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By Sarah Hapgood

Two men came out of the building to greet them. Both were wearing long white aprons, like waiters in a classy restaurant. One was very grizzled-looking The other was stocky and wearing glasses.

“So there is still someone else around in the world”, said the grizzled one.

“Interesting you should say that”, said Bardin, shaking hands with each in turn.

A steady stream of people came up from both the galleon and Lord Robert’s yacht, to view this oasis of civilisation.

“You mean to say you’ve come all the way up the river from the east coast?” said the grizzled one, in disbelief “ALL the way?”

“We haven’t seen anyone coming from that direction in ages”, said the other.

“We haven’t seen anyone coming from the other direction either”, said the first.

“Do you run a hotel here?” said Adam, who had been looking at the clean white-painted facade of the building.

“Sort of”, said Grizzled “We used to operate a ferry service across the river as well. That was our main income at one time. But no one wants the use of it these days”.

Everyone traipsed into the cool interior of the building, out of the glare of the torrid noonday sun. The main room was sparsely-furnished but had a pleasant feel to it. In it’s day it must have been a true haven for weary hot travellers. It clearly wasn’t another vampire domain … to everyone’s relief.

Through an open doorway, which connected to the kitchen at the back, they could see an old lady, practically bent double with age, who was slowly and methodically working her way through peeling and chopping a heap of vegetables.

“We still try and keep going”, said Grizzled “As best we can”.

“Even though you never have any customers?” said Joby.

“It’s the only home we’ve got”, said Grizzled, whose real name was Stanley. His brother was called James.

“When was the last time you saw anyone from the outside world?” said Adam.

“Who knows?” James shrugged, dusting off some bottles of beer he had dug out from behind the bar, and then lining them up on the counter.

“We stopped counting the days a while back”, said Stanley.

“Do you see anyone at all?” said Julian.

“No one that’s human”, said Stanley, wiping down the bar-top in the time-honoured tradition of bar-tenders throughout time.

“What a life!” Bengo let out, without thinking. Fortunately the brothers didn’t take offence.

“Seems to be the same the world over these days”, said James, dragging chairs and tables across the flagstone floor so that everyone could sit together.

“What’s your impression of what’s going on?” asked Lord Robert.

“Some kind of madness”, said James “Collective madness. The trouble in the City spilled over into the countryside and just kept spreading. There was a vampire outbreak south of the river, and the government started bombing this entire area and setting fire to the land”. “Yes, we’ve seen the desolation of your side”, said Adam.

“Somehow we weren’t hit too bad here”, said Stanley.

“Nothing short of a miracle”, James grunted.

“It’s not so desolate from this way on”, said Stanley “A lot of the forest is still intact. But what lies beyond that is anyone’s guess”.

“Does this river come out by The Village Of Stairs?” said Bengo.

“That general area”, said Stanley.

“And what’s it like there?” said Bardin.

“We haven’t heard anything in a long while”, said James “Last we heard everybody seemed to be attacking each other”.

“We had some refugees from it fled up here once”, said Stanley “They were heading eastwards. That was quite some time ago. I can’t imagine you’d have seen them”.

“I don’t expect there’s much left on the west coast”, said James.

“I see”, said Bengo, numbly.

“Some of us are from there, originally”, Bardin explained.

“Well our news is pretty out-of-date I expect”, said James “We keep hoping the insanity will burn itself out at some point”.

“We seem to have been hoping that for a long time”, said Adam.

One thing the brothers didn’t seem short of was fresh food, thanks to the spick-and-span allotment which they tended at the rear of the hotel. The galleon and Lord Robert’s yacht found themselves being besieged with boxes of fresh fruit and veg.

“Here y’are”, said Joby, carrying another box-load into the dining-room “Here’s the next lot”.

“It’s very generous of them”, said Adam.

“They say they’ve got more than they know what to do with”, said Joby “They can’t eat it fast enough”.

“Did you see the old lady in the kitchen?” said Adam.

“Yeah, she’s as mad as a box of frogs”, said Joby “Keeps talking about me as if I’m not there. Calls me The Stranger. ‘Is The Stranger alright?’ ‘What does The Stranger eat?’ Makes me feel like the Alien From Planet Zog!” “It’s such a shame”, said Adam “I had a great-aunt who went like that”.

“Your entire family were like that”, said Julian.

“Thank you dear”, said Adam “And of course your lot were all shining beacons of sanity and common-sense”.

“Can’t have been, if they produced him!” said Joby.

After dark the groaning noises came from the other side of the river once again. The moans of souls in torment.

“At least we’re on the other side to it now”, said Joby.

This did help. Plus having an hospitable oasis on their own side. James told him they had heard the noises so often now that they were almost oblivious to them.

“We know it’s being done deliberate”, he said “Occasionally they’ll go some time without being heard, and then start up again. I’m assuming it’s to keep us on edge. I sleep with cottonwool in my ears”.

“And that helps?” said Joby.

“Keeps me sane anyway”, said James.

