This is my Camp NaNoWriMo project. 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 20: Forest and Deeping
In which Humphrey loses his hearing and Willoughby goes wall-running again
The 4th Regiment had entered the castle with their customary efficiency, by scaling the walls and fighting off the very sparse defenders. The elite squad had joined them, used their various talents to help ease their passage and lead them down to the dungeons. Humphrey searched for the Lord of Forest, Lord Duffield, and located him at Deeping. All the royal household were there. He wondered why. Why would a leader abandon his castle? There was only a small defence force.
“It’s a trap!” he announced to all in earshot.
“How do you know?” asked Major Robert and Lord Frederick, Diesel’s deputy.
“The royal household isn’t there, no important people are there, it’s only a small defence force…”
“Call them out!” ordered Lord Frederick. “NOW!”
Humphrey tried contacting the elite squad. He didn’t know any of them very well, but he thought the one he’d practised swordplay with might hear him. He did. Get out now, it’s a trap! he sent.
The 4th regiment were running out, some through the now open gateway, some ran up and scaled the walls again since it was quicker. The elite squad were nowhere to be seen. He listened hard. They were in the dungeons, dodging booby traps. One split off and ran up a narrow winding stair. Humphrey tried to work out where he was going. Humphrey counted levels and decided he’d gone along the same corridor where he and the team had found the lord’s den and the papers.
Humphrey lost him! He had no idea where the elite squaddie had gone! That’s an interesting talent, he thought. He turned his attention back to the dungeons. The rest of the squad were opening doors, trying to encourage people to leave. They were sick. They were weak. Some of them were trying to walk but finding it painful, squeaking with pain with every move. One of the squaddies was leading the more able out. They reached the courtyard and were halfway across. Some reached the gate.
The ground shook and Humphrey’s ears imploded. The castle walls shook and the castle seemed to melt into a cloud of dust that filled the air around it.
“DOWN!” yelled Major Robert, and all the people around him pancaked onto the ground. A blast of air carrying stones, blocks, dust and other missiles swept across them ripping at their backs, the noise assaulting their ears.
Humphrey lay on the ground, wondering where he was. His ears were ringing and his head was buzzing. He was warm, and there was light nearby. He opened his eyes and saw he was lying near a campfire. A number of other people lay near him. The major was sitting near the fire, talking to Lord Frederick, who had blood on his face and side, but didn’t seem to be harmed. Humphrey checked himself over. His coat was all dusty, gritty, but he wasn’t hurt. He got to his feet and started to walk over to the major, and fell over.
He tried to work out what was happening, as he rolled onto his feet again. He could see the major opening and shutting his mouth, but couldn’t hear anything through the ringing noise. Not even hear in his head, like he would for far off sounds, because of the buzzing. He hoped it would go away soon, it annoyed him. But why didn’t his feet work? He tried again, lifting one foot up and putting it down, then putting his weight on it and moving forward before lifting the next foot up. He was wobbly, he thought, but this was possible.
A person stood in front of him, blocking his progress. His mouth opened and shut. Humphrey kept moving forward. The person moved. Major Robert and Lord Frederick stood up and looked at him. Major Robert put out one hand in a signal to halt. Humphrey stopped and looked at him, shaking his head to try and clear his ears. Lord Frederick seemed to speak to someone, give orders. A soldier came up to him holding a tankard. Humphrey took it gratefully and drank.
Major Robert passed him an open notebook on which he had written: you were knocked out in the explosion. You can’t hear, I gather?
Humphrey looked at him and nodded. Then he shook his head for no. “No I can’t hear” he said, in what he thought was a clear voice. Major Robert winced and Lord Frederick put his finger in his ears.
Not so loud, wrote Major Robert. Then, after showing it to Humphrey: can you hear anything at all?
“Ringing,” said Humphrey, “and buzzing,” he added.
With luck, it will wear off, wrote the major. Does it hurt – your ears?
Humphrey thought about it. The ringing was irritating but not painful. “No.”
Good, your eardrums are ok. Rest now. The major gestured to a spot nearer the fire and Humphrey took it gratefully. He felt cold now, although not from the frost. Something inside made him feel cold. Then he remembered what caused the blast. He tried to work out how many of the prisoners, how many of the soldiers and the elite squad were still in the castle when it exploded.
Far too many.
The Major, Lord Frederick and all the fit soldiers and officers had gone on ahead to Castle Deeping. Humphrey plodded on in company with the rest of the walking wounded. Those that had been unable to move on their own feet were left in the shelter of the ruins of Castle Forest, with a couple of people skilled in the use of herbs and bandages.
