This is my NaNoWriMo project for August 2012. I’m posting one chapter at a time (Monday,Wednesday & Friday). To see earlier chapters click here. All comments welcome. Story copyright Jemima Pett.
Chapter 13: An Explosive Mixture
In which the Narrathon meets a sticky end and Humphrey finds a new calling
Flash, boom, crump, whoosh, screams, clatter, crying.
Humphrey was knocked off his feet as a huge blast of air whooshed out of the courtyard in any available direction, in Humphrey’s case through the gate into the inner courtyard. The noise was shattering. He sprawled on the ground, just trying to hold onto it and maintain some sense of himself. It seemed like hundreds of other people had the same idea. For some reason a large number of people had pushed into the inner courtyard at exactly the same moment as Humphrey.
Behind them the outer courtyard was a sea of dust, debris and disoriented people, some of whom were moving, most of whom were just lying on the ground, some with limbs at odd angles, some with only half their coat on. Some didn’t seem to be all there. Bits of timber, splinters were embedded in bodies, market stalls, stone walls.
The screaming had mostly stopped, but moaning and crying continued. Some screaming had stopped in a sort of gurgly way that made Humphrey very upset. He sat up and looked back. His black coat had turned dirty grey. He shook himself and coughed as he surrounded himself with a cloud of fine dirt particles.
When the dust had settled a bit he could see part of the outer courtyard, where the stage had been. There was nothing there. As far as he could remember when he ran to the gate, a few people had still been standing on it, chatting – the announcer, two of the original poem prize-winners, a few others. They were nowhere to be seen. The fiddlesticks that had been on either side of the stage were gone too. He wondered where the narrators were. The one from Buckmore had been on the right side of the stage, a place of honour. The one on the other side was the young apprentice chap. He could see Willoughby limping around the debris, checking on people, calling medical attendants over. Willoughby’s coat appeared to be torn – great ragged tears one on either side of his spine. Some security guards were shepherding anyone that could walk over to one side. The dining hall side, Humphrey thought, as his brain began to take in the scene and make sense of it. He turned back to the inner courtyard and tried to make sense of the scene there instead.
There were only about forty people in the square. They were starting to get over their initial shock and stand up, brush the dust off, look to see if their neighbours were hurt, help anyone that was. Humphrey stood up and helped a young female to her feet beside him. She was okay, it seemed. The young male on his other side was holding his wrist and flexing the joint. A person in the archway at the other side, the way to the library, Humphrey realised, started to speak to them, but broke into a coughing fit. It drew everyone’s attention, and the person beside him stepped forward to speak instead.
“You have all had a lucky escape,” he said. “You seem to have received some warning or premonition of danger. We need to interview you about this. Do not be alarmed. We have need of talented people at White Horse.
“Those of you who are visitors, please make your way to the library through this door,” he continued, indicated the gateway he was standing in. “Those of you from White Horse please go to your mentor’s room for a debriefing. If you are from White Horse and do not have a mentor, please go to the Library. Medical attention will be available for those in need. Thank you.”
Humphrey followed the people moving through the archway to go to the library. He wondered what this was all about, and whether it spelled danger for him. He was trying to work out who had given him the warning and made him run for the inner courtyard. Obviously many people had received the same message at the same instant, but why or how could they all have had it personalised to them? Maybe they didn’t, he thought. Maybe mine was a special message. Somehow he didn’t think he would be singled out for special treatment.
Entering the library took his breath away just as it had when he had spent the day before yesterday in it. It took a great deal of willpower for him to pay attention to what was going on. He just wanted to read. He noticed some water and fruit being served at one corner of the fiction section so he went over there and joined a short line to be served.
“What would you like?” a blonde haired female asked.
“Um, water and grape, please,” he replied.
“Where are you from?” she said, pouring him a cup of water from a jug.
“Fortune,” he said, fingering his sash, then he realised it had been torn to shreds during the blast and now resembled a dirty piece of string.
“Really?” she asked, as if she knew he was lying. He didn’t know what to say to that so he took his cup and grapes and moved away.
He settled in a chair in the Biology section and watched everyone else going for their refreshment. Everyone was asked where they were from. Some were then approached by another person from White Horse, a brief conversation took place, and the visitor either left the room or went to the back of the library. Others found places to sit and enjoy their fruit, just like Humphrey had. Humphrey thought it might be those who didn’t own up to their real castle, judging from their reaction to the female doling out refreshments. Most of them watched everyone else warily. Humphrey realised that anyone watching this group would know they had something to hide.
All the ‘real’ visitors had moved away now, and twelve people were left, sipping their drinks. A dark coloured person with silver flecks in his hair came to the centre of the library where they had gathered, although not by conscious intention.
“Gentlemen, and lady,” he started, nodding at a young female who was perched on the edge of the armchair Humphrey sat in. “You have all been identified as being imposters. That is, you are not who you say you are. This in itself is not a problem. If it wasn’t for the unfortunate incident in the lower courtyard, we would not have known that you possess certain potentially useful powers. Like being able to hear a broadcast telepathic warning a split second before a bomb exploded.”
