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 8: Wall Running for Beginners
In which Humphrey hears something to his advantage and Betty disguises herself
Humphrey was still dreaming. He had spent the entire day in the library, and now he was allowing his brain to sort through all the books he’d speed-read while he was there. Always methodical, he’d started by exploring the fiction shelves, working from A through to Z, picking one book from every shelf more or less at random. Occasionally something he read made him pick up more by the same author. He had the whole of a seafaring series by Patrick of Brian, a random selection by Arthur of Clarke, two series of books by Lindsay of Buroker and an amusing crime series set in ancient times by Lindsey of Davies. He’d also completed his collection of books by JR of Tolkein. He was looking forward to rereading that series.
He roused as his brain completed his fiction processing. Someone was talking nearby. His body was still asleep but his mind stretched towards them.
“That is good news, you have done well,” a silky voice said.
“There is no guarantee of course, my lord,” said a female whose tone was familiar but whose accent was different, if it was the person he knew.
“This Humphrey, you say he has unique talent?”
“Yes, my lord,” said the female. “I have not known anyone else with his capacity.”
“Hmm. Continue with your plans. Inform me of any changes.”
The voices ceased. Humphrey’s brain relaxed and returned to cataloguing his books. A for archaeology and aviation, B for biology, brassicas and Byzantine influence on European art…
Humphrey was a little bit frightened of the crush of people, but Freya was on one side and Hywel on the other, so he took comfort from them and looked up at the side of the courtyard wall. The hundreds of people crowded into the inner courtyard were doing the same. They had listened to the speeches that marked the opening of the festival, they had watched the running race as twenty persons, of assorted ages and sizes, dashed around the perimeter of the courtyard four times to decide the winners. Now even more people had squeezed into the courtyard for the first major spectacle of the event, the wall-running competition.
“Your Majesty, royal highnesses, lords, ladies and gentlemen,” cried a figure dressed in a smart white coat, standing on a platform in the centre of the square. “We come now to the most prestigious running race of the festival! The one hundred and forty-seventh White Horse Aerial Trophy!”
This was greeted by cheers which rang round the yard. As they died down the announcer continued.
“The object is to leave the start window and make your way around the perimeter of the courtyard using the castle walls and any protuberance extending from them. You may not go inside the castle walls. You may not touch the ground. The first male and female athlete to regain their start window wins their class. The Trophy is awarded to the first home regardless of sex.”
Some murmurs in the crowd greeted that announcement. Humphrey wondered why, but gathered that this was a change to the previous rules.
“I now present the competitors,” the announcer continued. “From left to right, starting on the far left of the main gate: Champion Christopher of Hoy!” Cheers rang out, obviously a popular competitor. “Wingfoot!” Mutters as this was obviously a pseudonym. “Aloysius of White Horse!” Ecstatic cheers and some jeers. “Marcus of White Horse!” Some laughter and a lot of cheers, mainly from Aloysius’s jeerers. “Glory of Calella!” Polite applause. “Steven of Henley” Polite applause. “Kevin of Deeping!” Some cheers but a lot of boos. Obviously there was some tension between White Horse and Deeping. “Willoughby the Narrator – and I hope he’ll be fit to tell stories this afternoon!” Cheers. “Bettina of Sarsen!” Polite applause. “Agrippina of Deeping! “ A smattering of applause; people wanted the race to get going. “Raven of Forest! … and … Princeling Louis of White Horse!” Lots of cheers and some laughter. It sounded like the local Princeling was taking part for fun.
“Competitors! Are you ready?”
All the competitors leapt from their windows, some hanging onto the windowsill, others springing to an overhang, up towards the metal posts that stuck out of the walls at intervals or down as far as the first level windows which had iron bars over them. The slowest were painstakingly clinging to one set of handholds while looking for the next, then leaping towards it and clinging on for dear life. Marcus was one of these and his supporters surged to the area below him, yelling encouragement.
