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By Sarah Hapgood

On 23rd December they moved into the Old Mill-House. Adam came through the door first, carrying a box containing all the tea-making equipment. Joby and Bengo followed him in.

“Right, we get the stove going first”, said Adam, at which Bengo looked horrified “Now it’s not that bad, there’s very little difference between this one and the one we had at Zilligot Bay. Where’s Bardin?”

“Here”, said Bardin, standing behind him.

“You go upstairs to the front bedroom”, said Adam.

“What for?” said Bardin.

“To stake your claim”, said Adam “Quickly, before Julian gets in here!”

Bardin picked up his bag and Bengo’s, and galloped up the wooden staircase to the first floor. The front bedroom was icy-cold when he reached it, and he looked longingly at the empty grate, as though a fire would suddenly magic itself into being. He put the bags down on the bare mattress of the bed and went over to the window. Outside a mountain of baggage had built up on the snowy ground, as the carts were unloaded. Over towards the edge of the forest though stood a hooded figure with its back to the house, gazing into the woods. Bardin gasped, before realising that it was in fact Tamaz in his hooded duffel-coat. When Tamaz turned round Bardin opened the casement and waved at him to come upstairs.

“I gave you a turn didn’t I?” said Tamaz, when he joined him in the front bedroom “You saw me standing there and got alarmed”.

“Only because I couldn’t tell who you were at first”, said Bardin “The sun must be at a funny angle, I could only see this shape. I wanted to talk to you alone anyway, you seem very quiet today. Is this all getting too much for you, coming back here?”

“There are signs of Her everywhere you go”, Tamaz muttered, going over to the empty grate and staring into it.

“How do you mean?” said Bardin.

“Look at the older houses in the village”, said Tamaz “None of them have ground-floor windows, that all dates back to when she roamed here”.

“It was all a very long time ago”, Bardin began.

“There’s a graveyard in this village”, said Tamaz.

“Tamaz”, said Bardin “I think you’ll find there’s a graveyard in most villages, it would be downright weird if there wasn’t!”

“Look I know you’re a bloody clown”, said Tamaz “But take me seriously for a moment!”

“I’m trying to …” said Bardin.

“You walk round that graveyard with me sometime”, said Tamaz “And then think to yourself how many of those graves contain lumps of stone!”

“As I keep saying it was all a long time ago”, said Bardin “Are you worried some people might be funny with you if they guess who you are?”

“Some have been giving me strange looks”, said Tamaz.

“You get strange looks wherever you go”, Bardin smiled “It’s got more to do with you being an hermaphrodite than your ancestry. Mieps has the same problem”.

“If anything sinister is starting to happen here again”, said Tamaz “If what Kieran read in the local rag is true, if the vampires are trying to regenerate, then the locals might panic. You humans have a tendency to do that”.

“I know, we can be a yellow lot on the quiet”, said Bardin “I promise you, that even in the unlikely event that anyone starts to start up a witch-hunt against you, they won’t get very far. Who the hell would want to take us lot on?! One look at Hoowie would be enough to scare anyone off! He looks like the wild man of the woods! And besides, in all seriousness for a moment, you’ve got the protection of Kieran, I think that does count for something around here”.

“O.K”, Tamaz sighed, who could at least see that that was true “But it’s not just all that. It’s Her I’m worried about”.

“She’s dead”, said Bardin “She died a long time ago. Kieran decapitated her in the Marsh Village”.

“But her spirit is still attached to this place, I know it”, said Tamaz.

“Why here in particular?” said Bardin “She appeared all over the place. At the circus in Pepuaaah. She even appeared at Wolf Castle”.

“But here was where she belonged”, said Tamaz “If her spirit is still here, she might try and take me over. That’s what I felt when I was outside just now. There’s such an atmosphere to these woods …”

“It’s a special place”, said Bardin “But I guarantee you, that in a short while, that atmosphere will feel more to do with us, than with Her. Come on, let’s go downstairs, it’s freezing up here”.

In the room below, Hegley was trying to ignite some life into the fireplace with a pair of bellows. Bengo was looking anxiously at the stove on the other side of the room , into which Adam was gradually feeding kindling.

“Is this meant to be the better-than-average crockery that was listed on the inventory?” said Joby, holding up a china tea-cup with a big chip in the rim.

“I’m sure it’s not all like that”, said Adam.

Joby gave a highly sceptical look as he returned the cup to the shelf.

“The final note of squalor!” said Julian, pointing at one of the chickens that was picking its way around the table-top.

“Patsy, please make sure all the animals are removed down to the courtyard”, said Adam.

“Come along, Henrietta”, said Kieran, picking the hen up in both hands “You’ll like it down in the courtyard, there aren’t any toffee-nosed old squires down there, not at the moment anyway!”

“About time too”, said Julian “We would have all been knee-deep in chicken-shit in no time!”

He went over to inspect a barometer which was hanging on the wall by the front door.

“This isn’t a bad piece of stuff”, he said.

“I’m glad something’s met with your approval at last!” said Adam.

Finia, still wrapped in his fur-coat, was setting up the gramophone.

“I don’t think this place is ever going to get warm!” he said.

Bengo thought much the same thing at the end of the evening too. He had changed into his nightshirt and gone up to the front bedroom, where Hegley was trying to inject some life into the fireplace there. Bengo walked in, carrying an oil-lamp, which smoked and threw big jangling black shadows against the whitewashed wall.

“Oh this is grim”, he said “I’ll never get used to these temperatures, and to think down in Zilligot Bay, we used to walk around outside with hardly any clothes on. We must have been mad coming up here!”

“The fire’ll be blazing soon”, said Hegley “That’ll make it feel better. It’ll be quite romantic for you being in bed watching the firelight”.

“I find it hard to believe anyone can get romantic in these temperatures!” said Bengo, putting down the lamp and drawing the curtains.

“Do you ever worry he’ll go off?” said Hegley.

“Who?” said Bengo “And go off where?”

“Bardin”, said Hegley “I mean with a woman. After all, he did have relationships with women once”.

“Relationships is over-stating it a bit!” said Bengo “Like saying a bloke has a relationship with the woman he buys his eggs from once a week!”

“You see I can’t understand how a bloke could want to go back to men once he’d had women”, said Hegley “Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that you’re not good enough but …”

“If Bardy ran off with a woman”, said Bengo “She’d send him back after about half-a-day, he’s such a monster! I think you should go and get some sleep. Tomorrow’s gonna be a bloody busy day!”

Bengo got into bed, and Hegley went to leave the room. He collided with Bardin in the doorway, who was just coming in.

“I suppose you’ve been gassing with him”, said Bardin, once Hegley had gone, as he took his coat off from over his nightshirt “Instead of getting the bed warmed up”.

“He wanted to talk about you”, said Bengo “Seems to think you’re gonna run off with a woman”.

“What woman?” said Bardin.

