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Callum Crofting – Turn 4

CALLUM STARED IN horror at Rogier the footman, his words chilling him to the bone. His knees grew trembly and weak and his mouth opened wordlessly. Ambassador Huggett had leapt to his feet and was anxiously demanding details from Rogier - what time had Mary gone out, where they had been headed, and so on, but the poor fellow had no answer. Meanwhile Captain Flint was stood as still as a statue by the window, his face expressionless, just listening.

Callum, instinct taking him over, blurted into speech. 'Sir, sir, I know where Miss Mary went!'

Equester James turned swiftly towards him, the tails of his coat flying out. 'Speak, lad, tell us all!'

Callum stumblingly related what he had witnessed earlier that evening, as the Ambassador and Flint listened intently. 'I-I meant no harm by it, sir, it's just that I happened to be passing the Dower House as they were leaving...'

'Well done! Your sharp eyes may have given us the help we need!' said Will Flint. 'If we can retrace the carriage's route, we may be able to see where the miscreants struck.'

Huggett rubbed his chin thoughtfully. 'D'you think Marchant's in on it, Will? He seemed a quiet enough fellow, but still waters...'

Flint blew out his cheeks. 'I really don't know, Jim, I really don't. Nothing would surprise me now. He can't be above suspicion, that's for sure. And there's the coachman, too: need to check up on him. Do you think this is straightforward Flaming Wheel troublemaking, or is there more to it than that? The choice of target, I mean.'

'There must be more to it, Will, I think. But I don't want to wait to find out!'

All this while Callum was in an agony of fidgets, desperately wanting to do something to aid his adored Miss Mary in her plight. He burst out again 'Oh sir, sir, is there anything I can do to help, anything at all?'

Flint crouched down to poke the dying embers in the grate. 'There may be... shall I take care of this, Jim?'

Ambassador Huggett slumped back in his chair. The fire seemed to have left him and he looked rather older. 'Aye, Will, you're the man for it. Take the lad if you can use him.' He turned his head to Callum. 'You're a brave boy - it's not many servants'd put their necks on the line for the master's daughter! But no, I know you realise this is part of a bigger picture - that it's the whole country that's at stake here.'

Callum opened his mouth to say no, really, it was the master's daughter he was more concerned about, but wisely shut it again.

Flint straightened up and strode to the door. 'Come on then, Callum - 've you ever ridden on a horse before?'

CALLUM HAD RIDDEN horses before, as a child, during the happy part of his life between his mother's marriage to Jacob Tulley and her death {it seemed like such a brief interlude}, but he realised uneasily, as he surveyed the rather distant ground flashing by at an alarming rate, that there were horses and horses. The little furry ponies of his childhood might not even be acknowledged as relatives by the tremendous destrier on which he now found himself, his arms wrapped deathly tight around Captain Flint's midriff.

He had only rarely been out in the city this late at night - it couldn't be too far from the beginnings of dawn now - and seeing it zipping past to either side, the horse's back moving smoothly underneath him, it seemed somehow curiously unreal, as though he might wake up at any moment and find himself in his garret bed, the sheets all tangled around his body and damp with sweat.

There was a sudden burst of music and laughter, and Flint reined in the great grey mare. 'Well, here we are: the Old Guildhall.' There were still night-time revellers dotted around the building, and the pavement cafes nearby were still doing good business. It could not be too long since the performance had finished. 'You hold Gravis, lad, while I talk to the doorman.' Flint reached behind him to effortlessly swing Callum to the ground, then dismounted himself. The horse stood patiently while Flint whispered in her ear, before handing the reins to Callum, who accepted them gingerly. 'Don't worry, I've told her you're a friend!'

Captain Flint was away with the doorman for only a few minutes - Callum saw the flash of coin changing hands - but during this time Gravis attracted more than a few admiring glances from passers-by. How splendid it would be to own such a horse himself, he mused, wondering whether she really did understand what Flint had whispered to her. She made a whiffling snort noise and turned to look down her long nose at him.

Flint was back, and at once swung back into the saddle. 'Well, that fellow says they left here safely enough, an hour since. He knew the carriage because of Princess Sharia's arms on the door - handy, eh? Now we have to retrace the likely route.' He hauled Callum up behind him, and they set off again.

This time the ride was slower, Flint peering from side to side as Gravis stepped daintily along. Occasionally he would urge her to one side or the other of the street, to examine some patch of darkness, although Callum could never see what it was he was looking at. Callum was by now deathly tired, and could not stop yawning. Flint looked round at him amusedly, but said nothing except 'Catching flies again?'

