CHAPTER FOURTEEN

WHEN MYeyes opened, I was lying in a hammock. I thought I was back in the Cirque Du Freak. I looked over to tell Harkat about a weird dream I'd had - full of black panthers, giant toads and dragons - but when I did, I saw that I was in a poorly built shack. There was a strange man standing close by, studying me with beady eyes and stroking a long curved knife.

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"Who are you?" I shouted, falling out of the hammock. "Where am I?"

"Easy," the man chuckled, laying his knife aside. "Sorry t' trouble ye, young 'un. I was watching over ye while ye slept. We get an awful lot o' crabs and scorpions here. I didn't want 'em getting stuck into ye while ye was recovering. Harkat!" he bellowed. "Yer wee friend's awake!"

The door to the shack swung open and Harkat stepped in. The three scars from his fight with the panther were as prominent as usual, but he didn't look any the worse for wear otherwise. "Afternoon, Sleeping Beauty," he grinned. "You've been out for - almost two days."

"Where are we?" I asked, standing shakily. "And who's this?"

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"Spits Abrams," the stranger introduced himself, stepping forward into the beam of sunlight shining through a large hole in the roof. He was a broad, bearded man of medium height, with small eyes and bushy eyebrows. His black hair was long and curly, tied back with coloured pieces of string. He wore a faded brown jacket and trousers, a dirty white vest, and knee-high black boots. He was smiling and I could see that he was missing several teeth, while the others were discoloured and jagged. "Spits Abrams," he said again, sticking out a hand. "Pleased t' meet ye."

I took the man's hand - he had a strong grip - and shook it warily, wondering who he was and how I'd wound up here.

"Spits rescued you from the lake," Harkat said. "He saw the dragon attack - and drop you. He dragged you out and was - waiting for you to dry whenI waded out. He got a shock when - he saw me, but I convinced him I was harmless. We carried you here, to his - home. We've been waiting for you - to wake."

"Many thanks, Mr Abrams," I said.

"Tain't nowt t' be thanking me fer," he laughed. "I jest fished ye out, same as any other fisherman would've."

"You're a fisherman?" I asked.

"Of a sort," he beamed. "I used t' be a pirate 'fore I ended up here, and 'twas people I fished fer. But since there ain't much grows round these parts, I've been eating mostly fish since I came - and fishing fer em."

"A pirate?" I blinked. "A real one?"

"Aaarrr, Darren lad," he growled, then winked.

"Let's go outside," Harkat said, seeing my confusion. "There's food on the fire and - your clothes are dry and repaired."

I realized I was only wearing my underpants, so I hurried out after Harkat, found my clothes hanging on a tree, and slipped them on. We were close to the edge of the lake, on a meagre green patch amidst a long stretch of rocky soil. The shack was built in the shelter of two small trees. There was a tiny garden out back.

"That's where I grows me potatoes," Spits said. "Not fer eating - though I has one 'r two when I takes a fancy - but fer brewing poteen. My grandfather came from Connemara - in Ireland - and he used t' make a living from it. He taught me all his secrets. I never bothered before I washed up here - I prefer whisky - but since spuds is all I can grow, I has t' make do."

Dressed, I sat by the fire and Spits offered me one of the fish speared on sticks over the flames. Biting into the fish, I ate ravenously, silently studying Spits Abrams, not sure what to make of him.

"Want some poteen to wash that down with?" Spits asked.

"I wouldn't," Harkat advised me. "I tried it and it made - my eyes water."

"I'll give it a miss then," I said. Harkat had a high tolerance for alcohol, and could drink just about anything. If the poteen had made his eyes water, it'd probably blow my head clean off my neck.

"Yerra, go on," Spits encouraged me, passing over a jug filled with a clear liquid. "It might blind ye, but Won't kill ye. 'Twill put hairs on yer chest!"

"I'm hairy enough," I chuckled, then leant forward, nudging the jug of poteen aside. "I don't want to be rude, Spits, but who are you and how did you get here?"

Spits laughed at the question. "That's what this 'un asked too, the first time he saw me," he said, pointing at Harkat with his thumb. "I've told him all about myself these last couple o' days - did a helluva lot o' talking fer a man who ain't said a word fer five or six years! I won't go through the whole thing again, just give ye the quick lowdown."

