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The Strangler And The Rising Storm by Michaela Francis

EXTRACT FOR
The Strangler And The Rising Storm 
(Michaela Francis)


Slaves of The Amethyst - Book 15

 

Chapter One

 

In the early afternoon, immediately after lunch, the warning signs of impending storm were clear for all to see. The air temperature was cooling and the breeze sharpening. Clouds were beginning to scud across the sky and sudden gusts were shaking the tree-tops, catching at girl’s skirts and stirring up the residue of confetti around the festival. There were fewer revellers on the streets of Mathom now for many were at home in extended preparation for the festival’s grand finale; the evening ball. Nevertheless the word was out that the climax of the festival was by now under threat. People were watching the weather forecasts in increasing anxiety and finding no comfort there. There was an ugly new word making the rounds; “cancellation”. It was unthinkable. Such an occurrence had not occurred since the dark days of the Second World War.

 When Japan had formally accepted surrender, on the 15th of August of the year 1945, Mathomdale had resumed its yearly festival and the festival of ’45’s celebration of continuity and victory had been one of the most memorable in history. So uninhibited had that festival been that demographers still recognised a marked population expansion in the valley at a point some nine months later. People still remembered that festival in fondness. For a whole week the valley had gone nearly mad. Huge effigies of the erstwhile Axis leaders had been burned on enormous fires on the riverside stray and soldiers had thrown their uniforms into the pyres and danced naked around them gleefully joined by the lasses of the valley and beyond. The outpouring of joy was a victory of love over war, of survival over tyranny and life over death. The festival Queen had been an easy choice that year. Newly returned from war and bearing the scars of conflict she had been young and beautiful with long auburn tresses and hazel eyes. Her name had been Katherine Carmillion, one of the most famous festival Queens ever. But now war was with them again and storm brewed in the west and they were talking about the possibility of cancellation.

To a worried Daniel the announcement of cancellation was merely a matter of timing. He and his colleagues had far more pressing matters to consider than merely the collective disappointment of thousands of attendees at the summer ball. He was busily conferring with those colleagues in a makeshift emergency headquarters in the village hall. They were gathered around a big table looking at large scale Ordnance Survey maps of the village and its surroundings and not liking what they saw at all. Daniel ran a hand through his hair and grimaced. At his side was Sergeant Richard Oldfield of the First Battalion of the Amethyst Guard.

 Sergeant Oldfield had become, by now, officially detached with his men to the temporary service of Daniel in the logistic affairs of the festival and he was by no means discontented with the arrangement. Ever since the day when he and his men had been placed under Daniel’s command for the construction of the stands in the village, Sergeant Oldfield had come to both like and respect the down to earth slave of Mathom Hall and neither of those attributes of admiration were things that came easily to hard-headed, rather cynical military sergeants of long experience. Daniel might have laughed at the thought but in fact he was emerging as a natural leader. Privately Sergeant Oldfield wished that Daniel was his commanding officer. It was true that Daniel had no military background whatsoever but there was a fundamental common sense to him that was often lacking in the usual run of officers. He had a way of cutting through the “bullshit” as Sergeant Oldfield termed it and getting down to what was really important. Moreover he could get things done with the minimum amount of fuss and yet endear himself to his subordinates by granting their respect and valuing their advice. Sergeant Oldfield had served under many officers and he considered himself an expert on their qualities. Daniel was a natural he considered. It was a shame that he wasn’t in the army. Sergeant Oldfield would have followed Daniel into battle and that was rare praise indeed.

Also gathered around the table were two of Sergeant Oldfield’s most trusted corporals, two representatives of the festival organisation and a worried looking young man called William Richards who was an engineer with the Mathomdale Water Authority. This latter gentleman had spent most of the day so far attempting to impress upon other authorities the urgency of the forthcoming crisis but with little success. The emergency services were already at full stretch with the simple maintenance of essential services for the festival as it stood, without the worries of this doom preaching young man. They had begun to act upon his recommendations to a certain extent, it is true, but their efforts were inadequate and tardy in his opinion and now he was desperately casting his net farther afield in search of somebody who would listen to him and take him seriously. Finally he had got the attention of the festival organisers and now the military. Best of all he had found Daniel. Daniel, after all, was a representative of the supreme authority in Mathomdale. If William could persuade Daniel then he had the ear of Lady Mathom herself and the one person who could over-rule the inherent conservatism and reluctance to adopt extreme measures of the regular services of the valley.

William certainly had Daniel’s attention. He was moving over features on the map rapidly and praying that Daniel could understand him. “If we lose these levees here and here,” he was saying, “then all this area around the stray and the downstream area of the village is going to go. Everything below here, all these flood plains to the east of the village right down to Cropton are in danger and you’re going to lose the roads on both banks of the river between here and Cropton. If all your transport is up at the Hall then you need it down here at the village now because if we lose the river beneath Mathom Bridge then the road to the Hall is going to be cut.”

