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By Sarah Hapgood

Hillyard hated flying. He had never trusted air-buggies, and could see no reason to change his mind on the subject. But it was by far the swiftest way to travel, and Kieran didn't want to cause anymore delay in getting to Wolf Castle than was absolutely necessary. Although stuck high up in the forbiddingly cold Thet Mountains, Kieran still believed the area would be more amenable to Adam's condition than the damp, freezing fogs that settled over the City during the winter.

"Godforsaken place", Julian grumbled, as he played backgammon with Adam at the back of the buggy "I've been looking it up on the map. It's miles from anywhere!"

"What difference does that make to you?" said Adam "You're hardly a party animal these days Jules".

"I was thinking more of you actually", said Julian "You're going to miss having the distractions of the City squatting on your doorstep".

"Wolf Castle isn't that remote", Kieran chimed in "There's a village a few miles down from us".

"A village!" Julian exclaimed "Rich beyond the dreams of Killarney obviously".

"Ignore him Patsy", said Adam "He's just desperate to have something to moan about".

"Doubtless there will be plenty when we get there", said Julian.

"The estate agent assured me Wolf Castle has all mod cons", said Kieran "By fifth millennium standards anyway".

"Which means be grateful for running water and a flush bog", said Joby.

"No electric light in the bedrooms I suppose?" Julian sighed.

"There is downstairs", said Kieran, defensively "Some of the time anyway. The generator's not too good, we're going to have to have it replaced at some point".

"I think Lonts needs calming down Adam", said Hillyard, queasily. His bad nerves weren't being helped by an excitable Lonts dancing in the gangway in movements that required a lot of heavy thumping about.

"At least we don't have Angel's delightful company to worry about", said Julian, returning the backgammon pieces to the box "How on earth did you persuade him not to come Kieran?"

"I didn't", Kieran replied "To be honest with you I don't think it sunk into him what we were up to. He showed no interest in coming anyway, so I didn't push it. I don't think he realises how long we're going to be away for".

Wolf Castle had originally been the site of a mountain retreat for monks. At the time of the Abolition of Religion the original building was gutted by a reclusive tycoon, and a much larger, more fancy structure built round it. Remnants of the old monastic style were still apparent in the indoor atrium hall at the centre of the building though, which was overlooked by a gallery with stone arches. The rest of the building, although labouring under the grand moniker of "castle", was in fact little more than a glorified hunting-lodge. It was already comfortably furnished though, and in spite of an underlying sense of being a bit threadbare, the house had a pleasant atmosphere.

Kieran was delighted to see that the others seemed to relax there immediately, which he took to be a good sign. He felt instinctively that it was a house that would thrive by having a large family in it, that it had probably been suffering in isolation for too long. House were like humans, if deprived of cheerful company for too long they drew in on themselves and became moody and forbidding. It was still not too late for Wolf Castle to be redeemed in that sense.

The air-buggy had been piloted by Ransey, and he landed it on the huge sweep of lawn that ran up to the house on the south side. It was early evening by the time they arrived, but twilights were later here than in the City and it was only just beginning to go dark.

Ransey lingered to help with getting the generator started and the fires lit, but he made his excuses to go to bed soon afterwards. He had been working almost as hard as Kieran for some time, and was looking forward to a rest more than he had initially realised. He took the first reasonably-sized bedroom he could find as his own. It turned out to have heavy red-flock wallpaper with a matching red carpet, and every item of furniture was large and old, including a marble washstand supporting a heavy china jug and basin. All that Ransey asked of his new accommodation though was that he could lie down in it in peace. He hastily made up his bed and did so.

The dream was so vivid he could have sworn she was in the same room as him. She was slim and blonde, but without her clothes it was hard to guess if she really was the Golden Woman or not. Ransey was no stranger to wet dreams, or how uncomfortably vivid they could be, but there was something even more disturbing about this one. He could feel the dampness between her legs, relished the ease with which he was sucked into her wet tunnel. It was all so incredible. So vivid, so real. And yet at the same time her skin had felt so unnaturally cold.

