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By Sarah Hapgood

“Do you know, I could have bleedin’ well throttled Hoowie”, said Joby, as he and Bengo strolled along the edge of the forest.

“Bardy often feels like that”, said Bengo “What’s he done now?”

“Says to Kieran that, after the fiery mop incident, he should do a blessing of the ship”, said Joby “Well of course Kieran was only too happy to oblige wasn’t he!”

“Oh I like the blessings”, said Bengo “They make me feel all secure”.

“You should feel dead secure this evening then”, Joby snapped “’Cos he’s gonna do one before dinner. Hey, listen up”.

They heard voices from a clearing nearby, and instinctively they crouched down at a convenient spot and peered through the bushes. A woman had her back to them, and was industriously stripping some bushes of their berries. Al the while she chatted to an elderly woman who was sitting reading in a wheelchair nearby.

The elderly woman was dressed from head-to-foot in black, complete with a black sou-wester on her head. She didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what the younger woman was saying, and suddenly she glanced in the direction where Joby and Bengo were crouched. She was wearing thick horn-rimmed spectacles, which only added to her unsettling appearance. To complete the picture the corners of her mouth were turned down so dramatically that it was impossible not to envisage of lifetime of bitterness and sorrow behind her.

“Oh god”, Bengo whispered “What do we do now?”

“We back away”, Joby whispered back “As calmly as we can. We don’t wanna seem threatening in any way”.

Afterwards, he said that this was a bit ironic considering it was the old lady who had alarmed them far more than they could have alarmed her.

“It was the worst thing that could have happened”, Joby said to Adam, when they had got safely back to the galleon “She saw us there, peering through the bushes at them like a couple of old pervs”.

“You don’t know that’s what she thought”, said Adam, trying to sound reassuring and not succeeding.

“Oh come off it”, said Joby “Of course it was! Those women are paranoid about men, what else is she gonna think!”

“But what else could we have done?” said Bengo “I was scarcely in any mood to go up and introduce ourselves to them!”

“Exactly”, said Adam “Surely you can see that, Joby?”

“True”, said Joby “I wouldn’t have wanted to approach that monstrous old bird in black!”

“It’s not good”, said Julian, when Adam joined him to share a cigar in his cabin a short while later “It means the witches are too close for comfort, and they’re not exactly going to be ecstatic about us being here either”.

“So much for us staying out of their way”, said Adam.

“Goddamnit!” said Julian, thumping the arm of his chair in frustration “This area’s big enough for us all not to bother each other, surely? They go the whole damn forest! Do they begrudge us a small part of it?”

“They see us as a threat”, said Adam “It doesn’t matter which part of the forest we occupy”.

“That’s the damn trouble with women”, said Julian “They think men are after them all the time”.

“Well to be fair”, Adam smiled “A lot of men are! They haven’t cottoned on to the real us yet”.

“What the hell do we do then?” said Julian “Paint a big sign saying ‘WE ARE A BUNCH OF QUEERS’?”

“Why do I find that comment vaguely distasteful?” said Adam.

“I have no idea”, said Julian.

The door burst open and Bardin strode in, closely followed by Hoowie.

“About time too”, said Julian “I sent Hoowie to tell you we were having a crisis meeting ages ago”.

“It’s not always easy to drop everything the minute I’m summoned you know”, said Bardin.

He went over to the port-hole and flung it open.

“Do you mind?” said Julian “It’s getting too cold for all that fresh air”.

“It’s like a fog-bank in here”, said Bardin “I can’t be expected to conduct a meeting in these conditions”.

“Oh sit down and stop carrying on”, said Julian “You’re not on stage now”.

Hoowie pulled over the only remaining available chair, and shoved it at Bardin so roughly that Bardin fell back into it. Looks were exchanged between them.

“Julian”, said Hoowie, in his best wheeling voice “Can I stay for the meeting?”

“You?” said Bardin “This is a meeting for senior members”.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Bardin”, Adam laughed “We’re on a board of company directors!”

