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The others had been kind to Hillyard since the night he was attacked in the woods, so much so that one evening they actually agreed to let him cook the dinner. This would normally have been considered unthinkable. Ever since their poverty-stricken days, when they had been forced to exist on his carrot stew, Hillyard's cooking had been notorious for its sheer awfulness.
"He's been wanting to cook ever since we came to the Castle", said Adam, in answer to Joby's mutinous enquiry "I thought it would take his mind off the attack".
"I hope you've got something to take your mind off eating it then", Joby replied.
Hillyard in turn couldn't believe his luck and was determined to prove to all his critics that he was capable of this momentous task. How he managed to cook a meal at all though with Hirrid constantly nagging him, he put down to one of those strangely positive quirks of luck that come along occasionally. As it was Hirrid seemed to be releasing all his pent-up frustration in one verbal torrent.
"I think it's shameful the way you've never reported the attack to the village constable", he was saying, as he sat at the kitchen-table polishing the silver as though he was plucking a chicken.
"It was my decision right?" said Hillyard.
"Not everyone's got the protection of the President you know", Hirrid carried on regardless "You can hide yourself away up here. No one else can. If they choose any man in the street as their next victim, they could keep on at him, possibly drive him to his grave".
"It was just a random attack", Hillyard sighed "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time".
"I don't see that that makes any difference at all", Hirrid pouted "These people are bullies. They have to be stood up to".
"Well someone else can do it. I'm not interested".
"That's a very selfish attitude, if I may say so".
"I don't happen to think it is", said Hillyard "Look, between you and me, the reason I didn't report it was because I didn't want it reflecting on Kieran. If anything happens to any one of us and it gets made public then, like it or not, he gets dragged into it too. And then suddenly it's not a case of Hillyard getting beaten up in the woods, but the President's valet getting beaten up in the woods. And then before you know it it's what was he doing in the woods at that time of night? And then they're interviewing every bartender in every pub or club I've ever been in, and even going through our rubbish. As far as the press is concerned there would be no such thing as a random attack on a member of the President's party, but a deliberate conspiracy because I'd been up to no good somewhere. They'd try and accuse me of everything under the sun, up to and including murder!"
"Perhaps if you led a more blameless lifestyle they wouldn't have anything to work on", said Hirrid.
"I've been pretty blameless since we arrived here", said Hillyard, hastily consulting a recipe-book.
"Not through lack of trying", said Hirrid, sullenly.
Thunder rumbled overhead, and the dogs barked excitedly in the pen outside.
"I knew there was going to be a storm", said Hirrid "I had a headache all afternoon".
"That makes a change", Hillyard grunted.
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Just that you've usually got something wrong with you".
"A lot of it's tension", said Hirrid "And stress. I think you know what, or rather I should say who, brings it on".
"If I'm that bad for you I don't know why you bother with me".
A flash of lightning caught Hirrid's eye through the gap at the bottom of the outside door. Thunder rumbled so loudly that the walls almost shook.
"I-I love you", he said, awkwardly "And I don't want to be in this world alone. Do you understand?"
"Yes", said Hillyard "It's not something I'd recommend to anyone. I sometimes think what might have happened to me in Kiskev that time, if Stombal had died but I hadn't met up with the others. I'd have been stranded there alone, miles from anywhere. It doesn't bear thinking about. I understand you know, it's just that most of the time I don't know what I want. It doesn't mean I don't love you any the less, but I can't ask you to hang around whilst I sort myself out. It wouldn't be fair".
"But I will", Hirrid smiled "For the time being. I'll baste the meat for you".
The others entered the dining-room warily, as though it had been booby-trapped. Hillyard and Hirrid were standing by the table, on which was proudly displayed a joint of beef, looking succulent and juicy, surrounded by dishes of vegetables and a jug of aromatic gravy.
"It almost looks like real food", said Joby, in astonishment.
It even tasted like real food, and the others slowly had to concede that Hillyard may have achieved his own personal impossible. Joby almost blurted out that he suspected Hirrid may have cooked most of it, but he didn't voice this suspicion aloud in case his plate got taken away from him in a fit of pique. Apple pie followed, as a treat for Lonts whose passion for it was legendary. Afterwards everyone collapsed in the atrium, and released their stomachs from the belts of their trousers.
"I'm glad that storm's moving off", Ransey yawned "I'd hate to be kept awake by it, and I don't like the way flashes of lightning lights up a room".
"An old fear stemming from your childhood Ransey?" said Adam "I thought you'd be too rational and sensible to hang onto those".
"This one's a damn sight more recent than my childhood", said Ransey, his tongue loosened by a carafe of red wine "In fact I've only had it since coming here".
"Had what?" said Joby.
Ransey took a deep breath as though he was about to dive into the deep end of a swimming-pool.
"I've been seeing your Golden Woman, Hillyard", he said.