They were taking the direct route back, although Humphrey had stiltedly argued that he should go to Deeping in case he recovered in time to help. White Horse will need your ears if so, the Major had written.
He plodded on, wrapped in his own buzzing and ringing.
Castle Deeping lay at the northern entrance to a gorge formed by a river that cut through a range of long rounded hills. It backed onto the steep slope; over the crest the hill undulated gently down to the sea a few dozen miles away.
Diesel stood on a wooded slope above the river and watched the 5th regiment’s second attempt to storm the castle walls. The first had been repulsed by fierce fighting at the top of ladders; this time, the 5th were using grappling irons, and his elite squad of wall runners was going in from behind.
“What I really need,” he said under his breath, “is someone familiar with the secret passages of this design of castle.”
Wiiloughby and Betty were with the wallrunners. “Did you run as Bettina of Sarsen?” asked Willoughby as they started up the sheer chalk cliff at its base.
“Yes,” she laughed. “And you are Willoughby the Narrator, but everyone knows that.”
“We must watch out for Kevin of Deeping.”
“Yes, I thought you’d forgotten me,” said a voice above them. Kevin of Deeping was vertical on the wall above them, staring them both in the face.
“Mine!” Betty and Willoughby said at the same time, springing to right and left as Kevin did a somersault to turn right way up and canter crabwise up the wall.
The rest of the wall runners leapt past them as Kevin led Betty and Willoughby a dance over the sheer sides of the castle. Whenever Willoughby got close he was frustrated by Betty darting in front of him. She got in a few blows but Kevin dodged them easily. He led them round the bottom of the castle, over the front, round the back and up to the second tier, with a glorious giddy moment when they leapt from the pinnacle of the lowest level across a walkway far below to spreadeagle themselves on the sheer wall of the second level. This was a different rock type and they adapted their technique accordingly.
Betty and Willoughby took the same line at one point. “Split!” hissed Willoughby to her. They took routes in the opposite direction from each other to catch him in a pincer movement. Kevin saw their tactic and went straight up the wall, then angled left to another pinnacle. The giddying leap from pinnacle to the third level was even more energising than before, since there was twice the drop to the river. Adrenalin was a great energiser.
Willoughby followed him like a squirrel in a tree.
The third level was much narrower, and they ran round it in less than two minutes. Willoughby was gaining on Kevin. Kevin leapt to the high tower in the centre. Willoughby followed him, and collided with Betty who appeared around a corner a split second before him. Willoughby twisted and somersaulted and threw his back legs outwards in an attempt to bring his front feet back to the wall. They connected, but his nails dragged and slipped on the smooth surface. He pressed his palms down and the movement slowed, but without his back feet on the wall, he couldn’t stop. He looked down, and saw a window ledge, only about two centimetres projecting, but it was a potential hold. He let go with his front feet, twisted and dived for the window ledge. Two nails on each hand made the connection. It was enough to swing Willoughby around and give him upward momentum. He used that to readjust his body position and landed perfectly on the wall.
Kevin and Betty were nowhere to be seen.
Willoughby extended his senses and decided they were not on the wall. He nipped up to the top and slipped over the edge onto the walkway and inside the top tower. He’d lost them.
Humphrey was lagging behind. He wasn’t sure where he was, but he knew he was in the wrong place. The ringing was easing, but the buzzing was still there. He stopped at a stream and drank, noticed some minor herbs sheltered in the side of the bank, not yet frozen in the winter frosts. He nibbled them for a while, then laid his head on his arms and rested.
He woke with a clear head. There was a slight hum in his ears, but his distance hearing was back. He extended his hearing towards Castle Deeping.
Diesel wasn’t happy. The 5th Regiment was having trouble getting through to the dungeons, although they were inside the castle. Lord Colman had sent an envoy out under a white flag and Diesel was listening to Lord Colman’s complaints.
“I shall consider his complaints,” he said to the envoy. “Perhaps you will take him this list of our questions, and bring back his answers for our consideration.”
Of course Humphrey had no idea of the questions. He would have wanted to know why Lord Colman was sheltering a lord who appeared to have blown up his own castle with sick and injured prisoners in it, though.
He could hear Betty! He smiled, listening to her voice. He couldn’t work out who she was talking to, but it was about the attack on the castle. There was a force attacking from the rear, but the person she was with knew that. Betty was asked to keep them away from the tower overlooking the gorge, as that was where ‘the three’ were being held.
Humphrey frowned. ‘The three’! Did he mean Winston, Bertie and Glory? That was good! They were still alive! They’d been moved! Why should Betty keep the force away from them?
He thought about that as he followed his nose, and the track alongside the stream, which joined a river, which flowed through a gap in the hills to the sea.