Bengo shrugged and held up his hands.

“Is he deliberately trying to stir up trouble?” said Bardin, getting into bed “Don’t tell me we’ve got another Hoowie or Toppy on our hands, that’s all we need!”

“No I don’t think he’s like that”, said Bengo “I think he’s just trying to get to know us. I suppose our relationship does look a bit odd to him".

“It probably looks odd to most people!” said Bardin “What did you say to him anyway?”

“Not much”, said Bengo “Just that you’re so awful most women’d send you straight back again!”

“Oh thank you very much!” said Bardin, turning down the oil-lamp.

“Well come off it, Bardy”, Bengo giggled “What woman would want to put up with you snapping and bitching at her all the time”.

“Have you quite finished my character-assassination?” said Bardin.

“Only getting my own back”, said Bengo “If I had taken Hegley seriously I’d have zero sexual confidence at this moment. How could I possibly measure up to a woman and all that?!”

“Take no notice of him”, said Bardin “The silly sod’s still smarting because Clarissa didn’t want to go back to him, that’s all this is about. I suppose we’re going to have to put up with him mooning about all over the place for ages to come".

“Perhaps we could pair him up with one of the girls at the inn?” said Bengo.

“We are here to build a new life, and to find out the truth behind this vampire bites story”, said Bardin, in exasperation “Not to start up a bloody match-making agency!”

Bengo laughed.

“What now?” Bardin snapped.

“The idea of you running a match-making agency!” said Bengo.

“Yes well I’ve got enough on my plate to be going on with, without fussing about him!” said Bardin “For one thing,Tamaz seems convinced he’s going to end up possessed by the spirit of his mother if we stay here”.

“What?” said Bengo “I’ve never heard anything so silly! What’s come over him?”

“God knows”, said Bardin “Some kind of weird Ghoomer neuroses I think! He wants me to go and walk round the local graveyard with him. Some kind of macabre game, see if I can guess how many of the corpses are really blocks of stone!”

“Well I hope he snaps out of that one pretty soon”, said Bengo “Or it’s gonna be a miserable bloody Christmas with him acting like that, and not to mention Finia refusing to take his fur-coat off!”

A wolf howled from out in the forest.

“What was that?” said Bengo.

“Only a wolf”, said Bardin.

“ONLY a wolf?!” said Bengo.

“Well don’t panic, it can’t get in the house”, said Bardin “Not unless we let it in anyway, and with Lonts around anything’s possible!”

“But what about the animals?” said Bengo “Are they safe?”

“They’re locked up in the out-houses”, said Bardin “And they’re all secure, I know because Hillyard’s thoroughly checked them. Plus the yard-gates are shut and bolted. Unless we’ve got really clever wolves around here that can pick locks then we’re o.k!”

In the morning Bardin got out of bed and went across to the window to let in the sunshine, to try and glean some scrap of heat into the bedroom that way, as the fire in the grate was now a flat heap of amber ashes. Bengo got out as well, tugged the eiderdown after him and wrapped it round himself and Bardin. Outside, Lonts was chucking a ball in the snow for the dogs to catch, and Hegley was returning from picking up some stray bits of wood at the edge of the forest. He looked up at the clowns and gave them a shy smile.

“Perhaps we’re embarrassing him with our connubial bliss”, said Bardin “He must be wondering when we’re going to grow out of this adolescent phase!”

“He’s got a long wait ahead of him!” said Bengo.

Toppy came into the room carrying two cups of tea on a tray.

“Your early morning tea”, he announced, with all the gravity of a well-trained butler.

“Early morning tea!” Bardin guffawed “You make it sound like we’re in a hotel!”

“Yes well make the most of it”, said Toppy “I shan’t be doing this every morning”.

“Shame!” said Bengo.

Downstairs Joby was making up pastry for meat pies. Kieran was sitting near him, dreading the moment when the plate of raw chopped meat would be brought out to put in the pastry cases. Lonts burst into the room with the dogs, shedding his coat, scarves, woolly hat and gloves as he went.

“If anyone wants to make an historical epic”, said Joby “And they want to save a bit of money, they could cast him as the entire Russian Red Army!”

“Hello Joby, hello Kieran, I’m back in the house”, said Lonts.

“Now there’s a surprise!” said Joby.

“Kieran”, said Lonts “Would you look after Joby if he went mad, I mean really insane?”

“What, even more than usual?” said Kieran “Is that likely?”

“With him around”, said Joby, meaning Lonts “I should think that was a distinct possibility myself!”

“What brought that on?” Kieran asked Lonts.

“I had a dream last night”, said Lonts “That you and Joby were living in this little house in the village, and Joby had gone completely mad, and you were looking after him. And every-time you went out you had to lock the front door behind you to keep him in”.

“I should think if he was that mad I wouldn’t want to leave him in the house on his own!” said Kieran “Wouldn’t it be safer if I took him out with me?”

“No”, said Lonts “Because he frightened everybody”.

“He does that now!” said Kieran.

“Look do you mind!” said Joby “Don’t encourage him with his daft dreams, he starts thinking they’re real!”

“It’s amazing how his mind works”, said Kieran, as Lonts noisily emptied his pipe by bashing it against the steel fender of the fireplace.

“Works?!” said Joby.

Adam came in through the glass doors at the back of the house, carrying a bowl with two eggs in it.

“I think the chickens are going to need a few days to settle in”, said Adam “They still seem to be stressed after the journey. We’ll have to add eggs to the shopping-list for later, just to tide us over. Where’s Bengo?”

“You tell me!” said Joby “Still lounging about in the luxury suite upstairs, I don’t think he ever intends to come back to work!”

“Oh I’m sure he does”, said Adam.

Adam went to the foot of the stairs and called up it. A door was heard opening at the top, and a pair of be-socked feet appeared at the top step.

“Are you ready to make your entrance now, old love?” said Adam “Only we are rather busy today you see!”

“Oh I forgot!” Bengo gasped “I’ll be down in two seconds!”

“He forgot?!” said Joby “How could he forget?!”

Bengo came running downstairs pulling on his clothes. He made fevered apologies, but said he had to use the littlest room in the house first. The lavatory facilities at The Old Mill-House were, apart from various chamber-pots under beds upstairs, a commode hidden in a dark cupboard at the side of the downstairs room, with a door which opened outwards. Joby took Bengo’s wish to suddenly use this grim facility as just another excuse to avoid doing any work, and waspishly got out the plate of raw meat to stuff into the pies. Kieran decided it was time to take a little turn outside, and grabbed his coat and goatskin hat.

He found Tamaz down in the lower courtyard, sitting on the edge of the water-trough, and idly pushing about the lumps of ice that were floating on the surface, from where Hillyard had recently broken it with a bucket to get water for the horses.

“I’m going for a quick stroll in the forest”, said Kieran, heading towards the yard-doors “Come with me”.