His sleep was bizarre for the rest of the night. The brief intervals when he awoke he felt as though he was drugged. At one point he noticed that his bedroom door had become unlatched, and a shaft of light from the atrium flowed gently across the red carpet. He concentrated on that shaft of light to try and give him some semblance of normality, but after a while he had only convinced himself that someone was waiting on the other side of the door. She only had to push the door open a bit further and he would be able to see her. Only this time he wasn't sure if he wanted to.

By the morning he was restless, full of pent-up energy that needed to be assuaged somehow. Noticing that Lonts was in a similar condition he decided to take the boy jogging, using a track that wound down through the woods to the village of Thetislog. Soon after they had gone Adam noticed that a small crowd of "gawpers" had gathered at the main gates, and he was glad Ransey had decided against using the mountain-road.

Even though they were stuck up a mountain the most dedicated of groupies were still prepared to gather to watch for the slightest glimpse of Kieran. The house was easily visible from the gates, and Adam was annoyed at their refusal to let Kieran have a holiday in peace. Not that Kieran or Joby seemed to be in any hurry to emerge from their room, so the groupies were in for a long wait. Adam recognised one of them easily. The others had given him the sinister soubriquet of The Watcher, but he was actually a rather sad individual whose whole life seemed to be given over to following the antics of the President and his family.

Adam decided to go and talk to the crowd, in the hope that, once satisfied, they would then clear off. It was a ploy that had worked occasionally in the past. The Watcher sent up a gasp of wonder along the line when Adam strolled down the drive towards them.

"We were just debating amongst ourselves which one of you would be the first to emerge", said The Watcher "I said ... didn't I fellas? I said it would be Mr Adam. He always finds time for a little chat with us. I've got some photographs of Hillyard I took when he was walking round the City Market one day. Would you like to see them?"

"No thanks, I can see Hillyard anytime", said Adam, looking with horror at the substantial stack of photographs The Watcher had produced from his holdall "Are they all of Hillyard?"

"Oh no, I've got a lovely one of you here", The Watcher showed Adam a picture, taken the previous summer, of himself sitting at an outdoor cafe, with Lonts next to him nuzzling his arm affectionately. It was a charming picture, and yet Adam couldn't help feeling annoyed that he hadn't realised it was being taken. It felt intrusive, like being snapped naked and unshaven at your bedroom window. Not for the first time he felt felt like telling The Watcher that his fascination with them was sometimes little short of sheer bloody cheek.

"You've got your blue shirt on today", The Watcher went on "I saw you just before Yule wearing a red sweater. I thought trust Mr Adam to pick a festive colour. His clothes are always so appropriate to the occasion. You're quite an inspiration to us older men".

Adam had been getting embarrassed and not a little annoyed by this love-in, but on realising that Julian was now standing near him he decided to start enjoying it instead.

"We'll be around for a few more days yet", The Watcher went on.

"Where on earth are you staying then?" said Adam.

"Oh we tend to throw ourselves on the mercy of kindly locals".

"Don't you have jobs or anything?" Adam couldn't help asking "Any other kind of life at all?"

"There is nothing else", said The Watcher, emphatically.

Adam was so depressed by this revelation that he was glad when Julian steered him away from the gates.

"You're as vain as Lonts sometimes", said Julian "You'll stand and listen to any amount of bogus flattery".

"It wasn't bogus", Adam protested "They mean it, in their own way".

"If it wasn't for your status of president's consort they wouldn't look twice at you".

"Ooh bitchy. Don't you think I'm attractive then Jules?"

"I think you're getting too big for your boots Jensen", said Julian, in a mock-firm voice "I think you need to come to my room for a bit of discipline".

"The dreaded summons!" Adam laughed "I remember it of old".

"I'll be waiting for you", said Julian, as they reached the front entrance to the house "Give me ten minutes to set the scene".

Adam was so excited by then that he didn't know if he'd be able to wait that long. He hovered in the lobby which led to the atrium, touching the furniture in an abstract fashion, until it was time to mount the stairs.

