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By Sarah Hapgood

“Hopeless”, said Ransey, walking round the side of the house with Hillyard “We’re none the wiser than we were yesterday”.

“It’s hardly their fault that was all that happened”, said Hillyard.

“Tonight you and me will do the watch”, said Ransey.

“Oh great”, said Hillyard “A night in a tent with you!”

“We’ll take Mieps with us”, Ransey continued.

Hillyard brightened up.

“But it’ll be a proper night-watch”, said Ransey, as they went into the house “None of THAT!”

“If you had your way there would never be any of THAT!” said Hillyard.

Ransey stored the rifle in the gun-room, where Adam found them.

“I’ve put some coffee in the library”, he said “Rumble and Toppy are doing breakfast, it won’t be long”.

“It will be if Toppy’s doing it”, said Hillyard, going through to the library.

“What’s up?” said Adam, who sensed An Atmosphere between them “It’s not like you two boys to have words. I thought that was the prerogative of Jules and I!”

“It’s my fault”, Ransey sighed “I got a bit carried away about it all”.

“I think you’ve been a trifle unfair on the night-watch gang”, said Adam “Patsy is insistent that at least one of them was awake at all times”.

“Even so, I want myself, Hillyard and Mieps to do the watch tonight”, said Ransey.

“Little Bengo’s got his heart set on doing it again”, said Adam “He rather enjoyed it, you see”.

“It’s not a school-outing!” Ransey snapped, as they both went into the library, where Hillyard was leaning against the mantlepiece.

“What did you make this coffee out of?” said Julian, from an armchair “It tastes ropey”.

“It was getting near the bottom of the tin”, said Adam “I foolishly thought you wouldn’t notice”.

Ransey stirred his coffee pensively and then tapped the spoon against the cup, whilst the others watched him as though waiting for some great announcement.

“I think we should over-ride Bardin’s decision tonight, if he decides to hold another night-watch using the same four again. Only for tonight, that’s all I’m saying”.

“Oh I see”, said Adam “We have a little mutiny, and then come tomorrow morning we put everything back to normal again, is that it? Why don’t I simply dose Bardin’s cocoa this evening so that he falls sleep and leaves us to it!”

“Bardin doesn’t have the benefit of our age”, Ransey snapped “He hasn’t had the experience of these things that we have”.

“What things?” said Hillyard “We don’t know what it is we’re up against yet!”

“And I would say Bardin has had some experiences that we haven’t”, said Adam “Such as their sojourn at Sade’s chateau for instance”.

“What do you say about all this?” Ransey barked across at Julian.

“Me?” said Julian “I have no opinion at all”.

Adam looked at him with understandable mistrust. Over breakfast Ransey continued to harp on about reservations over the same four doing the night-watch again, until even Kieran began to get annoyed and said he resented Ransey treating them all as “brainless eejits”.

“What are you thinking right now, Bardin?” Julian suddenly asked, causing Adam to dart another fierce look at him from the other end of the table.

Bardin hadn’t been following the conversation at all. He had been eating as though he was half-asleep. Rather like Tamaz, who, still annoyed at being left out of the nightwatch gang, had been prodding at his little heap of sweet potato in a manner most unlike him, considering his appetite was legendary.

“What was I thinking right then?” said Bardin “Oh, that I’d like someone’s dick up my arse!”

As the others all laughed, Adam shot a look at Julian as if to say “serves you right, you old bastard”.

“We should have left you at Sade’s place evidently”, said Julian.

Bardin gave Julian a rather enigmatic smile. Julian in return raised his eyebrow quizzically, but seemed to be able to read volumes into what Bardin was thinking. When the meal was over Bardin requested that Kieran, Joby, Bengo and Tamaz stay behind with him in the dining-room.

“Me?” said Tamaz.

“Yes, you”, said Bardin “You’ll have to put off polishing your nipples until later, or whatever it was you were planning to do this morning”.

The others left the room, except Toppy, who was taking his time about stacking the plates. Bardin ordered him to abandon the table, and to make sure he shut the door firmly on his way out.

“He’ll still find some way to eavesdrop”, said Bengo, when Toppy had finally gone.

“It’s no matter”, said Bardin “What I’ve got to say is hardly top secret. I just wanted to have a proper planning meeting about tonight”.

“Another nightwatch?” said Bengo “Us four again?”

“Five”, said Bardin, nodding at Tamaz.

“Why have you suddenly decided to ask me now?” said Tamaz.

“I thought your Ghoomer expertise might be useful this time”, said Bardin.

“Why didn’t you think so last night?” Tamaz squawked.

“I thought you might be too much of a distraction last night”, said Bardin “Particularly for Joby”.

“By all accounts you managed that yourself”, Tamaz grumbled.

