This is my NaNoWriMo project for August 2012. I’m posting one chapter at a time however many words I’ve written. To see earlier chapters click here. All comments welcome. Story copyright Jemima Pett.
Chapter 3: Market Day
In which Humphrey learns the basics of the free market
It was Humphrey’s turn to push or pull the cart along the steep rutted lane. It was generally easier to push it, but when the ruts were bad he found pulling easier since he could see where he was going more easily.
In the three weeks since he’d joined the people under the hill he’d made six sorties like this. The pattern was the same. They’d go out over the hill, pick up a cart from a small store a few hundred metres away and travel in some direction or other according to the instructions they’d been given. Wherever they saw barns and storehouses they would acquire some of the goods inside. Never a lot, always leaving food for the people who lived there, never so much to be a trouble to their nearest neighbours.
One time they’d gone to a village and bartered some goods they’d taken with them. They were doing this again today. Humphrey understood the goods they’d brought had been made from reeds or straw by some of the women under the hill, or adapted from booty they’d relieved from their previous owners. The original goods were marked so they weren’t taken back to the same area, however adapted they’d been. He thought this was very clever. He had had no idea how to make any goods like these, and reviewing his books had brought him no enlightenment. Humphrey had never read anything about craftwork.
“We’ll go left here, Humphrey,” said the male, whose name Humphrey had learned was Hywel. He was kind enough to Humphrey, treated him like an idiot sometimes, but then Humphrey privately agreed he had shown no sense or understanding of things people thought were commonplace. It was all new to him, but he tried to hide his ignorance and learn. He said little to his hill-mates, and rarely spoke more than a couple of words at a time. They seemed perfectly happy with his silent companionship.
“Hey, Humph, give me a ride for a bit!” said the redhaired Freya, jumping up on the cart without giving him a chance to object. She was bright and bossy, Humphrey thought, and he was rather afraid of her. She still seemed more friendly than most of the females he’d experienced up to leaving Arbor though.
The third member of his alcove under the hill was Betty. She seemed very practical in her attitude to life. Humphrey had watched her twisting straw into different shapes during some of their waiting time and she had shown him how when she noticed his interest. She had laughed kindly at his efforts and shown him what he was doing wrong. Freya had just laughed at him. Hywel hadn’t been there when he tried. He had helped to load Betty’s work onto the cart when they left though. They would use these, along with cans and pots collected at other alcoves, as bartering goods at the market they were going to today.
Humphrey stopped again and turned the cart once more so as to pull it down the hill. Or rather, lean back on it so it didn’t run away from him. Freya shifted to the new front of the cart and muttered encouragement or advice over his shoulder. He found this a bit distracting. He was concentrating on where he put his feet and balancing the weight of the cart. He also thought it would be useful to listen out for what was ahead of them, especially since it was now a case of getting across the rest of the grass area to a lane then dropping downhill to the community where they knew it was market day. Humphrey didn’t have very good eyesight in daylight, he had found, since Hywel could see movement far off that was way beyond his vision. His night vision was fine though.
Between Freya’s chat he listened forward. He pinpointed some movement in the trees, but saw bushy-tailed animals moving around. As they dropped onto another lane which continued downhill a small stream tinkled alongside them, and Humphrey found his mind singing along with it as he pulled Freya, the cart and the bartering goods along. For a late autumn day it was very warm, and he felt life was very pleasant.
His peace was shattered by the eruption of ten or twelve very smelly people over the banks of the lane, jumping down on them and setting about Humphrey, Hywel , Betty and Freya with clubs and fists. Humphrey dropped the arms of the cart and ran, pursued by two of their assailants, who stopped and laughed as he continued down the road at full speed. Turning a corner he stopped, and cautiously looked back, his heart pounding. He couldn’t see much, except it seemed that his three companions were still fighting. He wondered why, since they were so clearly outnumbered. He wondered what to do.