Five competitors had leapt like grasshoppers towards the corner of the courtyard using the sides of the wall. Champion Christopher, Wingfoot, Bettina, Raven and Kevin seemed to have the necessary technique. It was astounding to watch them leap from one apparently sheer wall to another projection which had seemed wholly out of reach. Gravity did not exist for them. Princeling Louis started well; much to everybody’s surprise he managed to emulate the leaders for two corners before he fell off into the admiring crowd below.
The crowd cried “Foul!” as Wingfoot elbowed Christopher in the face as he passed him scampering sideways along the wall to a flagpole. Christopher fell, but caught a creeper and used it to swing himself back upwards, keeping his feet high and scattering the crowd so as not to be disqualified by touching the ground. With a well-judged leap he knocked Wingfoot from his line as he took his next leap. Christopher gained his next perch to roars of approval while Wingfoot attempted to use the crowd to bounce him back upwards. This was a mistake, since the two people he tried to bounce off grabbed his ankle, which did indeed have winged shoes on them, and pulled him off balance. He hit the ground and scurried away, defeated.
Bettina and Raven were having a fine chase. They had started in adjacent windows, and Raven had tracked Bettina as she swung up and along the walls, swinging round flagpoles, bouncing on the sides of the walls and cornering like a flying machine. Suddenly Willoughby the Narrator appeared from nowhere and overtook them in three strides, the second one knocking Bettina’s hands from the purchase they had gained on a small outcropping brick.
The crowd gasped as Bettina fell, and roared as Raven kicked her as she sprang over her. Bettina twisted like a gymnast and seemed to change her momentum from downwards to upwards for a few seconds, then gravity took over and she fell into the crowd below. There was warm applause for a valiant effort.
Despite Christopher’s skill, both Kevin and Willoughby were ahead of him. Willoughby the Narrator had huge popular support. Kevin from Deeping had vociferous supporters who were hugely outnumbered.
“Will-o-by, Will-o-by” was the chant quickly taken up by the enthusiastic onlookers, but Kevin had his eye on the prize. By twist of fate they had started from the same window. They lunged, neck and neck. Willoughby grabbed the windowsill first – but then Kevin was inside, and Willoughby was dangling by his toenails.
A huge groan came from the crowd, and polite applause as Raven gained her window, the only female finisher. Champion Christopher slid through his window just as Willoughby pulled himself up and disappeared into the castle interior. The judge declared Willoughby had finished second and Christopher third. The crowd thought it was the other way round, but Willoughby was a Narrator, and needed the second prize more than Christopher, so they applauded both of them wildly, the more so because Christopher took it with good grace.
“Well, that was fun,” said Betty as they turned away, along with the rest of the crowd, making their way to the outer courtyard where the poetry festival would soon start. Humphrey looked at her, wondering where she’d been.
“I thought you were going to enter?” said Freya.
“I was too late,” Betty said. “They only had room for twelve.”
They found the best seats had already been taken, so they joined a group of locals sitting on the edge of the staircase. They had a good view across the square and the raised area where the poets would stand while they recited their poems. An elderly person with white hair and long whiskers sat in a wide chair whilst some of the organisers fiddled with the decorations on the stage. Betsy, Freya and Hywel got into conversation with the locals while they waited, and found one of them, Nathaniel, was planning to recite his own poem in the free-for-all session in a couple of hours’ time.
“Do you know any poems, Humphrey?” asked Freya.
Humphrey considered his store of literature. There were some he liked a lot, but they were long and he’d never said them out loud.
“I don’t know how to recite,” he said.
“Well, there’s hours of the public session,” said Nathaniel kindly. “You can listen to how it’s done and decide if you want to enter. You should pick your moment though.”
“How do you mean?” asked Betty, seeing that Humphrey looked puzzled.
“Well, it’s a long session. If it’s your first time, you should pick the time when the people who’ve been here from the start are beginning to leave but the people that have been enjoying themselves in the tavern haven’t come out to heckle.”
Betty and Hywel both laughed at this. Freya looked thoughtful.
“I remember a poem,” she said. “My brother told it to me.” She looked sad at the memory and sighed deeply.
“Well, don’t stop there,” laughed Betty. “We all want to hear it now.”
Freya smiled, but pulled her foot up and hugged it as they perched on the wall. “Maybe later,” was all she said.