“Anyway that’s not really fair, Bardin”, said Joby “Tamaz behaves himself at times like that. He acts like a pro”.

“A professional stalker”, said Kieran, as Tamaz preened under Joby’s compliments.

“I wasn’t certain there was anything to get excited about before last night”, said Bardin “Other than a fox or a wild pig or dog. But that whistling noise we heard convinced me that there’s something or someone else out there, deeper into the forest, that we have to be alert for”.

“Particularly if they’re after our livestock”, said Bengo.

“That might be only one aspect of it”, said Bardin “There’s more to all this than a hungry wild animal, I’m certain of that”.

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you”, said Adam, stepping out from the stairs behind the stove, late in the afternoon.

“What have I done now?” said Joby, who had just emerged from his siesta in the ground-floor bedroom, and was now raking the stove.

“What possessed you to go telling Lo-Lo stories about headless horsemen?” said Adam.

“He said he wanted me to tell him a ghost story”, said Joby “And the first one I thought of was ‘Sleepy Hollow’. It’s his fault not mine, he insisted”.

“If he gets anxious tonight about you all out there in danger of having your heads cut off, I shall blame you”.

“If I’ve had me head cut off there won’t be much point!”

“Don’t get smart”, said Adam “You know how absorbed he gets by fiction”.

“Well at least I’m telling him classy fiction”, said Joby “Not just some load of old slasher rubbish. I enjoyed both the book and the film of that one”.

“I suppose you saw yourself as Ichabod Crane”, said Adam “Galloping off in pursuit of the headless horseman”.

“Hardly!” said Joby “It’d be Kieran who was daft enough to do that!”

“Daft enough to do what?” said Kieran, coming sleepily into the room.

“Ride after headless horsemen”, said Joby.

“What headless horseman?” said Kieran.

“’The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’”, said Adam “He’s been irresponsibly telling Lo-Lo about it, just before you’re all due to spend the night in the garden. You should consider Lo-Lo’s feeling more”.

“MORE?” Joby exclaimed.

“It’s not Joby’s fault, Adam”, said Kieran “You know how insistent Lonts can be when he wants something”.

“Yeah, particularly when the little bastard threatens to sit on me!” said Joby.

“I don’t suppose there’s any tea in the pot”, Mieps grumbled, as he drifted in.

“There will be if you put it there, old love”, said Adam.

Mieps sulkily slammed a pot of water onto the stove.

“Thatta girl!” said Joby. “Don’t talk to me in that way”, Mieps hissed.

“Well stop sulking then”, said Joby “Just ‘cos Tamaz is joining us in the garden and not you”.

“You really shouldn’t take it personally, Mieps”, said Adam, who was now making notes from a recipe book.

“Oh he will”, said Joby.

“I think our little Captain chose Tamaz mainly because he knows Freaky feels left-out if Pats and Joby do things without him”, said Adam.

“No one’s getting at you”, said Kieran.

“Julian is”, said Mieps.

“That’s hardly cause for comment, old love”, said Adam “If Julian didn’t get at people he’d lose the ability to communicate!”

“Was it anything to do with the strong words I heard him coming out with in the laundry-room earlier?” said Kieran.

“The laundry-room?” said Joby “Julian was in the laundry-room?”

“Surely not doing some washing?” said Adam.

“Julian was having a right old go at you wasn’t he?” said Kieran.

“Patsy, stop stirring things up”, said Adam.

“No, I’m just glad it wasn’t me he was scolding like that!” said Kieran.

“He spoke to me as though I was Tamaz”, said Mieps.

“Tamaz is gonna love hearing about that!” Joby laughed.

“Mieps, you wouldn’t like it if Jules didn’t take any notice of your feelings would you?” said Adam, trying to cut in as peacemaker over the other two’s joshing and teasing.

“How is him threatening to hit me again taking notice of my feelings!” Mieps exclaimed.

“What I mean is that he has obviously noticed the way you’ve been getting on edge over Freaky’s being selected for tonight”, said Adam “And … and he was trying to lead you back to commonsense”.

Kieran and Joby squealed with laughter.

“Oh shut up, you little varmints”, said Adam “Or I’ll box your ears!”

“Is this your new career as marriage guidance counsellor, Ad?” said Joby, wiping his eyes on a tea-towel.

“I think I was right”, said Adam “It’s just you’re all too dense to listen properly!”

At sundown more preparations were made in the garden for another night of watching and waiting. Joby and Lonts watered the vegetable garden at the same time. Adam and Julian watched all this from the library windowseat, where they were sharing a bottle of beer.

“I wonder how many nights we’re going to have to put up with this farce”, said Julian.

“Not indefinitely I would’ve thought”, said Adam “We’re bound to run out of bottled beer sooner or later”.

“You know what I meant!” said Julian “Your brain must have got addled from having to put up with Mieps bawling on your shoulder”.