"She's not my Golden Woman", said Hillyard, stoutly "I wish I'd never seen her".
"Where have you been seeing her Ransey?" said Kieran "In this house?"
"Look I'd better come clean", Ransey sighed "I don't know if I really have seen her, or just dreamt her. I've been getting these powerful dreams, and when I say powerful I think you all know how I mean. The dreams are so strong half the time that I couldn't tell you if they were real or not. She's very beautiful, but before you start all the quips I'll tell you one thing. I couldn't be more scared of her if she was the Gorgon".
"Why?" said Joby.
"Just something about her that's not nice", said Ransey "I can't describe it any more than that".
"She still sounds a better deal than this Slime Man I've been having nightmares about", said Kieran.
"Or that horrible face we saw at the window the other night", said Joby.
A raucous bellowing of voices suddenly erupted from the dining-room. One voice was unmistakably that of Lonts, the other sounded barely human. They all ran into the dining-room to find Lonts and Angel fighting over the remains of the cold joint of beef. The front of Angel's shirt was plastered with the fatty juices from it.
"What the bloody hell is going on?" Adam roared, grabbing Lonts by his elbow and deftly pulling him away "Fighting over a joint of beef for crying out loud. Anyone would think we were still living rough!"
"Didn't you get enough to eat Lonts?" said Kieran.
"Of course he did", said Joby "He was just being a greedy little pig that's all. Nothing new about that".
"He was eating like an animal", said Lonts "Tearing it to pieces. I wanted to get it away from him".
"Your table manners aren't perfect either", Angel snarled.
"That's rich coming from you", said Adam.
Without warning Angel suddenly turned a piercing glare in Kieran's direction, and Kieran fell to the floor in a dead faint.
When he came round he was lying in his bedroom. The lamps were low, and lightning flashed intermittently, illuminating the mirror on his dressing-table in a most unsettling way. Rain was hammering violently on the windows. Joby was sitting close to him on the bed.
"Thank God you've come round", he said "I was beginning to get quite worried about you. You've been unconscious for several minutes".
"Has the storm come back Joby?" said Kieran, groggily.
"It never really went away", said Joby, pouring out a glass of water for his friend "It's just sort of rumbled around in the background, got bored and decided to come back again. It's funny. When I was little my gran used to say thunder was God moving the furniture around".
"My mam was scared stiff of storms", said Kieran "She used to cover all the mirrors with scarves. She did explain to me why once, but I don't think I quite grasped it".
"I'd better tell Adam you're conscious", said Joby "Won't be very long".
He returned after a couple of minutes, and then lay down on the bed and held Kieran for a little while.
"So", he said, eventually "Are you going to tell me what happened between you and Angel this evening?"
"I wish to God I knew", Kieran whispered "It all happened so quick. Perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps I was just tired, and it was all a coincidence. In fact the more I think about it, the more inclined I am to believe that's the case. It's all this talk of visions of the Golden Woman, the Slime Man, and faces at the window. It's got me all so confused I don't know what the hell I'm seeing anymore, or what to believe".
"You sound run-down to me", said Joby "And you don't look too good. All pale and thin".
"I thought the way you lot went on that I always looked like that", Kieran snapped.
"It's getting worse", said Joby, bluntly "Because of those Slime Man dreams you've been having you've hardly slept, and you're certainly not eating properly, which I suppose is hardly anything new".
"Yes alright, stop nagging", said Kieran "I promise I'll take care of meself better in future".
"I'll see you will", said Joby "I'm keeping you in here for a few days. I'm gonna feed you four square meals a day, keep you warm, and not let anyone in to see you. Particularly Ransey and his pieces of bloody paper".
"What about Adam?"
"He can come in when you're better", said Joby "At the moment if he gets anymore concerned about you he'll need oxygen cylinders. His chest sounds atrocious. There's quite enough of us falling to pieces round here. It's got to stop".
Over the next few days Kieran admitted he could not be enjoying better care. Joby stayed with him all the time, constantly feeding the bedroom fire with logs, and presenting Kieran with hot stodgy food sent up by Hirrid. Kieran gave up the struggle of worrying about the outside world and surrendered to Joby's ministrations. They talked softly together at all hours, often describing the plans they had for the cottage in the woods, and trying not to think of the tremendous amount of unfinished business that there seemed to be.
"Trouble is", said Kieran, late one afternoon "I can resign from being President, but I can't resign from being Vanquisher of Evil".
"We'll deal with all that as and when it happens", said Joby.
"It's happening now", said Kieran "The sightings of the Golden Woman. The Slime Man. Those thugs that beat up Hillyard and who seem to make their presence felt on a regular basis. And Power and his peculiarities. It all adds up to something, and I wish I knew what it was".
"Whatever it is you can bet Power's mummy is part of the equation", said Joby.
