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As they entered the Forest of Deception they got the distinct impression that the trees were closing in around them. The silvery grey sheen deepened into a heavy mist once inside, which was almost alive in its intensity. It was easy to imagine seeing shapes dodging behind the trees, and it was certainly true that no particular view seemed to be entirely the same on looking twice.
"This is extraordinary", Adam whispered "It's like a worm-hole in space".
"We could be in a time-cusp", said Joby, excitedly.
"I'd rather we got out of here", said Kieran "I don't trust this place, it's constantly shifting. Can't you feel it?"
"But you must admit it is extraordinary", said Adam "I'd heard places like this existed of course. Like the Bermuda Triangle and such, but I never thought I'd be in one myself. Stay close, all of you, it'd be too easy for one of us to disappear alone".
"To think I've seen it!" said Hillyard.
"Well let's hope you get the chance to tell someone else about it", said Kieran.
As they walked further into the forest the mist cleared abruptly, along with the silvery haze. Almost immediately, or so it seemed, they found themselves in a part of the forest where autumn had yet to turn to winter. There was no snow, no mist, only an astonishing carpet of scarlet leaves.
"Have we time-slipped again?" asked Joby, anxiously.
"I've no idea", said Adam "There's a road through the trees directly ahead".
The path, wide enough for a wagon and horses, had been hewn through the undergrowth. As they walked along it sounds of civilisation were borne along to them on the breeze, such as somebody chopping wood, a bonfire being stoked, a horse sneezing and jangling its harness. All harmless noises, and yet all sounding sinister simply because of their unexpectedness.
"I don't wanna disappoint you", said Hillyard, gravely "But I don't think we've time-slipped".
"Everything's different though", Joby protested "Of course we've time-slipped, the whole climate's changed. It's slightly warmer, there's no snow ..."
"Things are bound to be odd around here".
"What do you mean Hillyard?" asked Adam.
"I know where we are. Look".
Hillyard pointed to an object on the side of the track, which the others in their excitement had overlooked. It was a yellow milestone, and it bore the inscription "MARLSBLAD 1 KM".
Whatever they were expecting of Marlsblad they didn't get it. In fact, on appearance alone it looked to be the most normal place they had yet come across. It was a small mountain village, populated by normal-looking people. The locals hadn't mysteriously disappeared or committed suicide, and, on the surface at least, didn't look like vampires, religious fanatics or child molesters.
To Hillyard, who had been expecting perimeter fences and surly men demanding to know his business, it was all a bit of a comedown. He was certain that secret government work was going on at Marlsblad, but what or where or by whom was a complete puzzle. To test the sociability of the natives he asked one man, who was driving a cart pulled by two oxen through the woods, where they were.
"Marlsblad mate", came the casual reply.
"Is there anywhere to stay round here?" asked Joby.
"Try the inn", said the man "'The Moon and Stars', you can't miss it, it's right in the centre of the village".
"He seemed quite incurious about our presence here", said Adam, after the man had moved on.
"I notice he didn't give us a lift though", Joby grunted.
The village, when they finally reached it, was filled with the sound of bells. Dusk was falling and teenage boys, all wearing sheepskin cloaks, were herding sheep and cattle into outbuildings for the night. All the cattle wore bells, and the resulting noise was cacophonous but pleasant, accompanied as it was by the whistles and whoops of the boys.
The houses were small but solid, built of stone slabs, and with red-tiled roofs. All the buildings were built facing the central village square, which was scruffy and dirty, filled as it was with the droppings of all the animals which had passed through it that day. Washing-lines were strung between houses, festooned with threadbare clothing which looked as though it had been left there for some time. Lights were appearing at the high windows and open doorways, enhancing the cosy autumn twilight feel to the place. A slightly jarring note, Kieran observed, was his impression that everyone seemed to be trying to generate as much light as possible, as the nocturnal darkness advanced slowly towards them.
The 'Moon and Stars' was by far the biggest building they had seen in the village. The inn sign showed a naked man emerging from a lake underneath a highly-stylised night-sky. It looked like a Tarot card illustration, except that they couldn't help feeling that the man should have been a long-haired woman with small, round breasts instead.
They trod carefully through the milling animals and endless crap to get to the inn. The landlord was preparing for the night's business, and a few dedicated drinkers were already ensconced around a wood-burning stove, beer glasses in hand.
"Have you just arrived?" he asked, lighting a gas-lamp "You're lucky I can fit you in, I've got a party of miners coming in later. But as it's nearly dark I'm sure we can find a bit of space for you. Jem! Come and collect the gentlemen's baggage".
