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 10: Security Alert
In which Betty is interviewed and Humphrey is given little choice
The atmosphere of the castle’s taverns was subdued that night as news filtered through the crowd that the injured person at the Strong Man contest had died. There was plenty of debate about whether the festival would or should be abandoned. The poetry contest had been curtailed as soon as the organisers heard of the accident outside the castle walls. Those waiting to speak their piece had been let down and many felt they should have been able to continue. Some asked after the injured, or rather deceased, person’s family and origins. Others paid more attention to the competitions to be held on the second and third days and the wisdom of continuing in case some other accident befell them.
Much to their surprise, Hywel and Freya had found Betty walking into dinner with them as if nothing had happened. Humphrey had not been surprised, since he had been listening to her up in the tower. Humphrey had been very interested in the interview she had with the steward. When she’d been taken away, Humphrey thought she was suspected of attempted regicide, but Bartleby appeared to know her already, and had asked nothing about the wagon or her flight through the air at all. In fact, Betty seemed to be in charge.
“I did warn you,” she said when the steward had dismissed the guards from the room.
“You did,” Bartleby said. “I need to balance the king’s desire for visibility and freedom with his security.”
“He needs a proper bodyguard,” Betty said.
“He has the King’s Troop. I know they do not have your talents, but they are excellent guards in most circumstances. It would be odd if he was seen to have anyone else.”
“Then have someone who isn’t seen with him.”
“You say you are not available for that work.”
“There are others.”
“There are none I know of; if you know of one who is willing, send him or her to me.” Bartleby sounded frustrated, Humphrey thought as he listened.
“You have two in the vicinity. I anticipate they have other tasks to carry out. I will check,” was all Betty said.
Bartleby called for the guard and, on the sound of the door being opened, said “she is free to leave, no charges.”
“Yes, my lord,” the guard responded.
Humphrey’s attention had been brought back to his location with a start as Hywel had got up from their table in the tavern, and they made their way to the dining hall.
“What have you been up to?” Hywel said to Betty as they put their plates on the table and took their seats.
“How do you mean?” asked Betty.
“We thought you’d gone off and been arrested or something,” explained Freya. “Suspicious person and all that.”
“Oh, no. I saw the wagon crush those people and went off to see if I could help. Does anyone know who the injured person was? Or how the wagon got loose?”
“The dead one, you mean?” Freya said. “Not that I know of. Does it matter?”
“Surely it was an accident, wasn’t it?” asked Hywel.
“I’m not sure,” Betty said. “I think there is something going on. Despite the happy atmosphere of the festival I felt before it started that there was some tension in the air.”
“Hardly surprising with all the gangs on the loose in the countryside, though,” said Hywel. “I mean, we should know about that!” He stuffed some food in his mouth and glared into space as he munched.
The others followed suit. Humphrey had been nibbling his politely while he ‘waited’ for the others to start. He wondered whether to ask Betty about flying through the air or the conversation with the steward, and then decided maybe it was best if he didn’t.
He turned his attention to the gossip around the tables instead. There was a rumour being spread that the deceased person was a stranger, with no identification on him. There was a second rumour that he was the person who had removed the wedges from the wagon’s wheels. That he was, in fact, a saboteur. A consequence of that rumour was to say that the deceased person was innocent and was being framed by the real saboteur. The general consensus was that the incident was no accident.
Their meal was nearly finished, so the arrival of an official escorted by two guards did not ruin their appetites too much.
“Attention, everyone,” the official called. As the noise died away he continued. “I have a notice to read, after which you will please take the appropriate action.
“By order of His Majesty King Benson, the Festival of White Horse will continue, with the following precautions:
“All visitors must visit the security desks being set up in the lower courtyard as I speak, to receive a second pass, in the form of a sash, which will be worn at all times, for ease of identification.
“Security checks will be carried out on every person, including residents, every time they leave or enter the castle. These checks may include body searches at the guards’ discretion. Please allow extra time, so that you get to the event of your choice without too much delay.
“No entries from the floor will be allowed in any remaining event. Anyone who wishes to participate in the Narrathon tomorrow must register by 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. Poets who wished to recite their own original work and were not able to do so today should enter as if for the Narrathon and a special section will be arranged.
“Additional security arrangements for the Gold Cup on the Cursus will be announced tomorrow.
“Those are the arrangements. You should now proceed in an orderly fashion to obtain your security sashes. You will line up in front of the appropriate table according to your Castle’s name. Thank you for your attention.”
He had hardly finished speaking when the normal hubbub returned to the dining hall as people commented on the need for such arrangements and discussed the implications.
Hywel leant in towards the others. “This is ridiculous. Do we continue trying to be from Fortune?”
“Why shouldn’t we?” asked Freya, pushing the last of her food around her plate absentmindedly.
“I don’t want to carry a great label on me saying I’m from anywhere. What if there are other people from Fortune here. That poet for instance?”
“I think he will have gone,” said Betty in a soothing manner. “Poets usually go straight on to the next engagement.”
“What if everyone stayed here though? What if he brought friends to see him?”
“He’s got a point, Betty,” Freya put in. “I don’t like the idea of extra security. Sounds too much like… well, somewhere I left a long time ago.”
The three of them looked at each other’s faces. Humphrey watched them. He could tell they wanted to leave. He didn’t. He liked it here. He was looking forward to the Narrathon and was hoping he might try telling a story. He’d listened to some of the children’s story-telling while they were listening to poets and walking out to the Strong Man competition. Then he’d just concentrated on that.