“He didn’t do any bawling”, said Adam “Just a lot of hissing and spitting, as he always does when he gets bad-tempered about something”.

“I know, he’s a real feisty old thing isn’t he?” said Julian.

“Really Jules, you sound like a caricature of some depraved old lord!” said Adam “You’ll be calling Mieps a ‘spirited little filly’ next, and threatening to put ‘him acrorss me knee’. Not that that would be anything unusual at all!”

“I certainly need to put a tighter rein on him that’s for sure”, said Julian “I allow him more slack than I do anyone else, except Hillyard. It’s hopeless trying to put any kind of a bridle on him, metaphorically-speaking of course”.

“Of course”, said Adam.

“All this temper-tantrum stuff just because Bardin selected Freaky to stay in the tepee tonight”, said Julian “Everyone gets completely daft about that place, anyone would think it was the last word in luxury instead of a smelly old tent!”

“I don’t want to see him!” Mieps screamed from the doorway.

Finia hauled him in, pulling him by his hand.

“You’re not still sulking are you, you bad-tempered old hussy?” said Julian.

“Sometimes it’s hard to believe you’re the same man who was so tender to me when I was young”, said Finia, who was now pouring out a beer for Mieps”.

“I would be tender to him if he’d only behave”, said Julian “None of this is even my fault, it was Bardin’s decision!”

“I like the way we all have to be completely obedient to you before you’ll deign to give us any tenderness, Jules”, said Adam.

“Oh shut up, you know you wouldn’t have it any other way!” said Julian.

Mieps let out an elongated hiss and flew at Julian, slapping him round the head. Finia and Adam dived out of range, feeling they would get caught in the crossfire. Julian meanwhile succeeded in getting Mieps into a subdued position and slapped his behind. Mieps screamed like a wild cat and flayed about, but it gradually dawned on him that if he calmed down completely Julian would stop hitting him. He was finally set back on his feet, and stood there panting and shivering with his head bowed. Adam put a consoling arm around him. Finia was standing nearby with the hem of his white cotton nightdress stuffed in his mouth.

“Put your nightie down, sweet child of mine”, said Julian, straightening his own clothing “You’re showing everything you haven’t got! And Adam, don’t start mumsying him, it’ll only make him hysterical again”.

“We’ll send him away to boarding-school shall we?” said Adam “A few years of that will knock all the lily-livered humanity out of him! Really Jules, you shouldn’t have done that to Mieps”.

“Why the hell not?” said Julian “He started it. Flying at me like a mad thing, he knocked my beer out of my hand! Anyway, I’d do it to most of you, so why not him? You can’t say I haven’t given him enough warnings. And he’s quite happy to dish it out whenever he feels like it, just ask Freaky!”

“But Mieps is very proud”, said Adam.

“Not proud enough to spend the whole day in a temperamental sulk, and then to wallop me in a very undignified fashion”, said Julian “I told you I was going to rein him in and I have. And anyone who tries to censure me about it will get more of the same!”

The nightwatch gang burrowed themselves into the tepee, tying the entrance shut, and turning up the hurricane lamp. And then four of them laughed themselves silly about the incident in the library, which by now was common knowledge. Surprisingly, Tamaz didn’t join in, and showed no inclination to gloat over what had happened to Mieps. Tamaz had always been a perverse, unpredictable creature, and he was proving it especially now.

“Oh c’mon now, Tamaz”, said Bengo “You’ve gotta admit it’s quite funny”.

“You’ve got no idea what a beating from Julian is like”, said Tamaz.

“Um, I think we have actually”, said Bardin “It’s happened to all of us here at some time or another”.

“Don’t remind me”, said Joby.

“I quite enjoy it”, said Kieran.

“You would”, said Joby “Weirdo!”

“Everybody shut up about it”, said Tamaz “Or I’ll go and sit at the back of the tent”.

“No you won’t”, said Bardin “You three are doing the first watch, me and Bengo will take over at about two o’clock”.

“Don’t you wanna do the first watch?” said Joby “Get it over with”.

“I think he wants to be awake at four-thirty”, said Kieran.

“Not all that again!” said Joby.

“I’m curious to see if there’s a connection”, said Bardin, getting some items out of a small rucksack “So here’s a notepad and pencil, and my fob-watch. If anything happens, write it down and note the time, and me and Bengo’ll do the same”.

“Right little boy-scout you are ent yer!” said Joby.

“No, he’s a professional, dahling!” said Bengo, striking a theatrical pose, all of which made even Tamaz laugh.

“Get into bed, Bengo”, said Bardin “Or you’ll be the next one to get a spanking, from me!”

“Ooh!” said Bengo.