It occurred to him that nearly all the surprise party had attacked from the right, so he climbed up the bank and crept across the meadow to come round behind them. Noises of fighting still continued from the lane, he didn’t know how the three of them managed to hold off so many. In the little grove of trees that had hidden the attackers, he found a pile of weapons, a few bags, some clothes and hats. The enemy had left their possessions there , although why they had left weapons he couldn’t fathom. He didn’t spend too long thinking about it, merely gathered up all the possessions and moved them up the hill while everyone was otherwise occupied. He stacked a couple of the hats on top of his head since he liked their style. They had three corners and one had a fancy feather in it. Shedding his booty behind a convenient grassy mound, he picked up three weapons he believed were called guns, and returned to see what was going on.
He was amazed to see that Freya, Betty and Hywel were fighting six attackers between them. They stood with their back to each other, and in the narrow lane, the attackers could only get at them one at a time. Four of their assailants lay unconscious at their feet and it seemed the rest weren’t too keen on joining them. Humphrey dropped one weapon, waved one of the others in each hand and ran towards them yelling. Four attackers turned to look; saw a large black hairy monster travelling towards them at great speed, and turned and ran. The other two succumbed to punches from Hywel and Freya while distracted by Humphrey’s appearance.
His three colleagues turned to face him, their fists raised, until they realised who it was. They dropped their hands and stood up, laughing.
“Well, done, Humphrey” said Hywel, clapping him on the back. “I must admit I thought you’d scarpered.”
“What does ‘scarpered’ mean?” asked Humphrey.
“Done a bunk, run off,” said Freya, looking him up and down. “Where did you get those?”
Humphrey looked at ‘those’, the guns, and turned up the lane again, Hywel and Freya following. Betty was collecting the goods from their cart, which looked to be slightly damaged in the melee.
“I’ll wait here and call you if anyone comes back,” she called after them.
Hywel and Freya surveyed Humphrey’s haul as they stood on the grassy bank. Hywel jumped down and sorted through it.
“It looks like they’ve no ammunition, which is why we were hit, not shot,” he deduced.
Freya followed him down. “These guys were pirates,” she said, looking through some of their other belongings. “These coats are typical pirate garb.”
“How come you’re familiar with pirate garb?” Hwyel asked.
“I was brought up by the sea,” Freya replied through thin lips as if that was all she was prepared to say about her background.
“I didn’t know that,” said Hywel, looking at her oddly, but he sensed her desire for privacy and didn’t ask more.
Humphrey had no such sensitivity. “I’d love to see the sea.”
Freya shot him a bitter, angry look.
Hywel rolled his eyes but smiled at his gauche companion. “Some day, Humphrey, I’ll take you to the seaside, I promise.”
“What shall we do with this stuff, then?” Freya asked. “I vote we take it back to the hill instead of bartering in the market.”
“Let’s take it to the cart and discuss it with Betty too.”
“If we take it down we’ll have to haul it up again.”
“If we don’t take it down we’ll have to come up again and fetch it if we decide to continue to the market.”
Humphrey was getting used to the arguments these two had. They both had good ideas. Both were used to being in charge. Freya usually accepted Hwyel’s argument in the end, he noticed. He started to pick up lots of the weapons and hats as he had before. It seemed a shame to be taking them back almost to where he’d got them, but he was right to stop the risk of the pirates making off with them again, he thought.
Freya picked up some of the weapons and Hywel the remaining coats and bags and they returned to Betty. She had propped the cart up on a small pile of stones and was doing something to one of the wheels.
“Two spokes staved in,” she said as Hywel approached her. “Have you got anything to cut some wood to size?”
Humphrey heard her and produced an axe from among his pile of weapons.
“Wow!” exclaimed Hywel, “I wonder why they didn’t attack us with that mother!”
Humphrey frowned as he didn’t think this was a mother but an axe, but said nothing. He passed it over and watched as Hywel selected a couple of straightish branches in the dell, stripped the bark off and cut them to a size slightly smaller than the spokes. He handed them to Betty, who used a long length of straw she’d unwoven from one of the baskets on the cart to bind the splint and spoke tightly together. They both tested the join.
