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By Sarah Hapgood

The Old Mill-House was battered by a blizzard that night, shaking the doors and shutters, and making eerie noises in the chimney. Bengo and Bardin slept in the front bedroom, and Bengo made love to Bardin very gently, using endearments that were completely private between them two, and unknown even to the others. At daybreak Bengo was surprised how well they had managed to sleep through the storm. Hillyard and Lonts could be heard outside the front door, trying to shovel away some of the snow which had got banked up against it during the night.

“What a hideous evening that was last night!” said Bardin.

“Oh it could have been worse”, said Bengo.

“So why did I overheard you telling Tamaz and Toppy before we came to bed that they should count themselves lucky they didn’t come?” said Bardin.

“Because Tamaz was in a moody that he hadn’t been invited, that’s all”, said Bengo, going over to unlatch the shutters and fold them back against the wall “I was just trying to reassure him”.

Bardin picked up his ripped trousers and then tossed them back onto the chair with a disgusted sigh.

“And that was the worst moment of all!” he said.

“I thought it was dead sexy!” Bengo giggled.

“You think everything’s dead sexy at the moment”, said Bardin, indulgently.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we got snowed up here?” said Bengo “We couldn’t get out to the village, and none of them could get out to us”.

“Looking at the drifting that’s gone on overnight”, said Bardin “I should imagine that’s happened!”

Hillyard had been asked by Bardin to fix a bolt to the inside of the front bedroom door. This sent a shiver of excitement through the members of the household who liked to indulge in which Ransey caustically called “extracurricular activities”. Adam decided not to wait that long though, and went up to the back bedroom, pulled Kieran out of bed, and tore his nightshirt off him for a bit of chastisement. Afterwards he wrapped him up in a blanket and laid him gently back on the bed.

“You haven’t lost your touch”, said Kieran, as Adam cradled him in his arms.

“I should hope not!” said Adam “I do sometimes feel Julian gets too many of the goodies around here”.

“That’s because you’re normally too busy”, Kieran smiled.

“Very true”, Adam sighed “I do think it’s important you and I get together occasionally. I don’t want you to feel we’re ever emotionally apart”.

“I never do, not these days”, said Kieran “I’m nowhere near as insecure as I was in me younger days”.

“No you’re very much calmer”, said Adam, stroking Kieran’s face “Well apart from when you and Joby are glowering at each other like you were last night. He wasn’t seriously upset by that stupid toast was he?”

“I think he was more upset by Hanzi pawing him about outside the front door”, said Kieran.

“Did he really?” Adam exclaimed “Our friend Hanzi is a very shifty character. He reminds me a tad too much of Monsieur de Sade. Mind you, that whole household seems a very peculiar set-up”.

There was a grunt and a sigh as Hillyard slammed down his tool-box on the landing, preparatory to putting the bolt on the inside of the door to the front bedroom. Toppy was sitting by the fire in there, repairing Bardin’s trousers. Firstly though, he had gone through Mieps’ knitting-bag and Finia’s sewing-box to find the scratchiest thick thread possible.

“As if I haven’t got enough to do”, Hillyard moaned, when Adam came out to him.

“Oh stop complaining”, said Adam “With all this snow you can’t do much outside”.

“I still have the animals to see to”, said Hillyard, as a reproach at Kieran, who was standing there watching him with one of the bedspreads wrapped round him.

“You are really beginning to sound like Joby in your old age!” said Adam.

Bengo came upstairs and gave a squeal of delight at the sight of the new bolt being fitted.

“How can you get so excited about a bolt?” said Hillyard.

“Now you really do sound like Joby!” said Kieran.

Before lunch Adam went through his portfolio to see what sketches would look best on the living-room wall.

“It won’t be terribly vain will it?” said Adam “Putting pictures of ourselves up in here?”

“I don’t see why”, said Joby, sifting through the pictures spread out on the kitchen table “People stick up photographs of their families, we’re just doing it a bit differently that’s all”.

“Yes, I hadn’t thought of it that way before”, said Adam.