Ransey had taken Lonts running down through the trees towards Thetislog. The village looked depressing, consisting of one street in which young boys, forestry apprentices mainly, milled aimlessly. They wore their hair slicked back to give them as aggressive a look as possible. Although who they were getting aggressive with wasn't entirely clear.

The one pub was austere, and sported a lot of chilly blonde panelling. The landlord, a stooped old man with a sour expression, looked as though he hated all customers and would do his utmost to repel them from darkening his premises again. When Ransey requested two beers and two meat-pies the landlord looked as though he would have a nervous breakdown.

Ransey took the food and drink out to Lonts, who was sitting on a grassy slope behind the building, examining his feet.

"For someone who gets about as much exercise as one of Trixie's lap-dogs used to", said Ransey, sitting down beside him "You're remarkably fit. Must be all those games of polar bears".

"Have you made up your mind whether you're going to stay with us when Kieran abdicates Ransey?"

"Well he said he'd put in a good word for me with Gorth", said Ransey "He said there was no reason why I shouldn't keep my job".

"Oh", Lonts stared at the crust of his meat-pie in disappointment.

"But Kieran's not the only one who's tired of public life", Ransey went on "And he's going to need someone to run the estate here".

"You're staying with us?" Lonts looked gratifyingly pleased by this news "Adam'll be really glad. He was saying in bed last night that we need you around as our referee".

"And I might need you lot just as much in future", said Ransey.

"Is something wrong then?"

"Oh just a few bad dreams, that's all".

Lonts smiled and squeezed Ransey's hand.

"You'll help keep me sane Lonts, I'm sure of it".

"Can I tell Adam you said that?"

"By all means".

"I'll tell Joby too. Because he's always saying I drive everyone mad".

There was a terrific din going on in the courtyard of the pub. Several young men on horseback had ridden into the village, and were now loudly demanding that the landlord bring substantial quantities of brandy out to them. The local boys had evaporated on their arrival, which was understandable as the newcomers had 'trouble' written all over them.

"I don't like the look of that lot", said Ransey "Let's take our beers into the forest and drink them somewhere more private".

"I'm sure you can see them off Ransey", said Lonts.

"It's not me I'm worried about", said Ransey "Come on".

"How long have I been asleep?"

"A couple of hours", Julian sat down on the edge of his bed and passed Adam a small cup of coffee "I wouldn't have disturbed you now, only I expect Ransey and the demented Eskimo will be home soon".

"I don't know how I managed to sleep surrounded by these green walls", said Adam, looking around him critically "Reminds me of the Loud House".

"Well perhaps if we're moving here for good Tinkerbell will let me re-decorate", said Julian "I chose this room because there's one for Finia directly adjoining, and it's a corner room so I think it gets more light than the ordinary ones".

"Which also means it's colder".

"Yes but we have our love to keep us warm", Julian laughed, suggestively.

"One of the awful things about getting old", said Adam, trying stiffly to move himself into a sitting position "Is that every bit of pleasure comes with a price".

"It always did, it's just we never noticed it before", said Julian "Quite like old times though wasn't it?"

"I love being with you Jules. I can just be completely myself".

"Good!" said Julian "So you don't feel you live in my shadow anymore? The mousy little friend, remember? Here, I meant to show you this earlier. I found it a little while back".

Julian took a small photograph out of his wallet on the bedside table.

"I'd forgotten I had it", he said, handing it to Adam "It was shoved behind all sorts of other things I've hung onto for nostalgia purposes, like my driving licence and credit cards".

"I remember", said Adam "We used to need cards for everything didn't we? Going into a shop was like shuffling a deck. None of it seems real now. In the fifth millennium if it's not folding money then they're not interested. Good grief, this is an old one!"

The photograph had been taken in a station booth. Adam and Julian both crammed into the confined space, both looking ridiculously young and attractive. Adam had his arms coiled round Julian's neck and wore an expression of such possessive hostility it seemed like he was about to head-butt the camera.

"You don't look too much like the mousy little friend there", said Julian "Very much the golden boys weren't we? Lonts wouldn't have got noticed in those days".

"Yes he would", said Adam "Did I look that angry all the time?"

"Only when we were out. But then I gave you plenty of cause to".

