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By Sarah Hapgood

“A cleansing by fire”, Kieran murmured, but everyone was too excited to pay him much attention.

“And you live on the edge of all this?” said Ransey.

“We’ve learnt to take care of ourselves”, said the landlord “It’s not been easy. And we’ve had to be constantly alert. We weren’t sure about you gentlemen when we first spied your boat, but … well I guess vampires don’t tend to travel by water, or look like you lot. Sort of healthy, that’s what I meant. You don’t get many suntanned vampires, or ones who are laughing and shouting at each other”.

“Have you had them coming out of the forest?” said Kieran.

“It’s been known”, said the landlord “And if we go into the forest, for hunting and that, we have to be careful”.

He pointed up at some flowers of garlic which were hanging above the bar.

“My daughter insists on putting those up”, he said “But I think that’s all nonsense. It wouldn’t keep them away. I let it stay there to keep her happy”.

“How did these creatures suddenly appear and multiply so much?” said Kieran.

“No one knows”, said the landlord “It started off slowly. Traveller’s tales, that sort of thing. Rumours of people disappearing, corpses being found. And then we began to hear of whole areas being decimated, villages wiped out, even graves ransacked. At first we thought it was like the madness to to the north of here, what started in the City, but that was just anarchy, civil unrest, not like this”.

“So in the end the government decided to do a scorched earth policy?” said Kieran.

“And it hasn’t worked if you ask me”, said the landlord “We’re still hearing rumours of some around, though admittedly not the hordes of ‘em there were before. But it only takes one, if you know what I mean”.

“And you think there are still ones in the forest?” said Kieran.

“Oh yes, there are alright”, said the landlord “But we’d have to go all the way in after ‘em to destroy ‘em, and no one’s prepared to do that. So, as I said, we have to stay alert instead”.

“Did you ask him if he had any cigars?” said Julian, when they got back to the ship.

“No”, said Bardin.

“Why not?” Julian demanded to know.

“Damnit Julian!” said Joby “Because it wasn’t the thing uppermost in our minds that’s why! We were too busy doing less important things like finding out what’s been going on around here”.

“And where we are”, said Bengo.

“I can see I’ll have to go over myself”, said Julian “Have you still got that money the woman in the sleigh chucked to us?”

“Yes, and you’re not having it”, said Ransey “That’s for important things”.

“Uh-huh, like buying beer for instance?” said Julian “Which is what you’d have done if the landlord hadn’t given you those freebies”.

“That would have been different”, said Ransey “I don’t know why, it just would”.

“You’ll have to use your initiative, Julian”, said Hillyard “Wouldn’t be the first time you’ve done that for a smoke would it!”

“Just how selfish can he get?” Joby fumed, as he flopped into the chair by the stove in the galley.

“This is Julian we’re talking about, old love”, said Adam, putting a pot of water to boil “The possibilities are limitless!”

“Did he really think we were going over there just to ask about cigars?!” said Joby.

“Stop upsetting yourself”, said Adam “Just ignore the silly old fool. If he wants his blasted cigars he can go over there and find out for himself. Far more importantly, do you think we’ll be able to barter any fresh food from them?”

“Dunno to be honest”, said Joby “I wouldn’t raise your hopes too high. I didn’t exactly see any sign of any allotments. I get the imprssion they rely a lot on hunting in the forest and fishing”.

“Well that’ll be something anyway”, said Adam “I can’t remember the last time we had any fresh meat”.

“Probably that bacon on Fire Island”, said Joby.

“So a nice injection of fresh protein will go down well”, said Adam “In the meantime, I suggest we make some jam roly-poly”.

“Oh trat, that’ll give ‘em all summat else to moan about”, said Joby “More bread and jam”.

“Yet it won’t stop them shovelling it down their gullets now will it”, said Adam.

The following day saw more relaxed and random visits over to the village. They discovered the total population amounted to little more than their own population on the galleon, so it felt more like a large extended family than a village.