Tamaz followed him out into the forest. They walked a few steps in silence.

“How far is the Winter Palace from here?” Tamaz eventually asked.

“A few miles in that direction”, said Kieran, gesturing towards the north-west.

“Does anybody live there now?” said Tamaz.

“No”, said Kieran “Years ago some eejits tried to start it up as a tourist concern, but from what I gather since we’ve arrived here it wasn’t much of a success. They soon abandoned it, and it’s been that way ever since. I suppose, like Bardin, you want to go and look at it sometime?”

“Not actually go inside it, no”, said Tamaz.

“I’m relieved to hear it!” said Kieran.

“I can feel Her presence here”, said Tamaz “You have powers, hidden powers, I’ve seen them”.

“Most people have, if they did but know it”, said Kieran.

“My hidden power is all about evil”, said Tamaz “You always say that the essence of evil is destruction, and that’s all my power can do, destroy”.

“I’ve only ever known you use your power to destroy evil”, said Kieran “To protect people from evil. That’s a million miles from what She did. She was entirely an instrument of evil”.

“Used by the vampires”, said Tamaz.

“She was the best defense they had!” said Kieran “No one was likely to come nosing around near the Winter Palace with her at large here! You see, what you must understand is this, She had no soul, not even an evil, rotten soul. She simply had none. No mind, no mentality, no emotions, no soul. She was entirely an instrument of destruction”.

“Not entirely”, said Tamaz “She produced me”.

Tamaz suddenly leant up against Kieran, and Kieran draped his arms round him. Kieran was pleasantly surprised by all this. Normally it was Joby who got all the spontaneous hugs and kisses. Tamaz had a natural reserve when it came to Kieran.

“She cannot take over your spirit”, said Kieran “Yours is too strong”.

Hillyard sauntered out of the yard-gates with his hands in his pockets. He saw Kieran and Tamaz amongst the trees and got quite over-taken with emotion at the sight of them. Later, when he was harnessing two of the horses to the cart to take into town, he was still feeling quite emotional with it all.

“Are you alright?” said Joby, coming outside in his outdoor gear, ready for the battle of Christmas Eve shopping in the village.

“Yeah!” said Hillyard “Just the cold air’s making my eyes water that’s all!”

“Alright, I only asked!” said Joby.

“Who’d have thought it, eh?” said Hillyard.

“What?” said Joby.

“When we were here all those years ago”, said Hillyard “That Kieran would be cuddling the Gorgon’s offspring in the forest!”

“A lot’s happened since then”, said Joby.

“You can say that again!” said Hillyard.

“A lot’s happened since then”, said Joby.

“Have you been on the cooking sherry already?” said Hillyard.

“Chance’d be a fine thing!” said Joby.

Joby, Hillyard, Lonts, Kieran, Ransey, Bardin, Tamaz and Bengo went into town. Bardin and Tamaz splintered off and went to visit the gloomy graveyard. Kieran and Ransey betook themselves to the ‘Moon and Stars’, and left the others to do the shopping.

“Don’t let Joby catch you with that”, said Ransey, indicating the cigar Kieran had filched from Julian early that morning whilst he was still sleeping.

“Ach I’m standing up to Joby for once”, said Kieran, sitting near the big fireplace with a glass of brandy and water “It’s Christmas, and this is me Christmas cigar. It’s a damn sight more civilised in this place than it was the first time round. Jaysus, it was a den of iniquity in those days!”

“Must be the women having a civilising influence”, said Ransey.

“It must be a bit of a strange time for you coming back here”, said Kieran.

Ransey was uncomfortable about discussing this in public. He had a feeling the locals would quickly turn him into a sideshow freak if they’d known he had actually copulated with the Gorgon.

“That must have taken some bottle to do what you did”, said Kieran “Weren’t you afraid?”

“Very”, said Ransey “And insane I think! Do you mind if we don’t talk about this now … it’s not exactly something I want known”.

“I understand”, said Kieran “But I’d like to hear more about it. You don’t half keep your cards close to your chest sometimes”.

“I have a lot to keep concealed!” said Ransey “I wish I’d been here with you”.

“Do you know, it’s a strange thing but …” said Kieran “I keep forgetting that you WEREN’T actually with us then. These days I tend to think of you as always having been with us”.

“I’d have kept an eye on you in the Winter Palace that’s for sure”, said Ransey “All that running around by yourselves you did then …”

“It’s an easy place to get lost in”, said Kieran “Like a maze, or a Chinese puzzle”.

Joby stumped into the room carrying a large butcher’s boy-style basket containing two breaded hams. He sat down in a nearby chair, with the basket on his knees. Ransey got up without a word and went to fetch another glass of brandy.

“You crafty little sod!” said Joby.

“Crafty little sod?!” said Kieran “Is that any way to address the Vanquisher of Evil!”

“Yes it is”, said Joby “I’m gonna take a hairbrush to you when we get home!”

“You focking well aint!” said Kieran.

“I am!” said Joby “Why should Julian have all the fun!”

Ransey returned, picked up one of Joby’s hands and curled his fingers round the stem of the brandy-glass.

“Joby, will you put that basket on the floor”, said Kieran “You’re sitting there like a bad-tempered old housewife waiting for a bus!”

“Well that’s what you make me feel like!” said Joby , nevertheless putting the basket on the floor.

“SHUT UP!” said Ransey, to the pair of them “You’re worse than Bengo and Bardin sometimes!”

“Did I hear my name mentioned?” said Bengo, leaning over the back of the wooden settle on which Kieran and Ransey were sitting.

“I suppose you want a brandy as well?” said Ransey, wearily getting to his feet again.

“Buy a bottle, Ransey”, said Kieran “It’ll save you having to keep getting up and down”.

“Yeah and the others’ll be in a minute I spect”, said Joby.

“Well don’t either of you trouble yourselves”, said Ransey, sarcastically “I’ll fetch it shall I!”

Bengo dragged another chair over with an earsplitting screech on the stone floor. He shed his coat, and then sat down, coiling his legs up underneath him.

“Oh isn’t this really Christmassy!” he exclaimed, holding a hand up to the fire.

Joby grunted, Kieran smiled. Ransey returned with a bottle and a few glasses.

“Did you have enough money to pay for that?” said Kieran.

“I haven’t paid for it”, said Ransey “I told them Hillyard could do it when he comes in”.

“Didn’t you want to go to the graveyard with Bardin, Bengo?” said Kieran.

“A choice between coming in here or going to the graveyard?” Bengo mused “Boy, that was a tough decision to make!”

Bardin, Lonts and Tamaz came into the bar a few minutes later.

“You’re looking a bit red in the face”, said Bardin to Bengo, in a somewhat accusatory voice (he had noticed the brandy you see).

“Oh am I?” said Bengo “I must be feeling embarrassed about something! Why don’t you sit down, Bardy, and take the weight off your mouth?! It’s Christmas, you’re not allowed to nag at Christmas”.