Hillyard, having finished the bolt, had gone down to check on the horses. He was now seen approaching the house across the terrace, a formidable size in all his outdoor gear. He paused to gaze forlornly out across the wall.

“Oh dear, he’s not doing very well at the moment is he?” said Adam.

“The snow’s oppressing him”, said Kieran.

“Yes he’s very much a child of the outdoors”, said Adam “He must be finding this weather terribly confining”.

Hillyard came indoors, knocking the snow off his boots.

“Cheer up, old love”, said Adam “It can’t stay winter forever. We’re not in Narnia. Just think what it’ll be like in the summer, with the doors open onto the terrace”.

With his painter’s eye Adam was envisioning the sun-kissed stone tiles of the terrace, a table and chairs, flowers and plants everywhere.

“I haven’t got your imagination, Ad”, said Hillyard, beginning the long process of taking off his outdoor clothes “I find it hard to imagine what summer’s going to be like here”.

“It will come round … eventually”, said Adam.

“It’s not just the weather”, said Hillyard “This area’s getting to me in a way I hadn’t been expecting”.

“It’s bringing back old memories”, said Tamaz.

“Freaky!” said Adam.

“No, he’s right”, said Hillyard “I can’t seem to get the Winter Palace out of my head”.

“But I thought that going to see that place on Boxing Day would at least lay the ghost as it were”, said Adam.

“I’ve been dreaming about it”, said Hillyard “I’m standing outside and the big main doors open, and something comes out. Don’t ask me what, all I know is it’s something horrible. Oh listen to me! A grown man getting worked up about a bad dream!”

“Dreams can be upsetting for anyone”, said Adam.

“You going through your collection then?” said Hillyard, sitting down at the table and picking up a couple of the drawings.

“I thought it was high time we got on with personalising this place”, said Adam “Now that IS something we can do in this weather!”

“Not a bad one of Joby there”, said Hillyard, looking at a sketch of Joby Adam had done at Midnight Castle. Joby was shown standing face-on with his sleeves rolled up and his arms crossed. “He looks a bit too serious though”.

“Well I did try asking him to smile”, said Adam “But he looked so disturbing that I had to ask him to stop!”

“Thanks!” said Joby.

After lunch Adam took down the few pictures that were already in place in the bedrooms upstairs (some rather gloomy, uninspiring views of the river at Marlsblad) and used the frames for his own. He put Hillyard to work hanging them in the living-room. Ransey objected to the hammering.

“Do we have to have that racket now?” he snapped, rustling the newspaper which he had been trying to read.

“What’s the matter?” said Hillyard “Putting you off studying the racing pages are we?”

“I’m doing serious research”, said Ransey.

“Yeah, that’s what they all say!” said Hillyard.

Bengo tripped over the edge of the rug and fell onto Ransey, who bad-temperedly slapped his bottom and dragged him back to his feet.

“Are you getting a taste for the old corporal punishment now, Ransey?” said Julian, coming down from upstairs with a cigar in his hand.

Ransey sorted out the pages with much exasperated rustling.

“I don’t know why all that can’t be done when the weather’s better”, he said, referring to the hammering “And then we can get outside and escape from it!”

“Yeah but when the weather’s better I’ll be too busy outside won’t I!” said Hillyard.

“Who’s been fiddling with this wireless?” said Julian, who was now trying to retune the set, casting a suspicious look at Lonts, who was grooming one of the dogs.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering with that”, said Ransey “You won’t be able to hear anything above the building-site racket!”

“A few nails”, said Hillyard “A few nails that’s all it is!”

“Hillyard, just ignore him and get on with it, please”, said Adam, firmly.

Bengo did an exaggerated cautious step around Ransey’s chair. Julian managed to locate a crackly dance music station coming from somewhere further down in the Thet Mountains.

“Of course really we could be thinking about what other things we want to do with this house”, said Hillyard, yelling boisterously above his hammering.

“Keep an eye on what you’re doing!” said Adam “I wish you and Ransey wouldn’t wind each other up. Sometimes I don’t know how either of you has the brass nerve to criticize the younger ones for doing that!”