"And Angel fits into all this too", said Kieran "How's he been since the beef incident?"
"Don't know", said Joby "By all accounts he's stayed up in his room most of the time. Must be his age!"
"Makes me wonder what he does up there".
"Better off not knowing", said Joby "Anyway, here's some good news. Hirrid's baking flapjacks for you".
"Good grief, I haven't had them since before we crossed over!"
"The bad news is, Lonts is helping him. Apparently he wants to bring them up to you later".
"What's wrong with that?" said Kieran.
"Oh you know what he's like", said Joby "He gets all excited and starts thumping around the room. It's about as relaxing having him around as having Krakatoa erupting in the cellar".
"You've got to let him in Joby", said Kieran "Or his feelings'll be hurt".
"I don't care", said Joby, stubbornly "Seems to me too much attention is paid to his feelings. Adam should have given him a good hiding after that performance with Angel, but he goes all soft and says it wasn't Lonts's fault".
"Well it wasn't".
"Yes it was. He's been told time and again to stay away from Angel, but as usual he doesn't listen. Don't know why we waste our breath".
Joby grudgingly let Lonts in to see Kieran an hour later. Lonts was awed by the atmosphere of convalescence in Kieran's room, but reported back to Adam that Kieran looked more colourful than he had of late, and it was Joby who looked exhausted. Adam took this news as an opportunity to take over as first consort.
"Don't argue Joby", he said, removing Joby's bath-robe and shaving-tackle from the dressing-table in Kieran's room "You haven't had a decent night's sleep since Patsy fell ill. So I'm relieving you of your duties for tonight, and I'll play nurse for a few hours. I don't see why you should have all the fun".
"Well where am I supposed to sleep if you're moving in here for the night?" said Joby.
"You're swapping places with me, so my bed of course", said Adam "Lonts won't give you any trouble. I've already discussed it with him, and he quite likes the idea of looking after you for a night. I'll put his nappy on him, so unless there are any accidents, you won't have to do anything. Think of it as babysitting your little brother for a few hours".
"Little?" Joby exclaimed "More like thumping great big 'un!"
"You deserve a rest Joby", said Kieran "It'll do you the power of good".
"As long as Adam promises to stay with you all night", said Joby.
"I'd give you scout's honour", said Adam "Except the scouts wouldn't have me. Shame really. Both Julian and I had our hearts set on it at the time. Such is life".
Joby was more exhausted than he realised. He slept so heavily he was completely unaware of the passage of time. It was raining so much at the moment that the darkness of the rooms made it impossible to tell if it was day or night. He was vaguely aware of Lonts's presence a couple of times. The first time he woke briefly to find the boy sleeping peacefully next to him. He awoke briefly again a few hours later to find Lonts now conscious too, sucking his thumb thoughtfully and playing with his crucifix.
It was a full eighteen hours before Joby reached full consciousness himself. He was alone in the bed, and it had stopped raining outside to reveal a watery sunshine.
"It's got a lot warmer these past few days", said Kieran, detaching himself from the curtains and walking over to the bed.
"You're awake", said Joby.
"Yes, the kraken wakes!" Kieran sat down next to him.
"You look a lot better".
"So I should think, after all the tender loving care I've had", said Kieran "In fact I'm doing better than everyone else. Cabin fever seems to be setting in. Everyone's getting crabby and restless".
"Can't be helped by having a demon on the attic floor", said Joby.
"Not much we can do about him at the moment", said Kieran "Except I feel strong enough now to put up with any crap he chucks at me, in fact I might just start giving some back if he's not careful. It's more the others that are concerning me. If Hillyard doesn't get out of the house soon he'll develop full-blown agoraphobia, and Ransey needs some strenuous physical activity to take his mind off his sexual frustration".
"Easier said than done", Joby grunted "Poor bastard. No wonder he's tormented by the Golden Woman".
"He suggested we all take a walking holiday", said Kieran "Back-packing down through the forest on the north side of the Thet Mountains. In a few days we should reach that new township at the beginning of the so-called Uncharted Area. I'd be quite interested to see how they're getting on there".
"Won't the Ministry mind you taking a holiday?" said Joby.
"Probably", said Kieran "Although hopefully for much longer we won't have to worry about their opinion. Anyway, I'll have my chief of security along as protection. Don't you like the idea then?"
"Yea it's great", said Joby "Give the horse-riding thugs a chance to get bored and move on elsewhere. Shame about them really. I'd quite like this place if it wasn't for them".
"They'll get sorted eventually, mark my words", said Kieran "Thugs always over-reach themselves sooner or later".
"Will Angel be coming with us?"
"Entirely up to him", said Kieran "I'm not going to give him the satisfaction of asking him. If he does we'll just have to be as indifferent towards him as we can. No one can survive a wall of apathy directed towards them, not even Angel".
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