“Strictly not allowed at Christmas!” said Kieran, for Joby’s benefit.

“Here!” said Hillyard, coming over to them.

“Oh what’s the matter with him?” Joby sighed.

“They’ve just shafted me for a bottle of brandy!” said Hillyard “The minute I set foot through the door!”

“It’s here if you’re wondering”, said Kieran, holding it up.

“Why don’t you have some?” said Bengo.

“Actually get some food in whilst you’re still standing up”, said Ransey “Bacon and cheese sandwiches all round, just cheese for Kieran”.

Hillyard sighed but went off to do the ordering.

“How was the graveyard?” said Joby to Tamaz.

“It was a graveyard”, Tamaz shrugged.

“Yeah funny that, they tend to be!” said Joby “Full of people with not much life in ‘em!”

Kieran would normally have questioned Tamaz more about the graveyard, but he had inadvertently caught a fragment of conversation that was going on between two men behind the wooden settle on which he and Ransey were sitting.

“You should’ve heard her”, said one “Making a right racket as I was walking past the house. God, he must lead a dog’s life in there with her! What a life!”

“She used to be quite a looker in the old days, when she first came here”, said the other “Bloody sad the way it’s all gone”.

“Do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her”, said the first one “Heard her plenty of times, and wished I hadn’t! But no, never actually clapped eyes on her. Have you?”

“Not since this illness, or whatever it is, has come on”, said his friend “Caught a glimpse of her once at the upstairs window. Sent chills down my spine. She just looked so rough and out-of-it. Life can be a right bastard to some people and no mistake”.

Back at the Old Mill-House once more Adam made a few peevish comments about them not returning home with the shopping until it was nearly dark, but he didn’t want to appear a wet blanket so they got off remarkably lightly. Joby noted with suspicion that Kieran had gone upstairs.

“I knew it!” he said to Adam “I knew he’d try that as soon as we got home! He’s after another cigar!”

“Well he’ll be in trouble if Julian comes back in”, said Adam, indicating Julian, who was out on the terrace smoking in the twilight.

“Never mind Julian, he’s in trouble with me!” said Joby “Or I spose you’re like him, you think he’s got nothing to fear about from me!”

“Not at all”, said Adam “I meant you’re not a sadistic old bully like Julian! I’m paying you a compliment, you silly arse!”

Joby was in no mood for compliments though. He stumped upstairs to the attic bedroom, where he caught Kieran hastily removing his hand from Julian’s cigar-box.

“Jaysus, you nearly made me catch me hand in it!” said Kieran “I thought it was him coming upstairs!”

“Oh but as it’s only me you’ve got nothing to worry about, is that it?” said Joby “We’ll see about that!”

He carried out his threat about the hairbrush, and beat Kieran with it, most vigorously. Kieran thought it was never going to stop, and bewailed Joby’s high-handedness.

“You had no right to do that!” he exclaimed “You’re younger than me, you little prick!”

“Well I have done it so there!” said Joby, finally chucking the hairbrush onto the bed, snatching up the cigar-box, and walking towards the door.

He collided with Hillyard, who was carrying in a bucket of logs to replenish the bedroom fire with.

“Oh excuse me!” he said, sarcastically, as Joby pushed past him “What’s up with him? Are you alright?”

“No!” said Kieran, dancing around on the balls of his feet with his hand stuffed down the back of his trousers “He’s given me a right walloping! Jaysus, I owe him big time for that one!”

“Kieran”, said Ransey, coming into the room carrying a sheaf of newspaper “I’d like to discuss the vampire bites story with you”.

“Oh if you’re going to start on all that again I’m going back downstairs”, said Hillyard.

When he had gone Ransey settled himself comfortably on one of the beds and spread the newspaper pages out around him.

“Come and sit down here”, he said to Kieran.

“I don’t think I can!” said Kieran.

“Well lie on your stomach then”, said Ransey.

Kieran lay on his side at the foot of the bed. He told Ransey about what the snippet of conversation he had overheard in the pub earlier.

“And you think that’s significant of something?” said Ransey, sceptically “I don’t see why, it could be anything. She could be ill, or be a heavy drinker, or just have a foul temper. Just because she gives her husband a hard time it doesn’t necessarily imply anything sinister is going on”.

“Then why is she kept shut up in the house all the time?” said Kieran “Nobody sees her outside anymore”.

“Perhaps she’s mad”, said Ransey “Prone to violent spasms, not safe to be allowed out”.

“Like that dream Lonts had last night about Joby?” said Kieran.

“Seems quite apt at the moment!” Ransey chuckled “Joby having mad violent spasms!”

“Thanks, I don’t need reminding!” Kieran winced.

“Anyway we can hardly go knocking on the door and demanding to know if the Monster of Marlsblad lives there!” said Ransey “I was thinking that tomorrow afternoon, once the eating’s out of the way, we should drive out and have a look at the Winter Palace”.

“I doubt there’ll be time”, said Kieran “Once we’ve finished at the dinner-table it’ll be dark, and I don’t find the thought of going near the Winter Palace in the dark very appealing!”

“Boxing Day then?” said Ransey.

“Sounds more like it”, said Kieran “Anyway, you were going to tell me about your encounter with the Gorgon”.

“There’s nothing to tell”, said Ransey “Yes I must have been insane, and no I didn’t give any thought to my own safety, I simply didn’t care if I lived or died in those days. I know that you regard despair as the ultimate sin, but at that stage in my life I really didn’t give a damn about my personal safety. Curiosity was more important. You have no idea what it is to live a completely loveless life. I don’t just mean sex, but everything else as well, friendship, companionship”.

“No I’ve been extremely fortunate there”, said Kieran.

“At that time I thought I was condemned to a life that had absolutely no emotional involvement at all”, said Ransey “A man sentenced to a life of solitary confinement is about the only one who would have any idea what it’s like. You can understand why I don’t like thinking about those days. I would never have believed that I would eventually become so lucky as to have the life that I’ve had since I met you”.

“I think that’s due more to Finia than me”, said Kieran.

“But I wouldn’t have had Finia without you!” said Ransey “Nor Adam, nor anyone. Anyway, getting back to this vampire bites business. I think for the moment all we can do is to keep an ear open to local gossip. When anyone goes into the village next, take Toppy with them. He’s an absolute genius at eavesdropping. I sometimes think we could have done with him at the Ministry, he would have been a good spy!”

“Not really”, Kieran smiled “He’s always getting caught!”

“I’m going to go downstairs and see if I can get something to eat”, said Ransey, clambering off the bed “That drive back through the woods has made me peckish again. Do you want me to send Joby back up to you?”

“That’s if he’ll come!” said Kieran.

“He will”, said Ransey “Particularly if I put on my strong, authoritative voice!”

