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By Sarah Hapgood

“This is a horrible place. Horrible”, Bardin wrote in his personal diary “Sullen is a good word to describe it. I remember thinking that when we travelled this way before. It was bad enough in the heat of Summer, but now in this perpetual gloom -

I’ve kept the night-watches going, and am glad of it. We hear noises. It could be just wild animals, but this isn’t a place to take risks in. It also seems as though people have been setting fire to the trees.

Yesterday the propeller got snagged on some rubbish that had been dumped in the river. Hillyard, Rumble and Julian took turns to unsnag it, whilst Mieps and Ransey kept watch with guns. It was a very tense time, but we were set free at last. When we get to The Village Of Stairs the galleon will have to go in for a complete overhaul. That has to be the first consideration … that and getting fresh supplies”.

He had just finished writing this when he heard a commotion up on deck. He went up immediately to find some of the others exclaiming in consternation at a wild dog which was barking furiously at them from the shore.

“Is it rabid?” asked Bardin. The animal certainly looked as though it was. Its eyes were wild and its gums bared.

“No, it wouldn’t come near the river if it was”, said Hillyard.

“It’s mad at any rate“, said Mieps, who was itching to shoot it.

“Let’s just keep moving”, said Bardin “There will be no going ashore at all until further notice, not unless it’s the most direst of emergencies anyway”.

As the day wore on strange figures were seen moving amongst the trees. At first they seemed zombie-like, but it wasn’t as simple as that. They were people who had been reduced to a state of near-brainless bestiality by a long period of extremely hard existence. They were dirty, half-clothed, and severely undernourished. When they saw the galleon they roused themselves to give a few half-hearted cries, feeble attempts at aggression. But it was as if their minds couldn’t keep the level of concentration going long enough to be a real threat.

“Keep moving”, Bardin ordered them on the galleon “If we try and stop to help them here, they’ll probably eat us”.

“He’s right you know”, said Joby to Adam, below deck “I haven’t seen people like that since Sawney Beane’s cave!”

“I almost wish they were zombies”, said Adam, despondently “At least then we’d know they were already dead!”

“What the hell happened here?” said Bardin, half-speaking to himself, half-speaking to Bengo “I know it was hard last time we came through, but to see people reduced to this state, this living death”.

They were both standing on the main deck, as the gloaming deepened all around them. There were rumbles of thunder in the far distance. Occasionally one of the creatures (it was very hard to think of them as human) could be glimpsed moving through the trees.

“This can’t be just down to hard times”, said Bengo “After all you could get a basic living off the land here. It wouldn’t be much, but it wouldn’t reduce you to this”.

“So what else is it?” said Bardin.

“It’s not just their bodies“, said Bengo “Something’s fucked with their minds as well”.

“That’s it!” said Bardin “Something’s robbed them of the power to think!”

“Anyone who could think could walk to The Village Of Stairs”, said Bengo “We’ve had to exist in worse places than this in our time!”

“It’s the sort of place where you could lose your mind”, Bardin confided to his diary a short while later. The thunder was continuing to rumble in the distance, and he wrote illuminated occasionally by lightning flashes.

“People talk about the isolation of the high seas as though it is something truly terrible”, he wrote “But I would rather have that anytime than this decaying, oppressive, closed-in river, where everything - including the people we’ve seen - seem to be rotting and decaying”.

Over the next couple of days he urged the galleon ever onwards, only reluctantly stopping at night-fall, and then making sure that they were anchored nowhere near the shore.

“God, I hope we reach harbour soon”, Hillyard remarked “I think Bardin’s brain’s going to catch fire at this rate!”

The morning after the storm they had seen a man kneeling on the shore. He was completely naked and was flinging his arms down and then raising them up again, like some old-style hippy doing homage to a guru.

“Clearly out of his mind”, said Bardin, dismissively.

“This area seems to have that effect on people”, said Rumble, who was beginning to have concerns about his old friend’s obsession with reaching The Village Of Stairs.

Bardin wasn’t in danger of losing his senses though. It was simply that he regarded it as his prime duty to get the boat and all its inhabitants to where they needed to go, as safely as possible, and this was far from being a safe area. Plus it had to be said that the bleakness and the degradation were getting too him. He was not a materialist, he didn’t crave luxury and comfort, but he did find raw squalor depressing in the extreme.

It was a relief when they came to a burnt-out cottage, as they remembered it from when they had travelled this way before. It was significant because it was close to the mouth of the river, and it meant they were very near The Village Of Stairs.