Spits had been a pirate in the Far East in the 1930s. Although piracy was a "dying art" (as he put it), there were still ships which sailed the seas and attacked others in the years before World War II, plundering them of their spoils. Spits found himself working on one of the pirate ships after years of ordinary naval service (he said he was shanghaied, though his eyes shifted cagily, and I got the feeling he wasn't being honest). "ThePrince o' Pariahs was 'er name." He beamed proudly. "A fine ship, small but speedy. We was the scourge o' the waters wherever we went."

It was Spits's job to fish people out of the sea if they jumped in when they were boarded. "Two reasons we didn't like leaving 'em there," he said. "One was that we didn't want 'em to drown - we was pirates, not killers. The other was that the ones who jumped was normally carrying jewels or other such valuables - only the rich is that scared of being robbed!"

Spits got that shifty look in his eyes again when he was talking about fishing people out, but I said nothing about it, not wanting to offend the man who'd rescued me from the lake.

One night, thePrince of Pariahs found itself at the centre of a fierce storm. Spits said it was the worst he'd ever experienced, "and I been through just about everything that old sow of a sea can throw at a man!" As the ship broke apart, Spits grabbed a sturdy plank, some jugs of whisky and the nets he used to fish for people, and jumped overboard.

"Next thing I know, I'm in this lake," he finished. "I dragged myself out and there was a small man in big yellow galoshes waiting fer me."Mr Tiny! "He told me I'd come to a place far from the one I knew, and I was stuck. He said this was a land o' dragons, awful dangerous fer humans, but there was a shack where I'd be safe. If I stayed there and kept a watch on the lake, two people would come along eventually, and they could make my dreams come true. So I sat back, fished, found spuds growing nearby and brought some back fer me garden, and I been waiting ever since, five 'r six years near as I can figure."

I thought that over, staring from Spits to Harkat and back again. "What did he mean when he said we'd be able to make your dreams come true?" I asked.

"I suppose he meant ye'd be able t' get me home." Spits's eyes shifted nervously. "That's the only dream this old sailor has, t' get back where there's women and whisky, and not a drop o' water bigger than a puddle in sight - I've had enough o' seas and lakes!"

I wasn't sure I believed that was all the pirate had on his mind, but I let the matter drop and instead asked if he knew anything about the land ahead. "Not a whole lot," he answered. "I've done some exploring, but the dragons keep me pinned here most o' the time - I don't like wandering off too far with them demons waiting to pounce."

"There's more than one?" I frowned.

"Aaarrr," he said. "I ain't sure how many, but definitely four 'r five. The one that went after ye is the biggest I've seen, though mebbe there's bigger that don't bother with this lake."

"I don't like the sound of that," I muttered.

"Me neither," Harkat said. Then, turning to Spits, he said, "Show him the net."

Spits ducked behind the shack and emerged dragging a stringy old net, which he untangled and spread on the ground. "Two o' me nets slipped through with me," he said. "I lost t' other one a couple o' years back when a huge fish snatched it out o' my hands. I been keeping this 'un safe, in case of an emergency."

I remembered what Evanna had told us, that we'd need a net which had been used to fish for the dead if we were to find out who Harkat had been. "Think this is the net we need?" I asked Harkat.

"Must be," he answered. "Spits says he didn't use his nets to - fish for the dead, but this has to be it."

"Course I never fished fer the dead!" Spits boomed, laughing weakly. "What'd I do that fer? Mind, I been thinking about it since Harkat asked, and I recall a couple o' people who drowned when I was fishing 'em out. So I guess it probablyhas been used to drag up corpses - accidentally, like."

Spits's eyes practically shot out of his sockets, they were darting so swiftly from side to side. There was definitely something the ex-pirate wasn't telling us. But I couldn't pump him for information without indicating that I didn't believe him, and this was no time to risk making an enemy.

After eating, we discussed what to do next. Spits didn't know anything about a Temple of the Grotesque. Nor had he seen any people during his long, lonely years here. He'd told Harkat that the dragons usually approached the lake from the southeast. The Little Person was of the opinion that we should go in that direction, though he couldn't say why - just a gut feeling. Since I'd no personal preference, I bowed to his wishes and we agreed to head southeast that night, moving under cover of darkness.

