Strange to include this when the next eBook, The Talent Seekers, describes how Humphrey went west in the first place. This was written as a prologue for a later book, then I realised I wanted to bring Hector and Humphrey into the series far earlier.
“I’m sorry, I can’t go on,” croaked Humphrey. He collapsed in a heap at the foot of a small bush.
Hector stood beside him, blinking the water from his eyes as the rain lashed against them. They had come so far. Walked for months, it seemed. The summer had been fading when they left, and the autumn had swept the leaves off the trees as they travelled eastwards. Now it was winter that was battering them in the face. They’d not eaten for days, even before they left the forest and come down onto the marsh. The few bits of grass on the dryer ground was hardly nutritious and the reeds tasted disgusting. You could chew them a little for something to fill the belly, though. He wondered whether Humphrey’s dream was just that, all a dream.
He pulled at a few tufts of yellowing grass that was sheltered by the roots of the bush. He dislodged a strand of something greener, that smelled like clover. He was just about to gobble it down when he thought of Humphrey and pulled it over to his face and nudged him.
“Here you are, old chap, try this.” He pushed the greenest bit of it right under his nose.
Humphrey wrinkled his face slightly but kept his eyes shut. Then he reached out and took the leaves into his mouth and quietly chewed them. Hector watched the stem disappearing into his mouth and wondered if Humphrey would notice if he just bit a couple of inches off the end. He decided he wouldn’t and stepped in quickly and made a clean bite. It tasted… better than most things he’d eaten recently. Humphrey continued to chew his part of the plant with his eyes closed but looked as if he’d relaxed slightly now, rather than the complete collapse of earlier. He lifted his head slightly, adjusted his position, and rested his head in a more comfortable position on his arms.
Hector watched him in the gloom. The rain was stopping again. It came in flurries, pelting down with all the force of the wind, but went just as quickly, and the wind was sweeping the clouds away too. Maybe there would be moonlight in while. He wondered where they were. They had found some sort of overgrown track, it went in a reasonable direction, so they had followed it. East, east, ever east. It was all Humphrey had ever said about their destination.
“Why did I ever take up with this old tramp anyway?” he asked himself for the hundredth time, watching Humphrey’s sides heave with every breath he took. He knew the answer though. Abandoned by his parents, he was kicked out of the village for stealing and biting the kids who had so much more than he had but never shared with him. He’d made his way to a larger village where he’d been just as abused. The next stop was the castle at Cabot. He’d fallen in with some fun guys there, and had made a good living among the granaries and wharves of the shipping area until the King had ordered a crack down and they’d come with knifes and clubs to roust them out. He remembered what had happened to his mates (he wouldn’t call them friends, it wasn’t that, it was a group that was together for survival). Three or four of them had been captured and the rest clubbed to death. He was small enough to hide and he was good at camouflage. He’d had plenty of practice. He’d stayed just long enough to hear his mates had been sentenced to death and he’d left, going inland, going East.
They’d passed each other on the road a few times before they ended up in the shelter of the same stunted tree one night. Hector hadn’t liked the place they’d been in then. It was a wild place, full of good grassland but the hills had white shapes carved into the hills that shone in the moonlight. Huge four-legged creatures that looked as if they were breathing fire over him. And great stone piles covered with turf that smelled of death. Long gone death.
Humphrey had told him a story that night, of riders that used to gallop over the hills, dressed in red coats and blowing on horns. It sounded exciting but they were all gone now, Humphrey said. They started walking together the next day and the following night when they rested he’d told him another story. And another the next night. And they kept walking east and he kept telling stories. And one night he told him of the castle in the east where a person could be warm and eat well every day, and talk about important things like the moon and the sea, and discover the secrets of the universe. And Hector had liked that part, about the secrets of the universe, because the one thing he knew from the time when he was very, very small and completely powerless, was that if he knew the secrets of the universe, he would be all-powerful.
But now it seemed that Humphrey was going to die on him right here, right now, and Hector was likely to do the same thing in another couple of days because there was nothing else left to do.
He lay down beside Humphrey and dozed. And if he dreamt, it was of another of Humphrey’s stories, of paying a ferryman a penny to cross a river on a boat to a place where there was no more pain or suffering.
And as the wind continued to blast the reeds around them, moonlight filtered through cracks in the clouds and glinted on the towers of a castle just a few miles ahead on the little-used track.
This extract was originally planned to precede ‘Explosive Mixture’ – you can see reference to Hector and Humphrey in that story. The Talent Seekers will be out on Amazon in May.
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