Outside it was getting dark, and the snow seemed to glimmer menacingly in the gloaming. Joby yanked the heavy velvet curtains shut over the double glass doors.

It wasn’t just Hillyard who was finding the snow oppressive, as Kieran had put it, as most of them did. To many of the older Indigo-ites it reminded them of the nuclear-style winter they had spent at Wolf Castle, when they had thought the world was coming to an end. The Old Mill-House grew thick long icicles which hung over the upper windows like prison bars, and snow blew up against the doors as though it was trying to keep them shut in.

Lonts though was thriving in this harsh environment. Reared in an arctic climate he had always been fascinated by the hot, tropical ones in which they had so often made their home, but now, back in old territory again he was in his element. Most days he skiied through the forest, usually accompanied by the dogs barking at his heels, and looking more than ever like a wild Cossack.

“I was so worried about bringing him back up here”, Adam said to Julian one day “All those terrible memories from the old days, but he’s like Freaky, they have this remarkable ability to simply shut their younger days away in a sealed box”.

“They were both reared in harsh environments”, said Julian, who was feeling considerably mellow after having taken the carpet-beater to Bengo that morning “That must have given them a fair amount of natural resilience!”

Adam was concerned though when Lonts let it slip one day that he had skiied up to the Winter Palace. It had been a long time since Adam had had to reprove Lonts for anything, after all the days were largely gone when Lonts went into wild rages or obstinate sulks on a regular basis.

“I don’t understand what you’re getting worked up about, Adam”, said Lonts, as they argued alone in the back bedroom “There’s nothing at the Winter Palace. You’ve seen it for yourself, it’s all just shut up and empty these days”.

“I still don’t like you going out that way”, said Adam, who couldn’t get Hillyard’s dream out of his head, the one with the horrible thing coming out of the doors “Think of all those terrible man-traps we found. They would be impossible to see in this snow, and how would you like it if one of the dogs got caught in one? Remember what happened to Mieps in Zilligot Bay that time?”

“O.K”, Lonts sighed.

“I’m sorry if you think I’m fussing”, said Adam “I don’t want to curtail your activities, but perhaps ski in another part of the forest, n-not near the Winter Palace”.

“But I don’t understand why the man-traps are only in that part”, said Lonts.

“I think the villagers put them there”, said Adam “To trap anything that came out of the Winter Palace”.

“I’ll go downstairs and fetch us some tea”, said Lonts.

After he had gone Adam leaned on the mantelpiece and looked down into the fire. Ransey had made a comment one evening to the effect that it might be worth going inside the Winter Palace one day, if only to eliminate it from any suspicion involving all the strange things that were going on around here. It would narrow their inquiries down considerably, if the Winter Palace were removed as a “suspect”. Adam had been quietly appalled by this idea, even though he could see the supreme commonsense behind it. He also knew that his resistance to this idea was solely down to his own personal repugnance at going back inside that terrible place, the vampires’ charnel-house.

“I just can’t do it”, he said to himself “I just can’t”.

That night Bengo heard voices outside the house. He and Bardin were sleeping in the front bedroom, and the voices seemed to be coming from the edge of the forest opposite the front door. It was with some difficulty that he managed to wake his partner.

“Bardy, c’mon!” Bengo cried “There are people outside! Come on!”

“What?” Bardin squinted at him in the heavy gloom.

Bengo ran across the room and pulled open a shutter.

“Why can’t they leave us alone?” he was yelling “WHY?”

“Bengo?” Bardin struggled to his feet, feeling as though he was heavily drugged.

“What’s going on here?” Ransey came into the room, carrying an oil-lamp.

“I-I don’t know”, said Bardin, huskily.

Bengo by now was acting like a man possessed, jumping up and down in front of the window and yelling. Julian followed Ransey into the room. He picked Bengo up in his arms and carried him away from the window, trying to make soothing noises to him. It was several minutes before any kind of order was restored.

“Bengo”, said Bardin, standing in front of him “There’s no one outside”.

“There must be!” said Bengo “I heard the voices!”

“There’s no one there”, said Bardin, sympathetically.