“It’ll do, I think,” said Freya, watching them.
“Solves our problem, though,” said Hywel. “I don’t think we should risk going to market in case we can’t get back again.”
“What do you mean?” Betty was shocked. “This will hold all day! And besides, we need food and things from market. We can’t eat guns with no ammunition. The coats will be good though.”
“We could barter the guns, I suppose,” said Hywel.
“No!” Freya put in. “They’ll be valuable. We could leave them here with Humphrey and pick them up on the way back.”
“Humphrey’s pulling the cart.”
“It’s not far now, it’ll give him a good rest.”
Humphrey looked mournful. He didn’t want to be left on his own here. The pirates that had been knocked out were still on the ground. One moaned.
“We can’t do that, these guys will be waking up soon,” said Hywel, prodding one of them with his toe, which elicited another groan. “Load everything up,” he sighed. “Down or back?” he added as they started loading everything onto the cart.
“Down,” said Betty.
“Down,” said Freya, with a sigh.
“OK, then,” said Hywel, and they went down to the market.
“Can you persuade that woman to give us some of her drinks?” Betty whispered to Hywel as they stacked up their cart once more, preparing for the road home.
“What have we got to offer her?”
“A nice hat, perhaps?”
Hywel laughed but picked up the hat with three corners and a nice feather as well as their last remaining basket and walked over to her. Humphrey watched the hat go with regret. He watched and listened to Hywel talk to the woman; offer the basket; withdraw it; offer the hat; turn to walk away; then turn back. Another discussion. He was beginning to learn Hywel’s art of bargaining. Offer something worth not much for something worth a lot. Show something else and ask for something else. Walk away then turn back and say: “I’ll tell you what, you give me that and that (and sometimes throw in that), and I’ll give you both of these.” He nearly always used the routine, and he usually got something worth much more than both of the items he gave away. Occasionally the person asked for the second item instead of the first, but Hywel never said yes, always came back for the bigger offer. Humphrey wondered whether he’d ever be able to do that.
He helped Hywel load four pouches of drink onto the cart, and a bag of biscuits smelling of herbs and spices. Hywel returned to the stall and rolled a barrel back. The woman with the stall watched him then came over to them.
“How far are you going tonight?” she asked.
“Why do you ask?” Hywel looked cagey.
“Just wondered whether you’d like the last of the morning’s rolls. They won’t sell now.”
“Um, yes, that’s very kind. We haven’t got anything else for you though.”
“That’s ok. I was exiled once, I know what it’s like.”
“How do you know we’re exiles,” Betty asked.
The stallholder smiled. “You come in occasionally, you come a fair way. There’s nothing much in that direction except wild country. My family were kicked out of Vexstein. It’s different here. Don’t try Forest or Deeping though. They’re nearly as bad.”
Hywel, Freya and Betty exchanged glances. “Thank you,” said Betty, accepted the goods. “Who is the king at White Horse now?”
“King Benson. It’s his cousin, Lord Colman at Deeping you need to watch out for.”
“Interesting,” said Hywel. “Thanks. Well, we’ll be going now. Enjoy the hat.”
“Oh, I will,” she said, laughing. “I’m dying to see someone’s face when he sees it again.”
They watched her return to her own stall and they started moving the cart off. Hywel, Freya and Betty seemed to want to get away quickly, without it being noticeable. Humphrey wondered why. He also wanted to know why the woman was showing the hat to someone who would recognise it. He didn’t think he could ask his friends, so he kept one ear on the woman from the stall. She didn’t seem to be in a hurry to show the hat to anyone. Humphrey wondered whether he could find a nice feather for the other one, which he was hoping to keep for himself.
He was still listening to the stall holder as he put all his effort into pushing the heavily laden cart up the lane towards the dell where they had been ambushed that morning. The others noticed the effort and dropped back to lean their bodies behind the cart to add leverage. Perhaps they felt the pirates wouldn’t try an ambush in the same spot on the way back as well. They were wrong.