Marco was determined to get home, no matter what kindnesses Arte could bestow upon him, and these were many. His vulnerability and wish to be alone were rightly interpreted as signs of homesickness, which she treated in the only way she knew how. Marco could eat no more sweets and drink no more fizzy pop without exploding! He felt guilty that he would have to deny such maternal feelings, but he needed to do something.
He turned to Arte as she scrubbed the floor in the huge hall. ‘Arte, I have to go out.’
Putting down her scrubbing brush, Arte turned and listened. ‘Ç’ke tani, bir?’
Marco stabbed his own chest with a grubby finger, then pointed out towards the front door. ‘I – me – I go OUT!’
Arte chuckled to herself and waved him away. ‘Shko, por ke kujdes. Kthehu shpejt, do pregatis dreke per ty.’
Taking that as a dismissal, Marco gave her a thumbs-up and ran to the front door. Arte smiled and continued cleaning the floor.
Marco ran and ran, cherishing the feeling of wind in his hair and breathed in the clean mountain air with relief. It was so much better than being cooped up in vehicles, but the call of home was strong. Instinctively, he ran along the orchard, through a rusty gate and into a grassy meadow with small, sweet-smelling flowers in shades of yellow, blue and orange. He continued up the slope towards a copse of trees, until eventually the valley spread out behind him. Reaching the first crest, he turned to take in the huge vista and then ran onwards, finding a path that wound up the foothills. To his left, Marco could see a vast forest emerging that seemed to swathe the hillside right the way up towards the scarred, grey ridge.
Ahead, the path branched, one leg continuing upwards and one towards the forest, perhaps used by hunters and mushroom pickers. Marco imagined the forest alive with wild boar and deer – or even tigers and lions? Well, you never know what’s in a strange country! Best not go that way…
He ran upwards, the angle of ascent increasingly steep as he neared a second plateau, the peak still way above him. Sitting on the grass to regain his breath, he wondered whether it was possible for him to reach the summit. What if Rosie was right – if he could see the sea from there, they could walk there. Quite a trek, but if there was a port perhaps they might be able to find a ship heading towards Britain? They might have to hitch a lift, but that would be no worse than being on that plane. Or there might be an airport by the coast – a resort, somewhere for holidaymakers to fly in.
But then… Marco’s heart leapt to his mouth. He had not brought his passport; it was still with the soldiers. Perhaps they had confiscated the passports to prevent people making a break for it?
They were obviously somewhere abroad and they would get nowhere without a passport. Did you need it within the European Union? Marco couldn’t remember, but he did remember his father lecturing him about how important it was when they were in Italy.
So what next? Guilt twinged his conscience for a moment: what about Imogen and Rosie? Shouldn’t he wait for them to return? Perhaps he should be better equipped, get some food and water, maybe a map? In fact, plan the whole enterprise properly!
No, why not just enjoy being alone? That’s what his dad would have done…
Marco screamed at the top of his voice, but no reply returned from the huddle of mountains surrounding the hotchpotch of fields stretching into the distance. He screamed again, but the air seemed to swallow the sound. He paused to listen. Dead quiet. Nothing.
For a few seconds he wavered, tempted to go back. And then his heart spoke, loud and clear: no, they would only slow him down. Much better to make a break now, get it over and done with.
He paused. What was that? A faint buzzing, like a wasp hovering, away to his right. Marco shielded his eyes against the sunlight and focused on the sky ahead: a khaki-green cylinder was drifting lazily across the sky. A plane! It had just taken off from the airfield and was veering left to pull over the mountains, way above his head. The droning noise soared and then gradually faded into the air. Was it a British plane, like the one that brought them here? And where was it heading? Back home? If so, that was definitely the right direction to go!
Marco sprang to his feet, vigour renewed, and strode along the path that wound obliquely up the foothills. A few scattered cypresses and pines broke the plain meadows. A herd of goats watched him pass, bleating and chewing the plentiful grass. Marco admired their horned features and sleek coats in shades of grey and black.
He walked for maybe ten or fifteen minutes before the plateau began to rise steeply and the only viable path took him through a thicker grove. Thick roots broke up the well-trodden path like a dense network of veins beneath his feet.
He looked to his right, but there was no path, only solid rock and shale. There was no way he could climb that. There was nothing for it – he would have to go along this path and into the main body of the forest.
From below, it looked like a sprawling green mass; as the forest loomed ahead, the trees towered above Marco. It looked deep, dark and forbidding. He was a good five hundred metres further up the gradient from where the other path had joined the trees, but there was much further still to climb within the canopy of leaves.
He began to move ahead, but then the glint caught his eye. Looking up the mountainside, he could see the unmistakeable sparkle of sunlight on binoculars, or maybe a long camera lens.
Fear suddenly gripped Marco. Heart in mouth, he ran blindly into the shade of the forest, ignoring the grip of claustrophobia, as if the huge trunks were closing in around him. The sunlight was immediately cloaked in green, the dank and humid atmosphere infiltrated his nostrils, but the adrenalin-fuelled panic overcame his creeping nausea. On and on he ran, crunching twigs with every step, the searing pain of a stitch in his side, but flight was his only instinct. Paranoia had taken control…
Marco crashed into the cushioned undergrowth with a loud yell. He shivered, doubled up to ease the tearing stitch in his side and panted hard. He had tripped over a large root in the path. Shaking the moist, peaty soil from his hands, he spotted a dribble of blood from a small cut on his palm. Marco fished in his pocket and found a grubby handkerchief to wipe his hands. Then he sat on a log and surveyed his surroundings while gradually catching his breath. Strange enclosed sounds amplified in his ears. Was that just the sound of small animals?
Taking a deep breath, Marco forced his brain into gear. Concentrate!
The flash of light had been maybe a hundred metres away from him, to the right of the treeline. Was he being followed? There could be some sort of lookout post there, but would anyone have run down after him?
Wait a minute, why was he flattering himself like this? Nobody would be up there just watching him, surely? In fact, how did he know anybody was up there at all? Might just have been sunlight on a piece of glass.
Unless his scream had alerted somebody…
Marco looked to left and right, but the path was empty. He looked deep into the forest in all directions, listening intently. No sign of anyone. Perhaps he was mistaken…
Picking himself up gingerly, Marco tested his legs. All seemed in working order! He made a rapid decision to press on, but with greater caution. The path continued on an upward incline, narrowing and weaving through the trees, a mass of ferns encroaching on both sides. It zigzagged across a stream before turning sharply right at a more extreme ascent. Marco looked for alternatives, but the dark fungus-covered boughs seemed to push him in one direction, without any exit route.
Looking back the way he had come, Marco wondered once more whether it would have been wiser to wait and do this with the girls. Maybe it would be easier to go to the airbase… But the thought of the sea and escape once more drove him on.
Walking was now much harder work; he had to use steps worn from tree roots by generations walking through the forest. Pressing his knees to leverage his feet upwards, Marco found his body complying to his will with some reluctance. Looking ahead, the trees were interspersed with boulders – small at first, but then small rocky outcrops too.
His mind gradually detached as he heaved himself through this rockier terrain, first to Arte and the girls, then to the journey they had endured. His thoughts then turned to his mother. Maybe she was somewhere around here too? Why hadn’t he stuck with her? His thoughts then turned to his gran, his father, his sister, even school.
For all his moans about school, how he wished he could wake up into his normal routine life right now! How diligent he would be, how loving to his family. He would never let anyone down, ever again…
Sudden, rapid noise. A small click, somewhere to his left. A flash of blurred light, straight ahead. Marco barely had time to open his mouth, let alone emit a stifled scream…