Kieran lay on the bed, looking at the firelight through the bars. Eventually he heard Joby’s lugubrious growl on the stairs. Joby came into the room, wearing a pastry-soiled apron.

“You came!” said Kieran.

“It would have been easier if you’d come down to me”, said Joby, leaning on the bed-rail “Adam’s got us making a mountain of mince-pies”.

“Ah but I wanted to see you alone”, said Kieran, grabbing his hand and pulling him round onto the bed “I wanted to say I’m sorry, about the smoking”.

“Look I don’t wanna get all bossy with you, Kiel”, said Joby “But I don’t wanna go back to the days when I used to listen to you wheezing in your sleep. That used to scare the living daylights out of me that did! Anyway, it’s not as if you haven’t got plenty of other vices, you can easily give up one!”

Kieran kissed him. by way of a further apology.

“Come down and join us now”, said Joby, stroking Kieran’s face “Hillyard’s teaching Mieps how to play the piano, it’s a right scream! Madame Hillyard’s School Of Music!”

The wolves in the forest howled again that night.

“Oh Bardy, listen to them!” said Bengo, chewing on the edge of their blanket.

“For God’s sake Bengo, I’m not explaining this every night!” said Bardin “They can’t get in, they can’t get at the animals, now go to friggin’ sleep! Adam wants you up at the crack of dawn tomorrow”.

Bardin turned over resolutely on his side. Bengo gave him a resentful look. He was about to give him a pinch out of sheer vindictiveness, when he heard another sound coming from right outside the house.

“Bardy!” he exclaimed.

“What?” said Bardin, rolling onto his back and flopping his arm down in exasperation.

“There’s somebody moving about outside”, Bengo whispered.

“It’s probably an animal”, said Bardin “The forest must be full of them”.

“That’s not an animal”, Bengo hissed “That’s a person’s footsteps, listen!”

Bardin had to silently concede that it did sound remarkably like a person moving about in the snow.

“W-what …” Bengo began, hesitantly “What if it’s Her come back?”

“You stupid great plank!” said Bardin “How can it be Her? Don’t you dare go saying anything like that when Tamaz is in the same room? Don’t you dare!”

“Well who is it then?” said Bengo.

“I don’t know!” said Bardin “Who the hell is roaming about out here at this time of night!”

Suddenly there came the sound of somebody rapping on the front door, as though they were asking to be let in surreptitiously.

“Bardin!” Hegley shouted from halfway up the stairs. (Hegley was made to sleep in the downstairs room).

“Alright, I’m coming!” Bardin called back.

Bardin waspishly struggled out of the bedclothes and across to the door. Bengo followed him.

Out on the landing Ransey had appeared in the other doorway.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“That’s what I’m going downstairs to find out!” Bardin snapped.

At the foot of the stairs Hegley rushed forward with a pair of gum-boots for Bardin to slip on. Ransey meanwhile leaned over the banisters and passed him a rifle. Joby remarked afterwards that he wouldn’t have been surprised if Bardin had put on his cap and whistle to complete the picture!

When he got to the front door Bardin felt an acute pang of apprehension. What if it was Tamaz’s mother? Resolutely though he pulled the door open, and encountered a clown in full motley and slap.

“You!” said Bardin, recognising him as the figure he and Bengo had seen on the road in Zilligot Bay “Who the hell are you?”

The clown let out a bass inhuman gurgle of laughter. Then it suddenly seemed to produce a bucket from nowhere and chucked a bucketful of snow directly at Bardin. When Bardin had recovered himself the clown was running into the forest.

“Come back, you bastard!” he shouted, and fired the rifle after him for good measure. Needless to say the clown didn’t stop.

“What on earth’s happened?” said Adam, when Bardin returned, shaken, into the house.

“It was the clown”, Bardin muttered “The one me and Bengo saw in Zilligot Bay”.

“But how did he get up here?” said Bengo.

“How the hell do I know?!” said Bardin, in a dazed voice.

“You must get out of those wet things”, said Adam “You can’t stand around here like that, you’ll catch pneumonia”.

“That’s probably exactly what he intended!” said Bardin.

Bardin was divested of his gum-boots and sodden nightshirt, and wrapped in a blanket. Bengo ordered Toppy to fetch a clean nightshirt out of the ironing-basket.

“It hasn’t been ironed”, Toppy complained.

“That doesn’t matter!” said Bengo, snatching it from him “I suppose you’d rather he got pleurisy than sit in an un-ironed nightshirt!”

Eventually everyone went back to bed, although Hoowie was instructed to sleep downstairs with Hegley, to keep him company.

Bardin had announced that he doubted he would sleep after such a traumatic experience, but when he next woke up in his bed he found that it was 8 o’clock on Christmas morning, and Bengo had already gone downstairs to help prepare the brace of goose for Christmas lunch. Everyone agreed that that Christmas Day wasn’t as good as the one they had had at the Town House in Toondor Lanpin, but it was infinitely better than the one last year when they had been holed up in the church at Magnolia Cove.

“Part of the trouble this year”, said Adam “Is us moving in only two days ago. We haven’t had time to prepare decorations and such like”.

Just getting enough chairs to seat everyone around the table proved difficult enough. Hillyard had collected a job lot of discarded chairs from the ‘Moon and Stars’, and these were marshalled into use. Julian proposed a toast to Adam and “his little helpers” for providing the meal, which annoyed Tamaz, as he had already grasped his knife and fork in his hands ready for action. After the meal Adam and Julian left the others playing cards, chess and dominoes, and went upstairs to have a quiet smoke together.

“Do you know what Bardin said to me earlier?” said Julian, as he and Adam lazed on one of the beds “That he and Bengo will be ready for the phantom clown when he ‘makes his next entrance’, ‘we won’t miss our next cue’, he said”.

“There’s no doubting the courage of those two at all”, said Adam.

“Hm”, said Julian “Sometimes it bothers me though that they can’t seem to separate Reality from Stage. Everything is an Act, a Turn”.

“Oh that’s just their way of describing it”, said Adam “It’s what they’re used to. For many years they knew no other life than the theatre”.

“But what if it hadn’t been just snow in that bucket”, said Julian “What if it had been acid say?”

“Oh Julian for heaven’s sake don’t!” said Adam “We have enough to worry about with things that DO happen, without trying to account for everything that MIGHT!”

“Anyway”, said Julian “I’ve told him that if that joker appears rapping on our door again, he is to look out of the window first, before going down there”.

“I’d still rather be here than in the church at Magnolia Cove”, said Adam “Whatever happens we have more control here … and Codlik isn’t here!”

They went downstairs soon after.

“Blimey, that was quick!” said Joby, looking up from a dominoes game with Lonts.

“We shared a cigar that was all”, said Adam “Not up to anything else!”

“Must be old age coming on!” said Joby.

Bengo was standing at the glass doors at the back of the room, watching the twilight deepen.

