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The darkness lasted for five months. The worst aspect of it was the sheer disorientations of time. They had absolutely no way of finding out what day of the week it was, let alone what part of the day. Their body clocks clicked into a natural rhythm of their own, but they wouldn't know how in-sync they were with the real hours until the sun reappeared.
Time as a commodity in its own right had ceased to exist altogether. They ate only when they were hungry, to try and conserve the food, and lay down to rest when exhaustion set in. They slept for far longer than they normally did, simply because the darkness outside dictated as such.
Regular forays into the village and the forest meant they weren't short of fire-wood, so the fireplaces were kept banked up at all times, not just for warmth, but to bring some semblance of light into their darkened lives. Depressed spirits could be lifted slightly by going into a room with a lit fire, or lowering the door on the kitchen stove, so that the amber flames glowed through the bars.
They saw absolutely no one. Occasionally Hillyard fixed lamps to the side of the trap and they would go exploring in the local countryside, but the heavy drifts of snow made it impossible to go far. The huts and cottages they did find were all deserted.
"It doesn't make sense", said Joby, as he returned one day from a short trip with Hillyard "Where did everyone disappear to? All our neighbours, the farmers, the foresters?"
"I don't know", said Hillyard, shivering "All I know is I'm bloody cold. Let's go home".
The coldness could be terrifying. Most days the temperature didn't get above twenty degrees below freezing. Icicles had formed thick bars over the windows of the unheated rooms, and the drains had long since frozen up. Nobody could remember the last time they had had a shower or a bath, and the toilets had to be flushed (as infrequently as they could get away with) by using buckets of water. The only thing that, fortunately, wasn't an immediate worry was the food stocks. Thanks to their own extensive larder, and regular pilferings from the village and the empty neighbouring homesteads, they didn't have to face starvation just yet. As long as this appalling winter came to an end sooner or later they should survive.
"What the fuck are you playing at, Adam?" said Hillyard "You should be in bed".
He had walked into the kitchen one day (the clock said ten-to-nine, although that meant very little) to find Adam standing at the sink washing his armpits by the light of an old bicycle lamp propped on the draining-board. The kitchen was relatively well-heated by the stove, but there was still a cruel draught whistling around the doors and windows.
"I wanted to cook some breakfast", said Adam "And I thought I'd have a quick wash first. Anyway, don't nag. I get enough of that from Julian".
"Sorry, but you should watch the draughts in this place, they're treacherous", said Hillyard.
"I should be cognizant with them by now old love, or at least my ageing bones are anyway", Adam towelled himself dry.
Hillyard raised the blind over the other window and stared out into the gloom. Suddenly he started and pressed up against the glass.
"Adam", he said, excitedly "I think the sun's trying to get through!"
Adam pulled on his sweater and then unbolted the back door. He stepped outside and scanned the sky. There was no doubt about it. The clouds were getting lighter. Instead of the usual inky-blackness, there was now the warm glow of velvety dark blueness. There was light above the clouds, and it was struggling to get through.
"Hillyard", Adam wept "It's our first dawn".
"Yup", said Hillyard, and he beamed all over his face.
It was a day of miracles. It didn't get completely light, but they reasoned that in calendar terms they couldn't be far off the shortest day, the winter solstice, so perhaps that wasn't so unreasonable. It was enough that that small glimmer of light was there. When it disappeared again, at what they reasonably supposed was now late afternoon, they congratulated themselves that it would appear again tomorrow.
Fired by this momentous event Ransey dug the wireless set out of the hall cupboard. It had been banished there several weeks before, when they decided that they would only endure listening to yet more of the bleeps and whistles if anything happened. It was decided today that something had.
They took the radio up to Finia's room and assembled around his bed to Try The Dial once more. This time it yielded up a bumper crop. At one state they caught the tail-end of some tinny jazz music, followed by a trickle of polite applause.
"That's coming from the City I'm sure of it", said Hillyard, sitting back on his heels in disbelief.
"I think you're right", said Ransey, removing his spectacles to peer intently at the set on the mantelpiece "That frequency's a City one".
"Of course it is", said Hillyard, excitedly "I've occasionally picked up that station myself, before the Blast of course. It's a jazz evening they record live from one of the nightclubs once a week. Sunday nights, that's it. Hey, it's Sunday!"