"Talk about the basilisk stare of the Gorgon! I must have been quite terrifying".

"You were gorgeous", said Julian "Just a bit crazy that's all. You never looked like that when we were at home though. I'm glad to say".

"Did I frighten you in those days Jules?"

"Sometimes", said Julian "Particularly as I didn't know any other way of coping than to behave badly. The barbs didn't help. They made me so aggressive, and you always said the last thing I needed was more testosterone!"

"You had the worst times in your life with me didn't you?"

"And the best. Don't forget that. Every other relationship I've ever had has seemed anaemic by comparison".

"Bullshit", Adam snorted.

"Anymore talk like that and I shall have to take my slipper to you again", said Julian, sternly "Except I don't think your aged bones could cope with two wallopings in one day. I bet Tinkerbell couldn't provide a service like that. After all, he's not exactly head prefect material".

"He wouldn't have made me kiss the bloody slipper beforehand, that's for sure", Adam exclaimed "Or made me say 'please' and 'thank you'. You haven't forgotten any of the old rituals at all. God, what a stir Patsy would have made at our school though eh?".

"He would have infuriated everyone with that insufferably superior air of his".

"He's only like that with you. Think of the love-notes he would have got, and you would have gone round sniffily proclaiming that he was an ill-educated common Bible-bashing Paddy. Your nose well and truly out of joint".

"He is", said Julian "Did you know his mother ran a bed and breakfast establishment?"

"Horrors!" said Adam "And now you're being supported by him!"

"Don't remind me. My own fault for being lazy I suppose".

"The first time I ever saw him I wanted to punch something", said Adam "I just thought it was so unfair that after everything I'd been through I should be tormented by a boy of such beauty, who I thought I didn't have a cat in hell's chance of having".

"If you felt like that why did you employ him?"

"Because the thought of not seeing him would have been far worse. I used to fantasise about ways of getting him round to my place. You know, like pretending I was ill and asking him to bring documents to my bedside to be signed, that sort of thing".

"You'd have scared the living daylights out of him", said Julian "Or he'd have bottled out and sent Joby instead".

"That would have been interesting too", said Adam, wryly.

"Enough to make you sick for real I would've thought. The sight of his lugubrious countenance would have been like getting a visit from the grave-digger. I sometimes wonder if Joby is a reincarnation of Crippen. He's just the sort that would put up with a nagging wife for twenty years without saying a word, and then one day suddenly inter her under the patio".

"I would've said Joby was more like Mr Polly actually", said Adam "He wouldn't murder his shrewish wife, he'd just quietly disappear one day and go to find Patsy. The one he was meant for all along".

"You always were romantic", said Julian.

"Hello Joby, I'm back", said Lonts, suddenly appearing in the library. He looked hot and sweaty, in spite of the fact that it was a cold, January twilight.

"So I see", said Joby, unenthusiastically.

"And Ransey says I keep him sane, so you can't go on about how nutty I am in future".

Joby was relieved when Lonts went back into the atrium in search of food. From the squawks of delight that came from there soon after it was obvious the boy had found Adam. Joby lay back on one of the two sofas which flanked the fireplace and dozed for a little while, until Adam joined him.

"Are you alright?" Joby looked up blearily "Only you're limping".

"Oh just the results of a bit of fun", said Adam, rearranging the cushions on the other sofa to make a nice, soft padding for his posterior "Julian's been whacking me with his slipper".

"And you enjoyed that did you?" said Joby, still finding himself blushing even after all these years.

"It was quite stimulating", said Adam.

"Don't know how you can let him do that to you", said Joby "It's demeaning".

"Yes I suppose it is", said Adam "A bit like having Hillyard yanking down your pants for a quick grope".

"Well scored that man!" Joby laughed "Anyway I'm not being disapproving Ad, just don't want you wearing yourself out that's all. The forecast says it's going to rain later".

"What's that got to do with the price of fish?"

"The damp, you know", Joby mumbled, awkwardly "Your chest. Perhaps you should go up to bed".