“Do you want to be counted in this round, Bengo?” asked Finia, who was shuffling cards.

Bengo shook his head and continued to look out of the window. Adam found Kieran curled up asleep in the armchair nearest the fire.

“He’s been like that since we left the dinner-table”, said Joby.

Adam tucked a blanket round him.

“Thank God that’s over for another year!” said Bardin, as he and Bengo climbed into bed later “The thing about Christmas is that everything else about it is great, except for the day itself!”

“It’s long and knackering I guess”, said Bengo “And yet nothing gets done, so it all feels weird, and Adam’s right, we didn’t get as long to prepare for it this year. If we’re still here next year, it’ll be more like the Town House I expect”.

“Yes the living-room downstairs still has a bit of a bleak look to it”, said Bardin.

“That’s because we haven’t unpacked everything yet”, said Bengo.

“I think we should get some of Adam’s pictures put up around the walls”, said Bardin “Make it look more cheerful. At the moment it feels no different to the stables!”

There was a rapping at the front door below.

“It’s him!” said Bengo “He’s back!”

“Right”, said Bardin, getting out of bed again “You know what to do?”

“Yes, we’ve been over it dozens of times today!” said Bengo “I feel like we’ve rehearsed a whole revue!”

“Come on then”, said Bardin.

He ran to the window and flung it open. Meanwhile, Bengo had snatched a jug of water from the washstand. Bardin gave him the signal, and Bengo hurled the contents of the jug out of the window and straight into the face of the clown intruder, who was next seen moving at a very rapid shuffle towards the forest.

“Look at the way he’s moving”, said Bengo “Sort of one leg right in front of the other, humans don’t move like that”.

“That’s because he isn’t human”, said Bardin “I’m not in any doubt about that, after that laugh I heard him do last night!”

“And his eyes, Bardy!” said Bengo “Horrible and steely”.

“Never mind”, said Bardin “We’ve showed him”.

“Yes”, said Bengo “That’ll teach him to mess with REAL clowns!”

The two of them clasped each other in their arms and danced around the room, completely ignoring the cries and demands of everyone else in the house as to what was going on.

“I feel like we did a gala performance last night”, said Bardin, lying in bed early the following morning. Bengo was sitting on the bed holding both Bardin’s hands in his.

“Perhaps next time we should have an even bigger surprise for him”, said Bengo “I’ll ask Hillyard if there are any old tins of paint knocking around down in the out-houses. Can you imagine what it would be like for him to have a bucketful of paint come slopping down on him?”

“Paint takes a helluva lot to wash out as well!” Bardin smiled.

“Mm good!” said Bengo “Right I’d better be getting downstairs to do the breakfasts”.

After he had gone Bardin got out of bed and tripped across to the wash-stand. He picked up the jug to pour out his shaving-water, and of course found it was empty. He took it to the top of the stairs and yelled for Toppy.

“You’re in trouble with Julian”, Toppy whispered, scampering up towards him “He thinks you and Bengo were too reckless last night”.

“That doesn’t matter”, said Bardin “We’re on a roll with this one!”

After breakfast the grand expedition out to the Winter Palace was to take place. Joby stepped outside the front door to find Kieran pacing around in the snow, looking at the strange hoof-like tracks that had been made by the Clown Intruder last night.

“Are you alright, Kiel?” said Joby “You’ve seemed a bit out of it the past couple of days”.

“Ach I’m fine”, said Kieran “Probably just feeling a bit ropey ‘cos I overdid the Christmas cheer, that’s all”.

“I hope so”, said Joby “Hangovers and indigestion I can cope with. Though I can’t think of anyone who looks less like a picture of indigestion than you do!”

“Joby I assure you, I’m not going to let meself go down the pan like I’ve done in the past”, said Kieran “But all it is is that I feel a wee bit drained at the moment that’s all. Will you look at these footprints now! Footprints, pah! More like hoof-marks!”

Joby gave the marks a deeply disgruntled look, and then led Kieran towards the hay-cart which Hillyard had brought round from the yard.

Bengo suggested a sing-song to liven up the journey to the Winter Palace, and to banish any feelings of trepidation. This was heartily endorsed by Lonts, although Joby remarked that any sing-song Lonts got involved in would doubtless cause an avalanche in the mountains! As it turned out there were no feelings of strong trepidation as such. Going to the Winter Palace on a crisp, sunny winter’s morning, was a world away from their terrified journey during a bleak, dark evening all those years ago. They passed Resz’s old shack, which had now collapsed in on itself and been left as a permanent decayed reminder of the vampires’ old watch-keeper.

“It was another lifetime away”, said Adam.

The Winter Palace eventually hove into view, huge and forbidding against the backdrop of mountains.

“My God”, said Julian, who had never seen it for real before “It’s like something out of an old Hammer film!”

“You wanna see what it’s like inside!” said Joby.

They parked the cart beside the broken-down bridge across the lake. Adam walked up to the edge of the water and peered down. The lake had largely frosted over, but in the intense heat of the sun, small parts of it had melted and let dribbles of water out.

“At least it is water now”, Adam said softly to Julian, who had joined him “This used to be a putrid swamp. The vampires used to dump the remains of their victims in here. The whole lake got clogged up with decaying bodies. Some used to float way downstream and clog up the generators near the City”.

“They got that far and nobody said anything?” said Julian.

“They were all so scared they chose not to see”, said Adam “Twas ever thus I’m afraid, right throughout history. Braw, the door-keeper here, used to mix up the remains in a big vat out on the bridge …”

“Do you mind!” Julian exclaimed.

“What’s Patsy doing?” said Adam.

Kieran had stepped gingerly across the broken-down bridge and was examining the big double doors. Adam and Julian followed him.

“Look at this!” said Kieran, angrily, gesturing at some old strings of garlic which had been festooned across the doors.

“The villagers must have put them there”, said Adam.

“Did they really think that would be effective against the vampires?” said Kieran.

“I don’t expect they did”, said Adam “Not really. It was probably done to make them feel better more than anything else. You can’t castigate them for that. Anyway, let’s not hang around on here, this bridge is none too safe, and I don’t want to leave Lo-Lo alone with his thoughts here”.

On the contrary, far from being alone with his thoughts, Lonts was cheerfully sharing them with the younger members of the tribe. For him, like for Adam, their previous adventures at the Winter Palace were another lifetime. He almost didn’t regard himself as the same person then as he is now. Much in the same way as Tamaz usually referred to his younger days as “when I was evil”.

“But you must have been scared”, said Bengo “When Caln picked you up in his litter. I mean, the thought of going inside this place …”

“No”, Lonts shook his head “I was obsessed with having sex you see, and I thought I would get it once I was inside there”.

“Sex again!” Bardin snapped “Everything can be put down to sex, the trouble it causes!”

“Oh for God’s sake, Bardy!” said Bengo “It’s not as if you lead a celibate lifestyle is it!”

