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By Sarah Hapgood

As they approached the third and final one of the islands, Hillyard, Joby and Kieran took the skiff and rowed it gently around the eastern coast of it. This island seemed more hilly, which gave the impression that anything could be hidden in its desolate grassy folds.

“I think there’s an argument for coming back here and exploring it properly sometime”, said Hillyard, who was at the oars.

“Yeah”, said Joby, unenthusiastically “Perhaps if we get bored sometime, we can give it a go”.

“Bardin’s guidebooks aren’t going to get off the ground very quickly at this rate”, Kieran laughed.

“He knows what he can do with that idea”, said Joby.

“Is his sore behind the reason why we’re not blessed with his company this morning?” asked Hillyard.

“Well the skiff would probably be a bit much for him”, said Kieran.

“Adam’s done a good job there then”, said Hillyard “Otherwise he’d most likely have us moored up and exploring this bloody place”.

Kieran noticed a frantic whirling of the water nearby, with ripples spreading outward as though someone was breathing underneath.

“Hold up”, he said, gesturing at Hillyard to stop rowing “There’s something under the water”.

Suddenly a grotesque creature reared up out of the water. Kieran, who was nearest to it, had a brief glimpse of a reptilian head sporting a mane of wet hair.

“Jaysus Christ!” Kieran clutched at the crucifix he wore around his neck.

The creature lunged at him, but Joby grabbed a spare oar and swung it at the thing, smacking it squarely in the face. The creature retreated below water, leaving blood soaking the water like spilled ink.

“What on earth was it?” asked Adam, when appraised of what had occurred.

“Some kind of really ugly-looking mermaid”, said Joby “Trust us to get the ugly, malicious one, not the beauty combing her hair on a rock”.

“Was she attacking Kieran?” said Bengo.

“She seemed to be trying to pull him into the water”, said Hillyard.

“Well I hope they’re aren’t too many like that round here”, said Adam “They could damage the ship”.

“Oh great, one more thing to worry about”, said Joby.

“No, this could all work in our favour”, said Kieran “It must be all part of the magic of this area, that which Christmas alluded to back on the mainland. That might be why we’ve seen nothing since we’ve been out here. Clearly this area is avoided”.

“Either that or the world’s become so depopulated that hardly anyone else is using the ocean”, said Hillyard.

“Yes, that thought occurred to me too”, said Adam.

“That’s been the way for some time now”, said Bardin, approaching along the corridor “We haven’t seen anything remotely approaching a busy shipping area in years. Not since we left Snow Lake in fact”.

“That was the last time we saw anything remotely approaching a normal community”, said Joby “Unless you count Hannah’s Sanctuary”.

“Well I think that this area’s mysticism could be a help to us”, said Kieran “We have to turn it to our advantage. We could lie low here. I think this island is fine, it’s just the 3rd one that gives off a strange vibe”.

“Mm, I’ll go and make us some tea”, said Joby.

He went down the corridor to the galley, followed by Bengo.

“Only Kieran could find something positive about being attacked by some bloody sea-creature”, said Joby, now filling the kettle from the pump at the sink.

“Oh I dunno, he’s got a point”, said Bengo “I’d rather be here than back in that forest. At least we can breathe here, that forest felt so claustrophobic at times. And Kieran’s right, there is something lovely about this island, you can see for miles from the top of it. I hope we stay here for a while longer”.

“Bardin’ll want to explore the third island at some point though”, said Joby “You can be sure of that, unless Adam keeps him so sore that he doesn’t want to go out in the skiff”.

“Well we can try our best with that one”, said Bengo.

“Quack quack, gobble gobble, quack quack, gobble gobble”.

The clowns were standing at the far end of the dining-end, reciting this over and over again. Julian approached them warily.

“Is this the level of entertainment we’ve descended to now?” he asked “Farmyard impressions”.

“We used to have to do this song during a revue when we were kids”, said Bengo.

“And why is it being resurrected now?” said Julian.

“No reason”, said Rumble “Farnol started doing it, and we all just joined in automatically”.

“Like some kind of peculiar mind-control brainwashing for clowns?” said Julian.

“Stop grouching Julian”, said Adam, carrying in the first of the supper food “I like hearing their theatrical reminiscences, it’s quite fascinating. I bet they were so sweet too”.

Julian groaned and took his seat at the table. He perked up when Hillyard came in, carrying a small crate of beer.

“I don’t know what the special occasion is”, said Julian “But I’m all for it”.

“We’re not short of beer, I’m glad to say”, said Hillyard, placing the crate on the table “Should keep us tided over for a while, until I can start up another home brewery anyway. Whoever was on this island before must have been doing that, from the empty barrels we found”.

“We need to discuss all this tonight”, said Bardin, taking his place at the head of the table “Our immediate future plans. If we’re really planning to stay here for a while, then a lot needs to be talked about”.

“Yeah, but it doesn’t have to all be sorted out tonight, Bard”, said Hillyard.

“No, but we can make a start”, said Bardin, yanking the top off a beer bottle “And what we do about the third island”.

“Oh I might have known the third island would come into it”, said Bengo.

“No hurry about that one is there, Bardin?” said Lonts “As long as we stay alert. And look what nearly happened to Kieran when they were sailing round it earlier”.

“That’s a point”, said Bardin “I wonder if that creature was perhaps put there to keep people away from that island, like a sort of aquatic watch-dog”.

“So what if it was?” said Hillyard “It only has the element of surprise once, we’ll be on the alert for it again in the future, and if it comes round here it’ll get its arse shot off”.

“I don’t think that particular one’s gonna be going anywhere again in an hurry”, said Joby.

“I have a suggestion”, said Adam “Let us sit out the cold weather here for a little while. If there is anyone on the third island who is desperate to make our acquaintance, then I’m sure they will let us know in due course”.

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