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Callum Crofting – Turn 3

ALL WAS COMMOTION as Captain Will Flint and the other Guards officers leapt to grab their weapons. Flint swiftly undid the dress sabre he was wearing and belted on a more serviceable-looking weapon, then snatched a pair of pistols from a box on the mantelshelf. The three guests, and Callum, rapidly calmed down in the light of this military efficiency. Flint deputed the wounded officer to escort Doctor de Breine and the woman addressed as Sarah home. 'You'll be wanting to come with us, lad, I reckon?' he said to Callum, who could do little but nod, stuffing his fist into his mouth.

The third guest, who was drawing on her outerwear, said 'I'll come too, Will, if you don't mind?' Her aristocratic voice was full of an excitement Callum could not but feel rather unseemly, as though what they were about to witness were a spectacle rather than a tragedy in the making.

Flint thought for a second, then said crisply 'Very well, Tilda, there's little point me saying no, is there? You'd come anyway, and this way at least I'll know you're safely with us!'

As the small group ran out into the barracks yard, though, where other soldiers had already made the officers' mounts ready, Callum bethought himself of Mary Huggett, away from home tonight. Should he not bear the news to her, to make sure she didn't attempt to return to the Embassy? As Flint, who had already mounted, bent down to swing him up onto what must have been the biggest horse in Galena, he cried out 'No, no, sorry, sir, I must warn her...' and dashed off into the night, alone.

IF THE STREETS of Galena had seemed dark and threatening to Callum before, how much more so now! The squadron of horse thundered past him as he scurried in the direction of the Dower House, their hooves throwing up clods from the mud that had lain still all summer. There was a smell of burning on the air, and a confused clashing, roaring noise that grew louder as he climbed towards the Cantonment. There were only a few people about, and they were scurrying from doorway to doorway, looking fearful: workers caught out late on the streets, hurrying home to look after their families.

The Dower House stood out stark and white in the light of the moon, an almost ghostly effect, framed by dark green cypress trees which rustled in the breeze. It was ringed with a tall iron fence, topped with cruel spikes, and the gate was guarded by two sentries armed with glaives. Callum, hesitating, mindful of his unprepossessing appearance, but driven by his desperate concern for Miss Mary, took his courage in both hands and approached them timidly.

At the sound of his footsteps both sentries stiffened, and one lowered his pike, its tip no more than a yard from Callum's middle. He called out in a thunderous voice 'Who goes there?'

Callum yelped with fear, taking a moment to get his voice under control. The other sentry muttered ''Tis but a lad, look.'

'I-I have a most important message, sirs, for Miss Mary Huggett, it's most urgent that I give it to her. She's a guest in the house. W-would you kindly let me pass, please?'

The sentries conferred. Callum only heard snatches. '... only a little fellow ... they say about little pitchers ... Huggett ... Marchant's Pang bit ... carriage ...'

Then the one with the pike turned back to Callum and said simply 'She ain't here, sonny.'

Callum was struck with horror. 'But I saw her here, earlier on...'

'She's gone out with Doctor Marchant in the carriage, to the Old Guildhall: some sort of concert or some such. Won't be back for a while, most probably.'

Callum was silent, his mind racing. Should he wait here for Mary's return, or hurry back to the Embassy? Surely his duty lay there, to lend what help he could. 'Well, might I leave a message for her here, anyway?'

THE FEW MINUTES Callum spent inside the Dower House were something of a blur: all he wanted to do was leave his message and then rush home. He could not fail to notice, though, the ostentation of its decoration. The building itself was a rather pleasingly severe construction of white marble, but within, even in the servants' quarters to which he was conducted, every available surface was ornamented in some way: hung with gilt-framed paintings, plastered with coving-work, draped with tapestries, or simply heaped with tasselled silk cushions. Equester Huggett and his family lived well, but the Embassy was nothing to this: the Pangaturese taste was much plainer. He finally met with Princess Sharia's butler in the orange-grove at the rear of the house, where that worthy was tending a small herb garden, seemingly ignorant of the tumult without. He was a stooping, elderly man, who rose carefully, dusting off his knees, before he let Callum speak. The substance of the message was easy enough to communicate, and the butler promised - sensing the lad's disquiet - that he would give Miss Huggett the message personally. That done, Callum could do nothing but leave, his heart heavy with anticipatory woe.