Jem was a skinny urchin of thirteen, who spent his entire life failing to live up to the landlord's high standards of service and hospitality. In spite of his puny appearance though he managed to haul their rucksacks up the central wooden staircase, with no effort at all.
They were allocated a barnlike room, with a much smaller one leading off it. The fire was already lit, and the landlord toured the chamber lighting the gas-lamps and candles until the place resembled a church.
"You should be comfortable", he said "Now, as we're going to be busy tonight I suggest you get down for supper as soon as you can. We've got some good entertainment lined up for later. You won't want to miss it. What are you standing there for Jem? There must be something for you to do downstairs".
"You haven't told me to move", Jem replied, in a world-weary tone.
"Well I'm telling you now. The Vanquisher doesn't want you keep staring at him".
Kieran bathed in a copper bath, that had been lugged upstairs by the long-suffering Jem. Afterwards he dozed on the biggest bed. When he awoke it was to find that the noise volume in the bar below had risen markedly. The evening had advanced, and he dressed hurriedly. When he got downstairs he found the bar full of smoke and bodies. He drew plenty of admiring glances (even some awed ones) as he paced nervously around the room. There was also a distinct whispering that followed him like a tidal-wave gathering strength. He was relieved to come across Adam sitting in one of the red velvet alcoves.
"Where are the others?" Kieran asked, sitting down beside him.
"Hillyard's found some new friends at the bar", said Adam, pointing towards a group of smartly-dressed men, all self-consciously holding tankards as though it was some kind of initiation test they had to through. Hillyard stood looking relaxed, in their midst, and regaling them with anecdotes that seemed to require a lot of arm-waving.
"I hope he's not talking about us", said Kieran "And where's Joby?"
"Oh he's found the gaming-table in the next room. Some rather tedious dice game that he was getting excited about. I left him to it".
"What's he gambling with?"
"Oh credit me with some sense, I didn't give him all of it, just enough to keep him out of the way for a while. Hillyard's given him a crash course in the currency of now, so he should have some vague idea of how much he's losing".
"Why did you want him out of the way?"
"So that I could have dinner alone with you", said Adam "You and I never seem to get much time alone together".
"I don't call this alone".
"It's a start".
Jem scuttled over carrying two silver dishes filled with beef and baked potatoes. He placed them in front of the two men, and then scuttled away again.
"I'm glad you appeared at long last Patsy", said Adam "I was getting rather worried. Our hunky friend with the moustache over there kept glancing at me in a highly-suggestive way. I think if you hadn't appeared when you did I was in danger of getting picked up".
"I wondered why he was giving me such venomous looks. I thought I'd knocked his drink over or something".
"He knows he can't compete with you".
"I bet you say that all the girls", Kieran exclaimed.
"Seriously, you'd better watch yourself round here. Not everyone will be in awe of you. And you have no idea what havoc you could wreck on this crowd with those looks of yours".
"After Tomce's escapades I think I'm prepared for most things. Hey, I've just had a thought!"
"I knew it would happen one day".
"Oh shut up. Is everyone in the world now gay?"
"Of course not", said Adam, ignoring the wine he had ordered for Kieran and sipping at a glass of tap-water instead "I don't think Buskin is, or Fobbett was for that matter".
"So what does that make them? Rudderless heterosexuals?"
"Heterosexuals who aren't as adaptable as you are".
"So Joby will end up like Buskin if we get stuck here for good?"
"He's already on his way there, with his endless fussing. You'd better screw him quick Patsy before he's beyond redemption. No sex turns a man into an old woman".
"You're being bloody generous with my favours", said Kieran, nearly choking on his drink.
"There's no point me resisting the inevitable, and I don't see Joby as a rival anymore. I've matured since Henang. Anyway, I like the relationship you and me have too much to go risking it with my jealousies. You gave me a second chance after my appalling behaviour at the Loud House. I'm not stupid enough to think I'd deserve a third one".
"And if I was screwing Joby that would absolve you from feeling too committed".
"I am extremely committed to you. Downright dedicated in fact, and well you know it".
"Why couldn't we have all been like this at the prison? Us three I mean. Think how tranquil life in our cell would have been!"
By the time the cabaret started Kieran had polished off a second bottle of wine, and was in the throes of sliding down his seat. He sat in numb silence as the worst striptease in history got underway in the bar. An overweight middle-aged man in a cheap mask methodically removed several layers of close-fitting garments, all in different colours. He made no effort to keep in rhythm with the trumpeter accompanying him, and kept up a shuffling and twirling routine that seemed to require a tremendous amount of concentration, but for very little result. It was about as seductive as watching someone strip for a medical examination. At the end he pulled off a jock-strap to reveal a small, limp penis peering out blearily from under his rolls of fat. The routine was concluded with restrained, almost sympathetic, applause from the audience, as though they were relieved none of them had been asked to do it.
