Chapter 1: The Forest
In which Humphrey puts his foot in it
In the dark of the cave, a sleeping body shifted, restless. Humphrey stiffened, lifting one ear. His head came up, nose quivering as he looked down the length of the cave towards the entrance. His ears twitched, cocked towards the sound that had disturbed his sleep. He extended his hearing out a way, then back, locating the sound in the middle distance. He relaxed slightly, settling his body back on the hay he had brought in from the autumnal forest outside. Still alert, he considered the sounds he could hear.
The shuffling in the mid-distance was one of the forest animals. He’d seen it on a few occasions, matched it to a picture he’d stored in his head from the books he’d read in his youth. Badger. No danger, but not someone to disturb when he was going about his nightly business. The sound in the far distance was something else. Voices whispering. Persons without much woodcraft moving in the forest. He tuned into their voices.
“Set it there…. Yes that’s right. Ok, I’ll ease this up now. Another over there. Go!”
Humphrey made no sense of these whispered instructions. The sound disappeared, even in far-distance hearing. They had gone out of line of sound. Humphrey could hear through rock if the speakers were close enough, but in the open air the sounds were deflected by foliage, trees, or broken ground. Tuning in became difficult.
Humphrey stretched and settled back on his bed, a convenient ledge in the sandstone cave. It was a much better cave than most that he’d found on his travels. Sandstone was dry. The chalky ones he’d tried were dry but let the rain through and you had to be careful where you settled yourself. Limestone was just as bad and the water tended to ooze through the walls where you least expected it. He’d studied other rocks in his geology books and thought granite might be a good rock to have a cave in. Sandstone was good for now though. He’d hoped he might be able to make this his home for the on-coming winter. Now he wasn’t so sure. Who were these people and what were they doing out in his forest?
His tummy rumbled and he thought if he was hungry it must also be time for the moon to rise. It had been full a few days ago, now it would be shrinking again. ‘Waning’ the books called it, but now he’d seen it for himself he preferred to call it shrinking. Badger was about, so he had better take care, but he could get a better idea of the different foods in the forest if there was a little light. Humphrey was still none too sure what was good to eat and what was not, and he wanted to make some store of dried grass and other forage to prepare for the winter. He’d reviewed his memory store of books and decided winter was a good time to have a stack of food in a cave and to do a lot of sleeping. Now he should go out and see whether these whisperings he’d heard meant he should move on.
He stretched and brushed his long black coat. As he moved out to the cave entrance his nose started to show white. He smelled the night air and nodded to himself as he saw the oval moon just showing through the trees to the south east. He padded down through the small scraggly bushes that hid the approach to his home, making sure they didn’t catch his coat and leave tell-tale hairs for others to spot. Listening once more, he decided it was safe to go to the stream, drink and eat first, then look for longer grass to bring back afterwards. A skittering through the increasingly thick layer of leaves suggested a mouse or shrew had decided to avoid him. Down at the stream edge he drank deeply, eyes and ears attentive to any sounds of danger. The moon reflected on the broad stripe down his face, a wiggly line in the rippled surface of the water.
As the night wore on he became more confident. He could neither hear nor smell anyone in the vicinity. Yes, there were traces that someone had passed this way, but traces were hours old. There was no danger.
He stepped confidently between two young trees.
He was grabbed by the ankle and pulled into the air. His hair fell over his eyes, the blood rushed to his head. His leg stretched awkwardly out above him, all his weight hanging from it.
Ouch, he thought, then realised that if he relaxed, it didn’t hurt.
Hanging upside down suspended by one leg was a new experience for Humphrey. He was getting so used to new experiences that he simply considered it in the same way he did everything else. He was not hurt. The ground was ‘above’ his head instead of its usual position. He was free to move, but not free to walk away. He decided he would like to be free to walk away so he reached up to his leg, found it was attached by a piece of twine to the branches, and pulled himself up the twine till he was holding onto the thin twigs and rustly leaves of the young tree he’d been hanging from. He couldn’t see how to get rid of the twine from his leg or the tree so he bit it. It would need more than one bite, he decided, so he started gnawing. It frayed a bit, but then strands got stuck in his teeth. This irritated him and he pulled at it in disgust. The moon was high, the first glimmer of light was appearing in the east, and he hadn’t gathered any dry grass for his cave yet. What a wasted night!
He froze as he heard movement in the leaves on the ground over the hill. An animal, or two, were coming towards him, trying to be quiet, but not enough to escape his attention. The moon was bright enough to cast pale shadows and he could see persons like himself coming towards him. This was not good. He trusted no one. He tested the twine and thought he might have done enough.
As the persons drew up underneath him, looking for where they’d left their trap, he fell out of the tree, extending his leg to take the rope then pulled hard with it as the twine went taut. As he’d hoped, the last fibres snapped. He fell on the two surprised persons, knocking them over. He leapt to his feet, and ran the way they’d come, hoping to leave them well behind in their confusion.
He hurtled down the track, bounded over the stream, swept through the leaves onto bare rock and earth, and kept running, running, running.