“You can stay as long as you close the window first”, said Julian “Otherwise all this fresh air will kill me, I don’t care if I am immortal!”

Hoowie did as he was asked, and then sat down on the window-seat, being the only place left to perch himself.

“So”, said Adam, once they were all in place “Do you have any ideas as to what we should do after this morning’s events, Bardin?”

“Yes”, said Bardin, crisply “Move on”.

Julian groaned.

“Well what else can we do?” said Bardin “They’re never going to accept us here, and even they can’t control the whole of this vast area”.

“That is quite a sensible suggestion, Jules”, said Adam, in a vaguely ‘there there’ kind of voice.

“Maybe”, said Julian.

“We don’t even necessarily have to go up the river again”, said Bardin “We can just go across to the other side of the lake for starters”.

“To that bloody awful old nuclear-reactor or whatever it is?” said Julian.

“For starters”, said Bardin.

“Well at least I suppose you’re not likely to go picking up dusty bits of old objects d’arts there”, Julian sighed.

“Bengo’ll be pleased”, said Hoowie.

Julian gave another heartfelt sigh and leaned back in his chair, chucking a pencil across the desk.

“Oh I don’t know”, he said “I was hoping we’d finally come to a stop at least, for a while anyway”.

Bardin suddenly leapt to his feet and shouted “and I suppose that’s my fault as well!” before flouncing out of the room. The other three watched him leave in astonishment.

“What the hell did I say?” said Julian.

“For once, I don’t think you said anything, Jules”, said Adam “Bardin’s under a lot of pressure that’s all”.

“Yes, most of which he’s put on himself!” said Julian “That’s the trouble with these bloody theatricals, they never keep a sense of proportion about anything”.

“I’m a bloody theatrical”, said Hoowie, from the windowseat.

“You were an artist’s model”, said Julian, in his best correcting voice.

“Yeah”, said Hoowie “When I couldn’t get a job as a bloody theatrical!”

“Hoowie, be silent”, said Julian.

“Yes old love”, said Adam “Julian’s losing the argument and he doesn’t like it!”

Hoowie caught up with Bengo outside the dining-room just before supper.

“Julian didn’t mean any harm”, said Hoowie “He was just letting off steam, a bit exasperated. He wasn’t having a go at Bardin”.

“Oh take no notice”, said Bengo “Bardy’s always flouncing about. He flounces in and out of the galley all day long. Always got a bee in his bonnet about something”.

Hoowie’s heart sank when he saw Bardin approaching them.

“Glad you’re here”, said Bardin “I wanted to have a word with you, Hoowie”.

“Haven’t you had enough words today, Bardy?” said Bengo, crossly.

“I’m sorry about earlier”, Bardin confounded them both by saying “I don’t know what came over me. I hope Julian didn’t take it out on you after I’d gone”.

“N-no”, Hoowie stammered, almost in a state of shock “Julian wouldn’t do that. He just said he was confused that’s all”.

“So am I!” said Bengo “Are you feeling alright, Bardy?”

“Am I normally such a monster that I can’t apologise without shocking everyone?!” said Bardin.

“Do I really have to answer that?!” said Bengo.

Over a mellow supper Bardin announced that they would sail across the lake the following day. There was general agreement that this was a very good idea, and Adam said that it was important that they find somewhere to settle over the worst of the impending winter. On this (for once) happy unanimous note, Bardin said he was going to have an early night.

He was woken up a couple of hours later by a loud drumming sound in the near distance.

“I spect it’s the others having a bit of a jam session”, said Bengo, sleepily “Up on deck. Help keep themselves warm during the night-watch”.

“No it doesn’t sound like that”, said Bardin, reaching for his torch and his dressing-gown.

Up on deck he found consternation. The drumming sound was much louder, and coming from the part of the forest where Bengo and Joby haad tried to go mushrooming earlier.

“My god”, said Bengo “It sounds like the voodoo drums!”

“We think it’s the witches”, said Julian “Trying to intimidate us”.