"They're easily pleased aren't they?" said Kieran, in astonishment "Back home he wouldn't have got out alive! No wonder he's wearing a mask".
"It was brave", said Adam, trying not to laugh.
"I feel quite sick after watching that".
"You're not the only one that can earn money around here Adam!" Joby cried, suddenly appearing in front of their table, and holding out the hem of his jumper in which coins clinked tantalisingly.
"You won something?" Adam exclaimed, in disbelief.
"Yea. I thought I'd better leave the table before it got embarrassing".
"Or before you got thrown out".
"Good", said Kieran "We can order another bottle in that case".
He went to stand up, but slumped forward over the table drunkenly.
"How many have you been stuffing down him?" said Joby, in an accusing tone.
"Don't blame me!" said Adam.
"Could someone help me, I'm stuck", said Kieran, who was now wedged uncomfortably between the edge of the table and the seat.
"Joby, take him upstairs", Adam sighed "That should prove to you if anything that I didn't get him drunk on purpose. As I'm not going to be getting anything out of it now am I?"
"O.K", Joby poured the heap of coins onto the table "You can mind that, as it's rightfully yours anyway. God, I thought the Irish were supposed to be able to hold their drink!"
Adam peered nervously out of the cubicle. Having ascertained that the Moustachioed One had found someone else to entertain him, he relaxed and ordered a coffee. He was then interrupted twice, first by Hillyard announcing that he was going upstairs, and then soon after that Kieran's empty seat was filled by a mousy-haired man of Adam's age. This new uninvited companion wore a tired, hungry look which made Adam instantly distrust him.
"Do sit down, won't you?" said Adam, snappily. He formed the immediate impression that this was the sort of unwanted pick-up that could cling like a burr.
"I saw you arrive earlier", said the man, in a soft and surprisingly well-spoken voice "My name's Rooly".
Adam ignored the hand held out in greeting.
"I hope you don't object to my sitting here", Rooly continued, unabashed (another worrying sign, in Adam's mind, it meant he was used to rudeness but was too desperate to get upset about it) "Chairs are rather at a premium this evening. Everyone wants to be here. Not really surprising is it? I live here, I'm a local now. I have a small cottage in the village".
"How nice for you".
"You are all strangers here aren't you? I like to meet new people, and you four certainly looked interesting".
"Can I buy you a coffee?"
"I've got one".
"You intrigue me. Why do you hang around with people half your age?"
"I like younger people", said Adam, having the uncomfortable feeling that that comment made him sound like Tomce "Although they do make me feel like the babysitter at times!"
"I like younger people too. They are so open and guileless aren't they? Your friend caused quite a stir when he walked through here, far better than a lot of the entertainment we get in these parts. He could earn a fortune if he took up stripping".
"I don't think he'd like it".
"Surely that's not relevant? Everyone's raving about his beauty, but personally I'm disappointed. I think he looks like a young tart. A debauched cherub. Is he some little blonde bauble that you hang from your wrist? What a trophy, eh!"
Adam was spared from answering (which was fortunate as he'd been rendered speechless) by Joby returning.
"Am I interrupting something?" the boy asked, aggressively.
"He was just leaving", said Adam. His temper was gnawing at his guts desperate to get out, yet uncertain how to direct itself for maximum result. He battened it down as fiercely as he could, terrified of the consequences if he let it emerge. It continued to burn inside relentlessly, but at least it would cause no embarrassment to Kieran that way.
Rooly was perceptive enough to realise that he had boobed. Without another word he got up and left the table.
"What was all that about?" said Joby, sitting down in his place.
"He said Patsy looked like a tart", said Adam, through gritted teeth.
To Adam's consternation Joby laughed.
"What's so funny?"
"Well he does!"
"Oh Joby", Adam relaxed suddenly, as though he'd farted after a bad attack of wind "I'll have to fatten you up so you can be my minder. Then you'd protect me from the unwanted attentions of the likes of Rooly in my old age".
"I thought we were supposed to have Hillyard for all that".
"Hillyard's found a friend apparently. He popped over before I was joined by Rooly, to say he had met someone else who was also new in town, and who was rather lonely. I think he's taken him upstairs to the little bedroom to console him".
"So does that mean you're in with us tonight?"
"Yes, and thank your lucky stars you won't spend it fending off Hillyard! How's Patsy now anyway?"