AS HE RAN on through the streets, the noise getting ever louder, Callum's mind ran endlessly back to Mary Huggett. Would the butler really give her the message? He had seemed helpful enough, but what if he forgot, or went to bed early? And what was Mary doing out with this Marchant? The sentry had called him 'Doctor': he must be Princess Sharia's resident physician, or something of that sort. But surely Mary could have no romantic interest in a man so much older. If she was ill, though, she would just see Doctor Finn, whose practice covered the Embassy, as all the family did. Surely? What if it was this Marchant who had made her cry the other night? Callum blinked furiously to dispel this painful image from his mind, then skidded to a halt as he came back to reality - he had reached the back end of the marching mob.

There must have been two hundred people or more, forming a disorderly, straggling column, its head too far away to be seen clearly. All the way along folk were carrying torches and clubs. The faces of those around Callum were lit by the flickering flames into a parody of grim determination. They were mostly either old or young - presumably the fitter citizens were nearer the front. These were those who were eager to have a part of the glory of their mission but without the energy to carry it through in person. Every one of them bore, on lapel or cap, the blue emblem of the Flaming Wheel.

Callum was sure that his allegiance was written all over his face, as he squirmed his way between the marchers, desperate to get nearer to the front. Where were Captain Flint and his squadron? He squeezed past a small trundle-brazier loaded with chestnuts, the boy pushing it giving him a cheery wave. As he moved on he saw that all along the street through which they were marching were broken shop windows, small fires started among their goods: woollen goods merchants and other Pangaturese businesses. Once he thought he saw, slumped in the mouth of an alley, the figure of a man, a strange dark stain seeping out from under his prone body, but he had to hurry on and dared not pause to investigate.

The nearer Callum came to the front of the march the noisier it became. The foremost ranks were full of bullies and louts, the sort who hung around the centre of Galena and had often tormented and teased him as he scurried by on some household errand or other. They would leap to anyone's banner if violence was promised, and no doubt the chance to do some looting. Behind them, though, were a number of perfectly ordinary-looking citizens, such as one might pass on eh street without even noticing them. What had changed these simple people into the ravening monster the mob now represented?

The ragged noise he had heard from the rear, he now realised, was a rough chant. No-one seemed quite sure of the words or of the tune, but it went something like 'Find the Pangs and make them burn! Heretics will never learn!'

Callum was now in the third or fourth row, those walking alongside him occasionally looking down at him curiously. His heart leapt into his mouth as they turned into Cantonment Road, on which the Embassy lay. Drawn up across the road between the mob and the Embassy, about fifty yards from either, four ranks deep, their cuirasses gleaming in the moonlight, was Flint's squadron of the Imperial Guard, their horses perfectly still, snorting in the slightly chill air.

The front row of the marchers at once stopped in its tracks, causing a concertina-like effect as those following it came round the corner, collided with the backs of their fellow, and stopped in their turn. The chant faded nervously to a sort of muttering noise, and some people lowered their torches. Was their nerve going to break?

Flint called out, in a loud, clear voice, 'Now, you people, go home and let's have no trouble here.' To underline it, he drew his sabre with a soft scraping noise, turning it so it caught the light.

A voice came from the crowd to Callum's right, equally loud and clear but without Flint's aristocratic tones. 'Don't you think you can bully us! We're serving the Dramaturge's will here! If you're not heretics yourselves you should stand back and let us pass!' Callum was horrified to see that the speaker, a tall woman in her early thirties probably, wore the uniform of the Gendarmerie. Were they in on this too?

The crowd muttered in support, and as the woman cried 'Come on! There's only two dozen of them, and there's hundreds of us!' they began to edge forward again, brandishing their torches, so that the bulk of them were in Cantonment Road.

Flint called out again. 'We don't want to fight! But if you don't break up this gathering this instant, we'll be forced to!'

The crowd kept edging forward, urged on by the Gendarme, who was calling out 'They won't dare strike at us - the servants of the Dramaturge!'

Suddenly the world seemed to turn upside down and shake from side to side, as the horsemen broke into a charge. The terrifying sight of twelve tons of horseflesh pelting towards them at twenty miles an hour, each horse topped with a bare-sabred Imperial Guard, was too much for the mob and it at once disintegrated into panic - torches were flung to all sides, everyone was turning round and scrabbling to get out of the front row. Callum was fortunate enough to be flung off to one side, where he caught a set of railings in the midriff and clung, gasping.

