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By Sarah Hapgood

Late that evening, Ransey and Hillyard did the first night-watch on deck. There was so much uncertainty lurking in their close vicinity that Bardin had wisely decided to keep the night-watches going. On this occasion a storm was brewing.

“They’re always pretty spectacular round here”, said Hillyard “Let’s get the tarpaulin up”.

Whenever it rained they rigged up a makeshift shelter by draping a tarpaulin over the clothes-horses normally used for laundry. There, they could crouch and peer out at the rain like a pair of philosophical toads.

“Hey!” the old lady shouted, and she pointed at the sky.

“Yeah, storm”, Hillyard shouted back.

The old lady continued going “hey! hey!” and pointing to the sky.

“Yes I know, storm”, Hillyard repeated “You’d better get back inside”.

The old lady made a noise as if to say “pah! I wash my hands of you!” and went back into the Inn.

“We should’ve had old Jobe with us”, said Hillyard “She seems to have a bit of a thing about him”.

A dramatic jag of lightning split the sky towards the north.

“It’s going to hammer down at any moment”, said Ransey.

“Roll on midnight”, said Hillyard “Then someone else can come and take over!”

“I never get used to these tropical storms”, said Bengo, who was lying on his bunk and picking at his toenails “Even though I’ve known them all my life”.

“Don’t do that in here!” snapped Bardin.

“I’m not doing anything”, said Bengo “Oh dear, are you walking stiffly? That’s a shame”.

“Huh”, said Bardin “ONe day I’m going to stand and watch whilst you get a damn good spanking”.

“Ooh I don’t mind”, said Bengo “It’s sexier when it’s you though. And I don’t think Adam gets as much pleasure from walloping me”.

“Oh no, ‘cos you’re such a sweet little cutie aren’t you”, said Bardin, pinching Bengo’s cheeks.

“Yes”, said Bengo, shamelessly “More likely, it’s because it’s sexier spanking you”.

A flash of lightning lit up the room.

“Oh c’mon, get into bed, Bardy”, said Bengo “It’s been a long day”.

“Do you know something?” said Bardin, climbing in awkwardly “I feel like I used to after a big show sometimes”.

“How d’you mean?”

“Tired of being on public display. I don’t think I’ve had a moment today when there hasn’t been someone bending my ear about something or other. And I don’t mean the family. I’m used them”.

“We get tired of having other people around”, said Bengo “The neighbours I mean. We need a period of retreat, as Kieran calls it”.

“Trouble is, we can’t leave them”, said Bardin “For all we know we might be the only ones left … well I hesitate to say sane and normal, but that might be the case”.

“This situation can’t last forever”, said Bengo “Nothing ever does. And at least we have night-time, like this”.

“But every 5 minutes there seems to be someone wanting to know something”, said Bardin “And I’m terrified of making the wrong decision. It seems like one slip and all hell could break loose”.

“But no one expects you to be perfect”, said Bengo “We certainly don’t! And Lord Robert’s in charge of the yacht crowd”. “Don’t tell anyone about what I’ve just said”, said Bardin “It’ll only make me sound all snivelling and self-indulgent, like some ruddy great diva”.

“Well they already think we’re that!” said Bengo.

“It’s the not knowing what’s getting me down”, said Bardin “Not knowing what’s going on out there in the big, wide world”.

“Perhaps it’s better not to know”.

“No, I’m not buying that. If we did, at least we could get on. Make plans. I mean, for a start if we are under threat then this area isn’t safe. But I feel we’ll never get the brothers at the Inn to move on”.

“Adam often says let’s not meet trouble halfway”, said Bengo “It’ll come and find us soon enough. Now relax. Otherwise I’ll start to think that being walloped doesn’t do you any good any more!”

The following morning the clowns set to work clearing up the mess on the main deck caused by the storm. It was a humid, blustery day which predicted another storm in the near future.

“What’s the matter with old Bardin this morning?” asked Hal, one of the clowns “He seems really quiet, not himself at all”.

Bardin was at the other end of the deck, leaning on the bulwark, his cap practically pulled down around his ears.

“Perhaps he’s having another funny turn”, said Mutton Broth “Like the one he had after we saw the Village of Stairs in ruins”.

“He is not having a funny turn!” bellowed Bengo, who had been passing nearby.

This unfortunately alerted Bardin, who shouted over at them to get back to work.