Bardin pushed him over backwards into the snow. Bengo scooped up a handful of the stuff and wiped it carefully over Bardin’s face. Bardin picked some up and shoved it down the front of the Bengo’s trousers. Bengo gave a scream of anguish.

“You two can’t be trusted to behave ANYWHERE!” said Julian, grabbing them both by their coats and leading them back to the cart.

“I think my nuts are gonna drop off!” Bengo wailed.

“Well don’t worry”, said Julian “I’m sure Finia will sew them back on for you!”

When they got back to the house they were greeted by a volley of barking from inside it. The dogs had been kept locked in there, partly for security, and partly because there was no room to take them in the cart.

“They better not have made a mess in here”, said Joby, when the front door had finally been unlocked, and the dogs spilled barking out into the snow.

“They won’t have made a mess, Joby”, said Lonts “They are civilised”.

Joby grunted, sceptically.

Adam stooped down and picked up a grubby envelope that was lying on the doorway.

“Someone seems to have left a note for you, Bardin”, he said.

Bardin tore it open.

“Oh hell!” he exclaimed, when he had examined its contents.

“Who’s it from?” said Bengo.

“Dobley”, said Bardin.

“He must have walked out here whilst we were out”, said Adam “I hope he’s not after accommodation, we really haven’t got room for one more”.

“We could put him in the stables”, said Joby.

“He’s not going down there!” said Hillyard “He’ll upset the horses!”

“Joby was only joking”, said Adam “… I think”.

“Well what does he want, Bardy?” said Bengo, impatiently.

“’The Moon and Stars’ is putting on a variety show tonight”, said Bardin “And the dimwits have given him a spot in it! He wants us to come and watch him”.

“Oh no!” said Bengo “We’ve got to turn out in the dark just to go and watch Dobley?”

“I wouldn’t cross the room to watch Dobley!” said Rumble.

“You’re alright, you haven’t been invited”, said Bardin “He’s asked me, Bengo, Kieran and Joby”.

“That’s just plain snobbery that is!” said Farnol.

“Don’t knock it, it gets you out of it!” said Bardin.

“I suppose you’re going to have to go, if he’s asked you”, said Adam.

“Why?” said Joby “Since when did performers order the audience to turn up?!”

“Well the poor thing must be rather in need of moral support”, said Adam.

“The poor thing needs bloody surgery if you ask me!” said Bardin.

“You are going to behave yourself this evening, aren’t you, Bardy?” said Bengo, as he and Bardin put on their best clothes, plus gold waistcoats, up in their bedroom.

“What do you mean, behave myself?” said Bengo “What do you think I’m going to do, run around smashing the place up?!”

“Don’t sneer all through the performances, just because they’re amateurs”, said Bengo.

“I’d sneer all through it if they were professionals!” said Bardin.

“Yes, but we can cope with it, they can’t”, said Bengo.

“If you’re that bothered”, snapped Bardin “I’ll not open my mouth all evening!”

“No I can’t ask for miracles”, said Bengo “Even if it is Christmas!”

When they got downstairs, they found Joby and Kieran in the final processes of getting ready.

“You are armed aren’t you, Joby?” said Lonts.

Joby opened his coat like a flasher, to reveal a pistol tucked in each inside pocket.

“I still think I should come”, said Toppy, who distrusted anyone else’s (apart from Ransey) prowess with weapons.

“Look, we don’t need you as out-rider!” said Joby.

“Don’t you both look sweet!” Adam cooed at Bengo and Bardin “In your little gold waistcoats”.

“I’m amazed the buttons haven’t burst off his!” Bardin muttered.

Bengo gave him a look of viciousness.

“Oh do behave, you two!” said Adam “It is Christmas after all, goodwill to all men”.

“Except clowns!” said Bengo.

“Make sure they provide the horse with enough hay in the stables”, said Hillyard.

“Do me a favour!” said Joby “The horse’ll probably have a better time than we will!”

When the four of them reached the ‘Moon and Stars’, they took the horse and dog-cart round to the stables, to get the horse settled out of the cold for the evening.

“I wish I was staying in here with him!” said Joby, patting the horse’s neck.

“So do I!” said Bengo.

Kieran and Bardin were both standing in the doorway, their frosty breath illuminated by the hurricane lamp hanging on the wall.

“A right old time we’re gonna have with those two!” Joby muttered to Bengo.

“Is Kieran alright?” said Bengo “He doesn’t seem his usual self”.

“He says he’s just tired”, said Joby “Which could well true, with everything that’s happened lately. I hope that’s all it is anyway!”

In the foyer of the pub Kieran and Joby were invited into a small side-room, where the First Man of the village (i.e Mayor, Burgomeister) was having an intimate supper-party. Kieran would much rather have watched the show, but he felt this might be a good chance to pick up some interesting gossip about the village, and thus lead to any clues as to what was going on here. Bengo and Bardin, who had not been invited into the First Man’s inner sanctum, disconsolately went into the main bar, where the show had already started. When they arrived the landlord, who was doing a fine job as compere, insisted on pointing them out to the audience. Bengo stood back up and smiled and bowed to everyone, and jabbed Bardin in the side to do likewise.

“That was embarrassing!” Bardin whispered, once they had both sat down again “Everyone’ll think we arrived late on purpose to get noticed!”

“If anyone asks for our autograph afterwards, Bardy”, said Bengo “Don’t snap their head off like you usually do!”

“Will you be so quick to comment in the unlikely event I get anything right?!” said Bardin.

“Well now you know what it’s been like for me all these years!” said Bengo.

The show turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable, mainly due to the amount of energy and enthusiasm the villagers put into it. The down-turn only came when Dobley’s spot arrived towards the end. It was distressing to see how they had hyped him as the star-turn, the top of the bill, only to have him give a performance that Bardin would have been entirely justified in saving his most caustic remarks for. Dobley’s greatest strength as a performer had always been the rapport he could build up with his audience, but his skill at that seemed to have finally deserted him.

“He’s broken one of the great cardinal rules”, Bardin hissed to Bengo “Know your audience!”

What Dobley might have got away with in Krindei, or Magnolia Cove, or the Village of Stairs, was entirely inappropriate for a family audience in a small village like Marlsblad. The final straw for Bardin came when he made a string of miserably unfunny jokes about his rehab sessions. Bardin couldn’t fail to give a groan and buried his face in his hands.

“I want to leave”, he moaned “I can’t watch this anymore”.

“We can’t leave!” said Bengo “He’ll notice if we get up and leave, and so will everyone else! He’ll be sure to make some stupid joke about it, and embarrass everybody even more!”

Dobley’s turn came to an end (and not a moment too soon!), as the audience were clearly getting restless. One man had even pointedly removed his two children from the front row, something Dobley was certain to have noticed. A song and dance routine involving the rest of the cast was to round off the evening, and the cheers which greeted it owed more to relief on the part of the audience, than appreciation of the hoofing and vocal skills involved.