A couple of people muttered to each other, but most, like Humphrey, seemed to be alone.
“Do not be alarmed,” the speaker continued. “White Horse welcomes people with special talents.”
Humphrey wondered where he had heard this person before. He was sure he recognised the voice. It was very deep and gravelly, like someone talking with a sore throat.
“We are in a situation where these talents could be put to good use. Where, if you like, you could become part of a community again, one which welcomes you rather than treating you as, well, shall I say ‘strange’?” A few people shifted uncomfortably at that. The speaker nodded at them. “Some of my colleagues and I have trodden this path already. I would like to tell you more about this situation and the part you might play in it, if you were willing to join us. However, if you know now that you want no part of it, leave now.”
He paused, allowing anyone to leave who wished to. Humphrey watched the two people who had commented on things to each other already have a further brief exchange and stand up. They bowed to the speaker and left the library. Humphrey wondered whether he should stay or not. The speaker waited a little longer and another person stood, bowed and left. Humphrey decided he might as well hear more about what was going on and he shifted over in the armchair to enable the young female to take a seat if she wished. She did.
“Well, we are left with nine who wish to hear more. You are not committed to anything by staying. I merely ask you not to repeat anything of this to anyone who does not show allegiance to this castle.”
He looked around at them, judging their characters or intentions.
“The bomb that exploded in the lower courtyard today was detected just before it went off by the special powers of one of our ninja friends. Regrettably we did not have time to save the lives of those near to it. There are two main causes of trouble at White Horse and those communities we support: disorganised outcasts who have banded together to cause trouble and general mayhem, and the highly organised special troops of our neighbouring castles, who wish to gain power over White Horse and our realm. Anyone working for the good of White Horse must also recognise that there are other groups of outcasts who do not wish to cause trouble, and we respect their independence.”
This remark pleased Humphrey. He was sure Chester and the underhill people had no ill intentions against White Horse. He wouldn’t want to have to do anything to harm them. They had looked after him, taken him in. Freya, Betty and Hywel were his friends, he thought, with a pang. He realised he hadn’t thought of them since leaving the hill this morning. He wondered if they’d missed him. He wondered how Hywel was. Deep Voice was speaking again.
“… so you might be based here, you might be based somewhere else, or even travelling with no apparent home castle, living on your wits. What you will all have in common is that you will be using your own talents in the fight against cruelty, evil and oppression.
“If you are willing to join us, you will gain citizenship of White Horse. You will work together in small groups to learn special techniques appropriate to your talents, and to understand how best to use those talents to support other fighters in this cause.
“If, having heard this, you no longer wish to be part of it, you must leave now. If you stay, you will have agreed to be part of this work. Anyone?”
One more person got up, bowed to Deep Voice and left. Humphrey noticed he was escorted out of the room through a side door, not the main one. He tried extending his hearing again to follow him, and found he could, for the first time since he left the hill. The escort was asking him questions about his background, where he intended to go, and what he knew about the special talents in use at White Horse. It seemed he knew nothing about any special talents, which puzzled Humphrey until he guessed that the purpose of the interview was to make him forget what he had been told. He shivered. He didn’t want anyone to make him forget anything. He could do his own forgetting.
Deep Voice was talking again.
“You will now be sorted into groups and given a mentor. That mentor will take you through your training for the next few days, then you will be assigned to your duties. Your mentor will be your contact at all times. If you have any questions you can ask him or her. You may meet me again, you may not. I wish you success in whatever you do.”
He turned and left the room by means of the side door. Humphrey lifted his cup hoping to take some more water but found it was empty. The blonde haired female noticed and told the eight of them there was more fruit and water if they needed it. They all needed it.
“What do you think of it all then?” asked the female he had been sitting next to.
“I don’t really know,” said Humphrey. “It sounds interesting.”
“Yes.” She fell silent. Humphrey didn’t know what more to say, so they just sipped their water together, looking at the others, who were mostly doing the same.
The persons from White Horse who had gone to the other end of the library returned. Humphrey thought there had been more that had gone than came back, so maybe they had been whittled down in a similar way. It turned out that some of those who returned were to be their mentors, so there were very few, only four, from White Horse to add to the group.
An elderly red-haired person came across to Humphrey and the female.
“Good afternoon,” he said, “although it isn’t of course, anything but, but good things come from everything. My name is Fitzroy and I am your temporary mentor. Temporary until your real one can take over. You’ll find out why. If you ever need your mentor and you can’t find him, come to me. It’ll all make sense in due course. Let’s find the other two and go somewhere quieter.”
Fitzroy introduced himself in the same way to another who had listened to Deep Voice and one that had come from the White Horse group. Then he led the way along corridors and up stairs till they came to a small room with a window. Humphrey looked out and saw they were in a high tower. Across the fields was the slope he had walked down earlier; dusk was creeping over the folds of the hills, and the white pattern was almost luminous against the dark turf. Humphrey laughed to himself remembering his surprise as he walked round what he thought was a path. From this distance he could see quite clearly the outline of a stylised horse cut into the white chalk hillside.