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 2: The Chase
In which Humphrey gets caught in a round-up
The ditch was wet. Humphrey had managed to get himself a comfortable place to lie on the side during the day so he was out of sight, but his long hair was getting decidedly bedraggled. The grass was good, though, and he could nibble it during the day without showing himself above the level of the ground. He had outrun his erstwhile captors the other night, and continued west, leaving the cave behind him. There would be other places, he thought. And if he needed it again, he could find his way back. It was as fixed in his memory as any of the books he’d read. Sometimes he dreamt of a place that was warm and dry and surrounded by enough books to keep him busy for years. A library. He’d never seen one, but he hoped he’d find one, one day.
The trouble was, he’d left the quiet of the forest behind. This was a place with more persons around. He could listen to them all day and some of the night. The ones nearest to him talked of harvested hay, of growing roots, and whether they should be stored now or whether a few more weeks would be safe. The ones in the mid-distance talked of markets and inns and preparation for dinner, and whether the castle needed more supplies. And the ones in the castle…
“My lord, we have reports that the gangs of thugs are increasing. We are sending a sortie to apprehend them.”
“My lord, this person reported that his wife had seen a vampire in the night.”
“My lord, there are rumours of a pestilence affecting the corn stored in the warehouse.”
He could imagine these people very clearly. He had read stories of kings and their courtiers. He imagined a king, or lord, sitting on a throne, listening as these toadying courtiers reported to him. He found it rather relaxing to listen to their conversations as he lay in his ditch during the day. It was much like it had been at his first home, listening to the queen and her ladies in waiting. He sometimes wondered if he would ever have another home.
Despite the increasingly keen wind blowing in from the east, he found it easy to doze off in the afternoon, feeling safe from prying eyes. As soon as dusk fell he would be out to eat what he could find. Some of the roots the locals talked of had very tasty green leaves still.
The dark was fully upon him and the owls were hunting around when he heard some murmuring that grew louder. People were moving through the fields and along the roads. He crouched down among the furrows where the roots grew, trying to see what was going on by looking along the row. It was hard to make sense of the dark shapes he could see in the distance. People were running along the edge of the field. Then they were running through the field. Then they were running along the furrow, straight towards him.
He got up and ran along the furrow too, keeping just a few lengths ahead of them, but not knowing where he was going. He reached the end of the row and kept going, jumping over a ditch and swishing through long grass on the other side. People joined him and ran with him. He had no idea why they were running, but didn’t have breath to ask what was going on. People on his left leaned towards him and jostled him. He ran towards his right more and jostled the person on his right, who veered off and jostled the person next to them, and so the whole group of runners headed right towards the corner of the field. They streamed over the bank at the end of the field and into a narrow lane heading uphill between deep banks. Trees started to shut out the night above them.
“Break left, break left,” he heard someone call. “They’ll funnel us into their trap!”
Humphrey saw a slight gap in the left bank and headed up it, followed by scores of others. He ran on, in company with others, through small trees with low branches. Occasionally he squished something soft on the ground, and guessed from the smell it was some sort of fruit. One part of his brain registered ‘fruit would be good to store for winter’ and the rest of his brain watched where he and his companions were going.
They burst out of the orchard dropping down onto yet another field, with ridges in it but no crops. Jumping from ridge to ridge they made speedy progress, but they could hear squeals of terror behind them, roughly in the direction the lane would have taken them. They ran on, downhill and over another stream, then on over rough ground, till they reached another wood, wilder this time, when they started to feel their pace, and by mutual consent they slowed to a stagger rather than a walk. Chests heaving from the effort of their run, they ground to a halt and looked at each other.
Nobody said anything for a while. Some looked at the ground, some at their neighbour, some in the direction the cries had been heard. As they recovered they started to move into different groups. A few moved through the survivors of the chase, some of whom were still standing as if they didn’t have the energy to collapse, others now collapsed on the ground. They looked at faces as if looking for friends or colleagues. Occasionally they found someone they were looking for. Mostly they then sat down together and rested silently.
Humphrey wondered what he should do, and getting no sensible response from his brain, followed up by wondering who they were. He thought of asking one of them, but decided it would be best not to draw attention to himself. He sat down beside two females and a male and said nothing. It seemed to be the thing most people were doing.
After maybe an hour, Humphrey became aware of a male person moving through the groups, encouraging them to get up and move on. He wondered whether he’d be spotted as an outsider and thrown out, or punished in some way, but he got up and moved on alongside the three he’d been sitting with. They seemed content to have his company, so he walked on at their pace. No one said much, only warnings to watch their step or mind a tree. Humphrey’s experience in moving through forests enabled him to avoid such obstacles with ease.
Despite their tiredness they walked till dawn. The forest gave way to rolling hills, and Humphrey found himself on a type of grass he’d not seen before, short and springy and pleasant on his feet. After one particularly steep climb they crested the rise and dropped onto a narrow path that wound down into a cliff-like bowl. At the bottom they went under a ledge and into a large cave. The entrance was completely hidden from anyone at the top.
Humphrey followed his three companions. This was more than a cave, it was a warren. They passed along corridors that had small alcoves every now and then where families and small groups sat or stood, and where people looked out at the passersby, studying their faces to see if they recognised them.
They arrived at an empty alcove and went in. Humphrey hesitated, wondering what he should do.
“You joining us?” the redhaired female asked.
“Don’t hover, then. Sit there.”
He did as he was told, or perhaps invited. They were all tired. He looked round their faces and tried to fit in. He shifted his body self-consciously, finding a more comfortable position. No one looked at him so he put his head down on his arms and closed his eyes. He kept his ears fully open and let them roam the complex.
Most people were quiet or chatting quietly about the events of the night. He caught references to someone called Chester. “Chester will know” and “We’ll ask Chester when he comes” were typical comments. He sent his hearing further and found someone that might be Chester, talking to a couple of others.
“Oh c’mon Ches, you know we can’t take them on and win.”
“We can and we must,” was the reply.
“We lost a lot of people tonight,” said a third person.
“It’s irresponsible of you. You shouldn’t risk those people.” The first voice again.
Someone just mumbled and the third voice took over: “it’s too late to talk about it now. Give it a rest, Shel.”
“I could do with a drink,” said the second.
“Typical” the first responded, seemingly very cross.
Humphrey didn’t know why she should be cross that someone wanted a drink. He was thirsty too. He wondered how he could get one. He looked up at his companions. The females were resting together just as he was. The male was a little distant, sitting back and looking like he was recapping the events of the day in his head. He thought he’d try the phrase the other person used.
“I could do with a drink,” he tried, hopefully.
“We all could,” said the redhead in a resigned tone. The others said nothing.
Humphrey looked down again. Ask again or say nothing, he debated with himself.
He was saved from making a decision by a sound he didn’t recognise. He realised he’d been listening to it for some time, and it was getting closer. Something was moving along the corridor, stopping every now and then and the moving sound being replaced with a low hubbub of voices, saying things like “Two please” or “One of those and that” or “We’ll take four in here, thanks”. It made no sense to him until a person pulled a cart up the corridor and stopped at their alcove. He looked at the vehicle in amazement. His companions got to their feet and pointed at what they wanted and asked the cart-puller for it. Humphrey had no idea what the packages were, but pointed at what the redhead pointed at and received a pouch that squidged as he held it. He watched the redhead bite one corner off and suck the contents out, and followed suit.
In a way, this simple act marked Humphrey’s real introduction to the civilised world.