CSM Harrington escorted Fatima bint Daud under the open fly and into Captain Pike's tent. Pike looked up from his folding desk and smiled with relief, which turned to open interest when he saw Fatima.
Harrington saluted. "Reporting as ordered, sir. Our mission was a success. May I introduce Miss Fatima bint Daud."
She made a pretty curtsy. "À votre service, m'sieur le capitain."
Pike got to his feet in a hurry and bowed to her. "Je suis enchanté, mademoiselle." He opened his mouth a couple of times and looked at Harrington with a pleading expression.
Harrington hid a smile seeing Fred Pike had pretty much exhausted his stock of French. "Miss Daud speaks reasonable English too, sir."
"Phew! That's a relief." Fred smiled at the young woman. "Barchester Grammar School failed me in languages, I fear."
Her lips twitched. "I know the sergeant speaks a little Arabic, so I am sure between the three of us we will manage some'ow, Capitain."
"I'm sure. I trust I see you in good health?"
"Mais oui." She turned shining eyes upon Harrington. "The good sergeant 'ere is très galant."
Harrington blinked. Oh my! He knew feminine interest when he saw it. And by Jove, Fatima's a pretty little thing...
Pike missed the moment, as he bustled about setting out camp stools. "Please, take a pew. Would you like some tea? My batman has just boiled the kettle."
"What of the Reverend Tyler, sergeant?" Pike asked.
"He's rather distressed, sir. The experience he went though was a harsh one for a chap his age. I took him straight to the medico."
"Good man. I shall trot along and have a chat with him presently."
Pike's batman entered and served tea with a curious glance at the young woman, before taking up his post within shouting distance outside beyond the open tent fly. Pike turned to business straight away. "Now, Miss Daud, I hope those dogs didn't... ah, um, upset you in any way?"
She shook her head quickly. "Oh no. I was too valuable to them. And now I 'ave escaped, I 'ave valuable information for you, capitain."
Fatima reached into a fold of her dress and produced a small calico drawstring bag. Handing it to Pike she sat back with an air of expectation. With a questioning look he untied the strings, opened the neck of the bag and tipped a number of rough crystalline stones into the palm of his hand. Harrington stiffened and his eyes went wide. When Pike looked at him Harrington cleared his throat. "Diamonds, sir. In the rough. You've got a small fortune there in your hand." He made a quick calculation. "Enough to buy Barchester Grammar School outright, sir, and have enough over for Lady Gertrude's Day School."
Pike's expression went wooden. He let the stones trickle back into the bag. "Good heavens!"
Fatima leaned forward, her dark eyes sparkling. "They were in the town 'ouse in Jam'aah, where I was kept prisoner. I over'eard the Wali saying they are to be found in the 'ills in the vicinity of the town. Not only that, there was a white man there. 'e met with the Wali to discuss trading in slaves."
Pike stiffened "Did he, by jingo!"
"Most certainly. They discussed my price." She tossed her head, an effect which Harrington thought would have looked far better had her hair not been covered in a modest way. "Naturally I could not allow the trade to 'appen, so I took the diamonds and, 'ow your soldiers say, I legged it."
"Jam'aah, you say?"
"Oui. It lies beyond the range of craggy 'ills where the galant sergeant and 'is men rescued me. There is a stone tower guarding the pass, but the walls around the town are not strong."
"Indeed." Pike looked into space for a minute then eventually stirred and got to his feet. "Stay here and keep Miss Daud company, sergeant. I had better inform the Colonel of this intelligence. If there's slavery afoot, it needs to be dealt with."
He departed, shouting for the heliograph section to muster. Fatima sipped her tea in a decorous manner, her gaze flicking ever and anon to Harrington. Silence fell in the tent. Beyond the canvas walls the sounds of the camp and the noises of the African veldt could be heard. Minutes stretched, with Harrington feeling more self-conscious by the second. Finally he mustered the courage to speak.
Pike entered the tent with a smile. "We're under orders, sergeant. Reinforcements are on the way, and we're to attack and capture the town of Jam'aah." His smile faded when he saw the expression on their faces. "I say, I hope I wasn't interrupting anything..?"
* * * *The next battle featuring the Men of Barchester was played out over the course of three days. A full report will follow soon.