For about thirty seconds I was treated to a unique insight into what it must feel like to be a lone sock being buffeted around the inside of a tumble dryer on a medium spin cycle. When the walls of the tender finally stopped revolving around me I lay completely still in an effort to calculate the damage. That the numerous bruises I could feel springing up here, there and everywhere were just bruises and nothing worse seemed to be down to a large collection of seat cushions that had been abandoned in the tender when they proved less flammable than hoped and which had served to soften the blows. Despite some rather melodramatic groans it appeared that Charters, who had been buffeted around alongside me, was also largely intact and so together we crawled out of the upturned tender to assess the wider damage.
In the contest that had occurred between train and engine shed door it was hard to pick a winner. The front of the train had bent one way and the engine shed door had buckled the other before both came to rest in one crumpled mass. The last minute application of the brakes had just about served to save us from absolute disaster. Of the rest of the passengers slowly disembarking from the crumpled engine Caldicott was sporting a rather nasty burn on his arm and Biggins was holding his elbow at an awkward angle but in general the sum total of injury was only to be measured in a multitude of cuts and bruises. We began to make our way gingerly back up the platform we had overshot.
On first viewing the whole station displayed a forlorn air of utter abandonment, a dusty, windswept sense of desolation that seemed to indicate it had seen neither train nor passenger for some time. But as we passed an empty waiting room we found that we were being silently observed from the doorway by a stern, rather statuesque woman of middle age. Our party staggered to an uncertain halt before this figure, unsure whether or not she represented some kind of railway authority. Her wardrobe of loose grey skirt and navy jacket could just as easily be taken for a somewhat unimaginative personal fashion choice as some kind of uniform. The only identifying badge she wore was a thick strip of green cloth tied around the right arm.
After a moment of communal hesitation Charters took it upon himself to step forward. “Hello there!” he called out cheerily. “Terribly sorry about the damage,” he added with a sheepish nod back in the direction of our crumpled engine. “We had a little trouble with our brakes.”
There was no reaction or response whatsoever from the woman. To be fair, caked as he was from head to toe in coal dust, Charters did not perhaps present the most engaging of sights. None of us did really, sporting as we did an array of torn clothing and smoke-blackened, bloodied faces. As we looked anxiously amongst ourselves, wondering what we ought to do next, I couldn’t help noticing a number of curious faces appearing in the shadows of the station, silently regarding us with a wary interest. It seemed our arrival in town had not gone unnoticed. Eventually, after some earnest mumbled discussion, William’s mother was elected as the most presentable member amongst us and was ushered forward in a fresh attempt to make contact.
“Excuse me,” she politely addressed the woman in the doorway, “I wonder if you could help us. Our train, you see, was attacked by the Viborg. We’re hoping you may be able to offer us shelter.”
Again, there was nothing, not the slightest flicker of recognition from the woman who nonetheless continued to watch us carefully.
A moment later she was joined by a silver-haired old fellow who popped up in the doorway alongside her. “Is this them off the train?” he demanded abruptly, glaring sourly at us.
“Yep,” replied the woman.
“This all of them?”
“Seems to be.”
“Where are they from?”
“They say they’ve escaped from the Viborg,” announced the woman in a dubious tone.
This was greeted with a disbelieving harrumph from the silver-haired old man. “Does Fitz know they’re here?” he asked.
“I should think so,” replied the woman. “I sent Mo off to fetch him just in case.”
It was at this point that the businessman, clearly feeling that we were not getting quite the reception that we deserved, chose to interrupt their conversation. “Now look here,” he began, taking a step forward. “We’ve been through quite an ordeal…”
Whether it was the businessman’s brusque tone that the woman objected to or whether the fact that he was still carrying his RJC Mark IV rifle slung over his shoulder alarmed her I couldn’t say. Either way she responded to the interruption by promptly whipping a pistol out from beneath her jacket and pointing it squarely at him.
The businessman swiftly leapt backwards with a startled yelp and attempted to take cover behind Michael. “I say, steady on,” remarked Charters whilst the rest of us did our best to make soothing gestures in an effort to defuse the tension.
