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“It’s you lot”, he said.
The galleon had moved up the lake and anchored at a long jetty. Mieps was fishing from a rock, and some of the others had gone ashore. The clowns were strolling through a sunlit patch of woodland when they came upon a makeshift shack, which looked as if it had been built out of cardboard and packing tape. At first they hadn’t expected it to be inhabited, but then a man, aged possibly in his thirties, had come round the side. He didn’t look surprised to find them there. In fact, it looked as if very little could surprise him at all.
“We come in peace”, said Bardin, unsure what else to say.
“Yes I know you do”, said the man “I take it you haven’t come to move me on?”
“Why should we?” said Bardin.
“I’ve lived all over this forest”, said the man “It’s huge, but not nearly big enough for some people. In the early days some men objected to me putting up my shack, and sometimes I’ve had to be careful they don’t get wind of me. It pays to move on every so often”.
“They?” said Bardin.
“People at the castle to the north end of the lake”, he replied “I would advise you avoid that area, particularly as you can’t travel incognito, not in that ship. I’ve heard they’re cannibals”.
“Heck”, said Bengo.
“Only a rumour, mind”, said the man “But I tend to believe rumours these days, they’ve had a habit of being true in recent years, however bizarre they might seem at first. This forest is so big I’ve managed to evade them so far, but you might have more trouble”.
“Do they use the lake itself much?” asked Bardin.
“Not that I know of”, said the man “If they venture South it tends to be overland, in hunting-parties. I haven’t known them come quite this far South yet, but you can’t take anything for granted in this world anymore. You can never relax your guard for a moment”.
“Is there anyone else living near here?” said Bardin.
“There’s a priest”, said the man “He’s taken up refuge in an old ruined church about a mile or so from here. He says he’s constantly praying for the healing of the world”.
“Sounds like Kieran should meet him”, said Bardin.
“He’s not nuts is he?” asked Bengo, bluntly.
“No more than anyone else”, the man gave a bark of laughter “No he’s alright, for a Spiritual. We meet up now and again to share some tobacco, but he likes his space, and I like mine”.
He showed them around his little one-room shack, which was surprisingly neat and tidy, but then he had few possessions, just some tins of food, a camp-bed, and a handful of books.
“It’s not a bad life out here”, he said “Not when you think what some parts of the world are like now”.
“Why is somebody automatically nuts if he prays for the healing of the world?” said Kieran, sitting at the dining-room table, amongst the tea, and bread and jam.
“Oh take no notice of Bengo”, said Bardin “He suffers from foot-in-gob disease”.
“I do?!” Bengo exclaimed “What about you? BOTH feet in gob at all times!”
“I’ll ride out to see him with Joby, Ransey and Hillyard”, said Kieran.
“What about us?” said Bengo “Me and Bardy. We’re usually part of the six”.
“I know, but it’s probably best if we don’t turn up mob-handed”, said Kieran “He sounds like a gentle soul, used to living alone in this forest”.
“Yeah I suppose he’s not gonna want to put up with Bardy crashing all over the place, shouting his gob off”, said Bengo.
Bardin went to expostulate, but gave up and clouted Bengo around the head with his cap instead.
Matthew was busy chopping wood outside the church ruins when he heard the horses moving carefully through the forest. His heart froze, and his hands gripped the axe with tension. He had lived in fear that the monsters from the castle might find him … and then Kieran rode into view.
“You came”, Matthew gasped, taking off his spectacles and wiping his face “I knew that one day you would”.
“I hope we didn’t cause you alarm”, said Kieran, sliding off his horse.
“I did wonder at first if … if you were Them”, said Matthew, replacing his glasses on his face “You don’t know the relief”.
“Limel, the guy by the lake, told us about you”, said Kieran.
Matthew led him round to the back of the ruins, to the part of the building that was still intact. It had once been the robing-room for the officiating priest, but was now Matthew’s living-quarters.
Ransey produced a bottle of whisky they had brought with them.
“I’m afraid I only have one mug”, said Matthew, indicating a battered enamel cup “Perhaps we should pass it around”.
“S’alright”, said Kieran “We’ve brought our own. We never travel without them”.
Joby had feared that Matthew would “go all silly” on meeting Kieran, but although the priest was clearly delighted to meet him, he treated him with a respectful informality. They sat in a circle on the floor, sipping at the whisky, and listening to the birds twittering in the trees beyond the open door.
“You’ve created a tranquil little spot here”, said Kieran.
“There are many parts of the forest like this”, said Matthew “It is an enchanted place, but as long as you respect it … well it gives many benefits. I just have to accept the Lord is absent in some parts”.
“It’s what used to be called ‘faery-haunted’”, said Kieran.
“It is”, said Matthew “But nowhere is safe in this world, and I would rather be here than anywhere else. We all have to create a little oasis of civilisation wherever we can. If we all do that, well perhaps the world can be put back on an even keel … eventually”.
Matthew’s face fell into a saddened repose.
“The world has been through many tribulations in its time”, said Kieran “And it keeps turning. Evil never triumphs forever. We have to keep chipping away at it. That is our task”.
“Is it true you destroyed the ones at the Big House?” said Matthew “Limal told me he’d heard rumours before coming here”.
“It was a terrible place”, said Kieran “But we haven’t fooled ourselves that they were the only ones. What about this unsavoury crowd at the castle? Can you tell us anything about them?”
“I don’t know how long they’ve been there”, said Matthew “I’ve never been near the place, never seen it. There are tales that anyone who ventures near it disappears”.
“We heard a hunting-horn”, said Joby “When we were travelling here. In the distance. Could that have been them?”
“It sounds like it”, said Matthew “I’ve sometimes heard it too, when the forest is quiet. It chills my blood. BUT it does sound a long way away. I do take precautions here. I’m careful about showing any light after dark, and I wear colours that enable me to blend into the background”.
“Where do you come from, originally?” asked Ransey.
“The City”, said Matthew “Most of us seemed to start there. Limal did too. He worked at the Ministry HQ”.
Ransey sat bolt upright.
“Oh not in any powerful position”, said Matthew “He was a steward. Used to arrange the catering at big functions, and occasionally waited on table during private meetings. Because of the nature of his job, he got to visit parts of the Ministry closed off to a lot of people, and he heard things too. He saw and heard too much”.
“And so he went on the run?” said Kieran.
“He cottoned onto the demonic entities there a lot quicker than most people”, said Matthew “He played it canny for a while, but he knew he had to get out. He said he ran and ran, until he wound up here. If you don’t mind me saying so, you’ll probably need to conceal yourselves more. If you’ve arrived here on a big ship … well I don’t know how much of the lake they can see from where they are”.
“At the moment I’m not sure whether we should hide or brazen it out”, said Kieran “Hiding does have its own problems”.
Matthew showed Kieran around the remains of the church.
“I have a feeling it must have been bombed at some time”, said Matthew “The way parts of the roof have fallen in, and the structural damage”.
“That may well have been the case”, said Kieran “The Ministry bombed extensively to the far South of here, they might have carried out a campaign here too”.
“It’s made me a bit nervous about poking through the rubble”, said Matthew “I don’t want to accidentally unearth an explosive device”.
“You must come and dine with us on the galleon”, said Kieran “We’ll come out and fetch you in the cart”.
“I can’t remember the last time I had a proper meal!” said Matthew.
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