It may have been the effect of the cotton wool, or perhaps it was just the sheer state of exhaustion I was in, but nothing was capable of disturbing me once I had collapsed into my bed in Room 312 of The Majestic Hotel. By the time I woke the sun was sitting low in the sky and the city outside our window was eerily quiet. There was no sign of life emanating from any of the rooms occupied by our fellow passengers so I enjoyed a good long soak in the communal bathroom before Michael and I made our way downstairs.
The hotel bar was located at the end of a long corridor on the lower ground floor. Here it appeared to have been sheltered from the worst of the bombardment; unlike the upper floors the art deco surroundings showed little sign of damage. With its low-key lighting and smoky atmosphere the place exuded something of a seedy glamour. We were a little early for our six-thirty rendezvous and there was no sign yet of Mo amongst the scattered patrons. We did however spot Charters and Caldicott propping up one end of the bar and so wandered over to say hello.
“Hallo there!” called out Charters cheerily as soon as he caught sight of us. “How are you? Sleep well?”
“Like a log,” nodded Michael.
“Their so called bombardment never registered,” I added breezily.
“Ah, that’s because it never actually occurred today,” said Caldicott. “The barman told us. Apparently there were a few stray shots first thing then… nothing.”
“Seems to have put everyone into a bit of a flap,” murmured Charters confidentially. “All wondering what the hell the Viborg might be up to.”
“You’d think they’d just be relieved,” remarked Caldicott.
It was true that there did seem to be something of an air of nervous excitement running around the bar, with people in variously coloured armbands huddling together and murmuring apprehensively to one another.
“Anyway, will you take a drink?” asked Charters cheerfully. “They’ve been reduced to brewing their own form of alcoholic beverage since the siege took hold. It’s a little primitive but there’s a plentiful supply.”
“It comes in two varieties,” explained Caldicott. “Clear or cloudy.”
“What would you recommend?” asked Michael.
Caldicott considered his response carefully. “The clear most closely resembles vodka but tastes faintly of cabbage,” he advised. “The cloudy seems to aspire to be whisky with a bit of a sooty texture. They both pack a bit of a punch.”
I plumped for a measure of the vodka substitute, Michael thought he would try the whisky.
Charters hailed the barman and made the request. Having poured out two glasses, one of which had the clear still quality of water, the other of which was the colour of vinegar, the barman paused to get our verdicts. Under his expectant gaze I took a tentative sip. There was a brief moment of dizzying intensity when a band of fire seemed to tighten around both chest and head and I feared my eyeballs where about to explode. But once that had receded and I could just about feel the back of my throat once more, the drink left me with a not entirely unpleasant warm glow in the pit of my stomach. “Not bad,” I spluttered to the barman.
“Very nice,” coughed Michael after a taste of his ‘whisky’.
Apparently satisfied, the barman refilled our glasses and wandered back away down the bar again.
“What have you got there?” Michael asked Charters in a somewhat husky tone when he had gone.
“This?” said Charters, picking up the pamphlet that was tucked beneath his elbow. “It’s a railway timetable. The barman was good enough to dig it out for us from an old pile of tourist bumf.”
“Not that it isn’t pleasant here,” added Caldicott, “but we mustn’t miss our connection to Budapest.”
“Got to get those clubs back if I’m to make the R&A,” said Charters solemnly. “It’s only a month away.”
“Less than a month,” corrected Caldicott.
“You’re right,” said Charters. “Less than a month.”
I glanced uncertainly from Charters to Caldicott and back again, wondering if they hadn’t suffered some kind of collective bump to the head during the train crash. “You do realise there are no trains leaving Marksville for anywhere at the moment,” I told them gently. “The Viborg have put a stop to that.”
“There are no regular trains leaving, granted,” returned Charters, unperturbed, “but there’s nothing to say we can’t get our own engine back up and running with a bit of effort.”
“If we could just prise it away from that engine shed door then I dare say we can patch up the worst of the damage,” insisted Caldicott.
“We thought we’d head over to the station once we’ve had our drinks and take a look,” said Charters.
“Then what do you need the timetable for?” asked Michael, still rather puzzled.
“To let us know which line we need to be on,” explained Charters with just a hint of impatience.
“And give us an idea how much fuel we might need,” added Caldicott.
“But what about the Viborg?” I asked worriedly. “You’re bound to run into them at some point.”
“Hmm, yes, we did think of that,” conceded Caldicott. “We thought some sort of flag ought to do the trick.”
“Show them we’re British subjects and therefore not to be interfered with,” declared Charters stoutly.
“I don’t think the Viborg are altogether concerned with notions of sovereignty,” said Michael doubtfully. “It certainly didn’t bother them last time.”
“That was probably no more than a simple misunderstanding,” insisted Charters blithely.
“Probably down to that Biggins fellow,” suggested Caldicott. “He can’t have translated properly.”
I looked at Michael but he could only offer a light shrug in response. It seemed perfectly clear that there was little chance of nudging Charters and Caldicott out of their settled world view.
Fortunately it wasn’t long before Mo arrived, strewn with her customary collection of bags and haversacks. Her progress across the bar was halted on several occasions by patrons who wanted to share a few anxious words before allowing her to progress. Indeed, she’d barely reached our corner of the room and offered us a hasty greeting before the barman sidled over.
“Any news Mo?” he asked eagerly.
