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 4: One thing after another
In which Humphrey hears things to his advantage and Betty shows hidden talents
Dusk had been and gone, since the clouds were low and sunset came early at this time of year. Even though it was dark, the four exiles should have been more aware, more alert. The pirates exploded from the right bank, leapt onto the cart and overpowered the four of them before they really knew what was happening. While they were held at one side of the lane, pirates searched through the contents of the cart, throwing weapons they’d lost earlier in the day back to their colleagues, distributing coats likewise, then checking through the bags of food, twine, metal fastenings, and other items that had been on Chester and Shel’s shopping list. Humphrey watched mournfully as ‘his’ hat was retrieved by its owner, a big black guy they called Frankie. Hywel watched in dismay as all the metal items Chester had told him were so vital were appropriated by their captors.
Frankie came over and inspected them, his hat on his head at a rakish angle. He stopped in front of Freya and looked over her slowly, top to toe. He rubbed his mouth, saying nothing. His men watched also, some of them muttering rude things under their breath so that Frankie could hear only a murmur. Humphrey was shocked at what they said they wanted to do to Freya and Betty. He didn’t recognise all the words they used, but their meaning was clear enough to him. He hadn’t read anything about relationships in books, but the anatomical ones he’d read were clear in his mind. He shut them out of his ears and tuned in to the sounds around him. There was a rustling in the far distance that sounded interesting.
Frankie stepped back rubbing his hand over his mouth. Still looking at the four of them, he waved one of his mates over to him and said something about sending ‘the woman’ back to base with a few of the guys. The mate mumbled something that sounded to Humphrey like “too many options in it” or maybe it was “two men an opportunity”.
“You’ll come with us,” he announced, and turned, waved at his men and everybody started walking up the lane. There wasn’t much room so there was a lot of jostling going on. Sometimes they had to wait as people streamed in from the sides of the bank to squeeze through the deepest part of the lane. They tried to move quietly, but with that many people in a small space, they made quite a noise.
Humphrey frowned as he followed Freya and the person gripping her arm to make sure she didn’t run off. He was still tuned in to the woman stallholder, who had now become quiet and he assumed she’d left the tavern where she’d been chatting. In a different direction, the rustling noise was getting closer. It put him in mind of the day when he first met up with the exiles, when they had been chased through the fields and woods. He jerked his chin as he realised, and looked around at Hywel, wondering whether he should tell him.
“Get going!” the person guarding him pushed him roughly and he stumbled forward.
They climbed up the lane and the banks dropped away to bring the lane up to the same level as the fields around it. Instead of turning off onto the springy grass near the top of the rise, they kept on. Humphrey rather fancied this lane might lead back towards the area where he had lain in a ditch three weeks before, although it would still be quite a way away. He remembered what the stall woman had said about the castles hereabouts. He had a feeling that the one close to where he’d lain and listened to court business was the one ruled by Lord Colman. He thought the one ruled by King Benson sounded nicer. He wondered what it would be like to live free in a castle instead of always underground. He quite liked underground, though. He felt safe when there were walls and tunnels around him that he could hear through without anyone sneaking up on him.
They passed under an avenue of trees. As the last pirate entered it, and before the first had emerged at the other end, things dropped out of the trees above them, knocking them to the ground. The pirates regained their feet swiftly and set on their assailants, letting go of the four exiles, who dealt with their own attackers in their own way. Humphrey’s way was to drop to the ground and curl up in a ball. Being black and shaggy, he blended into the grass under the trees, so it wasn’t a bad strategy for self-preservation.
Hywel, Freya and Betty were fighting along with the pirates. They had no idea who they were fighting this time, but since no-one would know they weren’t pirates, they were fighting for their lives as well. Humphrey opened one eye to watch and was amazed as Freya kicked, bit and twisted her assailant’s hair, ears, neck – anything she could get her hands, feet or teeth into. Betty seemed to have the agility of a cat, dodging out of reach of the person she was fighting, slipping through his grasp and generally leading him a dance. Every now and then she leapt into the air, landing gently on the other side of him, and landing a kick on someone else as she did so. Hywel was using more traditional techniques, landing punches with left and right hands, and occasionally grabbing an arm or leg and throwing his opponent into the mud or against a tree. They were getting through a number of opponents each while Humphrey just lay there. He felt ashamed, but thought it was best he kept out of their way. He let his ears do some work though; he couldn’t tell who was winning in the general melee, but he could tell there were people outside the area of the lane watching them. What was strange was that they seemed to be talking normally. Humphrey could hear them clearly. Yet he was sure they weren’t actually making any noise at all. He started to feel very afraid.