The clowns were brisk about settling down on their bed-rolls and soon fell asleep. Kieran got out a pack of cards to help the rest of them pass the time. He asked them what they wanted to play.

“Snap”, said Tamaz.

“No, you get too noisy when we play that”, said Joby “And we need to keep an ear cocked at all times”.

“Gin rummy”, said Kieran, shuffling the cards “It’s more sedate”.

The heavens opened overhead and rain poured down in tropical splendour, pattering heavily on the canvas tepee.

“Oh terrific”, said Joby “That’s all we need”.

Kieran poured out some milky coffee from a flask Adam had prepared.

“This is miserable”, said Joby, as the rain pattered down relentlessly.

“Bengo thinks it’s great fun”, said Kieran.

“He’s mad!” said Joby.

They played a couple of rounds of cards, and then there was the sound of an agonised scream from much further out into the forest.

“Shit”, said Joby “I couldn’t tell if that was an animal or a person!”

Kieran reached for the gun but found that his hands were shaking. He gave a cry of exasperation.

“My scalp’s gone all prickly”, said Joby “You needn’t think you’re going out there, Kiel”.

“Some focking nightwatch team we are if we don’t actually go out and watch for anything!” said Kieran.

“No!” Joby put his hands round Kieran’s slender throat, more as if he was trying to strangle him than restrain him.

“O.K O.K”, said Kieran “If I promise to stay in here will you promise not to throttle me!”

Joby let go of him.

“Thank you”, said Kieran “I think I’d be safer out there with the Beast than in here with you!”

“It’s quarter-past twelve”, said Tamaz, flipping open Bardin’s fob-watch “We’d better write down what happened”.

Laboriously he scraped the words “MAD CRY” on the notepad with a blunt pencil. Joby jumped as a mouse poked its head through the opening, its beady little eyes glinting in the lamplight.

“What?” said Kieran “Are you afraid of a little iddy-biddy mouse?”

“I didn’t realise it was a fucking mouse!” said Joby “Let’s have another round of cards”.

Bengo and Bardin took over at two a.m, and enjoyed quietness for a couple of hours. After a while Bengo nodded off again, with his head resting against Bardin’s arm. As he dreaded hour approached, Bardin flipped open his fob-watch and watched the minutes tick away to four-thirty. At four-twenty-five Bengo sensed his agitation and woke up.

“It’s stopped raining”, he remarked.

“Someone’s coming”, Bardin whispered “Hark!”

Footsteps squelched out of the forest and across the lawn towards them, approaching rapidly, with purpose, and without fear. Bardin grabbed the rifle, whilst Bengo watched the entrance to the tepee, spellbound. The footsteps neared the tent and then stood outside as though the intruder was listening to them.

“I’ve had enough of this”, said Joby, crawling out of his bed-roll followed by the other two “Somneone’s taking the piss out of us!”

“Aren’t you scared?” Bengo hissed.

“No, not now”, said Joby “I’m fucking annoyed!”

The footsteps turned and went back through the sodden grass in the direction they had come. Bardin, gripping the rifle in both hands, blundered through the entrance and out into the darkness. Kieran uhooked the hurricane lamp from the main pole and followed him. The footsteps could be heard moving away through the forest, but in the intense moonless darkness nothing could be seen.

“Bastard”, said Joby, standing at Kieran’s shoulder “We’ll get the bastard, whoever he is. We’ll go after him”.

“I think that must be what he’s hoping”, said Kieran.

“You think whoever it is is deliberately goading us?” said Bardin “In that case, why don’t they do something more dramatic like set fire to the stables?”

“Don’t go giving ‘em ideas!” said Joby. He went back into the tent and tripped over the empty coffee-flask “I can’t see a bloody thing in here. Kieran, bring that lamp back in!”

“What’s the significance of all this four-thirty stuff, Joby?” said Bengo, in the inner gloom.

“How the hell should I know!” said Joby.

“Is it the same lot who did all the stuff up at the Big House?” said Bengo “You know, the … the decapitations”.

“Don’t think too much about it”, said Joby “At the moment we don’t know what’s doing what. That’s usually the way until we get in view of ‘em”.

The others returned to the tepee, and Tamaz sealed the entrance.

“I suggest tomorrow night we can keep watch from inside the house”, said Joby “The library, say. That way we might actually get to see who’s doing this”.

“Did I hear you right?” said Kieran “You, the one who stopped me from going outside!”

“We can see in safety, I meant”, said Joby “With nice thick walls around us. It’d give us a sporting chance, not a blind dog’s chance!”

“There’s not much of the night left ow”, said Bardin “The sun’ll be up soon”.

The five of them sat huddled together in the centre of the tepee, with thin blankets round their shoulders. They were like this when Hillyard and Mieps roused them soon after daybreak. All Joby would say in answer to their queries was that it had been a very long night indeed!

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