“Mr F has called a meeting in Central Square for seven o’clock,” she told him earnestly. “Everyone who can is advised to attend. That’s as much as I know.”
The barman considered this scrap of information carefully. “Well, if anyone can figure it out, it’s Fitz,” he finally announced to nobody in particular and wandered away again to pass on the news to other customers.
Mo turned her flushed face back in our direction. “Sorry about all this but the failure of the Viborg bombardment today really has caused a bit of a stir,” she told us.
“And now there’s to be a meeting about it?” I said.
Mo nodded. “If it’s alright with you guys I thought we could stop there on our way over to see Ash,” she added hopefully. “I’d really like to be there.”
“Of course,” agreed Michael. “You’ve no idea what Fitz has to say then?”
“Not a clue,” replied Mo. “But I’m afraid it must be something pretty important. After all, the last time he called a meeting like this the survival of the whole city was in the balance.”
Central Square turned out to be a broad, tree-lined piazza that did indeed sit pretty much slap bang in the middle of the city. Hemmed in on one side by a gallery of bomb-damaged shops and on the other by a large church missing both steeple and roof, the place was swarming with people by the time we arrived, all eyes fixed steadily on the heavily sand-bagged façade of City Hall that lay across the North end of the square. Pushing our way through the throng we took up a vantage point in the shadow of large statue of the Madonna and Child that stood in the centre. Unfortunately a nearby blast had left the Virgin Mary leaning drunkenly to one side, dangling the baby Jesus in a most un-maternal fashion.
The crowd all around were buzzing with speculation over the lack of bombardment today and the question of what Fitz might have to say about it. An elderly chap in an immaculately pressed suit told us in a loud whisper that he had confidentially heard that the whole Viborg army had already surrendered to Fitz whilst a woman wearing a beret had it on good authority that the Viborg were readying a new super-weapon that would obliterate the city in seconds. A pimply young lad sporting a collection of armbands snorted derisorily and insisted instead that it was common knowledge that all the women and children were about to be evacuated via a secret tunnel before the men of the city would make an heroic last stand.
The debate was still raging when, without warning, the broad oak doors of City Hall swung open and Fitz emerged. He stood at the top of the steps, bathed in the rusty glow of the dying sunset, and calmly waited for the crowd to come to attention. Within a minute you could hear a pin drop.
“Thank you all for coming,” Fitz began, his strong sharp voice ringing clearly across the hushed square. “I know you’re all anxious to find out exactly what is going on. Our unexpectedly quiet day seems to have caused a fever of speculation but it’s only in the last hour or so that I’ve been in any position to shed light on the situation.” Fitz paused and surveyed the eager crowd. “I can now tell you that shortly after 5.30pm a CDV patrol guarding a section of the West Wall received contact from a delegation of Viborg operating under a flag of truce.”
A low deep hum rippled across the square. Fitz waited a moment for this to die away before continuing.
“The Viborg say that they wish to discuss terms prior to signing a peace treaty with us,” he then announced. “They’re ready to lift the siege.”
The crowd instantly erupted. There were shouts, cries and exclamations of joy as people impulsively grasped one another in a surge of emotion that swept right around the square. In front of me the well-dressed elderly man danced an excitable jig with the woman in the beret whilst, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the pimply youth stealing a shy kiss from Mo.
Standing alone on the steps Fitz permitted himself a wry smile as he watched this explosion of feeling engulf the crowd. He allowed the initial burst of enthusiasm to subside before raising his hands in an effort to quiet the crowd. Even so, it was still a good few minutes before the expressions of jubilation had faded sufficiently for him to be able to make himself heard.
“It’s not over yet,” he finally called out in a cautionary tone. “There are still some tough negotiations to be concluded before we can consider our city to be truly safe.”
These warning words had the desired effect. A sea of faces gazed seriously up at Fitz.
“That was really the reason why I called you all here this evening,” Fitz continued gravely. “Arrangements have been made for talks to be held with the Viborg first thing in the morning. I am here to ask for your authorisation to negotiate on behalf of the people of Marksville.”
There was an instant outbreak of cheering but Fitz waved away the acclamations with an expression of impatience. “The Viborg are a proud warrior race,” he added darkly. “There may be some difficult decisions to be made before we can consider ourselves truly at peace with them. You should think carefully before you decide who to place your trust in.”
For a moment the crowd descended into an awed hush. Then a lone voice somewhere near the front of the square called out, “We’re with you Fitz!”. This sentiment was swiftly echoed by further shouts and cries right across the piazza. A shrill, excitable voice yelled, “Three cheers for Fitz!”, a suggestion that was taken up with enthusiasm by the whole crowd.
When the cheers finally died away Fitz gazed earnestly out at the people of Marksville. “Thank-you, I will do my very best to represent you all faithfully in the morning,” he told the assembly.
He paused and allowed himself a wry smile. “For the meantime though you will be pleased to hear that, pending the negotiations, a truce has been agreed covering the next 24 hours.”
A fresh ripple of excitement swayed through the crowd.
“In honour of which I propose that all patrols, guards and garrison duties for tonight are hereby cancelled.” An enthusiastic burst of applause roared around the square. “Because, I don’t know about you,” shouted Fitz, by now struggling to make himself heard above the excitement of the crowd, “but I think we all deserve a night off.”
To be continued…