A leisurely few days ensued at the riverside inn. In spite of the unsettling noises at night it was a relaxing time. If it wasn’t for a pressing need to find out what was going on in the wider world it was unanimously agreed that they would stay there longer. As it was Lord Robert came up with the idea that he would leave his yacht there, and he and the Girls would join the galleon for the rest of the journey up-river.

“If we decide to stay on the west coast”, he said “We’ll radio the yacht to follow us on”.

“Where will you sleep?” said Beatrix, who sounded put-out by the idea.

“They can have our cabin”, said Bardin “We’ll pile into the saloon with the others. Wouldn’t exactly be the first time”.

He made it very clear that there would emphatically be room WHATSOEVER for anymore.

“We will try and maintain radio contact at all times”, said Lord Robert.

“And will come back at the first hint of trouble here”, said Bardin.

The day before they were due to sail on felt even more hot and sultry than ever. James went for a walk with Kieran at the edge of the forest, and said he hoped they wouldn’t be gone for too long.

“If we can just fathom out what’s happening on the west coast it will help a lot”, said Kieran “Try and ascertain how far this Evil has spread”.

“And if it’s everywhere?” said James.

“We will have to deal with that somehow”, said Kieran “We won’t make any decision without coming back here first. If it IS as bad that, my gut feeling would be to head back to the Bay. That was our refuge for many years, and it is a special place. We can work on healing the world from there. If the chaos is rampant, then we will suggest you come too. It feels like you’re in the ante-room to Hell here”.

“And yet there are days of calm like this”, said James, looking up at the cloudless blue sky “sometimes - for a moment - you forget about it all”.

“That’s good”, said Kieran “The spirit needs a chance to heal every now and again. Even if it’s only for a very short time. Otherwise it breaks under the strain. Collapses in on itself”.

Over on the galleon Bardin was doing some spiritual healing of his own. He was being spanked. Ad as it had been a while since the last one, and no one knew when the next one would be, it had to be fairly thorough. Adam put him over his knee in the galley, watched only by Bengo, as Joby was over at the inn, talking to Stanley.

Adam smacked Bardin with a wooden paddle first, and then his hand, until Bardin was yelling.

“Oh God knows when I’ll get it again”, he groaned, his bottom smarting.

“You don’t know”, said Adam, caressing the back of Bardin’s shorts “It might be sooner than you think”.

“We only have to get to the coast and see what’s going on”, said Bengo “I can’t believe it’s far now”.

He helped Bardin onto his feet. Bardin was sweating like a little greasy stick. He adjusted his shorts, smoothing them down.

“I like the way you seem to have worn your starchiest ones today”, said Adam.

“Had to make the most of it didn’t I”, said Bardin “Pulling them on almost gave me a hard-on on it’s own”.

“I’d better sort the jugs of beer out”, said Adam “Before everyone starts complaining we’ve forgotten them. Your hair’s getting very long. Almost down to your nipples. It’ll be as long as Patsy’s at this rate”.

“No it won’t”, said Bardin “I couldn’t wear it as long as he does. I’ll get Finia to do some clipping at some point”.

“Don’t take too much off”, said Bengo “I like it like that”.

A dreadful cacophony started up in the dining-room. Hoowie was playing the piano. Bardin went across and slammed the lid down. Hoowie extracted his hands just in time.

“Oh Bard, that was mean”, Hoowie complained “You could’ve had my hands off there”.

“Well at least that would’ve put a stop to your playing!” said Bardin.

“You shouldn’t complain about it”, said Hoowie “It’d help drown out that groaning lot on the other side of the river”.

“They aren’t groaning at the moment”, said Bardin “And frankly, I think I’d rather listen to them!”

“Huh! Tetchy”, said Hoowie, grabbing the neat cheeks of Bardin’s bottom “You should’ve been walloped in here”.

“Some other time”, said Bardin “When things are back to normal”.

“Huh, if that ever happens”, said Hoowie.

Bengo had just finished setting out jugs of beer on the table, when Hillyard came in and poured some into a glass. He held it up to the light and looked vaguely despondent.

“Something the matter with it?” asked Bengo, anxiously.

“No it’s fine”, said Hillyard “I was just thinking of our little brewery up at Snow Lake. When are we going to get things back to normal so we can do things like that again?”

“I was just saying the same thing”, said Hoowie “Wasn’t I, Bard?”

“Well sort of”, said Bardin.

He sat down gingerly on the edge of his chair.

“We’ve been travelling an awful long time now”, he said “In fact I don’t know how long, almost without any respite, REAL respite. But it must end soon”.

“That sounds ominous, Bardy”, said Bengo.

“Only if you choose to see it that way”, said Bardin, sternly.

“I overheard Kieran earlier”, said Toppy, who had sidled into the room “He says we might try and head to the Bay”.

“Yes, he’s been discussing that with me”, said Bardin.

“So why haven’t you mentioned that before?” said Bengo.

“Because I haven’t had a chance!” said Bardin “It’s been a busy day. Shut up and drink some beer”.

“OK”, said Bengo.

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