They arrived in the town early the next evening. Since they had last been there a couple of years before, a few new buildings had sprung up around the harbour, a testament to the town’s recent prosperity. With the new prosperity came a new type of people to the town. Full a grim sort of purpose, hard-faced, with suspicious eyes, and a moody set to their mouths. They were like a race of aliens who had never known humour and who seemed to resent the existence of anyone who looked remotely cheerful.

“Thank God we never had to perform for them!” was Bengo’s remark “Like trying to get blood out of a stone trying to get a laugh out of this lot!”

The Indigo-ites immediately launched into a frenzy of activity. The galleon had to be given a complete overhaul, and fresh supplies bought. Of course all this would cost money. Hillyard no longer had access to his vast wealth. So much time had passed since they had lived anything like normal people that his assets had long since been seized by various regimes and institutions. To try and claim them back would have been to bring far too much attention on themselves. They possessed no cash at all. Most of the time this wasn’t a problem, as they lived in the middle of nowhere, and in places like Abbus Isle and Sister Fleur’s village, they had bartered.

All they had was what was left of the Starhanger jewels, which were stored securely in the hold, and watched over possessively by Tamaz, who occasionally liked to amuse himself by polishing them. On their first full day at the Village, Bardin dug out a handful of diamonds and took them to a jewellers to exchange for hard cash. Then, accompanied by Bengo, Ransey and Hillyard, they went to the boat-yard.

“Are you staying around here for long?” asked the owner, somewhat suspiciously.

His manner was so hostile that Bardin felt like telling him to mind his own business, but the man had an impressive array of boxing trophies in his office, so he didn’t think that would be wise.

“As long as it takes us to get fixed up”, he replied.

“Where have you come from?” said the man.

“Up the Gold River”, said Bardin.

“The Gold River?” said the man “Nobody travels that way. Nobody”.

His ridiculous, over-emphatic statement made Bardin want to burst out laughing. Instead he restrained himself and said “Can’t say I blame them really!”

Afterwards Ransey and Hillyard returned to the ship, and the clowns joined Rumble and Farnol in a nearby bar. Bardin was feeling depressed.

“For years now, every time we’ve come back here I feel like a stranger to the place”, he said.

“As far as this lot are concerned, you are”, said Rumble, bluntly.

“Oh cheer up, Bardin”, said Farnol “Us lot don’t belong anywhere!”

“How is that supposed to cheer me up?” said Bardin.

“I think what Farnol’s trying to say is that we only belong with each other”, said Bengo.

“Be glad they don’t know us”, said Rumble “It might mean trouble if they did”.

“Here’s something that’ll bring a smile to your face”, said Farnol to Bardin “Julian’s taken Hoowie out to get kitted out in some new clothes”.

“He does need them, Bardy”, said Bengo, before his friend could start ranting about wasting good money on Hoowie.

“Imagine him all done up like a dog’s dinner!” Farnol laughed.

“In my opinion Julian should take him to the bath-house”, said Bardin “Otherwise it’ll be like putting fine garments on a skunk!”

“Oh Bardy, really!” said Bengo “You’re cruel to Hoowie”.

“I just think there’s no point trying to make Hoowie look elegant”, said Bardin “Hopeless in fact. Tell me, in all truthfulness, something that works about his appearance”.

“He’s got a lot of hair”, said Farnol.

“Where Hoowie’s concerned, that’s a drawback, not a bonus”, said Bardin “Half the time I wonder what he’s got caught in that tangled bird’s nest of his!”

“It helps to hide his face”, said Rumble.

“So would a custard pie”, Bardin growled.

“Hoowie was good at taking pie-hits”, said Bengo “He used to keep his face completely deadpan. The only person I’ve ever seen do that”.

“No sense no feeling you see”, said Bardin, determined as ever to have the last word.

“Good heavens, you lot are back much sooner than I was expecting”, said Adam, when the clowns reappeared below deck on the galleon.

“We thought we’d rather come back here and have a drinking session”, said Bengo.

“You’re not turning into recluses are you?” said Adam.

“I don’t know how anybody could be a recluse round here”, Joby grumped, from the galley “Chance’d be a fine thing”.

“Take no notice of him”, said Adam “He hasn’t been ashore yet”.

“Haven’t had a chance”, said Joby.

“Joby, shut up!” said Adam.

“There’s a strange atmosphere in town”, said Bardin “That’s why we came home”.

He led the way into his cabin, and began to divest himself of his oilskin coat.

“Well I think there’s a storm coming”, said Adam “That might be adding to the brooding atmosphere. It tends to give things a sombre air”.

“It’s not just that”, said Bardin “Weird, secretive things have always gone on in this town, but now the air seems alive with it”.

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