“Now look what you’ve done”, said Bengo “You’ve upset him”.

“We didn’t do that”, said Mutton Broth “You did”.

“Bengo!” Bardin called him over.

“Don’t interrupt them when they’re working”, he said, when Bengo reached him “God knows it takes long enough to get them started as it is”.

“You were so quiet, I think they were a bit worried”, said Bengo.

“A bit nosey more like!” said Bardin. “Bardin”, said Adam, coming over to them, pushing a sacktruck of goods “Why don’t you come ashore with us? James is going to show us some new storage place he has in the basement”.

“Oh exiting”, said Bardin, sarcastically.

“Just smack him again, Adam”, said Bengo “He’s being a big kid”.

“Perhaps just this once Bardin, just say nothing”, said Adam.

“I was accused of being too quiet just now!” said Bardin.

Adam seized his arm and escorted him firmly ashore.

“So where is this basement storage place then?” said Bardin, who was perplexed when James, clutching a forbiddingly large set of keys, led them out of the back of the pub and into the edge of the forest nearby.

“It’s in the old crypt”, said James.

“The crypt?” Bardin exclaimed “You store food in the crypt?”

“S’alright”, said James “There’s no one down there now. Well no one that we know of anyway. It hasn’t been used in years. C’mon, I’ll show you”.

He took them to a small tower at the edge of the forest. With much jangling of keys he unlocked the weather-beaten door.

“Lock’s a bit stiff”, he said “I can’t remember the last time we used it. There hasn’t been much need with just the 3 of us. Well no, that’s not the real truth. The thing is, it’s not safe to use it alone. Too easy for the door to slam shut”.

“But surely you would know where each of you were?” said Adam “And you would look here first”.

James was too busy wrenching open the door to respond. The door revealed a narrow set of stone steps twisting downwards. The cold air that wafted up to them felt more refreshing than off-putting, after the heat of the sun.

“Right”, James lit the lantern he had carried over from the Inn “Now take care, this is a very old place, and it’s rarely used these days”.

Adam gave the clowns a stern, warning look. They followed James in single file down the steps, and into a large chamber at the bottom. James set the lantern on a concrete table in the middle of the room. The table bore an unsettling resemblance to a mortuary slab.

“As I said, we don’t use it much these days”, said James “But there’s plenty of space, and it’s so cool down here that things can keep for quite some time”.

It was hard not to notice that there were a couple of tunnels running randomly off through low-hanging arches.

“Where does that go?” said Adam.

“No one knows”, said James “We always thought it was too dangerous to explore them. They could collapse, that sorta thing”.

“Yes I see”, said Adam “Well I guess we can certainly use this for storage. No problem”.

“But don’t come down here alone”, said James “In fact, I’d say don’t come down here unless there are least 3 of you”.

“Are you listening, Bardin?” said Bengo.

“Yes of course I’m listening”, said Bardin “Stop being so annoying”.

“Huh!” said Bengo.

“Shut up, or I’ll lock you both down here”, said Adam “Now come along, up the stairs”.

When they emerged back out of the tower they found James’s elderly mother standing at the edge of the forest. She was jabbering away incomprehensibly, and sounding like an excitable crow. She was also gesticulating wildly all around her.

“She doesn’t like us wandering into the forest”, said James.

The old woman gave another “caw-caw” type noise, then flung her hands up, as though saying “I give up”, and went back to the Inn.

“I’m not sure I want to use that old crypt”, said Adam, now sitting with a glass of sherry on the windowseat in Julian’s cabin “It doesn’t seem a very healthy place to store anything, no matter how cold it is. I don’t see as how it’s much good for anything, frankly”.

“Not even for locking up naughty clowns in?” said Julian, joining him on the windowseat.

“Oh I was just letting off steam”, said Adam “I wouldn’t really do that”.

“It seems to have done the trick though, don’t knock it”, said Julian “They’ve been quite subdued since they got back. For them anyway”.

“Goodness knows what James thinks when I have to tell them off like that”.

“Probably used to it himself. That old mother of theirs may be as mad as a box of frogs, but she still rules the roost”.

“He did say to me recently that he feels sorry for some of our lot, never having had a mother”, said Adam.

“You’re their mother”, said Julian “And a damn sight more warm-hearted than I remember my mother ever being!”

