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By Sarah Hapgood

“Ungrateful little tosser”, said Joby, when Adam informed him of this conversation “We turn out, in the middle of the fucking night I might add, to save his chops from demonic forces, and we get blamed for everything!”

“It doesn’t matter”, said Adam “He’s in a state of shock, he’s not thinking straight”.

“I don’t think he’s capable of thinking straight!” said Joby “That sort aren’t. He gives himself all these high-minded moral values, looks down on everyone else …”

“Look, you did the right thing by rescuing him”, said Adam “Think how you’d feel now if we’d gone out there and found him tortured to death on the vestry floor”.

“The way I feel about him right now I wouldn’t give two shiny shits!” said Joby.

“Oh now Joby”, said Adam.

Bardin thumped into the room.

“Any tea going in here?” he demanded to know.

“Well since you ask us so politely”, said Adam, pouring out a mug.

“I’ve just had our guest upbraiding me for speaking too harshly to Bengo”, said Bardin “He says Bengo is a good soul, and I should be kinder to him!”

Joby laughed.

“I suppose to an outsider you might sound a tad abrasive at times, Bardin”, said Adam.

“I have to speak to Bengo that way”, said Bardin “It does him good. If we all went around being all indulgent to him all the time, he’d sit in the armchair, like a big overgrown baby, gurgling and grinning at everyone”.

“Sounds quite delightful”, said Adam.

“And you mean to tell me you never have to speak firmly to Bengo?” said Bardin.

“I try not to sound harsh”, said Adam “It panics him. I have learnt that Bengo does just fine as long as one keeps the instructions - the stage directions I suppose you would call them - simple”.

“Simple to suit his brain I suppose”, said Bardin.

“Bardin, I shall tan your behind in a minute!” said Adam.

“Sadly there isn’t time”, said Bardin “I’m calling a general meeting in the dining-room”.

Joby groaned.

“Is HE joining us?” he asked, when they had assembled in the dining-room about 20 minutes later.

“If you mean Matthew, no I don’t think so”, said Adam “He’s up on deck, chatting to Limal. Probably best to leave them to it”.

“Anyway, this all down to us”, said Bardin, taking his customary place at the head of the table “One thing we’ve learnt is that there’s no point relying on him to help us in any way. Close the doors. We’d best make this private”.

When the doors were closed, and everyone was settled in their places, Bardin began.

“I’ve discussed this with Kieran”, he said “We were going to use the tunnel in the old church, but I suspect we’ll waste valuable time trying to find our way round to it. Best to go via the woods. Those of us going up to the castle will be myself, Kieran, Joby, Bengo, Hillyard, Ransey, Tamaz, Julian, Hoowie, Adam and Lonts. The rest of you are to stay here and guard the ship. And if anything happens to it, you will never be allowed to forget it!”

“We know that”, said Rumble.

“What do we do when we get to the castle, Bardin?” said Lonts.

“Destroy it”, said Bardin “Let’s not be under any bones about that. Our main priority is to find if they have any air-buggies stored there. If we can destroy them, then they won’t be able to cross over water. I’ll be amazed if they haven’t got any”.

“Can’t we take one for ourselves?” said Hillyard “It might come in useful, you never know”.

“And where we would we keep it?” said Bardin “Anyway, let’s concentrate on serious issues. We have no idea what we’re going to face when we get there, but time is going to be of the essence. It’s going to be a straight in bang-bang effort”.

They talked for the next hour, going over practical plans as to how to get to the castle through the forest. As they had no plans of the castle, and no idea of how to get into it, or how well-guarded it was, much of their thinking would have to be done on the hoof, as and when the action started.

“All I will emphasise is that we be as quiet as possible moving through the forest”, said Bardin “Even fi they fully suspect we’re coming, I still think it would be a good strategy”.

The meeting broke up soon after, and in an almost collective silence the guns and other weaponry were distributed below deck. The biggest difficulty at the moment seemed to be getting off the ship without interference from Matthew.

“Just walk past him”, said Rumble “If he starts I’ll pull his chair out from underneath him, or something”.

The first thing they noticed as they neared the castle was the stench. An overpowering smell of cooked meat. The horses were already spooking, and Bardin ordered everyone to dismount. The forest was intensely dark.

“Hoowie, you’re to stay here and mind the horses”, said Bardin.

“I don’t believe it!” said Hoowie “You did this to me at the Big House too. Why have I always gotta be the one who stays behind?”

“Look, I could’ve left you back on the ship with the others but I didn’t”, Bardin hissed “Now stop arguing”.

“I’ll stay with him”, said Julian “I wouldn’t want to hang around here on my own”.

“Fair enough”, said Bardin “We haven’t got time to argue anyway. Come along”.

“He’s a sadistic little shit”, said Hoowie, when the others had move off.

“No he’s not”, said Julian “I’ve met enough sadistic little shits in my time to know”.

“Joby always says you’re one”, said Hoowie, bluntly.

“Joby would!” said Julian “Don’t stand right up against that tree. Something could sneak up on you. Bardin’s scarcely landed you with a cushy number, just in case you think he’s given you this because he doesn’t like you”.

“I know”, Hoowie mumbled.

“So don’t start harping on about how he doesn’t have any faith in you, and how he’s never trusted you since that tie you turned up drunk for rehearsals once”, said Julian “Because we’ve heard that one a few times!”

Howie stifled a snort of laughter.

“What do you think they’re gonna find in there?” he asked.

“Lord alone knows”, said Julian.

The garden they entered was heady with the scent of roses In the darkness the aroma was all around them. The hedges surrounding the garden were choked with dog roses. The garden itself was wild and overgrown. It had a dark, gothic beauty to it.

The house was hard to decipher in this light. There was no light coming from it. It was simply a large, solid dark shape, standing between them and the lake. There was no sound coming from it either. It seemed like a living organism in its own right. A brooding living organism, waiting for them to enter.

“OK, let’s not hang around here any longer than we have to”, said Bardin, keeping his voice low in the stillness around him “Come on, let’s go in”.

They easily located a side door, which connected the house to the garden. It was unlocked.

Leading from the front, Bardin led the others into the building in single-file. The only sign that anyone had been in the place in years was that overwhelming stench of cooked meats.

“A vegetarian’s nightmare”, said Kieran, softly.

Bardin looked back at him, sternly.

“Sorry Bardin, I forgot you’re the only one who has lines in this scene”, said Kieran.

Bengo giggled nervously, which incurred another look from Bardin.

“Keep away from the walls”, said Bardin “Just in case anything tries to come out”.

They emerged into a large room done out almost entirely in black marble. Seated on a throne-like chair at the far end was a huge, veiled woman. She was clothed in what seemed like a laundry-load of discarded old garments. Her head was swathed in a fringed turban and a thick veil covered her face entirely.

“Hello gentlemen”, she growled, in what sounded like a smoker’s voice “I’ve been expecting you”.

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