"I'm not taking to my bed just because there's going to be a bit of rain", Adam lobbed a cushion at Joby "I've never heard anything so absurd. Talking to you sometimes Joby is an experience akin to dropping acid".

"God knows what that makes talking to Lonts then", said Joby "I often think you have to be on drugs to make sense of him".

"Ransey is quite put out", said Adam "He came back from the run exhausted, whereas Lonts is still leaping around like a spring lamb".

Lonts ran back into the room a few minutes later, looking agitated and gabbling so fast he didn't make any sense at all.

"Calm down old love", said Adam "What on earth's the matter?"

"The guard-dogs are getting upset Adam", said Lonts "I can hear them howling, can't you?"

"It's 'cos the wind's getting up a bit that's all", said Joby "They can probably hear a tree rustling and they think it's an intruder".

"They'll settle down eventually", said Adam.

"No Adam, they're upset", Lonts began to cry "I need to go outside and reassure them".

"Alright", Adam climbed to his feet slowly.

"You stay there", said Joby "I'll take the snivelling little brat out to them".

The dog-pen was situated in a courtyard just beyond the back door. The animals had indeed become agitated by the wind and the rain, which was steadily beginning to increase as the darkness came on. Joby stood nervously at the entrance to the pen whilst Lonts walked round each dog in turn, pacifying them.

"Hurry up", said Joby, unnerved himself by the eerie rustling of the trees nearby.

"Dogs are very sensitive animals Joby", said Lonts "I have to make sure each one is contented".

"Lonts!" Joby swore he could hear someone moving about rapidly through the trees. The frenzied swishing sound reminded him uncomfortably of the elemental they had heard circling the wagon in Xuste "Come on out of there now! I mean it".

"But Joby ..."

"Now!" Joby grabbed Lonts's arm and pulled him towards the gate.

By a small miracle Joby managed to get the gate shut and Lonts into the house via the back door. He locked it against the weather and whatever else it was that had been out there. The wind rattled the door rebelliously in its frame, and for one brief appalling moment Joby fancied he saw a shadow cross the frosted glass panel.

It was a relief to leave the gloomy corridors at the back of the house, with their low ceilings covered by thermal-cladded hot water pipes, and head up to the noise, light and warmth of the atrium, where the others were eating from a selection of hot dishes Hirrid had set up on a low table in front of the fireplace.

"Jobe, are you alright?" said Kieran.

"Just about", Joby shivered "It's so dark and bleak out there you can start imagining things. And Lonts didn't help by refusing to do as he was told".

"Oh dear", said Adam "Is the baby going to have to be spanked today as well?"

"I can get round you Adam", said Lonts, sitting on the arm of Adam's chair and kissing him enthusiastically.

"Don't mind us will you?" Julian snarled.

They were all trying to listen to a boxing-match on the antiquated battery-powered radio (television didn't operate much beyond the City and other major towns), when there was suddenly a loud hammering on the front door. Nobody stirred to answer it, as the fight was at a crucial stage and the volume kept inconveniently disappearing as the transmission signal battled against the elements.

"Where's Hirrid?" said Joby, as the hammering continued "What do we keep him around here for?"

"He's gone to bed, he had a migraine coming on", said Hillyard.

"Someone had better answer it", said Kieran.

"Go on then", said Joby "And if it's any of the neighbours tell 'em they've had a wasted journey. We're not in".

He decided to follow Kieran into the hall though, recollecting the sinister shape he had seen at the back door earlier. The hammering had stopped, but Kieran opened the door to be assaulted by a swirl of leaves and twigs blown in by the wind.

"There's no one there", he said, stepping cautiously out onto the drive.

"They've left a note on the door though", said Joby, unpinning a piece of paper from the studded wood.

"What does it say?"

"'You are invited to drinks at Thetislog Cross at seven p.m tomorrow'", said Joby "And that's it. Not even signed. Doesn't say if it's just you who's invited or all of us".

"Well I'm not going alone", Kieran examined a framed map of the area on the lobby wall "Thetislog Cross is some building right down in the woods on the other side of us. Opposite direction to Thetislog village. We'll all turn up. Give 'em a stir. Serve them right for being so peculiar with their invites".

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