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A large ruined house appeared, set back some distance from the riverbank. It must have once been an ornate place, somebody’s pride and joy. Now the roof was missing, and the walls were like jagged teeth.
Bardin took a gang ashore, the usual six. They went discreetly armed, but found not a living thing on the premises.
“We’ll check the downstairs rooms in case we can find any useful supplies”, he said “But I doubt we will. This place has been abandoned for years”.
“Somebody once had money here”, said Hillyard, standing on the black-and-white marble hall floor. Weeds were growing up around the marble pillars which stood around at strategic intervals.
Bengo was about to say they still couldn’t hear any birdsong when, right on cue, a bird rustled noisily in the exposed beams overhead.
Bardin and Ransey went into the kitchen area at the back. Everything was thickly coated in dust. The cupboards gaped open, but revealed nothing other than dusty shelves and useless, abandoned tools.
“Not so much as an old candle”, said Bardin.
“I don’t fancy this place much for camping in”, said Ransey.
“Too damn spooky”, Bardin agreed “Anyway, we might as well press on. There’s no point stopping here, unless we can just carry on up the river”.
Ransey paused by the cellar door, which was swinging open. The broken steps led downwards.
“I don’t think there’s anything useful down there”, said Bardin, shining a torch in.
“Probably the odd Reptile Man”, said Ransey, grimly “It’s the sort of place they hang out”.
“Let’s get out of here”, Bardin shuddered.
A few days into the journey down the river they finally came to an inhabited dwelling-place. They found it on the south side of the river, it was what appeared to be an old riverside inn. It was a neglected, decayed place, although unlike the last one it was at least still reasonably intact.
There seemed to be no entrance at the front of it, but the shore-party found a way in via a courtyard at the back. A rickety table and chairs stood outside the back door, all rusty from long disuse. The back door was propped open, and the interior of the building looked very dark.
“Hello!” Bardin called out “Anyone there?”
A wraith-like shadowy figure emerged like a ghost from a doorway. It was a woman. Painfully thin and pale, with roughly-cut dark hair, and wearing a long, shapeless dress. Her age was utterly indeterminate. She was neither young nor old.
“Hello”, Bardin approached her cautiously. She seemed so frail that to give the full-on “I am Captain Bardin of the Indigo galleon” routine would seem massively inappropriate.
“We are travellers”, he said, instead “We have sailed down from the east coast”.
“You’ve come all this way?” she asked, in a soft voice.
“Yes”, Bardin replied “We’re so relieved to find someone at last. The whole countryside has been deserted”.
“I’ll get you drinks”, she murmured.
“Oh there’s no need”, said Bengo, who felt more that they should be giving her supplies.
“You don’t want a drink? said the woman, sounding put-out.
“Oh yes yes, of course we would”, said Bardin, suddenly realising that this might possibly be the start of A Diplomatic Incident if they didn’t.
The six of them followed her into the building. The main room was dark and dusty. A mass of wooden tables and stools crammed into the one space. The woman brought out some bottles of lukewarm fruit juice. No one felt like speculating as to how long these bottles had been around.
Another woman drifted out to join them, as if from the shadows in the corner of the room. She appeared to be the sister of their hostess, and was practically identical to her. In spite of the scorching heat, she was buttoned up in an immense thick woollen cardigan. She stood and watched them. Not with any hostility, but more in timid curiosity.
“What’s happened round here?” Bardin asked “All we’ve seen are scorched lands. No one in sight. No animals. What’s happened?”
“Things came out of the sky”, said their hostess, who introduced herself vaguely as Ilona “And burnt the ground”.
“Things?” said Bardin “Bombs? Meteors?”
“Ooh you said it could be a meteor shower, Ransey”, said Bengo.
“Did these ‘things’ just fall out of the sky?” said Bardin, feeling like he was talking to a toddler “Or did something drop them, an aircraft?”
“We don’t know”, said Ilona, as though it was presumptuous of him to expect them to know “They just did”.
To add to the strangeness, Ilona gave the impression that how the fire came from the sky, what had caused it, was totally irrelevant to anything. The silent sister scuttled into a back room to fetch more lukewarm drinks.