“What are we going to say to him, Bardy?” said Bengo, as he and Bardin went to cool down in the foyer afterwards.

“If he’s mad enough to ask”, said Bardin, sitting down on a hard, narrow bench “We’ll give it to him right between the eyes. No performer’s got the right to inflict a mess like that on an audience! He let them down, especially as they’d hailed him as the star-turn! The stupid great twit! Whatever talent he ever had he’s lost, and that’s all there is to it. There’s no delicate way of putting it!”

Joby had noticed them through the door of the side-room, which was standing slightly open to let some air in. He came out to them.

“How did it go?” said Joby.

“Awful, Joby, awful”, Bengo shook his head and looked close to tears.

“Blimey, it wasn’t THAT bad was it?” said Joby.

“The rest of the show was fine”, said Bardin “It was Dobley, the so-called professional performer who let the side down. He was a mess!”

“Yeah well don’t let it worry you”, said Joby “It was him who died out there, not you”.

“We’re probably guilty by association”, said Bengo, miserably.

“Oh c’mon now!” said Joby “He wouldn’t be the first comedian to out-stay his welcome. It’s happened to the best of ‘em, when they can’t see it’s the end of the road”.

“You’re right”, Bardin sighed.

“Trouble is”, said Bengo “It’s hard to just say he’s lost his talent and that’s it, cut your losses. Once you’ve done showbusiness you don’t want to go and do anything else”.

“You have though”, Joby pointed out.

“We retired, voluntarily”, said Bardin “That’s different. Whereas Dobley’s gone sour and been spat out”.

“Strewth!” said Joby “You’ll have me depressed in a minute! Come and join us in there”.

“They won’t want us in there”, said Bengo.

“We’ll sit out here until you’re ready to go”, said Bardin.

“For crying out loud!” said Joby “You sound like a couple of old maiden aunts living on charity! I can’t go back in there and tell Kieran you won’t come in ‘cos you think you’re not wanted!. Now c’mon! Stop messing me about!”

He directed them into a small, very fuggy room, wallpapered and curtained in deep crimson. Sitting by the smoking wood-fire sat a fat, Buddha-like man in a flowing kaftan. This was the First Man of the village. Kieran, sitting opposite him, looked like the left-overs from his dinner. Above the fireplace hung a lurid oil-painting of a plump woman thrusting two melon-like breasts into the face of the viewer. She also looked as red as the room, as though she’d been standing too close to a stove for several hours. Bengo looked at it and burst out laughing, as did Bardin.

“Who the hell painted that?” Bardin laughed.

Kieran bit his bottom lip to stop laughing himself, and pointed at the First Man.

“Ah”, said Bardin.

“We don’t mean to be rude”, Bengo giggled “But her tits look funny, sort of …”

“Pneumatic”, said Joby, who thought they looked as though they’d been over-inflated with a bicycle pump.

“Is she meant to be that colour?” said Bengo.

“I don’t suppose you have much experience of naked women”, said the First Man, somewhat frostily.

“Oh yes we do”, said Bengo “We’ve got Mieps and Tamaz”.

“REAL women”, said the First Man.

“Of course we’ve seen naked women, loads of times!” said Bengo “The girls at the Little Theatre in Toondor Lanpin used to dance topless. And Kieran, Joby and Bardy have all had sex with women. Except me, I’m a total faggot. Don’t get me wrong, I like women, I think they’re lovely. But I fancy men, I don’t know why”.

“You need somebody to give you a hard time!” said Bardin.

“I’ve known plenty of women who could manage that!” said Joby.

“I think it’s probably best if we thought about getting back”, said Kieran “Or Ransey’ll be having kittens”.

“Ah yes Ransey”, said the First Man “He used to work for the Ministry”.

“In the treasury department”, said Kieran “He was one of their top accountants”.

“That was officially what he did”, said the First Man “We know of course what he did … unofficially”.

Kieran didn’t like the way the conversation was going (in fact he hadn’t like the way it was going since they had first walked in), and broke up the party.

“Funny sod”, said Joby, when they walked out to the stables afterwards “Reminds me of Sade”.

“A big fish in a small pond”, said Kieran “He’s been First Man here for as long as anyone can remember, and he’s certainly made good use of his position, if you know what I mean!”

“Do you think he’s behind any of the peculiar things that are going on here, Kieran?” said Bengo, when they were safely out of earshot of the village.

“At this moment in time, I have no idea”, said Kieran “But I’m going to be keeping an eye on him, that’s for sure!”

“We are all going to be sleeping in the back bedroom tonight”, said Julian, when they returned to the Old Mill-House “There are four beds, so four to a bed, and Hoowie and Hegley sleeping on the floor by the fire. That should work out o.k”.

Bardin opened his mouth to protest, but Julian went on.

“It’s only for tonight”, said Julian “And for the odd occasional night for as long as that nutcase keeps coming here. You and Bengo can’t keep going through that every single night”.

“No it gets terribly wearing on the nerves, old love”, said Adam.

“They’re right, Bardy”, said Bengo “We need a night off occasionally”.

“Yes but you’ve all made up your minds behind my back”, said Bardin. He grabbed his whistle off the bookcase and flung it on the table “One of you lot might as well be Captain, go on take it!”

“Don’t be silly, Bardin”, said Adam.

“Yes, don’t be silly, Bardy!” said Bengo.

“Such theatrical gestures don’t wash with me”, said Julian to Bardin “You know I’m right, I always am. Now go and get yourselves ready, it’s late”.

Bardin thumped upstairs. For such a slender man, who was normally so graceful in his movements, he made a considerable racket on this occasion.

“I’d better go up after him”, Bengo sighed.

“What is that you’re knitting?” said Joby to Mieps “It looks like a willy-warmer for Julian!”

Mieps prodded him in the behind with a spare knitting-needle.

When he got upstairs Bardin found that Toppy had ironed their nightshirts and laid them out carefully on one of the beds in the back bedroom. Bardin felt like tearing them limb from limb.

“You’ve gotta see the sense in what he said, Bardy”, said Bengo, coming up behind him.

“All very well”, said Bardin “But when he was Captain he got everything his own way, he might as well have stayed on as Captain!”

“Julian always gets his own way because he’s the eldest”, said Bengo “Nothing’s gonna change that, and I don’t want it to!”

“But if he thinks I’m such a dead loss why did he promote me?” said Bardin.

“He doesn’t think you’re a dead loss!” said Bengo “I’m gonna stamp on your foot if you keep this up, Bardin! He just knows that you won’t take a rest occasionally if it’s all left to you, you have to be made to do it. I know that only too well! And think of it practically. That freak out there needs to be kept on the hop, never knowing what we’re gonna do next. If we always appear on cue that’s playing right into his hands!”

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