Adam adopted a tactic he had found invaluable over the years when dealing with a situation like this. He got Bengo in an armlock and poured brandy down him. Bengo coughed and spluttered but eventually calmed down.

“I think they might have been poachers that you heard”, said Adam, after a while “Fresh produce is quite hard to find around here at this time of year, and from what I could gather at the ‘Moon and Stars’ over Christmas they offer over the odds to anyone who can bring in fresh meat. Mieps was wondering about starting it up as a little side-line, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hegley was considering going back to his old ways for a while!”

“Poachers?” said Bengo “You really think that’s all it was?”

“Very likely”, said Adam “The trouble is we’ve got so used to feeling threatened that we expect it all the time”.

“And that’s why I over-reacted?” said Bengo “I feel such a fool now!”

“Hardly anything unusual”, Joby growled.

“I’d better go out and check on the animals”, said Hillyard, who knew he wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep until he had.

“Be careful, Hillyard”, said Bengo.

“It’s alright”, said Hillyard “Rumble, Ransey and Hoowie are coming with me”.

It took a while for the house to settle down again. When Bardin eventually came back upstairs to bed he found Bengo sitting in the armchair by the fire in the front bedroom, with a blanket round his shoulders and his hands folded in his lap. He looked almost Toppy-ish.

“Come on”, said Bardin, stuffing a fresh hot-water bottle into the bed “We might as well see if we can get SOME sleep tonight!”

“Do you think it was poachers, Bardy?” said Bengo.

“It does seem the most likely thing”, said Bardin “Come on, get into bed”.

“The others must be really fed up with me”, said Bengo.

“Not at all”, said Bardin “In fact Ransey was really quite pleased, he says it’s good to be careful and observant about these things”.

“Oh”, said Bengo.

A thaw seemed to be making brave efforts to set in over the next few days, and eventually it was possible for the Indigo-ites to make a trip into the village on various essential errands. Kieran’s duty was to go to the Post Office and pick up any mail that had gathered there for them. When Joby eventually tracked him down later in the morning he found him standing by the river, looking incensed at a piece of paper in his hand.

“Well I know it can’t be from Codlik”, said Joby “Not unless he’s done an Angel and come back from the dead anyway!”

“No that’s the only thing in it’s favour!” said Kieran, shaking the piece of paper indignantly “It’s not from Codlik, it’s from Levka”.

“Not much of an improvement!” said Joby “Although I’d rather get a letter from him than have him turning up in person”.

“He’s decided to put off coming up here until the spring”, said Kieran.

“Hurray!” said Joby.

“Joby, he’s been a complete eejit”, said Kieran, who looked dangerously angry.

“What’s the silly sod gone and done now?” said Joby.

“You’re not going to believe it in a million years”, said Kieran.

“Try me”, Joby sighed.

“He’s had himself physically castrated”, said Kieran.

Joby looked as though he was going to faint. Instead though he turned and stared intently at a tyre which was sticking half-in half-out of the frozen waters of the river. Eventually he turned back to face Kieran.

“Why?” he asked, swallowing hard.

“To cut a long story short”, said Kieran, indicating the many pages of notepaper in his hand “He’d found himself getting fond of a young lad who had been helping him out at the homeless shelter. Levka says he’s had a very lonely life, and he needed someone to get fond of”.

“So?” said Joby.

“He was riddled with guilt with these feelings, as he’d always committed himself to a life of celibacy”, said Kieran.

“Well I don’t know why”, said Joby “Nobody’s forced him to it!”

“He’s always had some bizarre ideas”, said Kieran “But anyway the crux of the matter is that a visitor to the Village Of Stairs, whom Levka describes as ‘next to you Kieran, the most religious man I have ever met’, told him that the feelings he had for young Nikolas were so wrong that he had to forcibly remove himself from all temptation …”

Joby’s mouth had dropped open.

“It was Crowley wasn’t it?” he said “This religious man, it was Crowley?”

Kieran nodded.

“What the fuck’s he playing at?” Joby exclaimed “Telling a bloke to get himself castrated, has he really gone crackers once and for all?”