“OK”, said Bardin “Let’s weigh anchor and make out into the middle of the lake for the rest of the night”.

“What if they’ve got a boat and follow us?” said Rumble.

“Then we fire some warning shots into the air”, said Bardin.

“What if they keep on though?” said Rumble.

“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!” said Bardin, in exasperation.

They stayed anchored out in the middle of the lake for (what felt like) a very long night indeed. The “voodoo drums”, as Bengo had called the, kept up their monstrous beat throughout, and occasionally lights were seen flickering through the trees. By dawn it was all over.

“What the hell was that all about?” said Bardin, when he got back down to his cabin.

“They were trying to intimidate us”, said Kieran, who had followed him down.

“Well congratulations to them, they’ve succeeded!” said Bardin “I hope they’re feeling dead-chuffed with themselves!”

“I doubt it somehow”, said Kieran “It’ll be a hollow victory for them. They’ve driven us away, but suspect that’s not what they were after”.

“They wanted our scalps, to coin a phrase?” said Bardin.

“They would have wanted us to confront them”, said Kieran.

“So why didn’t they sail after us then?” said Bardin “I find it hard to believe anyone living out here hasn’t got a boat of some sort”.

“I’m not sure”, said Kieran “I’m guessing they want us to have a confrontation with them, but they want it on THEIR territory, not neutral ground. Whatever their reasoning, they won’t be happy about us running away like this. We’ve spoilt things for them”.

“Good!” said Bardin.

As there didn’t seem to be any sign that the Sisters were coming after them in a hurry, they stayed anchored in the middle of the lake for the rest of the morning. Until one of the women decided to hurl abuse at them via a hand-made speaking-trumpet from the jetty by the cottage.

“What’s the daft old bint saying?” said Joby, standing with several of the others on the main deck.

“She’s asking if we’re all a bunch of women”, said Kieran “She’s trying to goad us into reacting. Thinks such a remark will fire up our wounded male pride”.

“She’s in for a long wait then”, Joby grunted.

“Well they clearly don’t know us at all”, Adam sighed.

“We should reply”, said Bardin, to everyone’s dismay.

“And say what?” said Joby “Yes we are a bunch of women?! We’ve got a Captain who likes wearing a pink nightie?!”

“We should point out that we are not here for a fight”, said Bardin “Have we got a megaphone?”

“No of course we haven’t got a megaphone, Bardy!”, said Bengo, impatiently.

“We’ve never needed one with you around, Bardin”, said Hillyard.

“Why am I the only one taking this situation seriously?” said Bardin.

“You’re not”, said Ransey “Look, if you want to shout back - though God knows I don’t see the point - just holler”.

“Yes, remember those voice projection classes we used to have when we were kids, Bardy”, said Bengo “You were good at those”.

Bardin thought for a moment, whilst the woman on the shore continued to taunt them.

“No hang on, you’re right”, he said, eventually “There is no point. It would be undignified standing here having a slanging-match”.

“Commonsense has prevailed”, said Adam.

“At last”, said Joby.

“Bardin”, said Ransey “Let’s just sail on. These women have been making a habit of goading and trying to intimidate us ever since we got into this area. Personally, I think that’s their speciality, but they don’t seem to ever make any effort to do anything more”.

“I hope you’re right”, said.

“If we sail out of their territory it won’t matter”, said Ransey.

“So we weigh anchor”, said Bardin, striding back towards the quarterdeck steps “Now”.

“And head where?” Ransey shouted after him.

“To the other side of the lake”, Bardin replied “For the time being. See if we have any trouble from there”.

When Bardin got to the bottom of the quarterdeck steps he was accosted by Lonts yelling from the other end of the below-deck corridor.

“Bardin!” Lonts yelled “Can’t you hear them? The dogs are really upset by all that noise from the shore. Listen to them barking!”

Bardin became aware of the dogs howling piteously from the hold.

“What else can I do?” he said “I’ve given the order for us to sail away”.

“And it’s about time too!” said Lonts.

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