The charge impacted with a sickening series of crunching thuds, the horses simply riding down those marchers who had not been quick enough to get out of the way. One rider passed so close to Callum that her stirrup brushed his ear as he shrank away.

Within seconds it was all over. The bulk of the mob had fled, scattering through the streets of the Cantonment, and one by one the Imperial Guard pulled up their horses, tired of the sport, and returned to regroup in front of the Embassy. There were half a dozen people lying in the street, some moaning from their injuries, and Flint was moving among them, assessing their state. He caught Callum's eye. 'Bloody business, eh?'

Callum was too sick to respond. He had always thought that war was a dashing, heroic enterprise, but there had been nothing heroic about this action: virtually unarmed opponents, one's own countryfolk. It had just been a mess.

People were now coming out of the Embassy, which was unscathed. Equester James Huggett led them, his face set in an expression of concern. He went over to Captain Flint and began speaking to him in a low voice. Callum saw Flint point to him.

Mistress Dorthy led the domestic staff out, and for once she had nothing to say to Callum beyond 'So where have you been, Master Layabout?' Even her indomitable will had been shaken by the ordeal. Stella was there too, and she ran towards Callum, in tears. He surprised himself by taking her in his arms and rather feebly muttering 'There, there' in her ear as she dissolved into sobs.

RATHER LATER, AFTER the wounded rioters had been stowed in various beds around the Embassy, two Imperial Guards remaining to watch over them, and Doctor Septimus Finn summoned to tend to them, Callum was surprised to be summoned to speak with the Ambassador. His heart sank to his very boots, as this could only mean trouble: Flint must have told his employer of his interception of the message.

He slowly trudged along the upper corridor that led to Huggett's office, and knocked faintly for admittance.

'Come!' came the call from within, and Callum pushed at the door and entered. The office was a small, square room, dominated by the Ambassador's mighty rose-wood desk, which was heaped all over with unruly stacks of paper. On the wall behind it was a full-length portrait of King Geraint of Pangaturan, in military dress. The Ambassador was behind his desk, and Captain Flint was sat to one side, his uniform as perfect as though he had done nothing more strenuous than walk the dog this evening.

'Now, lad - Callum, is it? - don't be afraid. You're not in trouble.' At these words Callum's face brightened immeasurably. Not in trouble? How come? Huggett continued. 'Captain Flint here has told me of your efforts on behalf of myself and my family and the staff here. It may well be that your interception of that letter is all that saved us, boy, as Captain Flint's squadron arrived here just in time. He says that he was favourably impressed with your resourcefulness.' Flint nodded firmly in assent.

The Ambassador sighed, leaning back in his chair and tilting his head back to gaze at the ceiling-rose. 'This has been a long night, eh? I daresay you've not seen such scenes before, Callum?'

'N-never, sir! And I hope never to again,' he added, feeling brave.

'Ha! Well, I hope your wish may be granted, but I fear not. This is just the start.' He pushed his hair back from his brow. 'We have powerful enemies here, lad, and that risks covers all who dwell in this building. I chose to become Ambassador, to serve my country, but none of you of the staff bargained for this trouble when you took up my offer of employment - that your own countryfolk would one day seek to burn you in your beds for it, eh? Therefore I'm going to release from their contracts any of the staff who wish it: if you take up my offer, you are a free man as of tomorrow, and can look for work elsewhere.'

Callum gulped, not knowing how to express his feelings.

'If you decide to stay, you should know that life will get more difficult here rather than less. We will not be defeated by bullying! If I were to withdraw the embassy, return to Rangar, break off relations, that would be exactly what our foes wanted: the next step to war. And you can be sure that they will try and make us take that step. But if you do stay, I have a task for you, as you've shown some aptitude. Captain Flint and I are in communication, as you know now, and we will I think need a courier to carry messages between us - and it must be someone who no-one would suspect of involvement in these matters of nations. You fit that description admirably, if you wish to take it on.'

There was a knock at the door - it was Rogier, one of the footmen. He was pale and scared-looking. 'Equester, there's been a message from the Dower House. It's Miss Mary!'

Huggett leapt to his feet, as did Flint. Callum was already standing, but felt rather weak in the legs.

'She went out with the doctor, this evening, but the carriage's just returned, brought back by the horses but with no-one in it - no coachman, no doctor, and no Miss Mary!'


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