Like the galleon, they also had had to learn to be largely self-sufficient. Previously, they had relied on passing river traffic for their economy, but this had greatly fizzled out when the vampire pandemic had seized hold of the entire area.

Joby had been right when he said that they relied on hunting and fishing for sustenance, plus eggs from a few chickens kept scratching about, and any berries and mushrooms from the forest. Bengo left Adam chatting to Matty, the landlord’s daughter, and wandered round the back of the building, where he found the landlord tending a neat grave on the edge of the forest.

“My wife”, said Erle, the landlord, getting up to greet him.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry”, said Bengo.

“It was 8 years ago”, said Erle “Even so, it doesn’t get any easier. Harder if anything, because people expect you to get over it. But when you’ve been that close to somebody and then you lose them, well a part of you never really recovers, know what I mean?”

“Yes”, said Bengo “If anything happened to Bardin I think I’d turn into a zombie. I’m not sure I’d ever be able to feel anything again”.

“I know”, said Erle “You have to fight it though, for everyone else’s sake. Life goes on and all that, but it’s not easy. At least she’s nearby. We had some missionaries pass through here once. Told me it was unhealthy of me to keep doing that. I wasn’t letting her go and moving on. But what harm am I doing?”

“That sort don’t know nothing”, said Bengo, thinking how tactlessly Kitty the Cat Woman would probably handle it. No doubt she would bustle in to tell what was what, and what he should be doing.

“If you lot are planning on stopping a while”, said Erle “We’ll have a village feast one night. Been a while since we’ve done anything like that”.

“That would be great”, said Bengo.

He drifted over to the little wooden jetty and sat down cross-legged on it, staring pensively across the river.

“Hey, what’s up with old Benje?” said Hoowie, going up to Bardin on the main deck of the galleon.

“Nothing, he’s just having a sit down”, said Bardin, peering over the bulwark.

“He looks fed up to me”, said Hoowie “I’d better go down and snap him out of it”.

“Oh no you won’t” said Bardin “He’s not going to want you being all annoying around him. I’ll go down. You stay here”.

Bardin disembarked before Hoowie could start chewing his ear off about the injustice of it all. Bardin went up to Bengo on the jetty, sat down beside him and removed his own boots.

“You’re far too over-dressed for this heat, Bardy”, said Bengo “Why don’t you take your trousers off as well. You don’t have to keep impressing the villagers with the Captain Bardin routine all the time”.

“I just haven’t got round to it yet that’s all”, said Bardin, rolling up his trouser legs and then dangling his feet in the water “What’s up anyway?”

“Nothing, just been thinking that’s all”, said Bengo.

“Well that always depresses you”, said Bardin.

“I know, that’s why I don’t do it very often”, said Bengo “I was talking to Erle, the landlord. He was tending his wife’s grave. He still misses her so much, and it just got me thinking how lucky we are. We don’t have to worry about that”.

“Bad things can still happen to us”, said Bardin “But yes, you won’t have to tend my grave I hope”.

“I would put flowers on it everyday”, said Bengo.

“Thank you”, said Bardin, as sombrely as he could “And of course I would do the same for you”.

“Would you have hysterics if I died?” said Bengo.

“Well I can’t imagine I’d be too chuffed”, said Bardin “This is a really gloomy conversation, Bengo”.

“Oh I know, I’m sorry”, said Bengo.

“Snap out of it”, said Bardin “We’ve got enough to think about already without indulging in morbid speculations”.

“Watch out, crocs!” Hoowie shouted from the ship.

Bardin whisked his feet out of the water, and both he and Bengo jumped up.

“Hah! Fooled yer!” shouted Hoowie.

“I wonder if there’s any chance we could lose him in the forest whilst we’re here”, said Bardin.

“No”, said Bengo “Julian would have us all out looking for him”.

“Shame”, said Bardin.

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