“Are these all campsites down along this ‘ere stretch?” asked Daniel.

“Yes that’s right. You’ve got about eight thousand people in these two temporary sites alone and another three thousand in this site just to the east. All those people have to move and sharpish. Then you’re going to have to evacuate all the fairgrounds and festival facilities along the strays and riverbanks and be ready to empty all the village north and east of Lady Caroline Street and all the settlements along the valley floor between here and Cropton. In Cropton you’re going to have to clear everybody on the north side of the river over to the south and these streets here in the west of the village and we’re going to have to do that before we lose the road to Cropton. Both of the roads east and west of the north side of the village could go and anybody on the north side could be cut off.”

“Bloody ‘ell what a carve up!” Daniel frowned concernedly. He was tired. He’d been up early and still been trying to shake off the effects of a monumental hangover when his Mistress had despatched him to the village to help assist with the preparations for the ball. That mandate had changed dramatically by now. Daniel was no longer involved in organising a ball but in the process of abandoning one. Cancellation might yet still be a feared and ugly word to the rest of the festival but it was already a given fact to Daniel. He had no longer any doubt that they were in the middle of a full emergency. “What d’ yer think Dick?” he asked Sergeant Oldfield.

“It’s a bastard sir! Beggin’ yer pardon ma-am.” This last was directed to one of the ladies from the festival organisation. “If we’re going to have to start evacuating this number of people then we’re goin’ to ‘ave to ‘ave more transport. I’ve only got five trucks with drivers left up at the ‘All. Most of the rest of the battalion’s transport is back at camp. I can mebbe find some more trucks from t’ engineers an’ mebbe a couple o’ buses but I’d need t’ authority from the commandin’ officers.”

Daniel looked grim. “Yer’ll get it Dick. Soon as I ‘ave a word wi my Missus she’ll light a rocket under your officers bums. Will it be enough though?”

Sergeant Oldfield scratched his head. “I dunno. I doubt it. We’re looking at mebbe fifteen thousand people or more ‘ere and not all with their own transport. It’ll be a bloody nightmare.”

“Right then we can requisition buses from t’ Mathomdale bus company fer starters.”

“’Ere ‘ave we t’ authority to do that?”

“Aye Dick. We’ve t’ authority alright. My Missus owns that company. Then again we’ll see what other vehicles is lyin’ around. There’s t’ ‘Awthorne’s ‘aulage business fer one. That’s four big ‘eavy trucks wi drivers sat around doin’ nowt ter be goin’ along wi.”

“Can we just go requisitioning private transport vehicles?” Sergeant Oldfield wanted to know.

“If’n t’ Lady sez we can then I can’t see anybody in this valley arguing the toss about it Dick.”

“Where are you going to put all these people?” asked Edith, the lady Margaret had despatched along to this conference on behalf of the organising committee. “I mean a lot of these people on these campsites came by public transport and won’t be able to get back out of the valley easily. We can’t just have them camping out all over the place.”

Daniel thought for a second. “We’ll use the big marquees wot’s up fer the ball along t’ stray. We’ll send a squad in and ‘ave ‘em down an’ moved to ‘igher ground somewhere where there’s a bit o’ shelter. We’ll ‘ave ter shift ‘em in any case or see ‘em floatin’ off down river. Them big tents can ‘old upward of a thousand people so we can use ‘em as emergency shelter for folk wot are stranded in t’ valley.”

“That’s a good idea.” said Bianca, Edith’s aide. “We could re-site them on the pastures near the old quarries by Jake’s farm. You’d get a bit of shelter there from the bluffs as well to keep the worst of the storm off them.”

“Can you do it in time?” Edith wanted to know.

“Aye assuming we’ve got enough men and sufficient transport an’ we don’t 'ang about.” Daniel pointed at the river-sides on the map. “What are they doin’ about these banks ‘ere Mr Richards?”

“The fire service is shoring them up with sandbags.”

“Sandbags?”

“I did tell them it was too little too late. You’d need a week to make much difference. We haven’t got a week.”

“Talk about rearranging t’ deck chairs on t’ Titanic.” Sergeant Oldfield murmured.

“They’re bloody crackers.” Daniel observed.

“They’re just reluctant to take drastic measures.” William told them “They’re just hoping for the best. Half of them couldn’t organise a gang-bang in a rabbit warren.”

Aye well t’ last person wot tried to ‘old this amount o’ watter back wi wishful thinkin’ were King Canute an’ ‘e didn’t do an ovver good job of it.” noted Daniel grimly. “What’s this collection o’ buildings ‘ere?”

William looked at the map where Daniel was indicating. “Oh that’s a Youth Hostel.”