It was at just this moment that a new actor entered the drama, attracting everyone’s attention as he strode purposefully down the platform. A tall chap, in his early forties, with dark hair swept back from a high forehead and a sharp, active face, he wore no mark of distinction beyond a yellow armband tied over his rather worn grey suit yet he carried himself with an air of quiet authority. Behind him trailed a slightly plump girl of about seventeen, liberally festooned with a collection of bags and haversacks slung over her light cotton dress. Her armband, the wearing of which appeared to be de rigueur amongst the citizens of Marksville, was bright red. They both came to a halt in front of the waiting room, the young girl anxiously hovering a step behind. The man patiently surveyed the scene of confrontation before his eyes swept beyond us to the crashed train. Suddenly his tense, thoughtful face broke into a wry smile.
“Well well well,” he remarked lightly, “so that really was a train I saw tearing through the town. I thought for a moment I must have been hallucinating.”
“They crashed into the engine shed Fitz,” said the silver-haired old man in an accusatory tone.
“So I see,” replied Fitz casually.
Taking a deep breath, the accountant took it upon himself to be the latest member of our troop to have a go at explaining our presence. “We’re very sorry about the damage,” he said, addressing the newcomer. “It’s just that none of us is a proper engine driver and we found the whole braking procedure a bit trickier than we’d thought.”
The man known as Fitz graciously waved away his apology. “We do seem to have got off on the wrong foot here, don’t we?” he said, throwing a pointed look at the woman in the waiting room doorway. She instantly lowered her pistol with a rather sheepish look.
“Perhaps it might be best if I were to introduce myself,” Fitz continued smoothly. “My name is Thomas Fitzgerald, Senior Officer of the Marksville City Council.” He paused and a shadow momentarily crossed his face. “Well perhaps to be entirely accurate I should say that these days I am the only officer of the Marksville City Council.” The shadow quickly passed and he resumed his wry smile. “But that’s a long story and best saved for another time. What, may I ask, brings you to our city at this unlikely hour?”
“We were all travelling on the 2 o’clock from Marston when our train was stopped on the plains by a Viborg force,” explained the accountant. “They took all the passengers prisoner and marched them off to the silver mines.”
Fitz nodded thoughtfully. “Ah yes, we suspected something of the sort was happening when the trains stopped getting through about a month ago,” he said. “Although with our communications cut we’ve had no way of confirming it.”
“Well, we few managed to escape and, having got the train up and running again, we made our way here,” added the accountant.
There was another disbelieving harrumph from the silver-haired old man.
“You doubt their story?” Fitz asked him lightly.
“Whoever heard of anyone escaping from the Viborg?” demanded the old man.
“It is indeed a rare feat,” conceded Fitz. “But how else would you explain their unlikely arrival?”
“Supposing they’re in league with the Viborg,” muttered the old man suspiciously. “Sent by them to get inside our defences. I wouldn’t put it past ‘em.”
“That’s impossible,” Biggins unexpectedly piped up from the back of our group. “All forms of subterfuge and espionage are expressly forbidden by the terms of the Viborg Combat Code.” Then, feeling every eye in the station suddenly turned in his direction, he blushed and added, “Or so I’ve heard.”
There was an awkward silence. “Well, I have to say they’re an unlikely looking bunch of Viborg spies,” mused Fitz. The old man snorted doubtfully. “But I would certainly like to hear more details about this miraculous escape.” He turned back to the accountant. “You have to understand that we’re a city at war and we’re obliged to take any threat to our security seriously,” he added with an apologetic smile.
“Of course, we understand,” replied the accountant.
“I’m afraid any explanation will have to wait though,” continued Fitz with a glance up towards the skies. “The sun is almost up.”
This announcement immediately caused a ripple of concern to flow through the crowd of spectators lurking in the shadows. Both the woman in the navy jacket and the silver-haired old man threw nervous glances up towards the heavens as though fearful of what the sun might bring.
Fitz calmly turned to the young girl who had accompanied him into the station and was still hovering a pace behind. “Perhaps Mo, you would be good enough to escort our visitors to The Majestic Hotel where I think shelter might be found for them for the time being,” he suggested.
“Right you are Mr F.,” responded Mo, springing eagerly to attention.
“In the meantime I suggest everyone gets back to their own posts before daybreak,” Fitz announced in a commanding tone loud enough for the whole station to hear. “The last thing we need are unnecessary casualties.”
With a general murmuring and shuffling of feet the silent crowd reluctantly dispersed, melting back into the shadows from which they emerged. Eventually even the silver-haired old man grudgingly turned and left and the woman in the navy jacket slunk back into the waiting room.