Feeling exasperated Bardin got up and paced to the window. He stood looking out at the galleon moored on the river in the scorching light. Bengo and Kieran came over to him.
“I’m trying to be patient”, Bardin growled “I know they’re probably suffering from some kind of trauma, but they’re the first people we’ve met who can tell us what’s been going on …”
“They’re not suffering from trauma”, said Kieran “I think they’ve always been like this. It’s not exactly unknown to get this kind of thing in isolated areas”.
“You mean we’re not going to get any sense out of them, ever?” said Bardin.
“Very unlikely, I would say” said Kieran.
“Then let’s give them some food and move on”, said Bardin.
“I’ll go and ask Adam if he can put together a hamper for them”, said Bengo.
“And ask him to come over with it”, said Bardin “Because I honestly don’t think I’ve got the patience to deal with them!”
“I suppose we should try and do something for them”, Adam sighed, putting together a basket of supplies “But I feel too tired”. “That’s how Bardy feels”, said Bengo “And anyway, who are we to get presumptuous? They might want to be like this. Kieran says he suspects they know no other way”.
“Well it’s all very sad”, said Adam “But we can’t make everything our concern. And if we go offering them a home on here I might be tempted to leave! Not after all the nonsense with the Cave4”.
“Bardy says we can’t do that because we don’t know what we’re going into”, said Bengo “And it makes a nice, convenient excuse”.
Adam snorted with laughter, and then indicated the basket was ready to go.
“We’re not giving them any of our alcohol are we?” said Bengo, with concern.
“Certainly not!” said Adam.
Adam took the supplies over to the building, accompanied by Hillyard. In the gloom of the deep twilight, the whole place looked even more sinister and depressing than ever.
“Anyone there?” Adam shouted, from the back door.
Ilona’s quiet sister drifted out from the shadows.
“We’ve brought you some supplies”, said Adam.
“A present!” the sister squeaked, and she rudely grabbed the basket from Adam’s arms, before scuttling off into another room.
“Well!” Adam said to Hillyard “I think our work here is done”.
“Come on, let’s go home”, said Hillyard.
They walked back through the courtyard, and bumped into Joby who was just coming in. Adam gave a yelp.
“Startled you did I?” said Joby.
“Bumping into you in the gloom is enough to startle anybody!” said Hillyard.
“Joby, what are you doing wandering about in the dusk on your own?” Adam snapped.
“Thought I’d come and meet you”, said Joby.
“Shouldn’t you be keeping an eye on Kieran?” said Hillyard.
“He’s feeding the horses”, said Joby “Ransey’s with him”.
“Well you’d soon get cross if he were to wander about alone out here”, said Adam.
The three of them walked back to the ship. They found Kieran had just come up on deck.
“Joby, what the fock are you playing at?” said Kieran.
“That is what I said”, said Adam.
“All this fuss just ‘cos I came and met you!” said Joby “I’m not a little boy!”
“I just don’t think anyone should wander about here alone”, said Adam “That’s why Hillyard came with me”.
“And you were attacked by a vampire once before”, Kieran said to Joby “That’s how you got the scar on your face”.
“Run that past us again”, said Joby.
“Are you saying they’re vampires, Patsy?” said Adam.
“Well they’re a bit pale I suppose”, said Hillyard “And scrawny. Can’t have had much sustenance in a while”.
“Can’t imagine our tins are gonna keep ‘em satisfied”, said Joby.
“Beggars can’t be choosers”, said Kieran.
“Are they responsible for all the devastation round here?” said Adam.
“No, I suspect they’re as much in the dark as we are”, said Kieran “In fact, the devastation’s probably hit them hard. No passers-by to prey on”.
“Holy moly”, said Hillyard.
“Why didn’t they react to you then?” said Joby “Normally vampires go nuts when you’re around!”
“Desperate I think”, said Kieran “Even a tedious old bag of bones like me would be better than nothing”.
“Yeah well I spose it never put off Angel having a nibble at you in the past”, said Joby, caustically.
“Let’s not rake up all that again”, said Adam Now we know what they are, I feel less intimidated by them. Which is sort of perverse really. Even so, I suggest we all sleep in the saloon again tonight”.
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