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By Sarah Hapgood

“See anything?” asked Hillyard.

Kieran was standing up on the poop-deck, scanning the wooded coastline through a pair of binoculars.

“No, not really”, said Kieran, lowering the glasses “I keep thinking I catch something out of the corner of my eye, but it never turns out to be anything”.

“Well I’d be amazed if you did see anything”, said Joby, coming over to join them “This whole area feels as dead as a dodo. Nothing. Zilch”.

“Aye, it’s a depressing area”, said Kieran “I can’t remember the last time we heard any birdsong”.

He turned and looked up at the dilapidated shack at the top of the island.

“I’m glad we’re moving on tomorrow”, he said.

“Yeah, and no more bright ideas about staying here until the Summer”, said Joby.

“Alright, put a sock in it”, said Hillyard “I’ve ditched that plan”.

“Had it ditched for you more like”, said Joby.

“OK fellers”, said Kieran “I think we’ve exhausted the island as a topic of conversation”.

“Better make the most of it”, said Bardin, leading Adam into his cabin “It’s not going to be often we get this place to ourselves at the moment”.

“Well I must admit it will be nice to have a little session with just the two of us”, said Adam.

Bardin removed his trousers and hung the over the back of one of the chairs

“I do wish you’d leave them off more often”, said Adam “I miss the sound of the swishing starch”.

“It’s going to have to warm up a damn sight more before that happens”, said Bardin, straightening his shorts.

“Such a pity”, said Adam “A waste of all this lovely privacy we’re having”.

Bardin walked over to him, and they embraced in front of the gently crackling fire. For a while all that could be heard was heavy breathing.

“Wallop me as bloody hard as you want”, said Bardin, eventually.

“Well within reason, old love”, said Adam.

“Go for it”, said Bardin “It helps me to think. You were a bit too gentle with me earlier”.

“I was not!” Adam protested “I’ll use a paddle in that case”.

He smacked Bardin soundly with the implement

“Harder!” Bardin roared.

Adam walloped him fiercely.

“I’ll do it so hard you won’t say another word”, he said.

“Bardin!” Bengo yelled, hurtling down the quarterdeck steps. “Oh no, I have a feeling something’s happened”, said Bardin.

Adam helped him to his feet.

“Air-buggy”, said Bengo, breathlessly, when Bardin opened the cabin door.

It circled the lake area at a high altitude for a while, and then trundled off.

“I don’t know what that was all about”, said Bardin “But I don’t like the look of it. We need to get into the depths of the forest. Out of view”.

“I suppose we have to get back to the shore do we?” asked Ransey.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place”, said Bardin “But I’d rather deal with whatever we have to in the forest, than risk being bombed out of the water from above. Anyway, it’s not like you to go all nervous vapours”.

Bardin went back into his cabin, with a mischievous giggle.

“Nervous vapours?!” Ransey exclaimed.

“He’s just winding you up on purpose, Ransey”, said Bengo.

“What a bloody shame that air-buggy interrupted him getting beaten up!” said Ransey.

They turned down a narrow river-way, which was hemmed in by densely-packed forest on both sides The trees formed a dark green canopy overhead. There was a worry that the waterway would get too narrow for the galleon to traverse, but at the same time the trees would make ti very difficult for them to be seen from above.

“Enough to give you claustrophobia”, said Ransey, returning below deck, removing his outer clothes.

“I know, but Bardin’s right”, said Adam, helping him off with his coat “Better here than exposed out on the lake”.

“I wish we could find a place of refuge”, Ransey sighed “Stop having to be alert and paranoid all the time. Somewhere we can just LIVE”.

“Come to the galley, there’s some tea in the pot”, said Adam.

“Don’t tell Bardin I was moaning just now”, said Ransey “He’ll probably claim I’m having a nervous breakdown!”

“Don’t worry about him, Ransey”, said Bengo “If he says anything to you I’ll shove this rolling-pin up his bum”.

“That wouldn’t be very hygienic, old love”, said Adam “We need it for the pastry”.

He spooned a portion of honey into a tea-cup and handed it to Ransey.

“There you go”, he said “Just the way you like it”.

“I shouldn’t be letting it all get to me like it is”, said Ransey “Makes me feel pathetic”.

“It’s a strain for you”, said Adam “The constant vigilance”.

“It’s a strain for everybody”, said Ransey “This bloody world causes constant problems. I wish it would all calm down and leave us to … well LIVE”.

“In an ordinary way?” said Adam.

“As ordinary as WE’RE ever likely to manage!” said Ransey “Find somewhere like the desert island, or Midnight Castle”.

“I know what we need”, said Adam “We’ve been travelling and on the alert for so long we’re in danger of forgetting to be ourselves. I had a touch of it earlier when I was spanking Bardin, until that bloody mechanical vulture started circling round and ruined everything”.

He opened one of the cupboards and selected a handful of tins. He put them on the table.

“This will do the trick tonight”, he said.

“Tinned fruit salad?” said Ransey, dubiously.

“Oh ye of little faith”, said Adam “Not just any old tinned fruit salad. We’ll spice it up in our own inimitable way”.

“I’ll go and see what bottles I can find in the hold”, said Bengo.

Apart from the ubiquitous night-watch party up on deck, everyone got thoroughly pie-eyed after supper.

“We’re going to be in no fit state to fight back if anyone ambushes us”, said Ransey.

“I don’t notice you using a lot of restraint”, said Hillyard.

“It’s a matter of principle”, said Ransey “The dark days are back in the City. It’s as I remember it when the vampires had charge of the Ministry. The population dwindling by the day. No laughter anywhere. I don’t even want to think what it’s like there now”.

“And the worrying thing is”, said Joby “They must still have some resources, to send the air-buggy over all this way”.

“We don’t know that was them”, said Kieran “It might be part of the madness of this forest. Like the Gorgon Pit, the clown the on the shore, the hanged monkey, and all those weird noises. As I keep saying, expect anything with the dark magic of this area”.

“What’s your gut feeling?” said Bardin, from the far end of the table.

“That the air-buggy is part of the forest”, said Kieran “I don’t believe it came all the way from the City. And that’s ultimately a good thing”.

“How?” said Joby.

“It means Glynis and everyone at Hannah’s Sanctuary are probably safe”, said Kieran “If I thought the air-buggy came from the City I’d be more worried for them. But I don’t think they’re capable of it anymore. They’re too busy destroying each other now to worry about us anymore. As Ransey said, God knows what life is like inside the City walls now. It’ll be the end times of Father Gabriel all over again”.

“They’ll still want to get their sweaty hands on you”, said Julian “To confine you below in darkness would be an enormous coup for them”.

“It would probably empower them”, said Ransey “Energise them, and they need everything they can get at the moment”.

“Ach cut it out fellers”, said Kieran “I’m not going anywhere near the City. You don’t have to keep doling out the Gypsy’s Warning at me”.

“Well this is all very dark and foreboding”, said Adam “Umbert, why don’t you lighten the mood with a tune for us”.

“Righto”, said Umbert, getting up and heading over to the piano.

In the cold, grey first light Julian threw on his long trench-coat over his pyjamas and went up on deck, where he found Rumble coming to the end of a long night-shift.

“Get below”, said Julian “You must be shattered”.

“There’s nothing to report”, said Rumble “Absolutely nothing. I didn’t hear or see a thing out there. Either everything’s hiding, or there really is nothing”.

“Well it’s not exactly a part of the world teeming with life”, said Julian.

“I’ll be glad when we’re out of it”, said Rumble, heading to the top of the stairs “Whatever this place is about, it’s definitely not natural, and that’s a fact”.

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