“No I have a strong feeling it’s far worse than that”, said Kieran “Aleister has been very helpful to us over recent years, I won’t deny that, we do owe him, BUT there’s no getting away from the fact that he is at heart a very cruel man, with a sense of humour like that of a sadistic child …”

“You think he said that to Levka as a joke?” Joby gasped.

“And knowing Aleister”, said Kieran, stuffing the notepaper back into the envelope “He would have been very VERY plausible with it. He would have seen Levka as a perfect wind-up. Aleister would love the thought of playing such a monumental trick on such a devout God-botherer”.

“But why was Levka such a prat as to take him seriously?” said Joby.

“Levka is a good man”, said Kieran “But his mind-set has always been a tad precarious. After all, don’t forget that’s why I had him removed from the parish of the Big House, he’s too susceptible to dark forces. His mind is too easily screwed-up. If I get my focking hands on Aleister again he’s done for!”

“Don’t be daft”, said Joby “A little thing like you taking on a great big jerk like that!”

“David beat Goliath”, said Kieran “Anyway we’d better find Hillyard, there’s an official-looking missive turned up for him from his lawyers”.

“Probably just yet another piece telling him how they’re still trying to unfreeze his remaining assets!” said Joby.

Kieran laughed and followed him back into the main village street. Tamaz was staring into the window of a shop that sold knick-knacks.

“Oi!” said Joby “I told Lonts to keep an eye on you!”

“He’s gone back into the skiing shop”, said Tamaz “I got bored. Can I have that?”

He pointed at a large, rather ugly-looking ring sitting on a small velvet cushion. The centre of the ring looked like some old hazelenut that somebody had sucked on and spat out again.

“No you can’t!” said Joby.

“I didn’t get a Christmas present”, Tamaz pointed out.

“None of us got a bloody Christmas present!” said Joby.

“Ach go on, Joby”, said Kieran, pulling out a wad of crumpled notes from his pockets “It’s not as if it’s expensive now is it?”

“I should hope not!” said Joby “What do you say to Kieran, and I don’t mean ‘I want it’ like you normally do!”

“Thank you”, said Tamaz.

“Beautifully done!” said Kieran, bestowing the money on him.

“I dunno what he wants that for anyway”, said Joby, when Tamaz went into the shop “It’s got to be one of the ugliest bits of jewelry I’ve ever seen!”

“I expect he wants it because it’s big”, said Kieran.

When Tamaz came back out of the shop, well-satisfied with his odd purchase, they wound their way up the street to the ‘Moon and Stars’, where Hillyard had gone in to sit by the fire with Julian and Ransey. In the foyer they found Bengo sitting disconsolately by himself.

“Good grief”, said Joby “It’s little boy lost, in his duffel-coat!”

“Why aren’t you in the bar with the others, Bengo?” said Kieran.

“Because Bardy ordered me to sit here”, said Bengo, miserably “Whilst he went upstairs to speak to Dobley”.

“Did he say heel?!” said Joby.

“I don’t think he’ll mind you coming in with us”, said Kieran.

“Let’s go up to the bar first”, said Joby “Or we’ll get saddled with buying drinks for those three as well. Are you still on the apple juice, Bengo?”

“No I’ll have a beer”, said Bengo.

“You get them in, Jobe”, said Kieran “I’ll go and give Hillyard his letter”.

“Have you seen my new ring?” Tamaz asked Bengo.

“Is it a knuckle-duster?” said Bengo.

Kieran went over to the fireplace and handed the envelope to Hillyard, who accepted it with a thank you and stuffed it casually into his coat pocket.

“Well aren’t you going to open it?” said Kieran, in exasperation.

“What’s the point?” said Hillyard “I get letters from ‘em every so often, always telling me the same thing, ‘these things take time’ etc etc, scarcely worth reading yet again!”

“Ah for chrissakes open it!” said Kieran “I’ve got a positive vibe about this one!”

“Alright”, said Hillyard “But if does turn out to be more of the same you owe me a beer!”

“Bardy!” Bengo galloped across the foyer to Bardin, who was coming slowly down the main staircase with a despondent expression on his face.