With the station emptied Fitz turned back to our group. “I imagine you must be rather tired after your adventures. I’ll leave you for the moment in Mo’s capable hands,” he said. “But I shall look forward to catching up with your remarkable story later.” There seemed to me to be just the merest hint of menace in that last phrase, a friendly warning that we had better not be anything other than we appeared. There was an ominous silence for a moment and then the wry smile slipped neatly back into place. “Oh, and welcome to Marksville,” said Fitz before he turned and strolled away down the platform.
The Majestic Hotel may once have lived up to its name but the scars of war had undoubtedly served to dent a little of its majesty. It was a tall, ornate structure sheltering behind a broad courtyard in the centre of town. Unfortunately the building was now pockmarked with dents and holes and many of the windows, particularly on the upper floors, were either boarded up or left as empty frames. The large fountain that formed the centrepiece of the courtyard was also boarded up, its basin filled in with earth and rubble and an upturned bus lay on its side just behind the gateway. This, I discovered as we passed, had been occupied by a small company of chickens who gazed impassively out at us from their modified hen house as we went by.
Mo had proved a lively and informative guide as we stumbled through the rubble-strewn streets on our way from the station, maintaining a steady stream of conversation as we went. “Mr F.? Oh yes, he’s marvellous, isn’t he?” she said enthusiastically, prompted by a question from the accountant. “He really keeps the whole city going, I don’t know where we’d be without him. Almost everyone calls him Fitz now but he doesn’t seem to mind in the slightest.”
“What did he mean by that comment about being the only officer of the council now?” asked William’s mother. “What happened to the others?”
Mo sighed and hesitated. “There were twenty officers of the Council when the war broke out,” she eventually explained. “It just seemed natural that they should organise the City defences. And to start with it all worked rather well. They co-ordinated everything from City Hall and the people were all happy to do their bit under the Council’s direction. But as the siege dragged on and times got tougher we began to see less and less of the Council. They mostly spent all their time holed up in a bunker beneath City Hall, issuing the odd decree.”
Mo paused for a moment as she negotiated her way around a large crater in the middle of the street. “But then one night a couple of months ago we were all called to a meeting in the Central Square. It was Mr F. who told us that the Council had begun negotiating with the Viborg behind our backs to surrender the city in the hope of saving their own skins.” Mo’s habitually cheerful face darkened for a moment at the memory. “Fortunately for us, Mr F. had decided that he couldn’t go along with it. He thought it was up to the people to decide what should happen to the city. He offered us the choice – surrender and give ourselves over to slavery or stay and fight on against the odds.”
“Very noble of him,” muttered the businessman.
“Wasn’t it?” agreed Mo, oblivious to the sarcasm. “Anyway, everyone voted to fight on. We expelled the rest of the Council from the city and agreed to carry on with Fitz as our sole leader. And, well, here we are, still fighting on,” she added proudly.
“It can’t be easy though, living in a constant state of siege,” said Michael sympathetically.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” insisted Mo. “Keeping busy, that’s the key. Everyone has their role to play – Mr F. keeps us organised.”
“Is that what the armbands signify?” I asked, nodding at the strip of red cloth tied around Mo’s right arm.
“Yes, that’s it. I’m a City First Aider so I wear red as part of the Medical Corps.” Mo proudly patted her armband. “Then there’s blue for the City Defence Patrols and green for the Civic Volunteer Force.”
“Sounds very efficient,” said Charters.
“It seems to work well enough. Ah, here we are,” announced Mo, turning into the courtyard of The Majestic. “And not a moment too soon,” she added with a nervous glance up at the ever brightening sky. “It’s almost dawn.”
“What’s the big fuss about dawn?” asked Caldicott.
“That’s usually when the bombardment starts,” replied Mo matter-of-factly. “The Viborg’s primary power source comes from the sun so they’re not very active at night – you can generally wander out after dusk without too much worry. But come the morning you don’t want to be out in the open if you can help it.”
Having crossed the courtyard we followed Mo up the sand-bagged steps and through the main entrance. The grand double doors led into a stately entrance hall that once again spoke of former glories. The effect was somewhat spoiled however by the muddy footprints trailing across the marbled floor and the large pile of dirty linen dumped in front of the two lifts, both of which sported a hastily written ‘out of order’ sign. The whole room was filled with a rather ripe odour which I only later discovered emanated from two pigs who had been installed in a temporary sty behind the reception desk.