Suddenly his head lifted, like a dog sniffing the air, and he slid swiftly from the mare's saddle. He bent down and looked closely at a dull patch in the dirt on the pavement, putting his finger to it and touching it first to his nose and then to his tongue. He looked up at Callum. 'Come here, lad, see this!'

Fascinated, Callum approached. The dullness resolved itself into dampness as he drew closer, and he could see the red stain on Flint's finger. 'Is it blood?'

'Aye, right enough it is: o'course, doesn't prove anything. Might have been some fight or something. But see here -' he indicated the edge of the paving, which was slightly broken away '- a carriage has mounted the pavement at an angle, coming from that direction - see? Rather suggestive, no?'

'Was it them?'

'It rather looks that way, I think.' He scanned the area. 'There's an alley, look: they could have taken them down there.' Both moved across to the mouth of the alleyway, and with an involuntary cry Callum knelt down to recover a tiny scrap of cloth that hung on a loose nail there: it was the same pale blue silk that Mary Huggett had been wearing when he had seen her earlier that evening.

The next half hour was spent rather frustratingly. Captain Flint systematically tried every door handle and looked in every window within a hundred yards of the alley, while Callum on his instructions crawled over the packed dirt, looking for further clues. There was nothing, though, and eventually Flint said 'Well, that's that for here, I think: we'll have to come back in the morning if we're to find anything new.'

Callum was reluctant to relinquish the search, but his aching body advised him otherwise.

'Come on, hop back up: I've some more ideas to try, but I'll drop you off home now and call by in the morning to tell the Ambassador what we've got so far.'

BY THE TIME Callum stumbled into bed dawn was definitely breaking. He was quiet enough not to wake his room-mates, and as soon as his head touched the pillow he was snatched away into a black void. It seemed like no time at all later that he was wakened by the banging of the servants' bell, although a glance through the window told him that Mistress Dorthy had in fact allowed them all an extra half hour in bed after last night's troubles.

Lying here in bed, hair tousled, it all seemed rather strange and distant - had he really spent the night riding around the streets of Galena on the back of a swift steed? Then the earlier events crashed through into his mind, and quaking he curled up into a ball again. The sight of that mob marching on eh Embassy, bent on destroying all that he held dear - and the horror of Miss Mary's disappearance. Thinking of her, of what terrible privations she must be suffering, he leapt out of bed and gave himself a cursory wash. Perhaps Captain Flint would return soon, with news that she had been found?

As he scampered downstairs, Callum was joined by Stella Grundy, who seemed to have recovered some of her good cheer. 'My! Weren't we all brave last night! And old Dorthy in her dressing-gown! I sat up tending those wounded rioters, did you know? Where had you been, I didn't see you till after - hiding under the stairs?'

'I was... off on an errand,' Callum answered uncomfortably.

'Oh! Well, I don't suppose Dorthy'll make too much fuss after last night! Did you hear, she's called us all to the servants' hall to hear a speech - I wonder what it's about?'

CALLUM HAD A pretty good guess as to what the speech was about, and he was proved right. The housekeeper paced about, unused to addressing large numbers of servants in a conversational mode other than bellowing, and muttered that His Excellency the Ambassador had agreed to release from their contracts any who wished to leave, after the events of last night, together with a week's wages in good faith. There was a surprised murmur from all but Callum. 'You have all day to decide if you want to go, and Master says if you change your mind later and want to leave next week, say, you still can. Hmph! Too generous by half, that man!' From Dorthy's demeanour it was clear she would have a dim opinion of any who shilly-shallied over the decision.

'What if we say we want to go now, and then next week decide we want to come back?' called the footman Charles.

Mistress Dorthy glared at him. 'Any cowardly vermin who deserts the family and runs away, then decides he wants to come back because he misses the good food and the easy conditions, won't be welcome in my servants' hall, whatever His Excellency may say about it - is that clear?' Her loyalty surprised Callum. He had always assumed her callousness to her staff betokened a general dislike of humanity. But perhaps she was just anxious to get the best from them for her employer's sake?

'What d'you think you'll do, Callum?' asked Stella, as they carried buckets of hot water down to the front steps. There was a good deal of blood on the marble this morning, as well as the usual dirt.

'Me? I'll stay.'

'Oh, I suppose you don't really have anywhere to go to, do you? I'd like to stay, I'd miss all this, but... last night really scared me, Callum, I don't want to wake up next week some time and find the house on fire or something! And Paula was saying, when she went to collect the groceries and she said to put it on the Embassy account, two people spat at her in the street and said she was a heretic! I don't know much about religion or whatever, but it's not fair that we should be abused like that just because Master's a heretic.'