"Focking marvellous", said Kieran, crossly "Whilst we've been living this gloomy end-of-the-world existence up here, life in the City's been carrying on as normal!"
"We don't know that yet, Patsy", said Adam.
"That could be an old recording bounced back from space from years before", said Joby, gloomily.
"Try another spot on the dial, Ransey", said Adam "We can always come back to that one".
"...warning to the fishermen in the Port West region to expect heavy squalls and poor visibility", came a familiar jolly voice "Heavy storms are in fact expected for some considerable way along the west coast, and many low-lying areas may experience flooding".
"That's Buskin!" said Joby "Doing his weekly report from the Weather Rock. Me and Kiel used to tune in regular on a Sunday evening just to hear how much he fluffed his lines!"
"Do you think the rest of the human race has been enjoying an elaborate practical joke at our expense?" said Julian.
"Ssh this bit's interesting", said Ransey.
"Visibility is slowly returning to some northern areas", Buskin went on "Although it may still be severely lacking in some mountainous regions, particularly those lying within the fifty-miles radius of last July's blast".
"What does he mean, last July's blast?" said Adam, indignantly "He makes it sound like one occurs every month!"
"This is Buskin reporting from the Weather Rock", the said man concluded, breezily "This time next week I'll be bringing you all the news you will require of the weather for the up-and-coming festive season".
"Oh well that's jolly decent of you, Buskin", said Adam, sarcastically.
"And as Buskin says we will be hearing from him again at the same time next Sunday", came a gravelly voice, grinding out the words in a slow and leisurely fashion "Now just a reminder that after the eight o'clock news, we have our usual Sunday night request programme, with I'm sure many familiar old and trusted tunes".
"I think I'm having a bad dream", said Julian.
"... the news at eight o'clock", the radio presenter went on "It has been officially confirmed today that the first expedition to the devastated Bandorra region will not now take place until the spring. A Ministry spokesman said today that although visibility is slowly returning there it is felt that the intervening few months will ensure complete safety for the excavation team, as fears have been expressed concerning the possible existence of poisoned gas in the area. Bandorra and the countryside for up to fifty miles around it is still in the grip of an unnatural winter, which itself has claimed almost as many lives as the initial Blast".
"So it was Bandorra that was hit", said Joby.
"That lovely hotel", said Lonts, looking stricken.
"They can't have noticed anything", said Julian "They would have just evaporated when the comet exploded".
"... collection centres have been set up across the City for the flood of refugees from the Blast region who are continuing to arrive daily", the newsreader went on "The Ministry urges men to give what they can to those who are now homeless because of the Blast. Prayers are still being said in the City churches for the men killed in the Blast, including the last President and his family. So far all attempts to trace him and his people have been in vain".
"They haven't exactly looked very hard", said Joby "We're here at home for crying out loud!"
"That's the Ministry for you", said Kieran.
"The President, Gorth, will switch on the Yule lights in the City centre tomorrow evening ..."
"Oh isn't that nice?" said Adam, snarling.
"He'll probably make a pig's ear of it", said Joby.
"... at the same time he will also light a commemorative flame to the late President, which will burn in the marketplace".
"I'm so deeply touched!" Kieran bellowed "The LATE President ... how dare they!"
"Reports of your death have been greatly exaggerated, Pats", said Adam "I'm very glad to say".
"Perhaps we should be charitable", said Julian.
"Now is not the time to break the habit of a lifetime, Jules", said Adam "We're not in the mood".
"It seems to me", Julian went on "That the Thetislog villagers got out just before the Blast. Since then we have been marooned up on this mountain, cut off from the outside world by snow and intense freezing darkness. Perhaps the Ministry just simply couldn't get here, even in an air-buggy. Perhaps they thought we evacuated with the villagers, and have since disappeared".
"That seems likely to be it", said Ransey "The Ministry won't put themselves out to organise a search, unless they can be certain of a result. And quite frankly anyone would have been mad to fly an air-buggy up here over the past few months anyway. Chances are they wouldn't have got here in one piece".
"Oh put the jazz music back on, Ransey", said Adam, wearily.
"Cheer up", said Ransey, moving the dial backwards "It's all plain sailing from here. First thing tomorrow, when it gets light ..."
He paused for appreciative cheers from everyone.
"I'll go down to the village and try the handsets", he said "They'll probably work better from down there".