"Ye'll take me along, won't ye?" Spits asked eagerly. "I'd feel awful if ye went without me."

"We don't know what we're - walking into," Harkat warned the grizzly ex-pirate. "You could be risking your life - by coming with us."

"Nowt t' worry about!" Spits guffawed. "'Twon't be the first time I risked it. I remember when thePrince o' Pariahs sailed into a trap off the Chinese coast ?"

Once Spits got talking about his adventures on the pirate ship, there was no stopping him. He regaled us with wild, bawdy tales of the plundering they'd done and battles they'd engaged in. As he spoke, he sipped from his jug of poteen, and as the day wore on his voice got louder and his tales got wilder - he told some extra spicy stories about what he'd got up to during shore leave! Eventually, with the sun starting to set, he dozed off and curled up into a ball beside the fire, clutching his almost empty jug of poteen close to his chest.

"He's some character," I whispered, and Harkat chuckled softly.

"I feel sorry for him," Harkat said. "To be stuck here alone for - so long must have been dreadful."

"Yes," I agreed, but not wholeheartedly. "But there's something 'off' about him, isn't there? He makes me feel uneasy, the way his eyes flick left and right so beadily when he's lying."

"I noticed that too," Harkat nodded. "He tells all sorts of lies - last night he - said he'd been engaged to a Japanese princess - but it's - only when he talks about his job on the ?Prince of Pariahs that he gets thereally shifty look."

"What do you think he's hiding?" I asked.

"I've no idea," Harkat replied. "I doubt it matters - there are - no pirate ships here."

"At least none that we've seen," I grinned.

Harkat studied the sleeping Spits - he was drooling into his unkempt beard - then said quietly, "We can leave him behind - if you'd prefer. He'll be asleep for hours. If we leave now and walk - fast, he'll never find us."

"Do you think he's dangerous?" I asked.

Harkat shrugged. "He might be. But there must be a reason why - Mr Tiny put him here. I think we should take him. And his net."

"Definitely the net," I agreed. Clearing my throat, I added, "There's his blood too. I need human blood - and soon."

"I thought of that," Harkat said. "It's why I didn't stop him - drinking. Do you want to take some now?"

"Maybe I should wait for him to wake and ask him," I suggested.

Harkat shook his head. "Spits is superstitious. He thinks I'm a demon."

"A demon!" I laughed.

"I told him what I really - was, but he wouldn't listen. In the end I settled for persuading him - that I was a harmless demon - an imp. I sounded him out about vampires. He believes in them, but thinks they're - evil monsters. Said he'd drive a stake through - the heart of the first one he met. I think you should drink - from him while he's asleep, and never - tell him what you really are."

I didn't like doing it - I'd no qualms about drinking secretly from strangers, but on the rare occasions when I'd had to drink from people I knew, I'd always asked their permission - but I bowed to Harkat's greater knowledge of Spits Abrams's ways.

Sneaking up on the sleeping sot, I bared his lower left leg, made a small cut with my right index nail, clamped my mouth around it and sucked. His blood was thin and riddled with alcohol - he must have drunk huge amounts of poteen and whisky over the years! - but I forced it down. When I'd drunk enough, I released him and waited for the blood around the cut to dry. When it had, I cleaned it and rolled the leg of his trousers down.

"Better?" Harkat asked.

"Yes." I burped. "I wouldn't like to drink from him often - there's more poteen than blood in his veins! - but it'll restore my strength and keep me going for the next few weeks."

"Spits won't wake until morning," Harkat noted. "We'll have to wait - until tomorrow night to start, unless you - want to risk travelling by day."

"With dragons roaming overhead? No thanks! Anyway, an extra day of rest won't hurt - I'm still recovering from our last run-in."

"By the way, how did you - get it to drop you?" Harkat asked as we settled down for the night. "And why did it - fly away and leave us?"

I thought back, recalled yelling at the dragon to let me go, and told Harkat what had happened. He stared at me disbelievingly, so Iwinked and said, "I always did have a way with dumb animals!" And I left it at that, even though I was equally bewildered by the dragon's strange retreat.

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