"Left him sprawled across the bed. Doubtless I'll be wetnursing him in our old age as well. 'Cept then I'll have to remember to take his teeth out before I leave him unconscious".
"I really can't imagine Patsy old".
"I can. He'll get drunk all the time and embarrass himself in public, 'cos his looks'll have gone and he can't get the attention that he used to".
"That was remarkably bitchy".
"Didn't really mean it that way. It's just that he'll worry me even more then. He needs sex so much that I dread to think what he'll be like when he can no longer get it. Go insane I think".
"No reason why that should happen. I'll always fancy him for as long as I'm around and capable, and if I'm not you'll just have to do the deed".
"Nah, I'm thinking of becoming an Honorary Virgin".
"Good grief, what's that?"
"Heard about 'em earlier this evening. It's the latest craze in the City apparently, and one that the Ministry does not approve of, but they can't do anything about it because it's headed by some rich businessman who bungs a lot of cash in their direction. It's all to do with this religious fervour that's going the rounds. Some blokes are telling everyone they've taken vows of celibacy, become Honorary Virgins. They have initiation ceremonies, and on festival days they parade around with sashes on saying 'I'm An Honorary Virgin'".
"How perfectly tasteless, and you want to become one?"
"Not really. I was just winding you up. I don't think the Honorary Virgin bit's really me".
"I'm very relieved to hear it".
"But I spose I might as well take a vow of celibacy whilst we're here".
"Celibacy is not a natural state, nor a happy one".
"Some people are happy with it", Joby protested.
"Yes Joby dear", said Adam "But they don't tend to go hankering after their best friend as much as you do. You have a definite hunger for Patsy's presence sometimes. I can see the craving in your eyes. It won't do you any good to keep denying it".
"I don't understand your attitude", said Joby "Why are you suddenly trying to push me and him together?"
"Because as I said to Patsy earlier I know it's going to happen one day. You remember when we were in prison? Sometimes in the early days the sexual tension between Patsy and myself was unbearable. It's getting that way with you. You'd better not decide you want him all to yourself though, I wouldn't be happy with that".
"I-I've kissed him you know", said Joby, awkwardly "God it was weird! And yet at the same time it felt right. It feels just as weird telling you all this. I keep expecting you to tear me head off, or do you get turned on at the thought of us together?"
"Sex has never been a spectator sport for me Joby, and I don't intend it to become one now. No, I just see you in torment sometimes and I remember what it was like for me".
"We're gonna have a heck of a mess to sort out if we ever get back home", said Joby, glumly "Not that I believe we ever will now. I know I got excited about the prospect of time-crossing again when we were in the Forest of Deception earlier, but sometimes the thought terrifies me as well. And, if we are at the long slow end of the human race, strangely enough I'd like to see how it finally fizzles out. As long as I don't live too long and survive everyone else".
"I think we'd all have that fear. But this nightmare land we've found ourselves in is strangely compelling isn't it?"
From a safe distance across the bar they were being watched closely by Rooly.
Joby awoke at the first light of dawn to hear someone prowling about in the room. He sat up in the hope that his sudden movement would intimidate the intruder. He found it was only Adam, standing at the washstand and splashing himself with cold water.
"You didn't half give me a fright", Joby exclaimed "What time is it?"
"I have no idea", Adam replied "Getting light, but as I don't know what time it gets light around here I'm rather at a loss".
"All the windows are so small in this place", said Joby, looking up at the tiny pane of glass close to the ceiling "I wonder what it is about Marlsblad. Perhaps it's nothing. We've only got Hillyard's word that there's secret government work going on here".
"And yet there is something strange about this place".
"In which particular way?"
"It's nothing", Adam shrugged evasively "Let's go and look for some breakfast. Does Patsy want any?"
Joby nudged Kieran, who responded by groaning in his sleep and rolling onto his stomach.
"I doubt it", said Joby.
Adam ate his breakfast with Joby, in the same alcove they had shared the night before. The landlord had been surprised to see them downstairs at this hour, as most of his guests breakfasted in their rooms. As such they had the bar to themselves, apart from Jem that is, who served them their food and then went back to swabbing the floor with a mop. Hillyard appeared as they finished eating. He looked exhausted and decidedly furtive with it.
"No need to ask if you had a good night", said Adam, pointedly.
"Where's your new friend?" asked Joby.
"Just coming", Hillyard yawned "He's been travelling on foot for days, so I didn't think he'd wanna get up too early, but he says he wants to explore Marlsblad".
"Why?" asked Joby.
"Here he is", Hillyard suddenly looked excited "I want you both to meet Lonts".
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