"What'll you say on them?" said Joby.
"That Kieran and his men are alive and well and are still at Wolf Castle", said Ransey "Where they have been all along".
"It's all rather embarrassing really isn't it?" said Julian "We thought we were being so clever going down into the cellar, when we should've hitched up the horse and got out".
"Now hang on", said Kieran "That Blast was three days earlier than anticipated, it took us all by surprise. The villagers were able to get out because they were further down the mountain than us".
"There's no guarantee they got out anyway", said Joby "I wonder how many were caught out in the storm immediately after the Blast, and perished in the cold".
"Quite", said Adam "Be grateful for our stint in the cellar Jules, it may have been what saved us".
The following afternoon Ransey went down to the village as he said he would. He declined all offers to accompany him, saying he wished to be alone. No one argued with him. Daylight had struggled to find a foothold, but had made a valiant effort to at least give them something. And after several months of intense darkness, they were all grateful for the deep twilight that now arrived.
Using two sets of ski's that had been commandeered from a nearby deserted farmhouse, Julian took Lonts on a cross-country ski down through the forest. When Joby expressed incredulity that Julian could do anything so vigorous as ski, he was met with derision.
"You are talking to a man who has skied black runs in the Bavarian Alps", said Julian, indignantly.
"That is going back a few years, Jules", said Adam.
"You stay here and keep the home-fires burning Ada", said Julian, groping his friend's bottom as he passed him on his way out "Let the men do the energetic stuff".
Julian enjoyed that afternoon with Lonts. It was true that he hadn't skied in some time, but that had been more through lack of opportunity than inclination. And it was a pleasure to be with someone who was a born skier. Lonts lived up to Adam's proud assertion that the boy had probably been put on skies as soon as he could walk.
"You should've suggested doing this before", said Julian, when they stopped for a breather some distance into the forest, beyond Kieran and Joby's cottage.
"Nobody suggested coming with me", said Lonts "And I didn't think Adam would let me".
"You shouldn't let Adam dictate to you so much", said Julian, breaking off a slab of chocolate for the boy "He's a sweet guy and I love him dearly, but he needs standing up to occasionally, otherwise he gets carried away with his mother hen act".
"I don't mind", Lonts shrugged "I quite like listening to his advice sometimes, when he's not telling me off. Sometimes, last thing at night, he talks to me when I'm lying in bed. It's advice, but I find it quite soothing".
Julian decided to refrain from commenting on that one. He only knew that if he had Lonts in his bed last thing at night, he wouldn't be wasting his time giving him advice!
"He looks after me, Julian", Lonts was now saying "And you look after him, and that's how it should be".
"You've got it all worked out haven't you?"
"Is that wrong?" Lonts looked perplexed.
"No, not in the slightest", said Julian, adjusting his gloves "Come on. Let's make the most of what little daylight we've got. We won't be able to go too far unfortunately. Although perhaps when the daylight comes back properly, we might be able to ski closer to the edge of the Blast area. See the damage for ourselves".
The skiing was more for the vigorous exercise than anything else, and by mid-afternoon they were both becoming satiated enough to return to the edge of the forest, anxious not to be out when the blackness enveloped them once more.
"What's the matter, Julian?" asked Lonts, when the older man came to a sudden halt at the edge of what had once been the Castle gardens.
"Those weren't there when we came down earlier were they?" said Julian, pointing at the ground.
"I didn't notice anything", said Lonts.
A line of footprints walked into the forest and disappeared. They looked as though they had been made by someone walking in bare feet through the snow.
"Perhaps it's someone in trouble", said Lonts "Perhaps we should look for them".
"We'll do no such thing", said Julian, as a wolf howled in the far distance "We're getting back to the Castle".
"He's thoroughly enjoyed himself, Jules", said Adam, after telling Lonts to go and get warm by the fire in the atrium "It was good of you to take him out".
"For heaven's sake Adam, you make me feel like your second husband trying to ingratiate himself with the child from your first marriage!" Julian flopped into the wooden throne-like chair in the lobby, whilst Adam helped him to remove his boots "I enjoyed it as much as he did".
"I do get ridiculous don't I?" Adam laughed, gently.
"You said it", said Julian, but he began to relax as Adam massaged his bare feet "That is so good. You have a sure touch".
