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 11: Under the hill
In which Betty becomes a herbalist and Humphrey goes deaf
The person they called ‘cap’n’ lounged on some blankets covering a bed of hay. Humphrey thought he looked familiar.
“Tell me again about the Strong Man competition,” he said, leering at Betty.
She told him again what they had seen at the White Horse event.
“And nobody knew who the dead person was?” he checked.
“No. He had no visitor’s pass and he wasn’t a local. Nobody came forward saying they knew him.” Betty thought she’d said this earlier. So did Humphrey.
“What did he look like?”
“There was a lot of blood. He was badly injured. I didn’t really get a good view of him.”
“No idea what colour his coat was? Think hard, now.”
Betty visualised the scene in her mind. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t notice. I was being arrested at the time,” she added.
Humphrey cleared his throat. Both Betty and the cap’n looked at him.
“Well?” said the cap’n.
“His coat was brown and white. I saw him. From the other side,” added Humphrey. He didn’t really want to think about it.
The cap’n made a strange noise that was somewhere between “Yay” and “eeeuw”.
Hywel made a similar noise, but his was definitely a groan.
“What’s wrong with him?” the cap’n asked.
“He was injured in a fight we had four or five days ago.” Betty responded, offering no further information. Humphrey realised the cap’n was one of the pirates that had attacked them. He tried not to show that he’d recognised him, since Betty was being so cautious with her answers.
“Where was that?”
“Not far from White Horse, up the main road to Forest.”
The cap’n nodded slightly as if that had confirmed something.
“Has he been like this ever since?”
“No, he recovered for a while but the journey here took it out of him.”
“What treatment has he had?”
Betty wondered why he should be interested in Hywel’s welfare, but responded anyway, since there didn’t seem to be any reason not to. “He had his wounds treated with pennyroyal and rue, and a tonic of thyme and sage.”
The cap’n sighed. “Where would we get those from at this time of year?” he said, more to himself than to anyone else.
“Do you have injured people here?” Betty asked.
“Yes. We’ve kept them warm and comfortable as we can, but they are getting worse.”
“What did you do with the stores you found here?”
“They are as they were. How do you know we found any?” he added, his eyes narrowing.
“There are no signs of battle; the previous occupants must have left of their own accord. Yet the things you lie on suggest that some of their possessions were left here. Where have they gone?” she added, not expecting an answer.
“There were three parties, one heading to each of the castles, we thought. There were more females and older persons in the group that headed west. We watched them go, then moved in.”
“But why did they leave?” exclaimed Freya. “And when?”
“Only yesterday morning. We thought the fogs might have spooked them. We’re used to fogs.” He slurred the last word, as if they were something they relished. “Enough talk! You will prepare these potions and take care of our wounded. And since you’re here, you might as well join us. I can’t abide prisoners.”
“What if we don’t want to join you?” Freya tossed her head, her eyes flashing in anger.
“You might as well,” the cap’n said mildly, “otherwise I’ll have to make you walk the plank, and it’s a mighty long way to deep water.”
Humphrey was sitting in what he considered to be his own alcove. He knew Betty had gone with Hywel to join the pirates in what they referred to as the sick bay. He wasn’t sure where Freya had gone. She went off on her own from time to time, so he guessed she was doing that.
He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t hear anyone talking. He could feel the presence of people. He didn’t believe no-one was speaking. He stretched out to find Betty; surely she would need to talk if she was tending the sick pirates. He couldn’t find her.
He hunkered down, fighting off panic.
To calm himself, he opened one of his favourite books and began to read.
Aragorn had just counselled Gandalf to go by the mines of Moria when Humphrey came back to the present. Freya was walking towards him.
“Well, Humphrey, how do you fancy being a pirate?” she asked.
Humphrey thought about answering, but remembered that Freya often asked him questions she didn’t want answered, so he said nothing. He lay with his head on his hands, looking up at her. She sighed and curled up in the other corner.
“Do you know where Chester is?” she asked.
He shook his head, no.
“He was fine two days ago. Everything was fine. I was worried. When I left you to explore with Betty, I came back. I told him about the festival. We thought it was a good time to move into the castle, when everybody was at the Cursus. We could fit everyone in that castle, there’s loads of room. I was going to stay there when the race was on and make sure they found your secret passage. What happened? Why split into three groups? And where did they go, with no food or supplies? It doesn’t make sense!” Her voice rose in pitch and Humphrey thought she was going to cry. He didn’t know what to do or say. He said nothing, as usual.
Freya got up and looked out at the corridor. The contrast between the view they had now and that which they’d left only a few days earlier was stark. Then, a vibrant, busy community, with children running around and activity going on at all times. Now, empty alcoves, and no people.
“There aren’t even many pirates,” she said, half to herself.
“How many are there?”
“I’ve only seen about ten. There are quite a few in sick bay, I think. Humphrey! You asked a question!”
Humphrey hung his head. He had asked a question.
“Don’t be shy, it’s okay. You are coming on!” she laughed. He hadn’t seen her laugh for ages.
“What are you thinking? With only ten we could sneak out? Well, you and I could, and probably with Betty too. But what would be do about Hywel?“ she paused briefly, then continued. “I’m worried about him, Humphrey. He was getting better, then he got worse again. It’s not the slash wound. I thought there was a bite mark or two. Do you think he’s been poisoned?”
The mention of bite marks alarmed Humphrey. He hadn’t known anything about Hywel’s wounds. He just knew he wasn’t well, he was injured. He cast his mind back to that fight in the lane. The pirates had jumped on them, and then they had been jumped on by something else. He’d called them vampires in his mind, but he didn’t think that was quite right. They spoke to each other and he could hear them, but they didn’t use their mouths to speak. He’d been hiding in the shadow of the bank and he hadn’t seen any of them. Snakes bit persons and poisoned them, but they weren’t snakes. He found a book on fantastic beasts in his personal library and skimmed through it. Vampires weren’t in it. Werewolves were.
“I don’t know anything about poison, Freya,” he said, picking his words carefully. Thinking about vampires and werewolves made him uneasy. He thought about the rustling noise the things had made when they were moving towards him in the lane. He could hear them ‘talking’ to each other silently. Now he couldn’t hear anyone talking. He had heard rustling before they’d come into the warren again though. Had they somehow prevented him from using his special hearing?
“Maybe he should have had more tonic before we left,” he suggested.
“Yes,” Freya replied.
They sank into their own thoughts for a while, until Humphrey stretched and got up.
“I want to see outside,” he said. “It must be light now.”
Freya said nothing, so he slipped out quietly. Nobody challenged him as he stepped out of the entrance and climbed onto the side of the lane. As he thought, it was light, although the moon was still fairly high in the south west.
He sent his listening ranging over the hills. He could hear animals still foraging in the grass. He could hear birds flying high overhead. He could hear nothing in the warren. Who or what was blocking his listening? He climbed up on top of the hill to see if his could range as far as the castles. The day was bright after the frost, although wreaths of mist floated on the low ground, waiting for the sun to burn them off, even the weak sun at this time of year.
Away in the east, a large group of people were crying softly, exhausted after something terrible had happened to them. Not much further the castle there was waking up, people talking, making breakfast, changing guard duty. Similar noises were in the south east castle. His listening was working just fine. But not in the south. White Horse was a blank to him. He could not locate the group of people, including young and old, that had set off in that direction. He couldn’t locate White Horse.
Who didn’t want him to hear what was happening at White Horse and under the hill? And why?