'So are you going to go?' Callum was genuinely saddened by this thought. Stella was his only real friend on the staff.

'Oh, I haven't decided yet for sure, but probably - get away from Dorthy, too! Really, though, Callum, you could soon enough find another job, and then you'd be getting paid proper wages, not like pocket-money like now, if Master closed down your contract. You could come and look with me, we could get work together!'

Since he woke up Callum had been burning to find out if there was any news of Miss Mary, but he had realised that the servants had not been told of her disappearance - no doubt for fear of worrying them. This urge bubbled forth, though, as he saw the familiar figure of Captain Flint swing into Cantonment Road. Abandoning his bucket and Stella, who was saying 'Isn't that the Guard captain from last night? Isn't he handsome!' he dashed out into the road.

'Whoa, lad!' called Flint, smiling. He looked very tired indeed, although his uniform was still uncrumpled.

'Is there any news?' panted Callum.

Flint set his lips together ruefully. 'None good, lad, I'm sorry. I found the coachman, but he won't be telling anyone what happened.'

'You mean...?'

He nodded. 'Dead. Throat slit, left outside the Giddy Goat tavern. As for Miss Huggett and Doctor Marchant, no sign. I imagine we'll hear something later today. Now, I must speak with your master. But tell me, lad, have you decided about our offer - to act as a courier?'

'I have, sir, and I want to take it on - I'm honest, you can ask anybody that, and I can read and write...'

Flint was holding up his hand. 'Hold hard! I knew all that already - d'you think we would have offered you the job if we weren't certain you were fit to it? I've had a very favourable report of your character.'

Callum, blushing, stammered his thanks for the implied compliment, all the while wondering who might have made such a report. Not Mistress Dorthy, that was for sure.

Flint was continuing, 'A slight tendency to slackening off at the more tedious tasks - eh? Not so bad in a lad, rather be doing something more interesting, I should think. You'll do!'

'How am I to keep it secret, though, sir? If I'm called upon for these extra duties, Mistress Dorthy will notice I'm missing...' Callum was wondering whether he would have to carry on doing all of his old job as well as this new role.

'I think His Excellency plans to give out to the staff that he's training you for a secretary, or something of that sort, so your other duties will be lessened somewhat. Your parents are merchants, isn't it? Seems plausible enough. You may find yourself envied by your fellows... but there's no other way of doing it, you'll just have to put up with that.'

Suddenly Flint stiffened in his saddle and looked down the street over Callum's head. Marching towards them was a troop of Gendarmes, twelve or so, all in step and wearing their uniforms. 'What have we here?'

There was the patter of feet, and Stella came running up to them. She gazed up at Flint with a curious puppyish look on her face. 'How-de-do, sir! Callum, what's happening?'

Callum was momentarily annoyed that she had interrupted his conversation, no doubt eager to know what it was about, but his peevishness swiftly modified to sympathy: the poor girl was perhaps worried that he was in trouble. Flint spoke crisply. 'Get back indoors, both of you, and fetch your master: this may take some dealing with.'

Ambassador Huggett was swiftly brought to the door, giving Callum a quick smile. He stepped out to stand by Flint in the road, where he was talking to the commander of the Gendarmes. There was a great deal of hand-waving and raised voices. Behind him in the house, Callum could hear packing noises: clearly some of the servants were all too keen to take up the Ambassador's offer. Then Flint left the small group and came in the hallway.

'What is it?' asked Callum, worriedly. The Gendarmes looked in businesslike mood, and he remembered the one who had been leading the rioters last night.

'They want us to surrender these wounded people to them: say we've got no right to keep them here on Pangaturese soil. Your master says he won't let them go until they're recovered.' He grimaced, and looked around to check they were unobserved. 'Callum, you can run your first couriering task now. I need you to find Captain William Devereux, who's an officer in the Fonescan Regiment: they're based in the Exercise Barracks, where you came last night. He may be able to help us find Miss Huggett: that's his line of work, finding people, and more to the point he's got contacts in the Gendarmerie. And he's a discreet man. I want you to find him, and tell him everything you know about this affair - tell him you come from the Ambassador, don't mention me. If he asks you how you heard of him say the Ambassador told you. Tell him everything, tell him to be discreet. If he asks you to do something to help, do it.'

There was a shout outside, and both looked up, startled. One of the Gendarmes had drawn his sword and was brandishing it in Ambassador Huggett's face.


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