He wondered what he’d do if he wasn’t with Betty, Freya and Hywel.
”Well, I suppose we’d better find Humphrey’s secret passage and leave right now, then,” sighed Betty.
The frosted grass crunched beneath their feet as they left the paths out of the community and cut across the fields. Betty had hissed at them when they originally set off on the fields, since they would leave tracks, so they had crept through the village, passing homes and stalls, hearing sounds of laughter and heated discussion of the day’s events. Humphrey didn’t know why they shouldn’t leave tracks, but it seemed a good idea to him. He followed the other three, since his long shaggy coat might sweep some of their traces away, or at least disguise them, if anyone did try to track them.
They reached a low hedge at the end of the cultivated area and crawled under, over and through it to reach the springy turf on the other side.
“We should head up to that line of stones, if we can find it again,” said Freya.
“Yes,” said Betty. “Are we trying to get back to the hill?”
“Where else?” asked Freya.
They headed up the hill, saving their breath for the climb. It was getting colder; the night was bright with stars. Humphrey wondered where the fog went. He had a feeling he had a book on meteorology that would tell him, but he was too busy climbing to think about that now. He was also listening, listening for anything that might spell danger. That was hard listening.
“Why didn’t we stay on the road?” Hywel’s arm was still giving him trouble and he was moving slower than the others, a gap developing between him and Betty. If Humphrey hadn’t doggedly followed instructions, Hywel would have been well behind by now.
“Not safe,” was all Freya gasped back as she climbed.
Humphrey stopped. He raised his nose to the east, listening and nose twitching. Hywel realised he could pause without being pushed onwards by Humphrey’s relentless pace. He sank to the ground.
“Come on,” hissed Betty, “we can stop when we’re over the ridge!”
Humphrey went to obey her, and helped Hywel to his feet. “Come on Hywel,” he said, “not far to the top.”
Side by side they staggered up the hill. Humphrey kept his ears open though, and sent his listening out further, then scanned all around them at the same distance.
To the north and west he could hear animals moving over the grassland, rustling. Rabbits, disliking the frozen grass, moved to find more palatable fare wherever a ridge or bank protected the grass from the frost. Deer, browsing regardless of frost. To the south he could mainly hear the people of White Horse, in the castle and in the community. It sounded a good place to be. To the east, there were two more castles. What had caught his attention, though, was the sound of people walking. Walking silently. Occasionally there were whispered orders or warnings. He didn’t think they were coming directly towards them as they climbed, but it was difficult to tell with such small noises, even though they were magnified by the numbers who were making them. Hywel stumbled and he turned his attention fully to helping him.
They reached the crest and slipped over the ridge, down the other side. Although there was no wind, the air was even colder on this side of the hill. Winter was definitely on its way. Freya was leading them along the side of the hill now, following the contours around so that they could not be seen by prying eyes, but made good progress in the general direction of their former home. They’d only been away four days, thought Humphrey, but he had no idea what their reception would be. They’d lost their cart with all the goods they’d bartered, the things Chester wanted. He sent his hearing forward, to see if he could locate Chester and the people under the hill yet. Silence in that direction, but the people moving in the east were now behind them, coming in their direction. Was this just a trick of the hills, he wondered. Would it change if the four of them changed direction?
They reached a small group of thin trees that appeared to have a spring rising up from the ground in the middle of them, forming a tiny stream that cut through the ground as it ran away down between the hills.
“Rest here!” said Betty, sheltering among the sparse trees.
Freya helped Hywel through the small branches and settled him down.
“Is it bad again?” she asked him. He nodded in the darkness, but they could see each other’s outlines in the starlight.
Humphrey stood at the edge of the trees for a few minutes, listening.
“Anything following us?” Betty asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Humphrey. “There are people moving. I can’t hear them now. They may be coming this way, or going to White Horse.”
“Where are they from?”
“I don’t like the sound of this,” said Betty. “People from the east could be Deeping or Forest. Are they on a round-up like the night we met you?”
“They move very quietly,” said Humphrey. “I don’t remember hearing them the night we met before I saw everyone running.”
Betty came and stood next to him, listening too. She shook her head. “Wait here!” she commanded, and leapt lightly up to the top of the hill, crouching low for the last few strides so as not to show her form against the skyline.
A howl split the silence of the hills, echoing round the valleys. Humphrey’s hair stood on end. Was that a second howl or merely a strong echo? Another howl, responding to the first, but further off. Humphrey jumped as Betty stood once more by his side.
“Wolves!” she hissed. “Let’s move!”
Freya helped Hywel up and they headed north once more.
The moon had risen as they slipped down the lane they had left what seemed so long ago, on a simple mission to go to market. Humphrey was carrying Hywel on his back now, stoical and steady. All was quiet. The wolves and walkers were far behind them. Shelter lay ahead.
Betty stopped as they reached the overhang that hid the entrance to the warren.
“Why are there no guards, no watchers?” she asked. “What’s going on in there, Humphrey?”
“I can hear nothing,” he said, puzzled. “Nothing at all. There are people there though…”
They moved forward cautiously.
A net fell from the ceiling, trapping them, entangling their hands and feet as they struggled to find a way out. Humphrey heard rushing feet and now there were persons jumping on them, stopping them from moving.
“What have we here?” someone asked in a loud voice, moving forward from the warren.
“Four recruits, cap’n,” one of their captors replied.
“Drag ‘em inside, and let’s take a look at ‘em, then.”
Freya, Betty, Hywel and Humphrey, hopelessly entangled in the netting, were unceremoniously dragged inside their old home.