“It’s no good, Bengo”, Bardin shook his head sorrowfully “He’s accepted our offer”.

“He wants to move in with us?” said Bengo, in complete astonishment.

“For the time being, he says ”, said Bardin “As though we’re supposed to be honoured by him accepting!”

“Oh never mind all that now”, said Bengo “We’ve had fantastic news! Hillyard’s got all his money back!”

“ALL of it?” said Bardin, hardly daring to believe his own ears.

“Well apart from the odd million or so that can’t be accounted for”, said Bengo “But Ransey thinks that’ll never be found, Codlik took that secret with him into the Loch. But that doesn’t matter, we’re rich again!”

Bardin sat down speechlessly on the bottom step.

“Hillyard says he’s gonna wire Glynis immediately”, Bengo gabbled on “’Cos she’s owed some of it too, I bet she won’t be able to believe it! And he says there’s all sorts of things we can do now. We can have a bathroom put onto the Old Mill-House!”

“With under-floor heating?” said Bardin, hopefully “And what about a sauna, we could have our own sauna. Oh I guess we shouldn’t get carried away”.

“Why not?” said Bengo “If we can’t get carried away now when can we?”

“Well it’s Hillyard’s money”, said Bardin.

“Whatever we suggest he’ll go along with, he’s like that, he just likes to see people happy”, said Bengo “Except our own private air-buggy, I can’t imagine he’d be too keen on that, he hates flying!”

“But our own railway-car perhaps”, said Bardin, his face lighting up “No more having to put up with a compartment next to those jerks Hal and co when we travel!”

Adam walked into the foyer followed by the remainder of the Indigo-ites. Bengo ran over to tell them the gladsome news. Even Mieps, who normally wore a pretty inscrutable expression on her face at the best of times, allowed a flicker of emotion to pass over it. When they went into the bar, Bengo yanked Bardin to his feet and dragged him after them.

Hillyard was taken with all the ideas for doing up the Old Mill-House, most particularly the bathroom with under-floor heating, though Bardin thought he would have had to have been mad not to be!

“It’ll be a great deal of noise and upheaval though”, said Adam.

“Worth it in the end”, said Ransey “If only to have a proper lavatory at long last, and not that bloody commode in a cupboard that we’ve got at the moment! It’s cramped enough using it standing up, sitting down you practically have to have your knees stuck under your chin! It makes the old heads on the sloop look palatial!”

“Perhaps a boat on the river”, Lonts suggested “When it thaws I mean”.

They were going to lunch at the pub, in honour of this splendid occasion, and the serving-maids were busy pushing tables together and laying them up. Julian, meanwhile, was sitting by the fire with a cigar in one hand and his fob-watch open in the other.

“What are you doing, old love?” said Adam “Waiting for the eggs to be done?!”

“Just a moment”, said Julian, giving a secretive smile.

Suddenly Piers galloped into the bar, looking flushed with excitement.

“I say!” he exclaimed at them.

“Twenty-two minutes”, said Julian, snapping shut his fob-watch with satisfaction.

“I don’t think I’ve ever known you move so fast, Piers!” said Adam.

“Amazing what the whiff of money can do to someone!” said Julian “It took only 22 minutes for him to hear the news and get himself propelled in our direction!”

“It’ll be Josh next”, said Joby, gloomily “And then the begging letters’ll start”.

“Doesn’t anything ever get you feeling positive?” said Hillyard.

“Sex does”, said Kieran “But that’s about it really”.

“Kieran!” said Joby.

The tables were ready for them, and the landlady herself had come out to carve the ham in person. As the Indigo-ites all eagerly gravitated towards the feast though, Hillyard broke away to speak to Piers.

“What’s going on there?” said Julian to Adam “Hillyard had better not go offering Piers any money!”

“It’s his loot”, said Adam, firmly taking Julian’s arm and steering him towards the table “We have to leave him to do what he thinks is best”.

“I don’t see how giving that sponger money is going to be doing anything for the best!” said Julian.

“It might get him off our backs for a while”, said Adam “Think on it”.

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