"More likely you just enjoy having me sit at your feet", said Adam "You look exhausted, old love".
"No I'm just a bit preoccupied that's all. Lonts and I saw some footprints on the edge of the forest. They were human footprints".
"Really?" Adam exclaimed "That means there's someone else around here. Now that's interesting. You don't seem so sure though".
"Oh you're right I'm just tired", said Julian, wearily "You look pretty fatigued too".
"Just the usual daily wear and tear of living at Wolf Castle".
"Come and sit on me then".
Adam sat astride his friend and kissed him on the lips.
"It's usually me who has everyone pile on me", said Adam "Oh dear, what a clumsy sentence!"
The front door was pushed open and Ransey walked in, looking cold and damp in some old oilskins.
"Good grief, I'd forgotten you were out too", said Julian.
Ransey's face spoke volumes for how he felt at seeing Adam in such an intimate position.
"Any news from the Ministry yet?" said Adam.
"Hardly, when I've only just sent our message", said Ransey, and he walked abruptly into the atrium.
"His little porky pixie face was a picture wasn't it?" said Julian "Getting harder by the day for him to conceal his feelings for you".
"Don't gloat Jules, I find it very worrying", said Adam, climbing off his lap.
"No need. If he gives you anymore hassle, I'll sort him out for you", said Julian "With any luck, when we finally hear from the Ministry, he might decide to go back and work for them. Chances are he'll have had quite enough of us these past few months and want out".
"It's the blind adoration I can't stand, Jules", said Adam "I'm like Patsy, I can't bear being put on a pedestal. Not when I'm so aware of all my faults. And he looks so damn hurt whenever I say or do anything that is less than his idea of perfect, that I could slap him".
"Don't let him get to you so", said Julian "You're right, it isn't fair to be worshipped, but it's his problem if he takes that attitude. You don't have to try and live up to any of his ideals, remember that. You just carry on being your usual delightful, exasperating self, and the rest of us will all continue to adore you in the right way. Ransey can go and boil his head, to use a Joby expression".
Ransey sulked all evening. He had felt like a hero, going down to the village all by himself and sending the messages. This had been followed by acute disappointment when no replies came back by return, which was what he had hoped. In the end the intense cold had driven him back homewards, and the spectacle of Adam and Julian "necking" in the lobby, as he soullessly described it, depressed him even more.
Wind howled round the outside of the Castle as the evening wore on, which added to the dispiriting atmosphere. Adam found he couldn't take anymore of Ransey's company and went to bed. He settled Lonts for the night, and then paced the room restlessly. When he eventually got into bed Lonts sidled across to him silently, and gently rubbed his head against him. Adam was greatly soothed by this gesture and nuzzled against him in return.
"Have you often had this problem, Adam?" said Lonts "Men fancying you that you don't want fancying you?"
"Fortunately not too often", said Adam "Sometimes I've had men just be a nuisance for a while, but that was usually after we'd had a bit of a fling, like with Noni. I've even in my time had completely straight men suddenly decide they want to experiment with me for a change. But I've never had anything quite so damn creepy as this. I've never had a cold fish suddenly get intense on me before".
"Not even Joby?" said Lonts "It's not that I think Joby's a cold fish, but I heard Ransey say that Joby once had the same problems as him. I remember he acted really strange with me in that old crypt that time".
"Yes well you were a little baggage weren't you?" said Adam, teasingly "Joby did have problems when we first crossed over. He worried me for quite some time. But deep down I always knew it would all get resolved in the end, precisely because Joby isn't a cold fish like Ransey. The poor little thing has always been highly physical, but he was afraid to direct it".
"You helped him there, like you helped me".
"Mm, but I'm not going to help Ransey. He scares me".
"He can't hurt you, Adam. You're taller than him. A bit".
"I was thinking of something even more serious than that", said Adam, quietly.
"Kill you!" Lonts sat up, sharply "He won't Adam, I promise you. I won't let him. I'll talk to Kieran, and he'll fire him. Tell him to leave".
"No you won't", Adam pulled the boy back down "This is Ransey's home too, we can't just go ordering him to leave".
"I was getting carried away with my imagination that's all. Ransey's never threatened to harm any of us. I shouldn't have said what I did, I'm being dramatic. Let's sleep now".
"I won't let him harm you, Adam", said Lonts, firmly.
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