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By Sarah Hapgood

There was more sunlight on the river, which was very welcome, but the uneasy feeling of the dark forest persisted. After the terrible cacophony they had experienced at Sleet Cold, the forest’s usual habitual silence felt even more intense than ever.

On the left-hand side of the river a cottage appeared. Bardin ordered the boat to be moored, and a sizeable party of them went ashore. Julian arrived at the cottage first. The door was standing slightly ajar, and he had a bad vibe immediately.

He pushed it open.

In the main room of the cottage two corpses lay sprawled on the floor. Both had been disembowelled and had had their throats torn out. Flies were already starting to swarm.

Julian backed out again, fighting down the nausea. He saw Kieran nearby.

“Did Angel do that?” he barked, pointing at the doorway.

“Very likely”, said Kieran, after he had peered in. He mumbled and sounded numb.

“Huh, you seem disappointed”, Julian snarled “What’s the matter? Didn’t you expect him to do something like this?”

“Hey, leave him alone!” said Joby “Scarcely his bloody fault is it!”

“I’m OK, Joby”, Kieran muttered.

“No I’m not having, Kiel”, said Joby “He’s always so damn tight on you!” “I’m sorry”, said Julian “I apologise”.

He nodded at Kieran and walked away. Hoowie, who had been loitering nearby, tagged along behind him.

“I hope you aren’t going to have a go at me as well”, said Julian.

“No”, said Hoowie “I was just thinking it’s amazing to have a row like that without Bardin being involved in any way!”

“I’m only human, Joby”, said Julian, when he was back in his cabin on the ship “I was scarcely at my best after having just witnessed a scene like that!”

“Yeah I know”, said Joby “But you are always tight on Kieran”.

“No I’m not”, said Julian “It’s just that he has an annoying habit of never giving a straight answer, if he can possibly help it. And I wasn’t in the mood for any fey Irish whimsy at that point. Look, it was a vulnerable moment, and I lashed out at him because he was conveniently nearby”.

“OK OK”, said Joby “But he’s not soppy about Angel. He knows what he is”.

“Maybe”, said Julian “Although I still feel he wants to try and Save him somehow”.

“Even if he does”, said Joby “He can’t be held responsible for what happened out there!”

“Alright alright”, said Julian “What do you want me to do? Prostrate myself in front of him and beg his forgiveness?”

“No”, said Joby, albeit reluctantly.

“Good!” said Julian “Because I expect Adam won’t give me a moment’s peace over it as it is!”

They had very little time to brood on the dreadful scenes at the cottage, as overnight the weather changed. They found themselves sailing through a dense, cold fog-bank. The brief glimmer of sunshine had been whipped away from them.

Kieran found himself falling into a state of despondency. He knew it was vital that he had to fight it, but it was threatening to become overwhelming, as if someone was throwing a dark blanket over his head, and holding it down tight. After breakfast he took some time to get some spiritual comfort in his cabin, but the overly grey light was far from helpful.

Suddenly he heard voices out in the corridor. Hillyard and Ransey were coming down the steps from the main deck. Both sounded agitated. Kieran went out to see what was wrong. He was struck by how tired and tense Hillyard looked.

“It’s nothing, Kieran”, said Hillyard “Just the usual weird crap you get in this forest”.

“Hillyard, you’re not the kind of feller who gets tense about nothing”, said Kieran “What’s happening now?”

“Noises”, said Ransey “Strange noises on the shore. Different noises. Sounds like a wild animal one minute, and a sort of squelching noise the next. Just the usual rubbish which doesn’t make any sense around here”.

“But it’s just enough to unsettle you”, said Hillyard “Are we ever going to get out of this godforsaken hole? We seem to have been in this forest for years”.

“Probably have”, said Ransey, edging past them to go into the saloon. He paused at the door and looked back “For all we know, the outside world could have sorted itself out by now”.

“We can live in hope I suppose”, said Hillyard, glumly.

“So you heard the noises too?” said Bardin, standing talking to Bengo in their cabin.

Bengo nodded. HIs puppy-dog eyes seemed to be brimming over with melancholia. Tears began to roll down his face.

“Hey now come on”, Bardin gripped his shoulders “How’s that going to be good for morale?”

“I can’t help it”, Bengo sniffed “I’ve tried very hard, but there’s only so much you can take before it all gets too much”.

“After everything that’s happened, you’re going to let some stupid Noises Off get to you?” said Bardin.

“It was just the last straw”, said Bengo “I can’t remember the last time we had a normal, cheerful day”.

“Neither can I”, said Bardin.

“Or when we last saw anybody who wasn’t out to attack us!”

“It’s my damn fault for taking us into this forest”, said Bardin, standing despondently in the middle of the room “I thought it would be a convenient way to get back up to Snow Lake, and then as time went on it seemed a good idea to lose ourselves here. But now there seems to be no end in sight to it”.

“It’s not your fault, Bardy. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go all flaky”.

“I think you should go and have a little chat with Kieran”.

Bengo nodded in agreement.

“It’ll help”, Bardin continued “And if you’re still feeling down in the dumps afterwards, Adam’ll probably wallop me. That should cheer you up!”

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