“The Lord’s men will be good.”
“Well fed, you mean.”
“As long as they are sweet I don’t mind.”
“The pirates will be salty.” Laughter.
“They’ve not been at sea for a while.”
“What about the females?”
“They’ll need careful handling.”
“The Count will want them.”
“He can’t always have what he wants.”
“I didn’t hear you say that, take care of your thoughts.”
“Can we feast yet?”
Humphrey found the action was moving away from him, further up the lane. He crouched low to see what was going on. Freya was still fighting; Hywel sat at the side of the lane, holding his arm. Betty had gone up the lane a way but was returning. He crept over to Hywel.
“You are damaged.”
“Just my arm, it’ll heal ok.”
“We must leave. There are things waiting for the fight to end.”
“Things?” asked Hywel.
Humphrey couldn’t explain what he thought they were. He hadn’t read the book once he had discovered what was being described. He remembered what things like them were called though.
“Vampires,” he whispered.
Hywel laughed. “Don’t be silly.”
“What did you say?” breathed Betty, suddenly beside Humphrey. He jumped; he hadn’t heard or seen her arrive. He didn’t want to repeat himself.
Hywel groaned slightly. “Vampires, was what he said.” He moved his arm and shifted onto his feet, trying to stand up.
“We must go,” said Betty urgently. “Move that way. Now!”
Surprised, Hywel did as he was told. Humphrey was very happy to follow him, to help him over any obstacles. Freya and Betty caught up quickly.
“Duck under that hedge over there and keep in the dark places,” instructed Betty, who seemed to have taken over the leadership all of a sudden.
“Don’t vampires like dark places?” asked Hywel, half kidding them and half uncertain of himself.
“Don’t be silly!” was all Betty said.
They crept along the side of the hedge away from the lane they’d been in. A shriek split the night, quickly cut off and followed by a gurgling sound. Humphrey could hear lots of snuffling and slurping and wet noises behind him. He concentrated on thinking forward.
“There are things ahead!” he hissed in terror.
“What sort of things, Humphrey?” asked Betty calmly.
“Um,” he listened as he swished through the undergrowth, “same as the others, I think. Yes,” he added as he caught their unspoken words, “the same.”
Betty said something under her breath, caught Hywel’s good arm, and pointed away from the hedge. Freya saw her and nodded. “Come on Humphrey, it’s time to run again.”
They broke from the cover of the hedge, streaked low across the grass and ran in single file along a ridge in the ground, marked every few metres by a standing stone. The stones made a curving line round the contours of the hill, and gave them just a little cover as they sped over the turf. They followed the line till they had the bulk of the low hill between them and the pirate fight, then they ran down the hill.
“We’re being followed,” gasped Humphrey as they jumped over a stream at the bottom.
“Don’t look back!” said Freya.
“Don’t talk!” added Betty, and they ran on over flatter ground. They could see homes, and then a castle ahead of them, appearing out of the gloom and cloud. They tripped occasionally – things had been left on the ground. They didn’t bother to work out what.
“Where..?” asked Hywel, keeping good pace despite limping badly.
“Castle!” breathed Freya.
They ran over a bridge and up to the castle gates. They could all hear the rustle of their pursuers close behind now.
“No-o-o,” wailed Freya in anguish as the gates loomed, firmly shut.
“This way,” said Humphrey, leading them to the left. “We need a way in to the castle!”
“Fat chance,” said Hywel.
Humphrey dived through an opening in the castle’s base and the others followed suit. It closed behind them and they slowed their pace, confused, wondering if they were safe. After following the tunnel up what seemed like a couple of levels, Humphrey ground to a halt. In the total darkness the others sank to the ground behind him, utterly exhausted. Humphrey stood, listening.
“Is this Deeping or White Horse?” he asked.