“I’ll just need to check if there are rooms for you all,” said Mo cheerily before darting off down a corridor.
We loitered awkwardly in the middle of the hall, waiting for her return. Three tired-looking women sporting red armbands listlessly eyed us for a moment from their vantage point beneath the grand staircase before returning to their card game. Fortunately it wasn’t long before Mo came bouncing back into the hall.
“We’re in luck – the Chief Warden says the third floor is all yours,” she announced brightly as she steered us up the staircase. “He doesn’t recommend you go any higher but he swears the third is still perfectly habitable.”
The Chief Warden may have been technically accurate in his assessment of the state of the third floor but it was unlikely to win any tourist awards anytime soon. The carpets were worn and dirty, the wallpaper alternately scorched or water-damaged and much of the furniture was missing, along with whole sections of wall, ceiling and floor in some cases. But eventually serviceable rooms were found for all. Michael and I opted to share Room 312. The window was boarded up and the paper was peeling off the walls but it had the unparalleled attraction of two very comfortable looking beds situated within it. It was only when I caught sight of these particular pieces of furniture that it occurred to me just how tired I really was. It had, after all, been one hell of a journey.
I would have quite happily collapsed into bed right away but a briefly caught glimpse of my appearance in a cracked mirror convinced me that I ought to make an effort to scrub off at least some of the coal dust that coated my features so I joined the queue forming in the corridor for the solitary working bathroom on the whole floor. It was here that I finally dared to ease the carefully wrapped inter-dimensional travel drive from beneath my blackened jacket. That it had somehow survived both Viborg attack and train crash tucked beneath my armpit appeared on examination to be true but I didn’t like to speculate on its chances of ever being returned to a functioning condition.
Mo was busy distributing blankets and bedding along the hallway and I took the opportunity to stop her as she passed. “You wouldn’t happen to know the location of Nelson Street, would you?” I casually asked. “We’re looking for someone called Ash who lives at No. 35.”
“I didn’t know you guys were friends of Ash,” responded Mo excitedly.
“I wouldn’t say friends exactly,” I demurred. “You know her then?”
“Everyone knows Ash,” insisted Mo cheerfully. “She designed Marksville’s whole anti-Viborg Defence System. Besides Fitz there’s probably no-one more responsible for keeping the City running during the siege. I mean, she’s…”
Before she could continue Mo was interrupted by the businessman who, having bagged for himself by far the biggest room on the whole floor, was now worrying about draughts. Mo apologetically excused herself for a moment whilst she went to see what could be done.
“You really think we’re going to be able to get that thing fixed, do you?” Michael, queueing alongside me, remarked in her absence with a doubtful glance down at the rather battered inter-dimensional travel device.
“We can try,” I replied with a shrug.
“It’s not as if we have anything now to offer Ash in return for her assistance,” pointed out Michael, his usual brand of optimism having apparently momentarily deserted him.
“We’ll think of something,” I insisted unconvincingly. “Perhaps we’ll get lucky and she’ll turn out to have a penchant for finely recited Shakespearean speeches,” I suggested with a sly glance. “Or out-of-date salmon,” I added, feeling the tin still wedged into my hip pocket.
At this point Mo returned, having finally managed to escape the businessman’s barrage of complaints. “Wow, I still can’t believe you guys are actually friends of Ash,” she said with a shake of her head.
“Do you think you could take us to see her?” I asked, not bothering to correct the misapprehension.
“Not now I can’t,” Mo replied sadly, nodding towards the window at the end of the corridor which revealed a sun climbing rapidly in the sky. “The bombardment will be starting any minute.”
“Oh, right,” I said with a sigh.
“But I guess I could take you over tonight before patrol starts,” suggested Mo. “I could meet you downstairs in the hotel bar if you like. About six-thirty. It should be safe enough by then.”
“Thank-you. We’d really appreciate that.”
Mo beamed brightly. “In the meantime you’ll probably want to get some sleep,” she said.
“You’re not wrong there,” I conceded.
“In which case you might need some of this,” added Mo, digging about in one of the many bags she still had slung about her person. After a moment she brought forth an enormous clump of cotton wool which she thrust into my hands. “For the ears,” she said cheerfully. “It can get a bit noisy if you’re not used to it. Sleep tight.”
To be continued…