“One with squabbling children”, said Adam “I’m glad something worked to calm them down. Clearly giving them a good hiding doesn’t work”.

“Keep it up though”, said Julian “Never does them any harm either”.

“It’s quite frustrating that one has to consider the neighbours all the time though”, said Adam “I would love to have the freedom to toss Bardin over my knee whenever I felt like it. He should be spanked far more often”.

“You’re just not making enough effort”, said Julian “If you can’t manage it, send him along to me”.

“You’ve got your hands full with Hoowie”, said Adam “I’m not at ease with those tunnels down there, beyond the crypt. Gave me the creeps. James says they’ve never explored them”.

“Is he telling the truth?”

“Yes I think so. As far as I can tell. As you pointed out, he’s very much under the sway of his mother, and she didn’t like us going into the forest. She’s probably banned her sons from using the crypt”.

“Mm, a pity we can never get any sense out of her”, said Julian “She could probably tell us a lot about this area. Still, the tunnels might be worth exploring”.

“I can’t imagine why”.

“Don’t be a wuss. Who knows where they might go. Perhaps they may even lead somewhere overland. Think how useful that could be if we could travel underground to somewhere. Less conspicuous than going by ship”.

“It also means someone can travel to us”, said Adam “Which isn’t so much of a comforting thought”.

The evening was stormy once again, but it was one of those storms which seemed to rumble around for hours on end, but never actually got anywhere. In it’s own way it was oddly pleasant.

“Or perhaps we’re just so short of entertainment these days we have to look out for storms”, said Joby.

“I thought you had entertainment tonight”, said Hillyard “Isn’t Bardin getting walloped again?”

“Letting Adam be alone with him tonight”, said Joby “Bengo’s up playing a game with Farnol on deck. And I’m having an early night. Perhaps if Adam’s alone he can concentrate, and then Bardin might be a bit calmer tomorrow”.

“Last night’s didn’t work”, Hillyard pointed out

“I know!” said Joby, in exasperation.

Bardin was stripped down to his shorts in the galley, and being smacked firmly on the behind.

“Your feet are filthy”, said Adam, as Bardin waved his feet in the air.

“Oh! Damnit!” yelled Bardin, who was happy to make as much noise as possible, as the thunder was drowning him out.

“And you were winding Bengo up in the crypt”, said Adam, smacking him even harder.

“He was winding me up too!” Bardin squawked.

Ransey knocked on the door.

“Sorry to interrupt this very important work”, he said, coming into the room “But there’s something Bardin should hear on the wireless”.

“It’s not another of your secret service messages that you don’t know what it really means is it?” said Bardin.

“No it’s not!” said Ransey.

Adam dealt Bardin’s behind another couple of smacks before Ransey came to help him to his feet. His penis was pushing out of the front of his shorts.

“We could hang our hats on that”, said Ransey.

Bardin blushed as red as his behind, and followed Ransey into the wireless room next door.

“Right now listen”, said Ransey, handing him the headset.

Bardin listened carefully at the random messages that came over the airwaves.

“What on earth does it mean?” he said, eventually “‘Rebel hordes descending on the city’?”

“Someone at the Ministry is putting out these messages”, said Ransey “Only they’re not in code this time”.

“But we always thought the Evil was coming FROM the City”, said Bardin “That it had started there?”

“Perhaps originally it did”, said Ransey, flicking the switches to the Off position “But you’ve got to admit, our knowledge of the City is years out of date. It’s all largely from the Cave4, and they had already been away from it for over 2 years by the time we met them … and that was quite some time away”.

“So something else has spawned and is now about to attack the City?” said Bardin “Talk about a bloody maelstrom of Evil! Is it coming from round here?”

“We can’t possibly know that yet”, said Ransey “My gut feeling though is no it’s not. Whatever’s operating round here is exclusive to this area, along this river. The City’s under attack by something else, and I expect it’s something that has sprung up in the wake of the original trouble, and is now about to take advantage of the City in disarray”.

“So what do we do?” said Bardin.

“At the moment I suggest we watch from afar”, said Ransey “Information and patience is what we require at the moment”.

“That seems to have been the case for a long while now”, said Bardin.

“Don’t be in any hurry to meet this trouble head on”, said Ransey, grabbing Bardin’s arm “Remember the state in which we found the Village of Stairs?”

“How could I forget?” said Bardin, bitterly.

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