“Well it’s gonna be a bloody damp youth ‘ostel if’n these banks go. Is there many folk in it?”

“Goddess yes!” Edith interceded “It’s stuffed to the gills with war refugees.”

“Oh fer cryin’ out loud. Well we’ll ‘ave ter shift them right sharpish. What’s this compound ‘ere?”

Edith glanced at the map. “Oh Goddess that’s the Lady Anne children’s home. For heaven’s sake don’t say that’s in danger as well.”

“It could be. It’s a bit further from t’ river but I’m not ‘appy about it all t’ same.”

“It’ll be a sod moving those kids.” Edith told him.

“Why?” asked Daniel.

“They’re special needs children. The Lady Anne home is a charitable institution for orphaned kids with special needs. They come from Brawton or Kingston; all over the place. There’s seventy or eighty kids in that home.”

“Wot sort o’ special needs?”

“Oh you know autistic children, kids with Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and the rest.”

“Bloody ‘ell! Are we talkin’ wheelchairs ‘ere?”

“Certainly some of them. Most of them are ambulant I think but there will be up to ten percent of them in wheelchairs certainly. Even many of the ambulant ones though can’t always do everything for themselves. They’ll need a lot of carers to get them all out and these are kids that don’t take to rapidly changing situations easily. Then again some of them have special medical needs and you’re not going to provide that easily in temporary shelter. I’d try and avoid moving those kids if at all possible.”

Daniel grimaced. “I don’t like it. They’re on t’ wrong side o’ t’ river too. If we delay shiftin’ ‘em we could be cut off from that side an’ not be able ter get to ‘em. Do they need special buses?”

“Yes.” Edith told him, “but they have their own buses modified for wheelchairs and everything. They can get their own kids out if necessary.”

“Where would they go though?” asked Bianca. “If the roads are cut you can’t get them back to the village or the temporary shelters we’re talking about.”

“No but they can get up to the Hall.” Daniel pointed out. “If’n t’ worst comes to t’ worst we’ll put ‘em up at the Hall.”

“Wouldn’t Her Ladyship be a little inconvenienced by that?” Bianca asked.

Daniel looked at her pityingly. “If’n there was eighty odd kids in need ov ‘elp and shelter missus then t’ Lady ‘d clear out ov ‘Er own chambers an’ sleep in t’ barn ter put ‘em up.”

“I’m sorry. Forgive me. I didn’t wish to cast aspersions on Her Ladyship. There is no question about her compassion.”

“It’s the best solution in any case.” Edith pointed out. “They have full medical facilities up at the Hall if needs be.”

“Exactly.” said Daniel. “In any case we ‘ave ter warn ‘em and mek sure that they ‘ave their transport on standby. I’ll alert t’ ‘All and ‘ave everything ready in case we ‘ave to evacuate them. Worrabout air transport in case the mucky stuff ‘its the fan with a vengeance.”

“The emergency services have a couple of helicopters available.” William informed him.

“Well that’s summat. We’ve at least ‘alf a dozen or more military choppers sat on t’ ground on t’ sports field up at t’ All as well that we can press inter service.”

“By ‘eck sir.” Sergeant Oldfield noted with satisfied amusement. “That’ll ruffle a few feathers. The air sections aren’t going to be ‘appy about us pinching their precious bloody ‘elicopters.”

“They’ll ‘ave ter lump it Dick. If’n they wants to make any objections about it I’ll send ‘em ter t’ Lady ter discuss their problem. I’m sure she’ll be interested to ‘ear all about it.”

William laughed. “I’m very pleased to have met you sir. Thank the Goddess somebody around here’s got some bloody sense.”

“Aye well let’s get ter work. First off missus we need an official cancellation of the ball. Let’s not mess around anymore. The quicker folks realise that this is a full scale alert the better and we don’t want ‘em ‘angin’ around on t’ off chance that it’ll all blow over. We want folks movin’ out of the flood zones now.”

“I’m seeing Margaret straight after this meeting.” Edith assured him. “I’ll recommend immediate cancellation and general alert.”

“Good. Mr Richards can you go back to the emergency services an’ tell ‘em that this is now a full emergency alert and a major evacuation. Tell ‘em that I’ve ordered that on my authority as Her Ladyship’s representative an’ that they’re ter cooperate wi your proposals, effective immediately.”

“I will do sir.”

“Right then. Dick, you and me ‘ave ter see Robin oo’s reportin’ back ter t’ Lady an’ brief ‘im an’ then we’re off down t’ flood zones an’ gerrin’ that evacuation under way. Get all t’ men yer need from t’ military and we’ll organise t’ transport and t’ shiftin’ o’ them marquees.” Daniel slapped his hand on the big map. “Let’s be avin’ you folks! We’ve got work ter do.”