in turn, breathing heavily. He grumbled under his breath, and shook his head to the side as if tipping water out of his ear. Then he looked at Marvin.
‘There might be one way.’
Chapter 6 coming soon!